Liliana Sucks And Other Observations

Ari Lax made Day 2 of Grand Prix Oklahoma City, but he wasn’t interested in going the distance. He was disappointed with his build of Grixis Death’s Shadow. What has he learned? What would he do differently for SCG Columbus?

Sometimes things just don’t work out.

Two weekends ago I played Grixis Death’s Shadow at Grand Prix Oklahoma City. I didn’t do well.

The hard part is figuring out why for the next event.

Did I play badly?

Did I build badly?

Should I even have played Death’s Shadow?

For reference, this is the list I registered.

My wins were against Whir Lantern, Ponza, Jeskai Control, Burn, Jund, and W/U Taking Turns. My losses were against Elves, Grixis Death’s Shadow, classic Lantern, two Affinity, and Burn.

Between testing and the twelve rounds I played at the Grand Prix, this is what I learned.

Temur Battle Rage Is Garbage

If your hot take cannon is loaded, you can’t wait to fire it off.

Temur Battle Rage is horrible in Death’s Shadow. If you are playing it, you should build your deck better or play a different archetype.

If you can cast Temur Battle Rage and it would have an impact on the game, it is almost always a bad version of whatever your actually good card would be.

The reason Thoughtseize decks have always been great is that they effectively exchange for your opponent’s best cards, leaving them with trash. In many scenarios, all Temur Battle Rage does is buy you a extra turn of combat damage.

When you have a good answer that lines up with their good card, you get way more than a turn of value on average. You can cripple multi-turn sequences or stop their one relevant card. It also isn’t like there are cards you can’t answer in the format. The closest is something like Wurmcoil Engine and you sure aren’t Battle Raging through that one.

Often, all Temur Battle Rage does is let them flip the script and leave you with garbage. If you don’t have a big creature or they kill it, they can strand you with a bad gameplan. You have to cut a Snapcaster Mage target for it. It just ends up in your hand doing nothing way too often. Basically, adding Battle Rage to your deck sometimes turns you into one of the Infect-style decks that have been driven out of the format.

The only time I actually like Temur Battle Rage is when my opponent is profitably chump blocking and a removal spell wouldn’t help. There are only a few of these scenarios in current Modern: Elves, Lingering Souls, and Etched Champion. If the metagame is so saturated that you have to beat these things Game 1, you probably can get a bigger edge not playing Death’s Shadow. Or you can just sideboard Izzet Staticaster and Kozilek’s Return and win games with those cards.

Temur Battle Rage is okay in the Traverse the Ulvenwald build for two reasons. Tarmogoyf getting to 6/7 changing the math to eighteen damage over three hits makes Temur Battle Rage a more reliable “dead in two,” and not playing Serum Visions and Snapcaster Mage makes your deck pretty bad at just having the right cards all the time.

I also like to call the second one “playing a bad deck,” but you are allowed to make bad decisions if you want.

Lingering Souls Is…Okay?

I elected to steal some technology from the Five-Color Death’s Shadow decks and sideboard a white source and Lingering Souls. This also explains the extra black fetchland. Previously the most problematic cards for Grixis Death’s Shadow were Liliana of the Veil and Lingering Souls, and Lingering Souls is a great answer to both of those cards.

Lingering Souls certainly got the job done against midrange. My Jund and Jeskai opponents just died to it. Lingering Souls also carried a lot of weight against Affinity, allowing you to ignore their backup attackers and clock through an Etched Champion.

I’m just not sure it is enough. Spending four sideboard slots on Lingering Souls is a hard statement that I wanted to beat midrange, but that’s about it. I think I could have gotten more utility out of a mix of slots. I also lost to Young Pyromancer in a mirror match and the card didn’t feel that much worse than Lingering Souls in the same spots, especially if you spend the open space on more Kolaghan’s Commands.

The bigger problem with Lingering Souls is that it shifts your plan towards clunky lines and three-drops and away from fluid threat deployment and Snapcaster Mage. Grixis Death’s Shadow’s upsides are supposed to be flexibility and reliability, not durdling around. Sometimes your cantrips don’t find a third land, and you are supposed to be fine with that. Three Lingering Souls wasn’t non-functional, but it was on the edge of causing issue when Liliana of the Veil, Kozilek’s Return, and Kolaghan’s Command are good in similar matchups.

If I could go back in time, I think I would play two Young Pyromancers, one Kolaghan’s Command, and one Kozliek’s Return in those slots. It wasn’t a bad use of space, but I think you can get more value out of it than I did. Lingering Souls is probably right for some metagames, but not right now.

Liliana of the Veil Sucks

I started testing Grixis Death’s Shadow with a Liliana of the Veil and just sideboarded it out every match. After an event with one in my sideboard, I don’t even think I would leave it hanging out there.

Modern has become way more brutal over the last year and Liliana just hasn’t kept up. A single discard barely matters against the non-interactive decks; they are all fairly Thoughtseize-proof and threaten to win before the second discard. You play countermagic you want to store in hand, and creature decks are more all-in on creatures and less likely to die to one sacrifice. The midrange decks are full of cards good against Liliana of the Veil, like Lingering Souls and Snapcaster Mage with Lightning Bolt.

Liliana of the Veil is still good in mirror matches and still good versus Eldrazi Tron, but those just aren’t the high-priority matchups they were six months ago. You are better off just doing something else with your sideboard.

Hard Counters Are Great

I see way too few Countersqualls these days. Do people not know how good countering a spell is? There are entire decks in Modern that need to resolve noncreature spells to win!

I don’t know how I feel about my exact split of countermagic. I found yet another reason to hate Ceremonious Rejection when playing against the blue card Whir of Invention, and Disdainful Stroke is pretty meh as well. I also don’t like the fourth Stubborn Denial, as you can draw them without a giant threat. Basically, I want a bunch of the effect but I don’t really like any of the options.

I’ll probably just keep playing one of each. You can’t be too wrong that way, right?

Artifact Hate Needs to Kill Stuff

The other thing I hate about Ceremonious Rejection is it is timing-dependent against the card Mox Opal. You can’t just leave mana up against those decks. They do stuff and make you do things.

Two ways to Shatter something wasn’t quite enough. This is another vote for the second Kolaghan’s Command. I really like the Abrade based on the “too many three-drops” principle I talked about with Lingering Souls. The other interesting options are By Force, which is the best way to really mean it, and Rakdos Charm, in case I wanted some small hope against Dredge. Engineered Explosives is a card I always hate because it takes a million mana, so don’t even ask about it.

Modularity Has Caveats

I had a really absurd sideboard sheet for this event. I had plans for 33 of the top 35 decks in the format, with B/R Discard left as “???” and Dredge left as “LOL.”

My numbers all checked out, but the cards weren’t quite what I needed.

There are two different types of matchups in Modern: ones where you try to minimize bad cards and ones where you try to maximize your best cards. Midrange and creature-based decks fall into the first category and I was ready for all of those. The linear decks are the latter, and I was not quite ready for that. I often had the right number of cards but not quite the right tools.

I needed more hard-hitting cards and more abandoned matchups. Who knows, maybe a 5/5 Zombie Fish is just good enough that day.

Would I Do It Again?

If I had to play a Modern event tomorrow, would I play Death’s Shadow? I think my answer is a resounding maybe.

I made a statement early in the Grand Prix that Modern was in a place where someone was going to be really right about their deck late in the event, but I had no idea who that was. Death’s Shadow definitely wasn’t the most likely deck I would be excited to be playing as of Round 13, but it also was the least likely to be a truly horrible choice. This was probably the wrong time to play Death’s Shadow, though with the perfect sideboard it may have been simply okay.

I think things stand in a slightly more profitable position now. Much like I have dropped graveyard hate because Dredge isn’t in a great spot, I think you can trim down your sideboard in other ways to bury the best few decks.

Here’s where I see things going in the short term:

Tron will see some uptick but not a ton. TitanShift will be the real winner, especially as it wins the pseudo-mirror. The obvious next level is playing combo, especially since Humans has been doing pretty bad and really isn’t great against Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or Anger of the Gods. Burn is also a good choice, and weird stuff like Infect might also find a spot.

I want my Death’s Shadow configuration for the next event to be good against combo, which incidentally makes it good against most Big Mana decks. The Temur Battle Rage slot is likely to become another Stubborn Denial, though I may also go back to seventeen lands and twelve cantrips. That plan also helps in midrangey mirrors, as you just become way better at not flooding and beat their random two-for-ones with more pieces of active cardboard.

I don’t think Lantern or Affinity is going anywhere, so more artifact removal is needed. Affinity sounds like a pretty smart next level play that can be good against Valakut and combo, so it really isn’t going anywhere.

In the third level of the metagame stack are the U/R and Jeskai Breach decks. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is a historically successful plan against Big Mana, and combo-control is usually good against Affinity. I oddly expect fewer Blood Moons out of these decks than I did pre-Oklahoma City, but that is partially because the Jeskai list without Moons tore up the Swiss portion of the event. Fortunately, everything I said about Temur Battle Rage applies here and Death’s Shadow is just inherently good at tearing a hole in gameplans where one card is useless without the other.

If I were playing Grixis Death’s Shadow tomorrow, this is where I would start.

Still, playing this is an “if,” not a “resolve the last couple of cards.” I think stopping on Storm or Affinity might just be the best option. A ton of people have said this over the years, but there is value to be gained in being truly proactive in Modern. You don’t have to worry about balancing your sideboard for 30 different matchups.

Death’s Shadow certainly is good at doing that, but it isn’t the best. If I’m not playing it, you can be sure it is because I have decided just killing my opponent is better.