Robbing Zombies

Posted in Serious Fun on March 4, 2003

By Anthony Alongi

When you think of zombies, do you think of good team players?

Probably not. Even outside of Magic, the vision most people have of zombies are of uncooperative, bumbling bodies that can't step over each other fast enough in search of someone's brain.

And in the game itself, a lot of Zombies involve pain and sacrifice. Think of Carnophage or Shepherd of Rot. If you're on a casual team, you might hurt your teammates if you slap something like this down. What are you, crazy? Zombies aren't team players. You want team players? Think of Elves – they're nice to each other. Or how about Soldiers? Can't have an army of Soldiers without a team busting out. Or Wizards – they're mysterious and shifty, sure – but at least they're not hacking at a friendly life total.

Add to that the fact that Zombies practically demand a mono-black deck, and things start to look grim. You can't stop that guy's enchantments? You can't do anything about that artifact? You're losing life a mile a minute? Why are you playing that deck on our team?!? Where's that nice Cleric deck we thought you'd play?!?

First things first – the Cleric deck has False Prophet, and that's nobody's friend. But Clerics or no, there's a lot to recommend a Zombie deck in team play, and so that's where I'd like to focus this week's article.

The last few expansions have seen some fairly incredible Zombies. But given the hundreds of Multi-Lab requests I've gotten (and folks, I've responded to about 400 but I'm still working on those dated February 12…so sit tight), I'm surprised that I don't see them used more often. All three of these are terrific in team or chaos play – yet I rarely see a one. One of them's a rare, so I understand that – but two of them are uncommon, and all of them are recent. Like veteran superstars on a basketball team, they can power you to victory regardless of what other pieces you put around them. Let's look at the "unholy trinity" that forms the core of Team Zombie:

SHOOTING GUARD: WITHERED WRETCH

Now, I'll admit that this one just came out, and so not everyone has had time to realize how amazing he is. But within a month or two, I expect every serious casual player (serious casual player?...damn, I have to stop writing so fast) to have at least four of these. Uncommons are not hard to come by, and this is worth the small investment of time and maybe a buck or two.

The Zombie doesn't take long to warm up. He's swinging for two on turn three, which is never bad. He's got enough toughness to survive the ever-present pingers. And he blends with both Zombie and Cleric decks, so he's good for deck chemistry.

But his real skill is in the three-pointer: he absolutely wrecks Exhume and other reanimator strategies, blows apart threshold and flashback cards, and does so with machine-gun speed. And all of this on an efficient 2/2! Tormod's Crypt and Morningtide have their own charms; but they don't stick around on the board to keep shelling the opposition. Playing simple odds, this card alone will sink about ten percent of the decks a given group fields (again, I'm estimating based on my email flow for the past few years). Those are free wins. One card! You lose nothing by running four.

CENTER: GRAVESPAWN SOVEREIGN

Like most centers on a basketball team, the role of the Sovereign is simple. I can sum up this card's value in two sentences:

  1. Five Zombies in play sounds like a lot, but it's not.
  2. Once you hit this number, protection from black means nothing.

At first, it may look like this doesn't have much synergy with Withered Wretch – I mean, aren't you removing their creature cards? Well, geez, not all of them – and not if you think you'll be able to use them later! There are plenty of decks that can't recur their excellent creatures, and you can keep that graveyard well-stocked. Once people become familiar with your zombie deck, you can even send signals, true or false, about what you might take by what the Wretch leaves behind. There's synergy there – it just doesn't punch a hole in your head, like you'd expect a zombie to do.

Back to the five Zombies thing. Yeah, it's not simple. But of all the Onslaught lords, this one has the easiest job. (That's part of why the converted mana cost is six, instead of five like the other ones.) You can do this a bunch of ways:

  • Corpse Harvester. This is getting play elsewhere in the week, so I'll leave it be. But suffice it to say this is the Power Forward in many a good zombie deck.
  • Sarcomancy/Umbilicus. Well-known among veterans of the game, this combo is more perilous given the exploding number of comes-into-play creatures since Urza's cycle. Your team will not always appreciate their opposite numbers replaying Flametongue Kavu and/or Stormscape Battlemage. But you can't expect zombies to play nice all the time, can you? Besides, once you have the Sovereign out, you'll grab a solution, right? Attaboy.
  • Grave Defiler. The Apocalypse cycle of type-searchers got a real boost from Onslaught. Cards that didn't look that good at first are starting to look a lot better. (Hint: Brass Herald is still bad. No, no, I've already heard a hundred times what you're about to email me. Save it for an issue I'll bend on. The Herald bites mealy petits-fours.) The Zombie searcher has certainly improved with new possibilities for recruits – but of all the searchers, I think this is the riskiest, since Zombies generally can't do their entire job alone, and you're risking sending a critical support card (e.g., Corrupt) to the bottom of your deck. Just make sure you can shuffle.
  • Bubble Matrix. Zombies are weak on toughness, which makes them vulnerable to Pyroclasm and the rough-and-tumble of combat. But disallow damage and they'll thrive – black removal generally can't touch them, and an alternate victory path for your own black deck (loss of life) goes right over the heads of the deadlocking armies.
  • Tombstone Stairwell. If you're playing with this card, you can probably do more impressive things than tap five creatures to raise the dead. But hey, throw one in there if you have it. Can't hurt, right?
  • Lifeline. I hate Lifeline. Badly conceived, badly printed, badly interpreted. Don't play this card. (But it will keep five zombies in play, I suppose. Grudge, grudge.)

Let's move on to the third team member – and what may be the linchpin of the Team Zombie deck:

POINT GUARD: ZOMBIE TRAILBLAZER

Yes, Zombie Trailblazer! This innocuous Torment uncommon isn't just about swampwalk – although that's an eventual path to victory. While you're making enough zombies to make the Sovereign strong, you can do an awful lot to an opponent's manabase during his upkeep.

For you newer players – timing is important. At the beginning of an opponent's turn, ask them to pass priority and wait before proceeding to their draw step. This is a window where you can turn as many lands of theirs as you have Zombies into swamps. Focus on one color the opponent carries and just bury it. Of course, the opponent may respond by putting mana into his pool – but he'll have to use whatever they tap before his main phase, or he burns for it.

There are other boutique moves – negating a Maze of Ith before a teammate's attack phase, making counterspelling even more difficult than it already is in group play, boosting your own black for a better Cabal Coffers tap, Mutilate, or game-winning Corrupt – but in general, the way Trailblazers play early to mid-game is mana denial. They are really, really good at this.

Playing against a team with all black decks? That's nice. Forget mana denial. The Trailblazer goes immediately into attack mode, giving your teammates' creatures swampwalk from the get go. Remember that since the ability does not have a "tap" symbol in it, summoning sickness is not a concern: for example, you can tap the Trailblazer to give something swampwalk the very turn you play it. (This is also true of the Sovereign's ability.)

So from the moment he hits the game, the Trailblazer is directing your troops, helping them slip through defenses, keeping an enemy off-balance, and in general causing a frightening nuisance.

TEAM ZOMBIE: FINAL TOUCHES

Put it all together, and you have a deck that does what many black decks cannot – prevent enchantments from being cast, pass through defenses swiftly, recruit creatures that get around pro-black, and in general cause disruption that has nothing to do with discard or removal. Of course, we'll add those last two elements before we're done.

What we end up with is a deck that would work quite well as an Emperor deck, as long as your group sets emperor range to reach opposing flanks:

TeamZombie.deq

Download Arena Decklist

Sol'kanar the Swamp King is a personal touch – it has swampwalk, and offsets the life loss of the Muse. Two more Soulless Ones (or sizable Zombies of your choice) would work just fine.

Now, I'm not one to send you out there with a Zombie deck that only works in team! This little ditty should also work fine in chaos or other multiplayer formats. The Vodalian Zombies will shine a bit more here, since protection from green works better in close quarters. Like any deck, it will struggle under concentrated fire. (Many opponents will think it's cute to destroy your zombies so that Sarcomancy deals damage to you.) You may need to increase the Jilts and mid-range Zombies – or add things like Boneknitter to preserve what you get out.

Before long, you'll be making your opponents wish your creatures were playing on their side.

Anthony may be reached at seriousfun@wizards.com.

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