Death, Metal, and Taxes in Modern

Nick discusses a few flavors of Death's Shadow decks, and finishes it off with his hot new take on Death & Taxes in Modern.

[Updated September 19th, 2017]

Typically you’ll find me trying to break the Standard format. Sad to say it, but I’m mostly running on empty in that department. The prevailing opinion, and my own, is to just play Mardu Vehicles.  While there are other archetypes that can compete, I do believe that to play anything else is to lower your win percentage significantly. In the twilight of Aether Revolt Standard, finding good tech for the mirror is more important than trying to beat Vehicles itself. I’d recommend more copies of Archangel Avacyn and perhaps the blue splash for Metallic Rebukes in the sideboard.

Luckily, I’ve rekindled my love for Modern.  My relationship with Modern in the past has been shaky. I did get on my first Pro Tour going undefeated with Abzan Company through both my PPTQ and RPTQ. However, then the Eldrazi were unleashed and it was painfully obvious that I was supposed to be playing an Eldrazi deck at Pro Tour: Oath of the Gatewatch.  Unfortunately, I was without a superteam and landed on a somewhat underpowered G/W build that ended up significantly slower than the U/R  and colorless builds at the time.  I still had Oblivion Sower in my deck…

Modern is such a cool format to come back to. It seems like every time I take a couple months off it’s completely different. Granted, people are still just trying to kill each other before turn 4, but I have to say the slower builds of Death’s Shadow have really made the format a more lively place. When the format slows down even half a turn, it also becomes a brewers paradise.  I have quite a few ideas in this new world.  Modern hasn’t been this slow in a long time, and since then, we’ve seen tons of new cards come into the format that have yet to get their fair shake.

I want to start with the evolution of Death’s Shadow. It’s fascinating that Suicide Zoo was this hyper-aggressive kill-you-on-turn-3 archetype that has now shifted into a more grindy Jund-style deck with Death’s Shadow playing the role of a bigger Tarmogoyf. This change was predicated by the banning of Gitaxian Probe, a ban that I didn’t really agree with, but I can’t argue that it’s made the format a better place. Many pros have even stated that this new Jund Shadow build was likely correct the whole time.  It turns out that having 8 effective copies of Death’s Shadow is pretty strong.

Abzan Shadow

Lands (18)
Forest
Godless Shrine
Marsh Flats
Overgrown Tomb
Swamp
Temple Garden
Verdant Catacombs
Windswept Heath

Creatures (15)
Death’s Shadow
Gnarlwood Dryad
Street Wraith
Tarmogoyf

Instants (10)
Abrupt Decay
Orzhov Charm
Path to Exile
Fatal Push
Artifacts (4)
Mishra’s Bauble

Planeswalkers (3)
Liliana of the Veil

Sorceries (12)
Inquisition of Kozilek
Lingering Souls
Thoughtseize
Traverse the Ulvenwald

Sideboard (15)
Collective Brutality
Fatal Push
Fulminator Mage
Intrepid Hero
Kataki, War’s Wage
Nihil Spellbomb
Orzhov Pontiff
Painful Truths
Stony Silence
Surgical Extraction

Where there is a Jund deck, so too is there an Abzan deck. The GBx Archetypes are almost always like this, and it’s no different here. White is full of tools that are not only great in the mirror, but also give the deck a great toolbox sideboard full of Traverse targets.

Orzhov Charm alone is worth going into white for.  I recommended my friend try one of these in the old Death’s Shadow deck and it was great. The Jund version plays Kolaghan’s Command to rebuy their Death’s Shadows, but I think that card is a bit pricey for what you get, especially in a deck that cares so much about it’s hallmark one mana creature. Getting a Death’s Shadow or Gnarlwood Dryad back after it’s traded up, for only two mana, is fantastic. It also can pump Shadow while clearing threats at the same time.

One of the other cards worth being in white for is Lingering Souls.  Not only is it great in the Death’s Shadow mirror, buying infinite time, but it’s great against Affinity and any remnants of Infect.  It pairs nicely with Liliana of the Veil in the deck, and let’s the deck grind pretty hard. Finally, Path to Exile is still the best removal spell in modern. If these Death’s Shadow mirrors are about getting back Death’s Shadow over and over, Path is best tool in the kit.

Last but not least we have some silver bullets in the sideboard that we can Traverse the Ulvenwald for. Intrepid Hero has seen an uptick in light of the Eldrazi, and in the matchups that they come in, Pontiff and Kataki can end the game on the spot. But white is just the beginning.  I’m almost sure that while Jund is on the right track, it isn’t even the final form of the Death’s Shadow archetype. Especially once people figure out that they’re supposed to be playing multiple copies of Orzhov Charm.

Let’s explore further.

Mardu Death's Shadow Burn

Lands (18)
Arid Mesa
Blood Crypt
Bloodstained Mire
Godless Shrine
Marsh Flats
Mountain
Sacred Foundry

Sorceries (4)
Bump in the Night

Instants (18)
Boros Charm
Lightning Bolt
Orzhov Charm
Searing Blaze
Skullcrack

Creatures (20)
Death’s Shadow
Eidolon of the Great Revel
Goblin Guide
Monastery Swiftspear
Street Wraith
Sideboard (15)
Deflecting Palm
Fragmentize
Grim Lavamancer
Nihil Spellbomb
Path to Exile
Skullcrack
Smash to Smithereens

This might be going too far and maybe I’m off the deep end on this one, but I gotta say that having a Death’s Shadow and Eidolon of the Great Revel out at the same time seems like a great way to kill your opponent.  It’s possible though, that this one actually takes too much damage from itself even with Death’s Shadow. But it does fill a void in the burn deck, which is getting stalled out by X/3s.

Orzhov Charm is great again here, getting back Goblin Guide, or post-board, a Grim Lavamancer. The Lavamancer might even be good enough for the main deck in this case. I love the backdoor Temur Battle-Rage in Boros Charm. There’s no trample, but I can see Boros Charm randomly dealing 8 damage from time to time.

The last Death’s Shadow build I have is bit more of a tempo deck.

Esper Delver Shadow

Lands (18)
Flooded Strand
Godless Shrine
Hallowed Fountain
Island
Marsh Flats
Polluted Delta
Swamp
Watery Grave

Creatures (12)
Death’s Shadow
Delver of Secrets
Snapcaster Mage
Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Instants (22)
Dispel
Fatal Push
Mana Leak
Orzhov Charm
Remand
Spell Snare
Thought Scour
Vapor Snag

Sorceries (8)
Serum Visions
Thoughtseize

Getting back Delver or Death’s Shadow with Orzhov Charm is the best use of the card I’ve seen yet. It’s a little light on ways to turn Death’s Shadow on early, but it makes up for it by being a solid delver deck in the meantime. I can see games playing out where Delver gets in the early beats, and around turn 4 or 5 Death’s Shadow comes in to clean things up. I hope what I’ve highlighted here is that Death’s Shadow is an insanely versatile card. It’s spawned Suicide Zoo and Jund Shadow, two totally different decks, and I think it’s just the beginning.

I’ll level with you though, and say that I’m not really a fan of Death’s Shadow personally. I think it’s a great deck and a great card to have in the format, though. It enables some very interesting deckbuilding decisions and play patterns, but it’s just not my style. My personal favorite modern decks are Abzan Company, and Death & Taxes. I’ve been working on both recently and had a bit of a breakthrough with Death & Taxes that I wanted to share.

Creatures (26)
Dark Confidant
Flickerwisp
Leonin Arbiter
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Thraben Inspector
Tidehollow Sculler
Toolcraft Exemplar
Artifacts (8)
Aether Vial
Smuggler’s Copter

Lands (22)
Concealed Courtyard
Ghost Quarter
Godless Shrine
Plains
Shambling Vents
Swamp

Instants (4)
Path to Exile

Sideboard (15)
Fatal Push
Fragmentize
Kataki, War’s Wage
Kor Firewalker
Rest in Peace
Selfless Spirit
Sin Collector
Stony Silence
Zealous Persecution

Just because Smuggler’s Copter is banned in Standard doesn’t mean your copies need to collect dust. Copter is perfect for this type of deck, and for so many reasons. First, we’ve borrowed the sweet curve of Toolcraft Exemplar into Smuggler’s Copter. My favorite curve goes turn 1 Aether Vial, turn 2 Smuggler’s Copter.  I’ve had a burn opponent tap out for Monastery Swiftspear, and a Lightning Bolt to the face, and get completely blown out when I vialed in a Thraben Inspector and crewed the Copter to block. Copter also helps this deck mitigate flood and screw, which it has traditionally been susceptible to. Finally, Copter is just a Good Card™ that deserves to see more play.  I’ve been consistently impressed by what it can do in this deck.

Toolcraft Exemplar has also been a pretty big addition.  We have 16 artifacts, or psuedo artifacts, to turn it on. Gettting first strike isn’t too big of a stretch either. Death and Taxes has traditionally struggled to close out games and Exemplar does just that. I could even see playing 2 Scrapheap Scroungers instead of Dark Confidant, though Bob is the nuts in this deck.

Death and Taxes in general is an underplayed archetype, and is best when the meta looks like it does right now. If the best deck in the format plays 12 fetchlands and 4 Traverse the Ulvenwald, then Leonin Arbiter and Thalia have to be unreal right now. These decks are also very light on basics so Ghost Quarter and Path to Exile are just Wasteland and a better Swords to Plowshares most of the time. Throw in some evasive beaters with an aggressive and lean game plan and I think Death and Taxes is primed for a comeback. But make sure to call it Death and Metal, or just Death Metal for short.

Update: here are the videos!

Nick Peternell

Nick has been playing Magic since the 2013 Core Set was released, and grinding since Return to Ravnica. He’s played on the Pro Tour and has multiple high finishes at both the Star City Tour and Grand Prix levels. He’s a brewer at heart and excels most in the beginning and middle stages of a format. Finding weaknesses in the metagame and exploiting underplayed cards is just another day in the office for him.

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