Brewing with Bolas

Written by Tyler Priemer on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

Brewing with Bolas

Tyler Priemer

Tyler Priemer is a Toronto-based brewer turned PTQ grinder with a penchant for strange decks. Known locally for his spicy tech and unique approaches to the metagame, Tyler is starting to make a name for himself in Canada's burgeoning Magic scene.

Getting people excited for a Core Set can be tricky. When Core Sets were released every two years, they were a mashup of cards from Magic history with no sense of flavor or theme. They consisted entirely of reprints which gave more experienced players little incentive to crack packs since they typically had all the cards already.

In M10, we received something amazing: new cards in a Core Set. That was the hook for the set–brand spankin’ new cards that could fix problems in the Standard metagame or synergize with upcoming blocks. When they came out with M11, Wizards needed something just as exciting to get people’s attention. Enter the Titan cycle: a full cycle of six-drop creatures in each color that completely changed the way we played Magic. Primeval Titan made former casual decks like Valakut and Eldrazi into actual contenders. Grave Titan and Sun Titan were control’s finishers of choice, and Inferno Titan and Frost Titan were occasional powerhouses depending on the meta.

After that, M12 gave us … the Titan cycle again.

We also got a set of Planeswalkers that differed from the original five from Lorwyn, but they were less than stellar. In terms of fancy, buzz-worthy cards, M12 was a bit of a flop. Wizards would have to bring out the big guns to get people really interested in M13. Cut to the spring of 2012, when Wizards announced Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 at PAX. Among the promo images for the set was a very familiar set of horns.

It was then that I uttered a phrase only Progenitus and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn have ever made me say: “Aww HELL yeah!”

There was no way Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker was in M13. Core Sets never have multicolour cards. Surely it would just be some cards that reference Nicol Bolas, like when they slapped “Agent of Bolas” on Tezzeret, right? But lo and behold, the king had returned. Nicol Bolas, one of Magic’s oldest villains and the highest-costed, playable Planeswalker was now the first multicolour card in a Core Set. I was downright giddy at the thought of playing Nicol Bolas in Standard.

When he debuted in Conflux,  he had the misfortune of  being in the same block and colors as Cruel Ultimatum, which was the finisher of choice at the time. Instead of finding a home in 5-Colour Control or Grixis Control, Nicol Bolas was often eschewed in favour of the slightly cheaper Sorcery. Fortunately, this time around Standard had slowed down to the point where slamming 6-8 drops is a legitimate strategy. Control decks are much slower now, so any home for Nicol Bolas would not only be able to actually cast it, but it would be a finisher without any competition from a big, broken Sorcery.

Let’s break down Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker: For a whopping 4UBBR you get 5 loyalty. That’s already pretty big, but his first ability ticks him up to a whopping 8 loyalty and lets you destroy any noncreature permanent. Sword of War and Peace getting you down? Can’t counter your opponent’s creatures because of Cavern of Souls? One of your lesser Planeswalkers got trapped under an Oblivion Ring? Bolas will have none of that. He even eats other Planeswalkers, which are a notoriously tricky card type for control to deal with. But what if there’s a creature that’s putting the hurt on you? For a paltry 2 loyalty, Nicol Bolas will take that creature and give it to you, no strings attached. Bolast just says “here ya go, buddy! Enjoy your new pet.” Let’s also consider that Bolas’s ultimate ability is one of the strongest in the game. At 9 loyalty–one more loyalty than using his first ability once–you strip the opponent’s hand, take off about a third of their life and they have to sacrifice seven permanents. Your opponent would have to topdeck like a champ to dig their way out of that. Even then, you’re so far ahead that you can stop everything they do from then on.

But that’s enough for the history lesson. Can we get on to the part with the decklists? I think we can do that.

This plays out like a traditional control deck in that you continuously sweep the board and counter spells until it’s time to drop Nicol Bolas and win. Between Bonfire of the Damned, Black Sun’s Zenith and Whipflare, you can rest assured that no creature will survive for very long. Creatures with Undying can be a bit of a pain, but that’s where Pillar of Flame shines. It also helps to pick off Blood Artists so you can sweep without getting drained for a million life. The Tamiyos are there to stall out the board, locking down a single problem creature or land until it’s Nicol Bolas time. Tamiyo’s ultimate ability, while not game-winning in itself, is absolutely backbreaking. Having a counterspell or a sweeper in hand with her emblem means your opponent has to jump through hoops just to resolve a spell.

Other cards I would consider including depending on your meta would be Consecrated Sphinx, Geistflame and Massacre Wurm. Consecrated Sphinx is pretty much unstoppable against decks like Wolf Run and RG Aggro which typically have very few ways of killing one. This lets you to draw an extra two cards during your opponent’s turn which is fantastic for control decks. Geistflame is also for Wolf Run since it can pick off Inkmoth Nexus, which can be a major problem. It’s also great against Birds of Paradise decks and Zombies since it can kill their early drops and slow down their gameplan. Massacre Wurm is for Delver, since the only creature in their deck that survives the -2/-2 is Restoration Angel. Massacre Wurm is also a beating against RG Aggro, Zombies and decks running Lingering Souls. It can basically reset the board and has pseudo-trample when it gets chump blocked.

One thing to note about this deck is that it’s very skill-intensive. You have to be able to read the board state and figure out when is the most optimal time to sweep or counter a spell. You have to evaluate every threat the opponent plays and if you use your spells too soon, you run the risk of getting completely blown out later on. As well, I’ve found in testing that Birthing Pod decks hurt this deck quite a bit. They can stick a Pod as early as turn 2 and grind out card advantage all day long. That’s why I typically dedicate 5-6 slots of my sideboard to cards that mitigate Birthing Pod such as Torpor Orb and Mimic Vat.

“But Tyler,” I know some of you are thinking, “if Nicol Bolas is so powerful, wouldn’t you want it in play as quickly as possible?” Good point. Players can prepare for bomby 8-drops with relative ease by turn 8-10, but on turn 5? That’s a whole other ball game.

The nut draw here is simple: drop Pristine Talisman on turn 3, Gilded Lotus on turn 4 (with removal mana open), then Nicol Bolas/Griselbrand on turn 5. Gilded Lotus is one of my favourite cards in Commander and I was very happy to see it reprinted considering how many bomb 7 and 8-drops there are in Standard currently. Being able to cast Lotus on turn 4 and immediately Slagstorm the board really takes the pressure off casting Nicol Bolas against aggro. Also rounding out the big drops are Karn and Griselbrand. Karn is just insane as a sidekick to either 8-drop. Griselbrand, of course, is one of the most powerful creatures a control deck can cast. Having Gilded Lotus fix our mana so his ridiculous 4BBBB mana cost isn’t even an issue is sweet. Being able to draw 7 cards on a whim is even sweeter. Tamiyo makes another appearance and her role is similar to the previous list. However, she also plays an important early game role. Because Tamiyo can come down as early as turn 4, she can start throwing off the opponent’s curve by disrupting their mana, effectively becoming an occasional Time Walk.

One of the major reasons I run Slagstorm over Bonfire for this list is because you can play it the same turn you play Gilded Lotus. My local meta is full of Delver and Naya Pod, where the average toughness of their creatures is 2. If your meta is full of decks with creatures with more than 3 toughness, such as Solar Flare or Frites, Bonfire might be the way to go. The deck is capable of generating ludicrous amounts of mana and ramps on par with Wolf Run on our nut draws, so Bonfire can actually act as yet another finisher.

Those two lists are pretty awesome. But if there’s one thing I love doing, it’s completely screwing around with janky ideas. Ever since the Miracle mechanic was spoiled, some friends and I toyed around with a UWr Miracles deck that jammed all the best Miracles in one deck.You can imagine my delight when fellow Canadian Alexander Hayne won the Pro Tour with a UW Miracle deck. I took it as a sign that I was going in the right direction. Further bolstering my resolve was Conley Woods going 3-0 with UWr Miracles in his Rogue’s Gallery series. I decided to sleeve up the deck and play it at FNM. I played it to a mediocre 3-2 finish. I found that the deck didn’t really have enough oomph. By oomph, I mean ways to finish the game. I could generate all the sweepers in the world, but nearly all of my wins came from waiting until I had a Tamiyo emblem and a Bonfire of the Damned in my hand. The matches took forever. I started brainstorming ways to speed up the clock.

That’s when it occurred to me that a simple splash from dual lands and Vessel of Endless Rest would let me play Nicol Bolas and actually close out games in a timely manner. That’s how I ended up with this abomination:

The game plan is to sweep the board with Terminus, Whipflare, and Bonfire, drop Planeswalkers (sense a pattern here?), then chain Temporal Mastery to fire off multiple ultimates with your ‘walkers. Remember how I said Nicol Bolas’s ultimate was only one loyalty counter more than using his first ability once? With Temporal Mastery and Steady Progress, you can pop his ultimate a full turn sooner, shutting off any chance the opponent has of stopping you. The addition of white gives us Gideon Jura which in conjunction with Tamiyo, can lock down an aggressive opponent so you can drop bombs as you please. White also gives us the option of running Oblivion Ring in the sideboard–the perfect catch-all for the permanents that can’t be killed by our sweepers.

I know you don’t hear this very often, but Chandra may be one of the best cards in the deck. Hear me out. Hardcasting Temporal Mastery with Chandra in play amounts to a seven-mana Time Stretch, meaning we get double the activations of any Planeswalkers currently in play. For ultimates such as Tamiyo’s that take a while to build up to, it can mean the difference between getting an emblem and losing her to an attack. Also worth noting is that Tamiyo’s and Gideon’s first abilities stack. Using those abilities twice means that either two permanents don’t untap or the opponent has to attack Gideon two turns in a row. This allows Gideon to get an attack in without having to worry about guarding the other Planeswalkers every turn.

The high-variance of your draws is probably the one complaint I have about the deck. Until we see a reprint of Sensei’s Divining Top or Mirri’s Guile, it’s just something we have to live with. At least it makes your draws a little more interesting, which is something you can’t really say about most control decks.

Being four colors, we have a lot of options for substitutions and sideboarding. By being both White and Black, we can run some number of Lingering Souls, most likely over Whipflare. Lingering Souls allows us to go on an early beatdown plan. Remember that with Chandra we can even double our tokens from one casting. Speaking of token generators, we can also run Entreat the Angels. Unfortunately, the triple white in its mana cost might hinder our ability to hardcast it.

You may have noticed that I’ve used Karn Liberated in all three decks. Simply put, Karn is the second best Planeswalker to play as a finisher right now, with an emphasis on “second.” Nicol Bolas’s ability to disrupt the board through stealing a creature or destroying a noncreature permanent completely outclasses Karn’s -3 ability. Sure, the permanent is exiled which can sometimes be relevant in cases such as Wurmcoil Engine, but more often than not you’d rather have Nicol Bolas’ abilities instead. Where Karn really shines is his first ability. Adding four loyalty counters to him when he hits the table means he’s absolutely huge. Being also able to disrupt the opponent’s hand can be key in certain matchups, such as Solar Flare or Wolf Run. Karn is also a great on-curve lightning rod for damage. Karn comes down a turn earlier than Nicol Bolas, meaning most players will invest extra resources into getting rid of him. Once they’ve spent all their time dealing with Karn, slamming down Nicol Bolas to finish them off can spell the end of the game.

A Grixis Future

As it stands right now, I don’t think there will be a lot of players running Nicol Bolas (present company excluded). Most people will be turned off by the prohibitive mana cost, while others will avoid it because of the unpopularity of true control decks in the current meta. What makes these decks work so well for the current meta is the number of sweepers to handle such a creature-dominated format. For the majority of matchups in the current Standard, having a bigger end game and the removal to get to that end game are key. A well-placed Slagstorm or Go for the Throat can set back most decks enough that Nicol Bolas can just take over the game on his own.

In addition, with rotation the arguably biggest deck in the format, UW Delver loses about three quarters of the deck. RG aggro loses Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise. Wolf Run loses its Titans. I believe this will cause an overall slowdown of the format which plays right into our favour. Control even loses Grave Titan, Elesh Norn, Sun Titan/Phantasmal Image and Karn, which have traditionally been their win conditions. This means that barring some ridiculously overpowered bombs in Return to Ravnica, control decks will need a new finisher. What better finisher could there be than Nicol Bolas? I still have to see what kinds of cards are in Return to Ravnica, but keeping these lists updated should not be too difficult. Simple substitutions to the removal, counterspell, and sweepers suites will be necessary and I’m sure there will be plenty to work with. After all, Return to Ravnica has the Izzet and Rakdos guilds, which are all over those kinds of spells.

M13 has given us a giant, Grixis-colored present, and we’d be remiss to not use it to its fullest potential. While my three examples may not be the pinnacle of Bolas-esque power just yet, I believe they are a step in the right direction, and hopefully some of my fellow brewers will give Nicol Bolas a chance.

Follow Tyler on Twitter: @tylerthefro
Cockatrice name: @tylerthefro

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