Jin&Tonic: 2nd Place with Reanimator

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Kyle Kloster offers us a brief report on how he earned 2nd place at the recent StarCityGames Legacy open event, a look at Reanimator's appeal and optimal play, and suggestions for optimizing the deck.

Jin&Tonic Necromancer

I know, I know. What was I thinking with the 2 maindeck Brainstorm? I'll get to that.

I will say a little about my experience piloting Reanimator to 2nd place at the Legacy Open at the SCG Invitational, but mostly I want to use that as a springboard to discuss how Reanimator is optimally played, and then get into my specific card choices. Reanimator has been my weapon of choice for a year now, and I'm hoping that my finish and this discussion will help fuel a slew of new necromancers in the SCG Opens to come.

This has been my 5th SCG Legacy open in the last year, and a glance at my other finishes might leave a human wondering how I hit 2nd place this time around. In trying to answer that question myself I've come up with a few reasons. And my answer—aside from "running hot"—is that I think it has benefited me immensely to have stuck with one deck that suits my playing style for so long.

Others have discussed the benefits of sticking with and mastering one deck, but I feel it's just as helpful to run a deck whose strategy hinges on the kinds of choices you make best. It keeps games fun, which helps me to stay interested and focused on the plays I'm making instead of getting bored with interactions that cause me to twitch.

For example, I am decent at figuring out the best moment to attempt to combo off but I'm bad with combat math as well as many of the decisions crucial to the control player's resource management. I almost never have to deal with those situations running Reanimator, especially not with a Jin-Gitaxias in play. Playing a deck that fits my skills, and one which I know well and can enjoy, has—I think—been key in my successes, sparse however they may be.

2nd: Back from the Dead

Back to Indy. I've mentioned that this was my 5th Legacy Open. Doing well at Indy was very strange to me because, out of the 5 SCG Legacy Opens that I've entered in the last year, this was the tournament I was least prepared for. By far. And lord does my sideboard show it.

Reanimator by Kyle Kloster
2nd place at a Legacy Open tournament
Indianapolis, Indiana, United States on 2011-06-05

My list was far from well-tuned and I think this speaks to the power of Reanimator: even with a somewhat untested maindeck and a mess of a sideboard, it still pushed me to 2nd place. It also shows that the Jin-Gitaxias strategy was well-positioned against the SCG Invi metagame.

Let me show you what I mean. You know that annoying EDH player who sometimes locks up the game and then just squats on his lopsided board position like a dragon on its treasure pile? As a Jin&Tonic Necromancer, you get to be that player.

Of my 11 matches, 4 involved Disentombing for the Core-Augur on turn one, reanimating on turn two or three, drawing 7 (almost always supplying me with a Force of Will and/or a Mental Misstep), countering the opponent's Swords to Plowshares, and then peering over my massive 12-card-hand at my opponent's cardless hand.

I faced 4 different Stoneforge Control decks and achieved this line of play almost every game, as well as against other decks in several games. I'm telling you, this is the most treasure squatting fun I’ve ever had at a Magic tournament.

But not all games went this way. My first opponent, Tyler Winn running Merfolk, was able to get enough pressure on his side before Jin-Gitaxias hit the board that I simply died before the Core-Augur's 7-a-turn found me an out. It's rare, but every once in a while it's possible to brick with the blue Praetor. And if the opponent has got some blockers/attackers in play, they don't need a hand to beat you if you don't draw into another set of reanimation spells.

Round 2 I faced Jonathan Benson, who made day 2 at GP: Providence with Goblins. I was excited to see him packing Warren Instigators, a favorite of mine. Sphinx of the Steel Wind locked up game one, to Jonathan's friend's delight. Apparently he pressed Jonathan earlier, “How do you beat Sphinx of the Steel Wind?” Jonathan's answer had been something along the lines of “Don't face it.” I have, however, lost with one on the table against Goblins before.

In game two Jonathan surprised me by Stingscourge-ing my Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite and then rebounding with Goblin Ringleader into some Goblin Chieftains to swing for exactly lethal damage the turn before I raised a Blazing Archon. Luckily I took game 3 without much fuss, aided by some combination of Blazing Archon, Elesh Norn, and Stormtide Leviathan, which I have since forgotten. Props to Jonathan, though, for being a fun opponent and for earning some success with his loyalty to the little red men.

My only other Stoneforge-less opponent in the swiss rounds was Jacob Marek in round 6, running Enchantress. This was my first time playing against Legacy Enchantress ever, so I was alarmed... until I thought about it and realized the deck runs no counter magic and loses to Iona, Shield of Emeria.

Game 1 I landed an early Stormtide Leviathan and took Jacob to 4 life before he dropped a Solitary Confinement. I made the mistake of not Dazing his Enchantress effects earlier in the game. I thought I was saving my countermagic for his removal, but I didn't realize how quickly his Wild Growth effects and Cathedral of Serra Sanctum would make Daze useless. These Enchantress effects allowed him to continue drawing cards and stay in Solitary Confinement.

My second mistake was playing out this game far too long. I knew that if I could get an Iona on the table naming either color, I stood a chance of running out his hand—after all, if he can't cast any of his enchantments, he can't draw cards, and so eventually his Solitary Confinement would die.

But as Jacob played enchantment after enchantment, effectively drawing his entire deck, I realized my “answer” was no longer viable. And when he landed a Sigil of the Empty Throne, I saw my fate and scooped. Enchantress enthusiast Michael Poszgay had started watching halfway through the game and I could hear him say “It's about time” when I finally scooped. Yeah, yeah, lesson learned.

Fortunately, game 2 I Disentombed for Iona early in the game. I incorrectly named Green, not realizing that all of his answers were White, but he didn't draw any answers in the 3 turns it took Iona to get there. My logic was that all of his card draw (and tutoring with Sterling Grove) was green, so if I cut that off, he'd be sunk. Plus, Iona would have flown over Magus of the Moat.

Game 3 went the same way, except that once I had the game locked up, I cast Reanimate on his Argothian Enchantress so that I could draw a card from casting Animate Dead on an additional target.

Thanks to Jacob for laughing along with me on that. I have rarely played such a fun opponent. It really is the people that keep me coming back to these tournaments, especially great opponents like Jacob and the friendly event staff.

The rest of my matches (that didn't go Jin-and-in) were covered on Star City Games, so I'll shift now to describe my idea of optimal Reanimator play.

The State of Animation

I wrote a few months ago why I thought Reanimator was still a good deck. Since then a few things have changed, but what hasn't changed is that Reanimator still needs to be very fast.

The potential for a turn 2 reanimation is still what makes this deck good and I urge deck designers to keep that in mind. The rest of the conversation has changed, however. Now the discussion is about why Jin-Gitaxias can make Reanimator totally dominant.

The key to Jin-Gitaxias's power here is two-fold: Legacy players are tapping out on turns 1 through 3, and their best answer to Jin-Gitaxias is Swords to Plowshares. If they're tapped out, landing a Jin is easier (your Dazes are now hard counters), and since they have no mana to pay for removal, you're guaranteed to draw those 7. And frequently you find a Mental Misstep or a Force of Will (or even multiples) in that new hand, so your opponent stands little chance of removing Jin.

But even if your opponent does manage to push a removal spell past your fresh hand, you probably have the ability to raise the dead again once you've picked up a new hand.

Because of the dominance that an early Jin-Gitaxias offers, the best Reanimator strategy is one poised to raise Jin as consistently and early as possible. This makes coin flips and mulligan decisions nerve-racking for me.

Against aggro decks, you need to go first and you need a hand that can make you a Jin&Tonic in 2 turns. Otherwise, the life-loss from Reanimate diminishes your chances of raising any dead, and the aggro opponent has too much time to lay enough threats so that turn 3 Jin doesn't do it.

Against control players you want to go second so you have the extra card (could be that counterspell you need or that Blue card to pitch to Force of Will) and so you have the option to use your discard phase as an uncounterable outlet. Mental Misstep can lock down all of your discard outlets, so keeping this slow but fool-proof outlet in mind is very important.

Counting on your discard phase, however, makes mulligan decisions that much more important. Mulliganing one time puts a strain on the discard plan. Doing it twice... that hand had better be fantastic.

When is Jin-Gitaxias no longer the go-to guy? Jin becomes terrible as the turns go by, assuming the other player is mounting any sort of board presence. In aggro matches, Jin is generally bad if it doesn't hit the board before your opponent's third turn. By then their board presence will typically overwhelm you, though this depends on how quickly they are able to develop.

Against control, it depends on the removal available to the opponent and how much countermagic you've got. If they have access to Swords to Plowshares, then you must either have a lot of permission or wait for them to tap out before you attempt reanimation so that you can draw 7 and hopefully hit some Blue backup.

Once the control player has hit the second land drop, your Dazes becomes less good, but you are tapping out yourself, so their Dazes are golden. So they have a good chance of forcing through a removal spell or countering the combo. At this point a shroud target performs better. If they have no Swords, then Jin-Gitaxias is the go-to target as long as the opponent has few to no threats.

If not Jin-Gitaxias, then who? In control matchups, shroud targets are usually the best alternative, with Empyrial Archangel being the real hero. I regret having Inkwell Leviathan maindeck over her in Indy. She would have saved me a game or two and I never once wanted Inkwell. She is especially good with an Elesh Norn in play: practically a Platinum Emprion with shroud. She even absorbs Keeper of Progenitus attacks!

The anti-aggro targets depend wildly on the board situation. Elesh Norn, Empyrial Archangel, Sphinx of the Steel Wind, Stormtide Leviathan, Blazing Archon, and Platinum Emprion can all be fantastic, and which ones are maindeck depends heavily on the metagame.

For example, I regret omitting Platinum Emperion for this tournament. I have tried the Emperion before and decided it wasn't for me because you can't pay for Force of Will, but now I would like to try it alongside Jin-Gitaxias.

Elesh Norn is great against Goblins and Merfolk and can lock a Natural Order deck out of sacrifice-fodder. Norn also wipes Canal Dredger, Grim Lavamancers, Dark Confidants, and unequipped Stoneforge Mystics, all of which have been relevant in my games.

Empyrial Archangel shines against a lot of control matchups and can lock out Zoo and Burn or just super fog for two turns to buy you time to set up another reanimation.

Sphinx of the Steel Wind is a kind of compromise with each of Blazing Archon, Stormtide Leviathan, and Empyrial Archangel. The Sphinx helps out your life total, like Archangel, and, although it doesn't have shroud, having 6 attack is regularly a turn faster than 5 attack. Plus Sphinx can handle some onslaughts that are just too much for Archangel's 8 toughness.

Sphinx doesn't shut down attackers as well as Blazing Archon does, but it can be pitched to Force of Will. Once again, its 6 power is significant, and its life gain can put you out of burn range, which Archon cannot do. Stormtide Leviathan is a better clock and a better wall against most attackers and is more reliable against Merfolk, which is important because Merfolk is so ubiquitous. Sphinx is also difficult for Team America to remove since Go for the Throat can't hit him.

One last comment on the lifesaver targets. Usually being Blue is a big advantage for reanimation targets because having extras is not a problem, as they can be exiled to pay for Force of Will. However, Llawan, Cephalid Empress shows up in droves sometimes and can be a real threat, so be mindful when deciding which lifesaver target you go for.

I didn't say much above about how to play against combo. Usually Jin-Gitaxias is the way to play against combo, although Iona can definitely be a game winner. For example, Painted Stone decks frequently send out a premature Painter's Servant only to be Iona'd for an embarrassing loss.

Finally, I want to talk about a few of my specific card choices, reanimation targets aside. First of all, my sideboard was an experiment. I wasn't sure how to balance certain cards, so I gave myself access to a few things to try out different numbers.

I wanted to have a playset available of the Putrid Imps, Brainstorms, and Mental Missteps. That way I could have as many as I wanted of each of those cards during my games so I could feel out the right number.

Putrid Imp frequently raises some eyebrows. I still defend him, although not as fervently as I used to. Just remember that he combats graveyard hate by allowing you to discard after your yard has been wiped, while an Exhume is on the stack. Anyway, this is why my sideboard was so strange. Onward.

The Reanimator depends on consistently drawing reanimation spells, discard outlets, and permission. Because each component is so key, the deck is very tight. There is no wiggle room unless you want to risk cutting lands. I wouldn't do that. I have concluded after a year's worth of testing that 17 lands is the right number.

There just isn't room in Reanimator to fit every Mental Misstep and enough reanimation spells.

Do not cut reanimation spells. If you don't draw one, you just cannot win.
Do not cut reanimation targets. If you don't have access to one, you just cannot win.

Well then, what the hell do you do? When Mystical Tutor was banned, my solution was redundancy. I added targets and reanimation spells. I found that simply having what you needed in your hand more often instead of having to tutor for it actually meant that Reanimator was faster.

I figured I'd apply the same principle here. I have spent too many early turns casting Brainstorm instead of going off. Brainstorm is great. True. But having to cast it usually slowed me down and I almost never wanted multiples. On top of that, having Jin-Gitaxias in play made Brainstorm useless. I'd rather just have more business in the deck to get to.

There are problems in the list I took to Indy, but 2 maindeck Brainstorm is not the biggest. I am considering going up to 3, but what else would you cut?

Not a land.
Not a single counter spell.
Not a single reanimation spell.

A Putrid Imp? Good point, but I'd rather cut that for the fourth Mental Misstep, which should have been there all along.

If it makes you feel better, I am keeping the other Brainstorms in the sideboard for the control matchups, especially for opponents with discard effects.

Thoughtseize has been too much of a life sacrifice in the past and is even more so now when I'm casting Reanimate on Jin-Gitaxias so frequently. However, I hated my sideboard Spell Pierce and would gladly replace them with something useful. I boarded them in no more than two times the whole tournament and regretted it when I did.

The Pithing Needle vs. Null Rod argument deserves some thought. Karakas and Jace both make Pithing Needle a worthwhile consideration, especially since Reanimator now runs 3 legends: Norn, Jin, and Iona. However, Null Rod's ability to fight Affinity and MUD makes it better, I now believe.

Until next time…

Even if I hadn't made the top 8, I still would have considered the tournament a success. I have never had so many friendly and enjoyable opponents.

Special thanks/grats go to my playtesting partner and carpooler Scott Muir for earning his way to 3rd place. Thank yous also go out to Bryan Crist for lots of testing and Legacy advice, as well as Kelly Reid and Matt Oberholtzer for moral support. And thank you for reading.

@kylekloster on Twitter

4 thoughts on “Jin&Tonic: 2nd Place with Reanimator

  1. Great article. Even after the mental misstep ban, the list still make lots of sense. Reanimator has been my deck for a couple weeks now and I quite enjoy it!

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