Building the Best Delver

Posted in Reconstructed on August 14, 2012

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

It would be very surprising if Delver of Secrets wasn't a focal card of the World Magic Cup this weekend.

The innocuous double-faced card has been making an impact in Standard since Innistrad, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Despite an uprising in Birthing Pod decks—a difficult matchup for Delver—Snapcaster Mage, Vapor Snag, and Delver of Secrets continue to adapt and dominate tournaments. Regardless of if the World Magic Cup turns the Delver tide or not, one thing is for certain: this deck is practically ensured to be all over the Gen Con tables.

While typically I focus on more unique or under-the-radar decks, this week is World Magic Cup week here on If there was ever a time to ratchet the competitive level up to eleven, this is the week. Buckle into your tournament chairs and check your Spikeometers, because this week we're looking at Delver!

Insectile Aberration / Delver of Secrets | Art by Nils Hamm

Since ReConstructed began, I've received emails each week with White-Blue Delver lists. Today, it's finally time to look one over.

Let's take a look at Andrew Hryciuk's take on Delver:

Andrew Hryciuk's Red-White-Blue Delver

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Delver's Secrets

Unlike most weeks, where I run through each card one-by-one, today we're going to take a little deviation. Rather than spend 500 words talking about why Snapcaster Mage is a powerful Magic card and why we should play four of them in a Delver deck, I'm going to take a moment to talk about a couple specific topics regarding the deck. Then we can spend the single-card discussion space on cards that aren't as locked in as four-ofs.

First off, if you're unfamiliar with how Delver plays, take a look over the metagame review I wrote last week. (Ctrl+f or Command+f the word "kick" to go straight to the discussion on Delver.) That should give you a pretty good overview.

With that out of the way, let's talk about a few particulars for Delver. The first topic I'd like to tackle is the red splash in this decklist.

A weak spot for Delver are decks that can quickly swarm you with ground creatures, and Andrew correctly identified Bonfire of the Damned as a good place to turn to fight those off. Unlike Day of Judgment, it wipes your opponent's board without touching yours, and it plays well into the deck's ability to switch from defense to offense. It just takes one Bonfire clearing the path for a Geist of Saint Traft for the game to fundamentally end.


Bonfire of the Damned
Geist of Saint Traft

But everything in Magic comes at a cost. Even a card like Ancestral Recall cuts down on the number of other cards your deck can play. The eternal question: is the power worth the cost?

Versatility is one of White-Blue Delver's greatest strengths, and in a similar vein to versatility is consistency. The mana base on White-Blue Delver occasionally hiccups as-is, and adding a third color could prove problematic. You need to have your red for Bonfire, yet those are just four main deck cards that you end up warping your mana base around. When it works, it really works, and will win you games—but there will also be many games you lose because you couldn't cast your Delver of Secrets on turn one.

Bonfire of the Damned | Art by James Paick

So the question again: is the power worth the cost?

While big splashy effects like Bonfire feel awesome, the toll on this deck's mana is not worth the compromise. While it often feels invisible during game play because you're just set back by a turn, mana not running smoothly is an invisible killer. Plus, playing red means you don't get to play any Moorland Haunts. I'd rather play to Delver's strength—consistency—and try and answer these creature swarms while remaining white-blue.

I bring this up especially because I am sent a lot of Delver lists splashing red and/or black. With the full block available, there is enough power in just two colors that the consistency of white-blue is the way to go. (It's worth noting that the blue-red-green Delver decks are really an entirely different animal and I don't lump those into that category.) If my deck has slightly weaker cards but can almost always cast its cards, I am in much more control of my matches than with stronger cards but a mana base that costs me one game in five.

However, Andrew is trying to answer a very real question for Delver and the thrust of this exploration will poke toward another answer. That brings us to the second issue to discuss—how Delver plans to fight the metagame.

As one of the generally perceived top decks in the format, and as a deck that has continually persisted for nine months, the Standard format has, in many ways, warped around Delver. Successful decks have had to be able to compete with it and players are finally figuring out how. Birthing Pod decks have the advantage on Delver, and other decks that have shown success against Delver—like the Blue-Red-Green Ramp deck that Reid Duke used to win the Open Series in Washington DC—have also started to show success against Delver.

Kai Burnett's Bant Pod

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Reid Duke's Blue-Red-Green Ramp

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With new enemies on the rise, Delver must do what it does perhaps best of all: adapt.

We might have ruled out a third color, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of routes to explore. There are a lot of small ways the Delver deck can shift slightly to fight off these threats.

For example, there's been a subtle trend in recent successful Delver decks: Gut Shot.

Gut Shot

This card hadn't seen much play in Delver for a while. But in the past few weeks, Gut Shot (and, to a lesser extent, Mental Misstep too) has been seeing a lot more main deck time.

The reason? Fighting off all of the Birds of Paradise-and-friends-fueled decks that were getting out ahead of Delver. A hand like Llanowar Elves into Birthing Pod on the play would normally be disastrous for the white-blue deck... but if instead that opening is met by Gut Shot, Delver of Secrets, and then a follow up Snapcaster Mage on Gut Shot to kill another elf on the next turn, the Pod deck is in rough shape!

Speaking of Gut Shot, let's start talking about some of the individual card choices!

Card Comparisons

There are twenty nonland cards in White-Blue Delver that are fairly locked in, and Andrew already has all of them. Those cards are:

4 Delver of Secrets
4 Snapcaster Mage
4 Vapor Snag
4 Ponder
4 Gitaxian Probe

There is some room for argument here—you could say that only the third Gitaxian Probe is locked in and the fourth is up for debate—but for the most part these are cards you really need to be playing if you're playing Delver. In any case, I also feel it's definitely correct to play some number of Mana Leaks and Geist of Saint Trafts, but those exact numbers are up in the air and we can talk about them below.


Gitaxian Probe
Mana Leak

After that core, there are plenty of questions to answer before we can fill the next eighteen to twenty slots. Let's look over the categories we want to fill.


The first element to look at is the creatures. Which creatures do we want to play and why? What are the important constraints on the format?

The primary options I'd like to look at are Geist of Saint Traft; Restoration Angel; Augur of Bolas; Hero of Bladehold; Blade Splicer; Talrand, Sky Summoner; and Phantasmal Image.

What are the questions to ask? Well, the first and most important one is: "What are we trying to accomplish here?"

It used to be that Delver wanted cards firmly in the middle between offense and defense, so you could play either way. Restoration Angel is a good example of this: it's great defensively, but also makes a strong offensive threat. Many people's decks are still set up that way.

However, times change. If you look at the format, a lot of the decks imposing on Delver are quick and pose threats early. Cards like Birthing Pod or long-game Frost Titans create massive inevitability for the opponent. Creatures that can move the game toward ending quickly are extremely popular now.

What does this mean? I'm a big fan of moving toward cards like Hero of Bladehold and Talrand. If you attack with a Hero twice you've probably dealt lethal damage or something close to it—and all it takes is a single Vapor Snag to set up your Hero perfectly. Talrand is a little more defensive, but still has that offensive push if you can chain together a few instants or sorceries.


Hero of Bladehold
Talrand, Sky Summoner

Hero is often weak in the mirror because of Vapor Snag, whereas Talrand is better because you can attain some value out of him and block opposing fliers. However, with Dismember's popularity at a low, and decks like Blue-Red-Green Ramp on the rise, I lean toward the card that fights off the Delver-hater decks in Hero of Bladehold.

Additionally, as mentioned earlier, Geist of Saint Traft is important, and especially so if you're on this plan of turning on your heel to defense much quicker than normal. While some lists might opt for two or three, I want the full four here.

While cards like Augur of Bolas are fantastic, they're better in the Restoration Angel versions. In this deck I want to be fairly aggressive instead of running a few more instants and sorceries and going the Augur/Talrand route.

Removal and Countermagic

Traditionally, Delver has had a mix of everything from Dismembers to Gut Shots to just more Unsummons. As mentioned above, Gut Shot is really well placed against the myriad creature-accelerant decks in the format. You need it against those decks very badly. However, it's significantly worse against something like Blue-Red-Green Ramp.

Mental Misstep is a little worse than Gut Shot since if you draw it after they play their Elves (or, more likely, Ponder into it on turn one), it doesn't do anything. However, it does catch ramp's Ponders and cards out of Zombies like Diregraf Ghoul. I'm willing to do a little bit of a hedge between Gut Shots and Mental Missteps to help out a wide variety of matchups.


Mental Misstep

Dismember is a reasonable card to main deck right now, but because of all of the life loss already threatened by Gut Shot I'd rather not main deck them. Dismember is important to help fend off opposing Hero of Bladeholds and Restoration Angels and other large creatures. A pair of Mana Leaks also helps control some of the top-end creatures out there.

Utility and Equipment

After all of that, there are a few spots left for utility spells. A pair of Thought Scours, while not the most exciting cards, help increase the instant/sorcery count for Delver while filling up the graveyard for Snapcaster. It's probably the card that looks the worst in the deck, but just helps you get to—and power up—your strong cards.

One of the big questions is whether or not to play Equipment, and if so which ones. Sword of War and Peace, Sword of Feast and Famine, and Sword of Body of Mind are all on the table, and Runechanter's Pike gets even better alongside Thought Scour and the Phyrexian mana cards.


Thought Scour
Runechanter's Pike

Once again, let's take a look at the metagame and our deck choices so far. We want to be more aggressive and able to fight the ramp decks. We want to make sure our creatures get through. This makes Equipment look appealing to me, and, on the surface, this makes the answer look like Runechanter's Pike. The Pike is great if you want to go aggressive quickly, and turns anything into a threat.

However, I think the card we actually want is Sword of Feast and Famine. Instead of just making Hero of Bladehold or Geist of Saint Traft hard to kill, against a deck like Birthing Pod that can gum up the ground it means you can break through. It's also far more potent against the ramp deck, forcing them to discard a pivotal card and also getting you right past something like a Primeval Titan.


Sword of Feast and Famine
Primeval Titan

Finally, a card I'm interested in is Divine Offering. Most decks out there have targets—everything from Swords to Birthing Pod to Phyrexian Metamorph are cards you want to hit. You don't want to draw multiples, and you don't always want to draw one, but with deck manipulation like Ponder around, having one is a very operable difference from having zero.

This brings the decklist to:

Gavin's White-Blue Delver

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It might not look that different from many Delver decks, but it's the small things like Sword of Feast and Famine over Runechanter's Pike or Sword of War and Peace and the singleton Divine Offering that go a long way over the course of the tournament. If you draw one of these cards you can try and set up a situation where it will be a blowout—killing an Equipment at a very opportune time, for example—and it can turn the tide of the game.

And speaking of small differences, let's take a look at the sideboard!


In a moment, I'll run down how to sideboard in particular matchups—but first, let me explain the sideboard cards.

The first thing that might stick out to you are the pair of two-drops featured in the sideboard: Knight of Glory and Augur of Bolas. Two-drops in the sideboard? What's going on!


Knight of Glory
Augur of Bolas

I'll cover Knight of Glory first. This piece of technology was first shown off at the Open Series two weekends ago by Charles Gindy and Joshua Cho in the Top 8. The matchup it's for? Zombies!

At 2 power it effectively blocks everything from Diregraf Ghoul to Geralf's Messenger, and it's very difficult for the mono-black deck to remove. Most Zombie decks run Mortarpod, and the black-red versions might have Brimstone Volley or similar, but still, the band of answers is so narrow that silence will fall upon Zombies as the Knight strikes them down.

Augur of Bolas has two functions. First, it's great against beatdown decks. At a 1/3 it's the perfect-sized blocker against all of Zombies's 2/1s and 2/2s, and it can deal with one half of a Strangleroot Geist. Even if it just chump blocks and finds you an instant or sorcery it gets the job done.

Second, it works in tandem with a Talrand transform plan. In the mirror you can take the more controlling angle, swapping Heroes for Talrands and Augur to increase your spell critical mass. While Hero is phenomenal when it attacks in the mirror, it's highly susceptible to both Mana Leak and Vapor Snag. Additionally, wise players will start bringing additional ways to remove it, like Dismember. If you set up for Talrand, you're practically guaranteed to get value out of it as long as it resolves.

The Dismembers are to help fight off Heroes and other larger creatures against decks like Red-Green Beatdown. You have to be careful to make sure you aren't losing too much life, but Augur of Bolas should help stem the bleeding.

Negate helps fight some of the ramp spells out of the blue-red-green deck, and also is a good sideboard card against Reanimator and various control decks.

Finally, the one Restoration Angel is to come in alongside Augur of Bolas. Often in those matchups you're taking out Heroes and looking for a blocker, and Restoration Angel fits that category while working well with Augur.

Let's look at the matchups! To continue with the Spike-focused theme, this week, I'm going to look at four popular archetypes and how I would sideboard against each.

Phantasmal Image | Art by Nils Hamm

The Delver Mirror

-3 Gut Shot, -3 Hero of Bladehold, -2 Sword of Feast and Famine, -1 Geist of Saint Traft,
+3 Augur of Bolas; +3 Talrand, Sky Summoner; +2 Dismember; +1 Restoration Angel,

In this matchup, you transform into a Delver deck that is more focused on the long game, using Talrands alongside Augur and removal spells. Gut Shot is cut to help preserve your life total and because it's only good against Delver, although if they have Phantasmal Image I would keep some of them in, probably over the Geists.

It pains me to cut any Geists in this matchup, but with the way the matchup has been heading—Heroes, Talrands, Restoration Angels, and Augur of Bolas—Geist has become substantially worse.

In any case, aim for a long game and trade where you can, then set up for a Talrand long game and your drakes should overtake them. Don't use your Gitaxian Probes and Thought Scours early if you can avoid it—you want to save them for Talrand.

Birthing Pod | Art by Daarken

Birthing Pod

-2 Gitaxian Probe
+2 Dismember

Your main deck Gut Shots and Missteps go a long way in this matchup, helping you stem their early draws. After sideboarding, Dismember adds even more removal spells. Birthing Pod is still a huge threat, and it's possible there should be a second Divine Offering in the sideboard just for that card. However, with Hero and Geist on your side, hopefully you can attack and kill them past their creatures.

If the game drags on it's going to probably be rough for you, so take the offensive where possible. Even if they assemble walls of creatures, keep in mind that a Sword can often break you right through.

Primeval Titan | Art by Aleksi Briclot

Blue-Red-Green Ramp

-3 Gut Shot, -1 Divine Offering
+2 Negate, +1 Augur of Bolas, +1 Restoration Angel

Negate is to use on practically any spell they have, although it can be worth saving for sweepers like Bonfire. However, if you end up catching a Farseek with it, that's plenty acceptable. You just want to slow down their games and then take the offensive.

If they land a Primeval Titan then you probably have a one-turn window between Sword or Vapor Snag, but that's definitely a signal you need to kick your game into high gear. Frost Titan is potentially more frustrating than Primeval, since it locks down Hero and you can't Sword past it.

My largest recommendation here is just take advantage of your tempo. You're definitely the beatdown deck here, so make sure to play like one.

Falkenrath Aristocrat | Art by Igor Kieryluk


-4 Geist of Saint Traft, -3 Hero of Bladehold, -2 Mana Leak, -1 Divine Offering, -1 Gitaxian Probe
+4 Knight of Glory; +3 Augur of Bolas; +2 Dismember; +1 Restoration Angel; +1 Talrand, Sky Summoner

You pretty decidedly become the controlling deck in this matchup, using Augurs and Knights to set up for your endgame. Once you've stabilized, a Sword or flier should be able to finish off the game. The mono-black and blue-black versions are far less dangerous to you than the red version, which has Brimstone Volley and Falkenrath Aristocrat to give itself quite a bit of reach.

Gut Shot isn't great against Zombies, but Blood Artist is a major enemy and it's important to be able to shut it down. Try to make sure you don't accidentally die to Killing Wave plus Blood Artist.


Killing Wave
Blood Artist

Honorable Mentions

Although I chose to focus on Delver, there are plenty of decks that could break out this weekend. Here are some of the top decklists I received this week!

Tim Evan's Dryad Delver

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Alexander Caruso's Dungrove Green

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Jayson Kemper's Black Thumb

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Jason Roger's Blue-Red-Green Ramp

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Jason Rembrandt's Esper Control

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Doug Cozby's Red-White-Blue Control

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Scars of Standard

It's crazy to think about, but in three short weeks Return to Ravnica previews begin! That means we'll be bidding adieu to the Swords, Praetors, and everything in between. But before we wrap up Scars of Mirrodin and send it off to Modern, it's time to give some of those cards you loved from Scars one last hurrah!

Format: Standard
Restrictions: Build around an underplayed Scars of Mirrodin card
Deadline: Monday, August 20, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time
Send all decklists via email by clicking the "Respond via Email" link at the bottom of this article

Nim Deathmantle? Unwinding Clock? Hovermyr?!? This is your last chance to show off a card from Scars you loved that never quite made it. Pick your favorite(s) and start deck building! I'll be excited to see what you all come up with.

As I mentioned earlier, this weekend is the World Magic Cup, and it's going to be an event to watch. It's the event's first year, and it's bound to be exciting as players from around the globe fly out to the gaming hub of Gen Con to duke it out. I'm going to be there, so if you see me feel free to say hi! I always love having the opportunity to meet you all, and so I'd be more than happy to chat!

If you're not going to be there, feel free to send me any feedback you have on Twitter or by posting in the forums. I read through all of it, and am always happy to answer questions when I can.

Next week, I'll be back with a crazy Modern masterpiece. ( Or perhaps it's more of a mess... I'll let you determine that!) Regardless, you won't want to miss it!

See you at the World Magic Cup!



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