The Pro Tour was a verified Zombie Apocalypse. I was all set to play an improved version of Red/Green Gods, but my teammates informed me that stock Mono-Black Zombies was everywhere and they weren’t sure what it was bad against. Zombies was the one deck I wasn’t comfortable playing against with Red/Green, so this did not leave me much choice. I switched to the best deck:

Mono-Black Zombies

There is almost no room to play around with this list in the main deck. There are exactly enough cards that do what you want them to do, so you play those cards and don’t look back. The main deck should either be the list I ran, or you can cut a card (likely Liliana’s Mastery, which was Gerry Thompson’s choice) to get a third Grasp of Darkness. That’s it.

The only card in the deck that feels like a compromise is Metallic Mimic. Metallic Mimic is not a Zombie in the graveyard, so you can’t bring it back with Relentless Dead and it doesn’t count for Diregraf Colossus, both of which are serious problems, but your curve is vital and there are no good alternatives for your second 2-drop—the best “real” black 2-drop Zombie after Relentless Dead is Miasmic Mummy and that is not a good enough card to be a real option. In exchange, you get an additional lord effect, which is what your deck is all about. Wayward Servant is the card you want, but you don’t want it so badly that you would play 6 Plains and 8 duals mostly to get him, which is what White/Black Zombies has to do.

The wrong way to think about Zombies is as an aggressive deck that tries to rush the opponent with cheap creatures. You have eight 1-drops and eight 2-drops, so those starts do happen. It’s great to get those free wins when opponents can’t keep pace, but that’s not what you’re about.

What you are about is the Zombie Apocalypse. Zombies are multiplicative, with half your nonland cards boosting your entire team in one form or another. You want to deploy a huge amount of power, rebuilding every time they wipe your board, and run over your opponents with an unstoppable Zombie horde. The quick attacks ideally put your opponent on the back foot and force them to spend their time defending, but the damage is almost incidental. Almost every time I see a Zombie player sacrificing development or card advantage in the first four turns to get in quick damage, it seems like an obvious mistake to me, turning dominant positions into losses.

The problem with Zombies is that, quite appropriately, they are a slow moving target. Marvel and Mardu players have a lot of room to get creative with their card choices, while the Zombie player does not. If you sideboard more than a handful of cards other than your removal spells, you will damage your deck more than you will help it, so even after board you are a sitting target. Now that everyone knows about this target, things will get tough, but your deck is very powerful so I still like its chances in the coming weeks.

The cards that definitely belong in the sideboard are 2 copies of Dispossess, 4 copies of Scrapheap Scrounger, and any copies of Grasp of Darkness you do not have main. Grasp of Darkness is the best removal spell against Mardu due to Glorybringer, Archangel Avacyn, and Heart of Kiran, and the only removal spell that you know will do good work against Marvel. Scrapheap Scrounger is your response to sweeper-heavy strategies, replacing Metallic Mimic and giving you eight creatures you can bring back.

Dispossess is purely for Aetherworks Marvel. The argument against Dispossess is that it means taking turn 3 or 4 off of casting Zombies, and this allows your Marvel opponent to grind you out without Marvel. This is possible, and did happen to me in one game at the Pro Tour, but the power level of Marvel with and without its namesake card is night and day and I am willing to take that risk.

After that, it is not obvious that any further sideboarding is helpful. Transgress the Mind is a fine card, but do you want to take a turn off for it? How many discard spells do you want against a Marvel deck that (when not casting Marvel itself) will have a hand full of similar 2- to 4-mana value plays? The second discard spell is often bad for this reason, and of course they’re dead late.

Additional copies of Fatal Push seems good, but where do you actually want that other than hyper-aggressive Marvel and some aggro decks no one is still playing? They might be worthwhile simply because the space is cheap.

Liliana, the Last Hope also underwhelmed me, and I am not convinced there are any places it improves your deck, as good as it seems to be as an additional option.

Then there’s Gonti, Lord of Luxury, which a lot of people like but who also leaves me cold. He isn’t a Zombie, so who has such sweet cards that I want to spend turn 4 on a random guy and an impulse into their deck? Maybe Blue/Red? I saw others play it against Green/Black and that seemed awful to me.

One card that I liked in testing that didn’t make our cut was Yahenni’s Expertise, for the mirror matchup or decks that are trying to go under you. When it is bad it will be useless except for discarding it to Cryptbreaker, but the upside allows you to reclaim board positions that are otherwise utterly lost and turn them into wins. This seems to me like a better way to turn around a mirror than Liliana, the Last Hope, which was my team’s plan.

The Matchups

AEtherworks Marvel

Different versions of Temur Marvel represent importantly different opponents, especially when sideboarding, but the core problem is that Ulamog is coming. It is very difficult for a Marvel deck to beat you without not only Aetherworks Marvel but Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. They are good at stalling for time, but not without their position steadily deteriorating, assuming you are careful to look out for red mass removal. A lot of their cards do not impact the board much and your removal still does good work, and your cards all boost each other, so as long as you keep deploying power efficiently to the board their B plan is not going to be effective, to the extent that they can sweep the board once and your new board is likely better than anything they can do. With time, you can even put them in situations where Ulamog won’t get it done, and that should be what you are thinking about once you get to a solid board state: Presenting a problem that an Ulamog cannot solve.

Early damage is less important than it looks. They start at 20 life. Getting that reduced a bit helps, but the way that you kill them is with a giant Zombie apocalypse that their creatures cannot stand up to. When you have a choice between attacking and drawing off Cryptbreaker, you almost always want to draw until you’re doing over 5 damage by attacking. When they start spinning the Marvel, your goal is to force them to keep pace with the coming apocalypse rather than to finish it all right here if they miss. You might worry that these lines allow your opponent to draw into Marvel or have extra shots at activating it, but in those scenarios, it is usually too late even for Ulamog.

The real worry is Chandra, Flamecaller. With Zombies so much more of a presence, it is likely more and more copies of Chandra, Flamecaller will show up, and that tilts the balance more toward their being able to solve otherwise unsolvable problems, forcing you to attack them faster or go after their hand. Zombies can’t do much to improve its position, whereas Marvel has a lot of flexibility, so what was a good (but not great) matchup could become much worse soon.

You want to put in 2 Dispossess. A 3rd copy would be marginal, as drawing a 2nd copy is an outright dead card and Dispossess does not lock up the game enough to go down multiple cards with confidence, especially against Chandra, Flamecaller builds. You could supplement with Transgress the Mind if you want to, but that does not appeal to me much. The bigger question is what removal suite and which 2-drops you want.

Dark Salvation is great, since it kills things while generating advantage and can be cast for a Zombie or two in a pinch. Fatal Push can only hit Servant of the Conduit or a Thopter, so it is clearly bad. The question is Grasp of Darkness. Right now, I wouldn’t be inclined to have many copies of it on the play, expecting not to face too many juicy targets and that I’d have time for Dark Salvation. On the draw, it can be important to kill Servant of the Conduit on turn 2 to block Aetherworks Marvel hitting the table before Dispossess, so the first few copies seem mandatory. If you see Glorybringer, having all 4 Grasp of Darkness is very reasonable.

Against a lot of Chandra, Flamecaller or other board sweepers, Scrapheap Scrounger’s value goes up for obvious reasons, whereas if there aren’t too many mass removal effects I would much rather feed the apocalypse engine. That means that this too depends on your read of their build. Your curve matters a lot and you are adding two 3-drops, so trimming 3-drops while keeping in more than eight 2-drops makes a lot of sense, even though the 3-drops are much better cards. I would look into trimming either Liliana’s Mastery or Diregraf Colossus for this reason. Diregraf Colossus is great, but when you are playing more non-Zombies and you’re removing them from your graveyard to power Scrapheap Scrounger, Diregraf Colossus gets a lot worse quickly.

By default, I would do:

Out

In

But depending on your exact main deck and what you think they are running, I also might take out some of:

To add some of:

Mirror

My team’s pre-tournament view of the mirror was that it took a while and even sometimes involved activating Westvale Abbey, so they planned to bring in Liliana, the Last Hope to take out Cryptbreaker and reclaim things that died. After playing and watching the matchup more, I think this is very wrong. The matchup is about who can deploy the better army and put the opponent into impossible situations first. Being on the play is powerful because you can put an extra anthem effect into play or give your guys menace, or just kill their key guy, and swing in to put them under a lot of pressure. If you Dark Salvation on turn 3 killing their 2-drop, it can be tough to come back, and if you also have Cryptbreaker to draw a card it’s going to be even harder. Taking a turn off in that situation to cast Liliana, the Last Hope, then having to try and defend her, seems miserable. Are you really cutting 3-drop Zombies to do this? Even worse, are you going down on 1-drops to do this?

Instead, putting in more removal is far better, or just changing very little, and if they try to stick a Liliana, you can clear a path to take it out. Again, if there’s a card I want, it’s Yahenni’s Expertise to turn entire games around, or just be a great turn-4 play on the draw, ideally followed by Diregraf Colossus to reclaim the board and take control. I’d probably do some mix of:

Out

In

Fatal Push kills Cryptbreaker efficiently and helps get tempo early, but it doesn’t kill too much else that matters, and Metallic Mimic is your worst creature when you are bringing in more removal on curve, so this seems about right. If Expertise isn’t available I would just tweak a tiny bit and bring in Never // Return instead, which is good at killing key 3-drops. None of your cards are bad, so it is a balance between speed and power.

Mardu Vehicles

You pack more power than they do, but they can have some starts that put you under pressure faster than you can get your apocalypse running, so using removal to break that up is key, and Heart of Kiran is the scariest card they have. Since Archangel Avacyn and Glorybringer are also often waiting for you, Grasp of Darkness is very important. My teammates wanted to take out Fatal Push but I think this is wrong even if they’re not running a fast version (if they are going with Inventor’s Apprentice then it should all be quite obvious). Your goal needs to be to stay alive long enough for your bigger cards to do their work. As usual, Metallic Mimic is your worst creature.

Thus, I would do something like:

Out

In

You do have to take control of the situation, so I still like 4 copies of Liliana’s Mastery. This ensures that even if they get to make some good trades elsewhere, you still have 8 big guns (with Dark Salvation) to pull out later on. If I had access to more copies of Fatal Push, I would likely go down further on Metallic Mimic if I was facing an aggressive version of Mardu. If I was confident they were going for planeswalkers, I would do the opposite and, if anything, go down a copy to keep more 2-drops, and even consider bringing in Scrapheap Scrounger on the play. Veteran Motorist is an especially strong argument for Fatal Push since it can put Heart of Kiran out of range of Grasp of Darkness and is himself a good target as well.

The most important thing is to be mana efficient and get your threats onto the table, especially making sure you can deal with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar if they play him, with the second-most important being to avoid taking too much early damage. They have a lot of angles of attack, so you need to be flexible and consider what it takes to beat various combinations of cards. Remember that the burden is on them to kill you, whereas your deck will naturally overpower them if the game goes long and you don’t die.

Green/Black Control

Their deck has to spend a bunch of mana setting up, and their payoff for doing so is often nothing more than a few Spiders. If you get a powerful board, those Spiders are not much of a threat. Do not worry about getting in damage, only worry about deploying a superior board and getting your creatures big enough or going wide enough that their threats cannot catch them up.

Sideboarding means bringing in Scrapheap Scrounger to help run them over and make you resilient to their removal.

Out

In

Grasp of Darkness is still good, so you likely want 3 or 4 copies to compensate for the loss of Fatal Push. Dark Salvation is still great. I would not bring in Gonti, Lord of Luxury since I don’t even know what I want to try and hit, and I’d rather try to overwhelm them quickly than stop for Liliana, the Last Hope.

Green/Black Energy

The name of the game here is to stay alive however you can. Their deck has a few Cobra tricks but otherwise has no way to compete on power level, so pile in all the removal you can find. Once again, you sacrifice Metallic Mimic because it is your worst creature and you want to spend early turns on removal, but I can see going down one or two 3-drop Zombies as well, especially if you have extra copies Fatal Push available. You also can get rid of the 4th Liliana’s Mastery if you have it, since you do not need that much late game to win. Since they might have Bone Picker or Blossoming Defense, kill their creatures on your turn when you can.

Red/Blue Control

Red/Blue has a specific set of weapons to deal with you, and is relying on the cards lining up perfectly to survive long enough to win with Torrential Gearhulk and Glimmer of Genius. Your goal is to ask them tough questions every turn, force them to have the right answers, and sneak threats onto the board that can’t be swept up efficiently by Sweltering Suns. Censor is one of their key weapons especially on turn 2, so dodging that can be key, as can getting creatures to 4 toughness.

When boarding, you obviously want Scrapheap Scrounger, but you also need to make sure you are not too vulnerable to Thing in the Ice or potentially Dragonmaster Outcast. You have a lot of threats they can’t deal with efficiently, so don’t let them stick something that trumps your game! That means that the removal count does not go down much.Dark Salvation is not going anywhere, and you want some copies of Grasp of Darkness as well. Worst case is that they can hit Torrential Gearhulk when it tries to block, which is still not too bad. Meanwhile, Metallic Mimic has its usual problem that it forces you to play into mass removal.

Out

In

Other matchups operate along similar lines. You want to keep the removal that lines up well, cutting the ones that line up poorly, and put in Scrapheap Scrounger where their plan is to remove or counter your creatures.

In general, you want a light touch. You don’t take more than 1 or at most 2 non-Mimic Zombies out of the deck, perhaps 3 if it’s Dread Wanderer and you think there’s a matchup where he is irrelevant. You don’t try to fit in a ton of removal, and most places you leave some in because everyone has at least some targets. The deck plays good Magic, and your goal is to preserve that rather than try to do something special and be a hero.