Delver Primer

GerryT goes through how Delver decks evolved in Standard from U/W Illusions to Esper Spirits. He weighs the pros and cons of each deck and tells you exactly what iteration of Delver he would play at StarCityGames.com Open: Tampa.

Believe it or not, the Delver craze all started here…

Phantasmal Dragon, maindeck Dissipate, no Ponder, no DELVER? A sideboard with Disenchants, counterspells, and basically nothing else? How the hell…

There’s nothing to say here except that basically no one had anything good in week one, myself included. Todd knew something was there, though, and kept tuning and tweaking.

Eventually, he started dominating Magic Online with this:

To say that Todd invented Illusions or Delver of Secrets might be a little outlandish. There’s millions of people tweaking and tuning new ideas, so someone, somewhere likely thought of something similar before Todd. However, without Todd’s hard work and dedication, Standard might be an entirely different format than it is today.

The differences in this list and the Dragon list are staggering—less lands, more cantrips, lower curve overall. It’s clear that this is closer to a Constructed monster than the Dragon version.

Why it evolved this way: The original list was clunky and archaic. The whole idea was to present cheap threats and protect them with countermagic, and Phantasmal Dragon was a pretty loose part of that plan. Delver was exactly what the deck wanted to make the deck tick.

The comparisons to Caw-Blade aren’t unwarranted. Both are U/W aggro-control decks and both dominate their respective formats, albeit for different reasons. Delver’s plan A is one of aggression whereas Caw-Blade’s plan A was about even with its plan B. Since Delver’s plan A is much better than its B, those are the games you’re playing most often.

Overall, I’d say that makes Delver easier to play by a slim margin, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Delver ends up being even more dominant than Caw-Blade was. Its angles of attack are difficult to stop, and when faced with that type of situation most players join the “if you can’t beat em, join em” camp.

Adam Prosak’s technology was a turning point for Delver decks, much like when Todd added Delver of Secrets. Prosak removed the Lord of the Unreals for Midnight Hauntings and Merfolk Looter, but oddly enough kept the Bears around. What good were Bears without Lords? As it turns out, they were quite good and almost a necessity.

Why it evolved this way: Lord of the Unreal wasn’t actually good, and being more controlling was better in the mirror and vs. Wolf Run. The fact that so many good players were spending time on evolving Illusions while decks like Wolf Run got little love (aside from Iyanaga) started pushing the deck into the Caw-Blade level of good.

I took it a step further. Utilizing tech from three separate sources, I created a deck that won me nearly a thousand Magic Online tickets in a week and a half. Taking Andrey Yanyuk’s Trinket Mage package, David Bauer’s Sword of War and Peaces, and Adam Prosak shell, I created a monster.

Why it evolved this way: The mirror was such a huge concern that I designed my deck specifically to beat it. In doing so, I tried to keep what made it good against control and Wolf Run intact and succeeded.

This was a list I posted on my blog prior to the StarCityGames.com Open in Atlanta. I couldn’t make it to any event that weekend, so I decided to share it with the world. In the end my list did alright, but Gindy’s winning list blew mine right out of the water.

Why it evolved this way: I wanted to try something new and this actually ended up being pretty good. Legionnaire was solid against someone trying to grind me out with Sylvok Lifestaff. Magic is a cyclical game, meaning that certain trumps eventually become outdated. The hyper-aggressive nature of the original Delver decks was suddenly good again.

The week before Grand Prix Orlando, the format got blown wide open. Gindy took a lot of concepts that people were working with and pushed them as hard as possible.

Why it evolved this way: Equipment was key in trumping Moorland Haunt, but we needed hexproof creatures to equip safely. That brought the return of Geist of Saint Traft and ushered in the era of people getting beaten down by Invisible Stalker in Constructed as well as Limited.

This is the list that Sam Black finished Top 16 with at Grand Prix Orlando. He claimed that it beat the Gindy version of the deck, but I was skeptical.

Why it evolved this way: I honestly have no idea how this deck came into being. Champion of the Parish functions like another Delver, but you have Legionnaire or Geist for that and don’t have to bastardize your mana base. In theory, this should beat the Illusions decks, but I don’t see it beating the Gindy deck.

Todd Anderson continued to show his mastery with the Delver archetype by winning an Open with the above list. Rather than mess with mediocre Invisible Stalkers, Todd decided that playing a robust beatdown deck was a better choice.

Why it devolved this way: I say devolved instead of evolved because the whole thing was going around in circles. While everyone was focused on fighting the midrangey Invisible Stalker version, Todd pummeled people with Porcelain Legionnaires and Mutagenic Growths. Before Dark Ascension, this was the best version of Delver to play, hands down.  

As you probably know by now, this is the deck our team played at the Pro Tour which put two members in Top 8. It’s a lot different than normal Delver decks, as the Delvers themselves aren’t integral to the strategy. In fact, this is the first Delver deck that I’ve even considered siding out Delver.

Borrowing from the Lord plus Phantasmal Image plan from the original Illusions deck, we created a version that was good against creature decks like Humans that were previously bad matchups.

There are more than a few ways to build Delver decks, each with their own pros and cons.

U/W Delver, Gindy-style: Invisible Stalker, lots of equipment

Pros: Your creatures are hard to kill and your equipment makes a lot of games very easy.

Cons: Your mana curve is a bit loose, and your plan B is much worse off. Your Moorland Haunts are worse since your creatures rarely die and anyone with Images and Disenchants can deal with anything threatening you play. The fact that Invisible Stalker is incredibly mopey without equipment means that you could get frustrated with how often your deck resembles a bad draft deck.

U/W Delver, Architect-style: Equipment, Grand Architect, stuff like Phyrexian Metamorph or Spined Thopter to Architect into

Pros: More explosive and double Architect puts your dudes out of Slagstorm range. Swords are a lot easier to manage with Architect.

Cons: Can be slow and clunky without Architect and therefore more inconsistent.

Esper Spirits, Sam Black-style: Drogskol Captain, Phantasmal Image, Lingering Souls

Pros: Lots of great topdecks and double Captain usually locks out opposing aggro decks.

Cons: Corrosive Gale and other sweepers are a gigantic beating. You have a lot of three mana sorceries, so playing counterspells is tougher.

U/W Delver/Humans, Sam Black-style: Champion of the Parish, Doomed Traveler, Mortarpod

Pros: Lower mana curve, more aggressive, and is supposedly good in the mirror.

Cons: Lower curve means less powerful topdecks and some of your cards do very little in certain matchups.

U/W Delver, Todd Anderson-style: Porcelain Legionnaire, Mutagenic Growth, Geist of Saint Traft, equipment, no Phantasmal Bear

Pros: Hyper aggressive deck that punishes anyone who stumbles.

Cons: Weak to Ancient Grudge and Spirits.

U/W Illusions: Lord of the Unreal

Pros: Hyper aggressive deck that punishes anyone who stumbles.

Cons: This version phased out for a reason—the other versions were better against the metagame. Double Lord is good against other creature decks, but double Captain is typically better than double Lord.

Sideboard Options

Negate/Dissipate/Flashfreeze: No matter version you play, you’re going to want some extra counterspells for those tough matchups. Whether it’s U/B or Wolf Run, you’ll need to stop their more powerful spells consistently or you’ll lose.

Celestial Purge: With the Zombie horde rising, you’d want to play Celestial Purge already. Without it, you’re going to have a tough time racing Geralf’s Messenger. Also, with U/B returning to the limelight, you have a real reason to play Purge. Curse of Death’s Hold or Bloodline Keeper aren’t cards you can let stay in play, no matter what version of Delver you’re playing.

Steel Sabotage/Divine Offering: For a while, Divine Offering was much better than Sabotage, but those times are behind us. Sabotage can counter a Ratchet Bomb before it blows away your tokens, is on color, and is cheaper. Divine’s life gain might be attractive, but being twice as expensive and in your splash color should deter you from playing it.

Before, getting your Sabotage Mental Misstepped was a real possibility. These days, people seem to have realized that Misstep doesn’t counter many things that matter. Now that that’s all cleared up, it’s safe for Steel Sabotage to make its grand return.

Note that even against a deck like Mono-Red or Tempered Steel, I’d prefer Steel Sabotage to Divine Offering.

Revoke Existence: This is a hedge. It’s good vs. equipment and random enchantments you might face like Oblivion Ring and Tempered Steel. However, Curse of Death’s Hold and Zombies are bigger threats than those, so I’d rather play Celestial Purge.

Urgent Exorcism: This is the wild man’s Revoke Existence. Rather than aiming for a straight Disenchant, you get to fight Curse or the Spirit mirror. Unfortunately, Spirits has few targets, albeit important ones, so playing Exorcism was never the right thing to do. Instead, Celestial Purge is a much better option.

Oblivion Ring: This is another hedge. I used to like it because, while it didn’t flip my Delvers, I could take out one of theirs if I needed assuming they didn’t have a Sword or something else more threatening. Again, the time for specific, cheaper answers is here. You know what enemies you’ll be facing for the most part, so you don’t have to bother hedging.

Ratchet Bomb: This is your go-to hoser for tokens and troublesome permanents alike. Ratchet Bomb is great at killing tokens, but isn’t very effective just as a removal spell. Because of that, I’d rather have specific answers. It’s another hedge, but not a good one.

Gut Shot: Gone are the days when Standard was Gut Shot: The Format. The threats are too varied to play something so narrow so Dismember gets the nod in the maindeck most of the time.

Mutagenic Growth: This is an excellent card if you expect sweepers like Slagstorm and Whipflare as it protects your three mana Geist investment for free. If the format is all Black Sun’s Zeniths and the like, obviously Growth is much worse.

Phyrexian Metamorph/Phantasmal Image: Thrun and Geist are big issues, so you need to play some amount of Images in your sideboard. There are plenty of cool things you can do with it, including copying a creature with undying and have it come back as something else. I believe that you can also bring it back with undying, choose to copy nothing, and it will lose the Illusion clause and therefore be equip-able.

The one upside to Metamorph over Image is that you can copy equipment should you fall behind on the Sword arms race. That alone won’t make me give it the nod over Image, but it’s close.

Trinket Mage (with Hex Parasite, Sylvok Lifestaff, Nihil Spellbomb, and/or Blazing Torch): Back when the mirror was all about Moorland Haunt, Trinket Mage was the stone kold. Those days are long past us, and Trinket Mage can’t fetch a reasonable answer to Geist or Sword.

Timely Reinforcements: I don’t like this card. It’s not great against Mono-Red or Zombies, but it buys you some time to get a Sword active. The fact that it gives you plenty of bodies to use with Sword isn’t irrelevant, but you could probably do better with your sideboard cards. The fact that a single Celestial Purge will likely buy you more time means that you should leave your Reinforcements at home.

Consecrated Sphinx: One of the great things about Delver is that you’re almost never drawing dead. A string of Ponders and Snapcasters later and you’re probably right back in it. Still, some games are more complicated than that, and you need a big topdeck to get you back into the game or something to Ponder for that will actually bring you back to parity. Sphinx is about the best thing you could have in those situations, so playing one in the sideboard isn’t out of the question. Those situations are few and far between, but I know plenty of people that like drawing live.

Spellskite: This little guy is great against Mono-Red and does work protecting your Swords from removal. I think I’d go with a cheaper answer seeing as how all the decks are pretty fast these days.

Mental Misstep: As I said earlier, this doesn’t counter anything of relevant. Geist and Sword are the big hitters, and Misstep neither stops those nor protects yours. Countering a Ponder or Delver on the cheap is nice, but you can do better with your sideboard cards.

Corrosive Gale: If Spirits maintains its rank of number one Delver deck, Gale is the best trump possible. Most people seem to be scared of Gale and the fact that anyone can play it.

Hero of Bladehold: This was my re-trump for Corrosive Gale and other sweepers, and it over-performed. I never lost if I untapped with Hero of Bladehold. Several players looked at the Gale in their hand, wondering where it all went wrong.

Jace, Memory Adept: This is the best way to fight U/B Control by a mile. They often side out their counterspells because the proactive answers they have are better than the reactive ones, which leaves them open to Jace. You should be able to leverage an on board Jace into a win because they have no real way to remove it.

Sword of Feast and Famine: This is a pretty good answer to Wolf Run out of the Spirits deck. Everyone “knows” Spirits doesn’t play equipment, so siding this in is relatively safe.

Angelic Destiny: If you’re truly looking to trump Wolf Run, this is where you should be. It’s hard to cast but well worth it for the effect. In the end, I went with Hero instead, but Destiny is more than fine.

Saving Grasp: You could upgrade a Vapor Snag or two to this post-board against control decks, but that would be a mistake. They’re hoping you side out your Snags so they can catch you with your pants down with Bloodline Keeper or Consecrated Sphinx, so don’t let that happen. Saving a Geist of Saint Traft twice is cute, but you need Snag to deal with their stuff too.

Dungeon Geists: This was basically the best thing you could answer a Hero with, but times have changed. Nearly everyone has Corrosive Gale and this just gets caught up in the storm. You need to look for better answers.

Feeling of Dread: If a large portion of matchups ever came down purely to racing, Feeling of Dread would’ve been awesome, but that’s not the case. You need specific answers to specific threats.

Day of Judgment: This is tough to see coming from a Delver opponent, but that’s because it wouldn’t make any sense to have in your decklist. Most of the time, Delver is the aggro deck so you should be siding in cards that compliment your role.

Nevermore: If we ever needed to hose a certain card like Black Sun’s Zenith, this would be your go-to man. I’m not entirely convinced that Nevermore is a bad card, so I think about playing it every once in a while.

Nihil Spellbomb/Surgical Extraction: These can give you a huge edge against control or Frites, but those matchups tend to be solid anyway. Plus, this isn’t exactly what you’re looking for. You need to be applying pressure, not just taking the Alchemies out of their deck. Some side these in for the mirror, but they aren’t high impact enough in my mind.

Apostle’s Blessing/Faith’s Shield: Had I known Blessing could protect your Swords, I would’ve been playing it a long time ago. Now we have Faith’s Shield, which is more or less of an upgrade. Costing white is kind of annoying at times, but at least it has an added bonus of being able to fog. Against Humans, it wasn’t uncommon to manipulate a Hero hit to achieve fateful hour. At that point, a Shield plus Snapcaster would give you two turns of freedom. Hopefully you could race them or stabilize.

Seeing as how Swords aren’t necessarily an integral part of your game plan, you no longer need to bend over backwards trying to keep them alive. These cards just aren’t worth it right now.

Stony Silence: I considered playing this for decks with Ratchet Bomb and Pristine Talisman or Swords. If they just had one or the other, it wouldn’t be worth it. For now, I’d rather have Steel Sabotage, but that could all change if something crazy pops up.

Ray of Revelation: Splashing isn’t out of the question, especially for a card as good as this. All by itself, Ray can make Curse or Oblivion Ring irrelevant in the respective matchups, so it’s definitely worth a consideration.

This is what I would play today:

The Stalkers could very well be Legionnaires, but I like the hexproof aspect against several decks.

Midnight Haunting gives you something to do against Wolf Run and control when you’re trying to keep counter mana open. Believe me when I say that Haunting was one of the main reasons why my original Delver deck was so good against the field. I think it’s time for Haunting to return.

I’ve really liked the three Leak/one Negate split for countermagic. You don’t want all your Leaks to be dead in the late game, so playing a hard counter is a great idea. There are few decks out there where Negate is dead, but it counters most of the threatening cards. Sometimes you want to counter a creature, but I think it’s worth it.

The sideboard has the best answers to the format right now, so I’m very happy with it. If you’re siding in Jace, you certainly want an extra land. Moorland Haunt would be the best one, but I also wanted another white source for Angelic Destiny.

Corrosive Gale got the axe for now, but you have to play that one by ear. If Spirits starts popping up again, it would be in your best interest to prepare for them.


I hope everyone enjoyed the article. Whether you play Delver or not should be irrelevant; you need to know what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they plan to fight you. This type of content should be important for everyone.

If you like this type of article leave a comment, as I could probably write an article like this on every deck ever.