Picking Your Best Frankenstein

Which Reanimator targets are the best for your Legacy deck? Drew evaluates all the big fatty boom-booms we love to unearth and goes over matchup evaluations. Stay on top of Legacy for 2012.

It started a little more than two years ago. They unbanned Entomb, and Legacy began its march toward modernization. No one ever really tracked the format’s growth back to that point, but Entomb created Legacy as we know it today. It’s funny, though—we remember so little about Entomb. Consider today half of a history lesson and half of an “inside the deck” article.

Entomb was banned in Legacy for more than six years, starting back in 2003. For reference, Legacy was created in 2004. To be precise, “Type 1.5”—voted to be named “Legacy” by dailymtg.com readers—split off from “Type 1”—Vintage—in Fall 2004. Entomb was on the original banned list. For the first five years of the format’s existence, people couldn’t play with Entomb. It was considered too powerful, even before the printing of such monsters as Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur, Iona, Shield of Emeria, Sphinx of the Steel Wind, Inkwell Leviathan, Platinum Emperion, and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite.

The very next Legacy Grand Prix showcased the raw power of the recently unbanned Entomb. The world’s largest Magic tournament saw Entomb and Mystical Tutor dominate a Zoo- and Counterbalance-infested Top 8.

Mystical Tutor in Reanimator meant that the deck could consistently field a turn two or turn three monster of its choice, often through a Force of Will or a Thoughtseize. It could beat graveyard hate with a virtual five Show and Tells or power through resistance with Dazes, Force of Wills, and Thoughtseizes.

The prime directive of Reanimator has remained the same from its Mystical Tutor days, even as the creatures and dig spells have moved around. More than anything else, Reanimator decks should be built to not lose to a removal spell. There are a few situations where this is impossible—usually with decks that have multiple colors of removal spells—but both deckbuilding and Entombing should focus on keeping your investment in play.

When Madrid-era Reanimator was being built, there were several distinct strategies that Reanimator needed to beat. It knew it would face Zoo, Storm, Lands, Bant Counterbalance (often with Natural Order), and Merfolk. Since it could Mystical Tutor for Entomb or Careful Study, Reanimator had tons of ways to get exactly the monster it wanted. As a result, Muller chose Sphinx of the Steel Wind against Zoo, Iona, Shield of Emeria against Storm and Lands, Inkwell Leviathan against Bant, Blazing Archon against Merfolk, and Empyrial Archangel against control decks that played multiple colors of removal. Of course, the modern metagame requires a completely different look at this problem, and I want to help you with that. If you want to skip the history lesson and go straight to the deck discussion, ctrl + F for “Discussion of Reanimator Targets.”

Reanimator saw quite a bit of success on the then-new SCG Open circuit, and the metagame shifted quite a bit to accommodate its presence. Oddly enough, the first sighting of Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Legacy was not as a way to dominate control mirrors but as a way to provide UB(gw) Control decks with another color removal spell for Iona, Shield of Emeria. Stock Counterbalance decks couldn’t race or remove an Inkwell Leviathan in those days, but the Landstill variants all had combinations of Diabolic Edict and Innocent Blood. Reanimator decks were forced to go for Iona naming black to guard against that, but the control decks could still Swords to Plowshares or Jace -1 those Ionas and lock the game up from there.

Even though the SCG Open circuit suppressed both the presence and the success of Mystical Tutor decks, Mystical got the banhammer in June of 2010 in one of the most memorable articles about Legacy in Magic’s history. In the official explanation article for the banning of Mystical Tutor, Tom LaPille reported that

…when we investigated how Legacy is played in the real world. We discovered something rather interesting, and that is that Mystical Tutor decks were quite rare at Legacy tournaments that did not have tons of money on the line. At Grand Prix and other cash tournaments, people were happy to bust out their Mystical Tutors. However, in the comfort of their home stores they seemed to prefer doing other things that were more fun, if perhaps less powerful. This struck me as being a sort of gentleman’s agreement; everyone knew what sick decks were out there, but they chose not to play them.

Predictably, this was the worst-received Legacy banning ever. The data for banning Mystical Tutor wasn’t there, yet Tom constructed his argument in such a way as to conveniently ignore huge swaths of data (the burgeoning SCG Open Series, which had a Legacy tournament every Sunday) by relegating those tournaments to the kiddie pool. Sure, the kids had fun with their “fair” Rock decks and their Merfolk decks and their Goblin decks, but they weren’t ever going to beat the “real” decks.

Since everyone seemed to enjoy playing fair, why not just ban the best card—even if it was egregiously underplayed—and let everyone live in the world they had dreamed up? After all, Tom did say that “we expect that neither Ad Nauseam Tendrils nor Reanimator will die entirely as decks. We do expect that they will be less powerful now, and that the format as a whole will be closer to the one that players who are part of ‘the gentleman’s agreement’ have voted for with their deck choices.”

This “gentleman’s agreement” theory got roughed up a bit when Survival of the Fittest became the clear best deck and actually dominated tournaments until its banning in December 2010 and when Mental Misstep got printed and every good deck played at least three copies until its banning in September 2011. Still, Reanimator survived the banning of Mystical Tutor and Survival of the Fittest. How has it changed since then, and what is the correct way to build modern-day Reanimator lists?

Discussion of Reanimator Targets

I consider the following cards to be viable maindeck Reanimator targets:


Blazing Archon
Iona, Shield of Emeria
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite


Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
Inkwell Leviathan


Angel of Despair
Empyrial Archangel
Sphinx of the Steel Wind


Platinum Emperion
Platinum Angel

This list is all well and good, but it’s difficult to figure out how many total targets to play, which targets to play for which matchups, and how to build the rest of the deck. Thankfully, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel—we have stacks of data to tell us what the most successful configurations are.

There are a few numbers in Magic that I have no idea how I learned. I chalk it up to absorbed conventional wisdom, but I’ve pushed the boundaries on each of these numbers and disliked what I’ve gotten back with each deviation. Take what you will from these numbers:

Traditional Reanimator lists run between 17 and 19 lands. Each successful list also has at least the following set of core elements:

4 Brainstorm
4 Force of Will
4 Careful Study
3 Daze
2 Ponder
4 Entomb
4 Reanimate
3 Exhume
2 Animate Dead
2 Thoughtseize

…which equals 32 cards. If we’re playing 17 to 19 land, we have between two and four other slots before we have to include our seven reanimation monsters. In the case of this shell, I’d like to play eighteen land (since getting mana-screwed is miserable) and ten animation cards, since each of the lists included at least another Exhume or another Animate Dead in addition to the above shell. Given the recent rise of Qasali Pridemage and Stifle, I’d rather play another Exhume than Animate Dead. I’d also like to play another disruptive element and another Ponder, since this deck’s biggest problems are often with its own consistency. This gives us the following list of additions:

+1 Exhume
+1 Thoughtseize
+1 Ponder
+18 land
+7 reanimation targets

Now that we have a rough idea of our decklist, let’s talk about creatures. What matchups do we plan on running into a lot? I’ve included elements that we care about in parentheses.

U/R Delver (Burn):

This is a mirror where both sides have Ponder, Brainstorm, Daze, and Force of Will, but they have Lava Spikes, and we have huge monsters. Given that they don’t maindeck any bounce spells and we shouldn’t worry too much about any bounce spells after sideboarding, Sphinx of the Steel Wind seems like an ideal candidate. Remember that if you’re at two life and are being attacked by two Goblin Guides, lifelink will save you.

Another possibility is to get Empyrial Archangel. The reason why I’m not a huge fan of Archangel against burn decks is that they can kill it (in which case you got three Healing Salve) or you Reanimated it (in which case you might break even on your Healing Salve plan) and they just burn you in response.

Yet another plan is to get Platinum Emperion. This might be the best option, since Reanimate targeting Platinum Emperion means that you lose zero life. If this is confusing, remember that cards’ static abilities exist from the moment they’re in play, so Emperion turns you Platinum right before Reanimate tries to collect on that eight life. Unfortunately, Emperion isn’t even that great at attacking, since any two creatures and a Lightning Bolt are going to force a trade in this spot, making Emperion worse at actually winning than a vigilance creature like, say, Sphinx of the Steel Wind. Sure, if you have another animation spell, you’re sitting pretty, but that’s pretty much always the case. You should always focus on how to win the game by casting one bury spell and one animation spell. Relying on multiple animation spells or combinations of huge monsters is greedy and poor planning. We can always do better than that.

U/W Stoneforge (Swords to Plowshares, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Karakas, Batterskull):

I’m not going to lie—this is not the prettiest matchup for us. If we try to play a fast game, they can Spell Snare our Animate Dead / Exhume or Spellstutter Sprite our Reanimate. If we try to play a slow game, they can cast a planeswalker, which generally leaves us colder and colder with each activation. The time that their counters buy them early on makes their Batterskull a relevant threat, since lifelink is no joke. So what’s our plan?

Having played the U/W side of the matchup a lot, I can promise you that the only three turns I worry about are the first three. If I get four lands in play and I’m not facing down Frankenstein, I’m pretty sure I’m winning. U/W Stoneforge is one of the best attrition decks in the format, while Reanimator has a lot of dead draws in the midgame and plays such gems as Careful Study and Daze to Stoneforge’s Snapcaster Mage and Counterspell. If Reanimator is going to win, it’s going to be in the early game. Given that, how much can we afford to gamble?

Jin-Gitaxias is the clear winner in terms of early game power. He asks an opponent if they have a removal spell; they say yes, and then we Force it or Daze it, draw seven, and they have a turn to Snapcaster or Swords our Jin. If they don’t, they lose. If they do, we still have seven cards. Great, right?

Well, it’s great until you think about all the things that have to go right. They have to not have Force of Will for either of our spells, or we have to have a Thoughtseize or Force of Will for each of their resistance spells. If we’re relying on not-Reanimate, we have to dodge Spell Snare. If they’re on the play, we have to dodge Spellstutter Sprite. So in a case where they don’t have all of those cards or we do have all the answers, do we really want to ask them if they happen to have a four-of that makes us more or less lose the game on the spot? Perhaps, but understand that you are taking the unfavorable side of a weighted coin flip.

A better option might be to go for Terastodon. If we’re going all in on them not having Swords to Plowshares, why not leave ourselves with a little insurance policy in case they happen to be able to kill our guy? I like our chances against U/W if we have three 3/3s. After all, what are they going to do, Jace a token? We can still kill Jace and have six power. Stoneforge Mystic is the worst card for us here, but we can still Thoughtseize their Batterskull or Sword of Feast and Famine to leave them back where they started. If they happen to be without a Swords to Plowshares, though, they just take 18 damage and die. Seems like our best possible plan.

A word of warning to all of you out there who want to get cute with your Terastodon choices: it is almost never correct to split the Beasts up. If there’s nothing threatening like a Moat or a Jace in play and you’re just blowing up lands, either destroy three of theirs or three of yours. If they have a removal spell AND a 3/3 versus your two 3/3s, you’re not going to win. The extra land of theirs that you blew up? It doesn’t matter. Terastodon gives you the luxury of a plan—either take them out of the game by Armageddoning them or make 18 power and force them to have the right cards in their hand. Don’t get cute; just kill them.

G/W Maverick (Swords to Plowshares, Scavenging Ooze, Qasali Pridemage, Karakas):

Before I get into target discussion, I want to note that U/W also traditionally plays a miser’s Karakas, but I didn’t emphasize it because they have no way of tutoring for it. Maverick, on the other hand, plays a Karakas and four Knight of the Reliquary to get it and four Green Sun’s Zenith to get those Knights. Unfortunately, it also plays a single Scavenging Ooze, which is a far more likely Zenith target. It also plays some number of Qasali Pridemages, which can blow up an Animate Dead and send its Animated monster packing. Finally, it plays some number of Aven Mindcensors, so you have to Entomb early or risk losing your best card’s effect altogether.

This hodgepodge of answers means that games against G/W are generally blowouts in one direction or another, but neither player can consistently control the outcome of the game. The rising popularity of this matchup is why I opted for another Thoughtseize rather than another Daze; information in the G/W Maverick matchup is hugely important, so Thoughtseize is worth its weight in gold. Still, your decisions are going to be largely ill-informed, so it’s good to evaluate each card on its merits.

Jin-Gitaxias is the best if you have a Force of Will in hand, since you’re most worried about Knight or Zenith into Karakas, both of which you can stop with your Force. Once you untap with the Core Augur, it’s lights out for them, since you can typically Animate Dead or Reanimate a creature a turn. Ideally, you would get Terastodon and put lethal in play as soon as possible, since they can peel a removal spell at any time.

A quick aside about Jin-Gitaxias: with the new changes in the Infraction Procedure Guide taking effect on January 1, 2012, I am fairly confident that his trigger is now “optional.” This means that you can’t deck yourself unless you want to, but that you have to clearly announce your draw-seven trigger or miss it. A judge can’t back up the game state on optional triggers, so don’t say “go”; say “go to my end step and trigger Jin-Gitaxias.”

Terastodon is another option and probably your best option if you don’t have any protection. I would opt for the full 18 and pray that your opponent doesn’t have a Swords to Plowshares plus a big monster, since you’re probably not winning if they do. Still, it’s better than some of the alternatives…

Getting Iona is actually not the worst ever, since you can name white and cut off their outs to exactly Green Sun’s Zenith for Knight of the Reliquary for Karakas, all while putting them on a three-turn clock. It’s nice that Iona on white also protects against Qasali Pridemage in the event that Iona is actually a four-turn clock courtesy of Animate Dead. Elesh Norn is about the same as Iona on white, but it gives them a few more outs by letting them cast Knight of the Reliquary and gives them a few more turns by virtue of having only four power.

By now, my reanimation target biases should be pretty clear. If I were to play Reanimator this weekend, I would play the following configuration of creatures:

2 Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
2 Terastodon
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite

If you want some homework and discussion fodder, feel free to argue the merits of various creatures in the following matchups and how some of the mentioned cards affect what your optimal Entomb decision is. Remember that you are not always the beatdown in a given matchup. Keep in mind that the best target may not be on the list of creatures I just presented. As always, make changes in accordance with your local metagame:

Merfolk (Aether Vial, Lord of Atlantis, Merrow Reejerey, Dismember, Phantasmal Image)

Storm (Dark Ritual)

RUG Delver (Dismember)

Belcher (Burning Wish, Empty the Warrens, Goblin Charbelcher)

Dredge (Dread Return, Bridge from Below)

See you next week!

Drew Levin

@drew_levin on Twitter