Locking Gold In Vegas With Grixis Death’s Shadow

Ben Friedman’s Modern mastery helped him hit an important milestone! Come for the insights into Grixis Death’s Shadow, stay for the mistakes he made along the way…

…is what this article could be about, if it weren’t for the fact that
Grixis Death’s Shadow isn’t really the best deck. No, sadly, Grixis Death’s
Shadow is one of those decks with no good matchups that somehow still wins
the majority of the time. As my esteemed editor, Cedric Phillips,

tweeted at me before Grand Prix Las Vegas

, my deck of choice is completely unplayable.

I’m inclined to agree. I mean, look at the matchups!

  • Humans? Bad.
  • Hollow One? Bad.
  • Jeskai Control? Bad.
  • U/W Control? Bad.
  • Tron? Bad.
  • Bogles? Bad.
  • Mardu Pyromancer? Bad.
  • Affinity? Bad.
  • Jund? Bad.
  • Ponza? Bad.
  • Burn? Bad.
  • Dredge? Bad.

The only truly good matchups, if there are any, are Lantern (and even that
one only post-sideboard), Storm, Ad Nauseam, and Infect. Even ostensibly
good matchups like Bant Company and Ironworks Combo are nail-biters (as we
saw with my semifinals loss to Matt Nass). That’s not much of the metagame
to be thrilled to be paired against!

But, see, the thing is, even when all the matchups are theoretically
slightly unfavorable, you still sometimes just run everyone over with your broken Legacy deck. Turn 1: Street Wraith, fetchland, crack it,
shockland, Thoughtseize. Turn 2: fetchland, crack it, shockland,
Thoughtseize, Death’s Shadow. Turn 3: fetchland, crack it, shockland,
Dismember, Temur Battle Rage. Attack for 24. Good game.

I made the deck as unfair as possible with a few key changes that I’ve
discussed at length in the past, and that, combined with extreme luck, got
me far in this Grand Prix. It’s not a deck for everyone, but if you want to
put in the work and enjoy the puzzle that you assemble for yourself and
then get to solve each and every game, Grixis Death’s Shadow is for you.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the list, for the impatient crowd:

It’s the same as it ever was, with the only changes being the fourth
Snapcaster Mage over the fourth Stubborn Denial in the maindeck and the
Disdainful Stroke in the sideboard over a Ceremonious Rejection.

I could certainly see putting in a second Rejection for fighting Tron and
Ironworks, but it’s likely not super-necessary. Engineered Explosives
and/or Collective Brutality would be the cut(s), but those cards are
crucial for fighting Hexproof and Burn, and the extra percentage against
Ironworks isn’t likely to make a huge difference. I did go 2-1 against the
deck at the GP itself with the list above, although my two wins involved my
opponents not realizing that they could give me life with Grove of the
Burnwillows. (When Matt Nass learned that he could use Grove proactively to
curb the size of my Death’s Shadows, the matchup dropped about 10% on the

Generally speaking, I believe that this list is close to optimized, and
that Mishra’s Bauble is so far and away superior to the blue cantrips that
it should not even be a discussion point anymore. Increasing your Turn 2
Gurmag Angler percentage is critical. Two fetchlands, two zero-mana cyclers
(Bauble or Wraith), and one or two one-mana disruption or removal spells
will enable that Turn 2 Gurmag Angler.

Faithless Looting, too, offers a key benefit in more Turn 2 Gurmag
possibilities as well as clearing dead removal spells or excess lands
against control decks. You must spend your first two turns casting at least
two disruption spells or threats to be able to beat most good Modern draws.
You get one spare mana out of your first three to spin your wheels, but
more than that is highly correlated with losing. You cannot cast Serum
Visions on Turn 1 and win consistently.

Trust me. You don’t need to go back to the older lists with eighteen lands
and Kolaghan’s Command in the maindeck. You don’t need to play Opt or Serum
Visions. I’ve tried it all. If you must make a change, consider shifting
the mix of removal to incorporate either a third Dismember (which is, as we
all know, completely unfair with Death’s Shadow) or a second Fatal Push (if
you expect Tarmogoyfs and Death’s Shadow mirrors).

Now that we’ve gotten the actual decklist itself mostly covered, it’s only
fair to discuss the experience of the tournament itself. And what a week it


The party started early, with Platinum Pro Christian Calcano dropping by a
full week early to begin his journey to riches through Magic and poker. He
immediately took up residence on the large couch that we inherited from the
recently-moved-away Owen Turtenwald and William Jensen, claiming that it
would bring him their legendary powers. I don’t believe he was incorrect,
as he had his first ever World Series of Poker tournament cash on
Wednesday. He said that 2-7 Triple Draw (a game I barely knew existed) was
“just like drafting,” and if that’s the case, he must have opened quite a
few bomb lowballs to start the week up a few thousand dollars.

By Thursday, though, my house was overwhelmed. In addition to newly minted
thousandaire Calcano, my house held: Seth Manfield, Dylan Donegan, Andrew
Jessup, Shelby and Joe Holt (née Demestrio), Ethan Gaieski, Hunter Cochran,
José Ramos, Marcus Luong, Jonathan Tuck, and “The Greatest Player to Have
Never Played a Pro Tour,” Michael Segal. It’s been a little overwhelming,
to say the least. Beds were shared, floors were slept on, every spare scrap
of fabric was used as a sheet, and showers were shared (well, not really).
Between the twelve of them, our oversized house felt like a cozy little
home with a rollicking family reunion for a few unforgettable days.

Between the Indian buffets, the constant hubbub of people coming and going
at all hours, and the incessant hum of Magic Online, the days slipped by
without me finding a particularly appealing deck for the GP. I’ll level
with you: I just phoned it in with the deck I knew best, which is never a
bad strategy in Modern. I knew that, because the power differential in
Modern is super-flat, any deck can win a given match, so the combination of
rogue factor (because the average player has forgotten how to play against
Death’s Shadow in the past three months) and metagame position (because the
metagame is shifting back to linear combo decks and control decks) was
enough to convince me that it was probably fine to just saddle up the old
Shadows again.

The tournament itself was like a match against Mardu Pyromancer. It was
slow, grindy, and left me wishing it was over practically constantly. The
software broke a couple of times, I made a handful of game-losing blunders,
and somehow I still won (most of my matches) in the end.


For a sampling of some of the egregious errors I made over the course of
the tournament, here are a few that I can remember:

1. I have a Liliana, the Last Hope on one loyalty. I tick it up. I then
cast Snapcaster Mage, flashing back Thoughtseize, and my Jeskai Control
opponent (Silver Pro Scott Lipp) casts Snapcaster Mage in response. He
flashes back Path to Exile on my Snapcaster, reveals a hand of lands, and
then untaps and attacks my Liliana to death.

Why didn’t I just wait on my Liliana activation? I knew he had one mystery
card in hand. It boggles the mind. Luckily, I still won because my opponent
drew ten lands in a row. Sorry, Scott. I suck. My deck delivered the goods.
I didn’t deserve the win.

2. My Jeskai opponent is at five life. I have a Kolaghan’s Command in my
hand. I have a Snapcaster Mage and a Lightning Bolt in my graveyard. My
opponent taps out to activate Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin. I use Kolaghan’s
Command to make him discard and bring back my Snapcaster Mage. I then
realize that I could have pointed two damage upstairs and flashed back
Lightning Bolt for the win. I suck. I still won because I topdecked a
Death’s Shadow and my opponent whiffed, but I suck.

Ugh, this is getting painful. Let’s keep going.

3. I have five cards in my graveyard. My opponent has Horizon Canopy,
Forest, Forest, and Selfless Spirit on the battlefield. I have a Grim
Lavamancer, Blood Crypt, and Watery Grave on the battlefield, and this

I forget that my opponent’s only card is Reflector Mage (that I saw the previous turn with Collective Brutality) and tap
out and cast Gurmag Angler. I still win when my opponent draws another

I am ashamed of myself. Why didn’t I just play the patient game? I had tons
of powerful cards in my hand, just waiting for a third land! It’s

4. I know Thiago Saporito has two Lingering Souls, Surgical Extraction, and
Bedlam Reveler in hand. I have Faithless Looting, Inquisition of Kozilek,
and a handful of Snapcaster Mages and Kolaghan’s Commands. I have a Gurmag
Angler stomping Thiago’s face. He’s manascrewed.

Instead of casting the Looting, I cast Inquisition and get my Stubborn
Denials Surgical Extractions, and then see a hand of Lingering Souls (one
of which I must take) that allows Thiago to flash it back and make a real
game out of what should have been a complete rout. What is wrong with me?!

5. I attacked myself dead on the battlefield if my opponent blocked
normally (chumping each of my two Death’s Shadows with a Spirit Token,
which was enough to stop me from winning with the Temur Battle Rage he knew
about). Instead, he made an even bigger blunder with a ridiculous block
that threw away six creatures and then lost under the subsequent pressure
of the two big Avatars.

Andrew Jessup came up to me after and said he’d have lost that game because
he would have never attacked himself dead on the battlefield, but in this
case my stupidity was a blessing. Wow.

6. Against Matt Severa on Jeskai Control, I took two unnecessary damage
from a shockland that allowed him to get me into burn range when I should
have had complete control of the game. I knew he was going to Electrolyze
me during the end step, but I took the two damage anyway and turned a rout
into a nail-biter (that I, once again, lucked out of and won).

Can we stop now? No? One more? Okay.

7. This one is a little more subtle. I delved away the wrong cards and left
myself with a Thought Scour instead of an Inquisition of Kozilek against
Hollow One, which resulted in me taking several unnecessary points of
damage the next turn to cast my spells, being unable to take my opponent’s
good cards, and losing a game that could have been mine.

Okay, that’s enough. I can only self-flagellate so much before I go numb.


Here’s the quick three-point takeaway from the Grand Prix weekend:

1. Ancient Stirrings is too strong for Modern.
Lantern, Tron, Ironworks, Amulet, and various Eldrazi shells use it to
improve their consistency at a level which is incommensurate with the rest
of the format. It could stay because the format is dynamic and diverse
right now, but the decks that it enables aren’t really fun or interactive,
so it wouldn’t be terrible for Wizards of the Coast to bite the bullet and
ban it. If it stays to placate Tron players, that’s fine, but I think there
are more people who hate Ancient Stirrings and the decks it enables than
love it.

2. Matt Nass is too strong for Modern.
I love me some M.C. Nassty, and a hearty congratulations to him for showing
that mastery of a niche archetype continues to pay dividends in Modern. If
they ban Ancient Stirrings, expect him to break Hardened Scales Affinity,
Kiki Chord, or Elves next.

3. Grixis Death’s Shadow isn’t dead.
It did come close, but as we all know, that only makes the Shadow bigger
and stronger. The matchups don’t look great on paper, but it can still beat
anything. All it took was the addition of a few broken cards like Mishra’s
Bauble and Faithless Looting.


And, as it turns out, my pro career isn’t quite dead either. That
fourth-place finish locked me for Gold (at least for the first quarter of
next year), so I’ll be battling at the next few PTs for sure. And with a
team like Ondrej Strasky and Oliver Tiu to carry me through the team-format
Pro Tour 25th Anniversary, there’s no telling where it can go from here!