Bolas's Secret Minions

Posted in Savor The Flavor on January 28, 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

As Nicol Bolas knows, the road to power is paved with the backs of willing minions. Total dominion over the Multiverse isn't going to arrive gift-wrapped on anyone's doorstep—even on the broad and inviting doorstep of an ancient, super-intelligent dragon like him. Power takes people. Any good diabolical plan requires servants just as any good machine needs its tiny, tireless, interlocking cogs.

But it's tough to find good help these days.

The sad truth is, minions are liable to flake out on you at a moment's notice. It takes most humanoids an average of merely two community-sundering betrayals before they're putting in their two weeks' notice. Research shows that their minds are simply too shallow to comprehend the majesty of the schemes of today's villain, and that their capacity for rote obedience is compromised by their kind's chronic affliction of volition.

So what is an evil mastermind to do? Work with substandard cogs? Roll up one's sleeves and attempt to go it alone? Despair of ruling the totality of everything altogether?

No! Finding good minions can be easy—and fun. You just have to look for a certain psychological profile. You have to learn to read the signs, quickly and accurately, to determine a person's likelihood to become a quality minion. Today we take a look at two minion success stories to serve as case studies for servant-seeking villains everywhere.

Gwafa Hazid, Merchant of Bant

The first of our case studies concerns the human Gwafa Hazid of the shard of Bant. Hazid is like many denizens of that pastoral pastiche of kingdoms: he is hard-working, angel-fearing, and sociable. Obedience to systems of law, deference toward those of higher caste, and respect for authority come naturally to the residents of Bant. But don't make the mistake of thinking that any humanoid from that shard is cut out to be your minion—on the contrary. Most Bant natives are so obsessed not only with loyalty but also with moral value that your efforts to convert their devotion to your own devious causes will often be in vain. Indeed, if you should see the proud profile of a knight-captain, you might get ideas of turning him or her into a strong minion. But take our advice and look elsewhere. These honor-bound knights respect a code antithetical to your purposes. Mind-altering magic can reverse their loyalties, but in our experience, the process is not only resource-intensive, but also dampens their warrior spirit, defeating the purpose of the selected minion. Know them by their puffed-out chest, their eyes cast directly into the glory of the sun, and their propensity to smell the evil in your soul and attack you on sight.

But Hazid is different. Gwafa Hazid is a master merchant of Bant's Grand Caravan, the world's greatest convoy of leotau-pulled trade carts and carriages, which ranges all over Bant's five nations. He's a shrewd businessman, always ending up on the gainful end of the deal, and he's constantly on the move, forever crisscrossing Bant to bring wagonsful of merchandise to waiting customers. And Hazid's deals aren't always exactly to the letter of Bant's laws, yet whenever any not-quite-legal goods find their way onto one of his many caravans, his head never finds its way into the pillory for it. When border inspectors or Blessed-caste rulers look to constrict his actions, he persuades prying eyes to look elsewhere.

In fact, Hazid is such an expert at persuasion, he can cause just about anyone to stand there.

Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer

Hazid has great potential as a minion, because he has something that most of Bant's residents do not: ambition. He wants more than what life gave him, and that's tantamount to sin in Bant's rigid caste hierarchy. He's drawn to reach higher and farther than the boundaries of his station, which gives him reason to lie, to sneak, and to buy off potential threats with some of his ample coin. By dangling the right promises in front of Hazid's ambitious mind, one might be able to sway him to perform even darker deeds on Bant.

In other words, he's prime material for minionhood, which is exactly why Nicol Bolas reached out to him to serve as part of the dragon's master plan. Neither the totality of that plan nor Hazid's role in it have yet to be revealed, but Hazid's grasping ambition will no doubt be the key to his fate—as will it be key to the fate of Alara itself.

Rakka Mar, Elementalist of Jund

Our second case study concerns a human shaman of Jund, the elementalist Rakka Mar. Rakka's story is a bit different—she's a minion whose distinction lies in having minions of her own. She's an old woman by Jund's standards—nearing fifty, which is almost unheard of on that savage, predatory shard. She has the powerful gift of summoning elementals of rage and flame to her side, and has survived by putting those minions between herself and Jund's dangers.

Rakka Mar

Over the years, Rakka Mar has drifted from clan to clan of human warriors, offering her services of elemental summoning to those who will take her in. She has seen many clans disintegrate in their pursuit of the Life Hunt, Jund's peculiar tradition of gathering almost suicidally brave warriors to assault enormous prey. Her elementals have been a useful weapon in those Hunts, but for her the Life Hunt has a deeper purpose.

Rakka's driving desire is to be able to summon even greater and more devastating elementals—although it may seem a defensive desire to combat the encroachment of death, at root her motivation is a simple lust for power. Power-lust is one of the most easy-to-accommodate aspirations of a potential minion; simply string them along with occasional gifts of new spells and rituals, and they will do your bidding to the end.

Nicol Bolas saw the potential in Rakka Mar immediately. The fact that she ranges all over Jund and interacts with clan after clan means that she gives Bolas great reach into the minds and hearts of many of Jund's cultures. Bolas has used Rakka's influence among the human war-clans to promote even greater and more dramatic Life Hunts, preparing them to transition immediately to open war with the other shards as soon as the Conflux begins.

In return, Rakka has gained dark powers of elementalism the likes of which she's never felt before. Her facility with summoning even outstrips her early career as a promising young shaman's daughter. Her soul spills over with dark rage, making it hard for her to keep hidden her growing malice for her own kind, but at the same time giving her an abnormal vivacity that's allowed her to keep pace with the muscular predators of Jund. She's seen only fragments of Bolas's plans—as gleams in his draconic eyes, during his short visits in Jund to counsel her—but she knows something greater than her entire savage world lies in her fate. She knows her status as a minion—and is all too willing to play her part.

These Minions in Action

Gwafa Hazid's utility as a card is his flavorful "bribing" ability. He's not above getting in there and scrapping for two sometimes, but his true value is in his persuasive "Pacifism" effect. Put him on the board and get him going, and Gwafa can singlehandedly keep an entire army of bad monsters at bay.

Of course, there's a catch—the price of distributing those bribery counters is letting your opponent draw a card per creature. Over time, those bribes are going to add up, and your opponent is going to be drowning in riches, riches that he'll probably use to try to kill Gwafa and/or you. Gwafa is probably best, then, as a support minion in a quick rush strategy. Use Gwafa to bribe away your opponent's key fightin' creatures, and let your other warriors bash on through while he counts his dough. Gwafa Hazid loves it when his enemies die holding a wad of his own unspent cash.

Another strategy would be to punish the opponent for all the bribes (i.e. cards) he or she is getting out of the deal. Call in an anonymous tip at the right time, and cards like Ebony Owl Netsuke, Sudden Impact, or Skullcage can be there to dole out the punishment. Use Fate Transfer or Leech Bonder to shift bribery counters around from creature to creature, keeping your foe's forces helpless as you see fit with no additional bribes.

Gwafa Hazid, ProfiteerRakka Mar

Rakka Mar's strength lies in brute creature creation. Rakka can provide a barrage of virtual burn spells as part of a repeatedly-throw-fire-at-your-face strategy, or build up an army of fiery 3/1 rage-beasts over time. Note that her Elemental tokens aren't Spark Elementals—they don't go "poof" at the end of the turn, so you can accumulate them one by one to march into your opponent's forces in a huge attack.

Or you can use Rakka's Elementals for more devious purposes. Whack something for 3 with Pandemonium for each Rakka Mar activation. Sacrifice them to Greater Good for cards, Thermopod for mana, Gutless Ghoul for life, Sadistic Hypnotist for discard, a Doom Cannon set to Elementals for blastin' fun, and so on.

Doom Cannon

Speaking of Elementals, you can use the tribally relevant subtype of Rakka's minions to fuel many a Lorwyn block combo. Feed them to Seething Pathblazer or Hearthcage Giant. Pump them with Incandescent Soulstoke or champion them with Nova Chaser. To give your Elementals a slippery edge, add the antics of Caterwauling Boggart to make that big alpha strike hit hard.

Hearthcage Giant
Caterwauling Boggart

Besides being Elementals, they're also red, which makes Bloodmark Mentor, Rise of the Hobgoblins, Crackleburr, and any of the red Lieges particularly happy, and allows for a very Stone Rain-riffic Din of the Fireherd. Or use your fiery army to count toward a big Horde of Boggarts or Ulasht, the Hate Seed, or to conspire up a Burn Trail or Giantbaiting.

Conflux has almost arrived, and Nicol Bolas isn't the only one ready to deploy his faithful servants as the shards smash together. Get to the Prerelease—your minions are waiting!

Agents of Artifice Is In Stores Now!

You can pick up your copy of Ari Marmell's Agents of Artifice now! It's the first in our line of planeswalker-centric novels, and kicks off the action with Jace Beleren, Liliana Vess, and the Esper mage Tezzeret (whose backstory you're seeing right now as a web comic[mtg/multiverse/webcomics/main]). I'm eager to hear what you think of the book—once you read it, click the email link at the bottom of this article and let me know.

Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,

A slightly belated question on the Esper shard. I couldn't place which card was bugging me until now. From a flavor perspective, considering Esper as an isolated shard, why would the Executioner's Capsule exist?

Since virtually all beings on Esper are made partially of etherium (and thus classified as artifact creatures where they appear in Magic), the Dispeller's Capsule is more effective at destroying the creatures of Esper than the Executioner's Capsule; the Dispeller's Capsule can destroy Puppet Conjurers, Thoughtcutter Agents, and other such creatures that an Executioner's Capsule can't even touch.

I'd understand better if there were a "That creature can't be regenerated" clause or something similar, but the way the two are worded, when thinking about Esper in isolation, it seems as if the executioners are less effective than their cleanup crew!

Is this just a case of the three-card cycle trumping flavor, or is there some delicate point I'm missing, something along the lines of the executioners being in league with the black-oriented elements of Esper's society?
Thanks for the time!


Certainly there are mechanical and Magic-tradition reasons why Executioner's Capsule specifies nonblack—the card was likely designed as a "Terror spellbomb" counterpart to its Esper brethren, a "Disenchant spellbomb" and an "Inspiration spellbomb." Specifying "nonblack" is a customary rider for black creature-kill effects in the tradition of the original Terror and Dark Banishing, and that's likely the main reason it showed up there.

Executioner's Capsule
Dispeller's Capsule

But this is a flavor column. Why would Esper have one type of spell-capsule that contained magic capable of killing any Esper creature, and another that could only kill some of them? Is the executioner's death-spell a relic of ancient times, both its power and its restrictions passed down through generations of necro-mages from a time before Alara was broken into five planes? Is some issue involved in the cost-benefit of artifact construction, such that creating a limited-target spell-capsule that can be activated for is easier than creating an unlimited-target spell-capsule that can be activated for ? Is the nonblack restriction somehow part of the way the black capsule's magic kills, flooding its victim with a sudden influx of terrifying imagery that just doesn't do the trick on the devious minds of black-aligned creatures? Was the Executioner's Capsule designed before the Ethersworn had radically transformed Esper into a world populated almost exclusively with artifact creatures, and was therefore previously more useful as an anti-flesh measure?

Your idea got me thinking the most, John—that maybe there's some deal that Esper's executioners have with the plane's black-aligned creatures, such that they never make a capsule that can off one of their own. Or given that it's black we're talking about, it could have been an Esperite looking out for Number One: Perhaps the first creator of an Executioner's Capsule, likely a black-aligned artificer himself, wanted to make sure his capsule creation could never be used against him. In hacker terms, it's like a back door—a feature designed specifically with its creator in mind. I guess the inventor of the Dispeller's Capsule had no such concern.

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