Updating Legacy Zombies

Read about Sam’s journey as he explores adding three Return to Ravnica cards to his Legacy Zombie deck: Deathrite Shaman, Lotleth Troll, and Abrupt Decay.

I still haven’t seen anyone other than me do well with my Legacy Zombie deck, which has made me wonder if I should still be playing it. I decided to try it again this past weekend at the StarCityGames.com Invitational instead of switching to a Death’s Shadow deck because I had more experience with it, still wasn’t quite sure about U/B, and didn’t want to have to find Baleful Strixes.

I started the tournament 2-2 and wondered if I’d just gotten lazy and kept playing my deck even though it isn’t good enough. Talking to Matt Costa, who was 4-0 with RUG Delver in Legacy and playing and loving Delver in Standard, certainly didn’t give me confidence that I shouldn’t be playing Delver.

Fortunately, I managed to win all four of my Legacy matches on the second day to renew my faith in the deck (and salvage a Top 12 finish in the tournament).

And it’s a good time to have my faith restored, because Return to Ravnica offers a few exciting options for updating the deck.

Unfortunately, most of them require changing the deck’s colors.

Specifically, there are three cards that interest me: Deathrite Shaman, Lotleth Troll, and Abrupt Decay.

If Deathrite Shaman was a Zombie, it would be perfect for this deck. Instead, it’s an Elf Shaman. (Which is weird, by the way, because historically Elves that tap for mana have generally been Druids. Granted, this card has Shaman in its name, but it didn’t have to. I guess the other abilities make it a Shaman.) Anyway, this card is perfect enough to consider. I hadn’t really realized that I’d wanted a mana dork in my deck, but it’s definitely worth trying. I have a lot of ways to spend mana, and this card has a lot going for it.

First of all, it’s a 1/2. Why? I don’t know. How important is that? I’m not really sure, but in a deck full of creatures that can’t block, being able to block 1/1s and live certainly could come up.

Second, it taps for mana of any color. This is huge. My deck is at least three colors (more on this later) and is very color intensive. If it just tapped for black, that would be nice, but letting me cast colored spells without getting nonbasics is amazing.

Third, it removes lands from the graveyard. In Legacy and in my deck, the cost to use his mana ability is all upside, and it isn’t small. I played eleven fetchlands this past weekend, I have Faithless Looting in my deck, and my opponents almost always have lands in their graveyards. I’ll almost always be able to tap this for mana, but the important part is that it gets lands out of their graveyard. Nimble Mongoose, Tarmogoyf, and Knight of the Reliquary are among the cards I have the most trouble with, and this card does a ton of work to slow them down, especially Nimble Mongoose, who it can even block.

Fourth, it has other abilities. Whenever I don’t need mana, I can remove an instant or sorcery in a graveyard to bash them for two. This is amazing. I can definitely take advantage of the damage, and it keeps fighting their graveyard. If I have green mana, I can remove creatures to gain life. Sorry about that, Reanimator; I don’t want to play this card specifically to hate you, but it’s nice that it does.

Obviously, this card is also good against me, but I don’t have to worry about that until or unless other decks start playing it.

So if I want to play Deathrite Shaman anyway, I get paid for being green. It’s not a big deal, but it’s nice.

Let’s talk about the card that might push me over: Lotleth Troll. This is the best two mana Zombie ever. That’s just how it is. Now, it’s very far from strictly better than Tidehollow Sculler, and if I could just play this over Tidehollow Sculler, I’d definitely miss the disruption. But let’s look at the upsides first.

It’s a 2/1 regenerating trampler for two. That’s pretty cool. It’s a Zombie that’s hard to kill, so it will help me bring back Gravecrawler. Also, regenerators are good at blocking; my deck could really use that. Finally, I can discard creatures to make it bigger. That’s pretty sweet, but how good is it? I’m discarding creatures to Faithless Looting anyway, so it’s not that great, but I don’t always draw Faithless Looting.

When I don’t draw Faithless Looting, it gives me another way to get value out of Gravecrawler’s ability (I can never have too much of that), and better yet, it lets me get Bloodghast into play without needing to spend mana on it.

But what if I really push it? I could play something like Squee, Goblin Nabob or Krovikan Horror. I generally try to avoid going too far down this route because it’s the best way to lose to graveyard hate. But Lotleth Troll definitely helps with the backup plan of just beating down with Zombies, and graveyard hate is at a relative low anyway because most of the combo decks are Show and Tell decks, which don’t use the graveyard.

Abrupt Decay is basically an afterthought. It’s a sweet card that I’d probably like to have access to if I’m green anyway, but it’s not a reason to play the color. I love the idea of an uncounterable answer to Tarmogoyf, but let’s be realistic about this card:

Unlike Go for the Throat, it can’t kill something like Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite out of Reanimator.

Unlike Disenchant, it can’t kill Leyline of the Void, which is one if the main enchantments I care about killing. It also can’t kill Omniscience.

Unlike Oblivion Ring, it can’t do either of those things or get put into play off opponent’s Show and Tell.

Unlike Innocent Blood, it can’t kill Nimble Mongoose.

The card is a good multipurpose answer, but realistically, I can’t see myself playing more than two in my 75. Since each one I add has real opportunity costs over whatever I’d replace, it’s not really making my deck much better.

Slitherhead, just in case anyone was going to bring that up, does have synergy with the deck, but its power level is too low. It just doesn’t do anything.

So those are the cards. Just three new options; this should be pretty simple, right?

Well, there’s a lot going on here because I’m considering a new color, which means either playing four colors (yuck) or cutting a color. This is problematic because I’m using the colors I have already for important spells, to say nothing of just finding deck space.

Some of these options may fundamentally change some of what my deck is trying to do.

First, just to get it out of the way, the simplest, laziest solution is probably just to cut Blood Artist and a land for Deathrite Shaman. Blood Artist is primarily there to fight creature decks, particularly Maverick and RUG, by making it easier to race them. Deathrite Shaman excels in those matchups, so it should be a fairly painless substitution.

But what if I want to play Lotleth Troll? (Spoiler: I do.)

I could cut Tidehollow Sculler and Lingering Souls. Cutting Lingering Souls hurts. A lot. The deck needs cards it’s happy to discard, the deck needs creatures to sacrifice, the deck needs blockers, and the deck needs ways to use its mana. Really, while the deck is named for its Zombies, it can very easily be viewed as just “the best” Lingering Souls deck in Legacy. (Arguably not the best deck with Lingering Souls, but likely the deck that best uses the Lingering Souls that it has.)

So I lose blockers, but I get Lotleth Troll. I’m still down flying defense, but honestly, I wasn’t getting attacked by fliers all that much anyway. Lotleth Troll might be able to cover most of the ground defense. As for the rest of what I lose, Squee, Goblin Nabob might actually give me most of that. He’s a card to discard and potentially a useful blocker and mana sink.

If I wanted, I could push this further and play Life from the Loam, which lets me fill my graveyard with sweet things and can return Mutavault to return Gravecrawler. I could even theoretically play a Dryad Arbor (which I could potentially discard every turn to Lotleth Troll while returning it and other lands with Life from the Loam). Then I could add Barren Moor and really change where this deck’s going… And here we see why I have to limit myself on the graveyard focus, because otherwise it spirals out of control quickly, wastes too much time, and loses to graveyard hate.

So what would a reasonable version of Jund Zombies look like?

Tarmogoyf is an interesting question. I could just play four of them main, and it could very easily be right. I could see cutting 1-2 Squee, Goblin Nabob, one Goblin Bombardment, and Life from the Loam for Tarmogoyfs. Then I’d probably also cut the Mutavault for a fetchland. Honestly, there’s a better than 50% chance that that’s right.

As for the sideboard, I added discard to help make up for not having Tidehollow Sculler, but I’m honestly worried that it’s just too much. Also, Hymn to Tourach could very easily be better than the discard spells I have there (again, probably is). I go back and forth on Surgical Extraction and Leyline of the Void. Here, my deck is better against people who are trying to fill their graveyard for threshold, so Leyline of the Void is less important, and I’m worse against combo, so I wanted to have Surgical Extraction to help disrupt them.

Abrupt Decay and Krosan Grip are there because I lose Oblivion Ring / Vindicate and Disenchant and Perish is much less appealing.

It’s nice that, now that I’m not playing my own Lingering Souls, I get Dread of Night, which is an extremely powerful card.

The Tarmogoyf / Dark Confidant split is because I want them against completely different decks. Tarmogoyf is good against aggro, and Dark Confidant is good against combo and control.

So that’s the version without white.

What if I cut red instead?

I’m not sure I can do that. The deck is based on Faithless Looting. Without it, I’m not sure why I’m playing all this graveyard stuff, but I still have a powerful shell that works when I don’t draw Faithless Looting, so let’s see if there’s anything here.

First of all, I’m going to see fewer cards, so I think I want more Zombies to make everything come together:

4 Carrion Feeder
4 Gravecrawler
4 Tidehollow Sculler
4 Lotleth Troll

That was easy. I’m still going to need my disruption:

4 Thoughtseize
4 Cabal Therapy

As for Lingering Souls, it’s still a great card, but I don’t have Faithless Looting to discard it or Goblin Bombardment to use the tokens, so what’s the point?

The same is true of Bloodghast.

I have Cabal Therapy to sacrifice them to and Lotleth Troll wants me to have Bloodghast, but I need some redundancy.

Life from the Loam, Liliana of the Veil, and Smallpox come to mind, and maybe Zealous Persecution to take advantage of the tokens.

I’ve played Liliana before and she’s been horrible, but Deathrite Shaman might go a long way toward fixing that.

Maybe the rest of the spells could be as simple as:

4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Bloodghast
4 Lingering Souls
3 Liliana of the Veil
1 Life from the Loam

If I’m playing Liliana, I probably want Tarmogoyf to block for her. Maybe I could cut two Tidehollow Scullers and a Bloodghast for three Tarmogoyfs.

There might be something here, but I’m losing the cards I most want in the deck, so there has to be a better way.

Maybe I can just play everything.

Deathrite Shaman taps for a mana of any color, so that’s a start. If I focus on cards that tap for any color, I could even think about playing Careful Study again.

So how do I do that?

Well, Cavern of Souls can let me keep spending all my mana on Gravecrawler while casting both Lotleth Troll and Tidehollow Sculler and providing some value, because those cards are good enough that someone might actually want to counter them.

Undiscovered Paradise obviously helps already.

What about other lands? Thran Quarry is probably too dangerous, even though this deck would be pretty good at it. City of Brass could work. It’s basically free in a lot of matchups. But what if I get a little crazy? What if I play Forbidden Orchard, Blood Artist, and Zealous Persecution? Wouldn’t that be sweet? Yeah, I don’t know how I’m going to fit all of those into a five-color deck, but I can dream, right?

Let’s start here: if I can make the mana work, what spells do I want?

4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Carrion Feeder
4 Gravecrawler
4 Bloodghast
2 Lotleth Troll
2 Tidehollow Sculler
2 Goblin Bombardment
4 Thoughtseize
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Faithless Looting
4 Lingering Souls
2 Careful Study

That was my first thought. I’m splashing green for two Lotleth Troll and blue for two Careful Study? That can’t be worth it. I think I’ve gotten too attached to the core of my deck. I’m just rebuilding that and forcing a couple other cards in the corners.

Does this look different if I try to build a Blood Artist deck? Is that something reasonable to do? Let’s try:

4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Blood Artist
4 Carrion Feeder
4 Gravecrawler
4 Bloodghast
3 Goblin Bombardment
4 Faithless Looting
4 Lingering Souls
3 Zealous Persecution
4 Cabal Therapy
3 Thoughtseize

That set of spells leaves nineteen lands and doesn’t touch green or blue. It also only has eight Zombies. If Deathrite Shaman had been printed as a Zombie, I could maybe see it, but without that free Zombie, it seems hard to get enough Zombies while playing Blood Artist and Zealous Persecution. So I think my dreams of destroying large armies of Forbidden Orchard tokens aren’t to be just yet.

What’s my conclusion? Well, I’m excited to try Deathrite Shaman in my deck, and I think there’s a Jund Zombie/Looting deck that loses a little synergy and disruption for a lot of ground power. So if your metagame has a lot of RUG and not a ton of combo, it may be better to experiment with that version, but I think I’m going to start by hoping Deathrite Shaman is enough to even things up against RUG because synergy isn’t something I’m looking to give up.

I hope you found the path to get here and the reasoning interesting, even if the conclusion was relatively straightforward. It’s important to consider and be aware of the alternatives. This article was about the journey.

Thanks for reading,


@samuelhblack on Twitter


I am Simic. I don’t care that much about beating my opponent. I just want to learn and grow as a player.