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Discussing the Dominance of Legacy Delver

While writing about Expressive Iteration a few weeks ago, I planned on including a blurb about the fact that Legacy Delver tends to get new tools somewhat frequently these days. Here’s what I planned to say:

“I think it would be remiss of me to ignore the fact that prior to Iteration being printed, Delver was already the de facto best deck. Printing another potent card advantage spell for the deck (especially one that’s substantially better than some of the previous options) is adding fuel to the fire, so to speak. The archetype is currently flush with excellent options and can be tuned to address any specific issue. This generally means that on any given weekend, Delver is going to be among the best, if not the actual best, deck for an event.”

Once I began to address this situation, it quickly became clear that the topic was beyond the scope of that article. I do think it’s an interesting topic though and wanted to dedicate the necessary time and space to discussing it. So, this week I’m going to talk about Delver, and in fact Legacy as a whole, from a philosophical perspective, rather than that of card choices or metagame representation. My aim is not to prove any specific take is correct, nor is it to push an agenda or suggest that changes are/are not needed. Instead, my focus is simply on presenting my perspective on this discourse.

 

 

Header - Addressing Bias and Goals

Each of our perspectives is often framed through the lens of bias and I’m no different. I’ve been known as a Delver aficionado for quite some time now, which means that:

  1. My perspective will be through the lens of some bias
  2. I will be viewed by the reader as potentially having bias.

Despite this, my personal goal has always been to make Legacy a great format with a high degree of replayability. I’ve played all of the decks that needed to be addressed with bans (Top Miracles, Deathrite Delver, etc…) and advocated for bans in each of those circumstances. 

Still, I find it important to acknowledge the perspective through which my words will be viewed. This whole article will be through the lens of my viewpoint and, while I absolutely respect everyone who holds a different perspective on what being a great format is, I also ask for that respect back. 

 

Header - Delver Dominance

As an archetype, Delver decks have been near the top of the Legacy metagame since the card’s release in Innistrad. While Delver of Secrets epitomizes the strategy in Legacy, applying pressure and backing it up with disruption has been a popular and effective approach to winning games of Magics for decades. Aggro-control decks have a long pedigree of success and frequently work their way to the top of any metagame they’re present in (Dimir Rogues being a recent example from Standard). That is to say that it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Delver of Secrets has been one of the most consistently well-performing decks for almost a decade.

 

Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration

Delver decks do tend to impart a limiting factor on the format. Some decks that are more off the beaten path, such as Nic Fit and Enchantress, can struggle with the sheer efficiency that Delver presents. It functions as a gatekeeper to many decks in the format. On the other hand, it does act as the so-called police of the format, keeping some less fair strategies from achieving dominant status. This is much of the same argument that exists for Splinter Twin decks in Modern, and the debate on that card still continues to this day.

 

DazeWasteland

The limiting factor of Delver pairs well with another stance I have seen players posit over the years: it isn’t fun to lose to Delver, Daze and Wasteland. Delver tends to be very consistent and, with the London Mulligan in effect, this has been exacerbated as of late. Players trying to set up some more intricate plans might not be able to get their foot out of the door, so to speak. 

I personally place a bit less emphasis on this point and I don’t think much of that comes from personal bias. Legacy is chock full of “unfun” game play: Chalice of the Void, turn one massive Tendrils of Agony, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn annihilating everything in sight, Life from the Loam and Wasteland locks, and the list goes on. Losing to a timely Daze that protects a creature seems like the least of the brutal ways you can lose in Legacy from that perspective.

That being said, one of the most damning elements of Delver in my eyes is when the deck gains access to potent sources of card advantage, like Expressive Iteration and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath (or Treasure Cruise or Oko, Thief of Crowns, of days gone). These days, threats are resilient enough and the card advantage is effective enough that Delver can go blow-to-blow with just about anything that players throw at it. 

I think this pairs with a perception of Delver that if you can stop their early pressure, you can overcome their strategy. That creates an image that players should be able to consistently overcome the deck, which might be the result of players still viewing it as a hyper-linear tempo deck (calling back to the concept of heuristics). That makes it more frustrating when Delver just keeps up with players in the late game and battles through the early removal. The potency of the newer cards the archetype has gained over the years really provide a ton of resiliency and make it difficult to consistently address the matchup.

 

Header - The Truth About Legacy

It’s no secret that the best archetypes in Legacy, past and present, have essentially always been interactive blue decks. There have been moments in Legacy’s long history where that wasn’t the case but, for the most part, those are outliers, and the decks that led to that have had to be addressed by some key bans (e.g. Flash). Looking at the texture of the cards that are legal in Legacy, the prevalence of fair blue strategies shouldn’t be a surprise. Between the power of the blue disruptive spells and the fact that there are a wide array of cards that present a game-winning strategy as early as turn one, blue interactive decks will almost certainly always be right near the very top of the format.

 

Force of WillBrainstorm

One of the issues is that Legacy presents the illusion of diversity. There are a lot of different viable decks and archetypes and a fair amount of them actually perform well at the premier events (as evidenced by the sheer amount of different deck guides I have been able to write explicitly from Legacy Challenge Top 8s). However, at its core, Legacy is no different than any other Magic format; the best decks are a cut above the rest. Since Force of Will and Brainstorm tend to support the best removal spells and threats a format has to offer, those decks tend to have the best chance of competing with anything that might show up.

I personally think that this is a natural development of a format (even one with such a large card pool), and that having “best” decks exist is actually good for a format. This tends to leave a lot of room for properly reading a metagame and making meaningful decisions that can greatly improve your outcome. This breaks down a bit when the “best” deck cannot be stopped, no matter what players throw at it. The impetus for this article is that Delver has been putting up some dominant results in the online Legacy events, so there’s certainly a question as to whether we are reaching that place. 

However, all of this leads me to my key point: barring unprecedented bans of key staples, such as Force of Will and Brainstorm, as the card pool constantly expands, fair blue decks will always be the most winning strategy in Legacy. It might be Delver, it might be some flavor of control or midrange, but it will almost always be an interactive blue deck. These strategies will always adopt newly printed cards, as it’s inevitable that cheap, effective threats, disruption and card advantage will get printed over time. 

 

Header - Is This Good?

When I started playing Legacy back in 2011, this was always the format I signed up for. Scouring through deck lists from Grand Prixes of the time, it was clear that blue interactive decks were the top dog of the format. From a macro point of view, how could they not be? Using free counter magic to protect key cards or prevent key cards from resolving is an incredibly effective strategy for winning the game.

“Since Force of Will and Brainstorm tend to support the best removal spells and threats a format has to offer, those decks tend to have the best chance of competing with anything that might show up.”This brings us back to the topic of perspective and goals. Legacy is very appealing to a pretty wide-range of players. It has deeply complex, interesting gameplay decisions starting from turn one, which is something a lot of Magic players love to explore. In addition, it also has some extremely off-the-wall strategies supported by awesome, older cards, which, again, draws in a lot of players. These two elements are not mutually exclusive (nor are they the only awesome aspects of Legacy) and many Legacy players enjoy both aspects of this.  

There are players who will always play the best blue decks in the format. In addition, there will always be players that hate the relative dominance of these decks. Legacy appeals to so many different players that it would be nigh-impossible to please everyone with a single decision. If we killed our sacred cows, so-to-speak, and banned cards like Delver or Daze, it seems likely that the next blue archetype du jour will raise similar issues with players prone to not enjoying those archetypes. People hating decks like Snoko or even Stoneblade back in the days of its dominance is clear evidence.

Legacy is the blue format and that will always be true. While there are many players that succeed with non-blue strategies, there will never not be a blue deck at the top of the format that everyone can tune their strategies to beat.“These days, threats are resilient enough and the card advantage is effective enough that Delver can go blow-to-blow with just about anything that players throw at it.”

I do think Delver has probably been too good for too long though. As it doesn’t appear that they will stop printing excellent cards for the archetype anytime soon, it has to be worth discussing potentially killing a sacred cow. At the moment, Delver is taking up more than its fair share of the metagame, and while I have heard the argument that cards like Expressive Iteration are the cause, I don’t really buy that. Yes, it did provide a buff to the deck that was already at the top, but it was, you know, already at the top. 

While I’m not necessarily advocating for any specific ban, I’m certainly not claiming that nothing should be banned. I don’t know which card is most appropriate, but if I had to pick one, it would be time for Delver of Secrets to go. In many ways it is starting to feel like Mishra’s Workshop in Vintage, and for the sake of identity, the major offender has been given a free pass while people place the target elsewhere. Again, I don’t have a clue what the answer is, and I’m not saying that Delver must be banned, but I think as a community it’s worth taking a look at the cards that have become dogma for the format.

 

All of that being said, this Legacy format still feels like a blast to me and that sentiment does seem to be shared among a fair amount of players. Of course, as I mentioned at the top of the article, I have my biases, so of course I’m likely to like a format where Delver is good. However, I really didn’t enjoy the format pre-Oko/Dreadhorde Arcanist ban and a big part of that was because it was boring. That hasn’t been the case for me so far, but I respect that my opinion does not reflect the general population.

I don’t have the answers, just perspectives and observations. Ban talk can be exhausting for people – and trust me, I know, it’s exhausting to me too! I legitimately don’t think there’s a single solution that will make the entire Legacy base happy, but that will likely always be the case. For some further reading on the topic, Lawrence Harmon has written about this a bit in the past. For now, I’m going to keep playing Legacy and loving it and we’ll have to see what happens in the future.

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