Unlocking the Vault #18: It’s a Delver’s World

Foreword: After I wrote my Delver primer a few weeks back, it was pointed out to me that a seemingly innocuous card like Delver of Secrets should not be a big deal. I realized that I probably didn’t spell out the reasons why it is that Delver is causing such a menace in Classic, so I’m setting out today to both explain why it is that a French vanilla creature is setting the format on fire, and what can be possibly done to combat the rise in creatures.

Delver of Secrets is dominating the metagame. No, not just the Standard and Legacy metagames, but Classic as well. Yes, a 1/1 ‘French vanilla’ creature has single-handily flipped (pun intended) the Classic format upside down. Recent results show that Delver, since the beginning of the Classic Quarter 2012 “season” started, has taken a large share of the metagame. As of this writing, 40% of the 3-1 or 4-0 decks in DEs have been Delver decks (another 26% have been Merfolk)! That is an astounding number, but why is this? How could a 1/1 1-drop possibly have such a large effect on the format?

“I’m blue da ba dee da ba die”

Perhaps the best explanation is that Delver happens to be in the best color for Eternal formats. The power level of blue cards in Classic greatly exceeds those of the other colors. Often, you’ll find that the best cards in other colors simply work better in a heavy blue deck. Delver is able to be pitched to a Force of Will, which is rather important, especially on the draw. While Mental Misstep‘s value is continually growing, Force is far more flexible. Thus, having a card with that added level of importance is key, considering cards like Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf won’t help stop a Turn 1 Tinker.

This comes into play when evaluating mulligans. In the past, if you had drawn a hand with a Confidant, Demonic Tutor, a Force, and some lands, you might have had to seriously consider pitching that hand if on the draw, but if you substitute Delver for Confidant in that situation, it makes such a hand much more palatable.

Blue also has access to the best card advantage available. Unlike other creature decks, such as Hate Bears, blue draw spells such as Brainstorm and Gush allow the deck to avoid stalling out and to recover if some of its threats are countered or dealt with. Affinity, like hate Bears, is another example of an aggro deck that can stall out, so long as its Skullclamp is contained.

Mana Curve

Besides being blue, Delver is possibly the best 1-drop creature ever printed. Previously, only Grim Lavamancer, Wild Nacatl, Nimble Mongoose, or perhaps Goblin Guide could stake their claim as the position as best 1-drop creature ever printed. Now, there is an undisputed king. Besides the fact that Delver is the best one-drop ever printed, it fits the natural curve of “Fish” decks better than anything before it. In Vintage, the presence of Moxen often leads to playing your 2-drop creatures on Turn 1. Playing Delver on Turn 1 isn’t a major issue in Classic because it’s not likely to be outclassed when your opponent follows up your play with a ‘Goyf or Confidant, etc. Most plays on Turn 1 in Classic will be a 1-casting cost spell (Brainstorm, Vampiric Tutor, Sol Ring, etc.), and thus Misstep can manage to stop them despite having used your mana on the first turn to cast a 1/1 creature. Winning the coin flip is a huge advantage for Delver decks as a result.

Further, it allows you to follow-up your Turn 1 Delver with advancing your board position on Turn 2 or leaving mana open to disrupt your opponent’s next play(s). Consider that previously, “Fish” decks did nothing on Turn 1 except drop a land and perhaps Brainstorm (incorrectly, as you might not fully know what you are digging to find AND you won’t have a fetch land available to shuffle back useless cards, but that’s a long discussion for another day, perhaps).

The best 1-drop creature for “Fish” decks previously was Noble Hierarch, but it has no ability to attack on Turn 2 against a Tarmogoyf, and its best feature was ramping into 3 mana on Turn 2. That 3 mana would likely have been used to either cast a 2-drop threat (‘Goyf, probably) with 1 mana open to use for a Stifle, Brainstorm, card]Spell Pierce[/card], Swords to Plowshares, etc. A Delver played on Turn 1, with a little luck, is like a 3-power ‘Goyf with haste and evasion! When Workshop decks were rampant, the Hierarch had only one redeeming benefit over Delver, and that was to sidestep spheres. Without the abundance of spheres in the format, Hierarch is not nearly as useful. Hierarch has been reduced to Wasteland protection against other Fish decks and exalted, at least until Workshops return to the metagame.

Now with Delver decks, not only can there be a threat on the board when Turn 2 begins, but you can also use the second turn to drop what would have been your first play on the board without Delver. If your Delver happened to have been flipped over during the upkeep, all the better! With Delver, “Fish” decks can finally interact with the board on Turn 1 on a more consistent basis, essentially speeding up their game plan an entire turn. In a format when the game is often won or lost within the first four or five turns (or fewer!) of the game, this is a critical factor.

Look Ma, I can FLY!

Quick: name every relevant creature that can fly in Classic…….. Bet you came up with Trygon Predator, Vendilion Clique, Narcomoeba, Aven Mindsensor, and Steel Hellkite. (I’m ignoring the giant spaghetti-man, Emrakul the Aeons Torn purposely.) Seriously, that is it. Four creatures with flying are regularly seen in Classic, and only one of them does not trade with (a flipped) Delver, Hellkite. Perhaps if Hellkite were found in greater abundance in Classic, Delver wouldn’t be so successful?

The fact that so few creatures can deal with the flying insect is what makes Delver so unique. Against other non-Delver “Fish” decks, only Clique is likely to be played, but that’s no guarantee. Against Tinker, Storm, and Affinity decks, Delver might as well say “Unblockable.” Workshop decks only have Hellkite that can block, but it does have some options for removing a Delver such as Razormane Masticore and Triskelion. Dredge needs to flip over a Narcomoeba, but even then, it can only block once.

I get by with a little help from my friends.

When building a Delver deck, a certain concentration of the deck must be instants and sorceries in order to power it up properly. These spells, which act as spinach does for Popeye, can also be used to protect the Delver! Lightning Bolt and Swords to Plowshares can deal with any creatures that manage to stand in Delver’s way. A suite of countermagic is also available to prevent other removal spells and otherwise broken plays from the opponent.

In that same way, Snapcaster Mage acts as a way to reuse those same spells to further provide protection for Delver. Is it possible that without Snapcaster, Delver wouldn’t be as powerful? Some pilots have been decreasing the number of Snapcasters in their Delver decks of late, but none have gone below 2 copies. In my personal experience, 4 Snapcasters might be overkill, as I’ve have several instances where the Snapcaster has sat in my hand waiting for the opportune moment to play it, only to draw into another Snapcaster. 2-3 looks like the optimal number.

Classic’s “Life Tax”

Nearly every deck in the Classic format actively uses their life total as a resource. Misstep, Force, Fetch lands, Vampiric Tutor, Mana Crypt, Ancient Tomb, and so on and so on, all exchange life for added power. With all these cards gradually chipping away at their pilot’s life total, the functional starting life total for Classic decks is more like 16 or 17, as a result of what I like to call “Life Tax”.

What this means is that that a 3-power creature in Classic has roughly the same clock as that of a 4-power creature in other formats such as Standard. Thus, a vanilla creature like Delver is actually more powerful that what it appears to be.

Power Creep of Creatures

Recent sets have introduced a significant number of utility creatures, often at the 2-mana-cost slot. Confidant, Snapcaster, Qasali Pridemage, and Scavenging Ooze, among others, all have the ability to attack alongside secondary abilities that are highly relevant in Eternal formats.

As more and more creatures are being jammed into Classic decks, the format has evolved into trying to win in the red zone as opposed to the spell stack. In a field of ground-pounders, Delver flies above them all, nearly unimpeded. This is a crucial point to understand.

Brainstorm Effect

Finally, Delver benefits from the unrestricted Brainstorm and fetch land interaction. Blue decks already start with a playset of Brainstorms, so any additional value that can be squeezed out of them is pure profit.

Perhaps the single worst feature of Delver is its unreliability to flip over ASAP. You can stack your deck with instants and sorceries all you want, but sometimes the luck of the draw can be unkind. Brainstorm can effectively eliminate this problem. Even if your three cards are all creatures and lands, if you have an instant or sorcery in your hand, you can place that card on top of your library prior to revealing it for Delver so that it will flip over. If you have a fetch land, you can still crack the fetch land prior to your draw step so that you can shuffle the cards away if you so desire.

Vintage has restricted Brainstorm for several years already. Thus, Delver’s downside in Vintage is much higher. With simply sorcery-speed Ponder and Preordain to go along with Brainstorm, its efficiency takes a large hit. It’s not surprising to see that few Vintage decks have been able to take advantage of Delver as Classic and Legacy have. This is entirely tied to the unrestriction of Brainstorm. I’m not advocating that Brainstorm be restricted; rather it’s one of those things that makes Classic unique and different from Vintage, but it goes a long way into explaining why Delver is so much more popular in Classic and Legacy than it is in Vintage (also, as previously alluded to, the speed of Moxen helps power out 2-drops on a more consistent basis on Turn 1).

How to stop it?

So, I’ve taken the time to point out all the reasons that make Delver such a powerful creature, but how can we start fighting back? There are several options, despite that none of them are novel in and of themselves:

Explosives hasn’t really been heavily played of late in Classic. It a board sweeper that has been limited by the sheer amount of artifact hate in the environment. Fortunately, there are ways to dig out an Explosives besides using Tutors. Two cards come to mind when trying to ward off the Delver decks with Explosives: Trinket Mage and Tezzeret the Seeker.

Delver is a 0-casting cost creature when flipped, so Explosives with zero counters on it will clear the board of Delvers, in addition to Memnites, Mana Crypt, Lotus Petals, Lion’s Eye Diamonds and several other 0-casting cost cards.

Trinket Mage is a little slow at 3 mana, but it does offer some flexibility as it can replace itself in your hand with an artifact. Specific to Explosives, this means it can be cast the following turn with any number of counters on it to fit the need. Have a bunch of two casting cost creatures staring you down, cast Explosives with Sunburst = 2, and clear the board. Additionally, it can trade off for a creature, as it has an efficient 2/2 body for trading with the plethora of (non-flying) 2-or-less toughness creatures in the format. The Mage can also fetch out other useful artifacts as part of a Trinket Mage package, among them: Voltaic Key, Grafdiggers Cage, Pithing Needle, Sol Ring, etc.

Tezzeret, on the other hand, can only use Explosives as a sweeper for Delvers and 0-casting cost non-land permanents since fetching the artifact puts it directly into play. In a “Turbo”-style Tezzeret deck, though, ramping into or Mana Draining into a Tezzeret can be done as early as Turn 3, usually with enough time to limit the damage from a Delver. Just as Trinket Mage can search up a package of cheap artifacts, Tezzeret can also search up Time Vault. Could it be that a return of the Turbo Tezz or Jace decks in the format is due?

Deed is a card that only one deck at the moment is poised to take advantage of, but it is a deck that has seen some recent success: Landstill. Deed is far more flexible than Explosives is, but the colors required to cast it, black and green, are harder to come by for many decks, thus limiting its potential impact.

That’s not to say that the card is not ripe for a new deck to hit the scene, perhaps some sort of Rock or Dark Depths-style deck could abuse Deed. That being said, Landstill is a valid option, and something that could be ripe for the current metagame to take advantage of. Just note that as soon as the metagame adjusts away from Delver, you’ll need to keep up with the trend and perhaps abandon Landstill altogether, such as in a heavy Workshop or Storm environment.

Firespout is not nearly as flexible in fighting the Delver menace since its target will usually be split towards either flying or non-flying creatures based on the mana used to cast it. While it’s possible to use both green and red mana to activate both parts of the spell, sometimes it’s difficult to manage both of those colors in decks that want to take advantage of the efficient sweeper. If this card were an instant, it would probably top the list, but with almost all sweepers, it is sorcery-speed.

The upside to Firespout, though, is that realistically speaking, it can hit nearly every creature in the format, including powerful creatures such as Lodestone Golem. This value makes it a valuable sideboard card for most blue-based control decks.

Another fringe card could be Pyroclasm. At a single red and a colorless, it’s far easier to cast than Firespout, but it doesn’t have the same reach. Personally, I haven’t tried Pyroclasm, but maybe it’s something that some decks could use?

What about ways to simply ignore Delver altogether? Going over the top with something like Time Vault-Voltaic Key to ensure they never get another turn seems like a good plan. Storm decks can both ignore and out-race Delver decks as their only defense is likely a sideboarded Flusterstorm or Mindbreak Trap, something that can be dealt with by using Thoughtseize and/or Duress. Workshop decks packing a full playset of Hellkites and some Razormane Masticores from the board might be a way for those decks to see a resurgence of play.

“If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em!”

Delver’s power level seems very innocuous. The fact that it is Bbue, can fly, costs only 1 mana, has cards that can be built around it to make it more efficient, and Classic’s Life Tax all contribute to making what appears to be an almost-vanilla 1/1 or 3/2 flyer much more of a threat.

That’s not to say that there aren’t ways to effectively deal with Delver decks. Delver is not going to go away without a dramatic shift in the metagame. It all starts with people targeting Delver instead of jumping on the Delver train.

Clan Magic Eternal
follow me on Twitter @enderfall

  1. Gah!!! stupid Delver. the other day in TP i played a paup game: played delver blue.
    then i played landstill in leg TP….. Delver UG…… /sigh ill play good ole classic get some oath/affinity/stax goin on….. what do i play DELVER!!!! the cycle keeps going…. ravager/stoneforge/delver but now delver has infiltrated classic /sigh ….. not saying its the best or top win % deck but cin it in EVERY format really sux.

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