Being The Small Fish In A Big Legacy Pond
Legacy is a vast format with a small percentage of the same decks putting up consistent results. Every once in a while, an established archetype from years ago will pop up in the Top 16, or have some resurgent success based on metagame changes and card releases. But these are usually blips on the radar, so when brainstorming (no pun intended) for a tournament it’s very important to not get too cute with your choices.
Burn in Legacy occupies a space that, as usual for Red in most formats, is often misunderstood. It’s easy to look at a typical Burn list and make some strong criticisms when surveying the rest of the format. Some of the most common ones you’ll hear:
- Why are you playing a budget deck and limiting yourself to one color when you have access to just about anything in Magic?
- How do you expect to beat decks with cards or strategies that are considered superior by most of the community in Force of Will, Brainstorm, Delver of Secrets, Stoneforge Mystic, Combo, etc?
- How are you able to address bad matchups with such a limited card selection available to you?
The first question won’t have an answer that is satisfactory for most, but it will be understandable to those who have attachments to things. Some people just like setting fires, they like the passion, they like being the aggressor. Burn occupies all of those things, and this is the most pure Burn deck you can basically play in a tournament.
But furthermore, I believe that Burn is a fully Tier 1 Legacy deck and not the Tier 1.5 that many mages might try to stray you on. You won’t see as many high finishes because of how narrow it is and the questions above that it presents, but finishes are not the only thing that equate to performance. Burn is an incredibly difficult deck to master, and most pilots are either inexperienced or not willing to put in the time to make tough choices second nature (or to understand its roles in the Metagame). A few pilots have taken time to do this, and have won or Top 8’d events as a result. With the increasing popularity of Modern Burn, I imagine a few more will crossover into Legacy as well in a matter of time.
I think the biggest difference in Legacy over any other format, especially in regards to Burn, is that mistakes are often punished with a game loss. While playing tight is important no matter what kind of Magic you’re doing, it’s emphasized here because you are playing against an even quicker clock and a format where cards like Brainstorm and free spells will make sure that punishment is dealt every time. Legacy is all about little moments; places in a game where the slightest variance in sequencing or the ever so incorrect board choice makes all the difference.
In response to the second question, I expect to beat the rest of this stacked field because our deck is (like Burn in other formats) attacking from a specific angle that most decks aren’t naturally prepared to beat. You are not interested in their gameplan or the life of your creatures, you are simply interested in bringing them from 20 to 0 as fast as possible. While your opponents gets cards that help them filter to their most important pieces or consistently “go off” on a given turn, you get cards that make your clock either on par to theirs or “break” the game by doing something completely outside of the normal means of combat. For example, THESE cards:
Sulfuric Vortex is the biggest temptation for playing Legacy Burn. While it hasn’t always made the 75 depending on what the metagame is doing, it’s usually a key piece and one that you both don’t get to play in other formats and can’t play in most other decks. There’s nothing more satisfying then slamming this against a Miracles player and knowing the fear you are putting into them as they realize the clock just got a whole lot more consistent, quicker, and their hopes put on a card or two in their deck. Besides having a repeatable burn source, you take away lifegain which the majority of decks are not prepared to deal with in Game 1. The matchups where Stoneforge Mystic was going to fetch up a trusty Jitte or Batterskull now face the same difficulties as the Miracles player. Council’s Judgment or bust, Sucka!
Price of Progress baffles some newer players to Legacy because while they know people play duals and other non-basics, they don’t realize the damage potential and they feel like it’s too much of a liability when the card is dead. It’s important to get past this belief, as Price of Progress is rarely dead (outside of a Mirror), and in many matches the damage can often reach over half your opponent’s starting life total. The bigger issue is that your opponent can play around it, but most decks can only do that to a certain extent, and often players will forget about it or have no choice but to extend into it. It’s a crucial card, and one of the cogs that can keep you in the driver’s seat against a deck that is potentially much faster than you.
Fireblast is one of the most satisfying Red cards in all of Magic, because much like Force of Will your opponent can never feel safe. Even when tapped out and exhausting your hand of Burn spells and their responses, you could always just “have it”. And that’s ignoring the pure efficiency of 0 mana for 4 damage which you can’t touch with anything else.
To answer the third question, your sideboard must be educated and focused, and that is all dependent on your knowledge of the format, metagame, and the accuracy of your predictions. Legacy does have some very lopsided matchups, so sometimes Burn can just be a big dog in the format, but usually there is enough variance that you can dodge the bad ones or accept a loss that you know you couldn’t get out of. That said, if your list is tuned correctly, you shouldn’t have anything that is strictly unwinnable. The worst decks are by far the “other” combo decks (Belcher, Storm, Reanimator, Dredge, Sneak & Show, etc) because like you they are playing only their game and are too fast for you to beat on an optimal draw straight-up. So what becomes more challenging, is deciding if you want to abandon a matchup post-board or decrease your winning percentage against “the field”.
What helps this decision a bit is that Burn is often not a very popular archetype at big tournaments, and as such, the other pillars of the format have their say in what fringe archetypes can or cannot see the light of day. Miracles, Delver, and D&T (Death & Taxes) can be oppressive enough that if they catch a wave of success at tournaments, some of the ones you’re worried about may disappear altogether. Even some of the primary staples can be ushered out in this manner, as we’ve recently seen with D&T. This very move itself has allowed me to shave on cards in my Legacy Burn list and focus more on other areas. Many people consider D&T to be a bye for Burn, but I know from playing against some of the better pilots in the country that it is a very close match if they have experience with it.
So What Is Our Metagame?
There isn’t a 100% answer to this, and the problem is more difficult to assess in Legacy due to card prices / availability and regional preference. In a large tournament though, you can at least count on the pillars to show up, with a bigger percentage being decks that have had success the last few weeks or benefited from new card releases. I usually start by looking at the last two months of StarCityGames Opens and Premier IQs, Grand Prixes, and European results.
More often than not, Reanimator and Dredge are not worth bothering with. Both decks basically require dedicated graveyard hate, and you rarely have the sideboard room to draw anything reliably that you would put there. You usually have to get that sideboard card in hand or on the board within the first turn or two, and that’s asking a lot. Cards like Surgical Extraction, Faerie Macabre, Leyline of the Void, Mogg Fanatic (for Dredge’s Bridge From Below), Grafdigger’s Cage, Tormod’s Crypt, or Relic of Progenitus are the go-tos, and they’re not applicable against 90% of the rest of the decks. I’ve seen Burn players try and bring in things like Relic against Maverick (to counter Knight) or Snapcaster/Goyf decks, but you’re costing yourself a Burn spell / Creature and it only gets worse as time goes on. Sure, if you draw it early and your opponent is reliant on those certain pieces to win, it can be effective, but most of the time you’re drawing it too late for it to matter when it could have been that last bolt to the head. Cards like Leyline are mulligan or bust, and I’d rather just capitalize more on what makes Burn good (its consistency).
The cards that see the most fluctuation in my board are the following:
Searing Blaze and Grim Lavamancer are both fantastic against the creature-heavy decks or anything that presents a decent amount of targets. These are the spells that up your percentages from 50/50s and 55/45s against decks like D&T, Maverick, Elves, Delver, Shardless, etc. It’s much better against the non-blue aggro decks because they tend to run more creatures (and it can’t be countered), so keep that in mind when deciding how many you want to include. Many Burn players were maindecking Blaze in the recent metagame which just baffles me. It’s a dead card against so many decks, decks where you preciously need that extra damage, and it’s not as amazing against stuff like Delver as some give credit for. A two mana conditional spell is a lot in Legacy, especially when those blue-aggro matches often hinge on playing around Daze and Spell Pierce. Grim Lavamancer fares a little bit better, but obviously being a 1/1 creature means that he’s quite easy to get off the board.
I think usually most 75s want some number of both so that you’re not giving away too much against commonly popular decks. I’d lean more towards Lavamancer, and you could consider some number of both in the main if the meta shifts towards “fair dude decks”, but as it stands, that’s not the game we’re living in at the moment. Miracles, Delver, Shardless Sultai, and Esper Stoneblade are the top 4 pillars, all of whom demand additional answers.
Mindbreak Trap is one of your better options against Storm and Belcher, but like most hate cards for those matchups they have solutions. What’s useful here is that you can be tapped out and play it, and since you have a variety of answers at your disposal, it’s likely that they may keep the wrong card or guess incorrectly. That is of course if you even see your board card/s. Eidolon is helpful in these matchups, but sometimes they go off before you can get one out, and sometimes even with him out they have Echoing Truth or Abrupt Decay to remove him before they finish.
One way that you can combat some of the combo matchups or supplement fringe board cards is to run Pyroblast. Pyroblast is never the ideal sideboard card, but it’s probably the most flexible one vs matchups that are difficult or close. Against Storm, you can counter a Brainstorm, Preordain, or Ponder to interrupt them from going off. It of course won’t get rid of their existing storm count, but it might prevent them from being able to dig far enough to get to Tendrils or get lethal damage. Against Miracles, if you happen to have it before they land a Counterbalance you can attempt to counter it, or you can attempt to destroy it if they have to play it naked (no Top).
Similarly, Pyroblast can counter Show and Tell or cantrip spells, making a Sneak & Show player have to have a counterspell of their own or a Sneak Attack. These again aren’t the greatest ways to answer your problems, but Pyroblast provides enough strength that I think it’s a good time to be playing it. I also wouldn’t feel obligated to bring in 3 or 4 of them, even just 1 or 2 is a nice addition. Diluting your deck of damage threats is a concern to always be aware of with Legacy Burn. Lastly, keep in mind that you can still target permanents with Pyroblast even if they aren’t Blue, it simply won’t destroy the permanent. This is useful when needing an extra Prowess trigger on Monastery Swiftspear (similar to how you’d play spells into Chalice of the Void or Counterbalance at times even though they’d be countered).
Ensnaring Bridge is the last card that sees some movement depending on the Meta, but in general it’s one I’d play more often than not. It’s arguably your best answer to Sneak & Show, as cards like Ashen Rider can only be played against the one matchup and don’t help you if they resolve a Sneak Attack. Bridge on the other hand, doubles at being a solid addition versus Delver and less seen archetypes such as MUD or Goblins. In the case of Delver, they are usually not actively boarding in artifact hate, so it can often steal a game after you exhaust your early burn spells. Just remember that all Delver decks have access to some hate post-board, so in game 3 (if there is one) it’s probably wise to board it back out.
Some new cards have been popping up in Burn that have made a large impact on the deck. One of them is my own personal innovation, and the others are ones that I’ve had to try out but have since been thoroughly convinced on their place in the list after success at recent tournaments.
The first (and my spin) is Molten Vortex:
Vortex serves the role of Grim Lavamancer in the sense of repeatable damage, but being an enchantment makes it more difficult to remove for many decks. Additionally, it turns every draw of yours into a live one and prevents flooding, which is precisely what you lose to playing Burn more than any other obstacle. I was excited when I first saw the card spoiled in Origins, and was surprised when it didn’t get initially adopted. Stephen Neal from my area who Top 8’d Pro Tour Origins played one in his sideboard, but that was Standard and this was a card I felt has a better application in a format filled with low toughness creatures and lockout decks.
Against Miracles, Molten Vortex joins your other pesky enchantments (Eidolon of the Great Revel and Sulfuric Vortex) to overload them on targets for Council’s Judgment. This has been a key turning point for me in making Miracles feel like a good matchup. They only have so many answers to enchantments, so if you can form a threshold of them it is often very difficult to mount a comeback. Molten Vortex also sneaks in underneath their combo more often than your other two, so it’s one extra inch in a battle for them. And unlike Pyrostatic Pillar which requires the opponent to play into your triggers, Vortex is instead actively killing them.
Molten Vortex is very useful against Lands, a deck that would otherwise Punishing Fire the card if it were a creature. It’s OK against Delver and small creature decks that push you to keep drawing those last few points of damage, and overall it’s been a winner. The one drawback is that you never want to draw two of them, and it’s better later in the game than earlier, so you’re likely only going to have 1-2 copies in the board.
Exquisite Firecraft was the card that people asked me about the most when it got spoiled. There were a lot of folks who thought it would be good in Legacy and I initially was not in that camp. It’s very difficult for anything with three mana tacked onto it to see play, and there’s also always the question of whether or not there’s just a better card out there for the job.
After early tournament results showed that people who placed were playing it, I thought it was only right to at least be objective and give it a try. I sleeved it up for a win-a-box about a month ago and knew there would be some Delver and Miracles players lurking.
The card was insane. I knew the scenario that it “should” be good in from speculation, which is that it would be your last burn spell that normally would be countered versus those decks. But I undervalued the power granted by that situation in those matchups, and the fact that you could draw multiples and just put that game completely into your hands from a percentage standpoint. And in the Delver matchup, you can kill a Delver himself, which sometimes is the very thing that loses you the race.
Whether you have to shave numbers on it or not to make room for other cards, it’s doubtful for me that I’d ever take this out of the sideboard after now having multiple win-a-boxes under my belt (both of which I won).
Pithing Needle is the last recent addition to the deck and one that I know has occasionally made Burn sideboards before. The reason it’s being discussed here is because I think it’s applicable against enough tougher matchups and unknowns that it needs to be in the 75 currently. It doesn’t do damage itself which is a big hesitation point for a card, but like Pyroblast the level of flexibility is unmatched. Against Lands, you can name Thespian Stage and prevent them from comboing out on you unless they are able to draw an answer, putting them on the Punishing Fire plan which buys you important time. Against Miracles it can name Sensei’s Divining Top and come down early before they assemble a prison. Against MUD it can name Metalworker or Kuldotha Forgemaster to slow them down enough to sneak out wins. The options are wide open, and so is this format, so it’s about as good a mise as I could ask for.
Sensei’s Divining Top popped up in an SCG Burn list a while back and I was immediately intrigued. The card made good sense; it can filter to make sure you almost always have a Burn spell or what you need at the ready, and you have fetch lands to make sure your next few cards aren’t getting stale. It triggers Prowess on Monastery Swiftspear, and it lets you draw an extra card in a critical turn. There’s few detractors, outside of it not being damage itself (which can be remedied with its two modes) and the fact that it’s bad in multiples. You can do some fun tricks with two of them and a Swiftspear, but aside from that it fits the role of Molten Vortex in being just that bit of extra sauce you need to get the win.
The Last Piece
Smash to Smithereens is a staple Burn sideboard card that is one of the hardest to decide the number on. You want it against decks with Batterskull and Jitte (Stoneblade, Maverick, D&T, Shardless) and against decks that are either artifact based or bringing Chalice of the Void / Ensnaring Bridge in against you (MUD, some Delver builds, Painter, Pox, U/B Tezzeret, etc). The big problem is that the first tier of those decks also have a beatdown plan, so you can’t have too many situational cards that might or might not be correct depending on their hand and line of play. But the artifacts that the first tier decks run are quite impactful, and the other decks mentioned are back-breaking at times, so you do want some number.
Usually for me that number is 1 or 2, sometimes 3 if the Meta has a crazy shift. Most Burn players I see tend to run it as a 3-of, but I think that’s just too many when it doesn’t help much against the current 4 pillars of the format. Regardless, when it’s good, it’s great, so always have it in your decision process.
The List And The Leftovers
Here is where my list would be at if I were taking it to a major Legacy event tomorrow:
Burn by John Galli (Legacy)
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Goblin Guide
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
3 Sulfuric Vortex
1 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Rift Bolt
4 Lava Spike
4 Price of Progress
4 Chain Lightning
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Bloodstained Mire
2 Arid Mesa
4 Exquisite Firecraft
2 Ensnaring Bridge
2 Smash to Smithereens
1 Searing Blaze
1 Grim Lavamancer
1 Molten Vortex
1 Pithing Needle
There’s obviously a good many cards not talked about or seen here, and I’ll try to quickly address some of those:
- Flame Rift: Actually considering bringing this back in, Eidolon took its spot but it represents unparalleled damage at its cost and can help you race combo decks better
- Vexing Shusher: Often a go-to Miracles / Delver card, but I’ve never liked it in Burn. It’s just another bear for them to kill and the activated ability requires too much mana and too much work in addition to the condition of it not dying. I understand why people play it and like it, but IMO not worth it
- Sulfur Elemental: When D&T picks up in popularity I like this card more. Definitely helpful against Flickerwisp which can often be one of the most annoying cards they have against you. Killing Thalia and Mother of Runes is equally great
- Dualcaster Mage: I haven’t seen this guy played yet in Legacy Burn, but I have to imagine it’d be hilarious. And who knows, it could actually be good. I’d love to see the look on my opponent’s face when I copy a Fireblast for exactsies. . .
- Blood Moon: I’m not sure who this is reliably coming down against and affecting much. Maybe Lands, 4-color Delver decks and Sneak & Show, but you’re not a deck that wants this slow effect which is better when you have 4 in your list and some way to accelerate it out
- Volcanic Fallout: While this card seems good against Elves, Delver, Deathrite Shaman, and Young Pyromancer, it’s pretty much only good there. Most of the other decks have too much variance in toughness or it’s killing the creatures that don’t truly matter to the matchup. I’ve played it quite a bit in Legacy Burn, and it just never was quite what I was hoping for. It’s another one like Shusher that I can understand why people might like it but just doesn’t make sense for me in the end. If Delver at some point just starts dominating the format and D&T makes a return from the dead, then I’ll reconsider
- Skullcrack: Ah yes, Skullcrack. This is a card I tried for a while thinking that it might actually be precisely the upgrade Burn would like to have. In the end, it’s not efficient enough in comparison to the other Burn spells and Sulfuric Vortex occupies the same role while just being better most of the time. If Vortex sours in the Meta, Skullcrack is a sure-fire replacement, but until that day occurs it’s not worth the room. It also can be useful if Circle of Protection: Red becomes popular, so keep an eye on that as well
- Searing Blood: Completely acceptable as Searing Blaze #5 – 8, especially in creature-heavy Metas. I’ve at times ran 4 of each, when D&T and Elves were everywhere. Now is not that time, but your local meta may vary
- Sideboard Cards Of Other Colors: I know the temptation is very real, but to paraphrase Patrick Sullivan, those 1 out of 8 games you get Wastelanded will make you think otherwise. I could potentially see a situation where you have a dual land in the board along with a few cards, but they’d have to be incredibly effective and inexpensive in cost
Burn is Good. Burn is Great.
Keep Tapping Those Mountains
– Red Deck Winning
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Twitter: @reddeckwinning and @xxdavisx