I'm writing this article the day before the Pro Tour. There's a good chance the things I say in this article will look embarrassing when I look back on the tournament afterward. Inevitably, there will be things missed, ideas we were wrong about or just a vastly different metagame than expected.
I'm playing Mono-Red Aggro at this tournament.
I didn't want to play the deck. I tried not to play the deck, but the deck just kept winning. There was only one deck that I was consistently beating Red with and that deck was the choice I was going to play right up until today: Mono-Black Zombies. The Zomboys. The Killer Zombees. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Going into testing, I was interested in a couple of ideas. I wanted to play a deck with Bolas and The Scarab God. I wanted to play a token-oriented strategy with Driven // Despair, a card that can refuel your hand and destroy theirs. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to do some definitively sweet things at the Tour de Japan.
Through testing, we quickly learned just how great the Desert lands are. I immediately put some Ifnir Deadlands into my Mono-Black Zombies list and quickly fell in love with them. Ramunap Ruins also is a devastating card in the Red deck, allowing for a lot of reach once the creatures dry up, which they certainly will. I mean, they're in a desert after all. Let's get real. Nobody is keeping hydrated out there.
Midrange strategies just did not seem good in testing. The problem with midrange decks is that they have so much to try to beat. They have to be powerful enough early in the game to weather the assault from Red, and they need to be able to beat scaling linear strategies like Zombies. They also need to be able to handle decks that attack from unique angles, like White-Blue Monument or White-Blue God-Pharaoh's Gift decks. Finally, there are playable control strategies, like Blue-Red Control, and they must be mindful of that as well. It's just so much to try to beat, that it seems hopeless to tune a midrange strategy to handle all of it.
Speaking of God-Pharaoh's Gift. We tested a variety of God-Pharaoh's Gift decks but none of them were great. The last version of the deck we wanted to try was White-Blue God-Pharaoh's Gift, but then it went and won the Magic Online PTQ while we were playing Grand Prix Kyoto. That put the deck immediately on the map and it became something that we had to test with and against, as it might become a major player in the format instead of a fringe archetype we might want to surprise opponents with. We rejected playing the deck ourselves because we felt like it was a strategy that other players could exploit and that it would underperform as a known quantity. Graveyard hate, Dispossess, and other similar cards really put a damper on that deck's game plan.
Throughout our testing, I was basically championing playing Zombies. Nobody else on the squad, which was team Genesis + some other folks like myself, really got too on-board with Zombies, but I felt like it was a strong strategy in many matchups. One big plus to playing Zombies was how good it was against Mono-Red Aggro, which was putting up great results in our testing and promised to be a big player at the Pro Tour. Mono-Black Zombies is one of the few decks that can honestly boast a good red matchup.
A few alternative versions of the deck were doing well in a few events as well. There was a Blue-Black Zombies list that 5-0'd a league playing Gisa and Geralf and The Scarab God. Shortly thereafter, Blue-Black Zombies got second place in the Magic Online PTQ, without Gisa and Geralf but this time pairing The Scarab God with Ammit Eternal. I tested a decent amount with that deck. The Scarab God was really good at beating strategies like Monument and God-Pharaoh's Gift.
Against Monument, you frequently get into board situations where you can't really attack them with Zombies, and The Scarab God allows you to just drain them out. Against God-Pharaoh's Gift, The Scarab God survives their copies of Cataclysmic Gearhulk and can even exile their own creatures out of their graveyard to turn their deck against them.
Ultimately, though, I think that deck was inferior to just plain Mono-Black Zombies. The first reason is that it had a way worse mana base. Playing a bunch of dual lands seems like a free cost, but lands that come into play tapped are actually very problematic for a deck like Zombies that needs to curve out in many situations.
The other reason I found it inferior was the raw power of Liliana's Mastery, which has somehow gotten way better in this format than it was in previous formats. Liliana's Mastery, in most matchups, is just simply better than The Scarab God. If that statement is true, then why splash for a card that isn't even better than what mono-colored options offer you?
Finally, Mono-Black Zombies gets to play Ifnir Deadlands, which is a painful swamp some of the time, but frequently it can actually be very relevant to swing a game, even in matchups where it would seem useless. I've beaten Blue-Red Control many a time by shrinking a Torrential Gearhulk small enough for some brainless horde to smash through. It's especially great against Monument, where it kills most of their creatures, and against Black-Green Constrictor, where Winding Constrictor actually increases how many -1/-1 counters it will put on their creatures. Ifnir Deadlands can by itself kill a snake, which is nice.
Slowly, over the course of testing, more and more of the team started switching Red, as the deck is either really good, or we failed very hard in finding a deck that can beat it and also be playable against the rest of the format. Zombies seemed like the only playable alternative to Mono-Red Agrro. Eventually, it got to the point where the other nine players I was testing with had all moved over to playing Red. All except for me. I was still on Zombies.
I like this list because it is very straightforward and doesn't play any of the cutesy stuff. The main deck is just as many copies of the best cards as you can play with a perfect 24 black mana-producing lands. I cut down to three Diregraf Colossus because the format has sped up quite a bit, and Diregraf is simply too slow in many matchups. In the matchups where it isn't too slow, you are usually facing a lot of board sweepers. While Diregraf Colossus has the size to outstrip board sweepers in some situations, the Zombie Tokens it produces certainly do not.
Metallic Mimic, a card that I used to hate in the deck, has actually become one of the deck's best cards because of how often you need to curve out properly with this deck to be able to win. Let's face it, Zombies is slightly underpowered compared to some of what other decks are doing, but it can win by virtue of being streamlined, synergistic, aggressive, and having capabilities to grind decks out that don't pressure it well enough.
Dispossess in the sideboard is integral to beating Blue-Red Control, which earned a big upgrade against the deck in Hour of Devastation. Taking their copies of Torrential Gearhulk buys you infinite time to crawl, literally and figuratively, back into the game with threats like Dread Wanderer or Relentless Dead. The main reason I am playing three Dispossess, however, is to beat God-Pharaoh's Gift. Without Dispossess, I'm not sure it's possible to beat them unless they stumble or don't find a Cataclysmic Gearhulk.
The sideboard removal split of one Push, one Grasp, one Murder, and one Never // Return may seem arbitrary, but it's actually well thought-out. Grasp is the best removal spell in the format. It kills Hazoret, Heart of Kiran, Archangel Avacyn, Glorybringer, and everything in between. Having the fourth in the sideboard is a no brainer. Fatal Push is very hit or miss card, but I feel having an extra copy is integral to beating decks like Constrictor or the hyper aggressive versions of Red.
I played two Murders when I played Zombies in the past because Skysovereign was a major part of the format and I wanted removal for that card. Murder was also great against Archangel Avacyn, compared to Never // Return. Planeswalkers weren't a huge issue for Zombies, so I never felt a real need for Never // Return. Now that Abrade exists, Skysovereign has mostly been pushed out of the format, and some decks exist these days where Never is very important. One deck that has been putting up decent results is a Black-Red Control deck that has a few recent Top 8s under its belt, and that deck loads up on Liliana, the Last Hope and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Zombies is great at pressuring planeswalkers, generally, but Liliana kills your creatures, as does Chandra, and pair that up with Sweltering Suns and Goblin Dark-Dwellers and it's very hard to stick a threat long enough to take down their walkers. Sometimes Never is the difference between winning and losing.
Aethersphere Harvester and Kalitas, Traitor to Ghet are both a nod to Red. With that being said, I think Kalitas is actually great in a very high number of matchups. Generally speaking, inexperienced players will have a card like Kalitas in their sideboard and they will board it in against way too many decks, thinking it is good in matchups where it really isn't. It's an easy trap to fall into.
Except, I'm that inexperienced player now, because I bring Kalitas in all the frickin time and I love it. Yahenni's Expertise deck? Show me four toughness, please. Sweltering Suns? Radiant Flames? Abrade? Incendiary Flow? Four. Toughness. I bring in Kalitas in the mirror, against Red, against Temur, and against Constrictor. That's not an exclusive list, but my boy Kal comes in a lot. Remember that he can sacrifice any Zombie to pump himself out of Hour of Devastation or Kozilek's Return range. You don't have to only sacrifice his own produced tokens, you can loop Kalitas with Dread Wanderer for six mana, or even start rebuilding your board by looping Kalitas with Relentless Dead.
I was pretty locked into playing this deck until Thursday morning. Thursday, the day before the Pro Tour. I don't really know what came over me, but I just had this feeling that Zombies wasn't going to do well for me. I felt like I had to work way too hard for many of my wins, which weren't coming nearly as easily as they used to with the deck. I didn't like that. I wanted easy wins and unprepared opponents. While Zombies was favored against Red, how would it stack up against the rest of the field?
I coupled my Creeping Dread about how well I'd do with Zombies with the fact that the other nine players on my testing squad were all playing Mono-Red Aggro, something I don't think they would do lightly, and I decided to stop being a rebel and join the cause. When a lot of players who are all smarter than you have all aligned to do one thing, it's probably wise to consider it yourself.
I'm at ease with my decision. Whether it ends up being right or wrong to play Red over Zombies, I won't regret my choice or how I arrived at it. There is a lot riding on this tournament for me. If I don't go 11-5, which isn't easy at the Pro Tour level, I won't make it back to the World Championship. Even if I do go 11-5, I may not make it back. I would hate to be the first World Champion who doesn't go back to defend the title, but I'm not letting it affect me. I'm not really feeling any stress about this tournament. Only thing I can control is how I play. I'm going to hope to do well, but that's really the most I can do at this point.
I was going to post my exact list, but that wouldn't be fair to myself or the rest of my team, as this article will go up while the Pro Tour is still ongoing, and I don't want to jeopardize our chances by giving away our tech or lack thereof (editor's note: the list will be posted at the conclusion of the Swiss rounds). Alternatively, you can just check the Pro Tour coverage yourself, where you'll see me in the Top 8 with the deck, and see the list there. Called Shot!
Earthshaker Khenra, my fate is now in your hands. Don't do me wrong.
"Give me a lever long enough, and a 2/1 haste creature with eternalize that can make creatures unable to block, and I shall shake the earth." - Archimedes
- Brian Braun-Duin