Class dismissed, good talk, see everyone next week!
Well, despite my best intentions, it appears that was only approximately fifteen words (much lower than my usual two or three thousand) and won't suffice for an entire article. All this means is that I'm going to have to back my statement up with facts before dropping the microphone.
I'm a master of photoshop.
Despite flailing and not doing so hot in the Open, I was fortunate enough to do well for myself in the 300 (!!) person Classic and am quite happy with the deck. Last week I mentioned needing to get an enormous number of reps with Death's Shadow to be reasonably proficient when piloting the deck, and after about 100 matches on Magic Online, an Open, and a Classic (playing all of the rounds of each), I think that I can finally say I'm starting to get a real feel for the deck.
There are things that this deck does that I haven't seen since (you guessed it!) Splinter Twin was legal. One-of creatures make sense because of Traverse the Ulvenwald's inclusion, that backdoor combo with Temur Battle Rage sticks out a bit, and the white splash in the sideboard makes a bit of sense. Looking at decklists, there are things that just don't pop out at first glance. Play patterns aren't always apparent, doubly so when it's the opponent's play patterns.
As my number of games with the deck climbed, something just wasn't sitting right with me. I'm by no means someone who belongs in a group of the best-of-the-best in Magic, but I know I'm pretty reasonable at this game. That translates to me oftentimes being able to see what the 'right' play for my opponent would be. People would regularly make blocks in combat that I didn't understand. Many players were keeping back extra creatures that they actually needed and wouldn't reduce my life total to a place where they otherwise should.
At first I wrote it off. "They can't possibly know all of the cards in my hand, so in a case of me having X variables, this is probably correct for them." "Perhaps they're playing
Eventually I realized what was going on: People were playing scared. My opponents were hemorrhaging value in an alarmingly high number of games. Too often players were afraid of letting me (as the Death's Shadow player) fall to single-digit numbers of life without actually putting the nail in the coffin , so-to-speak.
About That Splinter Twin
For anyone who didn't play Modern while Splinter Twin was legal, it was a combo deck that would make an infinite number of Pestermite, Deceiver Exarch, or Bounding Krasis before attacking with the infinite number of hasted creature tokens.
Due to the creatures in the combo all having flash, many decks would be stuck in a cycle of holding up mana, unsure if the opponent had the combo or not. A common line of play involved the Splinter Twin pilot casting a Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite on their opponent's end step (before their own fourth turn) and tapping down a mana source. When the Splinter Twin player untaps on their fourth turn, they play a fourth land and Splinter Twin for game.
Fortunately, Development learned from their mistake. For a few years or so.
This wasn't always good enough, unfortunately. For the player who is trying to consistently keep their bases covered against the combo, they have to leave up a mana every single turn, whether the opponent actually has the combo or not. Because hands are concealed information, it's near-impossible to tell if the opponent was just casting a Deceiver Exarch for the sake of developing the battlefield or if they were getting themselves in a position to combo.
Over the course of an entire game, this means that the Splinter Twin deck would effectively get a free Stone Rain-esque effect for no other reason than the fact that people were afraid of dying to Splinter Twin out of nowhere. Sometimes it was even worse:
If the answer to the combo were to cost two mana, it required the caster to hold up two lands every turn. It effectively pushed a number of mid-to-high mana threats into being almost unplayable. It's hard to justify tapping out for Huntmaster of the Fells when the follow up might be 40,000 Pestermites. Further, it's hard to justify threats when you may have to tack extra mana onto their mana cost against the most popular deck in the format (in order to represent an answer to the Splinter Twin combo).
How did Splinter Twin react to people always being so ready for the combo?
They sideboarded it out.
To further exacerbate the advantage that Splinter Twin decks would gain from players refusing to use all of their mana every turn, Splinter Twin would just sideboard the Splinter Twins out of their deck for tempo- or midrange-oriented threats and press the hole in the opponent's game plan. Who needs a combo kill when you can just use a sub-par fair game to kill them the ol' fashioned way?
As the format evolved to compensate for Splinter Twin, variants of the deck that had a better fair game evolved and took advantage of the mana shortage the decks would find themselves in. Do you respect the combo or do you effectively fight Tarmogoyf and Tasigur, the Golden Fang? It's an unbelievably difficult needle to thread.
About That Death's Shadow
People are playing against Death's Shadow in the same way that they would play against Splinter Twin or Infect. Because these decks feel the need to answer every threat as soon as possible (or run the risk of instantly dying), many decks are effectively working towards winning the game.
Writing in-depth about the details of this deck feels a bit like beating a dead horse, but if you haven't read any of the pieces on the deck, I strongly recommend Gerry Thompson's article from last week , Sam Black's article from last week , and my piece that I linked to earlier in the article.
The part that is relevant in this context is that this is a fair deck that has a backdoor combo (the combo is just Temur Battle Rage + big creature). Many games are won because of what people are afraid of happening, and not knowing what will happen if they are wrong. More than one of my opponents last weekend were under the impression that the deck still played Become Immense and was more reliant on the combo kill than the current iteration of the deck.
It's easy to say "it's unlikely that they have one of the one-to-two Temur Battle Rages" in their deck, but is it as easy to say that and then put your money where your mouth is when calling it wrong means the game ends on the spot?
Part of the issue with playing against Death's Shadow is there is a lot of combat math. Trying to figure out what combination of cards the opponent has that can kill you can be stressful sometimes, particularly when multiple Death's Shadows or Tarmogoyfs get involved. If the Death's Shadow pilot Tarfires themselves, it can grow each Death Shadow and Tarmogoyf by +2/+2. Growing multiple Death's Shadows can get pretty insane when Kolaghan's Command gets involved. Shocking oneself and returning Street Wraith from the graveyard to hand can add eight points of damage to an attack from two Death's Shadows. Then if there is a Ghor-Clan Rampager, it can make it feel pointless to even block in the first place.
The complexity of these lines and the amounts that damage can vary from card combination to card combination makes it feel pointless to try and measure up everything the opponent can have, or to win in combat at all. This leads to a higher-than-average number of players both chump-blocking when it is disadvantageous and people who are unwilling to even try to double-block creatures.
Properly Combating Death's Shadow
Towards the end of Splinter Twin's reign in Modern, the phrase "keep em honest" became more and more common. Eventually people just began accepting their fate and saying "well, I need to be able to develop my battlefield to beat you, so if I'm dead this turn, that's just the way it is." Combating Death's Shadow requires a similar approach. Being reckless isn't reasonable, obviously, but there comes a point where chump-blocking a 4/4 Death's Shadow at 17 life is likely unreasonable.
Because of all the ways that Death's Shadow has to grow its own creatures, it is regularly correct to treat the deck as one would treat Infect during combat. That's to say that interacting with the creatures before they've dealt combat damage (on their controller's turn) is likely wrong. Despite Death's Shadow not having many protection spells, if they have the ability to attack with multiple creatures in a single turn, it is better to go to a lower life total for safety's sake as opposed to dying when tapping out for a removal spell on one of their threats.
If Death's Shadow remains popular in Modern (it should, I believe it is the best deck in the format by a fair margin), the best tools to combat it are removal spells that aren't contingent upon power and toughness. While waiting around for the Top 8 of the Modern Classic, Ryan Overturf and I were talking about the matchup my deck had against his:
It was strange but made sense when he made the comment "The first card out is Lightning Bolt. I don't really care for Lava Spike and it being an instant doesn't make it much better." Burn spells are quite poor against the newest version of Death's Shadow, and removal spells in the same vein as Dismember fall into that camp as well. It's better to look at hard removal spells like Go for the Throat and Path to Exile, or at least cards that care more about converted mana cost than toughness, a la Fatal Push.
Similar to Splinter Twin, Death's Shadow has a backup plan for post-board games and can shift to a more threat-dense and resilient strategy. Be it via Lingering Souls, Ranger of Eos, or other cards, Death's Shadow can remove Ghor-Clan Rampager, Temur Battle Rage, and other aggressive cards to steel itself for an onslaught of removal from opponents. The best way to combat these strategies is likely with one of the three-color midrange strategies that hang out Modern. I played against a Mardu strategy in the Open. Despite my being able to make a game of it, it felt as if the entire match was an uphill battle (before I succumbed to wave of Planeswalkers, removal, and Lingering Souls tokens).
It may be time for Jeskai Nahiri to make a resurgence. Lingering Souls is a beating for the deck, but Snapcaster Mage being coupled with removal and Nahiri's utility against the deck isn't something I'm wont to write off without giving serious consideration.
In short, there isn't an incredibly easy answer on how to combat Death's Shadow. It just feels like the newest and most effective version of Jund. A bit less fair, but incredibly disruptive, punishing, and consistent. Rest in Peace is the most obvious hate card, and Chalice of the Void is a beating. It's also entirely reasonable that decks will adjust with more adequate removal and push Death's Shadow out of the format.
Modern is expensive, and we can't always afford this week's newest tech from the internet, but we can understand how to best equip ourselves to fight the newest technology and not give up more percentage points than necessary. The more games played with and against Death's Shadow that you play, the more you will understand the deck--and the fewer games you will lose to sloppy combat steps.
Figure out the exact life totals that you can reduce Death's Shadow to (before needing to finish them in a single burst), determine the best ways to combat the white splash from the deck, and increase your deck's maneuverability on the opponent's turn in order to reduce the large creature's potency.
Get better. Be better.