I've used Delver of Secrets as my weapon before. I've even used Hero of Bladehold as my secret weapon before. Recently, I was considering playing Angel Delver, but I always wanted to side out Angel in the mirror for Talrand and for Hero against aggro and control. It seemed that Restoration Angel was mediocre in most matchups and great in none, especially with the more matchup specific four-drops around.
As you might have noticed, two of my SCG Blue teammates dominated the tournament with an interesting U/W Delver list containing maindeck Hero of Bladehold.
The tournament didn't go as well for me as it did for my teammates. In fact, Gindy defeated me handily in round 3. Other than us, future Hall of Famer William "Huey" Jensen was the only person playing my list, which went a combined 26-7 (counting the two mirrors we played).
This was the list we all played, give or take some spice:
Restoration Angel is obviously fantastic with Snapcaster Mage and Geist of Saint Traft. The question I always ask myself is, "Can I do better?" Almost always, the answer is yes. In this case, Restoration Angel is an old hat. Everyone has seen it, they've walked into it, and now they know how to play around it and sideboard against it.
I hope that most players have Combust in their sideboards by now, as almost no one is on Consecrated Sphinx anymore. Combust deals with Restoration Angel, Delver of Secrets, and Hero of Bladehold alike, whereas cards like Plummet and Crushing Vines don't touch Hero. If equipment is your problem, then Crushing Vines is solid, but no one really plays those anymore either.
Sword of War and Peace is too slow against the green decks. By the time it gets active, both players' hands should be nearly exhausted. It is a solid sideboard card versus control decks though. Feast and Famine is a little better as a maindeck choice, but it falls short against Naya decks with Blade Splicer and Restoration Angel in addition to being worse in the mirror.
Due to Yuuya Watanabe's success, Runechanter's Pike has made a little comeback. I'm fine with Pike but not super excited about it unless you plan on going the non-interactive route with Invisible Stalker. Restoration Angel isn't all that exciting in Delver anymore, and it's certainly less exciting in Pike decks.
Games are won or lost in the Delver mirror based on tempo. If you keep a hand with no early aggression and no way to find it, chances are you're going to lose. If you're trying to sit back on Vapor Snags and Restoration Angels, you will also lose. When the game goes long enough, and sometimes it will, Restoration Angel is the biggest thing in play. However, I'd wager that a solid 75% of the games end before that.
If that's the case, I actually want zero four-drops in the mirror, but there are still other decks to contend with. When combined, green aggro decks make up a significant portion of the metagame, whereas Delver is merely 10-15%. While the cream rises to the top and most of the cream plays Delver, you still have to beat four green decks in order to make Top 8.
That's where Hero comes in. Sure, Angel would be slightly better than Hero in the mirror, but honestly, what's the difference? Both are slow, both win the game if unmolested, and both are vulnerable to Vapor Snag and Dismember. The real difference is that Hero of Bladehold usually wins the game if you get to untap with it. Restoration Angel merely provides a large, flying body.
Hero is Geist-level powerful and also Geist-like in its straightforwardness. It attacks super well but isn't the greatest defensive creature. At least Restoration Angel can switch roles and block some fliers when you need it to. However, the thing about Geist and Hero is that if they are in play, you don't typically need to play defense.
I'm the type of guy who would rather prolong the game and continue playing rather than win it. Why murder them with a Geist when you can griiind with Augur of Bolas, right? Well, the problem is that prolonging the game used to translate into victory, but it doesn't anymore. You can sit back and gain some card advantage and then watch as every iota of value you eked out evaporates once they cast Birthing Pod, Bonfire of the Damned, or a planeswalker.
It ain't the same game, so I can't play the same cards and I certainly can't play the same strategies. Hero of Bladehold, a card I previously chided for being not versatile, is exactly what I need. I was right when I said it wasn't versatile, but it sure is powerful.
One argument against Hero of Bladehold is the prohibitive mana cost. WW can be tough to come by in a Delver deck, but Cavern of Souls naming Human does a lot of work. In my version of Delver, I have twelve lands that cast Hero and nine that don't. By the time you get to four mana, presumably two of them make white considering over half of your lands produce white. The mana isn't an issue.
Moorland Haunt was cut in order to make the mana base better for Hero, and I haven't been missing it. It's just a value card that can provide some additional pressure but isn't actually necessary in any matchup. Against some control decks, you might want the stream of fliers, but you can easily win without it. Basic Plains is actually more techy and far more useful.
Talrand is a helluva card, but sometimes the games don't go as planned. In a fast matchup, which most of them are nowadays, you can be hellbent by the time you tap out for Talrand. That just isn't good enough.
The other main driving force behind our deck's success was the four maindeck Gut Shots. Todd Anderson was the first person who was adamant about playing the full four. I had three and a Dismember for a while, then two and two as Restoration Angel was becoming increasingly popular.
Angel is not only on the decline, but it's not even a problem. Slowing down everyone else's tempo is a huge concern, though, and that's why you should play four Gut Shots.
Honestly, all versions of Delver are fine. You can play eighteen lands and Runechanter's Pike, Augur of Bolas, Talrand, Restoration Angel, or Hero of Bladehold. You will probably do equally as well, assuming you know your deck and your enemies. However, Hero Delver is something that I know best and that I know is tuned for success.
Versus The Mirror
As I said earlier, the mirror rewards those who are aggressive. An example of a keepable hand would be:
(anytime, play or draw)
An unkeepable hand looks like:
(after a mulligan, on the draw)
The first hand is aggressive, can gain some card advantage and keep the cards flowing, and can hopefully get out ahead and stay there. Meanwhile, the second hand can't get any aggression going, has Vapor Snags that are less useful on defense, and a very slow Hero of Bladehold that will likely get Vapor Snagged. You might say, "Well, I have a Phantasmal Image so I'm not dying to Geist, and I have some Snags so I can keep his Delvers at bay," but how do you win?
You are effectively keeping a hand with no castable spells. I recommend against it.
Heroes aren't great here, but neither is any other four-drop outside of Talrand. Ideally, I'd like to cut all the Heroes for Images, Talrands, and maybe some spice like Timely Reinforcements, Divine Offering, or Mental Misstep. We just don't have that kind of sideboard room though.
Against Delver decks with Cavern of Souls (which at this point should be all of them), I'll happily cut my Mana Leaks. If they're Pike Delver with Angels, then a couple Leaks are fine. Either way, you want to replace those with Images and Talrands, shaving on Hero whenever applicable.
Versus Green Aggro
Matchups against aggressive decks are kind of boring. Nearly every game I play, we turn all of our permanents sideways every turn until the other person is dead. There are some decisions like when to Ponder, when to Thought Scour, and when or what to Snapcaster, but there's not much. Play your dudes, Snag their blockers, and give them the business.
Birthing Pod provides the most trouble, which is a reason I think that all green decks should have them. Pod provides all these green decks with a dimension they aren't usually capable of reaching, all for the low, low cost of one card.
Boarding in Disenchants might seem like a viable strategy, but it's not a good idea to try and be reactive since Delver is always the beatdown. If they resolve Birthing Pod, use it once, and you spend most of your turn casting Divine Offering or the like, you are going to fall behind and lose. Steel Sabotage is a much better answer and has more crossover applications, but Stony Silence is also good. If you draw it, you shut off all their Pods. If I wanted to sideboard a Disenchant, it would be a Stony Silence because of how powerful it is if you draw it.
The matchup is so close that green players typically think they are favored and Delver players think they are favored. It all comes down to familiarity with the matchup and the specific nuances of each deck. No matter what side you're on, test extensively until you're comfortable and play whichever deck you want.
Mana Leak isn't the best here but can stay in if they don't have many Cavern of Souls, such as against Bant Pod. I used to like Phantasmal Image against these decks, but it's mostly a Timely Reinforcements effect that you use to buy time. If your Delver deck doesn't have an end game, don't bother, as Image is far from backbreaking against any green deck.
If Reid's list takes off, it will probably be very successful initially. However, his list is incredibly vulnerable to Dismember (which kills Primeval Titan with any blocker) and a Ghost Quarter to Tutor for with Phantasmal Image on their Primeval Titan. With Kessig Wolf Run out of the picture, their end game is suddenly not very scary.
You need to keep hands that either have pressure or ways to find pressure. In game 1, you don't need to be too concerned with their sweepers since they should only have Bonfire of the Damned or Blasphemous Act. There are a couple Phantasmal Images lurking in their 60, but you can play around those if you need to with Vapor Snag.
Mutagenic Growth is in the sideboard for Combust and things like Whipflare or Bonfire. Unsurprisingly, Growth is an all-star in this matchup. Siding in extra counterspells may seem counterintuitive since they have Cavern of Souls, but you can use them to stop their Rampant Growths and sweepers.
Going forward, I would add a Ghost Quarter to my sideboard.
This matchup is similar to the green decks. All permanents turn sideways every turn. The player that taps the most permanents the most wins. Timely Reinforcements is pretty good at winning the race against Zombies, but it doesn't help if they are killing all your heavy hitters. I wouldn't mind playing one, but any more than that and you run the risk of drawing too many. Yes, there is such a thing.
Knight of Glory was Glenn Jones' brainchild. It might seem counterintuitive to sideboard a creature when a perfectly reasonable spell version (Celestial Purge) exists. Obviously, keeping your spell count high for Delver is important, but Delver isn't very important in this matchup. It will almost always die, and if it doesn't, it will flip eventually.
While Celestial Purge into Snapcaster Mage is a powerful start that can stymie their best draws, it's not putting you in the role you want to be in. Knight of Glory is a beater that can brick wall their entire team. Your decision to play Knight or Purge should suit your play style, but neither one is necessarily wrong. For now, I'm sticking with Knight.
While control decks are few and far between, they definitely exist. Whether it's Mono-Black Control, Trading Post, or a blue control deck, Swords and extra counterspells are going to be fantastic. You're going to need more counterspells in order to beat those decks.
As the format reacts to Hero of Bladehold, this version of Delver will likely become worse. At that point, playing Invisible Stalker and Runechanter's Pike, as much as I loathe them, will probably be correct. Until then, remember to battle cry correctly!