Ode To "Smooky"

Marty Castle • May 23, 2022

Necroduality | Illustrated by Billy Christian

They call me Marty, The Builder.

Well... I suppose I do, but that's beside the point.

I build Commander decks as art projects with great joie de vie, and after a long hiatus from a (ahem*) timely review schedule and a well-needed hibernation, I come bearing gifts from season's passed.

Snow, I mean, So: let's talk Zombies. Magic: the Gathering has a long history with the undead, and as a result, Zombie holds the title of number two amongst the top 100 tribes created since the game’s inception (eclipsed by Elves, yet followed closely by Dragons) for a laundry list of similar reasons: all three tribes have five-color capability, their creature types have been developed with loving care in multiple sets across the Magic card landscape, and their play dynamics allow many players of many styles to concoct their own unique ways to win.

I purchased one of the two Commander decks that accompanied the release of Midnight Hunt to tune and trade. Being caught between choosing the Zombies, who received massive hype as these decks and sets were released, and the Humans, who have been, ironically, spoiled rotten over the recent meta, and being eternally inspired by an article about the "smookiest" deck, I read online long ago, I chose to side with the shamblers and bought my very own Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver deck to scramble home to tinker with.

The Build

Improving the deck was going to be an easy fix: I'd recently split a box of Midnight Hunt to draft from, I was expecting a box of Crimson Vow in the mail for perusal, and there was much ammunition from a "B" pile from my Varina, Lich Queen build laying around. I set myself to work and cleared my desk for a crafting session. Being a lover of the vast MTG lore, I looked into some of who Wilhelt was, or, quite frankly, became, to see if I could glean inspiration from the multiverse and make a rad themed deck. The Magic: the Gathering Wiki and the decklist insert were helpful aides to my queries.

As far as canon is concerned, he fell in love with Gisa. She barely recalls his name, let alone his misplaced emotions. He saunters off on his less-than-merry way after hearing that she's not interested, only to die from an unfortunate lumber accident. The odd combination of being a resident of the plane of Innistrad and the pure conviction of an un-beating heart allowed him to rise from the grave... to simp… er…. gimp?…. limp about the nightmare landscape, cajoling cadres of chompers to impress her with his solid afterlife choices. She pays little heed to his attention, leading him to challenge her, horde vs. horde, and fail.

What?!?!?!

I couldn't help but scoff at it, and I continued gutting the deck, noticing that it was built to use the tokens as fuel for him and his army. If he could remain on the field during battle, he could help replace ANY other Zombie that dies on your battlefield (including his tokens, which is his true strength) with 2/2 Decayed Zombies to further the onslaught. "Cool," I thought, but it required a vein of graveyard play that was not present off the shelf. Also, it seemed to lean heavily into the sacrifice token theme rather than the Zombie tribal theme. Other glaring weaknesses were apparent and needed improvements:

  • He costs four mana and doesn't replace himself?
  • No counterspells in a Dimir deck??!?!
  • Not even Flip the Switch, which CREATES a 2/2 Decayed token?

Where's my graveyard play?

? Pish posh! No wonder he lost! What a rookie! I dug through my cards, including a few acquisitions from my draft goodies. I had to have all my best options on hand to try to redeem him, and then I had a massive epiphany when I came across Ludevic, Necrogenius, Jadar, Ghoulcaller of Nephalia, and Gisa, Glorious Resurrector together all in my Midnight Hunt/Crimson Vow rare pile. What if, I mused, the lore reflected this meeting of minds to be what spawned Wilhelt, rather than the sad story scrawled on the deck poster (and the internet, which is FOREVER). What if he was impelled by his arduous amour to make a deal with the proverbial devil? What if it went....something like this…

The Vision

Wilhelt meets with Ludevic, Geralf, and Jadar in secret, the moonlight piercing through the open crevices of the lab with eerie luminescence; the face of the moon was their only witness. He expresses his desire to make Gisa his bride, be it in this life or the next. Bringing her an undead army the likes that none had ever seen and even fewer still would escape, he is willing to give his body to them in hopes that their combined experience would make his wildest dreams, and waking nightmare, a reality.

Geralf, Gisa's brother and apprentice to Ludevic (canon), had been laboring since the Eldrazi invasion to create his 'masterpiece' and saw an opportunity to leave his mark on necromancy, as well as irritate AND surpass his sister in the process. Jadar, foremost ghoulcaller of Nephalia, has the resources to lend a hand... or foot…. or whatever else is necessary for Ludevic. With his lab and all their minds rallied for a singular cause, they would surely concoct a method, under a pale moon and in the dead of winter, to throw the proverbial switch and make all of their desires come true with one collective stroke of evil genius.

What if they…succeeded?

Welcome to the horde! The gang's all here. Ludevic became the obvious choice as the main commander card now that Wilhelt had shown his weaknesses to me while simultaneously revealing these strengths for Dr L. Here is his resume:

He loads your graveyard with one card each time he enters or attacks, he efficiently transforms into ANY creature in your graveyard, BECOMING a Zombie to benefit from lord effects (like Death Baron, Hordewing Skaab and Bladestitched Skaab), and he acts as an excellent lightning rod while building your forces. Since his ability does not check the CMC of its target, shenanigans may ensue as he becomes whomever he needs to be to lead the charge. Zombies are known for being an unrelenting force, so a similar playstyle is rewarded here. Noting again that Dr. L is a whole two mana less to cast, dumping Zombies into the grave isn't a problem. They shall return.

The Tech

Play lines are tight, but effective. Recent additions from Crimson Vow, like Wash Away, Necroduality and Geralf, Visionary Stitcher, help fill in holes that the precon had left open to interpretation and give it a true voice. Counterspell, Dissipate, Hinder, and Devious Cover-Up from Midnight Hunt (mmmm, sweet flavor) all make so your mischief can dodge a few pesky board wipes or other obvious threats. Gisa and Geralf combined with Fleshbag Marauder is an effective combo that was included in the deck, and, as a result, is a perfect target for Dr L. to masquerade about as when in the graveyard.

If it wasn’t a Zombie in the build before, it became one or is a much worthier target for Ludevic's snazzy ability, guaranteeing a few turns of dread if ever allowed to continue unchecked. Patchwork Crawler does intern work while the Dr. is away. Master of Death keeps the machine churning. Headless Rider checks flavor and utility boxes, all the while seeming like Wilhelt COULD have been designed similarly in hindsight, but 'tis only my opinion, as I'm not a beta tester.

Yet.

Cards like Empty the Laboratory and Zombie Apocalypse remain; the former for flavor and the latter for theme and utility in late games. Rooftop Storm ends games just as one might imagine, and summoned alumni, such as Sedraxis Alchemist and Phyrexian Ghoul, make an appearance to test the veterans. Keen eyes will see a four-card combo in the deck, tucked away just in case victory via combat seems improbable. When in doubt, combo out.

The "C" plot of the build is the secret snow theme. During a playtest, I called the Doc on turn two and had Narfi, Betrayer King flop with a third snow land in hand. SOOOOO satisfying. Blood on the Snow is a great board wipe and can steal or recur one of the destroyed permanents with all that frosty mana on hand.

Gisa and Geralf, Wilhelt, and Narfi all serve as lieutenants and alternate commanders, so whomever is best suited can man the helm if Ludevic is too busy with his commander tax and they also serve as AMAZING targets to transform into on the fly. The remainder of the deck is propagated with effective looting effects, such as Fact or Fiction, Epiphany at the Drownyard, and Forbidden Alchemy, since Flashback is also viable in this self-mill reanimator theme.

A handful of utility lands and mana rocks were added to round the edges out and keep play dynamic, like Geier Reach Sanitarium, Haunted Fengraf, Opal Palace, The Celestus, and Port of Karfell. It plays fast, bold, and unapologetically. I loved it so much I took ALL winter (since the release) to build and tune it to its current specs. Budget, but beastly! The sideboard is mostly cards that didn’t make my personal cut and work best in larger pods, as my playgroup often have three players and need to be quicker in the paint. It does, however, contain a Zombie token package if the urge to go wide strikes the fancy.

So there you have it!

The winter frost does nothing to obscure undead hordes scraping across the landscape, and only the highest walls and strongest defenses can keep them out. Speaking of frosty walls, did you see the 'part 1' up yonder? This is only one half of the frozen apple, and the next side sure to be is just as decadent as this little slice of unlife. Many other decks to build and reviews to come!

Stay tuned, players!

Marty, The Builder.

martycastlejr@protonmail.com