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If You Build It, They Will Die –Nicol Bolas

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Olivia Voldaren
Since Innistrad came out, I’ve been in a bit of a deck-building slump, having only built one new Commander deck (Olivia Voldaren—apparently, I have a thing for violently unhinged women). However, now that I’ve found a playgroup in Korea that actively plays and actively trades, I have the deck-building bug. No more looking through my cards and dreaming about how much fun it would be to kill people with awesomely saucy cards; over the next couple of weeks, I want to build a bunch of new decks, including building around some of those saucy new cards, updating a couple of under-performing decks, and offering new looks at old commanders. You can’t kill people with the cards if you don’t put them in decks, but if you build it, they will die!

Concept

Sometimes, you love a card so much you want to play with it in every deck; sometimes, you love certain color combinations or card interactions; sometimes, you still want to use all of the cards that you had to cut out of a deck. This deck combines all three. I love playing my Thraximundar Commander deck, but I also love the variety of playing a different deck each game, and many of my opponents have found the deck kind of overwhelming. The solution is to build a completely new Thrax deck!

A while back, I discussed the idea of modifying my existing deck to be more planeswalker-centric, and that’s still my basic plan, but because I’m keeping the original deck intact, I have a whole new challenge: Can I build a deck in the same colors with the same commander and not use any of the same cards? Let’s find out!

Brainstorming

Nissa's Chosen
Proliferating planeswalkers isn't exactly a new idea; a lot of folks have tried to build around the most powerful figures in the multiverse, including a couple of brave souls I heard of who put every single ’walker into a single five-colored deck. A reader at Muse Vessel once told me he even included a single copy of Nissa's Chosen just so he could pump up his copy of Nissa Revane. Starting with a blank slate, you could basically build your deck around card-draw, proliferation, and sweepers for every single type of permanent other than planeswalker, creating an environment that was completely inhospitable to creatures and combo pieces.

However, the most interesting ’walkers for me are, of course, my beloved Nicol Bolas, Karn, and both versions of Liliana (Jace, the Mind Sculptor does appeal to my inner Griefer Timmy, but winning with the others would trouble my conscience less), so I’m happy to focus on them. Besides, most of the cool proliferate spells are available to us in Grixis colors anyway. The biggest limitation is building a deck that isn't as overwhelmingly powerful as my original Thrax build, which I have been tweaking for years and is loaded with as many powerful (and pricey!) goodies as I can find, including accelerants and tutors. I hope that this new, alternative build will be more accessible to the majority of GM’s casual readership and put the focus on the ’walkers instead of the support cards.

Options

With the initial parameters set, let’s look at what we want to include in a deck that wants to win with planeswalkers. As always, I’m going to look at the functions the cards need to perform along with a few representative card choices—the technology and the deck-building process are more important to me than just dropping a fat decklist that nobody can be bothered reading.

Planeswalkers

This is the kind of insight that I bring to the table: Planeswalker decks need planeswalkers! Rather than being a slave to theme, though, and bearing in mind that most of us will not have access to every single mythic rare, only some of the available Grixis-aligned ’walkers will make the cut.

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker and Karn LiberatedThese guys are the only planeswalkers I think you absolutely have to get to make this deck work, as they address U/B/R’s biggest weakness: permanent removal. You can get these two together for less than $25 from CoolStuffInc, and I’m sure these two titans will never be without a home. If you can’t acquire them, you may need a lot more in the way of sweepers to make up for their loss.

Sorin MarkovI knew a guy who played even more mono-black decks than I do, and he swore that the best way to use Sorin was to use his +2 ability and make people try to either stop you from Mindslaving them or make themselves look non-threatening enough that you Mindslaver someone else.

However, I’m of the belief that the best use of Sorin is to drop life totals, especially in combination with a commander that can easily deliver 7 or more points of hasty beats. In fact, the last time I played against the aforementioned black mage, it was a three-player game, and I manipulated him into finishing off the third player by dropping him to 10 life with my own Sorin. In a 40-life format in which life-gain is commonplace, there are few effects more powerful than Sorin’s life-loss ability.

In addition to the raw power of this ability, you can play it immediately, without building up to it, and you will often find that a Sorin Markov with a single loyalty counter will not draw any serious attacks; the same cannot be said for a Sorin on 6 or 8 loyalty.

Liliana Vess
Liliana Vess and Liliana of the VeilMagic’s Mean Girl, Liliana provides repeatable removal and tutoring, powerful discard engines, and a pair of backbreaking ultimates; the original may win you the game on the spot, and the new one will allow you to cripple at least one opponent.

Chandra Nalaar and Chandra, the FirebrandArguably the weakest of the original planeswalkers, Chandra can be useful but is probably unlikely to do as much for us as the others. On the other hand, that may reduce her threat profile, as a single point of damage won’t scare too many people (and neither will 6 or 10 damage if we’re being honest).

Chandra, the Firebrand will often be the more powerful of the two, especially if you can double up on a spell such as Cruel Ultimatum with her −2 ability. On top of that, her ultimate is more versatile in a target-rich multiplayer environment than Nalaar’s is.

Chandra Ablaze and Koth of the HammerKoth is included with Chandra II because they are both very dependent on a sufficient quantity of red spells and/or lands. That isn't necessarily a deal breaker, but my initial feeling is that neither of these is going to make the cut. Still, Koth’s ultimate gives you the option of repeatable damage from colorless sources, which is nothing to sneeze at, especially since the ability scales as the game goes on. Also, if you’re the kind of person who runs Blood Moon or Magus of the Moon anyway, Koth can be fantastic even in three or more colors.

Chandra Ablaze
Chandra Ablaze also has her uses. In particular, I think Chandra’s ultimate ability is the only legal way to achieve my absolute dream combo: casting Radiate on a Word of Seizing. If I have more than a handful of red spells in the final build, I’ll put her in, but I think I’m just gonna have to build around her in sixties.

Jace Beleren, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Jace, Memory AdeptSoon to be returning in the new Ravnica block, the multiverse’s most attention-seeking mind mage brings a lot to the table, although with the exception of JTMS’ ultimate ability, he doesn’t do too much to directly hurt people. Still, as Mr. Scotty Mac from The Eh Team recently reminded me, that +2 ability is a great way to keep the rest of the table off your back, and drawing twenty cards at once is nothing to sneeze at. Big Jace and Little Jace definitely go in, and I’ll get a New Jace to plug in as soon as I can.

Sarkhan the Mad and Tezzeret the SeekerThese are the major build-around-me planeswalkers, and I’m only mentioning them for the sake of completeness. Sarkhan II wants a lot of creatures, and I doubt I’ll be able to make that work, but he deserves consideration because I can proliferate his counters while he turns my utility weenies into fearsome, fang-ed flyers. Tezzeret does good stuff with artifact accelerators, but most of those will stay in my primary Thrax deck.

Rings of BrighthearthThat’s right; I’m declaring the Rings an honorary planeswalker because of how amazingly synergistic it can be with them.

Proliferators

Inexorable Tide
Contagion Clasp, Contagion Engine, Inexorable Tide, Throne of Geth, Core Prowler, Thrummingbird, and Viral DrakeContagion Engine and Inexorable Tide are definitely auto-includes, but despite the cockroachy goodness, some of these feel like they aren't quite good enough.

Fuel for the Cause, Grim Affliction, Spread the Sickness, Steady Progress, Tezzeret's Gambit, Volt ChargeUtility cards with proliferate are worth it—especially because I don’t want to copy any of the best-of-breed removal from my original Thrax build.

There isn't much to say here; proliferate is strong and allows you to trap your opponents into underestimating your threats. A card such as Chandra is only going to do a point or two of damage per turn, making it deceptively easy to overlook a Firebrand on 5 loyalty . . . until the two points of damage from Volt Charge proliferates her to 6 and she fires 36 points of damage out of the blue. Kind of makes me wish I could squeeze in a copy of Repercussion to go with her!

Counter Lovers

Magistrate's Scepter, Black Market, Altar of Shadows, Eternity Vessel, Grimoire of the DeadMight as well make the most of all that proliferation!

Slow-Them-Downs

Lethal Vapors
Equilibrium, Last Laugh, Lethal Vapors, Pain Magnification, Phyrexian Tyranny, Rhystic Study, Spreading Plague, Vile Consumption, Crystal Shard, Echo Chamber, Erratic Portal, Mimic Vat, Nova Pentacle, Curfew, Desertion, Blightning, Plague Spores, Rise//Fall, Unnerve, Kaervek the Merciless, Stormtide LeviathanNot only am I not trying to win with creatures, but even when I do slam down a planeswalker, I’ll probably have to wait a couple of turns before it really impacts the board. That means I really need to slow down everyone else’s game plan to buy time; all of these cards will slow people down in big ways or small, allowing me the time to assemble my fiendish doomsday engine.

Echo Chamber is a particularly interesting piece of technology that I’ve never seen anyone else use. Notice that it can even copy legendary creatures (i.e. kill commanders) if that’s all the player has to copy. Consider adding Sundial of the Infinite for extra yucks.

Speed-Me-Ups

Mycosynth Wellspring
Everflowing Chalice, Signets, Wellsprings, Vedalken Orrery, Leyline of Anticipation, Painful Quandary, Mulldrifter, Phyrexian Metamorph, Sphinx of Uthuun, Electrolyze, Prophetic Bolt, Promise of Power, Syphon MindLike I said, it isn't enough to accelerate into a planeswalker; you have to protect it. Critters that draw cards, removal that draws you deeper into your deck, and flash enablers that let you essentially cast a planeswalker and a beefy blocker or powerful sweeper in the same turn. Imagine some helpful soul casting a Damnation right before your turn, allowing you to flash Nicol Bolas onto an empty board before your turn and then cast Karn on your main phase!

Sweepers

Blasphemous Act, Chain Reaction, Inferno, Living Death, Plague Wind, Reversal of Fortune, Spelljack, Tsabo's Decree, Anowon, the Ruin Sage, Bloodfire Colossus, Chancellor of the Spires, Kederekt Leviathan, Pestilence Demon, Sheoldred, Whispering One, Wrexial, the Risen DeepSo many choices, including permanents that will keep the red zone nice and empty, and non-sweepers that will allow you to cast your opponents’ sweepers. It’s true what they say: If you want a spell cast right, you have to cast it yourself!

Nevinyrral's Disks

Nevinyrral's Disk
The Disk, Fabricate, Dimir House Guard, Various Tutors, Argivian Restoration, Recall, Acquire, Beacon of Unrest, Master Thief, Praetor's Grasp, Steal Artifact, Take Possession, Thada Adel, AcquisitorI know you don’t think I would be dumb enough to leave The Disk off of my list of sweepers. The oldest artifact sweeper is also the best one to combo with the newest card type, as it leaves planeswalkers unscathed. That’s why I want to make sure that I have a chance to play my own Disk at least once per game and cast everyone else’s copies with similar frequency. I also considered adding untapping spells to avoid that pesky waiting period.

Recursion

Cruel Ultimatum, Quicken, Nucklavee, Anarchist, Izzet Chronarch, Eldrazi Legends, Lots and Lots of Slavering Zombies – I know the goal of this deck is to use different cards from my original Thrax build, but it just wouldn’t be Grixis without a recurring Cruel Ultimatum. Besides, my buddy Simon recently turned me on to Quicken as a devious addition to my beloved Cruel Ultimatum/Nucklavee combo, and I’m dying to try that out here. Additionally, I want to have a strong graveyard plan to make up for my relatively low number of (highly expendable) critters.

Speed Bumps, Fatties, and Spot Removal

These are fairly generic categories, and I’m sure regular readers will have plenty of ideas of the kinds of goodies we can put in here. Suffice it to say that I want a lot of each.

The Gathering

Steel Hellkite
So, I sat down with a foot-high stack of cards and tried to build. Obviously, ten cards in each function would make for a landless hundred-card deck, but I started with a shortlist of ten or so cards in each category anyway. Then, I started to look for overlap between those categories as a way to make tough cuts. For example, Prince of Thralls is a fatty who plays very nicely in a deck with ten sweepers, but Sheoldred is both a fatty and a sweeper. The same goes for Butcher of Malakir and Steel Hellkite, which allowed me to reduce the number of (non-Disk) sweepers to five and replace some of my favorite big, dumb monsters with serial killers like Sheoldred.

Similarly, a lot of my weenies were able to serve dual purposes, which let me skimp on spot removal. What is a Manic Vandal but a Shatter that serves as a speed bump? Skinrender even combines spot removal, chump-blocking, and proliferate shenanigans in one convenient package.

Still, there was no getting around it: I was trying to achieve way too much, and I didn’t have the card slots for everything I wanted. Something had to go.

The first category I excised completely was the Slow-Them-Downs. I realized that a lot of those cards would also slow me down, too (such as Vile Consumption taxing my chump-blockers or Phyrexian Tyranny draining my mana), and they would also draw even more fire, thus stretching my chump-blocking resources to the limit even before I played a planeswalker.

The second category that was cut (almost) completely was Counter Lovers. I realized that trying to get even more out of my proliferate cards would become counter-productive if they took slots away from planeswalkers and ways to protect them. I kept a couple of them in just to see if the idea had merit, but I scrapped most of them.

Third, I was forced to make the hardest cut of all: getting rid of my spot removal and recursion. The sweeper, creature, and planeswalker suites all give me some ability to deal with troublesome creatures, and the Disk will help with other permanent types, so I decided to cut out all of my one-for-one spot removal. This means I now have two Thraximundar decks, neither of which is packing a Terminate, which feels like a mistake, but nobody ever said building Commander decks was easy!

The final step building the first draft of the deck was to tweak the numbers. Ten cards in each key function is the best basic framework for deck-building that I’ve ever heard of, but you can’t be a slave to the framework. I dropped the fatties from ten to seven, cutting cards with the same converted mana cost as my commander first, and then I dropped one of my proliferation engines—Throne of Geth—because I didn’t have enough artifacts to support it. I even dropped one of my planeswalkers (giving me eight ’walkers plus Rings of Brighthearth), and cut a chump-blocker for an Erratic Portal. I figured that it would allow me to both reuse and save my utility weenies and slow my opponents down a bit.

Grimoire of the Dead
A couple of notes on the final card choices:

    • Kozilek is in there for long-game card-draw and planeswalker recursion.
    • Chandra, the Firebrand made the cut over Chandra Nalaar despite the fact that the latter is better at dealing with a single midsized threat. With the low number of instants and sorceries, this might be a mistake, but I really prefer Firebrand’s ultimate
    • Grimoire of the Dead is there because it’s a self-contained game ender. Flavorwise, it’s better in a different deck, but I just wanted to see if it was worth including Plan C.
    • Damnation would probably be a better sweeper than either of the red spells, and I don’t have one in my original deck, but I don’t have any spare either. Chain Reaction is more situational than I would like, but it covers my biggest weakness—creature swarms—and will occasionally allow me to keep a fatty while wiping everyone else’s board. Blasphemous Act hasn’t got enough love I don’t think, but it allows me to sweep the board and drop Nicol Bolas for a mere 9 mana, making it perfect for this deck.
    • Praetor's Grasp and Beacon of Unrest serve the three purposes: finding Disks, abusing other people’s toys, and neutering combo decks.

Rings of Brighthearth

 

Testing, Tweaking, Tyrannizing

Thraximundar
I am sorry to say that, out of the first three games I played this deck, I won all three. With Thraximundar. The big fella is a hell of a Plan A in my original deck, but he was only supposed to be in here as a Plan B. I never had the chance to assemble a critical mass of planeswalkers, although I did survive several token/weenie onslaughts (which I was afraid would be my biggest weakness) and generated solid value out of a couple of planeswalkers (including blasting my last opponent with Liliana of the Veil after he’d lost all his creatures), making these games a reasonable proof of concept.

The irony is that in order to make this deck play differently from my original build, I’ll have to add more tutors. Tutors normally reduce variety by allowing you to play the same cards every game, but if you’re trying to build around a non-conventional path to victory, they can help to keep you honest. As an added bonus, I realized during testing that transmute on cards is actually an activated ability that I can double up on with Rings of Brighthearth, so I hope to find room for a couple of them.

In addition to more ways to search, I’ll add two more planeswalkers to search for: another Chandra and another Jace. I’ll also try to cut a few of the cards I’m already using in my other deck. Finally, I’ll increase the focus on planeswalkers by taking out some of the non-essential plans.

Out In
Cruel Ultimatum Diabolic Tutor
Mnemonic Wall Increasing Ambition
Izzet Chronarch Rune-Scarred Demon
Eternity Vessel Chandra Nalaar
Grimoire of the Dead Jace, Memory Adept
Bone Shredder Nightscape Battlemage
Wall of Frost Drift of Phantasms
Phyrexian Metamorph Thada Adel, Acquisitor

The result is a deck that feels very tight to me. It isn't as strong as my original build, but a good deck is fun to play, not just abusively powerful. The Planeswalking Dead is going to be a blast to play, with a lot of decisions to make, a lot of synergy, and a lot of power.

Now it’s your turn. Do you have a deck idea that’s been on the backburner for a while? If so, no more messing about—start building tonight. If you build it, they will die!

 


1 I have play sets of Mana Drain and Force of Will, and two old cards with “Time” in the name (acquired back before they were worth their weight in gold), but my favorite blue spell of all time is still the humble Mulldrifter. You just can't beat that value!

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