Guest Article - Grixis Delver at SCG Con - By Robert Wilson
Hello friends, my name is Robert Wilson and I finished 6th place in the Summer SCGCON Play for Power Legacy event. I’m a corporate and tax attorney from Columbus, Ohio and primarily play Legacy as my format of choice. Before you ask, no, I don’t play MTGO. However, I’m very fortunate to have a large Legacy paper collection and prefer to play paper Magic.
First, I’d like to thank my good friend Min and his blog partner Max for allowing me the opportunity to be the first guest writer on the Minmax Blog! I’d also like to thank the other members of the Delver Cabal (Lawrence Harmon, Harlan Firer, Brandon Dollaway, and Dylan Hovey) for giving me their thoughts and feedback on my list. I wanted to take this time to answer some of the questions I’ve received via Discord and social media:
Why I choose to play Grixis Delver over UR Delver
Some of my seemingly unusual card choices in my decklist
My tournament matches at SCGCON
My thoughts on where I believe Grixis Delver goes after the release of Modern Horizons.
Why Would You Play Grixis Delver Over UR Delver?
The question I’ve been asked the most is, “Why would you play Grixis Delver over UR Delver?” The first and easiest answer is, I’m more comfortable with the deck and have a lot of experience with Grixis Delver. I’ve played the deck since Eternal Weekend last year and have always naturally gravitated toward fair blue midrange strategies.
The second reason I choose Grixis Delver over UR Delver is the diversity in the threat suite. Having access to Gurmag Angler, Bitterblossom, and Liliana, the Last Hope requires your opponent to have more specific answers. Most Grixis Delver decks also have 2 or 3 copies of True-Name Nemesis, thereby increasing the odds your opponent’s removal doesn’t line up comparatively. Most decks in the format have very few and very specific answers for True-Name Nemesis and many decks, outside of Miracles or a combo kill, have very few ways, if any, to deal with True-Name Nemesis game 1. Gurmag Angler continues to be a large and efficient threat out of the range of cards like Lightning Bolt or Fatal Push. Outside of True-Name Nemesis, the entire threat suite in UR Delver is easily answered by Lightning Bolt. Forked Bolt also has extra utility as many cards in the UR Delver threat suite have 1 toughness.
In prior Legacy metagames, BUG Delver was able to have a favorable matchup against Grixis Delver by “being the bigger Delver deck.” I believe the current iterations of Grixis Delver have a similar relationship to UR Delver due to: having larger threats like Gurmag Angler, a higher concentration of True-Name Nemesis, and a wider removal suite that lines up better against UR Delver’s threats than the inverse.
Beyond the threat suite, Grixis provides more diversity in its angles of attack by interacting with an opponent’s hand. Not only does Thoughtseize improve your matchup against combo, it also gives you perfect information. In my testing against combo, an early Thoughtseize followed up by an “attackcasted” Thoughtseize from a Dreadhorde Arcanist was usually game over. Also, Thoughtseize gave me the information needed to play around whatever they had or didn’t have. Having multiple angles makes cards like Dreadhorde Arcanist better by giving you more options. For me, Dreadhorde Arcanist fundamentally changed the deck by giving it the versatile engine card it lost after Deathrite Shaman was unceremoniously banned for the sins of Gitaxian Probe. Unlike Deathrite Shaman, Dreadhorde Arcanist gives you a recursive card advantage engine the deck has been missing. If you’re unsure of whether this card is a “flash-in-the-pan” or “legacy staple”, I promise you without a doubt it’s the latter and you need to plan for it.
Continuing the discussion on Thoughtseize, the information it gives Grixis can win games on its own. For example, against my Miracles opponent in Round 3 my Thoughtseize reveals that my opponent has no way to interact with my board and no cantrips. I immediately deploy additional threats and close the game quickly. My typical play pattern against Miracles has traditionally revolved around deploying 1 or at most 2 threats at a time as not to overextend into Terminus. Seeing my opponent’s hand let me shift gears and change my game plan in a way I may not have otherwise, or would have done so later in the game after my opponent does nothing for multiple turns. I had a similar experience against one of my Eldrazi opponents. An early Thoughtseize gave me valuable information that allowed me to change my game plan and take advantage of my opponent’s hand.
Grixis Delver also has access to great sideboard cards that UR Delver does not. Those cards include Marsh Casualties, Fatal Push, Bitterblossom, and Liliana, the Last Hope. Since adding 2 Liliana, the Last Hope and a Bitterblossom to the sideboard for Miracles and Grixis Delver matchups, my win rate has drastically increased against those decks. Additionally, Liliana, the Last Hope and Bitterblossom are also great against Death and Taxes. I’ve also used Fatal Push, Marsh Casualties, and 2 Liliana, the Last Hope against decks like Infect or Elves.
This plan allows Grixis Delver to become a heavier control deck and grind opponents out should the matchup call for such a plan. Access to black sideboard cards makes all of this possible. On a side note, I believe my best preparation for the tournament was making a sideboard map. While I didn’t end up printing it out and using it at SCGCON, the mental exercise of thinking about various lines of play and what cards I want in specific situations prepared me for those lines when they came up in a match.
In my opinion, this exercise is much more valuable than the “take these out and put these in” sideboard guides you generally see without any context. I’d highly recommend going through such an exercise prior to a large tournament.
For all its advantages, Grixis Delver does have one glaring weakness compared to UR Delver: its mana base. The threat of Blood Moon and Back to Basics is always present, but many recent Miracles and UR Delver lists only have 1 Back to Basics/Blood Moon in the 75. Mono Red Prison and Imperial Painter tend to be lower metagame share decks and I believe the equity you give up against these decks is worth playing a deck that is likely better positioned against a larger percentage of the field.
Robert Wilson's Grixis Delver, SCGCon 2019
T: Add either R or B to your mana pool.Counts as both mountains and swamp and is affected by spells that affect either. If a spell destroys one of these land types, this card is destroyed, if a spell alters one of these land types, the other land type is unaffected.
I’ll start with the obvious oddity in the list; the single Badlands. With 3 Volcanic Island, 3 Underground Sea, and 8 fetch lands yields a mana base with 14 blue sources and a 86.1% chance of having a blue source on turn one. Instead of thinking, “Why isn’t the Badlands insteand an Underground Sea?”, I believe the question you should be asking is, “What main deck card was cut to add a 15th mana source?” I phrase the question this way because traditionally the accepted “stock” mana base routinely has 14 mana sources. This 15th land helps usually ensures you’re always able to cast your spells unless you’re facing an opposing Blood Moon or Back to Basics.
It may seem counterintuitive to have a dual land that isn’t a blue source, but from my experience Badlands has:
- Helped me play through Island hate cards (like Choke)
- Fix my mana when my mana base is under attack
- Helped support the double black sideboard cards like Liliana, the Last Hope and Marsh Casualties.
The main benefit of the Badlands is to support the sideboard. My current list also has more red cards than previous past versions, which the Badlands also helps facilitate. Another benefit, which may be anecdotal, is that when I’ve played Delver flavors in the past, I’ve found myself wanting 1 more mana source. In the past, I’ve played a single Island in my Grixis Delver list if Wasteland decks are popular. The Badlands and Island combo assures me I’ll be able to cast my spells and is typically the 3rd or 4th land I’ll fetch unless it becomes necessary earlier. I’ve also used an early Badlands as a “bait land” to check whether my opponent has a Wasteland. It’s difficult to describe all scenarios here, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Forked Bolt deals 2 damage divided as you choose among one or two targets.
Another choice I’ve been asked about is, “Why play main deck Forked Bolt over the sideboard Fatal Push?” I’ll credit Jonathan Sukenik for making me think about this. I listend to a podcast in which Jonathan describes avoiding playing main deck cards that are worthless against combo game 1. While Forked Bolt isn’t the best card against decks like Sneak and Show, it is better than Fatal Push. Playing Forked Bolt over Fatal Push gives you:
- An additional proactive damage card for Dreadhorde Arcanist to "attack-cast"
- A way to control the board and potentially 2-for-1 your opponent
- A sideboard card you would likely consider bringing in against decks like Infect, Death & Taxes, Elves, Maverick, or other Delver variants.
Creature — Merfolk Rogue
As True-Name Nemesis enters the battlefield, choose a player.
True-Name Nemesis has protection from the chosen player. (This creature can't be blocked, targeted, dealt damage, or enchanted by anything controlled by that player.)
More and more Legacy has become about game-ending haymakers and making your opponent answer those cards. For fair blue decks, that card is often True-Name Nemesis. It plays offense and defense and is a difficult to answer card that requires a very specific answer. It also gives you another blue card to pitch to Force of Will. The typical wisdom is that you want at least 20 blue cards in the deck to reliably pay Force of Will’s alternate cost. My list has a whopping 26 blue cards and I never worry about having a pitch card. Running 3 reliably gives me the option to pitch one early game, if needed, and not worry about finding another one late game.
At SCGCON, Harlan and I were discussing 2 vs 3 in my list and him running 1 in his UR Delver list. I think the lower True-Name Nemesis count makes sense for a deck like UR Delver that wants to close a game quickly whereas Grixis Delver can comfortably play the long game. True-Name Nemesis also breaks board stalls against other fair decks and with most only playing 1 or 2, running 3 gives me the comfort to know I’m more likely than not to find one late game.
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.
The other half of our discussion was cutting the 3rd True-Name Nemesis in favor of the 4th Dreadhorde Arcanist. I’ve been an early advocate for Dreadhorde Arcanist and it has completely revitalized the deck and is an absolutely busted card. Harlan also mentioned to me that he had not played his UR Delver list before SCGCON. However, I’ve been tuning this list since Dreadhorde Arcanist was first spoiled. My first iteration of the threat suite included 4 Dreadhorde Arcanist. What I found was that it has diminishing returns in multiples and was something I figured out after weeks of grinding games.
Ultimately, I found the 1st one can win a game on its own and the 2nd doesn’t do much more beyond provide insurance against one dying. While I believe 3 is a sweet spot for Grixis Delver, I think UR Delver is fundamentally different and 4 is likely a better number for that deck as it typically plays more cantrips and direct damage spells.
Fourteen Threats as a Sweet Spot for Grixis Delver
My experience with Grixis Delver has always been that I, and the deck, seem to perform best when I’m the aggressor. Early iterations of my list had a threat suite of: 4 Delver of Secrets, 4 Dreadhorde Arcanist, 2/3 Young Pyromancer, and 3 True-Name Nemesis. My initial resistance against Gurmag Angler was that Gurmag Angler and Dreadhorde Arcanist both fight for graveyard resources. I saw Bob Huang’s recent online success with the 2 Gurmag Angler and decided to give it a shot. Gurmag Angler has always presented an efficient and difficult threat to deal with and it continues to do so. I also found my fears regarding the tension between graveyard resources for Gurmag Angler and Dreadhorde Arcanist were not as prominent as I thought. Dropping down to 3 Dreadhorde Arcanist also lessened the tension between the cards.
The short answer is that Gurmag Angler usually eats everything Dreadhorde Arcanist can’t cast such as lands, creatures, or anything above 1 cmc. Yes, early game you may eat a cantrip or two, but with 9 in the deck another one is usually just around the corner. Having 14 threats has allowed me to almost always present a threat in play and quickly have another ready to deploy if needed. Against decks like Miracles, this is very important to beating them and allows you to possibly deploy 2 threats at once instead of playing out 1 at a time.
My play experience has been that 14 threats allows you to: constantly keep asking the questions and put pressure on the opponent, heavily tax your opponent’s answers and removal (because most decks don’t have that many answers), create situations in which your opponent’s answers may not line up with the varied and difficult nature of the Grixis Delver threat suite, and typically have a backup answer as needed.
Rd 1 – UR Delver (2-0)
My round 1 my opponent was Vintage Quest for Power winner Dan Miller on UR Delver. Game 1 I mull to 6, but my starting hand has a Delver of Secrets and I draw a second. This game was rather straight forward. I protect the two Delvers and interact with Dan’s answers. Game 2 my strategy was to become the control deck. I sided in interactive cards like Fatal Push, Marsh Casualties, Pyroblast, and Flusterstorm. I cut Thoughtseizes and Spell Pierces. As I discussed above, I take the control role postboard in this match up and play more patiently. One of the reasons I like Grixis Delver is the ability to pivot in such a manner as needed. There are not a lot of decks in the format with the flexibility to switch from control, to aggressor, to midrange as easily.
Game 2 I open up with lands and multiple interactive spells and cantrips, but no threats. I keep the hand. Dan deploys multiple threats, which I deal with using Lightning Bolts and Marsh Casualties then stick a late Young Pyromancer. From my recollection, I remember noticing Dan was spinning his wheels cantripping through his deck. I assumed he was looking for a threat. Dan then played a Young Pyromancer, which I countered with Force of Will. From the reaction on Dan’s face this caught him by surprise, but I remember this being the pivotal turning point in the game. Since I believed Dan had nothing relevant in his hand (he told me afterwards it was useless soft permission), I took this as my opportunity to turn the corner. I then deployed another threat in Young Pyromancer and began cantripping to make tokens and overwhelmed him a couple turns later for the match win. Dan and I discussed the deck after the match. The first question being, “Why Grixis over UR?”, to which I gave my rationale I detailed above. The other thing Dan and I discussed was that he should consider taking out the Pteramanders for Dreadhorde Arcanist.
Rd 2 – Eldrazi Post (2-0)
Round 2 my opponent was on Eldrazi Post. I deploy 2 Delvers, cast an early Thoughtseize and see a hand of: City of Traitors, Ancient Tomb, All is Dust, Glimmerpost, and Karn, the Great Creator. I choose the Karn, the Great Creator. Both of my Delvers flip and I find another interactive spell for the All is Dust.
Sideboarding, I didn’t change much in my deck except siding out Forked Bolt and a Spell Pierce in favor of 2 Abrades. My experience playing this matchup is that I want to be the aggressor because of the inherent inevitability of the deck. Additionally, the Dazes become less and less useful, but I’ve found with early pressure they’re great since Eldrazi typically taps out and plays on curve.
In game 2 my opponent mulliganed and I keep a hand containing a mana source, Dreadhorde Arcanist, and 2 Wastelands. Turn 1, I Wasteland my opponent’s Cloudpost. I then play out my mana source, leaving his Glimmerpost alone. I waited to use my Wasteland on a second Cloudpost. At that point, I cast Dreadhorde Arcanist who ran away with the game, giving me value and following up with a Young Pyromancer for additional damage. The two Wastelands, and especially the patient use of the second one, were too much for my opponent to overcome.
Rd 3 – Miracles (2-1)
Round 3 my opponent was playing UW Miracles. Game 1, I cast an early Thoughtseize and see a hand of Island, Spell Pierce, 2 Supreme Verdict, Accumulated Knowledge, Counterbalance. I take the Counterbalance. I then deploy threats aggressively after noticing my opponent has no cantrips to get to the mana required for Supreme Verdict and no way to interact with my threats. I quickly close the game with multiple threats.
In my sideboard I keep 2 Liliana, the Last Hope and 1 Bitterblossom for Death & Taxes and Miracles. I bring them in along with the other cards you would expect, (Pyroblast and Flusterstorm), cutting Thoughtseize, Spell Pierces, Forked Bolt, and a Wasteland.
Game 2 is a long slogfest. I did not have early pressure, but I had a Bitterblossom. However, I was unable to stick any other threats and a Terminus reset my tokens. At one point my opponent nearly locked me out with Back to Basics. I then built a hand and found a Pyroblast to deal with it. When my opponent tapped out (at the time he had 7 lands) I cast Pyroblast. Eventually, opponent’s card advantage was too much and I slowly died to Snapcaster Mage after a Council’s Judgment removed my Bitterblossom.
Game 3 my opponent mulls to six and I stick an early Bitterblossom along with another threat. The Bitterblossom eventually overwhelms him and I take the match with additional pressure. I played very aggressively and was rewarded for it when I noticed my opponent was spinning his wheels on cantrips.
Round 4 – Dredge (2-0)
Game 1 I’m on the play and begin the game by casting a Delver of Secrets. My opponent responds by casting a turn one Breakthrough, which I immediately counter with Force of Will. This was essentially the match. My Delver flips and I use Wasteland on his only mana source. My opponent is unable to do anything else relevant in game 1. One of the things I’ve learned in playing against Dredge is counter the first cantrip or LED and be aggressive.
Game 2 my opponent is on the play and casts a turn one Breakthrough again. I have no interaction and the Breakthrough resolves. From what I remember, my opponent discards Golgari Grave-Troll (these 2 I’m absolutely certain of), a Prized Amalgam, and 2 Narcomoeba. On my turn 1 I believe I deployed a Delver. The important part of the match was what happened on my opponent’s next two turns. Opponent goes to dredge 6 for the first Golgari Grave-Troll and whiffs. Opponent finds nothing. On my turn, I play a land, attack with an unflipped Delver and pass the turn.
My opponent goes to dredge 6 for the second Golgari Grave-Troll and whiffs again. Opponent finds nothing and passes the turn back. At this point I stick another threat and have the interaction to ensure my opponent will never cast another relevant card. Our match finishes and I acknowledge my extreme luck in my opponent whiffing on dredging 12 cards. To my opponent’s credit, he was very graceful in what would have been a very tilting situation for most players. Thankfully, the match ends with approximately 35 minutes left and I’m able to enjoy some much-needed food.
Round 5 – Sneak & Snow (2-1)
My opponent was David Fleischmann-Rose (the Sneak and Show player in the top 8). From what I remember he was on the draw. On my turn 1 I cast a Delver of Secrets, but on David’s turn 1 he cast Ancient Tomb, Lotus Petal, Show and Tell. I attempt to counter the Show and Tell, but he has Force of Will back up. I put in an Underground Sea while David puts in an Omniscience. David then casts Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and I die on turn 1.
I side out True-Name Nemesis, 2 Lightning Bolts, and Spell Pierces in favor of the 4th Thoughtseize, Flusterstorms, Surgical Extractions and Pyroblasts. I don’t know if my opponent is on Arcane Artisan so I leave in 2 Lightning Bolts as a hedge.
Game 2 I don’t remember anything being particularly memorable. I deploy an early threat and ride it to victory. I believe I used a Wasteland to hold off David and I don’t think he found the other combo piece he was looking for.
Game 3 I’m on the draw and play a turn 1 Delver of Secrets. My hand also contains 2 Wastelands. I promptly Wasteland him on successive turns while attacking with my Delver of Secrets. In hand I had double Force of Will, a Daze, and a cantrip. David eventually scooped due to being mana screwed and the pressure from Delver of Secrets.
Round 6 – Mono R Painter (0-2)
Game 1 my opponent, Jack Kitchen, casts Lotus Petal, and a 2 mana land, into Blood Moon. I don’t have Force of Will. Now, typically this matchup would end here, but Jack had almost nothing left and I had a hand of Young Pyromancer and Dreadhorde Arcanist. I deploy both threats and stop playing lands so I can move to discard. My thought process is "attackcast" cantrips I discard to find Lightning Bolts and maybe I have a chance. While I ultimately lost the game, this strategy was more effective than I thought it would have been and was the closest I’ve come to winning against a turn 1 Blood Moon. I’m mentioning it here as a potential line to keep in mind.
Game 2 I cast an early Thoughtseize and see a hand of Lightning Bolt, City of Traitors, Ancient Tomb, Mountain, Ethersworn Canonist, and Imperial Recruiter. My hand had interaction, so I took the Canonist over the Recruiter. This may have been incorrect, but I remember it feeling right at the time. I had a True-Name Nemesis on board, but I die to combo when Jack was at 4 life. Ultimately, Jack played very well and was very patient in his moves.
Round 7 – Eldrazi Post (2-1)
My opponent has a beautiful foiled out deck. Turn 1 I believe I cast Thoughtseize and found an Eldrazi Mimic, Eldrazi Temple, All is Dust, and Glimmerpost. I took the Mimic or the All is Dust, I then follow up with double Delver on successive turns which flip and my opponent dies in a few turns. Nothing noteworthy here happened.
As for my sideboard plans, it is the same as above. However, it doesn’t matter as my opponent plays a well-timed Reality Smasher and I didn’t have the threat pressure to quickly kill him. My opponent takes game 2.
Game 3 I cast a turn one Delver of Secrets and then later a Dreadhorde Arcanist around turn 3 or 4. The Arcanist took over the game. I believe I Wastelanded my opponent and cast a Lightning Bolt putting my opponent from 14 to 11. I then "attackcast" the Lightning Bolt putting my opponent from 11 to 4 (along with a Delver of Secrets attack). Between the Arcanist and the Delver of Secrets the pressure was too much and I take the match. I mention the life totals to illustrate how quickly “Bolt, Attackcast, Bolt” can win a game. If you’re still sleeping on Dreadhorde Arcanist, please continue to do so, but I assure you the card is a Legacy staple.
Round 8 (Intentional Draw)
My opponent for the round is Johnathan Benson on Goblins. I do the math and confirm we would both be into Top 8 with an intentional draw. A friend of Johnathan’s confirms. We draw and I get food and submit my deck for Top 8 deck check.
Top 8 Quarterfinals – Painter (1-2)
For the second time, my opponent is Jack Kitchen on Imperial Painter. Game 1 the “Delver” plan comes together, as in play an early Delver of Secrets and interact with your opponent on multiple axis for the victory. Dreadhorde Arcanist keeps the gas flowing and I take game 1 with the early pressure from Delver of Secrets. Postboard I put in a Thoughtseize, 2 Abrade, Null Rod, and 2 Surgical Extraction.
Game 2 I nearly have it locked up with midgame pressure, but Jack casts Karn, the Great Creator and traps me under an Ensnaring Bridge. I then die slowly and eventually to combo before I can find an Abrade.
Game 3 was long and Jack had responses to most of my threats. At one point I surgical his Painter Servants. However, Karn, the Great Creator gets it back late game and I eventually die to combo and Jack gets the win. Congratulations to Jack on his 3rd place finish. Jack was a great opponent and our matches were very fun and back and forth.
I also wanted to take a minute to discuss the Imperial Painter deck. One of the talks I kept hearing at the top tables was, “I can’t believe he’s playing Painter” like the deck is a joke. I think this may have been the best use of Karn, the Great Creator out of any deck in Legacy recently. The typical play pattern out of most Karn, the Great Creator decks includes big mana into a Mycosynth Lattice to lock out of an opponent, while a deck like Imperial Painter uses all parts of the card. Karn won both games 2 and 3 in our Top 8 match. In games 2 and 3, Karn, the Great Creator was a lock piece, animated Smuggler's Copter for offense and defense, then returned a Painter's Servant to the game after all copies had been removed with Surgical Extraction.
Karn, the Great Creator supports all angles of a deck like this making it reminiscent of the old Food Chain decks: a deck with a fair game plan that had an “out of nowhere” combo kill. But, unlike Food Chain, Painter has the prison elements of Blood Moon and Ensnaring Bridge. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of this deck going forward. Jack had a great list, played the deck well, and was very patient in picking his spots.
Grixis Delver in Legacy Today
I don’t see Grixis Delver changing much with the release of Modern Horizons. My initial testing post Modern Horizons release will be to swap the 2 main deck Spell Pierce for 2 Force of Negation. Force of Negation provides more answers to a turn zero Chalice of the Void and a 3 cmc reactionary card is not uncastable.
While Force of Negation requires a pitch card just like Force of Will, Dreadhorde Arcanist can now provide card advantage to ease that burden. It’s also worth considering a 4th Dreadhorde Arcanist over the 3rd True-Name Nemesis going forward as a way to recoup card advantage sacrificed at the expense of two additional “Force” cards. I also plan to test 1 Plague Engineer in the sideboard in the Marsh Casualties slot.
Overall, I think Grixis Delver is well positioned in the current meta and is always a great choice. It can play against any fair deck, get free wins with Wasteland, and has plenty of interaction to use against the combo decks. While your mana base can be a liability, with the number of Blood Moons and Back to Basics currently down in the format, I think now is a great time to play the deck.