Replacement Commanders — Spells from the Grave

Ah, hello again, readers and spellslingers. Welcome back to Replacement Commanders, the series where we look at the Other Commanders (™ pending) from Commander 2017 and break down their abilities and stats. Next, we use's data to see what the current best card choices and strategies are for each one. Finally, we go off the rails and try to come up with some unique strategies that have never been seen before in the interest of surprising the table and securing our victory in chaos and confusion. EDHREC helps with this as well by allowing us to search for similar cards or by general themes to pull out the cards that will work best with the Commander in question.

Last week, I used a poll on Twitter to determine which tribe and then which Legendary Creature we would talk about. With only two tribes left, I put up another poll for the remaining replacement commanders, and I cannot be more excited about who won that vote. This week, we will be throwing spells from beyond the grave with Kess, Dissident Mage!

Kess Kess, Bang Bang

To begin, I want to take a minute to explain why Kess is such an amazing card to a player like me. I first learned to play Commander nearly 5 years ago when I was just getting back into the game with Return to Ravnica. I had three Standard decks; Selesnya Tokens, Orzhov Extort, and Dimir Mill. I found a group of folks playing this strange new format called “EDH” or “Commander” and talking about having “Generals”. Soon enough, I was hooked and converted my Standard decks into my first Commander decks with these legendary creatures as my generals; Trostani, Voice of Selesnya, Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts, and Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker. Being the only mill player at the table, my meta quickly started auto-including cards like Elixir of Immortality. Eventually, I learned ways to play my own cards from the graveyard, which is essentially my true love in Magic. After all, why worry about having cards in your hand (which is limited to 7 most of the time, anyway) when you can have as many cards as you want in your graveyard? The rest is history. But enough about me or my evolution of shenanigans over the years… We are here to talk about Kess!

Who is the Graveyard Mage?

Kess is an interesting commander because she almost requires a certain kind of build. While that may sound as though she's limited, nothing could be further from the truth. She does care about the kinds of cards in our deck and even when we play them. For being a replacement commander in a tribal wizard deck, Kess does not care much for creatures, regardless of their type. If we do run any creatures, they should be ones that emphasize the idea behind casting spells. Honestly, Kess can almost be categorized as tribal instants and sorceries. It is important to note that her text dictates that you can only play the one spell from your graveyard on each of your turns and not each turn. This understanding will keep us from looking silly by trying to use a Counterspell that is in our graveyard during someone else's turn. Many legendary creatures that deal with casting spells tend to be labeled “combo commanders” because, well… They are built in such a way to facilitate the player utilizing a combo to end the game. I personally love the fact that this kind of Commander comes in Grixis colors because I feel they come with some of the coolest combos in the game and can normally offer a bit of insurance in the form of control strategies. Some may think that being a flying 3/4 body for only 4 mana would make Kess a great candidate for trying to hit blackjack on someone. Overall though, I have a hard time seeing that strategy having much success or consistency, due to the nature of her ability.

With all of this in mind, let us look at what gives us for a starting point:

Kess, Sorcerer of the Grave

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NOTE: By the time this article is published, the listing may change for Kess. However, at the time I am writing this (Monday, 16 October 2017) EDHREC does not show Sunbird's Invocation as a suggested card. It may be because the card is still new and people are not sure if it fits or not. I would like to go on record saying that I think this card is fantastic for Kess and I will be including it in every strategy we use here.

Core Kess

As I stated above, I believe Sunbird's Invocation is an extra card that Kess simply must run in every game. While it will not trigger when you cast a spell from your graveyard, the reality is that you are only casting one spell from your graveyard for each of your turns. Missing out on a single trigger per turn seems fine when this card can generate value on every other card we play during the game. We spoke about liking cards and creatures that emphasize on spells being cast. Talrand, Sky Summoner, Metallurgic Summonings, Young Pyromancer, and Guttersnipe are all cards that have an effect when you cast an instant or sorcery, with the first three being ways to create a small army of tokens in a deck that tends not to cast creatures naturally. Another such card is Docent of Perfection, which has the bonus of making Kess even bigger once it is flipped and giving all the 1/1 Wizards that it makes fly to grant them some evasion. I love the idea of Melek, Izzet Paragon giving us even more value by giving us another instance of spells when we cast them from the top of our library. Since we are talking about cards that we need to run, I want to draw special attention to Cabal Coffers and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, two lands that can give us a large sum of mana if left unchecked. I reached out to Justin Parnell from Star City Games' Commander Versus series via Twitter, since he had played Kess recently and he gave some sage advice:

With those words in mind, I wanted to ensure there are ways to generate additional mana. This is the reason we also see Crypt Ghast as one of our few creatures, in addition to spells like Cabal Ritual, Dark Ritual, and Seething Song in any variation of these decks.

Wheeling and Dealing (Is Kess a Better Nekusar?)

There are three cards I want to draw attention to from the EDHREC generic list for Kess. They are Windfall, Wheel of Fortune, and Wheel of Fate, which are commonly called “wheel” cards. This is a popular strategy in another Grixis commander, Nekusar, the Mindrazer. When we stop and think about Kess, we have to wonder… is Kess a better version of Nekusar? Sure, we lack the pain ability that Nekusar gives us from making everyone draw cards. However, Kess gives us a new level of redundancy in the sense that we can theoretically double all of our wheel effects in the deck. All we have to do is add in some pain effects, starting with Nekusar himself as a member of the 99. Of course, we can use EDHREC to search for Nekusar and see what key pieces we may want to add to Kess. We want to start with Fate Unraveler, Underworld Dreams, and Psychosis Crawler, which all deal damage when cards are drawn. Of course, the table is going to draw so many cards that inevitably there will be some discarding as well. We can throw in cards like Liliana's Caress, Megrim, and Bloodchief Ascension, which all deal damage as a result of discard. If we want to be even more cruel and force even more cards into our opponents' hands, Forced Fruition will get out of control quickly unless removed. I also enjoy the idea of dumping mana into a Blue Sun's Zenith for a surprise kill on someone who has a low life total if we think they can get out of control at a moment's notice.

C-c-c-combo Maker!

We talked before about the fact that Kess is in the perfect colors for a combo deck. There are many combos we can use because of color identity, but I want to focus on the ones that rely somewhat on instants and sorceries in order to keep close to Kess' overall theme. The first one that comes to mind is making infinite Dualcaster Mages with Twinflame since we have two chances to cast Twin. For extra redundancy, we can even toss Bloodline Necromancer into the deck so if someone kills or counters the Mage, we can get it back. If we decide to keep a lot of the wheel effects from the stategy above, The Locust God gives us so much value, it should be illegal. Not only will we flood the board with 1/1 flying insects with haste, the god itself is a nice flying body that is hard to kill. Add Mana Echoes, Skullclamp, and Ashnod's Altar and we have infinite insects and colorless mana. Add in a Purphoros, God of the Forge, Impact Tremors, or Goblin Bombardment and we can close out the game without even needing to attack. Since Kess came in a tribal Wizards precon, we can also look at the tested and true combo of Azami, Lady of Scrolls, Mind Over Matter and Laboratory Maniac to draw all the cards, deal damage with Crawler as we draw, or just win the game with Maniac. We cannot forget another popular wizard combo in Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind enchanted by Curiosity, though I would advise including Maniac as a safety net with this combo as well.

Possibility Unlimited

The reality is that I could keep talking about different strategies for Kess, almost to the point where I need a part 2 to this article. Reddit immediately started talking about the possibility that the Dissident Mage could replace Jeleva, Nephalia's Scourge as a competitive Grixis Storm Commander. Alternatively, imagine all of the extra turn spells we could cast and then cast again during our second turn to get a third turn! It may not be as crazy as Narset, Enlightened Master was once upon a time, but I can almost hear my meta groaning as I announce I am going to start my fifth or sixth turn in a row. We could even imagine a burn deck that gets out of control with cards like Neheb, the Eternal constantly giving us loads of mana in our second main phase where we dump it all into even more burn spells. It almost seems like there is no end to what we can do with Kess once we put our minds to it.

Have you built Kess as Storm or infinite turns? How did it do? Do you use a card that is vital to the deck and I missed it here? Let me know in the comments below! I would love to learn how people are exploring the wide world of value with Kess, Dissident Mage! Until next time, thank you for reading!

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