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Nicol Bolas in MTG Pioneer Mono-Green Devotion!

One of the more fascinating developments in competitive Pioneer is that more and more Mono-Green Devotion players are adding a Grixis spell to their decks.

Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God

Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God is undeniably a powerful planeswalker, but how in the world are Mono-Green Devotion players drawing UBBBR mana from their lands?

Well, they’re not.

Storm the FestivalOath of Nissa

The trick is that Nicol Bolas can be put onto the battlefield with Storm the Festival if it’s in the top five cards of your library. And if Nicol Bolas is in your hand, then you can cast it via Oath of Nissa. To improve consistency further, Oath of Nissa can be grabbed off Storm the Festival.

For reference, here is a representative list that recently won a high-profile event.

 

 

 

Pioneer Mono-Green Devotion by Cherryxman

 

What does Nicol Bolas add to the deck, and how did it catch on?

Oath of NissaChandra, Flamecaller

This is not the first time we’re seeing off-color planeswalkers in an Oath of Nissa deck. Back in 2016, Raphaël Lévy won Grand Prix Manchester with a Selesnya Tokens deck featuring two Chandra, Flamecaller that he could only cast via Oath of Nissa. I analyzed his deck, relevant probabilities, and mathematical perspectives in this article.

Nicol Bolas, Dragon-GodKarn, the Great CreatorKiora, Behemoth Beckoner

Going back to Mono-Green Devotion in Pioneer, the first recorded time where a player cast Nicol Bolas was, to the best of my knowledge, this game of Bobby Fortanely on June 21.

As he told me, “I was inspired by your article about Raph Levy’s two Chandra, Flamecaller at GP Manchester 2016. I wanted a card that would be good against UW which wasn’t hit by Farewell and could kill a Teferi on five loyalty, which left only non-green planeswalkers. After testing it, I found that Nicol Bolas actually does more than I expected in this deck: it doubles as a combo piece with Kiora/Karn to decrease required devotion/mana, it allows comboing through a Pithing Needle, it counts as a black source via Nykthos for casting Pestilent Cauldron, and it even allows you to combo faster on MTGO by exiling all your opponent’s permanents rather than doing the Restorative Burst loop.”

Voracious HydraPolukranos, World Eater

“It’s taking the place,” Fortanely continued, “of Voracious Hydra (which is good to draw but terrible to Storm into) or Polukranos (which is worse to draw, but better to Storm into, but only truly good when there’s a lot of excess mana available). There’s a real drawback to having a more difficult to cast card, but also compelling upside.”

This all makes sense, and the deck quickly made the rounds. Fortanely’s teammate Allen Wu got the rest of their team on the Mono-Green bandwagon, and then their teammate Gavin Thompson talked Slater Claudel into running the Nicol Bolas version at an RCQ. Claudel promptly made Top 8. On July 17, Tellkou did well with the deck in a published Magic Online event, and it took off from there. Over the past few weeks, roughly half of the Mono-Green Devotion decks have included Nicol Bolas in their list – usually one, sometimes two.

But how bad is the drawback? How frequently will you be stuck holding an uncastable Nicol Bolas?

 

What’s the risk vs. reward for Nicol Bolas?

In line with my 2016 article, I set up a simulation, this time coded in Python. Key assumptions are as follows:

  • You have a deck with 33 Forests, four Oath of Nissa, one Nicol Bolas, four Storm the Festival and 18 irrelevant cards. This is an abstraction of reality: real decks have fewer Forests and more Elves and Kioras, but this facilitates the analysis.
  • From turn four onward, we assume that we always have an extra mana available. This assumption attempts to incorporate the ramp potential of, e.g., Wolfwillow Haven or Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx in a simplified way.
  • We alternate between play and draw, and we use a reasonable mulligan policy, as described in more detail in the simulation code.
  • We start every turn by playing a land if possible and subsequently check if we can cast Nicol Bolas. If not, we cast Oath of Nissa if possible. Then, we check again if we can play a land or Nicol Bolas. Otherwise, we cast Storm the Festival if possible. 
  • When Oath of Nissa enters the battlefield, we take Nicol Bolas if possible and otherwise take a land if possible.
  • With Storm the Festival, we grab Nicol Bolas if possible and otherwise grab as many Oath of Nissa as possible.
  • For 10 million games, we simulate the first six turns. This is a reasonable game length that still allows us to cast Nicol Bolas after grabbing Oath of Nissa with Storm the Festival. For each game, there are three possible outcomes:
    • IGNORE: We did not have five lands by turn five or we never saw Nicol Bolas by turn six. This game is irrelevant for our purposes because, even if we controlled Oath of Nissa, we wouldn’t have been able to curve into Nicol Bolas or Storm the Festival. After all, we didn’t draw enough lands or we never saw the planeswalker in the first place.
    • BOLAS IN PLAY: We had five lands by turn five and we control Nicol Bolas by turn six and/or hold a castable Nicol Bolas by turn six. Success! 
    • UNCASTABLE BOLAS: We had five lands by turn five, so we could’ve curved into key spells, but on turn six we’re still holding an uncastable Nicol Bolas, i.e., we have Nicol Bolas in hand but no Oath of Nissa in play.

Given this setup, out of all non-IGNORE games, the results were that 82.5 percent were BOLAS IN PLAY games and 17.5 percent were UNCASTABLE BOLAS games. So, loosely speaking, for every four or five games where you have Nicol Bolas on the battlefield, you’ll have one game where you’re stuck with a dead card in hand. 

In case you would be playing two Nicol Bolas, rather than one, this ratio would be extremely similar. This would remain true even if you’d count games where you draw two uncastable Bolas as twice as bad because, intuitively, those games are rare. All in all, there’s no massive difference between running one Bolas or two Bolas in terms of risk vs. reward.

The impact of Storm the Festival was substantial. Going back to the original one Bolas deck, if I would cut four Storm the Festival and would add four irrelevant cards, then out of all resulting non-IGNORE games, suddenly 67.8 percent would be BOLAS IN PLAY games and 32.2 percent would be UNCASTABLE BOLAS games. That’s a massive difference with the four Storm deck.

This 67.8 percent number, by the way, is very similar to the 68.8 percent number I determined in my 2016 article, and it’s also similar to the 63.4 percent hypergeometric probability of seeing at least one Oath of Nissa in your top 13 cards. The differences are due to differences in the underlying assumptions and definitions, but they all capture the same ballpark consistency for a deck without Storm the Festival.

 

Is it worth it?

Back in 2016, I concluded that unless the metagame would be at the point where Chandra is about 1.5 times as powerful (more precisely, 1/0.688) as the best in-color alternative – and I didn’t believe that was the case – I wouldn’t play Chandra in the main deck. If it weren’t for Storm the Festival, I would probably arrive at the same conclusion for Nicol Bolas. But the presence of that sorcery does make the inclusion more appealing. Now, if Nicol Bolas is about 1.25 times as powerful (more precisely, 1/0.825) as the best in-color alternative, then it’ll already be worth it.

But is that the case? In the end, it depends on the metagame. In a metagame dominated by aggressive creature decks, I’d probably rather have Voracious Hydra or Polukranos than Nicol Bolas. A huge blocker can pose more of a problem for them than an easily attacked planeswalker, and if you don’t have Oath of Nissa very early on, then the game will probably be over before you can draw into the enchantment. Against aggro decks, it’s high risk, low reward.

However, in the current Pioneer metagame, the most popular archetypes appear to be Rakdos Midrange, Mono-Green Devotion and Azorius Control. In these midrange or control matchups, Nicol Bolas is substantially better than the alternatives, and games tend to go long. This means that even if you’re stuck with an uncastable Bolas early on, you’ll have plenty of time to find Oath of Nissa. Against these decks, it’s medium risk, high reward.

With all this in mind, I believe that in the current Pioneer metagame, one or two Nicol Bolas is a fine inclusion in Mono-Green Devotion. I wouldn’t run three or four because you don’t have that many flex slots and because the risk of drawing multiples would become unacceptably high. But the idea of adding one or two can be worth it, no matter how crazily out of place a Grixis card in a mono-green deck might seem.

 

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