Leaving A Legacy: Secrets of Delver

After an 8-0 finish in the Legacy portion of the Season Two Invitational and a second-place finish in the Legacy Open as well, Rich Shay has an incredibly strong BUG Delver of Secrets deck that he finds incredibly strong… and the results sure are backing him up!

Magic is a great game. Sure. But that isn’t why I keep coming back to these cards, year after year. No, I keep coming back because, as great of a game as this is, Magic is an amazing community. Over the years I’ve made some of my best and closest friends through this game. It has brough brilliant, interesting people into my life. Last year, I was the best man at a dear friend’s wedding. This friend and I met because we both played Magic, in 2000 at a Brown get-together. When I moved to Pittsburgh to pursue my doctorate, I didn’t know anyone. Fortunately, I could arrive at the CMU Magic club. Suddenly, instant friends. And from the Vintage heyday of Waterbury through this past SCG Legacy Open, the meal after the tournament with friends is the best part of it all.

I’m hoping that you aren’t reading this article to gain any particularly keen insights into Standard. I can assure you that Mono-Black Devotion requires more than a cursory amount of testing to work effectively. Beyond that, my 3-5 Standard record in the Season Two Invitational speaks for itself, sadly. I am in my fifth year of my PhD program in computer science at Carnegie Mellon. I have researched more about how people make passwords than you would probably be willing to believe. And while I absolutely love what I do, it affords me rather little time to learn new and constantly-shifting formats. Fortunately, Pittsburgh has a fantastic Legacy scene, and even a monthly Vintage tournament. I feel very fortunate that I can arrive at a Legacy tournament every Friday night to enjoy good company and well-played games.

The deck that I took to the Season Two Invitational, and the SCG Legacy Open, is BUG Delver. This is also the deck that I’ve used to win two IQs. I finished 8-0 in the Legacy portion of the Invitational. I took second in the Legacy Open with 74 of the same 75. My two losses in the Open were to Manaless Dredge and Death and Taxes. For the rest of this article, I’d like to discuss the BUG Delver deck that I played. And no, the deck is not “Team America” – that’s a poorly-named deck involving Sinkhole.

The Theory Behind Delver

Delver decks are only the latest in a long line of blue Magic decks to utilize the “Turbo Xerox” theory of Alan Comer. The idea is that if you construct a deck with a large number of cantrips and a low mana curve, you can function with a relatively low land count. Early in the game, the cantrips can help to find your lands so that you don’t miss your land drops. As the game progresses, however, the low land count means that you’re drawing far more business spells than you do lands.

Over the years, new cards were printed that fit into this approach very well. Look at the Blue Skies deck of Masques Block Constructed to see a great example of a deck built to maximize its use of lands. In Legacy, Turbo Xerox had already existed as a viable deck, implemented as Canadian Threshold. But the printing of Delver of Secrets changed everything. Turbo Xerox decks were already running a heavy number of spells, and were already interested in attacking. The Insect had a perfect home, and having such a potent first-turn threat propelled the archetype into dominance.

Three-color Delver decks are generally divided into three archetypes. RUG Delver tends to be the most aggressive build, using eighteen land and half a dozen burn spells. This build often uses Stifle to complement Daze and Wasteland in its mana-denial plan while using Tarmogoyf and Nimble Mongoose to present drastically-undercosted threats to the opponent. RUG Delver hopes to keep the opponent off-balance long enough for its creatures and burn to close out the game. The UWR builds of Delver use a slightly-higher land count, trading green for Stoneforge Mystic, some equipment, and Swords to Plowshares. These decks are slightly slower, and less effective at destroying an opponent’s manabase. On the other hand, they have much stronger sideboard cards such as Rest in Peace or Meddling Mage, and Swords to Plowshares allows them to handle cards like Tombstalker which can be difficult for other Delver builds to handle.

The version of Delver that I favor is BUG Delver. BUG Delver lacks red, so doesn’t have the reach of Lightning Bolt that other Delver decks enjoy. An opponent at two life is perfectly safe if no creatures are getting through. The deck is also significantly worse at turning its Wizards into Insects, having around six fewer Instants and Sorceries than RUG. For these reasons, I wouldn’t say that RUG is strictly worse than BUG. Instead, RUG and BUG are different decks in the metagame.

While RUG is very much an aggro deck, BUG can play the aggressive game as well as the control game. That is also a reason that it is more difficult to play than RUG. While RUG really only has one “mode,” BUG requires constant role assessment. In return, BUG gets a better one-drop than even Delver himself: Deathrite Shaman. It is almost always correct to open with the Elf instead of the Wizard, and almost impossible to overestimate how powerful this card is.

While I’ve discussed Delver of Secrets above, Deathrite Shaman deserves special mention. Against RUG Delver, Deathrite Shaman will make things very favorable for you if left unopposed. He undoes their mana-denial effects, accelerates you, sometimes blocks Wizards and Mongeese, and even gets you out of Lightning Bolt range once you’ve stabilized.

Notes on Playing BUG Delver

We’ve already discussed why you may be interested in playing BUG Delver, and I’m sure you’ve seen more than a few lists. In the next section, I’d like to discuss my card choices that may differ from lists that you’ve already seen.

But in order for my decklist to make any sense, you need first to understand how I play the deck. It’s no good arguing that this or that card is better in a vacuum. Is Tombstalker or True-Name Nemesis better? That question can only be properly answered in a context – both within a metagame and a specific way of playing the deck. In my case, I opt for neither, and that is a natural consequence of my philosophy in how I approach the deck.

Against RUG Delver, we are the control deck. We are interested in stopping them, stabilizing, and building up card advantage. They are going to be attacking our manabase with Stifles, and the only way that they can beat us is by winning before we’ve had time to establish ourselves. Don’t worry about winning per se – just halt them, stay above burn range, and the rest will follow. You can Abrupt Decay their Tarmogoyf while yours are fairly safe against their spells. Liliana is a huge card here, generally trading for a creature and then either eating a Lightning Bolt or winning you the game. Either one is fine, really. Short of their few burn spells, RUG can’t do much against an active Liliana. Once you sideboard against RUG, you have access to more and better removal, and you can board out your Forces. Submerge being free is very important, but don’t forget that you need to keep an Island on the table to make it work.

Against Miracles, on the other hand, we don’t want to play the control role: they’re just better at it than we are. Instead, we have creatures, and we need to win before they take control of the game with their Jaces and their Tops. Miracles is a very popular deck, and my build of BUG is designed to be especially good against them. Abrupt Decay makes the Counterbalance portion of their deck a non-factor; in fact, they’ll probably board much of it out. Lili and Jace are strong, but Sylvan Library is backbreaking. Miracles really can’t punish you for spending a lot of life to draw cards. In fact, they are likely to fuel your trips to the Library by sending your creatures farming.

After sideboarding, you get extra copies of Jace and Sylvan Library. You also get Vendilion Clique, who is fantastic against Miracles. Clique can arrive and kill their Jace. Clique can also stop a Miracle from being cast by getting it out of your opponent’s hand with the trigger on the stack. Just watch out for the Miracle player’s Karakas being able to bounce your Clique. Null Rod and Pithing Needle are important for halting Top, as each is able to hit other significant cards as well. Jace and Top are the two scariest cards in the Miracles deck against us.

Against combo decks, you are going to need to present a quick clock while also disrupting them. Disruption is vital, as combo decks are just faster than we are. At the same time, you don’t want to give the combo deck time to accumulate resources. This past weekend, I was playing against Sneak and Show – in fact, I faced the deck six times. In one game, I had a Tarmogoyf and my opponent resolved a third-turn Show and Tell with double counter backup. I had a second Goyf and a Delver. My opponent drained seven life from me with his Demon. Then my Delver flipped and my Goyfs attacked in. When my opponent attacked back, I blocked with my Insect and Abruptly Decayed my own creature, leaving the opponent dead to attacking Tarmogoyfs on my next turn. That’s an example of the aggressive and control elements working together.

The Elves matchup tends to be poor pre-board and much more favorable post-board. If you haven’t played against Elves before with a blue deck, they can be very slippery. They have eight sorceries that can each be lethal, and they can easily win without a Natural Order or Glimpse. Worst of all for us, Elves can out-draw us with their own Insect when used in tandem with Elvish Visionary. Beating them pre-board often requires having Force of Will at the right time, which isn’t exactly a great strategy. On the bright side, the sideboard helps things tremendously; when I’ve faced Elves in tournaments, I’ve always lost the first game but then won the match. Grafdigger’s Cage is huge in this matchup, stopping Natural Order, Green Sun’s Zenith, and even fetching up Dryad Arbor with their fetchlands. Golgari Charm kills most of their creatures, and both Disfigure and Submerge kill anything they have.

My Build of BUG

The above discussion of matchups and how I play them is important to understand why I made the deck-construction choices that I did. I realize that many BUG lists are playing only three copies of Force of Will, and I understand this. It isn’t an ideal card against the mirror matchup or against any deck that wants to cast Aether Vial. On the other hand, Force of Will is an extremely important card against many decks in the format – combo, Elves, and Miracles. It’s so important that I’m willing not only to play four in my deck, but also to construct the rest of the deck to make sure I have enough blue cards to support them. I play 21 blue cards, and I would not want to run fewer with a full set of Forces in the deck. That is a design constraint that will help some of the subsequent choices make sense.

The next card that I’d like to discuss is Hymn to Tourach. This card is both disruption and card advantage, a rare quality for a two-mana spell. Not unlike Wasteland, Hymn will sometimes give you free wins by taking a resource the opponent needed to function within the game. Against RUG, Miracles and combo, I’m perfectly happy to trade one of my cards and two mana for two of their cards. Hymn is particularly good against RUG, and I don’t board them out against them. Every card RUG has is strong, and they have so few lands that if you do hit one with your Hymn, they probably needed it. At some point, RUG will have no cards in their hand. At that point, however, you’re already in great shape since they can’t stop you and don’t have any burn in their hand.

On the other hand, I’m not keen on Thoughtseize. Force of Will and Hymn to Tourach are much better against Miracles in my experience. Thoughtseize doesn’t really fit well with our slow, card-advantage-accumulating plan against RUG, but it does fit their plan of burning us to death. We already have eleven one-drops, so it isn’t like we are lacking on that front. I respect Thoughtseize as a card, but I don’t think it belongs in the maindeck.

Other non-blue options for the deck, such as Disfigure, are perfectly fine but don’t fit in with the plan of running four copies of Force of Will. Disfigure is good, but if you want to play more maindeck removal while still running the maximum number of Forces, you need to run something like Piracy Charm or Dimir Charm. Dimir Charm is neat. Against Miracles and Elves, it stops their game-ending Sorceries. Against decks that don’t have game-ending Sorceries, it will usually kill their creatures. I do keep hoping someday to use Dimir Charm’s other mode to flip my Delver and grow my Tarmogoyf, but that hasn’t happened yet. If Piracy Charm could kill Deathrite Shaman, it would be added immediately.

Finally, there’s the Jace. He’s blue, extremely good against Miracles, and is sometimes amazing against other decks. I know that most people are playing something like True-Name Nemesis in that slot, but Jace does so much for just one more mana. Other cards that I’ve run in the past include Edric, Spymaster of Trest. He’s also blue, and like Jace he can draw you a huge pile of cards. However, if I were going to play more than the basic twelve creatures in the deck, I would be running Vendilion Clique. I had them in the sideboard and they were extremely strong, to the point where I’d consider playing one in the main.

Beyond what I’m actually playing in the deck, I think it is worth discussing a few cards that I have tried but that haven’t worked out. Ponder is a fantastic card, and I wouldn’t call a fourth copy incorrect. Once you have three or four lands in play, Ponder is great. But until you get to that point, Ponder is only good at digging for land. I’d much rather spend the first few turns of the game presenting or answering threats than Pondering. That said, it is blue, and it’s good enough to be restricted in Vintage; I can’t call it wrong.

I’m less happy with Dark Confidant. He’s basically unplayable when you have a full set of Forces, as he isn’t blue. Even with three copies of Force, however, Confidant is extremely good at winning games for our opponent in this deck. Our mana curve is somewhat high, and we don’t have Sensei’s Divining Top to keep ourselves safe with him on the table.When I was playing with Dark Confidant, far too often I found I would need to remove him myself to prevent the cost of greatness from getting too high.

If you do play Legacy, you might enjoy giving this deck a try. I wouldn’t be playing it if I didn’t think it were very fun. If you don’t play Legacy, I highly recommend giving the format a shot. It’s my favorite format at this point, and no matter what sort of decks you enjoy playing, there’s a deck for you in Legacy.