Legacy is one of the greatest formats you can play in Magic. Of course, there are some who prefer Standard or Modern, but you just haven't lived until you've put a Griselbrand into play on turn 1 with Force of Will backup. Today we're going to be talking about my current (and obvious) deck of choice for Legacy: Reanimator!
I've had a long love/hate relationship with the deck. At times, it feels as though you are doing incredibly unfair things that no one can compete with. There are also the times when your opponent has two hate cards, a hand full of disruption, and some pressure on board. These times are not so good, but graveyard hate is currently at an all-time low!
With the Magic Online Championship for this month being Legacy, I finally decided to buy into the format. After spending an absurd amount of tickets (aka dollars) on Force of Will, the rest was relatively easy to come by. When compared to the prices in real life, I think I got off easy.
I've been playing in every Legacy Daily Event I've had time for, and I've been tuning the deck significantly. I've tried a lot of different configurations to help out against Deathrite Shaman, including things like Repeal, but I couldn't find anything that I really loved until I remembered this beauty:
For starters, here is my current Reanimator list:
As we begin this trek down a dark path, let me just say that Reanimator has always been a strategy that I admired, though I loathed it for quite some time. When Mystical Tutor was legal, the deck was just too good, and that was before Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur and Griselbrand were even printed! I'm talking Inkwell Leviathan. I mean, even Empyrial Archangel was playable! But now we're a bit more sophisticated in what we're trying to do, though we don't have quite the consistency we used to have when Mystical Tutor was around. I guess we'll just have to settle.
Ravings of a Mad Man
But what about this guy?
Ah, yes. Everyone's new favorite (or my least favorite) utility monster is quite problematic at times. But what I'm about to tell you might make you question my sanity.
Deathrite Shaman decks are basically a bye for Reanimator.
So hear me out and make the decision for yourself. Of course, Deathrite Shaman from the opponent on the play that sits and waits for you to combo off can be quite the annoyance, but there are answers that you can play that fit flawlessly into your already awesome game plan. The best thing to come from Deathrite Shaman being in the format is that people disregard graveyard-based decks more often than not and instead tend to focus all of their hate on different combo decks like Storm, Goblin Charbelcher, and even Elves (who knew Engineered Plague would come back in such a big way?).
And, after game 1, you have a pretty sweet plan against anyone and everyone playing Deathrite Shaman.
This comes from a few different angles, so let me be clear. Very few games will play out the same and you will often have to navigate a complex decision tree, but ultimately you're favored if you do everything just right. Of course, that is close to impossible unless you've played with the deck a lot, but the amount of free wins you get thanks to turn 1 or 2 Griselbrand/Iona make it all worth weathering the rough waters.
So here's the rub:
Show and Tell strategies haven't been too popular as of late. This means that opponents will be pretty unlikely to put anything scary into play should you decide to cast one yourself. What this gives us is a pretty solid out to anyone and everyone hating on our graveyard. It isn't always easy to resolve thanks to soft counters like Spell Pierce and the occasional Daze, but virtually every threat you stick from a Show and Tell will be game ending. Griselbrand is obviously the best catchall threat because it allows you to refuel your hand after expending all of your resources to resolve one game-breaking spell, but Iona against most combo decks and Elesh Norn against Dredge, Elves, and any creature-based deck will be pretty solid.
If your opponent happens to have an answer like Oblivion Ring, Humility, or something wacky that I haven't thought of, then maybe you're just out of luck. That means they need graveyard hate, Show and Tell hate, and to accomplish the plan of their own deck all while playing around Force of Will and Thoughtseize.
Let me be perfectly clear. The nightmare situation is a Show and Tell deck that plays either Leyline of the Void or Grafdigger's Cage, as we have basically no outs other than Thoughtseize into Show and Tell with them firing blanks. Thankfully, this isn't a regular occurrence.
Daze has been a card long associated with Reanimator in the past, but I'm here to tell you that it just isn't good enough. I'm honestly not sure that it ever was. I'd rather play more Ponders and an alternate route to victory in Show and Tell than rely on a card that will almost never counter what you want it to counter. If your opponent happens to hold up mana on the first turn, you can't stop their Force of Will. If the game goes longer and you're reliant on Show and Tell, it doesn't stop their Red Elemental Blast. Without cards like Wasteland and Stifle in your deck, it is pretty tough to make Daze into an actual Magic card.
Soft counters are traditionally pretty good in faster decks, but you don't see Sneak and Show or High Tide running Daze, do you? Of course, those decks are vastly different in execution, but the theory behind each is the same. Without a way to deny your opponent mana, it is rare that your Dazes will be able to protect your combo from anything relevant.
While Daze has its place in other aggressive strategies, I just don't think it belongs in Reanimator. This is something it took me quite some time to realize because I blindly accepted the "stock" lists as correct. After playing the deck both with and without Daze every day for the last week and some change, just cut it.
And don't look back.
Picking the Right Battles
Every mage who decides to play a combo deck that is vulnerable to some amount of hate eventually comes to a crossroads. With Reanimator, this is no different. You have to make the jump and move all in. Not only is the deck pretty expensive, but it also is incredibly difficult to play correctly. With so many Brainstorm and other draw effects, as well as disruption and combo pieces, you are very likely to make multiple mistakes per game, and I am no different. Often, it will take only one mistake to lose the game. This increases tenfold when your opponents actually have cards that interact with your graveyard and/or Show and Tell.
But don't let me frighten you.
You will win a lot of games on power level alone. Most decks can't handle a Griselbrand on turn 2, let alone turn one. Lotus Petal speeds the deck up significantly and allows you to race a lot of the other combo decks. The amount of times I am able to Ponder into an Entomb while I have an Exhume and Lotus Petal in hand is just unreal. Lotus Petal makes the deck faster, which is exactly what combo decks want! Of course, you could try your hand at Dark Ritual as well, but I prefer just playing Lotus Petal since it allows you to go pretty bonkers with Griselbrand on occasion.
Once you're in a game where you don't have "the nuts," every decision you make matters much more. Decisions like stacking your deck right with Ponder to making the correct land drop so that your Brainstorm can shuffle away the chaff mean a lot when you're under pressure. Even fetching out basic Island or Swamp against a Wasteland deck will occasionally be incorrect because you will regularly need both colors of mana. I've done everything, like casting end of turn Brainstorm, untapping, and casting Entomb so that I shuffle away some garbage so that I can try to draw a land and cast Reanimate.
It gets convoluted at times.
You do need to get lucky on occasion. Mulligans are pretty brutal at times when you're low or heavy on mana sources, as Careful Study starts to seem like a losing proposition. For whatever its worth, I don't like casting Careful Study without a monster in hand to discard unless I have nothing else to do with my mana or time. You have to dig for combo pieces, but it is pretty awkward to play Careful Study and discard a pair of Reanimates, only to draw a Griselbrand on the next turn.
These things happen.
After a while, you start to get your rhythm with the deck. You find the subtle plays that allow you to outplay your opponent. You learn when to wait and when to just go for it regardless of whether or not they have a Force of Will. Playing with the deck will teach you both aggression and control simultaneously because it is never correct to always do one or the other. Sometimes, you just need to wait until you draw that extra blue card so you can cast Force of Will. Sometimes, you're under too much pressure to wait or the likelihood that they have a second Force of Will is pretty slim, and it is correct to just jam your spells. At other times, you have a multitude of Reanimation spells at your disposal, and you just want to cast one every turn until your opponent runs out of answers.
Sometimes, you draw for your turn and just discard Griselbrand because you have no other discard outlet. Other times, you get to hard cast Elesh Norn on turn 4 with triple Lotus Petal against Elves with a Deathrite Shaman.
Don't laugh. These things happen.
The Real Problems
Playing with Reanimator will often feel like playing a different game. You get to draw seven cards on the regular, and occasionally the games will continue on for multiple turns after that. Luckily, you should have more resources at this point than your opponent, allowing you to use Force of Will, Thoughtseize, and redundant Reanimation cards to put the nail in the proverbial coffin.
The biggest cards in the format that you need to worry about are not exactly what you'd expect. For one, an opposing Show and Tell almost always mean death unless you are post-board and have a couple Karakas that you can draw into with your Griselbrand. If they happen to be putting Griselbrand into play too, then just thank your lucky stars.
The fact that Sneak and Show exists could be an argument for the addition of Blazing Archon since there are a lot of decks that are just cold to it, but Elesh Norn does basically the same thing except it gives a lot of decks fewer outs. With Show and Tell decks on the decline, I think it is safe to leave Blazing Archon out of the loop, but your monsters should always vary and reflect what you think you'll be playing against. Well, every one of them except Griselbrand.
Surprisingly enough, Relic of Progenitus, Tormod's Crypt, and Deathrite Shaman aren't very problematic for you. The ones you really have to worry about are things like Faerie Macabre, Surgical Extraction, and permanents that sit in play that don't have activated abilities. Even though Show and Tell is a pretty solid secondary game plan, you have fewer outs to cards like Leyline of the Void and Grafdigger's Cage than I would like, but the odds of you running into either of those cards is pretty low. Leyline of the Void is pretty high variance and forces the opponent to mulligan aggressively for it, while Grafdigger's Cage is dual sided in its hatred.
Most decks in Legacy use their graveyard in one way or another, but rarely enough so that "wasting" an entire card is worth it. This makes cards like Nihil Spellbomb and Relic of Progenitus more acceptable for widespread use.
And that is very good for us.
Deciphering the Opposition
While I can't quite give you an extensive sideboarding guide, I will give you a few pointers. The best way to approach any matchup is to try to preemptively figure out what hate cards they're going to play. What they're bringing in or already have in their maindeck will help you figure out how to sideboard. Each decision can drastically change based on what cards they're throwing at you, as well as being on the play or on the draw, so keep that in mind. If you can't afford to be slow in a matchup, cutting Reanimate is pretty risky. However, in aggressive matchups, it is the card I side out the most.
- Side in Thoughtseize and Show and Tell.
- Griselbrand is the target of choice, as he allows you to grind them out.
- Side in Needle (and Blue Elemental Blast) along with Show and Tell, cutting Reanimate because you rarely have the life needed to cast it.
- Iona is the target you should go for since it ends the game on the spot.
- Side in Thoughtseize and Karakas, take out Show and Tell.
- Griselbrand is the target of choice because he draws you into Force of Will to disrupt them.
Ad Nauseam means they will rarely have anything.
- Side in Thoughtseize. Show and Tell is probably too slow.
- I can see arguments for both Griselbrand and Iona, but it depends on their list. Iona on black usually ends the game on the spot, though.
RUG Delver means Tormod's Crypt.
- Side out Reanimate, as it is a liability and becomes a dead card quickly. Side in Show and Tell and Sphinx. Thoughtseize is fine on the play but bad on the draw.
- Griselbrand allows you to race the creatures they have in play, but Sphinx of the Steel Wind is almost as good.
- Side in Thoughtseize, Pithing Needle, and Show and Tell and usually bring out an Iona, some number of Careful Study, and probably some Reanimates depending on how aggressive they are.
- Depending on their build and the board state, all three major targets can be correct. If you are behind on board against Lingering Souls or Stoneforge Mystic, Elesh Norn can easily catch you back up. However, if they have an answer in Liliana or Swords to Plowshares, you've wasted a lot of time for very little gain.
- Elf Combo is obviously locked against an Elesh Norn.
Against Deathrite Shaman, it is hard to figure out whether or not you should side out a lot of the Reanimator package and rely completely on Show and Tell, but Pithing Needle allows you to function outside of Show and Tell against their Deathrite Shamans. Finding a balance between the two strategies is probably best. There are times against Deathrite Shaman where you can "get" them with Entomb if they try to exile your creature in response to an Exhume, so keep that trick in mind.
I find that often in the first game of a match, my opponent will use his Deathrite Shaman for mana as long as I don't give away what I'm playing by casting a turn 1 Entomb or Careful Study (which would be idiotic against an active Deathrite Shaman anyway). This will usually give you a single-turn window to put a monster into play. Once you establish control with Griselbrand, it won't be hard to find Show and Tell to put Iona or Elesh Norn into play to seal the deal.
Obviously, there are a ton of different archetypes in Legacy, so it's virtually impossible to give you a rundown of everything you might face. People tend to play whatever they want in Legacy since most cards in Magic's history are legal and a ton of them are incredibly powerful. The trick is to figure out what card they will most likely have to disrupt you and try to play around it, whether that means sideboarding a certain way or just playing around their disruption.
I will be playing this deck as much as I possibly can over the next few weeks until I come up with the "perfect" list. I love this deck, but it does have its weaknesses that aren't that difficult to exploit given the right amount of effort. If it ends up getting too popular, there could be a rise in stock of a certain on Twitter