I tested Grixis Death's Shadow exclusively for Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan and I decided to keep track of results on a spreadsheet so I could better understand which matchups might feel strong but in reality be weak on paper. I wanted to do this to help sculpt a sideboard for the Pro Tour, as well as gauge just exactly what decks were the most popular. I took screenshots of difficult Thoughtseize decisions to revisit later after testing more or share with other players for advice, which gave me the idea for an article-similar to the Temur Energy Manual but for Grixis Death's Shadow.
Before testing, I thought that Grixis Death's Shadow was going to be a tough deck to play; Modern being my worst format had me worried about playing it at a Pro Tour. Life total management, Temur Battle Rage math, cantrips and lots of hand disruption, is a lot to manage. After Grand Prix Santa Clara where I managed a 6-2 Day One record, I realized that Grixis was actually one of the simpler decks I've played in Modern. Everything was smoother and easier than expected. Your life total doesn't matter that often, Battle Rage almost always does the trick, and you don't get that much flexibility with Opt so that part is pretty straightforward. You play your threats as early as possible and kill their guys with overpowered, undercosted removal. Easy Peasy. The only factor that I ever seemed to mess up every now and then was casting Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek. Occasionally, I would leave a game thinking I could've won it through better selection during hand disruption.
For the purposes of this manual, we'll assuming we're running my current list that I played at the Pro Tour. I've highlighted some of the interesting situations and matchups I encountered in my testing.
While this may be obvious, the idea here is not to be afraid of taking a non "power" Affinity card if it breaks up their ability to develop the battlefield early. In this instance, since there is double Cranial Plating and it is game one where I can only beat them prior to resolution, I'm better off trying to constrict my opponent's threats. If my opponent draws too many threats for me to handle, slowing the opponent down is still beneficial as my other route to victory is finding a Temur Battle Rage. I can't plan on using my Stubborn Denial to successfully counter a Plating, as my opponent has three mana sources and I'm very far from establishing a ferocious threat. Furthermore, because of my one-land hand I'm likely to be forced to use my Opts main phase, making it almost impossible to successfully counter a Plating.
This is a counter-example to the many Thoughtseizes against Affinity where it is correct to take the power card – which will normally be the case since you need to deal with the high-power artifacts such as Arcbound Ravager, Etched Champion or Cranial Plating. Be careful of tempting situations where you can take a weird piece like a Springleaf Drum, Mox Opal or zero-mana creature to disrupt their first turn or so when you can otherwise take a power card. You may give them the opportunity to severely punish you by drawing another one of those cards or a piece that "unlocks" their hand. It's really bad to take a Springleam Drum, which leaves Springleaf Drum as the best draw in their deck when you can take a card like Plating, Overseer or Ravager, which needs to be answered every time.
This could be a rough game, which is pretty typical as Humans is Grixis Death's Shadow worst matchup. Aether Vial is a huge threat, as it allows them to play at a faster pace as well as at instant speed, which can make it quite hard to function the way you want to. In this case, since my hand has three discard spells, it's best to leave the Vial and try to attack the threats the opponents has instead. I can use my discard to remove three of the four creatures while still hanging onto my Dismember. At that point it would be rather silly to take the Vial since its power is mitigated and this sets me up for an easy win if my opponent draws any lands or Vials during the game that will now be dead cards.
Thalia is clearly the most constricting card and taking it should allow us to Thought Scour next turn if we don't draw a land. Otherwise, we'd probably have to just concede our potential for our second land and play another discard spell to avoid getting completely locked out of the game by Thalia. The more discard spells you cast together, the choices are easier, so make sure that you take the cards that disrupt your discard chain the most first.
I think Thought-Knot Seer is a reasonable choice and could be correct (mostly because we have Snapcaster for Thoughtseize plus three lands already). This may be the least obvious selection that I encountered during testing at first. I found TKS often didn't matter, but an Endbringer is normally game over. Endbringer is a house against you, and my version only has one out in the form of Dismember. The map means this Endbringer is a turn-four card, or even perhaps turn three thanks to the Matter Reshaper. Against Eldrazi Tron, you can often beat them in a longer game. Many of their cards pale in comparison to Death's Shadow, which completely and utterly dominates most of the time, assuming you can Thoughtseize or Ceremonious Rejection the more relevant pieces.
Here, because I had multiple fetch lands and a Thoughtseize, I will be able to play my Shadow next turn before the opponent plays Thought-Knot Seer. Matter Reshaper is quite the solid speed bump, and it's rather unlikely I can kill my opponent before Endbringer prevents my Shadow from attacking and takes over the game. Even though you can take Thought-Knot and try to Snapcaster/Thoughtseize the Endbringer, that play loses to another Thought-Knot Seer and a turn three Snapcaster Mage may also not necessarily be your best option. If you draw threats to develop the board after playing Scour/Shadow on turn two, you're going to want to deploy them. TKS is actually not that amazing when you already have Shadow as it can't effectively attack or block, and any Fatal Push or Dismember really puts the Grixis player ahead in tempo. Also, when your hand is a bit weak, taking Thought-Knot can be slightly beneficial as eventually it could turn a Push or Dismember into something better than what you started with.
Valakut is an insanely good matchup, and I don't say that lightly or without reason You always want to deny them ramp when you can – one of the mistakes can be to go after their payoffs too aggressively. Because of Stubborn Denial and the ability to draw more Thoughtseize/Snapcaster Mage, you are not super afraid of Scapeshift. Primeval Titan is the card you most often lose to, or potentially Valakut itself as you tend to dip so low on life. That's why it's important to just keep their land count low and kill them quickly with an established threat. Denying them ramp often leads to games where they can't do much of anything. Valakut decks can't kill Death's Shadow at all, so by keeping them grounded you end games incredibly quickly. You should often let Prismatic Omen resolve when they don't have a Valakut and use Denial to take away actual mana ramp.
This many not be the typical mirror match Thoughtseize, but it's interesting enough to warrant discussion. It's possible my opponent should've cycled the Wraith, but then I get more information and can maybe take a key card that is nestled on top.
Normally, disruption spells in the mirror are used to either protect a threat or deny a threat from the opponent. Being low on life is quite strong, as it ensures that any Shadow will likely have to be dealt with or blocked. The lower you are, the more likely it is that your opponent's Shadow will be smaller. When you have an unanswered bigger Shadow, your opponent oftentimes must chump it with their inferior Shadow, which is pretty much always an instant loss.
In this game they have a massive amount of threat power while they are quite low on disruption. Any fetch land will put my opponent in a great spot, as they can deploy both Death's Shadow next turn. That isn't so bad for me, as I get to Dismember one, then play a 4/4 Shadow. But that puts me in a tough spot where as his remaining Shadow would be a 3/3 with him still having Steam Vents and a Kolaghan's Command.
So why not just take a Shadow, planning on Dismembering the other one? The problem with this line is the Kolaghan's Command and the Snapcaster allow him to play a longer game and potentially brick my Liliana. The Command can easily return one of the Death's Shadow with eventual Snapcaster backup. It seems weird to fight on an axis of removing his threats when he can easily gain card advantage on me and grind them out. By taking the Wraith, not only do we deny the size on his numerous Shadows, but I'm also cutting him down on draw steps where he can draw some disruption for what I have going on. Currently he has no interaction, and ideally I can make it through the next couple turns without him Thoughtseizing me or drawing a Stubborn Denial for my Liliana or a Fatal Push for my Death's Shadow. If he doesn't draw a fetch and I take Street Wraith, I feel pretty awesome knowing I likely have an uncontested Shadow and Liliana. Taking the Wraith keeps me safe from double Shadow in the scenario where he draws Blood Crypt or Watery Grave as he will only be at 13, while also cutting his probability of drawing a fetch land next turn in half.
If our opponent does nothing on his turn two, we are a massive favorite as we have a great hand and can get rid of Opt without losing tempo. The Command and Snap are scary, but they become super clunky when he can't use his mana effectively. If he ends up just passing next turn, he's forever losing that two mana he had available. All of a sudden, his Snap and Command don't really effectively threaten my Lilly effectively, and it's a slippery slope from there. To be sure, making a "cute" play is a recipe for disaster most of the time, butyou should always think through every line, and every play should be respected as a possibility.
Here we are in a really scary situation where we don't have great pressure and multiple Spreading Seas threaten to lock us out of our black and red Mana as we unfortunately drew our basic Island. To win this game, we are likely going to need to draw a fetch land soon (probably next turn) in order to get under 13 life and also let us play Snapcaster Mage. The Colonnade means we are likely not going to get spread this next turn, and our opponent will cast Serum Visions. We probably need fetch land next turn to have any chance, and this will give us an opportunity to Snapcaster the Thoughtseize to deny the second Spreading Seas to give us continued access to black mana.
Sometimes you get into spots where you need a certain type of card or even specific card to have a chance of winning. Your odds are slim, but as a rule it's much better to play as if you're going to get there, which gives you a massive advantage when you do rather than playing toward staying as close as possible knowing you will eventually lose anyway.
Outside of Humans, White-Blue Control is the other matchup that can prove difficult. Generally, you should play for a fast game. Your deck is just simply not equipped to go toe-to-toe in the late game. Supreme Verdict is terrifying at all points of the game, so giving them draw steps is quite painful – especially because Snapcaster Mage is also uncounterable for Grixis. Not to mention going very low on life often results into dying to Colonnade post-board when you side out removal (I can't recommend Fulminator Mage enough). Games that you win normally involve you leaning on their clunky early game to win quickly. Path to Exile is the most important card, and its rarely wrong to select it.
I have found the various Devoted Druid and Collected Company matchups to be quite good. One of the more interesting parts of Magic is learning how to play from being ahead, as often you want to hedge as much as possible when you are a huge favorite.
Our opponent has a spectacular mull to five, and we're looking at a situation where we are way up on cards and should play super tight to give them no chance of winning. First off, one way we lose is to miss multiple land drops off our Opts and draw steps. At first, I wanted to take Collected Company, but it's unlikely they will win by just making land drops and playing a turn-four Collected Company. I can draw one of my four Stubborn Denials or an additional Thoughtseize/Snapcaster Mage to take care of it. If I have threats established, I can easily beat the Company with removal if it ever happens.
Noble is also an option, and even though I have multiple removal spells you can never have too much against this deck and taking Noble is sort of like adding a Fatal Push to my hand while also allowing me to "pay if forward" and not have tap a precious land to cast it later on. If I don't take the Noble, then what do I do on turn two? If I miss my land drop, I can't risk not killing the Noble and allowing a Kitchen Finks to slip in. At that point, the Collected Company is a huge threat as well. I really want to cast Opts on turn two to find lands and threats, which is most easily done if I take the Finks. The most likely way I lose is if it takes me a massive amount of time to draw a threat – Finks can beat me down pretty quickly if I'm talking self-inflicted damage, so taking it with Thoughtseize best allows me to advance my own game.
Thanks for reading. Feedback is appreciated!
- Steve Rubin