If there's anything I can think after watching and playing a lot of Standard these last weeks it's that Delver is both a force and that it is emerging as a deck that maybe we've begun to beat fairly. I'm still not sure if that is truly the case but I've been watching Delver play out for a while and it seems to be going through a cycle of a great event followed by largely being dominated.
For me this has been a crazy time. I finished up with a grueling final semester of graduate school and then began a mostly Magical walkabout. Mid-May was SCG Open Series: Madison (as well as a Jon Becker themed Magic party at my place) with GP Minneapolis the next week and the SCG Open Series: Nashville the week after that. After only a day home it was off to Origins both to work some Ascension action and to do the SCG Open Series in Columbus to start out June.
The next weekend it was SCG Open Series: Worcester and I headed directly from Worcester to New Orleans to attend among other things the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board party with my girlfriend. This in many ways was vacation but I did spend a lot of time writing and playtesting during the days there. From there I went to Detroit for the SCG event there sticking in town for a week before heading back to Chicago for the PTQ by the ever capable Pastimes. Now I'm home.
I never considered myself anything more than a semi-pro in Magic at my peak. But man I am so incredibly glad to be home. Only home for fourteen days out of the last fifty? I know a few hardcore Magic gamers for whom this would par for the course. For me I have to say that after a long time away there is nothing like being curled up in your own bed around your things and not having to wonder where to go to find good food.
One of the fabulous things about all of this though is that it really is great to see what is happening in Magic in different parts of the country. One thing that has seemed pretty clear to me is that by and large the player base is not too concerned with "Delver" (by which I mean Ponder/Snapcaster/Angel decks which run Delver of Secrets/Insectile Aberration) and the results seem to speak to this.
An Overview of June's Metagame
Take the last few major events. Let's look at the top of the field:
SCG Standard Open Columbus 6/2:
Clearly a lot of Delver decks but also they were held down in the end by two other decks entirely. Still there is a fair amount of diversity though we will see that end in the coming week:
SCG Standard Open Worcester MA 6/9:
At the beginning of both of these two events I called Esper to win it. I was pleased to see that it did both times. A part of it is that a well-honed Esper deck just has all of the tools to take down a Delver deck. The point removal can stop the early beats and the mass removal can clean up the table if things get out of hand. In the meantime Lingering Souls can buy you time and potentially create valuable trades.
We'll look at Indianapolis the next week not for the Invitational but for the Open. A big part of the reason I don't go to the Invitational for the data as some have is that the Invitational is a mixed format event and thus the results are deeply polluted.
SCG Standard Open Indianapolis 6/16:
Wow. Eight different archetypes. Delver reigned supreme but one of the things I think worth noting is that Dan Musser playing Naya Pod really played spoiler to Robbie Cordell playing Esper Control. We've been seeing Esper beat up on Delver and Dan delivered a pretty huge knockout punch to Robbie. Dan would then go on to be defeated by Robbie's best matchup Delver and then we'd see a finals of Delver vs. BU Zombies. But for a slight twist of fate I think we would have seen another Esper champion.
One of the things I think we're also seeing here though are decks beginning to learn just what they have to do to be able to fight against Delver. These SCG events have many hundred people and as a result you do have a lot of Delver decks that could be finding the path to Top 8. They just aren't.
That same weekend in Manila Yuuya Watanabe changed the world a little by introducing his aggressive build of Delver that ran multiple Runechanter's Pike. This was a huge event both in terms of the number of players and the impact on the meta.
GP Manila 6/17:
Here half the decks were Delver with an even split between lists like Yuuya's running Pike and means to maximize the Pike and lists like GerryT's from Nashville with Swords. All of the decks are running Geist and we see no Blade Splicers among the Delver decks. Importantly though Naya decks are fighting the good fight and maintained a presence against these decks.
SCG Standard Open Detroit 6/23:
PTQ NJ 6/23:
Wow. Two large tournaments the same day and only one Delver deck in the mix! A huge variety of decks. Of course we shouldn't get happy too quickly if we're Delver haters. The next day at the Magic Online PTQ:
Magic Online PTQ 6/24:
Here we see a resurgence of Delver decks of various stripes all of which lost to the eventual champion with B/R Aggro or to each other (the U/W/R defeating a traditional U/W). The two Esper Control decks were each eliminated immediately by non-Delver decks. Importantly though Esper decks were just as well represented as Delver decks and red-based aggro was dominating in the field only losing to other red-based aggro.
Finally this past weekend (my apologies for the incomplete information but these events were not concluded as I wrote this):
SCG Seattle 6/30:
PTQ Chicago 6/30:
While what I'm reporting on hasn't quite finished yet the initial results speak to a metagame that is still fairly diverse and to my mind supports the decision that Wizards of the Coast made to not ban anything. I don't know who will win these events (and I suppose we'll know at the time of this article's printing) but I'm going to predict Wolf Run White and Naya Pod.
One things I'm curious about is the wax and wane (with mostly a seeming wane) on "traditional" Delver decks—those versions of the deck that just seem to go for a kill at the utmost without slowing things down in an attempt to win the mirror. I somewhat wonder if what we've come to is a place like we had in Legacy last year where the metagame was fairly widely diverse but that every once and a while we would see a huge insurgence from Dredge as people slowly stopped putting as much Dredge hate into their decks and thus allowed the beast to run rampant through the field. As it is right now people do seem to be continuing to run a fairly aggressive amount of energy into fighting other Delver decks.
One thing that does seem interesting is the near consensus in Delver lists to move back towards Geist of Saint Traft. While there still are a fair number of people that are running Blade Splicer it seems like most people have shifted back to the more aggressive stance of Delver while those decks that are deliberately dropping the Delvers (like U/W and Esper Midrange) are going to Blade Splicer as a means to own the table.
Decks for the Here and Now
Entering into July there are about a month and a half of PTQs coming up for Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. I know that I'm going to be going to every PTQ that I can reasonably attend. Right now that looks like four more PTQs and maybe five if I can stretch one weekend. The field is diverse enough to be able to play a huge variety of archetypes but if there is one thing I have to recommend it is to make sure that Delver is a deck that is consistently on your radar.
Simply put the deck is too good to not be respecting and even if decks are showing up that can do well against Delver and suppress it the players piloting those decks need to be consistently on their toes not let their guard down and actually have the tools to beat it not think that they do. Walking into a tournament right now and saying "Delver is a terrible matchup for me" is not acceptable.
So with that said here are a few decks that seemingly do have solid matchups against Delver both according to the testimony of various players and from their records.
At the SCG Standard Open in Detroit Chris Andersen said to me "I actually think that this deck takes the title 'best deck' away from Delver." Now I don't know if he's right but it is definitely the case that this deck does a lot of the same things that a Delver deck does. It gives up the potential aggressive starts of a true Delver deck (let alone something like Yuuya's deck) and replaces it with actual real removal and Lingering Souls.
Lingering Souls might take the title as "best anti-Delver card" by a long mile. The real power of a Lingering Souls is exemplified in the Spirit Delver deck that then Team Mythic (soon to be Team SCG Black) took to huge finish in Hawaii in the hands of Jon Finkel. Spirit Delver largely the design of Sam Black took Lingering Souls and gave it a shot in the arms with Drogskol Captain. Running barely any counters no Swords and no Geists (of Saint Traft) Spirit Delver was basically designed to take down any other Delver decks decisively.
These new Esper Midrange decks seem to be quite capable of doing the same thing in the new world. These decks take another Sam Black deck U/W Midrange and to my mind make the deck go to a more logical conclusion removing the somewhat anemic Tamiyo (sorry Tammi!) and the temporary Vapor Snag for a package of actual removal.
Still like Spirit Delver the deck does have a major weakness to Sword of War and Peace a card which was directly responsible for the removal of Chris Andersen from the tournament. Finkel himself noted that Sword was just devastating. With that in mind it seems very reasonable to me that two potential anti-Swords cards might have a lot of value in the main deck: Oblivion Ring and Divine Offering. How one finds room for that is a difficult question as the deck is so packed full of goodies that it seems hard to find room. I could imagine losing one black removal spell for an Oblivion Ring and just leaving the Divine Offering in the board. But regardless definitely more answers are needed for Sword. It is worth noting that Sword is somewhat an answer to Sword though many players feel that Swords are a poor card choice in the near-mirror largely because of Vapor Snag.
Here we have yet another take on Esper Control/Solar Flare (the distinction in labeling seeming to be based on the question "Are there Unburial Rites?"). Jim Davis's version of the deck has two distinct modes to the game which can be quite devastating for an opponent packing Delver of Secrets.
In the first mode of the game Davis holds the fort with a plethora of removal point-and-clicking away at all of the tiny little creatures a Delver player can get out there. Lingering Souls Ratchet Bomb and Day of Judgment help with this plan with Lingering Souls being particularly effective at drawing out the table so that a timely Day of Judgment can end the offense from the other side. Phantasmal Image can help out in this time copying and killing Geist of Saint Traft or simply drawing out some effort from the Delver player to get rid of it if only by getting them to use a card.
During this time as there is time Forbidden Alchemy and Thought Scour start their work of filing the graveyard with incidental value. Here more Lingering Souls can come into the mix for the defense but also the graveyard is simply getting filled up for the late game.
At the late game Cavern of Souls works with Sun Titan to wrap things up often putting eighteen power or more on to the table along with either an Oblivion Ring Liliana of the Veil Ratchet Bomb or Dead Weight any of which can just add onto the suppression of a Delver opponent. Jim would end up falling to a Naya Pod opponent in the finals but against a Delver deck it really seems like Jim slow as his deck may be at winning is well set up for fighting The Enemy.
Brad's confidence in this deck's ability to beat Delver is clear. Watching a few matches of him playing the deck I know that I'm convinced as well. One of the shocking things to me about the deck is that it can oftentimes just end up going quite aggressive with Lingering Souls and never even have to get out Elesh Norn to wrap things up though that does tend to be lights out when it happens.
One problem with this deck though is I think that the end game of the deck might not be strong enough against an Esper Control deck that is aware of this deck's sideboard plan. Geist/Sword is a great potential plan but these are already decks that might be interested in running graveyard hate against the main plan and Terminus is a potential weapon they would already want to run as well should they have access to it.
Both decks end up matching up on the Sun Titan/Image package and on Lingering Souls. I actually think that one card worth looking at is more Gavony Township. I know speaking to numerous players who have played this deck that it is a controversial card for them. Some absolutely dislike it and want to have no Townships whereas others have moved up to two. I do think that there might be something to be said for that second copy just in the way that it might be able to break open a Sun Titan fight. That said I've only ever watched this deck play out so this opinion isn't fully informed.
And a New Esper Deck
Here is a second draft of what I would offer up as an Esper deck for this current meta. Some of the cards I'm still working out but I'm trying to work on the lessons of many of the anti-Delver decks that I've seen put them together and mix them with successful Esper decks as well. This is not a Sun Titan deck but is closer to what we saw from Shaheen Soorani's deck.
I'm still working out a sideboard but essentially I'm looking at the things I liked about Shaheen's deck which was much more of a tap-out build than other builds. Most of these decks have stopped running with Mana Leak though you still occasionally see some Leaks around.
One of the things that I hated about Shaheen's list was the card drawing in the deck. Divination has tested so much better for me than Think Twice it is unbelievable. Further without a Reanimation package (even Sun Titan) Forbidden Alchemy always felt very underwhelming to me. Putting in a package of some Snapcasters Ponders Divination and an Amass the Components feels really solid.
I pared down the planeswalkers a little bringing in a Phyrexian Metamorph as a potential answer to Geist and adding also using it to fit in room for Pristine Talisman. In my experience Talisman has practically been removal and particularly since this deck has a lot of potent five-drops it can do a lot to take advantage of it.
This is still in the beta stages but right now an Esper deck built the way I'd like to see it looks something like this. Take it for a spin and let me know what you think of it!
See you next week