Flow of Ideas – Nicol Bolas in Extended: Introducing Ultimecia

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Indianapolis on March 13-14
Monday, March 8th – At last weekend’s PTQ, I ultimated Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker seven times. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person to have ever uttered or written those words, and it feels good to be able to say them. I ended up for eleventh, and feel like my deck – Nicol Bolas and all – could have easily won the PTQ.

At last weekend’s PTQ, I ultimated Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker seven times.

I’m pretty sure I’m the only person to have ever uttered or written those words, and it feels good to be able to say them. I ended up for eleventh, and feel like my deck — Nicol Bolas and all — could have easily won the PTQ had I played slightly better in both of the matches I lost.

But… Nicol Bolas in Extended? I know I have some explaining to do. It’s probably best I go back to the start.

I played Dark Depths to a 6-2 finish at the PTQ two weeks ago. I had played the deck a lot, tweaked it, tested it over and over, and even played it in several other events. But it wasn’t until the PTQ that it actually clicked: the entire format has been warped to revolve around the Thopter Foundry combo. Not the Marit Lage token, mind you. A 20/20 is threatening, but people could already deal with that. But the endless swarm of 1/1 tokens has forced the zoo decks to include a full set of Bant Charms and Qasali Pridemages, caused people to sideboard cards like Damping Matrix, and invalidated any deck which can’t beat such a combination.

At dinner that night, all of the pieces fell into place and epiphany struck: the format had become entirely inbred as a result of tunnel vision. As I was getting up to leave, I snapped my head back around and left a statement hanging in the air. I declared that everybody was focusing on the wrong things. The right deck to play was one that ignored all of the hate targeting everybody else while simultaneously crippling the opponent’s linear plan.

I never had plans to play with Nicol Bolas in a PTQ. It just turned out that way.

Despite my lofty claim, I was planning to just refine my decklist and play with Dark Depths again. The first part of that still happened. I was never all-in on Nicol Bolas. I have a Dark Depths list sitting on my laptop I would have happily played. But a strange thing happened along the way, as they often seem to do..

I went on the internet to check out how everyone else’s PTQ had went the day after my PTQ. You know, the standard. People losing in the top four with Depths, a variety of 1-2 drop bad beat stories, and people debating which version of Zoo in the top 8 of their PTQ was better. But amidst all of these lie a gem hidden behind the jewelry display case. John Treviranus, creator of Boat Brew, had posted up a list him and his friend had both played to a 6-2 finish at the same Midwest PTQ they were calling Grixis Haterator.

I’ll admit, I thought it looked awful. I’m sure you’re going to have a similar reaction to the decklist I post below as I had to his original list. Cute. Weird. Fun. Perhaps even garbage. But not nearly good enough for Extended. I would have dismissed it entirely had I not seen the double 6-2 result, showing it had two consistent finishes and not just a streak of one player’s good luck. I gave it the light of day and started playing a few games.

At first I ran a 10 game set against Zoo. 7-3. That couldn’t be right. Then I went for 10 games post-board. 8-2. Okay, maybe it just has a good zoo matchup. Let’s try Depths. 6-4 game one. Huh? 7-postboard. Now this has to just all be variance. Let’s try Bant. 8-2 preboard. 8-2 postboard.


I looked across my history of games and matchup data playing with Dark Depths to double check. My suspicions were true: I was getting results which matched or exceeded Dark Depths with another deck. An absurd rogue deck, at that.

Out of all the people I tested with, only Zaiem Beg kept an open enough mind to continue working on the deck. Everyone else chalked its up wins up to the unimaginable, answering my data with a shrug of their shoulders and uttering the word variance.

I contacted John, Zaiem, and Brian Kowal, who I had heard had also been playing the deck, and we began to collaborate on the deck. With our testing combined, we made several positive changes. Counterspells were cut. Sorin Markhov was taken out. Repeals were added. The sideboard was modified. More games were played. Jaces were splurged for, and the deck was built on Magic Online. Hours of testing were put in, and the results never waivered. It turned out Zaiem couldn’t go, so I was sent with this deck to the PTQ as a lone soldier marching into battle.

With that seven hundred and fifty word preamble in mind, hopefully you will be able to hold the creases of your mind open as you let this decklist enter.

It should be noted that upon arriving to the PTQ, I saw zero dredge decks and one living end deck, while I did see a handful of Teachings decks and some rogue blue control decks. As a result, I last-minute cut the Leylines for the fourth Deathmark, two Akroma, Angel of Fury, and a fourth Night of Souls’ Betrayal. (Indeed, I was later told there were a single dredge deck and only two Living End decks in the entire event.)

Somehow, I have the feeling I’m going to have to explain how this deck works.

This is, at its core a planeswalker control deck with Jace as its centerpiece. If you cast Jace, look at their top card and leave it there, and they have no board presence, the game is almost always over. It’s just like how Patrick Chapin U/W control deck in Standard relies on Jace to win, if you want to make some comparisons.

It may seem like this is a difficult task in Extended, a blistering fast format full of action. However, that’s where the deck’s haterator components come in. Cards like Blood Moon and Night of Souls’ Betrayal shut off whatever the opponent is doing to the point where, if you are Jaceing them, it is fundamentally impossible for them to get out of it in the meager five turns they have

Of course, sometimes casting a turn two Jace doesn’t hurt either.

You have backup planeswalkers as extra win conditions and to help wretch control of the game if necessary. (Though I think I might cut the Liliana for another Compulsive research going forward.)

And then you have Wrecking Ball for… Well, let me run down the decklist, card by card.

First up, the manabase. This manabase is beautiful to my eyes. Twelve basic lands mean you won’t take very much damage, and you are also (obviously) Blood Moon immune. (One Elves player boarded in Blood Moon against me. Whoops.)

The fetchlands and three dual lands are just to help your mana work early on if you need to, but often you are just fixing your mana by fetching basics. Between your lands, Chrome Mox, and your Signets, mana is seldom an issue. On rare occasions it can hiccup, but far less then most other major decks.

The twenty lands may look low, but between them, four Moxes, four Signets, and all of the time in the world under a Blood Moon, you are often fine to cast your expensive spells. You can always stick them under a Mox or discard them to Thirst/Compulsive Research if you need to.

Mox is imperative for this deck. Being able to turn two Blood Moon, cast a Damnation or Jace a turn early, fix your mana, and turn on your removal spells quicker against beatdown is an excellent asset to have. You can’t play this deck with less that four. By the same token, the signets accelerate you into four drops, give you absurd opening draws with a first turn Mox, and fix your mana for you. They are split 2 and 2 because you always want to draw one and one, as opposed to two of one or the other. I would kind of like a fifth Signet, but you do have to be careful you don’t flood out in the midgame.

The entire format is susceptible to Blood Moon right now. It’s very good against every major deck I would expect to face save for something like Boros or Elves, and a turn two (or even one!) Blood Moon means they won’t have time to set up their lands. I don’t think I need to explain why Blood Moon is good. However, there is another card which could use some explanation. By far the card which is scrutinized the most by everybody. And that’s Wrecking Ball.

A lot of players think they’re clever by fetching their basics against Blood Moon. That’s where Wrecking Ball comes in. Zoo will fetch their Forest or whatever, you’ll Wrecking Ball it, and then they will be locked out under a Blood Moon, save for Bolts and Tribal Flames. I have played games where it is actually impossible for Zoo to win even if they drew every burn spell in their deck.

You might be thinking, “well, that’s situational.” And it is. However, Wrecking Ball is a perfectly fine removal spell in this deck. Often games will just hit this point where you have all the mana you need and it’s just a matter of answering their threats, which Wrecking Ball does just fine. Wrecking Ball also has a myriad of other uses, from turning off a lethal Scapeshift (surprise!), to destroying Dark Depths in response to Vampire Hexmage, to just manascrewing an opponent. At one point, when we were looking to cut cards, we decided we would rather remove a Terminate than Wrecking Ball. You don’t want to have a hand clogged on them, but Wrecking Ball is integral to this deck and I would definitely play three.

Part of the reason this deck beats beatdown is because of its removal suite. Between Wrecking Ball, Terminate, and Damnation, you can pretty readily mitigate their defenses. The beatdown decks aren’t set up very well to handle a Wrath effect, and the spot removal ensures that they can’t get through either if they decide to play coy and hold onto creatures. Wiping beatdown’s board pre or post Blood Moon is usually game over.

Night of Souls’ Betrayal is a very interesting hate card. In the matchups where it’s good, it’s absolutely backbreaking. Depths can’t do anything while it’s in play, and Elves is pretty much done for unless they have an Archdruid, which shouldn’t be hard to deal with, and against Boros it locks out their creatures. At the same time, it’s a dead card against Hypergenesis or Living End, and decidedly mediocre against Zoo. However, the beauty of this deck is you can always imprint cards on Mox or discard them to Thirst, so playing something like Night of Souls’ Betrayal maindeck is okay. With the metagame I expected I wanted to play three, and I was happy doing so. John and I discussed this at length, and we could definitely see metagames where two would be better. It depends on your expected metagame.

The Repeals were added for a few reasons. First off, most of the times you lost to Dark Depths it was because they had a fast Marit Lage. While Thopter-Sword can be dealt with over the course of a few turns if you could dig into something like Night of Souls’ Betrayal, the deck only had a few answers to a 20/20 in the first four turns. Repeal makes losing that way a lot more difficult.

Second, I was losing some games to beatdown just because they would have a random Tarmogoyf or something in play post Blood Moon. Under Blood Moon, Repeal acts essentially as a removal spell. It’s also fine against beatdown in general, buying you time and digging you further. I was happy with all three.

In a deck which just needs to dig to a few key components, having good draw spells is crucial. The five draw ‘em ups help you recoup cards and find your removal against beatdown. I would be happy to add a sixth.

Finally, the planeswalkers. Jace is how you usually win and very very strong in a deck like this, so it’s clear why he is necessary. Liliana was added as another way to win and to tutor for the cards you need, but in retrospect she probably was unnecessary. Despite her one of her nature, her and I had an unusual relationship because she seemed to appear in my hand at least once per match. While she is good when you’re on parity or ahead, another expensive spell isn’t going to help dig you out of a bad situation when you’re behind and I think I would rather have something cheaper. (Like the aforementioned Compulsive Research.)

And then there’s Nicol Bolas. He is completely necessary because he gives you another way to win and to send the game utterly out of their reach. Whether it’s destroying their permanents under a Blood Moon, making sure you don’t lose to several creatures long game, or just killing them by ultimating three times (eventually you have to start destroying your own permanents to up his loyalty, but such is life), Bolas is an important card to have for the late game. While he does cost 8, this deck can ramp up pretty fast just and has the removal spells to get into the long game position.

And then there’s the sideboard.

An excellent facet about this deck is that few decks have many cards they can bring in against you because the format has been warped. The most you will see are a couple of bounce spells, Meddling Mage, and Negate. Fortunately, you’re always becoming a much better deck after sideboarding while they are grasping at ways to cut their Path to Exiles.

Dredge and Living End are rough matchups, but if you have a Leyline against either you’re generally in pretty good shape because you are also boarding in Negates to deal with whatever answers they have. As mentioned earlier, you don’t need Leyline if you don’t expect very much of either of those two decks; you don’t board it in against Dark Depths.

Negates are very, very good. The night before the PTQ I went up to four Negate and down to three Deathmark. Zoo and Bant are matchups you are already pretty good in, whereas the matchups you want Negate in are ones where you can use some help like Dredge, Living End, Hypergenesis, and U/G Scapeshift.

Thoughtseize is to help you out against control strategies. Often you just need to force through a Jace to win, and make sure they don’t execute whatever plan they might have. Additionally, they help to make sure you don’t lose to an absurd Dark Depths draw, as well as making sure they can’t sculpt a fundamental bounce turn going long.

The Deathmarks are a clean swap for Night of Souls’ Betrayal against Zoo, and just help reduce the number of ways you can lose.

As far as sideboarding strategies for matchups go, here is how to play each matchup and what to bring in.

Dark Depths
-4 Damnation, -2 Terminate
+4 Thoughtseize, +2 Negate

You are a favorite in this matchup. It’s not overwhelmingly so, but you have a redundancy of cards that are good against them so it is difficult for a single Thoughtseize to just tear apart their plan. You bring in Thoughtseize to slow them down and disrupt their plan further, and 2 Negate to turn off their bounce spells or to stop an early Thopter Foundry. You want to leave some Terminates in so you can deal with Dark Confidant or force a Vampire Hexmage activation.

-3 Night of Souls’ Betrayal
+3 Deathmark

You are favorite in this matchup, and have numerous cards which are good against them. Pridemage may look like an issue, but it’s not that bad unless they have multiples. There are all kinds of different varieties of zoo, but the only one which is a little worse (though still advantaged) for you is Boggemes Zoo simply because they are more resilient to Blood Moon and have Boom Bust. But generally, I would be happy playing against different flavors of Zoo every round.

Conley Woods Bant
-1 Liliana Vess, -2 Repeal
+3 Deathmark

Night of Souls’ Betrayal is surprisingly good against them, as the only real creature that lives through it is Tarmogoyf and Treetop Village. (And Stoneforge Mystic, which is seldom relevant.) However, if they’ve swapped to have Rhox War Monks maindeck as many players have, then just do a straight swap of Night of Souls Betrayal for Deathmark.

Be wary that they have access to their own Jaces and Mana Leak. Other than that, the matchup is pretty favorable.

-3 Night of Souls’ Betrayal, -3 Repeal -2 Terminate
+4 Negate, +4 Thoughtseize

Game one is all about Blood Moon. If you cast it, they probably can’t win. You definitely want to aggressively mulligan for it. If you don’t have Blood Moon, you’re probably going to lose unless they don’t have a cascade card and you have a Jace. After sideboarding the matchup turns extremely in your favor because you gain 8 disruption spells, while they gain very little and still have no way to beat a Blood Moon

Living End
-4 Blood Moon -3 Repeal, -3 Night of Souls’ Betrayal, -2 Terminate
+4 Leyline of the Void, +4 Negate, +4 Thoughtseize

Game one is fairly miserable most of the time, though Fulminator Mage is fortunately bad against you. If they play poorly and set up a non-lethal living end you can sometimes Wrath them and then Jace them, but even then that’s not great because Jace is pretty mediocre against a deck full of cycling cards. After boarding, though, this matchup becomes very favorable between Leyline, Thoughtseize, and negate. Be wary of Thought Hemorrhage and Maelstrom Pulse, but you should be fine.

-4 Blood Moon, -3 Repeal, -1 Terminate
+4 Leyline of the Void, +4 Negate

Game one is pretty miserable. Game two gets better if you put Leyline into play. You can deal with all of their creatures, and Night of Souls’ Betrayal is surprisingly good because it stops their awkward beatdown plan entirely save for Grave-Trolls. Blood Moon is rarely good against them even with Leyline, so it comes out.

-4 Blood Moon, -2 Wrecking Ball, -1 Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
+4 Thoughtseize, +3 Deathmark

Though it is a removal spell and can make their Pacts disastrous, Wrecking Ball is just a little too slow against them and I would rather have Repeal though you can cut Repeal instead. Other than that, a pretty straightforward plan. This matchup is very good for you between Night, Damnation, and all of your pinpoint removal spells.

Mono Red Burn
-4 Blood Moon, -4 Damnation
+4 Negate, +4 Thoughtseize

Out of all the matchups you could face, this is the one you want to face the least. Fortunately, its way down in popularity from the start of the season because most of the people playing it have switched to Boros. While it still exists, you can easily get through the tournament without playing it once. If you have to face it, all I can offer is good luck, get a good draw, and play tight.

-4 Blood Moon, -1 Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
+4 Negate, +1 Deathmark

The only card Deathmark kills is Steppe Lynx (and the one Grunt, I suppose,) so it’s fairly mediocre.

This matchup is close, but slightly favorable. If you just contain their creatures early or land a Night, it’s very hard for them to win with just burn alone. Unlike mono red burn, which is very, very bad for you, the fact that Boros relies on creatures makes it much better.

U/G/r Scapeshift
-4 Damnation, -4 Terminate
+4 Negate, +4 Thoughtseize

This matchup is very tight and right around the 50% line. Blood Moon trumps them, but they will have bounce. If they have a bunch of counters, it can be difficult to win though Negate and Thoughtseize help a lot after sideboarding. It’s a nailbiter matchup, but if you play tightly and have an alright draw you should be okay. You have to be aggressive in this matchup; they will beat you going long because they have a better endgame plan and more countermagic.

R/G Scapeshift
-3 Repeal, -3 Night of Souls’ Betrayal, -2 Damnation
+4 Negate, +4 Thoughtseize

Unlike its blue brethren, R/G Scapeshift is a great matchup. Their creatures are puny and easily dealt with, and you should be able to beat their combo fairly easily. Punishing Fire is a mild annoyance against Jace, but Blood Moon shuts that off entirely. The only way they can win is a Scapeshift, and postboard that’s not going to happen.

So there you have it. Ultimecia. That’s everything we’ve found with the deck. Now, it’s in your hands to try out and tweak. A few things I want to try out are Exile into Darkness and Ancestral Vision, and I’m sure you have some ideas too. The only thing I want to saw, since I’m positive it will come up in the forums, is this deck does absolutely not want Cruel Ultimatum. Everyone suggests it, but the card does not do anything in this deck. The five damage is irrelevant and removing one creature is mediocre in Extended, so mostly it’s just for the discard, draw, and life. And at that point, I’d rather have Sorin or Nicol Bolas.

If you have any questions regarding this deck, post them in the forums or e-mail me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com and I would be happy to answer them. While the deck definitely had surprise value it may not retain anymore, all of our playtesting was done assuming it was a top eight and we had full knowledge of the other person’s decklist. Even without surprise value the deck still put up amazing numbers, and I am confident this deck is still very good. If you’re PTQing this weekend, give this deck a serious try. Some of the cards may look weird, but they’re there for a reason. The deck is very, very good, and I look forward to talking about it with you.

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else