The lack of bannings means that, in the short-term, Delver will continue to be the dominant force in the metagame. Even after M13 comes out, there’s no guarantee the powerful Delver base won’t still be the best choice. However, this deck isn’t Caw Blade, and playing other decks isn’t just a mistake. Here are your best options if you don’t want to join the legion of Delver players:
Naya Pod – Rick Lee, 2nd Place at GP: Manila
Naya Pod is one of those decks that was just waiting for a true breakout performance a la Michael Hetrick with RUG Pod. Kibler won a TCGplayer 5k and Lee came in 2nd at Grand Prix Manila, with only the unstoppable Yuuya keeping a non-Delver deck from winning a tournament. This deck showcases one of the few legitimate alternative strategies, and Pod decks in general are finally developed to the point where they consistently contend with the mass of Delver players in the metagame.
If the mana were leaned a bit more toward the red side of things, I’d love to have the option of grabbing Hellrider, even if that’s only available post-board. While Restoration Angel reduces how potent he can be, in a deck with a multitude of creatures or in multiples it can still just blast five or six damage through in a single combat step. Plus if you have a couple of Dismembers at your disposal, you can go from losing a Hellrider for some extra damage to setting up a difficult situation for the Angel player—either they play into a Dismember and take a million, or leave the Hellrider on the table for another turn.
The Daybreak Ranger in the sideboard could probably be safely moved to the maindeck for the foreseeable future, since the card is rarely just bad. Flipping it gives you the best monster on the board short of a Titan.
Of course Kibler had his own little innovations to add to the deck:
Naya Pod – Brian Kibler, 1st at TCGplayer 5K, San Diego
Nearheath Pilgrim and maindeck Dismember are both interesting inclusions. What Dismember also brings to the table is a turn one / Mana Leak-proof way of getting out from behind a Delver flip on the second or third turn. How many games would have been winnable, if you’d only taken four or seven from a flipped Delver instead of getting jammed for nine or more. Or getting hit for six and then needing to fetch up a Fiend Hunter, or playing a Restoration Angel and hoping it worked out for you? Dismember solves this, the opposing Restoration Angel issue, and gives a useful instant speed tool in Pod mirrors.
Nearheath Pilgrim provides something I’ve wanted in RUG Pod from time to time—a reasonable way to gain some life. With the current lack of a Baloth effect, and the ability of this deck to throw away and re-bond creatures every turn, the Pilgrim can be a very useful inclusion to win races. A CMC of two makes it easy to Pod out in the mid-game by pitching away a mana dork, instead of having to throw away a three- or four-drop as you did with previous lifegain creatures. I’m surprised that a 4th Gavony Township hadn’t yet made it into the deck, but I’m sure that’ll happen soon if the mana allows (it should).
Looking to the future, what does M13 bring us? Thragtusk for sure, anddddd…. Maybe some brave soul playing Sublime Angel with [card thrun, the last troll]Thrun[/card]? Meh, good thing we got Restoration Angel in Avacyn to tide us over.
Oh. Yeah, I’ll settle for a 5/5 haste that clears out many of the annoying fliers in the format and is easy to Pod straight into. That sounds preferable to the slow, plodding Sigarda. It certainly hits like a truck, and being able to clear out small fliers with Hellkite and larger ones with Stingerfling Spider is a great option to have.
Zombie Pod – Kyle Dunne, 9th at TCGplayer 5K, San Diego
I don’t always eat brains, but when I do, I prefer Zombie Pod. This deck has been underutilized since Dark Ascension’s release, and Avacyn gave it sideboard Bonfire of the Damned and passable two-drop (Gloom Surgeon), if you’re into that kind of thing. While I still like RUG Pod a fair amount, I have to admit this is my favorite Pod strategy whether it be a build like this or closer to the Aussie builds.
This is one of the few strategies with a solid curve and mid-game follow-up that can actually win the game. Birthing Pod right now is far more versatile and arguably more powerful than any of the Swords are. It also provides the deck one of the easiest ways to set up a non-combat finish by finding Blood Artist, Geralf’s Messenger, and Falkenrath Aristocrat. I remain underwhelmed by Fume Spitter, and I like having multiple Gloom Surgeons in the maindeck with perhaps even a second Butcher Ghoul.
Outside of the wondrous green beast we already talked about, Disciple of Bolas is an interesting possibility. While it could be too flashy rather than actually useful, I think as a singleton it would be fine. It provides yet another sacrifice outlet, and even just drawing 2-3 cards at the cost of a creature (especially an undying one) seems solid. It can also provide some valuable life gain in races, something currently lacking from the deck. The new cards even work together when you feed Thragtusk to it!
Ok, moving onto a different type of Zombie Pod deck:
Zombie Pod – Chue Thao, TCGplayer 5K, San Diego
Adding blue is an interesting thought, and while there have been plenty of U/B Zombie decks before, few went the route of adding Birthing Pod to the deck as well. What you gain here is the same thing RUG Pod decks covet so much—Phantasmal Image being one of the best cards in the entire format. Copying Blood Artist and Geralf’s Messenger does so much for the deck, and having so many Clones makes it so you can spend one early for a pure value play and still have plenty for later. Image is the essential reason for blue here, though you also get Diregraf Captain as a better Lord than Cemetery Reaper (usually).
There are a few things that stand out to me though, one is the lack of an AEther Adept when the deck runs so few Pod creatures that can interact with an opponent. Sure it isn’t the best creature, but compared to a Killing Wave? Definitely. It also lacks a good sacrifice outlet without Aristocrat available, but I’d much rather have a Disciple of Griselbrand or Devouring Swarm before trying out Killing Wave in a Birthing Pod deck. Having a legitimate four-drop like a Phyrexian Obliterator is also nice when you need a threat that can end the game in a turn or two, and you can’t simply fetch more Messengers out of the deck.
Alternatively we could simply add two-drops to the deck since this version is all-in on fetching up Reassembling Skeleton, otherwise it has no real shot of ever getting a Pod chain to Messengers going. It also makes curving out very difficult, since you lack the one-drops of other builds, and will usually only have Blood Artist as a turn two play. Either you want to make your twos good on defense with Gloom Surgeon or Butcher Ghoul; or you roll the other way with maximum two power one-drops and a Highborn Ghoul / Gloom Surgeon mix.
When you don’t draw a Birthing Pod, the biggest drawback in this build over the BRg versions are the potential fours and fives. This deck lacks the heavy hitters that the red builds feature, and the lack of haste creatures’ ability to win out of nowhere is just gone. Phantasmal Image is a great compliment to Geralf’s Messenger and Blood Artist here, but if you don’t curve properly you’ll just be playing a couple of complimentary do-nothings to your squad of undead Grizzly Bears. The deck feels like a good concept that needs to be streamlined and given a little oomph when you don’t see a Pod.
Zombies – Jacklord Nerez, 5th-8th at GP: Manila
This is the Red deck of the format and likely will remain so until the end of the format, unless Boros suddenly gets a massive boost from the unspoiled M13 cards. You have a realistic curve, the creatures are fast and resilient enough to not get punished by people casually trading with Blade Splicer or Lingering Souls, and Brimstone Volley / [card falkenrath aristocrat]Aristocrat[/card] finish games well. Zealous Conscripts out of the sideboard also gives the deck an actual answer to the board getting locked up by a Pod or Esper deck.
One of the biggest things holding straight B/R Zombies back is combat math, or the ability to correctly assess how a race is going. I find that the non-Tom Ma players tend to play far too conservatively with their resources, and really overvalue hands with Geralf’s Messenger. Your curve is very important, and now that Whipflare and Arc Trail play has reached an all-time low you should focus on the curve outs. While I’d fit the 4th Blood Artist in, the fact is Porcelain Legionnaire or other twos are critical to the deck’s success. You simply can’t beat most decks without plays on turns one and two.
Esper Midrange – Christoffer Andersen, 3rd at SCG: Detroit
This deck has really taken off since it’s debut at the SCG Invitational in Michael Jacob’s hands. It reminds me of the midrange Delverless Delver variant of Sam Black, but with additional staying power thanks to Lingering Souls and Doom Blade / Go for the Throat. Just having access to a real spot removal spell that kills everything non-Geist in Delver, Titans and nearly everything in Pod as well adds so much to the deck. Otherwise you can largely plow through a lot of what the opponent puts out, and just out-value them throughout the game with better cards.
You lose the sheer pressure that the Delver of Secrets / Vapor Snag combination provides, but you also gain a solid defense against it and a much better spell land. One of the best lands in the Innistrad cycle is Vault of the Archangel and this deck can really maximize it. Not only does it make Lingering Souls into a very frustrating wall, it allows you to win races without committing extra pressure to the board.
To summarize the best options if you aren’t playing Delver: play Birthing Pod or the rest of the Delver shell, minus the most aggressive of the cards. If you want to gamble, straight Zombies is effectively the RDW of the format in terms of strategy, it just isn’t as pitiful in the creature department. You curve out, blast some decent threes out there, and hope for the best—either that the opponent struggles to find appropriate blockers or just curves out badly. Esper is trying to control the board until it either eeks through the last bits of damage of fully dominates the board. Instead of bothering with stack control or cleaning up with large planeswalkers the cards in the deck run double-duty, and make your average starting hand that much better.
Other decks that have had success include G/R Aggro and Wolf Run, but at this point I honestly feel like Pod decks just do a better job. The important thing is that you have a reasonable matchup against Delver and Pod decks, while being solid against Esper Midrange would be nice as well. Point is, there are options if you don’t want to join in with Delver and if you do—well I don’t blame you either. It won the MOCS this weekend and the Top Eight consisted of 5 UW Delver, GR, Naya Pod and RUG Pod. Best of luck in your quest to defeat Fugitive Wizard!
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom