Zombie fiction is an inherently dehumanizing medium. It’s about reducing those outside of your personal family unit or chosen group to a faceless, implacable force of violence, and thus justifying anything you can do to save yourself from the threat. It’s a reactionary collection of tropes that pushes back against a changing society by asking you to hole up with supplies and guns and take out the faceless hordes. It’s “The Purge” mentality coupled with a convenient out to issues of morality: you’re not really killing them if they were already dead.

There’s a reason zombie fiction has been the defining horror mode of the last two decades. It perfectly suits a time when the population is exceeding our ability to comprehend its scale, in a time when fascist ideology germinates, a time right before climate refugees begin streaming inland and we have to grapple with not how best to live, but how to live at all. Now is the time of monsters, and the form of monster we’ve chosen is something once human, now degenerated.

This is an era of dehumanization. You can see it in our rhetoric, wherein the alt-right reduces the humans they share a country with to “NPCs,” where the left celebrates the firing of “MAGA chuds,” where news hosts speculate on whether it’s worth letting in immigrants who could bring “diseases such as smallpox and leprosy”* while actually-virulent diseases spread quickly amongst ill-prepared populations. This is the age of the zombie.

(*smallpox, just to underline, has been eradicated outside of the lab for decades)

It’s important to maintain historical perspective—dehumanization is not, in any way, a new tactic. Check out World War II propaganda sometime, if you have a strong stomach, or political cartoons in Southern newspapers during the American fight for civil rights for women or people of color. But, like so many things we thought we’d eradicated and relegated to our past, these things have a tenebrious vitality. They come back from the dead, and they come back angry.

All of which is a startlingly dark lead-in to a pretty straightforward and long-lasting desire of mine: making Zombies work in Modern. Since the inception of the format, back in original Innistrad, I tried making Zombie tribal a capital-t Thing, whether it was Lords and disruption or Aether Vial aggro. Both felt like bad Merfolk decks, because I wasn’t focused on what Zombies do that Merfolk don’t. If you’re playing an aggressive, go-wide deck that isn’t Humans or Merfolk, you need a reason to justify your choices. I believe, after five-plus years of trying, that I’ve figured it out, with the help of a brand-new planeswalker.

The first benefit of Zombies is that your “lord” density is completely absurd. Modern-legal options for the tribe include: Cemetery Reaper, Lord of the Undead, Risen Executioner, Death Baron, Diregraf Captain, Lord of the Accursed, and Undead Warchief. Hell, you could build a (terrible) deck that runs nothing but lords, at this point. We won’t, of course—instead, we’ll pepper a few of the higher impact lords in throughout our curve and fill out the rest with the recurring threats Zombie offer.

That’s the other main benefit of the deck: your Zombies are—suitably enough—also very resilient. At one point, I ran Ghoulcaller’s Chant as a two-of, but you simply don’t need it: your creatures are already clawing their way out of the graveyard by themselves. The deck comes together with a now-classic Modern card: Collected Company. With the plethora of Lords, a well-timed CoCo is a combat trick more than it is an end-of-turn board booster. Liliana is the core of this latest version: with Zombies making up a full third of your deck, you’re a favorite to hit with her +1.


Creatures (23)
Relentless Dead
Lord of the Undead
Diregraf Captain
Cemetery Reaper
Death Baron
Undead Warchief

Spells (14)
Fatal Push
Collective Brutality
Evolutionary Leap
Collected Company
Liliana, Untouched by Death
Lands (23)
Polluted Delta
Overgrown Tomb
Watery Grave
Breeding Pool
Cavern of Souls

Sideboard (15)
Graveyard Marshal
Plague Belcher
Lifebane Zombie
Geralf's Messenger
The Scarab God

The comparison to a Merfolk deck is pretty clear: Cryptbreaker as your Cursecatcher, a one-drop that demands a removal spell from your opponent. Gravecrawler and Relentless Dead are your Silvergill Adept, a creature that gets you card advantage and that you don’t mind tossing into the graveyard. Lords to season, Mutavault to piggy-back (and zombie-back) off your tribal synergy, and you’re playing a deck that’s essentially Dead Fish.

What we’re missing, of course, is a two-mana Zombie lord and a Cryptic Command. Fingers crossed for a two-mana lord in the future, but we’ll be waiting a while for anything approaching Cryptic—although Collective Brutality feels pretty damn close when you ditch a Gravecrawler and a land for the full trifecta of abilities.

Liliana, as mentioned, is the MVP—removal, late-game reach, and recursion, all in one package. She’s underrepresented right now, as she requires a deck built to take advantage of her, but she’s amazing in that deck.


The Scarab God gives you some reach, and Lifebane Zombie does a surprising amount of work against Humans or Golgari/Jund decks. I’ve been seeing a fair amount of Prison decks lately, and The Scarab God/Liliana overreach ensures you can overcome Worship, Ensnaring Bridge, or Ghostly Prison.

Plague Belcher is the fun card that comes in for mirror matches and as chip damage against other aggressive decks. I can’t justify the mana cost of Geralf’s Messenger in the maindeck—it’s much closer to a five-drop in this deck—but against slower decks, it can pop in and serve as both another threat and Company target.

How’s it do against Combo or Storm, Rob?

Well, terribly, thanks for asking. It outraces some aggressive decks and can overwhelm control decks with recurring threats and a go-wide board, but there’s not much it can do against combo or Blood Moon decks, outside of sideboarding in Thoughtseize and hoping for the best.

I can’t recommend this as something to bring to a GP—for several reasons, now—but I do believe it can put up results for smaller events. It’s an absurdly fun deck to play—later turns become avalanches of Zombies or Liliana inevitability—and there are some truly hilarious lines of play, including sacrificing Gravecrawler to Evolutionary Leap, responding with a Lord of the Undead, picking up another zombie, then casting that target and casting Gravecrawler from the graveyard. To be frank, the lesson here is something the Golgari have known for years: you never feel more alive than when you’re hanging out with the undead.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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