Recently I played in the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was a frustrating tournament, and I’m hoping to take some important lessons away from it for the next Invitational in Las Vegas. The format of the Invitational was half Standard and half Legacy. This is interesting; just as with any recent Pro Tour, you must be prepared to play two formats. For Standard I went 5-3 playing Mono-Blue Devotion, losing three times to non-blue Hero’s Downfall decks. I think in the future I need to play to my strengths and play a control deck in that field.
I also went 5-3 in Legacy playing RUG Delver, which is half of what I want to talk to you about today since the upcoming Grand Prix in Washington DC happens to be Legacy as well. RUG Delver has been around seemingly forever, proving itself over and over to be a competitive deck in the metagame. That stalwart status if you will is an important thing to consider for Legacy. Some people want to just have one deck they can change by a few cards each time a set comes out and stay competitive, and RUG Delver definitely offers the chance to do this.
There is one glaring hole in the deck—and we’ll get to that—but overall the deck was stronger than my impressions from playing against it would have led me to believe. I do think this is a deck that benefits from experience, as some of the plays are actually not that straightforward and I found myself paying attention to things I hadn’t otherwise needed to pay attention to playing other Legacy decks. Not bad necessarily; just different.
Today I want to talk about Delver in two flavors, as I think it’s important to take a look at both so that the pros and cons of both become evident. Both decks have their strengths and weaknesses given any particular metagame, and I would be doing you a disservice to only look at one part of the equation.
For those of you unfamiliar with RUG Delver, here’s the list that Jacob Wilson used recently to win the SCG Legacy Open in Seattle:
If you are planning on playing RUG Delver in the future, you would do well to study the decklists that you could conceivably play, and if you do that you will notice that the decks are all the same within a few cards. Realistically there is a very strong core of the deck that you cannot change without weakening the overall strategy of the deck.
Eighteen lands may seem like too few to you, but the average casting cost of the cards in this deck is something like .6, which is incredibly low. While you do want access to all of your colors and two mana in general, you don’t really need more than that. Even though I was hardcasting Force of Wills all weekend, I don’t recommend it. The Wastelands are always useful, though, as mana denial is really the backbone of this deck’s strategy. Of note, when I was playing this deck, I would find myself sometimes casting Daze for the alternate casting cost of bouncing a land in order to put a land into my hand to Brainstorm away the land if I had extras; this is not something I had done with any other deck (including even U/W/R Delver, but more on this later).
The creatures have not changed in a while. Nimble Mongoose is a very mana-efficient threat that is hard for some decks to deal with. Delver of Secrets is the best creature for the job. The games where you have an early Delver will feel so much easier to you than the others, and for those of you looking to beat this deck, take note—kill the Delver and don’t get Dazed on the way. Finally, Tarmogoyf, flawed and vulnerable as it may be, is still quite impressive at just 1G. Tarmogoyf fills in a lot of gaps and can be hard to overcome in any game where you’ve successfully stunted your opponent’s mana development.
Some people have theorized that adding Young Pyromancer could be good in this deck, but I’m not a believer right now. Young Pyromancer matches up nicely against Liliana and some of the more problematic Shardless BUG situations (those Elementals can freely attack into a Baleful Strix for example.) But it’s slow, and it’s fragile. I don’t like it now, and I don’t plan on liking it later unless I have to.
If the metagame were different and there were more Reanimator decks or more mirror matches putting, one Scavenging Ooze into the maindeck could be good, and some people replaced the fourth Goyf with one a while ago. I don’t think this deck has enough green mana to really maximize the Ooze, but it certainly is quite good when it’s good. It is worth noting that people will also sideboard in Scavenging Ooze to counter opposing Scavenging Oozes in general. I think this is a valid strategy, and you can even fight Deathrite Shaman in this way, which can add to the overall mana-denial theme. In games where you have an Ooze in your deck, you should pay attention to try to get more Tropical Islands into play whenever possible.
Normally what you’ll want to do with this deck is sequence your early turns in a way where you can successfully interact with your opponent’s mana as much as possible. Often this will mean saying go on turn 1 with an uncracked fetch (though do be careful in the Stifle mirror; fighting over a Stifle that you didn’t need to can feel awful as it turns out) or an untapped Tropical Island. While we’re on the topic of Stifle, it is worth noting that if your opponent plays a turn 1 Wooded Foothills and says go, they are likely not playing Goblins with a weak hand; they will probably get a blue mana source and ruin your life. I played Wooded Foothills and Polluted Delta when I played RUG, and I played Arid Mesa when I played U/W/R for the same reason.
Anyway, ideally for you your opponent will go about their normal operations and walk into your Stifle. From there you can cast a blue spell (a Ponder or a Brainstorm), break your land, and then deploy a threat. If you’re able to Daze their next play, they probably won’t put up much of a fight. Gitaxian Probe facilitates this plan excellently, as it allows you to use your mana efficiently. You won’t get stuck leaving up a Stifle against a hand full of Underground Seas and Tropical Islands, or if your opponent does indeed have a mana-light hand, you will know exactly what to do and when to do it.
I can’t put into words how badly it felt to be Gitaxian Probed by Jacob Wilson at the Open in Seattle—I considered Dazeing it the game I was on the play, as I had two of my own Stifles and they’d become nearly blank once he knew about them. You may want to instill this feeling into your opponents, and if so this is where you should start, as this is by far the best of the Stifle decks.
(If you’d like to watch the match, you can look here.)
The rest of the maindeck is probably not up for discussion at this point save the Fire // Ice. I played a Forked Bolt in this slot at the Invitational; my reasoning was that I knew what a handful of specific people would be playing and if I got paired against them I’d be slightly better off. Furthermore, I felt that the slot should be used on something that can kill Deathrite Shaman on turn 1; otherwise, I feel like the point of adding a lesser removal spell becomes moot.
Fire // Ice has its own set of pros and cons, including the ability to tap a Griselbrand or a Tarmogoyf and be Force of Willed with, but when it comes to killing a Deathrite Shaman, it isn’t particularly well suited. Chain Lightning and Dismember are other contenders for this slot, but I don’t think Dismember is a good idea since sometimes all you really need is Threshold and you can’t cast the darn thing. Chain Lightning is just fine but worse at most things than Forked Bolt. I don’t know what the right answer is for this slot, as it could also be a Spell Pierce, Spell Snare, or almost anything you can dream up.
For that matter, I think in retrospect that I should have played some Spell Snares at the Invitational to give me a chance against Tarmogoyf. The Invitational is generally a very grindy metagame with lots of blue and black Tarmogoyf decks, and I should have accounted for this. Tarmogoyf represents an almost impossible obstacle to overcome.
The very best scenario against a resolved Tarmogoyf is probably attacking your own Tarmogoyf into it and then resolving a Bolt after combat on their Tarmogoyf. On the flip side of the coin, the worst-case scenario is one that I ran into many times at the Invitational—an opposing Tarmogoyf making it impossible for me to attack and advance my game plan without losing at least a Goose along the way. Basically, if you don’t have an Insectile Aberration, Tarmogoyf can feel like a demoralizing Moat or worse. In my opinion, this renders RUG Delver somewhat untenable as a deck given a grindy metagame.
However, if the metagame were full of combo decks like Storm, Reanimator, and even Show and Tell strategies, I think RUG Delver could become a good choice. With maindeck Stifle and those decks already “cheating” on mana, a reasonable draw on your behalf is probably a nightmare for them! I’ve won games against Storm decks where we sat still for a few turns in the beginning, so don’t think you need to have a turn 1 Delver to have a chance—especially in that matchup the Stifles do a ton of work.
Going forward, at least until the most recent legacy results from Eternal Weekend get processed, Sneak and Show will be a top deck, and I really do think the RUG versus Sneak and Show matchup comes down to who is more experienced with their weapon of choice. I know I’ve won from both sides, and I know there are players I could lose against from either side. One sideboard card to look out for in general is Defense Grid—it makes interacting with them as a RUG Pilot incredibly difficult. I played Defense Grid in my Omni-Tell deck when I played it, and it was an all-star for sure. I think even Brian Braun-Duin went as far as to actually play it in his sideboard for the Invitational. It’s the kind of card you’ll regret having in your board if you get the wrong pairings and will be your MVP if you get the right ones.
Speaking of sideboards, for the Invitational I used the following cards:
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Rough // Tumble
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Scavenging Ooze
1 Life from the Loam
Now, I knew what Jacob had used for the Open, and since I couldn’t make heads or tails of some of his card choices, I chose another route. I quite liked my sideboard given what I faced, and if I’d played more carefully in round 3 of day 2, I may have been in the running to make Top 8; similarly, if I’d played a couple of Spell Snares maindeck, things could have gone differently for me as well.
Submerge is a card that I hate in this deck, but I feel it is necessary to give you a fighting chance against an opposing Goyf just to gain some tempo and score some more damage in an effort to win before they can Goyf you to death. The Ooze and the Loam did nothing for me, but I never drew them. They would have been excellent in the same matchups that I lost to Tarmogoyf had things gone differently.
The only card here that I feel needs explaining is Grafdigger’s Cage, and let me tell you it’s a beaut. In addition to the obvious interactions against Dredge and Reanimator, it gains a lot of additional utility in the Elves matchup. Elves can really put a strain on you to find the right removal spells at the right time and not draw the wrong half of your deck.
After board this gets a bit easier with extra removal and tempo spells, but Cage makes them play fair, which is something value-wise that can’t be overstated—their best cards are suddenly forced to rot in their hands. They can’t Zenith or Natural Order their way out of any tricky situations, and for your part you are left with far fewer questions to answer and an easier game all around. Going forward I would even consider adding a second Cage if you think there’s a chance you’ll actually get paired against Elves or Reanimator during whatever event it is you’re preparing for.
A lot of you might be wondering if True-Name Nemesis is a good fit for either of these strategies. The card is excellent and disruptive in a way few creatures can be, especially at this cost. The reason the card would be good in a strategy like this is that it can profitably block any equipped creature and not grant the owner the bonus of the equipment. Jitte won’t get counters, and Batterskull won’t give life. This is an enormous effect and worth the price of admission (UU1 as it turn out.)
But while the upside is there—it’s a blue card to be Forced with, it’s unblockable, it’s a good defender—the downside of being a three-mana spell in a deck that never wants to have three lands in play is pretty big. I think the card is far better suited to be played in U/W/R Delver, which is what I’d like to discuss now. True-Name Nemesis is in my opinion a much better choice than Geist of Saint Traft for the deck. In any scenario where you are on the defensive, you will be thankful for an infinite blocker, and when you are attacking, having a creature that literally cannot be stopped is priceless. I do prefer to “plan for the worst,” which is why I hate having Geist in the deck and why I prefer True-Name Nemesis.
I played U/W/R Delver at the Legacy Open in Seattle, which you can see in the Jacob Wilson feature match above. My list was very similar to Gerard Fabiano winning list from the Legacy Open in New Jersey earlier this year:
I changed the Surgical Extraction to a Relic in the sideboard, but going forward I would recommend just playing a couple of Rest in Peaces and a Grafdigger’s Cage instead.
This deck is interesting in a world where there was previously only RUG Delver. Good matchups against the fairer decks sounds great, as does upgrading the threats and spells seemingly for free! It has an extra land and seems to accomplish all of these things with no real cost. However, this is deceptive. The activation cost of Stoneforge Mystic is W1; the activation cost of Grim Lavamancer is R; the casting cost of Geist of Saint Traft and Vendilion Clique is three.
The average cost of spells in this deck is higher at almost .8, but that doesn’t account for the activation costs. The reason this is important is because it means that each turn you will be faced with the choice of trying to Stifle them or trying to develop your own board and advancing your strategy—with RUG Delver you really can do both at once with very little trouble.
So it is as ever a metagame call. If you’re expecting a lot more Tarmogoyfs and want to delve some secrets, I would much sooner recommend U/W/R than RUG; the opposite is true if all of your opponents are counting to ten and Tendrilsing your pretty face.
Sideboard options for the white deck are also stronger, which is another plus. You have access to Equipment, which means you can get a Sword of Feast and Famine to tax your combo opponent’s non-life-total resources. You also don’t care much about the graveyard, which means you are free to keep them barren against Tarmogoyf and Nimble Mongoose and Jin-Gitaxias and other Praetors you may run into.
You also get Meddling Mage, which is absolutely one of the strongest cards against Sneak and Show. Alone the card is great often buying you enough time to find extra defensive resources, but in combination with Gitaxian Probe and Vendilion Clique the card can really shine, often eliminating any chance of winning your opponent previously thought they had. You also get to keep Pyroblast, which is one of the strongest red sideboard cards. The biggest thing you are missing out on is good artifact removal; there really is no substitute for Ancient Grudge unfortunately.
This is the decklist Owen Turtenwald used during the Legacy Open that followed the Invitational in Indianapolis:
The biggest difference you’ll see here is the lack of Stifle in the maindeck. Stifle is a good card in the Legacy format in this deck. It can provide your Geist with protection from Liliana of the Veil (they activate, you Stifle.) Stifle also protects your lands from Wasteland and can counter an Ancestral Vision coming off of suspend! It is also naturally good against a storm trigger. But for all the reasons listed above, I do not think it fits. Owen also chose to remove the Grim Lavamancers from the “normal” list. I’m on board with both changes.
I like what this deck brings to the table, but as it stands Stifle is just not a card that this deck should be playing. It is unfortunate because it means you have to give up some points against Storm, and your game 1 against unfair decks is already pretty bad. But you do get to sideboard quite a few excellent cards, and I do think it is realistic to win a game on the draw with four Force of Wills and a slew of hate bears. Additionally, Grim Lavamancer was a card I found myself boarding out time and time again, and this has been the case in other decks as well. The card only seems to shine against Shardless BUG, which may make it a smart sideboard choice as Owen has done here. Finally, he has added the fourth Ponder and yet another land, both changes I heartily approve of.
One final thing worth noting is that as ever it is important to pay attention to your mana curve when constructing your deck. If True-Name Nemesis makes an appearance in your U/W/R Delver list come GP DC, you probably don’t want to go overboard on other three-mana spells, or if you do you may want to have the plan to sub out True-Name Nemesis when you bring them in. A good example of this would be swapping out three Nemesises for three Vendilion Cliques, as they are unlikely to be good against the same decks.
I’m interested to see what will do well at the Grand Prix in Washington DC, and I’m also quite excited to play in that event and talk about it!
What do you guys think about the rise of U/W/R Delver? Do you think it will do well at GP DC?