Archetune-Up - Knight of the Living Dead

(Art Depicting Josu Vess l Art by Chippy)

A Gruesome Encore

Hello, and welcome back to Archetune-Up, an article series devoted to tweaking a deck with the help of the EDHREC Theme pages!

This week, we continue with the theme of scary decks for October with a deck lead by Liliana Vess's own brother, Josu Vess, Lich Knight!

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Josu's story is a tragic one. Poisoned by his father's enemies, Josu lay dying with no way to fight the poison. His beloved sister returned to him with what she thought was a cure to his illness, but was in reality a Tainted Remedy in disguise. This poisoned Josu anew and drove him mad, causing him to rampage through the homestead, murdering his entire family, while Liliana planeswalked away for the first time. After he destroyed his home, Demonlord Belzenlok conscripted him into The Cabal as his personal lich knight to lead his armies and sow fear in the name of his unholy master.

Josu is my favorite card from Dominaria, in part due to his story, and in part due to how cool his card is. On the one hand, he's an efficiently costed creature, being a 4/5 with menace for only four mana, and on the other, his Kicker ability adds a legion of totally badass-looking Zombie Knights to your side of the field to command.

I'm a sucker for Zombies and Knights, so when you mash them together, I am sold. What's more terrifying than a horde of the undead? How about mounted and armed undead with coordinated tactics! This idea is what I wanted from this deck: the idea of focusing on the Zombie tokens we produce to create a terrifying, coordinated horde.

I didn't want this to be a tribal deck, though. Unlike tribal decks where I do my best to keep every creature type the same, I wanted to instead make sure all of the tokens we produced were of the preferred type. Luckily, EDHREC has a Zombie Token Theme for these exact instances, so it made tuning this list up a piece of cake!

When There is No More Room in Hell...

As we can see, the deck is pack full of Zombies and Zombie synergies. There are only a couple of non-Zombies in the list, though, and I know that there's also a handful of black creatures this deck would absolutely adore to add in. Since I'm not bound by traditional tribal restrictions, I wanted to seek out this dubious lot...

First up are these two unsavory characters: Ayara, First of Lochthwain and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet!

Due to this deck wanting to go wide, Ayara is perfect. She'll drain opponents for one life whenever a black creature enters our side of the field, and she'll also give us the ability to offer up a black creature to draw us a card! She's everything that this deck wants. She can put out an incredible amount of damage, especially when paired with a Kicked Josu, and then pivot into card advantage as the game progresses!

Kalitas functions on an entirely different axis, but one that is just as important. Whenever a nontoken creature an opponent controls dies, Kalitas exiles them, and then makes a 2/2 Zombie! Graveyard hate is integral in this format, and having the ability to get rid of creatures permanently and also be rewarded with a token is awesome. That's not all, though. If we decide that we need to go tall instead of wide, Kalitas gives us the option to start sacrificing Zombies to give himself +1/+1 counters! This is potent against large green decks that can stomp all over our Zombie horde, or against aggressive decks, as Kalitas has lifelink!

The last two non-Zombie friends I added aren't named characters, but that doesn't mean they aren't just as strong.

Liliana's Devotee is another instance of a Zombie lord (of which Zombies have a staggering amount), so I couldn't help but add him in. Only a small number of Zombie lords actually make more Zombies, so Devotee is a bit of a commodity in that regard. At the end of each of your turns, if a creature died, you can pay two mana to make a 2/2 Zombie, which is not a hard ask whatsoever. Between the deck's sacrifice effects, removal, or just sending a horde of Zombies crashing into an opponent's board, a creature dying during your turn is almost guaranteed! Just make sure that you spare two mana so that you can keep adding to your ranks.

While Species Specialist is more of a Zombie Hunter, that doesn't mean we don't want them! When Specialist enters the battlefield, we choose a creature type, and then whenever a creature of that type dies, we draw a card. The best thing about Specialist is that, unlike certain other cards like Midnight Reaper, it doesn't specify nontoken creature. This lets us throw our Zombie army wherever we want with little worry for repercussions! Specialist will always let us come ahead on card advantage! I think Species Specialist is the best card from Commander 2020, and I am very pleased that I was able to add it here; I've been wanting to feature it in an article for quite some time.

...The Dead Will Walk the Earth

Just because this deck is focusing on Zombie tokens doesn't mean that I'm going to leave new Zombies out of this list! Here I have three solid additions to the deck's roster. The goal here was to get Zombies that either synergize with our strategy or fight against our strategy's weaknesses... or both!

Gempalm Polluter is a simple card, so I won't spend too much time on it. As a vanilla 4/3 for six mana, Polluter is awful. It's Cycling ability makes up for that, though. For just two mana, we can Cycle Polluter and make an opponent lose life equal to the number of Zombies we have! This can surprise opponents with an extra ten damage out of nowhere in response to a board wipe or after they take just a bit too much damage. A Fireball that cantrips? Yes, please!

Another Zombie Knight, Liliana's Standard Bearer finds its way into our ranks. Standard Bearer fights against the usual weakness of go-wide token strategies and can come in after a board wipe at the end of the turn to refill our hand. Unlike white, black doesn't have ways to save their entire board from being destroyed. Instead, black can enjoy the destruction and capitalize on it with cards like Standard Bearer.

The final Zombie, Gravespawn Sovereign, helps the deck fight against removal by being able to Reanimate creatures from graveyards for us... the only issue is that we will need four other Zombies on the board to do that.

Initially, this seems a bit counterintuitive, since the only time Sovereign functions is when we're ahead, making it feel a bit win-more. Normally, I would be inclined to think similarly, but the difference in this instance is our commander. This deck has quite a bit of ramp and mana-doubling (though it could always use more, so don't be afraid to double down on it), so being able to Kick Josu isn't as monumental of a task as it first seems. When we cast Josu with his Kicker cost, he'll enter and bring a total of eight Zombie Knights with him. When you add Sovereign, Josu, and his cavalry together, that is exactly enough creatures to activate Sovereign's ability twice, instantly rebuilding your board!

If that seems like too much a pipe dream for you, feel free to swap Sovereign out for God-Pharaoh's Gift. It will only be able to bring back creatures from your graveyard, but it will do so for free every combat with no setup.

Like a Peach, the First Bite is Always the Juiciest

We're in the home stretch now! The last three cards are support pieces that are made for decks like this, and I was more than happy to oblige and make room.

Both Defile and Feeding Frenzy are cheap removal spells that are great for the list. Due to the deck being mono-black, Defile is in its prime here, easily killing huge beaters like Avacyn, Angel of Hope or Etali, Primal Storm. Feeding Frenzy is similar, though more mana-intensive and swingy. If there are no Zombies out, this card can't do a thing, but hey, it's incredibly flavorful.

If Feeding Frenzy isn't the kind of card you enjoy, it can easily be swapped out for Feed the Swarm, to let you hit enchantments as well as creatures, Hagra Mauling, to give you the option between removal or a land, or even simply Hero's Downfall, to deal with any troublesome creatures or 'walkers.

The final card from this theme is Whip of Erebos. Whip provides two important effects: it provides lifelink to our creatures as well as the ability to Unearth them. In this deck, we're going wide, paying life for spells, and making enemies. Lifelink is a perfect keyword to strap onto our unbreathing horde to ensure that we never fall behind in terms of life totals. Whip's second ability to temporarily reanimate creatures may seem like a conflict of interest if the list is running cards like Zombie Apocalypse or Gravespawn Sovereign, but that ability is honestly just a bonus. Lifelink is so potent for this deck that I would always pay four mana just to have that effect. The ability to pull a Grave Titan, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, or Rot Hulk out of the 'yard is something that I may seldom do, but is great to have when necessary.

For My Enemies, One Death; For My Allies, Many

Zombies are one of my favorite tribes, so being able to make a deck that revolves around them while also not being forced to only run Zombies was a fun experiment.

There are plenty of other commanders, like Varina, Lich Queen, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, and The Scarab God, that have more colors that can have a Zombie Tokens line of play, but I think staying in mono-black and using Josu is more explosive and more fun since you can really pack in the synergies.

What are your thoughts, though? Do you prefer a good old-fashioned Zombie tribal deck as opposed to Zombie tokens? Are you a fan of keeping things focused with mono-black, or do you think a sampling of other colors is more beneficial? Make sure you let me know down in the comments below!

As always, if you’d like to reach me, I’m active on Twitter (@thejesguy), where you can always hit me up for Magic- or Jeskai-related shenanigans 24/7. Do you have any comments, questions, or concerns? Please don’t hesitate to leave them below or get in touch! Stay safe, wear your mask, go vote, and keep fighting the good fight. I support you. No justice, no peace.

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Angelo is a Connecticut resident who started playing Magic during Return to Ravnica, and has made it his mission to play Jeskai in every format possible. Along with Commander, he loves Limited, Cube, and Modern, and will always put his trust in counterspells over creatures. He is still hurt by Sphinx's Revelation's rotation out of Standard.