Archenemy: Nicol Bolas Preview

Posted in Feature on June 5, 2017

By Nicholas Wolfram

Nicholas Wolfram fell promptly in love with tabletop and video games when he was only two years old, and he has been writing about them since he figured out how words worked. Now he puts together words about Magic, which he started playing way back in 2000.

Stop right there! Don't read any further! At least not until you've watched this episode of Game Knights featuring Archenemey! Seriously. Do that. Then read all of these words.

The Archenemy format first made a big splash on the Magic scene seven years ago with a set appropriately titled Archenemy. Since then, the waters have remained quite still . . . until last August, when rumblings of Archenemy: Nicol Bolas stirred things up once again. Now, the release of Archenemy: Nicol Bolas looms mere weeks away, and soon you and your friends will be able to act out the desperate battle between Nicol Bolas and the Gatewatch (in this set represented by Gideon, Chandra, and Nissa), though we can't guarantee that your results will match those soon to be seen in Hour of Devastation.

For those unfamiliar with Archenemy, it is a format in which three players join forces and face off against a fourth, who takes the role of a "final boss" type figure for the other players to attempt to defeat. To help the player assume the role of a boss, the player starts with 40 life (this is why you will find a special, 100-point life counter in the box) and has a deck of "scheme" cards that enable powerful, free effects for the villain each turn that can dramatically turn the course of the game. At the beginning of the archenemy's first main phase each turn, they reveal the top card of the scheme deck and carry out its effect. These schemes have a wide range of effects, from taking another turn to giving your creatures +2/+2 and trample until one of them dies. Archenemy games progress in this with manner, with turns alternating between a shared ally turn and an archenemy turn, until either all the allies or the archenemy has been defeated. With Archenemy: Nicol Bolas, a few changes are coming.

A New Direction for Archenemy

While the changes to the Archenemy formula may not be substantial, they are still important. The first change is to the rules, and it is the only rules change: From now on, when the archenemy attacks any player or planeswalker on the opposing team, any creature a teammate of the defending player controls may be assigned as a blocker by that creature's controller. Basically, whom the archenemy's creatures are attacking is no longer a limiting factor in which creatures can be assigned as blockers. This replaces the previous blocking rules, which followed normal multiplayer blocking conventions.

The other major change is one players have been aware for some time now, and that is a change of flavor and balance. Previously, players took the roles of a nameless villain fighting against a team of anonymous heroes. For this set, we wanted Archenemy to be a more focused and tailored experience. We wanted players to immerse themselves in the roles of the heroes or villains they were adopting. So, we started with the current villain of the ongoing Magic story as the first "official" archenemy: Nicol Bolas, the Elder Dragon Planeswalker. And who better to oppose him than the Gatewatch, the very force standing against him in the story, set to face him in battle in July's Hour of Devastation? With the character roles locked in, we were able to assemble preconstructed decks for not only the archenemy, but also for the three players facing him down. This allowed us to curate a much more balanced out-of-the-box experience than the original Archenemy, which called upon players to construct the three teammate decks themselves.

The set's four main characters appear as planeswalker cards in the set with all-new art by Chris Rahn. That said, we know who you're here for, and there's a reason we put his name on the package.

Nicol Bolas

Nicol Bolas may just be the biggest big-bad that Magic has offered so far. He is the most powerful of the already-powerful Elder Dragons, possibly the oldest living being in the Multiverse, and a pre-Mending Planeswalker desperate to reclaim his lost godlike powers. While I may have lost some of you with that last point, it's safe to say that Nicol Bolas is a villain whose capabilities are only surpassed by his ambitions. He is a true master of blue, black, and red magic, three colors that combine to form notoriously ruthless and powerful spells. And he uses these spells to their full malevolent potential to achieve his twisted and selfish goals.

It is this unrelenting and dominant nature that governs the flavor behind both his main deck and the latest set of 20 scheme cards. These scheme cards have a devastating number of effects ranging from what is essentially a one-time effect version of Tamiyo, Field Researcher's ultimate to a creature-only spin of Aetherworks Marvel. To be frank, these schemes function exactly as they should. By turn three, a good Nicol Bolas player will be giddy as they flip over each scheme card, if only because of the dread dripping from your remaining opponents' faces. For a deeper look at the scheme cards, click here to jump to the full gallery below.

With very Bolas-y cards filling the main deck, it may occasionally feel like the archenemy doesn't even need the scheme deck to overwhelm the Gatewatch players. Signature spells like Cruel Ultimatum may seem like obvious inclusions, but Doom Blade and Reckless Spite are powerhouses when you consider that there isn't a single black creature in your opponents' ranks. With a large amount of mana acceleration, steady removal, and a healthy supply of bombs (which may end up coming out for free thanks to your scheming), Nicol Bolas is well represented in this set as a force that may just be insurmountable. In the deck, his plans have been laid out, his power is mighty, and his justice is dark and swift. The only missing piece of the formula is his notoriously cunning mind . . . so I guess yours will have to do. Do you have what it takes to annihilate the Gatewatch?

Archenemy Nicol Bolas

The Gatewatch

The Gatewatch is a heroic team of Planeswalkers from across the Multiverse who have joined together under an oath to protect the planes of the Multiverse from whatever may threaten their continued existence, be it the aplanar Eldrazi or nefarious Planeswalkers. But as any Vorthos player can tell you, the threats they've faced so far are nothing compared to Nicol Bolas. Fortunately, they've come to face him on Amonkhet prepared . . . or at least their decks have.

With no black and only half a blue deck present, Gideon (with his Lawkeeper in tow) has stepped up and offered white's best control elements to help topple Bolas. Grand Abolisher has never been one for slacking off, and the many powerful instants that Nicol Bolas is packing will make sure that he won't be doing so anytime soon. Furthermore, powerful removal like Lightwielder Paladin and Excoriate make sure Bolas's forces don't become overwhelming without a struggle. And no Gideon-flavored deck would be complete without a delicious helping of indestructibility and other shielding effects, so Aegis Angel and Odric, Master Tactician have joined the party to make sure Gideon's reputation stays intact.

Chandra is also here to do what she does best: sling a constant stream of flames to keep the opposition reeling until her fiery friends can come and help finish the job. Chandra's Outrage and Chandra's Phoenix make unsurprising appearances, but more destructive and certainly heavier hitters like Inferno Titan and Avatar of Fury also provide a significant late-game beatdown while keeping the opponent's board a little thinner. Meanwhile, Obsidian Fireheart gives Chandra some options for lower-effort damage output that should stay consistent throughout the game. Along with her pal Gideon, Chandra will be helping keep Bolas's forces in check while she hits him hard in the face as often as she can.

The final member of the heroes' party for this adventure is Nissa, and she brought her newfound love of the color blue with her. Like we've seen with Nissa, Steward of Elements (though it isn't featured in this set), Nissa's penchant for blue mostly manifests in the form of card advantage and flying creatures. As a three-versus-one format, this is perhaps the best-ever application of Vision Skeins that you've seen. Furthermore, a number of cards in both green and blue have come packing landfall, such as Windrider Eel, and these benefit heavily from a number of green land fetchers. But this isn't the only part of the classic green Nissa that we'll see; she's brought an impressive number of her favorite big, hard-to-destroy monstrosities along for the battle, such as Amonkhet's own Limited all-star, Scaled Behemoth.

Gideon

Chandra

Nissa

Unleash Your Endgame

All in all, this feels like a much more complete package than the original Archenemy. And, frankly, it is. There was a sweet spot for balancing the "hero" decks in the original Archenemy that often required a little bit of iteration to nail down, but now you can go straight into balanced four-player Archenemy games right of the box. Furthermore, it's a lot of fun to take on the mantle of one of Magic's most enigmatic and ancient villains. And I guess the heroes are fun too.

But honestly, I recommend diving headfirst into the flavor here. Gideon players, spout one-liners about justice and righteousness. Nissa players, scold your villain for his corruption of the once-beautiful Amonkhet as you do your best to return the natural order of the plane. Chandras, yell the name of every burn spell you play as you angrily toss them at your opponent. (Don't actually do that last one; I could get into trouble.) And of course, Nicol Bolases, cackle confidently as you reveal your schemes each turn, and make sure to accompany each removal spell you play with a cold, calculated grin.

Click to reveal scheme gallery

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