Is Four-Color Death’s Shadow Better Than Grixis Death’s Shadow?

When Four-Color Death’s Shadow won in Texas, that got Ben Friedman’s attention! Today he ponders Four-Color versus Grixis Death’s Shadow for SCG Charlotte!

Last week, I gave five predictions for unexpected or under-the-radar decks that would rise to the top at the Modern Open in Dallas. Those archetypes were:

Of the predictions, I was most confident in Dredge, and least confident in the semi-serious Runaway Red deck. Creeping Chill adds a strong new dimension to a metagame chisel of a deck, and the time was clearly right for Dredge to take a big bite out of Modern. As for Runaway Steam-Kin, well, let’s just say that I’ve taken to calling the deck “Meme-Kin” and expect it to continue being underrated for the foreseeable future. The other three decks were question marks, but Ad Nauseam clearly isn’t a desirable choice in a field with lots of Meddling Mages and Kitesail Freebooters. Knowing this, I expected a higher likelihood of a Death’s Shadow deck or a Heritage Druid deck doing well.

To be fair, I expected more combo decks like Storm and Ironworks (which are significantly more resilient to Humans with their interactive plans) but that ended up a little off the mark. Instead, it was indeed a tournament showcasing the latest Modern Duel Decks: Humans vs. Zombies.

As we all saw this past weekend, Dredge took up a huge percentage of the winners’ metagame, with two of the Top 8 playing it and three playing Humans. Humans doing well doesn’t surprise me at all, as the deck is both popular and powerful, and benefits from being easy to win with and surprisingly hard to play against.

What did give me pause was how easily the winner, Peter Hollman, dispatched opponents en route to the title with the only Four-Color Death’s Shadow deck to make Day 2.

Four-Color Death’s Shadow (with or without Stubborn Denial) has been an on-again, off-again player in Modern since early 2017, when Gerry Thompson and Josh Utter-Leyton mashed Grand Prix Vancouver with an early version of the deck. Later supplanted by Grixis Death’s Shadow, Jund Death’s Shadow gives up Snapcaster Mage and Gurmag Angler for a green Delirium package and a full eight copies of Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek effects. The green version has a lot of flexibility and consistency behind it with the inclusion of Traverse the Ulvenwald for extra Death’s Shadows but suffers from a worse late-game and a worse matchup against grindy control decks. Of course, should one play the version splashing white for sideboard copies of Ranger of Eos and/or Lingering Souls, this weakness can be swiftly cleared up.

What’s going on? How did Peter Hollman smash so many Humans and Dredge decks en route to his trophy? What kind of improvements to his list (specifically, some of the odd sideboard numbers) can we propose? And of course, is his deck better going forward than the classic Grixis Death’s Shadow?

Let’s start with a quick metagame rundown. The decks you are extremely likely to face at your next Modern Open are as follows:

  • Dredge
  • Humans
  • Bant Spirits
  • Burn
  • Mono-Green Tron

It gets a little less certain after that, but significant metagame players are:

  • Golgari Midrange (and/or Jund)
  • Infect
  • Ironworks
  • Azorius Control (and/or Jeskai)
  • Hollow One
  • Affinity/Hardened Scales
  • Death’s Shadow (Grixis and/or Traverse)
  • Mardu Pyromancer
  • Storm

Let’s break it down:

Against Dredge, both Grixis and Four-Color Traverse builds can succeed, but the key lies in accessing Temur Battle Rage to overpower large swaths of Zombies. Stubborn Denial is a key tool for preventing a Conflagrate death, but Temur Battle Rage is the most important maindeck card. Four-Color Death’s Shadow having access to Ghor-Clan Rampager as a pseudo-Temur Battle Rage is a big draw to that version of the deck, though sometimes it ends up being insufficient in the face of a few Creeping Chills (and the associated life gain up to the mid-twenties).

Regardless, any sideboard graveyard hate is useful, with my best recommendation being Nihil Spellbomb over Surgical Extraction. Spellbomb is useful against decks like Mardu Pyromancer, Hollow One, and semi-mirrors, and adds a useful card type to the graveyard for purposes of better Tarmogoyfs and Traverse the Ulvenwalds. Extraction is more useful in concert with the sideboarded Fulminator Mages and Assassin’s Trophy to pin Tron off their mana, and it’s an upgrade against Ironworks, but Spellbomb cycles and performs against midrange decks, which gives it an edge.

Against Humans, while Grixis Death’s Shadow can sideboard into a pseudo-control deck with Snapcaster Mages and piles of removal spells, Four-Color Shadow has a harder time creating enough density of removal to actually pin down the creature strategy. If it doesn’t gain the initiative, it will fall to a swarm of Mantis Riders and Reflector Mages. In fact, along with Eldrazi Tron, Four-Color Death’s Shadow was one of the casualties of the rise of Humans in Modern, as the matchup requires the Death’s Shadow player to jump through a lot of hoops, present threats and answer opposing ones, and often still fade a few draw steps from the Humans side.

Bant Spirits is ostensibly like Humans, though the creature sizing and lack of Reflector Mages means that it’s more likely for Four-Color Death’s Shadow to stick enough threats to gain the initiative. Collected Company means that Bant Spirits is more able to keep the gas flowing through the late game, which bodes poorly for a grindy sideboard plan with lots of removal. Geist of Saint Traft, similarly, looks pretty happy to be stomping through any number of Grim Lavamancers and/or Fatal Pushes. As such, the positioning of Four-Color Death’s Shadow is actually preferable to that of Grixis Death’s Shadow in the matchup. Bant Spirits stealing some of the Noble Hierarch metagame share from Humans bodes well for Four-Color Death’s Shadow, and if that trend reverses, I expect Grixis to regain that share.

Against Burn, on the other hand, the decks are again fairly similar. Collective Brutality is a key component to winning, and proper sequencing rules above all else. I marginally prefer Grixis Death’s Shadow because Gurmag Angler makes Eidolon of the Great Revel look foolish, but the matchup is similarly close with both builds.

Tron is a different beast. Grixis Death’s Shadow packs Ceremonious Rejections and/or Disdainful Strokes to hold off the Wurmcoil Engine and Karn Liberated endgame while Death’s Shadow attacks for the win, but the Four-Color counterpart has a bit of disruption to the manabase of the Tron deck in lieu of extra countermagic. The matchup is similar for both decks, but clearly Peter Hollman decided to hedge hard against Tron with two Surgical Extractions alongside his copies of Fulminator Mage and Assassin’s Trophy. Should you choose the same plan, you’ll have a solid setup against the big mana menace.

Against Golgari and/or Jund Midrange decks, you are certainly better off playing Grixis Death’s Shadow. Gurmag Angler does not die to Fatal Push, Snapcaster Mage is incredible (and can loop with Kolaghan’s Command, should you choose to play a few of those), and with the change from Abrupt Decay to Assassin’s Trophy, you’re better able to protect your Death’s Shadows with Stubborn Denial. This metric changes, of course, should you choose to splash white in your lists with Traverse the Ulvenwald, as then you gain Lingering Souls and Ranger of Eos to push back against opposing Liliana of the Veil strategies.

As for some of the less popular players in Modern, Infect is a near-bye for Grixis Death’s Shadow and Four-Color Death’s Shadow alike. As long as you play cautiously, you should be able to smash the Infect decks. I love playing Death’s Shadow in Infect-heavy fields, and if it picks up more metagame percentage, you should be picking up your favorite 13/13 for one mana.

Ironworks is favorable for both decks as well, though I prefer Four-Color Death’s Shadow for a bit more consistency in finding threats. Without a Gurmag Angler, Grixis Death’s Shadow can get pinned under Grove of the Burnwillows’s persistent ability to keep Death’s Shadow miniaturized. Looking at the winning build from SCG Dallas, it’s a nice bonus that the Surgical Extractions in the sideboard don’t hurt, either!

Azorius Control is a tough nut to crack, no matter how you look at it. I greatly prefer the Snapcaster Mages of Grixis Death’s Shadow, as a high density of countermagic is critical to stopping the ponderous yet powerful topdecks offered by Azorius Control. Cryptic Command; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria are all nigh-unbeatable if they resolve, and there are only so many Thoughtseizes and Stubborn Denials in the winning list from Dallas. No amount of Ranger of Eos or Liliana, the Last Hope can stop an active Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, but four Stubborn Denials, two Disdainful Strokes, and four Snapcaster Mages are a safety net I’d be proud to use. A few Snapcaster Mages do a great job increasing the density of these key interactive pieces for beating big control decks like Azorius, and Grixis makes excellent use of these tools to give it a fighting chance against the Path to Exile decks of the format.

Hollow One is a close matchup for both Four-Color and Grixis Death’s Shadow, but I’d prefer to be playing Tarmogoyfs (which can easily outclass opposing Gurmag Angler) compared to Anglers of my own. Affinity and Hardened Scales are similarly close, though Snapcaster Mage’s added removal density makes me more comfortable playing Grixis. Overall, these linear decks are mostly a push in terms of which type of Death’s Shadow deck I’d rather use to combat them. Storm, similarly, is favorable for both versions of Death’s Shadow, and I’d be confident in the matchup no matter which one I ended up playing. Of course, the slight consistency edge for Four-Color Death’s Shadow in finding its threats is a small mark in its favor when considering the matchup against linear combo decks like Storm, Ad Nauseam, or Scapeshift variants.

As for Mardu Pyromancer, neither version of Death’s Shadow is going to be favored, but judicious application of Liliana, the Last Hope can swing the matchup. I’d prefer to play Gurmag Anglers over Tarmogoyfs, personally, but the keys are in managing risk around Blood Moon, combatting Lingering Souls, and protecting an early threat. If you can manage that, you will win regardless of whether you play Traverse the Ulvenwald or not. The only major difference is that Four-Color Death’s Shadow can destroy a Leyline of the Void with Assassin’s Trophy, while Grixis Death’s Shadow must contend with just trying to win via Death’s Shadow. However, if you expect a lot of Leyline of the Void, you should probably be avoiding these Death’s Shadow decks altogether, so it shouldn’t be a huge factor in deciding which build to play.

Look. If beating Dredge while avoiding the splash damage from increased graveyard hate is your priority, you should probably play Bant Spirits or Humans with a healthy number of Rest in Peace in the sideboard. Other linear combo decks are options as well, but both Ironworks and Storm are somewhat vulnerable to Leyline of the Void, and Ad Nauseam is just not going to cut it against the Noble Hierarch decks.

Four-Color Death’s Shadow straddles the line between unfair linear and fair midrange deck. I’d be thrilled to pick up the following list for future Modern events, tuned a little more towards attacking Humans and Dredge with Izzet Staticaster (!):

However, if your main concern in Modern is beating decks with Assassin’s Trophy and Champion of the Parish, Grixis Death’s Shadow is the choice for you. I stand by my list with Mishra’s Bauble, as it continues to put up numbers online for other players. Snapcaster Mage is one of the most powerful cards in the format and playing it in concert with a Legacy-lite cantrip and creature base is bound to be good enough to win a large percentage of the time.

Of course, you could try my continued dark horse recommendation of Elves. Heritage Druid can pump out creatures faster than Aether Vial and Ezuri, Renegade Leader makes for enough damage to push through Prized Amalgams and Supreme Phantoms alike. Elves continues to be perpetually underrated, and I don’t see that trend changing soon. Pack a few Scavenging Oozes for those pesky Darkblasts out of Dredge, and you’ll be ready to tilt a few opponents with your “little kid deck” on your way to your next Top 8.