It is no secret that Delver is probably the best deck in Standard, and this past weekend I set out to prove just how good it could be. If you look at the progression of the Illusions deck over the last few months, you can see that it began with Phantasmal Dragons in Indy—and the evolution of the deck has been in full effect ever since. While the blue Phyrexian Obliterator proxy isn’t that good anymore, the fact that he was playable in the first place should show you how far we’ve come since then.
After people figured out that Phyrexian mana spells were sweet, the Illusion deck morphed into something much more akin to Merfolk, relying on a plethora of small creatures to do the dirty work while you disrupted the opponent with Mana Leak. Thanks to tempo gained by paying life instead of mana, you could play a virtual mono-blue deck that was still able to kill creatures on top of playing the format’s most efficient creatures and counterspells. In response to this movement, the metagame shifted to become much more hostile towards small, efficient creatures, putting cheap removal at an all-time high in playability. Gut Shot was in almost every deck and Mortarpod was playable in aggressive decks that didn’t involve Puresteel Paladin. To say that Illusions warped the format would be an understatement.
As the format degenerated into this removal-heavy wasteland, the Illusion pilots turned to creatures featuring the hexproof keyword in order to get out of jail free. Geist of Saint Traft was just the beginning, and people eventually discovered that even Invisible Stalker could find a home alongside some solid equipment. For weeks, U/W Delver featuring these hexproof creatures became all the rage, taking down tournaments on Magic Online and even the Atlanta Standard Open in the hands of Charles Gindy. Was Geist of Saint Traft becoming the most powerful creature in Standard? And if so, how would people respond to this most recent change?
Enter Conley Woods and his Grand Prix Orlando-winning decklist!
- 4 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Acidic Slime
- 4 Grave Titan
- 4 Primeval Titan
- 1 Glissa, the Traitor
With his innovative take on this Wolf Run variant, Conley took down a Top 8 full of Delver of Secrets and Geist of Saint Traft. With such intuitive insight into the format, Conley figured out how to punish decks relying on a small, resilient package of creatures. Geth’s Verdict is a great answer to Geist of Saint Traft and Invisible Stalker, and Black Sun’s Zenith is a great card against a field relying on creatures with nothing larger than two toughness. Curse of Death’s Hold also singlehandedly kills every creature in the deck aside from Geist of Saint Traft, including Moorland Haunt!
So where did this leave me? I was still all-in on Delver of Secrets, and my experience with the newest iteration of the deck featuring Invisible Stalker (aka Curse of the Pierced Heart) was not pleasant. After testing with U/W Delver for hours on Magic Online, as well as a poor result in the Grand Prix, I came to a few conclusions:
1. Midnight Haunting, Runechanter’s Pike, and Invisible Stalker work well together, but they are the three weakest cards in the deck since they all need each other to be good. I wanted to cut them altogether, but I needed another creature to bolster the roster in their absence.
2. Geist of Saint Traft and Sword of War and Peace were the best cards in the deck. I knew I wanted to play the full set of Geists—which was not unanimous on Magic Online for some reason—and I wanted all my creatures to be a threat on their own.
The night before the StarCityGames.com Open Series in DC, we traveled to Washington to stay with my friend Matt Eitel, as well as fellow SCG writer Michael Martin. Traveling alongside David McDarby (aka Jace), Brian Braun(town)-Duin, and Jason “Booshi” we made our way to the nation’s capital through everything winter could throw at us. Driving through snow, sleet, and every other form of precipitation, we finally arrived safely at Matt’s apartment just after midnight. I really wanted to get some sleep, resigning myself to playing Invisible Stalker and Midnight Haunting. But something inside me came to life as I heard others playtesting, some urge to brew, to fix the holes that I felt in the deck. Something inside me wanted to go a little crazy.
As I started laying out the deck, I began pulling out the cards that I hated, and looking for cards to replace them. Some weeks ago, I had done some testing with an Illusions list that cut Lord of the Unreal for Porcelain Legionnaire, and I just happened to have a set of them sitting in one of my deckboxes. As I glanced at the little soldier-that-could, something just seemed to fall into place. Gut Shot had been seeing a decrease in popularity lately due to the aggressive decks packing so many hexproof creatures, and Gut Shot was actively bad against most decks in the format outside of the card Delver of Secrets. Additionally, most people would target Delver of Secrets with their Gut Shots anyway, leaving Porcelain Legionnaire free to get some work done. Playing Legionnaire would also give me another reason to play Mental Misstep in the maindeck, giving me a way to protect my guys from removal as well as something to stifle their weaker draws relying on Ponder. Countering cards like Vapor Snag and Virulent Wound was just icing on the cake.
From the second I laid eyes on that magnificent figure, I never looked back. The next hour included various builds utilizing Mutagenic Growth to get full value out of Geist of Saint Traft, allowing him to survive Slagstorm and Whipflare, as well as allowing you to swing into creatures larger than a 2/2. No one would play around a combat trick, so Mutagenic Growth could gain a lot of value for a very low cost. Mutagenic Growth could also act as a pseudo-Flame Rift when combined with Snapcaster Mage, dealing your control opponents the last few points of damage. It also could act as a virtual Mental Misstep against opposing Gut Shots and wasn’t a dead card against control matchups (like the actual Mental Missteps already in the deck).
Unfortunately for me, Mutagenic Growth was not nearly as powerful as it was just a week prior due to the fact that people were beginning to adopt Curse of Death’s Hold and Black Sun’s Zenith as their sweepers over the traditional Slagstorm. This led me to cutting all but a single Mutagenic Growth from the maindeck and deciding to play a Dissipate alongside the full set of Mana Leaks in the main. Since we cut the Runechanter’s Pikes, I decided to up the Sword count to three, giving us enough ways to make our Moorland Haunts lethal, as well as making Geist of Saint Traft into a powerhouse. The board would also require Sword of Feast and Famine as a means of attacking through Grave Titan, should one ever resolve.
So, we had the base of our deck, and we’d cut all the cards we wanted to cut—what was left? Sleep, for one thing. But after a few tweaks and last minute changes during the player meeting, here was my final list for the tournament, though McDarby opted to play something more traditional:
While the sideboard may seem random, it was far from it. Every card choice had its reasons, though there are a few cards I would currently change after thirteen rounds of playing with the list. Sword of Feast and Famine didn’t come in often, but I didn’t play against too much ramp. You definitely want it against Conley’s deck, which will probably grow in popularity over the next few weeks. With Dark Ascension shaking things up, people will want “established” decks to start testing with. Although Sword of War and Peace is better against any deck not playing Grave Titan, Sword of Feast and Famine should probably still make the cut.
Ratchet Bomb was probably the best card in my sideboard. It did a lot of work against token-based strategies, since I didn’t have a lot of Midnight Haunting shenanigans going on. It was also a backbreaker against Tempered Steel, buying me enough time to kill them with Delver of Secrets. I would consider adding another one of these to the deck, since you become somewhat of a control deck in the “mirror,” as they have a lot more token generators than you. Also, with the potential rise of tokens thanks to Sorin, Gather the Townsfolk, and Lingering Souls, playing more Ratchet Bombs can only help out your tokens matchup.
Phantasmal Image was quite poor throughout the tournament. The theory was for them to be an answer to Geist in the mirror, with the ability to copy Snapcaster Mage for value, but mirrors rarely worked out where that was what was important. Copying an opponent’s Geist of Saint Traft is cool and all, but I’m not really sure that’s what you want to be doing. If your opponent plays a Geist and you spend a turn killing it, then you’re probably falling behind or you are already really far behind. Without Lord of the Unreal to copy anymore, there just isn’t enough of an upside to playing this vulnerable clone. I would probably cut them going forward.
Revoke Existence and Divine Offering were split for a few reasons, but the obvious one is that Divine Offering is an instant and can save you against an opposing Sword. However, Revoke Existence is more versatile, being able to kill Oblivion Ring and Tempered Steel. While both of these are relevant, I couldn’t decide which was more important, so I split the two. I was pretty happy with the split, and often sided in one and not the other, making me feel like the decision was ultimately correct. Alongside Oblivion Rings and Ratchet Bombs, you could transform into a control-ish deck against Tempered Steel, which is pretty sweet.
The third Mental Misstep in the sideboard came in a lot against mirrors, as well as against Haunted Humans (or whatever you want to call it). It was insane against Gut Shot, Vapor Snag, Delver of Secrets, etc. The aggressive decks in the format can’t really handle that kind of tempo swing, and a lot of the midrange decks rely on cheap spot removal to stabilize so they can cast their game-breaking Titans. If you can use Mental Misstep to protect your Delver or Legionnaire, you should be able to take control of the board much more easily. Additionally, Snapcaster Mage on Mental Misstep is quite unfair—given the right matchup, of course.
The pair of Dissipates and singleton Negate in the board came in quite often against the control decks, giving me hard answers to their sweepers and planeswalkers. I think that you are about 60% against most control decks before sideboarding, but it only gets better when you get access to more counterspells. While they usually bring in more removal, your game plan is mostly the same against them. Just stick an early threat and counter the random removal spells they play until they die. Not every removal spell is relevant, so just figure out which cards are important to counter and which are okay to resolve. Gitaxian Probe is amazing in these matchups, because you can see pretty much everything coming ahead of time, and you can plan properly. Control decks are often considered U/W Delver’s best matchup, and I don’t think that changes much going forward with Dark Ascension. It seems like the aggro decks are getting more powerful, while the control decks aren’t getting much of anything.
* * *
Since the entire spoiler is now up on the Mothership, I’ll be focusing more on Standard and less on Modern in my articles, though my videos will probably still be Modern since Dark Ascension won’t be on Magic Online for another month. With that in mind, there aren’t a lot of changes I would make to U/W Delver. I think that other archetypes—namely Humans, Tokens, and Mono-Black, gained a lot from the new set, and you should just adapt your answers accordingly.
As for Standard after Dark Ascension, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is an absurd two-drop in the Humans deck that isn’t getting nearly as much press as it should. I think that it will easily be the best non-Mythic rare in the set and might end up helping to define Standard over the next few months. Against control, she is a virtual Time Walk with a 2/1 body attached to it and forces your Delver opponents to pay mana for their Phyrexian spells at the very least! While I am not one to wholeheartedly advocate “Mono-Dorks,” I think that white-based Humans decks will dominate the early parts of the Standard season until people get a grip on how to beat it.
With Pro Tour Honolulu using the new expansion, expect a few wacky things from the pros. There are a lot of powerful creatures to work with in the new set and a lot of cards got a lot better in the meantime. Green Sun’s Zenith is just one card that got a huge boost from the printing of just a few creatures. Strangleroot Geist and Huntmaster of the Fells are just two of the sweet new additions to some green-based aggro concoction that I’m sure Brian Kibler is hard at work on in his laboratory. You should expect a Daybreak Ranger or two, as well as a video once the set hits Magic Online.
For the last few weeks I’ve been throwing around a version of the deck in my head, though I am much more in favor of using creatures with hexproof. I think Dungrove Elder is criminally underplayed, and he works very well with Sword of War and Peace. Starting alongside Thrun and Strangleroot Geist, you have yourself a pretty solid creature base without much work. Since you are probably playing Green Sun’s Zenith, you can splash in a few utility monsters to clean up in the mid/late game. Acidic Slime and Primeval Titan are just two of the go-to choices, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people got a little creative with their additions.
Since creature decks will be sweeping the nation, I’m also under the impression that Mutagenic Growth is going to see a lot more play. Slagstorm is quite the beating against aggressive decks, so having an answer that is free to play allows you to tap out much more frequently. It can also ruin combat for the opponent if played at the right time, which is something to keep in mind. When’s the last time someone played around Giant Growth in Standard, let alone one that was free? Additionally, Mutagenic Growth will put a lot of people into awkward situations when it comes time to double-block. You can even save your Llanowar Elves from a Gut Shot, allowing you to start casting your bigger threats before Delver decks even come online. If I were to build this mono-green monstrosity, here is where I would (tenuously) start:
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Primeval Titan
- 2 Thrun, the Last Troll
- 4 Dungrove Elder
- 1 Daybreak Ranger
- 4 Strangleroot Geist
While it may not seem great on paper, I can assure you that this deck packs a serious punch. Strangleroot Geist is a card that I’ve been really excited about since they spoiled it, and all I want to do is Green Sun’s Zenith for Strangleroot Geist until my opponents are dead, dead, and more dead. While it isn’t the greatest card in the world against a Doomed Traveler, it still leaves a 3/2 behind where Doomed Traveler only leaves a 1/1. Mostly, my plan against white decks is to kill them with Sword of War and Peace or Kessig Wolf Run. While this deck doesn’t play things like Rampant Growth or Solemn Simulacrum, there is a good reason. This isn’t a ramp deck. This is an aggressive deck that can function similarly to a ramp deck in the late game thanks to Green Sun’s Zenith. Against decks like Delver, you have the option to get aggressive with Strangleroot Geist and Dungrove Elder, both of which are incredibly difficult for them to deal with. Thrun is also a major issue for them, since most lists play very few Phantasmal Images anymore.
With that said, this list is completely untested, but I just figured I would share with you some of the cards I’ve been thinking about. I’m going to be testing this brew out over the next week or so and might end up playing something similar at the Richmond Open Series next weekend. Dark Ascension does have a few sweet cards to bring to the table, and hopefully Geist of Saint Traft won’t oppress everything for the next three months. I hope you enjoy putting creatures into the red zone!
Thanks for reading!
strong sad on MOL