It's good to be back.
For those of you who are in the market for a more thorough introduction, my name is Ben Friedman, I'm a longtime competitor on both the Pro Tour and the SCG Tour®, an erstwhile writer for this very site, a perpetual passenger on the tail end of the "gravy train" of both circuits, and an occasional victor in some of the high-pressure matches of Magic that came along with earning those credentials. I'm also, incidentally, a proud member of Team MGG at Grand Prix and StarCityGames.com® tournaments, and an aficionado of fine cowboy hats, Hawaiian shirts, and Snapcaster Mage, in that order. Some of my first written words about Magic were published on StarCityGames.com®, so you can imagine my excitement at the opportunity to share my thoughts here once again.
That excitement, however, has been tempered in recent days by my disappointment at the lack of recent innovation within my favorite archetype right now, the once and future boogeyman of Modern: Grixis Death's Shadow. Modern is, to borrow an overused phrase from a classic film, the Cadillac of contemporary competitive Magic. It's everywhere, it's exciting, and it's unpredictable. Some people, pros even, won't play Modern. They simply can't handle the swings. And who can blame them? In a format where you're as likely to stare down a Goblin Guide as a Lantern of Insight, a Cranial Plating, or an Urza's Tower, it can be hard to be prepared for everything. Playing Modern is like walking a tightrope with no safety net below. Folks who fancy themselves "experts" hate that kind of uncertainty. They want to insulate themselves in the warm blanket of consistency, with universally-applicable reactive cards that allow them to focus on answer sequencing, rather than answer selection. Modern challenges them to walk that tightrope, and although it is a decidedly high-variance format, the reward is that it is also a high-skill-gap one.
Take that to heart. Modern is undoubtedly high-variance, but the skilled players hold massive advantages over the mediocre ones. Compared to Legacy, which has Brainstorm, Ponder, and Force of Will to ameliorate inconsistency and wrong-answer syndrome, in Modern you're significantly more likely to wind up at the mercy of the top cards of your deck to decide your fate. However, the huge and constant influx of new blood in Modern means that there will always be a massive cohort of less-experienced players, which is less and less true of Legacy these days.
What then, is the solution for a would-be Modern aficionado who bemoans the perceived "lack of skill" based on anecdotal evidence from the most egregiously one-sided games? (Troll answers like "git gud" notwithstanding.)
The solution is both breadth and depth. Become a skilled pilot of a handful of strong, disparate archetypes, but a master of one. I've alternately played various Eldrazi decks, Dredge, Collected Company, and Death's Shadow over the past year, with the ability to pick up any one of them that I predict will be well-positioned for a given metagame; however, the bulk of my practice and innovation lies with Death's Shadow, the archetype with the highest combination of power, consistency, flexibility, and resilience. The deck can win as early as the third turn with several discard spells to clear the way, and it can grind out opponents with Snapcaster Mages. It plays the lowest curve in the format with a high number of cantrips to improve consistency and turns drawbacks on cards like Thoughtseize and Watery Grave into benefits with its namesake creature. The deck functions like a Modernized version of Legacy's own Grixis Delver, and the rewards for playing it well are manyfold. Why, then, is it so maligned by a number of prominent Magic personalities? Folks on social media call it "overrated," but they're falling into the same trap that ensnares so many Modern haters. Simply put, they have turned to denigration rather than innovation.
It's easy to look at one version of a deck and view it as the final form of that archetype. The lazy eye sees a nineteen-land version of Grixis Death's Shadow with few copies of Stubborn Denial, no maindeck Temur Battle Rage, two copies of Tasigur, the Golden Fang, two Terminates and an outdated cantrip set, and writes the deck off as "disappointing." As Michelangelo once said, "Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it." Well, I have sat at my desk carving away at Grixis Death's Shadow, and this marble slab has a much better inner form than the stock lists would have you believe.
The first piece of waste that must be chipped away is the fallacious belief that the deck needs nineteen lands. The deck floods when the pilot draws more than three mana sources, so just as rapper O.T. Genasis recommends in his seminal hit song, I needed to cut it. First, I went down to eighteen lands, then seventeen. At Grand Prix Oklahoma City, I went all the way down to a smooth sixteen lands with four Mishra's Baubles and four Street Wraiths, and I did not regret it one bit.
Bauble, in concert with fetchlands, composes the equivalent of a zero-mana Opt, and most hands with a single fetchland and a Bauble are solid keeps. Incidentally, Bauble enables more combinations of opening hands that lead to turn 2 Gurmag Anglers, which is always desirable. Two fetchlands, a Mishra's Bauble, a Street Wraith, and any pair of one-mana spells makes for a second-turn one-mana Gurmag Angler. Compare this to previous builds, which needed to cast an early Thought Scour to turn on the possibility of a turn-2 Zombie Fish. Playing more than seventeen lands without a good way to mitigate mana flood will lead to disaster.
The next step to sculpting Death's Shadow is to recognize that Modern is a format with dangerous topdecks, and there is exactly one card that Grixis Death's Shadow gets to exploit to try to shut the door on topdecks. Stubborn Denial is a perfect card for this deck, as the absolute best way to protect a Death's Shadow from Fatal Pushes and Path to Exiles, or to protect your face from a flurry of Lightning Bolts against Jeskai or Burn. Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek are great cards, but they only do half the job. Stubborn Denial is the card needed to hold up the latter half of the game, buying you time to run in for the kill with your oversized creatures.
Speaking of cards for the latter half of the game, the one you actually want is unlikely to be the one you are playing right now. Kolaghan's Command is simply too slow, too low-impact, and too reactive to be worth the slot when Temur Battle Rage can end the game on the spot and put the fear in your opponent to force them to play suboptimally. One maindeck Temur Battle Rage is necessary, and two is perfectly reasonable. This is how you pummel combo decks like Storm, Ad Nauseam, Dredge, Burn, and TitanShift. This is what puts Grixis Death's Shadow in the seat of "format fun police" and forces opponents to respect it. The combination of a single Death's Shadow, a Stubborn Denial, and a Temur Battle Rage is usually enough to win against formerly bad matchups like Dredge and Burn, which is astonishing in its elegance. The implications of more copies of Temur Battle Rage and the desire to become something akin to the Legacy Infect deck trickle down to inform the last few card slots, both of which are huge upgrades over the stock choices.
The first one is Terminate. If you are still playing Terminate in 2018, you are making a mistake. Dismember is almost universally better than the two-mana, two-color spell. Dismember pumps Death's Shadow. Dismember costs one mana when you need it to. Dismember can even be pain-free if you need to conserve your life total, which does come up on occasion. The only cards that demand a Terminate instead of a Dismember are Primeval Titan (which already often does its damage from the enters-the-battlefield trigger), Wurmcoil Engine (which still often spells game over even if you do kill it), and opposing Death's Shadows and large Tarmogoyfs (which you have Fatal Push for regardless). The reduced color requirements are just icing on the cake. Two Dismembers and two Temur Battle Rages go together like peas and carrots.
The second one is Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Gurmag Angler is a four-turn, rather than a five-turn clock on a naked battlefield. Gurmag Angler stands up to 4/5 Tarmogoyfs and opposing Tasigurs, rather than bouncing off of them, plus Gurmag Angler blocks Reality Smasher, rather than dying to it. With a maindeck plan designed to kill opponents quickly and not dawdle around with spending piles of excess mana to gain incremental value, you need to be playing four Gurmag Anglers and zero Tasigurs. Even a three-to-one split is preferable to the stock choice of two and two.
Alright, alright. Enough piecing it together. Here is my most recent list for Grixis Death's Shadow, ready for battle at SCG Columbus.
A few notes on choices for the sideboard:
Engineered Explosives is simply a stellar card. From Humans to Lantern to G/W Hexproof to Merfolk to Elves to Affinity to Empty the Warrens out of U/R Gifts Storm to many of the different Lingering Souls-based decks, there is no better flexible answer that can potentially gain massive value in the right spots. Don't sleep on EE.
Rakdos Charm covers Dredge, Affinity, Lantern, and Living End, with possible applications against Tron decks. It's a better choice right now compared to Kolaghan's Command because of the graveyard applications as well as the lower mana cost (which is significant against Affinity). The grindy nature of K Command is less important now.
Izzet Staticaster is strong against Noble Hierarch decks, Dredge, and Lingering Souls. Liliana, the Last Hope is sort of like an Izzet Staticaster, with better applications against Five-Color Death's Shadow, specifically. It's better because if the opposing Shadow player isn't on the Souls plan, Liliana can start gaining value; whereas an Izzet Staticaster would be useless in that spot.
Collective Brutality is for Burn and Company decks. Kozilek's Return is for many of the same matchups as Engineered Explosives. Liliana of the Veil is incredible against the mirror and against control decks and offers an all-in-one-card gameplan when the opponent sideboards in a half-hate card like Rest in Peace or Runed Halo. It also helps mitigate flood by allowing you to pitch excess fetchlands. It's so powerful that it might be maindeckable as an alternative plan to the "kill 'em fast with Battle Rage" high-level strategy.
Now, just because there are a few innovations that seem clear in retrospect does not mean that everything is finalized with this list. For one, an influx of Tron and/or Valakut decks may necessitate the inclusion of a Disdainful Stroke or perhaps a Ceremonious Rejection in the sideboard. It's also perfectly reasonable to want an Inquisition of Kozilek or two back in the maindeck, which would require possibly dropping another Opt or a Mishra's Bauble. Of course, as previously mentioned, Liliana of the Veil is the three-mana spell of choice, should one decide to play a less proactive gameplan in game one. Compared to the old stock maindeck choice of Kolaghan's Command, a straight replacement with the three-mana planeswalker would be extremely wise. Liliana is the key card in the mirror, additional removal to supplement the six one-mana removal spells, and a way to mitigate mana flood or "drawing the wrong half of your deck" syndrome against control or certain linear decks. Even a Lightning Bolt or two could be potential additions that would serve dual purposes of additional cheap removal while providing a nice way to cheese out an opponent in the mirror match.
It should be clear, even with respected stock lists, that innovation with established archetypes in Modern is as crucial as innovation with newer, up and coming decks. And if the process of tweaking and tuning the best deck in Modern seems too laborious at times, Michelangelo has a quote for that as well.
"The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection." Emphasis mine.