One of the major players at PT Eldritch Moon was Zombies. There were several different incarnations and they were littered across the field. Several top teams decided to implement this strategy and take advantage of the new Eldritch Moon cards and the incredible matchups the deck boasted against the pre-PT metagame. While the decks mostly failed to put up any real numbers, that doesn’t mean you can afford to forget about it.
Hall-of-Famer Ben Stark was convinced that his matchup against Bant Company was over 80%. Now, Ben is extremely prone to hyperbole, but he absolutely stood by this statement as fact. He said that he would play 15-game sets, and every single result would be 13-2 or 12-3, without fail. With additional solid matchups against other level-1 decks such as GW Tokens, he and his teammates locked onto the deck as a way to absolutely obliterate a metagame that resembled those of the SCG Tour in the first 2 weeks.
Since Bant Company didn’t show up in huge numbers at the PT—although it was still the most played deck—this ended up leading the Zombie deck to struggle a bit. This was doubly true of the versions that were even softer against Liliana, the Last Hope. But with GP Rimini being completely dominated once again by Bant Company, 6 of the Top 8 spots taken by public enemy #1, as well as 3 copies in the Top 8 of Portland, maybe Zombies can find a window going forward.
The central strategy of the deck is essentially a madness deck that’s built around the utility creatures. The biggest addition from Eldritch Moon is Cryptbreaker. It comes down early and can start getting active before something like Reflector Mage hits the table. It also comes down several turns before Spell Queller is an issue, so if players aren’t playing as much spot removal for the early game, it’s likely to put you way ahead. From there, you can get lots of value—creating Zombies to draw cards, setting up madness, and putting the cards you need into the graveyard.
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy doesn’t really go turbo-planeswalker mode in this deck. Other decks utilizing Vessel of Nascency and Gather the Pack can flip Jace on turn 3, but you don’t even want to do that here. Jace allows you to use your madness cards however you want. The fact that both Jace and Cryptbreaker let you start operating at instant speed is part of the reason why the deck is so deadly against Bant Company.
There are multiple versions of Zombies, but Stark and his UltraPRO teammates utilized even more madness enabling creatures, such as Wharf Infiltrator. This is another critical looter, though it does get obliterated by Liliana. Getting additional value from the excess creatures you may not need is useful, but you’re really here for another madness enabler. Keep in mind that creatures discarded to Jace can still be turned into Eldrazi Horrors if you have excess mana.
One of your biggest payoffs from your Zombies and madness outlets is Voldaren Pariah. There are other versions of UB Zombies that can utilize the strength of this card even further with more graveyard recursion and token making synergies, but it’s still outstanding here. If they aren’t attacking your creatures, especially those that can make more (like Cryptbreaker and Wharf Infiltrator), then Pariah can threaten to decimate an opponent’s entire board. As a 3/3 flying creature that you can discard for value and cast for 3 mana, it’s already oustanding. Both Jace and Wharf Infiltrator can accelerate this thing out as early as turn 3 if you had a UB dual land to go with your black mana sources.
Grasp of Darkness is the best removal spell that heavy-black decks can play. Ultimate Price is easier to cast, but not being able to hit Spell Queller is a real problem, not to mention Reflector Mage, Hissing Quagmire, Wretched Gryff, and many others.
Just the Wind has basically seen no Constructed play, but the tempo swing for this deck is massive. This was an awesome find in a deck that has so many madness outlets, and Unsummon can be game-changing. Jace and Cryptbreaker are already going to get activated, so turning the discard into a 1-mana bounce can alter the course of a game.
Dark Salvation is another new one that does some impressive things. First off, you have a mana sink that will provide you a ton of value in games where you flood out. A turn-1 Cryptbreaker into an activation lets you fire off the Salvation to kill a 3-toughness creature, make a third Zombie, and start drawing extra cards or attacking for heaps of damage.
And then there’s Gisa’s Bidding. Yeah, I didn’t even think to test this one! It’s not really the best card to madness off a Cryptbreaker due to the high cost, but you have it as an option. Instead, you can discard it to your Jace or Wharf Infiltrator, and make multiple creatures on turn 3. If you happened to have a turn-1 Cryptbreaker, it’ll turn on the card-draw ability by itself. It’s even great to hardcast the turn before you Dark Salvation for 2. This will give you 4 Zombies in play (or more), and allow you to kill most things in the format!
Liliana, the Last Hope is the final piece of the puzzle, and one of the few cards that really stands on its own, keeping your life total under wraps, killing small creatures, helping force your creatures through, and then getting back creatures from the graveyard that opponents have killed or you’ve discarded. It’s a game changer in every way.
Here’s the list that UltraPRO played at PT Eldritch Moon:
Ben Stark, PT Eldritch Moon
This deck has great synergy and some awesome power in the early and late game.
You can also identify some glaring weaknesses. Where does this deck go against a Liliana? Cryptbreaker and Wharf Infiltrator are keys to getting the engines online, and they’ll be killed for 0 value. If you can’t get your 1-toughness creatures to stay alive, is Voldaren Pariah even going to do anything? And then sweepers like Languish and Kozilek’s Return look ultra powerful against a deck full of 2-toughness and smaller creatures. This is one of the few decks in the format that gets hit extra hard by Kozilek’s Return even when it’s hardcast!
This deck is a real gamble in a heavy midrange field. You have more equity against the decks like Temur Emerge, despite their Kozilek’s Returns, since at least they don’t have spot removal early to stop you and they don’t have Liliana. With that additional time, it’s a bit easier to sandbag threats and make sure that you can come back from the hard-hitting spells.
This wasn’t the only approach to building Zombie decks, however. Cryptbreaker, Jace, Voldaren Pariah, Grasp of Darkness, and some number of Lilianas and Dark Salvations remained constant, but there are ways to approach the deck that basically remove the madness element.
While Haunted Dead isn’t technically a madness spell, it’s definitely one you’re happy to see hit the graveyard. Discarding a Dead to Jace or Cryptbreaker is still great, and you’ll get extra value from bringing it back. It also happens to be an excellent madness enabler from your graveyard, so perhaps there are some additional madness options yet. Creating a pair of creatures is valuable in a deck with Voldaren Pariah, and the fact that you can then use the Haunted Dead to madness out the Pariah means they go together like peas and carrots.
If you’re going to be putting creatures into your graveyard only to bring them back, Prized Amalgam starts to sound appealing. Once the Haunted Dead engine gets going, Amalgams will continue to pop out of the graveyard, giving you a recurring threat that is difficult to deal with. The fact that you can discard Amalgams to the Dead and then bring them back is outstanding.
If you only had Haunted Deads coming back from the graveyard to trigger your Amalgams, that wouldn’t be enough—even with 4 copies of each. Luckily, you have Relentless Dead as a simply awesome card that has barely seen the light of day despite the hype surrounding its initial reveal. Relentless Dead is hard to block in the early game, which is already nice for a 2-power creature for 2, and you get a lot of extra mana as the game goes on. If they want to kill it, it’s likely to just come back, and often bring friends. If they don’t want to kill it, it’s going to be a pretty awesome thing to have in play when you’re looking to sacrifice creatures and flip your Voldaren Pariahs!
Here’s the list that Ondrej Strasky used to go 7-2-1 at PT Eldritch Moon:
Ondrej Strasky, 7-2-1 at PT Eldritch Moon
Strasky also has Ruinous Path for both creatures and Lilianas, and a single copy of Collective Brutality. Brutality can kill an early creature, take a key spell, provide the last few points when necessary, but mostly it’s a way discard some cards that you would prefer to have in your graveyard. Discarding a Prized Amalgam and a Haunted Dead is another way to fuel your engine.
So where does this deck go moving forward? First off, the metagame is going to need to have fewer Lilianas, because even if you find a better sideboard plan to try to make the matchup a bit better, you still don’t want to face it.
Cards like Wharf Infiltrator are too big of a liability against a card like Liliana. By removing creatures from your deck after sideboard, and because decks like delirium have so much removal, Voldaren Pariah becomes a big liability as well. If you can’t flip it and you aren’t guaranteed to have a madness outlet stick, this card looks really embarrassing as a 5-mana 3/3 flyer.
Additional copies of Dragonlord Silumgar to impact the board, or steal a Liliana that ticked too high, are a great place to start. Boarding out your win conditions can make it too hard to finish the game, so without Infiltrator and Pariah, Dragonlord Silumgar may be the best hope. While boarding in discard spells like Transgress the Mind and Duress, this is a strategy that could prove effective, as you can take out some of their removal from hand and you’ll be less dead to Languish and Liliana.
Here’s the version Sam Black recommended moving forward:
Just the Wind is a great way to gain tempo, but that ended up not being what the format was about. The inherent weakness to control decks meant he could not promote it as a main-deck inclusion now.
Luckily, cards like Transgress the Mind are positioned well right now. They’re a great tool against Company, taking many of the powerful creatures or the Company itself. They can strip Kozilek’s Return, Languish, or Liliana. They’re great against delirium strategies or emerge strategies alike.
Black also has the best removal options available. You have your own Lilianas and Grasps, but being able to board in Ruinous Path to deal with various threats is pretty awesome, as well.
Read the Bones and Negate are incredible against decks where your removal spells miss the mark. Negate is an all-star against control and slower decks. It’s exactly what I want against something like WB. Read the Bones is perhaps even more impressive, letting you dig 2-4 cards deeper to find exactly what you need, while always guaranteeing card advantage.
Does UB Zombies have what it takes to become a serious competitor in Standard? It really seems like it might. The top 100 of the Day 2 metagame at GP Portland was 35% Bant Company. Day 2 at GP Rimini was 32% Bant Company. These numbers are striking. If you can find a way to get the Liliana matchup closer to 50%, this could become a force.
So the questions then becomes: is that a possibility? What’s the best way for UB Zombies to attack the delirium and Liliana decks in the format? Is that something you think will happen down the road, or is Zombies doomed to fail without enough Bant to prey upon? Sound off in the comments!