Death’s Shadow is one hell of a drug.
It’s a menacing aura that never shows its true colours, but you always know it’s there. Ready to seep into your reality, pollute your every thought and leave you dark-eyed and sleepless trying to figure out how to get that last point of damage across. It’s the soft underbelly of Modern decks, the perfect synthesis of interaction and combo. And it’s here to stay.
If you know anything about me, have ever spoken to me, been within fifteen feet of me or glanced in my general direction — you probably know that I love Death’s Shadow decks. There is just no end to the deckbuilding possibilities and the intricate play patterns that such a unique card offers.
Now, as you might imagine, with such an interesting deck there’s a large community of Shadow-addicts behind it. Because if there’s anything Magic players like more than playing Magic — it’s talking about Magic on the internet.
And when it comes to Grixis Death’s Shadow, there’s place to go for the most up to date, decklists, sideboarding advice and guides — Ben Jones.
Updated list and guide pic.twitter.com/BXc1LwNyLw
— Ben Jones (@BMJmtgo) January 23, 2019
Ben (or _BMJ_ as he goes by online) is consistently one of the top trophy hunters in the Modern Magic Online queues and is extremely generous with the information he shares. As with most things in this game, extra information has an incredible amount of value and for the past few months I’ve been using a lot of what Ben has had to say about the deck in order to inform my own opinions.
What I want to talk about today is where I’ve arrived in my own testing after iterating on the ideas that players like Ben have brought to the archetype. Because, at some point you’ve got to participate in the hive mind with some of your own info — know what I’m sayin’?
Trying to define “consistency”
It’s under this heading that I’d like to tackle something I’ve come to fondly know as the “Three Bauble Debate.” Ben Jones’ popular list plays three copies of the card Mishra’s Bauble and by extension, so does the majority of other Grixis players. It’s with this, I’d like to try to define the word “consistency” as it applies to this specific strategy.
Every time I’ve had conversations with players that advocate for this stock three Bauble version they tell me, “playing the third Serum Visions helps with consistency and you don’t need the fourth Bauble.”
It’s here where I take issue. In my opinion, in its current form, this deck’s goal is to assemble threat-plus-interaction as quickly as possible. It works to use its cantrips to more or less shrink its deck in order to find Gurmag Angler and Death’s Shadow which allows the deck to then play on hyper-drive. Mishra’s Bauble digs you one card deeper toward your turn-two threat, helps you contribute to the Delve cost for Gurmag and often allows you to cantrip while interacting with your opponent.
I think that last point is particularly important when discussing “consistency.” To quote my fellow three-Bauble-hater Daryl Ayers: “the card is literally free. It costs zero mana.” The only time you’re interested in swapping out that Bauble for another cantrip is when you have mana to spare later on in the game. And early on, while you’re casting Thoughtseize and Fatal Push the ability to churn through your deck FOR FREE is powerful in a way only free cards can be.
Now, I’m willing to entertain a conversation where we change the deck. We take some of the focus off of delve threats and Stubborn Denial and become more of a Snapcaster Mage deck with zero Baubles. That I could wrap my head around. But, this three Bauble stuff has got to go, and for this same reason — assembling turn-two threats as often as possible — you should also be playing the fourth copy of Thought Scour.
Here’s where I’m at:
Grixis Death’s Shadow – Keith Capstick
A flashback to Shadow of old
During the heyday of Grixis Death’s Shadow Andrew Jessup tweaked the deck’s manabase in order to make room for a full three copies of Watery Grave. In my opinion, this is the most consistent version of Shadow — you just want to play with as many Underground Seas in play as possible. The impact of this deck’s manabase is a consistently under-discussed topic in my opinion, and this change drastically helps our goal of casting as many spells in as short an amount of time as possible.
Luckily, I think that the emphasis on black spells such as Fatal Push is quite good right now given the uptick in Izzet Phoenix. Lightning Bolt is a virtual blank against that deck and the highly interactive nature of the Phoenix deck nicely reduces the amount Noble Hierarch decks you’ll want your own Bolts for.
You’ll also notice that I’ve significantly reduced the number of Snapcaster Mages then you’re used to seeing in these decks. This decision aligns closely with what I was previously saying about what Grixis Shadow’s “goal” is in a normal game of Magic. We’re trying to put our threats into play, and on that axis Snapcaster acts mostly as an additional bonus to go with our cantrips than a real game plan. It’s for this reason that I want to be lower on Snaps and higher on cantrips in game-ones and then have an additional copy in my deck for post-board games where we’re more dense on removal or counterpells in the matchups where they shine.
In the absence of Ironworks
In my opinion, the banning of Krark-Clan Ironworks is devastating for Death’s Shadow. Simply put, you lost your one of your best matchups, and a very popular matchup at that.
Now, I don’t think that this means you should abandon the deck, but it’s merely time to adjust. Izzet Phoenix being the next obvious Modern “boogeyman” does a few things that work in Death Shadow’s favour. First, I think Phoenix is a good matchup. They have almost no answers to any of the threats in your deck and are soft to the combination of Fatal Push and discard in game one. After board you get Surgical for their Phoenix’ and I also like Liliana of the Veil as per Ben Jones’ suggestion because of how good it is in the odd post-Surgical games.
In addition to Phoenix itself being a good matchup, I also think its existence at the top of the metagame works to keep some of Shadow’s bad matchups down. Humans has traditionally been a horrible matchup for Shadow and if the deck with the target on its back has roughly 500 bolts in it that bodes well for us on the Shadow side.
Grand Prix Toronto
I’m going to play something similar to what I posted above at Grand Prix Toronto next weekend. I don’t think Shadow is the perfect choice, but like I said — I’m an addict.
I just can’t give up the rush of putting yourself to four life while they have a Bolt in hand, only to watch their life total hit zero moments later. I’m going to be casting Zombie Fish on turn-two as often as possible, one mana 10/10s and my own personal invitational card, Thoughtseize.
I’ll see you at the venue!