If you play Magic, you know the feeling. Even if you’re Jace, the Mind Sculptor himself, there has to be a feeling of dread in your stomach when your opponent calmly lays an Island and taps it for this guy:
The mind races. You suddenly realize that you’re going to have to fight for every inch of board presence. Cards will not stick around for long if they even get a chance to hit the battlefield. Turn 1 three power of flying pain. You are already behind.
That feeling sucks.
Your synapses fire trying to calculate every possible answer. What counterspells are they packing? Are they running bounce? How far behind can I get before their card advantage puts me away?
That feeling sucks.
Chances are if you have played Pauper in the past two years, you have experienced these emotions. The little Human Wizard Insect Mutant two-sided flying beatstick has been ubiquitous in Pauper since the first day Innistrad was legal. Being an Eternal format, Pauper already had access to some of the best blue mistakes (aka good cards), but the introduction of Delver of Secrets pushed the blue-based tempo deck over the top.
Where before the deck could present threats in the form of Pestermite (alongside the current suite), with the advent of the world of Gothic Horror, the deck gained access to one of the best offensive one-drops ever printed. Currently, the deck averages about 25% of the winners metagame. Yet for all the numbers it puts up, there has not been a consensus decision about the best way to build a Delver deck.
Delver Blue is a tempo based aggro-control deck. The goal of the deck is to stick an early Delver of Secrets or similar threat (cheap, evasive, or both) and start picking away at the opponent’s life total. Counterspells and bounce effects help to keep the path clear while doubling as protection for the investment in board presence. Blue’s potent suite of card selection and draw spells—the murderer’s row of Brainstorm, Ponder, and Preordain—helps to sculpt draws and eke out advantage (while also aiding the metamorphosis into Insectile Aberration). Finally, the decks tend to feature some true card advantage in Ninja of the Deep Hours and either a package of the full four Accumulated Knowledges or a copy or two of Gush. Beyond a relatively tight core, a Delver deck is a varied thing.
What are noble mages to do? With so many options outside a core, how can one prepare? The answer, as it is so often in life, is math.
With no true consensus on what a Delver list should be, I decided to go Hall of Fame on the deck. Following in the footsteps of Frank Karsten (someone who is much better at the numbers game than I am), I decided to create an aggregate Delver list. Frank did this for Faeries in preparation for Worlds 2008. Delver is kinda like Faeries, right? Right.
I have been tracking all Daily Events results on my Facebook page for regular metagame analysis, and from August 2nd through August 9th there were 37 decks that could be classified as Delver Blue. I excluded any deck that took a more controlling route (fewer than sixteen creatures) or added another color (the rare Dimir Delver Teachings deck). Also, since the Nivix Cyclops deck is clearly on a different game plan, it does not count as a Delver deck (although it does feature our title character).
I recorded all the cards that appeared and then averaged their numbers across all decks. At the end of the exercise, there were 36 unique cards vying for their spot in Delver of Secrets decks (and on the day after I compiled my list, a 37th card, Cloudfin Raptor, made a single appearance). Now, some of these cards are personal choices, and many do not appear in more than one list (Capsize and Hands of Binding for example). Some cards average to around one card but do not make sense as a singleton (Daze and Accumulated Knowledge spring to mind). Conspicuous by its absence:
While examining the data, I began to notice definite trends. Some cards are universally agreed upon: every list packed sixteen Islands, four Delver of Secrets, four Spellstutter Sprites, and four Counterspells. There were multiple lists that scrimped on Cloud of Faeries and Ninja of the Deep Hours. One list managed to cut Cloud of Faeries entirely (which just seems wrong since it decided to keep the full complement of Spellstutter Sprite).
The mix of one-mana manipulation spells is telling. Preordain averages three inclusions per deck (although noted Delver pilot Mezzel avoids them entirely). Brainstorm and Ponder average two per deck each. This is not the whole story. Brainstorm might average two cards per 60, but the most popular number for the standout manipulation spell is four. The same is true for Ponder and Preordain. Eleven decks ran all three in some configuration (almost 30%). There was an average of just over seven of these cards combined per Delver deck.
The current batch of blue decks also skew towards being aggressive. Phantasmal Bear might be fragile, but it remains a 2/2 for a single blue mana. The average deck at the end of this exercise included just under two Phantasmal Bears, but the most popular number of inclusions was a big fat goose egg. While you are less likely to face the additional one-drop, the presence of one indicates that the deck has made space for Goldilocks’ three ursine pals.
The only catchall hard counter aside from Counterspell to make an appearance in any significant capacity is Deprive. Almost as good as the original, Deprive nails everything at the cost of tempo. In this deck, the setback of a land drop barely matters thanks to the ability to turn a one-drop into three power while keeping the other side of the battlefield empty. Exclude is at the upper limit for cost in this strategy but also averages 0.65 cards per deck, so you can safely expect to face one (although most decks that included one had a second copy main as well).
When it comes to board control, Delver decks prefer bounce to actual removal, focusing more on Snap (because free spells are awesome [and fair clearly]). These decks average just over 3.5 board control cards per 60. Snap has some clear advantages (aside from being free) in that it can protect your own creatures and allows for rebuys on Spellstutter Sprite. The inclusion of Snap does not preclude the presence of Phantasmal Bear, which is important to note (since Snap will just kill the Bear and then not resolve the untap clause).
Snap averaged three inclusions, but the most common number was four. Second most popular is Piracy Charm. The flexible charm fills many roles, taking care of pesky creatures, stripping a final threat via discard, or pumping a Spire Golem for the kill. Piracy Charm averaged one inclusion, but most decks left it out of their maindeck.
With rounding up (anything that averages .5 cards gets upped to the next full card), here is what an average Delver deck looks like:
4 Cloud of Faeries
4 Delver of Secrets
1 Frostburn Weird
4 Ninja of the Deep Hours
2 Phantasmal Bear
4 Spellstutter Sprite
3 Spire Golem
1 Accumulated Knowledge
1 Piracy Charm
Count it out. Only 58 cards. Judge!
There is one more card made up from fractions of land (Island, Lonely Sandbar, or Quicksand) and board control (Piracy Charm, Serrated Arrows, or Vapor Snag). It also does not make sense to include one Daze (the most common number was zero) or Accumulated Knowledge (also zero).
While Delver decks average seventeen lands, those that have one Quicksand tend to have a second (and also tend to average nineteen lands). Given that our average deck has seventeen lands, we will have a final Island over a utility land. For board control, finding space for the fourth Snap makes the most sense because the card is useful on offense and defense. Accumulated Knowledge is an all-or-none type of card, but these decks also have access to Gush so it makes sense to find space for a second as another refill mechanism. For the last card, another library manipulation spell seems best, so rounding out Preordain, arguably the most powerful without more shuffle effects, gets the nod. This gives us:
This is not an unreasonable Delver deck. It also provides some insight into Pauper. First, hard counters are far more valuable than otherwise strong spells such as Mana Leak. This can be attributed to the presence of slower Cloudpost-based control decks and faster decks like Stomp and Affinity that can play around the three-mana payment. Aggression is important. Two Phantasmal Bears and an additional Frostburn Weird are early drops that are useful both on offense and defense (these cards trade very well with cards like Frogmite and Nettle Sentinel, not to mention Kiln Fiend from the Nivix Cyclops deck).
Also, we can see that if the midgame is reached with this deck, tempo matters far less. With a reload option of Gush, setting yourself back on land drops is risky early but does not hurt as bad come turns 5, 6, and 7. This means that cards like Snap are important in helping to stabilize the board before blue can start doing its blue thing.
Of course, this is just a baseline. Using the list of played cards I compiled, it becomes a relatively simple exercise to adjust the numbers on this list for different metagames. For example, there are worlds where a second Exclude is far better than the first Deprive. If blocking is more important than trading, three Frostburn Weirds makes more sense than the Weird / Phantasmal Bear split. And the Brainstorm / Ponder / Preordain can clearly be altered. Maxing out on Ponder makes four Brainstorms far better, and dropping to two Preordains in that situation seems absolutely fine.
The possibilities are endless. The pangs in your stomach are countless.
This 60 is all well and good, but it is known that decks are comprised of 75 cards. Pauper sideboards are largely stagnant, as the format does not evolve without the release of a new set. So as a complement to the aggregate Delver list, I decided to tally the aggregate sideboard. On averages alone, the sideboard would be:
Twelve total cards and perfectly legal under the M14 rules update. Of course, there is something to be said for maxing out on available slots.
This sideboard shows that Delver wants to have an overwhelming matchup against red decks. Goblins is no pushover, as a single Sparksmith can make short work of any army Delver amasses. Hydroblast helps to fight this menace. The presence of Steel Sabotage also shows a respect for Affinity. Coral Net is narrow but makes sense, as both Stompy and White Weenie are decks that can give Delver fits. There is also another slot that is a toss up between the fourth Coral Net and a copy of Curse of Chains / Narcolepsy.
Serrated Arrows is another board control element that averages one spot in the sideboard, but most decks that pack one pack a second in the side. These decks also tend to have access to Echoing Truth to eke out extra value from a recently depleted Arrows. Dispel is another a card that appeared in the maindeck of certain lists. It’s an important tool in the Delver mirror for fighting counter wars and also has utility against the pump spells from Stompy. Stormbound Geist makes an appearance because sometimes you just need another creature. With all this being said, an adjusted aggregate sideboard could be:
While this is a perfectly adequate Delver of Secrets list, it’s more than just that. It’s a tool. Delver is an incredibly popular deck and despite the preponderance of lists there are still disagreements. Take the Aggregate Delver list. It’s capable of playing the aggressive game while slowly gaining card advantage. On the other hand, there’s a pilot like Mezzel, who eschews diversity and some traditional inclusions for a more controlling list:
Mezzel is straightforward. This list wants to stick and early threat and protect it. It’s also more concerned with countering threats, as evidenced by three Deprives. This is helped in part by a land count of nineteen, although two act as a removal spell for ground pounders. Finally, this deck really wants to keep other creatures away, as seen with the two Excludes (remember the most common number in decks was zero).
The Aggregate Delver list is a tool. It’s an antacid to be dropped into your stomach at the sight of turn 1 Island, Delver of Secrets, go. Like the best medicine, it’s only part of a complete cure. A healthy and prepared mind goes a long way. Let me know if you like this concept in the comments or if you disagree with any of my assertions. This was an experiment, and I hope the results leave you better prepared to face a quarter of the Pauper field. Because now you have the best medicine of all: knowledge.
And knowing is half the battle.
Keep slingin’ commons-
SpikeBoyM on Magic Online
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