Modern Shadows Part 1: Grixis

Death's Shadow has been one of the most dominant cards in Modern these recent years. In this series of articles, Rone discusses its evolution and the various shells that thrive on self-inflicted pain. Part one is focused on the Grixis shell and its past, present and future.

Death's Shadow is a powerful magic card, and also one of the more interesting cards to exist in this expansive game. It took years until players found out how powerful the card could be, and their conclusion wasn't even based on exploiting the cards monstrous power and toughness, it was just using it as intended. As a big beater when you end up low on life.

Death's Shadow

It combines well with Modern's mana base in particular, using the fetch into shock lightning bolt to the face to quickly deplete your life total and activate your Shadows. Cards like Thoughtseize and Street Wraith contribute to this as well, allowing players to, within just a few turns, end up with less than 10 life and putting out a 4/4 or bigger Death's Shadow, ready to get in for some serious damage. Phyrexian mana, for obvious reasons, also pairs well with this strategy.

Khans of Tarkir also contributed to the card's rise, bringing several "ferocious" cards to the metagame like Temur Battle Rage and Stubborn Denial. These cards, when paired with big shadows and their compatriots, offer an impressive amount of control for the Death's Shadow player, while also allowing them to quickly equalize the life totals or even blow out the opponent with a massive Temur Battle Rage swing.

In this series of articles, we will dive into the various Death's Shadow strategies, starting with one of the de facto best combinations: Grixis Shadow.

2016: Kiln Fiend Shadow

Tjolnar3's Grixis Death's Shadow, MTGO Competitive Modern League, October 2016

Let's head back to 2016, when Death's Shadow began to gain some reputation in Modern in Four-Color Shadow packing Temur Battle Rage and Become Immense.

During that year, some players came along with the Grixis shell that also relied on the Ferocious red instant but also adding a strong blue package for card manipulation and counter magic in the shape of Stubborn Denial.

This archetype is clearly more focused on the combo than future iterations, as it was able to win on turn three thanks to the combination of free spells like Mutagenic Growth, Gitaxian Probe, and Kiln Fiend boosted with Battle Rage.

Kiln Fiend Gitaxian Probe Mutagenic Growth

Gitaxian Probe also gave perfect information about the opponent's hand before making the alpha strike, enough reason to be banned in Modern several months later and proving too strong, just recently, in Legacy.

2017: Gitaxian Probe Banning

Matt Severa's Grixis Death's Shadow, Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan

On January 2017, Wizards decided to ban the aforementioned Gitaxian Probe as well as Golgari-Grave Troll, nerfing both Dredge and Infect since they were both non-interactive decks that were dominating the metagame.

Without Probe around, it seemed that Death's Shadow strategies might come to an end but a few weeks later at GP Vancouver in February, Josh Utter Leyton, Gerry Thompson and Sam Black took over the event with Jund Shadow (a deck that I'll definitely review in a later portion of this series.

Shortly after, the Grixis Shadow variant showed up again becoming one of the most played (and hated) decks during 2017.

The deck left the "combo route" behind, evolving into a midrange strategy capable of controlling the first turns via discard, removal, and counter-magic until one of your cheap threats can come down and close the game in a few turns.

Shadow was joined this time by Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, the Golden Fang, who operate as huge payoff creatures that can be cheated into play by delving cards from the graveyard.

Gurmag Angler Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Street Wraith thins the deck and finally Snapcaster Mage is the card-advantage creature that fits perfectly, re-casting the spell we need the most depending on the state of the game.

One of the key cards was undoubtedly Stubborn Denial, a hard counter for a single mana that acts like a superior Negate if we have Ferocious and protects our creatures against removal.

Thought Scour also plays a very important role, acting as the "glue" of the deck accelerating the Delve creatures like a Dark Ritual while filling the graveyard either with spells for Snap or creatures to bring back with Kolaghan's Command

Fatal Push was, additionally, a huge boon for the deck, offering black one of the best one-mana removal spell in Modern.

Throughout the year, Grixis Shadow earned the title of "best Modern deck," something that all Modern connoisseurs know will never last long but even so, some players asked for some banning in order to reduce its dominance. 

In September 2017, Ixalan was released, with a heavy tribal flavor that empowered the 5 Color Humans deck. At that time, Grixis Shadow players tried Opt as an alternative choice to Serum Visions, but the deck didn't experience significant changes.

2018: Modern Pro Tour and Unbannings

Dylan Donegan's Grixis Shadow, StarCityGames Modern Open - Louisville

Early in 2018, Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan took place and it was the first Pro Tour after two years showcasing Modern. Grixis Shadow didn't make the Top8 although the Traverse Shadow version piloted by Jean-Emmanuel Depraz managed to represent the strategy.

After the tournament, Humans became the deck to beat, a pretty difficult match-up for Shadow decks in general. Therefore Grixis has to adapt to the metagame.

The first change many lists did was to include one and up to two copies of Temur Battle Rage, to win the first game with it, adding the psychological factor for the opponent to play around that card in post-sideboard games.

Another small twitch the deck experimented with was the removal selection: Fatal Push was no longer played as a playset to make room for Lightning Bolt to get rid of fast creatures like Mantis Rider without relying on revolt.

Terminate was also replaced by Dismember, since it can be casted for only one mana and at the same time reduces our life to make Death's Shadow bigger.

Later, in February of the same year, another B&R announcement brought Jace, the Mind Sculptor out of captivity for the first time in the format's history, alongside its natural nemesis – Bloodbraid Elf.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor Bloodbraid Elf

These two powerful four-drops both generate card advantage when they enter the battlefield and need an immediate response, otherwise they can take over the game.

After this, Grixis Shadow's popularity fell off a bit, relegating it to the extraordinarily long list of Tier 2 decks, but it remains a serious contender in major tournaments, securing great results. It no longer defines the format, however.

July 2018: Present Day

Ben Friedman's Grixis Shadow, GP Las Vegas 2018

We are now facing the second half of the year and Grixis Shadow is still putting a good fight against most of the Modern gauntlet, although it has adapted to the current metagame in which Jace and BBE are not as relevant as most players expected.

Currently, Tron, Humans, Jeskai Control, Mardu Pyromancer and Hollow One are the most prominent decks, followed by all-time classics such as Burn, Affinity and some combo decks like KCI or Storm.

Under these circumstances, another new version showed up in GP Las Vegas, showcasing two new cards:

Mishra's Bauble is a new can-trip tech, replacing either some Serum Visions or Opts that the deck has been playing since its origin. This change increases the number of free cards to fill the graveyard in order to cast Delve creatures on turn two consistently.

Mishra's Bauble

More importantly, it's a free scry to decide whether or not to draw the top card of our library combined with  Street Wraith fetch-lands shuffle effect.

Two copies of Faithless Looting are firstly introduced in the deck; a card that is really shining in Modern recently as a fundamental piece in both Mardu Pyromancer and Hollow One.

On the Grixis case, it gets rid of useless cards in our hand; let's say removal against non-creature decks or counter-spells against heavy aggro strategies.

In the long game, when life count is really low, cards like Thoughtseize, or Street Wraith can no longer be played and the looting effect discards them to dig for fresh ones. Finally, it can be played for its flashback cost if milled it with Thought Scour.  

More meta-game adaptations: Lightning Bolt almost replaces Fatal Push and Kolaghan's Command moves to the sideboard leaving the main deck without any 3 mana spell.

With this configuration, Grixis becomes a faster deck for the first games, with Temur Battle Rage and more direct damage. Post-sideboard though, it adds card-advantage options like Liliana, the Last Hope, Engineered Explosives, and also for the first time Abrade, to fight against artifact based decks like KCI, Affinity and Hollow One and also creatures based ones.

Liliana, the Last Hope

Finally, a personal choice I have been playing for a long time is Rise // Fall, a versatile option that has won me so many games, either acting as a pseudo Hym to Tourach with the Fall mode or tempo your opponent by unsummoning one of their creatures and bringing back a Shadow/Street Wraith to pump the Shadow in play.

All in all, this is the Grixis Shadow review in Modern, hope you enjoy it and please let me know your opinion on the deck's future or card choices you prefer.

Thanks for reading.

Rodrigo Martin

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.

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