I've had a more or less zombie tribal build of some description for the last 3-4 years under various generals. I've tried
. None of them really suited what I wanted in a zombie commander, so when
was spoiled I was very excited. In fact, she's the only commander from 2018 precons that I had any interest in building.
Building the deck has been really rewarding, for a few reasons. Firstly, there's been a lot of discussion on my threads, and it's been really nice to see some love for one of my favourite recent commanders and discuss with like-minded crafters. Secondly, it's been a real deck building challenge - the deck needs a few areas to be well managed, and part of the challenge of building and piloting is knowing how much to squeeze into the deck and how to make it work in real time.
There are now quite a few zombie commanders available, but Varina is my commander of choice. There's a few more involved reasons for this, but most of what's great about the list boils down to 'Esper zombies' and the positives below:
In terms of what makes Varina unique as a commander, there's a little more to it than 'Esper Zombies'. Varina has a lot of scope for inventive building. While I love playing and tuning my build, I wouldn't at all say it's THE definitive Varina build; Varina is capable of piloting a lot of different archetypes with a lot of variation, and that's part of what makes her a blast to play.
There's a lot of words above bigging this girl up. Clearly, I'm a fan. That being said, there's some weaknesses that deserve mention. They play at least some part in the way the deck is built and the way I play it, so we should be aware of what we're dealing with:
So now we know primarily what we're dealing with in terms of the good and the bad. There's also plenty of other options for commanders that can do similar things to Varina, so let's run over options for similar commanders.
This deck covers a fairly wide variety of options - it's a zombie deck, a reanimation deck, a control deck, an Esper deck. There's a lot of alternates that could potentially be suitable commanders otherwise for some of these points:
This deck has a reasonably short history, given that the commander has been in print around 12 months. That being said, it's quickly become one of my favourite decks to play. Partly that's because I've finally found a zombie commander that gives me the play experience I want, partly because it's a reasonably effective deck, and partly because it challenges me to pilot well - my decks very rarely go 'all in' on any particular strategy because I like to be able to change tack if or when I run into troubles, and this deck is no exception.
In terms of playtesting, changes and strategy, this deck is one I've discussed more than almost any other deck I've built. It's been a joy to converse about, and I for one have got lots out of it (I'm hoping the readers have too); because Varina doesn't lend herself to one particular avenue of brewing, I've made it clear how I intend to maintain my list (it's in the title - mostly midrange), but I've also made it clear I'm very happy to discuss other ways to build her. So if you're interested but want to build in a different direction to what you see here, feel free to contribute - I will go over some obvious exclusions and different strategies later (there are some suggestions for inclusions in the card choices section under 'Alternate Builds'), but I'm not going to go over these too deeply - I can't fall down every rabbit hole I see, but I can help you to!
As I've mentioned above, there are a LOT of possible inclusions for a Varina list. What you'll see below is merely a portion of what could be in the list. That being said, every list is a rolling list of cuts and additions, so I will be doing my best moving forward to keep a log of what has been included as well as what is currently in here. Some of this will be in the changelog, but if you want an assessment of a card I've cut, with reasons for its initial inclusion, you will find them here - the name and card tag will be struck through
to indicate it's lack of current inclusion.
- Carrion Feeder - There's a lot more to this guy than meets the eye. It's well costed, it's a free, instant sacrifice outlet, and it can get big. Sure, it can't block, but it hits your curve nicely.
- Cryptbreaker - Another (very) well costed zombie. The first ability is relatively helpful from time to time, mostly when you have excess in hand or want to set your yard up for a mass reanimation spell. The token enters tapped, so using this outside of your turn is ideal. The second ability is the real value though. Tapping down zombies for draw repeatedly is great value. The way it's worded too, you can tap down zombies for this right away, ignoring summoning sickness - including Cryptbreaker itself.
- Foulmire Knight - The only real sure shot adventure inclusion here. Both the adventure and creature are relevant as either an efficient rattlesnake zombie, or an instant speed draw. I can also recur the adventure more easily here than elsewhere, with Lord of the Undead and Volrath's Stronghold
- Gravecrawler - Well costed, iconic, great value. Gravecrawler is the source of many infinite combos, although I don't overly pursue that here. It's excellent to swing with early, keeps coming back, and can be sacrificed for value where needed.
- Apprentice Necromancer - A cheap zombie mostly, but also gives us our first reanimation option. Mostly, this choice is a balance between maintaining a solid curve and giving myself options to bring back pieces I need as I can.
- Binding Mummy - Again, this one hits our curve. Its effect is excellent too, though, and has some nice instant speed applications to just make things a little easier on you. It'll help make combat favourable, it'll deprive your opponents of rocks, artifact creatures and control pieces, and if you can make a zombie outside your turn it'll do it at instant speed.
- Corpse Knight - The first part of our aristocrat zombie package. It's cheap, and it hits our opponents every time a creature enters the battlefield on our side of it. We can make that happen lots.
- Relentless Dead - Valuezombie.com. For the low low price of you get a 2/2 with combat evasion that can bring itself and a pal back from the grave. His abilities do end up costing a little, but the value regardless is undeniable, and the price is so, so right.
- Shepherd of Rot - Heavy bludgeoning of life totals across the board is the name of the game here. Use with caution, it hits you too.
- Undead Augur - This guy is very abusable. With sacrifice outlets we're great, and with Varina gaining us life here and there we ought to be fine with the life loss. Drops before Varina, which is really important.
- Wayward Servant - One of my favourite cards in the deck. With it's 'enters the battlefield' clause instead of cast it counts tokens too. If it doesn't end the game for you it'll keep the game going with life gain.
- Withered Wretch - a mono black swiss army knife on a zombie. It's cheap, it's grave hate, what's not to love?
- Cemetery Reaper - The first of our 'lords'. This one comes with it's own grave hate too, but it's a little more pricey than the Wretch. Regardless, the buff is nice and adds up well.
- Death Baron - Lord #2. Deathtouch is honestly a great addition, it radically changes how combat looks once you have it in play.
- Diregraf Captain - Part lord, part aristocrat, it does neither excellently, but both sufficiently. The buff is fine, the bleeder effect only hits one opponent, and doesn't include itself. That's fine though, it's excellent value for the cost.
- Diregraf Colossus - More value for cheap. Colossus needs playing into a little, but does well when you do. Generally it does best dropping either after Varina so that you can get some pieces in the graveyard for its pump, or prior to some of the lower curve zombies.
- Lord of the Accursed - Another lord, another cheap drop. The second ability hits every zombie on the battlefield, so there's times it could be used politically.
- Lord of the Undead - Another lord. Grabbing creatures from graveyard to hand isn't as wild as direct to battlefield, but for 3 mana I'm not complaining.
- Midnight Reaper - Part of our draw suite. Again, very absuable with a sacrifice outlet, and life loss again mitigated to some degree by Varina. Not quite as specific in it's usage as Undead Augur in that it won't count tokens or itself, but still valuable.
- Plague Belcher - Definitely our weirdest aristocrat. There's a lot on the card. 3 for a 5/4 with menace is great. The -1/-1 counters are slightly detrimental but we have enough pieces we can turn it into value with - at the very worst, put them on itself or on Carrion Feeder to cancel out some +1/+1 counters. The bleeder effect doesn't count itself, but it does hit every opponent, which is great.
- Zombie Master - Daddy lord. No P/T buff, but swampwalk makes it a deadly combat threat, especially with our Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. The regenerate is nice, but generally a little mana intensive.
- Agent of Erebos - One of our control pieces, it's nice to be able to reanimate for further triggers. Given that some of our game-ending reanimation spells are global, it's nice to be able to make these favour us a little more than anyone else, and this fellow does his part. That art is sweet too, I've always loved it.
- Graveborn Muse - This is one of our heavy draw pieces. Clearly, one to keep an eye on as it can bludgeon the crap out of your life total. Often it'll get targeted before your life total gets too low, but it's probably wise to have a way to remove it close to hand otherwise.
- Vengeful Dead - Our most expensive aristocrat. I know others have questioned it's place, but to me it earns it. It counts zombies across the board, not just yours, and it hits every opponent. Best friends with Tombstone Stairwell.
- Archfiend of Ifnir - Yes, it's not a zombie, no I don't care. It synergises so well with Varina's discard trigger to keep the board empty that it totally deserves a place. It's devastatingly good, trust and believe.
- Bone Miser - A little steep to cast, but the value from this guy is just nuts. Plays really well with our commander, Zombie Infestation and some of our draw filter like Ancient Excavation. It's worth noting that Varina's discard trigger happens in combat phase, so any you generate with Miser through her trigger will leave your pool at end of phase. So, be mindful of that.
- Corpse Harvester - A little slow, but a great utility/soft tutor inclusion. It can pick up our shocks, our bicycle land, and it's yet another card that's just a little bit stupendous with Gravecrawler,
- God-Eternal Oketra - We're getting to the high end of the curve here. A 3/6 double striker is nice, and so is the cast trigger. It's sort of on the edge of whether it provides enough value to justify a place, but the tokens are big, and they're vigilant, and the God itself is remarkably persistent, so I consider it worth the place for now.
- Gray Merchant of Asphodel - Gary the iconic. What needs to be said here? It's a tri-colour deck, sure, but if you look at the colour chart for the deck you'll notice that a whopping 67% of the colour symbols that appear in the deck are black. Gary is awesome, immediate value.
- Havengul Lich - Our second reanimator. It...costs a lot, I won't lie, and that's definitely counts against it. What keeps it in the deck is its ability to reanimate anything, and share its activated abilities. This lets you essentially use an opponent's graveyard against them. It's a meta call whether it's worth the slot or not, but it's pretty versatile.
- Noxious Ghoul - Removal on a creature. Doesn't just count our zombies either. Dropped at the right time, or coming into play from a mass reanimation spell, it's pretty devastating.
- Phyrexian Delver - Nice, simple reanimation with a tied in life loss. 2 for 1 bodies is good value, and we're not overly worried about the life loss in general, we can get that back.
- The Scarab God - Again, not a zombie, again, don't care. This guy's upkeep ability is crazy good. The grave hate/ reanimation is great too, and similar to Havengul Lich can be used as control. He's also well costed and hard to get rid of, which is cool.
- Sidisi, Undead Vizier - Great value in a build that runs tokens. Sidisi is a rattlesnake in battle as well as a hard tutor. There's no hard and fast rule as to what you're grabbing, but the fact that you can is crazy good.
- Mikaeus, the Unhallowed - We all knew it was coming. Mike is remarkable value, and can go infinite relatively easily. I'm not aware of anywhere in the deck that it does (maybe Mike, Plague Belcher, Gravecrawler and a sac outlet, but that's janky enough to look the other way), but what he does do for us here as a main purpose is give us resilience of board state. It's important to know, too, in case of wipes, his trigger goes on the stack upon his death too - this makes Living Death just....nasty.
- Sol Ring - I guess it goes in most decks, so probably doesn't need a ton of discussion. Honestly, Varina needs a quick start and the ratio of mana available/mana you need to use in a turn is pretty lean, so I'll take it.
- Talisman of Dominance/Talisman of Hierarchy - They come down early, they colour fix. Given that most of the deck is black with splashes there's probably no need for the Azorius iteration.
- Dimir Signet/Orzhov Signet - See above - same basic explanation.
- Ashnod's Altar - The iconic, instant speed, value-laden sacrifice outlet. Optimally, this could or should be Phyrexian Altar, due to colour demands (see above). The reason I run Ashnod's is it doesn't go infinite. Phyrexian most certainly would, and I just don't find that interesting. Your milage may vary, and I don't judge, so if you want to run Phyrexian go right on ahead.
- Alhammarret's Archive - Does nothing on it's own, and for that reason I deliberated a long time before adding it. Once you've got some momentum though, it'll basically double said momentum. It's pretty great value to be honest.
- Eldrazi Monument - Kind of our last zombie lord. It's SO ridiculously easy to keep it in play with Gravecrawler, Relentless Dead or just token fodder, and it ends games easy.
- Graf Harvest - Dirt cheap combat modifier. Gives you a token if needed, but otherwise it's a set and forget for swinging.
- Mystic Remora - Cheap, easy draw. This gives you advantage at more or less any point in the game, and it's easy enough to just not pay the upkeep once you have what you want. We can get it back if needed with Hall of Heliod's Generosity.
- Reconnaissance - This gets us a Varina trigger without having to swing unfavourably. It's also a really strong defense for any beaters coming our way, as it works at instant speed at a princely cost of .
- Zombie Infestation - Instant speed token generator for cheap, and a graveyard filler into the bargain for mass reanimation. It seems like a losing enterprise, but it's pretty handy. Got an overfull grip? Toss some stuff. Someone casts Wheel of Fortune? Discard to 0 for zombies and draw to 7 again.
- Phyrexian Arena - This is the best STAPLE draw we can get. It'd be great to get Necropotence in here, but it's so anti-synergistic with the deck it would wreck us. Arena is solid, reliable, and cheap.
- Smothering Tithe - Superbly good ramp, this fixes our colours and gives us burst when needed. Unlike Black Market, if it gets destroyed we keep the ramp regardless.
- Tombstone Stairwell - I'll give you a moment to read it. And another moment to parse what it means. Up to speed? No? Ok, so on every players turn each player puts into play a 2/2 zombie for each creature in their graveyard. They have haste, they die at end of turn, rinse and repeat. If you're paying attention, you should know just how disgustingly, grotesquely good this card is. It turns our bleeder zombies into haemorrhage zombies. It can skyrocket your life with Wayward Servant, it gives you huge Varina triggers for nothing at all, but most of the time it will end the game right away. I don't I've ever once had it resolve and had to pay for the upkeep, the game just ends before I get a chance.
- Kindred Discovery - Tribal draw on steroids. This single card will show us more of our deck than any other. It's expensive (financially and to cast), but in every sense it's worth it. That being said, because the draw is non-conditional, it's really important to be careful with this. From personal experience, DO NOT HAVE THIS AND TOMBSTONE STAIRWELL out at the same time. Not unless you run Laboratory Maniac as a win condition anyway.
- Swords to Plowshares - Simple, cheap, instant speed exile. None better.
- Arcane Denial - One of our two counters present. We've got a lot of removal onboard, but some spells just need to not resolve, and I don't mind giving up some draw for that to happen. We draw too, and it's colour light.
- Counterspell - As above. It's colour intensive, but it's unconditional and that's perfect.
- Cyclonic Rift - What's there left to say about this card? If it resolves you're likely to be in great shape afterwards.
- Anguished Unmaking - Instant speed 'any permanent' exile. The life loss is insignificant for us, so this is great spot removal.
- Generous Gift - Beast Within for white. I can deal with a 3/3 token. It's great in green, and great here too.
- Ancient Excavation - Like a wheel effect but different - it's instant, it's just for us, and it lets us be more selective about what hits our graveyard, which is perfect.
- Mirrorweave - There's a few legends that will be missed by this, but generally it can warp the board pretty nicely. Turning a whole lot of swinging creatures into mere Carrion Feeders, or our board into Death Barons, Bone Misers or Diregraf Colossuses is no joke.
- Return to Dust - Exile one or two artifacts or enchantments, whatever suits. Great utility at a good cost.
- True Love's Kiss - I've talked about this card a few times. I think it's, in some ways, more sure value than Return to Dust with it's unconditional draw. There are times where Dust is being played for one particular piece - and I might hit two pieces, but it's just because I can. Why make enemies? Why not draw instead? /list]
- Dance of the Manse - Our deck drops a lot of things into the yard, which means from time to time our rocks bite the dust, making it hard to colour fix, or meaning we miss out on our Eldrazi Monument, Kindred Dominance or Mystic Remora. Well, here's the fix. It scales to our board, picks up multiple pieces, and in the current setup won't ever result in them being animated, which is sold as an upside, but really, we don't want that.
- Citywide Bust - Most of our creatures are pretty close to the ground, so this is a nice cheap board wipe. Mostly I'm not overly worried about my creatures dying regardless, but if I can avoid it why not? This could easily be Retribution of the Meek or Toxic Deluge if you have a copy.
- Supreme Verdict - A board wipe with no possibility of nopes. It's colour intensive, but it's a definitive answer to the board state, so it's perfect.
- Living Death - Guys, I'm gonna level with you. This is my favourite card of all time. It's in my top 2 list with Collective Voyage (that card is nuts). I have like half a dozen copies, and it's perfect here. It answers a board state regardless of protection, hexproof or indestructibility, and gives us an army back. Hopefully with some tasty ETB triggers like Noxious Ghoul or Gray Merchant of Asphodel, but we can settle for Corpse Knight and Wayward Servant too.
- Patriarch's Bidding - Our second mass reanimator. It's a little too universal to just throw it out anywhere, but if you use it well it will end games with alacrity.
- Austere Command - Modal removal in extremis. Every single mode I've found useful in the past, and you get two when you cast it. Such a useful card.
- Zombie Apocalypse - Our third mass reanimator. Mostly, the destroy all humans clause won't do a damn thing, but you never know, there's a lot of hatebears out there.
- Kindred Dominance - I mean, like, you guys know which creature type to choose right?
- Liliana, Untouched by Death - The most thematically appropriate Lili. I include her purely because of her utility. All of her abilities are relevant to us, and all of them can be used straight away. I don't have a lot of support to reuse walkers, so there's not a huge point in more than one or two as utility. She does a great job for versatility.
- Command Tower - Enters untapped and gives us whatever we like. Perfect.
- Arcane Sanctum - As above, but enters tapped. Not perfect, but good enough.
- Path of Ancestry - Enters tapped, but gives us any Esper colour, and when we use it on a zombie or a wizard it scrys for us. Surprisingly valuable.
- Unclaimed Territory - Enters untapped, gives either colorless, or any colour for a creature type of your choice. Choose your creature type carefully.
- Fetid Pools - Enters tapped, but colour fixes or cycles. Relevant to our mana base and Archfiend of Ifnir.
- Prairie Stream, Sunken Hollow - So long as you run basics they stand a good chance of entering untapped. Given how much black there is in the deck there's not really a huge point in including Prairie Stream.
- Hallowed Fountain, Godless Shrine, Watery Grave - Pretty obvious why they're here.
- Choked Estuary, Port Town - These usually enters untapped, it's an easy clause to meet.
- Glacial Fortress, Isolated Chapel - As above, easy clause to meet. Glacial Fortress should likely be Drowned Catacomb, it's one of those cards I've just missed a copy of.
- Exotic Orchard - We run two of the most popular colours in the format in and , so this is perfect.
- Bojuka Bog - Pretty obvious why it's here - to make our mass reanimation a little more one-sided.
- Geier Reach Sanitarium - It's a great flavour point, and it gives us early draw and selective discard.
- Hall of Heliod's Generosity - Some of our enchantments are pretty high quality, and two of them have upkeeps. Being able to recur them is handy and easy.
- Mystic Sanctuary - One of our weakest points in the deck is lack of instant/sorcery recursion. There aren't no options - Possessed Skaab and Dralnu, Lich Lord exist, but neither is at a cost I like, and neither one allows me to abuse them. Yes, I'm greedy. So, for now, this is the best I can do. I can pick up crucial pieces here and there, although again, it's not perfect. Then again, at a cost of nothing, I'm more happy with it than running a zombie for the same effect at a much higher cost.
- Vault of the Archangel - The ability might look expensive, but it pays some serious dividends. I've been convinced since running it in Ghave, Guru of Spores a few years back.
- Volrath's Stronghold - Saves your best thing from grave hate, or just gives you a little slower recursion.
- Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth - Fixes our colours, and ends the game with Zombie Master.
Firstly, here's what I choose not to run, for whatever reason:
- Phyrexian Altar - It's seriously good, but it combos too easily here. I have a copy, but it won't get a space here purely by choice.
- Rooftop Storm - The flavour is real, and it's a strong effect. Why not run it? Well, it's expensive, and all it does is either combo or bite removal. It's nice to have the game on easy mode, but I've just found it boring, in all honesty.
- Endless Ranks of the Dead - It's so, so, interminably slow. Honestly, it's just a bad card, and if it were going to fit anywhere it'd be here. It's got great flavour and great art, but it just doesn't deserve a spot.
- Dreadhorde Invasion - I have run it in the past, and it was ok. It really just didn't add enough in any metric to justify a slot.
- Lich Lord of Unx - This guy could be awesome. The reason I don't run him is that his second ability is expensive in both cost and colour density, whereas my current aristocrats are all passive. Purely driven by the lands here, as this machine is often pretty lean.
- Grimgrin, Corpse-Born - I actually have a super gorgeous foiled up Innistrad original. I haven't found a reasonable use for him here yet, but he may hit the deck at some point.
- Anointed Procession - If you're running down the dedicated swarm route, this is worth picking up. Because I'm not all in on that, there's a lot of times it'll be redundant.
- Vanquisher's Banner - Compared to my other draw options at the same CMC point, this just doesn't do enough.
- Balthor the Defiled - His exile clause makes me think twice about adding him. The reanimation is great though, so he may warrant testing into the future.
Other than these, there's a lot in the current list that can be swapped out. The removal and control I run can absolutely be switched out for functionally similar pieces or superior - my decks generally operate on a budget, so what I have is based on what I can optimally afford or feasibly source. If you have availability above this, don't feel that my deck is canon by any stretch - it's purely a guide to getting optimal leverage from Varina.
Secondly, here's my wants list:
- Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx - Gary wins games. This land operates on the same metric, and it's pretty nuts. I will tick this one off eventually.
- Undead Warchief - Probably the last lord I'd like for the deck.
- Unholy Grotto - Probably slightly cheaper than Volrath's Stronghold. Again it's just a case of tracking the damn thing down.
- Something to recur instants and sorceries. I'm not sure what that looks like at present. Ideally it'd be an on-tribe ETB trigger creature, but I'd look for other options if they suit. Currently what's available is Possessed Skaab and Dralnu, Lich Lord. Frankly, they both have downsides big enough to not be ideal here.
I'm not going to go over every possible card to be included ever in any possible variation of a Varina deck, but given the scope with which Varina can be built, it's worth going over some possible inclusions for variant archetypes from my list. Here's what I'd look at for possible inclusion in some variations - bear in mind that these lists are not exhaustive, nor are they intended to be. These are elements you could look at including for a smattering of the below archetypes, or you could go deeper than what's here too.
- Soul's Attendant/Soul Warden/Suture Priest - I feel like these could be pretty gross if you're leaning into this.
- Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord - I used to run him, and the lifelink is pretty great.
- Aetherflux Reservoir - Your obvious win condition.
- Test of Endurance/Felidar Sovereign - Your less obvious? They're ok I guess. Lifegain is kind of janky for a theme anyway, so you'd probably just roll with it.
- Well of Lost Dreams - Cool card, almost makes the cut in my deck, but mana is lean.
- Pontiff of Blight - Make everything hurt.
- Vizkopa Guildmage - This guy is kind of a hidden gem. He's surprisingly savage, and could do great things, especially if you're gaining wads and wads of life.
- Sanguine Bond/Exquisite Blood - We've all seen it before, it's pretty obvious, but if you're going for life gain, it's probably worth including them.
In playtesting, the deck sort of has a momentum to it. So long as you have your colours and some juice in your hand you're ok, and you can make sure you keep the momentum going. It's fairly rare there's not a good time to swing with something, and it's easy enough to keep advantage heading your way. Every swing gives us the opportunity to draw into some level of advantage and puts us a little further away from defeat. And that's sort of how we play - we survive and keep fighting until the pieces come together. Often I take a lot of heat in early stages, so keeping a hand with early drops is advisable, but once I've got some momentum going it's hard to keep me down.
All this being said, it's important to choose your spells carefully. We're running a fairly lean engine and won't generally have a huge surplus of spare mana unless things go exceptionally well. It can happen, but it's rare enough to not plan around. So with this in mind, we're more or less never going to look at playing our hand out and entering topdeck mode. We're looking at making optimal plays, maximising our advantage as cheaply as we can and incrementally advancing our game. This also gives us valuable options for Varina's trigger. It's important to note that while she does draw you cards, she makes you discard as many, so keeping cards in hand is important. It's part of why she's worked so well with a midrange strategy - we play optimally, swing to sculpt our hand, and set ourselves up with options. If we vomit our hand on to the board, we're really just filling our yard sub-optimally and keeping nothing back for answers.
I wanted to talk about this a little purely because it pertains to the way this deck plays in general. There's specific things we need to play around with the deck; Varina's ability needs us to attack, and sculpts our hand and graveyard accordingly. So, ideally, we want to be hitting some low cost zombies early as well as some colour fixing (either in lands or rocks) and aiming to cast Varina early, so that we can pick up some momentum and make an impact on the board and aim to win.
That being said, there's a vast canvas beyond the specific aim of 'get Varina on board and swing with cheap zombies'. A lot of it is going to depend on what you have in hand, how optimally you can achieve that primary goal, and what specific win conditions you're aiming for, if any. A lot of my success with this particular list comes from assessment of the board, my game state, and resolving some queries:
- How close am I to a win? What do I need to get there?
- What poses a threat to me? Right now and into the long term?
- How bold can I be without becoming a target?
- How will the characters at the table with me impact plays?
Going over all of the above could take pages and pages, which I won't do, but it is worth addressing briefly. I've found these to be valuable questions in general, but specifically with this deck; in at least the early stages of the game the deck can be a little fragile, so if things don't go to plan for whatever reason it can be a real bummer to dig in and get back up the ladder. So I've made a habit of making sure I'm not digging out of a hole. And that's where reactive plays and proactive plays come in.
Essentially, this is the difference between committing to the board/going for gold/putting it all on black/putting all of your eggs in one basket, and being cautious and planning around some disruption. There's a valid reason to consider this with Varina too; in a vacuum, if you play your hand out to the battlefield with nothing held back, you're operating at a disadvantage. This is because every time you attack, you're seeing X cards (great!) and you're discarding all of said cards (not so great). So, given that playing Varina optimally requires us to hold some cards back from the field, it stands to reason we make sure that our hand has answers, haymakers, contingency plans and such.
There's no hard and fast rule to this, which is why you could spend pages writing about it. Suffice to say, this discussion does apply to this build, and it's worth considering in terms of the way you play. Granted, with more of a focus on things like stax or combo you need to less, if those aren't your jam you need to be looking into this as an area to work on. All of this aside, there's benefits to being able to switch between being reactive and proactive too; it means that you'll almost certainly have mana untapped for answers when you need them, it means that you will look less of a threat (while almost certainly being more of one), it means you're able to answer threats easily, and it means that when you have everything you need to win, it's more likely to stick.
The other way in which this benefits us is that our zombies are versatile and can easily play well into a conservative approach. They're not much on their own, in all fairness, but they are more than the sum of their parts once combined. Say we're stocking our graveyard for mass reanimation, and someone targets us with Bojuka Bog
. If we've gone all in on this, we're stuck rebuilding from square one. If we've held something back, we might well have
in multiples to put zombies on the board in response by exiling cards for ourselves, or mana to trigger either or both Relentless Dead
's abilities. Or, we might have lords or beaters in hand to play out and go for a more straightforward plan swinging into combat - we might even have something like Graf Harvest
, Lord of the Accursed
, Eldrazi Monument
or Zombie Master
/Urborg to make combat favourable. And if we do, we can restock our hand with optimal cards with Varina. The beauty is that this same scenario works perfectly well in reverse, too - say we're swinging for a standard win with combat damage and Varina advantage. Someone wipes the board with say Toxic Deluge
. We've now got even more options than we started with - we can mass reanimate, get some aristocrat
triggers and ETB triggers. Or if we're lucky we can play Tombstone Stairwell
and swing regardless, or combine it with an aristocrat
, or combat modifier.
The upshot is it's worth taking into account being versatile in terms of the way you play. Going all in on any strategy inevitably comes with a certain degree of risk, and to be fair, so does not going far enough in your strategies. Essentially, the deck is capable of changing strategy, and it's worth bearing this in mind and rolling with it as needed.
With our sweet new deck list functionality here (thanks Feyd) this is something you can toy around with for yourself, of course, but it's good to get an idea of what you should keep and what you shouldn't, and what's in between.
Turn one Sol Ring? Sign me up. This hand gets your commander in play turn 3 most likely. It also gives you mass reanimation for late game and some draw rattlesnake with Midnight Reaper
; either your board expands or your opponents blow it up and you draw tons. Either way you're casting Living Death
mid game to a really favourable board from Varina's looting or a wipe. Easy, easy keep.
This is a testing hand. Part of me wants to keep it, because Mike
and Plague Belcher
is tough to get past. But there's not enough acceleration to get these both in play quick enough, and not enough to drop Smothering Tithe
early either. Really depends how brave you are with your topdeck.
Another turn one ring. Where are these hands when I actually play? All of that aside, we don't have colours to play our early drop here, so I'd likely mull this. Or, if you do keep it, you play control - you have enough to keep the board quiet until you have resources to make an impact, with Generous Gift
and Austere Command
, so using them reactively isn't the worst idea.
You want your land drops, but damn, this one is a bit much. Zombie Master
on its own isn't all that exciting, and Zombie Apocalypse
isn't really all that exciting until mid to late game, so I'd mull this one confidently.
Our optimal scenario is seeing Varina drop early - realistically, this ought to be turn 3 or 4, but it totally can happen turn 2 as well. So we want to see specific things in hand. Our dream hand consists of 2-3 lands, 2 cheap (1 or 2 mana) zombies, a rock, and one or two pieces of disruption. There's a good chance you may not get that, but so long as you're heading towards early board presence bare minimum, with a standard of Varina in play early, you're fine. Don't be afraid to swing if the opportunity arises, but make sure your zombies survive to use with Varina's ability.
Ultimately, my early game is fairly quiet. I'm assessing the board, what tempos and personalities I'm playing against and what pieces might ultimately pose a threat. I'm also swinging with zombies - carefully prior to Varina's entrance, with impunity afterwards. This ought to give us a little momentum to get things rolling, and also give us some options for an avenue to use to win.
This is going to look different every game, as it's really dependent on what Varina draws you into. Essentially this is the point where you decide what your primary path to victory is, based on your existing hand and what you can dig into.
Ideally, because the discard part of her ability is mandatory, my first strategy to aim for is reanimation. With three large spells and several smaller that can achieve this as well as 7-8 bleeder zombies, it's a fair bet that this can get us most of the way there. It's the easiest way to win because we just need to cast our spell and have it resolve. It also takes some set up, so it's a slightly slow strategy, and it can easily telegraph unless you're careful. If for whatever reason this isn't feasible, we have combat, and we have 'the grind'.
Combat should be easy enough. We have plenty of size buffs, a reasonable degree of evasion and protection, and a great suite of board wipes which we can often use to treat our boardstate favourably.
Late Game - 'The Grind'
Ultimately, all things going well, once we've resolved a mass reanimation spell or Tombstone Stairwell
with even one bleeder on board, the game is going to end really quickly. This could happen at any time, and it's relatively easy to make it happen in somewhat early turns.
Late game for us is when we've had a decent fight and have had to keep our place in the game against a relative degree of disruption. This is where we play reactively and conservatively, and it's what we save our removal for. It's where we get our value from Zombie Infestation
, Varina's second ability, cast triggers from Diregraf Colossus
and God-Eternal Oketra
, and stay relevant while doing our best to minimise damage to our pieces. At this point in the game, redundancy is our friend. All our relevant strategies to win we have several iterations of - we have plenty of lords, aristocrats
and reanimation, and our extra pieces are designed to keep us in the game; Varina can keep drawing us into answers, Mystic Remora
keeps our grip full too, Smothering Tithe
keeps our colours and mana numbers high, and we have several pieces we can use to eke advantage out of what would otherwise be a losing situation.
At this point if we haven't won as of yet combat is our likely win condition, which is just fine. We have a few ways of making tokens at instant speeds, we have a resilient army, and if our stuff does die in combat we still kill our opponents, just by inches with aristocrats
instead of feet with attackers. .
It should be no surprise that Varina is in colours that can combo out quite easily. I've chosen not to follow this through, although I am aware that there are synergies that can be abused pretty heavily here, and many that will go infinite. When these come up, I usually ignore them, but there's no reason to follow suit if your stance on combo varies from mine. I'm happy to go over some of the options available in the thread to follow, too (see above for some of the options you have in alternate builds). It just isn't my play style to play competitive combo, but that's entirely a self imposed regulation, and you need not feel bad for leaning into that area, each deck is different and it's your prerogative to build what you enjoy
My strategy is to leverage my most powerful synergies without going fully infinite or comboing. There's plenty here, and dropping the right spell at the right time while building momentum will allow us to do plenty and stay relevant. Usually I try to maintain a fairly low profile early and build some momentum while I dig for my clutch cards. That's part of why I've chosen the cards I've chosen - all of my draw is pretty burst related, so that I can discard for value and reanimation, and dig deep. There are specific cards in the deck that fit well together, so depending what we have in hand, we're digging for reasonably specific things to pair up or work those synergies.
What follows below is a non-exhaustive description of some of the stronger synergies on offer here and how they get us ahead:
Each of these relatively cheap creatures gives us a way to slowly eke away at life totals. We don't specifically swarm, but there are some really great cards to pair up with these. Tombstone Stairwell
is unbearably, incredibly good at this. Every single turn (not just every turn of yours, every turn
), you get a zombie with haste for each creature in your yard. Wayward Servant
can bleed people out for that, and gain you some life. Then they die at end of turn. Any of the others here can make use of that - specifically, Vengeful Dead
will hurt your opponents for every single zombie that dies this way, not just yours. From time to time Living Death
, Patriarch's Bidding
and Zombie Apocalypse
can chime in too.
These are our big movers. We've got some great spot reanimation in Apprentice Necromancer
, The Scarab God
and our persistent friends Relentless Dead
. These can help us maintain some board presence until we can establish dominance. The bigger sorcery spells we have here are often strong, game ending spells, and if timed right they can turn the tide for us or end the game on the spot. They'll get us ETB triggers, such as Gray Merchant of Asphodel
, Noxious Ghoul
, Wayward Servant
, and so forth. Often this will give us a big life boost, and obviously a big board presence. Unfortunately none of these are instantaneous, so we do still need to be able to hammer the advantage home in whatever context suits best.
So, we all know about Mike and his pals, Trike Tyson
and Ballista Flockhart
. Trike isn't here, and we're slim on unlimited sacrifice outlets anyway. That's not what we're aiming for. He's here to keep our board presence, mostly. That being said, he is still capable of allowing some really strong interactions:
- Recovery from our own board wipes (his ability goes on the stack when he dies regardless)
- A rugged bleeder cycle with Wayward Servant and pals
- Another one with Plague Belcher and Gravecrawler, for as much as you have spare
Again, it would be easy enough to make these combo material in a number of ways. That's not what I'm going for, but don't let it stop you - most of these interactions would go infinite with Rooftop Storm
or Phyrexian Altar
. He's also going to be an immediate target regardless, so it's really important to make sure you cast him when it's worth casting him. Casting him to an empty board and passing turn is a bad idea and won't get you far at all. He's best cheated into play considering his CMC, but that can telegraph a little. Ideally, however it's managed, we want to drop him into an existing board with some interactive components already in place - Eldrazi Monument
, Carrion Feeder
, whatever you can find, Mike is the last piece you want to cast before you leverage him for profit.
Predictably, too, Mike is the wellspring of the only infinite combo I'm currently aware of in the list, briefly mentioned above:
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
in play, plus one other zombie, and a free sac outlet (Carrion Feeder
). Cast Plague Belcher
, choose to put -1/-1 counters on 'the other zombie' and one on Plague Belcher
. Sacrifice both, both return, deal 1 damage to each opponent, rinse and repeat. Additionally, you will either get a nominally large Carrion Feeder
, but that's neither here nor there, because ultimately the game will end.
I know I've said above that I don't combo - I look the other way for this one purely because with 4 pieces required and plenty of ways to interact with it, it's janky enough to flop, and difficult enough to actually assemble.
We run an ample suite here, lots of standard wipes. And mostly we're not afraid of them, either. Having an aristocrat on board totally changes how things look post-wipe. We've got bounce in the ubiquitous Cyclonic Rift
, wipes that will leave us better off with Citywide Bust
and Austere Command
, exile effects with Return to Dust
, Anguished Unmaking
and Utter End
. We're also running removal with extra effects to keep our board state up with Living Death
(my favourite card ever). However, we also have a couple of other really effective tricks up our sleeve.
Archfiend of Ifnir
He's not a zombie. He is, however, absolutely devastating. Combine him with Varina's attack trigger, Windfall
, or any of the other loot effects we have, and we can literally flatten the rest of the board, with permanence. As a plus, he will kill indestructibles, too. He also cycles if needed.
While not quite as strong due to the impermanent nature of his effect, with Tombstone Stairwell
, Diregraf Colossus
and God-Eternal Oketra
it can wreck a board state too. Devastating coming into play from a Living Death
resolution as well.
There's a lot of options in terms of non-permanent spells here. A fairly ample suite, in fact. We have exile
, we have non-creature removal
, we have board wipes in various shapes and forms.
In terms of how these are used, don't be afraid of your board wipes. We can rebuild well past them - very well in some cases. Spot removal is a little more tricky, as there are only so many pieces and they should be used sparingly. You don't need to remove every piece of tech that gets dropped, just the stuff that heavily impacts us or the stuff that allows someone else to win.
There's a lot of work that goes into pulling all of this information together, but I've never had a decklist thread that's had the sort of traffic that this one has. It's at the same time humbling and also a really great resource for myself and others. So, this primer is my way of giving back to the readers and contributors of this thread. There are and have been many, both here and on mtgsalvation prior to my departure there.
So, thanks to all of the regular contributors of the thread in both places - TearsofTomorrow, blinx28, supersprite, Hawk, WizardMN, yeti069, seraphym, Kelzam, Outcryqq, Egbert82. Anyone I've missed, thank you nonetheless for your contribution. While I'm happy to have such traffic around one of my threads regardless, it's the discussion between us all that leads to a good understanding of building and piloting a decklist, and it's what makes all of this worthwhile.
Rite of Replication
Door of Destinies
Shadows of the Past
Open the Graves
Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim
Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
Call to the Grave
Entreat the Dead
Aven Wind Guide
Gisa and Geralf
Josu Vess, Lich Knight
In: Fellwar Stone
Out: Thran Dynamo
Library of Leng
Thassa, God of the Sea
Fact or Fiction
Shadows of the Past
Liliana, Untouched by Death
Endless Ranks of the Dead
Path of Ancestry
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Silence the Believers
Library of Leng
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord
Sidisi, Undead Vizier
Read the Runes
Caves of Koilos
Liliana, Heretical Healer
Command the Dreadhorde
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Open the Graves
Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim
Talisman of Dominance
Command the Dreadhorde
Hall of Heliod's Generosity
Talisman of Hierarchy
Beacon of Unrest
Agent of Erebos
Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord
Aminatou, the Fateshifter
Read the Runes
True Love's Kiss
Return to Dust
Dance of the Manse