Deconstructing Constructed – Burning Through Standard

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Tuesday, March 18th – Ever since I saw the results of the burn deck that succeeded at Grand Prix: Shizuoka, I’ve decided that it would be one of my main decks to try out for the new Standard format. Of course, I’d love to play my Faeries deck some more, but on Magic Online there’s the slight issue of procuring a set of Mutavault and Bitterblossom without trading in an organ or two. As they say, if you can’t join ‘em, play Red and burn them to a crisp.

Ever since I saw the results of the burn deck that succeeded at Grand Prix: Shizuoka, I’ve decided that it would be one of my main decks to try out for the new Standard format. Of course, I’d love to play my Faeries deck some more, but on Magic Online there’s the slight issue of procuring a set of Mutavault and Bitterblossom without trading in an organ or two. As they say, if you can’t join ‘em, play burn and burn them to a crisp.

As an aside, let me finish the Extended portion of my column off with the last Extended deck I have for the current season.

As you can see, it shares a large number of similarities with the Previous Level Blue deck which has done quite well recently. My main complaint about that deck was how difficult it was to kill opponents at times, which would let them have a chance to either recover or cause you to go to time in the round. This was my attempted answer to that issue, adding a combo kill to the deck. The original inspiration came from Rich Shay, who was complaining to me about how every control deck felt rather weak simply because they couldn’t end the game on their own terms when they took control of the board state.

The combo kill itself was taken from an old Richard Feldman article, found when I was looking for possible combo engines that fit into Mono Blue decks. Michael Corley helped me do a bunch of the tweaking for the final build and played a near identical version at the GP Trial before Grand Prix: Philly, saying if he won the trial with it he would play it at the big show. Unfortunately he lost in the finals of the trail to Aggro Loam with maindeck Blood Moon, and multiple Boils were ultimately the deck’s undoing.

That said, the deck could most likely be improved upon, and I wish I had stumbled upon it sooner. Manlands give the deck a different way of winning in a short time frame, and the Staff also gives you the ability to stack your deck in any way you see fit, regardless if you can or can’t combo off immediately. Considering the cards the deck runs, you can out-control most opponents with a few cards in hand, and run off topdecks pretty easily once that happens. Alternatively, you could run Platinum Angel in the maindeck over Charbelcher and simply go for a turbo-Angel in a number of aggro or combo matches.

Sideboard-wise, it was designed to beat up on Dredge after most likely getting smacked around game 1; help against Tarmogoyf and Crusher decks with Sower, Engineered Explosives, and Darksteel Colossus; and beat combo with Stifle and Platinum Angel along with the approximately billion counters. The best matches for the deck is usually Dredge post-board, Death Cloud, TEPS, and certain RDW / Burn builds. Zoo and Doran builds are more difficult but winnable, and Ideal is the only major issue. The control matches are awkward for me to describe because I haven’t had enough good testing with them, and Chapin’s new control variant looks much more painful than typical Next Level Blue deck. Just look at the deck, you run 14-15 counters, manlands, and a full set of Tops… things aren’t that bad.

And now back to your regularly scheduled Standard article.

Recently I’ve been resting three specific burn builds. One is Hiromasa Imagawa’s mono-Red model, the next is Alex Kim odd creature heavy burn build, and the final is an R/G model based on Imagawa’s. In order, here’s a brief rundown of the advantages and disadvantages of each:

The most consistent of all the decks presented. Almost every hand you draw looks like 2-3 lands, 2-4 burn spells and 1-2 “other.” It also has the advantage of being the most anti-creature oriented of the burn builds, featuring the full maindeck compliment of Lash Out and Sulfurous Blast. Lash Out is particularly useful, although it seems worse because of the randomness involved, but it’s one of the few good ways to kill creatures for Keldon Marauders or Countryside Crusher without giving up any damage by “wasting a burn on a creature*.” In addition, Lash Out serves a crucial role in dealing with Aven Riftwatcher by killing it while potentially negating most of its life gain effect.

Another small edge is there’s a surprisingly lot of late-game for a burn deck. All the manlands, three-damage burn spells, lack of good life gain (outside of Riftwatcher, Feudkiller’s Verdict, and Primal Command, and the latter two are ridiculously expensive), along with Countryside Crusher and Greater Gargadon… these give it significant pull in the late-game if not facing an overwhelming board situation.

* Please keep spouting generalities about never wanting to kill creatures with your precious direct damage… it makes your opponents’ lives easier. There are times where it’s worth trading two burn spells to stop a Chameleon Colossus, Crusher, or Tarmogoyf from brutally beating your brains in turn after turn. Yes, you lose short-term leverage of damage by depleting your hand of six points of burn, but sometimes that’s what you need to do to survive the mid-game. If you get to a point where you can use the ridiculous amount of direct damage coming off the top of the deck, then you can make it up most likely. Oh, and you won’t be dead.

It’s a slippery slope to declare a hard and fast rule like that, and from there the most likely end is right into jagged rock junction.

Sometimes you do run out of gas, and in a number of matches after a certain turn Mutavault and Ghitu Encampment can no longer go for the jugular. Instead, they sit there knitting and twittering about waiting to get stomped on by a snarling sea-lions or whatever the hell Chameleon Colossus actually is. Any time you hit a land clump in the mid-game you basically get rolled, if it wasn’t one of your amazing matches (see Faeries) to begin with.

The other major frowny face is when your cards remind you that you’re playing a burn deck and you draw Greater Gargadon or Spark Elemental outside of turn 1 or 2. The former, which is going to take another four or more turns to get into play, and the latter, which against any opposing creature, is about as useful as every line of dialogue ever uttered in a Resident Evil game. So despite previous happiness about the deck running very well most of the time, when it doesn’t there’s no bailout switch or early defenders to try and ride out the storm.

8-Man Quickies
These are some notes I took while playing a few eight mans, with the deck to get a feel for how the deck ran against real competition. My only changes were the addition of Martyr of Ashes over Magus of the Moon to deal with Elf Warrior decks and, only running three Mutavault due to only having access to that number.

8M #1 – Rd1: Faeries
G1 — My opponent suspend a first turn Ancestral Visions, I suspend a first turn Rift Bolt. He plays a turn 2 Bitterblossom, I play two Mogg Fanatic. My opponent dies to his own Bitterblossom on turn 5.

G2 — In comes nothing because this match is a joke. Sulfurous Blast resolves on turn 4 and I win on turn 7.

Rd 2: Near mirror match, main difference was the use of Boldwyr Heavyweights.

G1 – My opponents take a mulligan to six and I take advantage of the lost burn spell and finish him with two life remaining.

G2 — I lose to Dragon’s Claw, Boldwyr Heavyweights, and a Threaten on my Crusher. Had I known about the Heavyweights I would’ve left the usually too slow Gargadon in my deck.

G3 — He doesn’t get past three mana and double Mutavault plus Ghitu Encampment end up dealing 12 points of damage from my land-heavy hand. He seemingly refuses to ‘waste burn’ on my lands, preferring to bean me for three a turn. His text makes him sound genuinely shocked when I kill him in one turn with a flurry of Shard Volley and Incinerate.

Rd 3: Faeries
G1 — I resolve Sulfurous Blast. GG

G2 — Once again I see a turn 2 Bitterblossom and wonder why people keep this card in against a burn deck, of all things. It’s a close damage race, but I eventually win because he’s lost a quarter of his life to his own card, meaning only five burn spells had to resolve to end it.

So I win an 8-man, go me.

8M #2 – Rd 1: U/W Reveillark with Clone
G1 — I lose to double Aven Riftwatcher action, with a Clone eventually coming down and copying a Riftwatcher. Color me annoyed.

I bring in all my LD.

G2 — I mulligan to six and a dreaded land clump appears, which means I can’t take advantage of his lack of Riftwatchers after getting him to five life with land beats and two burn spells. Reveillark and Blink get online which buries me in cards and knocks my man lands offline thanks to Mulldrifter and Cloudskate. A fresh Shard Volley gets my opponent to two, but he’s finally found a Riftwatcher and I lose shortly after to fliers.

And so I lose an 8-man, boo.

8M #3 — Rd 1: Faeries
I won.

Rd 2: G/R Warriors
G1 — I sweep a Bramblewood Paragon and Imperious Perfect off the face of the earth with Sulfurous Blast and finish him soon after with a 6/6 Crusher.

Martyr of Ashes gets brought in here.

G2 — I don’t see either of my sweeper cards, and soon after an Obsidian Battle-Axe plus Warriors prove too much to handle. Many of them would require two burn spells to kill, and I simply can’t race 5-9 power a turn.

G3 — An early Martyr of Ashes takes out three donks and I leverage it into a turn 7 kill off purely burn spells before a Chameleon Colossus can finish me off.

Rd 3: We do a manual split.

8-Man #1: 3-0
8-Man #2: 0-1
8-Man #3: 2-0-1 (effectively)

Although a small sample size of 8-man tournaments, I at least got some practical play with the deck and saw that yes, it totally shredded Faeries and could hand with the fastest swarm deck. I also believe that if Reveillark doesn’t see Aven Riftwatcher, under normal circumstances that game will be a bye. Post-board Manabarbs has been a huge help in my normal testing, with almost no wins coming from the U/W player if Barbs hit play.

Now we move onto…

As you can see, Alex Kim list is much more creature-centric than both the Japanese build and my build below. The creatures tend to give this deck much more of a mid-game punch, as his first few plays can continue to beat versus the normal shrimps that just die off naturally. It also runs fewer land than either build, rolling with the bare minimum of functionality at twenty.

Kim’s deck has an even better chance of drawing gas than the average burn build due to the low land count involved. It also is the only one to feature a dedicated draw card in Howling Mine, which can be very helpful when trying to trump life gain or finish an ailing aggro opponent in a close race. The creature set also is set-up to be amazingly obnoxious to midrange and control decks, getting in for a lot of early damage via the Elemental trio Inner-Flame Acolyte, Lightning Serpent, and Flamekin Bladewhirl, while the always craptastic Spark Elemental still does acts as pseudo-burn and is actually my absolute favorite of this Elemental tree. It may not look like much, but the difference between eight spells that say “deal 3” for one mana, and twelve that say the same thing, is pretty large.

These additional creatures give the deck a huge edge against control or combo, who can’t waste early resources dealing with the various two-power creatures while setting up. Then once they do, they still have to devote at least a turn into permanently disabling them, which means a golden opportunity to pelt them with burn.

The huge disadvantage about going with heavy creatures is that it just nosedives your chances against other aggressive decks. Against Mana Ramp or Reveillark, your situational Savannah Lions will get in there for six, but against Green you’ll be lucky for more than one successful attack on the draw. Inner-Flame Acolyte suffers from the same problem, on the draw you most likely would have rather drawn land since by turn 3 they will likely have either played Aven Riftwatcher; Doran, The Siege Tower; or any random Elf to block or trade with the hasty beater. On the play they can be a significantly special burn spell, one that legitimately does four damage for three mana and sticks around to threaten another attack. Ultimately though, the Acolyte is sub-optimal or trades with a removal spell too often to justify in many matches. In fact, the whole creature base just tends to make you kold to a strong creature opening by an opponent.

Howling Mine was probably the most controversial card in Kim’s build, but I found his reasoning and logic behind running Mine to mostly stand up. I say mostly, because to me Howling Mine is too much like Browbeat to justify in the deck. It sounds reasonable and it plays out passably well in a number of situations, but when you really need to count on it, you just can’t. All too often I would play Mine and instead of “There is no other deck that uses its mana as efficiently as a deck with one-mana three-damage spells…” I would draw handfuls of slow creatures instead of burn. I could see further merits to the argument in the Japanese build, because they run so much burn. However, in this build, you’ll be just as likely to draw some creature that costs three or more as you would a one-mana burn spell.

In summary, Mine is okay in the deck, but it probably doesn’t belong on the merits.

Finally, I’ll point out my last issue with the deck, and that’s the choice of Sulfurous Blast with twenty lands. Kim even states in his article he doesn’t run enough mana to run it maindeck, but still runs it in the board to try and mise the mana for it. This seems fruitless to me, and I’d rather have cards I can actually cast. Heck, I’ll settle for Pyroclasm just so I don’t get destroyed by good Elf, Faeries (okay, very good opening for these guys) or Kithkin (actually a threat online, surprisingly) openings.

I played two 8-mans with the deck to get a feel for it, with the one difference being the 4th Mutavault missing from card restraints.

8M #1 – Rd 1: Elves
G1 — I kill an early Imperious Perfect and Wolf-Skull Shaman and win with Elemental beaters around turn 8. See, that wasn’t so bad.

G2 — I get mashed by an early horde as I can’t hope to race Paragon, Perfect, and Vanquisher without my trusty Sulfurous Blast… Which is sitting in my hand mocking me and my three mana on the table. Awkward.

G3 — My opponent mulligans to five, I kill his Llanowar Elf, and he never sees a 3rd land. Hallelujah.

Rd 2- Elves
G1 – My donks are smaller than my opponent’s, and Howling Mine can’t seem to locate burn in proportion to my opponent finding land, with which he casts Primal Command.

G2 – I can’t cast Sulfurous Blast and die a miserable death.

I switch Sulfurous Blast for nice cheap Pyroclasm and move onto a new 8-man.

8M#2 – Rd 1: Faeries
G1 — Surprisingly a more difficult match than I anticipated. Two big problems arose: One was my creatures getting blocked by stupid Bitterblossom tokens and usually trading. The second being Mistbind Clique forcing me to draw a last second burn spell instead of being able to swing with Mutavault for the win.

G2 — I cast my sweeper to get a 4 for 2 and win shortly after. Man that felt nice.

Rd 2: Doran
G1 — I mull to 5 and die.

G2 — Turns out turn 2 Wall of Roots, turn 5 Mind Shatter, followed up by Primal Command (fetching Doran and gaining 7) is good enough to beat this deck! I actually could have pulled it out toward the end, but sadly Lightning Serpent doesn’t play well with Doran and I didn’t have the Spitebellows in hand to kill the Doran in my three-turn window.

So, both 8-mans were 1-1 affairs. I learned a bit about the deck, the first being that Lightning Serpent is pretty terrible except in topdeck situations not involving Doran, and the second being that Sulfurous Blast is not the bee’s knees when sitting in hand. I’m not sure how much more time I’d invest in this particular iteration of the burn deck, but I was interested in making a heavier creature based version as a result. I think this version has some glaring flaws, but is coming at typical burn deck problems from a different angle that should be considered.

This is what happened when I took what amounted to the Japanese burn deck and added some beefier guys like Treetop Village and Tarmogoyf. Instead I run more creatures than the Japanese build, while keeping the burn quotient high in an attempt to get the best from both worlds.

You get to play Tarmogoyf. ‘Nuff said… you get a guy who has already played the perfect complement to Countryside Crusher in Extended in a Standard deck.

Village is a million times more dangerous than Encampment even if you only count these reasons: Trample, can run over Riftwatcher and live, and finally does one more point of damage per attack.

The final reason is that you gain sideboard options to deal with Loxodon Warhammer if that becomes a threat in the near future. As it stands, both of the other listed decks are totally demolished by Warhammer attached to a large man, or Paladin En-Vec or a Troll Ascetic.

It runs two colors and hates running the “proper” manabase to support the Green, because it deals more damage to the burn player than is generally acceptable. Treetop Village is also borderline worthless when drawn by itself, and is forced to wait for a topdeck before swinging, considering its window of opportunity is usually turns 3-5 or in the late-game while constraining how many Red spells you can throw.

The other main problem with the deck is the higher reliance on “big men” like Countryside Crusher and Tarmogoyf means that creature removal is borderline good against the deck, and cards like Sower of Temptation have to be considered when doling out burn earlier in the game.

I’ve only done some initial testing with the deck, so I won’t offer any specifics yet, I merely wanted to get the list out there as an alternative idea to see where possible splashing could go. Hopefully this has given you some ideas about the construction of burn decks in the present, and potential new paths to explore for the future.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
E-mail me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom