Eye of the Stack #2: Bolting a Tarmogoyf

Lightning Bolt is one of the staple cards in Modern that are run in any deck using red.  Very rarely do we see it omitted from decklists.  Tarmogoyf has a similar criteria, except for green decks.  Being so common, the interaction of these 2 cards should be understood by anyone wanting to enter the format.


Whenever I see “Introduction to Modern” videos or  “Easiest decks to start out with” in Modern I tend to see burn decks almost every time.  This is for a good reason: they are relatively cheap, simple in theory, and pretty efficient in terms of power.  The are very ideal for newer players because the goal is to just beat face and burn away at any blockers or just go straight lethal in damage.  I’ve seen plenty of arguments for the deck being much more complex due to the need for knowledge of opposing decks to take the correct route, but I’ll be honest that is true for any deck, but is a topic for another day.

So that being said, running into a Goyf in your first FNM and having a Lightning Bolt in hand might lead you to a tough decision if you aren’t sure how Goyf’s power/toughness ability works. On the surface it might seem rather simple: Bolt deals 3 damage to Goyf.  If his toughness is 3 or less then he dies, but it is so much more complex than that. Let me introduce you to our good friend state-based actions (SBA).

State-based actions are the glue that hold the game of Magic together.  In the simplest terms, whenever a player gains priority, state-based actions are checked (priority is when you are able to legally cast a spell or activate abilities).  These actions don’t use the stack, which is very important for this discussion.  SBAs check things like: Has a player lost the game? Does any creature have lethal damage marked on it?  Has a player attempted to draw a card with no cards left in their library?  All of these happen without many player’s knowledge, and that’s okay!  They aren’t supposed to constantly be acknowledged every time you cast a spell.  So let’s go over what happens with Goyf and Lightning Bolt.

Let’s say your opponent has a Land in their graveyard and you have a Sorcery.  This makes Goyf a 2/3.  You have a Lightning Bolt in hand, and at the beginning of their end-step you cast Lightning Bolt, targeting Goyf. Your opponent passes priority and the spell resolves.  You put Lightning Bolt into your graveyard and Goyf stays on the battlefield.  Has your opponent misplayed?  Are they trying to cheat?  Why is Goyf still there?

Well, your opponent would be correct in keeping Goyf on the battlefield.  Because the 2 types of cards in the graveyard are Land and Sorcery, putting Lightning Bolt into the graveyard would add a 3rd type to the graveyard, causing Goyf to be a 3/4.  “But Frantic, the spell resolved and Goyf should die before that happens!”  Unfortunately this is incorrect.  State-based actions wouldn’t be checked until a player gains priority, meaning Lightning Bolt finishes resolving by putting itself in the graveyard, SBAs are then checked, and they find that Goyf is a 3/4 with 3 damage marked on it (since there is no order to what is checked when, it is all simultaneous).

So next time you have a 2/3 Goyf with no instants in the graveyard, think twice before sending a Lightning Bolt his way!  I hope you learned something new today and remember, if you’re not sure, always ask a judge!

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