Duel Decks- Ajani vs Nicol Bolas: Nicol Bolas’s Deck Review (Part 1 of 2)
It was less than a year after the birth of the game of Magic: the Gathering that today’s antagonist was born, giving him a far longer existence than a particular Nacatl from Naya. While Planeswalkers (as a card type) were many years away, even then in his ‘weaker’ incarnation he still commanded reverence and respect. He was Nicol Bolas, and he was an Elder Dragon Legend.
Legends was released in June 1994, and was the largest set release to date. Revised Edition came closest at 306, only four cards shy- but it’s worth noting that unlike Revised, Legends did not contain any basic lands. It was an exciting and heady time to be playing Magic- after the release of the core set(s) and the Arabian Nights and Antiquities expansions, here was a whole new and massive set filled with mechanical innovation. A few of these would settle into comfortable obscurity: bands-with-other (a selective form of banding), rampage, world enchantments, and poison (which, as we know now, would see a triumphant resurrection only with the release of Scars of Mirrodin). Two of them would become integral parts of the game as played today- multicolour cards and legends.
The legends of Legends may seem by the modern eye to be a motley crew of overcosted, underpowered, context-less and disorganised individuals, but that was indeed hardly the case. To be fair, this was bold, new ground. The game was still in its relative infancy, and the degree to which being “legendary” was a drawback was not yet fully known. Nor yet was casting cost as understood as it is today. Gosta Dirk is a 4/4 first striker with a marginal ability (negating islandwalk) priced at seven mana, and there are other such examples, like Jedit Ojanen. And while there was no context for these legends, that was part of the appeal. Narrative arcs over sets was at best a vague overlay (such as in Antiquities)- it would take another three years to marry a card set with a concrete story in Tempest. These were figures of your imagination, and wondering who and what they were only added to their allure.
As for organisation, far from being a random gaggle the legends were in fact highly regimented into “family trees.” Each tree consisted of a “shard” of colours, to borrow from Shards of Alara: one primary colour and its two allied colours. Each shard had three rare legends that cost all three colours, so for Blue/Black/Red (a colour combination that years ahead would be referred to as ‘Grixis’) you had Gwendlyn Di Corci, Sol’Kanar the Swamp King, and Tetsuo Umezawa.
The next level down gave you your two-colour legends. In each branch of this family tree, you would have legends which were the primary colour plus one of the two allied colours. Sticking with Grixis, which is primarily Black, that meant you had a series of Blue/Black and Black/Red legends. These came in both rare and uncommon slots, and some notable examples included Ramirez DePietro, Boris Devilboon, and Tor Wauki. There were a very precise and fixed amount of these legends- three rares of each two-colour pair, and four uncommons.
But what is a family without its pater familias, and so at the very top of each branch of the family tree was an Elder Dragon Legend. A massive, 7/7 body with flying which came with a powerful ability (as well as an upkeep payment drawback), though some abilities were more powerful than others. Nicol Bolas would force your enemy to discard their hand. Arcades Sabboth made your defenses more formidable, while Vaevictis Asmadi had a highly versatile form of firebreathing. Somewhat further down the list was Palladia-Mors who simply had trample, and at the very bottom was poor Chromium, whose ability (rampage 2) would only activate if you tried to gang-block him in the air. Clearly even then, Bolas was the largest egg in the rookery.
The Elder Dragon Legends would go on to reign their terror through Chronicles, the 1995 reprint set that let newer players catch up on Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, and The Dark (albeit in white-bordered form). And from there- at least from an officially-released point of view, they would go into a long period of dormancy. But not Bolas. Bolas had plans, schemes, designs on a return to relevance. He traveled to a remote place called ‘Alaska,’ and whispered in the ear of some mortals he found there. From those whisperings a new format arose, called- naturally- ‘Elder Dragon Highlander,’ which is known today as Commander. This helped establish his infamy in the hearts and minds of Magic players, and when the time came, Bolas was well-positioned and ready for his comeback.
While the other four Elder Dragons mouldered in the dustbin of history, it was Bolas who was redeemed as a Timeshifted card in 2006’s Time Spiral. But still Bolas plotted, his ambitions set on loftier sights, and few who know him could be surprised when he wound up in the inaugural From the Vaults release in 2008, one of fourteen handpicked Dragon-themed cards to get a shiny, premium-foil treatment.
A lesser Dragon might have stopped there, happy to have put such ground between itself and the rest of its brood, but Bolas was only just beginning. His was the loftiest ambition of all- to transcend his species altogether, and become something else, something more. 2007’s Lorwyn showed him what was possible. If a handful of mere humans could “awaken their spark” and become Planeswalkers, so then would he. And on a blustery day in late January, the world saw the fruition of draconic will and ambition. Someone, somewhere, at their prerelease opened up a mythic rare Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, and his plan was complete. He had not only left the feeble confines of his previous incarnation of “Elder Dragon,” he could traverse the planes, and had ascended to the small pantheon of cross-block characters in Magic: the Gathering.
Although Shards of Alara block ended with a setback, Bolas kept his name in the papers in Zendikar block, sending his agent Sarkhan to investigate the Eye of Ugin. And while he faded to the background as the Phyrexians took centre stage (though his eyes-and-ears got an upgrade), the latest Duel Decks release has shown that he is far from forgotten. We begin our review with the deck of one of Magic’s greatest villains in the history of the game, His Draconic Majesty, Nicol Bolas.
Every Thought is Power
The Nicol Bolas deck is as you might expect is a Grixis-coloured one, which means it contains elements of Blue, Black, and Red working in tandem. If the ultimate objective is to bring out Nicol Bolas, the deck needs to give you the tools to do it- at eight mana, he is handily the game’s most expensive planeswalker (only Karn Liberated and Sorin Markov come close, and at colourless and mono-Black they are easier still). You might then expect that this deck takes on the role of control, leaving aggro to the more feral and swift Ajani. And on Grixis, “control” is synonymous with “contain” and “eliminate.”
Let’s start with a look at the mana curves for the deck. Bear in mind that it contains a trio of split cards, and both halves are counted in the overall curve below.
The first thing you might notice is that this deck is relatively creature-light. Indeed, few of the creatures here are designed to close the game out or beat your opponent into submission. Rather, in large part they are enablers to your control strategy, and it’s through the lens of that strategy that we’ll be analysing the deck.
Erect your defenses
With Ajani’s aggressive ground forces mounting their offenseive as early as turn 1, you are going to need some effective way to blunt their assault. The deck has a few creatures which can give your opponent pause. The Surveilling Sprite is a trifling thing- a mere 1/1 flyer– but because it replaces itself in your hand when it dies it makes for an appealing trade with an opposing 1-toughness beater or as a chump blocker to prevent a larger one from getting through. The Brackwater Elemental has a painful drawback- you can engage it just once before it dies- but the upside is its cheap cost. It can trade with some of Ajani’s brawnier creatures, then come back later on the attack thanks to unearth.
The Steamcore Weird pulls double-duty. Not only is it an asymmetrically defensive-minded creature with a useful 3 toughness, but it also carries a built-in Shock effect which can often snipe away one of your opponent’s creatures. The Moroii is a powerful aerial body with a small drawback, but it’s often less than you’d be taking without such a body in play. Your Fire-Field Ogre is one of the best creatures you’ll have in the deck, boasting both a high power as well as first strike. Like the Elemental, it too can be unearthed for later reuse.
Nicol Bolas leans heavily upon card advantage, and two-for-one creatures like the Wierd and Shriekmaw are part and parcel of this strategy. The 3/2 Shriekmaw can kill on the way in, then stick around to trade with another creature giving you even more value out of it. In a pinch, its evoke ability can be used to simply trade one-for-one with a particularly nettlesome enemy creature. The Ogre Savant also gives you a two-for-one of sorts, though it comes in the form of an Unsummon rather than a kill.
Finally, the Igneous Pouncer is a fragile, brittle thing, but it packs a massive punch. It’s also quiet versatile. Its haste allows you to take advantage of an overextended Ajani, while its high power means it can trade out with a particularly nasty brute that your opponent is sending your way. Its swamp- and mountaincycling may not seem the best use for the creature, but remember that Nicol Bolas plots and plans for the endgame. Sometimes you’ll need to trade in short-term aid for long-term gain. The Jhessian Zombies offer you a similar deal with their cycling, while their fear makes them unblockable to Ajani and their high toughness makes them a capable defender.
In the noncreature realm, you have plenty of removal to keep your opponent’s herd trimmed down. Malice will destroy any one creature outright, while Agonizing Demise will do the same with a twist. If the kicker is paid, you also will give your opponent a bit of damage to boot. There are a few such cards in this deck- effects that tack on a small amount of life loss, helping you insidiously strike at your opponent even as you undermine their plans. Vapor Snag is another such card- its an Unsummon with a needle attached. Rise gives you the Unsummon effect, then tacks on a Disentomb effect.
Recoil also returns a permanent to your opponent’s hand, but then it follows it up with a forced discard effect. If your opponent is playing off the top of their library, this spell effectively reads “Destroy target permanent.” Slave of Bolas will destroy a creature, with the added bonus of letting you take it for a spin first. And the Grixis Charm can both bounce a permanent and pick off a creature which has 4 toughness or less. In keeping with Bolas’s theme of card advantage and versatility, the Charm can also act as a combat trick, giving all of your creatures +2/+0. There’s also an Icy Manipulator, which lets you keep a threat on lockdown until you manage to find a more permanent solution.
Empty their hand
Through a combination of both defensive creatures and removal, this deck aims to keep your opponent’s offense contained. The other prong in its strategy is to keep your opponent contained, limited in the number of opptions they have at any given time. This is best accomplished through discard effects, and there are plenty of them to be found. We mentioned Recoil above. Pain offers a simple one-for-one trade, with its companion card Suffering giving you the ability to destroy a land should your opponent’s manabase be vulnerable. Fall gives you the potential to pluck two randomly-selected cards from your opponent’s hand- a powerful effect. Elder Mastery turns any of your creatures into a super-Specter, forcing double discard each time it damages your opponent as well as providing flying and a hefty +3/+3 power boost.
This is in addition to your naturally-occurring one, the Blazing Specter. With haste, the Blazing Specter gets around one of the Specter’s natural drawbacks, which is telegraphing your attack. The Dimir Cutpurse is a trickier affair- with neither haste nor evasion it will be more difficult to get past your opponent’s defenses, but the reward for doing so is even greater. Slavering Nulls are a cheap, early way to attack your opponent’s hand and life total at the same time, and a pair of Hellfire Mongrels give some teeth to your discard strategy.
After all this work, should your opponent still have the gall to try and cast something to save themselves, you have a limited countermagic suite to answer with. Undermine gives you a hard counter with a little extra life loss tacked on. Countersquall and Spite both target noncreature spells, which is somewhat less useful considering that Ajani’s deck is as creature-heavy as this deck is creature-light. Still, the limited applicability of both counters is offset somewhat by the loss of life with Countersquall and the ability of Spite // Malice to kill off a creature.
Wrap your fingers around their throat
So if you’ve managed to weather the early storm in the red zone through selective use of your defensive critters and removal, then managed to wipe out their hand to fell the mast on their ship, what next? You still need to win the game, of course, and in the endgame is where Nicol Bolas shines. You have, of course, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, which can begin dismantling your opponent’s best-laid plans the moment you manage to cast him. You can blow things up or simply steal your enemy’s creatures outright, or simply go ultimate three turns later. Once Bolas goes off, there’s little prospect of recovery.
You also have recourse to a Cruel Ultimatum, a brutal game-changing spell. Representing a two-creature, six-card, 10-life swing in the board state, it’s difficult to cast but can be the death knell for your opponent once it is. There’s also a Profane Command, a four-mode spell which can let you strike at your opponent’s life directly, return a dead creature to play, kill off an enemy creature, or make your army unblockable to set up a lethal alpha strike.
Between Servants and Victims
All of these effects require abundant mana to be effective, and you do have a smidgen of help along the way. A Morgue Toad makes for a nice battery to store up some mana for later, and is a serviceable 2/2 body in the meantime. A Nightscape Familiar helps reduce the cost of many of your spells. And finally, Deep Analysis (a card speculated to be making a return in Innistrad) will help keep your hand full, giving you more options at your disposal as well as increasing the odds of hitting your land drops.
The last point is of particular importance given the high colour commitment of cards like Nicol Bolas and Cruel Ultimatum. To help even our your manabase, the deck gives you some additional options beyond basic lands. First, you have a pair of Obelisks of Grixis, which can tap for any of the three colours used in the deck. Then you have a complement of nonbasic lands consisting of a pair of Crumbling Necropoleis, twin Terramorphic Expanses and a Rupture Spire.
All in all, then, we have a suitably manipulative and diabolic control strategy with Nicol Bolas’s deck. While it cedes the early game to Ajani, it looks to have its fortunes turn around midgame, then begin to strangle its opponent in the late. We’ll next be taking a look at this story’s protagonist, an outcast Nacatl looking to avenge the death of his brother on a shard of a plane called Naya.