"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." boxing legend Mike Tyson is quoted to have said. And in a game of Magic: The Gathering, that first punch is very often a Lightning Bolt dealing three damage to the face. This one mana spell which was part of the legendary "Boon Cycle" from Alpha (August 1993) has stood the test of time like few other popular cards and is often seen as one of the purest and easiest Magic cards to grasp.
Only a few cards have defined the game since the beginning and have remained a staple across almost every format the way that Lightning Bolt has. Some stories even award Lightning Bolt the honor (or blame) of causing the early rules change, forbidding Constructed decks from playing more than four copies of any card besides the basic lands.
Constructing a deck consisting solely of Black Lotus and Ancestral Recall to mill out your opponent may have made for a faster and more certain kill in the early wild wild west days of free-for-all Magic. But Lightning Bolt has always differed from the two strongest cards ever printed by being a Common card and it is much easier to gather the necessary 40 copies along with 20 Mountains. (Supposedly, the deck had 60 cards to outlive the Lotus/Recall mill strategy.)
One common use of Lightning Bolt, besides sending the damage upstairs (targeting the opponent to reduce their life total), is as an early game disruption. In the first years of Magic, this usually meant targeting a mana dork such as Llanowar Elves or Birds of Paradise. The spell thus became the proverbial 'bolt' in the phrase "bolt the bird" which has since been extended to mean using any type of low-cost direct damage or removal to destroy a creature providing ramp.
Being able to target both players and creatures (and, since the elimination of the planeswalker redirection rule, also that card type) makes Lightning Bolt a versatile spell which rarely sits dead in a player's hand. Add the pure value of getting to do three damage for a single mana at instant speed with no further requirements and it is easy to see why Lighting Bolt is a staple wherever it is allowed – which happens to be in most formats.
As of Summer 2019, Lightning Bolt is legal in the Eternal formats Vintage, Legacy, Pauper, and Commander as well as in non-rotating Modern. Standard is alone among the most played formats in not giving players access to the card. However, the powers that be have, at more than one occasion, expressed that they will not rule out Lightning Bolt possibly returning to Standard in the future.
Some of the decks that currently play Lightning Bolt include Burn/Boros Burn, RDW, and various Arclight Phoenix decks. According to MTG Top 8, it is by far the most played card in Modern being in the main deck of more than a quarter of all decks played in live tournaments last May-June 2019. The card is also in more than a third of all Modern decks ever registered at Grands Prix and Pro Tours with the number of copies played averaging at 3.7 per deck.
Lightning Bolt has been printed extensively appearing as a Common in all Core sets from Alpha to Fourth Edition (April 1995) then again in 2010 Core Set (M10) and 2011 Core Set (M11), as well as in a variety of special promo versions and supplemental sets, including Modern Masters 2015 (May 2015) and Masters 25 (March 2018). For a card with such high availability, Lightning Bolt is exceptionally priced at 0,99 € upwards.
Besides the obviously high-priced and always sought-after Alpha and Beta (October 1993) versions (at least 700,00 € and 275,00 € respectively, both in near mint condition), other versions of Lightning Bolt considered worthy of investing in include the full art textless Magic Player Rewards 2010 (from 28,00 €) and Magic Fest 2019 Promos (from 8,00 €) for those on a budget. Collectors looking for something entirely unique for their blinged-out Cube or that very special deck may consider acquiring the beautiful Judge Reward Promos from 1998 (from 350,00 €). This is the only foil version of Lightning Bolt featuring the original art by Christopher Rush and it is highly unlikely to see print again due to the passing away of the artist.