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Rising to prominence in the Gitaxian Probe era of Modern, Death’s Shadow is a tempo deck that uses cards like Thoughtseize and Street Wraith to enable a fast clock. While originally slotting into zoo style decks, the breakthrough of Stubborn Denial enabled a tempo game plan not seen since the success of Delver and Twin. You should play Esper Shadow if you want to play a tempo deck that can go toe to toe with decks like Azorius Control.

In this article, I’ll be discussing the card choices and their main role, then I’ll briefly talk about the sideboard options and what my recommended amounts are. Sideboarding tips/guide is a work in progress, as I’m jamming games with Esper Shadow to build a useful guide.

The Threats

Death’s Shadow | While Death’s Shadow took a long route to playability, the result it’s had on the Modern format the last few years is unmistakable. Few threats can boast as dominant of board presence as Death’s Shadow, while simultaneously giving midrange decks positive matchups against both Big Mana decks and combo.

Snapcaster Mage | Much has been said about Snapcaster Mage (which you can read about in our Azorius Deck Tech here), but it serves a different role in Esper Shadow. Functioning as additional copies of used up discard spells, Snapcaster Mage can combine with Unearth to quickly rebuild a board through nearly any board wipe, while providing for redundant copies of Stubborn Denial.

Ranger-Captain of Eos | This recent Modern Horizons pick up has held its own in the blazing fast slopes of Modern. Serving as additional copies of Death’s Shadow while acting as disruption, Ranger-Captain of Eos is the reason to play Esper Shadow. The interaction with Unearth proves exceptionally brutal against decks like Azorius Control, and with a recent Grand Prix victory for the Teferi-heavy control deck, it may be time to sleeve up some Esper Shadow.

Gurmag Angler | With any midrange deck comes the need for threat redundancy. While Gurmag Angler is a smaller version of Death’s Shadow, it can still end games quickly when deployed and serves as another enabler for Stubborn Denial. Additionally, Gurmag angler can be cast as early as Turn 2 with a Thought Scour draw, giving the deck an extra combination of aggressive draws. At least two copies is recommended.

Lingering Souls | While not what players immediately perceive as a Death’s Shadow staple, Lingering Souls gives the deck a threat that can be cast from the graveyard, while giving the deck crucial control against opposing aggro decks. Lingering Souls can create tokens to block Inkmoth Nexus or Monastery Swiftspear. One copy is sufficient for the main deck, though you can play extra copies instead of Jace.

Removal/Interaction

Fatal Push | A premier removal spell in Modern, Fatal Push answers most threats in the format. While weak to Wurmcoil Engine or Gurmag Angler, the easy to cast and redundant nature of Fatal Push makes it an easy inclusion.

Path to Exile | Having enough early interaction is crucial for Esper Shadow, and having enough interactive spells to fully utilize Jace or Snapcaster Mage can be a challenge. Path to Exile serves as extra copies of Fatal Push, trading the ability to handle stickier threats for a mana disadvantage.

Dismember | Sometimes you want to kill a larger creature without setting your opponent ahead, and for those situations we play a single Dismember. Additionally serving as a life loss enabler for Death’s Shadow, Dismember earns its place as a consistently powerful removal spell. Be wary of playing too many copies, as the life loss is effectively mandatory in land light decks.

Stubborn Denial | One of the most effective answers against Combo or Control decks, Stubborn Denial contributes to Shadow’s positive matchup against those archetypes. While weak without ferocious enabled, the deck has a variety of ways to enable it. Play four copies in the 75, and don’t look back.

Thoughtseize | One of Modern’s premier hand disruption spells, Thoughtseize serves as fuel for Death’s Shadow, while clearing the way for your threats. When used defensively, Thoughtseize can tempo an opponent, enabling Snapcaster + Thoughtseize plays to further disrupt their game plan. Also plays quite well with Teferi.

Inquisition of Kozilek | Like Thoughtseize, Inquisition serves as a proactive tempo play, but is more conditional in what it can grab. While it does not require any life loss, it is still worth playing due to the power of redundant discard spells.

Support Spells

Teferi, Time Raveler | This multiformat staple has proven its own in Modern, but it serves a unique role in Esper Shadow. Catch all answers are nothing new to the archetype, but having that answer enable dead discard spells in the lategame is unheard of. From bouncing a threat and Thoughtseizing it, to playing an Inquisition on draw step, Teferi enables a host of sequencing maneuvers that give Esper Shadow a substantial advantage. You can even bounce your own Ranger-Captain to find another Death’s Shadow! Consider playing a third copy in control heavy metagames.

Thought Scour | The perfect enabler for both Gurmag Angler and Unearth, Thought Scour serves as an early game play that can fuel different engines in the deck. Four copies is recommended, and due to the amount of graveyard synergies you rarely want to trim copies. Still, Serum Visions may be a worthwhile substitute if more graveyard hate exists.

Unearth | Forming the foundation of Esper Shadow’s consistency is this Modern Horizons addition. With a storied past in casual-competitive format Pauper, Unearth delivers a punch in most games with this innovative Shadow archetype. From chaining Ranger-Captains to rebuilding with Snapcaster Mage post-wrath, Unearth serves as an “unfair” draw in a deck filled with deliberately fair plays.

Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy | An additional value threat that can be reanimated with Unearth, Jace serves as a grindy payoff that can chain hand disruption against control decks. Still, the speed of the format makes me question Jace’s place, and Serum Visions, Street Wraith or more Teferi could warrant inclusion.

Street Wraith | The final enabler of the archetype, Street Wraith serves as a suitable replacement for Serum Visions, while enabling both Gurmag Angler and Death’s Shadow. At least two copies are mandatory, though additional copies can be added as necessary.


The Sideboard

Ceremonious Rejection | While Tron is seldom a player in the current metagame, Eldrazi Tron is not lacking for presence. Having an additional counterspell for Chalice, that also prevents Thought-Knot Seer or Endbringer from dominating the board is an effect well worth a slot. Add or remove as necessary.

Stubborn Denial | The playset of Stubborn Denial forms the backbone of Shadow’s matchup against both Azorius Control and Grixis Urza, as preventing key noncreatures from resolving is the most important part of the matchup.

Disdainful Stroke | Similarly to the counterspells discussed above, Disdainful Stroke is a counterspell that also has a place against Eldrazi Tron, but can serve as an answer to larger threats, like Primeval Titan or Wurmcoil Engine. One copy is sufficient.

Rest in Peace | Even though Esper Shadow uses its graveyard, the threat of Hogaak is enough to warrant additional pieces of graveyard hate. Play at least two copies for as long as Hogaak is legal.

Stony Silence | Serving primarily as disruption against Tron and Hardened Scales, Stony Silence also serves as a silver bullet answer to Thopter Foundry. Still, the lack of artifacts in the metagame relegates this once sideboard staple to a one-of, though you can play more copies depending on the metagame.

Kaya’s Guile | As discussed in our Mardu Pyromancer article here, Kaya’s Guile serves as a catch all answer without sacrificing on pressure. One copy is sufficient, though additional copies should be played in either Burn or Hogaak heavy metagames.

Lingering Souls | Primarily earning its spot due to the popularity of Azorius Control, Lingering Souls serves as a difficult to answer threat that efficiently pressures planeswalkers.

Plague Engineer | A unique Unearth target that can slow down the Hogaak deck (by naming Zombie), Plague Engineer primarily serves as a powerful option against Humans. At least one copy is recommended, though if Humans remains a popular deck I would play three.

Leyline of the Void | The default choice for graveyard hate, the presence of Hogaak necessitates at least three copies. At the time of this writing, I felt it prudent to attack other matchups, but the recent success of Hogaak encourages me to recommend a fourth copy.


Thanks for checking out our Esper Shadow Deck Tech, and as always, let us know what you think about the Tier Deck layout, or this article in the comments section below.