What Would They Play? Ea Nasir's EDH Deck!

Welcome to What Would They Play?

I'm Charlie, I'm a storyteller, creative writer, and author; I handle the historical sections of the articles.

And I'm Dan, a Commander player who is obsessed with building thematic decks. I connect the stories to Magic cards to create decks that reflect the vibrant tales of the past.

We take famous or not-so-famous figures from history and make Commander decks based on their lives, philosophies, and histories.

Our articles are meant to be part history lesson, part deckbuilding guide. We believe that decks can be expressions of personal philosophies, so a fun way to learn about historical figures -- and flavorful brews -- would be to speculate about what sort of Commander deck a given person would play, given their times, opinions, and philosophies.

It's like a history class, only using the medium of Magic: the Gathering.

This is meant to be an accessible glimpse at the people in question, not a rigorous or definitive biography; we have sources (and footnotes!) at the end of the article for that!

Let us begin!

"Writing appears to be necessary for the centralized, stratified state to reproduce itself."  Claude Levi-Strauss

Ea Nasir, the subject of today's article, has the great and dubious honor of being recorded history's first scam artist. He fleeced with fluency, pilfered punctually, broke the spirit and letter of contracts with callous and practiced ease, and got rich doing it. We know this, after thousands of years, solely because the people he swindled got furious enough to write him, demanding answers, their precious silver and gold back and, of course, explanation for this most ungentlemanly, scurrilous behavior!

(Spoiler alert: they didn't get any of the things they wanted, but Ea Nasir got his.)1

A scammer and a schemer, Ea Nasir would have loved a Commander deck that let him play politics and make deals that are good for him and bad for everyone else. With Jon Irenicus, Shattered One as his commander, he can saddle his opponents with creatures they'd rather not have, while the rest of his deck is filled with spells to take all the best stuff for himself.

To understand the story and life of supreme huckster and Mesopotamian scam-artist Ea Nasir, you're going to need to understand something about antique writing systems. To start, writing didn't begin with paper. It began with clay, at least in Mesopotamia, where we set our scene. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers were tempestuous and often overflowed their banks, leaving fertile soil that was easily cultivated. It also meant that clay was easily available as building material, artistic medium, and more. But most important to understand before we dig into the meat of the obstreperous letter to Ea Nasir is the character of the first codified writing system in the world: cuneiform.

The Development of Cuneiform From Syllabary to Written Language (courtesy Wikipedia)

Cuneiform is a form of writing adapted to its medium: clay. It was practiced with a stylus, about six inches of wood cut and angled to make individual simple impressions in the wet clay. Assyriologist Irving Finkel of the British Museum has repeatedly likened the stylus to a chopstick. Cuneiform is one of those forms of information transmission that is brilliantly adapted to the environment in which it was developed. To write in cuneiform with a pen or pencil on a sheet of paper is a cramped and awkward experience.

Three possible shapes for a writing stylus

To write cuneiform well, you need a bit of clay, a stylus (see above), and a working knowledge of Akkadian and/or Babylonian. For a language that visually looks alien to most people outside of academia (the note to Ea Nasir, like all Babylonian tablets recovered, doesn't leave spaces or indicators for pause between words), the process of writing it was remarkably similar to good cursive of later history. One moved the stylus, made an impression of either a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal line by pressing rather than dragging the stylus as we would with a pen, and then moved on to the next line. The idea was to have the stylus leave the tablet as little as possible: writing cuneiform was both a learned skill and an art. A trained scribe could absolutely whizz along a tablet by our standards, leaving information impressed into the clay.

This cuneiform writing system wasn't universal; literacy was jealously guarded and difficult to acquire. In general, two types of people, the priests and the administrators--both on the upper strata of Mesopotamian societies--could write. As Levi-Strauss noted above, writing started out as a method of social control and accounting--tax-collecting, political and religious legitimacy, and the tracking of debts--rather than as a liberatory force in early proto-state societies.2 More on that later!

Similarly, Ea Nasir's Commander deck seeks to gain power through manipulation of hidden information. This takes the form of topdeck manipulation, both of his own library and of his opponents'. There are plenty of these options in blue and black, from the fabled Jace, the Mind Sculptor to the largely-forgotten Misinformation and even a removal spell in Spin into Myth. Ea Nasir then takes advantage of his secret knowledge with cards like Keen Duelist, Conundrum Sphinx, and Predict. With the guesswork removed from these effects, they start to feel a lot more unfair.

Having made this introductory point, let's meet our guy, Ea Nasir.

Now to Our Favorite Ur-Scammer, Ea Nasir!

We know almost nothing about Ea Nasir's childhood. However, we know plenty--due to the plethora of complaints about his business practices--about his later life and eventual retirement from the exciting (read: highly scammable) world of 19th-century BC trade in Mesopotamia. He was the ur-scam-artist, which doubles as a pun, since he retired to a house in the city of Ur after finishing his business career. It may also help that the 'Ea' in 'Ea Nasir' is another name for the god Enki, Lord of the Earth, Lord of the Waters, Booze-Enjoyer, and perpetual prankster. As you will see, this is an apt name for our protagonist.

Ea Nasir is the first person to be preserved on the historical record as a scam artist and successful businessman. The two titles are not unrelated, then as now.

According to Michael Rice in Archaeology of the Arabian Gulf, if it could be sold, Ea Nasir was interested:

In Ea Nasir's private records Woolley3 and excavator found evidence of a diversity of interests and a variety of commercial involvement to a degree which would impress a modern entrepreneur. Land speculation, real estate, usury and second-hand clothing were all, apparently[,] grist to Ea Nasir's mill.

Ea Nasir was an...enterprising merchant. As we quoted above, he had a wide range of interests (it takes a certain sort of person to be a real-estate speculator AND a dealer in secondhand clothing, after all), but he was famous for dealing in metal ingots, specifically copper ones. It is this commodity that is the topic of his most notorious grift, the first non-mythological grift in recorded history.

A classic Ea Nasir grift unfolds as follows: Ea Nasir secures a deposit from a customer for such and such amount of something (say, copper ingots). The customer would send a courier to Ea Nasir (and his partner, Ilsu-Ellatsu, but he doesn't play any role in any of this) to pick up the merchandise. Ea Nasir, however, would inevitably greet the courier with much lower quality products. When the messenger inevitably protests, Ea Nasir would tell them to either take the inferior products or nothing--what did he care? He got paid already.

Ea Nasir got paid, the customer got nothing (or low-quality products), and the messenger was treated contemptuously. The messenger would storm off back to their boss, and Ea Nasir would (presumably) have a good belly laugh about it. Ea Nasir's deck contains a number of spells that trade one of his permanents for one of his opponents'. Legerdemain, Juxtapose, and Shrewd Negotiation are all straightforward examples. Perplexing Chimera lets him steal enter-the-battlefield abilities, and Eyes Everywhere helps with the previously mentioned topdeck manipulation theme. If there's nothing worth stealing, Ea Nasir can even generously give things away with Donate, Fateful Handoff, and of course his commander, Jon Irenicus.

Naturally, customers didn't appreciate these tricks.

They sent angry letters to Ea Nasir.

This is where the literacy-as-scarcity comes in. Merchants like Ea Nasir were generally not literate but dictated letters to each other. Indeed, Michael Rice notes in The Archaeology of the Arabian Gulf:

The usual formal injunction 'speak to' precedes the text of most of the letters [to Ea Nasir], indicating that in all probability neither the sender nor the recipient was literate. A letter, in fact, was known as a 'say to them' and was written and read by professional scribes who thus themselves became men of influence and power, privy as they were to all the commercial and political secrets of the time.

So knowing this, let's proceed to the absolutely savage critique of Ea Nasir's business practices, set in stone--er, rather, in clay.

The second-most-famous bit of Cuneiform writing is... (Besides the Epic of Gilgamesh)4

...the letter to Ea Nasir, from the ever-hapless Nanni. Nanni went on an absolute rampage of unadulterated indignation over Coppergate.

Remember, all of this was said out loud first, and then carefully transcribed onto a clay tablet in cuneiform. The complaint covers the front and back part of the large tablet. It is the first analogue zero-star review, in modern terms. Nanni had sent multiple messengers through war zones to Ea Nasir, only to have them snubbed, his money un-refunded, honor dented!

The most famous letter to Ea Nasir, reads in total (and is worth reproducing here in full--I mentally hear this letter as read by Tim Curry or perhaps Keith David):

Tell Ea Nasir: Nanni sends the following message:

When you came, you said to me as follows : "I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots." You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: "If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!"

What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way?

You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Shamash5.

How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.

Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

So, what is the poor-quality copper in Ea Nasir's deck? With all those swapping spells we discussed earlier, he takes his opponents' best creatures and gives them ones with strong drawbacks, like Thrashing Mudspawn, Drinker of Sorrow, or Demonic Hordes. Alternately, he can trade away permanents that help everyone equally, like Kami of the Crescent Moon or Dictate of Kruphix, which reflects the idea of a contract-breaker who takes advantage of the benefits of civilization while contributing less than his fair share. Or, perhaps his customers leave with nothing at all--if one of the creatures he's given away becomes too threatening to him, he can tuck it away with a stroke of his Tel-Jilad Stylus.

An End to a Sordid Saga

Nanni's letters was just many of a type to Ea Nasir. They didn't do much to shake his business practices. He went along his life, scamming away merrily until he either got bored or the risk became too great.

Ea Nasir did eventually retire from public life, settling down in Ur. However, Woolley, who excavated Ea Nasir's house (and is responsible for recovering these letters, and indeed the entire historical personage of Ea Nasir from oblivion), made a parallel discovery. According to him, some portion of Ea Nasir's victims might have forced a payment from him: Ea Nasir's house shows signs of being reduced in size, of portions of it being incorporated with his neighbors dwelling.

Ur, Old Babylonian house from the AH site, n.1 Old Street. May have been the residence of Ea-nasir,... [+] merchant involved in trade with Dilmun (Bahrain), whose archives have been found in the house, especially in the Room 6. Functions of the rooms are hypothetical, probably they may be multi-functional.
Ea Nasir's house, reconstructed, courtesy Wikipedia commons.
Or perhaps, as Rice speculates "...maybe his neighbor just offered him a good price for it."

Ea Nasir's full decklist is below!

Ea Nasir's EDH Deck

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Commander (1)
Creatures (28)
Instants (7)
Artifacts (9)
Sorceries (11)
Enchantments (6)
Lands (37)
Planeswalkers (1)

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  1. Dr. Irving Finkel, Assyriologist at the British Museum and author of the excellent book The First Ghosts, points out that oathbreaking in Mesopotamian cultures was taken VERY seriously, and a serial swindler like Ea Nasir was unlikely to meet with approval in polite society. Finkel writes: "The personified oath incorporated power, for oaths in business agreements or loyalty treaties were taken very seriously by Mesopotamians, and, as everybody knew, the evil resulting from broken or betrayed commitments ran on and would result in lasting misfortune; this frightful mamitu entity was the embodiment of the whole social matter..."
  2. For more on this, I recommend James C. Scott's Against the Grain for an exhaustive archaeological history of early state formations. To summarize: the standard narrative of progress (once people discovered and refined agriculture, cities and centralized authority were swift to develop and were enthusiastically accepted by the populace as a natural result) is entirely wrong. Agriculture was a known thing for more than five thousand years before the first evidence of a politically centralized city-state appears; people often had to be captured or enslaved to be kept in said cities (and would take almost any pretext to abandon sedentary life under kings and priests--like a plague, a war, or mass desertion back to nomadic lifestyles to get out of it when possible). Writing, in the context, acted first as a record of who owed what to whom and was a major social legitimizer and display of authority in these proto-states. There is more, of course, but that's a very broad-strokes version of Scott's central hypothesis.
  3. Excavator of Ea Nasir's house in the early 20th century. On a side note, while a brilliant archaeologist and excavator who was responsible for reconstructing Ur as Ea Nasir would have known it, Woolley named the main streets after the university (Oxford) he'd studied at. This led to some chucklesome street names, like, I kid you not "Straight" and "Gay" Streets.
  4. According to Benjamin R. Foster in his 2019 translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh: "One common assumption about ancient epics, such as the Iliad or the Odyssey, is that their written form was based on oral tradition. This does not seem to be true of The Epic of Gilgamesh...the story of Gilgamesh may have been mostly of interest to the small circle of men and women who belonged to the social economic and intellectual elite of their day..."
  5. Shamash, the sun-god, was the witness to all such trade agreements and especially favored merchants.

What Would They Play? is a collaboration between author Charlie Allison and game designer Dan Sibley. The series is part history lesson, part deck-building journal and aims to bring historical figures back to life through the lens of Magic: The Gathering. You can find Dan on Twitter at @VedalkenSamurai and Charlie on the web at www.charlie-allison.com and https://blog.pmpress.org/authors-artists-comrades/charlie-allison/.