Death’s Shadow Has a Pest Control Problem
Death’s Shadow took modern by storm. After the banning of Gitaxian Probe, it looked like the card didn’t quite have enough support to be a force in modern anymore. But at GP Vancouver, the pros picked up a deck designed by MTGO grinder GHash77 before Probe was even banned. Josh Utter Leyton, Sam Black, Gerry Thompson, and Matt Severa took the most recent MTGO lists which added a few more innovations like the white SB splash, made some tweaks of their own, destroyed the tournament.
Shortly after that, Michael Majors started streaming with a Grixis build, replacing Tarmogoyf and Traverse the Ulvenwald with delve creatures and Snapcaster Mage. Soon after in GP San Antonio (a team unified format), and GP Kobe, Grixis made appearances in the top of the standings, including the top 8, and off we were. The deck continued to put up results, largely dominated by Grixis with Stubborn Denial. At some point, Magnus Lanto, Clay Spicklemire, and others started splashing blue in the original Traverse / Tarmogoyf lists to gain access to Stubborn Denial, and that shell slowly started making a comeback. This culminated in PT Rivals of Ixalan with Jean-Emmanuel Depraz making the top 8 as the only shadow player using a Traverse build splashing blue for Stubborn Denial, and several other players doing well with both Traverse and Grixis Shadow shells. Many innovations came out of that tournament, including Delay as a catch-all piece of countermagic, Manamorphose as a “free” way to get in an instant in the graveyard for delirium, and Hostage Taker as a Traverse target that answers Ensnaring Bridge through Welding Jar and Academy Ruins.
That’s only a small percentage of the top performing decks though, and shortly after the PT in GP Lyons there were only two shadow lists in the T16, both Traverse lists, and one a repeat performance by Depraz. But people still thought Shadow was going to get something banned out of it. Modern is a slow moving format, and the difference in power level between tier 1 decks and tier 2 is always relatively small. So in any given tournament, random stuff can easily win, given the right matchup and topdeck luck, and it takes time for the format at large to buy into the best deck. But the pro players could see the writing on the wall. Gerry Thompson and Michael Majors described Death’s Shadow as a legacy deck. When Claim to Fame was printed a couple of sets before PT Rivals, LSV even publicly predicted that the card was broken in Death’s Shadow, and would eventually lead to a ban. I had a similar view about an eventual banning, though I managed not to fall into the Fame trap.
Going up the midrange ladder
But none of this came to be. From its high point at PT Rivals, Death’s Shadow slowed dwindled in the metagame, stopped showing up at the top tables, and eventually settled into the fairly permanent tier 2/3 position it’s in now. What happened?
There are two parallel storylines here. The first and easiest one is the obvious one: shortly after PT Rivals, Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor were unbanned in modern. Before this, Traverse Shadow could throw Lingering Souls and Ranger of Eos in its SB and make most of the grindy, fair matchups about 50/50. Jund didn’t have much in the way of card advantage, and had a lot of trouble beating Lingering Souls, and any other fair deck probably wasn’t even good. So just hope to dodge them and get to the top tables. Grixis Shadow didn’t have Souls, but Snapcaster Mage does a lot to help grind, especially when paired with Kolaghan’s Command. But with Bloodbraid Elf, suddenly Jund had a better late game engine than either Shadow build, and Jace eventually brought about a resurgence of card advantage focused UW and UWr control decks. Neither of which are very easy for Shadow to deal with.
There was another important development before the bannings though: Gerry Thompson introduced the world to Mardu Pyromancer in PT Rivals. Mardu is yet another grindy midrange deck that naturally preys on Death’s Shadow, and it does the Lingering Souls plan even better. On top of that, it can steal wins with Blood Moon. Truly a nightmare matchup. In short, the grindy decks got better – good enough that they weren’t embarrassing to play. And this meant more hostile matchups in the metagame. Fatal Push played a minor role in all of this, but Death’s Shadow did very well at PT Rivals despite the card – arguably Traverse Shadow did better than Grixis, despite being more susceptible to the card. So I don’t think it was much of an important factor.
Pest control wanted. No, not that kind.
Grindy decks becoming better is less than half the story though. It’s pretty easy to ignore grindy decks and still do well in modern tournaments, because so much needs to go right for them in order to make it to the top tables: having the right sort of interaction in their deck, drawing the right half of their deck at the right time, and not getting paired against Tron. So Death’s Shadow could very easily still have a spot in the tier 1 metagame despite this development. But it did not.
To understand why it didn’t, it’s useful to understand Death Shadow’s place in the modern metagame after the unbans. Let’s categorize modern decks into: 1) grindy decks (BGx, UWx, Mardu), 2) “pure” combo decks (Storm, KCI, some Vizier/Druid decks, Ad Naus), 3) Big mana + burn decks (Tron, Amulet, Valakut, Burn), 4) non-tribal aggro decks (Hollow One, Bridgevine, Infect, Hardened Scales, Affinity), and 5) Tribal aggro decks (Humans, Spirits, Elves, Goblins, Merfolk). There are some missing categories, but they’re usually not important in terms of metagame share.
After the unbans, Shadow’s matchup against most decks in the grindy category became essentially hopeless. You can gain a couple percentage points here and there, but no single card helps in all of the matchups, and significant gains require so many SB slots that it’s not worth it – just play a different deck if that’s who you want to beat. There’s differentiation in the category, however. You can meaningfully disrupt Mardu with a bit of timely GY hate, UW is somewhat susceptible to the rip their hand apart and stick a giant shadow plan, and Lingering Souls does help a decent amount against Jund specifically. But this is the category you hope to dodge, more than anything. They’re just naturally very strong against Shadow.
The pure combo decks are the sort of decks that either combo off or do nothing at all. There is no real plan B, typically. Maybe a single card plan B like Sai or Blood Moon, but they’re still easily disrupted by discard spells. Shadow is naturally very strong against these decks. They don’t typically have a way to take advantage of Shadow’s low life total, or at least not a strong one, and discard + massive threat + light permission plan is the perfect foil to these matchups. Many of these decks also depend on the graveyard, and Shadow can exploit that weakness too, via good SB choices.
The 3rd category, big mana + burn, seems sort of weird, but it makes sense from Shadow’s perspective. These are the decks where discard spells are only ok, and you really want to interact with countermagic. So, assuming competent pilots on both sides of the matchup, the Shadow player is naturally unfavored. But with enough countermagic and perhaps some additional deck-specific disruption (Collective Brutality, Fulminator Mage), it can easily be made 50/50 or even slightly favorable. This category is one reason that Delay is attractive: you can’t Disdainful Stroke a Lava Spike, but you’d like your countermagic to work in all the countermagic matchups. And if you’re TBRing, they’re dead before Delay’s downside matters. The upshot is that Shadow can beat these decks if it wants to. It just has to really want to.
Next is the non-tribal aggro decks. Most of these are more aggro-combo decks than pure aggro, but that’s modern. Here, Shadow’s plan A is again pretty strong. The discard spells can sometimes be bad, depending on the matchup and when you draw them, but cheap removal + big threat + TBR to quickly close is a great formula. So, e.g., the Hollow One matchup is very favorable, Affinity is pretty favorable, and Bridgevine and Hardened Scales can be favorable with the right pieces of interaction in the 75, and careful play.
But the problem lies in the last category: tribal aggro. If we could just stop here, Shadow’s place in the metagame would be apparent: don’t play it when the grindy decks are being played, and bring it out with piles of countermagic when Tron et al rise up to push down the midrange menace. That way you minimize your bad matchups, and have even to good matchups against nearly anyone not playing grindy decks. Unfortunately, the majority of the aggro decks people play in modern are in the last category: Tribal Aggro, AKA the pests.
It doesn’t matter how many cockroaches you step on, there’s always 10 more hidden in the walls of your house. The same is true for Humans, nasty little buggers. Humans was one of the other big stories from PT Rivals. It had already put up big results on the SCG circuit and in GPs, but you never know with a new deck until the pros get their hands on it. Well, the pros got their hands on Humans, and they liked it. Two copies T8ed PT Rivals, solidifying the deck as a fixture of the format. And Humans is a problem for Death’s Shadow.
Why is Humans so difficult for everyone’s favorite 12/12? Lots of reasons. First, discard spells are pretty bad against Humans. Death’s Shadow is at its best when discard spells are the strongest. Many non-tribal decks have a major synergy component, so a timely discard spell can e.g. take a discard outlet in Hollow One, or a payoff artifact in Affinity. Humans does have a major synergy aspect, but the deck is literally just creatures and mana, and all of creatures are fine on their own as either a threat or disruption, and sometimes both. So it’s much harder to convert discard into a tempo advantage. Another big reason is Thalia. One of Death’s Shadow’s strengths is its ability to play as many spells as possible in the early turns of the game, and then capitalize on that tempo advantage. Thalia completely erases that as a possibility, and often repeatedly Time Walks the Shadow player. The next big reason is evasion. Mantis Rider is a problem. It has haste. It flies. And it happens to be resistant to Fatal Push, Shadow’s prefered piece of one mana removal. Top it off with Aether Vial to help the Humans player to dump their hand as quickly as possible, and it gets real dicey real fast.
Together, this doesn’t quite equal a bad matchup for Shadow. Merfolk has many of these qualities, but the plan of stick a big threat + TBR for the win can still buy a lot of wins, and judicious choice of SB cards can buy a few more. But the TBR plan has a major problem against humans: Reflector Mage. This cuts off many of the cheesy TBR wins for Shadow, and it’s very difficult to make up those percentage points by another means. You can oversideboard for Humans and make the matchup something like 50/50, but that sacrifices a lot. A whole lot. Good luck having a good matchup against Tron at the same time.
On top of that, Humans naturally preys on many of the same sort of decks as Shadow. You know who else destroys Storm? Humans. Humans is also naturally weak to many of the same sorts of decks as Shadow too: grindy midrange/control decks, and Tron.* The matchup profiles are so similar that it’s hard to imagine a spot for Shadow in the metagame at that point. Humans may not be good against the grindy decks, but it tends to be better than Shadow. If Humans isn’t good, are you sure Shadow is good?
*Yes, I know I just said Shadow can beat Tron if it wants to. But it really has to want to. It takes commitment.
But what if Humans gets pushed completely out of the metagame? What does that look like? It looks like Gerry Thompson making the finals of PT Rivals. It looks like Terminus on your end step into Teferi on your opponent’s turn. It looks like Bloodbraid Elf into Assassin’s Trophy. It looks like Blood Moon into Bedlam Reveler. This is not the pest control we asked for! Fundamentally, it takes Death Shadow’s worst set of matchups to push the pests out of the metagame. And that’s what happened for awhile: grindy midrange and control decks started popping up everywhere, taking advantage of an easy Humans matchup.
So this is what the metagame cycle looks like, absent some outside disruptions or your local variations: Humans on top -> grindy decks rise up to prey on humans -> Tron rises up to prey on grindy decks and also humans -> fast combo decks rise up to prey on tron -> Humans returns. Where, exactly, does Shadow fit in that cycle? You might argue when Tron is on top: you’re expecting the fast decks to rise up, which Shadow naturally preys on, and you can pack enough countermagic to make Karn a good matchup, which is something Humans can’t do. But the Tron matchup is still, at best, 60/40, and there will still be plenty of Humans and grindy decks in the field, and you’re sacrificing a lot to fit all of that countermagic in there. Are you sure you wouldn’t be better off running the degenerate deck that no one happens to be thinking of? Maybe you should just go by 4 copies of Krark-Clan Ironworks and call it a day.
But Modern never sits in a static cycle for long. Outside disruptions happen. Bans. Unbans. New printings. New technology. It all happens eventually. We in the economics business like to call these things exogenous shocks. No, there’s not really a good reason. We just like complicated sounding names. And we saw a shock with Creeping Chill: this made Dredge a real player again, which caught the grindy decks with their pants down (i.e. with the wrong SB cards). Shadow does a great job of preying on Dredge — TBR is that good. So for a brief moment it looked like Shadow had a place in the metagame at SCG Dallas, until everyone else adapted, and Spirits took a shot at the Best Disruptive Aggro Deck mantle at GP Atlanta. And Spirits is just Humans with a different skin. Piles of creatures? Check. Evasion? Check. Aether Vial? Reflector Mage? Check. It plays spells, so Stubborn Denial is worthwhile, but its creatures are also much harder to kill, making it better than Humans against the grindy fair decks. The pests have evolved.
I’m not sure if Spirits is the real deal, or if Humans is just better at that metagame niche, but either way it’s bad for Death’s Shadow. Spirits does seem to be better than Humans against the grindy midrange decks, so maybe they get pushed out of the metagame if they lose one of their naturally great matchups. But Shadow still needs to figure out how a better form of pest control so it can at least be reasonable against Spirits. I don’t know how to do that, or how to make Shadow beat Humans, but that’s the place to look. To make Death’s Shadow great again, you need to find a way to deal with these tribal pests. Whether it’s a new card, or a metagame shift, or new technology.
The other option – getting better against grindy decks – is unreasonable to expect because it’s such a bad matchup, structurally. But tribal aggro decks are still aggro decks. With the right removal, or a shift away from Reflector Mage, or some way to neutralize Reflector mage, it’s possible killing yourself to kill the opponent can become fashionable again. It’s a tough needle to thread, but maybe it can be done. But you probably shouldn’t try. Your time is probably better spent learning KCI, or the next busted deck that no one expects. At least if your only goal is winning tournaments. Keep an eye out for something that changes the fundamentals, of course, but for now I don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze.