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Esper Death’s Shadow (Modern)

Leading up to Grand Prix Oklahoma City, I was about 83% sure that I would be playing with Death’s Shadow and Thoughtseize, but wasn’t sure on the rest. I had been toying around with an Esper version in my head, but hadn’t taken the time to build it on paper. Over the course of a few Leagues on Magic Online, I came to the conclusion that it was fine but not great. Time had run out and I needed to register a deck. Would it be Grixis or Esper? An eleventh-hour “Indian or Buffalo” flip helped me decide. “Esper it is!”

I went 11-4 (including two byes), which was good enough for 34th place.

Esper Death’s Shadow

Why play Esper over Grixis? That depends on what you’re expecting. Temur Battle Rage is the best card that you lose by playing Esper, and it’s at its best against the unfair decks you need to speed up against. Esper is better against the black-based midrange and control decks because you get access to Lingering Souls.

Most games with Death’s Shadow play out as such: 1) play discard and removal spells 2) play a threat 3) play cantrips to find discard, removal, permission, or a threat 4) play Snapcaster Mage to lock up the game. The best hands involve playing no draw spells—hands with Street Wraith, Thoughtseize, Death’s Shadow, and fetchlands.

Card Choices

Opt vs. Serum Visions

Serum Visions is slightly more powerful than Opt. You see more cards, and if your game plan is more proactive than reactive, then Serum Visions will be better whereas Opt is better when you have more answer cards. If you’re playing a more aggressive version of Death’s Shadow with Temur Battle Rage, you’ll see more cards with Serum Visions and will find it more quickly.

Opt is more likely to keep the opponent off balance than Serum Visions because it’s an instant. They won’t know if they need to play around Stubborn Denial, Fatal Push, or nothing if you pass the turn with mana untapped. The opponent isn’t working with perfect information, and you’ll get some amount of value from that. Imagine if you had singleton copies of Muddle the Mixture, Remand, Mana Leak, and Logic Knot in your deck instead of just 4 Remand. Deciding what to play around would be much more difficult for the opponent.

Plains

Probably the most controversial card in the deck, it occupies the 19th land slot and should be compared to a second Godless Shrine or another spell. Plains is a terrible card for a few reasons: 1) it doesn’t let you do damage to yourself to accelerate Death’s Shadow and 2) it doesn’t allow you to cast the vast majority of spells in your deck.

The decision to run Plains should be based on whether you’re going to play against a lot of decks with Blood Moon, which typically include Mardu Pyromancer, Goryo’s Vengeance, U/R Kiki/Twin, U/R Storm, U/R Breach, Affinity, B/R Hollow One, Living End (sometimes), and Kiki-Chord (sometimes—also Magus of the Moon).

Plains is better against the Blood Moon decks that have a lot of removal where games slow down compared to combo decks that are fast and you can’t afford to effectively skip a turn by fetching a land that won’t cast any of your spells. Discard and permission spells are better against the combo decks than using a land drop to fetch out Plains because you want to be able to cast Death’s Shadow as quickly as possible and kill them. Plains does the opposite of that. If Blood Moon isn’t a prevalent in your metagame, don’t play Plains.

Anguished Unmaking

3 mana is a lot in Modern, especially for a deck that is playing 18 lands. Anguished Unmaking takes up a flex slot in a generic list, and when compared to other versions of Death’s Shadow, you’ll see cards like Kolaghan’s Command, Temur Battle Rage, and Liliana of the Veil. Anguished Unmaking is bad against land threats, namely Inkmoth Nexus and Celestial Colonnade, but it’s more flexible against other cards because it exiles and is otherwise non-conditional. Wurmcoil Engine, planeswalkers like Karn Liberated or Gideon of the Trials, creatures like Death’s Shadow or Kitchen FinksAnguished Unmaking deals with them all. If you’re going to play an expensive interactive spell, Anguished Unmaking does a reasonable job.

Disenchant

Disenchant may seem like an odd sideboard card. Generic 1-for-1 removal usually isn’t a good way to use sideboard space in Modern because more powerful silver bullets are abundant (Rest in Peace, Stony Silence, Leyline of Sanctity, Leyline of the Void, et al.) Problematic cards that you’ll encounter are Blood Moon, Leyline of the Void, Leyline of Sanctity, Chalice of the Void, and Shapers’ Sanctuary to a lesser extent.

The question you want to ask is, “can I just ignore those cards and kill my opponent?” The answer is “sometimes.” While it’s possible that some draws won’t stumble against Leyline of Sanctity, other draws will. You may have kept a hand that relies on Thoughtseize to lower your life total, taking a crucial spell from the opponent, and following it up with a Death’s Shadow. There have been multiple cases where I’ve Thoughtseized myself against a Leyline of Sanctity just to get below 13. Shocking, I know. That Gurmag Angler in your hand isn’t looking so hot when it costs 7 mana instead of 1 thanks to Leyline of the Void. The point is that your discard and permission spells won’t always line up with the opposing threats, and depending on the dynamic of the matchup, that may mean that you will want other forms of disruption like Disenchant.

Also, be sure that these Disenchant cards are actually good against the rest of the deck that you’re bringing it in against—they are most of the time.

Decks with Blood Moon

  • Mardu Pyromancer
  • Goryo’s Vengeance
  • U/R Kiki Moon
  • U/R Storm
  • U/R Breech
  • Affinity
  • Living End (sometimes)
  • Kiki-Chord (sometimes)
  • B/R Hollow One

Decks with Leyline of Sanctity

  • Lantern
  • Bogles
  • As Foretold
  • Goryo’s Vengeance
  • Ad Nauseam
  • Amulet
  • R/W Prison
  • Scapeshift (sometimes)
  • U/R Storm (sometimes)

Decks with Leyline of the Void

  • B/R Hollow One
  • As Foretold
  • Mardu Pyromancer
  • Goryo’s Vengeance
  • Dredge

Decks with Chalice of the Void

  • Scapeshift (sometimes)
  • Eldrazi Tron
  • RW Prison

Decks with Madcap Experiment

  • U/R Breech
  • U/R Storm
  • Jund (sometimes)
  • R/G Scapeshift (sometimes)

Sideboarding

Mirror

Out

In

Lingering Souls is usually good because the best answer to it, Liliana, the Last Hope, is rarely played as more than a 1-of. Other popular cards like Izzet Staticaster and Engineered Explosives are bad against the rest of the deck, and unless the opponent knows they’re facing 4 copies of the card, I wouldn’t expect them to bring those other cards in if they had them unless there were some really bad main deck cards.

Nihil Spellbomb isn’t exciting, and I’d consider not bringing it in on the draw. You’re spending a lot of resources to potentially delay a Tasigur/Gurmag Angler or prevent a Snapcaster Mage from getting value, and at the cost of casting your own discard/cantrip spells.

I had been taking out Stubborn Denial for a while, but that that may be a mistake. Games tend to be long because of all the discard/removal. Sticking a threat can be tough because of that. Stubborn Denial is another spell that the opponent has to deal with at some point, and it puts them in an awkward position because they have to gamble on whether you’ll find a creature. Taking a removal/discard spell or planeswalker may be so much more appealing because the card does something immediately whereas Stubborn Denial doesn’t.

Affinity

Out

In

Most versions will have Blood Moon and some sort of graveyard disruption, which makes redundant delve creatures a liability. Liliana is quite bad here because there are so many weak creatures that you’ll rarely be able to get a creature that matters. Etched Champion isn’t as big a threat as it used to be because of Ceremonious Rejection. The white sideboard cards really shine here.

Eldrazi Tron

Out

In

They have Chalice of the Void. If you’re on the draw, try to keep a hand that has discard/Ceremonious Rejection. They also have Cavern of Souls, which is less of an issue, but it means that Ceremonious Rejection won’t always be a solution to their creatures.

Tron

Out

In

Tron doesn’t feel like a good matchup. If they are on the play and lead with Tron land + Expedition Map, you’re probably in trouble because they’ll be able to assemble Tron and eventually stick a threat. Stubborn Denial and Ceremonious Rejection are great and should be saved for their payoff spells.

Scapeshift

Out

In

Sometimes they’ll have Chalice of the Void, Leyline of Sanctity, and/or Madcap Experiment. I wouldn’t bring in Disenchant because it’s bad against most of their deck except if they play Khalni Heart Expedition (rarely played) or Prismatic Omen. Even then, Anguished Unmaking will cover your bases, although it is a bit expensive. Primeval Titan can be a problem, but you have enough copies of Thoughtseize to keep them contained. They’ll have a one/two-turn window in most games to draw one, but usually they won’t.

U/W Control

Out

In

You can keep in Path if they have Gideon, but it’s not good. Fulminator helps a lot because often you’ll trade resources and eventually die to two attacks from Celestial Colonnade. There are a lot of versions of U/W, and it’s important to watch out for hints as to how many creatures they may have. Some versions play with lots of creatures—Spell Queller and Vendilion Clique in addition to Snapcaster Mage—so keeping in more removal is acceptable. Anguished Unmaking will usually be able to deal with a planeswalker, Detention Sphere, Engineered Explosives, or a creature. If they have Spreading Seas and Field of Ruin, you’re probably in trouble.

Lantern

Out

In

They often have Leyline of Sanctity after sideboard, but you’re still favored. Targeted discard becomes bad, but still keep in Thoughtseize just in case they don’t have Leyline. Liliana is counterproductive post-board because you have so much more reactive disruption that you want to keep in your hand. Ensnaring Bridge is the card that matters the most. Fulminator Mage deals with Academy Ruins to stop them from getting Ensnaring Bridge back. Surgical Extraction will often be game.

Dredge

Out

In

This is not a good matchup. You’ll often lose game 1. Discard is better when you’re on the play and can potentially get rid of their enablers: Faithless Looting, Insolent Neonate, and Cathartic Reunion. You need a quick clock, otherwise they’ll start attacking with lots of Bloodghasts and Prized Amalgams. Hands without graveyard interaction are usually worth mulliganing because they are faster than you are.

Sideboarding against most other decks is fairly straightforward—bad cards out, good cards in. One of the most common problems with sideboarding is overboarding. Think about what the opponent is up to. Do they have Chalice of the Void, Blood Moon, Leyline of the Void, or Leyline of Sanctity? What cards matter based on how the games play out? Death’s Shadow can play as a control deck or a beatdown deck depending on what the opponent presents, being able to counteract what they’re trying to do with the assortment of cards in your sideboard, and shifting gears when needed.

Esper Death’s Shadow isn’t nearly as developed as Grixis or 4/5-color, delirium versions. Is there a particular card that you’d think would be great in the deck? What is it and why?

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