Commander Showdown — Inalla vs Azami
Now that Halloween has passed, we can take off our wizard costumes... and pick up our Wizard decks! Tribal decks are all the rage this year, and one of the big decks from Commander 2017 is Arcane Wizardry, featuring Inalla, Archmage Ritualist. Boasting the bizarre ability to temporarily copy your creatures, Inalla has proven to be quite the trickster, leading a deck full of mischievous spells and mischievous spellcasters.
Among those spellcasters is Azami, Lady of Scrolls, a reprint from Champions of Kamigawa. Though only a third of Inalla's colors, Azami also has a history at the helm of wizard decks, thanks to her fantastic ability to tap wizards to draw cards.
Inalla has the colors and the copies, Azami has the card draw. Both commanders like Wizards, but their strategies are clearly dissimilar. If you want to build a Wizard tribal deck, you probably already know which Wizards you want to play, and based on the colors of those creatures, you already know which of these commanders is right for you. Even so, a Wizard always takes time to learn more about their craft. If you want to build a deck full of Merlins, Gandalfs, and Dumbledores, you should know as much as possible. Let's take a peek at the spellbooks of these ritual-casting, scroll-reading magicians and see what complex hex affects their decks.
Let's begin with Inalla, Archmage Ritualist. She's a 4/5 for five mana, but to be frank, those stats don't matter. Ask anyone who's played Inalla and they'll tell you: they almost never cast her. Since her Eminence ability is active from the command zone, she doesn't need to grace the battlefield to be useful. Instead, she can sit back comfortably like Oloro, Ageless Ascetic and pump out value from the sidelines.
Inalla's particular brand of Eminence lets her pay an additional mana to make a copy of any nontoken Wizard that enters your side of the battlefield. That token only sticks around for one turn, but it does get haste. For just one more mana, each of your Wizards comes with a Splinter Twin buddy. This is particularly useful for Wizards with enters-the-battlefield (ETB) effects. Using Izzet Chronarch to retrieve a spell? Retrieve two instead. Playing Sea Gate Oracle for some card advantage? See that Sea Gate twice. Inalla is effectively an unkillable Flameshadow Conjuring.
As many players quickly realized, one of the best Wizards to copy is Puppeteer Clique. While less famous than its Modern-playable sister Vendilion Clique, Puppeteer Clique is still a great card, resurrecting an enemy creature for one turn. Thanks to Persist, if the Clique dies, it gets to come back one more time and resurrect a creature again. Now, reviving two creatures is good... but reviving four is better. Inalla copies creatures when they hit the field, not when you cast them, so you can copy the Clique both when you play it and when it returns from the graveyard. Getting four hasty dead creatures for a total input of seven mana is a great deal, and a solid way for Inalla to close out a game.
Unfortunately, the Arcane Wizardry preconstructed deck was not without its faults. Inalla is a master at duplicating ETB effects, but those effects dry up pretty quickly. Some non-ETB options exist, such as Shadowmage Infiltrator, which takes advantage of Inalla's haste clause, but on the whole, after the Archaeomancers and Merchant of Secrets, the bonuses for copying a Wizard start to run thin. Many creatures from the precon aren't useful if copied, such as Magus of the Abyss and Izzet Chemister. Inalla's ability also exiles the token, so copies of Corpse Augur and Vindictive Lich won't trigger unless they're killed through other means. In addition, there are no less than 9 legendary creatures in the precon, all of which would be terrible to duplicate because the copy would get snuffed out right away.
The Arcane Wizardry deck was essentially divided into thirds. A third of the deck is full of great ETB effects for Inalla, Archmage Ritualist. The next third focused on spells, to work with the alternative commander Kess, Dissident Mage. The final third was for Mairsil, the Pretender, utilizing activated abilities like Arcanis the Omnipotent. All three potential commanders are powerful on their own, but in the same deck, they pull in different directions, making the deck was a little unfocused.
So, to get a better idea of how players are building Inalla decks, let's take a look at her average decklist, as compiled by EDHREC stats. How does a deck 100% dedicated to Inalla fill up its 99? Check it out:
Average Inalla Deck
There are some super clever creatures to duplicate in here. My favorite absolutely has to be Dualcaster Mage, which can double-Reverberate a spell for you. I also like Venser, Shaper Savant, which is legendary, but whose effect will still trigger even when his copy vanishes immediately due to the Legend Rule. He functions sort of like a Cryptic Command, able to simultaneously stop a spell and bounce a pesky permanent.
Some great Wiz-specific cards litter this list too, some that probably barely missed inclusion in the precon. Stonybrook Banneret reduces the cost of your Wizards, which is just plain excellent. Grixis needs all the help with mana that it can get. Another cool choice is Vedalken Aethermage which can tutor up any Wizard (read: any creature) in your deck. Docent of Perfection is great too, usually filling up spell-heavy decks, but here serving double-duty by both creating and pumping Wizards to give you extra staying power.
There's a card here I have to take a second to explain, though, and that's Panharmonicon. This is a sweet card, one Roon of the Hidden Realm players have been abusing ever since its release in Kaladesh. In Inalla's deck, it doubles those Aether Adepts and Merchant of Secrets effects, and the effects of their copies, which is just bonkers cool. There's a hitch to it though, a mistake I've seen a few players make that I want to quickly clarify.
Inalla's ability triggers when a creature enters the battlefield. Panharmonicon doubles triggers when creatures enter the battlefield. So Panharmonicon would cause Inalla to trigger twice, right? You can pay another additional mana to make two copies of a Wizard?
Yes... but only if she's in play. It's easy to mentally shorthand Panharmonicon's wordy ability to "doubles your triggers," but this isn't entirely accurate. Panharmonicon only doubles the triggers of a permanent you control. In other words, something currently on the battlefield. Like the Lieutenant cycle (Thunderfoot Baloth and Tyrant's Familiar, for example), the commander needs to be in play to get the bonus. If you want to make multiple copies of a Wizard, you'll have to get Inalla onto the battlefield first. For the record, Panharmonicon is still an awesome card in her deck; each Wizard you copy effectively gets its ETB trigger four times, and that's fantastic. Just know that Panharmonicon won't work with Inalla while she's busy Eminence-ing in the command zone.
There's another interaction I'd be remiss not to mention, and that's Wanderwine Prophets. This one's wordy, so bear with me.
If you play Wanderwine Prophets and pay a mana to make a copy of it, you can use the copy's Champion effect to exile the original. (Be sure to stack the triggers so the original's Champion ability resolves last, or else it will sacrifice itself before you can exile it.) The copy has haste, so it can attack. If you hit a player, the copy can sacrifice itself to give you an extra turn. Once the copy is sacrificed, the original comes back into play, re-triggering Inalla and its own Champion ability. You need the copy, not the original, so once again, pay a mana, make a copy, and Champion the original with that copy.
When you get to the end step of your turn, the copy exiles itself because of Inalla's trigger. When it does, the original Wanderwine Prophets comes back yet again, but we still need this to be a copy, not the original, so we again pay a mana, make a copy, and Champion the original. This new copy still has Inalla's "exile me at the beginning of the next End Step" clause, but now we're already in the end step, so it won't exile itself until the next turn... and the next turn is yours, because you hit a player and sacrificed a Merfolk. On your next turn, you'll have a copy with which to hit someone and sacrifice for another extra turn. As long as you keep Champion-ing the original Prophets whenever it reenters the field—and as long as you keep successfully dealing combat damage with your copy—you can feasibly get infinite turns with which to smack your opponents.
It's a lengthy and mana-intensive interaction for a mere two-card combo, but it does exist. Leaving yourself open to an Inalla player with nine mana is unwise in pretty much every scenario, but especially when they can threaten to go infinite with a fish.
Let's do one more. This one's cheaper, but requires two cards instead of one.Ashnod's Altar (or Phyrexian Altar, but that's super expensive) goes infinite with Inalla and Bloodline Necromancer. Here's the plan: play the Necromancer, triggering Inalla. Sacrifice the Necromancer immediately to the Altar for mana. Then resolve Inalla's ability, making a copy. The copy will get back the original Bloodline Necromancer, which will trigger Inalla again. Sacrifice the original again, then resolve Inalla's trigger to make a copy, bringing back the original, and so on. Repeat as many times as necessary, using the mana from the Altar to pay for Inalla triggers. In the end, you'll wind up with infinite colorless mana, and more importantly, an infinite army of Necromancer copies to wipe out your opponents.
So what does all this arcane babbling mean? We've seen some ETB creatures and some combos. What does that tell us about the deck itself?
Inalla, Archmage Ritualist was considered the most difficult of the C17 precons to pilot. Many players struggled with the deck, because it had apparently few ways to win the game. You couldn't exactly overpower people in combat, because your creatures, as mental magicians, tended to be pretty weak. Puppeteer Clique wasn't just one of the best Wizards in the deck, it was regarded as one of the deck's only win conditions. Clone Legion was another, a spell to copy an opponent's army and overtake the board, especially if you recast it with Archaeomancer or Spelltwine.
Inalla also has a second ability, one I haven't yet mentioned. If she's on the battlefield, you can tap five Wizards to make one player lose 7 life. This is a slow ability; when Edgar Markov or The Ur-Dragon turn five creatures sideways, they usually deal a lot more than 7 damage. Plus, keeping five Wizards on the field isn't always easy. Inalla helps by making additional creature copies, but even then, it's not very reliable. This is a backup ability. Plan B, not Plan A. It's there for you after you've finally dominated your opponents and need a way to finally end it.
In other words, Inalla doesn't win short games. She stalls, using weird, kooky tricks like Portal Mage and Harbinger of the Tides to stay alive. She thrives when the game goes long, long enough to cast absurd spells like the aforementioned Clone Legion, or perhaps a huge Comet Storm. In a way, her path to victory is actually quite similar to that of a Group Hug player: stay under the radar, use your instant-speed tricks to stay healthy, and once your enemies run out of steam, overwhelm them with the card advantage you've been hoarding all game. True to the creature type, Inalla tends not to win with creatures, but with powerful spells.
The Lady of Scrolls
Let's now turn our attention to Azami, Lady of Scrolls. She's a great option for Inalla, but she's powerful at the head of her own 99 as well. You lose two colors, which cuts off a lot of options, but you gain three crazy important words: "draw a card."
Crucially, Azami lets you tap any of your Wizards at any time, even if they have summoning sickness. If you look closely at the rules, summoning sickness only stops creatures from attacking or using abilities that have the tap (or untap) symbol. Azami doesn't have the tap symbol, so she's free to tap dance all she wants. This is also true of Inalla's ability, and of a new powerhouse from C17, Galecaster Colossus.
This is probably one of the best creatures in Inalla's deck, and it's Azami's new best friend. It's expensive, but if it sticks, you can tap your creatures to bounce any nonland permanent you don't control to its owner's hand. The Ur-Dragon breathing down your neck? No problem. Arahbo, Roar of the World got your tongue? Put that cat back in the bag. If left unchecked, the Colossus will devastate your opponents, turning their 'permanents' into 'temporaries.'
Let's take a look at Azami's average decklist to see what other tricks she has up her sleeve. Look closely---a magician never reveals her secrets easily.
Average Azami Deck
Actually, we may not need to look that carefully after all. Take a peek at that Laboratory Maniac in the Creatures section. At 84% popularity, this is the #2 most popular card in Azami's deck, second only to Counterspell. Azami is a Wizard that draws cards, and Labman is a Wizard who rewards you for drawing too many cards.
I can already hear my Editor groaning as he reads this. [EDITOR'S NOTE: So groaned.] Lab Maniac is Azami's pet card, but it's my Editor's pet peeve card. Still, the numbers don't lie, and Azami is the unabashed queen of the Labman combo. The Laboratory Maniac EDHREC page shows that Azami is Labman's #1 deck, in nearly two times as many decks as the runner-up (The Locust God). Azami is clearly hyper-dedicated to this strategy.
For players unfamiliar with the combo, take a look at the enchantment Mind Over Matter. Tap Azami to draw a card, then discard that card to untap Azami. Then repeat. Again. And again. Dig and dig until you find and cast Labman, then dig and dig until you run out of cards. It's really that simple. [EDITOR'S 2nd NOTE: Double groan.]
There are a few other alternatives: Mind Over Matter can untap Temple Bell too, so if you reset your library with an Elixir of Immortality you can force your opponents to deck out. There's also the option for infinite mana with Palinchron + Caged Sun/High Tide. Perhaps you prefer Sigil Tracer + Turnabout, or Imprinting Dramatic Reversal on an Isochron Scepter while you have mana rocks in play. Oh, and don't even get me started on Paradox Engine...
You get my drift. The point is, combos. In truth, this match-up, 'Wizard Tribal Showdown: Inalla vs Azami,' is a bit misleading. Azami isn't a Wizard-tribal deck, she's a combo deck. There are a few backup options, but the main one will always be Mind over Matter and Laboratory Maniac.
YOU SHALL NOT PASS
Even with the focus on combo, Azami still runs plenty of other excellent Wizards, so we should take a look and see what they're up to. Baral, Chief of Compliance is a great choice, reducing the cost of your spells. Lighthouse Chronologist is a fun option for mono-blue decks too, as he's another Wizard that wrecks the game if left unchecked.
Take a closer look at all those warlocks and sorcerers, though. There's a distinct theme among them: Glen Elendra Archmage; Patron Wizard; Voidmage Prodigy; Nimble Obstructionist. There are almost as many creatures that counter spells as there are spells that counter spells! Even the Wizards that don't counter spells still manage to be domineering; Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir is the original Dragonlord Dromoka, and Fatespinner takes entire phases out the game. Where Inalla uses Wizards for ETB effects, Azami uses them as Dismisses, because they can counter spells and draw her cards.
Conclusion? Azami is a combo deck, but she's not a hyper-fast-gotta-get-my-combo-out-before-they-can-stop-me-win-by-turn-three deck. To pull off her combo, she has to arrange it carefully and precisely, and pull the trigger at exactly the right time. If anyone tries to get in her way, her Wizards are there to back her up with countermagic. In competitive circles, it's frequently the case that each player is poised to pull off a quick, game-winning combo, but must simultaneously hold up answers to prevent other players from completing theirs. The faster your deck can win, the more fragile it tends to be. Since she's lousy with counters, Azami is on the slower side of that balance; not just combo, but control.
If you're looking to build Azami, it's important to know her pedigree. Her combos are well-known enough that you'll likely draw some heat from the table. Additionally, if you're not playing in competitive circles, you may encounter some players with a distaste for control-combo strategies. It varies from group to group, of course, but often EDH is the format players turn to for wacky games with weird cards, so hyper-efficient insta-win combos can sometimes feel incongruous with that zany aesthetic. I'll always advocate that you play what you love, but I'll add that you should do so considerately. We play the game for fun, and if other people aren't having fun, you should talk with them.
This goes for the non-combo folks in the group too. Check out the flavor text of Mystic Monastery. There are many pathways to enlightenment, and the same is true for pathways to fun. Just because it ain't fun for you doesn't mean it can't be valid and worthwhile for someone else. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize this, but there are some commanders out there whose best win conditions are nothing but combos. Azami is a 0/2 for five mana, she's not exactly melee material. If she's going to win, she needs to do so on a different axis than everyone else.
So, the next time one of your buddies combos off and it feels like it was overpowered and there was nothing you could do about it, take a second to really evaluate that game. Chances are your buddy has been waiting for several turns for the perfect moment to strike. They probably left themselves vulnerable a couple times, but since you couldn't see their hand, you didn't notice at the time. If your friend is agreeable, try swapping decks and piloting theirs for one game. You might find that arranging and protecting a combo while also stymieing aggression is harder than it looks. For a combo player, the real game happens in the hand, not on the battlefield, and that's an important lesson for everyone to learn.
Play wisely. Play kindly. Count, then find more grains. Try not to kick other people's sand.
(PS: Some players report that winning instantly with a big combo was actually dissatisfying for them. They pulled it off once, and then the deck lost its appeal. Before you sink your money into a new deck, interrogate your own desires. Know thyself. Maybe try a proxy game, even if it's cumbersome. Better to proxy a deck and realize you don't love it than to spend a bunch of money on a deck and realize you don't love it.)
Cards to Consider
EDHREC shows us a lot of popular cards with impressive percentages, but there are cards out there with lower percentages that could stand to see some more play. I've got some suggestions below for each commander. To all you competitive Azami players, I hope you'll indulge me if I happen to suggest cards that look cute but are actually terrible. I'm not a hugely competitive player myself, so I may evaluate things poorly. Then again, you probably already knew I was a filthy casual when I wrote a Showdown between Zur and Bruna and neglected to talk about Doomsday.
- Sundial of the Infinite: Maybe you've looked at this card before. Maybe you thought you could use it to keep the copies of the Wizards. Maybe you've been told it doesn't work the way you want it to, because Inalla exiles copies at the beginning of the next end step, so even if you end your turn before the End Step, they'll just get exiled on the end step after that. This is all true...but maybe there's still a way you can keep those copies after all. How? Just activate Sundial of the Infinite in response to the end-of-turn exile trigger. The exile trigger goes on the stack, but by ending your turn immediately, the trigger vanishes, leaving you with a permanent Wizard copy! This is a trick Feldon of the Third Path players have been using for years.
- Profaner of the Dead: There are a couple cool Wizards with Exploit, and Inalla likes them all. The copies Inalla creates can just sacrifice themselves, since they'll vanish at the end of the turn anyway, so you can keep the creature and still get the effect. Other Wizards with this ability include Silumgar Sorcerer, Sidisi's Faithful, and Gurmag Drowner.
- Crystal Shard: Not because it keeps your opponents on their toes for their own creatures (although that's nice too) but because you can bounce your own Wizards back for cheap and replay them for more ETB goodness.
- Ghostly Flicker: I'm not sure why this is only in 22% of Inalla decks. It feels right at home, blinking your Wizards so you can re-copy them and get their tricky effects at instant speed. Plus, it goes infinite with Dualcaster Mage. I'd tell you how, but I've already told you a couple infinite combos today, so I'll leave it to you to research this interaction. Wizards can't rest on their laurels, you have to earn that arcane knowledge!
- Arcane Adaptation: Look, I know, this isn't original, and it might not actually be any good, but I just can't help myself. Fill the deck with non-Wizard creatures with powerful ETB effects, tutor out Arcane Adaptation, Conspiracy, or Xenograft, and go to town. Double the Mindclaw Shamans. Double the Gray Merchant of Asphodels. Double the Grave Titans! This strategy is super fragile, and you have to jump some hurdles to make it actually do anything, but it's a hilarious direction to take an Inalla deck.
- Mystic Remora: It's a weird version of Rhystic Study, but it's budget and will draw you a lot more cards than you think.
- Siren Stormtamer: This new triple-creature-type guy from Ixalan is yet another inexpensive countermagic Wizard that protects Azami and can draw you cards. Slots in perfectly.
- Windfall: There aren't a ton of tutors for Mind over Matter in blue. Long-Term Plans is the best, and its drawback is basically negated by Azami's awesome ability. Still, you'll probably need to dig, and Windfall digs. Yes, it draws cards for your opponents too, but your commander is a draw engine, so you'll be ahead of them on card advantage anyway. Besides, you need ways to draw cards when your Azami isn't on the battlefield.
- Ethereal Usher: On the subject of tutors, Ethereal Usher is a six mana card with Transmute and no other relevant abilities. This card can transmute for exactly one card, the all-important Mind over Matter. Aside from that, it has no other functionality in the deck, which is probably why it doesn't see much play. The sorcery-speed aspect doesn't help much either. Despite all that, to my untrained eye it looks like a good tutor for the most important and hardest-to-find card in the deck.
- Back to Basics: Azami needs very few nonbasic lands, but that's not likely to be true for your opponents. This is an expensive card, but if you have one, Azami's a good place for it. Just make sure you kill your opponents quickly after you stick this thing; no one enjoys sitting around watching someone else play Solitaire for ten minutes.
Some players might be intimidated by all this talk of combos, but trust me, they're not all that bad. Wizards are complicated, but that's what makes them so good. If they were simple, they wouldn't be very good Wizards, would they? Inalla and Azami both have combos, but Inalla's are more like fun inclusions, while Azami's are the main focus of her deck. While Inalla uses her Wizards for rascally tricks, Azami uses them as a form of control. Inalla might use Puppeteer Clique, while Azami might use Vendilion Clique. Both commanders offer fun and bizarre brews, and a nice break from traditionally combat-heavy games of EDH.
So which type of wizard are you? Research or rituals? Copies or cards? Cunning or combos? If you are looking for someone to share in an adventure, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, and remember that happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light. Oh, and beware of the Lady of the Lake.
Til next time!