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Playing Delverless Delver to 12th Place in a Legacy Challenge

Last week, I hopped into Anuraag Das’s stream and jumped into a conversation surrounding an article that Eli Kassis wrote about cutting Delver of Secrets from the Delver decks, essentially becoming “Delverless Delver,” a strategy that he found to be successful in this Legacy format. While this idea appears to be relatively outlandish, considering the historical dominance of Delver of Secrets as the best one-mana creature these decks can play, it certainly piqued my interest.

I’ve made it a habit over the past few years to check my biases at the door whenever I can. The power level of Magic cards keeps increasing and, by holding too firmly to notions of the past, I understand that I’ll be limiting my growth as a player. In addition, with the point of cutting Delver being argued by Eli, an extremely accomplished and skilled Magic player, I knew I couldn’t take it lightly and had to try it for myself.

This week, I want to talk about this deck and my exploration of the archetype. I want to address why cutting Delver is a reasonable strategy in this metagame, as well as what is gained and lost from it. In addition, I want to discuss my own testing with it, which capped off with a 12th place finish in one of the Legacy Challenges this past weekend. This will be primarily from the perspective of my thoughts on how it felt and how play patterns and matchups change from traditional Delver approaches.

A quick caveat: While I’m about to present an argument for cutting Delver from, well, the Delver decks, this does not mean that I think this is the only way the deck should be built going forward. I have always been of the opinion that each of the threats in Delver has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. While the power level of the threats has greatly increased, thus pushing out a lot of old stand-bys (such as Young Pyromancer and Gurmag Angler), Delver is definitely still near the top of this list. An extremely cheap three-power flyer is often one of the best things you can build your deck around in Legacy. I don’t want the takeaway to be that Delver is simply outclassed and should be replaced for the rest of time, which is far from my opinion. Instead, my goal is to simply explain why cutting Delver is a valid approach, which should provide players with more options when it comes to building their decks.

 

 

Header - Why Cut Delver?

Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration

 

Delver has been among the best creatures in Legacy for a long time. Having a 1-mana 3/2 flyer with close to zero opportunity cost is near the top of the list when it comes to rate-to-power cards in Magic. This being said, as a card, Delver has been under attack in this Legacy format. Between cards like Endurance, Prismatic Ending and Skyclave Apparition, relying on Delver of Secrets to do its job isn’t as effective as it used to be. Combine this with the fact that the creatures from Modern Horizons 2 are all extremely pushed, potent threats and the discussion surrounding cutting Delver begins to get pretty interesting.

 

Ragavan, Nimble PilfererDragon's Rage Channeler

Now, a fair critique of this argument for cutting Delver of Secrets because it’s weak to the aforementioned list of cards is that both Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Dragon’s Rage Channeler are weak to those very same cards. The key difference is that the Modern Horizons 2 one-drops both provide some more lasting advantages beyond attacking for damage. An easy way to picture the distinction is to compare Tarmogoyf with Dreadhorde Arcanist. Tarmogoyf definitely applies more pressure to their life total, but most decks can use their life total as a resource while they find a way to answer it. After it’s gone, the life total advantage might help your aggressive strategy, but it doesn’t leave a lasting effect. Dreadhorde Arcanist often had to be answered on the spot because the threat of a lasting effect on the game (namely, generating card advantage) was too much for most decks to overcome.

This is the same principle that applies to Delver vs. Ragavan and Dragon’s Rage Channeler, albeit less pronounced. The onus of killing Ragavan is very early, which means that if they cannot answer it within the first few turns, they will fall further behind on a metric that isn’t just life total. The corollary of this is that protecting Ragavan (and Channeler, because surveilling is a powerful ability) is more meaningful and this additional element beyond life total pressure has a lasting effect on a game. In addition, the Modern Horizons 2 one-drops synergize more with Murktide Regent (DRC through surveilling and Ragavan through mana advantage, which lets you cast more spells to fuel it), which has really proven itself to be worth committing to. 

Between the nature of the current Legacy metagame and the power of the Modern Horizons 2 cards, cutting Delver is definitely a reasonable choice and might address some issues that the traditional Izzet approach has been having in Legacy as of late.

 

Header - The Deck List and Challenge

Eli broke down the specifics of the list in his article, so I’m not going to broach that here. Instead, I want to address why the changes to a stock Delver deck more broadly work in this Legacy format. The list that Eli has been playing is almost exactly the same one I have been testing and that I played in the Legacy Challenge.

 

 

Legacy Delverless Delver by Rich Cali

 

Building your deck like this allows you to emphasize the strengths of the Modern Horizons 2 threats in a couple of ways. The first is by optimizing for the graveyard-centric cards, which Mishra’s Bauble greatly helps with. This offsets the clunky-ness of Murktide Regent by filling up the graveyard early, especially in conjunction with Dragon’s Rage Channeler, and helps the deck operate more smoothly.

 

Mishra's Bauble

Building on this, the addition of both Mishra’s Bauble and the extra Murktide Regent means that you’ll find your Modern Horizons 2 threats more often. Murktide Regent can be an awkward card at times, but the power of a gigantic flying creature cannot be overlooked. It provides this deck the ability to have a proactive plan that can race opponents extremely effectively, regardless of their plan. This is especially relevant in the era of Urza’s Saga, which has given a lot of decks the ability to enact a powerful strategy that is difficult to interact with for traditional Izzet decks in Legacy. Murktide Regent shines in this situation, as you can often hold back an attack for a turn and then turn the corner quickly and close the door on the game.

 

Pyroblast

Trimming threats (i.e. Delver of Secrets) for some extra interaction also helps maximize the power of Modern Horizons 2 cards. Pyroblast might appear to be a narrow card, but in Legacy it’s roughly as narrow as any given removal spell since decks with blue cards and no creatures are roughly as common as decks with creatures but no blue cards. Having an extra removal spell/counter spell helps make cards like Ragavan better, as it can clear the way from blue creatures or help push it through a Force of Will. The thread that runs through each of these points is that optimizing for these Modern Horizons 2 creatures is an effective way to build a deck right now. As I mentioned earlier, these creatures don’t come without some disadvantages, but the upside is high enough that they are mostly better than the other options, and potentially contextually better than Delver of Secrets at the moment.

 

Murktide Regent

My testing has mostly reflected this and I’ve been impressed with this approach to Izzet Tempo in Legacy. Primarily, the four copies of Murktide Regent have been extremely impressive. As I mentioned, there are a lot of strategies in Legacy at the moment that have very effective proactive strategies. Murktide Regent, unlike Delver of Secrets, actually has the power to end games against those decks (as well as games against interactive decks) by itself, which makes it a threat worth enabling and protecting. This is enabled by the surrounding one-drops from Modern Horizons 2, which do often require opponents

This has felt particularly effective against decks like GW Depths and Death and Taxes, which generally don’t have a ton of removal spells and tend to do a good job locking up the ground. Cards like Knight of the Reliquary and Stoneforge Mystic can still be problematic at times, but once a 7/7 or 8/8 flyer hits the board, you can begin to put on your blinders and turn the corner. The same applies to decks like Madness and Hogaak, where the best strategy is to race them as soon as possible.

Another thing that isn’t immediately obvious is how the main deck changes influences the sideboard plans, specifically the plan of using Narset, Parter of Veils and Court of Cunning against slower decks. While this isn’t a novel strategy and Delver decks have been employing this type of  approach for a while now, it is more effective when the main deck has fewer creatures and more interaction and cantrips. This both means there is generally more space to fit in this strategy in the post-board games, but also that opponents might be punished for boarding in extra removal spells (I think this might be a valuable lesson for decks with Delver of Secrets to apply, as well).

I topped off a few days of testing with playing a Legacy Challenge, which I almost never do. Here’s how my Challenge played out:

  • UG Omnitell – W (2-0)
  • BR Reanimator – W (2-1)
  • Death and Taxes – L (1-2)
  • Izzet Delver – L (0-2)
  • Madness – W (2-0) 
  • Bant Control – W (2-1)
  • Sultai Dreadnaught – W (2-1)

This landed me in 12th place with a 5-2 record, which is a solid result, especially with the quality of the matches that I played. My matchups in the Challenge did represent a fair amount of the strengths of this deck, as opposed to traditional Izzet approaches. For instance, against Reanimator, I found myself in a dire situation facing down a turn one Chancellor of the Annex in Game 3. On the last possible turn before I died, I was able to find a Murktide Regent and cast it as a 6/6 to hold down the fort. This bought me enough time to find an answer for the Chancellor and then end the game in short order after that. Having less copies of Murktide would have made this less likely and would have likely meant defeat for me. 

The fact that Murktide is more difficult to remove was also crucial against both my Bant opponent and my Sultai opponent. Against Bant, it was able to act as a blocker against a Thrun, the Last Troll while Court of Cunning allowed me to dominate the game with card advantage. On the other hand, against Sultai, my opponent died with a fair amount of cards in hand, which I can only assume were copies of Fatal Push and Abrupt Decay, as Murktide is extremely difficult for them to remove.

That being said, one matchup I’ve certainly struggled more with is against stock versions of Izzet Delver. While Murktide is good in that matchup, it’s not nearly as reliable in the post-board games. That matchup almost always comes down to removing every creature your opponent plays, so having less creatures is certainly costly. In addition, having more dual lands and less basics makes you more exposed to Wasteland, which is not exactly where you want to be in that matchup.

 

Header - Downsides and Closing Thoughts

Outside of the Izzet Delver matchup, there are other places where I have found building my deck like this to be a bit costly. There are matchups where I think siding out some Ragavans is probably correct, such as against Elves and Painter’s Servant decks (it can be tough to push through and even if you get a card, it probably won’t be relevant). In those circumstances, I’d much prefer to have some additional flying threats on turn one to close the door as fast as possible. This is offset by running four copies of Murktide Regent as that gives you the ability to close the game out quickly even without early pressure, but losing access to some extra early pressure is not meaningless. 

In addition, this deck is a lot colder to graveyard hate cards like Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void. I haven’t really seen this come up yet and it seems like they’re not really popular at the moment. It certainly is a concern of mine, though, as eight of the 12 threats become a lot worse when those cards are in play. 

That all being said, I have been really happy with this deck so far. I’ve been joking that this is essentially a Modern Horizons 2 block deck, which is pretty funny to me. It’s not really that upsetting to me though, as I’ve mentioned that I like that Modern Horizons sets shake things up in a big way. As I said at the top, I don’t think this is the de facto best (or only) way to build the deck going forward and Delver of Secrets is still going to be an important card. However, this deck certainly emphasizes the importance of checking biases and heuristics at the door and that clinging to old ways can stifle growth and change. 

Magic is changing, and it’s changing faster than Legacy players are used to. To me, this is exciting, but it’s important to keep up in order to maximize success in the format. Legacy is still an amazing format and I’m going to keep exploring what these new sets have to offer.

 

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