Nicol Bolas, the Ravager is the latest in a long series of dominating tricolor cards in Standard. Nicol Bolas is one of the standouts from Core Set 2019 and one of the best cards currently in the format. Today I’ll take a quick look at why.
Nicol Bolas, the Ravager in Grixis Midrange
After playing Grixis Midrange, I felt I was only gaining a minor amount compared to U/B Midrange. Nicol Bolas, the Ravager was fine and Harnessed Lightning was better positioned than other removal in the 2-spot, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the strength of the card. Well, not until I played against another midrange deck…
Elder Dragons are really good, folks. Nicol Bolas in a midrange matchup, especially in multiples, is just so powerful. It reminds me of chaining Siege Rhinos or Thragtusks where things just cascade out of control for your opponent. The 4/4 body also ducks a lot of common removal and the Dragon subtype means that it can’t be trumped by Glorybringer. With some of your more aggressive starts it just shuts the door on the opponent, while depleting their resources in grindy games.
I’ve rarely had the opportunity to flip Nicol Bolas, though I’ve won all but one game where it successfully became a planeswalker. In sideboard games I find that it happens a bit more often simply because you can design your deck around clearing the way and protecting your Elder Dragon. There are only so many removal spells, and you have Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, Champion of Wits, and other threats to stretch them.
Normally, control decks don’t match up against Nicol Bolas too well either, depending a lot on whether it’s caught on the way down or if there’s an active Teferi to undercut the discard. If you don’t swing into Settle the Wreckage, then it limits them to 4-6 real answers. U/B Control has an easier time with it, and is much more likely to punish you on the draw for tapping out.
Even against aggro it’s been solid, though a lot of that is dependent on how the opponent plays out their hand. The looser and more aggressive the line, the better Bolas becomes on turn 4 or 5. It definitely gets better value when people don’t think to hold a garbage threat or land, even if it means slowing down their clock slightly.
Still, I was impressed at just how much it made a difference. So I started trying Nicol Bolas in a similar shell…
Nicol Bolas in U/B Gift
I’m surprised that nobody has already done this. The splash is easier than trying to hardcast Angel of Invention and has a bigger impact. It gives the deck a solid threat that isn’t reliant on GPG and provides another mana sink in the late-game besides Champion of Wits. You can still run Angel if you want as well—you just won’t be able to cast it (which only happened once in every six-seven games anyways). Meanwhile, I’ve only been unable to cast Nicol Bolas on turn 4 a handful of times over 25 matches. Only once did it rot in my hand the entire game.
One nice thing is that when you aren’t hard locked into the explore creatures in green, your options open up in a big way. There are only 19-20 core creatures in the U/B Gift deck and the rest are debatable. As long as you start your Gift deck with playsets of:
I don’t think you can go that wrong regardless of the other 10 slots. For most people it’s going to be some combo of Angel of Invention, Hostage Taker, Ravenous Chupacabra, Trophy Mage, Gifted Aetherborn, Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, and The Scarab God.
I could see running all four Nicol Bolas, the Ravager here if red falls off a bit more. The key to remember is that you’re effectively a bad midrange deck when you can’t get the combo going. Knowing when to switch to turning all of your small creatures sideways is the key to beating control, as is maximizing your Gates even if you can’t activate them. Nicol Bolas helps this angle of attack significantly by giving you a solid 4 in a deck that lacks them and another way to attack their hand.
With U/B Gift (or Grixis in this case), you can still effectively disrupt your opponent even if that happens. While your grizzly bears on the whole aren’t amazing at attacking, Siphoner, Bolas, and The Scarab God all must be dealt with in a short period of time or they risk running away with the game. You also have a fair bit of discard post-board to play around the most common punishers for developing a board.
As for other Gift builds, I’ve put them on the backburner for now. Esper remains appealing to me, but is likely worse than U/B or Grixis. Bant has totally fallen off due to the boost all of the U/B and Grixis decks have gotten, which increases The Scarab God play and decks with disruption plus clock. Mono-Green with main-deck Brontodon is also tough to beat on a consistent basis, moreso if you lack Angel of Invention as a way to race.
For anyone thinking of picking up the U/B Gift deck, I’d still consider it, although I’d look for a better sideboard plan to deal with Mono-Blue Outcome. While the combo builds aren’t that bad, the fact is that The Antiquities War plan B can stomp you into the ground. Thankfully not all of them run this, but even without that trump the matchup is bad game 1 and only improves to beatable post-board. Your other popular matchups aren’t nearly as bad as that one.
My primary takeaway, though, is that if you plan on playing a 2-color deck in the Nicol Bolas colors and suspect a lot of other midrange decks to be floating about, then it may be worth exploring a splash. The more you hit your plays on-curve, the less likely you are to make the sacrifice. In slower decks, however, the power level bump is well worth it and I really am surprised to be writing this. I thought Nicol Bolas would be in the Karn camp—an obviously powerful card that would see some play, but would be overrated in Standard. Instead, I see a slight metagame shift, and that Nicol Bolas is the real deal.