I've been playing a lot of Modern, where the banning of Krark-Clan Ironworks has opened up the metagame and Ravnica Allegiance added multiple new cards that are already excelling in the format. Last week I examined how new cards have fit into the metagame and shared new decks that have appeared since the banning.
Over the weekend I took my deck of choice U/R Phoenix to battle on Magic Online, playing the Modern Challenge on Saturday and the Mythic Qualifier on Sunday. I muddled through each event to an unspectacular finish, nothing like the performance of the player who won both events. Winning an 8-round event that had 130 or so players followed by a 9-round event with nearly 300 players is an impressive feat, especially when the MTGO field is so competitive and the stakes of the MQ so high. This sort of run makes me think that the player, LalauWBA—which some Google research reveals is William Bossaneli Araujo from Brazil—really has things figured out. It's almost as if whatever he is doing in Modern is so good that it somehow transcends luck, like victory was assured as long as he played his cards right. When I dug deeper and discovered that William earned his victories with a reboot of a forgotten archetype I thought to be long dead and gone, I realized he really does hold one of Modern's secrets.
This deck is nothing new—at the turn of the new year in 2017 Death's Shadow Zoo was one of Modern's best decks, and it played a part in the banning of Gitaxian Probe that January. This was considered a death knell for the Zoo deck, but Death's Shadow lived on in the Traverse the Ulvenwald-powered Jund Shadow deck, which with the help of new tool Fatal Push ran over the metagame. An arms race to win the mirror match eventually led to the rise of Grixis Shadow, which replaced Tarmogoyf with the invulnerable Gurmag Angler, and included Snapcaster Mage to get extra mileage from its own Fatal Push. Blue providing Stubborn Denial made Grixis the most disruptive version of Death's Shadow to date, and that made it excellent for dismantling combo decks too. This Grixis Death's Shadow deck has been a fixture of the metagame since, where even green-based versions splash into blue for Stubborn Denial.
Disruption has been the key philosophy driving Death's Shadow decks for the past two years, but the Death's Shadow Zoo deck takes things full circle and back to the original, highly aggressive plan. Core to the Zoo deck is the Temur Battle Rage/Become Immense combo, which together will kill an opponent outright (or close to it). Rather than focusing on disrupting the opponent, this version of the deck is focused on killing the opponent so fast that it doesn't have to disrupt them. Being proactive has always been a winning strategy in Modern, especially in the wide-open field the banning has opened up, but it's also particularly well-suited in this metagame. In the two years since we last saw the Death's Shadow Zoo deck Modern has evolved significantly, and as demonstrated last weekend, conditions are perfect for the deck to return to glory.
The Top 8 of the Mythic Qualifier that the Zoo deck won was filled with Dredge decks, four of them. Dredge is a deck that thrives on its ability to easily fight through typical disruption like creature removal, discard, and countermagic. It preys on decks like Jeskai Control and Grixis Shadow that rely on disruption but don't have many ways to win the game. On the other hand, the Dredge deck, with minimal disruption of its own, is very vulnerable to a combo like Temur Battle Rage and Become Immense, which pushes past what few blockers they can muster. Death's Shadow Zoo winning this Dredge-filled metagame makes sense when you consider what card was banned two years ago alongside Gitaxian Probe...Golgari Grave-Troll.
The Death's Shadow Zoo deck reached its original zenith right alongside Dredge, which at that time was the best it had ever been in Modern after Kaladesh brought Cathartic Reunion a few months prior. It was held in check only by decks like Death's Shadow Zoo and especially Infect, which put three copies into the Top 8 of the final Grand Prix before the Gitaxian Probe and Golgari Grave-Troll bannings. Dredge is now the most popular deck in Modern, just edging out another graveyard-oriented deck U/R Phoenix. In the finals of the MQ, the Zoo deck beat a Hollow One deck, another deck that uses the graveyard. By design these graveyard decks laugh at typical disruption spells, so fighting back by going bigger with a combo-kill, such as Temur Battle Rage and Become Immense, makes the most sense.
On further analysis, the Death's Shadow Zoo deck has many other attributes that make it an outstanding choice in this metagame. It might seem that Infect, which was previously a great foil to Dredge, would be a great choice now, especially with Dredge now including the useless Creeping Chill. The problem is that U/R Phoenix is a terrible matchup for Infect. The U/R deck is full of ways to deal with creatures, including the free Gut Shot and the sweeper Thing in the Ice, along with excellent blocker Arclight Phoenix. It's far too much for Infect to consistently beat, but Death's Shadow Zoo fights through these cards in stride, with larger, more robust threats to survive them and better disruption to fight back against them.
The fourth most popular deck in Modern is Burn, another matchup where Infect truly suffers, but against which Death's Shadow excels. It might be counterintuitive that the Death's Shadow deck, which is designed to damage itself, is strong against Burn, but in practice the Death's Shadow simply dominates the Burn strategy, which has no choice but to make Death's Shadow enormous and hope it doesn't show up. The next most popular deck, Urzatron, is a great example of where the Death's Shadow Zoo deck outperforms the slower Grixis version, which is vulnerable to being overpowered by Tron as the game drags on.
Where Death's Shadow Zoo will struggle is against the third most popular deck in Modern, Grixis Death's Shadow. With its Fatal Push and Snapcaster Mage package, it's perfect for shutting down other Death's Shadow decks. Fatal Push is particularly punishing against Tarmogoyf, and it destroys any other threat in the Zoo deck. This shouldn't hold the deck back, since third-most popular means barely over 5% of the metagame, and the Zoo deck even fought through a Grixis Shadow deck in the Modern Challenge semifinals, but know an increase in other removal-heavy decks like Jeskai and W/U Control could spell trouble.
As far as the finer details of the decklist, its Zoo moniker tells most of the story. Helping the deck earn this name is Wild Nacatl, which as hard as it is to believe, was actually banned in Modern for over two years! Kird Ape was once banned in Extended, which sounds laughable in retrospect given the powerful old cards it would have played alongside, and the banning of Wild Nacatl in a Modern format with sleek modern combos like Splinter Twin sounds like even more of a joke. Still, the fact that the card once earned a banning shows that it's much better than it's currently being given credit for. As a 3-power creature for one mana it is comparable to Delver of Secrets, but without the drawback of needing to flip. It's the premier turn-one play for the deck, where it helps ratchet up the pressure significantly. It's joined by Monastery Swiftspear, which is supported by the numerous cheap and free spells in the deck. Previous versions of the Zoo deck typically did not play many Tarmogoyf, but without Gitaxian Probe to effectively shrink the deck, it requires a higher threat density, and Tarmogoyf is the best card for the job.
A set of Thoughtseize means the deck does retain the key disruptive element shared by all Death's Shadow decks, so it's not as if the Zoo version is a purely proactive aggressive deck incapable of interacting. Lightning Bolt and Dismember add a key creature removal element, and both can be used to pump Death's Shadow. Mutagenic Growth plays a variety of roles, like helping to protect threats from Lightning Bolt, and its impact as a pump spell can be doubled by Temur Battle Rage or Death's Shadow.
The Zoo sideboard is focused on going deeper into interacting with the opponent by including cards like Assassin's Trophy, Fatal Push, and more discard. An aggressive plan backed by disruption is one of Magic's best strategies, so by focusing on flexible, catch-all sideboard options, the Zoo deck will be able to find a way to meaningfully interact with any opponent it comes across and position itself as a more disruptive deck.
Faith's Shield in the sideboard got my attention because it's not a card I am very familiar with, but it must be a key part of the deck's plan to be worthy of inclusion, especially as the deck's only white card, piggybacking off of Wild Nacatl's requisite Plains. On the surface Faith's Shield is simply a protection spell for stopping removal, a worthy card in a deck that relies on its threats, and especially for protecting Temur Battle Rage and Become Immense. That said, for that role it doesn't seem better than say Apostle's Blessing, which is easier to cast and can also pump Death's Shadow.
The big payoff for Faith's Shield is the bonus that comes for having less than five life, which of course the Death's Shadow deck is well prepared to enable. The effect of giving the entire team protection from removal could prove useful, but it's also a Falter effect for pushing attackers past blockers. When testing the deck I ran into the Mardu Pyromancer Control deck, where I instinctively brought in the protection spell against the removal-heavy deck. Later in the match when facing down hordes of tokens from Young Pyromancer and Lingering Souls I realized the genius of Faith's Shield, which could have helped set up a lethal attack through these otherwise pesky blockers. This fact is especially pertinent because the deck's main solution to blockers, Temur Battle Rage, is not at its best in removal-heavy matchups and should likely be trimmed in sideboarding. I read Faith's Shield again just to be sure I wasn't missing anything, and learned that with fateful hour enabled it also gives you protection from the chosen color, so it can turn off things like lethal burn spells or discard. This would have been relevant in my match against Mardu, where my life was precipitously low.
Become Immense is another card that suffers in matchups that revolve more about grinding through removal than comboing off, so the sideboard conveniently includes Hooting Mandrills as an alternative way to utilize delve. It's an ideal card to bring in an against removal-heavy decks, where it plays well against Lightning Bolt and Fatal Push as this deck's version of Gurmag Angler.
As it stands now, the Death's Shadow Zoo deck looks like the perfect weapon to unleash on unsuspecting opposition. I imagine that the deck will be heavily copied and played online in the coming weeks, where it will earn some success before the metagame reacts. Paper fields will be much slower to react, so I can't imagine a better deck to slaughter a local event with. I see the deck potentially having a huge coming-out party at any of the four Modern Grand Prix being held next month.