Commander Showdown - Marchesa vs Kenrith
(Queen Marchesa and Kenrith, the Returned King | Art by Kieran Yanner)
Take the Crown
When the Commander community first saw General Tazri, we were, in a word, floored. Though she's a mono-colored card, the five colored mana symbols in her text box would open the doors to a non-restrictive five-color deck. Since that time, Wizards of the Coast has used this formula on a frankly astonishing number of legends: Ramos, Dragon Engine, Najeela, the Blade-Blossom, Jodah, Archmage Eternal, Sisay, Weatherlight Captain, Morophon, the Boundless, and Golos, Tireless Pilgrim all open the doors to five-color decks without being five-color cards themselves.
With the release of Throne of Eldraine, a new member of the five-color club has joined the round table. His name is Kenrith, the Returned King, famously the first thing that Oko, Thief of Crowns turned into a 3/3 Elk before beginning his reign of Elky terror.
Oko isn't the only thief of crowns, though. Knowledge of a new sovereign entering the fray has alerted our original crown-snatcher, Queen Marchesa (long may she reign).
Our favorite Mardu empress has amassed quite the following, namely by using the Monarch mechanic to reshape the politics of a typical multiplayer game. As it turns out, Kenrith is just as politically savvy, possessing a suite of activated abilities that can provide substantial benefit to himself or to an ally.
If you like royalty and politics, which of these commanders is right for you? It's a game of thrones on this week's Commander Showdown, so let's find out who deserves the crown!
Long May She Reign
We'll begin with the cunning, backstabbing, and effortlessly flawless Queen Marchesa. She introduces the Monarch mechanic to the game, which bequeaths to the possessor extra cards during their end step. To complement this, she can sit back with deathtouch to defend her throne, or produce dangerous Assassin tokens to help her reclaim the crown if it's ever stolen.
The Monarch ability encourages combat between players, especially those who hunger for its additional card advantage. This can certainly be refreshing to some tables where combat is a rarity rather than a regularity. Attacking might leave you open to three opponents, not just one, so rather than chip in for five or eight damage here and there, some players will ignore combat until they've reached a powerful enough board state to land a game-ending Craterhoof Behemoth or Overwhelming Stampede. Extra card draw helps break up that pattern and encourage more intermittent combat throughout the game.
However, the majority of Queen Marchesa decks appear to be built to help her retain her crown, rather than to give it away to encourage in-fighting amongst her enemies. Ghostly Prison appears in 60% of her decks, for instance, and her High Synergy cards include the likes of Windborn Muse, Sphere of Safety and even Kazuul, Tyrant of the Cliffs or Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts to insulate her from any threat of aggression.
So while some Marchesa players may invite others to steal her crown as way of prompting the table to attack each other and whittle down life totals, this doesn't seem to be her most common strategy. She seems more suited to hide behind her defenses, accruing advantages over time while she surveys her realm. So, if not through the Monarch mechanic specifically, how else does she use politics to her advantage?
In a word, removal. Marchesa's brand of politics isn't about giving gifts, but taking them away. Removal spells are one of her most important tools, threatening repercussions against anyone who attempts to do her harm. Better yet, these are her doorway to make deals. One Path to Exile against a mutual enemy can make said enemy vulnerable to attack by another party at the table. Threatening to ruin a necromancer's day with a Rakdos Charm can turn that necromancer into a political puppet who'll do anything Marchesa asks in the hopes she'll spare their graveyard from exile.
I know this because I'm a necromancer, and my friends who play Queen Marchesa frequently use this strategy against me. It's annoyingly effective.
Removal spells don't win you the game, though. They just prevent others from winning. How does Marchesa take all of this removal and make it lethal not just to the game pieces, but the players?
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Mardu has access to some excellent haymakers, and Marchesa can use them to seize power at just the right moment. Gisela, Blade of Goldnight, for instance, will simultaneously protect her and turn even the tiniest army into a giant threat. Most of the time, however, Marchesa's victory is won gradually. The Monarch mechanic provides the most rewards over a long game, so it makes sense to lean into win conditions that operate at that same wavelength. Assemble the Legion goes from irksome to problematic in a short time span. Twilight Prophet can provide card advantage and drain the table to death. I've even been defeated by a Marchesa repeatedly using the Extort ability on her Blind Obedience.
Note also the nature of Marchesa's removal in the list above. I don't just mean the single-target removal spells like Anguished Unmaking. I mean the hyper-specific options, the ones that devastate a deck's entire strategy. Things like Kaya's Guile, which can ruin both a Voltron and a graveyard deck. Things like The Immortal Sun, which can hose Superfriends strategies. Things like Vandalblast, which turns artifact decks into scrap metal. Even Kambal, Consul of Allocation is effectively 'removal' against a Storm-happy Spellslinger deck. By exploiting the small weaknesses of other, powerful strategies, Marchesa forces opponents to play fair, either holding them hostage for political capital, or else forcing them to play on a battlefield she is better equipped to navigate.
Marchesa has many other tricks up her sleeve, but we must turn our attention now to our other noble leader.
I Was Turned Into a 3/3 Elk
Kenrith, the Returned King and the many other sovereigns of the plane of Eldraine introduced us to a new creature type: Noble. As a result, many previous rulers have now been updated to include this creature type. For instance, Stromkirk Noble is now, fittingly, a Vampire Noble. This is noteworthy because Queen Marchesa, who stole her crown from Brago, King Eternal, has not been updated to be a Noble. She snatched the crown, but that does not make you royalty. Kenrith, by contrast, is royalty incarnate.
Kenrith presents a difficult conundrum. As mentioned at the top of the article, Kenrith sits among a huge number of five-color commanders with his similar formula. As a result, finding his own unique niche among his five-color contemporaries is tricky. He's certainly the quintessential Vedalken Orrery commander, able to hold his mana until the last possible second so that he may react to any situation. But even then, what do his abilities offer that the extremely popular Golos, Tireless Pilgrim does not?
There are two immediate answers. The first is politics. Kenrith can target other players with his abilities, extending an olive branch to help temporary allies dismantle mutual threats. This strikes me as a precarious path, however, and giving enemies back their dead creatures or buffing them up leaves others ahead on advantage in a way that may be difficult to twist back in your own favor. It's effective, but risky.
The second answer is, of course, infinite combos. Whenever a commander has an activated ability, such as Ghave, Guru of Spores or Thrasios, Triton Hero, the potential to go infinite always comes to mind. A Mana Reflection and a Palinchron give him all the mana he'll need to crush his enemies. He can play any creature, buff it to infinity, and give it trample and haste to wipe out an enemy kingdom. Kenrith doesn't even need to rely upon Laboratory Maniac, since he can just force each opponent to draw their entire library.
However, I don't like either of these options very much. Politics is interesting, but that can always be a byproduct of Kenrith's strategy rather than his main focus. The combos also don't interest me as much. What I do like about both of these ideas, though, is that they make excellent use of Kenrith's greatest asset, and the thing that sets him apart from his other five-color competitors: his versatility.
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Kenrith is a mana sink, which demands his deck be full to brimming with mana advantage, from Fellwar Stone to Mirari's Wake. Though at first glance, some of Kenrith's abilities may appear a bit 'meh' compared to others, our goal is to find a use for all the parts of the buffalo. We know that drawing a card is always useful, but how can we make use of gaining life or putting a few +1/+1 counters on creatures at such a slow rate?
Gaining life looks like Kenrith's weakest ability, but I think it might actually be one of his strongest. Five life triggers Angelic Accord, Resplendent Angel, and Crested Sunmare. Over the course of a few turns, these can turn into a really great army. However, if that wasn't enough, a card like Tainted Remedy turns gain into pain.
Putting +1/+1 counters onto creatures doesn't seem like much, but this too opens up some wacky doors. Dismiss Into Dream is a wildly fun card that dramatically shuts down Voltron strategies, and also turns Kenrith's green ability into a repeatable Doom Blade. Horobi, Death's Wail joins in on the fun too!
How do we pay for all this? A combination of Seedborn Muse, Training Grounds, and every mana-doubler we can find will keep Kenrith's coffers well-stocked. In fact, we can throw in a few other big-mana spells like Finale of Glory or Finale of Devastation to use up all that fabulous mana. Remember, if you do manage to make a bazillion tokens, Kenrith can give them haste right away!
And of course, the politics still exist as a happy secondary option. You can make deals to give an enemy's army haste to help it attack a mutual enemy. You can give life to an ally to keep them alive to assist you against a greater threat. But politics alone can't be his only strategy. He excels at giving things to others, but a masterful Kenrith can flip the switch to turn those gifts into weapons.
A Game of Thrones
Queen Marchesa uses politics in exactly the way you'd expect a Mardu commander to use them. Rather than offering boons to allies, she threatens her enemies to do her bidding, or else. She is methodical, and waits for just the right moment to strike. In her own words, "Those who seize power must have the means to hold it." This is one of the most dangerous types of opponent - one who has an answer to everything you might do.
Kenrith, the Returned King's brand of politics is precisely the opposite. He must proactively be the one to offer deals in exchange for services. This may make him some friends, but every friend he makes in this manner will also likely create an enemy. Thus, Kenrith must lean into the strengths of his own versatile abilities, not only in the contracts and alliances they may allow him to create, but by turning them into double-edged swords.
As rulers, their reign is vastly different. Marchesa's kingdom is walled off, plotting slow, torturous deaths, a viper's nest that will strike back when approached. Kenrith's is flourishing and generous... until such time you have earned his wrath.
Cards to Consider
Before we leave for today, here are a few extra cards to consider for each of these regal forces.
- Kaervek the Merciless: Marchesa games occasionally go long. Dedicated win conditions are a necessity, and Kaervek dishes out damage like no one's business. Best of all, he's one of the most political tools Rakdos has ever seen.
- Stolen Strategy: As I said, Marchesa plays a long game. This is one of red's best methods of card advantage over that length of time.
- Kaya's Guile: More people need to play this. As a necromancer myself, I can attest that this card alone has been the sole progenitor of my demise.
- Fury Storm: And, by extension, Reverberate. When someone else casts Blue Sun's Zenith, join in! When someone else casts Torment of Hailfire, quadruple the fun! PS: yours resolves first!
- Captive Audience: It hurts so good.
- Willbreaker: Put a +1/+1 counter on target creature and gain control of it. Kenrith likes this very very much.
- Prismatic Geoscope: Takes some work, but folks often underrate how much mana this can provide. I particularly appreciate its ability to provide any type of mana in any combination.
- Zacama, Primal Calamity: More awesome abilities, and a huge refund to boot! Even if you don't want to play this big Dino in your Kenrith deck, at least peruse its EDHREC page for card ideas that synergize with a commander with lots of activated abilities.
- Glen Elendra Archmage: Counter spells, put a +1/+1 counter on the Archmage to remove the Persist -1/-1 counter, repeat. Feels good!
- Awakening: This is no Seedborn Muse, but it's an extremely crazy backup.
Queen Marchesa and Kenrith, the Returned King offer some awesome lessons about political maneuvering, and how to turn versatile effects into potent weapons. Their styles really come down to the type of political play you most prefer to employ. One is the carrot, the other is the stick. Do you threaten enemies with danger, or offer them benefits for their assistance? Does your strategy unfold over many turns, like Marchesa, or is it a result of a flourishing kingdom, like Kenrith? And most importantly, if Kenrith was able to undo Kenrith's Transformation, will Marchesa also manage to escape her fate if she is turned into a 3/3 Elk?
Which of these members of the royal elite most appeals to you? Better yet, which pair would you like to see on the next Commander Showdown?
'Til next time!