The End of Delver's Legacy

Magic: the Gathering

Competitive

The End of Delver's Legacy

After a decade as the format's most iconic creature and the pillar of a deck that defines the Metagame, has Delver of Secrets become obsolete for Legacy?

By Romeu, 09/29/21, translated by Romeu, with help from our readers

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This week, on September 30, 2021, it will be Innistrad's tenth anniversary and, along with it, one of the most iconic cards in Magic: The Gathering, Delver of Secrets, was released.
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Delver of Secrets is one of the most influential cards ever, and by far one of the cards that defined Legacy since its arrival, transforming basically every category of Blue-based Tempo decks into “Delver” decks. This nomenclature has become so iconic that it has moved away from the spectrum of decks that play Delver of Secrets to become a great definition of a category of Tempo decks: Low-cost threats protected by a powerful package of disruptions that vary between counterspells, removals and discards, and using low-cost cantrips to gain access to more cards than the opponent over the course of the game, while allowing the deck to use fewer lands without being harmed by it.

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Last year, I made an article explaining how Delver of Secrets and the concept of Turbo Xerox defined how to play Legacy, and how the history of the card is directly linked to the history of the format itself in the last decade, and it is precisely because of how this card is linked to the essence of Legacy that the fact that the format's Tempo lists are choosing to use fewer copies or even no copies of the iconic card draws the community's attention and leads us to question something we never imagined questioning one day.

Has Delver of Secrets become obsolete for Legacy?

The Historical Context

Before we discuss what's going on in Legacy, let's first understand what has made Delver of Secrets a mainstay of the format for nearly a decade. Before the launch of the card, in 2011, the Legacy Tempo decks were divided between several variants that tried to obtain the same result: Using low-cost spells or cards that could be played for free to disrupt the opponent's gameplan or to protect some of its few threats that were intended to attack the opponent's life total over and over again until the game was won. These variants have changed a lot over the years, but began to standardize when Future Sight brought Tarmogoyf, a low-cost, high-power threat that could win the game on its own and benefit from the sheer nature that decks had to... simply play the game. Tarmogoyf's advantage over other creatures is that it grew naturally as the game progressed, and grew quickly, as in a format with Fetchlands + Cantrips + Force of Will, it was very common to start the first turns with four different card types in graveyards. Among these decks, two stood out and had consistent results:
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The Canadian Threshold, which precedes what we know today as Temur Delver, was the natural evolution of the Threshold decks that previously existed in the format and took advantage of the fact that, with so many cantrips and interaction, the deck could quickly reach seven or more cards in the graveyard, making both Tarmogoyf a large creature, and making Nimble Mongoose a hard to deal threat that could close the game on an empty board.
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The other known version was Team America, predecessor of Delver's black-based lists, and it bet on that same speed of throwing cards to the graveyard to use the also then Future Sight staple, Tombstalker, as an evasive threat that would win the game in a few turns while destabilizing the opponent with resources denial, such as Sinkhole (it's important to mention that, at the time, the main decks of the format involved Midrange decks that took advantage of the Stoneforge Mystic package). Then Delver was released, and these decks became patterned around Innistrad's new creature because it was everything the Tempo decks could ever want: A low-cost threat with the ability to attack quickly in the first turns with a high power, often managing to win the game on its own if well protected, and whose setup necessary for this is easily achieved by the spells that the deck naturally casts, in particular its cantrip package; and finally, Delver of Secrets is blue, the ideal color to pitch to Force of Will when needed. In short, Delver of Secrets was the perfect beatdown for the deck because it acted naturally on what the deck purports to do and soon became a

staple

, a must-have.
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Since then, Legacy's Delver decks have gained several elements over the years: Young Pyromancer, Gurmag Angler, True-Name Nemesis, Deathrite Shaman, Wrenn and Six, Sprite Dragon, Monastery Swiftspear, Dreadhorde Arcanist, Oko, Thief of Crowns, among others, had their place in the archetype among the most diverse variants and were, or are all cards that define very well the different windows of opportunity and flexibility that the deck is willing to have. But on no occasion did these decks stop using or even reduce the number Delver copies on the list because it was still one of the pillars of the deck and the threat you could use to win the game on its own against the right matchups. There were always four copies of Delver, there was no reason for you to play with less than that. And then Modern Horizons II arrived, and it changed the whole structure of how Delver decks are built in Legacy.

Modern Horizons II and Power Creep

Magic: The Gathering is a game where the individual power level of its cards tends to be a kind of roller coaster, where some sets tend to bring powerful cards and others need to be a little weaker to balance things out. There are several examples of this cycle, like the significant power level difference between Mirrodin and Kamigawa, or Tarkir and Theros, or Eldraine and Strixhaven. This increase or decrease is based on making Standard a balanced format, to prevent a significant increase from making the format a combination of oppressive decks, and thus making room for simpler and lesser geared towards “make your absurd play before the opponent” strategies. Of course, this strategy tends to fail at times due to rating failures, something that became more recurrent when the

F.I.R.E.

philosophy was adopted by Wizards of the Coast, which culminated in a mix of Standard sets that increased power level in a way we haven't seen since the famous Urza Block, considered by many to be the most broken block in the game's entire history. While the rotation and, in (not so) extreme cases, bannings help adjust Standard, the impact of such increase caused by the F.I.R.E. philosophy can be felt in eternal formats permanently, since there is no rotation to "correct" these "mistakes", and since these cards are often not made and designed for these formats, they end up creating situations where they become instant Staples or even break these formats entirely by unplanned interactions with an old package of cards, as Valki, God of Lies did before the errata in Cascade mechanics or as Underworld Breach interacted with Lion's Eye Diamond and Brain Freeze. However, these new cards will be, when they do not dominate these eternal formats, forcing their adaptation with the inclusion of these new cards, something that has always occurred in a format like Legacy: decks like Merfolks were once considered the best deck of the format, the archetypes were different before Tarmogoyf or Delver of Secrets, Thoughtseize replaced Duress when it was released, Ponder and Dark Confidant became large Staples, cards like Terravore, Vendilion Clique, Young Pyromancer, Leovold, Emissary of Trest, and Baleful Strix were once staples, but have become obsolete according to how more powerful cards were emerging and the Metagame was changing. For some years now, we've seen a trend in recent releases to bring flashy cards capable of impacting multiple formats as another consequence of F.I.R.E, or even a planned action, so that more cards becomes multi-format staples.

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We have seen several attempts by Wizards to mitigate some of the negative aspects that are natural consequences of the game's deckbuilding, such as mitigating the flood with lands that are also spells, creatures that have an added value, either in the form of spells as Bonecrusher Giant or generating effects that create a recurring value like Goldspan Dragon, or taking it to Legacy terms, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and the now banned Dreadhorde Arcanist. Magic's power level has risen significantly over the past ten years, and each set brings one or more cards that catch players' attention for doing a lot for a single card in a proportion where it wasn't common to see in the past, and that goes from stronger Planeswalkers to ever more efficient creatures. And since 2019, we started to have sets dedicated not only to the inclusion of reprints aimed to eternal formats, but also aimed at the inclusion of cards that could not enter the Standard because they are much stronger than what Wizards itself sees as acceptable for its rotating format. Modern Horizons and Modern Horizons II are two of the most powerful sets ever released in the game, and they had a huge impact on Legacy. Modern Horizons brought in a series of problematic cards that significantly altered competitive formats, including a common artifact that is now banned from essentially every eternal formats for generating too many color pie breaks, plus a Planeswalker that essentially invalidated most of the creatures played in Legacy and created Wasteland locks, and also brought in new archetypes that remained as balanced such as Hogaak and Urza decks. But, particularly, I consider Modern Horizons II a way more impactful set to Legacy than its predecessor, as it has several cards that significantly changed eternal formats without necessarily breaking them in half right away, which for me makes it much more important than a set that breaks formats, and when its cards are banned, they go back to what they were before these cards were included because they don't polarize the format for a few months. Instead, they change the way you play that format forever. Consider the number of Modern Horizons II cards that are commonly played in Legacy right now:
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Most of these cards are practically mandatory staples to play Legacy these days, and some of the most played strategies include at least one of these cards in their lists. Essentially, Modern Horizons II raised Modern and Legacy's sheer power level, and technically “rotated” both formats at unprecedented speed, where all the high-impact inclusions came in just a single release, rather than separate releases during the year.

Delver and Power Creep

When it comes to the Legacy Tempo decks these days, there are three Modern Horizons II cards that stand out: Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, Dragon's Rage Channeler, and Murktide Regent. Regarding the red creatures, Pedro wrote an article where explains how he considers these creatures the best red creatures ever printed, and I believe his analysis digs deeper into what I'll try to use as a basis here.
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Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer is the most controversial Modern Horizons II card for Legacy since it was revealed during the spoiler season, as it was clear that the albino monkey would define the format because its abilities were incredibly synergistic for a low cost, it generates constant card advantage and mana advantage, and a strategy that can play it early and protect it efficiently for a few turns will be way ahead the opponent on resources.

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In many ways, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer is compared by players to the banned Dreadhorde Arcanist and Deathrite Shaman, but this is a long subject, which needs a less cursory analysis than the one that I'm proposing for this particular article, with matchup data analysis, among other factors that deserve an article of their own. What I can say is that, commonly, the albino monkey is the card that needs to be answered by the opponent, and it literally does not require any setup to be played. The amount of advantage he offers over the course of turns can simply dominate the game in the same way these cards used to, and within that context, there are decks that are more punished for the times a Ragavan deals damage and decks that are less punished for this same factor, and here I need to mention the article by another Legacy writer, João, who did an article in July mentioning which decks can be used to play in a format defined by Ragavan.
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A card that stands out better in direct comparison to Delver of Secrets is Dragon's Rage Channeler because, unlike Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, it's not a card that dominates the game on its own with basically no effort, and because the direct comparison is more obvious since the end result for both are a 3-power flying creature. However, both cards have their advantages and disadvantages, and while Delver of Secrets can flip much faster and easier than Dragon's Rage Channeler, the new red drop not only has the advantage of coming into play “transformed” when you hit Delirium, as the card has an ability that helps enable it by doing something the deck already naturally wants to do: play noncreature spells. In other words, Dragon's Rage Channeler is essentially a Delver of Secrets that already enters the battlefield transformed under the right conditions, isn't a Pyroblast target (and Hydroblast is not commonly used in Legacy), and that makes all your spells have Surveil 1 to speed up its ability, and these decks don't lack the means to have four or more card types in your graveyard. Lands are easily put into a Graveyard with Fetchlands and Wasteland, the deck uses a significant number of Instants, Ponder and Expressive Iteration are Sorceries that have become staples and certainly a creature will die during the course of the game, or you'll throw a creature to the graveyard with Surveil 1. So while Delver of Secrets is just an aggressive drop that attacks with evasion since the early game, Dragon's Rage Channeler is a card that does essentially the same thing while still allowing for a certain level of top manipulation, which is essential for any Turbo Xerox deck. And there's also another essential reason for Dragon's Rage Channeler to be present as a pillar of the “new” Tempo Decks:
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Gurmag who? Ethereal what? Although I admit that the cards that make up the new versions of Tempo Decks are the combination of Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer + Dragon's Rage Channeler with the already well-established Delver decks shell in Legacy, with efficient cantrips, low-cost answers and free counterspells, Murktide Regent looks like a huge payoff because it will commonly be the ultimate endgame as a gigantic 8/8 Flying creature that doesn't die for cards like Prismatic Ending, Fatal Push or Lightning Bolt.

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In addition, multiple copies of Murktide Regent can serve both as a pitch to Force of Will in an early or mid-game, as well as to feed each other, since you can use a second copy of the dragon to increase the power of a copy that is already in play. And what happens when your early drops, in addition to generating value, feed your endgame, often enabling you to use it even in the first turns of the game by producing extra mana, as Ragavan does, or more cards for the creature to feed on, as Channeler does? You have such a powerful and so synergistic with each other engine that cards like Delver of Secrets seem to become redundant or even bad for the strategy the deck proposes to do because it's a card that seems to be “outside” the synergies that the deck's creature suite provides.
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I recently played Izzet Tempo in Modern and was surprised at how the synergy between the creature package and the rest of the deck never fails to impress me for its flexibility and ability to handle unfavorable situations at the right timing, and in a format like Legacy, where the counterspells and cantrips package is much more efficient and where the format's balance pillar is precisely the Tempo decks, it is even more evident how the combination of these three cards can easily define a new era for the "Delver decks", where Delver of Secrets is no longer the pillar that powers the strategy, but a useful addition on occasion.

The Value of Interaction

Again, I need to emphasize here how much Magic is a resources game, and each card played is a proposition between the players and how they want to develop the game When you make your play, such as casting a Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer on an empty board, you're making the following proposal: "I'll attack with this creature next turn and start accumulating value." It is up to the opponent to decide how he will respond to your proposal. Will he make a threat on his turn? Will he counter your Ragavan to prevent you from accumulating value? Will he respond with a removal, or will he accept your proposal and allow Ragavan to stay at the board the next turn to attack him? If the opponent decides to remove your Ragavan, he's making his counterproposal: "I'm spending a resource to prevent you from accumulating more resources in the long run." Will you respond with a Daze and throw yourself back at mana and resources in hand to protect him? Will you play a Force of Will and generate a significant card disadvantage to keep the Ragavan in play? Or it's better if the opponent spends this resource, and you keep yours to respond to his threats or to protect another threat in your hand because Ragavan probably won't do much since the opponent's deck has an easy way to block or overcome the advantages it can give you? These accounts are relatively easy to analyze when talking about powerhouse cards like Ragavan, but what about a threat that sets the clock? Would you make the same decisions when protecting a Delver of Secrets or a Tarmogoyf? Since Modern Horizons II came out, most times, I find it unlikely that it's worth spending your resources in this way to protect a Delver of Secrets.
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I'll try to exemplify this with my personal experience: one of my favorite moments in my history with Legacy was when I placed second in Alpha Legacy with this Dimir Shadow list, before Gitaxian Probe and Deathrite Shaman were banned because it was my first official Legacy event, and I was playing an archetype of which I had a lot of experience in Modern, but little practical experience in Legacy, despite being a format in which I followed the results and decks faithfully.

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Because of this inexperience, I followed some general lines in my head about how I should use my resources, and a key point of these patterns included that Delver of Secrets was the card I didn't need to worry about protecting in most circumstances against fair decks, and that it served, for the most part, to pressure unfair decks in a way that no other creatures I had could in early-game. The real threats on the list were Death's Shadow and Gurmag Angler, they were the cards I was supposed to protect, especially my 8/8 for one mana. My Thoughtseizes other than the first turns against unknown opponents, in hands without Gitaxian Probe, should be used to ensure my Death's Shadow stay in play, my Force of Will should ensure that it would resolve or to protect it, my removals should be directed mainly to cards that presented some danger to how my game was developing, in particular Deathrite Shaman because it gave reach so that the opponent could punish me for losing too much life while serving as a blocker. The only exception was Daze, as I wouldn't commonly have the resources needed to maintain Daze's usefulness when my Death's Shadows were in play, as it required a setup that was not always possible in the first turns. And the reason was simple: The card that would win me the game on most occasions wasn't Delver of Secrets, it was Death's Shadow on an empty board. Now, comparing to the current environment, not even Dazes are mostly worth to use to protect Delver of Secrets because Ragavan and Dragon's Rage Channeler don't need too much setup to be good or the very use of Daze to protect them already contributes to the necessary setup, and adds much more value throughout the game, and a hand that includes Ragavan + Daze has the potential to take the game on its own, which obviously has a lot to do with how busted the monkey is. In addition, it is also necessary to measure the usefulness of these cards throughout the game. How long will it take for the damage dealt by a Delver of Secrets to be mitigated by an Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath or blocked by an Endurance? And within this logic, again, it's better, in 2021 Magic, to have and protect cards that have added value rather than looking to spend your resources on creatures that "only attacks". So, in the current context, where threats in general have added value, a creature like Delver of Secrets actually ends up becoming obsolete in Legacy because the creatures available with Modern Horizons II proves to be much more efficient for what "Delver decks" proposes to do.

The Advantages of not playing Delver

The main advantage of not playing Delver of Secrets currently is to have flexible slots that can be used in many ways, without necessarily losing the clock needed to win the game against non-interactive decks. Which means you can use these slots to improve interactive matchups, or add powerful engines which allows attacking from other angles.
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The first list to adopt this measure was Jeskai Standstill, a deck that tries to abuse Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer or Urza's Saga with Standstill to generate plenty of card advantage from the opponent when demanding immediate anwers for its threats. Urza's Saga is another card that interacts very well with basically every card in the new Delver decks package: Ragavan grows the land's Golem tokens with his Treasure tokens, the land is an enchantment, which is important for Dragon's Rage Channeler's Delirium and the fact that it fetches an artifact from the deck and puts it into play has many advantages in adding redundancy to the list or creating a toolbox for the deck, including Retrofitter Foundry as a recurring token resource, or Mishra's Bauble as a free cantrip that also enables Delirium, or Soul-Guide Lantern to make it easier to play against the mirror.

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The deck also uses a more efficient interaction package to deal with larger creatures like Swords to Plowshares, which exile cards like Murktide Regent and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath. Although the first versions used to play Dragon's Rage Channeler, currently the deck seems to be moving towards a more Control-oriented spectrum and leaving aside the clock imposed by the card.
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The Izzet version abdicates Standstill in favor of shell closer to Izzet Delver, but with the same advantages that using Urza's Saga has, which also enables the use of other utility lands such as Wasteland while retaining a more stable manabase than the Jeskai version, and with a faster clock as it doesn't relinquish Dragon's Rage Channeler and doesn't play cards like Swords to Plowshares.
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Another interesting option in Delverless lists is to improve the attrition matchups, something relevant especially against archetypes that play well against more Tempo-oriented versions, such as Bant Control that uses Endurance and Ice- Fang Coatl to handle its threats with ease, while Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath wins the game on their own. In this way, it is possible to use more efficient answers against the opponent's threats, while sacrificing some of its speed, which might ensure a better focus on fair games and resources exchanges at the expense of a better matchup against unfair decks that, in its majority, are not so present in the format today, and even if they are, you still have the disruptions and a fast enough clock to win these games. Within these variants, I believe the inclusion of Planeswalkers proves to be an option to consider. In particular, Teferi, Time Raveler and Narset, Parter of Veils can provide enough resources for the deck to keep up with the other “fair decks”.

The Advantages of playing Delver

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Although Delver of Secrets is possibly no longer part of the core of Tempo decks in Legacy, that doesn't mean the card has become totally useless, and versions with it are still the most played variant, which may be the result of players' habit, or because it is the most reliable list. Starting with the obvious, the inclusion of Delver means a higher number of threats, which is a very relevant point in matchups where removals are prevalent and where it is not always possible to guarantee that your threats remain on the board, and a smaller amount of creatures can mean that the deck has difficulty executing its aggressive game plan if the opponent can handle its first threats Here again comes the factor that Delver of Secrets is a less impactful threat than the other creatures the list currently uses, which means that a removal spent on it will often mean one less removal on a threat that generates more value over time, and likewise, a removal spent on a Dragon's Rage Channeler is one less removal Delver of Secrets has to face. Another relevant point is that there are matches where your best option is to attack from the air because your opponent's board position on the ground is more impactful than yours, making Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Urza's Saga useless at establishing pressure. Here, we can exemplify decks like Hogaak, Elves, Selesnya Depths or Death and Taxes as archetypes where the best strategy is to remove punctual threats while attacking with your flying creatures. Last but not least, Delver of Secrets provides an extra and fast clock against unfair decks, more efficiently providing the game's plan to attack quickly while using your disruptions to delay the combo long enough.

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Conclusion

That was my analysis of how power creep may have dethroned Delver of Secrets from Legacy's top spot, making it obsolete compared to more recent cards. I'd like to point out that I don't think it's written in stone that the card has become obsolete and doesn't deserve more space in the Tempo decks, and the lists that get the best results still run two to four copies of it. However, it is also necessary to analyze and admit that there are circumstances in the format that are against its effectiveness, both in terms of the threats used by the other decks and the interactions that currently exist in the format, requiring that your creatures generates at least a minimum value before being removed. Legacy has changed a lot in the last ten years, and more and more cards with powerful abilities have emerged and impacted the eternal formats, which could mean that “beatdown” creatures like Delver may no longer have the prestige space they used to, and interestingly, this shift in times was also something we've seen in the past decade, when more powerful cards like Stoneforge Mystic, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Knight of the Reliquary and Delver of Secrets have also substantially changed how we played Legacy and Magic as a whole. Time will tell whether Delver has really aged badly over the past decade, whether the new additions present in Modern Horizons II will make it a relic of the past in Legacy's competitive landscape, and whether this change will be permanent or just a reflection of the format's current state. Either way, obsolete or not, the card will always have its place in history, and its legacy will be permanent in the way we build decks in every competitive format. Thanks for reading!
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Romeu

Writer and translator for Cards Realm. Plays virtually Magic: The Gathering competitive formats. Pauper Masters' Organizer.

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