Finding Patient Zero

Want to devour players’ brains in Cincinnati this weekend? Then check out the Standard Zombie decks that 2010 Player of the Year Brad Nelson has been working on to see which one fits your play style best.

The time has finally come! Today marks the first day that Return to Ravnica is legal for Constructed play, and we finally get to play with it in tournaments. This set has been amazing so far in the playtest sessions I’ve had with Gerry Thompson, but during them there has always been a question in the back of my mind. How in the hell should I build Zombies? The options are endless, and it seems like every combination of cards has pros and cons. Today I am going to go over everything I know about the archetype and the different lists that are playable in new Standard.

Zombies is going to be the go to aggressive deck in the coming month. It is not only the quickest deck onto the table, but it also is also very resilient to disruption. All the creatures it plays are either very difficult to kill, have multiple lives, or are high on the power curve. Decks that don’t have early ways to interact with the strategy will lose almost immediately against the onslaught of Zombies.

The Core

4 Diregraf Ghoul
4 Gravecrawler
4 Geralf’s Messenger

These 12 spells are the linchpin of every variant. Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger are both extremely powerful because they have multiple lives and can deal immense amounts of damage in the early turns.

Diregraf Ghoul doesn’t have two lives but does count as a Zombie for Gravecrawler and is a two-powered one-drop. It also helps create the almost unbeatable draw of three 2/2s in the first couple turns followed by Geralf’s Messenger.

The rest of the spells in the deck depend on what you want to be doing and what you expect the metagame to look like. There are so many cards available right now for this deck that it has become difficult to know which path to take.

B/G Zombies

Besides getting them dead quickly, the general goal of this deck is to use Rancor and Sign in Blood to keep a steady amount of pressure on your opponent. Rancor is a difficult card to cast, but the ability to turn every creature into a threat is a very big upside. Green decks go big very quickly, making Rancor a must include since this deck has very little evasion.

Lotleth Troll is the newest addition to the powerful Zombie deck. After testing this guy, there is no reason to not include him when playing a straightforward version of the deck. Regeneration is the more powerful ability on him, and discarding a Gravecrawler for effectively free is about all you will want to get out of his second ability. Discarding a guy here or there during combat will happen occasionally, but the fear of the ability by the opponent is its true benefit.

Highborn Ghoul is a card I overlooked initially in testing, but it has gotten much better after rotation. Gut Shot has rotated, making many one-toughness creatures playable again. Highborn Ghoul has a big role to play in this deck against the other aggressive decks in the field since this version does not have access to Falkenrath Aristocrat.

Dead Weight is the best removal spell to have for the mirror. Being able to kill Diregraf Ghoul or Rakdos Cackler the turn they come into play is very important when you are on the draw. It is also a great way to turn on Skirsdag High Priest in sideboarded games.

Tragic Slip has been getting worse and worse as time goes on, but it still deserves some love in this deck. Being able to kill Avacyn’s Pilgrim as well as any big guy is worth it even though it’s situational.

My favorite card in this deck is Desecration Demon. He is everything Zombies could ever want against a green deck. Sure, he will sometimes get tapped into oblivion, but that is a small price to pay for the upside he brings. Most players have the same philosophy with Zombies as they had with Mono Red decks in the past: trade often and make sure to keep a high life total. This works out well when your game plan is to slam a 6/6 flying creature onto the table. A couple favorable trades will leave the board dry for this guy to start Abyssing an opponent on turn 5. The games where this guy is bad are also the games that are already very difficult to win.

I originally had more ways to protect myself from Knight of Glory, but Highborn Ghoul and Desecration Demon pick up the slack where removal would be in their place. They also have way more applications against other decks, making them more valuable spells.

Playing one Underworld Connections is a concession because everyone loves the card. Personally, I don’t think it is that strong of a card even as a sideboard choice for Zombies. It gives up a ton of tempo to get it into play and activate it. This allows control players extra time to set up planeswalkers, craft hands, or get closer to finishers. Tempo is the advantage the Zombie deck has, and I think Sign in Blood and resilient creatures are all the card advantage the deck needs. That being said, I could easily be wrong, so I would play one just to be safe.

I think B/G Zombies is the safest choice for the first week. It is not only powerful but is very consistent in what it is trying to accomplish.

If you are the type of person who likes to exchange consistency for power, then I have just the version for you.

Jund Zombies

Being able to play Lotleth Troll and Falkenrath Aristocrat in the same deck comes with a price. The big one is the amount of pain you will have to take when playing eight shocklands. These are necessary for the strategy but can be costly in mirror matches. It also means there’s no room for Sign in Blood. The card can be played in the deck, but there are fewer one-drop creatures and zero Rancors to play the turn you cast it. This leaves the pilot solely dependent on the top of the deck for resources.

This isn’t all that bad since Falkenrath Aristocrat is one of the best creatures in the format. Green creature decks and control have a tough time dealing with this card even after the initial four points of damage. It is the perfect end of curve threat to solidify some games.

The sideboard choices for this version change when it comes to the mirror match. B/G Zombies doesn’t have to worry about its life total as much since only four lands have the potential to deal it damage and it has access to Rancor to have the speed to win on the draw. Skirsdag High Priest gets a lot better than Blood Artist when you are in this position.

Jund Zombies doesn’t have this luxury, so it has to rely on stabilizing the board before going on the offensive when it goes second. This is why Blood Artist and Vampire Nighthawk make up most of the sideboard. These cards are greatly needed to stand a chance against other Zombie decks.

The last decklist I have is for you casual guys and gals out there. It’s a ton of fun but might not be good enough for any main stage.

B/R Zombies

Gerry found a version of this deck on Magic-League, and we toyed around with it a bit. It’s actually a blast to play.

Treacherous Pit-Dweller isn’t as bad as it sounds. Much of the format’s removal revolves around keeping a guy from going to the graveyard since Geralf’s Messenger is in the format. This works out well for the traitor since he will rarely just go to the opposing squad right away.

Combat is an issue, but the deck has a ton of ways to keep him from dying in combat. Slitherhead can scavenge a counter onto him, eliminating the undying from the equation. Bloodthrone Vampire and Falkenrath Aristocrat help put him back in the yard if his undying does trigger since he will come into play and then trigger to switch to the opposing side of the board. The last resort is to just Tragic Slip him since he obviously triggered morbid for the turn.

The rest of the deck operates like a normal Zombie deck except for Mark of Mutiny and Bloodthrone Vampire. This little combo is pretty good when it works, but the cards are also fine on their own. Stealing a guy for lethal is a real thing.

If I was participating in Friday Night Magic I would be playing this deck, but instead I am heading to Cincinnati for the SCG Open Series.

Cards That Didn’t Make the Cut

The last thing I want to talk about is what didn’t make any of the decks. There are some cards I feel have the potential to see play and others I don’t like that are.

Rakdos Shred-Freak

There was a ton of hype surrounding this guy when it was originally spoiled. A two-mana haste guy seems perfect to help fill holes in the curve, but it ended up being lackluster in testing. The guy might get two damage in and does hold a Rancor like every other creature, making him decent. The only problem is he is far worse when he is bad than amazing when good. Oftentimes, an Auger of Bolas or Lingering Souls laughs maniacally while the Shred-Freak chills on “defense.”

The only place I have been reasonably happy with this card is in the mirror match, and even then there are better two-drops for the matchup.

Abrupt Decay

Yes, this kills Detention Sphere along with early creatures, but this isn’t the effect a Zombie deck wants. It will be an amazing card in Modern and Legacy but has very little hope in Standard. Removal has to be able to deal with almost any creature or do something more like kill a planeswalker. This card has trouble filling holes that Zombies has, which makes it a very weak spell to play.

Liliana of the Veil

This card was very popular last season as a decent way to deal with Geist of Saint Traft. Geist didn’t rotate, but it will see less play in the first couple of weeks before the best list with it becomes streamlined. This is the only reason I decided to cut this powerful planeswalker from my lists. Duress feels like a better anti-control spell since Zombies now has two three-drops it wants to play.

Deathrite Shaman

I am very sad about this card. Initially I thought it was going to be an all-star in Zombies, but it ended up being too slow for the deck. Rarely would I have green mana open to keep a Geralf’s Messenger from coming back while progressing my board. It was also terrible against any deck that plays Avacyn’s Pilgrim outside of Mulch decks. This means that the card just isn’t good enough even though it has a powerful effect against most control decks.

Pillar of Flame

This is one of the most powerful removal spells against Zombies, but I never liked having it in my Zombie decks. Cards that need splash mana have to be very powerful since the consistency of casting them is low. You never want a card stranded in your hand against Zombies, making it difficult to play anything outside of cards that cost black mana. People have said that you have to play high variance Magic to win these days, but I really don’t want to buy into that just yet. I still love as much consistency as I can get and think you can get the same results with different spells.


This card is only in my gimmicky list. I never really liked it in the more stock versions of Zombies because of its inability to deal serious damage. The best-case scenarios with this card were always weaker then I imagined, and the card got cut almost immediately.

Alright, that’s all I have for this week. I hope everyone has fun this weekend playing with the new cards, and I will see all of you heading to SCG Open Series: Cincinnati.

I am Golgari.

I am a big threat that is just waiting to come back from the dead. Time to scavenge up some results!