Finding The Best Card

What’s the best single card in Standard against Delver decks? Brian Kibler has an answer and a decklist. Find out whether you should play his Naya Midrange Pod deck in Standard at SCG Open Series: Baltimore featuring the Invitational.

"What’s the best single card in Standard against Delver decks?"

It seems like a simple enough question, on the surface, but when I asked this question on Facebook and Twitter earlier this week I got an incredible range of answers.

And that’s not even all the answers! Not only was there an incredibly wide range of replies—which is to be expected when you get upwards of one hundred answers to any question—but they’re incredibly torn as to what the question boils down to.

The most popular answer was Curse of Death’s Hold. Curse is certainly an excellent card against Delver decks, that’s for sure. We saw U/B control rise to prominence in part due to the effectiveness of Curse at keeping Moorland Haunt in check. The biggest problem with Curse is that it costs five mana. Not only that, but it costs five mana against an aggressive deck with Mana Leak, so it’s not even guaranteed to hit the board if you draw it and play it. On top of that, the card still needs a lot of support. Both flipped Delvers and Geist of Saint Traft survive the -1/-1 and still hit pretty hard, especially if they’re backed up by equipment like Sword of War and Peace or Runechanter’s Pike.

The other answer in the same vein as Curse was Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Elesh Norn is much closer to an "I win" card than Curse since -2/-2 kills virtually every creature Delver decks tend to play—though even that might not be enough against a creature with Sword of War and Peace or multiple Drogskol Captains. That said, the percentage of games won by Delver decks against an opposing Elesh Norn is probably incredibly low. It’s certainly justifiable to call Elesh Norn the most powerful card you could play against Delver…but best? It’s hard to seriously argue that a seven-mana creature is the best card available against a beatdown deck with countermagic.

What does it mean, then, to be the best card in a matchup? It’s clearly not just the card that’s the most powerful when it’s in play because otherwise Emrakul, the Aeons Torn would be the best card in just about every matchup in all of Magic. The best card has to be one that can impact the majority of games in which you draw it, and it has to have an extremely powerful proactive or disruptive effect—or optimally both.

As for disruptive effects, many of the rest of the suggestions were various reactive cards: Slagstorm, Whipflare, Mental Misstep, Gut Shot, and Ratchet Bomb. These are all good cards, certainly, and I’m happy to have them in my deck against Delver. That said, I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say any of them are the best card you could possibly hope to have in your deck in the matchup. Delver decks are naturally resilient to removal thanks to Moorland Haunt, equipment, and countermagic, while Gitaxian Probe gives them info they need to help them play around sweepers. It’s not like you can just sit back on a Slagstorm and hope your opponent overcommits when you’re getting hit by a Delver. Not only is it taking huge chunks out of your life total, but you can’t even be assured that it will resolve when you do want to pull the trigger. Removal against Delver is a matter of life or death—it’s not about value.

Is it something like Huntmaster of the Fells then? In Honolulu, Huntmaster was certainly the best card in our deck against Delver. It gave our otherwise slow deck the ability to proactively impact the board as early as the third turn with a ramp spell and forced our Delver opponents to play spells on their own turn when they really wanted to just sit back and keep counter mana open. I think Huntmaster is certainly on my short list of the best cards against Delver, but I’m not sure it’s number one.

Some suggested "Zombies" as an answer, and while Zombie decks in general are strong against Delver decks, it’s hard to pinpoint a particular card that makes that the case. If anything, the marquee Zombie beater of Geralf’s Messenger is perhaps the worst card in the matchup since it’s a three casting cost-creature that can’t block the turn it comes into play. It’s worth noting why Zombies  tends to have an edge against Delver decks, though, in our search for our best single card. Zombies is favored from a structural perspective. Cheap, high-power creatures like Diregraf Ghoul and Gravecrawler match up very well against Mana Leak and Vapor Snag. Delver’s basic strategy just doesn’t match up nearly as well against opponents who are also playing cheap, efficient threats that can put it on the defensive.

So after all that—what do I think the answer is? Well, I’m glad you asked. You see, I had a card in mind when I asked the question in the first place….

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here, since we haven’t really seen Thalia make a big splash in Standard just yet. But at GP Indy a few weeks ago, I played G/W Beatdown.

(As an aside, I hate the name "Maverick" and Legacy deck names in general. So many of them are completely meaningless and tell you nothing about the actual deck if you’re not already in the know. I wrote "Iceman" on my decklist since I figure one Top Gun call sign is as good as the next. You can be my Wingman any time.) 

One of the cards that had me the most excited about playing the deck was Thalia. In a format like Legacy, so many of the decks are very land light and spell heavy, using deck manipulation spells like Ponder and Brainstorm to find the appropriate mix of lands and spells to allow them to actually play the game.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Delver is the closest thing Standard has seen in a long time to a Legacy deck. In fact, many of the cards in Delver—like Ponder, Snapcaster Mage, and Delver of Secrets itself—actually see play in Legacy! Delver, like so many Legacy decks, is able to use cheap cantrips to run a low land count while still operating effectively. Gitaxian Probe may be no Brainstorm, but it’s often playing much the same role—digging that much closer to the lands and spells that you really want. Vapor Snag is no Lightning Bolt and Mana Leak is no Spell Snare, but they play very similar roles—keeping the board clear of problematic permanents while your Delvers and company mop up, while Snapcaster Mage ensures they can come back for seconds.

Now add Thalia, Guardian of Thraben into the equation.

Suddenly everything in the Delver deck that was once so efficient is now a horribly bad deal. Would you pay two mana for Ponder? For Vapor Snag? Three mana for Mana Leak? The operative question isn’t just would you be willing to but can you even afford to when you’re playing a deck with 21 land with the plan of using these now horribly inefficient cantrips to find enough to play your spells. Snapcaster Mage is a card that shines in decks with cheap instants because each additional mana matters so much on the margins, which turns every repeat purchase of your already sluggish spells into that much worse a bargain. It’s much harder to get in a surprise hit with Runechanter’s Pike or Sword of War and Peace when you have to spend the extra mana to play it and still pay to equip.

On top of that, Thalia’s body matters. As a 2/1 first striker, she can hold off Geist of Saint Traft and can attack past Moorland Haunt tokens. Even outside the Delver matchup, 2/1 first strike is a respectable body, holding off Strangleroot Geists and every creature coming out of Zombies (which is thematically appropriate seeing as she is the Guardian of Thraben). Sure she’s somewhat fragile, but you can’t ask your two-drop to do everything.

It was actually almost solely because I wanted to find a home for Thalia that I put together this deck earlier this week:

Those of you who watched my videos this week will certainly recognize this since it’s the exact same list I played there. I’m still working on refining the deck, but so far I’ve been very happy with it. And I’ve been downright thrilled with Thalia. She has been outstanding not only against Delver but against the entire range of decks I’ve faced in my (admittedly limited) testing over the course of the week.

This deck shares many obvious similarities with Lukas Blohan’s Naya Pod deck from his Top 8 finish at PT Honolulu since I outright stole his mana base and mix of mana creatures. I’d previously been working on an aggressive Naya deck for a while, but I was hellbent on fitting Hellrider, couldn’t get the mana to work out, and eventually dropped it to work on various Lingering Souls decks. Once I thought of Thalia, though, I realized this would be a perfect home for her since it’s an aggressive and spell-light deck.

Or, at least, it became an aggressive and spell-light deck once I jettisoned the whole Birthing Pod plan. I’ve never been a big fan of Birthing Pod in particular because I always hated the way people built Pod decks. Yes, playing with Birthing Pod means that you can play a bunch of silver bullet cards and value creatures at every drop and chain all the way to the most powerful thing imaginable (actually you can’t because there’s no fourteen-cost creatures to sacrifice to get Emrakul—sorry!). I hate decks like that as they have so many opportunities to end up with clunky, do-nothing draws because they draw this or that bullet. They’re so reliant on drawing the actual card Birthing Pod that they’re often crippled when they don’t find it or it gets destroyed and they’re left trying to naturally cast their Elesh Norns.

That’s the reason I liked Lukas’s shell. With Blade Splicer and Huntmaster of the Fells and Strangleroot Geist, he has real creatures that can generate a meaningful board presence. And with Gavony Township those creatures can actually beat someone down. In fact, they’re so capable of doing so that I felt like that ought to be the deck’s plan A and let the whole Birthing Pod element take a back seat.

Initially I cut the Birthing Pods entirely, choosing to instead play Green Sun’s Zeniths, but after playing around a bit I realized that so many of the creatures in my deck had natural synergy with Pod that I might as well include some of them. So that’s why the deck looks like it does with a pair of Birthing Pods and a few cards to search for at each cost. This isn’t a "Birthing Pod deck" per se, but rather a deck that has Birthing Pod because it’s so powerful with Blade Splicer and Huntmaster.

The problem with being a somewhat faster, sleeker version of the Birthing Pod decks out there is that being slightly faster has never been where you want to be in a head-to-head matchup. The cardinal rule of deck matchups is that you either want to be much faster or slightly slower than your opponent—basically, you want to be able to beat them before their plan comes online or be able to trump what they’re doing. This deck is the slightly slower deck against the other creature decks in the format, but against opposing Birthing Pod decks they’re the ones with that natural advantage.

That’s where the seemingly out of place Grafdigger’s Cages in the sideboard come from. Against other Pod decks, you take out your Pods entirely and focus on being an aggressive deck with the ability to control the board thanks to Daybreak Ranger and Huntmaster while attempting to shut down their access to trump cards like Elesh Norn with Grafdigger’s Cage. Does it work? I don’t know—I haven’t tried it yet. This is very much still a work in progress, but I figured I’d share even my untested ideas with you so you can give them a shot yourselves.

In all likelihood something like this is what I’m going to be playing at the SCG Open Series: Baltimore featuring the Invitational. Hopefully I’m right and Thalia is as good as I think it is because I’m all-in on her in all formats…

Until next time,