Uncharted Waters: Gwixis Delver in Modern

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Ever since I wrote a piece on Chart a Course in Counter-Cat, I've conducted routine searches on decklist websites for the card. My motivation was to unearth some sweet new applications for Chart in Modern to further inspire my own brewing. After weeks of the card only appearing in Vintage Delver decks, it started showing up in some Legacy Delver decks. This week, Chart finally crossed over into Modern---one online league featured my 3-Chart build of Counter-Cat, and soon another debuted a 4-Chart Grixis Delver deck... splashing Lingering Souls!

Talk about "sweet new." I began messing around with that Grixis list as soon as I laid eyes on it. Today's article explains how the deck works, its strengths and weaknesses, and my proposed modifications.

Introducing Gwixis Delver

Grixis Delver has always had issues in Modern. Does a tiny white splash solve them? The apparent result of this shallow thought experiment reveals a complicated answer. Here's shadowfuryix's original list:

Delver of Secret-ly Midrange

Modern lacks the tools to make a truly ferocious thresh deck, although I've certainly tried---no Daze or Stifle here. Besides, tempo-centric formats like Modern tend to be hostile to tempo decks anyway, as they're full of the aggro and midrange strategies that prey on those decks; by contrast, card advantage-centric formats like Legacy brim with control and combo strategies, rendering tempo quite powerful there.

So Delver's role in Modern is somewhat nontraditional: it doesn't helm its own archetype as it does in eternal formats. Rather, Delver of Secrets plays a role in Modern similar to that of Splinter Twin, by giving aggro-control decks a way to close out games against big mana before being totally subsumed by its late-game. Modern "Delver" decks often aren't true "Delver" decks at all, but midrange decks trending aggressive.

Mardu Pyromancer: Retrained

Gwixis Delver makes little secret of its identity as a midrange deck. It borrows many elements from Mardu Pyromancer, a deck yet to experience breakout success, but that's inhabited Modern in some capacity for years. That deck also runs Swiftspear, Pyromancer, Souls, and Reveler as threats, Lightning Bolt and Fatal Push as removal, and Faithless Looting as a consistency engine.

Despite lacking in Burn, Gwixis is a more aggressive version of Mardu Pyromancer. It trades Mardu's targeted discard for card draw in Chart a Course, and some of its removal spells for proaction in Delver of Secrets. I'm a big fan of taking this direction. Modern has always rewarded players for proactivity, but the current format seems to necessitate it; Storm, Tron, and (apparently) Humans are all top decks that demand a fast clock. There's a reason SCG Cincinnati featured an all-aggro Top 8, and housed only two expressly reactive decks (Jeskai and Abzan) in its Top 32.

The playstyle of this more-aggressive Pyromancer deck ends up creeping closer to Counter-Cat's, and both decks follow a two-phase gameplan. Phase one involves applying a fast clock and complimenting it with disruption. Should opponents answer that clock, the decks enter phase two: for Counter-Cat, that's dump more threats onto the table; the ones we haven't been playing, since we've been spending our mana on cantrips and disruption. For Gwixis, it's pull way ahead on cards (similar to Counter-Cat's post-board plan of slamming Huntmaster and Tamiyo once we've exhausted enemy removal). This distinction in phase two plans forms the basis of Gwixis's better and worse matchups compared with those of Counter-Cat.

Mico-Synergies Abound

As I played with Gwixis Delver, I continually discovered micro-synergies that kept me hooked. Many of them even involve Chart a Course:

  • After opponents wipe the board, we can land Swiftspear, swing, and Chart to restock on cards.
  • Lingering Souls ensures we rarely need to discard to Chart.
  • Chart can bin Lingering Souls for easy flashback.

And, of course, plenty don't:

  • After emptying our hand traditionally, then casting Bedlam Reveler, we can start flashing back Souls from the graveyard and not worry about making the Devil more expensive.
  • Early Lootings can dump Souls for cheap flashback and make Fatal Push less of a liability against decks with few targets.
  • Flashed-back Lootings help "fix" the blind plusses from Chart and Reveler.
  • Thought Scour sometimes plusses by milling Lingering Souls.
  • Snap-Kolaghan's-Reveler out-grinds every fair deck.

Combined with basic how-tos for Delver (i.e. Scouring away a bad scry on the upkeep) or Pyromancer (i.e. sticking Pyro, then playing a sorcery with instants in tow in case of removal), Gwixis has a lot of play and plenty of fun interactions to unearth.

Weakness and Resistance

Good news first: Gwixis Delver attacks from a few different angles, which helps it survive in the face of hostility. Opponent light on removal? Delver, Swiftspear, and Pyromancer should clean them up quickly. Heavy on it? Bedlam Reveler and Lingering Souls await in the wings. Leaning on graveyard hate? Most of our threats operate independently of that resource. On sweepers? We'll cast Charts instead of over-commiting to the board, and keep our grip/graveyard stocked with attackers.

Besides including answers to potential roadblocks, the deck comes complete with a "free win" dimension crucial in Modern. Colorless Eldrazi Stompy has turn-one Chalice of the Void for early wins and the Relic of Progenitus/Eternal Scourge combo for later ones; similarly, Gwixis can ride a pair of lucky one-drops to a speedy victory or handily out-resource spot-removal decks with tokens in the late-game.

Onto the deck's pitfalls. Some decks reward us for extending our phase one aggro plan, especially combo decks. Storm is the big one here---if they Bolt our Delver, or if we fail to open Delver, it can prove very difficult for us to assemble enough pressure to kill them before they go off. Tapping out for Young Pyromancer is pretty bad when our big counterspell costs two mana, and Swiftspear doesn't impress when we're holding up mana, either. Perhaps obviously, Lingering Souls and Bedlam Reveler are not highly reliable threats against decks uninterested in interacting. And hold-over Grapeshots gun down our squad with ease.

Wild Nacatl, Tarmogoyf, and Hooting Mandrills combine with Counter-Cat's mainboard permission to give that deck a huge edge against Storm that I missed dearly while losing to Gifts Ungiven with Gwixis. Realistically, this deck performs worse against most linear strategies, but the ones that don't care so much about anti-creature disruption (Storm, Valakut, Gx Tron) become nightmare matchups I sought to improve with the sideboard.

I wonder if Gwixis Delver might be a level too far ahead of the metagame to flourish. As aggro-combo now rises to combat Storm, and creature-heavy fish strategies like Humans show up to hose hyper-focused opponents, grindy midrange decks like Jund start looking a lot more attractive. Since that's exactly what Gwixis Delver wants to sit across from, the deck may need to wait a month or so for that shift to fully take place before being well-positioned.

Gwixis Delver: Remixed

I put in a few matches with shadowfuryix's list before changing some things to make the deck more palatable. Everyone's got their own playstyle—er, vices; I liked most of what the deck had going on enough to stick with it, but felt pretty shameful not running the full set of Serum Visions.

Serum Visions is a must in this deck for fixing shaky openers. It does that far more gracefully than Faithless Looting, which is more of a late-game digging and filtering tool. The card also gets us extra mileage out of our threats by cheaply triggering Swiftspear and Pyro, setting up Delver, and serving as extra Snap and Reveler food.

To make room for Serum, I removed some of the clunkier gold spells and one Thought Scour. I like cheap spells in my Delver decks, and figured the additional one-mana cantrips would pull Scour's velocity weight.

I also cut the lone Soul-Scar Mage for another Swiftspear, and made room for a fourth by axing the third Young Pyromancer. Running Scar over a Spear didn't make any sense to me since the latter is so nice with Chart and off a Reveler.

I'm not big on Pyromancer in Modern at all, but am willing to continue testing two copies. Pyromancer seems to shine in midrange mirrors and against small creature decks, while leaving much to be desired against control and spell-based combo. Dropping Mardu's discard spells hurts Pyromancer's viability and makes it more of a turn-three play against interactive opponents. I'd love something like Tasigur, the Golden Fang in this slot to address these problems, but delve creatures conflict with our other plans and we're not exactly in a position to splash for Tarmogoyf.

Spell Pierce and Collective Brutality are cards I absolutely wanted in the sideboard. This deck already grinds well, so I felt the second Command and the other two Snaps were largely superfluous in the 75. Terminate is an important tool for big creatures, but I think we can afford to run one Dismember in place of a third copy.

Smooth Sailing

It's way too early to tell if Gwixis Delver has legs in Modern, but I think the testing I have done has at least revealed its shorcomings. And I have Counter-Cat to fall back on should I grow tired of getting smushed by damage-based sweepers, so I'm not particularly attached to this deck either way.

I'm more excited about Chart a Course's applications in Modern, which this past week has hinted it. I'm not terribly surprised we haven't seen a successful UR Delver deck, as I panned that deck as more of a trap in my analysis of Chart; still, I'm tickled that the two results we do have are from four-color Delver decks, which are exceedingly rare. Should the format continue to trend towards the linear, with Infect and other aggro-combo strategies cropping up to combat Storm and spell-based combo, Delver may see a resurgence, which bodes well for Chart a Course. Until then, count on me to keep you posted on this story's developments!

8 thoughts on “Uncharted Waters: Gwixis Delver in Modern

  1. I think the pitfall for this deck is the same as for UR Thing in The Ice Midrange. I ran a list for a long time with 4thing, 4swiftspear, 3bedlam, 2snaps. Yes, bedlam grinds out Midrange decks quite comfortably. But the deck failed in the face of Fatal Push and Grixis Death’s Shadow.

    In my opinion, The only question worth asking in this archetype is wether Lingering Souls sufficiently addresses the main weakness of UR Aggro, which is cheap, efficient spotremoval. You basically swap power and impact (thing) for a go wide strategy (Pyro and souls). Souls is no doubt the best card in modern against spotremoval, but the downside (as you mention) is huge loss of aggression. It’s really hard for this deck to actually kill the opponent if delver doesn’t stick.

    Would love to know your thoughts 🙂

    1. After some more testing, I have found this deck to handle removal quite well, especially thanks to Lingering Souls. But proactive decks that aren’t sufficiently disrupted by our removal suite are a real pain to take down, especially Burn and Storm. Souls will kill our opponent, but it’s simply too slow and mana-intensive against some decks. We really want a threat there we can land for 1-2 mana that resists Bolt and applies pressure without requiring us to spend more mana (i.e. Goyf).

      Since Counter-Cat’s grindy plan is actually pretty okay, and when the Gwixis deck wins it’s usually by huge margins, this realization seems to confirm my suspicion of the deck being worse overall than Counter-Cat.

  2. I’ve recently started adding Lingering Souls, Chart a Course, and Delver to my Grixi Shadow deck…based of a UB Delver Legacy list that Utter Layton put up…a deck with 8 Delver and 8 Death’s Shadow…because I was sick of drawing air in the stock Shadow lists and not having threats…also to get off the 4 large Delve creature plan…, my thinking was that Delver of Secrets is a bit like Inquisition of Kozilek a lot of the time..usually eats up a push…but against combo decks it becomes a threat…so I think there are ways to come at Gwixis Delver from a design perspective, (coming from MArdu tokens world as written here) but I think you could also come at it from a Grixis Shadow angle(no Swifty or Pyro)…and run a couple REveler instead of Tasigur so you don’t have to kill or interact too much with your own GRaveyard.

    1. As mentioned above, I do think Tasigur is pretty important to this kind of deck. Lingering Souls appears to plug the same holes as something like Bedlam Reveler, and I think it does a fine job of it—GS already grinds pretty well. I’d be interested in seeing your list and appreciate the Delver vs Inquisition comparison. The main thing I’d worry about is enabling Shadow effectively, since running Delver AND enough lands to support Souls makes it tricky to support Street Wraith.

      1. Thanks Jordan and I agree…Street Wraith and Delver aren’t an exciting pair deckbuilding-wise. To enable the Shadow’s without the Wraiths, I’m looking at Night’s Whisper in some number either alongside or in place of Chart a Course…to keep a critical mass of self-life drain and keeping sorceries/instant count high. I find the manabase is so painful and with thoughtseize…and deciding that Shadow is much later play in the deck…rather than trying to power him out early I think it fine. I will do some more brewing and testing with Shadow, Delver, and Souls in the same deck….

    2. What I found in my experiments with Shadow + Delver in the same deck was that Wraith wasn’t at all missed in aggro mirrors, but sorely missed against linear combo and big mana. More on those findings here:

      The dedicated Shadow decks run Wraith and can just board him out against aggro decks. Not running Wraith doesn’t give us that option. But there may indeed be a serviceable work-around. Good luck finding it!

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