"So we're playing the same deck right?" -Ben Friedman.
Grand Prix Baltimore was around the corner and I hadn't played a game of Magic since the Pro Tour. My Delver deck was sitting untouched on my desk and still sideboarded from my match against Jon Finkel. "I don't care if it's wrong" I thought. "This is the only deck I know."
Deck choice isn't nearly as refined an art as many would have you think. When I first played on the Pro Tour I assumed that each and every player would have an awesome deck a cohesive plan and weeks of preparation behind them. In practice this is couldn't be further from the truth. Most people are woefully unprepared and very willing to succumb to the "leaks" of information that occur the night before a tournament. It's very easy to be impulsive in Magic—not just during the games themselves but also in preparation.
My Grand Prix Baltimore story is about controlling that impulse and ignoring the hype and assumptions made by many others.
Brad Nelson had just recently written an article about the benefit of playing the "best deck" and simply having more experience with it than anyone else. While I agree with that sentiment I think it's equally important to play a deck you're comfortable with or that fits "your style." The best feeling of all is when those two scenarios overlap as they did for me and Delver.
The scariest deck to come out of the Pro Tour in Hawaii from my perspective was Esper Spirits. There's no other deck in the format that was capable of putting significant early pressure on "traditional" Delver while also having some form of inevitability in the late game. However the discovery of Corrosive Gale (not sure who to credit for that one) turned a difficult grinding matchup into one that I hoped to face but I also knew that people would in all likelihood move away from Esper Spirits.
The biggest change in the week leading up to Baltimore was a surge in U/B Control. Numerous writers on this site including Reid Duke and Brad Nelson wrote about how strong they believed the deck would be in the coming weeks. As far as I can see they were right.
In many ways Delver was accidentally the right deck for this tournament. People had fewer answers to equipment than any Standard tournament I'd seen in months and were also focused on beating decks like Spirits and Ramp. Between the five or so players playing this list we had a double-digit number of Corrosive Gales brought in against us in the tournament—a card that did close to nothing.
With this in mind we arrived at this list:
The biggest change in the maindeck was to cut Gut Shot entirely. The card just isn't impactful or versatile enough to justify a maindeck slot. Dismember is a much more widely applicable removal spell and I planned on being the aggressor more often than not in a metagame of Spirits Ramp and U/B Control.
An apparent decline in Humans (most likely due to the presence of Ramp) also led me to cut a Sword for a Runechanter's Pike. Pike is much better card in control matchups and also a generally more efficient equipment to have when you're not concerned about protection from white or life gain.
I'm extremely proud of the sideboard we came up with for the tournament. Jason Ford is responsible for much of it particularly Jace Memory Adept which was always a game winner against control. I really like cards like Jace which is powerful but seemingly non-cohesive with the rest of our game plan. Jace is already a very difficult card for U/B Control to deal with but even more so in a post-board configuration focused on fighting Geist and Moorland Haunt and that tries to blank Vapor Snag.
The last two cards we added were Batterskull and Surgical Extraction. Batterskull is a surprisingly effective threat against control decks with Curse of Death's Hold and also an integral part of the plan against Zombies and other aggressive decks. Surgical is a card I don't typically like but it was a concession to the presence of Frites and numerous Lingering Souls/Snapcaster decks.
Here's a look at what I played against in the Grand Prix:
Bernard Hsu U/B Control: 2-0
Michael Stanley W/U Humans: 2-0
Brett Walker G/R/B Ramp: 0-2
James Kanziolka R/G Aggro: 2-0
Michael Zhang G/W/R Pod Ramp: 2-1
Jeffrey Folinus U/W/B Spirit Delver: 2-0
Day 1 Record: 8-1
Ben Friedman U/W Delver: 2-1
Dustin Taylor U/W/B Spirit Delver: 2-1
Kyle Duncan G/R/W Aggro: 2-0
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa U/B Control: 0-2
Eric Kreiter B/W Tokens: 2-0
Gregg Wilson B/R Zombies: 2-1
Matt Hoey U/W Delver: 2-0
Swiss Record: 14-2
On the whole I feel as though I played against a fairly even representation of the tournament's metagame.
My match against "Jund" Ramp on Day 1 was very weird because I'm not sure how he managed to fit all of the cards cast against me into a 60-card deck. Over the course of two games he cast all three flavors of Titan (Grave Primeval and Inferno) as well as Olivia Voldaren Huntmaster Green Sun's Zenith Curse of Death's Hold Solemn Simulacrum and a bevy of ramp spells. It's possible that my opponent was playing a Highlander-style configuration of threats—not something I would recommend though it apparently worked fairly well for him.
The rest of that day was fairly straightforward but I'd like to talk about two games in particular.
In game 1 of round 8 I kept a hand on the draw of two Gitaxian Probe two Delver of Secrets Ponder Vapor Snag and Mana Leak. I was fairly upset about this keep because while it may be defensible it's also not the type of risk I normally take. I like to think I'm fairly tight and conservative with regards to mulligans but somehow I managed to operate outside my range for one game. After the match I told Jason Ford about it and he simply said "I think you can keep it but I would never expect that from you." This was scary and I vowed to tighten up for the rest of the tournament. I felt like I was doing a number of things right and within my comfort zone and didn't want to lose that.
The second is game 1 of round 9 which in many ways reflects the theme of the tournament for me which was patience. I cast Probe very early on and saw two Mana Leaks but very little in the way of threats. I knew I had lots of time so I spent the game focusing on making those Mana Leaks dead and ended up killing him many turns later with both Leaks still stranded in his hand. I cast an Invisible Stalker on turn 6 or 7 and it dealt close to ten damage without any form of equipment though I had a Pike in hand. The Pike was lethal for a number of turns but there was no reason to cast it until he made the first move.
One thing most players could do to improve their gameplay would be to focus on patience. It's not always right to wait because sometimes you need to be aggressive to cut down on your opponent's outs or inevitability. However players also frequently lose games because they get nervous and rush through their endgame more commonly when an apparent win is in sight.
Day 2 started off on a rough note when I was paired against Ben Friedman—friend teammate and also my host for the tournament. This was especially annoying considering the large size of the 8-1 bracket at the time—close to 50 players. We traded games 1 and 2 and he drew pretty poorly with time winding down to bring my lifetime record against Ben to 2-0. (Sorry bud!)
The rest of the Swiss flew by quickly culminating in a mirror match for a slot in Top 8. Despite a timely Dissipate from my opponent in game 2—a card that he certainly shouldn't have brought in—I took it down and moved on to Top 8.
Now is a good time to give a brief overview of how I would generally sideboard for the matchups I played in this tournament:
One thing to notice about sideboarding with Delver is that you nearly always board out some number of Stalkers and equipment. The reason for this is that Stalker is a very good proactive plan for game 1 against an unknown opponent with few maindeck answers to equipment. As decks become more prepared to fight each other post-board this plan is less appealing. Boarding out Stalkers and some or all the equipment also gives you the added value of blanking their spells that interact with equipment while simultaneously gaining access to sideboard answers of your own.
For all those who will look at these plans and decide to cut Stalkers from your deck I wouldn't advise that—they're in there for a reason.
I really want to be able to cut more of the Leaks but Divine Offering just seems too narrow and is the only other potential choice.
You really want to be able to blank the Grudges that they always bring in and cutting Stalker is a natural part of that plan.
Zombies (U/B or B/R)
Against Matt Scott in the semifinals I also brought in Divine Offering cutting an additional Thought Scour. Matt had more Swords than most lists I'd seen in addition to Mortarpods. Moving forward it's probably safe to assume that you'll want to bring Offering in.
-3 Invisible Stalker -2 Runechanter's Pike
Even though they can have Grudge the Swords are fine here as a one shot effect and temporary protection from their sweepers. If they seem to have lots of Inferno Titans (and keep those in for some reason) in addition to Huntmasters I wouldn't be opposed to be boarding another Purge for one of the Swords.
Various Other Ramp Decks
Against decks with Pod like the one I played against in round 8 you also want to bring in Divine Offering.
U/B Control (this is the hard one since it's very list and play style dependent)
The logic behind keeping in Dismember is they're pretty much always bringing in Bloodline Keeper and this allows you to not work your Purges too hard and save them for Curse/Liliana/Grave Titan. I really like keeping in Vapor Snag in this matchup as a way to save your guys from Wraths and removal spells. Geist with some combination of Snag and Leak backup is very strong threat in the matchup. The removal spells also allow you to protect a Jace should you land one. Jace also probably loses some value now that it's no longer a surprise as you can't just get trick them into tapping out for a Curse anymore.
They have Grudge which you want to blank and Pike is miserable anyway given how many small chump blockers they have. Gale does just as good a job as Sword at getting past their Spirit tokens (at a cheaper cost) and also doubles as a pseudo Gut Shot for their Birds.
My quarterfinals opponent was none other than Eric Meng who I also played against late in Pro Tour Dark Ascension (where he put up an impressive but unfortunate 26th place finish). I've been very impressed with Eric's play over the last month and his lack of invite gives me a bone to pick with the current system given the quality of his results. That said Eric's a great guy and I fully expect him to make his way back on the Tour in the near future.
In the semis I moved on to face Matt Scott with whom I have many mutual friends but met for the first time at this tournament.
We played an exceptionally close game 1 which I won on one life staring down a Mortarpod for many turns.
Batterskull proved its worth in game 2 winning me the game alongside a key Divine Offering.
Coverage of both my quarter and semifinal matches can be found here.
The final against Dave Shiels was the best match I've played in a long time. Dave is a good friend and it was the best possible scenario for me to play against him in finals. It also felt "right" that I would have to go through U/B Control to win it all. U/B was the defining deck of the tournament and also my hardest matchup when in the hands of a highly skilled pilot.
The final was covered in immense detail in text form here and also on video here. The defining turn in game 1 is when I finally managed to resolve Stalker but chose not to equip it. My logic was that if he had any non-Curse answer such as the Black Sun's Zenith I knew about from Gitaxian Probe I would have mana left over to make a Moorland Haunt token and kill him. However he managed to draw Curse since the last time I had Probed him and I lost the game from there. After the match a few different people talked to me about this play and felt that if I equipped and he had an answer I still had inevitability due to Moorland Haunt and Sword. I think that I was most likely going to lose to the Curse either way but that play may have been better.
Game 3 demonstrated the value of patience when playing Delver. Late in the game I Probed him to see seven good spells including both threats and answers. I spent a number of turns not attacking with Geist of Saint Traft due to Snapcaster Mages and Bloodline Keepers but eventually forced through a Batterskull. Geist and Batterskull allowed me to start attacking and a couple of timely answers to Bloodline Keeper put the game away.
If I were to play the deck tomorrow I think that it would be safe to play the same maindeck as in Baltimore. Most likely you could cut one or both Corrosive Gales from the sideboard for an extra Celestial Purge and potentially another card for the R/G aggro decks like Timely Reinforcements or Dismember.
Delver is still a good choice to play in Standard. The deck requires lots of practice and a willingness to adopt a very different game plan post-sideboard. With those skills and a bit of patience this deck has the tools to beat anything.
I'm currently sitting on 44 Pro Points so I've locked up Platinum for next year. Hopefully I'll be able to get my finals moved around for Barcelona and make a push for the Players' Championship. This summer I plan on playing a ton of Magic—and continuing to write about it.
Until next time
_Cryptic on Magic Online