Disrupting Modern with Mardu Death's Shadow
No matter how you slice it, Death's Shadow is just an objectively beautiful magic card. It’s incredibly well designed and flavourful, while promoting really unique deck designs. The most common version of the deck you will see is Grixis Shadow, followed closely by newcomer Four Colour Shadow - the latter using all the colours but white. Well, we're here to remember that white does, in fact, have a place in Shadow Decks, and provides extensive power to the archetype.
Mardu Death's Shadow
The Shadow Backbone
This deck functions as intended in a Shadow shell. Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek are your opening plays, looking to punch holes in your opponent’s strategies and defenses. Street Wraiths cycle and lower your life total, Mishra's Baubles cycle and give you more information to take advantage of. Fatal Push kills creatures, Temur Battle Rage kills players. Kolaghan’s Command and Unearth buy back your creatures, with the former offering even more sneaky utility. Fetches and Shocks control your life total while getting your colours together (It's important to aim for two Black, two White, and one Red at a minimum by turn three). There are two basics for emergencies, Path to Exiles, Ghost Quarters, and in the event of a Blood Moon.
When examining why we should go into Mardu, we are really asking why we should add white into an existing archetype. So to start with, let’s examine the cards that are unique to the Mardu Shadow archetype.
It might seem weird to start with a land, but this one card enables the whole archetype in a way that Grixis just doesn’t have access to. Silent Clearing not only gives you another way to go down in life in a controlled fashion but cantrips in the mid and late game to afford you more gas. This card alone replaces some of the cantrips that Mardu lacks, while only taking a land slot. This card also adds in a whole new strategy in how you play your lands, as a turn one Silent Clearing will do considerably more damage to you in a game than a turn one fetchland. I hope you like math!
Our other Modern Horizon’s all-star, Ranger-Captain works two-fold as a tutor and a disruption spell all in one, and this isn’t even considering that he provides card advantage through his tutor and provides a 3/3 beater. I’ve had several opponents who take the Ranger-Captain more seriously than the shadow it brings along! If you have used your hand disruptions spells to plan out your turns, you can even use Ranger-Captain as a time walk effect, sacrificing it on your opponent’s upkeep will prevent planeswalkers, board wipes, or other sorcery speed interactions from going off. Alternatively, Ranger-Captain can be used as a Silence effect on the turn you want to go all in with Temur Battle Rage. Ranger-Captain also pairs extremely well with Unearth and leads into turns where you tutor for multiple Death’s Shadows at once, which is back-breaking for opponents. Unless you plan on tutoring for another card…
While not being a white card, Hex Parasite is exclusive to Mardu Shadow as it can be tutored by Ranger-Captain. This little bug is much more fearsome than it appears! By allowing you to pay life in twos at any time, Hex Parasite speeds up your ability to capitalize on Death Shadows at a tremendous rate. Being able to play the Parasite on turn one, followed immediately by a Shadow on turn two creates a sudden threat on the board. Alternatively, playing a Hex Parasite onto a board with a Shadow already on it allows for you to threaten your opponent with every attack. Now that every Shadow is a pseudo 12/12, blocking is necessary - and if you have Temur Battle Rage, that’s usually game right there. Finally, it is worth considering the usefulness of actually using the Parasite’s ability as intended, to remove counters from Planeswalkers, Walking Ballistas or Aether Vials.
Back to white cards, we have a longtime staple of Orzhov midrange decks - Tidehollow Sculler. Functioning as a temporary discard spell, Sculler is the perfect follow up after a Thoughtseize to keep the pressure on your opponent’s hand. This zombie comes with the added bonus of keeping the card outside of the graveyard, which interacts very well against Snapcaster Mages, Underworld Breaches, and other graveyard synergies. It makes for a respectable Unearth target in a pinch, and swinging for two a turn allows you leeway in planning your bigger attacks.
There’s not much more that needs to be said about Modern’s premier white removal. No restriction on targets due to toughness or converted mana cost, no need to worry about recursion, just point it at something and say goodbye. Goodbye to Eldrazi, to Titans, Revelers, anything. Versatile and efficient.
Oh, this card? Oh, it’s nothing, just super-secret spice tech. This ace-in-the-hole allows you to eek out wins where you had no business winning. Negate removal? Check. Counter Valakut triggers? Check. Make one creature unblockable? Make everything unblockable? Absolutely. Fog your opponents, negate their lethal Lightning Bolt, this card does so much. Much like Mana Tithe, this card creates blowouts and then stays on your opponent’s mind for the next games. People play around this card, and that leads them to make mistakes. Considering this card is under one dollar - I heavily recommend giving it a go. It’s a blast.
Our Sideboard is designed to completely hose only a few match-ups, while the majority of the cards offer versatility over power. Due to our strong main deck gameplan, overdoing the sideboard can potentially reduce the success of the deck.
Ashiok, Dream Render hoses fetches, tutors, and graveyards. Unlike cards like Leonin Arbiter, Ashiok just shuts down searching, effectively blanking cards in your opponent’s deck. With a starting loyalty of five, Ashiok is also resilient to damage - making them easier to protect.
Celestial Purge hits various Red and Black targets that need to be answered before they take over the game. Namely, Blood Moon, Hazoret, any Chandra, any Liliana, Nahiri, Bedlam Reveler and the new Ox of Agonas. Exile is always relevant, and instant speed maximizes the versatility.
Collective Brutality is mostly for burn strategies, as even the one casting is enough to swing the game deep in your favour. Also very effective against Collected Company decks, as they tend to have X/2 creatures and key instants and sorceries for you to take.
Fulminator Mage. Very necessary against all the land decks that we struggle with. I currently run four in the side, but I leaned more conservatively in the provided list above. Use this elemental against decks like Titan, Tron, and Control. Then, use Unearth and Kolaghan’s Command to buy it back and repeat. Destroying a bounce land is very satisfying, and will often buy the time necessary to win.
Liliana, the Last Hope is our anti-midrange card. At this moment I run the fourth Fulminator over her, as I feel that our midrange matchup is already very favoured. But if you feel that midrange is a real issue around your meta, this card will flip the game in your favour by allowing for repeated recursion.
Kaya, Orzhov Usurper is the queen of versatility. Her +1 offers graveyard hate and life gain all at once, and her -1 hits a high amount of relevant targets. Exile mana dorks, Giver of Runes, Burn/Prowess Creatures, Aether Vials, Germ tokens, Astrolabes and opposing Death’s Shadows. This card is a killer in the mirror. Though her life gain might appear to clash with Shadow, the fact that you have complete control over the amount gained and when you gain it allows for surgical utility.
Phyrexian Unlife will “gain” you at least 10 life without hurting your Shadows. Often this is enough that Burn cannot breakthrough, and they cannot prevent this kind of life again. The other bonus is this card forces Copycat decks to attack you with infinite cats twice, as the first attack will not give you poison counters.
Plague Engineer beats tribal decks, and affords powerful plays against token decks, or any deck with enough x/1s. Much like above, Engineer will also negate the Copycat combo by reducing the cats into 0/3s. This card’s deathtouch is also often relevant and will clean up problematic strategies nicely.
Surgical Extraction is a classic selective graveyard hate card. It can be replaced with Rest in Peace if graveyards are a real problem around you, but I've found that extracting a card at the right time often is all we need to close in a victory. Don’t bring this in against combo decks as the deck already have enough tools against them.
Wear/Tear closes our sideboard, much in the way Abrade opens it: Versatility over power. It cleans up Blood Moons, Aria of Flames, Batterskulls, and can occasionally two-for-one by casting both sides. Much like Abrade, you want to bring this in against must answer threats only, as it does reduce consistency in your deck.
Here are a few breakdowns of common matchups within the Modern metagame.
Vs Amulet Titan/Titan Field/Titanshift
Yes, Path exiles Primeval Titan, but the ETB will already spell out doom for us. Therefore, our goal is to discard Titan, destroy lands to prevent its casting, neuter it through Ashiok. Fatal Pushes stay in as they hit Azusa, Sakura-Tribe Scout, and the newly printed Dryad of the Ilysian Grove. You want to keep hands with sideboard cards, a guaranteed clock (turn two Death’s Shadow), or heavy disruption (two discard spells or Tidehollow).
Vs Burn or Mono-Red Prowess
This is a quick and precise match-up. You need to make the most out of your turns and choose your life loss carefully. Let them work down your life total for you, and time your Death's Shadows accordingly. Thoughtseize is worth casting, but only when you know you can snag a high-value card. Keep hands with removal, Shadows, and sideboard cards. Clean up their creatures as fast as you can before deploying Kaya, Orzhov Usurper, and be wary of Blood Moon.
Vs Bant Snow / 4 Colour Snow
If they are running Red you will have to be prepared for Blood Moon but otherwise, your goal is to go one-for-one with your opponents until you can drop a Shadow. None of their creatures are worth Pathing, so we replace them for more versatile removal. Use your Plague Engineers to clean up their Ice-Fang Coatls and maximize your Ranger-Captain’s sacrifice ability to skip their key turns. Do not be afraid to discard/destroy their Astrolabes. Their mana base is more ambitious than it should be and you can punish them for it.
Beating the Midrange king isn’t as tough as you’d worry it would be, but there will always be some luck involved. Scullers are gone as our opponents have too much removal on hand. Instead, we bring Planeswalkers and land destruction to play into the long game. Games will almost always go into topdeck mode, so your discard and removal should be aimed at interfering with any two-for-one cards such as Liliana of the Veil, Dark Confidant, Tireless Tracker, etc. Your Ranger-Captains will do real work in the matchup, as will Kolaghan’s Command. Eventually they will run out of removal, and one or two attacks are all you need.
Vs Shadow Mirror Match
Mardu Shadow is extremely favoured against any other Shadow deck, and the strategy is the same - even against Mardu Shadow itself. Your goal is to draw more threats than your opponent and attack their mana base. Shadow mana bases are very vulnerable to disruption, so Ashiok and the Fulminators can cut colours from your opponent without much trouble. This match is a back and forth slug-fest, with the winner being whoever can resolve and protect a threat. With that in mind, all your discard spells should be aimed at their threats, likewise with all your removal. Ranger-Captain is an all-star here, as it provides you with two threats at a time.
Mardu Shadow functions as an extremely powerful midrange deck, providing you with disruption and a fast clock to back it up. As games go longer, the deck has plenty of nasty tricks to stay in the game, and with a handful of recursion and tutors, the deck is resilient to interruptions to its gameplan. Hopefully, if you do decide to try the deck, you'll enjoy it as much as I do. Good luck at your next event, and thanks for reading!