MtG Pioneer – GB Delirium

This blog is going to be my dumping ground for personal projects and ideas I have separate from work-related topics. One of the biggest interests I have taken in the past few weeks is the new format for Magic: the Gathering, Pioneer, which uses cards from the past 7 years to create a space where players can upgrade past standard decks to play a competitive, but not “overpowered” format.

As a player who has been playing primarily for the last 7 years, I was ecstatic to hear about the format, as it has allowed me to revive some of my favorite decks I’ve played in the past, including the one I’m going to be writing about today.

Overview

This Green-Black Delirium deck draws heavily from the Shadows Over Innistrad block from 2016, upgraded with some significantly more powerful cards, including an improved removal suite in the form of Thoughtseize, Abrupt Decay, Assassin’s Trophy, and Fatal Push, as well as improved threats such as Questing Beast and Vraska, Golgari Queen.

The deck’s strategy is to trade resources with the opponent until we are both very low on cards, and then to out-value them by having more objectively powerful cards that allow me to accrue value throughout the game. Delirium is a mechanic that rewards me for having 4+ card types (creature, land, instant, planeswalker, etc) by improving my cards in some way. Notice that the delirium strategy fits well into the midrange game plan, as my deck gets more powerful as there are more cards in my graveyard. This is an important part of the strategy that allows me to pivot from defense to offense during the mid-stages of the game.

While midrange and GBx strategies have not been exceedingly popular in the Pioneer metagame thus far, I personally have found great success with the deck so far, having a 4/1 Pioneer League result, as well as a 12/3/0 record in the casual play room, coming out ahead of strong decks such as UR Phoenix, Mono Red, Green Ramp, and Field of the Dead. While obviously this is a small data set, and more research is needed, I personally feel confident that the deck can compete with top-tier decks, and will find a home among the strongest players in the format. I believe that although the format is currently warped towards unfair strategies (Looking at you, Nykthos), fair decks such as Delirium are actually benefitted by their popularity, as ripping apart these high-synergy decks is exactly what GBx strategies are looking to do.

Card Selection

After much fiddling with the exact numbers and card choices, I feel pretty much settled on my 75. The main deck provides a broad toolbox that allows me to protect myself and develop my board early while slowing down my opponent, and then transitioning into a more aggressive board once I have 4+ lands on the field.

While some card options such as Thoughtseize and Grim Flayer are obvious selections for a deck such as this, I want to explain a few of the more interesting options I’ve settled on.

Walking Ballista – The number of Ballistae has gone up and down throughout the development of the deck, but I feel comfortable with 1 in the current meta. The card is more often than not fantastic, either serving as a beater, a blocker, a mana sink, a removal spell, or simply a way to turn on delirium with X=0. While in other metagames I might consider going up on Ballista, my testing has shown that I would rather not go below 0 maindeck. I do sideboard it out against decks where I don’t think it’s ability to ping small creatures will be valuable.

Merfolk Branchwalker – Probably the most innovative card in the deck, I arrived at Branchwalker after experimenting with many different builds, including a more Delirium focused deck that used Vessel of Nascency, an aggressive version with Packrat, a more mid-rangey build that focused more on 3-drops, and a few others. Ultimately, I found that this card is the perfect middle ground for doing what my deck needs – it needed a two-drop green creature that helps fuel the graveyard, and can find my third or fourth land. Because of Traverse the Ulvenwald, this deck can run a mere 21 lands, but often will need to use spells to help find the fourth land. Merfolk Branchwalker allows me to dig for lands while continuing to develop my board for either offense or defense. I trade the Branchwalker aggressively with my opponent, as it is an easy body to throw away in order to fuel delirium, or buy it back with Liliana, the Last Hope for even more digging.

Scavenging Ooze – While in modern and other formats Scooze is often relegated to the sideboard, this card is an absolute all-star in Pioneer, and I went from 2 side, to a 1-1 main/side split, to having two in the main deck. Scooze is a house against many of the popular decks in the format (Rally the Ancestors, Dredge, Arclight Phoenix, Mono Red, etc). It gains life, hates graveyards, and gets huge, allowing me to overwhelm opponents in the late-game. Even better, my deck often over-fills its own graveyard, giving me plenty of built-in fuel to grow the ooze. I would even run more Scavenging Oozes, if only redundant copies weren’t so bad.

The Toolbox

The creatures I consider my primary toolbox are:

  • Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
  • Questing Beast
  • Ishkanah, Grafwidow
  • Murderous Rider

Each of these creatures serves a specific purpose, or helps to fight a particular deck. While each of them on their own is a powerful card, the ability to find certain answers with Traverse the Ulvenwald is a major draw to the delirium archetype.

Kalitas helps fight against graveyard-based decks, as well as aggressive decks, by gaining life and turning all of my removal spells into two-for-ones that give me blockers.

Questing Beast is there when the deck needs to start turning the corner quickly and put up a wall. In games where I am racing or am facing down other powerful creatures, Questing Beast is an excellent target. He is also pseudo-Planeswalker removal, and I often use him as such.

Ishkanah is a powerful way to clog up the board and protect yourself against all kinds of threats, including fliers, which the deck otherwise struggles against. Ishkanah is particularly good against Arclight Phoenix, which is one of the most popular decks in the format currently. The Grafwidow is also great at protecting planeswalkers, or even just providing a bunch of threats against a deck trying to 1-for-1 you. While she sometimes feels like the weakest/hardest to use card in the deck, the times where she pays off are well worth it. One piece of advice about using Ishkanah is to not be afraid to just throw her down without delirium if needed. While it feels bad to lose out on a spider army, trying to navigate to a position to use her optimally is often incorrect, and she does her job fine as a 3/5 reach a lot of the time.

Murderous Rider – While this card is popular in black decks across the format, it is particularly powerful in delirium, as it is a tutorable kill spell with Traverse the Ulvenwald. If being able to snipe a problematic creature or planeswalker isn’t enough, the 2/3 lifelink often makes attacking difficult for aggressive decks, and can provide a clear 2-for-1 in grindy matchups. While 1 feels correct right now, I could definitely see myself going up to 2 or maybe even 3 in the future. One note – similar to Ishkanah, I see black mages often hold the rider to use the removal half, but there are many times where simply slamming the rider himself is correct – especially in this deck, where he tucks himself back into the library to be tutored up again.

Sideboard

Because the metagame is extremely diverse right now, it is difficult to put together a front-to-back guide on how to sideboard. Instead, I’ve broken down strategies into broad groups, which I then tailor my sideboard selections for. Of course, one of the most important parts of sideboarding is responding to what you’ve seen, so if your opponent is playing a card that you can only beat with a certain answer, be sure to bring that in.

Spell Synergy (Nexus, Phoenix, Ramp, Burn, Jeskai Ascendancy) – For these decks I bring in the Duress, Pithing Needle, and Assassin’s Trophy. If the combo or synergy is enchantment-based (Search of Azcanta, Ascendancy) then Golgari Charm comes in as well.

Creature Synergy (Rally Combo, Tribal [Humans, Elves, Goblins], Burn, Devotion) – Against creature-based decks, I bring in all the creature removal. Languish, Assassin’s Trophy, Ob Nixilis’s Cruelty, and Kalitas are all great here. If my opponent is playing small creatures such as elves or goblins that I think I can wipe away, I will also bring in Golgari Charm. Against creature decks I prefer to avoid grindy cards like Lifecrafter’s Bestiary, as I want all my cards to provide value up-front, and I would hate to see a slow card in my opening hand.

Graveyard Synergy (Phoenix, Rally Combo, Delve Decks) – Our deck is already well-prepared for the abundance of graveyard-based strategies in the format with two Scavenging Oozes and a Kalitas in the main deck. We can further strengthen our game plan by shutting down our opponents with cards like Grafdigger’s Cage, Ob Nixilis’s Cruelty, and Kalitas #2. It’s worth mentioning that I tested with Leyline of the Void in the past, but found that it wasn’t worth the 4 sideboard slots it needed, as we are already favored in many of these matchups, and the cards we bring in are quite strong. If delve and graveyard strategies continue to dominate the metagame, it may be correct to return to 4 Leylines.

“Go Big” Decks (Ramp, Nexus, Planeswalker Decks) – Against decks with objectively better cards that us (Ugin, Nissa, Teferi, etc), this deck pivots into the aggressor role. The most important part of this strategy is slowing down the opponent, so cards like Duress, Pithing Needle, Assassin’s Trophy, and Noxious Grasp are very important. In these matchups we play as a disruptive aggro deck, so be sure you don’t over-board into removal, only to have your opponents’ inevitability eventually win the game while you stare at two Abrupt Decays.

Grindy Matchups (Control, Midrange Mirror) – In matchups where we anticipate the game going long, we want to have as much value as possible jammed into our decks. Bringing in powerful threats such as Kalitas and Lifecrafter’s Bestiary allow us to accrue value over many turns, and universal answers such as Languish, Assassin’s Trophy, and Pithing Needle allow us to respond to whatever our opponents are up to. Depending on whether you think you are the aggressor or defender, bringing in Duress may be correct (against blue decks or when you are defending, it is correct). Our main deck is already quite threat dense, and so we simply need to replace weaker cards (Merfolk Branchwalker, Courser of Kruphix) with heavier threats that threaten to win the game on their own.

Conclusion

Green-Black Delirium is a strong contender in the early pioneer metagame. By having powerful threats and answers, the deck is able to play both offense and defense depending on the matchup. The deck has lots of even or near-even matchups, and is a high skill deck that rewards smart play without being overly punishing. If you’re looking to explore midrange strategies and play fair magic, this could be the deck for you!

Have you played a similar deck, or faced against it online? Are there cards I’ve overlooked, or that you think should be included? Do you like the deck, or think it’s a pile of hot garbage? Let me know in the comments below, I would love to hear from you!

Happy Thoughtseizing!

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