A couple of weeks ago, I played Grixis Death’s Shadow at Grand Prix São Paulo. Today I’m going to talk a bit about the deck: How to play it, how to sideboard with it, as well as what I would do to it moving forward.
The list I played (which was also played by 3rd place finisher Danilo Modesto):
Grixis Death’s Shadow
At its core, Death’s Shadow is a bit like a Delver deck, with one key difference: whereas Delver usually wants to play threats and then disrupt the opponent, Death’s Shadow wants to disrupt the opponent and then play threats. Both Death’s Shadow and the delve creatures require significant setup, so the plan to “play a powerful threat and sit behind counterspells” doesn’t work. Because of that, the deck uses discard instead of permission—you clear the way before you play your big creatures.
In this regard, the deck’s play style is actually more similar to Jund’s than to the Grixis decks you’re used to seeing. You have disruption, minimal countermagic, a lot of removal, creatures, and card draw. The deck is highly customizable, and between Serum Visions, Thought Scour, Snapcaster Mage, and Street Wraith, you see a lot of cards and have a lot of choices every game. There aren’t many decks you crush, but you have game against almost everything because you can be very aggressive with disruption. It’s certainly a hard deck to play perfectly, but you don’t need to play it perfectly most games to win.
• Your hardest turns of the game are likely to be turns 1 and 2. Most decks just play a land and a 1-drop on turn 1, but Death’s Shadow has a lot of micro-decisions that you have to make that have lasting impact on your game, so take a moment to consider the implications of what you’re going to do. These are the things to watch out for on turn 1:
a) If you can, you want to play a fetchland and get Watery Grave. This will make it easier to cast a delve creature or a Death’s Shadow on turn 2, and it won’t mess up with your scrys. If you have Bloodstained Mire or Scalding Tarn, play those instead of Delta, since Delta can be used to get either basic later on.
b) Cycle Street Wraith before casting other spells. It’s always better to know as much as possible before you make your other choices. If you want to draw land, then reverse this order—cycle first, and then fetch.
c) Preserve your scrys. Don’t Serum Visions into fetchland or Serum Visions into Thought Scour because you’ll get rid of whatever cards you kept on top. Street Wraith can be used after Serum Visions to guarantee a card if you feel like this is going to happen, and it’s the only spot in which you can consider playing Visions before cycling Wraith.
d) Unless you’re actively looking for something (like a land or a threat), you should cast the discard spells before you cast the draw spells. It’ll give you a better idea of what you’re up against and will give you the chance to get rid of 1- and 2-drops before they’re played.
• Death’s Shadow is not an intuitive card. You should know that combat damage only kills a creature as a state-based effect, so there’s room for it to grow and not die even though it’s taken damage—think Tarmogoyf and Lightning Bolt. If you’re at 12 life with a 1/1 Death’s Shadow and your opponent attacks you with 2 Memnites, if you block one, you’ll take 1 damage and Death’s Shadow will take 1 damage at the same time, but before state-ased effects can kill it, you’ll be at 11 and Death’s Shadow will survive as a 2/2. The same works with trample damage.
• I like keeping one-landers with Serum Visions, but will often not keep one-landers with Thought Scour unless I feel that I can afford to brick for a while. To give you an idea, if you’re on the play with a Serum Visions and 1 land you’re 82% to make your second land drop—if you’re on the play with Thought Scour, the chance is only 56%.
• Most land-heavy hands (4+) are mulligans. You have too many cantrips and situational cards, and you have to apply some pressure early on.
• You don’t have a lot of searchable lands—only 5 duals and 2 basics. You have to be careful with Thought Scour. It’s not uncommon to sacrifice a fetchland to try to find, say, a Steam Vents, only to find out that you happened to mill it two turns ago and didn’t notice.
• With Tasigur, it’s often best to just exile all discard spells—they aren’t going to be good very late in the game. It’s better to keep land in your graveyard, as that increases the power of your Tasigur activations.
This is how I would sideboard with this particular deck (which is, I believe, a pretty standard version):
In the mirror, the delve creatures reign supreme. Death’s Shadow is bigger, but it dies to Fatal Push and it can be discarded with Inquisition, whereas Tasigur and Angler only die to Terminate and Thoughtseize. Liliana of the Veil is one of the best cards, since it can kill all the big delve creatures that they play in a game by herself, and there are very few ways to remove it since there’s no burn.
Kolaghan’s Command isn’t bad (it’s better if they have Liliana), but it’s not good either. It often sits in your hand as the last card that can be discarded, it gets hit by a Stubborn Denial without ferocious if they leave it in, and it gets randomly hosed by Nihil Spellbomb, which people will bring in against you. I wouldn’t mind having it, especially if they have Lilianas you can finish off, but I like bringing in Lilianas of my own, so I don’t want to have that many 3-mana cards in my deck. If you want to keep Kolaghan’s Command, then I would take out Street Wraiths.
Affinity is a very hard matchup game 1. Kolaghan’s Command is an all-star, and most of the time you win it’s either because you drew it, or because they kept a hand that’s all Ornithopters and Springleaf Drums and you Thoughtseized their Cranial Plating. If you play Temur Battle Rage, it helps a lot here since they have so many chump blockers.
Post-sideboard, things improve a lot. Kozilek’s Return is amazing, as it pulls double duty, beating their Signal Pest draws and their Etched Champion draws. I think it’s significantly better than Flaying Tendrils, since it also kills their creaturelands and can be used to respond to a Ravager activation, and I wholeheartedly believe that playing Tendrils is a mistake.
I like taking out 2 Gurmag Anglers since most people will bring in some sort of graveyard hate against you (like Rest in Peace), and they never kill your creatures anyway, so you don’t need many. Post-board it’s easier to win with Snapcasters since you have a lot of spells that are 2-for-1s or better.
This is a matchup that can go either way. They can play a Chalice for 1 and then it becomes very hard for you to win, but you can also just play a Death’s Shadow that’s bigger than what they have and randomly kill them. The late game usually favors them, so getting a threat in play is very important.
Some people like keeping Stubborn Denial to deal with Chalice, but I think that’s pretty bad—it doesn’t deal with almost anything else, you’re already bringing in Ceremonious Rejections, and you have Thoughtseize, Inquisition, Command, By Force, and Explosives. Yeah, you can’t beat a Chalice that sticks, but there are enough ways around it without playing a card that counters less than 1/6th of their deck.
This is a favorable matchup for you—you have a fast clock, a lot of discard, and counterspells. You can certainly still lose though, since you take yourself so low that sometimes a natural Valakut or an Hour of Promise will kill you in one turn. Some people play Chalice of the Void, which is also a problem.
Post-sideboard, you get some extra discard and Disdainful Stroke. Disdainful Stroke is really good in this matchup as it’s the only card that reliably counters both Primeval Titan and Scapeshift for 2 mana while also countering Hour of Promise. Surgical isn’t amazing since you don’t have any LD spells to get rid of their Valakuts, but you can still discard a Titan, Hour of Promise, or Scapeshift, and then remove all of them. If you’re desperate, you can always Thought Scour, targeting them, and hope to mill one of those or a Valakut.
Flaying Tendrils is better in some spots here since they often have Voice of Resurgence, but the instant speed of Kozilek’s Return can still be quite good since it lets you answer an end-of-turn Collected Company.
Stubborn Denial isn’t awful here since it counters all creature search and potentially Path, but I usually prefer to rely on discard to deal with those, especially since I’m bringing in 2 Brutalities. If you want to keep them in your deck, then you can shave Street Wraith.
The rest of the sideboarding is, I feel, pretty straightforward. This version is going to have real problems against Dredge since it only has two pieces of graveyard hate and they aren’t necessarily the most effective, but I think it’s almost impossible to beat everything, so that’s the deck I chose to lose to. If you want to make your matchup better against Dredge without throwing a bunch of graveyard hate in your sideboard, you can play 1 or 2 main-deck Temur Battle Rages, which will randomly win you some games.
I liked the list we played, but I don’t think it was perfect, and I’d play a different list if I were to play the format next week.
This is what I would consider the core of the deck and you should probably not touch these cards:
These are the cards that I think you can work with:
Snapcaster Mage: Snapcaster Mage is a great card, but it’s not as good in this deck as it is in other blue decks because you have a low land count and you have few very impactful cards, like Cryptic Command. Most of the time, you’ll play Snapcaster for 3 and flashback Fatal Push, Thoughtseize, or Serum Visions.
The other problem with Snapcaster Mage in the deck is that the incidental damage you get from a 2/1 is often not valuable. Your creatures attack for 5 or 10 each, and your deck has no burn other than Kolaghan’s Command, which means Snapcaster often either has to kill them by itself (which does happen, especially if you have 2), or it’s an irrelevant amount of damage.
Snapcaster is still a good and versatile card, but I don’t think you have to lock into 4 of them in this deck. There’s a good chance that 3 is actually the correct number.
Liliana of the Veil: Liliana is incredible. This deck has enough early discard and removal to make sure that Liliana is going to live, and it’s a powerhouse against a lot of the decks in the field. It’s going to be one of your best cards against the mirror, Eldrazi Tron, and Scapeshift, and it’s also randomly great against green decks in a lot of situations. I would definitely play at least 2 Liliana of the Veil in future builds.
Stubborn Denial: The principle behind Stubborn Denial is very solid—all your creatures cost 1 mana and have 4 power or more, so you’re basically getting a 1-mana Negate to either protect them from Path to Exile or yourself from a combo kill. In practice, however, I have not liked the card.
Most of the time, you want to spend all your mana in a turn. Sure, your creatures cost 1, but you often have to play a draw spell in the same turn you’re playing them. Even instants like Fatal Push and Thought Scour are often played main phase because of delve. In a lot of spots, you simply can’t keep 1 mana up, or it delays you too much to do so that you don’t want to, and then they kill your creature and Stubborn Denial becomes a blank. This is a deck with a good number of reactive spells already, and you lose a non-zero number of games because you can’t stick a threat to finish them off, and in those games, Stubborn Denial is just so bad.
I don’t know if this is right for sure, but I know that if I were to play Death’s Shadow in a tournament tomorrow, I would play exactly 0 Stubborn Denials in the main deck.
Kolaghan’s Command: Kolaghan’s Command was another card that was a bit unimpressive. It’s cool to loop it with Snapcaster, and you do have a very cheap enormous creature to return, so it’s never going to be awful, but 3 mana is a lot. I found that while I desperately wanted it against Affinity, I didn’t really want it against anyone else—it was always medium and never great.
If I’m going to play a 3-mana card, I think Liliana is almost always going to be better. My inclination is to move to 1 copy in the main deck.
The 19th land: I like the 19th land. The deck doesn’t need many lands, but it has uses for them—it has 3-drops, Snapcasters, and Tasigur activations. If you cut 1 Snapcaster and 1 Kolaghan’s Command then you need the land less, but I still think you want 19, as it often just means you don’t have to scry a land to the top with Serum Visions.
This leaves us with:
4 Death’s Shadow
4 Serum Visions
4 Thought Scour
4 Street Wraith
4 Delve creatures
4 Fatal Push
2 Inquisition of Kozilek
3 Snapcaster Mage
2 Liliana of the Veil
1 Kolaghan’s Command
Which gives us 3 slots. Those slots can be:
- A 3rd Inquisition. You’re cutting Stubborn Denials, so it’s good to be able to add another interactive card.
- A 3rd Terminate. Eldrazi Tron and the mirror are two of the most popular decks, and Terminate is great there.
- Lightning Bolts. Lightning Bolt isn’t good versus Tron, but it’s good versus the Company decks, and it can catch your opponents very much off-guard, especially in the mirror when they play under the assumption that you won’t be able to kill them from 3 or 6 life. If you choose to play Bolt, then I’d probably bring the 4th Snapcaster in and play 2 Bolts, or even cut a Fatal Push and play 3 Bolts.
- Temur Battle Rage. This is good in any racing matchup, many of which Stubborn Denial is also good against. It’s also good against Affinity though, which Stubborn Denial isn’t. I think this is a good 1-of just because it’s so hard to play against, but I would probably not play 2. This card gets better if you add Inquisition since you can better protect the creature and know when the coast is clear.
- A 3rd Liliana. Liliana is legitimately very good in this deck, and gets better if you replace Stubborn Denial with a seventh discard spell since you can tap out more freely. It is bad to have too many 3-drops, but you already cut a Command and a Snapcaster, which is kind of a 3-drop, so I think that’s OK.
- More cantrips (in this case Sleight of Hand). Cantrips are very good in this deck, but you can’t play too many because they get clunky. You could simply play a Sleight of Hand as a 9th cantrip spell, or you could play 2 and potentially go back to 18 lands. I think this isn’t a card you want, but it’s a card you can play if the alternatives are bad.
My inclination is that I want the 3rd Liliana, and I want the 3rd Inquisition—this is the type of game you win and you want to maximize those draws. The third card can be a Sleight of Hand, a Battle Rage, a Terminate, or even a singleton Bolt—it really depends on the metagame you expect. The 3rd Terminate is probably unnecessary if you’re adding all those Lilianas, so I would probably just go with 1 Sleight of Hand for lack of a better option. This is the list I’d play:
Grixis Death’s Shadow
As for the sideboard, you get 2 slots (that were Lilianas), and those should probably become a 2nd Disdainful Stroke and the 2nd Kolaghan’s Command. It’s also possible to play more graveyard hate instead, or even to play 0 graveyard hate since you’re unlikely to beat those decks anyway.