Even in Modern, a format known for diversity and balance, one deck in particular stands out. Forced to choose a “best” deck, or one most likely to appear at the top tables of a Modern tournament, most players would give you the same answer: Grixis Death’s Shadow. While its popularity has waxed and waned over the past 6 months, Grixis Shadow has remained an excellent and difficult-to-combat strategy, as well as being a go-to for many of the most skilled and experienced Modern players.
Grixis Shadow first appeared as an evolved form of the Jund, 4-Color, and 5-Color Death’s Shadow decks (which I will call Traverse Shadow in this article series) that were popular in the early months of 2017. My first experience with Grixis Shadow came at Grand Prix San Antonio, where I was one of the suckers playing an outdated model of Death’s Shadow. My opponent’s Gurmag Angler beat me mercilessly while I stared at a handful of Fatal Pushes and Abrupt Decays—and those were the cards that I’d put in my deck to win the Death’s Shadow mirror!
Grixis Shadow emulates a Legacy Delver deck, complete with a low land count, card selection, and tons of 1-mana threats and answers. It produces hard-hitting creatures quickly and at low cost, and backs them up with a variety of disruption. While doing all of this, it still manages to pack in the powerful Snapcaster Mage-plus-Kolaghan’s Command engine for late-game staying power. All of this combines to form a strategy that’s very difficult to combat.
Grixis Death’s Shadow
While I toyed with quite a few versions of Grixis Death’s Shadow, I eventually wound up back at a mostly stock version. The disruption package of 4 Thoughtseize, 2 Inquisition of Kozilek, and 3 Stubborn Denial feels about perfect to me. I think Serum Visions is better than Opt. Snapcaster Mage and Kolaghan’s Command are both great cards, and I was resistant, at first, to cut any copies. But the main strength of this deck is its ability to cast multiple high-potency spells in the same turn, and having too much of the grindy late-game stuff can be a liability in faster matchups. Beyond that, I like a wide variety of 1-of instants so that you can find the right tool for the right job.
What’s Special About Grixis Shadow?
In my mind, there are three major appeals of Grixis Shadow as compared to other black midrange decks.
The first is the delve creatures—Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler. Threat density is an issue for some of these midrange decks, and there’s a steep drop-off in power level once you get past the card Death’s Shadow. But these delve creatures hit hard, reliably turn on Stubborn Denial, and allow you to cast multiple spells in the same turn in the midgame. They’re more reliable than Traverse the Ulvenwald, and the icing on the cake is that they dodge Fatal Push and Abrupt Decay.
The second appeal of Grixis is Stubborn Denial. Granted, there are some other black midrange decks that go out of their way for Stubborn Denial, but having it built into the deck in a main color feels better. The way this card pairs with Tasigur and Angler is fantastic, and makes for some essentially-unbeatable draws. Diversifying your disruption protects you against topdecks and countermeasures like Leyline of Sanctity. Grixis Shadow is a nightmare for the dedicated combo decks.
Finally, there’s Snapcaster Mage, which I’ve always believed to be one of the most powerful cards legal in Modern. Particularly with cheap cantrips and self-mill, Snapcaster Mage provides both card advantage and flexibility. It represents extra removal against creature decks, extra disruption against combo decks, and can always be cashed in with a Thought Scour or Serum Visions to keep the wheels turning. It also makes your instant and sorcery sideboard cards all the more potent.
What to Watch Out For
I’ve explained the appeal of Grixis Death’s Shadow, why people like it, and some of the reasons why it wins so much. Now I’ll break the bad news: my results playing with the deck were fairly unimpressive. It’s still a powerful deck and I won more than I lost. But I think the days of piling up easy wins with Grixis Shadow may be over. Most of the top archetypes have a good plan against you.
In introducing Grixis Shadow, I compared it to Legacy Delver, but this comparison only goes so far. Thought Scour, Serum Visions, and Opt are not Brainstorm and Ponder. They don’t give you the control over your draw that you need to achieve very high levels of consistency. Some games you’ll cantrip a bunch and find yourself with a hand full of lands.
One frustrating experience with Grixis Shadow is opening on a hand like this:
This is a nice-looking hand that you should definitely keep. You’re playing the deck in the hopes of getting hands like this! Unfortunately, some portion of games, this hand is going to fail. (You’ll miss your second land drop somewhere between 1/8 and 1/4 of the time depending on play/draw and how you choose to navigate the hand.) Most of the time that you have this hand, everything will wind up great. But that failure rate is going to add up in the long term.
Another problem with this hand is that you want to cast Thoughtseize on turn 1, and then start presenting or neutralizing threats. An ever-present problem with blue cantrips is that you sometimes need to use them to find your land drops, even when it’s not the most convenient way to spend your mana. When your cantrip is Ponder, you can at least feel optimistic that you’ll hit a land. With Grixis Shadow the choice of more often, “Should I try to get lucky with my Thought Scour? Or cast my more impactful spell and accept missing my land drop?”
A second fail case comes when you can’t find a creature, or when only draw one and your opponent answers it. This leads to situational cards like Stubborn Denial and Temur Battle Rage being bricks in your hand.
A third fail case comes from the life total management aspect of Death’s Shadow. Street Wraith and Thoughtseize are excellent cards in the archetype, but there are certainly games where you draw too many of them. “Cycle, cycle, fetch, shockland, Thoughtseize. Fetch, shockland, Snapcaster my Thoughtseize…” There are some games where you find yourself at 2 life by the third or fourth turn of the game and have to stop using these important cards! Additionally, sometimes you keep life-loss-heavy hands in game 1 only to find your opponent playing Burn or Affinity.
Finally, Grixis Shadow is vulnerable to graveyard hate (shutting down delve, Snapcaster Mage, and Kolaghan’s Command), as well as to cards that punish you for having few basic lands (such as Path to Exile and Field of Ruin). On paper, you have the tools to play a long game against U/W Control. But in practice, once you get Field of Ruined twice and suddenly can’t cast two spells in the same turn, your ability to fight in the late-game becomes greatly diminished. A seventh fetchable land would help with this, but I don’t think adding a third basic land is really possible.
It’s important to note that all builds of Death’s Shadow are vulnerable to these problems to some extent or another. The fact that it remains such a popular and successful strategy is evidence that none of these problems are deal-breakers on their own. But as Death’s Shadow is going to be a major focus of this article series, it’s important to be clear about the downsides as well as the upsides.
Grixis Shadow has an inherent advantage against the Tarmogoyf versions of black midrange. The Snapcaster Mage plus Kolaghan’s Command engine gives it more 2-for-1s and the ability to win the long game. Additionally, Grixis can Fatal Push all of the opposing threats while the opponent needs more specific removal spells to answer the high-casting-cost delve creatures.
On the other hand, Lingering Souls is a huge problem for Grixis Shadow. The deck is designed to be sleek and efficient, but things start to break down when the opponent’s cards can’t be answered 1-for-1.
Grixis Shadow is a favorite over Jund, G/B Rock, and Traverse Shadow. It’s an underdog against Abzan and Esper Shadow.
Storm. I believe that all black midrange decks are favorites over Storm, but Grixis Shadow is their nightmare matchup. Your clock is especially fast and you have 1-mana hard counters and Snapcaster Mages, in addition to the normal discard spells.
Small creature decks (CoCo Decks, Humans, Hatebears, Zoo, Infect). Cheap removal and Snapcaster Mages tend to shred these decks. But Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is a major headache for Grixis Shadow.
Affinity and Lantern. You have cheap removal against Affinity and cheap disruption against Lantern. The real key here is Kolaghan’s Command and Snapcaster Mage. Even though they’re good matchups, I still recommend some extra weapons in the sideboard. (I’ve included Kozilek’s Return in my sideboard as an out to Etched Champion).
Fair (Close to Even) Matchups
Urza Tron. I’m never exactly happy when my opponent leads with a Tron land, but this matchup is much better for Death’s Shadow than for non-Shadow black midrange decks. You have a great clock, and countering their first threat is sometimes enough to close the door.
Celestial Colonnade decks. The good news is that you have a lot of 1-mana disruption. You can win games by tempo’ing them out or protecting a deadly threat for a small window of time. The bad news is that they have highly efficient answers to all of your threats. They also attack your mana and have a much better late-game.
Burn. Another matchup that you can win if things line up right for you, or if your opponent plays recklessly. That said, it’s definitely not the matchup you’re hoping for. Having to mulligan and take your first turn before you know that your opponent is playing Burn is also a huge detriment.
Dredge. A perfect example of, “things start to break down when the opponent’s cards can’t be answered 1-for-1.” I haven’t really come up with a reliable plan against Dredge. Just try to slow down their development and steal a win as quickly as you can.
Valakut. The worst part of this matchup is that they can beat you without resolving any spells. When you’re consistently dealing 11 or more damage to yourself, a mere three Valakut triggers and Lightning Bolt will get the job done. Sitting on permission spells doesn’t help when your opponent kills you by playing lands.
Grixis Death’s Shadow makes you work for your wins. If you’re already a master with the deck, then by all means you should stick with it. But if you’re picking up a new deck for the first time, I recommend looking elsewhere.
I believe that Grixis Shadow got a lot of value in the early days by one-upping the Fatal Pushes, Lightning Bolts, and Abrupt Decays of the fair decks. Now when you’re paired against a fair deck, it’s likely to be a mirror match or an opponent who has tailored their removal suite to fight you. I also think that the loss of Gitaxian Probe negatively impacts the way the first few turns tend to play out for this deck.
The tools to beat Grixis are out there. Players can choose a deck from among the top archetypes that has a good matchup—say Dredge or Valakut. Or within their archetype, they can choose threats that are resilient to spot removal, like Lingering Souls, Etched Champion, or Voice of Resurgence, to improve their game against it.
That said, it’s important to remember that Grixis Shadow is an extremely challenging and complicated deck. Subtle improvements in deck list and gameplay can dramatically change the results, and different players can have wildly different experiences. Similarly, someone who believes that they have a good matchup based on their Magic Online or kitchen table results might be surprised by what happens when they face an expert in the undefeated bracket of a Grand Prix.
You should take what you can from this article, and from my recommendations, but you can also be sure that Grixis Shadow will remain a major player in Modern for a very long time.