The Gravekeepers made their first appearance way back in Pharaonic Guardian in 2004, and just to give you an idea of the power level of that set: it also introduced the PACMAN and Dark Scorpion strategies. Jokes aside, the set had plenty of potent cards as well, such as Book of Moon, Metamorphosis, and Trap Dustshoot.
The main strategy of the deck revolved around Necrovalley. Despite having gone through a dozen of erratum texts the past two decades, its effect has always boiled down to saying no to any graveyard-based strategies, more or less. This was a less devastating effect when Necrovalley came out, but the other important line of text, for those back then, gives all Gravekeeper monsters 500 attack and defense.
The most famous Gravekeeper is probably Gravekeeper's Spy. This spy brings out any Gravekeeper monster with 1500 or less attack when flipped face-up and has an incredible 2000 defense. This becomes 2500 defense under Necrovalley, which was more than enough to wall anything that wasn't a Chaos Envoy or Sasuke Samurai.
Other members of the clan included Gravekeeper's Guard, whose flip effect returns anyone daring to enter his tomb to the hand. The fact that both Spy and Guard had strong flip effects combined with a massive defensive stat in a format where Book of Moon and Tsukuyomi ran wild was pretty incredible. Gravekeeper's Assailant and Gravekeeper's Spear Soldier saw play because of their relatively high offensive stat (1,500 without Necrovalley's boost), and the boss monster Gravekeeper's Chief revives a Gravekeeper when he is tribute summoned. There were also a bunch of Graveekeeper cards that dealt burn damage, which wasn't unusual for early archetypes, with the trend continuing well into the GX era.
Besides the monsters and Necrovalley, the Gravekeeper deck had access to two relevant support cards. Rite of Spirit is an in-theme Call of the Haunted that bypasses the Necrovalley restrictions, and Royal Tribute is a card that forces both players to discard all monsters in their hands, with the only condition to activate it was having Necrovalley on the field. For a large part of this game's history, that meant the opponent was forced to reveal their hand as well.
Although these cards represented a somewhat coherent strategy, players rarely found success with the theme. One successful Gravekeeper was Daryl Gessler, who made it to the top cut of Shonen Jump Indianapolis in August 2005, a format also known as Goat Format.
|Daryl Gessler, Top 8 at SJC Indianapolis 2005|
Despite not doing very well as a pure strategy, the individual Gravekeeper cards found a home in many different decks. Spy and Guard were often added into decks to both serve as a defensive wall, as well as providing tribute fodder. The year 2006 is well-known for having a slow and balanced format, where Monarchs could be seen in a variety of decks, so having tribute fodder that summoned more tribute fodder was quite potent indeed.
About halfway 2007, Force of the Breaker was released. The most noteworthy cards in the set were Raiza the Storm Monarch and the card Firewall that people wanted banned in 2018 for some reason. The set is better known for its high comedy factor, with it containing the Crystal Beasts as well as 95% of all the Pyro-related cards in the game. While we're not going to spend our time waiting for new Volcanic support, we can stroll through the rest of the set and see a group of monsters that can search field spells by discarding themselves from the hand or field, and one of them was Gravekeeper's Commandant. Having an in-theme way to search out Necrovalley was definitely a good addition to the card pool, but it wasn't ground-breaking. After all, Terraforming did that already.
A few years later, 2010, would be a big year for Gravekeepers. Absolute Powerforce gave the deck a couple of new cards. Gravekeeper's Descendant is a new 1500 attack beater that lets you tribute another Gravekeeper to destroy a card on the field. That means that, if your opponent attacked your Spy and it lived, you could bring out Descendant and tribute Spy to pop a card. This nice little mini-engine made it into Billy Brake's decklist at the legendary SJC Edison in 2010, but Descendant wasn't the only amazing new card.
Gravekeeper's Stele is a spell card that lets you add two Gravekeeper monsters from your graveyard to your hand. This means you can easily replace a Necrovalley that was destroyed by the opponent, or a Spy to slowly start preparing a comeback. Despite it being a great card in the conventional Gravekeeper deck, it was absent from Rex Mendoza's Gravekeeper Burn deck that topped SJC Edison. He did not opt to play the burn-related Gravekeeper cards, instead opting to hit the opponent hard with Wave-Motion Cannon and a bunch of classic burn cards like Magic Cylinder.
Still in 2010, Starstrike Blast was an insane set that shook up the game as we knew it! Besides inflating the power level of Synchro strategies to ridiculous levels thanks to Glow-Up Bulb and Tuning, the set also introduced Gravekeeper's Recruiter, which seemed to fit into the strategy like a long-lost puzzle piece. Recruiter could easily be grabbed by Spy, and since it replaces itself it is excellent fodder for your Descendant. We see this card in full action in a pretty well-known decklist—Frazier Smith's YCS Atlanta winning decklist.
|Frazier Smith, 1st at YCS Atlanta 2010|
|Main Deck||Extra Deck|
The deck was pretty much built to lower the opponent's ceiling as fast as possible. The deck could easily play the newly-released Pot of Duality, which let Frazier dig for anything he needed, whether that was one of his 5 copies of Necrovalley, the Royal Tribute to blow his opponent out of the duel on the first turn (Plant Synchro? I didn't think so) or additional traps if he already had his entire setup available. Starlight Road was another fairly fresh card that worked wonders in the deck, preventing opponents from taking a shortcut through the carefully constructed minefield and punishing them immensely for trying to do so.
Gravekeeper decks throughout the years would have a very similar gameplan and layout, and it worked wonders for them. The fact that many of the cards were easily accessible in a Structure Deck made it a beloved first deck for many players delving (back) into the more serious metagame, except for Recruiter, who was a stupidly high priced Rare and Ultra until an eventual reprint in 2019. When Xyz monsters eventually hit the game, Gravekeeper players thoroughly enjoyed making use of the rank 4 toolbox, just like many other decks. Thanks to innovations and adapting to different formats, Gravekeepers still managed to maintain some level of relevancy until about halfway through the decade.
The last few Gravekeeper cards we got appeared in Soul Fusion, including a powerful searcher in the form of Necrovalley Throne. Despite the fact that Necrovalley was not a bad card to have in Eternal/TOSS Format, the Gravekeeper strategy did not retake its spot in the meta again.
Gravekeepers at the top tables of competitive play were not something you'd expect during the second half of that decade. However, that wasn't true in all formats. People who saw some of my previous articles know exactly what I'm going to talk about, and for those who haven't yet realized it, you're way too deep into this paragraph to quit now.
One of the original strategies included in the Speed Duel Starter Decks was Gravekeepers, because the game's designers might have or might not have skipped the episodes in which Ishizu Ishtar played the game.
Speed Duel's 1st format, Starter Deck Format, did not yet have the right tools available to let Gravekeeper stand up to the Tribal Synergy and Blue-Eyes Decks that dominated it. Arena of Lost Souls, the first set, gave us Gravekeeper's Ambusher, a 1,700 beater that was never relevant in Advanced Constructed, and the Skill Card Tomb of the Pharaoh. This made the deck a bit more playable, but it still seemed to lack a way to make the boss monster, Gravekeeper's Oracle, truly threatening.
When the second set, Attack from the Deep, dropped, my teammate Danique De Jongh and I came up with the Lucky Gravekeeper deck that I piloted to win German Nationals shortly after the set was released. Another fellow teammate, Youri Lansman (who had played Gravekeepers religiously in Advanced Constructed for years), played a burn version of Gravekeepers, and both my friends took top cut spots as well.
|Ryan Jacobs, 1st at Speed Duel German Nationals 2019|
During the Predators format, named after the Rex & Weevil Structure Decks, the deck adapted to play Eradicating Aerosol and Hidden Parasite, but wasn't always able to tackle the Serpent Night Dragon matchup, and slowly faded away from Speed Duel's competitive metagame as well.
These are confusing times. And confusing times often cause incredible rogue decks to shine. Even though many people would debate that taking only the best few Gravekeeper cards, adding in a Red-Eyes Dark Dragoon package, complete with cards like Pot of Prosperity and Red-Eyes Insight, as well as a bunch of powerful trap cards, is not a "real" Gravekeeper deck, it's probably the only way to actually play cards belonging to the archetype. Usually, in this version of "modern day Gravekeepers", there is a big focus on using Necrovalley to lock the opponent out of shenanigans. Commandant is played in a full playset to search it, and Throne makes it so you basically have 10 Necrovalleys in your deck, if you include Terraforming. Gravekeeper's Headman is one of the new cards from Soul Fusion that sadly couldn't make the deck viable again, but in this version it's the only other Gravekeeper that sees play, because it allows you to access Predaplant Verte Anaconda after resolving Commandant's effect.
Of course, Royal Tribute is going to be there as well, allowing you to pluck the Ash Blossom out of your opponent's hand so your Red-Eyes Fusion can properly resolve, and take away a lot of resources that your opponent might have needed to make their comeback.
Could a "pure" Gravekeeper strategy ever be viable again, with some extra support? I'm a bit skeptical to be honest. Throughout the years, the design process for these cards has been pretty weird, with very different things being tried every time. I think that if we were to have access to a few new Gravekeeper cards, they would need to strongly focus on Necrovalley. Perhaps a sort of Salamangreat Balelynx-like monster that can both search it out and protect it? Perhaps a Numeron Wall-like card that can plop Necrovalley onto the field even during the opponent's turn? Who knows what the future might bring.
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