Pro Tour Dominaria has come and gone and it was a blast.
One thing I’m not going to do is complain about the ubiquity of Goblin
Chainwhirler in the top 8. First, a ton of content has already been written
about how oppressive the card is. Second, I actually like this Standard
format! Maybe it’s just because I get to crew Heart of Kiran, but I think
the games are generally pretty interesting and there’s a still lot of
variation between builds within the same archetype.
Instead, I’m going to shift my focus to Modern for bit. For the weeks
leading up to the Pro Tour
I’ve been working mainly on Standard with a bit of Team Sealed. I’ve
largely been ignoring the shifts happening in Modern. Well that has all
changed now, as I need to find a deck for Grand Prix Las Vegas this week.
I’ve spent the last week getting caught up on what I missed. Here’s what
Humans Is Apparently Pretty Good
Ok, I haven’t been gone that long. Humans was the deck to beat at
Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, and has been at least a contender for
that title for months now. Emma Handy went so far as to say
Play Humans Or Be Wrong
. Cedric Phillips said last week that Humans was ”
far and away the best deck in Modern
Is he wrong?
Well, yes usually, but in this case I’m not so sure. Humans has been
putting up numbers for a while now and it’s not hard to see why: It’s fast,
disruptive, and not easily hated out. The decks that typically prey on it
tend to either be just piles of removal or they tend to be playing Tron
lands. Both of those have glaring weaknesses, which means if you want to
beat Humans, you must roll the dice and hope the metagame is good for you.
Control Is Great Now
Mardu Pyromancer has been a thing for a while now. I wasn’t initially a fan
of the deck, but I’ve slowly come around. For a long time, I thought decks
like this were kind of one-dimensional, something that you should only play
if your goal was just to beat up on something like Humans. I was wrong.
This deck is definitely real. It has its own disruption and resilient
threats. With Lingering Souls and Bedlam Reveler, it can grind with the
best of them. If you want, you can even maindeck Blood Moon and get some
When I dove back into Modern last week, I already knew that Mardu
Pyromancer was good. I wasn’t shocked to see that it has become a format
staple. What really surprised me was something else.
Jeskai Control is a good deck now. Like, really good. If you listen really
closely you might hear whispers that it’s the new best deck in Modern. What
changed? Wasn’t this deck supposed to be bad?
What a difference a busted planeswalker can make. The “untap two lands
clause” is what really matters here. Since you get to play with Path to
Exile and Lightning Bolt, you can often tap out for Teferi and still stop
two threats on your opponent’s next turn. Combine this with Search for
Azcanta and you finally have a high enough density of efficient ways to
take over the game. These are two threats that you can sneak in without
getting run over. After that they each serve dual roles, simultaneously
stabilizing your position while providing a way to take over the game. In
reality, there’s more going on here than just Teferi being good. Jeskai’s
success is in no small part due to Humans’ popularity.
Knowing that, what should I play next week? Normally my deck selection
process for Modern has just been “Play what you know.” Modern metagames are
generally a bit less elastic than Standard, so I generally don’t change
decks very aggressively. The most popular deck at any given time rarely
occupies more than 10% of the metagame. In a large tournament you’re likely
to play against at least a few decks that you weren’t prepared for. For
those reasons, I generally default to playing something that I’m
experienced with. That line of reasoning leads me here:
Grixis Death’s Shadow has everything I want in a Modern deck. You get to
rip apart your opponent’s hand and then cast your own super-fast clock. You
get to play Stubborn Denial, which is like Counterspell except that it
costs one mana. The combination of Thought Scour and Snapcaster Mage gives
you an absurd degree of consistency, allowing you to get a ton of mileage
out of even just one or two copies of any instant and sorcery. The deck is
also a blast to play, as you’re continually forced to reevaluate your role
in the game as it switches back and forth between defensive and aggressive.
There’s just one big problem. The deck isn’t that great anymore.
It just hasn’t put up the numbers that it used to, and this is partly due
to Humans. While I don’t think the matchup is as bad as many people say it
is, Grixis Death’s Shadow definitely isn’t favored. I was able to get up to
about a 50% win rate by giving myself access to three copies of Lightning
Bolt in the 75. That addition, along with Snapcaster Mage and Fatal Push
gave me enough cheap interaction to give me a decent shot of winning, but
that’s not exactly where I want to be against the most popular deck in the
It’s tempting to put the blame entirely on Humans and I hope that it gets
hated out a bit, so I convince myself to register Grixis Death’s Shadow
next weekend. I can’t honestly do that though because the truth is that the
entire metagame has become fairly hostile to Grixis Death’s Shadow.
In addition to having to battle your way through a pile of Humans, you also
have the control decks to contend with. Jeskai Control is generally
considered to be a foil to Grixis Death’s Shadow, but I don’t think it’s as
bad as most people think it is. Jeskai typically plays at least six burn
spells maindeck between Lightning Bolt and Lightning Helix, and you can
punish your Jeskai opponent for this by conserving your life total.
Depending on my opening hand, against players who open with turn-one
Scalding Tarn, I’ve started to slow down a bit and fetch my lands onto the
battlefield tapped. I try to use my discard to take anything grindy or
proactive and leave the burn spells in their hand. Playing a slower game
like this can sometimes let you turn a loss into a win if they eventually
must start using multiple burn spells on your threats. That said, you’re
walking a razor thin line and the matchup is still very close.
Mardu Pyromancer is different. I don’t have a foolproof strategy against
them, and I think the matchup is just plain bad for you. Lingering Souls is
one of the hardest cards in the format for Grixis Death’s Shadow to deal
with. Additionally, you can strip their hand, but they still have hits like
Bedlam Reveler in their deck, and they play lots of spot removal that can
kill your big threats, like Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, the Golden Fang. As
the game tends to drag on, eventually they draw something great that you
can’t deal with. I’ve been playing two Liliana, the Last Hope in my
sideboard as I think it’s one of your best cards against Lingering Souls,
but it’s somewhat narrow and it’s not enough to swing the matchup in your
The rest of the format has simply evolved to surpass Grixis Death’s Shadow.
For example, G/W Hexproof is a deck that people still play, and maindeck
copies of Leyline of Sanctity is common in that deck nowadays. They don’t
play it specifically to beat Grixis Death’s Shadow, but if they start the
game with one, you’re probably going to lose because a lot of the spells in
Grixis Death’s Shadow have the word “target.”
When you can’t target your opponent or any of their creatures, a large
percentage of your hands are just completely non-functional. At Grand Prix
Phoenix last spring, out of respect for G/W Hexproof, I included a second
copy of Engineered Explosives in my sideboard, but it just wasn’t enough to
swing the matchup in my favor.
It doesn’t really get any better when you look at the rest of the metagame.
Just go down the list of the other popular decks right now:
- Jeskai Control
- Mono-Green Tron
- B/R Hollow One
- Mardu Pyromancer
What exactly are you hoping to accomplish by playing Grixis Death’s Shadow?
It’s not that all these matchups are bad. I feel like most of them are
actually pretty close or at least close enough that I could maybe get an
edge by compromising my values and adding a card that I absolutely hate.
Although originally I wasn’t planning to register Temur Battle Rage, two
copies has been the standard for a while now. It makes sense in theory.
Modern is full of powerful nonsense. A large percentage of your matchups
are just going to be two ships passing in the night. If other players don’t
want to interact with you, fine! We can just take a turn off of our clock
and hope that that’s enough to beat them.
In practice though, it never seems to play out that way for me. For one,
not every deck in Modern is trying to ignore you. It’s demoralizing to sit
across from your Jund opponent and stare at that copy of Temur Battle Rage
in your hand as you hope desperately to draw another threat. Even in the
matchups where Temur Battle Rage is good, it’s not even that good. Your
deck is filled with disruption, removal, and Snapcaster Mages. The more of
it you draw, the worse Temur Battle Rage tends to perform.
I didn’t want to give up that easily though, so I took a look at the Top 8
of the Modern portion of the Season One Invitational. The results bolstered
Infect came in first place and that matchup is decent for our hero. We are
a Snapcaster Mage/Fatal Push deck with discard, countermagic, and a fast
clock. In theory, after sideboard, it should get even better since you can
bring in even more interaction. You do need to dodge Shaper’s Sanctuary
though, which at one mana is easier said than done.
Ironworks Combo came in second and that’s a similar story. Again, discard
plus countermagic plus a fast clock should make you a favorite to win.
As I continued to look down the list I was snapped back into reality.
- 4 Street Wraith
- 4 Bloodghast
- 2 Gurmag Angler
- 4 Flamewake Phoenix
- 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
- 4 Flameblade Adept
- 4 Hollow One
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Ornithopter
- 3 Steel Overseer
- 2 Memnite
- 3 Etched Champion
- 4 Signal Pest
- 4 Vault Skirge
This looks like a typical Modern metagame. Most of these aren’t that
horrible for Grixis, but again, I had to ask myself what’s the reason to
play Grixis Death’s Shadow? I honestly can’t think of a good one.
So, if like me, you’re a Grixis Death’s Shadow player looking for a new
jam, where do you go? My first instinct was Jund as it’s another proactive
Thoughtseize deck so the play patterns shouldn’t be too hard to learn.
Unfortunately, Jund’s not at a great place either at the moment. From
Lingering Souls to Leyline of Sanctity to Humans, it has many of same
fundamental weaknesses as Grixis Death’s Shadow.
The unfortunate reality is that there isn’t a great replacement for Grixis
Death’s Shadow at the moment. Instead, if you’re in search of a Modern deck
this week, I’d recommend giving Jeskai Control a try. Not only is it
well-positioned against Humans, but it’s also just doing powerful things of
its own. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is almost reason enough to play the
deck. I’m a bit concerned that my lack of experience with the deck will
show next weekend. Of course, I’ll be jamming leagues on Magic Online until
then to try to get my bearings.
Sometimes the best way to learn is just to dive in and get your hands