The first Standard results with Core Set 2019 are in and Nicol Bolas is ravaging the format!
What makes Nicol Bolas so good?
Making comparisons to four-drop mythics like Hazoret the Fervent, Rekindling Phoenix, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance is a reasonable place to start when trying to evaluate Nicol Bolas. On its face, Nicol Bolas doesn't seem to stack up to those cards, especially considering how the other cards have been riding roughshod through Standard for quite some time now. I mean, it's a three-color card.
Evaluating Nicol Bolas comes with a lesson of context. If the entire format is playing cards like Vraska's Contempt and Hour of Glory to answer Rekindling Phoenix and Hazoret the Fervent, Nicol Bolas is much more appealing (assuming you ignore the somewhat prohibitive mana cost).
The other thing that sets Nicol Bolas apart from the rest is the fact that if he lives, you will eventually win the game. In the first league I played, I transformed him twice and had the opportunity to do it two other times, but my alternate options were stronger. Transforming Nicol Bolas is very real, it comes up often enough (and more so in the versions with Liliana, Death's Majesty I'd imagine), and when it happens, you typically win.
It's not like you have to play Nicol Bolas instead of the other four-drops though. The other red decks played multiple four-drops and you get to do the same! Once you've decided to play a midrange deck, Hazoret the Fervent looks weaker and Chandra, Torch of Defiance looks stronger, so that's basically where I ended up. Rekindling Phoenix is still quite good, but it's not as powerful as Bolas at the moment.
You could go harder on the Dragon theme if you wanted. I've tried decks with Dragon's Hoard, Spit Flame, and Verix Bladewing, but I wasn't impressed. Spit Flame doesn't line up particularly well in the format at the moment, but that could potentially change at some point.
Dragon's Hoard was quite good with more Dragons, but Verix Bladewing wasn't quite cutting it. Having a mana accelerator that was also a draw engine was about as good as you would expect it to be. Being able to play a Duress or Magma Spray off of Dragon's Hoard on Turn 3 to mitigate the tempo loss was also incredible. It's one of those cards that is probably going to get better with each set release.
One of Nicol Bolas's best friends (awkwardly enough) is Liliana, Death's Majesty. Sadly, I don't think we can get Liliana into our Goblin Chainwhirler / Nicol Bolas deck unless we start playing Fetid Pools, and that's not something I'm willing to do. If we went back to playing more Dragon's Hoards, I could potentially see it, but the Bolas / Liliana combination seems better suited to a B/U shell than a Mono-Red shell. So far, I've liked the red-based builds the best.
This is mostly just an update to R/B Midrange. In fact, it's basically Mono-Red splashing Nicol Bolas!
The power of Sarkhan, Fireblood can't be understated. One of the ways you lose matches to control or midrange is by drawing too many dead removal spells in Game 1. After sideboard, you're generally favored, but if they get a free win in the first game, it's so much easier for them to win the match. Sarkhan's rummaging ability is a huge game changer in those matchups.
Only adding mana for Dragons is kind of disappointing until you realize that if you were going to cast a Dragon anyway, you'll have two mana left over to cast other spells. Being able to play two threats in a turn by using Sarkhan as a fake Burning-Tree Emissary has also been excellent.
There's a 26th land and no Bomat Couriers, but that's the direction you want to go if you also want to play four copies of Glorybringer for the late game power and Sarkhan synergy. You no longer have to play Bomat Courier and a low land count in the hopes of having a reasonable control matchup.
Now, Glorybringer isn't ideal in a format full of Nicol Bolas, but Glorybringer isn't the worst if it gets to exert on something else and trade. You don't necessarily have to play eight Dragons to make Sarkhan good, but Glorybringer is among the best five-drops you can play at the moment. The Scarab God is a possibility, but I've liked the immediate value from Glorybringer, the Sarkhan synergy, and it being easier to cast.
Scrapheap Scrounger and Heart of Kiran are still some of the best threats you can play. My original lists omitted the two-drop threats in favor of more Dragon synergies and more interaction, but that was a mistake. You want threats to close games and you want things you can do early, even if they aren't exactly what you'd prefer to be doing in the matchup.
For example, you might want to sideboard out Scrapheap Scrounger against Mono-Red Aggro and Mono-Green Aggro because you're not the aggressor and it doesn't interact favorably, but I don't think you can. Having something that is less than ideal in those matchups is still important because you need to have a turn two play. The chip damage from Scrapheap Scrounger will allow you to close the game faster with your big threats, which could mean the difference between winning and losing a race.
Heart of Kiran's new best friend is Sarkhan. You were never short on pilots, but now it's almost trivial. Given that, Heart of Kiran is one of the strongest cards in the deck, especially because it complements the rest of your 4/4 fliers perfectly. I could see playing four copies, but it's already so difficult to kill. Despite having Sarkhan, I don't necessarily want to load up on awkward legendary permanents. You can't rummage through everything.
The removal suite is fairly normal. You want Magma Spray for the aggressive decks and Abrade is among the best removal spells you can play, especially since Stitcher's Supplier likely props up God-Pharaoh's Gift. Past that, you want some stuff for bigger threats. Unlicensed Disintegration is an option, even though you're light on artifacts. Cut kills most of the things in the format, but if that changes, you'll want to adapt as well.
Some of the R/B decks I've seen have been maindecking Hour of Glory, which isn't the worst decision. You save on sideboard slots, but it's clunky and doesn't seem necessary at the moment.
This deck has ten sources of blue mana, not counting Sarkhan. I've mostly been playing with four copies of the planeswalker and haven't regretted it so far, but there are several matchups out there, such as Mono-Green Aggro, where Sarkhan would be a liability. Shaving one copy seems like a fine hedge, even if it's potentially wrong.
Overall, the manabase has been good. There are very few situations where you have too many lands that enter the battlefield tapped, and I have been able to cast my spells. Being conservative with the non-red mana symbols I put in my deck has helped as well. Perhaps the mana could be improved to some degree, but I'm not sure what that would entail at the moment.
My sideboard is fairly normal for a R/B Midrange deck.
Jace's Defeat could be Essence Scatter or Negate, depending on what you expect to play against. For the most part, I want an answer to Torrential Gearhulk and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria out of control decks, so Jace's Defeat is perfect. Similarly, Sorcerous Spyglass is mainly for Teferi, but it also has broader applications against Gate to the Afterlife and opposing planeswalkers.
There are some other cards, like Commit and Banefire, that I've considered, but ultimately didn't make the cut. Banefire as a removal spell is poor, but it's a potent tool against control decks. Commit is like a Vraska's Contempt that's more castable in this deck, plus it would give you more game against Torrential Gearhulk. Despite that, I didn't want to stretch the mana too much.
Sideboarding copies of Walking Ballista is something I liked doing at the tail end of last season. There are several matchups where your damage-based removal won't necessarily line up with your opponent's threats, and while you have Sarkhan to sift through cards, I'd rather not rely on that if I don't have to.
Walking Ballista allows you to interact with Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, Whirler Virtuoso tokens, and planeswalkers without having to play something specifically to answer them. It's not great in Game 1s when you already have so much removal for small creatures, but it's a good way to keep them honest in sideboard games while not compromising your threat count.
VS Control w/ Torrential Gearhulk
If you win Game 1, you should be very happy. Your dead cards are a liability, but you can win a lot of games off of your aggression.
VS Mono-Red Aggro
If they're the Wizard's Lightning version, I would also bring in Duresses and be a little lighter on answers for their four-drops. The versions that are lower to the ground rarely have as many big things and you'd prefer to have a lower mana curve.
If you're on the play and they sideboard into a bigger deck, the planeswalkers are reasonable to keep in.
VS R/B Midrange
Magma Spray is a tad on the weak side, but it does remove Scrapheap Scrounger completely and can tag team with Goblin Chainwhirler to exile a Rekindling Phoenix. Walking Ballista is reasonable against planeswalkers and Elemental tokens. If they have more Heart of Kirans, you'll want all the Abrades. Basically, you should customize your removal spells against their deck.
One of the biggest things I've learned in the matchup is that you should almost certainly hold your Goblin Chainwhirlers. There's very little reason to cast it for no value if you think it will die. Save it until you can finish off a Chandra or use it in tandem with Abrade to deal with Rekindling Phoenix.
VS B/U Midrange
You could try Jace's Defeat here as a means to fight Torrential Gearhulk or The Scarab God, but I haven't had great experiences with that card in this matchup. They have too many ways to make the card mostly irrelevant.
VS Green Creatures
These sorts of matchups are exactly where Spit Flame should shine. However, it could also be another copy of Doomfall or Cut and likely serve the purpose just as well. Hour of Glory is medium, but could be worth it against Rhonas and Ghalta.
Sorcerous Spyglass can come in as an answer to vehicles if you think you need it.
There's more than one good home for Nicol Bolas out there, but this is my current favorite. R/B was easily the best deck last season, so playing an updated version of it for the first week of this format can't be very wrong. You might have more success with B/U Midrange splashing Nicol Bolas or lighting people on fire with Mono-Red Aggro.
Even if R/B Midrange isn't the perfect deck, it's still one of the best decks out there, and it just got even better.