Last week, I wrote an article that meant a lot to me. You can read it here. While the original title was "Win," I felt like the piece helped reflect a little part of me that most of you don't get to see very often. I don't usually write articles that forego the traditional "decklist-into-subsequent strategy" theme, but when I do they don't always bring out the best parts of me because those are the times when I'm the most vulnerable and emotional. Last week, I felt something different, and I hope you got to enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
As most of you know who read my column regularly, I'm a bit of an odd bird. I like giving level-headed and concise arguments about whatever deck is the flavor of the week. Delver is currently the hot button in Standard right now, but I'm not going to give you another Delver primer. The last thing you need is for me to tell you that Delver of Secrets is a good card and that the occasional equipment is sweet.
To say I like to attack people from odd angles is an understatement. I mean, I've been the one slamming down Dungrove Elders when everyone else is playing Ponder. At one point, I had an average of 1.3 Mutagenic Growths in my Standard decks for about three weeks straight. I am not entirely sane, and I like to try new things. Maybe, at the very least, you can learn to try and think for yourselves, but today we're going to give you a starting point.
The fact of the matter is that Delver is huge right now, and if you aren't doing everything in your power to beat it, then you're probably going to end up getting smashed by it. So today we're going to go over Delver a little bit differently. Today we're going to go over each of Delver's matchups and how to sideboard against them. For those of you planning on playing against Delver, take heed. This is likely how they will try to beat you, and you should try to use this knowledge to your advantage!
First of all, there are a ton of different Delver decks, but I'll begin today by talking about Shahar Shenhar's list since he won Grand Prix: Salt Lake City. For reference, here is his list:
Using this list, I'll give you a detailed matchup-by-matchup analysis of the most important cards and how you should sideboard in each. I'll also go over what cards they'll likely be bringing in against you and how you can counteract their countermeasures!
While I don't necessarily agree with some of the cards in this list, this is the best place to start. Shahar is a great player, and the fact that he won a Limited Grand Prix and Constructed Grand Prix in the last few months should give him a lot of credit. This is also the list you'll most likely face off against the most, and if you are on the opposing side, you'll want to know how they will be sideboarding against you. Let's begin!
The mirror rarely plays out the same and honestly just depends on what version your opponent is playing. There are so many versions of the mirror that your entire post-board strategy almost entirely relies on whatever you think your opponent is doing. Equipment is usually very good against most mirrors, but a single Divine Offering or Revoke Existence can eliminate any advantage you may have gained from your one or two swings from an equipped creature.
From my experience, Mana Leak is generally terrible while on the draw but fine when you're on the play. This is mostly due to the fact that, if you're on the play, it is much easier to establish a board presence and then control what your opponent is doing with counterspells. If you are behind, then Mana Leak isn't going to save you and will likely be the cause of your demise should you draw one or two of them in the mid-late game.
While on the draw, it is very easy for you to fall behind to a pair of Delvers or the like. Having Corrosive Gale can bail you out of a lot of situations. You can also expect most Delver opponents to be bringing in some number of Dungeon Geists, though they are pretty mediocre in the mirror to be honest.
Vapor Snag is not a good card in the mirror. Your best target is a flipped Delver of Secrets, but bouncing it will only delay the beats, not really long enough to invest a card. The mirror is an attrition battle that generally revolves around equipment and your ability to defend against it, but there are still nut draws that will easily win from one angle or another. Too many Geists of Saint Traft backed by Gut Shot and Snapcaster Mage will easily put you too far behind in the mirror if you don't draw a Geist of your own or a Phantasmal Image. As I said earlier, most games are unique and require different solutions to the problems your opponent will present.
While this is "technically" a version of Delver, it generally plays out nothing like your average Delver deck. Instead of trying to gain tempo advantage and closing the door with Geist of Saint Traft, your opponent will attempt to overwhelm you with an ever-growing board presence fueled by Lingering Souls and Drogskol Captain. Unfortunately, most of your removal doesn't do a lot against this game plan, and you will generally find yourself behind unless you can get an absurd draw in the first game or back up your pressure with a Corrosive Gale in the second.
While Spirits isn't that great against Wolf Run, it is very good against other Delver decks. If you expect your opponents to be playing Equipment versions of Delver, I would recommend playing this version of the deck over the next few weeks, or at least until people realize that Corrosive Gale was the only thing holding this deck back.
Being on the play or draw doesn't really change your game plan in this matchup. They will almost always side in some form of Revoke Existence or Divine Offering to blow out your equipment, so putting yourself into a situation to get blown out is not a great idea. However, Sword of War and Peace is very good against Lingering Souls. They do have a ton of ways to just block your creature, as long as it isn't an Invisible Stalker, though. It is probably worth keeping in most of the time, but just try to gauge whether or not you think you'll have enough time to stick it on a creature and deal them some major damage. My guess is no, and if so then you can take out the Swords for Dissipate, since it can trade evenly for a Lingering Souls.
Corrosive Gale plus a little pressure is probably your best bet in this matchup. They will likely get greedy and just use their Phantasmal Images to copy their Drogskol Captains. In these scenarios, your Geists of Saint Traft will be awesome. If they decide to murder your best threat, then you might be in a bit of trouble.
G/R/x Wolf Run Ramp
This matchup can be incredibly swingy and usually just revolves around you having an early board presence. If they're able to handle your early pressure and proceed to drop bomb after bomb, you will likely run out of counters, and quickly. Geist of Saint Traft is an absolute beating and pairs well with Mutagenic Growth should you decide to run a few, since it helps you dodge Slagstorm and Whipflare. However, most versions aren't playing the Phyrexian instant, so those of you playing Wolf Run shouldn't worry about it too much.
Thrun is a pretty serious problem in this matchup, since it can block your Geists of Saint Traft pretty easily. Thrun also can't be bounced by Vapor Snag, or killed with Dismember, or...you get the point. Thrun is a pain, and Phantasmal Image is your only real way to deal with it. While you can usually handle the rest of the deck, you just can't afford to give them the time necessary to take control of the game.
After boarding, this matchup generally is fought and won over their resolving of a Titan. If they resolve a Primeval Titan, you will likely have a one-turn window where you can kill them by using Vapor Snag or something to get it off the table. After that, they will usually have 1-3 Inkmoth Nexus to prevent further attacks from dealing them lethal damage. Phantasmal Image shouldn't usually be cast without killing Thrun because they have Kessig Wolf Run to kill it freely.
Celestial Purge could potentially come in for more copies of Vapor Snag since it deals with Huntmaster of the Fells and Inferno Titan, but the fact that you can't bounce a resolved Primeval Titan or Solemn Simulacrum is pretty annoying.
This matchup can be a bit difficult and generally relies on whether or not you have any dedicated sideboard cards. Batterskull, Celestial Purge, and Timely Reinforcements are all incredibly powerful against Zombies and are your best weapons for stalling their aggressive plan long enough for you to take control of the board. This is one of the only matchups where I feel like Delver needs to become the control deck, which is probably why the matchup can be so bad if you don't go out of your way to beat it.
Mana Leak and Gitaxian Probe are both very bad in this matchup. For one, you rarely have time to cast Mana Leak on a relevant threat, and your opponent can often just apply pressure on the first or second turn before Mana Leak comes online, then sit on threats until you tap out or they draw enough lands to play around it.
Gitaxian Probe will almost always cost you life to cast because you will generally commit your mana each turn to slowing down their clock and stabilizing. Batterskull should be your endgame, but you can win through a few other means. Their removal package makes it difficult for many of your creatures to stay alive long enough for them to do any serious damage, but you want all of your equipment around after the dust settles so that your Moorland Haunt tokens have a chance to actually win the game.
U/B Control/Esper Control
These matchups play out almost entirely the same, since U/B Control decks are beginning to come back to reality and are playing things like Consecrated Sphinx, Grave Titan, and Wurmcoil Engine again. Both of them will have removal, counterspells, and various card draw effects to help dig for their sweepers. Your goal should be to stick a relevant threat and protect it.
While not every Esper Control deck is the same, I'm just assuming that their win condition is not Lingering Souls. Should this be the case, I would recommend +2 Corrosive Gale instead of a Batterskull and Celestial Purge.
After sideboarding, their deck will likely feature many copies of Curse of Death's Hold, as well as a plethora of removal to help kill your Delvers and possibly your Geists of Saint Traft. Your spells should help protect you in the early game, as well as solve problems that otherwise put you in very compromising conditions. Celestial Purge, while not amazing, can handle a variety of threats from the control opponents.
While Batterskull isn't amazing against them it is a threat that is generally tough to deal with. Should you land one to begin with, you will be able to apply some pressure and rebuy the Batterskull to make another Germ token later in the game or bait out a Dissipate so that another threat can resolve. If you wish to leave it in play, it can turn any of your paltry threats into a powerhouse.
This matchup is much easier when you're playing Gut Shot. Their mana is really fragile and requires their Birds of Paradise to survive in order to be fast enough to compete. If you kill their mana producers, you will likely generate enough of a tempo advantage to end the game with just a single Mana Leak.
They will almost always bring in Ancient Grudge, which is just an absolute beating against your equipment. Siding them out is probably your best bet, since they get to free roll their Grudges more often than not thanks to their Faithless Lootings and such. This is the only matchup where I would really want access to Surgical Extraction, but even then they have a lot of fatties and a lot of ways to actually cast them.
This isn't a matchup you're likely to play too often, but I generally find myself up against an average of one Tempered Steel deck per tournament. It can be powerful, and their best draws will make your best draws look pathetic by comparison, but they are much more vulnerable than you.
Again, this is another deck where Gitaxian Probe will just punish you for paying life, and you don't have the time to pay the mana. Your removal is incredibly important for slowing them down, and your Mana Leak should almost always target Etched Champion or Tempered Steel. Gut Shot can be the difference between winning and losing, since it helps to shut off metalcraft, generally stalling their draws relying on Etched Champion or Mox Opal.
Again, this deck doesn't see much play, but I still tend to play against one per tournament. Geist of Saint Traft and Sword of War and Peace are both bananas in this matchup, and you should almost always be digging for one or the other, depending on the board situation.
While it is occasionally important to see your opponent's hand to determine whether or not it is safe to cast and equip a Sword, paying life just isn't worth it (once again). Gitaxian Probe shines against control decks, but aggro matchups almost always come down to a race, and Gitaxian Probe will give you valuable information but the cost is occasionally too steep. The Revoke Existence and Divine Offering are almost entirely due to the presence of Shrine of Burning Rage, as it is their best card against you most of the time.
Without Dungeon Geists and Lingering Souls, this matchup is much harder than it should be. Sword of War and Peace and Vapor Snag are two of your most important cards, but landing and flipping a Delver of Secrets can be the key to winning an early race. Their later cards can impact the race greatly should you find yourself without a Vapor Snag, but they should generally side out Hero of Bladehold and Mirran Crusader (though they rarely do).
Again, another matchup involving a race and another matchup where Gitaxian Probe is mediocre. Unfortunately, Mana Leak is a necessary evil in some cases thanks to the presence of their mid-game bombs. Phantasmal Image is great at copying those before you Vapor Snag them, as their only removal will likely be Fiend Hunter or Oblivion Ring but rarely both. You can also use Phantasmal Image to kill their Geist of Saint Traft more easily so that yours can stick and help punch through lethal damage.
Naya Birthing Pod
This matchup is almost entirely dependent on whether or not you stick and flip a Delver or assemble Stalker + Equipment. If you do either of these, the game should work out in your favor, so long as they don't go crazy with a Birthing Pod. You can generally race their Blade Splicers and Strangleroot Geists, but when they begin to chain up to Elesh Norn, you're probably going to die unless you can Vapor Snag one of their mid-chain creatures without them gaining a significant advantage in the process.
Where Gitaxian Probe is generally mediocre in aggressive matchups, it can be invaluable here because finding out whether or not it is safe to tap out for a threat is really important. Should you find yourself tapping out against a random Birthing Pod opponent, you will generally be on the losing end of an Inferno Titan in just a few turns. Geist of Saint Traft has a tough time getting through damage against Strangleroot Geists and Blade Splicers, so you don't want to draw too many of them, but they're not really that bad. Thought Scour is the sacrifice you have to make, though it isn't a bad card by any means. I just think that Gitaxian Probe happens to be better in this particular matchup.
This matchup feels pretty similar to the Birthing Pod matchup, except they don't have the namesake card to punish you for tapping out. Instead, they have Hellrider, which is pretty hard to beat, but Vapor Snag helps a ton. They have most of the same threats, but none of the inevitability. While a tough matchup thanks to resilient creatures, you will just have to nut-draw them in order to show them "who's boss."
Expect them to be siding in Ancient Grudge, but you just have to hope they don't draw it. Mana Leak is generally mediocre but can help stave off certain bombs in the mid game. If you don't draw enough answers to their plethora of threats, you will easily become overwhelmed at all of the inherent card advantage generated by their creatures. Strangleroot Geist and Huntmaster of the Fells are pretty tough to deal with.
This deck is coming back strong, and with a vengeance. I don't think it is really all that impressive, but it gives Delver fits, and that's generally what you want to be doing. People seem to have forgotten that Ratchet Bomb exists, but even so they can wreck you with Stony Silence, shutting down Equipment and Ratchet Bombs alike. Lingering Souls is not a card you want to be facing with Delver, but you just need tools to help combat these problems should they arise.
Sword of War and Peace is obviously the card you want to draw the most, but Corrosive Gale after board can just obliterate them. Revoke Existence helps fight their anthem effects and gives you the ability to trade with their token spells instead of getting mauled by them. Gut Shot, while effective against Champion of the Parish, is mediocre in almost every other situation in the matchup, and therefore is not good enough. Dismember has a similar problem, though it is a little more versatile since it can kill Hero of Bladehold. Batterskull is just a bit too slow, though is surprisingly effective in certain situations. For now, I recommend siding it out, but it could help win the race should you find yourself falling behind.
Now I know this is a lot of information to process, but hopefully this information will help you in an upcoming tournament, whether you're playing with or against Delver. If you are looking for a more in-depth look at how to beat Delver, I recommend reading GerryT's article from this week, as he will outline each of the major players in Standard and how each of them can evolve to overtake Delver as king of Standard.
While I wish I could bring you more information about sweet Modern brews, the PTQ season has come to an end. I'll probably stick to Standard and Legacy over the next few weeks, but I might come back with a Modern video or two just to spice things up. After all, no one wants to watch Delver vs. X over and over again for the next month.
I hope you enjoyed, and thanks for reading!
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