Delver is the most popular archetype in Legacy and it is important to know how to navigate this matchup if you want to succeed in a tournament. This has historically been a very good matchup for Lands as most of our lands (Dark Depths, Wasteland, Maze of Ith) are strong and we have inevitability with Life from the Loam. However, I think that the matchup has gotten harder in 2019 / 2020 as new printings have improved the Delver side (Dreadhorde Arcanist, Force of Negation, Oko, Thief of Crowns, and Brazen Borrower to name a few). I still believe that we (can build our deck in a way so that we) are favoured but the games are often interactive and the skill level of the pilots will have a large impact on the outcome of the match.
Playing against Delver also means that we should talk about Delver decks and their core principle. I think the German Lands Master Jon Knoll has described this well.
Delver ALWAYS need to be ahead on the board. If they’re behind, they lost. Sometimes this can be a marginal advantage like a single creature but no lands – and if they use FoW/FoN to delay your answers for just a little bit, it might be already enough. Playing Delver is like a “resource dance” where you control your opponent and play out marginal gains because it’s not about winning by a lot but winning at all.
It often feels like good Delver players always have the right card at the exact right time. This is because they are really good at valuing their resources, and they will utilize their cards optimally already from turn 1.
There are many different flavours of Delver decks and this is how I would rank them in terms of how hard they are to play against.
- UR Delver is hardest because they play basic lands and resilient threats such as Dreadhorde Arcanist and True-Name Nemesis. UR Delver also plays main deck answers to Marit Lage in the form of Brazen Borrower as well as sideboard bombs in Blood Moon and Price of Progress.
- UW Delver is also harder than the 3-color versions because they play basic lands as well as Swords to Plowshares to answer our Marit Lage. They also play annoying sideboard cards such as Back to Basics.
- RUG Delver has a shaky manabase but very powerful cards.
- Grixis Delver has a shaky manabase but resilient threats in the form of Gurmag Angler and Dreadhorde Arcanist. Bitterblossom can also be a pain to play against.
- Death Shadow is the easiest version as they have a shaky manabase and no card advantage. Their threats also line up poorly against both Maze of Ith and Grove of the Burnwillows.
This guide is written from the context of Dark Lands, with 2-3 Abrupt Decay in the main deck, but these concepts are also valid for the other color combinations of (Thespian Stage plus Dark Depths) Lands.
The most important aspect of this game is to get ahead on mana. We are the clunkier deck so we want to have access to an early Mox Diamond or Exploration. It’s unlikely that we will beat a Delver deck without mana acceleration.
The G1’s where we win typically involve either of the below scenarios.
- We resolve a T1 Exploration and make a 20/20 on T2 that our opponent fails to answer. I think this strategy is very good vs current iterations of RUG Delver as their only G1 answer to Marit Lage is Oko, Thief of Crowns and we can often play around that card.
- We disrupt the opponent’s early threats and then make a 20/20 on turn 3-5 that our opponent fails to answer.
- We get ahead on mana by resolving an early Exploration or Mox Diamond and then manage to Wastelock our opponent. Ideally we also find a Tabernacle along the way to wipe our opponent’s board.
I do not have any real statistics to back this up but my gut tells me that Scenario 1 and 2 happens more often than Scenario 3 in G1’s against Delver.
The G1s where we lose typically involve either of the below scenarios.
- Something goes horribly wrong with our plan and we fail to limit their mana and hence they take advantage of their lower curve and overrun us with threats. If you ever find yourself in the late game and your opponent has 5-6 lands in play then you will have most likely lost this game. Here are some examples of things that can go horribly wrong against Delver in G1.
- We have T1 Exploration but they have a Force of Negation for our Life from the Loam and we fail to find a second one.
- They play T1 Delver and then counter our Exploration.
- They have a Wasteland for our only green source and we cannot cast our spells.
- We have a fast Marit Lage but they have an answer (such as Oko, Thief of Crowns or Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft).
- Our opponent goes fetch land into fetch land into Dreadhorde Arcanist and we do not have an immediate answer. Dreadhorde Arcanist is such an overpowered card that it will run away with most games where he gets to attack.
- We manage to control their mana but we stabilize the board too late (when we are below 3 life) and they top deck a Volcanic Island for the lethal Lightning Bolt. These are the games where our choices did end up mattering. I suggest that you revisit these games afterwards and look for small decisions that made you lose. Here are some examples of misplays that I have done against Delver opponents in these types of games.
- I chose to draw too many cards with Sylvan Library.
- I chose to play Wasteland instead of Rishadan Port and this ended up delaying my 20/20 one crucial turn.
- I tried to play around Daze instead of just killing the Delver on the spot and hence I fell too far behind.
- I chose to Wasteland my opponent in my main phase (instead of during my opponent’s upkeep) and my opponent had Stifle and then access to all mana on the following turn (and could cast Tarmogoyf or Oko, Thief of Crowns).
- I overvalued the Tabernacle + Wasteland + Loam plan against an onboard Delver (and my opponent kept drawing more lands).
- I played out Grove of the Burnwillows instead of Taiga and accidentally put my opponent on 21 life and then I couldn’t kill him in 1 turn.
- I attacked with a low life total into an opponent at 21 life (or an opponent who was able to block) because I trusted my Maze on board to defend myself next turn against attackers. I then died to a Wasteland on the next turn. A better play would have been: Attack, deal damage, use Maze on my own Marit Lage and be immune to Wasteland next turn.
Sideboarding from our side
I tend to have 6-8 sideboard cards for the Delver matchup. In order to make room for these cards I will take out 2-3 lands (Karakas, Ancient Tomb, and the 4th Rishadan Port are lands that I often cut) and some number of Gamble and Crop Rotation. Sylvan Library can also be shaved but I prefer to keep them in (at least when I am on the play). We can also cut Field of the Dead and / or Bojuka Bog but I will not cut Field unless I bring in additional win conditions (because Surgical on Dark Depths do happen in post sideboard games) and I will not cut Bog vs Delver decks that play Dreadhorde Arcanist. Here are the types of cards that I like to take in.
I expect our opponent to bring in answers to Marit Lage so I prefer to take a control / prison role in the post sideboard games, and this means that I want to have access to additional removal in my sideboard. As a general rule I want to have 4 clean answers to Dreadhorde Arcanist in the post sideboard games. This can be a combination of Abrupt Decay, Lightning Bolt, Elvish Reclaimer, and Drop of Honey (drop is the worst of these cards to answer Arcanist but it’s very good when True-Name Nemesis is popular in your meta).
I really like Pyroblast as it’s a flexible card that can help us resolve a key spell but it can also kill a Delver or Oko and even protect Marit Lage from bounce. Veil of Summer is also a good anti-counterspell card that has additional upside in saving Marit Lage from bounce and protecting Life from the Loam from Surgical Extraction (because of the draw a card trigger, not because it protects Loam, be sure to dredge). I currently prefer Pyroblast over Veil but if discard spells become more popular then I can see myself switching the two.
Choke will win most games where it resolves and it’s an absolute all star in the matchup. How to optimally Choke a Delver opponent is a science in it’s own but my general recommendation is to have a bit of patience and look for the optimal spot (either when the opponent is tapped out or when you have no other good use for your mana). I also want to mention that Rishadan Port and Choke are best friends. I know that there are some Lands decks that have shaved on Rishadan Ports for more copies of Ghost Quarter. I personally don’t like to do this, as it makes us worse against control and combo decks, and I also believe that Rishadan Port is almost as good as Ghost Quarter against Delver decks if we also run Choke.
The Japanese superstar Urawik3 has told me that he likes to bring in two Sphere of Resistance (in RG Lands) when he is on the play against Delver decks. I can see the appeal, as this can stop our opponent from casting spells and it is also a soft answer to Dreadhorde Arcanist, but it can also be dangerous as it will make our opponent’s soft counters and Wastelands better (our opponent will most likely take out some number of Daze against us but I still prefer to bring in more removal than Sphere of Resistance).
I like to bring in creatures as they are an answer to Dreadhorde Arcanist, that cannot be countered by Force of Negation, and they can also kill our opponent if our Dark Depths would be removed by Surgical Extraction (or if our opponent presents a permanent answer to Marit Lage such as Bitterblossom). Sideboarded creatures also allow us to adopt a playstyle of mana denial plus pressure and this makes us more non-linear. I expect my Delver opponent to bring out some number of Lightning Bolts against us (but not all of them) and this makes creatures better as well. This is my personal rank on how the creatures that are commonly played in Land’s sideboards line up against Delver decks.
- Elvish Reclaimer is an absolute all star in. He is cheap to cast and can come down early and roadblock a Dreadhorde Arcanist (and he can even kill an attacking Tarmogoyf due to block plus Bojuka Bog). He also gives us access to a recurring Crop Rotation and this allows us to play around their Wastelands (and Submerges) it will give us an endless stream of our own Wasteland (and Tabernacle) or find the Dark Depths combo.
- Tasigur, the Golden Fang is a fairly new technology that is very strong against Delver decks. He is cheap and will outgrow Dreadhorde Arcanist and Hooting Mandrills (and even Tarmogoyf sometimes). His activated ability will also take over the game if it is left unchecked for a few turns and it has great synergy with both Sylvan Library and Life from the Loam.
- Tarmogoyf is a gigantic monster that will roadblock an opposing Dreadhorde Arcanist and Hooting Mandrills. I think this card is strong against in particular UR Delver but it is unlikely that I will play it as it has limited usage in other matchups and no real synergy with our deck.
- Tireless Tracker is mediocre in the Delver matchup, as she is clunky and dies to Lightning Bolt, but I will typically take in 2 copies whenever I decide to add her to my sideboard. Tireless Tracker plus Exploration is an engine that doesn’t use the graveyard and we will win most games where we get to untap with her (on an even board).
Example of a Sideboard Map
Here is an example on how I would sideboard with Dark Lands with 3 Abrupt Decay in the main deck.
-1 Field / Port / Sylvan Library
-2 Crop Rotation
+1 Red Elemental Blast
+2 Elvish Reclaimer
Sideboarding from their side
Delver decks typically have 5-8 cards to take in against us. I have spoken to a few very good Delver players, such as Ark4n, LearnToLove6, TheStyle and mechint, and it seems like the consensus is to take out all 4 Daze on the draw and 0-4 copies on the play (it was actually not a consensus among these players on how many Daze they should take out vs Lands when they are on the play). I also expect my opponent to shave on some number of Lightning Bolts and conditional counterspells. Here are the types of cards that they typically will bring in against us.
They will take in 3-5 cards to fight against Life from the Loam. This is my personal rank on how the commonly played graveyard hate lines up against Lands.
- Klothys, God of Destiny is an all star against us and I expect most RUG Delver decks to play 1-2 copies of this card (as it is also very good in the Snow matchup). Klothys is impossible to remove and she will not only turn off our Loams and Wastelands but she will also increase their clock (and eventually kill us on her own). We cannot really play around Klothys, except for adopting a heavy mana denial plan, and if she resolves then she will negate our mana denial plan as she helps produce mana for the Delver deck.
- Surgical Extraction is the best possible answer to the card Life from the Loam. I currently expect all Delver decks to play 2-3 copies of this card. In the olden days (when we still played Tranquil Thicket) we could do a delicate dance around Surgical Extraction in order to play around it. This is not really the case nowadays as we will at most play 1 copy of Nurturing Peatland, and Crop Rotating for Nurturing Peatland (in order to save our Life from the Loam) is not something that comes up often. However, you can play around it by maximizing the initial value of your Loam (try to be patient and ensure that you actually get 3 cards back the first time you cast Life from the Loam). If our opponent decides to target a Wasteland or Dark Depths with Surgical Extraction then we can use Elvish Reclaimer or Crop Rotation to find another copy and place it safely in play.
- Tormod’s Crypt or Leyline of the Void are typically played when graveyard decks are very strong (such as during the Underworld Breach era earlier this year). I do not think that it is worth it to side in answers to Leyline (even when they play it) and we already have 2-3 Abrupt Decay for the other cards (but I think most Delver decks will be forced to use their Tormod’s Crypt quite early anyways).
Removal for Marit Lage
You should expect our opponent to bring in 2-3 answers to Marit Lage for the post sideboard games. This is how I rank the most commonly played answers to Marit Lage.
- Vapour Snag is the best answer to Marit Lage as it is an instant speed answer that is impossible to play around (we have already won the games where we are able to deny our Delver opponent of all mana so this doesn’t really count as playing around Vapour Snag). I think this card is less common nowadays but I still see it in some UR Delver decks.
- Bitterblossom is a great answer to Marit Lage and it is commonly played out of Grixis Delver. Bitterblossom is good because the Delver deck can play it proactively and it is an answer that is also a threat. We do have answers to this card in the form of Abrupt Decay, Tabernacle, Punishing Fire, and a copied Blast Zone with 0 counters, but it is a pain to play against an early Bitterblossom.
- Karakas is annoying as this is a permanent answer for our 20/20. I see this card in some RUG Delver sideboards (sometimes together with 1-2 Crop Rotations). Most Delver players will not play out this card (in order to save it from Wasteland) so it is possible to play around it by casting Crop Rotation for Dark Depths and making the Marit Lage in our opponent’s end step.
- Petty Theft (Brazen Borrower) is a good answer as it can be cast at instant speed and it often leaves a 3/1 body to put pressure on us and hence give us less time to find a Life from the Loam in order to re-summon the 20/20. Petty Theft costs 2 mana though and it will often be hard for the Delver deck to keep up this mana and also deploy their own threats. If you ever find that your (UR) Delver opponent is not playing cantrips nor playing a threat when you have the possibility to summon a Marit Lage then your Petty Theft alarm should go haywire and you should start looking for ways to play around this card.
- Submerge is the most popular bounce spell right now (as it is good in the RUG Delver mirror) and this is also the worst card against us. It is fairly easy to ensure that we don’t have a Forest in play when we summon our Marit Lage. We can use Elvish Reclaimer or Crop Rotation to get rid of our Forest and we can even Wasteland ourselves.
I often see my Delver opponent bringing in this card against me and I find that 60-70% of the time it wins the game for me instead of for my opponent. If we have Tabernacle, or Mox Diamond, or just a good hand with Exploration and Life from the Loam then this card will actively hurt our opponent.
This is played as a 1-of out of UR Delver and it will win 99% of the games where it resolves. We do play 2-3 copies of Abrupt Decay but I find that these don’t really line up against Blood Moon as the Delver opponent can just cast the card when we are tapped out. I typically won’t bring in dedicated answers to Blood Moon (such as Force of Vigor) as these will be dead in all games where our opponent has not drawn their single copy of Blood Moon (and this will end up costing us more losses in the long run).
Game 2 & 3
Post sideboard games differ from G1’s in the sense that.
- Life from the Loam is worse (as a recurring engine) since our opponent has graveyard hate.
- Marit Lage is more vulnerable (as a win codition) as our opponent has brought in answers to it.
- Our life total will be less pressured as we have more removal spells and our opponent has taken out some number of burn spells.
- We will have a 3 mana bomb in Choke, and they may have their own 3 mana bomb in Klothys or Blood Moon (on top of the potential Oko from G1).
Postboard games therefore slow down and they tend to be more about resource optimization and mana denial. It is unlikely that we will simply run over our opponent with recurring Life from the Loam, and likewise I will not just jam a Marit Lage in games where I am already ahead. There is no need to expose myself to something stupid like Vapour Snag + Surgical Extraction if I have the game in a state where my opponent’s board is empty and I control their mana. Patience is key in order to win these types of post sideboard games and when I find myself in these situations I will try to read what cards my opponent can have in their hand and play around these (to the extent possible). I have had games where I have resolved a Choke, with several Rishadan Ports in play, and then decided to not cast another spell for the rest of the game. I did not want to give my opponent the opportunity to Daze a spell and return one of the tapped lands to their hand. I opted to simply discard to hand size each turn and wait until I naturally drew the Thespian Stage plus Dark Depths combo (and I also destroyed all my Forests with my own Wastelands) before making the 20/20 for the win.
This does not mean that we cannot win one of the post sideboard games with a fast Marit Lage. If I have a T2 Marit Lage (ideally one that can play around Submerge) then I will jam almost every time. Also, if we are behind (say we have mulliganed and our opponent has some pressure and they have managed to remove all of our Life from the Loams with Surgical Extraction) then I will of course create a hail mary Marit Lage at first opportunity. But it is important to understand what our opponent can have and when it is appropriate to try to play around these cards. This is not easy, and it requires practice, and I still mess it up from time to time (especially when I am tired after a full day of work or if I am distracted at home with screaming kids).
In this last section I have tried to highlight my thoughts on some of the most important cards in the Lands vs Delver matchup.
Wasteland (from our side)
Wasteland is one of our best cards in the matchup as their deck only runs 14-15 colored mana sources (and only 6 lands that actually tap for coloured mana) so it’s relatively common that we can wastelock them out of the game. Here are some common situations with Wasteland and my thoughts around them.
Wasteland vs T1 Delver
We are on the Draw and our opponent leads with Volcanic Island plus Delver of Secrets. A common question from the Lands player is if we should Wasteland here or lead with Exploration (into a potential Daze). I will typically lead with Exploration as it is important to get ahead on mana in this matchup and even if they Daze the Exploration we are actually ahead on mana in this game. Here are some situations where I will lead with Wasteland though.
- Our opponent has mulliganed. This makes it more likely that they kept a 1 land hand and the T1 Wasteland can win this game for us.
- If I have kept a hand with multiple Wastelands but no answer to Dreadhorde Arcanist then I am also inclined to lead with Wasteland. This is because if they Force the Exploration, and then slams Arcanist, our hand is useless and we will most likely have lost this game on the spot.
- If I suspect that our opponent runs Stifle then I am also more inclined to lead with Wasteland now when our opponent is currently tapped out.
Wasteland vs Marit Lage
Wastelanding is a symmetrical effect i.e. it puts both players down a land so it is important to understand when to not use the Wasteland. There are typically two scenarios where it is correct to not Wasteland our opponent.
- We are too far behind. Say for example that we are being beaten down with 1-2 Tarmogoyfs and our opponent has a few lands in play. In this situation our only out is to assemble Thespian Stage plus Dark Depths so we should typically not Wasteland them (even if we have Loam going) as we want to get to 4 mana faster. We also want to save our Wasteland in case our opponent finds a Wasteland of their own (as this will enable us to make a Marit Lage by wasting our opponent’s Wasteland and hence forcing them to use it (and then we can copy our Dark Depths in response to their Wasteland activation).
- If my plan is to make a quick Marit Lage then I typically will not use my Wasteland. Say for example that my starting hand has Wasteland and Mox Diamond and Rishadan Port and Thespian Stage and Dark Depths. In this situation it is better to lead with Mox plus Port as we can Port our opponent T1 and T2 and still summon a Marit Lage on T3.
Wasteland (from their side)
Wasteland is also one of their best cards as it can cut us off green mana as well as stopping us from making a Marit Lage. I think many Delver opponents will try to color screw us and this is something that we can take advantage of. Say for example that we are on the play and we have an excellent starting hand like the one below.
In this situation I will lead with Taiga into Exploration into Rishadan Port, as this will indicate that I am low on green sources, and it may trick my Delver opponent into going T1 Wasteland our Taiga (and this will put us way ahead on mana which is key in this matchup).
Daze is a very important card in the Delver matchup and all Delver decks will run 4 copies of this card in G1. I will play around Daze if it doesn’t cost me anything such as in this sequence.
Another time when it’s free to play around Daze is if my opponent has no board on T3 and we draw Choke. In this case it’s basically free to wait until T4 to slam the Choke. Speaking about Choke, I did mention this above but, if we have resolved Choke then we need to be super careful with casting new spells as Daze will allow our Delver opponent to pick up a land and then play it out again untapped. This is extra important if we are at a low life total and afraid of Lightning Bolt.
However, in many other situations playing around Daze will mean that we end up taking too much damage just to die to a Lightning Bolt or Bolt + Arcanist + Bolt at a later stage. If our opponent is pressuring our life total then I will typically not play around Daze. What we can do instead is to sequence our spells in a way so that our opponent is being hurt by the lost land drop. Here are some basic examples of this.
- Tabernacle Level 1. Assume that we are on the draw and our opponent starts with Volcanic Island plus Delver. Our hand is Mox Diamond and Tabernacle and Life from the Loam and some other stuff. In this scenario I will lead with Mox Diamond as if our opponent Daze it here then we can play Tabernacle and kill the Delver.
- Tabernacle Level 2. Let’s assume that our opponent from above replay their Volcanic Island into another Delver but then miss a few land drops. In this situation our opponent will tap their Volcanic Island every turn and hit us with the Delver. There is absolutely no reason to play around Daze at this point (if our opponent uses Daze here then they will lose their Delver at the next upkeep). I will happily ensure that I am tapped out and then cast Crop Rotation or Punishing Fire in my opponent’s end step.
If our Delver opponent is on the play and leads with “land go” then my Stifle alarm goes haywire. If the land was a Volcanic or Tropical Island then I am 99% sure that our opponent has Stifle but if it was a fetch land then it is possible that our opponent has kept a hand with 2 fetches and Dreadhorde Arcanist. Stifle is a pain to play against as it can shut us of colors by targeting our fetches and it can also counter a Wasteland activation (or god forbid a Blast Zone activation) and it can slow down Marit Lage by one crucial turn. It cannot stop the Marit Lage completely, as if our opponent stifles the Dark Depths trigger it will just retrigger, but it can slow us down by countering the Thespian Stage activation.
I will typically try to play around Stifle as íf our opponent holds up mana every turn then we are actually slowing them down (it is similar to a “free” Rishadan Port every turn). If we have no way to play around the Stifle then we should fetch or use our Wasteland in our opponent’s upkeep. This is because in this way we are at least making them use their mana to cast Stifle and hence they cannot spend this mana on something else until next turn.
Overall, much of how to play against Delver is built on the premise we led with; Delver needs to stay ahead on board. If we are able to deny them this advantage, we can usually come out ahead in the matchup. Of course, doing that takes a strong understanding of how both decks play out and the various interactions between our tools and theirs. My aim in this article has been to share my own understanding of those interactions; hopefully it has been informative.
This article was written by alli; he can be found on twitter at alli_on_mtgo.