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Breaking the Crypt in Standard and Commander


Zombies don't run. They don't dance. They don't say, "More brains." There is no Thriller Night. Those are stereotypes that are perpetrated by Hollywood, which I think is very irresponsible because it can get you killed. —Max Brooks

Many things have changed on Innistrad. Creatures are melding into each other and turning into horrific Eldrazi. Amid all the chaos on the plane, one part of Innistrad seems untouched by Emrakul: the Zombies. Sure, maybe they aren't the scariest things on Innistrad anymore, but what do they care? They're Zombies! Today, thanks to Wizards, we've got a pretty sweet Zombie to preview for you. In fact, today's preview card may just be the missing piece to the fabled Standard Zombie deck. Plus, it has some super-janky combo potential in Commander. Let me introduce you to Cryptbreaker:

Cryptbreaker

As you can see, Cryptbreaker is quite the card, offering a ton of value and versatility for only 1 mana. First off, it's a one-drop, and while it doesn't quite have the aggressiveness of a card like Gravecrawler, it makes up for the lack of a second power in other ways. Plus, simply costing 1 mana is a huge deal for Zombies in Standard. Generally speaking, a good one-drop is a prerequisite for a tribal strategy to work, and before Cryptbreaker, the best option in Standard was Shambling Goblin, which was pretty bad. Second, while it doesn't have the second point of power that you're normally looking for in an aggressive one-drop, here are the first two cards I thought of when I saw Cryptbreaker:

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While Cryptbreaker doesn't have the combo potential of Heritage Druid, the "Tap three Zombies: Draw a card and lose a life" ability is incredibly powerful. Remember: these abilities get around summoning sickness, and Cryptbreaker allows you to tap any Zombie (including Cryptbreaker itself) right away. In some sense, you are giving all of your future Zombies Haste, because you can tap them the turn they enter the battlefield to draw a card. The end result is that Cryptbreaker is a 1/1 for 1 that is good on Turn 1, but also good on Turn 8. In most situations, it will, at worst, cycle into another card and, at best, draw you several cards and stick around to start generating 2/2 Zombie tokens. 

The Deathrite Shaman comparison isn't so much about the abilities on the cards, because they aren't even close to being the same. It's more about the fact that both Deathrite Shaman and Cryptbreaker do a ton of different things for only one mana. People like to call Deathrite Shaman a 1-mana planeswalker, and Cryptbreaker might deserve the title as well. We already talked about how it can draw cards for free, but it also allows you to turn extra cards into 2/2 Zombie tokens. The draw a card ability works when Cryptbreaker is tapped, so you can pay 2, discard a card, make a 2/2 Zombie token, and then tap the token and two other Zombies to draw a card. Better yet, you can discard any card to Cryptbreaker, so not only can you turn an extra land into a token, but you can also use Cryptbreaker to discard From Under the Floorboards or Fiery Temper to cast them for their Madness cost. But that's not all—the real payoff with the discard mode of Cryptbreaker is that you can discard other Zombies!

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Many of the best Zombies in Standard either want to be in the graveyard, like Prized Amalgam or Geralf's Masterpiece, or want other Zombies in the graveyard, like Relentless Dead, Diregraf Colossus, or Gisa and Geralf. Cryptbreaker immediately becomes the best way to stock the graveyard in a Zombie tribal deck. Some decks have been using Jace, Vryn's Prodigy in this slot, and while Jace, Vryn's Prodigy might be a better card in a vacuum, Cryptbreaker has so much Zombie synergy that it's likely better than Jace, Vryn's Prodigy in the Zombie archetype. As a result, Cryptbreaker instantly becomes the best way to get your Prized Amalgams for free, make your Diregraf Colossus huge, and fuel your Relentless Dead. While I'm still not 100% sure that Zombies have what it takes to compete in a Standard dominated by overpowered White cards, Cryptbreaker is exactly what the archetype needed to have a fighting chance. 

Standard Zombies

My Zombie apocalypse plan is simple but effective; I fully intend to die in the very first wave. —Graham Parke

While Cryptbreaker makes Standard Zombies a ton better, there are still some big question marks as to whether they can compete with the White decks in Standard. For one thing, there are a glut of good Zombie three-drops, but not much at the one- and two-drop slot outside of Cryptbreaker and Relentless Dead. However, now that we get Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Cryptbreaker to discard Zombies on the early turns, the odds of having at least one discard outlet improves significantly, so we shouldn't get stuck with Prized Amalgams rotting in our hand. Another major issue is all of the exile removal running around in Standard. Since Zombies really want to be getting things in and out of our graveyard, Declaration in Stone, Nahiri, the Harbinger, and Stasis Snare all represent major problems. This is why we are running not only Nantuko Husk but a copy of Altar's Reap as well. Having our Zombies die is fine, but getting them exiled is devastating. 

As far as the deck itself, it has the potential for some really powerful draws thanks to Cryptbreaker. Basically, we want to play a copy on Turn 1, start using it to discard Prized Amalgams (making Zombie tokens in the process), and then get back all our copies of Prized Amalgam with Stitchwing Skaab, Gisa and Geralf, or Relentless Dead. When we don't have a graveyard-focused hand, we can curve out with Zombies, use Cryptbreaker to draw us extra cards, and eventually overwhelm our opponent with card advantage. 

The other key piece of the deck is our non-Zombie creature, Zulaport Cutthroat, which does a couple of really important things. For one thing, it gains us life to counteract the life loss from drawing cards with Cryptbreaker. More importantly, it gives us a weird, Zombie Aristocrat finish. With cards like Prized Amalgam, Relentless Dead, and Stitchwing Skaab we can tap all of our Zombies to draw cards, sacrifice most of our board to a Nantuko Husk, get a bunch of drain triggers from Zulaport Cutthroat, and then get everything back by discarding the cards we drew from Cryptbreaker to Stitchwing Skaab, triggering our Prized Amalgams. Over the course of a couple of turns (and sooner, if we got in some early beats with Relentless Dead and friends), we should be able to drain away our opponent's life total, while also staying alive thanks to ample blockers and the lifegain from Zulaport Cutthroat!

Commander

Something coming back from the dead was almost always bad news. Movies taught me that. For every one Jesus, you get a million zombies. —David Wong

While I'm super excited for Cryptbreaker in Standard because I really, really want Zombies to work in the fomat, if you want to do really broken things with the little Zombie, Commander might be the best format. Zombies are already a fairly popular tribe, which gives Cryptbreaker a head start on playability. If you already have a Zombie deck, there's very little reason not to include Cryptbreaker. It fuels the graveyard for reanimation effects, draws you cards, and starts generating Endless Ranks of the Dead, all for just 1 mana. That said, what I'm most excited about is the possibility of using Cryptbreaker as part of a magical Christmas land infinite combo!

Step One: Make Cryptbreaker's Activated Ability Cost 1 Mana

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The first step in going infinite with Cryptbreaker is reducing the cost of its activated ability. While paying 2 to discard a card and make a Zombie token is fine in Standard, to go infinite, we need to be able to activate the ability for only a single Black mana. Thankfully, we have a couple options, as either Training Grounds or Heartstone will get the job done. 

Where we're at: Pay B, tap Cryptbreaker, discard a card: Make a 2/2 Zombie token.

Step Two: Untap Our Zombies

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Once we make Cryptbreaker's activated ability cost a single Black mana, our next project is figuring out a way to untap Cryptbreaker so we can use the ability more than once a turn. Here, we look to Intruder Alarm, which not only allows us to untap Cryptbreaker every time we activate the ability, but it untaps all of our other creatures as well, which is really important, for reasons we'll talk about in a minute.

Where we're at: Pay B, tap Cryptbreaker, discard a card: Make a 2/2 Zombie token and untap all of our creatures.

Step Three: Make Some Mana

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The next problem to solve is mana. With Cryptbreaker, Training Grounds / Heartstone, and Intruder Alarm, we can make several Zombies, but nowhere near infinite. However, when we add Carnival of Souls to the mix, each time we activate Cryptbreaker, we not only get a 2/2 Zombie token and untap our creatures, but we also add one Black mana to our mana pool, which is exactly the amount we need to activate Cryptbreaker again. The downside is that we lose a life every time we go through the loop, thanks to Carnival of Souls, but don't worry . . . 

Where we're at: Basically, we can activate Cryptbreaker until we run out of life or cards in hand, making a bunch of 2/2 Zombies. 

Step Four: Gain Life

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The easy way to pull off the combo would be to play Esper for cards like Soul Warden and Soul's Attendant, but I wanted to keep our Zombie deck Blue / Black for flavor purposes. As a result, our lifegain is a little complicated. Instead of gaining a life whenever a creature enters the battlefield, we need our creatures to die to gain us life from cards like Blood Artist, Zulaport Cutthroat, and Deathgreeter. The good news is there are plenty of free sacrifice outlets like Carrion Feeder and Nantuko Husk to keep the chain going. Basically, once we get up to three Zombie tokens, we start sacrificing every additional token we make to Carrion Feeder, Nantuko Husk, or one of our other sacrifice outlets. As long as we have at least two "when a creatue dies, gain life" creatures on the battlefield, we not only get to make a huge Carrion Feeder or Nantuko Husk but also gain enough life that we can go infinite with Cryptbreaker!

Where we're at: The number of Zombie tokens we can make is limited only by the number of cards in our hand. 

Step Five: Draw Cards

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This problem actually solves itself thanks to the combination of Cryptbreaker's second ability and Intruder Alarm. As I mentioned a moment ago, we don't start sacrificing Zombie tokens to gain life from Blood Artist / Deathgreeter / Zulaport Cutthroat until we have at least three (and most likely more) Zombie tokens on the battlefield. This way, whenever we make a token with Cryptbreaker, they untap with Intruder Alarm, and we get to do it all over again. This allows us to go infinite, because we can discard the card we draw from Cryptbreaker to activate Cryptbreaker's first ability!

The end result is we get to draw our entire deck, make a ton of Zombie tokens, and generate an infinite number of enters-the-battlefield and dies triggers. Well, to truly be infinite, we need something like Elixir of Immortality to shuffle our graveyard back into our library. Sooner or later, we'll kill our opponent with Diregraf Captain / Blood Artist triggers, or make a massive Unbreathing Horde that we can sacrifice to Rite of Consumption to kill an opponent, and then shuffle the combo back in with Elixir of Immortality and keep drawing cards until we find it again to take down someone else!

The Verdict

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. —Seth Grahame-Smith

In Standard, if there's a playable Zombie deck, Cryptbreaker will almost certainly be a part of it. Not only is it—by far—the best one-drop Zombie in the format, but it does a ton for its mana cost and synergizes with what Zombies want to do by stocking the graveyard. Plus, having a low-opportunity-cost source of card advantage will be key for the deck, since it potentially lets us cut cards like Read the Bones for more Zombies. 

In Commander, I expect that Cryptbreaker will find a home is most Zombie decks as well. While the infinite combo might be a bit too magical Christmas land to see serious play, it does involve a lot of good cards, and even without the combo, one thing Commander Zombies is very good at is going wide with Zombie tokens. Being able to turn the ability to go wide into cards with Cryptbreaker's second ability seems very strong and is a good enough reason to slot Cryptbreaker into the deck. 

Anyway, a huge thank you to Wizards for hooking us up with such a sweet preview! What do you think? Do Zombies have what it takes to compete with the White menace in Standard? How do you want to use Cryptbreaker? Are there any other Cryptbreaker combos in Commander? As always, let me know in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive, or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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