Dear Azami: When Hugging Hurts

In this week’s edition of Dear Azami, Sean gets to utilize a card that’s been on his mind recently in a reader’s Nin, the Pain Artist Commander deck.

Dear Azami,

I love the column. I’m glad you’re able to dance between casual and competitive as well as low budget and “wish that was my budget” decks to keep things interesting from week to week and open up my eyes to types of decks I might not enjoy but appreciate how my opponents might enjoy them and learn to accept that too.

You’ve had the alternating author thing going for a while now, and I must say I’m impressed that you’ve been able to keep the column just as strong as before. Any other writing duo might have made it into more of a duel where one person gives up trying to make it work with the other, and I’m glad that hasn’t happened here! If it weren’t for the author pictures or the little personal discussions covered in articles, I might not have noticed that anything changed, so it’s clear you two have found a nice agreement in your vision for the column. It’s one of the few Magic columns I still try to find time for lately.

Now that I’ve sufficiently buttered both of you up, on to the meat: I have a Nin, the Pain Artist “Owling Mine” deck that could use some help. I started it before Nekusar, the Mindrazer was spoiled, but it’s similar to that kind of deck. I came across the idea because I was looking for a U/R build that interested me, so while Nin seems an odd choice I think I will stick with it. It’s a lesser played commander, and I like that it’s just these two colors and don’t really want another black deck.

Anyway, with Nekusar out, it seems that “why didn’t you run black too?” is an even more common elephant in the room for people who check this deck out. I’m glad I didn’t add black, though, as it led me to some fun card choices I might never have considered if I had alternative black cards available. However, I must admit that the restriction to these two colors does mean the deck packs less of a punch than most would prefer, but I hope that’s a challenge you’re willing to accept.


Nin, the Pain Artist


Capricious Efreet
Creepy Doll
Deranged Assistant
Djinn Illuminatus
Dragon Mage
Dreamscape Artist
Fire Servant
Jace’s Archivist
Kami of the Crescent Moon
Kazuul, Tyrant of the Cliffs
Magus of the Jar
Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind
Pilgrim’s Eye
Psychosis Crawler
Solemn Simulacrum
Stuffy Doll
Tidespout Tyrant


Anvil of Bogardan
Black Vise
Darksteel Ingot
Darksteel Plate
Ebony Owl Netsuke
Elixir of Immortality
Feldon’s Cane
Font of Mythos
Howling Mine
Iron Maiden
Ivory Tower
Memory Jar
Misers’ Cage
Otherworld Atlas
Shield of Kaldra
Sword of War and Peace
Temple Bell
Venser’s Journal


Cast Through Time
Collective Restraint
Dissipation Field
Forced Fruition
Quest for Ancient Secrets
Quest for Pure Flame
Vicious Shadows


Cerebral Vortex
Cyclonic Rift
Gaze of Adamaro
Psychic Spiral
Runeflare Trap
Sudden Impact


Blasphemous Act
Chain Reaction
Distorting Wake
Kindle the Carnage
Molten Psyche
Spiraling Embers
Turbulent Dreams


Command Tower
Darksteel Citadel
Evolving Wilds
Ghost Quarter
Great Furnace
Grixis Panorama
Homeward Path
12 Island
Izzet Boilerworks
12 Mountain
Reliquary Tower
Seat of the Synod
Tectonic Edge
Terramorphic Expanse

I must admit that Nin is one of my favorite cards in the deck, especially as the commander. Thematically, she fits well. She throws cards at players and has a damage effect somewhat tied to card drawing. A lot of the Owling Mine damaging effects of old, like Black Vise, Iron Maiden, and Misers’ Cage, are flavored as torturing the opponent(s), and she is a torture artist, err, wizard. I like that she has a somewhat inoffensive removal ability that could also act as a group hug by targeting Solemn Simulacrum or combo with my own Stuffy Doll. She has some charm to her for sure.

Without a doubt my favorite card in the deck is Molten Psyche. It was either that or its smaller cousin Cerebral Vortex that led me to this deck idea when I was searching for a U/R deck I’d enjoy running. Molten Psyche is one of the heavy lifters in winning and is quite fun when mixed with Jace’s Archivist, the Jars, and Otherworld Atlas. Now that I’ve mentioned it, Jace’s Archivist is one of my favorite cards here as well. Vicious Shadows and Sword of War and Peace are some other favorites given that they’re the other heavy lifting win conditions, although I admit I don’t find them as fun without the combo/synergy that Jace’s Archivist et al have with Molten Psyche.

Some of my other favorite effects are the lesser loved removal like Capricious Efreet and the bounce effects. Capricious Efreet works well with some cards the deck doesn’t mind having because of Nin, and the bounce effects are really fun to play before the Wheel effects (another reason Dragon Mage might be a better fit than Whirlpool Warrior since Whirlpool Warrior could just give opponents those nasty cards right back).

One debate I’ve had with this deck is whether Dragon Mage is the best fit for it. I love the card, but it is a nombo with Molten Psyche unlike the other draw effects that I can activate with MP on the stack. I’ve considered Whirlpool Warrior as a replacement, but Dragon Mage has several points going for it. It increases hand size if my other draw effects aren’t doing their job, and it digs through libraries and thus contributes to the mill secondary win condition. It is also a bigger body for holding the Sword in a combat damage secondary win condition, and it involves less shuffling than Whirlpool Warrior, which can slow down games and get annoying. I definitely could use an outside opinion here.

As for cards I’m not really fond of, I’m running Feldon’s Cane and Reminisce because I can’t really afford Eldrazi titans in addition to what I’ve already spent. Elixir of Immortality, Quest for Ancient Secrets, and Psychic Spiral might not be anyone else’s favorite cards to run, but I feel they work well in the deck without the disappointing aspects of the other two (exiling for the Cane and the two strikes of not being a permanent and not making up for it with a second effect for Reminisce).

Finally, some of the damage effects just aren’t that great, like Misers’ Cage and Sudden Impact and friends. These smaller effects could draw the deck less hate, but if the deck already has hate, then it might not be able to fight against that very well by practically tying its hand behind its back due to six to nine of its cards. I threw in some of the doubling effects to help with the instant and sorcery damage cards like Sudden Impact, but the number of instants and sorceries is smaller than I initially expected, so the doubling effects might not be pulling their weight to justify staying. I must say the prospect of replicating Blasphemous Act, Molten Psyche, or Turbulent Dreams is really cool, but I might just be in Magical Christmas Land here.

So this is your mission if you choose to accept it: help me make this deck a little more powerful and a little more consistent without losing too much of the charm that has me so excited to run it.

Thank you for your column, and if you choose my list one week, thank you for helping me out.

– Joseph

It’s hard answering this particular call because you need me to have a light touch. Part of what drew me here in the first place was that I saw a chance to add in a “pet” card that has been on my mind recently, Mizzium Transreliquat, which I think should go into an artifact-themed deck of at least Izzet colors alongside stuff like Thirst for Knowledge, Goblin Welder, Ichor Wellspring, Mycosynth Wellspring, and all sorts of fun tricks that you don’t usually see in Commander. But as much as your deck is artifact deck, it doesn’t map up with the whole suite of cards tumbling about in my head asking for a Commander deck to call them home, which means that while your deck drew my eye, it will not be their home. (I’ll just have to go make myself a new Commander deck I suppose. Woe is me.)

We can definitely have a light touch, but that means we need to look at the parts of the deck that work and pull those apart from the parts that don’t. Your deck aims to build an array of Vise-like permanents and cause your opponents’ hands to swell, dealing them damage via those various traps turn after turn rather than going through the attack phase. You’re supplementing that with Sudden Impact and friends, the best of which is of course Cerebral Vortex, and that means you’re basically setting up to be a Group Hug deck—you’re giving everyone free cards and trying to convince them to take their attack phase elsewhere if they’d be so kind—with the caveat that you’re playing a Black Vise or two as well so people are going to be aware they can’t ignore you forever. Four or five turns, sure, but not forever.

You’re supplementing your defenses with indestructible creatures as blockers and enchantments to prevent those attacks in the first place plus an assortment of removal spells that can keep the board relatively clear and which you will likely have to use every couple of turns since you’re handing out so many free cards for people to reload with. In fact, this looks pretty fun. The biggest hole I see in the deck is the weakness caused by an extreme focus on the recursion elements because you’re overcompensating for something you feel pretty strongly about—the lack of a legendary Eldrazi to make your effective deck size “infinite,” unable to run out of cards thanks to a powerful trigger all of them share in common. So we’re mostly going to focus on that overcompensation and perhaps strengthen the main elements while we’re at it.

Looking at the lands, we have a fair bit we can do if we want to, as your Izzet deck doesn’t even have a Steam Vents and there are plenty of available dual lands if we want them. I don’t think this is a very big deal, however, as you have a fair number of artifacts and thus will wind up having lighter colored mana costs and a lot of colorless mana costs. So while we could put down, say, $20 here and add half a dozen nonbasic lands that increase your access to both colors of mana, I’m more concerned with adding extra utility from your mana base. To that effect, I’m going to cut two each of basic Island and basic Mountain, which allows us to add the following four nonbasics.

Winding Canyons – This horse has been beaten to death more often than I care to count, but you have just enough creatures to make this addition worthwhile. Flashing in a Stuffy Doll in response to a large attack is a pretty funny line of play, after all, and a good number of your creature cards are threatening enough that they seem to ask for a removal spell before they get out of hand, so finding a workaround that allows you to play them at the end of an opponent’s turn and then get to untap and use them unmolested by the plentiful sorcery speed sweepers we routinely see in this format is an invaluable asset.

Getting that for free stapled to a land is an amazing deal, one I’ll continue to advocate for. And I dare say that by sheer repetition this perspective is becoming more broadly adopted, as Winding Canyons has quadrupled in price since I started beating this dead horse in the middle of the road a few years ago.

Thawing GlaciersHowling Mine effects are good for smoothing draws out, but you aren’t able to hit one consistently in your opening hand unlike the “Owling Mine” deck yours is effectively patterned around. You’re lacking early game cantrips or other draw smoothers, and this land can serve as an excellent draw smoother by giving you a free land every other turn. When you’re resource rich, this won’t really be worth the time and effort, but when you aren’t so well off that you just don’t care, this will give you a solid nudge in that general direction in the first place by increasing your mana supply cheaply and consistently.

Opal Palace – Your deck has a key drawback in that it will have a hard time dealing damage via conventional means. But it also has the benefit of an incredibly cheap commander, which means that Opal Palace can take up a land slot and usually go unnoticed, and it also starts to open up the avenue of dealing lethal commander damage to someone who’s gone off and gained a billion life or so, which is a strong addition beyond your existing backup plan of trying to deck someone who is bold enough to climb out of the reach of your damage dealing effects.

Academy Ruins – You have a lot of Feldon’s Cane effects. About the only one I like is Elixir of Immortality since it works an unlimited number of times and never has to change zones to do it. That it also has the good graces to provide a secondary benefit is good as well even though I hate life gain, so I figured instead of planning to have backup Elixir effects if your one and only Elixir of Immortality gets milled, I would find ways to make sure you don’t get decked that we could slot in easily and cheaply.

Academy Ruins is good for keeping your Mines on the table or buying back Memory Jar as far as plan A goes, and if your Elixir ends up in the graveyard, you can also use it to put it on top of the deck and draw it normally. Of course, it can’t do that if it gets milled too, so if we’re going to focus on that plan, expecting it happens anywhere close to the amount of time that your deck’s build suggests you worry it does, I’d like to find a way that does so without you having to draw a specific card (and not having to shell out the high price a Kozilek, Butcher of Truth or Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre commands these days.

Normally I move on to the artifacts and then the spells next, but we’re skipping that habit to look at your creatures now mostly because they play such a minor role in your overall plans and thus we will do only minimal adjusting in this section before we move on. I see three cards I want to cut, all for the same reason: Millikin, Deranged Assistant, and Pilgrim’s Eye. Each is getting cut because I don’t like mana elf effects in general in Commander, and they really don’t seem to fit alongside your plethora of sweeper effects.

I want the mana acceleration still but not the vulnerability of small creatures, so we’ll be repurposing these as artifacts and using the room here for more productive cards. We’ll only add two creatures back in, moving the unfilled slot over to the artifact section that will effectively be filling the same role the cut card used to cover and aiming to power up your deck somewhat with the following two additions.

Melek, Izzet Paragon – While you are a fairly permanent-based deck, with a chunk of artifacts and enchantments filling out the bulk of your noncreature spells, it’s also true that you provide yourself with many fine opportunities to put new cards on the top of your deck thanks to the triggered abilities of your Howling Mine effects. You don’t have a great density of cards to “combo off” with Melek, but you do have solid opportunities to get a free card every now and again, and doubling those cards will tend to be worthwhile. Sending two copies of Runeflare Trap at your opponent’s head is better than sending one, after all, and doubling a Distorting Wake is probably a game changer as well. You have enough spells that giving them Rebound seemed worthwhile, so getting to use Melek with them is probably solid as well.

Whirlpool Warrior – You mentioned her several times but ended up cutting her, and I think with the expanded room that comes from cutting down some of the recursion effects that he definitely has a home. The shuffling aspect is not that big a deal really, and we’re adding in additional benefit since Winding Canyons allows you to play it on other players’ turns instead of just your own. This allows for the potential to chain together both the enters the battlefield trigger and the sacrifice effect with your Cerebral Vortex on the stack, potentially getting lethal damage off of very little work all told.

The upsides that come from cool stories like that are well worth the perceived social downsides, and I for one have no big problem with the fact that it doesn’t let you “plan ahead” unless it has flash. You have enough cards that are dead weight in the early stages of the game that you wouldn’t mind tossing your hand back once in a while, so that provides a solid counterbalance to your concerns about the card.

Moving on to the spells, we have six cuts and three additions, with the other three cuts moving over to the artifacts section as well. We’re cutting Collective Restraint, Quest for Ancient Secrets, Kindle the Carnage, Reminisce, Spiraling Embers, and Turbulent Dreams—the recursion cards because we don’t need that many Feldon’s Cane type effects, Collective Restraint because I don’t think Propaganda effects are going to be that strong in your deck and I’d like a more expensive card that is considerably more final if we can get one, and the others because I don’t like the weird tension they put on your hand size to overperform or be spent recklessly to generate an effect in the first place.

The first of our three additions comes from a Gatherer search of “hand size” OR “number of cards in your hand,” which turned up Meishin, the Mind Cage. Yes, it’s a bit pricy at seven mana, but it provides a giant wet blanket over the attack phase instead of a minor inconvenience. After all, no one I know sees a Propaganda and a Font of Mythos and then actually leaves that player alone; they see the two, get the message, and start attacking that person and messing with their stuff. It’s better to have a nonnegotiable hold on the combat phase than one that can be easily worked around within its own rules text, and Meishin has the same “can be removed from play” problem but not a “Dragons are still good against me” problem such as a typical Propaganda effect usually has.

Second is All Is Dust because you are strongly artifact themed and are very light on ways to interact with opposing enchantments. Whenever a preferential sweeper comes your way and you can grab hold of it, I tend to suggest you do—it will be “just another sweeper effect” in a lot of places and sometimes will be worse because it clears your enchantments from play, but in those cases you will always have the “so don’t play it” option. When you need it to be exactly itself, you’ll have access; when you want something else instead, you have enough that you should still draw a Blasphemous Act or a Chain Reaction fairly consistently.

And the final slot comes thanks to my dedicated search of Innistrad block Flashback spells, looking for a way to circumvent the “Elixir and Academy Ruins got milled” problem that cuts off your recursion elements. The third card is also why we leave Psychic Spiral in the deck despite cutting the rest of the things that are like this, partly because you spoke favorably of it as a card you’ve had success with and partly because adding Mystic Retrieval to your deck gives you a way to replenish your deck if you’ve been milled out slowly but steadily, as the problem will now be “Elixir and Academy Ruins got milled, and then Psychic Spiral and Mystic Retrieval got milled, so I flashed back Mystic Retrieval and cast Psychic Spiral, my opponent was dead, and my deck was back to normal.”

That’s a pretty elegant answer for that corner case which only requires us to keep the Psychic Spiral, as Mystic Retrieval will have an excellent use just getting back spent spells, potentially letting you chain off multiple Sudden Impact effects all at once when the time is right. You said you were somewhat comfortable with a surprise kill out of nowhere later in the game, and this can potentially let you triple the effect of any individual spell, which is sort of an “oops, you’re dead” combo.

There are now four slots empty and waiting to be filled by artifacts, but we have two more cuts before we add back in. Feldon’s Cane gets cut because we no longer need any additional density of this effect; your inevitability has been built in through Mystic Retrieval + Psychic Spiral instead. Shield of Kaldra gets cut simply because I don’t think you want an indestructible commander at that high of a price; Nin, the Pain Artist is cheap enough, and drawing X cards is good enough that she can kill herself to be a Braingeyser and you won’t really care much. It’s not like you’ll need to draw X multiple turns in a row and people will just let you after all; if you need to and try, that is when bounce spells or Swords to Plowshares start getting pointed that way because it’s just darn greedy. Now what to do with six empty slots?

I confess that this part turned out to be far less interesting than that question suggested. Staples are staples for a reason, and half of these slots go to staples that will help accelerate your mana in the early stages of the game, replacing the lost Millikin type cards we’ve cut because they’re too ineffective. And while yes, we could start by adding a Sol Ring, I’m looking at a budget deck that seems like it has excluded that choice on purpose, so I’m going to continue honoring that despite the fact that you can now get a copy of the card for half the price it used to command thanks to the various new releases it has appeared in. We don’t need to be mind-numbingly boring after all; we can be effective without being repetitive and dull. (Sol Ring is good in Commander. That still doesn’t make it interesting.)

Adding back in, we fill those six slots accordingly:

Mind Stone – This is a “small card,” especially compared to the Sol Ring it could be, but it’s basically perfect at its job so I’m always happy to consider it. You had two-drops to ramp your mana that had the “drawback” of milling you (which I feel contributed to your liberal inclusion of Feldon’s Cane effects) and also died in a stiff breeze, many of which you were playing and expecting to use with fair regularity. When you need mana ramping, it does that at a fairly solid rate and without needing you to have drawn the “right” half of your deck’s colors either, so I tend to add this even to green decks that could play something more powerful like Farseek in its stead. And when you don’t need mana anymore, it cycles from play and gives you a card back—it’s either awesome or invisible and is never a wasted draw.

Coalition Relic – While this is a popular Commander staple, I’d rather add it to your deck than Sol Ring if I have to pick between the two; this is at least somewhat more interesting than the power Sol Ring draw when all your “nut draw” could play on turn 1 is a Howling Mine anyway. You do have some color-intensive cards that could appreciate the acceleration help as well, such as Niv-Mizzet, so ultimately I think this is the better fit for your deck overall.

Oblivion Stone – Another sweeper that is able to get problem permanents off of the table, and like All Is Dust this has the potential to be selective and leave your stuff alone as long as you aren’t under a ton of pressure when you need to sweep the board. It’s a staple because it is powerful, versatile, and downright polite to your stuff when you have the ability to plan at least a little bit ahead. (It can also be polite to the stuff of others if you want it to be—pass a fate counter or two around to other people’s stuff and they might keep off your back for a while, content to leave you unscathed and the rest of their stuff theoretically at risk so long as they can rest assured they won’t lose everything.)

And thankfully that is where our staples end; the other three cards are not going to be from the list of “cards I usually play or suggest others add to their decks.” After all, one of them was the reason I wanted to work in this space with you in the first place, and no one plays it.

Mizzium Transreliquat – You’re an artifact-based deck in Izzet colors and can potentially greatly approve of a card that gives you not one but two copies of Font of Mythos in play. And that’s before we get tricky with the shapeshifting powers—maybe you want it to be a Black Vice during someone’s upkeep and then a Font of Mythos during their draw step, or maybe you want to use the temporary shift effect so it’s only a Font of Mythos on your turn and then naturally fade into comfortable obscurity for other players’ turns.

You can get some interesting combinations and sweet interactions thanks to this particular oddball, so I think you should give it a try. While no one plays it, I think that’s because it’s obscure, not because it’s no good—breaking the single copy rule of Commander is pretty strong, and being able to shift states multiple times a turn can potentially be quite powerful.

Teferi’s Puzzle Box – You want effects that unclog your hand if you’ve drawn too many of the wrong types of cards, and you also want things that add cheaply to the total overall count of cards your opponent has drawn during a turn before you point a Cerebral Vortex at them. It also makes the game that extra little bit more unpredictable for everybody, putting a temporary duration window on the exact identities of the cards you’re making them draw and thus adding in a random element that can keep you (and others) in the game.

Instead of allowing someone who’s drawn the right two or three power cards from crafting a plan and comboing out with their temporary resource advantage, Teferi’s Puzzle Box turns strong hands into weak ones over a turn or two and prevents some of the problems that your other Howling Mine effects inevitably generate.

Empyrial Plate – I cut your third Equipment when I took out Shield of Kaldra, but thinking about Sword of War and Peace and its “hand size matters” aspect reminded me that there is at least one other “hand size matters” Equipment available to be played. Empyrial Plate is very strong with Nin, the Pain Artist in play, as you can turn “Fireball your guy, you draw X” into “Fireball my guy, I’ll draw X.”

Conveniently damage doesn’t check for lethality until everything has finished resolving, so anything you target—including Nin herself—will be indestructible enough for Nin’s effect, with the damage effectively counteracted by the +X/+X effect. And unlike Shield of Kaldra, this can have a powerful aggressive aspect instead of just a defensive one, giving your rather passive deck the potential to mount a meaningful attack if you need to go on the attack if for some reason your late game plan of pointing burn spells at someone with a full hand doesn’t seem to be working out.

Putting it all together, we get the following:

As always, for your participation in this week’s edition of Dear Azami, you will receive a $20 coupon to StarCityGames.com. We’ve kept this to a pretty reasonable low price—just under $60 for everything, with a quarter of that price coming from just one card, the All Is Dust that I felt was so worthwhile that it deserved to be included despite the hefty price tag (and well worth the investment besides, as it will function very well in a number of Commander decks). Yeah, we could have started adding in Shivan Reef and Sulfur Falls and Cascade Bluffs and Steam Vents, but the price per unit of mana fixing (if such a numerical value could be said to exist) is far smaller than the bang we got per buck with the rest of our changes.

Pricing these cards out individually, they cost the following:

And I still want to find a home for that assorted Wellspring / Goblin Welder / Mizzium Transreliquat shell that attracted my attention, so if those are cards you’ve been playing in your Commander deck recently, feel free to send it in and poke my noggin. As it is, it looks like I’m building myself a new Commander deck after all, and heck if I know what shell to put it in. Nothing’s coalesced yet, but if I find an interesting answer to the problem over the next few weeks, I’ll take a week off from working on other people’s decks and perhaps showcase a new one of my own.

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 Sam’s Angus Mackenzie deck or Justin’s Sol’Kanar the Swamp King Commander ’95deck. 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!

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