Lightning Bolt has been printed 41 times with 10 unique card arts. Its simplicity and utility make Lightning Bolt a great candidate for WotC's Secret Lairs, borderless, and textless experiments, which means we've seen some amazing takes on this red staple. So which version should you pick for your deck? Winning with a well-timed Bolt is utterly satisfying, but adding the flourish of some gorgeous art is the cherry on top.

Today I'm using art history and some basic math to rank these Bolts until the best one is left standing.

#10: Christopher Rush's Lightning Bolt

Fourteen versions with this art.
First printed in Alpha.

Lightning Bolt" variantId="1174

I'm going to jump right out of the gate with this sure-to-be-unpopular opinion: the classic first printing of Lightning Bolt is the worst. Nostalgia value means nothing in this arena. This art was recycled 19 times for different printings, so we've definitely seen enough of it.

Compositionally, this Bolt could use some help. The basic pieces are a vertical line dead center in the frame with a symmetry of hills to either side. The path of the eye around the image is down the lightning to the hills, and then off to one side or the other back up to the clouds. Repeat on a circle until you get bored, which will be fast because there's not much to keep you riveted here in terms of contrast. The lightning doesn't look that bright, even though it seems to be at night? All of this together means this Lightning Bolt lacks the power and presence of its siblings.

The bolt itself is way in the distance of the art, not really a threat to anyone, and the clouds and hills surrounding it all look like fluffy pillows. This lightning would look great on a box of Sleepytime Tea. No disrespect to Christopher Rush, who did a lot for Magic in the early days, but this is also the man who brought us Niall Silvain, so it's not like he's without sin.

#9: VĂ©ronique Meignaud's Lightning Bolt

One version with this art.
Printed as a Magic Player Rewards card in 2010.

Lightning Bolt" variantId="38317

Next up is this cool take on the card. This art was made to be full card length and has way too much detail in the lower half to ever work out in a traditional frame.

The composition harkens back to Albert Bierstadt paintings in its use of miniscule detail within a sweeping, dramatically lit landscape. The artist is very strong with her use of contrast here, creating a focal point in the upper right with the bright burst of light against roiling dark clouds that connects to another in the lower left where the bolt touches the ground. The eye is drawn on a cyclical journey between these two points, and little details like the dragon and the forest are bonus gifts you get along the way.

Where this one loses points is that, once again, the lightning is really far away from the viewer. You're looking at the lightning, but you're not interacting with it (either casting or getting zapped), so it feels separate from you. Since the premise of Magic is that you're a powerful wizard casting spells at your opponent, you lose a little of the fun when the visual spellcasting is so disconnected from you.

#8: Brigitte Roka's Lightning Bolt

One version with this art.
Printed as a Secret Lair Drop.

Lightning Bolt" variantId="214901

At number eight, I have this specifically-bear-hating lightning. This is a newer one from Secret Lair, so the art style is fresh and fun. The complementary color scheme makes the red all the redder and the green nice and cool in comparison.

We're getting a little closer with the lightning, but it's still far enough away that I feel like I'm an observer more than a participant. The design of the bolt loses just a couple points for being indirect. It's a beautiful shape, but the way it curves out so far before doubling back to hit the bear (and leaves two branches hitting nothing) doesn't make it feel as powerful and intentional as it could. The lightning originating dead center from the top of the frame also gives it a feeling of structural stability that is somewhat incongruous for a force that is supposed to be dynamic and explosive. This feels like natural lightning that just happened to hit a bear who was ignoring storm safety tips, not spiteful wizard lightning.

The transparent text box/border treatment is cool as heck though. I am really enjoying that aspect of the Secret Lair cards because it's giving us that much more art to appreciate.

#7: Christopher Moeller's Lightning Bolt

Nine versions with this art.
First printed in Magic 2010.

Lightning Bolt" variantId="32656

You might be wondering why I'm ranking this common printing of Lightning Bolt so high. It's because it's a great example of classical composition within a triangle. Like, it's really good. The triangle is created by the point where the bolts cross in the top of the image, the point of the forward bolt touching the frame, and the other bolt touching the mountainside figure farther back.

Effective composition is one of the first things you learn in art school to build a solid image that keeps the eye interested and moving around. The TL:DR of visual composition is that it's based on theories of proportion and balance with mathematical backing. My favorite go-to for analysing a composition is the theory of Harmonic Proportion formulated by Pythagoras (you might remember him from grade school geometry). His theory was based on intervals of sound and was translated into a visual tool called the armature of the rectangle.

This particular Lightning Bolt has a few key alignments with the armature of the rectangle (which you can see in the overlay), which makes it Good To Look At. For example, the mountainside in the foreground of this Bolt rests entirely within a harmonic division. The main branch of lightning mainly follows along one of the lines of coincidence, and the other two branches are contained within their own harmonic divisions.

Your human brain is built for pattern recognition, so even when patterns are subconsciously recognized, it makes an image more pleasing. That's why rules of composition make sense and work even when you don't know about them.

Besides that, this Bolt has lovely bright lightning against a dramatic dark background, which really helps it feel electrifying.

#6: Robbie Trevino's Lightning Bolt

One version with this art.
Printed as a Secret Lair Drop.

Lightning Bolt" variantId="214900

Things are starting to get almost too close to call now. I picked this other Secret Lair lightning for number six since it's really close to the bear-hating lightning, with the exception that the shape of the bolt itself is a lot more dynamic. It's jagged, aggressive, and direct. This lightning absolutely woke up and chose violence. There are no bonus branches going off and doing their own thing, this lightning is 100% committed to frying this dragon, and I love that.

Once again we get to enjoy the see-through framing for that extra pizazz. My one wish for this card is that the darks in the art had been pushed just a little bit more to really squeeze out every drop of drama.

#5: Alexis Ziritt's Lightning Bolt

One version with this art.
Printed as a Secret Lair Drop.

Lightning Bolt" variantId="214898

I put this one at number 5 overall for artsy-farsty merits, but I'd put it at number 1 for fun and hilarity. The pink, electrified skeleton is the best. It's so different from all the other lightning bolts out there for eliciting a laugh and not taking itself too seriously.

Another thing I love is that Ziritt chose a different color palette from all the other Bolts, going with an excellent yellow/violet complement. This is a Very Good Lightning Bolt and I would definitely play it, especially in a casual deck like any of my Commander builds. I can see this pairing well with a grungy Jund deck.

#4: Anato Finnstark's Lightning Bolt

One version with this art.
Printed in Strixhaven Mystical Archive.

Lightning Bolt" variantId="235144

Bolts in the top 4 are extremely hard to rank, they're each majorly beautiful with their own strengths. The English Strixhaven Mystical Archives bolt is going in the number 4 slot. There's an incredible amount of detail here, the balance and symmetry are exquisite. The deep blue/green background framed in a gold geometric web feels rich and archaic at the same time, which is a great thematic fit for a college of mages. This card embraces deep, saturated colors fearlessly and uses them with mastery to create an image your eyes just want to devour. If you played Dragon Age: Inquisition and remember the tarot cards that came out alongside the game, you might see some similarities in style here (that tarot deck basically created its own mini art movement). This flat, graphic style is something I hope to see on more cards in the future.

My one critique here is that the focal point is definitely on the figure, making this piece more about the mage than about the lightning.

#3: Ezoi's Lightning Bolt

One version with this art.
Printed in Strixhaven Mystical Archive.

Lightning Bolt" variantId="235145

Coming in third is the Japanese Mystical Archives version. This art is just so freakin cool. The mix of textures here is luscious. You have something like a parchment in most of the open spaces and then that drybrush ink scratching over the top in the upper left, contrasted with just the little bit of glossy card frame at the bottom. This card makes you want to hold it, so of course you want to put it in your deck.

This one also kills it at viewer placement! The lightning is shooting out from your hand and into the image (towards your opponent across the table), and really makes you the wizard. The compositional choices are very interesting. There is a lot of weight and visual activity in the lower left corner, but the figure against empty space in the upper right draws your eye back and forth and creates a sense of balance. Try it out: put your finger over the figure and look at the card again. Without it, the whole thing feels like it's tipping left.

#2: Kekai Kotaki's Lightning Bolt

Two versions with this art.
First printed as a MagicFest 2019 promo.

Lightning Bolt" variantId="181716

Look no further than the MagicFest Lightning Bolt for a great example of effective contrast. This lightning bolt is immediate and insistent, and it's all because it is so bright and everything around it is so dark.

This is another piece that makes excellent use of the armature of the rectangle. The arc of lightning off to the side was a great design choice, but what makes it extra effective is the secondary focal point in the center right where you can see through the conflict and into the distant background. This is a resting place for the eye amidst all the more demanding action going on here, and it's perfectly situated within the proportional armature. The demon in the lower left is also framed exactly within a harmonic division, and the wizard trying to fry him is sitting right at an interval. This piece looks good at first glance because it's cool zappy lightning, but it tickles your brain because it has a strong mathematical backbone.

#1: Noah Bradley's Lightning Bolt

One version with this art.
Printed as a Secret Lair Drop.

Lightning Bolt" variantId="214899

There's only one bolt left, and so my favorite has got to be this one from the Secret Lair drop. It's worth noting that this artist is no longer working with Wizards of the Coast after admitting to being, in his own words, a sexual predator. As gross as I find that entire situation, which you can read about in many places online, I'm just here today to talk about art and what makes it work (or not).

So, onto this card art. It has everything I love in a painting: contrast, color, texture, and good composition. This is a picture you can hear. Tell me your eye doesn't zip down that zigzag and then tell your brain there is an actual crack of electricity when it hits the figure. Just a couple brushstrokes of white and little blurs of flying rock create this effect.

The lightning originates off center and veers hard left, generating visual movement and speed that is only enhanced by the sharp angles of the lightning's shape. Variance in edges creates an electric glow without making the lightning feel soft. This lightning feels like broken glass. It's also super bright, almost flat white, and with the black circle in the sky and the fading black foreground, it really stands out.

If you're not sick of the armature yet, it's worth pointing out that we have perfect symmetry and centering in the middle bottom harmonic division with the figure standing atop the rock outcropping. Since everything else in the image is ephemeral and dynamic, giving the singular solid structure this placement of ultimate stability was genius.

All together, this lightning is singular, direct, and powerful. It's downright vicious. You could take all the text off this card and still say with perfect certainty, "Yep, that's a Lightning Bolt." If it wasn't for the moral dilemma of supporting the artist, I'd put this one in my most competitive deck for its sensation of pure inevitability. But, things being what they are, I'll probably just go with my #2 favorite by Kekai Kotaki.