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One of my most memorable and damaging childhood memories was formed on a Halloween night way back in 1986. I can't tell you what costume I wore as I went from house to house around our suburban Connecticut neighborhood, but I can recall with remarkable clarity sneaking down to the basement for some late-night television after bedtime. Sitting on the couch alone in the dark, with my candy bag open next to me, I gorged myself sick on chocolates and sweets as I watched The Return of the Living Dead on HBO.

Ninety minutes later, my mind had been stamped with a brand of fear, a soul-shaking terror of the brain-craving undead. When I'd finally mustered up the courage to move, I raced up the stairs three at a time, envisioning tar man grasping for my ankle beneath them all the while. I didn't sleep well that night, nor in many to follow, and I can tell you with full candor that even now as a thirty-seven-year-old man, the occasional shiver runs down my spine when I'm out on the farm in the dark alone . . . especially when it's raining. Suffice to say that I have a soft spot for the ambulatory cadavers, and so when asked to pick a deck to tinker with from Dark Ascension, it was—forgive me—a no-brainer.

As intro packs go, this deck is nicely focused and consistent, but as always, there's some room for improvement. Today, we'll be deconstructing the deck and rebuilding it into a leaner, meaner, and angrier mob of Zombies to terrorize your kitchen table. I'm Jay Kirkman, by the way—senior writer and editor at the preconstructed review site Ertai's Lament—and I'll be your guide on this macabre journey. At the end of this feature, we'll also be presenting a giveaway, so make sure to stick around for the closing credits!

One thing before we begin. In tinkering (or as I call it, "meddling") with intro pack decks, I always try to stay true to the spirit of the deck—something that's easily accessible, supports its concept, and can be readily constructed with what's at hand. Toward that end, there are two golden rules I follow. First, I don't add any rares or mythics. This keeps the deck affordable and easy to assemble, and you'd be surprised just how much of the concept of the deck can be expanded and reinforced with cards of lower rarity. It also prevents you from having to read the dreadful phrase "play set of Snapcasters" or any such equivalent in what should be a deck anyone can build and enjoy. The second rule is that I restrict the available card pool to sets already contained within the deck. For Relentless Dead, that means Dark Ascension, Innistrad, and Magic 2012. Folks who are new or returning to the game after an absence might not have picked up any Scars-block cards, so we want to make sure that those players can easily acquire any cards they might not already possess.

And with that, let's take a look at the stock list that is this U/B Zombie nightmare!

Here are the raw materials that the deck gives us to work with, though of course we'll be modifying its contents today. Our goal is to end up with an upgraded version of Relentless Dead, doing what the deck wants to do—but only doing it better. Aside from the Havengul Runebinder, which will stay in the deck (not without reservation, since he costs 7 mana before he can do much of anything), every creature here is a Zombie of some sort, and they fall into one of two camps.

The Zombies

We'll begin with the traditional undead, the kind you think of when you're looking at Swamps and black mana. The Abattoir Ghoul's problem isn't that he isn't good, but rather the competition he faces amongst the deck's drop-slots. Being able to shave down the average mana cost of the deck is important because you don't want to give your opponent the luxury of time to set up his defenses when playing a combat deck. The Black Cat, meanwhile, carries an ability we don't see all that often these days: random discard. This means the Cat is something of a win–win for you. Whether blocked and killed or let in for damage, the outcome suits your nefarious purposes. I don't love the Cat (it's still a 1/1), but it'll do a job for you, and it's not too expensive. The Ghoul is out.

The Diregraf Ghoul is another keeper, included not because of what it can do but because of when. A second-turn, 2-power attacker is a fine way to begin, and the Diregraf Ghoul comes at a discounted price in return for a drawback that's hardly relevant. The Farbog Boneflinger, on the other hand, gets cut its walking papers. Although removal in the Innistrad environment is a bit harder to come by than in environments past, that still doesn't justify giving this guy any time on the bench. While bundling a 2/2 body and a temporary Dead Weight are welcome card conservation, we have better ways of doing both for less.

The Ghoulraiser, on the other hand, is card advantage worth becoming excited about. There are two downsides to the card that compel us to moderate the amount we include. First, the bb in its casting cost means it can occasionally be difficult to cast if we haven't landed a second Swamp. Second, unless the situation is truly dire, you don't want to cast him without something in the graveyard worth returning. In light of that, we'll double the number to two and call it good. In the interests of freeing up space, however, we'll be cutting the Rotting Fensnake, Walking Corpses, and Zombie Goliaths from the squad.

There's a funny little paradox in this game of ours, in that the more aggressive a creature is, the more defensive it often becomes. Take the 5/1 Fensnake. That power oozes appeal, and who doesn't dream of gobbling his opponent up in four tasty bites? But with 1 toughness, it means your 4-mana Fensnake could be traded out with someone's now-obsolete 2-mana Deranged Assistant, and you've just handed tempo over to your opponent and potentially squandered a turn to boot. Cards like this often find themselves held back in defense, their owners worried about wasting them and happy to trade them for something larger. That makes our serpentine pet here a bad choice, and a card best left at home. When the sexiest thing you can do with a card is feed it to a Corpse Lunge, that's a sure sign that you might be wasting a slot. The Corpses and Goliaths just don't bring enough to the table, and cutting the Goliaths brings down the average mana cost of the deck.

That leaves the Diregraf Captain, a card that is so strong and aggressively costed that it's a slam dunk to double the number up to four. The deck's MVP, it synergizes well with the desire to fill your graveyard by giving you a life-draining reward each time you manage it from the field of play.

The Skaabs

Meant to reflect the sort of undead that is constructed by mages and mad scientists, the Skaabs in general are large, undercosted bodies that require you to exile at least one creature card from the graveyard when you cast them. Ordinarily, this would be an impediment—you can't always guarantee you'll have some stock in the larder to feed them, but thankfully, Relentless Dead offers us a few ways to even the odds in our favor.

We begin here with the Screeching Skaab, the only Skaab that doesn't require the exiling of a creature. Instead, this fellow tries to lend his brethren a helping hand by milling you for two, and you'll never be sorry to see him appear in your opening grip. As for the rest, we'll be keeping all of them. If the rest of the deck does what it's supposed to, you'll be dropping out fat beaters before your opponent has much on the ground that can stand up to them.

The Removal

The removal suite of Restless Dead is a bit thin. Corpse Lunge is too inconsistent and conditional, and cards you can't rely on are early contenders for delisting. The Dead Weights aren't all that impressive either. Although the upside here is that the Weight can permanently weaken a larger foe, what we're really longing for is something that can just kill any creature you need to. We'll find our answer soon enough—and for the same mana cost as well!

The Rest

The Cellar Door is clever, and it does exactly what you'd want for this deck: fill your graveyard and make Zombies. Unfortunately, the cost for doing so is about 1 mana more than I'd be willing to pay. If we're looking to compress the mana curve into a leaner and more aggressive silhouette, we don't need to be fiddling around with 3-mana activations. Of the other token-makers, we'll cut Reap the Seagraf in favor of Moan of the Unhallowed, purely on the basis of how much mana it costs to make your tokens. Although easier to cast than Moan, Reap asks you to feel bad twice about casting it, and it’s actually a worse deal when flashed back. Endless Ranks of the Dead, like the Havengul Runebinder, are ways to break a stall if the game goes too long and the red zone becomes congested.

Forbidden Alchemy is an easy one to keep. One of the most painful things about being milled is watching spells you'd dearly love to get your hands on tumble uselessly into your graveyard. Flashback is the perfect hedge against this, and Forbidden Alchemy goes one step further and even helps to fill your graveyard. Negate continues Wizards's tradition of splashing in a dose of countermagic in decks that pack Islands. The problem with a miser's copy is that for every time you're excited to ward off a Go for the Throat to save your best creature, there will be two times you either draw it too late to matter or wind up settling for something not especially threatening just so you can feel that you got your card's worth out of it.

Finally, Zombie Infestation is out. Useful perhaps in its original environment (2001's Odyssey, when filling your graveyard helped you hit threshold), it costs too much to do too little here. One might be tempted to retain it as a way to prevent running out of creatures in the graveyard, but if our deck does what it should, that shouldn't be much of a problem.

The Additions

Our Relentless Dead will introduce a trio of cards not on the stock list to help tune it up. The first of these follows on the heels of Forbidden Alchemy as a card you can get value out of even when it's milled off. Two copies of Silent Departure will bolster our removal package and help your Zombies make it through when they need to. Thought Scour—a new card from Dark Ascension—fits right in with the deck's plans of stocking the graveyard, and it doesn't even cost you a card to do so. We don't want to overcommit resources to that aim, but two of these will give us an extra edge in ensuring the Skaabs roll off the assembly line at their appointed time.

Finally, we come to Tragic Slip, a powerful removal card that takes advantage of the new morbid ability word. Tragic Slip in its natural state might only be half as effective as Dead Weight, but it's at instant speed and has the potential to kill most anything you're likely to come across. Playtesting with morbid has shown that—like metalcraft—it's not quite as simple to trigger as you might think. Still, sending a creature or two on a suicide run is much less objectionable when you're playing a deck that abuses things in your graveyard anyway. For a singleb, it's hard to beat.

The final adjustment we'll be making to Relentless Dead is in its mana base. Our tinkering has resulted in a deck that slightly favors blue over black, which is the opposite of the stock list. To remedy that, we'll be reversing the proportion of Islands and Swamps. The overall effect of our final deck list is a Zombies deck that has a more aggressive mana curve, giving you better lines of play and fewer chances of drawing unplayable cards. It has solid removal and sturdier support for its critical self-milling strategy. Overall, there may not be a ton of braaaaainnns here, but it's got brawn for miles.

The Finished Deck

After cutting here and snipping there, our Relentless Dead looks like so:

The Trial

To put the deck through its paces, I enlisted the aid of Ertai's Lament regular Jimi to oppose my undead horde. For her appointed task, she went with an archetype she's very comfortable with: the R/W Swift Justice. I knew that, in theory, my deck was capable of some brutal starts—a Diregraf Ghoul into a Screeching Skaab into a Diregraf Captain or Stitched Drake, for instance—but would it have the fuel to sustain itself over the course of a match?

In our first game, Jimi had a slow start when she led with a Niblis of the Mist followed by a Serra Angel, aided by a couple of Traveler's Amulets. For my part, I opened with a Screeching Skaab to start filling my graveyard, then added a Diregraf Ghoul. The deck went into overdrive when first one Diregraf Captain appeared, and shortly another. With a +2/+2 bonus to my Zombies and Jimi already down quite a bit of life, she found herself in the unenviable position of choosing whether to let my beaters through for lethal damage or to trade one for her Angel and then die to the Captains' life-draining. She took the third option: scooping.

She got off to a much better start in the second game, triumphantly opening with her Stromkirk Noble. Unfortunately for her, the Noble suffered a Tragic Slip and never realized his full potential. From there, this match showed the longer-game capabilities of the deck as we both churned out some solid, early contenders. The graveyard-filling operation went as intended with a Screeching Skaab and a Thought Scour, and while I didn't draw any Skaabs to feast upon the scrapheap, I did drop a turn-four Havengul Runebinder. With plenty of corpses for the old coot to work with, the Zombies soon formed an increasingly powerful, shambling mob that Jimi's Vampire Neonate, Night Revelers, Serra Angel, and the rest couldn't contend with. Indeed, the Angel herself took a Tragic Slip after one of my tokens took one for the team and showed how clutch the spell can be. It was a close ending with me a turn away from dying, but Relentless Dead got there.

An excess of mana helped even the odds here for our concluding clash, but I can't take anything away from Jimi's game. It looked like a rout when I opened with a Diregraf Ghoul, then followed with a Screeching Skaab, Diregraf Captain, and Makeshift Mauler on turn four. Alas, I then went on a run of lands, and Jimi solved the Ghoul with a Burning Oil and the Screeching Skaab with a Skillful Lunge on her Niblis of the Urn. Stalled out, I could only watch as Jimi added a series of beaters like a Lightning Elemental, the Night Revelers, and a Markov Warlord to attain numerical superiority, and a Niblis of the Urn to hobble my defense. Mana-flood and mana-screw are a part of the game, but I did take heart in seeing the deck start strong off the blocks.

Having played a number of games with the unmodified Relentless Dead, the upgraded model here was a considerable improvement. Gone were the clunky, borderline keeps when Zombie Goliaths muddled up your opening hand, and overall, it had a much more fluid feel to it with more consistent lines of play. As always, your mileage may vary given your own personal meta, and you can certainly gut the deck of its rares if you need to make it faster—both Havengul Runebinder and Endless Ranks of the Dead are mid- to endgame deadlock breakers—and augmenting the removal suite can give you even more options to own the red zone.

The Contest

Before we go, there's one more bit of business before us: a giveaway! One lucky reader will walk away with a brand new copy of Relentless Dead, plus all the cards we added to the deck in the course of our modifications. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment below, and you can earn an extra entry by retweeting the official contest tweet (look for the hash tag #GMzombies). Let us know what you think of the deck, the changes I've made to it, and how you might have done it differently. Alternately, I'd love to hear your thoughts on Innistrad and Dark Ascension—just as good! I'll select a winner in one week.

Thanks for reading!

Jay Kirkman

@ErtaisLament on Twitter


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