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There are those that complain that Modern has become a rotating format. They will point to the impact of Modern Horizons 2 on the current metagame and all the cards (and subsequently decks) which have been outclassed. And while there is a certain truth to the sentiment, harping on it too much distracts from the actual truth. The game evolves and changes over time. New cards get printed and players are going to take advantage. If that didn't happen, Magic would get stale quickly. If you want to play a game that never changes, might I suggest... Monopoly?
Furthermore, while it is true that many decks were fundamentally altered by MH2, that wasn't true of every deck. Or even every good deck. Namely, despite efforts to the contrary, Burn in 2022 is basically the same as Burn from 2019. And hasn't drifted very far from the 2014 Burn. Yet it remains a top tier deck in Modern, even taking fourth place for all of 2021. Which on the surface seems to defy how current Modern works, but in reality it makes perfect sense.
Anatomy of a Survivor
I realize that saying that Burn needs more examination sounds weird. I mean, it's Burn. It has always been. It always will be. What more is there to say? A lot, given that I'm writing a whole article on the subject. And it starts with that attitude. For a deck to hang around for decades of competitive Magic history and remain a major player is a significant achievement.
That by itself should not be surprising. Every Standard rotation, the first decks to emerge are aggressive red decks. The legendary Sligh deck invented the concept of mana curve, and red's combination of cheap haste and burn spells is always a solid strategy. The thing is that as (most) Standards evolve, the red decks fall off, as other decks become more optimized and powerful. However, year in and year out, Modern Burn just keeps on trucking. Which is downright anomalous.
To reiterate an earlier point, Burn has not changed less over Modern's history than any other deck. That I'm aware of, anyway. Of the decks from the dawn of Modern in 2011, only UW Control, Burn, and Tron remain as top contenders. While all these decks have changed significantly since 2011, Burn stands as the least changed card-wise. Even Tron started out as a red/green deck primarily concerned with dropping Karn Liberated, and these days is mono-green and has a wider threat package. More importantly, it has continuously evolved over the years.
Conversely, Burn... just doesn't change. The last time the deck was seriously redesigned was in 2019 to accommodate Sunbaked Canyon and Skewer the Critics. I hate to keep harping on this, but just take the decks I linked above and compare them.
|GP Milan 2014-Lucantonio Salvidio||Eternal Weekend Pittsburg 2019-Conner Knox||MTGO Modern League Jan. 2022-Daddematte|
|4 Arid Mesa||2 Arid Mesa||4 Arid Mesa|
|4 Scalding Tarn||2 Bloodstained Mire||1 Bloodstained Mire|
|3 Sacred Foundry||2 Sacred Foundry||2 Sacred Foundry|
|6 Mountain||3 Mountain||3 Mountain|
|1 Sulfur Falls||2 Wooded Foothills||2 Wooded Foothills|
|1 Steam Vents||4 Sunbaked Canyon||4 Sunbaked Canyon|
|4 Inspiring Vantage||4 Inspiring Vantage|
|4 Goblin Guide||4 Goblin Guide||4 Goblin Guide|
|4 Monastery Swiftspear||4 Monastery Swiftspear||4 Monastery Swiftspear|
|4 Eidolon of the Great Revel||4 Eidolon of the Great Revel||4 Eidolon of the Great Revel|
|4 Lava Spike||4 Lava Spike||4 Lava Spike|
|4 Rift Bolt||4 Rift Bolt||4 Rift Bolt|
|2 Treasure Cruise||4 Skewer the Critics||4 Skewer the Critics|
|4 Lightning Bolt||4 Lightning Bolt||4 Lightning Bolt|
|4 Boros Charm||4 Boros Charm||4 Boros Charm|
|4 Lightning Helix||4 Lightning Helix||2 Lightning Helix|
|4 Skullcrack||1 Skullcrack||2 Skullcrack|
|3 Searing Blaze||4 Searing Blaze||4 Searing Blaze|
The manabases have changed significantly since 2014. However, the biggest change in spells was that Treasure Cruise was legal. The creature base is exactly the same now as it was, and the spell mixture is barely changed. It's not that Burn never changes: I vividly remember Companion Summer and Burn's dalliance with Atarka's Command. Still, the deck inevitably returns to form.
Which is strange. I've said that context is everything and it's the ebb and flow of cards in the metagame that determines card power and deck viability. Which is true, and yet here's Burn not really joining in. Meanwhile, Modern's evolution and card pool have redefined the formats pillars, but again, Burn missed the memo. Yes, it does play Lurrus of the Dream-Den, but only because doing so requires absolutely no changes to the maindeck. And anyone who's played Burn will agree that Lurrus is mostly irrelevant to the deck. It just keeps doing its thing while the format moves around it.
Understanding the Assignment
And frankly, it's right to do so. Burn doesn't need to change. It got it right the first time, requiring refinement if and only if something more efficient comes along. Which, given Wizards' experience the last time Lightning Bolt was in Standard, is quite rare. Burn is a fully optimized deck because it understands the assignment and how to complete it most efficiently.
I'll argue that Burn has the most consistent kill of any Modern deck. Barring poor variance, Burn always goldfishes on turn four. It has many hands which kill turn three. Only Hammer Time really keeps pace with Burn in terms of goldfish speed, though Amulet Titan can certainly get busted hands. Thus, Burn always has game against any deck because without relevant interaction, it will just win the race.
Furthermore, Burn is arguably the most efficient deck in Modern. It plays the best one-mana haste creatures. Eidolon of the Great Revel is an aggressive creature that punishes opponents and also provides a check against combo decks. At low life totals, Eidolon becomes a lock piece. Also featured: all the best spells that deal 3 damage for one mana, and the best of the two-mana burn spells. No slot wasted; no rough edge.
And this is because Burn is a focused deck. It focuses only on what matters, and that's getting the opponent dead as quickly as possible. However, the same can be said for any Modern deck, especially in post-MH2 Modern. And there have been times in Modern's history when Burn was supplanted by other red decks, most recently when Izzet Prowess dominated 2019 and early 2020. But the reason for that is also the secret to Burn's success.
Burn exploits a fundamental limitation of Modern: its manabase. Fetchland into shockland is how most decks intend to start their games. This means they begin the game down 3 life, or an entire Bolt, giving Burn a head start in the race. The need to continue fetching and/or shocking to keep pace with Burn's tempo further shortens the clock. So long as fetch-shock remains Modern's preferred manabase, Burn is bound to remain a major player.
Those times where Burn has fallen off correlate with periods of lower fetch/shockland usage or when the weakness was heavily mitigated. The former was true in early 2020. Amulet Titan was billed as the deck to beat, driving out all the midrange decks. This meant that Izzet Prowess and its explosive bursts of damage were better positioned in that metagame.
Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is the Ur-example for the latter circumstance. Gaining life has always been the counter to Burn, and continuous lifegain will put the game out of reach. Under normal circumstances, Burn retains inevitability as long as it isn't dead or completely locked out, any burn spell can kill. However, a threat that gained life and also granted land drops was too much to overcome.
Burn is not a "metagame deck" in the traditional sense of being highly metagame-dependant. It doesn't care about the specific combination of decks seeing play. Instead, it cares about what Modern as a whole is doing. It metagames against the facts of Modern life, and not its individual players, a nuance granting it immense staying power.
Case in Point
I bring this up because there have been attempts recently to improve on Burn that haven't worked out. And the reason is that they just don't get what Burn is trying to do. Either there's attempts to solve problems which don't exist or pressure to conform to how Modern "should" be. The most recent example was proposed by AspiringSpike (or at least he brought attention to it).
Life Total Control, Aspiring Spike
The idea with this deck was to maximize Lurrus value and also exploit Dragon's Rage Channeler as both card selection and an evasive threat to sneak in the last points of damage. Given the direction of the format and DRC's position as pillar of the format, this would seem to be a good move.
Except that it's not. As a side effect of gathering data for the metagame updates, I see hundreds of decklists every month. This means I see which variants are succeeding and which are not, and Spike's variant is nowhere close to boring old faithful. As of writing this, I've seen four DRC Burn lists and over a dozen normal ones. And the DRC version didn't do noticeably better than the normal versions.
And I know why this is happening because I've been playing Spike's list for most of January. I like the list, but I'm under no illusions that it's better than normal Burn. DRC's damage output is lower than Goblin Guide which it replaced. DRC compensates with a better long game. However, Burn doesn't want a long game; it wants to kill on turn four. Bauble and DRC don't facilitate that outcome, and so overall, this version is worse than classical Burn decks.
Still, I happen to like this version because I have very specific needs. My local metagame is so red-heavy that a number of decks have started running maindeck Burrenton Forge-Tender which just dumps on Guide. DRC jumping over Forge-Tender is extremely relevant for me, so in this very narrow context, the DRC version secures and edge. I'm also generally frustrated with Skewer the Critics and not playing that card felt good. But it does mean that I can't throw as much burn per turn. In an open field, I'd call the deck plain worse.
Don't Fix What's Not Broke
Just because a deck doesn't fit in with a format's current trajectory doesn't mean that the deck is wrong. The only important factor here is whether or not it wins. Burn works because it understands Modern and plays to the format, not any specific expression of that format. Trying to alter or change that is only justified when the format is no longer favorable. Metagame's come and go, but some decks are built for the long haul. And no deck has been hauling longer than Burn.
One thought on “Everything Burns: A Deck Dive”
Monastery Swiftspear is one of the big underrated cards in Magic. It can win the game in three turns. But in order to maximise the damage the deck needs to play as much burn as it can. The deck can’t fit another creature other than Goblin Guide and the Eidolon. Eidolon can only lock the opponent once the life is near zero. Dragon’s Rage Channeler is simply too slow for that.