Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Magic Monday - Zombie Tribal EDH

Yeah, it's Tuesday morning.  I know.  I just didn't get this done in time to make Monday, and I didn't want to wait nearly a full week to post it.  Hopefully future Magic posts will fall on Mondays so that the title doesn't lose all meaning...

Until recently, I hobbled all of my commander decks together with cards already in my collection.  Doing so is a fun, challenging exercise, and it keeps me from getting overwhelmed by the entire catalog of Magic's history, but it also limits my decks' overall power level.  For my first "built from scratch" EDH deck, I decided to expand a casual constructed deck I'd played off and on for years - zombie tribal.

The basic idea is simple: stuff the deck full of as many quality zombies and zombie-related cards as possible.  There are lots of zombie lords in Magic's history, so it is pretty easy (and fun!) to assemble a massive zombie horde to overwhelm your opponents.

Choosing a Leader for the Horde
Before getting to all those juicy zombie lords, we need to decide on a commander.  With the amount of zombie support in Magic, it's a little surprising that there are only 17 eligible zombie commanders.  Most of those creatures don't support a tribal theme very well (though many are obviously strong commanders), so I think we're really down to 6:

Balthor the Defiled - awesome if you can consistently fill your graveyard with zombies.
Geth, Lord of the Vault - fits nicely into a reanimation-themed zombie deck.
Grimgrin, Corpse-Born - a scary dude with nice synergy with both dying and reanimating zombies.
Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord - another dude with good synergy with dying zombies and filling your yard.
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed - makes the rest of your team really frightening.
Sedris, the Traitor King - yet more synergy with graveyard shenanigans and reanimation.

 A zombie tribal deck is undoubtedly going to be heavily black, so what can blue, red, and green get me?

Green is a pretty weak addition to the tribal theme.  Jarad gives us 13 more zombies, though only a couple of those are exciting (Ghoultree and Lotleth Troll are the only ones that really impress me).  It also gives access to enchantment and artifact hate that you can't get in black.  Is it really worth watering down the zombie theme to play Back to Nature?  Pssh, of course not.  Jarad's out.

Sedris brings a few more friends to the game (18, in fact), but I'm even less impressed with these, and his unearthing ability probably doesn't play terribly well with all the zombie lords.  He does fill one of the holes in black's gameplan with artifact destruction, but I'm not convinced that widening the mana base is really worth all that.

Blue comes with the normal suite of counterspells and bounce effects (Cyclonic Rift is an excellent board wipe), which is nice.  Plus there are 29 more zombies to accompany Grimgrin, and many of those fit the tribal theme well - Diregraf Captain is almost enough to make me want to run blue by itself.

However, there are two big features that push blue over the top - Rooftop Storm is just stupid in a zombie deck, and clones to copy your lords (or your opponents' scariest creatures) seem like excellent value in this sort of deck.

There are obviously good arguments for each of the other commander candidates, but Grimgrin is going to allow me to accomplish my goals (armies of huge zombies) more effectively than the others.

Looks like I've settled on Grimgrin, Corpse-Born.  Now to fill out the deck.

Flesh to Fuel the Apocalypse - Creature Selection
I keep ranting about zombie lords, so let's start with those.

Anything that buffs zombie power and toughness is an easy pick:

While not specifically zombie lords, Adaptive Automaton, Coat of Arms, and Mikaeus, the Unhallowed slot quite nicely into this deck as well.

(As a side note, Risen Executioner fills this role very well, too, I just don't have a copy of it yet).

There are some other cards that synergize with an army of the undead.  Things like:

We're already committed to blue, so why not add some clone effects to double some of those lords' effects?  There's always the potential upside of copying one of your opponents' problem creatures, so a handful of clones can give us some extra reach:

  • Clever Impersonator - copying a planeswalker or Coat of Arms gives this one even greater upside
  • Clone - the classic
  • Evil Twin - copy a lord or use it as removal against an opponent's problematic creature
  • Phantasmal Image - a cheap, albeit not very resilient, clone effect
  • Phyrexian Metamorph - like Clever Impersonator, cloning an artifact could be a serious gain
  • Rite of Replication - the big daddy of clone effects, target Undead Warchief to give your team 10 extra power, or hit a Vengeful Dead and start saccing zombies to your commander

Filling out the rest of the creature suite comes down to getting strong effects on decent bodies.  This goal is doubly important because we may have some trouble dealing with certain types of opposition if we stick to the theme, so getting removal along with our creatures is important.  Also remember that effects that hit all opponents are amplified in multiplayer commander games, so those may be worth a bit more than they otherwise would.

Here are the "filler" zombies I've chosen to include in my deck:

  • Coffin Queen - reanimation on a stick; it's slow, but it can be a big deal once it gets going
  • Eastern Paladin - the textbox is blank against some decks, but a 3/3 for 4 isn't the worst thing in the world (especially with some lords in play); repeatable removal is worth the downside, I think
  • Empty the Pits - not a creature exactly, but it makes them, and it can make a ton of them late in the game; great for sealing the deal or recovering from a wrath
  • Entrails Feaster - also a bit slow, but this little kitty can help purge troublesome creatures from your opponents' graveyards
  • Fleshbag Marauder - an edict effect that is occasionally a powerful creature and is a zombie for all your cards that care; yep, this goes right in the deck
  • Forlorn Pseudamma - one of the weaker choices, this one can (slowly) let you build up an army from nothing, so I think it's worth a card slot just as extra wrath insurance
  • Ghoulraiser - recur a zombie card from your graveyard; the fact that you don't choose it kind of stinks, but the upside is still there
  • Gloomdrifter - if you have Threshold, this guy could clear some nonsense off the board; it won't kill anything truly terrifying (unless you hit it with Rite of Replication), but it's a great answer to token decks
  • Gravecrawler - pure, aggressive value; the added bonus of an infinite combo with Grimgrin and Rooftop Storm can sometimes end games you had no business winning
  • Gravedigger - digging a lord out of the yard is easily worth the slot
  • Gray Merchant of Asphodel - did you know this guy's a zombie? An amazing win condition on his own, clone effects make him truly miserable for your opponents
  • Gurmag Angler - a 5/5 is worth almost any cost in this deck, and casting him on the cheap with Delve seems downright rude
  • Lifebane Zombie - a 3/1 ain't bad, but his ETB effect can strip a vital card from an opponent's hand
  • Liliana's Reaver - if you can connect, that effect can ravage your opponents' hands and build an army at the same time; pure value
  • Moan of the Unhallowed - making a couple zombies is already nice, but flashback makes it that much sweeter
  • Plaguebearer - it gets prohibitively expensive fast, but repeatable removal is always valuable in Commander
  • Possessed Skaab - it's Eternal Witness for zombies! a solid addition all around
  • Servant of Tymaret - this little guy's Inspired ability drains all opponents, and natural regeneration can hold the fort if needed; he's probably one of the weakest cards in the deck, but he certainly plays a role
  • Siren of the Silent Song - this Inspired ability also hits all opponents, and it's a lot easier to trigger this one; landing this siren on turn 3 can quickly leave everyone else at the table Hellbent
  • Skaab Ruinator - you can't always cast this monstrosity, but when you can, it's immediately a serious threat
  • Skinrender - another source of removal, and sometimes weakening a problematic creature can mean the difference between winning and losing
  • Vengeful Pharaoh - conditional removal, but when he's in your yard, other players are dissuaded from attacking you
  • Western Paladin - like his Eastern counterpart, a vanilla 3/3 in some matchups, but a serious threat in others

Growing a Healthy Horde - Support Cards and Manabase
Given our creatures, we're playing a pretty aggressive game, and we have a few ways to deal with roadblocks as they arise.  However, we could use some more ways of dealing with the most problematic threats our opponents could present.  Let's start with some removal:

  • Call to the Grave - a repeated edict for everyone not playing mono-zombies; definitely one of the most powerful cards in this deck
  • Cruel Revival - I'm not usually a fan of targeted once-off removal in EDH, but getting a key creature back to your hand seems worth the more limited effect
  • Cyclonic Rift - aside from clones, this is the only card that isn't death or zombie themed, but it's important to have another safety valve to keep other decks in check
  • Dictate of Erebos - Grimgin lets you sacrifice creatures at will, so paired with your commander, you can usually clean up a lot of the problems on the table
  • Life's Finale - the added upside of pulling scary creatures from someone's deck (and lower relative real-world cost) make this my preferred black wrath for EDH over Damnation
  • Necromantic Selection - kill everything but choose one creature to come back as a zombie on your side of the battlefield; stellar in this deck
  • Syphon Flesh - another edict effect, but this one grows the horde, so I like it here

At this point, one thing we're missing is card advantage.  We have a couple of useful effects between Gravedigger and Grave Defiler, but it could be easy to run out of gas in the face of repeated board wipes or otherwise powerful removal.  There aren't a whole lot of options on-theme, by trying my best to stick to the flavor of death and decay, here are my card advantage choices:
  • Grave Betrayal - come out way ahead in the face of traditional board wipes, and make any creature's death terrifying for your opponents
  • Necromancer's Stockpile - ditch a zombie that's not too useful for current circumstances (like one of the Paladins, for example), get a creature, and draw a card? Sign me up!
  • Reprocess - turn late-game lands or useless creatures into more cards, or use it as a sac outlet to ping opponents with Diregraf Captain or Vengeful Dead
Finally, we need to be able to cast all our spells.  This is a particularly rough task, as we are primarily black, but we want to be able to cast our commander consistently, and we have a few double-blue costing spells.  As such, I've gone pretty hard on the fixing (maybe too hard, so it's definitely worth tweaking).  Here's the manabase of my current iteration of this deck.

First, lands (and an artifact) that generate both colors:
Then, I looked into utility lands, but I only found three that were really compelling:
  • Bojuka Bog - emptying someone's graveyard can be important in many Commander games
  • Unholy Grotto - while this one doesn't tap for colored mana, the ability to recur creatures is a massive boon
  • Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth - making all lands tap for black isn't all that important, as we're black-heavy anyway; the real benefit of Urborg is the occasional upside of making your opponents' lands swamps, so Zombie Master makes all your dudes unblockable

Finally, we need to fill in the rest with basics:
  • 5 Islands
  • 20 Swamps
And there you have it, the most entertaining Commander deck I've ever built and/or played.  It often ends up playing like an aggro deck, looking to land early creatures and attack often.

Thoughts on Optimization
There were three important decision points in the process of building this deck that are worth briefly discussing.

First, I tried to keep the deck relatively cheap - that's why things like Damnation aren't included.  The manabase is easily the most costly part, but I built it mostly out of lands I already owned, so it didn't cost me anything extra.  If you're looking to build the deck, though, you can certainly skimp on some of the more expensive lands in favor of more basics; I've never had serious color issues with this deck, so I was probably too careful with it anyway.

Second, I opted to stay away from the Innistrad zombie theme of self-mill because there is a good deal of graveyard hate in my playgroup.  It scares me to go too heavily in the direction of using my yard as a resource because things like Rest in Peace completely shut that gameplan down.  If you're not worried about that sort of thing in your playgroup, you may be able to get a more powerful deck by throwing in a Skaab Goliath and an Armored Skaab or other things to stock your graveyard.

Third, I avoided tutor effects entirely.  Demonic Tutor and Sidisi, Undead Vizier would both be terrifying additions to this deck.  This decision is a result of my philosophy on EDH - one of the reasons I like the format is that each game feels totally different (as opposed to competitive formats, where decks are designed to be consistent).  Tutor effects make Commander games feel the same, as players often search for the same two or three cards each game.  As a result, I like to stay away from those kinds of things unless absolutely necessary, and I think this deck has enough punch to not need any tutor effects.  If you're looking to build the most powerful, consistent deck you can, you should definitely add some, though.

Take this list, customize it, and crush your friends under the rotting flesh of a zombie apocalypse.  I hope my thoughts can inspire someone out there to think about building a crazy tribal EDH deck!

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