I had a part to play in the story of The Aristocrats, but that is Sam Black deck and Sam Black story to tell. From the first moment, he knew something was there, and he kept working on it and trying different iterations, pulling out cards no one else even remembered were legal, until finally he got there and brought the rest of us on board. Instead, this is the story of the first deck I thought I would play at Pro Tour Gatecrash, a creation of mine that I played hundreds of games with and that I very much wanted to be right. In the end, it wasn’t seen as consistent enough, with too many things that could go wrong, and I abandoned the deck to work on others. But even now there’s still a nagging feeling that perhaps I gave up too soon.
I started testing early, and my first conclusion was that the format was much faster than it had previously been. Boros Elite, Dryad Militant, Experiment One, and Cloudfin Raptor were added to Champion of the Parish, Rakdos Cackler, Stromkirk Noble, Diregraf Ghoul, and Gravecrawler as one-drops that pack a punch, in addition to my old favorites Arbor Elf and Avacyn’s Pilgrim. No matter your colors, two power is available for the low price of one mana. Decks that did nothing on turn 1 already risked falling behind, especially if they also missed turn 2. Everyone’s mana was better, allowing players to use more efficient spells and rewarding lower curves and naked aggression as everyone was forced to take pain and fewer lands could support more colors.
In that context, I was very interested in one of the one-drops that was not currently seeing play, which was Delver of Secrets.
I turned to my teammates, who had extensive experience with Delver of Secrets from the period when I wasn’t playing Magic and Delver was dominating Standard. They didn’t think it could work without Ponder, but of course I was welcome to try. They said I needed at least 20 spells and would be better off closer to 24. This created a problem because you need at least 22 lands. The natural way to fix this problem is cantrips, but other than Thought Scour they’re all terrible right now. Even Thought Scour is a mana I didn’t want to have to spend and creates issues for your mana since you want to avoid flooding and be able to properly mulligan when you don’t have the right mix. My early lists had Thought Scour, but even four copies saved at most one land, which made things worse rather than better, so it was quickly cut.
With 22 lands and 24 spells, that’s 46 slots, leaving room for only fourteen creatures. That wasn’t going to be enough, especially as I was looking to run Cloudfin Raptor as well, as the whole point was to take advantage of blue’s one-drops and use both together with Delver of Secrets’ old friend Geist of Saint Traft, which is amazing with Cloudfin Raptor too. There were even some versions that went black instead and tried to use Jace’s Phantasm, which wasn’t remotely consistent, although Sam did manage to get closer along that path than I did by ditching Delver for other plans. I was determined to make it work, but without running 20+ creatures, Cloudfin Raptor won’t evolve properly. Some card needed to be both a creature and a spell.
With those two cards in hand, the deck could generate the men it needed and also still have enough spells to flip Delver of Secrets. I quickly got the spell count to 23 and left it there throughout testing. It also incidentally gave us a lot of sources of tokens, which allowed me to bring in Rootborn Defenses. Attacking with Geist of Saint Traft backed up by Rootborn Defenses is a wonderful thing since you get to keep an Angel and win the combat while also providing your deck with defense against Supreme Verdict.
For a while I tried Rapid Hybridization to provide an additional token source as well as an answer to problematic creatures, but that proved to not be good enough. Instead, it was better to simply play more copies of the best tricks available, Unsummon and Simic Charm, both of which were in the initial list. It wouldn’t do not to have any counters, so I played Spell Rupture to keep the curve where it wanted to be.
The results were strong. If your deck was undisciplined, Bant Delver would blow it away. Teammates tried decks with cards like Frontline Medic, and I laughed that they were spending three mana for a creature I could Unsummon repeatedly. At the time, we didn’t realize Boros Reckoner would be so huge, but the deck cares very little about that card as well. You can go over, around, or through whatever your opponent plays, using your variety of tricks to pick them apart and drive them crazy with no-win decisions.
With a good draw, especially involving Geist of Saint Traft, the deck was all but unbeatable. The problem was that this didn’t always happen. You needed all three colors of mana every game, and you needed them right away with only 22 lands. You needed creatures, and you needed them to be a progression; you needed to hit your flips on Delver of Secrets. A traditional set of ten games would have two where the Delver deck didn’t do much of anything and died, about two other games it would lose, and it would win the other six. Then there were decks that tried to play cards that cost a lot mana that we could interact with, and we’d win 8-2 since when the deck did things in those matchups it basically didn’t lose.
As a result, a lot of my other decks were pushed even more strongly towards playing one-drops and other threats that could develop under this kind of resistance. Selesnya Humans developed as a deck that could race fast enough to keep up. Bant Auras couldn’t be interacted with, so it was very hard for either side to break serve when the fun police came calling, and the matchup was so fast it often involved holding Geist of Saint Traft because it was too risky to spend three mana one turn before they did to play theirs and have nothing happen. Jund couldn’t beat your good draws unless they went first with a Farseek, especially without a miracle Bonfire of the Damned because they were simply too fast, although after sideboarding they could get to a configuration that could reasonably fight back, especially if they were willing to Barter in Blood.
There’s a group of players who think that they can play Huntmaster of the Fells then pass the turn to flip it and it will keep them from dying. There’s a class of players who think they can sit back on Restoration Angel and this will keep them from dying. I find these players hilarious in general because any creation worth its salt should be able to cut through those tests easily. This deck finds those challenges especially hilarious. If you try to fight with either of those cards, many things can happen, but none of them are especially good for you until many turns later.
Here is the decklist as I left it:
The metagame has changed a lot since then, so while the maindeck is in a good place, the sideboard likely needs a lot of tuning.
Their goal is to stabilize the board and win with their big expensive cards. Your goal is to get ahead and not let them do this. To this end, you want to come out fast. Geist of Saint Traft is your best card by far and needs to be protected from Liliana of the Veil and Bonfire of the Damned. Once you get ahead, don’t let them off the hook, and force them to try blocking while using bounce effects on Olivia Voldaren and Vampire Nighthawk if blocking would actually work to keep up tempo advantage. If they don’t have Bonfire of the Damned in their deck, it is very hard for them to win.
For sideboarding, to start you do this:
The rest depends on their list. You are already set up well for what they are throwing at you. The key question is what to do with Midnight Haunting and Negate. If they are going to go for Bonfire, you want to respond with Negate and not use Midnight Haunting. If they are going to rely on Liliana, you want two copies of Midnight Haunting instead. Sitting back on both Rootborn Defenses and Midnight Haunting is excellent, especially if you also have a bounce spell since you have a strong answer to anything they can do and they can’t gain advantage on you at instant speed.
If they are all-in on Bonfire of the Damned and Liliana of the Veil and don’t run Mizzium Mortars, Loxodon Smiter becomes worth bringing in for obvious reasons, but it’s bad against Mortars. You already have enough ways to counter an overloaded Mortars that you don’t need Negate just for that.
Without Unsummon and Izzet Staticaster, modern Flash decks can very easily fall behind you, but they can also pick off your Delvers and Raptors easily. Your opponent playing Boros Charm and Boros Reckoner is a gift that walks right into your plans, and without their own Geists, game 1 is usually very easy for you. Don’t try to protect the one-drops and get them. Sideboarding means facing a lot of spot removal, so you have a decision to make whether to try to fight through it.
Your goal early on is to force them to have Supreme Verdict without giving up on the long game. If you can get into a position where you have the Rootborn Defenses in hand and a Geist of Saint Traft in play, they are in a world of hurt, especially if they shift their second sweeper to Planar Cleansing. Beware of Devour Flesh, so make sure to play additional chumps to sac and/or have Selesnya Charm at the ready. It’s also key to get max use out of Unsummon and Simic Charm by using them to shield Geist. If you can do this, you can make them trade with your cards and use your 22 land versus 27 land edge to often run them out of answers despite their card advantage, especially if they have to respect that you can counter Sphinx’s Revelation.
Your bounce effects can safely come out, so swap most of them for things that are more useful. A few to help preserve Geist are still fine.
They can’t interfere in interesting fashion without casting Unburial Rites, as Huntmaster of the Fells is not an answer to what you are up to. When they are ready to go for the win, try to have a counter at the ready and finish them before they can try again. You are faster than they are, and you can counter while they can’t counter back. It’s very doubtful you want to Rest in Peace here.
They should never be able to get seven mana for Angel, so they have to resolve Unburial Rites. Don’t let them.
I never tested this, but it seems like they’re counting on attacking you. That doesn’t seem like an especially effective plan here without that many one-drops, so tempo is the name of the game.
This would leave us slightly poorly situated if they board into a control deck, but they can’t do it fully and there’s nothing wrong with using Druid’s Deliverance to make a guy in those situations. If they’re clearly going on defense, this moves closer to a match against Jund.
This is another race. They don’t do anything scary, so win the combats and the race to win the game.
The new Bant Control looks to be full of Restoration Angels and Thragtusks and Centaur Healers. That’s too slow and walks them into creature combats you can win, but this can leave you vulnerable to Supreme Verdict since you need to go fast to avoid them catching up. In general, it’s better to force them to have it as quickly as possible rather than trying to beat it if they do have it if you’re being put to a decision.
There’s nothing much you can usefully change, as they’re attacking on all angles. The bounce seems like it should be bad, but it isn’t since it can preserve Geist of Saint Traft and can get blockers out of the way.
These two decks have never occupied the same space, so it’s pure speculation. Your plan to win combats trumps their plan to win combats and Boros Reckoner and Falkenrath Aristocrat are very bounce-able men. They’ve done all this work, and you go and attack them a different way. Cartel Aristocrat can’t be killed, but why would you need to? Lingering Souls on the other hand is remarkably annoying, but you should be able to power over that. They will look to their sideboard to try to find threats you can’t answer, but nothing that’s currently in the board looks that great aside from Blasphemous Act, which you need to be careful to watch for, and more Lingering Souls.
Sideboarding here is an adventure for both sides, and it’s likely you cut the Midnight Haunting for either Rootborn Defenses or Druid’s Deliverance. But it’s not clear where you go after that since the fight can be on so many angles and all of your cards seem effective on paper.
Your cards are better than theirs, but they are more reliable than you are and their lands come cheaper. Their hope is to leverage those advantages, and your goal is to stay alive long enough to finish your game plan. Augur of Bolas is in the board for this matchup, as it both keeps you alive and provides more fuel if their plan is to go into control mode and start killing your creatures. Loxodon Smiter is also the right numbers for this matchup. It’s not clear how many Druid’s Deliverance is right. There’s also the tension between Augur of Bolas and Cloudfin Raptor since everyone wants different things. My hunch is you cut Delver of Secrets here.
The general sideboarding plan is that there are three things you need to do: win creature combats, win races, and fight against control.
When your goal is to win creature combats, your maindeck should essentially be unchanged; this is the configuration that provides the most flexibility. You’ll take out Spell Rupture if they have Cavern of Souls and have plenty of good choices for what to bring in instead. Four Rootborn Defenses is often a strong choice. You impale them on the horns of a dilemma: if they go with small stuff they get beaten by combat tricks, and if they go big then you lock them out with bounce.
When your goal is to win a race, you have an amazing trump available to you: a Fog with giant upside, as it can also be turned into a 4/4 flyer for 1G quite often and even when being used as a Fog you can usually pick up a 2/2 or 3/3. With four copies of that and three Snapcaster Mage, you can keep this up for quite a long time while you attack them back, and if they try to block you can punish them for that since you have all the tricks and blocking is the worst. Combining this with your bounce makes it hard to lose a race.
When your goal is to beat a control deck, you want to create pressure that they can’t easily remove, avoid cards that can’t trade with theirs or kill them, and fight back against their key spells, which for true control Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation and for Jund is Bonfire of the Damned combined with other removal. Your counters are cheap, Rootborn Defenses counters Supreme Verdict or Bonfire of the Damned with upside, and you have Snapcaster Mage to get more of what you need.
They need many more lands than you do to operate, so you have a baseline edge in cards that you’re trying to preserve combined with the ability to knock them out of the game in the first five turns. The danger of this is that without that much land you can have trouble keeping mana up to fight the control wars, so you can’t afford to hold back too much, but your curve ends at three and much of it is at instant speed, so getting you tapped out is harder than it looks.
On the days when it’s working right, this deck looks unstoppable. On the days when it’s not working right, it looks like a joke. Don’t play a few games and get overexcited, but also don’t dismiss it when you end up with a set of ten games where you take eight mulligans or when you have two copies of Cloudfin Raptor at 0/1 and Spell Rupture in hand. This is a very high variance deck, but it offers a ton of play, is a lot of fun, and matches up quite well against the card choices made at the Pro Tour. Give it a shot!