How Not to Play Against RUG Delver – a game analysis from the NRG Legacy Open

This past Sunday I had the pleasure of playing in the NRG Legacy MTGO Open. After a 4-0 start I went into round 5 with pretty good breakers, and with a good chance of just drawing in to top 8 should I manage another win.

I was playing a fairly stock Jund Lands list, with nothing too special in it. I ran two maindeck Field of the Dead and two Maze of Ith because I expected a lot of control and a lot of Delver, and those expectations were correct.

The event was open decklist and in round 5 I was paired against RUG Delver. I felt pretty good about this as I had just beaten RUG in round 4. Moreover, looking at my opponent’s decklist I noticed a couple key things. First, they had no Force of Negation. Second, they had no Dreadhorde Arcanist. Instead of these they had more big green beaters (Goyf, Mandrils) and 3 Stifles. In fact, their entire threat package was green, and the only red cards in the maindeck were 4 Lightning Bolt and 2 Chain Lightning. Their sideboard had virtually no graveyard hate, not even a lonely Surgical Extraction.

All this made me feel even more confident. Force of Negation is a huge problem for people who want to cast Loam over and over, and Arcanist is one of the scariest cards from Delver. Not having to deal with those AND not having to think about Surgical should make the matchup an easy one.

Little did I know that my opponent was a truly skilled wizard and would eventually end up winning quite convincingly in 2 games.

I made a number of play mistakes in those games, particularly the first one, and I thought it might be instructive for me (and hopefully for you, dear reader), to go through that first game and see exactly what went wrong.

Before I get to that though, I should just say that none of this is intended to take away from my opponent’s victory. I don’t really understand the weird logic behind it, but I know some people seem to think that if it’s their mistakes that lead their opponent to victory, then somehow that victory is undeserved. I couldn’t disagree more – I made mistakes, my opponent did not, and the better player won. This is purely an educational exercise, not an excuse.

With that said, let’s get to it!

I was on the play in game one, and drew this as my opening hand:

This hand has removal and an engine, but no accelaration. Against Delver, especially Delver without Arcanist, the matchup is all about tempo. You will lose if they keep you off balance long enough to kill you, but if you can pull out ahead and deny their mana effectively, you can usually turn that into a win. This hand also has only one green source, and a nonbasic one at that; if my opponent has a Wasteland I’m just dead in the water. Last, I can’t cast the Decay or the Gamble, so we’re on a virtual 5-card hand until we draw a fetchland or a Diamond.

I mulliganed, and got this:

This hand may seem land-light, but if we can get Loam to resolve we should be good to go. Knowing they have no Force of Negation, this hand has a great chance of setting up a waste-lock, and it has removal to boot. I put back Sylvan Library here; Crop Rotation and Punishing Fire were other options. I kept those because Crop Rotation for Tabernacle is a key way to get your mana denial to really pay off, and Loam should offset the negative effects of sacrificing a land should it get countered. Punishing Fire was a piece of removal I felt I wanted so that I could deal with an early threat.

In retrospect, both Crop Rotation and Fire were operating as removal in this hand (since Rotation was basically set to find Tabernacle). In the opponent’s list, Fire only kills Delver, so it may not have been worth keeping over the Library.

Regardless, we kept Diamond, Loam, Rotation, Punishing Fire, Wasteland, Port.

I played these such that at the end of turn 1 my field looked like this:

I discarded Port to Diamond because I wanted to have a Wasteland in play and ready to go next turn should I want to Waste them. Then, naturally, I loamed it back.

My opponent played fetchland into Delver. On turn 2 I dredged Loam to find new Lands, so that at the beginning of my main phase, this was the board:

At this point, maybe take a moment to consider what you would do. I believe the correct play is waste my opponent’s land, play Port, and then cast Loam on the Peatland and two Wastelands in the graveyard. This puts our opponent back on no mana, lets us cast Loam for the full 3 lands, and does not give our opponent a window to use Daze to protect their land or try to counter our spell.

Of course, in the moment, I took a much more aggressive line, one that probably cost me the game:

My thinking here was to rotate for Tabernacle and then waste them so that the Delver would die. This line is too aggressive for a couple reasons. First, if the Crop Rotation is countered, as happened here, then wastelanding becomes a horrible idea since you’d be relying on the top of your deck to find the next land to cast Loam. Second, even if it isn’t countered, wastelanding is questionable because again, you’d be relying on the top of your deck to find the mana for Loam. It is easy to lose track of the fact that many of your spells and spell-lands put you down on mana in the long term, and I made that mistake here.

With this done, I couldn’t really waste my opponent. Their Trop lived to tap another day, and on their turn as Wasteland joined it. This was a dangerous situation as my mana was already precarious.

I had no Loam to dredge, so I took a natural draw, finding Gamble. At the start of my main phase on turn 3, the situation was this:

At this point, if I do not tap my Wasteland, my opponent can’t really waste me, since I’ll just waste them back. Still, I do need to start Loaming; just passing the turn isn’t really feasible. One option might be to Gamble for another land, probably Grove, and try to start Loaming next turn.

I didn’t really consider that; if the land you Gamble for is discarded (a 1 in 3 chance, so not unlikely), you’ve gained nothing and lost a turn of possible dredging and land drops. Instead, I chose to cast Life from the Loam on the lands in my graveyard (Port, Waste, Peatland). I don’t hate it, since the upside is good, but it’s a high-risk Gamble.

This point was when the initial mistake of the turn before really came back to bite me. By Dazing the Loam, my opponent not only ensured that they’d be able to waste my Wasteland with no fear of retaliation, but also stopped me from filling my hands with the lands I’d need to recover. Any countermagic on Loam here would give them this advantage. If I had wasted them and loamed last turn, however, they wouldn’t be able to cast non-free countermagic and I’d have too many lands in hand to worry much about their Wasteland.

After this, my opponent once again failed to flip their delver (thank goodness for the small things). They played a fetchland and wasted my Wasteland, as predicted.

After my draw step on turn 4, the field was this:

Luckily, I drew the second land that I needed. With no Loam in hand though, I couldn’t use it. My plan here was to play the fetchland; on their next upkeep I could fetch and then use Punishing Fire to kill their Delver. This should buy me the time I need to recover and get my mana underneath me.

So I passed the turn, and on the next upkeep, did as I said. They didn’t have the Stifle, but they did have the Spell Snare. Punishing Fire was countered. I also make another crucial mistake – I fetch a Bayou instead of my basic Forest. Forest and Diamond can cast every spell in my deck; there is no reason to get a Bayou. The error lets my opponent further cement their mana advantage by playing a second wasteland:

These Wastelands are effectively functioning as time walks, since every time I go down to one mana, I can’t dredge Life from the Loam. So this turn (turn 5 now) I will take another natural draw. Luckily I find another land – a Ghost Quarter. I play it and pass. I could have Gambled but anything I found would go straight to the graveyard; there’s nothing I want to put in there at the moment.

Unfortunately for me, my opponent not only plays a third Wasteland, but also a Hooting Mandrils to go with it. Their clock has sped up a lot, and it’s not really looking good. Luckily, their Wasteland and my Ghost Quarter are in a staring match, so I get to untap with two mana.

Here’s the situation in my draw step on turn 6:

There is perhaps an interesting question here of whether to dredge or to draw. I opted to dredge. Reasons to draw would be to find Punishing Fire and try to kill Delver. But with only one of those left in the deck, dredging seems to be solidly better. It will be difficult to fight through Wasteland and two creatures, but Maze of Ith could maybe get there.

I take the dredge, mill nothing of real consequence, and cast Loam on Bayou, Wasteland, Wasteland. I then play Wasteland and activate it targeting their Volcanic Island.

In retrospect, even if the game is all but lost already, this was another mistake. My way to survive is to find Maze of Ith or at least Punishing Fire/Grove to hold off their creatures. I do not have Tabernacle so hitting their mana is not a route to safety. Trying to use Maze as an answer, however, loses to their Wasteland. But I can try to get around that by hitting their Wasteland, so if I’m hitting a land that is the one to hit.

But more likely I should just play Wasteland, use it to stare down their Wasteland, and then try to find Maze next turn with Gamble.

Last, if I’m hitting a blue land, there’s a good argument for hitting the Tropical Island over the Volcanic. Trop casts all their threats, Volcanic casts only their burn spells. Hitting Volcanic here was mostly muscle memory from playing against Arcanists, but with open decklists it was likely a mistake.

Regardless, my opponent untaps, plays a fetchland, and then uses it to cast Oko. The game is well and truly over at that point, even though I dredge over both the combo pieces in the last turn.

My opponent definitely had a little luck in finding three of their Wastelands, but then my opening hand was quite strong as well and I likely could have navigated the game in a way that would have diminished the effect of their Wastelands. In particular, casting Crop Rotation on turn 2 stands out to me as the most punishing mistake. It can be easy to get so excited about wasting your opponent that you forget that using a wasteland sets you back on mana as well.

So if I were to list primary takeaways from this game I would note these:
(1) When setting up to enact a waste-lock, prioritize your ability to cast Loam over your need to hit the opponent’s mana, especially against decks that run Wasteland themselves.
(2) Delver plays a lot of countermagic. Usually, unless it’s turn 1 and you’re on the play so that the only relevant counterspell is Force of Will, you will have to draw out at least one or two counterspells before an important spell sticks.
(3) Crop Rotation is not the right card to draw countermagic out with. If I had held Sylvan Library and bottomed Rotation, turn 2 would have been much less punishing; indeed it would have been a 2 for 1 in my favor, albeit at a loss of tempo.
(4) Fetching basics against Delver is a valid strategy, and with Diamond in play it is likely just the right move 9 times out of 10.
(5) When wastelanding, have a plan about why you are targeting this land and not another. This could be a plan about cutting a color (so think about what color and why) or about denying them access to a utility land. Whatever it is, a plan should be in place.

That about wraps it up. If you’re reading this, I hope you’re able to learn from my mistakes. If you’re me, well, I hope you learn from them as well.

If this kind of article is one you enjoy, do let me know as it is fun to write and I have no shortage of games I’ve messed up to go back over and study.

Lots of love and thanks for reading!

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