Last updated on March 2, 2023
Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver | Illustration by Chris Rallis
I love zombies. A lot. I’ve taught classes on zombies in pop culture. I wrote a textbook using zombies as a theme.
So if I’m going to run a tribal deck in Commander, I’m going to run zombies. And I’m not alone. Since arriving in the Midnight Hunt Undead Unleashed Commander precon, Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver quickly rose to the top spot of all zombie tribal commanders, and almost to the top 10 of all commanders. What makes Wilhelt great is that it does what most zombie builds want to do better than the other commander options. It makes a lot of zombies, it sacrifices zombies for damage and card advantage, and it reanimates. Rinse and repeat.
This is a leaner (if not exactly meaner) build of zombies if you didn’t buy Wilhelt’s precon or the newer Innistrad cards and are rolling with your pre-pandemic zombie build. So maybe it’s time to shake things up.
Ready to shamble on?
Draugr Necromancer | Illustration by David Rapoza
Archghoul of Thraben
Champion of the Perished
Gisa and Geralf
Gorex, the Tombshell
Josu Vess, Lich Knight
Liliana’s Standard Bearer
Lord of the Accursed
Master of Death
Priest of the Haunted Edge
Shepherd of Rot
Tormod, the Desecrator
Empty the Pits
Rise of the Dread Marn
Army of the Damned
Empty the Laboratory
From Under the Floorboards
Endless Ranks of the Dead
Open the Graves
Reflections of Littjara
Talisman of Dominance
Field of the Dead
Path of Ancestry
Port of Karfell
Snow-Covered Island x8
Snow-Covered Swamp x8
Temple of Deceit
This build of the deck leans heavily into being able to use decayed zombie tokens as fuel, mostly because Wilhelt is good at generating them for you. This means cards that only work on the attack step, like Grimgrin, Corpse-Born and Undead Alchemist, are things that I’ve mostly avoided.
The most common problem I have when playing this deck (aside from other players heckling me for not building it the way they build their zombie decks) is the difficulty of the decision around 4- and 5-drops. Sometimes it really does seem like Wilhelt should stay in the command zone so you can get Endless Ranks of the Dead or Prowling Geistcatcher down. I’ve actually been so busy winning that I forgot to cast Wilhelt for a lot of turns. And there’s something freeing about not having to stress over whether you can protect your commander from all the hate so that you can find a way to win.
Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver draws a card a turn while creating a sac trigger and a zombie ETB trigger, all without having to use an attack step. That’s important because it gives you the option to do an undead goldfish routine in metas with lots of other tokens or tribal decks. Swinging at opponents means you have fewer blockers, which matters more in zombie tribal given the prevalence of decayed zombie tokens which can’t block and are sacrificed when you attack with them.
Maximizing Wilhelt also leads to another key zombie deck construction decision Because there are two ways zombie decks tend to use the graveyard. One is to fill it with cards that you can exile for powerful effects, and the other is to use the cards for reanimation. Wilhelt, like Gisa and Geralf and the powerful Zombie Apocalypse, wants zombies in the graveyard to do sinister things with them.
Other popular zombie commanders like The Scarab God and Varina, Lich Queen want to use the bodies in the ‘yard as fuel. And there are a lot of other popular zombie tribal cards that use this effect, including some that ship with the Wilhelt precon: Empty the Pits, Gorex, the Tombshell, Graveyard Marshal, Havengul Runebinder, and Hour of Eternity.
There’s an obvious tension between those two builds since not everything you exile from the graveyard can be reanimated. Using the graveyard for reanimation makes you vulnerable to graveyard hate, which more and more players are packing, but a counterspell can ruin your day if you’re sacrificing every body in your ‘yard for an effect. Adjust the balance of these effects as needed.
But this highlights why Wilhelt is so good. Even if someone hits your graveyard with Bojuka Bog, Wilhelt still self-starts its own engine again, which is key.
There are more than 500 zombies in Magic. You can’t pack more than 40 in your 99, so these choices are tough. Zombies tend to like to pack on a lot of powerful 3- and 4-drops unlike more aggro tribes. I just don’t think you’d win if you grabbed the best 1- and 2-drop zombies and smashed them into a low-curve aggro deck. Zombie tribal still isn’t the fast zombies of 28 Days Later. They’re slower, more Romero style, and they need to be more midrange.
This curve has only one 1-drop, Champion of the Perished, because I won’t play zombies without it. There are also a lot of 3-drops and avoids much over four and five. That curve might feel a bit high but I don’t want to run out of gas with the deck, and it doesn’t have too many things that cost more than four so it can hit its stride and stay there.
The creatures all do lots of things as you’d expect in a more midrangy tribal deck like this.
Card advantage is how you win Commander games, full stop. And even though the deck doesn’t run Rhystic Study, this list does have quite few cards that get you cards to go along with Wilhelt: Archghoul of Thraben, Clattering Augur, Fell Stinger, Liliana’s Standard Bearer, Midnight Reaper, Prowling Geistcatcher, and Undead Augur.
Another form of card advantage is getting to replay things from the graveyard, and there are quite a few recursion creatures in this deck: Apprentice Necromancer, Ebondeath, Dracolich, Gisa and Geralf, Gravespawn Sovereign, Tomb Tyrant, and Undead Butler.
Lords are creatures that buff others in the tribe, and the prevalence of zombie lords is one of the reasons to play this deck. Especially with all the tokens you can make with these cards: Bladestitched Skaab, Cemetery Reaper, Death Baron, Diregraf Captain, Lord of the Accursed, and Master of Death.
Gleaming Overseer is a lord that gives your tokens hexproof and menace, which can get you a win in the late game if you have a huge board.
The lords are good because they can buff your growing army of tokens thanks to these token makers: Cleaver Skaab, Cryptbreaker, Diregraf Colossus, Headless Rider, Josu Vess, Lich Knight, Tainted Adversary, and Tormod, the Desecrator.
The weakness of a lot of tribal decks is the relative lack of removal. Every Doom Blade you have is just one less zombie. But since this is a graveyard recursion deck, removal attached to creatures is pretty useful.
To start off, you’ve got Draugr Necromancer, Plaguebearer, Priest of the Haunted Edge, and Ravenous Rotbelly. Two of these cards are why there are snow lands in the deck, and they’re basically the only use you have for snow. Cutting those would be good for budget if you don’t have a stack of old Ice Age cards lying around like I do.
I want to take a second with the Necromancer since it’s not a typical card in zombie Commander decks. Sure, being able to cast things that die is nice. And it can only do this while it’s alive, but you have lots of recursion. Not to mention that the dead creatures it exiles stay exiled with ice counters, so you can cast them when it comes back. Weird rule note: if you drop your own Necromancer, you can cast creatures I exiled with mine that belong to one of our other opponents!
This is all a lot of fun when you get it going, but the real utility here is that the Necromancer stops opposing creatures from hitting their graveyards. That’s absolutely backbreaking in a zombie tribal mirror battle, which I think are only going to get more common the more fun zombies WotC prints.
I should also mention Stitcher Geralf, which is an on-flavor piece of graveyard hate when needed.
Part of the fun of zombie commanders that have white pips is that you can run Orzhov () zombies from the Amonkhet block. There is a close second with Gempalm Polluter and Shepherd of Rot, and they can both end the game on the spot under the right conditions.
Instants and Sorceries
- Army of the Damned
- Dark Salvation
- Dread Summons
- Empty the Laboratory
- Empty the Pits
- From Under the Floorboards
- Necrotic Hex
- Rise of the Dread Marn
- Zombie Apocalypse
There are some quasi-board wipes on some of these cards, but most of these are spells that make tokens. You need those. Could you replace some of these with cheaper creatures to lower the curve or some interaction? Sure.
But these cards are my personal weakness. I play this deck to be able to play these ridiculous spells. I just want to see them go off, even if I don’t win. But by all means go lower to the ground than these if you have a different style of play.
You don’t really fear the board wipe very much if you’ve got an Archghoul of Thraben on the battlefield and a Rise of the Dread Marn foretold, which is a great feeling to have. Except for Farewell. That card is the zombie player’s nightmare. So, yeah, maybe pack a few more counterspells instead of some of these.
Enchantments and Artifacts
These are mostly about making a lot more zombies.
Necroduality and Reflections of Littjara can really pop off. Note that Necroduality will copy tokens and reanimated cards, not just cards that are cast.
Rooftop Storm is totally bonkers. It’s the other reason why card draw is so important in this deck. It also makes it easier to recast your commander once your opponents kill it and it starts accumulating taxes. It doesn’t blank the taxes, but the overall cost drop is really helpful when you want to cast Wilhelt for the third time for the total casting cost of six.
Dreadhorde Invasion, Endless Ranks of the Dead, and Open the Graves keep the tokens flowing for Wilhelt to sac.
Necromancer’s Stockpile does everything you want for two mana.
You’ve got one Carnage Altar to sac for cards. There aren’t enough sacrifice triggers in the deck to warrant sac for mana cards like Ashnod’s Altar.
The Mana Base
I don’t think this deck wants mana rocks that cost three in general, and the tap mana rocks like Sky Diamond are also just a bit slow. There are so many 3- and 4-drops in this deck, and ramping to your big spells isn’t all that great. I’d rather cast almost any card I can before I drop a tapped rock or a Dimir Locket. So this deck has fewer rocks than you might feel comfortable with. By all means, rectify that if that’s the case. It’s your deck!
But there are two higher cost rocks that synergize with the rest of the deck: Crowded Crypt and the deep boomer cut Charmed Pendant.
The usual suspects are here. Unholy Grotto and Field of the Dead are especially good in this deck, so if your budget won’t support a Polluted Delta but you want a land upgrade, splurge there.
This deck is reasonably easy and obvious to play, which is part of the fun. You’re just lurking around, looking for brainnnnnssssssss.
Get Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver down quickly to start its engine. It’s okay if it dies a lot. Just drop Wilhelt in the graveyard instead if the tax starts to get too high. And remember, it goes back to the command zone instead anyway if they kill your graveyard. There have been games where I put it in the graveyard on its first death depending on the cards in my hand.
Go slow if there are other creatures on the ground at the table. You want to keep the decayed tokens until their deaths will trigger something good if you can. You’re more resilient to board wipes than most creature decks, so don’t trip too hard on that. You want to get to where you’re making multiple copies of zombies, recurring your zombies, drawing lots of cards, and sometimes recovering from board wipes in better shape than you were before the Wrath of God.
You’re not a swarmy tokens deck unless you’re fighting all combo and control decks, in which case you’ll just lose anyway. The interaction you have to pack to deal with those decks destroys the fun of this build, so pull out something else if that’s your table. The same is true for flyers decks. That’s gonna be a rough day for you.
Ultimately you want a board state where you’ve got a lot of your powerful enchantments out to make a play for the long game. So if everyone is packing white to play Farewell, Cleansing Nova, and Devastating Mastery, maybe slow play your key enchantments until someone else provokes the enchantment removal with some broken stuff.
Last long enough to be inevitable and then start snapping your fingers, Thanos.
Combos and Interactions
This is a pretty combo-lite version of a zombie build, and most of the interactions are easy. But there are a few highlights to think about.
Gleaming Overseer plus a lot of tokens can destroy people, which is why there are instant token generators like Rise of the Dread Marn and Empty the Pits. Keep these instants in hand (or in the foretell zone for Dread Marn) as long as possible. You have other ways to make tokens.
Undead Augur can straight-up kill you in this deck, so be careful.
Most of the creatures in the deck serve to get others back from the graveyard, draw cards, or make tokens. Especially if you have something that can make multiple copies of zombies as they enter, like Necroduality, or as an activated ability, like Cleaver Skaab, or both. Your priority is to find a way to get Gravespawn Sovereign back onto the battlefield in the late game, especially assuming you’re in full token generation mode. It’s a bit like The Scarab God at home.
Given that you have some cards that can sac at instant speed, doing so to Undead Butler can protect a key card in the ‘yard from graveyard hate.
Except for Necroduality and some lands, this is a kind of budget build. You’ll definitely be saving a bit of money if you remove the few snow cards and replace the snow lands with basics.
Clearly good cards you might want to shift into the deck if you have them lying around or you want to splurge are The Scarab God, Undead Warchief, Cryptbreaker, Lord of the Undead, Relentless Dead, Grave Titan, Zombie Master, Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, and Lich Lord of Unx.
The obvious places to shift cards to add those is to remove most of the zombie lords and focus on strong individual cards instead of trying to make and buff a lot of tokens.
The two menace-granting cards in this deck are usually enough to kill with zombies, but giving them flying with Eternal Skylord, Hordewing Skaab, or Geralf, Visionary Stitcher is nice, too. They’re just a bit less mana efficient.
Poppet Stitcher is a fun include if you use less zombie creatures and focus more on spells that make zombies. That makes you less vulnerable to graveyard hate, but the Stitcher isn’t exactly easy to protect and recur. You likely need fewer zombie lords in this build, so I’d replace every zombie that isn’t card advantage or interaction and most of the enchantments with instant and sorcery removal and counterspells.
You make the deck more into a kind of Dimir () control deck that spellslings its way into a board of zombies. That might even be preferable if you play in an EDH meta with players running so many board wipes that you can’t really get on board.
In conjunction with the Stitcher slinger version of the deck, you could also run a build that leans into The Scarab God and the ability to reanimate creatures from opponents’ graveyards with cards like Animate Dead, Reanimate, Ghouls’ Night Out, and Living Death.
There’s a bit of a nonbo with the way the Poppet Factory nerfs Scarab tokens, but you’ll be lucky to have opponents leave you with even one of those on the battlefield so it’s rarely an issue.
Narfi, Betrayer King is a nice card to include since you’re using the snow lands anyway. It’s a bit slow to start but is a pretty relentless engine for the deck once it gets going. Maybe pop it in if you’ve got it lying around from Kaldheim Drafts.
Empty the Laboratory | Illustration by Tuan Duong Chu
Zombies keep changing, and this deck continues to morph as new sets branch out across the multiverse of Magic planes. We get regular infusions of new zombies and this list can be built in lots of different ways.
This deck is resilient and is a lot of fun to play, especially for game 2 of a long night when you played some kind of stressful Voltron or combo build the first game. For me, zombie tribal Commander is the exact definition of a good time. If you build it, I hope you find the same is true for you.
What’s your thought on this build? Do you want to heckle me for the way I built this zombie deck too? Let me know in the comments below or join the discussion in the Draftsim Discord.
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