Exploring the Rainbow with Death’s Shadow

By Matt Simpson

I think a common failure mode of spikes is failing to experiment. It’s easy to rise a notch or two above the magical masses by playing one of the best one or two decks in any given format, and with a little more work you can gain some percentage points by anticipating the metagame and choosing your deck or sideboard slots appropriately. But to get a bigger edge you need build an existing archetype in a new way, or create a new archetype altogether. This is hard enough, but your new idea also has to be good. One of the hardest skills to learn is when to keep experimenting with an idea verssus when to discard it in favor of a more well trodden path. It’s even harder to learn which ideas to experiment with in the first place. So when I say that modern players are missing the best opportunity to break the format since we collectively discovered Death’s Shadow, I don’t mean it as an insult. Just an observation. If you guessed that this opportunity involves Death’s Shadow too, you’re right. Shadow is the best creature in the format, though it does come with a cost: you need to play Street Wraith, one of the best pieces of interaction in the format in Thoughtseize, and build a manabase with a commitment to pain.

 

These costs are relatively small, so theoretically you could build a Death’s Shadow deck in several ways. So far we’ve only seen four that have really caught on: the original aggro/combo deck that stopped being played when Gitaxian Probe was banned; the Jund lists that MTGO grinder Butakov introduced, Gerry Thompson and Sam Black used to take the format by storm, and that have slowly morphed into the 5 color lists that Magnus Lantto, Clay Spicklemire, and myself have been written about; the Grixis Shadow list that Michael Majors introduced to the world and that has largely remained unchanged outside of a few slots; and finally the Tribal Flames aggro list you see popping up from time to time but otherwise hasn’t caught on as much as the others. There’s no reason to think that these are the only shells where Death’s Shadow is good, or even that those shells have been sufficiently explored. The format only started really exploring midrange and tempo Shadow lists once Probe was banned in January, though Butakov was winning with Jund Shadow before the ban, and then we discovered they were better than the original aggro/combo list all along. That’s less than a year with no modern PTs and only a handful of GPs to incentivize format exploration. I’d be surprised if there weren’t a couple of undiscovered diamonds lurking in the rough.

 

In this article I’m going to do some of that exploration, specifically in the 5 color shadow space. The 5 color shell is a few more cards than the basic Shadow package, but fundamentally it’s only two colors and about 24 cards + 18 or so lands:

 

12 fetches

4-5 shocks

1-2 basics

 

4 Street Wraith

4 Mishra’s Bauble

4 Traverse the Ulvenwald

 

4 Death’s Shadow

4 Tarmogoyf

 

4 Thoughtseize

 

This core is very powerful – it’s 4 copies each of the two best creatures in the format, 4 copies of one of the best pieces of interaction in the format, an 8 pack of the best (only?) free cantrips in the format that also happen to synergize with the best creatures in the format as well as with the last card: 4 copies of Traverse the Ulvenwald, a card that can either find you the best creature in your deck, or a land, whichever is better. Traverse is secretly the key piece that allows the deck to function smoothly while playing more than 3 colors, and of course also functions as redundant copies of whichever is better of Goyf and Shadow in any given situation. The fact that we can play the toolbox game is icing on the cake.

 

There is a lot of power and synergy here, and by no means is there only one way to fill out the rest of the list. Under most circumstances, we’ll be playing the full 8 discard spells, and typically we’ll have around 10 removal spells, including planeswalkers like Liliana of the Veil. At first blush we can play almost any card legal in modern, outside of the eldrazi. But this isn’t quite true. The deck can’t really be 5 colors most of the time because of the constraints the format places on you. There are a lot of Ghost Quarters and Fields of Ruin running around, and aggressive decks are always looking to take advantage of any additional mana related stumbles or pain. So in reality, we’re looking at 4 color shells, though via the SB we can choose which 4 colors to be in any given matchup.

 

Putting a land in the SB is a real cost though, so there’s some merit in exploring purely 4 color lists. For example, this list developed by Gerry Thompson managed to top 8 the Kansas City RPTQ in the hands of Nick Marriott:

 

4 Blodstained Mire
4 Polluted Delta
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Overgrown Tomb
1 Stomping Ground
1 Watery Grave
1 Blood Crypt
1 Swamp

4 Street Wraith
4 Mishra’s Bauble
4 Traverse the Ulvenwald

4 Death’s Shadow
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Hazoret, the Fervent

4 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Thoughtseize
1 Stubborn Denial

4 Fatal Push
2 Terminate
2 Tarfire
3 Liliana of the Veil

Sideboard

2 Collective Brutality
2 Kozilek’s Return
1 Dismember
1 Shadow of Doubt
2 Stubborn Denial
2 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Izzet Staticaster
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Disdainful Stroke

 

The main idea here is to use Hazoret as both your grindy card and traverse target instead of the white cards. This frees up a SB slot since we no longer need a land to support the 5th color, and also attacks the grindy matchups from a different angle that’s pretty tough for them to fight against, at least if they don’t have access to Path to Exile. The 2 Tarfire in the removal slot serve double duty as an inexpensive way to ensure that delirium is turned on and as cheap removal for aggressive matchups. Additionally, in the SB we get to play 2 Grafdigger’s Cage against the graveyard and Collected Company decks since that no longer fights with Souls in the matchups where we want both. Dredge appears to be on the upswing, so this move seems prudent.

 

I like the basic idea here, but losing Lingering Souls is pretty big. That cards win games that no other card can win. The same can be said with Hazoret, though it applies to a different set of games. What if we could play both, but still be only 4 colors? Here’s my reinterpretation of Gerry’s list.

 

4 Blodstained Mire
4 Polluted Delta
4 Verdant Catacombs
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Stomping Ground
1 Watery Grave
1 Blood Crypt
1 Swamp

1 Forest

4 Street Wraith
4 Mishra’s Bauble
4 Traverse the Ulvenwald

4 Death’s Shadow
4 Tarmogoyf
1 Hazoret, the Fervent

4 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Thoughtseize
1 Stubborn Denial
2 Temur Battle Rage

3 Fatal Push
2 Terminate
2 Abrupt Decay
3 Liliana of the Veil

Sideboard

2 Collective Brutality
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Disdainful Stroke
2 Stubborn Denial
2 Pia and Kiran Nalaar
1 Hazoret, the Fervent
1 Kolaghan’s Command
2 Radiant Flames
2 Grafdigger’s Cage

 

There are a couple of important changes here. First, I found space for the 2 MD Temur Battle Rage. I still think it’s a mistake not to play this card. It might not be the best against the top tables right now as the format shifts towards midrange and control decks to fight the Humans menace, but that problem didn’t stop Splinter Twin from top 8ing PTs when Jund was the best deck. Fundamentally, modern is a format filled with random stuff, and most played deck is unlikely to crack 20% of the metagame, and often not even 10%. The ability to end the game quickly against randomness is very valuable. It might seem attractive to put the TBRs in the SB so that you never have to draw them in a grindy matchup, but much of their value comes in game 1s before your opponents can side more removal in. Even stuff like Ad Nauseum and GB Tron will side Fatal Push in, not to mention all of the Collected Company decks which will bring in Path. So for now I think it’s worth it to keep TBR maindeck and occasionally draw them in awkward spots against midrange decks.

 

I also removed the Tarfires for Decays – I haven’t had that much trouble turning on delirium, and the flexibility of Decay is often invaluable, though perhaps I am not respecting Humans enough. Cheap removal and quick delirium are both important in the matchup. The second basic is there in order to be a little more resilient against Ghost Quarter and Field of Ruin. It’s awful to draw and requires you to shock a little more aggressively with your first few lands since there’s one less shock in the deck to fetch out late in the game, but it adds a bit of insurance against the most commonly played forms of mana denial outside of Spreading Seas.

 

Back to wanting Lingering Souls – instead of the spirit maker, we have 2 Pia and Kiran Nalaar in the SB, and a Kolaghan’s Command to rebuy. P&K does a fine Lingering Souls impression, especially since they can be tutored via Traverse giving us effectively 6 copies, but there are some downsides. Costing 4 instead of 3 mana and additionally requiring double red both cause some problems. Getting to 3 mana typically isn’t that hard for this shell, but 4 mana will often have to wait until about turn 6. The double red issue is really the same as Lingering Souls requiring white since a single Ghost Quarter can break keep you from casting either for the rest of the game, but at least if you get taken off white you can still flash back souls if you can get it to the graveyard. This list also removes the Kozilek’s Returns for Radiant Flames as a concession to Humans. P&K makes up some of the percentage points lost against Affinity as a result, since Thopter tokens can block Etched Champion.

 

This looks ok, but 4 mana really is a lot for this deck. What if we just kept the spirits and cut a different color instead? Imagine a world where we want to MD Lingering Souls and don’t want to play TBR at all – maybe we’ll play against Abzan and Jund every other round. Here’s a list we might play in that world:*

 

* we should probably be Valakuting them instead, but humor me.

 

4 Blodstained Mire
4 Marsh Flats
4 Verdant Catacombs
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Temple Garden
1 Godless Shrine
1 Watery Grave
1 Swamp
1 Forest

4 Street Wraith
4 Mishra’s Bauble
4 Traverse the Ulvenwald

4 Death’s Shadow
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Lingering Souls

4 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Thoughtseize
2 Stubborn Denial

4 Path to Exile

1 Fatal Push
2 Abrupt Decay
2 Liliana of the Veil

Sideboard

2 Collective Brutality
1 Ranger of Eos
3 Disdainful Stroke
2 Stubborn Denial
2 Liliana, the Last Hope
1 Lingering Souls
1 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Nihil Spellbomb
1 Disenchant

 

We cut red entirely, and let Path to Exile play a central role in the deck. Stuff like delve creatures are now a bit easier to deal with, though Primeval Titan out of Valakut is much more annoying, and ramping the opponent early will often cause problems. Maindeck Lingering Souls means we can grind with the best of them, and the blue splash still helps dramatically against the big mana decks. Losing red hurts the SB a lot though because the best sweepers and artifact hate are both in red. Not to mention losing TBR. It’s a bit like cutting Splinter Twin in Grixis Twin, though at least here the creature part of the combo is still decent.* I have a lot of reservations about this list, but I have to admit it’s intriguing. Probably in the same way that Esper Shadow is always intriguing, but never quite good enough.

 

* I heard the best creatures in the format are good, but I’m still not sure.

 

Instead of cutting a color completely, we can change which color is MD and achieve a similar effect, and keep those TBRs.

 

4 Blodstained Mire
4 Polluted Delta
4 Verdant Catacombs
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Stomping Ground
1 Godless Shrine
1 Blood Crypt
1 Swamp
1 Forest

4 Street Wraith
4 Mishra’s Bauble
4 Traverse the Ulvenwald

4 Death’s Shadow
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Lingering Souls

4 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Thoughtseize
1 Temur Battle Rage

3 Fatal Push
2 Terminate
2 Abrupt Decay
2 Liliana of the Veil
1 Liliana, the Last Hope

Sideboard

1 Collective Brutality
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Disdainful Stroke
3 Stubborn Denial
1 Lingering Souls
1 Watery Grave
1 Hazoret, the Fervent
1 Kozilek’s Return
1 Radiant Flames
2 Nihil Spellbomb

1 Temur Battle Rage

 

This list takes an idea Louis Kaplan had a bit further. Against Humans with my regionals 75* you typically side the Souls in to buy time and sometimes trade with their things, and against all of the decks that beat humans (midrange and control) Lingering Souls is already a key part of your plan. So he anticipated the RPTQ metagame by moving 2 Stub and the Watery Grave to the SB for 2 Lingering Souls and the Godless Shrine. He was right about the metagame, but unfortunately luck was not on his side.  Here, I make room for another Souls MD and a Liliana, the Last Hope, which can flip Souls with her -2 ability. Hazoret takes on the role of Ranger in the SB even though we’re in white. Ranger is sometimes clunky and slow, while Hazoret is a little quicker to impact the game in most circumstances, though its ceiling isn’t as high. It might just be better to have Hazoret in that slot in general, but it’s more of an experiment in this list. This list still gets to play TBR, though I moved one to the SB to make room for all the Lingering Souls I wanted to try. We get an additional Lingering Souls in the SB too. This list really wants to grind, but preserves the flexibility of the 5 color shell by sticking all of the blue countermagic in the board. If you’re just looking for a deck to take to your next event, this is the closest to something I’d recommend, though I’d probably move the 3rd Souls to the SB in favor of the 2nd TBR.

 

* See the list and tournament report here.

 

The previous two lists are looking for a metagame where you want to grind. This next list does a 180 and pretends degenerate decks are rampant. Crazy assumption for modern, I know.

 

4 Blodstained Mire
4 Polluted Delta
4 Verdant Catacombs
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Stomping Ground
1 Watery Grave
1 Blood Crypt
1 Breeding Pool
1 Swamp

4 Street Wraith
4 Mishra’s Bauble
4 Traverse the Ulvenwald

4 Death’s Shadow
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Grim Flayer

4 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Thoughtseize
3 Temur Battle Rage
3 Stubborn Denial

3 Fatal Push
1 Abrupt Decay
2 Dismember

Sideboard

2 Collective Brutality
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Disdainful Stroke

1 Flashfreeze
1 Stubborn Denial
3 Lingering Souls
1 Godless Shrine
1 Hazoret, the Fervent
2 Kozilek’s Return
1 Liliana of the Veil

 

Here we go hard on enabling ferocious, playing 3 Stub, 3 TBR, and the additional threats in 2 Grim Flayer. Flayer isn’t amazing, but it’s another two drop that enables Stub and beats for a fair amount, and additionally can help get delirium online quickly so that Traverse can find the real beaters. There is a second blue source in order to make sure the blue spells are always online, at the cost of more susceptibility to Ghost Quarter and Field of Ruin. This list gives up a lot of game 1 percentage points against the fair decks though. I wouldn’t take it to the next SCG open, but keep an eye out for a spot where you don’t mind losing to the fair decks.

 

Finally, here’s a list that finds room for Snapcaster Mage. The number one comment I got on my original article was “this deck looks great, but I don’t want to give up Snapcaster Mage.” I responded to each one of them with some variant of “Well, this is a 5 color list. You can just play Snapcaster. It might be great.” Well I tried just swapping Liliana of the Veil for Snapcaster Mage (and adding another blue source to the manabase), and it didn’t work very well. Snapcaster Mage needs something relevant to flash back in the graveyard to be good, and without Thought Scour to fuel the graveyard or other cantrips to play early and flash back, this can sometimes be a problem. On the other hand, Liliana of the Veil plays directly to the board and immediately starts pressuring the opponent’s hand or threats. I think Liliana is probably better at being the grindy MD card that is rarely bad that the deck wants, but in the interest of exploration I brewed up a list that tries to give Snapcaster a bit more fuel.

 

4 Blodstained Mire
4 Polluted Delta
4 Verdant Catacombs
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Watery Grave
1 Blood Crypt
1 Breeding Pool
1 Swamp
1 Forest

4 Street Wraith
4 Mishra’s Bauble
3 Traverse the Ulvenwald
3 Opt

1 Serum Visions

4 Death’s Shadow
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Snapcaster Mage

2 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Thoughtseize
2 Stubborn Denial
1 Temur Battle Rage


3 Fatal Push
2 Terminate
2 Abrupt Decay

Sideboard

2 Collective Brutality
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Disdainful Stroke
1 Stubborn Denial
3 Lingering Souls
1 Godless Shrine
1 Ranger of Eos
1 Kozilek’s Return
1 Temur Battle Rage

1 Radiant Flames

1 Celestial Purge

 

This is really Sultai deck splashing either red or white, depending on the matchup. The blue cantrips give the deck some much needed selection in the longer matchups, and give Snapcaster Mage additional fuel. Thought Scour sounds attractive, but it really isn’t since we don’t want to mill our one red or white source. We don’t get to play as many discard spells, Traverses, or TBRs, but something had to go to make room for the cantrips. The idea is that the cantrips will help us find whichever of those things we need at any given point in time, and Snapcaster can rebuy whatever is good in the matchup, but of course sometimes we’ll just spin our wheels a lot and not do anything. Selection can be a double edged sword. Opt is the cantrip of choice because of the implications for delirium – it’s usually relatively easy to get a sorcery in the graveyard between discard spells and extra Traverses, but against decks without good targets for removal instant can be harder. That said, there’s still one Serum Visions since we did cut two IoK to fit the cantrips in, and just to experiment a bit.

 

The SB has the second TBR for when it’s worth it, and is built assuming that red and white are mutually exclusive colors. Purge is a cute addition that seems pretty sweet given that we have Snapcaster Mage, and there could probably be another one or two interesting one-ofs for Opt to find and Snapcaster to flash back. Traverse for Snapcaster, then Snapcaster to flash back Traverse is a powerful interaction as well, and perhaps there could be another sweet Traverse target in there. Ishkanah is powerful enough, though 5 mana is a lot for this shell. It might not be so bad with the extra cantrips to hit land drops with. I’m not sure what to make of this list, but it looks interesting. The tension between Snapcaster and delirium early in games may cause too many problems to make the idea worth it, or the additional cantrips might make it run as smooth as butter. It’s hard to say without playing some games. Though I’m skeptical that it’ll be worth losing Liliana of the Veil.

 

So 5 lists with zero testing. I don’t pretend that any of these are actually good, but when you’re exploring options you’re going to build a lot of bad decks. I do think 4-5 color Death’s Shadow variants are criminally underexplored given the potential power level, and hopefully this will help get your creative juices flowing. There’s a lot of potential for yet another undiscovered Death’s Shadow shell to take the format by storm. Why aren’t you looking for it?

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7 thoughts on “Exploring the Rainbow with Death’s Shadow

  1. My Magic notebook looks similar to your article here. I’ve been working on the archetype for the past few months, and came to some similar conclusions you have, and I’m testing other cards in an attempt to push the archetype.

    Let me know if you want to exchange notes.

    Like

    1. Instead of sharing just with me, share them with the world! Even if it’s quick and dirty, I find that writing up my notes/ideas for an article helps me think through them much more carefully. Then you get great comments that make you think even more.

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  2. What about a shell utilising Claim // Fame? Maybe it could do work to push extra damage, or be some sort of alternative combo-finish, while at the same time being pseudo-copies of the limited amount of threats the deck employs?

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    1. I don’t really like claim to fame. It’s a very conditional card that you only really want against decks with lots of removal, and against those decks there are far higher impact cards to play. Like Lingering Souls. Or planeswalkers. Maybe there’s a way to build the deck so that it incidentally puts cards/creatures in the graveyard so that claim to fame is better, but that shell probably looks very different.

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  3. I’ve been building it as a sultai red manabase (no white in board, 4 stubs/3 snap/3 scour main) and claim seems a decent 1 of as a planeswalker removal spell there, particularly against LotV. The occasional turn 2 4/5 goyf holding up stub is also not only ridiculous to see, but also pretty backbreaking. Being split into 2 parts also makes it a better 2 for 1 than Kommand in mana light shells.

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  4. I have been running a sleeker version removing all Red with exception of TBR and found that siding in Red OR White was a far better line of play. I haven’t figured out which I like better 2 or 3 Stubs in the Main however, I love 4 total in the 75. I have considered in abandoning the “Fifth Color” and running MB Jund, with the mana to allow me to sideboard in White. I think that the only color you can drop is blue. It improves your Blood Moon by giving you two Basics and you can board in Fulminators. I still think that Tron and Prison decks are still bad matchups (due to Topdecks). Piloting and brewing on this deck has been the most fun I have had in the many years I have been playing MtG.

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