Zombie Rally Is The Next Step In Pioneer

With aggro decks ruling Pioneer, combo hybrids are the next step. Ari Lax is ready to bring back Zombies with Rally the Ancestors!

Everything I’m going to talk about this week comes back to some things I discussed last week.

First: Pioneer is extremely play-draw dependent because the threats are so cheap and resilient and redundant but not great defensively, and the answers either cheap and limited or inefficient but versatile. It’s better to just jam threats and kill your opponent than try to actually play against their cards.

Second: It is really hard to play a true combo or control deck. There is real hate like Deafening Silence and Grafdigger’s Cage, the only answers that are efficiently costed are Thoughtseize and Stubborn Denial, and none of the combo decks are super redundant or engine-y in this card pool without fast mana. The fact that Teferi, Time Raveler shuts off half the combo decks you would think of is just the nail in the coffin.

Third: Because of the first point, Thoughtseize is really bad in non-combo matchups. Thoughtseize in fair matchups is at its best when a key threat matters or when curves are spread thin and it might generate a free turn, and all the threats in Pioneer are the same and lumped in the low curve so Thoughtseize rarely does either.

In theory if you found a combo deck that worked you could break the play-draw patterning because you don’t actually care about battlefield presence. You just need to find one that doesn’t lose to Thoughtseize. If you can make a half-combo deck that can exploit Thoughtseize with an aggro plan, then everything works out.

So when I saw Zombie Rally, everything fell into place.

This isn’t the first Rally the Ancestors deck I’ve seen for Pioneer, but it’s the first one that actually accomplishes what the deck needs to do to work in the format.

Why Not Other Versions?

The original Standard Rally the Ancestors deck was really, really good, but there’s no reason to go this hard in Pioneer.

The main reason is the mana in Pioneer is horrible. Or maybe fetchable mana is broken. Regardless, there’s an awkward intersection of painful or enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands, and you can’t stretch to four colors without tapped lands messing up your curve or starting far enough behind on life to let opponents steal initiative. The few four-color decks we do see are either true combo, like Kethis Combo, or have some specific card that changes this dynamic, like Interplanar Beacon.

But you also don’t need to stretch this far for a functional combo-creature base. Standard Rally the Ancestors was an absurd combo deck stitched together from a small format of five sets, six by the time you got Reflector Mage. Pioneer is a few times larger than that, and you have cards to work with.

This isn’t quite a Rally the Ancestors deck, but a showcase of the first step in the right direction that leads to Zombie Rally as well as some other cool options.

Walking Ballista Stonecoil Serpent

One of the weirder semi-broken things hiding in recent Magic sets is an abundance of X-cost 0/0 creatures. My testing team for Mythic Championship VI actually tried a Standard version of this deck using Chulane, Teller of Tales; Midnight Reaper; and Beast Whisperer as the initial engine pieces. That led to the general concept utilized here.

The problem here is that the X-cost creatures aren’t good threats. This is still just a combo deck, not a aggro-combo deck, or I guess not a false-tempo deck. If your opponent has Leyline of the Void, you are going to struggle a lot. You won’t be able to just shrug and beat their “six-card hand” with random aggro.

So yeah, when I saw Zombie Rally show up in the League decklists I was immediately intrigued. It didn’t take long playing the deck to confirm the shell was the real deal.

The Zombie Rally Core

We went off on a tangent, so here’s that initial decklist again:

Corpse Knight Wayward Servant

The core combo here is based around there being multiple two-drop Zombies that deal damage on Zombies entering the battlefield. It’s fairly easy to set up Rally the Ancestors in a spot where multiples of these end up triggering, and literally any other creatures form the other half of the combo. You don’t need a Nantuko Husk the way the original Standard Rally deck needed sacrifice outlets, and you don’t need to play Endless One-level creatures.

Dealing the full twenty with a single Rally the Ancestors is fairly difficult in a short game, but dealing ten to fifteen is easy enough. Not only is this deck designed to have an aggro backup plan, it uses that to bridge the gap on the combo kill.

Only needing to Rally the Ancestors for two instead of the “classic” three is also a big edge. A four-cost Rally the Ancestors is a free-roll finisher with the normal amount of lands a tribal aggro deck would play. A five-cost Rally would start pushing you towards more lands, cantrip creatures, and all sorts of things that pulled down your aggressive plan. The only real cost now is that your almost mono-black deck is “splashing” double white.

Liliana, Untouched by Death

It is super-convenient that Stitcher’s Supplier is both the best graveyard enabler in Pioneer and a Zombie, and this deck is pretty good at filling the graveyard via normal game play, but a little more would be great. That’s where weirdo Core Set 2019 planeswalker Liliana, Untouched by Death comes in.

Every part of this card is really maximized in this deck. The +1 obviously fuels Rally the Ancestors with self-mill, but the small drain is really important in pushing your opponent into combo-drain range. The -2 is rarely used, but is convenient additional interaction in a deck with limited space for interaction. The general mana cost of creatures in this deck is low enough that the -3 can approximate Rally the Ancestors as a finisher, and is just good value regardless. This ability is also oddly worded such that Zombies that enter your graveyard later in the turn are also castable, so a Stitcher’s Supplier trigger can dredge up new options or a Nantuko Husk can be used to loop something for multiple casts.


Describing this as a combo deck with an aggro plan might shortchange Cryptbreaker, which is an entirely separate third layer to the deck. The curve-filling ability to generate Zombies is often worse than just casting the Zombies you draw in this deck. I found myself saving Cryptbreaker to Turn 3 or Turn 4 where I could cast it, immediately draw a card with my other Zombies, and threaten to just completely pull away if it wasn’t answered.

Nantuko Husk

Nantuko Husk isn’t necessary to execute the Rally the Ancestors kill in this deck, but the card still does a lot of important things. It extends your Rally combo range by dumping your battlefield pre-Rally for more triggers and triggering the back half of Stitcher’s Supplier, and lets you “short combo” where an unblocked Nantuko Husk with a Rally the Ancestors almost always threatens lethal. Sadly this deck is fairly bad at just fueling Nantuko Husk as a larger threat without the combo aspect, and the format is a Butcher Ghoul short of really working that part out.

Lazotep Reaver

If a single support card was tying the room together, it would be Lazotep Reaver. Two Zombies in one card supports the chip-shot aggro plan, the combo kill, and Cryptbreaker. The only reason you don’t play four is because multiples have serious diminishing returns. Amass sadly isn’t straight-up Goblin Instigator, and a +1/+1 counter on a 1/1 Zombie Army token is much less valuable than the initial two bodies.

Lessons Learned and Upgrades

Even if the basic premise is solid, this first list is far from flawless.

Isolated Chapel Temple of Silence Castle Ardenvale

Let’s get the most glaringly wrong piece out of the way first. This is way too many lands that could or do enter the battlefield tapped. You don’t want a ton of Caves of Koilos since you are tapping your lands for black or white mana almost all the time, but a land that is only untapped if your draw a Godless Shrine is an absurd reach. This list also felt a little land-light at 22 lands, and a second Castle Locthwain might be in order.

Diregraf Colossus

Diregraf Colossus is not a good card. A three-mana big idiot is not a good threat in this format unless you are a Llanowar Elves deck, and a Diregraf Colossus cast early enough to generate Zombie tokens from your other spells is small and fragile. There are a ton of better three-drop options, including Murderous Rider and Death Baron. Don’t waste your time on this card.

Foulmire Knight

Foulmire Knight is right on the line between necessary evil and terrible. There really isn’t a better one-mana Zombie, and maxing out on Dread Wanderer has some weird impacts on Cryptbreaker. To give an idea of how hard you need to scrape the bottom of the barrel to get to twelve one-drops, the next best card is Dreadmalkin.

God-Pharaoh's Gift

And that sideboard… we need to talk about it.

It definitely has some things right. You want to be able to sideboard in a way that mitigates the impact of some hate card on your Rally the Ancestors. But God-Pharaoh’s Gift is largely a plan against Grafdigger’s Cage, and looking at lists right now, that card is way behind things that actually exile. Rest in Peace; Ashiok, Dream Render; Scavenging Ooze; and Leyline of the Void all show up across the metagame.

God-Eternal Bontu

Some big alternate threat is where you want to be. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is probably the raw best card but I don’t want to be committed to being in position to protect it. The God-Eternals in this sideboard seem pretty good at this and likely outclass every other five-drop unless Blood Baron of Vizkopa is unkillable. Rankle, Master of Pranks is a little too matchup-conditional, and Spawn of Mayhem is strong but not a runaway solo kill.

Fragmentize Duress

I’m totally uninterested in fighting over their hate cards once they resolve. Fragmentize seems way too narrow unless you really think you need a hate card for the Ensoul Artifact decks.

Duress over Thoughtseize is definitely disrespectful, since basically every deck you specifically want Duress against is one where the life loss matters much less than randomly catching a Torrential Gearhulk. At the same time, Duress over Thoughtseize keeps you from bringing the card in when you really shouldn’t, so maybe it’s just sending yourself a strong message to not do the wrong thing.


There also isn’t anything stopping you from playing the normal Mono-Black Aggro sideboard cards. Blightbeetle is oppressively good against Hardened Scales and Mono-Green Devotion’s X-spell end-game, while also fitting well into a deck with a combo end-game that can utilize the stalling aspects of Blightbeetle as a blocker.

Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

But really, the biggest gap in this sideboard is an answer to the most problematic card for creature decks in the format. If you aren’t playing Murderous Rider or Dark Salvation in your maindeck, you need some in your sideboard for Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. It isn’t so much that the card turns off Rally the Ancestors, it’s more that it dominates any small creature strategy so much that all of your plans are non-functional in the face of that card. You probably should be playing your own copies to win creature mirrors.

With all that in mind, this is the deck I would present moving forward.

Whirler Virtuoso Kethis, the Hidden Hand

Rally the Ancestors isn’t the only Pioneer-legal combo capable of adapting to become a hybrid combo deck; it’s just among the first to do so with the larger card pool. Sam Black adding Tireless Tracker to Field of the Dead ramp is a huge step forward. Aetherworks Marvel decks actually became better in Standard when they started cutting down on giant Eldrazi and ramping up the fair aspects, and I would expect the same in Pioneer. A couple of weeks ago I called out the Kethis Combo decks as probably being made worse by Emry, Lurker of the Loch and Hope of Ghirapur.

We have really gone hard on optimizing the single-strategy archetypes in Pioneer, and aggro has won the fight over combo or control. If you want to develop the metagame, hybrid decks like these are the place to find success.