Going into Saturday’s Modern Madness Qualifier at MagicFest Vegas, I had middling expectations. I didn’t consider my Dimir Death’s Shadow deck to be well-positioned, and I hadn’t been playing my tightest throughout the weekend. Still, I figured I’d be able to win at least two or three rounds, which would be good enough for some prize tix and a good time.
Instead, on the back of a lot of luck, some (mostly) tight play, and way too much Death’s Shadow math, I ended up making it to the finals of Saturday’s Qualifier. This is how a day that started with the purchase of “one last Plague Engineer” and plans to eat at Wahlburger’s with my friend Trevor ended eight and a half hours later, with me being one Primeval Titan away from playing in Sunday’s Modern Madness Invitational.
Stripping Hands and Beating Down Against Storm (Round 1)
I pulled a straightforward match-up in round 1, allowing me to ease into what ended up becoming a very long day of Modern. Dimir Death’s Shadow is favored against Gifts Storm (thanks to the disruption that Thoughtseize and Stubborn Denial provide), though can lose by not drawing a threat quickly enough to end the game.
Thankfully, I didn’t run into that problem in this match. In both games, I started things off by stripping a Gifts Ungiven from my opponent’s hand via Thoughtseize on turn 1, and finished by attacking for lethal with a large Death’s Shadow and/or Gurmag Angler.
Two interesting things happened this round, however. The first was a line of play I chose to take at the end of game 2, in which I chose to Spell Snare my opponent’s Manamorphose while he had two mana and a land drop remaining.
I figured that the only way my opponent could beat me post-Snare was by dropping exactly a Baral/Goblin Electromancer, a land, and another Manamorphose from his three card hand. Figuring that sequence was unlikely (especially given that I’d seen none of those cards via earlier discard spells), I snapped off countering the first Manamorphose, to shut down something like a Past in Flames or Gifts Ungiven off the top of my opponent’s deck.
It’s possible that I should have just held the Spell Snare for a Baral/Goblin Electromancer, as those cards were the most dangerous ones left in my opponent’s deck. But I think pinching my opponent on mana and cards was the right call, and I’d still make the same play.
The other interesting thing that happened this round was that the match next to mine at least minorly distracted my opponent. The players involved had multiple disagreements and refused to call a judge over to sort things out (despite multiple urgings from those around them, including myself). It got so bad, at one point, that a player to the other side of that match called a judge over, because he felt the rowdy match was overly distracting.
I don’t think my opponent misplayed or missed anything by paying attention to the other match, but the distraction did slow our match down a bit. I chose not to pay attention to the other match as much as possible, as I had a lot of choices of my own to make.
Out: Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Liliana, the Last Hope, Hieroglyphic Illumination, Artful Dodge, possibly a Street Wraith/Bauble(?)
In: Spell Snare, Plague Engineer (naming Goblin), Collective Brutality
Somehow Beating Bogles (Round 2)
Trevor won his first match as well, so we both felt good going into round 2. I felt less good when I saw my round 2 opponent lead with a Slippery Bogle into double Ethereal Armor.
Death’s Shadow should lose most matches against Bogles (or at least, it does in my experience). The Bogles player can usually just sit on their Hexproof threat for awhile, fending off even medium-sized Death’s Shadows while drawing enough +X/+X enchantments and Path to Exiles to eventually end the game in one fell swoop.
However, I lucked into a hand that could race my opponent, as I cycled Street Wraith into Street Wraith into Street Wraith and played two(!) 7/7 Death’s Shadows by turn 2. Those Shadows attacked for lethal soon after, and my opponent and I moved on to game 2.
As we started the match, my opponent revealed that he’d begun playing Modern very recently, and that his friends had loaned him the Bogles deck for the weekend. This inexperience got the better of him in game 2, as I think he both kept a questionable opening hand and made a couple late misplays that cost him the game.
My opponent started the game by playing a turn 0 Leyline of Sanctity, which did shut down the Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek in my own opening hand. He then played a land and passed, however, revealing that he had no Bogle/Gladecover Scout.
I proceeded to Inquistion myself to strip Thoughtseize from my hand, setting myself up to play a Gurmag Angler on the next turn (via Street Wraith and fetchlands). My opponent countered that strategy by playing a turn 2 Rest in Peace, stranding the big fish in my hand.
At that point, though, we sat at a stalemate. My opponent attempted to stick a Kor Spiritdancer, but my Fatal Push sent it tumbling off a cliff. A flashback-less Snapcaster Mage eventually started working on my opponent’s life total, until my opponent finally found a Slippery Bogle.
I ran my life total low enough to play a Death’s Shadow, and left myself ready to turn on Stubborn Denial via my pain land if needed. I figured I needed to counter either Path to Exile or Daybreak Coronet if my opponent had them, and that I was in big trouble if he had both.
However, my opponent then made a series of plays that won me the game. Rather than attach Daybreak Coronet to his already-enchanted Bogle, he chose to attack on his turn (setting me to 3 life) and attempt to Path my Death’s Shadow on my turn.
I think that if my opponent had attempted to Path before attacking, seen it fail, and then held his Bogle back, I would’ve lost to Daybreak Coronet the next turn. I also think that if my opponent had just cast Daybreak Coronet, I would’ve been forced to counter it, keeping us at a stalemate long enough for him to cast his Path next turn.
As is, my opponent attacked, set me to 3, and passed the turn. I tapped my pain land once at the end of his turn to set myself to 2, once on my turn to set myself to 1, and attacked for 14 damage via Snapcaster and Death’s Shadow – exactly enough damage to finish my opponent off. One Path into Stubborn later, the match was done.
Out: Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Liliana, the Last Hope, Dismember
In: Spell Snare, Plague Engineer (naming Elf/Beast)
Force Spiking to Victory Against Izzet Phoenix (Round 3)
This round, I scored my first (and likely only) match win against Izzet Phoenix. And I did it by countering the heck out of a turn one Faithless Looting.
But before we get to that, we need to talk about game 1. I lost pretty handily to one of my own favorite cards, as I did not see a Vapor Snag coming for my early Gurmag Angler. From there, my opponent cast Aria of Flame and then spelled me to death easily, as I failed to re-build my board.
Game 2, however, broke my way very quickly. On his turn 1, my opponent played Mountain, Faithless Looting, and I snapped off a Stubborn Denial to counter the Looting. I’ve found that countering an early Looting is key against most decks that use(d) the card, as it buys you at least one or two extra turns to enact your own game plan.
Turns out that, in this game, countering the Looting shut my opponent down completely. He had two Phoenixes in hand that he was hoping to pitch to the Looting, and no source of Blue mana for the Serum Visions and Thought Scour in his hand. I took first Visions and then Saheeli from my opponent’s hand before threatening lethal with Death’s Shadow, and my opponent first Surgical Extraction’d to see how I’d sideboarded (a smart play) and then conceded.
Game 3 was much closer. I managed to run my life total down to 6 and land a 7/7 Death’s Shadow alongside a Gurmag Angler, while keeping my opponent’s board fairly clear. But my opponent then revived an Arclight Phoenix that threatened to attack for lethal over a couple turns, if my opponent was ever able to bounce my creatures or create multiple blockers.
With the sweat on, I chose to fetch down to 3 life (leaving myself within Bolt range), kill both of my opponent’s creatures via Fatal Pushes, and attack for lethal, rather than give my opponent another turn to churn through their deck. My opponent’s one card in hand turned out to be a blank, and I took the match.
Out: Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Liliana, the Last Hope, Artful Dodge, Hieroglyphic Illumination
In: Spell Snare, Plague Engineer in game 3 (to take care of Saheeli tokens and act as an extra threat)
Self-hurting with Abandon Against Infect (Round 4)
In round 4, I hoped to land an easy match-up, because a win would give me an out to draw into the top 8 in round 5 (unlikely, but possible). My opponent played a Noble Hierarch (which I quickly Dismembered) followed by a Blinkmoth Nexus, which told me they were on Infect – and that I could run my life total down with abandon.
I killed my opponent’s creatures, stripped their hand, and produced giant Death’s Shadows as quickly as possible in each game here, being sure to stay aware that a pumped-up Dryad Arbor or Noble Hierarch could kill me if I wasn’t careful. I ended each game at 4 life, and 9/9 Death’s Shadows got the job done.
I think my opponent played one actual Infect creature across this entire match, which worked out incredibly well for me. Blinkmoth Nexuses are much easier to deal with than normal creatures, as they tie up a lot of your opponent’s mana (leaving the Nexus itself open to Fatal Push/Dismember). I don’t remember a ton else about this match (other than my opponent attempting to be tricky by not fetching and chumping with Dryad Arbor in game 1, hoping I wouldn’t play around it in game 2), as it was fairly straightforward.
Out: Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Hieroglyphic Illumination, Liliana, the Last Hope/Mishra’s Bauble (can’t remember), Artful Dodge
In: Plague Engineer, Collective Brutality
Drawing Near-perfectly Vs. Hardened Scales (Round 5)
At the end of round 5, the judges posted the standings and I was in … third place. Which meant (due to math) that my opponent and I couldn’t both draw into the top 8, so we were going to have to play our match out.
Which was fine by me. I came to Vegas to play Magic, and I didn’t mind having to earn my spot in the top 8. I’d already done much better than I’d expected, and I was set to try my best and accept whatever outcome awaited me.
I quickly found out that my opponent was playing Hardened Scales, as he played the deck’s namesake card on turn 1. From there, he proceeded to out-value me and produce many more creatures than I could attack through successfully. Steel Overseer and Animation Module combined to overwhelm me, and we moved on to game 2.
On the play, I was able to keep my opponent’s board at bay (he mulliganed, and I had a turn 1 Thoughtseize) long enough to land one clear attack with Gurmag Angler and a 4/4 Death’s Shadow. At that point, my opponent started spinning up his Scrapyard Combiner, Arcbound Worker, Animation Module value machine, but his factory came online too late. I’d been sitting on Artful Dodge most of the game, and cast it twice (once on Death’s Shadow, then Flashback’d on Gurmag Angler) while also lowering my life total, allowing me to attack past his blockers and take game 2.
In game 3, I … well, I got incredibly lucky. I put myself in a good position by successfully styming my opponent’s attempt to pile a bunch of +1/+1 counters on a Blinkmonth Nexux (through semi-skillful use of removal spells) and getting a few attacks in with a Plague Engineer (which had been forced to name Thopter). I then began attacking with a 4/4 Death’s Shadow.
I had Artful Dodge in hand, but no way to make my Death’s Shadow any bigger. Meanwhile, my opponent was about to start generating Servos and playing Walking Ballistas, one or the other of which would eventually threaten to attack me for lethal in one big turn.
At this point, I, of course, drew my one-of Hurkyl’s Recall to re-set my opponent’s board (including two Darksteel Citadels that I’d honestly forgotten were artifacts) and then Snapcaster Mage to recast the Hurkyl’s. I attacked for 4, attacked for 4 again, and then used the Artful Dodge to attack for 4 one last time.
Out: Liliana, the Last Hope, Hieroglyphic Illumination, Mishra’s Bauble, Street Wraith, I think Jace(?) or maybe a discard spell on the draw
In: Hurkyl’s Recall, Spell Snare, Ceremonious Rejection, Plague Engineer
And oh yeah, I made the top 8! I ended up seeded second, which pit me against a deck I’d picked up a bit of experience against earlier in the weekend.
Sideboarding Successfully Against Mono-Red Prowess (Top 8 Round 1)
In the first round of the top 8, I played against European pro Michael Bonde, who was playing a variation of Mono-Red Prowess.
Because Trevor was also playing Mono-Red Prowess that weekend (though a slightly different version … which will become important in games 2 and 3), I’d figured out how I wanted to play the match-up. And because Trevor had encouraged me to scout my possible opponents at the end of round 4, I knew what deck Bonde was on before we sat down. So basically, thanks entirely to Trevor, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in this match, from turn 0 onward.
Even with that knowledge, I still lost game 1. I was able to slowly clear most of Bonde’s creatures off the board (while doing minimal damage to myself), but I was already at 5 life by the time I got to attack him back with a Death’s Shadow. He then burned me out, and we started sideboarding for game 2.
Now, against Trevor earlier in the weekend, I’d experimented with bringing Leyline of the Void in out of my sideboard for this match-up, as Trevor was playing both Faithless Looting and Bedlam Reveler. However, I already considered that choice to be questionable (Leyline is so bad if you draw it late), and as I was sideboarding, I realized I’d seen neither Faithless Looting or Bedlam Reveler out of Bonde’s deck. So I trimmed on slow cards and brought in just Collective Brutality.
It turns out I’d sideboarded correctly, as Bonde revealed a Kiln Fiend in his game 2 hand. His version of Prowess played Kiln Fiend and extra burn spells, likely in an attempt to dodge graveyard hate and encourage opponent’s to mis-sideboard.
I was able to kill all of Bonde’s creatures, counter most of his relevant spells, and watch him cycle through air in game 2, while ending the game at a comfortable 7 life. In game 3, Bonde again cycled through his deck, but was never able to stick a repeatable source of damage.
Still, he was able to chip me down to 6 life (and strand a Street Wraith in my hand), and I was almost at risk of getting burnt out on Bonde’s final turn before attacking for lethal with a big ‘ol Death’s Shadow.
Out: Liliana, the Last Hope (maybe a mistake, as Bonde seemed to be playing more 1/1s), I think (?) Hieroglyphic Illumination (it’d been a long day at that point, which you’re about to see more effects of)
In: Collective Brutality
Playing Real Sloppy Against Red-Black Burn (Top 8 Round 2)
I did not deserve to win this match against Red-Black Burn. Thankfully, Death’s Shadow is a good, good boy, and he and Gurmag Angler were able to carry me to victory despite a few misplays.
Prior to this match, I’d done pretty well at remembering Mishra’s Bauble draws, having missed just one in round 1. In the first game here, I missed a Bauble draw (according to Trevor), fetch > shocked for no reason on turn 2 (though I swear I must’ve had one, I can’t remember what it was), and (in game 2) forgot to take my opponent down 2 life off of Collective Brutality (me going up 2 life happened – that part was much more relevant to me at the time). I also accidentally looked at the top card of my deck while drawing for my turn following a Goblin Guide attack, because leaving the top card of my deck face-up after the attack confused me. Thankfully, a judge was there to help us resolve that issue (I got a warning, which I definitely deserved, and I wish I had just called the judge on myself immediately. I’m trying to get better about that.).
All that said, I still somehow managed to dance my way through the math puzzle that is Burn vs. Death’s Shadow. In game 1, my opponent chipped me down to 5 life, but I attacked for lethal with a Gurmag Angler and Death’s Shadow duo (helped along by double Artful Dodge, again, to get past my opponent’s blockers).
In game 2, my opponent (and I) chipped me down to 3, all but guaranteeing my defeat. However, after strategically running my opponent out of removal spells via discard spells and the juicy target that was Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, I landed a Gurmag Angler that proceeded to go on an unstoppable offensive (as my opponent never drew double Bolt effects again).
This is also where I cast Collective Brutality and remembered to go up 2 life, while not taking my opponent down 2. With my life total relatively safe, Gurmag Angle went on to chew my opponent up, and I moved into the finals.
Out: Hieroglyphic Illumination, some amount of Street Wraiths and Thoughtseizes
In: Collective Brutality, Spell Snare
Watching It All Fall Away Vs. TitanShift (Finals)
My finals opponent was playing TitanShift, and with me still on the play (as I was seeded second and he was seeded fifth), I felt good about my chances. Death’s Shadow can usually beat TitanShift as long as it’s able to land a threat quickly, and dodge Primeval Titan.
In game 1, I was forced to get cute to land my early threats, as I played a Snapcaster Mage, Dismember’d it to lose 4 life, and followed that up with double Death’s Shadow. The Shadows made short work of my opponent from there.
Going into game 2, I felt very good, as I was just one win away from somehow winning the whole tournament. I also knew that I wasn’t done yet, as my opponent could easily draw well and snag both of the remaining games. I resolved to play as tightly as I could and let things shake out as they would.
I played well in game 2, but not well enough to win. After mulliganing to a six card hand (for the first time in the tournament, so I can’t complain), I found that my opponent had boarded in Chalice of the Void, which is very good against my deck. I countered the Chalice with Stubborn Denial, but from looking at the life totals I have written down, it seems I never landed a threat after that. I would assume I played a Gurmag Angler that then got Magmatic Sinkhole’d, but it’s possible that I just never found anything. Either way, my opponent killed me with Primeval Titan and Valakut triggers – no Scapeshift or attacking needed.
Game 3 was super interesting, as I cast two discard spells that revealed hands I absolutely hated to see. The first one showed Chalice of the Void and Thragtusk, and I was obliged to take the Chalice so that I could continue playing Magic. The second one showed Thragtusk and Magmatic Sinkhole, and I took the ‘Tusk, hoping I’d draw a Stubborn Denial or extra threat to get past the Sinkhole (it’s possible that this was incorrect, and I should’ve just taken the Sinkhole – but Thragtusk buys my opponent so many extra turns that I figured it was the correct choice).
I never found a Stubs, and I was having trouble pitching enough cards to deploy the Gurmag Angler in my hand (I believe this is the game I got Relic’d), so I got creative (and misplayed along the way). I was forced to use Collective Brutality to strip the Sinkhole from my opponent’s hand. And because I wanted the extra Delve fuel, I ended up -2/-2’ing my own Snapcaster (which was incorrect, as I should’ve gotten my opponent’s Sakura Tribe Elder before attacking, and thus gotten two extra points of damage in).
None of my fancy (mis)plays ended up mattering, though, as my opponent drew a Primeval Titan before I could find a Disdainful Stroke to cover it. PrimeTime wrapped the game up pretty quickly (in the way that he does), and I shook my opponent’s hand, said “Good Games,” and wished him luck in Sunday’s tournament (where I believe he ended up playing Izzet Phoenix – I haven’t watched the replay yet).
The next day, Trevor and I discussed my sideboarding, and wondered whether I should’ve found room for Plague Engineer in post-board games (possibly over Collective Brutality). Clearing Sakura-Tribe Elders out at no cost is big game, as is attacking for early points of damage. If I’d brought Plague Boy in against Scapeshift, I would have played it in 6 out of the day’s 8 matches – which is pretty good for a card I owned 0 copies of at the start of Saturday.
Out: Fatal Push, one other card that I can’t remember in game 3 (believe it was Hieroglyphic)
In: Collective Brutality, Disdainful Stroke, Spell Snare (game 3, after seeing Chalice)
Pizza, Prizes, and Sunday Funday
After the tournament, Trevor and I slammed some convention center pizza (next time, Wahlburger’s) claimed our On-demand Commander event prizes from the day before (we’d been planning to use the Command Zone’s free event ticket on Saturday), and headed to the Prize Wall. I cashed in for a box of Modern Horizons (that I sold off before leaving the convention hall) and a Misty Rainforest, while Trevor picked up a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria for himself and a Liliana, Dreadhoarde General for me (Trevor’s a pretty nice guy, if you hadn’t already noticed).
The next day, we got to stick to our plan of hiking at Red Rock Canyon, having brunch with my wife, Kat (who you might remember as the inventor of Shank Muppet), and her mom, playing Risk with my niece and nephew, and having dinner with Trevor’s aunt and uncle. While I was a little bummed to fall just short of playing in the Sunday Modern Madness tournament, I was not bummed for long – we had a great Magic-free Sunday in North Las Vegas.
I’m excited to continue playing Dimir Death’s Shadow in post-Faithless Looting Modern, as I think the deck gains a little bit of an edge from the banning of graveyard decks. With less graveyard hate around, Snapcaster Mage and Gurmag Angler might get a tiny bit better, and I feel that Shadow matches up fine against the decks many expect to see leading new Modern.
That said, it’ll likely be awhile until I write another tournament report – this one was a beast! I hope you enjoyed it, and that if you’re a fellow Death’s Shadow player (or you play against the deck a lot), you found some insights that you can use as new Modern begins to take shape.