Beating Delve in Modern

Posted in Top Decks on November 14, 2014

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

I've been doing some digging in Modern, and I've found a deck that I really like. It probably isn't a huge surprise that it features a delve card, but I do think that's where you want to be right now. Given the advent of Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time, there are only a couple ways I think it's good to approach Modern. I'll take a look at what I think the viable paths to victory are, which covers the deck I like best on the way.

Dig Through Time | Art by Ryan Yee

Go Under

Delve cards do take a little while to set up, so if you can make the game end very quickly you take away some of the advantages they bring. One key part of this is to pay attention to how the fast deck you choose interacts with the delve decks. Take this deck for example:


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This deck is certainly fast, but I don't think it approaches the format in the way you want. Even though it tries to end the game rapidly, it does so in a manner that's not only prone to getting slowed down by Lightning Bolt, Forked Bolt, and Vapor Snag—all cards that are common in Treasure Cruise decks—but is also vulnerable to cards people play to deal with Young Pyromancer. The delve decks almost universally play Lightning Bolt at the very least, and often tend to have a lot of cheap creature removal in that vein, so playing a fast deck that's trying to kill the opponent with 1-toughness threats is not something I'd recommend.

Ideally, your fast deck doesn't care about those cards as much, particularly Lightning Bolt. I'm not saying you can't play a deck that has creatures that die to Bolt, but you should play a deck that doesn't overly care whether the opponent has Bolts or not (because your opponent will have them).

Take Burn:


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This deck would rather the opponent not have a Lightning Bolt in his or her opening hand, but it isn't that vulnerable to burn spells in general. It has plenty of draws where it never plays a creature, and every creature still deals damage unless it's killed the instant it's played (and in the case of Eidolon of the Great Revel, even then). Of course, this deck has its own Treasure Cruises, but I never said that it was a bad idea to play delve cards of your own.

Another deck that is fast enough to mostly avoid the attrition game delve cards are looking for is Affinity. It even goes over the top at the same time, and as always is a deck that is a great choice if the levels of hate aren't high enough. This particular list was played by Paul Rietzl in a recent Daily Event, and I like that it doesn't go overboard on the colored spells.

Paul Rietzl's Affinity

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Go Over

If you aren't interested in playing a blazingly fast deck, there are plenty of other choices. While I think that delve cards are putting a lot of pressure on Modern, I do not believe they are just unbeatable. Of course, some of the decks I'm recommending have their own delve cards, but there is still a wide range of playable decks right now. The next couple decks are decks that try and do something so powerful that they can ignore the incremental card advantage Treasure Cruise is famous for. If you can resolve a huge haymaker or set up an inescapable board state, it often doesn't matter if your opponent has two or six cards in hand, or whether he or she has drawn a bunch of extra cards.

One way to do that is via lifegain. It sounds odd, but this deck has flittered on the edge of being good for some time now, and if you expect a lot of Treasure Cruise + Lightning Bolt decks, it might actually be a solid choice.


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All this deck is trying to do is gain life and more life, after which it gains a little more life. Martyr of Sands is the biggest provider of such, and combines with Ranger of Eos and Proclamation of Rebirth to give the deck a steady stream of 12–18-point life bursts. Decks like Scapeshift; Delver; and, of course, Burn, all have trouble dealing 50+ damage, and it isn't that hard for this deck to gain way more life than that. One of the reasons I didn't like this deck before (aside from all the incredibly underpowered cards) is that it has a very poor matchup against decks that go infinite, and most specifically, Melira Pod. Now that Pod has been reduced in popularity due to all the Treasure Cruise/Dig Through Time decks, Martyr is ready to claim its rewards. Splinter Twin is still a deck, but this particular build of Martyr has a ton of spot removal and three main-deck Ghostly Prisons, so it's at the very least aware of Twin and prepared for it.

Who would have thought by "going big" I meant "cast Squadron Hawk?" I certainly didn't think that's where I was going until I spent some time looking at different Modern decks, but I do think this deck fits the bill. For a more traditional "going big" list, let's take a look at RG Tron:

Karn and His Minions

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This deck literally goes big, as it tries to assemble enough Urza lands to cast its grossly overpowered and overcosted spells. The Karnfather crushes slow decks, or really any deck when he comes out on turn three, and Wurmcoil Engine does a number on decks trying to attack your life total. The full set of Pyroclasm and Oblivion Stone help the deck keep up, and the millions of land-searching card make sure the deck reliably has all three Tron lands available (and if you've played against this deck, you know that it hits Tron on turn three with no searching every game).

Chalice of the Void in the sideboard is a nice touch, as I think this deck is soft to the Jeskai Ascendancy deck (a deck that has been largely absent in Modern results, by the way) and Chalice is pretty nice against the Burn/Delver decks as well. Pod becoming less popular is unfortunate for Tron, as it's one of Tron's best matchups, but decks like Martyr are what this deck wants to see.

Another deck that goes over the top is my current favorite deck, Scapeshift.


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I've been playing with this deck, and I really like it. The list was originally played by oRS on Magic Online, and after swapping a whole one card (-1 Anger of the Gods, +1 Pyroclasm) I started running it. I even made a video of such, and overall I have been quite impressed with the list.

Scapeshift doesn't care what the board looks like or how many cards the opponent has, all it cares about is resolving its namesake with seven or more lands in play. It is true that enough lifegain changes that, but Martyr aside, decks in Modern don't gain enough life to stop a 36-point Scapeshift from killing them. It's also relevant that most Delver decks don't have much they can do to stop Scapeshift from happening; Mana Leak doesn't help much, and Remand is a temporary stopgap at best.

Outracing this deck is tough, too, as it's full of cards that stop the opponent from killing it. Sakura-Tribe Elder, Lightning Bolt, Izzet Charm, Remand, and Cryptic Command are all great at keeping you alive. And all do a very good job of filling up the graveyard for Dig Through Time while they are at it.

This deck is even protected fairly well against disruption decks and combo decks both, as cards like Remand, Charm, Command, and Dig are all extremely versatile. Snapcaster Mage adds more copies of everything, and is worth the minor anti-synergy it has with Dig Through Time.

The last thing I really like about this deck is how good the sideboard is, both in terms of the actual cards in it and the options this deck has for boarding in general. Playing the Scapeshift combo is not incredibly costly when it comes to deck space. This deck is playing two Valakuts and more red shock lands than it otherwise would, but past that it isn't making a huge sacrifice. This isn't like playing Tron or Martyr, where you have to play a ton of cards in order to make your combos work. Because this deck isn't built that differently from a Temur control deck, it can easily side into such and be every effective while doing so.

Imagine cutting two Scapeshifts and some Bolts or Izzet Charms and siding in Inferno Titan, Anger, Obstinate Baloth, and Batterskull. All of a sudden this deck is a Dig/Cryptic control deck with a bunch of high-impact finishers and is much less vulnerable to nonsense like Slaughter Games, Stain the Mind, Blood Moon, or Sowing Salt. I've been on the other side often enough, as Melira Pod sides in cards like Aven Mindcensor and loses hard to Inferno Titan, but there's no good away around it. For decks that can't realistically race Scapeshift, they have to side in answers to it, and those answers don't help at all against the board plan I just described.

Given that Scapeshift is resilient, interactive, powerful, and has a good sideboard, I definitely recommend it. I'm not saying it's the best deck by miles, just the deck I like best, and there are plenty of decks that can be built to be good against it.

If I wasn't going to play Scapeshift, there's another Dig Through Time deck that goes over the top of most decks that I also like:

Splinter Twin

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Twin is an accurate name, as this is kind of a fraternal twin to Scapeshift. They clearly aren't identical, but they have a lot of similar strengths. Both decks have a combo finish that basically ignores whatever else is going on, both decks have a lot of flexible interactive cards, and both decks can easily win games via value if the opponent is too hateful against their combos.

The only reason I like Twin a little less than Scapeshift right now is that I feel like there is a higher amount of creature removal floating around than ways to stop Scapeshift, but depending on what else is going on, Twin could certainly be better. I'd rather be Twin against Martyr or GW Hatebears, and if this Demigod of Revenge/Blood Moon deck I've seen in a few Dailies becomes a deck, Twin has to be better in the matchup.

Join Them

Lastly, one way to fight Blue-Red Delver is just to play Blue-Red Delver. I've already even gone over multiple other decks with delve cards, but when you say "Treasure Cruise," this is the deck that comes to mind. I even like the mirror, as it's an interesting attrition battle that can sometimes end abruptly when one player gets too far ahead on board. It rewards good use of resources and knowing when to just get aggressive, and it has a lot of interesting interactive cards flying back and forth. If that's the sort of thing you like, I don't think playing UR Delver is a bad idea at all.

UR Delver

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Sometimes the best way to beat the enemy is to play it, and I think people are unfairly prejudiced against playing the deck perceived as best. I don't even think UR Delver is necessarily the best deck right now, just the loudest, and even if it was, that's not a good reason to avoid it. This deck isn't that easy to hate out, even if people are trying, and it has so much going for it that it would be foolish to dismiss it.

The last way to beat delve is to play Scrying Sheets.

Scrying Sheets

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Planeswalker (4)
4 Koth of the Hammer
Sorcery (4)
3 Anger of the Gods 1 Pyroclasm
Enchantment (4)
4 Blood Moon
60 Cards

(Okay, maybe that isn't true, but I wanted to say it.)

This deck looks...interesting, and is a pretty classic miser mono-red deck. It's trying to win by playing cards like Demigod of Revenge or Blood Moon and hoping the opponent has no answer, which isn't necessarily a plan I'd endorse. I actually played against this deck at Grand Prix Richmond, but one advantage of playing Melira Pod (which I was at the time) is that it's good against decks you don't expect, and this red deck certainly fits that description. I more included this deck because I mentioned it earlier than because I think it's great, although anyone with the courage to play Scrying Sheets in Modern deserves some respect.

I basically said what I myself would play in Modern right now (Scapeshift, or failing that, Twin), but there are plenty of viable decks. You don't have to play with Dig Through Time or Treasure Cruise, even if I think it's a good idea. And I wouldn't argue against anyone looking to play something like Affinity or RG Tron. As usual, Modern gives you the option of playing the archetype you prefer, even if delve cards have made a lot of previous great decks a little less great (sorry, Melira Pod).


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