Spoiler alert: sadly this isn’t an article about a sweet new Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker control deck, running Legacy power-houses such as Baleful Strix, Spellstutter Sprite and the Pestermite/Kiki combo. Instead, I’m looking at the rather more prosaic question of the Grixis Delver mirror match. Apologies for the blatant bait-and-switch!

I’ll freely admit to some bias here, but, in my humble opinion, Grixis Delver is the current “best fair deck” in Legacy. Miracles wasn’t a *terrible* match-up: an aggressive Grixis draw could often beat the slower Miracles draws and the Stifle builds at least had a chance against Terminus, but I don’t think things were in Grixis’s favour by any means. With the Miracles king dethroned by the Sensei’s Divining Top banning we can return to a world of tempo mirrors. Sign me up!

Grixis feels strong against the other three-colour Delver variants since Deathrite Shaman gives it the edge against traditional Canadian Threshold (aka RUG Delver), while four Lightning Bolt really helps in the Deathrite Shaman mirrors. The Team America-style BUG Delver builds play individually better spells, but lose out to the efficiency of Grixis’s almost mono one drop curve in my experience. Straight blue/red Delver might be an unfavourable pairing for the guys in blue/red/black, but it’s winnable and Grixis is better positioned against the field as a whole (again, only IMHO, YMMV, etc.).

In any case, people are jumping onto the Grixis Delver train. Grixis was the most-played deck at MKM Frankfurt (Julian’s report) and it’s definitely gaining in popularity online too. Here’s the break-down of decks that I’ve run into in online Leagues over the last week, mostly playing variants of blue/red/black:

The Grixis mirror is becoming more and more commonplace.

Obviously lists vary a bit, but, to a first approximation, I like to think of Grixis Delver as a 56-57 card deck (because of Gitaxian Probe which can cycle for zero mana) with 13-14 creatures, 6 removal spells, 8 counterspells, and 8 cantrips. Here’s a typical list:

Grixis Delver (LewisCBR Magic Online)

Creatures (14)
Delver of Secrets
Deathrite Shaman
Young Pyromancer
Gurmag Angler
True-Name Nemesis

Spells (28)
Lightning Bolt
Brainstorm
Ponder
Force of Will
Daze
Gitaxian Probe
Stifle
Spell Pierce
Forked Bolt
Lands (18)
Polluted Delta
Flooded Strand
Volcanic Island
Underground Sea
Tropical Island
Wasteland

Sideboard (15)
Cabal Therapy
Pyroblast
Surgical Extraction
Ancient Grudge
Dismember
Electrickery
Fire Covenant
Flusterstorm
Forked Bolt
Grafdigger’s Cage
Pithing Needle

 

Magic: the Gathering is a trading card game in multiple senses of the description. Not only can players trade cards with each other to build up decks, but cards tend to trade one-for-one in the process of an actual game. (Clever, eh?) My Lightning Bolt kills your Deathrite Shaman (one-for-one); you Wasteland my Volcanic Island (one-for-one); I respond with Stifle, Stifle trades for your Wasteland. Of course the game isn’t only about card advantage — there are plenty of other resources to consider such as life totals, land drops, mana utilization — and this is one of the things that makes the game so fascinating to play. Even something like the Stifle/Wasteland example is potentially more interesting than it first appears since really the Wasteland player is trading their land drop and availability of colourless mana on subsequent turns for a card. Holding up mana for Stifle has an opportunity cost too.

Part of the skill of the game is lining up your own draws against the opponent’s board and likely holdings. Sometimes your creatures have to sub-in as removal spells by threatening to trade in blocks. Deathrite Shamans can also partially blank each other. Sometimes your counterspells have to act as additional creatures by countering removal spells; in other situations they need to act as removal spells by countering opposing threats. In some game states cantrips need to dig for lands, while in others they’re better leveraged searching for threats. Still, if both players are playing optimally then it feels like games will likely be dictated by one player drawing either too much or too little of a given resource. If Alice draws more land destruction than Bob draws lands then Alice will likely win unless Bob manages to stick a few creatures through a wave of Wastelands and Stifles. Similarly, if one player draws creatures while the other floods out then they’re likely winning the game. Correctly timing Brainstorm to fix resource floods is obviously important, but you don’t always draw your Brainstorms when you need ’em.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the counterspells are pretty mediocre in the mirror from a pure card advantage perspective. Force of Will almost always trades two-for-one against an opponent and Daze is generally fairly easy to play around in the absence of pressure. They’re a necessary evil to avoid getting tempoed out, but it’s fairly standard practice to trim at least the Force of Wills for more removal in sideboarding. (I usually leave two Forces on-the-draw and either zero or one in on-the-play, depending on whether I think my opponent is playing True-Name Nemesis and what else I have in the board. Force is definitely useful on-the-draw against Stifle builds. Daze is better on-the-play than on-the-draw.)

 

 

The Mirror

So, how do we actually get ahead in the Grixis Delver mirror? Despite some ok-ish finishes with Grixis over the years — top 32 at Eternal Weekend in the US back in 2015, followed a by Top 8 at a Bazaar of Moxen event in Annecy in 2016 — I consider myself to be a pretty average player overall. I don’t feel favoured to win the exact 75 card mirror against a top Grixis player, so I’d rather tweak my list to give myself an advantage!

One obvious approach is to try to play more two-for-ones. This could range from card draw like Night’s Whisper and Painful Truths; to card-advantage discard effects like Hymn to Tourach; through to cantripping removal like Baleful Strix or even Modern-level cards like Electrolyze (ugh). Miracles ended up going down the raw card advantage path with Predict to out-grind BUG decks and the mirror. However, Delver mirrors are very different from Miracles mirrors because they’re about both tempo *and* card advantage. The life loss from both Night’s Whisper and Painful Truths and the fact that neither impacts the board directly make them awkward against opposing Delver decks. BUG Delver leverages Hymn to Tourach to brutal efficiency to get ahead on cards, but double black is extremely hard for normal Grixis builds to hit, especially against opposing Wastelands so isn’t really an option unless we completely overhaul the deck. Rise // Fall *could* be a possible alternative, but a fairly depressingly underwhelming one at that since it isn’t a guaranteed two-for-one. I have seen main-deck Baleful Strix in a few lists, although the card doesn’t really feel like it fits the standard Delver game-plan. Relying on three drops is a little dangerous in the Daze mirror, but Electrolyze has cropped up in a couple of undefeated blue/red lists on Magic Online recently. Snapcaster Mage is another potential option as a way to flashback a removal spell with a free body, but, again, it’s essentially a three drop and can be a little clunky against an opposing Deathrite Shaman.

Another approach is to try to play more ‘trump’ cards in the 75. Grim Lavamancer answers most of the Grixis Delver deck’s threats and is beginning to see a bit of play in 75s. True-Name Nemesis is another reasonable trump since people aren’t playing Diabolic Edict-style effects main-deck — an opposing deck’s only interaction opportunities against True-Name are on the stack or by racing. Having said that, I’m a little wary of relying on a blue three-drop to shore up the mirror — it’s weak to Daze and post-board Pyroblast (which I personally feel is overboarded vs Grixis, but whatever). Umezawa’s Jitte is absurd *against* Grixis Delver and does occasionally see some play in Grixis boards. The card is great, but is mana intensive (4 colourless over two payments) and you need to be able to connect with a creature for any kind of pay-off.

 

 

Something that I haven’t touched on yet is that there are two main builds of Grixis kicking around. One is the classic Noah Walker list that rose to prominence in 2016, running main-deck Cabal Therapy and zero copies of Stifle. The other is closer to Lewis’s list above, which cuts main-deck discard and a Gitaxian Probe for some number of Stifles. I’m not actually 100% sure which is favoured in the mirror, but I suspect that it might be the Stifle version by a very slim margin because often Delver mirrors revolve around mana denial. Stifle serves double duty by either protecting our own lands from Wasteland or attacking our opponents’ fetch-land activations. (Of course, part of the trick is knowing which mode to use Stifle in in a given game!)

The List

However, there is another way to beat Wasteland:

Grixis Mirror Breaker

Creatures (15)
Delver of Secrets
Deathrite Shaman
Grim Lavamancer
Young Pyromancer
Vendilion Clique
Gurmag Angler

Spells (29)
Lightning Bolt
Brainstorm
Ponder
Force of Will
Daze
Gitaxian Probe
Cabal Therapy
Thought Scour
Spell Pierce
Forked Bolt
Dismember
Kolaghan’s Command
Lands (16)
Polluted Delta
Flooded Strand
Volcanic Island
Underground Sea
Tropical Island
Badlands
Island

Sideboard (15)
Counterbalance
Diabolic Edict
Surgical Extraction
Ancient Grudge
Blazing Volley
Cabal Therapy
Fatal Push
Flusterstorm
Grafdigger’s Cage
Invasive Surgery
Null Rod
Pyroblast

I spent ages searching old deck-lists and forum posts trying to find a piece of key tech that would break the mirror before it suddenly struck me that I was trying to answer the wrong question. Rather than focusing so intently on *beating* the mirror, maybe it would be better to concentrate on simply not losing? Logically speaking, if we don’t lose a game, we probably win, right? Right?

Preboard

Thinking back over games, I’d often lose to Wasteland. You’ve probably heard the story a million times before: you mull to six, keep a one lander with Ponder and Deathrite Shaman on the draw; they lead with their own Deathrite, then either Daze or Lightning Bolt your own turn one play and follow-up with Wasteland; you never draw another land and are knocked out of top 8, returning home penniless and destitute swearing to never touch a Magic card ever again.

Anyway, you can play Stifle to answer their Wasteland, but then you have to leave up mana forever, so the Wasteland has effectively done its job without needing to be activated. In fact, they don’t even need to play a Wasteland — the threat alone of a possible sandbagged Wasteland could be enough to warrant holding up mana for Stifle. Or you can just play more colour-producing lands.

 

 

Of course, just about everything is a compromise in deck building — you can’t just add cards for free, something has to go to make room for a sweet new card. In this case, I ended up cutting the Wasteland package for a Badlands, an Island, a Grim Lavamancer and a Kolaghan’s Command. For a while now I’ve been a little bearish on the effectiveness of the mana denial aspect of the deck. The general theory behind Wasteland is certainly appealing: lands that do stuff are great to mitigate against flood since you can use them for mana early game, then trade them in for some useful game effect later. Legacy mana-bases are generally extremely greedy both in terms of land counts and colour requirements, so a well-timed Wasteland can often just win a game. The problem with Wasteland in Grixis Delver is that it doesn’t cast any of the cards beyond the easy half of Young Pyromancer, so it often doesn’t really count as a land early (other than maybe helping to play around Daze). Deathrite Shaman is everywhere at the moment and can often blank a lot of our mana denial strategy. Normally, Deathrite Shaman is one of the best cards in the Delver mirror, but it suddenly doesn’t matter as much if we abandon the Wasteland plan and focus more on board control by playing a few additional removal spells.

Zero Wasteland could be entirely wrong. I’ve experimented a bit with 17 land builds, running 15 colour-producing lands and a couple of Wasteland to hit important utility lands like Maze of Ith, The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, and Inkmoth Nexus, which might be better if you want to effectively pre-board for the Wasteland mirror while sticking with a more traditional Grixis list. My current theory is that zero Wasteland makes the stock Grixis Deck’s bad match-ups worse — Turbo Depths and Lands are really tough without Wasteland — but help in the mirror and against ANT.

So, we stand a better chance against Wasteland game one. After sideboarding the real mirror breaker comes in:

 

 

Postboard

This is actually fairly old tech. I stumbled across Counterbalance in an old Caleb Durward Canadian Threshold list from GP Indianapolis 2012, although he was also running a few Sensei’s Divining Top to be able to side into the combo. Sadly the full lock isn’t an option anymore. Still, in the good ol’ days when Miracles was a thing, even a topless Counterbalance was miserable to play against from the Grixis side. Post-board against Grixis I usually run 30 one CMC spells so there’s a 50% chance of blindly countering a one CMC spell from their deck. Is a one-sided random Chalice of the Void worth playing in the mirror? Certainly with Miracles out of the way, it seems reasonable to assume that the expected field could be weak to Counterbalance. It might be a little too cute and gimmicky, but I’ve been impressed by the card in this deck thus far.

The sideboard Counterbalances actually put a reasonable amount of strain on the rest deck since we need a high number of CMC 1 spells in the deck to reliably blind hit with the ‘Balances. Cutting the Wastelands helps here too since it allows us to increase the spell count. Counterbalance‘s utility increases as the game goes long since the more turns that pass, then more chance you have of countering your opponent’s spells. I’ll generally bring the card in against higher-curve control decks in addition to stuff like Grixis Delver, ANT, TES, Burn, UR Delver, and Elves. The card isn’t at it’s best in the really fast match-ups because an opponent can combo off through one bad reveal. I wouldn’t drop turn two Counterbalance against TES if I had other non-free interaction in hand, but it could be a good mid-game play after you’ve already traded a few spells with the TES player.

Testing

So, testing! The list has actually been performing really well online with a lot of 4-1 finishes, plus one 5-0 in various leagues and a 5-2 finish (annoyingly for 17th place) in a recent Legacy Challenge. I’m 6-0 in matches against classic Grixis Delver decks, so I guess the janky no Wasteland, sideboard Counterbalance plan is solid there. The main-deck basic Island has been great vs a recent uptick in Blood Moon stompy. BUG creature combo — either in the form Aluren or Food Chain — is still somewhat tricky, but I found those match-ups tricky with classic Grixis Delver too. (There’s a reasonable chance I’m playing the match-ups incorrectly, and that I should be favouring Young Pyromancer swarms over Gurmag Angler beats against these BUG Baleful Strix decks. Also Stifle and Daze builds seem like they might be better positioned against decks that are trying to resolve 3-4 CMC enchantments.) Death and Taxes is rough. As predicted, Dark Depths decks are really tough without Wasteland.

Where to go from here? At the risk of sounding overly smug, the deck might be too good against Grixis Delver. Even on Magic Online at the moment, Grixis is only about 10% of the meta. So, it’s probably worth going back to try to address the deck’s problem, or at least even match-ups. Looking back over match data, the most egregious result is that the Sneak and Show match-up is only 50% (over six rounds played), which seems odd given the number of angles — counter-magic, a fairly quick clock and discard — on which Grixis can attack. It’s possible that I’m playing badly or am just getting unlucky, but this seems like an obvious match-up that could be improved, especially give the deck’s share of the metagame at the moment. It isn’t immediately obvious how to improve things here though. Wasteland only really helps against Boseiju, Who Shelters All. I’d rather just increase the amount of non-stack interaction than hope to Wasteland Boseiju. Is Lost Legacy reasonable as a sideboard card against Sneak and Show? Anyway, more thought required methinks…

TL;DR: beat Grixis by playing more removal and colour-producing lands. Consider Counterbalance in the sideboard if you’re insane. Consider playing Death and Taxes if you think you can dodge Elves. pow22 out :).

Peter
Peter is a lover of Legacy, especially durdly tier-three creature decks. On rare occasions, he has been known to flip a Delver of Secrets in a futile effort to maintain positive cash-flow on Magic Online.
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