Do you hear that groaning sound?
It's one of the most flavorful cards Wizards has ever unearthed. It's splashy, it's build-around, and it's tribal; Wizards nailed the trifecta for me on this one. Still, despite the Zombie decks that have ebbed and flowed since their reintroduction into Standard last fall, I haven't seen any that prepare for a Zombie Apocalypse.
So what's a would-be necromancer to do? It's not a lack of desire or drive, but rather, I think the Apocalypse simply requires a fairly specific approach that's a bit different from the conventional beatdown plan. The power level of this card is very strong in the abstract, but we need to put three specific pieces together to successfully execute this cataclysm.
Step 1: Find the corpses
As we've already determined, Zombies are a heavily supported tribe in Standard. Every set has offered us strong candidates for inclusion. Zombies currently span three colors, but most decks I've seen have only utilized two colors for the sake of consistency. For the deck we're building though, we have the time and flexibility to utilize the most synergetic bodies from black, blue, and green.
Step 2: Spread the plague
The big benefit of the Apocalypse is it provides immense value. Using it with one Zombie in the graveyard is an option, but who wants to do that? Tossing as many corpses into the grave is the goal, and so we need spells and creatures that add to the pile so our Apocalypse can be as festering and smelly as possible.
Step 3: Command the dead
Once you find yourself at the helm of countless undead, what's the best way to sic them on your opponent? Although a mass of shambling flesh should do the job, it needs to be powerful enough to truly pummel a healthy, full-cheeked opponent.
I can already hear their Zombie mouths…watering? Decaying? I don't know…
- 4 Armored Skaab
- 4 Diregraf Captain
- 4 Dreg Mangler
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 2 Grimgrin, Corpse-Born
- 2 Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord
These twelve slots are dedicated to the fighters of the deck. Although the deck isn't the meat-fisted slugfest that aggressive Zombies builds are, we need to keep pressure on the opponent; we need to give them a reason to kill our Zombies. Lotleth Troll has waned in popularity, even in G/B Zombie builds, but he's a synergetic one-two punch here. Flush several Zombies before the Apocalypse, survive board sweepers, and trample over puny Lingering Souls tokens. Dreg Mangler, also a Zombie staple, complements its scrabbling pal, Gravecrawler. Also, you can swing with the Mangler right after reanimation, for when that's relevant.
These slower Zombies are meant to provide complex and effective ways to kill your opponent. Against a defensive deck, this is the hammer that will help you break through. Diregraf Captain is very effective in multiples, making even your most innocuous Zombies a time bomb. Most decks favor a Wrath effect to deal with board overpopulation, and the Captain is an often-overlooked solution. I know, Blood Artist is certainly better in a broader set of decks, but the Captain's lord-like ability pushes him over the edge.
Jarad and his Dimir-flavored companion Grimgrin are effective finishers and share a subtle similarity. Both provide a sacrifice outlet (although Grimgrin's is free), and both are highly effective single combatants. Either with a Captain out spells certain death for a weakened foe or the key to unlocking a stymied board state. Jarad is sympathetic to being milled or discarded; just remember to float the mana from the sacrificed lands to cast him!
Grimgrin, Gravecrawler, and Diregraf Captain make an effective engine by themselves, too. I tried to squeeze in a Rooftop Storm to complete the combo, but it was way too situational to merit inclusion.
Armored Skaab and Spells
Armored Skaab acts like a synergetic spell more than a creature. It's not aggressive like Dreg Mangler, but it is a highly effective wall, especially in congress with Diregraf Captain. The milling ability digs you into more Zombies, broadening your options while protecting you with a substantial rear end; it can block Rakdos Cacklers, Beast tokens, and Geralf's Messengers for days.
The two digging spells, Tracker's Instinct and Forbidden Alchemy, provide similar functions. The only disadvantage is that Instincts can mill your Apocalypse. Although the deck does not require Zombie Apocalypse to win the game, it does help. Ultimate Price is a nice, easy-to-cast kill spell that has yet to let me down.
I understand that this list could be seen as premature, as Watery Grave isn't available yet. Although that would normally be the case, Cavern of Souls fills the gap very effectively in a tribal context. As such, three colors is actually quite easily achieved. Between Evolving Wilds and the sets of dependent duals, I rarely have a mana problem. Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord is the toughest on the mana, but I'm almost always able to cast him on time nonetheless. Furthermore, I don't really want to cast him on turn four anyway, so it's often a non-issue.
Nephalia Drownyard is the only utility land this time; it can bring more Zombies to your call, or it can finish off a draw-hungry opponent who is futilely digging for his or her win condition.
Being in this color combination gives us strong, broad sideboarding options. On that note, let's contradict ourselves with Vile Rebirth, a narrow graveyard-interaction card that has gone overlooked since its summer spoiling. I loved this card the moment it was spoiled, and although Cremate has since been added to the Standard roster and is in general more flexible and relevant (a 2/2 creature is often less relevant than a new card), I like the Zombie it makes, even as just a flashing 2/2 for B. Deathrite Shaman would go here in any other deck, but I'm going to try Rebirth out for tribal purposes.
Abrupt Decay is obviously a very powerful answer to a wide variety of threats. It wrecks Runechanter's Pike and anti-graveyard cards like Rest in Peace, Ground Seal, and Grafdigger's Cage. It also acts as extra removal against particularly fast decks, effectively as Ultimate Price 5-7.
Negate is a real gem for a deck like this. Rarely does a high-power creature deck also have a cheap, hard counter available to deal with nearly any problem that Ultimate Price can't. That little bugger Golgari Charm does everything it needs to here, dealing with the aforementioned graveyard hate, saving the team from sweepers, and eliminating Lingering Souls tokens. Garruk Relentless pulls his weight here, throwing up chump blockers, punching (my term for his second ability) pesky dudes, and going big with his sacrifice or Overrun effect on the back.
Sever the Bloodline is a token squasher, and it also deals with creatures that evade my other spot removal, like Olivia Voldaren. It can be salvaged from the graveyard too, albeit at a pretty steep price.
After some playtesting, I was very pleased with how well the deck performed against established archetypes. I found several strong matchups and others that left something to be desired.
In what would otherwise be a mirror match, this deck performed fairly well without sideboarding, but it did even better afterwards. I played against a version each of the B/R and the B/G version, and I found that any turn they aren't attacking is a turn they are losing. For both versions, Golgari Charm is priceless; block and survive an attack or clear out their Falkenrath Aristocrats.
The particular one I faced was non-black, and it was poorly matched. A Sphinx's Revelation may have drawn my opponent a fist of cards, but they still couldn't deal with Lotleth Troll and Jarad. He boarded incorrectly, thinking I was using an aggro deck, and an Apocalypse + Grimgrin sealed up the match. Decks don't seem to run Terminus anymore due to its awkward casting cost, and these Bant/X control decks are often inconsistent enough to do much else besides Farseek and Revelation against us.
After sideboarding, I wished that my Garruks were grown-up versions (Garruk, Primal Hunter), but I know that the deck can't reliably support his steep color commitment. Although it was untested, I could extrapolate that this deck would do fairly well against U/W/R Control, at least pre-board.
Two matchups gave me some trouble, though, and fixing those matchups puzzled me.
This matchup was very difficult; the consistency and speed of this deck put me on the defensive, and I couldn't stop drawing Gravecrawlers. I was blocking for most of the game, and even if I caught their Rancor target with Ultimate Price, they didn't miss a beat. In its current version, this deck's starting sixty is ill-equipped to squash this deck. First strike also proved problematic. Each turn I scrambled for a Zombie Apocalypse as a partial sweeper more than as a reanimation enabler. That is, if I made it turn six (or seven, if Thalia was out).
Matches with tokens felt strangely similar to G/W Aggro. However, fighting tokens adds lifelink to the equation via Vault of the Archangel, as well as the whole Thragtusk/Restoration Angel combo that has proved difficult for many decks. I had only one match against this deck, and I was able to outmaneuver the player in game two with some tricks.
My opponent attempted to exile my graveyard, and I sacked and recovered both of my Jarads, threw them to my Troll, and smashed through the following turn for lethal. I couldn't draw Sever the Bloodline fast enough, and it just wasn't as strong as it could have been the one time I did draw it in game two. Curse of Death's Hold might actually be better, as it also helps against U/W/X Control.
For a cutesy deck, this one performed very well. I won't pin that on good or innovative deckbuilding on my part; the Zombie base for this deck is well-known. The deck was quite consistent, and the times I resolved Zombie Apocalypse immediately yielded concessions. If I cast a spell and they scoop in response, I consider that a successful deck.
If you'll notice, I sided out some number of Tracker's Instinct in each match; its effect was often redundant and greedy. On the other hand, I wished I had a Diregraf Captain in every hand; that card provided unparalleled inevitability between the pump and life loss.
Deathrite Shaman definitely belongs in this deck; it will always have targets, and I'd even be tempted to run it maindeck. The milling this deck does naturally gives it plenty of fuel, and it can more reliably use its mana fixing ability combined with the milling and Evolving Wilds activations.
Either way, I will enjoy fiddling with this for the next couple weeks. Casting Zombie Apocalypse is very invigorating. Make sure you announce it proudly each time you cast it. As Gatecrash previews become more complete, I'll be bringing you my choices for sleeper hits in both Limited and Constructed play for the Gatecrash era. Hope to see you then, and don't forget to untap!
CaptainShapiro on Magic Online