Unlocking the Vault #78: How to deal with Delver in Vintage

In the paper world, Vintage Champs solidified what MTGO players have long since suspected: Treasure Cruise has bumped Delver decks firmly into Tier 1 status. 50% of the Top 8 at Vintage Champs used a Delver variant (surprisingly all 4 were fairly different builds), while the other half of the Top 8 were natural “predators”; 2 Oath and 2 Workshop decks.

Focusing on the Top 8 and proclaiming Delver to be the “king of the hill” isn’t always the best way to prove your point. When looking at the Top 32 decks, we don’t see as dense of a population of Delver decks (only ~6 more Delver decks were in the 9-32nd place), but it still represented roughly 1/3 of the Top 32 decks overall, and when push came to shove in the elimination rounds, Delver was successful enough on the whole to squeeze 4 decks into the Top 8. Regardless, even in the fairly diverse field of decks in the Top 32, Delver had the highest representation of any archetype.

The results of the Vintage Champs echo the way the MTGO metagame has fleshed out. Dating back to the release of Khans of Tarkir, Delver has been one of the best performing deck on MTGO, both in popularity and in success. It goes without saying that Delver is a very easy deck to port over to Vintage on MTGO as you only need 5 pieces of Power and most players that have a Legacy deck already have the rest of the pieces to build the deck. It is also a very similar deck to pick up and play for those experienced in Delver in Legacy and Modern.

It is with this point in mind that many people have ignored the Delver threat as it relates to the popularity on MTGO since the results are skewed when looking through that (budget) lens. However, with a limited dataset thanks to some errors in event reporting on WotC’s new website, 1/3 of the 3-1 and 4-0 decks in Vintage DEs since the release of Khans have been Delver decks, while the 14 person TMD Open on October 19th had a field of 50% Delver decks with 50% of the Top 4. This just happens to be the same rate found in the Top 8 of Vintage Champs! It’s clear that if you want to win a Vintage event on MTGO, you need to be prepared to fight Delver.

The question at hand is: How best to do that? Prior to Khans, Delver was a very good Tempo deck that had a strong cantrip engine, efficient threats/removal, and a strong permission suite. What it lacked was any real way to get through the mid-game and beat the control decks that packed trump cards like Tinker, Time Vault, Yawgmoth’s Will, or even something innocuous as Consecrated Sphinx, etc. Now, Cruise has provided Delver decks with a way to reload their hand and keep their grip full of permission while beating down with insects and elemental tokens. Gush was the only real draw “engine” in Delver decks prior to Khans, and it worked fairly well for Delver, but now Delver can play both Gush and Cruise to give them late game threats to refill their hand and protect their efficient win conditions.

Nonetheless, I’m not here to prove whether Cruise is restriction-worthy. The fact is, Vintage will have to deal with the card for at least another 2 months until the next B&R changes are announced in January 2015; there is not going to be any emergency ban on the card. For the time being, we have to adapt, and the next 2 months will be critical to determining if the DCI needs to step in and do anything to Cruise. Can Vintage adapt to make the top tier of decks less of a game of rock, paper, scissors (Delver, Oath, Workshop)?

Blunt Answers

Vintage has been slowly shifting to a creature defined format over the last couple of years, but prior to Khans, Delver was the only deck that could amass an army large enough to make 1-for-1 answers unreliable. Decks could get away with playing only Lightning Bolt, Swords to Plowshares, and Abrupt Decay to fight Delver because they would have inevitability to win with a trump card (Tinker, etc.). That dynamic has changed now that Delver is such a large percentage of the metagame. If control decks want to survive, the solution is likely to be a combination of tight play, blunt tools, and trump cards. One of those tools could be in the form of sweepers:

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These should do the trick. They eliminate the entire Delver army in one fell swoop and are effects that can’t be countered by their full grip of permission. Each of the above cards has pros and cons and your choice of which are largely based on your deck choice. Slice and Dice is a cantrip and sweeper in one, but it doesn’t solve flipped Delvers. Volcanic Fallout can wipe out their entire army (save for a rogue Trygon Predator, if they have them maindeck or bring in more threats post-board), but at double red, it can be difficult to cast fast enough in some 3-color Control decks while also being able to deploy other threats. It’s not always a problem, but it can be from time to time. Supreme Verdict solves everything, but costs 4 mana, including 3 colored mana requirements. Delver doesn’t typically win by Turn 4 and doesn’t attack your mana base, so it’s not generally a problem to get the 4 mana required with enough time.

On a side note, it’s also worth mentioning Orzhov Pontiff as an uncounterable sweeper when cast off of Cavern of Souls. This is only relevant for those 4-color Humans decks which aren’t as popular as they once were on MTGO.

While the three cards above are the “best” solutions, there are other ways to fight Delver with sweepers that aren’t uncounterable:

Engineered Explosives
Circle of Flame
Golgari Charm
Engineered Plague
Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale
Pernicious Deed
Toxic Deluge

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it serves to point out the number of answers available. The hard part isn’t finding the right home for these cards, it’s making sure that you can actually deploy these blunt answers against the permission wall that Delver decks can deploy. The permission suite of Delver decks has typically revolved around Flusterstorm, Force of Will, and Mental Misstep. Once you get past cards that fold to Misstep, generally speaking you only need to deal with Force and an occasional Flusterstorm. However, in the wake of Vintage Champs where Oath was proven to be the “best” predator to Delver, I can see Delver decks responding in turn with more Spell Snare and maybe even Annul to fight Oath of Druids. With this in mind, 3+ mana sweepers that can’t be Annuled might be more effective. Also, the lack of Wasteland makes Delver susceptible to Tabernacle.

Despite sweepers being able to eliminate multiple threats at once, a competent Delver player won’t overextend themselves into one. Delver players can deploy a single threat, be it a flipped Delver or a lone Young Pyromancer and protect that card while drawing into more permission. As such, sweepers should not be considered the only method of fighting Delver.

Go Over the Top

We’ve already seen this to a certain degree as Oath and Workshop are pretty good foils to what Delver is trying to do. Oath in particular is effective as Delver’s game plan falls directly in line with what Oath wants to do. That said, Delver decks are going to adapt, and as such, so will Oath. Abrupt Decay should be a 3 or 4-of in Oath going forward as it solves the problems of Trygon Predator and Grafdigger’s Cage.

Workshop decks are pretty much natural predators to every archetype, including Delver. Oath is slightly favored against Workshop in that they need only land Oath of Druids in order to win the game and can focus their efforts on ensuring that happens. Winning the die roll is fairly important for the Workshop player to win the Oath matchup. Despite that, Workshop is capable of beating Oath even if it loses the die roll. As for Delver, Workshop is a good countermeasure as Chalice of the Void set to 1 can shut off a large part of the Delver deck and just 1-2 Spheres can make casting Gush and Cruise difficult for Delver. Delver does have the tools to beat Workshop, though, as evidenced by the results in the Top 8 of Vintage Champs. Dack Fayden has proven to be adept at swinging the game around in a single turn by stealing Workshop’s best creature, though a preemptive Phyrexian Revoker can derail that plan.

Other avenues to potentially explore include strategies that ignore the Delver player. Combo decks could be a solution if given enough time to sculpt a hand that can push through the Delver permission wall. It’s possible that such decks will want to fight fire with fire and add in some number Cruise and/or Dig Through Time to help even out the card advantage engines.

Bomberman decks might also be decent options as it’s difficult for Delver to deal with uncounterable (thanks to Cavern of Souls) Trinket Mage to search for Engineered Explosives or even Auriok Salvagers to combo out with Black Lotus and Tendrils of Agony or a spellbomb. Unfortunately, combo-ing off with Salvagers is a nightmare on MTGO.

Passive Answers to Delver

I’ve tried to look at other ways to slow down Delver. Last time out I looked at hate Bears decks utilizing Spirit of the Labyrinth to keep their draw and cantrip engines in check, but the single point of toughness is a huge liability. This past week on the Vintage Super League, David Williams experimented with a deck based around a similar effect to that of SotL in Chains of Mephistopheles (for those curious, you can find his decklist here as a Google.doc. His deck this past week was called “2 Chainz”).

Perhaps the best way to look at fighting Delver is to use tools that can slow down Delver which are difficult for them to deal with. Moat is one such answer. Moat, out of a UW Control shell, or even something like Bomberman, can buy enough time set up their own game plan. Flying Insectile Aberrations can limit how effective that plan can be, so it’s not a perfect solution. However, there are many decks that can’t really beat a Moat, such as Workshop (only flying creature is Steel Hellkite, which is generally a singleton), other Human decks, all Tinker-bots other than Sphinx of the Steel Wind, and Dredge.

Adding a couple of maindeck graveyard hate cards can also slow down the Cruise engine. Nihil Spellbomb is particularly effective as a cantrip that can also randomly hose Dredge and Snapcaster Mage, too. It’s important to note, however, that it’s not a solution to beating Delver by itself. It’s simply a card that has slightly more value in a maindeck than it did prior to Khans and all the Delve cards. While graveyard hate can slightly derail Delver by stranding an 8-mana spell in their hand, attacking Delver through the graveyard is not a permanent solution. Case in point I’ve also been experimenting with Helm of Obedience in conjunction with Rest in Peace and/or Leyline of the Void, but those decks were generally too slow to deal with an early threat from a Delver while also digging for the combo pieces.

Can’t Beat’em? Join’em.

Finally, there is the option to simply pick up the deck and try and fight your way through the mirror. The mirror has typically revolved around who gets to cast Cruise first. Instead of trying to make sure that you are the player casting Cruise first, I believe an advantage can be gained by casting more powerful threats.

This past week, I had been testing a URW Delver deck that included a maindeck Stoneforge Mystic package. The Stoneforge plan, in theory, gives Delver some reach by either equipping a Flying Insect with a Sword (preferably Sword of Fire and Ice, though Umezawa’s Jitte works well too) or a 4/4 Lifelinking Vigilant Germ token. The deck worked OK in testing, but didn’t perform well in the Bad Moon Rising PRE on Thursday evening losing to an Oath deck drawing well and Workshop. It needs more testing, but I was satisfied with the early results to warrant further investigation.

Other ways to attack the mirror include utilizing Forked Bolt in the maindeck to 2-for-1 opposing Delver decks and including a copy of Electrickery out of the sideboard. Some Delver decks have also taken to not only throwing in Red Elemental Blast/Pyroblast out of the board, but also in the maindeck! I think that’s a little extreme right now due to Oath’s likely rise in popularity and the fact that it’s a completely dead card against Workshop and Dredge, but it appears to be effective in the mirror match.

Where We Go From Here

No matter what anyone’s opinion is on Cruise, the fact of the matter is that successful Vintage decks will need to have a plan to beat Delver, especially on MTGO. Paper players may not need to result to any sort of extremes within their local Vintage metagame unless there was already a large presence of Delver prior to Khans.

The question isn’t “are there any answers to deal with Delver?” This is Vintage, everything has an answer. The question is “are those answers enough to deal with Delver without making your deck a dog to most other decks?” Time will tell if that is the case or not.

I’d love to hear about ways that other people are attacking Delver decks! Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Clan Magic Eternal
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