If It's Broke, Fix It!
How often have you thought "I'd love to play Deck A. It's great against almost the entire field it's fun I play it well but it can't beat Deck B. Ugh I guess I'll just play Deck C."
That type of thing has been a long-standing pet peeve of mine. There are thousands of cards and nearly infinite ways to build various decks yet people insist on giving up rather than finding a way to fix the matchup. Trust me most of the time a solution exists.
You don't stop playing creatures just because Bonfire of the Damned exists.
If your car breaks down you don't immediately junk it. That's not how life works.
When your Delver deck is losing to Zombies you don't give up on Delver—you fix it!
A good example of this is Merfolk in Legacy. For years Merfolk was the scourge of the format scaring many a blue mage. I know several people who dropped their favorite decks just because Merfolk seemed like a poor matchup and they expected it to be a significant portion of the metagame.
Over the course of my career on the StarCityGames.com Open Series my match win percentage versus Merfolk is something like 80%. I can think of exactly two instances where I've lost to Merfolk (although I'm sure there are a couple more) and I can think of at least ten other instances where I've beaten Merfolk when they thought their matchup against me was 80% in their favor.
There were a few factors at work there. For starters I'm sure there was a skill disparity in some regard. I understand the matchup from their side even better than they do. Their confidence may have led them to make some risky decisions in playing or mulliganing and that may have helped.
The biggest reason I did so well against them? I tuned my deck to beat them.
Check out these lists:
The first list I used to achieve the coveted double trophy weekend despite feeling like it was one of the worst Legacy decks I have ever played. Daze and Stifle were mostly unplayable for me the entire tournament. Aside from that the deck had two things going for it. The first was Mental Misstep and the second was that I had a good Merfolk matchup.
As you can see here I had a relatively easy time dispatching the Fishies en route to my victory. The key was to play cheap removal cheap threats and be able to stop Aether Vial. Barring that I had a way to not get buried under a tempo advantage generated by the Vial. The former two points mitigated the third. Even if they had Vial I could Hymn them and use things like Dismember and Ghastly Demise to remove their threats on the cheap allowing me to play around Daze and Spell Pierce when necessary.
The second list was built mainly on the same principles. I was overly worried about Merfolk so I played two maindeck Repeals to bounce Aether Vial once I established a Counterbalance lock. Firespout and Swords to Plowshares cleaned up the stragglers.
Post-board I gained Pithing Needle which could be used to disable all of their Vials. It's very important not to overly hate on just Aether Vial. Playing a card like Ancient Grudge would be incredibly narrow whereas Pithing Needle can name Mutavault Wasteland or Coralhelm Commander in a pinch.
All of this was done without playing specific hate cards like Peacekeeper or Llawan Cephalid Empress a strategy I tried using in the past. In Legacy you need your sideboard cards to be powerful but not overly hateful towards one archetype. The format is so diverse that you might not end up playing against that deck at all!
2. Dark Depths
Another great example of this is Dark Depths or DDT as it came to be known:
I wrote an article on Dark Depths after my dismal performance with it at Pro Tour Austin. Back then I wasn't playing much Magic and listened to my teammates about how the deck should be built rather than going with my own instincts. We ended up with a high variance narrow version of the deck when it could have been the above masterpiece instead.
After coming back from hiatus I quickly won a Magic Online PTQ with the deck and basically ruined the entire Extended season for everyone. Dark Depths was a super powerful deck that could make a 20/20 creature on turn 2 with some consistency but it folded to most disruption. I insisted the deck could be made better and eventually I did it.
Finding a dual-wielding combo deck where the pieces fit together but attack on different angles has been something I've been trying to recreate ever since that PTQ. I felt unbeatable. People would sideboard poorly assume the wrong role and play very badly against me because my deck was capable of doing two very different things.
Have any of you guys ever heard of Caw-Blade? Well it all started in our nation's capital where I won my first SCG Standard Open trophy. Ben Stark had just won a Pro Tour with Caw-Blade and it was very clear to me that it was the best deck. It was also my style but had a few holes.
With a lack of hard removal utility creatures were a huge problem. You couldn't Day of Judgment every single Fauna Shaman or Lotus Cobra they cast so I looked elsewhere. I found Lightning Bolt and Cunning Sparkmage (plus Basilisk Collar a combo I'm very fond of) and away I went. Most people in my position would have said that the problems created with a three-color mana base weren't worth the hassle.
So I fixed the mana base.
Granted I had to cut Tectonic Edge in order to do it but it worked perfectly. Edge wasn't nearly as integral as many people made it out to be. Yes Valakut decks existed and weren't a great matchup but Caw-Blade was just one of those decks where you could bend reality. Even if Valakut were a 60% favorite Caw-Blade could win nine out of ten games in any given set. It was just that good.
After winning the SCG Standard Open in DC I traveled to Edison the very next week. Satisfied with my victory in DC I changed little to the deck aside from adding some Linvalas for the mirror match. At that point I failed to realize how poorly my deck was constructed but had blinders on.
Earlier that week I was brewing up a new flavor of Caw-Blade this time with black but decided that since I won the last week I didn't have to change much. At the time I still thought Day of Judgment was a playable Magic card and that I needed it in certain matchups. As it turned out I played against more RUG and Valakut decks than I expected and lost a lot of matches.
I knew those problems were solvable and that I could beat everything. Earlier in the week Ben Hayes and I had been working on a Caw-Blade deck splashing black but shelved it because of how good Sparkblade seemed. When we got there we found out Gerard Fabiano and Ben Lundquist were playing black and I got the urge to abandon ship.
I've rarely had that feeling before but every time it has been right. The next weekend in Memphis I knew I wanted to play Darkblade. The Inquisitions and Creeping Tar Pits made the mirror matches easier and the spot removal did the job against Titans and aggressive decks. I had found my deck for the time being.
Over the next couple weeks I continually added subtle tweaks for the metagame shifts and continually racked up Top 8s. It wasn't just that my deck was good; I was running good and I was playing well. The ability to tune my deck for each week's metagame was what kept me on top.
I had a target on my head every single week and yet very few people could beat me. Looking back over my decklists I see how naive and pig-headed I was in certain spots and I know that I could have been even more dominant on the SCG Open Series knowing what I know now. However I wouldn't have gotten as knowledgeable as I am without experimenting week in and week out.
Surely this pertains to Delver as well? But of course!
As I see it the problems with Delver are thus:
- Weak to a swarm of creatures.
- Weak to lots of removal; has few threats but needs to stick one.
- Weak to direct damage.
- Can't go over the top of anyone.
- Weak to problematic permanents.
- Weak to Bonfire of the Damned.
Any normal person would see that and think it's too tall of an order to fill. At the moment Zombies fights on all six of these axes and most of them several at a time. Control and ramp decks can fight on 2 4 5 and 6. Even the mirror match can be won or lost based on 1 2 4 5 and 6. The format is very diverse so you have plenty of options for how you want to build your deck and the plans you can take.
Delver isn't Caw-Blade. You don't have the capability to come back from any situation and the sooner you realize that the better. Because of this you're often forced into the role of the aggressor but you should embrace it. When on the offensive all of Delver's cards are so much better.
In fact Delver most often wins by not being concerned with 1 3 4 or 5. 2 and 6 kind of fall under the same category but are mitigated by playing equipment lots of counterspells or planeswalkers. You can tune Delver to beat most things but unlike Caw-Blade you can't beat everyone at once.
Step one is building around a shell that makes sense. I've seen several Magic Online decklists that have cards in them for seemingly no rhyme or reason. For example Geist of Saint Traft wants you to be aggressive but something like Talrand Sky Summoner wants you to slow down the game. That combination doesn't make a whole lot of sense unless you're playing Talrand strictly for the mirror match.
Some weird examples of this include:
Talrand Sky Summoner / Runechanter's Pike: While both of these want you to play lots of cheap cantrips and Pike wants evasive creatures they don't make a lot of sense together. One is more of a controlling card while the other wants you to get them dead as soon as possible. This combination is defensible if you want to play Pike in order to be better against removal or control but not simply because they both work well with Thought Scour.
Quirion Dryad / Huntmaster of the Fells or Talrand: What you're going to get some value from Huntmaster or Talrand while you beat them over the head with Dryad? Your deck is schizophrenic. Again playing Talrand strictly for the mirror is defensible but Huntmaster? It's a good card but I don't get it.
Talrand Sky Summoner / Augur of Bolas: Talrand wants spells and wants you to slow down the game in order for him to take over which Augur helps accomplish. However has Augur of Bolas ever impressed anyone? I'd rather take my chances trying to kill them with Geist or Dryad than durdle around with Maritime Guard.
You might say "But Augur of Bolas holds a Pike really well!" No you're confusing him with Invisible Stalker. Augur of Bolas can still get killed or bounced for a major tempo loss. I've played with the card and it wasn't very good even when it wasn't missing.
Geist of Saint Traft / Quirion Dryad or Hero of Bladehold: Here's some synergy I can get behind. Geist is super sick at attacking and the majority of your games with Delver will be won by an unanswered Geist or Delver. Having another fatty to increase your threat density is huge especially in an age where decks like Zombies can kill every single creature you play.
5. Most Recently…
I played a PTQ last weekend where I lost my 'lose-and-out' match. Going into the event I knew I would be facing all types of random decks so there was no reason to play my inbred Magic Online deck at that tournament. I cut the maindeck Mental Missteps added the third Mana Leak back in and maindecked some Sword of Feast and Famines which would be good against control and green creature decks.
The deck fared well mostly because I prepared for the randomness I faced. Spirit Delver B/W Control Grixis Control Heartless Summoning mirror matches Zombies and Four-Color Birthing Pod were among the archetypes that I faced. Without those changes I wouldn't have done nearly as well as I did.
I could see many people playing against Lingering Souls Massacre Wurm Gideon Jura Trading Post and Whipflare and giving up on Delver entirely. After all who wants to fight through all that hate? I do and I did.
Here's how you can solve those problems:
1) Weak to a swarm of creatures.
Delver is not set up to be a reactive deck and U/W Midrange is much worse than Delver versus the field. Tempo them out with your better more powerful creatures.
2) Weak to lots of removal; has few threats but needs to stick one.
Moorland Haunt equipment and hexproof help a ton here. If you're really stretching you can sideboard some planeswalkers. Jace Memory Adept is best against Mono-Black Control but Tamiyo is a little better against anything with Lingering Souls in it.
3) Weak to direct damage.
4) Can't go over the top of anyone.
Kill 'em before they can kill you.
5) Weak to problematic permanents.
Vapor Snagging a Titan only works for so long. Thragtusk is difficult to remove and Birthing Pod is almost unbeatable if it stays in play. Again kill them before those things matter Mana Leak or sideboard specific answers for certain cards but ones that can be brought in against other decks such as Pacifism for Thragtusk.
6) Weak to Bonfire of the Damned.
Mutagenic Growth works wonders here but Hero of Bladehold having four toughness is huge as well. If you're truly worried you can also keep in some Mana Leaks as it's basically impossible to cast Bonfire for the amount they want and play around Mana Leak at the same time.
Overall you need to figure out what matters address the issues your deck has and then see if you can fix them. Even though most problems are fixable some might not be. Occasionally it's better to cut your losses and move on. I encourage you to try new things; a solution usually exists!