Delver of Secrets in Legacy Part 1: RUG & Deckbuilding Theory

Last week I wrote about my experience playing in the Legacy events of the Bazaar of Moxen in Paris. I listed three archetypes I considered playing; Storm, BURG Tempo and BUG Delver. Since I ended up playing Storm, I gave you a primer on that last week. This week, I’m going to focus on the other two. Today will be kind of a history lesson. I am going to outline the changes the RUG Delver list I played for about a year went through, focusing on the lessons I learned along the way and how to react to metagame changes. Tomorrow I’m going to write about a newer take on the deck, BURG, and BUG Delver, or Team America, if you will. Also, I will come to a conclusion which of these three I would play in the Legacy Grand Prix in Washington DC.

My involvement with RUG Delver starts with my preparation for last year’s Bazaar of Moxen 6, held from May 17th-20th in Annecy, France. My local playgroup was testing the following decks: UW/x Miracles, GW Maverick, RUG Delver, various flavours of Storm, Reanimator, Dredge and Esper Stoneblade. Notably absent: Sneak and Show. I decided on playing straight UW Miracles, deeming splashes for additional removal, sideboarded discard or Red Elemental Blasts unnecessary.

After doing poorly in the PTQ on Thursday, I wandered around the site playing some Legacy with friends and watching some of the 8-mans that were going on. By far the most played deck in those was Sneak and Show, fresh with the newly released Griselbrand. I decided to test my deck against it back at the hotel, to see if additional sideboard cards were in fact necessary. Nobody else bothered to throw the deck together, though, so I didn’t get to test against it at all. I played a few games with Carsten Linden’s RUG Delver list against several decks we had there instead. Looking at the sideboard, I decided that the deck had to have a good matchup against anything that was looking to resolve spells. I played this list in the Friday Legacy trial, which had a little less than 500 players:

RUG Delver by Carsten Linden
May 2012

4 Delver of Secrets
4 Nimble Mongoose
3 Tarmogoyf
4 Brainstorm
4 Daze
1 Dismember
4 Force of Will
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Magma Spray
4 Spell Snare
4 Stifle
4 Polluted Delta
3 Scalding Tarn
3 Tropical Island
4 Volcanic Island
4 Wasteland
4 Ponder

Sideboard:
2 Tormod’s Crypt
2 Mind Harness
2 Flusterstorm
2 Red Elemental Blast
2 Spell Pierce
2 Submerge
1 Surgical Extraction
2 Rough // Tumble

I had to replace the two Flusterstorms with additional Spell Pierces because I couldn’t find any Flusterstorms and didn’t bother to buy them from the dealer, as I didn’t expect too much. I went 10-0. I was sold on the deck and played nothing else until GP Ghent two months later. By the time of the Grand Prix, I had a ton of experience with the deck and good plans against all of the major players in the format.

Between the Bazaar and the Grand Prix, only one set was released: M13. The set did not make a difference at all, and the metagame shifted only slightly in those two months. This is what Carsten and I played:

RUG Delver by Jonathan Alexander Kurz
24th Place, GP Ghent 2012

4 Delver of Secrets
4 Nimble Mongoose
2 Tarmogoyf
1 Sylvan Library
4 Brainstorm
1 Counterspell
4 Daze
1 Dismember
4 Force of Will
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Spell Pierce
3 Spell Snare
4 Stifle
3 Flooded Strand
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Tropical Island
4 Volcanic Island
4 Wasteland
1 Forked Bolt
4 Ponder

Sideboard:
2 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Mind Harness
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Flusterstorm
3 Pyroblast
1 Spell Pierce
2 Submerge
1 Surgical Extraction
2 Rough // Tumble

General testing showed that even the third Tarmogoyf was unwanted, too often would we end up with too many creatures against combo decks, which traditionally see more play in Europe than in the United States. At first, we had the second Spell Pierce in that slot, but Carsten and I both jokingly suggested to play Counterspell. For a small local tournament I decided to try it out and I was surprised by how good it actually was. It does look odd, but it’s relevant in every single matchup.

At that point, we still had seven pieces of removal in the list. I didn’t feel very good about that when playing against combo decks, but really wanted them in the non-mirror creature matchups. For some time, the seventh removal-slot was occupied by a singleton Snapcaster Mage, which was very consistent but not amazing. The major point against it was it costing three mana, which was often a huge downside.

When a friend watched me play in another local tournament, he noted how unfair some of the deck’s plays looked and how insane it would be if the deck had a way to get ahead on cards or refill once it ran out of steam. I tried out Sylvan Library in one of our testing sessions, replacing Snapcaster Mage. Boy, was that card insane. After a total of two times resolving it, I was convinced it was a lock in our list.

So, about two weeks before the tournament, we had settled on our maindeck – Magma Spray was no longer needed as people had stopped playing Nic Fit and we decided to solve the Dredge matchup completely with our sideboard. Plus, RUG Delver was (at that point), one of the few decks that could actually steal a game one from Dredge. Forked Bolt and Fire // Ice on the other hand were very good against GW Maverick, being able to take down a mana dork asl well when killing a Mother of Runes or Thalia or completely wrecking their mana. Forked Bolt was also an additional sorcery for Tarmogoyf.

Now, on to the sideboard. Because we now had a maindeck Spell Pierce, we could replace one of them with a Pyroblast. I guess I don’t have to explain how good that card was at that point but Show and Tell, Jace, Counterspells and cantrips were very relevant targets at that time, just as they are now.

Another easy change was swapping Tormod’s Crypt for Grafdigger’s Cage. It didn’t take more than two games with Cage against Dredge to figure out that it was by far the best card for that job. Sure, it was slightly worse against Reanimator because you couldn’t cantrip into it on turn one, but I was very confident to win that matchup regardless.

The only other change to the sideboard was cutting one Mind Harness for the Ancient Grudge. With this list, there were only five cards I wanted to board out against Maverick, so I had an extra slot to devote to beating Esper Stoneblade and their Stoneforge Mystics. It was very close between Krosan Grip and Grudge, but the logic for not playing Grip was that our deck was so well set-up to be able to prevent Counterbalance from happening, that, if it ever resolved, we were probably losing anyway and wouldn’t be able to dig for a one-off due to the lock. Corner-cases like killing two things against Chalice of the Void decks are also relevant from time to time.

Now, on to the matchups we expected to face and how to play them.

RUG Delver Mirror

This is likely the most skill-intensive and most entertaining matchup I have ever played. There are many, many ways the games can go, but in the end, it mostly comes down to who can stick the most Nimble Mongooses. It is the most important card by a very wide margin. Usually, your plan should revolve around sticking one of these.

-1 Sylvan Library
-1 Counterspell
-1 Spell Pierce
-4 Stifle
-1 Forked Bolt

+1 Mind Harness
+2 Flusterstorm
+3 Pyroblast
+2 Submerge

After sideboarding, all of the aforementioned principles still hold true, only that Nimble Mongoose becomes even better and thus more important. There are more ways to deal with the other creatures and Tarmogoyf is a real risk when Mind Harness is involved. If they have Loam, you might want to bring in Surgical Extraction instead of a counter, otherwise I advise against bringing it in. Stifle gets boarded out because it’s much easier to deal with after boarding and trying to mana screw them is rarely the best plan.

UW/x Miracles

The plan here was to never let them resolve Counterbalance or Entreat the Angels. Preferably also not Jace. Everything else could be dealt with. Without them having Jace and you not overextending into their sweepers, they could never get ahead on cards, which was a real problem for them because they needed at least two more lands to operate than you.

-4 Daze
-1 Dismember
-1 Forked Bolt

+2 Flusterstorm
+3 Pyroblast
+1 Spell Pierce

I always was on the fence about boarding out Daze or Stifle, but more often than not, they had Engineered Explosives, demanding you keep in Stifles. With this boarding, it became very easy to play like a real Aggro-Control deck, letting you trade one for one and then drop a threat when they were out of cards; rather than being hard-pressed to start the aggression early. This, along with the mirror, was basically the only matchup where this was true.

Esper Stoneblade

This matchup was (and still is) very difficult to play. While I never thought it was all that bad, there were many different ways games could go. As in almost every matchup, it was a real possibility to just drop an early Delver and ride it to victory. Another way games could go was to Stifle and Waste them completely out of the game. Then there were games where both players ended up with three or four lands in play, no other permanents and two cards in hand. In these games it often came down to whether you could kill them with your Nimble Mongoose or they got to resolve Batterskull or Jace. Also, rarely, they could stick an early Stoneforge Mystic and you were just dead.

-1 Dismember
-4 Stifle

+1 Ancient Grudge
+2 Flusterstorm / Pyroblast
+1 Spell Pierce
+1 Surgical Extraction

Whether Flusterstorm or Pyroblast was in the deck often changed between games two and three, depending on how much they were focusing on blue cards, but I’d generally err towards having Flusterstorm. One thing to note is the interaction between Flusterstorm, Lingering Souls and Surgical Extraction. If they have five lands and cast Lingering Souls, you can Flusterstorm it for two. If they decide to pay up, they get two Spirits and you get to Extract their Souls. If they don’t pay,  you can let the first copy of Flusterstorm resolve and, with the original one still on the stack, Extract their Souls without them being able to flash it back.

GW/x Maverick

With our list, this matchup was very easy. As in almost every matchup, you just needed to realise how important it is to have a clock going. Nimble Mongoose and Tarmogoyf often got brickwalled / invalidated by Scavenging Ooze and Knight of the Reliquary, so as long as you didn’t have Delver going, it was of utmost importance to keep those two creatures of the board; ideally you wanted to counter them. Sylvan Library was a beast here – you could basically not lose with Library on the board. This matchup was one of the main reasons to run Spell Snare over Spell Pierce. This was my boarding plan in Ghent:

-4 Daze
-1 Spell Pierce

+1 Mind Harness
+2 Submerge
+2 Rough // Tumble

Traditionally, RUG players have been boarding out Dazes over Stifles against Maverick, but with them having access to Cavern of Souls, Stifle became more important than Daze, as you couldn’t reliably counter their Knights anymore. Further, with the inclusion of Sylvan Library (and us boarding in Mind Harness), Qasali Pridemage suddenly became a real card instead of just being a Watchwolf on attack and Grizzly Bears on defence. I often see people advocating to board out some number of Forces, but I don’t agree with that. The card fulfils a very important role in countering their Swords to Plowshares, which can otherwise easily cost you the game. Against lists with Punishing Fire I did shave one of the Forces for the Surgical Extraction, though.

Sneak and Show

GP Ghent was the tournament where Florian Koch and Simon Görtzen first played their Show and Tell / Omniscience deck, so Sneak and Show was really the only Show and Tell deck that was on the radar. As I wrote earlier, Sneak and Show was the reason I started playing Delver in the first place and all the changes we made to the maindeck since Bazaar of Moxen two months earlier made that matchup even better – we cut back on the removal spells, replaced a Spell Snare with a Pierce and added Sylvan Library, which was insane as always,  letting you draw up to four additional cards over the course of a game, depending on how many fetchlands  you drew. Also, the matchup was very simple; you just put down a creature, countered their stuff, then won.

-2 Tarmogoyf
-1 Dismember
-3 Spell Snare
-1 Forked Bolt

+2 Flusterstorm
+3 Pyroblast
+1 Spell Pierce
+1 Surgical Extraction

Extraction came in because Intuition was stock back then. Lightning Bolt stayed in over Tarmogoyf because you never wanted to tap two lands mainphase and, in a world of three-power creatures, Lightning Bolt can often act as actual Time Walk.

Reanimator

This matchup followed the same basic logic as Sneak and Show, only there were more live counters before sideboarding, unless they had the actual card Reanimate. This was another matchup where having the Counterspell and maindeck Spell Pierce came in very handy – assuming you lived long enough. Again, Sylvan Library served an important role in letting you refill your hand.

-2 Tarmogoyf
-1 Dismember
-4 Lightning Bolt
-1 Forked Bolt

+2 Grafdigger’s Cage
+2 Flusterstorm
+2 Pyroblast
+1 Spell Pierce
+1 Surgical Extraction

Postboard games worked exactly the same as preboard games, only you had more relevant cards while they were only moving around pieces – it doesn’t matter whether you counter their Exhume or Show and Tell, as long as you counter it. Depending on how many Show and Tells you saw (Surgical Extraction helps), a case could be made to swap the second Cage for the third Pyroblast.

Storm

-2 Tarmogoyf
-1 Sylvan Library
-1 Dismember
-2 Lightning Bolt
-1 Forked Bolt

+2 Flusterstorm
+3 Pyroblast
+1 Spell Pierce
+1 Surgical Extraction

Again, postboard games were very similar to preboard games, so there’s no point in writing about them seperately. Most of the time, it was correct to counter their cantrips because when they were forced to try to go off due to board pressure, you still had some countermagic left.  Whether to keep in the third Bolt or board in Extraction was something that varied depending on their list – Storm players did not focus on Past in Flames nearly enough at that time, and even then, Surgical’s impact was only marginal. If they had Xantid Swarm, Bolt was the clear choice, and if they had access to Empty the Warrens, a case could be made for Rough // Tumble.

Okay now, enough writing about a tournament that took place more than a year ago. While the list we played there is obviously dated, the deck remains mostly intact to this day and your roles in the common matchups haven’t changed either.

What has happened since Ghent, then? Not much, to be honest. First, Abrupt Decay, Deathrite Shaman, Supreme Verdict and Rest in Peace were printed. While the first two spawned an entirely new archetype in Legacy Jund and helped putting BUG decks back on the radar, Verdict is merely a new sideboard card for Esper Stoneblade and Miracles. Miracles lived through a short hype because of Rest in Peace, but thanks to Abrupt Decay, Miracles is not much of a force anymore.

BUG Tempo by Daniel Signorini
6th Place, GP Denver 2013

4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Tombstalker
1 Sylvan Library
4 Abrupt Decay
4 Brainstorm
4 Daze
1 Dismember
4 Force of Will
2 Bayou
2 Misty Rainforest
3 Polluted Delta
1 Tropical Island
4 Underground Sea
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Wasteland

Sideboard:
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Blue Elemental Blast
1 Darkblast
2 Disfigure
2 Krosan Grip
1 Creeping Tar Pit
1 Life from the Loam
4 Sinkhole

This is not a good matchup for RUG. At all. Sure, you have Lightning Bolts for their Deathrite Shamans and Delvers, but what are you going to do against Tombstalker? The only thing you can do is to counter it (or draw your one Dismember). Typically, the card you used to get ahead in these matchups was Sylvan Library, especially when your opponents didn’t have Lightning Bolts themselves. Now they have an easy way to undo your investment in Abrupt Decay though. Incidentally, Decay is also the card that prevents you from stealing games with Delver of Secrets, while Deathrite Shaman makes it that much harder to reach Threshold for your Nimble Mongooses.

While this particular list does not have much relevant to bring in for postboard games, it’s still a long shot. Especially important is BUG’s ability to completely sidestep your Submerges – they can even cast green creatures without ever having a Forest on the board. Life from the Loam and Umezawa’s Jitte are pretty strong once they get going, and Darkblast to kill each and every Delver on sight is also pretty sweet. Further, bringing in an extra land against Wastelands and Stifles never hurts, even if it enters the battlefield tapped.

Next up, a slightly slower take on BUG:

Shardless BUG by Gerry Thompson
1st Place, SCG Invitational Atlanta 2013

2 Baleful Strix
4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Shardless Agent
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Abrupt Decay
4 Brainstorm
3 Force of Will
2 Bayou
2 Creeping Tar Pit
4 Misty Rainforest
2 Polluted Delta
2 Tropical Island
4 Underground Sea
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Wasteland
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Ancestral Vision
3 Hymn to Tourach
1 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Thoughtseize

Sideboard:
3 Nihil Spellbomb
2 Baleful Strix
2 Sower of Temptation
2 Chill
2 Liliana of the Veil
1 Hymn to Tourach
1 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Thoughtseize

Interestingly, this bulkier, more controlling, card advantage-laden beast is a better matchup for RUG than its more aggressive cousin – at least if you bring Spell Snares to the battle. The way the games play out is very similar to games against Miracles. You’re trading on a one-for-one basis and eventually they are going to fall behind because they need so much more land than you do. Again, this only holds true if you don’t let them get ahead on cards. But when it really comes down to it, they have a total of eight cards in their maindeck that can stop Nimble Mongoose on their own (Strix, ‘Goyf and Creeping Tar Pit), six of which get hit by Spell Snare.

After sideboarding, Spell Snare becomes even more important. Nihil Spellbomb is pretty sweet tech to temporarily halt Mongoose beatdown and Liliana is just very good against RUG. This is one of the few matchups that actually gets worse after sideboarding.

Now, on to the last Abrupt Decay / Deathrite Shaman deck, Jund. This deck pushed Maverick out of the format almost completely:

Jund by Pat Cox
2nd Place, GP Denver 2013

3 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Dark Confidant
4 Deathrite Shaman
2 Grim Lavamancer
4 Tarmogoyf
1 Sylvan Library
3 Abrupt Decay
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Bayou
3 Badlands
4 Bloodstained Mire
1 Forest
1 Mountain
1 Swamp
1 Taiga
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Wasteland
4 Liliana of the Veil
3 Hymn to Tourach
4 Thoughtseize

Sideboard:
1 Nihil Spellbomb
2 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Ancient Grudge
3 Pyroblast
3 Engineered Plague
2 Duress
1 Hymn to Tourach
1 Life from the Loam

This is, all in all, the pinnacle of what is good against RUG Delver. It has everything: a reasonable manabase (complete with three basics and eleven fetchlands to get them), cheap removal, card advantage and is just overall very efficient. The only real change to the maindeck to this day is cutting the Grims and some Bolts for Punishing Fire – even more very good cards against Delver of Secrets and to break Tarmogoyf stalls. Although it took a while for it to catch on in Europe; ultimately, this was the deck that made me stop playing RUG.

So, with the release of Return to Ravnica, the Legacy metagame had changed quite a bit. Reanimator, a good matchup was pushed out of the format by Deathrite Shaman, Miracles, a favourable matchup, was mostly invalidated by Abrupt Decay (although it’s coming back now), Show and Tell decks showed up even more than before (finally something good) and Maverick was starting to disappear. RUG Delver was played a little less than before, but I guess you don’t play a deck to prey on the mirror. Esper Stoneblade and Storm, both close matchups, saw about the same amount of play as before.

The cards we had to react to were mostly Abrupt Decay and Deathrite Shaman. There aren’t many ways to react to a removal spell (we did find one), but doing something about losing to Shaman was not that hard – you just had to play as much cheap removal as possible. The only issue was space. As I said before, Abrupt Decay made Sylvan Library much worse. I figured that one out pretty soon. Therefore, we went back to what we had before Slyvan Library: Snapcaster Mage. Snapcaster also kind of solved the problem that you had if you were forced to use Dismember on their Deathrite Shaman; you still had something to get rid of Tarmogoyf. Also, I see the irony in playing Snapcaster Mage to deal with Deathrite Shaman, but the additional body was relevant enough to not let this be something else. Our maindeck at that point:

4 Delver of Secrets
4 Nimble Mongoose
1 Snapcaster Mage
2 Tarmogoyf
4 Brainstorm
1 Counterspell
4 Daze
1 Dismember
4 Force of Will
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Spell Pierce
3 Spell Snare
4 Stifle
3 Flooded Strand
3 Polluted Delta
4 Tropical Island
4 Volcanic Island
4 Wasteland
1 Forked Bolt
4 Ponder

Yes, we only changed one card, although we sometimes had Izzet Charm instead of Spell Pierce. I would often play a second Dismember in the Forked Bolt slot then. As for the sideboard, Mind Harness was an easy cut. We just replaced it with another Submerge. Due to Liliana of the Veil, being able to counter non-blue Planeswalkers became more important, so we cut a Pyroblast for the second sideboarded Spell Pierce. Also note that we replaced one of the fetchlands with the eighth dual to have more actual lands against Wasteland decks.

The good effect the presence of Deathrite Shaman had on the format was the almost complete disappearance of graveyard decks. There were so few graveyard decks that the only graveyard hate we kept was Surgical Extraction. This freed up slots to fight the Abrupt Decay / Deathrite Shaman decks. Typically, our best card against similar decks was Nimble Mongoose, but we already had four of these and didn’t want more against their Deathrites (thus invalidating Green Sun’s Zenith as an option). This is where Carsten Linden went very deep: Troll Ascetic. Yes, I laughed at his suggestion. Yes, people laughed when we cast it against them. They ended up losing to it way more often than not. This was our sideboard up until shortly before GP Strasbourg:

2 Troll Ascetic
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Flusterstorm
2 Pyroblast
2 Spell Pierce
3 Submerge
1 Surgical Extraction
2 Rough // Tumble

Meanwhile, Gatecrash was released. At first, it didn’t have any impact at all. At GP Strasbourg though, some French players first put the now commonly played OmniClash deck on the radar:

OmniClash by Jean-Mary Accart
GP Strasbourg 2013

1 Sensei’s Divining Top
1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
3 Dream Halls
1 Leyline of Sanctity
4 Omnniscience
4 Brainstorm
3 Cunning Wish
4 Force of Will
3 Pact of Negation
4 City of Traitors
4 Flooded Strand
10 Island
2 Polluted Delta

Sideboard:
3 Defense Grid
3 Leyline of Sanctity
1 Eladamri’s Call
1 Intuition
1 Noxious Revival
1 Pact of Negation
1 Release the Ants
1 Rushing River
1 Sapphire Charm
1 Slaughter Pact
1 Trickbind

While this was the true innovation of the GP, something else happened as well. Something most people didn’t see coming, but it had been going on for quite a while:

Death and Taxes by Thomas Enevoldsen
1st Place, GP Strasbourg 2013

4 Æther Vial
1 Batterskull
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Aven Mindcensor
1 Fiend Hunter
3 Flickerwisp
2 Mangara of Corondor
3 Mirran Crusader
4 Mother of Runes
4 Phyrexian Revoker
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
4 Swords to Plowshares
1 Cavern of Souls
1 Eiganjo Castle
1 Horizon Canopy
3 Karakas
9 Plains
4 Rishadan Port
4 Wasteland

Sideboard:
1 Pithing Needle
1 Relic of Progenitus
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Ethersworn Canonist
1 Leonin Relic-Warden
2 Wilt-Leaf Liege
1 Oblivion Ring
2 Rest in Peace
1 Gut Shot
2 Cataclysm
1 Sunlance

Neither of these decks is easy to beat with RUG, especially when you’re unfamiliar with them. They both have plenty of basics to your Wastelands and both are short on meaningful targets for your Stifles. Sure, they are live against both of these decks, but it’s not like they have as big an impact as they have against Stoneblade for example. Not only does that make that these eight cards worse, but it also snowballs into making your softcounters worse, the card-disadvantage of Forge of Will mattering more and your creatures becoming outclassed more easily against Death and Taxes.

That’s it for today – we have reached the point where I stopped considering RUG Delver as the best choice in Legacy. Tomorrow, I will write about our reactions to these shifts in the metagame, what led to the BURG deck that’s now very popular in Germany, how I came to playing BUG Delver myself and which of these decks I think is best positioned for the upcoming Legacy Grand Prix in DC.

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