(Modern) Grixis Delve Primer

Often when I have a good run with a particular deck, I feel inclined to write a primer for it.  I tried my best to delay this one because I felt that the moment I did, I’d jinx myself and all the good things I’d say about the deck would go sour in my consecutive experiences with it.  It’s an odd superstition but I’ve got a record of cold streaks to prove it.  The longer I delay, however, the more I become a believer in Grixis Delve. 

I’ll run at least 25 different modern decks in paper events and MTGO leagues in the last year but I keep coming back to Delve.  Leading up to the most recent RPTQ, I found myself tossing around ideas for which deck stood the best ground in this diverse meta.  Here is the criteria I considered for this choice:

  1. Does the deck have a respectable matchup against the most commonly played decks in modern?
  2. Does the deck pack versatile and effective sideboard options based on its color and construction?
  3. Does the deck tend towards diverse lines of play instead of a linear gameplan?
  4. Is the deck any fun?

Let’s start with #4 because that is the most important.  Is this deck any fun?  Yes!  I mean look at this thing…

Corey’s Grixis Delve (Updated Dec 2016)

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Link to deck page on MTG Goldfish

This is an extremely relevant factor in deciding whether or not a deck is a good choice.  If you enjoy playing it, you remain engaged and alert while you do.  Think of a deck you haven’t enjoy playing.  You’ve probably lost games by going on autopilot and running through the tedious and mundane gameplan of, for example, dredge dredge dredge and hope I hit some Narcomoebas and Prized Amalgams.  Meanwhile your opponent is crafting a win condition while answering your predictable strategy from a script of sideboard plans.  For a deck like Grixis Delve you’ll have to keep on your toes and creatively think of ways to squeeze value out of your spells while considering which opposing threats can be allowed and which must be answered.  This requires a good knowledge of the meta and the interworkings of each engine.  It is quite rewarding to pilot.

Grixis is Extremely Versatile 
This deck is not exclusively a tempo deck.  In certain match-ups, we’ll play as a control deck.  Shifting Delver to the sideboard in favor of draw spells and extra land is our official way of doing so but either strategy is viable in game 1.  Beyond differences in your match-up, your opening hand may be a determining factor in these two lines.  Consider these two G1 options…

Opening Hand #1: Tempo

Opening Hand #2: Control

Key Players

Gitaxian Probe
I’d like to highlight Gitaxian Probe as a key contributor to this decision making process.  As I mentioned earlier, knowing how your opponent’s deck works goes a long way when piloting a reactive deck like Delve.  Knowing your opponent’s hand provides incredibly valuable information about how to effectively use specified removal and control spells such as Spell Pierce, Spell Snare, or Dispel.  Additionally, having a free spell to pair with Young Pyromancer or increase the delve count to power out an early Tasigur is a plus.

Snapcaster Mage
This card is honestly the centerpiece of this deck.  It’s not quite fair to name it after Delver of Secrets when Snapcaster is truly the one pulling al of the weight.  We prioritize one-mana control spells because they play well with Snap.  We are allowed to play small quantities of these spells because of Snapcaster’s ability to replicate and reuse the ones that are most efficient.

Collective Brutality
Packing just one copy of Brutality makes an incredible impact.  In some match-ups this card can single-handedly win you the game (Burn) and the discard function is useful in providing information vs. combo decks and strategically removing pieces like Scapeshift, Ad Nauseum, or Become Immense.

How Do We Fair Against the Meta?

As I am writing this, MTG Goldfish lists the 5 most played modern decks as Jund (8.14% of the meta), Infect (7.97%), Dredge (6.81%), Naya Burn (6.48%), and Affinity (5.98%) based on finishes.  Admittedly, this information lacks the total appearance rate which differs quite a bit in paper vs. MTGO.  Though Jund posts the highest percentage of tournament finishes, the deck’s price tag amoung other factors may affect the frequency of appearance in actual games.  Dredge on the other hand is a more affordable deck and possibly sees more play overall.  I think we can all agree that having game against Dredge may be the #1 concern when deciding a deck in this environment.

Beating Dredge
Aside from playing a deck specifically designed to beat Dredge (ie. some of the current Skred or Sun and Moon builds), many decks face the same challenges.  The Dredge graveyard plan is extremely resiliant and extremely consistent and without a piece that specifically interacts with a graveyard, this can feel like an uphill battle.  Sideboard pieces can be quite effective in shutting this strategy down however…if you draw them.  With just 15 sideboard slots in a deck, you can only commit so much space to this menace.  Of the commonly played options, Rest in Peace, Ravenous Trap, Relic of Progenitus, Surgical Extraction, Grafdigger’s Cage, I would argue that Surgical Extraction can be both the most effective and versatile option.  The card is an instant speed, zero mana engine breaker.  It can’t get much better than that.  Can it?   …can it?

Enter Snapcaster Mage.  This exonerated all-star has been warming the bench for a few months since its best friends in Splinter Twin got banned but let’s not forget how exceptional it is.  I run four Snapcaster Mages in my deck.  Please read that as four more ways to Surgically Extract your opponent’s Prized Amalgam, Bloodghast, or Conflagrate.  Whether you’ve already cast the Surgical Extraction or put it into your graveyard via Thought Scour, the Snap – Extract play should be enough to tilt the game heavily in your favor. 

Additional support for this match-up comes from a number of other versatile sideboard pieces like Anger of the Gods, Magma Spray, or Izzet Staticaster.  These cards have quite a bit of play in other matches against Voice of Resurgence, persist creatures, infect, or token strategies so consider all of these uses compressed into just three spots that masquerade as match-up specific hosers.  In this wide and varied meta-game, this utility is vital.

Spell Snare is a tough one in this match up because it can be the absolute best card vs. an opponent who wants to play Cathartic Reunion on turn 2 and total garbage vs. anyone that doesn’t.  I like to keep one in the deck with for the option of slowing Life from the Loam – Conflagrate plans if I don’t catch a T2 Cathartic Reuinion.

Board Plan v. Dredge
+3 Surgical Extraction
+1 Anger of the Gods
+1 Izzet Staticaster
+1 Magma Spray
-1 Collective Brutality
-1 Gitaxian Probe
-1 Kolaghan’s Command
-1 Spell Snare
-1 Spell Pierce
-1 Mana Leak

Beating Burn and Infect
Of the other top tier decks, I consider Infect and Burn quite favorable.  In both cases, Delve’s cheap removal and counter options can go toe to toe with all of the major threats in either deck’s arsenal.  Namely Spell Snare, Dispel, and Collective Brutality do wonders vs. Burn and Dispel, Staticaster, Electrolyze, or “insert pinpoint removal here” help against Infect.

I’ve been packing a maindeck Spell Pierce for some time now and have never once regreted it.  This card is live verses nearly every deck whether it be a combo piece that is forced early in the game or a removal spell aimed at a delve creature or Pyromancer.  It becomes much more potent when your opponent is not expecting it in game 1.  Additionally, we just can’t let some spells resolve.  Chalice on 1 for example, is pretty game ending.  Having one more answer to this on turn 1 makes a big difference.

I’m a bit ‘hot and cold’ on Gitaxian Probe in the burn match up.  Obviously, you don’t want to be shocking yourself here but the information you get from Gitaxian Probe often plays a big factor in winning with control spells.  It’s often worth keeping at least one in G2-3 to hard cast.

Additionally, going ‘full control deck’ with Desolate Lighthouse seems logical in burn however, tapping out at the end of their turn to cycle a card means that the gates are open to take a Boros Charm to the face.  There are infrequently opportunities to effectively use this.  We’ll also need quite a bit of color specific mana for cards like Dispel, Snare, Countersquall, Spell Pierce so spending your land drop on a colorless-producing land tends to be rather lackluster.

Board Plan v. Infect
+2 Dispel
+2 Countersquall
+1 Magma Spray
+1 Painful Truths
+1 Izzet Staticaster
-4 Delver
-1 Mana Leak
-2 Serum Visions

Board Plan v. Burn
+2 Dispel
+2 Countersquall
+1 Magma Spray
+1 Anger of the Gods
-2 Gitaxian Probe
-4 Delver

Beating Affinity
Against Affinity we’ve got answers to artifacts in Kolaghan’s Command or Vandalblast and packing Snapcaster Mage gives these options even more value.  Having one-for-one removal helps against “go tall” strategies involving Cranial Plating and Staticaster, Anger of the Gods, and Electrolyze can slow “go wide” strategies involving Signal Pest, Vault Skirge, and Overseer.  This match-up can be greatly improved by merely acknowledging that Etched Champion is a card.  This guy is quite difficult to beat and Mana Leak is one of the only spells that can deal with him in G1.  Be pro-active in dealing with this card rather than trying to answer it once resolved.

Board Plan v. Affinity
+1 Anger of the Gods
+1 Magma Spray
+1 Vandalblast
+1 Izzet Staticaster
+1 Ceremonious Rejection
-4 Delver
-1 Collective Brutality

Beating Jund
The Jund match-up is improved by Young Pryomancer, Painful Truths, and especially Desolate Lighthouse.  Spell Snares become quite useful in stopping opposing Tarmogoyf and Scavenging Ooze so use them sparingly.  Often it’s more important to counter one of the afformentioned creatures than a Terminate pointed at a Delver of Secrets.  Top-decking Snapcaster into a flashback Kolaghan’s Command always feels dirty as our goal is strictly to ‘out advantage’ your opponent. 

I know I want to get rid of Delvers here but I don’t often have a great alternative for it.  Countersquall and Dispel can hit some of Jund’s removal pieces or the occasional Lili but it’s not always the best choice.  Sometimes, a Surigcal Extraction can be a good way to take care of some of Jund’s most difficult threats and potentially shrink a Tarmogyf at instant speed (very much a corner case).

Board Plan v. Jund
+1 Desolate Lighthouse
+1 Painful Truths
+1 Dreadbore
+1 Countersquall
+1 Dispel
-1 Spell Pierce
-4 Delver

Beating Tron
Every deck has got its kryptonite.  For my build, it’s Tron.  I’ve run Blood Moon in the sideboard previously to make this match up slightly better.  While Blood Moon does work quite well against Tron, it changes our play style from aggression to control.  Without Blood Moon, I find myself jamming as many early creatures as I can to race my opponent.  With Blood Moon, I feel inclined to dig or mulligan until I see one.  Both plans involve a very different sideboard strategy and decision making process.  In the end, I’ve opted to admit that this is a bad match-up and try to race.

Against GW versions of Tron, we’ve got to be prepared for lifegain in spells like Blessed Alliance, Timely Reinforcements, and Thragtusk.  In any green-based tron, we’ve got to be concerned about a turn three ‘tron-fecta’ via Sylvan Scrying , Ancient Stirrings, or Expedition Map.  For that reason, I see value in running counterspells like Mana Leak and Spell Pierce which are typically quite useless late game.  Remember that if the game gets to that point, we’re probably losing anyway.  Sad but true.

Play the creatures first and attack attack attack because we can still win after our opponent resolves a Karn if we are dealing direct damage through Bolt and Snapcaster.  We can’t win by resolving creatures at that point because Karn will just eat them for dinner.  He’s got no manners.  A turn 2 Tasigur or Gurmag Angler is quite possible with two fetch lands and a Thought Scour.  Often times, this play is crucial to this race.

We’ll keep just about anything that can deal damage to a player in games 2 and 3.  Collective Brutality and Electrolyze included.  It’s reasonable to cut ‘destroy target creature’ spells here but we have to respect Wurmcoil Engine.  Kolaghan’s Command is the only spell that will be able to answer a resolved Wurmcoil in this case and it should be timed out carefully after blocks to prevent lifegain.

Board Plan vs. G Tron
+1 Ceremonious Rejection

+1 Dreadbore
+2 Countersquall
+1 Vandalblast
-2 Terminate
-1 Murderous Cut
-2 Serum Visions

Conclusion and Other Resources

This deck has a bit of a learning curve and requires a good understanding of the many decks in modern.  Once you’ve become experienced playing it, this can be a very consistent and versatile choice for any event.  Go forth and delve!

I’ll leave you with one more resource.  I “crowd-sourced” this sideboard guide on the Modern Sub-Reddit to rate a variety of possible sideboard inclusions based on their effectiveness in each match-up.

-Corey

Corey Murphy is one of two hosts of the Card Knock Life Podcast. He started playing magic in 1999, lives in Wisconsin, can touch his tongue to his nose, plays the trombone, and focuses his MTG content efforts on Modern. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You’re here for the magic content right? Ok, I’ll shut up now…

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