When you think of Magical Antagonists, there are a handful that likely spring to mind. The Phyrexians used to be the big kid on the block, and the Eldrazi are not something to sneeze at. But really, if you are talking about consistent antagonists, Nicol Bolas must be near the top of this list.
And it’s not hard to see why. But first, who is Nicol Bolas?
The origins of Nicol Bolas are long and convoluted, but let me give you the brief version.
Nicol Bolas is about 25,000 years old. For some context in the real world, 25,000 years ago we were just struggling to figure out agriculture and numbers. Cave paintings were not for another 5,000 years.
Our story begins when he was already an “Elder Dragon”. He was not the only one- far from it. He was but one player in the “Elder Dragon war”, about which little is known. What is known are the following: he won, and he became a planeswalker.
A diversion: on power levels
Now, let me back up a second. If you are familiar with Magic’s story, you likely have some handle on the powers of the Gatewatch. They are powerful mages that can walk between dimensions, but in a real way still very much limited in their powers.
This did not used to be the case. Before the Mending (we are coming to that), planeswalkers were nigh omnipotent in the areas they had mastered. This is when Sorin, for example, built the Helvault and Archangel Avacyn. Bolas himself built (at least one) world from scratch (the soon to be explored Amonkhet).
But back to the story.
So having become a planeswalker, Bolas set himself up as God-Emperor on the Plane of Dominaria - specifically an area known as Madara, where he reigned for four centuries. Madara was important to him because it sat at the meeting place of blue, red and black leylines, which fed into his power.
Then he chose the wrong champion.
Tetsuo Umezawa was Bolas’s champion for a time, until he rebelled against his master’s harsh tactics. He challenged Bolas, and fought him in his meditation plain.
Umezawa, surprisingly, won.
So that’s it then. Bolas is dead, story over. Well, next week -
Not quite dead
So no, Bolas didn’t meet his final end at the hands of his champion. He had become so powerful that his spirit lived on. And he might have lived on it spirit only, if it were not for the rifts.
Before he even set himself up as emperor, Bolas had a planeswalker duel that opened the first of these temporal rifts. Others soon began to open as godlike planeswalkers threw their weight around, and they were slowly destroying the multiverse. Finally, a group decided to close these rifts. This rift included some familiar faces such as Teferi and Venser.
Unfortunately, in trying to seal these rifts, they let the dragon out.
Each rift could only be mended with the sacrifice of a planeswalker's spark. Not completely without self interest, Bolas nobly sacrificed the spark of a random planeswalker who challenged him to a duel to seal his portal. Then he left, seeking a way to survive the imminent collapse.
But that collapse didn’t happen. An epic spell mended the multiverse, closing the last rifts.
This was the mending. And it reduced all living and future planeswalkers - including Bolas - to a fraction of his powers.
Keep that in mind going forwards.
So the mending happened about 100 years ago in story time. So what has Bolas been up to since?
Difficult to say, but this week there are two direct machinations I wanted to cover. The first is on Alara, where we also got a good glance at his M.O.
So Alara was a plane split into five, with each “Shard” containing only three colors of mana. Bolas planned to manipulate the “Conflux”, when the five planes would merge, which would create a great nexus of energy that he could absorb to become more powerful.
To help gather energy, Bolas needed conflict. So rather than get his hands dirty, Bolas began manipulating agents on each shard to sow dissent and breed conflict. By the time the Conflux began, the entire plane was at war.
But as he absorbed it’s power, a rival emerged. The young leonin Ajani emerged and harnessed the Conflux to create a mirror of Bolas. The dragon fought his doppelganger to a draw, before finally having to withdraw.
Two of these agents would remain useful. One we will cover next week, and one we will cover today.
Sarkhan - useful madness
Sarkhan Vol was born on Tarkir, and had long dreamed of and worshipped dragons - which were long extinct on Tarkir*. After he became a planeswalker, he came to Alara and swore service to the most powerful dragon he could find - the most powerful dragon there is. He helped spread chaos, but slowly began to grow disillusioned with his master. Bolas, perhaps sensing this, gave him another task: to wander the Eye of Ugin on Zendikar.
*Notably, extinct because Bolas killed the other dragon planeswalker - Ugin - in a fight on Tarkir.
Sarkhan did, his mind slowly slipping away, until a young woman showed - Chandra. Sarkhan, now completely mad, led her to the eye before turning into a dragon and challenging her. Jace showed up, and together the two overpowered the powerful Sarkhan.
In the process, they did as Bolas wanted - their battle removed the final fail-safe, and just like that, the Eldrazi were released.
Which, of course, had been Bolas’ plan all along. To what purpose we have yet to learn.
There is more - so much more. Next week, we will cover Bolas’ manipulation of Tezzeret, which is a story in and of itself. For instance, I didn’t even get to the fact that it was Bolas who introduced Liliana to her demonic patrons.
Bolas is a giant dragon, but critically that is the beginning of his power and not the end. Bolas is brilliant and merciless, and his schemes take decades as he works behind the scenes. And I for one look forward to his return.
Written by Robert Trueblood