MODERN: REBUILDING DEATH’S SHADOW WITH PREORDAIN
The Magic world was hoping for a shakeup. Last Monday was a Banned and Restricted announcement that many people hoped would lead to splashy unbans in the Modern format like Splinter Twin or Field of the Dead, as well as bans from Mono-Green Devotion in Pioneer. What we got was tame by comparison: Preordain was unbanned in Modern and Mind’s Desire was unbanned in Legacy.
Like many others, I was underwhelmed. I felt like Modern had been stale since the release of Modern Horizons 2, and that this was unlikely to change the major players in the format being Scam, Tron and Rhinos. I thought that Preordain would be a slight upgrade for the Izzet Murktide deck, but wouldn’t change the format much outside of that. But as we got closer to the weekend, my friend Dom started talking about an old favorite: Grixis Death’s Shadow. Among our friends, we joke that Dom is a mad scientist. He goes through a lot of brew ideas and while most of them don’t pan out, sometimes he catches lightning in a bottle. I took the deck to the Top 8 of Saturday night’s Modern challenge, and so I’m hopeful that this may be one of those times.
Before the Lurrus ban almost 18 months ago, playing Death’s Shadow felt like you were playing a different format from everybody else. I’m hopeful that with the consistency provided by Preordain, the high power level of Grixis Death’s Shadow’s cards will bring it back to a similar place. One of the biggest weaknesses of the deck is one shared by many midrange decks. You have cards that are highly situational, especially your threats. Some matchups require you to have an aggressive draw, while some force you into a more controlling role. If your draw doesn’t line up well against your opponent’s strategy, it can mean trouble. Between Preordain, Expressive Iteration and Mishra’s Bauble you now have a high amount of card selection that can let you quickly find the best tools for whatever you’re facing.
In addition to the unban, Modern has seen some big changes along with the release of the Lord of the Rings set. The One Ring has obviously had the biggest impact, almost single handedly reviving the Tron and Four-Color Omnath archetypes. Some of the landcyclers have found their way into decks like Rhinos and Living End. But the card that is changing people’s deckbuilding the most has been Orcish Bowmasters. Like Wrenn and Six, Orcish Bowmasters is very punishing to one-toughness creatures and has been making cards like Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Ignoble Hierarch more difficult to play with. Orcish Bowmasters is an excellent card for Shadow, giving us interaction as well as a punishment for opponent’s copies of The One Ring. However, it makes our Ragavans a lot worse.
I still think you need Ragavan in your 75 for the Cascade and Tron matchups to get ahead on mana, but I’ve been happy not having it in my deck against other black strategies. I felt good about two copies in the maindeck and two in the sideboard for this tournament.
Another deckbuilding choice that I feel strongly about is the addition of multiple Spell Pierce in the maindeck. After Top 8ing a recent NRG tournament, Joseph Bernal told me that he believes Spell Pierce is one of the best cards in the Modern format. I hadn’t ever noticed, but after thinking more about it, Spell Pierce is excellent against the primary gameplan of 8 of the top 10 most-played decks in Modern (and has utility in others even where it isn’t excellent). It will frequently trade for three or four mana cards that can win the game on their own, such as Teferi Time Raveler, The One Ring, and Indomitable Creativity. I’m not going to leave home without at least two for a long time.
Within the Grixis Shadow macro-archetype, there are a few different approaches to deckbuilding you can take. The biggest question you need to answer is what you want your top-end card to be. It feels strange to call any of these choices “top end,” as all of them cost two mana, but they all serve to gain card advantage, end the game quickly, or both in the case of Underworld Breach.
The first option (and one that I am a believer in) is Murktide Regent. Murktide takes advantage of the high density of cheap spells and lets you end games very quickly. Murktide’s biggest upside right now is that there are fewer Solitudes around than there have been for most of the card’s legality. Very few people play UW control anymore, and many Four-Color Omnath players have pivoted to using Fury as their pitch elemental of choice. Some of the more difficult matchups are ones where your one-for-one answers don’t line up well into your opponent’s plan, such as Rhinos and Tron. In those matchups, we are the beatdown and Murktide Regent is a fast clock that can be hard to kill. Here is the list that I used to Top 8 last Saturday’s Modern Challenge:
The biggest downside of Murktide Regent is that it doesn’t allow you to have Jegantha, the Wellspring as your companion. I think this downside is marginal as Shadow already tends to do well in the more grindy matchups that actually give you the time to use the companion. The next two options people turn to do allow you to have the powerful Elk in your sideboard.
The second option for your top-end slot is Underworld Breach. This may be the best option on raw power level and is at its best in matchups where you spend a lot of time trading cards such as Four-Color Control, Izzet Murktide, and Rakdos Scam. It lets you rebuy removal or threats, and it can even act as a turbo-charged Ancestral Recall if you are short on mana but are able to recur Mishra’s Bauble. One of the best-case uses is escaping several copies of Lightning Bolt to burn your opponent out if you can’t quite cross the finish line with your creatures. Dominick Paolercio (karatedom on Magic Online) went 4-0 in a preliminary event with this list:
The downside to Underworld Breach is that it is vulnerable to a lot of cards that are usually very bad against Shadow strategies such as Force of Negation, Spell Pierce, graveyard hate and the occasional Boseiju, Who Endures. It can also be redundant with your copies of Expressive Iteration in the midgame before you have a fully-stocked graveyard.
The final card is one that will have old Legacy players excited. Dreadhorde Arcanist is a card that, despite its power level, never really found a home in Modern, partially due to the lack of high-power cantrips. Preordain’s unbanning may change that. When left unanswered, it can take over a game by giving you an extra cantrip, Thoughtseize or removal spell each turn of the game. The upside of Dreadhorde Arcanist is that it requires the least setup of our three options. All you need to do is cast it, untap with it and cast a one-mana spell and you’re off to the races. It can start gaining card advantage as early as turn three, which cannot be said for Murktide Regent or Underworld Breach. Mitch Castaldini brought this list to the NRG Series event in Detroit this past weekend:
The biggest downside of Dreadhorde Arcanist is that it’s easy to interact with. Our opponents will already be prioritizing hands with creature removal against us to stop Ragavan and Dragon’s Rage Channeler, so there will be some matchups where it’s difficult to get value out of the Zombie Wizard. But their removal may also be overloaded by answering your first few threats, so it may be the way to go.
Moving forward, I’m excited to keep playing and iterating on Grixis Death’s Shadow. I’m very used to combo decks, so having the opportunity to flex different muscles and try to improve my midrange skills is a welcome challenge. The possible changes I see coming soon on the horizon are trying to fit Drown in the Loch back in the deck if Cascade decks stay on top of the meta, and changing the removal suite to include Fatal Push if the Shadow mirror becomes a prominent matchup. I didn’t think that one unban would change Modern in the Horizons era, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. The Magic community wanted a shakeup, and we got one!
Thanks for reading. Until next time!