Dear Azami – The Worst Thing You Can Still Do To People

Sean McKeown asks: Should Ad Nauseam be banned in Commander? He takes up the challenge and builds the deck to break this incredibly powerful Legacy staple.

I like a good intellectual problem every now and again.

There were two things I thought were very likely necessary for Commander to thrive, and just sitting around watching the world go by, one of those problems solved itself with the banning of Erayo, Soratami Ascendant as a possible commander. There was still another problem on my bucket list, though, and evil though it was to consider, I felt it was my duty to determine what the most unpleasantly unfair thing you can do in the format is, and apply a decklist to it, so that the problem can be identified and as-needed hit with a hammer.

The card in question is Ad Nauseam, which when cast by a deck designed for this purpose warped the game of Commander away from any sense of fairness. A deck that tries to play this card fairly doesn’t exist, because Commander decks like to have things like eight-drops that are just grossly inefficient with it; a deck that tries to play this card unfairly, well, kills the entire table from some combination of roughly two of the following seemingly impossible starting conditions: infinite life, behind indestructible Ivory Masks, with indestructible Platinum Angels or Platinum Emperions protecting them, and with indestructible Leylines of the Void preventing recursion. The only combination that couldn’t be beat is infinite life plus an indestructible Leyline; the rest might as well not matter, so easily answered are they. Anything that wasn’t indestructible—say, a Rule of Law—was literally a joke answer to the problem at hand, and by picking your Commander wisely you could even improve your chances of performing your one-card combo by selecting a tutor as your Commander.

And no, banning Maralen of the Mornsong as a commander will not ‘fix’ the problem. Maralen is just incidental and can be used when absolutely necessary, but dies easily and is often not worth the trouble; it just so happens to be the only commander that really truly makes sense for the deck and is the only useful statement of intent.

Allow me to introduce you to my version of the monster that is the 99-card version of Ad Nauseam Tendrils:

Lands. Rituals. Tutors. Infinite kill mechanism included via Xiahou Dun buying back Ad Nauseam, Elixir of Immortality buying back your deck, and Exsanguinate or Tendrils of Agony buying back your life points to spend on it. Clearly the extra mana is just a joke, since Skirge Familiar turns the sixty or so lands in the deck into a mana each, and you Ad Nauseam past them for free, so the limiting factor of the deck is actually just how many worthwhile tutors you can play.

Beseech the Queen doesn’t make sense, being chained to your land drops and all, in a deck where you are perfectly capable of combo killing the entire table with only two or three lands in play. The unbanning of Lion’s Eye Diamond had not yet happened when I put the deck together, and so I didn’t have it to go with the Infernal Tutor that is hard to use but still quite good, but the fully powered version is the same deck -3 Snow-Covered Swamps, +1 Lion’s Eye Diamond, +1 Grim Tutor, +1 Imperial Seal. As it was, I had already sunk an awful lot of time and effort into getting single copies of a lot of Legacy staples like Wasteland and Grim Monolith that weren’t easy to come by, and had to go hunt down truly obscure cards like Culling the Weak and Wintermoon Mesa to give the deck everything I wanted it to have in order to operate as brutally efficiently as possible.

The deck is a one-card combo. Ad Nauseam, kill you all. If that didn’t work, recur Ad Nauseam and repeat. Sure, you lose to an Extract or a Sadistic Sacrament, but these aren’t the most commonly played cards around and pretty much everything else you can just tap-dance around. There is a little removal for Gaddock Teeg or whatever creatures might plague you (Ethersworn Canonist is no fun either, but at least you can theoretically play 20 artifact cards and Tendrils their controller out, then return to killing everyone else). There is a dash of general removal and corner-case answers: Oblivion Stone for what ails ye, Slaughter Pact in case something needs to die, Black Sun’s Zenith for the highly unlikely but technically solvable problem of indestructible, untargetable Platinum critters keeping the opponent from death.

After the rituals and dash of removal, everything else is aimed at the blue decks: Defense Grid to defend your combo, Duress and Mind Twist to help ensure you can press the combo through, and a lot of mana-denial lands up to and including the terribly awful Wintermoon Mesa that might nonetheless snap a game open by choking a blue mage off their colored mana. Boseiju protecting Ad Nauseam is obviously game over, barring Time Stop or a similarly wonky answer like Venser or Mindbreak Trap, and between the fast mana, tutoring, and loop recursion you are just not playing Commander when you sit down with this deck.

Case in point: knowing I wanted to prove this point sooner or later, I have been walking around with this Maralen deck in my pocket for a few weeks now. I made it originally to answer a question I was posed by Miles Rodriguez, who wanted to make the worst thing possible to ‘get even’ with a local Commander player who liked his combo deck parts just a little bit too much, and always just jammed Tooth and Nail much to the frustration and annoyance of everyone he played with. When the social contract is failing, people start to reach for bricks, and Miles asked me to build him the biggest, meanest brick that existed, whatever it might happen to be.

I’ve seen a lot of Ad Nauseam combos. I’ve seen B/R decks that focus on Ad Nauseam for Seismic Assault and throw a hand of 70 lands at the opponents, I’ve seen decks designed with Ad Nauseam in mind and combined converted mana costs of 20 or less across every other spell in their deck, then cast a Sickening Dreams for 40 to sweep the table, and miraculously survive themselves thanks to the intercession of a Dark Sphere. They had the original deck idea with a lot more spells and using Forcefield to reduce the damage to one, but luckily for them they actually read Forcefield before trying to find one online for a hundred dollars, and decided Dark Sphere was cleverer than Pentagram of the Ages because, well, Pentagram of the Ages sucks and always has sucked. They wanted to make the deck as cheap as possible, which meant this was their deck:

Commander: Maralen of the Mornsong

Ad Nauseam

Sickening Dreams

Dark Sphere

96x Swamp

Unfortunately, though the deck was certainly cheap and also a cheap shot when it worked, there was no way they were ever going to be able to reach the objective of ‘cheapest deck in Commander’ so long as the following existed:

Commander: Ashling the Pilgrim

99x Mountain

Or, as they could have called it, “I’ve Got 99 Mountains, But Ashling Ain’t One.”

The more I worried at the problem, the more obvious it was that there was an easier solution. I’ve played Bargain in its Standard heyday and remember all too well what a full grip plus a Skirge Familiar was capable of accomplishing, and considered it a more elegant solution to the conversion of resources than Sickening Dreams + Dark Sphere. After all, you can spend the mana to Exsanguinate or just build to a storm kill with Tendrils of Agony, and if you think the storm count is hard to build when you can play every Mox, Bauble, free artifact creature, and Dark Ritual ever printed just flipped into your hand, then follow them up with Tendrils into Yawgmoth’s Will, it’s really not. Originally I was trying to answer the strange corner cases in a giggleworthy fashion:

Postmortem Lunge

Nantuko Shade

Glistening Oil

Rime Transfusion

Once you have all the mana you can just poison them out with a Nantuko Shade that you discard and reanimate with Postmortem Lunge, then put two terrible enchantments on to actually have it deal poison damage and make it impossible to block. This was four too many terrible cards in my combo, and I had already procured myself a copy of Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed for my Ob-Nixilis Commander deck (despite him quickly transforming into a Sheoldred Commander deck the moment I played with her for the first time). Xiahou plays the role of Regrowth very nicely to get back Ad Nauseam, and from there the question of how to recur your entire graveyard was obvious and academic, meaning all it took to go from terrible cards like Glistening Oil and Rime Transfusion to an unlimited, unbounded combo deck was one Portal Three Kingdoms rare I already owned for much more innocuous purposes.

Enter Star City Games Baltimore. I had joked about giving the deck to Ari Lax to run the Commander tables with and just see how quickly he could burn through the $5 entry / $20 dealer credit semi-casual, semi-competitive games, but Ari was not going to be at SCG Baltimore and thus could not press the destruct button on Ad Nauseam as hard as possible for me there. He did, however, take the decklist and start considering playing Commander, because all of these broken cards can be played in the same deck, his favorite deck of all time, when people are trying to flash back Crash of Wurms against him.

So I would have to do the dirty deed myself. I fell out of the Legacy Open at 2-2 with my new look at Goblins, all due to Cabal Therapy targeting the wrong card in too many games. I was unfamiliar with the format to the extent I would have needed to succeed, and my Gitaxian Probes were not showing up as plentifully as hoped unless I was casting Goblin Ringleader. So I got 2-0’d out of contention at last by a Reanimator deck that happened to draw the right card every time I got him down to zero relevant cards in hand. I decided with nothing to show really for the weekend so far and no one but myself to blame for poor plays like ‘choosing not to play Gideon Jura and bash my opponent to death while on-camera,’ clearly it was time to take it out on other people.


Signing up for queue number one, it was pretty clear to the table from the get-go that I was a problem. My opponents were playing a Karn deck, a Mimeoplasm deck, and a Glissa, the Traitor deck, and the one guy with Islands properly smelled treachery when I flipped over Maralen.

Turn one: Mox Diamond, Swamp, Grim Monolith, go. (‘Nice deck!’ someone said. ‘Yes, and expensive too,’ was the only reply I could muster.)

Turn two: Crap, drew another land, it’s going to be harder to get hellbent than I thought. Swamp, Mind Twist the blue mage for two. (‘For talking,’ I said, and he discarded Avenger of Zendikar and Genesis, then seemed happy to have found a way to get Genesis into the graveyard.)

Turn three: Peat Bog comes into play tapped. Tap both Swamps, Mox, and Grim Monolith to Exsanguinate everyone for 4. (They laughed. ‘Down to thirty-six!’ It was no laughing matter: my life total was now higher than the combined converted mana cost of my entire deck, meaning I could just flip it and not have to stop.)

Turn four: City of Traitors, Lotus Petal, Infernal Tutor for Ad Nauseam, display the infinite kill mechanism and collect my coupon. That seemed like a complete dick way for the game to go though, so I told them to keep playing and not let me having won the game stop them from their fun, and they played another half an hour with much amusement and merriment. Glissa tried to Mindslaver lock the table in slow motion and used Mimeoplasm’s resources to kill Karn dead, but on the second use of Mindslaver against Mimeoplasm he still hadn’t wasted the commander on anything frivolous or found a way to cause another creature to go to the graveyard using either of their resources combined, so Mimeoplasm got a turn without getting Slavered and did something demonstrably with Mirror-Mad Phantasm flipping most of his deck and fantastical murder coming Glissa’s way seemingly out of nowhere.

I signed up for another table, telling those three I was going to try and stay out of their table. I saw a sheet with two different names on it and put mine down, but unfortunately one of those three signed up a good ten minutes after me and was in for some rough treatment again with his Mimeoplasm deck. This time, he told the other two guys what I was up to and I simply said ‘guilty as charged, and it’s not like you knowing it is going to change anything.’ After all, what’s the point in trying to hide my deck’s plan and intentions if I think the card needs to be banned? How can softening any attempts to single-mindedly go after me with the full intent and focus of three players help get Ad Nauseam banned? It wouldn’t, so, unashamedly open honesty about my plans and intentions were the order of the day… and for the Mimeoplasm player a slight apology, because I had tried to duck him, but at least it was for a good cause, I told him, knowing already that this article was going to come of it.

The opponents were a custom altered Kaervek the Merciless, Mimeoplasm again, and I don’t remember what the third guy was playing, I killed them all too fast and didn’t stick around to watch the aftermath this time as they ‘played a real game.’

Turn one: Swamp, go.

Turn two: Swamp, Demonic Tutor, gloat, go.

Turn three: Tap Swamp for mana, Lake of the Dead, sacrifice Swamp. Tap second swamp for mana, sacrifice it to Lake of the Dead, cast Ad Nauseam with one black mana floating. Stop at four life with the kill entirely in hand, but they wanted to see it, so, Mox Mox Mox Mox Skirge, discard twenty-five lands for mana, Krark-Clan Ironworks, play all of my free creatures, Ritual Ritual Ritual, sacrifice all of my artifacts for colorless mana, floating more than 42 mana cast Yawgmoth’s Will to replay all of the rituals and then the Tutor for Exsanguinate ‘for I can’t count that high but you’re all dead. Have fun playing without me.’

Ten dollars spent. Seven turns taken. Forty dollars won. I could have pressed the fact harder by ruining everyone else’s day further, but I felt my point was proven.

Ban Ad Nauseam.

Sean McKeown