Not one, but two formats have now seen the power of the best (not-yet-banned) black one-drop creature, Death's Shadow. In the wake of Deathrite Shaman's banning, a lot of new space opened up in Legacy, and Death's Shadow has come out of Modern to a position of prominence in this format as well.
First, the irony. Gitaxian Probe gets banned in Modern, and Death's Shadow becomes an incredible deck in that format. The format has adjusted, of course, but Shadow is still a promising contender in Modern to this day.
Then, Gitaxian Probe gets banned in Legacy, and...what do you know? Death's Shadow becomes an incredible deck there as well! What in the world? Probe may be the literal best card imaginable for Death's Shadow strategies, and when it leaves the format, suddenly then Shadow rises to the top tier? What in the world?
Well, to be frank, the true culprit in Legacy is Deathrite Shaman, and the reason Grixis or Jund Shadow never saw play in Gitaxian Probe Modern is simply because no one was creative enough to find it. They stuck with Death's Shadow Zoo, an incredible deck in its own right, but didn't make the leap to any other build.
1. Deathrite Shaman promoted a different style of tempo play than Death's Shadow decks.
Deathrite Shaman is the perfect card for Delver decks. By offering a tremendous early mana advantage, Delver decks could pin opponents on mana while casting free countermagic, free land destruction, all while deploying cheap threats. The "deploy threats, then disrupt" school of play is subtly different from the "set up, disrupt, then deploy threats" pattern that more often characterizes Death's Shadow. It's the difference between Thoughtseize and Stifle. Death's Shadow decks need to make their land drops and cast tempo-negative spells early to set up a huge tempo-positive turn in the midgame (which is usually turn 3 or 4 in Legacy) where they deploy one or more large threats that are protected with Stubborn Denials and pre-emptive Thoughtseizes.
Death's Shadow has a manabase that demands making two or even three real land drops to damage itself enough to deploy the namesake threat. Daze is so good in Death's Shadow, not because it's combined with a clock and Wasteland but because it lets the Shadow player rebuy a free self-inflicted two points with Watery Grave. Sure, there are plenty of games that involve a Delver of Secrets, multiple Street Wraiths, a Snuff Out, and early deployment of Death's Shadows on turn 2, but the "jam the battlefield" games are rarer than the "Thoughtseize, Daze, re-shock myself, cantrip, Shadow + Stubborn Denial up" ones.
This type of play pattern, while it certainly benefits from an early mana advantage like that of Deathrite Shaman, does not get quite as much of a boost from said mana advantage as the traditional "threat-then-disruption" pattern.
Deathrite Shaman allowed that play pattern to dominate Legacy for many years, but its loss is Shadow's gain.
2. Deathrite Shaman could burn out Death's Shadow players.
Death's Shadow decks, obviously, go down into the single digits of life pretty darn quickly. It's not uncommon to end turn 3 with eight life, given two fetch-shocklands, a Daze-rebuy shockland, and a combination of Thoughtseize or Street Wraith or Dismember or Snuff Out.
This is an awfully precarious position to be in against a deck with Lightning Bolt and Deathrite Shaman. You'd better kill your opponent on that next turn cycle, or you'll get hit with the business end of "Bolt you, Shaman you, untap, Bolt you again, if you Force of Will it, Shaman you again." That's eight damage however you slice it. Deathrite Shaman made Death's Shadow just too risky, because any draw where the opponent had multiple Deathrite Shamans basically caught you between a rock and a hard place. Not good for the 13/13.
3. Deathrite Shaman promoted Baleful Strix and True-Name Nemesis decks.
Snuff Out is a hell of a Magic card. It's like a Force of Will for Mother of Runes that doesn't cost you an extra card and allows you to play a Death's Shadow on turn 2. But one thing it doesn't do is kill black creatures. Deathrite Shaman promoted the use of a lot of creatures that Snuff Out can't hit (as well as being un-Snuff-able itself!) Some of the worst offenders were Baleful Strix, True-Name Nemesis, and Gurmag Angler. True-Name Nemesis holds off Shadow while threatening to sneak in a win if the Shadow player goes too low on life. Strix is just a huge beating every time, as it's hard to answer on parity and often extends the game by multiple turns. Gurmag Angler is a beefy, hard-to-kill threat that forces us to hold back our own Death's Shadows for fear of being one-shotted at a low life total.
These cards meant that one of the coolest weapons for Legacy Shadow players was awfully poorly positioned, adding another nail in the coffin for would-be Shadowers.
All that has changed. Let's look at two builds of Death's Shadow, my own, and eventual Pro Tour 25th Anniversary finalist Josh Utter-Leyton's:
And, my own:
Two independent groups, CFB Conglomerate and my own mini-group with Oliver Tomajko, Noah Walker, and outside consultant Dylan Donegan came up with the conclusion that Death's Shadow was the best choice for the Legacy portion of the Pro Tour.
I still believe that we were correct, and I believe that we will be correct going forward for some time.
Here's the skinny on the differences and what you can change going forward.
Wasteland is not sacrosanct!
Wasteland is a useful tool to have in your Legacy decks. It's an incredibly powerful effect, zero-mana land destruction. Against decks that are resilient to Wasteland, though, it's embarrassingly bad in a deck with all zero or one casting cost cards. Again, we need to make our real land drops in order to ping ourselves to cast the namesake threat. Wasteland is not necessarily part of our early game plan. I'd be willing to play a third over the third Stubborn Denial (though that cuts into our combo slots and our blue spell count), but four is excessive. It's just not that good in Death's Shadow! We tried builds with no Wastelands at all, and they were eminently playable. Wasteland is a spell in most of these decks, so just be careful that you're not overvaluing a sacred cow in Legacy when it's not always the best thing you could be playing in a spell slot.
Reanimate is powerful, and probably worth 1-2 spots in the 75.
At the last minute, I wanted to play a Reanimate in my third Stubborn Denial slot (which, as you can tell, was our final flex slot in the deck). I think it's probably a good choice, as it lets you deal yourself massive chunks of damage as well as obtain some awesome and unique threats. Think opposing True-Name Nemesis out of Stoneblade, opposing Mother of Runes out of Death and Taxes, or massive Eldrazi out of Colorless Eldrazi.
Plus, of course, there's always the possibility of playing against Reanimator and doing them dirty...but that's the stuff dreams are made of.
Seriously, though, if you expect a decent amount of Reanimator, this card goes way up in value, and I would be happy to shave a Preordain for a single copy of this unique effect.
I would always play four Watery Graves in my deck.
There were a number of times in testing where I'd have all three of my Watery Graves out on the battlefield and drew a fetchland that couldn't deal me any more damage. I lost a match because of it, and I decided that I'd just bite the bullet and play the four Graves. I haven't looked back. The situation comes up more often than you'd think.
Hymn to Tourach is a maindeckable card, and it's especially good in concert with Thoughtseize.
Hymn to Tourach is the other anti-combo, anti-control card that folks have forgotten about in the wake of Deathrite Shaman's banning. The card is still potent, and it's particularly backbreaking as a follow-up to a first-turn Thoughtseize. If the metagame stays with lots of semi-mirrors, Death and Taxes, and Eldrazi, I'd hold off on Hymn in the maindeck, but keep it in mind as another way to increase your free win equity by providing some dirty, dirty opening sequences.You can play two basic lands instead of two Underground Seas.
No, I'm not talking about a budget-friendly version of this deck, though it would be the best Legacy budget deck ever seen. I'm talking about a way to hedge against rising numbers of Blood Moon Prison decks, Lands, or Four-Color Loam. I ended up not registering the basics for the PT, but I could see a future metagame where they would be correct. And yes, if you want to play a Brainstorm deck in Legacy but can't afford the high price tag on Underground Sea, you can just replace them with basics and gain percentage in a number of matchups while only taking a small hit to mana consistency. This is serious, folks, there's a fair Brainstorm deck with no dual lands at all that can go toe-to-toe with the best of them!
Ratchet Bomb is much, much better than Throne of Geth.
Half the Chalice decks are also Blood Moon decks. Ratchet Bomb kills Blood Moon. Throne does nothing against Blood Moon. This is just a huge meme, and it's not correct. I'd play three Ratchet Bombs before I played any Thrones or Engineered Explosives.
You probably don't need a million Dread of Night.
This is a ham-fisted way to attack one deck, and it's not even a guaranteed win, as we saw in the Pro Tour semifinals. Massacre is fine and Toxic Deluge is quite nice. Liliana, the Last Hope is excellent. Their best card against you is Palace Jailer, so just don't even sweat Dread of Night. I'd almost rather have Pithing Needle, Engineered Explosives, or more Ratchet Bomb to answer the real pain-in-the-neck card, Aether Vial.
How does the metagame evolve?
Death's Shadow is more powerful than any of the other Delver-style strategies in Legacy. Temur Delver is simply not quite up to the level of Death's Shadow, suffering from a weaker manabase, smaller threats, and not-particularly-favorable matchups across the board. There are a few decks, though, that gain a lot if Death's Shadow becomes the new deck du jour.
U/W Stoneblade preys on Death's Shadow by virtue of having lots of irritating threats like Stoneforge Mystic and True-Name Nemesis, a high density of Swords to Plowshares via Snapcaster Mage, and a generally robust manabase.
Jeskai Delver may be a secret heavy-hitter going forward, as it boasts a high density of removal to attack Death and Taxes, the same threat suite as U/W Stoneblade, and the ability to close out the game with Lightning Bolts and Grim Lavamancer activations reminiscent of Deathrite Shaman's predatory behavior.
Without many events between now and GP Richmond in a few short weeks, there isn't going to be a ton of evolution in Legacy, so now is your best opportunity to try a new mishmash of broken starts and the smooth consistency of the Ponder-Brainstorm-Preordain cantrip suite. I'm excited to see how long it takes for the "ban Death's Shadow" crowd to start agitating for another shakeup.
Don't say I didn't warn you!