From Right Field – Do Zombies Dream?

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While I am often referred to as “Dr. Romeo“ in this column, I‘m not a doctor in the conventional sense of the word. I’m a doctor of jurisprudence. In other words, I just have the title of doctor, like Dr. Henry Kissinger with his Ph.D. from Harvard, or Dr. Dre with his degree in funkology. So, before writing this column I had little knowledge of the physiology and neurology of Zombies. I had to find out if Zombies dreamed…

{From Right Field is a column for Magic players on a budget or players who don’t want to play netdecks. The decks are designed to let the budget-conscious player be competitive in local, Saturday tournaments. They are not decks that will qualify a player for The Pro Tour. As such, the decks written about in this column are, almost by necessity, rogue decks. The author tries to limit the number of non-land rares as a way to limit the cost of the decks. When they do contain rares, those cards will either be cheap rares or staples of which new players should be trying to collect a set of four, such as Sulfurous Springs, Birds of Paradise, or Wrath of God. The decks are also tested by the author, who isn’t very good at playing Magic. He will never claim that a deck has an 85% winning percentage against the entire field. He will also let you know when the decks are just plain lousy. Readers should never consider these decks “set in stone” or “done.” If you think you can change some cards to make them better, well, you probably can, and the author encourages you to do so.}

While I am often referred to as “Dr. Romeo“ in this column, I‘m not a doctor in the conventional sense of the word. I am not a medical doctor. I am not licensed to look at your naked body, touch it, and make any sort of diagnosis. Although, before I was married, I did “examine” many naked women. My “diagnosis” was usually the same each time: Patient suffering from lack of lovin’. No, I’m a doctor of jurisprudence. In other words, I just have the title of doctor, like Dr. Henry Kissinger with his Ph.D. from Harvard, or Dr. Dre with his degree in funkology. So, before writing this column I had little knowledge of the physiology and neurology of Zombies. I had to find out if Zombies dreamed. I also wanted to know if they could think.

Given that I only had one week to write this column, my research consisted of purchasing one of those ten-pack Zombie movie DVD sets that cost only ten dollars at the local discount retailer, reading some comic books with Zombies in them, and talking to my brother who is a big fan of all things Zombie, especially Bruce Campbell and the Evil Dead movies. By the way, if you haven’t been watching Mr. Campbell in USA’s Burn Notice, you’ve been missing a great piece of escapist television this Summer.

The consensus seemed to be this. Your “normal” Zombie can’t think, but it can dream. Here’s how we came to this conclusion. Zombies are the soulless, animated bodies of dead folks. They typically behave like any other non-human animal. If they’re hungry – and they always seem to be hungry – they go find food. (Unlike real wild animals, though, who usually steer clear of humans except in the most exceptional cases, Zombies actually seek out humans because their preferred food appears to be people brains.) Now, my brother and I both have cats. Nine between our two families. So, we know that non-human animals dream. We often see those cute li’l furballs’ legs and noses twitching a mile a minute while they‘re asleep. They gotta be dreaming of catching some fat, juicy mouse. They don’t think, though, at least not like humans do.

I know you want me to get on with the Magic portion of this here column here, and I’m getting to it. You see, Wizards reprinted Graveborn Muse in Tenth Edition. She/it is a Zombie Spirit. I know that they used the word “muse” in this context as a noun. That is, she/it’s one who is an inspiration, especially as it relates to creativity. Muse, though, is also a verb that means to ponder, usually deeply and often with an eye toward artistic or creative expression. Graveborn Muse is what got me wondering if Zombies could think. From my research, I decided that, while a Zombie can’t muse, it can clearly be a muse.

Not that it takes much to get me pondering, musing, and/or contemplating a Zombie deck. Ever since I figured out the whole tribal thing – before Wizards was actually calling it that and pushing it as a design element – I was inspired by the idea of Zombies. Of course, until Wizards pushed the tribal theme in Onslaught, Zombies didn’t do much as a group. Zombie Master gave them Swampwalk and allowed them to regenerate. *yawn* Gravedigger came along and allowed one Zombie to dig up other creatures. There were other somewhat interesting Zombies here and there, but there was no synergy like the kind that Elves had. From a flavor perspective, Gravebane Zombie is still my favorite. Just like a real Zombie, you might bury it, but it’s gonna be out of that graveyard and back hunting down brains in a short while.

Thank goodness, then, for Legions.

Yes, I did, in fact, say “thanks goodness… for Legions.” Legions gave us Graveborn Muse and Withered Wretch, among other fantastic Zombies. Those are just the two that were reprinted and are still legal in Standard. What fantastic Zombies they are, too.

Before I go any further, I want to remind you how deeply I am committed to Zombies in the current environment. Last Fall, I took a mono-Black Zombies deck to States. I didn’t do very well, thanks mostly to that mono-Black part. I needed to be able to kill Enchantments. This time around, I’ll make sure that I can. Yes, we’ll be splashing White for Mortify in the maindeck as well as Disenchant out of the sideboard. With that in mind – in your soft, squishy, tasty mind – here’s the final version of my new Zombies deck:

Whither Sudden Death? Wither Tendrils of Corruption?

Every time I played this or mentioned it to someone, I was asked “Are you running Sudden Death?” When I said “no,” I was assaulted by “Why not?!?” If you’re a faithful reader, you know how much I pimp Sudden Death. Three mana to kill anything of toughness four or less (as long as it doesn’t have Protection from Black or Instants) with nothing they can do about it (Willbender tricks aside) and with Instant timing is just super-awesomely fantabulous. I’m so grateful that Sudden Death is an uncommon because, if it was a rare, it would be too expensive for us budget players to afford.

Having said that, this deck was stuffed full at the three-mana slot. Lord of the Undead. Phyrexian Vault. Mortify. Nantuko Husk. The deck needed something else at two mana other than Withered Wretch. I tried Last Gasp. It fell a bit short. Of course, it could kill smaller Black creatures, something Terror can’t do, but that wasn‘t good enough with some of the big non-Black creatures running around. In other words, as much as I wanted Sudden Death to be in the deck, my testing of it in this particular deck said “find something else.”

Tendrils of Corruption was about the same. I could have run an Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, but, when I did, the deck didn’t play as aggressively as I wanted it to. I sat around with four mana up waiting to be able to cast this four-mana Instant. Worse, if I didn’t get Urborg, Tendrils was casting for two or three damage. Sudden Death would have been better.

“What about the fact that it offsets the life loss from the Muse?” Life loss was only a problem against the PTQ-worthy mono-Red and Red/Green decks. That’s no different than running Dark Confidant. You side it out in games 2 and 3. Besides, unlike Phyrexian Arena, a permanent of which you might have trouble ridding yourself, you could lose the Muse to the Nantuko Husk, Phyrexian Vault, combat, or, even in a pinch, your own Mortify. Honestly, the life loss was not a big deal, especially in exchange for all of the gas she/it drew in exchange.

One small digression before I continue. The manabase is pretty expensive. In fact, the Godless Shrines are more expensive than the rest of the non-land cards combined. Given that the Shrines are only Standard legal for about seven more weeks, if you don’t already have them and you aren’t expecting to play Extended or Legacy, you probably won’t be buying them. So, here is an alternate manabase:

4 Caves of Koilos
2 Orzhov Basilica
3 Desert
1 Plains
9 Swamp
4 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Urza’s Factory

While this isn’t as stable as the more expensive manabase, it served me quite well in testing. It’s a tad slower because of the Basilicas, but it will most assuredly get the job done.

Building Your Very Own Zombie Deck

When I started this deck, I knew that I’d have to have a few cards posolutely and absitively. I had to have four Festering Goblin, Withered Wretch, Lord of the Undead, Mortify, Undead Warchief, Graveborn Muse, and Twisted Abomination.

Hmm . . . that doesn’t leave much room. In fact, presuming twenty-four lands (always a good place to start), you’ve only got two slots of four cards left.

Only two slots. That’s just not a lot. Amazing how much you can do with so little. The Nantuko Husk / Phyrexian Vault slot started out as four Husks. Usually, I’m impressed with Nantuko Husk. Of course, usually, the deck is designed to take advantage of his ability. It might be used with Grave Pact, or lots of tokens, or both. In this deck, though, four copies weren’t needed. If I was going to sacrifice creatures, I wanted to get something more than a temporary bump to a Grey Ogre. And, you already know about what happened with the Terror slot.

The Sideboard

As you’d expect from a sideboard, it was designed to take care of those hazardous situations that the maindeck can’t deal with. For example, Disenchant comes in when four Mortifies aren’t enough or when Artifacts “need killin’.” Festering March is for use against those token swarms and any other weenies, especially ones that can’t be targeted. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Silhana Ledgewalker. Temporal Isolation is for those big beasties that tend to get in the way and/or deal damage when they come into play (a.k.a. Bogardan Hellkite). Finally, Condemn comes in for creatures that can’t be hit by Terror, or can regenerate like Korlash, Heir to Blackblade.

Running the Deck

Gargadon.dec: I have yet to face a version of a Gargadon deck that Zombie Musings can’t handle. I know that doesn’t sound right, but it’s true. It’s even easier when they don’t run Empty the Warrens. Against those versions, you typically win in two games. When they have EtW, you need to bring in Festering March. Fortunately, you can handle the Gargadons one-on-one with the Terrors. So, I was boarding out the Mortifies for the Marches. When I didn’t have Terror, I could chump block the ‘Don. Lord of the Undead is some sweet recursion, that’s for sure. Takes a lot of the sting out of chump blocking.

Pickles and Pickled Pigs’ Feet (a.k.a. Pickles variants) : Against this deck, the bottom line is that you must kill every face-down creature you see. Sometimes, that means killing your own Festering Goblins. I won at least one match because I swung with a Festy (which, obviously, went unblocked), killed it with my own Desert, cast a second Festy, and sacrificed it to Phyrexian Vault. Hey, you do what you gotta do. For the second and third (if you get there) games of this match-up, I was dropping three Undead Warchiefs for Condemn. In this match-up, it isn’t size that matters. You have to be able to do you job. That requires untapped mana. Kill. All. Morphs.

Mystical Teachings (a.k.a. Teferi) decks: Do you know why Tendrils of Corruption is such a good spell? Because it not only kills a creature (usually one that you don’t want dead), it also gains enough life to buy the Tendrils caster some serious time. You might spend the first eight turns whittling his life down from twenty to twelve, and then he goes and gains all eight of that back. That is exactly like losing eight turns. Not good. Your best friend in this matchup is actually Phyrexian Vault. It “fizzles” Tendrils. It draws you a card from a guy who is dying to Damnation anyway. And they don’t usually have a way to deal with it once it’s hit. Getting it to hit is your toughest chore. The second most important spell in your deck is Withered Wretch. Don’t drop that guy too early, though. You’ll be tempted to do it on turn 2, and that’s understandable. The problem is that they just won’t put anything into the ‘yard that they need until they can kill the Wretch. Then, you only have three left. Sure, you might be able to use LotU to bring one back, but don’t risk it.

Sideboarding isn’t as tough as it is apparently useless. Don’t fall into that trap like I did. Disenchant does some awesome tricks in here. It hits their mana acceleration like Coalition Relic and Prismatic Lens. It also hits Triskelavus and Take Possession in the versions that use those. I found myself taking out, believe it or not, Undead Warchiefs. Was that right? You know me. I’m Sideboardingly Challenged. There really wasn’t anything else that I could truly afford to lose. You can tell me why I was wrong, though. I need to know.

Tarmogoyf and other Green-based Decks: I call Tarmogoyf a Dauber creature. Big and dumb because all he does is big. It’s an impressive big, of course. Two mana for a 4/5 or 5/6 creature? It screams “Deal with me!” This deck runs four Terror and four Mortify in the maindeck. So, to “deal with me” is no big deal. Fiery Justice can be a problem when run in conjunction with Kavu Predator. Again, you have both Phyrexian Arena and Nantuko Husk to prevent all of that lifegain. Moreover, your eight “kill ‘em dead” spells deal with the beef.

Then again, these decks have a lot of beef. Condemn and Temporal Isolation can come in from the sideboard. What comes out? Well, I hate to say it, since she/it was the inspiration for the deck, but Graveborn Muse was often hitting the showers early for me. The life loss was just too much, especially when the bad guy was running direct damage spells too. I also found myself leaving out a single Terramorphic Expanse and a single Festy to get in a couple of Condemns. After a couple of bad sideboarding sessions, I realized that Undead Warchief was needed to battle the beef just as Twisted Abomination was also needed. Dropping down to twenty-three lands didn’t hurt the deck’s performance in these match-ups, but I wouldn’t recommend it against any others. Besides, I only did it because I could drop an Expanse, a card that thinned the deck of lands anyway. If you’re not comfortable doing that, drop two Festys or even one Festering Goblin and one Withered Wretch. Be careful, though, of dropping too many of the early threats. They look small, but they get quite big when your third-turn play is LotU and your turn 4 creature is Undead Warchief.

The Rest of the Field: I didn’t get in much playing against any other decks, but the ways to play against some of those seem fairly obvious. Against decks beating you with The Rack, you bring in Disenchant, as well as making sure that you draw as many cards with the Muse as you can. Against Momentary Blink decks, Withered Wretch is your very bestest friend ever. Ditto with Angelfire Control. Korlash needs to meet Temporal Isolation and/or Condemn, although Temporal Isolation is preferred.

As far as Magic goes, that’s all that I have this week. So, that brings me to what has become a sadly de facto epilogue for the past few weeks:

Romeo’s Dizzy Head Update

The uber-specialist that I saw last week thinks that my problem is from a rare condition in which the fluid of the inner ear builds up. Now, before you suggest anything, this is not the middle ear. This isn’t the place where, when you were a kid or when you child was little, the doc could put in drainage tubes. This is the inner ear. The cochlea. The snail-shell-looking thing. The only way to fix it, he says, is a long, slow process of diuretics. And he did mean slow. He said it would be between four and six weeks before I’d see appreciable results. In other words, before I could drive, walk without wobbling, and read without getting nauseated. Sounds harmless enough. Except for the fact that the increasing size of the cochlea could have had some lasting results. He hopes that we’ve caught it in time, but this condition means that the cochlea was pressing on the brain in ways that it shouldn’t and messing up the nerve that goes from the ear to the brain. (This is why the neurologist would have been led to think there might have been a mini- or micro-stroke. Even that small amount of extra pressure could have mimicked those.) Thus, if we caught it in time, no problem. Everything will go back to normal in four to six weeks. If it wasn’t caught in time, I could potentially be a human Weeble for the rest of my life.

Of course, this all depends on the diagnosis being correct. If it’s not, well, honestly, I don’t even want to think about that.

As usual, you’ve been a great audience. Now, get out there, and start your own Zombie Army!

Chris Romeo