Rethinking Grixis Delver in Legacy

Rich Cali
August 22, 2017
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When I decided to start exploring Delver decks back when Top was banned it was overwhelming. As mentioned before in this article series, I knew I was going to start with Grixis because it is the defacto best Delver deck. Although I ended up sticking with it, sometimes I feel like the deck is a bit clunky and cantrip heavy for a Delver deck. Young Pyromancer generally takes some work in order to be a powerhouse (the ceiling is high, however). Cabal Therapy pretty much always requires Gitaxian Probe to do something meaningful. Although i’ve written about the power of Gitaxian Probe in the past, at its core it is still just a redraw. In addition to all of this, the mana base is pretty poor in the deck and generally only allows for players to play 2 Underground Seas, unless another land is added.

This is in stark contrast to when I started playing Legacy and RUG Delver was the Delver deck of choice. In essence, there is nothing clunky about RUG Delver. Just about every card costs 1 or 0 mana and has a meaningful effect. Tarmogoyf requires little to no effort in order to have a huge impact on the game. On top of that, its manabase is incredibly efficient, simply running 3 of each of the blue dual lands that support its spells. A lot of this is incredibly appealing, but unfortunately, RUG Delver just isn’t an optimal choice in this metagame.

When I was initially testing Delver decks, I tested a BUG variant that had many of the same appeals that RUG did, and was able to solve some of the problems of RUG:

BUG DelverRich Cali 1st Delver of Secrets True-Name Nemesis Gurmag Angler Deathrite Shaman Tarmogoyf Misty Rainforest Underground Sea Verdant Catacombs Wasteland Tropical Island Polluted Delta Abrupt Decay Brainstorm Daze Fatal Push Force of Will Ponder Spell Pierce Stifle Dismember Flusterstorm Grafdigger's Cage Surgical Extraction Thoughtseize Marsh Casualties Leovold, Emissary of Trest Pithing Needle Dread of Night Submerge

This decklist is just chock full of interaction.  Sporting 15 disruptive blue spells and 6 removal spells almost always allows this deck to mess with the opponent’s game plan. Being BUG allows this deck to play Deathrite Shaman without messing up the mana base. Despite the power level of an unchecked Young Pyromancer, this deck functions like RUG in that all of it’s creatures are just individually powerful with very little setup required.

I really liked the notion of what this deck presented, but in the end, it was difficult to resist the allure of Grixis. One problem is that green doesn’t add a lot to the archetype anymore. Abrupt Decay, Tarmogoyf, and Leovold are good, but they’re still not better than having Lightning Bolt and Pyroblast. Grixis has access to just about everything that BUG gets, like Fatal Push (and it can stretch its mana base even further and play the green cards like Leovold), but it also gets the power and reach of Lightning Bolt. This is a huge boon to an aggressively-slanted deck like Delver.

In the end, I was resigned to playing Grixis, even though I occasionally didn’t love the aforementioned aspects of it. I am not discounting the clear power of Grixis, but I simply wanted a more efficient, disruptive deck. Luckily for me, a Magic online player, SorboOne, has been piloting a version of Grixis that is akin to what i’m looking for:

Grixis DelverRich Cali1st True-Name Nemesis Gurmag Angler Delver of Secrets Deathrite Shaman Underground Sea Wasteland Scalding Tarn Polluted Delta Volcanic Island Tropical Island Lightning Bolt Daze Stifle Dismember Ponder Brainstorm Force of Will Spell Snare Spell Pierce Fatal Push Pyroblast Diabolic Edict Ancient Grudge Marsh Casualties Flusterstorm Kolaghan's Command Surgical Extraction Grafdigger's Cage 1 Forked Bolt Dread of Night Thoughtseize

This decklist is close to doing everything i’m looking for in a Delver deck. It’s incredibly heavy on disruption, especially for a Grixis deck. Being able to represent 7 unique spells, 8 if you count Force of Will, off of just 1 Volcanic Island is an awesome feature. Because most Grixis decks have moved towards Gitaxian Probe and Cabal Therapy, the diversity in blue disruption can catch opponents off-guard. Stifle and Spell Pierce generally still see some amount of play in certain versions of Grixis, but Spell Snare has almost completely fallen off of the radar. Spell Snare has the potential to be one of the most powerful spells 1 mana has to offer. Countering Snapcaster Mage, Infernal Tutor, Young Pyromancer, and Counterspell is incredibly good. The trade-off is that sometimes it doesn’t have the opportunity to counter anything. As such, it can often be either the best or worst counter in the deck but I think the ceiling is high enough that this card is a relatively easy inclusion that can easily catch people off guard.

Akin to RUG Delver, just about every card but True-Name Nemesis costs 1 mana, and every non-creature spell is an instant. This firmly lands the deck on the aggro-tempo end of the spectrum. Delver decks aren’t usually constructed in such an aggressive manner these days, so the brutal efficiency of the archetype is kind of refreshing. Now, Gurmag Angler doesn’t always cost one mana early in the game, but it doesn’t require too much to be that cheap. Costing 1 mana on turn 3 or 4 allows the pilot to deploy it and hold up any number of interactive spells. As long as it doesn’t cost 5 or 6 mana, often times a 3 mana 5/5 is going to be impactful enough to punch through some much needed damage in most games. On the other hand, True-Name Nemesis will always cost 3, but it is still the most backbreaking creature in Legacy to cast against a player.  

Unlike RUG Delver, this deck gets to play Deathrite Shaman, which does just about everything needed in a deck like this. It helps cast Gurmag Angler and True-Name ahead of curve, it compounds the mana advantage, it applies pressure, and it disrupts the opponent’s graveyard. In addition, it gets to help diversify the threat base, which allows damage to be dealt to the opponent without even needing a combat step. The role of Deathrite in this deck isn’t that much different than in traditional Grixis decks, but representing open mana on the opponent’s turn, while threatening to deal damage, is a huge boon to the instant-speed nature of this deck.

 Even though this deck still has to play Tropical Island, the mana base is better because, like RUG Delver, red is simply a splash for removal (although, only playing 2 Volcanic Islands isn’t perfect). The critical 3 Underground Seas make a huge difference in being able to cast spells. There’s less of a fear when you have to fetch 2 Underground Seas early on, and  it’s rare to need more than 1 Volcanic. This also opens up the ability to play double black spells in the sideboard, like Marsh Casualties.

I’ve been very impressed with the deck so far, but despite its many appeals it does feel less powerful overall than traditional Grixis. Although this feels like an updated, more powerful version of RUG Delver, it still suffers from the fact that hard and fast mana denial, like Stifle, is less effective because of Deathrite Shaman. While the 1 mana blue spells are generally very good, they tend to be less brutal than the combination of Probe and Therapy. That combination of cards has the potential to steal games that Spell Snare simply doesn’t have. While I do think it’s nice to play such a disruption heavy deck, losing Gitaxian Probe can be viewed as a rather large cost. Being able to sculpt one’s game plan with perfect information is a huge advantage in Delver decks. Finally, Young Pyromancer is still a powerhouse of a card. I don’t like flooding on them, and I don’t love the fact that they require some setup, but the ability to go wide is so sought after and unique to this deck. Pyromancer simply does it the best and can also easily take over the game in conjunction with Cabal Therapy.

All of this being said, I still think the Pyro-less version of the deck is a strong choice. It’s also a ton of fun to play and full of some very complicated decisions. I recommend this deck to anyone looking for a less midrange-oriented version of Delver. I’m certainly going to keep playing it for now!

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