Kill By Numbers: The Zombie Revival
By digitaldebaser on February 27th, 2008 · Filed in Standard (Type 2), Variant Formats · Comments not available just now
The Zombie Revival
"They're getting closer!" the tiny Kithkin shouted. Fear clouded his eyes as he trembled in the corner of the dimly-lit room.
"Let them try something," a second one scoffed. His tiny blade was covered in thick, fresh blood that dripped to the floor. "They tried to do something about us, but our numbers easily overwhelmed all of those oafs. This house belongs to us!"
"I can only agree with that statement," a third chimed in as he sat back in a small, oaken chair. He bit off a large chunk of freshly-baked bread and chewed it with his mouth wide open.
"What about the Elves?! What if they attempt to return?!" the frightened Kithkin demanded.
"We have outrun the Elementals, we have outrun the Giants, and we have outdone the Faeries and Merfolk in every way. The Goblins showed us no threat, so they tried to team with the Faeries and send Rogues after us. Still we stand!"
The third Kithkin nodded in agreement as he chewed on the bread like a cow chewing cud. "The Elves thought they could handle us, but the Planeswalker Ajani helped us fend them off. He is right, you fool. We have taken over the house of Magic."
A loud thud caused the small house to violently shake. The startled group of Kithkin scrambled out of harm's way as several items fell from their resting places and shattered onto the floor.
"What was that?! The Giants couldn't have found us this soon!" the cowardly Kithkin asked his comrades as he slowly crawled out of hiding.
The second sniffed the air and gasped in horror. The most foul stench to ever grace his nostrils had suddenly floated through the once-sweet air that smelled of bread and fruit. "That stench! What is that dreadful stench?!"
A second thud caused the tiny house to vibrate.
A rotting hand suddenly broke through the window next to the front door of the house. The monster outside wildly swiped its hand about, desperately attempting to grab the prey that it knew was hiding inside.
The three Kithkin huddled together in fear as a horrible cry echoed through the forest and into the house.
The time of Friday Night Tribal has come and gone. It was given mixed reactions, and rightfully so. Some players were speculating the idea of tribal Soldiers, tribal Dragons, and even tribal Birds, but Wizards quickly shattered those ideas by announcing that Friday Night Tribal could consist only of the Lorwyn tribes: Goblins, Giants, Merfolk, Kithkin, Elves, Elementals, Changelings, and Faeries. This decision left many tribes looking on from the sideline, including a tribe that once dominated tabletops everywhere. What would the brain-eating, rotten flesh-donning Zombies be capable of if they were allowed to participate in the official Tribal wars again? I'm going to peer into the possibility of Zombies just a little deeper to see if they're a viable deck in today's Lorwyn dominated format.
To understand the new Zombies is to equally understand the old. The original Zombie tribal deck was powerful enough to get it banned from a player-run Tribal league on MTGO, along with Goblins and Elves. It was capable of killing an opponent without swinging the first bit of damage across the board, and this damage could not be countered. It was able to decrease the cost of Zombie creatures and pump them to insanely-large numbers in order to strike the winning blow. These things were fast, plentiful, and able to quickly recover from mass removal. Simply put: Zombies were something to prepare for in serious play. Let's take a look at what I would consider a decent build of classic Zombies.
Nobody has to be a pro player to see that this deck is ninety-five percent aggro and five percent control. The name of this build's game is to plow through everything without looking back. It can kill with fast attacks, large attacks, or simply not attacking at all.
Look at all of the tricks this deck can do! It is able to produce a one-sided, Zombie-related Mutilate by getting Noxious Ghoul down and abusing Warchief to drop a load of Zombies, it can kill off blockers by synergizing Grave Pact and Nantuko Husk/Carrion Feeder, and it also has a cheap way of recurring Zombie cards by using Unholy Grotto – but it does screw up draws. It can even play defensively and kill via Shepherd of Rot and Gempalm Pollutor.
This variant of Zombies is a classic powerhouse simply because of the different types of threats it can drop onto the board and the fact that they cost so little. Add in Undead Warchief's cost-reduction effect, and these brain munchers are ready to stack up some wins. It forces players to first think of the dormant threats that lie on the board. Opponents are more or less forced to block large attacks if there is a Shepherd of Rot on the board. They are also forced to consider how many Zombies can be played next turn if there is a Noxious Ghoul in play so they don't overcommit on their side of the board and wind up with an empty board and hand. Trading creatures during combat is also something that the opponent has to weigh a little more carefully due to Phyrexian Arena appearing in the same deck as the Grotto.
Raw power is probably the more memorable trait of classic Zombies, and rightfully so. Any deck that is able to maintain a decent mana curve and potentially drop a creature every turn just to pump them all on the fourth turn deserves to be respected and feared. I haven't even mentioned just how strong Soulless One can be. This guy comes to the board as a powerhouse if you play him early game, mid game, or even late game. It is a perfect way to draw the hate away from the already huge Undead Warchiefs and Nantuko Husks so an overwhelming win can be captured without a sweat.
I did mention combat tricks, didn't I? There are enough in this deck to win plenty of games that should be lost. Attacking with Nantuko Husk and Carrion Feeder creates a massive problem for the guy who has to block properly or die simply because they can change the direction of damage instantly. Though not as bad as Arcbound Ravager, these guys are still really scary to deal with when one considers using the Shepherd of Rot's ability during the resolution of combat damage. The other thing to keep in mind when using the Husk or Feeder as a combat trick is that Soulless One isn't affected by the death of Zombies in any way.
Enemies of Oldschool
Zombies are definitely a powerful tribe, but they don't stand alone. Elves and Goblins proved to be their biggest enemies back in the Onslaught days.
The reason why Elves were such a problem is that there were so many of them. They were everywhere! So they could easily fend off the Zombie horde, right? Hardly, but they could stand back and gain life until the end of time. Elves were fast at bringing their friends to the party, and they were even faster at gaining life. Their method of winning was normally throwing a large number of attackers at an opponent and turning an unblocked Elf into a double digit powerhouse, but they could also just as easily stand back and stall the game forever.
The life-gain aspect of Elves came from Wellwisher. This 1/1 was also incredibly cheap for such a good ability. For just , this pointy-eared bringer of good tidings would also be ready to bring points of life on the next turn. The Elf player could just as easily drop another one on the third turn. The same action could just as easily occur on the fourth turn. When is the Zombie player able to drop a Noxious Ghoul again? Oh, that's right; the Ghoul drops on the fifth turn. Granted, the life-gain madness would normally end shortly after getting the Ghoul down, but then the Zombie player has to deal with the excessive amount of life.
What about the Goblins? They were possibly the scariest enemy of all. Anyone playing Legacy Goblins can understand the kind of absolute terror that anyone should feel if Goblins are mentioned – except for the Lackey, of course. Goblins are the fast, out-of-control Zombie killers from someone's dormant nightmare.
The main idea that Goblins had against any other tribe, Zombies especially, is to quickly beat the utter hell out of the opposition before it can begin any type of defense. Add in the fact that even more Goblins could be played off of an AEther Vial, and one can begin to understand that most players chose Goblins over Zombies simply because of the speed factor. The Zombie player can't even set up the Grave Pact defense in time before there are multiple Piledrivers in play and attacking.
The best way to handle Goblins is to throw down as many Zombies as quickly as possible. Chances are that some will die when they trade with Goblin Piledrivers and Goblin Warchiefs – and only the inexperienced or desperate player will attack with the Warchief. Most of the other goblins are generally small, sans the Ringleader, and they're just there to help the Piledriver become lethal and to ping the opponent to death if the Piledriver fails its mission.
Doing the Timewalk
To me, the idea of Zombies became fairly apparent with the emergence of Lord of the Undead in Ninth Edition. It stood around and did a load of nothing in Eighth Edition, so why was it reprinted for another two years? It certainly didn't win any elections. I know I didn't vote for it. Did it steal the election out from under Lord of Atlantis, or did Wizards have something cooking?
While some players were trying to beat Lord of the Undead and Nantuko Husk into a deck and staring at it like oafs with a jigsaw puzzle, Wizards introduced Coldsnap. The most that could really be said for this set was "bad." However, it did produce Stromgald Crusader. Nobody really noticed that it was another fairly-playable Zombie that mysteriously appeared in Standard – including myself.
Time Spiral certainly proved to be a cash cow as players everywhere made certain to hit the prereleases and order plenty of booster boxes. Quite possibly the biggest thing to ensure that the set would sell like hotcakes was the "Timeshifted" rarity that was introduced exclusively for Time Spiral block. The Timeshifted cards in that setsported a purple hourglass and were direct reprints of older cards. It only took one card from the Timeshifted list to make Zombies official: Undead Warchief. As soon as the Warchief was confirmed by Wizards, I knew that Zombies were going to become a viable, playable part of the Standard format's future.
I tried desperately to put together a Zombie deck that stood a chance at winning something other than a FNM, but I was failing horribly. The deck simply couldn't swing over large enough beats unless the Undead Warchief was in play. It also had an issue with card advantage as the hand would run out of steam really fast and just lose. It was embarrassing.
Wizards must have mysteriously heard my concerns and readied Future Sight with Korlash, Heir to Blackblade. This card simply rocked, and it even had alternate artwork for its prerelease version. What made this card so essential to Zombies is the ability to weed out lands and get better draws while having a fair-sized creature to attack with that really didn't need the Warchief's pumping ability. Korlash could also help greatly on the defensive end with its regeneration ability.
Throw in the announcement that Lord of the Undead and Husk were going to be reprinted in Tenth Edition and the news that the entire Muse cycle was returning, and I was certainly excited. I had everything needed to build a brutal Zombie tribal, and I was going to unleash it upon the world.
The Zombie Revival may not have
happened if it weren't for this guy.
The idea of this build is quite simple. It starts off slow, but slowly builds into a hulking juggernaut. It is vulnerable to lots of control cards, so it's always a good thing to be careful and think plays all the way through before committing. Attacking with big beats just to have the Warchief slapped with a Crib Swap could equal a quick loss.
Not too much is going to happen on the Zombie side until the second turn. I've tried to remedy this with a first turn Thoughtseize. The number of Thoughtseizes was solidified at three simply because drawing one late game isn't the end of the world, but drawing two late game possibly is.
There are two -drops in this build, and I feel that they are solid choices. The Crusader is able to fight through early game hate like Oblivion Ring and Crib Swap and win games with evasion, while the Wretch is able to power down a Goyf and provide impressive hate against reanimation. Variants of The Rock will certainly target these two with removal spells simply because they're able to slow the deck down. Keep a hand that has a fair amount of land and either one of these excellent cards.
Moving up the mana curve, we see Lord of the Undead. This card was chosen simply because it can do so much for the deck. It is able to push extra damage through, it can attract hate that would normally be thrown at potentially better choices, and it is Zombie card recursion. The recursion alone will be absolutely necessary against heavy tribal opponents such as Elves and Rogues, as Nameless Inversion is a Zombie card and can be returned via the Lord.
The mana curve is heaviest at four, which is somewhat traditional for Black. Undead Warchief, Korlash, and Graveborn Muse are the later game drops that will definitely be the deciding factors on whether the Zombies win or lose. It is also equally understandable that these are the most crippling targets for a Crib Swap or Oblivion Ring. Try not to play multiple Warchiefs unless the opponent is read with no ways to deal with it. Also, try not to attack with the Warchief or Muse because they're both providing important effects that could easily decide the outcome of the game.
Removal, Removal, Removal. It's always important, and there's plenty in this build. Tendrils can be used as life gain and effective creature kill, we've talked about Nameless Inversion, and Shriekmaw is a powerful weapon against the almighty Tarmogoyf. Factor in Damnation, Profane Command, and Deathmark in the sideboard, and we have more than one way to skin a threat.
Some people may question why Damnation is in the sideboard, and I can certainly understand where they're coming from. Its addition in the sideboard doesn't make too much sense until one thinks about the creature-heavy format that Standard has become. There are also tools inserted into this build that help maintain a steady board even after playing Damnation: Phyrexian Totem, Mutavault, and Urza's Factory. All three of these tools produce mana as well, but the Totem has to hit the board before it does anything magical.
The first test I wanted to run the deck through was another rogue build of mine that has been terrorizing local Standard tournaments that I call Ruled Out. I knew that this would be an excellent matchup to test how well Zombies can do against obsessively-heavy control.
Round 1 - Heavy Control
I piloted Ruled Out while a friend piloted the Zombies. I was able to win the roll and keep a hand with Howling Mine, an O-Ring, some counters, and Rule of Law. It seemed like the ideal hand for a deck like this, and I was reading him to try for the fast onslaught. I quickly found out that I was wrong, as I was forced to discard the O-Ring. The Zombie onslaught eventually built up, and I died very, very quickly to a team of Crusader, Crusader, Lord, and Warchief.
I decided to cut some counterspells and bring in aggro hate. Teferi's Moat and Condemn seems like a fair amount of control, right? Not so much.
I was eventually able to stop the Zombies with Teferi's Moat and follow up with a Wrath of God. Unfortunately, he was able to slip a Crusader onto the board, and the Condemn would have been awesome if it were a Pithing Needle. I was quickly destroyed by a single Stromgald Crusader.
The Zombies have been able to stomp through heavy control so far. They relied on the simple equation of "getting bigger quicker equals win," and thus far it has proven to be true. Next, I decided to run them against a friend's Black/Green Elves build to see what would happen.
Round 2 - The Old Rivalry
The biggest issue that I knew I'd be facing with Elves is the fact that they're using the same strategy that I'm using, but they're much faster at it than I can be. Elves are able to get a 3/3 with deathtouch on the third turn, where I get a 2/1 with evasion and pump or a 2/2 that may be able to hose their Profane Command. We both get a Lord on the third turn, but Imperious Perfect's ability is far superior in the early game. And what about special removal? Sure, I have Deathmark that can snuff an Elf out for one black, but they have Eyesblight's Ending which can be revealed to their land or their Vanquisher, and it can kill a Zombie at instant speed.
First game, I kept a hand that had three land, a Phy Totem, a Nameless Inversion, a Stromgald Crusader, and a Korlash. I was the target of a Thoughtseize, and I say goodbye to Korlash. I eventually got to play the Crusader, but it got hated out with a Nameless Inversion. After a Wren's Run Vanquisher, two Perfects, and a random Hypnotic Specter all rushing at me, I decided that it was time to scoop up and admit defeat.
Siding against an Elves opponent who runs random Black creatures is a little tricky. I eventually decided that Damnations and Profane Commands needed to come in rather than Deathmark in this situation. I also really didn't want to overcommit if I planned to clear the board.
Out- 3 Withered Wretch, 3 Stromgald Crusader
In- 3 Damnation, 3 Profane Command
The second game looked a little better, with a hand of three land, a Phy Totem, a Damnation, a Graveborn Muse, and a Thoughtseize. I was on the go, so I dropped a land and played Thoughtseize, ripping away a Vanquisher and leaving a Llanowar, some removal, and a Perfect. He played his Llanowar and passed. I was eventually able to draw into a Undead Warchief and let my opponent have his fun with filling the board up. I played Damnation, and he had nothing to restart with.
After a Warchief drop, a Lord, then another Warchief and the Muse, it was pretty easy to overrun him and continue recurring Nameless Inversion to keep blockers out of the way. Ah, victory!
I was happy with the way the second game played out, so I didn't see a reason to do any siding. I shuffled up and prepared for the third game.
This hand wasn't as great as the last. It had four lands, no Totem, a Tendrils, Korlash, and Lord of the Undead. I was on the draw anyway, so I decided to see what happened with this hand.
He was able to throw out Llanowar first turn, Vanquisher second, and Perfect third turn. He had a very low hand size, but there was no question who controlled the board. I was able to prevent the damage done to me one turn when I Tendriled the Perfect for four, but I was still hurting at fourteen life and with no defense. I played the Korlash to keep my opponent back for now, but he got another Perfect and was able to make an Elf with it. I drew a Damnation and admitted that I had no choice but to reset the board.
Late game, I was able to get a Warchief and Profane Command to kill his nasty Hyppie and bring back Korlash. I rode my removal to victory with a Korlash and a Graveborn Muse.
It was a tough game, and my life total was at a whopping four when I won. That wouldn't be a good thing to experience when facing off against heavy burn. Nevertheless, Zombies took another round.
Hopefully, I have shown that Zombies are a viable choice in today's Standard metagame. Could it win a Pro Tour? That is stretching things just a bit. Could it win Regionals and take first at a PTQ? I think so. It has a little bit of everything needed to out-aggro most aggro decks and screw up the combo decks. The only thing I didn't get to test against that I believe would make Zombies fall over dead is something that runs Story Circle maindeck - like Turbo Fog.
I've had a great time finally writing for MTGSalvation after spending some time writing for a lesser site. I'm always open for constructive criticism and any comments that you would like to send. You can always email me at email@example.com.
Until next time, remember that guns don't kill players - the numbers do.
By digitaldebaser on February 27th, 2008 · Filed in Standard (Type 2), Variant Formats · Comments not available just now