ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
1) Reanimator decks are incredibly flexible. There is no limit to the number of cards one can have in their graveyard, so you can fill it up with whatever you need. Truth be told, it’s not an archetype in itself, but an engine. With this engine, you can choose from many “sub-archetypes” to play with. Want to go aggro? Run The Mimeoplasm and get some high-power creatures in your graveyard, like Krosan Cloudscraper. Want a side of recursion to go with your reanimation? Karador, Ghost Chieftain is your guy, and he likes to party with the likes of Sakura-Tribe Elder and Dauntless Escort. Is control more of your thing? Kokusho, the Evening Star loves coming back from the graveyard (as long as she doesn’t start from the Command Zone – she’s banned there!) Combo? Totally doable. Toolbox? Yup, reanimator can do that too. Voltron, Theft, Enchantments, Pillow Fort – all (and more) are possible.
2) It’s very budget-friendly. With the exception of Entomb, all of the “engine cards” are pretty cheap. “Engine Cards” refer to spells that reanimate creatures, like Vigor Mortis, and spells that get them there in the first place, like Increasing Confusion, Putrid Imp and Golgari Grave-Troll. Most of the expense in reanimator decks comes from the mana base (for decks that want to be really fast), and/or the nasty creatures you want to reanimate. There’s lots of awesome critters that you can buy for around a buck, like Verdant Force, Pelakka Wurm and Balefire Dragon that will keep the empty slots of your deck warm while you save up for misfits the likes of Iona, Shield of Emeria, Lord of Extinction, or Dragon Broodmother.
3) It’s a powerful archetype. The whole point of the deck is cheating creatures into play long before they’re supposed to be there. It gives you a strong early/mid game, and even if your reanimation plan goes down the toilet, in the late game you can even cast your creatures honestly, saving your reanimation spells to grab your opponents’ creatures out of their graveyard.
4) The deck’s plan is proactive and simple. 1. Get nasty creatures in your graveyard. 2. Move nasty creatures from graveyard to the battlefield. 3. Destroy your opponents with nasty creatures. If you accomplish these goals, you will win.
5) There are plenty of tribal options that fit within this archetype. Zombies and Angels are probably the strongest tribe for reanimator decks, but Skeletons, Spirits, Clerics, Minions, Vampires, and (believe it or not) Dragons all have strong reanimation capabilities.
DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
1) Graveyard hate exists, and you can bet everyone at the table NOT running a reanimator deck has some. This is a HUGE problem, because it shuts down your entire engine (thus killing your card and tempo advantage). Thanks to artifacts like Grafdigger’s Cage, Relic of Progenitus, and Tormod’s Crypt, decks of every color can (and will) run hate against your specific deck. It doesn’t come in just artifacts, either – it comes in every flavor! Enchantment (Rest in Peace), Instant (Ravenous Trap), Creature (Scavenging Ooze), Sorcery (Primal Command), and even Land (thanks a lot, Bojuka Bog!) Graveyard hate damages this archetype even worse than tuck effects damage the Voltron archetype. I will discuss how to combat graveyard hate in the next section.
2) Two reanimator decks at the same table will get in each other’s way. You might think that having another player at the table who is hellbent on getting cards in his graveyard will make your Mortivore even scarier than usual. However, that door swings both ways. He probably has his own Mortivore. Your graveyard isn’t safe from his Dance of the Dead. It’s gonna be real hard to cast that Living Death you’ve got in your hand when there’s another player at the table that has just as many nasty creatures in his/her graveyard. Plus, any opponents who might hesitate to play their graveyard hate cards with just one reanimator deck at the table will have exactly ZERO hesitation to play them with two.
3) The reanimation archetype is beholden to black. If you want to play reanimator, your general MUST have black in his color identity. There just isn’t enough reanimation spells in non-black colors to build an entire deck around. In addition to limiting your deckbuilding options, black is the most common color in the format – so you will see creatures with Protection From Black, and occasionally color hosers like Lifeforce.
4) The reanimation engine requires two pieces to run. While two pieces isn’t really a big deal, it’s very frustrating to have a hand full of reanimation spells, and no creatures in your graveyard. Equally frustrating is watching all your best reanimation spells get milled from your deck.
COPING WITH GRAVEYARD HATE
“But Commander Blog Guy, how can you say that reanimator is a powerful archetype when one card shuts down the entire deck – and everyone’s running it?”
Well, Commander Blog Reader Person, don’t fret! I’m going to tell you how to ensure that graveyard hate never affects your plans for world domination through necromancy!
Wait, no I’m not. Because there is no sure-fire way to beat all graveyard hate. I’m sorry if you hate hearing that, but the fact of the matter is this – people run graveyard hate specifically BECAUSE the reanimator archetype is so powerful. Sorry to tell you that you’re not going to win every game by playing a reanimator deck. If that’s what you’re seeking, then reanimator (and the Commander format on the whole) isn’t for you. You can’t beat graveyard hate every time – but I will tell you how to fight back against it. Here’s some weapons to counterattack those who seek to thwart your plans:
Play Conservatively: Don’t Traumatize yourself and dump half your library into your graveyard if you can’t afford to lose all those cards. Do your best to keep your graveyard stocked with only a couple choice creatures, so if they get exiled you’re not out of the game. Even playing smart, though, instant speed graveyard removal like Purify the Grave or the second ability of Relic of Progenitus will effectively counter any single reanimation spell you try to cast. At least, however, you can minimize the damage and continue on with your plan, minus one piece of graveyard hate from the game.
Shroud Yourself: Many graveyard hate spells and abilities require the controller to target a player. If you can’t be targeted, then your graveyard is safe from these effects. If you have white in your color identity, then the options are numerous: Leyline of Sanctity, Imperial Mask, Ivory Mask, Spirit of the Hearth, and True Believer all protect you from hate spells that target a player. If you’re not sporting any white in your identity, however, your only choice is Witchbane Orb.
Shuffle Your Graveyard: In the event of a catastrophic spell like Leyline of the Void, you can have options to minimize the damage by returning your graveyard back into your library. Feldon’s Cane is a good spell to cast before aggressively reanimating creatures, because you can activate it at the optimal time for you. Cards like Feldon’s Cane, Elixir of Immortality, and Thran Foundry are great, because having them down makes your opponents think twice about playing their hate cards – because you will minimize the effects of them playing it. They may delay you for a couple turns, but they haven’t taken you out of the game. Not even close.
Countermagic: If you’re running blue, countermagic is not a bad idea. In addition to getting nasty creatures off the stack and into your opponents’ graveyards (for you to reanimate), it makes sure that Ground Seal never hits the battlefield.
Likewise, Stifle and Voidmage Husher can counter the activations of many types of graveyard hate, rendering them useless. Even if you’re not playing blue, you have options. Null Rod is a classic that shuts down all the artifact-based graveyard hate. Green has the Ouphe creatures, like Ouphe Vandals.
Make the Exile Zone a Second Graveyard: Okay, this is easier said than done. The number of cards that will retrieve a card from exile are miniscule. In fact, at present, there’s only three – Riftsweeper, Pull From Eternity, and Mirror of Fate (and you have to be VERY desperate to use that mirror). If you can run Riftsweeper or Pull From Eternity, however, it probably isn’t a bad idea to save a slot for one of them.
CHOOSING A REANIMATOR GENERAL
As mentioned previously, your general must have black in its color identity – this is non-negotiable. All the graveyard tutors – Jarad’s Orders, Entomb, Buried Alive… all require black. Most of the reanimation spells in the game require black mana. Black is the mana that fuels the reanimation engine.
White is a very, very strong color to play in reanimation decks. It sports some of the most game-breaking creatures that you could ever want for reanimation targets: Iona, Shield of Emeria, Avacyn, Angel of Hope, Blazing Archon, and Angel of Despair, to name a few. It also gives you access to some great reanimation spells: Unburial Rites, Debtor’s Knell, Reya Dawnbringer, Marshal’s Anthem, Karmic Guide, Loyal Retainers, Resurrection, Breath of Life, False Defeat, Defy Death,Tariel, Reckoner of Souls and Miraculous Recovery. In addition, it gives you the best tools to counter graveyard hate – artifact/enchantment destruction, self-shroud spells, and Pull From Eternity. If you were crazy enough to build a reanimator deck without black , then white would be its replacement. Naturally, Black-White makes for a frightening reanimation combination.
Blue is also a good color to consider, because it gives you means of filling up graveyards quickly. In addition to mill effects like Increasing Confusion, Mind Grind, and Psychic Drain, you also have access to Windfall effects – from Jace’s Archivist and Whispering Madness. There are a great many blue-black cards that increase the power level of reanimator decks they’re in. Havengul Lich, Lazav, Dimir Mastermind, and Oona, Queen of the Fae are such cards.
Green gives you access to some very powerful reanimation targets, notable creatures the likes of Terastodon, Verdant Force, Sylvan Primordial, Lord of Extinction, Sigarda, Host of Herons, Woodfall Primus, Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger and many, many more. It also gives you access to Brawn, who gives all your creatures trample as long as he’s in the graveyard. This color offers many spells to send target cards from your graveyard back to your hand, dodging graveyard hate. Green also gives you ways of milling yourself to fill the graveyard, while looking for cards of use – cards like Mulch.
Red is not a popular color for reanimator decks, unless you’re reanimating dragons, in which case you can’t go without it. The color is also heavily desired in angel tribal reanimator, because it gives access to Tariel, Reckoner of Souls, Kaalia of the Vast, and the boros angels (like Gisela, Blade of Goldnight). Even outside of the tribal reanimation decksred still has benefits to offer, however. The draw-and-discard mechanic that red utilizes (ex. Faithless Looting) is useful for putting creatures of your choice into the graveyard. Red has its own series of Windfall effects, like Wheel of Fortune and Wheel of Fate. Also, if you’re running red, save a spot for Anger. Anger gives all your creatures haste if it’s in the graveyard, which means any reanimation spell is an immediate threat.
The “best” color combinations for reanimator decks are probably Esper (Black-White-Blue), Junk (Black-White-Green), BUG (Black-Blue-Green), Pentacolor (all five), Dega (Red-White-Black), or Grixis (Black-Blue-Red). Nonetheless, if you have black in your color identity, it’s hard to go wrong.
The Mimeoplasm is the go-to “aggro reanimator” general. People who hate fun can reliably win games on turn four with the ‘Plasm, usually by dumping creature combinations like Death’s Shadow and Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon into the graveyard before casting Mimeoplasm from the Command Zone. Nonetheless, you can still play him “fairly” and have a very strong deck. Like all BUG reanimator generals, he utilizes powerful blue and green mill effects to fill up graveyards quickly, taking advantages of large graveyard size to fuel creatures like Ghoultree and Sewer Nemesis.
Karador, Ghost Chieftain and Teneb, the Harvester are both strong choices for a general in the Junk colors. As an added bonus, either one can easily fit into the same deck, so you have a rare 3-color deck with interchangeable generals. Karador is a very strong recursion general, able to cast creatures like Necrotic Sliver over and over (once a turn) to powerful effect. Also, the way totaling costs work when casting a spell, the “commander tax” is applied first, before Karador’s reduction ability is applied. So, if you’ve cast him twice before, but have nine creatures in your graveyard, he only costs a total of 3 mana (one each of white, black, and green) to cast.
The Esper (White-Black-Blue) combination has two very interesting choices as general, each bringing a different focus to the deck. Sharuum the Hegemon wants a deck full of powerful artifact creatures to reanimate. Zur, the Enchanter wants a deck full of enchantment-based reanimation spells, like Necromancy, Animate Dead, and Dance of the Dead. Just be forewarned that both of these generals are well-known as being abusive in other archetypes (Sharuum is a combo demon, and Zur is a well-known Voltron and Enchantment general). So, they both have targets painted on their backs. Still, it’s probably worth running one of them (or even a general that doesn’t necessarily have any reanimation synergy, like Sen Triplets) just to get access to these colors.
Sedris, the Traitor King is a Grixis (Black-Blue-Red) general who wants a bunch of creatures with enters-the-battlefield effects.
Blue-Black generals tend to focus on milling your opponents, so that you can reanimate creatures that hit their graveyards. Lazav, Dimir Mastermind is a very strong choice here. Other possibilities include Szadek, Lord of Secrets and Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker.
If you’re willing to go mono-black, you have a bunch of great options. Sheoldred, Whispering One, Geth, Lord of the Vault, Balthor the Defiled, and Chainer, Dimensia Master are all very strong reanimator generals. And guess what? You can play every single one of them in your deck.
Scion of the Ur-Dragon and Bladewing the Risen are the go-to generals for Dragon Reanimator. Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund is also commonly used for Dragon Reanimator, even though he himself does not have a reanimation ability.
Reya Dawnbringer and Tariel, Reckoner of Souls are popular generals for Angel Reanimator. However, Kaalia of the Vast is also a popular Angel Reanimator general, even though (like Karrthus) she does not have an innate reanimation ability.
Here’s an Angel Reanimator deck I built while writing this article. Reanimating unfair angels is its primary goal, but the strong tribal support within the deck gives it a great late game if the reanimation plan is shut down.