Archenemy: Nicol Bolas comes available this Friday! As someone who played regularly with the original Archenemy product, I wanted to take the opportunity to share my opinion of Archenemy to help you decide whether or not you are interested in spending $59.99 (MSRP) for your copy of the latest offering for casual Magic players. This isn't a review of the set, but more a review of Archenemy as a whole.
For those unaware of Archenemy: Bolas, the basic premise is that one player is Nicol Bolas battling three Gatewatch planeswalkers: Gideon, Nissa, and Chandra. Each player is provided one 60 card deck. The Bolas player starts with 40 life, while the other three players each have 20. To help Even the Odds, the Bolas player also has a Scheme deck. The Scheme deck consists of 20 Scheme cards. The Bolas player flips the top card in the deck at the start of each of his or her turns and does what the card says. The cards provide token creatures, draw cards, force opponents to sacrifice creatures, and all sorts of other goodies.
The allure of Archenemy lies with the three-against-one setup. The feeling of defying the odds and taking down three players, or teaming up with friends to try to take down a single player using powerful spells and abilities, makes for interesting gameplay. While the three against one game often comes about in Commander games, with Archenemy, that is the plan from the start! You don't have to worry about an "ally" backstabbing you in Archenemy! It also keeps everyone interacting in the game since it is either your turn, or it will be your turn right after this turn. Multiplayer Magic tends to involve a lot of waiting for your turn and Archenemy gets around that.
A great way to play Archenemy: Nicol Bolas is to treat the decks and schemes as a game in a box. You and three friends can get together and play it without altering any of the decks. Wizards has designed the decks and schemes to give you a balanced game, so repeated play should give each side an even chance to win.
With the set not out yet, I haven't played it so I can't tell you if the gameplay is balanced or not, and that really is the deciding factor. If it turns out that one side or the other is winning too often, playing the game straight out of the box won't be fun for long.
The balanced gameplay will decide how long it will take us to break up the box. Assuming the gameplay is balanced, we'll likely leave everything in the box until we decide we want the cards for somewhere else. With the last Archenemy set, games were soon boring to me, so the decks were quickly broken up. For me, a big part of Magic is building and playing my own decks. Playing a deck that someone else has made, without altering it in any way, tends to lose its luster quickly. I have faith that Wizards will have done a better job this time around, and I'll be keeping this together for a while, but at some point, these cards are going into other decks.
Most players are buying Magic product to get the cards, and that is certainly an option here. We know all the decklists and schemes already, so this isn't like buying a booster pack lottery ticket and hoping for the best. You can look through the cards and decide if these are cards you are interested in for other decks. For me, this set is a delight! I only have one copy of two planeswalkers and none of the others. Even the rest of the decks offer plenty of cards that I can see slotting into other decks I play. This is reassuring for me, since it means that the set will have value, whether I grow bored of the decks provided or not!
When my friends and I got the original Archenemy set, this is how we imagined playing it, and I suspect many of you feel the same way. We tried the decks they provided and that was fine, but the real fun would be to pit our own decks in three on one battles, using the Scheme deck to even the odds. I believe this is the reason you haven't seen another Archenemy set until now.
The games just weren't fun. We expected pitched battles with the Scheme deck evening up the odds, but it just rarely happened. If an ally deck attacked the archenemy on an axis other than creature combat (think milling or discard or even direct damage) the Schemes did little to help and games wound up quickly. If someone was using a multiplayer deck designed to crush over the course of the long game as the archenemy, they were quickly crushed, as three players rushed in and took advantage of your weakness in the first four turns. Some games involved a player with a great deck that happened to work perfectly with the schemes, leaving the opponents all dead by the fourth turn.
The three-on-one nature of Archenemy creates a fine balancing act. The allies are drawing three cards per turn and playing three lands per turn against a player whose advantage is a stack of powerful spells that are drawn at random. If all else is equal, the allies' card advantage and mana advantage should eventually win out unless the Scheme spells are powerful enough to overcome. Using the decks that come in the box allows Wizards to create that balance. The Bolas deck is definitely the strongest deck in the box. That, coupled with the schemes can produce balanced gameplay. When you take away the decks in the game and replace them with your own, you introduce endless variables that make the game less fun and far more predetermined. I recall no game where one side made an impressive comeback, or where the sides were evenly matched.
Unless you love the developer balancing aspect and want to try to create four decks of your own to replace the ones that are already here, I can't recommend playing Archenemy using cards other than the ones provided.
Right now it appears that if you buy the set, I recommend that you play it as is until you're bored, then break it up for parts, having enjoyed a few games. Not so fast! There is an alternative!
My friends enjoyed the schemes and decided we still wanted to use them. It also turned out that everyone wanted to be the archenemy in Archenemy games, partly because standing alone against everyone was more interesting than working with everyone, and partly because the schemes are cool and everyone wanted to enjoy the benefits! Our solution was to treat the schemes like a Planechase game. We would stack the Scheme deck in the middle of the table and play a regular multiplayer game where each person would get to flip the top card of the Scheme deck.
This upped the randomness of games, since not all schemes are created equal, but you were already getting randomness in Archenemy games, so that worked out here! We tried this with regular 60 card decks, draft decks, and Commander decks and had a good time with each.
If you are looking for a variation without quite so much randomness, try drafting the schemes! This will require creating packs of Schemes where players draft their own Scheme decks that are tailored to their decks. This format would likely require multiple players buy Archenemy: Nicol Bolas to have enough scheme cards to draft, but it offers a little more control. This format would also encourage you to try to find the schemes from the original Archenemy set, since that set has 20 schemes that are different from the schemes in the Nicol Bolas version. I know I'm looking forward to trying this out with my group!
I like the trend we are seeing from Wizards in producing Magic sets specifically for casual multiplayer settings. Conspiracy, reprinting Planechase, and now a new Archenemy set are all good things, and this doesn't even take into account the yearly Commander product! I hope the best for every multiplayer set because I want to see it continue. However, of the ones we've seen so far, Archenemy is my least favorite. My group has the option to play any of the sets each week and Archenemy is practically never played, while Planechase and Conspiracy show up at least once every couple of months. Wizards, please bring them back!
I would like to provide a definitive statement to you saying that Archenemy: Nicol Bolas either is or isn't worth the money. A nice and clean cut statement that would give you the chance to agree with me or tell me why I'm wrong based on a clear unambiguous statement. The difficulty is that different people are looking for something different. If you have all the cards already, then are you willing to spend $60 for what amounts to a board game? If your friends are just going to argue over who gets to play as Bolas every game, is it worth it? For me, the set is well worth the price. Spending $60 for the fun the box set game will provide, along with the cards for decks later on, and owning all the new schemes for variants down the road, sounds like a great deal.
What is your plan for Archenemy: Nicol Bolas? Will you rush out to buy it right away? Wait to hear what others say before buying? Or perhaps you'll let someone else in your group buy it? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!