Top 20 Reanimation Spells in Magic The Gathering

Top 20 Reanimation Spells in Magic: The Gathering

Tom AndersonCommunity

Reanimator – bringing back huge creatures from the graveyard with relatively cheap spells – is one of the oldest and most recognizable strategies in Magic. The mechanic draws inspiration directly from the fantasy stories which inspired the game’s creators, where wizards reanimate the fallen as shambling undead or reincarnate them to full glorious power.

As you’d expect, both black and white dominate this part of the color pie. But they have been known to share that bounty around a little, and even within those colors, the idea of “returning a card from graveyard to play” has a staggering amount of depth. Hopefully this list will show off not just how powerful reanimation spells can be, but how varied and flexible their power is.


Oh, you assumed that we’d be opening with a black card? Well, you clearly weren’t around when this card left its stunning mark on Khans of Tarkir-era Standard. Or when it instant-speed-ambushed the new Pioneer format with the help of Wayward Servant and other zombie friends! Rally the Ancestors is a powerhouse in any Aristocrats-style deck; it’s capable of scaling up to work with larger targets where mana is plentiful, and it even doubles as a nasty combat trick in a pinch. As we’ll discuss later in this list, even temporary reanimation is a wonderful thing… so wonderful that Wizards offered black a close cousin of this card as a Commander deck exclusive.


Critics will often tell you that Reanimator isn’t a “fair” deck. But how can you say that with a nice two-sided effect like Exhume powering it for many years? I get a creature, you get a creature! Of course, the Reanimator player casting this on turn one or two will frequently be bringing back Grave Titan or Archon of Cruelty, while the other player may not even have a creature in their graveyard yet to choose – making this one of the very best early game reanimation spells ever.


Some of the cards on this list have earned their spot through a wealth of tournament victories, but I’ve got The Upside Down here purely based on its potential. It’s hard to deny the latent power of a game-winning ability stapled to a land, particularly when you can trigger it for little or no mana. This land doesn’t care where the Clues came from or how they were sacrificed, so the biggest thing preventing it from becoming a bona fide Legacy threat is creating Clues in the first place. With more Clue-creating cards being printed every year, though, it’s surely just a matter of time. Did I mention this effect is reusable?


Speaking of re-usable, Whip of Erebos makes the list as one of the best single-card value engine black mages have ever been blessed with. It gives all your creatures lifelink all the time – which is extremely nice when it comes to recouping life paid for black spells or early hits taken while setting up your graveyard. But then you can launch creature after creature out of your yard like a missile silo – all lifelinking, all generating ETB triggers and life-swings through combat… You can see why a lot of Standard decks at the time decided to join the Whip crowd instead of beating it.


Ever-so-slightly overlooked in the present era, Stitch Together was a world-beater in its day and is still among the most reliable and efficient spells of its kind. As we saw with Exhume, two-mana reanimation is definitely worth jumping through some hoops for! But where Exhume can lead to some nasty blowouts or fall off quickly after the first few turns, Stitch Together offers the most natural condition most graveyard decks could hope for: you just have to load up your yard a little, and away you go. It’s a card which deserves to be remembered (and played) far more than it is today.


Like Exhume writ large, this effect is one of the most memorable (if oddly worded) reanimation spells most Magic players will face. Swapping the creatures in each player’s graveyard with the ones they have in play can completely flip the game in an instant, assuming your army of the dead is the most powerful one at the table. Of course, one of the cool things about this card is that you don’t always need it to be that perfect game winner – it can effectively be a board wipe in the early stages, or just a value play later on if you can sacrifice your board before you slam it. Evocative, powerful, and relatively affordable, Living Death is a true black staple.


Before Whip of Erebos, there was Strands of Night… and even after Whip of Erebos, there are honestly a lot of reasons to stick by this potent little enchantment. For one, this offers reusable, permanent reanimation of any creature. I’ve been careful to highlight the potential of temporary recursion, but when the effects are both reusable, the opportunity to build up a lasting board through this card alone is hard to ignore. Yes, there is a significant cost – sacrificing lands means you will likely not be going infinite here. But this doesn’t exile the creatures it brings back, and in terms of mana efficiency, it’s right up there. Black mages have never been shy of a little sacrifice, and Strands offers more than adequate reward.


White, on the other hand, gets its reward for holding up mana to maximize the value of this very specific mass-reanimation card. While it can be used to save a couple of creatures from combat or spot removal, there are really two main scenarios which justify including it. Firstly, as a counter to enemy board-wipes, where it can essentially close a game by wasting a control player’s best answer along with their turn. Secondly, in decks with a way to sacrifice a lot of cards for value before bringing them back for another go around. Rally the Ancestors can be used in a similar way, but Faith’s Reward goes a step further by reanimating noncreature permanents – the kind of power which got Second Sunrise banned in Modern for enabling combo decks like Eggs and KCI.


Emerging from the high-powered Scars of Mirrodin block, Nim Deathmantle plays with one of the most underutilized kinds of reanimation: the “defensive” Reanimator card. Most classic reanimation effects incentivize proactive play – you want to put a huge thing in your graveyard ASAP specifically to bring it back. But Nim Deathmantle (and cards like Angelic Renewal or Lifeline before it) push for a slightly different playstyle – you protect your creature(s) already on board by reanimating them whenever they might die, punishing the opponent who removed them with a fresh round of triggers. The fact that Deathmantle can still combo off, and the little nuances of changing color and type, only make this card even cooler to play with.


Goryo’s Vengeance, on the other hand, is the absolute epitome of proactive, aggressive Reanimator play. It’s obviously not the kind of card you play for the long game (although “splice onto arcane” does give it some surprising value potential), and the “legendary only” targeting rules push you even further towards narrow, focused deck building. Luckily, the chance to pull the trigger at instant speed for just 1B is exciting enough to have earned this card sustained success in Modern. The targets of choice may change – from Obzedat to Griselbrand to Kiki-Jiki to Emrakul – but the Vengeance remains strong.


As I touched on in my description of Mana Tithe in our study of top counterspells, shifting an effect to an unusual color is often a significant buff. The element of surprise leaves opponents unlikely to anticipate or prepare counterplay for a card like Reincarnation, and it’s a pretty powerful card even by the standards of black reanimation. Three mana, instant speed, and only the most minor of hoops to jump through for the chance to bring back anything from your graveyard? There’s even fringe cases where you can use this to play politics or trigger some impactful ability by reanimating opposing cards – although your opponent will still get to keep them. Overall, Reincarnation is an inarguable bomb for green players in Commander. Expect the unexpected!


The weirder, yet even more successful cousin of Living Death, Living End is known largely for the Modern combo deck which bears its name. That deck shows off the unique advantages of Living End’s unique “no cost” design: it’s easily cheated onto the stack, and not having to pay for it makes it easy to double down on the huge power swing of its resolution. Even if you do have to suspend it as the designers intended, it’s not the kind of effect that opponents can easily play around. Its surprising effectiveness in both combo and midrange situations have proven this to be one of the best card designs of Time Spiral block.


Another slight twist on “balanced” mass reanimation. While it lacks the board wipe clause of Living Death or Living End, Bidding gives you a different path to break the symmetry of its mass reanimation. Where the aforementioned spells ask you to lean in through gameplay, Patriarch’s Bidding offers a deck building incentive: stack your deck with creatures of a single type, and you’re guaranteed to get more out of this card than most opponents. Although with Bidding now returning to Modern relevance thanks to Modern Horizons 2, it’s worth noting that its success has not always been about swinging for the fences and bringing back a huge army. Often, just getting a pair of creatures into play with the same effect can be back-breaking when you’ve built your whole deck around such an opportunity… an idea we may revisit as we approach the top end of our list.


Not every card on the Reserved List lives up to its aura of forbidden power, but this one absolutely deserves the company of Black Lotus and co. Replenish has been closing games outright since day one, and even in the present Modern metagame, Resurgent Belief has shown how powerful mass-reanimating enchantments can be. While most enchantments won’t outright kill a player as quickly as big creature threats can, they make up for it with resilience to common removal and sheer oppressive impact. The arrival of cards like Overwhelming Splendor, Dovescape and Kiora Bests the Sea God can immediately close off most options for a comeback. Add in the number of useful enchantments which can easily be cycled (including Cast Out, Shark Typhoon, and Decree of Silence), and you can appreciate the kind of power Replenish unlocks. 


Famously deep on powerful cards, Urza’s block offers us another off-color reanimation effect for noncreature permanents! Goblin Welder is on the shortlist of all-time strongest one-drops, and its ability to turn a random mana rock or an artifact land into Blightsteel Colossus (or vice versa on an opponent’s side!) is simply unmatched. The combination of a fragile body and additional setup steps has mostly kept this card out of the top tier of Legacy, but it’s never far from that level. And in most other formats where it’s legal, you can expect only good explosive things from this little guy – the ideal description for any Goblin card, in my opinion.


As I already touched on, reanimating two creatures at the same time can be several times more dangerous than reanimating one. Just think of how many two-creature combos allow you to immediately win the game! And yet here we are (once again thanks to Urza’s block) with the chance to cheat out such a win for just three mana and a sacrificial creature token. Truly remarkable. Even more remarkable that this card has been made universally available via countless reprints – becoming one of the most recognized and highly-played bombs in black’s Commander arsenal. With a great name and now great artwork by Craig J. Spearing, Victimize thoroughly deserves its high place on this list.


While it’s only been printed in a Commander precon, Sevinne’s Reclamation has already branched out across eternal formats. Being able to target any sort of permanent is already great when you consider the power of Oko, Wrenn, Narset and Breach. And any reanimation effect which can itself be played from the graveyard is very special indeed. But the fact that flashing back Sevinne’s also lets you double up the targeting? I literally just sang the praises of Victimize for allowing such a power play. Three-mana-value-or-less restriction aside, this is absolutely pushing the boundaries of what a reanimation effect can do – who says white doesn’t get strong cards?!


One of Magic’s stalwart old-guard cards, Animate Dead even preserves an older school of design and rules templating. Trapped within its wordy rules text is a simple idea: you enchant a dead creature from your graveyard, bringing it back to life (with slightly worse hand-eye coordination) to do your bidding. If the enchantment ends, the creature dies, and vice versa. But trying to fit that simple, flavorful idea of necromancy into a usable spell has created a card which not only reanimates with great efficiency, but enables all sorts of trickery due to its overlapping triggers. Most famously, using this to reanimate Worldgorger Dragon creates a loop which flickers every other permanent in and out of play forever (or until your Piranha Marsh has triggered enough times to drain their life total).


In theory, this is a fair card which offers two reasonably-costed bites at the reanimation apple. But I doubt Dread Return has ever been cast fairly outside of Time Spiral Limited! Instead, the presence of self-resurrecting creatures like Narcomoeba has offered a fully reliable chain of effects to any deck capable of milling itself with Hermit Druid, Mesmeric Orb or Balustrade Spy. Inevitably, you’ll flip over a trio of Jellyfish (plus a spare to use for Cabal Therapy), and from there, you can flashback Dread Return for Thassa’s Oracle or Laboratory Maniac. Letting you cast a reanimation spell from your graveyard AND for no mana just allows too many shortcuts for these sorts of decks, and we’re unlikely to ever get a card like this again. Frankly, I’m surprised we even got it at all.


While it’s not quite the original example of creature reanimation in Magic, Reanimate has long since been recognized as the most exemplary version of that effect. I mean, there’s a reason we don’t call the archetype “Animate-Dead-er”!

One of the classic “life is just a resource” cards, Reanimate may not be literally free to cast, but one black mana is far more flexible a cost to meet than three sacrificial creatures – and this flexibility makes it a comfortable #1 even next to the unfairness that is Dread Return. That flexibility has seen the spell turned to all sorts of uses, from its natural home in classic Legacy Reanimator to one of the great meta-breaking decks in UB Death’s Shadow. 

That Shadow deck in particular took full advantage of Reanimate’s other big edge: resurrecting opposing creatures under your control is surprisingly useful, especially if you aren’t playing an all-in Reanimator strategy and are less likely to have a target in your own yard. Ironically, that “fair mode” of Reanimate drives home how unfair this card really is at one mana. Yes, reanimating Griselbrand is good, but so is just about any creature when you’re only paying B for it. There are few situations where this kind of high floor and high ceiling won’t carry the day.


Here lies another great ranking of Magic’s historically powerful cards, now at its natural end. Hopefully, I was able to demonstrate some of the unexpected richness in this seemingly narrow school of spells – from the defensive reanimation of Nim Deathmantle to the inevitable combo tool of Dread Return, the grindy engine that is Whip of Erebos to the explosive tribal finisher Patriarch’s Bidding, and even some weird off-color gems like Reincarnation and Replenish. The graveyard is an important part of every Magic deck these days, so don’t write off the potential to leverage one or more of these powerful spells to create big plays – no matter what color or archetype you play!