Commander Showdown — Kess vs Dralnu
Almost exactly eleven years ago, the Time Spiral set was released, shaking the world in ways players never expected. 'Timeshifted' cards like Lord of Atlantis and The Rack brought the past into the present as temporal rifts threatened to destroy the beloved plane of Dominaria (which we'll return to next year.) If you'd like to know the story behind Teferi's Protection, and Teferi himself, the lore of Time Spiral is some of the best in Magic: the Gathering's history.
Among the cards of Time Spiral lurks the dangerous Dralnu, Lich Lord, who possesses the powerful ability to give your spells flashback, though at a potentially terrible price. Like any great lich, Dralnu has tempted many an ambitious Commander player with the promise of unlimited cosmic power.
Flash-forward to Commander 2017, which unveiled a wizard from another disaster-ridden plane: Kess, Dissident Mage, hailing from the Grixis shard of Alara. Like Dralnu, Kess can cast cards from the graveyard. Unlike Dralnu, she places a restriction on those spells instead of a price.
Two flashbacking commanders, with eleven years between them. Like the Timeshifted cards, it's time we pulled the past into the present and see how it compares. It's a Flashback Showdown: Kess, Dissident Mage vs Dralnu, Lich Lord.
Going Back to the Future!
Let's start in reverse-chronological order. Kess, Dissident Mage has just surpassed Inalla, Archmage Ritualist as the most-built commander from the Arcane Wizardry preconstructed deck, now with a solid 352 decks to her name, at time of writing. A flying 3/4 for four mana, she grants you the ability to cast one spell from your graveyard during each of your turns, sort of the spell-based version of Karador, Ghost Chieftain or Gisa and Geralf. Note Kess's careful wording: only during your turn, not during each turn. As wicked as it would be to cast already-used Counterspells on your opponents' turns, Kess won't let you be that cruel.
Dralnu, Lich Lord, however, will let you be that cruel. He's got less favorable stats that Kess, a mere 3/3 for five mana, but he offers a greater degree of flexibility. With a simple tap, he can give any spell in your graveyard flashback, at any time. If you'd like to cast that Disallow in your graveyard during someone else's turn, Dralnu is happy to oblige. This opens the door to a lot more interactions than Kess, since many of the best spells in the game are good precisely because they're castable on other players' turns.
His powers come at a price, however. If you ever let Dralnu take damage, he turns against you and forces you to sacrifice that many permanents instead. This is a tremendous risk, there's no question about it. Right off the bat, we can call out one enormous difference between these two commanders: Kess plays it safe, offering you a moderate level of power, while Dralnu offers you much more power, but only if you're willing to take a chance.
There's more to it than just risk, though. Both commanders have some tricks up their sleeves, so let's Dig Through Time and see what else we can uncover.
Venn Diagram Time
I'd like to start off with a Venn Diagram. Below I've arranged the Top and Signature cards for both commanders, to see which cards overlap. With any luck, this will help us parse out the differences in their strategies. Take a look:
A few immediate observations jump off the page:
First, Lightning Greaves and Swiftfoot Boots only appear in Dralnu's column, not in Kess's. Usually when a deck doesn't have the famous Boots and Greaves among their Top Cards, it means they don't care too much whether the commander falls to the occasional Swords to Plowshares. A recent example is Edgar Markov, who already has haste, and whose deck can thrive even when he's not on the battlefield. Kess's ability is a powerful engine, though, so you'd expect her to want some protection. The Precon Effect might have something to do with this, since the original Arcane Wizardry didn't contain Boots and Greaves. Then again, Kess's deck is full of independently powerful spells, so it can still function just fine without her on the field.
More importantly, this disparity highlights an important aspect of Dralnu's deck. Dralnu also has powerful spells, and can probably function just fine without him on the field too, but when he is on the field, protection is crucial. At first you'd probably think the protection is vital to keep him from taking damage, but most of the best single-target removal spells don't do damage to creatures. Path to Exile, Curtains' Call, and Chaos Warp won't trigger Dralnu's drawback. The Boots are actually useful because of Dralnu's tap ability. Unlike Kess, he can't recast spells while he has summoning sickness, so giving him haste is vital. Boots don't just give him protection from Lightning Bolts, they give him protection by letting him cast more Counterspells.
The second observation from this Venn Diagram is the presence of 'rituals' in Kess's column. Cabal Ritual and Dark Ritual make a showing, two cards that don't usually see a lot of play in EDH. A one-time mana boost usually just isn't worth the card in a format with lengthy games. Of course, for Kess, these rituals aren't one-time use. They can be cast again from the graveyard using their own mana, to charge up for an even bigger spell.
Lastly, take a look at two cards in Dralnu's column but not in Kess's: Rise from the Tides and Metallurgic Summonings. These are the only two cards in the entire Venn Diagram that I'd call win conditions, turning all those spells into creatures that can pummel your opponents. The rest of the spells in the diagram are great value-oriented spells, from Ponder to Demonic Tutor to Vandalblast, but they don't close out the game. These only appear in Dralnu's column, so while he gives us a hint about how he might win the game, Kess remains a mystery.
Thus, to get a better sense of Kess's plan, we should take a look at her average decklist, as compiled by EDHREC.
Average Kess Deck
Ironically, it turns out that several of Kess's win conditions aren't spells, but creatures: Docent of Perfection, Talrand, Sky Summoner, and Guttersnipe all incrementally lead Kess to victory over the course of several turns, weaponizing each spell she casts. Given the rituals in Kess's deck, I'd expected to see a few more of the powerhouse spells like Torment of Hailfire and Exsanguinate that thrive off of lots of mana, but those don't appear to be as popular. In retrospect, it makes sense that Kess is less interested in big spells, because using all her mana to cast just one spell might not leave her much mana to cast another spell from the graveyard in the same turn. Gutternsipe and friends reward smaller spells, which Kess can cast several times in rapid succession.
In fact, Kess likes small spells so much that we even see Aetherflux Reservoir in her average decklist. This is a powerful artifact for lifegain decks like Karlov of the Ghost Council and Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, but it's also a great spell for Storm decks. For those unaware, Storm decks are nicknamed after spells like Tendrils of Agony and Grapeshot, which reward you for casting lots of spells in one turn. Aetherflux Reservoir offers similar rewards, gaining you 1 life for your first spell this turn, 2 life for your second, 3 for your third, and so on. All that life adds up quickly; casting five spells in one turn means you'll gain 15 life, casting seven means you'll gain 28. Then, that life can then be used to demolish a single opponent with Aetherflux Reservoir's second ability. Since Kess lets you cast an already-used spell one more time, she's an ideal candidate for a Storm deck that wants to cast lots of spells.
Another great aspect of Kess's deck is its relationship with discard effects. Windfall, Frantic Search and Faithless Looting all help sculpt your hand and graveyard into the perfect playground. Discarding spells means nothing to Kess, since she can cast those spells again anyway, doubling the efficacy of your looting effects. My favorites are actually Gamble and Intuition, which aren't looting spells, but are certainly powerful. Both can potentially throw the cards they tutor straight into the graveyard, but for Kess, that's not a drawback at all. Played wisely, these are sort of analogous to Entomb and Buried Alive in a reanimator deck.
However, some of the coolest synergies about Kess's deck are actually missing from this list.
For example, extra turn spells—that is, the ones that don't exile themselves. Walk the Aeons and Time Warp can be recast from the graveyard for lots of extra value. We don't see any in Kess's average list, but they can put in some work if you use them correctly. Another possibility are 'flicker' effects. If Kess leaves and reenters the battlefield, (such as with a Ghostly Flicker or Deadeye Navigator) her ability actually resets, allowing you to cast another spell from your graveyard this turn.
My favorite synergy, though, is Kess's interaction with buyback spells. This keyword, as seen on spells like Capsize, lets you pay an extra cost to put a spell back in your hand instead of the graveyard after it resolves. How is this useful for Kess, Dissident Mage? Because Kess's wording is very specific: "If a card cast this way would be put into your graveyard this turn, exile it instead." Normally, when you cast a spell with flashback, the spell will exile itself upon resolution, even if it had buyback. Luckily, Kess doesn't give spells genuine flashback, so she can reclaim the buyback spells instead of exiling them. This makes a card like Capsize a great inclusion for Kess, and I daresay her average decklist should contain at least a few of them.
Son of a Lich
Meanwhile, Dralnu, Lich Lord actually does give spells flashback, so buyback spells aren't likely to be in his wheelhouse. Let's see what other treasures he's hoarding instead.
Average Dralnu Deck
Kess's favorite artifact might be Aetherflux Reservoir, but that's nothing compared to the love Dralnu has for Paradox Engine. We saw this card in the Venn Diagram, and it's no wonder why this Kaladesh artifact rocketed into the #1 most Signature Card for Dralnu. Every time you cast a spell, you untap all nonland permanents you control—including Dralnu. Tap, cast a spell, untap, tap, cast a spell... the synergy is so powerful it's scary. This is the kind of mind-numbing payoff Dralnu is capable of producing.
Interestingly, Dralnu's deck appears to be more suited to the Exsanguinate-style cards I'd expected to see in Kess's deck. We see a lot more high-cost spells in his deck, like Army of the Damned and Rite of Replication, which are absent from Kess's list.
I think it's important to consider this high-mana-cost information alongside Dralnu's copious counterspells. Dralnu runs a full eight pieces of countermagic, twice as many as Kess. It's hardly difficult to figure out why. As stated before, Dralnu can tap to cast those counterspells on other player's turns. What better way to make sure your opponent doesn't ruin your day with a rogue Blasphemous Act? Such a density of countermagic helps you stall into the late game, where you can cast those expensive, game-ending spells, putting Dralnu firmly in the driver's seat of a hyper-controlling Dimir deck. While Kess slings fun spells and showcases the occasional bit of counter-control, Dralnu really devotes himself to the strategy, both to keep himself alive and to wipe out his opposition.
While perusing competitive lists for Dralnu, I've also seen many players running Dralnu as a combo deck. Since he can recast counterspells so efficiently, he's able to lock down the board while he prepares game-ending duos like Helm of Obedience + Leyline of the Void, which actually and literally mills opponents into oblivion. For the competitive-minded among you, this control-combo brew might be another strategy worth pursuing.
Twist of Fate
There's one last thing I'd like to mention about Dralnu, Lich Lord. I suspect several folks out there are still skeptical about Dralnu, even with his amazing Paradox Engine skills. The drawback of losing your permanents whenever he takes damage just looks too dangerous.
To those folks I say: yes, it is dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that it would be a shame if your opponents had to deal with that drawback instead... Why yes, that is an evil glint in my eye....
One, two, Switcheroo. If Dralnu is too much to handle, let someone else deal with him. In response to a Blasphemous Act, cast a Reins of Power to give away your Dralnu, and force another player to sacrifice their permanents instead. You can probably even build an entire deck around this strategy, casting Dranlu to Donate him away, then targeting him with a huge Corrupt or Tendrils of Corruption. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly cruel.
Cards to Consider
I have a few recommendations for cards that don't get enough love in both Kess and Dralnu decks. For one reason or another, they just don't seem to see much play, but I think they deserve some extra consideration. Check them out below:
- Increasing Vengeance: This card only sees play in 28% of Kess decks, and that's criminally low. Increasing Vengeance doesn't care whether it was cast with flashback, just that it was cast from a graveyard. This means you can Reverberate one of your spells twice for a mere two mana, and that's just plain awesome.
- Mana Geyser: The ultimate red ritual for EDH. Cabal Ritual is great, but when cast twice in one turn, this oft-overlooked card from Conspiracy can rocket your mana into the double digits real quick.
- Ancient Excavation: Curiously, this card showed up in Dralnu's column in the Venn Diagram, but not Kess's. It's good enough to run in both. Kess likes big graveyards and she cannot lie, and this is one of the better ways to fill that yard right up.
- Capsize: I know I mentioned buyback spells already, but consider this a reminder. They're good in just about any deck, and especially one that can send them back to your hand from the graveyard.
- Mizzix's Mastery: I'm surprised to see this card at only 22% of Kess decks. Past in Flames sits higher at 31%, but to my mind, the Mastery is a more powerful card. It even casts the copies of the spells it makes, triggering Aetherflux Reservoir and Guttersnipe effects. Both have a place in a Kess deck, but to my mind, at least, Mizzix's Mastery should take precedence.
- Domineering Will: I mentioned Reins of Power above, but this is another sneaky effect to take advantage of an incoming damage spell. Instead of countering that pesky Chandra's Ignition, give away your own Dralnu and watch your opponent roast over the flames. Domineering Will doesn't even give Dralnu haste, so they won't be able to tap him to cast a spell in their graveyard that might save them!
- Thousand-Year Elixir: Elixir is pretty darn tasty. It won't protect you like Lightning Greaves, but that untapping ability is super powerful.
- Fatestitcher: Josh Lee Kwai of the Command Zone podcast has lauded this card many times before, but this deck in particular is a good spot for it. Whether you need to untap a land for more mana, untap Dralnu for more spells, or tap down an opponent's big scary beater, Fatestitcher has a lot of utility that a control-centric Dralnu would appreciate.
- Intuition: This is a card we already saw in Kess's deck, but it's just as good in Dralnu's. It's abominably expensive, and I always advocate playing within your budget. In an ideal world, though, this deserves more attention in a Dralnu deck, because he can recast the binned spells so easily.
- Sudden Spoiling: Black has a few tricks up its sleeve, and this is one of the better ones. Not only is this an excellent Fog variant, but it can also prevent a wily opponent from comboing off with creature abilities. In Dralnu's deck, though, it has an extra-special advantage: using it on yourself. If you don't have the Counterspell ready to stop a burn spell, this will erase Dralnu's drawback and leave your board safe from all that sacrificing. Another great option is Polymorphist's Jest, which was just reprinted in the Arcane Wizardry deck. True, it's not ideal to use your own spells on yourself to mitigate your commander's drawback, but it'll do in a pinch. They're already an excellent pair of defensive spells in the first place, so they'll protect your board no matter how you cast them.
Both Kess, Dissident Mage and Dralnu, Lich Lord have the capacity to recast dead spells, but their core strategies are quite dissimilar. Ultimately, Kess offers us a great choice for some Grixis Goodstuff spellslinging, while also being a great candidate with Storm potential. Dralnu, on the other hand, executes a very precise control strategy. If you're looking to suit up either commander, it's useful to know these differences. It's not just that Dralnu is high-risk-high-reward when compared to Kess; it's that his gameplan is slower and more methodical. Whether you prefer the lich lord of the past or the mage of the present, it's undeniable that both of these commanders have a bright future ahead.
So, which commander would you build? Would you take a chance on Dralnu? Better yet, which commanders would you like to see featured in the next Commander Showdown?
Til next time!