“Will Mardu Death’s Shadow be the best Death’s Shadow deck after Hogaak gets banned?”

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been asked this question a lot. In order to answer that question with any degree of confidence, though, we need to look at what makes Mardu Shadow good right now, what the alternatives are, and do our best to figure out what the meta game looks like without Hogaak.

Don’t miss my story on winning an MCQ with Mardu Death’s Shadow or my full guide Mardu Death’s Shadow.

What Makes Mardu Shadow Good?

This is an important question to ask about any deck in any format. The answer is always the same: it lines up well against the other decks that make up the metagame and the interactions in those matchups.

For Mardu Death’s Shadow, the answer in the current Modern landscape is, oddly enough, Hogaak. Things do get deeper than that, as Hogaak is a pile of problems that are fairly representative of the format: a weakness to Path to Exile, a general difficulty blocking, and a lack of removal spells.

Path to Exile is underrepresented in the Modern format as a whole. Mardu Death’s Shadow is the most powerful shell built for Path to Exile simply because unlike other Path decks, Mardu Death’s Shadow has ways to end the game in an effective manner, which mitigates the drawback of ramping your opponent a land.

Modern is flush with recursive graveyard threats like Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, Vengevine, and Arclight Phoenix, which aren’t vulnerable to other commonly played removal spells and give non-White midrange decks fits. Unlike Fatal Push and Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile doesn’t care about the size or mana cost of the target—it always gets the job done.

The Modern format isn’t known for getting a lot of use of the declare blockers step, which is great if you want to cast Death’s Shadow. The absence of a lot of small, cheap creatures make closing out the game a lot easier, which means the deck less reliant on finding a Temur Battle Rage to win. Cheap creatures with the ability to block do still exist in Modern, but they’re typically something like Monastery Swiftspear, which don’t like to be left on blocking duty, and if they are then things are going well for us. Other decks that are interested in blocking, like Jund, tend to be light on threats and their creatures can be cleaned up with relative ease.

Stock in traditional removal spells is down, largely thanks to the recursive graveyard threats. Modern being light on removal spells is a boon for Mardu Death’s Shadow as the deck relies on just a few powerful threats. Without Stubborn Denial in the deck, a spell that our Grixis counterparts rely heavily on, our threats are more vulnerable. This would be a problem if decks like Jund and Azorious Control were more common, but thankfully Hogaak solves a lot of those problems for us by suppressing some of our bad matchups.

The Alternatives

There are a number of different ways to configure a Death’s Shadow deck across a variety of colors. I get asked about decks like Esper and Abzan Death’s Shadow frequently, and I cannot stress this enough: do not cut Temur Battle Rage from your Death’s Shadow deck! It fills so many holes in the deck’s game plan. Temur Battle Rage gives the deck speed against combo decks and gives us a way to beat blockers should our opponent have them.

That being said, we’re left with Grixis, and Jund. I don’t believe Jund to be a real option as it lacks powerful cards like Ranger-Captain of Eos or Snapcaster Mage/Stubborn Denial that you get from other colors.

Grixis Death’s Shadow was the go-to Death’s Shadow deck until it fell out of favor with the rise of Humans and the printing of Blast Zone. These problems carried us right into the printing of Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, which is a difficult matchup for Grixis Death’s Shadow, but an excellent one for Mardu.

Similar to Mardu with Path to Exile, I think the strength of Grixis Death’s Shadow is based on the relative effectiveness of Stubborn Denial. While graveyard hate isn’t incredible against Grixis Death’s Shadow it can be bothersome enough, and there sure is a lot of it right now, making Grixis a less attractive option. When interactive or combo decks are popular in Modern, Grixis is often a better choice than Mardu. If we see a shift back towards those decks in coming weeks, the stock in Grixis certainly goes up.

What Does the Metagame Look Like Without Hogaak?

It is hard to speculate what the format will looks like after the dust settles if Hogaak gets banned—not that that would stop us, though.

You could say that it will revert back to what it looked like before Hogaak, but don’t I believe that is necessarily true. Modern Horizons introduced a lot of powerful cards to the format, and many of those cards have had their impact muted by Hogaak. For example, do we really know how good Wrenn and Six is? What about Force of Negation or Eldamari’s Call? We know these cards are powerful, just not exactly how powerful.

With that in mind I think what we can do is construct potential worlds where Mardu is better suited, and the same for Grixis, then see which ever world comes the closest to reality once the dust settles.

The first world looks something like the previous format but people will have upgraded decks. This means the popular decks will likely be Mono-Green Tron, Dredge, Urza, both Izzet and Mono-Red Phoenix, Jund, Azorious Control, and Humans. In this meta game I believe that both Mardu and Grixis Shadow are viable options. Mardu tends to be better against Dredge, Izzet Phoenix, and Humans. Grixis in this world is the better option if Mono-Green Tron, Urza, and Mono-Red Phoenix are more popular. Which leaves Jund and Azorious Control, which I believe are roughly equivalent matchups for both versions of Shadow.

This first world seems more representative of what I think things will look like. If things end up looking like this, I think it comes down to which half of these decks edges the others out in popularity. Preferred play style will also pull people in both directions is things end up being that close.

The second possible world is one where there is a power vacuum after a Hogaak ban. One would think that combo decks would actually be a strong choice right now, but for whatever reason decks like Neobrand, Twiddle Storm, and Burn (which I will maintain is actually a combo deck in nature) aren’t seeing a ton of play. If these decks finally find their footing in Modern, Grixis Death’s Shadow certainly gets a huge boost as the stock in Stubborn Denial goes through the roof while Path to Exile gets much worse.

To wrap things up, I believe that Mardu Death’s Shadow is robust and powerful enough to remain competitive in a format without Hogaak but does get weaker if Path the Exile drops in effectiveness. I wouldn’t be afraid of buying into the deck today if you enjoy the play style of either Death’s Shadow or midrange decks in Modern. I also believe there is a strong chance that Grixis Death’s Shadow could make its way back to being an excellent deck once again if the format rewards the game play of grinding with Snapcaster Mage and Stubborn Denial, or if a Turn 2 Gurmag Angler is something that Death’s Shadow decks need to keep up.

I can’t speak definitively just yet on which deck will be stronger a month from now, but I am thinking a lot about both versions of the deck. One thing I am confident in is that people who love Death’s Shadow will have a good deck to play going forward. You can bet I’ll be doing my part to try and share all of the wisdom I can on the topic in the coming weeks keep our favorite one-mana 13/13 on top!

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