Every competitive player is in search of a deck that has an edge over all other decks in a given format. If such a deck exists, it gives any player playing it a clear and present advantage over any player not playing the same deck.
There has rarely been any such deck in Legacy’s short history. At most points in its history, a few decks have often considered the best, but none of these decks have had an advantage against every other deck in the format. There is, however, one big exception to this: Hulk Flash. About 3 years ago, Flash was changed so that a creature would enter play when Flash was cast. Along with Protean Hulk, this allowed for a two-card combo that would win the game. In some sense, this combo was very close to a one-card combo, because only the only spell that needed to resolve was Flash; Protean Hulk only needed to be in the player’s hand when they cast Flash.
There are many reasons why the Hulk Flash combo was simply the best deck in the format. First, it was a combo that could kill as early as turn 1, because it only cost two mana and only required the resolution of only one spell. In addition to all of these advantages, the combo was compact enough that it only required a few cards that were part of the combo and did nothing on their own. The rest of the deck was made up of cards to find the combo, counterspells to make sure the combo resolved, and the combo itself (Flash and Protean Hulk).
Here is Steve Sadin winning list from Grand Prix: Columbus 2007, organized by function:
The other decks in Legacy simply could not compete with Flash. Aggro decks were unable to race it and did not have enough control measures to slow the deck down. The control decks played similar counterspells, but were playing a worse win condition because it did not win the game for two mana the turn it was cast. Finally, other combo decks were either not as fast or were susceptible to the countermagic that Flash was playing. Flash was banned shortly after Grand Prix: Columbus because “… a scan of the cards played and strategies employed over the weekend show that Flash’s impact was unhealthy for the long term.”
Why is Flash important three years after its banning? It represents the most extreme example of what every competitive player is searching for. Every player hopes to play a deck that has every conceivable advantage over any opponent he might play and at worst even odds if they are both playing the same deck.
Fast forward three years and you will notice that another combo deck has just won the latest Legacy Grand Prix held in Madrid, Spain. Andreas Muller’s Reanimator won Grand Prix: Madrid, and some of the comparisons to the Hulk Flash combo deck are striking, but there are some important differences as well.
The first similarity is that Reanimator exists because of a policy change. Entomb was unbanned in the September of 2009, which made Reanimator a viable strategy, just as the change to Flash made the Hulk Flash combo. The most striking similarity is that both combos are two-card combos that win the game. Reanimator requires Entomb and a reanimation spell (Reanimate or Exhume). When Entomb and Reanimate are used together, the cost of the combo, two mana, is the same as the Hulk Flash combo. When Entomb is paired with Exhume, the cost is slightly higher at 3 mana, but it also does not require the large loss of life that Reanimate costs. Reanimator like Hulk Flash is very compact, allowing the rest of the deck to be made up of search spells, control measures, and the combo itself.
1 Animate Dead
1 Chain of Vapor
1 Echoing Truth
1 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Show and Tell
3 Spell Pierce
1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
1 Wipe Away
1 Woodfall Primus
The cards that are in bold in Muller’s deck are the same as in Sadin’s deck. This isn’t surprising, since cards like Force of Will and Brainstorm show up in many decks. The appearance of Daze, however, should be because is a conditional counterspell that does not work in most combo decks, but it works in both of these decks because they plan to cast their combo in the first two turns of the game where often Daze will be as much of a counterspell as Force of Will. The use of Daze here should be a sign of both decks’ speed and their compactness because they have enough slots to play another counter spell that works because the deck is incredibly fast.
While Reanimator resembles Hulk Flash in many ways, it’s also different and weaker for many reasons. The first is that Reanimator is a true two-card combo, in that it requires the resolution of two spells instead of one in the case of Hulk Flash. This may seem like a trivial difference, but it is not, because if an opponent is able to counter the reanimation spell, the Reanimator player is down a card, unless it was countered with a Force of Will which makes both player even on cards. In the case of Flash, the Flash player will be even on cards if Flash is countered, or ahead if his opponent has had to use a Force of Will. An even bigger difference is that even if Reanimator is able to combo off, it never wins the turn that this happens. The reanimated creature usually needs to swing for a few turns before the player actually wins. This opportunity gives the opponent a chance to do something to win the game in the next few turns. This may not be likely, but it is still a possibility. Hulk Flash gives its opponent no such opportunity. With the resolution of Flash, barring any other disruption from the opponent, Hulk Flash will win the game that turn.
Reanimator is clearly not as powerful as Hulk Flash, even with some of the similarities that it has with that deck. This does not mean that Reanimator is not the elusive deck that every Legacy player is looking for. It is possible, given the characteristics that it shares with Flash, that it may have an advantage over every other Legacy deck. This will take more time to determine than it took with Flash, because its strengths are not nearly as overwhelming as those of Hulk Flash. It is also quite possible that Reanimator is not the deck everyone is looking for, but rather that it is simply one of the many strong decks that competitive Legacy players should consider before entering a tournament; they must have a plan for it when trying to win a tournament.
Potential Reanimator List
While writing this article, it occurred to me that it might be possible to merge the two deck lists, Sadin’s and Muller’s. The decks are similar enough that it seems possible to take the best parts of both and try to merge them into one deck list. Since the Hulk Flash combo is not legal, the Reanimator combo is the place to start, but Muller’s deck has many creatures, which limits the slots for other potential search spells or control measures. Some of the Reanimator lists have played only 3 creatures — 1 Iona, 1 Inkwell, and 1 Sphinx. By trying this we can make room for some of the other cards that Sadin used to great success, specifically Sensei’s Divining Top and Counterbalance. The Sensei’s Divining Top helps to find the combo, and it also allows another way to lock an opponent with Counterbalance, or to protect a reanimated creature from removal.
Another difference is that we can cut the 1 Dark Ritual and some lands from Muller’s list and play Chrome Mox from Sadin’s list, which allows a turn 1 Entomb and then Reanimate. Chrome Mox also allows the playing of a first turn Dark Confidant (or Counterbalance), which will help gain card advantage against control decks. Dark Confidant can potentially swing in for damage that may limit the number of turns a reanimated creature will have to stay in play to win the game. Dark Confidant was part of Sadin’s list, but it might work well in Reanimator, especially if we limit the number of high-casting cost creatures in the deck to just 3. The other parts of the deck are either similar to both decks or are required for the Reanimator combo.
Here is the merged list:
It is important to note that there is no testing behind this list, and it derived from two successful Grand Prix lists. It is quite possible that it is not as good as Muller’s list or other Reanimator lists, but it may contain some cards that have not been considered or have been overlooked. The list seems to have very many powerful plays, especially since it may be able to lock other decks with its Counterbalance if it is unable to combo off very early in the game.
Until next time…