Black is a color with a huge depth of playable, powerful cards. At the start of this Standard season, players eagerly discussed the supposedly powerful mono-Black Control decks they were building. Oddly enough, mono-Black Control never did particularly well, but that isn’t to be taken to mean that Black itself is a bad color.
You just may want to look for other allies while looking to dominate the world with your Black cards. Allies like … the walking dead! Bwa… oh never mind, onto the article itself. Screw flavor, it’s for dorks.
Zombies is basically within the same family of decks as mono-Black Control; they are related and share cards freely. Pure Aggro Zombies exists on one end of the spectrum, and then pure mono-Black control exists on the other. Generally you slide closer to MBC by removing Zombies and putting in more anti-aggro spells, like Barter in Blood or Infest. Between the two decks exists a happy medium, where spells like Persecute and Phyrexian Arena roam freely. The goal of this article is to discuss the cards and the play style of the midrange decks.
Welcome to Zombo.com
The primary goal of a Zombies deck is to use its strengths to overwhelm the opponent’s deck – in this case, Zombo.com and most related Zombie decks utilize the main advantage that Black offers: repeated instances of card advantage. Not only is the deck excellent at this, it offers multiple situations where the deck is capable of either re-using resources, drawing cards, or denying the opponent cards. No other aggro deck in the format is capable of this feat.
The weakness of the deck lies in its creatures – pound for pound, they are not very good at simply being”creatures.” They are expensive, low power, and lack evasion. However the trickery of the deck often allows you to break from straight combat and overpower your opponent with means that lay outside of the Combat phase.
Overcoming that weakness unfortunately, as card advantage engines often do, requires time. Time is not always on this deck’s side, with some opposing decks capable of using extremely expedient means to crush you. Luckily, those decks aren’t too common in the current environment – which lets Zombo.com be a pretty fair means to an end: winning.
The Contents of Zombo.com
Breaking down the possible components of the Zombie deck goes like this: You have creatures, you have removal, you have card advantage tools, and then you have lands. Unlike most decks in the format, the Zombie deck actually has some pretty interesting lands available, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
As the Zombie deck’s premier one drop, Carrion Feeder doesn’t have a lot to live up to. There really isn’t much competition for his slot. I mean what else are you going to play? Maggot Carrier? Disciple of the Vault? While these may be fine men in other decks, for the most part, Carrion Feeder belongs simply because he’s the clear best one-drop in the deck. He also provides assistance in making the Graveborn Muse a wee bit less painful and is important when trying to get the most out of Grave Pact.
The Goblin is a strange one. As stated above, Festering Goblin assists in the deck’s quest to overwhelm the opponent’s resources, often acting as a two for one or at least an extremely efficient removal spell. Unfortunately, the format doesn’t much favor him, with most of the White-based control decks shrugging him off and Affinity just about ignoring the poor fellow. Against Kibler-Red, Goblins or other Zombie decks though, he’s quite the lad.
Much like Carrion Feeder, Withered Wretch is pretty much”the best” for his slot. When paired with Rotlung Reanimator he offers opportunity for creature advantage. His anti-graveyard ability is generally useful against most of the decks in the format – even Affinity occasionally draws on the graveyard when it activates Second Sunrise, although you probably won’t see that too often in the Zombies vs. Affinity match as most people hide their Sunrises in the sideboard.
When this card was previewed on MagictheGathering.com I was quite let down. Paying a total of eight man for access to Dark Banishing? Wow did that ever sound like a bag of suck! Damn you for making Zombies that su…
And then I realized this card was playable.
Initially I tested it as no more than a simple two-power, two-drop. Maintaining the concept of a”bear” is very useful in modern Magic, and Skinthinner suited that nicely. However, the deck’s concepts often lend themselves to being very hungry for access to Zombies in numerical supply. This leads to pushing out cards that would otherwise performs duties you need as well; removal sometimes being one of them. The morphing ability is nothing special, and is not used often. But when it is used, it is extremely effective, as it is a pure banishing effect, which allows the removal of troublesome artifact creatures. Maindecking Dark Banishing isn’t anything great, but maindeck Skinthinners often double well as removal and a two power Zombie.
More a sideboard card than anything, Headhunter is a highly useful tool in control match-ups. With the aid of Chrome Mox, a turn 1 Headhunter is nothing special damage-wise, but it’s effect on your opponent’s hand is comparable to the power of a turn 1 Slith. While the Hunter isn’t a Zombie, it is a Cleric, which further aids the deck in control match-ups when its remains are rejuvenated into Zombie form by Rotlung Reanimator. I really don’t know why people persist on putting Cabal Interrogator into their decks when that uses up so much mana to be a simple one-card discard effect. Are you playing Aggro or pure control?
One of the deck’s best cards in almost every match up, Rotlung Reanimator is nothing less than a complete no-brainer. His effect is useful at almost every opportunity – He is an engine with other clerics for anti-mass removal, powerful with Grave Pact and potent as a target of Unholy Grotto or Oversold Cemetery. An automatic four-of.
Something of a reversal of the deck’s normal means, Putrid Raptor is useful in match-ups against opponents who use Red, or in activating an Oversold Cemetery a turn earlier by discarding a less useful Zombie in the hopes of returning something a bit more important in the match up. With Undead Warchief, he’s actually a slightly appealing 6/5 for five mana, to boot. Keep in mind you need a fair number of Zombies to make him fully useful, and he has bad synergy with Chrome Mox.
I suppose I should mention this card, although personally, I see it as a poor match for this deck. While it’s useful with Grave Pact, it offers very little by itself – a 2/2 for three mana with an ability more suited to Limited matches is not going to make my deck. It’s true that the card combines nicely with Grave Pact, clearing the way for an attack while pumping up for a killing blow, but let’s be honest – The two top decks are Affinity (which runs spellbombs), and White-based control (which runs everything from Wing Shards to Wrath), thusly ruining this humble plan.
Though a solid control card that grants virtual advantage, Undead Gladiator is slightly out of place in an aggro deck. A slow card when it comes to use its recursive abilities to your advantage, Gladiator is a little off for this sort of deck.
As powerful Zombies go, the Muse takes the cake. While Rotlung Reanimator gains advantage via partially negating the effects of removal and other Zombies can be used to remove your opponent’s various sorts of resources, Graveborn Muse is simply massive card drawing-on-a-stick. In almost every match up except Kibler-Red (or Sligh, as you may know it), the Graveborn Muse is what you want to drop early and reap the rewards of. The 3/3 body helps as well.
In stark competition with many of the deck’s concepts, Warchief is card advantage of a whole different sort. As a 3/2 for four mana, the Warchief is an awful card – but its other ability can allow the deck to hit as hard as other Aggro deck’s creature, or throw your opponent’s math on its head. With a single additional Zombie, the Warchief is effectively a hitting power of five. That’s a lot of hurt in not a lot of time.
Though not actually a Zombie, the Terror-equipped Nekrataal remains a standard choice for many Zombie decks. And why not? Like Skinthinner and Festering Goblin, the advantage Nekrataal produces is a body and an effect, all of which lines up with the theory that constructs a solid Zombie deck. The first-striking body is especially good should you be running equipment as well.
Smother’s current situation is a mockery of its once proud status. While the card remains good, many of the cards it wants to remove aren’t around anymore. It’s excellent against Red decks, but weak against just about everything else. That doesn’t quite scream”worthy of maindeck” to me, does it do the same for you?
An odd reprint that seems a bit outclassed by the other removal that is available. Relatively solid and better than Smother, the problem with both is the number of times they sit in your hand and don’t effect the game. Makes the cut though, if your local format includes a lot of Angel-toting White control decks and speedy Red decks.
Rarely dead, yet rarely all that impressive. At three mana it gets away from being an effective deterrent to cards like Slith Firewalker and Goblin Piledriver, while still not being too great at killing Affinity’s larger bruisers. I don’t think this is maindeck worthy, but if there was mostly Affinity where I was playing, I would end up playing it as such.
I’ve gotten a fair amount of flak for running this card from people who haven’t tried playing with it. It’s powerful, and effectively allows you to use your access to superior card advantage as a bludgeon to defeat other creature decks. If Pact is on the table, it’s very hard for an opponent to mount anything even close to an effective ground assault against a Zombie deck (unless you’re mana-flooded at which point Pact isn’t going to do anything more than drawing Terror would have anyway).
Your creatures will naturally die in the course of a game, Pact let’s you take advantage of that process to defang opposing creature strategies. Since just about every deck in the format relies on creatures, it’s hard to not want access to Pact. In my head, anyway.
One of Black’s weaknesses has always been in dealing with opposing artifacts and enchantments; though you do have access to some discard these days, you have nothing quite as strong as Duress. Oblivion Stone, bad card that it is, is a necessary evil that you will usually want to run a few of in your sideboard just in case Slide or other nasty decks show up.
A card tested in earlier versions of the deck that proved a bit weaker than we had hoped. While it’s not”bad,” it does tend to be a little bit slow for the format. It’s best against Red decks, which have a nasty habit of having access to Sulfuric Vortex, a card that turns Consume Spirit into a bad Blaze.
Card Advantage tools
Though this one could be considered a form of disruption, so can many of the deck’s other ways of dealing with your opponent’s permanents. The primary idea here is to gradually assert your dominance over the opponent via trading your one card for their two, one-for-three and so forth. Of course, the fact Persecute is one of the best ways to cut the legs off an opposing deck is one of the best reasons for running this card. Every Zombie deck should run at least three of this card.
One of the simplest card advantage engines in magic, Arena is, well, simple. It trades the temporal speed of other card drawing spells like Promise of Power or Ambition’s Cost for access to long-term power and cheapness of initial investment. This can make the card, in theory, a lot worse than it looks on paper. Card advantage as a medium for winning is a slow, treacherous path to victory – it’s traditionally a method control deck’s utilize due to tempo-slamming spells like Wrath of God or Pernicious Deed. Using those reversals, the deck is able to grind its way to victory by denying the opponent access to their win conditions while building inertia for its own. However, while Phyrexian Arena gives you access to that slow path to victory, it is slow in doing so.
Arena is excellent in most match-ups, except against extremely fast Red decks. It can be a bit of a hassle to run the deck without access to life-gain when two of your cards promise to drain off a large amount of life.
Like Phyrexian Arena, Oversold Cemetery trades the issue of short-term power for long-term performance. Unlike the Arena, Cemetery rarely comes online in the initial turns of its casting. Instead, it tends to become active around turn 5 or 6. However, since Zombies is generally a deck that wants to actually cast threats early on, this isn’t bad against Control decks. Against Aggro decks, neither card is that great early on anyway.
Cemetery should be looked at less like Arena and more like a recursive tutoring effect. Granted, you’re only getting what’s in your graveyard already, but by the time you’ve got four or more men in the yard you get to pick from what you’d like regardless. In the mirror, of course, Arena is functionally a ton better. If Zombies picks up in your area, be sure to switch to Arena. (I’ll talk about the swap a bit more later.)
Promise of Power
It’s worth noting this card due to it’s powerhouse effects when coupled with the Mirrodin equipment Empyrial Plate – A quick shot of five cards makes for a ton of damage is the plated creature is allowed to simply slip hard into your opponent. A friend of mine swears on using Promise of Power in Zombies, but right now I don’t feel comfortable with that heavy a life commitment when I’m already running four Graveborn Muse. Feel free to try it out for yourself though. There’s no doubt that the potency of entwined Promise of power is there, though.
Nothing says card advantage like returning all your once living-dead Zombies back into the fray. In a tribal deck like Zombies, Bidding has been noted for its power since the days of Onslaught block, which actually isn’t too far back.
It’s a very solid card when facing down slower non-tribal Aggro decks and any sort of control deck, especially since a returned Rotlung Reanimator makes Wrath effects particularly ineffective. Personally, I refrain from maindecking this card as it can be quite troublesome against Affinity or Goblins, but it is definitely one of the SB’s heavy hitters.
Not actually a land, but worth noting simply because it allows you rip off quick Persecutes and is helpful when racing against Karma. It’s more than possible for this deck to have enough mana to operate functionally with only two Swamps on the table because of Chrome Mox. Chrome Mox is more and more useful the earlier you need to drop Persecute and Rotlung Reanimator, which simply means you should add this to your deck if you’re worried about fast red decks or Karma. I’m running it in mine and while I would admit this card is rather overrated, it works fine in the deck.
Assuming you decide to refrain on running Oversold Cemetery instead of Phyrexian Arena, Unholy Grotto is your recursion card. It imitates the effects of Oversold Cemetery in exchange for two mana and a card per turn. With Phyrexian Arena on the board, this card become almost identical to Oversold Cemetery.
A card that actually gets a lot of laughs from people I play against with the deck. Yes, I do play this one over Unholy Grotto. Adding a sacrifice effect as well as access to direct life-loss, Starlit Sanctum fills in a number of roles quite nicely. If you’re not using Grotto, you should be using this little ticket. Or you can be like Ted Knutson and struggle to keep from laughing in my face. [Hey, I understand the use of the Sanctum in a deck like Life, but in Zombies… I remain a bit skeptical. – Knut]
Since the deck is mono-colored, it is generally not too bad a plan to run one or two Stalking Stones in the maindeck. An extra creature is never a bad thing, especially when that creature counts as one of your land slots. Just keep in mind it doesn’t add to your Oversold Cemetery count when considering the deck’s options.
Nothing special to note here, this allows you access to Blue mana without really using up black mana slots. The choice of where to put the Island (main deck or sideboard) is up to you. The three Blue cards you may want access to are Mana Leak, Mind Bend, and March of the Machines.
March of the Machines
Nothing more than a huge assist when fighting Affinity. It makes Broodstar a lot weaker and slows down their mana development. It isn’t an automatic win, and if you have the Island in the board, be sure to board out a Chrome Mox in exchange for it.
It’s a personal choice to run this card – I’ve often had it in the sideboard, where it can really foul up my opponent – but if you prefer to push more towards the U/G madness style of Aggro-Control, fit four of these into your deck.
It stops Karma from killing you and makes it kill your opponent. That’s a good thing. Karma isn’t as big of a deal for this deck as MBC, as you don’t have to dump all your Swamps on the table and have other sources of mana as well. (That may not be true of modernized versions of MBC, though)
Bonesplitter and Empyrial Plate
I originally noted that this deck’s route to victory is primarily through card advantage while beating the opponent down. Equipment helps more with the beatdown approach, making your creatures more effective in combat. Plate can be especially absurd when the deck gets to use Graveborn Muse to its full extent, making for some very large, unfriendly Zombies. It’s a personal choice to run these, though – I’ve been testing them and results have been decent with them, but ultimately none too special.
This is a fun trick with Grave Pact. I’m putting it here because I’m not seriously going to use it, but hey, it’s kind of fun against White control decks that aren’t running Lightning Rift.
You Can Do Anything At Zombo.Com
One of the prime points I’ve been trying to hammer home is that Zombies is an extremely modular deck, a veritable toolbox, as it may be. Different tools are good in different match ups, some dramatically more so than others. Smother is golden in the Sligh/Goblin match up while being completely dead in the Affinity match-up. Choices have to be made based on your local environment and which match-ups you feel you’re going to face. My current version of the deck for my local environment looks like this:
4 Carrion Feeder
2 Festering Goblin
4 Withered Wretch
4 Rotlung Reanimator
4 Graveborn Muse
2 Undead Warchief
2 Putrid Raptor
3 Grave Pact
3 Oversold Cemetery
2 Starlit Sanctum
2 Stalking Stones
4 Chrome Mox
4 Polluted Delta
*= If people in your area aren’t running Karma in their boards, you can swamp this out for two Oblivion Stone and a Terror. The Stones will still give you game against Karma while offering Rift / Astral Slide removal as well.
The current star of the control decks, U/W control is a relatively complex match up for you to play out. Most of your cards are allowed to operate at a pretty decent level, with your means of card advantage being squared sorely against their means – and you generally come out on top if you draw reasonably well. Graveborn Muse, Rotlung Reanimator, and Oversold Cemetery are all big problems for them. You do have to worry a little about an early Exalted Angel, but with Skinthinner, Nekrataal, and Grave Pact all taking her down, you shouldn’t be in too much trouble.
If you expect to see a lot of U/W control you may prefer to swap the Grottos instead of the Sanctums. Here, the Sanctums offer you direct damage, which can be very useful when trying to finish a U/W player off – but Grotto allows Graveborn recursion, which is quite hard for U/W to act against. U/W’s trump card is Decree of Justice, so if you’re really worried, you may want to add Decree of Pain or Wail of the Nim to the sideboard.
Sideboarding goes something like this:
Bidding and Headhunter are both very hard for U/W to deal with. If you can Mox out a turn 1 Headhunter, the opposing player is in a lot of trouble, especially if you follow it up with a turn 2 Rotlung Reanimator. Patriarch’s Bidding is obviously a late game card, but of course it’s extremely troublesome for U/W to deal with when you’re bringing Rotlungs back en masse.
All in all U/W control is generally a fair fight for Zombies. I would say the match up is somewhat in your favor, but still very draw dependent.
There are two primary versions of Affinity running around – The counter-rich, low threat version, and the slightly older”Aggro” version. Both of them play generally the same against Zombies, pardoning the fact you get less time against the Aggro version and your Festering Goblins don’t suck quite as much.
Grave Pact can be a real star here if it resolves, but it usually doesn’t. The match up is mostly about Broodstar and your ability to remove Broodstar – which you’re quite good at, trust me. Between Nekrataal, Grave Pact and Skinthinner, plus the ability to Persecute the Blue right out of his hand, you’re usually all right. Oversold Cemetery recursion should mostly be used to set up an active card advantage – don’t pull back your Nekrataals and wait, try to get ahead of your opponent. Do keep in mind the Aggro versions run stuff like Tendrils of Agony, Shrapnel Blast and occasionally Torrent of Fire – so don’t drop your life down too low.
If you have Oblivion Stones in your board, this is a nice place to bring them in.
Keep in mind that Affinity tends to run Persecute in the sideboard, as well as Naturalize. Post boarding this match up gets a lot riskier as, you have to consider your options based on the thought that they’ll turn four Persecute you as well – they won’t always, but they often do. Naturalize has a wealth of targets, all of which they’ll want to remove.
Bidding can be brought in if you’d like – it’s ok against the Aggro versions, but it’s unlikely to resolve against the control decks unless they’re prepared to get a Broodstar. Keep in mind they can dump a Broodstar at instant speed through Thirst for Knowledge. Of course, also keep in mind there’s nothing stopping you from bidding for creature type Nekrataal is and zapping that Broodstar. If they picked Beasts, you get back Putrid Raptor too anyway!
Often the premier Aggro deck of any format, Goblins and it’s brother deck, Goblin Bidding, are based around simple Red men simply smashing face. Zombies, lacking much of the combat skill of Goblins or the quick footedness, does have the advantage of better utilizing card advantage over the long game that a good ground stall can generate.
You path to victory is, much like I’ll discuss when talking about Sligh, mostly to do with Persecute. As long as you can successfully remove Siege gang Commander from your opponent’s hand and move your opponent into top deck mode, you’re fairly likely to take the game. It’s important to note that while Graveborn Muse is a risky card to use in this match up, most Goblin decks lack the straight up amount of burn that makes Graveborn Muse bad.
Skinthinner’s morph ability isn’t bad, but you’d rather have a quick terror than a slow banishing. Warchief, which is based around getting a superior number of creature on the table and kicking ass, doesn’t work too well here since his toughness is so low.
Generally, if you can stall out the game and your opponent doesn’t draw two or more Siege-Gang Commanders, you should be able to win this match up. Bidding decks can combo you out, obviously, but you run maindeck Withered Wretches, thus their Bidding often doesn’t do a hell of a lot besides sitting dead in their hand.
Versions called”Kibler-Red” have been floating around ever since old man Kibler wrote about the deck. It doesn’t have any major mainstream appeal, which is good, since it’s one of this deck’s worst match ups. Zombies has a lot of trouble with quick creatures and burn – which is mostly why Festering Goblin and Putrid Raptor have made it into the deck.
Your game-plan in this match up is to effectively stave off their threats on the ground, Persecute their burn out, and then get a superior number of creatures on the table so as to beat their face in. This plan doesn’t work extremely well – many of your cards work against you while facing Sligh.
The game plan remains much the same against R/G aggro decks as well, of course.
It’s harsh taking out your best creature, but Graveborn doesn’t work well here so you don’t want to draw more than one. If there’s a lot of Sligh-ish decks where you play, you should add an extra Persecute to your sideboard, as well as an additional Smother or Terrors. Consume Spirit or Vicious Hunger are also good options, but this isn’t a deck I would play if I expected to see that much Red.
This is a general run of some of the decks in the format. It should give you a general idea of how the deck’s sideboarding plans work. The deck I presented was set up for my local format, which includes a lot of Affinity and a lot of U/W control with a touch of Red. Modifying the deck based on what you expect to see can greatly increase your chances of winning with it. Remember, it’s a toolbox of great Black cards that you have at your disposal, and there is no”best” version of Zombies, since you can adjust it a monstrous amount by switching a few cards here and there.
What is Zombo.com?
You’ll notice I used the term ‘Zombo.com’ over and over again. Punch it into your browser, it’s an actual website! And yeah, it’s worksafe although it does include sound. The name”Zombo.com” comes from the term”Gobbo” used for Goblin decks. From Zombies to Zombo to Zombo.com. Turns out Zombo.com is a real website, though. Remember, you can do anything at Zombo.com, anything at all.