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Jul 08 2015

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Zombie Queen – My Adventure With the Living Dead

When I first began playing Magic: the Gathering back in early 2011, I was very intrigued by the varieties of all the decks I saw; of course, this was primarily due to the casual environment I was exposed to, with decks with not limited by set legality and the only restrictions in deck building being the walls of one’s imagination. I was particularly exposed to “tribal” decks, decks where an overarching creature type would reign supreme over other creature types in the deck, and where sweet, sweet synergies between the tribe’s members could be explored. The first I saw were typical: old elves decks made out of the shambles of an already-heavily-used Elves vs. Goblins Duel Deck, zombie decks made out of virtually every common zombie that could be found in the Onslaught block (and upwards of an 100-card decklist, no less), and flavorful vampire decks that were created around the end of the Zendikar block and were full of life-drain effects alongside the vampire tribe. I had a friend who had essentially quit Magic right around the same time I began asking him more and more about the game itself, so he actually gave me his rather-humble collection which gave me a bit to look through, in addition to his jank casual elf deck and casual zombie deck.

The Best Format in Magic

Fast forward to the summer of 2012, I had just discovered the wonders of Commander, or EDH, in addition to having a few good months of casual play, rules-learning, and Limited competitions under my belt. It was love at first sight, really: I had been obsessing over looking through old MtG articles and whatnot, and stumbled across the promotional article and decklists for the first Commander set. While the resale price for them had already taken a pretty impressive jump in a year, I knew this wouldn’t stop me from trying to get into this format. I started researching the format for decklists that I found appealing and understanding the culture around the format itself (one of my favorite resources from this time was this article here, which I would recommend to anyone first getting into the format of Commander/EDH, in addition to anyone looking for a good starting point for suggestions and opinions on the format and a deckbuilder’s goals in the format). One of my favorite blocks, Innistrad, had just completed that spring, and I had gained a lot of favorite cards from just being around during the block’s printing. At first, I was just intent on playing a big, splashy deck in colors I’m not used to, like Jund (I had started trading around for a Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund deck for a month or so), but I realized I needed to start a bit closer to home, with cards that I already owned or could add to my feeble collection. My quest, card by card, to build my Grimgrin, Corpse-Born EDH deck had begun, and with no time to lose.

The deck was so incredibly fun. I was actually able to nab two sealed packs of the Devour for Power and Mirror Mastery Commander preconstructed decks that summer, which gave me and my friends at least three (albeit fairly mediocre) decks to try out. My “playgroup”, as it was turning out to be, hadn’t really taken an interest in EDH until I had introduced them to it, so it was difficult to find ways to get suggestions for the deck without any casual playing and testing among a multiplayer and varied table of EDH decks. Luckily for me, there were a few friends in the group that had extensive and expensive collections due to their father introducing them to the game as children, so I had a potential springboard for not only players that could make their own first decks but also a springboard to enhance my EDH collection, as their family’s collection had spanned from present to MtG’s inception. One friend of mine made an incredibly fun and interactive Slobad, Goblin Tinkerer deck for his first effort, and we had a blast playing. Suddenly, EDH had taken off in the group, it was just all a matter of time for people to assemble larger collections, theorycraft new brew ideas, and commit to playing the best format in Magic.

Zombies

I loved the tribe. I especially had a soft spot for zombie denizens from the plane of Innistrad. There was something so satisfying about an unliving engine of removal, beats, recursion, and control magic that UB Zombies had given me the taste of — and my first iteration was not even that good! I only ran three lords in the initial list (Diregraf Captain, Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, and Cemetery Reaper), but alongside my favorites Rooftop Storm, Gravecrawler, Havengul Lich, and Grimgrin, I had combos and engines showing up everywhere! Skinrender was removal on a reanimate-able zombie; Forbidden Alchemy was instant-speed dig and could fill up my yard; Skullclamp was card draw without having to play mean blue spells for it; and Ashnod’s Altar was my first loving sacrifice outlet, providing me with value and smiles while giving my opponents sheer awe and, of course, dread. It wasn’t a streamlined list by any stretch, but it was perhaps the most fun I had with a deck for a very long time.

I took a break and took apart Grimgrin, Corpse-Born right around the time I looked to incorporate the tasty Golgari Zombies from the Return to Ravnica block, but I was then at an impasse for what color combination would best serve my near-and-dear zombie horde. I refused to play Sedris zombies and all of Grixis looked fairly uninteresting with red anyway, Golgari Zombies was always out of the question because I needed to play my UB favorites from Innistrad, so I was left with “Ana/Urborg”, or Sultai as we can conveniently call the combination now. I didn’t find any of the current Sultai generals specifically intriguing for Zombies (though you can bet your ass I tried it with Damia, Sage of Stone!)… even the closest was The Mimeoplasm, and I didn’t want to rely on him for beats at the cost of him exiling my sweet, sweet zombie friends.

Khans of Tarkir was spoiled, and everyone was hobbling around making self-mill, zombie tribal, and reanimator decks with Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. Maybe it was also because I’m a victim of trying to be underground and underrated, but this Sidisi did not intrigue me. Not one bit. She screamed “build around me” too much, and that’s not what my zombie hordes were willing to do. Her ability was lackluster, giving me only one Zombie for any time I self-milled any number of creatures into my bin. She was costed slightly aggressively, so I wouldn’t mind her and a 2/2 Zombie as a turn-4 play, but the usefulness of that still hinged heavily on whether the tempo was well-timed and in my favor for combat-centered beats. Worst of all, she wasn’t a Zombie! URGH! I was actually more frustrated that this Khan seemed to aim for a Zombie theme and missed horribly instead of just aiming elsewhere altogether.

A few months ago, I just had the overwhelming feeling that it was time to return to my Zombie deck. I needed both the flavor and the strategy it provided. Sadly, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant was the only option I really had, and her amazingly new Dragons of Tarkir iteration was really only a slap to the face of multicolored Zombie EDH players since it was strictly mono-black. I reluctantly dove in, and crowned her the Zombie Queen.

Ghuleh / Zombie Queen

Ghuleh / Zombie Queen: Sultai Zombies

The Zombie Queen (1)
Dig and Dredge (12)
Fixing and Acceleration (6)
Removal (7)
Fetching and Tutors (5)
Reanimation and Recursion (10)
*Heavy Breathing* (22)
Lands (37)

Without getting too basic about what a typical zombie tribal deck tries to do, I’ll continue by talking in specific about some choices I’ve made in this iteration of my zombie tribal EDH. The great thing about playing a deck like this is that so many card choices overlap with more than one specific function (for example, Lich Lord of Unx being both a way to generate more zombies onto the field but also having a second ability that can be used as a finisher) — the whole “heavy breathing” part of the decklist above was just the remainder of the cards that either had too many uses that they couldn’t fairly be put into one function category or they simply generated too much value on their own to be categorized at all (why all the lords are there as well). I will also consciously avoid discussing how individual combos are pieced together — most players either are aware of them already or can simply Google them (or, better yet, try them out in a deck of their own and see the interaction spring up in real time!).

Dig and Dredge Choices

Most of these choices here capitalize on Sidisi’s preference for a graveyard that is constantly growing, interaction by interaction (and preferably with a creature or two for each interaction). Dredge has always been a strong competitor in achieving this graveyard status, but suffers sometimes by sacrificing a player’s important drawing ability– especially in an EDH deck that isn’t fully committed into a dredge strategy. Life from the Loam is simply the all-star in this regard, as due to my budget restricting me from Crucible of Worlds, the deck’s self-mill subtheme can hurt hitting a land every turn. Creatures under this classification typically self-mill upon either leaving or entering the battlefield, which goes nicely when reanimation engines begin to pick up. Instants and sorceries here are pretty self-explanatory… Mulch is here again for the lack of Crucible of Worlds and does a pretty nice job at only trashing things to the bin that we want in the bin. Things like Commune with the Gods and Forbidden Alchemy typically do a nice job of keeping our important non-flashback instants/sorceries (clutch removal or usually a mass-reanimation spell) out of the bin, as well as important enchantments that can support a more stable engine on the battlefield. Tracker’s Instinct is resilient to it being self-milled itself with flashback, and also can grab dudes like Sheoldred, Whispering One that we’d rather hardcast (at least first).

Fixing and Acceleration

This deck is chock-full of sacrifice outlets, and most of the beloved Altars lay here. These are mostly used for combos and whatnot that inevitably will crop up every couple games, but can also be used for sheer tempo pushes. Rooftop Storm fits here too. Lantern needs no explanation here. The creatures on this list are nice at actually accelerating mana and also have a knack for dying. In earlier versions cards like Viridian Emissary and Yavimaya Elder were also included here, but simply did not make the cut since the deck didn’t necessarily need to accelerate its manabase, but stay stable and consistent with its manabase and land drops. It also didn’t help that they were not zombies themselves.

Removal

Not too much to say here. We like Grave Pact effects, so we play two of them. Putrefy is cheap and can also hit problem artifacts for us. Tragic Slip is insanely funny and can also dodge indestructible problems. Attrition is primarily a meta choice but it has served me well since the days of Grimgrin at the helm — usually at its worst it’s a sacrifice outlet that also kills utility tokens/dorks as a bonus. Noxious Ghoul is about as close as we get to a committed boardwipe, and this dude also kills indestructible dudes.

Fetching and Tutors

Buried Alive is basically the typical tutor for the deck — it can essentially answer any problems in the mid/late game we may be having, while also doing cute tricks like dropping Gravecrawler, Risen Executioner, and Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord into our bin on turn 3 (yes, I’ve done that). Increasing Ambition is the typical “to hand” tutor for the deck, and has flashback so it still has some use if self-milled. Corpse Connoisseur and Sidisi are tutors attached to reanimate-able bodies, which is nice. New Sidisi also can kill a lousy zombie for us to turn on some “upon death” triggers. Corpse Harvester is an interesting one: tutors up a zombie for us and can also keep the land drops coming, however he is a bit expensive to cast and then activate. For the most part, he doesn’t eat removal, so he usually bounces between the ‘yard and the ‘field on my own terms.

Reanimation and Recursion

Reanimation: it’s one of the cornerstones of the Zombie ideal. Most picks in this list are either mass-reanimation spells (maybe Patriarch’s Bidding in the future if budget allows) and other single-target reanimation that comes with tasty benefits: namely re-usability, abuse-ability, and “death triggering”-ability. Dread Return, for example, is pretty broken for a deck like this: it’s cheap and reusable… we don’t mind killing three more dudes if it means we get Pact triggers to go off left and right on top of whatever shenanigans we’re already reanimating — and we’ll inevitably bring back the three dudes one way or another anyway! Victimize can pull stunts similar to that as well. Havengul Lich can just sit and let us cast dudes from the ‘yard, pretty nice if we need to grab those non-Zombie creatures who were milled. Gravespawn Sovereign can tap down dudes we play that turn (like the oodles of Zombie tokens we generate, for example) in order to reanimate whenever we’d like. The ETB-creatures of the list are great for grabbing things back up too (again and again, too, with creature reanimation), Eternal Witness can grab any card we need when it comes down, and Phyrexian Delver is Reanimate on a Zombie body to boot! Lastly, Nim Deathmantle is a tasty treat for our non-Zombie creatures (and even pulls off a nasty combo with Grave Titan and Ashnod’s Altar) that can label them as Zombies, let alone reanimating them if the triggered ability’s cost is paid.

Value and Winning

Half of the fun of this deck is not having to be concerned about when your stuff dies, because inevitably this deck will always come out on top in board presence. The other half comes from the pure evil you can literally see come to being in your graveyard and on the battlefield, or perhaps when you draw into that tasty Living Death. There are dozens of outs for the deck, and many paths to victory. It’s very interesting to experience changes in the politics and game state around the table that may entice the player to “play in” to the board or “cash out” from out of the board. Some conditions call for a player to slam down beats in the form of lords and beefies like Unbreathing Horde and Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord in order to steal tempo boons from a clear board. Other conditions call for an instant-speed emergency mass-sacrifice in order to avoid a nastily-timed Merciless Eviction, allowing the player to invest within his/her own graveyard and perhaps gaining some cards (Skullclamp) or other value for tossing his boardstate away on his/her terms.

Winning comes in a couple of ways. Some wins simply come from people scooping at the sight of your boardstate sometimes. Vengeful Dead and Diregraf Captain can be ongoing win conditions, as there will be a lot of death boogieing around the board. Shepherd of Rot, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Gempalm Polluter, and Lich Lord of Unx sometimes can win the game with only a couple activations on their own. Just straight and unadulterated beats are a real win condition too, with just such a large number of zombies and accompanying lords a win could be just one boardwipe and alpha strike away. There are a couple all-stars that stick out in the beats/power department, too, such as Lotleth Troll and Unbreathing Horde, both zombies of which can become very beefy and are difficult to kill without an enemy wasting a card on their removal. Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord heads this trifecta of big and beefy zombie juggernauts by being a big dude sometimes himself but also being able to fling the other big guys for massive damage — completely disregarding the combat phase if need be.

This Khan and Beyond

After all of the changes this deck idea and the deck itself have experienced, I’m fairly proud with the smooth-operating deck I was able to create with Sidisi, Brood Tyrant despite my distaste for her, even now. If I have learned anything from building my new zombie shell around her, it’s that there will always be improvements to such a deck to make, and sometimes a deckbuilder’s own preference can influence these cuts to a certain deck. I could have just as easily built straight self-mill zombies with Sidisi to best abuse her ability, but that’s not what I wanted to create. I wanted the same flexibility and option-offering my Grimgrin deck offered me in the past: where in my Sidisi build here I can use her in a pinch to load up the graveyard and make bodies, in my old Grimgrin deck I could choose to either invest “tall” or “wide”… He was a powerful removal and sacrifice engine on his own that I had access to always, or I could always alpha strike with him to close out games if need be. I’ve seen Grimgrin decks built strictly Voltron too, but that’s not what I wanted with that deck. I found the versatility and freedom in that deck that suited me, and I’ve done this here as well.

I do not think Sidisi will be our Zombie Queen forever. I’ve already voiced my dislike for her, but she has been the most challenging and interesting general to support my love for the zombie tribal EDH deck I’ve always had. She will serve her time in the throne until another takes her place. To be brutally honest, too, it may be a very very long time until we Sultai EDH players find a Zombie Commander at the caliber we are looking for. Until then, I’m content with the monstrous horde of an EDH deck I’ve created.

Thank you all for reading! Did you like the primer and the deck? What about that sick deck title and song by Ghost? Leave your comments below! If you’d like to continue to follow my changes with this deck beyond this iteration, a tappedout.net link for this deck can be found here with updates outlining my cuts and additions to the deck. For example, when my budget allows, I will continue to add more pricey cards like lords Death Baron and Lord of the Undead and maybe things like Greater Good. Until next time!

-cailtis

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cailtis

Cailtis is an avid gamer of all sorts, a reader and writer, underground and extreme music enthusiast, vegetarian, environmentalist, and student. He currently plays EDH almost exclusively with some splurges on Limited events to open sealed product, while also continuing to build a collection.

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