Setting The Stage For Death’s Shadow In Historic

Can Death’s Shadow replicate its success in Historic? Sam Black shows how to make the most of the infamous card in a new format.

Death's Shadow, Magic: The Gathering illustration by Howard Lyon

Historic Anthology 4 is coming to Arena this week, bringing Death’s Shadow and I guess technically a few other cards along with it.

Death's Shadow

Without fetchlands and Temur Battle Rage, or many other staples from Death’s Shadow in Modern, the path to figuring out what a Death’s Shadow deck should look like in Historic isn’t entirely clear.  We know Death’s Shadow is a powerful card based on its strength in Modern, but we also know that it took a long time for it to find success and that it requires the right support.  This leaves us with the task of figuring out whether such support exists in Historic, and whether there’s a place for such a deck.


Some cards that are consistently played with Death’s Shadow in Modern are legal in Historic, such as Thoughtseize, shocklands, and, uh, I guess Fatal Push? Look, to be honest, very few cards that people typically play with Death’s Shadow in Modern are legal in Historic.  This is going to require a bit more trial and error and a bit less copy/paste from previous successful decks.

We do know some things about playing with Death’s Shadow though. We know we want to be able to lose life, because our opponents can’t be trusted to attack us when we want them to or to deal damage as quickly as we’d like.  We don’t want to have to spend cards to lower our life total, so we’re looking for convenient incidental life payments.  Lands are a great place to start, and fortunately, there are several options available.

Agadeem's Awakening

Agadeem’s Awakening is basically the perfect starting point.  It offers a hefty life payment, it taps for black mana, and the front side is fantastic with Death’s Shadow (especially when paired with Scourge of the Skyclaves).  The rest of the mythic DFC land cycle also works here, presumably whatever other color you’re playing with black.

In Modern, we use fetchlands to find shocks to lose three life.  Agadeem’s Awakening accomplishes this in Historic, but simply drawing a shockland and losing two life is an adequate alternative, if a little less explosive.  Still, I’m sure any Death’s Shadow deck will make use of shocklands.

Ifnir Deadlands

The uncommon Desert cycle, starring Ifnir Deadlands in this case, is another great way to pay life when you want to.  It’s not quite as fast, but it adds up quickly.

Castle Locthwain

Finally, Castle Locthwain often offers to take huge chunks of your life, which could be just what we’re looking for.

Lands and Thoughtseize are a great start, but if we’re looking to really take off with Death’s Shadow, we might want a little more.

Adanto Vanguard

Adanto Vanguard is the best available card to lose as much life as you want, and it’s truly without comparison.  Everything else costs mana to use, costs five or more mana to cast, or can only be used once.  Adanto Vanguard with Death’s Shadow is simply a different thing from Death’s Shadow without Adanto Vanguard.  That’s not to say that Death’s Shadow has to play Adanto Vanguard, but I imagine decks with and without Adanto Vanguard will play very differently.

The next most exciting life payment option is from the “Wait, that’s legal in Historic?” files, or, in this case, more precisely the “Wait, that’s a card?” files.

Phyrexian Reclamation

This Jumpstart card isn’t legal in Modern, so there’s no real precedent for its competitive usage, but also, read that thing.  Like, what? You can practically cast Raise Dead as much as you want.  Typically, the power of such a thing would be limited by the expense of casting creatures that would be worth returning with this card, but if your huge creatures cost one or two mana, this could do some real work.

Outside of returning Death’s Shadow, Phyrexian Reclamation is notably amazing with Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger and Stitcher’s Supplier, and it’s especially cute with Mire Triton if the life payments start to become too taxing.  I could imagine a Death’s Shadow deck that plays some sacrifice outlets to make sure that your creatures always end up in graveyard to make the most of this. 

One reason this likely hasn’t already found success in Rakdos Arcanist decks is that it increases reliance on the graveyard for a deck that’s already a little too invested in graveyard access, but this does ignore Grafdigger’s Cage, and, more importantly, Death’s Shadow offers a high-impact threat that doesn’t care about the graveyard, making it much easier to beat cards like Leyline of the Void.

Arguel’s Blood Fast offers a similar payment structure to Phyrexian Reclamation, except you draw a random card instead of a creature from your graveyard.  A little less exciting, but easier to use.

The last option for decreasing your life total is to use more cards like Thoughtseize that make you lose life once when you cast them — Final Payment, Dire Tactics, and Feed the Swarm are the most likely options in this space.

Final Payment Dire Tactics Feed the Swarm

Taking advantage of Death’s Shadow isn’t as simple as “lose life, cast creature, profit.”  A lot can go wrong when you have a single creature without keywords that dies to Fatal Push and a low life total.  In Modern, Thoughtseize is backed by Inquisition of Kozilek and Stubborn Denial to protect Death’s Shadow, and on top of a bunch of removal to get Death’s Shadow through potential blockers, Temur Battle Rage is a pivotal card for the archetype.  Can these decks worth without those cards?

We have additional discard options in Duress and Agonizing Remorse, but I’d like better solutions to the problem of opposing blockers.  The cheapest options that stood out to me are Barge In, Crash Through, and Thud.  Being the cheapest, I also think they’re the best, though you could potentially use Fling or Kazuul’s Fury instead of Thud.

Scourge of the Skyclaves

Scourge of the Skyclaves is the elephant in the room here.  Scourge of the Skyclaves wants you to do very similar things to Death’s Shadow, in that both ask you to have a low life total, but Scourge of the Skyclaves makes the additional demand that you also need to get your opponent below twenty, and ideally at or below your life total. 

Theoretically, the Scourge itself should be pretty good at reducing your opponent’s life total, so the real focus, once you’ve gone through all the hoops for Death’s Shadow, is to make sure you can get your opponent low enough to stick Scourge of the Skyclaves.  Without Lightning Bolt in the format, this likely means that you’ll want to play additional creatures of some sort.  Maybe you’re not fully trying to build “Shadow Zoo,” but you also can’t really build Dimir Death’s Shadow with Scourge replacing Gurmag Angler because it’ll be stuck in your hand too often.

I always like to start with the fewest possible number of colors and then expand if that can’t accomplish my goals.  The threats that I’m trying to play and tools to support them theoretically exist in black, so I start there.

Scourge of the Skyclaves, as discussed, demands some one-mana creatures, so I’m using Knight of the Ebon Legion and Dread Wanderer, as I believe they’re the best available, but Dread Wanderer has several comparable analogues, so it could be replaced with any creature that’s more to your taste.

Compared to other historic mono-black aggro decks, the cheap large creatures here allow this deck to cut more expensive large creatures like Rotting Regisaur, which allows this deck to use Lurrus of the Dream-Den as a companion.  Without any of the red cards to help my creatures damage my opponents, I’ve chosen to play an abnormally high amount of removal to help control my life total against opposing attackers and to help clear a path for my creatures.  The pressure to play a lot of removal will lead to some tough matchups where my removal is bad, so I think there’s a lot of potential to exploring additional colors.

This deck has a lot of similarities to Rakdos Arcanist. Stitcher’s Supplier is very good with Phyrexian Reclamation and they’re both also good with Village Rites and Kroxa. With those cards you definitely want Claim // Fame, and with them you should probably have Dreadhorde Arcanist and Claim the Firstborn. Before long the deck has mostly rebuilt itself into a recognizable shell, but making the lands painful allows for an easy addition of Death’s Shadow and Scourge of the Skyclaves, which play well with Claim // Fame and Thud (Thud is pretty well at home here).

As a twist on Rakdos Arcanist, we can assume the deck will be fairly solid. The question is whether this deck is better or worse, and I’m not totally sure yet.  On the one hand, Thud has the potential to steal games pretty easily. On the other hand, you’re not the only one playing Claim the Firstborn and Death’s Shadow’s a very scary card for your opponent to “borrow.”

This is a more traditional aggro deck that is a bit better at lowering its own life and also plays a few cards to sneak hits with big creatures through in the form of Faerie Guidemother and Gods Willing.  The cards look a little weird together but I think it should all work as a bit of a combo/aggro deck that’s pretty light on the combo side.

This deck uses the same black one-mana creatures as the black deck, and Knight of the Ebon Legion is stronger here due to synergy with Adanto Vanguard. I think the resilience of Dread Wanderer outperforms any of the white options. I considered Alseid of Life’s Bounty as an additional way to give creatures protection to make them unblockable, but decided that lifelink would potentially be too awkward. Selfless Savior could be better than Dread Wanderer.

Fundamentally, the interactive spells are strong, the curve is good, and the mana’s good. I’m not sure exactly how clunky the Shadow/Scourge package will be but there’s a lot to be said for getting big creatures in an aggro deck without needing to play more lands or enchant creatures.

After looking into the mana to play a three-color version of such a deck, I have to say I don’t like it.  I imagine there could be some way to make it work, but you have to give up a lot of lands that hurt you to play additional dual lands after you play twelve shocklands, and the end result is a manabase that’s still highly questionable.

Death’s Shadow could absolutely flop in Historic. If your opponent doesn’t damage you, you need to lose eight life before you can cast it — to do that on Turn 2 you need two mythic DFCs and a Thoughtseize or two Thoughtseizes and two shocklands/DFCs.  You’re mostly aspiring to cast it on Turn 3, and while that’s good, it might not be worth the damage you’re doing to yourself when you don’t draw it.  On the other hand, the payoff for Death’s Shadow is a uniquely powerful threat, and I do think I’ve outlined shells that are well-positioned to take advantage of it, with Scourge of the Skyclaves offering critical redundancy.