Ever since the Amonkhet spoiler was available, it became clear that Wizards has done enough to push the power level of Zombies enough to make the tribe a Standard powerhouse. Zombies decks previously weren't true tribal Zombie decks, even if they played Cryptbreaker, since you had to go outside the tribe to find strong enough cards to fill out a deck. An optimal Zombies deck should be playing only creatures that are Zombies or Metallic Mimic.
Thalia's Lieutenant is great in Humans, but outside of that we aren't used to tribal-based anthem effects and lords in Standard. Both Lord of the Accursed and Liliana's Mastery can pump up your entire team, and Metallic Mimic can also make your Zombies larger as well. This is a classic tribal creature deck that makes seemingly insignificant creatures into legitimate threats, and has a surprisingly fast clock.
Over the past couple weeks I have been playing a lot with various builds of Zombies, and over the course of that time some of my initial evaluations have changed since my first article on the strategy.
Mono-Black is the clear frontrunner for best version of Zombies. The deck is far more consistent without a second color, while not losing much on power. Wayward Servant and Binding Mummy are incentives to play white, while red is also an option for Cut // Ribbons, but there are enough Zombies in just black to justify not splashing.
Zombie decks may not have made a ton of noise in paper play, but online they are all over the place. We have been waiting for a consistent aggro deck that can also grind out games, and this fits the bill. Cryptbreaker provides card advantage that is pretty easy to leverage. A tricky part of the gameplay itself is knowing when to draw cards and when to start going aggressive. This choice is based on the matchup and whether you are the aggressor or want to play a longer game.
In general, if I have Cryptbreaker early I'm happy to use it to draw cards even if that means missing a few points of damage. The extra card or two helps you to curve out and hit land five for Liliana's Mastery. After playing Liliana's Mastery, you can turn the corner and end the game very quickly. The fact that you can both pump your team for an immediate attack and make more Zombies is what makes it so good. It is weird to not play any four-mana cards and play four copies of a five-drop, but Liliana's Mastery is very good and there really aren't any four mana plays that are worth having main deck.
Since this deck has four copies of Liliana's Mastery I like having at least 23 lands. Some versions have 24, which is also reasonable. There really is no reason to only play Swamps, as you can afford to have a couple non-basic lands and still have a good mana base. Most versions have gone up to three copies of Westvale Abbey because of how good they are against control. Control decks are definitely major players in the metagame, and being able to have ways to grind out the game if the control deck has answers for your early assault is important.
Beyond the Westvale Abbeys, there are other creatures the Zombies deck plays that have late-game implications. Both Relentless Dead and Dread Wanderer are super difficult to deal with if the control deck doesn't have a way to exile them like Magma Spray or Cast Out. Diregraf Colossus is another card that can really help in the right situation versus control; sometimes I will wait to cast Diregraf Colossus until I have another Zombie to immediately play with it, so I can hold priority after casting Diregraf Colossus and get an immediate Zombie Token even if the opponent answers Diregraf Colossus with a removal spell.
The most common criticism I have heard about Mono-Black Zombies is that the sideboard isn't that great. It may not be quite as strong as some other decks' sideboards, but that doesn't make it bad either. The key here is improving the bad matchups and then not worrying too much about the already-good matchups. The removal spells are the cards that you should be thinking about the most – I very rarely cut Dark Salvation though because that card is just generally busted regardless.
Overall, I like the Zombie side of this matchup. The removal spells are all very efficient so the main deck is set up well. This means that you shouldn't be over-sideboarding here. Fatal Push and Grasp of Darkness are extremely important because they answer Heart of Kiran. The most common way to lose games in the matchup is to an unanswered flyer from Mardu Vehicles. Your Zombie ground creatures quickly start to outclass the cards like Toolcraft Exemplar that Mardu Vehicles can present. Dark Salvation and Liliana's Mastery are the way you want to close the game as either one is generally a backbreaking play.
IN: 1 Fatal Push, 2 Never // Return
OUT: 2 Relentless Dead, 1 Diregraf Colossus
You can afford to add a few more removal spells, while shaving some Zombies. Relentless Dead is the least impactful Zombie in the matchup, though it's still decent. Oftentimes the matchup comes down to a race and Relentless Dead rarely hits the graveyard while you have mana available. Fatal Push is at its best here while Never // Return provides a lot of flexibility. I wouldn't say you are too concerned about Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, but oftentimes the Mardu Vehicles deck will bring in a lot more planeswalkers. Having a card that kills a planeswalker and provides value later is pretty sweet.
There are a number of control decks in the format, but Blue-Red Control is the most popular one at the moment. Against control, you have a lot of annoying creatures but in game one cards like Fatal Push and Grasp of Darkness are very bad. For this reason, you can actually significantly improve the matchup after sideboarding, while the control deck won't change that much. Be aware of cards like Kozilek's Return and Sweltering Suns as ways to Sweep Away lots of Zombies. Overall, the matchup is favorable for Zombies, but has lots of play to it. Drawing cards with Cryptbreaker and getting any small value you can is nice. Then there are generally several turns where you play a threat and hope it doesn't get countered until something sticks in play.
IN: 3 Dispossess, 4 Lay Bare the Heart/Transgress the Mind, 1 Ob Nixilis Reignited
Out: 3 Fatal Push, 3 Grasp of Darkness, 2 Lord of the Accursed
Grasp of Darkness and Fatal Push are the easy cuts, then it gets more difficult. I like keeping in Dark Salvation since sometimes the control deck boards in additional creatures that are annoying like Thing in the Ice or Dragonmaster Outcast. You can use Dark Salvation as removal, but even if not it is still just a good card on its own. Paying five to create two creatures is still a card the opponent is forced to use a counter on. Since it is hard to go wide with a ton of creatures in play, Lord of the Accursed isn't quite as good here so it is fine to cut a couple of them.
Most of what we want to bring in is hand disruption. Dispossess is great because it gets rid of Torrential Gearhulk, the main win condition and source of card advantage for the control deck. I like having three copies because even if they counter the first one you can resolve the next one a lot of the time. Once Dispossess has resolved future Dispossess you might draw are mostly useless, and that's generally fine. Lay Bare the Heart in my mind is fighting with Transgress the Mind for which discard spell the deck wants. In this matchup, you would definitely rather have Lay Bare the Heart as is can take whatever you want from the opponent. Ob Nixilus Reignited is another source of card advantage, and in a pinch can be used as removal too.
Aetherworks Marvel decks are being played right now in large numbers, and the color combinations of the strategy can vary. The most popular version of Marvel is Temur, but the sideboard plans aren't very different based on which version of Marvel you are playing against. Most Marvel decks have creatures like Servant of the Conduit and Rogue Refiner so your removal in game one ends up being okay but not great. Dark Salvation can kill whatever you want, though – I have even seen two Dark Salvations Take Down an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger! There is more removal in the deck than you need so you can cut some after sideboard.
IN: 4 Lay Bare the Heart/Transgress the Mind, 3 Dispossess
OUT: 3 Fatal Push, 3 Grasp of Darkness, 1 Relentless Dead
The sideboard here is clearly very similar to the plan against control. Dispossess is what you are relying on in order take care of the opponent's Aetherworks Marvel before one hits the battlefield. Once the Aetherworks Marvel are out of the opponent's deck you don't need to worry about too much. In the matchup, I would rather have Transgress the Mind over Lay Bare the Heart, to be able to take the opponent's Marvel in case you don't have a Dispossess. Whether the deck wants Lay Bare the Heart or Transgress the Mind is metagame-dependent, but right now I have a slight preference for Transgress the Mind.
Removal is generally good in the mirror, but I don't think sideboarding will change the matchup that much. This is a classic race, and oftentimes the first person to resolve Liliana's Mastery will win.
IN: 1 Fatal Push 2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, 2 Never // Return
OUT: 2 Metallic Mimic, 3 Lord of the Accursed
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is insane if it doesn't die to removal, but unfortunately there are lots of removal spells that answer it. I like playing it as my last threat, so hopefully the opponent has been run out of removal at that point. Liliana's Mastery and Dark Salvation are gamebreakers since they can't be answered by a single removal spell.
There is still some room to maneuver in the sideboard. The two copies of To the Slaughter could be something else; as you aren't hitting delirium very easily it is more of just an instant-speed removal spell. The Black-Green Delirium matchup has felt favored for Zombies, so that is another matchup you don't have to do a ton against. Overall the plan A should be good enough against most other decks in the format, so you can afford to devote lots of slots to Marvel and Control decks, as game one is configured to beat the rest of the field.
Thanks for reading,