In true necromantic style, let’s get this wagon train a-movin’!
Many cards and mechanics in Magic began in Limited Edition Alpha and the first few sets and then retained those identities moving forward. Sometimes, this was a serious problem. Blue began with a lot of direct damage: Psionic Blast, Pirate Ship, Prodigal Sorcerer, Volcanic Eruption, and more (Psychic Venom, Feedback, Power Leak, Creature Bond). Early sets added stuff like Psychic Allergy, Psychic Purge, Backfire, and Psionic Entity to the roster. It took years before blue finally escaped from the clutches of direct damage and burn.
Some tribes also retain their initial mechanical flavor, and that has probably proven even truer with undead tribes, which are held hostage to their original concept. Let’s take a gander.
From the very first iteration, Hypnotic Specter was a major player in decks. It was one of the truly iconic creatures in the early days of the game. It stamped an imprint on Specters moving forward: flying creatures that would force a discard. That was the Specter’s mind magic. In fact, we’ve seen nineteen Specters see print, and of them, just one doesn’t have both discarding ability and flying: Dread Specter. The Specter is among the most consistent creature types out there. It’s like a Spider. If it’s being printed, you expect a Spider to have reach. The Specters ted to be depicted as a physically weak, thin-bodied, undead group that seems to have some maddening impact.
Much like the Specters, the Wraiths are another less-than-fully-corporeal undead creature type. The first one printed, Bog Wraith, was printed with the swampwalk ability. Bog Wraith was among the most heavily printed cards in core sets for an extremely long time, and it even made appearances in Portal. But it also set a standard for the Wraith creature type as a swampwalking one. They sneak around and slip right on past you. Because Bog Wraith was printed so heavily, there were only five different Wraiths in Magic, and they all have swampwalk. They may be unofficially unsupported. The last Wraiths to see print were in Magic 2010 and Zendikar.
One of the major supported undead tribes today is the Vampire, and they have appeared in a variety of forms since Sengir Vampire. The tribe has been linked to life or blood in a variety of ways, from strengthening as creatures die to giving you various effects when combat happens. There are one hundred seven Vampires. Sometimes, Vampires have been given small, borderline roles, such as Barony Vampire or Arrogant Vampire. Otherwise, they feed somehow—and black’s sacrifice mechanic has been siphoned to go through Vampires, so cards like Blood Bairn and Falkenrath Torturer have stepped in. I counted every Vampire that had some sort of a blood or life ability. I counted eighty-six, not counting creatures with just lifelink and nothing else. Again, this tribe is tied very strongly to a particular theme and its subsequent mechanics.
Another initial creature type from Alpha, the Frozen Shade was an occasional entrant, with the ability to self-pump with black mana. We now have twenty-six Shades that have seen print. Of that list, twenty-five have the ability to self-pump, and only Ihsan's Shade doesn’t. The Shade type still retains a huge connection with the inflatable mechanic. Again, the Shade joins the Specter and Wraith types as another weaker looking creature that has a partially insubstantial feel to it.
It’s very clear that the Spirit creature type has moved into a lot of the space of the incorporeal undead creature that is not tied to a specific mechanic like the previous ones (or the next one for that matter). The problem is that the Spirit creature type comes from different angles. Sometimes, it represents creatures in a different world or different place—like Kami of Twisted Reflection and its fellow Kami. Other times, the Spirits are used to represent people who have since passed—like Geist of Saint Traft, Plagued Rusalka, and Blessed Spirits. And we can’t always tell which is which. Do you know which is Accursed Spirit? I don’t either. But Spirits do give us an additional angle to mine.
There’s one flavor problem though: Zombies that are undead versions of a creature have both Zombie and that creature, like a Zombie Frog or Zombie Beast or Zombie Goblin. Why don’t Spirits who have passed on also keep their creature types?
Ah yes, the Skeleton—Alpha’s Drudge Skeletons created this concept of Skeletons as a regenerating or surviving creature. They come back even after you thought you killed them. Did you know that there are forty-two creatures with the Skeleton type? Of those, thirty-three regenerate. Several that did not regenerate, per se, still have an ability to come back, such as Reassembling Skeleton and Mortus Strider. Only a handful don’t do one or the other: Skeleton Ship, Skeletal Crocodile, Skeletal Snake (all three that were not printed with the Skeleton creature type, by the way) Carrionette, and Paragon of Open Graves. Skeletons are a major creature type, though, and in my opinion, they represent a major missed opportunity flavorwise, as we’ll examine in a moment.
Ghouls, Mummies, Ghosts, and Shadows
We had creatures like Khabal Ghoul, Skulking Ghost, and Cyclopean Mummy that had various creature types. In The Grand Creature Type Update, all of those were removed and changed to Zombies, Zombies or Spirits, and Spirits, respectively. They no longer exist. And this was a major flavor miss. It wasn’t forward thinking. What if you wanted to have an Egyptian-themed set in 2019 and you wanted mummies to be a part of that set? You could have fleshed out ghouls as distinct from Zombies, just like you have done with Orcs and Goblins.
Here we go. Zombies represent animated creatures by necromancers of all stripes, although they can self-animate, too. They are regularly controlled, going back to Zombie Master and its Scathe Zombies horde in Alpha. Zombies were originally used as mindless minions that were more cannon fodder than anything else.
However, Zombies have since really been fleshed out in a wide variety of ways ever since. We have seen the print of cards that are liches, and they were given the Zombie type. Mummies were printed with the Zombie type. We have masters of minions that are also Zombies as well. They are smart, powerful, magic-infused, and more.
And Here’s My Problem
Zombies have become a catchall tribe for any undead creature that doesn’t fit into the other tribes. Most of the other undead tribes have huge mechanical ties to what they can do. So if you create a creature for a future set that does not have swampwalk, inflatability, flying, and discarding, some tie to blood or life, or regeneration, it’s going to be a Zombie. That’s the only option.
No other color seems to have as many of its creature types tied to a set of mechanics. Take red. Dragons fly, they are big, and they often have Firebreathing. Okay great—huge mechanical tie. But Goblins? You can have jokey bad cards that are Goblins or powerful Goblin Guide–level cards. We have cheap and expensive Goblins, and they have a variety of mechanics. Orcs are the same. So, yes, a Phoenix is a flyer that can come back, but things like Elementals can be of any sort. You can rock Elves and Soldiers, Warriors and Knights, Merfolk and more, all with no worries about certain mechanics.
The undead don’t have that luxury. So by forcing it on Zombies, they have created an odd-feeling tribe that doesn’t resonant with me and that doesn’t really fit the Zombie concept. Imagine that, starting in 2016, every future set would suddenly have flying Oxen. Everyone likes an Ox, right? Right! So let’s start having Oxen Magewright and Oxen Fallowprince and Pretty Princess Ox. At some point in time, the given card wouldn’t feel like an Ox anymore, right?
That’s how Zombies feel to me now. They lost the mindless, shuffling, cannon-fodder feel they used to have. Havengul Lich, as a Zombie, feels to me like Death Metal Ox feels to you. It’s like Geth, Lord of the Vault, Vengeful Pharaoh, Nekusar, the Mindrazer, or Sedris, the Traitor King.
Festering Goblin, Shambling Goblin, Blackcleave Goblin, or Slavering Nulls, but my Human deck doesn’t have any options like those.
Even if we aren’t “sure” about some humanoids being Human or something else (Elves, Orcs, etc.), certainly someone like Mikaeus, the Unhallowed is clearly a Zombie Human. I’d like to see creature types more accurately reflect their concepts. And when they aren’t, I get a feeling that things are a bit wonky.
Anyway, thanks for joining me into this excursion into the undead tribes of Magic. What do you think? Anything else from all things undead that are going on for you?