Surprise! Take 3!

Posted in Reconstructed on October 16, 2012

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

This weekend is Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. The location? Seattle. The format? Modern. The competition? Steep. The deck I'm reviewing today? Burn!

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let me set the stage first.

Modern is a format full of powerful cards and diverse decks, and pinpointing an exact metagame is difficult. Creature-based Zoo decks exist right next to combo decks composed entirely out of spells. Players are both trying to assemble the Urzatron (Urza's Tower, Urza's Power Plant, Urza's Mine) and hook up a creature with Cranial Plating. They're dredging Life From the Loams in some decks and activating Birthing Pods in others. It's an absolutely crazy format, and there's no telling exactly what this weekend will bring.

Urza's Power PlantUrza's Mine
Urza's Tower

But what I can say for certain is this: the format has been shaken up by the recent unbanning of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. Since the moment the decision was announced, players have been trying Scapeshift decks of all shapes and sizes – and after all the buzz, it's definitely something you have to be ready for this weekend.

It's a format defined by the early game where cheap cards take center stage. If you fall behind, games will end quickly as you're crushed under the weight of Tarmogoyfs, or some awesome combo, or even an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn attacking to annihilate all of your permanents.

I'll talk about some of the individual decks a bit more later, when I'm talking about card choices, but for now onto the deck at hand!

This week, we're going to take a look at Nick Montalbano's burn deck!

Nick Montalbano’s Burn

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Ah, burn. A deck practically everyone has sat across from at some point, and that has been around throughout Magic's entire history. Whether you're having Searing Spears or Fireblasts lobbed at your dome, the goal is always the same: deal lethal damage as quickly as possible using a slew of burn spells. In most decks, Lava Spike would be considered horrible – but in a deck simply trying to maximize its mana-to-damage output, it's an all star.

"But wait," you say. "Isn't burn a deck for newbies?"

I'm here to dispel that myth.

Let me start with a brief story. Most of you know of Jon Finkel, the player many have called the best to ever play the game. I don't think anyone is willing to say that Finkel is a newbie or simpleton. Well, in 2008 Jon Finkel picked up a burn deck to play in a tournament. Or, to be more precise, to play in the World Championship.

But that's not the only story of burn at the high level. It has claimed many PTQ victories and done well at both Grand Prix and Pro Tours alike. It has been wielded by some of the best players in the game.

Now, it is true that a lot of newer players tend toward burn because playing it at 90% capacity isn't that difficult. There will be games where you just roll over your opponents, and there will also be games where you mulligan to six and are never in it. However, in all those games somewhere between ensuring you eke out every point of damage can be the difference between winning and losing. I can't tell you how many games I've ended at one or two life against burn because my opponent made a slight mistake with optimizing his damage – every point counts.

Additionally, there are a lot of deckbuilding choices to make. The cards you're dealt depend on how you build your deck in the first place – and there are a few different ways to take a burn deck.

Is a burn deck as tricky to play as a combo or control deck? No, probably not. But once, as I was preparing for a PTQ and had casually dismissed burn, my friend Dan Hanson asked me a question: "Is your goal in Magic to prove how much smarter you are than your opponent, or is it to win?"

Some weeks on here, I might choose the former. But on a competitive Pro Tour Week? It's time to look at the latter.

Let's dive into the decklist and see what fits and what doesn't. First I'll go over the creatures, then I'll talk about the burn.

Goblin Guide

The goal of creatures in a burn deck is to act as de facto burn spells. Creatures, by virtue of staying on the battlefield, can deal damage over time. A turn one Goblin Guide will often be just as good as a Shock, and is usually a Lightning Blast or better. So, looking through that lens, let's take a look at the creatures.

... And speaking of one mana Lightning Blasts, Goblin Guide is as good as it gets in a burn deck. Turn one Goblin Guide is definitely the best thing you can do on the first turn, and multiple Goblin Guides can be game ending. We're definitely going to want all four of these.

Grim Lavamancer

Grim Lavamancer hits an interesting need in burn. On one hand, repeated blasts of two damage every turn is incredible as you begin to run out of gas. On the other hand, he's not very good on offense and this deck is going to be tapping all of its mana for the first two or three turns. Drawing two Grim Lavamancers can end up extremely poor if you don't have the spells in your graveyard to support them.

In a slower format, I would definitely want all four – but here I think I only want three copies. An opening hand with too many Grim Lavamancers is nearly a mulligan, and it also takes time to get them going, and that's time you don't always have in this format.

Ash Zealot

This exciting new Return to Ravnica card fills a few solid roles.

First of all, as a 2/2 haste for two mana, it keeps the pressure up. Following up a turn one Goblin Guide with this will drop them to at least 14 on turn two! Ash Zealot's Snapcaster hate is a nice bonus, since the ubiquitous wizard has been running rampant in Modern lately. A lot of decks might Bolt your turn one creature, then try and Snapcaster the Lightning Bolt a couple turns later. Ash Zealot makes them pay the price!

But what really sold me on Ash Zealot was actually the first strike on top of all that. One of the most popular cards in all of Modern right now is this burn-hating fellow:

Kitchen Finks

Finks is so frustrating because, not only does it gain them life, but it also negates your attackers. In essence, Finks usually ends up gaining far closer to ten life between the four of its ability and the creatures it trades with or the burn spells it sucks up. Ash Zealot doesn't care. She can safely zoom right into Kitchen Finks!

And it's not just Finks that she favorably tussles with. Delver of Secrets, Bloodbraid Elf, and Huntmaster of the Fells, just to name a few, all back away from Ash Zealot. She's going to be a little worse than some other creatures in no ncreature-centric matchups and I have some other two mana creatures I want to play – more on that in a moment – so I'm only going to start with three, but I could easily see going to four. I'm certainly willing to give her a try.

The Burn

Since there's so much redundancy in a burn deck that most of my individual card comments would just be, "yep, three damage for one mana. Sounds good," I'm going to look at the whole section of spells together.

  • Lightning Bolt: Three mana anywhere at instant speed for one mana. Check!
  • Lava Spike: Three damage to your opponent's dome for one mana. Check!
  • Rift Bolt: Three damage to creature or player delayed by one turn for only a single mana. Check!
  • Bump in the Night: Three points of life loss straight to the noggin' for one mana. And, uh, I guess the chance to flashback it in some dream scenario. Check!

Okay, so that gets the easy ones out of the way. Now let's look at some of the other cards picked here.

Needle Drop

First, let's look at Needle Drop. This is an unusual card that hasn't seen a lot of play before, but certainly has interesting applications. The principle here is that you're practically always going to be dealing damage to your opponent, so this is just a "free" point of damage since you get a card back. It's free! That makes it awesome right?

Except it's not really free. While I think this card would go well in some builds of burn, especially if I wanted to go the Quest of Pure Flame route, this deck needs to be as fast as possible and the single mana to cast it is a very real cost. This format is so fast that even a burn player can die with cards still in their hand.

Additionally, if you top deck Needle Drop late or only have it with Bump in the Night, it's no good. It's a cool idea – but not what I'm looking for in the fast world of Modern.

Magma Jet

Magma Jet is another card that suffers from the speed issue. It used to be in Extended that I wouldn't even consider cutting Magma Jet because of the digging it provided. You can ship unnecessary lands to the bottom, ensuring you were only going to draw gas.

However, that was a different world.

Finding the high-variance Shrapnel Blast (or an artifact land) was crucial, and you had the time to get to whatever you were looking for. Now that's not always the case.

This deck also features a couple of two mana cards, and it's crucial your hand isn't glutted at two. Often you won't hit four mana, so casting two cards that cost two mana each turn isn't something you can plan on. To top it all off, Magma Jet also has a very slight poor interaction with fetchlands. Magma Jet has got to go.

Searing Blaze

Next up is Searing Blaze. This is a card that's extremely hit or miss: against creature decks, it's unbelievably powerful. When burn is fighting against Zoo or similar, it's entirely a race – and killing off their creature puts you pretty far ahead in that race. However, Modern has a several decks that aren't creature based. Especially with Scapeshift back in the mix, Searing Blaze is a risk.

Now, it's certainly a calculated risk you can consider. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to play with Searing Blaze maindeck. However, I would prefer to be conservative and make sure all of my cards are on in the first game. Often a single dead draw can spell defeat for burn decks when you're trying to count up to 20, and that's not a risk I want to take.

Instead of Searing Blaze, I would rather have Keldon Marauders. Marauders is still great against the beatdown decks at dealing damage and buying you time, but it doesn't have the drawback of being shut off against some decks. In fact, it is often at its best against decks without creatures, serving as a two mana Lava Axe! The primary issue with Marauders is that it turns on the removal spells of those decks – but since this deck has a few more creatures than your average burn deck, they're likely enough to have targets anyway that I don't mind piling some Marauders onto the fire.

Keldon Marauders
Lava Axe

Finally, Blightning, is just a little more expensive to cast than I would like and three mana for three damage isn't a rate I'm interested in. If I wanted a three mana card I would look to Flames of the Blood Hand, but I don't really want either.

Now, what do I want to play over these? There are three different cards I'd like to add – two creatures (or at least creatures masquerading as burn spells) and one Bolt variant.

The first is Vexing Devil. Goblin Guide may be the best turn one this deck can usually muster, but this vexing creature is definitely second. While there is the drawback of this being weaker than a burn spell because of your opponent's removal spells or bounce, it's so powerful early on – which is where this deck tends to capitalize best – that it's worth that potential downside of getting Lightning Bolted. I definitely want four.

Vexing Devil
Hellspark Elemental

Hellspark Elemental is the next card to look at. Two mana for three damage isn't stellar, but the ability of this to come back makes it incredible. Often this is Searing Spear with flashback, and even if a creature sucks up some damage in the process it's okay – you still got more than enough value out of it.

Lastly, I'd like to add a pair of Shard Volleys. Volley is a card you don't want to draw two of, but finding one at some point just gives you more Bolts to work with.

So what does this bring us to? Take a look!

Gavin Verhey’s Burn!

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So, what's up with that new sideboard? Let's take a look!

In many formats, burn just doesn't have enough good sideboard cards to bring in so it has to play some subpar ones. In Modern, that's not the case. There are so many decks and so many cards that burn actually has some good options!

One of the reasons I chose to cover burn for this week is simply because I think it really is a good choice for this weekend. Nobody is gunning to fight burn right now – and as a deck that can be very uninteractive at times, that's a strong sign for burn. Burn is best when nobody expects it. It's also proactive, which is always where I like to be in a large format like this. But the primary reason is that there are the matchups for burn are actually pretty good. Let's first go over how all of the cards are used, then look at some sideboarding:

Smash to Smithereens is one of the bestsideboard cards ever printed forburn. It's pretty rare that burn gets a proactive card that helps against a weakness and also deals damage. Smash does all of these things! It fights off Birthing Pods, Cranial Platings, Signets, Swords – whatever people have brought to the table. When you face a deck where Smash is turned on, it's incredible.

Smash to Smithereens

Similarly, Molten Rain is excellent against any deck that relies on a lot of its lands. It's proactive, and it gives you a damage bonus! Against Scapeshift and 'Tron, Molten Rain can slow them by a turn or two and give you the time you need to finish them off. While Blood Moon is also a three mana card that's effective against Urzatron, Prismatic Omen makes that undesirable against Scapeshift. While it does cost three so it's a little expensive, I'm willing to play the full four Rains simply because casting multiples on time just gives you free wins.

Molten Rain

Searing Blaze, as mentioned earlier, is fantastic against beatdown decks. Killing their creature and getting a Lightning Bolt in on them for two mana is an incredible deal against decks where it's active. I definitely want access to all four of these for those matchups.

Uninteractive combo decks like Storm are often burn's worst sort of matchup, but those don't seem to be too popular right now. (Though there might be a move toward Storm with the rise of Scapeshift.) Relic of Progenitus helps out against their Pyromancer Ascensions, and also any various graveyard decks you might fight against – all while digging you a card deeper if you need to finish them off.

I wanted one more card against beatdown decks and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker combo, and a nice trump is Ensnaring Bridge. Decks like Zoo and Birthing Pod do have answers like Qasali Pridemage, but often you just need to buy some time to finish them off if you aren't already ahead. Bridge helps you out there.

With that down, let's look at just a few of the matchups you might encounter in Modern.

Beatdown and Aggro-Control

-3 Ash Zealot, -2 Hellspark Elemental

+4 Searing Blaze, +1 Ensnaring Bridge

So many of the aggressive decks in Modern have plenty of aggro-control elements, and it is hard to know precisely where beatdown starts. The primary decks you can expect to face here are many various forms of Zoo, Affinity, and Blue-Red-Green Delver of Secrets. Against Affinity, you should also bring in Smash to Smithereens over the other two Hellspark Elementals and two Bumps.

Hellspark Elemental

In these matchups, it is all about dealing as much damage as possible while controlling the amount you take. Keep burning them while using cards like Searing Blaze and Keldon Marauders to slow them down. Against Affinity be careful to leave up mana to Blaze and Smash on their turn to ensure you don't die to any surprise Cranial Platings.


-3 Lava Spike, -2 Shard Volley

+4 Searing Blaze, +1 Ensnaring Bridge

Jund is the primary midrange deck, so it's the one I'm going to talk about. Jund loves to attrition you, so if there was ever a matchup where you would flashback Bump in the Night it is this one. (Hence boarding out Spikes over Bumps.)

Lava Spike
Bump in the Night

Jund is a pretty good matchup for you overall, though a heavy Finks or Tarmogoyf draw can be rough. You don't have a great way to fight through Tarmogoyf, but rather than sideboard in cards for it I'd rather just try and attack around it. While a defensive Tarmogoyf can be threatening, if they aren't attacking you and choosing to hold their Tarmogoyfs back then they're just giving you more time to kill them.


-3 Grim Lavamancer, -1 Hellspark Elemental

+4 Molten Rain

Your Scapeshift matchup is awesome, whether they're straight Red-Green or Red-Green-Blue. You're fast enough that you can beat all but their quickest draws, and after sideboarding you gain Molten Rain. They're likely going to have some life gain tools, but your quick draws still trump theirs and Molten Rain gives you enough time for your burn cards to get the job done.

There were plenty of exciting Modern decks with Return to Ravnica cards that didn't make the cut. Take a look at some of them and see if they inspire you – whether you're playing at your local store or this weekend's Pro Tour.

Paul Pangilinan’s G/B Re-Vengevine

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Zachary Devine’s Five Color Control

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Ryan Bogner’s Blue-White Urzatron

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Petr Joura’s Eminent Domant

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Kaelfros’s Loam Rock

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William Moreno’s Rock

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Kevin Kerr’s Hakkon Dredge

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Anonymous’s Necrotic Ooze Combo

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Mark Wischkaemper’s Turbofog

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Tim Schutser’s Grixis Aggro-Control

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Anonymous’s Nivmagus Pacts

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