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April 9, 2016

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Screw Loose Brews: Relentless Devotion

The zombies are coming. They’re on the battlefield, they’re in the graveyard, they’re coming From Under the Floorboards. They shamble towards you with Menace, moaning the word ‘…Aggrooo…’ as they lurch ever closer. You desperately hope for Flaying Tendrils or Anger of the Gods to save you, but it may be too late by the time it arrives. The zombie aggro clock doesn’t stop until you drop.

In the horrifying world revealed to us in Shadows Over Innistrad, Zombies are one of the most heavily supported tribes. They stand alongside Spirits, Werewolves, Humans, and Angels in having earned new mythic bombs and lords in SOI, including what may be one of the most hyped cards from spoiler season, Relentless Dead.

A 2/2 for two has been a fair amount of mana to pay since the dawn of Grizzly Bears, but this bear has extra value packed in:

Menace (This creature can’t be blocked except by two or more creatures.)
When Relentless Dead dies, you may pay {B}. If you do, return it to its owner’s hand.
When Relentless Dead dies, you may pay {X}. If you do, return another target Zombie creature card with converted mana cost X from your graveyard to the battlefield.

Holy recursions, Batman! We’re going to ignore the Menace for now, because while have any form of evasion is nice, the real value in the Relentless Dead isn’t in Menace, it’s in its ability to never stop coming back (unless it gets exiled). As far as I’m concerned, the second ability is absurd – but only under the right conditions.

Condition one: There has to be multiple low-cost zombie targets in the graveyard, preferably with abilities that trigger when they enter the battlefield. Some of the greatest zombies with enter the battlefield triggers are the very well known Geralf’s Messenger and Gray Merchant of Asphodel. At five mana, the Merchant is a little pricey and should probably be where we top out our curve. That sweet, sweet ability will win us many a game.

Condition two: We need to be able to afford to use either of Relentless Dead’s abilities while still maintaining a consistent aggressive clock. Why? Because we’re playing zombies, and there are many a mass board wipe that will exile our guys as opposed to dumping them in the graveyard. We really don’t want that. The best way to deal with that issue, at least for this deck list, is to just shamble our way to victory quicker than our opponent can wipe us. We’re going to play hyper aggressive from the start of the game, which means our graveyard will get filled regardless. Nothing likes a graveyard full of zombies more than Crypt of Agadeem

Crypt of Agadeem is a cool card. It saw play in a rogue Unearth deck for a brief period of time, a deck that revolved around abusing black creatures with Cycling to Unearth a monstrous army and swing for lethal. We’re going to use it in a similar manner, filling our yard with disposable (but aggressive) creatures like Gravecrawler and Fleshbag Marauder. Marauder has quadruple value in this list, acting as a great target for Relentless Dead to recur back to the field, a form of removal, and an aggressive beat stick. Even if he stays dead (which isn’t likely), he helps up the value we get out of our Crypts.

So, we’ve got a pretty clear plan – hit the ground running with aggressive creatures, and never stop dropping more. I’m instantly reminded of Lord Farquaad from the Shrek franchise: Some of you may die, but it is a sacrifice I am willing to make.

Let’s take a look at our list:

”Relentless

Creatures (32)
Diregraf Colossus
Fleshbag Marauder
Geralf’s Messenger
Gravecrawler
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Relentless Dead
Stromgald Crusader
Undead Warchief

Spells (4)
Dismember
Ob Nixilis Reignited

Lands (25)
Cavern of Souls
Crypt of Agadeem
Mortuary Mire
16 Swamp

Your first two turns should hopefully involve casting at least one zombie, but ideally should be Gravecrawler turn one and Relentless Dead/Stromgald Crusader turn two. Both are very nice Zombie-type two-drops, and both can absolutely abuse a Crypts of Agadeem full of their dead friends. It’s also really, really nice to be able to have a flyer. Stillmoon Cavalier, Phyrexian Crusader, and Crow of Dark Tidings were both contenders for this spot, and ultimately only further play testing will decide, but for now I’m happy with the Stromgald. The full set of Phyrexian Crusaders sit comfortably in the sideboard for red match ups.

Your ideal turn three is either a Diregraf Colossus or Geralf’s Messenger. Both keep the aggro clock moving forward, but in two different ways. Colossus will help overwhelm your opponent as you continuously cast and recur Relentless Dead and Gravecrawler, and Geralf’s keeps whittling away at your opponent’s life total.

Our plan is to have the game over by turn 5 if at all possible, and that’s why our turn four move is either to cast Undead Warchief or a combination of cheap zombies. If we get the Warchief, all of our previously somewhat pitiful aggro zombies suddenly get a massive power spike. Gravecrawler becomes a one-drop 4/2 that can be played from the grave, Relentless Dead becomes a 4/3 Menace creature with a chance to swing in unblocked if it attacks alongside a few of its dead brethren.

Turn five, we hopefully win the game with Gray Merchant.

When merchant hits, if we’ve followed our mana curve and kept all our guys on the field we get to leech a monstrously unfair ten life from our opponent. Let’s assume Geralf’s did its two damage once, Gravecrawler got through once, and Relentless Dead got through once. That’s a pretty reasonable to expect six damage by turn three. It’s not hard to image that with the right plays, we could easily deal four more damage. In certain games, the field has just the right combination of Stormgald and Relentless Dead to drop the Grey Merchant for lethal on turn five.

Why Warchief when there are so many Zombie lords in modern? We definitely have a lot of choices, such as Cemetery Reaper, Death Baron, Lord of the Undead, and of course Risen Executioner, and I feel like I could have wrote a whole article on nothing but zombies lords, but I’ll do my best to be brief.

None of the other lords seemed to offer the same type of power spike that the Warchief does, save perhaps Death Baron. The Reaper demands more mana and to be tapped in order to generate a 2/2, which it admittedly makes into a 3/3, but the fact that we have to spend the turn after we cast it getting a vanilla 3/3 that doesn’t add to our devotion is what made me say ‘no’ to this guy. The same reasoning stopped Lord of the Undead dead in his tracks. Death Baron’s deathtouch is appealing, and so is Risen Executioner’s ability to rise from the grave, but ultimately the +2/+1 on Gravecrawler and Relentess Dead is what sold me. Of course we can’t forget that he also reduces the cost of other Warchiefs or Grey Merchant in the case of a longer game.

Let’s take a brief look at some of our non-zombie cards. All four of them.

Dismember is my favourite piece of removal in all of Magic. In this deck, we can easily cast it without losing life, but we’re actually going to opt to lose the life whenever possible in order to keep our zombies flooding the field.

Ob Nixilis Reignited is here in case the game doesn’t end when it should. In short, he helps us end it. He can help us draw into our Grey Merchant or keep the field clear while we steadily swing in with our zombies. It doesn’t take long for a couple two-powered creatures to deal ten or more damage if they don’t have to deal with anything in front of them. In testing, not once did I ever have to use his ultimate ability. He invariably helped me draw into a Merchant while adding two more to my devotion.

Besides the million swamps and our Crypts, our only lands here are Cavern of Souls and Mortuary Mire. Cavern is a no-brainer in this list: everything we’re using is zombies, and we really don’t want to have our aggressive clock slowed down by a pesky blue mage and their meddling counterspells. We are committed to a merciless beatdown by the undead here, ain’t nobody got time for that. The singleton Mortuary Mire is for bonus recursion. You don’t want to draw into it before turn four, but it’s good for fetching back a Fleshbag or a Relentless.

Highly aggressive? Check. Hunger for brains? Check. Rising from the grave on a regular basis? Check. Consistent turn five or six wins? Check. Potential threat for Modern? You tell me. As always, let me know what you think about this week’s edition of Screw Loose Brews in the comments below!