The Case for Stifle

Rich Cali
November 15, 2017

Over the course of the last few Legacy events, RUG Delver has consistently put a pilot into every top 8. At first, this seemed like it might be a flash in the pan of what was essentially deemed a dead archetype in the modern day Legacy metagame. However, the pattern has been repeated enough times that it seems like there might be something important happening. On its surface it seems like the deck would have difficulties dealing with the overwhelming presence of Deathrite Shamans alone, not to mention the premier threats of the format being Gurmag Angler and True-Name Nemesis and the removal being Fatal Push.

Most of the early results displayed a version of RUG Delver with an updated threat base that removed Tarmogoyf and added Hooting Mandrills and True-Name itself in order to bypass both the threats of the format and the removal. It seemed like the unique RUG threat base of difficult to remove creatures might be the key to its success. At SCG DC, however,  an old-school version, sporting ever-powerful Tarmogoyf, cruised its way to the top 8. To me, this suggests that something else is going on. Something more central to the function of RUG might be attacking the metagame at just the right angle to succeed, and I think that thing is Stifle.

What once used to be synonymous with Delver, Stifle fell out of favor for a long time. Even now, despite LewisCBR crushing Magic Online with it in Grixis, most paper Delver decks seem to shy away from it. However, I think the card is pivotal to RUG Delver’s resurgence and is perfectly positioned to attack the metagame in other Delver variants. I think there are 3 major reasons for this:

Decks with Greedy Manabases are Common

Deathrite Shaman has really started dominating Legacy and has enabled many black-based midrange decks to push the limits of their manabases. Czech Pile is the prime example of this, being a deck with 4 colors, often 2 basic lands, and occasionally a pair of Wastelands, as well. Czech Pile isn’t the only example of a greedy 3+ color deck, however. Both Bant and Esper Deathblade have heavy color commitments at every point of the curve, often stretching their manabases to play Leovold and Abrupt Decay as well. Deathrite Shaman pulls a lot of weight in allowing these decks to play a real game of Magic most of the time.

The presence of Deathrite Shaman might seem like a strong argument against using Stifle, but I don’t think that tells us the whole story. While Deathrite might be a “must-kill” creature, it is often not that difficult to remove a Deathrite early on in Delver decks. In fact, regardless of whether Stifle is in the Delver Player’s deck or not, Deathrite remains one of the highest value targets for removal.

Once Deathrite Shaman is out of the picture, which is goal number 1, these stretched 4-color mana bases are much easier to take apart and the more ways of destroying lands the Delver player has, the better. I have found this to be the most effective route for attacking these decks. Often, because their cards are so powerful and generate such powerful card advantage it can be difficult for Delver decks to battle in the mid-to-late game against decks like Czech Pile. Aggressively going after their mana base can help extend the early game which, in turn, will allow the Delver player to develop a strong board presence and be too far ahead to be overthrown.

Stifle Does More Than Destroy Lands

Of course, Stifle’s number one purpose to to attack weak manabases, but that’s not the only thing it does. Here’s a short list of things Stifle can do:

  • Stop Snapcaster Mage’s ability
  • Prevent Liliana from killing a creature
  • Strand Terminus in your opponent’s hand
  • Stop Wasteland from destroying your land
  • Buy a turn against Thespian’s Stage/Dark Depths
  • Prevent Flickerwisp from Blinking a creature
  • Prevent all of Deathrite Shaman’s abilities
  • Counter Portent’s card draw
  • Prevent the Storm trigger from resolving
  • Stop Craterhoof Behemoth from killing you

There are so many other things that Stifle can do. While most of these things still might result in some form of 2 for 1, often Delver decks set themselves far enough ahead that this kind of disruption could just be enough to end the game. On top of all if these factors, it’s also a blue card for Force of Will, which definitely makes casting Force an easier task. Other versions of Grixis or Sultai that run black discard spells can often find it difficult to muster up enough blue cards for Force.

Stifle Isn’t on Everyone’s Radar

One of the best benefits of Stifle is in denying your opponent’s from play a real game until it is too late. Punishing opponents for fetching at the incorrect time and preventing their development can be absolutely devastating and end some games on the spot. Some amount of time, though, this play pattern can be avoided if your opponent is prepared to play around Stifle. If players choose to not use their fetchlands at all in the early turns, or use them at times where using Stifle would be inconvenient, it can greatly reduce the value that is generated off of it.

However, Stifle has been out of favor for long enough that people might not be thinking about it as often as they should. This impacts not only their play patterns but also the type of hands they are willing to keep. This seems like a very exploitable aspect of play in Legacy right now. To me, this is a pretty substantial reason to have Stifle in Delver decks at the moment. At the end of the day, the goal in tournaments is to win and denying opponents the ability to play a meaningful game is a great means to that end.

Stifle: A Delver’s Best Friend

Clearly, Stifle is critical to RUG Delver’s game plan, and I think these reasons might explain some of its success as of late. In addition, this technology has been fully adopted on Magic Online for the past few months in Grixis Delver. This might not be the single best approach to Grixis, but it has seemed like the most effective approach to me for a while. In addition, certain versions of Sultai could really benefit from the different playstyle that comes along with Stifle. The Hymn-centered versions are clearly powerful, but at a certain point they might become predictable. Most players who do well in paper events have demonstrated that they prefer to have a different approach to Delver. While I don’t think most directions that one can take the deck are wrong, I would highly recommend giving it a shot in the Delver deck of your choice for your next event.

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