Exploiting Delve: BUG Delve(-r) in Legacy
In this outing, I look at a mechanic that has seen two of it rank banned or restricted in nearly every major format: Delve. I look at an aggressive application of Delve in Legacy's strongest three-color combination and how it presents a unique take on Tempo in a format dominated by blue tempo decks.
Is Delve still Underrated?
Delve undoubtedly is one of Magic: The Gathering's strongest mechanics. Cards, such as Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time have been banned from Modern and Legacy and restricted in Vintage. Generally speaking, cost reduction effects have always been interesting for eternal formats. Meeting a certain condition and ultimately becoming a free spell makes many mediocre cards great or at least playable in Legacy. Apart from the most obvious examples like Force of Will, Daze or Fireblast, there are many more instants, sorceries, creatures that benefit from specific board states, game situations, and most importantly synergistic deck building. Single spells like Land Grant, Snuff Out, Unmask, and Contagion demand, much like Force of Will, that players meet certain requirements to cast on the cheap while, in a wider sense, casting cost reduction and/or bypassing mana costs has led to many popular archetypes in competitive Magic. In current Legacy, Sneak & Show, Reanimator, and, to some extent, Death and Taxes get around paying mana for their heavy hitters and taxing critters; for one reason or another and, obviously, by using vastly different strategies. Even Miracles abuses this principle through its namesake mechanic, which is, at its heart, nothing more than cost-reduction mechanic.
Thus, Delve, as it is a cost reducing effect that is not intrinsically bound to a play style or card type possesses the potential to be the most powerful recurring keyword ability in modern Magic – only surpassed by the exorbitantly mighty forces of Affinity, Storm, and Phyrexian mana. It is an ability that is substantially stronger than Wizard’s current favorite, Prowess. Even though Prowess can be a game-changing ability, it lacks the broken aspect of casting spells for alternative costs, which diminishes its ability to compete with a mechanic like Delve. In fact, among Delve’s 22 cards, eight are staples in their respective formats while three others, Sultai Scavenger, Shambling Attendants, and Logic Knot, see play in Pauper from time to time (Logic Knot even appears in the occasional Modern control deck, acting as a Counterspell for a format without the actual card).
Looking at those numbers, could one conclude that Delve is still slightly underrated in Legacy? The answer might lie in the fact that four out of the six Delve spells in Legacy are creatures: Hooting Mandrills, Tombstalker, Gurmag Angler, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Very broadly speaking, creatures in Legacy can be compared to pawns in a game of chess; most strategies need them, but they are not strictly necessary in a lot of games. The real power in legacy lies in its non-creature spells and Delve has only two instants left that have found their way into the Legacy format: Become Immense and Murderous Cut; two spells with a rather negligible power level and a narrow field of application. But what about playing more than four Delve creatures in a deck?
BUG Delve by VCF (11.03.2017 / 5-0 Competitive Legacy League)
|3Misty Rainforest||3Gurmag Angler||3Ponder|
|3Polluted Delta||4Hooting Mandrills||2Abrupt Decay|
|3Tropical Island||2Tasigur, the Golden Fang||4Brainstorm|
|2Verdant Catacombs||4Fatal Push|
|4Wasteland||4Force of Will|
|2Abrupt Decay||2Diabolic Edict||1Grafdigger's Cage|
|1Invasive Surgery||1Pithing Needle||2Surgical Extraction|
|2Thoughtseize||2Toxic Deluge||2Winter Orb|
The first and most important thing to notice here is that BUG Delve tries to abuse the Delve mechanic as much as possible by relying on its potent creatures with said keyword rather than the mechanics mediocre instants and sorceries. Gurmag Angler, Hooting Mandrills, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang provide a decent line up that is able to overpower most Legacy creature bases. Delve creatures are immune to most of the common spot removal spells like Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, and Abrupt Decay. Much like Canadian Threshold’s strategy, BUG Delve wants to play a creature and ride it to victory without having to protect it too much. For a while now, modern versions of Canadian Threshold or RUG Delver/RUG Tempo have been incorporating more and more shroud-like creatures like True-Name Nemesis into their shells because of the heavy use of Swords to Plowshares and Snapcaster Mage in Miracles and the printing of Fatal Push that deals with the majority of Legacy's creatures at the moment.
BUG Delve follows this trend and does not play Delver of Secrets, even though it is a tempo deck at heart. More surprisingly, it omits Deathrite Shaman. Admittedly, the absence of the former card is much easier to justify but a BUG deck leaving home without Deathrite Shaman is pretty surprising in today’s meta. However, the one mana all-star just does not fit the deck’s core principle of running only heavy hitters. Shaman’s mana ability is not really needed since BUG Delve can operate on minimal resources and its life-gaining and life-draining effects are of marginal value. Thus, the deck can have mana ready on turn one for Stifle, a life-saving Brainstorm, a convenient and fast Fatal Push, or even some postboard Thoughtseizes to pick apart your opponent's hand.
VCF chose to run a total of nine creatures for their online Legacy league: a full set of Mandrills, three Anglers, and two Tasigur. Overall, their list seems to be more than a starting point. The deck felt fine-tuned to me, from an admittedly limited number of test sessions and one local tournament. Starting from VCF’s list, the only changes I would make are cutting one Mental Note and replacing it with the fourth Ponder, switching the numbers of Mandrills and Anglers, and playing an additional land in favour of the third Stubborn Denial.
Ponder adds to the deck’s consistency while also providing fodder for the Delve guys. I think that six self-milling spells are enough to support casting a creature consistently on turn two or three because an overload on Mental Notes makes milling too random and that is definitely not what the deck wants. Both, Mental Note and Thought Scour can be used to thin out the deck and mill unwanted spells into the graveyard depending on specific match-ups. Putting back two removal spells via Brainstorm and then getting rid of them against Sneak & Show or Ad Nauseam Tendrils by using Mental Note is a nice little interaction to filter the deck.
Running Angler or Mandrills as four-ofs is a tricky choice because it comes down to meta expectations. Mandrills are able to trample over a True-Name Nemesis and are generally better in creature battles, but the fish is superior against combo opponents and also acts as removal for other Anglers; by simply blocking and trading. One could also cut both Tasigur and run playsets of Angler and Mandrills since its legendary status is somewhat a problem in match-ups like Death and Taxes or Eldrazi that play Karakas.
Despite its tempo strategy and the default choice of playing 18 lands, an additional fetch land, an Island – something which I am a huge fan of in tempo decks – or even a Bayou could provide better starting hands and a stronger mana base when heading towards mid- or late-game.
Most of its other card choices are rather self-explanatory. Two Stifle and two or three Stubborn Denial are the only other questionable spells, but I feel like their numbers have been chosen quite carefully. Stifle may not as neck-breaking anymore as it used to be, but having access to its extreme versatility is an upside in many situations; from countering a fetch land activation to disrupting Dark Depths’s interaction with Thespian’s Stage for one turn. Stubborn Denial seems like an upgraded version of Spell Pierce as long as there is a Delve creature in play. It is useful in many situations and a great way to stop Storm and other combo decks.
In its sideboard, BUG Delve is able to play anything BUG Delver or most BUG Control lists run, too. Currently, I could see Hydroblast being a strong contender as a two-off due to the rise of Moon Stompy but apart from that, more counterspells, some cheap sweeping removal, and engines like Life from the Loam or Sylvan Library round out BUG Delve and make it an interesting choice and a route worth exploring in Legacy.
What’s Left to Say?
BUG Delve is a great deck that highlights how powerful off-meta strategies can be and, of course, how powerful the Delve ability is. It might not make the cut and be an established deck on its own, but there could be a better list out there; maybe running red for more reach and Pyroblast or milling super aggressively with Careful Study for an overwhelming amount of Delve creatures or maybe this mid-range approach is the safer way to go – let us not forget that Tasigur has an ability as well. In the end, it is all up to the players and the meta, but clearly there is more to BUG than the annoying Leovold, Emissary of Trest, omnipresent Shamans, and that pesky Baleful Strix.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.