Notions of Horde: Zombies

February 4, 2016

This entry is part 8 of 13 in the series Notions of Horde

Billy headshot

By Billy


It happens to every group at some point. Tensions start running high, and maybe people need something inanimate to take that out on. I like it, because it appeals to the game designer in me. Quite a few video games ship with level editors these days, but very few board games do. Horde gives a unique outlet for that creative urge. In my second (of what I hope to be many) sporadic articles about my adventures in Horde design, I’m going to discuss the first horde I built: Zombies.


Inspired by the zombie hordes I’d seen online, and the pile of assorted zombies residing in my collection, I started in on the design. I started with 60 tokens because it means that three-out-of-four cards off the top will be tokens, which seemed ideal for one- or two-player games. It’s enough for the horde to be able to pounce on slow starts, but not so much that every turn produces more attackers than you could hope to block.


I built this horde so that my wife and I could play together when my regular playgroup couldn’t meet, so two-player is the sweet spot I’m building for.  If a larger group wants to play, we add an extra flip of cards for three-to-four players to help the horde compensate for the increased player resources. I’ve also worked on hordes built for three-to-four-players, but those will be coming later.


Now that the math portion is done, let’s look at the fun part!


The Shambling Masses:


Tokens, Diregraf Captain, Bad Moon, Death Pit Offering,


10 tokens are 5/5 Zombie Giants, 50 are 2/2 Zombies, which gives the tokens a little bit of kick. It also means we don’t have to rely on the non-tokens to do all the work.


Speaking of non-tokens: first and foremost we need Lords and Anthems. For Lords, I’m using as many Diregraf Captains as I could find. Why Diregraf Captain? Four reasons: first, they provide a solid +1/+1 to the horde, they cause life loss whenever other zombies die, they themselves have deathtouch, and they’re really cheap to buy. The numerical bonus makes the undead masses even more massive, increasing the threat profile of the normally mediocre tokens. Life loss triggers on zombie deaths makes even profitable combat hurt, and the captain’s own deathtouch means that the players will often have to burn a sweeper or trade one-for-one with him.


Neither of those feels good when the sweeper will lead to costly life loss, and spot removal is generally best saved for the Sutured Ghoul and Unbreathing Horde. The price point is salient because many other zombie lords cost more real dollars. (Zombie Warchief, I’m looking at you).  Anthems are represented by the ever-thematic Bad Moon and the oft-entertaining Death Pit Offering, which also acts as a bit of a safety valve for the players because it destroys all the horde’s critters, but the next round it comes out much stronger. This gives a sense of “calm before the storm” that I enjoy.


Boss Monsters and Other Notable Creatures:


Sutured Ghoul, Unbreathing Horde, Thraximundar, Dread Slaver, Army of the Damned, Endless Ranks of the Dead, Grave Defiler, Phyrexian Reaper


Next in line are boss monsters and filler creatures. Sutured Ghoul is the ultimate “All-In” boss monster, exiling the horde’s graveyard and forcing the players to do a lot of math before killing them.  It’s also sometimes a 0/0, which has its own entertainment value. Dread Slaver has the fun of turning chump blockers into zombies and bolstering the horde’s numbers.


My Cmdr2013 Thraximundar is here, being the scariest threat in the deck, especially in multiplayer when everyone’s sacrificing. I’m a big fan of Thrax in multiplayer, especially team formats. My Original Recipe Thrax is heading up my original Commander deck: The Charmander Vibrator! (Don’t ask; it’s easier to listen to the Deckbuilder’s Spotlight episode on it.)


Other boss monsters include the Unbreathing Horde and Vengeful Pharaoh. Vengeful Pharaoh gets special mention for being a defensive card as well, killing attackers from beyond the grave and constantly reanimating itself. The last boss monster is Army of the Damned. 13 2/2s are hard to block and nothing to sneeze at. The flashback is a little weird, though. The way I handle it, the horde gets the flashback if the card itself gets milled, but will not flash it back if it hits the graveyard as a result of having resolved. This rule keeps it from getting doublecast on smaller or beginner groups, but it can also be easily waived by those seeking a greater challenge.


Most of the fillers are here because you need some medium-sized threats to work at different angles–fear critters for evasion, some deathtouchers, a cat. Endless Ranks of the Dead and Grave Defiler go here, too. They make more zombies, and really put the players on the defensive if they get a bit behind. Special shout-out to Phyrexian Reaper for having the most metal art that I want to airbrush on the side of a van. Sam Wood, if you’re listening, do you sell prints of this?


Things to Ruin Your Night


Noxious Ghoul, Call to the Grave, Barter in Blood, Innocent Blood, Liliana’s Reaver, Cackling Fiend


Disruption is up next, and for this I’m counting anything that actively messes with the players resources. Noxious Ghoul is a repeatable one-sided sweeper and Call to the Grave is a nightmare of pressure. Both of those are capable of keeping players’ creatures off the board. Barter in Blood and Innocent Blood both reduce creatures, and the horde can usually spare the tokens more than the players. Liliana’s Reaver and Cackling Fiend both hit hands, forcing some tough decisions on players, and further draining those precious resources.


They Just Keep Coming!


Living End, Twilight’s Call, Gravepurge, Zombie Apocalypse, Ghoulraiser


The last piece of the puzzle is recursion. Zombies are famous for not staying dead, and this horde is no exception. Living End’s countdown to doomsday adds a tension to the game as players start intentionally making bad blocks to fill their own graveyards so they will have something when the board flips over. Both Living End and Twilight’s Call rely on the horde’s propensity to have more creatures in its graveyard than the players. Nine times out of ten, it works; the tenth time, the players get that nice rush of relief as they get back into a losing game.  


Gravepurge causes the horde to start over, which provides a nice Ghosts n’ Goblins moment in a long game. Zombie Apocalypse is the ultimate one-sided reanimator with a side of anti-humanity. The anti-human clause isn’t a big deal, but usually hits a couple critters, especially if you remember The Great Creature Type Update. Ghoulraiser gets a random critter back, which makes it recursion, but it’s lame recursion for just a little bit of value.


Overall, I’m pretty happy with this horde; it succeeds in providing the feeling of being gradually overrun by a horde of undead and hits all the emotional beats I’m looking for. I’m not going to call it finished, as there’s always more work to be done, new gems to find, and new zombie token arts to add in. My current favorite is the fancy Sultai zombies from Khans of Tarkir, but that may change in the next set.


Let me know in the comments if you have any zombies you love in horde, or even any creature types you would like to see “horded.” Theorycrafting hordes that scare my wife is a bit of a hobby of mine, so if I get tired of talking about the hordes I’ve actually made maybe we’ll talk Hard Mode.


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