No Delver, No Top 8; Know Delver, Know Top 8

Ben Friedman is on the rise with his second Grand Prix Top 8 at Minneapolis last weekend. Read about his U/W Delver deck and changes he would make to it for Standard in Nashville this weekend.

Here’s a sample hand for you all to think about as you read this article: on the draw at six cards already.

How many of you would keep this no-land hand? After taking a peek at Brad’s risky (read: loose) keep in the Top 8 of GP Minneapolis, all I could say was, "Wow!" Of course, after all the laughter at poor Brad’s expense, he proceeded to draw a bunch of lands and stabilized, then drew running Grand Architects off the top to show me the true meaning of "run-good." I was shocked at this reversal of fortunes, but despite being just a teensy bit unhappy with the way things played out, in retrospect, I can’t complain about the weekend as a whole.

I had a good weekend and started the new season off on the right foot, playing a skill-intensive deck and kicking off a summer of great Magic. Plus, unlike last season, I don’t have to rely on a special Sponsor’s Exemption to get to the next Pro Tour. That’s something to be thankful for; now it’s just time to prove that I deserve to be on the train.

But let’s back up a week. As Matt Costa put it, I won just by getting to play in Barcelona. I played a fine Naya deck designed by the inimitable Brian Braun-Duin and tuned by the good folks on Team SCG Blue, and though I missed cashing by losing the last round, Matt’s right. Since he and I met at Grand Prix D.C. two years ago and struck up a friendship, our goal was to get on the train, and we both achieved it this year. Who would have thought that two 17-year-old kids heading to their first Pro Tour in San Juan would both end up where we are now? And considering which one of us got luckier to be here, an unfortunate loss in the last round shouldn’t even faze me.

Always ready to put my things in a lighter perspective, on the other hand, my good friend and goofball Alex Majlaton explained that I was like Dante in Clerks for PT Avacyn Restored, and that I should remember, "I’m not even supposed to be here today!" Well, let’s recount the things that did end up happening at the tournament that almost never was:

I had three final exams over the weekend of the tournament that I was able to bump to later that week. Lucky!

I took one final exam the Wednesday before the tournament, and after finishing it hopped in a cab to Dulles airport, eventually making it across the Atlantic and to sunny Barcelona by Thursday at 3 PM. I thought I knew the name of the hotel we had booked, but it turns out that I didn’t know it well enough for the taxi driver to find it. After I told him to just take me to the convention center, I ended up with a non-functioning phone, 40 fewer euros in my wallet, and no idea where I was except that the tournament was certainly not at the convention center I was dropped off at.

However, I managed to get a friendly convention center receptionist to help me figure out what tram and subway I’d have to take to get to the Plaza Espanya, which turned out to be on the other side of the city. As a bonus, I didn’t get pickpocketed throughout this ordeal on Barcelona’s public transport system, and I made it to the site in time to meet up with Reid, Matt, and Jarvis for dinner. Double lucky!

I felt pretty sick every morning during the tournament (probably a product of jetlag and stress), but there was a juice bar with special immune system-boosting smoothies to help me make it through the days, and we went for delicious gelato just about every night. Triple lucky! The only thing that would have made the trip better (aside from doing better at the tournament) would have been if I could have stayed longer and toured around Barcelona more with Matt and Reid, but sadly I had finals to take.

That’s the main issue I have with Pro Tour travel; you almost always only have time for the tournament and you get no real traveling experience unless you stay for a few days after the event. I’d like to actually visit the place where I’m playing, but I can’t do that with school commitments. If you ever go to a Pro Tour, make sure you don’t leave for a few days after the tournament so you can actually fulfill that classic tagline, "Play the game, see the world." At least I got to visit Sagrada Familia, or as Sam Black put it, "The best building in the world." To be honest, I have a hard time coming up with a counterexample because, man, that building is something else, and it definitely made my last day in Spain a bit more memorable.

After leaving on an early flight from Barcelona Monday morning, I got back to campus in time to go to bed before taking two finals that I hadn’t studied for. Fortunately, I had some great advice from my friend Gerard Fabiano going into the tests. I had told him that I needed a 75 on my math final to get an A in the class, and he said that I would definitely get it despite not studying enough. In his words, "It’s cool, man. Do you think you know 75% of the stuff you need to know? Remember, you don’t need to go 16-0; you only need to go 12-3-1 to Top 8 a Pro Tour!" Wise words, but after a sickening 65 on the final I thought I had punted my A away. Turns out the curve was deeper than I’d expected. Quadruple lucky!

Now for a little actual Magic strategy, for those of you who care about such things. Despite Hayne’s win with a sweet miracle deck that miraculously puts every opponent on mega-tilt after every match, I think that, yet again, Zvi’s timeless mantra that the format is about its mana held true for this tournament. Playing with eight mana accelerants was pretty awesome, and getting to play with lands that help you not flood, like Gavony Township, made our team’s Naya deck feel a lot like old Mythic decks with high land counts, sweet mana acceleration, and the ability to come trucking in with those lands as the game goes long.

Unfortunately we didn’t keep hammering at the actual Mythic deck of the format, which Sam Black managed to make work with the help of Abundant Growth. Make no mistake: Wolfir Silverheart was Avacyn Restored’s answer to Sovereigns of Lost Alara, and it’ll be making great waves in Standard once the Vapor Snag test (the Jace test’s beloved grandson) is no longer a huge issue. In fact, it’s even making waves now in G/R Aggro, and it should be a standout card in a Naya or Bant shell once the guilds are back with us upon the Return to Ravnica. If I had to make a prediction right now, the format will be about pushing ahead on tempo enough to drop a Wolfir Silverheart the turn before your opponent does. Get ready for some big Wolves tearing chunks out of life totals everywhere come fall!

As for the relevant format for PTQs, StarCityGames.com Opens, and countless local events everywhere, I got to play a good bit of Standard at GP Minneapolis, and my friendship with Delver of Secrets continues unabated. I arrived in Minneapolis with local talent Steve Dupal on Friday night after a plane ride of jamming Delver against G/R, which helped me figure out what kind of sideboard plan I wanted for the matchup.

The trick is to go big to just buy time until you can drop a Consecrated Sphinx and end the game. You don’t need your Swords of War and Peace, or your Mana Leaks, or your Geist of Saint Trafts. You are boarding in Day of Judgment, Timely Reinforcements, Divine Offering, Celestial Purge, Phantasmal Image, and Batterskull (I know they have removal for it but it’s still fine to require them to have that removal or lose, and it’s invincible if you delay for long enough to get to eight mana). You can cut a couple of Gitaxian Probes as well, as you want to conserve your life total.

Here’s my list from the Grand Prix:

And here are the changes you should make before taking it to your next tournament and why they need to be made.

Add one Restoration Angel and take out one Geist of Saint Traft, because Geist is so bad against G/R Aggro when they have so many blockers and Restoration Angel is more Mistbind Clique than Nephalia Seakite. But seriously, the fact that your opponent can’t play around your Plumeveil in addition to your Vapor Snags, Snapcasters, and Mana Leaks makes Delver even trickier than it was before.

Being able to dodge traditional means of locking out Delver (Curse of Death’s Hold) as well as providing the awesome one-two punch of Angel into Sword, equip, swing is awesome. Being able to double up on Snapcaster Mage triggers is awesome. Being able to brick wall Strangleroot Geists is awesome. Being able to save a creature from removal is awesome. Just try playing against a deck with Restoration Angel, and see how uncomfortable you are no matter what line you take. Restoration Angel for president!

Additional changes you could try include cutting a Sword of War and Peace for a Sword of Feast and Famine. It’s very close in my opinion because War and Peace is just such a game-changer in terms of winning a race, which is all Delver wants to do. You are playing lots of Phyrexian mana cards costing yourself precious life, and Sword of War and Peace is your only maindeck way to gain back that life. That said the card is awkward against G/R, although it’s important, especially game 1, against the Delver mirror.

Basically, it comes down to this: War and Peace is for Delver (including Lingering Souls Delver), Humans, and Mono Red whereas Feast and Famine is for Wolf Run, Birthing Pod, and G/R Aggro. Both cards are good against Zombies and Control. Pick your poison. I chose two War and Peace because I wanted more good cards against matchups where I felt I get less thoughtful game play in and more mindless races, which were W/R Humans and Delver. I like my spot against G/R Aggro even without the second Feast and Famine, especially because I don’t want that much equipment postboard. I know Gerry Thompson advocated two Feast and Famine and I respect that decision, but I think it’s very close and I’m going to stick with War and Peace for now.

Mutagenic Growth should be in over Faith’s Shield simply because zero mana tricks give you the opportunity for blowouts unlike any other card. Two mana for Snapcaster Mage on a Mutagenic Growth is pretty nice, too, much more so than a pricy three mana for Snapcaster Mage on Faith’s Shield.

The last change is another nice one. I think I want a second Day of Judgment in the sideboard. It’s super cool when you get to blow them out with it, and you always get to set it up with Timely Reinforcements making it seem like you’re just super behind on board. They commit another creature or two, and BANG! Four-for-two or three-for-two, and you get to unload a Consecrated Sphinx or a Restoration Angel or a Snapcaster + Sword on their poor souls.

Plus, then they start playing around your two-of in game 3, and you just crush their brains with a Sphinx because they held back. I’d cut a Celestial Purge most likely, although I could be convinced to cut a Batterskull or Dissipate. Dissipate is only there for control as it’s flaccid against Ramp’s Cavern of Souls, and you already beat most control decks with tight play and Restoration Angel as a flash threat that they have to tap low to answer.

Anyway, after going to Panera Bread to pass the time with a truly great crew during the byes, I enjoyed several very close matches to start Day 1. I played first against B/W Tokens, where I won on one life in an extremely tense game 3 that involved multiple topdecks on both sides. That matchup is actually very bad without getting them with Sword of War and Peace or turning into a Day of Judgment + Consecrated Sphinx control deck.

Round 5 was against an extremely friendly player with W/R Humans, and I won in three close games after getting him with Day of Judgment and Consecrated Sphinx. That card singlehandedly won me both of my first matches at the tournament; maybe that’s why I want to add a second one!

Round 6 was against a Solar Flare deck that never actually did anything. I kid you not, whatever the opposite of "fire on all cylinders" is, my opponent’s deck did it. He had a Liliana of the Veil stranded in his hand game 1, and he mulliganed into a do-nothing six carder in game 2.

Round 7 was against a G/R Aggro deck, and after a close game 3 that ended with me having lethal damage on the board as the fifth turn of time expired after blocking and trading a Wolf Run-buffed Huntmaster of the Fells with Consecrated Sphinx to avoid being in burn range. I then dropped Batterskull and just didn’t have enough time to get in the last few points of damage. My opponent, however, chose to concede rather than saddle each of us with a draw so early in the tournament. Hats off to Andrew Zachow for conceding after a well-fought match. Additionally, slops to me for not speeding up the pace of between game shuffling when I should have seen that time would be an issue.

Round 8 was against Ricky Sidher (or _SipitHolla on Magic Online). I got him with a Consecrated Sphinx equipped with Batterskull in game 3; how embarrassing for young Rick. I felt bad about beating him because Ricky is one of the unfortunate victims of the Silver Level in the Pro Player’s Club, with a heartbreaking 24 Pro Points for last year. After all Wizards has done for me to bump me onto Gold Level, I feel like there should be some sort of opportunity for Silver Level pros to regain a foothold on the train, perhaps with a single unpaid PT invite or an opportunity for cross-season point thresholds to get to Gold. There are great players at Silver Level who deserve some tangible benefit above and beyond invitations to the WMCQs for their performances.

Anyway, round 9 I played poorly against B/G/R Zombie Pod, culminating in not casting a main phase Celestial Purge on his Geralf’s Messenger in game 3 and then watching him Go for its Throat in response to my midcombat Purge. Yuck! Fortunately, I was still in a good position to go deep at the tournament, and Reid Duke expressed his confidence in me at dinner saying that I’d definitely go 4-1-1 the next day and make Top 8. A delicious dinner at Ichiban saw me in better spirits, and I started off Day 2 confident as ever.

A close match against the mirror awaited me round 10, and after barely getting the win my confidence level started picking up. Round 11 was against U/W Delver Humans, and again I managed to get the win with Day of Judgment proving to be an MVP. That brings us to round 12, where I played against Josh Utter-Leyton for the first time ever in my Magic career. He was a great opponent, and our match was very swingy and exciting, culminating in him drawing an Honor of the Pure on the last turn of game 3 to take the match in dramatic fashion. I was disappointed to lose to a topdeck, but to be fair he was drawing to any Vapor Snag, Gut Shot, Honor of the Pure, Ponder, or Snapcaster Mage. Josh would have the easy route to Top 8, but I was still confident going into the last three rounds.

Unfortunately, I played against another friend, Ryan Bogner, in round 13. His RUG Pod deck was really awesome, and after a super-tight game 1 that I took with a topdecked Vapor Snag and a punishing game 2 where Ryan just crushed me, I took game 3 against Ryan’s somewhat slow hand that didn’t play a proactive spell until a turn 3 Birthing Pod. I countered his Huntmaster and pulled ahead with a Restoration Angel. He was too far behind to come back even with some last-minute Pod shenanigans. If I wanted to have a lot of fun playing a non-Delver deck at a Standard tournament, I’d look into Birthing Pod because it seems very good in the right hands.

Round 14 was against Lambros Doulos playing R/G, and after splitting the first two games to aggressive starts, I took game 3 in anticlimactic fashion after casting Gut Shot on Lambros’ Llanowar Elves and him missing his second land drop. A quick draw with Calcano, and I was in my second GP Top 8!

And that brings us back to Brad’s loosey-goosey keep in our Top 8 match. Although he went on to lose in the finals of the tournament to Calcano’s U/R Delver deck, I think that his deck is fairly poor positioned against Delver, and any increase in its popularity will only be a good thing for the patient and prepared Delver player.

So Delver has kicked off my Magic year with a bang, and I expect it to carry me through the summer. If you enjoy playing mathy games of Magic, planning out your turns in advance, and abusing information imbalances, you’d best let Delver help you get to the next level. Good luck in your PTQs and SCG Open Series!

Best wishes,
Ben Friedman