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Spooky Scary Death's Shadow

As if Death's Shadow needed anything to make it more scary in anticipation of Halloween, the latest incarnation of the Grixis Modern menace is a true doozy. Now, there aren’t a ton of huge sidestepping game plans, nor are there any preposterous new sideboard strategies, but two new builds of the now-iconic deck are poised to put opponents to the test like never before. Just in time for the scariest day of the year, this version of Grixis is going to punish weak-willed opponents and put the fear of the unknown in their hearts.

Without further ado, it’s Battle Rage Grixis:

Temur Battle Rage
Now this is a Death's Shadow deck! No fear, just mounds of ways to lose life and a ton of ways to protect these egregiously undercosted threats. After talking to Andrew Jessup about his Top 4 finish with the deck in a recent SCG Open, we came to the conclusion that this format was ripe for a Death's Shadow deck with no 3-mana spells in the main deck, where the only goal was to get a massive Avatar out there and protect it with copious Stubborn Denials, quickly ending the game with a Temur Battle Rage. Crazily enough, the deck can win as early as the third turn with multiple forms of protection. For a fair deck with a tremendous grindy gameplan to also be able to threaten lethal swings on turn three is an unprecedented boon.

Consider the following curve: turn one, crack a fetchland for a Watery Grave, cycle a Street Wraith, then Thoughtseize the opponent. You drop to 13 life, and take their Path to Exile. They drop a Noble Hierarch or some equally innocuous creature. Now, it’s time to crack another fetchland, Dismember the Noble Hierarch, and deploy a Death's Shadow. You’re at six life, with a 7/7 Death's Shadow waiting to threaten lethal damage. The opponent plays a turn-two Matter Reshaper, usually a pretty great start. Unfortunately for them, you play a fetchland and attack with the 7/7 Shadow. They decline to chump-block, so you fetch up a shockland and Temur Battle Rage for lethal. Cool, great game!

This is irregular, but 100% possible with Battle Rage Shadow. In contemporary Modern, it is imperative that you turn the corner quickly with cheap, oversized threats in order to make up for the negative tempo incurred by cards like Serum Visions and Thoughtseize. (These are powerful ways to gain card quality, but in exchange they involve spending mana without impacting the board.)

In order to speed up to match the unfairness of the format, it pays to be as lean and aggressive as possible. There are combo decks out there that only need a single turn of reprieve in order to wrest the game out of your control, such as Storm, Valakut, and Ad Nauseam. Cutting a turn off the clock with a Berserk effect is a big deal there, and essentially makes you close to pre-boarded for those unfair matchups. That’s a benefit, though not a massive one, since even normal Death's Shadow decks have reasonable-to-strong matchups against most combo decks in the format.

If it were just about beating up on non-interactive decks even harder, that would be one thing. But going all-in with Battle Rage Shadow is not just a benefit in those matchups. It helps out in the “fair” matchups of Abzan and Jund, but the reasons are not entirely intuitive.

Kolaghan's Command
Of course, strategically, grindy spells like Kolaghan's Command combined with Snapcaster Mage offer Grixis Shadow a fantastic gameplan against Jund and Abzan midrange strategies, but part of the problem is that these midrange strategies often pack hard-to-answer top-end threats like Huntmaster of the Fells, Lingering Souls, and Liliana of the Veil, not to mention reach in the form of Lightning Bolt and Siege Rhino in case Shadow’s life total falls too low. A grindy gameplan will sometimes work against Jund and Abzan, but just as often, a swarm of Lingering Souls tokens backed up by a Path to Exile or Abrupt Decay will make Kolaghan's Command look positively irrelevant. The solution is to put the fear in your opponent’s heart, to leverage their terror of dying to a random Temur Battle Rage and utilize that to gain the elusive advantage known as “false tempo”. When the opponent declines to attack for a few turns for fear of putting themselves dead to a fetchland-Temur Battle Rage sequence, or when they chump block a 7/7 Death's Shadow because of the presence of a fetchland, thus giving you an entire additional turn to topdeck a winning card, or when they play removal into your Stubborn Denials rather than play threats, they are ceding tempo out of fear of what could happen, rather than what is actually in play. The principle has led to decks like Infect and Splinter Twin dominating Modern before their respective bannings, and it is high time Death's Shadow employed some of the same psychological edge.

As a real life example, playing against Andrew Elenbogen on Affinity this past weekend, I forced him to make a choice between losing outright to Kolaghan's Command or losing outright to Temur Battle Rage. He elected to chump-block my giant Death's Shadow with an Arcbound Ravager, leaving him with only two threats left to close out the game. Smart move by Andrew, as the Command was on top of my library and the Temur Battle Rage was in my hand, but a lesser opponent might have misstepped and lost a game wholly within his control. This, after I made an attack that would have put me dead on board if Andrew had elected to take the damage, but due to his cautious block, I was able to hold on for another turn with a Snapcaster Mage-Fatal Push sequence. Truly remarkable gamesmanship in a game I thought I was 100% to lose, given his powerful opening of turn-two Master of Etherium!

Stubborn Denial
Consider also the matchups with Dredge and Burn, two traditionally-difficult matchups for Grixis Shadow. As someone who’s played a ton of Dredge, I know well the feeling of helplessness in the face of a Temur Battle Rage, the knowledge that there’s no way to play around it, despite executing the Dredge gameplan flawlessly. The inclusion of four maindeck Stubborn Denials and Temur Battle Rage obviates the need for graveyard hate, as Dredge is eminently winnable on the backs of sweepers, countermagic, and pseudo-Berserks. Burn, even more so, is a matchup where a well-timed Stubborn Denial to counter the final burn spell can lead to a follow-up Temur Battle Rage to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. Counterintuitively, the Battle Rage version of Death's Shadow is actually better-positioned to win this bad matchup than the traditional Grixis list!

Additionally, with the whole grindy collection of cards in the sideboard, this version of Death's Shadow is well-equipped to turn into as value-oriented a deck as traditional Grixis after it shows the capability of killing out of nowhere with Temur Battle Rage, thus leveraging fear of the unknown to gain the tempo necessary to stay ahead, eventually winning with more expensive 3-mana cards like Liliana of the Veil and Kolaghan's Command. This is a minor, but strategically sound upgrade, especially considering that most opponents with a modicum of savvy about the Modern format will expect no Temur Battle Rages in the maindeck, believing the card to be relegated to a two-of in the sideboard strictly for unfair matchups. Just as Temur Twin decks of old sided out their combo in favor of a value-oriented midrange strategy post-sideboard, this version of Death's Shadow turns into a verifiable Grixis Control deck with all the self-contained gameplan-in-a-card sideboard choices.

To reiterate, Temur Battle Rage is a wise addition to the maindeck for a number of reasons, among them metagame considerations, the maindeck surprise factor, overall lowering the curve of the deck, benefitting from the life-loss of Dismember and Street Wraith even more, false tempo, and a smoother sideboard transition plan. Try it, and watch your opponents quake in fear as you drop precipitously down as low as a single life point before mashing their face in with a massive Death's Shadow.

Then again, there is the option to slant Death's Shadow completely in the other direction, and try to completely own the late game with the addition of White cards like Lingering Souls and Path to Exile. Esper Shadow has the edge in the pseudo-mirror due to the presence of these cards, and can employ Stony Silence to stop irksome Affinity, Tron, or even Krark-Clan Ironworks opponents in their tracks. If the mirror does go long, there’s nothing better to sneak through a win than a parade of Spirit tokens, which can easily win the game in a single turn with how much self-inflicted damage these decks incur. Here’s that list, for the more defensively inclined among you:

Lingering Souls
Clearly, this version of Death's Shadow is much more interested in playing a longer game, where Lingering Souls’ synergy with Liliana of the Veil can shine, and Path to Exile allows for a clean, painless, universal answer to annoying threats like Wurmcoil Engine, Chameleon Colossus, and Mirran Crusader. In a metagame infested with these types of targeted threats, it makes sense to employ a deck with the ability to answer them and continue the game undeterred. As Affinity was responsible for my first two losses at the recent SCG Open in Cincinnati, the allure of Stony Silence is undeniable, although the decklist here actually lacks a way to answer a resolved Chalice of the Void on one (with the exception of a single Disenchant). It also lacks sweepers like Engineered Explosives, Izzet Staticaster, and Kozilek's Return, and as such opposing Elves or Merfolk decks could prove significantly more challenging. However, a metagame full of grindy pseudo-mirrors, bgx Midrange, Affinity and Tron decks would be perfect for the Esper list. In Modern, it generally pays not to metagame, and to focus on being as high-powered and proactive as possible, but local environments may differ from the overall picture of the MTGO metagame, and lead down the path of this flavor of Death's Shadow.

Whether you choose to inflict as much pain as possible on yourself in order to blow out the opponent one turn before death, or choose to metagame for a field of those who would try to do the same, Death's Shadow is the ultimate thrill ride for a Modern tournament. Never before, and possibly never again in the game of Magic will the drawbacks of cards like Street Wraith, Watery Grave, Thoughtseize and Dismember be turned into benefits, and it behooves us to enjoy this refreshingly different dimension of strategic complexity that Death's Shadow brings to games. Multiple times during the course of a tournament, I find myself hoping to draw a way to deal myself just two damage in order to execute a combo kill with Temur Battle Rage. The sweats, combined with the joy of plotting out turns well in advance in order to trot the opponent into a trap they do not foresee, make this an incomparable deck for the aspiring Magic strategist. Call me a convert, but dancing the knife’s edge between life and death gives a kind of Magic-related adrenaline rush I thought I’d left back in 2010, when I was just learning to play the game at a high level. And if you get nervous from dropping to within range of a single Lightning Bolt, just remember, “The only thing we have to fear is . . .  fear itself.”

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