Sinkholing My Way to the Top

Top 8 at Legacy Masters 2019

By Steven Stamopoulos


While Deathrite and Probe have now been banned in Legacy for about a year, I still want to say how happy I am with Wizard‘s decision on that one (which is a true rarity).

Deckbuilding in that era for any UB/X deck was almost quite literally:
4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Delver or 4 Baleful Strix
3 Young Pyromancer or 3 Snapcaster Mage
2 True-Name Nemesis or 2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2 Gurmag Angler or 2 Leovold, Emissary of Borderline Unfun Magic
4 Daze or 4 Hymn to Tourach
4 Brainstorm
4 Ponder
4 Force of Will
14-16 expensive lands.
4 Wastelands or 4 Basics

So boring.

Post DRS/Probe ban Delver lists have basically settled into:

  • Very mild Grixis Delver lists (although Arcanist looks to be changing things)
  • Pretty good Blue-Red Delver lists
  • Horrible Blue-White Delverblade lists
  • Almost the same seventy-five cards that Canadian/RUG was playing before

I just want to take a minute to talk about Blue-White Delver.

Blue-White Delver/Blade is not horrible because “Swords to Plowshares and Delver of Secrets is a non-bo”. I don’t even know how it’s possible that people still think that frankly because it is literally the same belief that people had in 1993 that “Swords to Plowshares was bad because it gained your opponent life and the aim of the game was to get them to 0 and if they gained life then you were losing.”

That’s a grug brain take my friends.

No, the reason Blue-White Delver is bad is because it plays tempo-oriented cards like Daze and Spell Pierce alongside slow/value/control (take your pick) cards like Stoneforge Mystic. Swords to Plowshares is the best “creature removal” spell of all time but it can’t remove anything else like life totals or planeswalkers like Bolt or Decay can. It does not have access to Red for Pyroblasts or Young Pyromancers and it does not have access to black for discard or Bitterblossom so it is weak to the card “Diabolic Edict” which is not really a place you want to be right now when so many of the control decks are main-decking Edict effects.  

I think it can be summed up as a deck that wants to play an aggro-control game without actually being very good at being either aggressive or playing the long game. It really beats up decks like Goblins and Maverick I suppose (aka slower decks weak to True-Name Nemesis + Jitte) and that’s probably about it? It is extremely weak to Kolaghan’s Command, discard of any shape, Terminus, and basically any deck that I have called “ape” for a long time. It puts up results and to that I say that a broken clock is also correct twice a day and what even are outliers brah.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand.

We have all the Delver decks doing things, making shapes and being played and tested but one.

BUG Delver. Team America.

My deck choice prior to the DRS-Ban was 4-Colour Delver and I was working on a bunch of articles for The Salt Mine about the deck because I truly felt like it was the best Delver deck ever. Infinitely flexible thanks to playing four colours, it had access to the best beaters (Goyf + Gurmag/Stalker), the best disruption (counterspells, discard, permanent-based hate pieces) and universally good answers to problematic permanents (Abrupt Decay/Ancient Grudge). You could build the deck as a full-bore tempo deck with Stifles/Snares/Pierces, you could play it as a midrange-Delver deck with maindeck Painful Truths and Planeswalkers and Snapcaster Mages or you could play it as an amalgamation of Canadian Threshold + Team America and just ride the flexibility all the way home. I fucking loved playing variations of that deck and the brewing it afforded you.

Obviously BURG was not going to work in a post Deathrite Shaman world and so I moved on with my life.

I tried to make post-ban Grixis Delver work but it always just felt so meddling and constantly 4-1’d/3-2’d with it in Leagues. I also couldn’t convince myself that main deck Abrade was justifiable. I had the feeling that perhaps we had lost sight of the forest from the trees when a two-mana removal spell that couldn’t even go upstairs was being played just so that we wouldn’t automatically lose to Chalice. Not that Young Pyromancer is even very good against Eldrazi decks or eight Goblin Rabblemasters or even other fair decks.

I’m sure Peezy is very good for some people, but that is a card that I have tried to like for a long time but testing has never been able to convince me that it isn’t just Goblin Piker ~50% of the time. Perhaps it’s a play style thing but I just can’t seem to get normie Grixis Delver to work for me *shrugs*.  

I have for a little bit of time described the Legacy meta as being Xerox vs. Xerox Prison vs. Prison vs. Combo. My dissatisfaction with Grixis Delver led me to think back fondly about my days playing BURG Delver which played both Abrupt Decay and Golgari Charm. Also those cards seemed very good and I wanted to play them because they looked great at combating the meta which at the time which felt full of:

  • Prison pieces: Blood Moon, Chalice, Back to Basics, Liliana the Last Hope etc; and
  • Bitterblossoms, Young Pyromancers, Empty the Warrens, White and/or Green decks with nothing bigger than an X/1 in it

My first instinct post the initial DRS ban was to play Team America with four Hymns and four Goyfs and Bayous. The classic list you know and love… Except without the card that made it really work.

A lot of others had/continue to have the same thoughts judging by posts on the various forums that now exist (R.I.P MtgTheSource, #freenedleeds).

Unfortunately the deck was clunky, fell behind very easily and in general was not very good against anything specifically.  

The graveyard combo decks previously had to beat DRS on top of everything else, which they now didn’t have to, and the fair control decks played the 2-for-1 game just so much better than you. Why would you try to beat Grixis Control/Czech Pile at its own game with a card like Hymn when they play not only Hymn but Strix, Snapcasters, K. Commands and Planeswalkers?

Furthermore without DRS it was very easy to fall behind and a single Wasteland could feel backbreaking if not game ending. The broken starts for Team America were always Deathrite fuelled. T1 DRS, Daze your thing, Hymn you, or T1 DRS, T2 Hymn + Wasteland was how many games were won. This of course required you to have two mana on turn two. Without Deathrite, overall it was just too clunky and ineffective at combating the meta – and this I think is a key part of my deck building. “How do I combat this meta” is the question I ask myself the most when building Delver decks.

Coming back to Magic fresh from a 6-8 month break led me to the following BUG list, listed in my deck builder app as “Combo-Hating-Delver.”

Creatures: (10)Sideboard: (15)
4 Delver of Secrets
3 Gurmag Angler
3 Tarmogoyf
2 Bitterblossom
2 Diabolic Edict
2 Golgari Charm
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Invasive Surgery
1 Life from the Loam
1 Pithing Needle
2 Surgical Extraction
1 Sylvan Library
2 True-Name Nemesis
Non-Creature Spells: (31)
3 Abrupt Decay
4 Brainstorm
1 Counterspell
4 Daze
1 Dismember
2 Fatal Push
4 Force of Will
2 Spell Pierce
3 Stifle
4 Ponder
3 Thoughtseize
Lands: (19)
4 Polluted Delta
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Tropical Island
4 Underground Sea
4 Wasteland

Very much inspired by Jonathan Alexander’s and Sean Brown’s deck lists for Canadian Thresh, we have ten threats in the main and then more threats in the sideboard as required.

I wanted to be proactive in the meta and the three Thoughtseizes and three Stifles pluseight cantrips and four Delvers allowed me to be proactive in the early turns of the game. A lot of people ask me about the so called “non-bo” of Thoughtseize and Stifle and what to do when the gods smile upon you by giving you both in your opening hand. The answer on what to do is always going to be contextual on the matchup and what the other cards in your hand give you. If I am playing against Sneak and Show I will Thoughtseize first because you can very easily lose on Turn 1 or 2 against them but mostly because you don’t need to keep them on 0 mana, you just want to stop them getting past 2 mana and need to keep them from getting beyond 3-4 mana.

People seemingly fall into this trap with Stifle and think that the only reason it is there is to keep their opponents on precisely “zero mana.” Now if your hand allows you to do so, all the better, but you don’t need to try and force-engineer that scenario. Keeping your opponent pinned to one or two lands is plenty when you have three or four lands because that’s enough to bowl them over in short order, especially with cards like Goyf + Gurmag (compared to say Grixis with its oft anaemic threats in Young Peezy + Bitterblossom). 

Then the meta shifted ever so slightly and Stifle went from feeling excellent to being just a tad too conditional. The success of Back to Basics and Blood Moon meant that there were too many basic lands being played so Stifle sometimes just rotted in your hand. I would play games against Justin Ventura who is a galaxy-brain with Grixis Control and not only did Stifle fail to stop him from being able to function but it actually did nothing. Have you ever had to feel the shame of casting Stifle on a Baleful Strix draw-a-card trigger because you kept a heavy Stifle hand and then they just played basic Island, basic Swamp, Strix? There are some things that men should keep to themselves and that’s very nearly there.

Then came Karn, Fetcher of Mycosynth Lattices and the resurgence of Chalice decks and Teferi, Partner of Veil (both of which are such stupid cards, this hard on for one-sided hate pieces has got to stop Wizards) which powered up Miracles and in turn Sneak and Show because those decks are not very good against Turn 1 Griselbrand and all of a sudden Stifle went from feeling great to just… Meh. Sean and I both felt that Stifle was mediocre and when he was thinking of cutting the 4th from Canadian I knew the writing was on the wall for BUG Stifle.

On the 12th of May 19, I posted this list to Twitter, described as “Steve’s guide to wading through the current Legacy meta that can only be described as Planet of the Apes.”

As usual and not all that unexpectedly, people disagreed with my opinions on deck building. Justin was excited to play it and took it to a weekly and then lost the first two rounds and dropped. So that was a good start to the deck.

With our Eternal Weekend looming in, we had a chance to play a warm-up tournament entitled Legacy Legends I, which was inspired by the Beijing tournament scene and offered cash prizes instead of cards or store credit. I couldn’t be bothered sleeving up the new iteration of BUG Delver and wasn’t really sure what the local meta was like (that’s how long I’ve been out of it) that I just opted to play Red-Black Goblins, playing Eli Goings/Goblinlackey1’s list. I was mana screwed all day and lost a lot. I did however get to play 2012-era Legacy when paired up with Sean in the X and loser bracket in the classic Legacy battle of Canadian Threshold vs. Goblins. Everyone was very jealous of our steez.

In the background, I continued to research and work on BUG Delver for Eternal Weekend. I considered playing Grixis Delver with Arcanist but a few test matches against Eli confirmed yet again that Grixis Delver for me is like veganism and cross fit. It’s just not gunna happen.

I read through pages and pages of archives on The Source particularly looking at lists from the pre-Deathrite era for inspiration on how to beat the control decks. As always, Senpai Dan Signorini came through for me.

Now, I know this was just after Deathrite’s printing and Dan’s list had four Deathrites, but his commentary on the meta at the time is spot on and very much applicable to our meta now. Again – how you combat a meta is very important when playing Delver because it is arguably a meta deck.

What is going on in the meta now? There are a lot of basic lands. There are a lot of decks trying to go bigger than you, whether it’s with Eldrazi or Artifacts or Planeswalkers. There are a lot of decks trying to land one lock piece and cheese you out. You can also try and “go bigger” postboard but playing an arms-race you are not equipped to win is not logically going to work.

BUG’s main weakness IMO is its inability to answer Jace and Batterskull. Almost everything else can be cleanly answered by what is already in the BUG deck. The whole point of the Stifle version of this deck was to basically never let Jace happen. Dan basically had the same opinion in 2012 except he favoured a certain two mana sorcery over Stifle:

Sinkhole was the card most people asked about, and this was included as a way to fight stoneblade decks. During testing against Esper we noticed that trying to play their game by bringing in Jaces and other midrange cards wasn’t very effective, because they were still way better going long. I thought K. Grip would mitigate their long game, but Snapcaster and Lingering souls really do a good job of defending Jace, and without burn it was hard to play the Jace game. Sinkhole turns Supreme Verdict, Jace, Lingering Souls, and Snapcaster mages into liabilities. Life from the Loam supplementing the sinkholes also means you can keep the LD going into the mid/late game, and combined with Hymn you really have a devastating disruption package against control decks. Go ahead and fetch basic lands…many a stoneblade opponent color screwed themselves by letting me use sinkhole to snipe a color, or showed me supreme verdict/lingering souls trapped in their hands after the match. Nice standard deck…

The plan with the Stifle version of the deck was to just play mana denial enough until you could swarm the board with sticky threats like True-Name Nemesis and Bitterblossom that would be difficult for the control decks to answer. But Stifle was really underperforming and Sinkhole… Well Sinkhole was sitting in my deckbox of “Delver” cards. Unplayed and untouched but a card I had always wanted to play in my sideboard ever since I had read this report many years back. Of course, Deathrite made Sinkhole stone unplayable but… Perhaps with Deathrite gone, and Miracles and Grixis Control punishing anyone for trying to play mana dorks, coupled with the rise of Post/Karn decks… Perhaps it could be Sinkhole’s time. What is old becomes new, as they say.

The week of Masters, I settled on the following list and posted a photo of my completed deck list registration sheet to The Salt Mine Twitter. Judging by the caption I was pretty excited. A screenshot is posted because someone obviously got offended by my language. Fuck off you cunt, whoever you are.

Aside from one match of BUG Delver vs. Goblins played on MtGO vs Eli, the list was totally untested which is just like how I like it. Also I’d like to point out that I won the match because I cast Abrupt Decay on his Aether Vial, Sinkhole on a basic Mountain and Wastelanded a Cavern. Cleaning up from there was academic.

Not a great deal of change from the “wade through Planet of the Apes” list but it hit basically everything I wanted:

  • A good Game 1 against combo;
  • A good Game 2 + 3 against control, with the ability to True-Name Nemesis them out Game 1;
  • Four pieces of graveyard hate; and
  • Plenty of cards to rumble with Death & Taxes including four ways to answer a Turn 1 Mother of Runes on the draw.

I did not think that I had enough cards for combo in the sideboard but figured/hoped that the main was so jam packed with disruption that it would be fine. Ostensibly, three Spell Pierces, four Thoughtseizes, four Force of Wills and four Dazes is a lot of countermagic but you can never be too careful can you…

My tournament run was as follows:

Round 1: 4c Punishing Dack: 2-0 win. Sinkhole did some serious fucking work.
Round 2: Death & Taxes: 0-2 loss.
Round 3: Blue-Green 12-Post: 2-0 win. Sinkholes a plenty.
Roundd 4: BUG Food Chain: 2-1 Win. Also some Sinkhole.
Round 5: Czech Pile: 2-1 Win. Ironically Sinkhole did not win me the game because my opponent flooded but I still cast Sinkholes so that’s what matters.
Round 6: Sneak and Show: 2-0 Win.
Quarterfinals: Sneak and Show: 1-2 Loss.

This is more a result of luck than anything else, but I basically played the matchups I wanted to play all day, Death & Taxes aside.

The general sideboarding I employed against the control decks (because they were basically all interchangeable Strix/Jace decks) was:

-2 Fatal Push
-4 Thoughtseize
+1 Darkblast
+4 Sinkhole
+1 Spell Pierce

Against the pure control decks I also shaved a Dismember for Bitterblossom. Against Food Chain for instance, I did not because the tempo is found on the board and you just want to get your Goyfs in there.

I’ve found Darkblast to be the best card against Strix because it only takes up one slot in your 60 cards and is very happy to just sit in your graveyard until you need it when it comes back to clear the path again. It’s not technically card advantage but it certainly deals with the problematic little Owl better than everything bar Liliana, Last Hope.

Now, in terms of the Sinkhole sideboarding, the credit again goes to Dan Signorini (or I guess Dave Price in this instance) but as per his report:

I didn’t get a chance to test very much vs the midrange BUG decks, but Dave did and found that you just need to tempo them out and have multiple threats by the time they can land a planeswalker. Our plan included boarding out all the Hymns (as powerful as it is it isn’t tempo) for Sinkholes, as well as bringing in Life from the Loam, Tarpit, and Disfigure to handle shamans and keep the LD going.

Blue-Green Cloudpost was probably the best matchup of the day and my poor opponent really copped it with my deck that was unintentionally built to absolutely demolish his.

Also this was my graveyard at the end of Game 2. Sylvan Library drew me a lot of cards this game.

The Death & Taxes match was close in Game 1 but I just couldn’t break through the early pressure of Mom into Thalia into Tomik which kept me too pressured on mana despite my multiple Goyfs putting up a hell of a fight. Game 2 was not close as we mulled to six and my opponent drew out of it while I did not. Unfortunately, I think this deck will have to make a concession to Death & Taxes for Paper events as Death & Taxes is always well over-represented at most Paper events, especially GP side events. Massacre is probably the go to card here if you want help in that matchup. I did find an early Null Rod in Game 2 (though it took a while for me to get to two mana) but after a very long and weird cripple fight he was able to Council’s Judgment it and absolutely wreck me with the onboard SoFI.

There was a certain amount of irony to the Sneak & Show matches. Anyone who has ever listened to any podcast of The Salt Mine or any of my writings will know that I think Show and Tell and Griselbrand needs to be banned and that is still true. Sneak and Show has/had also won the last three Masters consecutively and I was a loud proponent of telling people to play decks that could beat Sneak & Show.

In terms of the tournament, at the end of Round 5 there were a heap of people on twelve points, so everyone on twelve points had to bash. No such luck for an ID into Top 8 as promised to us.

I was paired against Lachy who was playing Sneak & Show. Not to brag, but the games weren’t close. The insane amount of discard/counterspells paired with the fast clocks in Delver/Goyf/Gurmag lead to a very fast and brutal two game sweep.

After the pairings were announced for the Top 8, I was informed I would be playing against Show and Tell again. If anyone remembers my tournament report from last year’s Eternal Weekend, after battling through a slew of difficult decks, I found myself at X-1 and playing for a win-and-in against Infect, the first actual good matchup of the day. I was so cocky that I lost the match. Keeping that in mind, I resolved to play as tightly as possible and to take nothing for granted.  

Game 1 was a lovely game of Threshold vs Combo, as my Turn 1 Delver went all the way as my hand of Spell Pierces and Dazes with the help of Wasteland kept him off the combo.

Game 2, my opening seven was Bayou, Tarmogoyf, Thoughtseize, Force, Daze, Daze, Ponder.

I had two thoughts:
1: this hand is not that bad. We’re on the draw, we have Thoughtseize + Force, and any land lets us cast Goyf.
2: Don’t be a cocky wanker. You can get a better six.

My six had lands, Delver, Abrupt Decay and Golgari Charm. I died on Turn 2.

I’ve talked about this hand with a couple of people and the consensus seems to be that I should have kept that seven. I’m still not sure, let me know what you guys think.

Game 3, my opening hand was similar to my six from Game 2, but it had a Spell Pierce. Importantly, it had Turn 1 Delver which could be followed up with Wasteland + Spell Pierce. Frustratingly, the miser’s Golgari Charm and one of the 2 remaining Abrupt Decays were found in my hand but I did not think a six was going to be better. My Delver flipped immediately to Force and I felt some confidence. Unfortunately I did not draw a 2nd Blue card to pair with the Force, another piece of permission or any discard and the game ended with my opponent at three life resolving Show and Tell into Omniscience into Emrakul. I could have beaten Griselbrand or Emrakul (attack with Delver and Goyf, Decay the thing he blocks before damage) but not Omni into Emrakul.  

The day before, I had taken my best friend of the past seventeen years to the vet to say goodbye. A mainstay of any Salt Mine parties, you would usually find Sophie peeing on the floor or begging you for your food. Despite all that she was really cute and beautiful and no one hated her (except for my ex-girlfriend, but fuck her).

I don’t know why, but I wanted to do well for her even if playing in Masters was me escaping from the sadness of losing her. I held her photo up in the Top 8 photo and tried not to cry (again) while doing so.  

Anyway.

In terms of BUG Delver, there are a lot of cards I want to try, Dimir Charm being one of them. I like how it’s more combo hate and more removal so that’s a card I want to try. Abrupt Decay continues to feel really good and the more people start playing 2 and 3 mana planeswalkers over Jace, the better Abrupt Decay might be, meaning that we might actually start playing four Decays in the 75.

Tyrant’s Scorn might not be worth a slot and may be better served as either an Edict or as a Flusterstorm.

It’s hard to guess how to attack the meta now with Modern Horizons out. We essentially played a dead format at this tournament because the changes of MH will impact Legacy. Wrenn and Six is fucking bonkers so as people have seen I will be trying BURG Delver again because W&6 kills Strix and Thalia and fixes your mana base which is what this deck requires. Still, needing three lands to have access to your four colours is difficult so we’ll see. It might be too ambitious.

This is the photo of Sophie I held up. I left work early on the Friday before we said goodbye so we could spend some more time together. This is her just walking around the front yard being a ditz. I love how she looks in this photo.

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