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Kenrith Counter Fun


Rainy Season in the Tropics by Frederic Edwin Church (1866).

Oros, the Avenger by Daren Bader.

If you're a regular reader you're aware that I've been wrestling with Kenrith, the Returned King for a few weeks now. About a month ago I did what I call a "deck-in-a-box" challenge where I opened a box of Throne of Eldraine and tried to build a Commander deck using only cards from that box. The experiment was fun, but wasn't entirely successful. You can read about it here.

I knew I wasn't going to keep that list together for long, but I didn't know what I was going to do with good King Kenrith. Some folks have built him as a hug deck, but I'm not really into that play style. Kenrith is a perfect infinite mana outlet, but I also don't enjoy decks that are solely focused on trying to land a combo to win the game. Building multiple wincons into a deck that will always boil down to a draw-your-deck infinite mana strategy doesn't make the deck that much more interesting.

I do like to have combos in my decks. I just didn't want this deck to be solely focused around the combo. That means no tutors and lots of room for fun stuff that will play well at casual tables. I was eventually able to find a way to build Kenrith, but it took me a while to find the right strategy.

False Starts

Not every deck comes together quickly or easily, and Kenrith is an example of one that was a real struggle. I went through a number of false starts before coming to this version.

My first thought was to build Kenrith Knights. Kenrith isn't a Knight but I thought it would be a fun experiment. I didn't wind up buying the Sir Gwyn Brawl deck, but there were still a lot of Knights in Throne of Eldraine. Going with Sir Gwyn would have pushed me toward equipment, and that would have left less room in the build for combo support. It would have given me a place to put cards like Agrentum Armor and Elbrus, the Binding Blade but it didn't feel quite right.

I took a close look at the knights in Throne of Eldraine and was still tempted to go after a Knights build. What stopped me was the fact that neither of the two five color cycles of knights felt like a good fit for a 5/c deck.

Syr Alin, the Lion's Claw
Fireborn Knight

The cycle of legendary Knights all have casting costs with two of the same color. Syr Alin, the Lion's Claw is a perfectly serviceable Knight but if I don't have two White available he'd find himself stuck in my hand. All the cards in that legendary cycle have the same issue and this deck isn't going to have a robust enough mana base to support the flexibility I'd need to make that work. The cycle of Knights with hybrid mana in their mana cost have the same issue. I'd want to run all five, but I would need at least four mana in the card's two colors to be able to get it onto the battlefield.

Looking at the value I could get from a Knight tribal list it just didn't seem like there was enough power there to make it worth pursuing. A Knight tribal deck also wouldn't interact in any interesting way with Kenrith's abilities. After a few days and a bit of research I decided to move on.

The next direction I looked was another tribe - Humans. There is a well known and powerful Modern deck archetype built around Humans. I did a little research, looked at the cards those decks use and even picked up a few cards that I thought might help with a Kenrith Humans build.

Mass Appeal
Devout Chaplain
Riot Ringleader

It's impressive how many strong Humans could be included in a Humans tribal EDH deck. When you include older cards like Mother of Runes, which has oracle text that gives it the Human creature type (the older printings just read "Summon Cleric") it's apparent that the options are nearly endless.

The problem with converting a Modern archetype over to EDH is that the power level of the cards simply doesn't translate well. The creatures aren't big enough to matter, and when they are, they often don't have trample or evasion. Threats that might seem significant in a 1 v 1 game will now have to be relevant in a game where you have twice the life total and multiple opponents to contend with. I wanted to make a Modern Humans EDH conversion work, but the more I thought about it, the more it felt like it would struggle at the semi-competitive tables I play at, and might fold like a cheap suit against more powerful Commander decks.

My reluctance to take on the challenge of making Knight tribal or Human tribal Kenrith work probably doesn't reflect well on me. There's no good reason why I shouldn't give it the old college try and see if I could do something interesting with the deck, but I kept coming back to one problem. I wanted the deck to interact with Kenrith in an interesting way beyond occasionally making big mana and pouring it into Kenrith's abilities.

Kenrith's Party Tricks

Fortunately Kenrith, the Returned King has a ton of abilities. Well, he has five abilities, but compared to many other legendary creatures, that's pretty darn good.

Kenrith, the Returned King

For one Red mana we can give all creatures trample and haste. You'd never need to do this more than once in a turn, but it's the kind of thing that can come in handy. For 1g we can put a +1/+1 counter on target creature. For 2w we can have target player gain 5 life. For 3u we can have target player draw a card. All three of those abilities are highly abusable with big or infinite mana. His last ability lets you pay 4b to return a creature from the graveyard to the battlefield under its owner's control. That's going to be limited by the number of creatures in your graveyard unless you set up a sacrifice / recursion loop. A creature like Bloodfire Colossus, which can do 6 damage to each creature and each player, could be used to kill the table or win you the game if you're at the highest life total.

After a lot of thought, I decided that the most interesting thing I could do with Kenrith was build a deck around his ability to put counters on things. That might not seem like a big deal, but there's a good reason to think this is a sneaky-powerful "party trick".

To put Kenrith's ability into perspective let's take a look at two of the old Kings of counters - Ghave, Guru of Spores and Marath, Will of the Wild.

Ghave, Guru of Spores
Marath, Will of the Wild

They both have the ability to put counters on creatures. Ghave requires you to pay one mana and sacrifice a creature. Marath requires you to pay one mana and remove a counter from a creature. These two legendary creatures are making something out of something. Unless you've taken a left turn into combo-town (which you often do with these guys), they will die and have to be re-cast. If you've gone infinite, that's not going to be a problem, but you're certainly not making something out of nothing.

Kenrith isn't really making something out of nothing either, but you don't lose creatures or counters when you use him to put a +1/+1 counter on something - you just spend mana. You won't have to re-cast him and he won't get weaker when you use his ability. He'll actually get stronger if you have him target himself.

If you discount the mana you generate, you could make the argument that Kenrith's ability to put a +1/+1 counter on a creature for 1g is sort of like making something out of nothing, and to me that seems like a big deal..

Counter Shenanigans

If the goal is to do something more interesting than just running a Knights or Humans tribal list, we're going to need to identify some cards that care about having counters put on them. A little research gave me some pretty good options.

Fathom Mage
Herald of Secret Streams

With Fathom Mage on the field, for 1g we can use Kenrith to put a +1/+1 counter on it and draw a card. Sharktocrab will let us use Kenrith to pay 1g to put a +1/+1 counter on it and tap an opponent's creature down for the current turn and their next turn. Herald of Secret Streams will simply make all of our creatures with +1/+1 counter on them unblockable. How's that for a good start?

Master Biomancer
Bloodspore Thrinax

Both Master Biomancer and Bloodspore Thrinax will let our creatures get extra +1/+1 counters when they enter the battlefield. Our 1g investment will pay off later on. If we've got Mycoloth on the field, we'll get a 1/1 Saproling creature token for each +1/+1 counter on it. Normally Bloodspore Thrinax and Mycoloth want to use the devour ability to get counters on it, but Kenrith will let us just give them counters - ideally on the end step of the turn before we untap.

Champion of Lambholt
Inspiring Call
Abzan Falconer

Champion of Lambholt will let our creatures be unblockable based upon her power, so putting +1/+1 counters on her is a pretty good investment. Inspiring Call will draw us cards based on how many creatures we have with +1/+1 counters. We've got lots of ways to take advantage of this ability. The Abzan Falconer shown above represents a suite of cards I've included that all have the Outlast ability.

Outlast isn't very good. You pay mana and tap the creature to put a +1/+1 counter on it. While that isn't great value in Commander, some of them give your creatures with +1/+1 counters additional abilities. Abzan Falconer will give your creatures flying. There are Outlast creatures across all three Abzan colors (wbg). In White Ainok Bond-Kin will give our creatures with +1/+1 counters First Strike and Abzan Battle Priest gives lifelink. In Green, Tuskguard Captain gives trample and Longshot Squad gives Reach. In Black, Mer-Ek Nightblade gives deathtouch.

Trollbred Guardian
Battlefront Krushok
Mikaeus, the Lunarch

We'll also run Trollbred Guardian, which gives trample, and Battlefront Krushok, which lets our creatures not be blocked by more than one creature. Mikaeus, the Lunarch may have finally found a home with Kenrith, as he'll work really well with Kenrith. For 1g we put a +1/+1 counter on Mikaeus and then tap him, remove that counter and put a +1/+1 counter on each other creature we control. If we've been making Saprolings with Mycoloth or just playing out a decent little army, that will represent a ton of value.

Simic Manipulator
Plaxcaster Frogling
Ivorytusk Fortress

Simic Manipulator will let us remove counters to steal our opponents' creatures. Plaxcaster Frogling will let us protect one of our creatures by paying two mana and so we can give it shroud. Ivorytusk Fortress will let us untap our creatures with +1/+1 counters on them. Pseudo vigilance might sound nice, but we'll really want to get Marwyn, the Nurturer or Gyre Sage out, put counters on them and be able to tap them for mana on each of our opponents' turns. Those two mana dorks tap for more mana if they have more +1/+1 counters on them, so this could really get out of hand if our opponents don't have removal.

Gleam of Authority
Corpsejack Menace
Simic Ascendancy

I want to move on from talking about +1/+1 counters, but I keep thinking of more cards to be excited about. Gleam of Authority is an aura that will give the enchanted creature +1/+1 for each +1/+1 counter on other creatures we control. On Kenrith, he could get huge enough to be a real threat. On Gyre Sage or Marwyn we could be tapping for a ridiculous amount of mana. If we have Corpsejack Menace out, we'll be adding counters at twice the normal rate. If we have cost reducers like Biomancer's Familiar or Training Grounds out we'll be paying half the normal cost for our activations, as 1g will be reduced to g to put a +1/+1 counter on a creature. If Simic Ascendancy is on the field and we can get it to 20 or more growth counters, we'll win the game.

Leveraging Lifegain

It would be shortsighted to only look at Kenrith's ability to put counters on creatures. He's got other party tricks and there is fun to be had playing with them all. Gaining life isn't normally the sort of thing I get that excited about in Commander, but we should see if we can squeeze some extra value out of paying 2W to gain 5 life.

Tainted Remedy
Well of Lost Dreams

Tainted Remedy is an enchantment that will let us turn our 2w life gain ability into 5 points of damage to an opponent. Kenrith doesn't tap to activate his abilities, so we can pay that multiple times. If we're down to our last opponent and they've been cut down to a low life total, this can definitely win us the game if we've got enough mana available.

Sunbond is an aura that will let us turn lifegain into +1/+1 counters. Instead of paying 1g to add a +1/+1 counter we'll be able to pay 2w to gain 5 life and put five +1/+1 on the enchanted creature. We have so many creatures that care about having +1/+1 counters on them that we're likely to have some interesting targets available to us. Well of Lost Dreams will let us pay 2w and x mana to gain 5 life and draw X cards, though X can't be greater than 5.

There are other cards I would have tossed into this list if I had them available to include. Archangel of Thune will put a +1/+1 counter on each creature you control when you gain life, but my copy of Archangel is in my Phelldagrif deck. Sanguine Bond is in today's list and will let us turn five life gained into 5 points of life lost for an opponent, but Defiant Bloodlord does the same thing and didn't make the cut. Regna, the Redeemer also isn't in the list, and would let us create two 1/1 White warriors each time we gain life.

This deck isn't about lifegain, but you could definitely build a fun and interesting deck around lifegain shenanigans using Kenrith, the Returned King.

Combo Support

I'm running a couple of infinite mana combos, but no tutors. If you're wondering why I would do that, the reason is simple. I don't want to have every game end with a combo finish where I draw my deck, play some random wincon and kill the table, but I do want it to be possible to draw into a combo if the game goes long enough or I get lucky.

Dramatic Reversal
Isochron Scepter
Sol Ring

I'm running the "Dramatic Scepter" combo and a handful of mana rocks, some of which can tap to make any color. You imprint Dramatic Reversal on Isochron Scepter and then use the untap trigger from Dramatic Reversal to untap your Isochron Scepter. So long as you've got enough mana rocks and mana dorks to make three or more mana, you'll go infinite.

Basalt Monolith
Rings of Brighthearth
Signpost Scarecrow

The Rings of Brighthearth / Basalt Monolith combo will make infinite colorless mana. That's all well and good, but we'll need a creature like Signpost Scarecrow or Prismite to turn that mana into mana of any color. Rings of Brighthearth interacts nicely with Kenrith, allowing us to double up on our activated abilities even if we don't have Basalt Monolith out. If you've got the cash or the collection to be able to throw a Grim Monolith into the mix, that will give you some redundancy for this combo. As of this writing Grim Monolith costs $150 or so and I'm not going to drop that kind of cash unless I'm going all-in on making a combo-focused, higher powered version of this deck.

If you like the idea of throwing in your Grim Monolith and taking this list in a more competitive direction, I'd have you start by dropping out all of the Outlast cards and adding in a suite of tutors and cards like Archaeomancer, Eternal Witness, and Mnemonic Wall so that you can recur them and bring non-creature cards back out of the graveyard.

You could drop even more cards that care about lifegain and counters and throw in the Deadeye Navigator / Palinchron combo, along with Peregrine Drake and other cards that untap lands. Going with more Blue spells and going towards more competitive strategies means that we'd also need to add more counterspells so we can interact with the stack and protect our combo. Adding more removal would also be essential, though my draft does have a few decent options in the mix

At this point we'd be abandoning any pretense at making a deck that can "play fair" and would be building a deck that just wants to combo off. That's fine for some folks and for some metas, but that's not where I personally want to go with this version of Kenrith, the Returned King.

The Decklist

I could definitely see myself playing this deck and over time shifting it in a more competitive direction. I could also see this deck generate the kind of value and advantage that would make it capable of competing at casual and semi-competitive tables and being a lot of fun. I really hope that the variety of things you can do once you've established a board and have Kenrith on the field will make this a really fun deck to pilot.

There are a lot of cards that I could see swapping out as I start playing this list. Braid of Fire will give us an increasing amount of Red mana on our upkeep, which we can use for the colorless part of paying to activate Kenrith's abilities. This deck isn't particularly tuned toward being able to create red mana. The chances you'll have Braid of Fire in your hand and happen to have a Command Tower or Exotic Orchard so you can drop it on turn one aren't that high. That doesn't mean it's not worth including, but it's worth playing the deck and not being afraid to make changes as you see what seems to be working and what isn't working.

I think Kenrith could easily turn out to be a very mana hungry commander, not unlike Marath, Will of the Wild and Ghave, Guru of Spores. This initial list is just that - an initial list. I could easily see myself dropping out a bunch of the less impactful Outlast creatures and adding in both lands and ramp spells. A deck like Kenrith could easily run 40 lands along with more mana rocks and ramp spells and not feel like it's running too many mana producers. I'm starting with 35, so the first thing I'll probably do after playing it a few times is add lands or rocks (or both).

Final Thoughts

Now that I've written this column up, it all seems rather obvious. Messing with +1/+1 counters is fun. Tribal decks are OK, but can feel a little boring if all you're trying to do is go to the red zone and beat face. We may well go to the red zone with this deck, but if things go right we will get the chance to do all kinds of silly things with our creatures and our +1/+1 counters first.

Will we get out a Mycoloth, put a bunch of counters on it, make a bunch of Saprolings and use Mikaeus, the Lunarch to make them bigger?

Will we put Gleam of Authority on Kenrith, spread out counters on our creatures and lean on Herald of Secret Streams to get through blockers and kill our opponents with commander damage?

Will we put Sunbond on Gyre Sage, play Ivorytusk Fortress, and pile more and more +1/+1 counters onto that mana dork until it's tapping for a ridiculous amount of mana?

The range of possibilities that lie before us with a list like this is one of the things I love the most about Commander. We might not win as many games, but we should have the chance to have a really wide range of games when we play this deck.

Kenrith has been out now for long enough that I'm hoping some of you have built around him. If you've put together a Kenrith, the Returned King deck, I'd love to hear from you. What direction did you go in? Did you build a tribal deck, go all-in on combo, or build something in between? How did it play out, and is there anything in today's column you might incorporate into your list?

Please leave a comment and tell me about your Kenrith build.

That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!

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