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The Sickest Kids On The Block: A Reanimator Primer

By now, the cat is clearly out of the bag when it comes to the Standard B/R Reanimator deck. All right – that’s an understatement. The cat escaped the bag aeons ago and is currently shooting craps in the alley with a 40 oz. in hand. Reanimator has been making the rounds on Magic Online for a good month and a half, and the deck had a large number of disciples running it in the Masters Gateway tournament as well.

Eeeeek!! A title with a colon in it! I’m told that you’re not officially a Magic scribe until you’ve done a piece with a colon in the title. (Better than having a piece of something in your colon, but I digress…)


Now that I’ve kicked things off gross style, please crack open your Magical notebook, put the brain in gear, and listen to the funk flow.


By now, the cat is clearly out of the bag when it comes to the Standard B/R Reanimator deck. All right – that’s an understatement. The cat escaped the bag aeons ago and is currently shooting craps in the alley with a 40 oz. in hand. Reanimator has been making the rounds on Magic Online for a good month and a half, and the deck had a large number of disciples running it in the Masters Gateway tournament as well. As noted on the Sideboard, mass quantities of Psychatog, U/G Madness, and Mono Black Control thwarted Reanimator in its many configurations. Despite nary a single Masters slot yielded by the control-heavy field, I have deemed this to be the most fun and still competitive deck to play in Standard currently. With a little TLC, Reanimator could even be whipped into Tier 1 status.


And isn’t that what tender loving care is all about – whipping? At least that’s what my daily dominatrix porn spam email has me believing.


Rather than a decklist followed by a card by card breakdown, we’re going to start by assuming absolutely nothing. Cleaaaar your mind, grasshoppa. Forget about anti-control strategies, anti-beatdown cards, and the sideboard. Forget about the decklist your favorite pro ran in the Gateway. Forget about naked Victoria’s Secret models perched atop a giant caramel sundae with the whipped cream drizzled across their…


Hmm. Excuse me, I was using my inside voice again.


Let’s begin with the core of the deck; the cards absolutely necessary for this strategy to have any consistency and merit whatsoever:


The core

4 Burning Wish

3 Buried Alive

3 Stitch Together


Only ten cards, yes? The importance of Buried Alive ought to be obvious to anyone with a pulse. It puts three monsters in your graveyard and gets you four-sevenths of the way towards threshold.


The latter point should not be disregarded, due to the presence Stitch Together – another core card. Stitch Together is conditional reanimation. To warrant a space in the deck, this condition must be satisfied more than 70-75% of the time by the turn you ideally want to cast it, which is usually around turn 4 or 5. Fortunately, B/R Reanimator often has little trouble fulfilling this condition by the specified time due to the presence of sac lands and miscellaneous cyclers.


The final and most important slab of core cardboard is Burning Wish. Burning Wish gives Reanimator extra copies of whatever core card is missing from the puzzle, and it can also give the player mass removal, hand disruption, graveyard hate, and graveyard gas – all on demand. I witnessed the value of Burning Wish go from three tickets to six tickets on MTGO in about a week’s time, all due to the rampant emergence of reanimation strategies. It is the straw that stirs the drink, the onions in the onion soup, the alpha and the omega, the solitary card that gives B/R Reanimator some much-needed consistency. Without this consistency and redundancy, the deck becomes an even more easily-disrupted pile of rubbish with exceedingly narrow paths to victory.


The Servants

3 Doomed Necromancer (Igor)

2 Zombify

x Undead Gladiator


Options:

Strands of Night


Doomed Necromancer is usually run as four of in this deck, but I believe that three is the right number. B/R Reanimator simply can not rely on Anger being right on point when it needs to be. At times, you draw the little ditch digger and have no immediate way to rid your opening hand of it. On occasion, you’ll have the time to spare and can spend a turn putting Anger in the graveyard where it belongs – but one turn can be the difference between winning and losing with this deck. If Buried Alive is cast on turn 3 as every Reanimator deck hopes to do, casting a turn 4 un-hasted Doomed Necromancer is decidedly sub-optimal. Turn 4 Zombify puts one of the big uglies into play and ready to serve a full turn earlier.


Then there are instances when you’ll have an opening hand with an Undead Gladiator, a fatty (not that kind), and a Zombify. Turn 2 cycle Undead Gladiator, turn 3 dump loser from hand/get back Undead Gladiator, turn 4 Zombify is a decent start. Not as ideal as one on the Anger-management plan, but good enough.


I am still debating exactly how many Undead Gladiators belong in the deck. They’re truly versatile, serving four vital purposes:


1) Cycling through your deck to get you to the core pieces

2) Getting you closer to threshold for the all-important Stitch Together

3) Removing impossible to cast fatness from your hand when drawn

4) Acting as an all-around pain in the ass against Psychatog and other control decks


It’s pretty evident that the card’s most central function is 3); the other stuff is just icing on the cake. The dilemma of how many Gladiators to play is predicated on what other cards in the deck also achieve the end of putting unwanteds in the ‘yard. A fair quantity of the Reanimator decks in the Gateway ran Sickening Dreams and some opted for Last Rites. More than a few decks ran both of these cards, as well as a lonely Undead Gladiator. This debate deserves some careful scrutiny, so we will return to it later on in the analysis.


Strands of Night is an interesting alternative to Zombify in that it’s reusable reanimation – which seems like a good idea at first blush. The drawback is that it’s a full turn slower, and costs two life and a swamp. While this card might be a good idea against a control deck where you’d have the time to be paying life and sacrificing swamps, against heavy beatdown you’re going to regret the life and land loss very quickly. (It’s also not exactly synergistic with paying the flashback cost on Chainer’s Edict, but that’s a really minor nitpick.) It does combo well with Stitch Together and can get you some extra life off of Ancestor’s Chosen if that’s in the mix. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but I think it’s probably better suited as a sideboard card against control decks. If you can force Strands of Night into play with the help of extra disruption from the sideboard, it will probably win you the match provided you don’t catch too many Coffin Purges in the eye. Still, if Doomed Necromancers are in the mix, I think Oversold Cemetery trumps Strands of Night as the choice for reusable reanimation.


The Masters

I’ll address these beasts one by one, as each serves a totally unique function. Remember, every critter is hand-picked by Juan Valdez.


1 Anger [speed]

Some decks pack two copies of Anger, but I believe that more than one is a waste of a slot. Though I haven’t tested it myself, it seems like you would rarely want to draw Anger anyway – so why increase the chance of doing so? Sure, it makes good fodder for a turn 2 Sickening Dreams or turn 3 Last Rites, but I’d rather see my best and most brutal thug in my opening grip than Anger. I never want to have to make the choice between losing a turn to put Anger in the yard and bringing a monster into play without haste. Using only one copy of Anger insures that you won’t have to, most of the time. If an opponent Coffin Purges it or casts Krosan Reclamation on the first one, getting the second Anger in the yard is the furthest thing from my mind. One may be the loneliest number that you’ll ever know, but it’s the right number for Anger in the deck.


1 Arcanis the Omnipotent

I really don’t like making blanket statements, as they’re rarely 100% true and tend to make people who utter them look like fools… Yet I am going to come out and say that if you can get this guy in play with haste, it’s just about impossible to lose. Even if the old coot is offed the turn after he enters play, you still draw three cards, and it is highly probable that one of them is going to help put Arcanis the Ancestral back up in the mix. If he’s not killed on your opponent’s turn, you draw seven cards in the blink of an eye (for the math impaired, that’s three at the end of your opponent’s turn, three in your upkeep, and one in your draw step). Personally, I find losing difficult after drawing seven fresh ones. Unless your life is in immediate danger or you can just kill the opponent straight away, Arcanis should unquestionably be the first kid out of the cemetery gates when playing this deck.


1 Visara the Dreadful [creature control]

You’ve heard of liquid tempo, yes? Say hello to Visara: Liquid board control. Want something dead? Visara’s got your back. A 5/5 flier that taps to kill anything is officially Not Bad. It’s also officially Pretty Good that you can hard cast the snake-haired bitch in a pinch. If you’re playing against U/G or G/W madness, you want her on the table as soon as possible. If you’re playing the mirror match, you want her on the table before your opponent (that whole Legend thing, again). An active Visara is simply game over against a dedicated beatdown deck, as she’s big enough to block something, tap to kill something, and then kill the creature she’s blocked with combat damage. Getting her out on turn 4 has earned me more scoops than I care to count on Magic Online. I’d rate her just below Arcanis in terms of overall power level in the deck.


1 Symbiotic Wurm [removal control]

Symbiotic Wurm is a 7/7 pipe-hitter that laughs in the face of Chainer’s Edict and Wrath of God – probably the two most prominent removal spells in the environment today. Our little reptilian menace knows no other life than to make opponents using these two spells into desperate shells of their former selves. Since Chainer’s Edict in particular is so prominent and typically catastrophic against Reanimator, running Symbiotic Wurm to take the fall is a respectable answer to the problem. It’s also particularly diesel against decks that don’t have that many blockers. Symbiotic Wurm makes some devastating plays possible – swinging for seven, sacrificing it to Cabal Therapy your opponent (getting seven tokens), then reanimating him again on the next turn and swinging for fourteen. I would give pause to any man who claimed of better times.


1 Silent Specter [anti-control]

Words can not do justice to what a beating Silent Specter is against a control deck like Mirari’s Wake, Psychatog, or Opposition. If allowed to operate unmolested, he takes home the prize as much as any other of his friends. Silent Specter is a little weaker, a little less glamorous… But he flat-out gets it done against decks that typically need a long game in order to win. This specter’s got an added bonus in that you can drop him morphed and start serving it up early; if he’s killed, no big deal – ole’ SS is right at home in the graveyard. If Silent Specter is revealed on turn 5, well… If he wasn’t dealt with as a 2/2, chances are he’s not going to be dealt with as a 4/4 flying hand-wrecker either. Although arguably the most vulnerable of the deck’s platinum hit squad, he still deserves a spot in the maindeck over some of the more situational critters due to his raw-doggable nature.


(For those of you who don’t speak Charlottesvillian, to raw-dog something means to cast or do something the hard way. At Mid-Atlantic Regionals ’01, our crew had a contest to see how many Roar of the Wurms we paid the full 6G for. The question after every round: How many raw-dog Wurms did you bust? You get the idea.)


1 Phantom Nishoba [anti-beatdown / burn]

Now this guy is hard to stop. A 7/7 life-gaining trampler is simply the best clock you could ask for in the Standard environment. He doesn’t care about blockers, and he laughs at burn. Phantom Nishoba provides a fourteen-point life swing when he turns sideways, and buys Reanimator time to get some of the other suspects out of the graveyard and take further control of the game. Kind of like that Cyclops dude in the fantasy cult movie Krull – he holds up the crumbling passageway and saves you from imminent death. Just when you thought I’d be without a reference…


Phantom Nishoba is also the most important card against Sligh or R/G Beats. If you don’t get it out quickly, you will probably lose. If you do get it out before your life total reads zero, you can not be beaten. When playing against an aggressive deck (other than U/G, which has its own strategy), this is the first guy to pop out when in any danger whatsoever of dying to lethal damage.


1 metagame/matchup-dependent creature of choice [Ancestor’s Chosen]

As I said earlier, some like to put an extra copy of Anger in here but I’m not into all that mess. When Legions drops, I’ll probably try out Akroma, Angel of Vengeance here. There’s some experimentation to be done, for sure. I’ve tried a bunch of things in this spot: Petradon, Butcher Orgg, Rorix Bladewing… But the one I like the best thus far is Ancestor’s Chosen. He’s a 4/4 first striking purveyor of piety and can usually net you an average of ten life when he hits the scene, green at nineteen. Obviously the life boost usually buys a couple of extra cards if you’re on death’s door – cards that could give you a chance to get right back in the game. Ancestor’s Chosen is also bonkers against Astral Slide decks and should be on the table post-haste.


“Are you sliding him out again? It’s all good, friend; I’ll go to sixty-seven. Your go.”


Let’s recap:

4 Burning Wish

3 Buried Alive

3 Stitch Together

3 Doomed Necromancer

3 Undead Gladiator

2 Zombify

1 Anger

1 Ancestor’s Chosen

1 Visara the Dreadful

1 Arcanis the Omnipotent

1 Symbiotic Wurm

1 Phantom Nishoba

1 Silent Specter


I’m going to call out three Undead Gladiators as the right number for now. If you choose to run Sickening Dreams as many of these decks do, you can cut the Undead Gs down to 1. That leaves 11 slots left, and the cards chosen must fill some gaping holes. This deck clearly needs some kind of disruptive element, or else it will roll over to those bearing islands. It also needs removal, and more of it than you would expect. From a quick once-over of the Gateway decklists, I think this is where many of them went astray.


Disruption

4 Duress


Options:

Last Rites

Cabal Therapy


Duress is the people’s choice for disruption. Always a pain on the first turn, always elicits a grimace from the man across the table. One mana, one card, your way, right away. I have love for Last Rites, as takes multiple cards from your opponent but quite frequently, you never have more than 1 thing you’re happy to get rid of in your own hand. On top of this, Last Rites is pure card disadvantage. I do understand the rationale behind the card’s presence in many Gateway decks; it’s a beating against control and it allows you to cheat on the deck’s removal complement, intuiting that you’ll take at least one or two creatures against aggro when cast. But it’s pretty painful to cast Last Rites, check out your opponent’s grip, and then see a Roar of the Wurm all primed up to crush your life total. Or worse, Last Rites has done the deed and you’re feeling great, then all of a sudden you have to stare at a Phantom Centaur right off the top ropes.


Choosing to play Last Rites in the maindeck is a metagame call you’re going to have to make on your own. It might have been the right choice going in to the Gateway tournament amidst the Psychatog sea – but if nary a single B/R emerged, how good could it have been? I need more convincing that the card is worth the slot; I tried two Last Rites straight up, but now I only tote one as a wish target out of the sideboard.


Cabal Therapy has great synergy with many of the cards in B/R Reanimator and definitely deserves space in the sideboard. I’m not a great fan of it maindeck, as I just don’t think there’s room for it. If you’re an experienced player with a highly-defined metagame, you can swap Duress for Cabal Therapy straight up, just don’t come crying to me when you don’t know what to name on your first turn after your opponent lays an island and says”go.” If in doubt, stick with Duress.


Removal

4 Chainer’s Edict

3 Smother


Options:

Sickening Dreams

Toxic Stench (attention check – just kidding, folks)


There are merits to all three of these cards, and it’s definitely a matter of personal taste when choosing which to put in the deck. I don’t think that B/R Reanimator can afford not to run Chainer’s Edict. There are too many problem creatures in the environment (even more with this deck’s recent rise in popularity), and you need something to do on turn 2 if Burning Wish is not a play.


Sickening Dreams is good for a few reasons: It gets rid of mass amounts of creatures at once, it removes fatties from your hand as part of the casting cost (so even if it’s countered, the guys still go to the grumper where they belong), and most significantly, it can kill the opponent. But Sickening Dreams is bad for a few reasons: It’s card disadvantage, it’s usually fools’ gold in the Sligh matchup, and at times it just sits in your hand and receives evil hate beams because you wish it was a Smother or some other removal spell.


Smother is an odd bird; Sickening Dreams takes out many of the creatures that Smother usually handles (except ye olde Roar token), so you can afford to run fewer copies of Smother if you play with both. At present, I like Smother enough to give it three slots in the deck; any other targeted terminations will have to be deferred to Visara.


On the flip, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with Sickening Dreams and right now I’m hedging on the hate side. I definitely enjoy casting a ten-point Arcanis-fueled bitch-slap from time to time, but I think I enjoy not being furious at its double occupancy in my opening hand even more. That said, it still belongs in the sideboard as a wish target and may even warrant a second copy due to the rise of Franck Canu’s winning Opposition build. As I alluded to earlier in the article, the true debate is not between Sickening Dreams and Smother; it’s between Sickening Dreams and Undead Gladiator. The three copies of Undead Gladiator will help to drop creatures just as well, it’s more cycling for the deck, and it’s an extra creature so that you don’t have to depend entirely on the magnificent seven getting ill-nasty on your opponent.


Lands

11 Swamp

6 Mountain

4 Bloodstained Mire

3 Barren Moor


Yes, I like 24 lands over the 25 present in most builds. I don’t like cutting a real card for the fourth Barren Moor, and B/R Reanimator can operate pretty well on a four-mana diet. Furthermore, Buried Alive increases your chances of drawing land with each casting. Use your sac lands judiciously and watch all mana troubles flitter away. Don’t be afraid to lay those Barren Moors, either.


Sideboard

3 Cabal Therapy

3 Coffin Purge

2 Oversold Cemetery

1 Buried Alive

1 Stitch Together

1 Sickening Dreams

1 Last Rites

1 Recoup

1 Haunting Echoes

1 Aven Cloudchaser


 Quick rundown of the sideboard choices:


3 Cabal Therapy

Great against control or combo, and I’ve been even known to side them in against decks like G/W beats to keep painbringers like Exalted Angel and Phantom Centaurs from ever hitting the table. Remember the fun of the flashback mechanic using Symbiotic Wurm as the fuel, too.


3 Coffin Purge

Sadly, the mirror match is an all-too-frequently occurring reality on MTGO. It’s such a stupid mirror as well, coming down to who simply gets a better draw in game 1 or who has more Coffin Purges in game 2 and 3. Siding in three Coffin Purge means you’ll probably draw at least one – and one can be devastating enough. Drawing two over the course of a game is ridiculous, as you get two uses out of each one (duh).


Devoting three slots in the sideboard to a mirror match would be kind of iffy unless Coffin Purge was good against other decks – and fortunately, it is. At least three decks in the Standard environment use Quiet Speculation, and you can insure that MBC won’t ever flashback Chainer’s Edict. You can probably do without as many ‘Purge when taking this deck to a local tournament, as the mirror won’t be as prominent as it is online.


2 Oversold Cemetery

I really, really, really like this card in a couple of matchups. Oversold Cemetery can single handedly win the game for you against Psychatog and other weirdo U/B variants. If three dudes are already in your graveyard from Buried Alive and you’ve got a Doomed Necromancer as well, you have Zombify on demand. At the low cost of two mana, you can sneak it under the radar fairly easily. It’s not bad against Astroglide either, since they’re probably not going to expect any enchantments in game 2 out from a B/R Reanimator deck (Until now! What have I done to myself?)


1 Buried Alive

1
Stitch Together

Here are the extra copies of the reanimation engine. I can think of no reason you’d ever side these in.


1 Last Rites

1
Sickening Dreams

Both cards enable you to remove junk from your hand if the board / game situation warrants it. Will that be anti-control or anti-beatdown, sir?


1 Recoup

Recoup allows you to recast cards that would be broken if they had flashback natively – stuff like Duress, Stitch Together, and the like. I frequently find myself going for it against a controllish deck to get double duty out of Duress and then cranking up a Buried Alive without the threat of a counter.


1 Haunting Echoes

3BB: Crush target opponent’s library. I like it. I especially like it when Astral Slide decks can no longer do a single thing after you cast this. I like it almost as much in the mirror matchup as well.


1 Aven Cloudchaser

Compost, Circle of Protection, Astral Slide, Opposition, Lightning Rift, Mirari’s Wake, Compulsion… Do you really want to see any of these on the table? If you don’t, side our fine feathered friend in. I have to say that I regularly feel pretty damned pathetic to be bringing a lousy 2/2 back into play, but I see no other option to get rid of the enchantments that elude discard spells.


How The Deck Wins

Step 1: Disrupt the opponent with discard, getting an eye on his early game plans.

Step 2: Survive the early creatures.

Step 3: Get huge monsters into graveyard.

Step 4: Beat opponent with thug of choice.


It sounds straightforward, but frequently it isn’t. There’s skill involved in knowing what to get with Burning Wish, knowing whether to cast Chainer’s Edict on turn 3 instead of Buried Alive and eating seven damage, when to go digging with Undead Gladiator, etc. If you can get through the early game still breathing, the mid game is where you take over like J-Hova.


Sligh, R/G Beats, W/G Madness, and pretty much any deck that depends on creatures as the primary path to victory simply can not beat you unless you draw very poorly. Your creatures are just utterly superior. You’re casting game-breaking legends and dumb 7/7 life-gaining trampling hate machines against Raging Goblins and Wild Mongrels. It isn’t fair. Against aggro-control and control, you’ve got a sideboard full of disruption to work with to exhaust their countermagic and strip their hand of answers to your big guns. Sometimes though, things don’t come up roses…


How The Deck Loses

The thing keeping B/R Reanimator, or any reanimation strategy for that matter, out of Tier 1 is the fact that it is so easily disrupted. Losing a Buried Alive to an opponent’s turn 1 Duress is a mule kick square in the unmentionables. Oh, and having Arcanis be the target of an unfriendly Krosan Reclamation or Coffin Purge in response to Stitch Together/Doomed Necromancer reminds me of a scene in last week’s Oz involving a spoon and a place spoons weren’t meant to travel. And of course, opponents with islands who counter everything you do is the straight Ralphie Treatment. And the cherry on top of the sundae with the Vicki’s Secret models: When Legions is released, Withered Wretch may kill this archetype single handedly. He’s still just a measly 2/2 creature, but damned if I want to fight through both Withered Wretch and Coffin Purge.


Reanimator decks are quite susceptible to very unfortunate draws. If you’re the type of player that’s afraid to mulligan a weak-looking opening hand, do not play this deck. It will let you down time and again. If you wanna run with the sickest kids in Magic, you better possess a strong stomach and a steady-plucking hand.


The moment you’ve all been waiting for – the deck’s name!


Undead G and the Platinum Hit Squad

4 Duress

4 Chainer’s Edict

3 Smother

4 Burning Wish

3 Buried Alive

3 Stitch Together

3 Doomed Necromancer

3 Undead Gladiator

2 Zombify

1 Anger

1 Ancestor’s Chosen

1 Visara the Dreadful

1 Arcanis the Omnipotent

1 Symbiotic Wurm

1 Phantom Nishoba

1 Silent Specter



11 Swamp

6 Mountain

4 Bloodstained Mire

3 Barren Moor


Sideboard:

3 Cabal Therapy

3 Coffin Purge

2 Oversold Cemetery

1 Buried Alive

1 Stitch Together

1 Sickening Dreams

1 Last Rites

1 Recoup

1 Haunting Echoes

1 Aven Cloudchaser


This is the version I’m currently testing and tuning right now. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s pretty close to where it needs to be.


Well folks, I’m spent. If I plugged all my matchup analysis into this article it’d probably be longer than my New Orleans tournament report (which it doesn’t seem many people read, foolishly) and my previous two articles combined. Well, perhaps not quite as long. Give this pile a spin, and stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll check in with a matchup matrix, sideboarding strategies, ways I think the deck might get to the vaunted tier 1 status, and a look at some of the other reanimation approached I’ve tried and seen tried (U/B, B/G, Bidding variants, etc.)


Until then, enjoy life.


Jim Ferraiolo

jm[email protected]

Dobbs on MTGO and IRC