Premium Deck Series: Graveborn

Posted in Feature on November 14, 2011

By Dave Humpherys

Dave Humpherys has been managing the development team for Magic R&D since 2010. He led development for the Avacyn Restored and Gatecrash sets. He was inducted into the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2006.

When Aaron Forsythe asked me last year to figure out who should work on the next Premium Deck Series featuring a Reanimator-style of deck, I was quite happy. I knew just who I wanted to have work on it: me!

I was especially excited, since from our vantage point, reanimation strategies are a lot of fun. There are elements in these decks that appeal to a wide range of players. The icing on the cake was that Innistrad was also aligning towards graveyard themes.

Do you like to attack with enormous creatures?

Do you like to play combo?

Do you like to figure out your opponents' weaknesses and find the right tool against them?

Do you like to put your opponents on the defensive and threaten a quick win?

Premium Deck Series: Graveborn offers all of this and more.

The Deck

Before we get started, check out the decklist:

Premium Deck Series: Graveborn

Download Arena Decklist

A Little Old... A Little New

When this project came up, I was the relatively new manager for the Development side of Magic R&D. I imagine that the intent was for me to delegate this deck out to someone on my team. However, I was eager to dig into a project of my own, especially one that would make use of my long-standing love of making use of graveyards... in Magic.

Animate Dead | Art by Anthony Jones

Lest you think I exaggerate about my fondness for the graveyard: my first Nationals Top 8 was with a deck that won by using Replenish to get out Nature's Revolt, Seismic Assault, and Yawgmoth's Bargain. I had a decent showing at Pro Tour Rome in 1998 with "Free Whaley," an infinite combo deck using Recurring Nightmare and Great Whale. My only Grand Prix win came with a deck that used Yawgmoth's Agenda as the nail in the coffin. Most notably, though, my only two Constructed Pro Tour Top 8s hinged on Goblin Welder excavating artifacts and later a Mono-Black Reanimator deck. An updated version of that reanimator deck also carried me through the final six rounds of the 2003 World Championships to make the Top 8. It was from these two Reanimator decks that I drew much of my inspiration in making Premium Deck Series: Graveborn.

I'm glad that I have that perspective from long ago, since this deck series is a great opportunity to introduce newer players to old cards and to create some nostalgia for veterans. Or, put another way, it helps that I'm old and hopefully wise. It was also fortuitous that I could mix these past insights with fresh ideas from a recent revitalization of the deck type.

Not long before this project started, the largest Grand Prix up to that point was won by none other than a Reanimator deck. This was a most notable finish for Reanimator given that Andreas Müller was victor in a wide-open field of Legacy, taking the title in a field of over 2200 players with his blue-black version of the deck.

Andreas Muller

Download Arena Decklist

In light of Müller's finish, one of the first big decisions with this product was whether to use a mono-black or a blue-black mana base. Ultimately, based on my teammates' past successes with mono-black builds, I was confident in the strength of starting from this configuration. After all, many people at the 2003 Worlds did opt for a blue-black build, but both Gabe Walls and I were able to excel with the mono-black build. This success was after our teammate Rob Dougherty had also made the finals of Pro Tour Houston in 2001 playing mono-black.

By opting for a mono-black mana base, I could better prioritize awesome creatures and reanimation cards instead of on making the mana base work. While blue adds consistency to your draws when you draw the correct mana and potentially some countermagic, fundamentally the blue cards don't add much to the overall package of reanimation. Including these would dilute the cards that capture the flavor of the product. These blue cards are enablers that could go in any of a number of other decks.

On the upside, the mono-black version brings with it more disruption, in particular relying on black's ability to strip an opponent's hand of answers to your creatures and a more consistent mana base.

Bringing a Gun to a Knife Fight

Let's talk about the creatures in the deck. Premium Deck Series: Graveborn is what is often referred to as a toolbox deck. It has at least a few effects that let you search out any number of cards specifically optimized to defeat your opponents' strategies. Entomb and Buried Alive are the cards that specifically allow you to toolbox with Graveborn. While Entomb might look innocuous enough, it was the card that put reanimation strategies on the competitive scene. It enabled the creation of the first decks that reliably put out huge threats on turn two in combination with Exhume, Animate Dead, and Reanimate, amongst others. Interestingly enough, the most similar predecessors to these decks were the heavily toolboxed decks of the Survival of the Fittest / Recurring Nightmare variety, as epitomized by Brian Selden's 1998 World Championship deck.

Brian Selden

Download Arena Decklist

As with many toolbox decks, Premium Deck Series: Graveborn has many cards present as just a single copy. The idea is to search out of your deck and into your graveyard a creature that your opponent can't hope to successfully battle should you return it to the battlefield. This configuration of cards also conveniently works towards our goal of providing you with an assortment of cool monsters and more varied game play using the deck against a variety of opponents.

Crosis, the Purger | Art by Chris Rahn

Let's take a look at the reanimation targets in the deck:

Sphinx of the Steel Wind: Once upon a time you had to choose between Akroma, Angel of Wrath or Phantom Nishoba in this role. Now you can practically get them both in one package. In the absence of information about what your opposition is trying to do, I'd suggest the Sphinx be your first choice to bring to the fray. Thanks to flying, lifelink, and vigilance it is near impossible to beat in a race. Any deck planning on killing you by attacking with a bunch of creatures or with direct damage had better figure out how to deal with it immediately. It hardly seems fair playing this card against last year's Premium Deck Series: Fire & Lightning.

Crosis, the Purger: Crosis, featuring new art for this release, excels at putting the heat on combo decks. Kai Budde, for one, breathed a sigh of relief to find out I'd chosen not to find the slot for Crosis in my deck, unlike my teammate Darwin Kastle had in the Top 8 of Pro Tour New Orleans 2001. Crosis is also quite good against slower monocolored decks. Often against these sorts of decks you don't need help staying alive, so against them Crosis is the best of the bunch. It's hard to assemble a combo of cards when you can't keep cards in your hand.

Inkwell Leviathan: This should be your monster of choice against some of the more controlling decks or decks that you know play various targeted answers for creatures, like Doom Blade or Oblivion Ring. Shroud can be a real headache to these types of decks, and either islandwalk or trample should make it difficult for most of these decks to buy much time.

Avatar of Woe: Aside from looking like it's right at home in this deck, Avatar of Woe earns its slot as the one you seek out against other decks that are looking to go big with their own creatures. Occasionally, you will encounter formidable creatures on the other side of the board, and the Avatar is a great way to deal with them, and can attack for enough to put the game away quickly while providing an insurance policy for any future threats.

Blazing Archon: When your opponent's forces are so numerous that even Sphinx of the Steel Wind can't hope to race them, Blazing Archon can hope to buy you enough time to swing for four turns in the air or to amass other creatures at your side.

Verdant Force: In my mind Verdant Force is the grand-daddy of all reanimation targets, dating back to early successful Recurring Nightmare decks. In particular, it's historically been good at clogging up the ground with tokens that also thwart sorcery-speed effects that force a sacrifice, from the likes of Liliana of the Veil. The tokens are also good fuel for paying the flashback costs on Cabal Therapy and Dread Return.

Terastodon: Last but not least in the toolbox is Terastodon. This elephant is in many ways your catch-all for troublesome artifacts, enchantments, lands, and planeswalkers. Like Verdant Force, it can also protect you from Diabolic Edict-type effects by destroying your own lands and giving yourself back-up Elephants. It is also versatile in that it can deny your opponent the mana to answer your threats or provide a very fast clock if you are willing to go all-in and blow up your own lands.

All in all, the deck is full of creatures that can deal with a variety of problematic situations and deal with them decisively. In many cases it will feel like overkill, but that can be part of the fun.

To the Grave and Back

Now that you are familiar with your array of creatures, let's look at how you get them onto the battlefield. As I've mentioned, this deck is a traditional combo deck of sorts. It relies on your drawing a card from two distinct classes: A) cards that put a creature card into your graveyard, and B) cards that put a creature card from your graveyard onto the battlefield under your control.

Cabal Therapy | Art by Raymond Swanland

There's a relatively equal mix of cards falling into category A and category B. There are actually two meaningfully different types of cards amongst those that put creatures into your graveyard. The first are those that put them there from your library: Entomb and Buried Alive. The others are putting them into your graveyard from your hand. These include Putrid Imp, Sickening Dreams, Hidden Horror, Last Rites, Zombie Infestation, and the versatile Cabal Therapy. All of these cards can be game savers in their own right, besides setting up the first part of your combo. Putrid Imp and Hidden Horror can provide a few key points of damage or a key chump-block. Last Rites can nullify your opponents' ability to deal with your creatures. Sickening Dreams can punish a swarm strategy that overextends.

The final piece of the puzzle then lies in the cards that put the creature card from your graveyard onto the battlefield. Animate Dead, Exhume, Dread Return, Diabolic Servitude, and Reanimate take up this role. Animate Dead represents the origins of the game having been around since Alpha. Reanimate is quick but dangerous in that it can bring you perilously low in life. Diabolic Servitude gives the deck some long game. Don't forget to keep an eye out for good creatures in opposing graveyards, since Animate Dead and Reanimate can bring opposing creatures back to fight against any owner who didn't do a good enough job protecting them. Going after opponents' graveyards with these cards can also help make sure your Exhume doesn't backfire.

And More...

There are also a smattering of other cards for utility and fun. These include Duress, Faceless Butcher, and a few lands that can offer some flexibility. Duress, in particular, can help you best plan your attack and make sure your reanimated creature will survive.

This deck, releasing on November 18 as the third installment of Premium Deck Series, brings you all that you've come to enjoy from its predecessors. It is all foil cards showcasing a wide variety of cards from Magic's past. It has a few cards with new art: Cabal Therapy, Animate Dead, and Crosis, the Purger. It has cards that will make you smile and cards that have been selected to fit into your favorite casual and competitive decks. And, finally, it is built with cards that make this deck consistent enough to be formidable, yet with enough variety of game play that you'll want to play it again and again. If you want to play with Magic's best creatures from across its five colors, but you don't want to wait until the late game to have such formidable creatures join your side, then this deck is for you!

Latest Feature Articles


September 20, 2022

(Almost) Everything to Know About Unfinity Boosters! by, Mike Turian and Adam Styborski

Welcome to the lights and excitement of Unfinity! Magic's latest Un- set release is packed with attractions (and Attractions) to delight players—from the fresh-faced thrill seekers ready ...

Learn More


September 20, 2022

Unfinity Mechanics by, Matt Tabak

Welcome to Myra the Magnificent's Intergalactic Astrotorium of Fun! It's the galaxy's most awesome entertainment complex. For just a few credits, or whatever currency your planet uses, th...

Learn More



Feature Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All