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The Ultimate Guide to 4-Color Delver

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Okay, so you want to play the best deck in Legacy. You want game against fair decks like Death and Taxes and Eldrazi, while being favored against Storm and Reanimator. A positive Miracles matchup and an edge against Shardless BUG would be nice as well. Oh, and we can’t forget Infect, Lands, Turbo-Depths, Dredge, Sneak and Show, Elves, Burn, Deathblade, Aluren, Food Chain, Merfolk, Jund, Nic Fit, Aggro Loam, Cloudpost, Mono-Red Sneak Attack, Painter, and a whole slew of even more obscure decks that make up an average Legacy tournament. Regardless, the point is, you want to play the best deck, and I can help. There is one deck in Legacy that has a high enough density of disruption to consistently beat combo, a high enough density of removal to consistently beat aggro, the appropriate answers to engine pieces like Life from the Loam and Counter-Top, and the haymakers needed to beat the aggressive or midrangey fair decks. My Delver deck, honed over six months of competitive play, is that deck. Here is the list I intend to play at Grand Prix: Louisville in two weeks.

Thoughtseize
Now, there are a couple of changes to the list that we haven’t discussed. The first is a change in our disruption package. As a student of this archetype might recognize, the two maindeck Thoughtseizes replaced Spell Pierces, because my opponents would universally recognize that I was holding up Pierce when I left a land untapped and they would play around it. Additionally, against combo decks I am loath to play a card like Spell Pierce when I expect the game to go at least six or seven turns. I frequently find that I am just burning my Pierce at the first opportunity against a deck like Storm, where I just want to break up their cantrips before they make enough land drops to make my taxing counterspells useless. Those two reasons alone were enough to justify the switch, but Thoughtseize also impresses me more than Pierce against a slew of fair non-Blue decks. The more your Delver deck is prepared for the game to go long, the more you want Thoughtseize rather than Spell Pierce in your deck. This is the most long-game-capable Delver deck I’ve ever built, so the maindeck Thoughtseizes were a natural fit. (Obviously if you are playing the Gitaxian Probe/Cabal Therapy/Young Pyromancer engine then that replaces Thoughtseizes, but I have my own qualms with that package as well.)

The sideboard still has a pair of Thoughtseize, as well as a single Spell Pierce. These are all anti-combo cards, but the reason we’re going with Spell Pierce over Flusterstorm here is the Miracles matchup. Thoughtseize is fine, but not stellar against Miracles, and Spell Pierce is an excellent piece of protection against Jace, Blood Moon, Counterbalance, Moat, and the like. It’s slightly worse against Storm than Flusterstorm, for sure, but it can counter Sneak Attack, Aluren, Food Chain or Animate Dead against other prominent combo decks, so I call it a push these days. You have a choice for these “extra disruption for non-creature decks” slots, so the final call is ultimately yours. Right now, though, Spell Pierce is approaching a nadir of playability, and I expect that it will be some time before people stop playing around it (which will make it good again!).

Brainstorm
Of course, the mana base of a deck trying to balance Brainstorm, Ponder, Abrupt Decay, Lightning Bolt, Leovold, True-Name Nemesis, Wasteland and Thoughtseize is going to be intricate, and this one is no exception. I tried the Taiga/Underground Sea split, and the problem was that Taiga casts so little of your deck! Once you add Thoughtseize, the problem is even more obvious, but the fact of the matter is that many of your turns are going to involve casting a cantrip and making use of a Black or Red mana (Lightning Bolt, Thoughtseize, Gurmag Angler, or Deathrite’s Black ability) and Taiga can’t help you with some of those lines. Once we’re off Taiga, though, the question is whether we want the third Tropical Island or the third Underground Sea. I’m convinced now that with the addition of Thoughtseize to the maindeck, the risk of getting Wastelanded off of Green mana is less important than the need to ensure consistent Black mana early on in the game. (Honestly, though, I just remembered that the initial mana base of the deck was 3 Underground Sea, 2 Tropical Island, 2 Volcanic Island, and I figured that I was just taking that original mana base and cutting a Volcanic Island for a Badlands.) I’ll stick to this mana base moving forward, but there are reasons to add a twentieth land, and I have considered cutting a Delver of Secrets to make room. Don’t laugh, I’ll get to my reasoning.

See, the open secret (pun intended) of Delver decks has always been that Delver was the worst card in the deck. It only stayed because it was part of the team package with Daze and Wasteland in the tempo-oriented, low-land-count shell that’s been a part of Magic ever since Alan Comer played Turbo Xerox back in the last century. Really, all it’s ever been good for is cheesing out wins against either mana-screwed or removal-light opponents. Deathrite Shaman is the really unbelievable one-mana creature in the deck, but Delver is an excellent lightning rod. However, I found myself winning most of my games that I wasn’t mana-screwed with this list, leading me to believe that I needed an extra land or two to hedge against mana-screw. The only problem was, I didn’t know what to cut! I needed my high density of removal to play the control role against semi-mirrors, and I needed my high density of countermagic to beat combo and Miracles. I couldn’t bear to cut a one-mana 5/5 like Gurmag Angler, nor could I cut the mini-Progenitus of True-Name Nemesis, so all eyes fell on the emperor with no clothes, the not-so-sacred cow, the namesake of the deck, Delver himself.

Leovold, Emissary of Trest
I’ll say it proudly. It’s not ridiculous to cut a Delver to fit in an extra land. It’s the kind of ostensibly foolish move that you can only make once you’ve had so much experience with an archetype that you know what golden rules are acceptable to break. I’m not going to do it yet, because my testing hasn’t borne out a need for the extra land, but if you see me playing only three Delvers at the Grand Prix, now you’ll know why.

The last flex slots in the deck are the Leovold/True-Name/Snapcaster slots. They’re clunky, they’re powerful, they let you play a longer game without sacrificing too much in terms of your early tempo. The remaining questions for me are whether Leovold deserves a spot over the last True-Name Nemesis, or whether it’s time for Snapcaster Mage to hit the bench in favor of the more objectively powerful, less flexible 3 mana spells. The biggest reason for this is the Eldrazi matchup, which isn’t bad per se but isn’t something I relish facing. The problem is that Eldrazi is a straight up Stompy deck, and Chalice of the Void does a number on most Delver hands. True-Name Nemesis is the best way to beat Eldrazi, as a pair of them is going to beat everything short of an opposing All is Dust or Ratchet Bomb. It’s not pretty, but I’m in the business of winning games, not looking pretty, and Delver wins 80% or more of the games where it sticks a True-Name Nemesis. While it’s fun to win with Snapcaster Mages, sometimes you gotta get down and dirty with a pile of sorcery-speed bulldozers to fight the Eldrazi menace. True-Name also does huge amounts of work against Death and Taxes, especially when Umezawa's Jitte comes in out of the board to join it. The only problem is, Leovold is so much better than True-Name Nemesis against cantrip combo decks, as well as slightly less-common decks like Elves and Enchantress. What to do?

True-Name Nemesis
As you can tell, these are the closest slots for me, and I’m not certain that I’ve made the right call with my splits on Snapcaster, True-Name, and Leovold. If you do see me rocking a quartet of True-Names at the GP, it’ll be to hedge for Eldrazi and Death and Taxes over Storm and Elves, but I suspect that I’ll be sticking to my guns for this one.

Okay, now that we’re on the same page with regard to what options you have with the flexible slots in the deck, let’s hop right into the thing that every single person who touches this deck has asked me about: Sideboarding!

Legacy has a lot of decks. A lot. It’s not feasible to discuss all of them at length, but I will go through the most popular decks among the ones I mentioned in the first paragraph of this article, as well as the Delver pseudo-mirror. Just keep in mind that you must be flexible when sideboarding, because specific lists will differ and specific players will play differently. This can affect how you might diverge from the guidelines listed here.

Without further ado, here’s the sideboard guide for this list of Delver against the majority of Legacy.

Death and Taxes:

Umezawa's Jitte
Diabolic Edict
Thoughtseize

You can keep in a couple of Forces on the draw, you don’t have to board in both Thoughtseizes. You can also keep in a couple of Dazes on the play. With this list, though, I’d be inclined to cut all my countermagic and focus on playing a ton of removal spells.

Colorless Eldrazi:

PLAY:

DRAW:

Kolaghan's Command

Depending on how controlling your opponent goes, you can cut some number of Lightning Bolts for more Thoughtseizes. Daze is also worse if you see Simian Spirit Guide. You can keep in the fourth Delver and cut an extra Bolt if you desire. It depends on how your opponent sideboards, whether they are on Oblivion Sower or more lean creatures, and how you would prefer to conduct your gameplan.

Miracles:

Spell Pierce
Painful Truths
Pithing Needle

You can board in a third Thoughtseize and cut another Daze, and you can board in a single Surgical Extraction if you want to try to get rid of every Terminus or Sensei's Divining Top in the opponent’s deck. I like keeping in a pair of Bolts for reach (as Miracles decks lack significant lifegain) and extra removal against Jace or Mentor. If your opponent is Joe Lossett, you will want the removal to answer Vendilion Cliques as well. I don’t cut Wasteland because you not only will frequently be able to kill opposing Tundras or Volcanic Islands (and you can cut your opponent off of Red mana sometimes), but you also will want to use them to cast your True-Name Nemeses and Snapcaster Mages! You can cut one Wasteland for the Surgical Extraction if you want, but I generally find myself wanting to hit four lands in many games. If you do nab all four of your opponents’ Terminus, your True-Name Nemeses will often be unstoppable killing machines.

Shardless BUG:

PLAY:

DRAW:

Leovold, Emissary of Trest

You can board in the single Spell Pierce if you think your opponent might walk into it. You can also cut an extra Daze on the draw and board in a third Thoughtseize. I don’t love a ton of Thoughtseizes because one of the ways you lose this matchup is your opponent suddenly going aggro. On the other hand, if you can nab your opponent’s Liliana or Toxic Deluge, your True-Names can easily go the distance.

Delver Semi-Mirrors:

True-Name Nemesis

Hit your land drops, play the control, win with True-Name. Edicts are great if your opponent is packing True-Name, and bad if your opponent is packing Young Pyromancer. Be aware.

Infect:

Thoughtseize
Diabolic Edict

You can change up your countermagic mix on the play and the draw. You also can leave one Thoughtseize in the sideboard, and keep in an extra counterspell, but I like Thoughtseize for the information it gives you. It allows you to tap out more aggressively.

You can also cut all three True-Name Nemeses and board both the Leovolds back in. I haven’t determined how good Leovold is yet in this matchup.

Lands:

Surgical Extraction
Abrupt Decay

Abrupt Decay can hit Exploration, Molten Vortex, Mox Diamond, Chalice of the Void, and any other nonsense your opponent might have. Keep it in. Leovold, I’m not sure about. It’s good at dissuading your opponent from Wasteland-locking you, but I don’t like a ton of expensive creatures in the deck postboard. It’s possible that both Gurmag Anglers leave and both Leovolds step in.

Thoughtseize might also be worse than keeping in an extra Delver and bringing in the Spell Pierce. ‘Seize is way, way better on the play than the draw, to be sure.

Storm:

Painful Truths
Kolaghan's Command

You can keep in more Bolts and cut more True-Names if you suspect your opponent will bring in some number of Xantid Swarms. You can also bring in a Painful Truths or a Kolaghan's Command, but I don’t love having an abundance of 3-drops. I’d cut a second True-Name if I were to bring in any of those cards.

Reanimator:

Abrupt Decay
Painful Truths

I leave in Decay as a hedge against Animate Dead. If you don’t think that is very important, you can definitely cut them and leave in Bolts. I don’t like Diabolic Edict, as it generally won’t actually beat an opposing Griselbrand, and I focus on keeping my opponents from ever getting one into play. Pithing Needle can’t beat Griselbrand either, as a 7/7 flying Lifelinker is good enough to beat us on its own. Edict and Needle together can beat the Demon, but it’s hard to assemble both in a relevant timeframe. I’d rather just have my Decays as a pseudo-counterspell for Animate Dead. You can bring in Painful Truths here as well, cutting a Decay or a True-Name.

Keep in mind, Leovold is way better against the Blue-Black versions of Reanimator, and way worse against the turbo Red-Black versions. Shutting off Ponder and Brainstorm is a big game!

Elves:

PLAY:

DRAW:

Umezawa's Jitte
Leovold, Emissary of Trest

This is flexible. You can keep in a few copies of Force of Will. You can board in the Painful Truths. You can split the difference and keep in two Forces and two Dazes on both the play and the draw. You can even board in Edict if you aren’t scared of only hitting an opposing Elvish Visionary. These are really close decisions, and there is no objectively correct one. Generally speaking, I don’t love this matchup, but I don’t fear it. Connect with a Jitte, and you’ll usually win. Stick a Leovold, and you’ll usually win. Get turbo-ed out by a huge Glimpse turn, and you’ll usually lose. Let your opponent get a Wirewood Symbiote going, and you’ll usually lose. Keep their battlefield under control, try to break up their powerful synergies, and win with your removal and disruption!

Legacy is an expansive format. It combines the power of Modern with a skill gap unmatched in competitive play, allowing aficionados to pursue true mastery of an archetype. I mean, I enjoy it so much, I booked a flight to Japan in order to play in a Legacy GP! If that isn’t dedication, I don’t know what is. If you are going to GP Louisville in a few weeks, please feel free to stop me if you see me and say hello. I look forward to dissecting the format at every opportunity, and I hope that some of my enthusiasm for my preferred archetype is contagious. If you have any questions, feel free to speak up! I look forward to reading your feedback.

-Ben


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