Thursday, 4 May 2023

The Best Creature (non-face) Burn

We are now very much in a place where red players are happy playing burn spells that cannot go to the dome. For well over a decade I would write off any burn spell that didn't do damage to someone's face. Even Searing Blaze was a bit touch and go when it first arrived as so many decks wouldn't have enough targets. Now so much power is to be found in dorks that basically all cube decks have to contain creatures. Creatures that are worth killing. Some extreme combo cubes might have too few targets in some decks but this is a pretty pointless discussion as they will not be packing burn for burn decks either! So, we can play burn that only hits dorks now because there are dorks everywhere to burn, and lots of them that really need it. That extra demand and openness to removal has opened up red rather. 

This is an article discussing the best non-face burn spells you can play in red. The reason you might do this is simply that you get a bit more bang for your buck in terms of your spell becoming purely removal rather than a modal removal/reach card. To balance things if you are reducing modality you have to increase something else and for the most part here that is power. There are a few kinds of cards that I am not going to look at here. I'm staying pure red so I don't have to deal with things like Izzet Charm. That should keep this article length and not book length! I am also dealing with spot removal only. Stuff that hits all dorks is mass removal not burn and is far better thought of in that regard, again it just muddies the other wise very pure waters. Lastly I am skipping the very powerful cards like Searing Blood and Blaze. While these are very specifically dork removal spells the perk they offer is face damage and so you are only playing these in aggressive decks making them the narrowest type of burn! They are effectively the opposite of what we are trying to do here! I am also avoiding all cards like Glorybringers, Fury, and Flametongue Yearling. They are more about tempo and value than purely being a removal spell. They are typically great cards and they partly occupy a similar portion of the cube to removal but you do want a mix. Glorybringer is of no help if you died to something you really needed to kill on turn two. 

Red damage based removal is very clean to assess. You have a cost for the spell and you have an amount of damage that deals. You then have spell type and other associated pros and cons. Removal is already pretty easy to assess as you almost always just want the most effective tool. This means how much it kills, how reliably, and how efficiently. Other stuff is secondary. A lot of the cards on this list are incredibly close and often just re-tweaks of the same idea. I am going to rate all the cards on this list out of 10 but not in the usual way, just in comparison to each other. All the cards here are cube playable and presently I run only five of these. I see this number going up although it does rather depend how many Glorbringer and Fury power level cards get dropped on us. 

Pyrokenisis 2

This is one of the weaker cards on the list and that is down to the somewhat forced lack of modality. At zero mana this can be a bomb but it can also just be an overly pricy thing to do. Six is always a lot to pay for this and so you are locked into always losing tempo or value unless you really luck out and get to wipe out three relevant things with it! Fury is good because it is amazing value at five mana and can help you out if needed when you can't afford that. Pyrokenisis only offers the latter of those things and is a bumb deal the rest of the time. It is an overcost insurance policy with a high ceiling but a frequent and poor floor.

Frost Bite 4

Skred 6

These are both similar cards that are only playable if you allow any basic lands to be snow, and even then these are still a little narrow, especially Skred. These are broadly the same sort of deal, Frost Bite trades off the nice high scaling ceiling of Skred for some more consistent early removal. It does achieve this but the overall cost in power is significant. Skred has the kind of punch to make it worth bothering to snow up, Bite does not. Skred however is too narrow for drafting cubes even allowing any basic as snow as it is pretty much a mono only card.

Soul Sear / Rebel Salvo 3

Technically Rebel Salvo is better but I cannot see it being that much less than 2.9 mana on average in cubes. That is not very exciting. It can have a 3.1/10 if you really like! Mostly these are just heavy hitters dealing 5 for 3 and at instant speed and with the ability to dodge indestructible. That last part had a period where it was quite nice in my cube and this punchy card did a bit of reasonable work. Well, Soul Sear did, I think we are past the point where I would even bother testing Salvo. It was just nice to have, it answered almost everything and that wasn't something red was used to being able to do. Decks absolutely had the room for such things but I think we are past such times. Exile removal effects are more useful currently as well. 

Lightning Axe 5

This lives and dies by the support you have for it. Pitch a Bloodghast and you have yourself the best one mana removal spell in the game. Pitch something useful and you do not. Equally, pay 6 total mana and fail to have a good removal spell in a different way. Mostly I think unless you are directly trying to support specific synergies it is best to avoid cards like this in cube. They are a bit polar and narrow. 

Harnessed Lightning 2/10

Hard to rate this one as by itself it is really poor, however with other energy cards it quickly starts to look very impressive. When you get energy back for killing a small thing or the ability to dump extra energy in to kill a big dork you have yourself a great scaling and highly dynamic card. In a deck with lots of energy cards this is a comfortably 7/10 but by itself it is just a bad Abrade or Searing Spear. 

Shivan Fire 5

Fiery Impulse 6

Unholy Heat 9

Here we have a bunch of Shocks that upgrade in some way to do more. Shock is a fine floor so all these cards are fine. Heat naturally starts out better because Modern Horizons.... So it has the floor of also being able to Shock planeswalkers. Shivan Fire is the worst of the three as paying 5 mana for 4 damage is a poor rate, and while more reliable than the others, a lot less powerful. Spell Mastery isn't any easier to get than delirium and it is a touch narrower too. Further to that you get +1 damage for it on Imulse and +4 damage (on your already broader spell) for delirium on Heat and the clear power difference becomes apparent. One mana for six damage is mentally good and it is far too easily achieved here. Being able to do so at instant speed or to planeswalkers is all extra gravy this card clearly didn't need. That being said, Fiery Impulse isn't quite enough gravy and could do with a jump to four damage to become enticing. 

Shatterskull Smashing 10

This one is tricky to rate as it wouldn't get near a deck without repping as a Mountain. An XRR spell is a long way from mana efficient, it never really gets to being efficient either, even when it does double damage! What it is however is an incredibly impactful and low inclusion cost card. It is a land when you need it to be which is already about the best mode any card can have. Then it can kill a small or medium thing at a shit rate if you need it to, or, occasionally in the late game you blow up all of your opponents relevant threats and murder them, with your mountain.... oops. Red decks basically always play this. They basically always play Cave as well so... Just appraising the burn part of this card and it is a 0/10 but add that on the back of a Mountain and you have one of the most played cards in cube. Quite the advertisement for modality and consistency... It is also the hidden modality of the X variable, not just removal land but big end game high impact removal, midgame low impact lower cost removal, or land. The ability to win a game with a card that should just be an insurance policy is a big part of this being a 10 on this scale too. If this were just a 3 mana Shock or a 8 mana double Dreadbore then it would be closer to the 7/10 mark. 

Obliterating Bolt 8

Flame-Blessed Bolt 6

Scorching Dragonfire 6

He we have the classic instant speed one mana for two damage or two mana for three damage or the sorcery speed two for four. I am sure at some point we will get the one for three at sorcery too. These are all fine to good. They all solve some issues red are not otherwise the best at solving. You don't need a lot of this effect in your cube but the odd one is nice. Incendiary Flow is also a card I like over these which offers a similar perk but more utility. While the power of these is comparable to each other I do lean towards Obliterating Bolt quite heavily. There are plenty of spells that offer one mana for two damage or two mana for three damage but there are fewer that do four at two making it that bit more unique.

Cathartic Pyre 2

Looks good but is actually poor. Neither of these options is good and one is actively bad in most cases. Two mana and a card is too much to spend for a bit of filtering, even in most decks looking for looting effects. There is no world in which I am not looking to play Tormenting Voice, Faithless Looting, or some kind of Searing Spear over this. If you want modality or extra fluff on your removal you have better options.

Fire Prophecy 7.5

Volcanic Spite 8

Jaya's Greeting 6

These are all a lot better than Cathartic Pyre as you get your card quality as well as your 3 damage. Yes, a pair of loots is better than what is on offer here but not by enough to be happy about turning an "and" into an "or". Fire Prophecy/Spite are generally the better effect, they immediately get you another new card and lets you put one of many back in the deck rather than potentially one of one card. It is also a really useful tool for setting up the likes of Indomitable Creativity in a singleton world. Both effects are impressive looking overall deals and seem like they should play a lot better than they do in cube. That however is forgetting that removal just wants to be clean and effective and suited to task. Why would I want a scry when I can get an exile effect or a cost reduction or a damage increase? There are so many options in red removal that you can always find a comparable card with a better removal attribute than you can with a card quality or other such perk. Prophecy was right on the edge of playabiliy and will be the next place I go when looking to expend on reds removal range. Spite and the increased target range is in my cube right now under testing but I am expecting it to last. It is rounded and will make games better even if it might not be the optimal card. 

Demon Bolt 6.5

Just a fairly nice rounded heavy hitting removal spell. Three mana for four damage isn't a great rate but it is still quite a high damage output. Being able to jiggle the cost up also allows the effective price to be a lot lower than three. A kind of big Seal of Fire! When this costs an effectively nearer two mana than three mana then the card is pretty good but sadly it is still mostly costing you three very real mana and those mild casting conveniences do not quite swing it. 

Thunderclap 5

We are now moving into the realm of the cost reducers. This is a pretty good one offering a fairly easy pitch mode and what appears to be a selection of stomachable numbers. You play burn that does three, you can even cast some for three! The issue again here is none of the modes are commonly good. Yes, when you can play this for free and have that be useful and painless the card is supremely good. Mostly however you have an underpowered and over cost removal spell, or worse still, one that later cripples you. There is certainly a tempo enough format where I would want this in my cube but we are not quite there yet. A fairly simple way you can approach considering this is to contrast how many times you play it for 3 mana and how many times you play it for free. Average the total mana spent to play it and unless it is under two we are looking pretty inefficient. We need to maintain over one free cast for every two hard casts and I cannot see that being the case in many cubes. 

Mine Collapse 8

The big Thunderclap. Hits walkers and does two more damage to just one more mana on the hard cast. This kills a whole lot more both in terms of targets and size there of than Thunderclap does. It is more efficient in hard cast mode and wildly so in free cast mode. We want to be under three on the average cost here to be good and so we only need to maintain just over one free cast per three normal four mana casts. Easier to achieve, especially when we consider the raw efficiency of the spell. Mine Collapse does have the one restriction of only being able to play it for free on your turn. This does stop it being quite so tricky but it doesn't really detract from the incredibly high tempo swinging potential of the card. I have been very impressed with the reliability and effectiveness of this in cube. Seemingly one of the most reasonable and rounded of the red removal you can employ for zero mana. 

Magmatic Sinkhole 7

This is the competition for Mine Collapse. Both are five damage heavy hitters that fire at instant speed and at both dorks and walkers. Both can cost a lot or very little! Sinkhole is a bit harder to fire off early but typically a whole lot less painful to fire off on the cheap. You can also cast it for one in the opponent's turn which is a lovely place to be. The issue with Sinkhole is that most builds now have ways in which they want to utilize the graveyard. As soon as you start factoring in other delve and escape cards the value of Sinkhole starts to dwindle. It is not that efficient of a use of stuff in the bin. I could have a Murktide or three brand spanking new cards from a range of different effects! In a world where this is the only thing utilizing the bin then it is premium removal. In the real world give me Mine Collapse instead. 

Mizzium Mortars 9

A bit of a dull card but a fully game breaking one. In two mana mode it is simply just an effective removal spell. Sorcery speed leads to lack of trickery and excitement, as does the simplicity. You kill a thing, sometimes you lose a mana, sometimes you gain a couple, it is all generally pretty fair stuff. Overall you probably fall a bit behind using this in normal mode due to EtB triggers and haste etc on so many dorks. It is all about that overload option which turns this from a playable but dull spot removal into a devastating one sided mass removal spell. Cube games tend to clutter. Stuff produces a lot of tokens. An overloaded Mortars might not kill it all but it will kill off most and leave the balance of what is in play rather in your favour. Very often a case of overload Mortars then attack for the win. A lot of game plans involve holding out until you get to six so you can pull the trigger on it and get back into or take over the game. It is a bit too expensive and unreliable to play this just as a mass removal spell, despite one sided mass removal being so broken in cube. The overload situation however means you just don't have to. This is basically a a really high impact game winning card with almost no downside. Quite Shatterskull Smashing in that regard. This trades the option to be a mountain for more efficient rates as removal. 

Abrade 9

Much as I poo pooed on Cathartic Pyre for being modal Abrade is rather different. It offers two removal modes and not one which is a card and tempo loss. Shatter is a perfect accompaniment to three damage at a dork. It basically just makes the removal spell a lot broader. It is going from Terminate to Putrify. You want access to Shatter but artifacts are not common enough to play cards purely about the Shatter. Abrade is good enough without artifacts to target and an absolute life saver sometimes where there are. Abrade offers the kind of deck security you are happy to pay a small power price for. I will play this over a Searing Spear in my aggressive decks if I have limited means to handle artifacts. I don't want to just be cold to some Batterskull or something. Abrade is the kind of modal card that makes cube and other singleton formats tick. Modes that you want but are too narrow to play directly. And Abrade is a pretty perfect example of a good card doing this. It obviously gets better the more you move away from aggro and if I am playing this in most of my aggro decks then I am basically playing this in every deck I can cast it in which feels about right. It is less Swingy than Mortars but it is also more playable as you don't need access to six mana and three red before Mortars goes above and beyond. Abrade is security, and at a low low price. It is the kind of interaction that allows you to play good magic.     

Flame Slash 9.5

And so here we are. The cleanest, simplest and most efficient of the options. It is hard to describe this as anything other than the best. This is four damage for one mana. No extra costs, no prerequisites or conditions, just one card, one mana, four damage. It kills that Birds on turn one, it kills that Questing Beast on turn four. It isn't so much about this being better than Mizzium Mortars or Oblitering Bolt but more about how much better your deck looks when you can replace a two drop with a one drop and lose almost nothing in doing so. Replace that Llanowar Loamspeaker with a Birds of Paradise you say? Great. Of the dorks you can kill with damage this kills 90% of them by itself. That is a hit rate higher than the various black two mana spells like Go for the Throat, Doomblade, and so forth. Wild Slash is also burn based allowing you to add it to something else if you need to take out a really big thing. Not ideal but better than not being able to do so. So yeah, Wild Slash is no frills removal but outside of white it is the cheapest, most efficient, and most reliable one on offer. Unholy Heat is a little more dynamic and so on average performs a little better but Wild Slash absolutely outputs more damage in my cube. More total damage, more damage per mana. I played Unholy Heat over this literally yesterday (I had a lot of sorcery speed spells and wanted to up my instant count) and regretted it as I failed to be able to kill a 3 toughness dork on turn two in multiple games. Heat is the better modern card but Slash is where you want to be in cube. Not by a lot but we were not expecting huge margins in this bunch of cards. 

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