Brewed Up: Salty Shadow

I am so pleased to finally be writing about this. I have long been fascinated by the Sultai color combination in Modern and two years ago this led me to begin working on Shadow. I worked on it on and off but it had some issues though and was never quite there. With some help from Throne of Eldraine though, it has finally arrived. Sultai Shadow is ready to stake its claim as a reasonable alternative to the better known Grixis and Jund builds.

Lands (18)
1 Breeding Pool
2 Misty Rainforest
2 Nurturing Peatland
1 Overgrown Tomb
4 Polluted Delta
1 Snow-Covered Forest
1 Snow-Covered Swamp
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Watery Grave
Creatures (13)
1 Murderous Rider
4 Street Wraith
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Death’s Shadow
Spells (29)
3 Assassin’s Trophy
2 Drown in the Loch
2 Fatal Push
2 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Mishra’s Bauble
3 Oko, Thief of Crowns
2 Once Upon a Time
3 Stubborn Denial
4 Thoughtseize
4 Traverse the Ulvenwald
Sideboard (15)
2 Collective Brutality
1 Collector Ouphe
2 Damping Sphere
1 Engineered Explosives
1 Fatal Push
1 Fulminator Mage
2 Liliana of the Veil
1 Plague Engineer
1 Scavenging Ooze
1 Stubborn Denial
2 Veil of Summer
75 Cards Total

The Build
I am so excited to finally share this deck. Playing it is such a novel experience as Sultai has never been quite this good in Modern. Let us begin with the manabase. We run ten fetchlands as they fill the graveyard for Tarmogoyf and Traverse while burning up our life total for Death’s Shadow. It is common to see Jund Shadow manabases run a full set of Nurturing Peatland but our costs are a touch more restrictive so the additional fetchlands are needed. The two Peatland are quite valuable though to both drain yourself and cash out of a flood. Every fetchland grabs every shockland and we are of course running every color combination available to Sultai. Verdant Catacombs is the best though as it can fetch either of our basics.

Delta is favored over Misty as it can fetch basic Swamp and our deck is primarily black; we run no Island. The shocks are singletons apart from Watery Grave but I am not entirely certain it is correct. Green is more important to the deck but we already favor it with Nurturing Peatland. The list has a combined six UG and BG spells which favors Watery Grave; unlike the two UB spells. Next I would like to try out a second Breeding Pool instead for Traverse purposes. Deciding how to best build the manabase has been difficult. Not because it is bad. But because Shadow decks naturally have so many fetches and duals that the mana feels perfect even when it is suboptimal. This has felt excellent so far but I am open to suggestions.

The creature package is typical for a GBx Shadow deck. Tarmogoyf is not what it once was but it is still a spectacular card. Our deck is built to diversify card types so Goyf will easily be a 3/4 and can be as large as a 6/7 on our card types alone. The other stock threat is the former format king: Death’s Shadow. Do you like one mana 12/12s? Me too. Do be careful with your life total though. Different matchups have different safety thresholds. Also do not play it out into a Bolt against red decks. Nine life, a 4/4 Shadow, is a safe life total even against aggressive red decks. In a pinch, do not hesitate to just dump it into play as a -X/-X to get a card type into your graveyard or revolt.

Street Wraith does it all. It pays life to run out early Shadows and immediately puts a card type in the graveyard. Please use this as a combat trick. I see so many inexperienced players slamming this on their mainphase and I cringe. Your creatures have variable P/T and you should abuse that. Swing your 3/3 Shadow into their 4/4 and blow them out despite having no mana available. Then when the situation comes up again, you might want to bluff that you have the Wraith to get some free damage.

I do want to highlight Murderous Rider though as this card has been exceptional. Traverse the Ulvenwald for removal is extremely valuable. To the point that I used to run a Snapcaster Mage for this purpose; which was very inefficient. Hero’s Downfall is a good card and we are generally pretty happy to pay life. Even when we are not, we can follow it up with a 2/3 lifelink to heal up. It is also great that we can just chump him off and Traverse for him again later. I have lived the dream of using it four times in one game; it was glorious.

Among the threats, I have to mention the Elk King himself: Oko, Thief of Crowns. The cat is out of the bag, this card is busted in half. We might be writing an article focused entirely on him so I will not gush too much. But he comes down and can jump to six loyalty immediately. Or he can jump to five loyalty to turn your dinky Mishra’s Bauble into a 3/3. Give him another turn and he will be at seven loyalty with a self-built 3/3 ready to swing or defend him. Any large creature the opponent controls is downgraded to a 3/3, which will trade with our Elk or lose to our large threats. A single +2 will make him large enough to use his ultimate ability and trade off a food token. It is a nightmare for any deck with more than a few creatures or artifacts and we are the only Shadow deck that has access to it.

We do have a couple cards to help us keep the threats coming as well. Tarmogoyf wants us to diversify card types and so does Traverse the Ulvenwald. This card lets us get away with our low land count and in the lategame it gives us access to Shadows and even removal in Murderous Rider. Postboard it also has a nice little toolbox of hatebears to fetch out. You would be surprised just how easy it is to enable delirium. Even Turn 1 delirium is possible in this build. You will be keeping many one land hands with this card but obviously they must be green sources. If it is a Nurturing Peatland or Forest, you will be shutting yourself off from blue mana but your odds of finding one for your third land are pretty great. When given the option, via a fetch, you will grab Breeding Pool and Traverse for a Swamp. I have considered running basic Island over Forest to help out here but this could prevent us from casting Trophy and we run almost twice as many green spells as blue.

Of course we are also running the hottest new green spell: Once Upon A Time. We have written an article on the probabilities behind this card and another to address further questions about it. In this deck OUT will hit a land 84.4% of the time. More specifically, a one land keep with OUT will have a second land for Turn 2 in 91.5% of attempts. Or if you need a threat, it will grab one of the large ones 57.4% of the time. Hitting a Street Wraith even is pretty great. Note that putting an instant into the grave for free on Turn 1 is great for Traverse and Goyf. We are running just two copies though as it is second fiddle to Traverse the Ulvenwald in here. You will still open with it in 22.15% of games and usually will not draw it until you have the spare mana for it.

On the topic of free spells that support Traverse, do not underestimate Mishra’s Bauble. In conjunction with a fetchland it is often “Scry 1, draw a card”. Opening hands with fetches, Bauble, and Street Wraith can be challenging to navigate but in time you will perfect it. Do not forget that you can also target the opponent with it though. If you cannot manipulate your top card, you may not get anything out of knowing what you will draw. In such situations you can do yourself a favor and know what is coming down the line to be answered. It is a skill intensive card and you are getting quite the deal at 0 mana.

Now for the sweet interactive spells. Every black midrange deck has some mix of Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. This is a Shadow deck so we do not mind paying life for the more powerful effect. We all know these format staples and have functionally lost to them on Turn 1 due to a loose keep. I especially enjoy these effects in blue decks as they give us perfect information for our counterspells. The best part of playing a blue Shadow deck is Stubborn Denial. Negate is a multi-format all-star and we are playing it for literally half the cost. It is a great card against most of the decks in the format and you absolutely should have four copies in your seventy-five right now.

To segue into removal, I have to talk about the counterspell/removal spell combo package that is Drown in the Loch. If the games goes any significant length we have a split card between Murder and Counterspell at just two mana. We are great at filling the opponent’s graveyard and I have been pleased with it against everything that is not a ramp deck. This gives us a reasonable answer for any spell or nonland permanent we may come across. However, I would not run more than two copies. It is generally inert before the midgame and even then we want to be trading up on mana when we interact. I cannot see myself cutting this unless the format increases greatly in speed.

Then finally we have the true removal in Fatal Push and Assassin’s Trophy. It is possible that we should main the third Push because we are so good at enabling revolt. Between the fetches and Baubles it is an absolute breeze. Even without revolt it can trade up on mana. But popping a four drop for a single mana is a huge tempo swing. I was amazed when this card was spoiled and I am still amazed every time I fire it off. But we are seeing permanents become more varied as of late, many planeswalkers, so I favor Assassin’s Trophy. Sometimes I really hate Trophy but you simply cannot pass on unconditional permanent removal. It makes the Tron matchup realistic but with canlands in the format, accelerating the opponent is a steep cost. I look at this one as a necessary evil and though I want to cut a copy, I know it would be a mistake to do so.

Speaking of Tron, we do need to run Sphere in the board to give us a better chance against them. We do not have Temur Battle Rage for a Turn 3-4 goldfish after all. I am also running another Push and a copy of Engineered Explosives so that we are not so reactive against go-wide decks; Oko can handle anything after that. Collective Brutality is there to supplement Oko in winning the Burn matchup. I also appreciate it for especially creature-heavy decks that make Stubborn Denial look bad. We still have a fourth Denial in there though as having the full set is amazing in so many matchups. We also have a further edge in interactive matchups via Veil of Summer. As I have said before, “This is the best color hate spell we have seen since Pyro/Hydroblast. It is an absolute blowout against blue and black decks for a single mana. I am not being even a bit hyperbolic when I say that every deck that can reliably cast this should have it in their sideboard.”

As much as I love Oko he is a little underwhelming against combo and control decks that do not care about our life total and have nothing to Elk up. In these matchups we want Liliana of the Veil‘s +1, so it is often a straight swap. The remaining four cards are our Traverse toolbox. We have the two best sideboard creatures in the format in Collector Ouphe and Plague Engineer; for artifact and tribal decks respectively. For the aggressive and graveyard decks we have Scooze pulling double-duty. Then we have my final nod to the frustrating ramp matchups in Fulminator Mage. You could argue that I should just sell these matchups and focus elsewhere but I find them to be winnable.

The Verdict
It is great and I am happy to finally present it. This has been a pet project of mine for two years and it is finally viable. Us Shadow players have grown to love either Traverse or Stubborn Denial. Back then I jammed them together because I did not want to choose between them. While they are great cards there is not actually any synergy there. There were also no Dimir or Simic cards worth running. So we had nothing over Grixis or Jund builds. We ended up losing Temur Battle Rage so games would go long and boards would stall; often leading to us being overwhelmed. Eldraine has changed everything.

Once Upon A Time has given us more proactive openings to get ahead. But more importantly we actually have rewards for playing these combinations of colors. Like Grixis we have Drown to answer anything that comes our way when the game stalls. The biggest shift though is the addition of, arguably, the game’s most absurd planeswalker. When games stall, Oko just wins. The Elk army is insurmountable. If you are playing Standard, Pioneer, or Modern you have probably lost to this card multiple times already. We are the only Shadow deck that has access to it and it is a serious privilege. We do not miss Temur Battle Rage  as much because the board stall is exactly where we want to be anymore. These updates have made Sultai Shadow the deck that I wished it was over the past two years.

Decks like this have given me a love/hate relationship with Oko. It is homogenizing multiple formats at the moment. The Top 32 of the most recent Modern Open had fifteen Oko decks in it. But you know who took home the trophy? Grixis Shadow. I think the next step is to play the Oko Shadow deck. My two year dream is finally realized. How are you planning to tackle the format? Is it finally time for a Sultai deck to shine? Please come and share your ideas with us in our discussion group. Or if you would like to take a swing at writing content for the site you can contact us directly here. We will be back soon with another article for you to enjoy. Until then my friends.

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