I am in the process of guiding a Lord of Tresserhorn Commander deck through evolutions, changing from a 'big mana, big guys' deck into a Zombies tribal deck. I have never been one for tribal decks, theme decks, synergies or anything less than raw, brutal power cards like Cruel Ultimatum. It has been a bit of a learning curve for me to figure out how tribal decks work. On top of that, it's the zombie tribe, which is much less coherent, but more broad, than most tribes in Magic.
Elves gain life and make mana. Goblins give haste and mob the board. Soldiers get vigilance, Merfolk get Islandwalk, and Zombies get... actually, I still cannot really answer that. Zombies have more Lords than any other tribe – Zombie Master, Lord of the Undead, Cemetery Reaper, Undead Warchief and Death Baron. Most of them give pumps, and we do get to see some thematic abilities like Deathtouch and Swampwalk.
But what makes a zombie a zombie? And how does that relate to Magic?
Brains: Why Do Our Zombies Have Them?
Zombies are mindless, shuffling automatons bent on eating your brains. That's pretty standard fare across the zombie genre. In an attempt to avoid turning this into yet another lame English 112 thesis, I won't go into what zombies represent. That said, they have some common themes – mindlessness, disease, endlessness. You get that in Left 4 Dead, Dungeons & Dragons, Diablo and many other kinds of consumable media. A zombie isn't simply some deceased body with an Animate Dead slapped on it that remembers how to operate a shotgun, open its locker and use a telephone.
In Magic, it seems that our tribes need to have brains to be flavorful. Otherwise, we wouldn't have clever Zombie Assassins like Thraximundar or wizards like Cabal Interrogator. In this way, Magic's undead differ from zombies in just about everything else, because our zombies think. They plan, they plot, they learn spells, skulk and sneak. They compare better to Liches than traditional zombies. A Lich is a mythical monster created from a powerful wizard who has triumphed over death; it has ambitions and goals. It has a brain.
Unfortunately, this begs off the question of whether we can have a serious tribe that is a brainless and shiftless group. Beasts, after all, do just fine and they lack wizards and clerics. Why do our zombies need to have backgrounds such that it drives us away from how we classically identify zombies? Why are ours so different that an article like this is even possible to write?
Applying Zombie Ambitions To Magic's Flavor
Having a group of self-interested, ambitious, learning, and undead beings presents challenges in coming up with a coherent theme for them. When I look at the powers that zombies have in Magic, they are all over the place. There are a few cards in many sets; they drain life (Vengeful Dead and Shepherd of Rot), they poison other creatures (Noxious Ghoul, Skinrender). Zombies can make opponents discard, they can reasonably pump each other, and some can make tokens. None of these effects are very concentrated, though. You can't depend on a card like a “mana elf” to show up repeatedly. Especially when building singleton decks, it is frustratingly hard to come up with a cohesive strategy. If you want that life-drain stuff to get past a Moat, you might draw the discard zombies instead.
I was challenged when making my Lord of Tresserhorn deck because I lacked sufficient zombies to sacrifice. I could go with things like Kher Keep and Reassembling Skeleton, but those were clearly not zombies and it seemed a little out of place that I would have to dip outside of the tribe for victims to sacrifice. If you are going for a Lord of Tresserhorn deck and you want to cast him early, while still staying in the Zombie tribe, abandon it. There are only ten one-cost zombies in the game and they are varying shades of terrible. This was my first strange observation. Why do zombies lack a mechanic that efficiently creates more Zombies? The only two serious Zombie token makers that don't ask you to discard are Lich Lord of Unx and Cemetery Reaper, and only the former will make one without obligating you further.
Another obvious aspect of zombies that is missing in Magic is how hard it is to kill them and keep them down. Zombie Master gives regeneration, which is really good, but there are only three zombies that come back from the grave: Gravebane Zombie, Ghastly Remains and Pyre Zombie. For the sake of balance, you cannot make these effects too often, but what is more iconic about zombies than the grey hand rising out of the soil? One example of an easily-ported card for zombies is Krovikian Horror. We are sadly beyond the “graveyard order matters” stage of Magic development, but wow, isn't that a cool ability? Imagine a zombie just rising up through the next body on the pile! Cards like Necrosavant and Nim Devourer bring us close, but they just transform a cheap dork into a beater. As I previously mentioned, the zombie tribe lacks cheap dorks. I would love to be able to drop down a Squee-like zombie and then sacrifice it for a zombie effect. It doesn't need to be something super-powered, just something that makes sense.
The enormous advantage of having such a varied tribe is that games play out in non-linear ways in Commander. Sometimes, that opening hand is the slow grind when you see Death Baron. That lord says “we're in this for the long one, nobody is attacking in!” Other times, that hand contains Carrion Feeder into Shivan Zombie and the curve just goes up from there. Sometimes, it's a simple setup to last long enough to string together Vengeful Dead and Tombstone Stairwell (combo time!). I used to play a Lin-Sivvi deck and every game played the same way. Zombies is nearly the polar opposite, simply because there are not 40 playable zombies in the subcategories like life drain or board control.
Retrofitting Zombies: When, Exactly, Did Coffin Queen Get Her Brains Ripped Out?
I am undecided on whether I consider the retro-typed zombies to be zombies for Magic flavor. Coffin Queen was fine for years as a wizard, then became a zombie. That was not part of design intent, and that situation comes up a lot after the Great Creature Typing that happened a few years ago. Some cards, like Khabál Ghoul, shifted types to a relevant tribe, though others, like Marauding Knight, bear little resemblance in their in their art or flavor to their current pickled state. These creatures get boosted from Zombie Master, but they were not created with the intent of enriching the definition of “zombie” in Magic. I am hesitant to use them as flavor examples.
Where To From Here?
I would like to see a return to the deep, fascinating and conventional lore of zombies. We've changed things up with a shocking number of zombie wizards recently. How about a card that turns dying creatures into zombies? What about one that gives us a token whenever a creature dies? Where are the zombies that just won't stay dead? I'd love to see a zombie that assembles its power from other dead zombies. Sutured Ghoul does this and Phyrexian Ghoul does to an extent. One zombie is not fearsome, but a whole horde at the doorstep is terrifying. Mayael's Aria rewards big monsters; why not something that rewards you for getting the shuffling mass together? Scaling effects would be incredible for the Zombie tribe.
Overall, though, I welcome new zombies. It's great that Magic is developing and expanding on what we think of the zombie creature type. Let's just refine our understanding of what undeath and zombification have to do with one another, and what they mean for creatures in Magic's universe.
I wrote the majority of this before we started seeing spoilers from Innistrad, which seems to be getting zombies right. I considered posting my EDH deck, but I'll do that after my post-Innistrad changes. I am looking forward to revisiting this topic, once we have seen more of the Innistrad block. As a bonus, enjoy these lists:
Five great zombies, flavor-wise:
Bone Dancer: the best example of a zombie “recruiting” the dead to your side. A classic scenario in zombie media, which rarely makes it to Magic.
Phyalectery Lich: I mentioned Liches briefly above, and this one pulls on all the classical themes of lichdom. It's recent and self-aware of how it references the past, but it's worth mentioning because this was done very well.
Bladewing's Thrall: Zombies are sometimes employed by evil creatures, and I like the idea that this is a dragon's lackey.
And some bad zombies, flavor-wise:
Nim Replica: I have no idea how a zombie artifact creature is made, much less a replica. A zombie is dead flesh reanimated, and an artifact creature is frequently a construct.
Zombie Wizards: There is simply nothing in Western zombie lore that points to zombies remembering human skills, much less a complicated skill like casting spells.
Hate Weaver: There is nothing about this card that suggests “zombie.”
Great zombies for EDH zombie decks:
Corpse Harvester: a serious engine that gives necessary card selection. Worth tutoring for all the time.
Anathemancer: incredible reach and a fantastic recursion target.