Delver of Secrets is a card that I've grown to love (and sometimes hate when it doesn't flip). Across various formats and in various color combinations the Little Insect That Could has taken on all comers. From every powerful spell in Legacy to every broken deck in Modern and even everything Standard had to offer they all fought the Delver and the Delver won. While Delver of Secrets is one of my favorite cards of all time he needs help from time to time. Without that help he is just a floundering useless Merfolk of the Pearl Trident (or Pillar of Flame bait but I digress). Sigh...
Delver of Secrets isn't that good of a card.
Sure every card can be good when the tools surrounding it are powering it up. Show and Tell is an amazing card when you give us the fatties like Emrakul the Aeons Torn Griselbrand and even broken enchantments like Omniscience (pronounced NOT like omni-science). Without those two cards Show and Tell wouldn't be nearly what it is today in Legacy (which still isn't all that much but hopefully you see my point). Perhaps all along Delver wasn't really the enemy. I'm sure that a few others were to blame but I can't help but feel like this card was the culprit:
Geist for President!
You can't keep a good Geist down! Geist of Saint Traft has always been an absurd card. I could see that from the first time I laid eyes on it. The efficient cost. The sleek built-in Hell's Thunder whenever it attacks. And the hexproof! Oh my the hexproof! That is the biggest dagger of them all. We hadn't seen hexproof on a creature this powerful before. Thrun the Last Troll was the easiest comparison but the option of blue and white together with such an aggressive threat... It gave us hope! It gave us a reason to brew!
At first I was hesitant. I didn't want to ruin the "pure" nature of the Delver deck with another color. That would be ridiculous! I wanted to leave Geist to the White Weenie decks and be done with it! Of course Stitched Drake a card that had not seen play (and hasn't since) had to be better than Geist of Saint Traft because it was easier to cast! We weren't so greedy back then...but we learned better. Ponder taught us to dream bigger darling.
With access to amazing card selection through Ponder we began to learn that it actually wasn't that hard to splash another color in our "Illusions" deck. We figured out that Geist of Saint Traft fit better in the deck than the rest of the "dies to everything" clan combined and made changes accordingly. Over time we saw countless iterations of the deck but one thing always remained true. Ponder was what kept the deck running what gave it fuel what dug for the answers and what made U/W Delver the most consistent aggro deck ever created. Without Ponder things will never be the same.
Delver is dead. Long live Delver!
But what if we could make it something different?
When I saw this deck in Brad Nelson's article from last week something inside my head clicked. A door I had been trying to push open for weeks finally made sense: I had to pull it.
I had to pull Delver from the deck.
Delver in new Standard is a blight on an otherwise tight shell full of powerful spells and creatures. Delver never flips or is irrelevant before it ever gets off the ground. Thanks to Zombies everyone at every tournament is prepared for small creatures in one way or another. Pillar of Flame is out in force and even flipping a Delver (which is very difficult) rarely wins you the game like it used to. Even Moorland Haunt suffers as a result!
Without Delver in the deck I feel like I had room to breathe. Delver was the reason to restrict the number of relevant threats. Delver was the reason to play so many instants foregoing awesome removal spells like Detention Sphere. Delver pigeonholed you into an archetype where you didn't have to tools at your disposal to win games! Without the pressure of playing Delver of Secrets you are able to alter the deck significantly to give yourself a good chance against a variety of archetypes.
But this decklist does look pretty rough. I can't imagine that four Dissipate is the correct number and Syncopate has to be in the deck in some number right? Syncopate gives you a way to interact with any opponent on turn 2 which is just huge! Being able to play Geist on a safe board on turn 3 involves having a solid counterspell on turn 2. Without Mana Leak Syncopate is our only real option.
While Essence Scatter is still viable there are a lot of noncreature spells that are played in the early game that you want to interact with. While Syncopate can be restrictive in the "didn't draw lands can't play spells" department that pretty much stands for every deck in every format. Sometimes Syncopate doesn't counter anything because they draw more lands than you. Sometimes you mulligan to zero. Weird stuff happens. This leads me to my next topic:
If You Pressure Them Their Spells Will Come
Much like Mana Leak Syncopate fits into the same category of "soft" counterspells. This term means that your opponent can do something to negate the effect of this spell or your spell has a restrictive clause (such as actual Negate). Soft counters are particularly awesome in a very specific kind of deck: decks that put pressure on the opponent.
When you put pressure on your opponent via Geist of Saint Traft Delver of Secrets Stoneforge Mystic or whatever they have to play their spells into your soft counters. This helps to eliminate their ability to negate the effects of your spell because they usually have less time to build up their resources to play around it. Additionally they'll have to play their spells during the windows you give them. If they don't they run the risk of their spell being countered so it is imperative that they don't wait too long and fall too far behind.
This creates tempo.
Tempo is a complicated game concept so let me break it down into some simpler pieces. Tempo refers to "time" and whether or not you are in control of it. Obviously none of us is in control of actual time but you can easily take control of the "time" in a game based on your series of plays or even how you build your deck. If you are able to put pressure on your opponent and react to their every move while building up more and more pressure that is the essence of "gaining tempo."
You are stifling their game plan while advancing your own simultaneously. When your opponent spends an entire turn casting a Thragtusk only to have it swallowed whole by a Syncopate you are generating tempo by spending less mana on your spell than they spent on theirs. You are also gaining tempo if you are able to utilize the rest of the mana that you have available to you that turn whether it is by casting Snapcaster Mage Restoration Angel or just a Searing Spear to kill another creature.
Snapcaster Mage is a great card to help put tempo into perspective since adding a threat to the board while also recasting a (situational) spell is a very powerful thing to do. While Snapcaster Mage is just a 2/1 body it usually allows you to gain an on board advantage through the removal of an opposing creature or countering an opposing spell while also giving you a threat. Against various decks the 2/1 body can be the most or least relevant aspect of the card but the fact that you will always have both is what makes it so powerful!
While Snapcaster Mage is only as good as the cards surrounding it the spells in this particular deck are actually quite solid. Against aggressive strategies using Snapcaster Mage to rebuy a Pillar of Flame or Searing Spear can be devastating buying you an outrageous amount of time. In essence that is all you want with tempo: to dictate the pace of the game. When your opponent is trying to pressure you all you want to do is slow the game down. When your opponent is trying to slow the game down you should (usually) try to speed it up!
The Long Hello
This past weekend I was locked on playing Junk (G/W/B) Reanimator since I had been playing it a ton on Magic Online and doing reasonably well. Angel of Serenity was just bonkers and being able to get it into play early against various aggro decks or Jund was solid. The deck had Thragtusk and Restoration Angel shenanigans and could do some dirty things with Grisly Salvage. I had most of the cards I needed and was able to find some friends going to the tournament to borrow the rest from.
This is also the kind of deck I really don't enjoy playing.
Luckily for all of us I found out about the U/W/R Midrange deck just in time for the tournament! We called up Matt Eitel to come along with BBD and myself on the extraordinarily long drive from Roanoke to Indianapolis. Upon our arrival to an actual log cabin (courtesy of Mr. Bob Culp) I sat down sorted the pieces of the deck and found out that I owned virtually all of it thanks to my recent adventures with U/W/R Control as well as my love affair with Delver from the previous Standard format.
I felt like I had some really good ideas for positive changes to the deck which we'll get into in just a moment. Here is the list I played at the SCG Standard Open in Indy:
Of course there is a ton of overlap. The original shell was very strong and the positive changes I wanted to make seemed good in theory though I had no time to actually test the deck. However I felt like this style of Magic is exactly the kind I've been playing over the last few years. The deck seemed like a hybrid of Faeries and Delver which is just a bit absurd. You obviously don't have a lot of the same powerful tools at your disposal but we can make due. You have the option to play the draw-go game as well as the Geist-kill you game. Switching roles at virtually any moment is what Faeries was famous for and creatures with flash tend to let you do it at lightning speed.
While your entire game plan should focus on Geist you aren't always going to draw it. Without ways to make your deck smaller or sift through the shabby stuff drawing Geist is much harder than originally advertised. He is obviously nuts but there just isn't a replacement for Ponder in the deck. This means a few things:
1. You can't play this deck like a Delver deck all the time. With Delver you could virtually never turn on the "control" role since your cards were incredibly fragile after a certain point in the game. You had to win big and win fast. Taking the control role was usually a death sentence outside of the mirror but your best game plan is still to play aggressive with Geist of Saint Traft.
2. Without the ability to get aggressive with some draws you need to pick your spots accordingly. I think it is correct on many occasions to hold back your Thundermaw Hellkite so that you can counter the spells the opponent would use to disrupt your stranglehold on certain games. You can be very aggressive in the right situations with Hellkite but you still don't want to be too greedy. Geist is usually good enough on its own and you don't want to give your opponent a window to catch up.
3. The deck functions similar to U/W/R Control when it doesn't draw Geist of Saint Traft except that it doesn't have actual miracles in the deck. This means killing your opponent's creatures drawing cards and gaining small advantages here and there via Snapcaster Mage and Restoration Angel. It is not uncommon to deal most of your damage with these two creatures finishing off your opponent in a flurry of burn spells and Snapcaster Mages on said burn spells.
4. Don't be afraid to throw Pillar of Flame at your opponent's dome. Since three attacks with Geist of Saint Traft is eighteen damage the two damage from Pillar of Flame is not irrelevant. Figuring out whether or not it will be useful for any other reason is important because you will not always have the time or resources to cast Pillar of Flame and have it still matter. With cards like Centaur Healer and Thragtusk in the format it can be pretty awful to get your opponent down to one or life with attacks but use all your mana in the process. This will give them a window to resolve a game-saver and you will wish you had been more aggressive. The same is true for Searing Spear.
5. Essence Scatter is much better than you think it is. Since most aggressive and midrange decks have little focus in the "creature type" department it is almost impossible for them to play an extraordinary number of Cavern of Souls. This means counters are at a premium even when they don't seem very good. With Snapcaster Mage Essence Scatter feels pretty dirty but Syncopate just feels awkward (though I prefer Syncopate at virtually every other juncture).
6. Izzet Charm is not a good card. Please stop playing it.
After building the deck we proceeded to get a paltry two hours of sleep before the entire house had to wake up shower and get on the road. Luckily Red Bull is a thing and I was feeling pretty good by the time the opening round rolled around. After rolling boxcars in my opening match I informed my opponent that I was going to win the tournament. I started off 5-0 (10-0 in games) before finally losing to eventual Top 4 competitor Eric Fred playing Reanimator. While the dream of losing zero games was dead I was still in fine condition to make Top 8.
After winning the next two rounds and losing zero more games I was as confident as ever. I had to play against Dan Musser in the win-and-draw-in round who was playing Jund. I was able to defeat Dan in three games (rats!) thanks to my huge punt in game 2 and went on to draw into the Top 8. When I saw I was going to be playing against Jund again in the Top 8 piloted by Borat no less I was comfortable to say the least. I had beaten Jund four times already and felt like it was a pretty good matchup.
But running good has a way of catching up with you eventually.
In two of the three games we played I had some issues with hitting the right colors of mana. I played all the dual lands possible aside from the ever-disappointing Evolving Wilds. I ended up dying to a lowly 2/2 Wolf token plus Kessig Wolf Run at its back while holding a Pillar of Flame and Searing Spear. Such is life. Can't win 'em all. Tough game. Variance. Etc.
No but seriously. All kidding aside I ran incredibly well all day. The deck felt outrageously powerful compared to everything else I'd been playing in Standard I felt confident in my card choices and it was definitely my style of deck. Geist of Saint Traft feels too good and people really just don't have a solid answer for it. I don't remember Geist of Saint Traft dying a single time in the Swiss except when I was purposefully attacking with it into an opposing creature.
Sure there are some answers to it but that doesn't mean they're good! Liliana of the Veil and Tribute to Hunger are decent but we can always mess that plan up by having a Snapcaster Mage in play. Rolling Temblor isn't really a card since it rarely kills anything. Also Clone (LOL).
But honestly the only card I'm really "afraid" of is Supreme Verdict but it is fairly easy to play around. With Unsummon at your disposal it isn't even an issue most of the time. The rest of your deck is well designed to stop what your opponent is trying to do especially so if they're playing a slower deck. Tempo decks are generally designed to take advantage of the slower decks and I don't think this format is any different. If Jund and midrange decks rule the roost then Geist is king!
I think the deck is superb and will be working on it over the next few weeks. I love its style and I'm just glad I get to play with a Delver deck again even though it doesn't actually have Delver in it anymore. Geist of Saint Traft is just as dumb as it ever was and might actually be better now thanks to the rotation of Phantasmal Image and Phyrexian Metamorph.
I want to work on a few brews with Geist of Saint Traft as their centerpiece but this might end up being difficult if everyone else starts playing Geist too! I don't want the legend rule to be the best way to kill Geist of Saint Traft but I'll just work with what they give me. I'll be happy as long as I get to play with Snapcaster Mage. But at least Delver is dead! Long live Delver!
Thanks for reading.
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