"Wow. That is a big boat."
As of this writing, it is Friday morning and I'm about to board the fourth-ever Magic Cruise, departing from Seattle and heading to Alaska. Richard Garfield, Aaron Forsythe, Luis Scott-Vargas, and I are all gunslinging and generally just enjoying cruising and gaming with the record-setting crowd. Needless to say, it is going to be an absolute blast.
I do not yet have tales from the cruise to recount; I merely share this information to give full context. We don't get back from Alaska until Friday (meaning I'm missing the first World Cup Qualifier this weekend), and a busy schedule has me planning on skipping the World Cup Qualifier in Oakland. That said, Standard is looking so broken right now that I'm giving serious thought to changing travel plans.
Caw-Blade/Delver is back in full effect, and many signs are pointing to a pretty ugly World Cup Qualifier season. Delver is so good right now that it's hard to imagine playing something else. The thing is, though, that I actually think a shocking number of people are going to come to the same conclusion.
This is not about Delver, but rather what I would build to beat it. To defeat the enemy, however, we must understand it...
Normally, when a deck is broken, there are never enough people playing it compared to how many should be. This is a little non-intuitive, but think about it like this; maybe there is a format that could be balanced where 60% of the field plays Delver, 30% of the field plays anti-Delver (getting 53% or whatever), and 10% of the field plays anti-anti-Delver (going 70% against anti-Delver, while still going 40% against Delver). However, that is never what we really see as the number of people who will never play the best deck is generally so great that when the best deck ought to be played by over half the field, the whole thing brings down.
There is a twist this time, however. Delver is nowhere near as good as Caw-Blade, even if it is so broken it may need to have a card banned. On this topic, if a card ends up getting banned (which is certainly not a forgone conclusion and depends on the World Cup Qualifiers), that card will definitely be Ponder.
If we lived in a world where everyone just Apprenticed, Snapcaster Mage would be the ban. Delver is totally overpowered and one of the most powerful creatures in the game's history; however, it is not actually oppressive. Remember, Wild Nacatl was not oppressive in Standard either. If you know people are playing Delvers, you can beat the Delvers.
Talk of banning Vapor Snag is interesting (and not to be totally dismissed out of hand). However, it is the wrong way. It is a great card, but it is not particularly vital to the archetype as well as being easily replaceable.
How did Ponder become a problem all of a sudden? This isn't exactly sudden or out of nowhere. Delver has been dominating for quite a while. Ponder is at the heart of the engine. It is not that Ponder lets you set up Delver (which is part of it) or that it is so abusable with Snapcaster (even though it is). It is that Ponder lets you abuse others' mistakes maximally efficiently. Why is Ponder too good now? Mana Leak, Geist of Saint Traft, Snapcaster Mage, Vapor Snag, Delver of Secrets, Swords, Restoration Angel, Moorland Haunt... That is a lot of extremely pushy cards, and they add up. The more pushy cards you have, the more dangerous Ponder becomes (hence its restrictions and bannings happening in reverse power-level order, starting from Vintage with Legacy getting a random pass because of the format being completely built around Brainstorm).
Banning Ponder will only hold off the problem for a bit, as Snapcaster Mage is the real problem. Depending on what is in the next five sets, Snapcaster Mage could very easily bring things to a head. However, Snapcaster is a chase rare from a current set. Ponder is a common set to rotate in four months anyway that has already been banned in every other format.
When Jace and Stoneforge were banned, there was no other choice. This is not that world. Delver and Snapcaster are not as broken contextually as Jace and SFM. Banning Ponder has very reasonable chances of "doing the trick" while being lost cost to the game and the tournament scene. If Delver completely dominates the next few weeks and nothing changes, there is a good chance that tournament attendance will start to suffer and M13's launch stifled, as four more months of Caw-Blade is the last thing most tournament players want.
How did we get to this point? There are lots of reasons contributing, such as Cavern of Souls crippling Delver's natural enemy, Control. Wolf Run Ramp punishing midrange decks with no permission. Restoration Angel being the perfect addition to a laundry list of overpowered cards. There are lots of factors that brought us to where we are today, but that isn't what's important right now.
The next three weeks contain three World Cup Qualifiers in the US (plus countless overseas), plus two SCG Open, and a SCG Invitational. These three weeks will determine Ponder's future. There is going to be an epic clash between the villains playing Delver (and there will be a lot of them) and the dedicated brewers looking to exploit such a predictable opponent.
If we had to choose today, I would sell out and play Delver. Gerry and the rest of Team SCG Blue's deck is that good. However, we don't have to decide today, so I am super-pumped to brew anti-Delver control decks. Control has historically been the best way to fight Delver, and there is a very reasonable chance that by round 5 of tournaments the field will be down to 67%+ Delver (with maybe only 40% playing it in round 1).
At GP Orlando earlier this year, I ended up finishing second with an anti-Delver Grixis deck, detailed here. That list had very few good matchups besides Delver, but absolutely crushed Delver. I know I am a Grixis-phile, but no one can deny how good at beating Delver the right Grixis deck can be.
This leaves us with three questions:
1) What is the right Grixis deck?
2) Will enough people play Delver to make Grixis actually worth it?
3) What are we going to do about Cavern of Souls, which has mostly pushed every other control deck out of the format?
Why add a color? Well, the primary advantage to playing U/B Control over Grixis or Esper is the use of Nephalia Drownyard. The Drownyard is an absolute monster in any semi-mirror type matchup, letting you be the biggest control deck against anyone remotely slow.
Cavern of Souls stamping out control leaves us with no one naturally weak against milling. Why Drownyard then? It is certainly not what you want against Delver, Wolf Run, G/R, or Zombies. It isn't even great against Solar Flare, as they have graveyard recursion and Ghost Quarter.
Once we are adding a color, should it be red or white? Historically, Grixis decks have performed better against Delver than Esper, though Lingering Souls does offer a powerful new option. Unfortunately, Restoration Angel and Sword of War and Peace (which I expect to be on the rise) are not the best news for Lingering Souls.
Without question, the way to do it might be Esper; however the appeal of red removal and Grudge is just a little more alluring to me, right now, than Lingering Souls, Day of Judgment, and Oblivion Ring.
Grixis is historically vulnerable to other control decks (of which there are currently very few). U/B has often had good matchups against Delver; however, Sword of Feast and Famine has always been brutal. Grixis having access to Grudge is definitely important, though there are other solutions. For instance, if you wanted to stay U/B you could Shouta it up and play some sort of Tezzeret brew with Tumble Magnets (which actually seem pretty awesome right now).
Tumble Magnet has always been a great answer to Swords, but it also helps keep Titans under control, offers a layer of protection against surprise Angels, and could even potentially combo well with Tamiyo.
This is a heavily Shouta-inspired build that tries to capitalize on how good Despise is at the moment (which is quite good). Tezzeret has always been an extremely powerful planeswalker if you can find enough artifacts you actually want to play. Tumble Magnet being good again might be enough, particularly when added to Phyrexian Metamorph (against Geist), Nihil Spellbomb (against Snapcaster), Ratchet Bomb (against Swords and Moorland Haunt), and some victory conditions. It is very possible that we need some Black Sun's Zeniths in the maindeck, so that is the first change I would consider while exploring such a strategy.
Turning our thoughts back to a more Grixis oriented direction, let's take stock of a few of the important cards to consider.
Phantasmal Image / Phyrexian Metamorph - These cards are still superb. Phantasmal Image is still the best answer in the format to Strangleroot Geist and has excellent applications against everyone. Metamorph is slower, but if you care about copying Swords or if you have Tezzeret to look for it, it can be even better. The ability to copy Titans is huge if you have answers to their Titan (with Metamorph having added bonus of not dying to their Wolf Run if they are the type).
Now that Delver is public enemy number one, hitting their Geist of Saint Traft is quite important. Even if they are trying to level the metagame by switching to Blade Splicers, Images are still A+ in that spot. If you are going to play Control, you need a lot of great answers to Geist or you will just get run over. This is a way to have more (that really can serve as creature removal against anyone) that can also be used to further your main game plan (by copying Simulacrums or Snapcasters or whatever).
Snapcaster Mage - This guy's value to a control deck is really just a function of how much sweet action you have to flashback. I love starting control decks with lots of Ponders these days, plus you can always copy spot removal and Leaks, not to mention possibly hitting Despise. But I am still a bit wary of Snapcaster due to wanting to crutch so hard on Whipflare.
Tamiyo, the Moon Sage - I am a big Tamiyo fan in general. However, she is much worse than she was two weeks ago (unless you are playing Lingering Souls, in which case she is still a homerun). You can't effectively lock down Swords, Restoration Angel untaps a guy and adds enough power to kill Tamiyo, and Delver doesn't usually let Tamiyo draw many cards. I actually like Jace, Memory Adept more against Delver, but even Jace is a dubious choice maindeck as it is just so bad against aggro.
Consecrated Sphinx - Still the best Titan on raw power; however, it is not always the best in the world of Vapor Snags for days. In general, I like to think of Consecrated Sphinx as being like Cruel Ultimatum or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. When building control decks to beat Faeries, we'd often use 56 or more cards specifically geared to combat Faeries, relying on Cruel Ultimatum to beat everyone else. When building control decks to beat Jund, we'd select almost every single card to gain points against Jund, relying on Jace to beat everyone else. Consecrated Sphinx might not be the best against Delver, but it gets the job done. Against most other people, such as G/R, Pod, and Wolf Run, however, Sphinx is the best card you could possibly use.
Consecrated Sphinx does have added functionality against Delver now. It doesn't matter if Restoration Angel is carrying a Sword of Feast and Famine or War and Peace; it isn't getting through a Sphinx. Games can get weird when so many people have Images to copy your Sphinx, but as long as you have a decent number of Doom Blade types to hit their Sphinx then sweepers to clean up the mess, you should be getting the better of it.
Wurmcoil Engine - Still decent and a great way to win games single-handedly against G/R, Zombies, etc., but it's very vulnerable to Vapor Snag and generally just not as good as Sphinx. If you have Tezzeret it is nice to find one, and it is still the best sideboard against Zombies.
Inferno Titan - My favorite fatty against Delver right now, since he fights both Vapor Snag and Image while advancing your board quickly and often hitting in one-shot. He takes over games against aggro decks as well, so I would be all about it if not for a newfound weakness. I am a little wary of relying on him maindeck when so many people play so many Zealous Conscripts maindeck. Pay the Iron Price for this one, and you will die. If Grave Titan gets stolen for a turn, it is nowhere near as bad.
Grave Titan - The second best six-drop at just about everything; the nice thing about Grave Titan is that he is never really bad against anyone. He takes over games the way you need against aggro, fights Snag and Image, and is generally just a reliable victory condition. He isn't at his best against Sword of Feast and Famine, though, which is a problem.
Batterskull - At times a poor man's Wurmcoil, Batterskull is better going super long. Costing five is a huge plus, as there is already so much competition at six. If you played Lingering Souls, the first Batterskull is nearly a lock as the dimension it adds is well worth it. In Grixis, it is a lot more questionable but still a fine option to consider depending on what kind of games you are looking to set up.
Olivia Voldaren - Her stock has risen a fair bit in the past couple weeks; however, there are still just a few too many Phantasmal Images to be all-in on her. If she fits the style you like, a copy or two of her is totally reasonable. She wins games single-handedly, trumps Restoration Angel, trumps Cavern of Souls, and is generally totally awesome against unknown opponents. She is just quite vulnerable to being copied.
Fettergeist - A potentially surprising new addition to the list, Fettergeist is the perfect body for the format (for many of the same reasons Restoration Angel is so good). The body is big enough to play a fantastic role against beatdown but lets you be very proactive in all the ways drawing all Tragic Slips does not.
This would be the wrong way to fight the format if people already had lots of creature removal in their decks, but from looking at things lately, there really isn't all that much of it. Drawing a second one is much worse than the first, so I wouldn't want to rely too heavily on it, but it is a nice twist that lets you play a different game than most opponents will be used to. Besides, if you can just keep Swords off the table, Fettergeist trumps every creature in the Delver deck.
Ponder - Readers may have noticed that I have been using a couple of these in every control deck, a trend that is sure to continue if not escalate. It can be expensive to draw too many if you have too many tapped lands, but if your mana supports it, they are extremely efficient ways to spend a mana. They are deceptively good against Delver because the matchup requires you to be fast (and Ponder is quite cheap). However, it often turns into a waiting game (where Ponder can put you turns ahead on finding action).
As an added note, when Dissipate isn't good, Ponder gets better, so you don't have the difficult tension of what to do on turn 3: Ponder or hold up Dissipate (as turn 3 is usually a more appealing time to Ponder than turn 1).
Desperate Ravings - Still the best in the business if you aren't crutching on miracles.
Amass the Components - Not a great rate, but it is a much-appreciated effect. For the time being, I generally prefer more Ponder/Ravings type action, but a single copy of Amass the Components gives Snapcaster Mage a powerful new dimension.
Pillar of Flame - A great card that gives serious points to beating G/R and Zombies while still being reasonable in moderation against Delver. The problem I always come back to, however, is that I want to play Whipflares, and once you go down that road and use Pillars, you start to develop a weakness to three toughness creatures. In moderation, however, Pillar is great.
Bonfire of the Damned - Definitely a reasonable choice to consider, though I'd probably play one max unless I had a deck specifically built to abuse it. It is another answer to Geist of Saint Traft, but it is really more of an answer to the second Geist than the first as you could be nearly dead if you try to wait to turn 5 to kill a Geist (and heaven forbid they have a Leak).
Devil's Play / Red Sun's Zenith - These have a big question mark to me, as I could see them being great (one copy of one of them) but I could also see them being just too slow. Definitely worth trying, with Devil's Play being the default. It might be that one in the board is the right spot for it.
Doom Blade / Go for the Throat - Better than they have been recently. Restoration Angel makes for more appealing targets. I'd still split them, but if you have room for three (which is looking like a great number right now), I'd probably err on the side of two Blades, as there will be more Inkmoths, Wurmcoils, and Golem tokens than Zombies and Grave Titans.
Tragic Slip - I don't love this one nearly as much as the previous two, but if you just need the tempo it is an option. I can't imagine ever wanting it in a Grixis deck, however, as Pillar is just so much better. Hell, I like Geistflame better than Tragic Slip. At times, I like Dead Weight better (though Dead Weight is worse if you use Snapcaster).
Curse of Death's Hold - Not as good as it was, as Restoration Angel and Geist of Saint Traft are both quite effective against it. However, there are a lot less Celestial Purges than there used to be. If you have enough Blades, Whipflares, and Images to deal with the above threats, Curse can clean up all the random Moorland Haunt tokens, Snapcasters, and so on that aren't worth using your "good" cards on.
Tumble Magnet - We already talked about this one some, but I could actually see it used in moderation outside of Tezzeret. I probably wouldn't use more than one, and even that one has a question mark, but it is a great way to fight all these Swords.
Ratchet Bomb - Still a great role-player; it is slow to count on, but it does solve just about any type of problem if you have the time. It is particularly important as a solution to Swords.
Pristine Talisman - I have always loved this card against Delver, as it accelerates you past them being able to Leak your spells (and up to you being able to threaten to drop a six if they tap out for a Geist). Additionally, it builds an advantage every turn, combating Delver's desire to slow the game down (at times) against control. It forces them to overcommit, which makes your sweepers better.
Ancient Grudge - Still a major draw to Grixis; playing a single copy maindeck is just such a safe investment, and the second copy is not actually out of the question if you have some amount of Faithless Looting. Against Delver, hitting Swords is a top priority. Against Wolf Run, it is one of the best ways to fight Inkmoths while also helping sometimes against Sphere of the Suns. Against Pod, it obviously hits their namesake, not to mention the Golem from Blade Splicer (or a Sword if they have it). Against G/R, you still have to find a way around Manabarbs, but it does fight the Swords. It sucks against Zombies, but that is definitely not the deck that has us wanting to play Grixis.
Desolate Lighthouse - A reasonable card. However, it can be tough to make the mana work for this one while still playing Grudge (and Grotto) and Pristine Talisman. You might be able to make room for one, but if you played U/W/R or just U/R, I would use a couple for sure (either do to miracles or just have easier mana).
I plan on playing quite a bit of Standard on the Magic Cruise this week. If I had to lock in a deck today, it would be Angel-Delver. With a week to test, however, I am probably going to start with something like this:
I am also going to be experimenting with Fettergeist maindeck, different mixes of removal, using a bunch of planeswalkers (particularly Liliana), and more.
While I am most drawn to Grixis (among control decks), I definitely think Esper is a reasonable consideration if you are confident that you have something new to bring to the table. One of the problems with Esper has been that it is the most mainstream control deck and the one that people have been testing against and are prepared for.
It is possible that this skeleton can incorporate one Swamp, an extra Wilds, and some black Scars lands to take advantage of Doom Blade (and shore up a potential weakness to Restoration Angel). It isn't clear how much you even gain from staying U/R since Lighthouse is nowhere near as good without miracles in your deck.
Alright, I gotta boat to board. Make sure to check out the new Magic movie, Tap: Max's Game. It's an independent Czech film about some Magic players. A music video trailer can be found here, and the movie itself here.
The next three weeks will determine the fate of Ponder and the Standard format. Will the villains win again, or will a challenger emerge to save the format...?