Building Death’s Shadow for Modern Season
It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down to write a bunch of words about Thoughtseize. It’s honestly therapeutic for me — I find myself thinking about Modern Death’s Shadow decks while working, hanging with friends, playing Limited, etc etc (insert any facet of life here). With that said, GP Toronto has come and gone and the next set of competitive events I have to test for is the Modern PPTQ season as well as this weekend’s Face to Face Games Showdown, which is also Modern.
As you may have already figured out, I think Death’s Shadow is the most powerful strategy in the format. What this means is that given a large quantity of events, you will do the best with a Death’s Shadow deck versus any other strategy in the format. Some weekends will be better than others, as Modern is such a diverse format that you can run into a wall of Mirran Crusaders sometimes. In my previous Modern article about BGx decks in Modern, I spanned all of the format’s Jund-style midrange decks and their individual strengths and weaknesses. With this article I’m going to focus on the different styles of Death’s Shadow decks, their core strengths and the major strengths and weaknesses of playing a green/black base versus a blue/black base.
Why is Death’s Shadow so Good?
I’ve said this before so I’ll keep this short, the deck just oozes with efficiency. You play almost entirely one mana spells and are able to trade resources and produce threats in the most hyper-efficient way possible in Modern. Both Thoughtseize, and your shocklands turn their “downside” into a bonus in this deck and that manifests itself into the deck feeling like you’re playing a Legacy deck in Modern. It’s the subtle advantages that this deck maximizes on that puts it just that far ahead of the format. Other decks may have good Death’s Shadow matchups but this is the single most busted archetype in Modern and it is not close, end of conversation.
I’m going to take you through the basic structure of both of the iterations of Death’s Shadow, the cards that I see as stock inclusions and then offer filled out deck lists that I’ve generated from my testing. The purpose of this is that I believe this archetype to be largely fluid — you have two stock shells of decks and then the third or fourth colour as well as the sideboard and removal slots are really something that can be altered tournament-to-tournament.
This was the original breakout shell of the Death’s Shadow deck which was popularized by Gerry Thompson, Sam Black and Josh Utter-Leyton at Grand Prix Vancouver. The deck uses a light Delirium sub-theme and Traverse the Ulvenwald to by hyper threat-dense while maintaining the classic BGx Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf shell. Being an 18 land deck, this strategy is one of the first Modern has ever seen to be able to effectively take advantage of a full eight main deck discard spells. Here is the shell:
4 Street Wraith
4 Death’s Shadow
4 Mishra’s Bauble
4 Inquisition of Kozilek
3-4 Traverse the Ulvenwald
3-4 Fatal Push
Here is the version I’ve worked on over the past few months:
5C Death’s Shadow, Keith Capstick:
Marcio Carvalho played a fairly similar five-colour version of this deck at the Grand Prix Copenhagen and finished just out of Top 8. I certainly acknowledge that having access to the full five colours is greedy, but this is the version I’ve had the most success playing with. Frankly, I think you want access to the blue no matter what and having Lingering Souls in my sideboard has done a lot to improve the Grixis Death’s Shadow matchup that can grind you out with Snapcaster Mage if you don’t have adequate counter-measures. If you’re looking to limit your build to just four colours (I think this is the minimum because shocklands are actively good in your deck) I’d suggest something like what Gerry Thompson played at the SCG Invitational.
There are a couple unique choices in my deck that I’ll touch on. First I’ve been playing with three Traverse the Ulvenwald. In my opinion your worst hands have multiple copies of this card and few ways to enable Delirium, for this reason I’ve been playing just the three. I added a Tasigur, the Golden Fang to my maindeck as a tutor target because I wanted the ability to search for a card similar to Tarmgoyf that wouldn’t die to Fatal Push in the mirror and against the Grixis versions. I also have Temur Battle Rages in my sideboard which in my opinion are a key to the archetype. Despite the fact that you have counterspells in the blue version having a proactive effect that shortens linear games is great. There are a few linear decks like G/R Titanshift that aren’t that weak to Stubborn Denial and Battle Rage helps to make those matchups better.
Lastly, I’m very high on Liliana of the Veil across the board. It’s the best game-one card in the Death’s Shadow mirror and allows you to win games you would otherwise have no business winning. Lilly contributes to that overall power level that I discussed earlier and I think it’s a must-play.
This is the shell that became popular with Brad Nelson’s win at SCG Baltimore. Most iterations are Grixis colours and rely on big Delve threats that evade Fatal Push and Snapcaster Mage to beat-up on other fair decks. Toronto local Daniel Fournier, also piloted this style of Death’s Shadow deck to a second place finish at the SCG Invitational after he and I discussed adding a few Liliana of the Veils to the maindeck and sideboard to get a leg up in the mirror. Here’s the shell:
4 Death’s Shadow
4 Delve Threats (A Mix of Gurmag Angler and Tasigur)
4 Snapcaster Mage
4 Street Wraith
4 Thought Scour
2-3 Inquisition of Kozilek
2-4 Serum Visions
4 Fatal Push
2 Stubborn Denial
Here is the version of Grixis Death’s Shadow that I’d play, of course based on Fournier’s list from the Invitational:
Grixis Death’s Shadow, Keith Capstick:
The greatest advantage here is your ability to grind. It’s actually not complicated at all, with your threats evading the format’s premier kill-spell in Fatal Push, your proactive game is more consistent and Snapcaster Mage can close games that go long. Without Traverse the Ulvenwald there are far less moving parts and you don’t have to bother with cards like Mishra’s Bauble. This deck just plays as many one-mana cards as possible and will grind you to dust with them. In my opinion one of it’s biggest failures is threat density. The majority of the games you lose are to not being able to find one of your finishers. There are only eight cards in your deck that really beat down and that’s holistically a problem considering you are a midrange deck at heart, which traditionally play 12-15 threats. Additionally, you give up some of the aggressive strengths of the Jund versions for a little more grind. It’s virtually impossible to play Delve creatures in back-to-back turns whereas if those creatures were Tarmogoyfs you could just jam them at your will. This inhibits a little bit of your ability to push advantages and play aggressively to the board.
Making the Decision: UB or GB?
This keeps me up at night. Both decks have so much going for them, Snapcaster Mage is great, Tarmogoyf is great, both sideboards are great. But, as you all know Modern is a game of inches. When there are so many viable decks and so little room for error, having the best deck for the right weekend is integral to your success.
In my opinion, this decision isn’t really about matchups. A lot of people say that Grixis is dominating against the Jund versions and I just think this is the case of a lot of people saying something and then everyone assuming it must be true. With strong maindeck choices and a good sideboard plan the matchup can even be favourable on the Jund side. What I really think you’re trying to make a decision about is the overarching strategy and gameplay of your Death’s Shadow deck. Do you want to be largely proactive or reactive? Do you want to play a bunch of cantrips so you always find what you need? Do you want to play all eight discard spells so that you repeat your core game plan as often as possible? These are the questions I’m asking myself going into this weekend’s events.
I think if I had to choose today I’d sadly have to chose Grixis and betray my BGx love. I’ve just been having a hard time finding consistent results in testing with the BG versions as your draws can be extremely polarizing. I’d rather do the same thing every game, which is what Grixis does best, even if I think it might be a little less powerful. Now with that said, I’m not about to leave you hanging with a lacklustre ending to a catastrophically long article about a one-mana 13/13 creature and how you build your deck around it.
The Best of Both Worlds Option
I’ve been working on a deck list that combines the threat density and beat down capability of Jund Death’s Shadow, with the consistency of Grixis Death’s Shadow. The real buoying factor was when I moved from Terminate to Dismember in both lists, as Dismember kills all of the key Delve threats in the format while powering out early Shadows. At that point I was sitting on one red card in the maindeck of my Grixis version and got some ideas about this list:
BUG Death’s Shadow, Keith Capstick:
In theory this deck solves it all. It has more threats so I don’t have to play all eight clunky cantrips in my base UB Death’s Shadow deck because I don’t need to dig for creatures as often. But, I get threat density and creatures that evade Fatal Push all at once. I get to play Snapcaster Mage to go late and Tarmogoyf to beat down. I even get cards like Abrupt Decay, Maelstrom Pulse and Nature’s Claim to deal with problem permanents which was one of Grixis’ biggest weaknesses. Look, this usually doesn’t work — just mashing together deck lists isn’t something I’d recommend trying on a consistent basis — but this looks like a deck list that might help me sleep at night, so you best believe I’ll be running it through some leagues on Magic Online before the weekend.
See you on the battlefield!