Playing with Fire – Thinking about Boros Burn: Spike Questions and Answers

Hi everyone! I am finally making a return to writing articles, the night after winning a Grand Prix Trial for Nagoya with Boros Burn.

I’m not the only one having success with the deck. My friend Przemylsaw “SzULeR” Knocinski won the recent Prague PTQ (well done again!) and Chris Morris-Lent finished in the Top 16 of SCG Open Seattle. The Grand Prix Buenos Aires Top 16 saw Ariel Nagy and Lucas Paletta place with their slightly adapted versions (I am particularly fond of Ariel’s mana base, a true showcase in getting every last bit of value from each card in the deck) and Vidianto Wijaya finished in the Top 4 of SCG Open Los Angeles. I recently saw that Paul Rietzl finished 3rd in a Magic the Gathering Online Premier event, and if Boros personified has adopted the archetype, then we must be on to something.

While I don’t know how much longevity the deck will have, I do know that it is incredibly fun to play, and is both very skill testing and rewarding.

The deck has certainly become more popular, regularly making finishes in Magic the Gathering Online tournaments. Spurred by this increase in popularity, I have seen other writers give their opinion on the archetype, so instead of following that trend, I instead have reached out to the wonderful r/Spikes community for their input. The bulk of the content from this article are questions submitted by members of that community, so a huge thank you to them for their continued support.

Why should I play Boros Burn? What does it offer a player that other aggro decks don’t?

When a Spike posed me this question, I loved it. I really dedicate and commit myself to my decks and I have a similar engaged group of players from team Dies to Removal working with me (who would have thought that red mages would be passionate?) who are all loving the deck too. The deck is just a fire blast to play (OK, last bad pun). Every game is uniquely challenging, with a constant need to evaluate the worth of cards in hand, what your role in the current game state is (it can change in an instant) as well as what lines will lead to victory (and through what expected interaction). Sometimes this means looking two, three, or even four turns ahead and considering the myriad of ways that those turns could play out, all to inform a seemingly inconsequential decision early in the game, that might have enormous consequences later.

While it will be frustrating when learning to play the deck to have losses for these tiny mistakes (that are only obvious when considered after the fact), that the deck is that unforgiving is part of the challenge and enjoyment that the successful pilots derive from playing it, because once you have started to master the archetype, it is wonderfully skill rewarding in a way that few decks in Standard are. There are so many lines of play, so many scry choices and so many ways to sideboard for the different opposition that a strong player will have enormous opportunities to leverage their playskill over an opponent, which is exactly what we want out of any good deck.

So in short, it is a lot of fun to play and it wins a lot. Also, you get to make your choice of sound effect or audible reference when dealing lethal to an opponent with a burn spell—my personal favourites are Ryu from Street Fighter or Akainu from One Piece, but there are many good options for a developing Burn Mage.

What about Boros Reckoner (and the SCG Seattle-winning list)?

Neil Hartman won the SCG Seattle Open with a Boros Aggro deck. What immediately leapt out to me about Hartman’s deck, when compared to the DTR version, is that they are really fighting different battles. Boros Reckoner in Hartman’s main deck (and Skullcrack in his sideboard) tell the story—his deck is configured to beat a metagame where GR Monsters are a large player in the field. By way of contrast, my deck has been configured for online play, where Mono-Black and Esper Control are the dominant archetypes. I cannot justify Reckoner in my 75; GR Monsters is not a large enough player in the online metagame and I would rather run cards in those precious sideboard slots that can be utilized in other matchups.

The trend in the metagame has been toward Mono-Black and Esper Control as seen at GP Beijing, where it was three decks similar to the DTR version that made Top 8, with not a single Boros Reckoner between them.

Also, Stormbreath Dragon?

I don’t much care for Stormbreath Dragon for the same reasons really. I mostly play against Mono-Black and Esper Control, where the Dragon is very poorly positioned. Mono-Black can kill it at a substantial tempo loss to you (and it doesn’t even get past Desecration Demon), while tapping out for five mana at sorcery speed against Esper more or less hands them the game.

While there is an argument for having the Dragon in your deck for the substantial increase in top deck quality that it provides and because there are fringe decks in the format that just cannot beat it, I am very much focused on tuning the deck to beat what the top players are playing, and the Dragon doesn’t play well in those fields. Of course, adapt to your local meta—if you’re seeing a lot of green/white aggro or Boros Burn mirrors, then Stormbreath Dragon is a great way to get an edge.

Have you tested Fated Conflagration?

I have! I was actually going to run two copies in my deck for the GPT that I won, but my good friend Alex talked me out of it the nigh before—I ended up running two copies of Mizzium Mortars instead. His reasoning was that where two cards are close in power level, it is better to run the cheaper card (increasing reliability). While Fated Conflagration does have some upside, insofar as it kills Polukranos, Blood Baron and Obzedat, these generally aren’t cards you want to be spending time to kill with Boros Burn. Our experience in testing is that you need to be racing in these matchups.

In contrast, Mizzium Mortars fits much better into a post-sideboard controlling strategy, where it is additional cheap interaction early and almost a win condition later. The lower cost also better enables tempo draws which are Boros Burn’s best openings.

Isn’t Viashino Firstblade just worse than Minotaur Skullcleaver?

It is stupefying how many times I have been asked whether I considered playing Minotaur Skullcleaver at GP Melbourne, principally because it is easier on my already hard-working mana base. While that is true, Viashino Firstblade is a more powerful card in the matchups where you want a walking Boros Charm—+2/+2 means that it can attack into a great deal more creatures, and more importantly, Mutavaults. Faced with the same board states, Skullcleaver will just be a bad sorcery speed removal spell and I am not in the market for that.

Speaking of my favorite reptile, his time in Standard may have already passed. Following from Josh Silvestri’s recent writings, control players have started to adopt Blind Obedience as sideboard technology for Burn and Firstblade lines up very poorly against that. Expecting that development, I didn’t run any copies in my list for GPT Nagoya, where I did face and beat Blind Obedience on two occasions.

Nonetheless, I will fondly remember playing the card at Grand Prix Melbourne where my opponents, on-lookers, and even the event coverage staff were fascinated by the card and it has been fun hearing other player’s stories of the devastation wrought by the card.

Why don’t you run Satyr Firedancer any more?

I have actually gone back and forth on the card several times, and even after speaking to many different respected and successful red mages, there is no consensus. The successful Burn decks at SCG Seattle saw not a single Firedancer in the four Burn decks making up the Top 16, whereas every list from the Top 8 of GP Beijing had the full playset in the sideboard! Now, I have not had the benefit of talking to any of the pilots from GP Beijing, so my current opinion derives entirely from recent testing where I have found Young Pyromancer to just be a better Firedancer.

I have come to this conclusion for a few reasons. Most importantly, Firedancer is entirely a control card—its ability is only actually relevant if your opponent has creatures, so you’re often going to be beating down for a measly 1 damage a turn while stocking up on spells for later value. In contrast, Young Pyromancer can be a control or a tempo card; Pyromancer fights well against other creature decks by flooding the board with tokens (and allowing small burn spells to trade up with larger creatures) but can also allow you to tempo your opponent out of the game, just by burning away any blockers and quickly amassing a large force of tokens.

At the heart of the matter, Young Pyromancer quickly puts away games where you are ahead and Satyr Firedancer does not; against some decks this will give them enough time to draw out of their predicament and that is unacceptable.

Rumours that Young Pyromancer is my favorite Standard-legal card and that I am heavily biased are false.

Wouldn’t Chandra, Pyromaster work really well in this deck?

Another common question, and this is a good one. In a word: definitely! While I have yet to experiment with a singleton maindeck Chandra, I have had a single copy in my sideboard for the last two weeks and it has been excellent. Primarily, you want Chandra against control decks where drawing cards is amazing, and against small creature decks—both because she can kill their creatures, but also because her abilities allow you to aggressively trade cards one-for-one then draw extra cards and bury them. For now I am happy with the copy in the sideboard, but I will definitely test her in the main deck too (probably relegating the fourth Warleader’s Helix to the sideboard).

I would like some metagaming advice. As the composition of the metagame shifts, how do you adapt the deck? At what point do you abandon the deck if there are enough unfavorable matchups?

My favorite part of deckbuilding is in tuning a list to combat an established metagame. The archetype has changed so much since Grand Prix Melbourne, becoming more developed and reliable. Our strategies for the opposition are no longer speculative, they are tested and refined.

For me, I build my sideboard to beat the decks that I expect to see at the top tables of competitive events (right now that is Mono-Black and Esper). Fringe decks outside of that, I don’t bother with (for example, Naya Hexproof). It doesn’t matter whether those are good matchups or bad matchups; if the best players are all playing Esper, which is already a good matchup, I still want more sideboard cards to make the matchup even more favorable. Don’t confuse this with being “win more” oriented—all that matters in a tournament is winning, and if you’re going to face that archetype round after round at an event, you want the best chance possible of beating it.

Conversely, while I know that Naya Hexproof is a good deck, and am certain that it completely destroys Boros Burn, the deck just does not see enough play for me to justify anything more than splash hate for it; I might have a Glare of Heresy or Wear // Tear in my sideboard for other problematic matchups, which just happen to be relevant to Hexproof, but I won’t go out of my way to try and save the matchup (as tempting as it has been as times to jam four Glaring Spotlight into the sideboard after losing the finals of another single elimination event to the menace).

Turning to Boros Burn’s playability, here are my rounded win percentages for games against the major archetypes of the meta, over the past month:

Esper Control (65%)
RW Devotion (65%)
Mono Black Aggro (60%)
Mono Black Control (60%)
Mono Blue Devotion (55%)
UW Control (50%)
BW Midrange (45%)
GR Monsters (45%)
Naya Hexproof (10%)

So, so long as Esper Control and Mono-Black Devotion are such a large portion of the field, I will continue to play Boros Burn. Right now, even the bad matchups for the deck are not that bad (with the exception of Hexproof), so the deck is likely to remain highly playable for the foreseeable future.

To anyone looking to improve their game and tune their deck, I cannot suggest strongly enough to keep a detailed spreadsheet that tracks your results and key observations from those games. For example, before Grand Prix Melbourne, my win rate against GR Monsters was about 30 percent, but then Aaron Pettit suggested Blind Obedience for the matchup and we found that the win percentage jumped a full 10 percent! By tracking how your different sideboard configurations perform, you will know what the best strategies are as opposed to relying on intuition or biased memory (we tend to be either much to positive or much to negative when recalling games).

I can confirm that the deck’s win rate is a little higher on the play than on the draw, so spend some time researching whether it is strategically sound to call odds or evens of the die roll.

My Mono-Black opponent kept in Thoughtseize, is that wrong?

Definitely not. I understand the misunderstanding of course; how can a 1-for-1 trade that loses life possibly benefit a Mono-Black player? The fact is that not all cards in the Burn deck are equal, especially when facing down Mono-Black—each burn spell has a different function in the matchup and they are not truly fungible; in different game states they will increase or decrease in value.

For example, Searing Blood will be a big problem for a player who wants to be aggressive with Pack Rat, but irrelevant to a player that has taken his Rats out for other cards. Lightning Strike isn’t worth taking, unless you have a Nightveil Specter in hand. Beyond these shifting evaluations, cards like Warleader’s Helix and Skullcrack are worth several cards in the matchup; Helix because it is one of the ways that Burn can race Desecration Demon and Skullcrack because of how enormously powerful it is when you stifle a Gray Merchant trigger. When a Mono-Black player can remove a key piece of interaction that would defeat their game plan, they would gladly pay 2 life.

While we are on the topic on playing against Mono-Black, I am sure that many of you are concerned with the newest anti-Burn technology, Staff of the Death Magus. They say a picture says a thousand words, so I’ll just show you this:


Finally, I would like to thank my friends Alex Keech, Adam Iob, and Alfred Liang for putting aside so much time before the GPT to help me test some last minute refinements, and for the support throughout the day (especially Alex, who helped focus me in the Top 8).

As always, I am interested in community feedback and I really appreciated the input from the Spikes with this article. What sort of articles and other content would you like to see in the future? Get at me in the comments.

Until next time, don’t fret the draw step, I already had the kill spell in hand.


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