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Budget Magic: $99 (24 tix) Mono-Black Zombies (Modern)


Bunâ dzuâ, Budget Magic lovers, it's that time once again! This week, we're heading to Modern to play everyone's favorite tribe: Zombies! The release of Core Set 2019 brought with it some sweet new tribe members along with a Death Baron reprint, dropping the lord's price enough that it can actually work under the budget. In turn, these changes make it possible to build straightforward Mono-Black Zombie tribal on a budget! The plan today is simple: we curve out with powerful Zombies. On Turn 3, we start stacking lords on the battlefield, back up our Zombies with a touch of removal, and hopefully run our opponent over before they get a chance to stabilize. Can Mono-Black Zombies compete in Modern? How much do the new Core Set 2019 cards improve the deck? Let's get to the video and find out; then, we'll talk more about the deck!

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Budget Magic: Mono-Black Zombies (Modern)

The Deck

Mono-Black Zombies is a straightforward tribal-aggro deck. We're looking to play the best tribe members possible over the first couple turns of the game, play as many lords as possible, and hopefully kill the opponent quickly before they combo off or find a sweeper. Probably the easiest way to break down the deck is to simply work our way up the Zombie curve and then talk about our utility spells.

One-Drops

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We start things off with our least aggressive but more powerful one-drop: Cryptbreaker. While only a 1/1, Cryptbreaker more than makes up for its lack of attacking power with a ton of abilities. While being able to discard a Gravecrawler or an extra land to make a 2/2 Zombie token is nice, the more important ability on Cryptbreaker is the second one, allowing us to tap three Zombies to draw a card. This keeps us churning through our deck to find more action and allows us to rebuild our board through removal and wraths and to find as many Zombie lords as possible. More importantly, because of how the ability is worded, we can activate it even if Cryptbreaker is summoning sick, so it give us a way to get some value from our Zombie right away while we are waiting for the following turn to start attacking. All around, we're almost never unhappy to have a Cryptbreaker on the battlefield. 

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Rounding out the one-drop slot are Gravecrawler and Diregraf Ghoul. Gravecrawler is great in our deck. While a 2/1 for one might not sound that exciting, the synergy with Cryptbreaker (discarding it to make a Zombie token and then casting Gravecrawler from the graveyard) is nice. Plus, the fact that it just keeps coming back from the graveyard for a single mana is great against removal-heavy midrange and control decks. Meanwhile, Diregraf Ghoul is basically the world's slowest Goblin Guide, trading haste for the opposite (entering the battlefield tapped), but a 2/2 for one mana is a good deal even with the drawback of not being able to block (or tap for Cryptbreaker) right away. Altogether, this gives us 12 one-drops: enough where we should often be able to play one on Turn 1 and 2 on Turn 2, and then follow this up by playing Zombie lords starting on Turn 3.

Two-Drops

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We've got two options in the two-drop slot: the new Core Set 2019 addition Graveyard Marshal and Highborn Ghoul. Graveyard Marshal is fine (if unexciting) on Turn 2 but really shines in the late game, where its ability gives us a way to fight through our opponent's removal and sweepers by turning our dead Zombies into living Zombie tokens. Combine this with Gravecrawler and Cemetery Reaper, and Zombies is surprisingly good at going long for a tribal-aggro deck. 

Meanwhile, Highborn Ghoul is one of the stranger cards in our deck. In a perfect world, we'd be playing Relentless Dead as our second two-drop, but for some reason, the Zombie is still pretty expensive even though it hasn't seen any play since rotating from Standard. Highborn Ghoul is a fine budget option though. Intimidate gives it a form of evasion that is surprisingly strong in some matchups, where we can make Highborn Ghoul huge with lords and simply kill our opponent with our unblockable attacker. This being said, it's clearly the weakest Zombie in our deck, so if you want to experiment with other options, feel free.

Three-Drops

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In the three-drop slot are three options, all Zombie lords. In some sense, each of these cards do the same thing by pumping all of our other Zombies, although each has an upside that makes it unique and slightly better (or worse) in different situations. 

  • Death Baron is generally the first lord we want to play if we have a choice. Apart from pumping our Zombies, it gives them all deathtouch, which allows us to freely attack through just about any blockers, often trading up our random one-drops for better creatures. On the other hand, if things are going poorly, we can wait and try to use Death Baron on defense. Trading up a Diregraf Ghoul or Highborn Ghoul for a huge, attacking Death's Shadow or Tarmogoyf feels good. With a bunch of Zombies and Death Baron back on defense, it's really hard for creature decks to attack on the ground, although in general, we want to be the aggressor in most matchups.
  • Lord of the Accursed is our best aggro finishing lord thanks to its ability to give our entire team menace. While we'll slam any of our lords on Turn 3, if we are choosing between lords, it's often better to play Lord of the Accursed the turn before we are ready to activate it (and hopefully lethal our opponent with a huge attack). 
  • Cemetery Reaper is our best lord in slower, grindy matchups, since its ability lets us make Zombies from dead creatures, similar to Graveyard Marshal but hitting any graveyard. As such, if we are playing control or midrange, we often want to have Cemetery Reaper be the last lord we play, hopefully after our opponent has spent all of their removal, so we can rebuild our board with Zombie tokens. This being said, if we are in a more aggressive matchup, we sometimes want to play Cemetery Reaper first, hoping that it eats a Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile, so that our Death Baron or Lord of the Accursed survives.

Utility Spells

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We have a few options for removal. While we don't often make more than a Zombie or two with Dark Salvation, if we have a board full of Zombies, it offers a good way to kill just about anything in the format. In theory, it also offers some protection from flooding out, since if we get up to seven mana, we can make three 2/2 Zombie tokens, which isn't exciting but does offer some additional utility. Meanwhile, Disfigure gives us a way to kill early-game creatures, and in matchups where it is bad, we can always discard it to Cryptbreaker to make a Zombie token. Meanwhile, Cast Down was a mistake. On paper, it seems like a good option, but there are a surprising number of legendary creatures like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Tasigur, the Golden Fang that we want to kill. Since we have an all-Swamp mana base, Victim of Night is likely better, and if I were building the deck now, I'd play it instead of Cast Down

Wrap-Up

All in all, Mono-Black Zombies was pretty reasonable, although the record is weird. Somehow, I played against UW Control five times in a row, winning once, losing once and scooping in game one (after I realized it was UW Control again) for the other three matches. Discounting the early-scoop games, we finished 3-2 in our video matches and 3-3 altogether. The match against Grixis Delver was super close, and I felt like we should have been able to win, improving our record a bit more, but it didn't turn out that way in practice. Regardless, with the new additions of Core Set 2019, Mono-Black Zombie tribal actually feels pretty competitive in Modern, even on a budget. It has the ability to get fast aggro kills, which is nice, but unlike most tribal-aggro decks, Zombies can also go long thanks to Cryptbreaker and the various graveyard synergies, so we don't just scoop to Supreme Verdict or endless targeted removal spells like Elves or Merfolk do. 

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As far as improvements to make to the deck now that we've played some games, apart from switching Cast Down for Victim of Night, the only real hole in the deck is the two-drop slot. While Graveyard Marshal is good, Highborn Ghoul is a bit underpowered. The best option is Relentless Dead, but at about $30 for a playset, it adds a lot to the budget. Meanwhile, other options include Withered Wretch, Butcher Ghoul, Sangrophage, or Rotting Rats, but none of those cards is obviously better than Highborn Ghoul. I'll probably experiment with some different options and see what feels right, and you should feel free to do the same. Or, if you have copies of Relentless Dead, just play that instead—it's a perfect fit for the deck.

In sum, Mono-Black Zombies seems like a solid budget tribal option for Modern. It's fast and resilient enough to pick up a decent number of wins and has plenty of upgrade opportunities, with cards like Thoughtseize and Mutavault being great for the Mono-Black build; plus, you can branch out into white for cards like Tidehollow Sculler and sideboard options or green for Lotleth Troll. So, along with having a solid deck right off the bat, there are plenty of options for customization, which gives the deck a lot of replayability. If you like tribal decks and aggro decks that have the ability to go long, give Mono-Black Zombies a shot!

To get Zombies down near $50, we only need to make two changes, although they represent pretty good downgrades in power. First, Gravecrawler—the most expensive card in the budget build of the deck—turns into Slitherhead, which is much worse than Gravecrawler but still offers some graveyard synergy thanks to scavenge. Then, we cut Death Baron—our most expensive lord—and replace it with Plague Belcher, which obviously isn't a lord but gives us another big attacker and some reach thanks to draining our opponent whenever another Zombie dies. While the deck should function about the same, losing a lord hurts our aggressive starts, and losing Gravecrawler lessens our ability to play the long game, so the ultra-budget build is certainly somewhat less competitive than the one we played in the video.

For our non-budget build this week, we move from Mono Black into WB, mostly to take advantage of Tidehollow Sculler, which is a great two-drop for the deck. We also get a completely reworked sideboard, better utility spells in Thoughtseize and Fatal Push, some Lilianas to grind out even more value, and Mutavault as a Zombie in the mana base. All in all, this amounts to a huge boost in power for the deck. If you want to stick with Mono-Black, you can make the same upgrades but just play more copies of Graveyard Marshal and maybe the fourth copy of Thoughtseize instead of Tidehollow Sculler

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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