The biggest myth about competitive Magic is that it's an individual endeavor.
Sure the game is played between two people (at least in most formats) but hardly anyone makes it to the top tables on their own. To do well in Magic you need friends. Friends to playtest with you friends to loan you hard to find cards friends honest enough to shoot down your bad ideas while making sure not to discourage your creative efforts. It is because of friends like these that I'm writing this article.
Hi I'm Bera Dunau. I live in Pittsfield Massachusetts where I work as a reporter at The Berkshire Beacon a weekly newspaper. The main store I play Magic at is X9 Games in Hadley the home of a vibrant Magic scene.
I placed fourth a couple weekends ago at the SCG Standard Open in Providence while piloting B/G Zombies but I would have never gotten to that position if it wasn't for the wonderful Magic playing community I'm a part of.
Once spoiler season for Return to Ravnica hit I made it my mission to build the most aggressive deck possible for Standard. I'd been putting up some decent results with G/R Aggro so my initial impulse was to build something with Wolfir Silverheart Huntmaster and Bonfire.
No Stomping Grounds and Birds killed that plan and after floating some lists that tried to jam Lotleth Troll Strangleroot Geist Dreg Mangler and Huntmaster into the same deck I settled on B/G Zombies after seeing its dominant performance in early playtesting videos on SCG Premium and reading great articles about the archetype on both the Premium and Select sides of the website.
I began running lists by my friends and started testing them out on Cockatrice with my buddies Andrew Mertes and Cory Gillette. A lot of the credit for the refinements I made to my list should go to Mertes and Tim Wegman who served both as great sounding boards and testing partners. Mertes also has an MTG blog EOT Brainstorm which I highly recommend checking out.
Getting familiar with the interactions and sideboarding strategies of the deck was huge for me and I can't stress how important the practice I got with the deck before rotation was to my success in Providence. If you want to give yourself a shot at a strong finish in a tourney the first step is knowing your list and its goal inside out.
As for the deck itself I made a number of deviations from stock B/G Zombies lists some that proved to be inconsequential and others that I think were essential to my performance at the Open. As of when I'm writing this it's tied with Gerry Thompson's California States list as the highest finishing B/G Zombies list in North America despite the fact that States was last weekend so although I think there's plenty of room for modification I'd like to think that I'm on the right track.
- 2 Deadbridge Goliath
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 4 Dreg Mangler
- 4 Geralf's Messenger
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 3 Rakdos Shred-Freak
First off let's take a look at the land base.
I firmly believe that my deck was vastly improved by my decision to play this card.
Yep that's right. I played two basic Forests in a Zombies deck and I will defend that decision against all the hordes of the internet!
Well here's the thing. If I have a hand with two Swamps and a Forest I can cast every card in my deck on curve in the first three turns of the game with the exception of Geralf's Messenger. That means that Lotleth Troll Diregraf Ghoul Gravecrawler Dreg Mangler Golgari Charm and Rancor come down exactly when I need them to.
Now don't get me wrong Messenger is amazing but he's not worth hobbling the rest of your drops for or giving you awkward draws especially when you consider that Golgari Guildgate is a nonbo with Woodland Cemetery. And curve is incredibly important in G/B Zombies. It's an aggro deck designed to throw down a constant stream of resilient threats and the most powerful and resilient of these threats costs one green.
Rancor is the biggest reason bar none to play B/G Zombies. Sure Dreg Mangler and Lotleth Troll are awesome but Rancor is the glue that holds the deck together and makes it really shine. It's because of Rancor that the deck runs 25 creatures and why I never went below 22 creatures after sideboard over the course of the tournament with the exception of one matchup where I may have gone down to 21.
Rancor gives the deck inevitability and turns every creature into a dangerous threat. Being able to reliably cast the deck's four copies was one of the chief reasons for me choosing to play Forests as Rancor is 100% worth stretching your mana base for to make sure you can cast it whenever you have it in hand.
As for the creatures the 20 Zombies are a given with Gravecrawler Lotleth Troll Geralf's Messenger and Dreg Mangler representing powerful and hard to deal with threats and Diregraf Ghoul serving as an essential role-player.
I chose to play Rakdos Shred-Freak over Rakdos Cackler chiefly because New England loves control decks and I didn't want to force myself to extend into sweepers. Of course I played two more creatures and those are the Goliaths in the room.
I played two Deadbridge Goliath mainly as a hedge against G/W and U/W Aggro decks as tech in the mirror and as a curve topper that could beat through ground stalls when Rancored up.
As it turns out Deadbridge Goliath was mostly a dead card all day and I boarded it out nearly every match up. Still I don't think it hurt me that much as the times I drew it I either pitched it to Lotleth Troll or played it out to middling effect. I also didn't play against any G/W or U/W Aggro decks in the Open nor did I face the mirror and I think Goliath would do a lot better job pulling his weight in a meta where those decks are more common. As it is I'm keeping the two bugs maindeck but I will probably be cutting down on the sideboard copies.
My list also had one all-star card that wrecked face all day dealing a crippling blow to my opponents' hopes and dreams.
This does it all. Pushes through damage helps you win races kills mana dorks kills Falkenrath Aristocrat and kills Blood Artist. My only regret is not running four of them as it was astonishingly powerful all day long. This tech came to my attention when Daniel Caskey made Top 8 at the SCG Standard Open in Cincinnati and I think it belongs in both B/R and B/G lists (my friend Chad Papineau cashed playing B/R with Crippling Blight and was in contention for Top 8 until the end of the eighth round).
Another amazing card for me was Golgari Charm. Running two in the main gave my deck game 1 answers against sweepers mana dorks and pesky enchantments and it was a key role-player throughout the day.
Seriously that card can ruin a G/B Zombie player's day really fast and having eight maindeck and four sideboard ways to deal with Aristocrat and her friend Blood Artist goes a long way towards making the tough B/R Zombies match up a winnable one while dealing significant splash damage to mana dork strategies.
As for the sideboard Appetite for Brains was beastly throughout the tournament. Being able to strip a card from a midrange or control player's hand the turn before they're able to cast a four-drop can be backbreaking and the information it provides is quite helpful.
The sideboard MVP however was Vampire Nighthawk. I played against a lot of midrange in Providence and Nighthawk + Rancor was the trump that I always tried to put together as it can quickly take over the game. Nighthawk is also wicked powerful against other aggro decks
As for the rest Thragtusk is for aggro Sever the Bloodline is for any deck going big Deadbridge Goliath is for G/W and U/W Aggro and the mirror and Golgari Charm comes in against the B/R Zombies and W/X Control. Deathrite Shaman is for the Reanimator matchup.
Going into the tournament my goal was to make Top 64. However my confidence was shaken by testing against B/R Zombies and Bant Control the night before both of which were poor matchups.
I made some adjustments to the deck (going from one Tragic Slip to three) and drove down in the morning with my friends to Providence half-wishing I had enough familiarity with the B/R version to competently pilot it since it just seemed better at the time.
Here is a summary of my matches:
Round 1: Josh Giambra with 5-Color Control W
Round 2: Charles Wiper with Restoration Angel Jund W
Round 3: Marc Blesso with Junk Tokens W
Round 4: Philip Minichino with Bant Control L
Round 5: Ryan Dunn with B/R Zombies W
Round 6: Matt Ferrando with U/W/R Miracles W
Round 7: Allan Autino with Jund W
Round 8: Brian Lynch with Naya W
Round 9: Dan Jordan ID
Quarterfinals: Nick Heal with Jund W
Semifinals: Dan Jordan with Junk Reanimator L
My first match was against Josh Giambra playing Five-Color Control. Josh was a nice guy and a pleasant opponent but I dispatched him pretty decisively in two games his deck proving no match for the onslaught of undead unleashed against it.
This match was a good illustration of one of G/B Zombies' biggest strengths: it is brutally consistent. Any hand with pressure has to be answered or the opponent will just get run over and since the deck is mostly four-ofs it mulligans to pressure really well. The deck also has maindeck disruption to counteract answers and more disruption comes in post-board against control and midrange. Even a Gravecrawler with a Rancor is a five-turn clock so decks without a way to race or survive the early game generally get overwhelmed.
Winning the first round 2-0 helped get me off the slight tilt I was on from testing and I zoned myself in as I waited for the next round.
Now would also be a good time to mention another MVP for the tournament: the song Whistle by Flo Rida. I'm not the biggest fan of poppy rap music (there's a reason I wore my Iron Maiden concert t-shirt to the tournament) but I have a weakness for some of it and this tune is catchy. Any time I began feeling the pressure of a close game or felt that I was pulling ahead I just focused on the hook and it calmed me down and kept me playing tight. As silly as that might sound being able to have something that kept me grounded and present was essential for me that day.
I then faced off against Jund splashing white for Restoration Angel piloted by Charles Wiper another classy opponent. Game 1 I got a triple Rancor double Gravecrawler start and managed to run him over sealing the deal by Tragic Slipping his Rakdos Keyrune. Game 2 I kept a slow disruption-filled hand and was punished by Restoration Angel and Huntmaster. Game 3 was tight but I rode a Lotleth Troll and Vampire Nighthawk to victory the Troll proving to be too much for Charles' deck to deal with.
The chief lesson of this match was that while disruption is important for the deck especially post-board it needs pressure to be effective. If you find yourself staring at a hand with excellent disruption but minimal pressure you should almost always go to six. Appetite for Brains is awesome but unless you have a Diregraf Ghoul beating their face they'll probably be able to Think Twice into another Terminus or draw into another Thragtusk before you can kill them.
My next opponent was Marc Blesso playing Junk Tokens. Marc's deck was strong so strong that he ended up taking down the entire tournament with it and he's an awesome guy to boot. In both of our games however I just had all the answers.
Game 1 I killed his mana dorks and beat him to down. Game 2 I sided in my midrange disruption package and more Golgari Charms and was able to assemble my A plan: Vampire Nighthawk + Rancor. The Hawk then just took over the game even as Marc put up a tough defense with his creatures and an active Sorin. The key play of the game was when Marc played a Garruk Relentless and had it fight Nighthawk. Unfortunately for Marc the one card I had left in my hand was a Golgari Charm which allowed me to regenerate and save my Nighthawk pretty much sealing the win for me.
At this point I was pumped. I'd never had a 3-0 start at a major tournament before and I was thrilled to finally have arrived. In all honesty even if I'd had a lackluster rest of the tournament I would still remember this start well. However there was still more to come.
I faced off against Philip Minichino in a feature match. We were both thrilled; neither of us had played in the feature match area before and we had a fantastic time playing against one another. Unfortunately Philip also decisively handed me my only loss in the Swiss.
He stabilized in game 1 against a slower hand and Tamiyo ultimated me for the win.
In the second game I played Appetite for Brains the turn before he could play his fourth land and saw this:
I picked the Terminus as he had only three lands in play and none in hand and tried to race him before he could Terminus and stabilize. However I overextended and he managed to find his land drops before I could kill him swiftly Terminusing my board and then Angeling me to death.
I got another bad matchup: B/R Zombies the bane of my testing. Fortunately it was piloted by Ryan Dunn a good player who is also a nice dude. Seriously I had the best luck in getting great good-natured opponents all day in Providence. It was wonderful.
Game 1 I had the Tragic Slips and Crippling Blights to kill Blood Artist and Aristocrat which is what the matchup generally revolves around. Still I knew from testing against my buddy Chad the night before that I was still a dog in game 2. Thus I sideboarded accordingly.
Against B/R you are the control and Geralf's Messenger and Diregraf Ghoul aren't the best at helping you stabilize if they have a fast start. Without testing I wouldn't have realized this and would have at least kept Messenger in since it's normally a brick house. More than anything else I did that day this to me proved the value of testing out theoretical assumptions in real world games.
As it went game 2 was much like game 1. Despite Ryan playing two Blood Artists and an Aristocrat I had the answers for them and the pressure to seal the deal.
After winning round 6 I knew I was in legitimate contention for Top 8. Even better three of my friends Chad Papineau on B/R Zombies Anders Simpson Wolf on Mono-Red Aggro and Joe Fox on B/G Zombies were also making good runs. Still I kept my focus and tried to take things one match at a time.
Allan Autino was on Jund and we had an excellent time playing out our match both complimenting each other on our epic beards either of which might make San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson envious. I beat him in three games.
Knowing that I was going to cash was incredibly exciting for me. Remember I'd never even had a 3-0 start before. Even better Philip—my only loss in the tournament—was also having a great day and was also 6-1 so I felt like my breakers were probably stellar. Knowing this I figured if I won my next match I'd probably be able to draw into Top 8. Easier said than done.
I was paired against Brian Lynch under the secondary camera of the feature match area and the last 30 seconds of our match ended up getting on the stream. The key play of the match was when he flashed in a Restoration Angel to de-Crippling Blight his Borderland Ranger so that his Ranger could block Lotleth Troll and Angel would eat Dreg Mangler. I had Tragic Slip in hand and went into the tank about how best to minimize the pain; I realized that if I Tragic Slipped the Angel before damage my entire team would survive. I promptly did so and Brian scooped up his cards after his next draw step.
I sat shaking after my win. I was probably going to at least Top 16 and I might even be able to draw into Top 8. I couldn't believe it and I excitedly informed my friends. Sadly Joe had been knocked out of contention for prize the round before and had left and both Anders and Chad were now X-2. Tim and Andrew had been knocked out earlier in the tournament but they'd both been in my situation before and agreed to help me with Top 8 math.
I went to the standings and saw myself sitting in fourth place. Andrew said I'd have to play it out so I was surprised when Dan Jordan my round 9 opponent offered me the draw. Dan said that if we drew I was guaranteed to make it into Top 8 and explained the math. It sounded pretty convincing as Dan was the number two seed going in and I was number four and the four other matches below us would have to play it out so I accepted the ID.
When I told Andrew about this afterwards he seemed to think it was a mistake while Tim was unsure. My buddies Jody Keith and Roberto Castro Mahoney across the country at a GP in San Jose were also uncertain whether I was in or had drawn myself out of Top 8. Still after sitting down with the numbers Andrew acknowledged that I had made the right call which was a huge relief. I'd actually done it. Wow.
When Top 8 was announced and I was named seventh I literally shouted for joy. There's a reason why I look so pumped in my picture. I went to Providence with the goal of making Top 64. Making Top 8 was simply straight out of my wildest dreams (cue Iron Maiden). I thanked Dan for drawing with me and prepared for my matchup with Nick Heal a Magic friend who'd also managed to Top 8. Marc Blesso my round 3 opponent had also made it in thanks to me improving his breakers and Edgar Flores choosing not to draw with Philip Minichino my round 4 opponent. Although it was unfortunate that Philip didn't make it it was good to see Marc in Top 8 (and eventually crush the tournament).
Nick was on Jund. Since I'd dispatched two other Jund decks in the Swiss as well as another two midrangey builds I felt pretty good about the match up although I knew Nick would be a tough albeit extremely fun to play against opponent.
Game 1 I kept a questionable hand of Tragic Slip Tragic Slip Mangler Mangler and three lands and was punished for not shipping it. Huntmaster hit the field and I was quickly on the back foot. I attacked in with one of my Manglers and left another back to block hoping to Tragic Slip myself back into the game. Instead with the quote of the tournament Nick yelled "Gimme that Filet-O-Fish!" and stole my Mangler with Zealous Conscripts attacking me to one. I tanked about whether there was anything I could do to remedy the hopeless situation but Nick saved me the trouble by saying "Want to know a secret?" and flashing me a Pillar of Flame.
I got to be on the play for game 2 and put some serious pressure on the board with Vampire Nighthawk + Rancor meeting a swift Mizzium Mortars. I followed it up with a Dreg Mangler and the game became a grind fest where I emerged victorious.
For game 3 Nick mulled to six and kept a one lander with a Pillar and a bunch of two cost removal spells. Nick never found his second land and despite the idiocy of me playing Rancor on Diregraf Ghoul post-combat my strong hand and Nick's land screw gave me the match.
I was stunned. I'd made Top 4 and it felt awesome! At this point the final all-star of my weekend needs to get a shout out.
My friend Tanner Parente has an uncle in Rhode Island and Tanner was staying to play in the SCG Legacy Open the next day. Tanner agreed to put me up which was a lifesaver since my ride was heading back to MA. Tanner helped me to design my sideboard plan against Dan Jordan's Reanimator deck which I would be playing against the next morning gave me access to a washing machine to wash my lucky shirt and allowed me to get a restful night's sleep in an actual bed. No other way to put it: Tanner is a badass (and he ended up getting exactly 64th with Burn the next day to top it all off)!
Dan and I met under the cameras of SCGLive and you can watch the replay here if you're so inclined.
We shuffled up and prepared for game 2 but then the table judge asked to see my deck.
I play with pictures on my sleeves and it turns out that I'd shuffled some of my sideboard cards into my deck the other way. I hadn't noticed this when I drew my hand but the judge did and soon a discussion was underway away from the table.
I play with pictures on my sleeves because my cards often get turned every which way if I don't have them. I care deeply about the integrity of the game of Magic and I want to assure everyone that the sideboard cards being shuffled in the opposite way was an accident. I find cheating in Magic to be an incredibly stupid and scummy thing to do as it basically renders the game pointless and I would never do it intentionally.
I had a discussion with the head judge and explained myself. The judge ruled that I had presented a deck of marked cards with pattern and although they believed it was unintentional I still got a game loss.
This was the right call and I would like to take a moment to tell any new players reading this not to be afraid of judges and to call them over whenever there is an iffy situation.
Judges at Magic tournaments are not your enemies. They are there to make sure everybody plays honestly and has a good time and to ensure that unfortunate incidents like the one that happened to me don't negatively affect the game. Without them competitive Magic would be a hive of ugly cheating and the enjoyability of the game at high levels would be greatly diminished.
I tried not to let the loss get to me and immediately looked on the bright side: I got to be on the play. I shook myself out started whistling "Whistle" and made sure that all my cards were facing the same way as I pile shuffled. I shuffled up presented and prepared for game 3.
I took a mull down to six and found a strong hand pressuring him with a Gravecrawler and Diregraf Ghoul while Crippling Blighting a mana dork to slow his acceleration. Crawler and Ghoul were joined by Geralf's Messenger and I soon had Dan in the single digits. Dan stayed alive however with Thragtusk Unburial Rites and Centaur Healer although he was barely able to fight through the added pressure of Rancor and Dreg Mangler.
Looking back at the game if I'd played around Unburial Rites and Tragic Slipped my own Messenger before combat making Messenger die and come back while not putting Thragtusk in the yard to be Reanimated I probably would have had that game. Still it was a hard line to see and Dan was able to hold me off long enough to cast Angel of Serenity. I was dead within two turns.
Losing in the Top 4 and getting a game loss due to careless stupidity was tough but I take comfort in the fact that I played tight and nearly pulled out a win against a tough matchup and a highly skilled opponent. The $600 check I'm getting in the mail is also more than enough consolation.
Going forward I'm definitely going to continue playing B/G Zombies in all Standard events in the near future. It's very strong and has a favorable matchup against much of the current field as well as the ability to steal wins if the opponent's game plan stumbles for even a moment.
In terms of changes to the list I would make room for a fourth Crippling Blight. I'd probably cut a Tragic Slip to do so but if your meta is control light and B/R Zombies heavy you may want to cut a maindeck Golgari Charm instead. The same goes for Shred-Freak. In a meta like New England where control is king you want Shred-Freak. In an aggro-based meta he should probably be replaced by Rakdos Cackler.
As for our friend Deadbridge Goliath his usefulness especially in the sideboard is debatable. Still I think I'll stick with having two of him in the main and if you suspect to be facing W/x Aggro or the B/G Zombies mirror I'd pack three or four in my 75. Vampire Nighthawk should also probably be a four-of in the board especially if you expect to see a lot of midrange and aggro. If Reanimator jumps in popularity I'd also bring in more Deathrite Shamans although I dislike boarding him in against Zombies and don't recommend it.
If anyone has questions about B/G Zombies feel free to ask me on Facebook or in the comments below. I'm also going to need to actually start playing Legacy since I'm now qualified for a SCG Invitational and want to do western Massachusetts proud.
Finally I'd like to once again give a shout out to my Magic community. Patrick Brown Cory Gillette Noah Walker Tanner Parente Jody Keith Joe Fox Chad Papineau Tim Wegman Justin Buettner Alex York and Andrew Mertes: without your input and support this deck would have never come together and I would never have gotten good enough to play it to a Top 4 finish at a SCG Standard Open.
Magic may look like an individual sport but it is won by teams and I have the best a guy could ever hope for.
Until next time