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Improving 5-color Shadow Before the Pro Tour

Written by Bob Culp on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Modern

Improving 5-color Shadow Before the Pro Tour

Bob Culp

Bob Culp is a grinder who lives in Indianapolis. He’s most interested in constant improvement and consistent results. Three years ago, he had 1 SCG day 2 to his resume. Now, he’s at least Top 64’d his last 5 SCG Opens. His highest finish is 12th at Grand Prix Indianapolis in 2015. He’s been playing competitive magic since 2004 in between school, career advancement, and life.

Five-color Death’s Shadow is among the most misunderstood and underdeveloped decks in the Modern metagame.

The Indianapolis, Indiana Magic community – which I’m proud to be a part of — is largely responsible for getting the 5-color Death’s Shadow archetype to its current iteration. It’s been work headlined by Clay Spicklemire who has two SCG Open Top 8’s, including a win, with it.

It’s been the Modern archetype I’ve put the most hours into. I’ve been rewarded with consistent results – four straight SCG Top 64.

Consistent results are what I’m looking for in this diverse and unpredictable format. I’m not a full-time grinder, or on the Pro Tour gravy train. I’m a competitive Magic player attempting to balance Magic, a career, and a relationship, while trying to become better at all of them. Three years ago I had one SCG Day 2 to my Magic resume. I’ve since them I’ve consistently been going X-2 or better on Day 1, always giving myself a chance at a Top 8.

It’s about constant, measurable improvement, no matter how small. Never discredit consistent advancement.

Current List

A few hundred hours of playtesting, and more than 100 rounds of competitive REL brought me here.

This list has positive combo, affinity, Lantern, and big mana matchups. BGx and Jeskai are mostly even. Burn is slightly unfavorable, and UW control is the worst matchup. Generally, the grinder a deck is, the worst of the matchup it is for 5-Color Shadow.

This archetype is extremely punishing for small mistakes. Screwing up early land sequencing, a discard decision, how quickly you’re damaging yourself, or your role in a matchup can almost immediately lose you the game – it just may not be obvious until five turns later.

However, there’s a large payoff. This is the most mana efficient disruptive deck in the format. You have 29 maindeck spells with 1 CMC or less. Eighteen are disruption spells. You have the option of playing the most powerful and efficient spells across the modern card pool. This gives the deck a way to adapt to any metagame.

Better mana and some additional sideboard space are the main arguments to cutting a color. I’m not convinced it’s correct to do, yet.

If you’re playing all 5 colors, let’s get a few things out of the way: Play Temur Battle Rage. Play the full 4 maindeck Stubborn Denial. These are the two biggest payoffs to playing Shadow.

There are a few spots I’m still tweaking, but initial results have been promising.

3 Traverse the Ulvenwald: I ended up cutting one, because I’m not playing a 3rd Planeswalker maindeck, or Tarfire, or Grim Flayer to more easily turn it on. I was tired of drawing the 2nd Traverse without delirium, since Lay of the Land isn’t a playable Magic card.

2 Dismember: At the moment, this kills the same things as Terminate, while being easier on mana and working better with Shadow.

11 Fetchlands, 1 Forest: Twelve fetchlands and a Swamp is commonplace. However, Path to Exile, Blood Moon, Ghost Quarter, and Field of Ruin have beaten me more than most other cards in the format. The second basic land helps guard against these cards. The sacrifice of a fetchland is real concern for your Shadows and mana flexibility. So, the Forest is what I’m most unsure of in this list.

2 Liliana of the Veil: I’m less and less enamored with her. She’s the best card in Shadow mirrors and Eldrazi Tron, but where else does she shine? Against storm, and big mana she’s a role-player. But the one mana cards are what really win the game. Often she puts stress on the Stubborn Denial game plan, since you need to decide whether to increase her loyalty or stop an opponent’s top deck.

2 Liliana, the Last Hope: I’m increasingly impressed with this card in any grindy matchup. It helps you beat Fatal Push decks, and acts as a stand-alone threat. It’s also really good at eating Lingering Souls, Snapcaster Mages, and Cliques. Rebuying Street Wraiths to hard cast should not be underestimated against Shadow mirrors.

Gameplay Tips

Street Wraith: This might be the most skill intensive card in the deck. It used to be Death’s Shadow, but I’m gaining a newfound respect for Street Wraith. More and more, I’m holding Street Wraith longer. If there’s a card you know will be high-impact – a turn 1 discard spell, a Stubborn Denial to protect your threat, etc. – then cycle to find it. The longer the game goes, the more lands you’ll fetch, and the better information you’ll have for how to manage your life total. Street Wraith gets better the longer you hold it. You’ll also end up casting it more than you realize.

Sideboarding: To say 5-color Shadow is a true 5-color deck is a misnomer. This is a 4-color deck with options for all 5 colors to sculpt the best gameplan. Question your role in every matchup. Are you the aggro or control deck?

When you’re the aggro deck, you’re a Stubborn Denial, Temur Battle Rage deck. Disrupt quickly, kill quickly. Sometimes, like against Affinity, the white package comes in for Stubborn Denials and the Breeding Pool.

When you’re the control deck, you’re a Stubborn Denial, Lingering Souls deck – and you’re cutting the Blood Crypt and Battle Rages. Though, increasingly, I’m becoming an Abzan deck against GBx and Grixis Shadow. I’ll cut all the Stubborn Denials, Temur Battle Rages, and the Breeding Pool for the white package and the 2x Liliana, the Last Hope. This puts much less stress on your mana.

Limiting the amount of colors in post-board plans is why cards like Izzet Staticaster are lackluster. Making your fetching harder for limited payoff leads to more losses.

Where do we go next?

Shadow decks haven’t changed much. There hasn’t been much innovation – just a tweak here or there. They’re still strong decks, but the rest of the metagame has evolved to make it a closer fight. Shadow decks don’t have the percentages against the field they once had.

It’s time to innovate, instead of be complacent. But, where to start?

Let’s steal some ideas from the Mardu Reveler deck.

Cutting Blue makes your big mana and combo and burn matchups slightly worse. It does make your mana better, and free up some sideboard room.

There’s a real chance the Faithless Looting and Kolaghan’s Command synergy Mardu Pyromancer lists have been successful with is underutilized. Faithless Looting only needs a few small payoffs to be successful. The upside of more easily enabling Traverse and Kolaghan’s Command for value may be enough. Pitching late-game lands, discard, and removal to more consistently find threats and Temur Battle Rage to finish games is something I’m interested in trying.

Adding Kolaghan’s Command makes it so we don’t have to lean on Ancient Grudge as much. We gain the more versatile Rakdos Charm for some welcomed graveyard hate.

Blackmail is an experiment, but I may want more cheap discard after cutting Stubborn Denial. Don’t overlook the card can also take lands.

Or, you could just try to kill them.

Grim Flayer acts as an additional threat to turn on Stubborn Denial, and this plays less 3-drops. I’m pretty sure if you cut the white package, you can’t compete with any of the grindy decks. This attempts to be more aggressive and disruptive in those matchups.

But, what do I know?

With the Modern Pro Tour this weekend, there’s something we should be prepared to admit:

In all likelihood, we know nothing about Modern.

Sure, there’s a chance we’ve figured it out. Its possible Jeskai is the top Snapcaster deck, Grixis is the best form of Death’s Shadow, all the top combo decks have been solved, and the big mana strategies are optimized.

But, there’s an equal likelihood none of that is true.

The best minds in the game haven’t focused on the format for a pro tour in years. The last Modern Pro Tour defined the format – and the banned list – for the years up to this point. We have to be prepared for this one to do the same.

Bob Culp
Bob MTG on Facebook

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