May is coming in a few days, which means it's time to start preparing for summer. For some of us, this meas breaking out the sandals and pumping up your bike tires. But for you Modern players out there, it should mean getting ready for the Grand Prix blitz that is coming in June. And there's no better way to prepare for those events than tuning up your Grixis Delver for tournament glory. I wrote about this deck last week and can't emphasize enough just how strong this deck is looking going into the summer. Its enjoyed an unprecedented rise on MTGO that has even converted into enough paper showings to cement tier 2 status. It has all the cards and synergies needed to succeed in this metagame, and it also boasts one of the best UR Twin matchups in the format. So if it's a hot deck you want for summertime Modern, look no further than the newest face of Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration in Modern.
Although Grixis Delver has seen a lot of success in the past months, much of it has been isolated to MTGO dailies and regional events. We haven't experienced a Modern GP since February, and it will be just over three full months between GP Vancouver and the next GP on the horizon (GP Charlotte). Grixis Delver might look good now, but it hasn't proved itself on one of Magic's biggest stages. That also means its different lists aren't as tuned, optimized, or even agreed-upon as with more established decks like Twin or Abzan. In this article, I want to look at some common Grixis Delver lists and try to identify key changes that can help this deck perform at upcoming events. Grixis Delver mages have been frantically brewing and testing to get their lists right, and I want to examine some of the major disagreements and technologies that have come out of this. In the end, we'll have a leaner and meaner list to prove that even without Treasure Cruise, Delver is still a force to be feared.
Grixis Delver Lists
Before we get started, here are two Grixis Delver lists illustrating two overlapping but competing ways of building the deck. The first was piloted by Luke Goodwin at two back-to-back events in early April. He won a TCG States with this one weekend and then an SCG States with it in the next. This kind of consistency is almost unheard of outside of GPs, and although Nebraska might not be the most hopping Modern scene in the States, it's still a very respectable finish we need to appreciate. I'm going to call this "Traditional Grixis Delver" because it follows a very traditional approach to both Delver decks and Grixis Delver lists.
The second list is a more aggressive approach to Grixis Delver, favoring larger delve creatures and heavier removal options instead of Tempo staples like Pyormancer and black staples like Inquisition. This list has gone 4-0 in two separate MTGO Dailies, both piloted by Grixis Delver veteran Lejay (whose lists I have seen a few times in my MTGO data entry). Here's his/her list from 4/27, which I am affectionately calling "Big Grixis Delver" because of its 4 maindecked Anglers.
These lists do not represent every Grixis Delver configuration in Modern, but they are the two kinds of lists I am going to discuss today. A lot of the card choice tensions I touch on later are apparent in these lists, and if we want to have a shot at these upcoming GPs, we need to understand and reconcile those differences.
Grixis Delver Baselines
When tuning a list like Grixis Delver, one with a lot of promising early results but no big stage victories, we need to be very clear about what we are tuning for. Because the deck is so new (relatively speaking), it's hard to know if it is enjoying popularity because of flavor of the month craze, a genuine power level, or some combination of this and other factors (Delver nostalgia!). If we speculate too much on all the reasons the deck is good or bad, we are never going to know what to tune for. Modern has too many matchups we need to worry about as is. We can't add a layer of speculative theorycrafting on top of that too.
This means we need to focus on tuning Grixis Delver around what we know, not what we hope to find out in a few months. And what we know right now, or at least what I think we can reasonable believe, is the following.
- Grixis Delver has an awesome UR Twin matchup
It is rare that a deck's theoretical strengths are so strongly reflected in quantitative data. Grixis Delver is such a deck. On paper, the different Grixis Delver lists look incredibly strong against Twin. They have cheap removal and countermagic. They have fast clocks and resilient threats. They have tempo gameplans that allow them to drop threats and then hold the line while the threat goes to work. This is exactly the sort of approach you want against Twin (one of them, anyway), and it feels very much like the days of TC-based UR Delver, when Twin was all but absent from Modern. How does that work in practice? All things considered, just as well as it works on paper. Looking at the MTGO Deep Dive Dataset, I found Grixis Delver to sport a nasty 11/13 (85%) match win percentage against UR Twin. Although I'm sure the "true" MWP for this matchup is closer to 60%-70%, that's still an insane place for a new deck to be. When you see numbers like that, it's no wonder Grixis Delver has risen so rapidly through the MTGO ranks.
- Grixis Delver has a not-so-awesome Abzan matchup
Even the hottest new decks have both success and failure stories, and Grixis Delver is no exception. Beating UR Twin is the good news. Getting smashed by Abzan is the bad news. Like with the UR Twin matchup, this is something we can confirm both qualitatively and quantitatively. From a theoretical perspective, Delver decks have never been great against BGx. In fact, before TC and Dig Through Time gave them a way to refuel from early exchanges, BGx decks were the main reason Devler wasn't very viable in Modern. Abrupt Decay is as much a beating in real life as it is on paper. So are the hardy Abzan threats that can't be profitably burnt out, not to mention discard magic that can't really be countered. In practice, it's just as bad as it sounds: the MTGO Deep Dive found Grixis Delver going 1/9 (11%) against Abzan. The true MWP of this matchup is probably closer to 30%-40%, but that's still not where you want to be against a deck that is probably the "best", and certainly the most enduring, deck in the format.
Our tuning needs to stay focused on these two baselines. We want to make changes that do some combination of the following: improve our Abzan matchup, don't hurt our Twin matchup, don't make our Abzan matchup even worse, don't help the Abzan matchup at the expense of hurting the Twin matchup, etc. Of course, we also don't want to make changes that will adversely impact other matchups. For instance, if we maindecked Thoughtseize, this might further improve our Twin matchup, but would definitely hurt our Burn matchup. We don't necessarily want zero-sum changes, although maybe it's worth it to trade a little in one department for a little in another. All in all, this is how we need to orient our thinking towards tuning at this stage, and this is where I am going to approach the process from.
Both the Traditional and Big Grixis lists have robust manabases that support all their colors and allow both decks to run Blood Moon out of the board. But Big Grixis does this in a much less painful way. Traditional Grixis is packing 18 lands, 5 of which are painless:
Traditional Grixis Delver: Manabase
1 Darkslick Shores
By contrast, Big Grixis is up to 19 lands (+1 to support the slightly more expensive Gurmag Anglers), but is up to a full 8 painless lands:
Big Grixis Delver: Manabase
3 Darkslick Shores
2 Sulfur Falls
This second manabase appears to be a sizable improvement over the first. It's much stronger against Burn and Affinity, not to mention all the other random aggro decks like Merfolk, Zoo variants, etc. I am particularly fond of Darkslick Shores, because Grixis Delver is the best of the three-colored Delver decks to support fastlands. Sultai and Esper Delver can use Shores too, but non-red Delver is pretty terrible in Modern so that's already a nonstarter. Jeskai Delver can use Seachrome Coast, but Geist of Saint Traft and Seeker of the Way are worse positioned than Tasigur and company. Same goes for Path to Exile versus Terminate (although Helix is still quite strong). Temur Delver may have Goyf to compete with the delve-fatties, but Copperline Gorge is the only fastland that deck can play, and Gorge turns off too many turn 1 blue-based plays. This gives Grixis Delver a competitive edge over other tempo decks in a metagame that rewards painless, three-colored manafixing.
As a final comment on manabases, Big Grixis is using 7 fetchlands as compared to Traditional Grixis's 9. If you want to run 2-3 Blood Moon out of the board, 8-9 fetchlands seems better than 7. This guarantees you have all the mana in place to cast other spells and drop a Moon on turn 3 to ruin your opponent's day. More fetches are also going to help us cast the delve spells, which will become more important in the next section.
Angler vs. Pyromancer
The most glaring difference between the Traditional and Big Grixis lists are in these two creatures. Young Pyromancer is a staple URx Delver tempo effect that quickly takes over games if unanswerered. Gurmag Angler is a 5/5 monster that can toe-to-toe almost any big creature in the format, including the average 4/5 Goyf, opposing Tasigurs, and Siege Rhino. Grixis pilots are unsure about which to run or even what combination of the two to run, because there are clear benefits and costs to any combination of Angler/Pyro.
Instead of theorizing too heavily about Pyro and Angler in a vacuum, I want to think about these two cards with respect to our baseline assumptions. That is, how do these cards affect our Abzan and Twin matchups? Let's start with Pyromancer because he has historically been a Delver posterchild. Pyro's biggest advantage against Abzan is protection against Liliana of the Veil, effectively "turning off" 3-4 pieces of Abzan removal. He's also great at clogging boards, particularly against Goyfs and Tas's, and at being a "remove or die" threat that just gets better the longer he goes unanswered. This last point is important against Twin, which will typically switch to a more controlling approach against a Delver deck full of countermagic and spot removal. If they expend resources to kill Pyro, you still probably get a token out of the exchange and now Twin is behind a card and some mana. If they don't, Pyro takes over the game while Twin tries to interact with you. Pyro's biggest weaknesses are that he's relatively slow, quite fragile to removal, and not a game-saving turn 4 topdeck in bad situations.
Angler brings a different set of strengths to Grixis Delver. Most obviously, it's just a massive creature. Unless Lily is in the graveyard, Abzan's Goyf will be stuck at 4/5 and unable to brawl with an Angler. Nor can Rhino or Tas. Twin can't profitably burn Angler, Abzan can't Decay it, and both decks need to answer it immediately or quickly fall behind in a race. Against Twin, Angler's biggest weakness is Remand, but once the fish sticks, he's there for life. Against Abzan, Angler is soft to Path (like everything else) and more importantly soft to Lily (very much unlike Pyromancer). It makes up for this, to some extent, by being too fat to fight, although this too is complicated by Spirit tokens that can get in its way. That all said, there's another card we need to keep in mind when evaluating Angler: Stubborn Denial. Denial is absolutely unsupportable in a Pyro deck. You need at least 6-8 consistently "Ferocious" creatures to ensure Denial is good, and Pyro decks just can't accommodate that. This is too bad, because Denial is brutal in tandem with Angler. Going turn 3 Angler with one mana open for Denial is an almost unbeatable line of play against both Abzan and Twin.
As many of you may have noticed, this isn't an "either-or" situation. We are totally capable of running both Pyro and Angler in the same deck (the same can't be said of Denial and Pyro, however). From what I have seen of Grixis Delver and the overall metagame, I think this split is the best approach. After all, 4 Pyromancer is almost always going to be too many, so trimming to 3 leaves you at least 1 more slot open for additional threats. This might suggest a 3-1 split between Pyro-Angler. But I would actually push this further to a 3-2 split for two reasons. The first is Pyromancer's weakness to Abzan strategies. Elemental tokens don't do anything against either Rhino, Lingering Souls, or Treetop Village, and you are more likely to be staring down those cards than staring down Lily. Moreover, many Abzan decks are actually going down to 3 Lily in this current metagame, further limiting Pyro's effectiveness against her. We are also seeing BGx decks play more cards like Zealous Persecution and/or Golgari Charm in the sideboard or maindeck (Gerrard Fabiano's Sultai Control ran Charm main). This makes Pyro weaker but keeps Angler as a strong option. Lily's decline is particularly favorable for Angler.
The second reason to go 3-2 on Pyro-Angler is broader metagame context. Affinity, Merfolk, Collected Company Podless Pod, and, of course, Grixis Delver are all on the rise in Modern. This is going to lead to more decks running sweepers like Pyroclasm and Anger of the Gods to combat them. We are also seeing more BRx midrange and control decks emerging that will be capable of adopting these countermeasures, notably the return of Jund. These conditions are going to make Pyro a little worse as the metagame progresses. But they will be perfect for Angler to thrive. So why not go all-in on Angler? Pyro is still an excellent card and is one of the big reasons this deck is so good against Twin. We don't want to compromise that by ditching too many of them. At most, I would do a 2-2 split between Pyro-Angler, although I still advise 3-2 for most metagames. As for Denial, it's a good card, but it isn't giving us a huge edge in matchups where we aren't already doing well.
Terminate vs. Cut
Another important question raised by the Traditional and Big Grixis lists is about Terminate and Murderous Cut. Big Grixis went all-in on Terminate, upping the count to 4 and showing Abzan decks they weren't the only black-based strategies playing efficient kill spells. Traditional Grixis kept that down to 1 copy, running 2 Cut in place of the other copies. In a deck like this, I think Cut is going to be a mistake for a few reasons. Grixis Delver is only capable of supporting so many delve spells. Based on counts from the TC Delver era, we would pinpoint this delve ceiling at around 4 cards. Maybe 5, depending on what enablers we were using. This means we need to weigh the relative strengths and weaknesses of different delve options.
Unfortunately for Cut, this is where Terminate gets the edge. Even at its absolute best, Cut is only one less mana than Terminate. At its worst, it will be twice as expensive (or more). This puts us in awkward turn 2-3 positions where we need to be conservative with dropping a threat like Tas versus saving cards in the yard to play a cost-effective Cut. Moreover, what we gain from a 1 mana Terminate is way less than what we gain from a giant 5/5 monster shoring up our threat base. Terminate is still basically Terminate at 1 or 2 mana. It doesn't really improve our deck's reach. But packing a 5/5 behemoth in a low-toughness Tempo deck gives us an entirely different set of gameplay options. This kind of threat diversity makes Grixis Delver much harder to play against. Because we can't support both Angler and Cut in the same list, the competitive advantage goes to Angler for giving us much more bang for our delve buck.
Based on this, here is what I expect a good, Grand Prix slaying Grixis Delver list to look like by June:
There are also other cards I want to talk about eventually (Kolaghan's Command, for one), but this is a good starting point. (EDIT: 4/29) And there's still the giant question of the sideboard: this one is basically a copy of the Traditional Delver sideboard above. But those are questions for another article.
Of course, it is totally possible that the lists we see in June will do things differently, but I think this more hybridized version of Grixis Delver has a lot of promise for the competitive scene. I'm looking forward to more work with Grixis Delver, whatever its form, and to see those results it will inevitably put up in a few months.