Choosing a Shade of Delver
Recently, due to the banning of Top, I had to find a new deck to play. I knew I was going to start with a Delver deck, but it was difficult to choose which variant of Delver. There are so many different color combinations to choose from, and, moreso, even more ways to build the deck. It’s relatively easy to pick the one that is generally considered to be the best, Grixis Delver, but this sidesteps the question more than answers it. Today, I want to review some of the popular variants of today, and the past, evaluate their pros and cons, and try to give a broad overview as to the reasons to pick one over the other. Hopefully, this might also provide insight as to why certain variants have become less popular than they used to be. Many of these decks have overlapping weaknesses, such as Chalice of the Void or Blood Moon, and strengths, such as the ability to kill opponent’s with a single Delver. Where a variant differs in these, I will try to mention it, but keep in mind this is not a fully comprehensive review.
A brief mention regarding categorization: All of these variants that i’m going to discuss today fluidly exist on an aggro-control spectrum. Due to the core strategy associated with the card Delver of Secrets, these are primarily tempo decks. Because there are so many ways to build these decks, however, sometimes they might be more skewed towards aggro, midrange, or control strategies. I will break down where I think each variant falls on the spectrum, on average. These are just general guidelines, and because of the consistency of finding certain cards and efficiency of the cards, these decks can fluidly shift between game plans throughout a game.
This is by far the most aggressive and least tempo-oriented version of Delver. In fact, many people might not consider this a true Delver deck, and instead view this as a burn deck using blue cards (which is reflected in the common trend to name this deck UR Prowess). In essence, this deck wants to get out of the gates with creatures and start attacking as soon as possible. Monastery Swiftspear, Stormchaser Mage and Bedlam Reveler are able to take advantage of the high spell count Delver requires incredibly well. All of the removal spells double as Burn spells and can close the door on opponents very quickly. This allows the deck to play a larger amount of removal spells than most Delver decks, which can give it an edge in the Delver mirrors. Because of the quick pressure it can apply, the deck is able to leverage Daze very well. Despite not playing Wasteland, this deck limits the amount of time it’s opponents have to deal with the cards. In addition, because this deck can play basic lands, which is a bonus in it of itself, it can also play cards like Price of Progress, which can really punish most midrange decks.
On the other hand, this deck needs an early creature more than any other Delver deck. Many of the spells are unimpressive when they are not backed up with a creature. It also plays the lowest amount of non-creature based disruption of all the Delver decks. Against combo decks, it relies heavily on a fast draw and Force of Will, which is often not enough because most combo decks can play through Force and around Daze relatively easily. Despite having Price of Progress, Lands is also quite difficult because it’s difficult to play through Maze of Ith and there’s not enough disruption in most games to interact with Life From the Loam. Because the removal suite is entirely burn-based, large creatures, like Gurmag Angler, can serve as an effective roadblock and be difficult to deal with. Luckily, this deck gets to play a higher amount of evasive threats than most Delver decks, and this allows it to go over roadblocks and steal games in the air.
Overall, this is a good deck for those who like playing basics, attacking, and killing small creatures along the way, but not for those who like countering the maximum number of spells or removing large creatures.This is by far the most aggressive and least tempo-oriented version of Delver. In fact, many people might not consider this a true Delver deck, and instead view this as a burn deck using blue cards (which is reflected in the common trend to name this deck UR Prowess). In essence, this deck wants to get out of the gates with creatures and start attacking as soon as possible. Monastery Swiftspear, Stormchaser Mage and Bedlam Reveler are able to take advantage of the high spell count Delver requires incredibly well. All of the removal spells double as Burn spells and can close the door on opponents very quickly. This allows the deck to play a larger amount of removal spells than most Delver decks, which can give it an edge in the Delver mirrors. Because of the quick pressure it can apply, the deck is able to leverage Daze very well. Despite not playing Wasteland, this deck limits the amount of time it’s opponents have to deal with the cards. In addition, because this deck can play basic lands, which is a bonus in it of itself, it can also play cards like Price of Progress, which can really punish most midrange decks.
In stark contrast to UR Delver is Jeskai Delver, this is the most controlling version of the deck. What was the best Delver deck for a time has since fallen off of the radar almost completely. However, I think it has some nice qualities and is a solid choice in this metagame. It can play out like a traditional Stoneblade deck with a powerful mid- and late-game strategy with Stoneforge Mystic, True-Name Nemesis, Spell Pierce, and the best removal around. However, it can capitalize on these cards a bit more using Delver to force opponents to interact before they were ready. Playing more creatures allows the Jeskai player to take advantage of equipment more often. Stoneforge Mystic is also an incredibly powerful card, so being able to defend it with so much countermagic is excellent. Having access to Swords to Plowshares and Umezawa’s Jitte means that this deck is well positioned at taking down creature decks. Going larger with Stoneforge and True-Name also makes this deck more resilient to cards like Chalice.
However, this deck suffers from some major flaws. The non-bo of Swords to Plowshares and Delver are well-noted when discussing this deck’s problems. Having to play 19-20 lands means that the deck floods more often than other Delver decks, while having “dead” draws in the 2 equipment. Due to these 2 qualities, Jeskai Delver has a lower spell density, so Delvers flip less often. Stoneforge Mystic is relatively poor in multiples because of how inefficient it is, and using its ability can set the deck behind in tempo. In addition, outside of building a better True-Name, this deck can have difficulty beating a resolved True-Name because the white sideboard cards that deal with True-Name are too clunky for this deck’s general strategy.
The move of Delver decks towards being Deathrite-based is difficult for this deck, as well. It can be difficult to recoup the tempo generated from a resolved Deathrite if it’s not removed. While Jeskai does have up to 8 removal spells for it, it can’t always kill it on sight. In terms of metagame shift, this is probably the number one reason for Jeskai’s loss of popularity. It used to be well-positioned against the best Delver deck, RUG Delver, but now it’s not as favored in the Delver mirror as it used to be. However, as far as Delver decks go, this is the best variant for dealing with creature-heavy decks, like Elves or Death and Taxes, which can be a problem for most other Delver decks. In addition, it does have access to a fast start and a lot of disruption, so it’s about as well-positioned against combo as any other variant. I’m not positive that this deck is a good choice, but I think it might be worth revisiting, as it does have some positive features.
The old boogeyman of Legacy, RUG Delver is the most punishing, tempo-oriented, and efficient version of the deck. Every card, but Tarmogoyf, costs 1 mana, and this deck plays a lean 12 creatures, 18 lands, and 30 spells. The main gameplan of the deck is to use Stifle and Wasteland to prevent opponents from playing as many spells as possible. This allows the deck to generate “virtual card advantage” by stranding uncastable spells in the opponent’s hand. For this reason, this deck leverages the taxing counterspells better than any other variant. It’s creature base is very lean, with each creature serving a different in game function. Delver is the fastest, Nimble Mongoose is the most resilient, and Tarmogoyf is the biggest. This deck is designed to punish people for stumbling, and for building decks with greedy manabases. Because every card is so cheap, this deck has an excellent matchup against most combo decks. It plays a lot of blue disruption and cheap threats, so it can frequently play multiple disruptive spells in a turn.
However, this deck suffers greatly from some of the newer cards that have been printed. Deathrite Shaman, in particular, is a huge pain to deal with. It single-handedly provides decks a mana advantage, lifegain, a clock, and a means of disrupting threshold. If I had to pick a single reason RUG Delver dropped on the tier list, it’s Deathrite. However, the deck suffers from both Fatal Push and Gurmag Angler as well. RUG has always suffered from larger creatures resolving. They serve as an effective roadblock for the non-Delver creatures in the deck. Before, Tarmogoyf was the largest concern for the deck, so RUG adapted Spell Snare to answer it. Gurmag Angler, however, costs less mana to cast, is larger than the average Tarmogoyf, and potentially removes relevant card types from the graveyard. Dismember can answer it, but it’s not a removal spell that can be played in large numbers. On the other hand, Fatal Push cleanly answers most of the threats in RUG Delver for only one mana. This cramps RUG’s style when it comes to applying pressure. Some lists have adapted cutting Tarmogoyfs for True-Name Nemesis, but with only 18 lands, they can be difficult to cast.
I think the deck’s game plan is still so succinct and effective that this deck is still viable, and I would actively look to play this variant in a field of combo decks. Most fairer decks that exist in the current metagame, however, seem problematic for the deck. If the number of Deathrite’s ever decrease again, I think this deck would be an excellent choice.
When it comes to BUG, there are 2 significantly different ways to build the deck. The first is comparable to RUG Delver:
Fundamentally, this deck has the same mana denial game plan as RUG. Wasteland, Stifle, and a ton of blue interaction is an effective formula for this style of deck. The 2 largest differences are in the creature- and spell-base. Having access to the black-based removal allows the deckbuilder more options when choosing the removal suite. It also makes this deck more able to easily answer a wider range of creatures/permanents. Because there have been more powerful black creatures printed recently, like Gurmag Angler, and because this deck has Deathrite, there are more options in the creature-base than in RUG as well. Despite having the same number of lands as RUG, BUG can more easily play powerful 3-drops because Deathrite Shaman allows the deck to accelerate it’s manabase. Versatility in creature choice is a major advantage of this archetype, which allows the deck to line-up threats more effectively and not be too exposed to one type of removal. I also think this deck has the best mana base of the Delver decks.
The major trade-off in BUG vs RUG is the reach and power of Lightning Bolt. In a deck that intends to start attacking as soon as turn 2, this is a huge factor. In addition, I find the red sideboard cards to be more impactful than that of black. Pyroblast is one of the strongest cards that legacy has to offer. At the moment, though, if the Delver player wants to max-out on tempo, I think BUG might be a better color combination than RUG, at the moment.
The other option in BUG is a more midrange approach:
I think this variant is the more popular version of BUG right now. It essentially plays like a midrange deck that has access to early pressure. This forces opponents to respond in weird ways, and opens the door for the Delver player to maximize it’s options. This is really the only version that gets to play Hymn to Tourach and Liliana of the Veil, which are incredibly powerful cards. In essence, this deck plays the strongest cards that curve up to 3, and attempts to grind the opponent out of resources as the game progresses. Tombstalker is a card that is normally associated with this strategy in particular. Being gigantic and evasive is an edge that allows this deck to win games that would have otherwise been difficult.
On the flipside, despite playing 20 lands, this deck has some mana problems. Because of the color commitments, the mana of this deck is often pulled in multiple different directions. Having blue on turn 1, options for double black or black/green on turn 2, and still being able to alternate-cast Daze can be difficult in a deck with 4 Wastelands and 1 Bayou. Because it plays more lands, it floods more often than other Delver decks. Without Deathrite Shaman, it can be difficult in the early game to play multiple spells in a turn because the cost of removal and curve is much higher than other Delver decks. Also, because the blue-card count is lower, occasionally Force of Will will not be able to be cast.
Despite this, this is still a very powerful deck. All of the cards that it plays are among the best in the format. When this deck can cast all of it’s spells, it’s a force to be reckoned with. Furthermore, because it exists so far on the midrange end of the spectrum, it can easily sideboard into a full midrange deck, and easily compete with decks that usually cast more expensive spells than Delver decks.
One of the things that makes this deck considered the defacto best Delver deck right now is it’s versatility. It can be built like a faux-midrange deck with Young Pyromancer and Cabal Therapy, or it can be built like a mana denial deck with Stifle. Playing Deathrite allows this deck to play 3-drops, playing red allows the deck to have Lightning Bolt, and black allows for Fatal Push. Playing Gurmag Angler and True-Name allows the deck to diversify it’s threat-base around the popular removal spells, while also having large, hard to deal with creatures. It can go wide, over creatures, through creatures, or around creatures because of this versatility. Due to the sheer amount of creatures Grixis almost always has a follow up threat to counteract removal spells. Because it technically has access to green mana, it can play Abrupt Decay or Leovold if the builder wants. Furthermore, this is the only Delver deck that actively seeks to play Gitaxian Probe, which is an incredible boon to the Delver strategy.
Despite all of this, there are some downsides. The versatility of the mana base is also it’s downfall: The mana in this deck is not very good. This is the only Delver deck that doesn’t have access to at least 3 sources of it’s primary color. Playing 19 lands is not sought-after, but the deck still needs green mana to activate Deathrite Shaman. Without Deathrite in play, 2 Wastelands can knock out it’s ability to cast Gurmag Angler. Despite Young Pyromancer’s power, it is a clunky, inefficient card relative to something like Tarmogoyf. The body itself is not very impressive and a bunch of 1/1 creatures can be blanked somewhat easily by an opposing Deathrite Shaman. Like BUG, large creatures are still difficult to remove, and unlike in Jeskai, Marit Lage is nigh-unkillable.
The intersection of power and versatility in this deck is undeniable, though. I think this is what makes this such a popular choice in Legacy right now. The ability to change strategies freely and function well in all stages of the game is not something that can easily be passed up. In fact, in many ways, versatility might be a more important quality to me, personally, than raw power. That might be what draws me to this variant, as opposed to others.
Which Delver is Right?
I don’t think that Grixis is the right Delver deck for every player, though. Jeskai is a great choice for the lover of powerful removal spells. RUG is still the best at denying people a mana base. UR allows players to attack endlessly and punish manabases in a different way. BUG is the best choice for those who like casting discard spells. Each of these have their own benefits in certain metagames. For instance, i’d rather play Jeskai in the face of Marit Lage then have a bunch of Hymn to Tourachs. However, Liliana is better when facing down a True-Name Nemesis than Lightning Bolt. When my opponents are playing Tarmgoyfs, i’d rather have Stonechaser Mage to fly over than Nimble Mongoose, but if their whole manabase is dual lands and fetchlands, RUG is more appealing.
I think, in this metagame, Grixis is still the forerunner of the Delver decks, but I don’t think it will be that way forever. There are still a lot of options, and if you can predict your metagame, then maybe one of these is a better choice.
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