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Budget Commander: Nicol Bolas


Nicol Bolas is one of the primary antagonists in Magic's lore; he is one of the oldest and most powerful beings in the multiverse. Like most old folk, he complains about current events and reminisces about the "good old days" where everything was better. In truth, the old days were better — for him, at least. A long time ago, Bolas had godlike power because of his planeswalker spark, but an event called the Mending greatly diminished that power. He's not content being "just" an elder dragon planeswalker demi-god of unfathomable power: he wants his old powers back plus a cherry on top, and he'll happily crush anyone in his way — in fact, he'll even step out of his way to crush people, because he's a jerk like that.

For this article, I wanted to do something a bit different: we're going to build a deck that matches the flavor of Nicol Bolas, otherwise known as a Vorthos deck. The goal here is to make a deck that feels like something the top elder dragon would play, while remaining a competitive deck in its own right.

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Playing the Villain

The first step to making a Nicol Bolas Vorthos deck is to figure out what the elder dragon supervillain is all about. Now, I'm no Lore Master, and I wouldn't condemn even my most hated foes to read all the existing shlocky garbage that the bulk of Magic "novels" consist of — yes, I read the Mirrodin novels; no, I don't want to talk about it — but thankfully MTG Salvation has a robust Wiki that provides all the information we need. Not only does the wiki provide tons of information about Nicol Bolas, it also provides a list of all the Bolas-flavored cards at the bottom of the page.

So, what type of dragon is Bolas? Well, we know he's solidly in Grixis, which means he's predominantly Black with splashes of Blue and Red. That itself gives us a huge amount of information on his personality and beliefs. By digging deeper into his history, I've come up with some pointers that I think the elder dragon would agree with:

Countersquall [DDH]

Black: Ambition, Power, Parasitism, Amorality

Black, the elder dragon's main color, is the lens through which Bolas sees the world. He has one singular, brutally honest goal in life: absolute power. In order to reach omnipotence, Bolas ignores superficial limitations such as morality and does whatever it takes to climb the endless ladder of power, not caring in the slightest about the people he tramples over to reach his goal.

While this amoral outlook isn't necessarily evil — a Black mage may spend his lifetime selling healthy snacks at competitive prices if that was deemed the best way to attain ultimate power — it so happens that Bolas is also a super duper, moustache-twirling, eeeeeeevil dude. He totally gets off on screwing over other people along his journey to omnipotence, even going out of his way to do so (more about that when we talk about his Red side).

Bolas' life goal is established by his Black side, but he also uses Black magic to attain his goal. The dragon loves exploiting his minions to carry out his plans; from imp messengers to planeswalker servants, if they get killed after completing their task then all the better since that's less loose ends to worry about later. Cards like Diabolic Intent are right up his alley: once a minion has outlived its purpose, sacrifice it for value and giggles.

Bolas takes what he wants, a Black trait that overlaps with Red and Blue. Need some more life? Consuming Vapors to gobble up an opponent's creature, healing yourself.

Finally, his signature mind-shattering touch, which mechanically is shown as hand discard, is very Black. That's a nice hand you've got there — Wit's End, all gone.

Conflux [CON]

Blue: Knowledge, Foresight, Manipulation

Nicol Bolas wants absolute power and understands that knowledge is power, so the dragon hoards it more greedily than any other pile of treasure. His Black and Blue sides intersect perfectly on this philosophy: Black provides the goal (power) and Blue provides the clear, logical route to attain it (knowledge and planning). Bolas keeps tabs on everything worth knowing in the multiverse, exploiting that knowledge to get what he wants. Card draw is a great representation of accumulating knowledge, such as Deep Analysis.

The elder dragon is one of the oldest beings in the multiverse: his knowledge is more vast than anyone can fathom, and his machinations span thousands of years. The dude knows a thing or two about patience. Bolas is perfectly fine spending hundreds of years carefully arranging plans because he can clearly see the payoff in the end. Setting up plans can be represented with cards like Preordain.

Finally, one very Blue tactic that Nicol Bolas loves to employ is manipulation. The dragon manipulates everyone around him to get what he wants. He tricked Teferi's group to release him from spiritual limbo and tricked a bunch of planeswalkers into releasing the Eldrazi; everyone is made to dance to Bolas' tune with some carefully chosen words and some subtle enchantments. This keeps Bolas out of harms way and gives him time to catch up on some light reading. Cards like Domineering Will force your opponent's creatures to do the dirty work for you, a perfect Bolas card.

 

Magmaquake [M13]

Red: Pride, Action, Revenge, Destruction, Empathy

If Bolas was just Blue and Black, he'd be a chill guy watching his machinations unfold from the safety of his comfy chair, petting a cat and muttering, "next time, Gadget! Next time," as his latest plan gets foiled by pesky do gooders. But thankfully, Nicol Bolas is also Red, and that's his "Let's Get Shit Done" aspect. Bolas' Red side shines when the gloves are off and it's time to act.

One thing you can't forget about Nicol Bolas is that while he's one of the most powerful planeswalkers in existence, he's also the most powerful elder dragon as well. That means he doesn't need magic to defeat his foes because he's a goddamn draconic demi-god. Few beings can throw down with him when things get physical. Bolas knows this and doesn't hesitate to remind lesser creatures of this fact. 

While he can be cold and calculating, Bolas can also be very emotional; the most common emotion being anger. Interrupt him while talking and he might turn your mind into a puddle of goo. He's also very prideful; being possibly the strongest individual in the multiverse has that affect I hear. Insult him and he'll take a detour from his planned schedule to beat you with his bare claws.

One example of Bolas' Red emotions was his vendetta against the Umezawa family. Tetsuo Umezawa, one of the most badass mortals to have ever lived, managed to outwit and kill Nicol Bolas back when he was god-emperor of a kingdom called Madara. When Bolas managed to be reborn back into the world long after, his first order of business was to take revenge on the entire Umezawa line — something I bet didn't have anything to do with his goal of attaining ultimate power, but sure felt good!

Now this last point is a little out there, so let me know what you think: I believe the Red part of Bolas makes him empathetic to others. He's clearly shown many times that he understands how others think, how they are feeling, what they value, etc. Most recently he's shown this when convincing Yasova Dragonclaw to help him murder Ugin by appealing to her hopes of a better future without fear of dragons. Empathy is a very Red value. That's not to say that Bolas cares for others, but the fact that he understands others on a deep level makes him that much more effective at manipulating them because he knows which buttons to push and what to anticipate.

Like Black and Blue, Bolas' Red aspect likes stealing things that he wants. You can see this with cards like Word of Seizing and Mindclaw Shaman. Bolas also uses destructive magic either as a means for power or when he's pissed off, so cards like Volcanic Offering and Blasphemous Act fit nicely as well.

 

So there we go. We've got a lot of themes to work with: Evil, Ambition, Power, Destruction, Manipulation, Knowledge, and more. This, plus cards that mention Nicol Bolas himself, should make for a sweet villainous Vorthos deck!

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How It Plays

The flavorful cards definitely lean towards a control deck: hang back, build up your defenses, and encourage your opponents to kill each other. You have plenty of answers in case things get out of hand. Win the game with big, sweeping bombs, or by stealing your opponents' things and using their bombs against them.

One tempting choice is to build around Nicol Bolas himself. After all, his triggered ability is devastating and he kills people with commander damage in only 3 swings. However, I would advise against this. The elder dragon commands a pricey 8 mana to cast the first time and will be the number one target at the table as soon as he enters the fray since no one wants to lose their hand. Recasting him multiple times after he dies just isn't worth it.

That's not to say you can't build a Nicol Bolas deck that happens to synergize with his ability — note that he doesn't need to deal combat damage to opponents to trigger his ability; any damage will do. Cards like Thornbite Staff and Warstorm Surge can be very powerful if you run other creatures that also benefit from these cards (deathtouch, for example). Just don't focus on Bolas himself because he costs too much to rely on.

 

Ramp

The first thing Nicol Bolas does before a battle is attune to the land's mana. Without lots of mana at his disposal, he can't cast his sweet bomby spells! 

Because we're not in Green, we'll need to focus on artifacts to ramp up in the early game. I've chosen some of the usual candidates plus some more flavorful choices:

  • Burnished Hart and Solemn Simulacrum are not only excellent at what they do, but they're cute and you murder them for value: Bolas approved!
  • Gem of Becoming features the dragon's trademark gloating gem thing, plus is an excellent tutor for our purposes
  • Talisman of Dominance is sweet ramp and has the perfect name for what we're doing

Ramp: Burnished Hart, Nightscape Familiar, Solemn Simulacrum, Talisman of Dominance, Talisman of Indulgence, Chromatic Lantern, Coalition Relic, Commander's Sphere, Darksteel Ingot, Dimir Signet, Gem of Becoming, Gilded Lotus, Izzet Signet, Obelisk of Grixis, Rakdos Signet, Sol Ring, Wayfarer's Bauble, Mana Vault, Worn Powerstone, Thran Dynamo, Mind Stone

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Scheming

Now that the elder dragon has tapped into the land's mana leylines and can conjure his magic, it's time to set his dastardly plans in motion. Can't just run into a battle without adequate preparation, no sir! Let's take a moment to arrange the top of our library just right, draw some cards, and tutor for the right tools.

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Manipulation

The enemies of Nicol Bolas are merely pawns and should be treated as such. Play politics with them. After all, there's no need to waste precious resources if you can convince your foes to kill themselves for your amusement. Deter them from attacking you so they'll attack elsewhere. "Help" them so that they unknowingly further your own agenda. These are the policies that true villains adhere to.

I'm a big fan of the "Offering" cycle for this purpose. You "help" a temporary ally, perhaps by choosing the person to decide which targets to burn with Volcanic Offering, but in reality it's just a 4-for-1 for you.

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Parasitism

What Nicol Bolas wants, he takes. The elder dragon is strong and his foes are weak, so taking their resources is the logical order of things. Nothing is more moustache-twirling evil than killing your foes with their own cards!

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Destruction

Sometimes subtlety is not the answer. For those situations, Nicol Bolas reminds everyone that he's a mothertruckin' elder dragon demigod and starts blowing shit up.

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Notable Exclusions:

  • Tetsuo Umezawa: Once a champion of the god-emperor Nicol Bolas, this mere mortal rebelled and ended up killing our dear dragon lord at the height of his power. A badass, certainly, but murdering the host is one way to make sure you're excluded from future tea parties.
  • Ramses Overdark: One of Bolas' favored minions in the lore, but unfortunately his card is too situational to use here.
  • Augur of Bolas: If you end up running 40+ instants/sorceries, this is a sweet flavorful minion. Otherwise he's going to miss too often.
  • Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas: Same issue as Augur of Bolas: you need 25+ artifacts before it starts getting good.

 

Budget Lists

Cards like Inferno Titan are more affordable in cardboard and pair nicely with the multitude of haste-enablers we run.

 

The two lists have many variations because of price differences between MTGO and paper, but also because I wanted to show different win conditions and ideas while keeping with the Bolas theme.

 

Upgrading And Fiddly Bits:

There's so many ways to go with a Nicol Bolas deck. In essence this is really just a Grixis Goodstuff deck with a flavor theme, so any subthemes you want to add are up to you. For example, you could add a sacrifice theme by running more creatures such as Chasm Skulker and Reef Wurm alongside Skullclamp and Phyrexian Altar. Or you can go for a discard theme with cards like Waste Not. Or you can stick with the sadistic bombs strategy and add things like Mindslaver.

Some general upgrades:

For mana-fixing lands in general, the very best is, as usual, a combination of all the dual lands (Underground Sea) and fetchlands (Scalding Tarn). You can also use Manabase Crafter to figure out more specific land upgrades for the deck.

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That's All, Folks!

Alright, I could keep writing more and more about the almighty Nicol Bolas, but I'm going to call it here. Phew! I hope you guys enjoyed this Vorthos deck and I hope it lived up to the elder dragon's reputation. Let me know if you want me to do more flavor decks in the future.

Follow me on Twitter @BudgetCommander for notifications on when the next article is up, updates on future decks, and input for what to work on next. Thanks for reading!


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