When I’m playing some cheeky casual, you’ll often find me at Commander tables, re-animating zombies and laughing maniacally – one hand to the sky, the other placing Rooftop Storm on the board. I love Zombies.
War of the Spark has brought us a horde of dreaded Zombies with which to murder our wizarding friends. Here’s my take on what to dig up and place on the Stitcher’s table and what to leave dead and buried.
You can find my full set review of all the tribal related cards for Arena, Modern and Legacy here.
Lords, Chiefs, Lieutenants and… Overseers?
As an aficionado of tribal strategies, I love collecting and evaluating all creature cards that give global benefits to your other creatures.* Not all anthems on a body are created equal but discussing these nuances can become a bit clunky.
[*Editors note: read a-fish-ionado’s first article for the full low down on tribal strategies and lingo!]
You see, we call all of these creatures Lords. But I believe we need to narrow this definition to the highest tier: creatures that not only boost stats but grant abilities too, cards like Death Baron.
It’s time for an update to our terminology.
Rivals of Ixalan gave us a few weak “Lords” such as Merfolk Mistbinder and Legion Lieutenant. These cards are fine… until you start playing the most competitive decks. Lieutenants are there to make up numbers when you need critical mass – ideal for tribal EDH where you can only play one of each Lord.
Why is all this important, you might ask? Well, War brought Zombies a lot of not-quite-lords “Lords”:
I really like the way they all have Amass, which makes spot removal very difficult; even in death they leave behind a relevant body for you to grow. Vizier of the Scorpion isn’t quite Death Baron, and this is where the distinction starts to matter. Vizier is another way to get deathtouch, which is fantastic, but it’s no lord.
Dreadhorde Twins is a serviceable way to get your 6/6 lifelinking Army to connect, overcoming chump blockers when it matters. But outside of the very specific Amass ability most EDH Zombie tokens are going to be 2/2s who I’d rather give Haste. Though I love discarding Anger, it would be great to finally have a Zombie-related Haste-enabler – 28 Days Later rather than the Walking Dead. If it was a Lord, Dreadhorde Twins would put 5 power on the board for 4 mana and start to look quite efficient. As is it’s soft to Shock – one of many reasons to leave this to rot with the draft chaff.
Eternal Skylord is costly, but we’ve got Rooftop Storm so who cares right? What I think is really important is the use-case. This is like discarding Wonder: it gives all your creatures evasion for the alpha strike. In a Zombie token EDH deck this can help win out of nowhere.
But what to call this new class of tribal support cards?
“Skylord” doesn’t help us – it’s too confusing! I was contemplating “Vizier” because it sounds cool. But upon reflection, I think the new class must honour a paragon of the definition. And I think I’ve found it:
Gleaming Overseer doesn’t give just one ability, it gives two. Hexproof and Menace. Being in Blue and Black is fantastic for 99% of Zombie decks as almost all the best zombies and zombie-matters cards are Dimir. At 3- mana it half-dodges Fatal Push and as a 1/ 4, dodges Shock/Lightning Bolt. It creates a 1/1 token, confers Hexproof and gives all your tokens Menace. Menace and Deathtouch is a doubly lethal combination!
Good, now that we’ve settled that.
Lords are best, Chiefs a close second, Lieutenants for when numbers count and now Overseers for shenanigans.
In Blue, Black, Green and White, they all fit a range of colour pairings in EDH, from Marchesa, Sedisi, Varina, Sedris, Thraximundar, Glissa and the horde of Dimir and Mono Black zombie decks.
You’ll struggle to make purely zombie tribal with Rhonas and Oketra as leaders, as there just isn’t enough support.
Kefnet, however, got me really excited to take zombies in a new direction and generate zombie wins through sorceries rather than creature cards. It was a challenge, but a really cool new way to take zombies and made use of a handful of cards that have never truly had a home before. You can find my take on Tribal Kefnet on Tappedout.
For Bontu, it is possible to build a tediously stock zombie deck complete with Gravecrawler and Mikaeus (yawn). Without access to other colours I think Bontu will struggle – is card draw better or worse than tutoring? I think Sedisi would still be a better Black commander.
These three are incredible. Liliana is capable of winning games by herself; truly an inspiration for all aspiring necromancers. Her static ability gives control players and zombie tribal players alike, a powerful card advantage engine that has to be answered immediately.
Bolas’s Citadel is like Experimental Frenzy on steroids. In Standard it enables a bizarre combo deck with Jadelight Ranger and Wildgrowth Stalker‘s Golgari Explore package, which just plays out the entire deck, sacks 20 permanents and says ‘good game’.
Undead Bitterblossom is an interesting card. The fact that the token goes high rather than wide, might mean the card doesn’t have the power of the original, but the ability to gain life from hench tokens means Dreadhorde Invasion is not strictly worse and enables some creative deck building for a new archetype. I’ve had many games where you keep casting creature threats to be dealt with, building up your Army and suddenly they’re left with few cards in hand, and staring down a 6/6 with lifelink. Having two on the board also means you can recover very quickly from sweepers. Be aware, though, that the first token has a two-turn summoning sickness as you cast Invasion because it doesn’t create the token until your next upkeep.
In EDH, Varina looks like the luckiest lich lady, err, alive. The combination of Varina’s built-in lifegain and token generation with Esper’s tendency toward Enchantments might make her the natural home of all of these cards in EDH.
Arcanist has been at the centre of a new type of deck involving Feather and lots of cheap cantrips and combat tricks. It’s a very unique card that can make use of Lords in a tribal strategy, as well as combat tricks to cast spells for free. Trample is a nice nod to this application. In EDH and other formats, re-casting Faithless Looting, Gamble or Chaos Warp will give you that mana and card advantage. But it’s the ability to cast Living End from the grave for free that excites me – go big or go home, that’s what I say!
Enter the God-Eternals and Commence the Endgame are suitably impressive spells that have helped control decks edge out Standard aggro after War of the Spark’s release. Enter completely shuts down aggro decks; destroying a threat, creating a big blocker, gaining life and… and… and the list goes on! It’s wrecked my Goblins on numerous occasions. [Author update 07.06.19]: According to MTGGoldfish, Gruul Superfriends is now the top deck alongside Mono Red].
Commence the Endgame has found its way into other controlling archetypes, such as Bant Nexus and Jeskai Control. It’s a draw spell that puts a threat or blocker on the board at instant speed and can’t be countered. Along with Dreadhorde Invasion it could help create a Dimir control deck similar in playstyle to Modern Faeries.
Not Yet Seeing the Light of Day
As we live in the twilight of perpetual spoiler season (Core 2020 will be having its spoiler season as soon as Modern Horizons is released!), there are a number of cards from War of the Spark that have not yet found their niche.
Some of the impact of Modern Horizons will be on Pauper. There have been several new zombies at Common reveals in that set and Mono Black Zombie Aristocrats are already an archetype in Pauper. Whether Spark Reaper has a role to play in that deck, or perhaps find its glory in Modern Zombies will depend largely on the strength of the overall viability of Aristocrats, and whether drawing cards for three mana is needed. While it is nice to have another sacrifice outlet in EDH, the mana cost is prohibitive when three mana could cast Rhystic Study. The mana cost also reduces the possibility of looping an effect repeatedly.
With so many of the new zombie cards seemingly perfect for the new Varina, it is nice to see some cards that fit my favourite zombie commander: Marchesa. These two cards, whilst not over-powered, have their applications. In combination with Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Marchesa, Butcher can be sacrificed often as a repeatable removal spell, an aggressive attacker or nuisance blocker. A 1/1 is not that scary, but as a 4/4 or bigger its death can start to become very relevant. Dealing the damage itself absorbs Death Baron’s deathtouch ability. Soul Diviner is a utility card that gives your tribal deck card draw. Whilst not as good as Midnight Reaper or Liliana, Dreadhorde Commander, what is? Its combo with Undying creatures for example will serve a purpose other draw mechanics don’t. Tapping the creature again prevents looping with Undying, though, unless you combine it with something like Intruder Alarm.
Thanks for reading. Check out my Tappedout page for all my latest Arena tribal decks (updated for WAR additions), as well as the ones I’ve mentioned here. Follow me on Instagram for even more tribal related content!