Death’s Shadow is a strategy that can quite literally span any combination of Magic’s colors (so long as one of them is black). Last week I covered Grixis Death’s Shadow. But since a major goal of this article series is to find the best ways to use the best cards in Modern, it would be negligent to stop at just one of the Death’s Shadow color combinations.
Today I’m going to cover the archetype I call Traverse Shadow. I use this name as a way of grouping together all of the G/B/x Death’s Shadow decks that feature Traverse the Ulvenwald and Tarmogoyf. This includes the decks that you might know as Jund Death’s Shadow, 4-Color Death’s Shadow, and 5-Color Death’s Shadow. But again, if you’re the type of player who is willing to break the mold, there’s no reason to feel limited to these configurations. I played Abzan Death’s Shadow at GP San Antonio last year. Sultai Death’s Shadow is an intriguing deck that’s had some success, and “4-Color” Shadow could mean G/B/w/u, G/B/w/r, or G/B/u/r.
Before moving further, I’ll offer you my recommended deck list, which is by no means the only way to build Traverse Shadow.
My current build of choice is 4 colors of the G/B/w/r variety. My interesting card choices include a Grim Flayer and a Lingering Souls to increase the threat density, a seventh fetchable land (and second basic land), and Liliana of the Veil because… just because she’s one of my favorite cards to have access to in Modern.
What Each Color Offers
But discussing individual cards is skipping ahead a few steps. If you’re like me and you’re struggling to choose a deck for your next Modern tournament, the first thing you’ll want to decide is what combination of colors to play.
Green is what distinguishes Traverse Shadow from the U/B/x Snapcaster Mage-based Death’s Shadow decks. What you give up in the staying power of Snapcaster Mage, you make up for in your ability to be clean and consistent. Traverse Shadow does largely the same thing every game, and your opening hand often gives you all of the tools you need to win.
Tarmogoyf and Death’s Shadow are by far the two best threats this archetype has access to. The deck won’t function with only 8 creatures, but there’s a steep drop-off in power level once you get past Shadow and ‘Goyf. That’s where Traverse the Ulvenwald comes in. It represents extra copies of your most important cards, and Death’s Shadow is still significantly better with an extra mana tacked onto it than whatever threat you’d choose instead. As a bonus, Traverse leads to great post-sideboard configurations where you can search up silver-bullet creatures that excel in whatever matchup you happen to be playing.
Red offers Temur Battle Rage, which contributes to the archetype’s most powerful draws. It allows you to race non-interactive decks like Storm or Tron. Equally important, it allows you to win the game through annoying blockers such as Lingering Souls, Bitterblossom, Kitchen Finks, and Etched Champion—these are otherwise the most problematic cards for the archetype.
Personally, the card that most excites me about red is Ancient Grudge out of the sideboard. I prefer it to Stony Silence in part because it doesn’t hurt your own Mishra’s Baubles. Grudge has also skyrocketed in value as Lantern Control has become a more popular and successful deck. Unlike other artifact destruction, you need not actually draw Ancient Grudge for it to be potent in the matchup.
Blue’s greatest offering is permission to diversify the disruption suite against combo decks. Like Temur Battle Rage, Stubborn Denial is a powerful card that fits well in the archetype, and makes your good draws even harder to beat. It, alongside Disdainful Stroke or whatever other permission spells you might choose for the sideboard, helps you lock up the game against combo and ramp decks.
White is the color that I’m personally most loath to go without. This may seem strange as white offers the least (typically nothing at all) for the main deck. Instead, its function is to improve your chances against fair decks after sideboarding. Lingering Souls and Ranger of Eos (one of those spicy Traverse targets alluded to above) dramatically improve your ability to win a long game, and combat the spot removal spells that your opponents pack their decks with in order to beat you.
Without white, fair decks would be horrible matchups for Traverse Shadow. With white, you have a totally fine (if not good) chance to win pseudo-mirrors after sideboarding. I don’t like the feeling of going into a Modern tournament as a big underdog against opposing midrange decks. But the stock of midrange decks might be at an all-time low right now. So if there’s ever a time to make the calculated risk of gunning for the unfair matchups, this might be it.
How Many Colors Should You Play?
No matter how many colors you choose, a Death’s Shadow deck is going to be built around a fetchland-plus-shockland mana base. You won’t be interested in colorless lands or creature lands (except for maybe one as a Traverse target if you’re that type of player). This makes splashing easy.
It makes splashing easy, but not free. An important point to remember is that Traverse Shadow is designed to operate on a very small number of lands, and that most of those lands need to produce black mana.
First, imagine yourself with a hand that has one fetchland and a Traverse the Ulvenwald. This ought to be a completely functional hand if you build your deck for it. But you’ll likely have to choose an Overgrown Tomb with your fetchland. There’s no way you’re going to have a Plains, Island, or Mountain in your deck, so the Traverse won’t help you color fix. So if your deck (more specifically the cards in your hand) is centered around green and black, you’ll be perfectly fine. If your hand has multiple off-color cards in a variety of colors, you might not be so fine.
Another pitfall comes from the fact that these decks will usually play only a few cards of each of the peripheral colors. If you draw a Terminate you can fetch for a Blood Crypt, if you draw a Stubborn Denial you can fetch for a Watery Grave—no problem, right? The problem arises when you have to make these fetch decisions before you draw the spell. It will only take a couple of games where you topdeck Terminate, look down at a board without red mana, and can’t kill the opponent’s Champion of the Parish before you’ll begin to value more conservative mana bases. Along these lines, I believe that each progressive splash color has an increasing cost.
I do believe that playing only 2 colors is going too far. It’s nice to be able to fetch for Overgrown Tomb every time with no worries. But your sideboard options simply become too limited when you play straight G/B.
On the other extreme, I feel that 5 colors is unnecessarily greedy. Don’t get me wrong—the deck still functions, and your mana will probably be fine in about 80% of your games. But you need to ask yourself if you’re really getting the right benefits to pay even those modest costs. You can beat combo decks without Stubborn Denial. Temur Battle Rage is a strong, but also high variance card. Can’t you choose between them? After all, opening hands that have both can be very awkward.
Realistically, 4 colors is probably a sweet spot for Traverse Shadow. I’ll continue toying around with 3-color builds because I’m a lover of basic lands and conservative mana bases. But I can promise that 4 colors work just fine, while giving you access to more tools and great sideboard options. Choose the colors that you believe are the most useful.
Traverse Shadow is faster and more consistent in the early turns (Note: Only in the early turns) than Grixis Shadow. It can rip apart the opponent’s hand and produce a hard-hitting threat in the first three turns of the game, while Grixis often has to spend an extra turn cantripping before it can do so.
Due to this speed and power, I believe that Traverse Shadow has the best game 1 win rate of all the black midrange decks. I also like it’s positioned best in the matchups that are primarily about racing.
On the flip side, it has the least card advantage, and is the most vulnerable to spot removal, Leyline of Sanctity, and graveyard hate. This makes it a bit more like a glass cannon, and worse in midrange mirrors. You can make up for some, but not all of these weaknesses after sideboarding.
Storm. The fastest clock of the black midrange decks improves your chances here. If you have both Stubborn Denial and Temur Battle Rage, then you’re as prepared as possible.
Hatebears and Infect. Giant creatures and efficient removal will always prey on these decks.
Affinity and Lantern. These matchups are conditional on your sideboard, but there’s no reason why they can’t be favorable. Ancient Grudge is best against Lantern, and I would consider playing a third. My recommended deck list is weak to Etched Champion, so you can consider Kozilek’s Return, Drown in Sorrow, or Flaying Tendrils to round things out. If you choose Stony Silence, pair it with a tutorable Kataki, War’s Wage to really punish them.
Fair (Close to Even) Matchups
Humans and Collected Company Decks. A classic matchup where your cards are more efficient and individually powerful, but your opponent has more synergy and the ability to snowball in the midgame. Try to cut their resources and get them into chump-block mode quickly.
Tron and Valakut. These traditionally bad matchups for black midrange decks become passable when you speed up your clock to this extent. These decks tend to hit their stride around turn 4, and Traverse Shadow can win the game on turn 4, often with a Thoughtseize mixed in for good measure. One tool that I like to have (which many players omit) is tutorable Fulminator Mages.
Burn. A bad matchup for Grixis Shadow, but a fine one for Traverse Shadow. Tarmogoyf is one of the best cards in the format against Burn. You have the ability to block and to race, and you can make them walk a tightrope regarding your life total and the size of your Death’s Shadows.
Dredge. Another traditionally bad matchup where Tarmogoyf, a faster clock, and Temur Battle Rage give you a fighting chance.
Celestial Colonnade Decks. These decks prey on Death’s Shadow, and you lack the staying power to beat them in a long game.
Other Black Midrange Decks. They can typically kill your threats more easily than you can kill theirs, and you have very little card advantage in game 1.
Traverse Shadow gets my seal of approval. It has a high power level, gets great opening hands, and earns more easy wins than other black midrange decks. My experience was better with this archetype than with Grixis Shadow. I still like Classic Abzan, but the increased speed and power of Traverse Shadow make it my favorite of the decks I’ve covered so far.
More generally, I think it’s a good time to gun for the non-interactive matchups rather than focusing on having an edge in midrange mirrors.
I’m still intimidated by Traverse Shadow for two reasons. First, the sequencing of the early turns is the most challenging of any deck in Modern. What land should you fetch? How should you manage your life total and graveyard size? What card should you Thoughtseize? How should you use your Mishra’s Bauble? How in the world will you remember the Bauble trigger next turn?!
The second is that there’s an almost limitless number of ways to build the deck. I’ve already emphasized how difficult it is to choose your color combination. But even once you’ve done that, the individual card choices are subtle and challenging. The shell of the deck is easy, but what flex cards do you want to choose, and which should be in the main deck and which in the sideboard?
If you start with the list I posted in this article, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re looking to become a master of the archetype, you’ll also want to try a version with Stubborn Denial—your experience might be a little different than mine and you could wind up loving the card.
A piece of general advice is to err on the side of being conservative with your spicy Traverse the Ulvenwald targets. Ranger of Eos is an example of a good one because it comes in for a lot of matchups, it’s fine to draw naturally, and you don’t need it until the late game. I had mediocre experiences with cards like Yixlid Jailer and Ethersworn Canonist because the matchups where you want them go so fast that you sometimes don’t have time to achieve delirium, fetch for the right color of mana, find a Traverse, and get your creature into play. Besides, your plan A game plan is good enough for these matchups that you might be equally well served to just kill them!
Time flies, and this article series is moving along quickly. With time enough to cover only a few more decks, now’s the time to speak up in the comments if there’s a particular black midrange deck that you really want to read about. So far I’ve seen the most requests for Jund, G/B Rock, Sultai, and W/B Eldrazi. I’ll be trying my best to make the last couple of installments as fun and valuable as possible!