Strixhaven has now been out for a few weeks which has yielded a number of opportunities to see these cards in action. The most anticipated Legacy card from the set, Witherbloom Apprentice, has made its presence known and hit the ground running by putting up a number of solid results in the first week of events. Witherbloom Apprentice in Legacy Delver shells saw the most success initially and it was a promising start for the card. However, it did not maintain that momentum going into the following events and had a steep decline in representation since.
While I did briefly discuss the card and its interaction with Chain of Smog in my set review, I thought this would be a good time to talk about the combo a bit more in depth. I’m going to focus on the context of Delver, since that was the area in which Witherbloom Apprentice had the most success, as well as the area in which I have the most experience. I want to discuss why you would play the combo in Delver, what it adds to the archetype, what’s the cost of playing it and then evaluate why the combo has fallen off since the first weekend of events.
There were a relatively large range of lists that had success. For ease of use, let’s take a look at the list that Andrea Mengucci recently piloted in a video for this site:
Legacy Smog Delver by Andrea Mengucci
Combining a Delver strategy with a combo finish is not a purely novel concept. In a deck with eight to 12 Legacy-level cantrips like Brainstorm and Ponder, as well as a wide-range of protective countermagic, assembling combos can be relatively straightforward. Back in the days of Underworld Breach, players like Peter van der Ham fused Lion’s Eye Diamond and Brain Freeze into a Delver shell to give the deck a truly broken element to it. In general, this type of approach forces opponents to interact on multiple axes, and places a lot of control over the pace of the game in the hands of the Delver pilot.
That being said, we don’t see this occur particularly often. Underworld Breach was a bit of an outlier. It was so powerful and effective that including a six or eight card package to enable it justified occasionally drawing a combo piece that didn’t help your game plan. In addition, some of those cards functioned in ways that were helpful to Delver decks (such as casting an Underworld Breach as a late-game draw three or Infernal Tutoring for a Lightning Bolt). Again, this is outside of the norm. Including combo pieces in Delver, such as an Entomb/Reanimate package, doesn’t quite have enough benefit to justify playing cards that don’t work with your primary game plan.
However, the combo of Chain of Smog and Witherbloom Apprentice is a bit different than the average Legacy combo. One of the primary draws of this combo in the context of Delver is that each card has a semblance of a card Delver might choose to play. Witherbloom Apprentice is a reasonable threat that, if left unchecked, will apply a fair amount of pressure over the course of the game. It’s not the ideal threat for a Delver deck, but it’s more than serviceable in many situations. Chain of Smog certainly doesn’t read like a Legacy card, but it isn’t that far away from viability, especially in a deck like Delver that plays to the board really well. This means that in many games, you will still function primarily like a Delver deck, deploying early pressure and backing it up with a variety of disruption.
The upside of occasionally just finishing the game on the spot can be extremely high. There are plenty of situations in Legacy where creature combat is either too slow to defeat an opponent (such as against Hogaak or Dredge) or is completely turned off (such as against Ensnaring Bridge decks). In these situations, you maintain a clear path to work towards that wouldn’t exist in a traditional Delver deck and it justifies the inclusion of this combination of cards.
When a situation like this comes about, it can be incredibly tempting to think it’s the best way to go. However powerful it may seem, it does not come freely to Delver decks. Adding any nonessential elements to a Delver deck is going to have a substantial cost, even if it’s a straightforward two-card combo. There are a few major points to consider here.
First and foremost, it will likely occupy space that is usually taken up by cards that Delver needs to function. While Witherbloom Apprentice and Chain of Smog are close enough to the level of threats and disruption Delver traditionally plays, they are definitely a tier or two below the traditional choices (Chain is probably closer to three or four tiers below).
As an archetype, Delver has been slowly accruing an incredible range of threats and disruption over the past few years. It has reached the point where there’s no shortage of excellent choices, and each threat and answer can be carefully chosen to serve a purpose. Replacing the upper tier cards in the deck with lower tier cards will have an impact on your average game where you are unable to assemble a combo.
Additionally, the colors required have a substantial impact on a deck like Delver. As I’ve discussed in the past, playing Delver without Lightning Bolt leaves a lot on the table. While adding the combo gives you access to some wins you might not have had otherwise, Lightning Bolt has the same capabilities. One of the major differences, though, is that Bolt fits in perfectly to the primary strategy. The combo complements the aggressive angle of Delver well enough, forcing opponents to interact with multiple game plans, but it doesn’t have the same cohesion.
This ties directly into the issue of efficiency. Not only is a Sultai approach to Delver more clunky by design, with cards like Abrupt Decay being far less efficient than Lightning Bolt, but the combo requires resolving a pair of two-mana cards. This means that it can be somewhat easy for opponents to see the combo coming and prepare some sort of countermeasure. Furthermore, one of the key components to the combo requires a very specific combination of mana. The result of this is that it becomes important to play with more colored sources, thus making cards like Wasteland worse.
These points aren’t meant to claim that the combo is never worth playing. However, it’s important to be mindful about what you’re sacrificing to include something like this in your deck and make sure the benefits outweigh the costs.
It makes a lot of sense that this combo fit into Delver neatly and had an excellent week one performance. It’s powerful and having the ability to end the game on the spot can exploit unprepared opponents. However, it similarly makes sense that it would fall off in popularity on week two and beyond for a number of reasons.
The first issue is that it’s quite fragile, especially when facing down Lightning Bolt. This makes red-based Delver decks pretty challenging to play against, which is not a good place to be in Legacy right now. In addition, while it does help against some of the linear, non-disruptive strategies, the combo doesn’t necessarily help against the cards/strategies that Delver might struggle against, such as Blood Moon decks or control decks with Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath (of course, having an infinite combo helps against Uro in the abstract, but in reality, these decks can effectively remove any bothersome cards).
Filling your deck with cards that aren’t helpful in bad situations means that there are more cards that have to come in from the sideboard, which can put these Witherbloom Delver decks in a difficult situation. Furthermore, the increased need for some specific colors of mana early also makes the deck more susceptible to Wasteland, which is an additional cause for concern.
Taken together, these factors make this variant of Delver substantially easier to metagame against and prepare for, which is a difficult spot for the deck to end up in.
I think Witherbloom Apprentice is far more well-suited in other archetypes. This is demonstrated by a relatively successful weekend for the combo in a variety of other contexts throughout this past weekend. There were some more turbo-oriented approaches (such as Musasabi fusing the combo into an Arclight Phoenix deck), some slower approaches (such as altniccolo playing it in an Uro-control deck) and it even showed up as a part of a Storm sideboard plan in the hands of Kuranari-Jackpa (which is my favorite of the adaptations).
Legacy Jund Phoenix by musasabi
Legacy Witherbloom Control by altniccolo
Legacy ANT Storm by Kuranari-Jackpa
I don’t think this combo should be completely forgotten in the context of Delver. Again, it’s a relatively powerful interaction. There will be times when opponents won’t be properly prepared and can be caught with their guard down. This is a potent addition to the Delver repertoire, and will likely have another time to shine in the future. For now though, I would place the focus on some of the other archetypes that can take advantage of the combo a bit more effectively and lean a bit more into the traditional elements of an effective Delver deck.