Building a Chess Deck with Kenrith, the Returned King

When I wrote my set reviews last week, I realized one of the best things about Throne of Eldraine was the King, Kenrith. It’s great when the central figure of a set delivers as a card. I think Kenrith might be the greatest build-around ever, given the 5 colours, open concept and unparalleled opportunity for flavour. I could build a dozen Kenrith decks off the top of my head. But there’s one that stood out to me as worth pursuing. I’m talking about the Chess deck.

What a twist! (I’m not playing this)

Three quick notes – 1) I think using Kenrith as Aragorn or King Arthur or something is equally splendid. I might look at some of those decks as well, and maybe a politics build. The King is versatile. 2) I don’t plan to actually build this deck in person. Mostly because of… 3) I’ll be honest, I don’t like playing Chess. I’ve found it more like a memory exercise and less like a game, but that’s just me. I like the wide open chaos of Magic much better. But I like Chess as a metaphor, and a concept, and an international pursuit. I like thinking about Magic in Chess terms. This is a theorycraft.

Two more Chess cards I’m not going to play.

I’m going to lay a few ground rules for this deck. First, I’m not including the things I don’t include in my own decks, usually. Those things are fetchlands/shocklands/OG Duals, etc. and tutors. The lands are largely too expensive for me, and I might not even play them if I owned them, to keep them safe. The deck I built doesn’t run any lands over $10. I also don’t play tutors. I don’t feel like including these cards in a post about deckbuilding helps anyone anyways. I don’t need to tell you that an expensive mana base will do better, or a tutor is a like a redundant copy of any card in your deck. That being said, I’m going to pack this thing with little bits of value.

Fun stuff, but so not playable.

Second, I want to win the game with the Chess deck, not just play a bunch of meme cards and fold to better decks. Third, I want the deck to feel like Chess, as much as magic allows for that. Finally, I’m not planning to do tokens. Chess only has so many pieces, and you don’t get more. Here’s the deck. I’ve included a massive ‘maybeboard’ including almost all of my cuts. I want to show off how many options are out there, and even this is just a slice.

These guys would like this deck.

Move #1 – The Commander. Kenrith hits all the notes. He’s a White King, he’s powerful but slow, and he grants access to all the other colours while still being visually a white card. Even his casting cost is perfectly suited for building Chess decks. More on that in a bit. Kenrith is more suitable than the previous best options, Sliver Queen and The Reaper King.

Check out my moves.

Move #2 – The colours. I’m going classic Black and White Chess. I think all my creatures should be those colours. Black and White should also be the core of the deck. I may want to play a few other cards in other colours, too. If you’re building a Chess deck, feel free to switch up the colours. I considered going White vs. Red Goblins, and could see Humans v. Machines, or Humans v. Eldrazi or something like that, too.

Goblins hate banding.

Move #3 – Endgame plans. While Battle Chess has been a thing since the 80s, and a fine choice, I’m not doing that. Suiting up Chess-themed dorks with equipment is cool, but it’s not the Chess I want to play here. I want a strategy that uses my pieces to achieve an endgame. I want to be able to say Checkmate. I want one path to victory for each of Black and White, and I want them to be on theme. Tough to do? Yeah, but I hit two perfect cards.

Pretty sweet symmetry.

Test of Endurance and Mortal Combat are my two build-arounds for this deck. They will determine my decisions, and they are the ways I want to win. If you are building this deck competitively, or don’t feel as I do about tutors, now is a great time to mention both Enlightened Tutor and Beseech the Queen. Both are on theme, and given this is a deck about duality, would be a good double include for this deck to help find these two cards. I’m going to try and find ways to draw into them instead. Here’s two bonus tutors as well.

Your Chess tutor would approve.

So White wants to gain life, and black wants to put creature cards in the graveyard. I think we can handle that. I love that both Enchantments cost 4. Symmetry is going to be good for this deck. I also like how they give the opponents a turn cycle to react to them before we can win the game. Check. I’m also going to sneak in ways to recur and protect these cards if I can. I included Leyline of Anticipation as a way to play these cards as a surprise. It’s more Chess than Vedalken Orrery.

This, in a nutshell, is this deck’s plan.

Move #4 – Choosing pieces. Kenrith is my White King. How I choose the rest can be by any kind of formula. One option (that I’m not doing) is to go by CMC. Kenrith is a 5. You can do Kings and Queens as 5s, Bishops as 4s, Rooks as 3s, Knights as 2s, and Pawns as 1s. This would work fine. You can swap Knights and Rooks, but Black and White Knights are 2 CMC each, and Rooks are pretty powerful. If you’re going by pure power, maybe doing Queens at 6CMC would be more on theme. You may even want to include a Planeswalker or two.

That’s a badass Queen.

Move #4a – Royals. I want my royals to be Kings and Queens. I want this deck to club you over the head with Chess, like it’s the blunt object it was never intended to be. So that narrows the options considerably. Queen Kenrith is perfect here, which is great because the card is not exciting otherwise. She supports us doing things with white creatures and gaining life. That’s our sweet spot for white, and she’s even the actual Queen to our King. Perfect.

Go, white pawns!

For the Black pairing, King Macar, the Gold Cursed jumps out. He’s slow and powerful and he’s a King. Perfect. There are a lot of options for the Queen, and I chose Sorceress Queen.

Cute couple.

Apologies to the Kings who didn’t make it: Brimaz, Darien, Suleiman, Brago, Grunn, Korvold, Meng Huo, Sedris, Sol’Kanar, and Tymaret.

Points for obscure royalty!

The Queens made for a tough choice. There are a surprising number of Queen options. I felt like the Sorceress Queen was more about getting creatures into the yard than Coffin Queen, who wants to get them out. Apologies to Ant Queen, Ayula, Garza Zol, Hornet Queen, Jhovall Queen, Lady Zhurong, Lathliss, Oona, Pixie Queen, Queen Marchesa, Queen of Ice, Savra, Sliver Queen, Varina, and Wasitora. Ayara, first of Lochthwain would also be a fine Queen.

Where does she keep her armies? In her sleevies.

Move #4b – Bishops. I came up with a staggeringly large number of bishop candidates. There are some ‘Bishops’ by name in Magic, but they’re almost all vampires from Ixalan. They’re cool, but tribal in a way I don’t want to do. My Bishops have to feel like Bishops, but they can be a little more loose with the naming. There are 2 in each colour. Here are my choices. I went cheap, kept the religious theme, and chose non-legendaries. Containment Priest threatens to nullify King Kenrith’s reanimate ability, but the power level is worth it. Suture Priest would be a fine substitute.

These guys have me moving diagonally.

There are some other amazing Bishop options, depending on what you like. Ayara, First of Locthwain would do well as a Bishop, too. I’d like to highlight the two Mikaeus’ as well. I feel like the Black one is too big for this concept, but they would be cool opposing Bishops, or even Kings. Academy Rector is your call. It would be ideal for getting out one of the signature Checkmate Enchantments. It’s also very expensive. Whisper, Blood Liturgist would be a cool Bishop and would have been included over Soldevi Adnate, except for symmetry.

Cleric present danger.

Move #4e – Rooks. I want to do walls. Make it obvious. Here are my choices:

Block party.

These do the best for my strategies. There aren’t a lot of great options in walls. Many do things that don’t feel right, like Wall of Limbs. Protector of the Crown was the final Rook cut, because it would have stood out as a non-wall. The monarch is an awesome ability, and great fun, but it’s not really Chess. Wall of Omens, Jeskai Barricade, Dazzling Ramparts, and Wall of Souls would also work.

Straight from the rookery.

Move #4f – Knights. This can be super easy, or offer some interesting tech options. Here’s what I chose.

All Knight long.

I went for obvious symmetry. Protection is a really strong ability. Black and White Knights are classics that can hold off some scary Commanders. The Cavaliers are both powerful and further various aspects of the game plan. Mercenary Knight and Knight of Meadowgrain were cheap options that both worked for this deck’s plan, but didn’t survive the final cut.

Is that a goat? Awesome.

Move #4g – Pawns. I needed 16, and I whittled down from 74 choices. I even limited myself to 1 CMC creatures. That meant no Pawn of Ulamog or Restoration Specialist. These are my white pawns. Using their CMC to define them let me go with some powerful cards. I focused directly on my Test of Endurance plan, with a few spicy pieces of tech, too.

If these were appetizers, they’d be Pawn tempura.
Once a Pawn, a time.

And here are my black pawns. Despite my low creature count, there’s a lot of sacrifice here. I recommend using it sparingly, as a safety valve against exile, to stock the graveyard, and as emergency answers. We can use the Therapist to discard our own creatures for double Mortal Combat value if need be.

What did the Blue Mage do with his Mox? Pawned her.
If these were red they would be Pawns de Rosa.

You can search any MTG database on 1CMC Black/White creatures for the big picture. There are a huge subclass of tapdown creatures that all cost W. That could be your white Pawnage, and as they’re nearly all common, would be cheap and simple to assemble. There are also several combat-oriented subthemes that would suit Pawns. I had to pass on a few life-gainers, as they were narrow, like Children of Korlis.

Still a great pawn.

Some of the other powerful white pawns I passed on include Mother of Runes, Giver of Runes, Weathered Wayfarer, Planar Guide, Dauntless Bodyguard, Figure of Destiny, and Kytheon, Hero of Akros.

Something tells me this guy’s gonna get a promotion.

Black Pawns offer a couple of cool subclasses as well. There’re plenty of guys that return from the graveyard, like Sanitarium Skeleton, some regenerators, and some lifedrainers. A handful exile from other graves, which is a super useful ability. Check out Deadeye Tracker, Thrull Parasite, Gnat Miser, Eye Collector, Pilfering Imp, Deathgreeter, and Ghost-lit Stalker for pawn potential in a deck like this.

That’s a nasty pawn.

Move #5 – The Gameboard. This means lands and other mana sources. I’ve packed as much value into the land as possible, and made a few specific choices. For one, I want to be able to use Kenrith’s abilities, and cast any spell of any colour. Just in case. I’ve built that into my land base. I’m also going to run a few colourless sources in my lands, as there’s some sweet abilities to be had. Hall of Heliod’s Generosity is a must have.

Combat too mortal? Failed the Test of Endurance?

I’m including the new Castle Locthwain, which is a good idea in general. I chose Eiganjo Castle over Ardenvale, because I don’t want to make tokens. Having a matching Castle play in both colours, without having to resort to the Castle enchantment, is so awesome. I’m including Abandoned Outpost, because Outpost is a Chess reference, and the superior Kjeldoran Outpost is another token maker. Too bad.

Where my Rooks hang out.

My mana rocks all produce a lot of colours, or draw a card, or have some smart-guy reference to them, like Mind Stone or Firemind Vessel. And Sol Ring. Always Sol Ring. You can use stuff like Coalition Relic, Chromatic Lantern, Arcane Signet, Mana Crypt as obvious expensive upgrades. Talisman of Hierarchy is a marquee card for this deck. Play it like you’re promoting your pawn to a Queen.

Made for this deck.

Two last Gameboard notes: I searched game and board and other such references, and came up with next to nothing. I have included Defense Grid, as a nod to the 8×8 Chessboard, and as a good card, but felt like Board the Weatherlight was a stretch of a reference without enough payoffs. Also, the site I use, Archidekt, doesn’t have Witch’s Cottage or Idyllic Grange up yet. But they should be included.

Behind that door are the white gloves they use to open the box where the trophy is kept.

Move #6 – Um… Moves. Chess is all about moves, maneuvers, gambits, feints, and the like. The move section is full of tropes and puns. All of these should offer some cool strategic options and interactions.

Capture! Divert! Isolate! Charge!

Master Warcraft is a sort-of white card, but it’s too cool to pass up.

It’s up to you to make this awesome. If you’re playing the Chess deck, this should be a welcome challenge.

Virtus’s Maneuver would be the coolest thing ever if there was a Chess Grandmaster named Virtus. Sadly, no.

Be your own foe and profit!

Sacrifice is one of many ways this deck gets creatures into the yard. The namesake card also helps protect them from Exile and theft effects.

We just need your organs for a sec.

Move #7 – Other considerations. I’m breaking this up into two parts.

Always watching for cheaters, improperly stacking their pawns.

Move #7a – Additional Chess References. There are more than a few good Chess references through Magic. I’m including references to the officiating (Silent Arbiter), the clock (Grindclock), and the chess bots one can train with online (Mindless Automaton).

Not saying Chess is a grind… have you seen Arena?

These cards help me draw, get creatures into my yard, and keep the heat off me. All good for my game plan. Some references, like Presence of the Master, Masterwork of Ingenuity, Solemnity, and Entrapment Maneuver are cool but not playable in this concept.

Gonna beat this guy at Chess?

Marchesa’s Decree, Opposition, and Stolen Strategy deserve specific mention. These are all worth playing and on theme to some degree. I play a lot of the Decree and SS, because they’re fun and useful. Opposition would be very strong here. Marchesa’s Decree is both associated with the Queen, and has ‘ches’ in it, if you must.

I shoehorn this into a lot of decks as an easy way to get the Monarch going.
This felt too blue for a B&W deck.
I didn’t want to steal strategies. I felt like my own were enough this time.

I left out a lot of on-theme discard stuff, and handsculpting. Mindslaver might be more your style than mine.

On theme, but not sure I want to ever cast this.

I’m also unable to include a lot of generic smarty-pants style cards that would help the plan. Mind’s Eye made the cut, but many others did not, including Brain in a Jar, Strategic Planning, and Mindmoil.

Always good to have a spare.

If you’re playing during a silver-bordered-is-legal stretch, or with opponents who allow it, this makes a great Deep Blue.

Run, Gary Kasparov! Hell, you’d probably rather stay and play high stakes Chess than run. Never mind.

Move #7b. – Goodstuff, Utilities, and Staples. I’ve included both a Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares. Early interaction against creatures can be critical, and exile is the best way to make your point. Merciless Eviction and Austere Command are serious answers. Fell the Mighty is like when a Pawn takes a bigger piece. Act of Authority allows you to say, ‘Your move.’

Chess is all about passing a powerful opportunity to your opponent.

Play of the Game gives us a powerful sweeper that’s on theme, but we have to be careful we don’t exile too much of our Mortal Combat plan away.

Ah, the Sicilian Defense.

Peace of Mind is a way to gain life, fill the yard, and gives us a Chess Peace card.

I feel a sense of Chess Peace!

I didn’t include it, but Abolish can be a free if you have a pile of Plains’ kicking around. That’s a smart move from the Chess player. I loved both Forsake the Worldly and Crush Contraband at first sight. Great cheap answers to Artifacts and Enchantments.

Surprise! Force of Vig- I mean Abolish!

Plenty of cards can help you live longer. These depend a lot on your meta. You might need to include some things to help you survive. Teferi’s Protection is expensive, but will save you outright. Cards like Day of Judgment, Toxic Deluge, Decree of Pain and Ghostly Prison do a lot of work.

Still doesn’t stop spilled lemonade.

And lots of cards can help you recur the two Checkmate enchantments if they are too fragile in your meta. Check out Crystal Chimes, Skull of Orm, Open the Vaults and Replenish.

You deserve a break after all those sick moves.

Move #8 – Playing the deck, and wrap-up. We want to curve into Kenrith, then find one of our Checkmate pieces and work towards it. We should be able to lead with a pawn, and play something on each of the early turns. If we run out of things to play, the King’s card draw ability will slowly refill our hand. Gaining lots of life and making smart blocks will keep us alive and push towards Test of Endurance. While it will be difficult to fill the yard with our 33 total creatures for Mortal Combat, we can dig to Grindclock and let chumping and boardwipes do a lot of the work for us. If both enchantments get hosed beyond our ability to bring them back, we can try for beatdown.

The King says we have to fight with our bodies, not just our minds!

I think this looks sweet. Once again, the deck is here. Let me know in any of these associated comment fields what you think! Especially if you build this deck. And as always, thanks for reading!


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