A few people have asked if Grixis Delver is the best deck in Modern. I will say that it is:
- One of the most consistent decks
- Great at applying pressure
- A deck with a ton of burnout potential
- Well positioned
Here’s my updated list:
Deck Difficulty: 4/5
I’ve been playing Delver variants for as long as anyone, but this version has some complex sequencing, and squeezing the most value out of bad cantrips is the real key to consistently pulling out the close matches. Some games feel like a puzzle where you need to navigate through every card in the opponent’s hand.
Unlike in older formats with Force of Will, you rarely need to identify when you’re going to need to play a grindy game because your spells do mostly the same thing, and the onus is on the opponent to disrupt your early game. At that point, the deck is naturally good at grinding because of a high spell density and the inclusion of 2-for-1s like Kolaghan’s Command and Snapcaster Mage.
The real strength of this deck (and tempo/Delver in general, really) is the combination of disruption + pressure. Resolve a threat, protect it as best you’re able, kill a few threats and burn the opponent out. This particular deck’s strength is in that last point, and between the incidental burn of Kolaghan’s Command and the quad-Snapcaster Mages you can often burn people out from over 10 life.
Early game sequencing gets easier once you realize how the deck works and what you’re trying to accomplish. Plan around chaining cantrips together, filling up the graveyard, and firing out efficient threats while disrupting the opponent’s game plan.
The mana base is painful, especially if your opener has a Gitaxian Probe or two, and it’s one of the reasons we’re only running three Probes. Depending on the hand, I like to fetch a dual land (usually Steam Vents) and then fetch out the complementary basic to keep things from getting too painful.
The main reason I like fetching Steam Vents first is because on turns two and three you’ll want your last open source to be black to cast a delve threat, which doesn’t work as well if you get turn-1 Watery Grave (because now it’s casting cantrips). Sometimes it’s correct, especially if you have the basic Mountain in hand, but usually Steam Vents is better.
In decks with 3-4 Young Pyromancers I’m a fan of holding onto my Gitaxian Probe until turn 2 because there’s always a chance you rip a Pyromancer off the top and then the immediate value from a free spell is potentially game-winning. Here, we only have the one Pyromancer and I won’t hold Probe unless I have it in hand. The extra information for Serum Visions scry, and the chance to hit a turn-1 Delver, is more important, and even if you end up with no follow-up play you usually have a shockland to play tapped, breaking even on life.
One of the best things about Delver of Secrets is that it makes the cantrips in the format look much, much better. If Thought Scour isn’t actively fueling delve or Snapcaster or Kolaghan’s Command then it’s a poor spell, but if you get to see the top of your library with Delver then you can turn the Thought Scour into real selection by using it to scry cards away. “Scry 1, draw a card” is night and day from “draw a card” when it comes to spell density and flooding out, and game after game I see this interaction mattering. Using it in between two Delver triggers can help the second Delver flip.
Similarly, saving a fetchland to crack on upkeep after you’ve seen the top card of your library with Delver can have the same sort of filtering effect. This has a bit of tension with fetching to thin, which is a very real concept when your deck only has 19 lands and every extra land drawn reduces your chance of winning.
Serum Visions is a great card to fire off at any time, and it’s a great one to Snapcast back. I rarely worry about shuffling in scryed away cards, there are too many shuffle effects in the deck and it’s enough that I didn’t have to draw them for a turn or two. If you want one of the cards you see off of the Serum Visions immediately, you can use another cantrip to draw it right away, though Thought Scour will need to target the opponent.
Delver of Secrets is the main point of contention, the reason to play this deck over Grixis Control. It changes a lot of matchups by increasing your density of 1-mana threats, meaning that you can consistently apply pressure. The evasion combines with burn better than a Gurmag Angler does, especially against decks that are good at blocking.
Detractors of Delver dislike that it dies to Lightning Bolt, but if the opponent wasn’t pointing that Bolt at Delver then it’d be killing a Snapcaster or combining to take out an Angler or going to the face. Even if the opponent has a Bolt for the turn-1 Delver, at least that puts cards in the graveyard and fuels delve.
You can’t build around bricking Lightning Bolt without making your deck less powerful—it’s an inherently unbalanced spell, and it’s more profitable to work on casting the best Lightning Bolts you can and more often than the opponent.
Dispel is the most important counter in the mirror because it protects Gurmag Angler from Terminate and counters Kolaghan’s Command. It’s also incredible against the combo decks in the format, countering Goryo’s Vengeance, Through the Breach, Ad Nauseam, Manamorphose, Gifts Ungiven, and so on. That said, if you maindeck more than one you end up drawing it too often in matchups where it’s dead. The one copy has a lot of value, and over the course of a long game you’ll find it a decent amount even if it’s only off of Thought Scour + Snapcaster Mage.
Forked Bolt is an incredible Magic card. For a while, I was actually running a few Snapcaster Mages in Legacy RUG because combining it with Forked Bolt was such an efficient, value-neutral way to clear Lingering Souls. In Modern, Lingering Souls is on a bit of a downturn, but there’s still Affinity, Elves, and Collected Company decks, and at its very worst it can clear Snapcaster Mages or go to the face. It’s also a fine card in the mirror, and matches up well against Delver and Young Pyromancer.
Kolaghan’s Command is one of the trickier cards, though it’s almost always correct to get back a threat (and when it’s wrong, it’s not very wrong). In general, if life totals matter and I think there’s a greater than 35% chance that I end up burning my opponent out I’ll dome for 2, and if I’m fairly sure that burn will be overkill or won’t matter I’ll start making the opponent discard. The main factors are current life totals, how long the game is expected to go, how much pressure each player is under, and how much burn I currently have in hand. If I have a Bolt and a Snapcaster in hand with an opponent at 16 life and a grip full of removal you better believe I’m going to the face.
I’ve talked about the other card choices before so I won’t go into them here. If you’re wondering about my numbers or anything else I didn’t mention, I’ll be answering questions in the comments.
Hurkyl’s Recall is one of the more contentious sideboard cards, and I don’t see many other people playing it, but when you draw it against Affinity you feel like a god. While the matchup is good, there are definitely draws you can lose to, especially on the draw, and Hurkyl’s Recall blows all of them out of the water (especially when combined with Snapcaster Mage).
I started boarding Surgical Extraction after Goryo’s Vengeance saw a burst in popularity. While that deck has died down a bit, it’s still a fine card against Abzan Collected Company (particularly Kitchen Finks) and the various combo decks if you can strip a key card.
Spellskite is one of the best sideboard cards in the format. It’s OK against Twin (they tend to board out most of the combo pieces, but it still soaks up removal), but it really shines in niche interactions like stealing enchantments against Bogles, helping control Arcbound Ravager and blocking Etched Champion, and redirecting the haste-granting lands against Amulet Bloom.
I started playing Rough // Tumble when Abzan Collected Company started getting popular. It’s great against the bulk of their deck, and helps push through damage without losing value. We play this one over Pyroclasm because it doesn’t hit a flipped Delver.
Vampiric Link is my current anti-Burn card of choice. While it can crush a race when slapped on to a fast Gurmag Angler, the reason I’m running it is because it does so much work on an opponent’s Eidolon of the Great Revel, and they usually have to kill their own guy. If you counter one of their spells while their Eidolon is enchanted, you actually gain life on the exchange!
Thoughtseize is good against Tron and Amulet, which are two of the worst matchups.
Other Sideboard Options
Blood Moon. Tron and Amulet are two of the rougher matchups. The problem with this plan is that if the opponent is prepared then it just isn’t good enough, and sometimes it’s too slow (especially on the draw) and it forces you to fetch basics. If your hand can’t fetch basics, it might shut you off of a color and maybe you can’t even afford to play it.
On the other hand, if Grixis players stop playing Blood Moon then maybe the Tron/Amulet players don’t play around it and it becomes worth it again. It’s also a great hoser for Scapeshift, especially when backed up by Dispel, and it’s good against Infect too since Inkmoth is a large chunk of their threat base.
Rakdos Charm. This little guy is such a good sideboard card. I’m not currently running it because there’s some overlap with Surgical Extraction for graveyard hate and Kolaghan’s Command with artifact destruction, but Charm is still a great option.
Countersquall. Countersquall is a great card to Snapcast back and combines well with the other reach in the deck. My main problem with it over Negate is that Tron is one of the main matchups I want it for, and a lot of Tron lists are sideboarding Choke. Negate is easier on the mana, and is castable off of a Mountain and a Darkslick Shores. If Choke fell off, I’d go back to Countersquall.
Dragon’s Claw. I played this a while in UR Delver simply because the burn matchup was too popular to ignore. It stole some games and won some matches for me, but it also turned the post-board matchup into a game of “does he have it?” where the Burn player hopes I don’t have Claw and I hope he doesn’t have Destructive Revelry or Smash to Smithereens.
Mulliganing isn’t that tricky once you realize what the deck is trying to do. In general, I’ll keep almost any hand with an early threat (especially the turn-1 Delver), or almost any hand with multiple cantrips.
Any 5-lander is a mulligan, and a 4-lander has to be very good (Delver, Serum Visions, Snapcaster Mage) before it’s a keeper. Remember that the deck can operate on two lands for most of the game, and has almost zero use for lands after number 5, for Snapcaster + Kolaghan’s Command.
I would never keep a no-lander, and would almost never keep a hand without a blue source.
You always want a threat. There are only a few matchups where you can take on a control role, and that’s Affinity/Elves/Collected Company decks where you just grind them out of permanents. Even then, flipping a Delver and attacking isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s not as important as having an early burn spell.
Hands full of delve cards without cantrips don’t do anything.
Modern is too diverse to go over everything, but here are a few of the more common matchups.
I’ve heard some people say that Grixis Control is favored, but the key cards are Terminate, delve threats, and Dispel, and both decks have access to those. Their spells are a bit more powerful while yours are a bit more efficient. I like playing the matchup.
Delver wins this matchup by sticking early pressure and riding it, and Twin is much more likely to have a clunky draw. Twin wins this matchup by going into the late game.
Young Pyromancer isn’t very good against Tron either because sometimes they board in Pyroclasms, but it’s impossible to win that matchup without early pressure while you’re more likely to beat Amulet by inducing a stumble.
Of the heavily played decks, Amulet and Tron are the worst matchups because they can ignore your pressure and go over the top.
Kill everything and win.
Abzan Collected Company
This matchup is much better than what UR Delver had to deal with since an early 5/5 is actually great at racing Burn, especially when backed up by a Bolt and a few counters.
Spell-Based Combo (Storm, Goryo’s Vengeance, Ad Nauseam)
I like to bring in Engineered Explosives and Rough // Tumble against Storm to answer Empty the Warrens and I like leaving in Kolaghan’s Command against Ad Nauseam to hit random artifact mana producers.