My name is Michael Rapp, I am a grinder from the Boston area, and I was fortunate enough to win Grand Prix Toronto playing Grixis Death’s Shadow. Over the course of the last few weeks I have had a lot of questions come in. The most popular are:
“What do you think of your X matchup?”
“Did you really play Shattering Blow, or is that a typo?”
“Do you have a sideboarding guide?”
I’ll try to answer all of these questions in one place, and to give people an idea of what I think in regards to Modern and Death’s Shadow.
Grixis Death’s Shadow
Michael Rapp, 1st place at Grand Prix Toronto
Grixis Shadow main decks tend to be pretty stock these days, with the core of the deck being something like this:
15 Creatures: Almost always the configuration of four Death’s Shadow, four Street Wraith, three Snapcaster Mage, and four Gurmag Angler. Occasionally you will see people trading a Gurmag Angler for a Tasigur, the Golden Fang when Reflector Mage is popular, or for a fourth Snapcaster Mage in metagames that require additional card advantage.
6 Removal Spells: The exact count of each removal spell is in flux depending on what the metagame calls for, but two copies of Dismember has been a mainstay due to its ability to kill most of the popular creatures in the format, while letting you pay life to discount the mana cost. Supplementing Dismember is a suite of four copies of 1-mana removal spells, traditionally Fatal Push and Lightning Bolt.
3 Counterspells: Three copies of Stubborn Denial have been standard in the main deck of Death’s Shadow for some time now. This number rarely fluctuates as the fourth copy is often in the sideboard.
10 Cantrips: The cantrip and card selection suite is usually about 10 deep, made up of Serum Visions, Thought Scour, Faithless Looting, and Mishra’s Bauble. Faithless Looting is often found as a single copy because at the end of the day it is card disadvantage, but it is a powerful filtering tool later in the game to discard extra lands, or other cards that may not be useful like extra discard and removal spells.
Thought Scour is your best cantrip in matchups where you need to get on the board quickly because it acts as a Dark Ritual for Gurmag Angler. It’s also useful in providing Snapcaster Mage with targets. Mishra’s Bauble is not only a free way to draw a card and put a card into the graveyard to help with delve, but it also provides you with additional library manipulation. Bauble, when paired with Street Wraith and fetchlands, is a powerful tool to either draw a card you do want using the Street Wraith, or to shuffle away a card you don’t using the fetchland.
Beyond that, Mishra’s Bauble can be used to target your opponent in situations where you want to cast a discard spell so that you can have the most information available to make your decision.
2 Temur Battle Rage: This card doesn’t really fit into any of the other categories, but it is very important to start with two copies. It lets you be fast in the matchups where that’s important, and beat blockers in the creature matchups.
17 Lands: This number is stock. The only change some people make is to trade the second Blood Crypt for an 11th fetchland.
My main deck customizations were as follows:
- Zero main deck Lightning Bolt for the fourth copy of Fatal Push. As Humans becomes less popular in the face of the U/R Arclight Phoenix decks, having removal spells with different names becomes less important as you won’t run into as many Meddling Mages. By the same token, killing Thing in the Ice and Crackling Drake is important in the Phoenix matchups, so the fourth Fatal Push gets the nod.
- The fourth main deck Stubborn Denial. Frequently found in the sideboard, I think Toronto was an excellent weekend for it to get a starting role. The week before the tournament, I noticed that Humans was on the downswing, Phoenix and Burn were popular, and a lot more people were playing Chalice of the Void and Ensnaring Bridge. Stubborn Denial’s stock goes up in all of these situations.
- The second Blood Crypt over the 11th fetchland. When you max out on Thought Scour it makes some amount of sense to have a second Blood Crypt with the increased chance of accidentally milling one of them over.
The only other oddball choice I made was the Shattering Blow in the sideboard. The spot is most commonly occupied by Abrade, and I’d like to thank Ben Jones for this tech. Once you realize that the additional medium quality removal spell isn’t needed with the damage half of Abrade because creature decks are on the downswing, you get to play a narrower and more powerful artifact hate card. Shatterstorm is the card most people would play, but I tend to lean on the side of cheaper interaction in decks with low land counts.
Decks like Whir Prison and Hardened Scales both play a high number of Welding Jar in their deck, so traditional “destroy” type artifact removal is less than stellar here. Shattering Blow being able to cleanly deal with an Ensnaring Bridge, Chalice of the Void, or big creature out of Hardened Scales through a Welding Jar is a big deal. It also gets bonus value against cards like Hangarback Walker and Wurmcoil Engine.
The only changes I would make to the deck going forward are to:
- Cut the Shattering Blow for a Hurkyl’s Recall, and
- Cut the second Blood Crypt for an additional Scalding Tarn
Hurkyl’s Recall seems better to me than Shattering Blow once you’re in the market for a powerful, yet narrow artifact-related spell. In a deck that can put on the kind of incredible pressure that Death’s Shadow can, Hurkyl’s Recall often acts as a 2-mana Shatterstorm against decks with Ensnaring Bridge. Hurkyl’s Recall not only beats Welding Jar, but it also beats Spellskite, which a lot of the artifact-based decks have started to sideboard in high numbers.
Out of the main deck
In the main deck
Out of the sideboard
In the sideboard
Finally, the part everyone has been waiting for! The disclaimer: This is just how I sideboard. There are frequently discussions with varying opinions about how sideboards should be constructed, and what plans should be executed, throughout the Death’s Shadow community.
The keys to this matchup are: not letting them get Phoenixes in play early, and not getting burned out. You can accomplish this by targeting your disruption at their Faithless Looting and Manamorphose. Preventing them from getting their Birds in the graveyard is going to save you a lot of trouble, unless of course you have a Surgical Extraction in your hand, in which case let them go nuts and hit the Phoenixes before they come into play. Countering Manamorphose will shut down their most explosive turns and often feels like a Time Walk. Avoiding getting burned out here is pretty simple. Try and keep your life total around 8 until you know you can safely kill them.
This matchup isn’t really a battle of card advantage, so Snapcaster Mage loses some value here. Street Wraith is a touch ambitious in a matchup where your life total matters, so shaving one is where I would look next.
Liliana is an important addition to Dismember and Fatal Push as ways to kill Thing in the Ice and Crackling Drake. Using her plus ability early in the game can be a bit dangerous because your opponent can dump a Phoenix. But later in the game they require a lot of resources for most of their threats to work, so it’s important to keep them low on cards.
Surgical Extraction is your best tool to deal with Arclight Phoenix cleanly. Either hit it with a Thoughtseize early and then Surgical it, or let them bin it themselves and hit it with Surgical. Either works.
Side Note: They do have Blood Moon in their sideboard, but in my experience they don’t always bring it in, so be mindful in your fetching.
Out on the Play
Out on the Draw
Managing your life total in this matchup is very tricky with Creeping Chill, Conflagrate, and Bloodghast with haste. Do your best to be mindful of these things. Being able to hit cards like Faithless Looting and Cathartic Reunion in the early game is a boon, because the longer it takes them to get going, the longer you have to set up Death’s Shadow plus Temur Battle Rage. In sideboarded games, hitting cards like Narcomoeba and Bloodghast before they can bring back Prized Amalgam is where you want to be. Tagging a Creeping Chill with the exile trigger on the stack is a good way to flatten their damage spikes, which makes managing your life total much easier.
You are acknowledging that you need to be fast in this matchup by taking out Fatal Push because Dredge has the inevitability. You can’t draw too many weak cards in your search for Death’s Shadow, Temur Battle Rage, and Surgical Extraction.
Thoughtseize is excellent on the play because it lets you snag a Faithless Looting or Cathartic Reunion before they have a chance to cast it. On the draw, however, you often lose the ability to hit a Faithless Looting with it, so its value goes down quite a bit. Once you realize that they likely have some amount of blockers in play during a racing situation Fatal Push comes back in on the draw.
Lightning Bolt functions as a spell that will kill any of their creatures in a pinch, or sneak in for the last few points of damage, so it makes the deck in sideboarded games.
Grixis Death’s Shadow
Take the draw in this matchup when given the option. You’re both going to be grinding quite hard, and it is unusual for anyone to die particularly quickly, so the extra card will end up mattering more often than not.
Key to the matchup: This is a grind fest, so do your best to keep your opponent’s plansewalkers and threats off the table. Gurmag Angler is the hardest creature to deal with in the matchup, so I prioritize taking it with Thoughtseize when I can afford to. Move the game into a space where you’ll have the last threat alive, and you’ll soon have a defeated opponent.
Temur Battle Rage looks poor in the face of so many removal spells. No need to give your opponent an easy two-for-one. Stubborn Denial can clog up your hand early and doesn’t do anything when you don’t have a threat, but it is good at protecting them when you have them. Trimming one is fine. Inquisition of Kozilek is your worst discard spell in this matchup because it can’t take Gurmag Angler, but it is still valuable, so we shave one.
All the cards you’re bringing in help you grind by either removing creatures or buying yours back. Liliana, the Last Hope and Kolaghan’s Command will get back your creatures that have been previously dealt with. In a pinch you can also pick up a Street Wraith if you need an extra card. Liliana of the Veil is excellent at killing your opponent’s main threats, though timing is important so you don’t end up killing a Snapcaster Mage. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is excellent here as, if it flips, it will often flashback a removal spell and then proceed to take over the game.
Keys to the matchup: Play this matchup cautiously with your life total, and fetch basics when you can. You want a threat in play as fast as possible, because you’ll need a few turns to kill them unless you have Death’s Shadow plus Temur Battle Rage. A smart burn opponent will hold their instants to be able to play one or two spells on your end step, then untap and finish you off. Be wary of this play pattern. In sideboarded games your opponent will have access to things like Path to Exile, Deflecting Palm, Rest in Peace, and Ensnaring Bridge.
Collective Brutality is one of the best cards you can have against Burn. It trades your less valuable cards for what is often two or even three of their real cards! Liliana of the Veil is a quiet all-star in this matchup. She pressures the Burn player’s hand, kills pesky creatures, and is a backdoor out to Ensnaring Bridge. Lightning Bolt is an extra removal spell that is important once you realize how dangerous Eidolon of the Great Revel is.
Kolaghan’s Command has a few functions here. First, it can very often be a two-for-one, hitting a creature in play and a burn spell from their hand. Command is also another way to deal with Ensnaring Bridge. Finally, it can buy back one of your threats that died in combat early in the game.
Street Wraith isn’t worth the life loss in this matchup and sits instead of Thoughtseize because you have high value targets in Ensnaring Bridge, Path to Exile, and Deflecting Palm. You have enough cheap interaction with creatures that the life loss on Dismember is often unwarranted, so you sit it in post-board games.
Keys to the matchup: You have no ways to deal with their lands in play, so your early turns should be spent trying to disrupt their ways to find them. If you cast a discard spell, see that they are leaning on searching effects to find Tron, take it. If it looks like they have plenty of access to lands you should instead attack their payoffs like Oblivion Stone, Wurmcoil Engine, Ulamog, Karn Liberated, and Ugin. Wurmcoil will likely be the toughest of these cards to beat because it can’t be countered by Stubborn Denial, so Thoughtseize it when you can. In sideboarded games they also have access to Thragtusk, which isn’t super hard to deal with, but gets in the way for a couple turns.
This is the matchup where switching to Recall from Shattering Blow looks the worst, but I think it is still good enough to buy a turn off against a Wurmcoil Engine or an Oblivion Stone. Lightning Bolt helps you finish the game off while dealing with either side of Thragtusk. Ceremonious Rejection and Disdainful Stroke will counter all of their high impact threats. In tandem with Stubborn Denial, resolving a spell of substance will be difficult for them. Kolaghan’s Command is good enough here as a way to deal with Oblivion Stone, and part of a Wurmcoil Engine.
Fatal Push and Dismember simply don’t have enough, or any, good targets here.
Keys to the matchup: Just kill everything, but prioritize lords. You’re the control deck in this matchup, so you board in everything that kills a creature. Be careful about attacking into Collected Company mana so you don’t get your attacker eaten. I like killing Drogskol Captain in response to Collected Company as often as possible, because double Captain blanks all of your removal spells. It is also often correct to kill a turn-1 Noble Hierarch to stop them from getting a mana advantage. Watch out for Path to Exile, Rest in Peace, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and Geist of Saint Traft after sideboarding.
Cards that you bring in here are all pretty easy to figure out. They all kill creatures, and your opponent’s deck is almost entirely creatures.
Stubborn Denial gets cut because they don’t have enough targets, especially when you bring in Collective Brutality, which over performs in the Collected Company matchups. Trimming a Gurmag Angler is something I will often do in games where I board in Grim Lavamancer. Street Wraith is okay, but they can pressure you quickly, so it is best to take them out, especially when trimming on Angler. Temur Battle Rage is nice to get through blockers, but with the number of removal spells you’re bringing in you can afford to shave one.
Keys to the matchup: This matchup can be tricky, especially since cards like Arcbound Ravager and Hangarback Walker make your removal spells much worse. Try to Thoughtseize them when you can, but if they’re in play, you’re best off killing them as soon as you can. Make sure you don’t do it in a way that leaves you vulnerable to something like a Nexus getting the counters and killing you in the air. Walking Ballista can get nasty with Hardened Scales or Arcbound Ravager, so be on the lookout for that setup as well.
More of the same. This deck is almost entirely creatures, so you board in your cards that kill creatures. Modular isn’t nearly as much of a problem when you can cast two removal spells in the same turn to kill the target of the counters, so look to get yourself into those spots. Hurkyl’s Recall basically wins the game by itself if you have a threat in play, and buys a ton of time if you don’t. They may have Spellskite and Ensnaring Bridge in small numbers after sideboarding, but they definitely have Welding Jar in high numbers.
Their deck has very few noncreature spells for Stubborn Denial so it has to go. They empty their hand very quickly, and Inquisition of Kozilek hits their entire deck, making it safe to trim a Thoughtseize. Gurmag Angler gets trimmed in matchups where you bring in Grim Lavamancer. Finally, Street Wraith is an easy cut when you need room against aggressive decks.
Keys to the matchup: Try not to let them get an Amulet of Vigor into play. If they do, try and attack their Summoner’s Pact and Primeval Titan. The versions of this deck that splash white are much worse for you than the versions that do not. In addition to having easy access to Engineered Explosives they also pack a full four copies of Path to Exile in the sideboard, along with other hits like Chameleon Colossus and Hornet Queen. Needless to say, given the opportunity to counter a Summoner’s Pact, you should likely take it.
All of their payoffs are big, expensive creatures so Disdainful Stroke looks excellent. Kolaghan’s Command gives you a way to remove Amulet while also killing their creatures that accelerate their mana. Lightning Bolt is just another way to stunt their mana advantage.
Keys to the matchup: Ensnaring Bridge is the single most important card they have, and keeping it off the table is priority number one. Whir of Invention and Chalice of the Void are also quite important. You want a clock, but disruptive hands are generally better, because once you deal with Ensnaring Bridge the game is easy. That being said, Bridge is your best Surgical target in sideboarded games, especially if they have access to Academy Ruins. They often have a pile of Welding Jars and Spellskites, so Kolaghan’s Command something when you can.
Liliana of the Veil is a roundabout answer to Ensnaring Bridge if you can manage to use her -6. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is another way to beat Ensnaring Bridge via his ultimate. Hurkyl’s Recall will very often read 1U: Win the game. You can set up a lethal attack, then bounce the Bridge, and there is nothing outside of Chalice on 2 to stop you. Ceremonious Rejection counters nearly every card in their deck. Surgical Extraction is mainly here to cleanly answer all of their Ensnaring Bridges once you beat the first one. Kolaghan’s Command can be interesting because they have so many ways to deal with it, but it is a card that has applicable text on it in a matchup where a lot of your cards do not.
Fatal Push really doesn’t have enough targets to matter. One copy of Temur Battle Rage will end the game so the second one isn’t needed. I like having access to one Dismember in my deck to deal with Sai, Master Thopterist, who can get out of hand if left unchecked. Street Wraith just doesn’t have a ton to offer here.
Keys to the matchup: Keeping their board contained is important to minimize the effect of Thalia’s Lieutenant. Kill early Noble Hierarchs when you can. Reflector Mage is likely the single best card in their deck against you, as it sets you back multiple turns and makes their attacks better. Be sure to take them with your discard spells as often as possible. Watch out for things like Deputy of Detention and Auriok Champion after game 1. Temur Battle Rage will likely be a part of most of your wins here.
Like Spirits, you want all of your sideboard cards that kill creatures. But I’m not a fan of Kolaghan’s Command here because too many of their creatures end up with 3 toughness.
For the same reasons as the GDS mirror, you should also take the draw here.
Keys to the matchup: This is another grind fest, so you want to have the last threat in play. Use your discard spells to take their cheap interaction, and use Stubborn Denial to counter the rest. Tarmogoyf frequently outsizes Gurmag Angler, so try to save Fatal Push for that.
The same reasoning as the Death’s Shadow mirror applies here. Everything you bring in either kills something or picks something up.
Temur Battle Rage gives your opponent an easy two-for-one opportunity, so you cut it. Faithless Looting being card disadvantage isn’t where you want to be while you’re grinding. Street Wraith doesn’t have much to offer in these long games.
Keys to the matchup: You morph into this weird control deck against them, but you remain much more efficient. Try to clear the way for your threats, and protect them with discard and counterspells. These decks play very similarly to the B/G/x decks. The big thing to watch out for is the sweepers. There isn’t a lot you can do about Supreme Verdict, so don’t lean too hard into it unless you don’t think you have a chance.
The planeswalker package will help you win a long game. Kolaghan’s Command is better against Jeskai than it is against U/W, but it still makes the cut against both decks. A well timed Disdainful Stroke on a Cryptic Command, Terminus, or Settle the Wreckage can easily win the game.
Fatal Push often has fewer than four targets so it stays home. Temur Battle Rage continues to underperform against decks that pack a lot of cheap interaction.
Unfortunately, Modern is enormous and it is not feasible for me to cover every matchup in this article. But I am happy to answer any questions that you may have in the comments section, or on Twitter (@RappaciousOne). I hope that you found my thoughts and strategies helpful. Until next time!