The Vintage Daily wasn't the only tournament I played with the deck. While I played some TP games on Magic Online and November's Power Nine Challenge it did not open my eyes in terms of figuring out why this deck is often misunderstood by many. I played paper Vintage during the past two weekends though and facing those few opponents in real life made me realize many more things than my online experiences.
There was a Vintage event held during a SCG IQ in our city. I did not expect people to show up but some actually did show up. That day, I had the opportunity to play against Car Shops, TKS Shops, EmraOath and Esper Mentor (Thoughtcast). The matchups and my records weren't really important. What was more important was the fact that I got to observe my opponents. I could observe the differences in technical play, sequencing and facial expressions - something that Magic Online does not allow. I could read my opponents and judging from their skill and reactions I could change my game plan accordingly. On Magic Online this is a bit more difficult. One needs to expect a good technical player and play accordingly. It takes a bit more time to see if the opponent is on the same page and thus figure out what kind of risky plays one can actually try (and usually it is better to stay on the safe side of things). After the Power Nine Challenge I watched some of my opponents' streams. This way I could see some decisions they made and why. I could read the chat where lines of play were discussed. While many agreed on a line of play or strategy I disagreed at certain points of the game*. Many tried to figure out the best play (in terms of value) or envision the best scenario, but when there is a fast clock in front of us we cannot afford to 'lose' our best play. This results in a tempo loss that can lose the game. Certain decks can play on defensive and taking a defensive approach against Delver can work if we have the means to stop the deck, but some decks can't stop it and those need to do everything they can to be aggressive even though it's not how the deck functions normally (this usually means the matchup is bad in general). That is certainly a difficult task, but even an uphill battle can be won.
*Note that I had all the information about my own game plan, cards in hand and overall strategy I have against those matchups. My line of play thus was skewed. If I were in the very same position and not having that much experience in that particular matchup from both sides my decision would most probably be the same as of those players.
At the SCG event I learned that Null Rod effects are not as useless as I thought against Car Shops. It stops the Crew ability. Unfortunately it does not stop Fleetwheel Cruiser from attacking once and that is something I needed to get used to fast! Obviously I haven't seen enough of the card yet, because during the November P9C, I totally forgot the card exists and I lost to it in top 8.
After the SCG tournament I played with some players just for fun. There was a debate about my deck and what its matchups are like. In general the concept of the deck wasn't understood. While my point of view on this may be skewed because I know which matchups I can navigate well but I don't know how good matchups those are in general. Playing against Mentor though was always tricky for me. I was defending Mentor because the deck seems better to me against URx Delver but the results from the test games did not really suggest that. Because of that I started to observe the Esper Mentor player and see why he lost the games against me. I tried several decks against the Mentor deck - URw Delver, Car Shops and Esper Mentor (Gush). It took me about ten games to finally see what is going on. I couldn't really read him in the first 10 games or so because he seemed to always take a different route than I expected. So later I tried to understand his line of thought and what he tried to achieve. I realized that he simply tried to sculpt his hand while not evaluating my threats correctly. This would be fine if he would in the end take a combo approach (from a combo-control role). He could have just waited a bit and could have won the game with Mentor later taking 2 turns to do that (or one with Time Walk involved). But even in that scenario he wasn't proactive enough and he let too much damage slip through which usually resulted in my tokens running him over. Sometimes he tried a different approach (going all-in more or less right from the beginning) and often died because my counterspells stopped him. When we switched decks the games started to look very different. While I lost half of the games against my own deck I always put up a fight and I was 1 card away from winning the game. In this matchup I was most of the time control and then suddenly combo. When my opponent did not handle a counter war well I could just go aggressive without fearing that anything would stop me. Switching roles in Mentor was similar to my URw Delver deck but the other way round. I started with control role ending up with being aggressive unlike with the Delver deck that starts usually as a tempo (aggro-control) and ends as control (if things go wrong).
In order to understand how the deck works, I also had to play with it for a while. Sulfur Elemental? Sudden Shock? No problem, this deck can withstand everything. Mentor proved to be more resilient than I have thought - that's probably why I struggle a lot when playing against it.
I know from experience that the Esper Mentor player actually thinks a lot during the games and from the local players he has the most potential to be a better player. He likes to play big blue decks and that is something he is familiar with. This deck though is very different and cannot be played the same way as Gifts Control. When I saw him struggle with his deck I realized that there is one thing some players do not fully grasp when seeing a Delver deck. The first step to pilot such deck well is to learn how to be very aggressive (see proactive) and efficient. The second step is understanding switching roles very well (I'm better at the latter). Often some Vintage players do not understand this and when playing the deck they either lose precious turns while being undecided about role of the deck and subsequently lose. I've been observing this in Legacy for quite a long time. Many players just try too hard to beat their opponents while being very aggressive. Many do not realize that what they need in some matchups is to change roles - playing a control role is often needed in order to win a game. This is also one of the reasons people are surprised when I tell them that I'd never play UR Delver or some URb variant in Legacy. It's 4c for me because that is what gives me the endless possibilities to control the game while still being able to pressure my opponent.
Recently Petr Sochurek, a Czech pro player and currently 17th top ranked Magic player, wrote an article - How to choose the right deck in Legacy. He wrote that if you are a good player (but not the best) the best deck to choose is a Delver deck:
"If you think that you are really good (but not yet the top level miracles player), then you should play Delver again (I know that the list that I posted doesn't actually play the card 'Delver of Secrets', but the strategy is the same). Problem that many people have with playing Delver is that they are always focusing too much on the A game plan - killing them.
If you want to be successful with a deck like this, you need to know when to switch gears and be more controlling, when the games are grindy and you should be prioritizing getting yourself to the best possible position etc. Things like that are not easy for sure, but once you start thinking in those tracks, then it is not that hard. You still have to know how to play every matchup and situation about and adjust your play and sideboard accordingly, but it's possible to get there relatively quickly."
The ability to know when to be proactive and when to be reactive is something that will give you control over your opponent in a way. The pressure Vintage URx Delver is capable to put on your opponent is big and requires immediate action from the opponent. Your opponent can suddenly find themselves in a situation where they are forced to change a role. Some players will realize this and will try to switch (which is correct) but often they can find themselves in a role they are not familiar with and will struggle (not being efficient enough in their plan). There is a saying that the best defense is offense and many players realize too late that they should have been on the offensive and that is when they are punished the most.
I started playing Vintage because I wanted to play the good old Magic when we could be truly reactive. Patience and skill was rewarded. It was all about mind games, understanding your opponent (see thinking level), bluffing and right decisions. Proactive players could play their combos and I was fairly good with that too but not as good as with control in my hands. Unfortunately the trend that flooded more limited formats from Standard to Legacy shows in Vintage as well - in a format I would not expect it - and I was saddened by the revelation. While the format balances somewhere in the middle between reactivity and proactivity one thing is certain - there is more proactivity needed from the players nowadays than few years ago. I see many players struggle with this. I struggle with it too. I was used to play hard control and this was no longer a possibility in the formats I played. My win rate plummeted. I lost many games due to not being proactive enough no matter what deck I played - be it tapout control or sligh. That is the reason why I stopped playing those decks and rather started to play a totally different kind of deck - something that can take on the role of a control, combo-control or a deck that can switch roles (tempo decks usually). That is why I ended up playing TarmoTwin in Modern, 4c Delver in Legacy, Dark Jeskai in Standard and Monoblue Faeries (Delver) in Pauper. All these decks have one thing in common that might not be seen at first glance.
The bittersweet moment when you finally create enough copies of Deceiver Exarch, then add few more just 'because' you never know why the opponent did not concede in the first place.
Those are decks that are also misunderstood by many or at least they were when they first saw play. In order to play TarmoTwin well one needs to know when exactly to switch roles, when to win with combo and when to rely on just attacking with creatures (Tarmogoyf) and protecting it. Playing Splinter Twin makes you lose precious tempo and trading 2 cards for one is very bad, usually meaning game over. When playing against other Twin decks, Jund or Junk you usually side most of the combo out. The deck turns into a tempo/control deck which is very different from a regular combo Twin deck.
4c Delver may be considered a tempo deck but it has tons of value in it. This means that it loses on its speed compared to RUG or UR Delver for example but it can take on a control role (rather Midrange). This allows the deck to switch roles against certain decks. While everyone will understand that one needs to be control against Storm match up one does not need to grasp what the right role is against 4c Loam (Punishing Knight). Does the deck change roles in this matchup? It depends a lot on our way of dealing with Punishing Fire, Chalice of the Void and Knight of the Reliquary. Sometimes we are forced to go all-in (if we can't deal with Chalice or Knight) but sometimes we have the luxury of time to control the game. Understanding what we can do and what not at the right time is crucial. Understanding tempo and switching roles will make you understand when you can lose a little bit of tempo to gain a different kind of advantage that will lead to victory. For example playing Surgical Extraction is such a card (or Force of Will to name a card that stands out the most). The reason why some players consider the card very bad is that they do not understand the tempo exchange this card requires. While Surgical Extraction can be replaced by a different sideboard card if one chooses it is a very powerful versatile card when used correctly and at the right time. It is a 'necessary evil' card in the same way Force of Will is.
I'd like to talk about Dark Jeskai a bit more because this is a deck that I find very similar to Vintage URx Delver. While Standard and Vintage are hardly similar this deck has many similarities with URx Delver. When playing with Jeskai in Standard I realized what a beast Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is, because it gained so much tempo in a format where you usually play a land per turn and draw a card per turn. During the era of Jeskai tempo in Standard many players did not grasp this 'role' thing well and that might also be the reason why the deck was called Jeskai Control. The deck did not play Delver of Secrets but rather Mantis Rider (3/3 Flying, Vigilance, Haste for WUR). It was a tempo deck with a huge card advantage for the format. Not only it could play Dig Through Time (or Treasure Cruise if one wanted to be more aggressive). It could use Jace, Vryn's Prodigy to the fullest (I'll get back to this card).
Many players considered that after opponent's first Dig Through Time a game is already lost for them. I have to say that Dig Through Time in Standard often looked like this - 7 useless cards. It doesn't change the fact that Dig Through Time did a great job at getting rid of those cards, but the game was hardly over.
A debate whether Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time is better made me realize that the players do not know how to play the deck (meaning also not knowing how to play against it). Because if you know what roles you need to play you will know which card suits you more. Split is the worst possibility when Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time is not restricted. Dig Through Time suggests that you actually have the time to dig and you don't need to pressure your opponent that much and can win in late game. Treasure Cruise suggests you prefer the faster route, landing a creature, defending it with cheap disruption and then drawing cards you need in order to still keep your threat in play or find the last 'bolt' you need to deal the remaining damage. This is a very simplified reason why to play one or the other card and should be clearly understood. This should be where the divide between proactive and reactive players is and the 75 cards you sleeve should be in accordance to that. Both approaches were correct but the player needed to assume the right role during their matches nonetheless.
Jace, Vryn's Prodigy was the all-star of the deck. While I was 4-0ing local events I heard many Jeskai players complain about Jace not being good in the deck. Those players were in general playing the deck as an aggro deck and did not understand the true strength of the deck - being able to switch roles as needed. Jace did not have place in their aggressive game plan. The truth was that Jace was what fueled the deck and what gave the player many options. No standard deck could catch up with the huge tempo advantage in resources (cards and mana) that Jace provided. It felt like Jace was totally from a different Magic world or rather from a different format - a Vintage card for sure. Jace is a good card in all kinds of decks. I played it in every single Standard deck no matter if the deck was actually blue - Abzan Rally, Jeskai Tempo, Esper/BUG Control, Dredge Evolution. Jace filled many roles and according to what role the player needed to take, Jace needed to be used in accordance with that. This might be a disadvantage for some (it was very difficult to pilot Jeskai Tempo correctly, primarily because of Jace being the fundamental card in the deck) but advantage to those that were good at recognizing when to switch roles. For those players it was easy to tweak this deck to the current metagame. That is exactly one of the strongest points of URx Delver deck in Vintage as well. You can even cut Delver if you like if the metagame requires it, but you should keep in mind the fact that this deck needs to be very proactive and aggressive at certain points of the game and needs to deal damage fast. Some people laughed at me when I said that one needs to be aggressive and race Eldrazi (in the Eldrazi matchup). The fact that my deck at that time ran 4 Young Pyromancer and no other creature that can effectively race does not mean that I can't end the game fast with my little creatures. Some players also look at me as if I am crazy when telling them that Jace, Vryn's Prodigy can win a game thanks to its ultimate ability. Against some decks this is the safest route how to win a game (anyway this card wins games even without going ultimate).
Ancestral Recall - usually it draws three cards while targeting the player who cast the spell. But sometimes it can win games against Ensnaring Bridge targeting your opponent and in even more rare situations it just wins the game by decking your opponent forcing them to draw 3 cards. Of course without Jace and Dack Fayden it wouldn't have been possible, but who wouldn't want to kill their opponent with Ancestral Recall or Braingeyser?
When I introduced Delver into my pauper mono blue Faeries the deck became more proactive than before. At first I wasn't sure if I want that. I played the deck because Cloud of Faeries, Gush and Snap were simply too good for that format and I didn't mind winning with 1/1 creature in play. Without Delver switching to more aggressive plan was more difficult. While the Faeries deck was a tempo deck on its own, the difference of 1/1 attacker and 3/2 attacker was huge. While playing Delver of Secrets on turn 1 in other formats is often correct in Vintage the decision can be either good or have very bad consequences. What if your opponent is on Oath and plays it turn 1? What if your opponent plays Storm and you don't have the means to be fast enough? In these cases the Delver player can be punished hard. While the deck is named URx Delver it does not mean that it is the card you will win with the most. You will be in positions when you actually want to side the card out (depending on your build). At certain points depending the meta you won't even play the card main deck. So remember when playing with the deck and not doing well that it does not need to be the problem of the deck but rather misunderstanding what the deck can do, how it can do it and when. While in Legacy a Delver deck can get free wins in Vintage this is very unlikely. Do not underestimate the power of this deck. I may not be the best pilot for it, but other players can show you 'miracles' with the deck. I'm bad Shops player and I know it. While I can pilot the deck to some extent I'm not good at handling many situations that may arise because I do not even anticipate them. That doesn't mean that Shops is a bad deck. Give URx Delver a second chance. You may not like the deck, it may not suit your style but understanding it is something that will come handy. This is true for any deck not just this one.
I did not anticipate someone to sideboard Ensnaring Bridge against me and I did not prepare for that. It resulted in a very strange game. I knew I could still possibly win if I managed to get a few Tangle Wires in my hand, play them to tap my opponent out (so he would have to draw a card and keep it in his hand) and swing with my Phyrexian Revokers for the win. It worked out but I did not even know how to sideboard because I wasn't aware what role I should assume.
Thank you for reading.
S'Tsung (stsung on modo and stsungjp at twitter).