I have the great fortune of playing alongside two of the best Magic players in the world, and two of the all-around best teammates somebody could ask for. Last weekend we placed 2nd in the first ever Team Unified Modern Grand Prix in San Antonio, Texas.

Abzan Death’s Shadow

As if getting to play on a team with 2 Hall-of-Famers—William “Huey” Jensen and Owen Turtenwald—wasn’t enough, they also let me play with all of the best cards in Modern! It’s no secret that Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, Liliana of the Veil, and Fatal Push make black midrange one of the most appealing strategies in the format. Josh Utter-Leyton’s recent win at GP Vancouver also showed the world that Death’s Shadow is a faster, more explosive, and arguably  better version of the old B/G decks. It also happens to be my favorite type of strategy to play with, so I set to work.

My results playing Jund Death’s Shadow on Magic Online were excellent, with some losses to the mirror match, but very few besides. I quickly became unhappy with Tarfire and Kolaghan’s Command—removal spells that failed to kill Death’s Shadow and Tarmogoyf—and wanted to replace them with more cards like Fatal Push, Abrupt Decay, and Liliana of the Veil. I always feel more comfortable with conservative mana bases, and since giving up red would free up Lightning Bolt, Kolaghan’s Command, and Blood Crypt for my teammates to play with, I turned to Abzan Death’s Shadow instead.

Reid Duke, 2nd place at GP San Antonio

Even if San Antonio had been an individual Grand Prix instead of teams, this would have been my preferred way of building Death’s Shadow. As mentioned above, I hate spending precious removal slots on the red spells that cannot kill the key threats in the mirror match. Additionally, having only black and green spells in the main deck means that you can keep a 1-land hand, fetch for Overgrown Tomb, and know that you’re all set on your colors for the rest of the game. (For this reason, the first white spell that you choose to put in the main deck has a rather high cost.)

The greatest loss in the transition from Jund to Abzan is Temur Battle Rage, which is very useful in a handful of matchups that can otherwise be challenging. But it’s another card that’s poor in the mirror match, so in a world where Death’s Shadow is one of the top decks, I won’t lose any sleep over the decision to omit it.

Liliana

After my lack of red cards, the first question people ask regards Liliana. I have no strong opinion on Liliana, the Last Hope. What I do know is that Liliana of the Veil is simply awesome! It’s fantastic in the mirror match (particularly before sideboarding), and plays an important role against control and ramp decks. It’s a threat that doesn’t rely on the graveyard. Finally, you get free wins by going discard, discard, Liliana of the Veil in the first 3 turns of the game. When you do that, you strip away your opponent’s answer cards, and put so much pressure on their resources that most decks simply can’t function.

Possible Changes

The only minor sacrifice that my deck had to make to the Unified Modern structure was Dismember, which likely would have been good in 1 or 2 copies. I would love to have a few more answers to creatures like Gurmag Angler and Reality Smasher.

It rarely comes up, but there might be some value in having a seventh fetchable land (third Overgrown Tomb) for late-game scenarios where you want to Traverse the Ulvenwald for Ranger of Eos or Scavenging Ooze. It can also be nice to have Mishra’s Bauble in your opening hand with 1 fetchland and 1 non-fetchland, so that you can get an effective scry by looking at your top card and then deciding whether or not to shuffle.

I liked all of my sideboard cards, with the possible exception of Yixlid Jailer. As always, the last few sideboard slots that you choose for your Modern deck will come down to personal taste, and what decks you expect to face. Here are a few more strong considerations: More Fulminator Mages, Kataki, War’s Wage, Ethersworn Canonist, Renegade Rallier, Nihil Spellbomb Phyrexian Unlife, or Maelstrom Pulse.

Unified Modern

I enjoyed playing Unified Modern quite a lot. The wide variety of formats and ways to play Magic are a part of what make it fun. Unified Modern was a refreshing change of pace, and putting the pieces together to build 3 competitive decks led to challenging decisions. Here are the decks my teammates played:

Eldrazi Tron

William Jensen, 2nd place at GP San Antonio

Huey was the hero of the weekend. He started from scratch, having not played a game of Modern since Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch 14 months prior. In spite of that, he quickly found Eldrazi Tron, an excellent deck that took nothing away from Owen or me, and that many teams didn’t include in their roster. Huey won 14 out of his 16 matches, and usually dispatched his opponents quickly enough to help Owen and I play!

Grixis Control

Owen Turtenwald, 2nd place at GP San Antonio

We weren’t quite as happy with Owen’s Grixis Control deck. We liked the idea of a Snapcaster Mage-plus-Lightning Bolt deck, since those were two of the strongest Modern cards that we weren’t yet using. Personally, I also felt secure in the idea that Owen would play long, complicated games where he could leverage his impressive play skill. But if we were to go back in time, I’d advocate for a more proactive deck. There’s simply too much that can go wrong in Modern when you spend so much time shutting down the variety of strategies your opponents will be using against you.

On the first day, Owen mostly just didn’t get to finish his matches, and we were feeling pretty low about Grixis going into Day 2. But he really came through in the clutch, winning fully the last 4 matches of the tournament, which allowed us to make the Top 4 and also gave us the best possible chance of winning the whole thing.

The weekend was filled with close games and tense moments. In the interest of discussing what I know best—and because I’d like to produce an article shorter than War and Peace—I’m going to restrict my tournament report to discussing a select few of my own matches. Death’s Shadow is also an extremely challenging deck to pilot, so I’ll make an effort to focus on some of the spots where I failed to find the best play.

The Tournament

While I don’t necessarily believe that I played poorly in my first two matches, they did leave me feeling that I might’ve misbuilt my deck a little bit.

Facing Living End in round 1, I realized that of the 4 graveyard hate cards I’d chosen, 3 were completely useless against it. I’d also overlooked the utility that Ethersworn Canonist would’ve had against Living End when I made the calculated risk to skimp on hate against Storm and Ad Nauseam. After losing a painful game 2 and getting off to a good start in game 3, my teammates both won their matches, so my opponent and I didn’t finish playing.

In round 2 I faced Chris Pikula and his Grixis Death’s Shadow deck. In both games, I kept hands heavy on Fatal Pushes and Abrupt Decays, but wound up completely helpless against his Gurmag Anglers and Tasigur, the Golden Fangs.

Round 3 I lost a game by getting blindsided by Blood Moon out of Storm Combo, but I won the other 2 games on the back of a fast clock and discard spells.

I missed the opportunity to make a great play against R/G Valakut in round 4. Turn 1 on the play I Thoughtseized my opponent and left him with 2 Khalni Heart Expeditions. On turn 2 I made the obvious move of casting my Tarmogoyf, but it would have been better for me to pass with Abrupt Decay mana open. Then I could’ve killed his Expedition at the end of the turn and cast Liliana of the Veil on a clean board. I needed to craft a strategy for the game, and that strategy should have been resource denial. My focus was on attacking my opponent’s hand, and chipping away for a bit of damage with a Tarmogoyf wasn’t critical to that plan. I left the door open for things to go wrong, but wound up winning in the end regardless.

The Traverse Dilemma

I rattled off wins against Jund Death’s Shadow and Burn before making my worst mistake of the tournament in round 7. Things were looking up, as I was on track to win game 1 against Affinity. I had a 6/7 Tarmogoyf and a 4/4 Grim Flayer, but my opponent equipped a Signal Pest with Cranial Plating and attacked me for 7 damage down to 7 life. I untapped a few points short of winning the game, and unable to answer my opponent’s flying creature. All I had in my hand was Traverse the Ulvenwald.

I considered my options for a while. It was game 1, so I hadn’t sideboarded in any of my utility creatures. I did not have access to any flying or reach, and I could not remove any of my opponent’s permanents from the battlefield. I resigned myself to defeat, attacked, and passed the turn.

It was a moment later that I realized I could’ve given myself a good chance to win the game! What I should have done was Traverse the Ulvenwald for Street Wraith, then attack with Grim Flayer in an effort to set a removal spell on the top of my library. In this way, I would’ve had 4 shots at removal, and would very likely have won the game if I’d found it. Instead, I lost the game and won game 2 before finally losing game 3 and the match. We took our second loss to fall to 5-2.

Hitting My Stride

After that, I went on a run where I won 5 matches without dropping a game. I beat Abzan Midrange, Burn, Ad Nauseam, and 2 Affinity decks. My teammates were also winning, and we found ourselves at 10-2, 2 wins away from Top 4.

Losing My Touch

Round 13 was nerve-racking, as I lost in 3 games to Eldrazi Tron. Huey defeated Abzan Collected Company and it all came down to Owen’s match against Amulet Bloom. I was late to the party (busy losing my own match), but Owen and Huey were putting their heads together and using all of their powers to survive at 1 life in the face of a Primeval Titan, Obstinate Baloth, Slayer’s Stronghold, Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion, and about a 100 mana. A few turns of Vendilion Clique attacks and Cryptic Commands later, Owen had won. We were still alive!

Round 14 I was also in bad shape, having lost game 1 against Storm Combo. But while they held my match for coverage reasons, my teammates quickly dispatched their opponents and we were in the Top 4!

Top 4 Against Ben Lundquist with Death’s Shadow

I played 3 great games of the Death’s Shadow mirror against an old friend and an excellent player, Ben Lundquist. It felt like I should have been ahead in the first game after Ben mulliganed to 6. But I may have been a little too reckless with my life total, producing a giant Death’s Shadow, going down to 1 life where I could no longer fetch, cycle, or trade damage.

We had a standoff for a few turns until I made a subtle mistake with Mishra’s Bauble. I looked at Ben’s top card, and it was a Liliana of the Veil that would have killed my blocker and resulted in a lethal attack. Then I cast Inquisition of Kozilek and took Ben’s Traverse the Ulvenwald. But since he was stuck on 2 lands, it would’ve been preferable for me to wait a turn on Inquisition, so that I might preserve the option to strip away the Liliana. Either way, the game went on a few turns, but I drew mostly lands and Ben eventually pushed through the last point of damage.

I won a close game 2 on the back of Lingering Souls.

Game 3 was a war, and can be seen here. Over the course of a long, close game, I made many judgment calls and some of them worked out poorly. But the one play I made that was very clearly wrong was casting a 1/1 Death’s Shadow and holding a Temple Garden in my hand to play next turn. Ben had Liliana, the Last Hope in his deck, and it would have been a disaster if he’d been able to pick off my Death’s Shadow with her.

It was also one of those extremely rare games where I would have improved my chances to win if I’d had a seventh fetchable land in my deck. In the end, Ben beat me, but my teammates came through and we advanced to the finals.

Finals Against Andrejs Prost with Affinity

Although the pressure was high, I was starting to feel good about our chances when I stabilized against Affinity in game 1. With a Death’s Shadow, a Tarmogoyf, and a Grim Flayer, but also a dwindling life total, my concern was winning the game before Andrejs could draw Galvanic Blast and finish me off. On one of the final turns, I had Abrupt Decay in my hand, with a second stacked on top of my library with Grim Flayer. Andrejs had a Vault Skirge, a Memnite, an Ornithopter, and 3 mana including a Blinkmoth Nexus. I was at 5 life and he was at 6, and he would therefore need 2 blockers to survive my next attack. He attacked with Vault Skirge, threatening to put me down to that terrifying life total of 4. But the fact that he did not attack with Blinkmoth Nexus made me feel reasonably sure that he didn’t have a Galvanic Blast in his hand yet. So my choice was either to kill the Vault Skirge, or to take the damage and point my removal spells at his blockers in an effort to give him one less draw step. It all depended what the 2 cards in his hand were, and whether or not he would be able to produce additional blockers after combat.

In the end, fear prevailed and I decided to kill the Vault Skirge. But that meant that I could not win the game on my turn, and therefore gave Andrejs one more turn to attack me with Blinkmoth Nexus and Galvanic Blast me. Fortunately for me, his deck didn’t deliver and I won the game.

In game 2 we both had our best draws, and the game was fast and heated. On turn 2 Andrejs’s board was Ornithopter, Vault Skirge, Blinkmoth Nexus, and a 5/5 Master of Etherium (that’s counting the Blinkmoth Nexus). I was at 11 life and was going to fetch down to 10 and cast Death’s Shadow off of either a Swamp or a shockland. This was an outrageously complex situation, because if my life total got low enough, my Death’s Shadow could block Master of Etherium and survive. But if I was too reckless, then Andrejs would have the option to leave back the Master and simply attack me for 5 damage with his flyers. I decided to fetch the Swamp and preserve my life total. Andrejs made a conservative attack and I chump blocked the Master with my Death’s Shadow, but at least I avoided taking massive damage.

I have no idea whether or not my play was right based on the situation I faced at the time. What I do know is that later in the game I might’ve been able to stabilize with Scavenging Ooze if I’d had an Overgrown Tomb instead of that Swamp. Perhaps a different Reid in an alternate universe knows how the game would’ve played out if I’d fetched Overgrown Tomb, but the game was not on camera, and question is too difficult for me to tackle on my own, so we may never know.

Later in the game, once I’d nearly stabilized at 4 life, I had 4 land and was intending to cast Stony Silence and Fatal Push on Andrejs’s Vault Skirge. I cast the Stony Silence first, and then Andrejs Spell Pierced my Fatal Push. There could’ve been some debate about which of the 2 cards was more valuable for me to resolve, but I did end up dying to that Vault Skirge. Yikes!

Game 3—the deciding game of the Grand Prix—was equally emotional, but was at least more straightforward. On the play, I had turn 1 Inquisition of Kozilek, turn 2 Stony Silence, turn 3 Lingering Souls, but it was not enough. Andrejs’s opening hand had 3 nonartifact lands, and the top of his library delivered enough Etched Champions and Master of Etheriums to beat me into pulp.

Looking Ahead

This was my third time losing the finals of a Grand Prix, and it never gets any easier. No matter how good a finish it is, there’s a certain sting that comes along with getting so close to the trophy before going home without it.

But now’s not the time for complaining! I had great luck both inside the tournament and outside of it. I have great teammates, and all of the resources I need to take another crack at it. For now, it’s time to head back to the Peach Garden and get ready for GP Mexico City.