Am I The Bolas? "I kept playing Elesh Norn over and over and over and..."

Mike Carrozza • February 8, 2021

Hello and welcome to Am I the Bolas? 

This column is for all of you out there who's ever played some Magic and wondered if you were the bad guy. I'm here to take in your story with all of its nuances so I can bring some clarity to all those asking "Am I the Bolas?" Whether it's because of a mean play or even just getting bored with your playgroup, I'm ready to hear you out and offer advice. All you have to do is email!

Let me introduce myself.

I'm a MagicFest mainstay: I'm the guy with the t-shirt that says "This way up" with the MtG tap symbol so when people look at it, I lay down on my side like you can paint me like one of your French girls. I also happen to be two-time MagicFest Des Moines EDH champ Mark Carbonza.

Let's get to our first entry!

Am I the Bolas...

...for dropping and replaying Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite as my sole threat against repeated removal, without otherwise being able to close out the game? 

Hey Mark Carbonza,

I was playing with my playgroup online for this, so let me set the scene -
we've been using to play because of the pandemic, which has been pretty convenient, all things considered. We'd set up a match over Facebook (we've had a MTG chat group together for years), then jump online on Discord and trash talk each other there as we play. In terms of our power level, we probably hover at a 7.5 range, which means sometimes a player can run away with the game or sometimes it's counters and control. 

So today, we had a three-player pod. I was playing my Thalisse, Reverent Medium deck into Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer, and a brand new Moritte of the Frost deck. My Thalisse is built to be making a ton of tokens for aristocrats shenanigans, but also focused on keeping Thalisse around as much as possible. Playing in Orzhov colors meant I was also packing some of the best removal in the game. 

Match starts and I was pretty happy with my removal package. Half my list is token value, and the other half interaction, so I'm feeling confident that I'll last long enough to draw my first engine and take off. Only, I'm not drawing anything. Removal, recursion, protection... All kinds of enablers, no gas in sight. Run with it, right? 

I spend most of the game spot removing, wrathing, and controlling the board. Around turn 4 or so I draw into Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite and think "oh yes, I can definitely bring it home now, just need one more piece!" Turn 5. Turn 6. Turn 7. Nothing yet. 

Seven turns of playing control and stalling out a Commander game is long, even in 3-player, and I came looking to make plays, so you better believe I smacked that Norn into play and ruined the board. And it was glorious. 

Board was wiped. Threats were controlled. Everything my opponents could play risked immediate death, so they ground to a halt, and with my leftover spot removal, Brudiclad hit 10 after eating a swords and path. 

The Moritte player, looking for options, played a Phyrexian Metamorph shortly after copying Elesh Norn. That really took out the Brudiclad player. 

All the while, I still haven't drawn into the engines I need to build a win. I've managed to land a Castle Ardenvale, but otherwise, most of my turns are spent playing a land, and either using Volrath's Stronghold or protection spells to keep Elesh Norn around. 

Several turns in, I can see the exasperation of my opponents, as while Norn killed a ton and locked them down, I still have no win in hand and I'm just drawing more lands and recursion. 

Am I The Bolas for dragging it out without a win in sight? 


Elesh Bored 

Mark Carbonza

Hi Elesh Bored! It's me, Mark Carbonza! Two-time MagicFest Des Moines EDH Champ!

Sorry that game didn't go the way you wanted it to. 

Let me get this out of the way: You're the Bolas, but not completely. You became the archenemy. You occupied the space as a new obstacle that really got difficult to deal with. That's not a bad thing in Magic. That's the point sometimes, even! You want to be in a commanding position, to carry out your gameplay, to take the W. 

The way that you're not the Bolas is that you were playing what you drew. From what I can gather, you didn't have too much of a choice. You could play Thalisse, but if you're not generating tokens there's not much of a reason to have her out. At least, not until the Castle came out. 

The problem is - and I hate to have to say this because it is absolutely one of my favorite cards - that Volrath's Stronghold was not your friend that game. You most likely delayed your game because you insisted on returning Elesh Norn. And I understand! You have a top-end threat that keeps the board in check that's been eating away at your opponents' resources? That's top notch stuff! But the Stronghold replacing a draw truly delayed your way into the core of the deck. 

After a game, ask yourself "why did that go/not go the way I wanted it to?" If you had removal in hand to play and ways to retrieve the big white Praetor, why not take a leap of faith? Let your deck give you the token generation you were craving while keeping an eye on the opponents. Maybe strike a deal with the table. "Hey friends, I've got a way to keep looping Elesh Norn, but I'm not happy with this line of play. Can we come to an agreement that I won't recur Elesh Norn for a little bit in exchange for maybe not directing hate my way?"

I'm a big fan of doing the most fun thing that presents itself. I've had a Counterspell in hand and not used it when an opponent was pulling off a convoluted weirdo play that would pull them ahead or win them the game. 

If it's the right thing for everybody and will give them a story they can walk away with, I'm for it. 

This didn't seem like one of those times. 

So you were the Bolas, but you're less of a Bolas because you're already asking for ways to be better.

And that's a pretty big deal.

About the Author ('s friend)

Mike Carrozza is a stand-up comedian from Montreal who's done a lot of cool things like put out an album called Cherubic and worked with Tig Notaro, Kyle Kinane, and more people to brag about. He's also been an avid EDH player who loves making silly stuff happen. Check him out, he's cool and totally not the one writing this column!

Mike Carrozza is a stand-up comedian from Montreal who’s done a lot of cool things like put out an album called Cherubic and worked with Tig Notaro, Kyle Kinane, and more people to brag about. He’s also been an avid EDH player who loves making silly stuff happen. @mikecarrozza on platforms