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Against the Odds: Bolas Tribal (Modern)

Hello, everyone. Welcome to episode 163 of Against the Odds. Last week, we had another planeswalker-tribal Against the Odds poll, and in the end, Nicol Bolas came out with a commanding win. As such, we're heading to Modern today to play a deck featuring every planeswalker version of Nicol Bolas along with a couple of very Bolas-y spells like Cruel Ultimatum. Unlike some planeswalkers that lend themselves to very specific types of decks, Nicol Bolas is pretty simple and only cares about two things: ramp and control. All of the planeswalker Bolases are extremely powerful, but they're also extremely expensive, which makes surviving until the late game the biggest challenge of a deck. What are the odds of winning with all the Nicol Bolas planeswalkers in Modern? Let's get to the video and find out; then, we'll talk more about the deck!

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Against the Odds: Bolas Tribal (Modern)

The Deck

Nicol Bolas is actually an extremely hard planeswalker to build around, since all of its planeswalker versions are extremely expensive, and apart from wanting a controlling deck (preferably with ramp), its abilities don't really lend themselves to any specific combo or style of deck. My first take on Nicol Bolas was a meme-heavy build playing things like Augur of Bolas, In Bolas's Clutches, the original Nicol Bolas Elder Dragon, and pretty much any other card that referenced Nicol Bolas, but most of the Bolas utility spells were pretty bad, so one by one, they ended up being cut for more removal and ramp spells. I also tried a reanimator deck featuring Obzedat's Aid to return a huge Bolas from the graveyard to the battlefield, and while the deck did work on occasion, it didn't really feel like Bolas Tribal, since we either played zero copies of Bolas or lots, or reanimated a single Bolas and won. The epic moments where we had a ton of planeswalkers on the battlefield were missing. So in the end, our deck ended up fairly normal, as a Grixis Control deck overflowing with copies of Nicol Bolas to close out the game.

Bolas Stuff

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Bolas #1 is Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, which is perhaps the least powerful Bolas in our deck, since it dies to creature removal, but makes up for this by coming down on Turn 4, much earlier than our seven- and eight-mana versions of Bolas. Thanks to our ramp, we can hopefully flip into Nicol Bolas, the Arisen fairly quickly, and once we have Nicol Bolas, the Ravager in planeswalker form, it's great. Not only does the card-draw ability help us find more copies of Nicol Bolas but the ability to reanimate a planeswalker is especially powerful, since it gives us a way to immediately get another Nicol Bolas back from our graveyard to the battlefield, going from zero Bolases to two Bolases in just a single turn, and two versions of Nicol Bolas on the battlefield is typically enough to win the game.

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Rounding out Bolas Tron are Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker. While both of the planeswalkers are extremely expensive and we occasionally lose before we get enough mana to cast them (even with six ramp spells in our deck), if we get either on the battlefield, they have the ability to take over the game in short order. Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh can generate weird, random card advantage or just throw seven damage at our opponent's face; meanwhile, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker is great for blowing up lands and stealing our opponent's creatures, and if we plus for just two turns, we get to the typically game-ending ultimate of wiping our opponent's board and hand!

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While not technically a Bolas, Cruel Ultimatum is one of the most Bolas-y spells in Magic, so we'd be remiss not to play a copy in our deck. While it's a lot of mana like our various Nicol Bolases themselves, it's also extremely powerful if we live long enough to cast it, essentially being an eight-for-one! Drawing three cards helps us find our planeswalkers, while gaining five life and killing one of our opponent's creatures help to make sure we live long enough to cast them. While it can be slow and clunky, especially against aggro decks, in the right matchup, Cruel Ultimatum is one of the most powerful cards in our deck!


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Since all of our Nicol Bolases are slow and Modern is fast, being able to play our planeswalkers a turn or two early is essential. Simply making land drops up to seven or eight mana isn't a very realistic plan in Modern at the moment. To speed things up, we have a bunch of different ramp options. We kick things off with five Signets split between the Grixis colors. The two-mana mana rocks get us to four mana on Turn 3 to cast our Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, and then once we draw enough of them, we can start playing Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaohs and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalkers as early as Turn 5 or 6. We also have one Coalition Relic, which makes up for being more expensive up front by adding two mana on some turns (if we add a charge counter), which is a good way to get up to seven or eight mana for a huge Nicol Bolas. Meanwhile, Search for Azcanta does double duty, filtering our draw in the early game and eventually digging to find our copies of Nicol Bolas, while also ramping us by putting another land on the battlefield once it flips, making it a solid fit for Bolas tribal.

Other Stuff

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Thirst for Knowledge does two important things for our deck. First, it gives us a way to discard extra mana rocks for value. While having ramp is important to our deck, our random Signets and Coalition Relic are pretty poor draws in the late game when we have a bunch of mana, and Thirst for Knowledge allows us to dig three cards deep for a Nicol Bolas while discarding a mana rock to generate card advantage. Second, it lets us get a Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh or Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker into the graveyard to reanimate with a flipped Nicol Bolas, the Ravager. While this is more of a backup plan then the primary goal of our deck, occasionally getting a free seven- or eight-mana planeswalker from our graveyard is a nice upside.

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The rest of the deck is pretty simple: it's a bunch of removal spells and a couple of light counterspells to help ensure we live long enough to cast our huge, expensive Nicol Bolas planeswalkers. While we don't play many controlling decks on Against the Odds, the very nature of Nicol Bolas lends itself to a more controlling style of deck. If we can live long enough to cast any one of our planeswalkers on a relatively stable board, our Nicol Bolas should quickly take over the game, but if we're too far behind when we resolve our Nicol Bolas, we're often left using our Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh or Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker as a really expensive, inefficient removal spell, which isn't much fun. Having cards like Fatal Push, Lightning Bolt, Collective Brutality, and Terminate helps to kill creatures in the early game, while Anger of the Gods and Damnation can sweep the board. Meanwhile, Izzet Charm and Countersquall can help us force our Nicol Bolases through opposing countermagic. So while perhaps not the most exciting cards in our deck, having enough ways of interacting with our opponent's board is essential to winning with Nicol Bolas.

The Matchups

In general, Bolas Tribal wants to play against somewhat slow midrange decks, preferably those without counters. While in theory we have enough removal and interaction that we can win in any matchup, against very aggressive decks, we run the risk of drawing too many expensive planeswalkers and dying before we get a chance to cast them, while against counterspell-heavy control decks, our opponent can often just counter our Bolases on the stack. The other weird quirk of Bolas tribal is our planeswalkers themselves are pretty good at dealing with one big threat but struggle against go-wide strategies, so when it comes to playing Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh or Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, things go much better if we're staring down one big Tarmogoyf or Reality Smasher than if we are facing a board full of small creatures from a go-wide aggro deck.

The Odds

All in all, we played six matches and won two, giving us a 33.3% match win percentage, along with winning six of 14 games for a slightly better 42% game win percentage, making Bolas tribal a bit below average for recent Against the Odds decks. While we did lose to our opponents on occasion, we more often ended up losing to ourselves. One of the challenges of building a planeswalker tribal deck around a high-converted-mana-cost planeswalker like Bolas is that we occasionally have games where we draw two, three, or even four Bolases but only a few lands, and we pretty much die without doing anything relevant. The good news is that we also did some absurd things, highlighted by our match against Free-Win Red, where we not only had every planeswalker Bolas in our deck on the battlefield at the same time but also threw in an extra Nicol Bolas, the Ravager for good measure! So while the deck wasn't super competitive overall, the awesome Bolas-heavy games more than made up for the bad losses along the way!

Vote for Next Week's Deck

Normally on Against the Odds, we have a poll based on a theme. Well, this week, the theme is a bit looser than normal. Here are some cool cards that I think could be fun to build around in Modern! Which one should we play next week? Let us know by voting below!

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Anyway, that's all for today. Don't forget to vote for next week's deck! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at

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