Knight of the Living Dead

Posted in Building on a Budget on October 5, 2011

By Jacob Van Lunen

Jacob Van Lunen began playing Magic in 1995. He has participated in organized play at every level of competition and was a member of the winning team at Pro Tour San Diego in 2007, thanks to an innovative draft strategy. As a writer, Van Lunen has had more than three hundred Magic strategy pieces published

Earlier this week, I logged onto one of my message boards and was surprised to see a Zombie deck from "The Doctor," Chris Lachmann. Chris is well known for brewing a tight control list; to see a deck like Zombies from him was unexpected to say the least. His comments on the deck were simple:

"Do you think anyone can beat a Phyrexian Crusader in this format?"


I started to think about it, and I quickly realized that Phyrexian Crusader in a Zombie tribal shell actually had a lot to offer in a creature-heavy Standard metagame. Endless Ranks of the Dead is one of my favorite cards in terms of flavor from the new set. I want my opponent to experience the horror-movie reenactment of wave after wave of Zombies, marching lifelessly for brains.

Phyrexian Crusader
Endless Ranks of the Dead

Sword of Feast and Famine is a major problem for this type of deck, but I think fewer people will be arming themselves with swords in the coming weeks. Ancient Grudge is a very real card, and I can't imagine that players will feel comfortable trying to equip a Sword in a metagame full of backbreaking Shatter-effects.

Sword of Feast and Famine
Ancient Grudge

Phyrexian Crusader is a really big problem for most decks in this format. Infect allows you to use your Phyrexian Crusader for offense while leaving back the rest of your Zombie horde to grow with Cemetery Reaper and Endless Ranks of the Dead.

Let's start with a decklist that tries to make full, flavorful use of Phyrexian Crusader, Endless Ranks of the Dead, and the rest of the Standard Zombie crew.

Endless Zombies

Download Arena Decklist


Diregraf Ghoul is an incredibly aggressive Zombie. It's kind of insane to me that black has a 2/2 for one mana with a negligible drawback. The only time the drawback will be relevant is when your opponent leads with a Stromkirk Noble. Diregraf Ghoul is even stronger when played alongside cards like Ghoulraiser and Cemetery Reaper. When you cast a Cemetery Reaper on the third turn after an early Diregraf Ghoul it's unlikely that an opponent's creatures will outclass your 3/3.

Right: Innistrad Game Day Event participants receive this promotional Diregraf Ghoul card (while supplies last).
Click here for details.

Cemetery Reaper is a beast in this deck. Its ability to make more Zombies makes it very potent, especially with Endless Ranks of the Dead. If it's your only Zombie then you can make a token during your upkeep with the trigger of Endless Ranks of the Dead on the stack and get a Zombie, as the enchantment checks upon resolution (and rounds down). Make sure to take advantage of this interaction if you ever have an odd number of Zombies during your upkeep.

Cemetery Reaper

Ghoulraiser is pretty impressive here. A three-mana Gravedigger is nothing to sneeze at. Some people may to worried that it returns a Zombie at random. To be honest, returning any Zombie from your graveyard back to your hand is pretty awesome. However, there are ways to manipulate this if you're playing against a deck that has trouble with Phyrexian Crusader, but they happened to be lucky enough to have one of their few copies of Dismember when you played your first copy. You can use Cemetery Reaper to remove unwanted Zombies from your graveyard and grab the Phyrexian Crusader with 100% accuracy.

Phyrexian Crusader is the reason I wanted to try this deck. There are enough White Weenie variants and Mono-Red strategies to make this guy a real beating. Some may worry about this card's weakness to Garruk Relentless / Garruk, the Veil-Cursed, a card that may be splashed for by a lot of red players. I suggest sideboarding in a few copies of Mutagenic Growth. Mutagenic Growth can essentially counter a removal spell on one of your creatures, and it straight-up Mental Missteps a Garruk Relentless.

Mutagenic Growth

Skinrender is a Nekrataal. The format is shaping up to be defined by creature-centric decks, and I don't think there's a better card to deal with the armies of 2/2s that many of the decks plan on killing us with.

Distress may seem expensive at two mana, but I assure you that this is a very real discard spell. Think about it this way: Thoughtseize is basically a Distress where one of the mana has to be paid with Phyrexian mana. That's not bad at all!

Go for the Throat is a nice instant-speed removal spell that can help us out-tempo opponents who get overzealous with their Swords.

Sign in Blood is an excellent card advantage tool that will allow us to play real games against control decks.

Geth's Verdict may seem strange, but I've seen too many games where a Geist of Saint Traft or Invisible Stalker got suited up with something and subsequently stole the game. An effect like this helps us deal with cards like Geist of Saint Traft, Invisible Stalker, and Thrun, the Last Troll without too much trouble.

Geth's Verdict

Doom Blade is another nice removal spell that's good for the same reasons as Go for the Throat.

Despise rounds out our discard package and gives us a reasonable way to interact with cards that can really hurt us like Garruk Relentless or Gideon Jura. Against other aggressive decks we can create a hiccup in their curving process and use that to prevent an early loss.


I was impressed both with this deck's flavor and with it ability to compete reasonably well against some of the better decks in the new Standard metagame. In particular, I was most impressed with Phyrexian Crusader. The Crusader was able to dominate a lot of games without any help from the team.

Endless Ranks of the Dead is awesome, but I'm not sure it will make the cut in competitive play. It's difficult to trigger it for more than one Zombie, and if you are getting two or three Zombies from the enchantment, then you're probably already winning the game. I decided I wanted to try something else in this slot.

Here's the list I switched to:

Lashwrithe Zombies

Download Arena Decklist

I felt like I had plenty of removal with the old list, and I wanted to find a way to put people on their heels even when I was unable to find a Phyrexian Crusader. Lashwrithe seemed like the perfect answer. It makes any Zombie big enough to threaten lethal in just a few turns, and it increases the threat count too. Best of all, Lashwrithe can be used to combo with Phyrexian Crusader to kill opponents out of nowhere. If you have six lands and a Lashwrithe and your opponent already has two poison counters, then you can outright KO them with a Phyrexian Crusader.

The new version of the deck was much better than the previous version. However, I found that the majority of my game wins came as a result of Phyrexian Crusader in combination with Lashwrithe.

With that in mind, I decided to explore a Phyrexian Crusader / Lashwrithe poison deck without the Zombie tribal component.

Phyrexian Crusade

Download Arena Decklist

This version of the deck poisons people out of nowhere. It plays a very similar game to Brian Kibler's Blue-Black Infect deck that was originally conceived as a concept by the event deck designers from Mirrodin Besieged.

Contagion Clasp is a nice endgame that works double duty by acting as a removal spell in the early game. You can start using Contagion Clasp to kill your opponent with poison or charge your Tumble Magnets once you've wound things down and dwindled your opponent's resources.

Contagion Clasp
Tumble Magnet

Tumble Magnet is an excellent way to deal with opposing players that have chosen to play with Swords. Tumble Magnet has a lot of versatility and it will allow you to play a very frustrating strategy for most of your opponents. Anyone who has ever sat across from an Icy Manipulator can tell you how strong these cards can be in Constructed. If your opponent has gone the extra mile and intends to equip the Sword to a creature with hexproof, though, you're going to have to find a different way to deal with it.

Speaking of ways to deal with hexproof creatures. I've chosen to include both Geth's Verdict and Tribute to Hunger. With both of these spells at your disposal it should be difficult for an opponent to keep any creature on the battlefield, even if has hexproof.

Tribute to Hunger

I've chosen to stick with the same setup of discard spells. Distress is very strong here. Nabbing a Dismember from your opponent's hand will often leave him or her in a rough spot, unable to deal with a Phyrexian Crusader that can go all the way.

Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon is one of the most impressive creatures on the block. This dragon surely hasn't seen his fair share of Constructed play yet. The new Standard season will probably have a home for him now that he can't just be indefinitely blocked by Squadron Hawks. It's worth noting that Skithiryx combos very nicely with Lashwrithe. I couldn't find room for Lashwrithe here, but think about this: If you have Lashwrithe or Skithiryx on the battlefield with at least six Swamps, and you cast the other card, that's ten poison counters. This is being overlooked right now, but I'm pretty sure this is one of the best combos available in the current Standard. A deck that takes advantage of this would probably also play some spells that are out of my column's charter, like Liliana of the Veil. If you're lucky enough to have access to those cards, then you should probably look into these types of strategies.

Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon

Tezzeret's Gambit helps us draw more cards and creates redundancy with Sign in Blood. Tezzeret's Gambit also conveniently increases our opponent's poison count and charges our Tumble Magnet.

Tezzeret's Gambit is another card that may be overlooked right now. Gavony Township could let a different sort of deck abuse the proliferate by using it to pump our entire team. Perhaps there's a way to abuse the interaction of proliferate with some of the cards from the new set that put +1/+1 counters on things. This is a card with a lot of different applications and interactions, and I'm sure we'll be seeing it in many decklists in the future.

Tezzeret's Gambit
Inkmoth Nexus

Inkmoth Nexus might be difficult to acquire, but it's a very strong card that deserves a lot of attention, and that should see plenty of use. In fact, when Nick Spagnolo and I were talking about new decks for Standard. he made the claim that Inkmoth Nexus was probably the second or third most powerful card in the format. It makes sense, too; I wouldn't be surprised if it became the centerpiece of a deck that planned on winning exclusively with the land, perhaps with cards like Kessig Wolf Run.

In this deck, it's very important that we have the inevitability presented by Inkmoth Nexus. Many opponents will find sorcery-speed answers to our Skithiryx, but it's unlikely that people will be able to deal with Inkmoth Nexus's ability to keep poking through every stage of the game. It's also nice to use the Nexus to poke in a point or two of infect before you start proliferating with Tezzeret's Gambit or Contagion Clasp. You want to get full value when you proliferate, and Inkmoth Nexus lets us make sure that we're never missing a beat.

If you're a fan of poison like myself, then this may be the perfect deck for you. Take it for a spin, and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

The new format allows you to make a lot of cool decisions in terms of deck design. It's still the Wild West out there, and I'm sure we haven't seen the best decks emerge yet. Shoot me emails with all your newest ideas, and I'll try to help in any way I can.

Happy brewing!

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