This week, I decided to try out something a little different. We were in a lull week for formats on MTGO. Dominaria is releasing Sealed Leagues as I write this article, and new cards are being released into the wild. As such, I didn’t want to play with a new deck when it wouldn’t be featuring any cards from Dominaria. Thus, I decided I’d venture into the newest format: Brawl.

I’ll start by saying that I have very limited experience playing Commander. I believe that I’ve played two or three matches in my lifetime, and I’ve watched maybe twenty more. The format always looked like a social game where each person tries to do the most degenerate thing possible at the end of the game, wiping out each other player. This is not what I expected 1v1 Brawls to look like, however, because of a few of the rules changes.


  • Starting life is 30.
  • Planeswalker or legendary creature is your brawler (commander).
  • Normal mulligan rules.
  • No brawler (commander) damage.

The first and last rules here were the most important to fully understand. Your starting life being 30 is completely crazy. I’m used to building decks knowing that I’ll spend the early game taking damage and trying to figure out what the least amount of removal I can play in my decks is to save room for powerful late-game cards. When you make the starting total 50% higher, you allow control decks the room to ignore the early game and focus on making land drops, developing mana, and going for an over-the-top strategy.

The last rule adds to this, because there’s no alternate win condition of dealing X commander damage (say 15 would be a reasonable mark). This also lessens the focus on cheap creature interaction, as you can plan on sweeping those creatures away when the time is right.

My quest thus began by looking online for every possible legend that could become my commander. After maybe 30 seconds, I realized that it would be a true betrayal of my roots if I didn’t play with my master, Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh. My deck started at 115 cards I wanted to play with, and after cutting about 40 of them, I ended up with the following:

The deck was far from ideal. I had too few lands. I was playing The Immortal Sun in my deck with a planeswalker commander (did you know this prevents all loyalty abilities from being used? I sure didn’t). I had too many enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands in my deck, and the mana was too good, but I was falling behind and not able to cast my spells on time. I also, shockingly, had too much top end.

I started talking to Mike Sigrist about the format, as he was also working on Nicol Bolas. He found that you could almost ignore the early game because of the starting life total. At this point, I started cutting some of the removal. I also fixed up the mana base to his recommendations, cutting the cycling Deserts, as I only wanted to make my land drops rather than get to the point of cycling my cards—you always want to be able to replay your commander. I’ve ultimate Nicol Bolas so many times that I’ve lost count, and he really answers all of the problems you may have (outside of a planeswalker emblem, which has caused a few issues).

The format consisted of heavy Dinosaurs decks and blue interactive decks. Tons of people online were trying The Locust God and The Scarab God as their commanders, but they both felt beatable despite some of the crazy combos I had seen (I lost one game to an opponent playing Angrath, the Flame-Chained, transforming Azor’s Gateway and using the aftermath of Ribbon for 31 damage. I did not win that game). I tried to adapt my deck to defeat these. This is where I ended up:

Commander: Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh

This deck aims to take the game as long as possible. The goal is to run your opponent out of meaningful resources, strand them with dead removal in hand, and overpower them with your amazing late game. This deck is light on win conditions (I win almost all of my games with Tezzeret ultimates for lethal damage), but makes up for it in its high density of interaction.

You spend your early game setting up your mana, but the first key turn is turn 2. Resolving any of Azor’s Gateway, Treasure Map, Search for Azcanta, or Arguel’s Blood Fast changes the dynamic of the game. Getting one of these on the battlefield usually ensures that you’ll be making your land drops up to 7 more effectively than your opponent and requires that they either answer that permanent or apply pressure to you. After turn 2, the game gets to a phase where you want to be spending counterspells or instant-speed removal on your opponent’s threats until the turn 5-7 marker.

Once you get to the “midgame” where you have 5-7 lands out, it’s time to develop a plan to take over the game. At this point, you need to determine how to answer any remaining threats your opponent has lying around, figure out what interaction they might have and how to beat it, and how you plan to win the game. Thankfully, the last step is easy with your Grixis savior, Nicol Bolas, but figuring out how to get him to the battlefield can be challenging.

I’ve found that using Duress/Doomfall/Negate/Spell Pierce to force through your spells is not the best method. I prefer to continue playing draw-go with my opponent. This assumes that they don’t have a card advantage engine on the battlefield like the aforementioned artifacts and enchantments. This way, it allows you to give your opponent more time to draw dead removal and sculpt your perfect hand with tons of interaction and mana before making moves. Don’t just find one hand disruption spell and combine it with one counterspell and think that you’re ready to force through your Tezzeret and win the game.

Some Updates with Dominaria

I’ve spent a lot of time looking over the commons and uncommons for Dominaria, but little time on the rares so far. I know for sure that this deck needs one copy of each of the Memorials. These are tapped lands that have a special ability. The red one in particular, Memorial to War, is crucial as you can sacrifice it to kill lands. There are plenty of utility lands in this format, and I get close to decking so often that Ipnu Rivulet is my most common name with Sorcerous Spyglass at this point. The Memorial to War can act as a Tectonic Edge, which you really need. Here are some other cards I’m really excited to try out in this deck:

Other cards I want to still play with and try in this Nicol Bolas deck:

Just to get you excited one more time, here’s a sample board state I had when finishing off a league with this deck. You get to have some completely crazy board states (again, this might just be normal for Commander), but as someone who is usually playing Standard, Modern, and Limited, I was having a blast!

I’d recommend giving Brawl a try. If not online, then with your friends, and I hope you have as much fun with it as I have been. It’s a great experience, even if I hope they reduce the starting life totals!