Underdog's Corner - Kestia, the Cultivator
Bringing Back Standards
Hello everyone, and welcome back to the latest edition of the Underdog’s Corner. For this week’s installment, we’re going to take a page out of Matt Morgan’s playbook and adapt a 60-card deck into a deck for Commander! Why? Well, for a bit of background on myself, I’ve been a Commander player almost exclusively in my Magic: the Gathering career. I play Limited for prereleases, and I hope to soon be able to draft more. Beyond that, I have been a Commander player since I hopped into Magic. However, there was one time in my career where I played Standard, and since our newest Underdog was spoiled, I have been itching to build them as that archetype. Give it up for this week’s underdog, Kestia, the Cultivator!
A Heroic Attempt
Back in the day, a friend of mine was playing Standard and was very enthusiastic in trying to get someone to come to FNM with him. I had never played Standard, and at the time, I knew I would be playing a budget deck. Additionally, most budget-friendly decks that I was aware of were red, and at the time (and still to a degree now), red was my least favorite color. This didn’t excite me, but I did keep an open eye and mind. Then, I stumbled onto a budget deck that has since held a special place in my heart: Blue-White Heroic. If you were not around for Theros-Khans Standard, this actually ended up being a fairly powerful deck in that meta. Later on, it became Bant Heroic with the addition of Dromoka’s Command.
Here is one iteration of the maindeck, which was piloted by Tom Ross to a 7th place at a StarCityGames.com Open.
If we look at the decklist, we’ll see where the deck got its namesake. With the release of Commander 2018, we saw the release of Kestia, the Cultivator, and I immediately joked with fellow writer Scot Sutton that I should build a version of Bant Heroic with Kestia at the helm. He loved the suggestion, and we’re three paragraphs into this article because of his encouragement. With that said, this deck is not going to be remotely optimized. The aim of this deck is to be at a casual level, along with a budget proportional to the 60-card version. This is a love letter to my favorite old Standard deck. Let’s get to it!
Kestia is Bestia
Kestia is one of my favorite cards from Commander 2018, and it’s mostly because I think she is one of the most unique and visually striking cards there is. With the starry-night-esque border, being an enchantment herself, and encouraging attacking with enchantment and enchanted creatures alike, her design just speaks to me more than the other legends.
I do need to answer one question though: Why am I picking Kestia over the other two enchantress commanders, Tuvasa, The Sunlit and Estrid, the Masked? I think the easiest answer is that this is the Underdog’s Corner, and neither of the other two are underdogs! For a less cheeky answer, Kestia actually folds many aspects upon which UW Heroic hinged into one neat package. First and easiest, Kestia encourages attacking, which is what the deck wanted to do. There wasn’t time for blocking in those games. Combined with her card drawing power, Kestia also allows us to keep fueling our engine and continually grow our team by drawing into more Auras. Lastly, and the most stylish part of her design, Kestia can trigger Heroic herself with her Bestow ability. While that is a more expensive option than casting her normally, it does give some resilience to Kestia’s effect, which we will need.
A Pantheon of Heroes
Since this deck is based on the Heroic ability word, what better way to start building than there! Despite having a myriad of effects possible to trigger, Heroic itself - and by extension, the backbone of the UW Heroic Standard deck - was primarily focused on progressively growing our “heroes” and then protecting them. This meant that many of our creatures got +1/+1 counters when they were targeted by spells. However, the mechanic goes a little bit deeper when we look at the available options, which is easy to do thanks to Scryfall:
With this search, we can see all of our options.
(As an aside, there are surprisingly no cards with the word “heroic” in their texts outside of Theros block… Interesting.)
For nostalgia's sake (get used to hearing that), I'm including a few of UW Heroic's workhorse cards, such as Battlewise Hoplite and Favored Hoplite. While these will eventually get outclassed with upgrades, I personally can't wait to slap down one of the Hoplites of turn one or two and start attacking. Does anyone out there play a legacy version of Theros-Khans Standard? Asking for a friend.
What else do we have? All those years ago, I had just pulled from the UW Heroic lists I'd seen online rather than researching myself. Then, when I originally did research into this idea of Heroic Kestia, I got to discover a few cards I had never seen before. It was initially a shock; I couldn't believe I'd never heard of these cards. Despite that intro, the first of these played a major role in the Standard deck: Hero of Iroas. A cost-effective beater that not only grew in size, but also accelerated you to grow your creatures faster? It was a match made in heaven. Beyond Hero of Iroas, we have other options for cost-reduction redundancy that surely need a hard look. Danitha Capashen, Paragon doubles as not only a cost reducer, but also an effective body for combat. Herald of the Pantheon is also a reducer, and a bit more widespread.
The next two are a little different, though. It’d be unlikely for Hero of Leina Tower to make the cut once we began upgrades, but for now, she gets the nod. Being able to pour excess mana to grow a beater seems fun, though it's not without its faults. A common criticism for Aura-based strategies is that it is often a matter of putting all of your eggs in one basket. While there is no avoiding that to some degree here, Hero of Leina Tower presents a threat that is able to grow marginally if we have mana to burn in the early and mid-game. In the late game, this one-mana creature can become a large threat with a single Aura attached to it.
Lastly is the card that I was most surprised existed: Artisan of Forms. By triggering Heroic, Artisan of Forms can become a copy of any creature on the field. If any card survives into an upgraded version of this deck, it's this one. Casting one Aura can turn the Artisan into another copy of any of our enchantresses, cost reducers, or our top-ends. Even if we don't have anything to copy, Artisan can take the form of the best creature on the board. Our opponent has something powerful? Well, we now have a copy of it as well. Unlike other Clone effects, this is dependent on its triggered ability, but I'm okay with a few sacrifices to keep this deck on theme.
Once we look at our list of heroes, we notice that it is a little... lacking. Most of the creatures that we have introduced have been small, and they have offered incremental advantage. While this has proven viable in 60-card formats, we can't ignore our top-end in EDH, so we will need to recruit a few more heroes to our aid. Luckily, the release of Commander 2018 has given us a few new cards as well as reprints to keep our costs down.
Bruna, Light of Alabaster is a game-winning threat on a single body. I've been on the receiving end of a deck helmed by Bruna, and she is the definition of a beating. While I may not like the threat that she offers from the command zone, I love her as a member of the 99. With her recent reprint, she's a great pick-up that can give you a massive burst of damage. Even without Auras to attach, a 5/5 flyer with vigilance is nothing to scoff at. Heavenly Blademaster is a new card I absolutely adore. I need one for my Nazahn, Revered Bladesmith deck, and this Kestia deck absolutely wants one as well. A 3/6 flyer with double strike is already a strong threat before we factor in that this creature pulls all Auras and Equipment on the field onto itself. Like Bruna, this creates a massive super-beater and presents a game-ending threat. However, this trades the continual recursion of Bruna for a team pump. It's not hard to imagine a situation where there will be three Auras pulled onto the Blademaster. Suddenly, our field will get a sizeable buff of +3/+3. I'm always a fan of extra damage, and that theme doesn't stop with our next card: Nylea's Colossus. Whenever an enchantment enters the battlefield, the Colossus temporarily doubles a single creature's stats for a turn. Combined with our buffs, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this gives us the ability to push out a massive amount of damage.
The Mantle of Heroes
Now that we've talked about a few of our heroes, we need to discuss the weapons that they'll wield going into combat. Auras are going to the primary focus of the deck, and for the sake of nostalgia and function, we're going to include Ordeal of Thassa and Aqueous Form, but we'll replace Ordeal of Heliod with Ordeal of Nylea, as ramp is more important than lifegain in our format.
Let's talk about Auras. These are going to be the backbone of this deck, and we're going to want a mix of buffs and protection. Cards with Totem Armor are going to be good at face value, and many will be exceptional once we account for their buffs and additional effects. Octopus Umbra is going to be the poster child for this deck, as the counter-buffing nature of Heroic will stack on top of the change in power and toughness. It's easy to imagine enchanting a creature like Fabled Hero with the Umbra and suddenly swinging with a 9/9 double striker. This is the definition of impact, and I will always be excited to have it in hand. While cards with Totem Armor intersect buffing and protection, many of our other choices will specialize. Flickerform gives us a repeatable method of saving a stacked creature if we are able to pay the costs, and Unquestioned Authority and Auras like it make our chosen hero unblockable along with a bevy of other benefits.
Beyond protective methods, we have many ways to strictly power-up our heroes as well. With so many options in Magic's history to choose from, ranging from Rancor to Eldrazi Conscription, we really do have our choice to what we want to include. One card that I will be including in all iterations of this deck will be Eidolon of Countless Battles. I adore this card's art, and I'm currently googling if there's a playmat out there for it. Beyond its incredible art, I also love the effect. There's always a bit of tension between cards that go tall in decks that tend to go wide, but I think this deck hits the sweet spot that this card needs to truly excel. Elephant Guide gives a sizable buff to one of our heroes, and it even leaves an Elephant behind when our hero dies. Do I need more reasoning to include it besides Elephant tokens? I don't think so.
The Aegis of Heroes
If we look back at the 60-card decklist, we'll notice that 21 of those 22 spells are able to trigger Heroic. While around 60% of our spells are instants and sorceries, that number will be cut drastically in favor of more permanent-based options (i.e. Auras). However, not all of those spells will be cut, and we'll be using the principles that they introduce to bolster our game plan. In standard, God's Willing as well as Valorous Stance were the defensive backbone of the maindeck as ways to protect our intrepid heroes from harm. While's God's Willing may not be impactful enough for EDH, Valorous Stance is much more palatable, since it can double as a removal spell. However, one card that wasn't listed in the main deck but was found as a three-of in the sideboard is the humble Stubborn Denial. This card holds dear memories for me, as one memorable FNM I was able to out-duel a control player in a counter war. Personal anecdotes aside, Stubborn Denial is a great protective piece, as the upgraded form of the spell is immediately active if our commander is on the board. The Ferocious clause was never difficult to enable with the Standard deck, so I doubt it will be an issue in a format designed to go longer.
So what do we add to these options?
Monastery Siege gives us two options: we can dig through our deck faster or we can protect our board. Notably, the Siege protects each permanent we control, so even our lands and Auras are safer. Putting up a tax will hopefully dissuade players from using spot removal on our heroes. With that in mind, we'll still want to pack a couple of counterspells in our deck when the threat of one of our creatures outweighs the tax and opponents try to pull the trigger. Just like UW Heroic, we're going to want to err on the side of cheaper counters such as Swan Song or Arcane Denial so that we're able to advance our board without giving up the ability to hold up interaction on most turns.
Counterspells aren't the only protection that we can access. While decks with larger budgets will be able to afford Sterling Grove and Greater Auramancy, we can run cards like Alpha Authority, which prevent interaction altogether. If we want more, we'll just have to settle for Vintage all-star Paradoxical Outcome. This is a pet card of mine, and I find any blue deck that cares about permanents wants this card. This represents both protection and card draw, as we're able to save both our heroes and their armaments. If you have a deck that might could use it, I highly encourage trying to find a place for it.
A Heroes' Signature
Before we close out this article, I want to talk about a few personal choices for the deck.
If you reread Kestia's text, you'll remember that whenever an enchanted creature we control attacks we get to draw a card. Very early on, I decided that I wanted to run Control Magic effects in this deck. I got this giddy joy when I thought about stealing an opponent's best creature and then using it to draw cards. It's not much, but it's a fun interaction that I'm very excited to use. Surprisingly, there's not many variants of the effect that don't feel overpriced, but I'll at least make an exception for Hypnotic Siren here, which will leave us with an evasive attacker that can trigger Kestia without being enchanted. If you're looking for more of these effects, you also can't go wrong with Corrupted Conscience.
Chart a Course is a favorite among the EDHREC writers, and with it only being included in 537 decks, I think we're in the majority that hold that opinion. In this deck, we're almost always going to draw two cards for two mana, so I see no reason to not include it. Even without attacking, looting a few cards is never a bad thing. Recently, I've become a bigger fan of card draw that comes in the form of single bursts, and Chart fits right into that mold. I'm sure I'm going to enjoy casting this many times.
For those that are looking to trigger the many enchantress effects in this deck multiple times, these are great options. For those that want to trigger Heroic multiple times as well as making evasive attackers, these are also great options. Considering we're going to want to do both of these, both Flickering Ward and Shimmering Wings are amazing includes for this deck. These are some of the inclusions that will perpetually stay in the decklist as you upgrade the list.
You will find my budget imitation of Bant Heroic below. I hope you enjoyed this article, and I hope I didn't gush too much about my former deck. Kestia has a lot of potential, and there are many build paths available. Don't let her more focused abilities deter you, because they're exactly what make Kestia so great.
A Love Letter to Bant Heroic, by Kestia
Thanks for joining me in the Underdog's Corner!