War of the Spark has been out for less than three weeks and already we are seeing a heavy impact of the set in all formats. From Neoform breaking Allosaurus Rider in Modern to Karn, The Great Creator finding Mycosynth Lattice to lock opponents out in Legacy and Vintage, there is no question that this is the most powerful set for overall eternal formats since Innistrad. More often than not, what we deem as “Powerful” in an eternal context is based on either raw mana efficiency or a way to cheat on costs. This is something that Wizards of the Coast has learned from and strayed away from for a long time until recent sets. Guilds of Ravnica block brought us 2 new ways to ignore mana costs with Arclight Phoenix and Creeping Chill, both of which have been multi-format all-stars since their release. War of the spark brings us once again a way to cheat on mana perhaps in the most absurd way possible for a card printed in the Modern era of magic. I introduce to you, Bolas's Citadel!
How Does This Work?
Similar to Future Sight and Experimental Frenzy, the wording of “play the top card” requires you to pay all costs, including additional costs. This means a card like Diabolic Intent or Culling the Weak still needs a creature to cast. Additional costs such as kicker can still be added, however, you will need to pay these costs as intended instead of with life. Unlike the versions we’ve seen in the past, Bolas's Citadel cannot use alternative costs like Force of Will or Land Grant.
The wording “pay life equal to its converted mana cost” will function as you imagine for most spells, but has some abusable aspects that might not be obvious at first glance. Because the ability reads “converted mana cost”, all X spells will be cast for a value of x=0 unless you wait until you draw the card and pay mana for it. Unlike Experimental Frenzy and other enchantments, cards with a nonexistent mana cost such as Lotus Bloom and Ancestral Visions can be cast for free without suspending!
Similar to Lantern of Insight in Modern, you are able to look at the top card of your library at any time, including in response to your own spells, while resolving a spell, or when you don’t have priority. This means if you cast Brainstorm or Faithless Looting, you can consult the card below those that you have drawn before choosing how you want to resolve your spell (this does not work with Ponder because you don’t draw the cards). However, resolving a spell is different from casting one; If you use Bolas's Citadel to cast Abrupt Decay, you must choose the target before seeing what lies below it.
Finally, remember that you can hold priority when casting your card selection spells with Bolas's Citadel. It’s pretty common to cast a Ponder off Bolas's Citadel and see a Dark Ritual under it. Casting the "ritual" before your Ponder resolves effectively lets you look 1 card deeper with your Ponder and can be the difference from a keep or shuffle.
Is This Better or Worse Than Ad Nauseam?
The immediate comparison that comes to mind for most is the Ad Nauseam engine in both The EPIC Storm (TES) and Ad Nauseam Tendrils (ANT). Although they have similar degenerate “buzzwords” they function very differently. Both attempt to convert life-total into immense card advantage, however, the conditions of each are vastly different.
For Ad Nauseam: The largest liability with Bolas's Citadel is running into a second land and having to pass the turn. Resolving Ad Nauseam normally draws around 12 cards in ANT and around 20 cards in TES, roughly a quarter of those being lands. Bolas's Citadel in the context of these 2 decks would create a high-variance engine where you might pay 10 life, generate lethal Storm, then hit a second land and pass with well under 10 cards in hand. Ad Nauseam also provides the option for you to draw your rituals and interaction and pass the turn. Outside of how the engine functions, Ad Nauseam costing one less is quite relevant. Both of these engines rely on your life total and thus are stronger the earlier you can play them. Even in a deck like Storm, the difference from 5 and 6 mana can be an entire turn which is also an extra combat step for your opponent. Finally, being an Instant instead of an artifact is a huge advantage. Against control decks you can “force check” a control player during their end step or with a cantrip on the stack, then untap and try again.
For Bolas's Citadel: Unlike Ad Nauseam, Bolas's Citadel puts spells directly on the stack after paying life, a big difference from putting the card in your hand. This is not often an issue with TES having between 8 and 10 zero mana starters; this upside is not fully utilized here. On the contrary, ANT often has to cast Ad Nauseam with mana floating or pass the turn with a full grip, having only 4 starters from zero mana and often needing a Lion's Eye Diamond to get Hellbent. Paying 0 life for a Lotus Petal or Lion's Eye Diamond often is not that powerful considering you likely won’t be able to leverage very well. Paying 2 life to add 5 black mana from Cabal Ritual however with no mana floating is a lot stronger than putting it in your hand and provides a much larger kickstart to your combo than flipping it to Ad Nauseam does.
Bolas's Citadel also allows you to “filter” your flips between each spell you cast by either interacting with the top of your deck or shuffling with a tutor effect or a fetch land. Brainstorm can prevent you from paying 3 to 6 life for a redundant Bolas's Citadel or Thoughtseize and stack your deck in a favorable manner.
Where Does This Fit?
Current ANT builds use Ad Nauseam as a plan C, favoring Past in Flames and tutor-chain lines since they don’t rely on speed. The archetype normally play 15 lands and cannot really afford to go below 14 lands, which is likely too many to stick this in that shell over Ad Nauseam. Similarly, TES does not do a very good job at utilizing the upside of Library to stack as opposed to library to hand enough to accept the risk of bricking and small upsides of Bolas's Citadel in this context. If Bolas's Citadel is going out work in Legacy, It needs to be outside of a Lion's Eye Diamond / Infernal Tutor engine.
Making a Good Citadel Engine
First off, let's go over what does not work well with Bolas's Citadel. Understanding what common Legacy interactions are unfavorable in a Bolas's Citadel deck will help us eliminate potential builds and focus on what builds work. Most Dark Ritual Storm decks use Infernal Tutor as the primary engine. The act of comboing with Bolas's Citadel often leads to you drawing cards with cantrips and utilizes changing cards between the hand, stack, and library zones. This can be troubling as Infernal Tutor will not be a consistent engine without Hellbent consistency.
Historically, Lion's Eye Diamond has been a staple in almost every Storm based combo deck for its ability to create windows to take advantage of an unrestricted Black Lotus. Lion's Eye Diamond can’t be used to full potential with Bolas's Citadel because it’s not useable to put Bolas's Citadel on the stack more often than not and isn’t very strong once Bolas's Citadel has hit the battlefield. Only being of use with a "tutor", Lion's Eye Diamond often doesn’t provide enough to offer a slot.
Play Less Lands
To make this a consistent engine, we need to assure a consistent flow of spells off the top. The obvious action that comes to mind in eternal formats is to play artifact mana, however, this comes at a cost. Each mana artifact that sees play in Legacy tends to have a different deck restriction, making it hard to play a critical mass of them.
Chrome Mox requires you to value speed over card advantage, as well as have relevant non-artifact spells that you can afford to exile. TES and Moon Stompy can afford this more than other decks. TES Uses the artifact for color fixing, as well as converting extra business spells into mana while reaching Hellbent. Funny enough, Bolas's Citadel can’t even slide under Chrome Mox being an artifact, nor are you likely able to leverage the speed without Lion's Eye Diamond or much ability to utilize the color fixing it can provide.
Grim Monolith is an interesting one. Normally a colorless, removable mana source that doesn’t work with Past in Flames is not what your Tendrils of Agony deck is looking for. However, a Swamp, a Grim Monolith, and a Dark Ritual is exact mana to cast Bolas's Citadel. This is comparable to Cabal Ritual, having the upside of netting 3 mana under ideal conditions and 1 mana otherwise. Most likely, planning to untap with Grim Monolith will come up more than Threshold.
Mox Opal is probably the strongest mana rock of all if you can afford the deck restriction cost. However, both Chrome Mox and Lion's Eye Diamond as discussed above are pretty medium in a Bolas's Citadel engine so this is unfortunately not very strong here. Despite the Bolas's Citadel helping reach Metalcraft, there isn’t enough support for it to be useful in getting to 6 mana. Unfortunately, Mox Opal would probably require us to play the artifacts listed above that we’ve determined don’t work well with Bolas's Citadel.
Outside of artifacts, the strongest option for a “land spell” is Land Grant. Being able to pay 2 life instead of passing the turn when hitting what could have been a land is very strong. Also, being a land that contributes to Storm count, this will likely be included in any list where Bolas's Citadel is your primary game plan.
Control the Top of Your Deck
Something else that functions as “land spells” in Legacy are cantrips. It’s no surprise that Brainstorm and Ponder are very powerful options to play in Legacy. In addition to filtering, Brainstorm allows you to interact with Bolas's Citadel, choosing which spells you would like to pay life for and which you would like to pay mana for. Ponder allows you a similar effect to Sensei's Divining Top, making sure cards arrive in the desired order; Preordain fills a similar role if more of this effect is needed.
A very powerful spell that sees fringe play at the moment is Lim-Dul’s Vault. This is probably the closest card we have to Vampiric Tutor in Legacy, lacking in play due to its inability to replace itself as a 2 mana card selection spell. Most Storm decks rely on a critical mass of resources and both do not need and cannot afford this effect. Bolas's Citadel is a good way to recoup the lost card from Lim-Dul’s Vault if used to find it and is absolutely insane if cast off of Bolas's Citadel. If built correctly, this will most likely win you the game if cast off Bolas's Citadel, finding any card you want looking in big chunks at a time while stacking the top in the order of your choice.
Another option is controllable mill effects. This includes cards like Grindstone and Thought Lash. These cards both function well with Bolas's Citadel, Thought Lash winning the game in almost all cases, and have a Legacy playable cast that can support it. You likely wouldn’t be able to build this is such a combo heavy manner, as you would simply be a worse version of an A + B combo deck like Sneak and Show or Reanimator.
After an extensive gatherer search of 1153 cards that contain “gain life,” only 2 spells stick out: Children of Korlis and, to no one’s surprise, Tendrils of Agony. Children of Korlis has existed for a few years no in Legacy as a way to draw your library in combination with Griselbrand in reanimator shells. Upon first thought, this seemed like a shoe-in. However, after testing the card, it has proven mostly inferior to just playing 3 or 4 copies of Tendrils of Agony. Children of Korlis will often gain you as much if not less life than Tendrils of Agony while not serving as a win condition. Possibly in some extreme build that looks similar to a Spanish Inquisition decklist, this could see play.
Making a List
Most combo decks in Legacy exist somewhere on a scale between Glass-Cannon combo and Combo-Control. Normally the most effective strategy is closer to the middle than the extremes in most aspects. This is because you often want to leverage the strength of your combo while having a plan for your opponent’s interaction. Let's look at two different approaches at Bolas's Citadel in Legacy
Land Grant in addition to 14 spells that profit mana allows for the sweet line of creating 8 or more mana, then cast 2 copies of Tendrils of Agony back to back, draining your opponent for 22, often with no choke point for most forms of permission. In the board, we have the Eric Landon special of boarding in 3 Grave Titans when any part of our engine is lacking. This includes Dark Petition against hard graveyard hate like Leyline of the Void, or Bolas's Citadel itself versus aggressive and disruptive decks like Blue-Red Delver of Secrets decks.
2 Card Bolas Monte
Planeswalkers have always seen out of place in combo decks for the inability to protect it. While not castable off of Dark Ritual, Jace, Wielder of Mysteries Serving as your combo piece and card filtering makes this an exception. It is also worth mentioning that Baleful Strix protecting him is just part of the glue it provides in this build
Boarding into Grave Titan is also a possibility with this list, however, it loses some strength since your opponents might not board out all of their removal in the face of Painter’s Servant. For this list, I have devoted half of the board to a “fair” package. Fatal Push, Flusterstorm, Snapcaster Mage and Thoughtseize are all good control cards as well as answers to protect our combo. Similar to the UWR Twin-Blade deck that appeared in 2018 Legacy for a while this deck can simply trade whichever game plan is worse and take advantage of a sliding scale between combo and control. Some games you may plan to protect your Jace, Wielder of Mysteries with discard, Snapcaster Mage, Baleful Strix, and Fatal Push. Other games against Emrakul, the Aeon's Torn deck you can board out the Painter’s Servant Package for maximum disruption.
Other Synergies and Builds
The specific interaction of Bolas's Citadel allowing access to nonexistent mana costs make Lotus Bloom and Ancestral Vision interesting considerations. I think the upside of a free Ancestral Recall or Black Lotus is a little too low to accept the downside of waiting for multiple turns when you are lacking a Bolas's Citadel. Similar to Lion's Eye Diamond, it can be hard to leverage a mana advantage with a Bolas's Citadel in play. I also imagine that in most situations Ponder and Brainstorm offer more than a Draw 3 with Bolas's Citadel since the zone of interest will be the top of our deck.
Goblin Welder took a while to evaluate. There is probably a version of the Painter shell that could run red this along with Trash For Treasure and Dack Fayden. In general, Goblin Welder has shined when filling an insurance role rather than a combo engine. Being a 1/1 for 1 that relies on the graveyard, needs to live a complete turn cycle, and needs additional setup would probably result in a worse version of Reanimator, susceptible to the same hate.
One of my first builds was a 15 land Veteran Explorer build, utilizing Exploration, a Green Sun's Zenith package, and creatures like Obstinate Baloth that gain life to keep chaining 3 and 4 drops. Similar to builds of this in Standard using Wildgrowth Walker to sustain, this would be a fair approach to breaking Bolas's Citadel. I goldfished a few hands with a build like this until it dawned on me that I didn’t register Bolas's Citadel to play it alongside Exploration and 4 mana 4/4s. This build might be fine with a lot of work but probably won’t get you your Storm fix.
I probably should at least mention that Doomsday is the strongest way in Legacy to stack your deck and can win the game in countless ways once both have resolved. One pile shown to me by Doomsday aficionado Monkeyscantcry on magic online is a 5 card stack of Bolas's Citadel, Lotus Petal, Nature’s Claim, Wheel of Sun and Moon, and Collective Brutality, allowing for infinite Brutalities needing to only be at 2 life post-Doomsday. Unfortunately, paying half your life is just one of the many issues of trying to fit both a Doomsday package in your deck while fulfilling the deck restrictions associated with Bolas's Citadel.
Without a doubt, Bolas's Citadel is a powerful combo engine unlike any we have seen and has potential in the right build. It will be hard to determine if this is viable as a primary combo route or alongside a pile of other synergistic combo engines. Having both drawbacks and advantages over Ad Nauseam and Experimental Frenzy, there are definitely the tools out there to make this work. Six mana for an artifact can be a high cost, but similar to Doomsday you gain the advantage of being a one-card combo engine. I’m sure there are Legacy interactions that I missed with this card so make sure to try to break it yourself!