Tribal Unity – Zombies

Greetings, Corpses and Corpse Brides! Unmistakable is back again with another segment of Tribal Unity! This week I’m covering perhaps my favourite tribe in Magic: Zombies!

The Tribe

Zombies are one of the enduring forces of the Magic tribe world and have been since the very start of the game – as early as alpha we’ve seen tribal support for them in powerhouse Lord Zombie Master – granted, there were only 2 other zombies in the set, but that just means they’ve had the best part of 25 years to grow. Being one of the characteristic races of Black (alongside Vampires), Zombies need a very good reason to not be in a set at all, and this makes them perfect for deckbuilders who like tweaking over time.

zombie masterOver the years, Zombies have been literally every colour in the colour pie – while primarily black, they have been secondary in blue (fuelled by the wild success of Innistrad, with a small splash in Alara), and tertiary in the other three colours (Red from the shard of Grixis in Alara, Green belonging to the Golgari on Ravnica, and newly White on Amonkhet). While this makes them an incredibly flexible tribe to contend with, their presence in Blue/Black makes most decks centre around them, with perhaps a splash here and there – though the lack of compelling 3 colour tribal legendaries stifles this creativity somewhat (Sidisi, Brood Tyrant or Thraximundar DO exist, after all).

Tribal Focus

With this in mind, if we pooled an Undead horde, how would they behave? Well:

While this shouldn’t come as a surprise, zombie decks tend to specialise in reanimation and the graveyard. Often it’s by external sources, such as Lord of the Undead or Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, but some workhorses of the archetype tend to drag themselves out of the ground to fight, like valuable staples Gravecrawler or Prized Amalgam. This lends zombies to a fantastic state of resilient synergy, a value engine that refuses to stop turning after a certain point. This focus also helps punish boardwipes, as following up a wipe with a Zombie Apocalypse is a very real game loss scenario that must be respected by opponents.

When you think of Zombies, besides being difficult to kill, gravecrawleris that there are typically lots of them; and the zombies of Magic do not disappoint. A lot of zombie cards specialise in creating more of them, and typically in large amounts. Army of the Damned and Endless Ranks of the Dead both power out walking corpses, aiding in the futility of spot removal against a Zombie deck. These are heavily synergises with his payoff cards that care about how large your zombie horde is, such as Gempalm Polluter or Soulless One.

A characteristic that makes zombies daunting to deal with is their use of an incremental life loss mechanic. A number of lords in the tribe force opponents to lose life when their comrades fall – Diregraf Captain, Plague Belcher and Vengeful Dead to name a few. The promise that your zombies will still deal damage even if taken down, coupled with how expendable they are and how many there are of them, lend the tribe to a recklessly aggressive focus. No matter how you slice it, throwing a handful of 2/2s that explode for 2-3 damage on death will always be a decent chunk of damage, and a headache to navigate through.

One final point before I move on from here: as with dragons, Zombies are a tribe blessed by a completely tribal combo kill. The severity of the kill depends on how many pieces you have assembled, but all are fairly intimidating.

  • First, the two card combo: Gravecrawler and Grimgrin, Corpse-Born. With these two guys around, Grimgrin becomes supercharged, always having access to a sacrifice to untap himself, and being able to boost himself up at sorcery speed as long as you can pay for the ‘Crawler.
  • But, what if we make the Gravecrawler free? Enter: Rooftop Storm. Since you cast the crawler from the graveyard, this enchantment allows you to recur him for free. Now, providing there is no disruption, your Grimgrin is now infinitely large. Combine this with his ability to destroy a defending creature and then still demand a blocker, this will kill at least once before it is dealt with by hard removal.
  • But, what if we could speed up that kill? We’ve got infinite deaths and enters, what about those creatures that cause life loss on creature death, such as Plague Belcher? I’m glad you asked – add any of the multiple ways to punish deaths in the deck to instantly deal infinite damage to every enemy that there ever was. Takes a bit of set up, but has the ultimate payoff considering you’re effectively assembling Exodia.

Lords and Synergy Picks

I had the hardest time cutting down this list to only the hardest working, most underrated pieces of tech for the tribe. Everybody knows Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and company are powerhouses in the deck, but what if you want that little bit extra to really get the tribe there? Allow me to present my picks:

dread summonsStraight off, allow me to introduce Dread Summons. A card I had completely forgotten about despite its relatively young age, this was reintroduced to me during my research by a very kind soul on Reddit. What we have here is a very flexible spell that does everything we want. Ideally you want X to be 3 or higher at minimum, so this does eat up a higher end of your curve (Get some Cabal Coffers in you) – but the value this gets is immense. First off, let’s talk milling. Usually an inconsequential mechanic in EDH, any mill card that doesn’t just affect myself in a graveyard build leaves me sceptical; a lot of decks run some recursion, and for some decks cards in the graveyard are no different to cards in hand (See: A Zombie tribal deck). The fact that this hits everyone, including yourself, offsets this somewhat. Putting creatures into your graveyard is great to expand your toolbox, and make that Patriarch’s Bidding even juicier. The milling, while it is weak against other graveyard decks, is negated through clever hate such as Withered Wretch. It can also help to disrupt combo decks that tutor to the top of the deck, forcing them to dig for the tools to get lost pieces back instead of winning on the spot. The zombies are just highly synergistic gravy at this point – they provide a host of more bodies to block, deal damage, and generate a ton of value alongside Endless Ranks of the Dead or Gempalm Polluter. While prone to whiffing in the wrong meta, even in my decidedly creature light meta my first cast of this hitting 4 guys for 5 each yielded 12 tokens – while it can be dependent on the decks you’re against, the fact that your deck can affect the outcome acts as a buffer – you’re running a lot of creatures in a Zombie deck.

In a similar vein, let’s talk Noxious Ghoul. This is a straight-up combo card, but I love it for it. The regular pulses of Flaying Tendrils, while nice, are not what this card is used for. In a meta where he will just be mopping up dorks with not much mana to waste on him will make him fit for that purpose; the real meat is how he breaks some fair cards in two. Take Dread Summons, for example. A decent hit on creatures can enable this guy to pulse an instant kill effect on any nonzombie on the board, in addition to your Dread Summons, for no extra cost. While a steep initial investment, he quickly proves his salt through his role as a removal engine. A well stocked graveyard with him in can turn Living Death one sided, he turns Grave Titan into a 4/4 that casts a Drown in Sorrow every attack. The possibilities are nearly endless when you’re cooking with zombies! All the while, your own horde is completely unaffected, allowing them to swarm just as god (The Scarab God, that is) intended. Glorious!

Unholy Grotto – while it seems boring tounholy grotto include a land on top synergy picks, this land is something truly special. A cheaper Volrath’s Stronghold (both in terms of mana, and at a fraction of the price in sterling too), this mutated Academy Ruins provides your zombies with unnatural resilience. Over time, this little engine grinds out an unholy amount of value, allowing you to play your graveyard like a toolbox for what you need in the late game. Need removal? Loop Fleshbag Marauder or Skinrender a couple times, that’ll wear them down. Need to get some draw on the go? Prime Graveborn Muse or Forgotten Creation to churn your deck out some new recruits. Want to combo kill, but need to defend yourself? Run them out, the Grotto will provide when the time is right. I am absolutely in love with this land (and it’s sister effects, Volrath’s Stronghold and Lord of the Undead) in zombie tribal, as they are some of the most flavourfully satisfying ways of portraying the terrifying might of a zombie horde.

Sowing Salt – Top 3 Zombie Commanders

So, you’ve had me raving about the Unhallowed dead. But, who is most fit to lead?

3) Grimgrin, Corpse-Born – the leader of my first attempt at zombie tribal, Grimgrin is great. Coming right out the gates at a respectable 5/5 for 5; he’s no slouch on the battlefield. On the contrary, that’s where zombie decks with Grimgrin at the helm thrive. I’ve found zombies are best used as fodder in a Grimgrin deck, feeding the titanic abomination so he can do the legwork for you – a Grimgrin on the offensive, with the threat of getting huge at a moment’s notice and the ability to lay waste to a defending creature without even blocking make him a terror to defend against. Equally as sickening, however, is his pseudo vigilance, gifted to him by his sacrifice ability. This means that even when Grimgrin is swinging, he is a monstrous blocker that can be ready at a moment’s notice. Similarly, in the combo route, a sac outlet in the Command Zone that is a zombie is super helpful to pull out your tribal combo kills. The only reason I can’t put him higher on this list is purely because he doesn’t really fill the fantasy of a zombie commander. There’s lots of death, but no undeath. The other two on this list fills the role a lot better, but if you’re looking at an aggressive zombie commander, you need not look further.

gisa2) Gisa and Geralf – while I’m inexperienced with the necromantic pair from Innistrad, I am very well versed with Karador, Ghost Chieftain, and the power of that secondary ability is undeniable. Casting a zombie from your graveyard each turn is incredibly powerful, and lets your graveyard act as an extension of your hand, giving you what you need when you need it. With the zombie tribe in particular it extracts some gross value, especially when your reanimation brings back your zombie, Prized amalgam, and offers you a Gravecrawler as well for minimal extra investment. That value multiplies again if your chosen reanimation target is a Phyrexian Delver, grabbing another target. Gisa and Geralf can act as a key combo piece that enables the trademark zombie explosive board presence, and their entrance even begins stocking your yard for you. The presence they provide is super resilient, super powerful, and deadly. Definitely a strong contender for the top spot..

1) The Scarab God – beating out Gisa and Geralf this week is a titanic harbinger of the God-pharaoh himself. Ever since this guy lurched his way out of spoilers, he struck me instantly as somebody I wanted to lead my own Zombie tribal deck. The fallen God has a lot going on, so I’ll break it down piece by piece: first, one of the biggest characteristics from a commander perspective, is his ability to continually cheat on commander tax with that third ability. This enables him to always get back up regardless of how many times he is taken down, and allowing him to become easier to cast without taking up an entire turn as the game goes on. Later on; when even notoriously easy to cast commanders like Gaddock Teeg or Thrasios, Triton Hero are costing upwards of 8 mana, this guy will always be crawling back for more at his normal rate – perfect to lead a deck of unquiet dead.

Secondly, let’s cover his top ability. At the head of a regular the scarab godreanimator deck, this is threatening. It offers an insane amount of card selection passively, while also providing a clock that is often comparable or better than an asymmetric Sulfuric Vortex. In a zombie tribal deck, when you can crank out 2+ zombies a turn with more in bursts, this is terrifying. It’s a genuine clock, that allows a pretty lengthy delve to filter out your draws every turn. It will make you a target if you have a board, but if unanswered it crushes dreams.

Finally, his activated ability. For the small price of 2UB (very fair, considering it was in Standard with Rise from the grave and Ever After as reanimation precedents), you can swipe any creature from a graveyard, which is huge. Add on that it’s not just your graveyard, it becomes an efficient hate tool against opposing reanimator decks and prevents clashing with your own theme. Add in that it is instant speed, and you have a format-warping (I’m so sorry, Standard) ability that pulls blockers from nowhere and can control graveyards with an iron fist. The zombie creature type is paltry compared the rest of the sickening ability, but swirls in some synergy with The Scarab God by triggering his own passive ability, even with no natural zombies in any deck. Put these abilities together, and you get a tribal powerhouse that will be difficult to replace in future, and will easily hold onto the title of Best Zombie Commander, in my eyes.

That just about covers zombies! What do you think, guys? Tickled your inspiration bones? An idea that’s Dead-on-arrival? Feel free to let me know, and if you like what you see, be sure to like us on Facebook for the latest and greatest commander tech! For now though, Unmistakable out.

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