The State of Delver: Adjusting to Metagame Conditions

Three of the sixteen players at the Star City Games Players’ Championship piloted Grixis Delver for the Modern portion of the tournament. Kevin Jones was basically a lock to play it, but it’s telling that he was able to get teammate Jim Davis onto the deck, and that the two were able to rope Brad Carpenter in as well. The deck didn’t have the best tournament, though when name players pick up a deck that has been a known quantity for so long, it’s worth paying that deck mind.

Selling Grixis Delver by conventional means is sort of a losing battle. When people ask what’s good about the deck, the answer is that Snapcaster Mage is the stones—though when asked about Delver of Secrets specifically there aren’t a lot of good things to say. It dies to everything, sometimes it’s just a 1/1… Really its only redeeming factor is that it only costs one mana. That said, the support spells are excellent, and the efficiency of this win condition are what enables the deck to have very few weaknesses.

It breaks my heart that Kevin Jones has tricked so many players into sleeving up Young Pyromancer. Technically it provides some percentage points against Lingering Souls and isn’t stone-terrible against Eldrazi decks. But for the most part the card is inefficient, and moving away from it has been the biggest upgrade to Modern Delver strategies outside of cards that have since been banned. Young Pyromancer does offer the deck more punch, which enables you to play the deck more aggressively, but in all of my experience being more aggressive and less disruptive just ends up diluting the deck. Post-sideboard I am always looking for the way to be the control deck in a given matchup, and adding Pyromancer and Gitaxian Probe ultimately eats up slots that I use for interactive spells. It’s a different school of thought, and I will grant that play style matters when making these considerations, but I believe that when I personally register Pyromancers I am doing myself a disservice.

The Challenge of Dredge

At any rate, the current Modern metagame has little to do with the differences between my and Kevin Jones’s lists. The elephant in the room, and a new weakness for Grixis Delver, is the power of Dredge in Modern. Dredge is a horrible matchup, and Kevin and crew certainly knew this going into the Players’ Championship. Brad Carpenter found himself in a Modern pod with two Dredge players, which was about the worst case scenario in that field. Here’s the list that Brad played:

Grixis Delver, by Brad Carpenter (16th, SCG Players' Championship)

Creatures (14)
Delver of Secrets
Snapcaster Mage
Young Pyromancer
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Gurmag Angler

Instants (20)
Dismember
Electrolyze
Kolaghan’s Command
Lightning Bolt
Mana Leak
Murderous Cut
Spell Snare
Terminate
Thought Scour

Sorceries (7)
Collective Brutality
Gitaxian Probe
Serum Visions

Lands (19)
Island
Mountain
Swamp
Blood Crypt
Darkslick Shores
Polluted Delta
Scalding Tarn
Spirebluff Canal
Steam Vents
Watery Grave
Sideboard (15)
Engineered Explosives
Izzet Staticaster
Countersquall
Dispel
Magma Spray
Rakdos Charm
Surgical Extraction
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Collective Brutality
Painful Truths
Desolate Lighthouse
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Game one against Dredge is pretty miserable. If their hand is good they crush you fast, and if it’s bad there’s a good chance that they still crush you. They’re just not doing anything that you can interact with, and Grixis Delver doesn’t generate a ton of fast kills, though the Pyromancer build does offer more in this department than mine. Even still, the game one matchup is poor, and you can see that Brad agrees, with the full four Surgical Extraction in the sideboard. He even has a Rakdos Charm as supplementary hate, and Izzet Staticaster to deal with Narcomoebas and Bloodghasts. Brad went 0-2 against Dredge in this tournament, even though he was clearly gunning for the archetype with extremely narrow sideboard cards. The hate cards selected here get around Nature’s Claim, though none of them automatically win, and all of them are vulnerable to Thoughtseize. Brad really did all that he reasonably could have to combat Dredge—arguably, going overboard with excessive slots—and still got crushed.

What I’m driving at, is that while there is a conversation happening right now revolving around whether or not to cast Young Pyromancer, perhaps we should be asking if Grixis Delver is where we want to be in a world where Dredge is well-represented. You can’t just play eight sideboard cards to beat Dredge, and I have even made the argument that Surgical Extraction is likely to be the graveyard hate that this deck is best able to utilize for the matchup. If I were to play Grixis Delver, I would commit to folding the Dredge matchup, beating everything else, and hoping that the field takes care of the Prized Amalgams for me.

Never Gonna Give You Up…

I don’t know how to quit Delver though. Perhaps it’s stubbornness. Perhaps stupidity. All I know is that Delver and I are like peas and carrots. For as long as Dredge in its current form remains legal, I’m interested in a lateral shift. I think we’re living in a world where Jeskai Delver is better positioned. There are plenty of ways to skew white decks to beat up on graveyards, though I’m primarily interested in employing Path to Exile as my catchall removal spell.

I had good success with Jeskai Delver the last time I sleeved it up, though Lightning Helix under-performed in a big way. I haven’t really put work into the deck since then, given that I’ve been covering way more tournaments than I’ve been playing. However, I did recently have an epiphany about the deck that I think leads to a significant improvement. If you just maindeck Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, suddenly the deck’s abstract power level gets a lot closer to that of Grixis Delver and it becomes less of a niche metagame deck. Further, you free up some sideboard space. Currently I’m thinking I like the look of this list:

Jeskai Delver, by Ryan Overturf

Creatures (12)
Spell Queller
Delver of Secrets
Snapcaster Mage

Instants (21)
Electrolyze
Lightning Bolt
Mana Leak
Spell Snare
Path to Exile
Cryptic Command

Planeswalkers (2)
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

Sorceries (4)
Serum Visions

Lands (21)
Island
Sacred Foundry
Flooded Strand
Scalding Tarn
Spirebluff Canal
Steam Vents
Hallowed Fountain
Seachrome Coast
Plains
Sideboard (15)
Oust
Lightning Helix
Magma Spray
Negate
Spell Pierce
Dispel
Engineered Explosives
Wear // Tear
Surgical Extraction
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This deck is less elegant than Grixis Delver. Instead of a subtle value engine with Kolaghan’s Command, it just casts some solid early interaction and then punches you in the face with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar if it comes to that. There will be matchups where you board Gideon out, though in any matchup where you’re trading resources he is a remarkably powerful blunt instrument.

Given that Jeskai has no access to delve threats or Kolaghan’s Command, Thought Scour simply doesn’t cut the mustard, and I’m way happier jamming Gideons than Young Pyromancers, as Gideon requires far more resources to answer and far fewer to take over games with. Playing Lightning Helix always made the deck feel like a weak Burn deck to me. This slot is better served by Electrolyze, which still allows you to close with burn but can also play a solid value game. It has the side benefit of being strong against Lingering Souls, and kind of nuts in any Delver mirror.

As an experiment I’ve cut the Mountain from the deck—something that’s much higher risk for a deck featuring Thought Scour, because you can accidentally flip your fetchable lands into your graveyard. The Mountain has utility against aggressive decks, but these days most of those archetypes are more of the combo variety than the chip-shot variety, and having more Spirebluff Canals and Seachrome Coasts is good against Burn anyway.

The Cryptic Command is a nod to the fact that this deck just needs to have more powerful cards than other Delver builds to make playing 21 lands worth it. I’m not trying to trim lands to play worse spells, as that has never been what playing Delver was about for me. It’s also another out to creatures that don’t die to Lightning Bolt, as this deck is a little worse at finding its answers to Tarmogoyf and other large creatures than Grixis Delver is with the Thought Scour/Snapcaster Mage engine. This is also where the sideboard Oust comes into play. I haven’t tested it yet, but the idea for this slot is to have something that pulls its weight against Tarmogoyf and Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Being relevant against Death’s Shadow as well doesn’t hurt.

When It’s Time to Adjust

This kind of shift that I’m advocating for Delver right now could just as easily be applied to any number of other archetypes when metagame conditions call for it. Some of the more established tactics in this vein include Jund shifting to Abzan when Lingering Souls (or Rest in Peace) is strong, or Tron switching out their Lightning Bolts for Path to Exiles to combat the onslaught of linear aggressive decks. Much more could be written about this strategy in general—when it’s appropriate, how to determine what to shift to, which archetypes are better suited to it, etc. Perhaps this is a subject we can explore further in subsequent articles.

Looking at upcoming events, it’s likely that my next competitive foray into Modern won’t be until early February, though I’ll be tinkering with this deck in the interim. Time will tell whether Aether Revolt gives us new tools or updates to the banlist, but for now I would advise Delver players to check out Jeskai.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan Overturf
@RyanOverdrive

11 thoughts on “The State of Delver: Adjusting to Metagame Conditions

  1. I’m a bit surprised that Geist of Saint Traft isn’t somewhere in that Jeskai Delver’s 75. I get that Gideon can be a potent way to close out a game, but a threat that is as hard to kill as Geist can be combined with your piles of removal to clear the way for it seem like a natural fit.

    1. Geist falls into a category of card that I try to avoid in Modern. It’s only conditionally good. You mention that it’s good if you’re killing everything- but that already means that the deck is executing otherwise. Gideon is better in a larger percentage of situations, and plays defense reasonably well in a pinch, which Geist is horrible at. It’s hard to justify three mana spells that are bad at defense. If you Geist and they just cast Tarmogoyf it’s a real bummer.

  2. Hey Ryan. Merry Christmas. I want you to answer a question for me, even if I don’t necessarily agree. I saw a comment in a forum today that was reading:
    “This (No Pyro Grixis Delver controll-ish) version tries to be this really strange mix of the control builds and a delver deck. I tried that type of build when i first started the deck, and it felt super sloppy, and it was like you were pushing for a lategame while not actually having any lategame yourself. This is the reason i like the jones list (Young Pyromancers + Gitaxian Probes) the most, it isnt trying to fool itself into believing its something its not. By not running pyro, you are pretty much just playing a worse grixis control. Jones’ list has the ability to strongly temp your opponent out of the game, play the control deck, and be an all out aggro monster all in the same build, and even within the same game. This flexibility is what i find so strong in this shell.”

    Your opinion?
    Regards, George.

    1. These are the ramblings of somebody who has no idea how to pilot the deck. My build is excellent at going long, and the efficiency allows it to interact favorably against other decks going long. I assume this person does not excel at navigating Snapcaster Mage wars, or understanding the phase of the game. To prefer Pyromancer is one thing, but this person does not demonstrate that they could play my build well if they had to.

      1. I am certain he is a good blue control player, but I am certain it’s everybody’s opinion. I am assuming the -no late game- is heading into the No Cryptic Commands territory. But ,and by the way I prefer the No Pyro version and that is the one I am playing on paper, I agree that 4 Snaps- 2 Kolaghan’s Command + many other spells are great going late into the game. A last question, if you please. My meta is heavy on Jund-Grixis Control-Jeskai Nahiri and a generally fair meta. What would you be thinking of as a counter suite in such a meta. Any great tips in specific cards? I already adopted a past idea of yours and am playing a Cavern of Souls in the SB. Should I prefer a Lighthouse over it? And thoughts about the Remand as a card generally in a possible SCG Open? Would you run it or not?
        Regards and thanks for your answers.

        1. I like Cavern more than Lighthouse, though Lighthouse is certainly reasonable. The more fair the meta gets, the more playing Remand as the fifth and even sixth counterspell makes sense. Currently I play a Collective Brutality, and that sounds pretty poor against those decks. I’d definitely be happier with a Remand over that. The more general Modern metagame makes me prefer the Brutality though, and I would play that in an Open.

  3. Hi Ryan! I’ve been playing Grixis Delver for a year and a half now and settled on your build. However, I’ve been looking at possibly building jeskai delver as my second modern deck but I have a question about mana leak and path to exile. Isn’t the interaction a bit counterintuitive since leak is a soft counter and path gives your opponent a land to search? It’s one of the main reasons why I am holding off from investing in jeskai delver. Thanks in advance!

    -JN

    1. The juxtaposition is indeed awkward, and was something that I tried to remedy with different configurations. Ultimately the abstract power of both cards is too high and important in various game ones that you definitely want both in the 75 but can’t reasonably sideboard either. I’ve landed on both and plan to sideboard out one in almost every matchup until a better solution comes to mind.

  4. What is your take on playing four colours, specifically adding white for lingering souls and path? Souls flips delver, has nice synergy with thought scour and helps the deck grind against GBx decks. I guess you have to run some helixes in order to make up for more fetch and shock lands but lightning helix isn’t that far from what a delver deck wants to do right? Also, timely reinforcements in the side board could really help against Burn…

    1. I’ve played a few four color builds on Magic Online. You can’t really go below 22 lands, and you have to be shock heavy. The downside is very high and your spells aren’t demonstrably better, or at least better enough to make up for this. A part of this article was about how I don’t like Helix in a three color build, and it gets even worse once you’re four colors and land heavier given that you need your spells to be higher impact, and are more likely to need to shock to cast it. Four color is an interested experiment, though one that has had unsatisfying results.

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