There is always a greater power.
Teferi had a pretty good run, you gotta admit. Now that the Dragon-God himself has returned, and at a power level that boggles the imagination, it’s a brave new world.
There is a lot to unpack with Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God, so let’s set aside the more restrictive cost and the passive for a moment, and just compare his three loyalty abilities to Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, of all people.
So, for starters, they both start at four loyalty and have a super-juicy +1 ability.
This ability is incredible, right? I mean, compared to Teferi, you don’t get to untap two lands; however, you do get a second card each turn (the opposing one you are exiling). Yeah, of course, Teferi untapping lands to hold up Negate or whatever is out of this world, but there are also plenty of spots where the extra mana doesn’t do anything. Bolas’s ability is amazing at times, basically being an extra card every turn; however, there will also be spots where the extra power is wasted. Generally speaking, these +1 abilities produce about the same impact on the game each turn, albeit with different deckbuilding restrictions.
Like Teferi, Nicol Bolas has an incredible -3 ability, letting you drop him and immediately have a massive impact on the battlefield while also going up a planeswalker. Here, I’ve got to give the edge to Teferi, but not by much. Killing a creature or ‘walker is pretty close to putting it third from the top, but the times Teferi’s ability is worse because of the threat coming back aren’t quite as important as the times Teferi is better by denying a draw step, being able to hit enchantments and artifacts, and preventing yourself from decking. Nevertheless, they are highly comparable.
Here, I’ve gotta give the smallest of edges to Nicol Bolas. Both ultimates are basically game over, but I would guess people lose after using Teferi’s ultimate more often than Bolas’s, to say nothing of time considerations. Besides, Bolas’s fourth ability really impacts his ability to ultimate in a timely fashion.
What an unbelievably epic line of text!
For starters, it’s important to remember that this ability looks at both sides of the battlefield, so even if you have no other planeswalkers in your deck, you still have added options whenever your opponent has a planeswalker.
As for how you might build your deck with this in mind? Well, one possibility is to exploit another ‘walker’s plus ability in order to get up to Bolas’s ultimate faster.
Admittedly, this takes some ludicrous mana, but if you have a Huatli, Radiant Champion on the battlefield and at least three creatures, you can drop Bolas and immediately move him up to eight loyalty!
Of course, it’s not just Bolas’s ultimate that we have access to. Since he’s got everyone else’s abilities, too, we can also look at ultimates of other
‘walkers and consider if Bolas can get to their ultimate more efficiently than they can. For instance:
Jace, Cunning Castaway’s ultimate usually takes him at least two turns, but then gives you two copies of himself. Bolas starting at four loyalty means he only needs one turn to get big, and what’s more, he could just use his own +1 ability, which generates a much bigger impact on the game than Jace’s. You could actually just drop Bolas on Turn 5, immediately draw a card and exile one of your opponent’s, and then untap and drop Jace, letting Bolas ultimate right then and there. This gives you two non-legendary copies of Nicol Bolas (since we’re copying a self-referential ability), which is pretty strong.
If we’re not satisfied with that line, we can just go all the way to infinity, if only we add an Oath of Teferi into the mix. Oath of Teferi lets us use two loyalty abilities per turn, meaning we can +1 Nicol Bolas and ultimate him with Jace’s -5 ability the turn we cast him. This gives us two more copies of Bolas, both of which can use abilities twice. For each of these, we again +1 and -5, leaving us with four more copies of Nicol Bolas. We can repeat as much as we like, exiling our opponent’s entire hand and battlefield. We also get to draw as many cards as we like, but we aren’t at risk of decking, as we can also switch to getting our +1 from Jace instead of using Bolas’s.
Once we’re looking at building around Oath of Teferi, we’ve got extra incentive to play more ‘walkers wherever we can. While we’ve only seen a small sampling of War of the Spark, meaning there’s likely a bunch of ‘walker-incentives we haven’t seen yet, we have already seen at least one very attractive tool for enabling dedicated planeswalker decks.
What if our Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God / Oath of Teferi / Jace, Cunning Castaway deck is built to cast Esper spells, simply splashing red for Nicol Bolas (and any other red planeswalkers we might be interested in…)? Like, just off the top, we could start with a manabase like:
While harder on the mana, Karn’s Bastion is a potentially intense option for planeswalker (and +1/+1 counter) decks. Proliferate can be really high-leverage, so it’s actually really well-suited to a relatively low opportunity cost land with a higher activation. When you don’t have good stuff to proliferate, you’ve still got an untapped land. When you do, it’s often going to be worth the higher activation cost.
Of course, we’ve also got this new Stalking Stones / Mutavault variant, but to really get our money’s worth here, I think there’s a good chance a few legends are involved. Paying three mana for this ability is pretty good, but paying four mana is just a little more than we’d like. How often we’re going to be stuck paying the full four mana remains to be seen, but there are also the occasional highroll spots where we’re paying next to nothing.
Either way, neither of these lands is a great fit with the restrictive costs that go along with doing business with Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God. I mean, who are we kidding? If we really want to embrace Nicol Bolas to the fullest, we should probably start with good old Grixis. Nothing beats Grixis!
Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God does a fantastic Teferi impression here, but with more incentive to attack your opponent’s hand rather than needing to play permission.
Augur of Bolas is likely to be one of the most impactful cards in War of the Spark, both in shaping the types of defense attacking decks need to prepare for and influencing card choices on both sides of the table.
Augur of Bolas is so strong, there’s a lot of incentive to “make it work,” but how to fit enough sorceries and instants is pretty tricky with how many amazing creature and planeswalker threats there are out there. In the list above, I ended up cutting the one The Eldest Reborn I was going to play in order to run another Discovery // Dispersal at the “five,” all in an effort to try to get my sorcery/instant count up a little.
Augur of Bolas also informs other choices we might make, such as having extra incentive to play a sweeper like Cry of the Carnarium rather than Ritual of Soot (the theory being, if your Thief of Sanity is living, you’re already winning).
Why Cry of the Carnarium over Widespread Brutality? A fine question, given Widespread Brutality’s higher power level.
Nicol Bolas’s triple black mana requirements really put pressure on our manabase, particularly with Thought Erasure at two, so I guess I just didn’t want to play any double red cards. It’s not like we make that great of use of the 2/2 or anything.
Similarly, Augur of Bolas is really going to give aggressive red decks extra incentive to play Lightning Strike and the like rather than Shock. It also improves prospects of playing burn spells that deal three to a creature only, without a face option.
Angrath’s Rampage is an eyebrow-raising card to see three months after Bedevil, but I’m not even sure just how good it really is here. Not being an instant obviously matters, but the sacrifice effect on creatures could be such a weaker option if Augur of Bolas and 1/1 tokens are all over the place. Generally speaking, costing two is a huge advantage over three, but Grixis in particular is quite long on compelling two-mana plays and actually a little short on threes, all things considered.
While this list really is a tap-out control deck, it’s not out of the question to play a little light permission, and Negate is especially interesting right now. This massive influx of planeswalkers (at least on the surface) implies a lot more noncreature spells than usual.
Dragon’s Hoard may not get a gold counter from casting Bolas, but it is a great way to fix your mana while casting him a turn ahead of schedule. What’s more, if we do end up playing any kind of proliferate action, you can take the gold you do get from Nicol Bolas, the Ravager; Skarrgan Hellkite; or whatever other Dragons you might be interested in…
Speaking of Dragons, Niv-Mizzet, Parun is definitely another option that might be on the table for pairing with Nicol Bolas. The triple blue, triple black, triple red requirements for such a pairing aren’t trivial, but neither is the power it would bring along with it (and that’s kind of Bolas’s jam).
While Ral, Storm Conduit can be a source of library manipulation, battlefield control, and a victory condition, it’s also one of the most dangerous cards revealed so far, thanks to a couple of Standard-legal infinite combos with it.
With Ral on the battlefield, you can cast Expansion (either in response to your own cheap spell or the opponent’s). Then, cast a second Expansion targeting the first, and you’ll be able to make as many copies of copies as you like, dealing an arbitrary amount of damage to the enemy player.
You can also substitute a Doublecast for one of the Expansion // Explosions; you just need to -2 Ral first. Then, cast Doublecast, which Ral will copy. Then let one Doublecast resolve and cast Expansion targeting the other Doublecast. The Doublecast that already resolved will cast a copy, which can then target the other Expansion, completing the loop.
While it’s possible that we’d want to go this way, I think the Ral combo stuff is too mana-intensive and needs too much real estate in our deck to water it down with a Grixis midrange or control deck. Maybe we can just merge it with some sort of Oath of Teferi / Jace, Cunning Castaway package and try to really get our money’s worth out of some planeswalker and proliferate cards; however, the more promising place to start with Ral is probably a dedicated Izzet deck, maybe more like:
I’m kind of intrigued by Ral’s Outburst. Chemister’s Insight is not the least competition, but we’re still talking about a draw-two that lets you turn something into something else. Here, instead of getting rid of the worst card in your hand at your leisure in the future, you have to pitch one of the two cards you draw. However, a zero-cost Lightning Bolt is way, way better than spending four mana to draw two.
Wilderness Reclamation is another interesting piece of the puzzle for Ral’s Outburst. I’m not sure we can fit it and Chemister’s Insight if we’re also playing Ral, Storm Conduit; however, each combination of these seems like it’s worth a spin. I’m kind of just into trying Ral, Storm Conduit in Temur Nexus of Fate, anyway. It’s a tight squeeze, trying to get everything in here, but Nexus of Fate is a pretty exciting card to copy while we’re at it…
What about something like:
As for Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God, I’m not sure his domain is strictly limited to Standard. After all, Teferi is a defining force, and Nicol Bolas is in better colors…
Now that is a curve into Nicol Bolas if I’ve ever seen one!