Get used to it: Burn is Modern’s premiere aggro deck. Although Affinity will always be Modern’s oldest and most consistently successful aggro strategy, Burn has actually raced ahead of Affinity as the aggro deck to beat in our format. As of today, Burn is the most-played deck on MTGO and the third most-played deck in paper. Burn has it all. Speed? Check. Redundancy? Check. Maindeck answers to anti-aggro bullets? Double check, especially with the addition of Atarka’s Command in DTK. It also doesn’t hurt that this is by far the cheapest tier 1 deck in the format — no Goyfs required!
To cool down those Burn mages, we are going to tackle their game plan from a few different angles. First, we will talk about what makes a good anti-Burn card. Then we will apply those criteria to a few sideboard and maindeck card choices. Next, we’ll think about ways to actually build our deck to make Burn’s job harder. Finally, we’ll end with a more comprehensive list of anti-Burn staples, broken down by color. This will make sure your deck will have the tools it needs to beat Burn, whether it’s combo or aggro, a top-tier netdeck, or a kitchen-table brew.
What makes anti-Burn cards good?
Before we get started, I want to discuss a few criteria that make a good anti-Burn card. Like with all criteria, there are plenty of exceptions and complications to them, so we shouldn’t be afraid to think outside of their boundaries. With that in mind, here are some general guidelines for picking good cards in the Burn matchup.
- Casting cost: Burn wins fast. You want to minimize your vulnerability to Skullcrack and Command, which means playing your lifegain cards before turn 3. You also don’t want to get too far in the hole or Burn can take you apart with topdecks. That means your ideal anti-Burn card is going to have a CMC of 1 or 2, with higher costs only acceptable if the card has a game-breaking effect.
- Incremental lifegain vs. Burst lifegain: Gaining lots of life is great! That is, unless Skullcrack or Command ruins your day. Gaining life gradually is a lot better, but only if the gains are sizable or frequent enough to turn the game around. If you use bursty lifegain (like Feed the Clan, be sure to pair it with disruption to ensure it resolves. If you use incremental lifegain (like Dragon’s Claw, be sure it’s gaining enough life to matter.
- The Two-for-One: Burn is designed to get you from 20 to 0 life in as few turns as possible. Every turn you can prolong the game is another turn you are wasting Burn resources and putting them behind. But because Burn is built with so many damage effects, one-for-one trades only prolong the the eventual loss. But two-for-one trades are much better. Blowing up an enemy Guide and gaining some life effectively stops two cards: the creature itself and the burn spell you gained life after. Cards that make these exchanges (like Harm’s Way) can be very strong against Burn.
With these criteria in mind, let’s start chilling out those Burn players.
The sideboard is the most obvious entry point to handling any problematic deck, and a lot of Burn answers fit nicely into your average Modern sideboard. The bad news is many of the cards that are traditionally considered as good in this matchup (e.g. Leyline of Sanctity or Timely Reinforcements) are actually weaker than people think they are. Why? Because Burn’s gameplan is more evolved than many give it credit. This isn’t the Burn deck of 2008! Burn mages run at least 4 Destructive Revelry style effects in their board, and the brunt of their damage will come from creatures anyway. Skullcrack and Command will stop lifegain if you use it recklessly, and the Burn deck is so efficient that it can often just count on topdecking damage spell after damage spell.
Does this make Burn unbeatable? No way. It just means we need to play even better sideboard cards to overcome the next-level-threats that we see in Burn. Here are five sideboard cards that fit our criteria and work nicely against the Modern Burn decks we see today. They still have weaknesses, but in the right deck they will give you a huge edge over your Bolt-slinging opponents.
The Burn killer himself, Firewalker is a monster against Burn. The overwhelming majority of Burn decks these days have no way to kill this card, at least nothing more than Skullcrack to turn off its damage prevention and then hoping you block with it. Left unchecked, however, Firewalker takes over the game. He turns Bolts into Shocks. He blocks and kills Guides and Eidolons and chumps MS indefinitely. He can also switch to beatdown mode after things get stabilized to close the game. Just be careful for those Skullcracks when running Firewalker and you will walk all over the enemy.
What kind of decks can use Firewalker? Abzan, Abzan Liege, UWR Control, UWR Midrange, UW Control, Hatebears, Death and Taxes, Zoo, and an enormous range of other Modern mainstays. Heck, even Burn players run this to help out the mirror! In fact, Firewalker is especially potent in decks that are running red themselves, because he will trigger for your own spells.
Can’t support Firewalker’s double white? Dragon Claw has you covered. The colorless, noncreature Firewalker isn’t quite as strong as the Kor himself, but it does a great impression for those decks that can’t run Firewalker. Unfortunately, almost every Burn deck is running either 4 Revelry or some number of Wear // Tear in the board, and you can be sure to see those cards in games 2/3. But if backed up by countermagic (like UR Delver did it back in the KTK days), hand disruption, or good old fashioned pressure, Claw will soften Burn spells enough that you don’t need to worry about an immediate Revelry.
The beauty of Claw is that any deck can run it. Mono U Tron? Have some Dragon’s Claw! Nykthos Green? Dragon Claw might be the card for you. Skred Red? Like Kor, Dragon’s Claw triggers for BOTH players! So when in doubt and if you are worried about colors, Claw is an excellent go-to answer.
Weird tech incoming. Let’s get some of the negatives out of the way. Yes, Trap is a bit narrow. Yes, there will be situations where the opponent is just beating you down with creatures and they aren’t “springing” the trap. And yes, Skullcrack ruins Trap’s day. But when it works, the two for one blowout for just a single white mana is too insane to pass up. Trap not only “counters” a Burn spell, it also melts any creature in Burn’s deck, including Grim Lavamancers sitting on the sidelines, and Swiftspears with 3 toughness. It’s just brutal if cast in response to a Searing Blood or similar effect, where it can prevent just enough of the damage to save your creature, prevent any leftover damage to you, and still blast a Burn critter to pieces. Oh, and that pesky new Atarka’s Command, unlike Skullcrack, doesn’t stop the Trap prevention.
Because Trap is a little narrow, you might not want to put more than 2 copies in your board. But remember that the card also has a lot of applications in the Gruul/Naya/Domain Zoo matchups, as well as Delver games. And if you are worried about Trap’s clause being triggered, Harm’s Way is another passable replacement that is alive in way more aggro matchups.
Burn answers are typically white, which makes other players feel like they often have to choose between splashing, relying on Dragon’s Claw, or just trying to race/ignore the Burn player. Flashfreeze gives you another option. On the one hand, it’s just a Counterspell in the Burn matchup, except costing 1U instead of UU. On the other hand, it’s a sideboard card that’s totally live in many other matchups. Basically every top deck in the format runs green or red, so Flashfreeze is a great way to maximize your valuable sideboard slots. Just remember that countermagic alone won’t win you the game. Pair Flashfreeze with some kind of pressure for maximum effect.
Feed the Clan
If you want bursty lifegain, it doesn’t get better than Feed the Clan. 2 mana for 10 life is as good as it gets in Modern. Even if you need to cast Feed without fulfilling Ferocious, 5 life is still nothing to sneeze at. When it works, Feed is going to be a 2 mana investment to “counter” or otherwise invalidate 3 Bolt effects. Burn typically can’t recover from that kind of blowout. But be careful when you try to feed your clan, because Burn will often have 4+ ways to handle this card in the maindeck alone. The best way around the dangerous Skullcrack/Command is to pair Feed with hand disruption (Inqusition of Kozilek is great, Thoughtseize is a bit worse) or countermagic (Dispel, Spell Pierce, etc.).
Because of Feed’s vulnerability to Crack and Command, it’s important to only use Feed in a deck that can guarantee it resolves. Abzan, Hatebears, RUG Delver/Twin, and similar decks come to mind. Alternately, you can run it in decks where you are also trying to race Burn yourself and you just need the card as a backup plan to help Burn waste resources or play conservatively. Zoo or Stompy are great examples of that approach.
Modern is a diverse format, which means your maindeck can’t always be too custom-tailored to beating any one kind of deck. Maindeck Kor Firewalker might be a great way of hedging your bets in the Burn matchup, but your Infect, Amulet Bloom, and Abzan opponents are just going to laugh their way to the next round. Of course, it’s fine to make maindeck decisions that are influenced by a certain matchup (like Burn), so long as those decisions don’t also hamstring you in other matchups. Or, better yet, if those decisions end up being just as relevant in those matchups as they are in Burn. The prime example of this would be a Twin deck that maindecks Dispel, which is effectively a 1 mana hard counter against many Burn spells, but is also useful against tons of other decks when the Twin pilot is protecting their combo.
Following that philosophy, here are three maindeck card choices that can give you an edge in a Burn-heavy metagame.
If you are playing red and white, I can’t think of many good reasons not to play this card. It’s a two for one against almost any aggro deck. It’s even better against Burn because so many of Burn’s resources are spells and not creatures, so it’s much harder for Burn to keep up a consistent damage output if they lose a beater. Compare this with Merfolk or Affinity, decks that can keep pushing through a Helix with all their lords or with a Plating. Helix is nasty either in decks that apply pressure to race Burn, or in decks that try to stabilize until bigger threats hit the battlefield.
In fact, Helix is such a strong card against both Burn and the other aggro decks that it is almost worth playing white/red just for the card. We have seen some UWR Twin and UWR Delver strategies in paper and MTGO events subscribe to this approach in recent weeks. I also expect to see more of this if Burn and the other linear aggro decks continue to be such a big part of the metagame.
Sorin, Solemn Visitor
Can a 4 mana card really answer a deck that tries to win by turn 4 itself? If paired with even just a little disruption, the answer is yes: Sorin will just win you the game on his own. Even backed up by a lone Tarmogoyf, Sorin threatens an immediate 10+ point life swing (assuming an average 4/5 Goyf). Add in a turn 3 Souls on the turn before and you are looking at gaining as much a 16+ swing. This assumes you don’t even block, which Sorin’s long-lasting lifelink clause allows you to do if you have to.
Sorin is also all but impossible for Burn to deal with. Assuming you lifelink after he hits play (and why wouldn’t you?), the Burn player has to commit 5 damage to kill him. More if you save a blocker. Add to that the 5+ lifegain you benefit from because of your Goyf/Souls/Tas, and Burn is now at least four cards behind, double time walked, and totally out of the game.
We are starting to see Sorin show up in Abzan lists, and I’m surprised that more decks aren’t running them. Christopher Juliano ran Sorin in Abzan to a 15th place finish at SCG Baltimore, and we see it pretty regularly on MTGO (where Burn is admittedly more rampant than in paper). But for all decks running white, black, and creatures, Sorin is an awesome 1-2 of inclusion in your maindeck.
What do the following Burn spells have in common? Eidolon, Skullcrack, Atarka’s Command, Boros Charm, Lightning Helix, and Searing Blaze. Modern players are always asking when Spell Snare is a good metagame choice, and now is one of the best times for the counterspell to see some serious play. Snare stops a number of important Burn spells cold, including the new Command, which is sure to increase the amount of maindecked 2 CMC spells that Burn is using. Although Snare doesn’t stop the Guides and Swiftspears, it is often more important to stop the bomby 2 CMC cards like that nasty Eidolon or Crack/Command. When you add to that all the other matchups where Snare is useful, you have a great case for running this card in the maindeck.
The key with Snare is not to think of it as a catchall answer for your Burn woes. It’s just one more bullet that screws with Burn while also retaining relevance in other matchups. Snare has always been a strong Modern card, but it has only gotten stronger in recent months. Burn is a big factor that contributes to this newfound strength.
Deck choices and Burn
Sometimes the best way to beat Burn isn’t to play anti-Burn cards. It’s just to make different decisions in how you build your deck. Whether this means playing a less painful manabase, playing a strategy that can race Burn, or building your deck with game 1 anti-Burn effects, there are lots of higher-level ways of attacking the Burn matchup. In that spirit, here are a few ways that you can go after Burn without necessarily using techy maindeck and sideboard cards.
Crack out those basics! Lots of Modern players take our fetchland and shockland manabase as a given. But if you are trying to succeed in a metagame with 12%+ Burn, then that is no longer an assumption you want to make. Giving the opponent a free Shock is bad enough. Giving them two free Bolts will often be game over on its own. When building your deck, think of ways to go mono or two-colored instead of going greedy with 3+ color goodstuff approaches. Use fastlands and checklands (e.g. Blackcleave Cliffs and Dragonskull Summit) instead of shocks and fetches. Use basics. Do what you have to do to minimize the damage and make Burn’s job harder.
Speed things up
If Burn is trying to win on turn 4, then why not try to win on turn 4 yourself? Or, better yet, on turn 2 or 3? This is how Infect, Amulet Bloom, and Twin approach the Burn matchup (not to mention decks like Storm, Griselbrand, and Affinity). If you can go faster than Burn then you can probably beat them. Burn isn’t exactly designed for that much interaction, so if your non-interactive game plan can exploit that, you will have a good chance of winning. There is a larger question here as to whether or not this kind of hare vs. hare speed is good for the format, but that question will be the last thing on your mind when you go 2-0 against Burn on the back of Primeval Titan or Blighted Agent.
“Pre-board” for Burn
Decks like Soul Sisters, Martyr Proc, and Enchantress might be on the fringe of playability, but they get a lot better in metagames that are packed with Burn. Nothing frustrates a Burn player like a turn 0 Leyline in game 1, or a turn 2 Martyr of Sands with no chance to Skullcrack in response. Using these kind of swingy lifegain cards before the sideboard is a great way to steal game 1 and get an edge in the matchup. Of course, you don’t want to do this just to beat Burn. Maindeck Leyline will feel great against Burn, fine against Abzan, but it’s almost totally useless against Twin. That is, unless your deck is designed to abuse that card on its own. For instance, the blitzy Death’s Shadow that sometimes appears on MTGO, going down to perilously low life totals behind Leyline protection. Another example of this is the maindeck Spellskite we see in many Infect and some Twin lists, a card that runs double-duty protecting their win conditions and staving off Burn.
These are just a few high-level strategies that you can use to get a Burn edge before the game even starts. With so much Burn around, it’s also very reasonable to play a deck that has good Burn matchups, or to modify your deck to give it a slight advantage against Burn players. As long as you aren’t compromising your deck too much in doing so, this can be a winning strategy.
The anti-Burn arsenal
With a card pool as big as Modern’s, there are seriously hundreds of cards that can improve the Burn matchup. These lists below will give you a rough top five list for anti-Burn tech, broken down by color. All of them fit at least a few of the criteria given earlier in this article, and/or are the best option in that color for what they do. I’ll also give one “It’s a trap!” card, along with a quick note, to illustrate some cards that try to trick you into thinking they are good for the Burn matchup.
- Leyline of Sanctity
- Kor Firewalker
- Timely Reinforcements
- Circle of Protection: Red
- Honorable mention: Auriok Champion
- It’s a trap!: Rest for the Weary (Not a great topdeck because it relies on both landfall and on the opponent not having Crack/Command)
- Spell Snare
- Spell Pierce
- Honorable mention: Repeal
- It’s a trap!: Aetherize (Too much mana for a relatively small effect. By the time you cast this, Burn has already gotten enough mileage from its creatures)
- Inquisition of Kozilek
- Bile Blight
- Vault Skirge
- Honorable mention: Pharika’s Cure
- It’s a trap!: Thoughtseize (Not nearly as bad against Burn as some people think, but use it wisely. TSing an Eidolon is probably good. TSing a Bolt is not)
- Grim Lavamancer
- Lightning Bolt
- Honorable mention: Honestly, if you are playing Red, your goal is to race Burn, not answer it.
- It’s a trap!: Anger of the Gods (Expensive sweeper that comes online too late. Strong against more creature-oriented strategies, but Burn plays around it)
- Feed the Clan
- Scavenging Ooze
- Courser of Kruphix
- Gnaw to the Bone
- Honorable mention: Obstinate Baloth
- It’s a trap!: Bow of Nylea (Vulnerable to both Crack/Command and Revelry. Too much mana investment for such a small and fragile effect)
- Lightning Helix
- Kitchen Finks
- Sorin, Solemn Visitor
- Huntmaster of the Fells
- Siege Rhino
- Honorable mention: Boros Reckoner
- It’s a trap!: Ajani Vengeant (Often just a 4 mana Helix. Compare with Sorin who actually ends the game)
- Dragon’s Claw
- Chalice of the Void
- Wurmcoil Engine
- Radiant Fountain
- Honorable mention: Sun Droplet
- It’s a trap!: Engineered Explosives (Easy to play around. 3 mana to blow up 2 creatures is not worth it, and if it eats a Revelry you wasted the card to begin with)
That wraps up our deep dive on how to beat Burn. Whether through sideboard bullets, maindeck tweaks, or just different ways of approaching your deck choices, you will hopefully have the different tools you need to prevail in the Burn matchup.
Join me next time when I look at the next Modern bigshot and the different ways we can bring it down: Abzan.
Sheridan is the former Editor in Chief of Modern Nexus and a current Staff Author. He comes from a background in social science data analysis, database administration, and academia. He has been playing Magic since 1998 and Modern since 2011.