MKM Series 2018 Prague: The Death of Delver

Shorty after the groundbreaking ban of Deathrite Shaman and Gitaxian Probe, the MKM Series visited Prague, eagerly awaiting a brand new Legacy format and the new brews it would entail. Miracles ended up the best-performing deck and carried the once mighty Delver to its grave.

"Faster Than a Cobra's Bite"

Nimble Mongoose

Now you might say: "Wait, what? R/U/G Delver was the most played deck. How can it be dead?" And you're right, at least insofar that there were a lot of Delver decks at MKMS Prague. It is a fact that 21 among the 227 players chose to battle with the by now iconic definition of a tempo deck: R/U/G Delver. There are some good and easy reasons to play this deck though.

  1. It's fun to play. There are few decks that reward tight play while combining a brutal mana denial package with strong tempo-oriented interaction. Tempo strategies, in general, provide exciting games since they usually do not have many bad or good match ups but have game against the entire field.
  2. It's a fan favorite. Nimble Mongoose has always had its fan boys and rightly so. It is a great Magic card that fought alongside Werebear before Tarmogoyf was printed.
  3. It's a natural choice. People like to come back to and remember great things from the past. Now that Deathrite is gone it looks like R/U/G Delver is a decent choice again.

These are good reasons to play this deck, but they mostly come from an emotional level rather than from looking at its place in the meta. R/U/G Delver truly woke up faster than a cobra's bite after the bans and it's no surprise that players in Prague were similarly wooed by its explosion onto the scene. Admittedly, in the hands of capable players, any tempo deck can be a true nightmare for most Legacy decks and a tough contender for a Top 8 spot. The biggest problem, however, is that six years of Legacy have happened since R/U/G delver was anything more than a fun fringe deck. The format has been changing significantly since Return to Ravnica, but R/U/G Delver, at least for the most part, has not.

Like Aragorn on Coruscant

Umezawa's Jitte
Something between an ancient sword and a lightsaber?

Tomas Mar assessed the position of R/U/G Delver in his interview at MKMS Prague and his assessment was, unsurprisingly that Legacy in 2018 looks nothing like Legacy in 2011 or 2012. While R/U/G Delver has been a fringe contender over the last six years, the forefront of Meta has changed in the wake of powerful midrange options like Baleful Strix, Stoneforge Mystic, Kolaghan's Command, True-Name Nemesis, and Monastery Mentor, all of which were printed during or after 2013.

Looking at recent R/U/G Delver lists they do not deviate from its old and established core of 54 or 50 cards respectively. Almost every R/U/G Delver needs to play:

8 Fetchlands

3 Volcanic Island

3 Tropical Island

4 Wasteland

4 Nimble Mongoose

4 Delver of Secrets / Insectile Aberration

4 Ponder

4 Brainstorm

4 Stifle

4 Daze

4 Force of Will

4 Lightning Bolt

(4 Tarmogoyf)

The Lhurgoyf has fallen out of favor somewhat, with some players looking elsewhere in the wake of its newfound vulnerability to Abrupt Decay and Fatal Push. With the number of abrupt decay in the field decreasing, however, the powerful green two-drop should find its way back to the core of R/U/G Delver. A combination of Spell Pierce, Spell Snare, Forked Bolt, Tarfire, or Dismember usually takes up the remaining slots. At its core, R/U/G Delver wants to trade resources one for one, blow for blow with its counter spells and Lightning Bolt, while turning an insect, mongoose, or fatty sideways.

This strategy is tuned to the meta it emerged in, as most tempo decks are, and in the face of newer threats like Miracles deck, a difficult to stop lands combo, the BR reanimation menace, a reworked Moon Stompy, and various abominations of the Eldrazi tribe, it can't help but falter. Just like Aragorn is bound to his beloved sword, R/U/G Delver's spell set up is somehow set in stone and therefore will most likely end up in decline without new technology.

What about the other Delvers?

Tombstalker
Better at delving than Delver.

Grixis Delver, B/U/G Delver, U/R Delver, and W/U/R Delver didn't see much play at the MKM Series in Prague. Five players chose to keep on fighting with a version of Grixis Delver; presumably by adding Bomat Courier. Unfortunately for the tempo maniacs, many Delvers were demoted to lower table numbers after a couple of rounds. Among the remaining options, BUG Delver should be the best choice because it has better combo match ups and attacks its opponents from multiple angles with huge beaters, counter spells, mana denial, and discard. I could see midrange lists like Patrick F.'s from Berlin, who piloted BUG Delver to a 5-3 drop in Prague, still doing well in the future:

I am not really convinced that Grixis will manage to keep up with R/U/G and B/U/G lists though, because threats like Bomat Courier and Young Pyromancer may not be able to seal the deal in critical situations. Additionally, U/R Delver looks to unplayable right now. Its prowess creatures are bad without the extra fuel probe provided. Stormchaser Mage gets blocked by owls all day long and its burn suite is not heavy enough to fire off lethal damage without being supported by its footmen. U/W/R or Patriot, however, could be able to achieve better results. It can play a tempo game with fast Delvers and counter spell backup and it can control the board with True-Name Nemesis holding Umezawa's favorite blade.

Key Take-Away from Prague  

Key to the City

A lot is possible in Legacy in 2018, but Miracles seems to be on top of the mountain once again. Let us keep in mind that many Miracles players had accumulated some byes before the tournament and were able to shorten their path to the Top 8. Nonetheless, it was not too hard to predict that Miracles with Counterbalance or Back to Basics will be a strong force in this new meta. Eldrazi Stompy also looks strong right now because it runs over decks like a tank over stacked cars, provided that they do not stall it when starting the engine. The other three decks that looked strong were Sneak & Show, B/R Reanimator, and Aggro Loam. To my surprise, Death and Taxes did not make it into the Top 8, even though it was the second most played deck and ultimately one of the top decks to beat. All of the aforementioned decks have good match ups against R/U/G Delver or at least meet it on an equal footing, which makes it extremely difficult for the mongoose to bite its way to glory.

Summer 2018 marks the death of Deathrite and it seems to be accelerating the decline of that pesky Insectile Aberration. In the end, they will have to adapt or they will fall victim to Legacy's merciless taxes, rituals, and cantripping fliers.

Bonus: What did "CabalTherapy" do?

Karakas in Prague
The Czech "Karakas" in Liberec: Ještěd, TV tower, hotel, and restaurant.

I kind of struggled to find a suitable Storm list for Prague but decided to go with the following 75 cards:

Having won a bye the day before I faced Death and Taxes 2:0, Tezzerator 2:1, BR Reanimator 1:2, OmniSneak 2:1, BR Reanimator 1:2, Turbo Depths 2:0, R/U/G Delver 2:0, Steel Stompy 1:2, which was certainly not the best result but good enough for a Top 32 finish. ANT feels differently without Probe and in many situations the lack of its digging power left my other cantrips hitting air instead of business spells. One of my highlights was to blindly hit a Tendrils of Agony on one life in the second game against R/U/G Delver with my one and only cantrip after I went for a Past in Flames loop… good times.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.

3 Comments

CabalTherapy(2018-08-04 02:18)

@Hulkamania:
Sure, that was the point of the article. Well the argument doesn't work the other way around because there are obviously only eight spots at the top and the rest remains kind of unknown (I think Infect was in 9th and Dredge in 10th place; both at 7-1-1). I'd argue that RUG doesn't have much room to develop, however, other colour combination might have better chances at facing a new meta.
I played UWR Delver before TNN (the Stifle, Snap version with Geists), Grixis Green (the big Grixis deck with Tombstalkers and TNNs), RUG a couple of times, BURG Delver, and UR. I have always had a tempo deck sleeved up as my second deck even though I only played them in small/local to mid-sized tournaments (4-6 rounds) but had decent results with all of them. I'd say that I am capable of piloting tempo without making too many mistakes (but that's not relevant here). I played against all Delvers innumerable times, thus I think that I can assess the importance of certain cards/plays in specific situations. Especially RUG seems to have gotten rather weak in that regard. Looking at PT25, D's Shadow feat. Delver sees some play and looks good for top finishes.

Prove me wrong, Delver players.

Best,
CT

Hulkamania(2018-08-03 10:36)

Don't you think you're being a little too dramatic here?

Sure there was no Delver grasping for the victory in Prague. And neither were there any Delvers last time MKM Series visited Hamburg. Then again there were 3 Depths Decks and 2 Dragon Stompy in Hamburg whilst in Prague you didn't see any of them making the cut to the Finals. Are those decks now dead, too? Or how about Belcher?
Here's the thing, I totally disagree on declaring a deck dead just because of a couple of tournaments. Especially when at the same time you're declaring RB Reanimator as a strong competitor - which hasn't had any great success in the past couple of months.

Also, have you ever played Delver yourself in a somehow competitive environment? To me it doesn't look like you did. You name some matchups like Eldrazi Stompy, Show and Tell or Reanimator which you claim to be hard times for Delver but if playing properly the Delver player has a good fighting chance. I would even declare S&T and Reanimator as slightly favorable (unless your sideboard totally ignores them). You say that Miracles took Delver to its grave which to me sounds like nonsense since especially R/U/G does have a pretty decent matchup against Miracles if you approach it correctly. So to me it's not the matchups that explain the missing success of the tiny insectile wizard.

In the end I just don't think that many players did take a good approach on R/U/G. Despite sharing ~70% of the cards in the deck and well over 90% of the arrangement of card types, R/U/G plays out completely differently than Grixis. Grixis takes an aggressive and pushy approach on its opponent while R/U/G likes to act very methodically and tight to its opponent's game plan. Being good at playing Grixis doesn't mean you just swap to R/U/G and keep going like you did. In fact I think swapping within those two types of decks is way harder than swapping between combo and control because of the resemblance of the two deck shells. To make a point, I think that many Grixis players just switched colors and expected to keep steamrolling which just didn't work out.

Also a lot of R/U/G's strength comes from approaching the meta game which has been shaken up quite recently and until it has settled it's pretty difficult to find a good list for a great R/U/G experience. You can't anticipate all the decks so you'll have to choose against whom you want to be prepared well or poorly. Each commitment against creature heavy decks takes some points off of your spell based matchups and vice versa and so on. To a deck that is kind of 50/50 against the entire field those decisions are pretty much influencing your final outcome.

To come to an end, I like to think that Delver is far away from being dead or even dying out slowly. But as a reactive deck you need some reliable pillars that you can react to and a shaken up meta game just doesn't deliver those. It's not gone, it's just lurking in its hideout.

Best regards
Morten

Athlete(2018-08-02 17:20)

Great article! Really enjoyed it :)

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