Burn Notice

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Summer has not yet arrived but I guess they forgot to tell Pennsylvania, which has been bombarding us with an absolutely scorching heat wave for weeks already. One’s strength is instantly sapped the moment one goes outside, and the air (which my wife has not-quite-affectionately referred to as “Satan’s fetid breath”) is hot enough to singe your lungs and nearly humid enough to drown in.

As I write to you from my un-air conditioned apartment, my face almost feels like it might actually be burning in this heat. Well I’ll tell you right now, I’m not going to be the only one. If my face is burning, it can only mean one thing: it’s time to burn some faces on Magic Online.

Ah, burn. It might not be the least expensive deck, but it’s certainly the cheapest. A couple of weeks ago, not long after the start of this crushing heat wave, I made this:

[deckbox did="a76" size="small" width="567"]

I threw that together in about twenty minutes, didn’t bother testing it, and immediately started taking down two-man queues. I’m so good at this game, clearly.

In all seriousness, burn is not a difficult deck to build, or to play for that matter. The deck isn’t exactly on autopilot, but once you get down a few basics (such as to play instant burn during your opponent’s upkeep against blue, play your Lightning Bolts in reverse order of quality most of the time, etc.) it’s really not that complicated most of the time. You start with four each of these cards:

And then throw in some Mountains with some other red cards that say “target player” on them, and you’re done. In my case, I went with Staggershock because however inefficient it might seem, it deals four damage, which is something very few other cards in this format can say. The singleton Kaervek's Torch is mostly there to be cute, and could just as easily be something else that’s decent, like Incinerate or Bird Maiden. I’ve seen other people play things like Spark Elemental and Mogg Fanatic, which are also fine. It’s pretty much down to personal preference for those last few slots, but I tend to like to stick to spells rather than creatures to maximize the impact of Kiln Fiend.

Oh yeah, Kiln Fiend. Let’s talk about that guy for a little bit. See, burn is one of those decks that mostly wins the matchups it’s supposed to win and loses the matchups it’s supposed to lose, without all that much variance. Whenever my opponent opens a game with

I win, and whenever they open with

I lose, and that’s ok. It mostly comes with the territory. But that’s the reason that burn, as well-suited as it is to certain metagames, will forever be a tier two deck. Why? Simple: the burn deck plays too fair.

Here's a quick thought experiment for you guys. Think of the decks in pauper that play fair, besides burn. Monogreen Stompy, right? Monoblack Control. Zoo. Monogreen Post.

Now think of the ones that don’t play fair. Affinity. Red Storm. Frantic Storm. Infect. UR Post. Notice anything?

Those two categories might as well be named “tier one decks” and “tier less than one decks.” Pauper might be commons-only, but it’s still an eternal format, and that means that the best decks will generally be the ones that fight as dirty as possible. From time to time, a fair deck finds itself perfectly situated to prey on an overly greedy unfair one that has dominated the metagame, but these moments of modest, just-plain-Magic best decks rarely last very long.

Here’s why I bring it up. There’s one brutally unfair card in the burn deck, and in case you forgot what happened a few paragraphs ago I’ll tell you what it is: Kiln Fiend. Kiln Fiend is a hot card, probably because he lives in a kiln. Also I’m not sure whether this is a cause of all that heat or a result of it but it easily attacks for seven to ten damage on turn three, which is pretty much always lethal since you have to deal at least nine through other means first to make that happen. I’m no brain scientist but that seems pretty good to me, and it got me thinking about how to expand that power to make the burn deck a little less fair. Here’s what I came up with:

[deckbox did="a75" size="small" width="567"]

Things I learned from this deck:

1. Lotus Petal is totally worth buying, guys. I got my playset for fifteen tickets, which yeah, is not really the price range that draws people to Pauper in the first place, but of all the more expensive commons in the format, this one is the most worth it. It just expands your deckbuilding options so much.

2. Manamorphose is criminally underplayed in this format. It has so far been played almost exclusively in the role it occasionally shows up in in other Constructed formats: a “free” plus one to spell count. But those formats all have amazing lands, whereas Pauper doesn’t have any mana-fixing lands that don’t slow you down in one way or another. Have you noticed that the true aggro decks of the format are all mono-color (except for Affinity, which has the benefit of Chromatic Star and Springleaf Drum)? Lack of good mana-fixing is why, and Manamorphose is an as yet mostly untapped resource in mitigating that problem. It’s not that amazing in a deck that’s a more or less even split between two colors, but in a deck that’s just splashing an off-color spell or two, it’s really, really good. I’d say that any aggressive red or geeen deck should at least consider running it.

3. Neither of the above are enough to make Wee Dragonauts any good. Turns out that as completely unfair as Kiln Fiend is, making it cost one more and giving it two-thirds of the ability is enough to drop it from “amazing” all the way down to “just not very good at all,” even with flying added. Meanwhile, you get a less stable mana base and a dramatically increased vulnerability to removal for your trouble.

And that’s where the story of that particular version of the deck ends. Next, I turned my gaze on a different splash color, to play a few cards that are more solid and less greedy and to allow for more techy options in addition to a higher overall power level. Take a look:

[deckbox did="a77" size="small" width="567"]

Duress is one of those cards that makes a lot of lists because it’s “just good,” and I have mixed feelings about that. I have to get to twenty damage somehow, after all, and that slot isn’t really helping. On the other hand, it’s a potential life saver. For now, I'll stick it in the sideboard, but certain metagame shifts might make it worthy of maindeck inclusion. Blightning, though, is solid gold. It’s a burn spell that generates card advantage, which is this deck’s biggest weakness in general. How can you go wrong? Apart from those two, I don’t think any other black cards are immediately necessary, but it does give you access to things like Shrivel and Doom Blade if they become more relevant to the deck.

So how is it? It’s ok. It’s about as good as the mono-red version, with some matchups changed for the better and others changed for the worse. It’s not a replacement for classic burn, but it is another option for burn-oriented players to turn to when the metagame starts looking more unfriendly. For example, the higher density of instant-speed removal makes the mono-red version better against Infect, and the discard makes the red-black version better against storm combo.

Sorry for not breaking the format this week, but hey, that’s Magic cards.

It's a bit cooler now than it was when I started writing this, which means that’s about all I have on the subject of burn. Join me next time when I show you a new way to serve up an old favorite at your Fourth of July barbecue. (Or regular old cook-out for you not-from-the-United-States folks.)

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