The Case For Unbanning Kethis
Bradcifer and Tyrant of Tales make the case for Kethis, the Hidden Hand to return from exile and rejoin a Pioneer meta that is largely prepared to deal with creature-based combo decks.
Brad Complaining About Kethis Again
I know what you’re thinking: “oh it’s just Brad complaining about Kethis again.” But hear me out. Kethis, The Hidden Hand was banned alongside Inverter of Truth, Underworld Breach, and Walking Ballista in the August 3rd bannings that all but saved the Pioneer format. These bannings were great and needed to happen. At the time, I will say that banning Kethis was the safe choice given the circumstances, but now it’s time for him to make his return. A return that will be lackluster, and virtually nonexistent in the current Pioneer meta.
How The Deck Worked
Kethis Combo was an engine-based combo deck that looks to take advantage of Legendary and Historic spells built around its namesake card; Kethis the Hidden Hand. Here is an example of a list prior to its banning.
Looks like just a pile of cards right? Like I said, it’s a weird deck. The objective is to use cards like Diligent Excavator and Emry, Lurker of the Loch to fill your graveyard with as many Legendary spells as possible. Then, using Kethis’ ability to cast legendary spells from your graveyard, you look to continue filling and essentially looping the same spells over and over again. Casting zero-cost cards like Mox Amber to legend rule itself, tap for mana, and repeat allows you to climb up in mana cost to eventually cast a Jace, Wielder of Mysteries. Since you’re likely looping Mox Amber with an Excavator out, you mill over your entire deck. Casting Jace and plussing wins you the game. That’s the most basic idea of achieving the win, but how you get there can be extremely complicated. It is not an easy deck to play by any means, but greatly rewarded excellent piloting.
Why Kethis was Banned
When Kethis was originally banned, it was off the backs of the other three combo decks in the meta. Pioneer was having a tough time firing on MTGO and left WOTC in the position to enforce a change. In the reasoning for the Ban announcement, WOTC had this to say regarding Kethis: “While Kethis combo decks are a relatively new reemergence in the metagame, we’re seeing signs that these decks are already problematic and would become more so if other top decks were weakened. Kethis decks are currently among the top 5–0 trophy winners in Magic Online Pioneer leagues, despite being a modest portion of the field.”
While I understand the reasoning here, it felt extremely preemptive. You could literally ban Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise right now and say the same thing Wizards said here. Also: what were those 5-0’s against? On the surface level, 5-0s aren’t necessarily indicative of a deck being too strong. Kethis was an incredibly difficult deck to pilot, with so many lines of play available to it at any given time. This means that the deck will have fewer pilots, but those pilots will be naturally stronger with the deck. That is a significant factor in the deck having a decent amount of 5-0’s.
On top of this, Kethis was incredibly hard to understand for a lot of players. Not just as a potential pilot, but as an opponent as well. Lastly, think about when these 5-0s happened: during the combo era of Pioneer. Imagine you queue up for a league and face Inverter, Lotus, and/or Mono White Sungun during your league. You’re burnt out from combo (and rightfully so), then find yourself paired against Kethis, another combo deck. Fatigue in Magic is a very real thing and with this in mind, how many players would scoop to the deck far earlier than need be in comparison to other decks?
I’ve played Kethis Combo, Lotus Combo, and Ascendancy Combo a lot both in Paper and on MTGO. One thing I’ve found is that people will scoop early and often to you at the earliest sign of you comboing off. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had someone scoop to me when I literally had nothing in hand and was one or two spells away from fizzling and having to pass back to my opponent. That’s part of the nature of combo decks, people just don’t like playing against them. So looking at the ban as a whole, it has a tendency to feel like collateral damage due to the existence of the other combo decks and player feedback.
Imagine this, WOTC bans Breach, Inverter, and Ballista but leaves Kethis alone. Over the next couple of months, Kethis jumps to 20+% of the meta and becomes a problematic deck. No sugarcoating, but Pioneer is all but toast here. Players just endured the combo meta for months only for another combo deck to take their place. This would result in players leaving the format en masse and Pioneer being dead in the water. Now, I don’t think this would have happened, but the risk/reward of this scenario just isn’t worth it. All this to say: I don’t blame WOTC in the slightest for just making the safe decision and banning all the combo decks.
Alright let’s get this out of the way. When evaluating whether or not a card can come off of a banlist, you typically ask yourself three questions.
- Does the card have future longevity? (will new sets coming out have a high chance of breaking it all over again?)
- Is the card a threat to the format immediately?
- Does it make the format fun?
As of right now, many players would argue that Kethis doesn’t pass questions one and three. It creates another graveyard-centric combo deck to add to the mix, which many players will express a disdain for playing against. Though, of course, that is certainly subjective, as I and many other players love combo decks; including Kethis. Being a legendaries-matter deck, it’s difficult to call it future-proof, seeing that Wizards loves to inject random Legendary cards into the mix with every set. Seeing that we are returning to Dominaria for both Dominaria United as well as The Brother’s War, it’s entirely expected to see not only a plethora of Legendary cards and cards that care about the supertype, but more powerful cards in general. Especially the return of Historic spells and Artifacts specifically. So for many, it may not be the right time to unban Kethis with so many eyes on Pioneer thanks to the return to the Pro Tour. In the opinion of this author however, I think his return is much overdue.
Making The Case for His Return
Kethis Combo was virtually nonexistent in the months prior to the August 3rd bans that hit all the combo decks. Prior to the bannings, there was an unbanning of Oath of Nissa. This card is a key piece for the Kethis combo, digging through your deck to find a land you need, various creatures that help the combo, Kethis Himself, or any of the Planeswalkers you played (though there was mostly just one.) This is what originally caused the deck to “rise to power” once again, as it gave the deck consistency and four additional legendaries to hit with Kethis’ ability.
Here’s the thing though: those creatures and planeswalkers you wanted to find off of Oath of Nissa? Well, three of them have been banned since. Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, Teferi, Time Raveler, and the newly-banned Lurrus of the Dream Den are all gone. All of these cards were quintessential to the combo, too. Uro provided a much-needed Plan B for the deck, as a threat to pressure the opponent. Lurrus presented an infinite loop with Mox Amber that would win the game, and T3feri acted as the protection against counterspells and removal spells that would disrupt your combo. With all three of these key pieces gone from the deck, it’s hard to make a case for Kethis being too powerful for the format. Are there replacements for these cards? Sure, but it would be a much different deck moving forward. The only real potential replacement for the deck would be to run Silence in the main deck as the replacement for T3feri – which obviously is a major downgrade, but at least would function well enough in the role. Meanwhile, Lurrus has a downgraded replacement for the infinite Mox Amber loops in Rona, Disciple of Gix, and Uro is, well, Uro. With extremely important aspects of the deck now being unavailable, it’s hard to see the deck functioning anywhere close to its performances prior to its bannings.
With this, the biggest issue Kethis decks had before has now become even more pronounced with its support cards gone from the deck: the nature of the deck being an engine-based combo deck. Comparing the Kethis combo tothe two other combo decks of Pioneer shows how out-of-its league Kethis really is. Lotus and Ascendancy are those decks, and they have a supreme advantage over Kethis in a few ways. The first is that they are not engine-based combo decks needing to rely on a plethora of cards functioning in tandem with one another at the same time.
Lotus is all about getting Lotus Field down, copying it with a Thespian Stage, and storming off from there using powerful albeit strange cards in the format. Hidden Strings, Pore Over the Pages, and Vizier of Tumbling Sands act as ways to either untap your Fields to produce more mana, draw cards, or both. They naturally synergize with Lotus Field rather than be the end-all-be-all of the deck. Yes, they are important, and it’s difficult to win with Lotus without drawing these cards in multiples, but it’s at least possible.
Ascendancy has two main cards you want in your hand for the combo to be achieved, being Jeskai Ascendancy and Sylvan Awakening. Having both of those, at least four sources of mana, and a cantrip spell like Opt or Consider and you’re off to the races. The rest of the deck is just card draw, card draw, and card draw. This allows the deck to find its pieces in a more efficient manner.
Meanwhile, Kethis is hoping to have Diligent Excavator, Kethis Himself, Emry of the Loch, Mox Amber (and more) all on the battlefield at once to really get the ball rolling. This leaves Kethis in a unique spot in terms of facing interaction from the opponent. Where Lotus is hated out by counterspells and Damping Sphere and Ascendancy is hated out by counterspells and Deafening Silence – Kethis is hated out by all of that and creature removal. This opens up an entire slew of matchups that Kethis can have a problem with that the other combo decks would feast on. This issue was remedied by having T3feri, but with him gone, the deck is open to these vulnerabilities ten fold. So, when it comes to facing the field of Pioneer, Kethis is going to have some problems.
Supremely fast aggro decks like Mono Red will be able to steamroll over the deck. Sure, Diligent Excavator, Kethis, and Emry can serve as decent blockers, but removing them is already going to be a top priority for the opponent anyway, so they won’t likely be sticking around for long. The Other combo decks will just be far more efficient at racing Kethis thanks to their more refined and linear gameplan, while also being able to bring in decent interaction in from the board. Then there’s UW control, and (like I said in my State of Ascendancy article) Ascendancy’s downfall in the meta rankings has come from the likes of UW Control. Having March of Otherworldly Light as a maindeck answer for Ascendancy is incredibly bad for the deck. If UW has such an incredible matchup against Ascendancy, it will be even better against Kethis. Against Ascendancy, the sweepers are mostly dead against the deck, since the lands from Sylvan Awakening are indestructible and it’s fairly unlikely that Ascendency is passing back the turn when given the opportunity to go off. Kethis decks, on the other hand, can certainly find themsleves in situations where it needs to pass back to the opponent, where sweeping up the creature-heavy combo deck will be an option more times than not. Then, of course, counterspells and single-creature removal will make this matchup a nightmare and a half. The key aspect of the Kethis combo itself is that it is a graveyard-centric combo. Looking to mill yourself and exile cards with Kethis’ ability to play legendary spells from the yard takes a huge hit considering one of the top decks played in Pioneer (still) is Izzet Phoenix. The rest of the Pioneer meta will be prepared for Kethis on every axis, attacking it with speed, taxing/Rule of Law-type effects, interaction through counterspells, creature removal, and graveyard hate.
All of these concerns and decks well-positioned to eat Kethis alive, all build to the idea that Kethis combo today would simply be a bad deck.
The Kaldheim Concern
If there are any concerns for bringing back Kethis, the biggest are that he would be coming back to a format with access to an incredible amount of cards unavailable to him at the time of his banning. No set has more of these cards than Kaldheim. Kaldheim released with an insane amount of archetypes and themes in the set (far too many, in my opinion). One of those themes was Legendaries-matter cards. These cards include Esika, God of the Tree, Kolvori, God of Kinship, Search for Glory, Vega, The Watcher, and Tyritte Sanctum. Seeing as I have a wonderful friend here on the site who has played an exuberant number of hours with these cards in his Teshar brews, I’m going to hand this off to fellow former Kethis player; TyrantofTales.
Addressing The Kaldhiem Concern
Back before the ban, I was one of many that jumped into the old Kethis builds and quickly fell in love with the playstyle before it was removed. Unlike most, I have been attempting to bring back my love in a similar style in Teshar combo until the recent Lurrus ban killed the deck. While the deck has never reached the power level of the old deck, it did mean that every new legendaries-matter cards in Kaldheim was tested and used before sadly being dropped.
I’ll jump right in with the most obvious card that “should” be used in Kethis decks: Search for Glory. The most prominent issue is that at its floor in a four-color deck, it is a three-mana draw-a-card at sorcery speed. When the card is read the way it plays out, it becomes obvious that a three-mana play that does not interact with the board is a tough sell. A comparison can be shown in the lack of Idyllic Tutor in enchantress-style decks in other formats.
Kolvori, God of Kinship runs into a similar issue of reading better than it is. The first line of text hovers between the lines of being win-more and never active. If you have three legendary creatures on board, you should be winning the game in most cases, and if the ability is inactive, a four-mana creature that requires a turn to get value is unlikely to survive or be a meaningful addition. The second ability compounds this issue by requiring mana and being restrictive in hits. The fact that it can not hit one of the combo pieces in Mox Amber, while also not filling the yard for the combo leaves it dead in the water. The backside is close to being good with the biggest issue being the fact that Green is a splash color. Almost any mana advantage it can provide is restricted by this and makes it almost useless outside of being a cheapish historic trigger for Teshar and Diligent Excavator. That all being said, I would not be surprised if this would be a one or two-of in a current Kethis build due to a lack of better options for backup plans.
Esika, God of the Tree is the closest to being playable, but suffers due to the nature of the deck itself. Esika has a defensive body that while being a great blocker against most aggro decks provides mana (at the earliest, turn three) and incentivizes you to tap down your blockers to provide a mana advantage. The combination of that incentive and Winota being the current main aggressive strategy invalidates both the main benefits of her body and the mana advantage in a big way. The Prismatic Bridge on the back suffers from the deck’s construction due to the low power-level of individual cards and redundant legendary hits.
Vega, The Watcher suffers less from the card itself being unplayable and more from the engine pieces that work with it being banned. The lack of Lurrus and Uro in the format cuts off the best cards to trigger its ability. The next best options in foretold and disturb abilities do not to work with the rest of the deck outside of Katilda, Dawnhart Martyr, who, in all honesty, is a stretch. This compounds the fact that there is no way to trigger it the turn it comes down and the added nature of being a 2/2 body in a shock format.
A different deck
So how would a current rendition of Kethis look today? There are a few ways you can go with it, so I created a couple of versions.
Kethis, Two Ways
The idea with both lists is about the same, the difference being that one list has more of a toolbox approach with the creatures to help protect and move forward with your gameplan, while the other has a far more linear strategy. The Legendary Channel lands from Neon Dynasty are a great addition to the deck as we don’t need to run multiple Urborgs any longer, as well as being able to use the channel ability on these lands and still have them in the graveyard to exile with Kethis later. Our Lurrus replacement is now Rona, Disciple of Gix. She is not as strong as Lurrus, but presents the same concept of an infinite loop with added benefit of both her and Mox Amber being available. Some interesting cards are The Reality Chip, Saryth, The Viper’s Fang, and my personal favorite; Lier, Disciple of the Drowned. The Reality Chip being both a legendary for Kethis and an artifact for Emry makes it an incredibly interesting addition. Reconfiguring onto a creature allows us to start playing spells and lands off the top of our library and possibly go off from there. Saryth is a card that protects our creature cards by giving them hexproof, since we rarely attack with our creatures so they mostly stay untapped. That takes creature removal out of the equation and gives some piece of mind in that regard. We’re still soft to counter spells though, and that’s where Lier comes in. He serves as a pseudo replacement to T3feri, though, of course, four or five mana vs two or three mana is quite the difference. The second mode of instants and sorceries is pretty much inapplicable here, though I’d want more time to find some that we can have in the deck to make use of that. My initial thinking would be cards like Search For Glory and Bala Ged Recovery The deck would only really need to run one copy of either, thanks to the fact that we mill ourselves anyway. This also comes into play with our toolbox creatures thanks to Lazav being able to become a copy of these creatures while they’re in the graveyard.
The second version shies away from that toolbox plan for more of a linear approach. We bump The Reality Chip and Ashiok to two copies each for more consistency, as well as throw in two copies of Shadowspear. As a one-mana Legendary artifact, it can serve as an additional option for our infinite looping similarly to Mox Amber and Hope of Ghirapir, thanks to Kethis’ reduction cost of Legendary spells. The sideboards can change as the meta does, but in both versions I would want to be running three or four copies of Silence in the board. It seems wildly important to stand up against counterspells and shutting down any potential interaction on your turn before you go off. The other thing is that I would want some number of Thoughtseize, Fatal Push, Leyline of Sanctity, and Assassin’s Trophy. Thoughtseize and Push are self explanatory. Leyline protects our hand as well as stopping all targeted hate such as Go Blank hitting the grave and Extraction effects. Base Dimir seems to be the best way to go with building Kethis as it gives you access to important sideboard cards. The manabase can probably play some number of Triomes, but I wanted all of my lands to come into play untapped. Though I could see a more “controlling” approach to Kethis being possible and thus a few tap lands wouldn’t hurt so long as it makes the mana a bit smoother. Though, with all this being said, I really don’t think this deck would be very competitive.
Back on August 3rd, 2020, Kethis The Hidden Hand was banned as collateral damage in a hope to save Pioneer. At the time, it was the correct move in the sense of the risk/reward of the decision, but now it is time for Kethis to return. With the prevalence of better combo decks, UW Control, and decks that can easily interact with all aspects of Kethis; there is no reason to keep him banned any longer. The deck, at the end of the day, will be a bad deck. It hurts to say as the deck was my favorite I’ve ever played when at its full power, but losing three key pieces of the deck to bannings over the last year all but make the deck irrelevant. As such, it is time to let Kethis rejoin the Pioneer meta to showcase just how bad of a deck he would really be. Though, that won’t stop me from going 0-5 in MTGO leagues when he’s finally free.