Heart of the Cards – Nicol Bolas, the Ravager
(Nicol Bolas, the Ravager | Original Art by Svetlin Velinov)
Hello, and welcome to another Heart of the Cards, the series where we pick a commander, build a shell with all of the supporting, goodstuff, staple-type cards you just can’t do without, and then build a few different core packages that could each potentially act as the heart of the deck, defining its unique flavor and personality.
This month we're taking a look at Nicol Bolas, the Ravager.
I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.
Sure, he appears to be a tyrannical Elder Dragon who moves about the cosmos manipulating beings he deems beneath him in order to achieve his own ends of ultimate power, but think about how lonely his millennia-long existence must be. When you think about it like that, you almost feel sorry for the guy.
Nicol Bolas, the Ravager is in a unique class of commanders, as he's both a creature and a planeswalker. His creature half is a legendary Liliana's Specter in Grixis colors, which is what got me interested in talking about him. His planeswalker half is nasty, boasting four very strong loyalty abilities that can fuel your hand, remove problems, or cause problems for your opponents.
There are a few things every good Nicol Bolas deck needs: ramp, to drop him early, transform him, and protect him; just a few card advantage effects, as it's possible to falter before he can flip and extra card draw mitigates that; answers for him to draw; and of course, flavor. Lots and lots of flavor. Today we're going to look at some decks that have a little more of a Vorthos bend to them. They're sort of battlecruiser decks, as Bolas might build them.
Before we dive into different ways we can define the deck’s personality, we need to take a look at the cards we just can’t play without.
Put the manure down! Put it down! Do not throw it! DO NOT THROW IT!
Bolas is cheap to cast at just four mana, but he doesn't transform without sinking seven mana into him. That means that we need some solid ramp. Eight rocks, each at a pretty low mana cost, is a decent count. Thaumatic Compass is a particularly useful rock, as it can defend Bolas once he transforms into Nicol Bolas, the Arisen. My rule of thumb is to play cheap rocks or rocks that you can crack for value later. This package isn't expensive, but if you wanted to build off of draft chaff, the Lockets from Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance are truly worth running in any deck.
I just hope I find it along the way. Like an improv conversation.
Blue and black are my go-to colors for card draw. Teaming them up just feels like cheating. That said, once Bolas transforms he provides a lot of the deck's utility on his own, mainly by acting as a draw engine all on his own. That means we don't need to go too deep on other card draw, six draw effects and a tutor are plenty fine. I really like card selection stapled to card draw in this build. Read the Bones, Notion Rain and Discovery // Dispersal all let us peek at what we're drawing first, which can help us set up a chain of card draw, or allow us to drop and protect Bolas early by digging into ramp pieces.
I think I'm being very clear in what I'm asking.
Answers are where it's at with Nicky B. As I mentioned already, once he transforms he's a utility machine. In this case, his -3 loyalty ability can take out an offending creature or planeswalker, but since that reduces his loyalty, and his plus ability can potentially draw us two answers instead of using him as a single answer, we'd prefer to rely on our hand to do the removing for him.
As usual, versatility is the name of the game on spot removal, and efficiency is where we want to be with our wraths. Remember, this deck does have some flavor includes. Cheaper wraths like Toxic Deluge and Damnation probably belong on this list instead of Hour of Devastation, Fraying Omnipotence, or Crux of Fate, but those latter three are just too Vorthos-y to pass up, and they do have some great utility where they can be one-sided against your opponents.
The Heart of the Cards
With the underlying skeleton now built, let’s check out some different strategic directions we could take our deck. This is where the EDHREC’s Theme Pages really shine.
Millions of families suffer every year.
Bolas loves taking what isn't his. With this package, you get to play with your own deck, and play with your opponents' decks, too! Your opponents won't know what hit 'em... except that whatever it was, it looked a lot like their decks.
Playing a bunch of Clone variants, theft abilities and copy spells can accelerate you to victory if your opponents are playing aggressive decks, or they can stall your opponents out while Nicol Bolas the Arisen slowly ticks up to his ultimate ability, taking out one opponent at a time. This sort of archetype is fairly well established and popular for one big reason: this deck cannot be better than the other decks at the table. Your opponents can't complain about your Blightsteel Colossus if it's their Blightsteel Colossus. EDHREC's Theft and Clones Theme Pages are rich with ideas from Clone variants to Fork alternatives. And while Threaten effects may be popular, I don't recommend giving anything back—play them with sacrifice outlets, to sacrifice whatever it is you stole!
Hand stax has a nasty reputation, and for good reason. Reducing the number of options your opponents have makes it feel like they aren't able to play Magic, while Bolas sits pretty stuffing extra cards into his hand, and casting spells from out of everyone's graveyards.
You could spice this up a little (and make it a little less mean) by adding in some Nekusar, the Mindrazer staples like Fate Unraveler, Wheel of Fate, and the new Ob Nixilis, the Hate-Twisted. Or, in true Bolas fashion, you could double down on stripping your opponents of their hands and add in the new Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage to punish them for having the no-hand you gave them. Narset, Parter of Veils or Notion Thief seal the deal, ensuring that your opponents have no way to recover their lost resources. The Discard Theme Page is a good place to start when building a package like this, but be prepared to take a lot of early heat if you go this route. Most playgroups don't look kindly upon any form of resource denial.
I'm gonna make a pencil disapp-- oh! Disappear.
What if Bolas established a League of Doom? An Injustice League? An Oath of the Hatewatch, if you will? That's right, this list is Grixis planeswalkers, and it's every bit as nasty as it sounds.
Of course, not every planeswalker in this list is canonically a villain. But this deck features not one, not two, not three, but five Nicol Bolas planeswalkers, and with Bolas's power combined, he can manipulate any pawn he pleases. Since each planeswalker in the deck has a few different abilities, the deck is capable of playing out a little like a discard deck, or a copy deck, or a few other ways depending on how you pilot the pluses and minuses of each walker.
With War of the Spark releasing thirty-nine new planeswalkers, you may be considering building a Superfriends—or Superfiends—deck of your own. If you are, the Planeswalkers Theme Page is a fantastic resource to check out. Planeswalker support is most prevalent in white, blue and green, but it does come in all five colors. The theme page can help you make sure you didn't overlook anything, especially if you're playing in non-traditional planeswalker colors like Grixis.
What? Diabolical plan? I wouldn't even know how to begin a diabol...
So, what does it look like when we put a heart into the skeleton? I’ve put the Hatewatch package together by bringing the land count to 36. All that’s left to do is shuffle up and start swinging with a deck that curves out at 3.56. This is my ideal form of battlecruiser Magic: playful, thematic, laden with planeswalkers and just a little cruel. I hope you enjoy!
Let me know what package you picked, or if you have a totally different take on the deck, by tweeting @GrubFellow, and be sure to tell me how your games go!
Nicol Bolas and the Hatewatch