“You’re at 3, right?”
It’s the last thing you want to hear from any Burn player. It’s an archetype that has been a part of Magic for as long as the game has existed, after all, Lightning Bolt was printed in Magic’s first set. Through powerful and efficient spells like Lava Spike, Lightning Bolt, and Rift Bolt, the deck’s aim is to “burn” you out, 3 points at a time. Most Burn decks in Modern today splash white for cards like Lightning Helix and Boros Charm, making them even more consistent and powerful. A burn player could very well have lethal damage in their opening hand! So how can players looking to cast Thougthseize, Tarmogoyf, and Liliana of the Veil combat this strategy?
Unlike some other aggressive strategies such as Zoo or Affinity, Burn is very spell heavy and this can make some of our opening hands quite awkward when they can leave multiple removal spells stranded. This means that our best way to combat Burn game 1 is discard. Every time we cast an Inquisition of Kozilek or tick up a LotV to snag a Lightning Bolt, we are basically gaining three life; it’s like casting multiple Healing Salves, which against Burn is a legitimate strategy to pivot the game in your favor.
Game 1 can be all about these discard spells and getting a fast efficient threat on the board as soon as possible. If you get the chance to Inquisition them on turn 1 and see a Goblin Guide, Eidolon of the Great Revel, and 3 other burn spells, don’t underestimate these creatures. Consult the hand. Do you have removal spells for these creatures? If yes, then perhaps you can take one of their more powerful burn spells. If you don’t, you may want to consider taking one of the creatures. Their creatures can represent up to 2, or 4, or even 6 damage if left unchecked! They are a repeatable sources of damage, unlike their one-shot burn spells. Ideally, you would want to leave the creatures for your multiple removal spells or to be stonewalled by a Tarmogoyf, but don’t count on drawing them if you don’t already have them.
Sometimes your removal can be quite useful against the creature-heavy draw from burn, and sometimes the game can go long enough that cards like Scavenging Ooze can gain life and turn the game around. Typically though, it will come down to holding your breath and trying to finish the game while your opponent looks to top deck last burn spell for the win. It’s not an impossible match to win game 1 but there are definitely cards we can take out and cards we can bring in from the sideboard to help. If you are playing Abzan with Siege Rhinos or G/B Rock with Courser of Kruphix, then you’re already ahead! You’ll still have cards to bring in though, I’ve definitely died once or twice against Burn with Siege Rhino in hand.
This card does so much against burn that it’s insane! It does exactly what a Rock deck wants to do, trade one-for-one. What makes the card so powerful is the speed at which it trades cards by coming down on turn 2 and trading 3 cards for 3 effects. Every mode is powerful and relevant in this match, whether you’re killing a Goblin Guide, taking away a burn spell, or padding your own life total.
So you might be asking yourself, “If lifegain is so back breaking, then why not play something that gains you more than 2-3 life?” While it’s true that something like Life Goes On or Feed the Clan could be absolutely back breaking against Burn, we don’t want to dedicate sideboard slots to these cards. We want to stay flexible, you only get 15 sideboard slots to try and cover the entire Modern format. Therefore, we have to be careful to choose cards that can come in for multiple different matchups. Kitchen Finks can be good in games of attrition, Obstinate Baloths are good in LotV mirrors, and Collective Brutality can be good against combo when you want access to more discard.
So we know we want to bring in our Kitchen Finks, our Baloths, and our Collective Brutalities, but what are we taking out?
If you’re playing Dark Confidant, then I have to say, “Sorry buddy, but this isn’t your match to fight.” The cost for greatness is too much here. Confidant is way too much of a liability and the game won’t go long enough for the card advantage to push the game in your favor. Clunky removal spells like Maelstrom Pulse can also be easy cards to board out, as well as 1-ofs that aren’t really impactful like Liliana the Last Hope.
Thoughtseize has always been one of those controversial cards against Burn. Some people keep them in and others are totally against it. The argument for keeping it in is that discard is very important in this match, and even though it cost 2 life, you’re still taking a spell that’s looking to deal 3-4. The argument against it is that it’s a liability after the first couple of turns when discard becomes less useful. My advice is: if you have better cards to side in, take it out; if not, it’s not so bad that it absolutely needs to come out.
You’ll notice that one card I’m not suggesting you board out is LotV. I wish I had known this when I started playing Rock decks but as I’ve mentioned before, every tick up is saving you life. If she can come down on turn 3, she can definitely pull her weight in this match. When I first started playing, my thought process was to always board out Lili in aggressive matches. I thought that since aggressive decks dump their hand so fast and go so wide, she would be irrelevant. Against Burn though, I was surprised to learn that they don’t just empty their hands like a lot of other aggressive decks. Discard being your best weapon, I would suggest always keeping her in.
This is a pretty stock Jund list and wanted to use it as an example for what sideboarding might look like for this match. Against Burn, I’m sideboarding like this.
This is pretty straight forward. We switched out the cards that actively lose life for the ones that gain life. Because there are only four cards that we want to bring in, we don’t need to cut anything past the Dark Confidants. We’re gonna have to leave in the controversial Thoughtseize and the clunky Maelstrom Pulse because we don’t have anything better than these cards to replace them with.
Here’s another example of sideboarding using a fairly stock Abzan list.
Abzan has the fortunate advantage of having room for mainboard Collective Brutalities and cards that gain life like Siege Rhino and Shambling Vent. For this reason, Abzan has a much better chance of winning game 1 than a list like Jund which has Dark Confidant working against it. Since this Abzan list isn’t playing Dark Confidant, we can instead cut the Thoughtseizes.
So what can we expect to see from the Burn player?
Typically you might see some combination or mix of these cards
Abzan can expect the Rest in Peace more than the Jund players should because of the inclusion of Lingering Souls and possibly Grim Flayers. Ensaring Bridge can be a reason to keep Maelstrom Pulse in if you were thinking about taking it out. Overall, their sideboard plan doesn’t really affect ours, but it is good to be aware of their strategy against us. The main goal of their deck doesn’t allow them to bring in too many cards against any one match, and thankfully there really isn’t any silver bullet solution to our game plan anyway. They may try to make our Goyfs smaller, path our main clock, or keep us from attacking at all, but we can definitely work through that. One thing you should always be aware of are Skullcrack effects. Burn knows you’re bringing in life gain, so they’re gonna try and hold on to these cards so they can fire them off at the perfect moment and negate your life gain. If you dont know what’s in their hand, and are looking to cast your Kitchen Finks or Siege Rhino this turn, it’s something to keep an eye out for.
Burn has always been a Tier 1 deck, and probably always will be. You can expect to see it at almost any tournament regardless of the meta. So, be prepared! Make sure you packed your Kitchen Finks and Collective Brutalities in your sideboard and you’ll be fine!