Effective Strategies Against Death’s Shadow

Michael Majors has plenty of ammo you can use against the world’s most dangerous Modern deck! Don’t want to jump on the bandwagon? No problem! Michael is ready to fight!

This weekend I decided to get my money in while it was still likely to be good and cross another one off the bucket list.

Some of my bigger regrets in terms of competitive Magic are not cashing in the opportunities to play some truly great decks before they were banned or the formats rotated. Specifically, Caw-Blade comes to mind.

When Grand Prix Vancouver’s results rolled in and Gerry T was excited enough about a deck to fly out to an SCG Tour stop across the country the following week to do battle with Death’s Shadow, I didn’t really have any excuse not to sleeve it up.

I made the Top 8, and for the second week in a row, had a lot of fun playing Modern.

I played the exact same 75 as Gerry, and didn’t really contribute all that much to the process. More or less I just listened to and utilized him as a mulligan and sequencing coach before the tournament. It was all rather reminiscent of U/W Eldrazi at GP Detroit.

As you all surely realize at this point, Death’s Shadow is very good.

Is it objectively good enough to be banned? That’s difficult to say, but I think it should be. I’ll be covering it more shortly, but I think we’ve barely scratched the surface on the full range of Death’s Shadow, as can be seen with Ryan Overturff’s success with a Grixis Delver build utilizing it.

Death’s Shadow in its current incarnation feels like a Legacy deck. It is hyper low to the ground, plays very few lands, and is both disruptive and capable of a quick clock.

It is also a strange and unintuitive deck that is difficult to play against. The fact that the deck can easily benefit from your opponent putting pressure on you is basically unprecedented in Magic, and its ability to quickly turn a game around and put an opponent on a two turn clock or directly into the “abyss” is far more the rule than the exception.

That said, the deck is beatable. I probably rolled the worst possible matchup in the Top 8 against Abzan, and there are a variety of other strategies and decks that can either reliably fight the archetype or have the tools to adapt to its presence in the metagame.

For now, I think that part of the conversation is more valid. What is actually good against Death’s Shadow decks?

I would recommend starting here, as Gerry’s interview with Nick Miller hits many of the broad strokes about how to effectively fight the deck.

Kill All of Their Things and Pressure Them

The most dangerous opponents for Death’s Shadow are those that can actually turn their small life total into a liability. Should Death’s Shadow ever lose initiative in the game and control of the battlefield, they will often find themselves at a life total of nine or lower, which is often a two-three turn clock from any real threat.

This is the deck that ended my run:

Death’s Shadow has effective grinding tools if it has the time to use them, but an opponent that has an equal amount of cheap interaction as Shadow, more attrition-oriented cards, plus a clock is a very scary prospect. Patrick’s incidental Nihil Spellbombs (which I’m clearly a fan of) also do work in this matchup for helping to keep Tarmogoyfs relatively in check while also disrupting Traverse the Ulvenwald; Liliana, the Last Hope; and Kolaghan’s Command.

Abzan has always been a relatively balanced deck, and the addition of Fatal Push and Blooming Marsh have likely put it firmly over the top of Jund for the time being. All the advantages of Jund of better mana and cheap interaction are basically gone, especially now that Lightning Bolt isn’t the marquee removal spell in the face of Death’s Shadows giant monsters. I would only expect this deck to get more popular and for good reason.

Corey Burkhart-era Grixis Control is another effective weapon against Death’s Shadow. I still despise Ancestral Vision with every fiber of my being, but this is the best stock control deck in Modern right now. Once folks begin to properly adapt how to play Grixis in the matchup, I think that Shadow’s chances begin to fall dramatically.

Grixis has the best ability to actually leverage Lightning Bolt in the matchup. Shadow is almost always trying to manage their life total around seven to avoid a “Bolt-Snap-Bolt” sequence. Any kind of additional burn spells or aggression from the Grixis side can easily finish a game where Death’s Shadow is forced to get their name sake on to the battlefield.

As a result, it is best to play Grixis as a glorified burn deck that is interested in setting up a two turn kill sequence. Lightning Bolt is an actively potent weapon, and you simply want to be managing the battlefield and keeping your head above water before ending the game abruptly.

Snapcaster Mage plus Fatal Push in general is also a great place to be against Death’s Shadow. It’s true that cards don’t always line up perfectly, and the bevy of discard spells from Shadow will always give it some room to navigate games, but Grixis has so many excellent draws in the matchup.

This is probably another good time to mention how weak I think Delver of Secrets is in Modern. While it can certainly improve some specific matchups like Tron where having a threat on turn 1 is critical, it is a generally weak due to how unreliable it is to flip, and it isn’t even good against a deck that plans to hurt itself!

To be fair, some of this is predicated on the fact that Delver has a lower land count and is more reliant on cheap and conditional counter magic that encourage Death’s Shadow to prolong the game, but “clocking” Death’s Shadow only makes their early game better as they can deploy their Shadows with more resources at their disposal.

Lock Them Out

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how good this matchup is for Lantern Control, but I have a hard time believing it to be bad. Ensnaring Bridge limits Shadow’s outs to a handful of cards – Kolaghan’s Command and Abrupt Decay, and it isn’t as if Lantern Control hasn’t had to deal with Ancient Grudge its entire life of Modern. I suspect that this is a great choice if the popularity of Death’s Shadow continues to rise, and a few copies of Fatal Push would likely solidify the matchup even more.

Or you can take the Todd Stevens’s approach. With minimal changes, this matchup looks to be the true nightmare. If you want to put the nail in the coffin, I’d simply suggest upgrading a few Anger of the Gods or Lightning Helix’s into additional Blessed Alliance or Journey to Nowhere.

Blessed Alliance can even be used proactively against early Shadows with “Target player gains 4 life.”

Generic Hate Cards

There’s a solid range of generically good cards against Death’s Shadow. Despite the flexibility that the deck can showcase in-game, at the end of the day it’s largely just a disruptive Jund deck focused around two creatures – Death’s Shadow and Tarmogoyf. Mirran Crusader does a great job of halting both in their tracks and cards like Rest in Peace heavily cripple the effectiveness of the latter and Traverse the Ulvenwald.

It’s difficult to beat Death’s Shadow with just one good card – they have a wide range of answers from discard to Tarfire and Abrupt Decay – but all of the above and several others simultaneously limit their options and make it difficult for Shadow to be aggressive.

Fighting Fire with Fire

I chatted a lot with Ryan Overturf over the weekend about his deck for several reasons. Not only do I love Grixis and making fun of Ryan for his obsession with Delvers, but his deck was legitimately cool and also represents something potentially scary.

He might be on the way to breaking it, as his version of Grixis Delver/Shadow went 3-1 against normal Death’s Shadow over the weekend and might be paving the way for new design space in Modern.

If Death’s Shadow does get banned, I think it’s because of innovations like this. Losing Traverse and Tarmogoyf and is certainly a huge hit in power at immediate glance, but now we get to grind out “mirrors” with Snapcaster Mage and Kolaghan’s Command?

Who’s to say that this won’t just open up an era of slotting Death’s Shadow into more decks with ways to make them more lean, efficient, and resistant to flooding?

Frankly, I’m a lot more interested, per usual, in really exploiting this type of shell. If I’m going to try to make Death’s Shadow Grixis happen, I’m going to go harder on my theme:

Maybe I want to be playing Liliana, the Last Hope in my maindeck, since Veil is somewhat more suited towards the Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy gameplan, but I also just want another tool to put my opponent quickly in the squeeze, mitigate flooding, and make cards like Rise//Fall better. The latter is my favorite part about this deck, as it gives Grixis Shadow an amazing tempo tool with a floor of “cycle my Street Wraith to power up Death’s Shadow more” and a ceiling of “get Snapcaster to go wild or Shadow to kill my opponent.”

That’s not even mentioning that the Hymn to Tourach mode can be devastating, especially when you can check out if you’re in the clear with a preemptive discard spell.

What’s even more appealing about this strategy is that you can somewhat check the fact that you’re going so low on life. Especially after sideboarding, countermagic gives you the opportunity to protect your low life total and your lead. Death’s Shadow only needs a turn or two to close out a game in a precarious position, and counterspells can give you the check mark against the top of your opponent’s deck.

Clearly I’m just proposing an untuned sketch, but Ryan’s already made it clear that something similar has legs. That in itself presents an interesting scenario where Death’s Shadow can fundamentally change the way we build Modern decks and attack the format.

It only takes a taste of the knowledge of how to do things properly. While it is true that there are tools present to beat these types of decks, do we really want Death’s Shadow to change everything?