Breaking Through – Gambling On Zombies

This year had certainly not been my best. Coming into Pro Tour Magic 2015, I needed a Top 16 to even secure Gold. There were plenty of things to point reasons to point to, plenty of them perfectly legitimate, but at the end of the day none of those reasons put Pro Points in my pocket. I face a similar dilemma going into Worlds 2011, but that worked out well enough, so I was ready to give this tournament all that I could and chase another year on the train.

A month before the Pro Tour, M15 legitimately had me excited at the prospect of a Standard event in spite of decks like Mono-Black and Mono-Blue dominating the format. M15 seemed to have enough crazy build-arounds and synergy-driven strategies that something would be viable if you approached it the right way.

I began brewing well before the entire spoiler was out and had all sorts of cards I fell in love with. Cards that were powerful, but tricky. Maybe they were tough to make happen or maybe they asked you to focus your card pool around them, but they always paid off handsomely. Sometimes they were good and sometimes they were bad, depending on the makeup of the environment, but they were worth looking at.

With over a dozen players on Team TCGPlayer, we had plenty of people looking into things like Mono-Black, Mono-Green, or Naya Blitz. I wanted to spend the majority of my time exploring the unexplored, because there was too much for us to reasonably cover in full, I wanted to experiment as much as I could.

The New World

I began mining for inspiration. M15 provided so many new tools that I wanted to examine all of those cards thoroughly, but I also had to go back through everything Standard had to offer to identify cards that potentially increased in power level due to something in M15. This led to all sorts of weird and wacky brews that I will be recording with over the next few weeks.

When I present an oddball idea to the team, it is easy to just dismiss it. The rest of the world has not tried that yet, so chances are that it is just bad. However, when we actually sit down and test these ideas, we usually learn a lot, so it’s important to try. Many times the deck idea is just bad, but important discoveries of lesser-played cards come out of this. Mutagenic Growth was played in our Tempered Steel list during the Scars Block Pro Tour because I originally ran it in an awkward G/W list that was awful, but the interaction in protecting Hero of Bladehold from the likes of Dismember was quite nice. We played four copies of Growth in our sideboard as a result.

When I sat down with a Zombie brew that I had built before walking into the house, I was not expecting much. It seemed like the easiest list to play a few games with and then discard. And had I played those games against the wrong deck, that might have happened…

The idea behind Zombies was to have a strong tribal theme—not to abuse lords, like most tribal decks, but instead to abuse Necromancer’s Stockpile, a new card in M15 that just seemed like an engine waiting to be abused. Once in play, Stockpile allowed an exchange of resources that was self-sufficient and quite the threat. In some ways it resembles Pack Rat. Only instead of card disadvantage; we get to actually generate card advantage. This translates into being able to constantly make your land drops, which allows you to accumulate a big end-game as you snowball advantage.

Digging Graves

Once you know you have Necromancer’s Stockpile, the field of cards you have to work with drops dramatically. While you do not have to run 100% Zombies exclusively, you certainly want to run as many as possible, and the pool of available Undead in Standard is not the biggest. If you were extremely liberal with our assessment of what is Standard playable, this is the list you would probably arrive at:

There are a few more niche options, like Ubul Sar Gatekeepers, but for the most part, your Zombies are going to have to come from the above list of options.

We could look at other options here that benefit our commitment to tribal. The biggest card to jump out is another new one from M15 in Obelisk of Urd. Stockpile pumping out 4/4s is very big game, as is the ability to make your Mutavaults 4/4s.

From there, you probably want something like Thoughtseize to help protect your namesake card. The two curve perfectly into each other and assuming you have a Stockpile down, you will only ever have 1 or 0 left over mana thanks to the 2-cost activation, so Thoughtseize fits nicely into that gap.

Beyond those components, we need access to some removal. I don’t want to play this deck if I have no outs to a Pack Rat or Master of Waves. If we were to follow the trends from above, black/green seems logical so Abrupt Decay makes a lot of sense, especially considering some of the few threats to Stockpile are Banishing Light and Detention Sphere. I kept it fairly generic from there and just stuck a couple of Hero’s Downfalls into the deck, and began testing the following list:

I began my testing against Mono-Black and was immediately impressed. Necromancer’s Stockpile basically never left play and was nearly unbeatable for them. Beyond that, another two-drop engine stuck out as well. Lotleth Troll proved difficult to kill and if you were willing to actually go all-in on it, it usually paid off. You would need to play around the likes of Devour Flesh, but the Troll would often just get them.

It was a little strange to see two different engines share so much in common but play so differently. Stockpile creates a grindy game in which you always have a full hand and can out-card advantage just about anyone. Lotleth Troll comes down on the same turn (or turn 3 against black decks) but does not want to play the long game. He wants to dodge removal for 3 to 4 turns and kill you in that time frame. This means that being aggressive and discarding 2 to 4 creatures right away was often correct, as strange as it felt.

When we switched matchups over to battle Esper, the same two cards stood out once again. This time you did not go all-in on your Troll as often, as you could be blown out by a Detention Sphere or Azorius Charm, but it, along with Stockpile and things to protect those two cards, was proving itself.

At this point I realized that I needed to test against Mono-Blue. Having favorable control matchups is good, but the deck looked abysmal against Blue. We had limited ways to deal with Master of Waves and Thassa and cards like Tidebinder Mage and Rapid Hybridization easily dealt with Troll. Protecting against their flying squad while trying to sneak in some damage was just impossible in theory. Sure enough, just a few games into the matchup I was experiencing those exact problems.

I could win if Thassa never came down and I answered Master of Waves, but it wasn’t pretty. I decided to try some radical ideas just to see if I could improve the matchup. After all, if I was taking down Mono-Black, Esper, and UW Control already, having a reasonable Mono-Blue matchup would be enough reason to run the deck.

I initially tried more answers to Master of Waves by including two copies of Cruel Sadist in my deck and an Ultimate Price over one of the Abrupt Decays. This did help with the Masters specifically and I gained a lot of respect for Cruel Sadist in the process, but Thassa was still too big of a problem. With Mono-Blue requiring too much effort to fix, I deemed the deck dead and moved on.

Back to the Real World

Over the next few days, we didn’t really discover anything new. We improved some of our stock lists, but nothing jumped out at us from the craziest brew to the most consistent of strategies. People began to settle on decks that they thought were safe, like black/white devotion or green/white aggro, but I didn’t feel like any of those were the solutions to the format we were looking for. They were just fall-back ideas. As a deckbuilder, this is always one of the worst feelings. You have this sense of letting the team down. I knew that from that moment forward, no matter what I discovered, even if it had been the hands-down best deck, people were going to play their fall-back decks. The brewing process was over and I was now in it for myself, left to choose a deck with about 48 hours until go-time.

Mono-Black Aggro was my first instinct. It had many of the same qualities I was looking for and beat a lot of the same matchups that Stockpile had. It was safer though, so I sleeved it up and began testing. While the deck seemed totally fine, its only slam-dunk matchup was Esper/UW. Everything else took a little bit of luck in your draw steps or stumbles from the opponent for you to secure victories consistently.

I tweaked things and tried Cruel Sadist again, along with some other small technology. The deck was fine, but it just didn’t feel like it had a shot at picking up 6 or more wins. As soon as I ran into a Burn deck or Mono-Black, I was likely to pick up a loss and that was just too much of the field to ignore.

Around this time, the notion that Mono-Blue was not going to be heavily played began to pick up steam around the house. Obviously the usual suspects of Sam Pardee and Sam Black would be favorites to play the deck, but how many people could justify flipping coins all tournament with the deck when not piloted to perfection? Wouldn’t those people just play Mono-Black instead and pick up free wins with Pack Rat and Thoughtseize?

If we removed Mono-Blue from the equation, Mono-Black, Esper, UW Control, and Jund were our expected 4 most-played decks. The Zombies list was quite strong against all of those. Strong was perhaps even stating the case lightly. In those matchups I was rarely losing. After realizing what cards matter and what tricks were important, things skewed very quickly.

Small things, such as sneaking a Slitherhead counter on to a Mutavault, could win the control matchup all on its own. Having a 3/3 Mutavault meant no trading with their own Mutavaults and Last Breath would just stare and weep.

Fueled by the idea that Zombies could be good against the top four decks and ignore the bad matchups, I picked up the deck the day before the Pro Tour once again.

Once More, With Feeling!

I hammered out the important cards in the main deck and developed some plans for the board. For my bad matchups, I sometimes resorted to highly inconsistent but effective plans, such as the life gain package you will see below. In the end, I decided to sleeve up the following:

My thinking was that I would have a very solid matchup against the vast majority of the field and could hope to get lucky against bad matchups. Going in, I would have told you up front that I would win against and lose against the following decks:

Good Matchups

Mono-Black
Black/White Midrange
Esper
UW Control
Jund Monsters/Planeswalkers
Bant Control
Junk

Bad Matchups

Mono-Red Aggro
Burn
Hexproof
Mono-Blue
Tom Ross Red
Naya Aggro

Essentially, great against grindy decks and bad against aggressive ones. I was happy with that, as I expected there to be a significant bias toward the grindy half of the metagame. It was a bit of a gamble, but the alternatives were not very attractive. Play some deck with a bunch of known 45/55 coin flips without a ton of testing? People were falling back on their comfort zones and my comfort zone was definitely playing a brew.

I will be recording games with the deck to break down matchups and sideboarding in the near future.

Unfortunately, the gamble did not pay off. In 10 rounds of Constructed play, I ran into the following decks:

Mono-Red Aggro
Naya Hexproof
Mono-Blue
Boros Burn
Mono-Red

All of those were awful matchups. I managed to take down Jund and Esper according to plan and was surprised to see that my matchup against Nassif’s Maze’s End deck was quite favorable thanks to Spiteful Returned, Gray Merchant, and Jarad. A tough loss against Floch en route to his amazing finish and a concession to Tom Martell in the last round saw me out of the tournament, despite a perfect draft record on the weekend.

I took a chance. It definitely did not pay off. I am not happy with the result, but I do not regret the decision and I will be coming back harder and stronger than ever. Time to adopt the column name once again! Thanks for reading!

Conley Woods

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