What makes a good adversary?
The best villains are those that are stronger than our hero—they cannot be easily defeated. Think about the iconic big bads from “recent” history. Darth Vader leaps to mind (Original Trilogy only please). While not the end boss (in the strictest sense of the word), he is much more powerful than our heroes, y'know, apart from the entire Dark Side consuming his body thing.
In more Magical terms, what is better: winning against someone you are better than or taking down the best drafter in the store—your local end boss? What about beating the best cards? It is a deckbuilder's dream to find that one piece of tech that makes everyone ooh and aah at their ingenuity and subsequent winning with something “underpowered.”
In Pauper, like other Eternal Formats, blue is best. From Cloudpost to Storm, the end bosses run Islands (or lands that can produce blue mana). No deck personifies blue's villainy better than Delver. This deck can do it all—it runs some of the best creatures in Pauper while also running the best answer (possibly ever printed). It can beat down, and it can stop an opponent dead in his or her tracks. However, like the best antagonists, Delver can also be defeated.
Because let's all face it, you all have haven't read enough about Delver of Secrets in the past year.
Delver Blue is the best example of aggro-control in Pauper. The deck evolved largely from Faeries lists. For much of the early days of Pauper, Mono-Blue Control was a contender. With free threats like Spire Golem or the hugely discounted Errant Ephemeron, MUC could sit behind some of the greatest counters ever printed (Counterspell, Exclude) and grind out opposing threats until one creature undid 20 points of life. As the format grew faster, MUC had to adapt its defensive speed. Lists featuring a Faerie package of Pestermite and Spellstutter Sprite, with Ninja of the Deep Hours for rebuys, were seeing play at the same time as MUC. Eventually, these Faerie-MUC lsits supplanted traditional Mono-Blue as the go-to for blue mages due in large part to Spellstutter's ability to counter many important creatures and help create a choke point for Storm (especially with one Faerie on the board).
Around the same time that Frantic Search-fueled Storm was wreaking havoc on the Pauper metagame, Faerie-MUC made an important change in dropping Pestermites for Cloud of Faeries. This provided a Faerie that could be played on turn two that would not interfere with flashing out a Spellstutter. The deck progressed, for a while, along the tribal path, leaning hard on the Ninja to draw cards off of creatures like Cloud Sprite and Zephyr Sprite. This all changed with the release of Innistrad block.
Insectile Aberration via Delver of Secrets provided something blue decks had long lacked: an aggressive one-drop. Until this time, Faerie-MUC operated like an aggressive control deck, but a control deck all the same. It would rarely go on the offensive until the game was nearly locked up. Now with Delver, these decks could easily lay a threat turn one and back it up with cheap countermagic like Force Spike and Spellstutter Sprite or go the free route with Daze. This new angle of attack was eventually supplemented with Phantasmal Bear for an additional beater. At the end of 2011, the modern Pauper Delver deck found a home as the aggro-control deck with its ability to stick a Delver early and ride it to victory.
A year later, there is no one agreed-upon Delver list. There are, however, a few things that all of the aggressive variants agree on:
16 Islands: These are the core of the deck. Obviously you want to be able to cast your spells. This relatively light land count is mitigated by the presence of some number of one-mana cantrips (Brainstorm, Preordain, Ponder, or Gitaxian Probe). With most decks opting to run around six such spells, this gives pilots access to three virtual lands (with one cheap cantrip valued at half a land). This has the added benefit of increasing the spell count in the deck to help flip Delver of Secrets. Even though 16 is the bare minimum, some decks go up to 19 land, packing two Quicksand. Many more settle on 17, either adding a Lonely Sandbar, a Halimar Depths, or an additional Island.
4 Delver of Secrets: The namesake. A flipped Delver allows for an incredible amount of pressure, and with a large spell count and the ability to fix the top of the deck, a turn-two Insectile Aberration is a common sight. The threat of the flying beatstick creates a subgame of “can I race that?” Quite often, the answer is no. Even if a deck can stick enough flyers to block, Delver can present other threats that also beg to be blocked (thanks to Ninja of the Deep Hours). While the deck can function without Delver on the battlefield, it is a linchpin of the deck.
4 Counterspell: The first is still one of the best. Two mana to say no is powerful in any format. The mono-Island mana base makes running Counterspell a must. There is not much else to say about this card that has not been said before, but here's something new: Delver is the best Counterspell deck in Pauper. Sure, Cloudpost decks run Islands, but they do not hit UU as consistently as Delver. Additionally, they use counters as a way to defend. In Delver, they can do that, but they are also used to further attack, meaning each counterspell has an additional use in the game.
4 Spellstutter Sprite: Pauper decks have access to the vast majority of commons in Magic. As such, they can always look for the cheapest option. Looking at most popular Pauper lists, the number of spells that cost one or two mana is enormous. As such, Spellstutter Sprite, even on its own, is close to being a hard counter. When combined with the next entry on the list or a second Spellstutter, it grows even stronger. The Sprite shines against Storm and aggro decks, where it can trade for key cards while simultaneously applying pressure (or blocking). The presence of this Faerie also makes running Ninja of the Deep Hours more enticing, as the Sprite can be flipped back for extra value.
4 Cloud of Faeries: Free is always good, even if the result is a 1/1 flying creature. Cloud is an important component of Delver in that it helps to set up a Spellstutter Sprite for two (or potentially more) on turn two. Cloud is a four-of because you absolutely want to hit one on turn two (unless your opponent is also on Islands). The ability to cycle late is also nice, but the real utility of this freebie is in the creature type.
This leaves 28 slots up for grabs. While many of the choices come down to personal preference, the remaining cards tend to fit into a few broad categories.
These cards help to keep your land count low while also providing some amount of library manipulation. The big three here are Brainstorm, Ponder, and Preordain. Each of these powerhouses bring something slightly different to the table, but all serve a similar function in Delver decks—they help to increase your card quality while also setting up the title character.
Preordain is the best turn-one play, helping to make hands that are either mana light or mana heavy more keepable. This plays against the nature of the aggressive Delver, wanting to stick the Wizard on turn one and go to town. If you err on the side of a more controlling game and see Delver as less vital on turn one, then Preordain fits the bill. The all-star of Standard gone by does everything you want in a slower deck, setting up draws and increasing overall quality, while also doing a very nice job of turning on a Delver later in the game.
Ponder allows a pilot to see the most cards (potentially) out of this slot at four. However, if there is one great card and two chaff, it does not provide the option to ship the bad ones away. The ability to shuffle away all the bad cards is relevant—there are times when getting rid of all the land on top will mean the difference between winning and losing. Ponder also combines best with another card on this list, Brainstorm, in getting rid of the chaff. Like Preordain, it cannot set up a turn-one Delver.
Brainstorm may seem like an odd inclusion given that there are few, if any, shuffle effects in Delver. Brainstorm has the ability to turn on a turn-one Delver on your second upkeep. This is a huge tempo swing, starting your clock right on turn two (often while setting up your next draws to be optimal as well). Brainstorm is also the only one of the big three to be an instant, allowing you to dig for an answer on an opponent's turn. While the inability to clear away less than useful cards is a knock, the upside of Brainstorm is so big that it should get the nod is most builds. Personally, I like to pair Brainstorm with Ponder to get the most out of both cards.
There are other options for this slot as well. Serum Visions is a worse version of Preordain. Gitaxian Probe can cost nothing and has utility in that it can keep land counts lower than the other options. Opt is an instant but does not stack the top of your library very well. Sleight of Hand is similar to Preordain, but again does not dig as deep as the best spells. Thought Scour might have a home in Delver decks more based around the graveyard, which is a definite option but not the baseline. The lack of powerful flashback spells in Pauper (at least with low mana costs, in blue) makes Thought Scour a tough sell.
The following cards all serve a similar role, helping to keep you in the early game while you attempt to flip a Delver or establish some semblance of control with Spellstutter Sprite and other counters.
Daze is the most enticing of these early defensive cards in that it is “free.” The ability to tap out in the early game and still threaten a counterspell is incredibly important when facing aggressive decks or combo. Daze, unlike some of the other cards in this section, has a use in fighting control decks that want to tap out (a la Cloudpost control) in winning mid-game counter wars. The power of Daze partially lies in the fact that once you cast one, your opponent has to respect the fact that you may have other copies, forcing them to play around it at all times.
Similar to Daze is Force Spike, which has a cheaper full cost but cannot be cast for free (and cannot protect a turn-one Delver of Secrets). It can, however, do the job of Daze on turns two and beyond without setting you back on tempo. In matchups where this matters (the mirror or Infect for example), Force Spike can shift momentum by countering a threat or a pump spell.
Piracy Charm is at its best against aggro, helping to pick off early threats. There are a huge number of creatures with one toughness that see play, and the Charm does a fine job of clearing them away. The other modes have their uses as well, as many games end on the back of a Spire Golem that has been pumped. Finally, Piracy Charm is not dead in multiples, as a pair can do a decent Mind Rot impersonation, all at instant speed.
There are other one-mana reactive cards that see play, but none see as much play as those listed above. Dispel is more common in the sideboard to help win counter wars, whereas Intervene is a relic from the earliest days of Delver and only sees play in those who really strive to protect an early investment.
Horned Turtle has a history of being an important card for many blue Limited decks, gumming up the ground until the game is well in hand. Delver wants to be able to stop the onslaught of opposing armies as well (the vast majority of Pauper decks run creatures [note I said decks, not successful decks]), and being able to block goes a long way to victory. The following cards are the most common cards seen in this slot.
Spire Golem is an oldie but goodie. Coming down as early as turn three—but ideally on turn four with Counterspell back up—Spire Golem can stop just about any creature from attacking. While doubly vulnerable (being an artifact and all), Golem is one of the best creatures for this deck because it almost never costs full price.
Stitched Drake serves a similar role to Spire Golem, except it is better on offense. The extra point of power does not matter often, but against green decks, it requires them to spend more pump spells to save their attacker. The Drake has two huge strikes against it. First, it costs three mana (no ifs, ands, or buts), so the earliest it can come down with Counterspell mana up is turn five. Second, it needs a dead creature to eat. This is not normally a problem, as most Delver decks run Phantasmal Bear as a second one-drop, but it does create situations where you need to cast it and are unable to do so.
Frostburn Weird is the newest addition to the turtle army. While it cannot fly, it does only cost two mana (on par with Spire Golem on turn four). It also has the added benefit of being quite the beater, able to trade with most creatures in the format. Frostburn provides an important two-drop against green aggro strategies, which could overwhelm Delver early. With Weird, not only is Delver able to absorb the punch, but given extra mana, the Izzet draft all-star can actually fight back. This is valuable, helping to make Delver a better choice in an open metagame.
While Piracy Charm can also fall into this area, the cards here are almost all bounce effects. Headlined by Snap, this free Unsummon does a great job of clearing the way while also allowing you to keep mana up. Snap is at its best against green decks using pump but also does nicely against white decks trying to use Journey to Nowhere on your only creature.
Echoing Truth is a catchall that has the bonus of taking care of Empty the Warrens. While it is harder to use defensively, the ability to “just win” against certain Storm decks is too important to let you pilot a Delver deck without access to at least one of these in your starting sixty.
Unsummon and Vapor Snag see some play in the more aggressive versions of Delver, helping to clear the way for Ninjas, Insects, and Weirds. While Vapor Snag sees more play, Unsummon might just be better since it can be used to save your own creatures at no cost in life.
Curfew and Serrated Arrows are both cards that have applications in the sideboard of Delver but do a great job of keeping the board empty. Curfew helps to keep Infect on their back foot, since hexproof is a thing. Serrated Arrows is useful in any matchup where you anticipate going to the late game and want to win creature battles. Spire Golem might be a great blocker, but it has problems taking down creatures, like other Spire Golems, for example.
One card I have a soft spot for but have been unable to make work in this slot is Silent Departure. I love added value, and the ability to flashback an Unsummon, even if only on your turn, is quite enticing. The sorcery speed is probably a death knell for this seeing any significant play.
The final area of Delver decks focuses on drawing more cards. Separate from the cantrips, these cards are your more traditional ways of gaining card advantage in any matchup. As important as they are, they only occupy four to six slots in any given deck (although they come up quite often due to the one-mana help).
Gush is one of the more powerful draw spells available in Pauper. Being able to draw two at instant speed for no mana investment is huge. A common play is tapping two Islands before alternate casting Gush to draw into a Counterspell, helping to negate the hit of bouncing two lands. Gush is a late-game refuel option and should not be cast early unless absolutely necessary. The tempo hit is so heavy that most Delver decks will only run one Gush, despite its ability to provide more gas late—drawing one too early is a huge liability.
The other main source of card advantage in Delver is Ninja of the Deep Hours. With so many creatures you do not mind returning via ninjutsu (Spire Golem, Cloud of Faeries, Spellstutter Sprite), it makes sense to run Ninja of the Deep Hours. The card is so important early that many people choose to run four. However, the second Ninja is not that much better than the first, so the ideal number is somewhere north of three but south of four. I understand erring on the high side of this divide, as Ninja is awesome, but having them stranded in hand is far from ideal.
Other cards that have been mentioned for this slot include Think Twice, Merfolk Looter, and Looter il-Kor. Think Twice has the benefit of drawing two cards but spread out of the course of a game (albeit at a higher cost than Gush). Merfolk Looter was a card I experimented with as a way to increase card quality late but never got to activate it for value. Looter il-Kor has been discussed (by Delver pilot extraordinaire jsiri84) as a way to break the aggressive Delver mirror, hitting for damage while sculpting a better hand.
With all that being said, here is my current list for Delver:
- 2 Spire Golem
- 4 Cloud of Faeries
- 4 Delver of Secrets
- 3 Frostburn Weird
- 3 Ninja of the Deep Hours
- 4 Phantasmal Bear
- 4 Spellstutter Sprite
- 17 Island
I prefer playing the slightly aggressive game and much prefer Daze over the Force Spike and Piracy Charm. I am maxing out on Ponders and Brainstorms to help facilitate Delver and also shuffle away the chaff. This also gives me a slightly greater chance of seeing a Ninja on time (as I have gone down to three from four).
As for the matchups, Delver is somewhere between the “best deck in Pauper” and “the best fair deck.” While it is absolutely powerful, it is also one of the decks with a target on its back, and everyone has to pass the test of Delver in order to be viable. In that way, it is absolutely a villain to all the durdle do-nothing decks.
This is a tough matchup if they can lay Posts early. They have better counterspells than you, and their removal does a fine job of keeping you off creatures. You goal in game one should be to apply early pressure and protect a late threat. Frostburn Weird is quite useful here, as it can connect for quite a bit of damage. If they are not running Sea Gate Oracle and other early blockers, you want to press your advantage.
Do not be afraid to use your Dazes early, as late they are likely to do next to nothing. Save your Counterspells for their backbreaking plays. All that being said, you are not favored in game one (but it is not like you are a huge underdog). You want to keep hands with early action. Spellstutter is better as a beater after turn three, as it will be unable to do its secondary job once Post can start casting its big spells.
You want to get into a long game with them and resolve as many Curses as you can. Once you have stuck a Curse (or two), lean on your countermagic to keep them off game ending spells like Rolling Thunder, Ghostly Flicker (on a Mnemonic Wall), Capsize, or an Ulamog's Crusher.
If you find yourself up against the Mono-Blue or Dimir version of Post, use a similar sideboard plan, but keep the Hydroblasts in the board. Against Dimir, you want to keep Ninja and Bear in. Against Mono-Blue, you can either use the same plan as Dimir or keep Snap in to help clear the way, as they tend to have more blockers.
Game one is a race. You want a hand with an early threat but also a reactive spell, preferably a hard counter. They tend to not go off until turn three or four, and you want to be prepared. Use your countermagic to find a choke point on cards or mana to try to stall them. These decks are largely on Grapeshot, so drawing your one Echoing Truth in game one might be dead.
Even though these decks are on Grapeshot, many will side in Empty the Warrens, and you do not want to be caught with your shields down. Gush is at its best in the long game, and if the game does go excessively long, that benefits you (as you will have more mana and more counters).
Another race, but unlike Sacland Storm, you have a maindeck answer in Echoing Truth. In game one you want to play aggressively and dig for the Truth to trump their Storm turn. Leave mana open, if possible, as some versions pack Dispel to protect their Goblin tokens. Other than that, you want to continue to counter spells at their choke point, which will likely be mana in this version.
Sideboarding: Same as above.
If you notice them playing Dispel or Spell Pierce, you can side out Spire Golem for Deprive and additional counterspells as a way to stop them from going off. If they run a trump to Echoing Truth (Lava Dart or Skirk Prospector), you have to get rid of it. While this is harder for Lava Dart, Prospector is easy enough to answer with a Sprite.
This deck has been on the upswing recently. While there are two builds running around, they both operate on a similar principle: generate a ton of mana and a huge Storm count via Ghostly Flicker and Mnemonic Wall, then Temporal Fissure away all the opposing permanents. This deck is slower than other Storm variants but is far more resilient. As with other combo, it is a race, but your bounce has added utility here, helping to keep their Sunscape Familiars off the board or returning Fertile Grounds to the hand. A properly timed counter can wreck their day. Play aggressively, but always leave counter mana up.
These changes allow you to pursue your plan of attacking while also adding to your arsenal of answers.
A good matchup (unless they get a nut draw), Affinity is relatively easy prey. You goal is to play a slightly more controlling game and keep their most offensive threats (Myr Enforcer, Carapace Forger) from doing too much damage. Thankfully, you have counterspells. Spire Golem is key here, as it blocks both Somber Hoverguard and Frogmite.
+2 Spire Golem
The little red men are on an upswing at the moment. The addition of Electrickery has allowed Goblins to fight against certain Storm decks on turn one. That being said, they still have issues fighting through Horned Turtles. You want to play a more controlling game and lean on your blockers. You have to respect their ability to burn you out from ten, so do your best to keep your life total high. Use bounce to negate attacks.
In games two and three you want to block and win through the air. Hydroblast is mostly to counter their Pyroblasts. Phantasmal Bear might seem like a liability, but they still have to spend a removal spell (or Goblin token, thanks to Goblin Sledder) to kill it. If you expect the game to go long, you can try and find room for Serrated Arrows as well.
You play these games very similarly (especially with this deck). You are the control and want to get your blockers down as soon as possible. A turn-one Delver is not ideal, unless you have the hand to back it up. Save countermagic for when you are blocking; this way, you can counteract their pump spells. These two are probably your toughest creature-based matchups. Stompy can vomit out a ton of creatures, and Infect can win from nowhere thanks to pump. Frostburn Weird does serious work here, absorbing a few blows.
Cloud of Faeries is not as vital, as most of their spells cost one or two anyway. You goal here is to survive until you have exhausted their resources. Serrated Arrows is a great three-for-one, and resolving one against these decks is usually game over.
Another favorable matchup. They are all small creatures that you can easily block. Oftentimes you will have dead cards (Echoing Truth, Snap) that you will not mind discarding to their Liliana's Specters. You want to counter their two-for-ones and do your best to not get attritioned out.
Bounce has very little utility against creatures with enter-the-battlefield effects, whereas the cards you are bringing in are fantastic against creatures.
Similar to green aggro but without the explosive nature of Groundswell, White Weenie is far more attrition based. They have better blockers for your Delver, but your top-end creatures are better than theirs. Their most dangerous card is Bonesplitter, as it allows all their creatures to trade up. If at all possible, keep it off the board, and you can win most combat steps.
The mirror is about establishing control of the game. While this is largely about having more Spire Golems, Frostburn Weird works just as well. You want to be the person with more threats. Save your bounce for times when it either saves you from losing or helps you win the game. As many have told me, if Delver mirrors are played correctly, they go long.
You want your Golems to be larger than theirs in the end of the game, helping you punch through. Daze loses some value, as they will either be able to counter it or pay early; Deprive is a stronger spell in that it is a hard counter. Bear is a liability, as it does not do much besides absorb one Arrow token when two should do the job.
Delver of Secrets had its time in Standard as the end boss. While Pauper is a vastly different landscape, the Human Wizard/Insect still is a nasty villain when dealing with only commons. And like the Super Nintendo bosses of old, this is a deck that is only going to get more toys as the sequels are released.
Keep slingin' commons.
SpikeBoyM on Magic Online
The Colors of Pauper: