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Budget Commander: Nicol Bolas, Warped Devotion | $40, $100, $200

Earlier this year I started doing article updates of my old Budget Commander articles since some of them are over four years old and there's tons of new cards that can be discussed and added to the decks. I did six so far in Part 1 and Part 2, and was looking to do three more in this article, but the next one up was this guy, a big ol' dragon that I covered in this original article:

Nicol. Frickin'. Bolas.

This character has been a fundamental player in Magic's storyline for two decades now and his arc is has finally reached its climax in the newest set, War of the Spark. To celebrate his long reign in the storyline and (hopefully) his long retirement, we aren't just doing a basic update of the old article, no sir! We're giving Nicol Bolas a godlike makeover experience: not just one article devoted to him, but two! You're getting one article now, and next week is another Nicol Bolas article commanding an entirely different deck! Our God-Pharaoh deserves nothing less!

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Warped Devotion to the Dragon-God

Warning: this deck isn't for the faint of heart. It is powerful, brutal, and efficient, as is befitting the mighty Nicol Bolas. Some weak mortals would consider the deck "mean," as if morality holds any value to a Dragon-God. Once they've learned of your plans, you may become the archenemy and they will try to stop you. Let them. Their feeble actions unwittingly play into your schemes.

This is a Discard deck. Its goal can be broken down into just two simple steps.

Step 1: Discard. First we shatter the minds of our opponents, emptying their hands with cards like Arterial Flow and Painful Quandary. As their cards are discarded, so too are their hopes and dreams of having a fun game of Magic. Their suffering doesn't go to waste, however, since it fuels our payoff cards like Waste Not and Geth's Grimoire.

Step 2: Bounce & Discard More. Soon enough, our opponents are left with no cards in hand and just the few cards they managed to put on the battlefield. We must take those cards from them as well. Spells like Chain of Vapor, RecoilCyclonic Rift, and Noetic Scales bounce any permanents they have left back to hand so we can immediately make them discard those as well. With no cards in hand and no permanents in play, our opponents are thoroughly broken. Only then do they have permission to concede.

Powerful. Brutal. Efficient. This deck will be feared by your opponents, and rightfully so. It only needs a name. Luckily, there is a card that perfectly embodies what this deck strives to accomplish:

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Warped Devotion. This is the deck summed up in a single card.

You might like the deck if ...

  • You want a flavorful deck that feels like something Nicol Bolas would play
  • You want to play an utterly unique deck
  • You want to play a Control deck that grinds out your opponents
  • You don't feel bad about playing a Discard deck
  • You embrace the role of archenemy

You might NOT like the deck if ...

  • You want to win fast
  • You don't want to be targeted first
  • You feel bad about stopping your opponents from playing Magic
  • Your playgroup won't allow you to play something like this

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Let's begin the deck analysis with the best ways to empty our opponent's hands.

For this Warped Devotion deck, some of my favorite discard options are permanents with ETB discard triggers: Burglar Rat, Liliana's Specter, and Nicol Bolas, the Ravager have great synergy with our bounce spells like Devastation Tide and Coastal Breach, allowing us to bounce and recast them to force our opponents to discard more cards. Other great options include mana-efficient incremental discard like Hypnotic Specter, or discard attached to useful utility like Syphon Mind and Smallpox.

Of course, there's always our commander, Nicol Bolas, whose mere touch shatters minds aka empties entire hands. Casting him with Dragon Tempest on the battlefield often leads to two opponents discarding their hands. It's brutal and I love it.

We have access to a number of payoff cards that trigger off discarding: my favorites have to be Geth's Grimoire, Noetic Scales, and Waste Not. Grimoire is highly efficient card draw, often drawing us 15+ cards throughout the game, while Noetic Scales bounces our opponent's creatures back to their hand which slows them down and sets them up to be discarded! And Waste Not is the most disgusting of the bunch, ramping, generating tokens, and drawing you cards like a madman.

Many discard payoff cards exist solely to deal damage, like Liliana's Caress and Megrim. These cards end up being fantastic finishers in Wheel decks (Nekusar, the Mindrazer), chaining together just Wheel of Fortune into Windfall can dish out 28 damage to each opponent. However, this Discard deck actively avoids Wheels because they would replenish our opponents' hands. Megrim effects are far less effective finishers here, to the point that I don't think they're worth running. I'd rather focus the deck's card slots on Control options and finish our opponents other ways.

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Bounce spells are some of the most mana-efficient answers available in Magic, and we have bounce options that can target any type of permanent, even enchantments, which Grixis traditionally struggles to interact with. The drawback to bounce is that they're just a temporary solution to a problem if used by themselves, since our opponents can just recast whatever we bounce. But paired with discard cards, we can now permanently get rid of any permanent on the board by bouncing it and then immediately making our opponent discard it. It's a beautiful synergy.

These are some of my favorite bounce spells that I could find. This is far from an exhaustive list as I had some issues researching all the available bounce spells -- one of the problems encountered when writing about a relatively unknown archetype. Obviously the best bounce spells in the format, like Cyclonic Rift and Chain of Vapor, also happen to be the best options here as well. Noetic Scales is the real workhorse though, eventually soft-locking our opponents out of ever playing creatures until they can remove the artifact.

Symmetrical bounce spells like Coastal Breach and Evacuation can work in our favor too if we're running a lot of cards that have powerful ETB triggers. Cards like Burglar Rat get even more powerful when you can bounce and recast it. 

Overloading a Cyclonic Rift with Warped Devotion in play is a sensation I wish every Commander player can experience at least once. It is exquisite.

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Graveyard Theft

Since we're filling our opponent's graveyards with discarded cards, we might as well make use of them! Graveyard theft cards offer a ton of versatility to our deck, snagging us whatever we need from opposing 'yards. Dire Fleet Daredevil can grab a Disenchant to deal with a problem permanent, Ashen Powder can give us ramp and card advantage by reanimating an Oracle of Mul Daya, and Mnemonic Betrayal can get whatever we desire. Diluvian Primordial and Sepulchral Primordial are great top-end finishers in our deck, especially when paired with our symmetrical bounce spells like Evacuation so we can cast them again.

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While most of our removal takes the form of bouncing things and then discarding them, we should run a diversity of answers to various threats we'll encounter. We still need stuff like countermagic and graveyard hate, for example. Here are some of my favorite removal spells not yet covered:

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Card Draw

Here are some of my favorite card draw options for the deck. Geth's Grimoire and Waste Not are mentioned here again, along with generic great cards like Painful Truths and Rhystic Study. We're in Black and Blue so we have access to amazing card draw no matter your budget.

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We've covered graveyard theft cards that can steal from your opponents, but sometimes you just need a card back from your own graveyard. While there is some overlap between the two, here's a short list of my favorite cards to get back your own stuff:

With so much of our ramp taking the form of mana rocks, mass artifact recursion like Scrap Mastery is a great way to protect ourselves from mass artifact removal like Vandalblast. If your meta regularly runs cards like that then it's a great investment.

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We're in Black, so we have access to the very best tutors available, like Vampiric Tutor and Demonic Tutor. However, even the much cheaper options like Diabolic Tutor and Mastermind's Acquisition compare favorably to some of the best options available to other colors. We can also run the transmute cardsas tutors for specific cards, like Drift of Phantasms to find Warped Devotion.

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When choosing the best ramp options, a good rule of thumb is this: cheaper is better. While Thran Dynamo provides a lot of mana, I will always add Mind Stone to the deck first, because every deck I build wants to spend the first turns of the game ramping. Only after I run out of solid 1-2 cmc mana rocks will I look at 3cmc ramp, and then finally 4+cmc. 

If your deck has a decent amount of attackers, Curse of Opulence is amazing. Heck, even if you don't plan to be attacking much at all I'd still run Opulence since it redirects attacks away from you while still ramping. It's the best Red ramp card ever printed.

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Lands. Lots of lands.

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Putting It All Together

Alright, now that we've gone over the card pool we're working with, it's time to talk about how we craft the deck. As I often explain in my Budget Commander articles, every time I build a rough draft of a deck, I make sure I have a certain ratio of mana, interaction, card advantage, etc. This gives me a reference point to compare to the deck and see which areas may need improvement. My general ratio is:

  • 50 mana; lands and ramp, usually a 37–13 split
  • 10 sources of "card advantage;" I use this term loosely but am mostly looking for card draw or any spell that nets me 2+ non-land cards in hand / directly into play
  • 6 targeted removal, split between creature / artifact / enchantment removal
  • 3 board wipes; creature-light decks might want one more, creature-heavy decks might want one less
  • 2 recursion
  • 2 flexible tutors
  • 1 graveyard hate; because you never forget to add some graveyard hate in your deck, right? Right? Right?!
  • 1 surprise "I Win" card; something that can win games the turn you cast it without too much setup

That's always my starting point, which is then tweaked to suit the individual deck's strategy and further tweaked with playtesting. I always find it immensely useful to figure out some quick ways to improve the deck in question.

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$40 List

The first list follow our 4-step program of making our opponent discard, bouncing their stuff, then making them discard those cards too. Our primary discard cards are creatures, either with ETBs (Burglar Rat) or Specters (Scythe Specter). The ETB creatures are great with all our bounce cards (Whelming Wave) to re-use their triggers. The Specters are there for their repeatable combat trigger. Both are great for triggering Raiders' Wake and Pain Magnification for even more discarding. All the creatures can come back with the help of God-Pharaoh's Gift.

We control the board with a plethora of bounce spells: Recoil, Aetherize, Baral's Expertise, etc. We also have actual removal like Crosis's Charm and Magmaquake if bouncing stuff isn't optimal. We're loaded with answers because we want the game to go long.

To win the game, we use our opponent's discarded cards against them: Diluvian Primordial and Memory Plunder steal spells, Sepulchral Primordial, Extract from Darkness, and The Eldest Reborn steal creatures. When all else fails, having a 7/7 flying powerhouse as our commander is a good backup plan since you can 3-shot people with 21 commander damage.

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$100 List

Our $100 list is the same strategy but much faster and more consistent. We have a lower average cmc and our ramp is faster thanks to the help of upgrades like Curse of Opulence, Sol Ring, and Thran Dynamo. Our Bounce strategy is stronger with better options like Chain of Vapor, Evacuation, and Coastal Breach. Since our Bounce is better, we've switched over to more ETB creatures like Dire Fleet Daredevil for more theft options. We've added more Discard payoff cards like Noetic Scales and Geth's Grimoire. Our lands are much better too with the introduction of some extra utility like Flamekin Village for haste and Geier Reach Sanitarium for discard, not to mention better fixing all over the place.

Oh and yes, I do plan to add more Bolas to our Nicol Bolas deck! Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh makes an appearance, being a flexible late-game powerhouse.

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$200 List

The $200 list doesn't change too many cards from the $100 list, instead picking up some expensive high-impact staples like the almighty Cyclonic Rift. Our deck becomes faster, more consistent, as basically all the most important cards for the deck are here. 

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That's All, Folks!

I hope you enjoyed this look at Nicol Bolas, Warped Devotion. But we're not done with ol' Bolas yet! I've got one more article in store for you all, a very different take than this one: Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God is going to recruit some "friends"!

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