2013 was a great year for me in many ways. I lost a hundred pounds, Top 8'd three SCG Invitationals, won a PTQ and won a Grand Prix. Through much of my success during that period, I battled with Junk Reanimator, a high-powered Standard deck that was capable of grinding out wins even when people were gunning to beat it. For a period of time, Chris VanMeter and I were spending hours working on Junk Reanimator week in and week out, updating our lists to deal with metagame changes. We fought to stay one step ahead, and we became known as players to look to for an updated Junk Reanimator list.
However, once Mulch, Thragtusk, Unburial Rites, Restoration Angel, Acidic Slime and friends rotated out, it was lights out for the deck. While some graveyard synergies still remained, the power and consistency needed to compete just wasn't there anymore.
That certainly didn't stop some people from trying. I had lots of people message me with Reanimator deck ideas for Theros Standard. Hell, I even tried a few brews out myself in testing for Pro Tour Theros. The deck just wasn't there. The lack of success in the archetype in the past six months wasn't because nobody was trying to succeed. The cards weren't good enough. Commune with the Gods was not Mulch. Not even close.
Born of the Gods changed that. Satyr Wayfinder is the missing link. Courser of Kruphix is the value lynchpin that holds the early game together. Between those two cards, Reanimator now has exactly what it needs to be a big player in Standard.
For the past week, I have been testing Reanimator on Magic Online, and I really like what I see. There is obviously much room for improvement still, but the power level and consistency of the deck cannot be denied. No matter what deck my opponent is playing, I tend to feel like I'm favored to win the match and generally am surprised if I don't. I'm still losing often enough to push me to keep trying to improve against the deck's weaknesses, but I ultimately feel like I'm on the cusp of hitting the right formula to break open the metagame.
I believe that this deck is the real deal.
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Satyr Wayfinder
- 2 Shadowborn Demon
- 2 Sin Collector
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 3 Sylvan Primordial
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Obzedat, Ghost Council
I'd like to talk first about the general strategy behind this deck, and then I want to go a bit more in-depth into some of the intricacies of the deck, of which there are many.
With Junk Reanimator, your game plan is to simply grind your opponent out of the game. Every deck in the format fights on some axis, and with Reanimator your goal is to figure out what axis your opponent is fighting on and determine the cards and sequences of plays you need to grind them out on it. As soon as you see the first land your opponent plays, you should immediately determine what deck you expect they're on and figure out immediately what cards do and do not matter in the matchup and look to update that analysis as often as possible.
The beauty of a deck like Junk Reanimator is that cards like Obzedat's Aid and Whip of Erebos let you replicate the good effects in a matchup over and over again while ignoring the irrelevant ones. In some matchups you mill over a Shadowborn Demon and end up Reanimating it three times because it is so powerful against your opponent, while in other matchups you ignore it all game and focus instead on cards like Sin Collector, Obzedat, and Sylvan Primordial.
Therefore, one of the most important things about any Reanimator build is that you need to have the right threats to handle anything your opponent is throwing at you. It's important to have cards that are great in a wide variety of matchups. I'll get to it more later, but one of the reasons for a card like Sylvan Primordial over something like Angel of Serenity is because Sylvan Primordial is more powerful in more matchups.
Elspeth is (quite literally in many cases) the poster girl for this kind of thing. Elspeth shines in a wide variety of matchups. Namely, all of them. Well, that's not exactly true. I side out Elspeth against decks like R/W Burn, but for the most part Elspeth is a strong threat against nearly every deck in the format. Having a card like that in your deck means that you can look to go to Elspeth in nearly every matchup for a powerful effect, and that kind of consistency goes a long way.
Often your game plan gets amplified in post-board games as you can cut out the chaff that doesn't interact on the axis your opponent's deck works on and load up on more effects that do. Those Shadowborn Demons can go out against Esper and more Sin Collectors can come in, for example. Those Obzedats can get cut against a hyper-aggressive deck, with Bile Blights and Abrupt Decays taking his spot.
If your opponent is trying to burn you out, you can grab as many lifegain effects as possible. If your opponent is going to grind you down with creatures, grab as much removal as possible. If your opponent is trying to bury you with Sphinx's Revelation, put as much pressure into play as possible. Ultimately, Reanimator's game plan is to always have the right answers for your opponent's plan and then grind them out, one trigger at a time.
While the deck may seem straightforward, it is actually one of the most technically-challenging Standard decks I have played in a long time. Every turn of the game, you're faced with a number of difficult choices to make. For example, take a board where you have a Temple Garden and a Temple of Plenty in hand, a Courser of Kruphix in play, a card you kind of want but don't necessarily need on top of your deck, and a Grisly Salvage in hand. What do you do? Grisly Salvage and the Temple can reset the top of your deck. You can also just play the Temple Garden and not cast Grisly Salvage to ensure you draw the top card the following turn.
There are so many different lines of play you can take, and it generally begins as early as turn three. Having played a bunch with the deck, I've picked up a few tips along the way.
Always lead with a card that manipulates your deck before playing a Temple. This is the big key. If you are planning on playing a Satyr Wayfinder and then following it up with a Temple as your land drop for turn, then you should cast the Wayfinder first except in extreme situations.
The alternative is that you scry, look at the top card of your deck, and then immediately mill it into your graveyard. Then you're left just drawing a random card from the top of your deck the next turn. It's often correct to just take whatever four cards you mill over and then set up your draw for the following turn based on the knowledge you now have from seeing those cards.
The same thing applies for Grisly Salvage. This deck wants to cast Grisly Salvage as a sorcery about 90% of the time, if not more. I'm not exaggerating. It's very rarely correct to save Grisly Salvage to play as an instant. When you Grisly Salvage in your main phase, it gives you an option to find a Temple if you don't have one already, or it gives you the ability to play one from your hand after the Salvage to set up your next draw step.
Another whole load of challenges present themselves when you have a Courser of Kruphix in play. Let's say you have a Grisly Salvage in hand and a land on top of your deck. Do you play the land and then cast Grisly Salvage, or do you cast Grisly Salvage first in hopes of playing a land off the top of your deck afterward?
The answer is that it depends. If you desperately need that Grisly Salvage to dig for something specific that turn, then I would play the land first, as it digs you one card deeper to find what you need. However, if you don't need anything in particular and are just looking for some good value in a game that's going long, then I would cast Grisly Salvage first, so that if you do end up with a land on top of your deck afterward, you get to put it into play and set up stronger draws in future turns.
Likewise, similar logic applies with Courser of Kruphix and lands in your hand. If you see a card you want on top of your deck and you have a Temple and a shockland in your hand, I would play the shockland that turn so that you can draw the card you want on top and still have a Temple to scry away chaff with the following draw step.
Keep in mind that a card like Sylvan Primordial also provides a shuffle effect by letting you search up a Forest. Between Sylvan Primordial, Satyr Wayfinder, Grisly Salvage, Temples, and Courser of Kruphix, it's very easy to set up board states where you manipulate your draws every turn and ensure that you're drawing gas throughout the entirety of the game.
Sylvan Primordial's shuffle can also sometimes be a drawback. If you have an Elspeth you desperately need on top of your deck, it can actually be right sometimes to not cast a Sylvan Primordial since you would need to shuffle it away. While you can choose to not find a Forest, you still are required to search and shuffle regardless.
One last thing to be mindful of is the order in which you play lands. The key is to play lands in such a way that you have access to cast cards like Grisly Salvage on turn two, Courser on turn three, and that you avoid taking as much unnecessary shockland damage as possible since over half the manabase consists of shocklands. It's not possible to avoid shocking yourself completely, generally speaking, but against decks such as R/W Burn, avoiding damage from the manabase is an integral part of solving the puzzle and beating them.
When playing the deck, it's important to be constantly mindful of these interactions and ensure that on each turn you properly sequence your plays. The small bit of value gained from doing these right adds up significantly over the course of an event.
It may seem weird to see three copies of a card like Elspeth, Sun's Champion in a deck where Grisly Salvage, Satyr Wayfinder, and Whip of Erebos all do not interact with her at all. However, Elspeth is made possible thanks to Obzedat's Aid. Obzedat's Aid can return any permanent to play. It can get back a Whip. It can get back an Elspeth. Sometimes, with multiple Coursers in play, it's valuable to just get back lands to gain life or accelerate into a Sylvan Primordial.
Obzedat's Aid being able to return Elspeth is a huge synergy in the deck, because it makes Elspeth strong enough to play in a Grisly Salvage shell. It's arguable that Elspeth might already be strong enough simply based on sheer power level alone and the fact that with Elvish Mystics and Sylvan Caryatids it isn't that unlikely to be able to cast her on turn four. However, having access to Obzedat's Aid makes it a no-brainer. Obzedat's Aid also provides another easy way to put Elspeth into play on turn four. It just takes a single mana dork, an Obzedat's Aid, and a Grisly Salvage or Satyr Wayfinder to mill her.
I tried all three of these cards at various points. Angel of Serenity and Ashen Rider didn't really cut it for me. Angel of Serenity just wasn't strong enough in some matchups, as you really need the ability to destroy non-creature permanents. Ashen Rider ended up being worse than Sylvan Primordial because I found I rarely needed to blow up creatures with Sylvan Primordial, and Ashen Rider was harder to cast, had a weaker body, and had less synergy with Whip of Erebos. I ended up sticking to just playing three copies of the typically strongest effect in Sylvan Primordial, and I haven't looked back.
At one point, I had the full playset of Sin Collectors maindeck. I ended up trimming down on them not because they were bad but because I wanted to try making room for Courser of Kruphix, who ended up being very strong. Sin Collector is a very powerful card against R/W Burn, Mono-Black Devotion, and any control variant right now, which means it is quite well-positioned in the format since those decks are fairly prevalent. Being able to jump to four copies of this card post-board can really hamper those decks a lot.
I'm not sure this deck would be possible without Shadowborn Demon. The card often gets overlooked, but Shadowborn Demon is really the only creature in the format that offers you a repeatable source of almost no-holds-barred removal for whatever creatures your opponent has brought to the battle. It's an invaluable part of the deck, and I would play four copies without question if it wasn't for its drawback.
Shadowborn Demon plays a lot different in this deck that he did in old Junk Reanimator lists from last year. In those decks, I tended to sacrifice it to his own ability more often than not since you could loop it in and out of play repeatedly with Unburial Rites. Since Obzedat's Aid doesn't have flashback, we lack some of that old inevitability, and since Whip means you just get one more use out of the card and then are done for good, it's important to be more judicious with how you use your Shadowborn Demons.
I tend to try to sacrifice other creatures to keep it around whenever it's viable. Thankfully, due to cards like Sin Collector, Satyr Wayfinder, and Elspeth, Sun's Champion, there's actually ample fodder for Shadowborn Demon to feast upon. Also, Satyr Wayfinder is invaluable for helping to get to that critical threshold of six creatures in the graveyard to turn off that sacrifice trigger and keep Shadowborn Demon around for good.
Obzedat, Ghost Council is simply a powerful creature against the same decks that Sin Collector is good against: R/W Burn, Sphinx's Revelation decks, and Mono-Black Devotion. Mono-Black has plenty of ways to kill Obzedat, but with Whip of Erebos, they can be hard-pressed to deal with it coming back over and over again along with the amount of lifegain and pressure he provides. Obzedat is also just one of those cards that is inherently powerful and can just be “randomly good” in any matchup sometimes. When in doubt, I like to err on the side of just playing really powerful cards in my deck: more often than not, they tend to win on sheer power level alone. Obzedat will do that.
Bile Blight might seem like an odd card to have in the sideboard, especially as a full set. Removal spells don't really synergize well with cards like Grisly Salvage and Satyr Wayfinder, so why would I want four Bile Blights?
The short answer is Pack Rat. A turn-two Pack Rat is game over for this deck. Barring Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Reanimator is just not fast enough to handle the growing Pack Rat army. I've found that I was beating Mono-Black Devotion nearly every time they didn't have a Pack Rat on turn two, and losing nearly every time they did. Pack Rat has been the single hardest card in the format to beat.
The more I've played with the deck, the more copies of Bile Blight ended up in the sideboard. The card is invaluable against Mono-Black, but it's also great against Mono-Blue Devotion and other aggressive decks. I have had more Bile Blight blowouts with this deck than I ever had with B/W Midrange or Mono-Black. When I'm playing those decks, people play around Bile Blight. Nobody ever plays around Bile Blight out of Reanimator, and as a result, things like triple Cloudfin Raptor or double Mutavault activations have not gone unpunished. Blight's out. Blight em up. Stay the course. One thousand points of Blight.
What then about my boy Polly C? Big Poluk is in there as another fine body against any kind of aggressive strategy, especially Mono-Blue Devotion. His diet consists of worlds and Master of Waves. Polukranos is also an enormous beating against a deck like R/W Burn in conjunction with Whip of Erebos. It basically puts them in this beautiful situation where they have to cast Skullcrack on three consecutive turns or the game is just actually over. They always have two, but never have three. It's a nice, good sweat, but it's worth it.
One of the hardest things to do with this deck is sideboard. There are so many options and it can be tough to know when to side out various parts of the Reanimator package and when to keep it all in. I think being able to effectively sideboard is a huge edge with a deck like this, and I would recommend spending a lot of time going over these sideboard guides and tweaking them to fit your playstyle or your testing results.
Courser of Kruphix doesn't usually cut it for me against Mono-Black and its variants. It's imperative that every creature generate mana or generate some sort of effect when it comes into play since they have so much removal and most of your creatures are just going to die anyway. Shadowborn Demon can't kill Desecration Demon and isn't effective against Pack Rat or Gray Merchant of Asphodel, as those cards have already done their job by the time Shadowborn comes around.
Obzedat is typically worse than Blood Baron of Vizkopa, especially when they have cards like Hero's Downfall and sometimes Dark Betrayal after board. Without Obzedat, Whip loses some effectiveness and I trim down to one copy.
Elspeth is the single best card in the deck against these types of decks, and I want to keep all copies of Obzedat's Aid, Elspeth, Grisly Salvage, and Satyr Wayfinder to maximize my chances of putting Elspeth into play over and over again.
In games where you aren't losing to Pack Rat, Sylvan Primordial keeps Underworld Connections in check by blowing up the land it is enchanted to, blocks Desecration Demon, and just acts as a general nuisance for them.
I know the cards I want, but the cards that get cut are still a work in progress. Cards like Sylvan Primordial are actually very good against Mono-Blue Devotion, but you can still flood on them and die sometimes or they can still just kill you with Master of Waves through one. Elspeth is unbeatable if they don't have Thassa and miserable if they do. Shadowborn Demon and Polukranos are both huge issues for them to deal with, and the combination of Bile Blight and Abrupt Decay buy you plenty of time to get to Demon/Polukranos range.
Usually their Thassa draws are a little too slow to compete, especially if you have a Whip for lifelink. Their best draws are just curving out into Master of Waves, but Bile Blight is not interested in any of that noise.
I usually want to draw one Courser against them, but never more than that, so I stick to two copies in sideboard games. My sideboard plan against this deck is kind of a work of art... the kind of art I did in third grade... and can certainly benefit from more time spent testing the matchup.
If they have Nightveil Specter, I would cut the other two Elvish Mystics as well and bring in two Bile Blights. Bile Blight can also be serviceable against Elspeth by letting a Sylvan Primordial or Obzedat kill one after you clear out the tokens. Elvish Mystic makes their Supreme Verdicts better against you and forces your hand into taking those with Sin Collector instead of their other, better cards you would rather snag.
I think this matchup might be bad, and there should probably be more sideboard slots dedicated to beating it. Namely, I want more ways to get rid of Jace and Elspeth, especially Jace. Jace is a huge annoyance for this deck.
This is a great matchup, but one of the keys is to avoid shocking yourself. Other than shocking to cast Sylvan Caryatid or Elvish Mystic in the first turns of the game, I rarely want to deal any damage to myself for any reason. We have so many backbreaking cards that they really struggle to beat (like Courser, Blood Baron, Sin Collector, and Whip of Erebos) that the worst thing you can do is just give them a free win by being too zealous in casting those cards.
It might be right to keep Coursers and cut down on some of the reanimation package since they have Scavenging Ooze, but I'm not sold. When they don't have Ooze they can't beat a quick Primordial, and even when they do you can sometimes sneak it in when they aren't prepared or just fight their Ooze with a Demon or Abrupt Decay first. Courser's body isn't great against them, and the small incremental advantage he provides isn't that important here.
I like to bring in Abrupt Decay to handle Ooze, Domri and Courser, and bring in Polukranos to take control of the board. The gameplan becomes to kill Scavenging Ooze, stick a Shadowborn Demon, and then just blow them out with massive effects like Elspeth and Sylvan Primordial, two cards that are absolutely fantastic against them. This matchup is quite interesting and leads to some great games. Overall I think it's a close one, and I really enjoy playing it because you often get into stalemates where monstrous 7/7 Stormbreath Dragons are staring down very conveniently 6/8 Sylvan Primordials. That Reach.
Shadowborn Demon is so good against them. Blow up your Stormbreath Dragon. Sacrifice my Satyr Wayfinder. Kill your Xenagos. I usually try to record videos of this matchup with a really shaky hand camera just to fully capture the viewing experience of the Shadowbourne Supremacy.
When it's all said and done, I am still in the infant stages of testing with this deck. I've made lots of progress and lots of changes as I go, but the deck can still be tuned better and built better. With that being said, I love this deck. It's fun to play. It's powerful. It's actually good.
Last week I was very excited because I was going to have a free weekend where I didn't have Magic tournament to travel to. It was going to be awesome to just be able to sit at home, relax, and catch on sleep and other things that weren't Magic related. I couldn't wait to just take a break from the game for a few days…
I think you know where this is going. While I didn't travel to a Magic tournament, I also didn't exactly take a break, either. Between a local Modern IQ, testing with this deck, and grinding lots of drafts on Magic Online to prepare for Grand Prix Philadelphia, I still spent most of the weekend playing Magic anyway.
Old habits die hard. With a vengeance. Sorin's Vengeance.
Last week I was excited to have a week off. Now I just wish I had a Magic tournament to go to so I could play this deck. Just when I find an awesome deck, there isn't another Standard tournament for me to play in for a few weeks. Woe is me.
I guess the grass truly is always greener on the other side.