Enemy Sighted: GP Vegas Metagame

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I originally planned for this article to be about planning for a tournament in an open metagame. The results from the Kobe and Copenhagen GPs and from the SCG Baltimore Classic indicated that the metagame was very open and unpredictable. Results from MTGO confirmed this, although Death's Shadow decks, particularly the Grixis version, were clearly at the top of the metagame. Then I saw the metagame breakdown for the Charlotte Open and the four Grixis Shadow decks in the Top 8. Now I'm worried. I'm going to watch the Top 8 now, and see how this shakes out. I hope I'm overreacting.

Okay, we're good. Grixis did not take down the Open. In fact, it didn't even make the final (although the bracketing helped). Todd Stevens and Eldrazi Tron won on the back of amazingly good openings against Living End. Seriously, Chalice of the Void and Relic of Progenitus on turn one? It would have taken some effort on Todd's part to lose. Skimming the rest of the Top 32 shows another Grixis list. 5 out of 13 on the decklist page for Grixis is not a bad result.

Now, to look at the Classic results. Huh, Grixis Shadow won. With two more sitting just outside Top 8. With a Jund Shadow list at fourth. Well done, Ryland! Hard to extrapolate anything else without additional data. However, when you consider everything together, there's really only one conclusion: Death's Shadow is the card in Modern right now, and the best shell is Grixis. Why this is and what it means for GP Las Vegas will be my focus today.

The Inevitable Derailment

I have to start with a reminder not to use these data as an excuse to start calls for bannings. I've been over this before. While Wizards has elaborated about their methodology since I wrote that article, the point still stands. We cannot be certain what will happen, and doing so has poisonous effects on the community. Until there is clear evidence for the need for a ban, I will not speculate on bans, and neither should you. It is far more productive to focus on the metagame as it currently exists and learn what the data has to teach us. Furthermore, any bannings announced today would have had no effect on Vegas, as the changes won't take effect until the 19th. Let's focus on the now, not on the future.

Addressing the Data

The GP and Star City results point to Grixis Shadow as the most successful deck in Modern. The deck won two events and put up strong numbers in most of the others. Death's Shadow decks of other iterations also put up good numbers. Taking into account only the Top 8 (to make the table understandable), we clearly see the this play out.

Deck NameTotal #
Death's Shadow Variants10
Eldrazi Tron3
Living End3
Collected Company Variants3
Jeskai Control2
BG Rock1
Four Color Control1
Titan Shift1
BW Eldrazi1
Ad Nauseam1
Esper Control1

Talk about a run away victory for Death's Shadow. This pattern of results continues into the Top 16 results, but the table gets too large and unwieldy to be useful. Focusing in on the Shadow results, Grixis emerges the clear winner.

Deck TypeTotal #

These data are not the whole story, but they do tell a tale. The only reasonable conclusions are that Death's Shadow is the most successful deck at high-profile tournaments, and that Grixis is the most successful version of that deck. Taking into consideration other data sources, specifically the aforementioned MTGO results, solidifies this conclusion. There are many viable and successful decks behind Shadow, but it's clearly—nevermind, the pun is too obvious to actually write. You're big readers now; you can do it yourself.

Why Death's Shadow?

The first question is, why now? Death's Shadow has been legal for Modern's whole life, as have its enablers (fetch/shocklands, Street Wraith, Thoughtseize). However, the first time I remember seeing anyone pilot the deck was early last year, and as an all-in combo deck with Become Immense and Gitaxian Probe---a forerunner of the Death's Shadow Zoo decks of last PPTQ season. Every time I saw that deck it lost to creature decks that went wide, or to Burn. Yet the deck picked up steam thanks to its ability to consistently kill on turn three, which strongly contributed to Probe's banning. I and everyone else assumed that without Probe, the deck was finished. It was certainly true of Infect and the Kiln Fiend, so why not Shadow?

I believe the problem is that nobody really understood Death's Shadow until last summer. When it was spoiled in Worldwake, the evaluation was, "Yeah it can be a massive creature, but it takes so long to get low enough for it to be worthwhile. By the time that happens your opponent will just kill you, or kill it then you." I remember many players trying to make the deck work, but the Avatar was just a removal target to control players, and aggro players simply swarmed around it. You had to rely on your opponent too much to make Shadow work. However, in Modern, you can lower your own life total by choice, and play Shadow early enough for it to matter. Early enough that your opponent may not have answers.

I suspect this all started when a Zoo player ran across Shadow while rummaging through their bulk box and recognized its potential with Probe. With this technological breakthrough, Shadow simply became the most efficient creature in Modern. Yes, you were very vulnerable to Burn, but they had to outright kill you or risk dying on the backswing. Burn also took a hit when the enemy fastlands were printed. With the logical counterstrategy diminished, players were free to wield Magic's best creature however they see fit.

Why Grixis?

Honestly, I think it's convenience. Grixis decks naturally did a lot of damage to themselves before Death's Shadow was a thing. Grixis Shadow is just Grixis Control with Street Wraith and Death's Shadow. Just look at Trevor's or Ryan Overturf's Grixis lists from the past year, then look at the lists from Charlotte. They're all very similar. Compare this to the Jund version, which warps its lists to accommodate both Shadow and Traverse the Ulvenwald. The Grixis shard has less work to do.

There is another factor: the mana base. Stubborn Denial is extremely powerful alongside Shadow. I don't know of any other deck that can have better-Negate online as often as Grixis Shadow. The Jund decks were stretching to play the card, but it fits into Grixis naturally. Grixis also has the best enablers for the delve threats, which play nicely with Denial and Shadow, and even resist Fatal Push. While other versions may be better at utilizing Shadow thanks to Traverse and other cards, Grixis offers the most streamlined package.

The Ugly Corollary

There a final factor at work here. The big-name authors on the big sites have extolled the New Testament of Grixis Shadow since Copenhagen; some, for months. With all that attention, it was inevitable for more players to pick up the deck. The bandwagon effect is very powerful. More players means more results. As a result, without data on the Day One metagame for the SCG events, it is impossible to tell if Grixis' success is the result of it actually being the best deck or of it being played in overwhelming numbers. The Law of Large Numbers guarantees that if enough players play a deck, it will win. Squeaky wheel gets the grease, hyped deck gets the numbers, and numbers ensure a win. I will proceed on the assumption that the "real" power of Grixis is lower than our data indicate for this reason.

Also, the deck plays a lot like a Legacy deck. Players enjoy Legacy, even though many can't afford the format, so I'd guess some are living the "Legacy experience" vicariously with Grixis Shadow. The deck is also attracting Legacy players, boosting the numbers and results.

The Other Players

Despite Shadow's surge, Modern still looks like it's in a good place. My table has 18 different decks; 21, if you break up the Shadow and Collected Company decks. Shadow may be on top, but it is by no means unbeatable. Todd Stevens proved that this weekend. Shadow decks may make up a quarter of the Top 8, but again, looking around the web, it commands at most 10% of the meta. As I'm going to explain, Shadow decks are very powerful when they get ahead of opponents, but they do struggle with playing from behind, and sometimes simply fail. This dimension doesn't appeal to every player, and every player won't get the memo on the "best deck." So you cannot focus exclusively on Shadow decks if you want to win. You need to be ready for a very open metagame.

How to Approach Vegas

First and foremost, you need to have a plan for Shadow decks. It is the top deck, and plenty of people will play it; perhaps even more than do now, if trends continue. Grixis Shadow should be your priority, but have some idea of how Jund operates as well. After that, you should plan on facing those decks with three wins on my table. They correspond with numerous websites' Tier 1 rankings. Once that is done, have a plan for the two-win decks, even if you don't have time to test the matchups. They're good decks that are Tier 1-2 depending on where you look. Finally, make sure that your deck is simply a solid deck. There will be a lot of randomness, as there always is at GP's. Powering through is your best bet.

Facing Grixis

While every deck has its own quirks and modifications, there are a number of constants across all Shadow lists, particularly the Grixis versions. First, they're all streamlined and low-to-the-ground. Shadow lists are built to be as efficient as possible. Everything is cast for one mana except for Snapcaster Mage, Kolaghan's Command, Terminate, and sometimes Liliana. This is extremely important because all these decks have incredibly low land counts. Grixis lists only have 19 lands and Jund lists run 18, of which 12 are fetchlands. They're guaranteed their colors, but not without a price---these lists are vulnerable to mana disruption... though not as much as you may think. I'll talk about why in a minute, but Shadow decks are very good at defending themselves. Couple this fact with their efficiency, and you cannot risk your own gameplan for the sake of disrupting theirs.

You would think that lock pieces, particularly Chalice of the Void, would be game over for Shadow decks, but that's not normally the case. They play a full set of Thoughtseizes and some Inquisition of Kozileks, so there is a good chance you'll never get to cast your card; even if you do, they have Stubborn Denial. After Chalice resolves, Grixis can power through with delve creatures and/or K-Command. The Jund decks even have Abrupt Decay. Lock pieces are not particularly effective against Shadow decks, and I would look at them as speed bumps. They'll buy you time to execute your own plan, and time is what you need.

The best way to deal with the Shadow decks is to survive them. Their strategy is based around picking yours apart with discard then dropping a threat you can't answer. It's very tempo-like in that they want to force you onto the back foot and leave you there until they win. Without a threat of their own, they don't have the answer density to effectively play on the back foot. To attack the Shadow decks, you need to be undisruptable.

Attack Plan

I am convinced that the key to beating Shadow lies in deck construction. Their strategy is built around shooting holes in yours and exploiting the gaps. If the holes aren't big enough, the whole thing falls apart. A typical Grixis list runs 6 discard spells, 6 removal spells, 2 Denial, and 2 K-Command. It wins with 4 delve creatures, 4 Shadow, 4 Snapcaster Mage, and sometimes Street Wraith. If you play a threat- or answer-dense deck, Grixis Shadow lacks the means to effectively answer you. The deck is stretched very thin. It sometimes exacerbates this problem with Thought Scour.

Against Grixis, I expect my opening hand to be crippled before I can react. I've found that the best counter is to make the top of my deck as good as possible. Shadow decks don't have many reserves after the opening salvo. They have cantrips, but they're not drawing to much.

I'm told that BW Tokens is good against Shadow for the above reasons. I have no idea if that's true, but they're not putting up results. This may be because of bad positioning against the rest of the meta, or my source may be wrong. I've also seen some players try Leyline of Sanctity against Shadow. I'm skeptical, since Shadow is more likely to open discard than you are a Leyline, but if your plan is weak to discard already, it may be your best option. Assembling an unassailable fortress is a decent strategy; just make sure you win or create a hard-lock before the monsters smash down the door.

Facing the Rest

The other decks are fairly well known and you should have decent plans already, but I want to highlight Eldrazi Tron. The best way to attack Gx Tron has always been land destruction, but Eldrazi Tron plays so many lands that you're unlikely to make a dent. However, you can give them major problems just by playing permission. Eldrazi Tron can't play as many Cavern of Souls as Bant Eldrazi, nor does it have Ancient Stirrings to smooth out its draws. If you don't lose to the deck's opening hand or can answer its threats, the deck struggles to regain momentum. It can reliably get all the mana in the world, but it can't always use it.

A final note on the Company decks: I find the Vizier builds less frightening than the older versions. Nowadays, Company is very combo-focused, while last year it was more value-based, and actually played removal. I've found the newer versions to be more explosive but more fragile, and Company has become essential to their gameplan where it was once a bonus. This means, for the first time, I recommend Grafdigger's Cage. It does a number on Company, Dredge, Storm, and Grixis decks. With Affinity losing metagame share (and respect, if you listen to many commentators), artifact hate is on the decline. Just don't forget to pack another, harder piece of hate for Dredge. It sucks to lose to Dredge.

Roll the Dice, Intelligently

The metagame remains far too open for you to prepare for everything, so you'll need to accept losing to fringe decks. No matter how good you think your deck is, there is a deck out there that crushes you, and somebody will play it, even if it is bad in a vacuum. Just accept that and move on. Prepare for what you know. I'll see you next week, hopefully triumphantly.

8 thoughts on “Enemy Sighted: GP Vegas Metagame

  1. I agree with basically everything here. I personally have found shadow EXTREMELY manageable. Both my decks have had strongly positive records along the lines of 3-1 each

    My biggest recommendation is to just run abrupt decay or blood moon. People cutting their decays is a huuuuuge reason that shadow is doing so damn well. Even the abzan and jund midrange decks I fight frequently run a single decay.

    Thoughtseize rather than inquisition to help mitigate the >3 Cmc issue
    And add back in those decays.

  2. BW Tokens is great against Death’s Shadow and decent against Counters Company, as well as having a fantastic matchup against Affinity and a good one against Burn (maindeck Auriok Champion and Sorin help there). Although we often lose game 1 to Gifts Storm, Living End, Dredge, etc. being in white means we have the sideboard tools to fight those decks. But because the Spectral Procession-enabling manabase can’t support Ghost Quarters, and because our sideboard is already stretched thin fighting fast combo decks and dealing with hate cards (with cards such as Burrenton Forge-Tender), we have a really hard time against Eldrazi Tron. Previously, it was a good matchup, but Ballista has made it a nightmare. I think Eldrazi Tron is the only thing keeping BW Tokens from putting up results at the top tables. But if your FNM meta is chock full of Grixis Shadow like mine is, it’s a great deck to bring.

    1. I would never have expected the problem to be Walking Ballista. I thought tokens played all the +1/+1 enchantments, or has that fallen off?

        1. I’m not a huge fan of Stony Silence in a sideboard slot since we have such a naturally good matchup against Affinity already. Stony is good against Ballista, Map and Mind Stone, but shutting down their early mana development isn’t nearly as important in a deck that’s really looking to grind. Really, you’re just bringing it in to shut down the Ballista, which is like bringing in Stony vs. Merfolk to shut down Aether Vial. If you need something against Lantern and/or even more insurance against Affinity, I prefer Kataki, War’s Wage. Opponents often board out some amount of single-target removal in games 2 and 3, and having a creature-heavy sideboard to take advantage of that is often the right play.

      1. I’m not saying Ballista is our only problem with the deck, but if you don’t draw your Intangible Virtues in a timely fashion, Ballista starts gunning down your team. It also kills our Auriok Champions for free, can shoot our powerful planeswalkers, which are a big way to pull ahead against the Eldrazi, and fireballs us, since we can go low on life with Blossoms and Thoughtseizes. Of course, there’s still All is Dust and a potential fast Karn to worry about as well, but that used to be more manageable before the advent of Ballista. It may look like a decent matchup on paper, but it’s quite tough.

    2. While ballista can be problematic, I think fast Ugin (in some decks) is much worse for WB tokens… There is nothing you can do to deal with him once he hits the table.
      Also even sideboarding Stony silence does not usually help. It may turn off Oblivion stone and mana artifacts, but it doesn’t get you anywhere closer to your actual goal (beating your opponent with your army of tokens).

  3. I play Living End

    I faced Death Shadow at GP copenhagen.
    After winning a close G1 where i stole his 7 power goyf with my Kari zevs expertise and killed him.

    G2 i drop t0 leyline of sanctity then t3 fulminator and T4 blood moon.

    It wasent a snapwin but i got there finaly.
    He had a hand with like 3/4 discardspells he couldent use.

    I get that leyline isent the best always vs DS but i have been really liking it in the board.

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