The One, The Only, Nicol Bolas

Posted in Savor The Flavor on April 8, 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

The cold, olive-green scales whose surface eats light itself like the shell of a black hole.

The dull glowing eyes, behind whose forever-deep pits lurk aeons of secret knowledge.

The mighty wings and horns, customarily emblematic of a dragon's glory, but used instead to terrify and overawe the mortal mind.

His form is known on many worlds, and he is known by many names.

Former ruler of the empire of Madara. Scourge of the Umezawa line. The longtime enemy of the dark kami known as the Myojin of Night's Reach.

One of the five Elders who survived an ancient war of the dragons, and mightiest of the five.

The most powerful planeswalker alive, even after the Mending left his spark diffused, his mind and power waning.

He's also one of a kind in the card realm.

Planeswalkers and Cycles

Nicol Bolas is not part of a cycle. And yet he sort of is.

The first batch of five Lorwyn planeswalkers were designed to epitomize the five colors. They each have their own personalities, schticks, and strategies, and they don't share much in common beyond being five monocolored planeswalkers, but they're a strict cycle in that there's one for each color.

For the introduction of the planeswalker card type, it was important to cycle them this way, to show that planeswalkers weren't just a "red thing" or a "white thing," but a mainstay of Magic that cut across all the colors.

However, we in Creative wanted to make it clear that planeswalkers have their own identities, their own agendas. They're the heroes of the Magic multiverse, as expressed in the novels, digital games, webcomics, and other venues, in addition to their cards in Magic sets. As such, we didn't want them to be slaves to block themes. For example, although the Lorwyn set's planeswalkers are a cycle across the five colors, none of them have tribal mechanics or other Lorwyn block mechanics among their abilities. Although they showed up in Lorwyn, they're their own people, with far-flung origins and backstories unrelated to the world in which we first saw them—they're not subject to what's going on there on that plane. (They're planeswalkers, after all.)

After Lorwyn, Shards of Alara turned out to be our first opportunity to bust out some new planeswalker characters. We studiously avoided cycling them. Although Shards was the debut of multicolor planeswalkers, it was definitely not a strict cycle of three-color planeswalkers. There are two monocolored ones (Elspeth, Knight-Errant and Tezzeret, the Seeker), one allied-colored gold one (Sarkhan Vol), and one enemy-colored gold planeswalker who was also a "2.0" version of a character we had seen before (Ajani Vengeant). And there were four of them, including two who were native to the setting, whereas none of the Lorwyn five were native to that (humanless) world. Some feel at home in many kinds of decks, while Tezzeret fits quite narrowly in artifact decks. We wanted to stress the point that these were a mixed bag, a group of individuals who were not showing up here just to show off the block theme of three-color shards.

But while the four Shards planeswalkers didn't fit the profile of a cycle, in a way they almost did. Each of them fit into a single shard—Elspeth had adopted Bant as her new home plane, Sarkhan Vol was drawn to the predatory dragon-realm of Jund, Tezzeret was native to Esper, and Ajani was born on Naya. There was a gap.

The shard of Grixis.

The idea that there was going to be a Grixis planeswalker caught on as soon as Shards of Alara released. Message boards buzzed, and I got letter after letter asking me a question I couldn't answer before Conflux—where was the Grixis planeswalker? Even while we endeavored to un-cycle the Alara planeswalkers, the irresistibility of assigning each one to a shard created the perception of a planeswalker-shaped gap in the set. Some people even called it—they saw the shadow in the art of Cruel Ultimatum, compared it to the new art for Nicol Bolas in From the Vault: Dragons, and even noted the presence of a time-shifted Bolas in packs of Time Spiral—and guessed who'd be making an appearance later in Shards of Alara block.

So Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker is part of a cycle, kind of. He's the hole-filler, the answer to the riddle, the missing link to complete the one-per-shard pattern in Alara, and the perfect emblem for his temporary abode, the shard of Grixis. He's still his own character through and through, of course—he's the most powerful (and mana-greedy) planeswalker to date, the only (at this writing) three-color planeswalker ever printed, and the only planeswalker card based on a character so steeped in Magic's storyline history. But we were happy to let the urge to pattern-complete set the stage for Bolas's arrival. Once he appeared on the scene, he would be the best kind of surprise—like when you're pretty sure someone is getting you a gift, and you know they shopped somewhere good, but you're not entirely sure what they've got all wrapped up for you.

The Puzzle of Bolas's Mind

Speaking of patterns, Nicol Bolas does not like the pattern he's seeing. His most valuable possession was his immense knowledge and experience—and he's seeing that slipping away, like puzzle pieces floating out of the intricate jigsaw puzzle of his memory. The Mending was the salvation of the Multiverse, in that it sealed the time rifts that threatened to obliterate everything. Yet that healing event has effectively put limits on Bolas's capacity for power, encroaching on his ability to hold inside of him all the vast knowledge that he once held. At first his mortality caused the eerie feeling of remembering that he had forgotten something. Soon it may bring the even darker feeling—the realization that he has been forgotten things he doesn't even know he once knew.

He's got a plan to head off this brutal decay, and to not only restore his former glory, but to assume total, unmatched power in the multiverse. Befitting his mighty intellect, his plan has many moving parts, none of which would be obvious to the naked eye. What the dragon doesn't have anymore is time—the millennia to let his intricate schemework unfold. The clock is ticking.

Luckily, he's still a force to be reckoned with on any world. Mortal minds are just as malleable in his hands as they were when he was the god-emperor of Madara. He may not be omnipotent—but he's plenty potent.

But since he has to move more quickly now, his plans may be discovered. Will he be able to enact the early stages of his plan before the forces of Alara get the better of him, and before the attention of planeswalkers becomes too invasive? That brings me to Announcement Time!

Alara Unbroken

I've mentioned before that the Shards of Alara block represents a change to how we release books related to Magic. Back in October, Shards of Alara kicked off the new books plan with A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara, a style guide come to life with concept art, full-color art, and the very text used to create the look and feel of the Alara setting.

Releasing alongside the Conflux set was Ari Marmell's Agents of Artifice, the first in our series of planeswalker novels that follow the trials and travels of Magic's planeswalker heroes. Look for the next planeswalker novel this summer, releasing around the time of the Magic 2010 set.

The third part of the books schedule is the block novel. I'm proud to tell you that the block novel for the Shards of Alara block is Alara Unbroken, written by me. It releases in just under a month, on May 5, right after Alara Reborn set hits shelves.

The Internet sleuths among you may have seen a different version of the Alara Unbroken cover. This version of the cover (seen to the right) featured a cropped version of Jason Chan's awesome full cover art, and was sent out to our various book distributors and catalogs—but when you see the book on shelves, you'll see the full art in all its Nicol Bolas-showcasing glory. The reason we used the cropped version was timing. Because of how early the book had to be in some book distributors' catalogs, the cover may actually have been seen before Conflux, which may have spoiled the presence of Nicol Bolas in the Conflux set. We in R&D felt strongly that Nicol Bolas needed to stay a secret until Conflux, but the dragon really, really wanted to be on the front cover of the book—so our books department cleverly cropped in on the Ajani Vengeant Rafiq of the Many in the foreground, and used that for the early book image.

Anyway, my main point is—I wrote the block novel this time around. It's about the story of Alara, and about Nicol Bolas's plans there, and how the pieces of certain planeswalkers' lives intersect to form an interconnected, mana-rich, plane-spanning story. It's called Alara Unbroken, and I'd be excited if you checked it out when it releases. It comes out May 5—but hey, if you want, you can read a sample from the book right now! It peeks in on what a certain dragon planeswalker is doing at the time of Shards of Alara, and sets the stage for the whole plot of the Alara setting.

Alara Unbroken
ISBN-10: 0786952016
ISBN-13: 978-0786952014

Letter of the Week

Today's letter comes from Travis.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Circumnavigation":

The idea comes to me while reading the part of your answer about Otaria that our equivalent is the contents of this or that deck: shuffling up is travelling through the Blind Eternities (& I'd love to see a set based on them), & your opening hand is the general area in which you appear, complete with a smattering of local flora, fauna, merryweather, arcana, mystical beings, hyperintelligent shades of the color blue, Dread Slags, Rather Nice Slags When You Get to Know Them, & various other Kitchen F/Sinks.

Anyhoo, on to MY question. What is the flavor of painlands? I can understand lands that require you to pay life to get mana out of them-these are lands that demand a blood sacrifice (rather intimate when you think about it). But lands that damage you, I don't know. The only things I can think of are thorns, & natives who don't much like outsiders (kinda like human thorns, really). What are your thoughts?

Thanks for your question, Travis. That's an interesting idea in your first paragraph—that shuffling up for a fresh game of Magic represents you heading to your next destination, and that your opening hand somehow corresponds to the conditions of your arrival. There are some problems with the idea, in that sometimes your opening hand has spells and lands from all different worlds—a bunch of Ouphes from Shadowmoor, a memory of the Razor Plains of Mirrodin, and Umezawa's Jitte, say. When you planeswalk, you bring your spell knowledge with you—you don't often pick up an arsenal of spell-weaponry from your new surroundings. But it's a cool idea, worth thinking about.

Your main question is, basically, about the difference in flavor between these two cards:

Horizon Canopy

Ignore the secondary abilities, the sacking for a card vs. the tapping for colorless. One says "In order to use this, you have to pay 1 life" and the other says "The consequence for having used this is that this land smacks you for 1." Now, I doubt you'll find a general flavor rule that applies to all such drawback-ish lands—the fact that the Ice Age / Apocalypse painlands and the Onslaught fetchlands were very strictly cycled (as most nonbasic lands are) means that the flavor has to follow along behind the mechanics in these cases. The art and names of those cards, as you'll note, do little to explain that point of pain. I could stretch and explain it (the biting, icy winds of the Karplusan Forest carry through the mana bond, chilling you to the core every time you reach out for mana from that place—which is actually pretty cool), but mostly, for the purposes of flavor, the ouchy drawback on these lands is summarily ignored. The pain is a game-balancing feature, which for all I know was added to those cards after the art descriptions were written.

However, if you're asking me to look deeper—as I do, as you know, enjoy doing—then let's talk timing and prevention.

Horizon Canopy has the ouch before the colon, and Brushland has it after. That's surprisingly unimportant in this case—since Brushland's green-or-white ability is a mana ability, it doesn't use the stack. So either way, if you're at 1 life and you tap one of these lands for a point o' the green, you're going to die before you get a chance to save your sorry butt with a Sylvan Bounty. (You can stack up that point of pain with City of Brass, however!) The fact that Brushland uses damage matters to prevention, however—if you have Solitary Confinement out, then you'll still have to pay life to Horizon Canopy, but you're safe from Brushland.

So what does that mean? When you have a mana bond to each of those two locations, what is the flavor difference there?

Think of two buttons on a control panel, the kind that push down satisfyingly when you press them—big, like the palm of your hand. One has a knife sticking up through the top of the button, all obvious-like, ready to stab you through the palm when you slam on the button. The other has a knife hidden down inside the button, such that when you press down it, you still get stabbed—but when it's just sitting there, all you see is button. The former is Horizon Canopy—you pay 1 life up front, you know what you're getting, and you accept it. The latter is Brushland—you're still going to take some damage (overly-complex Shield of the Ages tricks aside), but it's a little sneakier about it. (Thanks to Monty Ashley for the visual analogy here.)

I think that's the key to the flavor difference here—for "pay life" lands, the pain is part of the very nature of summoning up the mana, an agreed-upon cost that must be met before that mana starts flowing. For "damages you" lands, the pain is inherent in the mana itself. You call for the mana with no up-front costs, but then the pain comes along for the ride as part of the experience.


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