Reanimator was one of two decks that led to the banning of Mystical Tutor back in June 2010. But unlike the other culprit, Ad Nauseam Tendrils,
Reanimator dropped off the face of the earth following that announcement.
…Until New Phyrexia, that is. A sweet ten-mana creature with a totally
useless ability (as well as two awesome ones) brought the archetype back. It’s been popping up in StarCityGames.com Open top 8s with regularity ever
since people figured out how to build the deck.
What I’ll be doing today is to go over why the deck is back, talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the new Reanimator deck, and argue why it is
one of the best decks to consider for your next tournament (especially if it happens to be a long one).
The Ultimate Creature
The reason Reanimator was hit harder by the banning of Mystical Tutor than ANT was the fact that none of its fatties was actually insane against every
single matchup â€” meaning that the deck depended quite a bit on Entomb delivering the goods to the graveyard. Without Mystical Tutor, Careful Study was
a lackluster secondary discard outlet at best, and Entomb wasn’t easily accessible any more. This often left you unable to give life to something
sufficiently impressive in the matchup at hand.
By making Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur available, New Phyrexia remedied this issue to a ridiculous amount. This Praetor is Yawgmoth’s true heir, as his
abilities are roughly as game ending as the aforementioned villain’s Will.
Losing the game with Jin in play is pretty hard, actually. Not only does he fill your hand with countermagic to keep the opponent from doing anything
relevant, the fact that you’ll generally end up with more than seven cards in hand allows you to discard additional fatties ready to hit play next
turn. As if that wasn’t enough, he also takes the away your opponent’s ability to interact with you relevantly by emptying their hand every turn. Even
Dredge, the deck most likely to profit from dumping its hand into the graveyard, will be hard-pressed to keep up with the stream of additional
ridiculous creatures bound to come into play on your side, turn after turn. This upgrade to Careful Study was exactly the boost in consistency the deck
needed to creep back into the top tiers of the format.
Obviously, we can’t talk about New Phyrexia additions without discussing the presence of Mental Misstep. For all his strengths, Jin-Gitaxias has one
significant weakness: he’s vulnerable to a huge number of spot removal spells, the most common obviously being Swords to Plowshares. Mental Misstep
protects your Praetor from that â€” and once you hit your end step, you’re likely to find another free counter between Daze, Force of Will, and Misstep.
So what do these new lists look like? Take a look at Rob Castellon’s version from the Boston Open:
- 1 Empyrial Archangel
- 1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
- 1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
- 1 Terastodon
- 3 Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
The Best Draws in the Format
There are few decks that can even threaten to keep up with Reanimator on a good day. Any hand containing an Entomb is likely to lead to a turn two
Jin-Gitaxias simply because the deck has between ten and eleven reanimation effects. How many decks do you know that can fight through a hand like this
on the draw?
Yeah, you won’t actually be dead on turn 2 as you would be against some Tendrils hands â€” but you might as well be when you’re left with two lands and
no cards against an opponent who keeps drawing seven.
The other big edge you gain from running Reanimator compared to other combo decks is that you get to skimp on the mana. Sure, ANT also runs seventeen
lands… but it also ends up with around thirty-two mana sources thanks to all the necessary fast mana. Reanimator, on the other hand, has such cheap
pieces (nothing the deck wants to resolve pre-sideboard costs more than two) that seventeen is enough straight-up. Such a low land count means you’re
going to draw many more business spells than most of your opponents â€” which does a lot of work to remedy the fact that you have between seven and eight
cards you won’t ever hard-cast, leaving you with twenty-five cards that don’t do anything, fewer than anything else gets away with.
Finally, you’re fast combo â€” but you also get to play with a bunch of free counters, including Force of Will. Usually, there have been two kinds of
combo decks in Legacy: fast ones, like Storm, which had to rely on proactive disruption to protect their combo (with all the vulnerabilities to
Brainstorm and permanent-based hate that entails), and slower ones, like Hive Mind and High Tide, which relied on the power of Force of Will to both
efficiently protect their combo and disrupt opposing plans that threatened to disrupt or kill them.
Reanimator spans the divide by consistently making a game-winning play by turn 2, and being able to actually interact with its opponents once they’re
making a move. Don’t undervalue how important this is. While Force of Will is often called the glue that holds Vintage and Legacy together, it’s
actually much more powerful when it’s defending your ridiculous combo than it is at stopping it.
In addition to all these traits, the deck is even well-positioned right now. Graveyard hate is still frighteningly underplayed in the format, and a lot
of it is Relic of Progenitus — which is pretty good against Dredge and Life from the Loam, but will often prove too slow against Reanimator on the
draw. Is it a good sign if a two-mana solution is too slow? Depends on which side of the table you’re sitting, I suppose.
To summarize, by playing Reanimator you get incredible speed, the best nut-draws in the format (well, I guess you could argue that Island, Ancient
Tomb, Show and Tell, Hive Mind, double Pact of Negation, Pact of the Titan is better â€” but that collapses against a simple Duress effect), high
redundancy in your combo pieces, a lot of room for business spells and the most efficient and flexible protection suite available… And your opponents
are likely to run suboptimal hate for you.
The Costs, and Ways to Mitigate Them
That sounds like Reanimator should be the deck to play, period, doesn’t it? As good as Reanimator is, there are some factors keep it from being an
unbeatable machine (luckily).
The most important thing keeping Reanimator honest is that its strategy, at least when based around Jin-Gitaxias, is vulnerable to just about
everything interactive the opponent can muster. Spot removal? Check. Enchantment removal? Partial Check (Animate Dead is used to give the deck its
redundancy). Graveyard hate? Obviously check. Mana Denial? Check, as most of the deck’s mana base is made up of non-basics and it doesn’t run many
lands. (Note that it doesn’t need much mana at all, though, so don’t expect to Wastelock a competent Reanimator pilot.) Anti-Legend cards (Clone
effects, Karakas)? Check. Discard? Check. Countermagic, including Mental Misstep? Check, as all the burial outlets (things that put a big guy into the
graveyard) cost one.
Now, Reanimator can put up a fight against every kind of interaction just mentioned and play around a lot of them given the right hand â€” especially
because the pressure is on the opponent to bring them to bear before a Yawgmoth-like blow-out occurs. The sheer amount of relevant interactive cards
means that most decks can relevantly disrupt Reanimator, though. There are very few matchups that are true free-roll goldfish games, like they are for
something like ANT.
Returning to the dark side for a moment, if you’re playing Reanimator and need to play around interactive cards, here are a few relevant tricks:
Countermagic Stopping Your Burial Outlet?
Instead of doing anything on turn 1 (especially on the draw), take a page out of Dredge’s book and just move to your discard step with eight cards in
hand. That will allow you to deposit the necessary creature where it belongs, without any way for the opponent to stop you from doing so. This is
especially viable in hands that have a ton of reanimation spells, but only zero to one burial outlets.
Tormod’s Crypt, or Other Graveyard-Sweeping Cards?
Try to assemble Entomb plus Exhume, with something good already in the yard. Cast Exhume, which will probably lead to your opponent getting rid of your
goodies. Now, once his graveyard hate has gone off, you receive priority before Exhume actually resolves. This gives you a window to cast
Entomb and make the hate utterly irrelevant. This works because Exhume, different from other reanimation spells, doesn’t target a creature; instead,
lets both players choose one on resolution.
Another way out is countering and animating opposing creatures â€” though that’s rarely a good enough plan to actually win. It might work against an
opponent who mulliganed to get Leyline of the Void, though (Dredge and Life from the Loam decks also have a tendency to drop some juicy corpses into
the yard). But don’t try this one with Exhume; you’ll be disappointed.
Options to play around these are limited… but it gives you a good reason to prefer the sorcery versions against decks that have access to Qasali
Pridemage or have brought in enchantment removal. You might be able to reanimate Iona, Shield of Emeria on green against hands that have enough
countermagic to stop Swords, but not Qasali Pridemage or Krosan Grip (yes, I had someone board that in against me).
Karakas, Phantasmal Image, and friends?
Playing around Karakas is possible, if Entomb enables you to get your choice of reanimation target â€” but other than that, you just have to
hope your opponent taps it for mana. The Clones, on the other hand are actually rather bad against Reanimator, simply because answering Jin-Gitaxias at
sorcery speed is not a great plan (you still get to draw seven, meaning Jin is probably making a comeback next turn in true villain fashion).
Another weakness of Reanimator is also one of its strengths — the high number of redundant reanimation effects can become a curse instead of a blessing
when you’re looking for something different (likely a burial outlet) â€” because as long as there’s no creature in the graveyard, those ten to eleven
cards are pretty much just dead. Likewise, Entomb doesn’t do anything relevant if you already have the target you need, or need a way to bring the dead
back to life.
The other burial outlet, Careful Study, while being library manipulation, is pretty bad at that job. This is the deck’s nature catching up with it as,
at heart, Reanimator is a two- or three-card combo-deck (Entomb + animator, Careful Study + target + animator), in which each piece simply doesn’t do
anything relevant without the other.
Finally, another flaw Reanimator suffers from is related to the nature of its combo. Where other combo decks win on the spot once they go off,
Reanimator just does something grossly unfair. While that’s very good if it happens early, doing nothing followed by a turn 4 Jin-Gitaxias is often not
enough to get you back into the game. Aggressive decks might have you dead on board (something that’s made even worse by Reanimate causing life loss —
there’s even a chance of just dying to Lightning Bolt, Lightning Bolt, Fireblast after casting this on turn 2), and control decks should have a hand
full of answers at that point â€” not to mention that they’ll be ready to drop a Jace, the Mind Sculptor once they’ve stopped the upcoming attempt at
The natural weaknesses of Reanimator are made even worse post-sideboard, because you have to prepare to fight graveyard hate in some way (seeing as how
the deck doesn’t do anything without access to that zone)… even if the opponent doesn’t have any. In the dark, this is a huge problem because
answers to one kind of hate are often useless against another. At the same time, bringing in answers to all forms of hate simply isn’t feasible, as
you’d have to remove far too many of your actual business spells and just lose to their normal deck.
Luckily (I guess), there’s one spell that bypasses whatever form of hate the opponent might have chosen: Show and Tell. Reanimator is already full of
ridiculous creatures â€” and while Show and Telling them into play can be a little slow, it works against whatever hate the opponent has chosen to bring
(which, hopefully, has slowed them down a bit in exchange, too). If you’ve won game one (which you should very often, as long as the opponent doesn’t
have a good scout-report; Reanimator is so fast that a lot of hands you’d keep in the dark don’t line up particularly well against it), it should
usually be right to just bring in the Show and Tell plan from the board, ignore your other answers, and readjust in game three (if there is one) once
you’ve seen what plan the opponent is on. This also has the advantage of only minimally impacting the speed of the deck â€” something that’s extremely
valuable should the opponent not have hate or not have drawn it.
Reanimator in Action
About two weeks ago, I played a few games against Reanimator and experienced first-hand the kind of ridiculous draws the deck can produce. So I decided
to give the deck a whirl at the local tournament I’ve written about before. I used this:
- 1 Hapless Researcher
- 1 Blazing Archon
- 1 Empyrial Archangel
- 1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
- 1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
- 3 Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
Among Reanimator players, there seem to be two mindsets: trying for utmost redundancy (preferring Hapless Researchers over cantrips to maximize the
number of both animation and burial effects), and a mindset closer to Eli Casis’ list, running the full set of Ponders and Brainstorms
to decrease variance at the cost of some speed.
The list I played, similar to Castellon’s above, straddles the middle ground â€” though his reasons for doing so were probably different from mine. My
main incentive was to create a deck that would allow me to see the cards that are present both decks in action at least once in a while â€” I was playing
an exploratory decklist, if you will, which should explain some of the more awkward choices in my list.
Now, for your enjoyment, a short report, followed by the conclusions I’ve drawn from actually playing the deck through a tournament (which are always
very different from playtesting) and the list I’d play if I chose to run Reanimator again. Note that a lot of games were really short with not much to
say — such is the nature of Reanimator.
Round One: Sneak and Show
Game One: I Careful Study a Jin away early, but run into trouble actually finding a reanimation spell. Luckily, that means my hand is full of
disruption â€” and once he Intuitions for Sneak Attack main phase (for some reason), I finally draw one of the ten cards I’m looking for. After drawing
my seven, he obviously doesn’t get to resolve the Sneak Attack any more, and soon is out of cards entirely.
Game Two: He’s mana-screwed after I counter his first attempt to go off (I think; my reporting is a bit fuzzy here), and Jin leaves him no time to
Round 2: Deedstill
Game One: I know he’s playing blue control, but decide to throw the game away by casting Entomb (which gets Mental Misstepped) instead of
draw-discarding Jin-Gitaxias. I don’t draw any more burial effects â€” and once I finally have enough cards to dump him from my hand, my opponent has a
ton of lands and has Standstill in play. When I break the Standstill, I still haven’t found more than three lands and he straight-up answers a
Reanimation effect a turn for six turns in a row (including Pernicious Deeding away an Animate Dead). I guess drawing cards with Jace helped there.
Mishra’s Factory beats finally kill me.
Game Two: I bring in the Show and Tells and proceed to draw all of them â€” which turns out to be awesome, considering he stops two but the third
resolves and I have a little Yaggie in hand. Jin takes over, but he only concedes once I actually swing for lethal.
Game 3: Dismember gets the first Jin, countermagic keeps it from coming back long enough for Jace to resolve â€” but that’s when time is called. I guess
he should have stopped playing game two somewhat earlier.
Round 3: Stoneforge Bant
Game One: I get Jin down really early, and there’s nothing he can do.
Game Two: I fail to find business with two cantrips, and minor disruption buys him time to play a Jace, which does me in quite easily.
Game Three: I have Careful Study, a Reanimation effect, and a ton of backup â€” but find nothing but Elesh Norn to actually target with my reanimation.
While she ends up killing his Stoneforge Mystic and Knight of the Reliquary, she doesn’t provide much of a clock. I lose to Batterskull equipped with
Sword of Body and Mind.
Round 4: Spiral Tide
Round 5: NO Bant
Game One: I’ve learned my lesson and discard Jin by going to eight, following it up with Reanimation effects on both turns 2 and 3. The second one
sticks because he’s tapped out for Tarmogoyf. Once I hit my end step, it’s all over.
Game Two: I lose my first Jin-Gitaxias to Krosan Grip, but there are a lot more reanimation effects in the deck. The Praetor sticks on turn 3; he
Brainstorms, drops a Goyf and a fourth land, but doesn’t kill Jin. I haven’t found countermagic or fatties in my new seven, so I just play a land and
pass, drawing another seven. While I still don’t find countermagic, he Natural Orders (nice Brainstorm!), I did get to ditch some fat and he scoops
them up once I bring back both Archon and Sphinx on my turn.
Who cares about protection from everything when he can have the power of Phyrexia instead?
I wound up in fifth place and felt somewhat unsatisfied â€” not with the performance of the deck, but in the way games played out. My matches were mainly
blow-outs in one way or another, though that’s what you get when playing a deck that tries to be this unfair.
The deck is utterly ridiculous, but Jin-Gitaxias really is the heart of the deck. He’s so much better than everything else you can reanimate, it isn’t
I was never short on Careful Studies, so Hapless Researcher seems just unnecessary â€” and Reanimating some random fattie is rarely good enough anyway.
Empyrial Archangel in general wasn’t good for me. Even against decks against which the shroud should shine, it simply didn’t do enough
(neither would Inkwell Looter, for that matter), so that’s how I’d make room for the fourth badass. I’d still keep one of the shrouded creatures in the
board, simply because there are decks that can kill everything else quite easily but have no answer for something they can’t target.
The anti-hate in the board wasn’t necessary for me and you can lose so much consistency by taking out important elements that I’m not sure going with
much more than Show and Tell, Thoughtseize and some bounce is worthwhile, though there aren’t all that many cards you actually need either (as, again,
there isn’t much room to sideboard with anyway). If I was to play the tournament again, this is what I’d bring:
A note on mulligan decisions:
The deck topdecks quite badly and just can’t keep up in the later stages of the game (as explained further up), so you need to be very aggressive. Any
hand that doesn’t have a clear plan as how to animate by turn 3 should be thrown back.
While the deck isn’t something I particularly enjoy playing (there’s not enough convoluted thinking involved, and no Jaces), it has a lot of raw power
and has a large number of hands people simply cannot beat.
The thing I don’t like about it (the shortness of the games), is also something that a true spike should value highly, especially for long tournaments.
You’re much less likely to suffer from fatigue in the later rounds when you rarely play for more than twenty minutes. In short, I have no idea why more
people haven’t chosen to run this at the StarCityGames.com Opens â€” and I think if it ever reaches a metagame-saturation similar to that of Hive Mind or
NO RUG, we’d see it put up numbers that match or exceed theirs.
If you’re looking for the deck with the most raw power in the format, Reanimator should probably be your choice in Legacy at the moment. Phyrexian end
bosses are just that good.
I hope I’ve inspired some of you to go study necromancy for a bit, as the rewards for playing God are quite impressive. Those that don’t feel like
dabbling in the dark arts be warned — you need to take this deck seriously or it will eat you alive. Until next time, make sure you draw seven every
Bonus Section — Two-Face
If you don’t want to know anything about Innistrad before you go to the prerelease, stop reading here.
While this has nothing to do with the article or Legacy in general, I really felt the need to express my feelings concerning Wizards’ latest coup — the
double-faced cards from Innistrad.
I’m not your typical player who cries havoc whenever they change something. When they abolished damage on the stack, my complaints where that you
couldn’t split damage any more (to maximize something like Pyroclasm post-combat) and that they changed the functionality of Wishes to make them much
less sweet. I wholeheartedly supported the latest bannings, and welcomed Modern when many complained that all the cool cards were banned. I don’t
complain about Wizards actions just because there is change.
That being said, I really hate the way double-faced cards work.
I think the idea behind them is great. The cards capture the flavor of transformation perfectly, make the game state easy to understand
(you’re never in doubt which side of the creature you’re facing), and the mechanics surrounding them are easy to grok outside of a few interactions
(like, say, Ixidron).
All this is defeated by the practical requirements necessary to use them, though. I don’t really mind the card back thing, as playing with (opaque)
sleeves is second nature to me anyway. Draft information working differently doesn’t seem like it should be such a big thing. I can see how it would
annoy quite a few people with habits different from mine, though.
The real issue I have with these cards is that actually playing with them will be absurdly annoying, as Wizards doesn’t seem to have taken the time to
get the last kinks out of the concept. Playing with the cards sleeved up has a number of issues, the two most important of which are (in my mind)
Players will lose a lot of extra time due to having to resleeve them every time they flip, or when the opponent wants to see the other side (to decide
if they should be hit with countermagic or discard, for example)
You’re unable to do a quick check on what exactly they do while they’re in your hand without making it abundantly obvious what you’re holding — I doubt
any opponent will miss what you’re up to if you start desleeving one of your cards, even assuming you manage to do that without revealing one side of
the card while taking it out of the sleeve. This one is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the “flipped” version is likely to matter mainly once the
card is resolved, and should take a bit of time to come online.
Now, the people working at Wizards aren’t stupid and have obviously realized these issues. Their solution to the problem is a cure only a mother could
love, though. A card that is a list of card names and casting costs, on which you tick the correct one — really?
First, how ugly is that? I mean, I probably care less than anyone about the aesthetics of the game. I don’t care what conditions my cards are in, I
don’t “pimp” my decks, and I didn’t give a damn when they changed the card frames in Mirrodin (other than being unable to easily distinguish white
cards from artifacts, which they fixed post-haste). And I still would feel really bad about sleeving up one of those placeholder cards instead
of something with cool artwork that actually, you know, looks like a Magic card.
I can only imagine how big the effect will be on people that actually care about how cool Magic looks. The saddest thing here? The double-faced cards
are a good idea mainly because they drip flavor. Drawing a handful of checklists totally destroys this effect, and ends up doing more damage to the
feel of the game than how cool the cards are once resolved could ever make up for.
It doesn’t really end with aesthetic issues, though. If you run the checklist, you still can’t look up what the card does without tipping the opponent
off about the contents of your hand and deck (this time by randomly looking at cards in your deck box). Actually, you even lose the benefit of having
the front available for perusal, making the list even worse as far as knowing what the card does is concerned.
It also becomes much harder to actually remember what you have in hand (as long as you run more than a single double-faced card) because you don’t have
the aid of visual memory. I know there are a ton of cards I recognize by the Gestalt-image of the whole card, not by looking at its name and a cross
somewhere on a cramped list just doesn’t work the same way.
The most annoying thing about this is that the solution could have been pretty simple: Instead of printing checklists, include front-side versions
(maybe with some form of altered art/frame/coloring/reminder text so that people don’t mistake them the actual cards) of the double-sided cards with a
normal Magic back. Players could sleeve those up, and when they actually play the card get the real version from their deck box in a clear sleeve*.
This doesn’t solve all the issues (you still need to grope in your deck box to reread the “flipped” version), but at least it still has the sweet look
of a Magic card, it allows you to read up on what exactly your card does while it’s in your hand, and you have the image to mentally identify it.
* – For those with enough ready cash: you can emulate this solution by buying every card twice, sleeving one set up for your deck while keeping the
others nearby in clear sleeves. Forcing people to do that only so that they can avoid either ugliness/memory issues or bad game play is really rough,
I came up with this in about five minutes after being shocked by seeing that ugly piece of checklist cardboard. MaRo didn’t even mention the option in
his article, though I suppose he thought it was covered by the fact that they couldn’t get the machines to put the fitting “token” into the same pack
as the sorcery that creates it without huge expense. Having the correct single-sided card to go with the double-sided one would have had the same
News flash: you’re trying to break the rules here! So just break them a little further. Include an additional bonus booster with each display of
Innistrad that contains a sufficient number of single-face versions of double-faced cards to cover whatever is reasonably likely to come out of said
display. When drafting, you automatically are given the fitting placeholders for each card you drafted by the TO, who’ll have them available thanks to
the bonus-booster. When buying cards yourself, you’ll either own them anyway (because you bought the display), or hit the correct one in your booster
or you could acquire them for free/very cheaply because supply of single-face cards would outnumber double-faced cards by far (non-rare tokens are
already really cheap, these would be even more easy to get).
Now, I’m not saying this is the perfect solution â€” far from it! As mentioned, I made it up in five minutes. It is already much more functional
and aesthetically pleasing than what Wizards has done, which, to me, indicates that they went ahead publishing the double-faced cards without working
out the logistics even halfway. That is very sloppy work and I expect better from them.
To come to an end, new, flavorful ideas = sweet. Half-cocked solutions to issues concerning enjoyable game play = ruins everything. A game should,
before everything else, be fun to play. The worst thing you can do is to add a million unnecessary actions to it that disturb the flow of the game
without actually doing anything. The second worst is to get rid of all the flavor you create as a way to implement a solution to these game play
issues. At that point, making the mechanic becomes useless in the first place because people won’t get the flavor out of it that you’re aiming for… but
they’ll still have to suffer through the annoyance.
That’s all I have to say about that for now. I hope the cards will somehow play better than it seems they will. That, or Wizards might just print
single-face boosters (including a single-face version of each double-faced card in each booster) and sell them for exactly what they cost to produce.