In a game of Magic: The Gathering, you have many resources: cards in your hand, your creatures, your mana, your deck, your graveyard, and even your life total. A great player knows how to utilize these resources to their advantage. There are several color combinations for today’s deck, but they all have one color in common: black, and a card known as Death’s Shadow. Death’s Shadow is a 13/13 creature that only costs 1 black mana. That sounds amazing, but it comes with a pretty big downside. Death Shadow’s ability reads that it gets -X/-X where X is your life total. Obviously, this will not be played on turn 1 or turn 2. This is a card for the later game when your life total reaches 12 or lower. That is pretty easy to wait for since the most common way to end the game is by reducing a player’s life total to 0.
Pro Tip: Because of the rules detailing how damage works, the following scenario is perfectly legal. Imagine that your opponent has 2 3/3 creatures that are attacking. You have a 2/2 Death’s Shadow that can block one of the 3/3 creatures. Damage will be dealt at the same time, but also at the same time Death’s Shadow gets stronger since your life total is being reduced by the unblocked creature making Death’s Shadow a 5/5 (5/2 since it has 3 point of damage marked on it) that is now able to kill the blocked creature.
Of course there is no reason you cannot lower your own life total or help it along, especially since black has so many good cards that have an additional cost of paying life. Street Wraith is an over costed creature at 5 mana for a 3/4 with swampwalk, but that’s not why this deck plays it. You want the cycling ability. For 2 life and discarding Street Wraith you draw another card. Thoughtseize has an added clause at the end that you lose 2 life when the spell resolves, which is a small price to pay for looking at your opponent’s hand and wrecking a future turn. Lets also not forget about phyrexian mana. A card like Dismember serves as removal but can also reduce your life total by 4. Fetch lands and shock lands also enable loss of life for mana fixing. Choosing to use a fetch land on a shock land and having that land come in untapped will cost a total of 3 life.
As I stated above, there are all kinds of color combinations for Death’s Shadow decks. The most common are mono black, mardu, grixis, and jund, and since 3 of those also include red, a rakdos build is also possible. The reason for including red is Temur Battle Rage. For 1 and a red you can give a creature double strike and trample if you control a creature with power 4 or greater. Even if Death’s Shadow is only a 4/4, those two abilities are still hard to deal with. Mutagenic Growth is also a great pump spell. Because of its phyrexian mana cost, Death’s Shadow will get +4/+4 and half of that boost is permanent since you’re paying life for it. Fling can also be a great finisher for this deck. For the same amount of mana and at the same speed as Temur Battle Rage, you can sacrifice Death’s Shadow to deal damage equal to its power to your opponent’s life total. In a single turn you can pay a total of 2 and 2 red to basically attack with a decently sized creature 3 times.
Despite being the namesake of the deck, Death’s Shadow is not the only creature and you wouldn’t want it to be the only creature either. The remaining creatures that you can choose to run depend on the color combination of the deck, but they should be modern staples. Common creatures include Gurmag Angler, Snapcaster Mage, Tarmogoyf, Delver of Secrets/Insectile Aberration, and Ghor-Clan Rampager. Since this is a midrange deck, you can focus more on aggro or control which should give you a better idea of what you want. For a build that leans towards aggro you want Tarmogoyf and Ghor-Clan Rampager. For a more control focus, Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets. Gurmag Angler can do well in either build. Between the cheap spells and fetch lands that go into your graveyard, it should ideally only cost 1 mana, sometimes 2 but, never more than that. Ghor-Clan Rampager is actually not going to be used a creature. If you do have to use it as such, you’re probably losing. You want to use the bloodrush mechanic to pump your Death’s Shadow.
Any removal should be cheap, 2 mana or less is ideal. Fatal Push is a great one. Doom Blade is okay, just be sure to sideboard it out against black decks. Lightning Bolt is always good. In Grixis or decks that use blue, counterspells are apporpriate. Stubborn Denial combos great with Death’s Shadow on the board and negates any removal spell that targets it. Mana Leak is a good catch all that requires your opponent to pay a decent amount of mana if they want their spell to resolve. In the early game this card is good and can still be decent in the mid game.
The basic shell of a Death’s Shadow deck should look something like the following:
Death’s Shadow x4
Street Wraith x4
Gurmag Angler x2-4
Other Creatures x2-8
Other removal spells x6-10
Lands x20-24 (fetch lands x7-8, shock lands x7-8)
Death’s Shadow can be a tricky deck to pilot. I wouldn’t recommend it to a brand new player, perhaps a player with a bit more of a grasp on the game. Lowering your own life total seems very counterintuitive, especially when you get to the point where Death’s Shadow can stick around. The interaction between your life total and Death’s Shadow is a strong one. It’s a very rewarding deck to play and I think being able to win with it demonstrates a sense of mastery of Magic. What deck do you want to see next? Let me know in the comments.