More Brains, More Drains, And Mill

After SCG Atlanta, Matt Higgs still has Zombies on the brain for Standard! He takes inspiration from top Open finishers and community comments to present updated versions of both mono-black and W/B brews!

We’ve had a wild week here at StarCityGames.com. Between a surprise Felidar Guardian ban and big and unsurprising results at #SCGATL, there’s a lot to discuss, and a lot has already been said about this new format.

Well, sort of new.

For those of you who watched or attended #SCGATL, you saw the same thing I did: more Mardu Vehicles. The deck that could stand against the Felidar Guardian combo decks and win a reasonable amount of the time ported directly into Amonkhet Standard with very little modification and, I’d argue, very little competition.

Andrew Jessup’s expertly piloted list had exactly three new cards from Amonkhet, and two of them were the cycling dual Canyon Slough. This doesn’t bode well for the new format, right? There were five Mardu Vehicles decks in the Top 8, and within all five decklists, I counted eleven copies of cards from Amonkhet, only six of which were nonlands. Getting scared?

I’m not.

For those of you who came back this week for a look at Zombies, don’t worry. We’ll get there. But I want to do my best to quell the fear amongst brewers and those shareholders in the validity of Standard as an environment going forward.

There’s no question that this duo dominated Standard. The deck could, at once, go from zero pressure to unlimited pressure. One turn and seven mana was all you needed, six if you cast Felidar Guardian first (blinking any permanent should have been a red flag). With so little time to prepare for #SCGATL, we as a Standard community had to audible.

People who’d been building against the behemoth no longer had to, and the best ways to defeat it that we received in Amonkhet were shelved. Even I sideboarded out all my copies of Trespasser’s Curse in last week’s Zombie deck.

Cedric Phillips put it perfectly in his commentary at #SCGATL; this was a “Constructed Prerelease.” Really, this kind of event is unprecedented. Most players saw the ban hit late Wednesday night or, like me, read it in their inbox on Thursday morning. If you needed to preorder cards to be delivered for #SCGATL, it was too late (that cut-off is usually the Wednesday before the event), meaning people had basically two days to prepare for a format that they had no way of reliably predicting.

In that tempestuous ocean of the post-ban world, Mardu Vehicles was an anchor, safe, secure, and sturdy.

Those of you who’ve been playing Standard for a while can see the tell-tale signs of Mardu Vehicles from the opening turns: Heart of Kiran, Thraben Inspector, Unlicensed Disintegration to blow you out just in time. We know the drill, and when you sat down to play some competitive Standard, if you weren’t being comboed to death, this lethal, Mardu-colored stack of cards can win most any other game.

With so little time devoted to building decks, many players, brewers and pro alike, fell back on a tried and true deck. There’s no problem with this. If I had built/prepared a list to counter Felidar Guardian and it suddenly changed, I’d be hard-pressed to stay committed to my “anti-Felidar Guardian” deck.

Second, even if newer brewers might be possible following the banning, access to cards is slimmest the first week of a new Standard environment, and we didn’t lose a block this time. For all intents and purposes, the Mardu Vehicles deck didn’t lose anything, so it let people pull that deck from the bottom of their backpack, add a couple of new cycling duals they traded for or cracked from their booster packs on Prerelease day, and get underway at #SCGATL.

So no, I’m not scared.

Despite the fact that many decks did not feature much in the way of Amonkhet cards, some entered #SCGATL with the plan to try something new, and two of those decks made the Top 8.

Zach Stern’s aggressive list plays on the powerful combination of Glory-Bound Initiate and Always Watching. This on-curve anthem makes Glory-Bound Initiate a 5/5 with lifelink each time it attacks, removing the negative side-effect of Exert. Combined with a high toughness that makes it an attractive blocker, Glory-Bound Initiate is likely this deck’s strongest card. Combined with solid ringers like Hanweir Garrison and the new Honored Crop-Captain, Zach’s deck is an exciting new step in a traditional archetype.

Previous SCG Tour Invitational champion Caleb Scherer went completely rogue.

See? Rogue!
…I’ll show myself out.

Mono-Black Aggro is an old, underutilized archetype that most everyone’s given a try in their brewing over the years. As aggressive decks tend to do well in the first week of a new format, especially in the hands of a skilled pilot, Caleb’s results are well-warranted.

I love his use of cards lost in the shuffle. Night Market Lookout without a way to play with the tapped trigger suggests that Caleb anticipated that low-cost creatures would be a big player, as no one wants to use a Fatal Push on a one-drop. Bone Picker is an exceptional beatstick, and I love his choice of leveraging aggressive attacks and bleeding off Walking Ballista into undercosted, evasive finishers. The deck has lots of reach with life drain and three Liliana, the Last Hope maindeck. Good choice, Caleb!

Caleb’s deck is a perfect segue to my newer, Zombie-based deck today.

Last week’s article about Zombies was also aggressive, with the idea of draining life and getting sideways one way or another. While I do believe that Caleb’s deck is less theme-based than mine but more consistent, it seems like this strategy is viable, and certainly so after some tweaking. However, Zombies are flexible enough to make an entirely new deck based on the mono-black palette alone.

I built this deck before #SCGATL, and I saw some of the pieces in a variety of decks last Saturday. One I didn’t see is Embalmer’s Tools.

This little artifact works with Zombies and many other creature cards that activate from the graveyard. If the wall goes up and you can no longer profitably attack (but neither can they), this provides an alternative method to win the game against a grindy, draw-a-lot deck. The activation reduction is perhaps the most interesting part of it, though. It works with Dread Wanderer, but perhaps the most synergetic creature isn’t a Zombie at all.

With two Embalmer’s Tools, this comes back to your hand for one black mana, making it the ideal card for discard engines. You can mill yourself as well, finding more fuel for your own recurring creatures.

A deck like this is simple and straightforward, so let’s put it together.

This deck is designed to get in the game quickly and keep the pressure up while recurring powerful discarded or milled cards like Haunted Dead and Relentless Dead. Voldaren Pariah did see some play in another Zombie deck I watched in Round 2, and I’ve also found a shell like this to be particularly conducive to this kind of card. Reducing the cost of Haunted Dead and Scrapyard Scrounger by one was also surprisingly important. This deck had very little to do at instant speed, but it can make pretty good use of its main phase.

While I have been testing with it, my favorite Zombie in the format, and the best deck around it, still eludes me.

I love Prized Amalgam. This little reanimating heart-warmer has played in a variety of reanimation-centered decks, and with Amonkhet poking around again, it has another chance to flex its rotting muscles. It was in my first deck, as there were usually sufficient outlets to discard it without making room for blue mana, but not enough that it remained in the list. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for ways to use it. Even with Embalmer’s Tools, though, I’m still a bit stuck on how to best wiggle this card into the new Standard.

So, sadly, I don’t have a deck around the Amalgam that I’d be remotely close to sharing, like I’d been planning. Instead, I tried the deck from last week consistently against Mardu Vehicles, the deck-to-beat in our new Standard environment. Chances are, when you go to Friday Night Magic this week, you’ll be staring down Inspired Vantage, Concealed Courtyard, and Nahiri, the Harbinger, just like so many players at #SCGATL did.

Also, you folks, my readers, had some excellent suggestions on how to make the deck better, even before Mardu Vehicles swept the field last weekend; I made several additions and adjustments, playing up my favorite cards from the original list while introducing cards I was, honestly, scared to include in the first draft.

I’m much happier with this version of the list, and I think it tackles the deck’s problems well, especially in preparing it for a long, drawn-out affair while putting on early pressure.

In five rigorous, sideboarded matchups against lists similar to the Mardu Vehicles list I shared above, I got four out of five games. Four out of five against an Open-winning deck!

First off, João Tessman, who commented last week, suggested Dark Salvation. I had written this card off as overcosted nonsense in Eldritch Moon, but I was really, really wrong.

This card is bananas. Build a manabase, make a team, kill your creature. Have just one mana and two Zombies? Sure, I’ll Disfigure your blocker. I vastly underestimated this card, especially when I went more of an attrition route, as many Mardu Vehicles decks did with cards like Cut//Ribbons, which may actually be worth it in this deck.

The lifegain and pressure offered by creatures like Wayward Servant was sufficient that even Heart of Kiran had to get involved in blocking. Grasp of Darkness was very playable, despite the Plains, and Westvale Abbey provided a great way to leverage a clogged battlefield. Have you ever seen your opponent’s face when they forget about Plague Belcher and then I untap with five Zombies, eat them all with Westvale Abbey, make them lose five life, and then smash them in the head with a 9/7? Can’t beat it.

This weekend doesn’t provide much more Standard per se, but it does give us Amonkhet and lots of it.

If you were bummed that Amonkhet didn’t get the love it deserved this past weekend, rest assured the world will be watching #GPRichmond this weekend, where you’ll see every card played at the highest level. Let it be an opportunity to fill your mind with brews and possibilities for the newest set.

This set isn’t dead. Just its Zombies are.

What is your favorite Limited card from Amonkhet, and which card do you think is going to come out as the backbreaker at #GPRichmond?