Modern Deck Tech – Grixis Death’s Shadow

I’ve been playing Grixis Shadow long enough now to have some thoughts on how the deck’s built, how it plays, and what tweaks I want to make. You know what that means:

It’s time for a deck tech. This beast is LONG, so let’s get to it.

My List (and Rationale):

Here’s my current Grixis Death’s Shadow list (you can also view this list on TappedOut.net):

Matt Plays Magic - Modern Grixis Death's Shadow Decklist

My main deck is fairly stock. It includes the more-standard 19 land mana base (more on this later), the typical stock of giant monsters and Snapcaster Mages, and the usual suite of cantrips, removal, and discard spells.

Most lists includes 2-3 flex spots, which pilots use for their favorite one-ofs or extra copies of stock cards they like. I’m using my flex spots for:

  • A 3rd copy of Stubborn Denial. Stubborn Denial is extremely important to Grixis Death’s Shadow’s game plan. Typically, Stubborn is what protects you from your opponent’s topdecks after you’ve played out your discard spells and deployed your Shadows/Anglers/Tasigurs. It helps stop combo decks from going off and also protects your threats from Path to Exiles, Fatal Pushes, etc. Some people advocate for less Stubborns in the main deck, but I think the card is too strong to play fewer than three.
  • A one-of Dismember. Very few people play Dismember, and I understand why. It’s likely better to max out on Fatal Pushes. But I’d argue that Dismember hits many creatures Push does not, making it one less card to awkwardly sideboard out against EldraziTron and allowing you to kill more Anglers in the mirror. Dismember also lets you do some tricky things with your life total (though these plays are likely more cute than good). The card has a downside, as sometimes your life total is so low that you don’t want to pay life to play Dismember. This isn’t inconsequential, but it hasn’t soured me on Dismember yet.
Dismember - Matt Plays Magic
Which member, you ask? Why it’s…

My sideboard is less orthodox. I’ll touch on sideboarding again later, but let me explain some of my more unusual choices here:

  • The 3rd copy of Kolaghan’s Command. Kommand is so good that I want to have access to three of them. It comes in for mid-range grindfests, the EldraziTron match-up, and a few other spots. I don’t play it main because, in certain match-ups, drawing too many 3-mana spells can just leave you dead.
  • Painful Truths. Honesty time: Painful Truths is here because my initial Shadow budget didn’t include enough cash to buy Lilianas (either A or B). If money wasn’t a factor, I’d play Liliana of the Veil in this spot. But Painful Truths does an alright job of pulling you through grindy match-ups, while also pushing your life total into Shadow-deployment range.
  • Rakdos Charm. People often say you can choose between padding your sideboard for Affinity or padding it for Dredge. To those people, I say: Why not both? I’ve been advocating for Rakdos Charm for years, and it continues to earn its slot by being so darn flexible. It’s currently very good against the Jund Deathvine deck that’s floating around, as it nukes their graveyard and kills Hollow Ones. Rakdos Charm also has a secret burn spell mode that you will use approximately once every four years.

How the Deck Wins:

If you’re like me, and you’re coming to Grixis Death’s Shadow from playing Grixis Delver, it’s helpful to think of Shadow as “Delver but backwards”. In a Delver deck, you plan to deploy your threats (such as the aforementioned Delver of Secrets) first, then hold up countermagic to protect them.

Grixis Shadow, however, isn’t a counterspell deck. It’s a Thoughtseize deck. So rather than play a threat and then hold up disruption, Grixis Shadow leads with disruption and then plays its threats. This flip in playstyle sounds simple, but the execution can be difficult.

Thoughtseize - Matt Plays Magic
Thoughtseize: Skilltester Supreme

Playing with Thoughtseize requires an ability to think ahead that’s difficult to master (I sure haven’t done it yet). In the threat-then-countermagic scenario, you get to react to whatever card your opponent plays and decide whether it is worth countering. You can assess each card individually, in turn, based on what you’ve already committed to the board.

With Thoughtseize, you have to decide, on-the-fly, what the opponent’s most impactful card will be 2-4 turns from now. Sometimes the choice is easy. Sometimes it’s not. Just be sure to think about what’s in your hand, how those spells can or can’t answer what your opponent has, and what you’re likely to draw. Those guidelines usually get me 85% of the way towards taking the correct card with Thoughtseize.

After you’ve opened up with cantrips and Thoughtseizes, you’ll deploy your threats, either Death’s Shadow, Gurmag Angler, or Tasigur. From here, you are hoping to:

  • Protect your threat (more discard, Stubborn Denial [< which is sometimes a good reason to not play your Shadow until you’ve set yourself to 9 life])
  • Remove any opposing blockers (Fatal Push, Terminate, Dismember)
  • Beat down quickly and mercilessly

Unfortunately, games of Magic don’t always go how we draw them up. That’s what Snapcaster Mage and Kolaghan’s Command are for. If the opponent’s able to survive our initial onslaught of spells and threats, Snappy and Kommand play clean-up duty, allowing us to rebuy our cards and go over the top of whatever our opponent’s been doing to slow us down.

Kolaghan's Command - Matt Plays Magic
In case of emergency, take orders from dragons.

Note that this is not a Burn deck, and we don’t have access to Lightning Bolt. So you will have to finish most games by actually attacking your opponent with a lethal threat. I’ve sealed the deal with the burn from Kolaghan’s Command only once or twice.

There will be times the deck simply runs out of gas. Where you cantrip into a cantrip, and that cantrip finds you a land. In those cases, you’ll have to manage the spells you’ve drawn very well, hope for good topdecks, and eventually accept that this is one of the ways the deck loses. Which brings us to…

How the Deck Loses:

Contrary to popular belief, Grixis Shadow is not Modern’s-most-super-crazy-unbeatable-deck. It has powerful draws, and it has a fighting chance of winning against nearly anything. But it can also just lose to itself.

This is how I pick up most of my losses:

  • Topdecking air. You’d think a deck full of cantrips like Serum Visions, Thought Scour, and Street Wraith would find quality cards easily. But the dirty little secret about these cantrips is they don’t actually “fix” your draws. For the most part, they find you a random card from the top of your deck, which is as likely to be another cantrip or land as an impactful spell.
    • An example: I’m on the play against Storm, and I keep a hand with two discard spells, lands, and some cantrips. I draw a Snapcaster Mage and another discard spell over the course of the game, meaning I’ve disrupted my opponent’s hand four times. I cast cantrip after cantrip and never find a threat (outside a Street Wraith that I end up actually casting). My opponent kills me with a topdecked Gifts Ungiven. These are the games where you just want to throw the deck aside.
  • Mulliganing due to bad mana. The deck’s mana base is actually much shakier than it looks at first glance. Most games, you’ll be able to fetch for Watery Grave and then fetch for Blood Crypt and all will be right with the world. But any hand that has only one of the following lands in it is likely a mulligan, because you need to be able to cast both cantrips and discard spells as soon as possible:
    • Island (Particularly painful to draw in an opening hand with double Thoughtseize)
    • Swamp (Particularly painful to draw in an opening hand with Serum Visions/Thought Scour)
    • Steam Vents (See Island)
    • Blood Crypt (See Swamp)

In light of these problems, I can see why some pilots have switched to lists running Sleight of Hand, though I think cutting a land for them is wrong. The deck can be apt to flood late-game (as described above), but it’s just as apt to draw land-light opening hands. If adding Sleight of Hand is right, some other spell likely has to go.

Sleight of Hand - Matt Plays Magic
What do I cut for you?

I’ve thought of switching to a straight Blue-Black version of the deck, to mitigate the mulligan problem somewhat, but Kolaghan’s Command is a heck of a card. Lillianas might be strong enough to make a straight Blue-Black Shadow deck work, but that’s an article for another day.

What to Watch Out for When You’re New:

Here, I’ll lay out some tips and tricks I’ve picked up while playing the deck, which may or may not be obvious to those playing Grixis Shadow for the first time:

  • Be careful to fetch BEFORE you Thought Scour if you’re looking for a particular land. Again, the deck’s mana base is shakier than it looks, and you could find yourself milling over the Blood Crypt you were looking to fetch if you don’t sequence things correctly. (You should also fetch BEFORE playing Serum Visions, to better use your Scry.)
  • Just like with Thought Scour, you should watch when you’re cycling Street Wraith. If you’re looking for additional lands, cycle Street Wraith before you fetch. If you want spells, fetch then cycle. Remember that if you draw a Street Wraith off of a Serum Visions, you can immediately draw whatever card you put on top with Visions. If you draw Wraith and then see Wraith and a card you like, you can sequence all three to burn through both Wraiths and draw the card.
  • Against many decks, and especially in the mirror, it’s correct to race your life total down to 9 (with fetches, shocks, and Thoughtseize) to turn on Stubborn Denial, as your opponent is unlikely to do enough damage through your creatures. However, THERE ARE MANY MATCH-UPS WHERE THIS IS NOT TRUE. Watch your life total carefully against aggro decks or decks packing Lightning Bolts (Burn, Delver, Merfolk, Jeskai Control). But, also know which match-ups your life total doesn’t really matter in (Tron, Storm, TitanShift, EldraziTron [< Though here you should give yourself space against Walking Ballista and Ugin if you can manage it. Often, you can’t.]).
  • In line with the above, you’ll usually want to fetch your shocklands into play untapped, regardless of whether you’re going to use the mana. The “meaningless” life loss is often worth it to turn your Death’s Shadows on more quickly.
Watery Grave - Matt Plays Magic
9 times out of 10, fetch these untapped.

Sideboarding:

Here’s a quick, no elaboration guide to how I sideboard against some of Modern’s top contenders:

Vs. Grixis Death’s Shadow:

  • Out:
    • 2 Inquisition of Kozilek
    • 2 Street Wraith
  • In:
    • 1 Kolaghan’s Command
    • 1 Painful Truths
    • 2 Nihil Spellbomb

Vs. EldraziTron:

  • Out:
    • 2 Fatal Push
    • 2 Inquistion of Kozilek
  • In:
    • 3 Ceremonious Rejection
    • 1 Kolaghan’s Command

Vs. Storm:

  • Out:
    • 2 Kolaghan’s Command
    • 2 Street Wraith
  • In:
    • 2 Nihil Spellbomb
    • 1 Rakdos Charm
    • 1 Engineered Explosives

Vs. TitanShift:

  • Out:
    • 3 Fatal Push
  • In:
    • 1 Stubborn Denial
    • 2 Collective Brutality

Vs. UW Control:

  • Out:
    • 1 Kolaghan’s Command
    • 2 Fatal Push
  • In:
    • 1 Stubborn Denial
    • 2 Nihil Spellbomb

What I’m Messing with Going Forward:

I’ve recently started messing with my sideboard, and I’d like to try the following cards over the course of the next few months:

  • Temur Battle Rage. As a one-of to break through board stalls. HateBears decks have begun popping up at my shop, and this could help break those match-ups.
  • Liliana, the Last Hope. I can actually afford one or two of these now, so I’d like to try them out. They’re a threat by themselves as well as a rebuy on Shadows/Tasigurs/Anglers. Good against decks with mana dorks and in grindy match-ups.
  • Liliana of the Veil. The best Planeswalker in Modern. When I can afford one or two, I’ll play them.
  • By Force. I have not played against Affinity much, so have no opinion on this card vs. something smaller and less targeted. I would like to get an opinion.
  • Disdainful Stroke. As TitanShift picks up steam, this card seems decent out of the sideboard.
  • Dreadbore. If you don’t already have a threat down, this deck can lose to a resolved Planeswalker real easily. Stubborns should cover that scenario, but if UW Control picks up steam, it might be worth throwing a Dreadbore in the sideboard (or over the mainboard Dismember.
  • Young Pyromancer. I’ve recently been losing to decks that go wide (because setting your life total low to make one big Shadow becomes a huge liability when they have four creatures on the board), and Pyromancer could shore up those match-ups.

Like I said above, I’m not as interested in adding Sleight of Hands as I am in trying a straight Blue-Black version of the deck, in an attempt to mitigate those game-losing mulligans. But I likely won’t get to trying that version until I can pick up at least two Liliana of the Veils, as I’m guessing they’ll be a crucial component.


About 2,000 words later, that’s it for this Modern Deck Tech! Feel free to let me know your own thoughts on Grixis Death’s Shadow, and stop by in two weeks for something much, much shorter.

‘Til then, may you draw gas over Street Wraiths.

5 thoughts on “Modern Deck Tech – Grixis Death’s Shadow

  1. Pingback: Sideboarding for Dummies – Matt Plays Magic

  2. Pingback: Grixis Death’s Shadow in a Post-Jace World – Matt Plays Magic

  3. Pingback: Current Death’s Shadow Sideboard: Card by Card – Matt Plays Magic

  4. Pingback: Modern Blue-Black Death’s Shadow – First Matches – Matt Plays Magic

  5. Pingback: 5 Cards I Hope to Cast in 2019 – Matt Plays Magic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.