Last updated on December 2, 2023
Kess, Dissident Mage | Illustration by Izzy
There are two distinct types of Commander players. There’s the more casual players who want to build fun decks or try out janky combos that wouldn’t work in a more competitive format. Then there are the more competitive Commander players or cEDH players who craft decks with the sole purpose of winning the game as quickly as possible.
One popular cEDH commander is Kess, Dissident Mage. Kess can help you have a more consistent game, which allows you to more easily set up game-winning plays or combos. This cEDH Kess deck can win the game in a matter of turns, and you don’t even necessarily need to cast your commander to do it. I playtested this deck in a couple of competitive games and found it has a pretty high success rate, and I even won once while keeping a one-land hand.
I’m going to take you through what the goal of this deck is and how you get there. I’m also going to break down why I decided to include certain cards in case it isn’t clear how best to use them in this build.
Opposition Agent | Illustration by Scott Murphy
Chain of Vapor
Force of Negation
Force of Will
Muddle the Mixture
Pact of Negation
Rain of Filth
Red Elemental Blast
Lion's Eye Diamond
Talisman of Creativity
Talisman of Dominance
City of Brass
Spire of Industry
This deck has two main goals: pull off one of its own game-winning plays or shut down your opponents. This deck runs a good number of counterspells due to the fast-paced action and heavy reliance on combos in cEDH. It’s important that you can shut down your opponents’ attempts to win early on, and counters are one of the best ways to do that. If you’re new to cEDH, it might be a good idea to understand some of Magic’s most common combos so you know when best to use your counterspells.
This deck also includes a good number of cards that can quickly dump your deck into the graveyard or exile, setting up a win with Thassa's Oracle. You also have a lot of tutors to help find the cards you need to win.
While Kess, Dissident Mage’s effect isn’t a super flashy one, it’s very powerful. The ability to cast one of the spells in your graveyard each turn make it harder for your opponents to stop you from pulling off a win. This deck includes several ways to cast cards from the graveyard, so you don’t have to worry so much about losing your win cons to counters or mill/discard.
Tutors are an important tool for cEDH decks because they essentially thin out your deck by acting as another way to find your combo pieces.
Your two best tutors are probably Mystical Tutor or Vampiric Tutor. They can both be played at instant speed, so you can play them right before your turn and most likely get whatever card you tutor for.
Although your opponent can put important cards you search for with Intuition into the graveyard, if you have Kess, Dissident Mage on the field you can cast any instants and sorceries you tutor for anyway.
Wishclaw Talisman can be risky, but if you know you’ll win on your turn, you can easily use it and know that the opponent who gains control of it won’t get any benefits from it.
Gamble is another card that can be risky, but if you have a way to cast cards from your graveyard, like Kess, the risk is significantly reduced.
Although not strictly a tutor, Lim-Dûl's Vault lets you look through a good amount of your deck and then arrange your next five draws in the way that’s most advantageous to you. This is especially powerful since it can be played at instant speed.
Stopping your opponents from casting their important combo pieces is very important in cEDH, so having inexpensive ways to interact with them is always important.
Another great option are cards like Force of Will or Force of Negation that give you alternate ways to pay for their mana cost without using mana. You can potentially counter turn 0 game-winning plays even if you haven’t taken a turn.
Pact of Negation is perfect for countering any spells that might interrupt your attempt to win the game. If you win on your turn, you never have to worry about paying for this spell on your next upkeep.
Another important aspect of a cEDH deck is making sure you can’t be taken out of the game as easily as countering part of your win con.
While not ideal, Timetwister can give you another chance to get important cards back into your deck if they end up in your graveyard. This can also shut down any of your opponents’ strategies that rely on having certain cards in their own graveyard.
Since your win condition is Thassa's Oracle, you need a way to quickly empty out your deck. Luckily, this deck runs several cards that can help you do so quickly.
If you cast Demonic Consultation and name a card that isn’t in your deck, you’ll exile your entire deck. You can then play Thassa's Oracle for the win. Similarly, you can use Tainted Pact and just choose to never put any card into your hand, allowing you to empty your library.
Ad Nauseam is a great option because not only will it help empty out your deck, it’ll put the cards into your hand instead of exiling them. This deck mostly runs lower-to-the-ground spells, so you can get through a lot of your deck before you lose too much life.
Leveler is another way to empty out your library. Just make sure you can cast both it and Thassa's Oracle in the same turn. You can save some mana if you use Reanimate on Leveler when it’s in your graveyard.
Because Tainted Pact is one of the ways you can set up for the win, it’s important that you don’t have any lands in your deck with the same name. That’s why instead of having two Islands, this deck has an Island and a Snow-Covered Island.
This deck also prioritizes lands that can tap immediately for mana, preferably more than one color. These are the original dual lands like Underground Sea, Badlands, and Volcanic Island. It's OK to pull these from your more casual Grixis commander decks so that Kess can operate smoothly.
This deck also runs a variety of mana rocks, with an emphasis on faster ones like Mana Crypt or Mox Diamond. These cards can help get you to your win cons more quickly, which is always important in cEDH and its typically short games.
The basic strategy for this deck is to use a card like Ad Nauseam or Tainted Pact to empty out your deck, allowing you to then win by playing Thassa's Oracle. You’ll want to use your tutors and cards like Demonic Consultation or Lim-Dûl's Vault to find one of these spells or Thassa's Oracle.
Kess, Dissident Mage can be used to recast one of the spells you need from your graveyard if it gets canceled or you mill it yourself with one of your cards. You also have Yawgmoth's Will and Underworld Breach as options for this as well.
You’ll also want to hold onto your counterspells specifically to either ensure your game-winning plays happen or to stop another player from winning. Don’t worry about your opponents establishing some sort of board state unless it means they’re about to combo off. You can afford to take some damage, and you don’t have to worry about getting through blockers. Other players having stuff on the board isn’t usually a big deal.
The main interaction you’re looking for in this deck is to use a card like Demonic Consultation to empty out your deck before playing Thassa's Oracle for the win. But there are also a few other interactions to keep in mind.
Another option is to activate Lion's Eye Diamond while Underworld Breach is on the field and Wheel of Fortune is in your hand or graveyard. If you have three cards, you don’t mind exiling from your graveyard. You can cast Lion's Eye Diamond again, then use it to discard your new hand of seven cards. You can use three of those cards and the three mana from the Diamond to cast Wheel of Fortune again and keep repeating this cycle until your deck is empty.
One thing to remember is Kess, Dissident Mage’s ability and how that can help you set up your game-winning play. For example, if you have Gamble in your hand and Kess on the field, you don’t have to worry about discarding one of your important spells because you can cast it from the graveyard.
The unfortunate truth with cEDH decks is that the more budget friendly they become, the less efficient they are. One way you can try to keep the price of this deck down is by making sure you’re getting the right printings of the cards that save you the most money. For example, looking for Revised copies of dual lands as opposed to Alpha or Beta ones that cost more.
Another good option is to look for medium or even heavily played cards. These are often much cheaper, so if you don’t mind your cards being a little worn around the edges, this is a great way to save money.
If your playgroup is okay with proxies, that’s typically the best way to save money on some of the most expensive cards in this deck. That said, this option limits the type of events you’ll be able to participate in, so only go this route if you know you’re allowed to use proxies where you usually play.
Although this is the primary strategy that players use for Kess, Dissident Mage decks in cEDH, there are some specific cards you can put into the deck to change up the build a little bit.
Some players include other cards with similar effects to Thassa's Oracle like Jace, Wielder of Mysteries or Laboratory Maniac. Though both cards take the extra step of you needing to draw a card with an empty library, they work just as well with the infinite Wheel of Fortune combo in this deck.
Thassa's Oracle | Illustration by Jesper Ejsing
cEDH is a very fast format that requires some of the most efficient deck construction to stay competitive. This deck worked pretty consistently when I was playtesting it, and I often had what I needed to win the game in my hand by my third turn. It’s worth keeping up with new releases if you’re serious about staying competitive, as even one new card that’s a more efficient version of something in this deck can give it a slight edge that you’ll need in such a quick format.
Are there any cards you would cut or add to this deck? What cEDH commanders do you like best? Do you like competitive Commander games or do you prefer casual ones? Let me know in the comments or on Draftsim’s Twitter.
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