Weaponizing Zombies

It’s not easy being dead. Pillars of flame seem to rise up out of nowhere, scorching your already rotting flesh. The Azorius bureaucrats keep you waiting in line at the library for your daily food supply, and don’t even mention the beasts that lurk everywhere. Darned packs of wild animals, trying to gnaw off your legs, always hanging out in pairs while you’re just looking for some brains.

All we wanted was brains, man. We were very upfront about it when we got to Ravnica, and now we’re being punished for our honesty. All our parties are being terminated, the supreme court seems to rule against us constantly, and we’re truly getting sick of those pestering centaurs messing with us just “cuz they’re bigger.”

I mean, not that sickness really means anything to us. We’re kind of dead already, you know? But we’re starving for more than just metaphors over here.

Well we are done starving! We are done being brain-blocked by a bunch of tusks. We are leaving the Rakdos guild for the only guild that truly cares for us. We feel at home here. We feel empowered, strengthened. We found friends that are strong enough to keep the bullies away. And filled with rancor, we will get our brains.

It is time for revenge!

[Deck title=”Zombies Revenge by Jay Lansdaal”]
[Creatures]
*3 Deathrite Shaman
*4 Diregraf Ghoul
*4 Gravecrawler
*2 Rakdos Cackler
*4 Lotleth Troll
*2 Knight of Infamy
*4 Dreg Mangler
*4 Geralf’s Messenger
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
*4 Crippling Blight
*4 Rancor
*3 Revenge of the Hunted
[/Spells]
[Land]
*1 Cavern of Souls
*2 Evolving Wilds
*2 Forest
*4 Overgrown Tomb
*9 Swamp
*4 Woodland Cemetery
[/Land]
[Sideboard]
*4 Appetite for Brains
*2 Dead Weight
*1 Deathrite Shaman
*2 Golgari Charm
*1 Ultimate Price
*4 Vampire Nighthawk
*1 Sever the Bloodline
[/Sideboard]
[/Deck]

Now, before your hurry off to the comments section to kindly inform me that my deck is bad, and I should feel bad, give me a chance to explain myself.(Unless your name is Max McCall, then I understand it is kind of your thing.)

So, this deck might not be exactly what the Zombies decks you know look like. It might play some surprising cards (yes, I called them “suprising,” try to be gentle for now), but it still does what Zombies does best: munch on brains.

As you can read in Nick Vigabool’s last two columns, Zombies as a strategy has fallen largely by the wayside for now. There is so much hate in the top-tier decks, that people have started lamenting buying in on the tribe that was hyped as the best aggressive deck in the new Standard. What a disappointment! Heck, even Humans managed to win an SCG Open, while there wasn’t even a Zombie deck in the top 16!

Something had to be done. So, while I normally play control or otherwise grindy decks, I decided to push through the last points of damage instead of grind out my opponent’s resources.

First, I identified the major issues with the most popular Zombie deck, the BR Rakdos version with burn that Joe Bernal used to great effect in one of the earlier SCG Opens. That deck relied on burn and [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card]s to finish off the opponent if the initial onslaught of zombies gets thwarted. While [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] is still a great card, the burn spells have gotten a lot worse. Why? Well, you are essentially trading cards for life points. This is not usually a very good trade, which is why a card like Heroes Reunion is relegated to a sideboard slot here and there at most. And Heroes Reunion trades one card for seven life-not three like [card]Searing Blaze[/card]. Of course, burn spells like [card]Searing Blaze[/card] have the advantage of being able to win you the game if they deal the last point of damage (the only one that matters). However, if you never get to that point in the game, the burn spells become bad removal spells.

With almost everybody playing [card]Thragtusk[/card], sometimes even combined with [card]Restoration Angel[/card] and [card]Centaur Healer[/card] or [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card], getting to the “burn phase” is very hard. Your opponents gain board presence or card advantage every time they trade a card for life, while you are constantly down cards to do the same.

To win these games, we need more staying power, or ways to make their card advantage irrelevant. I first tried the second route, so I could stay in the Rakdos colors. On top of the new revelation, [card]Crippling Blight[/card], I tested limited all-stars such as Nightbird Clutches, to make my opponent’s blockers irrelevant, and [card]Traitorous Instinct[/card], to use their [card]Thragtusk[/card]s against them.

My results were mixed. Sometimes it worked, especially if I had a very good draw and they were counting on that turn-five [card]Thragtusk[/card] to stay alive, but sometimes a [card]Restoration Angel[/card] came down and ruined my day.

I was not satisfied. I wanted more than a deck that could win with a good draw. I wanted to be able to steal wins when my deck wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I got greedy and tested some BRG Jund builds, figuring that if people weren’t playing Zombies “because it is bad right now,” then taking some extra damage off of my [card]Blood Crypt[/card]s and [card]Overgrown Tomb[/card]s couldn’t be that much of an issue.

It wasn’t. The issue was that I too often couldn’t cast my spells. I was generally okay creatures costing red or green mana, but casting Rancor or burn spells was hard. I had to mulligan more often just to get my lands to work, as there were many awkward hands with double Innistrad lands or just two colors or double Caverns with [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card] and [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card], etc. I tried adding some [card]Golgari Guildgate[/card]s and cut down on red spells to play the full suite of Rancors, but that made my lands come into play tapped even more often.

When the mana worked, though, I felt like I could beat almost anything. I had staying power with [card]Lotleth Troll[/card] and Aristocrat; Rancors to keep getting in for damage with my smaller guys; [card]Dreg Mangler[/card]s that didn’t immediately die to [card]Pillar of Flame[/card]. Too bad it was so inconsistent.

I then moved to a BG Golgari build, taking out the [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card]s in favor of [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card]s and some extra [card]Dreg Mangler[/card]s. This is also where I added the two [card]Evolving Wilds[/card] and the two [card]Forest[/card]s, to see if I would have fewer issues with lands entering the battlefield tapped.

I was happy with the [card]Forest[/card]s and the [card]Evolving Wilds[/card]. [card]Evolving Wilds[/card] is only a little worse at fixing your mana than Golgari Guildgate: neither can be used the turn it enters the battlefield; either can give you green or black; and only [card]Evolving Wilds[/card] is worse when you need green and black, for example when you have a [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card] and a [card]Dreg Mangler[/card], but only three lands. All of this is mitigated with the help of a [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card], who gets you more mana out of the [card]Evolving Wilds[/card] by exiling them after their sacrifice, and the [card]Forest[/card]s are truly a godsend every now and then. Being able to play [card]Dreg Mangler[/card]s on turn three after playing two one-drops on turn two; being able to Rancor a one-drop and then play another without having an [card]Overgrown Tomb[/card] or Woodland Cemetery: these are all great things that make your deck work more consistently. The only card that you make worse is [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card], but only if you never draw a fourth land, or if that fourth land is your second [card]Forest[/card].

I liked this change so much that I cut a [card]Rakdos Cackler[/card] for another [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] main. Shaman impressed me, as it was often a must-remove creature for my opponents, dealing damage through blockers and helping win races like no other card in my deck could. It even made hands with just a [card]Forest[/card] and a [card]Woodland Cemetery[/card] not the absolute worst. Turn-one [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] into a one-drop plus Rancor will do just fine, thank you.

Even though I liked where the deck was going, it still felt like it needed a little bit more punch, especially against the decks with [card]Thragtusk[/card]s and [card]Restoration Angel[/card]s. I liked [card]Crippling Blight[/card], but it was slightly embarrassing whenever I couldn’t kill my opponent the turn I played the Blight and they ambushed me the next turn by blinking their crippled [card]Thragtusk[/card] with a [card]Restoration Angel[/card].

I needed something that would maketheir side of the board irrelevant and help me push through more damage, which is where [card]Revenge of the Hunted[/card] came in.

[card]Revenge of the Hunted[/card] has been overshadowed by other miracles ever since they entered the standard playing field, seeing play only in the mono-green [card]Dungrove Elder[/card] deck. But let me assure you, it wipes creatures off the table and pushes through damage like a one-mana [card]Bonfire of the Damned[/card]. It is quite reasonable to hard cast, as it is very effective for six mana, whereas Bonfire can’t even get you through a [card]Restoration Angel[/card] for fewer than nine. Bonfire is better against smaller creatures, of course, but Revenge does its job there too.

Best of all: it is still good when your opponent flashes in a [card]Restoration Angel[/card] to blink their [card]Thragtusk[/card]. You lose your smallest creature, and they are left with a 3/3 beast and took a bunch of damage. They might even just be dead.

Also, you have not lived until you’ve miracled a [card]Revenge of the Hunted[/card] on a Rancored [card]Vampire Nighthawk[/card] against a Selesnya aggro deck. (Is this what they meant when they told me about “the American Dream”? It must be close.)

Speaking of [card]Vampire Nighthawk[/card]s, there are four in the sideboard, as I found them to be the best cards in aggressive mirrors, especially combined with Rancor. Nighthawk is almost as unbeatable in constructed as it was in limited. They also trade with Sigarda, Host of Herons; [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]s; and [card]Restoration Angel[/card]s, all cards that could otherwise prove troublesome.

Another card that deals with big blockers and other cards that cost four or more mana is [card]Appetite for Brains[/card]. One of the better answers against [card]Thragtusk[/card], Appetite was a consideration for the maindeck, possibly over a [card]Crippling Blight[/card], but I decided Blight was more generally useful. However, I did want access to the full four Appetites after boarding, especially against the Selesnya Decks that have both [card]Thragtusk[/card] and [card]Restoration Angel[/card].

The other cards are there to help against various problematic cards: [card]Golgari Charm[/card] against [card]Knight of Glory[/card], [card]Supreme Verdict[/card], and Detention Sphere; [card]Ultimate Price[/card] against [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] and [card]Restoration Angel[/card] or other large mono-colored monsters; [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] against Reanimator, but also as a constant damage source against spell-heavy decks; [card]Dead Weight[/card] against 2/2s; and [card]Sever the Bloodline[/card] against [card]Entreat the Angels[/card] or other big creatures. Of course, feel free to adjust numbers to better handle your own metagame.

All that is left for me to say now is, go get some BRAAAAAINS!

Jay Lansdaal
@iLansdaal on Twitter and MTGO