I’m a huge fan of the Death’s Shadow Aggro deck. I think it’s one of the most powerful decks in the format, it’s extremely aggressive, and rewards some tight technical play. It also has awesome top decks and a little flare for the dramatic. I’m certainly not someone who has a problem with a little bit of a gamble, so going down to an extremely low life total with self-inflicted wounds is exciting.
Death’s Shadow is a 13/13 creature for a single black mana. That’s a pretty awesome rate! Of course, if you play turn-1 Swamp, Death’s Shadow, it will go straight to the graveyard as a -7/-7 creature thanks to its power and toughness being reduced by your 20-point life total. Shadow really wasn’t a card designed to be played on turn 1, but that’s a real possibility in Modern. Every fetchland into a shockland will cost you 3 life, and with cards that cycle in exchange for life, you can reduce your life total quite quickly. Games with the Death’s Shadow deck will almost always end with your life total at between 1 and 5, meaning you can have an 8/8 all the way up to a 12/12—and that’s before pumping.
In order to get this creature down quickly, we’re going to need to inflict some personal pain. Gitaxian Probe is the best option out there. It’s a Vintage powerhouse that has seen tons of play in every format. Paying 2 life per copy to play a 56-card deck is not a unreasonable rate, although the fact that this can still be cast for blue and gives you that critical free information is what makes it excellent. Probe will make sure the coast is clear, see 1 card deeper, and reduce your life total by 2. Street Wraith will also dig a card deeper and make you lose 2 life, though without the added utility.
Next, Thoughtseize will help lower your life total and clear the way of both answers and threats, making it a versatile card in an aggressive deck that has a combo finish.
Mutagenic Growth saves your creatures from many of the format’s removal spells, but it also completely throws off your opponent’s math. Your 3/3 Death’s Shadow will actually get +4/+4 from a single Mutagenic Growth, and it acts as a Symbiosis with another creature in play, as both that creature and your Shadow will grow.
Not too long ago, the combo finish of Standard Atarka Red featured Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage. It’s even better in Modern, thanks to how easy it can be to fuel the graveyard. This deck is actually capable of dealing enough damage to itself on turn 1 to cast a Death’s Shadow, and then resolve a pair of Become Immenses on turn 2 for lethal with Mutagenic Growths! Temur Battle Rage can often end the game on its own. Death’s Shadows will typically be in that 8/8 range, but a Mutagenic Growth then gives you a 12/12 and TBR will do the rest.
Mishra’s Bauble has spiked in price dramatically for an uncommon, but it really is powerful. 0-mana cards that cycle are strong, even if the draw trigger is delayed. The information is also quite relevant. When you’re trying to figure out when to go off, you have Probe and Thoughtseize to see their hand, but the Bauble will allow you to also see their top card for perfect information the turn before you go all-in. You can also Bauble yourself to decide if you want to cycle your Probe or Wraith before or after cracking a fetchland, depending on whether you want that top card.
The rest of the creatures in the deck are the most aggressive you can find to go with the Become Immense/TBR combo. Wild Nacatl is a 3/3 for 1, Monastery Swiftspear can get even bigger than that with Mutagenics, Becomes Immenses, and TBRs, not to mention Probes and Baubles. Steppe Lynx is the weakest in the bunch, but it will represent 4 damage often enough to be a reasonable threat.
Death’s Shadow Aggro will scare some people off due to the complexity of sequencing all of these spells, and the fear of always being at such a low life total. The truth is, the deck isn’t “easy” by any stretch, but what deck is? You may accidentally go too low a couple times when figuring it all out, but that’s what practice is for! In the end, you’ll have a powerful machine that should reward you for sleeving it up.
Death’s Shadow Aggro
Brad Nelson, Top 4 at the SCG Invitional