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Convertible Commander: Kess, Dissident Mage

Way back in the Dark Ages of Magic: the Gathering, deck-building was different. The internet barely existed, so no one had instant access to the newest decklists with change logs. Players often thought a good breakdown for a 60-card stack was 20 lands, 20 creatures, and 20 spells. Necropotence was a thing for a while. It was a strange time.

At Carnegie Mellon University, a group of like-minded gamers created a team of Magic players, now known as Team CMU. Andrew Cuneo was one of those, and he remains a professional Magic player, having won two GPs just last year. But his most famous gift to this marvelous game is probably his deck construction; he’s widely credited with understanding the power of card advantage and specifically with creating a deck style he called “Draw, Go.”

A quick aside: Card Advantage is often misunderstood. The simplest description is this: if you have more cards than your opponents, you are favored to win any given match because you have more resources at your disposal. The easiest way to think of this is with card draw spells — Rhystic Study lets us draw multiple cards a turn while our opponents only draw one. However, a card that “trades up” by destroying more cards than one — like Wrath of God — is also card advantage. A card which makes more than one creature — such as Raise the Alarm — is also card advantage, because we get more than we gave.

Evaluating card advantage is tricky in Commander. In heads up Magic, one extra card puts us ahead, so if we stick a Phyrexian Arena we are golden. Griselbrand drawing us seven probably wins us the game (you know, if he was legal). In multiplayer EDH, each opponent draws at least one card per turn. If we have three opponents, and we draw one extra card, we’re two cards behind every turn. That means we have to draw even more just to keep up, and to gain an advantage we better be prepared to work for it.

Draw, Go. Apparently he named the deck this to remind people how to play it. Stop thinking about doing things on your turn. Draw your card and say go. Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that, because you should pause long enough to play a land card. But otherwise, for a good chunk of the game, his deck (which packed 21 counterspells) would play a land and pass, countering just about everything the opponent did and using any extra mana to draw cards at instant speed. Eventually, the opponent would run out of things to do and would be playing completely off the top. Meanwhile, the Draw, Go player has drawn more than half their deck and is likely to have found something to finish the game, whether a large, flying creature or a spell which ends the game in one fell swoop.

Counterspells suffer from the same problem as card advantage in multiplayer Commander, of course. With only an exception or two, each counter only hits one spell of a single opponent; it’s tough to draw enough cards to be able to counter a single spell from each opponent, much less a couple of spells from each. But that doesn’t mean we can’t draw, play a land, and say go, does it?

Kess, Dissident Mage ? Commander | Mark Wischkaemper

Kess, Dissident Mage
Kess is our only creature, and she’s here for color identity primarily. She does a nice job of not drawing attention to herself, because early hate is going to be trouble. But while we’re not going to counter many spells, we’ll be making a lot of decisions for the table.

We’re going to win with a massive x spell, so we need to get to pretty big mana, but because we create card advantage by blanking our opponents’ removal spells, we’re not running any creatures aside from our commander, even including creature ramp. Even better, opponents will point their removal at someone else’s threat, which saves us the job! We also don’t have room for mana rocks, and besides, we want to avoid main phase plays as much as possible, so we’re going to run 43 lands. That may seem high, but we really want to hit our land drops every turn. Because we run so much card draw, we’ll naturally filter through the lands and get to the good stuff while still filling the back part of our ‘field with mana. We’re pretty much fixing our mana here, with a touch of utility in things like Bojuka Bog and the Deserts that cycle. The four man-lands are worth noting, because they can animate to block something we haven’t killed yet, plus Creeping Tar Pit is a legitimate back-up win condition against an opponent who otherwise refuses to die. Mirrorpool deserves special mention, and it will, but later. Hang tight.

Oh, we draw cards. We’re going to do as much of it as possible at the end of our opponent’s turn just before us. When we’ve got extra mana unspent, we really want to be using it on a draw spell whenever we can. Brain in a Jar is kind of our only permanent way to draw cards; otherwise, we’re using instant speed draw-twos to pull through as much of our deck as possible. We are running Crystal Ball, Treasure Map, and Jace's Sanctum, all of which help us smooth our draws. There’s an argument to be made for Sensei's Divining Top, but honestly, the ability of Crystal Ball to bottom cards we don’t want gives it the nod over Top. We’ve got a couple of one-mana spells which draw, too, which can be awesome early or late. Simple Opt, with its “look at one, then draw one more” can be just the thing needed to find the answer we want.

Torment of Hailfire
Rather than countering everything like the original Draw, Go deck, we’re mostly going to kill everything. We’re running 10 “destroy all creatures” spells, everything from Extinguish All Hope and Crux of Fate up to Decree of Pain and Star of Extinction. We’re also running 11 point removal spells, with things like Reality Shift to take care of obnoxious indestructible creatures and Hero's Downfall to get rid of opposing planeswalkers. Bojuka Bog can target the Zombie player, and Scavenger Grounds gives us more outs when graveyard shenanigans are afoot. Finally, we’ve got six counterspells, including Counterspell itself. These should be hoarded and spent only on absolutely necessary targets: the combo piece which finishes the combo, something otherwise impossible to destroy, or a game-winning spell cast by someone other than us (Kess’s ability can be useful here). It’s also a good idea to have counterspell back up for when we try to win the game. But unlike the original deck, we’re going to hold on to our counters and use our kill spells instead, wrathing every few turns to keep the board clear, but normally presenting counterspell mana until just before we untap.

Jace's Sanctum not only helps smooth our draws, it also makes our spells cheaper. Primal Amulet does the same. Precognition Field gives us another card to use, while Metallurgic Summonings sits there and makes blockers we don’t care about. All worth the slots.

A standard deck by Saffron Olive1 at MTGGoldfish called “Grixis Amulet” which worked to close out the game with a flipped Primal Amulet firing off a Torment of Hellfire inspired this Draw, Go deck. But we have more ways to double up on our spells with The Mirari Conjecture and Mirrorpool, and Kess might give us two shots with a single spell. We want to cast a big ol’ x spell, double it with one of our methods, and kill the table in a single massive hit.

So we sit back, play our lands, and kill stuff, trading off our resources to stay alive, letting our opponents battle it out, and drawing as many cards as we can. If things go right, we’ll get to turn 20 or so and have plenty of mana, at which point we’ll play Exsanguinate or Torment of Hailfire or we’ll Aftermath Cut // Ribbons and just . . .  kill everyone. With some clever play, we can time The Mirari Conjecture with Primal Wellspring to get a triple cast, but it probably won’t be necessary. It’ll be long and grindy, but it should be fun.

This is a control deck for fun tables. It won’t be the world’s most entertaining thing to play against, but it’ll feel fair and beatable while putting up a good fight. That said, for every article I read about the Social Contract, I read a post by a player about super-high powered decks and rough rooms where people do everything they can to win. In the spirit of including everyone in this experiment, today’s optionboard is for the Spikes in the Commander world:

In this version, we’re doing the same thing we were before except we’re going to finish with an infinite turns combo. We get Splinter Twin on Possessed Skaab (or use Mimic Vat and/or Archaeomancer), cast Time Warp or Walk the Aeons, then use the creature to get it back and repeat every turn. Our win con is the same, we just lock up the game more quickly using tutors to get the combo and shut everyone else down. If this version isn’t for you, skip it. If it looks like the only way the deck is playable for you, run just the ‘boarded version. If you play a lot of games in a lot of places at different levels, this might be a good one for you to be packing with both versions, so you’re ready for anything.

Who’s your favorite control commander? Is Grixis the right choice for Draw, Go? Maybe Esper instead? Let us know in the comments!

Draw your card. Play your land. Say “go.” That’s it.

Thanks for reading.

1 Saffron Olive’s Budget Magic columns sometimes help reevaluate cards which are not being used in Standard.

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