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Bringing Back the Burn

July 30, 2017

River Landscape with Horsemen by Aelbert Cuyp (1655). Pathrazer of Ulamog by Austin Hsu

 

Mono-red burn has long been considered a weak playstyle in EDH and it's no mystery why. With more opponents it gets that much harder to deal out enough damage to win a table.

 

Serious deckbuilders attempting to build competitive decks never seriously consider mono-red for cEDH. Burn decks can deal out loads of damage but against combo decks, decks that can gain infinite life, decks chock full of counterspells, and the challenge of contending with multiple opponents, mono-red burn is widely considered weaker than many other types of Commander decks.

 

There are strong mono-red decks of course. I've run a pretty good Purphoros deck and currently run a Zada, Hedron Grinder and a Grenzo, Havoc Raiser deck. Both of those are decidedly midrange but can win against other midrange decks. I also had an Ashling the Pilgrim and 99 mountains deck but that doesn't really count. I have to confess, while I enjoy mono-red decks none of mine are what I would call "burn" decks. They can deal out lots of damage but "burn" generally refers to instants and sorceries that do direct damage. None of those decks really do that, even if they can blow up a table right quick if everything goes well.

 

While Lightning Bolt may be the most iconic burn spell in Magic, the burn spell most likely to ruin your day in EDH is probably Comet Storm.

 

 

The beauty of Comet Storm is that it's pretty much optimized for multiplayer. The cost of 1 mana to add another victim to your list of targets is trivial if you're already generating enough mana to kill a table. It's probably not going to be an issue for you. I've blown up a table with Comet Storm when playing an old Borborygmos Enraged deck and it's definitely fun.

 

Before we jump into talking about this week's general, let's take a look at other EDH generals that are currently in the "burn" category by looking at matches on EDHRec for Comet Storm. Below are the top 5 commanders for what I consider the best X-cost burn spell in the format.

 

 

https://edhrec.com/cards/comet-storm#topcommanders

 

Mizzix and Rosheen both help with the cost of big spells. Melek, Wort and Riku all copy spells. None of them are mono-red. Is the lesson here that if you want to play burn in EDH, you'll have to either resort to infinite mana generation or find cost-reduction or copy effects? If your general doesn't provide any of those options, is trying to play burn in EDH a non-starter?

 

The saddest thing about the above top 5 Comet Storm matches really is that none of them are mono-red.

 

You'd think Wizards of the Coast would eventually make a mono-red legendary creature that could do the job.

 

Well, wait no more - it's time to meet...

 

 

Neheb, The Eternal

 

As usual, I'm many days late (and possibly a few dollars short) and you may have already read all about Neheb.

 

If you have, I hope there's something in here that's new to you. I cover topics as they come to me. Sometimes they'll be a little behind the curve and sometimes (like with Ramos, Dragon Engine) I'll be ahead of the card even being available.

 

Neheb, The Eternal may wind up being the first great mono-red burn commander. As we'll see, he can be a way to make tons of mana. While you can use it to play huge spells that aren't direct damage spells, today we're going to explore how we can use him to ramp into cards like Comet Storm.

 

 

His casting cost isn't prohibitively high, he's got a big butt at 6 toughness, and he's got Afflict 3. That means if you're willing to swing with him, you'll be getting at least 3 damage through even if he's blocked. That part is important, because at the beginning of your postcombat main phase you get to add 1 red mana to your mana pool for each 1 life your opponents have lost this turn.

 

This unique ability makes Neheb something of a puzzle to solve. How can we maximize the amount of damage we can output assuming all goes well and Neheb isn't exiled or killed? How can we best abuse turning this damage into mana? If we use our beloved Comet Storm as the target, how can we generate enough mana to kill a table as early in the game as possible?

After posting this I've already had readers get the mistaken impression that I'm writing about how to make Neheb competitive. I'm not. I don't think he will ever be cEDH worthy. He will hopefully be a fun midrange mono-red commander and might well be our first great burn commander but not at a competitive level. With that in mind, let's look at...

 

 

The Gameplan

 

Planning out what we cast in our first main phase and what we save for our second main phase is going to be pretty important with Neheb. Only damage we do in our first main phase will turn into mana, and only if Neheb is out when our second main phase begins.

 

Spreading the Love

One focus we're going to have is effects that damage ALL of our opponents. It might seem obvious, but if we have 3 opponents, a 3 damage to all of our opponents will net us a whopping 9 mana in our second main phase. That's enough to cast most big creatures we'd be running in mono-red and maybe enough to do something else as well. Hitting everyone - even including ourselves - is always going to be preferable to hitting only one opponent.

 

Always Gaining Mana

Another focus is going to be trying to build with spells and abilities that at the very least will pay for themselves in our second main phase. A 3 mana spell that does 3 damage is probably not worth it, but a card that does twice as much damage as its mana cost is effectively ramping us, if only for that turn.

 

Firebreathing = Card Advantage?

With firebreathing we'll only get back as much mana as we put into the ability, so we're already breaking the rule we just explained, but this will help us with card advantage and that's hugely important in a mono-red deck. Creatures with firebreathing will let us dump mana into an attack without using any cards from our hand. If all goes well we will get that mana back and use it for some big spells later on. If we had to cast a Lightning Bolt or some other instant or sorcery to do damage and later on be able to cast another spell, we'd be down two cards. Firebreathing gives us a way to freely spend as much or as little as we want, turn it into damage by attacking and not having cast a single spell earlier in the turn.

 

Knowing when to hold back

Dropping big creatures in our second main phase is setting us up to have blockers, so we should be comfortable swinging out in our first main phase. There will be times when Neheb gets killed or exiled, and learning when to leave mana up to re-cast him will be part of learning how to play this deck. Sometimes we'll blow up the board knowing we're going to have to lose Neheb, but we will need to save enough mana so we can re-cast him with his commander tax in order to profit in the second main. Sometimes we'll have starting hand that leads us to wait to play Neheb until later in the game. Timing is everything and playing this deck will teach us when to cast him and when to wait.

 

Let's run through some of the categories of cards we're going to include in this build.

 

 

Pingers

 

These guys are going to hopefully come out early and give us a way to do damage every turn without casting additional spells or throwing them into combat. None of them are amazing, but their basic purpose is to serve as early blockers and to maybe ramp us a little if Neheb is out.

 

 

The thing I love about this build is that this deck could be one that scales well to large tables. If I'm ever dumb enough to play with 7-9 opponents, some of these cards will be fantastic.  Of course, Neheb's lack of protection may become too much of a liability with that many opponents, but still - I like the idea of having a deck that can scale up easily. We'll see in time if that proves to be true.

 

 

Spammers

 

It's an inelegant name for this category but I don't have a better one. These are creatures that will spam out a bunch of damage, maybe even enough to kill Neheb. If I've got one of these in my hand I might want to keep Neheb safe in the command zone until I've played it and blown it up.

 

 

You may notice that lots of these cards are creatures. If you think that means I'm not really building a burn deck, all I can say is that if you want to last long enough to win with a burn spell you really need to have blockers. Not having blockers is one of the easiest ways to die in EDH and mono-red isn't exactly littered with propaganda effects. Establishing a board presence is pretty important.

 

You might also notice that we've got lots of things that will damage ourselves alongside our opponents. We're going to have to suffer a little damage along the way sometimes. That's OK so long as we're dealing damage to our opponents and keeping everyone at a life total that is not out of range of lethal damage from burn spells. If we can win by combat damage, that's fine too, but our hope will be to net enough damage to kill opponents in our second main phase using instants and sorceries

 

 

 

Dragons

 

One could make a strong argument that no red deck is complete without a few dragons. I've grabbed more than a few but I think they play well in this build.

 

Flameblast Dragon doesn't have firebreathing - he has fireballing. He can let you fireball an opponent or a creature - Coalhauler Swine maybe - when he attacks. Furnace Whelp is a nice early drop that can serve as a flying blocker and has firebreathing so he's relevant both in early game and late game so long as you have mana available. Knollspine Dragon is the perfect second main phase drop, netting you cards in much the same way Neneb nets you mana. Moonveil Dragon will be insane in this deck - firebreathing your entire army all at once. Spawn of Thraxes will be an ideal mid-to-late game first main phase drop, as just entering the battlefield should bring back as much mana as you have mountains, and in mono-red that should be a lot.

 

 

 

Extra Combat Steps

 

You may have been wondering where Hellkite Charger was in my list of Dragons. Never fear - it's in the deck. All of these will let us pile up additional combat damage which in each subsequent main phase will turn into mana. A few combat phases with a decent board should put us in position to do a ton of damage with that Comet Storm.

 

 

I don't actually own a copy of Aggravated Assault yet, but I've got one on order from Card Kingdom (Game Knights code applied!) because it's perhaps the single best card for this deck. If you can keep it and Neheb on the board and do 5 damage you get infinite combat steps. It may be bonkers, but it isn't an automatic win. You've still got to deal with drawing cards and getting through your opponents' blockers.

 

 

Ramp

 

Red has limited options for ramp. We've got Neheb as a built-in ramp engine but we can't neglect this facet of deckbuilding. We aren't going to waste time with one-shot stuff like Seething Song - we're going to use our ramp cards as a way to establish board presence and help gain some advantage even if it pales in comparison to what other colors can do.

 

 

You may be tired of hearing this, but I generally build decks with cards I have on hand. Some cards get bought but I don't try to make every deck optimized. I have a few copies of Extraplanar Lens but they are in other decks, as are all my copies of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Both are auto-includes for Neheb but I'm working with what I have. For the casual games I'll be playing, these should be sufficient. Mana Geyser into Comet Storm still wins games in a pinch.

 

 

Card Draw

 

I shoudn't even dignify this category with pictures. Mono-red is a terrible color for card draw and I hate discarding so I kinda hate looting effects. I know that's basically an admission that I might not be that great a Magic player but it's the honest truth. There are lots of decent cards you could line up for your Neheb deck, probably starting with Sensei's Divining Top. Knollspine Dragon is actually a good source for draw and Sandstone Oracle has potential, but I don't have much else in here that would qualify as being that good.

 

 

The reason these aren't that good is largely that they cost lots of mana to cast and to utilize. Here's the thing about Neheb - we may occasionally have way more mana than we can use. If we're looking at a second main phase where we've got 15 mana from Neheb's ability but only a 3-drop in our hand, we'll be glad to be able to pump some of that into some card draw if we've got some of these artifacts on the field. 8 mana to draw four cards is bad, unless you're swimming in mana with an empty hand - then it's not that bad at all.

 

 

A Little Protection

 

There's nothing worse than being ready to go off and having some blue player ruin your plans with a counterspell. In any color - even in blue - it's annoying. In red it's just especially frustrating so I always try to pack a little protection.

 

 

Not only can you win counterspell wars with blue players, you can also copy their Cyclonic Rift and have them suffer the same fate as everyone else. Of course, copying some huge damage spell is even better!

 

 

Putting The Burn in this Burn Deck

 

You may have noticed that I haven't really included a lot of burn in this burn deck. As I've said before - I firmly believe in the power of blockers to keep you alive long enough to win games. Playing every low mana burn spell may seem like fun but you're not going to keep up with the big boys that way.  For burn spells I generally went for spells that either had a high ceiling or an interesting effect I wanted to play with.

 

 

We're going to be focused on casting our burn spells in our main phases, so we're seeing a lot of sorceries. You'll also notice that a lot of these follow the "damage every opponent" plan, or sometimes just "damage every player". Burn has trouble against super high life totals so we want to do everything we can to keep our opponents' life totals from getting out of reach for our deck. If someone is in the hundreds, we might have to resort to commander damage and this deck's not really built for that.

 

 

You might have remembered Chandra's Ignition from my earlier writing about Ramos. If we ramp into a lot of mana and have a creature with firebreathing that survives combat it will still have any pump I gave it earlier. Pumping it more and then hitting it with Chandra's Ignition will probably do an awful lot of damage to our opponents.

 

These aren't all "high ceiling" cards that could be considered "wincons" but I'm hoping this is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If it all works together this should be a pretty strong deck, at least in a midrange context.

 

 

A little something extra

 

There are always cards you want to put in but can't find space for. In this deck I had plenty, but there are lots of extras I was able to find a place for. You may have even been wondering where these were earlier as you were reading.

 

 

Fanatic of Mogis is going to be a consistently great first-main-phase drop if you were able to dump the rest of your hand on your previous turn and avoid any of those pesky boardwipes. Fire Servant is just fantastic for burn decks. Mob Rule is an auto-include in mono-red, and if you can copy it you can just grab all the creatures and somebody's probably going to die. Past in Flames will be a great way in the mid-to-late game to pull some value back out of our graveyard. Imagine casting Mana Geyser into Past in Flames and then Mana Geyser again for insane amounts of mana. Throw some Pyromancer's Goggles onto the battlefield and it's magical Christmasland if you've got a full graveyard!

 

 

Early Results

 

I don't even have my Aggravated Assault yet but I've played this deck twice in relatively casual settings. The first game someone won by combo early enough that I didn't feel like I got a good feel for how the deck had turned out.

 

In the second game I was able to Gamble for Comet Storm and keep it. I then dumped most of my hand onto the battlefield except for Fanatic of Mogis, setting up for a big turn. My board survived and I dropped Fanatic of Mogis to do 11 damage to everyone, but before my combat phase someone removed Neheb so I wasn't able to turn that damage into mana. I expect that's going to happen a lot. When I re-cast him, someone else used Silumgar to steal Neheb and I had to use a burn spell to kill Silumgar and get Neheb back. It was looking pretty sketchy for a while there until I drew into Mana Geyser. At a 5 player table that spell is nuts, and I was able to Mana Geyser into a Comet Storm to kill the table.

 

It felt good but the win didn't wind up directly using Neheb's ability at all.

 

Still, a win is a win and it always feels good to Comet Storm a table.

 

 

Final Thoughts

 

Not only was I able to net a win with Neheb in his second game ever but in the same night I was also able to finally get a win with my Simic Sea Monsters deck. I was playing against good players, but they were playing their "bad decks", but that's OK because in truth - so was I. The high point of that game was the fact that I was reminded again that the deck doesn't have Cyclonic Rift. It does have Whelming Wave, though - and I was able to cast that card not once but twice en route to my victory. Having a ton of lands and a Constant Mists in hand is also pretty sweet, but I never even had to fog.

 

One other digression - my "Simic Dreams" deck finally clicked yesterday - winning both rounds of EDH League I played in. Both wins were thanks to Sage of Hours and infinite turns. The first game saw Deadeye Navigator and Peregrine Drake give me infinite mana, and I flickered Rishadan Cutpurse to wipe my opponents' boards before I closed out the game. The second round saw Darksteel Reactor make an appearance, so I only needed 20 of those turns to close out the game. It was nice to see the deck finally prove its worth, but I may step away from combo for my games in August. I might even play Neheb a few times even though I doubt he'll be able to compete at the level of the decks I normally see in our League.

 

If you want to see my Neheb list, you can review the current build at the link below.

 

Bringing Back The Burn on TappedOut.net

http://tappedout.net/mtg-decks/bringing-back-the-burn/

 

As of this writing, Aggravated Assault isn't in there but by the time you read this it might be. Prior to posting this I also made another change, swapping out Slate of Ancestry and putting in Hour of Devastation, as Neheb has 6 toughness and will survive its effects just fine. One thing I've found about my EDH decks - they are ever changing and that's one of the things I just love about this game and this format!

 

I hope you found something of use in here if you're building your own version of Neheb, and as always - thanks for reading!

 

 

 

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