Reanimator - Neon - February 18, 2018
Last weekend I had a chance to participate in the ECQ. I was excited, as this was the first time I would be able to seriously test for and play in the ECQ. Winchest was the obvious deck to me. Aside from coming in at the top of the tier list, it also offered consistently decent match ups across the meta. I spent time testing and tuning all week, until Friday where I streamed my ECQ run, finishing with an 18-10 record, which I knew was borderline. Luckily, my tiebreakers were good, allowing me to secure 54th place! I was in!
By this point, I was dialed in. Focused. Serious. Saturday night I began testing for the ECQ. My first-round opponent was going to be joshuaknox on Reanimator, and while I was initially spooked, the match-up didn’t seem that bad in my test games. I moved on to test other opponents, such as JockeD’s unusual take on Jennev, Surferfl7's aggressive Skycrag, and JameNicol’s Mono Justice deck. It was obvious Sunday would be difficult, but I felt like I had a good shot.
Sunday morning. I eat some pancakes with my son, charge my body with caffeine, run some errands, and sit down at my computer an hour before the ECQ. Time to play some warm-up games! I ask around Discord to bang out some games against reanimator, and IlyaK volunteers. I boot up the client, load up the challenge, and start jamming some games.
It quickly becomes very obvious that my understanding of the Reanimator match-up was…flawed. The first game it felt like he ran hot. The second game felt like I ran cold. By about game 5 the truth was obvious – a skilled pilot could absolutely dumpster my deck. It was pretty obvious that my match against joshuaknox wide hinge on either a) my opponent didn’t know how to play the match-up or b) I would need to run hotter than the sun. Neither of those things happened, and I lost 0-2.
At first, I was a little salty. It feels pretty bad to work hard for an event like the ECQ only to be paired against a horrible match-up in the first round. Before long, though, the feeling changed. What is up with this Reanimator deck? Is it really that good? How does it compare to the rest of the format? I was done playing against Reanimator, I wanted to see what the other side of the match-up felt like.
By Sunday night I was already head-over-heels. Not only was this an extremely powerful combo deck, it also had incredible deckbuilding! The games are also an absolute blast… at least from my side of the table. With all that said, this deck has a lot to unpack, so I wanted to a write an article on the subject. First, I am going to discuss the construction of the deck in the context of history, as I feel this deck represents a real step forward in deckbuilding. Next, I want to talk about some specific aspects of technical play that are worth discussing, specifically discussing particular match ups like, Winchest versus Reanimator, Jennev versus Reanimator, and the Reanimator mirror. This section will discuss both how the Reanimator deck should approach the match up, and how the opponent should retaliate. Altogether, this should offer a detailed guide to the deck for anyone who wants to understand the deck.
In Iso We Trust
For those who don’t follow Eternal deck building very closely, you might not know Isomorphic’s work, but he has actually had his fingerprints on a number of notable decks. Isomorphic was involved in building Kennadins, back when it was known as “Dragon Crunch”. He also worked with aetherllama on Talir-Mask during its early iterations. What makes this resumé particularly impressive, is that his work in building new decks! Tuning is important, but adjusting the last 5 or 6 cards in a grindy midrange deck isn’t nearly as difficult as crafting something new from whole cloth. When I found out Isomorphic was the primary deckbuilder behind the new deck I wasn’t exactly shocked.
[I should note that Macizo and TheBergund seemed to build similar decks to the Isomorphic/joshuaknox/mgallop list. I am not sure if Macizo and TheBergund built the deck entirely coincidentally, got their hands on Isomorphic’s deck somehow, or simply saw it on the ladder and reverse-engineered the list. If they did discover the deck independently that is quite impressive!]
Superficially, this may simply look like “just another Reanimator deck”. After all, Grasping and Shadows and Vara have been causing mischief together since closed beta. Even the decks last winter that got Vara sent to nerf-jail were incremental improvements of preexisting decks. After all, putting Nocturnal Observer in Reanimator isn’t exactly revolutionary. So, what makes this Reanimator deck special? Well, there are a few things.
Building Reanimator decks is deceptively difficult. On the surface, the blueprint is pretty obvious: you play your scary monsters, your reanimation effects, some discard/self-mill, and then round out the rest of the list with card draw and a bit of interaction. Right? Well, the obvious question is what balance of these effects do you actually want. Most Reanimator decks that I see play an incoherent mix of card draw, removal, midrangy units, and nonsense. You can even take a look at my lists from my “Hot Takes” article right after Vara’s un-nerf, and I would say they suffer from this identity crisis. These decks often feel like half Reanimator and half midrange, meaning you are very prone to drawing up a hand that looks more like a foot.
The best Reanimator decks have been of two types: really big midrange decks that happen to play a Reanimator package, or all-in combo decks. One of the best recent examples of the “really big midrange decks that happen to play a Reanimator package” is IlyaK’s Argenport Empower deck. I like this list because it isn’t even trying to be a reanimator deck, it just happens to play Vara as a top-end card. The Reanimator “package” here is just 4 cards, meaning you operate as a perfectly respectable midrange deck, just with a super-charged late game. Another recent example was another Isomorphic deck: CaiphuScourge. This deck does suffer a bit from the half-midrange-half-combo problem, but the “combo” elements of the deck are relatively conservative, and the Caiphus “fair” game plan is not totally disconnected from the “unfair” Scourge + Grasp plan.
The genius of the newest generation of Reanimator decks is going all-in on the combo. Let’s finally talk about the deck itself.
4 Suffocate (Set1 #251)
4 Back-Alley Delinquent (Set4 #200)
4 Herald's Song (Set1 #196)
4 Master Cartographer (Set5 #120)
4 Sporefolk (Set1 #262)
4 Strategize (Set3 #165)
4 Kerendon Merchant (Set4 #217)
2 Nocturnal Observer (Set3 #173)
4 Privilege of Rank (Set1 #157)
3 Grasping at Shadows (Set1 #292)
4 Black-Sky Harbinger (Set1 #385)
4 Azindel, Revealed (Set1004 #21)
4 Vara, Fate-Touched (Set1 #307)
5 Justice Sigil (Set1 #126)
2 Shadow Sigil (Set1 #249)
4 Chairman's Contract (Set4 #271)
4 Crest of Cunning (Set3 #267)
4 Diplomatic Seal (Set1 #425)
3 Feln Banner (Set1 #417)
4 Seat of Cunning (Set0 #62)
1 Annihilate (Set1 #269)
1 Rindra's Choice (Set4 #261)
1 Burglarize (Set4 #224)
1 Grasping at Shadows (Set1 #292)
1 Feln Banner (Set1 #417)
I would like you to go through the main deck and count the number of cards that are not part of the Reanimation package. I count 8; 4 Strategize and 4 Suffocate. That is dedication. Now, you may be saying “What about Privilege of Rank? Sure, I can discard it for value, but that doesn’t exactly make it part of the combo plan.” That is short selling what Privilege does for this deck. Reanimator decks have always struggled with simply running out of cards. When you play nonsense like Sporefolk and Herald’s Song it is pretty easy to find yourself with only a couple cards in hand by turn 5 or 6. This might not sound like a major issue if the plan is to effectively win on turn 5, but sometimes you need to hard-cast you Black Sky Harbingers and Varas. Privilege of Rank allows you discard three times for one card! It can also randomly feed you extra cards when you discard it with Sporefolk or Chairman’s Contract. All of this might sound like small-ball stuff, but I truly think Privilege of Rank is the secret sauce that makes this deck feel so much better than other Reanimator decks. You are much more consistent in playing your cards on time, you can play 0 Seek Power or Vara’s Favor, you have more fodder for Merchants and Strategize…. It really is the glue that holds this whole thing together. It may seem crazy to play Privilege as your only Justice card, but this innovation is truly stellar. I have obviously seen Reanimator decks before that play Privilege, but it often a trap.
“Privilege of Rank is a great combo with Herald’s Song and Sporefolk! Fantastic addition to the deck!”
“Hmm, maybe I should have some more Justice sources in the deck so I can actually cast Privilege…”
“Well, now that we have a bunch of Justice in the deck, we may as well as Slay, right?”
“Geez, this deck seems a little too slow. Maybe if I just add a cut the Herald’s Songs for Harsh Rules…”
And before you know it you are sucked into part control, part combo trash pile. This build of Reanimator not only avoids this trap, but also doubles down on discard effects so Privilege is as good as possible.
While Privilege of Rank is almost uncastable, we are playing another card that is actually uncastable. When Vara was un-nerfed, I think many people immediately realized the potential hijinks from combining Vara and Azindel. I am here to tell you that the combo is as good as advertised. I had thought about building Feln Reanimator with Azindel, but I was too much of a coward, and never actually did the work. Turns out I was missing out. In addition, I didn’t appreciate the combo of Vara + Azindel + Black Sky Harbinger! Stealing cards with BSH’s face pings is surprisingly strong, especially against the greedy midrange decks that are so popular.
Before moving on, I do have one gripe about the deck that I want to discuss – the market. Currently, the Market plays Annihilate, Rindra’s Choice, Burglarize, Grasping at Shadows, and Feln Banner. The only card I am 100% certain should be there is Grasp. Burglarize is probably also needed now, as Adjudicator’s Gavel has become much more popular of the last couple of days. Annihilate, Choice and Banner are all marginal. Yes, having ways to kill Maiden, or Xo is kinda nice, but I feel like there are better ways to accomplish the same goal. As someone who has become the unofficial power-in-the-market Ambassador, I will tell you that the banner in this market isn’t required. I wonder if it is time to bring Steward of the Past out of retirement as tech for the mirror? I’m not sure, but if there is an intrepid deck tuner out there, there is definitely room to innovate in this particular aspect of the deck.
A Beginners Guide to Necromancy
This deck is not easy to pilot. Obviously, games that involve high-rolling into perfect Sporefolk discards, with Grasp on turn 5 with no resistance are not difficult, but that doesn’t happen every game. To begin with, let’s talk about discarding cards. Azindel does nothing in your hand, so he is usually the best card to discard, especially if you don’t already have on in your Void. Once you have Azindel out of your hand, it is often good to discard Privilege, especially if you are heavy on looting effects. Vara is the tricky one, as the plan of hard-casting her is very real. If you have Azindel in your void, you really only need one Vara to win the game, so keeping an additional copy in hand is usually correct. There are some instances where you want multiple Vara in the void, but it is much less common than you may realize. Black Sky Harbinger, on the other hand, is usually incorrect to discard. The body is really annoying, and your opponent is usually forced to remove it anyhow, which is great, as it allows you to get the summon effect twice, and you soak up removal. If you are playing against an aggro opponent on a good draw it is sometimes correct to discard BSH so you can Grasp it on turn 5, but this is rarely that much better than turn 6 BSH turn 7 Grasp for BSH.
Managing your Market can be tricky. You usually need Grasp in order to win in many games, so it is the most common card to grab. The question is less about what you grab, but more about when you grab it. We will talk about this more when discussing specific match ups, but there has been a major surge in discard effects, meaning if you grab Grasp at the first opportunity you may be playing right into your opponent’s Regent’s Tomb or Rain of Frogs. Obviously, there are many match ups where your opponent doesn’t have any counterplay, so you don’t need to overthink this, but to be truly successful with the deck you need to learn how to play around your opponent’s plan. It is also worth emphasizing that it is really tough to operate when you are under Adjudicator’s Gavel. If you suspect your opponent may be playing Gavel, it is often correct to hold off on Merchant to see if you need to grab Burglarize. This may seem overly conservative, but many of the decks that can play Gavel actually struggle to kill you, so you have a bit of time to spare. If your hand is truly stacked it is sometimes right to grab Burglarize pre-emptively, but that is a difficult call. It should be noted that Privilege of Rank does not work under Gavel. I have sometimes lost games because of this, so try to remember!
The last piece of the deck that is the final component to make the entire machine run smoothly is Back-Alley Delinquent. Many of the best hate cards are spells or attachments, meaning Sabotage can do an incredible amount of work. The timing of Sabotage is quite important though, as you are hoping to nab some very specific cards, so you should jam Sabotage either right after they use their Merchant, or right before you cast Grasp. It should also be mentioned that if you go off with a Vara/Azindel chain you should try to line up everything to play a Back-Alley Delinquent if you can, as you may have a chance to Sabotage a sweeper before you pass the turn back. This is part of the reason I aggressively chump block with Delinquent, as it allows me to recur him later.
I’d like to emphasize that Reanimator is much more resistant to hate than most people realize. You are not happy to see Gavel, but it is beatable. Harsh Rule is also a pain, but lots of ways to play around it. Steward of the Past is honestly not that good - I once beat 3 Steward of the Past in one game, and it wasn’t even difficult! Perhaps the most annoying hate would be a Vanquisher’s Blade on an aegis unit. That being said, I simply want to affirm that this deck doesn’t just fold to hate, especially if you know how to play around it.
The metagame is quite diverse right now, but luckily for us there are only a small number of decks that require serious thought. What is your game plan against Skycrag? Dump shit into your Void, try to Grasp on 5, and hope that is good enough. Combrei Ramp? Dump shit into your Void, try to Grasp on 5, and hope that is good enough. Rakano game plan? Same. Praxis tokens? Figure it out. There are 3 decks that do require serious thought, they just happen to be some of the most popular in the game. Let’s talk Winchest, Jennev, and the Reanimirror. For each of these I will actually discuss both sides of the match up, so if you are thinking about how to modify your deck to prepare for the Reanimator match up, here is your opportunity!
Winchest decks are a little difficult to discuss, as there is so much variation in their deckbuilding. Luckily, we can isolate down the cards that actually matter. As I mentioned before, Gavel is a massive deal, so while not all Winchest plays them, you should try to come up with a plan to get around it if you can. The fact that Gavel costs 1 is particularly annoying, as it means they can easily play Merchant + Gavel in the same turn. Merchant is one of your best cards in the match up, as he gives you Grasp, Burglarize, and even removal for cards like Maiden or a Plated Smuggler. Some players still try to go after your hand with Regent’s Tomb – don’t play into it! You should be able to see it coming, so either wait to Merchant after Tomb to protect your Grasp, or proactively pull a second copy of Grasp from the Market if you already have on in hand. Many people are opting for 4 copies of Harsh Rule in the main deck, which is probably correct now. Some people think that Reanimator folds to Harsh Rule, but that is simply not true. Obviously, it is good, but you can easily play around it. First, be sure to place a high priority on finding Back-Alley Delinquent. Dropping a Sabotage either before or after the first Grasp does a ton of work. Second, be a bit conservative in what you are bringing back. I know when my Grasp resolves I get an urge to frantically mash buttons and fill up my board with multiple Varas and Azindels, but this is often a mistake against Harsh Rule, as all your monsters will be Voidbound for the rest of the game. This is particularly important for Azindel and Vara, as you usually need to have access to these cards to actually win. Playing out multiple Azindels in this match-up is greedy, and you could be setting yourself up to be punished. Finally, decks playing Harsh Rule are going to have a hard time pressuring you. If they try to go on the offence, and you go off, your opponent might be force to Harsh Rule their own stuff! This gives you lots of extra time to find Delinquent, which can help clear out the sweepers. The key in the match up is figuring out your opponent’s pacing, and try to find a way to counter it without losing to Gavel.
If you are looking to stick to the Jund lifestyle, you need to put some work in. As I implied above, Gavel is the most important card in this match up. Gavel isn’t great against most of the format, but it does an incredible amount of work in the Reanimator match up. Whenever possible, be sure to play Gavel the same turn as the Smuggler, as you don’t want to be hit by Sabotage. Tomb is decent as a secondary market card, but you really need to start with Gavel. It looks like Harsh Rule builds are better against Reanimator than the non-Harsh Rule builds, and while this doesn’t “solve” the match up, it is a big step in the right direction. Maiden, who is has traditionally been a great anti-void hate card is honestly not that great here. Sure, she is annoying, but it certainly doesn’t lock down the game the way she has in the past. I personally feel Winchest enthusiasts have a lot of work to do in the aftermath of the ECQ, as both Reanimator and Sunyviel Jennev are seem like poor match ups. Integrating Harsh Rule into the deck isn’t trivial, as you now sitting on your midrangy game plan. We will need to see how this plays out.
Similar to Winchest, there are a lot of Jennev decks out there, but unlike Winchest the differences don’t really matter. Assuming you have a functional draw, Jennev is a very good match-up, as they have access to very limited access to interesting hate cards. The only thing you actually need to worry about is Display of Impulse countering your Grasp. This might sound like a difficult problem, but it is actually comically easy. If your void is well primed your opponent needs to hold up power for every turn that you can play a Grasp. 3 power every turn is a lot, so your opponent is forced to play with an extremely awkward tempo. Their cheapest “scary” threat is Darude, and even he is too expensive to play out if your opponent is on the draw. You can now focus on finding enough discard effects to clear out the Displays, set up the Vara hard-cast, play multiple Grasps over multiple turns to overload the Displays, or even grab Rindra’s Choice from the market to counter your opponent’s Display. Some Jennev builds have started putting Rain of Frogs in the market, which is a pain, so you should be very cautious about what you keep in hand.
If you are intent on playing Jennev, there is a big part of me that feels you should abandon the Reanimator match up. Yes, Display of Impulse is good against them, especially if they play right into it, but that is insufficient if your goal is to beat a skilled necromancer. Kaleb’s Choice as a substitute for Bore in the Market seems OK, Rain of Frogs could also be fine, but none of these “fix” the match-up. The Jennev player also must put the opponent on a clock. If all you deploy before Grasp comes on-line is an Amber Acolyte and a Merchant, you are going to be way too slow. In instances like these I often feel it is better to just take down Display on turn 5, and just hope they don’t have it. Ask yourself the following question: what happens if my opponent continues to durdle and then plays Vara on 8? Can I really beat that if I am forced to hold up 3 power all game? Once you start holding it up you need to keep holding it up, as your opponent’s Void is only going to get worse, and your opponent is more likely to have the Grasp. In making this decision it is very important to identify how bad Grasp would be. If your opponent’s Void is something like Vara + Black Sky Harbinger you can probably beat that with an Equivocate and a Permafrost, so it is worth the risk to make sure you actually have your opponent properly pressured. Finally, imagine a scenario where your opponent’s Void is stacked and they just played out a Merchant, and you have no Display in hand. You need to bluff the counterspell. Playing out another knucklehead isn’t going to turn the game around when they fill up their board next turn.
Beating Reanimator With Reanimator
The Reanimator mirror is quite layered. One might think it is entirely about goldfishing one-another, and while that is certainly the case sometimes, other games are very interesting. As is the case in many of the more challenging match ups, Sabotage plays an important role, as discarding your opponent’s Grasp can be game winning. Like I mentioned above in the Winchest match up, you will want to avoid slow roll grabbing Grasp from the Market if you can, unless you already have a copy in hand, in which case it is better to have multiples. From your side, you should obviously Sabotage after your opponent goes to the market, but it is also often correct to be patient. Look at their Void, how scary is it really? Vara as the only monster is just not that scary, meaning your opponent will likely want to spend more time priming the void before spending a precious Grasp. It is also worth mentioning that the card draw effect on Azindel is incredible in this match up, so it is worth trying to get some extra value on the initial Grasp to make sure you have the goods to go into the late game. As funny as it is to say, the mill plan is a very real victory condition in this match up, as both players can gain so much life from Black Sky Harbingers. It doesn’t come up every game, but it certainly does come up. If you are seeing a lot of the mirror, Shadow has access to some very interesting mirror-breakers. Steward of the Past is obvious, but there are some other fun inclusions like Nightmaw, Snowcrush Animist, or Solitude! Milling someone out for 30+ cards on turn 7 sounds like a blast!
The mirror honestly is kinda insane when you and your opponent get to play the game. This match showcases this really well.
Was the Vara Un-Nerf a Mistake?
Less than a month after Vara was released from prison, and she is already violating her parole, and getting into trouble. I mentioned this article in the A+Space discord, and LightsOutAce asked me if I thought the balance change was a mistake. He, apparently, had made up his mind that Vara is a problem. I’m not ready to say there needs to be a balance change, but I will say that she has many of the characteristics of other cards that have been nerfed. That said, Vara feels like she might be good for the metagame. It is very easy for the meta to veer into a Winchest versus Jennev grindy-midrange arms race, and I am happy to take a break from that. Reanimator (and Combrei Chains) puts pressure on Winchest and Jennev to actually get aggressive! Besides, the deck is super sweet, so I hope it can stick around. All that being said, I’m sure DWD is watching Reanimator closely. Vara is also a massive risk for future design space, as she is always looking for new friends to get into mischief with. Time will tell. If we were to see balance changes, I would like to see minor tweaks, like Privilege of Rank only working if you have Justice influence, change Azindel’s Helici to colorless units, or change Delinquent’s created card to Holdup or Mug. Vara may be up to no good, but there is not quite enough reason to send her back to nerf-jail… yet.