Word has been getting around over the past few weeks that the first Pro Tour Qualifier of this Standard season was won by some random guy playing a goofy U/G Delver deck. Since then, a few sizable debates have broken out in the deep, dark recesses of the Internet about whether or not the deck was a fluke and whether or not it should be taken seriously. The reviews of the deck from those who have gotten the opportunity to play with it have been about as polarized as one could imagine, with many people claiming that it's both powerful and the most fun they've had in Standard in a long while and others saying that it's simply awful. With all of this conflicting information, where can we turn to find the truth?
Well, it just so happens that I am that random guy who won the PTQ, and I'm here to set the record straight: this deck is the real deal.
For those of you interested in reading about the creation of the deck and about the actual PTQ itself, I'm going to have to direct you to an article I wrote immediately following the PTQ here because this article will cover much more important topics: why and how you should be playing this deck.
This is the current build I've been working with since the PTQ, and I believe from my testing that it's pretty close to its optimal form for the current metagame. With that in mind, I'd like to spend the rest of the article answering the most common questions I've received from the dozens of emails I've gotten from around the world over the past few weeks regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the deck, what adjustments I would consider making, and how to actually pilot the deck successfully.
Strengths: Why You Should Play This Deck
I'd have to take off my shoes to even begin trying to count the number of articles which have been published in the last month on the topic of how to beat Standard's current top dog: Reanimator. While we are currently enjoying a period of remarkable diversity in Standard, which we haven't seen in quite a while, it seems the format at its most competitive level has degenerated into a veritable wasteland of midrange strategies competing for the title of "best deck," with only a handful of aggro and control decks circling the skies for an opportunity to scavenge what wins they can.
This is precisely the kind of format which a deck like U/G Delver is prepared to prey upon. Tempo decks—that is, decks which operate by playing cheap creatures that either grow over time (Quirion Dryad), present above average power-to-mana-cost ratios (Delver of Secrets), or have some kind of auxiliary functionality of a disruptive nature (Snapcaster Mage and Augur of Bolas) and which protect those creatures with reactive elements such as counterspells and creature removal—are a natural trump to the kind of midrange decks which are currently dominating the Standard metagame.
You see, a midrange deck's game plan is to achieve a critical mass of resources with which it can remove its opponent's threats from the battlefield and replace them with its own, particularly in the form of large creatures or planeswalkers. And if it is unsuccessful at removing its opponent's threats, its backup plan is to simply trump said threats with its own. This is the very definition of haymaker Magic, where players are simply competing to see who can successfully cast the biggest, most impactful spells.
The primary weakness of this kind of strategy is that when it is placed under enough pressure from an aggressive deck and particularly when it is disrupted from relieving any of that pressure with its creature removal, it is forced to rely entirely on resolving a single, large threat to attempt to stabilize its board presence and life total (usually in the form of a Thragtusk or an Angel of Serenity).
In general, the aggressive decks of this format have no way to respond to such a card being put in their way other than simply applying enough pressure to win despite such a stabilizing effort. Unfortunately, attacking around a threat like Thragtusk will only work part of the time, which is why decks like Naya Blitz are reasonably successful but have been putting up less impressive performances on average than decks like Reanimator and Jund.
But what if every time a midrange player attempted to stabilize against a potentially lethal army of creatures by putting a Thragtusk into play, they were met with a counterspell? Welcome to playing U/G Delver.
A decent tempo strategy is particularly strong in this format because it is the only type of deck which is heavily favored against all midrange strategies and can also boast winning percentages versus one of the other two popular deck archetypes: control. Though decks such as Esper Control pose a different set of challenges for an aggressive deck to overcome when compared to midrange decks, their plan for stabilizing against an army of creatures begins with the same general strategy—namely, relying on creature removal spells to stem an incoming onslaught.
However, this is the point at which the methodologies of control and midrange decks begin to diverge. Rather than attempting to stabilize by simply casting a large threat intended to halt an aggressive deck in its tracks, a control deck will generally attempt to make absolutely positive that its creature removal is successful through reactive spells and then ensures that it will be able to deal with every subsequent threat from that point forward by drawing additional cards and manipulating its library.
The true strength of U/G Delver lies in its ability to successfully disrupt opposing decks from reacting to its threats through either their creature removal or their futile attempts to cast trumps to those threats. Considering that the primary strategy of the first and second most popular macro-archetypes currently being played relies on its opponents not being able to react to their spells, U/G Delver is uniquely positioned to assert natural dominance over the format.
Weaknesses: Why You Should Exhibit Caution When Playing This Deck
Unfortunately, U/G Delver's ability to dominate Standard isn't absolute. The one major downfall of any tempo deck is that it is implicitly weak to traditional aggressive strategies.
I'm not going to lie to you: the matchups for this deck versus Naya Blitz and Jund Aggro literally give me nightmares. This in-and-of-itself will likely be enough to dissuade a significant number of potential players from even considering this deck, and for good reason! Both Naya and Jund Aggro have established themselves as mainstays of the current Standard metagame, and that fact makes playing a deck like U/G Delver a major risk that many people simply won't be willing to take.
That said, much like this deck's spiritual ancestor, the U/W Delver deck which dominated last year's Standard season, one or two very bad matchups does not necessarily mean that the deck can't be great. For those of you who played U/W Delver last year, you know firsthand that the B/R Zombies matchup was enough to make you want to cry. And yet I'm sure many of you chose to weather those losses and continued playing Insectile Aberrations. Why?
Because you beat everything else.
I'll be the first to admit that this analogy isn't perfect. It's certainly true that U/G Delver doesn't have quite the card quality or structural stability that U/W Delver had and that traditional aggressive strategies make up more of the current Standard metagame than they did last year (though not by much). However, I'd argue that this deck's percentages against the rest of the format more than make up for these weaknesses.
Playing this deck at a PTQ, a World Magic Cup Qualifier, or a Standard Open is certainly a gamble in that getting paired against more than one aggro deck could mean the end of your tournament. But if you look at the numbers, having all but one of your opponents playing midrange or control is not as unlikely of a scenario as you might initially think.
In fact, if you look at Patrick Chapin's expected metagame projections here, you can see that even a high estimate of aggro's presence at this very moment is somewhere around one-fifth of the format. So if you're expecting to play nine rounds of Standard at a tournament this weekend, you can reasonably expect to be just under 50-50 to only see one aggro deck in your Swiss rounds. Assuming the rest of your matchups are as good as I claim they are, you're basically betting your chances of getting to Top 8 on a coin flip. You could certainly do worse.
Adding a Color: Why You Shouldn't Unnecessarily Complicate Things
Perhaps the most common question I receive is whether or not I would consider adding a third color (or a fourth, yuck!). I'm going to make this point very clear: in its current form, I don't believe this deck can support a third color while maintaining a reasonable level of consistency.
The primary reason for this is the number of lands in the maindeck. I've received a fair amount of criticism for running only nineteen lands, but I staunchly believe that it is the correct number assuming the composition of the deck. The top of the mana curve in this deck is the actual number two. Sure, there are spells that improve when you have more than that such as Runechanter's Pike, Snapcaster Mage, and Think Twice, but all of those cards can be successfully cast with only two mana.
Nineteen is the statistically optimal number of lands necessary to consistently hit two mana on turn 2 while providing adequate probability of getting a third land by turn 3 or 4 and a fourth land within the next three turns after that. If you add even one more land into the deck, not only do you risk destabilizing the probabilities connected to Delver of Secrets and Augur of Bolas, but you begin treading into consistent mana flood territory.
This discussion is relevant because nineteen lands simply is not enough to support a third color while maintaining your ability to cast a turn one Delver of Secrets.
So I suppose the real question people should be asking is whether or not we ought to consider adding enough lands to support a third color, keeping in mind that we would need to dramatically change the composition of the deck. My gut reaction is no, as I think the deck is fine as it is, but I don't think it's an awful idea either if you really have your heart set on wanting to have access to a specific set of spells.
These two decks, here and here, demonstrate that a white version of this deck with up to 22 lands and featuring a slightly higher mana curve can still perform well. Notice, however, that both decks in order to support the extra lands are forced to run less actual threats and end up only running 23 instants and sorceries. It may be that I lean a little too far on the conservative side, but I feel it's far too greedy to have any less than 24 cards which work with the abilities of Delver and Augur.
In addition, these versions of the deck lean very heavily on Geist of Saint Traft, which is obviously a powerful creature in the raw and which can steal games from unprepared opponents but is actually fairly weak in the current metagame considering the number of creatures which can profitably block him. The other major issue I have with lists like this is how much more inclined they are to tap mana on the main phases of their third and fourth turns—something tempo decks should avoid doing at all costs.
Likewise, there are a number of versions I've seen which splash red or black, and I believe they suffer from much the same issues. All of these decks are getting away from what quintessentially defines tempo as an archetype and are moving more toward being midrange strategies, which wholly defeats the purpose of this kind of deck.
Playing Against Midrange: How to Never Lose
There are very few archetypal matchups as historically lopsided as tempo versus midrange. This is a major part of the reason why true midrange strategies are so incredibly rare in Legacy where Delver decks run rampant. (The existence of combo also plays a role, though an irrelevant one as far as Standard is concerned.) Midrange's primary game plan is far too easily disrupted by tempo's modus operandi to stand a chance without significant modifications to attempt to compensate.
Fortunately for the U/G Delver player, very few options are available to current midrange decks to sufficiently prepare them for this matchup. One relevant card that midrange decks could begin adopting more universally if Delver becomes more prevalent is Cavern of Souls, and this is certainly something to watch out for in the future, though it hardly goes far enough to significantly sway the overall favorability of the match.
This is the matchup in particular where the tempo player can play out his deck's functionality as naturally as possible. The key here is to stick a Delver of Secrets or Quirion Dryad in the first two turns and to protect it with reactive spells from that point forward, making sure to save an answer for the inevitable haymaker that the midrange deck is sure to throw out in turns 4 through 6 to try to stabilize. When playing this matchup, be sure to prioritize the protection of your threats above all else. This shouldn't be too difficult since midrange decks tend to be built in such a way that they burn out their resources relatively early if you can disrupt even one or two of their spells.
When against non-Reanimator midrange decks, I generally sideboard:
When sideboarding against Reanimator, the only adjustment I make to this plan (so begin with the strategy listed above) is:
Playing Against Control: How Not to Lose to Supreme Verdict
When facing control, you will find yourself piloting the deck much the same way you would against midrange decks with a few small adjustments. First, because your opponent is less likely to be putting creatures in the way of your threats, you can generally apply enough pressure with only one of your own creatures. This strategy is particularly important because the primary way to beat Supreme Verdict is to commit only one major threat to the battlefield and to force your opponent to spend their Verdict on it, after which you are free to play any backup threats to take the game.
Also, because your opponent is less likely to be casting haymaker spells, you can devote more of the disruptive elements of your deck toward countering their other removal spells. While less cut-and-dry than the midrange matchup, you should nonetheless find these games considerably in your favor.
When against control, I generally sideboard:
Playing Against Aggro: How to Give Yourself a Fighting Chance
As I mentioned before, this matchup tends to be pretty miserable, but it certainly isn't unwinnable. The key is to completely change the way you think about the roles of cards in your deck. Unsummon is no longer primarily a tool for getting through damage; instead, it acts as a Fog like effect. Simic Charm is used far more often as a defensive tool to allow your creatures to enter combat favorably with opponents' creatures. And you'll find yourself with far more Frog Lizards on your own side of the battlefield from casting Rapid Hybridization on your own creatures than you would in other matches.
Many people suggest that this matchup has to be treated as a race, but I honestly don't think that is a viable philosophy. The aggro decks of this format are far too fast for you to be able to keep up. Instead, you should convert your game plan into that of a control or midrange deck. Because of this, proper sideboarding is crucial to your potential success in this matchup.
When against aggro, I generally sideboard:
Sideboarding Talrand: How to Answer Graveyard Hate
Aside from its role as a transformative element against aggressive strategies, the Talrand package also acts as your primary defense against dedicated graveyard removal, specifically Rest in Peace. While Runechanter's Pike is going to be a strictly better win condition in most of your matches, it is incredibly vulnerable to effects which exile your graveyard and therefore has to sometimes be substituted out.
Generally, against any slower deck (midrange or control) that I suspect to have Rest in Peace style graveyard hate, I will sideboard in +3 Talrand, Sky Summoner and +1 Cavern of Souls blindly, but only on the draw. I almost always remove -2 Runechanter's Pike, -1 Snapcaster Mage, and -1 Augur of Bolas to make room for them. If I do not see any graveyard hate while on the draw and the match ends up going to a game 3, I will usually sideboard the package back out on the play. The exception to this rule is that that I will sideboard in the package against any deck which I confirm to have graveyard hate either on the draw or on the play.
Please note that neither Ground Seal nor Grafdigger's Cage affect Runechanter's Pike, so I generally don't consider these enough of a threat to warrant the Talrand transformation even if they may end up turning your Snapcaster Mages into mere Ambush Vipers.
General Tips: How to Play From Behind
There are two trademark characteristics of tempo decks that I feel are important for any potential pilot to understand before getting involved with a deck like this. The first is that such decks tend not to be very forgiving toward play mistakes and loose decisions. If your technical play is immaculate during a game, this deck will reward you by making you feel completely invincible. However, if you play sloppily, even for a single phase, the deck will punish you without mercy. The second is that these decks tend to give off a psychological illusion that you are constantly playing from behind. Recognizing that this is an illusion and keeping yourself from falling into despair is a very difficult challenge even for seasoned players but is crucial for your success playing with this deck.
The simple fact is that both Delver of Secrets and Quirion Dryad have a raw power in this deck that very few other cards in Standard can actively compete with. You can use this fact to your advantage considering the average competitive player will have bought into the myth that they're washed up cards with no applications in the current metagame. Many wins can be stolen from opponents who simply underestimate the speed at which your creatures will kill them.
But with that power comes a major vulnerability. You absolutely cannot pilot this deck as you would a traditional aggro deck. The only turns on which it is acceptable to tap all of your mana during your main phase are turns 1 and 2 or on a turn when you are certain you can kill your opponent on the spot. The surest way to lose with this deck is to allow your opponent to successfully trump your plays, something that the deck is intentionally designed to avoid. When in doubt, hold up your counterspell.
Finally, a few word on mulliganing and probabilities. Because of the low number of lands in the deck, you will find yourself needing to mulligan more aggressively than you may be used to. This is an inevitability of the composition of the deck and should not be allowed to depress you. Force yourself to mulligan one-land hands that look like they might be able to get there. It's very rare that they actually will.
Likewise, because the deck doesn't have a way to actively stack the top of your library, it can be easy to get discouraged when you have a stubborn Delver of Secrets that refuses to transform. Those are the situations that you trade for the ones in which you get to experience the awesome power of a turn 1 Delver blind flipping at the beginning of your second turn. Have faith in the mathematics of the deck because I promise that it's there.
At the very least, this is one of the most fun and unique decks I've ever had the opportunity to play, and I've built some really off-the-wall concoctions in my day. I strongly suggest that you give the deck a try, even if only to confirm that it isn't something that you'd be interested in playing after all. Heck, in the end you might just discover that conventional wisdom about tempo in this format was wrong and subsequently find yourself sitting across from a number of very disgruntled players longingly eyeing the Angel of Serenity they know deep down that they'll never actually get onto the battlefield. And if all else fails, just remember this: if I could do it, you sure as hell can too.