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In Magic’s new Core Set 2019, a good dragon is hard to find

The way this set was designed makes one single card the object of my desire ... my precious

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Svetlin Velinov/Wizards of the Coast
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Every time that the team at Magic: The Gathering comes out with a new set of cards, a very short list of people in the press get a box sent to their office. All of ours become part of the Polygon game library, so rest assured I’m not flipping cards on eBay for a hefty profit. Nevertheless, I’m a collector at heart. This time around there’s one, single card that’s eluding me, a dragon named Nicol Bolas. And it’s his story, and his very powerful planeswalker card, that is the seed that the entire Core Set 2019 has been built on.

I simply must have it.

Nicol Bolas isn’t a new part of the Magic lore by any stretch. He’s been around since the Legends set in 1994, meaning he’s nearly as old as Mishra and the Phyrexians.

(No, Mishra and the Phyrexians is not a cover band, although someone should probably look into that.)

From Bolas’ official biography:

Elder dragon and tyrant of worlds, Nicol Bolas is one of the oldest known beings in the Multiverse. ... A force of villainous destruction, crushing all magic — and minds — that stand in his way.

Witness to countless wars, cataclysms, and rivalries, Bolas is one of only five elder dragons to survive the Dragon War. He’s also survived the destruction of his Madaran Empire on Dominaria at the hands of Tetsuo Umezawa, the epic duels between the Planeswalkers Leshrac and Teferi, and The Mending, which healed the universe and consequently changed the very nature of the Planeswalker spark, costing several Planeswalkers their lives.

In most games, either digital or physical, a character that powerful would never be handed over to the player. But Magic does it anyway. In the Core Set 2019 Bolas’ powers are fascinating and potent. Mark Rosewater, the game’s head designer, laid them bare in a blog post on Monday.

As this card was the focus of the set, the set design team decided to give the planeswalker side four loyalty abilities. The first and only plus ability draws you cards to play into Bolas’s intelligence and thirst for knowledge. The second ability allows you to kill a creature or planeswalker and plays up his destructive nature. His third ability allows him to reanimate creatures and planeswalkers, hinting at his actions on Amonkhet. Notice that the first ability was blue, the second red and the third black.

The ultimate wanted to be something splashy as you have to go through a lot of hoops to get there. We don’t like to put “win the game” on ultimates, but Bolas’s ultimate gets to come pretty close. It also plays into the flavor that Bolas is known for: destroying people’s minds. The ultimate was made “target player” rather than hitting all opponents, as hitting everyone was a little too brutal in multiplayer play.

But Bolas is even more difficult to play than your standard planeswalker. He’s double-sided, the only double-sided card in the entire set, a first since Magic introduced double-sided cards in 2011. In order to get him into play you need a blue, black and red mana plus one mana of another color. Then he comes into play as a 4/4 creature, putting him at immediate risk of being destroyed. In order to transform him into a planeswalker, players need another blue, black and red mana plus four more for a total casting cost of 11 mana.

Then you need to build up enough loyalty to actually use his ultimate ability, something that could take you six more turns.

Simply put, building your entire deck around having one or more Nicol Bolas cards is a dangerous and stupid way to play Magic, especially for someone who is as bad at the game as I am.

Nevertheless ...

I want it. I need it. Give it to me. I mean Polygon. Give it to Polygon.

Core Set 2019 drops on July 13. The big prerelease event is this weekend, where players around the world will get their hands on the cards for the first time. For more information, check out Wizards of the Coast’s handy primer on how prerelease events work, or hit up your friendly local game store.