Dear Azami: Tribal Swarmyard

William Hernandez of CommanderCast picks up the Dear Azami pen this week, answering a reader’s quirky submission for their Xira Arien deck. If you like what you’ve read, let us know in the forums!

Dear Azami,

Sorry to hear about Cassidy. Hope things go well for you in finding a replacement, temporary or otherwise. Here is my deck submitted for your review; I decided to make a deck revolving around Squirrel Nest when I saw it reprinted in Conspiracy. I figured it would be cool to do that with rats and spiders.

The logical choice in keeping with crawlers was an insect as a Commander, hence Xira Arien. The colors in the spiders, squirrels and rats added to the choice of commander’s colors. If you can come up with a better commander, that would be cool too, but Xira has an inexpensive mana cost and is also a draw engine, so she’s not really the weak part of the deck. For starters, I know I don’t have enough non-creature spells, and it wanders a little.

I was also thinking about adding stuffy doll for the acorn catapult. I get the squirrel and an opponent gets shot, this pleases me somehow. The deck sounds fun. I tried to stay away from Infect since that doesn’t sound fun in commander.

The ignominy of dying to squirrels – Don’t know if it’ll work yet, but any help you could give would be appreciated.

“Creepy Crawlies and Squirrels, OH MY!”

Creatures (28)
1x Anger
1x Arachnoid
1x Arachnus Spinner
1x Crypt Rats
1x Deadly Recluse
1x Deranged Hermit
1x Dragonlair Spider
1x Hornet Queen
1x Marrow-Gnawer
1x Nezumi Graverobber
1x Nut Collector
1x Ogre Slumlord
1x Oran-Rief Recluse
1x Pack Rat
1x Penumbra Spider
1x Ratcatcher
1x Ravenous Rats
1x Rotting Rats
1x Silklash Spider
1x Skullsnatcher
1x Squirrel Mob
1x Squirrel Wrangler
1x Steel Hellkite
1x Swarm of Rats
1x Symbiotic Elf
1x Throat Slitter
1x Typhoid Rats

Artifacts (21)
1x Acorn Catapult
1x Armillary Sphere
1x Bonehoard
1x Crucible of Worlds
1x Crystal Ball
1x Culling Dais
1x Darksteel Ingot
1x Fellwar Stone
1x Illuminated Folio
1x Manalith
1x Mask of Avacyn
1x Mycosynth Wellspring
1x Nim Deathmantle
1x Obelisk of Jund
1x Spectral Searchlight
1x Spine of Ish Sah
1x Sun Droplet
1x Temple Bell
1x The Hive
1x Urza’s Blueprints
1x Venser’s Journal

Enchantments (6)
1x Arachnus Web
1x Breath of Fury
1x Doubling Season
1x Druid’s Call
1x Oversold Cemetery
1x Squirrel Nest

Lands (39)
1x Evolving Wilds
1x Exotic Orchard
10x Forest
1x Ghost Quarter
1x Jund Panorama
1x Kessig Wolf Run
8x Mountain
1x Rupture Spire
1x Savage Lands
1x Shimmering Grotto
10x Swamp
1x Swarmyard
1x Terramorphic Expanse
1x Volrath’s Stronghold

Sorceries (5)
1x Acorn Harvest
1x Beacon of Creation
1x Chatter of the Squirrel
1x Lab Rats
1x Spider Spawning

Instants (1)
1x Undying Evil

A fan of your work

John W. Hall, Jr.

If you aren’t wondering who I am, color me impressed. My name’s William and I’m the host of Commandercast, as well as the owner of its website. Sean hit me up with an email asking if anyone on my site would be interested in doing some guest work with his regular co-writer stepping down. I’ll admit that’s it’s been a few years since I’ve actually put finger to keyboard and written something with the goal of having people actually read it, but there’s been a horrible case of writer’s itch clawing at my back so I need to work it out. What better way than to fill in for a guy who was a blast to have on the show?

A wise man once described his new base of operations with the following statement: “I think this building should be condemned. There’s serious metal fatigue in all the load-bearing members, the wiring is substandard, it’s completely inadequate for our power needs, and the neighborhood is like a demilitarized zone.” I think it’s a fair parallel for how I feel about this deck.

But then someone slides down the fire pole, gets all excited about the idea, so the whole Ghostbusters team pulls together to make the place work. What can I say, Swarmyard hit me in the soft spot.

I love theme decks. Among them, Dragon tribal, Angel token, Kill La Kill inspired, slow yet gratuitous pain and suffering – a personal favorite that I bring out from time to time. But as fun or powerful as a theme can be, it has to have a lot of supporting pieces in place to help the deck run smoothly.

The problem here is that we’re focused too much on the theme. A lot of suboptimal cards are in this list just to push a theme that has plenty of great cards already. Fortunately, a lot of these problems can be fixed with some basic Deckbuilding Advice 101.


Lands are the easiest card slots to upgrade. Whenever you get a land that you feel is “strictly better,” you just take out a lesser land and slap the new one in. So let’s make your land base a little more flexible. For the sake of a fun deck that’s trying to stay cheap, we’ll stick to some pretty easy ones to get.


Kessig Wolf Run Forest Forest Forest
Mountain Swamp Swamp Swamp

I advocate a healthy number of basics in every deck, but especially in three-color decks. “Healthy” in this sense meaning about 15-18, almost half of our manabase. This means that our basic land fetching continues to be relevant late game and we don’t get blown out by someone playing Blood Moon or Ruination, two cards I love using to punish the greedy decks in my own metagame. But having too many basics can also be a problem when it’s keeping us from playing the spells in our hand because our color fixing is too weak. While we do have some in here, we have much better options for almost nothing. This deck wants to be much more swarmy than bashy, so Kessig Wolf Run doesn’t really do anything for us. If it turns out that we do want some sort of final beats pushed through, we can always add it back in for a basic later.


Golgari Guildgate Golgari Rot Farm Gruul Guildgate Gruul Turf
Rakdos Carnarium Rakdos Guildgate High Market

All of these are extremely budget-friendly lands that will go a long way towards fixing our mana and thus helping us cast our spells on time. You can easily show up to most game shops and expect piles of Gates to be lying around from last year’s draft format, and they were reprinted in 2013’s Commander product as well. These really are just that readily available, you should pick up a set and hold onto them for whenever they happen to come up. Free is the right price.

High Market is interesting. Initially I would have thought it would have been quite expensive, but it’s really not. For a sac outlet that taps for mana too, it’s an extremely affordable utility land. It plays very well with Volrath’s Stronghold to recycle some of our enters-the-battlefield and death triggers, like our token producers.

OUT: Exotic Orchard, Rupture Spire, Shimmering Grotto

Part of why I wanted to address these separately is to show just how easy it is to get quality mana fixers in the modern age of design, especially for budget builds. Exotic Orchard relies too much on what our opponents are playing, something I’m just not a fan of. I don’t know about you, but I sit down to games where everyone’s sharing my color just as often as I sit down to games where I’m the only one using them. Rupture Spire can end up setting our tempo back quite a bit. You wouldn’t think one mana for a tapped land would be that bad, but it can be pretty annoying when all you need is one more land for your plan to work and you rip this off the top. Shimmering Grotto provides filtering but it shorts us a mana overall, something I’m not too fond of.

IN: Savage Lands, Command Tower, Opal Palace

Savage Lands is strictly better than Rupture Spire because it doesn’t cost anything to put into play, yet still adds any color we need. Similarly, Command Tower is a format staple because it gives us any color we need right off the bat, no hassles or conditions, like waiting for someone to play their own so we can leech off of it. Opal Palace also shorts our mana when we filter it, but its ability to pump our Commander helps her scale with her cost and keeps her from being locked out by Elesh Norn, something I’ve been on the receiving end of with other small commanders like Kaalia.


I’m going to be blunt: as cute as squirrels and their creepy crawlie compatriots are, they’re not going to win a war with power. It’s going to take all of their grit and wit to nip and gnaw at whatever they can before overtaking their foes. To that end, we actually have some pretty neat utility cards to work with. But let’s take out the lackluster recruits first.

OUT: Anger

Anger could actually be good for the list if there are enough situations where we want to get in for some quick beats. But for now, I see us wanting to build our army for alpha striking rather than storming out of the gates.

OUT: Arachnoid, Deadly Recluse, Penumbra Spider, Typhoid Rats

These guys aren’t doing enough for us. Arachnoid is a vanilla creature with unimpressive stats, Penumbra Spider’s biggest accomplishment is that it replaces itself upon dying with another creature just as mediocre as it was, and both Deadly Recluse and Typhoid Rats do little more than act as roadblocks. We have other Deathtouch creatures that will do that job better. Plus, we want some more utility out of our card slots.

OUT: Swarm of Rats, Squirrel Mob, Pack Rat, Arachnus Spinner, Ratcatcher

I’m leery of including cards that aren’t that great without lots of other creatures to pump them up. If we were playing a straight rat, squirrel, or spider tribal deck then these cards get a lot better. But since we’re playing Avatar and combining all four, it’s best to assume we probably won’t get enough of the same type out to make them better.

OUT: Skullsnatcher, Throat Slitter, Steel Hellkite, Oran-Rief Recluse, Ravenous Rats, Crypt Rats, Symbiotic Elf

It’s going to be pretty hard for our guys to get in to trigger their effects. You can argue that the ninjutsu lets us reuse their enters-the-battlefield effects and that we should have enough tokens that at least one’s bound to get by, right? Like I said before though, I don’t see this deck wanting to get the beats in early or make them constant enough for any of these effects to be worth it. For the other guys, we’ve got strictly better effects so it’s like we’re leveling up their slots rather than just straight cutting them. This is great because it breaks my heart to see a grown rat cry.

IN: Ant Queen

What could be better than on-theme tokens on demand? Her 5/5 body is already fitting right into the curve, but she can potentially spit out three tokens starting the very next turn. We’re going to get a lot of mileage out these little guys, so her value only increases.

IN: Army Ants

Land destruction only becomes obscene when you sweep everyone’s manabase off the table. But spot removal definitely needs to see more play to take care of problem lands. Someone dropped a Cabal Coffers? How about trading it for a Forest? That’s fair, right?

IN: Carrion Beetles

Similar to land removal, graveyard hate also needs to see more spotlight in some metagames. The great thing about these guys is that they can go up to three targets at once, meaning you don’t need three things to get rid of but if you do then they’re super-efficient!

IN: Giant Adephage

We don’t have a lot of big sticks, but the ones we do have get bigger all on their own. Adephage has the power to make everyone throw the panic button after only a hit or two. Fortunately, even if he does eat removal we have ways to bring him back and throw everyone in a tizzy again and again.

IN: Hellhole Rats

Most of the rats in our decks are going to work on eating away at our opponent’s hand. These rats are strictly better than their cousins the Ravenous Rats because of their potential to do some damage. Better yet, we can dream of getting our opponent to discard something big enough to shoot one of their planeswalkers! Go rats go!

IN: Infected Vermin

Another rat that’s strictly better than its cousin (i.e. Crypt Rats). You’re not restricted to using only black mana for its ability, and once we have Threshold, that ability gets significantly bigger. If we’ve built this deck right, obtaining Threshold shouldn’t be a problem at all.

IN: Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni

Wait, didn’t I just say we wouldn’t be connecting to make the other guys’ effects worth it? Well, yes, but their effects didn’t snatch our opponent’s best creature out of their graveyard, nor do they regenerate themselves. She’s one of the few cards worth running by herself, even if you don’t cheat her in for a reduced cost. Just casting her is fine here.

IN: Living Hive

I love tokens, and so do you. Living Hive is either going to make plenty of them or it’s going to be eating quite a few creatures. Not only that, but those little buggers make for some great blockers after a swing.

IN: Nantuko Elder

We have some pretty beefy guys on our top end, but we need to make sure they hit the board and this is one of the few mana dorks we have among these tribes. Since he pushes our drops forward by a few turns, he’s worth the slot in non-insectile decks as well.

IN: Nezumi Bone-Reader

Remember when I said we’d be putting those tokens to good use? This is one of those uses. Trading tokens or small creatures we’re playing just for their enters-the-battlefield triggers for potential bombs and removal is a great deal that will help the rest of our team weather the battles ahead. It’s also a way to take care of threats before we’re forced to use hard removal on them. Strictly speaking, Sadistic Hypnotist is leagues better; but if you want to stay on theme then this guy’s the rat man for the job.

IN: Nyx Weaver

This spider is ever so helpful, filling your graveyard with tools and even grabbing one for you. We’ll be putting some more recursion effects into this deck later to really help you take advantage of it, but at worst this is a six-mana Regrowth that can get a chump block in first. There are definitely worse things than that we could be running.

IN: Sanity Gnawers

They only hit one card from someone’s hand, but it’s at random which means they’ll be cursing extra loud when we get the one card they didn’t want to discard.

IN: Scute Mob

Watch everyone throw the panic button as you drop this….cuddly pill bug?

Actually, the Scute Mob becomes quite scary once you’ve got its ability online. The beauty of the Swarmyard deck is that there are plenty of ways to bring back threats like this even after they’ve bitten the dust, recurring Team Bug over and over again until everyone’s bullets are blanked and our Scutes can run wild and free.

IN: Symbiotic Wurm, Symbiotic Beast

What I like about these guys over something like Symbiotic Elf is that they’re much better bodies for their cardboard and they make a lot more insects when they die, which they’ll be doing a lot of if we’re doing this right.


Alright, we’ve beefed up our creatures, but we’ve got to keep them healthy! We’ve got to help them out because no amount of fur or sheer number of legs is going to get them past the landmines our opponents put out for them.

First, we’re going to make sure they win their little attrition war by keeping cards in our hand and mana on the table. So how are we going to do that?

OUT: Crystal Ball, Illuminated Folio, Temple Bell, Urza’s Blueprints

These are all just really sub-optimal sources of card draw to run. Illuminated Folio is much better in a mono-colored deck than a three-colored one. Urza’s Blueprints requires a full twelve mana to keep around. No thank you. Temple Bell actually fights what our rats want to do, so much so that they’ve filed union complaints. Crystal Ball’s card filtering isn’t going to be as powerful as straight-up card draw is going to be for us.

IN: Underworld Connections, Staff of Nin

Two great draw effects that are both cheap and easy to get. Underworld Connection has the drawback of tying up one of your lands, but being able to draw at will rather than having it drain you involuntarily makes up for it. Staff of Nin is half the cost that Urza’s Blueprints would be, but with the added bonus of being able to ping something or someone every round, including planeswalkers.

IN: Ancient Craving, Night’s Whisper, Read the Bones

Lately I seem to be getting on this bandwagon more and more often. These are all efficient card-draw spells that can accelerate you back into the game. While Underworld Connections and Staff provide good “over time” value, it’s nice to be able to turn one card right away into a pair of cards that you might really need, at a nice low cost.

IN: Diabolic Tutor, Increasing Ambition

Speaking of grabbing cards you really need! An overuse of tutors can turn decks into repetitive messes, but they’re just perfect for us in the right amount. This is especially true in a deck like this where we’re trying to unify four different tribes under a single banner. Increasing Ambition’s ability to Flashback for two cards is also quite handy… and very relevant if we need to discard it for whatever reason.

IN: Jar of Eyeballs

Eye of Rat and Eye of Spider, they sound like ingredients for a recipe from MacBeth, right? Since we’re going cheap on tutors and expect a lot of our stuff to be dying, this is a great way to dig through your library to try and fish out the cards you need. Being reusable gives us value over time, while being a little bit obscure means people won’t know that they should fear our well-stocked cupboard of squirrel eyes.

OUT: Bonehoard, Crucible of Worlds, Spider Spawning

All three of these cards rely on our graveyard having things to use them with. You can definitely make a case for Crucible, especially with Army Ants being added to the list, but I don’t feel like we’re taking enough advantage of it to warrant a card slot. If we had more fetches and a couple more cards that cared about eating lands, then I would try and find something to cut to keep Crucible in. As it stands, we have better options.

Bonehoard works with a strategy that wants to power up one or two big threats, but we want to go wide with our smaller guys. It might be different in your metagame, but mine rarely seems to have enough creatures to power it. I blame the fact that everyone seems to have a healthy amount of graveyard hate. Spider Spawning falls by the wayside for those same reasons.

OUT: Armillary Sphere, Fellwar Stone, Manalith, Mycosynth Wellspring, Obelisk of Jund, Spectral Searchlight

Of these six artifacts, only four actually ramp us. Armillary Sphere and Mycosynth Wellspring are easily replaced by the draw spells we just put in, since we’re just as likely to draw lands as we are spells. With the exception of Fellwar Stone, which I dislike for the same reason I’m not fond of Exotic Orchard, I think these mana rocks are perfectly fine. But there is a consideration to take in.

IN: Farseek, Kodama’s Reach, Gruul Signet, Golgari Signet, Rakdos Signet

If we’re running Xira as our commander, then running two-mana accelerators make Opal Palace that much better and help our small guys hit the table that much faster. It’s a small change, but it’s one I think will help the deck run much more smoothly.

IN: Swiftfoot Boots

Anger is pretty sweet, but Das Boots are going to keep our small utility guys from getting shot. Xira would also look pretty sweet with a pair of new kicks, don’t you think?

OUT: Acorn Catapult, The Hive, Lab Rats

Let me start by saying that rats in wheelchairs are just about the cutest/saddest thing I have ever seen. Unfortunately, one rat for five mana isn’t a good deal. The same can be said about Acorn Catapult and The Hive. Way too slow for the work we have to put into them.

OUT: Beacon of Creation

Beacon of Creation is getting cut because in a three-color deck, you’re not likely to have enough Forests to make it worth your while. There will be games where it seems great, but they’ll be outweighed by games where you’re left waiting until you can make more than three tokens with it.

OUT: Acorn Harvest, Chatter of the Squirrel

I really don’t like one-shot token creators unless they make a sizable army by themselves. Even if they have Flashback, we can do so much better than a handful of tokens for a card.

OUT: Oversold Cemetery

Cemetery’s a good card, but I’m not a fan of how it needs at least four creatures before it’s active. Far too often it just useless after someone just Bojuka Bogged our graveyard.

IN: Phyrexian Reclamation

This is an effect that we can use at instant speed which means it fights graveyard hate pretty well. We can also use it more than once a turn, so we can refill our hand when everything we need has already died.

IN: Deadbridge Chant

Think of this card as another Underworld Connections, only sometimes you’ll get a free creature! It’s a quick hit to enable Threshold, and it makes our graveyard looters a lot better.

IN: Conspiracy

We don’t have a lot of “tribe matters” cards left, but we want to maximize on the ones we do have left. Nut Collector can pump your entire team if you name “squirrels.” Marrow-Gnawer and Ogre Slumlord become downright brutal if everything you own is a rat.

IN: Parallel Lives

What’s better than one card that makes double tokens? TWO cards that make double tokens!

IN: Goblin Bombardment

We need sac outlets for our tokens and token generators that we plan to abuse, and there are few better than an enchantment that allows us to shoot a problem creature or a player in their face.

The biggest problem with this list comes from the fact that there are very little ways to interact with our opponents. Goblin Bombardment helps some, but we need to move problem permanents out of the way so our guys can do what they need to do. Fortunately, Jund has the best removal of any color combination.

IN: Blasphemous Act, Extinguish All Hope, Life’s Finale

The neat thing about our deck is that some of our creatures are set up to drop a bunch of creatures off on the field after they die. This means our board sweepers work out in our favor more often than not. All three of these cards are incredibly budget-friendly and do a great job of giving us ways to catch up if we fall behind on board presence.

IN: Hull Breach, Beast Within, Golgari Charm, Murder, Putrefy, Rakdos Charm, Terminate

Vegetables are important for keeping your body healthy. Similarly, a healthy suite of removal is important for making sure your deck can keep people from killing you with things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to deal with. Making sure your spells are as flexible as possible also makes those card slots stretch out a lot more. Each card I’ve listed in this section is extremely cheap and easy to get, and they are either extremely flexible or the most efficient removal you can get for that mana cost.

OUT: Spine of Ish Sah, Sun Droplet, Venser’s Journal, Arachnus Web, Breath of Fury, Undying Evil

There are the last few cuts we need to make to make the deck legal. Spine and Arachnus Web become obsolete with better removal available. Sun Droplet and Venser’s Journal are a lot stronger in a control build. Breath of Fury is better for pure aggro when we’re trying to go midrange. Undying Evil is just a one-shot version of Nim Deathmantle.

Phew! That was some major rebuilding we did. But what’s this? The list of cards the deck wants is rather long. Fortunately, for participating in this week’s Dear Azami, John is getting a twenty dollar coupon to the StarCityGames.com Store to aid his rebuilding! Of course, it’s up to you how many of these changes you actually want to make before you take the deck out for a spin.

Carrion Beetles $0.15
Fade into Antiquity $0.15
Army Ants $0.25
Farseek $0.25
Golgari Signet $0.25
Infected Vermin $0.25
Jund Panorama $0.25
Nantuko Elder $0.25
Nyx Weaver $0.25
Rakdos Charm $0.25
Read the Bones $0.25
Sanity Gnawers $0.25
Symbiotic Beast $0.25
Diabolic Tutor $0.49
Extinguish All Hope $0.49
Golgari Guildgate $0.49
Golgari Rot Farm $0.49
Gruul Turf $0.49
Hellhole Rats $0.49
Jar of Eyeballs $0.49
Living Hive $0.49
Hull Breach $0.49
Nezumi Bone-Reader $0.49
Phyrexian Reclamation $0.49
Putrefy $0.49
Swiftfoot Boots $0.49
Symbiotic Wurm $0.49
Terminate $0.49
Rakdos Carnarium $0.49
Rakdos Guildgate $0.49
Rakdos Signet $0.49
Ancient Craving $0.75
Kodama’s Reach $0.75
Life’s Finale $0.75
Staff of Nin $0.75
Ant Queen $0.99
Blasphemous Act $0.99
Increasing Ambition $0.99
Murder $0.99
Opal Palace $0.99
Savage Lands $0.99
Conspiracy $1.25
Deadbridge Chant $1.25
Golgari Charm $1.25
Command Tower $1.49
Giant Adephage $1.49
Night’s Whisper $1.49
Scute Mob $1.49
Underworld Connections $1.49
Beast Within $1.99
Goblin Bombardment $1.99
Parallel Lives $2.99
Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni $3.99
High Market $4.99

It might seem rather harsh to say “you need to completely rebuild your deck”, but sometimes that’s something that needs to happen. I’ve had decks before where I did nothing but cram really awesome cards in with little regard to any of the deck’s needs. They were miserable. I couldn’t stop my opponent’s draw engines, couldn’t keep their removal from killing my things, and they just overran me with stuff I couldn’t deal with.

I’m not going to say you need “staples,” but there are definitely different kinds of cards and effects that you’re always going to want your deck to have. Removal, draw, and ramp are just a few of those effects, and now your deck is plentiful in all three. With these pillars of support, your squirrels, rats, and other assorted creepy crawlies should have a much easier time overthrowing mankind for a new world order.

Want to submit a deck for consideration to Dear Azami? We’re always accepting deck submissions to consider for use in a future article, like Matthew’s Vorel of the Hull Clade deck or Kyle’s Tariel, Reckoner of Souls deck. Only one deck submission will be chosen per article, but being selected for the next edition of Dear Azami includes not just deck advice but also a $20 coupon to StarCityGames.com!

Email us a deck submission using this link here!

Like what you’ve seen? Feel free to explore more of “Dear Azami” here, in the Article Archives! Feel free to follow Sean on Facebook… sometimes there are extra surprises and bonus content to be found over on his Facebook Fan Page, as well as previews of the next week’s column at the end of the week!