One of Magic’s most iconic cards of all time is, of course, Lightning Bolt. Dating all the way back to Alpha, this card has probably collectively dealt tens of millions of damage over the years, as a classic card in Magic’s early days, a mainstay in Modern and – very recently – as a card you can sneak into your decks on Arena.
What is it about Lightning Bolt that makes it the card it is? Being so cheap is a big part of it, as a single red mana makes is unbelievably efficient. Being an instant helps, too, so as to maximize the value you can get out of it. More than anything else, though, it’s the fact that it does three damage to anything. That’s the essence of Lightning Bolt-ness. “Deals three damage to any target.”
Today, we’re going to look at the best, most powerful, and most iconic Lightning Bolt variants over the years. If it can hit anything for three, it can be included here!
Keranos was one of those cards that never quite made it in Standard, for some reason. All the ingredients are there – it’s both a draw engine and a way to manage the board, and on top of that it can close out games either as an enchantment or (much quicker) as a creature. However, it never really saw play. It appeared in a few sideboards, but that was it.
Thankfully, however, the card received a second wind in EDH, where it became a mid-level Izzet commander that people still enjoy playing today. It’s not a mainstay of the format or an immensely popular general, but can still be found within the top 500 commanders in the format, which, given that there are well over 1,200 legendary creatures in Magic, isn’t too bad at all.
Rather than being a Lightning Bolt, Kamahl casts them – over and over again, starting from the turn he comes down. As a 6/1, he’s a little fragile, so when the board isn’t clear and he’s not able to brawl, he can instead just dome something (or someone) for three damage, no questions asked.
Kamahl seems to have had an interesting career – starting as a red pit fighter, he later switched to green, where instead of casting Lightning Bolt he started casting Overrun (obviously he’s a fan of three extra damage, as Kamahl’s Desire gives +3/+0). Even his most recent form continues this trend, essentially remixing Kamahl, Fist of Krosa and casting more Overruns.
But the original Kamahl, first brought to us in Odyssey, was all about the Lightning Bolts. Before the Overruns, before the Druidic Vow that brought us a bad Genesis Wave, before all of that, Kamahl, Pit Fighter was out here blasting things for three damage.
Perhaps the most famous moment in Magic coverage history comes from Pro Tour Honolulu in 2006. There, Craig Jones’ top-decked Lightning Helix, called by Randy Bueller, became known as the “Top-deck of the Century” as it won the game and indeed the match for Jones. Since then, it’s been difficult to draw a Lightning Helix without hearing “oh my god!” in your head.
Lightning Helix is a terrific card. It does a huge amount of work in burn decks as well as control decks – burn decks are often interested in any card that deals an efficient three damage, and controlling decks like Jeskai love to have a card that deals with an early threat while also buffering the life total.
At two mana, of course, it’s not as efficient as Lightning Bolt, but the Healing Salve that comes along with it can be critical in aggressive matchups, where three extra life can be the difference between winning and losing a game. On top of all this, Lightning Helix has some very sweet art indeed – it’s just such a great card.
You mean to tell me that an eight-mana, sorcery-speed, colorless card can count as a Lightning Bolt? Hey – it deals three damage to any target, and that’s all we need! We’ve talked about Ugin in previous articles, and remarked upon its power as a game-ending eight-drop. But sometimes all you need to end the game is three damage, and I always find it hilarious when Ugin comes down as an eight-mana Lightning Bolt to close things out (except when it happens to me. It’s not hilarious then).
Usually, Ugin is used to clear the board with its -X ability, then slowly tick up, cleaning up stragglers or dinging the opponent down a little as it heads towards an ultimate. Usually it doesn’t get there, as a savvy opponent will concede before you get the chance to draw seven and gain seven – so Ugin is, in every way, a game-ending threat.
Is it a Lightning Bolt? I would argue that yes, it is. I’ve seen it used as a Lightning Bolt far too many times to say otherwise. As a repeatable source of three damage – just like Kamahl – Ugin has added countless victims to the Lightning Bolt body count.
The original, and the best. It’s not often we get to say that, but here it’s effortlessly, unquestionably true. In Magic’s entire history, no card has ever been able to surpass Lightning Bolt in terms of raw efficiency. One mana, three damage, no questions asked. No target restrictions, no sacrificing another permanent, no sorcery-speed-and-your-opponent-can-copy-it-sometimes nonsense. Lightning Bolt is the best at what it does.
It sees play in all sorts of decks – burn decks, where it goes face, aggressive decks, where it can clear blockers and provide some lategame reach, midrange decks to manage the board and defend your life total, and controlling decks where it is often one of the most effective pieces of removal in the arsenal.
Any red burn spell will draw immediate comparisons to Lightning Bolt, but Bolt has maintained its place as the gold standard amongst direct damage spells for almost thirty years. Nothing has matched or outstripped Lightning Bolt in terms of efficiency and utility, and as a result it remains a hugely famous Magic card.