Gathering the Magic: The Essence of Burn
By Stefan Lindberg on November 19th, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
Burn is one of the most straightforward deck types in the history of Magic, though its apparent simplicity is deceptive. This article will examine the deck strategically, but also point out what it can teach us about strategy in general - both within and outside of the game. Last month's article discussed the difference between a stereotype, a type and an archetype. Every deck with a clear concept that you hold in your hand is a type that points toward an archetype - an entity representing a set of principles common to many different aspects of life. Using the Burn deck as an example, this article will illustrate how you can approach such archetypes, so that you may eventually "hold them in your hand" as well. The Tetrahedron of Fire
The third article in this series discussed the link between elements and Platonic solids, where fire was represented by the tetrahedron. It so happens that a tetrahedron is often used to illustrate what it takes to make and sustain a fire in the fire fighting industry. If we wish to explore the Burn deck, it behooves us to take a closer look at it.
Oversimplifying in the extreme, the goal of Magic is to deal 20 damage to your opponent. The most straightforward way of doing this is by resolving spells that deal damage to your opponent, such as Lightning Bolt. These cards are the fuel of the Burn deck, and when you run out of fuel, the fire dies. If your opponent isn't dead by then, you lose. However, you also need oxygen, or mana, represented in the Burn deck by the open expanses of your Mountains. If you're mana screwed, the fire dies, but the fire also dies when you're mana flooded. This alerts us to the concept of an appropriate amount of heat to ignite your fuel, as represented by your mana curve. The Burn deck has to have a certain temperature or explosiveness to it. It can't afford to be too slow, nor to mess around with small, insignificant effects even if they are fast. The heat, oxygen supply and fuel needs to work together, which brings us to the chain reaction, signifying all these elements working smoothly and sustaining themselves for the win.
You might object that this is true of all decks - they need business spells, mana, a good curve and synergy to see them through to the win. And I would agree, saying that you have identified the "fire element" of all decks, but maintain that this trait is more apparent in a simple deck like Burn. I'd also remind you that the very idea of a mana curve was introduced when a rogue red deck took second in a PTQ in Atlanta 1996. The pilot of that deck was Paul Sligh, and the deck that bore his name made people start to care about the mana curve. So even from a historical perspective, linking the mana curve to red decks is accurate. For the historical Sligh fire, the "heat" or mana curve was the most important component to give it an edge, while it cared relatively little for the individual card quality or "fuel". However, the opposite is true of Burn. While modern Burn decks do exploit their mana curve to a greater potential, the deck has always been about card quality and redundancy.
This also explains the prevalence of Burn in various formats. There is lots of Burn in Extended, Legacy and even Pauper, simply because these formats have access to enough premium fuel to make the deck type viable. You'll rarely find Burn in Standard, though, simply because there usually aren't enough good burn spells at one time to put in your deck. This was also once the case for the eternal formats. Though Burn has hardly been the subject of power creep (Lightning Bolt was printed in Alpha after all), the sheer lack of card quantity once made the deck type inconceivable. But back then there was still Sligh, which later became Red Deck Wins, with more quality burn and less janky artifacts and beats. And right about when the Legacy format was created in 2004, the time and cardpool was right for pure Burn to emerge like a triumphant Phoenix from the ashes.
What is Fire?
It's ironic that Burn, the simplest of all deck types, is so hard to classify in terms of the rock-paper-scissors of Magic: aggro, combo or control (see the second article for a discussion of this trinity). You might say that it's aggro, but it plays no creatures (or creatures that are simply burn spells in disguise, like Keldon Marauders). It's certainly aggressive, but if that was enough to make it "aggro", combo would be aggro as well. In fact, the most appropriate way to approach Burn may be to think about it as a storm combo deck with its spells spread out over several turns—sacrificing speed for resilience to counters and discard. Then again, Burn can also play control against fast aggro decks like Goblins, thanks to spells like Volcanic Fallout or Flamebreak. In short, Burn is pretty challenging to classify.
This is also true of fire. The tetrahedron of fire describes its components, but what is it really, in essence? We can see the flame, but that's just because the coal particles from the candle or log glow as they rise as soot into the open air. If the fuel is more fully consumed, we might not see the flame at all, but we can sense the heat radiating from it. If we stick our finger in it, we get burned. Thus, we perceive the effects of fire, but not fire directly. It's the same with wind. We perceive it because we can hear the air particles gushing past our ear drums, or feel them lifting up our hair, but the force behind these movements eludes us. In fact, if you try to get to the bottom of it, you may find that wind and fire have quite a few things in common. For the Magic player, the question becomes if this elusive quality of fire can somehow be exploited in a Burn deck.
Virtual Card Advantage
The deck building theory of Burn could be summarized by these two movie quotes:
"Did you think to kill me? There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea and ideas are bulletproof." - V, V for Vendetta
"Best defense, no be there." - Mr. Miyagi, The Karate Kid
Burn runs no creatures—any exceptions to this rule still can't be blocked, removed, countered or interacted with efficiently. There is no key spell in Burn to counter. It is simply 60 cards of Mountains and Damage. As a result, a third of your opponent's hand may be full of answers to questions you're simply not asking. This is why some people detest playing against Burn—because losing to it makes them look like fools. Ideally, Burn is the least interactive deck there is. Combo decks strive to be non-interactive too, but they tend to be vulnerable to discard and counters. Against Burn though, you can't hope to accomplish much if you try to Thoughtseize a Lightning Bolt, Stifle a Rift Bolt or Force of Will an Incinerate. Thus, Burn strikes at the heart of the tit-for-tat dogma of Magic by exploiting the idea of virtual card advantage (VCA).
A format must be able to support Burn's VCA if the deck is to have any success in the metagame. Because truth to be told, a Lightning Bolt is a pretty unimpressive threat compared to, say, a Goblin Guide in a pure gold fish. The difference is that the bolt has the option to interact with the guide and nullify it, whereas the guide can do nothing to prevent the bolt. In a format ripe with blockers and creature removal, bolt deck wins. In short, the format must feature counter-measures and Burn must dodge as many of them as possible.
This explains the differences between Burn decks in Extended and Legacy that go beyond mere card pool rationales. If you've compared them, you may have noticed that almost all Extended lists feature Shrapnel Blast and an assortment of artifacts, most importantly Great Furnace, in the mana base. Being able to sacrifice lands in favor of undercosted damage in a "finisher" is a useful strategy for all Burn decks. In fire tetrahedron terminology, this means using more explosive fuel which consumes lots of oxygen in favor of greater heat and a sudden, game winning burst in the chain reaction! Legacy decks also use this strategy through running Fireblast, so why don't they use the Shrapnel Blast trick of Extended decks too for added power?
In a word: Wasteland. Burn cannot afford to prematurely lose its oxygen supply, and by running non-basics you lose virtual card advantage in a format where Wasteland is one of the top ten played cards. The same decks that validate such a high playability for Wasteland also encourage Burn decks to run Price of Progress—yet another reason to play few non-basics yourself.
Spreading Your Risk
So building a burn deck seems easy—just look at what kind of removal or "answers" your opponents are running and pick cards that dodge them. Well, maximizing your VCA is a bit more complex than that. Let's look at the stock market for an analogy. You want to buy when it's cheap and sell when the price is high, but since you can't predict when stocks will rise and fall, you'll want to spread your risk over several options so that there's always a good deal to be made. Generic spells like Lightning Bolt could be compared to a low risk fund, whereas something like Price of Progress is a more risky share that could pay off greatly but also do worse than the safer alternatives. Thus, the Burn player needs to adopt a "portfolio perspective" for the entire metagame rather than look at individual cards to assess VCA. For example, Hellspark Elemental is bad VCA against Swords to Plowshares, but good VCA against Counterbalance since it makes the "lock" less effective. And that's what VCA and risk spreading is all about - building a deck that will minimize the overall effectiveness of as many opposing decks as possible.
About the only non-basic seen in traditional Legacy Burn lists is Barbarian Ring. Due to its sacrificial nature, it's more resilient to Wasteland than the previously mentioned Great Furnace, but why run it at all if you want to maximize VCA? The reason is that (apart from letting you get away with a more meaty burn-to-land ratio) it also brings positive VCA to the table! What does Barbarian Ring have that Lightning Bolt hasn't? It's uncounterable and a colorless source of damage. This means that when you need to deal those last points of damage against a blue player or someone with a Burrenton Forge-Tender on the board, the ring will actually be less interactive than the Bolt. This translates to a gain in VCA in these situations, because you've just made cards in your opponent's deck less effective.
Thus, to maximize VCA using risk spreading, you need to consider the opportunity cost. What does it cost you in terms of VCA loss to run a couple of Barbarian Ring over straight mountains? And what do you gain in terms of VCA by running it? Even if the gain is quite situational, it's probably worth it if the opportunity cost is very small anyway. For another example, consider Sulfuric Vortex. It's a permanent that turns the opponent's enchantment removal on-line where it would previously have been a dead card. But on the other hand, it's also a card that turns life gain off, where it would previously have been a valid way of defeating Burn's strategy. Vortex is good VCA against Umezawa's Jitte, but bad VCA against Quasali Pridemage.
Building a good burn deck means looking at all the decent spells in the card pool and asking yourself what cards in your meta come on-line and off-line by your running those cards. The configuration that gives an average opponent the least options for meaningful interaction with your strategy is ideal for the main deck. This means that all of your cards strive to deal damage and some will work better than others depending on the situation, but most of them will be useful in all match-ups.
The eternal question for Burn deck building is, "What's the next best burn spell?" A simple (though incomprehensive) way to assess a burn spell is to look at mana efficiency and card efficiency—in other words, the price to deal damage to your opponent. The benchmark is the "3-for-1" or "bolt", such as Lightning Bolt. Resolving seven such spells will require seven mana and kill your opponent. This implies a turn four win, provided that you make the necessary land drops. Spells with a lower mana cost or more potency (Fireblast being an example of both) can make you win quicker.
However, this doesn't necessarily mean that more expensive or less powerful spells will make you win more slowly. In the "seven bolts" example above, you'll have two extra mana to spend on turn four if you made your third land drop. This means that two of those "bolts" could just as well have been "3-for-2s", such as Incinerate. In fact, you're also one more damage ahead than necessary, so one of them could even have been a "2-for-2" such as Magma Jet (and there are plenty of suicidal effects like fetch lands, so often you won't even have to do 20 damage). Optionally, one of "bolts" could have been a "2-for-3", such as Volcanic Fallout instead.
So when it comes to comparing burn spells, it's not really interesting to compare Incinerate to Lightning Bolt, because the extra mana is usually moot. However, it is interesting to compare Incinerate to other 2 converted mana cost spells like Magma Jet, to see if better deals can be had for the same mana investment. In short, it's perfectly fine to include a few more expensive or less damaging cards to complement your most efficient spells, as long as they bring something useful to the table. This makes the most of your mana curve and doesn't necessarily interfere with the deck's "chain reaction" of seven kill spells or less. This is where the risk spreading and VCA optimization can really be allowed to bloom. Since a few more expensive or less damaging spells can be run anyway, make sure that they bring the most VCA to the table when considering your play environment (Sulfuric Vortex is a good example).
Keeping it Simple
Complex as the finer points of the deck may be, the hallmark of a good Burn deck is still its simplicity. It's tempting to experiment with ways to squeeze more power out of your spells, for example trying to run Shrapnel Blast with enough useful artifacts like Cursed Scroll or Ankh of Mishra to support it. But most of the time, it will be hard to beat the card/mana efficiency benchmark with such tactics. At best, you sacrifice consistency and VCA optimization for occasional but unreliable bursts of power.
Another complicating "tweaking measure" is running cantrips like Manamorphose to increase card quality by essentially running a 56 card deck (or even less if more cantrips like Street Wraith are included). As explained above however, increasing the straight burn efficiency becomes moot after a certain point, and the cantrips greatly complicate mulligan decisions. You end up paying the price of card disadvantage due to a higher mulligan ratio, while getting nothing really useful in return. It's typically better to revisit your meta and consider what other burn spells could be useful than running cantrip fillers.
Fork is another way to complicate things. It's good with Fireblast, but even in such an ideal situation it only beats Incinerate with one point of damage. About 50% of the time, you won't have Fireblast when you have a Fork in hand, and then it's just a bad 3-for-2 that requires at least 3 mana on the board to work. It's also a horrible top deck, which is bad for Burn. Some praise it for its ability to counter counters, but paying 2 mana and a card to ensure that your previous burn spell resolves is only a more complicated alternative to just playing another burn spell instead. The deck fights counters by redundancy rather than dedicated answers.
Browbeat is yet another much debated card in Burn threads across the Internet. Like Skullscorch, it gives your opponent options in a deck that works very hard to deprive him of options in the first place through VCA optimization. If you take an interest in the card, this article by Bill Stark is recommended reading.
The fact that the simple build with few interdependencies in the deck is often the strongest takes its toll on deck building creativity. Sometimes people include the strangest things in Burn out of sheer boredom. A good example is the inclusion of fetchlands in mono red burn, for the alleged "deck thinning" that these offer. Apart from opening yourself up to Stifle and dealing damage to yourself, the problem here is that there is no deck thinning to be had—a fact proven in a 2003 Mathemagics article by Garret Johnsson. In splash builds however, the fetches are often a necessary evil, though there's really little reason to go beyond mono red.
Much like fire, Burn is at its most dangerous when ignored. The most common ways to defeat it relate to the tetrahedron of fire mentioned initially. Did you know that you actually can fight fire with fire? To contain the spread of a forest fire, a strip of trees can be burned in a controlled fashion to create a fuel-deprived perimeter in the path of the larger fire. Once it reaches the perimeter, it dies down from lack of fuel. The Magic equivalent would be a dedicated black discard strategy, depriving you of the burn spells in your hand. In fact, it's quite possible to build a very budget Mono Black Aggro list capable of beating a good Burn deck, by using a few of Burn's VCA tricks against it.
Black decks also tend to run land destruction such as Sinkhole, which attacks the oxygen portion of the tetrahedron. Your fuel supply is intact, but it won't ignite, that is you can't actually play the spells. Attacking the mana base can be devastating for Burn, as a single destroyed land can delay the kill for a turn or more. We also find LD in Armageddon Stax, which uses a combined strategy of attacking the oxygen supply, heat, and chain reaction, making it one of the toughest match ups for Burn. Effects that fight the heat (mana curve) include Trinisphere or the appropriately named Chill of blue sideboard fame—the CO2 extinguisher of Magic, if you will. Effects that stop the chain reaction (spell sequence) directly are Chalice of the Void or Counterbalance. There are also a number of "fire extinguishers" in white that help defeat Burn, such as Circle of Protection: Red and Sphere of Law.
Another way of fighting fire with fire is to have an even more explosive chain reaction. A forest fire is nothing compared to the napalm bomb that is the storm combo deck. If it can consistently win before Burn's fundamental fourth turn, there's little the Burn player can do except sideboard Pyrostatic Pillar and hope for the best. In fact, entire formats like competitive Vintage can be inherently too explosive to make Burn a viable archetype. Another example of where the format itself defeats the deck concept is EDH - a life total of 40, an inclination for multiplayer games and having to play all singletons in a 100 card deck is devastating for Burn.
The good news is that for all the answers that opponents can pack against Burn, the Burn sideboard can pack counter-measures just as well. In the end though, it's the rogue nature of Burn that makes it successful. Everybody is aware of the archetype, but few dignify it with actual sideboard answers. Because hey, it's just that stupid Burn deck—how hard can it be? It's that kind of carelessness that causes forest fires...
All Good Things
This article has shown how contemplating a deck type can unveil principles common to many phenoma—risk management, the strategic importance of anticipation, methods of evaluating components in a context, the essential nature of the elements and so forth. Such is the nature of this column, to use Magic as a point of departure for examining the world at large. Now it's your turn to examine a deck type, concept or mechanic that intrigues you, and unveil the archetypical principles that it points to. The time has come for me to announce that the next article will be the final, seventh chapter of the GtM column. As discussed in the fourth article, things must come to an end before they go stale and become part of the machine that they sought to oppose. In keeping with the tradition of the season, next month's article will include a good Christmas story, and of course a present, too!
By Stefan Lindberg on November 19th, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now