I’ve been enjoying Pauper more than usual lately. I’m sure part of that has to do with the fact that I’m having success in the Leagues. But there’s more to it than that—it’s the fact that I am playing a list that has everything I want in a Magic deck. There’s card advantage, sacrifice outlets, and non-intuitive play patterns. Also Zombies… lots and lots of Zombies.

Zombies

Zombies has been a fringe deck for some time. It had a few 5-0 finishes in the past year when it leaned harder on Carnophage. I tried those builds and found the Exodus beater a liability. Festering Mummy, however, was stellar. It almost always traded up and in certain combats was a 2-for-1. I liked it so much that I started to test Shambling Goblin as extra copies. These two cards help highlight one of the deck’s plans: Aristocrats.

Carrion Feeder is a strong 1-drop in sacrifice-based decks. Not only does it enable all sorts of death triggers but it also grows into a frightful threat in its own right. The largest threat that sees heavy play is the 5/5 Gurmag Angler and it is relatively easy to grow Feeder past the Zombie Fish. Why not all four then? In the course of a long game you ideally want to see two copies of Carrion Feeder—a primary and a back-up. With all the recursion available, three Feeders proved to be enough to help the deck run.

The deck definitely wanted additional sacrifice outlets. While multiple copies of Carrion Feeder have diminishing returns, Gutless Ghoul does not have the same limitations. 2 life may not seem like a lot but considering how much damage this deck does to itself between its draw spells and Shepherd of Rot, the boost definitely matters. When you can manipulate the symmetrical clock to your advantage, well, that’s a win.

The Aristocrats plan leans on Festering Mummy and Shambling Goblin to control the board. At the same time, the best creature to sacrifice is Sultai Emissary. A 1/1 that dies into a 2/2 manifest helps to flood the board with bodies. You want the Zombie in the graveyard to help turn on Ghoulcaller’s Chant and Ghoulraiser. The more dead dead things you have the better these get. Chant turns into a bargain basement Divination while Ghoulraiser gets you back a body.

Why do random bodies matter so much? Zombies can generate card advantage not only from drawing cards but also via combat. You actively want to trade in combat since your creatures are going to be coming back. Sometimes these creatures will be pawns in a Carrion Feeder plan. A lot of the times they will play into one of the other plans—tribal burn.

Shepherd of Rot gets overlooked in Pauper. Even in Onslaught it was never as popular as Sparksmith and both paled in popularity when compared to Wellwisher and Legions’ Timberwatch Elf. Shepherd of Rot is symmetrical in that it takes away life from both players at the same rate. In aggressive metagames this can be a nightmare. Zombies, however, is great at blocking and absorbing blows. As such, it can often deal enough damage so that a Shepherd can just start casting Fireballs every turn. Backed up by Gempalm Polluter, it is relatively easy to diminish an opponent’s health in the span of two turns. Gray Merchant of Asphodel is worse in this deck than it is in Mono-Black Control but the Zombie is still a fine inclusion in this build as it either ends the game or helps you end the game.

Before I get into the sideboard plans I want to talk about a few cards in the main and sideboard. First is Rakdos Carnarium. The Carnarium could be any black bounceland as it helps to cast the top end of Gray Merchant of Asphodel and the flashback on Chainer’s Edict. I’m not sure the deck needs another land since outside of those cards the curve tops out at three in the main but I am willing to be wrong here.

Vicious Offering took over for Tragic Slip. Slip is a great card that is ideal when you have a sacrifice outlet on the board. Vicious Offering, however, turns a Festering Mummy into something that can take out a Gurmag Angler on its own. Even if the Offering gets countered, the sacrifice will still take place and you get to either kill a 1-toughness creature or shrink something larger. Vicious Offering might not be as powerful as Slip, but it gets to go big more often. I find Offering to be better in this deck even though I think Tragic Slip is better in the abstract.

The last card I want to talk about is Pestilence. I have consistently underrated the card’s potential impact in Pauper. A few mono-black decks have moved the card main and I understand why—it’s basically a planeswalker. The card has two modes. First, it helps to keep the board clear of both large and small threats. Secondly, it can end the game. Very few cards in Pauper can do more than one thing on their own. Yes, it requires some setup and yes, it can backfire. But it is a supremely powerful card that justifies the risk.

Mono-Blue Delver

Out

In

Edict comes out because they are almost certainly bringing in Stormbound Geist. Zombies already has a good matchup against a deck where their main game plan revolves around trying to connect with creatures. Cuombajj Witches and Pestilence help to keep their board clear while Infernal Caretaker helps you load up your hand in the later stages of a game.

Izzet Delver

Out

In

Another good matchup, but you want the second Gutless Ghoul because they are able to actually remove your threats. Shepherd of Rot loses some luster as they have access to Lightning Bolt to win with direct damage. At the same time you have ways to handle most of their threats so your life total should never be in that much danger.

Boros Monarch

Out

In

Boros Monarch is a tough but winnable matchup. You really want to keep a sacrifice outlet active to make Journey to Nowhere less effective. Thorn of the Black Rose comes in to help take the crown back. If you can stay at a high enough life total, you can often win the game with Shepherd late. Lifestaff helps in this regard while making it easier to trade with Kor Skyfisher. Despite the fact that you can regrow Nameless Inversion with Ghoulcaller’s Chant or Ghoulraiser, the fact that it doesn’t outright kill a Palace Sentinels means that it has less utility in this matchup.

Burn

Out

In

A nightmare of a matchup. Everything has to go right for Zombies to win. Not only does it take a long time for you to get set up, but you are at a huge disadvantage game 1 as you have six cards that damage your own life total. Lifestaff helps but it’s grasping at straws. Gutless Ghoul main is a concession to try and make this matchup better but it will take a lot of luck for that to happen.

Hexproof

Out

In

This matchup comes down to who draws better. If they can stick an early Bogle and load it up with Auras, then Zombies is in trouble. If, however, the board can be contained early and Chainer’s Edict does its job until Pestilence shows up, then you have a better chance. Vicious Offering stays in as an out to cards like Heliod’s Pilgrim and Aura Gnarlid, which see occasional play.

Tribe Combo

Out

In

One of your best matchups. Their entire combo hinges on Tireless Tribe and they cannot go off if Zombies has access to a sacrifice outlet and a Festering Mummy or a Shambling Goblin. Chainer’s Edict is fine here but Augur of Bolas does a great job of taking one for the team. If possible, hold back your Vicious Offering as they cannot counter the sacrifice for the kicker.

Elves

Out

In

Zombies has an advantage in this tribal war by a hair. If you have an opening hand with Festering Mummy and Carrion Feeder, lead with the Feeder and follow up with the Mummy to eat their turn-1 play. Shepherd comes out because Wellwisher renders it useless. Sometimes you may want to cut a second Shepherd in favor of Infernal Caretaker as a way to buy back Nameless Inversion.

Affinity

Out

In

Another tough but winnable matchup. Atog is the scariest card out of their deck and doing everything you can to keep your life total out of Fling range is key. When given the option, use your removal to take out Frogmite or Myr Enforcer to help curtail Atog fuel. Block early and often, and accept the fact that sometimes you will be powerless to stop them.

Dimir Alchemy

Out

In

Did you know that Gurmag Angler is a Zombie? Did you know that both Shepherd of Rot and Gempalm Polluter count all Zombies? Now you do. Your goal here is to contain their threats while using graveyard recursion to exhaust their answers. Eventually you can use a Shepherd of Rot to chew through their life total like delicious brains.

Ghostly Flicker Tron Decks

Out

In

Against strategies that want to loop Ghostly Flicker through Mnemonic Wall there is one card that matters: Shepherd of Rot. Often a resolved Shepherd will end the game and there’s not much these decks can do about it. Duress comes in to help buy the time needed to find Shepherd while Crypt Creeper does work helping to snipe key cards out of the graveyard.

Zombies is not a top tier deck in Pauper and probably never will be. It does have one advantage as a creature-based deck at the moment: it gets around Fog effects. As I talked about last timeMoment’s Peace and its kin are huge problems for beatdown strategies currently. Shepherd of Rot doesn’t care about that. So why not give the undead horde a try?

Just stay away from open flames.