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Jump-Starting a Madness Deck


On Merced River Cala by Frederick Shafer (1839-1927). Meteor Golem by Lake Hurwitz.

This week I launched myself into a challenge. I had been looking at the various keywords in the new Guilds of Ravnica set and wanted to explore ways to take them, pair them with other keywords and see if a decent deck could be built out of the combination.

The Guilds of Ravnica keyword I'm looking at today is Jump-Start. This keyword is exclusively on instants and sorcery spells in Izzet (ur) colors. You can cast a card with Jump-Start from your graveyard by discarding a card in addition to paying its other costs. You then exile the card with Jump-Start, because apparently the folks at Wizards of the Cost weren't quite as drunk as back in the day when they thought up the Retrace mechanic.

If we're building a deck with lots of cards that have Jump-Start, we'll want ways to benefit from having to discard. Maybe I'm lacking in imagination, but my thoughts immediately went to the Madness keyword.

A card with Madness can be cast for its "Madness cost" when it is discarded. There is usually some cost savings when you cast a spell for its Madness cost, but not always. As I understand it, casting a card for its Madness cost gets around normal timing restrictions. You can discard and cast sorceries and creatures in the middle of combat or even on an opponent's turn if they have Madness.

Madness has been around a long time and while there are cards with this keyword in every color, the majority seem to be in Blue, Black and Red. There are a few Grixis (ubr) legendary creatures that care about instants and sorceries, but one really rises to the top.

Meet Kess, Dissident Mage.

Kess, Dissident Mage

Kess is a Human Wizard with Flying who costs 1ubr. She's got 3 power and 4 toughness, which isn't terrible but also isn't going to invite a voltron commander damage build.

I should be honest with you. I consider Kess, Dissident Mage to be somewhat "solved".

What that means is that the bright minds in the Competitive EDH community have developed a "cEDH" list for Kess that is able to win games incredibly quickly and incredibly consistently. Sure, there's room for creativity in a competitive list, but the bottom line is that I'm not going to pretend today's article is going to improve upon competitive Kess Storm.

I'm a casual deck-builder with little interest in games that end before turn five. I love Commander, love brewing decks and love exploring ideas. If you're willing to accept that premise, come along with me and see what kind of deck we're going to wind up with if we use Kess to head up a deck that combines cards with Jump-Start and Madness.

Mad about Vampires

The Madness keyword was introduced in Torment, was reprinted in Time Spiral, and then in Shadows Over Innistrad. In that final appearance the keyword was heavily associated with the Vampire tribe. Kess might not be a vampire, but building around Kess gives us a way to cast instants and sorceries that we wind up discarding and this deck will have a lot of ways to discard cards.

It's worth noting that there are two Grixis vampires - Garza Zol, Plague Queen and Jeleva, Nephalia's Scourge. Neither is in my list, but you might wonder why I'm not choosing either of them for this build.

Garza Zol, Plague Queen
Jeleva, Nephalia's Scourge

The former has a 7 CMC and for me that pretty much rules her out. The latter is a great commander and if it matters to you that your commander is in the same tribe as is featured in your deck, she would be a fine choice. She just doesn't let you get extra castings of spells out of your graveyard.

Since we're somewhat embracing the idea of building a casual deck, we're going to go with a bunch of vampires that have Madness.

Asylum Visitor
Bloodhall Priest
Bloodmad Vampire
Falkenrath Gorger
Incorrigible Youths
Insatiable Gorgers
Stromkirk Occultist
Twins of Maurer Estate
Voldaren Pariah

It's worth noting that many of these vampires have a Madness cost that is lower than their casting cost. It's also worth noting that it's around Halloween and Vampires are scary! If nothing else, that's a point in their favor and a great reason to throw this deck together for a few weeks if you're in the mood for a Halloween deck as October 31st approaches.

There are other Vampire-themed cards with Madness that aren't creatures that I've included in this list.

Alms of the Vein
Stensia Masquerade
Welcome to the Fold

Beyond our Vampire theme there are plenty of other cards with Madness, many of which give us removal options. Big Game Hunter will destroy a big creature, Biting Rain will clear the field of little creatures, Chilling Grasp will tap down a pair of creatures, Dark Withering will destroy target nonblack creature, Ichor Slick will give a creature -3/-3 until end of turn, Just the Wind will bounce a creature to its owner's hand, Malevolent Whispers will pump and steal a creature until end of turn, and Murderous Compulsion will destroy target tapped creature.

Holy run-on sentences, Batman!

That many options should serve us fairly well, though depending upon the decks you commonly play against you might want to add the obligatory Cyclonic Rift, Damnation, and Toxic Deluge along with your usual suite of Black kill spells. I'm eschewing staples today but I get that lots of Commander players love leaning on the more efficient spells in the format and if that's your style, by all means swap those cards in.

A Look at Jump-Start

We're going to be trying to cast our Jump-Start cards from our hand and again from our graveyard. Kess will let us cast them from the graveyard and then exile them, but if we want to cast them using Jump-Start we'll be discarding a card as part of the spell's casting cost.

There are 10 cards from Guilds of Ravnica that have Jump-start but three of them didn't seem right for the format. Direct Current costs 3 mana and does a paltry 2 damage to any target. Maximize Velocity gives +1/+1 and haste to a creature until end of turn for 1 Red mana. Risk Factor costs 3 mana and lets you draw 3 cards unless an opponent chooses to take 4 damage. In a format where games go long and players start at 40 life, these all seem underwhelming at best.

The cards I did choose to include aren't exactly game-enders but my hope is that casting them twice and enabling some Madness cost-savings will wind up giving us enough value that they will feel at least a little synergistic.

Beacon Bolt
Chemister's Insight
Gravitic Punch

Beacon Bolt costs 1ur and will do damage to target creature equal to the number of instants and sorcery spells you own in exile and in your graveyard. That last part is key, as it would be a bad card in this deck if it only looked at cards in your graveyard. Chemister's Insight and its cheaper little brother, Radical Idea, will give us some much-needed card draw. Gravitic Punch will let us have one of our creatures do damage equal to its power to target player. That's not bad and it could be even better if we've stolen something huge with Malevolent Whispers.

Maximize Altitude
Sonic Assault

While I scoffed at giving a creature +1/+1 and haste, I'm including Maximize Altitude as a way to give a creature +1/+1 and flying until end of turn. I don't love end-of-turn effects tied to instants and sorceries in Commander unless they have a big impact on the game. Giving evasion is much better than giving haste.

Quasiduplicate will let us make a token copy of a creature we control. We're not running a lot of bombs but we have interesting enough vampires that we should be able to find good targets. Sonic Assault will tap a creature and do 2 damage to the creature's controller.

The most intriguing cards in this group by far are the card draw spells, and I think it's possible the Jump-start mechanic was aimed primarily at draft and Standard play. While these cards' effects aren't to be ignored, they also aren't exactly powerful.

I suspect the ideal card to put into a Jump-start deck would be Thousand-Year Storm, but our decision to go with a tribal Vampires build makes including that powerful enchantment a lot less attractive. Dropping the Madness theme, adding Thousand-Year Storm and building a storm deck would put us on the road to building cEDH Kess Storm and we're not doing that today.

More Ways to Discard

Running as many Madness cards as we're running means that we need a lot of ways to let us discard. Seven cards with Jump-Start just isn't enough, so let's look at some more options that can really make Madness work for us.

Looter Il-Kor
Merfolk Looter
Nivix Guildmage

One of the most basic ways to do that is by looting. Looter Il-Kor and Merfolk Looter will each let us draw a card and discard a card in their own way. Nivix Guildmage will let us do that as many times as we like, provided we can pay the activation cost of 1ub.

Disciple of Deceit
Dreamscape Artist
Furyblade Vampire

We'll need to find a way to tap Disciple of Deceit, but when she becomes untapped we can discard a card and then search our library for a card with the same CMC. Dreamscape Artist will be fantastic ramp, letting us sacrifice a tapped land to give us two untapped basic lands and a Madness-enabling discard with every activation. Furyblade Vampire gives us an optional discard at the beginning of combat to give her +3/+0 until end of turn.

Pack Rat

Pack Rat may not be a vampire, but in a deck that loves to discard, it's got the potential to let you create a very powerful board of vampires and increasingly huge rats. Undertaker and Overtaker will also provide us with discard options. The former will let you bring a creature back to your hand. The latter will let you steal a creature until end of turn. Both effects are the kind of thing we sometimes want to do in a Commander game, and both activations will require us to discard a card.

Divining Witch
Laboratory Maniac

This last pair involves a card I only recently discovered. Divining Witch lets you pay 1b, tap and discard a card to name a card and then exile the top six cards of your library. Then you exile cards from your library until you reveal the named card. If you don't hit the card you named, you'll wind up with no library. That's a bug in the plan, but that bug can be a feature if you've got Laboratory Maniac on the field and a way to force yourself to draw a card. A more serious deck angling to win with these two would run tutors and a healthy slot of counterspells, so keep that in mind if these two pique your interest and make you want to go hard after this wincon.

Other Vampires

Because this is a vampire deck, we're going to look at some of the more powerful vampires we can throw into our list.

Captivating Vampire
Stromkirk Captain
Rakish Heir

Captivating Vampire and Stromkirk Captain both pump our vampires +1/+1. The former will let us steal a creature and make it a vampire and the latter will give our vampires first strike. Rakish Heir will let our vampires get +1/+1 counters when they do combat damage to a player.

Anowon, the Ruin Sage
Twilight Prophet
Vampire Nighthawk

Anowon, the Ruin Sage might seem like a bad pick, as we might find ourselves in the position of having to sacrifice Kess. We might not be casting Kess until we have enough instants and sorceries in the yard to make her worth bringing out, so I'm hoping it will work. If it doesn't wind up working, we can drop it and throw a staple into the list in its place and maybe have a better deck as a result.

Twilight Prophet will give us card draw, life gain and damage on all of our opponents, but only if we have 10 or more permanents. The life gain and damage is based on the CMC of the card we reveal and put in our hand, so it could be zero if we reveal a land but chances are decent it'll give us a little life and do a little damage. If that card were the iconic bloodsucker Vampire Nighthawk, which is absolutely in this list, it would be three damage. Over a number of turns this kind of effect can definitely amount to something.

The Decklist

The more I look over this list the more I think it might work just fine with Jeleva at the helm.

What Kess brings us is the ability to cast any of our 13 instants and sorceries with Madness one additional time out of the graveyard after casting them (usually at a reduced cost) when we discarded them. I think that will make it worth overlooking the fact that she isn't a vampire, and if we really care about that we can use Captivating Vampire to turn her into one.

Kess, Dissident Mage | Commander | Stephen Johnson

It's worth noting that the average CMC of this deck is a fairly skinny 2.91. That could indicate a number of things. We might find ourselves casting too many spells because they're all so cheap and we'll spend lots of games with no cards in hand. Our low CMC might also be a sign that we're lacking bombs and we should review our list, drop some of the underperforming cards and throw in some real game-enders.

Final Thoughts

I think this could wind up being a pretty fun casual deck that has the ability to win games, but also has a ton of room for improvement. You could start here and make upgrades over time to refine the Vampire theme and make it more effective but still tribal, and, as a result, still fairly casual. You could also start here and over time move it more in the direction of a storm deck, eventually finding yourself looking at true cEDH lists and deciding how much winning really means to you.

I don't think either approach is necessarily wrong, though I have always had a weakness for the casual side of the format. I even went so far as to build an Abzan vampires build once with Anafenza, the Foremost at its head. It was terrible, but one time I was able to use New Blood to steal an opponent's Tana, the Bloodsower and use it to create some 1/1 Green Vampires. I doubt I won that game, but I got a chance to make Green Vampires in my terrible, bad, no-good Abzan Vampires deck, so I was happy.

That's all I've got for you today. I hope you found today's experiment in deck-building interesting, even if you're less inclined to make room in your life for a deck that clearly isn't using its commander in the most broken, predictable, efficient and effective way possible.

Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!