Why is black suffering in Modern?
After spending a whole episode of Dominaria’s Judgment dissecting that question, we identified that black’s main selling points have all been upstaged by other colours or rendered less relevant by other things going on:
Trading resources via targeted discard is a flawed plan when many of the top decks have a companion as a free eighth card, an untouchable source of threats and specific tools in Urza’s Saga, or both at once. The average card quality in competitive Modern decks has improved so much that the plan of depriving the opponent of their best card or creating a specific weakness in their hand is less realistic; the threats and answers are so cheap and versatile that you can’t Thoughtseize your way into a free win often.
Lurrus of the Dream-Den is the most glaring example of this. An opponent who reveals Lurrus begins the game knowing they will eventually get a free card that recurs another card, which has a high chance of translating into yet more cards. The change to the companion rule means you usually have a short window to snipe Lurrus with a discard spell but it’s tough to justify holding a Thoughtseize against a deck like Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus) capable of incredibly fast draws.
Lurrus is also the backbone of most successful black decks in Modern, so black can’t complain too much here but these structural factors mean the supporting cast that surrounds Lurrus in these decks is weaker across the board.
Black had a surprising lack of efficient removal for the first five years of Modern. The printing of Fatal Push was a game-changer and a universal boost to aggressive and midrange black decks. Push was a reason to be in black and a threat dodging Fatal Push — from Primeval Titan to Stormwing Entity — was a strong argument in its favour.
Modern Horizons 2 brought a new crop of threats (most notably Murktide Regent) that are technically off-limits for Fatal Push but cheap enough in practice to punish you for your removal lining up poorly. It also stole Fatal Push’s thunder with Unholy Heat, which is strong enough to take down threats that dodged red’s other premium damage-based removal like Lightning Bolt.
At the other end of the spectrum, the rest of the new threats are so cheap that you can’t trade up on mana against them — and trading resources in general is a weaker strategy for the reasons given above. Casting Fatal Push on Mantis Rider felt like a great deal; casting it on a Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer feels like a necessary move just to stay afloat.
For much of this time between Aether Revolt and Modern Horizons 2, black had some of the best cheap threats in Modern — if you were willing to pay the price — and was well-equipped to support other premium threats like Tarmogoyf by using discard and removal to clear away the handful of cards that could answer them well or contest them on the battlefield. Why jump through all these hoops for Death’s Shadow when it’s less likely to live and rule the roost when you could embrace cards like Ragavan and Dragon’s Rage Channeler that ask so little of you?
These reflections offered a meandering route to revisiting the Reanimator shell that just dropped into our laps.
The Reanimator package in the set feels like a ready-made deck of the sort you associate with particular set mechanics like Food or Adventures. The best reanimation spells, reanimation targets, and graveyard fillers are all Modern Horizons 2 cards. Ari’s Ship of Theseus reference is on-point for most of the set but this is the big exception; this isn’t the same boat gradually changing over time, this is waking up to a brand-new yacht.
This makes it tricky to situate the deck in the format but it has the potential to bypass the issues plaguing black as a colour right now. Discard is more appealing as a way to hit a narrow range of cards that meaningfully interact with you (or, for Thoughtseize specifically, as a discard outlet to enable reanimation). This is helped by the threats being stronger. Archon of Cruelty needs much less help to win a game than Tarmogoyf (and if that weren’t true this whole idea would be a non-starter) and means you just need to take away their one Terminate or Unholy Heat rather than fighting through their whole hand, while another new hit in Serra’s Emissary singlehandedly wins the game with no setup against some opponents (choosing creature against Mono-White Hammer, for example).
The same dynamic applies to removal. You no longer need to answer everything and having enough graveyard interactions to turn these drawbacks into advantages unlocks a new class of removal that most decks can’t afford to consider.
Priest of Fell Rites offers both the explosive potential of Turn 3 reanimation and the inevitability of eventual reanimation that can’t be countered or prevented by discard and removal. It also lets Unmarked Grave act as either half of your combo given enough time (and enough mana, which is why a copy of Unburial Rites is often seen in this role as shaving a mana off that sequence makes a big difference).
If Reanimator has all this going for it, why has it not delivered on the initial hype during preview season?
The rest of the format is already hostile to Reanimator almost by accident. Dauthi Voidwalker is another compelling reason to be in black and a cornerstone of the Rakdos/Mardu Midrange (Lurrus) decks; Sanctifier en-Vec shows up as a sideboard hammer against these Rakdos decks but will gladly hose your strategy while it’s there. Any deck with Urza’s Saga has reliable access to cards like Soul-Guide Lantern or Relic of Progenitus at the cost of just one slot. A quick glance at the card file for Modern Horizons 2 turns up a lot of cards like Territorial Kavu that incidentally exile cards from graveyards as an explicit safety valve against decks like this one.
A format that mostly involves fighting over the battlefield should be exploitable by stack-based combo like Ad Nauseam or Gifts Storm but decks in this space have barely registered in this phase of Modern. The classic guideline that you need both pressure and disruption to beat combo is less demanding when both halves of that equation have improved substantially and are more scary together.
In this context, it’s no surprise that successful Reanimator lists have found ways to incorporate other plans. Ed Bracamontes’s list from last weekend’s 2021 Hunter Burton Memorial Open shows just how far you can take this:
The Grief + Ephemerate combo was meant to overturn Modern as we knew it but has only been a marginal player in the format. Here, that package gives you a new subset of nut draws that don’t rely on the graveyard and Ephemerate lets you protect Archon of Cruelty (more vulnerable than you’d like when Unholy Heat is the format-defining removal spell) or bury the opponent under a series of Archon triggers. Grief is a perfect target for a redundant Persist when you need time to set up the other one.
Both pieces also support the deck’s real backup plan:
Stoneforge Mystic has a proven record of success as a sideboard pivot for linear decks and fits right in here. Thoughtseize and Grief can clear the way for Turn 2 Stoneforge Mystic while Ephemerate / Malakir Rebirth and even Persist help it to survive. Danish pro Christoffer Larsen placed enough faith in this plan to maindeck the Stoneforge package en route to his recent success in a Magic Online Modern Challenge:
- 3 Stoneforge Mystic
- 1 Ashen Rider
- 4 Grief
- 1 Serra's Emissary
- 3 Priest of Fell Rites
- 1 Solitude
- 1 Archon of Cruelty
The problem is identifying the matchups where this is really what you want. Linear decks like Mono-White Hammer can shrug off or overpower even a fast Kaldra Compleat and the interactive matchups where you want to diversify your gameplans are the ones where Stoneforge Mystic is at its most fragile. Other decks like Five-Color Elementals (Kaheera), Five-Color Control, or Four-Color Indomitable Creativity can interact with Mystic or ignore it by executing their own plan.
Orzhov enjoys access to the most flexible interaction in the entire format. It’s useful when you want a smattering of those effects but can’t really afford to overload on them or have them line up poorly.
Urza’s Saga merits consideration in any archetype without highly demanding mana or deckbuilding requirements and I expected to see more lists with it when I began my Reanimator research. It’s not just a flexible win condition that doesn’t use the graveyard. It’s a direct tutor for the best discard outlet in Modern.
The Underworld Cookbook sets up the ideal curve of Turn 2 Persist and a free discard outlet is invaluable later when you need to cast several spells in a turn and don’t have spare mana to set up a reanimation target. Food tokens negate the potentially punishing life loss from Priest of Fell Rites and anyone who has faced the dedicated Asmor decks has seen how Cookbook can turn Constructs from Urza’s Saga into gigantic attackers.
With Cookbook as the main attraction, Asmor itself feels somehow like an afterthought. My initial lists had Street Wraith and other common setup cards for Asmor but quickly moved away from these as I realized that Asmor is a tertiary plan that may not even merit the full four copies. Without Ovalchase Daredevil and similar cards taking up valuable space, it’s hard to generate enough Food to let Asmor shoot down everything in sight. Luckily, Unmarked Grave lets you play a single Daredevil (and Feasting Troll King) to unlock these Food synergies if you need them.
After racking up a quick pair of 5-0s with a rough sketch of this idea, I passed the torch to Food critic Devon O’Donnell (twitch.tv/d00mwake) so that he could tackle the tough questions:
This all-too-common mistake got me thinking about a more legendary reanimation spell whose star has faded:
Goryo’s Vengeance for Griselbrand or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn has always been one of the strongest highs to chase in Modern despite the last few years of sets raising that bar. Without Faithless Looting, this was too difficult to set up properly (especially Emrakul, which can’t be discarded on a prior turn as you need to Vengeance it in response to the reshuffle trigger). Cookbook is the perfect tool for the job and gives you a life buffer that can translate into seven new cards with Griselbrand. Unmarked Grave is deliberately templated to not work with Goryo’s Vengeance but we can try this regardless:
Note the use of Grief here as a way to immediately capitalize on drawing through your deck with Griselbrand while tapped out, ensuring you get the one more turn you need to land the follow-up blow.
We can also graft this onto the existing Dimir Food shells that already have a high quantity of strong legends:
- 4 Street Wraith
- 4 Griselbrand
- 2 Ovalchase Daredevil
- 4 Urza, Lord High Artificer
- 4 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
- 4 Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar
The ceiling on Goryo’s Vengeance here is lower but you can cash it in for some effect more easily — a single use of Emry, Lurker of the Loch or Asmor if necessary, or a giant Construct that pays for itself with Urza, Lord High Artificer. Meanwhile, you keep the core of the Dimir Asmor deck that has been consistently successful.
This choice between Persist and Goryo’s Vengeance may be a false one. You can imagine a dedicated Reanimator deck possibly fuelled by the dredge mechanic that runs both and has a high chance of returning something ridiculous for two mana, but most attention has focused on Persist as a new puzzle to solve and the more flexible and stable of the two. The Esper Goryo’s Vengeance deck that used to be a fringe player in Modern has been reimagined for this new world by Modern innovator Evart Moughon (twitch.tv/aspiringspike):
This combo-control take on Reanimator gets to support both Teferi, Time Raveler and Chalice of the Void in a world of Cascade decks with Prismatic Ending and Drown in the Loch to cover your bases against everything else. Teferi, in particular, shields your reanimation plan from stack interaction while bouncing any permanent graveyard hate to prise the nails out of the coffin.
This mashup from creative streamer Gabriel Maxson (twitch.tv/spiderspace) is able to harness a backup plan that works towards the goals of the main plan rather than avoiding them. Archon of Cruelty isn’t quite Velomachus Lorehold or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and is substantially worse on Turn 4 than Turn 3, but this list is able to take relevant game actions before that point to address that concern.
This may be the best Prismari Command deck in all of Modern and Command is a great card to have access to. Shatter + Shock is the perfect pairing against Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus) and the non-black Indomitable Creativity decks rose up in part as a response to Hammer’s dominance as the best home for Command since creating a Treasure token is the ideal setup for a safe Creativity. This deck enjoys all of that but also wants the Careful Study mode as another discard outlet to set up Persist.
Reanimator is undeniably powerful. It just needs the right recipe. Players are being rewarded for experimenting in that space and I expect there’s a lot more to come.