There’s really nothing I can do to escape it.
New sets come and go and there are shiny new toys to play with. Brand new cards with endless text, unique play patterns and the potential to elevate new or under-appreciated archetypes into the limelight of the Modern metagame. Twitter roars about using Neoform to win the game on turn one, and Daniel Fournier won’t stop talking about Kiln Fiend for some reason. But in the end there’s absolutely only one thing I want — and it’s disgusting.
To put a one mana 12/12 into play.
Death’s Shadow is back baby, and it feels so good.
But we before we get into how and why that is, let’s take a look at where the format’s at.
This past weekend we had our first look at Modern featuring the additions from Throne of Eldraine at the SCG Team Trios Open in Philadelphia. Once Upon a Time and Emry, Lurker of the Loch had a massive impact on the format in what was the first day they were tournament legal. Despite it being a team event — so results can be tough to interpret — we saw a ton of Emry in the Urza Paradoxical Outcome deck and Once Upon a Time made a splash as a four-of in Matthew Dilks tournament winning Amulet deck.
Obviously we’re like five minutes into trying to decipher how Eldraine will truly shake up Modern. And, frankly, the format literally hasn’t stood still since Modern Horizons was printed. But, at least for right now, this looks to me like the kind of format where Death’s Shadow can shine. All of the linear strategies are relying on the stack to go off, graveyard decks are at an all-time low and many of the format’s interactive strategies are struggling to keep up with the raw efficiency of Emry, Urza and friends.
Fourth Place GP Vancouver, Jund Death’s Shadow – Josh Utter-Leyton
To tell you the story of where these self-death strategies are now, I want to talk to you about where they’ve been , and in my mind Shadow decks have always been defined by pillars. Namely, Traverse the Ulvenwald and Snapcaster Mage. After the deck’s massive breakout in the hands of Gerry Thompson, Sam Black, Matt Severa and Josh Utter-Leyton at Grand Prix Vancouver in 2017 there were immediate cries for the banning of Street Wraith. The deck was hyper-efficient and also somehow interactive in a way we had just not been exposed to yet in Modern at the time.
But then came Grixis. The natural evolution. A slightly bigger and redundant version of the deck, strung together with cantrips and the power of Stubborn Denial.
Fourth Place GP Vegas, Grixis Death’s Shadow – Ben Friedman
Now, of course we found out over time that Shadow was beatable. Cries for bans were quickly overthrown by the undeniable power of decks like Dredge and Ironworks combo. Shadow settled back into a role player in the metagame and has since maintained that position. It turns out that Faithless Looting was just more powerful than anything you could do with Shadow. But Looting is gone now.
During that time period it was largely these Dimir-based versions that had been championed by the Shadow community. The play patterns associated with Stubborn Denial lead to absurdly broken draws and decks had so much graveyard hate that the Traverse deck was shaky at best in post-board games. You needed these extremely consistent draws where you’d Stubb their first threatening spell, and then Temur Battle Rage your Shadow to close the game in order to keep up with how powerful the top of the format was. And all of this came at the cost of threat density, which was one of Grixis Shadow’s biggest weaknesses. All those cantrips made for some very “do nothing” games.
But now that’s all changed. Modern has been completely overhauled in a matter of months. And the pillars of Death’s Shadow have been completely re-written:
I simply would not put the card Death’s Shadow on the stack without having one of the three cards above in my deck right now. The Horizon land cycle and Ranger-Captain have completely changed the Death’s Shadow archetype for good, and are absolutely must-haves when we sit down to try to reconstruct the Shadow archetype going forward.
Even during the reign of terror caused by Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis at the Modern Mythic Championship in Barcelona that coincided with the release of Modern Horizons, a pro player that’s been playing Shadow forever — Jacob Wilson — acknowledged this shift in the archetype’s framework:
MC Barcelona, Mardu Death’s Shadow – Jacob Wilson
This Mardu version was one of the first post-Modern Horizons Shadow innovation that cropped up around that MC. Jeremy Bertarioni and the members of Team Lotus Box were some of the first to have success with the deck at a large event, and then Wilson worked to refine the list at the Pro Tour.
That said, despite Hogaak eventually being the bell of the ball, the additions of Ranger-Captain of Eos, Unearth and the Horizon Lands gave shadow the metaphorical shot in the arm the deck needed to compete. Even with a card as busted as Hogaak. And that was enough to peak my interest.
And then after Barcelona, one of Shadow’s other masters, Matt Nass, felt similarly to Wilson, when he returned to Jund Shadow in the wake of the Hogaak and Looting bans:
— Sam Pardee (@Smdster) September 9, 2019
Nass of course built his deck around the traditional Traverse shell, but included Nurturing Peatland in has manabase, Wrenn and Six as a post-board threat and enhanced his suite of Traverse targets with Collector Ouphe and Plague Engineer.
If you’re a fan of Shadow like I am. Nass’ reinforcement was all I needed to absolutely swan dive head first into testing. So here we are now. All caught up. Which leaves just one question:
Why exactly do these simple changes make Shadow so different now?
The new Death’s Shadow
There’s just no way to understate how impactful the addition of the Horizon lands to Death’s Shadow have been. I’ve rambled on for hours in the past about how powerful it is to get more out of your manabase in Modern, and this flips that principle on it’s head.
With the addition of Silent Clearing to your deck, you get near-complete control over your life total in a way you never had before. It makes every land-drop a game-changing decision point, but can mean the difference between a close win and a heartbreaking loss. And what’s best is that these lands are virtually free.
In Shadow decks, these lands are might as well be Scrubland with upside — and that’s an incredible base to start building your deck around.
You just shouldn’t play Shadow without these lands. They’re not just helping you in any one matchup — they help you in every matchup. They power up your Shadows, fight against your inherent tendency to flood out, replace themselves in the late-game, turn on revolt for Fatal Push and can help facilitate Wrenn out of the board.
They do it all. There are few more powerful things in Magic than enhancing your manabase. Every deck needs to use their mana sources to cast their spells, that’s how this game works — but adding additional text to your lands, that’s busted.
I’ll say it one more time for the Grixis fans in the back.
Do not play Shadow without Horizon lands.
Eight copies of Death’s Shadow
If you’ve played a lot of Shadow you’ve spent hours of your life trying to solve the threat-density problem. The deck is named after a card, and it turns out when you draw Shadow, the deck works a lot better.
At first, this was a big reason you wanted to play Traverse the Ulvenwald in your deck. You wanted to cast Shadow as much as humanly possible. But as the archetype evolved and tried to get leaner and leaner, the Traverse package was usurped by cantrips and Gurmag Anglers in order to better facilitate Stubborn Denial. And that was something I always kind of hated. But tapping one mana to counter Krark-Clan Ironworks was just too good to pass up.
Shadow wants to be a lean mean attacking machine. This archetype doesn’t want to spin it’s tires and cantrip, and at it’s core the deck has always been at it’s best when you have Shadow in your draw.
Enter Ranger-Captain of Eos.
The answer to all of your threat-density issues.
I’m personally of the opinion that this is the best card printed for the Shadow archetype since it’s breakout in Vancouver. It allows you to ensure you have a copy of Death’s Shadow in every single one of your draws while asking absolutely nothing from you in deckbuilding. The feeling of simply tapping three mana on turn three and adding a threat to the board while also finding the best card in your deck is just unmatched. This card is the real deal and should be priority number one when it comes to putting together Shadow going forward.
For a long time I’ve envisioned a way of building a Shadow deck that was slightly bigger. You always had this issue against decks like Azorius Control or Jund where you’d simply run out of threats. If they drew too many Path to Exiles they could quite literally kill every creature your deck had access to. But, since starting to work with Ranger-Captain I think you might finally be able to muster enough must-answer permanents to make a slightly bigger version of the deck possible.
Ranger also happens to have an activated ability which can create inevitability in combo matchups as well as power-up Unearth. The first point there is key because the card’s restrictive mana cost makes it really difficult to play alongside Stubborn Denial or Temur Battle Rage
So there you have it. The two new pillars of Shadow — now let’s build some decks.
Building the new Death’s Shadow
Like I just said, the first place I started in testing was with Ranger-Captain. I started with a number of the stock(ish) Mardu decks that were floating around and was immediately excited by the new cards.
With that said, I’m of the opinion after testing that Mardu is the version of Shadow you want to play in the least interactive metagames. Tidehollow Sculler is a necessary evil to fill out the deck’s threat requirements, but really doesn’t cut it when you measure it up to the average power level of creatures in Modern.
I think Mardu had success over the summer because Hogaak had this quickening effect on the format where you just wanted to interact as quickly as possible and then combo kill with TBR.
Now, with the rise of Jund and other interactive decks alongside Urza — I wanted to play with only the best threats I could find. But that meant one huge exclusion:
Abzan Death’s Shadow – Keith Capstick
This is the version of Shadow I’ve actually had the most success with since Modern Horizons dropped. That said, there are zero copies of Temur Battle Rage in the entire 75. The sacred cow of Shadow is nowhere to be found.
I tried my absolutely hardest to allow the manabase to support a minuscule splash just for TBR, but it was simply too awkward. Too often you’d need to fetch your red source with your fourth land of the game, and that was simply too inconsistent for me.
Now, I acknowledge it’s possible that TBR is simply TOO good in Shadow not to play, and it’s true that a lot of your fringe matchups get much worse without a way to go over the top. But, this deck presents consistent, powerful threats that can be tough to answer, can go toe to toe with other midrange decks and also packs an interactive punch with the combination of discard and Ranger.
Unlike any other Shadow deck — this deck asks virtually nothing from you. You don’t need an engine with Bauble to turn on Traverse, or to fill you graveyard for Gurmag or a creature in play to turn on Stubb — you simply cast your good spells until they die. And that’s something I’ve prayed for out of Shadow since I started playing the archetype in 2017.
This might not check off all the boxes, but it’s what I’ve been winning with and is my pick for the best Ranger-Captain of Eos deck in the format.
After experimenting with this, I turned my attention to Matt Nass’ deck and started to work on Traverse Shadow:
Traverse Death’s Shadow – Keith Capstick
First I’ll address the elephant in the list — yes that’s Once Upon a Time. When I first started theorizing about how this card might fit into Modern — Traverse Shadow seemed like an obvious fit. The deck already wanted to use Manamorphose to add instants to the graveyard for Traverse and the extra free spell meant that you could sometimes cast Traverse on turn one. I certainly admit that while being WAY better on turn one than Morphose it’s also much worse on turn two or three, but so far that’s been worth it for me.
To facilitate this new addition, I tried to up the creature count slightly by adding a couple Traverse targets to the maindeck in the form of Murderous Rider and Ghor-Clan Rampager. I’ve always loved how modal Rampager makes Traverse in the mid game, so these small alterations giving you access to more creature hits on OUaT seemed worth the cost to me.
Obviously this is a much more traditional version of Shadow compared to the Abzan list I showed above. This deck is going to shine against linear spell-based combo decks — much like the new Paradoxical Outcome deck — and is weaker in fair mirrors and decks that play to the board more.
That said, there’s another addition that’s helped improve those matchups. Much like Ranger-Captain, Wrenn and Six adds an angle of attack Shadow has never before had access to in post-board games. Shadow has longed for a planeswalker secondary threat forever, but it’s always been so taxing to cast three and four mana threats in a deck with such a low land count. Now, with Wrenn not only do you get a cheap threat, but you can also look to other sideboard options like Tireless Tracker or an expensive threat like Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet without wincing at your land count.
Of all of the versions of Shadow, it’s these Traverse decks that I think need the most work. It’s still yet to be determined that you definitely want Once Upon a Time (although I’m sold you want some number) and you can can build the deck anywhere from two to four colours with ease.
I think Matt hit the nail on the head in his tweet when he referenced Plague Engineer and Collector Ouphe in his tweet. You finally have a powerful enough tutor package to charge up Traverse to be the versatile card you want it to. In the past, your tutor options were so mediocre, you’d seldom search up something like a Reclamation Sage to thwart an Affinity opponent’s onslaught rather than just getting another Shadow and adding to the board.
Now you’ve finally got some real hammers, and at least in the current metagame, that is game changing for the deck.
Before I leave you I’ll give you one last decklist. This is something I’ve been theorizing about in order to incorporate Stubborn Denial into the current Jund Shadow deck. Stubb’s pretty good right now, and I want to see how far I can push the deck’s transformational post-board plan. The addition of Oko, Thief of Crowns to the format gives you to cheap planeswalkers that can take over the board early in midrange mirrors.
This — like I mentioned earlier — gives you the angle of attack you always wanted for Shadow after board. No longer can they just load up on removal and beat you.
That said, this is incredibly experimental, so here ya go:
Four Colour Shadow – Keith Capstick
I hope you enjoyed this elongated trip down memory lane. One of my absolute favourite things about deckbuilding is that there’s always a history to familiarize yourself with. There’s layers of iterating and “breaking it” that go into what makes these puzzles so fascinating to me, and it’s that which has really stoked the fire in my love for the Shadow archetype.
I’ll be in Indianapolis this weekend playing the Modern SCG Open, hopefully playing some one mana 12/12s, if you’ve got anything to add to my takes above, feel free to hit me up on Twitter. Let’s add to Shadow’s story!i