A Slow Burn
Let’s begin with the recognition that Burn is a very unique strategy across all formats. It’s clean, efficient, and linear. Most importantly, it’s mathematical in a way that is unique unto itself. It’s always boiled down to the simplest iteration -- the goal in every game is to count the numbers on our cards and add them up to whatever the life total of our opponent(s) may be. In a multiplayer environment, when we are working against three life totals, the cards will have to change, though the overarching principle will remain the same. When it comes to a combined life total of 90 in a PDH, the efficiency of something like evergreen burn staple Lava Spike plummets, and that needs to be accounted for.
We are going to have to get through three opponents with a 90 point combined life total. We are going to have to contend with three other seven-card hands. For every card we draw, our opponents are drawing three between them. When faced with these realities, a traditional Burn strategy is going to face some obstacles. This is a big reason why spell-slinging burn lists are not particularly common at EDH tables. Usually they will hinge on something that is functionally a “burn” effect, though on a massive, game-ending scale. In a pauper card pool, those options don’t exist in even remotely the same way -- the difficulty in doing enough damage to a kill a table rises dramatically. Without the inevitability of that single burn-everything-to-the-ground climax, or damage doublers like Furnace of Rath, the PDH burn player has a few more things to consider:
The ability to go all-in doesn’t exist in PDH the same way as it does for a regular EDH deck; the card pool is too limited. As a result, card advantage becomes a more significant concern. Games are regularly wars of attrition, and we need to be able to engage on that front and break parity while maintaining a proactive burn plan. This means that we will most likely have to try and support a more midrange game plan.
We need to have the spells available to be able to actually deal all the damage we need to. The board will easily get gummed up, so relying on creatures to chip in damage through combat has to become less of a focus. While most of the iconic and powerful burn spells do sit at common, devoting a slot in a 99 card singleton deck to a Lava Spike analog will not likely make the grade.
We will need to devote some amount of the deck to interacting with the board. The nature of the card pool brings with it not only a slowing of the game, but also a greater emphasis on permanents. Creatures are important to PDH in a way that is fundamentally different from normal EDH. That being said, not having tools to interact on that axis would be misguided. Bear in mind that because of this need, we won’t be able to pack an ideal saturation of actual burn spells.
We are immediately put in a position where we need to drastically rethink how we are approaching the strategy and selecting our cards. We are require to, essentially, establish a new framework for contextualizing card economy (and, secondarily, card advantage), and it only makes sense that to do this we look at existing Burn staples to establish a baseline for evaluating the cards we want to use. Because we can’t rely on the same level of redundancy in our burn spells as other formats can, we have to be selective with the spells we end up utilizing and making sure they are efficient to our needs. Remember, we only have a finite number of card slots to take advantage of.
When I say that we need to be efficient with our spells, do not take that to mean that we need to be on a lower mana curve. While a card like Lightning Bolt is undoubtedly one of the most efficient spells ever printed for what it does, it most certainly does not meet that standard under this particular context. That being said, let me cut to an example of what I would consider to be a firm core for a PDH burn list:
At first glance, this collection seems bulky and clumsy for an archetype that has historically been a low-curve, fine-tuned killing machine. It’s important, however, to take a closer look here and see how cards like these can drastically increase our deck’s overall efficiency while removing a reliance on assembling a critical mass of spells that just aren’t up to snuff.
The clearest example of our goal here is enshrined in Sizzle. An exceedingly simple design, it just deals three damage to each opponent for a cost of three mana. It’s a very fair card, but also very underwhelming -- three damage isn’t particularly threatening, especially for a three-mana spell. If Lava Spike isn’t good enough, why is Sizzle? Simply, the answer is that Sizzle is really three separate Lava Spikes occupying the same card slot, with each targeting one of the enemy players. While one Lava Spike isn’t worth a spot on its own, three Lava Spikes occupying that single card slot certainly can be -- it is card efficient in the sense provides almost a faux-redundancy by rolling three theoretical cards into one. For our purposes here, Sizzle reads something like “Sizzle deals 9 damage to your opponent” for three mana (remember that we always need to be thinking in terms of playing against one big 90 point life total).This is the lens through which we need to frame our core, workhorse cards.
As we move down the list, efficiency increases. If we look at Sizzle as the standard, then what does that say about Flame Rift? Four damage to each player ends up coming to 12 damage to our opponents’ life total -- the equivalent of four Lava Spikes in that single card slot. The kicker here, as wasn’t the case with Sizzle, is that now we are actually becoming more mana efficient as well, since we are only paying two mana for the same mileage we would otherwise get from four mana, following the Lava Spike conversion.
Skull Rend may be the most complex card here, and also the one that begins to open doors in terms of paths we can take to construct the rest of the deck. In Skull Rend, we have six damage to our opponents, along with a Hymn to Tourach tacked on for each of them. When we work out the equivalent mana cost of the effect we are getting and compare it to the five mana we spend to cast Skull Rend, not only does it end up being very cost effective, but it also shores up a weakness of discard in multiplayer formats by affecting each opponent. If we ignore the damage on Skull Rend entirely and just focus on the discard aspect, we are casting a Hymn to Tourach targeting each opponent, and spending five mana to do so (saying nothing of the change in colored mana requirements). It also happens to be a six-for-one. There are a few other discard spells in this vein that wouldn’t be out of place in a deck like this, since we are trying to play more of an attrition game. Being able to cause each opponent to discard multiple cards at the cost of only one of our own is a great way to push into the mid to late game.
So now that we’ve gotten a few words in about the sorts of spells that we want to be playing, how do we approach adding in creatures? What kinds of creatures do we even want? As we talked about earlier, the paradigm under which we evaluate the creatures we want in a deck like this is going to have to be fundamentally different than what a traditional Burn creature base would look like.
I think the most obvious place to start is creatures that can, as an activated ability, be used to deal direct damage or life loss. Prodigal Sorcerer, or his red analog, Prodigal Pyromancer, are the best example of this particular subset, though there are a tremendous number of options and variations. While creatures that can tap to deal one damage a turn are not inherently outside the scope of this strategy, the impact they bring by themselves is so low that we have to set our expectations a little higher when building a functioning core. Here are some examples of what I would consider to be worthy of that distinction:
These three creatures deal multiple points of damage or life loss per activation. With Thermo-Alchemist and Lobber Crew, the untap clauses are very relevant and do a great Sizzle impersonation under the right circumstances. With Urborg Syphon-Mage, we are given the opportunity to replicate a Syphon Soul whenever we have the resources. The most important thing to notice here is that all three provide redundancy to our primary game plan, and that should be our standard moving forward. These creatures, specifically, form a solid foundation to build on, which leads me to the two common black Extort creatures.
I wanted to mention these creatures specifically because they can turn any spell in the deck into an above-rate burn spell. Instead of something like Terminate simply killing a creature for two mana, it now kills a creature, causes three life lost to the table, and gains us three life, all for three mana. Remember that we are a spell-based strategy, and optimizing our creature base to be synergistic with that plan of attack will generally yield greater results than a more combat oriented approach, even if those cards are objectively more powerful.
So by this point I think it’s fairly apparent that we have to be in, at least, red and black to have access to the more potent aspects of this strategy alongside the tools to make it cohesive. That being said, we have a couple choices when it comes to selecting our commander. Sticking with just the two colors, Spiteflame Witch is the simplest, no-frills choice. I would argue that it’s the optimal choice in a vacuum, but different playgroups may require different tactics available from the Command Zone. Hellhole Flailer, for example, provides a sturdy, aggressive body that will deal a lot more damage on a thinner board. Rix Maadi Guildmage aligns more closely with Spiteflame Witch in function, but sacrifices some breadth in life loss to shore up grindy board states. Even Murderous Redcap wouldn’t be totally unreasonable if we end up needing a resilient body that can contribute a few points of damage here and there. The final decision on which to run will ultimately come down to conditions specific to whatever metagame we end up playing part in. They all have their differences (some more subtle than others), but they also all occupy a unique space. When building a deck like this, where we start with a concept and build up from there, remember that it is oftentimes much more valuable to have our commander act as a redundancy for our deck's overall game plan than as a build-around piece. By doing so, we get to hedge against our strategy being, for example, stalled by targeted removal and instead are afforded the freedom to utilize our commander when it is most advantageous to us without compromising tempo. Simply, we get to be proactive on the axis we choose regardless of whether or not our commander is on the field.
Now, with all of that covered, where do we go from here? There are a lot of possibilities as far as single cards or larger packages that we could include to flesh out the rest of a full list, but ultimately, I think, that’s best left up to all of you. Do you want to include a robust aristocrats-style creature suite to grind out value via Falkenrath Noble or Gnawing Zombie? Do you want to add in a Tortured Existence package set up to recur something like Ghitu Slinger over and over? Not only do those two ideas work well on their own, but they also play really well off of each other, if you would be so inclined. That’s really just the tip of the iceberg. What would you include in your interpretation of a deck like this? What avenues of interaction would you pursue? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you all next time.