Of Walking Graves And Skull Briars

Check out Bennie’s Skullbriar, the Walking Grave Commander deck that he’s finally gotten together just in time for Halloween!

Back when I wrote "Letting Go of Tutors in Commander" I mentioned that I was working on a Skullbriar, the Walking Grave Commander deck, and since I haven’t had a chance to share the list since then I figured the Friday before Hallowe’en would be the perfect time to talk about Walking Graves and Skullbriars.

Now, when the Commander decks came out, I wasn’t all that big a fan of Skullbriar. He seemed rather puny, and his ability didn’t look all that interesting.

But you know what? Being puny and uninteresting is like catnip to my Johnny side. Surely there’s gotta be some ways in Magic to take advantage of Skullbriar’s weird and unique ability!

Challenge accepted! Over the past few months I’ve kept Skullbriar in the back of my mind, and as I sifted through my Commander stock pulling cards for this deck or that, I’ve kept an eye out for stuff that might be fun in a Skullbriar deck.

The most obvious way to abuse Skullbriar is to load him up with as many +1/+1 counters as you can, and Magic has no end of cards that can do that for you. What’s more interesting to ponder though are other sorts of counters you might want to put on Skullbriar that can stick around throughout the game.

It turns out there really aren’t that many that are beneficial, even when digging deep into the Wild West era of Magic. Here are the ones I’ve found that are within the color identity of Skullbriar:

  • Magnetic Web — Mildly interesting and weird artifact that would certainly win style points throwing magnet counters around…but the effect doesn’t seem to be worth the card slot, mana, and time it would take. Unless you are a Skullbriar completest, I’d skip this one.
  • Soul Exchange — It’s strange that this is a +2/+2 counter and hasn’t been changed to two +1+1 counters. Ultimately, though, it’s too clunky and situational to be worth it.
  • Armor Thrull — This can give you a +1/+2 counter, which again is weird and would probably be a bit of a pain to keep track of on your Skullbriar outside of a shred of paper with that notated. Inkwell Looter could probably whip up a sweet counter for you though!
  • That Which Was Taken — This is mildly interesting because the divinity counter will protect Skullbriar from most forms of harm (so long as That Which Was Taken is on the battlefield), so even if he gets exiled he can come back and stay indestructible if TWWT remains or comes back.
  • Life Matrix — What’s cool about this is that, per the errata, the creature gains "Remove a matrix counter from this creature: Regenerate this creature." So if Skullbriar gets hit with something that he can’t regenerate from and has to be replayed, he can still keep the matrix counter for later. Of course, the downside to this card is how expensive it is to use and the limitation on when you can use it. I actually have a couple of these from way back in the day, so if I’m aiming for style points I might consider this.
  • Sporogenesis — What’s fun about this card is that the fungus counters remain on Skullbriar, so if he dies you get some Saprolings. Then when you replay Skullbriar, you don’t have to reset back to zero fungus counters—you can just keep building them. Of course, if Sporogenesis leaves the battlefield while Skullbriar’s out there, all your hard work is for naught, but hey—this was printed back when the only cool noncreature green cards they printed had to have some sort of drawback.
  • Brass-Talon Chimera (first strike), Iron-Heart Chimera (vigilance), Lead-Belly Chimera (trample), Tin-Wing Chimera (flying) + Runed Stalactite — Okay, Chimera counters (+2/+2 plus some cool ability) have got to be the coolest things around, and with Runed Stalactite your Skullbriar can join in on the Chimeric fun. You’d probably want some Changelings in the deck to work this angle, and some sweet Inkwell Looter counters would be helpful too!

As far as I can find that’s pretty much it for strange, benevolent counters you can put on Skullbriar in green, black, or colorless. It’s possible I missed something, so if you find something else please let me know in the comments below. I’m not going to be playing with these in my first pass of the deck, but once I get tired of this version I’ll probably build a "style points" Skullbriar list, so stay tuned!

So what are the bases we want to cover in a more straightforward Skullbriar deck?

+1/+1 Counters

Llanowar Reborn, Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, Blade of the Bloodchief, Ashnod’s Transmogrant, Golgari Guildmage, Aquastrand Spider, Unspeakable Symbol, Increasing Savagery, Cytoplast Root-kin, Forgotten Ancient, Spike Weaver, Mephidross Vampire, Jugan, the Rising Star, Shape of the Wiitigo, Vigor, Strength of the Tajuru

There are tons and tons and tons of ways to put +1/+1 counters on creatures, and I tried to find the best ones for this deck while paying attention to the mana curve. Ashnod’s Transmogrant may not be the strongest card in the world, but it’s a great way to kick off the counters very quickly considering Skullbriar can easily come down on turn 2. Blade of the Bloodchief isn’t just for Vampire decks, though if I get my Mephidross Vampire in play, Skullbriar can join the blood-sucking club. And hey—finally we’ve found a home for Jugan and Shape of the Wiitigo!


Shizo, Death’s Storehouse, Rancor, Loxodon Warhammer, Power Matrix, Eldrazi Monument

Of course, Skullbriar can naturally add +1/+1 counters to himself, but he needs to connect with combat damage to do so. On turn 2 or 3 that won’t be a problem, but as the game plays out the board can quickly clutter with blockers that can be discouraging for your little Zombie Elemental. That’s where some of these cards come in that can help punch through that damage and keep your Commander growing!

Keep Him In The Right Zones

City of Shadows, Grim Backwoods, Miren, the Moaning Well, Phyrexian Tower, Claws of Gix, Viscera Seer, Greater Good, Perilous Forays

Now as the game progresses, your opponents are going to become alarmed just how huge Skullbriar has eventually become and are going to start looking hard at ways to exploit the fine print on Skullbriar: "Counters remain on Skullbriar as it moves to any zone other than a player’s hand or library."

Yep, you can expect that opponents will try and aim tuck or bounce effects at your Commander if he gets too big and threatening, and that’s why I think it’s important for a Skullbriar deck to have some sacrifice outlets to send him to the graveyard—or rather, the command zone, where he can keep his precious counters! I’m personally looking forward to sacrificing a gigantic Skullbriar to Greater Good, drawing a bunch of cards, and then replaying him again for a little bit mana more and having him be just as big.

Protect Your Dude

Undying Evil, Nim Deathmantle, Cauldron of Souls, Asceticism, Not of This World

Even though he gets to keep his counters if he dies and goes back to the command zone, it’s still going to add more to his mana tax each time you have to keep recasting him, so I’ve included some ways to keep him sticking around. Cauldron of Souls is particularly nice since you’ll typically have extra +1/+1 counters around to negate the -1/-1 counter it’ll give you from persist. I also decided to give Not of This World a try as a surprise counterspell since I imagine getting Skullbriar up to seven power won’t be all that difficult.

Life Gain

Basilisk Collar, Sun Droplet, Loxodon Warhammer, Essence Harvest

While life gain is always helpful, in this deck it’s particularly helpful due to Unspeakable Symbol, an enchantment that’s truly nuts in a Skullbriar deck. Skullbriar makes sure the steep life payment you make for those counters has a lot longer impact on the game, and if you can equip him with Basilisk Collar or Loxodon Warhammer, you can recoup the life relatively quickly (and then invest in more +1/+1 counters). Unspeakable Symbol also works pretty well with Spike Weaver since three life may easily be a lot less than the damage you’d take without the fog.


Seems like a gimme considering Skullbriar is a cheap Zombie and likely will be in play quite a bit. Considering I’m already using cards that sacrifice creatures in order to make sure Skullbriar doesn’t go to the wrong zone, having another creature that’s easy to sacrifice makes sense—so much so that I’ve added a few more to the deck as well (Bloodghast, Reassembling Skeleton). Why lookie there, I’ve got the sweet Bloodghast + Perilous Forays combo in here!

Here’s my deck as it currently stands:


I’m a little lighter on creatures than I normally am here because I expect to have Skullbriar in play most of the time, so I don’t necessarily need a steady supply of creatures to have a presence on the board.

I’d consider this a relatively higher-powered Commander deck, though I’ve admittedly restrained myself on the Tutoring effects. Glissa’s in here—always ready to support her Golgari homeboys—because I’ve got a rather large number of artifacts that I wouldn’t mind getting back whenever there’s a board sweeper.

Inkmoth Nexus and Tainted Strike are safety valves for people who’ve gone nuts with life gain, and if I can’t quite punch through for 21 points of Commander damage, considering a poison kill is a bit easier. Doubling Season is in here mostly because people would question why it isn’t in the list; it’s helpful for sure but isn’t nearly as good as it is in other decks (for instance, if I went ahead and went nuts with Thallids and planeswalkers).

I think most of the other cards are pretty self-explanatory, but if you have questions as to why I’ve included certain cards, feel free to ask me in the comments below and I’ll explain. I’m also very curious to see what sort of cards you’ve been playing in your Skullbriar decks that I might have overlooked here!

I’ll have this bad boy sleeved up as I finally get to play in FNM tonight, though my first goal is to get some games of new Standard under my belt, and break in this playset of minty fresh Lotleth Trolls that have been very, very impatient to hit the battlefield. If you’re in the Richmond area, come on down to Richmond Comix and let’s sling some cards!

Take care,


starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com

Make sure to follow my Twitter feed (@blairwitchgreen). I check it often so feel free to send me feedback, ideas, and random thoughts. I’ve also created a Facebook page where I’ll be posting up deck ideas and will happily discuss Magic, life, or anything else you want to talk about!

New to Commander?
If you’re just curious about the format, building your first deck, or trying to take your Commander deck up a notch, here are some handy links:

My current Commander decks (and links to decklists):

Previous Commander decks currently on hiatus: