elcome to Multiplayer Week! Finally, a week that has more than one player in it.
Nicol Bolas knows all about being an Archenemy. Even before we saw him reemerge last year in planeswalker card form, the draco-villain had millennia of devious schemes and world-spanning plots under his belt (although he dislikes his reptilian waist being referred to as a "belt").
Furthermore, he knows all about leading a Planechase, having set his unswerving sights on nothing less than control over the entire Multiverse. Wherever and whenever he planeswalks, countless surrender their wills, their lives, and sometimes their wills again.
So in honor of Multiplayer Week, I thought I would concentrate the miscreant flavor of Nicol Bolas into an Archenemy-ready deck, complete with a set of hand-selected schemes from among the four Archenemy game packs.
I built the thing. I marveled at its cruelty. And then I built three more decks to run against it. This is a tale of Nicol Bolas and the three well-meaning gallants who tried to stand against him.
Building the Decks
To procure cards for this experiment, I ransacked both my collection at home and the contents of my somewhat overflowing desk at Wizards. When building, I considered no format other than multiplayer, no deck construction rules other than flavorful fiat, no banned list other than what I had available. As the decks came together I chose to make them singleton (no more than one of any card except for basic lands), but only because I had so many goodies that could fill up the decks.
The "hero" decks are loosely based on the shards of Bant, Jund, and Naya—roughly the "good guy" shards that lent heroes to oppose Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker in the Shards of Alara block storyline. (Grixis was firmly under the sway of Nicol Bolas, and Esper was so obsessed with their dwindling supply of etherium that they ignored Bolas's influence there until it was too late.) I say they're based "loosely" on those shards because they definitely draw cards from beyond the plane of Alara; I used cards from Alpha through Rise of the Eldrazi and M11, but used them to embody the themes of those shards.
The Elspeth / Bant Deck
Elspeth, the errant knight who claimed Bant as her adopted homeland, is the central figure of this deck. The green-white-blue deck is full of knights, clerics, the exalted mechanic, and a generous helping of angels and their righteous wrath. And ... Novablast Wurm. Because ... my desk had a Novablast Wurm on it! I tried out a few M11 cards in here, such as the Akroma-reminiscent Sword of Vengeance, the ally-friendly Temple Bell, and the outright awesome Sun Titan.
Sigiled Defenders of Bant
The Ajani / Naya Deck
Ajani's quest to discover his brother's killer led to a face-to-face conflict with Mr. Bolas himself, so I had to have an Ajani deck. As this hep cat hails from the shard of Naya, I made a mana-ramping red-green-white deck chock full of beasts, behemoths, and feline warriors. As I put it together it gained a "swarm and Overrun" subtheme, featuring a few M11 debuts in the form of Mitotic Slime, Sylvan Ranger, Overwhelming Stampede, Primeval Titan, and, of course, Ajani's Pridemate.
Beast-Horde of Naya
The Kresh / Jund Deck
Sarkhan Vol was Jund's planeswalker-in-residence at the time of Bolas's plot, but ultimately, Sarkhan sided with the mighty dragon. That left Jund without a planeswalker hero, so Kresh, the warrior-chief, leads the black-red-green Jund-themed deck. Here you'll find a deck full of savage creatures, savage warriors, and, of course, the apex predator of Jund: dragons. I threw in Fauna Shaman, Obstinate Baloth, and the most brutally furious of the M11 Titans, Inferno Titan.
War Host of Jund
The Nicol Bolas / Grixis Deck
And now for the big daddy: the blue-black-red Nicol Bolas deck itself. Although I built it with flavor in the forefront of my mind, I'd be lying if I said I didn't know it would be powerful. Indeed, power felt flavorful for the Nicol Bolas deck. It felt right for it to be full of old-school, multiplanar, ridiculously unfair cards. Besides, it's going to be three on one, right?
Sarkhan makes his appearance here in the form of Sarkhan the Mad, the dragon-worshipper having succumbed to Bolas's rule. I threw in the new Hoarding Dragon, Grave Titan, and Time Reversal for some M11 love. This deck also features a copy of Evil Presents, Wizards' 2008 holiday promo card. It's a card given out as a "thank you" to Wizards' employees and business partners, and feels like a delightfully evil trick for an archenemy Nicol Bolas to pull on an unsuspecting (or, heck, even a suspecting) hero.
Nicol Bolas, Archenemy
That's ... wow. Just look at that thing. That's two tons of nasty in a one-ton shipping container. I do not envy anyone walking into that, three-on-one or no. But it's Nicol Bolas. He corrupts and deceives and overpowers, and if that doesn't work, he throws some minions at you and cleans up whatever's left over. He's a villain.
Of course, I still had to choose schemes for the talented Mr. Bolas. As I read through them and picked out a pack of twenty, I heard a sound. It was the sound of laughter, cruel laughter. It was the sound of the oncoming triumph of evil.
Board-sweeping effects, reset buttons, card-drawing, creature stealing, and reanimation. All felt like fair game for Bolas. Which meant, of course, that it wouldn't be a fair game.
I needed three victimteers from the audience. My fellow Creative Team writers Jenna Helland and Adam Lee reported for multiplayer duty, and Kelly Digges chimed in for a fourth. We commandeered a meeting room (conference rooms at Wizards Corporate are often full of people playing Magic) and we divvied up decks. I hadn't actually played Archenemy without being the archenemy before (go figure), and Kelly was game, so he took the Nicol Bolas monstrosity and began shuffling schemes. Jenna took the angelic Bant deck, Adam took the swarming Naya, and I shuffled up the barbaric Jund. We shuffled up the Planechase planes (one big stack of all the planes—that's how I like to roll) and we were ready to begin.
The planar chase begins at the Academy at Tolaria West, a dull place for the early game, yet a scary place to roll on if you like your hand. Since the archenemy always starts, Kelly (Nicol Bolas) begins his turn, flipping over his first scheme. We heroes have dodged a bullet already; it's Which of You Burns Brightest? On turn 1, the answer is nobody. Kelly plays a land and passes it back to us. (See this page for more on how you play Magic with Archenemy.)
It's the heroes' turn. Adam (Naya), Jenna (Bant), and I (Jund) all play lands. Jenna (Bant) casts Noble Hierarch, kicking off the Bant deck in style.
It's at this point that we decide we need to figure out how our Planechase planeswalking will work with teammates. We're unaware of any ruling on this, but after a brief discussion, we decide that the costs for planeswalking go up for the team as a whole, but that any of the heroes can pay for a planeswalk on their shared turn. When we roll, we have to designate who's performing the planeswalk, in case it matters for the chaos roll or other effects, but any of us can pay the mana, if applicable. We decide that we can't, however, share mana to pay for a planeswalking roll. (See this page for more on how you play Magic with Planechase.)
That settled, we decide to stay at the Academy at Tolaria West. In retrospect my hand was slow enough that I probably could have done with a free new seven, but we're all a little gun-shy about hitting the chaos effect that could badly re-randomize our hands. Back to the archenemy.
Kelly flips over his scheme for the turn. It's My Wish is Your Command: a disaster. Bolas gets to look through our hands and cast one spell for free—and after seeing Ajani Vengeant but no white sources in Adam's hand, he chooses Adam's Rampaging Baloths instead. Bolas has no green sources, and suddenly he's able to make a free 4/4 every turn. So, of course, Kelly plays and cracks a fetch land, going to 39, getting himself two 4/4 Beast buddies in addition to "his" 6/6 trampler.
14 power of green beasties. Nice. Turn. Two.
Our turn. Jenna comes to our partial rescue, plopping down an Oblivion Ring off the Noble Hierarch, getting rid of the Rampaging Baloths—but not its buddies. Adam and I play lands, suddenly regretting the slowness of our hands. I decide it's time to get out of this do-nothing plane, and start planeswalking. After a couple of rolls, we get to another Dominaria location, the Isle of Vesuva. It doesn't have a helpful immediate impact, but we have a chance to faux-"legend rule" Kelly's Beast tokens if we hit the chaos. We're out of mana, so it's back to Kelly.
Kelly untaps and flips up his scheme: Look Skyward and Despair. The tokens! The horrible, horrible tokens! Next time someone asks me to look skyward, I'm just going to skip it—all I end up doing is despairing. At least Bolas isn't getting double dragon action, because Isle of Vesuva specifies "nontoken." Kicking us while we're down, Kelly casts Bone Shredder and shreds Jenna's Noble Hierarch. All of us, including Kelly, miss that he's supposed to get a token copy of Bone Shredder, much to our detriment—he would have been forced to kill one of his tokens with it! Kelly-Bolas attacks Jenna mercilessly, taking her down to 12 with the illicitly-gained Beast tokens.
We get our turn and play lands. We spend the turn planeswalking our hearts out, trying to hit the chaos to off the Beasts. No dice.
Kelly takes his turn, skipping the echo on his Shredder, then flipping up Roots of All Evil. Holy crap with the tokens, Bolas! Now your Grixis deck controls seven green creatures! Kelly sends the Beasts at Jenna again, taking her down to 3 after a Misty Rainforest activation, and sends the Dragon token at me for 5. Kelly tries planeswalking now, attempting to get away from a place that could do some serious Isle of Vesuva damage to his name-sharing token army. On his last attempt he planeswalks—to The Hippodrome of Segovia!
What a misstep by the villain, and a relief for the heroes. All the creatures get Shrinked to the tune of -5/-0, giving us a welcome reprieve from the token onslaught, allowing us to get our bearings for a while. Bolas controls 19 toughness of creatures, but thankfully now all of them have a 0 power, thanks to the teensy weensy plane of Segovia.
We get the turn back, and I'm able to cast Bloodbraid Elf, with big plans on casting Natural Order on it the following turn. Bloodbraid cascades into Sprouting Thrinax. Holy Constructed, Batman! What format is this?
"Oh, it's that kind of Jund deck," jokes Kelly.
We heroes huddle up. Adam's hand is potentially nuts—it's filled with titanic Naya beasties and now Primeval Titan. He's close to Ajani Vengeant mana, but his Plains comes off a topdecked Terramorphic Expanse, so it's tapped this turn. Jenna makes a Steward of Valeron, but is at a precarious 3. We don't dare leave The Hippodrome, so we stay put and pray.
It's now occurring to me that building Bolas's deck as an extra-mean, sweeper-filled, dedicated control deck might have been a tad overkill on top of the odds-evening power of the Archenemy schemes. Now I tell me. Of course, with our decks doing little to nothing so far, I could have been lax in the construction of the hero decks as well. For now, our zero-power armies face each other down.
Kelly sets Every Hope Shall Vanish in motion, basically a mass, painless Thoughtseize on every one of the heroes. Kelly nails a Vulturous Zombie from my hand, knowing how out of hand that guy can be. I don't have in my notes what Jenna lost. And sadly Adam loses Ajani Vengeant—Nicol Bolas truly strikes a hope-vanishing blow there, binning a potential fourth heroic planeswalker to face him down.
Kelly-Bolas throws out Sphinx of Lost Truths. In the process he discards Evil Presents—applauding me for my deckbuilding choice, but remarking that all of Bolas's creatures are too good to give away, many of them with powerful enters-the-battlefield effects that would benefit the recipient. I'm sad to see that rarely-cast card go by, but happy we weren't gifted with such an Evil Present.
Our turn. I sacrifice Sprouting Thrinax to Natural Order, feeling pretty ridiculously powerful. I scan through the Jund deck for my best green option. I consider Charnelhoard Wurm, possibly my favorite creature from Alara block, which would at least have 1 power on Segovia. I also consider Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund, which would steal Kelly's Dragon token. But I feel like I need to get something that can make the most impact while in Segovia, so I get Hellkite Overlord. Sacrificing a Lizard to get the enormous overlord of Dragons? I guess that's Jund's version of the Natural Order.
Jenna assembles an Assault Zeppelid-Basilisk Collar combo. Adam cranks out Primeval Titan, netting him Gaea's Cradle and a Mosswort Bridge that stores a disappointing Druid of the Anima. Despite outnumbering the evil dragon, he's just doing more stuff than us.
Things go from bad to worse. After Rampant Growthing up some Realms Befitting his Majesty, Kelly summons his sanity-challenged minion, Sarkhan the Mad—and suddenly we are facing two planeswalkers. Sarkhan in turn summons another 5/5 Dragon token, which swoops down and eats a Saproling. Truly, there is strength in numbers—yet between Kelly and the three of us, we still don't feel like the bigger team.
Each turn, we struggle to regain an even footing. Kelly's Every Last Vestige Shall Rot takes out Jenna's Basilisk Collar. Kelly tries to leave The Hippodrome, but only manages to hit the chaos, taking out something harmless (it can't hurt the Hellkite, which has 3 power). When Sarkhan goes to summon another Dragon, I manage to Jund Charm-style Pyroclasm the board, killing Kelly's Saprolings (and the rest of my own) and thwarting Sarkhan's Dragon. Then I Branching Bolt, finishing off a Beast token and a Dragon token. So Bolas brings out Grave Titan and its two Zombie minions. Everything Kelly-Bolas casts comes with its own minions!
We're on the back foot. Jenna is still perched at 3 life. Adam manages a Loxodon Hierarch, but Doom Blade comes down on the 1-power Primeval Titan. The 1/6 Grave Titan swings in, harmless but cranking out even more Zombies in the process. I throw a Resounding Thunder at the weakened Sarkhan the Mad. But when I'm down to just the Hellkite Overlord, Kelly drops the hammer in a gut-punching Consuming Vapors, and then Dance, Pathetic Marionette nets Bolas my Scute Mob while his Vesuva copies my Golgari Rot Farm. We thought we'd be saved by Segovia, but Bolas is still operating just fine—mostly on the strength of our own permanents.
I've faithfully recreated the flavor of being humiliated by an evil millennia-old dragon! What have I gotten us into?
Kelly finally manages to leave The Hippodrome, planeswalking us to the Panopticon on Mirrodin. That's not so good for the archenemy, truth be told, as it allows us to draw three cards to his one. Plus he's mistakenly planeswalked after his attack, surely saving Jenna for another turn.
Adam, just having lost his impressive Primeval Titan, taps eight mana for an old-school multiplayer threat: Verdant Force! What a rip! Sadly we heroes share an upkeep step, so we only get two Saprolings per rotation, but it's something. Even with the Panopticon, Jenna's only drawing land, and I draw an unimpressive Radha, Heir to Keld. Boring, I tell myself. More like Heir to Killed.
We know sitting on our laurels will do nothing, so we do all we can—we try to planeswalk, literally feeling like we're on a planar chase. From the Panopticon we make it to The Great Forest. That does nothing for us. Next we manage to planeswalk to Immersturm, the eternal storm in the realm of Valla. Wow. This is ... this is a bad place to be at the end of our turns, but we have to hand off the turn to the archenemy.
Kelly casts Blood Tyrant, and the Pandemonium effect of Immersturm finally eats Jenna. We try to determine whether Blood Tyrant gets five +1/+1 counters, as it's unclear whether Jenna has actually lost. If Adam and I find a way to win, so that the archenemy loses, how can she have lost? But I, betraying my team somewhat, argue from flavor, claiming that Blood Tyrant did exactly what it was in the deck to do. If Nicol Bolas's terrifying vampiric minion has lethally dealt five direct-to-neck damage, what else could it be called but the loss of a player? So a 10/10 Blood Tyrant it is.
Jenna's Oblivion Ring goes away, but sadly she doesn't exist anymore to put the return-to-battlefield trigger on the stack, so we don't even regain the Rampaging Baloths. Grr, rules.
But Kelly-Bolas is not done with us. His rage seems only heightened by the destruction of one of the heroic planeswalkers. He rolls chaos on Immersturm, allowing him to flicker Grave Titan—stay with me here—allowing him to deal 6 damage to Verdant Force. Then, with the newly-formed Zombies that also trigger Immersturm, he finishes off the Force, and blasts my head with the rest. His Zombie army is now huge, outnumbering his other token types.
Here it comes. I watch helplessly as Bolas's army of mostly-token horrors crush me to pulp.
All hopes lie with Adam. The Ajani deck is our last chance, facing down Nicol Bolas mano a mano. If Adam/Ajani is overwhelmed here, the villain wins. Adam's draw step yields a creature. Adam taps all of his mana in true Naya style, slams down a huge Protean Hydra, and uses the Immersturm damage to kill Grave Titan. With his allies lying dead beside him, even that isn't going to be enough to stave off lethal next turn. He grabs the Planechase die and throws it desperately, trying to get somewhere, anywhere.
On Kelly's turn, His Genius Knows No Bounds, and he rises to some obscene life total. And then the army of huge Coat of Arms-assisted Zombies, the huge Blood Tyrant, a couple of Dragon tokens, etc.—quick calculations say it's an attack for 89 damage—rumbles across at poor Adam.
The Multiverse is, in essence, multiplayer. It's a vast struggle of many, many planeswalkers and other beings, their conflict spanning times and worlds. The path of honor is a difficult one, and victory is by no measure assured. The momentum of thousands of years' worth of cruel plots and hoarded resources can overwhelm even the most resolute coalitions of right-minded heroes, even when those heroes are planeswalkers with powerful spell-weaponry at their fingertips.
Would I play these decks again? With some tweaks, yes. I think the heroes can still win this uphill matchup with a bit of courage, some better-quality disruption, less do-nothing creatures, and maybe a freaking Leyline of Singularity. This day clearly goes to the villain, but we all succeeded in a way—we all spent an hour playing multiplayer in a conference room.
No time to get in a Letter of the Week this time—but I'm storing up good letters for an upcoming mailbag column in August. See you next week!