Sideboarding With Sultai Delver Against Grixis

Rich Cali
March 06, 2018
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When I started to play Sultai Delver (AKA, Team America), I never expected to like it as much as I did. I thought it would be a nice change of pace, and after a short time, I would either go back to some old stand-by, or keep trying to find some other sweet decks. The truth is, though, that every time I play the deck, it’s difficult to put it down. The core strategy is both fun and the deck’s game plan is incredibly fluid. Every draw requires a deep knowledge of exactly how you plan to end the game and how you will navigate your way to that point. Because the deck has a higher curve than most Delver decks and isn’t filled to the brim with CMC-1 cards, there are less micro-decisions to make every turn. However, this deck plays out like a “choose your own adventure” book, where you can take whatever direction you want early on and really have to understand exactly what your role is in every matchup.

All of this being said, I don’t think this deck is among the top dogs of the format. It is certainly a good deck, and can battle on fair ground with most of the format, but it definitely has its fair share of flaws. The biggest problem I continue to have is a tumultuous Grixis Delver matchup. It is not a horrendous matchup, but it doesn’t feel particularly favorable. Game 1 is usually somewhat straightforward, being a Deathrite/Delver/Wasteland mirror match. It can be intricate, but it isn’t that different from any other Delver mirror. However, the world of Sultai gets really interesting post-board, as there are roughly a thousand options for how to proceed with the matchup, and it completely changes how the matchup plays out. In this article, I am going to go over some of the things I have been trying out. The difficult part for me is that most of these plans seem alright, and I haven’t had one perform significantly better than any other (with one caveat, which I will explicate a bit later). However, with the sheer wealth of options that are available, I think this is a topic worth discussing, so I will discuss 3 of the options I have tested the most and have had the most success with.

A list, for reference:

Sultai DelverRich Cali Gurmag Angler Leovold, Emissary of Trest Tombstalker Tarmogoyf Delver of Secrets Deathrite Shaman Wasteland Verdant Catacombs Underground Sea Tropical Island Polluted Delta Misty Rainforest Bayou Liliana, the Last Hope Ponder Abrupt Decay Hymn to Tourach Force of Will Fatal Push Daze Brainstorm Leovold, Emissary of Trest Thoughtseize Toxic Deluge Surgical Extraction Spell Pierce Liliana of the Veil Jace, the Mind Sculptor Golgari Charm Diabolic Edict Maelstrom Pulse Pithing Needle

 

Sideboarding Into Midrange

 

Out:

-4 Force of Will

-4 Delver of Secrets

-1 Hymn to Tourach

-2 Daze

In:

+1 Leovold

+1 Liliana of the Veil

+1 Jace the Mind Sculptor

+2 Golgari Charm

+1 Toxic Deluge

+1 Diabolic Edict

+2 Thoughtseize

+2 Spell Pierce

The plan I have tried the most is essentially a transformational sideboard, which I talked about in my last article about this deck. Essentially, this strategy is designed to trade resources as effectively as possible. Force of Will comes out because it trades so poorly on resources, and Sultai doesn’t play too many blue cards. Delver gets the axe, even though at worst it is often trading at a 1 for 1 rate and at an even mana ratio, it doesn’t help the Sultai player pull ahead in any tangible means. 1 Hymn comes out because it trades poorly on mana efficiency, but 3 stay in because it trades so well on cards. Finally, some Dazes get removed because it can both be incredible at pulling ahead or leave the Sultai player too far behind. The cards that come in are all either incredibly powerful, end-game bombs, means of stabilizing a complicated board, or efficient disruption which will help transition to the late game.

Although this ‘go big’ strategy is generally pretty strong and can be pretty effective, Grixis can crush Sultai in terms of efficiency, and disrupt Sultai into oblivion by constantly pulling ahead by casting 2-3 spells a turn. Because the curve is increasing by so much, Wasteland is a much more serious problem in the post-board games, and the Sultai mana base doesn’t always cooperate. One of the key problems is that Gurmag Angler is both more efficient and, often times, more powerful than Tarmogoyf, which can totally blank some portion of the Sultai strategy. Still, this is the plan I like the most so far, but it leaves me thinking there could be a better way (which is why I am both writing this article, and constantly trying new sideboard plans).

The Last Threat Standing Plan

Out:

-4 Force of Will

-4 Daze

In:

+1 Leovold

+1 Liliana of the Veil

+2 Golgari Charm

+1 Toxic Deluge

+1 Diabolic Edict

+1 Maelstrom Pulse

+1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

This approach eschews all stack based interaction, and attempts to win using three major factors that combine into a relatively focused game plan. The first is a reliance on Hymn to Tourach. Trying to fill the early game with Hymns can leave your opponent behind on mana from Dazes, or substantially behind on cards. This feeds into maxing out on threats, and hopefully having more threats than your opponent has answers because of the card advantage generated by Hymn to Tourach. Delver of Secrets acts as an end-game threat in this game plan, because it still hits relatively hard in the late game, and it will be more difficult to remove because we are attempting to overload their removal spells. Having this kind of pressure on board makes the sheer density of removal that is in the deck much better, because it backs them into a corner, forces them to react in a more narrow manner, and leaves the door open for Planeswalkers to take over the game. By cutting Daze, and minimizing the use of Wasteland, it will be more difficult to fall behind on mana, which should allow the Sultai deck to more easily cast its expensive spells.

The problem with this plan is that it is much more difficult to generate any kind of tempo. As previously mentioned, Grixis is incredibly efficient, and relying on brute force and expensive spells without any countermagic can be a risky game plan. Gurmag Angler continues to be a problem, and relying on Hymn to Tourach can be a losing strategy in the face of a Delver or Deathrite Shaman. This plan shows promise, however, and this is the one I am testing the most right now, tweaking the numbers, and trying to find a way to strike the best balance.

Low Curve, Anti-Stifle Plan

Out:

-2 Hymn to Tourach

-4 Force of Will

-1 Daze


In:

+2 Spell Pierce

+2 Golgari Charm

+1 Toxic Deluge

+1 Liliana of the Veil

+1 Diabolic Edict


This is a plan I have been trying recently against the Stifle variant, and this has yielded the best results of any sideboarding plan against any variant. The Sultai mana base is somewhat exploitable, despite having 20 lands (thanks, Bayou…). As such, boarding into such clunky cards can be incredibly risky and leave Sultai dead in the water in terms of casting any spells. By trimming on Hymn and leaving in Delver, it allows Sultai to play games of Magic much more frequently, even in the face of Stifle. Furthermore, while I don’t love Spell Pierce against other variants of Delver because the spells that are being traded with are often cheap and it doesn’t generate enough tempo or advantage, pushing through a fetchland through a Stifle is a critical piece of this matchup, and Spell Pierce allows this to happen more often. Force of Will still comes out, though, because the blue card count is still iffy, and it is important to try to maintain a certain level of resource advantage.

I don’t love this strategy against other variants, though, because they usually have more threats and removal than the Stifle versions. Stifle does require making some cuts in deckbuilding, and finding ways to exploit that can be critical to succeeding in those situations. So far, this is the best way I have found to pull ahead of Stifle and not make the deck too inefficient.


Constantly Adapting

There are so many ways to configure the deck post-board, and I am not at all convinced that I am doing it in the best way. Every time I play the matchup, I keep adjusting the numbers and adjusting to Sultai’s weaknesses in the matchup. I think it could be possible to make this an actively good matchup, and I think that is probably worth committing a fair amount of deck building effort to, seeing how popular (and good) Grixis is. That being said, i’m getting there, and it will keep being a work in progress. That doesn’t change the fact that I still love this deck, and want to keep solving all of the issues that come up as I play it, and I still intend to play it a lot!

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