Modern has experienced several changes in recent years, especially after the release of the two Modern Horizons sets, which increased the format's power level and put it in a state where mana efficiency dictates the Metagame.
Since then, certain strategies that have established themselves as predominant in the past have become obsolete, with one of them being Traverse Shadow, the archetype that has put Death's Shadow in the spotlight since 2017.
So, it came as a big surprise when player xfile won last Saturday's Modern Challenge with a deck that not only used Death's Shadow, but supplemented it with Traverse the Ulvenwald, Tarmogoyf and the newly released Invasion of Ikoria!
In today's article, we're going to explore the potential of this new variant of Death's Shadow, and whether it has what it takes to break into the competitive Modern scene!
A brief look at this decklist will take any seasoned Modern player back in time: Tarmogoyf, Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, Abrupt Decay and Traverse the Ulvenwald makes it feel like it jumped straight from 2017 to the present, with a few additions from post-Modern Horizons cards like Grist, the Hunger Tide and Dress Down.
And that's the exact purpose of this version of Sultai Shadow: it's a Tarmogoyf deck. It aims to use (almost) every card type to power up Goyf and make it a respectable threat at the table. After all, who needs value when we have a fast clock?
The great highlight of this version is the inclusion of Invasion of Ikoria. The March of the Machine card not only introduces a new type of permanent to the game, it also functions as extra copies of any creature you have in your deck. When your main threat is a one-mana creature, paying three mana to put it straight into play is a fair price!
Furthermore, its other side, Zilortha, Apex of Ikoria is a "Free Pass" to deal direct damage to the opponent with your creatures, and works as a pseudo-Temur Battle Rage for Death's Shadow.
And to speed up its transformation, we have Vampire Hexmage, from which it creates a "one card combo" (since you can pick it up with Invasion of Ikoria), where we sacrifice the vampire to transform the Battle into Zilortha.
Our main game plan is to attack the opponent with large creatures, and Death's Shadow still fits as one of the biggest cheap threats available in Modern. Running it means making some concessions to reduce our life total, but all the cards involved in those concessions, such as Thoughtseize and Street Wraith, are great for a cheap disruptive archetype.
Tarmogoyf, once the most important creature in Modern who lost its space due to Power Creep, complements Sultai Shadow's most impactful threats. As with the first variant of Traverse Shadow, here we have all the relevant permanent categories to make it big enough to close out the game in three turns.
One of the most important points of this version is redundancy: we have potentially twelve copies of our main threats thanks to Traverse the Ulvenwald and Invasion of Ikoria, which can also seek out other creatures.
In the list above, we only have two creatures that serve as "toolbox". Grist, the Hunger Tide, despite being a Planeswalker, is treated like a creature in the rest of the game's zones, and serves as an excellent late-game attrition piece.
Vampire Hexmage works as a "combo" alongside Invasion of Ikoria to turn the battle into an 8/8 creature. However, it has other important uses in the current Metagame, like killing Planeswalkers, and removing counters from other permanents.
The disruption package relies on targeted discards to deal with the main threats in the opponent's hand, while Stubborn Denial functions as a one-mana Negate to protect your threats and/or avoid a devastating topdeck.
The removals package focuses on paying the least amount of mana to deal with the widest possible scope of permanents. Fatal Push interacts well with Fetch Lands and Mishra's Bauble, and can kill from Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer to higher cost creatures such as Omnath, Locus of Creation.
Abrupt Decay is an answer to many situations, and is on the list to deal with unwanted permanents that crash our game plan, like Blood Moon, or Chalice of the Void.
Our draw package involves a high amount of free spells. Street Wraith interacts with both Death's Shadow, Tarmogoyf and Traverse the Ulvenwald by easily adding a creature to your graveyard.
Mishra's Bauble interacts with Fetch Lands, Fatal Push, Thoughtseize, as well as adding an artifact to the Delirium count.
Finally, we have three copies of Dress Down. Not only does this card disable several creatures and triggers, it also interacts with Death's Shadow which, without its ability, becomes a 13/13 creature regardless of its controller's life total.
Dress Down also adds the enchantment type to the Delirium count.
The mana base works similar to what we usually see in traditional Death's Shadow lists, with 12 fetch lands, 5 shock lands and a basic land. We also have a copy of Dryad Arbor, which can be fetched with Invasion of Ikoria for two mana.
Engineered Explosives responds to a dozen threats in the current Metagame, such as Urza's Saga and Crashing Footfalls tokens, Esper Sentinel, Colossus Hammer and other one mana artifacts, in addition to also dealing with strategies that have a very fixed shell in a certain mana cost. Explosives also handle some important hate pieces, like Chalice of the Void.
Nihil Spellbomb is a decent answer against graveyard-oriented decks, which also counts for Delirium. Your timing needs to be efficient against Izzet Murktide, as using it at the wrong time opens up space for the opponent to cast Murktide Regent.
Collective Brutality is another card that seems straight out of the pre-Modern Horizons variants of Death's Shadow. However, it is an excellent card against Burn, and it also works against fair games that run a relevant number of spells and cheap creatures, such as Rakdos Midrange and Izzet Murktide.
Veil of Summer is an additional protection against counterspells or cheap removals.
Spreading Seas is one of the few land disruptions available in Sultai's colors, being useful in games against archetypes that care about specific land types, as well as disabling Urza's Saga.
Flusterstorm is an extra counterspell, which works against Cascade decks such as Living End and Crashing Footfalls, and is also a cheap protection.
Force of Vigor deals with unwanted artifacts and enchantments such as Blood Moon, Colossus Hammer and Chalice of the Void for free.
Before we get into the Sideboard guide, it's important to point out that, as this is a new deck to the format, many of my choices were based on my play through two leagues, as well as my previous experience with various Death's Shadow archetypes. .
The match against Murktide depends on a few factors: whether we have an answer to Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer in the first few turns, how long it takes until the opponent casts Murktide Regent, whether we can play a Death's Shadow big enough that it doesn't die to Unholy Heat, and especially if our opponent has Blood Moon.
Our creatures are usually larger than theirs. Therefore, we need to hold the game long enough and/or establish a higher board position from the second turn, with Tarmogoyf, and take advantage of the moments where they will need to hunt for an answer to extend our advantage by looking for other threats with Invasion of Ikoria.
Hexmage's combo is essential to ensure late-game victory, and Zilortha is the maindeck's only means of dealing with a resolved Murktide Regent.
This game has a few small tricks you can do. For example, Dress Down is an excellent card for generating favorable trades with Death's Shadow, or punishing the opponent's lack of blockers. The enchantment is also useful for "countering" Murktide Regent, as the dragon won't come into play with +1/+1 counters on it.
Our post-sideboard plan involves adding ways to resolve our main spells, and delaying the opponent's game plan. This match will still be about attrition, but we need timely answers to deal with Blood Moon and Unlicensed Hearse.
Street Wraith sucks against Lightning Bolt decks, and Inquisition of Kozilek feels less relevant than other post-side options. Another card that loses a lot of potential post-side is Tarmogoyf, but since it's still a "wall" against Ragavan early-game, removing Traverse seems like the most sensible choice.
On the one hand, we're a bit favored against Creativity: we have too much disruption, our creatures are big, and we manage to impose a fast clock. On the other hand, Four-Color Creativity is a value stack that can win the game for free if we're not careful.
We need to push and delay their plan. So, take advantage of the first turn discard to remove the most important piece (usually, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, or Indomitable Creativity), and in the next few turns, focus on casting various threats to punish the 1-for-1 trades.
Remember that this is a deck that benefits from a longer game. Therefore, we need to pressure every turn to not give them enough time, as an Archon of Cruelty will end the game in two turns.
Post-Side, Fatal Push comes out because the only relevant targets for them are Dwarven Mine and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker tokens. While this is enough to delay the combo for a turn, the cards we've added are more objective in responding to what the opponent does.
We might run Spreading Seas to disrupt their mana correction. However, a good Four-Color player never cracks their fetch lands unnecessarily, and Wrenn and Six's interaction with Fetch Lands makes this plan far less relevant than a Blood Moon.
Sultai Shadow is an archetype that has everything Hammer Time hates: cheap removal, discard, fast clock, and Dress Down. Therefore, we have an advantage over them, unless they find the perfect gap for a hit-kill with Colossus Hammer and/or we allow them too much room to resolve Kaldra Compleat with Stoneforge Mystic.
Be assertive with your discards: you don't have to use multiple cards to deal with their redundancy. It's worth saving one to deal with whatever Stoneforge Mystic seeks for the opponent. Also aim to preserve your removals for the creatures that matter, like Puresteel Paladin or a well-equipped Ornithopter / Inkmoth Nexus.
Post-side, things get a little more complicated as they rely on cheap removal and graveyard hate in addition to Surge of Salvation. We can work around and keep the same pattern as the first game. Spreading Seas should be used to deal with Urza's Saga or Inkmoth Nexus, and remember that Dress Down kills tokens created by Saga, as well as opening opportunities for a " hit-kill" with Death's Shadow, if the opponent doesn't respect it with a blocker.
Without Murktide Regent
With Murktide Regent
Against Footfalls, we need to respect both the combo possibility with Crashing Footfalls and a Murktide Regent and/or Brazen Borrower and Subtlety attacking from the air.
This is another game where we must be aggressive with our discards and then establish pressure with our creatures. Keeping them with a power above the opponent's 4/4 tokens is essential to avoid unfavorable trades, but remember that the game cannot be extended too long in the Murktide Regent versions.
Post-side, we add pieces to improve our proposition, but their Sideboard is more efficient against us. Remember that Engineered Explosives can deal with tokens, but it also resolves Blood Moon, Endurance, and other three-cost cards. Veil of Summer is our best answer against Force of Negation and Mystical Dispute, while Traverse the Ulvenwald goes because Endurance makes it a much worse card.
Like many other Modern decks, Sultai Shadow cannot come back well from a combination of Grief with Undying Malice or Feign Death. Also, their Midrange plan is way more efficient than ours, and Fury can deal with Tarmogoyf if we don't put the right number of cards in our graveyard.
Our best route is to try to avoid their 2-for-1, removing cards that fuel this proposal, such as Fable of the Mirror-Breaker and Seasoned Pyromancer, to be able to leave at least one threat in play, and use it to win the match while protecting it with Stubborn Denial and discard.
Remember that Invasion of Ikoria can fetch creatures from your graveyard as well. In this game, resorting to threats that have already been destroyed is a valid option to keep our gas running.
Post-Sideboard, despite having Swampwalk, Street Wraith does very little on its own, and we need to make room for more interaction without losing the opportunity to take advantage of the opponent's bad topdecks to stabilize our board.
Blood Moon, Unlicensed Hearse and Hidetsugu Consumes All are your biggest enemies, so we need Force of Vigor to deal with them, and Collective Brutality operates as an extra removal against Ragavan and Grief, in addition to taking a removal from the opponent.
Like other combo decks, playing against Living End is all about trying to outrun the opponent, and circumventing their moves that would get them into the combo. A Death's Shadow coming into play early is enough to pressure them into finding a combo piece, while we rely on disruptions like Thoughtseize and Stubborn Denial to delay their plan.
Another interesting point of this game is the double function of Street Wraith: in addition to being a "free draw" that feeds our game plan, the creature can be revived with the opponent's Living End, and maintains our stabilized table.
Post-Side, our opponent usually includes Leyline of the Void and Leyline of Sanctity as a disruption, in addition to Endurance to deal with our graveyard and Subtlety to delay our clock. A single copy of Force of Vigor is not enough for us to find easily. Therefore, we need to Mulligan aggressively to ensure a consistent game plan should they open with Leyline of Sanctity.
Sultai Shadow is a new and interesting way to build Death's Shadow decks in Modern, and it brings a huge amount of nostalgia towards the classic versions of the archetype. Its core is solid, and several options in the maindeck work very well together.
However, in addition to being extremely vulnerable against certain hates such as Blood Moon (and this could be fixed with a basic Forest), its sideboard has some suboptimal options to focus on Tarmogoyf and Traverse the Ulvenwald.
For example, there is no need for a fourth copy of Dress Down, and I feel that Endurance would be a better graveyard hate in a list that seeks to have two green mana available, not counting the need for more Force of Vigor and/or Abrupt Decay.
That said, this list opens up new horizons to explore in Modern, and there's plenty of potential to refine its maindeck and sideboard in the coming weeks.
Thanks for reading!
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