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Play Dead with Brian’s Zombie Tribal EDH Deck!

I’ve been enjoying tapping into my inner casual player learning to play the Commander format over the past several months and today, I’m excited to share my thoughts on building and playing my mono-black Zombie tribal EDH deck with Mikaeus, the Unhallowed at the helm.

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed

Last month, I wrote a budget template for assembling a mono black Zombie tribal deck based around Gisa, Glorious Resurrector as the Commander:

Today’s article is the version of tribal Zombies I designed and built for myself to play at my neighborhood LGS’s pick-up-and-play Commander game nights against unknown opponents (I don’t have a returning playgroup right now because of COVID restrictions) with thoughtfully built, tuned, decks with a reasonably high power level.

 

 

Zombie Tribal EDH by Brian DeMars

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So, we’ve started broad with my version of tribal Zombies and now I’ll get a little bit more specific about the various parts of this deck that make it both interesting and enjoyable as a strategy to build and play in multiplayer. 

 

Header - Fluff and Flavor of Zombies

Coming from the perspective of a former professional player and a master deck builder, it is my intention that I begin the body of my Commander primer with a discussion of fluff and flavor. My favorite part of playing Commander is that the format (and opportunities to play it) are decidedly “not competitive” in the sense that the objective is my own personal enjoyment of building decks and playing Magic. 

The LGS venue I’ve been playing at charges $5 to come in and sit down and players are seated at first to a randomly assigned pod and after that first game, have the choice to make their own subsequent pods with different players. The winner of each pod/game wins a booster pack. When I win more than one pod, I give the pack to a player who hasn’t won yet. 

The point is, I would rather play a deck that people think is interesting or neat rather than a deck that sacrifices fluff and flavor for raw power. One of the best ways I’ve found to help ensure a deck stays fun and flavorful is to place some restrictions upon it to ensure it maintains its intended flavor as we week to improve its synergy, tactics, and power level. 

For today’s deck, it was important to me that the deck retained its identity as a Zombie tribal deck. A third of the cards in my deck are Zombie cards and the strategy and tactics my deck deploys feels very much like the flavor of a full-blown Zombie infestation. 

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed is one of the objectively most powerful and synergistic Zombie cards ever printed, which makes it a great flagship card to take the helm of a Zombie tribal Commander deck. The commander informs multiple types of synergy that will help focus the strategy of my mindless swarm of undead. 

First, Mikaeus is a +1/+1 anthem effect that impacts every creature in my deck and thus adds a lot of bulk to my swarm when deployed. Anthems are great in tribal decks and because Mikaeus is always hanging out in the command zone and the pilot always has the option to drop additional power to the creatures already deployed. 

The secondary ability of granting undying to all of my creatures is the real bread and butter of the deck and the strategy. Individually, cheap Zombies are outclassed by better and more efficient creatures and spells, but Mikaeus’s ability to essentially “double-dip” on enters and leaves play triggers when combined with a sacrifice outlet generates a ton incidental value. In fact, the synergy is so real that some of the sacrificial Zombie synergies can be very big all the way up into infinite territory. 

One of the things I like about mono-black tribal is that it isn’t the most powerful or broken sacrifice deck available because only a handful of the cards actually combine to “go infinite.” There are Mardu sacrifice decks, for instance, where every creature has requisite synergy to go infinite with a sacrifice outlet and enabler. 

For me, I’ve found that working with some sort of flavor restriction helps keep me from just building a broken pile of cards that all go infinite. The point of the deck isn’t to go infinite on turn three every time, rather the point of the deck is to play 30 iconic Zombies from across Magic’s 20-plus year history together in a mono-black shell and to do the thing a Zombie deck can do. 

For instance, my deck plays very little interaction outside of using my Zombies to pressure other player’s life totals. While I can “go off” and make powerful plays, the fact that I’m not comboing with counterspell back up, using Smokestack and Thorn of Amethyst to leverage my mana and resources or shoehorning in every powerful black card (Yawgmoth’s Will, Opposition Agent, Diabolic Intent) makes the deck reasonable to play against. As I’m learning the format, it’s also nice to be able to just make Zombies on my turn, decide who to attack and then F6 until my next turn as opposed to playing a deck that’s constantly trying to interact with every players’ cards on the battlefield or the stack. 

Reader’s who are familiar with my content know that I’m a huge fan of playing mono-black decks. It was my go to favorite strategy to play in Pauper before WOTC decided to make that format into a two-headed monster meta based around Modern Horizons 2 storm and affinity cards. Even when I was playing competitively, I still took the time to brew and make some mono-black Zombie Modern video for CFB. Gerry Thompsons’s Pro Tour-winning Standard Zombie deck was one of the most enjoyable decks I’ve ever played in Standard. I have very fond memories of drafting mono-black Zombies in Legions too.

Mono-black has always been my pet deck that I like to play when I can and I take a little bit from all of my previous mono-black decks and apply what I’ve learned to new brews such as this one.

 

Header - The Mana Base

Every color that’s not green has terrible mana and relies on artifact mana sources. Since I’m monocolor, my options for artifact mana are somewhat limited, especially with regard to budget options like Signets and Talismans. 

While my mana base includes plenty of powerful (and expensive) mana spells like Mana Crypt, Sol Ring, Mana Vault and Grim Monolith, I realistically think my mana is approximately as consistent and powerful as the $60 budget Simic deck I wrote about last year. Mana is so important in Commander because players start with 40 life (which makes it challenging to actually attack an opponent to death) and there are three opponents! If you were planning to win via beatdown, you’d need to present 120 total power. So, ramping into cards and synergies that can actually win the game against multiple players with double the starting life total as normal is part of the tactics of the format. 

Swamp (298)

I’m mono-black and deeply invested in Zombie flavor, so I really wanted to harness the power of basic Swamps in my deck by playing 21 copies! Swamp is obviously great for powering up Cabal Coffers but it’s also important that my lands enter the battlefield untapped for my Zombies to be impactful and on or ahead of the curve without just relying on tutoring for an infinite combo. It’s also nice that my mana base is highly robust against nonbasic land hate like Blood Moon or Back to Basics

It’s also a factor that my Commander costs a whopping six mana, which makes the Rituals pretty useful at getting Mikaeus onto the field before turn six. I have a couple of mana engines in the deck: 

Rocks and Keys

Grim MonolithMana VaultSol RingMana CryptVoltaic KeyManifold Key (Timeshifted)

These are great early on in the game for deploying the contents of our hand. 

Cabal CoffersNykthos, Shrine to NyxSongs of the Damned

Black does have a handful of ways to make a lot of mana on a critical turn later in the game. 

Most of the mana sources in the deck are selected because I want to be able to deploy my hand and my Commander as quickly as possible. Once deployed, we can synergize our cards with one of these late game engines to have a big turn. 

Last, but certainly not least: 

Ashnod's AltarPhyrexian Altar

The Altars are incredibly powerful Commander staples in no small part because of their ability to create a ton of synergy for free (once they are deployed). Mikaeus granting undying to other Zombies makes outlets for sacrificing them extremely useful. It doesn’t hurt that both of these outlets also generate mana (and provide potential to go infinite or arbitrarily big by chaining sequences together). The mana and the sacrifice outlet are both among the most useful types of effect a Zombie tribal deck built around Mikaeus could or would want. 

 

Header - The Gas

These are spells that are not Zombies that help ensure my Zombies have the support they need to impact the game. 

Most of these cards are just card draw, selection and tutors of various kinds that I’ve enjoyed playing in other formats over the years. 

Sensei's Divining Top

Top is already an incredible card selection/filtering card (that can go into any deck). It has nothing to do with the Zombie flavor, which is unfortunate, but it’s really cute with the Voltaic Key and Manifold Key that I’m already playing. 

I really like the Keys in my deck. The secondary ability on Manifold Key to make a creature unblockable is surprisingly good in deck with creatures like Nantuko Husk, Carrion Feeder and Champion of the Perished, which can get huge quickly. Also, while I built my deck to be largely noninteractive (in the sense that I mess with my opponents’ stuff), the ability to untap another player’s artifact is quite useful – either to provide somebody with a surprise blocker, help a blue mage cast a counterspell on another opponent’s combo or simply making an ally by helping a player that’s struggling to play spells get into the game. 

Pyre of Heroes

Pyre of Heroes is a straight up Birthing Pod in a tribal deck. It’s a really fun and extremely useful card in Zombies (where creating synergy on the board is the objective). 

Necropotence

Necropotence is the most powerful card in the deck and it also has incredible flavor. It also combos with Bolas’s Citadel to let us draw our whole deck (as if Necro needed to be better). 

Most of my opponent’s are LGS players with well built decks and I’ve built the power level of my deck to match, but it’s also true some of these powerful cards do change the dynamic of games. One could dramatically change the power level of the deck (and the cost to build it) by shaving some of the more powerful/synergistic cards in favor of less powerful designs. 

The biggest offenders in my deck: 

NecropotenceWalking BallistaPhyrexian AltarAshnod's AltarBolas's Citadel

I have replacement cards for these in my deck box so that I can “power down” to match the power level of other players: 

Ashen GhoulWithered WretchMire TritonCrow of Dark TidingsShepherd of RotGempalm PolluterEndless Ranks of the DeadWhip of ErebosVengeful PharaohNoxious GhoulDeath TyrantCoffin QueenTormod, the DesecratorFeed the Swarm

As well as some cards to make my deck better suited for a more powerful game: 

Yawgmoth's WillCarnival of SoulsThorn of AmethystSmokestackDeadly RollickLeyline of the Void (Timeshifted)

One of the things I really like about playing the Zombie deck is that by swapping a handful of cards, I can dramatically change how powerful the deck is or isn’t and no matter how I swap, the flavor of the deck remains necropotent and on point. 

 

Header - The Zombies

I saved the best and most fun part of the deck for last. So far, I’ve discussed parts of deck building that can be applied to assembling a cohesive mono-black deck such as cobbling together a mana base that can cast its spells on curve and some of the most iconic and powerful mono-black staples. Now though, it’s time to talk about the fun part of the deck: the Zombies! 

I’ve got to start the explanation of Zombies with the card that inspired me to build my deck: 

Rot Hulk

If you had no idea this card existed… join the club! It’s a random Game Night card that’s clearly designed to be enjoyed in multiplayer (it returns a number of Zombies equal to the number of opponents – so, typically a triple Karmic Guide in Commander when all of your creatures have Zombie typing). 

The card also allows the deck to do some really powerful things a Zombie deck simply couldn’t do before, especially with the help of Mikaeus’s undying ability. One cool play that comes up is to play Mikaeus and then sacrifice it to Pyre of Heroes (allowing it to go to the graveyard rather than command zone) to search up Rot Hulk and return Mikaeus as well as two additional Zombies. Since the Mikaeus grants Rot Hulk undying, with the help of a sacrifice outlet, it can be sacrificed again to start a Zombie chain reaction. 

Plague Belcher

Plague Belcher is also really great with undying because we can use it’s ETB trigger to put two -1/-1 counters on a creature with a +1/+1 on it from undying to cancel them out, thus allowing that creature to utilize undying an additional time. Plague Belcher is also a viable win condition (obviously when infinite) but also the “fair” way when chaining a bunch of Zombies to repeatedly poke all of our opponents for one damage each time. 

So, even without the traditional means of going infinite in a sacrifice deck (Phyrexian Altar or Walking Ballista), we can actually still go infinite with a Zombie loop chain with a Carrion Feeder or Nantuko Husk by resetting Rot Hulk

Nantuko HuskCarrion Feeder

Zombie sacrifice outlets are really important, these are the two that don’t require mana to activate. 

CryptbreakerGravespawn Sovereign

These two cards in particular allow the deck to take some lines of sequencing that feel very “Elf-like,” since these abilities can be used to generate action even when we’re out of mana. Both are excellent sources of card advantage and synergy. Cryptbreaker’s ability to discard creatures also plays nicely with Reanimate, Animate Dead and Rot Hulk

Everything else is an interchangeable Zombie cog in my necro-machine. I selected mostly Zombies that are cheap to cast, including enters and/or leaves the battlefield triggers that generate material with an emphasis on making more Zombie material. 

I would describe my deck as similar to an “Elf-Ball” or “Goblin” deck in a color and tribe with worse mana. The best black sacrifice synergy cards that make mana are not Zombies:

Sifter of SkullsPitiless PlundererPawn of Ulamog

It’s kind of a curse and a blessing that these cards are not Zombies. I could make my deck more combo-y (faster and more consistent) by simply dissolving the tribal theme and replacing it with a pure sacrifice theme. 

Gravecrawler

Gravecrawler is also an important cog in the deck since it enables a bunch of combos, for instance infinite mana (as well as enters and leaves triggers), with Mikaeus and Phyrexian Altar

Sidisi, Undead VizierVile Entomber

These Zombies are also quite useful at ensuring we can cobble together specific Zombie-based interactions including our Zombie loop chain with Rot Hulk

Undead AugurMidnight Reaper

These Zombies allow us to turn bodies into additional cards. 

 

Header - Conclusion

I’ve always enjoyed the Zombie cards in Magic and today’s deck was certainly a neat way to get to play all of my favorites together in a coherent, satisfying and synergistic way. As a content creator, I’m more interested in writing articles that players can use as a guide or template to unlock their own creative potential to bring their ideas to life (or unlife!) on the tabletop. 

The process for today’s deck was: 

I picked a theme with limitations and worked within it. I wanted a Zombie deck that plays a bunch of my favorite Zombies. 

I made the mana work, which was no small task when playing a strategy that’s not inherently great in multiplayer (Zombie swarm). 

I’m mindful of the power level of my deck. I built it to match the power level of the types of decks I frequently play against at the LGS. I also have a “sideboard” of cards to swap in and out to make my deck more or less powerful depending upon who I’m playing with. 

 

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