Looking at the Sultai Delver Shell

Rich Cali
December 12, 2017
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One piece of criticism I always have year to year is that there aren’t many premier-level Legacy events that happen anymore. We usually get 2 or 3 GPs a year, and as a player in North America, we often get 3-4 SCG Open events if we’re lucky. Seeing as the year is approaching its end, I decided to look into the schedule of events for next year to plan out what tournaments I was going to travel to. To my surprise there are a plethora of Legacy events happening next year, mostly in the form of Team Trios constructed. Assuming that I get to play in the Legacy seat, I get to combine the two things I love most in Magic: my love of playing Legacy on Magic Online and the relevance of testing for large events.

Recently, I have had difficulty convincing myself to play anything other than Grixis Delver. It continues to be fun, consistent, powerful, and versatile, which has allowed it to dominate the Legacy scene. However, I don’t think that other decks lack the ability to compete and do well in Legacy. I want to do my due diligence and fully explore a couple of decks that I think are powerful and potentially well-positioned in the metagame with the hope of finding a good reason to pick something other than Grixis at my next event.

The first deck that I have been exploring is one that I have some past experience with: Team America (AKA Sultai Delver):

Sultai DelverRich Cali Deathrite Shaman Delver of Secrets Tarmogoyf Tombstalker True-Name Nemesis Bayou Misty Rainforest Wasteland Polluted Delta Tropical Island Underground Sea Verdant Catacombs Abrupt Decay Hymn to Tourach Brainstorm Daze Fatal Push Force of Will Ponder Grafdigger's Cage Jace, the Mind Sculptor Marsh Casualties Pithing Needle Surgical Extraction Umezawa's Jitte Vendilion Clique Flusterstorm Diabolic Edict Thoughtseize

 

I have briefly written about this deck before, which can be found here. A version of this deck has been around for years, and the Hymn to Tourach + Tarmogoyf game plan has always given players a strong incentive to play these colors in Legacy. I am not immune to this effect and from time to time I look to be playing some sweet Sultai cards. There’s always some allure to playing the “good-stuff” style Sultai decks that exist in Legacy, and I think this deck does it the best. Part of the reason for this is because it runs the Delver of Secrets/Daze/Wasteland engine that allows Delver decks to get out ahead and steal games. Having access to an aggressive game plan in game 1 can make some matchups much more winnable. In addition to this engine, the deck also gets to use any of its 1-drop creatures to capitalize on the card advantage generated from an early Hymn to Tourach. Delver forces opponents into corners early on and Deathrite allows the player to pull ahead on board, all while Hymn pulls them ahead on cards. To push this theme even further, having Tarmogoyf allows this deck to curve out smoothly in a large percentage of games. Tarmogoyf has some weaknesses in Legacy these days, notably Fatal Push, but it’s still one of the best cost-to-power cards in the format and it often requires the least amount of work. All of this can allow the Sultai player very far ahead in the early game.

It has some of the features in its creature base that make Grixis so appealing: It can use Deathrite to ignore creatures, Tarmogoyf to punch through, Tombstalker and Delver to fly over head, and True-Name to really just ignore everything in the world. It is common in these lists to run some number of a 3-mana Liliana instead of True-Name Nemesis. However, I found that this version of Delver occasionally lacks blue cards for Force of Will and the ability to win games through cards like Maze of Ith. True-Name stretches the mana base, but otherwise solves a number of problems I have had with the deck in the past. In addition to a solid creature-base, the deck’s removal suite is very strong, and has even been powered up recently with the printing of Fatal Push, allowing it to have a board-impacting play on turn 1 more often.

One of the other benefits to playing this deck is its sideboard. Because the deck is fundamentally “good Sultai cards,” the deck has the option of completely changing its strategy post-board. Against decks like Czech Pile, which have a ton of spot removal, I have been sideboarding out the entire “Delver” package of 4 Delver, 4 Daze, and 4 Force of Will and completely transforming into a Sultai midrange deck. If that plan isn’t one’s fancy, however, this deck also gets to sideboard a lot of the usual Delver cards and upgrade its removal, counter magic, discard, or threat base.

      This is not to say that the deck doesn’t have issues. Many of the problems that I outlined in my previous article talking about the deck still exist. For example, I mentioned that the mana base is not excellent, which hasn’t changed.  However, this deck has some issues more central to its design. Fundamentally, this deck suffers from an identity problem. It is trying to be a tempo-oriented Wasteland deck and a grindy midrange deck at the same time. Some amount of the time it can be both of these, but the gap between the two strategies is relatively large so it has a difficult time transitioning between them. Part of this is due to the mana base issues. Grixis Delver gets to operate on a more streamlined manabase because most of its cards can be used for only a single colored mana. As such, when the deck needs to enter the mid game and begin to grind, it can do so with less color commitments. Similarly, this deck has a more clunky mana curve, which can make it difficult to shift game plans. While Hymn to Tourach is very powerful, it costs 2 mana, which makes it much more difficult to play two spells in one turn, even in the late game.

Despite these flaws, this deck has a lot of good qualities going for it and I think it’s worth exploring. As I mentioned, in many ways it is a classic midrange deck. It’s not as powerful as Grixis and doesn’t seem to boast any amazing matchups, but the field isn’t littered with too many horrible matchups for the deck. Many of the games end up being very close and decision intense, which is a good place to be with a fair, interactive deck. As a general guideline, I think this deck is slightly favored against most of the fairer decks in the format and slightly unfavored against most of the combo decks. Regarding the fairer decks, the deck’s primary game plan is relatively powerful and interactive, giving it a strong chance to fight against any fair decks. Regarding combo, this deck has the tools to beat combo but it needs to have its draws line up well. It can often have the classic midrange conundrum of drawing the wrong part of its interaction and simply dying.

Overall, most matchups have felt quite good to me, and almost every matchup gets better post-board. However, my primarily goal in testing currently is to fully explore the Grixis Delver matchup, and I'm honestly having trouble managing this matchup. The efficiency of their cards can be too much to overcome in the pre-board games. Even in the face of getting Hymn to Tourach’d, they can simply do 2-3 things on their turn and convert their aggression into an advantage that is too much to come back from. Furthermore, the Sultai removal isn’t perfect and Gurmag Angler can be a huge pain.

Even post-board, I am struggling to find a game plan that I like. Since they have a lot of cheap interaction, I think I like transforming into a midrange deck. This allows us to leverage our powerful card-advantage sources a little bit more by not drawing unimpactful cards in the late game. Furthermore, this deck doesn’t leverage the aggression from Delver nearly as well as Grixis because it doesn’t have Lightning Bolt. However, this is still a game they are well-equipped to battle. The removal in the sideboard can be awkward, as well. Marsh Casualties and Diabolic Edict can be amazing or they can do nothing at all. Sometimes they need to be cast before they’re needed in order to survive, and then a True-Name or Gurmag Angler come down and end things quickly. I’m thinking that I want to try using Baleful Strix in the sideboard as a means of stabilizing the board, pulling ahead, and bridging the gap to the late game.

I’m going to keep exploring other options in building the deck and navigating the games and hopefully I can turn the Grixis matchup around a bit. That being said, I like the way this deck is positioned against most of the other popular decks. As I test it more and develop a better grasp on how each matchup plays out, I will provide a full matchup breakdown on the deck. My sample size is still too small (around 50 current matches) to make a full statement about any individual matchup. Regardless, this deck is a blast to play, and even if you weren’t going to take it to a GP, I strongly recommend giving this deck a shot!

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