The mind of a dragon.

Nicol Bolas might be the most influential character in Magic’s storyline since Urza. He isn’t the face of the brand like Jace or the rest of the Gatewatch, but Bolas has enjoyed a degree of nigh-omniprescene for the past decade that no other character can even begin to claim. When I first started paying attention to the game’s story back in Scars of Mirrodin block, the very first explanation I received from an older player was, “Just assume an evil dragon is behind everything.”

It’s a very loose rule and was more accurate back then than it is now, but since being released during the events of Time Spiral, the only blocks which Bolas was not somehow involved were as follows:

  • Lorwyn/Shadowmoor
  • Theros

That’s it. I originally had the original Innistrad block on this list as well; but since we recently found discovered that Bolas was the broker behind Liliana’s demonic contract and the main plot of Innistrad was Liliana hunting Griselbrand, he had a long-hidden connection there as well. The argument could even be made that he had a connection to Theros block, since Elspeth and Kiora were both directly reacting to two threats (Phyrexia and the Eldrazi) that Bolas had had a huge hand in causing; but that’s a bit too tenuous for me.

Bolas is and has been the backbone upon which the entirety of Magic’s story has been built. Despite his massive impact on the story, however, Bolas has always been an enigmatic figure. He’s a perpetual archvillain so we’ve never gotten a story truly written from his point of view, and his sheer age and arrogance mean that any protagonist who tries to understand him is just wasting their time. Most of the time it doesn’t matter why he’s evil, he just is. He was most akin to a force of nature, albeit one prone to being spiteful.

All of that changed this summer. With eight stories dedicated to Bolas’s early days and psychology, we now know more about the elder dragon’s mind than ever before. With the massive Ravnica saga coming up, we can look at him as a character for the first time.

First things first. Bolas is ancient, practically immortal, and wields unimaginable power. He is for all intents and purposes a god; but so is Heliod, and that didn’t stop the Sun God from doing some downright stupid stuff back on Theros. If I’m going to look at Bolas, I have to separate his power from his personality. Bolas is not omniscient—much as he might want to be—so it’s unfair to hold him to that standard.

If there’s one character trait that shone through in the Core 19 story, it has to be Bolas’s arrogance. He takes it as a simple fact of the multiverse that he is the pinnacle of everything, that he is the strongest, the smartest and the greatest there ever was or ever will be. To be fair, most of the time he’s right. But not always. Bolas has been tricked and manipulated by a staggeringly large number of characters over the years and reacts with murderous rage whenever anyone shows him to be inferior in any way.

I know several people that got mad at the Core 19 story because it portrayed Bolas as manipulative but also more than a little dumb, while we’ve always seen Bolas portrayed as an unmatched genius. The thing is, I don’t think there’s a contradiction here. Bolas is undeniably cunning, but I would never have described him as wise. It is entirely possible for someone to have the collective knowledge of a thousand worlds and still be a selfish, bullying dick. Yes, Bolas has plots that span dozens of planes and thousands of years, but from the perspective of an ancient planeswakering Dragon that’s not really a sign of genius-level intellect. Really all he needed to put his current doomsday plan together was a decent memory and good instincts on who to contract out to build the Planar Bridge.

That is the advantage Bolas’s age gives him. Not intelligence per say, but a scope of existence that makes his actions unfathomable to anyone who doesn’t measure their lifespan in millennia. It’s a subtle difference and one that’s easy to overlook due to his own willingness to praise his intellect, but it’s vitally important.

What’s more, Boals is prone to leaving obvious holes in his plans. Possibly the best example of this is how he left the dregs of Maelstrom for Ajani to use at the end of the Alara Unbroken novel. Sure, it wasn’t all that much compared to what he had absorbed and he’d already accomplished his goals on the plane, but that tiny (from his perspective) oversight let Ajani create a soul-clone of him and drive him off of Alara. If that fight had gone a little differently Bolas could have died because of that miniscule oversight.

Speaking of Ajani’s soul-clone, it’s worth noting that the first reaction of Bolas upon seeing himself was to destroy it. Bolas can never truly have allies, because he would be compelled to destroy anyone who could even theoretically surpass him. He cannot accept help, only demand servitude.

And that is a huge weakness right now. Leading up to the second return to Ravnica, Bolas has been building a team of Planeswalkers and agents to assist in his plan. That team currently consists of:

  • Ral Zarek
  • Tezzeret
  • Vraska
  • Liliana Vess

It’s possible there are more we don’t know about, but this next year is going to be bloated with Planeswalkers anyway so I don’t find it super likely. Now, out of those four: Vraska is a double agent just waiting to turn on Bolas at the opportune moment. Tezzeret has double-crossed Bolas at least three times I can think of off the top of my head and has even been portrayed as an intellectual rival to the dragon at times. Liliana Vess only serves Bolas because she was forced into magical slavery and wants nothing more than to destroy him. And Ral Zarek’s biggest defining character trait is that he cares about Ravnica before all else.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not a set of allies I’d want to count on. Liliana is arguably the most loyal, but only because Bolas has a fail-safe in place to kill her if she steps out of line. Now there is an argument that it doesn’t matter if all four turn on him because he’s too powerful, but there’s one little wrinkle there.

Tezzeret controls the planar bridge.

It was implied at the end of Rivals of Ixalan and confirmed during Core 19, but Tezzeret integrated the planar bridge into his Etherium arm. This gives him control of Bolas’s entire plan. Tezzeret is able to move the Immortal Sun around at will. Tezzeret is the one who controls where the army of eternals go, and could theoretically even pull them off Ravnica. Heck, Tezzeret could even do something as simple as warp the Immortal Sun directly at Bolas’s feet and trap him on whatever plane he happens to be on. To be fair, Bolas could have implanted Tezzeret with some similar kind of fail-safe like he did with Liliana, but right now there’s no reason to think he did.

And that’s what I love about how WotC has built towards the Ravnica storyline. Bolas is a character of unimaginable power who has to lose for a whole host of reasons. But they’re setting things up so that Bolas could easily lose because of his flaws as a character instead of being overpowered in a nonsensical way. I just want to see what happens when Bolas realizes how badly he messed up and that he’s got nothing to lose. I don’t think the multiverse will have seen anything like it before.

Levi Byrne has been with the game since Worldwake and has a rabid love for fantasy writing that goes back decades. Despite some forays into Legacy he plays Commander almost exclusively, and has a love for the crazy plays and huge games that make Magic what it is. He was the go-to advisor of his playgroup on deck construction for more than five years before joining Dear Azami.

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