History has a pattern of repeating itself. As much as we all enjoy exploring new cards, sets, and formats in a Constructed setting, there are undeniable trends that recur over and over again.
Modern Death’s Shadow and Legacy Delver function in comparable ways within their environments, and their existence tells us a great deal about their respective formats.
When I say “Delver decks,” I mean decks that play efficient threats, a high threshold of cheap interactive spells, and good card selection. Basically, this style of deck is going to interact with and neutralize opposing threats, and apply pressure, on the cheap. It will also have ways of filtering its draw steps built into the fabric of its strategy.
Delver and Shadow are not the first, and surely won’t be the last, decks to fight along these axes.
Last month, a friend and Vintage expert, Rich Shay, wrote a fantastic theory piece deconstructing the archetype of Turbo Xerox in relation to possible banned and restricted decisions in Vintage.
I 100% agree with his take on the Vintage metagame and furthermore, a lot of the theory he applies to Vintage is applicable to basically every format that has existed, does exist, or will exist in Magic. I’m going to be applying several of these principles to Modern Death’s Shadow to demonstrate why that format is approaching a predictable endgame.
Turbo Xerox is sort of the first coming of the Delver-style deck. The major innovation was the discovery that card filtering and selective cantrip spells could be used to create more options during game play. You could cheat on lands, which helped reduce mana flood. You’d have more options.
Card selection allows players to pressure and neutralize the opponent’s options very hard from the early turns on and then win every topdeck battle.
Let me address a few counter arguments first. Is Death’s Shadow the best Turbo Xerox deck of all time? Not even close. In fact, it isn’t even a “pure” Turbo Xerox deck. It is, however, the best version of Turbo Xerox legal in Modern (a format where Preordain and Ponder are banned largely to weaken this type of strategy from running the show).
Grixis Death’s Shadow
James Forest, 2nd place at an SCG Open
The biggest advantage that Delver decks have over Shadow decks in their respective format is access to truly busted card selection spells.
“Unfit for Modern play.”
These cards are banned in Modern, and for good reason. They are completely insane, and poorly designed Magic cards.
I wrote an article several months ago about a Go-playing computer program.
Basically, a program was created to learn how to play Go, and it completely crushed all of the professional human players. When its strategy was analyzed, the one takeaway was that it prioritized making plays that created more options down the road.
Cultivating options, in particular good options, is a sound strategy in any game. Magic is no different.
“Still too good.”
For the most part, everything in Magic is contextual. Cards don’t exist in an abstract vacuum—they exist as pieces or cogs in decks that work toward winning the game.
When I say Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand are “too good,” I mean that it doesn’t matter that they are objectively worse versions of Ponder or Preordain because they still function to enable Turbo-Xerox-style decks in Modern, albeit less streamlined versions.
Although we live in a world where 1-mana “selection cantrips” exist, I would argue that these cards were all mistakes from a design perspective. I acknowledge that they are fun and people enjoy them (which is a great counter argument to my position that I accept), yet their existence tends to drive their formats down a very predictable and linear path toward Turbo Xerox decks.
The problem with these cards is a mana issue. 1 mana=1 card is a fine rate. The problem with these cantrips is that they replace themselves and they create options. Serum Visions provides three options and a card for 1 mana: the card you draw, access to either the top two cards of your library during your next draw, or the third card down if the top two are not what you want. It also lets you plan your next turn with information about the next draw step. It lets you keep land-light hands. And Snapcaster Mage gives the player the option to create more options in later in the game.
I’m not advocating one way or the other about whether these cards should be legal—I only intend to explain “why” these repeated trends occur across formats. The nature of Turbo Xerox in Modern explains precisely why Death’s Shadow has risen to become the established “best deck” in Modern.
The reason is simple: Turbo Xerox has traditionally been one of the best strategies in all of Magic. Turbo Xerox decks are extremely efficient and thrive by creating and exploiting a wellspring of options.
Not only more options, but better options.
Which brings me to my next point: Hand disruption.
Delver decks are different from Death’s Shadow decks because they have a critical mass of cheap, unconditional permission—unconditional in the sense that they can counter any type of spell, i.e., not Spell Pierce or Remove Soul.
Thoughtseize does two things: It negates options for the opponent (typically their best option) and it maximizes the caster’s ability to choose their best options. Since the caster knows the opponent’s hand, they are operating with near perfect information.
It isn’t surprising to me that Thoughtseize decks have typically been among the best choices in Modern dating all the way back to Jund, because hand disruption creates such an inequality of options on both sides for such a cheap cost.
These cards fighting side-by-side is the epitome of the Turbo Xerox model that seeks to create and leverage better options over the opponent. So if you were curious as to why Death’s Shadow is the best deck in Modern, that is my answer for you: Death’s Shadow is the best Turbo Xerox deck currently available in Modern and Turbo Xerox has traditionally been one of the most consistent performing archetypes in all of Magic.
One of the truly interesting elements of the rise of Death’s Shadow in Modern is the way the restructuring of the metagame is so eerily similar to other formats that have seen the same trajectory.
Eldrazi Tron has been the other best performing deck in Modern since Death’s Shadow has taken up the mantle of best deck.
Eldrazi is another inherently powerful strategy that tends to be good against Turbo Xerox in the abstract. Their spells are individually powerful. They can use prison-style/taxing effects to neutralize the Turbo Xerox deck’s ability to be efficient by playing cards that dramatically reduce their options:
The other “No.”
You’ve seen similar things in Legacy and Vintage where Turbo Xerox reigns supreme:
A format shows its true colorless.
Formats where Turbo Xerox decks are the “best” option tend to evolve into a two-deck metagame between Prison and Turbo Xerox. I would argue that the dominance of Miracles (also a Prison deck) has a lot to do with Delver’s influence in Legacy.
Turbo Xerox tends to prey on most of the “fair” decks in Magic. Their ability to leverage options allows the Turbo Xerox deck to disrupt the important things from the opponent while still executing their primary strategy. The anti-Xerox, Prison-style decks also tend to be linear and create a lot of pass/fail matchups for the other decks in the middle.
It is also worth noting that most combo decks tend to match up poorly against Turbo Xerox because the archetype is so efficient at interacting and taking away options.
Overall, the logical conclusion of a format is that Xerox and Prison continue to gain increased market shares of the metagame.
It is ironic that when this dynamic takes shape, there isn’t typically a good foil to the equation. In a big format, you would assume that if the “known” two best and most popular decks made up a large percentage of the metagame, that a particular strategy would emerge to prey upon that dynamic. Unfortunately, such a deck doesn’t tend to exist, because the inherent weaknesses of Turbo Xerox and Prison are completely different.
Dredge might be the third object in a rock, paper, scissors equation, but it can be beaten with dedicated sideboard hate cards (which Prison and Xerox both have access to and play in high numbers to offset this issue).
Formats that are defined by Xerox decks push the other strategies out of the format. It doesn’t mean you “can’t” play anything else, but the Prison/Xerox dynamic disincentivizes doing so. It’s a numbers game and the numbers don’t lie, so join or die.
If I were in charge of managing the health of the format (which I’m not, thank goodness!), I would be paying very close attention to the growing metagame percentage that has been gained by both Death’s Shadow and Eldrazi Tron in the past month.
I play Vintage and have forever. I don’t mind a good Xerox versus Prison metagame. In fact, I’m over pretending that I wouldn’t play just about any format regardless of whether it felt stale or not. I like playing Magic for the experience and I’m going to play no matter what.
As a person who has played Magic since the olden times, I feel comfortable telling you how I see this format shaping up, why I believe it is taking that shape, and what that shape will continue to morph into.
The numbers don’t lie. Yet, the more you understand them the better your odds to win. I’m going to get a lot of use out of my Antiquities Tron lands in the coming months. Raise a Chalice to Ulamog, because it’s the last line of defense against this looming Xerox Shadow.