This week, I’m back to add another entry to my new series, Felling the Giants. If you somehow missed my articles the last two weeks, this series gives you the tools you need to dismantle prominent decks in the Modern metagame.

Feel free to check out the other parts in the series:

Control | Living End

Today, we’re here to talk about ways to overcome the Modern Burn deck, as per reader request. (Thanks, keep them coming!) I decided to add Zoo to the discussion as well, as many of same cards and strategies are effective against both.

Fire and Lightning

If you’re unfamiliar with Burn, it’s just an extremely linear deck that wants to throw burn damage at your face every turn while attacking with a few creatures until you’re dead.

This deck can usually win by turn 3-4 and it’s notoriously hard to stop if you’re unprepared. Due to the nature of modern fetch-shock manabases, the burn pilot typically only needs to inflict around 17 damage to kill you. This means that the burn player usually only needs six burns spells and a few lands to win the game.

A typical burn deck looks like this:

As you can see, this deck is all about damage.

Eidolon of the Great Revel even hurts the burn pilot, but they apply enough pressure through other means that you’ll most likely die before they do. Grim Lavamancer contributes a Shock each turn, Goblin Guide brings the pain very early, and Monastery Swiftspear can be extremely explosive. Kird Ape and Wild Nacatl were ported over from Zoo and they represent two early game threats that are very undercosted for their stats.

The spells are all straightforward and good at hurting you. Atarka’s Command keeps the opponent from gaining life, which is the most common strategy used against Burn, as discussed below.

In the sideboard, Ancient Grudge fights cards like Chalice of the Void-which locks the burn player out of half their spells when set to one or two-and also to help them race Affinity. Destructive Revelry is mostly for Leyline of Sanctity, as this card shuts down burn spells. Helix and Path are there for other aggro decks, and Skullcrack is brought in against almost every deck, as lifegain is the most common strategy against burn decks. Stony Silence is also useful against Affinity, which is one of the few decks that can outright race the Burn deck, as well as the Thopter-Sword combo

Lions, Apes, and Beasts

This deck is pretty much a pseudo burn deck that prefers to attack with creatures more than cast burn spells. The decks are in the same colors and have many of the same qualities; most notably undercosted creatures with lots of damage coming at you very quickly. The combination of blistering fast aggro and burn spells means the game can end quickly and out of nowhere.

Zoo is more focused on creature damage than Burn. Threats like Burning-Tree Emissary and Reckless Bushwhacker can get out of hand very fast putting +4 power (or more) swinging from across the board. Ghor-Clan Rampager’s Bloodrush and Bolt/Boros Charm make the deck even more explosive.

How Not to Fell the Giants

Before I get into general strategies for these decks, I’d like to discuss things that make your matchup percentages worse against them. Namely, things to side out.

Win Cons

If you’re playing a control deck (Or a midrange deck), the first thing you’d cut are expensive cards such as Gideon Jura, Thundermaw Hellkite, or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. These cards could be useful, but I feel like they’re just too slow for these matchups.

Generally, my rule of thumb is to cut anything that costs more than 4 mana that doesn’t contribute to slowing down the Zoo or Burn deck, by disrupting or gaining life.

Stop Hitting Yourself!

Another thing you should side out are things that cause additional damage to yourself. Examples include Dark Confidant, Phyrexian Arena, Painful Truths, Bitterblossom, etc.

Obviously, Modern manabases are damaging already, so you should fetch conservatively, prioritizing basics, as long as you can cast your spells. These decks constantly pressure your life total, so keep it as high as possible.

Giant Slaying: Red

Red doesn’t offer much in the way of lifegain, but there are plenty of cheap board sweepers that can keep you in the game, in addition to a few other anti-aggro cards.

Keep in mind that both of these decks have access to Boros Charm. Generally, this is preferred as a finisher, with the 4 damage burn, or giving something double strike. However, depending on the board state and their hand, making all their creatures indestructible to save from a board wipe could be advantageous. Be wary of this and try and play around it.

Anger of the Gods

This spell is cheap enough to be cast in the early game and does a great job of slowing down the relentless assault from these decks.

Pyroclasm

Similar to above, but a bit faster and a bit less damage. If you find your deck is having trouble keeping up, Pyroclasm may be needed.

Kozilek’s Return

Instant speed Pyroclasm, this is much more versatile, being able to kill Etched Champion in the affinity matchup. Also, if you’re playing something like Tron, the ability to do 5 damage could also be useful in many matchups.

Pia and Kiran Nalaar

Hailed as Red’s Lingering Souls since its release, this card gives red decks a way to be aggressive when needed and providing three bodies, two of which have flying, is great when you need to block and stall your opponent.

Molten Rain / Stone Rain / Crumble to Dust

Some players like these Land Destruction spells against Burn, because it’s easy to cut them off of green and/or white, which cuts them off of some of their best spells. But from my experience, Burn can still easily kill you with only red mana. I would not recommend these cards.

Giant Slaying: Blue

The best thing blue brings to the table in this matchup is quick, efficient counters.

Dispel

This works wonders against Burn, as a large percent of their spells are instants and Dispel basically nets 3 life.

Against Zoo, this can be good, depending on the number of instants in the deck.

Negate

Basically a more expensive, more flexible Dispel. If you have them in your 75, they will do fine against burn along with other counters.

Against Zoo, these are better than Dispels, so it will depend on meta for which you prefer to run.

Negate usually represents at least 3 life gained in these matchups, just like Dispel.

Remand

Remand isn’t the worst if it’s all you brought with you, but both of these decks have extremely cheap spells and creatures. Remand just doesn’t quite cut it.

Jace, Architect of Thought / Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy

Both of these cards have the ability to dampen incoming creature attacks. Jace, AoT can affect the entire board, but it’s not enough unless you have other cards to support your strategy. More effective against Zoo, but there are likely better options.

Jace, VP is better against both decks, but not really for his ability to dampen creatures. Just like AoT, it’s just not enough. Most players run Jace, VP in the maindeck and with supporting spells, Jace’s flashback ability can be very useful to reuse Anger of the Gods, Feed the Clan or any other spell discussed in this article. If nothing else, Jace, VP will deflect some damage from you.

Giant Slaying: Green

The best options available in green for these matchups are cards with life gain. Gaining life will help you transition into the late game, where both of these decks get progressively worse and easier to beat.

Watch out for Skullcrack effects and try to respond by gaining life. This is easiest if you have multiple sources of life gain in your 75.

Feed the Clan

Gaining 5 to 10 life versus these decks will seriously set them behind. This is an instant, so it should be cast in response to something else when applicable.

Against Burn, this card represents being three to six cards up, as that’s how many more burn spells they’ll need to draw to kill you.

Versus Zoo, this will stall them, but you’ll also need ways to stabilize the board in order to win.

Most players agree that Feed the Clan is one of the best green cards against Burn, and a great card against Zoo as long as you have board wipes or removal to go with it.

Obstinate Baloth

This option is a bit slower, but it also serves as Liliana hate. If your meta calls for hate against some combination of Midrange and Burn/Zoo, this could be a good option.

You’ll need to get lucky to make it to turn four against these decks, unless you have cheaper hate cards in addition to this beast. Once you do, they’ll be hard pressed to have many creatures that can compete with its size and you can use it to block and kill their creatures as you carry them into the long game.

Thragtusk

Similar to above, this one costs a bit more and gains a bit more life. Also, because of his leaves the battlefield ability, he’s also useful against Control, Midrange, Scapeshift, and some other combos that do a finite amount of damage. Another meta call.

Slightly slower than Obstinate Baloth, it’s also bigger and generates more life. If your opponent tries to remove him, it will take multiple cards, giving you card advantage. Again, fairly slow and not worth it in these matchups unless you have other cards to support.

Pulse of Murasa

This card gains life and generates a two for one by returning a creature to your hand. While Feed the Clan is mostly like the better instant life gain spell, this has others uses against grindy decks, so if your meta is full of Burn, Zoo, and some grindy decks, this card could be a good choice.

If Land Destruction is a sideboard plan against your deck, this might be even more attractive.

Scavenging Ooze

This one should be maindeck or nothing. Scooze is so useful in many matchups, if you have green, you most likely have this card. The incremental lifegain really adds up, he gets too big for Zoo or Burn to kill easily, and he can block all their creatures easily before long.

Since the ability can be used at instant speed, it is easy to sneak under a Skullcrack effect.

Giant Slaying: White

Rest for the Weary

A white Feed the Clan? Pretty much. This is good for the same reasons as Feed the Clan.

Timely Reinforcements

It’s extremely likely that you’ll have less life than the Burn or Zoo deck, and the soldier tokens are a big deal. They can block and save you 6 to 8 life in these matchups. Although, you should be careful of the sorcery speed as well, it will be easy for them to Skullcrack.

This card is best if you are playing a midrange or control deck where you can easily get the soldiers.

Spirit Link

This is extremely narrow and most likely not worth it. If you do choose to run it, make sure you have some large creatures to throw it on or worst case scenario, you can put it on Eidolon and force them to kill their own creature.

Wrath of God / Day of Judgment

These are more reliable than the red board wipes, but also a bit slower. Unless your deck has a lot of interaction to slow down your opponent, these might be too slow for Burn and they can easily win without their creatures.

On the other hand, this can be extremely effective against Zoo, provided you have the necessary interaction.

Giant Slaying: Black

Damnation

Basically the same goes here as for Wrath of God.

Tribute to Hunger

This one is interesting, though it might not be viable unless you lack unless to green and white. Both of the decks in question have small creatures, so it’s not extremely effective against them. You should probably only play this if you also need to beat Bogles.

Vampiric Link

This card is functionally identical to Spirit Link, except this one doesn’t grant Lifelink, which means if you put it on a Lifelink creature, they will gain twice as much life as they deal damage. Still, not too great for this matchup.

Languish

Pretty much only played as a budget Damnation or if there are many indestructible creatures in your meta. 99% of the time, Damnation is just better and more reliable.

Inquisition of Kozilek

A better Dispel in these matchups, it can hit almost everything in either deck. Since it doesn’t hurt you like Thoughtseize does, this one basically counts as 3 life gained. This is one of the best options against burn; ripping a Nacatl on turn 1 is devastating for both decks.

Duress

Almost the same as Inquisition in these matchups, although it’s quite a bit worse against Zoo because of their lower spell density. Versus Burn it can function as additional Inquisitions.

Giant Slaying: Multicolor

Kitchen Finks

One of the best choices to fight these decks.

Slightly better against Burn, as it will put them down 2 or 3 cards usually. If it blocks 1-2 creatures and/or eats a burn spell, they’re down cards and the life you gained represents even more functional card advantage here.

Against Zoo, it can’t compete with most of their creatures, but it can block a few times while gaining life.

Solid choice.

Lightning Helix

For just two mana, this can kill a creature and gain 3 life, or create a 6 point life-swing. It’s also cheap enough to hold mana to respond to Skullcrack effects.

Fulminator Mage

Many players like this against these decks, especially Burn, because they don’t run many lands. But my feeling is that they can still kill you, even if you cut them off white and/or green. Not recommended for these matchups.

Sphinx’s Revelation

This isn’t sideboard material, as it’s just too slow unless you’re playing control. If that is the case, this will be a maindeck card that you can strongly consider keeping in postboard.

For five or six mana, you can easily swing the game largely in your favor.

Giant Slaying: Colorless

Engineered Explosives

Very good choice versus these decks. Both of them run very cheap permanents and you can easily wipe a large percent of their board for just 3-5 mana, split up over two costs

Batterskull

A very slow option that will most likely see play if Control and Midrange dominate a large portion of your meta. If your deck has other options to slow down these decks, Batterskull will definitely put the nail in their coffin.

Chalice of the Void

Similar to Engineered Explosives, this is reliant on mana costs of your opponent’s cards. Both of these decks are very low to the ground, so and it’s fairly easy to lock them out of CMC of 1 or 2, which is a severe hindrance.

Takeaways

  • Play conservatively when it comes to spells or abilities that cost life.
  • A disruptive game plan definitely helps. You want some configuration of counters, removal/board wipes, and hand disruption.
  • Life gain is one of the most reliable lines to victory against these decks.
  • Be prepared for combat tricks from both, Skullcrack effects, and explosive starts and/or finishes.
  • Some options are a bit slower and work well against other matchups, but if you want to run a slower option, you want some of the faster cards to support as well.
  • Both of these decks are very easy to run out of steam. Anything that puts them down cards, such as Kitchen Finks, are very good choices against them.

That’s All Folks!

That should be more than enough info for you to feel confident in how to beat these decks. They’re both very simple; the main struggle is being able to keep up with them and find options to fight them that are fast enough.

If you play Burn or Zoo, hopefully you feel more educated on what players will try and do to stop you from killing them and perhaps you learned when to use your Skullcracks and how to build your sideboard.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to check back here at 5 Color Combo for more great content!

A photo of Cody Revels Cody Revels

Cody Revels is an IT Professional who enjoys playing Magic in his spare time. He’s a competitive player who has enjoyed relative success at a local level and hopes to attend a Pro Tour one day. His favorite thing about Magic is the Modern Format and the friends he’s made.