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Can B/R Zombies Come Back From the Dead?

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” – Dawn of the Dead

B/R Zombies has a place in the metagame that reminds me of Monored in Legacy. The moment when the format doesn’t respect it, it pops up again to make sure you remember it. B/R Zombies has the tools to beat some of the format’s most problematic cards while being able to capitalize on greedy manabases. I have played the archetype in one form or another since the middle of last year, shuffling up versions sporting Mortarpods and Blood Artists to versions throwing Bump in the Night at the face of my opponent while swinging for the fences alongside Rakdos Cackler. B/R Zombies has been one of my favorite decks ever designed and is literally my claim to fame thanks to my Top 4 finish at GP Charleston.

Burned to a Crisp

B/R Zombies were the boogeyman of Standard before Gatecrash shook things up. So why did they disappear?

Pillar of Flame has come in waves since Return to Ravnica. And Pillar of Flame is one of the worst cards a Zombies player can shuffle up against. It nullifies the resiliency that makes Zombies a top-tier aggro deck and kills just about every creature they have from Turns 1-4. At first, everyone was prepared for Zombies so many decks ran four copies, including Todd Anderson’s winning U/W/R Control list that won the first major tournament. Because of this pre-hatred of the powerful archetype, many people stayed away from R/B or R/G Zombies. They knew decks could deal with the early rush with Pillars or Detention Spheres and follow up with lifegain or bigger threats, usually in the form of Angel of Serenity and Thragtusk.

The metagame adjusted, however, to include fewer and fewer Pillars because they just weren’t good against anything but Zombies. When Burning-Tree Emissary decks became popular after Gatecrash, people began relying on mass removal. Others started playing Burning-Tree decks, which are faster and have the ability to block and switch modes easily against other aggro decks. Every creature in Zombies either can’t block, comes into play tapped, or causes you embarrassment when you have to cast them to block. (I can’t think of a worse feeling of being on the fence, tapping four to play Falkenrath Aristocrat, then saying go.)

The Zombie Evolution

But the great thing about Zombies is that it’s adaptable. It can compensate for whatever weakness has been discovered. It’s helpful to look at the successful B/R Zombies decklists since Return to Ravnica.

From there, players began to find the deck’s weaknesses. Blood Artist in the maindeck really lost a lot of value once Mortarpod left the format. Rakdos, Lord of Riots was in the sideboard for the mirror match, but got subbed out for Vampire Nighthawk to help against various U/W decks.

Knight of Infamy replaced Blood Artist and was used to combat Geist of Saint Traft, Angel of Serenity, Augur of Bolas, and Centaur Healer. His exalted trigger also allowed you to get in some extra points of damage early by forcing your opponent into undesirable trades if they wanted to stop it. Appetite for Brains was included to get rid of Thragtusks before the opponent had a chance to cast them.

The next big thing to happen to B/R Zombies was when Jon Bolding converted it into a Big Zombies deck and won Grand Prix Charleston with the help of Thundermaw Hellkites and Hellriders.

Standard has once again evolved since Gatecrash, with Pillar of Flame moving out of maindecks as players lean more heavily on mass removal. The Top 8 decks at SCG Vegas included zero copies of Pillar of Flame while people are more worried about beating Boros Reckoner. They want wrath effects to beat the current aggro field, which usually has to overextend to put on that lightning-fast amount of pressure.

Another thing to note is that Jund Zombies did well in the recent MOCS because of a computer glitch that turned off the exiling effect of Pillar of Flame and similar cards. This will make people dismiss Zombies by thinking it was just a fluke that it did so well, and they would be partially right. [Editor’s Note: B/R Zombies finished second at GP Verona, but made no appearances in the Top 16s at GP Rio De Janeiro or SCG Indy.] But it’s likely people will disregard it completely and let the metagame continue to evolve for ways to beat Boros Reckoner and other midrange decks like Jund. This is when Zombies can come back from the grave.

Fertile Ground

The more you investigate Zombies, the more you realize it is an aggressive deck that has the tools to beat other aggressive decks and still has the resiliency it’s always had to get past the midrange decks. It also has the ability to deal with the format’s new boogeyman, Boros Reckoner, without sacrificing the quality of the deck with cards like Tragic Slip and Victim of Night. Another great attribute is that the deck itself reduces the ability to get two-for-oned against Reckoner. What are they going to do, block and shoot your Falkenrath Aristocrat? That’s fine, sacrifice a Geralf’s Messenger or Gravecrawler to make her indestructible; you’ll get them back anyway! Can it deal the damage back to Knight of Infamy? Nope. What about killing your Diregraf Ghoul? That’s fine, he’s the worst of the bunch! I think it’s fair to say Zombies is due for a comeback.

There has been success with Jund and B/W Zombies, so why play B/R? While B/W Zombies is aggressive, it isn’t as aggressive as I’d like. It is an incremental deck with cards continuously dealing smaller increments of damage such as Obzedat, Ghost Council, Blind Obedience, and Blood Artist. I want to finish the games quickly and B/W lacks the ability to follow up with a nail-in-the-coffin creature, namely Falkenrath Aristocrat. Obzedat does a lot the first turn he’s in play, but that turn is already one behind B/R’s big turn and it plays into their defense, usually Thragtusk or Sphinx’s Revelation into enough cards to stay alive.

The issues with Jund are is as simple as mana. You can’t hiccup with Zombies if you plan on being successful. Aggro decks thrive on consistency, and adding in a third color reduces that for what may be an unnecessary gain of powerful creatures. The creatures in B/R are already good enough, so there really is no reason to add the green, except possibly Deathrite Shaman. You also save life by only playing four shocklands versus eight with Jund Zombies. In a format this aggressive, you should protect your life total when you can, especially when more than half your creatures are terrible at blocking or preventing damage.

Starting from Scratch

When building any Zombies deck you have to build it aggressively, and it is so important that your deck be incredibly good at what it’s doing. Before we build a new version of Zombies to take out the current obstacles the Standard metagame has to offer, we need to re-establish the base:

4 Diregraf Ghoul
4 Gravecrawler
4 Knight of Infamy
4 Geralf’s Messenger
4 Falkenrath Aristocrat

These five cards should be the base of the deck. Diregraf Ghoul and Gravecrawler give your deck the ability to come out swinging and establish your role as the beatdown. Knight of Infamy adds to that as an aggressively costed creature with the ability to add one more damage in your early attacks. It also gets past Boros Reckoner and Restoration Angel; with exalted, it can beat up Centaur Healer and Augur of Bolas without getting scratched. Geralf’s Messenger is an excellent follow-up play after any combat step, compounding your opponent’s problems while getting them lower in life. You also have Falkenrath Aristocrat, unquestionably one of the best four-mana creatures in the format. It is mass-removal proof in most cases and can just win games on its own, while the ability to fly over Boros Reckoner and Thragtusk is very important in this metagame.

The next step is to think about what other creatures should be in the deck. We want between 24 and 28 bodies in the deck so we can continue pressuring the opponent. We also need creatures that either present a reliable threat or have some other utility against the metagame.

3 Thundermaw Hellkite
2 Olivia Voldaren

Thundermaw Hellkite is due to show his face again. With the popularity of Falkenrath Aristocrat, Boros Reckoner, and Thragtusk only on the rise, you need to be bigger than they are and have the ability to go over them. Hellkite does that in spades. Olivia Voldaren helps you reach out against the other aggro decks in the format, namely Naya Blitz and Experiment Jund along with your other removal spells. She can also give midrange Jund fits if they run out of removal.

The removal suite I’m considering has ways to deal with early beats, a mass removal effect for when you’re running behind on board, and a way to deal with late game threats and Boros Reckoner.

4 Searing Spear
4 Bonfire of the Damned
3 Tragic Slip

Bonfire of the Damned is a way to beat the other aggro decks like R/G Aggro and Naya Blitz, which quickly lay out their hand and try to push through as much damage as possible. You’re able to mimic the same play style but with the ability to have a one-sided wrath effect that makes them skip a beat. Even if they happen to have Boros Reckoner, your deck makes it difficult for them to two-for-one you. Four copies of Searing Spear seem like a necessity for every deck playing red. Tragic Slip is a way to get rid of first-turn Champion of the Parishes as well as a way to deal with Boros Reckoner, Restoration Angel, and most importantly, rival Falkenrath Aristocrats.

Because of our curve going up with Bonfire of the Damned, Thundermaw Hellkite, and Olivia Voldaren, 24 lands is where you want to start so you can hit your land drops until Turn 5. Taking into consideration what the deck needs to do each turn to be relevant against your opponent, my final decklist looks like this:

I wanted Pillar of Flames and Vampire Nighthawks in the sideboard as a way to beat other aggro decks. Rakdos Charm is a way to respect Humaninator, but if a token build comes out of nowhere we have a way to deal some needed damage against them. Victim of Night is in the board versus Obzedat, Ghost Council, Boros Reckoner, and Restoration Angel mostly but is a great catch-all versus a lot of decks. Liliana of the Veil is a permanent that can’t easily be answered by Esper, Four-Color Bant, and U/W/R Flash.

I think B/R Zombies will be a better call as far as Aggro decks go when compared to the current Burning-Tree Emissary aggro decks that people will be playing. You have to the ability to beat them if you adjust your maindeck while not giving anything up on what makes this deck as good as it always has been. Good luck to anyone trying this at their next FNM or Standard tournament and feel free to contact me with any questions or comments on Twitter @Curlyfryusa34.

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