The Bolt Test: Modern’s High-Water Mark

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In "High Water Fire Mark," Mike Flores pays respects to the great unsung quality of quality creatures: toughness. He identifies toughness as supremely important to successful deckbuilding designs, writing, "In many constructed formats, we can point to a particular number, say two or three, with the knowledge that that number represents the amount of damage done by the default (generally red) removal spell of a particular class." Modern's high-water mark is unquestionably three, a magic number tyrannically enforced by the ultra-efficient Lightning Bolt. Understanding and applying this fundamental principle opens up considerable brewing space in Modern.

mantis rider art formatted

Before considering a creature for Modern, we run it through the Bolt Test: "Does this creature die to Lightning Bolt?" Often, for a creature to enter the Modern discussion at all, its mana cost must go low enough to suggest some relevance in a turn-four format. And cheap creatures rarely have more than three points of toughness.


(E)x(tr)/3(me) Hostility

In "Lightning Bolt's Strength in Different Metagames," Sheridan claims, "There was a time in Modern when you couldn’t question Bolt’s value. But once BGx went the way of Abzan instead of the traditional path of Jund, it was hard to not doubt Bolt’s necessity."Lightning Bolt But during those dark months of Abzan Menace dominance, a huge segment of former Standard-format staples that have never seen Modern play continued to not see Modern play. I'm talking about unfortunately statted creatures like Vampire Nighthawk, Shadowmage Infiltrator, and Mantis Rider.

Whether or not people play the card, just the threat of Lightning Bolt keeps these creatures out of the format. At x/4, they'd almost certainly win some events. The same holds true for a host of other x/3 creatures as diverse as Wee Dragonauts and Master of the Wild Hunt.

To demonstrate the mythical fourth point of toughness in action, Restoration Angel gets attention almost exclusively for her big booty. Tarmogoyf greatly increases the overall price of Modern with his own.

Toughness Ain't Nothing But a Number

Since x/3 creatures usually cost more mana than x/2 or x/1 ones, they get "shafted" when it comes to the Bolt Test. I question how necessary that is. I'd argue that only Burn makes the third point of toughness relevant at all, since it hates having Goblin Guide walled or failing to chew up blockers with Grim Lavamancer.

Burn may care the most, but many Modern decks ignore stat-based combat dynamics altogether. Other than red removal, how many cards or even decks actually care about toughness?Dark Confidant Dark Confidant, Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration, and Pestermite get Bolted on-sight in Modern, and nobody whines about two points of "wasted" damage. It's almost always correct to trade a one-mana removal spell for these creatures, which see play in Modern for this reason.

Granted, plenty of red removal spells kill Birds of Paradise more efficiently than Lightning Bolt. Forked Bolt, Magma Spray, and even Sudden Shock all carry their own sets of benefits in different contexts. But none of them boast the insane versatility of Lightning Bolt, which can blaze a big Wild Nacatl or double as Lava Spike. And how stupid would you feel clutching a "meta-call" Pillar of Flame when your Company opponent taps out for Liliana, Heretical Healer // Liliana, Defiant Necromancer? As such, red mages leave these situationally better options at home, or pack them in numbers conservative and inconsistent enough to render preparing for them unnecessary at best and match-losing at worst. Serious players running Forked Bolt have already maxed out on Lightning Bolt. We can then disregard the supposed "difference" between x/1, x/2, or x/3 creatures, at last taking solace in the idea that when it comes to Boltable playables, size really doesn't matter.

Still I Rise

Most creatures that fail the Bolt Test end up in the bulk box, and many that pass go on to enjoy inclusion in brews and tier decks alike. But sometimes, Modern's red-weary weaklings manage to tangle with the big boys. For Bolt Test failures to make it to Modern despite their shortcomings, they must always represent a significant threat. Additionally, they need to either break even (or close) on mana parity with Lightning Bolt (as one-drops do), or reliably grow themselves out of Bolt range (like Countryside Crusher and Scavenging Ooze). As a tempo enthusiast, I often build decks with the former in mind, employing Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration as my Lightning Bolt punching bag of choice. Today, I'll focus on the latter, examining one of the most aggressively costed burn victims: Mantis Rider.

Skewing the Bolt Test with Jeskai Haste

In David Fincher's 2010 blockbuster film The Social Network, a group of thirsty college boys break Harvard's carefully maintained social structure. They do so with the help of curly-haired "facebook guy," a heartbroken prodigy desperate for female validation. Perhaps chasing the same thing, Christopher Gooch won a GPT for Oklahoma City a month ago with pimply Modern outcast Mantis Rider. His Jesse Eisenberg: Honor of the Pure.

There's so much to love about this deck. Honor of the Pure turns the otherwise unplayable Mantis Rider into a nigh-unstoppable threat that casts Boros Charm upon resolution, and every turn after. Spell Snare protects the Rider, and his big sister Lightning Angel, from heavy-duty removal spells. And Disrupting Shoal lets Gooch tap out for his hasty monsters and continue interacting with opponents.

Gooch runs the recommended 22 blue spells, but Disrupting Shoal plays a novel role here. In my grow decks, it counters specific answers to fragile threats.Mantis Rider Jeskai Haste, with its lack of Serum Visions, instead hopes to have the properly-costed card in hand when opponents tap out for something, and with the deck's great variety of casting costs - ranging from one to four - Shoal often feels like a lottery (oh, Liliana of the Veil? Good thing I have this extra Mantis Rider handy!). Still, with 24 lands, Gooch can often afford to just hardcast Shoal against cards like Path to Exile and Terminate, the latter of which represents a class of catchall removal already covered by Spell Snare. In Jeskai Haste, Disrupting Shoal mainly throws opponents off and "steals" their mana, Time Walk-ing bigger plays a Remand does without costing any mana itself. Its freeness shines when the deck taps out in precombat main for a winged attacker.

Timely Reinforcements is an extra threat and stabilizer against highly aggressive decks.timely reinforcements In aggro mirrors, it's frequently Siege Rhino, combining with Honor of the Pure to provide six points of power and a six-point life swing. The card obviously excels against Burn, but in testing also showed immense utility against Grixis decks, which have no reasonable way of dealing with the tokens and spend multiple removal spells on them as Path to Exile clears their board of delving blockers. Such a scene allows us to amass Riders and other threats in hand.

Snapcaster Mage is the least obscure inclusion here, as his synergy with powerful instants like Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile requires no reiteration. From my staindpoint, he's also the most boring.

Tuning Jeskai Haste: MutaMantis

After some testing with Gooch's list, I decided I wanted some mainboard answer to "unfair" combo plays other than the lackluster Negate. Stubborn Denial fit the bill, and I wondered if Monastery Mentor could also have a place here; we've seen Seeker of the Way combine with Mutagenic Growth in the past, and the pump spell does a fine Mental Misstep impression in response to a Lightning Bolt. I've used Disrupting Shoal to save an Insectile Aberration from Bolt countless times and won the game because of it, and Growth does the same thing here for one less card.

With Honor of the Pure on the battlefield, all of our creatures trigger ferocious for Stubborn Denial, making it a perfect answer to unfair combo plays. Here's how that works: we have a 3/3 Seeker or Mentor in play with Honor of the Pure. Our opponent casts a noncreature spell, and we cast Stubborn Denial. Prowess triggers and resolves, growing our creature to 4/4, and voila! By the time Denial resolves, ferocious is live. We also know from Monkey Grow how nightmarish Denial can make removing a buffed threat. I landed on this list:

This build's biggest improvement over Jeskai Haste is its lower land count. Full sets of Visions and Probe, and the absence of Lightning Angel, lets us run more actual cards and prevents flooding. Denial also helps tremendously against combo, assuming we can resolve an Honor. And Mentor gets aggressive in a way "vertical" threats never can.

On the other hand, we sharply feel the absence of Snapcaster Mage as we try to set up Honor of the Pure.Snapcaster Mage Mage proves to be invaluable to the deck, since he keeps opponents at bay long enough for us to get the enchantment online. A related issue I encountered in testing was an inability to keep up with Modern decks when I couldn't find Honor of the Pure, or when my enlightened opponents countered or removed the enchantment. Their doing so effectively blanks Stubborn Denial and Mantis Rider, while making any amount of Monk tokens much less impressive. My next brew, below, directly addresses this problem.

I won't post sideboards for these brews, but I'll stress the importance of Pyroclasm. All of the Mantis builds make great use of the card, which does so much work in Modern because of the tiny difference between x/1, x/2, and x/3 creatures described above, and I wouldn't play a Mantis deck without a couple copies somewhere. I also want to make note of Timely Reinforcements, a great card Gooch runs in the main that I can't find space for. I play a few copies in the side of each of these builds and love them so far.

Tuning Jeskai Haste: Favorable Mantis

My trials with MutaMantis left me wanting more Honors, and eventually brought me to a build that runs seven of them. Favorable Winds has the added benefit of pitching to Disrupting Shoal, and the deck runs Serra Avenger as a third ferocious-enabling, onslaught-halting, face-smashing threat. I started with four and four, and eventually cut an Honor, the weaker of the two since it doesn't pitch to Shoal. This build also relegates Timely to the sideboard, further encouraging a greater number of Favorable Winds. Eight Anthems proved too clunky, but seven have tested well so far. We really don't want Anthem effects in play beyond the first, as they end up a little too redundant, but it's very important to reliably boost our creatures beyond Bolt.

Thanks to her drawback, Serra Avenger doesn't make it to the battlefield before turn four. She still isn't a strictly-worse Lightning Angel, since the extra mana we're left with goes a long way in this deck. In testing, I "lived the dream" at least once with a curve like this:

Turn 1: Serum Visions
Turn 2: Honor of the Pure, Disrupting Shoal
Turn 3: Mantis Rider
Turn 4: Serra Avenger, Colonnade, Stubborn Denial

In the above scenario, a Lightning Angel would have stayed stuck in hand until the following turn, since Celestial Colonnade enters the battlefield tapped. But Avenger came down right away and joined Rider for a quick flight to lethal damage.Lightning Angel

Seachrome Coast finds its way into both of these brews, as it smooths out our mana and very rarely conflicts with the turn four Lightning Angel; we have to draw Coast as our fourth land for it to cause trouble. Coast also helps cast Serra Avenger.

Colonnade gives us something to do with our mana early on besides cast Anthems and a way to win long games. I also tried Remand in this deck, since gliding into the "Angel turn" appealed to me, but naturally hitting land drops by increasing the count tested better than digging for them with a soft counterspell. I also prefer Gooch's original (and more fun) Shoal plan.

Brewing with Bolts on the Brain

As Flores asserts, the ability to remain conscious of a format's high-water mark often separates winners from losers. Given Lightning Bolt's ridiculous power level, the card's inextricability from the format's identity, and the inevitable power creep of new creatures, Modern's high water mark is unlikely to change anytime soon, if ever. But keeping that mark in mind is crucial to brewing decks and tuning existing strategies with success. As Christopher Gooch shows us with Jeskai Haste, breaking the rules with lovable nerds like Mantis Rider can still work in Modern. But for that to happen, we need to stay wise to the fundamental principles - and the magic numbers - that make this format tick. How do you deal with the Bolt Test? Have any brews you'd like to share? I'll see you in the comments.

Jordan Boisvert

Jordan is Assistant Director of Content at Quiet Speculation and a longtime contributor to Modern Nexus. Best known for his innovations in Temur Delver and Colorless Eldrazi, Jordan favors highly reversible aggro-control decks and is always striving to embrace his biases when playing or brewing.

View More By Jordan Boisvert

Posted in Brewing, Modern, StrategyTagged , ,

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19 thoughts on “The Bolt Test: Modern’s High-Water Mark

  1. Another way to go around bolt is just not play any creatures. Yeah, I mean combo decks that are very good in game one when your opponents always have a ton of unplayable draws in their deck.

    1. Actually, thanks to the turn 4 rule, combo decks really suck in Modern. As of today, the only “combo” decks in Tier 1 are Twin (if you combine both Grixis and UR) and Infect, and Bolt does a lot of work against both of them.

      The combo decks in Tier 2 are Amulet Bloom, Living End, Scapeshift, and Ad Nauseam. In my experience, Bolt decks can race all of these options pretty reliably. Some Bolt decks, like Twin or Delver, even have a ton of game against the other combo options because of their control elements (Remand, Stubborn Denial, etc.). Sure, games are easy when your opponent has “unplayable draws.” But Bolt goes to the face. That’s why it’s so good: it’s never an unplayable draw.

      Even if none of that were true, those decks are Tier 2, meaning they’re relatively under-represented compared to the other decks in Modern, against which Lightning Bolt supposedly has more relevance.

  2. Interesting deck concept, I’d expect it to be pretty wobbly though as games without an anthem will probably end poorly most of the time. Denial without ferocious is meh, and a bunch of guys that die to bolt is pretty bad.

    Even when you draw it, it can still get remanded, spell snared, or abrupt decayed so its by no means a sure t2 resolution.

    1. That’s why I moved towards the 7-Anthem variant, which lands them pretty consistently. I’m also really happy when opponents Decay an Anthem and not a Mantis Rider / Serra Avenger, since I often have another one at the ready. They were actually so consistent in that build that I trimmed the number from eight to seven.

  3. Nice builds, yours and the original. If any deck could make disrupting shoal shine in modern, it would be this one; the curve seems taylor-made to shoal. Could day’s undoing be a sideboard option? Hasty flying beef might like it.

  4. Hi, Jordan.
    I thanks for the article. I always enjoy reading your write-ups.
    But i have a probelm. I played a monkey grow and iGrow a bit (i even bought the Goyfs and I blame you for having nothing to eat^^), but you wrote Counter Cat would be the best Grow deck in the aggro and midrange filled meta. In my hands the deck always seems worse than the others. Do you have some advice? Do you know when your Counter Cat article on Modernnexus will be up?


    1. No set date for the article yet yet. The hands definitely take some getting used to, more than Monkey Grow or iGrow hands IMO. But Counter-Cat does eat aggro. My girlfriend plays it and I can’t for the life of me beat her with another Delver build, either. Take a look at my MTGSalvation primer for more info on the deck. As of today it’s a bit outdated, but the fundamentals still stand and my most recent list is at the end of the thread.

  5. HIho, My problem with decks like this is that those anthem effects don’t do anything on their own.
    running 7 of them is nice, but what do you think about the new anthem Gideon for 4 mana.
    He doesn’t fit into the plan Anthem follow up with a creature, but if you have problems finding a Anthem in the Midgame i can assume you got 4 mana already.
    In this case it is the needed anthem.
    But if you topdeck Gideon on an established board it is so much more.
    Having all those Vigilance guys also proofs to be an efficient Wall for him.

    Did you ever Brew a fair deck with Jeskai Ascendany in Modern? I’m working on a Jeskai Token deck and am quite stuck there.

    1. I haven’t. I hear you on the Anthems not doing anything on their own, but I think there’s a really big difference between a 2-mana do-nothing card and a 3-mana do-nothing card in Modern. Since Modern’s a turn-four format, we want to have relevant disruption available early on, not to mention pressure to back it up with. Needing to cast a 3-mana enchantment to start actually having a gameplan seems shaky to me, and in an Ascendency deck you probably won’t have much disruption to begin with. Mind posting a list?

      As for Gideon, I don’t like how expensive he is (don’t want too many four 4-drops, and he competes with Lightning Angel) or that he sits above Mantis Rider on the curve. That means opponents get a whole turn to Bolt/Helix/Anger the Rider before Gideon gets online, and that’s assuming we immediately dump Gideon into the grave when he hits play to get his ultimate off, making him a four-mana Anthem. That’s more expensive than Glorious Anthem and twice the price of Favorable Winds. Gideon doesn’t even pitch to Shoal.

      It’s true that Gideon has “other applications,” but not ones that directly/obviously support our primary gameplan. I’ve moved away from this kind of deckbuilding in Modern, since the digging tools are so bad. I think consistency by redundancy is the way to go in this format, and the seven-Anthem build exemplifies this concept. More about consistency by redundancy in my piece on Faithless Looting (link below).

  6. I really like this deck. I’ve been looking for some way to make Mantis Rider (a pet card of mine for a long time) Modern-playable, and this is looking strong. I’m surprised that Vapor Snag isn’t in here, though – it’s a great early-game tempo tool in my opinion, and given that your deck as currently built isn’t presenting a threat until (at least) Turn 3, I think I’d try and sneak 1-2 in there. I’m also wondering whether Faerie Conclave is more up your alley than Celestial Colonnade – sure, Honor of the Pure doesn’t work with it, but that 3WU activation cost looks like a pipe dream from where I’m sitting.

    What have been your preliminary thoughts in terms of building a sideboard for this deck? I’m feeling like I’d want some Snares, Pyroclasms, and Engineered Explosives for creature decks, Wear/Tear for artifacts and enchantments, but beyond that I’m grasping at straws. Lightning Helix is redundant with Timely Reinforcements, but in my opinion it outperforms it – it doesn’t overlap with threat deployment, it can be aimed at the face, and it comes out at instant speed.

    1. Good arguments for Helix. I’ve been favoring Timely because it does so much work against Grixis and aggro decks. The main draw to Helix seems like its relevance as an early-game play, which we don’t have many of outside of Anthem effects. But our fliers wall most of the creatures we want to hit with it from turn 3 on, and we don’t take much damage from lands, so I’m not sure we really need more remove-target-weakling effects. I like that Colonnade is so big, and with an Anthem out he does swing for 5 in the air, which is a whole lot. IMO if you’re activating manlands, you’ve reached a point where you can afford the 3WU activation cost.

      For the Favorable Mantis build, I’m somewhere around here right now:

      3 Timely Reinforcements
      3 Pyroclasm
      1 Stubborn Denial
      2 Wear // Tear

      I’m filling in the other slots with Stony Silence, Spellskite, and Rest in Peace. RIP is a tremendous card in Modern and this is one of the few decks that can play it without fearing any self-harm, but I cap at two copies because I don’t like drawing more than one. Still, it doesn’t address any “problem” matchups on its own, which is why it’s still flex.

      Please let me know how your testing goes!

      1. A few more questions: what do you think of Judge’s Familiar as an early-game play? It’s built-in disruption, keeps with the “flying white creatures” theme, and though it does not pass the Bolt test, it’s at mana parity with Bolt, so it’s not nearly as bad to lose one this way. Maybe try it out in place of Serra Avenger?

        Another pet card of mine is Moorland Haunt, which gets you value from dead creatures (relevant in this case since the creature count is low), and the Spirits meet the pre-requisites for both anthems. Something to consider, perhaps?

        1. Familiar does nothing for this deck. At best it’s attacking for 2 on the second turn and giving us a Cursecatcher effect that I don’t even think we want in this deck. It doesn’t synergize with Stubborn Denial, it gives opponents a decent target for Lighting Bolt effects once we get an Anthem online, and it doesn’t present a passable clock or stop an opponent’s. Serra Avenger does all of these things.

          Moorland Haunt looks fine on paper, but I don’t like how it messes up on-curve Mantis Riders. We only run 20 lands. We’d have to cut something like Colonnade, which also messes up on-curve Riders, to play Haunt. And even there, Haunt does a lot more damage to the turn-three Rider plan than Colonnade does. Without Colonnades, we might also lack plays for the first couple turns of the game. I’m inclined to think Colonnade is better for all of these reasons.

          1. I helped design this deck with chris on the way to OKC. There were four of us in the car brewing it including his brother. We literally made it on the car ride just befote we got there. I designed the manabase sorcifically and we all put cards together to finish it. He went x 3 at the actual gp. People were getting tilted from losing to a “standard deck”. We made some minor tweaks after the trial, a big one being suns champion in the sb, because jund can’t handle it.

  7. Hi Jordan,

    I’m looking to get started with Modern and your Favourable Mantis build looks very fun to play with.

    My SB for a gpt would be:

    1 Stubborn Denial
    2 Wear // Tear
    2 Pyroclasm
    2 RIP
    1 Spellskite
    2 Stony Silence
    3 Timely Reinforcement
    1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion

    Think this will give me a good chance in a broad field? What can I do about GR Tron btw?

  8. what about bringing in spell queller (
    bolt can’t hurt him while we get to do a good tempo and card advantage. Oh and shoal loves to play with more then just 4 cc3 blue spells.
    I’d probably cut Timely Reinforcements as they have the same cc and I don’t really want to cut any other card.
    I’ll test it out but the 4th snare will become a dispel (or maybe a pierce) as with company decks having a new friend (tool) I don’t really feel safe having no answer to big instant cards (chord for instance).
    Let me know your thoughts about it.

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