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The Burn Question


Let me ask you a simple question. For casual Magic, what was the best burn spell in Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited?

Lightning Bolt
It probably was not Disintegrate. We can remove that from the equation right now. Similarly, Earthbind, Psionic Blast, and Prodigal Sorcerer are unlikely to be in the conversation. So, which burn spell is best?

Is it Hurricane, Earthquake, Fireball, Drain Life, or Lightning Bolt?

I am not asking which was the most powerful for its day. Forget that—which is the best for a deck you would build today? Whether for multiplayer or duels, if you could only include one of these, which would you add?

What burn spell is the best?

Let’s assume that we pull off the mass-removal spells because they are of a different order, and Drain Life is too heavy on the black-mana requirement.

Which is better: Fireball or Lightning Bolt?

Each has things to support it. One is a cheap instant that can blast a lot of stuff early. The other is an expensive sorcery that requires mana but is flexible both in the number of targets it has as well as how much damage is dealt. Are you Team Fireball or Team Lightning Bolt?

The simple fact is that both are very strong, and we can’t easily say which is better. I might have an opinion (Bolt for duels, Fireball for multiplayer) but that’s just an opinion. How do you add burn to your decks? Which do you lead toward?

Welcome to the Burn Question

This article began as a Top 10 Burn Spells of All Time article. But it was too hard to write. You’d think it would write itself—just grab ten great burn spells, and call it a day. But the issue was between burn that was set (Lightning Bolt and friends) and X-spell burn (Fireball and friends). They were just too different. Obviously, no burn spell goes into a deck that has fifty-nine blank cards. Different burn spells suit different environments. One of my favorite decks from my 100 Combo Decks project is one that had Death Pits of Rath in it. So, I ran Forked Bolt because it could kill two creatures after the Death Pits arrived. Forked Bolt was the best for that deck. An Elfball deck that makes a ton of Elf-fueled mana doesn’t want Lightning Bolts, it wants Fireballs to use up that 8 or 10 mana and blast someone for game.

Yes, context matters. The deck concept obviously changes the requirement of the burn needed, and that removes questions about which is better, the Bolt or the Ball.

But for the vast unwashed masses of decks that would like some burn, the cards don’t obviously lean one way or the other. They suggest neither Firebolt nor Comet Storm.

Where do you go, and what do you hit up when you make it there?

Of course, you could dodge the question entirely. Instead of four of one or the other, you could add in two of each and call it. That’s not a bad plan generally, but it still skips the Burn Question. The Lady or the Tiger?

Titan's Revenge
Last week, I was playing some Magic after a Heroclix tournament. I was playing against two other folks when I top-decked Titan's Revenge. It was a great card for the situation because one of my foes was at 8 life. I tapped out to smash him, and I won the clash against the other. Next turn, I Revenged his big beater and swung and took control of the game against him. Essentially, I took out both players with the Titan's Revenge.

Now, the Revenge was the right card there, but any X spell would have enabled me to finish off one opponent and just focus on the other. It could have been Blaze! The point is that the X spell was the right card for that situation.

A while ago, I was playing multiplayer against four other people, and someone played an early Stigma Lasher. If you have forgotten this nasty 2-drop from a few years ago, take another look—it’s disgusting how good it is. Someone got it into his head to attack me—since I am the Best Player at the table. I tapped for one red mana and played the Dead half of Dead // Gone. The Stigma Lasher was answered, and I could keep gaining life later on. Of course, any instant cheap spell would have worked here, such as Lightning Bolt or even Searing Spear for that matter. The point is that I needed an early instant burn spell, and I had it.

Any argument that Titan's Revenge is better than Dead // Gone is missing the point. While Lightning Bolt can go to the head and kill a player and an X spell like Fanning the Flames can kill a creature, the use of these cards is very different. It’s like comparing Rampant Growth and Mana Flare or Swords to Plowshares and Wrath of God. Which is better for your deck?

Sure, they are both burn spells, but they have such different roles.

Today, I am going to give you a quick list of my favorite X burn spells and non-X burn spells and keep away from a Top 10 List that pits them against each other.

The X Burns

In order to keep from going too far off topic, I am just considering basic red X spells—not something like Death Grasp or Exsanguinate or Magmaquake. These are just Fireball and its variants.

Rolling Thunder
Rolling Thunder What makes this spell so awesome is that it can spread the damage out among players or creatures without spending any additional mana. It’s just a simple xrr spell. In my opinion, this makes Rolling Thunder one of the best X burn spells of all time because it suits the environment. Whether you need to clean out four or five smaller creatures or one larger one and one smaller one or just hit a player for 6 to kill him or her and hit another foe for 4, this is a strong spell for your arsenal.

Fanning the Flames Because of the buyback potential, you can play it over and over again. Or you can just drop it as a slightly more expensive Blaze. Sure, the buyback is 3rr, but if you are just using it to blast a creature or, later in the game, to blast a player and then keep it for another go, it’s worth it. It’s much better in multiplayer than in duels unless you have a tight mana ramp deck. If you are scared off by the buyback and just want to notch a guaranteed second use from your spell, perhaps Devil's Play is more your style.

Clan Defiance I love a burn spell that can kill more than one thing, and this can hit two creatures for death and smash someone’s face in for another smash. That sort of versatility is exactly what you want in many situations. Of course, it does cost g as well, but considering that, it’s strong as all get out.

Comet Storm
Comet Storm With instant status, this X spell qualifies as quite good. Don’t let the mythic symbol fool you—the reprinting in Commander decks dropped it from an already low value to an even lower one. As a result, these are quite cheap on the singles market. You can easily deal 4 or 5 damage to a lot of targets—or even more damage to just one or two. The added flexibility of being an instant is quite valuable.

Aurelia's Fury If you are playing the Boros colors and you own one of these, you need to run it. It’s easiest to understand as an instant Rolling Thunder. That alone is worth the price of admission. Then, add in that damaged creatures are tapped and damaged players can’t cast noncreatures, and the result is a potent spell with a lot of uses. If you ignore the mana requirements, it is the best of the X spells.

The fact that a card does not make this Top 5 list of mine does not mean that it sucks. Many cards, such as Red Sun's Zenith, Fireball, or the aforementioned Titan's Revenge have value as well. Play what you own, but if you are looking to upgrade your deck stocks, all of those cards are cheaper than you might think (even the Fury has dropped massively in price).

The Non-X Burns

When looking at a non-X burn spell, or what might be called a fixed-damage burn spell, there are several questions to ask. Do you want a flexible instant, like Lightning Bolt, or a flexible sorcery, like Forked Bolt? Which is better?

There are several issues with sorcery-speed creature removal in multiplayer. First of all, the player may not have wanted to attack you anyway, so you make an enemy. Much like using Icy Manipulator to tap down an attacker can upset that person, you have to decide whether the creature is a big enough of a threat to force the issue. Second, you cannot handle things with haste. When someone has something like Lightning Greaves, you cannot respond to equipping with a sorcery removal spell. Finally, by spending your mana on your turn, you remove options for doing things later, and you lock out your mana. That’s not to say there is no place for sorcery removal in multiplayer—just be careful with it.

Here are some of my favorites.

Firebolt The ability to drop it early on any threat is strong, and you can flash it back later to hit something else. Even later in the game, there is always something to smash, such as a Birds of Paradise, Soul Warden, or that 5/5 flyer you just dealt 3 to in combat. It’s like an expensive Seal of Fire after you’ve already played it once.

Urza's Rage
Urza's Rage I don’t know whether this counts as a fixed-damage spell, but it sort of acts like an X spell later or a nice Bolt early. It’s always uncounterable, so you can be almost sure that whatever you want to target will bite it (there could be self-bounce or something like Akroma's Blessing or even Time Stop). It’s going off for 3. Later on, you can kick it, and suddenly, you are doling out 10 damage uncounterably and unpreventably. (It could still be Redirected or handled in other ways.) The ability to go big or small, combined with the difficulty to stop it, makes this a great answer at the low end of the curve and problem at the high end.

Lightning Bolt I actually do think that Lightning Bolt remains among the best options for instant removal because it’s so cheap. From turn one, you can blow up all major early threats, whether it’s Wild Nacatl or Stigma Lasher. You can also take out all of the utility cards running around at this stage, such as Noble Hierarch and Weathered Wayfarer. Bolt zaps a Mother of Runes after it is played or in response to equipment or other effects. The Bolt is elegantly simple.

Magma Jet Many creatures die to 2 or less damage, which is good, because then, you can tack on the scry 2 ability of Magma Jet. Red does not get a lot of card-draw, so card-sifting via scry is quite important. It’s just too good to pass up, really.

Punishing Fire
Punishing Fire Dealing 2 damage at instant speed is adequate. Bringing it back to your hand over and over is downright abusive, especially when considering how often life-gain occurs around your table. From Kitchen Finks to Loxodon Warhammer, we see a lot of life-gain going on. This will do some serious damage.


This list is interesting because all of them have been powerful in tournaments. All have been bedrocks of winning tournament decks in their days (or recently, in the case of Punishing Fire). Urza's Rage was once the consensus best card from Invasion and saw regular play in multiple archetypes, including Fires of Yavimaya decks. The Firebolt was the iconic removal spell of its day in various decks as well. Bolt has a long-established tournament pedigree, Punishing Fire is Grove of the Burnwillows’s best friend, and the Jet has been used in multiple formats in winning red decks. On the other hand, the X list includes some spells that never made a serious tournament impact.

What I hope you have enjoyed seeing today is the interaction between different types of burn spells, which I hope will lead to a better answer for The Burn Question for the next deck you look at. Don’t forget that both the Bolt and ’Ball have a lot of value for your next Magic night.

See you next week,

Abe Sargent

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