If your only knowledge of Magic came from reading articles over the past few weeks you might think by the fatalistic talk of dominance and the need for bannings that we were several months deep into a Standard season in which Delver had dominated countless major events. You might think that the community had tried their best to fight back with everything under the sun but failed anyway and that the deck is essentially unstoppable. But that's not the reality at all.
Avacyn Restored has been Standard legal for barely more than a month in which time we've seen one Grand Prix—with a strong but not dominant Delver showing—and five SCG Standard Open events. True one of these events had four of the same Delver deck in the Top 8 but none of the other events were won by Delver! And if you want to argue that the first three don't count because they were before Gerry Thompson "broke it" with Restoration Angel Delver I can point to the Standard Open in Columbus this past weekend which was won by Michael Belfatto's Esper Control deck that beat Michael Marlow's B/U Zombie deck in the finals.
And yes I'm aware that even if it isn't winning Delver is all over the top tables of these events. But that's going to happen when any solid deck is popular among good players. When I look at the Top 32 of a SCG Standard Open and I see a sea of "U/W Delver" staring me in the face I look at the next column over and see names that I recognize. That dominating performance by Delver at SCG Nashville? Look at the players: Gerry Thompson Brian Eason Joshua Cho Kenny Castor Joe Bernal and Charles Gindy. If you looked at the field prior to the event how many of those names would you have picked to make Top 8 without taking their decks into consideration at all? The best players in the room are going to do well no matter what they're playing. Hell I made Top 4 of an SCG Standard Open playing Infect during the height of Caw-Blade's dominance!
The only World Magic Cup Qualifier that's been held in the US so far was won by Alex Binek playing Ramp. Carrie Oliver won the most recent English WMCQ playing a mono-green Dungrove deck. I've gotten a bunch of messages from people telling me they've been doing well with my Naya Pod deck featuring Restoration Angel including the runner up to Carrie from that WMCQ.
What I'm saying is that the sky isn't falling or at least if it is it's taking a lot longer to come down than the sensationalist panic is suggesting. Is Delver a good deck? Yes—it's a great deck in fact. Delver gets to play with a huge number of the best cards in the format along with versatile answers Snapcaster Mage to reuse them and Ponder to tie the whole thing together.
There are a lot of cards in Delver that in retrospect probably wouldn't get printed as-is like Delver itself Snapcaster and Phantasmal Image and I imagine Ponder and Mana Leak probably wouldn't have existed in the same format as the rest of them if WotC could go back and change things. But is the deck so good that it's oppressing the format to the point that you're making a huge mistake playing anything else? If you look at the results from a broader perspective rather than focusing on individual instances of dominance it certainly doesn't look that way to me.
These days people are incredibly quick to call for bans when a deck is successful for a sustained period of time. Look back at Jund. At the height of Jund's popularity people were insisting that Bloodbraid Elf was too good and it needed to be banned because nothing could beat it. Not long after that I won Grand Prix Sendai playing Next Level Bant tearing through a sea of Jund decks along the way. By the time US Nationals rolled around that year we had a final matchup of Mythic Conscription versus Mono Red with Pyromancer Ascension and various Vengevine decks rounding out the rest of the Top 8 and nary a winning Jund deck to be found.
While I think it's important for WotC to remain vigilant and be willing to pull the trigger when a ban is necessary for the health of the format I think people are far too quick to jump to the conclusion that a ban is the only solution for a deck's success. Formats evolve. People learn and adapt and new cards are printed that can fundamentally transform the way matchups play out. People have scarcely had a chance to play with Avacyn Restored; it's far too early to be writing off the format as having been "solved" by Angel Delver.
Anyway enough ranting. I'm sure you aren't here to listen to me pontificate about why Delver isn't unbeatable. You're probably a lot more interested in my thoughts on how to beat it. So how about I share them with you eh?
First a word of caution: I haven't played all that much Standard lately so I can't promise that these decks are great. One of them is based on a shell I have quite a bit of experience with so I know that the fundamentals are sound even if I can't speak for the particulars of how games play out. The other is literally the product of insomnia. I tried to go to bed one night earlier this week and I just couldn't sleep so instead I brewed up a deck and battled in the two-man queues on Magic Online. I ended up winning a ton of matches before I lost and that's with an absolute mess of a sideboard that I never bothered to update despite realizing that I didn't have enough room to bring in all the cards so I feel like I must have been doing something right.
Let's start with the first one:
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Blade Splicer
- 2 Borderland Ranger
- 1 Fiend Hunter
- 3 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 3 Strangleroot Geist
- 2 Wolfir Silverheart
- 1 Zealous Conscripts
- 2 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
It should come as no real surprise to anyone that the first of the decks I'm advocating to beat Delver is my Naya Pod deck with Restoration Angel. Prior to Avacyn Restored my win rate against Delver with Naya Pod in major events was something close to 80%. The matchup has certainly changed since then in large part thanks to Restoration Angel but the new flash flier has done a lot to impact how the matchup plays from both sides since each deck has adopted her.
Restoration Angel is so powerful in Delver because it allows the deck to play a very Faeries style game with countermagic and a sizable instant speed threat. It creates the Cryptic Command / Mistbind Clique dilemma all over again. Does the four mana they're holding up represent Snapcaster Mage for Mana Leak Restoration Angel or both? Previously a deck like Naya could fight against Delver well by simply getting ahead on the board with cards like Avacyn's Pilgrim Strangleroot Geist Thalia and Blade Splicer. Once you'd achieved a significant board presence you could just lean on what you had in play—preferably with the help of a Gavony Township—and force the Delver player to tap mana on their own turn to deal with it or die.
With Angel in the equation that's no longer true. If you attack your Thalia into four open mana she very well may get pounced on by an Angel and die and that sucks. Thankfully we have our own Restoration Angels to save some of our creatures from horrible deaths in this fashion and Gavony Township goes a long way toward making ambushing a Golem token a losing proposition.
And while Restoration Angel may give the Delver player a plethora of new strategic options for raw power it's hard to do better than this deck when it comes to making use of Restoration Angel's enter the battlefield trigger. Using Restoration Angel to blink Blade Splicer is downright absurd and can generate a huge amount of power extremely quickly while resetting Phyrexian Metamorph and Strangleroot Geist (or both if you have both in play at once since you can copy the Angel with your Metamorph!) can make the difference in close games.
The adoption of Restoration Angel in Delver has had some ripple effects some of which benefit Naya. Many Delver decks are shaving or cutting Gut Shot entirely in favor of Dismember which makes it much more costly—both from a mana and life perspective—for them to deal with your mana creatures and Thalias. And the addition of Restoration Angel largely comes at the expense of Dungeon Geists which in many ways was a superior creature against what you're trying to do.
That said I think the move toward Restoration Angel requires some reevaluation of the dynamics of the matchup particularly in sideboarding. Previously I was sideboarding Incinerates because they could answer both Delver and Dungeon Geists as well as come in for other matchups but Angel fades Incinerate completely so that's no longer an option. As a result I think the best solution is a split between Combust and Plummet.
It may be somewhat strange to see Plummet in a Constructed sideboard but it kills both Delver and Restoration Angel even if they happen to be wearing a Sword of War and Peace (which some versions still play) and it also happens to be able to kill Consecrated Sphinx which seems likely to rise in popularity as a sideboard card against midrange green decks after Gerry's success with it. The Combusts can't kill Sphinx but they can kill Hero of Bladehold and Champion of the Parish which is still relevant in some places and can also take out Grand Architects and other such nonsense if you happen to run into them.
As for the other matchups I think Bonfire has all but ousted Incinerate for green mirrors since wiping out your opponent's board of Huntmasters Wolves and mana creatures seems like a better way to win than to trying to fight creature by creature.
Like I said—I haven't really played a ton of Standard lately but this is what I'd sleeve up if I had to make a decision about what to play in a tournament right now. With a little more time I'd try out some other ideas like Stingerfling Spider in the sideboard and keeping the Pods in against Delver since they're somewhat slower if they board into Sphinx or switching the mana base around to include more Caverns and try a more Human heavy build… Or I might just try a different deck entirely:
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Blade Splicer
- 2 Borderland Ranger
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 2 Strangleroot Geist
- 2 Wolfir Silverheart
- 2 Mikaeus, the Lunarch
First things first—this deck is a mess. Well the deck itself is actually not all that far off I think but the sideboard is almost literally just a list of various things I wanted to try that I stuffed in so I could board them in hope to draw them and see how they were. Don't play this deck without changing the sideboard at a bare minimum.
That said I think this deck has potential. The basic idea is that the widespread adoption of Restoration Angel in Delver has made the deck more reliant on creature-based defenses which makes Doom Blade effects better against it. Doom Blade was always only okay against Delver before since the only card that you really wanted to Doom Blade in the deck was Delver itself and you lost a mana on the exchange. With Restoration Angel in the mix you can frequently come out ahead in terms of both mana and tactical positioning since your opponent is likely to be playing the Angel to catch up against your board.
Doom Blade plays out very differently in an aggressive deck than in a defensive one which is mostly where we've seen it lately. Being able to continue to apply pressure after a profitable mana exchange can put your opponent very far behind; it's exactly the sort of advantage we see Delver generating with Vapor Snag all the time except in this case the creature stays dead.
This deck includes the Blade Splicer / Restoration Angel interaction that is so powerful (and has my vote for the least appreciated synergy in Standard right now) but doesn't bother with Birthing Pod which is much less impressive without red for Huntmaster and Zealous Conscripts. Instead it uses Blade Splicer and Lingering Souls alongside Gavony Township Mikaeus and Sorin to generate a powerful army.
It's important to note that this isn't a "token deck" per se much like my Naya deck isn't a "Birthing Pod deck." Instead they're both decks that use individually powerful cards that benefit from the synergies between them. Cards like Gather the Townsfolk and Midnight Haunting are just too weak when you don't draw the appropriate support while Blade Splicer and Lingering Souls are extremely powerful. Rather than play the weaker individual cards with the narrower pump spells like Honor of the Pure and Intangible Virtue I'd rather play more powerful cards and less efficient but more broadly applicable pump effects like Township and Mikaeus.
This deck does have some similar weaknesses to token decks at least when it comes to specific cards. Ratchet Bomb is annoying since it can kill your Golems and Spirits at zero while wiping out your mana creatures at one. The big problem I've found in my limited games played though is Bonfire of the Damned. Bonfire is absolutely devastating and because of the relatively small size of most of the creatures in the deck remains devastating even past the early turns of the game. I'm sure there's some way to set the deck up better to deal with Bonfire but I haven't had the opportunity to iron out any of the kinks just yet let alone find a way to handle a one-sided Wrath.
I hope this article has informed you that the sky is not in fact falling; there are still a lot of options out there if you're looking for something that isn't Delver to play in an upcoming SCG Standard Open PTQ or WMCQ. These decks may not be perfect but hopefully they at least give you some insight into how you might be able to tackle the daunting task that is dethroning Delver in Standard.
Good luck to everyone competing this weekend—I'll be taking a break from Magic and attending the massive EDM festival that is Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. If you're there and happen to find me in the sea of hundreds of thousands of people feel free to say hi! Otherwise I'll see you back here next week.
Until next time