Reintroducing…Nicol Bolas

Don’t call it a comeback! One of Magic’s biggest baddies and craftiest chessmasters is set to take center stage in Amonkhet. JDB has your (re)introduction to the notorious Nicol Bolas!

Grand Prix Orlando March 24-26!

He’s one of the original five Elder Dragons who formed the flavorful core of Elder Dragon Highlander, later to be known as Commander.

He’s an ancient planeswalker and arguably the most powerful single being in the Multiverse.

He’s not who he used to be, though. The Mending robbed him of his greatest gifts, and his quest to regain power has made him one of the gravest threats to Magic’s many worlds.

He’s Nicol Bolas, and he’s coming back.

But who is this menace to the Multiverse? Though his draconic talons are in plenty of proverbial pies, in the last few years, he has been seen only in glimpses. For someone who picked up the game after Alara block, is not fully engaged with Magic’s story, and missed the Fate Reforged card Crux of Fate, this big bad must seem mighty mysterious.

Consider this a reintroduction to Nicol Bolas, then, a charting of his journey from “mere” Elder Dragon to power-grasping planeswalker, his fall and bodily resurrection, and his various plots and plans.

Nicol Bolas: The Legends Years

Dragons as a whole aren’t known for playing nicely with others. Nicol Bolas makes other Dragons look as innocent as one of the Herdwick Shepherd‘s newborn lambs.

Let’s start with the colors: blue, black, and red. Cunning. Power-lust. Wrath. One suspects the entire Multiverse wouldn’t be enough for Nicol Bolas.

The dastardly Dragon is arguably the oldest living thing in existence, if not the oldest continuously living thing in existence. He’s a prominent figure in one of the chronologically earliest bits of Magic lore, the “Elder Dragon Wars” that left Nicol Bolas, Palladia-Mors, and a handful of others as the last Dragons standing. During this war, Nicol Bolas had his planeswalker spark ignite. No longer was he restricted to ruling only one world.

Like any Dragon, Nicol Bolas likes taking trophies. The Talon Gates, on the plane of Dominaria, mark the site of a grand planeswalker duel; the Gates themselves mark where the foe of Nicol Bolas fell, and originally were made of said foe’s corpse…what little of it Nicol Bolas didn’t eat, at any rate.

The duel happened at a magical crossroads of sorts, a coastal area where a mountain range gave way to marshes, which gave way to the coast and islands…just the sort of place Nicol Bolas, associated as he is with red, black, and blue mana, would like. He liked it so much, in fact, that he overthrew the local ruler and installed himself as divine leader of the empire, which was called Madara.

Yet it was this empire, rather small in landmass (note the scale of the map in the last link), that proved the initial downfall of Nicol Bolas. Like most despots on Jamuraa or any other continent, he ruled heavy-handedly and elevated cruel and vicious subordinates to places of power, such as Ramses Overdark. In time, one of Bolas’s own champions, Tetsuo Umezawa (a distant descendant of Toshiro Umezawa of Kamigawa block), resolved that Bolas must perish.

As told in the Magic novel Champion’s Trial, Tetsuo Umezawa faced off against Ramses Overdark in the Imperial Shrine, basically Nicol Bolas’s throne room where he met with his underlings, and slew him. Nicol Bolas, understandably unhappy with this state of affairs, chased Tetsuo Umezawa into the eponymous Bolas’s Meditation Realm (also called the Meditation Plane), a so-called “pocket plane” sustained by Bolas’s will and at his disposal.

But Bolas left a weak point: while he was in the Meditation Plane, his only link to Dominaria and its mana was the Imperial Shrine, and when Tetsuo Umezawa wrecked said Imperial Shrine with the awesomely named Meteor Hammer spell, Bolas lost his planeswalker power and mana bonds. Tetsuo Umezawa killed Nicol Bolas and returned to Madara to clean up the resulting power vacuum.

Magic being Magic, of course, things didn’t end there.

The Return of Nicol Bolas

When Bolas won that first planeswalker duel on Dominaria, he opened the first time rift, basically the planar equivalent of a shallow stab wound. Just one of those, and it can be properly treated; several, on the other hand, could quickly turn fatal. And with no fewer than eight major time rifts putting a hurt on Dominaria, the plane was sliding toward self-destruction.

During the events of the novel Time Spiral, the “ghost” of Nicol Bolas, going by the admittedly awesome name “Sensei Ryu,” guided two potential planeswalkers to a place near the Madara time rift and used their latent sparks to get his body back. The just-returned Nicol Bolas promptly dueled the planeswalker Teferi, defeating him soundly, and only the draconic planeswalker’s sense of self-interest (think “gotta save the world if I’m gonna rule it”) led him to leave Teferi alive and close a time rift himself.

At the Madaran Rift, Nicol Bolas realized that it would take a planeswalker’s spark and possibly their life force to seal it back up. Realizing what he had to do, Nicol Bolas made the ultimate sacrifice…

…of the planeswalker Leshrac, who’d been fool enough to try to duel Nicol Bolas.

With the Madaran Rift sealed up, Nicol Bolas was all ready to get back to what he does best: acquiring and hoarding power. Unfortunately for him, the time rifts weren’t done with him yet.

Once the last major time rift on Dominaria was healed, an action that took place (along with Leshrac’s defeat) during the novel Future Sight, the Mending occurred. This event, arguably the single most controversial moment in Magic lore and easily one of the most consequential, forever altered the planeswalker spark. No longer were planeswalkers effectively immortal, virtually godlike. They were still mages, could still teleport between worlds, but a Human planeswalker was still a Human, still mortal.

And Nicol Bolas, though still a tremendously powerful Elder Dragon, had lost the great heights of his power almost before he had the chance to get them back.

Plots of the Post-Mending Era

So what’s a newly depowered Elder Dragon planeswalker to do? Start finding new minions and planes to rule, that’s what.

In the first post-Mending block to have the new planeswalkers take a storytelling lead (as opposed to being mere window dressing on cards), Alara block centered around Nicol Bolas’s plot to power up with the mana in the Maelstrom, the collision-point where the five shards of Alara came together again in the Conflux. When Ajani Goldmane spoke in the Magic Story “Renewal” of previously defeating Nicol Bolas, it was at the Maelstrom, when Ajani used his soul magic to give Nicol Bolas the boot.

But Nicol Bolas didn’t (planes)walk away empty-clawed; he picked up two planeswalker minions through the events on Alara. Sarkhan Vol (also known as “Dragon Fanboy”) basically did this on seeing Nicol Bolas. Tezzeret’s first planeswalk put him practically on Nicol Bolas’s doorstep, and the etherium-armed Human took up the Elder Dragon’s proposed trade: power for servitude.

Also around this time (though the timeline is a touch hazy), Nicol Bolas played middledragon between Liliana Vess and her Demonic dealmakers, though not on Alara.

Tezzeret and Liliana got their history together when Tezzeret seized control of the Infinite Consortium, basically an interplanar smuggling outfit of the “you-want-it-we-can-get-it” variety. The Infinite Consortium was among Nicol Bolas’s creations, and one can imagine how displeased this made Nicol Bolas. It’s worth noting that Tezzeret and Jace Beleren together (Tezzeret had picked up the mind mage in the hopes that his skills would be effective against Nicol Bolas) were no match against Nicky B.

Liliana came up with the plan to get back at Tezzeret, and while the Infinite Consortium itself was a loss after Jace did his Mind Sculpt thing on Tezzeret, Nicol Bolas did claim what was left of Tezzeret and made him into a more obedient puppet. Puppet-Tezzeret later was found on Mirrodin as it turned into New Phyrexia (as Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, so nobody would miss it) and on Kaladesh, where he found and exploited Rashmi’s planar bridge technology.

As for Sarkhan Vol, seeing Nicol Bolas bested by Ajani Goldmane messed with his head. In time, Bolas sent Sarkhan to the Eye of Ugin on Zendikar, which Bolas had learned about during the epic battle on ancient Tarkir depicted on the card Crux of Fate.

For reasons unknown, and despite wanting the growth of New Phyrexia slowed (hence Tezzeret’s dispatch), Nicol Bolas wanted the Eldrazi sprung from their trap. By placing Sarkhan Vol at the Eye of Ugin, manipulating the shamanic planeswalker Ramaz into manipulating young and impulsive Chandra Nalaar into going to said Eye with the spell for Ghostfire (on the Dragon Scroll), and betting that a third planeswalker would be chasing Chandra, he successfully broke the containment spell.

Like most of Nicol Bolas’s plots, this one came with blowback. Sarkhan Vol, still haunted by the figurative ghost of Ugin (not unlike Bolas’s “Sensei Ryu” projection), eventually made his way to Tarkir present and past and restored Ugin to life. Chandra and Jace, meanwhile, became two of the founding members of the Gatewatch, created to handle interplanar threats like the Eldrazi…and Nicol Bolas.

Nicol Bolas on Amonkhet

The upcoming set Amonkhet (and its follow-up Hour of Devastation) will take place on the ancient Egypt-inspired setting of the same name. Given Bolas’s previously documented thing for god-emperor-hood, it’s not terribly surprising he’d have an association with it.

As Liliana Vess notes in “Renewal,” “‘Bolas controls the place completely. As far as I know, he created it.'” And Bolas isn’t shy about marking his territory:

Now the Gatewatch (minus new member Ajani Goldmane, who thinks the following idea is terrible and has gone elsewhere to gather allies) is heading to Amonkhet to confront Nicol Bolas on his home turf.

Let’s recap what, exactly, the Gatewatch has done so far, except through a Nicol Bolas lens:

  • In Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch, four planeswalkers, one of whom was manipulated by a Bolas minion into helping free the Eldrazi, clean up two-thirds of that mess.
  • In Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon, the Gatewatch tangles with the final Eldrazi, which, just so we’re clear, got its jailbreak through a Bolas plot.
  • In Kaladesh and Aether Revolt, the planeswalker Dovin Baan, minion of Tezzeret the minion of Bolas, is the Gatewatch’s first potential customer. While the team turns him down, Chandra, driven by the mention of her plane of birth, planeswalks there and the rest of the team soon follows…not in time to stop Tezzeret from acquiring the tech he wanted, but in plenty of time to know he’d been there and who was backing him.

And now the Gatewatch is heading to Nicol Bolas’s owned-and-operated plane to confront him? Folks, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the Gatewatch just got played by Magic’s original chessmaster.

What do you think?

Grand Prix Orlando March 24-26!