Traverse Shadow is an aggro-control archetype that takes advantage of Death’s Shadow as an efficient large threat alongside cheap disruptive elements as well as Traverse the Ulvenwald, which often functions as additional copies of Death’s Shadow. While there are Traverse Shadow decks that dip into different splash colors for different cards, the core of Death’s Shadow, Tarmogoyf, Street Wraith, Mishra’s Bauble, Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, and Traverse the Ulvenwald remains a constant across all color combinations.
The core cards in Traverse Shadow rely heavily on each other to function in a way somewhat reminiscent of a combo deck. Street Wraith, Thoughtseize, and fetch/shock lands set up Death’s Shadow. The abovementioned cards alongside Mishra’s Bauble also set up Traverse the Ulvenwald’s delirium effect, as well as adding power and toughness to Tarmogoyf. These cards all synergize in a unique way that makes each of them more powerful in this deck than they generally are elsewhere. Other common cards included in Traverse Shadow are Abrupt Decay as a catch-all, Fatal Push for cheap creatures, and Liliana of the Veil as an additional disruptive threat.
While the core of Traverse Shadow is Black/Green, virtually all builds of the deck play at least 3 and sometimes up to 5 colors. Because taking damage from your lands is actually beneficial for Traverse Shadow, what would normally be a downside of a 5-color mana base is actually generally beneficial for this deck. Below I will discuss cards commonly included from each potential splash color:
Stubborn Denial - The main reason to play blue. Very efficient way to interact with the stack when you have a large creature in play. Often solidifies your advantage in a game by countering your opponent’s best spell.
Snapcaster Mage - Lets you double up on disruptive spells while adding to your board, or flashes back Traverse to find more Death’s Shadows.
Temur Battle Rage - Allows you to kill “out of nowhere” with a large Death’s Shadow.
Kolaghan’s Command - Flexible disruptive card that also helps you grind out card advantage in longer games.
Terminate - Unconditional creature removal.
Bloodbraid Elf - Powerful 2-for-1 that can quickly swing games in your favor. At 4 CMC it’s a bit on the expensive side, and due to the random nature of the cascade mechanic, you cannot play Stubborn Denial in the same build as this card. That being said, alongside Traverse the Ulvenwald and Kolaghan’s Command, this card can get out of hand and is very difficult for opponents who are trying to grind you down to no resources to deal with.
Tarfire - Additional cheap removal that also serves as a strong delirium enabler and additional card type for Tarmogoyf.
Lingering Souls - Like Bloodbraid Elf this card allows you to overwhelm opponents who are trying to remove everything you play. Very difficult card for removal-oriented midrange and control decks to grind through.
Ranger of Eos - Powerful source of card advantage. Grabbing 2 copies of Death’s Shadow is usually going to be very powerful in a long game.
Path to Exile - Less often included because this deck has access to Fatal Push, but worth considering as an option if you expect to play against Gurmag Angler or Tasigur a lot.
It’s somewhat common for Traverse Shadow decks to maindeck 4 colors and have a 5th in the sideboard to transition into. For example, maindecking a Watery Grave and 3 Stubborn Denials, while having Godless Shrine and 3 Lingering Souls in the sideboard for matchups where those are more desirable than Stubborn Denial. There is a good deal of room for customization within the Traverse Shadow shell depending on your playstyle or metagame predictions.
Your actual manabase is somewhat dependent on which/how many colors you decide to play, but is also somewhat consistent across builds of Traverse Shadow. For 4 or 5 color Traverse Shadow, 12 fetch lands capable of fetching Swamp is more or less mandatory, and most lists play 5 shock lands (2 Overgrown Tomb, 1 Watery Grave, 1 Blood Crypt, 1 Breeding Pool, for example) and 1 basic Swamp. The Traverse Shadow manabase is set up to have easy access to all of its colors and deal enough damage to itself to enable Death’s Shadow as a threat.
Traverse Shadow has a much more flexible shell than pure Grixis and can dip into all colors for whatever cards are powerful in a specific metagame, and is able to play 1-of creatures as targets for Traverse the Ulvenwald, adding to the flexibility of that card and the deck in general. While most of Traverse Shadow’s matchups are even or somewhat favorable, Traverse Shadow especially excels in metagames where there are lots of uninteractive combo decks, as the combination of a fast clock and lots of disruption is usually too much for these decks to overcome.
When there is a large overrepresentation of Grixis Death’s Shadow, it’s advisable to stay away from Traverse Shadow. Historically speaking, ever since the Death’s Shadow decks as we know them today were discovered, the only time Traverse Shadow has not been a good deck to play were times when Grixis Death’s Shadow was a highly dominant deck, as that matchup specifically is pretty unfavorable for Traverse Shadow because of how much better the Grixis player’s Fatal Pushes are in the matchup (Tarmogoyf dies to Fatal Push, Tasigur and Gurmag Angler do not).Traverse Shadow also has a hard time with traditional BGx midrange decks, as their mixture of removal, card advantage, and powerful threats is usually difficult to grind through for Death’s Shadow decks.
Decks that emphasize Blood Moon as a major part of their plan can give Traverse Shadow a very hard time as well, as Traverse Shadow’s manabase cannot operate with Blood Moon in play - it’s difficult to continue playing against Blood Moon even if you have your basic Swamp. Additionally when graveyard hate is common due to decks like Dredge being popular, it hurts Traverse Shadow quite a bit as the deck is very dependent on its graveyard for delirium, Tarmogoyf, Kolaghan’s Command, Liliana the Last Hope, etc.
Because Traverse Shadow can play up to 5 colors, your sideboard can consist of any specific hate cards from any color that apply to your metagame, or transformational plans like adding Lingering Souls or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Your sideboard options are too broad for me to discuss each individual card in detail, as you can include basically anything. It’s recommended that you look at what other peoples’ sideboards look like and come up with plans that fit your metagame or playstyle.
When sideboarding, you are mostly going to be substituting one type of interaction for another, depending on what kind of interaction is good in the matchup you are playing. In matchups where creature removal has minimal or no impact, you are going to want to shave it for something more meaningful. In matchups where your opponent’s plan is to kill your creatures and grind you down to few resources, you are going to want to shave on cards that are only good if you already have a creature in play (like Stubborn Denial or Temur Battle Rage) because you can’t guarantee that they will do anything if you draw them. The core cards of the deck are so interdependent on each other that it’s hard to mess with it too much, but there are enough flex slots that if your sideboard is built with your metagame in mind you should be able to set your deck up to win most common matchups.
It may feel weird at first, but with this deck it’s usually correct to pay the 2 life for your shock lands to enter untapped even if you don’t need the mana that turn. Getting a large Death’s Shadow into play early can be very important.
Deciding whether to use Traverse the Ulvenwald early to get your Swamp if you are light on land drops, or to save it to get a creature later on, can be a key decision in some games. Keep in mind that you have this option and don’t be greedy.
Using Mishra’s Bauble optimally can be tricky. It’s usually correct to use it to look at the top card of your own library when you have access to a fetch land, so you can decide if you want to keep the card you see on top, or shuffle it away. You may also want to use it to look at your opponent’s top card before casting a discard spell, so you have complete information about what resources they will have access to on their following turn when making your decision about what to make them discard.
Street Wraith is a bit trickier to use than it looks on the surface. There are going to be times where you have sufficient action and don’t need to cycle it right away. But, if you are looking for a creature to play and don’t have one, or you know hitting something like a Stubborn Denial will seal the game, go ahead and cycle it. If you have what is probably close to the best possible play sequence already for how much mana you have or the game state, you don’t need to cycle your Wraith right away, as you can get value from it by suddenly pumping a Death’s Shadow in combat, or using it to draw a card you see on top of your deck with a Mishra’s Bauble. Sometimes if games go long enough it can be correct to just cast Street Wraith instead of cycling it as well. It’s easy to just cycle Street Wraith without thinking about it, but considering the reasons why you should or shouldn’t cycle your Street Wraiths right away can give you a huge edge.
Future of Traverse Shadow
Traverse Shadow's flexibility bodes well for the deck going forward. It can adapt to the format easily and only gets hurt by graveyard hate. The possibility of new prints gives Traverse Shadow hope as well. Powerful creatures like Hazoret have found homes in decks like this and the deck could gain more cards like that as new sets roll out. The deck shares a lot of cards with Grixis Shadow; investing in it lends a lot of flexibility.
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