Welcome to “What’s the Play?” This article series will focus on the more technical side of game play, looking at very specific turns and how to best navigate them. Every turn of a game contains many decisions, and winning some will require that all be made correctly. No one said this game was easy!
You’re playing against Sarah in a Modern tournament. Both of you had followed the coverage of Pro Tour Fate Reforged, built your favorite deck to play, and are now dueling it out in the final round. The event has been running for a while, and you both know what the other is playing. Sarah is playing an aggressive Burn deck and you are playing a slower Abzan deck.
It’s game one. You’ve luckily won the roll and have decided to play first. You see your hand and keep after some thought. Sarah does the same.
The matchup against Sarah is blazingly fast. Typically Burn will have a creature on turn one and spend the rest of its resources throwing direct damage spells at your face while attacking, and this hand is well-equipped to handle that type of game. Burn hands without a creature are far less threatening because they give you more time to develop your board and establish a clock. You have two removal spells, a Siege Rhino to gain a card’s worth of life back, and some discard to help clear a path through anything troubling. It’s important to avoid taking damage from your mana base whenever possible, otherwise you’ll be doing Sarah’s job for her. Sounds simple enough, right?
So, it’s the first turn of the game, and you’re on the play. What do you do?
Godless Shrine, tapped, and pass the turn.
Wait. That’s it?
Again, the logic behind all your plays comes down to one goal: don’t take extra damage if you don’t have to. Each spell in the Burn deck does roughly 3 damage, and you don’t want to take lines that will result in doing additional damage to yourself at the cost of more than a turn is worth. Games are often decided on a coin flip, and a random card from the Burn deck will be slightly more than 1.5 damage. The decisions you make should factor in the extra time you’re giving the Burn player when calculating risk. A sequence that saves 1 damage but at the cost of two draw steps for the Burn player won’t be worth it in the end.
Going back to the game: why play Godless Shrine, and why not untapped to cast a spell? Treetop Village gives us very few options in terms of what spells can be played because it only helps cast Abrupt Decay on turn two, and eventually Siege Rhino. Between Windswept Heath and Godless Shrine, both allow to you cast any of the 1-mana spells, but it means that you will be less likely to have painless untapped mana on turn four to cast the Rhino to gain back the life that we so desperately need to survive.
Godless Shrine is the best option because it lets us cast Inquisition and Path on turn two without taking damage.
So why not cast Inquisition on turn one? Burn’s best hands will have a creature on turn one, but the deck doesn’t always do that. On average, Burn will have a creature on turn one 70% of the time, and it’s not even clear that you would take the creature in the first place. You have two removal spells for it! The scenario where you want to take a creature on turn one, aside from having no other option, is when Burn has multiple creatures and those would do more damage with them in play than if you had made them discard one. It’s very unlikely that Sarah will have three creatures. If she does have a creature, it will either do 1-2 damage (and possibly reveal a land to put into our hand), and it can be removed with Path to Exile on the second turn. If Sarah only plays a Mountain, it’s likely that she has an Eidolon for turn two or just a hand of burn spells, and in either case, Inquisition will be quite good.
Without knowing anything about the contents of Sarah’s hand, the plan involves playing all your lands tapped, and hopefully drawing one to let you play Siege Rhino on turn four without taking extra damage: Godless Shrine, Treetop Village, and Windswept Heath, in that order assuming nothing else changes. We can play Path on turn two if Sarah has a creature—otherwise, we’ll play Inquisition to clear out a burn spell and help ensure that there’s no Skullcrack waiting for our Rhino. Regardless, we’ll almost certainly play Treetop Village also because it will help cast Abrupt Decay on turn three. Any other creatures at this point are less likely to do damage because we’ll either have played a creature or have a removal spell ready and lands to cast it.
With some luck we’ll be able to beat Sarah in this game, and hopefully the match.
Remember, the rule against Burn is don’t do their job for them.