Going straight for the head

Light ‘em up!

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The letter M!agma. Searing hot magma. Soon it will erupt from Mt. St. Helens and flow all over Wizards of the Coast, causing the next five sets to be entirely burn themed, instilled with the spirit of fire.

Ok, perhaps not.

Magic is a multifaceted game. You can fight your battles in many ways; with creatures, artifacts, enchantments, lands, or spells. While creatures are usually the most efficient route, spells provide a directness and power that makes them very hard to stop. Now, don't get me wrong, although some very difficult spells like Coalition Victory will just let you outright win the game, what I am talking about here is a little easier to pull off: Burn.

Everyone knows about burn, especially when building on a budget. It is likely the most popular deck type when we rank decks by the price paid to build them, something that has been true for pretty much the game's entire history. It is cheap, efficient, and deadly. Burn is not only effective, it also teaches us something very important about Magic – it teaches us about tempo.

For those of you who are not versed in Magic theory, let me briefly explain. There is the coin of card flow, and on one side you have card advantage, while on the other you have tempo. Card advantage means that you are gaining cards – actions like casting Inspiration best display this. Tempo means that you are using your cards in exchange for ending the game sooner – pointing Shock at your opponent's head is a good example.

Usually card advantage is what you want to be gaining. However, if you have enough tempo (generally enough to deal 20 points worth of damage), then you will have won the game. The tough part is getting that much tempo before running out of cards…because when you run out of steam, you are going to get trounced. Generally, a popular way of making sure you don't run out of steam is to use card advantage to nullify some of the adverse effects of tempo. The other way is to make sure the cards you have are enough to get the job done on their own, which often saves the time of trying to gain back card advantage.

Calculating if you have enough to get the job done is probably the most direct application of math to Magic. Simply take the total amount of damage all your burn spells do and divide that by the number of cards in your deck. You will get a number that tells you what the average card you draw will equate to in damage, thus telling you how many cards you will (on average) need to draw before your opponent is dead. Treat X spells as what you would probably cast them at – I'm treating Fireball as 2.5 damage in this case, since I probably won't have more than 4 lands out with this particular deck.

Here is the deck; see if you come up with the same number as me:

Building on a Budget: Light 'em Up! (about 30 tickets)

112.5/60=1.875 If you add up all the cards that do damage, you get 112.5 points of damage. Divide this by the 60 card deck and you get 1.875 points of damager per card on average. 20/1.875=10.667 Now take your opponent's 20 life and divide it by your damage per card (1.875) and you get the number of cards needed to deal 20 damage on average, which is 10.667, so 11 cards will net you 20 damage on average.

In reality, you will probably need fewer than 11 cards, because you might draw Isochron Scepter, which I counted as 0 damage because it does nothing on its own, but it could potentially deal an infinite amount of damage over time.

Now, you will have 11 cards on turn 5 if you go first, or turn 4 if you go second. This is easily doable, so you shouldn't run out of steam. I doubt you would be able to kill your opponent that quickly either, though, as there's also the question of how much mana/time it takes to actually cast all your spells. However, you should still keep this rough number of cards needed in mind if you plan on killing your opponent's creatures with your burn. Don't use up too much of it or you might find yourself lacking the resources to kill your opponent, and needing to topdeck burn for the win. This also should be used in consideration as to when you should start going to their face. It will take you several turns to burn them out because of the mana requirements, so start planning early. You might even Shock your opponent on the first turn. Many players may laugh at you for such a play, but when a good player does that to me, I am scared out of my pants, because I know I am already dead in a few turns.

Tips on Playing the Deck

  • Do the math. Sure, any trained monkey can point burn at someone's dome, but you will truly look like a trained monkey if you come up 3 points short. Of course, sometimes you will want to weigh in the number of cards you will draw during the period of time you are spending burning them. So if you can do 16 points and it will take you 3 turns, you will probably draw 4 points of burn in that period of time according to our math.
  • Burn their men or no? Again, consult the math. Can you burn them out in time before they kill you with their guys? What if they play more guys next turn? Generally, burning their men is the correct play, since it will buy you more time to draw more cards, thus deal more damage. If you don't think burning their guy will gain you 2 turns, it probably isn't worth doing it. Math will help, do it!
  • Use your cards efficiently: keep in mind that there are some tricks that the math didn't include beyond the Scepter – Pulse of the Forge and Hammer of Bogardan. Now, it's tough to reuse the Hammer often, but if you run out of steam from killing too many guys, it can help. Also, in a racing situation, the Pulse can do some major damage.
  • Shrapnel Blast is your best card by far. Use it wisely. If you don't send this card to their face, it sets you back a lot.

Adding Money to the Deck

You can do a lot of cool things with burn. Given the cards or tickets you could add more lands, Pulses, and Hammers. You could add Furnace of Rath to make your averages double when you get it into play. When Kamigawa comes out you can use Lava Spike and Glacial Ray to your advantage, probably along with Desperate Ritual or some other arcane spell. You can try adding some creatures that are good at pushing damage through, like Arc-Slogger or Kumano, Master Yamabushi. Slith Firewalker and Furnace Whelp are also popular choices.

Until next time, may your lightning be spherical.

-Nate Heiss
BuildingOnABudget and nateheiss on Magic Online

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