Commander Showdown - Kefnet vs Yennett
(God-Eternal Kefnet by Lius Lasahido | Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign by Chris Rahn)
Aim for the Topdeck
When Commander 2018 released, we had fun here on Commander Showdown comparing and contrasting two brand-new legends from the Esper "Top of Deck Matters" precon, Aminatou, the Fateshifter and Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign. That article can be found here.
War of the Spark, however, has unleashed another legend, one who seeks to manipulate our libraries even more. God-Eternal Kefnet has risen as a flying plague doctor, and much like Yennett, he's prepared to cast spells from the top of our library. Rather than casting the spell outright, Kefnet creates a cheap copy we may cast, while putting the original right into our hand, effectively doubling up on our spells. There's a reason Kefnet looks like a skeleton now - that ability is deadly.
How does the topdeck manipulation change when the commander shifts from three colors to just one? How do things differ when Kefnet is restricted to instants and sorceries, but Yennett is restricted only by mana costs? Sounds like it's time for a topdeck Commander Showdown!
Let's start with Yennett. In my previous review of Yennett, I came away with this observation:
Aminatou is the setup, not the payoff. Yennett is the payoff, but needs setup. Her strategy is extremely straightforward: play lots of big stuff for free and hit people with them (and possibly leave up some Counterspells to protect them, since you have all that extra mana available).
I happen to have a Yennett deck of my own, and by and large, I still stand by the above assessment. Yennett is capable of many clever tricks, and it takes a lot of nuance to time her abilities just right, but at the end of the day, she's cheating out spells and sticking huge things into play like Ilharg, the Raze-Boar. The exact odd-cost spells each Yennett deck will cheat out will of course vary to personal taste, but here are some of the classics:
Expropriate is one of the nastier spells you can cast in general, but especially when it's done for free. Big ol' Eldrazi like Emrakul, the Promised End, Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, and Void Winnower can really ruin someone's day, too. Other favorites might include In Garruk's Wake, Blatant Thievery, or fun seven-drops like Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite and Diluvian Primordial.
When you're cheating things into play for free, you're not necessarily interested in playing fair, so Yennett isn't afraid to get nasty. In conjunction with the classic Sensei's Divining Top and Brainstorm effects, Yennett will also facilitate her free spells by just playing Vampiric Tutor and Mystical Tutor.
Below is my personal list for Yennett:
The Odd-ysseyView on Archidekt
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Full disclaimer, this list is not easy on the budget. Luckily, you don't need the Marsh Flats or the Jace the Mind Sculptor to have a fun time with Yennett. If you're setting the top of your deck up with Aqueous Form or Dream Cache instead of a Jace, that's still great synergy. If you're casting a free Angel of Despair instead of Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, that's still some darn good value.
Regardless of the budget, I think there's one constant theme for Yennett, and that's her suite of protection.
In truth, Yennett plays like an Esper version of Kaalia of the Vast. She's a flying nuisance who attacks and makes huge waves with splashy spells, which means priority #1 is to make sure she doesn't kick the bucket. Like Kaalia, if she perishes, the deck's engine shuts right off. Unlike Kaalia, she's in blue, which means we can protect her from removal with Counterspell, Negate, and even fun topdeck manipulating magic like Discombobulate. I also recommend things like Mother of Runes (or the new Giver of Runes from Modern Horizons) to keep her up and active.
If I may be so bold, the skill to playing Yennett is predicated upon the cards she doesn't play for free. Setting up a Magister Sphinx is great, but keeping your commander alive is the difficult task, and it's up to you and your Crystal Ball to make sure you're prepared for the enormous target you're about to draw on your own back. You can set up a phenomenal Plague Wind, but what if Yennett gets snuffed before she can attack? You need to pack some big mana advantage like Gilded Lotus or Smothering Tithe to make sure you can actually cast that spell without Yennett.
When you play Yennett well, she'll look like she's busted and unfair. A lot of her nuance happens behind the scenes in zones like your hand and your library, where your opponents are physically unable to see what you're planning. If you can pull those strings just right, she'll overwhelm the table with a slew of amazing spells, beating people down with amazing Eldrazi and/or extra turns or any manner of free, bonkers cards. However, if she falters, it will take quite a lot of effort to rev that engine back up, or else you'll be left hard-casting one big spell per turn. That can sometimes be okay, but it's far from ideal. Esper Kaalia is best served alongside a generous helping of protective countermagic, to ensure her cheaty-mana-cost-dodging becomes an avalanche your opponents can't hope to overcome.
The Plague Doctor
Let's turn our attention now to God-Eternal Kefnet, the skeletal bird who basically turns our spells into Miracles!
I don't feel there's any use in misdirection - Kefnet's EDHREC page is full to the brim with extra turn spells. Time Warp, Karn's Temporal Sundering, Temporal Manipulation, and heck, even the actual Miracle, Temporal Mastery, are inescapable on Kefnet's page. It's no secret that these are good with Kefnet - you can take an extra turn for just three mana, and you still get to put the spell into your hand? Excellent. That's not the only reason, though:
Scroll Rack is an infinite combo if I ever saw one. Each turn, Kefnet can flip a cheap extra turn spell off the top of his deck, cast the copy, then Scroll Rack that spell right back on top of the deck, to be cast again on Kefnet's next turn. Lather, rinse, repeat, and you've got infinite turns. Bash people in the air with your flying commander, and it's GG.
While I don't think these synergies are specifically required to play Kefnet, I'd be doing my job wrong if I didn't acknowledge that, at least according to the numbers, any God-Eternal Kefnet deck you encounter is certainly very likely to use them. Even if you aren't planning on using infinite turns in your Kefnet deck, be aware of the perception of that commander; even if you announce that you're not doing infinite-turn shenanigans, sometimes folks won't be willing to risk it, and may therefore target you or your birdman with extreme prejudice.
What other tricks can we learn from Kefnet? Let's take a look:
Average Kefnet DeckView on Archidekt
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Kefnet's close proximity to infinite turns also encourages his page to fill up with other combos. Isochron Scepter + Dramatic Reversal, for example, can provide infinite mana when paired up with the proper mana rocks. Note the presence of Storm all-star Aetherflux Reservoir in Kefnet's average list, which can turn all those spells - especially that Dramatic Reversal combo - into an exceptional win condition. It should also come as no surprise that Jace, Wielder of Mysteries and Laboratory Maniac show up at high percentages on Kefnet's page, too.
Decks that utilize infinite combos can be linear, and are prone to lean into that linearity to become more efficient.
More than a few players tire quickly of commanders that make liberal use of infinite combos, and since Kefnet is such an outlet for them, and a competitive option at that, I expect some folks may feel that they have nothing to gain from this commander, both playing it and playing against it. If you'll indulge me, however, I think Kefnet provides us with an opportunity to discuss an important aspect of everyone's commander experience: your win condition.
Simply put, infinite turns are not a win condition. Infinite mana is not a win condition. Kefnet's a powerful attacker, but someone might have a blocker. Infinite mana is swell, but not when you have no cards in hand. Kefnet guides us toward a scarily efficient engine, but it's on you, the player, to find the keys and turn the ignition.
Just look at the list above and note the diversity of ways Kefnet can actually win the game. Infinite turns? Laboratory Maniac will win when you inevitably draw your entire deck. Alternatively, Metallurgic Summonings or Talrand Sky Summoner could build an army to break through enemy lines. Infinite mana? Blue Sun's Zenith someone for a billion. Or use the Scepter combo to accumulate triggers on Aetherflux Reservoir.
And remember, the list above is just an average deck. Maybe people will use High Tide and Palinchron as a different method of acquiring infinite mana. Or maybe they'll pair Rings of Brighthearth with the activated ability of Basalt Monolith. Maybe they'll decide to add Walking Ballista because it's basically a colorless Comet Storm. The goal isn't just to find infinity. The goal is to find how to wield infinity.
The theme of this Showdown was topdeck manipulation, as both Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign and God-Eternal Kefnet reward us for putting specific cards on top of our libraries. However, the commanders are basically as different as night and day.
Like Kaalia of the Vast, or Ilharg, the Raze-Boar, Yennett is aggressive, often cheating enormous Praetors and world-crushing Eldrazi into play, and beating enemies down with an increasingly insurmountable board state. This plan will be effective, but it will take time, and more than a handful of attack steps. You'll need to keep your counterspells ready to protect that growing board, but luckily, the things you wisely cheat into play with Yennett's ability will help you find more protective magic and/or ruin your opponents' chances of messing with you. Yennett's most cryptic lesson is to teach us the power of snowballing.
Kefnet, however, is most likely looking for an infinite combo pretty quickly, and will win the game by establishing just a handful of pieces, rather than accruing value like Yennett. Notice that there aren't any Lightning Greaves or Swiftfoot Boots in Kefnet's average list. These are great security for a commander as important as Kefnet, and they're two of Yennett's most crucial cards. Yet Kefnet doesn't include them - when he hits the table, it's because there's infinite something coming with him, which makes countermagic more crucial than shroud.
It's more than just 'let's go find a combo' though; Kefnet reminds us to reevaluate cards we traditionally see through just a single lens. Blue Sun's Zenith is a draw spell, but also a win condition. Isochron Scepter is the best Counterspell holder, but it's also an important piece to a deadly engine. Mind Stone is a mana rock, but also a sneaky way to draw a card on someone else's turn to trigger Kefnet's ability and cast a super-cheap instant.
What's more, Kefnet also reminds us how important it is to have a diversity of win conditions in your deck. Kefnet doesn't just have one plan to win, he has nine. If an opponent can't be attacked, he goes for LabMan, or if that's not available, there's a Storm option, or making an army of tokens, and so on. Kefnet knows what his deck does, and what Plans A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H will be. That's a good lesson to apply to any deck.
Cards to Consider
Alright, before we go, let's take a quick peek at some cards that warrant extra consideration for both of these commanders.
- Riverwise Augur: I still cannot believe this doesn't show up on Yennett's page at all.
- Nezahal, Primal Tide: Seriously, you don't need a huge budget for a fun Yennett deck. Nezahal has become one of my favorite cards to cheat into play, and he's super cheap to acquire.
- Mother of Runes: This and the new Giver of Runes are both efficient protection for a commander who needs to stay in play.
- Neurok Stealthsuit: A good budget option for additional protection!
- Ash Barrens: An important aspect of topdeck manipulation is shuffling away the cards you don't want on top of your deck, which is why I'm stunned that this land isn't anywhere on Yennett's page at all. It's great for tempo, mana fixing, and shuffling when you need it. 10/10.
- Coldsteel Heart: If Sky Diamond is playable in a mono-blue deck, then there's no reason this isn't.
- Stubborn Denial: This commander has 4 power, which makes this a one-mana Negate when you need to protect your super-important skeleton bird.
- Tribute Mage: Kefnet players probably already know they want this new Modern Horizons card, but seriously, this finds Scroll Rack, Thought Vessel, and Isochron Scepter. That's important stuff.
- Delay: Counterspell wars with Kefnet are inevitable. If Kefnet's doing gross stuff, then chances are your opponent won't live to see the Suspend 3 resolve.
- Lonely Sandbar: I know it's in the average list above, but it's only in 33% of Kefnet decks so far, and should be more for sure. I really like Cycling in Kefnet decks, because they can draw a card on someone else's turn to trigger Kefnet's ability when people least expect it!
Topdeck manipulation is a darn fascinating design space, and I'm ecstatic that Wizards of the Coast is willing to explore it a little more. Who knows if we'll see even more commanders that use the top of the library down the road? We'll have to wait and see - although if someone wants to master Kefnet and Yennett's future-seeing abilities to peek at future sets to see if we're getting any others like them, I mean, that would be pretty cool.
So, which of these commanders is right for you? And of course, which commanders would you like to see on the next Commander Showdown? We've got a whole new cast of legends from Modern Horizons, so be sure to cast your vote!
Til next time!