One important part of brewing is knowing when to plug holes in an existing deck. Sometimes, plugging such holes leads to new decks entirely, or into Frankenstein mashups of multiple decks. Today's brew falls into the latter category. While messing around with various Death's Shadow and Bedlam Reveler decks, I had the kooky idea of integrating the packages into a single shell. And so begins this tale of weird science!
The ensuing pile, hereafter referred to as Mardu Shadow, tries to preserve the strongest aspects of both strategies without giving up too much oomph in between. This article outlines the deck's key cards and strategic benefits, as well as my impressions after two weeks of reps.
Before we jump into the deck's strategic positioning, I want to go over the roles a few of Mardu Shadow's cards play, as well as touch on some notable omissions.
Monastery Swiftspear: Puts opponents on the backfoot early, allowing us to play the game according to our own terms. In many matchups, Swiftspear marks the difference between us claiming initiative first and it being more of a wash. She's also necessary against decks that ask us to be more proactive to keep up with their gameplan, such as Storm and Tron.
Street Wraith: It's true that Mardu can take a lot of damage to its lands alone. But even with Thoughtseize in the picture, it doesn't take enough damage to enable Death's Shadow against decks that don't touch our life total for a bit (Storm and Tron again among the chief offenders). Wraith gets boarded out against most aggressive and interactive decks and joins Swiftspear as a critical player in many Game 1s.
Kolaghan's Command: An expensive card for this deck, but a necessity in attrition matchups. Command pairs with Reveler to help us never lose the grind game, and Shadow gives the card a mean toolbox aspect.
Faithless Looting: This card lets us tear through the deck like no other, providing a pseudo-Brainstorm effect with dead fetches in the late game and chewing past clunky spells otherwise. Looting's also great with Swiftspear and Reveler, not to mention its synergy with Lingering Souls.
Young Pyromancer: With Shadow in the mix, we've already got enough threats. And this card is just kind of meh. Fails the Bolt and Push tests; doesn't fit well into our curve; Lingering Souls already attacks from the go-wide angle. You get the idea.
Liliana of the Veil: I went back and forth on this one for a while, but eventually left her out. Lili's expensive, sure; still, the biggest strike against the walker is her typing. We're not Delver, but we still need a relative critical mass of instants and sorceries to facilitate Bedlam Reveler.
Lightning Helix: When it comes to halting aggro decks, Lightning Helix is king. But we've got Shadow to pull points there, most notably against the Burn decks that hassle Mardu Reveler in the first place. Besides, skipping out on Helix lets us run a reliable Blood Moon plan from the sideboard, as our only white spell becomes Lingering Souls---which can just as well be pitched to Looting or Reveler and cast for black.
Path to Exile: And when it comes to removal, nothing holds a candle to Path. We're in Terminate colors, though, with Bolt and Push to boot, as well as a few plans that go over creatures that ignore all that. Path clashes heavily with our Moon plan and overall just isn't necessary.
The reason to play any mish-mash of two archetypes tends to remain constant no matter the style or format: mixes can plug strategic holes in either archetype to yield a deck overall better positioned than either of its ingredients (think Tarmo-Twin; Jeskai Breach; Eldrazi Tron). Both Shadow decks and Reveler decks have such drawbacks, which this deck attempts to remedy.
Problems with Shadow Decks
Death's Shadow has come a long way from its aggressive blitz beginnings, by now becoming one of Modern’s premier threats. It helms both Grixis Shadow, which combines it with delve threats and Snapcaster Mage into a reactive rock shell, and Delirium Shadow (of Jund, Abzan, and 5-color flavors), a highly consistent and proactive take on BGx midrange decks.
Of course, no strategy is perfect. One issue common to both of these shells is their relative lightness on threats. Removal-heavy control shells like Jeskai and Mardu plow Shadow decks, as they pack even more kill spells than Shadow has creatures. And should Shadow fail to replace its dead threats with more, a mere one or two removal spells from the other side of the table can prove enough disruption for whatever deck to get its own gameplan online, even through targeted discard and countermagic---disruption that doesn't interact with the board and looks real silly under pressure.
In Mardu Shadow, two cards address this pitfall: Bedlam Reveler and Lingering Souls. The former cleans up the mess a flurry of interactive spells can leave by gassing us back up on pressure, even serving as a respectable body itself. And Souls overloads the sort of spot removal that shines against Monastery Swiftspear and Death's Shadow, putting a tight squeeze on opponents to react from multiple angles.
Problems with Mardu Reveler
Mardu doesn’t just shine against Death’s Shadow strategies—it excels against most players looking to interact. The aforementioned combination of Reveler and Souls makes one-for-ones quite unappealing. Like many decks that shine at the grind game, though, the deck can be raced rather handily. Faster aggressive strategies tend to decimate Mardu, especially ones that don’t rely too heavily on creatures (between Bolt, Push, and Path, the shard isn’t exactly wanting in the removal department). Usual suspects include Burn, Storm, and Tron.
There are a couple ways to beat Modern’s faster noninteractive decks, but the most reliable has always been to go up on proactivity when possible. That’s why Delirium Shadow has such a ball against Tron while the more reactive UBx shells struggle—cards like Tarmogoyf and Temur Battle Rage let that deck close games out more quickly when it needs to. Unlike traditional Mardu decks, this one ups the Monastery Swiftspear count to four to help with this proactive dimension, and axes Young Pyromancer entirely; I was never big on the Shaman anyway, and it seems much too durdly for this role in particular. And naturally, there’s Death's Shadow itself, which with the right enablers can take opponents from 20 to 0 in a matter of turns. We’ve got the best in the format: Street Wraith, Thoughtseize, and plenty of fetchlands.
Rounding out the proactivity bump is Mardu Shadow's disruptive suite, which trims some of Mardu Reveler's removal to accommodate the full eight discard spells. Opening targeted discard is the nut in Modern, and this deck naturally mitigates the inherent drawback of topdecking dead Thoughtseizes later with its set of Faithless Lootings. Discard also plays well with Reveler and, surprisingly, Swiftspear. I'd gotten so used to casting her in Serum Visionss decks that I'd slept on her interaction with discard, which is just as nice.
Actually, targeted discard is gravy with most of our spells---big plays like Reveler become more rewarding if we can use Inquisition to ensure we don't run into Logic Knot; Lingering Souls improves when we can first strip Electrolyze; etc. This deck also features lots of control over its life total, so having extra information with which to decide how low to go boosts Death's Shadow's potency.
Assessing the Hybrid
So that's my reasoning for the pairing, and I've been running the above build for a couple of weeks. Let's now take a closer look at how I think the deck fares compared with Shadow decks and Mardu Reveler.
Pro: More Robust
Mardu Shadow is less vulnerable to graveyard hate than either Shadow deck, and resists mana denial better than those and Mardu. Since it can leverage its proactive elements into a higher reversibility than Mardu, it's also better-rounded when it comes to matchups generally.
Between many Moons and Stony Silence from the board, the grinding plan of Reveler and Souls, Shadow's excellence in creature mirrors, and the creature-combo-shredding disruptive suite of cheap discard and removal, Mardu Shadow has a great time against plenty of decks in the field. Some of the above cards simply win the game for us.
Con: Less Consistent
The biggest issue I've run into so far is the deck's lack of focus, and of a way to smooth things out for itself---Faithless Looting only works when we've got cards to spare, and the window for Bedlam Reveler only opens in the mid-game. It's true that Mardu Shadow has the tools to beat, well, anything, as well as plans for all the matchups in Modern. But you could say the same thing about a host of other strategies, including Delirium Shadow, a far more consistent deck (albeit a more fragile one). Mardu Shadow can fall victim to drawing the wrong portion of its deck at the wrong time, and doubly so since some of its pieces can be awkward together---think opening Swiftspear, Souls, and Reveler, for instance. Consistency is a big deal in Modern, and for all its supposed improvements on other strategies, there's no denying that Mardu Shadow is less focused than any of its parts.
No Faith, No Problem
But then... so what? Modern's full of decks that cut an edge here for an edge there, and Mardu Shadow features enough individually powerful cards and interactions that I think it's totally viable in this format. Everything isn't always about scooping up small percentage points at high-level tournaments, at least for me; Modern specifically has a stronger emphasis on brewing than any other constructed format. And I hold that Mardu Shadow is one hell of a brew!