Formats are defined by their best cards. You can see this most obviously in Standard, where virtually every Pro Tour Top 8 highlights a handful of powerful cards. The smaller the format, the more obvious the impact of those cards that hit harder than everything else—there are just less of them.
It can be a little easy to forget that when looking at large formats, like Modern and Legacy, where every deck is filled with "good" cards. In fact, most of these cards defined their respective Constructed eras, from the earliest events to more recent Standard formats. This is the All-Star Game—rookies virtually never make it to the starting lineup.
Identifying the best cards leads one to discover the best decks. I’ll continue using Standard to generate the microcosm example—don’t worry, I’ll explain how all of this relates to Modern soon! When Standard rotates, a new set of cards often become "the powerful ones." For instance, Pro Tour Theros saw Mono-Blue Devotion overpower the field, but what happened next? Mono-Black Devotion rose to power, an archetype that lined up its cards to dissemble the blue horde. Of course, the format shifted again, with players lining their cards up to defeat the black menace instead.
Let’s talk about Lightning Bolt.
There were 23 copies of Lightning Bolt in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Born of the Gods. Amidst all the diversity in Modern—and all the talk of that diversity—Lightning Bolt is one of the most omnipresent threads in the format. Why? Because, like Wolverine, it’s the best there is: versatile and efficient on a level that few other cards can compare to. If anyone had walked into the room at Born of the Gods without assuming that Lightning Bolt was a virtual lock for "most played card" in the tournament, they should have seriously questioned their own preparation. The entire scope of the format would radically shift overnight if Lightning Bolt disappeared.
When a spell that primarily functions as removal is one of the "best spells" in the format, it has a variety of effects. Nightveil Specter and Pack Rat were so successful in Theros Standard because it was difficult to remove these creatures efficiently, especially without playing a spell that was too narrow against other threats. Now that Bile Blight has been printed and U/W Control has become so popular, we see players trimming and in some cases even removing these creatures from their decks because of that vulnerability; take a look at the SCG Standard Open: Atlanta winner’s decklist for a fine example.
Lightning Bolt is so ubiquitous that it encourages players to choose threats that avoid it or generate most of their value from triggers rather than board presence. The best threats in the format determine the best decks, and the best answers to these threats act as a crucible, determining which decks will rise to the top. It’s about more than just playing the best cards; you also have to line up correctly against your opponents’ cards.
Whether I’m playing or building in Modern, Lightning Bolt is always on my mind. It’s probably on yours too—remember those games where no one plays a sorcery before turn 2 and you’re holding a Tarmogoyf? You hold, waiting for the moment when you can ensure it’ll survive the instant. It’s second nature by now.
In some ways Modern is defined by an axis of interaction with Lightning Bolt. Diminishing the impact of Lightning Bolt gains you ground in a variety of matchups against a huge swath of the field. Most decks that play Lightning Bolt have four, which means you’ve got a good shot at weakening or even blanking many opposing draw steps. Most decks in Modern—and most successful players—line their cards up against the ever-present shadow of Lightning Bolt.
If you’re going to Grand Prix Richmond this weekend, you can expect to see plenty of Lightning Bolt. To help you decide how you’ll play against it and how you’ll aim your own, I’ve generated a list of the top decks in the Modern metagame so that we can examine how they match up against Modern’s premier removal spell.
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 1 Goblin Guide
- 4 Loam Lion
- 3 Geist of Saint Traft
- 2 Experiment One
- 3 Ghor-Clan Rampager
We’ll start with an easy one. At first glance every Zoo deck seems like a feeding ground for Lightning Bolt. In fact, the simultaneous unbanning Wild Nacatl and banning of Deathrite Shaman virtually guaranteed that the tag team duo of Snapcaster Mage and Lightning Bolt would surge in popularity and efficacy.
However, against Zoo’s vulnerable threats, Lightning Bolt itself is actually creating parity: an exchange of a card and one mana for a card and one mana. If the Lightning Bolt isn’t available on time, the initiative generated by a quick threat might pay for itself, and even in games where the Bolt is there, Zoo can be capable of overloading it with a stream of threats.
As you move higher up, Tarmogoyf and Geist of Saint Traft appear, two cards that are very good against Lightning Bolt dependent opponents. Turn your eyes to the sideboard and Refraction Trap sticks out like a sore thumb, while Kitchen Finks has been standard fare against other Zoo opponents for years. Other lists include even more direct opposition. Enzoreal had a lot of success online early after the bannings with a hyperaggressive Zoo list packing Mutagenic Growth.
- 1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 2 Pestermite
- 2 Vendilion Clique
- 1 Spellskite
- 4 Deceiver Exarch
- 4 Snapcaster Mage
Twin has always overvalued Deceiver Exarch in relation to Pestermite thanks to its four toughness granting an immunity to Lightning Bolt—that’s an obvious relationship. However, Lightning Bolt is also at the center of Twin’s strategy these days. The most successful Twin lists want to threaten victory through damage as well as the combo. Lightning Bolt is the perfect complement because it buys time early and can chain for reach in the late game, with Snapcaster Mage sliding perfectly into that setup.
Amusingly, Twin is one of the few decks in the format to add Flame Slash to the lineup, clearing blockers to let Snapcaster Mage charge in, killing larger creatures than Bolt can hit, and preserving your ability to go to the dome. Twin may actually make the most effective use of Lightning Bolt in all of Modern thanks to that duality, which is in turn one of the reasons it has remained a top Modern deck year after year.
I very much enjoyed Patrick Dickmann’s take on Molten Rain adding to the cause in his Grand Prix victory, and he applied the lessons he learned to a Top 8 finish at the Pro Tour.
RUG Twin wins through damage a lot with Tarmogoyf and Scavenging Ooze because each are relatively easy to keep outside of Lightning Bolt’s range. These are heavy hitters and will draw opposing fire in short order, which just clears the way for Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite. Patrick has no Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, Twin’s biggest liability against an opponent with Lightning Bolt, and instead just packs a bunch of tough creatures. I find the 3-3 split on Pestermite and Exarch interesting, but other than that his threat base is tuned to love a fight against your average Bolt. He even has Scavenging Ooze for Snapcaster Mage advantage!
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 2 Wall of Roots
- 1 Orzhov Pontiff
- 1 Shriekmaw
- 1 Reveillark
- 4 Kitchen Finks
- 2 Murderous Redcap
- 1 Ranger of Eos
- 3 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
- 1 Viscera Seer
- 1 Spellskite
- 1 Melira, Sylvok Outcast
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 2 Voice of Resurgence
Here we have our first deck to not employ the power of Lightning Bolt itself. Pod’s vulnerable to Lightning Bolt in the sense that it has a lot of creatures that die to it, but the big targets are really just mana dorks and Melira, Sylvok Outcast herself. Everything else either generates value anyway or comes with a built-in ability to defend or replace itself. The latter combines with Birthing Pod to create an avalanche of advantage, which is the true enemy.
Simply put, Lightning Bolt fails to interact positively against Birthing Pod. You can try to attrition Pod to death with removal, which is difficult but doable . . . unless a Pod sticks. Lightning Bolt’s most useful option against Pod is non-intuitively often going to be its ability to threaten damage to the head, with a flurry of burn abusing the Pod deck’s willingness to utilize Phyrexian mana multiple times.
Our champion, Shaun McLaren’s deck is basically themed around Lightning Bolt. It duplicates the effect with a variety of additional burn spells and Snapcaster Mage to pile on. All of that burn also synergizes with Sphinx’s Revelation to let you chain a stream of fire before slamming home for lethal with Celestial Colonnade, seemingly closing the game out in a flash.
Its own threats are functionally immune to Lightning Bolt—Snapcaster Mage and Vendilion Clique both create significant value whether they live or die, while Ajani Vengeant and Celestial Colonnade can both go outside its range. Even Lightning Helix and Ajani gain life, diminishing the potential of Bolt to end games via damage to the face.
This deck plays many creature that can’t be targeted by Lightning Bolt and tries to enchant them with Daybreak Coronet and Unflinching Courage, enchantments that make them huge and gain the player a bunch of life.
So yeah. This deck is good against Lightning Bolt.
More to the point, this deck is good specifically because having the option of cards like Lightning Bolt creates incentive for players to use those spells, creating a window of opportunity for these creatures to work their magic while everyone else is busy "targeting" each other. Fools!
No creatures, no problems! Lightning Bolt’s primary functionality against Scapeshift is reducing the pilot’s life total. Thanks to a healthy complement of basics, Scapeshift’s life total is often higher than average. Simply put, Lightning Bolt is a bad card in this matchup.
Oddly enough, that doesn’t necessarily mean you cut it. Combining aggression with disruption can create a window for Lightning Bolt to end the game before the combo can, which is especially worthwhile if you’re not able to lock the game with tactical superiority. Many U/W/R Control lists take this tactic, as Scapeshift’s mana advantage means they can often create a turn where they threaten you with multiple counter backup. That matters a lot more against the lists heavy on blue and Cryptic Command, but it’s always a consideration.
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Ornithopter
- 1 Master of Etherium
- 3 Steel Overseer
- 3 Memnite
- 3 Etched Champion
- 4 Signal Pest
- 4 Vault Skirge
Virtually every creature in this deck can be killed by Lightning Bolt, and it’s often a card you want to see in the matchup thanks to the tempo it can create and its ability to ward off lethal attacks mid-combat. However, the threats that can’t be Bolted are among the most powerful, creating an analog to the way Zoo minimizes opposing Bolts.
The pricy Etched Champion can very rarely be removed at all, forcing a race. While it’s not technically a threat, Cranial Plating requires more specific removal and makes any creature you leave alive into a bona fide bruiser. With many man lands guaranteeing the Affinity player can’t flood, it’s virtually impossible to kill everything they play with spot removal. Arcbound Ravager of course can both provide value upon being Bolted or defend itself depending upon the controller’s decision.
This is an aggressive deck, but it’s the sort that can leave you wondering what happened when you keep three copies of Lightning Bolt in your opener and still die with incredible regularity. There’s a reason that sideboard cards against Affinity use more widespread attacks—Engineered Explosives, Stony Silence, Creeping Corrosion, Shatterstorm, and Vandalblast are all very effective because they cripple multiple cards and also relieve the pressure placed upon your spot removal.
- 2 Simian Spirit Guide
- 4 Street Wraith
- 2 Shriekmaw
- 4 Fulminator Mage
- 1 Jungle Weaver
- 4 Architects of Will
- 4 Pale Recluse
- 4 Monstrous Carabid
- 4 Deadshot Minotaur
Living End’s namesake sorcery creates a sizable onboard advantage that would require a whole lot of Lightning Bolt to reverse. If allowed to go off, it won’t care about Bolt. Even losing a creature or two won’t often be enough to defeat the tide, and when it is the opponent can simply put everything back into play. Because Living End goes off so consistently on turn 3, it doesn’t often need to fear being closed by Lightning Bolt to the face either.
As ever, the downside is that this is a combo that is "soft" in that it doesn’t kill the opponent immediately, offering time to interact. Maybe you buy the necessary time to get a damage-based kill; more likely you just attack the combo itself and hope you don’t draw too many Lightning Bolt before making it to the mop-up stage.
Jund and other B/G-based midrange strategies all used to have a very focused line against Lightning Bolt. With multiple discard spells to clear the way for Dark Confidant and Deathrite Shaman acting as a lightning rod that traded at parity, Bolt really wasn’t so tough. It might seem strange to say so, but despite plenty of vulnerable creatures and a host of 3/3 man lands, Jund could often maneuver into position against Lightning Bolt by virtue of pure attrition.
Simply put, it actively traded with Lightning Bolt on its own terms.
"New Jund" is a little different.
The discard spells are still there to clear the way for Dark Confidant, now the lone vulnerability to Lightning Bolt outside of a mana-shy Scavenging Ooze or an aggressive use of a man land. I can’t overstate the relevance of discard spells governing the trade, especially with Inquisition of Kozilek’s selection over Thoughtseize helping shore up life loss against aggressive decks, all of whom want to cast Lightning Bolt.
However, our threat core has shifted once again—note the three-drops, both of which laugh in the face of a simple Lightning Bolt. Courser of Kruphix was pegged by Michael Jacob for Modern success mostly on the back of its big butt giving it life against Bolt with a decent Kitchen Finks / Oracle of Mul Daya hybrid going on otherwise. Reid Duke elected to stick with the original in Finks but also created space for the grateful Phyrexian Obliterator.
Of course, Jund also employs its own Bolts, which are even better thanks to the information granted by discard spells. Again, Jund is a deck that actively seeks to trade—it just wants to wind up with the better deal at the end of the day.
Storm looks a lot like Living End in the eyes of Lightning Bolt. It’s a deck capable of going off early enough to preserve its life total and with a win condition that by and large ignores Bolt’s text box. The single Achilles heel in this plan is Goblin Electromancer. However, before you decide that’s some kind of problem, I encourage you to track down some of Jon Finkel’s match footage from this event and the Modern Grand Prix and Pro Tours prior.
Lightning Bolt has been there the whole time, and he keeps winning. This is not a coincidence! During the Pro Tour, I heard the commentators several times consider whether Jon would cast an Electromancer, often speculating on his reasons for [frequently] holding back. The answer lies in the basic theory of Mulldrifting: if your opponents are going to kill your creatures, then play them in such a way as to generate value from them before they die.
The most obvious lines frequently involve a turn 4 Goblin Electromancer. You cast a ritual, prompting the opponent to respond with their Lightning Bolt, and you fire a second ritual (and ideally several more) in order to make back the Goblin’s own casting cost. In this event, he has functioned as both a ritual in his own right and two additional storm by baiting out the Bolt. Earlier Electromancers offer earlier wins—that’s where Gitaxian Probe comes in of course. Storm is a deck built to dance against Lightning Bolt enthusiasts.
Storm employs Lightning Bolt itself in Andrew Shrout’s list. Here it serves the exact same function as it does in Twin: a form of occasional early interaction and a potential line for quick kills. Some Goblin Electromancer beats and a powered-up Pyromancer Ascension can quickly end the game with no Grapeshot necessary! This reach also complements the Empty the Warrens game plan, adding storm and reducing the Goblin attacks necessary to win by throwing a few Bolts in the mix.
I’m not a hundred percent sure that Lightning Bolt will be worthwhile going forward, as the Zoo presence in Richmond shouldn’t be as large as it was at the Pro Tour after the archetype’s dismal showing, but it’s a consideration to be sure.
This deck was clearly built with Lightning Bolt in mind. Not only does it maximize its own copies of the card with Snapcaster Mage (common theme, anyone?), but it also employs Master of Waves, a creature I pegged for Modern success early on. It makes total sense—it’s immune to Bolt and Abrupt Decay, two of the format’s premier removal spells, and offers a board presence capable of swinging a game quickly into your favor.
It’s especially important for Blue Moon to be buttoned up against Lightning Bolt because if everything goes according to plan, Lightning Bolt will be one of the few spells your opponents are actually capable of casting! Blood Mooning someone successfully and struggling to beat a crippled flurry of Lightning Bolt would be quite embarrassing.
No worries about that here. In addition to two creatures that look great against Lightning Bolt, Batterskull offer four toughness and lifelink, attacking both angles of Bolt’s utility. Then there’s Vedalken Shackles—the gift that keeps on taking, whether they kill their own creatures or not.
I hope you enjoyed this overview of prominent interactions within the Modern format. If you hated it, hey—at least I just gave you a list of the decks you’re most likely to face this weekend in the Grand Prix! Enjoy your study guide.
I know that we all understand "what Lightning Bolt does"—the card’s text box is pretty clear. But its effects are further reaching, and its presence will continue to shape Modern for years to come. In many ways Lightning Bolt is to Modern what Brainstorm is to Legacy. I’m sure I’m not the first to make that observation, but it’s true. Every deck in the format either employs Lightning Bolt or builds against its effect, and some decks do both! Like Brainstorm, I expect we’ll never be without it, making its presence effectively a design constraint of the format itself.
I’m excited to see if Grand Prix Richmond shakes up the aftermath of Pro Tour Born of the Gods. I expect that it won’t—in fact, I mostly expect Pod to win—but I’m interested to see if Blue Moon creates enough encouragement for adjustment among the archetypes and if that cascades into a larger shift. If I were playing this weekend, RUG Twin would be my weapon of choice. Chime in below with your own selection!