Nin, the Pain Artist is probably one of the most misunderstood Commanders. When many people see Nin they see some sort of Group Hug gone bad general. What I see when looking at Nin is a walking Stroke of Genius. Nin gives you the ability to force someone to draw an excessive amount of cards even if that person is usually yourself. Of course the power of Nin extends to board control as she can take down problematic creatures with ease. This rare combination of board control and combo power makes Nin quite potent.
The deck list I am sharing is one that I own and use myself. I have a lot of experience with it and typically wins more than 60% of the time when facing other competitive decks. That’s a great average and much of it is due to the nature of the deck and the flexibility. This configuration is set up with the sideboard rule in mind. If your group doesn’t use the sideboard rule or you plan on taking a similar list to a Grand Prix then keep that in mind and adjust accordingly based on your anticipated match ups.
Nin, the Pain Artist
The path to victory for Combo based Nin decks is to set up some loop to generate an arbitrarily large amount of mana and then convert some of that mana into many cards. After churning through your deck, you will have a path to victory. In my build of Nin there are two main ways of setting up infinite mana as I’ve chosen to use the most simple and redundant combos.
The Reset Package
Reset is one of those peculiar cards from days gone by. It enables a short burst of mana for a relatively low cost. Where it becomes brutal in this deck is by copying it many times to create as much mana as is desired. The easiest way to accomplish this is with Firemind’s Foresight. Firemind’s Foresight can tutor up Reset and Reiterate along with some way to protect the combo or lead to victory (usually Flusterstorm, Brainstorm, or Lightning Bolt). When you cast Reiterate with Buyback targeting your Reset, the copy made by Reiterate will resolve before the original. So after the copy resolves, you can cast Reiterate with Buyback again. So assuming you have greater than 6 lands in play this sequence will gain you mana. You can declare how many loops you wish to do and have functionally limitless mana.
The other way to copy Reset many times is via the Guildmages. Izzet Guildmage is pretty simple. When comboing off using it, again you just keep copying the original after letting the copy resolve. Nivix Guildmage works similarly to Izzet Guildmage but takes more mana to set up. Izzet Guildmage is slightly more effective for this as you can more easily play around counters using it. Nivix Guildmage is more versatile as it can also make infinite mana via Time Spiral and can use its other ability to churn through your deck to find a win condition if needed.
The Monolith Package
Power Artifact is also one of those peculiar cards from the old days of Magic. By reducing the costs of an artifact’s activated abilities it can make for some powerful interactions. In this deck the Power Artifact serves a single purpose and that is to combine with a Monolith to make much mana. Grim Monolith and Basalt Monoliths both have activate abilities to generate mana and untap them. The cost to untap the Monoliths is usually prohibitive but Power Artifact gives you a way around that as to enable you to untap the Monoliths for fewer mana than the Monolith generates. By performing this loop, you net 1 or 2 colorless mana at a time.
Rings of Brighthearth also serves a functionally similar role with Basalt Monolith. By tapping Basalt Monolith for mana, you can generate 3 colorless. You then spend 3 colorless to untap the Basalt Monolith. Activating the untap ability of Basalt Monolith will trigger Rings of Brighthearth’s ability. You pay 2 colorless and copy the untap effect. You let the copy resolve, untapping the Basalt Monolith, and then tap it for 3 colorless mana. The initial untap ability resolves and you tap the Basalt Monolith for another 3 mana. This leaves you with 6 colorless mana, which can be spent on another loop. You can repeat this many times, generating as much colorless mana as you desire.
It can be important to turn your vast amount of colorless mana into colored mana. The easiest way to accomplish that is to cast Gilded Lotus and use it to add 3 Blue mana to your mana pool. Then use two of that Blue mana with some of your colorless to cast Capsize with Buyback on your Gilded Lotus. Repeat this loop as many times as needed to convert your excess colorless mana into Blue mana or eventually any color. The other way to turn extra colorless mana into colored mana is with Voltaic Key and Rings of Brighthearth. Use Voltaic Key to untap itself and copy the ability with Rings of Brighthearth. Have the copy target a mana artifact that produces the desired color of mana such as Gilded Lotus or Coalition Relic. The copy and original resolve leaving both your Voltaic Key and mana artifact untapped for more use and/or mana conversion.
Turning Mana to a Victory
Once you have achieved massive amounts of mana the next task is usually drawing your entire library. This task is accomplished usually with one of your X spells or Nin’s ability (often times targeting herself). Sometimes drawing your library won’t be that easy so there are some alternatives. When dealing with Reiterate or a Guildmage it is possible to copy your draw spells such as Brainstorm or Fact or Fiction and see as much of your library as needed.
When using Reset as your infinite mana engine you can use your lands to help dig deeper into your deck. Nivix, Aerie of the Firemind and Desolate Lighthouse can let you see more of your library each time you untap them. These lands help you have further card advantage sources in your deck without comprising your land count. While Nivix is usually too expensive to be useful, once you have limitless mana that is no longer a concern. Desolate Lighthouse is better in the early game at filtering but is worse than Nivix when you combo as it doesn’t actually net extra cards. Keep that limitation in mind when using the Reset combo and hoping to have the Lighthouse dig for cards (you may have to end up ditching your Reiterate if you have no other cards to discard). When copying Time Spiral, its intriguing as you can dig towards your win con while netting mana.
Rings of Brighthearth also opens up the possibility to using Sensei’s Divining Top to draw your library once you have unlimited colorless mana. Tap the Top to activate its draw ability. Rings will trigger to copy that ability. Pay the mana to copy the ability. The copy resolves so you draw a card and put the Top on top of your library. The original ability resolves so you draw a card. As the top is no longer in play it doesn’t go on top of the library. You just drew the Top (most likely) so you now cast it and can repeat this loop as needed.
So once you have accessed as much of your library as you desire, the next step is turning your cards in a victory using the mana you have already acquired. The most common way for this deck to win is by casting Blue Sun’s Zenith for a 100 (or more) targeting a player. You do that and that player normally loses the game for being unable to draw enough cards. Stroke of Genius or Nin’s ability accomplishes the same thing. The other path to victory is Lightning Bolt copied repeatedly by a Guildmage or Reiterate until all your opponents have no life left.
Protecting the Combo and Yourself
One of the best things about Nin is that her color identity includes Blue. As many players can attest Blue has one of the best abilities in the game. Countering spells is the most effective way to stop things that may impede your victory. In the past few years there have been many cheap and efficient spells printed that can help provide a protection to your plans.
Mental Misstep, Spell Pierce, and Flusterstorm are all very strong and can surprise people. Mental Misstep is normally used to hit people’s turn 1 Sol Rings or Mana Vaults as a fast start can be quite challenging to catch up even for the best of decks. Misstep is also great at preventing removal such as Vandalblast or tutors such as Vampiric Tutor or Enlightened Tutor from resolving. The more competitive your playgroup is the more powerful cheap counterspells become. Flusterstorm is great at winning fights against opposing counterspells and potent against other Blue decks. Spell Pierce is the weakest of the three, but still pulls its own weight. Even in a format that features a lot of mana acceleration, Spell Pierce can just really ruin someone’s day or serve to slow them down. When people try giant spells like Tooth and Nail or large Genesis Waves they are usually tapped out so Spell Pierce is brutal.
Mindbreak Trap, Misdirection, and Force of Will are occasionally looked at negatively by Commander players. These spells can be vital at winning counter wars regardless of any potential negatives they have. They also can provide protection from your opponent’s early combo with is just as important as protecting your path to victory.
The rest of the counterspells are pretty straight forward and accepted by the Commander community. Counterspell is just the standard. Hinder and Spell Crumple are quite powerful at keeping problem generals off the field or putting key spells away from graveyard recursion so that you only have to counter them once.
Winning the Game without Combo
When things go poorly for you and your main combos are disrupted, you deck can still win. Occasionally an effect like Sadistic Sacrament or Jester’s Cap is going to happen to you. As long it is fewer than 10 cards, you can still win but losing more than that leaves you up to the whims of fate. When you get hit by a Jester’s Cap effect you will lose the key cogs of your deck in Reset, Power Artifact, and Rings of Brighthearth. Some people may take Time Spiral instead, but Rings is powerful enough in this deck to warrant going after. That leaves you with only one infinite combo left (Time Spiral + Nivix Guildmage) to win with. It’s normally a good idea to assume that’s not going to happen and just transfer your mindset towards playing a control deck. Focus on keep the board empty or at least not hostile towards you and digging for Mindslaver. Few decks can handle getting hit with Mindslaver repeatedly and this deck is designed to accomplish just that. If Mindslaver lock isn’t an option, then focus on Capsize and Reiterate. They can carry you far. Eventually you just build up enough mana to attempt to deck your opponents with a few well timed Nin activations if you are really desperate. Rarely will this deck win via damage, but sometimes you get lucky and/or have a Consecrated Sphinx or two in play.
I’m going to go over how Nin can match up against 5 of the more common decks in the format. Due to the size of the format it’s difficult to do every match up so instead I’ll just focus on a few that have broad applications.
Nin versus Maelstrom Wanderer
This build of Nin usually fairs well against Maelstrom Wanderer. As most Wanderer builds packs few permission spells, Nin can freely focus on defense against the Wanderer’s board while setting up its combo. Eventually Nin can go for the combo with little threat interaction from a Wanderer player. The inclusion of many counters can make the Wanderer less scary by focusing on keeping the larger threats off the table. If you just have to deal with 12-15 power of creatures coming towards you, that can be dealt with via bounce and other delaying tactics. The important things to ensure that you don’t lose to their infinite combo or flood of 20+ power into play. Mindbreak Trap is also a great answer to the Wanderer that they don’t see coming.
Nin versus Zur the Enchanter
Zur has trouble interacting with Nin. Many of the lockdown enchantments don’t do much against this type of combo deck. The aura plan of turning Zur into a nearly untouchable monster is also a tad slow vs. Nin. These lockdown cards are also taking up deck space that leaves less room for cards that can fight Nin. Things get much more interesting if Zur has access to cards like Arcane Laboratory, but those are less common compared to cards like Propaganda and Empyrial Armor.
Nin versus Arcum Dagsson
This can be a poor match for this build of Nin depending upon Arcum’s start and whether sideboards are in use. This mainboard configuration of Nin is less favorable vs. Arcum as it can’t easily remove their permanents. When sideboards are in use Nin can leverage their Red Elemental Blast, Pyroblast, and the artifact hate to good effect. If you don’t use sideboards, I would try to fit in some artifact removal such as Rack and Ruin and/or Shattering Pulse into your main deck.
Nin versus Ezuri, Renegade Leader
Tribal decks are usually a good match up for Nin as they usually have a slower kill by a few turns. Ezuri can win as soon as turn 3 or 4 depending on the draw which makes it amongst the faster of the tribal decks. The key to beating Ezuri is just not letting their big plays resolve and setting up an Evacuation or overloaded Cyclonic Rift if you are expecting an overrun turn. Nin can pick off key elves if you are careful to avoid Ezuri’s regeneration (specifically mana engines like Priest of Titania and Rofellos are prime targets).
Nin versus Marath, Will of the Wild
Marath can be a little more challenging than most opponents as your general may as well not exist for the majority of the match as Marath can kill it nearly at will. It can be challenging to win when you are forced not to have any help from your commander, but realizing that early on can improve your chances of victory. It’s important not to let them build up too much steam. One of the wrinkles in this matchup is limiting your vulnerability to Aura Shards. Marath can generate many creatures and having all your extra mana blown up can invite disaster. Even trying to leverage Hinder and Spell Crumple on Marath may not be enough due to the large amount of tutors available to find it again. It’s just important to relax and keep on building up towards the Reset combo as Marath decks typically have few ways to interact with it.
Making the Deck Your Own
Now the list that I have presented is one that I use myself so it doesn’t have everything I desire yet. I’ve played a long time and I have a large collection. I don’t own a Mana Drain but if I did, it would be in there. I would probably cut Jace Beleren or Rhystic Study for it as those cards are the most sided out. Swan Song is a spell I am considering to add into the main deck and is currently in the sideboard. For some people Swan Song could be better than Flusterstorm as it can counter Gods but it could also just be a budget consideration.
If you are going to try to use the core of the Reset combo, but can’t afford it all at once, then Time Spiral should be the card to get last. Time Spiral is good, but only goes infinite with Nivix Guildmage. Outside of a combo Time Spiral is best used to hate graveyards and refill an empty hand. It’s important but not essential.
Some people will definitely see this deck and think it requires more creatures. That can be fair. My meta just evolved to a point where they were too cumbersome and didn’t generate enough value. The most recently cut creatures from my deck were Solemn Simulacrum and Stuffy Doll. It wasn’t that they weren’t good enough that they were cut; I wanted more instants so I could keep my mana untapped during my opponents’ turns as that was a stronger line of play.
Nin, the Pain Artist is one of the stronger Combo decks in the format. It’s relatively immune to graveyard hate, has a lot of different options, gets to play Blue, and its paths to victory are quite compact. The next time you see a Nin deck, beware; it could just be one of the strongest decks you will ever face.
alextobriner at gmail com
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