Why We Love Legacy: Craig Kattner on U/B Reanimator

In some weekend in the fall of 1994, my friends and I did what we often did at that time: we gathered at someone’s house for a night of gaming. Usually that meant many hours of AD&D, or Vampire: The Masquerade, or Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Depending on where we were at, we’d also play some video games. Thousands of Lemmings were sent to their doom and countless red shells were fired in the first (and still best) Super Mario Kart.

One particular weekend still stands out vividly in my mind, though. I don’t remember what the exact date was, but I know that we were gaming at Joe’s and that Dave brought a new game. That weekend, when not dying to beholders or saving Gaia from The Wyrm, we learned how to summon Shivan Dragons and that black creatures were immune from Terror.

It’s now 2017 and I’m writing an article about the game I learned that weekend. That game was obviously Magic: The Gathering, and to say that I was hooked is an understatement. I didn’t drive immediately home the next day — I went to buy my own Magic cards. My first cards came in the form of a Revised starter deck; Fallen Empires wasn’t in stores yet, but packs of The Dark were long gone.

My first two rares were a Vesuvan Doppelganger and a Tropical Island. I still have them both. One of my uncommons was a Serra Angel. Even then we knew the card was iconic. Everyone wanted to trade for it, but I still have it, too (since signed by Doug Shuler).

If you’ve made it this far, you’re no doubt asking yourself what this has to do with Legacy. Well let me tell you, it has everything to do with Legacy. I took a very long break from the game but picked it up again in 2010. I played various Standard formats until 2012 when two things converged for me: first, I got tired of the treadmill. Second, I realized that I wanted to play my old, powerful cards. I wanted to cast Brainstorm and Force of Will. I wanted to tell creatures to “Go grow some wheat” when I targeted them with Swords to Plowshares. Most of all, I wanted to cast Balance. (This dream is still on hold, what with it only being legal in Vintage.)

For me, Legacy is my bridge from Magic circa 2017 back to Magic circa 1994, when all I needed was a bunch of lands, a Stasis, and a Time Elemental to wreck everybody else’s fun.

If it’s 2017 and you want to wreck someone’s day in a game of Magic, what are you to do? Legacy certainly has no shortage of options: Miracles has proven to be resilient in the face of the banning of Sensei’s Divining Top; Infect or Storm can kill before your opponent even gets to play a second spell; Lands will certainly make your opponent miserable, but it’s too expensive for many paper players. All those and more are solid fun killers, but none of them let you play perennial EDH fun killer all-star Iona, Shield of Emeria.

If you want to deny your Burn opponents the ability to play their red spells, your Infect opponent the opportunity to play their green spells, or your Storm opponent the opportunity to cast their Tendrils, you need to play good old U/B/x Reanimator. You need to be spending two mana on turn 1 or 2 to put a 9 CMC 7/7 with evasion into play and waiting for your opponent to concede.

That’s Reanimator in a nutshell. You spend way too little mana to put way too big a beater into play way too soon. It’s ridiculous and it’s awesome.

The Deck

U/B Reanimator, by Craig Kattner

What’s the deck capable of? Let’s get the nut draw out of the way. It doesn’t really matter if you’re on the play or the draw, if you have a Reanimate, land, Lotus Petal, and Entomb in your opening hand then you’re basically free to do your best to make sure your opponent has a bad day. Against an unknown opponent it’s usually best to go for a Griselbrand. There are a great many problems that can be solved in this game by drawing seven new cards, and Griselbrand is one of the best at enabling that.

Good Matchups

Besides the nut draw, which can beat pretty much anything, we have a few favorable matchups even without the nut. U/B Reanimator is one of the fastest combo decks in the format (really only bested by our cousin B/R Reanimator) and we get to play counter magic to keep our opponent from going off. For those reasons combo matchups are tilted in our favor.

Bad Matchups

Heading the list of our unfavorable matchups is Death & Taxes. Main deck Karakas presents an obvious problem for a deck whose headlining feature is putting legendary creatures into play on the cheap. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is also a significant problem. We run very lean on mana sources, so it’s not uncommon to spend a turn paying a mana just to put a Lotus Petal into play. Any deck capable of turboing out a Chalice of the Void, such as Eldrazi, is also problematic since most of our action has a CMC of one.

For the most part our issues aren’t specific decks so much as the power and prevalence of graveyard hate today. Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void, Surgical Extraction, Relic of Progenitus, Faerie Macabre. The list goes on and on. Just being prepared to play around (or through) the hate goes a long way towards keeping us in any match.

The Untouchables

4 Brainstorm
4 Ponder
4 Force of Will
4 Reanimate
4 Exhume
4 Entomb
4 Careful Study
3 Daze
3 Griselbrand
1 Tidespout Tyrant
19 Mana sources

These are the cards that I consider to be the core of the deck. Like many decks in the format, the deck is built on a spine of blue cards. Nearly any blue deck in the format is going to have a playset of Brainstorms for card selection and some number of Force of Will to protect yourself from some other nefarious combo.

As a combo deck ourselves, we supplement the Brainstorms with some additional cantrips. Ponder fulfills its usual role when it comes to finding the missing combo piece. Being able to see up to four new cards for a single mana is crucial to a smoothly functioning combo deck.

Careful Study is tailor-made for this deck. It digs you two cards deeper, it enables you to put a fatty in the bin for reanimation, it pitches to Force of Will, and it’s cheap to cast so you can often cast a reanimation spell in the same turn.

The gold standard way to put a reanimation target in your graveyard is and probably always will be Entomb. The card at one time had a well-deserved place on the banned list. For a single mana you can tutor up whichever bullet you need for the current situation.

There is of course one last way to put a creature into the graveyard, and it’s a way the game rules conveniently provide for us. When on the draw — provided you haven’t taken a mulligan — you can draw your eighth card and pass the turn without making a land drop, then discard a creature for reanimation on the following turn. I’d say this probably happens maybe once or twice over the course of a seven-round event, though I don’t recommend it if the reanimation spell in hand isn’t Reanimate.

This brings us to our next major category of spells: reanimation effects. There are generally two spells that are played as four-ofs: Reanimate and Exhume. Reanimate is usually your first choice for two reasons. One, pure speed. In a deck with as few lands as Reanimator has, the lower casting cost is extremely important. The other important facet of Reanimate is that it has a limited shelf life. If your life total is under pressure then it quickly becomes unusable.

The other four-of is Exhume. It costs one more and has the additional downside of reanimating an opposing creature as well. This can sometimes be a problem, enabling your opponent to increase the amount of pressure you’re under. If you’ve taken some damage and managed to kill an opposing creature before attempting to Exhume, you’re in risk of dying to the additional threat on board. This is most relevant when the creature in question is a Deathrite Shaman, because it represents a non-combat threat that you can’t simply stonewall.

Now that we’ve seen our means of putting creatures in the graveyard for reanimation and the reanimation effects, it’s time to talk about our reanimation targets. Most lists will have around seven reanimation targets in some combination of silver bullets and general threats.

Your primary target is Griselbrand. He provides the perfect combination of threat and protection. It’s very difficult for an opponent to remove a 7/7 lifelinking, flying, trampling Yawgmoth’s Bargain. Usually he’s found as a four-of, but my preference is for three of them. Having only three means you’re less likely to pitch one to hand size or to a Careful Study, but it means you can run another silver bullet in your main deck.

Most decks will also run a main deck Tidespout Tyrant. While Tyrant is the weakest of the threats in the deck, it fulfills an essential function in that it acts as a safety valve for any troublesome permanents. We otherwise lack a means for answering cards such as Ensnaring Bridge or Glacial Chasm. We can also bounce any permanents pressuring us, and unlike many bounce spells we can target lands. This is your single best threat against Lands, both for its ability to remove Glacial Chasm or Maze of Ith, and because it dodges Karakas.

Flex Spots

2 Collective Brutality
1 Animate Dead
1 Grave Titan
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria

The target suite is generally rounded out by two of the following, but if you’re running three Griselbrand, then you have a free slot for the third silver bullet: Iona, Shield of Emeria; Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite; or Grave Titan. Iona and Elesh Norn are fairly self-explanatory, but Grave Titan is sometimes overlooked. It is actually your fastest clock, swinging for 10 on your first combat and 14 on the second. It’s also useful in that even if it’s removed it leaves behind some threats and it also dodges Karakas.

A third reanimation effect is occasionally played and it’s the original reanimation effect, going all the way back to Alpha: Animate Dead. There are two reasons why Animate Dead is only occasionally seen: first, and most importantly, it is vulnerable. While the other two effects are sorceries, Animate Dead is an Aura, and that brings with it a whole host of issues. In particular, Abrupt Decay makes Animate Dead extremely risky since you can’t just counter an attempt to remove the Animate Dead if your opponent is attempting to Decay it.

The other problem with Animate Dead is that it reduces the creature’s power by one. This doesn’t often matter, but there are times when your life total is under pressure that missing point of damage makes all the difference between winning and losing. But it’s not all bad: Animate Dead has to rank up there with the best of them when it comes to verbal gymnastics necessary to make a seemingly simple concept work within the confines of the Magic rules.

The primary alternative for the Animate Dead is 1-2 main deck Show and Tell. The main benefit this provides you is main-deck resilience to graveyard hate. Personally, I don’t really like it. You can’t play around Daze very well when trying to jam a three CMC spell and it can’t be turboed out very readily since we don’t have Sol lands (e.g. Ancient Tomb or City of Traitors). I’d rather have a little more consistency in assembling my combo in game 1 and save the Show and Tell for post board games.

To my surprise, Collective Brutality hasn’t completely overtaken the Thoughtseize slot. I guess that shows just how important the difference of one mana is in a format like Legacy. Even now, when RUG isn’t tempoing everyone out of the game, that one mana can make a big difference. That said, I think Collective Brutality is so versatile that it’s the discard spell of choice. They’re both useful as enablers for putting a creature into the graveyard (note you can target yourself with Thoughtseize), but Collective Brutality can do so much more. Obviously it can clear the way to cast your combo cards (at the cost of being unable to grab something like Jace), but it also kills Delvers and Deathrite Shamans, and sometimes the Syphon Soul mode is the difference between a Griselbrand activation and not. And once in a blue moon Collective Brutality is actually your kill card. One word of caution though: if you opponent has a Deathrite Shaman ready to go don’t escalate; they do get the chance to target the card used to pay the escalate cost.

The Mana Base

4 Lotus Petal
4 Polluted Delta
3-4 Underground Sea
2 other Island fetches
2 other Swamp fetches
1-2 Island
2 Swamp

Reanimator runs fewer lands than most decks in Legacy, but we supplement them with Lotus Petals to offer some additional speed. Petals are the key to a turn 1 win or a turn 2 win with protection from Daze.

With many decks I prefer to fetch for basics to provide protection against Wasteland, but our color requirements make that difficult. Often times we want to cast a cantrip on turn 1 to find a missing combo piece and then two black spells on turn 2 to put a creature in the graveyard and Reanimate it. That means we need a blue source on turn 1 and two black sources on turn 2, which means the first land we fetch needs to be an Underground Sea.

The only other notable feature is running two Swamps. They enable you to cast two black spells in a turn in the face of a Blood Moon effect. And if you’re going real deep, they can enable hard casting Grave Titan in similar circumstances.

Gameplay

When playing this deck, most of the time you just ask yourself a simple question: can I be aggressive? If the answer is yes (and the answer is nearly always yes), then you should be aggressive. This is doubly true if you’ve got Daze or Force of Will in hand. Put the onus on your opponent to have the answers.

The smart play for your opponent is to try to keep you from putting a creature into the graveyard. Once a creature is in the yard you’re a single spell away from having a flying 7/7 with lifelink, so I try to prioritize countermagic to protect Entomb and the like.

If your opponent is a Deathrite Shaman deck (*sigh*) then you need to save up some spells to put two creatures in the yard and go on the Exhume plan. Let them decide which of the two they’re going to remove.

In post-board games I tend to be a little wary of Entombing a Griselbrand. If they hit it with a Surgical Extraction not only have they removed all of your best reanimation targets for two life, but they’ve made it harder for us to hit on a Careful Study or escalated Collective Brutality.

Sideboarding

Reanimator is, first and foremost, a proactive deck. That being the case, we need to be careful about sideboarding too many cards and weakening our ability to combo quickly. I usually try to avoid boarding more than four cards and generally apply a one-in, one-out rule to our threats.

Because of the silver bullet nature of some of our threats they can be easily boarded out. That mostly means cutting either Iona or Elesh Norn. I like the additional lifelinker from Sphinx of the Steel Wind against aggressive decks, Inkwell Leviathan when facing Maze of Ith or Karakas, and Ashen Rider in the mirror or against Show and Tell decks.

Show and Tell comes in most of the time. Most decks will pack some form of potent graveyard hate in the sideboard (to say nothing of the abundance of main deck hate by way of Deathrite Shaman) in the form of Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace, among other things. The loss of Counterbalance in the format is actually why I no longer prefer the green splash (for Abrupt Decay) in favor of straight U/B and Echoing Truth, which can deal with Leyline of the Void where Abrupt Decay obviously could not.

Faerie Macabre provides an answer against other reanimator decks, in particular R/B Reanimator. If that deck shows a Chancellor of the Annex, then the Fairie means we still have interaction against it. You should also not hesitate to run a cantrip into the Chancellor tax.

Wrap Up

To paraphrase David Mamet, always be casting. Find those combo pieces and jam those spells, now! If you’re not, you’re not winning. Make your opponents rue the day they played a deck that Elesh Norn or Iona shuts down completely. Scoff at players who think Lightning Bolt is a removal spell. Revel in the joy of being a fast combo deck with counter magic. Get that Cadillac Griselbrand on board. Leave the steak knives for losers.

Craig Kattner is a software engineer from greater Chicagoland who has been playing Magic for the better part of 23 years.  When he’s not casting Brainstorms in Legacy, he’s casting Sarkhan Vol in EDH.

 

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