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.
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.
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.
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
Very soon now Magic fans, we will exist in a world without Return to Ravnica and what a different world it’s going to be; the old script of decks and tournament play will be scrapped and we’ll return to the primordial ooze of deck construction. Return to Ravnica was a powerful format and it is responsible for staples spread out throughout standard right now; you’ve got power houses such as Sphinx’s Revelation, Desecration Demon, and Pack Rats (You can probably tell which decks I played and hated based on this list). Now, let me begin by prefacing that I really don’t like this format, and I don’t presume to call myself an expert on it, so I won’t begin to tell you about decks that are going to either become dominant or stay dominant until the end of the tournament season. I have, however been playing in tournaments (Not gigantic tournaments, but mostly local events, a few larger) long enough to notice certain trends. One example of these trends is control typically taking hold or seeing more play towards the end of the first or second set in a block. Another trend you typically notice is at the beginning of a new block is a shift to one of the most powerful decks in the most powerful color. The deck is of course Red Deck Wins (RDW) and it can be seen to some extent in almost every single block in one form or another; today I’m going to talk a little bit about the ideas behind this deck both from a flavor and an actual game play perspective, and then I’m going to examine some of the decks played by various players played throughout Standard, Modern, Legacy, and Vintage and try to apply some of the principles behind each of these cards.
This is the decidedly nerdy part of the column, so if you’re just looking for deck construction or points about RDW you can skip ahead to the next section. What is a red mage? A red mage is an individual usually of innate talent, who while not unintelligent, is often motivated and powered by their very tempestuous emotions. They do not act based on what may be considered pure or intellectual, but act based on their own personal code of ethics, personality, and mindset at that time. Red mages may be considered individuals who can be quick to anger, quick to appease, and overall very mercurial in their range of emotions; this isn’t to say that they aren’t loyal. Their loyalty belongs to individuals over organizations and they treasure the bonds to those that they are close to over the traditional organizational bonds that people typically give value to. As their power and their actions are based off of their emotions, these individuals are the most likely to “burn” themselves when it comes to their power, often times losing themselves in the throes of their power and succumbing to anger, fear or hatred. As a side note, it is not often that a red mage would tend to spend time in books studying or honing their skill, but tend to just fall back on their natural talent and strong emotion to win the day for them. All of these characteristics are reflected heavily in the game. The very concept of a red mage is fire and just like a fire, if you play red there’s a very good chance that you’re going to burn yourself out of tournament play. If you think about the various resources you have available to you in the game (I’ll explain all of these in greater detail in a later article), but red typically seems to draw its power from your current state of mind (your hand) and thinking about this from a flavor perspective, your emotional state begins by flaring up and giving you a large swathe of power, but you begin to tire quickly from expending too much mental energy from such emotions and your power begins to wane quickly. (burning out) Even the depth of cards in red lends itself to the flavor of the red mage in a very strong way; red mages typically have one or two strategies for solving problems, burn it or break it, and a red mage is not typically going to spend time examining the depths of their power meaning that the depth of things you can do in red is also pretty limited. Even all the way down to how well the decks place in tournaments is very conducive of the flavor or the red element; a very powerful contender, but not a winner over the hard work and diligence of another color except with a few very talented red mages.
I may be wrong and I may be biased, but I truly believe this to be the most powerful color in the entire game of Magic. I will say fair enough that decks of this color typically tend to fall flat on their face, but there’s a reason for that; the decks don’t have consistency. The printing of cards for this color is really only missing one thing and that’s the ability to draw or at least order your deck. There are exceptions, but for the most part those are either bad for one reason or another (Faithless Looting or Magma Jet), or they have a ridiculously high mana cost. (Past in flames) Even those these cards are either very expensive to play or have large downsides to them, I’m sure you’ve seen them run in plenty of decks and the reason for that is that they just make red so much better that you can’t not use them. Now let’s all address the 35-ton gorilla in the room, surely even with consistency problems why don’t the decks win more, I mean if they’re that good. Well, consistency is half of the equation, and probably a larger problem than you give it credit for (It’s what gives you games where all you do is draw mana, a death sentence in red), but the other half of the equation is that almost every deck has built in side board options just to deal with red. Red is the reason that Kitchen Finks is run for the most part; siding against RDW is even run in some RDW that runs white. If you don’t believe me then put together one of the decks that I’ve got listed below and run it against one of your own decks and see how you fair without your side board. I know there are special exceptions, decks that just run faster (Tron, Metalworker, Affinity, Monoblack Devotion, etc.) but by and large the basic shell of RDW is equipped to deal with most decks in a straight fight.
Let’s just make this point clear, yes RDW is extremely easy to run and yes it is used by people who are just getting into the game for reasons we’ll get into in just a second, but that doesn’t mean that it takes no skill to win with one; if you lose to it, it means there was some flaw or error in your play or deck that allowed you to be overrun by the red deck; they exist out there and if as opposed to coming up with a game plan and a side board, you just spend your time whining about how you lost to the deck, then you’ll never overcome your flaws when it comes to playing against red. Now that that’s said, choosing to play red is a very difficult choice, it is a color that will screw you eventually and refuse to play for you some games, just out of the blue. The other thing that you have to understand about red is that it is a mathematician’s deck; while white may have rule-makers, blue may have strategists, green may have conquerors and black may have tyrants, it is actually red that has the mathematicians. The red deck is designed to do more with less and work around a single number, the number 3. This is a deck that revolves around somewhere between 3 to 4 turn wins as consistently as possible by running cards that typically cost 1 to 3 mana, and deal about 3 damage. But why is this 3 so important? Well you might as well call it the Magic number in Magic; with most of the powerful stabilizing spells sitting at 4 to 5 mana, and decks typically taking the same amount of time to stabilize (begin to fight back against aggro strategies) this is the amount of time decks straight aggro decks have to pump in their hits consistently. Now, you’re probably asking yourself why 3 damage or 3 mana? In a typical hand over the course of 4 turns you will see 10 cards; that is the latest average time a straight aggro deck has to win a game, before stabilization can really begin. Taking into account that you want to play 1 mana until you have about 3 mana on field, that leaves you with 7 cards, or 6 if you played 1 mana every turn for 4 turns. In these 4 turns with 7 cards you have to deal 20 damage, meaning that you have to deal 3 damage with 6 cards, at least and 2 damage with your last card to take out the minimum amount of life. Alternatively, if you have 6 cards in hand, you have to deal 3 damage with 4 cards and 4 damage with 2 cards in order to take out the minimum amount of life. Did you know that this is one of the healthiest decks in the game of Magic? With most of your games lasting somewhere between 4 and 5 turns either way, decks like this allow you to do other things while competing in tournaments and can help you keep healthy by giving you time to go get something to eat or hang out with friends between rounds. Not to mention, your typical red burn runs with much cheaper cards than other decks in the same format, allowing newer players a chance to get more accustomed to the basic rules of the game before purchasing an expansive complicated deck that they may not understand.
There are a few archetypes of RDW that are run, and I will now attempt to explain each one:
First in our example of decks is a deck which took 4th in a Legacy open in Worchester on 06 July 2014.
The decklist is as follows:
As you can probably tell by looking, this is a deck that is designed to knock opponents off their feet and then keep them there, Goblin Guide, a powerhouse in almost every format in Red allows you to almost always get in 4 damage before he’s stopped. Grim Lavamancer acts as extra damage for all of the used up cards in your graveyard. Eidilon of the Great Revel works to punish players for playing cards with some of the most common mana costs in the whole format. One thing you’ll notice about the mana base of almost all red decks is the fact that they don’t run many lands compared to the whole of the deck, and they use fetch lands to try to thin the amount of lands that you will draw throughout the course of your game. Sulfuric Vortex not only deals damage to your opponent each turn, but it also stops your opponent from being able to gain life a powerful advantage over your opponent. Fireblast is a ridiculous spell that at the cost of 2 mountains deals 4 damage to something of your choice, which can mean the end of the game for your opponent in a lot of situations. Price of progress punishes players for playing the best and most commonly run type of lands in the format. Searing Blaze not only acts as outstanding creature removal, clearing a path for your creatures to swing and dealing 3 damage to your opponent at the same time. The rest of the cards main deck are typically used to just get in 3 damage the face to your opponent and push you one step closer to victory. As for the side board, you have Vexing Shusher (Stop your opponent from stopping you), Satyr Firedancer (Damage a creature each time you deal damage to a player), Mindbreak Trap (No more searching), Red Elemental Blast (Blue is a pain), and Smash to Smithereens (Metalworker ends games). Overall, this is a very powerful deck that places very well typically despite its consistency and hate issues, the one change I would issue would be to try to include 4 Vexing Devils in the deck, but I’m not sure where I would squeeze them in.
This is a goblin deck of my own creation, because Goblins have apparently fallen out of flavor with the game, I still love the deck and it still is competitive with the right side board. This deck like most of the decks of the same type tries to leverage the damage-dealing ability of its creatures to get in for enough damage to win the game before the opponent has the chance to get back on their feet. Ember Hauler is a powerful card, allowing you to swing in for 2 with the option to pop him and deal 2 extra damage to target creature or player. The Goblin Bushwacker appears with the ability to pump up all your red creatures, give them haste and pump up their power by 1. Goblin Chieftain allows you to get in there for as much damage as possible, by giving all your goblins haste and +1/+1. Goblin Guide, Searing Blaze and Lightning Bolt are strong for reasons previously mentioned. Spikeshot Elder is one of those rare hidden gems, being able to deal his power to target creature or player and being able to be used as many times as you want per turn, he has the ability to burn down opposing creatures and players, making him almost always a great play and also giving you a sink for all your extra mana. Legion loyalist further pumps all of your creatures and gives them first strike and trample, stopping your opponent from being able to just chump block and trade for all of your goblins. Then, you have Goblin Rabblemaster which will not only generate board presence for you, but will also swing in for a powerful hit when surrounded by other goblins. After that you have Goblin Grenade, at 5 damage for a goblin and 1 red mana, this card doesn’t really need any more explaining than that. You want to avoid drawing lands in this type of deck and that accounts for the lack of lands in the deck and the filterability of Arid Mesa mixed with the fact previously stated accounts for why there are so few lands in the deck. The last card in the deck, the Teetering Peaks allow you to burst your creatures quickly without having to lose a land spot and the 2 extra damage is a big help; can also boost Spikeshot Elder for a powerful ability enhancer. The sideboard of my deck deals with most of the difficulty that my deck typically ran into; affinity is a huge problem in Modern, so by running Shattering Spree, we attempt to slow them down long enough for us to take the win. Blood Moon or Sowing Salt is my way to deal with Tron and most other decks that are based around non-basic lands. Surgical Extraction is my way to deal with all of the combo decks that I don’t have another plan against yet, such as second sunrise back in the day; the card also helps against decks that base themselves around the graveyard and is a handy tool against Tarmogoyf. Dismember is really my only defense against creatures with protection from red as well as large creatures that goblins can’t really deal with. Finally, Pyrewild Shaman is my one card combo against Control, pumping what needs pumping and being uncounterable and instant speed, being a creature when I need another creature, returning to my hand to do things more than once every time I deal damage to an opponent, and being a goblin forever; working into the overall strategy of my deck. The only card that I left out which warrants inclusion in the main board of the deck is Arc Trail, just a value card with the ability to be heroic in the mirror match as well as a great solution to most of your infect decks.
By the Will of the Floral Spuzzem @DC4VP on Twitter
It is truly bizarre how the recent successes of Red decks in Standard seems to be porting over to Legacy. While this is very far from a new deck and also not unheard of to win in Legacy, it is not one of the dominant strategies. What it is though is a strategy which has been the identity of Red decks over the last twenty years through the history of magic. It is simple in design but requires the skill of a practiced mage in order to bring it to victory. But the framework of Legacy Burn is often the same as it uses only the very best of the best that Red has to offer.
While the Legacy Burn has more then twice as many instant or sorceries spells then non-land permanents there are some very deadly ones that are showcased here. The first is what has been dubbed as the best red creature printed with Goblin Guide as not only a source of hasty beats but also provides some valuable information about what’s coming up for the opponent. We also find Grim Lavamancer which with a mass of cheap spells and some fetchlands will often find the fuel for its fire from the graveyard to close out the opponent very quickly. The other creature in the deck is relative newcomer Eidolon of the Great Revel which is so deadly given the spells in the format generally all fall under three mana and therefore even to try and remove him is going to cause the opponent to feel the burn in the process. There is also a pair of Sulfuric Vortex which are most especially needed against lifegain otherwise you’d be entirely blown out by a simple Batterskull and the extra damage each turn is gravy. Then we get into the spells which fall into one of three categories: Burn, Burn or Burn !!! You have all the three points for one mana all-stars with the classic Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, Rift Bolt and Lava Spike. Against any decks running creatures it’s not hard to trigger Landfall on Searing Blaze to not only blast the creature but also dome the player for an additional three. With so many decks running dual lands and other non-basics Price of Progress can easily count for anywhere between four to eight damage which will end games very quickly. And as a very efficient finishing move you’re able to sacrifice some Mountains instead of paying for Fireblast to burn up those last remaining points of life and fry up your opponent.
The best part of Legacy Burn is that you’re able to pull it together so affordably as the only real cost comes from the fetchlands which are certainly not the same as loading up on dual lands. While it may not be storming out a combo or cheating out a fattie, it is still a fun and efficient deck that is very useful as an entry point into Legacy. I would highly recommend this deck if you are looking to dip your toe into the Legacy pool for a taste as you’ll be spending a fraction of what the other decks cost. And definitely have a good time with this deck and use it as a way to learn what you like about the formats other decks.