The Lava Spike deck aims to win by hitting the opponent with enough one-off sources of direct damage, also known as “burn”. It is very aggressive, consistent, and clear in its game plan. The Lava Spike deck would be fair (in the sense of being interactive instead of a degenerate combo deck) but for the fact that direct damage can be hard to stop. Indeed, the Lava Spike deck tries to be unfair by sidestepping common interaction like creature removal. It is geared to win the damage race, not interact, so it can struggle against life gain, faster combo decks, and problematic permanents. But it is aided when the opponent damages themselves, including with fetch lands and shock lands.
After reading this article, you should have a better handle on building and beating Lava Spike decks, which appear in 7 Point Highlander as the Burn Archetype.
Sidestepping standard defences
“Burn” is a term familiar to many people who play Magic. It refers to direct damage spells and the strategy dedicated to them. Patrick Chapin writes about the “Lava Spike” deck, referring to a one-mana burn spell that deals damage to the opponent but not opposing creatures: “The Lava Spike deck is the classic “burn” deck. It seeks to win games by landing a critical number of individual (generally non-reusable) packets directly at the opponent” (Next Level Deckbuilding, p. 432).
The Lava Spike deck represents the height of aggression or proactivity. It is fair in that it doesn’t cheat on mana or short-cut its way to victory by exploiting some mistake in card design. Well, it is fair except for the fact that direct damage spells can be difficult or impossible for the opponent to deal with, especially as they pile up. For these reasons, Chapin places the Lava Spike deck near 11 o’clock on his macro-archetype array.
Notice that the Lava Spike deck resides in the “combo” quadrant. Why on earth does Chapin think of burn as a combo deck? It doesn’t end the game by combining cards in any special way. Seven Lava Spikes and a few lands to cast them hardly makes for a combo, does it?
Well, there is a sense in which it does. But more to the point, the Lava Spike deck aims to be non-interactive, even to the point of feeling unfair. Chapin observes the following: “The way Combo decks kill you will often be at odds with the interactive cards you came to the tournament and planned to defend yourself with” (p. 420). This point is really important and perhaps most clearly illustrated in relation to creature removal. In most formats, you expect to defend against creatures. So when a combo deck opposes you with game-winning spells instead of creatures, your defensive measures are sidestepped and you often lose because of it. In just the same way, if you come packing creature removal but barely any life gain or other ways to defend against direct damage, then you can easily lose because of it. This makes combo decks, including the Lava Spike deck, well positioned in formats heavy on creature interaction. Seven Point Highlander is precisely such a format, by evolution but also by Committee design, since new players in particular like to play sweet creatures. The Points Committee errs on the side of heavily pointing combo decks to make things more welcoming for newcomers, but ironically this functions to increase the prevalence of creatures and therefore of creature interaction, making combo decks that sidestep creature interaction all the more potent.
This probably explains some of the success of the Lava Spike deck in 7 Point Highlander. In 7 Point Highlander, burn tends to fly under the radar and then (lava) spike a tournament when opponents are unprepared. Some cluey players picked up the Lava Spike deck to prey on “Kess Pile”, the Grixis control deck that dominated throughout 2018. Kess Pile loaded up on creature removal but typically lacked life gain. Kess Pile only had discard and counter magic to fight direct damage, and once these defensive resources were depleted, it was a sitting duck. Kess Pile was especially vulnerable to the recurring burn of Sulfuric Vortex, since it also lacked enchantment removal. And the game-winning spell, Price of Progress, only became more lethal if the Kess Pile player managed to survive into the late game.
A different plan from Red Aggro
The Lava Spike deck doesn’t present much of a board to interact with. This differentiates it from the adjacent macro-archetype, Red Aggro (which typically appears in 7 Point Highlander as the Mox Aggro Archetype). Red Aggro relies on creatures to deal most of its damage and therefore readily aims burn spells at would-be blockers to clear the way. The Lava Spike deck can aim some burn spells at creatures, but it much prefers to send all damage directly at the opponent. Red Aggro deals damage directly to the opponent mainly as a final blow after the opponent has managed to stabilise the board. This damage is commonly referred to as “reach”. But the Lava Spike deck enters direct-damage mode right from the get-go. In other words, the Lava Spike deck is ideally all reach. The two decks may share many of the same cards, but their plans are different.
Generally, Lava Spike decks:
- “Embody the purest of burn decks, only using creatures that function as burn spells for their purposes
- Are amongst the most consistent of decks, presenting a turn 4 kill in most games (sometimes a turn slower, if built in an underpowered format)
- Don’t have much room to maneuver beyond racing, aside from occasional hate cards that attempt to win on their own, such as Blood Moon, Ensnaring Bridge, or Pyrostatic Pillar” (p. 421).
The consistency of the Lava Spike deck is a notable strength. It comes from the deck’s singular focus (burn the face) and from its cards generally having low converted mana costs and being all the same colour (p. 429). Consistency can be especially important in a singleton format like 7 Point Highlander, because there is more-than-usual scope for train-wreck hands and for punishing opponents who draw them. Having a singular focus can also make the Lava Spike deck easier to pilot than other decks (p. 430), which is especially relevant in a long tournament, where saving mental energy is advantageous.
The Philosophy of Fire
Adrian Sullivan’s “Philosophy of Fire” represents “a special sort of card economy” or way of evaluating cards and interactions (p. 424). It “establishes a baseline of two damage per card” and two damage per mana (p. 422). Setting Shock as the standard is useful simply because it represents “the basic market rate for a burn spell”: Shock is, or at least has been, the average burn spell across formats, often playable but rarely amazing. From the perspective of a burn player, any card that deals more than two damage carries a form of card advantage. And any use of one red mana that deals more than two damage carries a form of tempo advantage, helping you to win the race to reduce life totals to zero at an above-average pace. Lightning Bolt and Lava Spike look really good from this perspective!
The Philosophy of Fire entails that, in effect, you can deprive your Lava Spike opponent of card or tempo advantages by hitting their above-average spells with discard or counter magic. For this reason, “the Lava Spike deck dislikes one-for-one permission exchanges” (p. 423). The Philosophy of Fire also entails that life gain, sometimes derided, effectively offers incredible card advantage and tempo to the player sitting across from the Lava Spike deck. This is especially true when life gain spells tend to be more mana-efficient than burn spells just because burn spells are usually the more useful. The Lava Spike deck can shore up a key weakness by preventing opposing life gain with cards like Sulfuric Vortex, Rampaging Ferocidon and Skullcrack (p. 428).
The Lava Spike deck suffers two additional weaknesses shared by all combo decks. It can struggle against a faster combo deck. And it can struggle to answer problematic permanents. Being very proactive, the Lava Spike deck will never be stuck with a handful of wrong answers, but this comes at the cost of not being equipped to produce the right answer when it needs to. You can put the Lava Spike deck into a difficult position if you force it to interact (by putting into play a Platinum Angel, say) (p. 424).
One final point is worth noting, before looking at some examples of the Lava Spike deck in 7 Point Highlander. The Lava Spike deck tends to exist only in formats with “a critical mass of burn spells” (p. 432) and mana bases that aid the burn player’s cause (p. 430). In 7 Point Highlander, the mana bases typically depend on fetch lands and shock lands (alongside the premium, original dual lands). For this reason, the damage that a mana base deals to its owner is often considerable, and this may be under-appreciated by some 7 Point Highlander players. The Lava Spike player may only need to deal 15 instead of 20 damage!
Lava Spike decks in 7 Point Highlander
In mid-2019, 7 Point Highlander veteran Graham King placed fifth-to-eighth at the 56-player Eternal Masters tournament in Dandenong, Victoria, with a Lava Spike deck known as “Wan Chin Burn”, named after its original pilot, fellow Melbourne player Wan Chin Lee. Wan Chin first played and popularised the deck in 2015 or earlier, repeatedly doing well with it.
Graham’s deck features a lot of direct damage. And every source is capable of dealing more than two. On the Philosophy of Fire, this means that the deck has some inbuilt card advantage. Graham’s deck prioritises, not speed, but inevitability, continually delivering hefty wallops of hard-to-stop damage. This is perhaps most evident in the deck’s curve, which goes up, not down, to the three drops, where most of the action is.
One of the three drops is Dack Fayden. What’s he doing in a burn deck?! In any aggressive deck, increasing your card quality, not just your card quantity, increases your damage output over time. This is why Dack Fayden, with his powerful +1 looting ability, is good in the Lava Spike deck, even though he deals no damage. He can exchange excess lands and creatures for burn spells, which deal more or more direct damage.
In any singleton format, the use of creatures in burn decks is pretty much mandatory, because the quality of burn spells falls off steeply before you’ve completed your main deck. But Graham’s creatures all function as burn spells by having haste, flying, or triggered or activated abilities that increase damage output, sometimes by providing card advantage. The creatures tend to deal hard-to-stop damage, keeping the Lava Spike deck hard to interact with, and therein keeping it a combo deck.
Graham’s deck wants to race to reduce life totals to zero, but it can also steal a win by crippling the opponent with Blood Moon, Magus of the Moon or Back to Basics. Strip Mine, one of Graham’s pointed cards, played well with these cards. The mana disruption plan improved the match up against faster combo and generally stymied the opponent’s offence, buying time for the Lava Spike deck to finish off the opponent. The inclusion of Blood Moon, Magus of the Moon and Back to Basics also provided a payoff for the deck being mostly one colour.
The Lava Spike deck can add a second colour at almost no cost, and this can especially help against faster combo. For example, note the blue Ashiok, Dream Render, Narset, Parter of Veils, and Trickbind in Graham’s sideboard. Much of Graham’s sideboard is dedicated to helping him shore up a weakness to faster combo. In mid-2019, it mainly featured tools to fight Storm Combo, Graveyard-based Combo and Flash-Hulk combo (a variant of Traditional Combo). (Thassa’s Oracle hadn’t been printed yet.) Even so, Graham finally succumbed to Flash-Hulk combo on the day.
Graham plays a whopping 26 mana sources to ensure he curves out consistently. Two of those mana sources are the iconic Mox Ruby and Mox Sapphire, being three points each on the 7 Point Highlander points list. Why use your precious points in this way? Why play Mox Ruby and Mox Sapphire over, say, Ancestral Recall and Treasure Cruise? Some burn lists opt for card draw over fast mana. So why might fast mana be better than card draw in the Lava Spike deck?
The Philosophy of Fire: Ancestral Recall versus Boros Charm
Let’s think about Ancestral Recall on the Philosophy of Fire. Your deck is roughly 40 Shocks and 20 Mountains. So Ancestral Recall draws you two Shocks and a Mountain. You deal four damage by playing the two Shocks. You spend one mana on the Ancestral Recall and two mana on the Shocks, but let’s be generous and say you get a mana back with the Mountain you draw off of Ancestral Recall. This means you spend two mana all up to deal four damage. You can do just as well with Boros Charm!
Okay, but what if the average card in your deck is better than Shock? Shock is just the baseline, after all. Ancestral Recall gets better then. But so does your entire deck, to the point that Ancestral Recall becomes almost redundant. If all your cards are better than Shock, then you don’t need the extra cards that provide extra damage, because you naturally draw all the burn you need to deal 20 damage in the first several turns. But there is one exception. If you expect to suffer some setbacks, like meaningful interaction in the form of discard or counter magic, then you need the extra burn spells and you can use Ancestral Recall to get them pronto, rather than rely on draw steps.
We’ve just seen how Ancestral Recall is comparable to Boros Charm on the Philosophy of Fire. But Mox Ruby is WAY better than Mountain in terms of allowing you to deal damage fast. Pretty much the same goes for Mox Sapphire compared to Treasure Cruise. Graham opts to gain virtual card advantage by playing cards that deal more than two damage. Graham already has all the damage he needs, and he doesn’t expect to suffer many setbacks, because his damage is hard to stop. So Graham’s precious points are better spent on fast mana to give him the occasional tempo boost and allow him to get a turn ahead in casting his burn spells and Blood Moons. Graham even plays Chrome Mox to this end. If Graham doesn’t draw his Moxen, or if he draws them late, then it doesn’t really matter. His deck still has inevitability by packing plenty of hard-to-stop damage. Graham’s deck doesn’t need the raw card draw of Ancestral Recall and Treasure Cruise to double down on damage. But the next deck does, because its damage is easier to stop.
Using Prowess to create better Lava Spikes
In September 2020 Sophie Pezzutto won a 19-player online league run by CBR MTG with a deck named “RUG Sprowess”. The name of this red-blue-green deck possibly combines Sophie’s first initial with the Prowess mechanic that the deck builds on. You can watch Sophie’s finals match here:
Sophie pays tribute to her influences in Wan Chin Burn, Athiette Reid’s blue-red Fish deck named “Dr Seuss”, Tim Evers’s blue-red aggro deck named “The Bus”, and Philip Nicholson’s blue-red Prowess deck named “TM 55”. The internet tells us that this last deck name may refer to a “Technical Machine” that empowers a Pokémon. Fittingly, the Prowess deck focusses on empowering one or more creatures with spells to deal much more damage than usual. Sophie adds green to expand her sideboard options and to, in a word, Scale Up her creatures with the ultimate “pump spells”, boosting the power of her creatures (see the card images below). In this way, Sophie’s deck resembles the “Infect” decks that you can find in the Legacy format. Those decks also look to boost small attacking creatures and can achieve single-turn kills.
Chapin writes this of the Lava Spike deck: “While its mother may be Red Aggro, its father is definitely Storm Combo, an archetype that it shares much functionality with” (p. 420). Just like the Lava Spike deck, Storm Combo wants to direct an entire life total’s worth of hard-to-stop damage directly at the opponent. But Storm Combo needs to chain its spells together all in one turn, whereas the Lava Spike deck can pile on damage over successive turns. Sophie’s deck features a Storm Combo component, since Prowess and comparable abilities (like Kiln Fiend’s) resemble the Storm ability, rewarding a multi-spell turn with lots of damage. The damage doublers Berserk and Assault Strobe can even end the game on the spot if everything comes together. An advantage of this type of burst damage is that it reduces the scope for incremental life gain to become problematic. The drip-feed life gain from Klothys, God of Destiny won’t really be a problem if the game ends quickly.
In effect, Sophie uses Prowess and comparable abilities to super-charge her burn spells. When Sophie casts Chain Lightning before attacking with Monastery Swiftspear, she sort of gets four damage instead of three out of the Chain Lightning because of the Swiftspear’s Prowess trigger. Or you can think of the burn spell as upgrading the creature. Either way, the effect is the same. The total is greater than the sum of the parts, on account of their interaction. The Swiftspear has to connect for all this to work, mind you. So Sophie uses haste or evasion (including via Shadow Rift) to turn her creatures into functional burn spells. Using creatures also lets you use a pump spell like Titan’s Strength as a burn spell that outclasses Lava Spike. If your creature connects, your pump spell can function as a burn spell the likes of which you have never seen before. Become Immense adds six damage for only one mana much of the time. Normally you’d have to start looking much further up the curve for that amount of damage.
By branching into another card type in pump spells, Sophie can keep her mana costs extremely low. This then helps Sophie to cast multiple spells in one turn. While Graham loaded up on three drops, there are none here. Sophie’s main deck features 10 free spells, 23 one drops and nine two drops, if all cost reductions like Delve are available in-game. That is one of the lowest-to-the-ground decks in 7 Point Highlander, allowing Sophie to play only 18 lands and thereby improve her top decks from the mid-game on, when having fewer lands gives you a better chance of drawing the business spells you’re after.
Countering and recovering from creature removal
But there is a notable risk to Sophie’s approach. Using creatures to super-charge your burn spells and to turn pump spells into the greatest burn spells of all time makes the damage easier to stop. You lose combo’s edge of sidestepping standard defences, notably creature removal. In fact, you can really get punished by creature removal, giving your opponent virtual card advantage and tempo if you’re stuck with pump spells but no creature to pump. Sophie’s protection (Apostle’s Blessing, Blossoming Defense and Veil of Summer) and soft permission (Daze, Mental Misstep and Spell Pierce) are crucially important in helping Sophie to resolve and then protect her creatures. These cheap interactive spells also happily trigger Prowess and comparable abilities when cast on Sophie’s turn prior to combat damage. So if you ever play against RUG SProwess, consider deploying removal on your own turn. You’ve been warned!
If Sophie’s creatures do suffer interaction, then Ancestral Recall and Treasure Cruise are there to help Sophie recover. Sophie opts for Ancestral Recall over Mox Ruby (and Treasure Cruise over Mox Sapphire). While Mox Ruby helps Graham to win faster than he otherwise would, Ancestral Recall helps Sophie to recover after running into interaction. In fact, Ancestral Recall is so good for Sophie that she plays Merchant Scroll to find it and Regrowth to recur it, getting Prowess and comparable triggers along the way. Ancestral Recall also combines with other blue card draw (like Gush) and card selection (like Brainstorm, Ponder and Preordain) to help Sophie fix her hand. Graham’s deck plays blue but not Brainstorm, Ponder or Preordain, which is pretty remarkable, given the quality of those cards, but it’s also understandable, given Graham’s plan of curving out. Hand-fixing is important for Sophie because, by adding more card types like pump spells, she risks losing the consistency typical of burn. She needs to draw the right mix of lands, creatures, pump spells, and creature-protection spells. The advantage of Prowess and comparable abilities is that they can make functional burn spells out of most of these. Pump spells, creature-protection spells, card selection spells, and draw spells can all combine to create virtual Lava Spikes.
In conclusion, the Lava Spike deck is a combo deck in that it typically sidesteps the most common interaction, notably creature removal. Seven Point Highlander tends to be a format heavy on creature removal, and light on faster combo decks, so the Lava Spike deck tends to be well-positioned. Moreover, the game-winning power of Price of Progress specifically just cannot be over-stated. If you consider sleeving up the Lava Spike deck, just keep an eye out for life gain in the format, like the life gain from Deathrite Shaman, Klothys, God of Destiny, Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, and Batterskull. Life gain doesn’t always abound in 7 Point Highlander, but if it does when you start sleeving up the Lava Spike deck, then consider main-decking cards to prevent life gain, such as Sulphuric Vortex and the newer Roiling Vortex. If you understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Lava Spike deck, then you can sleeve it up at the right time and tune it to spike a tournament.