Last updated on October 1, 2023
Lightning Bolt | Illustration by Christopher Moeller
Instants are one of the best card types in Magic. They offer a lot of flexibility thanks to their lack of timing restrictions. One litmus test for good removal in most Constructed formats is to ask, “Is it an instant?” Sorceries have plenty of powerful effects, but only getting to cast them on your turn can be awkward and force you to give your opponent all sorts of information before their turn.
Red’s selection of instants includes plenty of powerful spells. Some of the best burn spells ever printed are red spells, but there are also plenty of ways to generate mana, some chaotic spells, and a surprising amount of countermagic.
What Are Red Instants?
First Day of Class | Illustration by Paul Scott Canavan
Red instants are red spells with the instant type, which allows you to cast them at any point in the game you have priority, regardless of whose turn it is. This flexibility makes instants powerful cards; you can use them to disrupt your opponents on their turn or stop any tricks they try to pull on your turn.
This list focuses on mono-red cards, so (almost) all of these are legal in Commander decks with red in their color identity. One of the biggest criteria to make it on this list is efficiency. We want the best effect relative to mana cost, so these spells have maximum impact for a minimal investment.
Utility is vital. The more situations a card is good in, the better it is. For the most part, these cards can slot into any red deck looking for a powerful effect at instant speed. There are a few sideboard cards efficient enough to make up for their narrowness.
Color pie breaks also help cards stand out. Each color in Magic has its distinct strengths and weaknesses thanks to the color pie restricting what they can and can’t do. The color pie has changed over time, and some cards don’t match their color. Color pie breaks become more powerful because they often give colors access to an effect they wouldn’t otherwise have, like how Chaos Warp allows red decks to remove enchantments and indestructible permanents, two things red famously struggles to interact with.
#35. Tormenting Voice
Tormenting Voice is a clean, simple way to look at some extra cards. It’s card neutral since you’re consuming two cards from your hand to draw two, but it’s a great effect to get through excess lands and trigger spellslinger strategies. It’s also a cheap way for a graveyard deck to discard important cards to reanimate or dredge back later.
#34. Temur Battle Rage
Temur Battle Rage made a name for itself in Modern alongside Death's Shadow, but the card works well with any deck playing massive creatures. It’s a fine combat trick that lets your creature win most bouts, but the trample makes it a lethal threat because of the interaction between trample and double strike. It’s strong in Voltron decks that struggle to punch through blockers or alongside cheap cards that get large, like the aforementioned Shadow or Murktide Regent.
#33. Valakut Awakening
Modal double-faced cards are powerful because of their flexibility. You could do better than a tapped land and get a better wheel than Valakut Awakening, but having both on a single card effectively adds an extra card to your deck. You get a land early or some card draw late. The rate on this card is decent, too. You never go down on cards, and it lets you ditch the garbage for gas. Seeing four or five fresh cards for 3 mana is quite efficient and worth the mana.
#32. First Day of Class
The learn mechanic hasn’t made much of a splash outside Strixhaven Limited, but First Day of Class has potential as a combo piece. +1/+1 counters and -1/-1 counters cancel out so it works well with persist creatures.
Pauper decks already leverage this card alongside Skirk Prospector and Putrid Goblin for infinite mana, and it enables infinite sacrifices of other persist cards, like Murderous Redcap or Kitchen Finks. It’s also a fine finisher for combo decks, even if they aren’t making infinite tokens.
#31. Big Score + Unexpected Windfall
Big Score and Unexpected Windfall are effectively costed like Tormenting Voice since they recoup half their mana cost with the Treasure tokens. These tokens make it easy to sequence them with other spells on a single turn, but you can also save the Treasure for later. Casting one of these on turn 4 gives you 6 or 7 mana the following turn, and they even fix your mana.
A classic card, Fling turns your biggest creature into a burn spell that slaps your opponent to 0. It’s seen Pauper play alongside cards like Atog and works with any creature that gets big. It’s a bit risky, though. You sacrifice the creature as an additional cost, so if Fling gets countered or your opponent can prevent the damage, you’ve taken a nasty two-for-one. But, it also just wins the game out of nowhere.
#29. Guff Rewrites History
Guff Rewrites History is a new red card hot off the printers of Commander Masters that has lots of potential. Getting to remove four of the most problematic permanents for 3 mana is an excellent rate. Your opponents get another spell, but if you choose your targets carefully, it’ll be less impactful than whatever you removed. You can even get in on the action, turning a Treasure into a real card. That said, this could be tricky to use in the right spot; it’s only good if you remove three real problems. Otherwise, you risk giving another play and upgrade. This inability to answer one or even two individual threats well may make this card much weaker than it reads.
#28. Cathartic Pyre
Dealing 3 damage to a creature for 2 mana is an acceptable rate, though you’ll want a little more juice to make it exciting. Cathartic Pyre delivers by letting you ditch cards you don’t want or need to get in the graveyard to see some fresh cards. Neither of these modes is worth 2 mana alone, but getting the option makes this a compact removal spell that works well with graveyard synergies.
#27. Lava Dart
Dealing 1 damage for a single red is unimpressive. Two damage for 1 mana and sacrificing a Mountain? It’s still not great, but Lava Dart still sees a lot of play in Modern prowess decks because it adds tons of power to the board alongside cards like Monastery Swiftspear and Soul-Scar Mage because it casts two spells for a single mana. Anything that lets you cast it for free is at least a little broken; you just need to find a way to leverage it.
#26. Ancient Grudge
Ancient Grudge is simply very efficient. You need access to green mana to make this work, but a 2-mana Shatter that flashes back for a single green is an excellent rate for a two-for-one. This effect is better in the sideboard unless your local meta has an insane number of players shuffling up artifact decks, but it’s hard to pass up such a clear answer.
#25. Fiery Temper
Fiery Temper is a staple of madness decks, giving them their very own Lightning Bolt. While Bolt is the Platonic ideal for burn spells, 3 damage for 3 mana at instant speed is still acceptable. You don’t need to go too hard into madness for it to work; as several other cards on the list demonstrate, much of red’s card draw involves discarding cards first.
#24. Commune with Lava
Red has recently gotten impulse draws or spells that exile cards from your library and allow you to cast them for a turn or two as a primary source of card advantage. Commune with Lava is a particularly powerful source of card draw. You’ll often want to cast this on the end step before your turn to draw a bunch of cards and have all your mana available the following turn, but casting this for 4 mana to draw two is also okay. This is one of the best options for a ton of raw card advantage in red, and it’s a great payoff for infinite mana.
#23. Burst Lightning
Shock is a perfectly okay card. It removes most creatures played in the early turns and finishes off planeswalkers and players. The main weakness is that it falls off later in the game. Burst Lightning makes up for this with kicker. Five mana for 4 damage is a lot, but when the floor is Shock and the ceiling forces your opponent to start the game at 16, you have a solid instant speed burn spell.
Char is an amazing aggressive card. Four damage for 3 mana is a fair rate, and this has the flexibility of taking out larger creatures or going straight to the face. Lots of burn spells that hit any target stop at 3, so your Lightning Bolts and Chain Lightnings struggle against 4-toughness creatures. Char gives you a flexible burn spell that deals with troublesome blockers or gets those last points of damage. Taking 2 damage yourself often doesn’t matter since you’re likely applying far more pressure on your opponent’s life total than they are on yours.
#21. Unholy Heat
Red’s interaction is almost always damage-based, so it rarely gets answers as clean as “destroy target creature.” Unholy Heat doesn’t quite get there, but dealing 5 damage to a target is close enough, especially in Eternal formats that emphasize running efficient, high-impact creatures. Formats with fetch lands and cards like Dragon's Rage Channeler and Thoughtseize are best for this card, as those effects help get delirium as quickly as possible. Unholy Heat does need to be in a deck that can enable delirium to be effective, but the floor of a Shock is still acceptable.
#20. Brightstone Ritual
Red is very, very good at making goblins thanks to cards like Siege-Gang Commander and Krenko, Mob Boss. Brightstone Ritual is a fantastic payoff for those strategies. It takes little effort for this to be a red Dark Ritual, but it can be so much more. Red has excellent outlets for all the red mana, like Fireball and Comet Storm.
Thunderclap lets you deal with small and mid-sized creatures for no mana. Losing a land is a big cost, but some formats have creatures that are just that important to remove. This card sees frequent play at cEDH tables, for example. This effect is most useful with decks that either have enough artifact mana or a low enough curve that sacrificing lands isn’t as back-breaking as your opponent having Drannith Magistrate or Collector Ouphe in play.
#18. Final Fortune
Final Fortune is the perfect card for players who always seem to be but a turn from winning. Cards like Sundial of the Infinite and Stifle work well with this card because the lose the game clause creates a triggered ability that uses the stack. But Final Fortune is at its best in highly proactive decks that often find themselves a turn away from winning. It’s especially good with efficient combos to buy you the extra turn you need to go for the combo and hold up interaction to protect it.
The common issue with damage-based removal is that it falls off or gets less efficient as you need to deal with more than 2 or 3 damage. Skred doesn’t have this issue, getting stronger later in the game. There’s definitely a limit to what you can expect from this card; it’s unlikely that you’ll ever want this to deal 10 or 12 damage because you’ll have flooded at that point. But a card that kills a 2/2 on turn 2 or a 4/4 on turn 4 or 5 for a single mana is certainly a good burn.
Because of the rules of adventure, this card is technically Bonecrusher Giant, but Stomp deserves a place on this list all the same. A 2-mana Shock needs serious upside to see play. It turns out that stapling it to a 4/3 is enough upside to make this a staple in many formats and part of a fearsome Standard deck. Stopping damage from getting prevented is also useful in the face of cards like Prismatic Ending and Giver of Runes.
#15. Red Elemental Blast + Pyroblast
Who said blue was the only color that got countermagic? Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast have been sideboard staples in Pauper for a long time. These are certainly sideboard cards but give red decks a cheap way to join counter wars. Destroying blue permanents is the icing on the cake, combatting countermagic’s inability to deal with resolved threats and giving red deck ways to deal with cards they otherwise couldn’t, like Rhystic Study or Back to Basics.
#14. Searing Blaze
Searing Blaze has been a burn staple for quite some time. Most burn spells force you to decide between hitting the opponent or their creature, so getting both is fantastic. You need landfall for this card to be a threat, but it’s easy to hold a fetch land or skip a land drop for a turn to maximize this, especially in a burn deck with an average mana value of 1.2.
Abrade is one of red’s most versatile early disruptive tools. It kills most creatures played in the first few turns and snags Signets, Talismans, and other early artifacts. Since it’s an unrestricted Shatter, this even answers large artifacts, like Bolas's Citadel and Portal to Phyrexia. Abrade should get played in far more red Commander decks than it is and is a Cube staple.
#12. Through the Breach
Magic has lots of creatures with powerful ETBs or attack triggers, like the Titans, Archon of Cruelty, and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Through the Breach lets you get all that value at a bit of a discount, or a major discount if you’re slamming Eldrazi. It takes a bit of work for this card to do its thing, and you run the risk of drawing the wrong half of your deck, ending up with a bunch of Eldrazi you can’t cast or Breaches that aren’t doing anything, but it’s a great way to end the game.
The most frustrating part of playing burn is watching your opponent squeak through with just a bit of health because you didn’t have enough mana to deploy all your spells. Fireblast saves you from this by blasting them with a couple of tapped Mountains. It’s an effective way to force through those last points of damage or deal with a particularly problematic creature.
#10. Tibalt’s Trickery
Tibalt's Trickery is one of the strangest cards on the list, which might be why it’s also one of the strongest. This chaotic counterspell lets you deal with any spell off the stack. This spell has been banned in several formats because of how you can exploit it. Even playing it fairly, you get a great deal. Nobody’s going to play around Counterspell in a non-blue deck, and while your opponent gets a free card, it’s likely less threatening than whatever you countered if you play your cards right.
#9. Battle Hymn
Red decks play to the board well. While red isn’t the most prominent color for token decks, they can amass a robust board state, so Battle Hymn gets you a robust mana pool. Any spell that produces bursts of mana has equally large potential. This spell makes infinite mana in the right deck, but away from being a combo piece, you can cast a flurry of spells to take out your opponent in a single, extended turn.
#8. Deflecting Swat
One of the best red spells in Commander, Deflecting Swat offers unparalleled protection for your commander against most spot removal. Since it doesn’t “counter” the spell, it circumvents spells like Void Rend. It’s also inherently a two-for-one, assuming you redirect an opponent removal spell to an opposing creature, removing both the creature and removal spell. While redirection spells aren’t uncommon, this one gets a nudge for redistributing multiple targets instead of only spells with a single target, and it wins counterwars. All for the low, low cost of nothing!
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Fury, it’s that getting to spread 4 damage across the board for no mana is very strong. Even though Pyrokinesis puts you down a card to cast for free, 4 damage is often enough to kill two creatures and go card neutral with your opponent. Sometimes it’ll be better, sometimes you’ll only get to kill one thing. Since this goes face, you won’t waste damage, even if you’re forced to kill a 3/3. This spell going face also helps win games, especially if your opponent makes a greedy play because they think you can’t respond.
#6. Chaos Warp
Chaos Warp breaks red’s color pie just a bit by offering a way around enchantments and indestructible. It can be a game of chance, getting rid of a permanent and potentially replacing it with another, but make sure you use it on a serious threat that’s worse to deal with than most of their library. Chaos Warp also has a whiff rate; instants and sorceries do nothing, and decks can only play so many massive threats. This often turns a dangerous permanent into a land or a blank card.
#5. Seething Song
Goldspan Dragon is powerful, so imagine playing it on turn three! Seething Song gives you a large jump in mana. This card is especially effective in decks with cards like Thousand-Year Storm and Kalamax, the Stormsire that can copy it several times for a massive burst in damage. It’s also just a fine piece of ramp in a storm deck.
#4. Punishing Fire
Unlike Fury or Orcish Bowmasters, Punishing Fire is too good for Modern because it prevents players from running small creatures. How can players expect to keep cheap creatures on board when you can access a 3-mana Shock each turn? Jokes aside, this pairs incredibly well with Grove of the Burnwillows to grind out your opponents with a steady stream of interaction and burn. If you can leverage this combination, you have a fantastic synergy to propel your game plan forward.
#3. Blazing Shoal
Blazing Shoal looks unassuming until you die to Glistener Elf on turn 2 while your opponent holds up interaction with all their extra mana. You’ll often find this card paired with spells like Worldspine Wurm to give your creatures the biggest burst of power possible. It’s even an interesting choice for a Voltron EDH deck looking to sneak through those last points of damage.
#2. Comet Storm
Comet Storm spreads a ton of damage across the board for a bit of mana. This instant is one of red’s strongest infinite mana outlets thanks to your ability to go off at instant speed. It takes out an entire Commander pod but has also been played in Constructed formats, like Modern Ad Nauseam. Even if you can’t take players out, you can spread the damage across the board to deal with dangerous creatures.
#1. Lightning Bolt
Lightning Bolt is the standard to which all cheap burn spells get compared with. Three damage for a single mana ensures this always trades up. It deals with cheap threats effectively, it’s cheap enough to hold up other interactive spells alongside it, and 3 is enough damage to win a game, especially in multiple. There’s a reason you fear being at 3 against burn and not 4, and that reason is one of the first cards ever printed that still holds up thirty years later.
Best Red Instant Payoffs
There are a couple of good payoffs for red instants. Red has been a crucial part of spellslinger strategies for years because cheap burn spells pair well with cheap blue countermagic.
Red also has a few spells that allow you to use your instants after they get cast. Mizzix's Mastery is at the forefront of these. Once overloaded, this can easily cast three or four extra spells. Surge to Victory offers similar value alongside extra damage and is especially useful when leveraging big red spells.
Punishing Fire | Illustration by Christopher Moeller
Red’s instants offer us some of the best burn spells in the game but also interesting, chaotic effects like Chaos Warp. There’s a ton of flexibility among these cards, added by their casting speed.
Some of the most iconic spells in the game, like Lightning Bolt, and some powerful banned spells are among the cards on this list. What’s your favorite red instant? Do you like the burn or the card draw? Let me know in the comments or on the Draftsim Discord!
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