How They Brew It - Kess' Nostalgia Trip

Michael Celani • September 18, 2023

You find yourself deep in the wilderness. The crisp crunch of fallen leaves beneath your feet startle the wild animals leering at you from the thickets, and they dart away in a mad dash, conjuring a cacophony of crashing branches and trampled bushes. You'd heard the fables; they were the kind of stories parents would tell their children to keep them safe from danger. You'd heard the warnings; how little Johnny came back... wrong,  spouting nonsense about seeing something that couldn't be, that shouldn't be, something that's but a whisper on the wind now. Everyone else knew better than to walk the path before you. But the danger of the woods hadn't scared you off, nor the rumors of what you'd find at the end of the road. Some say it drove men mad. Others say it drove women mad. Even more said it did both.

Your lantern flickers as it gasps for life. You've climbed quite a bit, and the air was thin. But in the distance, through the fog, it stands. Could it be? You trudge closer. Only a few more yards now. Your heart is racing. It's real; and as you cautiously step into the dilapidated building, you're overcome with a sense of awe. Your eyes dart from wall to wall, item to item. All manner of tattered, thin tomes line the shelves, hailing from throughout the world, from every walk of life. The rumors were true; it's a vast repository of nearly limitless knowledge, all on display for you to enjoy at your leisure. The thought washes over you like a wave. You've made it: you've reached the world's last Borders Bookstore.

A World Without Borders

Ah, come in, little one. You must be weary; set your pack down, and rest by the air conditioning. I am Michael Celani, and you stand in the hallowed halls of the world's final Borders. The books, the music, the café - it's all here, just as you remember.

Let me tell you a story. When I was young, I perused the magazines without a care in the world. I put on those headphones thousands of others had touched and listened to the muses of the day pour their hearts out. I experienced terrible local jazz musicians murdering their instruments on Fridays as I sipped hot cocoa and threw bricks at them. It felt like a childhood dream that would last forever. But it didn't. That summer, I saw the sign marking my own neighborhood's Borders torn down. The storefront, once colorfully advertising all the new releases from the bestseller list, became naught more than a cold set of transparent panes of glass reflecting nothing but my own confusion. That night, I asked my mother where store chains go when they die. And she said they all come here, to Mortar Alley, to live out their obsolescence in eternity so that people can return any merchandise they purchased. Look down the street: Babbages, RadioShack, Circuit City -- they're all here, all ready for you to visit again.

In a way, this is all like playing a game of Commander with Kess, Dissident Mage as your general. Yes, nothing lasts forever, but just because something's in the past, that doesn't mean it's gone. Revisit your memories, and cherish them, because they're what shaped you into who you are now. Also, it's really sick to get twice the value off one Chart a Course. That's really the key takeaway, here. God, sometimes I feel like one of those mid-2000s YouTubers that started putting complex plots into their terrible movie reviews because they think people are more interested in that than the actual content. If you're lucky enough to have never experienced such a story, don't worry; I remember it so you don't have to.

Reminiscing with Friends

Revisiting your past is a fun hobby. No matter if you express it via something like scrap-booking, watching old home videos, or going on revenge-fueled murder sprees, it's good to look back and think about what got you to where you are today. That's exactly what Kess is here to do: she lets you cast an instant or sorcery spell from your graveyard during each of your turns. This alone is all well and good, especially if you have an incredibly overpowered past. But going on a nostalgia trip is more fun with friends, no matter if you express it via scrap-booking, watching old home videos, or going on revenge-fueled murder sprees. Here's a couple creatures we'll use to get some extra oomph out of our instants and sorceries.

Half-Price Books

Buying used means cheaper prices, right? Congratulations, you're the reason why GameStop isn't here alongside the rest of the stores here on Mortar Alley, where it belongs. Still, I admit that it's hard to resist the allure of paying less for the same experience, and that's why we're cramming our deck full of cost-reducers, like Baral, Chief of Compliance and Mocking Sprite. These discounts help not only when we cast instants and sorceries from hand, but also when we recur them with Kess, Dissident Mage. That means that each of them effectively saves us two mana per card instead of just one. The most useful creature in this category is Nightscape Familiar, which discounts all our red and blue spells. The vast majority of this deck is Izzet, and that regenerate ability really discourages our opponents from interacting with it despite being stronger than even a Sol Ring in this list.

Let Sparks Fly

Like any given high school literature course, we're focusing on the classics instead of coming up with anything... novel. (Laugh.) Anyway, that means we're burning our opponents out. Cards like Guttersnipe, Firebrand Archer, and even Fiery Inscription zap each of our opponents whenever we cast an instant or sorcery spell, and that means you don't have to wimp out by rolling a die to pick which of your opponents to attack, you coward. We're running quite a few of these effects in our deck, so we'll have a pretty consistent source of noncombat damage aimed squarely at our opponents; for that reason, Chandra's Incinerator and Virtue of Courage are both incredible inclusions here. Chandra's Incinerator turns all of the damage we deal to our enemies into punishment for their creatures, too, and most of the time it's only going to cost a single red to cast. Having it out alongside Guttersnipe locks down the board for all but the most green of creatures. Virtue of Courage ends up being at least a free Act on Impulse every time you cast something with a Kessig Flamebreather out, and that's usually enough to find another instant or sorcery to keep the chain going. That's not to mention that if your opponents make the foolish play of blowing up Virtue of Courage instead of whatever's causing them damage, you can use Kess to cast its Adventure, Embereth Blaze, from the graveyard. Since part of an Adventure spell resolving is putting the card into exile already, you'll be able to cast Virtue of Courage from exile as usual. There's a whole deck waiting to be built on that principle alone, but I already did an Adventure deck, so you'll have to do it yourself. Finally, Insult // Injury doubles the damage these guys do, and since you can cast Insult again from the graveyard with Kess, Dissident Mage, you can be dishing out as much as eight damage a spell, which should be enough to fry any of your enemies.

Value Town

There're a couple of miscellaneous effects out there I can't really group into other categories, so they're going here. Hurkyl, Master Wizard lets you dig into your deck for more noncreature spells at the end of your turn, provided you already cast a couple that turn. Whispering Wizard generates tons of flying blockers to protect yourself from aerial threats. Displacer Kitten seems useless given that the only real blink target in the deck is a lone Exhibition Magician, but flickering Kess resets her ability for the turn, letting you cast as many instants and sorceries from the graveyard you want. Archmage Emeritus keeps your hand flush and will actually go positive since you're casting your instants and sorceries twice per card. From the same set, Storm-Kiln Artist is an obvious inclusion and might fit under the mantle of cost-reducer, but you'll see that he's got major combo potential of his own later on. Finally, Urabrask is both mana and damage, and flipping him (which is insanely easy, by the way) rewards you with a one-sided board clear, a Dark Ritual, and a Kess that can play out of any graveyard.

Stuck in the Past

There's a time for everything and everyone. Sometimes it's fun to go back and look at the things we grew up with, because those experiences shaped our lives in a way nothing created today will. Sometimes you just need a little bit of comfort food to unwind after a long day. But to live a healthy and fulfilling existence, you have to look to the future and enjoy the new things the world brings to your doorstep. Or do we?

Nearly every year's top movie by domestic box office returns since 2000 is either a sequel or adaptation of a previous cultural phenomenon. One of the most hotly anticipated video games of 2024 is a third of Final Fantasy VII, a game you can play in its entirety right now for six dollars. The Simpsons continues to run long after it stopped being funny, and nobody really knows why. We all seem content with merely half-new experiences; where just enough is changed to be fresh, but not too much so that it stops being comfortable and familiar. People seem to cite this as a bad thing, but is it really? Why not be stuck in the past? Does it truly matter if the thing we waste our time enjoying is new, old, or even the same thing we did yesterday? It's all an interchangeable waste of time in the end. As long as your enjoyment of the past isn't stopping you from handling the realities of today, why not? That's what Kess is gonna show us here today, because we're playing these spells again and again. The plan's simple: just find a couple of these spells, a couple damage-dealing dorks, like Thermo-Alchemist, and watch as your opponents fall together to your onslaught of pings!

Bringing it Back

The first and most obvious avenue for playing spells over and over is buyback. When you cast a spell by paying the additional Buyback cost, that card is returned to your hand instead of being put into the graveyard once it resolves. Your typical play pattern will be to play the card for it's cheaper, non-Buyback cost first, letting it go to the graveyard, and then play it again, this time with Buyback, through Kess. Buyback's rules very conveniently bypasses the wording on Kess, since she only exiles spells that are heading to the graveyard in the first place. We've got plenty of buyback spells, and since that additional cost is still reduced by all those discounters, like Mocking Sprite and Goblin Electromancer, it's possible to make buyback completely free. Mystic Speculation is the easiest card to do this with, but you can also accomplish it with cards like Whispers of the Muse and Capsize if you try hard enough. Haze of Rage is here, too, and that means you have access to its tried-and-true combo with Storm-Kiln Artist, but in reality any sufficiently cheapened buyback card will accomplish the same goal.

Clash of Clans

What if paying an extra cost at all was too much for you, though? If getting things for free is more your speed, try out clashing! To clash with an opponent, you and your opponent both reveal your respective library's top card. You win the clash if your card has a higher mana value than your opponent's. Then, you get to put that card on the top or bottom of your library. For the three spells here -- Research the Deep, Revive the Fallen, and Release the Ants -- our reward for winning the clash is that the card goes back to our hand instead of the graveyard, effectively making it a second buyback. Even if you lose the clash the first time, remember that Kess gives you a second chance, and a good third of decks are 0-cost land cards anyway. Your best bet to exploit this cycle of spells is to find a card on top that's quite costly, like Virtue of Persistence, and then clash as many times as you can before you're forced to draw. This won't work with Research the Deep, of course, but you're still getting some card advantage on that spell, so it's a bit of a wash.

Gran Pulse

The Pulse spells are our third category of spells, this time represented by a cycle from Darksteel. These three spells return to your hand as they resolve so long as your opponent holds some sort of advantage over you. Pulse of the Grid and Pulse of the Dross both look at the number of cards in each player's hand, whereas Pulse of the Forge cares about life totals. It's possible to cast these spells over and over, but it's mitigated by the fact that each time you do, the actual effect of the spell makes it harder for your opponent to maintain that advantage over you; they'll eventually run out of cards, or life, or you'll just have a grip that's too full, but at that point you've got a solid lead over them anyway, so it's time to switch to a different value engine. It's worth noting that Pulse of the Forge and Pulse of the Dross care about the specific player you targeted, whereas Pulse of the Grid looks at all of your opponents, so make sure to spread the hate around.

Above and Beyond

The final spell we're talking about here is called View from Above. It's the simplest card yet: it gives a creature flying for a turn, and returns to your hand as it resolves as long as you control a white permanent. That's a little bit of a bummer; how are we going to control a white permanent in this Grixis Commander deck? Luckily, you've already seen the answer: our lone Exhibition Magician is capable of creating a white and green Citizen token, and Whispering Wizard was chosen over something like Talrand, Sky Summoner because it creates white Spirit tokens. Those aren't the only ways, though; we also snuck in a cheeky Illuminate History, which can make a 3/2 red and white Spirit token if you meet its condition, and a Vizier of Many Faces, which starts out as just a copy of something strong, like Storm-Kiln Artist, but can be embalmed to create a copy that just so happens be white.

Down Memory Lane

I hope you've enjoyed your trip to Borders, a trademark I can use because the company's out of business, so what are they gonna do, sue me? I'd like to see them -- wait, Barnes & Noble bought out Borders' trademarks when they went under? Wait, Barnes & Noble also got their customer list, which I'm definitely on? Wait, Barnes & Noble is still in business and could sue me if they wanted? I... have to go.

If you enjoy How They Brew It, check out the Discord and my other projects at my website. You can vote on what article you want to see next! Do you want to see a five-dollar Commander deck, or one where you skip your own turn to win? Let me know, and I might write about it next time! Hope to see you there!

Buyback It Up (Kess, Dissident Mage EDH)

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Commander (1)
Artifacts (6)
Creatures (22)
Sorceries (19)
Instants (14)
Lands (35)
Enchantments (3)

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Newly appointed member of the FDIC and insured up to $150,000 per account, Michael Celani is the member of your playgroup that makes you go "oh no, it's that guy again." He's made a Twitter account @GamesfreakSA as well as other mistakes, and his decks have been featured on places like MTGMuddstah. You can join his Discord at and vote on which decks you want to see next. In addition to writing, he has a job, other hobbies, and friends.