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.
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.
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." 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, 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. 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. 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. 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:
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.
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.