I’m not one for aggro decks, especially in black. But recently I’ve been getting ready to jump into the premodern format. And what I’ve seen are some creative and gnarly decks. One detail I’ve noticed is that decks that overwhelm the opponent are winning. Oath Parfait with a Stifled Phyrexian Dreadnought. UW Tron with a cycled Decree of Justice for four or five X, creating that many 1/1 soldiers. Or just Goblins. So in thinking about what I’d want to consider in a deck that plays black, or mostly black, I perused Scryfall until I came across Tombstone Stairwell. It costs 2{B}{B} with a cumulative upkeep of 1{B} and reads:

At the beginning of each upkeep, if Tombstone Stairwell is on the battlefield, each player creates a 2/2 black Zombie creature token with haste named Tombspawn for each creature card in their graveyard.

At the beginning of each end step or when Tombstone Stairwell leaves the battlefield, destroy all tokens created with Tombstone Stairwell. They can’t be regenerated.

The card itself creates the sense of haunting that the dead can do to us. The zombies are there, hasty, but vanish by end of turn. They are literally resurrected from the graveyard (or the bodies in the graveyard). I can picture a deck that wants to play Bottomless Pit and cycle as many creatures as it can into the graveyard in order to pull off a large overwhelming zombie army. And then to have the same ability resolve for your opponent? Phew. I believe I’ve admitted this as much in a previous column, but I was originally drawn to black because I didn’t have to think about combat math or the gritty split-decision thinking behind the choices involved with attacking and blocking. With black, or my favored version of black, I could rely on discard spells and passive damage. I only need to chump block or protect a Liliana of the Veil.

But after exploring more red and blue cards, I’m coming to understand (slowly) and appreciate the aggro side of Magic. And Tombstone Stairwell sharpens that desire. Moreover, the card design and the mechanics blend quite well. The image or idea of being trapped in a stairwell spiraling upward through a crypt and from every corner, a zombie emerges is exactly what this card aims to replicate. The original text has an upkeep of 1{B} but the new oracle text says:

At the beginning of your upkeep, put an age counter on this permanent, then sacrifice it unless you pay its upkeep cost for each age counter on it.

Which is a massive bummer. I know it’s meant to keep it in check, but…I doubt you could get this card operational for more than two turns. But maybe that’s all you’d need? Just a short-term mercenary zombie army for a turn and a half. In a strange way, this card marries both of my (old and new) interests in black–it’s passively threatening and creating a strong situation for combat if you’ve sufficiently stuffed your graveyard, which you would’ve.

What’s even still more interesting about this card is its status on the Reserved List. I get that many cards pre-Mercadian Masques won’t see a reprint, but why this one? Since they’ve errata’d the upkeep with age counters, I don’t see this as powerful as some current cards. But, as it is, this inches up the insanity. I’ve debated a lot in the past year about what my goals are with Magic. And I do think I’d like to win more. (Who wouldn’t?) But I also don’t want to give up on pet cards and the cards that seem too odd to work into a workable archetype.

For others who play premodern, what do you think? Does Tombstone Stairwell have a strong place in any current decks? Can it find a home?

Kyle Winkler (he/him) is a teacher and fiction writer. While he was pre-teen when Magic: The Gathering was released, he didn’t start playing until recently. He’s the author of the cosmic horror novella (The Nothing That Is), a collection of short stories (OH PAIN), and a novel (Boris Says the Words). His favorite card is a toss up between Crypt Rats and Oubliette

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.