Beating Death In Dallas

When Death’s Shadow looms, Modern players will do anything to stay alive. Tom “The Boss” Ross is no exception, and in his exploration of how to stop the deck to beat at SCG Dallas, he leaves no card unread, up to and including…Kavu Predator?!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve heard by now: Death’s Shadow is the deck to beat in Modern.

This is your Enemy No. 1.

Ryan Overturf finished in the Top 4 of the Modern Classic in Indianapolis with an innovative adjustment to his regular Grixis Delver deck to incorporate Death’s Shadow. The changes sparked interest in Michael Majors and Gerry Thompson to further develop the Grixis Shadow archetype.

I expect to see a fair amount of this Death’s Shadow build at this weekend’s SCG Tour stop in Dallas.

What’s the best way to fight Death’s Shadow?

Well, you could try to kill all of their threats. This the first instinctual way to deal with Death’s Shadow. Of course, against discard spells like Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek and resiliency in Liliana, the Last Hope and Kolaghan’s Command, no Death’s Shadow deck is going to fold to some removal spells.

I wouldn’t discount this Level 1 response to Death’s Shadow. It’s just not the end-all-be-all. You also need a proactive plan, perhaps backed up with some out-the-box tactics.

I think there is some room to get creative against the Death’s Shadow decks.

They Use Their Life Total as a Resource

I once said that Lone Missionary was the Lotus Cobra of Soul Sisters back when the deck was in Standard. Soul Sisters had a good U/W Control matchup while not an especially great Burn matchup. Why?

U/W Control never attacked the resource I cared about: my life total.

No one is really attacking the Death’s Shadow life total in a “positive” way. When giving your opponent life turns from a downside to an upside, then you have some very powerful cards.

Ever want to kill two Death’s Shadows with one card? Here’s your chance.

Devour Flesh is a sideboard card similar to Blessed Alliance. While they have their differences, both Blessed Alliance and Devour Flesh are good versus two decks: Death’s Shadow and G/W Hexproof.

With the printing of Fatal Push and the rise of Death’s Shadow decks purposely dealing themselves damage, there’s not much room for Infect to flourish. G/W Hexproof has picked up some of the metagame space that Infect once held. Dealing real damage to players already damaging themselves is more appealing than poison. The rise for the need for spot removal also makes hexproof look good. Thus, Devour Flesh is looking good too.

Devour Flesh can also be cast at any time, not just during the opponent’s attack step. Devour Flesh can also be used on yourself in a pinch, perhaps gaining a lot of life from a huge Tarmogoyf or Kavu Predator.

Kavu Predator?

The ol’ Kavu Predator and Grove of the Burnwillows deck. One of the cutest and fairest decks ever built.

It’s been a long-forgotten combo, mostly because its best piece in Punishing Fire has been banned in Modern forever.

This take on Kavu Predator lifegain is just taking a typical Jund shell and switching out a few cards. Grim Flayer is Kavu Predator and Terminate is Devour Flesh. Grove of the Burnwillows replaces a Stomping Grounds and some Raging Ravines. Without differing too far from the known structure of successful Jund, it’s hard to be “too wrong” if the lifegain subtheme doesn’t work out.

Grove of the Burnwillows is less of a liability and more of a payoff these days in Modern. It’s the main reason I would want to play G/R Tron over other variants. They can really deploy a Death’s Shadow at twelve life. Grove of the Burnwillows can shrink Death’s Shadow mid-combat, either saving you a life or being a combat trick of sorts that complicates attacking and blocking. Not bad for a card that’s already close in functionality to Taiga.

Devour Flesh bumps the ways to give your opponent life up to eight, which I feel is enough to combo with Kavu Predator. It’s not like Kavu Predator is that bad of a card on its own. Grim Flayer is a slightly-harder-to-cast Kavu Predator without any other help.

Remember, Kavu Predator works anytime your opponents gain life, not just for ways you initiate. This means all the little incidental stuff like Scavenging Ooze, Kitchen Finks, Collective Brutality, and Lightning Helix, to name a few. Outrageous threats like Wurmcoil Engine suddenly become possible to race.

Opponents gaining “an arbitrarily large amount of life” gets… complicated. Complicated but beatable. Nothing wrong with having a backdoor way to beating arbitrarily large life.

Black really only offers Devour Flesh as an on-theme way to trigger Kavu Predator and shrink Death’s Shadow.

The older builds of Kava Predator decks were typically Naya-colored to play Fiery Justice. Now Condemn, Ajani Unyielding, and Blessed Alliance are other reasonable Magic cards that happen to go along with the lifegain strategy that your deck is playing.

Condemn is close to Path to Exile when you’re facing fairly redundant attacking threats. Against Death’s Shadow, its downside is turned to upside. You’re basically doing what the Death’s Shadow deck does to itself with cards like Thoughtseize.

Oust is close too. The creature is due to come back eventually… but maybe you want that? Death’s Shadow will be a pretty bad draw if they’re “stuck” above thirteen life. Seriously, though, any creature is typically worse to draw later in the game than earlier. Think about Ousting a Birds of Paradise, for example.

Ajani Unyielding may be “Ajani Unwieldy” some portion of the time, but if Elspeth, Sun’s Champion can get some love in Modern, then so can Ajani. The six-mana planeswalker looks pretty decent when it can grow a Kavu Predator or set the Death’s Shadow player back.

Blessed Alliance is a solid card against a variety of decks. It just happens to say “target player” for its gaining four life mode. Useful against both Death’s Shadow and Burn.

Chump Block for Days

Outside of forcing Death’s Shadow to gain life, I think the best way to deal with big ground creatures (other than killing them) is to simply block them.

Death’s Shadow was once a deck that was all-in on the combo. Become Immense has been weakened since the banning of Gitaxian Probe. Without the Become Immense combo piece, Temur Battle Rage has lost value and has been progressively been shaved more and more from Death’s Shadow lists.

The fact that Temur Battle Rage is poor in the mirror furthers the case for nearly cutting them altogether.

We may see a world with little or no trample going on in Death’s Shadow decks. In that world, it’s a reasonable tactic to present as many chump blockers as you can every turn against them.

Having a touch of spot removal for Death’s Shadow is also recommended. If they do have the trample effect in Temur Battle Rage or Ghor-Clan Rampager, it’s up to them to initiate first, which opens a window for the possible two-for-one blowout.

The best chump blockers are ones that have already generated value. Having 29 creatures and eight spells that grab creatures is a good way to get your block on. Also, it’s pretty hard for Death’s Shadow to race an arbitrarily large life combo.

I think Abzan Company is actually just legit good overall right now. Ari Lax wrote earlier this week in an excellent article about his thoughts about Abzan Company against the new wave of big Modern players.

Not as strong without Gitaxian Probe, but that’s okay. I would like to see more decks incorporating token makes like Young Pyromancer to their traditional Grixis lists. Take Bernie Wen’s take on Grixis Delver, for example:

No deck wants to spew out a ton of cheap creatures like Elves does. The deck is great at generating blockers and presents a reasonable clock too with Ezuri, Renegade Leader. Elves is one of those decks that benefits from the removal shift that Death’s Shadow forces upon Modern: fewer sweepers, more direct removal.

Whenever the best deck is one that trying to win through combat on the ground when Elves is going to eat them up. I wouldn’t mind playing this one myself at #SCGDFW.

The combos with Beck // Call , Brain in a Jar, and the Aether Revolt Expertises are a known quantity now. However, what is the best build?

I teamed with Michael Majors and Todd Anderson for the Open in Baltimore where Majors played an experimental Esper deck featuring Beck // Call and Brain in the Jar. The expertise he/we chose to run was Yahenni’s Expertise over Sram’s Expertise.

The sweeping effect of Yahenni’s Expertise was quite below average. The format as a whole was just not very vulnerable to sweepers. I believe the Modern format to stay that way for a while.

That’s the best reason to be flooding the battlefield with small creatures. Sram’s Expertise does this. A steady stream of blockers against big ground creatures is great. Sometimes ending the game more swiftly is also great in an archetype known for going to time.

For now, I’m pretty big on tokens in Modern, and H0lydver’s take on U/W Control looks both fun and well-positioned.

A monster in Legacy, Vintage, and past Standard. Where is Monastery Mentor in Modern?

I was very surprised to never see Monastery Mentor used alongside Gitaxian Probe, while Young Pyromancer has always been a mainstay.

Monastery Mentor isn’t as powerful as in Legacy with Brainstorm, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Ponder or in Vintage with Moxes and its own supply of blue cantrips. Still, Modern has Serum Visions, Thought Scour, Sleight of Hand, and a few others.

If I were playing against an Ad Nauseam player and they dropped a Monastery Mentor in Game 2 out of their sideboard, I certainly wouldn’t have removal left in my deck to deal with in.

I would likewise be left with my hand in the cookie jar if something like Lantern Control showed up with Monastery Mentor. Storm, not so much, since Goblin Electromancer and Baral, Chief of Compliance must be addressed anyway.

I also like Monastery Mentor out of the sideboard of the Puresteel Paladin combo decks. Everyone is trying to kill Puresteel Paladin and Sram, Senior Edificer, so why not? It’s great with a bunch of zero-cost spells.

There are fewer “small” sweepers in Modern than there have been in the past. The Tron decks are no longer splashing for Pyroclasm, but rather spot removal like Path to Exile or Fatal Push. Anger of the Gods isn’t as important with Dredge pushed out.

To me, it looks like a card like Monastery Mentor that “goes wide” could be a good spot.

I might even try Monastery Mentor in G/W Tron. After all, my opponents sideboard out their removal and it’s not uncommon to “go off” with chaining Ancient Stirrings into Chromatic Star into Chromatic Sphere, etc. It could be better than Thragtusk as a threat that’s castable once players are attacking the Urza’s lands.


Sadly, #SCGDFW this weekend is outside of my reasonable travel range.

I for sure would be playing something that beat aggressive strategies, specifically Death’s Shadow of course. If there was ever a weekend for me to run Soul Sisters (to a non-embarrassing finish), it would be this one.

Death’s Shadow is a great Magic card and a great deck. It’s a tough card to understand and a tough deck to beat. It’s been at the top of the hill for nearly a month now and it’s taken a while for people to adjust to beat it.

I think #SCGDFW will be Death’s Shadow’s last weekend as the “best deck” and will hereafter just be known as a top Modern deck.