Last updated on April 2, 2024

Lightning Bolt - Illustration by Anato Finnstark

Lightning Bolt | Illustration by Anato Finnstark

Magic can be a game of intricate planning, long turns, and baroque strategies. But sometimes you just want to be a buffet dishing out knuckle sandwiches. Figuratively.

Thats where direct damage spells come in. In a game where damage is usually about the combat step, it can be a useful tool to build out direct damage options to finish the game. And with a crop of payoffs for these types of cards, it’s always a good time to take a look.

What Are Direct Damage Cards in MTG?

End the Festivities - Illustration by Chris Rallis

End the Festivities | Illustration by Chris Rallis

Direct damage cards are burn spells that can do damage to a player. Red often has removal spells that can target only creatures or planeswalkers, like Unholy Heat, but back in Alpha, Lightning Bolt was printed, which let you direct the damage to creatures or players. Instead of eliminating an opponent with creature damage, you could win the game with all spells based damage or spells damage to finish off an opponent after creature attacks dropped them into range.

Although black can reduce a player's life total directly, most notably with cards like Bump in the Night, and although those cards often are put into decks named “burn” in some ways, that’s a very different effect. Those cards won’t be making our list today. In most cases there’s no real difference if an opponent loses 3 life or takes 3 damage, but there are four cards that attempt to make the hurdle of 40 life in a Commander game climbable for burn decks, and each synergizes specifically with noncombat damage.

A final note. Permanents that have activated or triggered abilities that can do damage aren’t a part of this list. Cards like Goblin Bombardment, Ramunap Ruins, or creatures that can do burn damage like Guttersnipe or Mayhem Devil can be super important parts of burn strategies, but the goal here is to look to instants or sorceries or permanents that ETB with damage. It would be even cleaner to have no permanent in this list, but cards like Viashino Pyromancer have always been part of burn decks, and if you’re looking to synergize with other burn cards, this makes sense.

The list, by the way, is fire.

#52. Evincar’s Justice

Evincar's Justice

Meme alert! This isn’t a good card! But Evincar's Justice can be killer in a big mana black deck in Commander. You can keep on cleaning the table and hitting everyone in the face. Don’t underestimate buyback if you haven’t played with it before, and there might be place for this in the right deck. I’ve had opponents concede to this card looping when the game got to one-on-one.

#51. Pulse of the Forge

Pulse of the Forge

Pulse of the Forge is weirdly underplayed. The issue is that in one-on-one, if you’re the burn deck, they have less life the whole time and this is just a terrible rate. But in multiplayer you’ll be able to get this back. If you have the right burn payoffs, this could be a nice piece of the puzzle, plus then you can pitch it to your other spells as needed.

#50. Vicious Rumors

Vicious Rumors

Vicious Rumors is mostly just discard help, but it does hit each opponent, which is valuable.

#49. Tectonic Hazard + End the Festivities

Tectonic Hazard End the Festivities

Tectonic Hazard and End the Festivities are so useful because they’re a cheap way to get a few burn triggers while wiping out some tokens and mana dorks.

#48. Mob Justice

Mob Justice

Cards that hit face based on creature numbers are fine finishers in creature decks, which are often attacking to get the opponent in range. These Mob Justice style cards are niche cards, though, especially those that connect with specific creature types.

#47. Meteor Blast

Meteor Blast

Not great, but if you really need a lot of targets, perhaps because you’re playing Hinata, Dawn-Crowned, Meteor Blast can do the job.

#46. Cave-In


This isn’t a great card, even for a pitch spell, but I think the new wave of burn payoffs is hungry for ever more triggers, so Cave-In is likely much better than its current EDH play rate.

#45. Drain Life

Drain Life

The classic game ender at ‘90s kitchen tables was so good, they nerfed it with Consuming Spirit. I know this odd fact because I still play both! March of Wretched Sorrow is played a decent amount in Timeless to gain back life from Necropotence and is another removal spell that you can pitch your too-many cards to. Drain Life is like that, but much harder to cast with only black mana and no pitched cards. But it can go face, so it’s a sad black mana Fireball of a sort.

Stop judging me! You aren’t going to talk me out of keeping this in Queza, Augur of Agonies deck!

#44. Hurricane


Here I am! Hurricane, the classic green burn the table spell has a few other fellows:

No one really plays Gruul burn in EDH, and I’m not sure that’s the thing you’d most want to do with a commander like Minsc & Boo, Timeless Heroes or Svella, Ice Shaper. This card doesn’t synergize with typical red burn payoffs, but I think everyone who plays casual Magic has at one point seen someone win while rockin’ you like a Hurricane. Green makes a lot of mana and does a lot of trample damage, and these spells can surprise. Not Wing Storm, though. Stay away from that one.

#43. Incinerate


The nerfed Lightning Bolt is still pretty good. That extra mana does really reduce Incinerate‘s efficiency, although in various formats versions of this card are totally playable. It’s a bit of work to imagine these in Commander, though:

#42. Sacred Fire

Sacred Fire

Nerfed Lightning Helix, even with recursion, isn’t the thing, as this sees only niche play. But perhapsSacred Fire is due a bit more attention?

#41. Flame Jab + Lava Dart + Searing Touch

1 mana, 1 damage. Meh. But these spells are the ones that have some copying or recursion, so they might be relevant in edge cases in your decks. Lava Dart seems like the best, but I play Flame Jab and Searing Touch in the right decks.

#40. Sickening Dreams

Sickening Dreams

Sickening Dreams is similar to Fateful Showdown. It’s powerful, but it serves a specific niche.

#39. Fateful Showdown

Fateful Showdown

A beautiful card in an Izzet deck or a madness deck or a graveyard recursion deck, Fateful Showdown is powerful but really hard to sue in a “normal” deck.

#38. Rupture


An underplayed gem. In a world where you might want to sacrifice Yargle and Multani with Thud, why not spend another mana and hit everyone? I mean, that everyone includes you, so Rupture is a dangerous card. But you’re playing a burn/Fling deck. Danger is your middle name.

#37. Fireball


A classic in Magic, the days of Fireball are slowly slipping away. I still want a few of these in EDH burn decks, but when you absolutely, positively need to burn out the whole table, there are better substitutes. There are various versions of this spell over the years, each with different wrinkles and pros and cons. Choose your weapon!

You usually need real desperation to add Fall of the Titans to that list, but you could.

#36. Creeping Chill

Creeping Chill

A classic in various dredge and graveyard decks which hope to mill this card, Creeping Chill can start to add up quickly.

#35. Fireblast


Fireblast is a nerfed variant of Pyrokinesis that can be a terrible card but can also kickstart your burn triggers when you absolutely need it to.

#34. Skullcrack


When you want another Lava Spike, your Mom will tell you that you have Skullcrack at home. You’ll sleeve up one or two to finish your Modern burn deck, but you won’t be happy about it. Come to think of it, I don’t think you’ll end up happy playing burn in Modern outside of your LGS, but to each their own.

#33. Shrapnel Blast

Shrapnel Blast

And Shrapnel Blast is Galvanic Blast at home, but the 5 damage really makes it better.

#32. Flame Rift

Flame Rift

That “each player” text is so tempting! Flame Rift’s play rate if the larger fortunes of the EDH burn deck in microcosm. It’s okay.

#31. Firestorm


This obviously isn’t a mono-red card. But in a Rakdos madness deck or in an Izzet deck where you have real card draw, I’ve had Firestorm just totally turn the tide. This kind of efficiency at instant speed is so good!

#30. Expansion // Explosion


The classic finisher when Wilderness Reclamation was in Standard, Expansion // Explosion is so much more flexible than most burn spells. And it can also do a lot of manga in the late game when you need it to.

#29. Impending Flux

Impending Flux

Assuming you foretell this, it does at least 1 all around, which isn’t great. But in decks that care about exile, like various Doctors Who, Prosper, Tome-Bound, Pia Nalaar, Consul of Revival, and especially Edgin, Larcenous Lutenist, this can easily get up to 5+ damage. Note that it hits only opponents and their creatures, so it’s often a one-sided board wipe that can sit in the foretell zone forever to lurk and finish off the table at some point. Most I’ve generated in my The Thirteenth Doctor deck is 8, but I think those are rookie numbers.

#28. Tribal Flames

Tribal Flames

A key finisher in Domain Zoo decks, Tribal Flames does 5 damage for 2 mana, which is an awesome rate, even if it’s only a sorcery. In Commander, probably not a thing.

#27. Flamebreak


Most red damagebased board wipes, like Burn Down the House only target creatures. There are a few at various levels of damage that target both creatures and players, which can maximize your triggers in a burn deck. Flamebreak is the most bang for your mana buck, which is why it’s harder to cast with three red pips.

#26. Fiery Confluence

Fiery Confluence

This is a good card. In a world where you’re seeking to maximize damage triggers, Fiery Confluence gets you a lot of them!

#25. Delayed Blast Fireball

Delayed Blast Fireball

The flexibility of Delayed Blast Fireball over Flamebreak is remarkable. A key card for red in Commander.

#24. Earthquake


These sorts of effects don’t matter so much in 60-card Constructed formats. But in Commander, especially, the ability to target each player is important. Fireball sorts of effects get better when there’s more access to cheap mana (hence the combo with Channel early in the game’s history). The trouble with X spells like this is that big EDH mana, especially in red, tends to come in Treasures or in burst effects like Irencrag Feat or so many combos with Basalt Monolith. And then you have one shot to eliminate the table, which is why Earthquakematters.

Earthquake is the classic, but here are similar spells which are good to know about:

#23. Molten Psyche

Molten Psyche

Molten Psyche obviously gets play because it’s a wheel card, but there’s a nice little burn feature on there for you.

#22. Electrolyze + Prismari Command

Electrolyze Prismari Command

Card draw attached to burn is quite nice, as is some modality. Electrolyze and Prismari Command are very different cards, but they occupy a similar space in deckbuilding imaginations.

#21. Electrodominance


Electrodominance is the best Fireball variant so far. The free spell is super great on rate, and the fact that this in effect mana fixes if you’re pushing other colors is also pretty sweet and has gotten me out of a few jams.

#20. Blood for the Blood God!

Blood for the Blood God!

I mean, Blood for the Blood God is nonsense. After a big wrath this draws eight cards and domes opponents for 8 at only 3 mana. Everyone who plays it has had it rot in their hand, though, so it has its limits.

#19. Crackle with Power

Crackle with Power

The fail case of Crackle with Power is 5 damage to any target for 5 mana. That’s not a good rate, but it can be useful. At 8 mana you get 10 to two targets, 11 mana nets 15 to three, etc. It gets more efficient the more mana you have, which is why it seems to be a better option as a large X spell finisher than most. Any such spell or even a Pyromatics does the job with infinite mana, but if you can burst out 15 mana with your Treasures, Crackle does 20 mana to four targets, which can end the game. Note that you can’t target something more than once when you cast this.

#18. Comet Storm

Comet Storm

Seven mana with a Comet Storm deals 4 to two targets (X=4, kicked 1 time), but if you get to large mana, the comparison with Crackle with Power is interesting. At 14, you can do 10 damage to three targets but also 5 to eight. It’s a bit more flexible while also often finishing a game. It’s not a substitute for a wrath, even though when you see it the first time it feels like it might. But it’s precision burn.

#17. Lava Spike

Lava Spike

Lava Spike is super value for dedicated burn decks. And that’s it. That’s the analysis. A simple card for a straightforward strategy.

#15. Lightning Helix

Lightning Helix

It’s Lightning Helix, oh my God! You know the clip. This is going back into Standard with Murders at Karlov Manor, so a new generation of Standard players are going to feel the heat.

#14. Atarka’s Command

Atarka's Command

The green card in old Atarka Red aggro decks, it’s now seeing a resurgence in Pioneer with decks that add Questing Druid. In Commander, Atarka's Command is efficient and flexible, but of course, more than mono-red.

#13. Boros Charm

Boros Charm

Still a part of the Modern burn picture, Boros Charm can protect your team if you need it to, which helps in Commander, for sure.

#12. Shock


Nerfing Lightning Bolt by 1 less damage rather than 1 more mana makes Shock more consistently useful than the Incinerate versions.

A few variants of 2 damage that also go to the dome are:

#11. Fiery Temper + Rift Bolt + Skewer the Critics + Wizard’s Lightning

Each of these cards turns into a kind of Lightning Bolt under certain conditions. Fiery Temper loves madness, Wizard's Lightning loves, well, wizards, but Rift Bolt and Skewer the Critics just mesh with what a burn deck is trying to do.

#10. Chain Lightning

Chain Lightning

Sure, Chain Lightning lets your opponents in on the fun, but the double red can be impossible for folks, so often this just acts like a Lightning Bolt.

#9. Bonecrusher Giant

Bonecrusher Giant

A powerhouse in 60-card formats, the two spells for one card with the Stomp spell on Bonecrusher Giant is huge. I know this list doesn’t do creatures that burn, but adventure spells are kind of a special case. This is still quite solid in Commander.

#8. Galvanic Blast

Galvanic Blast

As more and more artifact abound in Commander, Galvanic Blast looks more and more like a better Lightning Bolt in a lot of cases.

#7. Acidic Soil

Acidic Soil

Acidic Soil doesn’t do as much work as Price of Progress, but this can end the evening in Commander.

#6. Price of Progress

Price of Progress

Especially in Commander, if you need to burn out the table, Price of Progress can really hit hard, especially given the rise of 3+ color decks and the mana fixing required to play those.

#5. Arcbond


I have won more games of Commander with Arcbond than I’d like to admit. It’s a really odd card, and it always takes folks by surprise. Astonishingly powerful for a bulk rare.

#4. Spikefield Hazard / Spikefield Cave

Spikefield Hazard Spikefield Cave

It’s only one damage, but Spikefield Hazard / Spikefield Cave can take a land slot. MDFCs are awesome.

#3. Gut Shot

Gut Shot

“Free” spells always do a lot, especially in a storm context, where Gut Shot tends to shine. But in an EDH burn deck looking for triggers, this provides easy access to one.

#2. Grapeshot


As a storm finisher, Tendrils of Agony is more efficient in 60-card formats, Brain Freeze is better in Cube, but Grapeshot is often just what you need. And with the mono-red payoffs for EDH, there are so many ways for this card to do broken things.

#1. Lightning Bolt

Lightning Bolt

Had to be number one! The classic. Three damage to any target. Clean, perfectly modal. Lightning Bolt is still the gold standard for burn efficiency in formats that allow it. Even in Commander, this is still a card we want.

Best Direct Damage Spells Payoffs


Torbran, Thane of Red Fell

The pandemic era burn deck in Commander usually saw grumpy ol’ Torbran, Thane of Red Fell in the command zone, and it still works fine. But it’s got some recent competition.

And there are some other good options in mono-red likeNeheb, the Eternal and Toralf, God of Fury / Toralf's Hammer as well as nice cards that add a color, like Tor Wauki the Younger, Firesong and Sunspeaker, and Ghyrson Starn, Kelermorph.

All are interesting cards in the 99 in a burn deck, as well.

Guttersnipe Third Path Iconoclast

Classic cards like Guttersnipe that do damage for instants and sorceries are nice for decks like this as force multipliers, as are token generators like Third Path Iconoclast.

This gives you a general sense of the creature support, but there are dozens more creatures to think about. The trouble is the balance of burn and creatures, which is perennially a tough nut to crack.


There are a variety of good permanents you can drop that draw you cards on damage like Virtue of Courage, damage doublers like Dictate of the Twin Gods, damage triplers like Fiery Emancipation, as well as card that add bits of damage (and the ever key triggers for these cards in this section) like Mechanized Warfare and Roiling Vortex.

Wrap Up

Grapeshot - Illustration by Clint Cearley

Grapeshot | Illustration by Clint Cearley

Burn can be a fun deck to play, because win or lose you’re doing something clear and proactive. It can also be fun to watch the tide of a Commander game shift from the early game when they don’t see you as a threat to that moment when they start doing the math, counting the number of turns they have left, and trying to figure out if they can all get you in time if they work together.

I think it’s always been a bit uphill for burn in EDH, but the last four years have released the kinds of cards the archetype needs to compete. I’m still not sure it’s enough, but we’re better than ever in this space, so if you’re tempted, give in to the flames.

Are there any cards that I left off? Let me know in the comments below or over on the Draftsim Discord.

Happy barbecuing, and Burn Down the House!

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