Talking Death’s Shadow In Hogaak’s Modern

Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis walked into Modern and took over the joint. What’s a Death’s Shadow player to do? Ben Friedman has a couple of ideas, and neither is Grixis…

Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis is here: warping the format, demolishing everyone who isn’t playing an obscene amount of graveyard hate, demanding respect.

Modern is not a fun place in the world of Hogaak, and it’s forced every other deck to speed up, adapt, or perish. Despite some adaptation, it’s still crushing. The finals of the most recent Modern Challenge on Magic Online was a Hogaak Bridgevine mirror. It’s not like people aren’t playing hate; it’s just that the new balance of the metagame in Modern demands more of it. We just haven’t ever had a similarly utterly overpowering graveyard-centric deck in Modern. Even Dredge with Golgari Grave-Troll wasn’t good enough to win at the clip of the Hogaak deck. People aren’t adapting quickly enough, and sideboards are going to keep picking up more and more anti-graveyard cards until there’s actually enough there to beat back the tide of Zombies.

I was wrong to suggest that one might be able to skirt by on a mere four pieces of graveyard hate. We’re talking a half-dozen at least, four of which need to be the full-blown game-ending style of hate. Single-shot effects are likely not sufficient. Surgical Extraction is woefully insufficient. No, we’re talking Rest in Peace, we’re talking Leyline of the Void, we’re talking the nuclear option.

May God have mercy on my enemies who use the graveyard, because I won’t.

George S. Patton, after registering Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace in the same deck

Meanwhile, in the same Modern Challenge that brought Hogaak into our world, a certain adaptation of our favorite 13/13 managed to sneak into the Top 8 and keep the faith for all the Death’s Shadow fans around the world. And yes, the list has both Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void, because there’s no way in hell Esper Death’s Shadow is beating Hogaak without a metric ton of graveyard hate.

This deck is wild. Teferi, Time Raveler? Ranger-Captain of Eos? Rest in Peace in our deck with Gurmag Angler, Snapcaster Mage, and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy? Barely any of the cheap cantrip suite we know and love?! Something’s going on here.

In a way, I get it and I appreciate it. We’d like to begin to pare down our own exposure to graveyard hate by increasing our density of Death’s Shadows via Ranger-Captain of Eos and shaving down on Gurmag Anglers. I love the Silent Clearing and associated lands in a Death’s Shadow deck, of course. If possible, I’d like to get as many of those in the deck as I can, as they prevent flooding while offering us a way to get big Death’s Shadows out quickly.

But Teferi, Time Raveler just seems weird here. It’s not protecting anything, it’s another three-mana spell in a deck with more three-mana spells than I’m comfortable with, and it doesn’t seem like it helps in terribly many troublesome matchups. Being able to run the “draw step, discard” effect is an incredible boon, but is it worth three mana? Is it even better than, say, Narset, Parter of Veils? Hard to know for sure.

The choice of some number of Rest in Peace instead of just maxing out on Leyline of the Void in the sideboard also perplexes me. First of all, you’re playing Snapcaster Mage and Gurmag Angler. You would prefer not to neuter those cards. Second of all, Leyline of the Void is a card you absolutely want to draw in your opening hand to slam-dunk on your opponent. You’d hate to be on the draw with a Rest in Peace and be dead to a Turn 2 Hogaak before you have a change to cast the hate card.

You also have Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy to loot away excess copies of Leyline of the Void. It seems like a real no-brainer to just play four. Add in some mix of Nihil Spellbomb; Kaya’s Guile; Ashiok, Dream Render; Ravenous Trap; or anything else you want to add as soft additional graveyard hate and be done with it. Somewhere from six to eight pieces should be sufficient.

Now, as for Lingering Souls

I feel like we’ve done this song and dance before. Isn’t Lingering Souls a little too, well, underpowered for this Modern format? People are playing broken decks, and you’re just making some 1/1 Spirits for a grand total of five mana. It just can’t be the best card for the spot, not when you have Ranger-Captain of Eos and Teferi, Time Raveler as legitimately powerful cards on their own in the same spot on the curve.

Let’s see if we can’t smooth this deck out a bit, retain most of the good stuff while trimming some of the fat and improving matchups all around. Then we’ll talk about a potentially very exciting alternative version of the Death’s Shadow archetype.

Without as many Gurmag Anglers, we’re less concerned with Thought Scour to turbo out our Fishes. We can just play Opt instead, which is a slightly better card selection machine. It’s likely that we’ll prefer the choice inherent in Opt to the two extra cards via Thought Scour.

We’re pretty weak to, say, Hardened Scales with this version of the list, but that was already a bad matchup. Kaya’s Guile smooshes Burn and gives us a bit more juice in the anti-graveyard tank, while our matchup against creature decks like Devoted Druid combo is as smooth as ever. I’d be interested in experimenting with some of the new three-mana planeswalkers, but Liliana, the Last Hope is as good a three-mana ‘walker as ever, and I won’t let her go forgotten while the other ones come waltzing in.

And no, I’ll never play Lingering Souls over a three-mana planeswalker in this archetype. With so many incredible options, it makes little sense not to play Liliana, Teferi, or Narset as game-breaking three-drops. The static abilities on the new ones are awesome, and Liliana just embarrasses so many different decks with her mix of creature removal and creature recursion. 2013 called and it wants its three-drop back. When even Shaheen Soorani has abandoned the Souls, you know it’s time.

Our Mono-Green Tron matchup is a bit shaky, of course, without Stony Silence, and it’s quite possible that we’d be better off with some of those in the list to hedge against it. However, we also need Engineered Explosives to answer Chalice of the Void, and I refuse to play those two together anymore (as they are so dis-synergistic and we would be compelled to sideboard in both against Hardened Scales).

I’m going to take my lumps against Tron right now and hope that the Hogaak crew can clean up that mess. In a highly dynamic and fluid metagame, this would happen quickly, but Modern is a viscous format. It moves slowly. In my experience, Tron and Humans are universally over-represented in tabletop Modern Magic and graveyard decks are generally under-represented, but in this particular Modern format, we may finally see the metagame shift around Hogaak that the power of the deck commands. Give it time. Without a ban, it will happen.

So far in the new Modern format, Esper Death’s Shadow has shown the most promise out of any strain of the archetype. I’ll miss some of the cool things that Grixis offered us, but Esper has some unique and powerful tools at its disposal, and may offer the kind of consistency we need to combat some of the polarizing linear decks that are cluttering up the top tier of the format.

That being said, I’m not convinced that blue is even the best way to go in Modern right now. If you don’t have the density of blue spells to play Force of Negation, it’s possible that you could find a significantly better deck by mixing Death’s Shadow with Mardu Pyromancer for the grinding power of Bedlam Reveler and the disruption of black’s discard and graveyard hate.

It’s similarly not likely to beat Tron anytime soon, but you sure have the power to punish graveyard decks with this!

This is the Death’s Shadow deck that really abuses the new lands from Modern Horizons! The Horizon lands are perfect for taking a few extra chip shots of damage bit by bit, later turning them into real cards when it comes time to stop flooding and start hitting those Bedlam Revelers! In the meantime, they do a great job of putting those Death’s Shadows as close to the maximum as possible, which is important in a deck that wants to be able to pressure the opponent with giant creatures while holding down the fort with flying blockers (or vice versa). I’m not sure if giving up Blood Moon in favor of Leyline of the Void is correct overall, but in this metagame, it seems like an incredible juke that’s likely to work wonders in many situations.

It’s clear by now that Modern is Hogaak’s world, and we’re just living in it. Fortunately, we have the tools to fight the Zombies if we’re willing to sacrifice a lot in order to do what needs to be done. A mountain of graveyard disruption should probably do the trick, and certainly the adoption of the London Mulligan will help us find our hate pieces more reliably, but there is a healthy case for banning some component of the Hogaak deck. Bridge from Below, Hogaak itself, Altar of Dementia, all are reasonable candidates.

Barring that, Death’s Shadow will continue to quietly evolve and adapt until the point at which it has exactly the right read on the metagame. Then it’ll come roaring back to prey on the popular decks, as it always does. The format is becoming more linear, which means it’s ripe for targeted disruption. Forget Death and Taxes. In Modern, the much-repeated Ben Franklin quote would be far more apt if it said…

Nothing is certain but Death and Shadows.