Last week I posted a picture of an opening hand from Burn that I think is unkeepable. Most people responded in the comments that it seems like a no-brainer with 17 theoretical damage in it. I think this showcases how Modern really rewards people for the most in-depth understanding of their deck. Burn is a pretty simple deck to evaluate hands with, but I think it’s important to take the time to learn the early-turn sequences so you can make a decision on your opening hand. There are a lot of times that people lose games and matches entirely by keeping bad hands.
To understand why I think that hand out of Burn is so poor, you have to be familiar with the way games play out more specifically. Today I’ll be going deep on Burn and explaining how its game plan should inform your mulligans. I hope you’re ready!
Mana Efficiency and Sequencing
Okay, so let’s talk about why I think the hand from last week isn’t going to cut it. For reference, here’s the hand:
- Two lands. Not too many or too little.
- We have a one-drop.
- We have no creature.
- It’s slow.
- Searing Blaze might not be a real card if we don’t draw another land.
Adding up all the burn spells in this hand we have a theoretical 17 damage. That’s enough to kill an opponent who takes fetch-shock damage at some point, or one who doesn’t with a single drawn burn spell. But how quickly can we actually get that done? When you play Burn, you ideally want to be able to close the door by the end of your fourth turn. That’s when your mana efficiency from the early game starts to become less of an advantage and an opponent’s more powerful cards can take over the game. Obviously not every game you can win on turn four, but you strongly consider mulliganing hands that can’t win that quickly. Knowing we’re aiming for turn four, we can assume we’ll draw 3 or 4 extra cards—let’s consider what they might be that would let us achieve our goals.
Turn 1: We’re going to suspend the Rift Bolt with the Mountain. (Damage dealt: 0)
Turn 2: Rift Bolt comes off suspend and we can play a land. If we sacrifice Arid Mesa and didn’t draw another land we’re priced into playing Searing Blaze. If we’re playing against a deck that hasn’t played a creature yet then we’re essentially minus 3 damage. In the worst-case scenario we don’t draw a land and they don’t play a creature, in which case we’ll cast Boros Charm and deal 4. (Damage Dealt: 7)
Turn 3: Once again we’re kind of priced into playing another two-mana spell, or if we drew a land, playing the Lightning Bolt and the other Boros Charm. Let’s say we got lucky and drew a land. (Damage Dealt: 14)
Turn 4: Well unless our draw steps were exactly Lightning Bolt and Boros Charm, we’re probably not going to be able to kill this turn unless our opponent took damage from a fetch. This also assumes we drew a land in the first three draw steps. A lot had to go right for this hand to become anything reasonable. This hand likely doesn’t beat a reasonable draw from Ad Nauseam. It loses pretty handily to Snapcaster Mage plus Spell Snare. I’m not entirely sure it beats a Valakut deck if they’re smart and don’t leave Sakura-Tribe Elder in play. Part of the reason I play Gitaxian Probes is to avoid as many hands like this as possible—the reality is that there are way too many two-mana spells clogging this hand up for it to win against an unknown opponent.
Looking at a Hypothetical Draw
Let’s look at a sequence if we mulligan this hand into something similar but with a creature. If we trade one of the Boros Charms and a Searing Blaze for a Goblin Guide our hand turns out so much better. Our new hand only has 10 damage worth of burn, but look how it plays out.
Turn 0: Scry 1. We can pretty safely put any lands to the bottom as this hand doesn’t need three to function. I would keep any one-mana spell.
Turn 1: Play Mountain and Goblin Guide and attack for 2. (Damage Dealt: 2)
Turn 2: Play Arid Mesa, get Sacred Foundry. If we drew another land it’s pretty safe to fire off Boros Charm here and save our one-mana spells for next turn. If we drew another creature or another one-mana spell we can suspend Rift Bolt and cast the other spell. Worst-case scenario, it’s another two-mana spell and nothing really changes. Attack with Goblin Guide. (Damage Dealt: 8)
Turn 3: Let’s say last turn we drew Skullcrack and this turn we drew Monastery Swiftspear. To get maximum damage and kill next turn, we want to play the Swiftspear and suspend the Rift Bolt. Attack with both creatures for 3. (Damage Dealt: 11)
Turn 4: Rift Bolt comes off suspend. If we didn’t draw a land we can cast Skullcrack or Lightning Bolt and win the game. Goblin Guide attacks for 2, Swiftspear with two prowess triggers attacks for 3, and the two spells that deal 3 damage deal 10 damage this turn.
The Best Burn: Creatures
Were you counting in that theoretical game how much damage Goblin Guide did? If you cast it on turn one and they don’t interact with it, it adds so much damage to your clock. Over the course of four turns, Goblin Guide deals 8 damage. While that seems pretty obvious as you’re reading this, how many people look at their hand and see Goblin Guide as a burn spell that deals more damage than Lightning Bolt?
Creatures are very important for Burn, more so than the number of burn spells that start in your opening hand. Even a hand with an Eidolon of the Great Revel (which doesn’t attack an opponent down as quickly) can put on so much more pressure than a hand full of burn. If your opponent casts two spells and you attack once with the Eidolon then it’s already more mana-efficient than Boros Charm (the most mana-efficient burn spell at two mana).
The other thing that creatures do is require your opponent to interact and thwart their own game plan. If we have a hand with a Goblin Guide or Monastery Swiftspear, then it puts the onus on the opponent to deal with it. It feels great when Jund uses their second turn to Terminate or Lightning Bolt your Goblin Guide instead of playing a Tarmogoyf. Stunting your opponent’s development by forcing them to deal with your threats gives you more time to finish the game.
Creatures and Mulliganing
If I was a graph master I’d be able to show you the bell curve in win rate as you increase the number of creatures in your opening hand. Basically, if you can open with three Goblin Guides and two land you really can’t ask for a better hand. The triple one-mana creature hands are the most explosive, and even in the fact of beefy blockers from the faster decks can end the game quickly. After that, however, you’re more likely to run into the problem of too many big blockers and no profitable attacks.
Eidolon of the Great Revel is a card that I think goes underrated too often. While it’s often counterintuitive to play a card that deals a lot of damage to you (every spell in the deck triggers its ability) you will truly appreciate its power when it absolutely annihilates a deck. I played a match against Storm during the last Grand Prix Los Angeles and almost had him concede before I had even taken a turn. During game two I kept a hand with two lands, one burn spell, and three Eidolon of the Great Revel. Although Storm plays Lightning Bolt, it was unlikely they would find it before the three Eidolons were able to kill him. Spoiler alert, when it costs you 6 life to cast a Serum Visions you don’t win the game.
All of this talk about creatures, however, seems to contradict my opinion of Wild Nacatl. It’s true. I don’t like playing that creature because it’s too slow. The fact that it doesn’t have haste is really the deal-breaker for me because it almost assuredly won’t deal any damage if my opponent has a removal spell. With Monastery Swiftspear and Goblin Guide you can hold them until there’s a good opportunity to sneak them in around removal. Wild Nacatl needing a whole turn to get going really just doesn’t do it for me. The fact that you also need a Sacred Foundry for it to even be a reasonable attacker is another strike against it.
I’ve received a ton of questions about my choice of sideboard cards, asking why I’m not playing more flexible answers in some slots. Why Surgical Extraction instead of Rest in Peace, for example? Well, scroll up a little and you’ll find your answer. When is there a good time to cast a Rest in Peace? I think you’re going to be pretty hard-pressed to find one. Sacrificing a whole turn to play Rest in Peace just isn’t ideal and doesn’t solve the problem of the glut of two-mana spells. This also doesn’t really include the problem that some of the best Dredge draws can just put a bunch of power into play before you even have enough mana to play Rest in Peace.
What does this mean for our sideboard cards then? We want things that are mana-efficient and powerful. Sacrifice the long-term gains for short-term power. That’s why Path to Exile (for example) is one of the most important cards in the Burn sideboard. It doesn’t matter if our opponent gets a land if we kill them. Ensnaring Bridge is really the exception to this plan because it doesn’t speed the game up, it actually slows it down. Resolving a Bridge gives us time to draw enough burn spells to kill our opponent while their larger creatures can’t attack us back.
Which brings me to my last point about sideboard cards: don’t over sideboard. Just because there is a “use” for a card in the matchup doesn’t mean you should put it in your deck. Bringing in Path to Exile against a Jeskai Control deck because it can remove Celestial Colonnade is just asking for a bad time. Burn’s maindeck is tuned to be quick and ruthless. If you remove too many teeth then it doesn’t quite have the right amount of bite. Over-sideboarding is the reason I don’t want to play with Grafdigger’s Cage or Rest in Peace. Just because they’re more flexible doesn’t actually mean I want them in for those matches.
Keep or Mull?
Jim Casale is a well-established Magic player who has plenty of experience grinding the tournament circuit. He qualified for his first Pro Tour in 2016 and likes to talk about hockey. You can find him on Twitter @Phrost_.