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Deep Tracks: Nicol Bolas


Hey folks, welcome to another edition of Deep Tracks! It's time to embark on the third leg of our exploration of the five Elder Dragons from Legends and Core Set 2019! So far, we’ve uncovered the potential strengths of Arcades and Chromium. Now it’s time to set our sights on the most powerful Dragon in the multiverse:
 
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Ah yes, the mighty Nicol Bolas; one of the very few characters from Magic: the Gathering that has actually spawned a Funk POP action figure!
 
 
A strange point to start on, I know. But as I type this very sentence, there is a six inch miniature Nicol Bolas resting atop my fireplace mantle, staring down at me! So what is it about Nicol Bolas that has pushed Magic R&D to print more iterations of this Elder Dragon than any other? Maybe Mark Rosewater is a really big fan of Grixis?! Whatever the case may be, every time Bolas makes a new appearance, there’s always a buzz in the air! And talk about Iconic... we've seen Nicol Bolas appear in Planeswalker form multiple times throughout the years:
 
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Heck, we’ve even received a long list of cards over the course of Magics history that either reference, depict, and / or pay homage to Bolas. Here are a few examples:
 
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And if that’s not enough, Nicol Bolas has even starred in his own supplemental Magic product entitled Archenemy: Nicol Bolas. This unique multiplayer variant pits three players (members of the Gatewatch) against one player serving the role of the Archenemy (Bolas)!
Archenemy: Nicol Bolas [SEALED]
Needless to say, Nicol Bolas has been around the block more than a few times! The funny thing is that each different card featuring Nicol Bolas has a similarity: they’re really difficult to build a competitive deck around. And if we try, we’re basically forced into some kind of Grixis Control scheme. Granted, Nicol Bolas always boasts over the top game-changing abilities as a typical characteristic. And there’s no doubt that just about anyone would be more than thrilled to have access to Bolas in a limited environment like Sealed Deck or Draft. But how do we put this Elder Dragon to use in a constructed format like Modern or Standard?
 
… The answer may be upon us! Without further delay, it’s time to once again welcome the king of Grixis Dragon lore back into the fold:
 
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Is that baby Bolas represented on a flip-Walker card?! I really, really love it! Bolas is back, but this new take on his design is different from previous offerings, and gives me hope that we can finally slide the Elder Dragon into I don’t know, dare I say... a Midrange deck? I always did like the flip-Walkers from Magic Origins, and I think it’s brilliant that Wizards has done the same for Nicol Bolas. I am a little curious though; why weren’t all five of the Core Set 2019 Elder Dragons designed this way? How sweet would that have been?
 
Speaking of Core Set 2019, the set will be officially released to the public in just a few days, marking the fifth unique rendition of Nicol Bolas to make an appearance in the realm of Standard. I’ve been working on some brews for Legacy, Modern, and yes, Standard too. But first, let’s start our celebration of Bolas with one of my favorite archetypes and a trip to the 90s…

Old School

 
Well, it’s nice to see we can pick up a playset of Deep Spawn for under a dollar! Gotta love Fallen Empires!
 
All joking aside, what we have here is an awe-inspiring tribute to Magics past. Just gaze at the power for a few minutes. I can’t help but marvel at Old School 93/94 brews. And look at that, it’s a Reanimator deck featuring the original Nicol Bolas! Also, who would have figured that one of the most powerful graveyard enablers of all time would be in the form of… a Land card?
 
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There's just something about graveyard strategies that strikes a chord with me. And this Old School deck is a great representation of the rich history of Reanimator as an archetype. As for operating the deck, we have mana acceleration in the form of Sol Ring, the five Moxes, and Black Lotus. We've got over-costed reanimation targets like Nicol Bolas and Deep Spawn. And even Triskelion and Tetravus are solid recursive threats. Bazaar of Baghdad, Recall, Wheel of Fortune, and Mind Twist can serve as combo enablers. And then of course, we have our reanimation spells:
 
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If you're interested in learning more about Old School decks, check out the links section (below) for a full breakdown of this killer concoction as well as a treasure trove of valuable information about the format.

Legacy

Old School decks are always fun to discuss and easy to drool over. But when it comes to brewing up crazy decks with a little old school flare, I get my kicks playing Legacy! Here’s my ode to Nicol Bolas:
 
 
The main idea here is rather simple: We’re looking to play Nicol Bolas at a heavy discount via Sneak Attack or Through the Breach.
 
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As far as the troublesome upkeep cost required for Bolas… we shrug it off! Both of our “cheat” spells will give Nicol Bolas haste, but will also force us to sacrifice Nicol Bolas at the end of our turn, meaning he won’t be around next upkeep anyway. On the surface I'm sure this seems like a downside. However, connecting once with Bolas can be devastating for the opponent, making them discard their entire grip!
 
I chose Griselbrand as our monster of choice to fill things out. And ideally, Griselbrand is the first threat we should be aiming to slam on the battlefield most games; our most reasonable path to victory is to attack once with Griselbrand, refill our hand with the Demon's card-draw ability, and then close things out on the next turn with another Griselbrand and Nicol Bolas. This may sound easy, but the deck actually needs some time to set things up before we start sneaking our big flying monsters into play. Therefore, I included a prison package to help slow things down a bit:
 
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Once we have our opponents resources on lockdown with some help from the likes of Chalice of the Void and Blood Moon, it's time to unload our Legendary creatures and bury the opponent with our aerial assault! Rounding out the deck I chose some staple mana acceleration cards like Lotus Petal, Simian Spirit Guide, and Chrome Mox to assist in casting our prison pieces as early as turn one. And for the sideboard plan I gathered a solid group of hate cards and snuck in a couple additional extra large creatures: 
 
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If there was ever a perfect home for Worldspine Wurm, it would be in a Sneak Attack deck. We simply "cheat" Worldspine Wurm into play, swing for fifteen points of damage, and then end the turn by tossing a few 5/5 Wurm tokens into play! And hey what's that? Watch out... big mama Emrakul incoming!!

Modern

When I started contemplating ways to incorporate Nicol Bolas, the Ravager into a Modern deck, the first thing I decided is that I wanted to make sure we could flip the Elder Dragon into his Planeswalker form on a relatively consistent basis. Thankfully, we have access to a little gem from Rise of the Eldrazi, which makes this dream a reality:
 
Thanks to Training Grounds, we have a realistic path to harnessing Nicol Bolas, the Arisen as early as turn five! To reiterate, with Training Grounds on the battlefield, we have the possibility of curving a turn four Nicol Bolas, the Ravager into a flip activation on the following turn. Some of you may be thinking that sounds a little slow for the Modern format, but we have some tricks up our sleeve to make sure we get there; the deck packs a diverse suite of interactive spells, including battle tested and proven staples like Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, Remand, and Kolaghan's Command, to name a few.
 
To round out the creature package I mixed in some cards that, like Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, synergize nicely with Training Grounds:
 
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Each of these creatures has a similar opportunity to benefit from Training Grounds, but also make for fine standalone threats. The one exception would be Dimir Guildmage, which is primarily in the deck for late game card advantage and is actually quite clunky without help from Training Grounds. However, I do like Dimir Guildmage's abilities, so he made the cut. On the other hand, Pack Rat, Hazoret the Fervent, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang were pretty much auto includes; they gain a lot of value from an active Training Grounds, but don't necessarily need the Enchantment in order to be good.
 
And you know, like, how could I build a blue Modern deck and not include ole "Snappy"?!
 
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In all seriousness, Snapcaster Mage plays an important role in our gameplan. We'll want to be activating Pack Rat and / or Hazoret the Fervent as much as possible, and alongside Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Snapcaster Mage contributes nicely to squeezing every ounce of value out of our graveyard. The sideboard plan for Grixis Training Grounds reflects a similarly diverse range of hate cards as the Legacy Sneak Attack deck. I wanted to develop a flexible plan so we'd always feel prepared for any crazy deck that may be across the table. And yes, we're giving Alpine Moon a couple slots to deal with pesky Tron decks!
 
Now that we've opened the gates for Nicol Bolas, the Ravager in Modern, let's move onward and see what we can do with the Elder Dragon in Standard! 

Standard

As much as I'd love to say otherwise, we just don't have Training Grounds in Standard. But there's no need to fret; Standard isn't as "fast" as Modern. So, in theory we should be able to assemble a balanced deck that has the legs to enable a "natural" Nicol Bolas, the Ravager activation! And I can't think of any better way to get there than with a good old-fashioned Midrange build:
 
I'm just going to say it — I miss Thoughtseize in Standard. This may not be a popular opinion, but it's probably worth consideration. And although it may be a long time until we see the likes of Thoughtseize in a Standard set again, we can at least try our best impersonation:
 
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When I think of Midrange strategies that include black, I almost always want a 1 CMC discard spell to open up a game with. And while Divest isn't nearly as potent as a Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek, it suits us well here as a way to collect information and possibly strip our opponent of a key creature or artifact. Also, it should be no surprise that I included a full playset of Duress in the sideboard to bring in versus Control decks.
 
The deck is a little light on creatures, at least by typical Midrange standards. But our primary goal is to get Bolas on the battlefield and turn the corner. With this in mind, I chose a couple energy based creatures that help us stabilize the board early, and then proceed to stretch the game out:
 
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With Standard rotation looming in the shadows, this will be our last hoorah with Kaladesh block and the busted energy mechanic. And we're sending our Kaladesh friends off in style with two cornerstones of Grixis Energy, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Whirler Virtuoso! Of course we need some fuel for the tandum, so I've also included Harnessed Lightning and Aether Hub to provide a boost to our light energy sub theme.
 
The rest of the deck is defined by a mix of potent interaction such as Vraska's Contempt and Lightning Strike, and I got frisky with some light card filtering by using the freshly reprinted Anticipate. I mentioned the upcoming Standard rotation already, but I'm bringing it up again because... I've saved the best for last: As we usher in the new Core Set 2019 renditions of Nicol Bolas and the five Elder Dragons, we'll also be escorting some whispers of Bolas out the door:
 
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Dark Intimations... had all of us playing a guessing game during Kaladesh block. But here we are mere months from saying farewell and Dark Intimations has yet to fulfill its prophecy of Bolas dominance in Standard. Nonetheless, I included it in my brew, more out of respect than anything else. And just like Dark Intimations, we'll soon be waving goodbye to Hour of Devastation and Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh. Like all the cards from Kaladesh and Amonkhet they'll become remnants of Standards past, but there's one thing we can be rest assured of: Nicol Bolas isn't going anywhere anytime soon!
 
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Conclusion

Let's face it; when it comes to Magic: the Gathering, Nicol Bolas is the biggest, baddest, most powerful Dragon to ever grace itself upon the planes of the multiverse! And there's a strangely equal feeling of power when wielding a Nicol Bolas card in the heat of battle! As challenging as Bolas was to build a deck around, it sure felt rewarding to put this Elder Dragon to the test and come out the other end with some viable concepts. And could there have been a better icon to honor in the midst of Core Set 2019 release week? All hail Bolas! Join me next time as we continue or quest to unlock the secrets of the five Elder Dragons from Legends and Core Set 2019
 
That'a a wrap for this installment of Deep Tracks. Let me know what you think! How else can we strengthen Grixis Training Grounds for Modern? Do you have any sweet Elder Dragon brews for the upcoming Standard season? What do you think about that eye-popping Old School decklist? As always, all comments are welcome, thank you so much for reading, and have a great one!
 
Twitter - @WallofOmens
 
-John
 
Sources & related info:
 
 
 

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