Lightning Bolt MTG - full textless artwork

The Pinnacle: Lightning Bolt MTG

 By: Daniel Clayton – the Will of the Floral Spuzzem

I’ve decided to start up a new mini-article series in which I will examine some of the best Magic cards that have ever been made; now I realize that best is a very speculative word, but I will try to stick to cards that most people would agree are some of the best cards in the game of Magic. That doesn’t mean I’ll always stick to this idea, but I’ll try to stay close to the belt on most of them. I decided to write my first article about an idea that I wrote about in my last article, which is to say the idea of the power of the number three. This card has been reprinted more heavily than almost any other card in all of history and its origins date all the way back to the dawn of Magic. I am of course talking about arguably the best of the red damage spells in all of existence, the Lightning Bolt. Not that you couldn’t read the title, but I read somewhere you’re supposed to have an introduction that is mysterious so as to draw readers in.



Now, I think I should begin by telling the history of this card; this card was printed in one of the first “cycles” of Magic that has ever been printed. It was the first cycle of spells, and was printed alongside cards such as the Black Lotus and Time Walk, and cycles such as the Mox cycle of Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited, and the Dual Land cycle. I believe that Richard Garfield (The creator of the game if you don’t know who that is) also recognized the power of the number 3 in the game of Magic and so created the cycle of 3, which contained one extremely powerful spell, one very powerful spell, one balanced spell, one okay spell, and one very weak spell. All of the cards in this cycle cost one mana of a single color and added or did 3 of something; additionally, all of the spells were instants. The broken spell is Ancestral Recall, a card that cost 1 blue mana and allowed you to draw 3 cards or force someone else to draw 3 cards; some even consider this card’s strictly worse versions, Brainstorm, Ponder, and Ancestral Vision too broken for play in some formats and these cards have broken or helped to break several decks leading to their banning in Modern. The very powerful spell is Dark Ritual, a card that received several reprints up until the move to new card design and is still considered a staple in Black Legacy and Vintage decks for its amazing ability to accelerate mana. The balanced spell is Lightning Bolt itself and we’ll get to it in just a minute. The okay spell is Giant Growth, a spell which increases the power and toughness of a target creature by 3; this spell wasn’t terrible, but as it only lasted until end of turn it was almost never as powerful as players wanted and didn’t see too much play not too long after it was printed. The last spell in the cycle was Healing Salve, and just like players of the past, players today figure out not long after they start that spells that only heal are for the most part, just not worth it; as such this card was too weak to see any real play in constructed formats. Now, as for lightning bolt, this is a card that has been reprinted in Beta, Unlimited, 4th Edition, M10, M11, the Beatdown Box set, Masters Edition, and the Premium Deck Series: Fire and Lightning, as well as various promos of the card being printed as well; with an original printing in Alpha. I call this one of the most balanced cards in Magic, because 3 is the golden number for Magic, and cards that are only marginally worse are not considered playable in more constructed formats, and Magic hasn’t dared to go any more powerful than Lightning Bolt since its printing for fear of making a card that was too powerful. It sits in that perfect range of being perfectly playable without reaching out and warping the game too much.


Power Level

Since its creation this card has seen play in every format its legal in at least to some extent. Its 3 damage to a player sits at the perfect level to accelerate your game to a winning level, without being unbeatable and its 3 damage to a creature acts as a perfect level of removal for most of your early to mid-game creatures without being able to snipe the highest level of creature. Its level of power as well as versatility has earned it a place in famous decks throughout many formats including Splinter Twin, Tribal Goblins, Legacy Burn, Modern Burn, Delver decks in Modern, Legacy and Vintage, and Control in Vintage. Additionally, it earned itself a place in the 2009 World Championship deck. The evidence of this cards power is evidenced by how many strong decks it has been in and by the fact that it is still played to this day in decks in just about every format, but the question still remains, is it too strong? I believe the answer to this question is no; while a card any stronger than this would undoubtedly be far too powerful, the card sits at a power level that doesn’t make it quite as broken as the broken cards of the game.


The Rarity of a Common

There are many reasons that cards become banned or restricted in formats, the card is too expensive, it keeps the amount of variance in different decks that are played in a format from normal levels, or it’s too powerful or hard to get. The fact that this card has been reprinted so many times and it is a common in all of these printings is the major reason that the card has not been banned based on price or being hard to get; as this card is a common it shows that R&D and the creators of Magic agree with the notion that while this card is very powerful it is by no means broken. Additionally, it can retain its common status because it does neither of its effects better than all other cards in the game. In removing creature threats, it is easily outclassed by a wide variety of both white and black spells, such as Path to Exile or even Hand of death ; as far as damage spells are concerned, the card is outclassed by Lightning Axe, Lava Axe, Tyrant’s Choice and Goblin Grenade. None of these cards are considered broken or even run for the most part, because even though they are better cards, lightning bolt puts the cards together in a perfect combination for a powerful card. The question that follows makes perfect sense, if it’s the perfect combination why is it a common? The answer comes in this form, the card’s effects even though they are powerful and in the perfect combination are common effects; if they were any more powerful, they might be uncommon or rare effects, but they aren’t any more powerful meaning the cards common rating is well deserved for this powerful card.


The Future of Magic: The Gathering and Lightning Bolt

So what does the future of Magic hold for pinnacles of the game, such as Lightning Bolt? Well Magic’s R&D department has moved in 2 separate directions to try to answer this question it seems. They seem to continually toy with the idea of making a more powerful form of the card, you can see this through their creation of cards such as Searing Blood, Goblin Grenade, or Searing Blaze. These cards strive to push the boundaries of what has limited Lightning Bolt from being maybe too good all these years; that is to say that they push the boundaries of how much damage a spell should be able to deal, but as is also seen from these newer cards it also shows a reluctance on the part of Wizards to commit wholeheartedly to the idea of a strictly better lightning bolt. This idea of reluctance is reinforced by the other shift that Magic has been pushing towards lately which seems to be the idea of weakening the power of burn spells, or making them more situationally weak. It shows this trend through its printing and re-printing of cards like Lightning Strike; which is the same as Lightning Bolt, only it costs 1 more mana to cast. So where does this leave Lightning Bolt? Well it leaves it somewhere in the middle honestly, the card is not likely to get banned any time soon based on Magic’s printing of situationally more powerful cards, but it feels as though Magic’s also not going to be reprinting Lightning Bolt anytime soon based on its reliance on Lightning Strike as of recently.


By the Will of the Floral Spuzzem
Twitter @DC4VP