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The Chained to the Rocks Dilemma



The Most Powerful Card in Modern

"In the beginning... There was Wild Nacatl"


Chained to the Rocks

-The Chained to the Rocks Dilemma


Lightning Bolt
In Modern, the term "Burn" is a blanket label for a fairly unlike set of individual decks.

What, if anything, groups them together?

Is it Lightning Bolt?

Many decks play Lightning Bolt; decks as disparate as Gifts Storm (a Blue cantrip-driven combo deck) to Naya Zoo (a wg midrange creature deck). While Lightning Bolt is surely the best of the "burn" cards, it is so ubiquitous in red decks1 that it cannot be the centerpiece unifier.

The question is somewhat rhetorical.

"Burn" is, perhaps, like pornography... Difficult to define in specific; but you know it when you see it.

Or do you?

I was once testing a Red control deck with lots and lots of creature removal (remember that many "burn" spells can target both creatures and players), and had a hard time convincing my play-test partner - upon the third or fourth crispy end to a game - that I was playing a defensive deck.

The appellation of "Burn" in Modern really is more prickly than you might have thought coming in. I think we can all get behind the idea that Naya Lava Spike decks and Boros Lava Spike decks are of the same family. But what about Mardu Burn decks? Does adding Bump in the Night make a deck more-burn? Differently-burn? Let's say we say more burn, even way more. What about sideboarding a ton of one-mana discard spells and subbing in Dark Confidant at the two?



Remember what I said before?


To my mind the mental shortcut of the "Burn" label refers to a family of decks that Patrick Chapin calls "The Lava Spike Deck" in Next Level Deck-building; decks whose primary objective is to translate cards directly into life total.

Is "Burn" a beatdown deck?

Chapin's model would argue that The Lava Spike Deck is closer to Storm Combo than it is to StOmPy. This might be a mental leap for you if you haven't put a lot of thought into what "Burn" is.

But we still haven't determined the key differentiator that sets off the pornography of "Burn" as an archetype in our imaginations. If it's not Lightning Bolt, what is it? Lava Spike? I myself once cut Lava Spike for Forked Bolt (undoing the sacred superpower) because I anticipated a lot of Elves decks in a particular Grand Prix.

So what is it?

I would argue there is a pivot so fundamental almost every beloved reader would nod their head at its inclusion... Despite its being cut from arguably the most successful "Burn" deck of the year.

The Most Powerful Card in Modern

Eidolon of the Great Revel
Eidolon of the Great Revel is the most powerful card in Modern.

No single card twists and turns so many matchups into such grotesque pretzels of interaction.

Try playing Storm against an Eidolon on turn two. Whether you can beat it is kind of beside the point. You can only get out from under it in a very precise manner, and until you do, you kind of can't do anything else. In doing so you need to have a particular resource, and that resource is potentially important for you to win the game at all. Plus... If you invest say six life in getting rid of the Eidolon on your own turn, you're probably not going to get your next untap anyway.

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face."

--Mike Tyson

Or consider the thoughtful Death's Shadow player. I've said before I don't really understand the Death's Shadow side confidence in the "Burn" matchup. They all seem so g-d sure of themselves.

"Well I'm just going to slow play you by putting my lands into play tapped."


"Oh, I'll just search up my basics. I can really only lose if I draw only shocklands."


"LOL. Burn sucks."

My argument is that yes, you are going to lose if you just give the opponent a bunch of free Giant Growths, but that Death's Shadow doesn't do anything unless you are very low on life. What if I just hold my cards and kill you from 7 instead of 20?

Shrine of Burning Rage
Most of the strategic procedures the Death's Shadow mages counter-argue involve using a bunch of time and cantrips to either sculpt a position where they can set up a big Delve instead of a Death's Shadow to get a bigger position on the board than I can handle, and then kill me with that instead of damaging themselves.

The problem is that that simply doesn't work against Eidolon of the Great Revel. This is Storm all over again. I don't have to do anything; or at least very much. You're doing all the work for me. I'm not even tapping mana! If you think I can't do 7 you really, really, must think LOL Burn sucks.

Eidolon of the Great Revel is the most powerful card in Modern because it provides the most card advantage for the least amount of mana. What is the expected damage output of the average Eidolon? The weakest Eidolon will usually deal two points of damage. The best? Upwards of ten. Especially if you draw multiples. But the average Eidolon? I'd say six damage and a chump block.

For a deck built on The Philosophy of Fire, six damage is like drawing three cards. Tell me another card that will translate 2 mana into three cards plus a chump block.

I agree Eidolon is weak against Merfolk, Affinity, and Humans; but Merfolk is so difficult, and Humans is almost un-losable, it almost doesn't count. It's the best in matchup after matchup. Not just best in deck, best in format.

And yet, in process of winning Grand Prix Birmingham, Loic Le Briand cut Eidolon of the Great Revel for Shrine of Burning Rage!

"In the beginning... There was Wild Nacatl..."

Burn decks previous largely played more creatures - if only two more Grim Lavamancers or a Vexing Devils or so - multiplying the number of aggressive openers (and lowering the dependency on midgame topdecks). With only eight creatures, Le Briand ground his offensive initiative to glass. So powerful Burn must be, to have won such a massive Grand Prix full of so many fast kills despite the change.

But think back almost one year previous.

It wasn't so long ago a Grand Prix-winning Burn deck might have looked like this:

Atarka's Command
Remember the 430 words on pornography up top? The pedantic ones you weren't sure why you were reading?

Brandon Burton's version, by contrast, is extremely instructive for understanding Modern Burn.

We said that the general mindscape of "Burn" is what Patrick Chapin would call The Lava Spike Deck. But what about Burton's build? This is a Red Aggro deck rubbing precariously up against Pure Midrange. When you play with Wild Nacatl you are playing what amounts to a Zoo deck more than The Lava Spike deck, even when you play Lava Spike. I mean, what percentage of Atarka's Commands do you think got cast during creature combat?

One of the most important aspects of Burn -- if we will continue to call it this, sans quotation marks -- is how good it is against creature removal.

Opponents tend to think about cards like Terminate or Snapcaster Mage as good against Burn because those cards can interact with Burn's creatures. However they are all miserable at exchanges. Even a bad Eidolon of the Great Revel loves playing against a Snapcaster Mage, and the absolute worst ones cash in for two against the tempo-advantageous Lightning Bolt. Terminate is almost always bad. It's bad against everything because it typically overpays, while at the same time letting in damage due to haste.

Is Wild Nacatl a better card than Lava Spike? Given two turns it will often be better. On the first turn? It can be the difference between a blank and a win against Affinity. Against a Terminate? Wild Nacatl makes cards like that look pretty playable.

Because Wild Nacatl might be a better card (if not a better Burn card) than Lava Spike, we might still be arguing over the more Zoo-like deck versus the current builds, if not for Plateau.


Inspiring Vantage

Remember when I said Eidolon of the Great Revel was the Most Powerful Card in Modern?

Ironically, Inspiring Vantage may be the best card in the actual Burn deck.

From my perspective it is g-d transformative, and one of the main reasons Burn is just better than everyone else. It gets to play Plateau!

Only this is a very queer Plateau that doesn't actually turn on Wild Nacatl's +1/+1 clause twice.

The recent printing of Plateau Inspiring Vantage has done more to impact the structure of Burn decks in Modern than anything else since the printing of Monastery Swiftspear.

Simply, almost all the Burn decks have moved away from Stomping Ground. Yes, most still play one Stomping Ground for sideboard Destructive Revelry, but almost no one plays Atarka's Command main deck, and even fewer players run Wild Nacatl any more.

Others, like YT, are completely Green-free, opting for the full four copies of the best card in the deck, to go alongside our four copies of the Most Powerful Card in Modern.

Chained to the Rocks

The last time I wrote to the Gathering Magic audience about Burn, it was in The Chained to the Rocks Experiment, where I successfully tried Chained to the Rocks, if unsuccessfully fell in the finals of my local PPTQ.

I played a relatively similar deck with some key changes at Modern Regionals a couple of weeks back, but ended up finishing only 8th. Here is my deck:

The deck was awesome.

I think it is within one card of being the perfect Burn deck for the current card pool.

The changes from The Chained to the Rocks Experiment are subtle and extreme.

Chained to the Rocks
The leading decks going into Regionals were Storm Combo and Humans. I would consider those both highly favorable matchups, especially with our triple Grim Lavamancer setup. Humans can present almost no tricks. It basically plays guys and you basically mow them down.

You may remember I lost to the same Noble Hierarch deck in both the Swiss and Finals of that PPTQ in The Chained to the Rocks Experiment. I wanted to bias my sideboard for Noble Hierarch decks, as Burn just beats almost everything else effortlessly.

The problem with Noble Hierarch decks is that if they go first, you have to have a one-mana solution or they are liable to cast something on the second turn that is better, contextually, than every single card in your deck. Lightning Bolt is good, but a Grim Lavamancer is only money on the play. Path to Exile is actively bad. You just give them a different sort of Noble Hierarch and discard a card from your hand. In addition to being a much better solution to Gurmag Angler or Reality Smasher than Path to Exile, Chained to the Rocks is the best possible non-Lightning Bolt play you can make against the main thing that can compete with a Burn deck.

In my first six rounds at Regionals, I beat three Noble Hierarch decks and an Eldrazi Tron.

I was a big dummy in the late rounds, though.

At 6-0 I was in first place, and drew to 6-0-1.

At 6-0-1 I was in second place with one round to go. If I played and lost I would finish 8th; if I drew I would finish 7th. I was super tired, even more un-thoughtful, and drew into 7th.

So I ended up losing a super favorable matchup in the quarterfinals simply because I was going second.

Can you imagine losing with a three Swiftspear / three Lava Spike hand? On the play?

Take a second and do the math on that one.

Now imagine you know your opponent WILL hit Tron on turn three and you've (correctly) read him for Wurmcoil Engine and All is Dust, rather than Karn Liberated. Going second that is.

At that point you're really second guessing your Round Eight ID.

The Chained to the Rocks Dilemma

Top 8, post-Game 3

"I think you should have added maybe one more Chained to the Rocks."

"No, I shouldn't! You're just wrong." What I meant -- but didn't say -- was "you're just dumb" (but I wouldn't have meant it-meant it).

Roman was kinda sorta right. On the last [real] turn of the game I was praying my topdeck was going to be Chained to the Rocks. I knew there was only one in the deck at this point, but I really wanted it.

I could knock his Wurmcoil Engine off the table, get in for a bazillion damage, and win with my hand even if he hit All is Dust. If I was desperately knocking for Chained to the Rocks he was right and I had sideboarded wrong.

The problem is that Chained to the Rocks is only narrowly good against Tron (versus Wurmcoil Engine) but horrible against World Breaker, Karn Liberated, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, All is Dust, Ghost Quarter, and by extension... Even Sylvan Scrying or Expedition Map. I was too worried about downside risk.

Roman suggested we go back to a 2/2 split; I still think Chained to the Rocks is good enough we want a 3/1 split, but will concede one Path to Exile would be welcome for occasions just like this one.

I'll conclude now with a recent Twitter exchange:

Daniel Parsons (THEARTOFRUIN) destroyed all opponents on the way to his first Pro Tour. So I guess this is the optimal Burn list now (whatever "Burn" means):



For reference:

1 Don't confuse this with Red Decks

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