Tier: Tier 1
Burn is an aggro deck whose concept has been around since Magic started in 1993. As such it is one of the most iconic and widely recognized archetypes across many formats, from Standard, to Legacy, to Pauper, to Modern. Different variants of Burn have gone by many names over the years (Sligh, Red Deck Wins, Atarka Red) but they all share a core philosophy—pairing aggressive, hyper-efficient creatures with direct damage spells to present a fast clock while skirting interaction. The early game is typically characterized by hasty creatures attacking for a chunk of damage, and the late game by a slew of instants and sorceries pointed at the opponent’s face. Because the burn suite is costed so cheaply, once an opponent falls to 9 or 12 life they usually only have one or two turns to end the game before dying.
Burn spells are naturally difficult to interact with, dodging such traditional anti-aggro measures as removal, blockers, and sweepers. Instead, the defending player is forced to fight on a different axis. Lifegain and countermagic are the most obvious countermeasures, but in a deck as explosive and consistent as Modern Burn, this may do little more than buy you time. The other strategy is to race, which decks like Affinity can do admirably.
Modern Burn boasts a strong, linear game plan that’s surprisingly hard to disrupt. The deck is as old as the format itself, but several later printings like Eidolon of Rhetoric and Atarka’s Command added to its potency. These days it’s rare to see the archetype fall below Tier 1 status, and it’s the bane of many an opponent who shows up with the intention of durdling. One of the perennial standbys of the format, Burn manages to top-eight a large number of events and outright win its fair share. This year a Boros Burn variant won the whole thing at Grand Prix Birmingham, proving that it still has what it takes to lord over a diverse metagame.
Burn, by loïc le Briand (1st, GP Birmingham 2017)
4 Goblin Guide
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Shrine of Burning Rage
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Lightning Helix
4 Boros Charm
4 Searing Blaze
4 Lava Spike
4 Rift Bolt
4 Arid Mesa
3 Bloodstained Mire
3 Inspiring Vantage
2 Sacred Foundry
1 Stomping Ground
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Destructive Revelry
2 Grim Lavamancer
2 Kor Firewalker
2 Path to Exile
3 Relic of Progenitus
2 Shattering Spree
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Burn is one third of the premier trinity of aggro decks in Modern, alongside Affinity and Infect. Of the three, Burn is the slowest, but also the most difficult to interact with. It’s also scarily consistent, with virtually every card in the deck being interchangeable. This consistency aids it in mulligans, and also topdeck wars, where any non-creature spell will often be lethal. Barring extreme mana flood or screw, the typical Burn hand will kill on turn four or five.
It’s common to see only 8-12 creatures in Burn lists. Because every card must aid directly in the count to twenty, creatures have to meet very specific requirements for inclusion. Preference is placed on cheap mana costs, haste, and incidental damage generated outside the combat step. The gold-standard creatures—Goblin Guide, Monastery Swiftspear, and Eidolon of Rhetoric—each represent damage or virtual damage the turn they come down. These are used to soften up the opponent’s life total, priming them to die to burn spells on subsequent turns after the board has been stabilized.
If the rule of creatures in Burn is that every one must cause damage before it dies, the rule of spells is to maximize the ratio of damage output to mana cost. Burn lists almost invariably begin with 12 one-mana spells worth three damage (Lava Spike, Lightning Bolt, and Rift Bolt). Two-drop spells must provide some other kind of utility, such as life gain for racing scenarios (Lightning Helix), prevention of opposing life gain (Skullcrack), or creature removal (Searing Blaze).
Burn has the reputation of being easy to pilot, but it often presents difficult decision points regarding role assignment. As counterintuitive as it might seem, Burn frequently has to switch to a control role once its creatures have perished or been blanked by blockers. In these scenarios, the opponent will try to end the game as quickly as possible, to prevent Burn from finding the lethal damage spell or the land it needed to double-spell. Burn’s job then becomes to drag the game out as long as possible, increasing the number of its draw steps. Flexible spells like Atarka’s Command, Lightning Bolt, and Lightning Helix can be used defensively to aid in this task.
The occasional Burn list may skew mono-red, but most take advantage of secondary or tertiary splash colors off of fetchlands. White is the most common pairing, granting access to Lightning Helix, Boros Charm, and powerful sideboard cards like Path to Exile and Rest in Peace. Back in the Twin days, you would see versions splashing black for Bump in the Night and Rakdos Charm. Nowadays the most common third color is green, which opens up Wild Nacatl and Atarka’s Command. The popularity of this build is usually dependent on the amount of removal in a given meta—when creature kill is running around, Command and Nacatl lose much of their appeal.
The strength of Burn lies in its speed and its consistency. While decks like Affinity can race it, slower decks will struggle to keep up. It’s always a good feeling to know any spell off the top is lethal. Burn is also uniquely advantaged in a format where the fetch-shock manabase is so prevalent. Every fetch-into-shock by an opponent is like drawing and casting a burn spell for free, and many decks will be forced to do this simply to cast their spells.
Burn’s chief weakness is a lack of flexibility. Burn spells can be used to kill creatures, but there isn’t a lot of room for constructing a Plan B or outmaneuvering an opponent. As a result, players who can interact on the appropriate axis (lifegain, permission, etc.) can give Burn a run for its money. The deck isn’t well suited to disrupting linear combo decks, so anything that can goldfish faster or combo while slowing down the Burn deck will be tough to beat. Finally, as with any linear deck there are a few potent hosers that give Burn serious difficulty, such as Leyline of Sanctity, Kor Firewalker, or Dragon’s Claw.