Hello, my name is Kyle Kloster, and I'd like to discuss Legacy Reanimator. I'll talk a bit about my experiences working on the deck since the banning of Mystical Tutor and look at some of the problems (and my solutions) with the deck in the current format.
The deck's popularity has been declining since the banning of Mystical Tutor last summer. The 12 appearances it has made at the SCG legacy opens of 2011 have racked up a depressing ~35% win percentage and only one top 16 (Here). Right now, the deck appears to be terrible.
Despite this, I think Reanimator remains a solid choice, and some pretty good players seem to agree with me. Among others, Ari Lax suggested a month ago that Reanimator could be one of the best decks out there, (Here) and Patrick Chapin discussed it recently (Here). Gerry Thompson has also been trying to break the archetype (Here). And the opinions of better players than I aside, the deck is just powerful.
I mean seriously, let's talk about power level. Get your scouter on and have a look-see. Consider these excerpts from a few of my games at the SCG opens in Indy and Memphis in the last 2 months (the list that Ari Lax gives in the article I link to above is a slightly modified version of the list I took to Indy).
Against Ad Nauseum Tendrils I reanimated Iona, Shield of Emeria (naming Black) on turn 2 and on turn 3 in two different games to win the match. Mono Blue Merfolk caved to a Blazing Archon on turn 2 both games. Against Goblins, Stormtide Leviathan hit the table on turn 3 game one and swung for lethal in 2 turns alongside a Putrid Imp with flying. In game two I fell to 1 life before raising Blazing Archon from the dead to put the Goblins player on top-deck mode for a Gempalm Incinerator and enough Goblins to make it lethal, or just a Warren Weirding. Having the most racist lady in all Emeria say “Black” the next turn sealed the deal. Finally, a turn 2 Inkwell Leviathan against Counter-Top made irrelevant the Control player's own turn 1 Sensei's Divining Top, turn 2 Counterbalance.
Notice the things that these games have in common, as well as the things they don't have in common. They all involve reanimating a beast on turn 2 or 3 and winning, true (and being stripped of their important contextual details, for brevity's sake). But they are also all games against vastly different opponents---and Reanimator could still clean up. The deck is versatile. It's also worth noting that the particular creature I reanimated in each game happened to (1) completely shut down the strategy of the opponent and (2) put the opponent on a 3 turn clock.
You are probably thinking, “Yes, if you're lucky enough to get the right creature out on turn 2, you'll win a lot.” But that's the whole point here: these aren't the fringe games, this happens almost every game. One of the biggest advantages Reanimator has is its consistency in attempting to “go off” on turn 2 or 3, frequently under an umbrella of light disruption (Force of Will, Daze, and sometimes Spell Pierce, in my build. Others go for FoW, Daze, and Thoughtseize).
And if you do succeed in creating your own super-powered Frankenstein, look at your odds. You have a boat load of auto-wins and near auto-wins versus traditional builds of these archetypes:
Blazing Archon vs Dredge, Merfolk, Elves, Goblins (though you're dangerously close to losing to uncounterable Gempalm Incinerator), and it can even shut down many Show and Tell and Sneack Attack decks.
Iona, Shield of Emeria vs Storm Combo, Elf Combo, High Tide, even Goblins and Merfolk if it's early enough, and, my favorite, against Painter's Servant combo if the opponent drops a Painter's Servant intending to win the next turn, not realizing you are Reanimator.
Inkwell Leviathan vs 43 Lands, any slow Control deck (many Counter-Top variants).
Stormtide Leviathan vs Goblins, Dredge, and Elves.
The archetype certainly can be a powerhouse. Also, its scarcity in the field makes it a stronger choice, as people have been skimping on graveyard hate and a lot of players are just unprepared to play against the deck. (Note: I had written this prior to the most recent SCG open, where 4 top 16 appearances of Dredge and 1 top 8 of Cephalid Breakfast make me believe people will not be skimping on graveyard hate as much). Few people test against it these days, and it's been a while since they have. Metagame aside, I think the deck remains a contender because of its potentially insane ability to impact the board completely and immediately. And so I have been tinkering since I got back into magic to find the right list. Which brings me to my current build:
When Mystical Tutor got the axe I set out to repair the wounded deck. For the Reanimator to work it has to be able to get a reanimation spell, get a reanimation target, make sure that target is the right one to win this game, and protect it all. It also has to do this consistently and quickly to be any good. A tall order.
Now I don't think my build is optimal yet, but I think I've managed to meet a few of these criteria. First, I have aimed for consistency and speed. Since the banning last summer, some have suggested replacing Mystical Tutor with a combination of Buried Alive, Intuition, Personal Tutor, and Strategic Planning as tutor effects. I try not to dismiss cards completely, but I don't think that these are the right cards for Reanimator (or at least not my build) as they are all too slow. With 17 or 18 land in a format full of Wastelands and Rishadan Ports, a 3-casting cost spell either won't get cast, it will get cast too late, or it will get cast on time via a Dark Ritual or Lotus Petal. But after testing them, I found that adding ritual effects sacrifices too much consistency. Perhaps a Reanimator build with City of Traitors and Ancient Tomb with a Buried Alive, Necrotic Ooze combo finish could work, but I haven't tested it at all yet.
Anyway, my solution to losing the Blue tutor was adding redundancy to the deck. I figured, sure, I can't tutor for Exhume, Careful Study, or Entomb any more, but with 11 reanimation spells I shouldn't have to. And adding more reanimation targets and Putrid Imps/Hapless Researchers essentially makes the Entomb effect redundant: you don't need to Entomb if you've got the target in your hand and an Imp in play. That was the initial reasoning behind the card choices, at least.
And after testing, I found that not only does it work, but frequently it is more consistent and faster than when the deck had Mystical Tutor. You don't have to spend turn 1 or 2 casting MT and then waiting to draw the thing you tutored for - with this list you just already have the card. In your hand. Right now. Go win with it.
Another couple bonuses of having redundant reanimation spells and extra reanimation targets is this increases the likelihood of being able to reanimate multiple targets, and it's also built in protection against disruption, to boot. You often have another reanimation spell to cast if one gets countered or Thoughtseized, and you can topdeck into business spells more frequently.
Simply adding redundant effects made the deck as consistent as before, and perhaps a little faster. However, we do lose the very important aspect of choosing which creature we get. Sometimes you don't get the Blazing Archon you want because you have Careful Study and Sphinx of the Steel Wind in hand, but no Entomb. Redundancy doesn't solve this problem as well as it solves the “how do I get a reanimation spell in my hand?” problem because there is a trade off between running extra copies of one creature to ensure you can get it when you need it versus running a greater variety of reanimation targets to make sure you are prepared for whatever situation comes up.
I think the two biggest areas where my version of the deck needs tuning are the creature package and the disruption package, and this happens to be the area where I differ from the aforementioned big name players who have been advocating the deck. Gerry Thompson and Patrick Chapin both include 4 Thoughtseize, and other lists tend to favor Hapless Researchers over Putrid Imp.
Having tinkered with both Imps and Researchers, I think the correct choice depends on the metagame pretty heavily in that Putrid Imp helps battle aggressive decks and graveyard hate whereas Hapless Researchers helps more against control and combo decks. This is because Hapless Researchers are extra blue fodder for Force of Will (and every extra Blue card really does help) and they are rarely dead draws as you can play and sacrifice them to “cycle” them, provided you have an extra card to throw away.
Putrid Imps, on the other hand, are almost always dead draws after turn 3. But they are such excellent turn 1 plays, especially against graveyard hate. The Imps help against aggro when you need a good clock because they are secretly unblockable 2/2s for 1 black mana. I have had a Putrid Imp turn my Stormtide Leviathan 3 turn clock into a 2 turn clock to win the game on multiple occasions. The Imp really does get you there. And now that graveyard hate will be in vogue again, Putrid Imps aid you excellently in play around graveyard hate. If you cast Exhume, forcing the opponent to use their Tormod's Crypt etc, you can just discard another of the 8 different reanimation targets you're running, specifically for this purpose. As a last note, the Imps serve as edict-effect protection in a way that Researchers can't always (which seems relevant against only Goblins these days, but since Goblins doesn't seem to be around much right now, this is less of a bonus).
When I went to Memphis, I had 2 maindeck Researchers and 1 maindeck Imp because I was expecting lots of control in reaction to the recent outbreak of combo (as well as lots of combo), so I wanted to be sure I had a blue card to pitch to Force of Will. Now that graveyard hate will be, I think, rampant, the Imps are the better choice.
Probably the most controversial choice in my list is the lack of Thoughtseize. I've got to be honest and admit that I've never tested it because when I first built the deck I believed the life loss was too much AND because spending one of your first turns Thoughtseizing slows you down by an entire turn, which you don't always have. After building it, I almost never felt like I wanted Thoughtseize in a game, so I just never tried it out. Besides, it isn't a Blue card, and you really start to struggle to have enough Blue to power FoW. I have found that 4 FoW, 4 Daze, and some mixture of Spell Pierce and Dispel do better.
I am serious about the loss of life being too much: I have won plenty of games at 1 or 2 life with Reanimator. I would rather the opponent expend their resources to cast a card and have it be countered. While I feel comfortable with my list, it certainly does merit testing according to the metagame you expect.
The last choice that I want to talk about regarding disruption is Dispel vs Spell Pierce vs Daze. I haven't tested Dispel enough, but I'm beginning to want to split it as 3 Dispel, 2 Spell Pierce, 3 Daze. Frequently I have found myself on turn 4 or 5 holding a Pierce or Daze and looking at my opponent's 4 or 5 land. Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, Snuff Out, Ghastly Demise, Go for the Throat, and various bounce spells are too prevalent and too cheap for Pierce and Daze to provide enough of an umbrella, especially if you can't reanimate a target with shroud or if Iona can't catch all of the removal with one color.
Besides, the only things I have found myself countering with Spell Pierce have been counterspells (including Counterbalance, which I haven't encountered very much this year), exactly the instant removals I listed above, Warren Weirding, and graveyard hate artifacts. Graveyard hate and a possible pending resurgence in Counterbalance might justify including more Spell Pierces in the sideboard, in addition to the Pithing Needles which fight both.
The last thing I'll talk about is the creature package. Again, this is heavily dependent on the metagame, but the idea is to be prepared for as many different opponents as possible. For example, I took 3 maindeck Iona to Memphis because she destroys combo decks and many control decks. She is much less of a winner, however, against control decks running 3 or more colors. She is also a big risk against Knight of the Reliquary decks because of Karakas, and BWG Junk seems to be a popular choice to counter combo decks, so I have brought the Iona count back down to 2. Given that I expect a big upswing in control decks, I might even up the count of targets with shroud, perhaps to 2 Imperial Archangel. She can fly over a Tarmogoyf for the win while he beats into her fruitlessly turn after turn, and her being blue fodder for FoW is a sweet bonus. Plus, when you've got lethal on the table but you just need to stay alive one more turn, she serves as an excellent fog.
I would consider cutting the Stormtide Leviathan and possibly Sphinx of the Steel Wind, as they are best against Zoo and Goblins, both of which are seeing less play right now. Perhaps a Platinum Emperion could replace one (which can be brought back into play with Reanimate without life loss) and possibly Hellkite Overlord, as I have frequently wanted a finisher target that could close a game for me in which I have only one turn left to win. Right now the fastest “clock” is Terastodon nuking your own lands, which I can't stand doing because you become so vulnerable.
Then again, I feel like Team America and Junk are very popular right now, and they both have too much removal to be able to risk anything that doesn't have shroud or protection from Black and or White.
Speaking of shroud... it has come to the point where I almost feel like reanimation targets are too vulnerable for Reanimator to be viable as a strategy without some radical change. So I have been working on an Enlightened Tutor based Reanimator in which E-Tutor can find Animate Dead, or one of the artifact targets: Platinum Emperion, Sphinx of the Steel Wind, and Inkwell Leviathan. In a sense this is faster than when Mystical Tutor searched for Entomb which then searched for a reanimation target. Now you need pay only 1 mana and play one spell, although the trade off is having to wait a turn for your target. Without the Blue for counter magic, 1 or 2 copies of Lightning Greaves feels necessary as protection but doubles as a clock enhancer. Sphinx of the Steel Wind becomes incredible with haste and shroud. As a last note, Enlightened Tutor finds our sideboard anti-graveyard hate cards like Pithing Needle and potentially Serenity or Seal of Cleansing.
There is now plenty of room for discard effects like Thoughtseize as well as potentially Silence, Orim's Chant, or even the excellent graveyard-hate hoser Abeyance (although Abeyance is almost definitely too expensive for us to be able to cast Animate Dead that same turn, unfortunately). I haven't tested any of these choices enough, but my instinct is that Orim's Chant has an excellent dual purpose as a fog effect and would be the best.
The last thing I'll mention is a couple alternative strategies for reanimation packages, mostly for fun, but partly because I am curious and don't like to rule things out until I've given them at least a sniff of play testing.
I goldfished a few times with a BU version running 4 Sharuum the Hegemon and 4 Magister Sphinx with the plan of getting 1 of each in my graveyard, animating Sharuum which in turn animates Magister Sphinx, and then swinging for the win on my next turn in the air. Having 2 creatures in play is a bonus as it is harder to get rid of both, but their being merely 5/5 artifacts with no real protection is a big downside. Then again, because all 8 targets are both Blue and Black, we can run both Force of Will and Unmask realistically, because we don't want extra copies of either creature in hand. The deck is explosive, but suffers from insane card disadvantage.
My last idea is completely different from every other version of Reanimator I have seen or made. It tries to abuse the instant-ness and haste-granting ability of Shallow Grave, Goryo's Vengeance, and Corpse Dance to get a free Emrakul, the Aeons Torn attack OR a swing with Nicol Bolas. Either one is completely devastating, but one *huge* problem is that you have no clock once your glorious swing is over. I have accomplished a turn 1 attack with Nicol Bolas off of a Dark Ritual only to lose because I had no other plays for 4 turns. I plan on, but have not gotten around to adding Oona's Prowlers in addition to the Putrid Imps as discard outlets that double as clocks. Just all of the other Reanimator ideas that I've mentioned, this suffers from severe card disadvantage, assuming you don't connect with Emrakul or Bolas, and does have the same resilience that my “real” version of Reanimator has, but who can say no to attempting the turn 1 Nicol Bolas or turn 3 or 4 Emrakul? Who would want to say no to that? Then again, as my friend Tim Jansen tells me, maybe I just try too hard to be fancy.
I hope you've enjoyed some of my ideas. Feel free to e-mail me if you have some comments, I'd love to hear what you think!
I'd like to thanks those who have helped me play test, especially Tim Jansen, Scott Muir, and Bryan Crist. Sitting through countless matches against Reanimator must have been taxing.