Rogue Report – Bolt You


One step backwards.

Two steps forwards.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself. I’ve been trying something new lately involving Lightning Bolt. Instead of using it to kill an oncoming Goblin Guide, or even just the threat of it to keep a Putrid Leech smaller, I’ve actually started casting it targeting my opponent. On purpose, like that was the plan all along.

Sure, we’ve all been there before. They have no chance of winning, and in an effort to move along to game two faster you Bolt their face and kill them with some dragon or an Earthquake on the next turn. As a control deck it’s rare that you have time for lunch, so the fact that Lightning Bolt can end a round faster is just icing on top of a delicious removal spell-shaped cake.

Except some people out there play Lightning Bolt for the sole reason of pointing it at their opponent’s face. “Bolt you” they say smugly, as if everything was going according to plan. How they embraced such inherent card disadvantage boggled my mind. “Sure, if you want to practically mulligan” I would think to myself while I marked my life total down to a precarious two. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades!


Unfortunately, all too often I would be signing the slip in Lightning Bolt guy’s favor. That two life easily turned into a negative one life with the second Lightning Bolt, and that was that. Maybe there’s something to Lightning Bolt after all. Maybe it’s time that I try it for myself?

In my quest to be a better Magic player I realized I need to embrace all strategies. If my deck or preferred strategy couldn’t get it done, I needed to be able to switch it up if I wanted to win. LSV himself was recently in this exact situation and had this to say:

“I was well aware of the danger of playing a deck just because I wanted to; forcing the issue can often lead you down a very dangerous path. I’m very glad that I kept that in mind, since as much as I wanted to play the [Grixis control] deck, I just knew it wasn’t good enough.”

Luis eventually settled on the Naya deck that propelled him to a record-breaking undefeated record in the Swiss, so I’d say it worked.

For me, however, I’ve never really played this way before. Sure, I’ve dabbled with the strategy here and there, but I haven’t seriously looked at what it means to play aggro. I know this is the weakest part of my game (where before it was limited) so I’ve taken it upon myself to get better at playing the aggro deck. If anything, understanding aggro will help me better beat it in the future.

That’s what led me to playing the red deck at the Pro Tour. Ok, so maybe the Pro Tour wasn’t the best place to try out a new strategy, but I honestly think my deck was ok. It wasn’t earth-shattering, and was probably a bad metagame call (as it has a hard time against white) but the deck itself wasn’t bad. I’m sure some of my inexperience with two-drops had something to do with my performance.

When it came time for the PTQ the next day Zoo was my deck of choice. (I talked about this a little last week, but I’m going to go into more detail.) I asked around about different versions of the deck, and eventually Brian Kowal gave me a version I liked. It ran Noble Hierarch, Punishing Fire, Grove of the Burnwillows, and a few Baneslayer Angels, and the sideboard was very sideboardy with Blood Moon, Damping Matrix, Extirpate, Thought Hemorrhage, etc.

I started off 3-0 and I could feel the power in the deck. I was making a few marginal mistakes here or there, maybe a few questionable judgment calls, but the games were still panning out. Then I ran into the mirror and my inexperience began to show through. There was actually no way I could lose game three as I had him locked out with Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows, but I was playing too slowly to finish the game in time. I had to spend too much time on every decision, which I blame on my unfamiliarity with the strategy. He drew Path to Exile to kill my Baneslayer Angel when time was called, nabbing the draw.

In the next round I battled against Dark Depths/Thopter Foundry. I locked him out of game two with Blood Moon, and game three looked very much in my favor. His hand didn’t pan out, and he essentially skipped two turns when he had to play Dark Depths as his land drop and then missed his next land drop. I proceeded to make four bad choices in a row – one of those series of events that if I had made the other choice in just one of those, I would have probably won the game. First I didn’t cast Baneslayer Angel for fear of Damnation. He drew a land and cast Vampire Hexmage. Then I cast the Punishing Fire from my graveyard using a Grove instead of just casting the one in my hand. Then I made a bad attack. One thing led to another and (of course) I came up one point short and was one mana away from winning, all my fault. Brian Kowal was even standing there watching my final game (embarrassing) and then sat there while I beat myself up about it afterwards.

In the next round my opponent was UB Thopter Foundry with Tezzeret and I never felt like I was in the match. In game one, he Mana Leaked my first two threats, then had all the time in the world to find his combo. In game two the same thing happened, only now his deck was full of removal spells, so I could never get a threat off the ground. I’m sure I sideboarded incorrectly here as this particular matchup wasn’t in my notes, but I wasn’t even close to winning a game.

This was all after a disappointing finish in the Pro Tour, so I was pretty upset with how I was playing that weekend. I just keep telling myself that it is just a temporary step backwards before I get a handle on things and can start playing aggro decks like the people around me that keep qualifying with them.

I picked Zoo up again for the PTQ a few days ago in Portland, Oregon. I temporarily lost my nerve and tried to get Gifts Ungiven to work on the Thursday before the event, but I couldn’t beat Dark Depths consistently enough to justify it. Instead I grabbed the version of Zoo that the people around me (Zaiem, Gavin Verhey) said was good and that was similar to what Alex West made top 16 with in Oakland. I wasn’t convinced about the sideboard, and on Friday I came up with something I could really get excited about. Here is what I played:

You look at that sideboard and it does not look like it belongs to Zoo at all. Still, it had all the answers I was looking for packaged into a nice little 2/2. It all started when I was trying to come up with a better sideboard plan for the mirror than Ranger of Eos and Umezawa’s Jitte. I expected the environment to be hostile towards artifacts with Qasali Pridemages and Bant Charms, so Jitte was underwhelming to me. Then I thought about Engineered Explosives and how you could probably make the card do good things for you in the mirror if you maneuvered correctly, especially if they cast Ranger of Eos and drop their dorks immediately. Then, could a Zoo deck beat a recurring explosives with Academy Ruins? You run Knight of the Reliquary, so it’s not crazy to think you’ll get to the card. While we’re at it, let’s just grab the explosives with Trinket Mage! A quick artifact search later and I knew I had found my plan. Now I could have a sideboard against Hypergenesis and Living End (Chalice of the Void), Dredge (Tormod’s Crypt), Thopter Foundry (Pithing Needle), and the mirror (Explosives and Basilisk Collar), all in one card (Trinket Mage)!

Negates rounded out the sideboard for more against the cascade decks, but I’m not sure it was the perfect card. I didn’t have room for a Ghost Quarter or Bojuka Bog, which various people condemned or swore by. I was underwhelmed by the lands in theory and cut them, but have yet to actually prove/disprove their worth. Meddling Mage was prominent in the sideboard I was handed, but I liked my plan better.

The event played out very similarly to my last PTQ with Zoo. I started off 3-0, and so far my sideboard plan had pleased me as I got to Tormod’s Crypt a Dredge player. Then, just like the last PTQ, my streak fell when I played the mirror. I won game one by drawing more threats, and it looked like game two was going to go the same way. I fell behind a bit early and stabilized at 5 life when I kept drawing Tarmogoyfs. It was my three Tarmogoyfs and a Wild Nacatl against his single Tarmogoyf and a Nacatl. I didn’t want to trade a Goyf for a Nacatl, so I attacked with three 4/5 Goyfs when he was at 9 life. He blocked with just Tarmogoyf, went to 1, and then killed me with a Lightning Bolt and an attack on his next turn. I think he just drew the Lightning Bolt as he had good opportunity to use it earlier, but I could be wrong. I probably screwed the attack up, and I know I just straight-up missed an attack early in the game when I did Nacatl and exalted math incorrectly.

In the third game it looked like everything was going according to plan. I had Trinket Mage and Engineered Explosives and Academy Ruins. His first Ranger of Eos got blown out by an Explosives after he got an attack in with two 3/3s. Then he cast another Ranger of Eos, killed my blocker, and killed me before I could get the second explosives online. Looking back he had a pretty amazing draw, killing every single creature I played (I think five creatures) while also casting two Rangers. If I had just managed to get a Tarmogoyf to survive I think the game works out in my favor, so I’m not willing to dismiss my sideboard plan for the mirror yet. It at least deserves more testing.

In the next round I played against Dark Depths and Thopter Foundry and got blown out by Engineered Explosives in two games. In the first game he bounced his Tolaria West with Dimir Aqueduct, tutored for Engineered Explosives, then wiped my board. My relatively slow draw gave him enough time for these shenanigans that normally don’t work. In game three I mulliganed to six cards that relied on two Noble Hierarchs and a land, but got blown out by him naturally drawing his single Engineered Explosives. Oh well, I guess it happens. He also played turn two Vampire Hexmage off of Dark Depths and Urborg, blew my board up on turn three, then played another Dark Depths and Hexmage on turn four when his first 20/20 got Bant Charmed. Oof.

Another disappointing PTQ, but at least I’m learning. I feel like Zoo is a very powerful deck but I’m not playing at all optimally. It is like I’m years behind when it comes to Wild Nacatl, and it feels weird. It’s like I’m back at FNM trying to figure things out. I’m back to feeling like I’m behind the moment I sit across from a local I recognize. Hopefully I can take that step forward soon and be better for it. Until then I’ve got to keep casting Lightning Bolt – targeting you.

Thanks for reading,

Jonathon Loucks
Loucksj at gmail
JonLoucks on Twitter
Zygonn on Magic Online

23 thoughts on “Rogue Report – Bolt <i>You</i>”

  1. While I can relate with the fear/hate of playing aggro, I’d also like to learn… and I can’t help but think that ditching the entire standard sideboard for some insane hijinks is not a very good way to learn what the deck can do naturally. You need to see what all 75 cards have to offer before you toss away 11 of them without any testing.

  2. I don’t think dedicating your entire sideboard to Trinket Mage is a good idea.
    Here’s why:

    -Too reliant on one card; should your mage get stopped (Meddling Mage, Aven Mindcensor, etc.) then you have lost the toolbox effect.

    -More difficult sideboard choices; so many 1-ofs and game pressure can cause poor sideboarding.

    -Tutoring + casting takes time; why wait one turn to get Pithing Needle when you have a better chance of playing 4 and just drawing one?

    I think the consequences outweigh the benefits in this case.

  3. I was the same way when I picked up Magic again during shards/lorwyn standard. I was always more of a control/combo player, but didn’t want to dish out the money for good control cards. So mono-red it was. Luckily for me, I’d had some experience with mono-red during mirrodin/kamigawa standard (and had actually won a few FNMs with a very sligh-ish deck). Still, it wasn’t exactly normal for me.

  4. @ Shadowsketched:
    The toolbox allows Jon to run essentially 4 or more of 4 very specific hate cards, something which a normal 15 card sideboard won’t allow (4×4 = 16, obv).

    I actually really like the idea, and tried to incorporate something somewhat similar with the sideboard my Scapeshift deck, though the tutor (Dimir House Guard) is already featured in the main.

    Very interesting take, Jon… Looking forward to testing it!

  5. I was thinking about EE for the zoo mirror the other day. It definitely seems like it could be good…as long as you are already running 4 Ranger of Eos. If you think about it, Ranger just does the same as what EE does in terms of handling their creatures, but can also be used offensively, which EE cannot. Yes, EE can kill goyfs and knights but you typically have enough removal for those already, plus what if you have a copy as well? At the very least I would run 3 ranger before any explosives.

  6. Shadowsketch:

    If my opponent brings in Mindcensor or Meddling Mage against this deck, I will laugh and attack them with my one mana 3/3’s.

    The opportunity for misboarding is a stupid excuse to not play it.

    As for time, that might be a concern, but if you are talking about actual clock time Zoo is a very fast deck. If you are talking about in game tempo, keep in mind that the fundamental turn of the format is still 4 (just in a slightly different way), or exactly the point where that gets online barring a Hierarch.

  7. Back in the day (@ Mirage) I did the same thing with a straight up burn deck. I’m partial to permanents myself and single use spells were out of my comfort zone. I also made a black deck that used a lot of sacrifice for the same reason.

    Funny in how your exploration of agro you can’t help but put a control sideboard in. Embrace the archetype!

  8. It was my three Tarmogoyfs and a Wild Nacatl against his single Tarmogoyf and a Nacatl. I didn't want to trade a Goyf for a Nacatl, so I attacked with three 4/5 Goyfs when he was at 9 life. He blocked with just Tarmogoyf, went to 1, and then killed me with a Lightning Bolt and an attack on his next turn.

    I’m curious about this situation because the way you vividly describe it means it obviously sticks out in your mind as an improbable way to lose. Why wouldn’t you just attack with 2 Goyfs? What was the rush to kill him if you were in burn range? Did he have some inevitable win condition that you knew about? You are playing against Zoo and you leave yourself open to losing to a 3 damage burn spell, most Zoo decks run 8+, how many were in his graveyard?

    I like your articles, alot. But seriously? Why are you trying to play chess when u need to be playing checkers? I do realize this game requires foresight and thoughtful decisions, but when u miss something as simple as zoo math it seems like you just miss the big picture….. throwing two tribal flames at your face, ok that sucks, losing a game with a commanding board position to a card that makes up over 10% of the opponents deck, bad.

  9. I don’t understand your misplay on the attack. 3 goys + nacatl vs 1 goyf and nacatl.

    You attacked with 3 goyf, he blocked goyf on goyf. went to 1. If you attacked w ur nacatl too, he has to block in much the same way. He can’t afford to double block, he’ll die to the extra dmg from your nacalt.

    If you were dead to the bolt either way, all in attack still cuts his options more.

    Thinking about the situation, either you go all in or just not attack. It’s the nature of goif being x/x+1. I’m thinking you shoulda just probably attacked all in (and not overthought it, haha).

  10. Your plan is to explode their Rangered one drops? This gets their one drops but leaves them with the Ranger. This doesn’t seem like the greatest plan.

  11. “If I had just managed to get a Tarmogoyf to survive I think the game works out in my favor, so I'm not willing to dismiss my sideboard plan for the mirror yet. It at least deserves more testing.”

    J-Money. Why are you playing with a sideboard that ‘deserves more testing’?

  12. Your problem is you are playing an agro deck but still have the mindset of a control player. With that sideboard you are trying to shoe card advantage and control strategies into an agro deck. Generally the best decks are the most streamlined ones that have a strategy and go for the extreme of it. I too often see control players make controllish suggestions about agro decks, and they rarely work out.

  13. I’ve had a similar experience the last few years – I’ve played Kird Apes a few times and I’ve been surprised how much it helps the rest of my game. I’m not afraid to attack any more, and I understand the upside of attacking. It’s just that I think spells are a superior way to play Magic more often than not.

  14. @Dio: The list I was handed had no lightning Helixes, and runs Tribal Flames instead. Helix is so good, but it seems to be missing from a lot of recent zoo lists. I was happy with Tribal Flames, though.

    @GtF: It can also take down Jitte’s. I’ve found that you don’t always have romaval for their goyfs and knights, but by adding EE it’s not like you’re taking out answers to those cards. And if you have a copy of Goyf or Knight as well then you’re probably blocking with it instead of using explosives to kill it. Also, if players typically have removal spells for goyfs and knights, how rare is it that each player controls one? I don’t think it’s rare, but it’s hard to make both of those points at the same time.

    @pete: Except the sideboard I was replacing was 4 Negate, 4 Meddling Mage, 1 Ghost Quarter, 1 Bajuka Bog, 3 Ranger, 2 Jitte. There were still a lot of control spells there, in a way. If you dismiss a sideboard based on the way it looks alone, then you’re potentially missing out.

    @chatter: The above sideboard was what I was given, and I didn’t like it based on what I was hearing from the people around me. I was also told that Jitte should be something else, and everybody around me that had experience with zoo had mixed opinions on Meddling Mage, Ghost Quarter, and Bajuka Bog. The card they all liked, Negate, I kept. Basically I was given a sideboard with a stamp of “meh”, and I didn’t like that. I felt safe replacng a not great sideboard (that needed more testing) with an untested sideboard (that needed more testing) that I knew gave me better game against Hypergenesis, Living End (two decks I was told would be there), and Dredge. When I say it deserves more testing, I mean that I was happy with it, and we should really test it to make sure it isn’t just the best sideboard option. I honestly felt like this sideboard gave me a better chance of winning, I wasn’t just trying to be cool. But maybe I’m not allowed to dislike a sideboard at this stage?

    @LM: Maybe I didn’t explain that well enough, but the reason I didn’t attack with two goyfs is because that allows him to block a Goyf with a Ncatl and a Goyf, which essentially trades one of my Goyfs for a Nacatl. That wasn’t a trade I wanted to make, so I didn’t attack. I probably shouldn’t have been worried about that trade at that stage of the game, though. And I mean, you said it yourself: “What was the rush to kill him if you were in burn range?” I was in burn range, that’s what the rush was. I was trying to minimize his draw steps. Still, I most certainly played those turns incorrectly, but that’s what was going through my head. You can say “when u miss something as simple as zoo math…” but I think that’s unfair to zoo math. I would say Zoo is much harder to play than people give it credit for, but maybe I’m just terrible. I’m writing an article about how I don’t know how to play a certain strategy, so I’m suprised I’m getting a “I can’t believe you misplayed” comment.

    @Someguy: I think you’re right. Going with the plan I chose, that was probably the attack. Whether or not that was the right plan, I don’t know, but that play is probably just better than what I did.

    @Tim: You often have a Trinket Mage to their Ranger, so it’s not that bad.

  15. @ Jon: Don’t know who told you the sideboard was meh. I think it’s pretty close to perfect for the format. (I’m still interested in -1 Ranger, +1 Exile into Darkness or +1 Slay.) Umezawa’s Jitte does have a lot of hate for it, but Bant Charm is very busy in the match, so straining them is good for you. Jitte is also a key card vs. Elves and Faeries, and also any random aggro mirror you might get into. Don’t leave home without it.

  16. @Someguy: Jon’s at 5 life when he made the attack, even an all in puts him at dead to any burn spell. The guy will block goyf on goyf and probably nacatl for nacatl and trade nacatls. He still untaps into attack for 4 with goyf and any burn spell to win, as opposed to attack for 7 with goyf and nacatl Jon takes 3 from nacatl and any burn spell does it.

    Best plays are either to attack with 2 goyfs, forcing him to either double block, lose nacatl for 1x goyf and take 4 or just take 4, leaving you with goyf and nacatl to block his goyf and nacatl, which puts him on 2 burn spells to win that turn or continue to stalemate into draw another burn spell and send them to the dome. If he takes the 4, then Jon has the out on tribal flames. That or just not attack and put him on 2x burn spells for the win.

  17. @Jeremy Fuentes

    Ok, I realize that there is more copies of hate virtually, but those copies require a Trinket Mage to resolve + potentially one more turn to have the mana to resolve. That one turn can hurt you when you’re trying to kill as fast as you can with your deck, especially in the combo-based environment in Extended.


    Ok, then the white and blue deck will just remove your 3/3s and laugh at you for laughing. Or even better, they’ll play a shroud creature like Wall of Denial or Calcite Snapper and play Worship. Just saying.

    Sure, misboarding is a stupid excuse. To get good enough to where you don’t misboard, you’d have to play this many many times. Someone’s bound to see this online and play it without practicing rigorously.

    As far as timing, I’m talking about tempo. Zoo’s supposed to be a fast deck, and I think running a toolbox slows it down too much. In a combo-based format like Extended today, I think winning as fast as possible is the best course of action.

  18. I don’t agree with the sideboard, but I also don’t agree with that mb. Bant charm is too slow and clunky in tribal zoo, and goes against it’s purpose. When my buddy was trying to figure out how to sb against me I told him not to. What scared me the most about his deck was the intense speed at which it poured out. It becomes impossible to combo out and find answers at the time. I like helix better than charm, and mm and jitte need spots in your sb. The trinket package just goes against zoo’s philosophy, which is KILL THEM as fast as you possibly can.

  19. As the opposing zoo player that had the burn I had kept it in my hand for at least a turn or two because Jon was at very low life and was quickly overwhelming me with guys. I’m not sure that it was the correct play to help keep me in the game but it worked for that particular game. As for game 3 my sideboarding was to go the way of the Rubin Zoo decks from Austin as much as my deck could, go bigger and have your guys smash in. I opened with a lot of removal and a ranger. That is why ranger is good you can pace your guys to not get blown out by EE and then reload. while not having to face a second EE is always welcomed.

  20. It seems to me like your problem is similar to mine.

    At first, when I would go to FNM, I would bring a wacky new deck every time, usually without putting enough testing into the deck (FNM is very serious in my community). That changed when a friend of mine who’s opinion I regard highly told me to find a deck and stick to it, making a few small changes here and there to keep up with the meta, but otherwise keeping it the same. I found myself winning more and more, almost purely because I knew the deck inside and out.

    Everyone saw this in the case of Matt Nass, who won GP Oakland despite having a deck that he claimed was a bad deck for the format. The reason he won was that he knew his deck.

    I think a good plan for you should be to find 1 deck that has a reasonable matchup against the majority of the decks in the format (for standard, say, Naya), take the deck, tweak it to your preferences, and just make the deck better and better.

    I completely empathize with wanting to make something cool for every event, but sometimes you just can’t do it.

    I’m not trying to seem like I’m better than you or anything like that, this is just my evaluation of a problem you seem, to my eyes, to be having.

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