Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been asked many times if people should play Death’s Shadow these days in Modern. I have thoughts, and today I’m going to share them with you.

When is Death’s Shadow Good?

A Dominant Combo Deck

There are a number of factors that make Grixis Death’s Shadow a powerful strategy, the first being the presence of a dominant combo deck. In the past Grixis Death’s Shadow has been at the top of the metagame alongside decks like KCI, Ad Nauseam, Tron, and Storm. These combo decks tend to be extremely weak to the game plan that Death’s Shadow brings to the table because they are vulnerable to Thoughtseize, Stubborn Denial, and a fast clock. When these decks are popular Death’s Shadow gets much better.

Fewer Humans

Humans is a frightening deck to sit across from when you register Death’s Shadow and Gurmag Angler. Reflector Mage poses the biggest problem in the matchup, especially when paired with Aether Vial to potentially blow out Temur Battle Rage.

Death’s Shadow traditionally struggles with decks that can put a lot of creatures on the battlefield, especially when they fly. Humans tends to get on the board early, go wide, and have Mantis Rider to apply pressure in the air. With all of these factors in play, the less popular Humans is, the better Grixis Death’s Shadow becomes.

Lack of Cheap Interaction

When the best decks in the format skimp on cheap interaction in favor of either none or more expensive interaction, Death’s Shadow is in a much better spot. The primary selling point of Death’s Shadow is that you get to leverage inexpensive yet powerful spells to gain a mana advantage over your opponent. When the format is full of things like Path to Exile, Spell Pierce, and Lightning Axe, that mana advantage is more difficult to establish and your cards lose a big part of what makes them powerful.

When players are showing up more expensive interaction—bigger counterspells, sweepers, or even cards like Assassin’s Trophy—it is advantageous to be able to use discard spells to strip the cheap interaction to make the opponent spend more of their turn casting expensive removal. This in turn makes it more likely that the opponent can’t use all of their mana effectively, which also generates a mana advantage.

What Does the Metagame Look Like Now?

The Top of the Format

At the top of the format going into Modern Horizons we see decks like Humans, Tron, Dredge, Azorius Control, and Phoenix. Earlier we talked about why the matchup against Humans isn’t great, so that is a little worrying for the health of Death’s Shadow. Dredge since the printing of Creeping Chill remains a tough matchup because of the unpredictable life-total spikes. Dredge also has the ability to go wide and provide plenty of blockers with Narcomoeba and Stinkweed Imp, which makes it difficult to sneak damage through.

The Azorius control matchup is looking up—cutting Terminus means that the Death’s Shadow deck can exploit their fast hands without the surprise blow-out of a miracle Terminus. In the same vein, while the Azorius deck is splitting up their wrath effects to gain stock against Meddling Mage, they could end up back on three Supreme Verdict which is a nightmare for Death’s Shadow. Overall the deck seems to be raising its curve at the expense of some cards like Oust and Condemn, which have historically been some of the best cards against the Death’s Shadow decks.

Tron is a deck that Death’s Shadow typically has an easy time with. Full of expensive non-creature spells that get swatted away by Thoughtseize and Stubborn Denial. In the past the Tron decks have loaded up on Wurmcoil Engine and Thragtusk to steal the matchup back. However, since the printing of Karn, the Great Creator Tron has had to cut back on those creatures that typically took up their flex spots. Thankfully for Death’s Shadow, Karn is much easier to beat than a turn three Wurmcoil Engine, so that matchup becomes positive again.

Izzet Phoenix versus Grixis Death’s Shadow has changed a lot over time. Toward the beginning of the year when Phoenix was new, the match favored the Death’s Shadow player; but as time went on and Phoenix became more of a mid-range deck the matchup flipped. What we’re seeing now however is Phoenix cutting back on its large mid-range threats to lean on things like Pyromancer Ascension. The more combo-oriented approach I believe swings the matchup back toward the Death’s Shadow deck.

The Rumors of Death’s Shadow’s Demise (May) Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

With the release of Modern Horizons, we’ve started seeing the resurgence of combo strategies such as Devoted Druid, Infect, Neoform, Grixis Thopter Sword, even things like Narset plus Day’s Undoing. Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis seems to be almost single-handedly keeping Humans at bay. If Grixis Death’s Shadow can figure out a way to effectively handle the graveyard strategies, it seems like it could be poised for a comeback.

On the other hand, if the graveyard threats show to be too much for Death’s Shadow to handle, things will get rough. If Humans figures out how to beat the matchup against Hogaak, that deck will likely be back atop the format causing problems for Death’s Shadow. Azorius Control can start packing three copies of Supreme Verdict should they want to beat up on Gurmag Angler and friends.

Going into this unknown metagame, Death’s Shadow was not in an enviable position. Depending on how things break Death’s Shadow could overcome its demons to become a contender again. Until then we will have to wait and see. But if there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that you can never count Death’s Shadow out for long!

Michael Rapp is a Boston-area grinder who started playing competitively in 2014. Loves Modern but plays everything. His favorite card is Thoughtseize has a soft spot for Tarmogoyf. GP Toronto 2019 Champion. Always happy to answer questions or just chat on Twitter or Facebook.

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