A series by Max Kautsch
Horde Magic: Survivors. It’s not about winning. It’s about surviving.
Part I: Introduction and Survivor Deck Construction
Part II: Survivor Generals: Strapping Up Your Commander and Anafenza’s Strike Force
Part III: Horde Backstory, Horde General, Scaling, House Rules, Horde Deck List, and Strategy Tips
There is something way more fulfilling about battling an enemy if you have a reason to want to defeat it. Contextualizing your Survivor Generals within M:tG continuity (or any continuity, really; Tolkien, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, whatever) and finding an appropriate villain can ramp up the emotional investment for the players, and correspondingly, the enjoyment. At the very least, it’s more fun for me to think about the role playing game aspects of this sub-variant, which is certainly at the core of this exercise.
In my playgroup’s Horde meta, my first character was Dakkon Blackblade, so I wanted to see if I could build the Horde backstory around him. First step was to make sure not to contradict existing M:tG storylines so as not to offend any players who are aware of such things (unlike myself). Although I am no expert on the Magic novels, our good friend the interwebs can close knowledge gaps in a hurry. For those operating with a similar fund of knowledge regarding Magic continuity, the only story in which Daakon played a role was a comic book in 1996. There, we learn that he was originally an extremely talented but rather disturbed blacksmith from Corondor who was commissioned by an evil Planeswalker, Geyadrone Dihada, to forge the Blackblade. The process involved warming the blade each day for 10 years by sacrificing a servant. This was accomplished by plunging the blade into the victim. Good times, Dakkon seems like a swell guy!
As you can surely guess, Dihada betrays Dakkon. She steals both the Blackblade and his soul, but simultaneously makes him a Planeswalker (this is where you can check out the difference between revisionist and prerevisionist continuity if you really want to). Seeking revenge for the soul-stealing, he partners up with a thief named Carth, and the pair vow to vanquish Dihada. They track her to her Unholy Citadel on Corondor, a giant castle walking on spidery limbs, made out of the bones of the dead. In a swamp that was once verdant forest known as the Khone, transformed by Sol’Kanar the Swamp King, Dihada’s champion and architect of the Unholy Citadel, Dakkon disposes of a pair of elder dragons (!), forces Sol’Kanar to flee in terror, regains his sword and soul, and travels with Carth to Terisiare. After Carth’s death many years later, Dakkon leaves Terisiare to wander. The comic indicates that he is bound to serve Dihada, but only upon her summoning. So I guess he gets to do what he wants as long as she doesn’t get all up in his business.
And that’s it for Dakkon references in Magic. The fact that he doesn’t have major role in Magic continuity really helps for our purposes because his story is basically a blank slate after Carth’s death. Further, his native land of Corondor is also hardly used in Magic continuity. As for a reasonable connection to a Zombie horde, look no further than the freaking Unholy Citadel made out of body parts.
So given all that, the first backstory for the Zombie Horde in our meta goes something like this:
In the years following the death of his friend and ally, Carth, Dakkon’s desire for enlightenment was equaled only by his desire to finish what he started so many years ago in the Khone swamps on his homeland of Corondor: kill Sol’Kanar the Swamp King. The Swamp King’s power has grown over time, further twisting the once enchanted Krone forest into an abominable marsh. Now he commands a Zombie Horde from his Unholy Citadel, a giant castle walking on spidery limbs, made out of the bones of the dead. To return the Khone to its previously verdant state, Sol’Kanar and his minions must be destroyed!
The task at hand is daunting, and Dakkon knows that not even he can hope to vanquish the Horde alone. As such, he has summoned heroes from near and far: [insert players’ Generals’ names]. To arms! Sol’Kanar’s minions await.
I think this premise works not only because it is a believable extension of the existing storyline of one of the Survivors, but also because it is open-ended enough to allow any other commander to fit in with the player group seamlessly. All the better if the other player use these ideas to develop their own reasons for wanting to help Dakkon, or even develop their own Horde backstories.
Finally, this leads us to the concept of Horde Generals. My idea is to select a legendary creature to lead your Horde and place that card in the command zone. Unlike in Commander, the Horde General’s color identity has no bearing on what cards may be included in the Horde deck; zombies don’t care about color identity, and cards like Creeping Corrosion, Plague Boiler and Vulturous Zombie seem like flavorful considerations for a Zombie Horde, don’t you think? Although the Horde has no pilot and no ability to play cards from the command zone, including the general, having a “Horde General” gives the Horde a “face” and a reminder of the objective. Mechanically, it reminds the players that the Horde deck’s command zone is a thing, and gives us a way to simplify some rules pertaining to scaling the Horde’s power level as the game progresses.
Horde Deck Scaling (many thanks to this thread)
Even these somewhat powered-down Survivor decks are too strong for a Horde that doesn’t increase in size over time. Here are a couple ideas to make the Horde stronger as the game goes on that are a little more flavorful than simply predetermining a certain number of additional reveals after a certain number of turns depending upon the number of players. Spoiler alert: I prefer Idea One. For a greater challenge, try them both!
Method One: Apocalypse Counters
Although this is really just dressing up the turn counter concept, I like the flavor of the number 13 deciding when things get worse for the Survivors. Plus, 13 is a prime number, which makes for a variable number of turns between activations depending on the number of players and how long the Survivors have lasted.
1. Place your designated Horde General in the Horde’s command zone.
2. At the beginning of the Horde’s upkeep, put a number of apocalypse counters on the Horde General equal to the number of players.
3. At any time when the Horde General has 13 or more apocalypse counters on it, remove 13 of those counters, and the Horde gets an emblem with “during the Horde’s turn, reveal an additional non-token card.”
1. Place your designated Horde General in the Horde’s command zone.
2. Shuffle swamps into the Horde deck equal to the number of players minus 1.
3. At any time when a swamp is revealed either when the Horde takes damage or on its turn, place that swamp in the Horde’s command zone. For each swamp in the command zone, the Horde gets an emblem with “during each Horde turn, reveal an additional non-token card.”
Horde Deck House Rules
We always play with these in our meta. The first is just a flavor mod of an established way to handle Horde cards with flashback. The second is to subtly boost the Horde’s threat level; the Survivors’ wins seem to almost always directly correlate to a first-turn, first-card spell reveal. The third and fourth are sort of obvious but important nonetheless. Let’s step up the challenge, shall we?
1. Flashback suspend. Flashback cards (read: Army of the Damned, Moan of the Unhallowed), whether milled or cast as part of a reveal, are exiled with 13 suspend counters. During the Horde’s upkeep, roll an eight-sided die. Remove that many time counters from the exiled spell.
2. And a token shall lead them. On the Horde’s first turn, if the first card that would be revealed is a spell, shuffle it into the Horde deck.
3. Original Legend Rule applies between Survivor Decks. It doesn’t make sense from a flavor standpoint for more than one copy of a legendary creature to battle the Horde at the same time. Solution: apply the original legendary rule where only one copy of each legendary creature can be on the battlefield at once. If a second copy enters the battlefield, sacrifice both copies.
4. Capped life total. This has been suggested elsewhere before now, but I’m a big fan. LIke a “health meter” in a video game, there is a limit on how much life the Survivors can have. So if you’re playing a three- or four-player game, the Survivors can’t ever be at higher than 60 life, and in a two-player game, no higher than 80. Obviously, this greatly decreases the incentive to play crazy life-gain engines like Trostani, which is totally in the spirit of a format where Moat is explicitly banned.
5. Good game. Start again? If the horde produces more than 10 tokens on its first turn, shuffle them all back into the horde’s library, shuffle, and begin again. No reason to waste your time (or pride) getting pummeled by an inanimate object.
My Zombie Horde features Sol’Kanar as the Horde General and sports a Lord of the Pit, a pair of demon tokens, and a handful of other non-Zombies because you know there are some evil folks out there looking to capitalize on the chaos that comes with a zombie apocalypse. I threw in some 1/1 Zombie Wizard tokens in part because I bought everyone in town out of 2/2 zombie tokens but also because the challenge is significant enough for the Survivors as it is. If the wizard tokens end up not being strong enough, I will trade them out, perhaps for five 2/2 zombies and five 2/2 zombie enchantment creatures. Speaking of enchantment creatures, they work wonders in a Constellation subtheme with Agent of Erebos to keep players honest with their graveyard dependence and Doomwake Giant to clear chump blockers. Agents, Cackling Fiends, and Vengeful Dead are the infantry troops and show up a lot; Vengeful Dead is just amazing in this deck. You pretty much have to kill it before you can do anything else. A total of 4 Plague Winds/In Garruk’s Wake have seemed like a reasonably threatening amount. Feldon’s Cane is Sok’Kanar’s “Scepter of the Swamp, his club-like pale imitation of Dakkon’s Black Blade” from the “Dragon War” short story backup to the Dakkon comic from 1996 and a hell of a life gain tool for the Horde. Two Plague Boilers keep the players honest with non-creature permanents and are the only ways the horde can trip over itself except for a two Darkness (sometimes the Horde wanders the wrong way in the dark; another Temporal Extortion and an In Garruk’s Wake are itching to replace those if the Survivors start getting cocky). I ended up at 200 cards because after just a little testing I found that 100 wasn’t challenging enough, and a 65/35 ratio of tokens to spells has worked out so far.
If you want a quick rules refresher, Peter’s OP as well as this rules discussion I linked to earlier are good resources.
Sol’Kanar’s Zombie Horde (200 cards)
By Max Kautsch 09/12/14
90 Zombie Creature Tokens (2/2)
10 Zombie Creature Enchantment Tokens (2/2)
10 Zombie Wizard Tokens (1/1)
18 Zombie Giant Creature Tokens (5/5)
2 Demon Creature Tokens (5/5 flying)
2 Plague Boiler
3 Lord of the Undead
5 Cackling Fiend
1 Fleshbag Marauder
2 Syphon Flesh
3 Soulless One
3 Lliana’s Reaver
6 Agent of Erebos
2 Zombie Master
2 Plague Wind
3 Bad Moon
2 Noxious Ghoul
3 Infectious Horror
2 Doomwake Giant
4 Vengeful Dead
3 In Garruk’s Wake
2 Undead Warchief
2 Ascendant Evincar
2 Temporal Extortion
2 Zombie Apocalypse
1 Grave Titan
1 Paragon of Open Graves
1 Death Baron
1 Vulturous Zombie
1 Army of the Damned
1 Cemetery Reaper
1 Feldon’s Cane
1 Twilight’s Call
1 Endless Ranks of the Dead
1 Bone Dancer
1 Lord of the Pit
1 Moan of the Unhallowed
2 Maalfeld Twins
Strategy Tips to Survive the Horde
OK, so these powered-down decks are going to struggle against the Horde, that’s a given. Maximizing the value of your deck slots is essential if you want to have a chance to beat the Horde despite HMS’ degree of difficulty.
Certain keywords help more than others, and while certain staples are too good, others that we would snapjam into a Commander deck are pretty worthless here.
Hexproof is pretty worthless; if the Zombies target, which they rarely do, it happens at random. Shroud is even worse, as it effectively hurts only you.
Don’t waste deck space on abilities like trample, which seems weird because it’s usually amazing. But the Horde’s not going out of its way to block anyone. Even though Zombies can block/get in the way if they happen to be untapped, such as after a Grave Titan attack, there just aren’t enough blockers to spend a deck slot on an ability your opponent won’t care about 98% of the time. Shadow, bushido, intimidate, landwalk, or anything else that avoids blockers or depends on blockers isn’t going to deliver the value here it would in every other format.
Ditto with flying. Although the Horde has a handful of flies, evasion is simply not a priority against an opponent who concedes each attack anyway. Even so, it’s probably a good idea to include a few fliers to take on Vulturous Zombie. Reach is even worse than usual as such a small handful of the Horde flies to begin with.
The value of first strike takes a little hit as it is generally only useful on defense. Not a completley dead ability though, as blocking Zombies and not dying is good.
Deathtouch is similar in that is usually valuable both on offense and defense, but here is really only good for trading utility dudes for Zombie Giant tokens, but that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Flash, morph, can’t be countered, and anything else that leverages deception doesn’t matter against an inanimate opponent.
Haste is still good, but sometimes invites neglecting to leave back sufficient blockers.
Regenerate is really good, but doesn’t stop Plague Wind.
All that being said, there are three keywords that Survivor decks should focus on above all others: indestructible, vigilance, and lifelink. Drawing the conclusion that those are the big four may seem blindingly obvious, but it was more difficult that I expected to get past my deeply ingrained “flying and trample are good!” thought process. As for protection, refer to the symmetry discussion under number 7 of the Do Not Play list.
What Works? Teamwork!
This may also seem obvious given this is a cooperative format and all, but it is especially important to plan your plays with your fellow Survivors, especially impactful ones such as board wipes. The Horde is inexorable but somewhat predictable; take advantage of that dynamic and plan accordingly.
Artifact and Enchantment Hate
Zombies don’t hoard treasure (see what I did there?). Any artifacts in the Horde deck are likely to have activated abilities that involve sacrificing the artifact a la Plague Boiler and Feldon’s cane. Dedicated artifact hate is totally useless in my meta.
Same with removal that targets non-creature permanents. So much for Terastadon, Rootgrapple, Woodfall Primus and the like; the land those spells could dependably target don’t exist in HMS. On the other hand, consider something like Brutalizer Exarch; it will tutor most of the time but take out that Endless Ranks when necessary.
Although not as dead as Shatter and friends, enchantment destruction is still narrow, but somewhat necessary given that Endless Ranks of the Dead is a thing. Try to include versatile spells like Mortify and Shinewind that can help in multiple situations. And leave those Return to Dusts in your traditional commander builds.
Beware the Horde’s Graveyard
As suggested on other threads, the Survivor decks have the option to Burn the Bodies, or exile cards from the Horde’s graveyard at random rather than mill from it’s library when dealing damage. In my meta, we just mill off the top of the graveyard, whether the card is a creature or not.
Don’t sleep Burning the Bodies. Things can be going fine until the Horde rips a Twilight’s Call and crushes the Survivors combo-style. Don’t let that happen. Either burn the bodies or pack some grave hate. Or both.
Fogs Over Wraths
It’s very tempting to pack Survivor decks full of sweepers, but it turns out that resolving Wrath of God effects set the Survivors back too far given the Horde can more or less instantly recover and the Survivors have to actually spend mana over the length of turns to rebuild. A dose of Fog effects mixed in with instant-speed mass removal like Rout/Sulfurous Blast/cycled Decree of Pain has worked well. Just don’t overdo it; you can’t pillow fort the Horde.
I’ll see you next time for the capper on this series, which features the best and most unique reason to play Survivors: the Adventure Deck.
Next up: Part IV: The Adventure Deck