Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Choosing the right Zombie general for you

Building a Zombie deck

So you’ve decided to build a Zombie deck. Who’s going to be your general? Let’s assume you’re not perverse and plumping a non-zombie, you have almost 14 legends to choose from. The reason you have “almost 14” instead of just “14” is that two of those legends are pointless to actually choose.

The first non-general is Haakon, Stromgald Scourge. He’s got good stats and a cool ability, allowing you to “zombify” knights in your graveyard back into play to fight for you after they have died the first time. The only issue with Haakon is his first line of rules text:

You may cast Haakon, Stromgald Scourge from your graveyard, but not from anywhere else.

Unfortunately this includes the Command Zone. All the viable workarounds are out of color which means that you have a general you can never cast. And there’s not that many Zombie Knights anyways (14 including himself), none of which are lighting up Commander tables anywhere. Add it all up and you’ve got an unplayable General who interacts with very few zombies.

Right behind Haakon is Phage the Untouchable. Her first line of text is even more restrictive than Haakon’s:

When Phage the Untouchable enters the battlefield, if you didn't cast it from your hand, you lose the game.

She may win you the game if she connects with an opponent during combat but you’ll never know as she’ll have killed you upon entering the battlefield. The reason she’s slightly more playable than Haakon is because there are work-arounds like Torpor Orb or Platinum Angel that will allow you to survive. Until you get those solutions to stick she’s stranded in your Command Zone doing her manicure. You’re also running the risk of some smart Johnny destroying your workaround in response to your spell eliminating you with your own Phage trigger.

Another reason to steer clear of Phage is that she’s not a “proper” Zombie. Initially she was a mere “minion”, only getting elevated to zombie status in The Grand Creature Type Update of 2007. ( You don’t want a wannabe fan-girl with issues heading up your army of walking dead, do you?

Nah, didn’t think so.

After that you have a few choices. I’m going to break these down by color: mono-B (3), BG (2), BR (2), BU (2) or BRU (3). If you’re a little surprised, as I was, about the color breakdown, it’s interesting to note that Wizards, until Innistrad, considered Zombies to be essentially mono-Black and, to a large extent, they are. There are 35 multicolored Zombies in Magic, which accounts for just 14% of the 253 total zombie creature count (this excludes cards that make zombies but are not themselves zombies most of which are black anyway) but a staggering 64% of Zombie legends have an additional color and that’s including Phage and Haakon in that count! There seems to be a trend for Legendary Zombies to dabble in other colors, something of a mystery considering zombie’s, until recently, very strict mono-color adhesion. There’s clearly some housekeeping to be done to redress these numbers to something more along the lines of what Wizards claim their color alignment should be.

Keeping it real are Balthor Bob, Geth & Korlash. They represent the color of Zombiness and don’t make any apologies. In addition they are all pretty big hitters in their own way. Let’s meet the team:

First up is Balthor the Defiled. The little Dwarf Zombie who could, Bob, as a 2/2 for 4, isn’t going to be winning many general combat damage races any time soon but Balthor benefited hugely from the Command Zone rules in Commander. An exile ability in most other formats usually reads “one shot ability” but Balthor gets to do his thing and kick back in the Command Zone waiting for an encore. What’s great about Balthor is that he really gets Zombies.

Zombies die, they go to the graveyard and, in some very rare circumstances, can crawl out themselves or maybe a fellow zombie can give a helping hand to bring them back to your hand. Balthor takes all of your zombies out of your graveyard and puts them into play. Crawling out of graves and eating braaaiiiiiiiiins are pretty much the “raison d’etre” of Zombies. He takes care of part one and lets the shambling hoards takes care of part 2.

He also takes all of your other black creatures out of your graveyard too, he’s not picky. There’s a small catch in that he does it for your opponent’s creatures (and all red creatures, a cute flavor throwback to the living Balthor who was Red) but you can always rig it so that it’s a one sided effect, especially with cards like Noxious Ghoul. All you have to do is put zombies where they belong in the first place: into your graveyard.

The advantage to running Balthor over another zombie Legend is this repeatable Raise Dead ability that you can use at instant speed. If your deck doesn’t intend to take advantage of this ability multiple times, maybe he’s not the Legend for you.

Oh, he gives minions +1/+1 too.

Next we have Geth, Lord of the Vault, another general very interested in filling up graveyards but, in direct opposition to Balthor, he wants to fill up opponent’s graveyards. Here’s where I start having one of my many doubts about Wizards ability to correctly apply Zombie color alignment. Geth, while being a very black-aligned, lich zombie in the storyline, has been given a blue/black ability. The “XB: Zombify a creature or artifact” is nailed on black but the mill ability that follows is very blue. Yes, there have been occasional black mill cards, most notably the recent Shared Trauma, however Wizards have been explicit that the milling of cards is flavorfully blue. With the chance to express this on a Legendary Zombie, a design space that’s not been a stranger to gold cards, the card remains mono-black with the majority of support cards directly related to fueling his ability remaining mono-blue.

This incongruity aside, his ability is strong: you get your opponent’s creature or artifact under your control directly from his graveyard. Again, as with Balthor, it’s an ability that he can use at instant speed, gazumping the spells and abilities opponents use to target their own graveyards. Using his ability gives you more targets to re-use his ability which in turn gives you more targets etc. etc. While not a single card strategy to himself, he can take advantage of some very powerful cards that a mono-black deck just does not have access to. You just need to kill them or mill them first, not usually an issue in mono-black or with Geth. A lot less “build around me” than Balthor, Geth is more incidentally powerful and very suited to a big black control deck (even if he’s a closet blue card).

Oh, he has intimidate too.

Finally we have big, dumb Korlash, Heir to Blackblade. Where Balthor’s stats are stuck at 2/2 for 2BB, Korlash gets to go big, generally having power and toughness each equal to the number of lands you control as Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth has enabled all your non-swamps. I’d have added “Oh, he has 1B: Regenerate too” but it’s actually quite a big deal keeping your beefcake alive long enough to be a relevant force in the game. There is one huge drawback to Korlash, however flavorful and brawny he may be: He has no evasion.

0/1 goat tokens are chumping him all day. This means that, in addition to your dedication to playing Swamps, you also have to allow for some means to connect with your beat-stick. How much of the deck will that take up in addition to the common black staples? Do you really see him as a leader of men…. em, zombies?

Do you remember Goblin Goon? Korlash is a bit like that in some ways. He’s bigger and stronger than the others of his race but he’s really just a dumb beater when you get down to it. As one of many, he has a place but as the leader of your forces, he’s not going to provide you with either the army Balthor can or the pick of your opponent’s creatures that Geth can.

Being the Heir to Blackblade also doesn’t have anywhere near the cool cache that actually
being Blackblade does. As if stealing the sword of some dead hero is enough, pwah!!

Next up is RB featuring an excellent Zombie for you if you happen to be running Dragons and an old-school Legends Legend that makes Demon tokens.

Bladewing the Risen may seem over-costed at 3BBRR for “just” a 4/4 but he has evasion and two relevant abilities, just not very relevant for Zombies. You get a free Zombify tacked on to that body and you get the ability to boost all your dragon creatures multiple times with his mana ability. All in all that’s an excellent package and I’d play him in a shot if all instances of “Dragon” were replaced by “Zombie”. Regrowing a Zombie and having a scalable boost effect? Excellent!!

Oh, it’s for Dragons? Crap.

The second RB Zombie legend is Boris Devilboon who suffers from being an old legend when legends weren’t always particularly aggressively costed. A 2/2 for 3BR needs a great ability but “2BR, T: Put a 1/1 Demon creature token onto the battlefield” wasn’t really what the doctor ordered. Occasionally the older legends are either flavorfully fun or actually good but Boris is not.

His art is vomtastic too.

Here’s where we’re going to take the hint from Boris and pause to reflect on the number of times the word “Zombie” appears in the rules text of each zombie Legend. I’ll actually save you the effort of checking because it’s exactly 0. Not one Zombie Legend actually gives a damn about any other zombies in your deck. That’s a huge fail no matter how you cut it.

U/B Zombies got a new toy to play with in Innistrad: Grimgrin, Corpse-Born. I suppose he cares about Zombies because he likes eating them to untap and grow, though he can just as easily eat rats or anything else that’s around. What tempered the initial furor about getting a cool new Zombie Legend was the smart-ass who posted the combo featuring Grimgrin and Elemental Mastery:

Step 1: Tap Grimgrin to get lots of hasty elemental tokens;
Step 2: Sac one hasty elemental token to untap Grimgrin;
Step 3: Repeat as desired netting +1 token each time;
Step 4: Profit!! (aka: “attack with infinite tokens and an infinitely huge Grimgrin.”)

Hurp durp, legend ruined.

Yeah, I suppose you could just run him and ignore the combo but there are a couple of UBR zombie legends out there and I’ve yet to see many players espousing their ballin’ new Grimgrin list. I’ve seen a lot of people posting more UBR lists, especially Thraximundar*, featuring the Grim/Mastery combo and very few are running Minamo, School at Water's Edge to work around his tapped drawback in a more consistent manner..

*May contain trace elements of Hurp Durp.

Moving in a totally different direction is a very interesting (though not at all zombie themed) legend: Dralnu, Lich Lord. A 3/3 for 3UB, this Zombie Wizard isn’t all that in the damage stakes, doubly so if you consider that if damage would be dealt to Dralnu, Lich Lord, you sacrifice that many permanents instead. Em, that’s terrible, what’s to like here?

While he’s particularly stinky on the attacking side of things, Dralnu is quite the control player’s friend allowing you to flashback a broken instant or sorcery from your graveyard with a mere tap. Balance out the potentially devastating damage drawback with the ability to play your instants and sorcerys twice and you have a control general worth spending mana on in colors that lend themselves very well to control.

Very “build around me”, not very “zombie” and hazardous for your health……if you like that sort of thing!

A very recent addition to the zombie legend stable is the Black/Green combination. This is actually surprising it’s taken so long given Wizards penchant for mixing the Zombie Legends in with other colors and the benefits green has to share. Dredge, the Golgari mechanic, suggested it already and Green fills a nice hole in fat, acceleration and resilience that black doesn’t cover very well alone.

Glissa, the Traitor was our first taste of BG Zombies, thankfully avoiding Infect and having the potent First strike & deathtouch combination to compliment her acceptably-costed stats. She’s hard to block, makes for a great blocker and, most importantly, has a triggered ability that’s synergistic with her keywords:

Whenever a creature an opponent controls dies, you may return target artifact card from your graveyard to your hand.

Wizards put in the “opponent” clause to avoid her becoming an engine too easily, but with something as simple as an Executioner's Capsule and sufficient mana (and you’re in Green/Black, so that shouldn’t ever be an issue), she’s a machine gun. Add in a myriad of other small effects makes her deck tick over while there are always larger artifacts that you’re never unhappy about bringing back. In the unhappy event that your opponent doesn’t have any creatures for you to kill for her to trigger, throw a Forbidden Orchard or a Lifespark Spellbomb in and you’re ready to go again. The additional little joy to Glissa is that when someone wipes the board, Glissa, though dying herself, will “see” all the opponent’s creatures going to the graveyard and trigger allowing you to bring back that many artifacts to your hand.  A very “Build around me” general and as simple or as complex you choose to build her, she still doesn’t really care about zombies.

Well, apart from Nim Replica maybe.

Sliding in there beside Glissa is a new player from the Commander product: Skullbriar, the Walking Grave. I don’t want to be reductive but he’s just a glorified “slith”. He starts small, grows a little each time you deal combat damage to a player and has the added bonuses of having haste and occasionally not losing his counters if he’s removed. That’s cute but, short of Doubling Season being in play, is really not very Legendary.

He also has the rarely relevant ability of being a zombie…..ah, who am I kidding?! Glissa is 10 times the general Skullbriar tries to be and has 2 relevant creature types: “Zombie” and the sadly much more useful “Elf”. Skullbriar doesn’t gain anything more from his colors than Glissa and we all know that dumb beaters just aren’t enough if they don’t have a way to evade blockers or some form of protection or resilience.

That 50/50 split brings us to the end of BG and on to the last section: UBR

We saw how the addition of Red and blue gave us some nice legends if you like non-zombie combo, non-zombie control or Dragons (or demons), what happens when you add both colors to the mix?

First we have Sedris, the Traitor King. Let’s get on top of the flavor:

Sedris was once a good and righteous king of Vithia during the early years following the sundering. It is unknown when exactly he fell from grace, but when demons tempted him with dreams of power, he submited. Sedris handed thousands of innocents over to the demons, killed his own family and advisors, and performed a dark ritual that allowed his consciousness to continue into unlife.

This sort of shit doesn’t happen every day so you have to hand it to Sedris for going all in. Like Balthor, Sedris wants to see your graveyard full so that he can give everyone another go on the battlefield. Not as suited to armies as Balthor, Sedris is king of the big one-shot hitters, though he prefers them to be 2-shot hitters (for a mere additional 2B). Like Balthor, he’s not picky about creature type and Sedris expands on color a little allowing Colourless and Blue on top of Balthor’s Red and Black. He’s still “all in” on his ability because there are notably few ways to get around the drawback of Unearth in these colors so he does create a certain tension in your deck.

Released in the same block as Sedris, Thraximundar is an interesting choice. He’s a de-facto 7/7 Haste for 4UBR if you attack into a player with at least one blocker. After that he’s a sucker for sacrifice effects, not just ones you control or instigate but every Sakura Tribe Elder and Yavimaya Elder activation, as well as a myriad of others, will add to Thraximundar’s power. What’s appealing about Thraximundar and Sedris is that both allow you to build good stuff creature decks that may or may not have much direct interaction with your general. Sedris re-uses creatures while Thraximundar is the high-end threat in a deck that’s going to be looking to constantly apply pressure on your opponents.

About their only relevance as Zombies is to benefit from whatever Zombie-related effects that you choose to add to your stack, most notably the recently released Rooftop Storm. If you can play your Thraximundar for 0 instead of 4UBR, or 2 instead of 6UBR, more power to you. Unfortunately, much like Grimgrin from the same set, Rooftop Storm is looking to be broken more than just providing some occasionally free Zombies. Lists running the enchantment seem to be running Thraximundar more as an incidentally beneficial General than any real dedication to the Zombie Nation.

Our last Legend on the list is the flavor granddaddy of all Zombies: Lord of Tresserhorn. In a time where 2/2s for 5cmc or 6cmc were more common, occasionally Wizards broke the mould if they felt the drawback warranted it. At a mere 1UBR Lor of Tresserhorn weighs in at 10/4 and has regeneration for just B.

“Where’s the drawback?” you ask.

Yeah, I was just getting there: You lose 2 life, you sacrifice two creatures and target opponent draws two cards. Yikes!! That’s probably worth more than the difference in mana he would have cost. There are ways around these like, em, Life-gain, lots of tokens with Grave Pact and Underworld Dreams, but there’s no getting away from the fact that you need to build around him and he’s quite tricky to set up. The biggest drawback is probably the “sacrifice 2 creatures” requirement as any opponent can nix your general by killing one or both of the creatures you intended to use to pay his steep COTB triggers. You still lose the life, your opponent still draws 2 cards but you’ll end up sacrificing the Lord to his own effect essentially paying 4 to hurt yourself, help your opponent and add 2 to his cost. The Phage /Torpor Orb workaround is just as valid here allowing you to pay 4 with no drawback. I suggest you go that route!

He doesn’t really care about Zombies either but he’ll happily use some of the smaller ones as fodder knowing that they’ll eventually come back. The cool cache you get from running him and the mental hoops you need to jump through not only to build the deck but also to play him out repeatedly are probably worth the effort of choosing him as your general. It needs to be as, regeneration or not, he’s still vanilla as hell but in true flavor terms he comes onto the battlefield over the backs of his own slaughtered foot-troops and taunts opponents with additional cards. Will they be enough to defeat the Lord of Tresserhorn?

I’m not going to do a top 10 of these guys. You’ll have to choose one according to your style but, if you’re really serious about your deck being a Zombie deck with a Zombie Legend, there’s really not much of a debate, is there?


  1. Grim grin isnt red cant cast elemental mastery

  2. Grimgrin may not care about his zombies, but goddammit some of his zombies care about him. Gravecrawler. Diregraf Captain. God forbid you mix them with a Rooftop Storm. Throw in everything Diabolic into your deck or Self-mill with return to battlefield or hand and it's a very reliable way to use him.

  3. 5 years after this article was posted ... still no legendary zombies referencing ... zombies. Crazy! Only Wizards can come up with such an elaborate scheme!