Practical Legacy – Refining Reanimator

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Friday, April 9th – My last article, In Search of Flash: Reanimator in Legacy, concluded with a potential Reanimator list based in part on Steve Sadin’s winning Hulk Flash deck from Grand Prix: Columbus 2007. The list was a merger of Steve’s list and Andres Mullers’ list from Grand Prix: Madrid 2010. The idea was to retain the strengths of both decks as much as possible.

My last article, In Search of Flash: Reanimator in Legacy, concluded with a potential Reanimator list based in part on Steve Sadin winning Hulk Flash deck from Grand Prix: Columbus 2007. The list was a merger of Steve’s list and Andres Mullers’ list from Grand Prix: Madrid 2010. The idea was to retain the strengths of both decks as much as possible.

After some initial testing the deck is very slow. It was unable to race Zoo losing four out of five games. Setting up Counterbalance against Zoo can often be too slow especially when there is no way to remove the creatures they have already put into play before Counterbalance resolves. Dark Confidant was very vulnerable against Zoo, and was often a dead draw. Finally Sensei’s Divining Top is an effective way to find relevant cards, but it requires repeated mana investment over many turns, which is again a problem against Zoo.

The testing against other decks was mixed. It won a couple of games against Ad Nauseam Tendrils, but that isn’t surprising since the deck contains both Counterbalance and Force of Will along with its own combo. There were a few games against Merfolk, but it only seemed to do well in games where it was able to have Entomb plus Exhume or Reanimate very early in the game. Any game that dragged out the deck seemed to lose, because it drew cards that do nothing in losing situations.

The hope was that the deck could be a fast combo deck with the best control elements in the format as well, but during testing it seemed more and more like a control deck with no removal and a combo finish, which often costs it too much life later in the game. The deck also contains too much life loss, in the form of Dark Confidant and Reanimate, to really want to get to the late game. The way the deck is currently constructed just does not work at all like Steve Sadin Hulk Flash deck, and needs to be refined and perhaps completely overhauled.

To a large degree, Reanimator has already been designed, and there is a great deal of agreement on most of the cards in the deck. Here is what most of the winning or successful lists have already have in common:

1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Inkwell Leviathan
1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind

4 Entomb
4 Reanimated
4 Exhume

4 Brainstorm
4 Mystical Tutor

4 Daze
4 Force of Will

16-18 lands

Total: 47-49 cards

This leaves anywhere from about eleven to thirteen slots in the deck that are customizable. There is no requirement that every Reanimator deck play all forty-seven of these cards, but it is really hard to argue with any of these choices. Entomb, Reanimate, and Exhume along with at least 3 reanimation targets are the minimum needed for the combo. Brainstorm is easily the best cantrip in the format, and helps to find any card in the deck. Mystical Tutor is a direct tutor for both parts of the combo, and it tutors for a protection spell as well. Finally, Force of Will and Daze are the best “free” counterspells in the format, and they make it more likely to resolve the combo.

The question remains how to best fill in these remaining slots. The list from the last article attempted to fill in these slots in with 4 Dark Confidant, 4 Counterbalance, and 4 Sensei’s Divining Top. This approach is not well-suited for the modern metagame .

Let us take a closer look at the more successful lists, starting with Andres Muller’s list.

The remaining spells in his list are:

4 Careful Study
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Inkwell Leviathan
1 Blazing Archon
1 Empyrial Archangel

2 Thoughtseize

1 Show and Tell
1 Echoing Truth
1 Dark Ritual

Most of these thirteen slots are devoted to playing additional creatures and Careful Study. The idea is that, with enough reanimation targets (7 in Muller’s build), Careful Study will be both a search spell and a discard outlet at the same time. When this comes together it eliminates the need to find Entomb and to simply cast a reanimation spell after Careful Study. The only other problem with this strategy is that it virtually impossible to control which reanimation target is brought back into play, because it is limited to what was in hand or what was drawn off Careful Study. This means that an Inkwell Leviathan might be reanimated against something like Zoo, where it is clearly worse than something like Iona, Shield of Emeria or Sphinx of the Steel Wind. The remaining slots in Muller’s build are some tutor targets for Mystical Tutor and two Thoughtseizes to provide some additional protection.

While many successful builds have opted for a creature-heavy list paired with Careful Study such as Muller’s, there are other successful builds as well. A different build was played by Dan Signorini to a Top 4 finish at StarCityGames Open event in Richmond on 02/28/2010.

The remaining spells in his list are:

4 Dark Ritual
3 Ponder
4 Thoughtseize
1 Rushing River

Dan’s list is very different in that it only has three creatures and relies almost entirely on finding Entomb. Ponder is included over Careful Study because it works whether you have drawn a creature or not. This version of the deck is much less likely to draw a creature, giving it more cards it can actually cast. Dark Ritual as a four of gives the deck a reasonable chance to combo off on turn 1. The ability to combo off on turn 1 cannot be underrated, as the life loss from Reanimate is much less likely to matter the earlier the combo is assembled. Finally, Thoughtseize is included mainly as a supplement to Daze and Force of Will as additional protection for the combo.

Some other lists have included elements of both Muller’s and Signorini’s lists, but most of them have not ventured much further beyond that. The list at the end of the last article was one such attempt, but it was lacking in the speed that makes Reanimator a powerful deck. A shell of the deck already exists, with some very successful additions to that shell, but maybe some better versions of the deck can be assembled with some unique card choices. Perhaps some of them will lead to fruitful ideas that can blossom into a more refined deck.

If Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top are to be included in the deck then it really needs some type of removal to deal with creatures that have already come into play. The Dark Confidant slot can be changed to something like Swords to Plowshares or Engineered Explosives. This would drift the deck into more of a control deck with a combo finish and some degree might resemble Natural Order CounterTop decks. This may be a viable strategy to move the deck towards and may improve its match-ups against other control decks.

The use of Swords to Plowshares would be a new direction for the deck, since most if not all of the Reanimator decks have been limited to two colors. This seems odd since Legacy is full of three- and four-color decks, and there is the potential that Reanimator could benefit from additional colors just like any other deck.

A completely different direction would be to use one of the most played cards in Legacy, Tarmogoyf. Since Reanimator plans to win by swinging with a large creature, Tarmogoyf can provide an accelerated clock or even a backup win condition when facing disruption. He could placed in the sideboard for games to be brought in against graveyard disruption, but in pre-board games he could allow the deck to play an aggro-control role by playing Tarmogoyf and countering the most relevant spells an opponent plays. Even more aggression could be added to the deck, by playing Tombstalker (which Dan Signorini included in his sideboard). Both of these creatures taken together could present a winning game plan even if the primary plan of reanimating a large creature fail to materialize. The additional benefit of playing more creatures is that if they are countered or sent to the graveyard they can easily be brought by via Exhume and Reanimate (though reanimating Tombstalker will hurt almost as much as a reanimation target). This deck in this incarnation may start to resemble Team America, which is a aggro-control deck featuring Tarmogoyf and Tombstalker.

The remaining slots in such a list could be:

4 Dark Ritual
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Tombstalker

Refining Reanimator will be a matter of optimizing the last few cards that make it the best possible deck that it can be. It is possible that this set has already been found in one of the many successful lists that have already won tournaments, but it also quite possible that a deck that is relatively new in its current form has not reached that level of refinement. Many successful lists are sometimes just based on previous lists with little or no change. This process will take time and may require many changes, but with such a solid foundation on which to build there seems to be little doubt that the power of Reanimator will be something that will lure players and designers to it.

Anwar Ahmad

AnwarA101 on The Source and StarCityGames Forums

It was brought to my attention that a Counterbalance Reanimator list did see play in Madrid and placed very highly, but outside of the Top 8. I was unaware of such a list when writing about the Counterbalance list at the end of the previous article. The list can be found here.