Faces of Undeath
(also Ghosts)

Posted in Top Decks on November 8, 2012

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

There was a Standard Grand Prix in Auckland, New Zealand, last week with a surprisingly even mandate for a Top 8 with five or so distinct decks:

...and that mandate is firmly midrange!

The Naya deck was probably the most aggressive of the bunch, and that deck wasn't mono-aggro or anything (started on Farseek, ended on Angel of Serenity)... and the contrast between the Red-White-Blue Midrange and Control strategies was blurrier than you might think. And then we have all different kinds of returns returning by bringing out the dead. We'll get to that in a sec.

Adam Witton's Naya Midrange

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Witton's deck is essentially a Naya "good stuff" list.

It plays the generally accepted best creature threat in the Standard format (Thragtusk), and combines Thragtusk with best buddy Restoration Angel. When you "blink" a Thragtusk with Restoration Angel, you not only get to enjoy a re-buy of the Thragtusk's original "enters the battlefield" effect, but you also get a free 3/3 body. Achievement unlocked!

Restoration Angel

Angel of Serenity has graduated beyond Junk Reanimator decks and looks to just be a status quo high end here. One of the things I always liked about the Junk version of the Reanimator strategies was that you could get a sick setup (Mulch and Grisly Salvage setting you up on turn two so you could "oops, I won!" a third- or fourth-turn Unburial Rites... but you can actually just cast most or all of your cards fair-style, as well.

Justin Cheung's Junk Reanimator

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With one (a pair of, really) notable exception(s), Cheung's Junk Reanimator is pretty much what we have seen. Black, green, and white. Excellent cards on their faces, but with the potential to go over the top with an extra-fast fatty via Unburial Rites, or more or less the most powerful thing that either deck is likely to attempt in Angel of Serenity (fair or unfair).

Angel of Serenity is not just a great and powerful threat in a deck like this, it is also an insurance policy and a card-drawing engine. When you play Grisly Salvage, you only take one card; when you play a Mulch sometimes you win the lottery and draw three (land) cards (and sometimes you win the lottery and drop both Unburial Rites and a fatty. Either way, you will often be putting one or more creatures into the graveyard. Angel of Serenity sets you up for later. Its plan, of course, is just to win on account of being a huge 5/6 flying murderer and all, but if it dies, you can get back tons of the creatures you spent your setup turns burying.

Angel of Serenity
Unburial Rites

That said, you can see that, for the most part, the Midrange Naya deck and the ostensibly more powerful Junk Reanimator try to get to the same place. They do some of the same things to get there (powerful, if fair-style, Thragtusk and Restoration Angel), and some different powerful stuff (Unburial Rites versus Bonfire of the Damned), but their tops end at Angel of Serenity.

...except they don't, quite, any more.

Craterhoof Behemoth

Craterhoof Behemoth is an interesting new (or at least rediscovered) page in the story of Standard Reanimator. It's a logical one, and one that might see new and further explorations. It makes sense to go "even bigger" given the ability of regular midrange decks to get to what was once the ostensible pinnacle of ostensible fair-deck achievement (Angel of Serenity). If other decks can get to essentially the same place as the powerhouse deck... the powerhouse deck probably has to do a little market research to figure out where the new "powerhouse" line is... and it looks like it is a hasty eight-drop Overrun.

In non-lethal situations, Craterhoof Behemoth is not so impressive, but the structure of many current Standard Reanimator decks is to set up with Avacyn's Pilgrim and other lower-curve creatures, so the bonus from a fast reanimation can yeild dozens and dozens of damages before the opponent's game is even set.

Walker MacMurdo's Four-Color Reanimator

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Grand Prix–winner MacMurdo had the same idea with his four-color Reanimator deck, incorporating Craterhoof Behemoth as well.

The four-color version trades the additional speed and curve opportunities of the "fair fight" Junk deck to incorporate what is essentially the most obvious Reanimator card in the format (next to Unburial Rites): Faithless Looting. Playing a card like Faithless Looting, that puts you down a card initially (even if it can pay you back later in flashbacks or other graveyard-driven assets), puts the four-color deck in a "more Reanimator" mode than its Junk cousin, as it both has fewer conventional resources plus commits more of its resources specifically to the graveyard reanimation plan.

Consequentially, you see a departure from some of the more conventionally attractive fair-fight elements (no Restoration Angel here) and some bustier big ends. The four-color builds of this generation have always been able to go to Griselbrand land, when the Junk decks typically topped up on Angel of Serenity.

Faithless Looting

MacMurdo played a more interactive deck than some of the Four-Colors we have seen in the past, including main deck removal like Sever the Bloodline and Oblivion Ring, as well as leaning on his red mana for Dreadbore.

A similar deck was played to Top 8 by Anthony Purdom:

Anthony Purdom's Four-Color Reanimator

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The incorporations I like best from Purdom's list are actually some of his solo legends, like Olivia Voldaren and Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord. There are still many decks that can simply never beat an active Olivia. In some wise, she is the red-capable build's answer to Restoration Angel: a fair-seeming creature that can be anything but in practice.

Olivia Voldaren
Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord

Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord is obviously a signature card of the Golgari in Return to Ravnica and a card that most players will agree has some attractive points. Jarad is quite resilient and also can piggyback on this deck's natural desire to put creatures into its own graveyard. Now, when you combine Jarad's machine-gun-like ability with powerful (and I mean literally creatures with high power) teammates like Thragtusk and Angel of Serenity... you have a line to victory that is probably worth future exploration.

I don't think we've seen the last of Jarad.

Dylan Brown's Four-Color Reanimator

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Of all the Reanimator decks in the Auckland Top 8, I think Dylan Brown's may have the most lasting contributions.

When analyzing similar decks, it is important to highlight their differences and differences in capability. Now, in addition to going the largest of any of this Grand Prix's Reanimator decks in terms of Craterhoof Behemoth (Brown played a big three in his main), Brown added a new compliment to Unburial Rites that is going to dramatically influence deck design in the coming months:


Séance is, in a sense, a pre-emptive Unburial Rites. It works on the opponent's turn in addition to your own, so even if you can't keep a Séance target around, it can deter attack.

Séance has a natural lasting synergy with Thragtusk (gain 5, keep the 3/3) or any creature, potentially, with an attractive enters-the-battlefield effect. Given sufficient time, Séance can be most dramatic when combined with Trostani, Selesnya's Voice.

Séance makes a token creature. That token creature may be desirable, but it doesn't necessarily stick around forever.

Trostani likes to gain life. Trostani doesn't care who or what is hitting the board or from where, whether it is a token or a real card... life Life LIFE. However, Trostani has another ability that essentially erases the downside of Séance! Populate! Like I said, "Given sufficient time..."

The Past and Present Incarnations of Todd Anderson

The remaining three decks of Grand Prix Auckland seem heavily influenced by some of Todd Anderson's recent performing decks from the StarCityGames Open Series. As you may have read in this column or elsewhere, Todd opened up the season with a Red-White-Blue Miracles deck with Jace, Architect of Thought. We see a similar, Snapcaster mage-Mage-less incarnation perform in the hands of John Denz:

John Denz's Red-White-Blue Control

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Denz's deck is essentially a White-Blue Miracles deck splashing for Pillar of Flame.

It is extremely threat-hostile with its Planeswalker WonderTwins capable of defending against both little guys (Jace, Architect of Thought) and one big threat (Tamiyo, the Moon Sage). Forcing the opponent to commit more and more to try to overcome the Planeswalkers, Denz can sweep up the battlefield with Supreme Verdict... or get lucky with (and/or pay retail for) Terminus.

Supreme Verdict

There are tons of other removal in this deck, including the aforementioned Pillar of Flame, the cool and versatile Izzet Charm, and the versatile (and sometimes backbreaking) Detention Sphere. Most of the removal in this deck was originally chosen to fight Zombies. Pillar of Flame does away with Gravecrawler and Geralf's Messenger, regardless of their graveyard-friendly game text, and can overcome the resilience of Lotleth Troll. Detention Sphere can answer troublesome creatures without putting them anywhere near the graveyard, which is, again, their playground and avenue to card advantage.

Izzet Charm
Detention Sphere

Now as the "control" deck of the format (or at least of this Top 8), Denz's deck is not overly controlling. It has a couple of Syncopates main and a couple of Dissipates in the sideboard. Barring an ultimate Tamiyo, the Moon Sage (which really doesn't need a whole lot of help to look dominating) it's not like you can completely lock down the opponent under a wall of permission. This deck's mandate is primarily on the battlefield, answering threats with removal. Its card advantage is progressive, like The Rock... generally one step better than what the opponent was just trying to do; manifesting its permanents via four- and five-mana Planeswalkers rather than four- and five- (and seven- and eight-) mana threat creatures.

And while it does have some X to it in Entreat the Angels, the pure power and "oops I won" potential of that card is now challenged by Craterhoof Behemoth for top of the pyramid. Sphinx's Revelation is also a powerful X-spell, but Denz and his control deck are not alone in incorporating it.

In fact, we see two copies in one of the midrange creature builds!

Robert Liu's Red-White-Blue Midrange

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This deck runs very close to Todd Anderson's recent performer, again incorporating two copies of Sphinx's Revelation as breakers (Todd played four copies of Pillar of Flame). Think about what a telling read that swap is. Obviously you are going to be weaker to a Gravecrawler or even an Avacyn's Pilgrim... but what about in topdeck mode in a mirror? What would you like to draw more than that Top Decks preview card?

The creatures here are all sweet. Snapcaster Mage gets to play showtime Magic, often doubling up with Restoration Angel. Geist of Saint Traft is still one of the hardest creatures to answer one on one, especially when backed up with a little strategic permission.

And Thundermaw Hellkite?

Thundermaw Hellkite

Thundermaw Hellkite is a big game. This is a murderer of Lingering Souls tokens, insanely efficient (5/5 flying and haste for five mana!?!), and tough to block with go-to wannabe trumps like Angel of Serenity or Restoration Angel.

A similar deck was played by Yoshitoki Sakai:

Yoshitoki Sakai's Red-White-Blue Midrange

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Big move here?

Sakai went biggest on Thundermaw Hellkites: He ran all four while shaving a land, mixing it up with Desperate Ravings (which can hopefully draw into land), and shifting the permission as well.

As you can see, some interesting further developments in Standard! Lots of different directions, lots of cards people want to and like to play, more than a little opportunity to go over the top and attack for tons of damage and/or invalidate your opponent's defenses.

So... what's your favorite mirror-breaker?

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