Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf is the best deck in Modern—but how do you build it?

Grand Prix Vancouver has come and gone, and a 1-mana 13/13 in the form of Death’s Shadow has reared its head and become the latest midrange threat added to the BGx archetype. Everything we once knew about building midrange decks in Modern has now changed, and all of our deckbuilding iterations will have to adapt accordingly—because now we have eight Tarmogoyfs.

Before I dive into the Death’s Shadow versus traditional midrange comparison, let’s start with what’s new. These decks have picked up some huge additions in recent sets with Fatal Push, Collective Brutality, Blooming Marsh and Concealed Courtyard. These cards have slotted into Death’s Shadow or traditional BGx over the past few months and worked to increase the overall efficiency of your deck as well as your ability to manage your life total—while still getting your spells out of your hand early.

Efficiency is the key to Death’s Shadow’s big splash in Modern. Before Death’s Shadow, I’d always find myself trying to lower the curve of my Jund and Abzan decks by cutting four-drops and topping-out at Liliana of the Veil. However, those decks just didn’t have the ability to finish the game quickly enough to justify the change. You would run out of gas, and need to go over the top of other fair decks with something like Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet or powerful sideboard cards like Damnation or Night of Souls’ Betrayal. Now that we have Tarmogoyfs 5-8 in the form of Death’s Shadow and the ability to virtually play 52 cards in an 18 land deck with Mishra’s Bauble and Street Wraith, you can end games fast enough—and rely on the redundancy of your top decks enough—to fill your deck with one and two mana spells. Fatal Push plays a huge role in this, as a one-mana answer to Tarmogoyf that isn’t Path to Exile needs to exist for Death’s Shadow’s to operate at full capacity.

Even in some of these decks’ most difficult matchups, these additions allow them to get so many cards out of their hand so quickly that you’re often able to keep up. The addition of fastlands to Abzan and Jund decks allow you to keep your life total high against Burn and Zoo strategies while also not being restricted by tapped lands. In the past, these decks often had to play a turn off-curve in order to save life but are now able to chain turn-one Inquisition of Kozilek, into turn-two discard spell plus Fatal Push—which traditionally would cost at least six life. Collective Brutality does more of the same, allowing you to cheat on mana against decks like Burn, Infect and Abzan Company to cast 3-4 mana worth of effects on turn two.

With this general BGx jump in overall efficiency, let’s take a look at what it’s done to the lists, and their sideboards as well as the advantages and disadvantages it brings to each archetype and, ultimately, how I would build each deck. I’ll address the specific differences between the decks and what you stand to gain and lose by playing them. I’ll also touch on specific tech and sideboard choices you can make.

Jund Death’s Shadow

This is your level-one Death’s Shadow deck, the one with the most results that broke out at GP Vancouver. Having red in your deck gives you access to, most significantly, Temur Battle Rage, which allows you the most aggressive “free win” draws. Despite the card looking heinous in conjunction with the deck’s midrange plan, it operates as a way to win the game from board states that traditional Jund-style decks would never be able to recover from. With Modern being such a diverse format filled with scattered strategies, the upside of an “oops I win” effect can’t be understated. We all know how good Kolaghan’s Command is in Modern, which is another benefit you get from playing with red. That said, it’s not at its best in this deck because your low land count doesn’t allow you to return Tarmogoyf and replay it all at once very often. The ability to Shatter artifacts like Cranial Plating is huge though, as resolved non-land, non-creature permanents are a big problem for Death’s Shadow decks.

Strengths: Temur Battle Rage gives you a real way to attack through decks that are trying to go wide with Lingering Souls or Kitchen Finks. With Temur Battle Rage, your deck gets better against decks that take the inevitability away from you, like Tron and Primeval Titan decks.

Weaknesses: Other midrange decks are generally favoured against you, particularly game one. Traditional Jund, Abzan, Grixis, U/W Control and Abzan Death’s Shadow all have enough removal, planeswalkers and Lingering Souls to make it tough for this deck to get attacks through. Temur Battle Rage is generally textless against these decks due to their high removal count, and Kolaghan’s Command is good, but nothing compared to Spirit tokens.

Sideboard and Tech Options: The version above sports the traditional white sideboard plan with Ranger of Eos and Lingering Souls to give you more game in midrange mirrors. With this said, if you’re having success in those matchups anyway, or your metagame is more combo-centric, you can simply cut the Godless Shrine for a Watery Grave and play a few Stubborn Denials. This is something Gerry Thompson has recently been advocating for. With the added disruption, cards like Ad Nauseam, Karn Liberated and burn spells from your red opponents become a lot easier to deal with. I’ve also tried Eternal Witness in the maindeck along with a couple copies of Liliana, the Last Hope to allow you to Traverse the Ulvenwald for any card in your graveyard and then start a chain with Eternal Witness and other recursion effects.

Abzan Death’s Shadow

This is the newest iteration of the GB Death’s Shadow archetype that was endorsed by Reid Duke and Mike Sigrist during Grand Prix San Antonio. Above is the the list I’ve been playing with as my go-to Modern deck recently. There’s a strange tension at play when choosing the Abzan version, because the reason to play Death’s Shadow as opposed to the old BGx decks is to improve upon the linear matchups like Tron, Scapeshift and Ad Nauseam. However, this Abzan deck is slightly worse at doing that and bumps up its midrange game a little. Access to Path to Exile and Lingering Souls gives you more game against Tasigur, the Golden Fang decks and in the mirror. To me, this is the happy medium, the middle-ground where you can still attack for twelve on turn three, but grind with the most fair decks in Modern.

Strengths: Great fair game, favoured in the Death’s Shadow mirror and can even be advantaged against traditional Jund decks due to their weakness to Lingering Souls.

Weaknesses: A little slower than Jund Death’s Shadow, with more dead draws in fast matchups. The absence of Temur Battle Rage also makes this version much weaker to go-wide strategies and tokens. The bottom line is that your “free win” potential greatly decreases for much more general power level.

Sideboard and Tech Options: I’ve chosen to go with Stony Silence over something like Kataki, War’s Wage as my artifact hate. One thing I learned quickly with Traverse the Ulvenwald in Modern is that although a toolbox effect is available to you, it’s not always the best option. Traverse operates nicely as additional copies of your best cards, and redundancy where you need it with cards like Fulminator Mage. That said, creature bullets are much weaker than their spell counterparts simply because they have power and toughness pasted to them. In matchups like Affinity, Lantern Control and Tron I’ve found it much more effective to mulligan aggressively than to rely on bullets. The same is true about the Storm matchup with Ethersworn Canonist and Dredge with Yixlid Jailer. It’s also worth noting that I have a full three answers to Lingering Souls in Flaying Tendrils, Maelstrom Pulse and Orzhov Pontiff in my sideboard. Each have other applications, but all work to lessen your inherent weakness to token strategies.

Traditional Jund

Above is Toronto’s very own realist-philosopher and Magic player extraordinaire Omar Beldon’s MTGO PTQ-winning decklist which qualified him for Pro Tour Hour of Devastation. As you can see, it’s been completely overhauled to adapt to the Death’s Shadow metagame. Lightning Bolts are gone entirely and in their place is a full playset of Fatal Pushes in order to avoid staring down large two-drop threats with Bolt in hand. Another unique thing about this deck is Tireless Tracker, which is an obvious result of Fatal Push’s rise in popularity. Three mana threats with three or less toughness have gone up in stock with Push being the go-to kill spell. With Tracker and a full set of Kolaghan’s Commands, Omar is then able to play the full eight discard spells like the Death’s Shadow deck, as our deck now has enough card advantage to recoup the cost of playing so much early interaction that’s dead in the late game. This package also allows the deck to lean on Fulminator Mage out of the sideboard more heavily because of the ability to bring it back. In the past, the card has been fairly anemic in Jund decks, in my experience.

Strengths: This deck has a strong Jund Death’s Shadow matchup and very high overall power level. Adding cards like Raging Ravine and Dark Confidant to your deck significantly increases the number of cards in your deck that can win the game on their own. Kolaghan’s Command provides unique flexibility to the maindeck which allows you to interact with non-creature, non-land permanents more effectively than in the Abzan colours.

Weaknesses: Without the proactive game plan of Death’s Shadow, this deck really struggles against the format’s linear big-mana strategies—as has every Jund deck in history has. Tron and Primeval Titan decks are just always going to be tough matchups if you choose to play this type of deck. Lingering Souls is another problem, one that this particular version used a lot of sideboard cards to address.

Sideboard and Tech Options: The way that the mana in Jund works out you have to make a choice while building your deck whether or not you want access to double-red or double-green sideboard cards. Here Omar chose the red with Thundermaw Hellkite and Anger of the Gods. This colour also offers midrange threats like Pia and Kiran Nalaar or Chandra, Pyromaster. The alternative is to gain access to cards like Kitchen Finks and Obstinate Baloth with green. Finks has always been a card I’ve been fond of in Jund sideboards, but Omar clearly has a plan with the red. This sideboard is dedicated to beating Lingering Souls, with a full four cards that deal with a swath of 1/1s at a rate of one-for-one or better.

Abzan Midrange

Above is a decklist from well-known MTGO grinder CLYDE THE GLIDE DREXLER that won the Modern Magic Online Championship Series (MOCS) event last month. There were several iterations of this decklist in the Top 32 of the event. Admittedly, this isn’t my favourite way to build BGx decks. The maindeck is full of cumbersome threats like Siege Rhino and beaters like Grim Flayer (a card I hate in Modern). With this said, this deck looks to crush other midrange decks, Death’s Shadow in particular, which I assume was the logic behind such a “fair” pre-board list. If your local metagame is filled with control, midrange and aggressive creature decks, play this and it’ll be hard to lose.

Strengths: This is the most midrangey deck out there, you can grind with the best of them. The sheer size of your creatures also gives you a bump against decks like Zoo and Burn when you’re looking to close games.

Weaknesses: Any spell-based combo deck, like Ad Nauseam, is going to be tougher with your maindeck so heavily tuned to beat other fair decks. Refusing to play Dark Confidant and less than the full four copies of Liliana of the Veil also reduces your potential for running away with games on power-level alone.

Sideboard and Tech Options: Almost all of the lists from the MOCS sported the Surgical Extraction plus Fulminator Mage sideboard package to help give you a shot at beating big mana decks by blowing up a key land and removing it from their library. The absence of heavier graveyard hate like Leyline of the Void can prove costly against Dredge and Living End, but a full-on plan like this is something I like out of these midrange sideboards, as the two cards are much better together than they are individually. It’s also worth noting that the way they had this deck built with maindeck Siege Rhino, Noble Hierarch and Blooming Marsh, there’s virtually no sideboard slots for Burn decks. Where once that was one of this deck’s toughest matchups, the manabase has improved so much that your sideboard has a lot more slots to play with.

On Individual BGx Cards

Liliana, the Last Hope: In general, I think this card is overrated in every version of BGx. Liliana of the Veil’s power level is so much higher, and takes over games on its own. This card is a reasonable sideboard card to target Lingering Souls decks and Noble Hierarch but the number of Last Hope + Veil splits out there is unsettling.

Leyline of the Void: This card is at an all-time high in Modern. The ability to function as a hate card in both fair and unfair matchups is so powerful. I’m bringing in Leylines against Living End, Dredge, Death’s Shadow, Grixis and Abzan Company. The cost of having to play at least three is worth it right now.

Orzhov Pontiff: This is the Traverse the Ulvenwald bullet I have been most happy with. -1/-1 effects have always been good in Modern, and as I’ve mentioned, tokens have been a problem for Death’s Shadow. I’ve also found myself bringing it in against Storm for Empty the Warrens and Collected Company decks. Credit to Taimur Rashid (@NephilimGuy on Twitter) for inventing this technology.

Abrupt Decay/Maelstrom Pulse: One thing I disagreed with in Omar’s Jund deck was his lack of Abrupt Decays. These deck’s strengths have always been in their ability to answer a variety of types of permanents. Midrange as a strategy relies on this versatility so much that I think you need more than one catch-all in your Jund deck.

My Choice: Abzan Death’s Shadow

It is my opinion that unless you expect an egregious amount of Death’s Shadow mirrors, you’re supposed to forgo traditional midrange and play Death’s Shadow. Tarmogoyfs number five-through-eight are really just that good, and the ability to play a virtual 52 cards is just so powerful on a macro level. Death’s Shadow is just better midrange. I’ve heard a lot of talk about these two decks being drastically different and existing in different parts of the metagame, but I disagree. I think by choosing to play a traditional BGx deck you’re choosing to play a worse version of the same archetype.

I’m playing the Abzan Death’s Shadow deck right now. It’s got game in all of the midrange mirrors but can still do the “oops I win here’s a 10/10” thing. The ability to play multiple roles, and also play four copies of Liliana of the Veil appeals to me a lot. That being said, I do think the Jund version is a good choice as well.

As for the non-green versions of Death’s Shadow, I think this is taking the Abzan version to an unsuccessful extreme. You’re choosing to take your deck too far away from its original game plan in my opinion. Adding more Tarmogoyfs and then taking them away is just strange to me, but I do think it’s another way to beat the mirror for what it’s worth.

An Alternative: Willy Edel

Here, Brazilian pro player and hall of famer, Willy Edel, brings you a synthesis of the decks above. He combines the power level of Traverse the Ulvenwald with the grind of traditional midrange. He goes as far as to say that this is the second best deck in the format behind Death’s Shadow. So, if you’re looking for a slower game plan but want to play with a sweet tutor package this is also an option at your disposal.