By Willy Edel (*)
At first, the last round of Modern bans made BGx midrange decks slightly worse since some of your best matchups (Infect, old style Death’s Shadow) disappeared and, even worse, these decks used to put in check our main predators: big mana decks (Tron and Scapeshift). But the metagame adapted quickly, and Death’s Shadow emerged again to combat this nonsense. The new incarnation of the deck is a bit slower due to the loss of Gitaxian Probe, but much more consistent and interactive with the Traverse package and eight discard spells.
To make it clear, I believe Jund Death’s Shadow is the best deck in Modern. It can be explosive, but also can play the regular midrange game with discard spells, of which the deck has more than BGx usually does, Liliana and Goyfs. I also think that while all other versions can have some edges in the mirror and in other matchups, they are in general just weaker versions of the original deck and shouldn’t be played if possible. This deck REALLY wants Temur Battle Rage-style effects that can kill from nowhere (Ghor-Clan Rampager also works) and only the Jund version can play it properly. If you’re a Death’s Shadow player reading this, please add Temur Battle Rage to your lists and thank me later.
I will try something different in this article. Instead of writing a big guide about the deck like I did a couple times before at channelfireball.com (highly recommend reading my previous articles there for reference), this time I will explain the deck and my current choices through questions I got on social media.
Before we start, let’s answer the big one:
“Why are you talking about another deck instead of just playing Jund Death’s Shadow?”
I could answer this in different ways, but the easiest one is “I don’t like it”. While I definitely appreciate its versatility, I feel it is too aggressive for my taste sometimes. As someone that always played more defensively trying to find the perfect window to change gears and go aggro, the idea of starting turn two with ten life is just strange to me (even though super valid). I’m probably a bit crazy, but I like to play long interactive games. Winning on turn three with a 10/10 trampling double strike thing just isn’t my cup of tea.
But I believe the true reason is that the deck can be hated in some ways that traditional BGx decks cannot, and I don’t like to play a deck with a big target on it. As soon as Death’s Shadow become the most popular deck, cards like Condemn (?!) started to see play to prey on it. And, frankly, who wants to play a deck that folds to Condemn? (Yes, my deck folds to Urza’s Tower, I know, but that’s a more respectable card than Condemn).
With that out of the way, let’s start talking about my current list. This is designed for the MTGO metagame, which is where I play nowadays, mostly; keep in mind that it SHOULD change to adapt for your expected field.
Onto actual questions:
“In the past you said it wasn’t worth it to play a bad artifact like Urza’s Bauble just to help turn on delirium. At that time people ran only two in their midrange Abzan lists. What changed?”
I still think that using bad cards to turn Delirium just for Grim Flayer isn’t worth it. But while pumping Flayer isn’t super relevant early on, turning on Traverse is. The other thing I realized is that with fetchlands and Traverse to shuffle your deck on turn one, Mishra’s Bauble effectively becomes a 0 mana Ponder. Ponder, as you might know, is banned in Modern, so you got to admire the beauty of running 4 with an even more relevant card type than Sorcery for Delirium purposes.
It takes a while to master the Bauble; deciding who to target, the timing to activate it, etc. Bauble itself deserves a whole article, so I will focus on its most basic use: as a turn one play. Keep in mind that, as most things I talk about in this article, this is just a general guide and these lines can change depending on the matchup.
Against an unknown opponent if you have Bauble and discard spells, if your hand also have removal spells it is better to target them to have additional information about what you want to take out from their hand. If you have zero removal, it’s better to Bauble yourself instead to see if you’re drawing one before you cast your discard.
If you don’t have a turn one play and your only lands are fetchlands, against unknown or any matchup where you want to draw a one-mana removal spell, Bauble yourself before playing a land. Against a deck with discard spells, play the fetchland and Bauble yourself during their upkeep, so that they can’t take away a card you want to draw from your hand (if you don’t want it, just fetch it away, of course).
If you have a fetchland, an untapped black source and a Fatal Push in hand, Bauble yourself in your mainphase before playing the land. If it is a bad card fetch it away and, unless you know you wont need at all to kill a turn one creature, get an untapped shockland. If you already have access to all your colors without counting the fetchland you just cracked (another fetchland and a Blooming Marsh as the untapped black source, for example), it is usually correct to get the basic Swamp to save some life.
Traversing for a land to shuffle away a bad card isn’t embarassing.
Sometimes the top card is so necessary (like a second land in a one lander or a good hate card), that it can be correct to skip your first turn play to draw it if you only have fetchlands;
You can use multiples Baubles in the first turn to choose whatever you want to draw if you have Traverse and a fetchland.
Before moving on to the next question, a note about a play that isn’t turn 1 but I messed it up enough times that I wanted to include here: if you have a Grim Flayer in play, it is usually better to play the Bauble after attacking and stacking your top, targeting your opponent.
Lastly, in lategame topdeck wars, if you still have Baubles in your deck it is usually correct to leave fetchlands uncracked.
“Last season, the most successful Abzan version had Noble Hierarchs. Why Traverse is better now?”
Last season, Infect was a big player and Death’s Shadow, and the field as a whole, was a lot faster. It was, thus, advisable to also be faster and more proactive, which is what Noble Hierarch offers. It offers you an actual nut draw on turn-two Liliana, the exalted trigger is pretty relevant in a more aggressive gameplan, the extra mana helped at playing multiple spells in a turn, and at that time the odds of having a Noble Hierarch getting an untap step were higher – Fatal Push didn’t exist, and both Infect and Death’s Shadow didn’t run a lot of removal.
Times changed. The metagame is a lot slower on average; while we do still see some degenerate decks out there, Infect is gone and midrange took over. UWx is somewhat popular and even Grixis became a real deck. Cheap removal is key, and people play a lot of them. In this field, you don’t want Noble Hierarch; not only they will likely have a removal spell for it, the speed it gives you isn’t really necessary. The matches are more about attrition, and Traverse for a threat is obviously way, way better in a topdeck war than a mana dork.
Traverse isn’t just “a land/threat” split card, though. It makes the deck way less vulnerable to Blood Moon, it is a shuffle effect to use alongside Bauble, and it gives you way better access to hate cards – even maindeck. I mentioned this before in my articles but I want to repeat it. I truly believe that BGx should be built as 75-card decks instead of 60+15. Traverse helps a lot in this mission.
Basically, the biggest choice you need to make before every tournament is which hate cards do you want to play in the maindeck, choosing this way which decks you want a bigger edge against. For example, in the list I’m currently running I decided that I wanted to be stronger against Dredge and other graveyard-based decks, so I’m running Scavenging Ooze and Bojuka Bog maindeck. If you expect a lot of mirror matches, for example, you could just switch the Bog for Gavony Township, a mirror-breaker. If you want a better game against big mana decks, you could run Fulminator Mage and Ghost Quarter instead. All of these cards are conveniently accessible with Traverse, and this flexibility, which plays to BGx’s strengths perfectly, is what makes the card so good.
A note on specific hate creatures I like: I do believe Shriekmaw and Reclamation Sage are mandatory in the 75. Conveniently, Sages are good exactly in the matchups where Shriekmaw isn’t (like Affinity and a bunch of random decks without creatures like Ad Nauseam), so you can pick which one you want in the maindeck and which one goes to the sideboard, but don’t leave home without access to both.
“What about the creature mix? No love for Dark Confidant? Why so many Rhinos? Where the hell is Tasigur?”
Starting with the easy one, Dark Confidant. Grim Flayer is simply a much superior card if you can achieve Delirium and run Lingering Souls. Dark Confidant is especially bad against a lot of random aggressive decks, ranging from Burn to Affinity, Merfolk or Elves, which when taken collectively can represent a big part of the metagame and are mostly mediocre matchups. Also, every time you connect with Grim Flayer you are effectively drawing a card anyway, and I’m not even counting an eventual Lingering Souls in the graveyard. The bigger body and Trample are also welcome to put on pressure on opposing planeswalkers, which can be a big problem at times.
I honestly don’t believe Dark Confidant belongs to Abzan. I can see its merits on Jund (more aggressive approach, cheaper removal, etc) but not in Abzan. And while we’re at it, I don’t get why people still play Jund. To be fair, I believe the only reason to play Jund over Abzan is that some people are emotionally attached to the deck and know it from inside out (and contrary to what most people think, Jund and Abzan play out in a very different way). I can respect that, and believe that it is better to take 100% of a 70% deck than 70% of a 100% deck. But please, if you feel you can play any BGx deck with the same proficiency, do yourself a favor and put Jund aside until Wizards makes Bloodbraid Elf legal again (which eventually they will, since it should never have been banned for starters – but this is a discussion for another day).
Siege Rhino is my concession to Burn and other aggro decks. I started playing with zero, then one as a silver bullet, but I was losing more to aggro than I liked. At some point I had in my removal/discard mix up to 4 main deck Collective Brutality, but it was overkill; running more than two was feeling excessive. I felt like I needed a more proactive form of lifegain, and Rhino is obviously perfect for that role. In a field with less Burn decks, I’d not run any maindeck, swapping it for Tasigur or a Kalitas instead depending on which effect I wanted the most, and running a Rhino on the sideboard.
Speaking of Tasigur, I believe he is the second best creature in Modern now, behind Death’s Shadow. Being able to dodge Fatal Push, all red removal and Abrupt Decay at the same time is huge. Not many decks can kill him consistently and untapping with him at a healthy life total usually means game over. The problem with the card is that messes up with basically all your synergies – it doesn’t play well with Delirium, Goyf and also have some tension with Lingering Souls. I also didn’t want another card that becomes terrible with Rest in Peace in play (which is a pretty common sideboard card against us). But he is so good that, even with all those cons, I believe one copy can be playable in this deck especially if we are not running Rhinos.
I’ve already explained the one-ofs Scavenging Ooze and Shriekmaw. More than creatures, they are maindeck “hate” cards. Feel free to adjust if you expect a different field. Just remember that the matchup you want Scavenging Ooze the most isn’t Dredge, but the mirror.
What’s up with the removal suite?
I like to have around 10 removal spells in my BGx decks. In this specific one there are thirteen if we count the three Lilianas, which is a lot, but thankfully, they are all pretty versatile. Besides Fatal Push and Path to Exile, all others have some uses. Maelstrom Pulse is a notable omission from the main deck, but I do like to have the versatility of Brutality and the searchability from Shriekmaw more – but it is a card that will always make my 75. I could use more Decays main, but the lack of it is compensated by the sideboard.
I love this removal suite, and to me the only real question is the mix between Push and Path. Push is way easier to cast, since you have Blooming Marsh and several other spells costing a single black mana, making your fetching decisions easier early on. Path, of course, can kill everything, and if I’m casting it beyond turn 4 usually don’t care about the land they search for. Eldrazi is pretty popular and can be a bad matchup, and there are some other key targets that Push can’t kill, such Primeval Titan and Wurmcoil, and Path is also pretty good against Dredge, when I usually sideboard out most of the other removal spells. That all said, I like the 3-3 split. If you want play with 4 Push and 2 Path, I advise moving another hard removal to the maindeck, probably Pulse, replacing Collective Brutality. If you want to play with 4 Path and 2 Push, I’d move another cheap removal in (probably Brutality again), replacing a three mana spell like Liliana 2.0, so you have more ways to deal with a turn two Bob/Flayer.
What’s the reasoning behind the Lilianas?
I believe that the optimal version of Abzan have no more than eight “expensive” spells. I consider anything that costs more than two mana to be expensive in Modern. There are some exceptions to this rule, but I think you want cheap creatures and interaction here instead of more impactful, expensive spells. Since I “locked” into having a couple of Rhinos, I have six other slots to work with. Running only three Lingering Souls main is something some people complain about, but I feel it is correct a lot of times, as Souls is a pretty mediocre card versus a big chunk of the modern metagame. Of course their floor is never too low and their ceiling is super high, but you still got your fourth in the sideboard anyway. Liliana of the Veil is obvious excellent all around and whenever she is bad, the Last Hope version is just great. If I had enough sideboard slots, I’d run three Veil main and three Last Hope in the sideboard, but we just can’t. Liliana of Last Hope is better here than in normal Abzan because we have so many utility creatures to rebuy – for example, I found that she is good versus Lantern for example (and you have so many dead cards), which is not intuitive at first glance.
Nineteen lands? What is going on with the man that used to play twenty five?
I started with 21, settled with 20 for a while, but found that I was sideboarding one out a lot so I finally settled at 19 and I’m happy with it. There’s still Traverse and four zero mana Ponders to find your lands, and the deck operates pretty well with only two anyway. I like to have the 20th in the sideboard if I want to have more lands when I go big, want to cut some Traverses, or just to switch the utility lands. It is not absurd to go down to only eighteen if you have no four drops post sideboard.
I wouldn’t touch the 8 fetches, 2 blooming marsh, 3 basics and 4 shocks. When I started testing the current setup, Treetop should probably have been a Hissing Quagmire to better cover my mana requirements; but while Quagmire’s deathtouch is even relevant against Death’s Shadow, Treetop is simply a much better card overall. At that time I had a Ghost Quarter main, though, and my agony ended when I replaced it with Bojuka Bog, so I could play Treetop with peace of mind.
What about the sideboard choices? How do I beat Tron with it?
Some good news: Tron isn’t a super bad matchup like it used to be, as the banning of Eye of Ugin really took away the inevitability they used to have. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a bad matchup but not the 10/90 it used to be. In fact I don’t think it is worse than 40/60 now, and if I dedicated more sideboard to beat it I could get the matchup to be favorable, but I don’t think it’s worth the slots. Flayers make the deck way more aggressive, and all you need to do is to not get Karned or Ugined at turns 3/4 without a Pulse in hand. Everything else is beatable and if you pass this phase, you can just chain Fulminators with Traverse or hit a Tron piece with Surgical Extraction. Both cards aren’t really there for this matchup, though: Extractions are great versus graveyard/combo decks, obviously, and I like to have a couple Fulminators to fight creaturelands like Inkmoth or Colonnade, so I got the free hate here.
Another deck I chose to not have a lot of hate is Affinity. Yes, I do have a Kataki, but to be fair it isn’t game breaking like twelve years ago when Affinity only had artifact lands. Sure, they are good, but I actually like it more versus Lantern or the new Ironworks combo deck. Reclamation Sage is another fine card against Affinity, but the main reason we have it is to destroy Leyline of Sanctity. It is the kind of removal for Leyline I always wanted, and now with Traverse I can finally play it. The other two pieces of my sideboard package versus affinity are Damnation, here mainly for Eldrazi and Company, and Engineered Explosives, which is the most versatile sideboard card Modern can offer. As you can see, no super dedicated hate versus affinity and still a lot of good cards.
I already addressed the Lingering Souls in the sideboard but for most of the time I had an Ishkanah there over it. I called the legendary spider the green Lingering Souls*, and she is truly excellent when you have time to cast it. The reason I cut her was because Death’s Shadow has too many discard spells, and so it becomes impossible to cast it unless I just topdeck the card late. The original Lingering Souls is also better against blue decks, so I sadly felt I had to cut the Ishkanah; but it will come back if Death’s Shadow becomes less popular with time.
This is already big enough, and while I know sideboarding is something a lot of people are interested about, I don’t really like simple sideboard guides because they tend to not be of much help for a non-linear deck like this. I believe the most important thing is to know your role in the matchup, what are the key spells from you and your opponent, the way to win (or not lose) and then what cards to bring in and what to take out. That said, my next article here will talk about sideboarding. Please let me know in the comments which decks you want know how to sideboard against. I will pick the top 10 mentions and cover them in depth.
Thanks for reading,
(*) Willy Edel
* for those who don’t know me enough, I love Lingering Souls. Brilliant design, amazing game play. So amazing that when I’m not able to run it, I have some replacements in all combinations I usually play, all tested and approved:
Green Lingering Souls – Ishkanah. Honorable Mention: Renegade Rallier, the GW Lingering Souls
Red – Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Black – Haunted Dead (not modern but it got the nickname)
Blue – I don’t play this color.