The Modern metagame may not move nearly as fast as Standard, but if you look closely, you can see how the top deck evolve. The Urza decks are a great example of this: In the past year, Urza has been a Whir of Invention-based combo/prison deck, a Paradoxical Outcome combo deck, and (currently) a Simic midrange deck that uses Oko for value. At nearly every point along Urza’s journey through Modern, Death’s Shadow has been right there to challenge it. “Disruption plus a clock” — a mantra as old as Magic itself — is the key to beating these decks, and Grixis Shadow does exactly that.
Currently, Grixis Death’s Shadow and Urza are not only two of the most powerful decks in Modern, but two of the most popular. There’s a good chance that, if you play one of these decks, you’ll end up playing against the other quite frequently. Today, I’d like to shed some light on how the matchup between these Modern titans plays out; hopefully, the next time you encounter it, you can walk away with the match slip.
The Grixis Side
The Simic Midrange version of Urza poses the most challenges for Grixis Shadow, in no small part due to its ability to interact much more consistently than previous versions. That being said, I think the matchup is still relatively close if you are careful and play well.
Here are the three keys to the matchup for Grixis Shadow.
Produce an Early Threat
This recommendation may seem silly at first — you want an early threat in every matchup, right? While this is true, the importance is magnified against Simic Urza. Simic Urza has the ability to produce mana quickly with Mox Opal, but the deck can also sputter out with the wrong draws. Therefore, it’s important to get on the board quickly and punish these decks when they stumble.
The best threat against Simic Urza tends to be Gurmag Angler, as these decks are usually packing three copies of Engineered Explosives in the main deck. However, Death’s Shadow isn’t necessarily bad here — you just have to adjust your priorities with should you have a Death’s Shadow hand. The upside of Death’s Shadow is that it will often end the game a turn or so faster despite being slightly more fragile over the course of the match.
Have a Variety of Disruptive Spells
Whether you’re playing against Infect, Humans, and Azorius Control, Death’s Shadow can battle through with a high density of removal or discard spells. But you’ll need a variety of answers to handle Urza’s varied threats. Emry, Lurker of the Loch and Urza, Lord High Artificer are both vulnerable to removal spells while Karn, the Great Creator and Oko, Thief of Crowns often require counterspells. Discard spells are effective against all these threats, but it can be less effective later in the game.
It’s certainly possible that the Urza player will produce only one type of threat during a game, but in general, you’ll need a hand with an array of answers to keep them in check.
Prevent Them from Curving Out
When you take a closer look at the Urza deck, you’ll notice that its curve is actually pretty clunky. Most of the spells in the deck cost zero, one, or four mana, with most of the meat at four. This gives us ample opportunities to disrupt our opponent’s game plan, especially early in the game.
Of course, like Key #1 above, this might seem obvious: Death’s Shadow decks use Thoughtseize to make opponents stumble all the time. But most decks don’t have such a pronounced gap in the curve like Urza does. In this matchup, Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek will function pretty closely to the way they do against Tron, where attacking the mana can actually be a real plan. If you see several expensive cards in their hand, it’s probably best to take Mox Opal or Gilded Goose. This plan works best when you can follow it up with a threat to really pressure them before they can regain their footing. If your opponent reveals a hand that is threat-light, by all means, take that Urza and turn up the pressure!
The Best Cards
Gurmag Angler comes in as the best threat due to a mix of speed and resiliency. Early threats are critical to the matchup, and Gurmag Angler regularly hits the battlefield on turn two or three. After sideboarding, the opponent will usually have access to Fatal Push, Drown in the Loch, and Assassin’s Trophy; the first doesn’t hit Angler, and the second rarely will.
The only universally good piece of disruption in the matchup is Thoughtseize. It answers Oko, Urza, and Mox Opal all the same, so it’s hard to draw too many Thoughtseizes in this matchup. Plus, it can help enable an early Death’s Shadow, if that’s your game plan.
One of the harder axes to fight in this matchup is protecting your threats. Against other midrange decks, you’re often free to use discard spells to clear a path through your opponent’s interaction; against Urza, you’re often priced into taking their threats. Enter Stubborn Denial: a spell that can protect your threats from Oko and Assassin’s Trophy, all while making sure the opponent doesn’t land a Karn or Whir of Invention to lock you out of the game. If you manage to keep a threat in play with a Stubborn Denial or two in hand, you’ll be in a great position to win the game before your opponent can resolve anything impactful.
The Problem Cards
Man, this guy never seems to go away, huh? Oko dominates this matchup, just as he seems to dominate any format where he’s legal. Turning Death’s Shadow and Gurmag Angler into elk is just the tip of the iceberg. Oko’s food tokens allow Urza and Gilded Goose to create mana, not to mention that they buffer your opponent’s life total. Plus, Oko can always turn spare artifacts into elk, making it harder for Death’s Shadow to race. Oko is a true nightmare for Shadow players; the only real recourse is to have two threats in play the turn he resolves to try and attack him down on the following turn.
Whether your Urza opponent is playing Ensnaring Bridge in the main deck or in the sideboard, it’s bad news for you all the same. If you see Whir of Invention, it’s safe to say that the opponent has a main deck copy. If you see Karn, the Great Creator, it’s almost certainly in the sideboard, but they can grab it if they need to. When you don’t have a main deck answer to Ensnaring Bridge, you must counter Whir of Invention, and I highly recommend you counter the Karn.
Any time a deck can reliably answer Death’s Shadow, the matchup is going to be a little harder. Simic Urza packs Engineered Explosives in the main deck, and it can even recur them with Emry, Lurker of the Loch. Do your best to keep this one off the battlefield if you have a Death’s Shadow hand, and be sure to answer Emry on sight.
Similar to my previous matchup guide where I covered Grixis Shadow Vs Burn, I’m not going to into specific numbers in sideboarding, as card quantities can be a bit nebulous. Instead, I’d recommend cutting any cards you’re unhappy with and going from there.
This one may seem a bit counterintuitive — you want plenty of interaction against Urza, so a card that lets you recast interactive spells seems great. However, Snapcaster isn’t an early threat, and a spell that served you well at one point in the game may be a blank against one of Urza’s varied threats. You can bring in a wider variety of disruption from your sideboard, so Snapcaster Mage will need to hit the bench in order to make space.
Boarding out Temur Battle Rage is a concession to the six-ish removal spells that the Urza player will be bringing in. Going all-in on your threats is also harder in matchups like this when you can’t protect them as effectively.
As for what comes in, you basically want all of the interaction you can get your hands on.
Kolaghan’s Command kills Emry, destroys any artifact (notably Ensnaring Bridge), pressures the opponent’s hand, and even picks up a threat after a removal spell; it is one of the best sideboard cards you can have.
Disdainful Stroke and Mystical Dispute are both efficient ways to interact on the stack. Dispute gives us an early way to answer Oko and scales well into the late game because of how expensive the spells in the Urza deck are. Disdainful Stroke is good in small numbers to tag Urza, Karn, Whir, and Cryptic Command.
Finally, The Royal Scions will give us a way to push through any small blockers, filter excess lands or late game discard spells into more relevant interaction, and allow us to win through an Ensnaring Bridge.
The Urza Side
If you’re the Simic Urza player in the matchup, here are your three keys to the game.
Check Their Threats
Grixis Shadow becomes much less effective if you can check their threats, since they don’t have many of them. Engineered Explosives and Oko, Thief of Crowns are the best tools in your arsenal. While Engineered Explosives will turn off Death’s Shadow, Oko can blunt the effectiveness of both Shadow and Gurmag Angler. Once you turn their threats into 3/3s, you’ll have downgraded both Stubborn Denial and Temur Battle Rage unless the Shadow player can find The Royal Scions. Removing the pressure on your life total also frees up a lot of lines to develop your own game plan.
Set Up a Big Urza Turn
An explosive Urza turn is going to go a long way toward winning most games, and it isn’t much different against Grixis Shadow. If you can set up a turn where you can activate Urza two or three times, you’ll likely gain enough material to pull ahead if you’re behind, or win if you’re ahead.
Resolve a Planeswalker
Resolving a Planeswalker is another easy path to victory. We’ve established that Oko is a nightmare for Shadow, so getting one on the table seems like a slam dunk, and the earlier the better. Karn, the Great Creator can also usually win the game if you can protect it for as little as a single turn. Karn + Ensnaring Bridge or Karn + Mycosynth Lattice are devastating plays that cost seven and ten mana, respectively, so holding onto your Karn until you can have one of these turns is usually a good idea. Additionally, Karn can wish for things like Tormod’s Crypt to slow down opposing Gurmag Anglers.
The Best Cards
I’ve already written at length about Urza, so I’ll be brief here. Urza causes two pain points for Shadow decks: it produces two creatures and a pile of mana. Urza’s Construct token can actually dwarf Death’s Shadow and Gurmag Angler, which is no mean feat. Death’s Shadow also commonly tries to fight a mana advantage war with its opponents, and Urza just doesn’t care, as is creates mana as soon as it enters the battlefield.
We talked about this one early as one of the problem cards from the Shadow side, which naturally makes it one of the best cards that Urza can have. Answering all of their threats buys you a lot of time, and Oko can turn otherwise useless artifacts into potent threats.
As we discussed earlier, one of the easiest ways that Urza can lose to Shadow is if it has a clunky first few turns. Mox Opal is a free accelerant that is pretty easy to enable in this deck. Look for opening hands with Mox Opal if you’re looking to minimize your chances of getting run over.
The Problem Cards
Gurmag Angler is the most resilient threat that Shadow has in the matchup, so be sure to pack your Assassin’s Trophies and Oko‘s for it. One other thing to note is that you’ll want to prioritize casting Drown in the Loch early or very late, as Gurmag Angler’s delve ability will diminish its power.
Like most midrange battles, Urza vs. Death’s Shadow is one of resources, and Kolaghan’s Command is one of the single best cards Shadow can have in that fight. Shatter isn’t a card I would be particularly afraid of, but when it also takes a card from your hand or kills a creature, it’s suddenly a big deal. Be careful not to expose too many threats if you suspect an opponent is packing multiple copies of Kolaghan’s Command.
Sideboarding from the Urza side can be tricky, as a lot of the cards in the deck are powerful and have a variety of uses. However, you’re usually looking to bring in about six cards, so you’ll have to find space somewhere.
While Mox Opal is one of the best cards in game one, it can be detrimental in post-board games, which tend to play out more slowly. You don’t want to draw too many late in the game, so trimming a few can be a good start.
Metallic Rebuke just isn’t where you want to be after sideboarding, especially against a deck with a number of cheap spells. The removal spells you’re bringing in are an upgrade in this spot.
Chalice is another good game one card, but can be ineffective at times. When you’re trying to make space for interaction, it’s among the first cards to go.
Most Simic Urza lists run two copies of Cryptic Command and you can reasonably cut one in this matchup to lower the average cost of your spells. One is still quite powerful to draw in the late game, especially in conjunction with Mystic Sanctuary.
Cards worth bringing in include Assassin’s Trophy, Fatal Push, and Drown in the Loch. All of these spells do exactly one thing, and that is interact. Urza becomes a true midrange deck after sideboarding by cutting the high-synergy cards in favor of clean answers.
This matchup is incredibly close, as players on both sides can attest. I believe that Grixis Shadow is a very slight favorite, especially against versions of Urza packing Karn, the Great Creator instead of Whir of Invention. As is often the case in Modern, play skill and matchup familiarity are key, and I hope this guide will help give you an edge.
Michael Rapp is a Modern specialist who favors Thoughtseize decks. Magic sates his desire for competition and constant improvement.