The State of Modern: Burn, by Blake Smith

Burn has a reputation as being a very simple deck to pilot.

I can’t fully disagree with that thought, but neither can I say that is entirely accurate. I believe that this thought process originates from the fact that the design and main strategy is very straightforward: Use direct damage to get you opponents life total to zero in multiples of three damage before your opponent wins the game.

If you only use that strategy, it is a very easy deck to pilot and you will even win quite a few games, but it will not allow you to win tournaments. To explain the difference, let’s break down how to build your very own Modern Burn deck and some slightly more in-depth strategies of how to pilot the deck.

The Deck

Here is my current 75-card list as a starting point:

Burn, by Blake Smith

The deck is streamlined and straightforward, as it is designed to kill your opponent quickly. But digging into the creatures and spells involved shows that there is a surprising amount of depth in the strategy.

The Untouchables


4 Goblin Guide
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel

Creatures in this deck all have multiple purposes. Goblin Guide is the best first play for this deck. Haste allows you to swing for two damage on turn 1, usually unblocked. Also, it reveals the top card of your opponent’s library. This was meant to be a downside, because if it’s a land they get it in their hand for free, but because it’s a reveal as long as he is attacking, you will almost always know what the next card that your opponent is going to draw will be. This knowledge will give you a big edge in planning out your future plays. Also, if you’re on the play and all your opponent has for turn 1 is a land drop, putting a land into their hand can force them to discard at the end of their first turn.

Monastery Swiftspear’s Prowess ability makes her your combat trick creature. She is a good turn 1 play thanks to also having haste, but is usually a better turn 2 play when she can be buffed. Goblin Guide on turn 1 and Swiftspear plus a burn spell on turn 2 totals nine damage on the first two turns.

Eidolon of the Great Revel is your most powerful creature that will probably never attack. Eidolon is an excellent double-edged sword, because most of the spells in the format are converted mana cost three or less. It will hurt your opponent to do almost anything they want to do, but all of your spells will also hurt you to cast. This is still beneficial to you, because you are usually doing damage directly to your opponent, and they are usually casting spells to set up a plan. This means that even though you are taking damage to cast your spells you will win the race because your spells are also doing damage. If you cast a Lightning Bolt with Eidolon in play and your opponent casts a Serum Visions, you take a total of two damage while they take a total of five.


4 Lightning Bolt
4 Lava Spike
4 Skullcrack
3 Rift Bolt
3 Searing Blaze

The non-creature spells of this deck are the true workhorses, especially the instants. They are what deals the direct damage to burn your opponent to death, and they’re still effective even if your opponent has blockers or removal for your creatures.

Lightning Bolt is the original burn spell and cornerstone of the deck. It deals three damage at instant speed for one red mana, which will never be topped. Lava Spike is another three damage for one red mana spell, but it can only be cast at sorcery speed and can only target players, which is usually your goal anyway.

Searing Blaze is the first spell on this list to have a converted mana cost of two, but it is also the first spell to be doing more than just one thing. It deals damage to both a creature and that creature’s owner. The downsides to this spell are that you need to be able to target a creature to cast it and it only deals one damage unless you’re able to play a land that turn. Manage your fetches and extra lands wisely to make sure you always have a way to activate landfall. If you don’t need a land immediately, keep it in your hand to turn on Searing Blaze.

The next two-mana spell on the list that has multiple purposes is Skullcrack. It deals three damage to your opponent and stops all players from gaining life, making it a great play in response to something like an Obstinate Baloth. There is a third, often overlooked ability that says damage can’t be prevented. Using this at the correct time can be a killer combat trick, especially if your opponent blocks a creature with something that has protection from red.

The last of the untouchable spells in the main deck to talk about is Rift Bolt. While Rift Bolt is arguably the worst card in the deck, it is still played because it is a spell that does three damage for the cost of one mana and some patience. Later in the game, it can be simply cast for three if you have extra mana and need to do three damage immediately.

Rift Bolt is a great first play when you’re not sure what strategy you want to use, because you can delay your decision for a turn. While it’s necessary in the mainboard, Rift Bolt is usually my first target for siding out when there is not an obvious card to remove for incoming cards.

The Flex Spots

4 Lightning Helix
4 Boros Charm
2 Harsh Mentor
1 Shard Volley

There are two reasons that Lightning Helix and Boros Charm are flexible in whether they’re played or how many copies are played. They cost two mana and they require white mana. In a mostly Boros build such as mine, the benefit to playing them far outweighs the cost. In other builds that play more green, they can be trimmed some to fit in things such as Atarka’s Command or even Wild Nacatl.

Lighting Helix deals three damage and also gains you three life, which will cause a six point life swing. Just make sure you have a plan to get your access to white mana before casting.

Boros Charm has three modes, but you will almost always use the one that deals four damage directly to your opponent’s face. The indestructible mode can be used as protection against sweepers, but is rarely needed. The double-strike mode is even more rarely needed, and would generally only be used if a Monastery Swiftspear has enough Prowess triggers to make giving her double-strike do more than four additional damage. If she’s a 4/5 or bigger before you cast Boros Charm, then you would get more value out of giving her double strike than sending the damage at your opponent. This mode can also be used to get some extra damage through against a Leyline of Sanctity.

Harsh Mentor is the newest addition to the deck, and its importance to the deck is not fully agreed upon. He penalizes opponents two points of damage for using activated abilities. Now with that said, almost every deck in modern uses fetch lands to be able to get the correct mana needed for their deck and if Harsh Mentor is in play your opponents will have to take an additional two damage just to use their fetch lands. That extra two damage can be the extra little push that is needed to win the game in many circumstances, and can be an incentive enough to make your opponent use removal on Mentor instead of something else.

Shard Volley is another instant speed spell that deals three damage for one mana, but it has and additional cost of needing to sacrifice a land. The additional cost of sacrificing a land is the reason for it only being a one-of in the deck. This is not a card that you want in your opening hand, but is a great finishing card to be drawn later.

Depending on the exact colors you run, Atarka’s Command and/or Wild Nacatl can fill some of these spots. Atarka’s Command allows you to pump out a lot of damage if you have a bunch of creatures in play. Wild Nacatl is another aggressive one-drop, but does require access to more shocklands to reach its full potential.

The manabase

The land set-up for this deck is fairly standard across the many different designs for the deck. I use 19 total lands, because drawing too many lands will kill you, the highest converted mana cost is three (Rift Bolt, which is usually cast for one instead), and you can win most games with only two lands.

Red, white, and green are all needed for this deck, but only red and white are needed for the main. Every source of white or green mana will have red attached to it, because even though you might need the other colors, you will always need red.

Also, when fetching lands having Mountain attached to the other colors allows you to go get your second or third color no matter what fetch land you have. You will need any combination of 10 fetch lands that can get Mountains. This has the dual purpose of being able to fetch get whatever land you need, as well as thinning out the land from your deck, making less likely to draw one when looking for the final kill spell. While the value of thinning is a subject of much debate, a 19-land deck that is more than half fetches benefits from fewer lands and more spells being left in the deck.

Inspiring Vantage is a big addition to the deck, because you will rarely play more than three lands. That means this fast land will almost always be a free way to get a dual land out. Two copies of both Scared Foundry and Stomping Ground are needed to be able to fetch the appropriate color combination whenever it is needed. The reason for two of each is because of the possibility of land destruction. You don’t want to only have one green or white source and have it taken away from you with a spell like Spreading Seas. Finally, the purpose for the two basic mountains is that if one of your creatures get Path to Exiled, you can still get your free basic land.

The Sideboard

The two cards that are the reason for needing green mana are also two of the most common sideboard cards you will see in Modern.

While both Destructive Revelry and Ancient Grudge take out artifacts with ease, Destructive Revelry also takes care of those pesky enchantments and deals two damage to your opponent when you blow up their stuff. Now, I know what you’re thinking: If a card is that awesome, why not four? Because while Ancient Grudge doesn’t blow up enchantments or deal extra damage, it can take out two different artifacts with its flashback ability, and if you find yourself facing a deck of nothing but artifacts that will come in very handy.

Grafdigger’s Cage is used for when you’re facing either decks with a lot of graveyard shenanigans or decks that bring in creatures directly from the library with spells like Collected Company.

When your opponent uses some big nasty thing that deals a lot of damage to kill you, such as Primeval Titan or Valakut, just bring in your Deflecting Palm and hand him back his own damage (keep in mind that you can only redirect one Valakut trigger with Deflecting Palm). Even if hexproof is involved, Deflecting Palm does not target.

Another plan built into this sideboard for dealing with large threats, specifically creatures without hexproof, is Path to Exile. If they have creatures with more than three toughness, your only hope to get rid of them is to Path them away. They will most likely get a land from it, but you can usually be fast enough that it won’t matter.

If a deck is making creatures too fast for you to handle, Anger of the Gods is your mass kill spell back up plan. The exile clause is also relevant in certain matchups.

Because decks like Tron and Scapeshift cheat by using extra mana, use Molten Rain to interrupt their plans and make them take two damage as well. Finally, if you find yourself facing off with an opponent as cunning as yourself with their deck choice, bring in Kor Firewalker. He can be a little tricky to plan out because of his double white mana cost, but if you can bring him out before your opponent the additional life he acquires for you should make the difference for victory.

Good matchups

Living End: You are usually faster than them, and they help you out by taking damage from some of their cyclers and fetch lands.

Tron: You’re usually a lot faster than them, and can kill them even if they get an early Karn or Ugin in play. Wurmcoil Engine is your worst nightmare, but Skullcrack helps a lot and you can usually have them dead before Wurmcoil even becomes an issue.

Death’s Shadow: They live on the edge with their life total, and managing it slows them down a lot. If they try to play aggressively, a burn spell or two closes the game quickly.

Most “fair” decks: You can usually just outrun them, even if they have something like an early Tarmogoyf. They also tend to take a lot of damage from their mana.

Bad matchups

Combo decks: Ad Nauseam has multiple ways to prevent death, and you don’t have any interaction with their main combo. Storm can combo off before you can kill them, but one advantage you have is that a lot of your burn spells can kill their Barals and Goblin Electromancers to slow them down.

Lifegain decks: Decks such as Soul Sisters can gain enough life to make it almost impossible to kill them with damage.

Certain builds of midrange decks: For a lot of decks, their Burn matchup is as good or bad as they want it to be. There are a lot of options to help them gain life and keep the board clear, so if they skew their deck heavily towards beating Burn, they often can.


Every match-up is going to be a very calculated fight. Even though against decks like Living End and Tron you are favored to win because you are faster, and any deck that naturally has lots of life gain like Soul Sister and Tokens you are expected to lose against because you can’t kill them fast enough. As long as you are patient and continuously adjust your strategy, victory will be obtainable, even if it is a hard-fought battle.

Your creatures will start off the damage race, but it will be your burn spells that will end the fight. Early pressure in the form of Goblin Guide, Monastery Swiftspear or Eidolon of the Great Revel is important to prevent your opponent from being able to set up their game plan without any interference.

By making them devote resources to killing your creatures, you open them up to direct damage from your burn spells. Manage these carefully and only use them as removal if your opponent has a creature that is a threat to immediately kill you.

Skullcrack is a card that you generally want to hold on to. It’s a great way to shut off lifegain strategies, and burning one early can give your opponent a window to resolve something like a Thragtusk to make your job that much harder.

Searing Blaze is conditional, and is awful when it’s only one damage. As mentioned above, manage your fetch lands and land drops to give yourself the best chance of maximizing it. You don’t need to make a land drop every turn to win with this deck.

Wrap up

Burn has been around since Modern’s beginning, and will likely always be a contender. The combination of efficient creatures and cheap burn spells gives you a way to deal 20 to almost any opponent, and usually before they can do anything about it.

But it’s not a mindless autopilot. Taking the time to understand how to best use your creatures and burn spells is the difference between being a Burn player and being a good Burn player.

Blake Smith is a Magic player and Level 1 judge from Kenosha, Wis. Contact him at


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Blake Smith