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What Everybody Gets Wrong About Modern Burn

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“This is a match between me and your mana base,” the opponent begins. “Basically, if you draw exactly three lands I probably lose. I’d like you to draw… say… any other number.”

Most folks think that Modern Burn wants to draw three lands. I mean, they want to hit three on three most of the time… But then they want to stop. At least that’s what they say-slash-think.

The reality is a little more complicated than that.

That Time I Beat Affinity

It’s not that I never beat Affinity with Modern Burn. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I lost the matchup in a tournament. However, again to the best of my memory, I think I’ve only ever won one Game 1, ever. One.

The match win effectiveness comes from essentially transforming; after sideboards, the Burn deck as I’ve been playing it for the last couple of years becomes a creature-prison. The Affinity deck only draws one card per turn. Its average card is a small creature; inoffensive on its lonesome but probably an awesome team player.

On balance, the Modern Red Deck, at least in sideboarded games, is ideally nothing but Chained to the Rocks, Path to Exile, Searing Blaze, Searing Blood, and other cards that can destroy creatures. If you’re really rich, you have Smash to Smithereens; Kataki, War's Wage; or even Shattering Spree. I haven’t been playing like this for a while, but the answers are somewhat fungible against basically anything that’s not a Hangarback Walker.

What happens is this: They draw a card. It’s a land or a small dude. You draw a card; it’s usually a card that can kill a small dude. Either it does so in an advantageous manner (Chained to the Rocks only costs one) or deals three to them. Gone are all your Boros Charms and Skullcracks and even poor Eidolon of the Great Revel. All your Searing Effects (and maybe Smash to Smithereens) get the opponent low even as you one-for-one all his topdecks.

What you do have is a Grim Lavamancer; maybe even three. This one 1/1 is the paradigm shifter around which the entire matchup revolves. They draw one card; you draw one card. But if one of your cards at any point is Grim Lavamancer - an assassin of Inkmoth Nexus - you break the one-card-per-turn parity in a material way. As long as you have fuel for the Lavamancer, you will likely end up ahead on all these one-for-one exchanges.

Okay, so sideboarded games are great! What was so surprising about that one Game 1 I won that one time?

One of the reasons Game 2 and Game 3 are so good is that you load your sideboard with all this interaction. Partially because the cards are also good against Humans. But mostly because Game 1 is pretty bad generally.

My opponent had a fierce draw of Arcbound Ravager and Cranial Plating. He had gotten the material jump in the first turn or two; his hand was all over the table. I won because I tapped all my mana one-two-three-three; played every card I drew… And only paid 1 mana for any of them.

I was about to side out my Lava Spikes, but my win was actually predicated on being able to play all one casting cost spells, including two Spikes on the last turn.

So yeah, it was great drawing exactly three lands… But… Hold on a second.

That Time I Lost to Infect

I last lost a Modern [Burn] match to Infect on August 6, 2016. I remember because I lost, missed Top 8 in a PPTQ; and then won one the next day.

Losing was weird. I had drawn all the cards I liked in the matchup… Mostly Searing stuff, Lightning Helixes, and maybe even a Deflecting Palm back when that was something that got my blood pumping.

I lost a game against a creature deck that is generally much easier to beat than Affinity… Drawing the cards I wanted; and again, drawing exactly three lands.

So here’s the thing most people get wrong about Modern Burn: It’s not that the cards are “cheap”. Sure; they’re all one and two casting cost. Some of them cost literally twice what some of the others cost. It’s not just that you want to stop on 3 mana.

Because if you have exactly 3 mana, but you draw a lot of these nasty two casting cost spells, you’re just in a position where you’re playing one spell a turn. There is little difference between this and drawing two lands! But if you draw four lands (which would let you do two things a turn) you quickly look flooded + your one mana spells all of a sudden start looking terrible.

I’m less willing to admit that Red is a “pet deck” for me in Modern and more inclined to just say that I win more / better with it than any other option. But one thing I’ve been focused on is constant iteration. When I won my first PPTQ, people were still playing Wild Nacatl.

Obviously no one plays Wild Nacatl any more. You will see very few Atarka's Commands these days. But hey! I never get it when I see a Stomping Ground at all.

This past weekend my paradigm was informed by 1) winning that one time against Affinity; and 2) losing that one time against Infect:

Play.

One.

Casting.

Cost.

Spells.

Essentially, I traded Lightning Helix for Bump in the Night, and made room for the awesome new Spectacle cards by cutting other two mana spells like Boros Charm and Skullcrack.

Without getting into all the ins and outs, this is what I ended up playing in the Saturday PTQ at Grand Prix New Jersey:


I didn’t even play in the main event. I came Friday to get new cards; played in a Modern event; and came back Saturday just for the 3pm PTQ. In truth I’m pretty solid at Modern, but a Limited event with no practice whatsoever just seemed like a good way to incinerate $80 while distracting me from playing Modern (where I would have a much better chance of qualifying in the one-invite event than the eight-invite one).

This build improves on two things relative to the rw build. One is getting much, much cheaper. The average effective casting cost of the Rakdos build is 1.17 versus 1.45. We further get paid off by cutting a land and cramming in an additional spell! The other is more matchup-dependent.

Black is a lot better against the decks that rw historically struggled against. Instead of just losing to a Timely Reinforcements on the spot, you can either Thoughtseize or Collective Brutality it. This makes br much stronger against combo decks also. Previously Burn had to just race combo. Now you can take a key piece and win a turn later; it’s no big deal… You’re now much faster than they are.

It’s not ALL sunshine and roses, though. Arclight Phoenix is the most popular strategy in the format; br is much worse than rw against that deck. Fatal Push is not Chained to the Rocks. You can Chained to the Rocks any of the key threats… But a Fatal Push is much less effective against, say, Arclight Phoenix itself; and can be dicey against Crackling Drake. The card is relevant, but it’s functionally much, much worse.

Further, Kor Firewalker is an awesome card against Phoenix. If they don’t flip a Thing in the Ice, they probably can’t race even one Firewalker. They will have a hard time removing it permanently, and it races exceptionally well. Drawing three Lightning Helixes against Phoenix usually means you just win the game; the br version doesn’t even have Lightning Helix any more.

I think I’d rather be on the br side than the ur side of the table… But a fully prepared rw with Kor Firewalker - which we certainly have room for again, with KCI out of the picture - is a heavier favorite.

To wit: Black loses multiple key cards for the popular Phoenix matchup.

“I guess I’ll start off on seventeen,” the Boros mage begins, deploying his Goblin Guide. Heroes draw a card.

“Got the Kor Firewalker?” we inquire. He pairs his Guide with another 2/2.

“You’re not going to like this, then. Collective Brutality, escalating twice. Oh, and might as well Light Up The Stage.”

My buddy - and Burn brother - Roman Fusco convinced me on Collective Brutality Friday. I was rewarded with two wins over Boros Burn over two tournaments!

Just How Good is Light Up the Stage?

It depends. Are you awful? It’s awful. [This is foreshadowing.]

Are you good? It’s a lot like Treasure Cruise!

Yes, it’s two cards rather than three; yes, we have less flexibility than the classic ‘Cruise. But! It’s the only Treasure Cruise we have. The original was banned in multiple formats, remember.

So You Won the PTQ, Right?

That Time I Lost to Death’s Shadow

The new PTQ format requires you to go undefeated. In my case that would have been 5-0; then I would qualify for a Top 8 the next morning. I went 4-1. Had I physically played a Spectacle card prior to Friday night? Yadda yadda yadda.

Here’s what happened.

At 3-0, opponent unknown, I kept this hand:

Bloodstained Mire
Eidolon of the Great Revel

Eidolon of the Great Revel
Lightning Bolt
Rift Bolt

Skewer the Critics
Light Up the Stage

Take a long look at that hand. What is the plan of this hand? Why might you keep or not? Among other things I was going second, but I would have eagerly kept going first also.

My opponent went first. His play was reckless in my opinion, and he also made a terrible mistake. If he didn’t make his mistake first, I couldn’t even have made mine!

With no cards seen he tossed a Street Wraith to open, cracked a fetch for 3 life, and cast Thoughtseize.

Given my hand… What should he have taken?

Think about it a second.

The clear correct card to take in this hand is Rift Bolt. It’s not even close. The next best card is Light Up the Stage. He took Lightning Bolt.

The hand I kept is straight fire like Chandra Nalaar herself, Rebecca Quin1, if I draw a second land naturally. It’s not unbeatable, but outside of Humans and Affinity, this is a murderer’s hand. The “bad” line is to just float Rift Bolt, turn on Light Up the Stage turn two, and hopefully draw into lands. That’s why taking Rift Bolt or Light Up the Stage is proper!

Anyway I float a Rift Bolt.

He plays a Death's Shadow.

I confirm with him that his Death's Shadow is 1/1. I mean I haven’t taken my second turn yet and my opponent is at 12. He has a tapped Watery Grave but an untapped Blood Crypt. The jig is pretty much up on this play. 1/1, right?

I feel obligated to shoot the Death's Shadow. I have never lost a tournament match to Death's Shadow with Burn before this match. Never. The only way you lose is by giving the opponent free Giant Growths early. You can’t let them eke into the middle turns with any advantage. As long as I have some time to draw a land or so, this hand is good enough to dig me out. I shoot the Death's Shadow, even though I’m conceding my opening hand’s scripted line.

He responds by Lightning Bolting himself!

I don’t draw a land, look at my still-untapped Mountain, and pass.

Oh no.

Yes!

Oh. No.

There is no excuse. I’ve skewered my friends for lesser errors. When my opponent Lightning Bolted himself, HE TURNED ON MY SPECTACLES. But the mental shortcut for me at that point was to turn on Spectacle myself, with Monastery Swiftspear or burn damage, and then start flipping cards for r. I could have gambled. I probably would have gambled. Had I flipped over a land, I could have Skewered the Death's Shadow to death anyway. At the very least, I could have just Skewered the Shadow instead of passing into a spot where it was 4/4, and bigger than anything my land-poor hand could immediately handle. He won two turns later, on 6.

That is the story of my first loss, lifetime, to Death's Shadow. I talked a bit earlier about how the br deck is worse against Arclight Phoenix; it’s also much worse against Shadow. Don’t get me wrong: I’d still rather be on the Burn side than the Shadow side. But it’s definitely worse, and for the same reasons. Chained to the Rocks and Path to Exile interact very nicely with Gurmag Angler; but Fatal Push can only kill Death's Shadow. Killing Death's Shadow cheaply isn’t even the end, depending on what they have.

Claim // Fame

You are still enthusiastic to side Fatal Push in and stuff… But the other big guys are much harder to handle than they were in the rw days.

On the bright side, I didn’t have to get up and go back to the site on Sunday morning. On the non-bright side… I wanted to at least participate in the success of a deck that I think will soon take over Modern. The combination of the fully realized paradigm (everything costs one) and the addition of a legit Treasure Cruise to Mono-Red is going to convert many a mage.

In case you were wondering here’s how the rest of my matches went:

  1. Infect - Lost the first; killed all the creatures in two and three. Unchecked Grim Lavamancer mostly just did his job.
  2. rw Burn - Won Game 1 on the draw; traded sideboard games. Almost came back from 20+ (Kor Firewalker) to one thanks to Collective Brutality… But not quite. Took some careful Collective Brutality for #3.
  3. Jund - Beat three Scavenging Ooze and a Kalitas Game 1! Man does our deck look bad in the games it’s not winning. In Game 2 he had a Bloodbraid Elf and a 4/4 Scavenging Ooze to my two lands; I only had one card and it was a Lava Spike. #3 was ho hum Swiftspears in the Red Zone tempo, etc.
  4. Death's Shadow - Mistake on the Spectacle (above), which cost me the match.
  5. Death's Shadow - A return to normalcy, but too late.

I’ve tested Light Up the Stage in Standard already. It’s fine. It’s more than fine; but it’s not an unbelievable marriage of speed and power the way it is in Modern. Over two tournaments and eight rounds at GPNJ I stranded one total card with Light Up the Stage; it was an Eidolon of the Great Revel. I was kind of obligated to hard cast the other card (Rift Bolt) which ate up all my mana. In Standard, where you have much more varied casting costs, you will be much more likely to strand cards. I mean, still play this awesome card… You’re just more likely to strand one when your deck always has 3+ Casting Cost cards.

I hope you found this Modern update useful. The deck was great; just wish I were, too.

LOVE

MIKE


1 Whom you may know by her stage ring name, The Man.