Kaldheim Spotlight: Narfi, Betrayer King
- Marin Magda
Kaldheim didn't break Magic just yet, but it's full of relatively complex cards that take at least a few seconds to fully comprehend. One card that doesn't betray its true strength at first glance is Narfi. The Betrayer King has more going for it than meets the eye, from snow to Zombie to the graveyard—and back.
"Other snow and Zombie creatures you control get +1/+1."
In conjunction with a 4/3 stat line, this effect seems very promising. I'm not even going to focus on snow creatures this time, but that's an angle to explore as well. Regardless, there are so many Zombies and Zombie lords, it would be a bummer not to try and go for a tribal deck. The second part of this card makes me feel even more inclined to go that route:
"Return Narfi, Betrayer King from your graveyard to the battlefield tapped."
While activating this ability costs three snow mana, which can be awkward, it's the most lucrative way to get Narfi onto the battlefield. Indeed, you can get around the five-mana casting cost completely if you discard Narfi yourself. This also means Narfi isn't limited to blue-black decks but can find a home in monoblack as well. After all, black offers numerous ways to discard a card for profit. Worthwhile to note, you can flash Narfi in this way, so it can show up during your opponent's end step or even mid-combat. Because it's an activated ability, it's immune to regular counterspells and doesn't care about Teferi, Time Raveler forbidding spells.
Not least, you can return Narfi from the graveyard over and over again. Pre-nerf companions have shown how having a creature that's always at the ready is incredibly powerful. While Narfi doesn't come as an extra card in the opening hand, nor is it as powerful, it can still enter the fray rather consistently. The more I look at this ability, the more I like it.
Many Zombies can be returned to the battlefield from the graveyard, of course. But with the exception of Gravecrawler and Geralf's Messenger, most of these abilities are rather underpowered. They usually require you to tap a creature or pay lots of mana just for a small beater. With Narfi, however, you only need to pay three mana, which is nothing in comparison.
To make things even better, converted mana cost 5 avoids a bunch of removal spells. Fatal Push, Abrupt Decay, and Eliminate are all useless against Narfi, and even if the opponent kills the 4/3, it can come back. It also avoids not just counters but spells that deal with spells such as Spell Queller and Aether Gust too. Another creature that fits the bill is Stormwing Entity, which sees a lot of play for similar reasons. While both die to some of the most common removal in Modern such as Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile, only Narfi can return from the graveyard when struck with lightning.
Don't get me wrong, having to pay specifically snow mana is indeed a downside. It prevents you from running the Mutavault /Urborg land combination, which hurts because Mutavault is also a Zombie. However, this may be a worthy sacrifice nevertheless. Even though this is a Dimir creature, just playing twenty-something Snow-Covered Swamps with perhaps some Castles will likely do.
As far as formats go, neither the weakest nor the strongest can really support this tribal strategy. I wouldn't even thread into Standard, as it doesn't have nearly enough Zombies still legal from previous sets. Unsurprisingly, it goes without saying that Legacy and Vintage are out of the question, especially since they didn't have any Zombie decks recently either. Pioneer and Modern, on the other side, did have them not too long ago, and as such are worth a closer look.
With Monoblack Aggro a part of the format's metagame since day one, Zombies seemed destined to stay in its shadow forever. While I'm willing to concede that this probably won't change much, perhaps we get to see at least just a bit more Zombie action thanks to Narfi. Nowadays, it's hard to find a list that's done anything in an online league less than two to three months ago. However, at least those in that time range can help imagine what a new list would look like:
|Pioneer Monoblack Zombies|
Because a two-colored snow-covered land selection in Pioneer would require several tapped lands/Fabled Passage, I want to base this build on discarding Narfi and recurring it later into the game. Cryptbreaker is a perfect fit for the task at hand, and so is Rotting Regisaur. For the same reason, I'd stick to Collective Brutality in the main rather than Fatal Push but would still make room in the sideboard for the latter. Liliana too can help in this regard, and if all of this discarding doesn't prove sufficient, there's still the option of including the Gate to the Afterlife/God-Pharaoh's Gift engine, or you could throw in another Demonic Embrace, Geier Reach Sanitarium, or Haunted Dead.
Lifebane Zombie is a meta call, which I believe to be justified, unless the environment changes heavily all of a sudden. I'd run it both in the main and in the sideboard in varying numbers depending on the most common matchups. Finally, there's another pair of new cards that deserve a sideboard slot or two in my opinion. Both Draugr Necromancer and Rise of the Dread Marn are likely going to do great here. The Necromancer might be good against aggressive decks, while the Rise seems crazy strong as a back-up in case of a board wipe. Not many answers to wrath effects tick all the boxes of being instants, black, this cheap to cast, and leaving behind a sizeable army. Midnight Reaper could recoup lost cards but pales in comparison
Since Narfi itself is an uncommon and snow-covered lands already got another reprint, I see this as a great budget Pioneer option for fans of monoblack decks.
Unlike in Pioneer, nothing is monoblack in Modern. Even Zombies started adding blue months ago and white long before that. Currently, most Dimir Zombies builds utilize Soul Diviner because it works great with Geralf's Messenger. The Diviner also synergizes with Plague Belcher, but I can't find other synergies, so I'm not too fond of this "combo." White, on the other side, has Corpse Knight, Wayward Servant, and even Tidehollow Sculler. It even occasionally uses Lurrus, but Narfi, Betrayer King doesn't seem to be a Cat person. Because of its converted mana cost, Narfi can't reliably be flashed in via Aether Vial either, but at least it can still be flashed in from the graveyard without it.
Narfi makes for one of the better answers to Plague Engineer too. While the Engineer doesn't see that much play at the moment, its power level is still keeping most tribal deck pilots on their toes, and it might become more of a factor with the influx of Kaldheim's tribal support. It can deal with Gravecrawler and Cryptbreaker without breaking a sweat, so one ought to be prepared at all times.
Even though I like the monoblack version, I'll try and stick with Dimir in the end. Not only does Narfi run these colors, they also offer sideboard options which are great in every meta. Additionally, Soul Diviner has very decent base stats for its cost and can act as an occasional draw engine. Adding it doesn't hurt at all as Geralf's Messenger will always remain a mainstay in Modern Zombies.
|Modern Dimir Zombies|
Up to this point, all Dimir versions I saw ran Diregraf Captains, so I'm going to keep them, even though I did consider cutting them. I believe that having multiple card draw engines is even more important than having lords in Modern, but I would still try to balance the two. I would rather not include more than two copies of Narfi in Modern, mostly because of Path to Exile, but there are enough means of discarding the card nevertheless. Liliana of the Veil is the most notable addition here, as she also happens to be a huge threat that leaves a mark as soon as she resolves.
At the end of the day, I think that these new Zombie builds do look more powerful than the old ones. The true question, however, is whether they will be good enough. Zombies were, and still are, capable of making 5-0 runs on Magic Online Leagues in both formats, but not much more than that. I'm not sure whether or not this will change, but just like how this appears to be easier to do in Modern now, it might get easier in Pioneer in the near future. I honestly feel like the archetype benefits quite a bit from the new Zombie cards.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.