I’ve already made my opinion clear on what the best Magic card is. But there’s a pretty close runner-up:
Lightning Bolt is the second best Magic card because it’s both incredibly simple and incredibly complicated. It’s one of the easiest cards to understand, but one of the most complex to cast correctly. Great Magic cards create choices, and Bolt provides some of the best decision trees in the game. Newbies and veterans alike have a lot to learn from Lightning Bolt, making it Magic’s number two card by a mile.
Bolt Teaches Timing
It’s a classic example. Your opponent has a Grizzly Bears in play, and you’re at 3 life. You know your opponent plays pump spells like Giant Growth that could kill you this turn. So, and I’m wincing as I type this, you attempt to Bolt down the Grizzly Bears before your opponent attacks.
In response, your opponent casts their Giant Growth to make their Grizzly Bears a 5/5, saving their bears from your three damage spell and sealing your fate.
If only you had waited to cast that Bolt.
Let’s say you do wait, and your opponent gets sloppy. They attack with their bears and, before damage, attempt to go for the kill by casting their Giant Growth. This time, you Bolt down the bear before the Growth takes effect, saving yourself and potentially winning the game.
Instant-speed Magic is hard. Navigating the stack is second-nature to experienced Magic players, but it’s a learned skill. Most often, new players learn the ins-and-outs of Instants by messing up and making the first play described above. If they’re lucky, they make the mistake only once. Regardless, the lesson remains relevant for as long as they play Magic. And it goes even deeper.
When Infect was more prevalent in Modern, the question of when to Bolt a creature was central to the format. Often, it was best to ignore the fact that Lightning Bolt is an Instant and just Bolt the opponent’s Glistener Elves on your own turn. Savvy Infect players would never make the second Grizzly Bears/Giant Growth play described above. Instead, they’d wisely hold their pump spells, content to chip in for one or two Infect damage as allowed. After all, it only takes 10 to get you dead.
In order to bait out the opponent’s Groundswells without taking extra damage, it was often right to cast your Lightning Bolts on your own turn. If you killed the Infect creature, fantastic. If the opponent used a spell to protect their creature from your Bolt, at least they didn’t get to use it proactively.
I’m a veteran Lightning Bolt-er, and I still find myself double-checking that I’m casting my Bolts at the right time. Because doing so means the difference between winning or losing a game of Magic.
Bolt Teaches Efficiency
When I started playing Magic, this was my very best burn spell:
By and large, this card is much worse than Lightning Bolt. But it was more than good enough for me. Killing most any creature or finishing off a near-death opponent for just three(!) mana felt great. I cast Carbonizes with joy. I think I even got to use the “can’t be regenerated” clause once or twice.
But soon, I met Carbonize’s svelter older sister:
Three damage for just two mana? Imagine that! I doggedly tracked down as many Incinerates as I could, playing first a 2-2 split, then a 3-1 split, and then finally a complete playset of Incinerates instead of Carbonizes. Doing the same thing for less mana let me do more things in one turn. I could, for example, cast Incinerate and then Replicate a Train of Thought once using just six mana, instead of seven. (Pretty sick, right?)
I fell off of Magic for a bit, before I could get well and truly hooked. I went to college and got busy enough I couldn’t find time to play. My Izzet deck languished in a closet back home.
When my next-door neighbor went to college a few years later, he immediately found a Magic group and got hooked. That next summer, we played Magic constantly, with me getting trounced near every time. You see, he’d built new decks and bought new cards while he was away.
One of those cards was Lightning Bolt. Three damage. Just one Red mana. The first time my neighbor cast one, I knew I needed to upgrade.
I went back to college that Fall and found the closest local game store. They had four Revised Edition Bolts in stock. I bought the set for $12.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been casting them ever since. They’re the best burn spell Magic has to offer. There’s no card that gives you a better rate on “Damage Dealt per Mana Spent”. And through Bolt and its siblings, I learned that finding the best rate for an effect is incredibly important.
Chalice of the Void and creatures with Regeneration notwithstanding, Bolt is better than Incinerate, because the one-mana spell is more efficient. As I learned years ago, doing the same thing for less mana means you get to do more things. Doing more things wins games of Magic. Lightning Bolt is the final step on a path most Magic newbies walk down, starting with cards like Carbonize and Incinerate, replacing and replacing inferior versions of cards until they’ve hit peak efficiency.
Bolt Teaches Board Assessment
In every game of Magic, there comes a time where you have to decide whether or not you’re the aggressor (though we prefer to call it “the beatdown”). If you’re playing correctly, that decision, as well as the many others that go into assessing a boardstate, tells you what you should do with your spells. Even incredibly versatile spells like Lightning Bolt.
Bolt does a lot of things. It can kill most any creature with three or less toughness. It can deal three damage to a player. Or it can deal three damage to a Planeswalker.
In some in-game situations, you’ll have to work through all three of these options simultaneously. The opponent is at 5 life with a Grizzly Bears and a Nissa, Voice of Zendikar on the board at 1 loyalty. Which of these three targets do you throw your Bolt at? Casting your Lightning Bolt correctly in this situation requires working through what’s on the board, what’s in your hand, what you’re likely to draw, what your opponent’s likely to draw…
It’s not easy. But cast enough Bolts, and you’ll learn what to do.
For some situations, there’s accepted shorthand. For example, you’ve probably heard the phrase “Bolt the Bird”. This refers to the fact that, 9.5 times out of 10, it’s correct to Bolt down an opponent’s turn one Birds of Paradise if possible. Doing so sets your opponent back on mana and can possibly disrupt their entire plan if, say, they kept a land-light hand.
But what about when you’re playing against Burn, and you’re at 6 life and they’re at 5. They attack with a Goblin Guide, and you can Bolt it now to save two damage. That maybe buys you another turn. Or, you can use the Bolt to zap your opponent. This leaves you open if they have a Boros Charm, but if they don’t, you can cast your own Electrolyze and win next turn.
What gives you better odds of winning: Bolting the Guide, or Bolting your opponent?
There is a very, very good game of Magic that hinges on a similar version of this question. It’s the finals of Pro Tour Honolulu. Craig Jones decides he doesn’t want to just not lose. He wants to win. So he points his Char (another Lightning Bolt sibling) at Olivier Ruel’s face, and he’s rewarded by top-decking the Lightning Helix (Bolt’s sophisticated cousin) he needed to win. You can hear the commentators’ split on Jones’s decision. They have different assessments of the board and what Jones should do to win. The other decision is maybe defensible…but it doesn’t win the game on the spot. Jones assessed the board, made a plan, and got rewarded, just as smart Lightning Bolt players have been doing for years.
Bolt Teaches History
Lightning Bolt is one of the 290 oldest cards in Magic. And of those original cards from Alpha, I’d argue Bolt is in the top ten of “Cards Players Are Likely to Run into Today”. Sure, Wizards reprints Air Elemental and Giant Growth in Standard every now and then. But if you play Magic long enough, you’re going to get Bolt-ed. If not strictly in name, then at least in spirit.
Almost every Standard season, players complain about the new going rate of “Damage Dealt per Mana Spent”. (Remember, we talked about efficiency.) This season, players were happy to get Lightning Strike back for their decks…but they still would’ve preferred Bolt.
Lightning Bolt is iconic. It’s the burn spell all other burn spells wish they could be. So inevitably, when any other burn spell is discussed, Lightning Bolt is brought into the conversation. And for new players, they get to learn why the word “Bolt” is as ubiquitous as it is in Magic. There was a time when it was commonplace to deal 3 damage for one Red mana. There still is if you play Modern, Legacy, or Pauper. Knowledge of Bolt opens the door to whole new formats for new players. And actually casting a Bolt for the first time makes a Magic player for life. Or at least it did for me.
And there you have it. A treatise on the second best card in Magic. I’m not sure I’ll ever write anything about the third-best card. I’m not even sure which card that is. For me, Fact or Fiction and Lightning Bolt stand head and shoulders above the rest, because they create so many interesting in-game decisions.
But what do I know? I’m just an Izzet mage at heart. Check back in a couple weeks for more from the trenches in Modern.