Why is Grixis Delver the best deck?

Specifically? Stats.

Grixis Delver

Brian DeMars

The list is stock composite and was assembled using data from MTGTOP8. It was the easiest list I’ve ever created using that resource, which tells me something:

The stock version of Grixis Delver is the best deck in Legacy.

Typically, when I assemble a stock list, I compare all deck lists and take the average number of each card that appears and use that to craft my list. When there is a lot of deviation from the middle there are more options. When there is little deviation, it means that the majority of successful lists tend to deviate only slightly from the middle.

In the case of Grixis, most of the lists that perform well are similar. If the deck came in precon form, you wouldn’t want to modify it much because the core is so solid and well-established.

Also, it is significant that Delver is the most represented deck in the winner’s metagame with a 12% share. All of the other blue aggro-control decks added in bring that percentage closer to 20%. Grixis Delver makes up a larger percentage of the archetype in Top 8s than other similar decks combined. Grixis Delver appears to be the best blue aggro-control variant at the moment. The next best represented archetype is U/W/x (post ban Miracles) at 8%.

What Is a “Best Deck” Anyway?

The best deck is an idea that drives a metagame. It is a deck that is believed to have positive percentage against the field. As a result of having a positive percentage against believed potential matchups, the best deck also has a tendency to make up a large percentage of the metagame.

It makes sense that if a deck is perceived to be good against the potential field that a lot of players would gravitate toward  it.

There is a stigma that formats with best decks are bad. Not necessarily true.

Just because there is a defined best deck doesn’t mean that the format isn’t diverse or dynamic. A best deck doesn’t necessitate a banning. It doesn’t even mean the deck is broken. A best deck can have negative effects on a format but it can also have positive ones as well. Context is key.

Legacy is a unique context. Eternal formats feature inherently powerful cards and huge card pools to build from. Try playing a Modern deck against a Legacy deck and it will be obvious that it feels like a race between a bicycle and a jet plane.

Modern has a unique dynamic where it features 50+ decks that are all relatively proactive and viable with no clear best deck to lock things down. If Legacy looked like Modern it would be wildly unpopular because the linear decks are better equipped to hit critical mass more quickly.

Legacy, but with a Modern structured metagame, would be 40 different flavors of turn-2 combo decks. Luckily, Legacy has one vigilant sentry that protects it against such chaos:

The fun police.

Legacy has a free counterspell that keeps the people honest and protects all players from constantly feeling like a tiny yellow fish swimming in a sad little bowl.

Legacy also has:

The fun.

Legacy also has cheap card draw/selection that is notably banned from Modern. In a sense, Legacy has the tools to build a style of deck that has been specifically banned from Modern: efficient blue decks. Also, worth noting: The types of decks that Force of Will/Brainstorm decks have to compete with that can consistently hit critical mass on turn 1 or 2 have also been banned out of Modern.

Moral of the story: The blue decks are way more busted, but so are the things they have to fight against.

I was worried when Top was banned even though I felt the banning was 100% necessary.

I was concerned the banning would create a vacuum where there was no realistic predator for Delver style decks and they would push everything out. It hasn’t happened.

U/W/x Control is good. In a sense, the loss of Top has only reversed the percentages of Grixis Delver and U/W/x with each deck gaining or losing roughly 3-4% share. Control still matches up well against Delver but without the soft lock of Counterbalance and Top the Prison Control deck isn’t nearly as formidable and oppressive against the rest of the field.

Miracles was a terrible best deck. It was too restrictive and stifled diversity because it was linear, a problematic recipe.

It’s weird to think of Miracles as a linear deck but that is how I’ve always described it. I always thought of it as a Prison deck that took away all of opponent’s options (countering all their spells and killing all their creatures) and then locking them out with CounterTop or Jace, The Mind Sculptor.

Miracles was proficient at progressing the game toward a state where the opponent was quickly and consistently run out of options. It’s a terrible best deck (best win percentage and/or most played) because it simply pushes decks out and creates drawn-out games where only one side is really playing.

Delver Is the Right Kind of Best Deck to Have

Grixis Delver has great card selection, lots of efficient threats, cheap permission, and removal. Sound familiar? It’s a proven winning strategy in Magic. It does a lot of things well. It’s flexible.

But is it “the right kind of best deck to have”?

There is a largely inaccurate, but effective, language that we as Magic players use to talk about Magic in the abstract. I’m always hesitant to use these words because I think a lot of the concepts break down under a microscope, but they are useful for fostering discussion. Words like, interactive, linear, fair, or unfair.

It is especially complicated that we are trying to use precise language to talk about abstract concepts such as how decks work and what they do against one another. The thing we are trying to describe is often subjective, so good luck with finding perfect language to discuss it!

People often say things like: “My deck interacts with my opponent.” I’m not trying to be cheeky or contrarian here, but I think it is important to make a distinction.

If I cast Channel and Fireball targeting my opponent, I would not only be making a neat plug for the website for which I write, but I would be interacting with my opponent. Doing something linear, or “ignoring my opponent” (so to speak) doesn’t mean that I didn’t interact. When people say “interact with opponent,” what they typically mean is “interact with my opponent’s cards or tactics.”

A card like Thoughtseize serves no other purpose than to interact with an opponent’s cards. You can’t beat down with a Thoughtseize. You can’t go to the dome with a Thoughtseize. You can’t enchant it with Power Artifact and make infinite mana. It is a card designed to interact with an opponent’s cards.

Delver decks are interactive in the sense that they have permission and removal that allow it to impede other decks from exerting their will over the game. Delver spends a lot of resources on dealing with an opponent’s cards while the threats close the game in the meantime.

Delver plays so many ways to interact that it creates the illusion that the deck is slower than a dedicated combo or aggro deck. People enjoy playing games with a lot of play back and forth. You are both playing threats, destroying each others creatures, countering each other’s spells, and drawing cards. There are more interactions taking place and they go both ways. It isn’t a Miracles player spinning his or her Top and saying “no,” again.

I’m not a huge fan of taking what people like into consideration. I guess that isn’t fair. It is more that I’m skeptical about why people like the things they like. I think that people tend to like whatever makes them win more, which isn’t always the most objective arena for making decisions about what makes for a balanced gaming experience.

With that being said, there is something to the idea that people like playing games of Magic where the decks don’t just run over one another. A format full of decks that played no cards capable of interacting would get stale fast. Magic is often at its best when there isn’t a clear balance between how much you should defend against opposing cards and how much you should just push your own agenda.

When decks have lots of ways to interact it causes a few things to happen: 1. Games tend to go longer because players can stop each other from winning the game. 2. Games are more satisfying because there were more decisions to be made on each side.

Cards that interact with other cards need to be good in order to incentivize or necessitate playing them. On the other hand, cards that interact with the opponent (threats, combos, victory conditions) also need to be good, otherwise a format devolves into control or midrange mirrors. A format needs balance. The balance is what fosters diversity and makes the game interesting.

In order for a format to appeal to the most players, there needs to be balance between decks that “go for it” and decks that can “stop you from going for it.” In order for a format to be truly great, both must be present. Legacy and Modern have a lot of both, which is why I think they are great formats.

The ideal best deck will tend to be one that plays some amount of cards that can interact with an opponent’s cards: permission, disruption, and removal.

The inverse, a best deck that doesn’t devote slots to interact with an opponent’s cards, tends to be a problem. Remember, “best deck” means best win percentage and large metagame share. The reason this is so? When a deck that doesn’t need to interact with an opponent’s cards has the best win percentage against the field and metagame share it typically means that there is no card, deck, or tactic that can consistently defeat it.

Take ‘em to school!

Imagine how the Legacy metagame would be impacted if Tolarian Academy was suddenly unbanned.

It’s a ridiculously broken mana engine that would fuel turn-1 wins out of a blue-based combo deck. It’s so broken, so fast, and so powerful that it would just take over and push the other decks out. Academy would be a terrible best deck. The fact that this is true (and the fact that the card is banned) further illustrate the point.

The card makes the deck.
The deck becomes the best deck.
The best deck would be unchecked.
The format falls apart.
The format becomes Academy vs. Academy hate.
The card needs to be banned.

The Miracles effect was not as pronounced as Tolarian Academy, but the effect we saw was similar. Miracles had that dominant effect on Legacy. It just wasn’t as dominant as an even more busted deck, like Academy, Necropotence, Mind’s Desire, or Tinker could be.

It’s easy to see things that clearly don’t work. It is harder to make huge changes to something that kind of works. Miracles needed to go, but the unknown was also scary. What if the format had fallen into complete chaos? I’ve got to give credit to the DCI because it worked and it was the right thing to do.

A deck like Grixis Delver ends up with a matchup percentage that creeps over 50% across the board but it is rarely landsliding too many matchups. The deck achieves positive EV in the meta simply by never having too many terrible matchups. The deck isn’t blowing anybody out of the water but more importantly it doesn’t get blown out either. The devil is in the details.

Delver is the kind of deck that people enjoy. More importantly, it is the kind of best deck that people gravitate toward. And understandably so.

There are a lot of decks that end up with an overall 50% against the field. In actuality, Delver is probably close to 50% as well. The key is that many people don’t want to play the matchup lottery. They’d rather play it safe with a deck that has lots of close matchups rather than ones that are wildly favorable or unfavorable. It’s easier to overcome a 40-60 matchup with some good plays than a 25-75 one.

Delver is like a scaled version of Death’s Shadow in Modern.

Both of these decks, Death’s Shadow and Delver, fill the same roll in the metagame. They have great threats, removal, card filtering, and permission. Both are viable decks full of cards that kill and counter opposing cards and finish the game with great threats.

The Delver deck obviously has much more powerful cards:

A lot of these cards were printed in the Modern era and are banned from Death’s Shadow, which makes a lot of sense.

The “unfair” things that Delver needs to contend with (i.e., stop) are much more powerful and efficient than what Modern Shadow has to deal with:

In Modern, Grixis Shadow may well be the best deck in the sense that it has an expected metagame win percentage that creeps over 50% while the deck remains one of the most played options, which is a similar trajectory to Legacy Delver.

Legacy Delver has a slightly higher metagame share than Shadow. It might also have a slightly better overall win percentage. Nonetheless, it is similar.

I Don’t Want to See Deathrite Shaman Banned

Along these lines, there is a lot of chatter about the fate of Deathrite Shaman.

Yes, the card is insanely good. No, I don’t want to see it banned.

There are a lot of factors that determine how the metagame is formed and not all of it is purely related to wins and losses, but wins and losses are important.

Once a deck gets the reputation for being the best deck, it has an obvious advantage in terms of popularity. When somebody looks at the metagame and sees that 12% of Top 8 decks are Grixis Delver (with the next highest being 8%) that is persuasive in and of itself. When people believe it is good, they will play it more.

Also, the best deck model, especially best decks that tend not to run too far from 50% against the field (without a ton of polarized matchups) tend to attract the strongest players because it gives them an edge they can exploit through skill and practice.

If I play against Owen Turtenwald and my deck has a 75% win percentage against whatever he’s playing, there is a very good chance that despite my opponent having a massive skill advantage over me that I will win. If my deck has a 55% win rate against his, I’m probably an underdog to win the match.

There is a reason that Pro players gravitate toward decks that don’t have wildly skewed matchups. They gain percentage against the field by doing so.

With all of that being said, based on the games I’ve played, watched, and data I’ve observed, I think that Legacy is actually in a great place right now in the wake of a significant banning. Deathrite Shaman may be in a lot of decks and be a very strong card, but the format as a whole is diverse and has balance.

I also believe that the cost of entry to Legacy plays a large part in shaping the format. Unlike Modern, Legacy has reserve list cards that are extremely expensive. $1,500 The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale is a substantial barrier that keeps people from branching out into new archetypes. Lands is a predatory strategy for Grixis Delver that is underrepresented because of cost.

I know, I know… people hate when I say that Modern is cheap to play. It isn’t really, and I respect that. But relatively speaking, and as an avid Eternal player who has dealt with the effects of the reserve list for over a decade, it is much easier to switch decks or build a second deck for Modern than an Eternal format from a cost perspective.

In the case of Legacy, I really wish that wasn’t the case because it is such a dynamic format to play in paper form. In a sense, it is the perfect foil for Modern in that it is a metagame that revolves around the idea of an established best deck whereas Modern is more of a hodge-podge of 50+ wild west decks. Legacy is, in a sense, a large format that offers the opposite kind of metagame as Modern, which is appealing to people who specifically don’t like the matchup lottery.

I also think that we are at the tail-end of a period in Magic that has been rife with bannings, which makes banning talk feel more normal. Magic has undergone some serious changes in the past three years and the effects of those changes are still being sorted out. In particular, R&D has had some trouble with creating a balanced Standard metagame that people rally behind.

When I look at the metagame data for Legacy, it reflects a healthy format. There are a lot of decks, and nothing is running away with the format. The best decks play a lot of cards to interact with opposing cards, which create the kind of games that people tend to enjoy and a format that people want to play.

All things considered, Legacy might well be in the best place it has ever been. Blue decks with Brainstorm and Force of Will will always light the way for Legacy, but remember that is a necessary safeguard against how fast and focused the possible linear decks can be.

Personally, I’m not really for or against having a best deck in a given format. I really like Modern, which has a poorly defined best deck at best. I enjoy Legacy where it is clear what the best strategies are. I’m really enjoying the fact that Magic is changing in a way where these things feel like they are up for grabs. More than anything, I enjoy formats that feel impossibly large and unsolvable. I like the adventure and that there are new things to learn and experience.

The other thing that I like about Grixis Delver as the best deck in Legacy is that I don’t feel like a fool for not playing it. I can play it fairly well. I enjoy playing it. If there was a Legacy tournament tomorrow, I might play. On the other hand, I might not. The deck is very good, but it isn’t so oppressive that I couldn’t come up with good reasons to play something else.

The mark of a successful best deck in a format is that it gives a player options. It isn’t so oppressive that not playing it is a mistake. It gives a format a direction but doesn’t make the endpoint a foregone conclusion.