Editor’s note: This Deep Dive was written before the bans of Expressive Iteration and White Plume Adventurer in Legacy.
It should be no surprise that I’m a big fan of Death’s Shadow decks. My first article on CFB was a traditional Dimir Shadow deck and I think the archetype is both extremely fun and generally quite good. However, when I first heard about people including the Grief/Reanimate package in the deck when Grief was released, I was very skeptical. It seemed like it was adding unnecessary variance into the deck for a benefit that I didn’t think was worth it.
However, in recent months, people have been tuning and developing the archetype and with this newer Initiative metagame, I think the deck has legs and fits fairly well into the winners metagame. In addition, the deck is a ton of fun and I have trouble putting it down. I don’t write Deep Dives often because I want to make sure that I have a solid base of knowledge and experience in order to capture some of the depth of the deck, which I think I have achieved with this list.
Like my last Deep Dive on Izzet, I want to cover the overall reason to build your deck in this way, but also explore what you lose by taking this approach, rather than other options. Additionally, I want to take this space to explore what notable exclusions there are in the deck construction. Finally, there will be an increased focus on the strategy component and I will explore some of the intricacies executing your plans in general, as well as the complexities of a number of key matchups.
The list we’ll be using is the one I’ve been playing, which is a fairly stock deck that I have tuned a bit and originally took from Magic Online player Oceansoul92.
Legacy Death's Shadow by Rich Cali
The Game Plan
In some ways, this is a fairly traditional Death’s Shadow deck, where the plan is to disrupt your opponent with discard spells and removal, paying a fair amount of life in the process, and develop the largest threat on the board. Oftentimes, having a huge threat will force opponents to play quite differently and will quickly put them in “The Abyss,” referring to a state of needing to chump block turn after turn. However, unlike traditional Shadow decks, this deck takes advantage of the Grief/Reanimate engine, which gives you a lot of explosive, disruptive potential. Having this early will force opponents to play games on more limited resources and leave them scrambling to put together a plan against you. The downside of this is that it requires a fairly specific set of cards and if you struggle to combine them early enough, you may find yourself lacking in a clear plan. However, the plan is very effective and this deck is full of tools to make it easier to put together in a timely manner.
Murktide Regent is a huge, unstoppable creature that needs little introduction at this point. Playing too many of them will leave you liable to flood on uncastable creatures, which is the death knell of this deck, so three copies fits in quite nicely. Since you end up paying a lot of life, the defensive capabilities of this card are essential and there will be many times where you need to sit back for a bit until you can find a stable spot to turn the corner.
While Baleful Strix is a very solid Dimir creature, it’s not a mainstay of the Shadow archetype. It doesn’t apply any meaningful pressure and costs two mana, which is a lot for a deck like this where many of the cards cost one or zero mana. However, in this version of the deck, Baleful Strix is the glue that holds everything together. It’s both a black and a blue card for Grief and Force of Will respectively. That increases the consistency of the deck by a fair bit and allows you to have your best starts more often. It also pairs extremely well with Reanimate against creature decks. This will make it fairly difficult for your opponents to mount any meaningful pressure against you. On top of that, it’s well-positioned against decks like Initiative, since it can easily take back the initiative from them and hold down the fort. That said, it is clunky and there are many games where you’ll have this and wish it were a more efficient card. Overall though, it’s an important card for this version of the deck and while I could easily see trimming a copy or two, some number of them are important.
There is a significant downside to building your deck like this, which I alluded to earlier: variance. While this engine is very potent when you assemble it, when you don’t it makes the entire function of this deck less stable than other versions of Shadow. Grief is not a particularly great card if you can’t Reanimate it fairly quickly. The cost of two-for-one’ing yourself is high and you will feel that right away if you have Grief without Reanimate. Additionally, while Reanimate is generally well positioned right now, since there are a decent amount of good targets that your opponents will have, sometimes you’ll be stuck with Reanimate without any targets. As I will discuss in the removal section, this is a really bad place for Shadow to be since it means that you cannot proactively develop your plan unless your opponent is playing along. There will be a fair amount of games where you’ll have one part of the combo but not the other and you’ll often feel stranded, unable to play a Shadow and apply pressure.
Despite this, I do think this engine is worth building around. There are ways to sidestep some of the downsides, such as casting Grief for four mana, which comes up surprisingly often. Reanimate is also very versatile and will frequently have a decent number of effective options.
There will likely never be a Shadow deck that doesn’t want a full set of Thoughtseizes. It checks most of the boxes for what you want a card to do: it reduces your life total. disrupts their key cards and protects your threats. Many of this deck’s best starts begin with a turn one Thoughtseize. In combination with two fetchlands, it will allow you to play a Death’s Shadow on turn two (if you think it’s safe enough). Since you care a fair bit about the life loss, it still has some value in the late-game since you can play it to buff your Shadow.
The Removal Suite
Snuff Out happens to be the perfect removal spell for Shadow, as well as being perfectly positioned in the metagame. A free way to pay four life, gain a mana advantage and clear the board is exactly what this deck wants. It lines up particularly well against Initiative, since it can keep their board empty while you develop your own (or Reanimate their creatures). However, while the first copy can be exactly what you’re looking for, sometimes drawing too many of these begins to be a liability. Four life is a lot of life to pay more than once so if you’re planning to make use of multiple Snuff Outs, you have to be very careful. It is particularly costly against Izzet Delver, since their best starts against you involve multiple creatures and paying four life when there’s still a threat on board is a big deal. Still, Snuff Out opens the door for some really powerful openings and is overall completely worth it.
That said, depending on the metagame it may be correct to play a few extra copies and black is chock-full of options that can fit the brief.
The Card Selection
The Mana Base
I’ll be completely honest: I hate the basic Island. I understand its importance and there are some benefits, such as developing your mana early in a safe manner, slightly playing through Blood Moon or finding it off of the first room in initiative. However, there are a lot of hands that really struggle because it isn’t a black source or a way to pay life, and that comes up a fair amount. The rest of the mana base is fairly traditional for a Shadow deck. The important thing to keep in mind is that the way you navigate your mana is very delicate, so make sure you’re paying close attention to how you fetch.
Fatal Push, Dismember, Brazen Borrower
This version of Shadow is quite strong against combo decks, so I don’t think you need to go overboard on extra disruption post-board. However, if you expect a ton of combo, you could certainly increase the density of disruption as you see fit, and Force of Negation is definitely the more effective choice.
Realistically, I don’t think there are many other good options besides Flusterstorm, but this is definitely a great choice if you expect a ton of stack-based combo decks, such as Doomsday or Storm.
Engineered Explosives, Powder Keg
Surgical Extraction, Unlicensed Hearse
Technically, the options here are somewhat endless and can be tuned to your liking. I think Cage is the only other option that I consistently like because it’s cheap, effective and versatile. You could also add extra copies of either of the options you’re already playing, depending on what you expect to play against.
While this is certainly not Pyroblast, Hydroblast is still very effective right now. This is an excellent card against Delver and in combination with the Island, it serves as an important answer for Blood Moon.
Tourach, Dread Cantor
Tourach is a really incredible sideboard card that helps a lot against white-based control decks and can completely dominate against Initiative. It’s versatile in its applications and play patterns and overall is a wonderful card to have in the deck considering not only the metagame, but this deck’s weaknesses.
Plague Engineer is by far the best card when it comes to managing small creatures. There are a lot of different cards it’s good against, from Llanowar Elves to True-Name Nemesis, and I think it is an excellent choice for this deck. Since it’s a creature, it can be Reanimated, as well, which makes it even more potent here.
Other Options in General
Sample Hands (All in the Blind)
On the Play
This hand has some awkward components to it, but overall this is the type of hand I will always keep in this deck. To me, this demonstrates the Daze principle I was discussing earlier, since this hand will do a great job disrupting their resources and will likely be able to catch an early spell with a Daze. Like any deck with Wasteland, sometimes you have to keep this hand and hope Wasteland is good. If it is, this will be an excellent hand, and if not, perhaps it will function more like a solid mulligan to five.
On the Draw
This hand illustrates the issues with having Island in the deck. While you do have the ability to safely develop your mana and cast Ponders/Brainstorm to construct a game plan, because you have the Island, you need multiple pieces to make this hand work. You need to find a black source to make many of your key draws functional and even if you do, your life total is liable to be too high to make cards like Death’s Shadow effective. The upside of this hand is that it is quite effective if you find specifically Reanimate and a black source, so I could see the argument for keeping this, but I tend to mulligan this type of hand because it not only needs a number of different thing to work, it takes too long to set up any of the plans you want to work towards.
On the Play
Unlike the Island hand earlier, this hand is much better. Yes, you’re more likely to lose to Wasteland, but it has a clear plan that you can work to. While it also needs two pieces to come together perfectly, if you only found a single land you’d still be happy to develop some Baleful Strixes. Not knowing the matchup, I would likely start on Grief removing Grief so that you have more information to work with when Pondering.
Tips and Tricks
- The Grief engine requires making a lot of decisions. While sometimes it will be very clear how to use it, other times you’ll have to make difficult decisions about how to proceed with it (what to pitch, what to take, what to Reanimate, etc…). Think carefully about what your game plan is before you fire off your cards with great abandon. Additionally, be aware about the times when you will need to pivot your plan after seeing their hand.
- It’s absolutely key that you manage your life total carefully. This deck loses life in chunks of four, which adds up very quickly if you’re not careful. Fetch→Watery Grave→Grief→Reanimate is already seven life paid. If you have a Snuff Out in hand, you may end up paying too much life, which might make Underground Sea a better choice there, which will leave you at 11 rather than nine after using Snuff Out. Overall, there are a lot of different ways to manage your life, so going through the specifics of each is beyond the scope of this article, but I just want to challenge you to think about your life very carefully and not default to paying as much life as possible, since that may be costly at times.
- If you need to pay extra life in the late-game, you can convert Daze into an extra two life by Dazing your own spell to replay a Watery Grave.
Sideboard and Matchup Guide
Out: 4 Force of Will, 1-2 Daze, 1-2 Reanimate, 1-2 Grief
In: 2 Hydroblast, 1 Unlicensed Hearse, 0-2 Plague Engineer, 2 Fatal Push, 1 Dismember, 1 Brazen Borrower
This matchup is incredibly close and intricate. There are a lot of good tools in this Shadow deck to keep their plan in check, most notably Baleful Strix and Reanimate. However, their threats are very lean and can easily overwhelm your disruption and race you, especially if you pay a lot of life. Their hands of multiple creatures are by far the most problematic and they will likely try to aggro you out. You need to pay careful attention to your life total and walk the line with your Death’s Shadows very precisely, with nine life being a key life total. Be very wary about going to six since they would easily turn one Bolt into two with Mystic Sanctuary. Overall, try to get a Baleful Strix in play quickly or work towards a fast Death’s Shadow start and try to race them, which are very different plans but often the two axes the matchup plays on.
Outside of Force of Will, the rest of the cards you’re mostly going to want to trim. Grief is only good when combined with Reanimate, but it’s still a powerful combo. Reanimate is a great card, but sometimes the life loss is too costly. Daze can be important for disrupting them early but in general, the games tend to go a bit longer if things are going well. All of the cards you’re bringing in are generally effective, with Plague Engineer only being great if they have True-Name Nemesis.
Out: (on the draw) 4 Thoughtseize, 0-2 Death’s Shadow, 0-2 Wasteland, 0-2 Daze; (on the play) 0-2 Wasteland, 0-2 Death’s Shadow, 0-2 Force of Will, 0-2 Thoughtseize
In: 1 Brazen Borrower, 1 Powder Keg, 1 Engineered Explosives, 1 Dismember, 2 Tourach, 0-2 Fatal Push, 0-2 Plague Engineer
There is a decent amount of rhetoric surrounding this matchup implying that it is a strong matchup for Grief Shadow. I don’t think I would frame it like that. Initiative is an extremely powerful, proactive deck with great tools against you, so there will be some games that you will struggle to win in. However, having the Grief engine not only allows you to disrupt them, but provides you with a nice threat to take back the initiative. Additionally, Reanimate and Snuff Out are all-stars here, so that can really make things difficult for them. Be very careful with your life total, since they’re fairly aggressive. Additionally, post-board you can lean into Tourach but be careful about Eiganjo, since that can clean it up fairly easily.
The reason this sideboard plan is fairly odd looking is because a lot of different cards are effective at different times. Death’s Shadow is a great card, but it’s really cold to Solitude/Swords to Plowshares and can’t be played early, which is a huge downside. Thoughtseize is a really powerful card on the play, but on the draw it may leave you too far behind. Additionally, cards like Fatal Push and Engineer are alright, but don’t always do what you need in the matchup so they depend on what your overall plan looks like and what cards you see from your opponent. I think there are six cards I would always bring in and if you use that as your core, you can more easily find the best configuration of cards in your deck that fit your plan. I don’t think Wasteland is a good way to approach the matchup, and can easily be trimmed. Daze is also sometimes really poor on the draw. On the play, those are the cards I’m personally happy to trim on, but again the best configuration is going to depend on the games/your approach, so I don’t think I can provide more guidance beyond that.
Out: 0-2 Snuff Out, 0-2 Daze, 0-4 Baleful Strix
In: 2 Tourach, 1 Surgical Extraction, 1 Unlicensed Hearse, 0-2 Hydroblast
This matchup is very tricky, since they not only have a good proactive and reactive plan against Shadow, but this Shadow list is not built with control in mind. If this is a matchup you expect to be common, I’d recommend looking at cards like Court of Cunning to help round out your plan. That said, with the tools at your disposal, this matchup is not a foregone conclusion. The Grief engine is very powerful and can clear the way for a fast Shadow to take over the game. In general, you’re not going to do quite as well in a long game, so finding ways to end the game quickly is your best bet. Sometimes you have to accept that you’ll lose to a well-timed Swords to Plowshares, but taking the risk to give yourself a chance is the best option.
Again, the best approach is to trim in this matchup. Baleful Strix is not a great card, since it doesn’t apply any meaningful pressure. Snuff Out can be really important against Uro/Endurance, so keeping some number of them makes sense. Daze can be blanked fairly easily so cutting some of them makes sense. I actually sometimes bring out Death’s Shadow in the matchup, but considering that you don’t have a particularly potent post-board plan, I think leaning into them is the best choice. The only one of the cards you’re bringing in that’s variable is Hydroblast, since it can sometimes rot in your hand against Uro and Swords to Plowshares. The timing of casting Tourach is interesting since it can generate value late in the game, but sometimes having pressure on board early is important.
Out: 2 Baleful Strix, 0-2 Daze, 0-2 Reanimate, 0-1 Grief
In: 1 Powder Keg, 1 Engineered Explosives, 2 Fatal Push, 1 Dismember, 0-1 Brazen Borrower
While you do have many effective tools in this matchup, they do threaten you from a number of different angles. The most problematic card here is Urza’s Saga so unless you have a really fast, disruptive start, it’s important to save your Wastelands for that. Another quirk of the matchup is that Painter’s Servant will likely name black, which turns off Snuff Out, so be wary about relying on that. It’s not too difficult to get a fast Shadow into play, so working towards that is generally effective.
You’ve probably begun to notice a trend of needing to trim on sideboard cards, rather than have clean cuts. There are a lot of elements to this matchup and in general, relying on the Grief engine completely is not the best approach. However, there are contexts in which each of these cards are effective, but overall I don’t think you want to flood on any of the cards I’m suggesting cutting. Honestly, Baleful Strix could be cut in full since it doesn’t do that much, but the fact that it helps against Saga tokens makes it worthwhile in my mind.
Out: 3 Snuff Out
In: 1 Force of Negation, 2 Fatal Push
The cleanest sideboard plan that I’m covering today, this matchup is generally quite good. The combination of discard, countermagic and pressure makes it really difficult for them to assemble a kill throughout the game. That said, Doomsday is always a really scary deck and they could easily set up a fast kill against you before you’re ready to disrupt them. You really don’t have many good sideboard options, but bringing in Fatal Push is important since they will likely have Sheoldred against you post-board.
Out: 4 Baleful Strix, 1-2 Daze, 1-2 Force of Will
In: 2 Plague Engineer, 2 Fatal Push, 1 Dismember, 1 Surgical Extraction, 1 Unlicensed Hearse, 0-1 Engineered Explosives
This matchup is pretty tricky. You do have all of the tools to disrupt them, but the same goes for them, since they have a lot of ways to navigate through your disruption and even answer your threats cleanly with Swords to Plowshares. The Grief engine is excellent here and can help you shape up your plan quite nicely. Overall, sticking to your primary plan is generally going to be the most effective and you can rely on cards like Snuff Out to allow you to develop your board and still disrupt their combo on a crucial turn.
The sideboarding is fairly straightforward, with the exception of Engineered Explosives. It’s not a great card in general, but they are frequently an Urza’s Saga deck, so having at least one clean answer to that can be important. Baleful Strix doesn’t really do anything against any part of their deck, so I don’t think it’s necessary. Additionally, despite the fact that they are a combo deck, Daze and Force can be pretty awkward since they can play a fair game against you and grind you down, so I don’t think you need to lean into those cards.