Brainstorming – How to Delve Secrets all the way to Dublin

This week we’re going to take a short break from Magic Theory and talk a little bit about the events of this past weekend’s Pro Tour Qualifier at Amazing Discoveries in Tucson. For those of you who haven’t heard yet, and for those of you who still can’t believe it happened, at said tournament I successfully disrupted the Space-Time Continuum and won a blue envelope playing a deck that precisely no one currently inhabiting a time-stream in 2013 expected could be used to accomplish such a feat: Blue. Green. Delver.

Creatures (15)
Quirion Dryad
Snapcaster Mage
Augur of Bolas
Delver of Secrets

Spells (26)
Thought Scour
Runechanter’s Pike
Syncopate
Simic Charm
Think Twice
Spell Rupture
Unsummon
Rapid Hybridization

Lands (19)
Cavern of Souls
Island
Forest
Hinterland Harbor
Breeding Pool
Sideboard (15)
Cavern of Souls
Dissipate
Talrand, Sky Summoner
Naturalize
Tormod’s Crypt
Essence Scatter
Mizzium Skin
Negate
Dispel
Aetherize
Hands of Binding

I’ll give you a moment for the shock to wear off… Okay? Okay.

I suppose the first question that deserves answering is the obvious one – how in the world did I end up playing the deck?

Well, I’ve always been a bit enamored with the little blue insect that could, and I believe that attraction stems from an engrained love for Tempo as an archetype. I’m a big fan of the notion that you can win a game by playing a tiny creature in the first two turns of a game and proceeding to say “No” to everything your opponent does from that point forward, all while that tiny creature continually grows bigger. So, you can imagine my frustration, as I’m sure was the case for many a player, when Ponder rotated out of Standard and we saw less and less Snapcaster Mages, Thought Scours, and counterspells as the months rolled by. I held out for a while, with fairly embarrassing results, playing awkward brews like UW Delver with Liev Skyknight and later BUG Delver with Deathrite Shaman and Grisly Salvage. But all of my attempts to resuscitate everyone’s favorite Jeff Goldblum impersonator (Would I have gotten hipster cred if I’d said David Hedison instead?) seemed to be in vain as I watched traditional aggressive decks and clunky, big-mana Control and Midrange decks take over the format.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed most of the last year of Standard, as I also have soft spots in my heart for both draw-go and turning creatures sideways; but, it just wasn’t the same, and I felt increasingly empty as I waded through local tournaments. You see, I truly enjoy the thrill that one tends to get from playing Tempo decks. It feels like you’re always on the edge of losing control of a game, if only your opponent could penetrate that last counterspell or dodge that last removal spell. But for those of us who have experience with that kind of deck, we know that the danger is usually just an illusion, and that you’re playing a whole different game than your opponent – a game in which you get to dictate the terms by which they try to play their game. Sometimes you’ll get an opponent who can find a way around your defenses and get back to playing the game they want to play, but most of the time that doesn’t happen, and your games usually just feel like you had to have been cheating. That’s after the fact, of course, after you get the chance to reflect on how little chance your opponent actually had – but during the game, it’s a pure adrenaline high.

This is precisely what Standard has been missing for the past year, and on a whim I set out to regain my high.

I’m not sure if it was laziness or some form of inspiration which had me start off with the simple, two-color build, but it turned out to be a crucial moment in the development of the deck. I’ve done a fair amount of reflection in the last couple of days, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t have ended up figuring out the correct build if I’d begun on a three-color version, like I’d attempted to build in the past. There’s a strong chance that I would have simple repeated the mistakes I’d made before, ended up with an awful mana-base and an awkward set of spells, and simply quit the whole process there, declaring the idea flawed from its very premise. But, as luck would have it, that course of events never occurred, and instead I discovered something as astounding as it was elegant. This was my alpha build:

Creatures (16)
Quirion Dryad
Snapcaster Mage
Augur of Bolas
Delver of Secrets

Spells (25)
Thought Scour
Runechanter’s Pike
Syncopate
Simic Charm
Think Twice
Spell Rupture
Unsummon

Lands (19)
Cavern of Souls
Island
Forest
Hinterland Harbor
Breeding Pool

Somehow my very first build ended up being about as close to the bullseye as one can get while blindfolded. As you can see, I only ended up changing three cards from my rough to final drafts. As a chronic brewer, I’ve never had a successful deck begin so close to its optimal form before, and this is my most successful homebrew to boot. The strength of this shell was noticeable from the very first time I connected to Magic Workstation to do my initial testing. I couldn’t stop crushing opponents, and I knew then that I’d discovered something very important.

I began at this point to search the web for any similar decks, as I figured something this powerful had to have already been discovered elsewhere by someone smarter and more talented than me. At first all I found were the handful of Bant lists that have seen limited, moderate success over the last three months, but these decks had obviously stemmed from a pretty different design philosophy, so I simply passed them by. It was at this point I discovered a deck designed by Ari Lax as a possible option for his team to play at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, and which he talked about briefly in his article: here.

Creatures (14)
Delver of Secrets
Invisible Stalker
Quirion Dryad
Snapcaster Mage

Spells (26)
Dispel
Dissipate
Fleeting Distraction
Mizzium Skin
Rapid Hybridization
Simic Charm
Spell Rupture
Thought Scour
Unsummon
Hands of Binding
Runechanter’s Pike

Lands (20)
Forest
Island
Breeding Pool
Cavern of Souls
Hinterland Harbor
Rogue’s Passage

I was immediately impressed by how similar his deck was to mine. The discovery confirmed to me that I was on the right track, as Ari himself had discussed in his article that this deck performed very well, but just wasn’t quite there. I realized immediately what the issue he had had with the deck was. His team prepared for a Pro Tour where they expected aggressive strategies to be among the most popular decks, and more importantly, had likely tested this deck against their other, now infamous brainchild: Experiment Jund. I’d known from my initial testing that the deck was fairly soft to Jund Aggro, and I figured this had been a major factor in scaring him off of this archetype.

But the format had evolved dramatically since the Pro Tour. Online, the decks I kept facing again and again were the methodical Midrange strategies that we’ve come to accept as being the top dogs of the format. And one thing was very clear at this point: my deck beat the hell out of those decks.

Bringing up Ari’s list is important for two major reasons: the first being to give credit where credit is due. Mr. Lax discovered this archetype, in this format, before I did. The second reason is to demonstrate the source of the changes I made between the alpha and omega versions of my list. It was from Ari’s list that I picked up the two Rapid Hybridizations and the second Runechanter’s Pike. Both of these cards were crucial to my success at the PTQ.

At that point, the rest is now history. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the PTQ itself was the evolution of the general disposition of people toward my deck as I played throughout the day. The initial reactions I’d gotten from my friends and acquaintances when I’d admitted before the tournament to playing something as against the grain as Delver and Quirion Dryad was in between “that’s interesting” (accompanied by a carefully concealed snicker) to flat out “that seems terrible.” As the day progressed and people discovered me playing near the top tables, I began hearing hushed voices saying, “that’s the dude playing UG Delver and he’s 4-1,” responded to with, “UG Delver? You can’t be serious.” By my final two matches in Swiss, small crowds began to form around where I was playing, and the general tone changed from dumbfounded to exhilarated. I had no less than a dozen people confront me and tell me how much they loved my deck and asking for my personal information so I could ship the list. By the time I won my quarterfinals match against one of the best players in Arizona, Phimus Pan, and it became clear that I could actually take down the whole thing, people began openly exclaiming that I was playing the coolest deck they’d ever seen.

For those of you looking for a detailed tournament report, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t enjoy writing round-by-rounds, and I’d much rather discuss the deck itself and how I think it should be played. I will however, give a brief rundown of what I actually played against:

Round One: Experiment Jund

LOSS, record: 0-1-0

Round Two: Boros Aggro

WIN, record: 1-1-0

Round Three: Naya Midrange

WIN, record: 2-1-0

Round Four: Esper Control

WIN, record 3-1-0

Round Five: Junk Midrange

WIN, record 4-1-0

Round Six: Naya Midrange

WIN, record 5-1-0

Round Seven: UWR Reckonerless-Midrange

WIN, record 6-1-0

Round Eight: Intentional draw
Final record: 6-1-1

Quarterfinals: Phimus Pan, playing Prime Speaker Bant

WIN

Semifinals: Nick Gil, playing RG Aggro

WIN

Jeff Abong, who was playing Naya Blitz, scooped to me in the finals as he did not expect to be able to attend the Pro Tour overseas due to school and work. While ending a little anti-climactic-ly on a concession, it was a very hard-fought tournament, especially considering I was battling back from a loss in the first round. Jeff deserves just as much credit as I do, even though I’m getting all of the praise for being the one who received the cherished Invite. In all honesty, there’s a pretty good chance that Jeff would have actually won the event if we’d played out the finals, considering Naya Blitz isn’t a fantastic matchup for my deck, and I hadn’t yet been turned onto the insane sideboard technology of Fog. For what it’s worth, I want to formally congratulate Jeff on being the Co-Champion of the tournament.

As I look back at this list of matches, I’ve begun to realize that I did get a little lucky as to which decks I ended up facing throughout the tournament. This deck is a massive trump to the Midrange and Control decks of the format, and that’s basically all I ended up facing. That said, those two archetypes make up well over half of the Standard metagame at this very moment, so there could never be a better time for this deck to shine. Moving forward, if this deck can be tuned to deal with other aggressive decks while maintaining its percentages against the rest of the field, I have no doubt that it will be a force to be reckoned with.

The beginning of that process is surely fixing the sideboard. While some of the elements of the sideboard that I played at the tournament were spot-on, others were absolutely terrible. The Talrand transformational package was generally pretty decent, and the singleton counterspell package was phenomenal; but the Hands of Binding, Naturalize, Aetherize, and Tormod’s Crypts were either terrible or did nothing. Going into the future, this is the sideboard I would likely take to my next PTQ if I hadn’t already qualified:

1 Cavern of Souls

3 Talrand, Sky Summoner

2-3 Memory’s Journey

2-3 Fog

1 Dispel

1 Mizzium Skin

1 Negate

1 Essence Scatter

1 Dissipate

1 Artful Dodge

Memory’s Journey is such an obvious card for this deck that it’s actually kind of embarrassing. It’s an Instant for Augur of Bolas and Delver of Secrets, it’s blue and flashback-able for Quirion Dryad, (And even has a conspicuously on-color flashback cost!) and it’s reactive, so your Reanimator opponents can’t actively play around it the way they can Tormod’s Crypt. Artful Dodge and Fog are less obvious inclusions, though very powerful ones. There are a number of matchups where it can be important to force a massive Quirion Dryad through an opponent’s infinite blockers, lest they be able to stabilize, and Artful Dodge is a creative solution to this problem which has all the same synergies with the rest of the deck as Memory’s Journey. Fog is definitely the spiciest inclusion in this new sideboard, and probably the most impressive. Fast Aggro decks are by far the worst matchups for this deck, and Fog paired with Snapcaster Mage threatens to single-handedly wreck their days. The precise numbers between Journey and Fog depend on the metagame at any given tournament, but it’s worth noting now that if this deck actually starts seeing play en masse, Memory’s Journey seems pretty good for the mirror.

So then the question remains – how does one successfully pilot the deck?

This deck shares a number of similarities with older Tempo decks like UW Delver, or even the old UG Delver deck from a year ago a la Todd Anderson; but it differs from them in some subtle ways that are important to recognize. The first major difference is that you can’t stack the top of your deck to flip Delver of Secrets on a more consistent basis. This is certainly a sizable hurdle to overcome while playing, though I’ve discovered throughout my playing the deck that the problem is more psychological than anything else. People are so used to having control over their Delvers that they become easily discouraged by the fact that they sometimes don’t flip when the player wants them to. However, this deck has been intentionally designed to minimize the negative impact of a stubborn Abberation-to-be, so the solution is often to simply remain vigilant, progress the board state, and sculpt your hand such that you’ll be in the best position possible when it actually does transform.

The second difference is that you don’t have access to the raw power of the Phyrexian Mana spells. Adapting your play to this fact is of crucial importance because you won’t be able to tap down on a turn and still blow out an opponent who is attempting to destroy your 3/3 Quirion Dryad with a Searing Spear on their turn by flinging a Gut Shot at their dome. Notably, this deck doesn’t get to run Snapcaster Mage in Silvergill Adept mode. You do occasionally end up casting Mages as Ambush Vipers, but for the most part, you should treat think of them as three-to-four mana spells. Due to this, it is often correct to wait on casting your creatures, especially Quirion Dryad, until you have the mana to cast additional spells. Because of this, the selection of Instants this deck runs has been intentionally designed to support draw-go style play for a limited number of turns, such that you can get into a position to start growing your threats.

The final important difference is that of the metagame. As of now, there are no other real Tempo decks in the format, and because of this, decks simply aren’t prepared to deal with a deck which plays cheap threats and backs them up with counterspells. In addition, there are more than a few decks which are very soft to Unsummon effects. This means that your reactive spells are especially powerful and require careful management. It isn’t like the UW Delver format of yesteryear, where you could justify blowing spells to purchase tiny tempo gains. People are going big when they tap their mana, and they generally aren’t afraid of anything when they do so. If you’re blowing Unsummons on early Arbor Elfs and don’t have threats punching through, taking advantage of those small tempo swings, you’re going to find yourself on the wrong side of a Thragtusk, and you’re going to have a bad time.

That said, the fact that the whole metagame is based on people jamming dorky threats every turn looking to trump their opponent’s dorky threats, and do so indiscriminately and unabashedly turns out to be one of the major strengths of this deck. Against a fairly sizable portion of the format, sticking a first turn Delver or second turn Dryad, and backing them up with a single counterspell and Snapcaster Mage is basically unbeatable. Of course, there are many matches where you can’t just rely on that particular deckbuilding oversight, and actually have to maximize your interactivity; but interactivity is what this deck does best.

While playing this deck, be very conscious of your opponents’ likely plays over the course of their next few turns and play accordingly. If you’re playing against a Naya or Bant Midrange deck who’s going to have three mana on his next turn, you should probably tap out for a Quirion Dryad or Delver right now, considering you won’t be able to Syncopate his Loxodon Smiter anyway, and you’ll be wanting the counterspell for his Huntmaster, Thragtusk, or Restoration Angel down the line. This is keeping in mind with the fact that he likely won’t slow down to destroy your creature the next turn anyway, as he has to remain proactive in his gameplan. If your UWR opponent just cast a Restoration Angel into the attack of your 7/7 Quirion Dryad and left mana up, save your Spell Rupture or Simic Charm for his Azorius Charm. If he doesn’t have it, the Angel likely poses little to no threat to you considering the size of your attacker, and you can save your counter or removal for something that actually matters, like the Aurelia that he was planning on killing you with next turn.

I guess I probably shouldn’t make this a course in playing Tempo decks, considering most of you likely already know everything you need to know, but I do want to spend my remaining time covering sideboarding, which can be a little tricky, even for veterans.

By far the most common question I get about the deck is about when to sideboard in Talrand and what to take out for him. I want to start by discouraging indiscriminate use of the Talrand transformation, as it is almost always strictly inferior to the Pike plan. In addition, this deck has very few lands, and even when sideboarding in the extra Cavern of Souls, it’s often difficult to cast Talrand when you need to. I only sideboard in the Talrand package on the draw against Control and Midrange decks which I suspect are bringing in dedicated graveyard hate, specifically Rest in Peace; and I almost always sideboard out two Snapcaster Mages and two Runechanter Pikes for said package. If the match goes to a game three with me on the play and I haven’t seen any graveyard hate, I’ll usually sideboard back out the Talrands and bring back in the Mages and Pikes. The only exceptions to this are when I confirm graveyard hate against any deck, in which case I will switch to the Talrand plan for the remainder of the match.

The second block within the sideboard are the Artful Dodge, Fogs and Memory’s Journeys. These have pretty obvious applications, so you can use your discretion as to when you’re sideboarding them into the deck. One note, is that using Artful Dodge against a deck that has a lot of targeted removal is often too large a liability to be justifiable. Use it responsibly, as it can be either your best sideboard card or your worst depending on the circumstances. The final block is the singleton selection of support counterspells, including Mizzium Skin. Each matchup requires a slightly different set of these as compared to other matchups, even within the same general archetype. I generally don’t sideboard in more than 2-3, and I always start by pulling either one Spell Rupture on the draw, or one Syncopate on the play. After that I pull the extra slots from Unsummons, Simic Charms, or Think Twice, based on the matchup.

All-in-all I’m extremely happy with my performance, and am excited to get the opportunity to attend my first Pro Tour in October. I’m humbled by the outpouring of support and congratulations I’ve received locally and even across state lines as the word of my deck spreads. If you’re looking to play with the newest, most exciting technology, or you’re the kind of person who simply wants to give the finger to the mainstream, I strongly suggest giving this deck a shot at any level of the game. In the end, you could be the next lucky person winning a trip to the most beautiful country in the world who gets to claim now-and-forever that he qualified playing Delver of Secrets at a time when common sense said it was impossible.

About Joseph Pinkley