Defining “Best Deck”

What do I mean by “Best Deck?” Let’s start by eliminating what I don’t mean:

  1. I don’t mean an invincible deck with 90% win percentages across the board and no real weaknesses.
  2. I don’t mean a deck that anyone can pick up and play off the bat, or a deck that only a few experts can pilot proficiently.

So what do I mean?

  1. I mean a deck with 60+% matchups against most of the field and a few 40-45% matchups among the lesser played decks. All decks have weak spots, but if said weak spots aren’t as playable then they won’t be at the top tables anyway.
  2. I mean a deck that, given a few weeks of solid testing, most people could play as proficiently as they can anything else, raising their EV for the average tournament since they’re playing a consistent deck with generally easier and/or more powerful plans than the opposition.

Under this definition, UR Delver is the clear best deck in both Modern and Legacy. Heck, it might even be the best deck in Pauper, though I haven’t played that format enough to get a grasp of the larger metagame.

Chapin is Always Right, Except When He Isn’t

Recently, Chapin went over the most winning decks from the last 4 Opens and the Legacy champs and had Cruise Delver variants making up a whopping 32% of the winning decks, with UR Delver as the clear favorite.

This week, he wrote, “You can’t really go wrong with U/R Delver. It’s just too strong. This is a great choice for this weekend, despite how much everyone is targeting it.”

He then went on to say he’d play Carsten Kotter’s hot mess of a control deck. I don’t blame him, and I said the same thing when I first got my hands on it last week.  In fact, I even recorded a full video set with the deck, but I started getting the nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. I did a lot more testing, and while the deck looks good on paper, it doesn’t beat UR Delver. The idea is elegant, and I love winning with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but it’s not a solid win condition in the current format.

I’m not even sure this Counterspell control deck should be maxing on Dig Through Time, as I found myself constantly behind and delving at sorcery speed to find answers and hit land drops, and Cruise was often better there. Plus, you tend to fetch out most of your lands by the mid-game anyway, and there’s a redundancy in the removal and cantrips that means three cards at random are likely to be similar in quality to a weird double Impulse. And once you make that concession, Young Pyromancer starts to look like a better win condition that Stoneforge Mystic or Jace. See where I’m going with this?

I scrapped the video because the Grand Prix is so close and I wanted my message to be consistent. It’s not often that there’s a best deck in Legacy, and when there is one you should play it. Even if some people target UR Delver, there’s so much randomness at a Legacy Grand Prix that it won’t matter for the average player.

Legacy Weapon The Best Deck in Modern and Legacy1

UR Delver, by a Legacy Wizard

My MTGO win rate with this bad boy approaches 90%, which is higher than I reached with Elves, RUG, or even Survival at their peaks. And that’s not because I’ve suddenly become an archmage (I need 4,396 Planeswalker Points for that), it’s because I’m playing a better version of the best deck.

Let’s talk cards.

0 Daze

This is the one I get asked about the most, and the main reason for leaving out Daze entirely is because it’s only really good on turn 2-3 on the play in the Delver mirror. I would play Spell Pierce, Flusterstorm, or Pyroblast over this card because at least they have a chance of countering something relevant against combo, which Daze never does because there’s so much fast mana in Legacy.

Daze is normally an integral part of a Delver strategy because you’re also playing Stifle and Wasteland, but this deck is playing neither of those cards and Daze is dead much earlier than usual.

In fact, Daze is counter-productive to what this deck wants to do. While it’s a decent free spell for Young Pyromancer, it’s also reversing a land drop in a deck that wants its mana to chain cantrips together for Monastery Swiftspear and Treasure Cruise.

I’ve won a ton of UR mirrors, and it’s largely because my opponent’s Cruises are drawing them air while mine are drawing more burn spells.

Oh, and because everyone else is running Daze, a lot of people play around the card anyway. Why waste the slots when you get its effect for free?

17 Land

I was running 16 for a long time, and that was enough except when the opponent was Wasteland’ing me. Like I said, the deck really wants to hit its first three land drops, and if you have a hand with a threat you’d much rather deploy it than spend your first two turns cantripping for lands.

That said, I’m not 100% that I’m playing the best lands. I could be running more basics for Price of Progress, or some Steam Vents to accommodate a second Fireblast, or a Tropical Island for Ancient Grudge in the sideboard. I would run this at the GP because I’ve been playing with them and I know they work.

I should mention that this deck fetches differently than Delver decks of old. With only a few dead draws in the deck, all of them being land, I’m happy to fetch to thin even when it’s my last shuffle effect. This is drastically different than classical RUG Delver, where you’d sandbag fetchlands for forever. That deck also had a pile of Dazes and Stifles it needed to shuffle away in the late game. It used cantrips to filter the air to find gas, while this deck uses them to filter the gas to find Treasure Cruise.

Example: You Ponder and see double Lightning Bolt and a Monastery Swiftspear. None of these cards are Ancestral Recall with delve, so you shuffle and draw. In classical RUG Delver, you’d want to draw the threat off of Ponder and then crack a fetch to shuffle away the chaff, leading to a much grindier and less snowball-y game.

3 Young Pyromancer

This came about after losing to some clunky draws full of threats. If you draw too many of them, your deck doesn’t do anything because they all need spells to function. Pyromancer got the shave not because it’s the worst threat but because it’s the clunkiest in multiples.

1 Price of Progress

Price has done a ton of work for me, combining with the other burn to steal games out of nowhere. Some decks can’t beat it, which is why there’s a second in the sideboard.

1 Preordain

I’ve been calling it the fifth Ponder, but in a lot of situations it’s actually better, like after you’ve thinned your deck of lands. I wish I had time to test 4 Preordain 1 Ponder. Some weird alternate mix of the two might be correct.

1 Dig Through Time

I’ve been calling it the fifth Treasure Cruise, and that’s accurate.

1 Fireblast

This card steals so many games and it’s a dream with Cruise. I want to test a second, possibly shaving a Chain Lightning.

3 Force of Will

I want to draw one per game, and three is a good number for that. While it’s a nice card to draw off of Cruise, so are threats and burn. In most Cruise mirrors, I resent having to pitch a card. I’d usually rather lose two cards to stop my opponent from drawing three, but that’s because one of the cards I’m losing is an otherwise-worthless Force of Will. Maybe I could’ve just played two awesome cards and killed them.

Sideboard

2 Grafdigger’s Cage

Good against graveyard decks, Elves, and Storm. Having a permanent source of hate vs. Storm is important, since they usually play a Duress or something before they go off.

2 Pyroblast

I’ve gone up to three of this card, and even maindecked a copy, but in general I don’t want to be Porting myself to hold up Pyroblast in any of the Cruise mirrors, or even double-Porting if I want to play around Daze.

I want to be the proactive player, the one filling his graveyard and developing the board. Treasure Cruise breaks parity, and it’s the most powerful card in the Cruise mirrors, but people overvaluing counter wars are priming themselves to lose to a fast Swiftspear draw.

The name of the game is proactive. Work on snowballing a victory through board presence and finding your delve spell first.

You still bring Pyroblast in, but because you have worse cards to take out, not because it’s the end-all-be-all trump for the mirror.

3 Smash to Smithereens

Smash complements the burn ’em out plan of the deck, punishing the opponent for playing cards like Chalice of the Void, Umezawa’s Jitte, Aether Vial, and Batterskull. It’s more versatile and efficient than other anti-Batterskull cards, and as a spell it has more synergy with the rest of the deck.

1 Electrickery

I’ve seen people go up to three copies of this card, which seems way too reactive. I like having one so that I’m drawing live to a few specific board states, but in general it might be better as a second Submerge. Heck, an Arc Trail might even be better since that card can kill a Pyromancer + a Swiftspear/flipped Delver or a Deathrite Shaman + Wirewood Symbiote, blowing out a lot of openings that Electrickery doesn’t.

3 Eidolon of the Great Revel

I used to have Flusterstorm in this slot, which was fine. I’m not sure if I’d run this in the GP, but it’s in my current MTGO list and it has its strengths. I like that it’s a Duress-resistant hoser for Storm. It’s beatable, but not likely, and they usually need to have an answer on hand to have a chance.

I’ve been experimenting with bringing it in for Cruise mirrors. It’s decent, especially on the play. Against the three-color lists you’re much more likely to burn them out with a random Price of Progress than usual, and Eidolon plays into that plan well.

It has all kinds of weird applications against Elves and such.

Sideboarding

I’m not going to give a complete sideboarding guide since there are so many matchups, but I have a few notes:

  • I rarely board out any of the threats, but I have dropped to 2 Pyromancer on the draw once or twice.
  • I board out the Forces a lot. They’re mostly there to steal games against decks I have no business beating, which they do. I don’t mind having some air in the mirror because it’s still less than my opponent’s.
  • If my opponent isn’t running Wasteland, I board out a fetchland.
  • Every time I board out Preordain or Dig Through Time I regret it.
  • Chain Lightning can be awkward in some red mirrors since they can send them back at your threats. Note that you can pay two red to send it back at their face, but you can also board some out to reduce this risk.

GP Madrid is also on the horizon, and a number of readers have been asking me about…

Modern

Without Force of Will, the Modern version of UR is a bit weaker to burn, and as such I’m not quite as confident that it’s the best deck. Still, the Burn matchup is not that bad with the right tweaks and some sideboard hate, and I’ve been winning the other matchups that I was assuming would be bad on paper. Since it’s more consistent than Burn and less vulnerable to hate UR Delver is still probably the best deck, but I wouldn’t be surprised if burn splashing for Treasure Cruise took down GP Madrid.

Despite playing UR Delver all last season, I took a while to adapt to the new cards, but I eventually got in enough games to find a configuration I liked:

Legacy Weapon The Best Deck in Modern and Legacy2

UR Delver, by a Modern Sorcerer

The deck looks awfully similar to its Legacy counterpart, which is always intriguing. If you can play a Vintage deck in Legacy, a Legacy deck in Modern, or a Modern deck in Standard, it’s usually best to do so.

Let’s talk cards.

0 Thought Scour

I don’t care if it puts cards in the graveyard for delve, it’s still a random draw. Remember that Gitaxian Probe is a tempo-positive way to buff Swiftspear, prime Cruise, and generate value from Pyromancer. Thought Scour is tempo-negative, and drawing a random card for one mana is terrible.

3 Electrolyze

There are a lot more Snapcaster Mages and Noble Hierarchs in Modern, and Electrolyze is one of the best cards in the format.

The burn is less efficient, the counters cost more, and there’s a much larger chance you’ll have to grind. That’s why I’ll never go below 4 Young Pyromancers in Modern, and it’s why I’m still running Electrolyzes and the miser’s Snapcaster Mage.

1 Vapor Snag

Sometimes it saves a threat, sometimes it gets a blocker out of the way, and sometimes it even disrupts a Splinter Twin combo, but usually it’s just a bad burn spell.

1 Arc Trail

Kills a Swiftspear and a Young Pyromancer, which is big game. The difference in power level between this and Forked Bolt is mostly felt in the mid- to late game when the extra mana doesn’t matter, which is why there’s only a miser’s copy.

0 Remand

At the end of last season I was running two in regular Delver since it costs so much and even then the deck preferred proactive spells for Young Pyromancer.

With Treasure Cruise and Swiftspear, zero Remand is almost certainly correct.

2 Sleight of Hand

Thought Scour might be unplayable, but the deck still wants to chain cantrips, and Sleight of Hand has been reasonable. I’m considering cutting the last Vapor Snag for a third copy.

1 Dig Through Time

As with the Legacy build, this is a fifth Treasure Cruise.

Sideboard

4 Dragon’s Claw

I’ve liked Dragon’s Claw more than Leyline of Sanctity because you can cantrip into it and it has synergy with your own red spells, but it’s definitely beatable, especially against a wary opponent that brings in Smash to Smithereens. Still, I haven’t tested Leyline as much, and there are enough games you can protect the Dragon’s Claw with a one-mana counter that it’s still good.

3 Spell Snare

Still a solid answer to Tarmogoyf and random combo decks, and if you get into a grindy game against a Snapcaster Deck you’ll be glad you have access to them.

The one tweak I might make to the sideboard is to up the Combust count if I expect a decent amount of Splinter Twin and/or Celestial Colonnade decks. I’ve shaved it down on MTGO, but it’s mostly UR mirrors on there.

Good luck to everyone playing in Madrid and New Jersey! Heck, I still might break down and fly out to New Jersey. Half of me knows it’s probably my best chance to re-qualify for the Pro Tour for a while. Even given the size, it’s capped at 15  rounds, and with two byes I’d only have to 11-2 to get there, which is pretty much exactly what I’ve been doing online.

Then the other half of me speaks up, pointing out how I’ve been sick lately and shouldn’t push myself. That side remembers living off the EV of tournaments, and cringes at flying out for a Grand Prix where I could easily catch a few bad draws and die without cashing.

It’ll be interesting to see which side wins.

Caleb Durward