10 Questions: Everything Delver

Posted in Top Decks on April 5, 2012

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

1. What do you think is in the Helvault?

No idea. Let's talk about Delver of Secrets!

2. What do "good players" think of Delver of Secrets?

A week or so ago I was playing in the StarCityGames.com Invitational and got paired against Grand Prix champion Dave Shiels. We were 2–0 at the time, and there were a fair number of well-known players sitting near us.

Look to the left, look to the right, there was Joshua Ravitz (who would go on to make Top 8 of the Invitational), well-known writer Larry Swasey, and even more well-known writer Gerry Thompson. We chuckled, as every single player we recognized had a Delver of Secrets in play (including each of us).

In a relatively short time, Delver of Secrets has grown into one of the most influential creatures—influential Magic: The Gathering cards—in recent memory (maybe history). Tongue-in-cheek as its presentation might be, this article is about all the different ways you can run into a Delver of Secrets; how to know which Delver of Secrets you are up against; and what the differences, advantages, and incentives are to the different builds.

I don't even know if this is a controversial statement at this point, but I think Delver of Secrets is not just good, but both the best creature and the best card in Standard.

3. What DID good players think of Delver of Secrets?

This is something that I was interested in and a question I asked myself when I first realized how influential Delver of Secrets was becoming.

... did writers (in their various "Innistrad review"-type articles on the websites various) realize at the outset how good Delver might become?

Quiet Speculation:

"This is extremely marginal but if it's possible to set this up as an early 3/2 flier consistently, it may see some play."


Luis Scott-Vargas rated Delver of Secrets a "2" ("niche card"), focusing on the card's awesome flavor (and I think we can all agree there is some nice Jeff Goldblum going on on the card), although he did speculate that it might be "sweet" and possibly where.


Conley Woods was the most optimistic about the Insectile Aberration-to-be, rating the one-drop a"3" (his "backbone of Standard" level, comparable to Makeshift Mannequin or Mind Spring)... but acknowledged that some might see this as a stretch. While Delver of Secrets didn't make Conley's Top 10 list for all of Innistrad, it did make his "Top 3" mini-list for blue, saying it was one of the cards he was most interested in working on.

My goal isn't to call anyone out on this front, but more to illustrate that even the experts can miss (or at least underrate) some of the most powerful cards.

I think that in this case, that came from not realizing what a very little amount of tuning (playing lots of spells and a four-pack of Ponders) could do for the Delver.

So what makes the Delver so awesome?

Essentially, it redefines a lot of what it means to be a blue creature. Delver of Secrets is aggressive. It is a one-drop... you can play it before the stage in the game where you "need" to keep your lands open for Mana Leak or whatever. You can put other decks on notice (while threatening to take over with the aforementioned Mana Leak). And what was really underrated initially: Delver of Secrets hits hard!

Have you ever seen one of those draws where one player goes turn-one Delver of Secrets, turn-two two Delvers? I mean 9 damage coming in on turn three, over the top of potential blockers, is impressive almost unconditionally... but from a blue deck? Ka-pow!

Factor in all that stuff about holding back the old Mana Leaks, and you have something pretty special.

Did you ever come to the realization, looking at an Extended blue deck splash just for Tarmogoyf, that the age of Keiga, the Tide Star in tapout strategies might be over? Delver of Secrets is that, over and over again ten times.

4. Okay, it's good... but which is better, Delver of Secrets or Snapcaster Mage?

Opinions differ.

Part of the distinction is clouded by the fact that the cards are so often played next to one another. Sure, Snapcaster Mage can be played in more decks (for example, control decks will often play some), but it is rare to see Delver of Secrets without Snapcaster Mage.

Snapcaster Mage | Art by Volkan Baga

Many players probably see Snapcaster Mage as the more flashy card. It certainly does some exciting stuff, especially when combined with cheap removal (Lightning Bolt, Snapcaster Mage + Lightning Bolt is pretty dam-bursting), whereas "all" Delver of Secrets offers is damage and evasion.

Snapcaster Mage

... although I guess put another way, an unchecked Insectile Aberration is like a Lightning Bolt every turn.

Especially when the two cards first came out (and Delver of Secrets was still largely underrated), Snapcaster Mage was considered the best card in Innistrad.

Me? Both cards are sweet, but I prefer the one-drop!

5. Surely you exaggerate... it's not like Delver of Secrets is played in bigger formats or anything, is it?

We're going to spend most of the "top decks" part of this Top Decks on Standard, but (since you asked) Delver of Secrets has just racked up another impressive finish!

This time in Modern:

Antonino De Rosa's RUG Delver

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Former US National Champion Antonino De Rosa cleaned up Grand Prix Turin with a different take on the RUG Delver archetype.

Antonino De Rosa, Grand Prix Champion, Turin 2012

Here is a deck that—like the Standard (and predominantly white-blue versions)—is medium-light on creatures but super strong on cheap instants... Spell Pierce, Spell Snare, Serum Visions (to make up for Modern's paucity of prohibited Ponders), and so many Lightning Bolts Antonino even dipped into Burst Lightning!

Burst Lightning

Between Delver of Secrets and Tarmogoyf, the RUG Delver deck can get the quick drop on most opponents, and the medium counterspells and removal can keep opponents on their heels, hold a lead, push blockers out of the way, and generally disrupt.

But yeah, everywhere from Standard to Legacy... and with Lingering Souls banned in Block? Who knows?

6. So... more Delver of Secrets + Snapcaster Mage (like peanut butter and chocolate). Any other cards we usually see played together?

I would say, "certainly!"

The typical build around Delver of Secrets in Standard includes not just Snapcaster Mage, but eight to ten zero-mana or one-mana manipulation cards, always the Maximum Number of Ponders, then usually four Gitaxian Probes and one or two Thought Scours.

Invisible Stalker | Art by Bud Cook

Delver of Secrets is good, but it can't usually win a tournament all by itself. So it has buddies beyond even the very good Snapcaster Mage (which is also an awesome card, but fragile at 2/1). The Delver deck runs Invisible Stalker and Geist of Saint Traft as the very active B-Squad; they have hexproof so they make for great combinations with enhancers like Sword of War and Peace and Runechanter's Pike.

Invisible Stalker

Check Runechanter's Pike in particular... Delver of Secrets thrives in a deck full of instants and sorceries; Snapcaster Mage loves having those instants and sorceries move from the deck (either via the hand or some other mechanism, be it Nephalia Drownyard or your own Thought Scour) to the graveyard. Runechanter's Pike is perfect synergy! It also loves being played with lots of instants and sorceries, and moreover also thrives when those are in the bin.

Hexproof creatures are perfect not just because they can be so powerful (Invisible Stalker with Runechanter's Pike is simply a race... and who wants to be on the wrong side of an unchecked Geist?), but because getting your guy killed in response to an equip is just a blowout frowny-face.

You have probably seen lots of Delver decks in recent months; this is the one that took down the most recent GP:

Shahar Shenhar's UW Delver

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Shenhar's deck is pretty straightforward, and highly reminiscent of the list Matt Costa used to brand his name into Magic legend.

Shenhar cut an Invisible Stalker (as well as its buddy, one Runechanter's Pike), and played a main deck Batterskull.

A main deck Dismember, sure... but otherwise this is an awfully classic Standard Delver list.

... which is not to say there can't be customizations made to even the basic shell...

7. Really? Can you give an example of a Delver designer killing his darlings?

Yuuya Watanabe's UW Delver

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This version of the UW Delver is actually a week older than Shenhar's. Yuuya Watanabe used it to take down a Grand Prix the previous Sunday.

Yuuya Watanabe, Grand Prix Champion, Kuala Lampur 2012

The structure of the deck is in large part very similar to other UW Delver decks, but there are two substantial differences:

We are going to touch on the Dungeon Geists issue in just a bullet or two, so I will focus on the other, which is actually the larger departure for the Standard Delver deck (while it also bears mentioning that Watanabe's winner played triple Pikes and no lifegain Equipment in the main).

Gitaxian Probe—up until Watanabe's weekend—was an institution in Delver decks. You just had four. That was it.

There are different schools of thought on this; Josh Ravitz has an interesting idea, which is that as you expect more, better, players to be on UW Delver decks, Gitaxian Probe is less important. The sideboarded games typically see players with Mana Leak in the sideboard, so you don't even need to know if they have the counter (they don't). So why not just play Thought Scour, which can actually set up your Snapcaster Mages and Moorland Haunts?

8. I see that deck has a lot of Gut Shots. Why? (And how does he even cast that with his blue and white lands?)

Gut Shot is amazing in the Delver deck!

You can Gut Shot a small creature, tap out for Snapcaster Mage, and Gut Shot again.

Gut Shot | Art by Greg Staples

Gut Shot is one of the best cards against the viable non-Delver of Secrets decks. Red-green variants from beatdown to Naya Ramp rely on cards like Birds of Paradise to get the jump on other decks. Gut Shot—being "zero" mana (especially in a deck that can't cast it legitimately)—lets a white-blue deck get a similar mana advantage, interactively, to a red-green deck advancing actively with an actual accelerating one-drop.

While we have seen some mixing and matching around Phyrexian removal (one Dismember in Shenhar's main, two Dismembers and no Gut Shots in some earlier builds), I would hazard that Gut Shot will emerge as the Phyrexian signature card of choice.

Gut Shot


You can get the jump on another Delver deck before its Insectile Aberration shows up!

9. How about them Dungeon Geists?

So I said that Watanabe's deck had two big, different, things going on; one of which was the inclusion of Dungeon Geists.

Dungeon Geists has had an on-again, off-again awesome metagame position with the Standard format.

Dungeon Geists | Art by Nils Hamm

I would guess that, "objectively," Dungeon Geists is a strong creature for blue: 3/3 and flying for four mana? A hair smaller than Troublesome Spirit maybe (and Troublesome Spirit made the greatest Pro Tour Top 8 of all time)... but the current incarnation of Standard has no Lightning Bolt to punish any missing 4th toughness.

Dungeon Geists

Beyond the body (and evasion), Dungeon Geists has a pretty awesome ability, especially in the context of a format full of Titans (at least some slice of the format looks like that). Subtly, Dungeon Geists is just hard for another Delver deck to deal with effectively. As we said before, most of the Dismembers are being traded down for Gut Shots; and a 3/3 is just bigger than a 1/1, 2/1, or 2/2 (as are the typical sizes).

We would be remiss if we failed to mention a resurgent Spirits deck; here is the Grand Prix Top 4 version piloted by recent Top Decks subject Tom Martell:

Tom Martell's Delver-Spirits

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The Spirits deck (and this copy is pretty similar to the deck played to the #PTDKA Top 8 by certain Hall of Fame players) is a Delver deck, but splashes black. Black gives the deck primarily the back side of Lingering Souls.

... but on the subject of Dungeon Geists, the Drogskol Captains in the Spirits build enhance not just the tokens, but the Geists. Although we don't see Runechanter's Pike here, there is lots of synergy between the cards we did mention.

10. Where to finish out? How about enhancement in general?

If there is one thing you find across at least the Standard UW Delver decks, it is that the creatures rarely come in alone.

Drogskol Captain | Art by Peter Mohrbacher

The black-splashing Spirits deck has Drogskol Captain for Lingering Souls, Moorland Haunt tokens, and... Phantasmal Image!?! Phantasmal Image + Drogskol Captain makes both (including the usually über-vulnerable Image) quite hard to kill. With enough little guys out (or Geists), that can smell like an absolute Overrun.

Phantasmal Image
Drogskol Captain

We have seen Pikes for Stalkers, Swords for Stalkers (and whomever)... Batterskulls... but even the straight white-blue decks have some variations. Check out Caleb Durward's deck from the StarCityGames.com Invitational:

Caleb Durward's UW Delver

Download Arena Decklist

Caleb removed the Invisible Stalkers... and with them went most of the incentive of trying to race with Runechanter's Pike.

But where an innovator closes one door, another one often opens; Caleb kept Geist of Saint Traft (another very Equipment-eligible threat), one of the best solitary threats in the format... but somewhat vulnerable to... "blockers."

What about Spectral Flight?

Kind of a weird solution, no?

Geist of Saint Traft
Spectral Flight

Well, you slap a Spectral Flight onto a Geist and you don't see any Wolf tokens jumping in front to take down the big man at the cost of 4 life. You don't see any ground-token chump-blocking against a first-striking Pike. The Geist just goes straight "to the air" and you have 8 in, and a two-or-three-turn clock.

Beyond these, you will sometimes see Intangible Virtue or even Honor of the Pure as UW Delver decks hybridize with Humans or Tokens. Those decks—obviously set up a bit differently from the mode—will often try to double up early with Champion of the Parish on top of Delver of Secrets as an aggressive one-drop, or substitute Blade Splicer (excellent on defense as well as offense) over Geist of Saint Traft... particularly potent in Intangible Virtue builds.


Although we still don't know what will be in the Helvault, I hope you find yourself a bit better prepared to face Delver of Secrets. This is a creature—a powerful, even wonderful creature—that you can be sure you will face in Standard, or anywhere, really.

As the sensei used to say, "Study and grow strong." And if you can't beat 'em?... (you know)...

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