Delving Through the Secrets of Modern Horizons
Recently, it looked like Delver decks had lost a lot of their luster. As a quick metric for Delver's relative positioning in a metagame, you can look at how good Wasteland is. Unfortunately for Delver, Back to Basics was running rampant. When almost every fair deck was either playing Back to Basics or Wasteland, decks were adjusted, and Delver's power dropped.
With War of the Spark, Delver decks resurfaced, and with Modern Horizons, they appear to be back in force. What changed? While the answer is obviously just that new, powerful cards made a good deck better, that's not a particularly insightful thesis. I want to look more into why Dreadhorde Arcanist pushed UR Delver to the forefront of the metagame, and why throwing two Wrenn and Six into RUG Delver helped MTGO Grinder GSY go 24-1 in his first 25 matches after adding the Planeswalker.
The plan is to first discuss the new build of RUG Delver, then explore UR Delver. I also recorded a league with each deck so you can see them in action!
RUG Delver, Temur Delver, Canadian Threshold. Whatever you call the deck, the Goose appears to be loose, yet again. Whenever the deck wanes in popularity, people say that while every other deck gets better cards, Nimble Mongoose and Tarmogoyf just get more and more outclassed. In a world of Gurmag Angler, Green threats are obsolete. To explore why Wrenn and Six has breathed new life into this classic archetype, let's lay out RUG Delver's gameplan:
- Don't let your opponent stick stuff onto the battlefield.
- Seriously, don't let them. If they get to resolve stuff, you probably lose.
- While not letting them resolve stuff (!!!), play a threat, and kill them with that threat.
RUG Delver is good at preventing things from resolving, or even being cast in the first place, but is very bad at answering stuff once it's resolved. Seriously, the deck can't even beat a Knight of the Reliquary. When watching people play RUG Delver, all too often I witness people tap out for a threat, giving their opponent a one turn window to resolve a better threat. Without fail, their opponent then beats them with that threat.
RUG Delver is a much more powerful deck when you don't let your opponent get out of the gates at all. If that means holding up Stifle on Turn 1 and waiting to cast Delver of Secrets on Turn 2, it's often correct to do that. Stifle isn't good if you let your opponent have any opportunity to play around it. Don't afford them that opportunity. Jonathan Alexander has written a multitude of pieces on Canadian Threshold, and advocates for this playstyle with the deck. Read the linked primer and watch his videos, and you'll be better for it. With a disclaimer that the right play is always context dependent, he's extremely patient with threat deployment.
Wrenn and Six
Legendary Planeswalker — Wrenn
+1: Return up to one target land card from your graveyard to your hand.
-1: Wrenn and Six deals 1 damage to any target.
-7: You get an emblem with "Instant and sorcery cards in your graveyard have retrace."
Wrenn and Six is a powerful addition to this primary plan of not letting your opponent out of the gate. Life from the Loam was frequently part of RUG Delver 75s in order to Wasteland-lock an opponent. Wrenn does the same thing, as the +1 ability on a Planeswalker, meaning you don't eat your draw step or 1G mana to cast the Loam, but still get the same effect.
Wrenn's -1 ability is small, but it's why Tarmogoyf and Wrenn are soon to be best friends. The ability to deal 1 damage, at will, means that your Tarmogoyf can attack through an opposing Tarmogoyf, since if they block, you just -1 Wrenn to kill their Goyf. Tarmogoyf's arch-nemesis, Baleful Strix, is now easily kill-able without expending an entire Lightning Bolt to do it. More generally, Wrenn's ability to remove small creatures without expending additional cards and mana allows you to gain important tempo advantages in matchups like Delver mirrors, Elves, or Death & Taxes. As we will discuss more in-depth in the next section with Dreadhorde Arcanist in UR Delver, investing 2 mana up-front in order to generate incremental advantage, turn after turn, for no additional mana, is a powerful effect indeed. One last thing to note about Wrenn's -1 is that it's additional reach. Between 4 Lightning Bolts, a Chain Lightning, and Wrenn and Six, you can burn your opponent out from a fairly high life total, stealing games where your opponent has otherwise stabilized.
Also, if Wrenn dies, he grows the Tarmogoyf. Access to a Planeswalker in your Tarmogoyf deck means that you are able to build 5/6 Tarmogoyfs in Delver mirrors, outclassing opposing Gurmag Anglers.
Without further ado, here is my decklist and a Legacy League with RUG Wrenn Delver!
RUG Wrenn Delver
UR Delver has matured a lot through the years. "Blue Burn" used to just be a stepping stone, as players built their dual land collection, and played a functional, but weaker deck with their Volcanic Islands and Force of Wills while building their collection of Tropical Islands or Underground Seas. Look at it now: it is now the top deck in the entire format!
UR Delver evolved from a budget option into its current form, as a Legacy powerhouse, due to no longer being forced to play objectively weaker cards due to color restrictions. The recent War of the Spark edition of Dreadhorde Arcanist was the great equalizer in this regard. Let's look at why.
Creature - Zombie Wizard
Whenever Dreadhorde Arcanist attacks, you may cast target instant or sorcery card with converted mana cost less than or equal to Dreadhorde Arcanist's power from your graveyard without paying its mana cost. If that card would be put into your graveyard this turn, exile it instead.
This card is comparable in both power level and functionality to Snapcaster Mage, Dark Confidant, and Deathrite Shaman. Holy shit, right? Let's do a side-by-side comparison of Dreadhorde Arcanist to each of these cards.
Dreadhorde Arcanist vs. Snapcaster Mage
- They both recur cards in the graveyard, giving you card selection over the the effect you want, while both being graveyard-reliant. You must have desirable cards in the graveyard for these creatures to be good.
- While Snapcaster Mage can flashback any instant or sorcery in your graveyard, Dreadhorde Arcanist can usually only target cards with 0-1 converted mana cost (CMC).
- Snapcaster Mage can cast the spell at any time, while Dreadhorde Arcanist's cast is a triggered ability that occurs only during your Attack step. This means you won't be able to use Dreadhorde Arcanist to directly recur a piece of countermagic. However, Dreadhorde Arcanist instead can flash back a cantrip like Brainstorm, Ponder, or Preordain and use that cantrip to dig for additional countermagic.
- Snapcaster Mage can recur exactly one spell. Once you use Snapcaster Mage, you've extracted the value. Aside from the 2/1 body, it's done. Dreadhorde Arcanist continues to provide a card's worth of advantage every turn it remains in play. The flip side of this is that if Dreadhorde Arcanist is immediately removed, you do not get to recur any spells.
- Snapcaster requires you to cast the spell you are recurring. Dreadhorde Arcanist does not. It casts the spell for free. Casting 1 mana spells for 0 mana is significantly better than casting 1 mana spells for 1 mana, especially when you're casting cantrips. The mana discount (is free a discount?) lets you use your mana to hold open the countermagic you found with your free cantrips, or cast the removal you just drew into.
Dreadhorde Arcanist vs. Dark Confidant
- They both provide a card's worth of advantage every turn you untap with it.
- Dark Confidant gives you the top card of your library, while Dreadhorde Arcanist gives you whatever 0-1 CMC instant or sorcery in your graveyard that you want to cast. Assuming that, on average, you're casting a cantrip every turn with Dreadhorde Arcanist, the relative power difference is the difference between the effects of "draw a card" and a Ponder or Brainstorm. There's a reason Jace, the Mind Sculptor is so good, and that reason isn't that the "0" ability is "draw a card."
- Dark Confidant adds a "stumbling onto a landmine" element into the game, where you can randomly lose 5 life from flipping a Force of Will, and almost prohibits playing cards like Gurmag Angler due to the risk of taking 7. While both cards give you a card's worth of advantage very turn, Dark Confidant gets progressively more volatile, while Dreadhorde Arcanist does not.
- Dark Confidant dies to 1-toughness sweepers, while Dreadhorde Arcanist does not. Dreadhorde Arcanist also survives combat with a lot of smaller Legacy creatures, like Young Pyromancer, or even Dark Confidant itself. Dark Confidant dies to everything.
- Dreadhorde Arcanist has an element of graveyard reliance not found on Dark Confidant.
Dreadhorde Arcanist vs. Deathrite Shaman
- Deathrite Shaman is currently banned on its power level in Legacy. Dreadhorde Arcanist is currently legal. I realize that I'm reaching a little bit on this comparison between a banned card and a card printed two months ago, but the reach is less than one might think.
- Deathrite Shaman costs 1, while Dreadhorde Arcanist costs 2. In math, that's twice as much. When considering how games of Magic play out, CMC 2 feels somehow more than twice CMC 1.
- 80% of the time (citation needed), Deathrite Shaman was used as a Birds of Paradise, adding 1 additional mana per turn, allowing you to cast more spells and do more things faster than your opponents could. Dreadhorde Arcanist, flashing back a 1-mana spell for free, offers a similar effect of +1 mana per turn. I can't emphasize enough just how good free is. Who doesn't love free stuff? I realize that this is still the difference between $1 cash and a $1 coupon off of 1 CMC spells, but if you're shopping for 1 CMC spells, that coupon starts to look more and more like cash.
- Deathrite Shaman fixes your mana directly via its first ability. Dreadhorde Arcanist fixes your mana indirectly, via cantrips, if finding the correct quantity and colors of mana is needed. You can be Wastelanded down to zero lands and still use Dreadhorde Arcanist to cantrip you back into a functional manabase.
- Both cards are graveyard-reliant.
- Deathrite Shaman doubles as graveyard hate. Dreadhorde Arcanist can only do this by flashing back a Surgical Extraction, which is a much narrower sitaution.
- Both cards survive 1-toughness sweepers.
- Both cards function as reach. Dreadhorde Arcanist can start flashing back Lightning Bolts at your opponent's face, while Deathrite Shaman can just turn on Grim Lavamancer mode and start burning out the opponent.
- Dreadhorde Arcanist needs to attack to function, while Deathrite Shaman does not. While casting a Lightning Bolt and then recurring it on the Attack step can kill anything under 7 toughness, it still makes the Arcanist lose relative value against a True-Name Nemesis or an otherwise gummed-up board.
Other UR delver Spice
A typical UR Delver list looks like the one Topher Stitson, a.k.a. MZFroste used to Top 8 last week's Legacy Challenge, shown here:
UR Delver by MZFroste
I really like this list. It is a fair deck designed to do the same thing every time. It's got 12 cantrips, 6 bolts (all of which can kill an opposing Dreadhorde Arcanist), 5 Forces (thanks to Force of Negation, and a creature-base centered around generating a ton of advantage with your instants and sorceries with Young Pyromancer and Dreadhorde Arcanist.
If I were aiming to spike a tournament with UR delver (like the Legacy Format Challenge this weekend), this is very close to the list I would play.
However, there are a few places to innovate further. MTGO player (recently turned streamer) TonyScapone has included 2 Counterbalance and 1 Narset, Parter of Veils in the maindeck of his UR Delver list. These cards are not cards that should be played in an aggressive deck, like UR Delver has classically been.
The reason that Counterbalance and Narset, Parter of Veils are such great inclusions then, is that UR Delver has developed far beyond that typecasting. It's just a really efficient deck that can outgrind anyone trying to play fair. The Counterbalance and Narset, Parter of Veils, then function to stop people from Storming off or drawing a ton of cards with a Griselbrand. They also serve well in the mirror, and against other Blue decks in general.
I decided to try my own take on TonyScapone's approach, and recorded a league for your viewing pleasure. Two full recorded leagues embedded in a content-heavy article?! I'm setting a high bar, and am very proud of myself, thanks for asking.
Max's UR Delver
Do you have any further innovations on either of these decks, and want to discuss your tech? Do you think I'm dead wrong about Dreadhorde Arcanist and believe the card's not all that it's cracked up to be? Open up that comment section and let me have it.
Until next time!
Written by Max