top 20 zombie cards in magic

Top 20 Zombie Cards in Magic: The Gathering

Tom Anderson Community

A few weeks ago, I explored a ranking of the most hair-raisingly impressive Werewolf cards in Magic, including a few big dogs freshly printed in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. Well, that’s not the only classic horror-monster tribe I’ll be ranking — I just needed an extra week to stitch this one together…

There are just SO MANY incredible Zombie cards in the game, stretching all the way back to its earliest years. Unlike Werewolves, which have only been let out of the kennel during our semi-regular visits to Innistrad, the concept of reanimated dead things is so integral to black as a color that Zombies are its rank and file in almost every set.

Often enough that WotC has recycled this exact pun at least 3 times.

Yes, Zombies are one of the marquee creature types of Magic — and just like Elves, Goblins and Humans, their rotten tribe has grown to include any niche effect you can imagine, along with multitudinous powerful lords and tribal payoffs. There are Zombie bombs in every color and card type, tournament winners in every format, fan favorites from every era. How does one go about ranking the “best” from among such a decorated and diverse assembly?

The answer is that you simply can’t; at least not objectively. So here is my subjective list of Magic’s 20 best Zombie cards. Every color and every card type is represented; the sole rule is that each card must either be a Zombie or a card that refers to the Zombie type in their rules text. I have chosen mostly (but not all) cards which are specifically good in all-Zombie decks, mostly (but not all) based on their potential in Commander, and mostly (but not all) with present day performance in mind rather than historic achievement.

I hope you enjoy picking my brain(s).

20.  CLEAVER SKAAB (INNISTRAD: MIDNIGHT HUNT COMMANDER)

A fresh recruit to the undead cause, this is a cleav- uh, clever way to amplify the potential of the tribe’s many previous bombs. Given how easily blue-black Zombie decks recur their creatures, Cleaver Skaab can more than double your value in just a couple turns, and all for an amount of mana the average Commander player can find behind their couch cushions. 

19. LILIANA, UNTOUCHED BY DEATH (CORE SET 2019)

Planeswalker cards have been around for more than half Magic’s history (feel old yet?), but most tribal decks still count themselves lucky to have received dedicated planeswalker support. Zombies have four or even five, depending on how you categorize the various Liliana variants. But Liliana, Untouched by Death is the most Zombie-specific of them all. With any of her three abilities usable at base loyalty, this Lili is whatever you need her to be on the turn she touches down: Zombie card selection, Zombie removal, or open-ended Zombo (Zombie combo) win-con.

18. BALTHOR THE DEFILED (JUDGMENT)

In a tribe this deep, you need a pretty incredible effect to justify a four-mana 2/2 — and boy, does the Defiled deliver! This guy was built for Commander despite his only printing coming well before the format’s popularity — and his asking price is still under $10! That makes Balthor more affordable than Rise of the Dark Realms both in- and out-of-game, and only one of those can be cast from the command zone. 

Critics might point out that Balthor’s effect is “symmetrical,” so you can’t take control of your opponent’s dead stuff… but we all know whose graveyard is offering the richer harvest, don’t we?

17. CHAMPION OF THE PERISHED (INNISTRAD: MIDNIGHT HUNT)

Along with Balthor, this entry represents one of the most awesome recurring themes in the tribe: Zombie versions of iconic non-Zombie staples. Champion of the Parish is high on OG Innistrad’s endless parade of hits, and generally one of the strongest tribal creatures ever. So even in the deep pool of Zombie one-drops, this new guy makes a very big splash. In fact, Champion of the Perished may even outshine its predecessor, given how proficient Zombies are at token generation and sacrifice loops…

16. SVOGTHOS, THE RESTLESS TOMB (RAVNICA: CITY OF GUILDS)

The Golgari guildhome from original Ravnica was the only creature-land of its ten-member cycle, and it stood out all the more for it. But Svogthos has been somewhat overlooked since, criminally so when you consider how exceptionally it scales to threaten even Commander life totals. Yes, the activation cost is steeper than that of most creature-lands, but it’s a worthy price for the chance to bash for 20, 30, or even larger chunks of life. I promise people at your table will take Svogthos seriously after the first time it kills them.

15. VARINA, LICH QUEEN (COMMANDER 2018)

As with most aspects of the game, Zombies have enough A-grade Commander options for me to fill a list with just those cards. I didn’t think that was properly representative, so I tried to look past the obvious — but there’s just no looking past a bomb like Varina. Card selection on a massive scale, free lifegain and even some bonus tokens at a cheap rate; what more can a Zombie deck ask for? Color availability? Yeah, she’s got that, too.

14. CRYPTBREAKER (ELDRITCH MOON)

You know your tribe’s nutty when I could fill a list like this with just its one-drops. Cryptbreaker barges in near the top of that list — a solid card even on its own, doing a passable Pack Rat impression, and occasionally drawing cards even outside of Zombie Tribal. Again, the mechanical conceits of discarding as a cost and of tapping numerous creatures are naturally exploitable in Zombie decks!

13. UNDEAD WARCHIEF (SCOURGE)

Zombies are lucky enough to have many “lords”: creatures that specifically buff other members of the tribe. But Undead Warchief is still among the very strongest. It offers enough power to double the effectiveness of the “average Zombie,” and it makes those Zombies more efficient to boot!

12. DREADHORDE ARCANIST (WAR OF THE SPARK)

I know I said I’d be judging these cards based on their performance in Zombie-themed decks, but sometimes we need to stop and honor the undead who decided to strike out and do their own thing. Released in a set ridden with format-warpers like Teferi, Time Raveler and Nissa, Who Shakes the World, this polished Zombie still managed to make a name for itself from Standard to Legacy. In fact, it was so good in the latter format that it was eventually honored with the banhammer. Best one-power trampler of all time.

11. TOMBSTONE STAIRWELL (MIRAGE)

In my heart, this card definitely takes the #1 spot. The striking combination of art, card name, and ponderous-yet-powerful effect are everything I want from a Magic card. And it’s still something of a sleeper hit, despite how often I sneak it into one of these articles! Only a thousand or so decks on EDHREC run this Enchant World — which, admittedly, might be due to its place on the Reserved List and accompanying price tag. But if you’re looking to show your Zombie deck some extra love, nothing else can create as many ETB triggers, death triggers, or individual Zombie attackers as this rave from the grave.

10. GURMAG ANGLER (FATE REFORGED)

In a list focused on Commander alone, Gurmag Angler would likely miss the cut. But the incredible Constructed resume of this big smiley monster lured me in. It’s one of the very few commons in history not embarrassed by Lightning Bolt, either in abstract comparison or direct interaction. In addition to Pauper, the Angler has frequently shown its fangs in Legacy, Modern, Pioneer and Standard. Even if its grin one day fades beneath the waters for good, Magic players shan’t soon forget the Zombie Fish.

9. EMPTY THE PITS (KHANS OF TARKIR)

Joining the list just ahead of Gurmag Angler is its big brother and partner in Delve Crimes, Empty the Pits. There isn’t a ton of hidden depth to the effect; when you need to make a ton of Zombies in a hurry, this is one of the few ways to produce those en masse at instant speed. And as with any other mass token-producers on this list (or otherwise), that translates to a ton of valuable triggers from your tribal support cards!

8. WAND OF ORCUS (FORGOTTEN REALMS COMMANDER)

Speaking of, how about even more Zombie token generators? As always, new printings from Commander decks are a rich well of eternal-level power. D&D’s infamous Wand of Orcus has been somewhat overlooked so far, but I’d definitely be picking mine up soon. With the unique ability to grant “ZombieLink,” this card’s limited supply will soon be depleted by ambitious Commander players. The guarantee of teamwide deathtouch on defense is just some gravy on top — albeit tasty gravy.

7. CARRION FEEDER (SCOURGE)

Another powerhouse Zombie one-drop, Carrion Feeder has been neck and neck with Viscera Seer for the title of “ultimate cheap sac outlet” for some time now. While the boosted, combat-ready body may vary in use between Commander metas, the Feeder makes up for it nowadays by feasting on Modern and Pauper alike. And when you need a creature to die infinite times in Commander for totally innocent reasons, you know this slimy abomination has your back!

6. DIREGRAF COLOSSUS (SHADOWS OVER INNISTRAD)

Somewhere between a lord and a straightforward attacker, Diregraf Colossus stands astride the world of tribal threats. Even a few years past its Standard prime, most players recognize an all-time great beatstick; and with its second clause spitting out tons of tokens, it is one of a very few big “Standard Beatdown” Zombies to scale up to Commander playability. It’s also cool that unlike Champion(s) of the Parish/Perished, the Colossus doesn’t mind if you draw it later on in the game after casting your other Zombies; so long as the yard is big, so too will it be.

5. EMPTY THE LABORATORY (INNISTRAD: MIDNIGHT HUNT COMMANDER)

Yep, another entry straight from this year’s Commander precons. Whoever designed this thing really pulled out all the stops, just like Empty the Laboratory pulls all the overpowered Zombie cards out of your library. Given this lets you sac Zombie tokens instead of a real creature, it’s very easy to feed, say, a bundle of decayed tokens to this spell and suddenly find yourself with a winning combo on board. Simply narrowing down the Zombies in your deck to a winning combination can guarantee the right hits.

4.  ROOFTOP STORM (INNISTRAD)

“A new era in unlife begins here and now.” You best believe truer words were never spoken. There’s not much I can say about the card besides the obvious. For tribal decks, it’s a cheaper Omniscience, and considering how easy it is to loop Zombies while netting resources, winning with a combo should be just a step away. The fact that it has one of the best top-down-designed card names and iconic artwork all help push this entry into the electric atmosphere that is our Zombie Top 5!

3. GRAY MERCHANT OF ASPHODEL (THEROS)

It’s stunning how many of the best commons of all time just happen to be Zombies. Another staple bomb of the Pauper format, Gary here gets even more love among Commander players, who readily flood the board with other black permanents and then sac-loop the guy until they win. And back in the day, he was also a major part of Black Devotion in Theros Standard. The massive life-swing that results from playing Gary even once has ended countless matches – and when that doesn’t do the trick? Well, I like to just pick the card back up (likely from the graveyard) and just keep on re-triggering the ability till my opponents buy what Gary’s selling.

2. GRAVE TITAN (MAGIC 2011)

We may be a little past its prime in terms of gameplay relevance, but few cards command respect like the mighty Grave Titan. This card has snuck into decks like Legacy Reanimator, where it belongs to the same rarefied class of threats as Griselbrand and Elesh Norn. If that sounds fake to you, show me another card that generates 10 power and toughness for six mana out of the can.

Don’t worry, the #1 Zombie card and I can wait.

1. GRAVECRAWLER (DARK ASCENSION)

Like I said at the beginning, there’s no real objective way to measure the “best” card in this situation. But Gravecrawler makes a pretty strong case, regardless of how you cut it. Playing fast? Here’s a one-mana 2/1, on type. Grinding it out instead? Here’s a card which ensures you can mount a serious clock on your opponent. Playing high-stakes Constructed? Casual Commander? Regardless, Gravecrawler is there to provide one-mana sac fodder, opening up combo opportunities and generally doing everything but blocking. Gravecrawler is flexible, flavorful, powerful and Zombie-specific, making it my personal pick for the #1 undead of all time.

NIGHT OF THE RANKING DEAD

There are so many more powerful Zombie cards we could cover here: alternate Commander options like Grimgrin, Corpse-Born; control tools like Necromantic Selection; lords like, well, Lord of the Undead. There are cards I could easily have included based on their strength in Limited — including Midnight Hunt’s “mythic common,” Organ Hoarder. And I intentionally left off some “dishonorable mentions” like Field of the Dead, The Scarab God and Bridge from Below for just being generally overpowered and obnoxious.

This most recent visit to Innistrad has already been hugely impactful for the Zombie tribe thanks to the useful addition of decayed. I fully expect the second installment of new horror-themed cards in Crimson Vow will also be sprinkled with some gruesome treasures for Zombie tribal lists. 

My advice when building these decks? Try to pick a narrower subtheme, so you don’t end up searching hundreds and hundreds of unrelated undead. Remember, it’s the uniqueness of each slowly-putrefying corpse soldier that makes them special — and on that delightful note of necromantic wisdom, I’ll take my leave.