As I'm sure you're all aware by now, there are a lot of different takes on "Delver" as a deck in Standard. Everyone agrees on a core, sort of, at least the core of: four Ponder, four Delver of Secrets, and four Snapcaster Mage. After that, you start asking questions. We have a basic idea of the curve and the number of creatures, and Mana Leak and Vapor Snag are pretty likely to appear in the deck, but there's a more dramatic amount of flexibility in the exact list than there was in something like Caw-Blade (which itself wasn't all that set in stone). I want to look at what various points of decision mean and what they say about the deck.
There are web tools that can aggregate several decks, maybe every Delver deck to Top 8 a tournament in the last two months, and tell you the average number of each card played to give you a composite list. This is a really bad way to build a deck. Card choices should be made with a game plan, and one choice should impact other choices. An aggregate list won't have a plan.
Consider Thought Scour vs. Gitaxian Probe. You may have noticed that Gitaxian Probe was the standard second cantrip before Grand Prix Kuala Lumpur, when Yuuya cut all the Gitaxian Probes and played four Thought Scour. Before that, lists might have found room for two Thought Scour, but that would generally come after they had four Gitaxian Probe.
What happened? Why did he make this change?
I haven't talked to him, but I know why I would do that and how I want to decide which to use in the future.
Gitaxian Probe can be played for no mana and gives you information. It's a sorcery, and it costs life. Thought Scour always costs mana, but it's an instant and puts cards in your graveyard. Sorry for being pedantic; I'm sure you knew what the cards do. The question is, when do you want one and when do you want the other?
The easiest way for me to highlight the differences between these cards is to compare Spirits to Yuuya's Delver deck. So we'll start from the top.
Gitaxian Probe is at its best when one of its advantages really matters and/or when its disadvantages don't matter. If you're particularly likely to make different plays based on knowing your opponent's hand, it gains value. If you have Phantasmal Image and the only creature in play is a Drogskol Captain and your opponent has mana untapped (thanks to Dismember it doesn't really matter what color it is), you probably shouldn't play the Phantasmal Image; however, copying the Drogskol Captain might be a game-winning play if you know it's safe. However, in a deck like Yuuya's where you're often attaching equipment to a hexproof creature, you're unlikely to care as much about most cards they can have because your cards already limit your opponent's ability to interact.
Furthermore, one of the weaker points of the Spirit deck is a minor deficiency in its number of turn 2 plays. To help make up for this, the deck really likes to be able to play Snapcaster Mage as a two-drop (since you can rarely play Phantasmal Image on turn 2); this means you want to be able to target a Gitaxian Probe and draw another card to get value as you're curving out. Yuuya's deck, on the other hand, has Invisible Stalker and Runechanter's Pike that it can play on turn 2 instead. Moreover, because it has a little less late game power, it relies on its Snapcaster Mages to pull a little more weight and doesn't want to waste them just to pay two life to draw a card.
Thought Scour, on the other hand, does amazing work in Yuuya's deck. Most obviously, it fills his graveyard to power Runechanter's Pike, but it also fills his graveyard with tools for Snapcaster Mage and Moorland Haunt. Moorland Haunt is a pivotal card in this deck. Runechanter's Pike can turn any single Spirit token into a serious threat, and this deck leans heavily on the card going into any late game. Spirits, on the other hand, tries to play a less grindy game with a better midgame and rarely has time to take advantage of Moorland Haunt thanks to having access to Lingering Souls to spend mana on. Additionally, because of its third color the mana base can't support as many Moorland Haunts, so it's less likely to even have the option.
Snapcaster Mage, like Moorland Haunt, is an entirely different card in Yuuya's deck. Yuuya has substantially more countermagic because he has fewer expensive sorcery speed cards, so being able to leave mana open going into an opponent's turn to play a Faeries-style instant speed game is important. If the opponent doesn't do anything important, you want to be able to punish their passivity by playing Snapcaster Mage with value in their end step. Thought Scour is a great target for the Snapcaster that also helps you have more options later.
It's easy to look at Thought Scour and Gitaxian Probe, decide that you're going to need a few more cheap cantrips but you don't really care which, and play a mix. Then sometimes you can play Snapcaster as a two-mana cantrip and sometimes you can play it as an instant that draws a card. Maybe once per game you can get rid of a card you don't want with Delver of Secrets and once per game you'll see their hand, which is all you really need. Actually, when I put it that way, a split sounds pretty good. But there can be a lot more to it, and understanding how you want your deck to play out can let you make a much better choice.
But you need to look at the lists much deeper and consider further what you're doing with the decks.
Yuuya's sideboard doesn't have big trumps like Jace, Memory Adept, Batterskull, or Consecrated Sphinx as some people have been playing. He's not looking to lure U/B Control players into resolving Curse of Death's Hold so that he can slam Jace and hope to win in a different direction. He just wants to play the same aggro-control game he plays against everyone, and he just sides in more counterspells. He takes advantage of his Thought Scours to keep his Snapcaster Mages rich in counters to stop their expensive trumps, and he doesn't tap out after turn three so that they don't get a chance to resolve such a spell.
Maindeck card choices lay the groundwork for a sideboard plan. Most people don't think far enough ahead to have plans for sideboarded games for each matchup that affect maindeck card choices, but this is what you should be doing.
I'm pretty sure Yuuya's decision was informed by more than just finding some internal synergies and coming up with a theoretically synergistic sideboard plan. His deck looked like it was very concerned with beating other Delver decks and red/green decks where Gut Shot excels and every point of life can matter a lot. First, there are diminishing returns to additional Phyrexian mana spells as the life loss adds up, and Yuuya correctly identified a time when the metagame called for using that life on Gut Shot instead of Gitaxian Probe. Additionally, Thought Scour has a secondary benefit of being well positioned against Huntmaster of the Fells, where it can stop it from flipping and becoming really devastating.
I'd rather not compare Geist of Saint Traft to Lingering Souls or Drogskol Captain, because I think those are rooted in more fundamental changes to the deck, but I think Delver decks that mostly look similar can find themselves deciding between Geist of Saint Traft and Blade Splicer.
At their core, Geist of Saint Traft is more aggressive and Blade Splicer is more defensive. This means Geist will play better in streamlined tempo builds, while Blade Splicer will play well in decks that have a separate end game plan like Batterskull or Jace, Memory Adept. Blade Splicer also plays very well with Phantasmal Image, a card that plays miserably with Geist of Saint Traft. Geist of Saint Traft plays well with any kind of instant that can impact the board, like Gut Shot, Mutagenic Growth, and Vapor Snag (especially Mutagenic Growth). Also, thanks to hexproof, Geist of Saint Traft plays very well with equipment or enchantments.
They're good against different opposition. Geist of Saint Traft is better against Vapor Snag, Doom Blade, and basically any creatureless deck. Blade Splicer is better against Liliana of the Veil and decks like R/G aggro and Zombies that have creatures that lose fights with Golems.
Picking your three-drop should be strongly informed by your projected metagame, but you also need to consider the implications on the rest of your deck. You have to decide if you're willing to change other cards to play nicely with the three-drop you choose, or if your three-drop is scripted by your desire to play a certain two-drop.
The two-drop question is probably going to come down to Invisible Stalker, which will play well with Geist of Saint Traft because they both want the same support cards (equipment). They work together toward a similar game plan (blanking/minimizing the impact of your opponents' spot removal). Phantasmal Image is better with Blade splicer and also makes sense as part of a consistent metagame prediction: if you're looking to beat Strangleroot Geist, you're going to be very happy with both Phantasmal Image and Blade Splicer.
Porcelain Legionnaire is another real two-drop that shines when you're trying to be aggressive without relying on equipment and when you're expecting creature combat rather than interactive spells. Vulnerability to Ancient Grudge makes it an awkward choice for people who are looking to avoid equipment, and it matches up poorly with Gut Shot. It doesn't play particularly well with Runechanter's Pike; it makes the most sense with Sword of War and Peace. It can apply early pressure or block to give you time for a Sword to take control, and it doesn't have its own evasion so it gets the most benefit from protection from white.
Recently, Gerry Thompson has promoted Intangible Virtue as an alternate two-drop that requires Lingering Souls as the accompanying three (supplemented with Timely Reinforcements and Blade Splicer). This is more of a twist on Spirits than a twist on Delver, but I might as well discuss it now. Essentially, Intangible Virtue and Gather the Townsfolk replace Phantasmal Image and Blade Splicer replaces Drogskol Captain. This means you're less vulnerable to Day of Judgment and Corrosive Gale, and you can actually use your two-mana spell to curve out. On the other hand, sometimes you have a card that doesn't do anything on its own, and you lose the power and versatility of Phantasmal Image.
This is a huge improvement against Day of Judgment control decks, and Blade Splicer looks to pick of the lost percentage against Strangleroot Geist decks from losing Phantasmal Image. Ultimately, while I haven't played with this build, I'd expect it to have similar matchups weighted toward beating control more and creatures less.
Changing gears, another fundamental question in building Delver decks is, as I hinted at briefly above, when you plan to use your mana. Two people might play the same exact deck very differently. One might play Delver as an aggro deck, tapping out every turn to apply as much pressure as possible. If you play a Delver of Secrets on turn 1, on turn 2 you might have a choice between passing with Mana Leak or playing something, either an Invisible Stalker or a Runechanter's Pike. If you flip the Delver you might think, "This can win the game. I just need to protect it; I'll sit on Mana Leak," or you might think, "It's only turn 2, my opponent can't really do anything I care about yet so I should hold Mana Leak until they have enough mana to play a spell I really want to counter and put more pressure on them now." Against most people, I think it's probably right to play the spell, but it obviously depends on a lot of factors. My point here isn't really to examine the question.
What you need to ask yourself as a deckbuilder is what your tendencies are when you play. Are you looking to keep mana up for Mana Leak at all times, maybe playing Geist of Saint Traft on turn 5 instead of turn 3 to do that, or are you just going to play a threat if you have it? You should think about how your inclinations in points of decisions might lean a certain way and how you can build your deck to reward those decisions. If you like to play your Snapcaster Mages reactively, give yourself the tools to do that by playing Thought Scour and a wider range or answers. If you like to tap out, give yourself tools to punish your opponent for capitalizing when you tap out; Dungeon Geists is an excellent follow-up trump to any creature they might play while you're tapped out from playing a three-mana spell on your main phase.
The power and flexibility of cards these days have given decks the ability to switch roles at the drop of a hat. In a world where role assignment is less clear than ever, there's room to pick up a significant edge if you build your deck to play to the role you're more comfortable with and know how to sculpt games to reward you.
That covers that topic. As an added bonus, since just talking about the most popular deck can be a little boring, I'll throw out a list I've done a little work with on Magic Online in the last couple of days. This is a concept that I tried a little before PT Honolulu but never had time to fully explore. Here it's still in its infancy, but there are some interesting ideas at work:
- 3 Spellskite
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Hero of Bladehold
- 4 Mayor of Avabruck
- 4 Thraben Doomsayer
- 4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
The basic idea is to play creatures that beat other creatures by making tokens and use Thalia, Guardian of Thraben to punish people who aren't making tokens. Faith's Shield and Spellskite protect high impact creatures. Spellskite allows you to pay enough life to get to fateful hour whenever any ability is on the stack to turn on Thraben Doomsayer or explosive alpha strikes, particularly in conjunction with Faith's Shield to get through any blockers.
I'm not recommending this list as is for your next serious tournament, but if you're looking to play some fun new cards in an aging Standard format, there might be something here you'd like to explore.
Thanks for reading,
@samuelhblack on Twitter