That's A Lot of Damage: Lightning Bolt in cEDH
Lightning Bolt | Illustrated by Christopher Moeller
Lightning Bolt in cEDH
Drannith Magistrate. Collector Ouphe. Dauthi Voidwalker. All three of these creatures are kill-on-sight lock pieces, warping the flow of the game around them once they hit the field. More importantly, however, all three of these creatures die to Lightning Bolt.
Lightning Bolt is a notorious and integral card in Magic. An archetypal removal piece, players have been bolting birds, Gray Ogres, and everything in between since the game began. As long as there have been targets, there has been a player, somewhere, ready to respond with a Lightning Bolt. Despite the overall power of the game's hallmark threats creeping stronger with time, the responses they draw have never been able to escape the eternal, enduring question: does it die to Bolt?
Lightning Bolt is a keystone card everywhere it's legal. Well, almost everywhere. Nearly 50% of decks in the Modern metagame play it right now, and while a bevy of 4+ toughness threats in Legacy have pushed bolt lower in the rankings in favor of the Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast pair, it nonetheless remains a key piece of removal capable of dealing with most non-Murktide threats. Vintage has a tendency to outpace creature spot-removal, but even so Lightning Bolt ranks among the first choices for those decks running red. There's no denying that Lightning Bolt is a Constructed all-star, putting tremendous pressure on efficient threats as they emerge.
So why don't we see more Lightning Bolt in cEDH?
Well, as I've mentioned throughout these first few words, Lightning Bolt is excellent at keeping low-cost threats in check: Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, Delver of Secrets, early-game Tarmogoyfs, you name it. Small creatures which pack a wallop if left unaddressed, frequently capable of closing out the game on their own. These are the kinds of threats that can run away with a 20-life game. They're also the kind of creatures that lose their primary function in cEDH.
Now, I'm as big a fan of Ragavan in my red cEDH decks as the next guy, so don't misconstrue this as a "Ragavan is bad" rant. Rather, consider it a "Ragavan is different" argument. In 60-card constructed, Ragavan is a threat that can end a game. In cEDH, Ragavan is an early-game value piece which you use to pressure the Ad Nauseam player. The role of the card changes dramatically, and this is the case for most traditional Lightning Bolt targets. Whereas Lightning Bolt keeps threats in check in 20-life games, in cEDH those same threats are already mitigated by the circumstances of play. At best, threats like Ragavan become value plays, something which cEDH is already light on. Higher life totals and more players make traditional creature threats such as Tarmogoyf pointless, while the shifting value of card advantage means that one-for-one removal doesn't maintain parity, but rather always trade downwards.
In short, it's a matter of threat assessment. The threats in cEDH are all too frequently different than the threats of 60-card Magic, meaning that the questions Lightning Bolt was initially designed to answer aren't as common or as, well, threatening. So, pack up your bolts and swap 'em out for something new, right? Well, I wouldn't be too quick about that just yet.
While it's true that Lightning Bolt won't be a cEDH Hail Mary to stop a threat that it frequently is in other formats, allow me to disagree with the prevailing apathy and say that Lightning Bolt is underplayed. So what if it doesn't address each and every game-ending threat? cEDH is all about answering difficult questions, and I think that we've dismissed the potential of Lightning Bolt too readily. Yes, its traditional role doesn't quite exist in Commander, but Magic and everything in it is incredibly adaptable, so let's give Lightning Bolt another chance.
Two Types of Removal
First off, a question: what is the role of removal? Not just in Commander, but more broadly speaking. We've already discussed how Lightning Bolt has been emblematic of what I like to think of as reactive removal, a response to threats which our opponents use to pressure us and bring the game to a close, but there's a second kind of removal as well. Proactive removal. Think of every time you've removed a blocker in order to overrun your opponent and push through a victory. That is proactive removal: the times when you needed to remove an obstacle, not defend against an opening. While I can guarantee you that Lightning Bolt has served this proactive role plenty of times, this isn't why the card is celebrated. You can make the argument that the enduring call to "bolt the bird" tows the line a bit, but cards like Birds of Paradise serve to advance your opponents, as opposed to stalling you, so by bolting the bird you're essentially reacting to a threat-facilitator.
Moving back to cEDH, we frequently see interactions that fall closer in with the proactive removal camp. Think of the last few creatures you've destroyed in a game of cEDH. Were they there stopping you from winning the game, or were they there serving to win your opponents' theirs? Let's look at two quick examples to help illustrate this difference.
Example One. An opponent has a Witherbloom Apprentice on board and casts Chain of Smog. You cast a removal spell which resolves, allowing the game to progress with no players losing that turn. This is an open-and-shut case of reactive removal: a threat to your status as an active participant in the game was presented, and it was reacted to.
Example Two. An opponent has an Opposition Agent on board, preventing you from tutoring for the last card needed to execute an Underworld Breach loop. You remove Opposition Agent, paving your way for victory. This is the opposite of Example One; here, we have a clear case of proactive removal. While there was definitely a threat on board, it was a threat to your capacity to win, as opposed to a threat to the continuity of the game itself.
This is where we come back to our original three cards from the beginning of the article: Drannith Magistrate, Collector Ouphe, Dauthi Voidwalker. These are all cEDH all-stars, and they are all threats necessitating interaction in cases of proactive removal. None of these will be the card which wins the game for their controller directly (discounting something wild happening off a Dauthi activation), but they can and will stop their opponents from winning.
Evaluating Lightning Bolt
Now, back to Bolt. We've established that it is a cornerstone removal piece, frequently remembered for its reactive use cases in 60-card formats. However, I think we can all agree that cEDH is full of threats that require proactive interaction, threats which conveniently have less than three toughness. Nearly every deck outside of the Polymorph lists seek to run some package of threats like these, and every deck runs some sort of interaction, so why not Lightning Bolt? Let's move on to some of the card-specific issues and see what we can find.
In terms of permanent removal, Lightning Bolt is comparably limited to the rest of the field in terms of capability. Three damage is a lot, but it doesn't answer everything. Most threats will die to this, but not game-enders, like Vilis, Broker of Blood or Razaketh, the Foulblooded. This is a legitimate criticism for the card in isolation, but I think it misses the point. Not every response in a list needs to have complete coverage, and diminishing-returns redundancy is a hallmark of Commander in all its forms. White may have cards like Swords to Plowshares, which can exile regardless of toughness, but the comparison here is flawed because, unlike in 60-card Constructed, we can't readily compare cards between colors. As much as four- and five-color decks have increased in popularity, we nonetheless need to maintain a degree of respect for color identity when evaluating cards. Lightning Bolt isn't going to go in every deck just because they could run it, but that isn't the point, but there are plenty of decks out there which don't have access to unrestricted removal, and for those lists we should give Lightning Bolt a greater degree of consideration.
Coming back to the redundancy point, it's also key to run multiple copies of a valuable effect wherever possible, and proactive removal such as bolt is certainly valuable. So, for the decks that can run Swords to Plowshares, also give Lightning Bolt a try. You'll certainly be grateful in the Ad Nauseam match up; I know I've seen players go to three or below in their combo turns.
As for the second critique of Lightning Bolt, the fact that it always costs one red mana is a very real drawback. One colored mana isn't the bar for removal in cEDH, but rather a steep cost worthy of consideration. Abrupt Decay gets a pass because of the uncounterable nature of the spell, while Assassin's Trophy is as flexible as a removal spell can be. For Lightning Bolt, a card that will always cost you and can't always save you, the question of "is one mana worth it" is a very pressing one.
Again, this is another case of evaluating Lightning Bolt both in isolation and in comparison to the rest of the options in the field. Assuming the question is "what makes the cut" because the decklist in question can run every piece of removal in the color pie, then it's a bit tricky. Would I go for Swords to Plowshares first? Probably. Would I run both Assassin's Trophy and Abrupt Decay? I'd pick one, as doubling up on two-mana-value removal spells feels like too much of a mana commitment. Does Lightning Bolt come up as my fourth choice in the list? Very likely, but at that point it becomes a question of quantity of responses. Importantly, however, this list spans four colors in the course of four cards. The options for top tier removal drop off significantly along with the number of colors at hand, so let's look at a more limited perspective that better highlights the cost question. Three cards: Lightning Bolt, Dismember, and Deadly Rollick.
Lightning Bolt costs one red and hits a creature (or player or planeswalker) for three damage, every time. There isn't much of a question as to what the card does in the majority of use cases. Dismember is a bit more flexible, costing either one generic and four life, one generic, one black, and two life, or one generic and two black. It also is a bit more powerful in terms of the creatures it hits: a reduction of five toughness is enough to kill a Kraum, Ludevic's Opus or an early Korvold, Fae-Cursed King, which can frequently be a game-saver. However, while the flexibility of cost does help, this is black we're talking about. You're probably running Ad Nauseam. And whether it's two life, three life off the flip, or four, you're going to wish you had flipped a one-mana-value card like Lightning Bolt instead.
This may seem like an unfair comparison, but it's the pragmatic one. Cost isn't just what you pay for the spell when you cast it, bur rather the opportunity cost for including it in your deck as well. Deadly Rollick takes this point to the next level, hitting any creature and exiling it instead of destroying it, all with the potential upside of being free if your commander is in play. However, this is a very situational upside. With Dismember, we control how much life we pay. With Deadly Rollick, the typical casting cost of three generic and a black is frequently just too much, not to mention getting hit for four off an Ad Nauseam.
So, where does this leave us with good ol' Bolt? It may not answer every game-ender in cEDH, but it most definitely answers threats. As for the cost, I know one red isn't free, especially for something limited in removal capacity, but no card in Magic is really free. Get out there, grab your red decks and your favorite copy of Lightning Bolt, and give it a whirl. You never know, it might just win you the game.