Great news! Death’s Shadow is finally good again!
All it took was banning half of the new decks printed since the deck was last playable!
Why Death’s Shadow and Not Uro?
If you want to play any midrange or fair deck in Modern right now, I think you have to immediately justify why you aren’t just playing a blue one. Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath and Mystic Sanctuary are still messed-up cards, even in a world without Arcum’s Astrolabe.
So, why would we play Death’s Shadow?
Because winning the game is better than locking your opponent out. While recurring Archmage’s Charm and Cryptic Command tends to win the game, it isn’t a sure thing. I’ve broken out of a lot of situations that look like locks because you still get a draw step, can still have attackers, and can pull the same old tricks of casting your spells at the right time to minimize the impact of Cryptic Command.
Death’s Shadow just kills them. The concern isn’t racing resilient combo decks like it used to be, but it’s just as important to be able to take the right role if it looks like your opponent might be doing something you can’t quite answer in a game.
In the past I’ve said that if Death’s Shadow ever becomes a dedicated Temur Battle Rage deck, you are trying to play it into a hostile metagame and shouldn’t do it, but just bear with me for a bit here. Things are different from how they were a year ago when I said this.
What Happened to Grixis
For those who were playing when Death’s Shadow broke out, the idea of Jund Death’s Shadow automatically sounds dated. It was the first version of the deck people played, but then was quickly supplanted by Grixis Death’s Shadow, which remained the default best version for two years.
So why switch now?
The blue cards aren’t that good.
A huge part of this is the London Mulligan. The Modern-legal cantrips just aren’t that good in 2020 Magic. Paying mana to fix your hand instead of just shipping it back for free is stupid. Mishra’s Bauble is still great because it is free draw fixing, but I wouldn’t want to play Serum Visions or Thought Scour in Modern if I didn’t have to.
The other half of this is the previously mentioned Uro decks. The old Grixis Death’s Shadow plan against Azorius Control was to play way fewer lands than they did and way more cantrips, and eventually you would just draw too many spells and win. You can’t do that against Uro, and you really can’t do that when every Flooded Strand fetches Mystic Sanctuary. You actually have to kill your control opponents in the early parts of the game.
You know what is good at beating people up? Tarmogoyf. It still has power and toughness in spades. Even against Uro escaping away opposing graveyards, you should be able to cover enough on your own to keep it cracking in.
That just leaves Snapcaster Mage and Stubborn Denial as reasons to be in blue. Snapcaster Mage again is something pushing you towards a slower controlling role that Death’s Shadow just can’t afford in current Modern, so that’s just Stubborn Denial left.
The classic Death’s Shadow threat base of “four Death’s Shadow, four other monster, maybe filler bodies” just doesn’t cut it these days. It isn’t enough pressure into removal, it isn’t enough pressure when your removal doesn’t line up, and Traverse the Ulvenwald is just too slow at making up the difference.
I’m not attached to Soul-Scar Mage or Monastery Swiftspear. They aren’t deck-changing threats or anything. But they are good enough beats to fill in what you need. Honestly, I want to move a copy or two of Kiln Fiend up to the big leagues based on how well it has performed against basically everything. If there’s a better beatdown in the format to deliver, that’s the next step in improving this archetype.
All of these backup threats are red, and that mana just doesn’t work for Stubborn Denial. The Death’s Shadow half of your deck takes double red early, the prowess half wants double red in case you need to cast Swiftspear and Lightning Bolt in the same turn, and Tarmogoyf also being there asks for green. You already can’t make mana that off two shocklands, and adding Stubborn Denial to the mix makes that a total disaster.
The mana in the stock Four-Color Death’s Shadow deck works fine, but only because you need red for exactly Temur Battle Rage and blue for exactly Stubborn Denial and you don’t lose much if you skip one without having that card in hand right now. As soon as more red cards start being needed, you can forget about it even if you really like the cute way Kiln Fiend always gets four power for Stubborn Denial.
It’s probably a good time to talk about some of the other creatures you can technically play in Jund. Lurrus of the Dream-Den is a great card to just draw and cast, and Traverse the Ulvenwald can give you reliable access to it without loading up on three-drops. But compared to Jund Midrange there’s not a huge cost to playing it as your companion. What’s the right decision?
Turns out this is a really easy choice, because Street Wraith is hot garbage in 2020. No one played Street Wraith for years on the logic that it made it really hard to determine if your opening hand was good or not. As the synergies layered for paying life and filling your graveyard and the number of lands you needed in your opening turns dropped, that became less true, but the London Mulligan brought that problem right back.
Keeping speculative Street Wraith hands is now stupid. Without Gurmag Angler, you aren’t even getting that much out of the card in graveyard. With all the extra threats, you don’t even need to accelerate you life loss because you have other earlier threats.
And in exchange for cutting your worst card, you get to start each game with a Lurrus to companion up. It’s slow to pay all that mana to make a Lurrus, but it’s good enough for the matchups where you want that grindy effect, so no big deal.
Plus, there’s an even better black cantrip in Cling to Dust.
When you are talking about a format where you need to fight against Mystic Sanctuary and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, Cling to Dust is a great card. Even when it isn’t cantrip disruption, just the Think Twice mode of escaping it is good enough. I’m fairly sure I saw Jonathan Sukenik or Rosum trying to cast that card as recently as 2018, so Think Twice with huge upside and a lower upfront cycling cost really isn’t outside the Modern sphere of plausibility.
Just, uh, don’t do what I did and Cling an Uro when you control a small Death’s Shadow. Also don’t get Lurrus into combat needlessly in those scenarios. And don’t try to cantrip a Cling off a creature. I don’t think I’ve tried to do that last one since drafting Theros Beyond Death, but definitely don’t do it in Modern.
I know I’m playing Nurturing Peatland poorly. I think there’s a real chance you want more than a single copy for life total management, but I’m always fetch-shocking earlier and not putting enough effort into planning out whether an extra Peatland tap gets a Death’s Shadow to a relevant size a turn earlier.
I’m currently operating as if I would rather draw a fetchland for those purposes, but I just want to state in advance that if the four copies of the card in Four-Color Death’s Shadow end up being proven right over the next few months by people who play more and start making the right life payment decisions, I wouldn’t be shocked.
I’ve been fairly happy with Toastxp’s baseline, but before we dive into sideboarding, here’s the minor update I would make. Veil of Summer is a really egregious card, and playing a bit more is a good start for basically any deck. The third Collective Brutality is probably the next card I would be interested in cutting since it’s merely okay against Mono-Red Prowess players who know about it, but it’s crushing enough against true Burn decks that having it there isn’t the worst thing.
VS Uro Midrange
You are definitely the aggro, but this is a high-precision matchup. You need to not die to Uro, not die to Mystic Sanctuary recursion, and not die to Cryptic Command doing too much in one shot. The first two are largely about thinking through when to leave up Cling to Dust; the last, just good general spell timing. Note that Dismember is passable at killing Uro since it often has to block the turn they cast it, and if it didn’t, you probably weren’t in a good place to win even if you had Terminate.
My opponents have also been light on Archmage’s Charm and Ice-Fang Coatl. If the stock lists start swinging back in that direction, it might be time to look at non-Death’s Shadow options in the format.
After sideboarding I just assume I’ll beat Uro without it getting escaped, so the removal isn’t in the picture. If they are loaded on Ice-Fang Coatl I don’t mind Seal of Fire as a removal spell that doesn’t cost mana on a key turn, but not triggering Kiln Fiend is a problem. Collective Brutality versus a Temur Battle Rage also depends on their Coatl density, but if they don’t have the Snake, I don’t want an expensive spell that relies on already attacking with a large creature.
VS Thoughtseize Midrange (Jund or Death’s Shadow)
Bloodbraid Elf was a bit of a game-changer in this matchup. Grixis Death’s Shadow used to be favored in a long series of exchanges as long as they managed Liliana of the Veil, and now they are back to getting buried by Jund’s good two-for-one plays. I don’t think the aggressive list of Jund Death’s Shadow is phenomenal here, but it’s got better plans than the traditional lists. Or better plan, singular. “Attack, removal” is good because their creatures matter. Expect everyone to have no resources at some point and hope you are a little bit ahead right then.
You want exactly enough Mutagenic Growth to keep them on their toes with Lightning Bolt or when blocking Tarmogoyf with Tarmogoyf. If your opponent has a notable number of creatures like Lurrus or Tireless Tracker that die to Seal of Fire, you can trim on both Kiln Fiend and Mutagenic Growth to get those back in. The full three Fiends is a bit of overkill; it’s just impossible to beat them if you draw fewer threats than they draw removal spells.
VS Humans and Other Aether Vial Decks
Humans is one of the tougher matchups for Death’s Shadow and specifically what finally dethroned it as the top deck in Modern, but the rest of the Aether Vial subset of the metagame is a lot better for Death’s Shadow. Your goal every game is to kill their critical things, but in such a way that leads to you rapidly becoming the aggressor. You win when they are forced to start sacrificing creatures as chump blocks.
This is the baseline I start at against Humans; it changes a bit from Vial deck to Vial deck. Mutagenic Growth is fine against exactly Humans, which has creatures that scale up and Phantasmal Image you can knock out, but against most other Vial decks you would rather have another Thoughtseize or Collective Brutality since their smaller things don’t hit you as hard. Those other decks also tend to have Path to Exile in larger numbers, making Collective Brutality better than the two-mana “hope it kills a card” you are playing it as against Humans.
VS Mono-Red Prowess
My current belief is that Jund Death’s Shadow is a favorite in these mirrors, and that is one of the larger draws to the deck. These matchups tend to come down to attrition much more than life totals, so having Tarmogoyf and Death’s Shadow that are a giant pain to kill with red spells wins games. You can die to a few Bolts if you get too gutsy, so be conservative with your life total, though that sometimes means Shocking to kill a Monastery Swiftspear because it doesn’t get better if you let it hit you.
You are also allowed to pay 1BB for Dismember, and it comes up most often in this matchup.
This is basically the reversed scenario from Jund Death’s Shadow VS Jund Midrange, where you are the more controlling deck. Since they are fairly capable of playing spells to prowess up their 1/2s, you shouldn’t default to escalating your Collective Brutality.
Burn is very much not the same matchup as Mono-Red Prowess for this deck and deserves its own section this week. Games end in races and not in attrition fights. You need to kill their early creatures and then rapidly switch to ending the game.
VS Big Mana (Mono-Green Tron, Eldrazi Tron, Amulet Titan)
This is the matchup where Kiln Fiend existing makes me the happiest and I want to be clear it’s really, really good here and not just the “good enough” it is elsewhere. I don’t have much else to say as playing proactive things against these decks isn’t rocket science.
Okay, one thing. Chalice of the Void is a huge jerk. I don’t know if there’s a great plan against Eldrazi Tron when they draw it on the play, so hope for the best?
Some mix of these cards goes out against all these decks depending on if you have to kill Sakura-Tribe Scout, Thought-Knot Seer, or neither of the above. At least Cling cycles against Mono-Green Tron.