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Finding the Three Gears of Modern Burn

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Barbarian Class audio!

Anyone can win the games on the play with three Goblin Guides and two Lightning Bolts. The "gotcha" moments sure can be exciting! But they tend to require the opponent to err. The ultimate point of the gear model is this: We win without (or at least with less) draw dependency. We don't need our opponents to give us our opens: We define and then make them ourselves.

Prologue: Uncovering Jonny's Intuition

In 2006 Brian David-Marshall and Matt Wang of To Be Continued, LLC published my first book, Deckade. To Be Continued would go on to bring Chaotic to the United States and develop games covering every exciting property from The Walking Dead to Twilight; simultaneously launching the careers of countless notable game designers. But in 2006 they had mostly produced a reprint book and the lovable and popular (though sadly never monetized) podcast that went along with it, Top8Magic.

Deckade was a modest but surprising hit. Excited to line up the next one, Brian had a maverick idea:

"It's been ten years? Who knows how long you're going to be coming up with good ideas. But you know who has them but has never - and I mean never - shared one?"

"Jon."

"Jon! I was going to say 'Jon'."

"Yeah, I know. I just said it first. It's kind of obvious."

"Jon is the best player who ever touched a Magic card, but has never shown any capacity to share why he's so much better than everyone else, or what he might be doing differently. He has an intuition for how to play Magic that could make everyone better. You just have to write it down."

"There's one problem," I countered. "Jon hasn't picked up a Magic card in what? Two years?"

Jon Finkel was an inaugural member of the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Fame, but didn't even bother to play in the accompanying tournament upon picking up his ring. He had descended from complete dominance to maybe one PT Top 8 a year to falling off the Tour entirely. He was never going to go back to the PTQ grind, and at that point, mostly saw Magic as a fond feature of his past.

Most of us in New York were still friends. We still hung out at Jon's palatial apartment. Honestly, other people would sometimes draft while Jon traded on the monstrously roaring desktops in his home office.

"I don't know. Just go to Jon's house with THE RECORDER and have him talk about Magic. I'm sure we can get a book out of it."

So, I took the legendary digital recorder with me. Back then, the Apple iPhone had yet to be released. That little digital recorder captured the first winks of Top8Magic. It was also extremely lucky. Just holding it (although apparently not using it) catapulted both Matt and Steve Sadin (Deckade's nominal editor) to Grand Prix victories!

In my hands... It mostly got nothing out of Jon.

"I don't know. Maybe I can watch you play Magic and tell you what you're doing wrong," was the best I got.

That lasted for about one session. I loaded up MTGO but Jon was completely disinterested in watching anyone else play. Especially as badly as I was.

"I don't know," he followed up. "Maybe you and I could play together and talk about the games after."

It just so happened that I was qualified for Pro Tour Charleston at the time. I had been play-testing with Jon since the night before my first Pro Tour, but seriously only for US Nationals in 2000. Come the other side of that, I was on another level. Jon won that tournament, and Worlds immediately following. For my part, I rattled off PTQ Top 8s week after week after week like clockwork. Playing with him was transformative to my skill level.

"Deal."

Of course, Pro Tour Charleston was a team Pro Tour.

It quickly got out that I was over at Jon Finkel's house play-testing Ravnica Block Constructed every night. That turned into everyone over at Jon Finkel's house play-testing Ravnica Block Constructed every night. I mean everyone. Osyp Lebedowicz and the Jersey guys kind of homogenized themselves into New York. Old school (and in some cases ultimately Old School) friends like Bryan Manolakos and Jamie Parke came out of the woodwork just to hang out.

Seeing an opportunity, Worth Wollpert - then the head of MTGO - had a case of Limited product drop shipped to Jon's apartment, just to see what would happen. What happened, eventually, was Finkel Draft.

I was never able to uncover and write down Jon's intuition. I was too busy getting better at Magic than I ever had played before, or probably since. Following months of playing with him my personal record in Charleston was a stunning 11-3, which would have been Top 8 at an individual Pro Tour. Sadly, it was not an individual Pro Tour. But I did immediately win a Qualifier for the next individual one, and that year's New York State Championships.

Washed and pathetic, Jon on the other hand failed to make Day Two.

I've never been the best player, but I always thought I could share my ideas in a way that was easy and useful to readers and listeners.

... At least until now. At least until Modern Burn.

Interlude One: A Little Kid at FNM

"It's a really easy matchup," I tried to explain. "I beat it three times in my RCQ, and didn't lose even a single game." This was becoming a very frustrating conversation. Normally people just accept the things I have to say, especially about Burn. I'm trying to teach this little kid how to play the matchup and he's adamant that stupid Murktide is favored.

"How many times," queried the little kid... "Did they open on Spirebluff Canal?"

Good question!

"It's funny you ask..."

Interlude Two: Play-testing with Hot Dog State University

"You embarrassed me," said Etai. I was pretty surprised at that reaction.

"Nah," I said. "You're the more accomplished player already, at this point. It's just good to know that your deck doesn't beat Burn."

"No no," he responded. "That was embarrassing. I'm still trying to wrap my head around some of those games."

Etai Kurtzman, one-fourth of Hot Dog State University, re-entered The Gathering with a Top 8 in Las Vegas back in November of 2021, along with my spiritual son, Roman Fusco. We had played together in some team events since, and he's become an MTGO grinder of no small renown.

Etai, parroting the hive mind, insisted that Izzet Murktide is favored against Boros Burn in Modern. Having actually played the matchup, I insisted that it was not only not favored; but that it was nearly as close to a bye for Burn as Death's Shadow nowadays.

"Prove it."

I proved it.

I'm not sure if I rattled off six wins in a row or seven before Etai just gave up. Play, draw; didn't matter. Creature draw, jam you to death with Lightning Bolts; didn't matter. Blaze your Ledger Shredder or ignore your Ledger Shredder. Rift Bolt your Dragon's Rage Channeler or take your dashing Ragavan on the jaw. Every game ended the same way.

Some games were close. But most weren't. I guess it was kind of embarrassing.

"Okay, let me try," said Patrick. I handed the deck to Patrick O'Halloran-Gannon.

Patrick was instrumental in getting me to love Premodern. He gave me someone interested in playing the format who actually wanted to play games with me. He was hooked when I taught him Premodern Burn... And I guess that translated to Modern Burn, which is now also his Weapon of Choice.

Before working with Patrick and Etai that night, I just kind of assumed playing Modern Burn was obvious and intuitive. Apparently, it's not.

Etai opens with Spirebluff Canal and passes.

Patrick plays an Inspiring Vantage and makes the scripted play of first-turn Goblin Guide.

"Stop."

"Huh?"

"What do you think is going to happen? He just played Spirebluff Canal and passed."

"I don't know. Maybe he Bolts it? I don't know."

"I don't know either. I'm asking you what you think is going to happen. If its me I think he might just draw an extra card and then get value for his mana."

"What should I do?"

"I don't know what you should do. I know that I would float that Rift Bolt."

So, Patrick floated the Rift Bolt. Had he made a different Burn play, he might have given action to a Spell Pierce. He then ran out Eidolon of the Great Revel, which did indeed eat an Unholy Heat meant for the Goblin Guide... But not before dealing two damage to Etai.

Three turns later, the Goblin Guide would finally come out, and it would weasel through six before the game ended.

I played Burn, and Burn mirrors a lot with Patrick for the next two weeks; just trying to understand what he was doing wrong. I assume everyone does the same wrong things that he does, which is why people make their Burn decks so badly despite having so many cards defined, and don't win very much again despite relatively little variation.

My conclusion: Almost everyone plays Burn like they're up against Jund on the play. They try to solo combo everyone. This is a perfectly good way to play... Sometimes. However, it is only one of three ways that Burn can play; and it is uncommon that it is the preferred way.

The Three Gears: Combo, Suppression, and Inevitability

Modern Burn is a deck with three "gears." It is always the same deck, and the cards remain the same. But the order in which you play them, and the targets that you assign to your cards, changes radically from gear to gear.

The most common mistake that people make is that they always default to the first gear. It is in fact the least appropriate gear much of the time! This is especially true now, where the presence of Modern Horizons II has forced Burn to un-tech all the wonderful things we learned from 2018-2019.

Gear 1 - Combo

"Burn is a passable combo deck."

-Michael J. Flores

Gear 1 is Combo. In Next Level Deck-building, Patrick Chapin and I describe "The Lava Spike Deck" as closely related to Storm Combo, and not even a beatdown deck.

Successfully executed, Gear 1 is next to unbeatable. It is characterized by opening hands with a lot of 1-drops and draws with no more than three lands. Triple Goblin Guide hands in the mirror - especially on the play - are Gear 1. They feel inexorable. No single draw on the part of the opponent is likely able to overcome this gear because of its speed and general lack of interactivity. No single spell can undo Gear 1 because all the spells are individual and cheap but do the same thing.

Arguably the best card in Modern is Lightning Bolt.

Burn, when it is functioning at its best, is a deck of all Lightning Bolts. Lava Spikes, Rift Bolts, and Skewer the Critics all - in the final tally - do the same thing for the same amount of mana.

The fetchland / Shock land marriage of Modern mana bases starts so many players at 14 life. This reduces The Philosophy of Fire to a mere five spells when all the spells deal three! The seduction of Gear 1 is that it can often win without drawing even an eighth card.

The problem is that most players play as though they are in Gear 1 almost all the time.

Gear 1 is, on average, a passable combo deck. If you wanted to play a real combo deck, you could do better. Burn isn't attractive for its combo; so why do you play it like it's a combo deck all the time?

Burn draws one card per turn. It cannot control the pace of its draws, or how much land it draws. Even the hyper-redundant design of the average Burn deck can yield some awful awkwardness.

Sloppy implementations of Gear 1 are kind of below average, on average. If you miss a beat, it can be undone by a single hate card. A Leyline of Sanctity out of the sideboard invalidates Gear 1. Both Green and White have Modern Horizons or Modern Horizons II additions that counteract and even trump three or more direct damage spells, each.

Plus, you can't even control when Gear 1 is good!

If your opening hand has a lot of 2 mana spells... Do you just mulligan? It is shocking to me how much people value Boros Charm; and how rarely they sideboard it out. Boros Charm isn't even a good Gear 1 card. At two mana, it's a compromise; and below rate relative to what two mana can do.

Summary:

You don't get to choose when Gear 1 is great. Ergo choosing Gear 1 is analogous to failing on a Who's the Beatdown? assignment. Gear 1 chooses you.

You don't always lose if you try to force Gear 1, because The Philosophy of Fire is a unique tool set available only to the Burn deck in Modern; but countless games are lost due to erroneously trying to force this gear.

It is possible to shift into Gear 1; usually based on how the opponent plays. That is an advantage to this being a gear and not a deck in and of itself. Such a shift is characterized by getting the opponent to a certain life total and then unloading an overwhelming number of direct damage spells at them over one turn cycle, especially when you seemed to have been playing a different strategy for the first several turns.

An example of this might be against an Izzet Murktide opponent who has decided to create a standoff (but with no significant clock) and is sitting back on multiple Counterspells and Spell Pierces. The correct counterplay is to jam as many as nine direct damage spells over a single turn cycle. If you've done anything resembling the work, they will have insufficient resources to withstand such heat. But it is important to note that even in this case, you did not start out in Gear 1.

The best example of failing because you chose Gear 1 erroneously is any Burn player who has ever lost to Death's Shadow. This simply results in the opponent killing you with a large Death's Shadow ahead of schedule and countering your last direct damage spell.

"As soon as I played that first turn Lava Spike," Roman once told me, "I knew he was going to be Death's Shadow."

"So, you got what you deserved."

"I got what I deserved."

Gear 2 - Suppression

"I've never seen anybody play that way before," the onlooker told me. "It's like you were playing Delver."

My second-to-last-round opponent had just won the inaugural, large, Modern Classic the previous week with the then-It Girl Modern deck, Humans.

I disassembled his chain of Human cardboard at Table One, locking Top 8 at that year's Modern Regional Championship with a whopping two ho-hum Goblin Guide swings, around turn fifteen.

"We each draw one card per turn," I explained. "If I trade one-for-one for every one of his cards - with value - one of two things will happen. But his killing me with creatures is not one of those two things."

Gear 2 is Suppression.

The goal of this gear is to prevent the opponent from being able to win the game on their terms.

Often a failed Burn player will be unclear about whether they should direct a spell at the opponent or a creature. Sometimes this is because they chose the wrong gear; and it's sometimes because they built their deck or sideboard wrong. Mulligans can be disproportionately punishing to Burn because it has no way to draw bulk cards. Similarly, splitting direct damage between face and creatures without a plan will often result in either one too many creatures alive to kill you... Or one too many life points on the part of the opponent, meaning they don't die.

Today, Gear 2 is most commonly characterized in sideboard games, where we take out all our clunky Boros Charms for all spells that affect the battlefield. It is weird to me when I see PT Champs siding out cards like Lightning Helix against decks with Dragon's Rage Channeler and Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer but leave in cards like Skullcrack even though the opponent doesn't have life gain.

Pro Tip: Skullcrack is no longer a viable Modern Burn card.

Historically, the best Gear 2 card was Grim Lavamancer, but that is not currently a popular Modern Burn card. Between regular direct damage spells (many of which were Searing this or Searing that) and Grim Lavamancer, it was generally pretty easy to Suppress all of an opponent's creature-based threats, so long as they drew only one card per turn. Then the additional value of the Searings and the possibility of tapping an otherwise unspent Grim would make winning a near mathematical certainty.

A great example of Gear 2 well-executed is against Hammer Time in a sideboarded game. Every spell in your deck is a Searing Blaze, Searing Blood, Smash to Smithereens, or Path to Exile. OF COURSE they can win. Blacksmith's Skill is a thing.

But man is it hard for them to win. You can efficiently kill everything they play. Each time you do so, they tend to take three. Even if they have a giant guy... You can Smash to Smithereens it or Path to Exile it.

Meanwhile they take a little bit at a time, over and over from your Eidolon (who is often never attacking).

Gear 2 is also the strategy of choice against unfair Underworld Breach decks. The exchanges are bad for them over and over; and sometimes you just get their Grinding Station with value.

In Game 1, Suppression works well with Monastery Swiftspear (who can exploit every removed creature with additional damage) or Eidolon of the Great Revel (who punishes the opponent for trying to catch up).

It kind of takes a lot of experience to understand when you should be playing Gear 1 versus Gear 2, especially in the mirror; but hopefully describing them gives you a framework for making that decision in the future. If you've read Next Level Deck-building, you can think of Gear 1 as Storm Combo and Gear 2 as Red Aggro to borrow Chapin's terminology. While they are close on the metagame clock, they are not identical and shifting between gears can be costly. Because Burn has such limited resources, it can be disproportionately punished for such mis-assignments. Every time you lose by one burn spell... That's probably what happened.

Gear 3 - Inevitability

"Let the club head do the work."

-every club pro and golf instructor, ever

Gear 3 is Inevitability. I am borrowing and reappropriating Zvi Mowshowitz's extension to Who's the Beatdown? because I think it is apt here.

When playing for Gear 3 your mantra is to land your spells. In 2000 Brian Kowal taught me that the greatest skill a Magic player can have is to resolve his direct damage against a Blue mage. There are multiple chapters of The Official Miser's Guide dedicated to how you might do that, even when the opponent has a fist full of permission.

One of my favorite recent memories was floating a Rift Bolt into two open lands on the part of my friend Shaheen Soorani. He can't resist!

He couldn't resist.

Shaheen slammed down Teferi, Time Raveler.

"Looks like you got my Rift Bolt," I said. Then I proceeded to 9 or maybe 12 him, tapped out.

Games characterized by Gear 3: Inevitability are just that: Inevitable.

Some players seem to think the games get worse for Burn the longer they go. Not inevitable games.

In these games it can feel like you are both the beatdown and the control; that your opponent has no role. The longer the games go, the more likely the opponent is to fold. Every time they tap their mana - even when they get the outcome they were looking for - they are punished. Gear 3 games seem to rush to Stage 3. The opponent is often - and often quickly - in a position where only a small subsection of their cards have any text, and they are on the verge of losing with no clear path on what to do. From the outside, Gear 3 victories can look like you won by a desperate topdeck... When you won by a desperate topdeck after tapping the opponent out with appropriate bait. The outcome was never actually in question.

What does a Gear 3 game look like?

Almost every well-played game against Death's Shadow or Izzet Murktide is Gear 3. The opponent successfully resolving Spell Pierce usually means they will take 9+ the following turn. They often take 2 or even 5 just for the Spell Pierce. You walked them into it. I would recommend not getting hit by Ragavan, because he might flip over Lightning Helix; but you win an overwhelming number of games that you play for Gear 3. On the other hand, when you play Gear 1, the Spell Pierce might have ended the game!

Games with multiple copies of Eidolon of the Great Revel tend to be Gear 3, regardless of matchup. Or where you play the second Eidolon with a life advantage. Now the opponent doesn't know what to do! Double Eidolon games put so much pressure on the opponent they can often do nothing. Even removing an Eidolon just brings them many steps closer to doom.

Your goal in Gear 3, again, is to land your spells. If your spells resolve, you will win. Sometimes that means trading one spell for three. Sometimes that means making what looks like a poor exchange in order to buy the time you need to land your spells later. Sacrificing one spell to Teferi or Spell Pierce in order to land the next three spells is a great showcase of Gear 3 skill.

One of the reasons that I switched back to playing Kor Firewalker is that it allows you to legitimately plan for Gear 3 in the mirror. Gear 1 is actually preferred for the mirror, but you can't always choose Gear 1. Gear 2 can be great, but it's unreliable. Who hasn't lost with a fist full of cards... that are all Searings with no targets? If Burn gets even more popular, I would advocate for even more Kor Firewalkers.

IMPORTANT: Avoiding the False Inevitability

I was eliminated at the recent SCGCon in New Jersey by longtime Grand Prix great - and now actual big stage standout - Jim Davis. Jim played a first turn Tome Scour, and I knew I was in trouble.

The Three Gears make Burn sound like it should win every match ever... But there is a catch. Burn is only a passable combo deck, remember. Gear 1 is fundamentally weaker than the combos of any other actual combo deck, and Burn is actively awful in any matchup where it cannot find any gear at all.

Dredge is a great example of a matchup where Burn is not only at a disadvantage, but a desperate one. For essentially no resources, cards like Creeping Chill undo all our good work. We have to pay rw for that effect! They don't even have to draw the card. Countless free Narcomoebas or 3-power creatures jump out of the graveyard to defend - or depending on life total - attack.

Fair Breach is another example of a deck where Burn struggles to find a gear. I have had a lot of success playing the Suppression game plan against unfair Breach, but the fair cousin? Just playing every Ragavan and Dragon's Rage Channeler I had already killed out of the graveyard for r? Seemingly limitless access to Lightning Bolts on demand? You not only have to try for a non-interactive Gear 1 game there, but as we've said... Gear 1 has to choose you. Attempting a Gear 1 game against fair Breach usually relies on creature damage as a supplement, and their ability to replay Lightning Bolt over and over makes that extremely difficult.

I swung with a first turn Goblin Guide and revealed Path to Exile in Game 2. Jim broke Arid Mesa and got Sacred Foundry, tapped. I sent double Guides and was itching for him to Path me. I was playing for Gear 2 and had a slew of Searings for his freebie creatures. Sadly, I was stuck on one, and would remain there through all four Creeping Chills.

Jim wisely held the Path to Exile. He was saving it for a potential Sanctifier en-Vec. He didn't know that I needed his Path to Exile to play my Searings; but he could see, that at a minimum, I wasn't casting a 2/2 for two.

Sanctifier en-Vec is ultimately garbage; the epitome of the false inevitability. The opponent almost has to try to lose to it. Are they really not going to have an answer for a random 2/2 creature?

How foolish does your Hammer Time opponent have to be to get caught by a Deflecting Palm at this point? And you're leaving up your mana for how long to get there? In the past, when instants like Atarka's Command and answers like Destructive Revelry were more common, leaving up two mana for Deflecting Palm made more sense. But today, your mana is either committed main phase to a Skewer the Critics or you just lose the opportunity to cast it. In tight races, you can't afford to play that way.

The kinds of cards I dislike - which would include all of Sanctifier en-Vec, Skullcrack, and Deflecting Palm - smack of the false inevitability. Whenever I talk to Roman about Deflecting Palm, he just wants to talk about the time he resolved it against an incoming Griselbrand to win the Modern Championships. On camera! But the opponent has to cooperate for things to come out like this. The number of Hammer Time opponents who all tell me they were playing around the Deflecting Palm leads me to believe few opponents will really cooperate in our favor.

Anyone can win the games on the play with three Goblin Guides and two Lightning Bolts. The "gotcha" moments sure can be exciting! But they tend to require the opponent to err. The ultimate point of the gear model is this: We win without (or at least with less) draw dependency. We don't need our opponents to give us our opens: We define and then make them ourselves.

Afterward: Destiny of the Digital Recorder

Jack Stanton, a legitimate Magic: the Gathering journalist whose work I had been reading since before the first Pro Tour made his first Top 8 after a decade-plus in Charleston 2006. He perceived Jon to be washed after so much time off, and it was hard to argue with Jack, who was riding so high himself that weekend.

There would ultimately be no point to argument.

Newly equipped with The Fire, Jon won Pro Tour Kuala Lampur the following year, along the way to six more Pro Tour Top 8s. Magic statistician Paul Jordan would declare the post-2006 Jon Finkel 2.0 "a borderline Hall of Fame candidate" in his own right.

Finkel Draft, which had started as testing for Ravnica Block Constructed, became the unassailable center of Magic excellence, returning Jamie Parke to Top 8 form and launching the career of future PT Champion Tom Martell before homogenizing with outside geographies to form The Pantheon and its inheritor teams.

To this day, no one has uncovered let alone written down Jonny's Intuition, though we did get two good sound bytes for the podcast.

LOVE

MIKE

AFTERWARD (not found in the audio version!)

"... Mike, how stupid do you have to be to play The Rock?"

You might have noticed that I cared a lot about this piece. I actually wrote the first draft more than a week early, which is unusual for me (sorry editors!)... And workshopped it with a lot of my friends.

One of them is Lanny Huang, local Premodern champion, MTGO ringer, and frequent play-test partner. Lanny was really inspired by Finding the Three Gears and wrote a companion piece, which I will link below. There is no way to describe Lanny's effort other than it's the best first Magic article written by anyone since Patrick Chapin. It's fantastic, and I'm not just saying that because I'm heavily featured. And roasted.

Do check it out. You'll be impressed.

Iron Man vs. The Hulk by Lanny Huang

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