Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

Posted in NEWS on January 19, 2009

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at

Bolas folded his wings and dived down toward the waves. He banked sharply and slipped between the spires of the Talon Gates. The air between them responded, shifting once more from black to red to blue.

Then the oldest and most powerful planeswalker in Dominaria's history departed, perhaps never to return.

Future Sight by Scott McGough and John Delaney

Nicol Bolas is an incredibly ancient and powerful dragon planeswalker with an almost limitless hunger for knowledge and power. He's the combination of genius-level intelligence, archmage-level magical aptitude, multiverse-spanning resources of lore and mana, and diabolical cruelty and power-lust.

When it comes down to it, Bolas's goals are simple. He desires only two things: omniscience and omnipotence. His methods are equally simple: do whatever it takes.

Nicol Bolas has come to Alara at the time of the Conflux, when the five shards converge once again into a single world.

Welcome to Conflux previews.

Nicol Bolas and the Rifts

The last time we saw Nicol Bolas in the Magic storyline was at the end of the Time Spiral block, when the time rifts were tearing the multiverse apart. The efforts and sacrifices of Teferi and his allies gave rise to the Final Mending, a sweeping change that repaired the rifts and altered the metaphysics of the planeswalker spark itself.

This change to the spark affected Nicol Bolas too. The change has begun to whittle away at the dragon's vast knowledge, diminishing his capacity to maintain his immense share of the multiverse's power, pulling him farther and farther away from his goal of godlike omnipotence. He is aware of this; he can feel his memory and strength beginning to crumble bit by bit. And he's not happy about it.

At the end of the Future Sight novel, Bolas planeswalks away from Dominaria. Thereafter he hides out, observing the effects of the Mending throughout the multiverse, and watching the deterioration happening inside his very soul. For the first time in thousands of years, the clock has actually begun to tick for Nicol Bolas. Hence, his preferred strategy of attaining power—a protracted patience for accumulating knowledge and influence via cunning schemes that span millennia—may not work for much longer. He needs a plan, one that can help him recover his power, or at least stop it from ebbing steadily away—and soon.

Bolas decides that all he needs is an immense source of mana. To resist the force of the multiverse-wide Mending altering his spark, he'll need the equivalent of the total potential of an entire world, harvested all at once.

But why harvest one when you could harvest five?

Making a Place for Nicol Bolas

Shards of Alara was only the second set to contain the planeswalker card type. When they debuted in Lorwyn, its five planeswalkers were a strict cycle, one for each color. This was an important move for their unveiling—it was crucial to show the "base case" of what being a planeswalker card meant in terms of the five colors, without varying too many other variables about them. The five Lorwyn planeswalkers represent that base case.

But as Shards of Alara shows, that Lorwyn cycle does not represent the only way planeswalker cards can appear in a set. In fact, from here on out, we want planeswalkers to be subject less to the needs of the set in which they appear, and more to their own goals and aspirations. We want decisions to be made about them based on their character and Magic's ongoing story.

Ajani, Jace, Liliana, Chandra, and Garruk nicely cover all the color bases. But for Shards of Alara, we shook it up. Elspeth and Tezzeret are monocolored planeswalkers residing in Bant and Esper, respectively, but Sarkhan Vol broke new gold ground as a red-green, dragon-worshiping shaman planeswalker residing in Jund. Furthermore, Naya's Ajani Vengeant revealed an even saucier trick: a look at how a previous planeswalker character could reappear, but with a new color combination and a new suite of powers.

So by straying from a strict five-card cycle, the Shards planeswalkers were already changing the rules. We felt it was important that they not all be monocolored and yet not all gold—each planeswalker's card reflects his or her personalities and values as much as their magical aptitudes. They belong in Shards of Alara because they are crucial to the story surrounding Alara, but they are not shackled to all of the mechanical themes of the block. They're planeswalkers—they aren't tied to any one setting, no matter where they appear. Even those planeswalkers who are native to the block setting will seem a little out-of-place, a little isolated from the world of their birth, a little extraordinary.

Still, we knew that the four Shards of Alara planeswalkers formed a kind of pattern. In fact, they formed the most infuriating kind of pattern: an incomplete one.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Ajani: Faces of a Planeswalker":
I had a question concerning the planeswalkers from Alara. I'm sure you're not even allowed to answer this yet, but why didn't Grixis get a planeswalker? Or will we be seeing an alternate version of a former 'walker, like maybe Liliana Vess, getting her start on that demon ruled world? Again, I know you probably aren't allowed to spoil the surprise yet, but I wanted Wizards to know that there are offended Vorthoses out there.
Thanks for listening,

We knew that Nicol Bolas would be making a return to the storyline during this block. And we knew that when he clothed himself once more in high-quality cardstock, he should probably retain his original colors of blue-black-red. And those colors happened to be exactly the colors of Grixis.

Holy crap, that realization was exciting, let me tell you. A three-color planeswalker! And a card based on the most powerful and ancient planeswalker Dominaria has ever known! Nicol Bolas, finally able to appear in his true planeswalker form in the game, one of the multiverse's original forces of nature unified with a new card type that was born to embody him!

But we didn't want to unveil Nicol Bolas yet, with Shards. Power-greedy über-villain that he is, we thought that he would probably hog the spotlight from his fellow planeswalkers. In fact, we wanted to maximize his impact—and that of Ajani Vengeant and friends—by isolating the dragon all by himself a set. His character, we surmised, was big enough to fill a stage as large as Conflux all by himself, leading to his "reveal" in this set.

In a way, Lorwyn set the stage for this plan of unveiling Nicol Bolas. By providing the precedent of a strict cycle of five planeswalkers, Lorwyn created an expectation of planeswalkers showing up in groups of five. With Alara's five shards and four planeswalkers, we knew that players would acutely feel the lack of that fifth one—and feel it they did.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Imaginary Imagery":

Alright, M:TG is pretty darn good at the cycle thing. All the 'blank'scape apprentices, familiars and masters were released on time. In Shadowmoor, we got five initiates. Now, we have a set that revolves around the idea of five, but we only get four planeswalkers, probably the single most anticipated cards of the set. IE, one is missing. Now, planeswalkers are pretty flexible folk, Ajani even snuck in to be printed twice by taking on a new personality. I won't hold that against him, but I can't help that, as far as I can tell in Shards... Grixis's planeswalker is missing. People are being assassinated on planes devoid of black and blue, and a knightly order is being manipulated to cause chaos on a plane with no black or red. Wait... Blue? Black? Red? Oh ho ho... is that sly little planeswalker sneakin' around the other planes and having himself a bit of mischief?... Hence him being 'missing' from the original cycle? Is he the catalyst for the shards merging back together for the rebirth of Alara?

In all honestly, I hope I'm wrong... I'd like to think I look far too deep into this stuff...

Yours truly,

We've received tons of mail like this since the release of Shards of Alara. Some asked whether a black-aligned planeswalker would show up later in the block, or whether the four planeswalkers in Shards represented a pattern at all. Some even accused us of extreme stupidity for "forgetting" to give Grixis a planeswalker—that's the power of the incomplete cycle! It hurts your brain to see a sequence left unfinished like that. But of course we couldn't reveal secrets about future sets like Conflux too early, so all these letters had to go unanswered. Until now.

Conflux: A Plan Comes Together

The shard-planes of Alara caught Bolas's attention soon after he departed Dominaria. Where other planeswalkers saw five separate worlds, Bolas saw a single opportunity. He perceived that the shards had not just originated from a single world, but were destined to come together once more—and soon. He set up a lair on Grixis, using that dark world as a center for his schemes, and over time secretly planeswalked to the other shards, setting up alliances to prepare for the coming Conflux.

Over months and years, he recruited minions to do his bidding throughout the five shards. On Bant, he tempted the Order of the Skyward Eye and the conniving merchant Gwafa Hazid to spread xenophobia and disorder along the borderlands of Bant's nations. On Esper, he infiltrated a group of mages called the Seekers of Carmot, leading them to warn Esperites about dwindling supplies of etherium, and creating a fervent demand for an otherworldly red stone called carmot. On Grixis he recruited the demon dragon abomination Malfegor to lead massive armies of the undead, getting the hordes ready to invade the other shards and cut chaotic swaths through any living resistance they find. On Jund he tempted the elementalist shaman Rakka Mar with promises of power, using her to whip up an itch for greater and greater "life hunts" among the warrior clans there. On Naya his influence has been perhaps the most subtle—even the planeswalker Ajani has had no inkling of the dragon's presence.

On each world his insidious influence stirred up paranoia and hatred, creating five cultures ripe for conflict. His scheme has taken years to develop. But the shards have finally begun to merge.

The next stage of Bolas's plan: war.

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

Making Nicol Bolas into a planeswalker card was a surprisingly delicate balance. On the one hand, design and development had free reign to make him absolutely nuts—after all, if you were to write down a list of Bolas's main distinguishing characteristics, "incredible raw power" would be at the top of the list. So his abilities were free to be off the charts. On the other hand, though, a card that just says "Pay some mana: you win the game" is actually not all that interesting a card. Powerful, sure, but such a card wouldn't actually give you the feeling of summoning the awesome power of Nicol Bolas to your side. Some early incarnations of the card were like this—they didn't inspire awe and dread; they just inspired shuffling up for the next game.

Developer 1: Hold on, don't concede yet, let me beat you up with Nicol Bolas for a while! I want to build up to his ultimate.
Developer 2: Um, Bolas's "plus" ability is already game over for me, thanks—another?

You want Bolas to be a devastating force on the board without making the board irrelevant. You want your opponent's shoulders to slump when the dragon planeswalker appears out of the swirling Grixis sky, and sure, a little groaning would be nice. But strangely enough, you actually want there to be a glimmer of hope, so that Bolas can actually flex his wings, cast some spells for you, and generally have enough time to do some horrible things to your enemy. Then victory at the dragon's side is exquisitely satisfying.

I knew the Nicol Bolas designs were getting close to the desired effect when I heard an exchange among two playtesters in the R&D Pit. Devin Low was facing off against Mark Gottlieb in a game of Shards of Alara / Conflux Limited. Devin had a fierce army of creatures built up by this time, threatening to overrun the Magic Rules Manager, but then Gottlieb summoned Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker.

Devin fought bravely, blasting away at Gottlieb's creatures with tricky attacks and removal spells, and was making progress at killing one of his enemies. But Nicol Bolas was chopping Devin's forces into little pieces turn after turn. Devin saw the writing on the wall and finally said, "I think I can beat Mark Gottlieb. I just don't think I can beat Mark Gottlieb and Nicol Bolas." It was two planeswalkers vs. one, and the team of Gottlieb and Bolas (*shudder*) won the day.

Here's today's preview: the Conflux mythic rare Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker.

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

Like his previous legendary creature form in Legends, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker is a three-color, eight-mana spell, but in his planeswalker incarnation he's far deadlier. First of all, he's a force of villainous destruction, crushing all magics that stand in his way. Even if you lean only on his loyalty-gaining ability, he's an engine of repeatable land destruction, a machine gun of artifact / enchantment removal, or even a slayer of enemy planeswalkers, as you see fit—all while gaining loyalty in huge 3-point chunks.

Bolas also has a devastating impact on the mind. If he wants to take a creature as his minion, he's going to do it without much trouble. His second ability is like an upgraded version of Sarkhan Vol's "Threaten" ability—the ability to mind-control a creature away from its owner—except with no until-end-of-turn time limit. If Bolas wants that critter on your (his) side, and has the loyalty to spare, then that's that. Yoink.

Bolas's ultimate ability represents the full, malicious fury of the dragon planeswalker. It's reminiscent of being hit by Bolas's card from way back in Legends: it's one part "take seven," and oh, also—one part "please discard your brains directly into the graveyard, thanks." When Bolas in his planeswalker incarnation draws himself up to his full potential, you get that effect, plus more—he also blasts your opponent's board, forcing a sort of massive "Curse of the Cabal for seven." Seven to the face, seven to the hand, seven to the board? Nice turn. If your opponent is still standing after that, you have my permission to do a little slow, sarcastic applause (at which point you can finish the job with a 1/1).

The only obstacle you have between you and a deal with Nicol Bolas is his coming up with his mana cost. At 4UBBR, Bolas requires quite a commitment. You have to assemble that combination of colors of mana, and you have to figure out how to live long enough to get to that point. Nicol Bolas can't help you there, and frankly has little sympathy for your petty planeswalker struggles. He can do great things for you once you manage to summon him, but as for getting to that point—you've got to figure that part out by yourself.

Did we put some juice into Bolas's design? Yes. Will this be cause for some complaints? Yes, it will. "But +3 loyalty every turn, and starting at 5, make him way too hard to kill." Yeah, too bad. It's Nicol Bolas. "But blue, black, and red aren't supposed to destroy enchantments." Yeah, too bad. It's Nicol Bolas. "But a Control Magic every turn is too much card advantage, even for eight mana. And even if you say he's not supposed to create immediate concessions, his ultimate is basically game over." Yeah, too bad. Deal with it, folks, it's Nicol Bolas!

The Dragon, the Myth, the Bolas

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Savory Mailbag":
In response to the letter in which you answered what happened to the old planeswalkers.... does that mean that huge monster Nicol Bolas is a mortal now? Albeit a fierce, millennia-old, mind shattering, powerhouse magic blasting Dragon, but a mortal nonetheless? I think Nicol would like a word with you.

You nailed it, Michael. Nicol Bolas is mortal now, and it's created a dark rage seething inside his draconic brain. After all, mortality is gigantic concern for someone who's over twenty thousand years old. In a way, this stage of Bolas's epoch-spanning life is a mission of revenge—revenge against the planeswalkers who remedied the instability of the rifts and thereby altered his spark; revenge against the new realities of death, age, and fallibility; and revenge against the multiverse itself.

Nicol Bolas's mission begins here, in the newly-converged world of Alara. As the worlds' horizons begin to crash into one another, he sees a sinister opportunity in an all-out war between the shards. He has sown seeds of discord and suspicion throughout the cultures of the shards, urging them to conflict for his own dark purposes—but still, his plan will take some time to come to fruition. He's mortal for the first time in millennia, so he can't wage a one-dragon war on Alara; the secret lord of Grixis must wait. But he's cunning and patient—so he'll let the shards wage his war for him.