Most of my time before Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar was spent working not on the Jeskai Black deck that Team Pantheon ended up playing, but on a Grixis Delve deck that functioned similarly. It was clear early on that most 3- or 4-color decks would be able to play powerful spells on the 3rd and 4th turn of the game, but it was much more difficult to figure out which 1- and 2-mana-cost cards to play. Our early analysis lead us to believe that the Shocks (Wild Slash and Fiery Impulse) were the key interactive spells of the format, both as a necessity to keep up with the punishing Atarka Red decks and as the most efficient answers to Jace—easily the defining threat of the format. For the most part we dismissed any deck that couldn’t kill turn-2 Jace reliably, and we didn’t feel that adding a few Silkwraps to GW Megamorph was enough—though some players showed up at the Pro Tour believing this was true. The easy part was deciding to play Wild Slash and Jace, but the other 52 cards were a mystery.
Duress has been consigned to sideboard play in recent years, but it turns out that it is a very maindeckable card in current Standard. The aggressive red decks have become more spell oriented with Atarka’s Command, Dragon Fodder, Hordeling Outburst, and “the combo” of Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage. In particular, Duress is one of the best cards to play alongside Jace, because it not only helps protect him, but it provides a proactive card to flashback early. Some of the Jace decks in this format have an issue of playing all reactive cards, so you have very little to do with Jace on an empty board. Having ways to get value out of Jace when you are ahead is important, and cards like Kolaghan’s Command, Duress, and Treasure Cruise do a great job of this.
Another card that fits in well with the package of cheap 1-mana plays and Jace is Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Delve spells are much more powerful in a Standard where every deck plays 12 fetchlands, and it is surprisingly easy to get Tasigur down on turn-3 in this format.
The last card that I really wanted to play was Abbot of Keral Keep. The Abbot has seen a ton of play in aggressive red decks, but has been underplayed in other fair decks. Most of the 2-mana plays in this format are Grizzly Bears with upside (Seeker of the Way, Soulfire Grandmaster, Hangarback Walker) and the Abbot is fine to play on turn 2, but provides a ton of value in the middle and late game. It’s definitely fine to play Abbot in a normal deck, but I wanted to build my deck with it in mind. I tried to limit the situational cards and play as many cheap spells as possible.
Given these priorities, my earliest version of Grixis Delve looked something like this.
Grixis Delve, 1st Draft
I really liked the feel of this deck at first. It was smooth, consistent, and felt like a Legacy deck when it was firing on all cylinders. But that doesn’t mean it was a good deck.
This deck was built at a time when public enemy #1 was Atarka Red, and it was certainly good at beating it. As we introduced more decks into the gauntlet, however, it became clear that there was way too much removal and that Thunderbreak Regent was not the win condition I was looking for. Roast and Ruinous Path were awkward, and Siege Rhino was a big problem with or without them.
Additionally, Despise was clearly worse than Duress, even in the matchups where you would think the opposite would be true. You don’t really want to trade down on mana against their creatures, but nabbing a key spell is often much more important and even gains you some tempo if they wasted mana leaving it up. Duress still grabs problem planeswalkers like Gideon and Ob Nixilis.
Andrew Cuneo suggested that I had much more room to explore with my mana base, and that Grixis-shard mana wasn’t particularly better than a 4-color mana base with white.
With this in mind, my next version of the deck looked like this:
Grixis Delve, 2nd Draft
I really liked the idea of taking this in a direction with more prowess. It was focused on having even more cheap spells. The Abbots were better, the Crackling Dooms were a huge upgrade over Roast and Ruinous Path, and somehow I’d built a deck with an even better Atarka Red matchup than before.
The worst card in this iteration of the deck was definitely Seeker of the Way. Unlike the other 2-drops, it loses value very rapidly as the game goes on. It’s not a good topdeck when you have very few spells left in hand, it’s not good when you refill from Treasure Cruise, and it doesn’t represent any form of card advantage. I also discovered that because of this, I would lean toward playing it on turn 2 over Jace or a removal spell—a play pattern with disastrous results. The only thing I liked about Seeker was the incidental life gain, but that’s something I could find elsewhere.
This deck was lacking late-game punch. I was capable of drawing lots of cards, getting ahead, and dealing with opposing threats, but not particularly good at closing games out or winning through a stalled board. Not having access to Mantis Rider like a normal Jeskai deck meant that matchups like GW Megamorph and Abzan Aggro were more difficult.
Cuneo and Ben Rubin had both been working on decks with Dragonlord Silumgar—something I decided to try out. My next version of the deck cut Seekers for 2 Dragonlords and 2 Monastery Mentor, another powerful midgame card that could win despite the opponent having a board presence.
The deck went through many more iterations, and I was definitely happy with it for the most part, but the win condition slot was really bugging me. The expensive spells were awkward with Abbot and Treasure Cruise, and lead to more clunky draws. In short, they were powerful but made the overall plan of the deck less effective. I also tried Soulfire Grand Master and Ojutai’s Command, both of which were powerful cards that had value in all stages of the game.
The discovery of Dragonmaster Outcast was what really pushed Grixis Delve over the top. One of the first games I tested was against Kai Budde playing GW Megamorph. I was a bit behind, but on turn 6 I cast Crackling Doom and then Treasure Cruise (leaving up an untapped Smoldering Marsh) to get back into the game. I drew Outcast, and played a 6th land, running away with the game.
Outcast was the exact type of win condition the deck was looking for. It provides a robust and powerful late game without costing too much mana or taking up too many slots. It works well with Abbot and Treasure Cruise, can be played early when you have extra mana, and you don’t have to worry about it dying because you can always get it back with the Kolaghan’s Command/Jace engine. I liked that it let me do multiple things in a turn, even in the late game—a spot where I might normally be casting a Dragonlord Silumgar.
My final version of the deck on Wednesday before the Pro Tour looked like this:
You’ll notice the final version of the deck has a few more 1-of cards, which were all choices made to hedge against the Pro Tour field. I chose to include 1 Painful Truths over the 4th Treasure Cruise to make my Jaces a bit better, and to hedge against drawing hands with too many delve spells. Radiant Flames overperformed in testing, good against Atarka Red and invaluable against decks like GW Megamorph. It is even reasonable on the draw against a Jeskai player who goes Jace into Mantis Rider.
In the end I chose to play the Pantheon’s version of Jeskai, mostly because I felt it was far enough ahead of the field to still have an edge. Most lists I had seen didn’t include Tasigur or Kolaghan’s Command—key cards to the deck that my opponents hopefully would not be prepared for or have themselves. Mantis Rider is also just great, both against a random field and the GW decks that we expected to be among the most popular.
I have to give a huge amount of credit to Andrew Cuneo and Ben Rubin for helping build this deck—their perspectives on the format were spot-on and invaluable to developing the ideas on what cards and game plans would be good.
I really like that Grixis Delve plays like an Eternal format deck: all of the best cheap spells and all of the best broken cards to take advantage of them. Hopefully I get to play it sometime soon and attack Standard from a slightly different direction.
Thanks for reading!