In the beginning there was Lightning Bolt, and it was good.
The standard against which all other burn cards are (unfairly) measured.
Lightning Bolt represents one-fifth of the boon cycle from Alpha/Beta/Unlimited. The boons are spells which give their caster three of a resource for one mana. They include Ancestral Recall (3 cards), Healing Salve (3 life), Giant Growth (3 power/toughness), Dark Ritual (3 mana), and the Bolt (3 damage). Slowly, the boons have disappeared from Magic sets. It started with the blue, continued to the red, and finished (for the time being) with the black. Each of the boons exemplifies an integral flavor from each of its colors. Blue still loves drawing cards. White will always find a way to prevent damage or gain life. Green continues to make its creatures larger and larger. Black gives up resources for quick, easy gains even to this day. And red, the topic of this week’s article, still loves to burn things to a cinder with direct damage.
Of course, this begs the question: what exactly is a burn spell? Does a burn spell have to be able to damage a player, or can it be allowed to target only creatures? Is there anything other than a semantic difference between direct damage and burn? Are all burn spells removal?
Well to answer my own questions, let’s classify the spells in this article into four levels of ness. They are:
: The utility spell. These are cards that definitely fit into red’s theme of chaos and anarchy, but don’t really fit into the later three categories. (examples: Mana Clash, Laccolith Rig)
: The removal spell. These are dainty solutions to everyday problems won’t really let you fry anything to a crisp, but they reliably kill things. (examples: Vertigo, Tremor)
: The direct damage spell. Now we’re talking red! Whether used to assault a player or reduce a creature to ash, these are the pin-point accuracy spells which red mages have come to know and love. (examples: Engulfing Flames, Singe)
: BURN BABY BURN! These spells disregard all welfare on the caster’s side, and go straight for the life total. Whether you’re sacrificing creatures, lands, cards, or life, you’re getting the desired result: opponent flambé. (examples: Reckless Abandon, Firestorm)
So Lightning Bolt came first (). It’s sleek, it’s powerful, and it’s a staple of red. For a whole mana, you get 3 damage aimed anywhere you want, no questions asked. Alpha may have introduced another casting cost pseudo-burn spell known as Earthbind (definitely utility), but let’s look back at Magic history for a moment. Earthbind could deal with Serra Angel in conjunction with Lightning Bolt. But what I like to do to get the "feel" of certain cards is to imagine how they would act out were the game really happening. Take these two scenarios:
A: Giant roots made of stone shoot from the ground, assailing the Serra Angel and pulling her down to the earth. Then, a sudden Lightning Bolt strikes from the sky, killing the poor thing.
B: The forces of chaos and fire shoot Lightning Bolts (plural) at the Serra Angel, frying her to a crisp. Then the goblins came out and had Serra Angel BBQ for brunch.
See? Red players don’t want to be concerned with whether a creature flies or not in order to affect wicked damage; they simply want to introduce a quantity of fiery death onto all those who oppose their might.
Modern day red began with a deck known as Sligh (or Geeba).
Originally, these constructions used reasonably costed creatures in conjunction with removal spells to burst through enemy defenses. Creatures such as Orcish Artillery and Brothers of Fire combined with direct damage spells like Incinerate and Lightning Bolt to clear the way for Ironclaw Orcs and Ball Lightnings. Over time, the deck became more and more mana efficient, trading utility for pure speed. The Artillery became Cursed Scrolls, and Ironclaw Orcs became Jackal Pups. But still, the cornerstone of the deck was the direct damage spell.
So in the slot for burn, red mages didn’t have many options pre-modern day Magic (for my purposes, this era began with Mirage and the advent of block sets). You had Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, and the goblin-bound Goblin Grenade. Alliances added the reusable Death Spark (which saw play in goblin decks), but most burn/direct damage spells of note were either higher casting cost (Incinerate made its debut in Ice Age) or spells. To confound matters further, Wizards threw in a bunch of specialty and coin-flipping cards such as Mana Clash, Chaos Charm, and Vertigo, none of which really could set the opponent on fire.
Mirage block didn’t really change the status quo. The overpowered Firestorm eventually became a staple -- in Necropotence decks, Reanimator Decks, and 4-color blue decks featuring Tradewind Rider. Red burn decks simply didn’t have enough cards to throw away to Firestorm effectively, since each of their draws already were keyed to damage the opponent, and they ran light on land. Visions gave Sligh its most important card of all (Fireblast), but still most red decks had to rely on higher casting cost removal spells, especially after Lightning Bolt rotated out of the main set with Fifth Edition.
Tempest block gave red mages a little too much ammunition for one mana.
Enter the Tempest block. If Fireblast gave red decks a competitive chance, then Tempest and Stronghold threw a whole tank of butane onto the bonfire. Suddenly a whole wealth of one casting cost spells because available to the red mage: Shock finally gave an adequate replacement for Lightning Bolt, Mogg Fanatic and Jackal Pup became the ultimate in one-drops, and Cursed Scroll (though an artifact, it is most often associated with Sligh decks) turned the weakness exhibited by the deck in the Firestorm example into a benefit: unload your hand full of burn onto your opponent, and then finish them off with a reusable source of direct damage!
Let’s take a short step back. I mention that Shock became a suitable replacement for Lightning Bolt, and it’s the truth. By no means am I proclaiming that they are equal in power (Lightning Bolt does an extra damage at no extra cost), but Shock does get the job done in most cases. What many people don’t realize is that there are more GOOD choices for one casting cost burn and direct damage spells now then at any other time in Magic history! To whit (and remember, Type 2 is the most recent two blocks plus the base set at the time).
Ye Olde Days: Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, Goblin Grenade
Mirage block Type 2: Lightning Bolt, Firestorm
Tempest block Type 2: Firestorm, Mogg Fanatic, Searing Touch, Shock
Urza’s block Type 2: Mogg Fanatic, Searing Touch, Shock, Reckless Abandon
Masques block Type 2: Reckless Abandon, Shock, Kris Mage, Seal of Fire
Invasion block Type 2: Kris Mage, Shock, Seal of Fire, Assault/Battery, Strafe
Odyssey (present) Type 2: Shock, Assault/Battery, Strafe, Engulfing Flames, Firebolt, Fiery Temper, Grim Lavamancer, Sonic Seizure
Newer sets have brought cheap burn back to the forefront.
Take another look at that list. Players constantly bemoan the loss of Lightning Bolt. “But it deals 3 damage! Shock only deals 2!”, they say. Great, but now you can run a deck with literally 32 Lightning Bolt variants at ONCE in Type 2 -- previously you were limited to at most 16 at any given time. Let’s look at some of these compared to Lightning Bolt:
Shock: It’s Lightning Bolt, but one less damage.
Assault/Battery: It’s sorcery speed, deals one less damage, but can also make a 3/3 creature.
Strafe: It’s sorcery speed, can’t hit players, and can’t hit red creatures.
Fiery Temper: It’s Lightning Bolt, but only when discarded.
Sonic Seizure: It’s Lightning Bolt that costs you a card.
But this is where direct damage spells diverge from the Lightning Bolt formula. The new breed can do things that Lightning Bolt could never dream of, such as:
Engulfing Flames: Hit two creatures, keep creatures from regenerating.
Firebolt: Hit two creatures, kill a four toughness creature, be cast after you are forced to discard it.
Grim Lavamancer: Attack for one, be activated multiple times.
And let’s not forget the synergy inherent in these cards. Fiery Temper combines especially well with Sonic Seizure. Firebolt and Engulfing Flames don’t care if they are discarded to the Seizure either, since they will make a return visit. Grim Lavamancer scoops up any of the above mentioned cards, and runs them through the recycler. Admittedly, red’s -cost creature base is nowhere near as good as the days of Tempest block, but the burn and support spells in the slot are the best that they’ve ever been in the entire history of the game, period.
Enough gushing about . You red mages would rather go out there and unleash destruction and fire at this point, rather than sit here and listen to me give an essay about how versatile and satisfying casting cost direct damage spells have gotten over the years. So by all means, step away from the computer, and good luck dealing 20 damage to the dome!
Next week: What do Ali Baba, Aladdin, and Mishra's Workshop have in common?
Ben may be reached at email@example.com.