Midway through Zendikar block I decided to take a break from Magic to focus on other things. I was eventually roped back into the card game by friends just in time for the Dark Ascension release event.
Up until that point I never had much interest in limited formats. I’d sometimes go to a release event if others convinced me to but I’d usually end up doing horribly. But luck was on my side during the Dark Ascension release event and I ended up taking first place. My success was largely in part due to the Mikaeus, the Unhallowed that I cracked, along with a whopping three Forbidden Alchemy’s, which helped me dig for my best cards while dodging unfavorable ones.
I remember the excitement I felt when I was rewarded with twenty booster packs for my undefeated record. This was the first time I ever won packs in a real life event, and boy did it feel great. I went to a friend’s house to open up my huge pile of crinkly loot, eagerly wondering how many Sorin, Lord of Innistrads I’d open.
It turned out that I didn’t get any Sorins. Actually, I didn’t get a single mythic in any of my packs or any high value cards at all. But I did get plenty of Grim Backwoods and a playset of this card:
Close enough, right? Sigh.
As for the card itself, I was impressed by how awesomely flavorful it is, evoking a great Frankenstein vibe. Yet I quickly dismissed its playability potential, thinking no format would want to run such an expensive and situational accelerant.
Fast forward a year later and now I’m an avid Commander player. I stumble across Rooftop Storm while flipping through the ol’ rares binder and it clicked: this card can be a BOMB in Commander! I quickly set to building a deck that could take full advantage of this bad boy, and I’m proud to share with you guys how it looks so far after much tweaking:
Please note that this list is semi-budget. No single card is over $20 according to tcgplayer median pricing. Decreasing/increasing the budget is discussed later on in the article.
I’ve never seen a tribal zombie deck in Commander before, which satisfies the Magic rogue/hipster in me but also gives a distinct advantage when playing with others that are unfamiliar with the deck. They honestly don’t know what to expect! No one suspects a card like Tombstone Stairwell to be a game-ender (or have even seen it before, for that matter), but once Vengeful Dead joins it on the battlefield things get brutal pretty fast.
The deck is powerful but also sheer fun, running cards that are both powerful but also incredibly flavorful. Innistrad block has tons of insanely cool zombie cards that don’t get the loving that they deserve. Cards like Zombie Apocalypse, Rooftop Storm, and Army of the Damned aren’t just stylish cards but also bombtastic here.
How It Plays
The most straightforward way to win with this deck is to overwhelm opponents with a huge zombie horde. Draw tons of cards, then quickly churn out your zombies in one or more of the following ways:
1) Rooftop Storm. All your zombies are free to play!
2) Graveyard recursion. You quickly fill your graveyard with creatures and have tons of ways to bringing them all back to play at once.
3) Mono-black ramp. Despite being a tricolor, this is really a mono-black deck that dips its toes in the other two colors. Because of that, it runs the black ramp package of Cabal Coffers and all its friends.
Another way to win is Tombstone Stairwell. It’s a great card on its own, but when paired up with Vengeful Dead or Diregraf Captain it can end the game in a couple turns.
Finally, there’s Thraximundar himself. This powerhouse of a general is a 3-turn clock that your opponents will fear, and rightfully so. Thraxy does so much work that you’ll sometimes win games just by casting him a couple times and not much else.
This deck never needs more than two blue and one red source to cast all its spells, which means you can go heavy on the swamps and run the ultimate black ramp cards which I like to call "Coffers Effects." Urborg turns all your lands into Swamps, which makes Coffers Effects as good as they'd been in a Mono Black deck.
Wayfarer’s Bauble and Solemn Simulacrum also show up as ramp. While they can manafix in a pinch, they’re best used to fetch another swamp to power the Cabal Coffers cards.
And of course, there’s Rooftop Storm. The card that sparked the development of this deck does tons of work here. Even if you don’t cast any zombies from your deck with this card, the fact that it makes Thraximundar cost 7 less to cast makes Storm worth it. Keep in mind that the additional 2 mana for each general recasting applies AFTER all other mana cost modifications, so while Thraximundar won’t always be free to cast, he’ll always be dirt cheap. Rooftop Storm also combines well with Havengul Lich and Yawgmoth's Will to replay all the zombies in your graveyard for free.
Lots and lots of card draw!
Compulsive Research, Careful Consideration, Forbidden Alchemy, Faithless Looting, Necrologia, and Fact or Fiction all dig deep, letting you pitch excess lands or zombies to recur later while letting you keep stuff that you can’t recur as easily. Forbidden Alchemy is especially good here because it’s an allstar digger and even has flashback to use twice or discard early and still get value.
Whispering Madness and Jace’s Archivist are repeatable Windfall effects. It’s a great way to ditch crummy hands, discard creatures to set up a bigger mass recursion spell, or restock an empty hand. I had more Windfall spells before but cut down to just the two best ones because, while they’re good, they’re also situational.
Graveborn Muse is absurd card draw in zombie tribal, but make sure you don't kill yourself with it!
Diabolic Tutor, Beseech the Queen, Demonic Tutor, Increasing Ambition, and Rune-Scarred Demon are general tutors. They’re essential if only because they can fetch the deck’s silver bullets: Chaos Warp and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker.
While lots of lands can manafix, Tolaria West is special in that it can search up Cabal Coffers, Bojuka Bog, and Urborg, which earns it a spot. Expedition Map is good for the same reasons.
Corpse Harvester is insane. With so many token generators and recursion effects, sacrificing a couple creatures is no big deal. There’s a crapton of good zombies to tutor for, and getting a Swamp is a great addition. As a bonus, it puts a counter on Thraximundar.
There's tons of targeted creature recursion here, both to bring back your own creatures and to steal your opponent's. But the real fun is the mass recursion package: Living Death, Patriarch’s Bidding, Balthor the Defiled, Yawgmoth's Will, and of course, Zombie Apocalypse. By midgame, any of these spells will require an immediate board wipe from an opponent or you’re going to stomp face. And even if someone does board wipe, no worries, you can just cast a different mass recursion spell!
Dralnu is recursion for instants and sorceries. Yes, I’m aware that he can be a liability, but realistically if no one is running red and you’re not using him in combat, you’ll never have problems. If someone IS running red, of course you should think twice before casting him, but even then not every red deck has many burn spells. If you're really worried about sacrificing permanents, however, feel free to take him out -- he's not essential to the deck.
There's a couple ways to deal with single big creature threats, Thraximundar probably being the best of them. He's really that good. When boards need to be wiped, however, nothing is better than Noxious Ghoul, a zombie that is drenched in Axe Body Spray. Play a bunch of zombies, everything else dies. Bring 6+ zombies from the grave with mass recursion, everything else dies. It's fantastic. There's also Living Death, which can be anywhere from a boardwipe to an absolute blowout.
Everybody in my playgroup makes liberal use of their graveyards, so graveyard hate is especially important for me. Bojuka Bog and Withered Wretch are hard counters to an opponent's removal shenanigans while also making sure that they don't benefit from mass recursion like Balthor or Living Death. Cemetery Reaper and Coffin Queen also act as graveyard hate.
To deal with land threats, we've got Helldozer, a zombie that loves to machinegun down problematic nonbasics like Maze of Ith. Powerful, but fair.
For everything else, there's Chaos Warp and Nicol Bolas. These two cards are essential silver bullets in the deck to deal with problematic threats that the rest of the deck can't answer. It's only two cards, but they're easily fetched with the many tutors the deck runs.
The rest of the deck continues the zombie goodstuffs. There's zombie lords, zombies that help fill the graveyard, zombie token generators, zombies that make your opponents lose life when zombies die, all the zombies!
One of the most lethal cards is an oldschool card from Mirage block, Tombstone Stairwell. It's powerful as a standalone card due to how often you'll have more creatures in the graveyard than anyone else, letting you attack into opponents but your opponents unable to attack into you. But the card gets ridiculous when you combine it with other neat cards. Zombie Master and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is one way to kill your opponents in a hurry. Vengeful Dead and Diregraf Captain are other ways. Keep in mind that the tokens aren't exiled but actually die, so they trigger those effects.
I wanted to stay away from vanilla zombies that can only effect the board through combat, so Unbreathing Horde and Soulless One are out. Lightning Reaver is closer to what I expect for an EDH bruiser but just not quite enough.
Gravecrawler has some synergies, but the creature itself is near useless in EDH and I don't think the synergies are worth the inclusion. I've thought of adding Skullclamp to Gravecrawler abuse, but I don't run other 1toughness creatures to put the clamp to work.
Lim-Dul looks cool but is too high cost and clunky in its ability, plus he himself is not a zombie.
Sedris works against my mass recursion strategy by exiling my creatures. I don't like that.
Sadistic Sacrament I'd make room for if I was more worried about combo decks, but for now I don't think it's necessary. The same goes for cards like Stranglehold, Price of Glory, etc. If a specific deck style becomes too powerful and popular in my group then I'll run the appropriate hate, and I encourage you guys to do the same.
Deadapult is the most awesome zombie-themed card I've seen. Unfortunately it's a weak card in my deck.
This is a semi-budget deck where no single card is worth over $20. As of writing this article, the physical cost of this deck is $293 according to tcgplayer's median. The virtual cost of the deck is 101tix according to mtgotraders.com. It's certainly not cheap, but I don't consider it insanely priced either. Depending on what your budget is, I have some suggestions to either increase or decrease the deck price.
To decrease the budget, remove these:
The easiest way to lower the budget is to cut down on the most expensive lands. Unlike some pricey lands like Cabal Coffers, these cards listed are not essential to make the deck tick, and can even be a hinderance when all you want are basic Swamps. Cut them and replace them with basic lands or whatever manafixing lands you've got available.
Demonic Tutor is the best tutor, but you can easily live without it. The deck has plenty of strong tutors that losing one won't be very noticeable.
Sol Ring, as amazing as it is, isn't ever essential, so you can cut that too.
Of the pricey zombies, Death Baron is the weakest. He's still quite good, but I wouldn't feel bad about replacing him with a cool cheaper zombie like Lightning Reaver, or even Undead Gladiator.
These cuts result in $73 or 30tix removed from the price.
To increase the budget, add these:
Again, the easiest way to increase the performance of the deck is by dumping money on the manabase. If you run the fetchlands, be sure to also run Crucible of Worlds so you can abuse the fetches and also recur lands you discarded or Cabal Coffers that got destroyed.
These additions result in a quadruple price increase of the deck. Hooray for Legacy cards!
Battle Recap vs.
This was my very first playtest of the deck. It turned out to be an epic 6-man FFA.
I mull into an ideal starting hand with Sol Ring and Wayfarer's Bauble, drawing into a timely Solemn Simulacrum as well. This is about as good as the deck gets in early mana ramp. Reaper King is slower but also ramps by dropping Izzet, Selesnya, and Golgari Keyrunes. Uril drops lands but not much else. Rith plays Rhys the Redeemed and gets stuck on a couple lands with no ramp, so he makes a couple tokens instead. Sliver Queen has the most aggressive start with Noble Hierarch, Sol Ring, and a Survival of the Fittest, followed by more mana rocks. Lazav has it the worst, getting stuck on 2 lands and having to discard expensive cards like Time Stretch, but not before he drops Telepathy. With everyones hands exposed, we realize that indeed, the Sliver Queen with tons of mana and a Demonic Tutor in hand is currently ahead of everyone else.
Sliver Queen quickly becomes the biggest threat on the table, feeding Squee, Goblin Nabob to Survival to fetch up Bringer of the Blue Dawn. When the Survival and Bringer are killed, he continues the tutoring with Fauna Shaman and slams down Bringer of the Black Dawn. Lazav is still mana screwed, Reaper King is staying relatively neutral while defending himself with an Elspeth, Knight-Errant and a Taurean Mauler, and Rith puts down a Garruk Wildspeaker while slowly building up a token army that he's sending at me and Sliver Queen. Uril puts a stop to the insane tutoring with Stranglehold, hurting everyone else to some extent but most of all Sliver Queen, who was getting out of hand fast.
Meanwhile I've been drawing mostly lands, but the good kinds -- Cabal Coffers, Vesuva, and eventually even Thespian's Stage for insane black ramp made better with the Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth that Sliver Queen graciously played for me. I use that mana to cast Thraximundar a couple times, which picks off Slive Queen's Bringers and the odd planeswalkers on the battlefield. My general never survives more than a round, but with haste he really doesn't need to. The only zombie that I draw is Undead Warchief but it's quickly killed. You'd think I wasn't running 30 of them or something.
Midgame really picks up steam when all the generals come out to play. Lazav starts drawing lands and can actually do stuff and Uril's general finally shows up equipped with Bear Umbra and Shield of the Oversoul, which, while scary, is easily manageable by Thraximundar! Reaper King joins the party too and starts Vindicate'ing stuff with scarecrows/changelings. Sliver Queen and I are keeping to ourselves for the moment, me with tons of mana but not much to do with it and him neutered by the constant targeting and Stranglehold stopping his tutors. Lazav starts getting serious, stealing Sliver Queen away with Soul Ransom and then playing Sorin Markov, dropping Uril's life to 10. I finally get through my mana flood and suddenly I'm getting tons of tutors, card draw, and zombies, most notably Noxious Ghoul. The ghoul wipes away Rith's tokens and Reaper King's scarecrows right before its gets put down with all my other zombies. With Increasing Ambition and Balthor the Defiled in my hand, however, I'm feeling really good about where I'm standing once Stranglehold is removed. And removed it was. I think Rith used Krosan Grip on it because he wanted to pop his fetchlands.
Suddenly Sliver Queen is back on everyone's radar when he draws Spelltwine (Telepathy is still on the field!). I use Bojuka Bog to remove Queen's sizeable graveyard which included Demonic Tutor amongst other things, but it didn't matter when he topdecked a Vampiric Tutor to twine.
Spelltwine'd Tutor + Time Stretch elicit groans from the table and is followed up with an army of angels courtesy of a miracle'd Entreat the Angels. Uril is promptly killed during Sliver Queen's second extra turn while the rest of us are granted one more round to find a board wipe.
Thankfully, I have that board wipe. I pop Balthor the Defiled, bringing back all the zombies, including Noxious Ghoul, which wipes the board of everyone else's creatures except for Reaper King's changelings. With my absurd amount of available black mana, I also tutor up and play Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker to rid myself of any noncreature threats. At this point I've rightfully taken the spot of Archenemy away from Sliver Queen. My creatures get destroyed, my Volrath's Stronghold is blown up (though I still have Unholy Grotto, ha!), and there's general murmurings of how to take me down.
Sliver Queen has a good answer: Terminus. My zombies all get tucked, a fate far worse than going to the yard. I try to flashback Army of the Damned but Reaper King Mana Drains it. Oh well. I flashback Increasing Vengeance to get Vengeful Dead and Tombstone Stairwell, my deck's most lethal combo. At the start of every turn, over 10 zombies will be put on the battlefield, and at the end of each turn my opponents will lose 10+ life. I cackle maniacally. It's good to be the villain!
My opponents run out their final answers: Vengeful Dead is killed and Sliver Queen rocks the table with an Armageddon to stop me from recurring my zombie and prevent me from paying the upkeep on Tombstone Stairwell. A solid play, but with my Nicol Bolas standing unopposed on the battlefield, it's only a matter of time until my opponents scoop.
Thanks for reading. Lemme know what you'd like to see in future articles!
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