Part of my philosophy in playing this game we all love so much is breaking the norms and challenge the status quo. The Pros of the game are naturally good at this especially the Japanese who are known for building bizarre decks that look like a hot mess but takes a Pro Tour or a Grand Prix by storm (e.g. R/B Hollow One).
If there was one thing that I learned while playing Magic on and off for the past 20 years is the importance of synergy in deck building. Synergy is really difficult to achieve in a game that offers a lot of options, multiple archetypes, varying formats, and how quick or slow the current meta is.
Hollow One has been printed for more than 10 months already but it only got to the top tables recently causing Goblin Lore and Flamewake Phoenix to rise in prices from a couple of cents to serious dollars after the Japanese Ninjutsu-ed their way to a turn 3 kill and bag top 8 with forgotten cards of old.
As my title depicts, I’m banking on my novice experience in deck building and will try to build Zombies again and hopefully find a way to make it viable again in standard.
The zombie tribe took the biggest hit after losing Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon to rotation. What used to be the best tribal deck that had raw power, natural go-wide strategy, removal and card advantage without taking additional card slots, took many grinders and pros to the top tables with ease. The deck designed so well that it was capable of guiding the player how to play it. It also had a lot of sequences that allows it to outmaneuver removal and sweepers but pitching cards to make tokens, play just enough threats to merit a sweep and still have enough cards in hand to rebuild.
Sadly the tribes of Ixalan have not reached the level of synergy that the zombies have achieved (imagine a mindless undead horde outsmarting merfolks, vampires, dinosaurs and pirates).
Zombies however are still rampant in today’s standard legal set however they don’t appear as zombies the moment they hit the battlefield. Now… they come to play alive and actually have to die to become a zombie. The added benefit here is that each card serves us twice. If we played 12 creatures with embalm or eternalize, we actually are played 24 creatures. Once as living things, once more as an undead — which is the creature type we’re interested in.
Each tribe in Ixalan has a lord. They are usually 2 mana, 2/2 creatures that give other similar creature type +1/+1. Dinosaurs and Pirates are not as fortunate because Dinosaurs have a 7-mana lord, while pirates have a 4-mana lord if pirates are attacking.
For zombies we have 2 and one of which is actually giving you stuff to boost even on an empty board. The zombie lord also has one more toughness point which can be relevant because it survives Moment of Craving, Magma Spray and Shock. It also costs 3 which is awkward in standard because it dodges Fatal Push. Liliana’s Mastery is another great top end draw which feels much better if you are top decking compared to drawing a 2-mana 2/2 lord with no creatures to boost. At 5 mana, it boosts all your zombies and gives you two 3/3 zombies which clutters the board quite well.
The next ‘lord’ is not a creature but an enchantment. Radiant Destiny more than Always Watching because it also pumps tokens which is quite important given our embalmed and eternalized creatures come in the form of tokens. We might not get the vigilance part as often but if ever we do, we’re golden.
Let’s now look at the creatures we have at our disposal.
At the one-drop slot we have Dread Wanderer and Sacred Cat. Dread Wanderer by far is one of the format’s best 1-drop because of its sheer resiliency against removal, keeping us in the board. In multiples late in the game, it serves as a great mana sink reanimating multiple copies of Dread Wanderers from the graveyard every turn.
Sacred Cat helps us survive early onslaught from very aggressive decks but it also comes back bigger thank to our zombie anthems. With Lord of the Accursed, Radiant Destiny and Liliana’s Mastery or any combination thereof makes the zombie cat into a 2/2 to 4/4 life linking zombie. Not bad for 1 white mana spent.
In the 2-drop slots we have another Zombie-Cat mix. Wayward Servant gives us the reach during stalled board states. Each zombie we play or each creature we eternalize or embalm will drain our opponent 1-2 life at a time depending on how many Servants you have in play.
Adorned Pouncer is the opposite of its sacred friend because instead of giving life, it takes life and in huge chunks. Together with Lord of the Accursed’s ability to give zombies menace, it allows an eternalized 5/5 double striking zombit cat to get through much easier (or take down 10 toughness with it).
On the 3-drop we have the big zombies with minor glitches which shouldn’t be a problem. Ammit Eternal is a creature so high above the curve that it’s absurd not to consider playing it. It’s my ‘damn if you do, damn if you don’t’ creature because it punches for 5 or bits for 3 whatever you do in combat. Though it becomes smaller each time the opponent casts a spell but it’s not all that hard to clean him up.
Plague Belcher is another beyond the curve creature for 3 mana. Ammit Eternal is a great target to dump those counters because it can naturally remove it. But I won’t mind dumping it on a Sacred Cat or a Dread Wanderer or even an Adorned Pouncer, which are all placed underneath its curve, because we can always get these creatures back and have a full power 5/4 menace creature that punishes the opponent for killing other creatures. To boot, if it ended up taking down a Dread Wanderer or an embalmed Sacred Cat, the opponent immediately takes 1 due to Plague Belcher’s last ability. Don’t forget this the next time your opponent Lightning Strikes or Abrades your zombies.
Let’s look at how my zombie looks like now.
4 Dread Wanderer
4 Sacred Cat
4 Wayward Servant
4 Anointed Pouncer
4 Ammit Eternal
4 Plague Belcher
4 Lord of the Accursed
3 Radiant Destiny
4 Liliana’s Mastery
1 Liliana, Death’s Majesty
4 Concealed Couryard
4 Unclaimed Territory (calling Zombies or Cats)
3 Ifnir Deadlands
3 Shefet Dunes
3 Lost Legacy
2 Cast Out
2 Sunscourge Champion
2 Gideon’s Intervention
Against control, we can play around which discard spells we will play. Against straight up counter spell decks, Duress works better. Against removal based control decks, Dreamstealer might be a better option because it forces the opponent to remove it twice or risk not having any cards left in hand to deal with our other threats.
Lost Legacy is specifically to take out cards that if gets cast, we’re dead. Cards like Scarab God is a perfect example of such cards because we don’t want our opponent to use our cards against it. I also like to hit Planeswalkers with this so we’re not bothered directing our attacks to it instead of the opponent.
Against explosive decks like Mono Red or low-to-the-ground agro decks like Mono Black, Mardu Vehicles and maybe Vampires, I like to have ways to gain life and Sunscourge Champion fits the zombie theme nicely. It enters as a 2/3 that blocks and trades well with early creatures and gives us 2 life. When eternalize, it can gain us 4 or more life if we have a lord or an anthem out since it checks the power before it counts the life you gain.
I don’t want to get caught with my pants down when my opponent casts a Planeswalker, artifact or enchantments so if my Duress, Dreamstealers or Lost Legacy fail to catch these I want to have ways to remove them from the battlefield. Cast Out is great because it can be played at instant speed which is relevant against Glorybringers, it can be cycled if we caught what we intended to exile with Duress and let us hit our lands.
The last sideboard is Gideon’s Intervention which is our insurance policy against sweepers, combo pieces, non-interactive win conditions, or just creatures you can’t kill but want to disable. Cards like Fumigate, Settle the Wreckage, Chandra, Approach of the Second Sun, Carnage Tyrant, Kumena, etc. are things we are better off not worrying about. Together with our discard package we should know which card to name to deprive the opponent the chance to play them (and probably have multiple copies in their hand) or name the card they hope to draw because they kept a hand that will allow them to draw into it (NOT!).
The deck does not pack any sorts of removal in the mainboard. My defense here is that I want to function as fast and as pressuring as 5-0 MTGO merfolk and vampire lists. Let’s do a short apples-to-apples comparison for the 2 most successful tribes in standard.
- All the creatures cost 3 or less except for Seafloor Oracle
- Zero removal but have access to Unsummon for tempo plays
- Has Kumena to make the army huge and trade better in combat
- Creatures are low to the ground (mostly 3 or less)
- Has access to Sanctum Seeker which doubles the deck’s damage output
- Has Mavren and several token spells to go wide and clutter the board
- Uses lifelink to stay in the game
- Low curve (adopted from Fish and Vamps)
- Embalm/Eternalize/Dread Wanderer offers resilience despite no card draw
- Plays 11 Anthem effects to make creatures punch harder and trade better
- Has Wayward Servant as pseudo-drain
I try to incorporate successful strategies and deck designs from decks that show results in the tourney scene so it gives you, the readers, some confidence that these decks work!
Surprise your opponent by calling out Zombies when you play Unclaimed Territory, and I’ll wait for your comments!