Reanimator should have been hated out of Standard weeks ago, but instead, it just keeps doing better. It won both the Magic Online Championship and the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Kansas City this past weekend and shows no signs of slowing down. Patrick Chapin suggested that now is a good time to beat graveyard hate, a suggestion that's based on an implicit understanding that graveyard hate will beat reanimator and next step is to beat that. I believe this assumption is a trap.
Reanimator didn't surprise anyone this past weekend. Every deck in the Top 8 of Kansas City had multiple ways to remove cards from the graveyard in their sideboard with Deathrite Shaman, Rakdos Charm, Tormod's Crypt, Rest in Peace, Purify the Grave, and Slaughter Games all seeing play. The graveyard is being attacked from several different angles, and it's just not enough.
Most players had around three dedicated graveyard hate cards. Will there be more next weekend? Maybe, but there shouldn't be. I don't think adding more than three graveyard hate cards to most of these decks would help their G/W/B Reanimator matchup because so many of the cards in their deck, especially after sideboarding, don't particularly care about the graveyard anyway.
As I've said before, hating the graveyard will not win a match against Reanimator these days by itself.
So what will?
I have an important confession to make—I don't know.
I've been playing Reanimator on Magic Online to try to learn what it's weak against by seeing what I lose to, and despite my unimpressive results while recording, a substantial majority of my losses were to the mirror match.
Reanimator's numbers right now are staggering. I've said it's the best deck, which the numbers certainly support, but I still think it's too soon to know for sure. Many people playing Standard right now are probably just getting into it, and there's a chance that many of them just picked Reanimator because they read it's good and haven't had time to test enough to figure out how to beat it. Maybe some easy trump will be discovered. The fact that it won the MOCS, a tournament the competitors had a lot of reason to take very seriously and put real work into, speaks to its strength even against prepared opponents though.
The point is that we have a clear target, and I would argue that based on results we really have no idea how to combat this target. Let's work on that.
First, we need to understand that G/W/B Reanimator's plan is robust enough that we can't just play anything and beat it with sideboard cards. We need to find ways to be strategically favored throughout our entire game plan. The enemy is powerful and pervasive enough that it makes sense to build from the ground up to fight it.
Reanimator's defense against aggro comes from blockers and life gain. This means creatures that can easily be blocked and burn spells are relatively ineffective. If I wanted to try to beat Reanimator with an aggressive deck, I would try to build around fliers.
The problem with this is that the fliers need to do enough damage to outpace Thragtusk's life gain, they need to be able to attack into Restoration Angel, and they need win the game before getting trumped by Angel of Serenity or Craterhoof Behemoth.
This set of requirements naturally draws me to Delver of Secrets with counterspells, but I'm just not sure that Delver of Secrets is a strong enough card without any library manipulation—I'm pretty sure Index isn't a playable option.
Invisible Stalker should be well positioned against Reanimator in that they have no way to interact with it whatsoever, but it's clearly not a fast enough clock unless we do something impressive with it. Runechanter's Pike is an obvious option, although it's vulnerable to Abrupt Decay and Acidic Slime. Increasing Savagery would certainly do the trick if the rest of the deck made the plan consistent enough to work.
I'm not sure how Bant Hexproof stacks up against the rest of the format, but it definitely seems like one of the more promising angles for fighting Reanimator if I had to play an aggressive deck. What might a Bant Aggro deck built to target G/W/B Reanimator look like?
- 4 Cloudfin Raptor
- 4 Gyre Sage
- 4 Invisible Stalker
- 4 Lyev Skyknight
- 2 Master Biomancer
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 3 Wolfir Silverheart
- 3 Geist of Saint Traft
I moved away from the enchantments in Bant Hexproof to try to support Cloudfin Raptor, which I think could be very good against Reanimator. It's possible that this deck wants Avacyn's Pilgrim, but I don't like that card very much in three-color decks with the lands that exist right now.
Another card I'd consider here is Frontline Medic, which I've been impressed by in general against Reanimator and works here as a good way to let you attack with Geist of Saint Traft. It might be more effective than Lyev Skyknight, especially if it proves to have too much of a Restoration Angel problem.
I haven't played this deck—I'm just brainstorming—and it might not work at all, but this is the kind of strategy I'd look for in an aggressive deck against Reanimator. Well, that or Falkenrath Aristocrat.
What about midrange? How can we beat G/W/B Reanimator with a midrange deck?
It's a difficult prospect because you're essentially trying to do the same thing they are but don't have the trump cards that steal games early (Unburial Rites + Angel of Serenity / Craterhoof Behemoth). Beating Reanimator with midrange requires both making them fight fair with cards like Deathrite Shaman and Ground Seal and doing something proactive that's good against them.
Fortunately, there are actually a reasonable number of midrange cards they can have problems with, most notably Olivia Voldaren; Rakdos's Return; and planeswalkers. Bonfire of the Damned can also be quite good against their Elf-heavy draws.
At first, I wanted to build "Deathrite Jund," but then I wanted Grisly Salvage to turn on my Deathrite Shamans. Then I wanted some kind of flashback card to get value out of Grisly Salvage, and Faithless Looting came to mind. Then I wanted Mulch to make my Faithless Lootings good, and then I wanted Unburial Rites, obviously. Well, maybe red is the way to trump the mirror.
Again, it's untested—I have no idea how it would do against other decks (or Reanimator, really)—but I tried to give it a sideboard to at least make the aggressive matchups realistic. The Vraska is taken straight from Will Craddock's sideboard, and I think it might be pretty good against G/W/B Reanimator.
The idea here is to stop them from casting their big spells with Deathrite Shaman to attack their Unburial Rites, Bonfire of the Damned to kill their Elves, and Rakdos's Return decrease the chance that they can just cast them in the late game. From there, your Olivia Voldarens and planeswalkers should be the biggest game in town, and if not, there's always Griselbrand.
My biggest fear with this deck is that it has a lot of spells and not a lot of creatures, so I'm worried that Grisly Salvage will often have to take a land. I don't like Huntmaster of the Fells very much because it feels low impact against Reanimator, but it's possible that it's needed here. Alternatively, Bloodline Keeper might work.
The alternative would be to do similar things but just give up on making Deathrite Shaman particularly good. Reid Duke went undefeated in the four Standard rounds of the MOCS with (essentially) the same Jund deck he's been beating people with since the Pro Tour.
Instead of Deathrite Shaman, Reid uses maindeck Ground Seal to combat Reanimator, which stops Unburial Rites and, almost more importantly, stops the attrition element of Angel of Serenity. If Unburial Rites isn't a concern, Liliana of the Veil actually becomes a good card against Reanimator, which becomes very mana hungry as it relies on seven mana creatures to answer Olivia and the early discard from Liliana of the Veil can make it hard for the opponent to ever get to that point.
If that doesn't do the trick against Reanimator, I would start by playing Deathrite Shaman over Arbor Elf (they do very different things and I like what Arbor Elf does here, but I think it's the safest substitution to make if maindeck Deathrite Shaman is needed). I'd also consider trimming Huntmaster of the Fells and Abrupt Decay, and I'd look to add some combination of Bonfire of the Damned; Dreadbore; Rakdos's Return; either Garruk; and maybe Bloodline Keeper (I haven't tested it against Reanimator and might be too slow or low impact, but it's a creature that can sometimes dominate a game, which is something they're not great at interacting with).
If I wanted to play a control deck to beat G/W/B Reanimator, my first thought would be Bant because fighting Thragtusk without Thragtusks of your own can be annoying for control. But then I realized that with Shaun McLaren's innovation of using lots Evil Twins in Esper, green might be unnecessary. You don't really need Thragtusk unless they have it since the goal isn't to attack with it anyway—you just want a good answer to theirs—and Evil Twin is also very good (outstanding) against Angel of Serenity (I've even played a G/W/B Reanimator mirror match on Magic Online where my opponent splashed Evil Twin).
I think it's entirely possible that Shaun's mistake was only including Evil Twin in his sideboard, though it is certainly hard to find room for.
Every card in the maindeck looks extremely important. If the goal is just to beat G/W/B Reanimator and aggro, I'd cut Planar Cleansing for Terminus, but unfortunately, I don't think that's an option because of decks like Jund that have planeswalkers you really need to kill. Merciless Eviction is an option, but I don't think it's worth it or that much of an upgrade, although either of these would substantially improve the matchup against The Aristocrats.
As for fitting Evil Twin main, the best options I can find are cutting a Restoration Angel for one (which I think I like) and after that maybe a Syncopate for another (but I don't think that really helps).
I suppose Evil Twin has to stay in the sideboard. As for the sideboard, I think I would move away from Purify the Grave here. It has the advantage over Rest in Peace that it doesn't hit your graveyard and you can find it with Augur of Bolas, but I think Augur of Bolas is one of the first cards I'd side out against Reanimator anyway. You can likely use a Think Twice before casting Rest in Peace, which is the only card you have that cares about the graveyard.
I definitely haven't solved the Reanimator problem, and I think the community is far enough from solving it that I'm more interested personally in trying to figure out how to solve the problem of the mirror match as Reanimator, which I think is still correct to play. But for those of you who are still fighting the good fight, I hope this helps you find the missing piece to get ahead.
Thanks for reading,
@samuelhblack on Twitter