Shadow of Shadow: Examining Rakdos Prowess

As October comes to a close, it’s time for me to wrap up my look into the new decks from Zendikar Rising. Admittedly, it’s mostly been a case of deck evolution rather than outright new decks. Even Belcher had a direct predecessor. And that’s a good thing. Modern’s been churning non-stop for over a year. It’s nice to have time to refine and rebuild rather than adapt to entirely new metagames constantly. It would be even nicer if we had paper Magic to provide some metagame stability and consistency. The online metagame moves incredibly quickly, and decks are emerging and declining with alarming speed. Today I’m looking at a great example.

The one arguably exception to my earlier statement is Oops, All Spells. Nothing like it has ever existed in Modern before, nor was it possible in any fashion (to my knowledge) before Rising. I’d argue back that first, it actually isn’t new. Travis Woo tried to make it work in 2015. He didn’t succeed, but that’s beside the point. The newest version appeared after Belcher starting popping up, largely as a result of players trying to fix the problems Belcher had. Secondly, everything I previously said about Belcher applies to Oops. It’s busted when everything comes together, but making that happen is prohibitive. And it’s a lot more vulnerable to hate than Belcher is. There’s just not enough to say about the deck for a whole article.

Prowess Ascendant

Not so for today’s deck, which has already had several articles to its name. During the Rising preview season, I noted that Scourge of the Skyclaves had potential in Modern. The only question was how to lower the opponent’s lifetotal fast enough to make Scourge worthwhile, but not so fast that it was easier to just kill the opponent without needing Scourge. I didn’t have an answer at the time, and because Prowess was so dominant, I didn’t think I’d get one anytime soon. Prowess was so explosive already; what exactly was gained by slowing down for Scourge?

However, as Jordan noted, while there were plenty of homes available for Scourge, Rakdos Prowess made the most sense. It was actually putting up results, had a pedigree, and the Prowess shell did the damage needed to turn on Scourge. More importantly, Scourge filled a hole in Prowess’s attack. Jordan knows his way around a Swiftspear more than I do, and that relying on cheap prowess creatures is as much a weakness as a strength. The deck had been crying out for some beef for quite awhile, and Rising dropped the perfect addition. In fact, why stop there? Just go all in on the life-total dependent creatures and run Death’s Shadow too. It was a new concept a the end of September, but was already putting up results. And the deck just looked brutal.

Shadow and Scourge

Apparently, the MTGO collective conscience agreed. If you search for Scourge in October, it’s basically all Rakdos Shadow. And why not? The deck was surging at the end of September, and given how strong the basic Rakdos Prowess shell had proven, there was no stopping it in October.

Exactly what the deck looks like is a matter of taste. Some lists take an all-in approach, with Street Wraith, Crash Through, and extra Mutagenic Growths. Others plan for a grindier game with Bomat Courier and Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger. However, the most common configuration looks exactly like they just took out the non-one-drop creatures to make room for Scourge and Death’s Shadow.

Rakdos Shadow, SKK (4-1 Modern Preliminary 10/21)

Creatures (16)
Monastery Swiftspear
Soul-Scar Mage
Death’s Shadow
Scourge of the Skyclaves

Artifacts (4)
Mishra’s Bauble

Sorceries (6)
Thoughtseize
Unearth
Agadeem’s Awakening

Instants (17)
Lava Dart
Lightning Bolt
Mutagenic Growth
Apostle’s Blessing
Temur Battle Rage
Dismember

Lands (17)
Bloodstained Mire
Blood Crypt
Arid Mesa
Marsh Flats
Mountain
Sunbaked Canyon
Swamp
Sideboard (15)
Lurrus of the Dream-Den
Fatal Push
Nihil Spellbomb
Cleansing Wildfire
Feed the Swarm
Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger
Kolaghan’s Command
Kozilek’s Return
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I’m only being slightly disingenuous. The spell loadout of this representative deck is nearly identical to the most common Rakdos Prowess decks pre-Zendikar Rising. The main change has been to remove the prowess-critical Manamorphose to fit in Temur Battle Rage and Agadeem’s Awakening. The reason (as far as I can determine) is that despite still playing the two best prowess creatures (don’t @ me, Sprite Dragon), Rakdos Shadow just doesn’t have or want to have the critical mass of spells in a single turn necessary to blow the opponent out of the water. This makes Manamorphose unnecessary air. Instead, it needs to maximize its spells slots to drop both life totals as fast as possible. I’m just thankful there’s nothing like Flame Rift in Modern.

Variations on a Theme

In fact, it’s worth noting that the combination of one-drop prowess creatures, Thoughtseize, and Lurrus of the Dream-Den (which is always a companion for Rakdos Shadow) has yielded one of, if not the, most successful decks this year. Pre-pandemic, various prowess shells were doing well. I thought the Rakdos version was better against the Primeval Titans running around, but Mono-Red was more common.

That all changed with the pre-errata companions. Whether as Rakdos Prowess, in Jund, or in Burn, Lurrus was the defining card of that era. And the vast majority of Lurrus decks were running Swiftspear and Thoughtseize. It makes perfect sense: Thoughtseize is the perfect disruption for this style of deck, Swiftspear benefits from the cheap spell, and Lurrus provides the card advantage to keep the gas pumping. Rakdos Prowess is just the latest beneficiary of this positive cycle.

A New Twist

The big change, and I suspect the reason for Rakdos Shadow overtaking all other options, is Scourge’s combo with Temur Battle Rage. In case you don’t know, if the opponent is at 15 life and Scourge’s controller is at 10, then Battle Rage on Scourge is lethal: the first hit deals five, and the second deals 10. This is a much easier and lower-work kill than previous Battle Rage decks laid claim to. As Grixis Death’s Shadow taught us well in 2017, it is very easy to get one’s own life very low very quickly. Getting the opponent low enough only requires one Bolt hit and a Swiftspear. Two-card combos are powerful, and it has proven itself to the satisfaction of many pilots.

An Ugly Reality

The catch is that it doesn’t appear to have stuck. The October data is nearly finished, and I can tell you that Rakdos Shadow will be Tier 1, probably at the top of the standings. However, I’m not sure it really deserves that position. Without the last week of data tabulated, I can’t be overly definitive. That said, Rakdos Shadow is only pulling 1.44 points per result, and that number has been falling steadily since early October. The usual average of the averages being 1.6, Shadow is definitely performing below average. Additionally, at least half of its results came in the first ten days of October. The rest of the month has been a struggle for Rakdos Prowess, and I’m inclined to think that it’s actually worse today that it was in September.

Inherited Flaws

One can always blame these kinds of collapses on changing metagames, adaptation, or popularity shifts, and sometimes it’s right to do so. MTGO has long had a reputation for being far more volatile than paper for a reason. However, I think that explanation is inappropriate this time. The lifegain out of the Uro piles is certainly devastating against Rakdos Shadow, but that was a problem it overcame before. If Shadow really was a top tier deck, it would do so again. Meanwhile, popularity swings affect every deck. If a deck is winning enough, it should hold players interest over time. If Shadow did suffer a popularity decline, it is a reflection of doing poorly in the meta rather than player whims.

I think the likely explanation for Shadow’s October decline is that in exchange for a boost in explosiveness, it has inherited all the known weaknesses of its predecessor decks. And one unique problem. The primary problem is that, as I mentioned before, Rakdos Shadow is not really a new deck, just the natural heir to 2020’s most popular card combination. Players were ready to fight this deck because they’d already had to fight Rakdos Prowess. Sweepers, creature removal, and lifegain are all as effective against both builds.

An offshoot of that is the Path to Exile problem. Between Lurrus, Unearth, and Agadeem’s Awakening, Shadow is well set up to beat Fatal Push. None of those cards work against Path, which is the most played removal spell now thanks to Omnath piles and Death and Taxes. Giving up the haste threats and Bedlam Reveler for beef has left Shadow in a position to be run out of threats as they get exiled by Path and Celestial Purge.

A Huge Weakness

The unique problem is that Rakdos Shadow has one card that it is extremely weak to. There have been plenty of decks that lose to a particular type of card, chiefly graveyard hate, in Modern’s history. However, I don’t think that any deck has ever struggled against a single card the way that Shadow does against Auriok Champion. Protection from both the deck’s colors is significant on its own as a brick wall. However, if that were enough, then Paladin en-Vec would see play. What matters is the lifegain. Champion triggers from both player’s creatures, so trying to go around the Champion just plays into it. And that means that it becomes harder and harder to cast Scourge. When it does hit, Champion can potentially kill Scourge if there’s a flurry of creatures afterward.

Shadow decks are, of course, aware of this weakness. Some run Bonecrusher Giant or Skullcrack and hope to bait a favorable block. Some splash white off Sunbaked Canyon to fit Path themselves. The most common solution is Kozilek’s Return, which is arguably best, since a sweeper will also be good against the decks that would run Champion. But 2 damage isn’t very effective against Humans, Giver of Runes protects against colorless, and both Humans and DnT run more Champions than Shadow runs Returns. The math decidedly favors Champion, and may explain a recent increase in Humans’ numbers.

Compared to the Classic

A more general problem I have with Rakdos Shadow is how it compares to classic Grixis Death’s Shadow. Classic GDS has lost a lot of its punch, but its success and longevity hold lessons for Scourge Shadow. GDS had a very similar gameplan of killing quickly with a huge creature being “cheated” out. It used similar tools of cantrips, creature removal, and discard.

However, GDS is more of a tempo or aggro-control deck, where Scourge Shadow is more or less straight aggro with some combo potential. GDS looked to rip-up the opponent’s hand with lots of discard spells, play a threat, and then protect it with Stubborn Denial. This gave GDS incredible matchup flexibility and left it a commanding presence in Modern for many years.

Rakdos Shadow is far more linear. With less discard, it can’t disrupt opponents as proactively. Its only way to save creatures is Apostle’s Blessing, and not every version even plays that. Instead, the plan is to spread the board with cheap creatures and outrace the opponent. The most effective disruption is just winning the game, after all. Shadow is far more linear and single-minded as a result. This is a fine strategy, but it also makes it easier to answer and adapt to. And since Shadow decks at the end of October look so similar to those from September, while everything else has changed their sideboards, I think the Shadow decks may have fallen behind the curve.

For What It’s Worth

I think that Rakdos Shadow is a fine deck and has a place in Modern. However, it needs to reevaluate itself and adapt to the changing meta. The holes and opportunities that it exploited early on have closed, and the meta is now prepared. The ball’s in your court, Scourge Shadow. Time to make a play.

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