Dear Azami: Upgrade Complete

The upgrades you can make to a Commander deck without wrecking your budget are amazing. Check out what Jess is able to do with a Jund deck for only a few bucks! And don’t forget to pack your 100-card brews for Grand Prix Atlanta!

First, a bit of housekeeping. If anyone hasn’t gotten a chance to read Levi’s article from last week, I’d advise it! I’m happy to be sharing Dear Azami with a new collaborator, so let’s all welcome Levi warmly!

I’d also like to thank all the potential authors who wrote in to express interest in writing for Dear Azami, especially Dave Messon. While we didn’t get a chance to write back to everyone who applied, it was a wonderful response, and it’s good to know that should I step down one day, there will be plenty of people ready to keep Dear Azami running at the level of excellence we’ve all grown to expect over the last 200+ columns.

Precons (i.e. preconstructed decks) got me back into Magic, so I’ve long appreciated them. Back in college, when I dipped my toe back in the waters, it was precons that helped me cobble together enough of a collection to build some casual decks for battling with my roommate. Then, when I came back for good, it was thanks to the tribal precons from Lorwyn block that captured my attention and imagination. The Duel Decks and the Premium Deck Series decks both really upgraded Wizards’ precon game, but it was the Commander decks where I believe the formula was perfected.

I mean, it makes sense. In 60-card formats, you generally want to be running playsets of cards for the sake of consistency, but that limits the number of unique cards you can add to the mix. Commander decks, being singleton, allow you to include a lot of interesting cards without skewing the power balance or creating a “Rat’s Nest”-style supply issue.

(Rat’s Nest was a Betrayers of Kamigawa precon that included an Umezawa’s Jitte, and thus was quickly bought out at all available locations… not unlike what seems to be happening with Battle for Zendikar Fat Packs, if my experiences trying to get my hand on one is indicative of a broader trend.)

The best thing about the Commander precons is that you can still find some of the older ones, which really broadens the range of new decks a player can use to enter the Commander battlefields. When I saw this submission, based off one of the 2013 Commander products, I instantly knew I wanted to doctor it. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s submission!

Dear Azami,

A group of friends and I started a Commander group at our dorms. Everyone picked up one of the preconstructed decks and I picked up “Power Hungry.” Since
then, everyone has started to change their decks and I have made a few changes. Currently I am running Sek’ Kuar, Deathkeeper as my general and cannot keep
up with my friend’s Bosh, Iron Golem deck. Overall, I would like to improve my deck and have more ways to deal with indestructible artifacts, but my budget
is finite.

Thanks for the advice,


Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper



Terra Ravager


Prossh, Skyraider of Kher

Capricious Efreet

Golgari Guildmage

Jade Mage

Shattergang Brothers

Scarland Thrinax

Dreg Mangler

Stalking Vengeance

Entomber Exarch

Balthor the Defiled

Wight of Precinct Six

Inferno Titan

Sakura-Tribe Elder

Deathbringer Thoctar

Goblin Sharpshooter

Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder

Extractor Demon

Hua Tuo, Honored Physician

Charnelhoard Wurm

Elvish Skysweeper

Fell Shepherd

Viscera Seer

Walker of the Grove

Deepfire Elemental

Stronghold Assassin

Sprouting Thrinax



Furnace Celebration

Army of the Damned

Mass Mutiny

Blood Rites

Tooth and Claw

Creeping Renaissance



Spoils of Victory

Carnage Altar

Swiftfoot Boots


Vile Requiem

Night Soil

Tempt with Vengeance

Fresh Meat

Jund Charm

Spine of Ish Sah

Armillary Sphere


Plague Boiler

Hedonist’s Trove

Ill-Gotten Gains

Life’s Finale


6 Forests

6 Mountains

8 Swamps

Kazandu Refuge

Savage Lands

Temple of the False God

Golgari Guildgate

Evolving Wilds

Command Tower

Akoum Refuge

Kher Keep

Khalni Garden

Gruul Guildgate

Vivid Grove

Terramorphic Expanse

Grim Backwoods

Opal Palace

Rupture Spire

Rakdos Guildgate

Golgari Rot Farm

Llanowar Reborn

What James and his friends are doing sounds like a lot of fun, and I am vaguely envious. Had these products been around when I was in college, our dorm
games would have revolved a lot less around my roomie landing Akroma, Angel of Wrath and then ending me.

My first thought, James, is that it might be fun for you to try using Shattergang Brothers as a commander one game against that Bosh, Iron Golem deck. The
cool thing about the Shards, and some of the more robust color combinations, is that there is a degree of redundancy within the different themes. A
Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper deck is going to be built around your creatures dying, and so is a Shattergang Brothers deck… they’re just coming from the opposite
side. Sek’Kuar is going to give you a more aggressive board presence, and he’s a perfectly fine commander, while Shattergang Brothers offer to let you use
your sacrificial fodder for a more controlling board position.

I’m not saying to always use the Brothers, but having the option to switch things up can keep a deck feeling fresh while all your friends are
getting bored with their relative dearth of options.

My second thought is that your deck needs more nontoken creatures. A significant group of the death-triggering-abilities are tied to a creature being
nontoken, and Sek’Kuar falls into that grouping due to the infinite loop he would otherwise be capable of creating. This is fine, though! It just means
you’re going to need a lot of your spells to show up on creatures, something the Jund Shard is particularly adept at providing.

The Changes



Akoum Refuge Llanowar Reborn Rakdos Guildgate Rupture Spire


Blighted Fen Blighted Woodland Fertile Thicket Mortuary Mire

Normally I play “complete the cycles” when faced with a manabase like this, and the Commander precons really leave that opportunity open. However, after my
changes there’s a greater emphasis on ramp, so I didn’t want to cut back on the basic lands. In addition, I also shifted more to green and black, which
both were providing abilities that meshed with the deck’s overall theme, as opposed to red, which is still easily fetchable.

Anyway, that’s why I cut the Rakdos dual lands; a land that wasn’t interacting with green seemed weaker than one that was. Llanowar Reborn, the exception,
was cut because a +1/+1 counter is a negligible upside in a deck that is otherwise not structured to take advantage of counter manipulation. And Rupture
Spire is just a bad land; it’s a good entry to gold lands, but that enters-the-battlefield tax is far more restrictive than it looks.

Instead, I brought in some of the new nonbasics that Battle for Zendikar has lovingly offered up. The Mortuary Mire and the Fertile Thicket are
similar to their Bojuka Bog/Khalni Garden predecessors, but they both keep you drawing gas while only taking up a land slot, and that seems like exactly
what you want out of single-color nonbasics. I considered adding in Looming Spires, but it, like predecessor Teetering Peaks, seems better in a 60-card
aggro deck than a non-Voltron Commander deck. I can see playing it in a Jor Kadeem, the Prevailer equipment deck, for example, but it seems a little weak
when the goal is to go wide.

Similarly, I am not a huge fan of Blighted Gorge when you’re starting from a place of 40 life. I am glad they printed the card, and it seems probable that
it will see Standard play as flood insurance in a Red Deck Wins strategy, but losing a land to do 10% of an opponent’s life total is far better than losing
one to do 5%. On the other hand, Blighted Fen and Blighted Woodland both seem amazing in a deck like this. The Fen is basically a “break in case of
emergency” answer to the aforementioned Voltron strategies, which can be blown out with a well-timed Diabolic Edict effect; the Woodland is basically a
Myriad Landscapes that can get multiple colors, and thus stays live for longer. I am loving this cycle, but being colorless generating and having to
sacrifice to use their ability are both drawbacks that may keep them from being relevant in every deck.



Dreg Mangler Ghoultree Terra Ravager Wight of Precinct Six

I’m fundamentally not a huge fan of running Baneslayers in Commander. The Baneslayer/Mulldrifter dichotomy is one of the many interesting thingsthe Innovator wrote about inNext Level Magic, and for the unfamiliar, here’s a relatively quick and effective summary. Basically, if you are playing a
card that’s just there to end games and provides no other benefit upon entering the battlefield, that leaves you more vulnerable to removal… and Commander
tends to be a format full of efficient removal options.

At the end of the day, Commander is about card advantage, and Baneslayers don’t tend to offer that. This is particularly true when you’re running a
commander capable of ending the game on its own, such as a commander that turns every defeat into a 3/1 beater.

As such, while these creatures are all big, Dreg Mangler is the most resilient, and even that only offers a few counters at sorcery speed after it dies.
These spots can be better spent elsewhere, so I have cut these four game-ending cards.



Armillary Sphere Restore Spoils of Victory


Burnished Hart Farhaven Elf Realm Seekers Veteran Explorer Yavimaya Elder

As mentioned above, it’s important to up your creature count to ensure you maintain a critical mass of fodder to trigger Sek’Kuar’s ability. Armillary
Sphere is good, but it’s not ideal in a green deck, which is often going to have better options (like Yavimaya Elder, which trades an extra mana for
inevitability and an extra card). Restore is particularly good right now that the Blighted cycle is the new hotness, but it’s still a spell, as is Spoils
of Victory. That they’re both one-for-ones is also a relevant consideration, especially given that these effects, when on a creature, are generally not
one-for-ones in the traditional sense.

Burnished Hart, Farhaven Elf, Veteran Explorer, and Yavimaya Elder all come at this from different directions. Burnished Hart is good, in that it
self-terminates, and bad, in that you can’t sacrifice it to something else and still get advantage of the effect. Farhaven Elf and Veteran Explorer both
trade self-termination for the ability to sacrifice them to another outlet and still get their benefit, and Yavimaya Elder gives you everything… but the
lands don’t go straight into play.

Finally, we come to Realm Seeker, the logic behind which is entwined with the section labeled “Beefcakes” above. As ramp goes, Realm Seeker is not amazing.
For two mana, Fertilid turns its counters into Rampant Growth; Realm Seeker costs three mana an activation and doesn’t even put the land on the
battlefield. BUT! Realm Seeker doubles as beef. It’s usually huge, unless you cast it super late in the game, and even then it’s stronger the farther ahead
your opponent is, which is exactly what you want in a lategame topdeck.

I’m not against beef, I just like it to also serve your gameplan.



Army of the Damned Fresh Meat Jade Mage Prossh, Skyraider of Kher Tempt with Vengeance Walker of the Grove


Hornet Queen

In a dedicated Shattergang Brothers deck, there might be a better argument for some of these inclusions. With Ashnod’s Altar, Phyrexian Altar, and at least
three opponents, you can do some nasty things with Tempt with Vengeance, offering a lose-lose alternative whether or not your opponents get tempted. But
Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper is a token generator, not a sacrifice outlet, so he plays poorly with these cards, particularly the noncreature ones.

Walker of the Grove is a little weak for Commander, especially when you can get a better version of that effect from Thragtusk, a card so resilient it once
plagued Standard. I’m not saying to add Thragtusk, necessarily, as it pulls the deck off the budget, but it’s a better version of that effect, and the deck
can live without either of them.

Jade Mage similarly offers a relatively weak rate of return, although there are certainly ways to abuse that ability with Mana Echoes and whatnot. Fresh
Meat is good if you can fire it off after a Wrath of God, but this means holding open four mana, and that’s less than ideal in a proactive deck… especially
one newly focused on casting creatures, a sorcery-speed card type. Army of the Damned is slow, both due to its large mana investment and its Romero-style
Zombies, even though the ability to flash it back is its own sort of fun.

And then there’s Prossh, Skyraider of Kher. Now, admittedly a factor in this decision is my bias: I don’t like cast triggers. Far too many of my decks rely
on some degree of cheating, flickering, or resurrecting, and cast triggers can’t do any of those things without losing the benefit of the card. With
Prossh, though, it’s particularly glaring, because he’s meant to be a commander, and little else.

Now, this is the cut I am most skeptical of, because I think Prossh could easily helm this deck, like the Shattergang Brothers, and still work well with
the mechanics inherent to the strategy. It’s definitely worth trying that at some point, and as such you might want to skip this particular cut. That’s
totally reasonable, particularly if you’re fonder of cast triggers than I.

Hornet Queen comes in because it’s the type of token-generator that synergies well with the need for non-token bodies. It’s one of the preeminent defensive
cards in the game, as we’ve learned from what feels like two years of Standard, and it holds the skies, something that occasionally causes problems for
Green decks. It would be reasonable to leave Prossh in, if you can’t find a copy of this one, but it’s really quite a powerful thing to play with… at least
until your opponent responds with Massacre Wurm.



Scarland Thrinax


Goblin Bombardment Vampiric Rites

In the right deck, I think Scarland Thrinax is an understandable card to play. Free sacrifice outlets are insanely powerful, particularly when paired with
a card like Mass Mutiny. Add in the fact that it can provide counters, say to complement Ghave, Guru of Spores in some five-color counter manipulation
monstrosity, and I can totally see it earning its spot. I just don’t think this is that deck. The rest of your sac outlets provide something should they be
destroyed. Blood Rites kills things, Tooth and Claw leaves bodies behind, Viscera Seer gives you scry triggers, and Carnage Altar draws you cards. Scarland
Thrinax just gets bigger, and when a creature can be killed by almost all the spot removal played regularly in Commander (which tends towards cards like
Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares over Lightning Bolt), it’s a lot of eggs for a single basket to carry.

Instead, let’s bring in Goblin Bombardment. It’s quite possibly the best sacrifice outlet out there in that it’s free and it can kill things or go to the
face depending on the needs of the moment. It comes down on turn 2, which is sweet, and it gives you a response to Wrath of God effects, namely sacrificing
your board to bonk the wrathful in their controlling noses.

Also earning its spot is new enchantment Vampiric Rites, one of the best cards to come out of Battle for Zendikar. Two mana is relatively cheap
for a sac-to-draw card, and the lifegain is a nice contrast with the more typical black draw engines, which tend to cost life to utilize. It’s also a
one-drop, giving you a turn-1 play in a format in which the first couple of turns are often play-light. It’s great, and I’m looking forward to shoving it
into many decks myself.



Deepfire Elemental Fell Shepherd Furnace Celebration Life's Finale Plague Boiler Vile Requiem


Acidic Slime Bane of Progress Bone Shredder Brutalizer Exarch Conclave Naturalists Outpost Siege Reclamation Sage Scour from Existence Song of the Dryads

I tend to not run Darksteel Forge in many of my artifact decks, reserving it for the most vicious of funbusters that stay in the back of my Commander
closet, gathering dust. It, like Avacyn, Angel of Hope, draws a tremendous amount of aggro, because the traditional means of interaction no longer work
effectively. But Avacyn is easier to handle, since there are more ways to exile creatures than there are ways to exile noncreature artifacts.

Now, I could have just added Into the Core and called it, but I think there are two other points you can attack a card like that: you can get rid of it
(cards like Song of the Dryads and Brutalizer Exarch), or you can go under it. If you can remove the mana rocks, or even wipe the field (with Bane of
Progress), Bosh is going to have serious issues getting to nine mana. Meanwhile, you’re pounding at their face. That’s why seven of the nine cards I added
in this removal section can be used to destroy noncreature artifacts (with all pulling double duty taking out at least one other permanent type as well).

Deepfire Elemental is good at that, but it’s super expensive to use, and it takes a while to hit the board as well. Fell Shepherd has to hit a player to
trigger, and that’s actually harder to do reliably with a seven-drop that lacks evasion or trample. Life’s Finale is a decent Wrath of God effect, but I
tend to prefer it in reanimator decks with a less proactive gameplan. Also, it isn’t a creature; neither is Plague Boiler, a wrath that’s either super
expensive or super slow. It and Vile Requiem aren’t amazing because they take a turn cycle to do much of anything, and you’re not always going to be
guaranteed that much time.

Finally, there’s Furnace Celebration. It’s not a bad card in a sacrifice deck, but compare it with Outpost Siege and you can see the benefits of the latter
over the former. Two extra mana per sacrifice adds up, whereas Outpost Siege triggers whenever a creature leaves the battlefield… and it can double as a
draw engine in a fix (although I think this deck is going to want to call Dragons more often than Khans). There are decks that prefer Furnace Celebration,
but those tend to be sacrificing noncreature permanents, and you’re mostly not.



Balthor the Defiled Charnelhoard Wurm Hedonist's Trove Hua Tuo, Honored Physician Ill-Gotten Gains Life


Deadwood Treefolk Pharika's Mender Whip of Erebos

A confession: when I first was exposed to Portal cards as a child, I thought they were cheap non-WotC knockoffs. How that would have worked was
immaterial; I just thought the typeface, wording, and even little daggers and shields on the power and toughness boxes were indicative of a more ephemeral
product than what I was used to… but to be fair, this was also the same idiot kid who had to keep looking at the Fourth Edition cards in her first pack
because she hadn’t ever really considered that core set was going to change, and new cards were so awesome as to be unbelievable.

Obviously, this was before I was regularly using the internet. Had I been born ten years after I was, I probably would not have been so captivated by
something that would have been fairly easy to research online.

As such, I kinda hate Portal cards, even of the ultra-rare Portal: Three Kingdoms variety. They’re just all timed terribly, meant to work
in a streamlined Magic product that abandoned the second main phase (which is the better main phase, if you ask me). This is particularly true for a card
like Hua Tuo, Honored Physician. It’s exactly the type of ability you want to use in the end step prior to taking your next turn, and it’s specifically
restricted from doing so. Between that, the slowness of tap abilities in general, and the fact that you’re broadcasting your gameplan whenever you use it,
I tend to cut this card from every deck that’s not specifically based around manipulating the top card of one’s library. It does well in Maelstrom
Wanderer, for example, or a Lurking Predators deck, but it’s definitely more niche than it looks.

Charnelhoard Wurm needs to connect to get its upside, and said upside is a rather minor Raise Dead. Deadwood Treefolk does all that and lets you sacrifice
it, and you even get upside when you do! It’s a good card, and a great fit for a deck like this. Pharika’s Mender is a relatively powerful Gravedigger that
also offers to bring back your powerful enchantment enablers, so it also seems like a better fit for Sek’Kuar’s horde than the Wurm. Plus, both of those
bodies hold up in Commander games… not that a 6/6 doesn’t, it’s just another thing the time trees and the gorgon have going for them.

Balthor the Defiled is neat, but your split between different colors means that it’s often going to help your opponents more than you, particularly if
you’re still having issues with a Red artifact deck. You don’t want them getting back their Goblin Welder, after all. The same goes for Ill-Gotten Gains,
which is dangerous outside of combo decks or decks running Leyline of the Void. You don’t want Bosh getting back any of the artifacts that were such a
hassle to kill in the first place!

I’m also not a huge fan of Life // Death because the Life side is usually useless and the Death side isn’t the best version of that effect. Instead, run
Whip of Erebos. Not only is it a fun resurrection engine, but the lifegain is really the best part of that card in Commander. Sometimes, when your life
dips low, you’re going to want to have an out to the reign of fire that will eventually fry you. Whip has brought me back in plenty of games where I had no
business staying alive.

Finally, there’s Hedonist’s Trove. I had such high hopes for that card, but I think it’s going to be a victim of the Processor Assault. One of the best
reasons to run that card is to play lands from your opponent’s graveyard, but the intermediate exile step now means anyone can snipe that plan by
processing a card or two that you spent seven mana to exile in the first place. It’s a shame; I love the flavor. It’s just bad timing, which happens.



Deathreap Ritual Grim Haruspex Harvester of Souls Primordial Sage Smothering Abomination Soul of the Harvest

It’s no secret that I love draw engines. Rule one of Commander should be “don’t run out of gas,” and there are few better ways to accomplish that goal than
drawing cards. Considering black and green are secondary and tertiary on the card-draw spectrum, you have plenty of choices. For example, Deathreap Ritual
triggers most turns even without a sacrifice theme; your ability to sacrifice tokens means you’ll be getting about as many of those things as you can

Grim Haruspex and Harvester of Souls both trigger on the death of nontoken creatures, so they fit wonderfully with Sek’Kuar. Soul of the Harvest is
similarly restricted, but it works when the creature comes into play. Of these four, Primordial Sage is in many ways the weakest (including in terms of
mana to body-size), but it has the minor benefit of getting you the draw trigger whether or not the creature resolves. This can be very useful against blue

And then we come to my favorite card in all of Battle for Zendikar: Smothering Abomination. Oh, how I love this card. You pay nothing, nothing, and you get an extra card off every sacrifice while it’s on the table, and furthermore, it’s a sacrifice outlet itself, albeit a
bad one. All this on a 4/3 with evasion for a mere four mana, and dodging any color-related hatred. That’s awesome!

The List

As you can see, we’ve added a couple of creatures, giving you more ways to draw into the creatures that are in there, and kept a broad suite of removal so
that you can handle a variety of challenges. Probably expensive, right?

The Price



Fertile Thicket


Mortuary Mire


Acidic Slime


Brutalizer Exarch


Burnished Hart


Conclave Naturalists


Deadwood Treefolk


Pharika’s Mender


Reclamation Sage


Scour from Existence


Vampiric Rites


Bone Shredder


Farhaven Elf


Deathreap Ritual


Blighted Fen


Blighted Woodland


Primordial Sage


Realm Seekers


Soul of the Harvest


Yavimaya Elder


Grim Haruspex


Goblin Bombardment


Hornet Queen


Outpost Siege


Whip of Erebos


Harvester of Souls


Veteran Explorer


Bane of Progress


Song of the Dryads


Smothering Abomination




Boom! I brought this in under the $20 store credit that all chosen submissions to Dear Azami receive, (which is as good an opportunity as ever to remind
people to submit decklists and explanatory paragraphs to DearAzami [at] gmail [dot] com if you want your deck to make it into future columns). My goal with
this build was to show that you don’t need to break the bank when you update a Commander deck, because there are plenty of commons, uncommons, and cheap
rares out there that can potentially conform to a deck’s theme.

That having been said, given an unlimited budget I would probably make some of the following changes. First, I would add in Bloodghast and Bloodsoaked
Champion, since both offer plenty of nontoken death triggers. On the cheap, you could consider Reassembling Skeleton, and there are plenty of other cards
that can be used in this fashion. Still, Bloodghast is, and will always be, my favorite of the lot. May the second set in the Battle Block result
in the printing of a card similar to its power level (because that Phoenix does not cut it).

I’d also add in some cards like Solemn Simulacrum, Eternal Witness, and Woodfall Primus. These cards are some of the best at what they do, and their
pricing tends to reflect that they’ve been reprinted several times each, if at insufficient quantities to keep them under $5 apiece.

Finally, should you ever end up with a bunch of money to spend on Magic cards, and want to get universally playable Commander cards that can handle
indestructible artifacts, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Karn Liberated both offer exiling removal with universal application. They’re expensive, running
about $30 and $35 respectively, but should you ever splurge on those cards, they’re capable of fitting in every deck that can make seven or eight mana…
which is basically every deck in Commander, period. I wouldn’t ever call them budget, and the price tag even makes me wince, but it’s worth mentioning
since they’re kinda amazing cards.

That concludes this week’s column! Join us next week for yet another exciting installment of Dear Azami, courtesy of my shiny new counterpart, Levi!

Want to submit a deck for consideration to Dear Azami? We’re always accepting deck submissions to consider for use in a future article. 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


Email us a deck submission using
[email protected]

Like what you’ve seen? Feel free to explore more of Dear Azami
here, in the Article Archives
! And feel free to check Jess’s own
Command of Etiquette
column on
Hipsters of the Coast
, for more Commander and casual content. Now on Thursdays!

Prossh, Skyraider of Kher Reassembling Skeleton Bloodghast Bloodsoaked Champion Eternal Witness Woodfall Primus Solemn Simulacrum

Note: This decklist was submitted with 92 cards, something I managed to miss in the build. To bring it up to 99, I’ve added some of the aforementioned
cards that didn’t make my build for cost reasons. Just a reminder, please make sure your submissions to DearAzami [at] gmail [dot] com are 99 cards plus a