Planar Chaos: Rituals of Rebirth Review (Part 1 of 2)
In our recent review of Premium Deck Series: Graveborn, the recent all-foil reanimator deck, we observed the following:
[Graveborn] follows a very simple formula- take something enormously fat and difficult to deal with, and get around its matching pricetag by chucking it into the graveyard and then using a cheaper spell to reanimate it into play. Once that’s accomplished, your opponent typically will be on a very short clock, and must either kill you or your beastie before the last few grains trickle out through the bottom of the hourglass.
Ordinarily such strategies tend to be focused around Black, but for today’s Planar Chaos deck we are presented with a very distinctive and unique animal- the tri-colour, Black-wedge reanimation scheme.
For players of Commander (then known as EDH), the arrival of the Dragon Legends of Planar Chaos was something like a godsend. With the format’s requirement that the colours of your deck be restricted to the colour(s) of your general (commander), certain colour combinations proved to be more elusive than others. In particular, decks that looked to build around a colour “wedge” (defined as a specific colour along with its two’ hostile’ colours) were more or less out of luck. The only White-Black-Green card that had ever been printed prior to Planar Chaos wasn’t even a creature (let alone a legendary one), but rather a humble enchantment in 2001’s Apocalypse, Overgrown Estate (although technically, Dissension’s Crime//Punishment could also fit the bill).
As Aaron Forsythe discussed in his preview article for the set, the new Dragon legends went through something of a convoluted history in development. Originally slated for Time Spiral istelf, they ended up getting pushed back as that set had hits its quota of ‘really big things.’ Meant to be a flavourful callback to Invasion’s Dragon cycle, each of these new Dragons were mirrored on the patters of the old, right down to converted mana cost, power/toughness, and combat damage trigger. For Teneb, the Harvester, with his White-Black-Green colour identity, this planted a homing signal deep within the graveyard zone. Teneb would be a reanimator.
Three-colour decks are amongst the less common in the preconstructed world, where two-colour constructions lead the pack followed not far behind by single-colour ones. The reasons for this are obvious- more diverse manabases not only require more resources devoted to them to function, but they also up your percentage of “bad games” where you have quality cards in hand but are unable to effectively cast them for no reason other than resources. Still, the temptation to build a deck around Teneb proved too great, and thus Rituals of Rebirth came to be.
Horrors of the Past
For a somewhat intricate engine such as this one, we’ll be breaking it down by components rather than segments (creature/noncreature), as there is a great deal of crossover between different cards and their roles in the deck. Like Graveborn, Rituals of Rebirth has as its primary objective the ability to play big, fat creatures early through graveyard reanimation. That said, it also has one heckuva plan B which Graveborn was unable to do: hardcast them. It’s able to do this through a tremendous focus on mana fixing and ramping, but of course pan A is always the better option. We’ll begin with the fun part- the deck’s alpha predators, your reanimation targets.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll be defining reanimation targets here as any creature with a converted mana cost (CMC) of five or more, though some are clearly preferable to others. Still, most any will do in a pinch, and all of them have the ability to heavily impact a game. Take the humble Bog Serpent, a timeshifted version of Alpha’s Sea Serpent. At worst it’s a 5/5 defender if your opponent isn’t playing any Swamps, which can hold off a large number of attacking threats and buy you some time to find the right cards for victory. And if your opponent happens to be playing Black, then it’s a definite threat.
In the same class is the Twisted Abomination, a 5/3 regenerator which is equally capable on the attack or defense. Not to be overlooked is the Abomination’s role in mana fixing, should you draw him early and happen to need a Swamp. Indeed, much of the deck will be like that- small increments of flexibility and advantage that can build up steadily over the course of the game. Finally we have a pair of Jedit’s Dragoons, another creature you’ll be happy to play if you’re under attack. Still, you won’t find too many opponents get their heart in their throats at the sight of the like of these. Though they have their place to play, there are dangers darker still ahead.
Consider the Phantasmagorian. A seven-mana 6/6, this Horror carries an intriguing ability- it can be countered at the expense of three cards from your opponent’s hand (you’d seldom want to do this yourself, though the wording on the card would permit it). If your opponent doesn’t take advantage of this wonderful opportunity, they’ll have a 6/6 to deal with. Not only that, but if and when it dies it can be recalled to hand at the price of three cards of your own. That might seem a dreadfully steep price to pay for a single creature, size notwithstanding. But remember, this is a reanimator deck- sometimes you’ll be delighted to throw perfectly good cards away if it means you can reanimate them right back out.
A pair of Havenwood Wurms give some unabashed muscle to the curve’s back-end, 5/6 bodies with trample that can be flashed in at the end of your opponent’s turn for a surprise attacker. Finally, we get to the deck’s real bombs, its two rare legends, Teneb and Jedit Ojanen of Efrava. Jedit Ojanen is an alternate-reality version of his original incarnation in Legends. According to lore, Jedit Ojanen forsook his people and joined a mercenary band, rising through the ranks to eventually lead them. This new version imagines a Jedit who instead remains loyal to his own people, and the card’s power clearly reflects the rewards of such loyalty. Whenever Jedit attacks, you get a free 2/2 token creature. Take note- token creatures are going to have their own part to play, as we’ll see.
Finally, the top of the food chain is indisputably inhabited by Teneb, the Harvester. Not only is he one of the deck’s largest bodies, but he has flying and can kick off reanimation all on his own. For a mere three mana, Teneb can take a creature out of your graveyard and put it right into play each time he deals combat damage to an opponent. Of course, once he starts connecting with your opponent to take advantage of the ability, it shouldn’t be long before the game is won.
In addition to Teneb’s nifty trick, you have a few other ways to get one of your fatties back into play once they’ve been laid to rest in the graveyard. The first of these is Resurrection, a card which hasn’t seen print since 1994’s Revised Edition. You also have recourse to a trio of Dread Returns. This is an interesting card here as it lies at the intersection of several of your deck’s themes, and shows the depth of synergy at play here. First, the card combines well with the Phantasmagorian, since it’s less painful to discard a card when it has flashback. Secondly, it can capitalise on the token-making ability of Jedit Ojanen of Efrava, since it’s less painful to sacrifice humble token creatures rather than sturdier ones. And third, it takes one of your creatures in the graveyard and, like Resurrection, puts them directly into play. It’s a powerful card designed to take advantage of what Ritual of Rebirth is doing, and will be the linchpin of your reanimation strategy.
A Death Sentence Besides
Pointing out a feature that takes advantage of one card (Jedit) might seem a bit dodgy, since you can’t reliably expect to get 2/2 Cat Warriors every game. For that reason we find our next two creatures, as they significantly improve your ability to build up sacrifice fodder for your Dread Returns. The Icatian Crier is a callback to the Fallen Empires ‘rare,’ Icatian Town, and she can transform any card in your hand into a pair of 1/1 Citizens. That’s solid enough in any deck as a way to put late-game land to better use, but here she accomplishes two critical objectives. Not only does she fuel the flashback component of your Dread Return, she also gives you a way to pitch those fatties from your hand right into the graveyard. Reanimation decks which lack the means to fill their graveyard don’t typically find success, so the presence of Spellshapers in Rituals of Rebirth is particularly welcome. You also have a singleton Sengir Autocrat, a timeshifted reprint of the Homelands card which brings a trio of 0/1 Serfs along with him when he enters the battlefield. Look at that as a free flashback on top of a 2/2 body!
Thus far we’ve covered three main components of the deck. First, we have a group of fat creatures which fit the bill as reanimation targets. Next, we have several ways to get them out onto the battlefield. Third, a selection of cards are in place which help generate token creatures to fuel the flashback of Dread Return, letting you reanimate even more creatures out of your graveyard. Next we’ll be looking at the deck’s final primary component, the “plan B” we referred to at the beginning of the piece: mana ramping.
If there was a weakness in Graveborn, it is that the deck was fairly hamstrung if you didn’t manage to get the recursion engine up and running. While there’s plenty of downside to playing a three-colour deck, one of the upsides is that you get access to the strengths of all three colours, and given the presence of Green here that allows for a very healthy suite of cards that can help you power out your closers if you don’t manage to get them at a discount through the graveyard. As we’ll see, the tremendous synergy of the deck doesn’t stop here, either, as these cards also help stengthen your other paths to victory.
Start with the Greenseeker. Another Spellshaper, this one lets you discard a card to fetch up a basic land card. The Fa’adiyah Seer? This timeshifted version of Arabian Nights’ Sindbad not only helps you get a few extra land to hand, she also helps build up the scrapheap. In both cases, you’re helping both your manabase development as well as your reanimation strategy, and are great fits. You also have a pair of Search for Tomorrows as well as a Wall of Roots, which can help stall your opponent’s offense while accelerating your board position.
The remaining cards we’re quite happy to call ‘miscellany,’ as they don’t cleanly fit into one of the above categories. A pair of Essence Wardens help inflate your life total, synergising well with the token-generating cards we’ve looked at, while a singleton Spike Feeder seems a true orphan, unsupported by any other card in the deck. Still, it does give you a way to make other creatures bigger, making it a somewhat more-expensive Travel Preparations. Rebuff the Wicked gives you some defense against removal, always appreciated when decks make you jump through a few hoops to get your best creatures into play. Harmonize– the timeshifted update of Concentrate– helps to replenish your hand in a big way, while the Evolution Charm has something of a jack-of-trades air about it. It helps you ramp/fix your mana, can pull a creature back to your hand from your graveyard, and even can give one of your fatties flying for a turn to help slip past your opponent’s defenses- three very soild abilities to make one quite useful card.
By way of postscript, it bears mentioning that in addition to the raft of basic lands, you also have access to a pair of Terramorphic Expanses to help level things out. Overall, the synergy level here seems terrific, with some smart choices helping craft a very nasty little deck. Of course, until the rubber hits the road it’s all theory, so we’ll be returning in two days’ time with some playtesting results. See you then!