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Deck Evolutions: Death's Shadow (Modern)


Just over a month ago, Gitaxian Probe was banned in Modern. While the easiest explanation for the banning is that it was targeted at Infect (and at hopefully slowing down the format in general), most people (including myself) assumed that the loss of the free spell would mean the end of Death's Shadow decks in Modern, since the ability to not only see if the coast was clear but also lose two life was essential to the plan of the deck. In hindsight, the demise of Death's Shadow in Modern was clearly overblown—the deck is still the sixth most played in Modern, even after undergoing a major evolution to compensate for the loss of Gitaxian Probe. Considering that the archetype is apparently much more resilient than it looks and it appears that Death's Shadow will be around for the long haul in Modern, it's probably worth investigating just where this deck came from, which we will do today in another installment of Deck Evolutions! Today's Death's Shadow Deck Evolutions is actually the sixth installment; in the past, we've covered Modern Tron, Legacy Miracles, the now-extinct Modern TwinModern Jund, and Modern Dredge, so make sure to check them out if you missed any of them the first time around! Anyway, let's break down the evolution of Death's Shadow in Modern!

Elemental Combo—Chuyiyo, MTGO Daily, October 2012

Modern became a format in the summer of 2011, and things started off extremely slow for Death's Shadow. In fact, between the birth of the format and 2015, there was a total of just six published deck lists featuring Death's Shadow, and all of them came from Magic Online. The very first Modern deck featuring Death's Shadow used the one-drop as a support card, rather than as the focal point of the deck. Instead, these decks were all-in combo decks looking to win the game with Nivmagus Elemental or Kiln Fiend backed by a bunch of cheap spells. Since one of the easiest ways to cast a bunch of spells in the same turn to pump up Nivmagus Elemental and Kiln Fiend is to use Phyrexian mana cards like Gitaxian Probe and Mutagenic Growth, the deck would naturally lose a lot of life, which means it could theoretically support Death's Shadow. That said, Death's Shadow was clearly the backup plan and likely the worst creature in the deck. As 2012 became 2013 and 2013 became 2014, the Elemental Combo build of Death's Shadow remained on the far fringes of the format, posting just two winning results (both in MTGO daily events); however, people did start to experiment with a new build of Death's Shadow, this one designed to maximize the power of the namesake card as a combo piece. 

WB Combo Shadow—Kahleya, MTGO Daily, August 2013

In August of 2013, an MTGO user by the name of Kahleya—probably better known as Stealthpants—became the first person to put up a finish in Modern with a deck designed solely to harness the power of Death's Shadow. If you want to see the thought process behind the original build of the deck, Stealthpants actually published an article on MTGO Academy breaking it down. As for the deck itself, it is actually quite similar to some of the Ad Nauseam decks we see today—while it can win by beating down with Death's Shadow, the primary plan is to use Death's Shadow as a combo piece. 

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The plan of the deck was actually quite simple. With the help of Angel's Grace keeping you alive, you can make an extremely big Death's Shadow with the help of Plunge into Darkness or Spoils of the Vault, which allow you to pay life until your life total is something like 100. This makes Death's Shadow a 113/113, and then you simply Fling the Death's Shadow at the opponent with Rite of Consumption to drain the opponent for 113 and win the game. The rest of the deck is filled with some removal and ways to protect the combo, like Spellskite, Faith's Shield ,and Leyline of Sanctity

While this build of Death's Shadow was fairly powerful and deserves a lot of credit for first bringing Death's Shadow into the Modern spotlight, the deck itself ended up fading away quickly. I mentioned a minute ago that it is very similar to Ad Nauseam, and this similarity ended up being the demise of the deck. Back in 2013, Ad Nauseam was a fledgling Modern archetype as well, but over the course of the last months of 2013 and the first months of 2014, it won the battle of "I want to win with a negative life total" combo decks, and the Death's Shadow build faded from the scene. For the next two years, Death's Shadow put up just three more 5-0 finishes on Magic Online—one in the Elemental Combo deck and two more with Stealthpants' build. Then, during the first months of 2015, everything suddenly changed. 

Death's Shadow Zoo—PTPaul, MTGO Daily, March 2015

So, what happened in 2015 that suddenly pushed Death's Shadow to the forefront of Modern? The answer is the release of Fate Reforged. Normally, when we see the emergence of a new archetype in Modern, it is the result of a really powerful new rare or mythic seeing print, but in this case, it was one of the least likely suspects that pushed Death's Shadow over the top. A lowly common in fact...

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In some ways, the plan of Death's Shadow Zoo mirrors the very first Elemental Combo builds of Death's Shadow with Nivmagus Elemental. which looked to use Tainted Strike or Assault Strobe to give their creatures double strike to close out the game quickly. The problem with those cards is they often required a three-card combo: a creature to attack, some sort of protection- / evasion-granting spell to make sure the creature actually connected and wasn't simply chump blocked, and then a double-strike spell to finish the game. In Temur Battle Rage this three-card combo suddenly became a two-card combo, since the red instant not only gives a creature double strike but trample as well. 

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While it was Temur Battle Rage that pushed Death's Shadow over the top, it was Become Immense—released a few months before in Khans of Tarkir—that made the deck so deadly. With delve reducing the cost of the spell to just one mana early in the game with the help of fetch lands, Gitaxian Probe, Mutagenic Growth, and Mishra's Bauble, PTPaul's build was designed to kill the opponent on Turn 3 as consistently as possible. The lacking cards of the previous builds were gone—no Avatar of Hope, no Ground Rifts, no Nivmagus Elementals or Rite of Consumption—and replaced with a horde of one-drops to back up Death's Shadow and a ton of ways to lose life to power up the namesake card. Even in a format like Modern, where Turn 4 kills are the norm, seeing a new deck that consistently killed on Turn 3 is enough to make players stand up and take notice. Over the last eight months of 2015, Death's Shadow put up four times as many finishes as it had in the previous four years combined. The problem was that apart from a couple of lower-level tournaments, all of the results were on Magic Online, all Death's Shadow was missing was a coming-out party in paper, but for this, it would have to wait until 2016. 

All-In Zoo—Sam Black, GP Charlotte, June 2016

Major Additions: Monastery Swiftspear, Thoughtseize, Lightning Bolt, more fetch lands.

Major Subtractions: Tarmogoyf, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, basic lands.

After nearly five years of languishing on the fringes of the Modern format, 2016 was the year of Death's Shadow. Of all the finishes the deck has posted, 95% have come in the past 12 months. More importantly, the deck finally broke through in the paper world. While it had a couple of middling performances at the Eldrazi-filled Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, it was Sam Black who finally gave the deck a Top 8 finish in the paper world at GP Charlotte in June of 2016. 

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By raw numbers, the changes between 2015 and 2016 were fairly minimal, with 53 of the 60 main deck cards in Sam Black's build being the same as the original PTPaul list. The main theme is the cutting of slower cards like Tarmogoyf and Tasigur, the Golden Fang to add in Monastery Swiftspear (making the total number of one-drops in the deck increase from 12 to 15), and Thoughtseize, which not only clears the way for the Turn 3 combo but offers another pathway to life loss to power up Death's ShadowMonastery Swiftspear specifically was a huge addition to the deck because it offers a way to win out of nowhere. Even if the opponent can deal with all of your threats, there's always a chance that if they tap out, you can play a Monastery Swiftspear, cast a Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage, and hit them for a massive 18 damage out of nowhere!

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While it might seem weird to talk about the mana base, the other major change to the deck was to maximize the number of fetch lands. The original build played 10 along with six shock lands and a single basic, but Black upped the number to 12 to go along with seven shocks and no basics at all. Considering the entire game plan of Death's Shadow Zoo is to lose as much life as possible as quickly as possible, this change actually had a huge impact on the deck. To play a Death's Shadow (and have it not immediately die), you need to be at 12 or less life. As a result, playing a shock land naturally from your hand (rather than fetching for it) can really throw off the life loss math. For example, an opening of fetch land for shock land (untapped) into Thoughtseize and untapped shock land on Turn 2 puts you to exactly 13, which  means you have to wait until Turn 3 to cast Death's Shadow, which in turn means you can't win until Turn 4. On the other hand, if you replace the "play a shock land from my hand untapped" with fetching for a shock land untapped, you get yourself to 12 life, making it possible to cast Death's Shadow on Turn 2 and then win the game on Turn 3. Cutting the basic land and upping the number of shocks maximize the opportunity for this draw. 

For the rest of 2016, this build of Death's Shadow was the default. While there weren't many significant innovations (with the exception being an overlooked PTQ list from Ireland in the beginning of September that added a strange-looking delirium package to take advantage of Traverse the Ulvenwald and Gnarlwood Dryad), people would occasionally play a single copy of Tarmogoyf or go with Kird Ape or Gnarlwood Dryad over Steppe Lynx, but all in all, somewhere around 57 of the 60 main deck cards remained consistent in most builds. This makes sense—there really wasn't a compelling reason to change things up, and the deck shot to the very top of the Modern format. By fall of 2016, it was certainly tier one and at some points was the single most played deck in the format. Apart from dominating on Magic Online, it also managed to put players into the Top 8 of three of the four Modern GPs held over the latter half of 2016. Then, out of the blue, disaster struck. 

Gitaxian Probe Banned (January 9, 2017)

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On January 9, 2017, Wizards announced an update to the banned and restricted list that, apart from some major shakeups to Standard, removed Gitaxian Probe from the Modern format. Considering that the main goal of Death's Shadow Zoo is to lose life, it's hard to understate just how important the blue sorcery was to the deck. As soon as the bannings were announced, many people were quick to claim that Death's Shadow was dead or, at best, would fall back to the fringes of the format, where it was for the first several years of Modern. However, the predictions of the demise of Death's Shadow seem to have been greatly exaggerated; rather than fading away after losing (perhaps) its best card, the deck simply evolved one more time.

Traverse Death's Shadow—Butakov, MTGO League, January 2017

Major Additions: Traverse the Ulvenwald, Tarmogoyf, Abrupt Decay, Inquisition of Kozilek, Thoughtseize.

Major Subtractions: Steppe Lynx, Monastery Swiftspear, Wild Nacatl, Become Immense

You probably noticed that Gitaxian Probe is still in the above list, but bear with me for a second. Perhaps the strangest part of the saga of Death's Shadow in Modern is the month before Gitaxian Probe was banned. For some reason, a handful Death's Shadow players suddenly changed strategies—instead of being all-in on comboing off and winning on Turn 3, these decks dropped the one-drops (all the way from 15 to four) and replaced them with more resilient threats like Tarmogoyf and removal like Tarfire and Kolaghan's Command to go along with Traverse the Ulvenwald to make sure you always have a threat in hand (even though it only played eight real creatures in four Death's Shadow and four Tarmogoyfs. While Gitaxian Probe was still a powerful option in the deck, it is far less essential in delirium-based builds of Death's Shadow than in the combo builds that were all-in on casting a one-mana Become Immense on Turn 3. It's almost like players were preparing for the Gitaxian Probe banning without even knowing it would be banned. In fact, the list above is from one day before the January 9th banned and restricted announcement that removed Gitaxian Probe from the format. 

Post-Banning Traverse Death's Shadow—MTGO League, Butakov, February 2017

Major Subtractions: Gitaxian Probe.

Major Additions: Liliana, the Last Hope, Collective Brutality

As such, the post-banning builds of Death's Shadow have an oddly natural progression, considering a key card had been banned. The deck was already getting slower and trending away from the all-in plan that required Gitaxian Probe to work, so while losing Gitaxian Probe was painful, it wasn't simply game over for the archetype. To compensate for the loss of Gitaxian Probe, the deck became a little bit slower but even more resilient. 

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Apart from the loss of Gitaxian Probe, clearly the biggest change to the deck was the removal of Become Immense. Only a few months before, the green instant was one of the scariest cards in Modern, but without Probe to fuel the graveyard and add mana for delve, it simply wasn't good enough anymore. By removing Become Immense from the deck, the potential for getting kills on Turn 3 was essentially gone—the plan had changed. Instead of getting in one huge attack, the deck instead would get in a bunch of pretty big attacks with some combination of Death's Shadow and Tarmogoyf backed up by an endless stream or removal and a ton of ways to get its threats back from the graveyard. The explosiveness of the past builds was gone but replaced with cards that would allow the deck to go long and win a fair game of Magic, like Liliana, the Last Hope and Kolaghan's Command.

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Perhaps the most amazing part of Death's Shadow's story is how the deck and card have come full circle. In the early days of Modern, it was pretty much a given that Death's Shadow simply wasn't good enough to be played as a fair Magic card, so people either didn't play it at all or looked to use is as a weird, Ad Nauseam-style combo piece. Then, with the printing of Temur Battle Rage (and Become Immense), the deck had a meteoric rise, and although Death's Shadow was technically attacking (rather than being sacrificed as part of a combo), it still wasn't being used fairly. Then somehow, through the experience of playing Death's Shadow unfairly, Magic players realized that Death's Shadow could be exactly what everyone always thought it couldn't be: a powerful creature that you can simply play and attack with. 

Take a second and look back at the more recent build of Death's Shadow. There's not a single Phyrexian mana card—not even a Dismember. There's no mad rush to lose life to power up the one-drop. Sure, there are still a few copies of Temur Battle Rage in the deck, but there are no pump spells. There are even multiple basic lands in the deck! In a weird way, this version of Death's Shadow—the fair beater version—has been available in Modern since the format's inception all the way back in 2011. It just took players five years to figure it out. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What other Death's Shadows do you see lurking in Modern (and by this, I mean cards that could potentially be extremely powerful but that people simply haven't figured out a way to take advantage of yet)? What's next for Death's Shadow itself? Can you imagine it showing up in other "fair" decks? As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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