Bolas’s Citadel is a disgusting Magic card.
In much the same way that Experimental Frenzy gives you an engine card that completely warps the game after it hits the battlefield, Bolas’s Citadel does virtually the same thing. The cost is a bit different, as you must use your life total to cast the cards instead of mana, but you can elect to not cast those cards. You also have the upside of still being able to cast cards from hand. But let’s break down Bolas’s Citadel for a second, because there are some cards in the past that feel similar.
The easiest comparison is to Future Sight, an enchantment that allows you to play cards from the top of your deck. Future Sight was pretty solid back when it was in Standard, but its true power came when you could play a bunch of ways to generate extra mana. And that usually meant playing Future Sight in formats like Cube or older, non-Standard formats.
Cards like Future Sight are also better when you play zero reactive cards. If your deck is full of counterspells, you’re going to get stuck. So you want to play it in a deck that can aggressively cast all the cards from the top of the deck. That means removal spells that are “Edict” effects. That means putting an emphasis on disruption like Thought Erasure or Duress instead of Sinister Sabotage. But mostly, it means focusing on creatures or permanents to cast from the top of the deck instead of instants and sorceries, so that all your free cards actually keep you alive.
Greatness at Any Cost
Unlike Experimental Frenzy combined with Runaway Steam-Kin, we can’t go ballistic with Bolas’s Citadel without paying a real price. The fact that you can use real mana to cast the spells from the top of your deck is a bit weird, and also really difficult to understand the implications of until you actually get the card onto the battlefield.
With that said, spending life to cast spells is one of the most powerful effects in Magic’s history. Multiple Phyrexian mana spells, giving you the option to pay with life instead of mana, have been banned in older formats for a reason. Even something as innocuous as looking at your opponent’s hand and cycling (Peek) is a bit too good for both Modern and Legacy. At the very least, the benefit greatly outweighs the cost.
I think the best place to start, until we understand Bolas’s Citadel a bit better, is playing it in a deck that gains us quite a bit of life. And a few things come to mind.
This one seems like a no-brainer. Bolas’s Citadel allows for some disgusting chains featuring Wildgrowth Walker to buff your life total. Any explore creature you hit off the top allows you to keep the chain going, and the explore mechanic can help reset the top of the deck to keep the engine running.
Wildgrowth Walker decks are already built to go far into the mid- and late-game. Stuff like Carnage Tyrant doesn’t push the boundaries enough. Vraska, Relic Seeker isn’t quite worth the investment. But what about a six-drop spell that allows you to turn all that extra life into actual cards, refreshing your battlefield over and over against control or giving you an insane advantage against other midrange decks?
Any card that costs less mana than the amount of life it gains should potentially see play with Bolas’s Citadel. For example, Revitalize gains three life but only costs two mana, and draws you a card. Seems like a perfect fit, right?
But what about going a bit deeper? Dovin’s Acuity doesn’t quite gain as much life but seems to work quite well going late with Bolas’s Citadel. Any engine that gains life seems pretty good, and any spell you find off the top that can return Dovin’s Acuity gives you at least a two-point refresher.
While not an engine card, Vraska’s Contempt is likely the perfect card to pair with Bolas’s Citadel. After casting the Citadel, if a Vraska’s Contempt is on top, it gives you a great answer to just about anything on the battlefield while also giving you a two-point discount on cost. Of course, this won’t happen often, but as you dig through your deck you should be able to find answers like this that are almost free or come close to breaking even on mana/life cost.
Moment of Craving is similar here, and probably deserves serious consideration in any deck with Bolas’s Citadel, as it breaks even and generates a bit of tempo if found on the top of the deck. It’s also worth noting that any card that gains life is potentially valuable in a Bolas’s Citadel deck because that means you have more raw resources to cast your free spells.
So let’s start putting things together!
As you can see, there’s a big emphasis here on gaining life, and in actuality this deck looks a lot like something you’d see when building around Lich’s Mastery. And while the functionality of the two cards is different, they reward you for playing similar cards.
Bolas’s Citadel is an engine here that does a lot of work against control and midrange opponents, but aggressive decks are still going to present a problem. It’s possible that, with this prospect in mind, we should ultimately splash blue and play a heavy anti-aggro plan revolving around Dovin’s Acuity. After all, it too works well with Bolas’s Citadel and many of the cards we’re currently playing.
I also think it’s key to be playing some way to reset your deck or ramp into Bolas’s Citadel to get a larger advantage early on. Conveniently, Treasure Map allows you to do both. Treasure Map also plays well with Karn, Scion of Urza, which acts as another engine as well as your primary win condition. Since we’re playing four copies of Treasure Map, it becomes easier to win by creating Construct tokens. But since we’re a deck with a bunch of removal, having another draw engine gives us more ways to grind through tough threats.
It’s also important to have cards in your deck that are good against creature and noncreature decks alike. Treasure Map and Karn, Scion of Urza are solid cards that are great in a variety of situations because they’re so flexible in how they function. Treasure Map can generate a bunch of mana to allow you to accelerate toward the late-game, or it can prolong the game by drawing you some cards as you trade one-for-one. In both scenarios, it’s one of the best draws early because it helps sculpt your first few draws while doing all of the things I listed.
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Wildgrowth Walker
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 2 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 2 Doom Whisperer
- 2 Paradise Druid
Here we have a traditional Golgari Midrange list that is much more reliant on Wildgrowth Walker. And honestly, that’s probably a good thing, because I’ve found myself with tons of extra life to work with against control and other midrange decks. Bolas’s Citadel rewards you for gaining a bunch of life by allowing you to turn it into virtual mana once you get it on the battlefield. Here, we’ll use it mostly to deploy creatures, but there are some potentially insane turns with Bolas’s Citadel that will all rely on what’s on top of your deck. The important part is making sure you get the most out of Bolas’s Citadel once you do end up sticking it.
Explore creatures are obviously important, but should we be playing Seekers’ Squire? What about going hard with Path of Discovery and some token generators? After all, the alternate ability of Bolas’s Citadel does reward you for playing a bunch of tokens, giving you burst damage and ultimately some combo potential.
Regardless, I’m of the impression that the best way to get value out of Bolas’s Citadel in Standard is to combine it with lifegain engines so that you don’t have to worry about your life total. Use it as a resource and generate as much of that resource as you can while still staying competitive. Lifegain effects have traditionally been thought of as weaker than other types of resources, so we’re bound to have plenty of potent lifegain cards running around that just need to be rediscovered.
Utilizing Bolas’s Citadel in a midrange strategy might be a bit tougher than I originally thought, but I certainly think it’s possible. I also think it’s the most forgiving, because your cards are flexible and generally proactive, so casting a few free spells with Bolas’s Citadel means you don’t have to worry much about getting full value out of it. It might just be “good” and that’s okay. We have to make it all the way to six mana before getting steamrolled, and we also need to present threats over the first few turns that our opponents need to kill or counter. Bolas’s Citadel is obviously powerful, but I don’t know if it is obvious how to best utilize it, at least in Standard. In older formats, I think we might have something special on our hands. It will just take time to figure out the best build.
Free Spells Are Broken
As I said before, they’ve had to ban multiple spells in Modern and Legacy because they were free. Bolas’s Citadel effectively turns the top card of your deck into a Phyrexian mana spell, so building your deck with a bunch of cheap cards makes sense. The blockade, of course, is hitting a land after you’ve already played a land. So how do we get around that problem?
That will be the ultimate kicker, but I can guarantee you people will be looking to play a bunch of zero-mana artifacts and Bolas’s Citadel. Doesn’t this get you excited?
If you have enough cheap or free permanents, you can use Voltaic Key to activate Bolas’s Citadel twice in the same turn. So how do we get twenty permanents to sacrifice? What other engines do we utilize? And are we foolish for trying to do this with a six-mana spell?
If Experimental Frenzy is already making an impact on Modern in Affinity, I expect that there’s a slightly bigger version of an artifact deck that can utilize Bolas’s Citadel to disgusting effect. Cards like Twiddle and Voltaic Key can untap either Bolas’s Citadel for the double deuce, or just like the old-school Tinker decks with Gilded Lotus.
You could also go a different route and use Bolas’s Citadel in a deck featuring very few, or zero, lands, much like the All Spells Legacy deck revolving around Dark Ritual effects and casting a creature that mills your entire deck. Of course, it wouldn’t use the same engine, but the mana generation is likely the same (or similar). Culling the Weak is probably one of the better options, as it gives you four black mana.
Unlike Tinker, Trash for Treasure forces you to have the artifact in your graveyard already, but the prospect remains mostly the same. Discard it to Faithless Looting or some other discard spell, and then sacrifice some artifact to put Bolas’s Citadel onto the battlefield. Then cast virtually every spell in your deck and kill your opponent by untapping Bolas’s Citadel.
I’m not expert on figuring out these types of combo decks, but I am smart enough to understand that casting spells for free is busted and getting to peel from the top of your deck over and over until you run out of life or run into two lands is probably busted. It’ll be interesting finding ways to play extra lands from the top of your deck. But what’s the end result?
Modern already has a ton of ways to kill your opponent if you have extra lands, the most popular being Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. Is there a way to hybridize a Valakut deck with a card that costs triple black? Probably not, but there should be no shortage of ways to utilize all those extra cards. And Courser of Kruphix seems like it plays well with Bolas’s Citadel!
Long story short, Bolas’s Citadel is straight-up broken, and it’s just going to take some time and tinkering to figure out what all we can do with it. Cards like Bolas’s Citadel are designed to be fun and have a decent impact on Standard by doing some splashy things, but it’s ultimately contained by Disenchant effects, counterspells, and discard. As you progress into older formats, the ability becomes much more degenerate, and potentially dangerous, but that’s also very likely fine for a six-mana card.
My gut says that Bolas’s Citadel will be a powerhouse engine in Standard while potentially seeing some fringe play in older formats, but the audacity to print something so potentially powerful means they’ve obviously thought a lot about the potential implications, and have decided that hitting two lands and stopping the chain makes this a reasonable card. And while I have to agree, I still think any artifact that pairs well with other artifacts, as well as generates a bunch of free spells and virtual mana, could be problematic. We’ll just have to wait and see.
So what’s your best combo build of Bolas’s Citadel in Modern? Legacy? Vintage? Is this the new Paradoxical Outcome? What unseen ways are there to abuse such a potent artifact in these non-rotating formats?