I picked up Death’s Shadow in June of 2017 and haven’t looked back since. Previously, I played traditional Abzan and Jund, but I was quickly drawn to the increased power level and efficiency of Death’s Shadow.
There hasn’t been a lot of Traverse Death’s Shadow content since the rise of the deck’s Grixis conterpart. The Traverse variant, however, has since evolved and is a preferred choice in recent months. With the Pro Tour on the horizon, it’s time to revisit the archetype to keep you informed. There are two types of Traverse Shadow lists in the format: The 5-Color List that Clay Spicklemire and friends popularized, as well as the G/B/R/w version that had a recent finish at Grand Prix Santa Clara and has been seeing play on Magic Online.
Let’s jump into each deck list and break down the specifics.
Five-Color Death's Shadow by Dylan Hovey
Alternative Card Selection
When I shifted the deck to incorporate a Breeding Pool, having Terminate in the deck caused a lot of issues. I found myself feeling pressure to search for Blood Crypt and Breeding Pool to cast all my spells. But Breeding Pool (similar to the Stomping Ground) is pretty bad in such a black heavy deck. Cutting Terminate makes the mana base a lot easier in game one. You can operate off any combination of BUG lands and not worry about the Blood Crypt until you already have a threat in play.
This is my terminate substitution, as it kills everything that you want Terminate to kill besides Primeval Titan and Wurmcoil Engine. However, if those creatures resolve, the damage is already done.
3 Liliana of the Veil:
She meanest woman in Modern; She mops up the mess and shuts the door. Liliana allows you to trade your resources with your opponent when you draw dead cards. Similar to Jund and Abzan, you can draw the wrong half of your deck and feel anemic, but Liliana can trade that Fatal Push for a card from your Ad Nauseam opponent or get value out of your late game discard spell top deck.
1 Grim Flayer:
This is another threat, but without the presence of Tarfire, it can be difficult to turn on Delirium. Grim Flayer will get Delirium on its own while filtering draws and it tramples over creatures preventing chump blocks.
2 Stubborn Denial:
I used to play three, but with how Modern is shaping up, it tends to be a complete blank or it ends the game depending on the matchup. There isn’t any in-between. Stubborn Denial feels like a two of right now, a card that I want to draw in about half of my matches, similar to Temur Battle Rage.
0 Kolaghan’s Command:
This card shouldn’t be in Death’s Shadow decks unless you’re returning Snapcaster Mage. It’s too slow and doesn’t do any one thing well enough to deserve a man deck spot. Five-Color Shadow isn’t trying to grind opponents.
0 Graveyard hate:
I don’t think that Graveyard based decks are very good right now, so Nihill Spellbomb or Surgical Extraction are not needed. The best way to beat the Company and Dredge decks are to Temur Battle Rage over chump blocks while counter spelling a key spell such as Conflgrate or Collected Company.
0 Land Hate:
If you expect a lot of Tron or Valakut the best way to fight that is with counterspells or playing four Fulminator Mages. Traversing for a Fulminator is too slow. That play takes four mana and probably a two-turn set up. I would play a Ghost Quarter before I played a Fulminator Mage.
- Any Spell based combo deck
- Five-Color Shadow is the best deck in the format against combo decks. After board, you have a clock, eight discard spells, and four counterspells.
- Small creature decks like Merfolk, Collected Company or Affinity
- You have just enough removal to deal with early creatures, discard spells to take high impact spells and Temur Battle Rage to invalidate chump blockers.
- Game one can be difficult because there are dead cards in the deck but Lingering Souls after sideboard is the truth. Death’s Shadow is a more efficient midrange deck because you play 18 lands while Jund play 24. Make sure you can deal with Bob because an unchecked Bob is how this matchup is lost.
- Any Blue/Red deck, whether it’s Kiki Moon, Blue Moon or Through the Breach
- The key in this matchup is to hover at around nine life as Stubborn Denials are turned on while not at risk of getting burned out. Make sure to keep some removal in as they tend to board into creatures. Kiki Moon is much closer to “even” than the other two decks because the tempo game can be difficult to handle. I would keep more removal in after sideboarding than against the other decks.
- Eldrazi Tron
- If you don’t get hit with an All is Dust, this matchup is great. Your creatures are larger and impossible to kill if you’re careful. Eldrazi Tron’s best aspect is dominating the battlefield with undercosted creatures. Tarmogoyf and Death’s Shadow take that advantage away.
- Jeskai With Queller
- It’s key to get double green so you can Traverse for Tarmogoyf. Quick Shadows don’t win this matchup, whereas Tarmogoyf and Grim Flayer do. Work hard to set up Liliana as it squeezes Jeskai Opponents. A good tip to this matchup is casting your spells before activating Liliana. If you activate Liliana and they Queller a spell it can be fatal, and worst of all, avoidable.
- If they Tron you on three it’s going to be bad news. Disrupt them early with counterspell back up so you can win the match. Be wary of keeping hands without Death’s Shadow in them cause they’ll have four relics after board.
- Grixis Shadow
- Snapcaster Mage provides a lot of value and if they begin looping it with Kolaghan’s Command then it’s all over. Liliana is our best card, which is why I decided to play three as it gives me a fighting chance. We are favored in games two and three because of Lingering Souls. Without a Liliana, the Last Hope you’re going to dictate combat. Still, it’s difficult to win two post board games especially when you’re on the draw for one of them. If you can steal game one you’re in a good spot.
- There are so many dead cards in the deck during game one that sometimes a seven-card hand can turn into a mulligan. Lantern empties its hand quickly making the discard not very good. After sideboard they get access to decays, more needles and Leyline. Sometimes they don’t draw any of their hate cards and you run them over. It’s always difficult to determine if someone is favored or not when the games aren’t close. I think that it’s a close matchup, but I would say that Death’s Shadow is an underdog.
- UW Control
- Death and Taxes
- Benajmin Nikolich Jeskai
- Unlike the Queller version, this version has more removal and Supreme Verdict. It plays a control role much better than its Queller counterpart. Death’s Shadow is better against decks that play to the board, and this version stays off the board entirely.
- Out: 3 Liliana of the Veil, 2 Stubborn Denial, 1 Thoughtseize, 2 Street Wraith, 1 Overgrown Tomb
- In: 1 Godless Shrine, 2 Ancient Grudge, 1 Liliana the Last Hope, 4 Lingering Souls, 1 Izzet Staticaster
- It’s important to keep the Breeding Pool in. It allows you to sequence your lands such that Godless Shrine, Breeding Pool and Blood Crypt allow you to cast everything. I keep in two Street Wraith for Delirium.
- Grixis Shadow
- Out: 2 Stubborn Denial, 2 Temur Battle Rage, 1 Inquisition of Kozilek, 1 Street Wraith, 1 Watery Grave
- In: 1 Godless Shrine, 4 Lingering Souls, 1 Liliana the Last Hope, 1 Ranger of Eos
- Out: 3 Fatal Push, 1 Dismember, 1 Traverse the Ulvenwald
- In: 2 Ancient Grudge, 2 Stubborn Denial, 1 Disdainful Stroke
- Jeski Queller
- Out: 1 Blood Crypt, 2 Temur Battle Rage, 2 Abrupt Decay, 1 Dismember, 2 Street Wraith
- In: 1 Godless Shrine, 4 Lingering Souls, 1 Stubborn Denial, 2 Collective Brutality
- I’m careful of my life total in this matchup. If I am gearing up to play a longer game, I’ll need Lingering Souls and double green to Traverse for Tarmogoyf.
- Nikolich Jeski
- Out: 1 Blood Crypt, 2 Temur Battle Rage, 2 Abrupt Decay, 1 Dismember, 3 Fatal Push, 2 Street Wraith, 1 Inquisition of Kozilek
- In: 1 Godless Shrine, 4 Lingering Souls, 1 Stubborn Denial, 2 Collective Brutality, 1 Liliana the Last Hope, 1 Disdainful Stroke, 1 Stubborn Denial, 1 Ranger of Eos
- I have no answer to Colonnade after sideboard in this matchup and I think it is right to do that. I also cut an Inquisition of Kozilek because Collective Brutality is a discard spell that hits Cryptic and Verdict.
- Eldrazi Tron
- Out on the Play: 2 Stubborn Denial, 1 Fatal Push
- In on the Play: 1 Disdainful Stroke, 2 Ancient Grudge
- Out on the Draw: 2 Fatal Push, 1 Traverse the Ulvenwald
- In on the Draw: 1 Disdainful Stroke 2 Ancient Grudge
- I l keep Stubborn Denials in on the draw because I want 10 turn one ways to interact with Chalice of the Void. This is even more important when they’re loaded up with Relics in games two and three. Tarmogoyf isn’t as reliable so Death’s Shadow is where you want to be.
- Out of the Draw: 2 Stubborn Denials, 3 Liliana of the Veil, 1 Watery Grave
- In on the Draw: 1 Godless Shrine, 2 Collective Brutality, 1 Izzet Staticaster, 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 1 Ranger of Eos
- Out of the Play: 2 Stubborn Denials
- In on the Play: 1 Izzet Staticaster, 1 Liliana, the Last Hope
- I don’t like Liliana of the Veil on the draw against decks with Thalia or Noble Hierarch. I bring in the Ranger on the draw because there are a lot of bad cards to board out and sometimes the Ranger helps stabilize the board.
- Out: 2 Thoughtseize, 2 Street Wraith
- In: 2 Collective Brutality, 2 Stubborn Denial
- UW Control
- Out: 1 Blood Crypt, 2 Temur Battle Rage, 3 Fatal Push, 2 Inquisition of Kozilek, 1 Dismember, 1 Traverse the Ulvenwald
- In: 1 Godless Shrine, 1 Collective Brutality, 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 1 Disdainful Stroke, 2 Stubborn Denial, 4 Lingering Souls
- Mardu Pyro
- Out: 2 Stubborn Denial, 2 Temur Battle Rage, 1 Blood Crypt, 3 Fatal Push, 1 Street Wraith
- In: 1 Godless Shrine, 4 Lingering Souls, 1 Liliana the Last Hope, 2 Collective Brutality, 1 Ranger of Eos
- I don’t like spot removal against a deck that makes a lot of tokens. Brutality is good because it can kill Young Pyromancer, swing races against souls tokens and trade with removal spells. If you’re in a Lingering Souls standoff Liliana is great. After sideboarding the matchup focuses on breaking Lingering Souls stalls.
- Out: 2 Abrupt Decay, 1 Dismember
- In: 2 Stubborn Denial, 1 Izzet Staticaster
- Something that people miss in this matchup is that Storm players often shave on their cost reducers to gain card advantage by blanking removal their opponents leave in. Between Brutality, Fatal Push, and Liliana, there will be enough removal to deal with the transformed Empty the Warrens and Lightning Bolt configuration for sideboard games.
Let’s move on to Four-Color Shadow!
Four-Color Death's Shadow by Dylan Hovey
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Verdant Catacombs
3 Polluted Delta
1 Wooded Foothills
1 Stomping Ground
1 Godless Shrine
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Blood Crypt
4 Death’s Shadow
4 Street Wraith
2 Grim Flayer
4 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Mishra’s Bauble
4 Traverse the Ulvenwald
2 Temur Battle Rage
4 Liliana of the Veil
2 Fatal Push
2 Ancient Grudge
3 Collective Brutality
1 Fatal Push
4 Lingering Souls
1 Ranger of Eos
2 Surgical Extraction
1 Kataki War's Wage
1 Maelstrom Pulse
Alternative Card Selection
4 Liliana of the Veil:
Without blue spells, you’re worse against spell-based combo decks and Scapeshift. Liliana of the Veil crushes critical mass combo decks. It’s impossible to play lands and keep resources in your hand while trying to address the threats that Death’s Shadow produces. She’s also great in all BG matchups (as long as Lingering Souls aren’t in the equation), all Death’s Shadow variants, and Snapcaster decks.
Without counterspells you want to make sure Traverse is turned on in order to produce a threat. Tarfire can supercharge your draws if you point it at yourself, and therefore it becomes the 9th and 10th way to enable the hands that are double fetchland and double Shadow.
2 Grim Flayer:
Increasing threat density to cut the clock without blue spells is key. Delirium is more reliable when adding Tarfire to the deck so Grim Flayer hits harder. It’s on theme with the other undercosted huge creatures of the deck.
0 Kolaghan’s Command:
As I said before, this card is too clunky especially when playing four Liliana’s and boarding up to eight three-drops.
0 Hazoret the Fervent :
Hazoret the Fervent is pet card of mine and I’ve tried to make it work, but it’s worse than Traversing for a Death’s Shadow when you want to put pressure on your opponent, and it’s worse than Ranger of Eos if you want to grind in the late game.
2 Surgical Extraction:
I like Surgical in this version because of the lack of Stubborn Denial. It’s a hedge against combo decks while punishing decks that work up to a critical mass. Once they achieve their critical mass they play off the top well, like Tron or Scapeshift
3 Collective Brutality:
This card is great against Storm, but it also pulls its weight against Collected Company decks. Without Stubborn Denial, you’re susceptible to Collected Company chains. Then you’re put into a position where it’s Temur Battle Rage or bust.
There isn’t a lot of matchup variation between the two decks. At their core, they are similar as they share so many of the same cards. However, the Five-Color version has more polarizing matchups across the format then its Four-Color counterpart. Cutting the blue and making the deck more consistent eliminates awkward hands like Temur Battle Rage, Stubborn Denial, Thoughtseize, Fetchland, swamp, Fatal Push, Traverse. This hand doesn’t play to the board well, doesn’t have a threat, can’t fetch a single land to make all the spells cast able and is far off achieving Delirium making Traverse a dead draw. The Four-Color version cuts down on these awkward opening hands.
The biggest matchup differences between the two decks occur is when Stubborn Denial shines. Stubborn Denial is one of the best card against decks that play Collected Company, Cryptic Command, or expensive powerful spells. Another example where Stubborn Denial is good if you’re going to play against a deck that don’t have discard spells but have a lot of spot removal.
Another large matchup change occurs against decks that attack the Death’s Shadow player’s manabase. The second basic acts as insurance against Path to Exile, Field of Ruin, Ghost Quarter, and Bloodmoon. Because the manabase is smoother, the Four-Color version will gain some percentage points by being able to play a better Tarmogoyf game. Against some decks, casting a discard spell and a Tarmogoyf while being at 18 life is a relief. Overall, most matchups stay fairly consistent and the Five-Color deck is more likely to win bad matchups. With that said, Five-Color has a tendency to lose to itself; The Four-Color decks plays more conservatively.
- Out: 3 Thoughtseize, 4 Liliana of the Veil, 2 Street Wraith
- In: 4 Lingering Souls, 1 Fatal Push, 2 Ancient Grudge, 1 Kataki, Wars Wage, 1 Maelstrom Pulse
- Again, keep two Street Wraith for Delirium especially when you can Traverse for Kataki.
- Grixis Death’s Shadow:
- Out on the Play: 2 Tarfire, 2 Temur Battle Rage, 2 Inquisition of Kozilek, 1 Street Wraith
- In on the Play: 4 Lingering Souls, 1 Fatal Push, 1 Ranger of Eos, 1 Maelstrom Pulse
- Out on the Draw 2 Tarfire, 2 Temur Battle Rage, 1 Inquisition of Kozilek, 2 Street Wraith
- In on the Draw: 4 Lingering Souls, 1 Fatal Push, 1 Ranger of Eos, 1 Maelstrom Pulse.
- I like to have the seventh discard spell on the draw in order to have early game interaction. It’s marginal, but over a lot of games I’ve come to like it.
- Out: 2 Fatal Push, 2 Tarfire, 1 Traverse
- In: 2 Surgical, 2 Ancient Grudge, 1 Maelstrom Pulse
- Jeski Queller:
- Out: 2 Temur Battle Rage, 2 Tarfire, 2 Terminate, 1 Street Wraith
- In: 4 Lingering Souls, 2 Collective Brutality, 1 Ranger of Eos
- Boarding in the third Brutality for another Street Wraith is fine.
- Nikolich Jeski
- Out: 2 Temur Battle Rage, 1 Fatal Push, 2 Terminate, 2 Tarfire, 2 Temur Battle Rage
- In: 4 Lingering Souls, 3 Collective Brutality, 1 Maelstrom Pulse, 1 Ranger of Eos
- Eldrazi Tron
- Out 2 Tarfire, 1 Inquisition of Kozilek
- In: 2 Ancient Grudge, 1 Maelstrom Pulse
- Out on the Play: 2 Thoughtseize
- In on the Play: 1 Fatal Push, 1 Maelstrom Pulse
- Out on the Draw: 4 Liliana of the Veil
- In on the Draw: 1 Maelstrom Pulse, 1 Fatal Push, 2 Collective Brutality
- Liliana isn’t great on the draw, therefore it’s good to lower the curve and interact better on the early turns. This is likely going to be a Tarmogoyf game so be cautious with your life total.
- Out: 2 Street Wraith, 2 Thoughtseize
- In: 1 Fatal Push, 3 Collective Brutality
- Be ready to play a Tarmogoyf game, especially considering keeping two Street Wraiths in is important to make sure you have Delirium.
- UW Control:
- Out: 2 Terminate, 2 Tarfire, 2 Fatal Push, 2 Temur Battle Rage
- In: 4 Lingering Souls, 3 Collective Brutality, 1 Maelstrom Pulse
- The Brutalities are important because if the white source gets taken away, Brutality can turn on the second half of Lingering Souls.
- Mardu Pyro:
- Out: 2 Tarfire, 2 Fatal Push, 2 Temur Battle Rage, 2 Street Wraith
- In: 4 Lingering Souls, 1 Ranger of Eos, 2 Collective Brutality, 1 Maelstrom Pulse
- Out: 2 Fatal Push, 2 Terminate, 2 Tarfire
- In: 2 Surgical Extraction, 3 Collective Brutality, 1 Maelstrom Pulse
- Cutting the removal spells is good against Storm post board. Between three Collective Brutalities and four Liliana’s you can handle the cost reducers.
Which version is better?
There are pros and cons to each adaptation of Traverse Shadow. The Five-Color deck gives you counterspells and Izzet Staticaster, but its manabase is spread thin and is more susceptible to Field of Ruin, Ghost Quarter and Blood Moon. It also doesn’t play a very good Tarmogoyf game, as it doesn’t get as big and your life total is often lower.
The Four-Color list is more “Jundish,” as it can play the Jund game or play an explosive Death’s Shadow game with the help of Tarfire. You’re much more susceptible to the “off the top kills” that come from Scapeshift, Tron, or Burn without Stubborn Denial. Not to mention, sometimes you look at an opening seven with a swamp, a forest and two Death Shadows in your hand.
I would prefer to play Five-Color in a degenerate metagame full of Storm, Titanshift, Tron, Ad Nauseam, and Burn. The Four-Color version is better in a fair metagame. Four Liliana’s and 14 threats give you the staying power to stay in the game with Three-Color good stuff decks and Eldrazi Tron while not losing a lot to the combo decks.
Right now, I think the Four-Color deck is better. It’s more consistent, it can change game plans, and the manabase isn’t stretched as thin. Plus, it can fit Four Liliana of the Veil in the 75. The Four-Color deck is taking the best part of an old archetype and plugging it into a new one. Between Traverse (which is active more often because of Tarfire), the creatures, and Liliana, there are 18 threats that can win the game, making the deck streamlined, aggressive, and threat dense. Another underrated aspect of playing the Five-Color one is the degree of difficult associated with the deck. Playing Death’s Shadow is very non-intuitive and difficult on its own. Throw in managing a five-color mana base on top of that and mistakes are bound to happen. I love both decks, but feel the Four-Color Deck is where Traverse Shadow players should be.
Whew… that was quite a write up. I enjoyed putting together this Traverse Death’s Shadow primer. I would love to hear your thoughts about Traverse Death’s Shadow and which version you like to play. If you want to see more Death’s Shadow content check out my Twitch Stream and my YouTube Channel. Thanks for reading!