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Modern Burn Deck Update and Sideboard Guide

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At the time of this writing (9/2/2019) I'm five (with Flores) days out of the Modern MCQ here in New York, New York. To the surprise of no one, this will be my weapon of choice:

I noted "19 lands" because at this point I'm a little up in the air about whether I want to play any Horizon Canopy-type lands at all. I would not play more than three. This build has numerous natural deck-building advantages around its extraordinarily low mana costs, which allows it to play one fewer land than the more common Red/White Burn deck (1.17 average effective CMC versus 1.4). I do recognize the utility of the Canopy-lands in the abstract, but according to my pal the Internet, the most common matchup in the Modern format is actually the mirror (or quasi-mirror), where the presence of Sunbaked Canyon is likely to get you killed well before it can perform any late game heroics.

Still... Not sure I don't want to play any. We'll leave that up in the air for a few days and talk about what I wanted to focus on today: The sideboard.

When I wrote What Everybody Gets Wrong About Modern Burn, one of the big pulls for me to go Black/Red over Red/White was the ability to play hand disruption like Thoughtseize. But the more I thought about it over the last week, the more I disliked the idea of rolling so many dice on Thoughtseize.

What am I? Some kind of less optimized Jund or Mardu midrange deck after sideboarding? I recall an interaction with a first-time Pro back at Mark Herberholz's Honolulu. He had played a Red Deck I posted earlier in the week and was overjoyed to make Day Two. But faltered badly on that second day.

"Oh spit," I was incredulous, looking at his sideboard. "What are these?"

Pithing Needle
Pithing Needle

"How many of these did you draw in the two matches you didn't win, and how much damage would you have done if you had drawn anything else?"

The Modern Burn deck only looks like an Aggro deck. It's really a Storm Combo deck in the parlance of Next Level Deck-building. It builds on advantages but, despite some overwhelmingly simple matchups, has remarkably little margin to play with.

Thoughtseize, like Pithing Needle fifteen years ago, doesn't do any damage. I might draw it... I might be overjoyed to draw it in matchups where I sided it in... And lose with the opponent on two or three.

What could I do to find a new or better - or at least more damaging - Thoughtseize?

Lightning Skelemental

This card is really powerful! It has a lot going for it, but only as a sideboard card, I think. Lightning Skelemental is highly punishing specifically right now for a couple of reasons. It's great with and against the London Mulligan. Specifically if the opponent is hunting for a card like Leyline of Sanctity, Lightning Skelemental can get all its money, even if we are locked down. Other Red Decks have shifted towards sorceries. It's not like they're anti-instant or something, but the number of flexible instants they play is rather narrow, or easily angled.

What do I mean by easily angled?

Playing for the RPTQ slot a couple of years ago, my Goblin Guide once revealed a Skullcrack. "Okay," I said to myself. "He for some reason has Skullcrack in his deck even though this is Game 2." So all I did was attack with my trusty Goblin Guide. At some point he needed to burn his open mana and cast the Skullcrack. I responded with Lightning Helix to the face. This undid his Skullcrack and stole his mana at the same time!

The opponent might have a lot of Searing stuff, but unless they're playing very reactively, they don't usually have rr open on your turn around turn three. You can and will not only land Lightning Skelemental, you'll trample over Kor Firewalker with it!

Most importantly, the most attractive matchups for Lightning Skelemental tend to play Path to Exile after sideboarding. This informs our play pattern: Fetch aggressively for Blood Crypt; because we simply need basic Mountain in our deck to set up the Skelemental!

When you find a piece of tech this saucy, it can be exciting to overdo it. Believe me; I want to play four Lightning Skelemental. But versus our sideboard from last January...

... We have some new needs.

Artifacts are a double-duty big deal in a way they weren't one human fetal gestation period ago. Stoneforge Mystic is not only going to be a thing... It's going to be a big thing. Urza, Lord High Artificer isn't just going to be a thing... It's going to be one of the two best decks according to a certain Hall of Famer I collaborate with frequently... And let's not forget Karn, the Great Creator into Mycosynth Lattice. Prior to Modern Horizons, that two-card combination was the dynamic duo of many a Modern deck. The answer seemed pretty clear to this Top 10 deck-builder of all time...

Smash to Smithereens

I want my sideboard to be largely - if not entirely - on-brand for this one.

Burn is a methodical, even meditative, strategy... But the more we can take it out of human error and put it into the cards, the more mental energy we can save up for the end of the tournament, when it really counts.

I had a good idea of what I wanted to sideboard, but not necessarily the right numbers. For this one, I decided to chop up the ten or so most popular decks and figure out what I wanted out in order to make room for what I wanted to bring in. Here is my process:

Burn

Burn doesn't actually require-require you to take out anything. I think that I'm a slight favorite on the draw and a huge favorite on the play in the quasi-mirror, for reasons detailed elsewhere. The ability to play multiple cards per turn is more potent than rw's differences that potentially make a difference specifically heads-up. This is especially true now that many have cut Lightning Helix to two copies and are playing as many as six Canopy-lands.

That said, you might want to side out as many as 12 cards.

Bump in the Night and Lava Spike are both "fine" (especially when compared with Skullcrack or Boros Charm); but one way you can lose is to fall behind on the battlefield; and they don't affect the battlefield. Eidolon of the Great Revel is surprisingly good in the mirror. It's not the best, and it's kind of bad if they have Kor Firewalker, but it's great if you can set it up.

That said: 0 required, and up to 12 cards can happily jump.

Urza

Again, this is a matchup where you need-need to cut only zero cards. I think Burn has a slight edge in Game 1; especially going first. The biggest problems are falling behind (because you're probably just not going to catch back up) and the 4 toughness on Urza himself. Everything else is kind of negotiable, and let's be honest... You're the one with the third-turn kill here.

Again, I'd go with the Lava Spike twins as potential outs (0 to 8 cards). Unlike against Burn, approximately 34 of Urza's main deck spells trigger Eidolon, and you don't care much about the collateral damage. One of the big reasons I favor Black over White is the Urza matchup. Tocatli Honor Guard was super cute... Until every Urza player reading this realized what it did. You're just not scaring them off with a 1/3 if they're prepared; and the 2 mana you left open can easily have been a Smash to Smithereens.

Jund

If this sounds like a broken record, Jund is the third super popular deck where you have no bad cards... But the main difference is that this is an overwhelmingly good matchup. I've experimented with minimal sideboarding (leaving in all the Bump and Spike type stuff); but I tend to have better results bringing in the advantage-bearing cards. Grim Lavamancer is a not-terrible under-performer only because of the popularity of Wrenn and Six. You can cut as many as 10 cards if you're going to focus on the battlefield; I'd be pretty loose about this, depending on play versus draw, and based on what I thought my opponent was likely to do. I almost can't imagine a better situation than them tapping out for Wrenn and Six (or Tarmogoyf, even) and getting brained by Lightning Skelemental! Somewhere between 0 and 10 cards...

Eldrazi Tron

The big problem with the various aggro-Eldrazi decks is that your cards aren't that bad; their strategy is just much better. I split my matches with this the last couple of times I've played against it; and honestly, I got super lucky to bait my opponent into using all his mana so I could Smash to Smithereens him to death with his game-taking-over Endbringer on the stack. Often you're just going to get drowned in card advantage.

Eldrazi Tron is one of the few matchups where White is clearly better than Black. Chained to the Rocks can take out a Reality Smasher with no liabilities other than getting brained for five; whereas Fatal Push can't take out anything. You have about six cards that out-and-out suck. Grim Lavamancer kills almost nothing, and Eidolon of the Great Revel is likely to do more to you than to them. This doesn't always matter, but it kind of does against a deck with Reality Smasher. ~6

Tron

This matchup is super weird. I basically never lose when it doesn't matter; often lose when it does. Clearly the worst card is Searing Blaze, with Grim Lavamancer close behind. You can side out sundry other stuff, but most of it is pretty good. We're going to be a little shorthanded with the move away from Collective Brutality (spoilers!) and especially Thoughtseize. We get a little back from Smash to Smithereens. 3-5 cards; but can do some tuning upgrades...

Azorius Control

This matchup fluctuates from "super easy" to "impossible" depending on how many Timely Reinforcements they play and / or draw. In fact, it's impossible to even talk about what cards you might want in isolation of their actual build; but I'll point out that this is a Path to Exile deck that is very happy to tap out for a Supreme Verdict or Wrath of God.

Humans

Humans is an easy matchup that revolves around how many Grim Lavamancers you draw. It's weird in that so many of your cards ABSOLUTELY STINK... But they can't beat your twenty-fifth percentile draw as long as it included a Lavamancer. I'd say twelve cards, but no way you can actually get that many back.

Death's Shadow

Everything in your deck is great. Matchup is great. If anything goes it's probably Searing Blaze, simply because it costs two instead of one. Searing Blaze is occasionally better than Fatal Push (e.g. against Gurmag Angler), but not enough to really worry about.

Infect

Infect is lose-able if and only if they race you. If you don't out-and-out die to a fast super pump, they can basically never win. The weakest cards are therefore Bump in the Night and Lava Spike (which don't affect the battlefield). Unlike against Humans, Eidolon of the Great Revel is ABSOLUTELY BONKERS in this matchup, because it's essentially one-sided.

Affinity Variants

Twelve cards, under the same theory as Humans.

Given this schema:

Burn - 12

Urza - 8

Jund - 10

Eldrazi Tron - 6

Tron - 5

Azorius Control - ?

Humans - 12

Death's Shadow - 3

Infect - 8

Affinity Variants - 12

... I am settling on this sideboard:

Burn - 12

You may want to keep Eidolon in going first; Lightning Skelemental is very tactical! Just remember that you can, for instance, Collective Brutality their Kor Firewalker, escalate to see their hand, take their instant speed removal, and cash in the next turn. Boom! Head shot!

Playing 4 Collective Brutality and only 2 Searing Blood was the brainchild of Roman Fusco. Roman - correctly, I think - pointed out that in the mirror, the opponent is apt to make our Collective Brutality escalate free with Goblin Guide; and that top Boros players can have as many as 4 Kor Firewalker PLUS multiple Deflecting Palms. That's flat-out bad against our sideboard as described, above; and the popularity of Burn variants this week probably justifies the stretch away from beloved Searing Blood.

Urza - 8

  • Out 4 Bump in the Night
  • Out 4 Lava Spike
  • In 3 Fatal Push
  • In 2 Searing Blood
  • In 3 Smash to Smithereens
  • Fatal Push is not an upgrade to anything; but its cost and flexibility - specifically against Urza himself - is worth the swap, I think.

    Jund - 10

  • Out 4 Bump in the Night
  • Out 4 Lava Spike
  • In 3 Fatal Push
  • In 3 Lightning Skelemental
  • In 2 Searing Blood
  • The Level One swap probably includes Grim Lavamancer. But I'd point out two things:

    1. Wrenn and Six is actually pretty bad in this matchup. I can see opponents siding it out in favor of Collective Brutality and Weather the Storm (the presence of Weather the Storm, by the way, is a good reason to cut Bumps and Spikes).
    2. You actually want the opponent to use early removal - ESPECIALLY Assassin's Trophy - on anything in the first couple of turns in order to help clear a path for Lightning Skelemental. Specifically Wrenn and Six against specifically Grim Lavamancer kind of stinks, but I don't see Jund winning many games where they tap out get hit by a Skelemental.

    Nevertheless, the specifics are pretty build-dependent. I'd always make sure I sided in all my Fatal Pushes no matter what because I'm not particularly interested in losing to Tarmogoyf or Kalitas at this point in my life.

    Eldrazi Tron - 6

    You can play around with Searing Blaze versus Searing Blood, also. This is a matchup where the third damage on Searing Blaze might not matter very much (e.g. versus Matter Reshaper or an Ugin token). I think you need to play very aggressively here especially since you're cutting half your creatures, though; so maybe minimize the number of Bump-for-Blaze kind of swaps that are now dancing in your imagination.

    Tron - 5

    Lightning Skelemental is VERY likely to hit if you cast it on turn three in this matchup. As such you don't want your flex cut to be Light Up the Stage (though I certainly thought about it). Any of Rift Bolt, Eidolon of the Great Revel, Skewer the Critics, Lava Spike, or Bump in the Night is probably fine. Or don't do it at all and side in only two Smashes. Or only two Skelementals. Up to you. While I think Thoughtseize would have been great in this matchup, Collective Brutality has relatively few juicy targets now; and none I'd want to use my second turn on.

    Azorius Control - ?

    Default I'd side out some Lavamancers and Searing Blazes for Collective Brutalities and Lightning Skelementals. But that is very much in the dark. You wouldn't do that against Stoneblade, for instance. The cards that matter are basically Timely Reinforcements and Batterskull. If they're on Leyline of Sanctity you're in a lot of trouble that you can't actually interact with; so cross your fingers and hope Lightning Skelemental resolves.

    Humans - 12

    I actually don't doubt that you can hit a Humans player with your Lightning Skelemental; I'm more doubting how many cards he's going to have when you do. Lava Spike gets the nod over the generally stronger Bump in the Night here because we're bringing in so many Black spells. I used to side in Kataki, War's Wage when I was rw because it kind of "countered" their Aether Vial while presenting a body to attack / make up for the missing Eidolons with; but Smash to Smithereens is just worse than a Lava Spike most of the time. Collective Brutality is kind of bad, but it trades straight up with most of the Humans deck's creatures, and can jump-start a Grim Lavamancer or Light Up the Stage in a pinch.

    Death's Shadow - 3

    Try not to get hit by a Death's Shadow.

    Infect - 8

    Smash to Smithereens is great against both Spellskite and 1/3 of the Infect deck's actual offense. There is certainly an argument to be made for Collective Brutality, but the presence of Blue cards in Infect makes escalating it dangerous.

    Affinity Variants - 12

    Collective Brutality isn't great, but it can, you know, kill a Steel Overseer or something. In a universe where your whole plan is to go one-for-one while setting up Grim Lavamancer, any one-for-one is valid.

    Wish me luck?

    LOVE

    MIKE

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