Last updated on August 11, 2022
Temporal Trespass | Illustration by Clint Cearley
Every time WotC decides to make a mechanic that can be cast with alternate costs or resources the results are problematic. First affinity, then Phyrexian mana, and now delve. Whenever you read the delve mechanic in MTG, take three or four from the mana value and evaluate the card again. Is it good now? Usually yes, and maybe a bit too good.
Today we take a deep dive into delve, why it’s so popular, and the best delve cards in Magic. I’ll also go through some decks that use the delve mechanic.
Ready? Let’s delve right in.
Murderous Cut | Illustration by Yohann Schepacz
Delve is a mechanic that lets you exile a card in your graveyard to pay for of that spell’s cost.
Cards that have only one colored pip in their mana cost, like Gurmag Angler, are generally better than cards that have two or more colored pips, like Tombstalker. One of them could be cast for while the other requires at least .
Since delve cards consume one resource (cards in your graveyard), they don’t work well together. A deck usually has one set of cards with delve and that’s it, like four Gurmag Anglers or Murktide Regents.
Delve has been printed on creatures, instants, and sorceries so far, but we could see it on other permanent types in the future.
Will of the Naga is a fine tempo play that usually costs three or four mana in Limited.
Set Adrift is a nice tempo/removal spell in blue for Limited.
As more and more decks were built to take advantage of self-milling and delve it became easier to slot in one or two Logic Knots. At worst it’s a Syncopate for one mana more. But if you have a full graveyard it’s a straight counterspell.
One of the best decks in Modern these days is Izzet Murktide, and its namesake card delivers. Murktide Regent wants lots of cheap spells to be delved and even works well in multiples. It’s not rare for it to be a 7/7+ flier for two mana. And it works well with flashback.
How good is Dig Through Time? It provides card advantage and card selection, letting you choose two among seven options, all while costing two to four mana most.
Whenever you pay seven mana to flashback Memory Deluge, remember that Dig costs less and offers the same effect. It searches for your combo pieces, win conditions, or the answers you need to stabilize. The only format that you can play Dig in these days is as a one-of in Vintage or Commander.
How much does it cost to draw three mana? Usually five mana on a sorcery spell, or six on an instant. Treasure Cruise usually costs one or two mana, matching Ancestral Recall. This much card advantage for such little cost deserves a ban in a lot of 60-card formats and still fine for 100-card formats.
Every set has the “discard two cards” effect in black, and Tasigur’s Cruelty is overcosted by three. In the rare cases that this costs one or two, it’s fine.
A 3/5 deathtouch is a big blocker, but Shambling Attendants isn’t the delve card you want to play in your Limited decks.
A 3/3 flier for three or four mana in Limited usually makes the cut of most decks.
Dead Drop can be a blowout in Limited if your opponent has two or three medium-sized creatures.
Death Rattle is somewhat playable in low power Constructed formats. The fact that you can kill any non-green creature for cheap makes a good Doom Blade impression. But Murderous Cut is strictly better.
Destroying a creature for potentially one is very nice, but the fact that Murderous Cut competes with other delve cards for the same resource and is narrow in its effect reduces its playability. The problem with these cards is when it costs four or five mana, so it’s unreliable.
Necropolis Fiend is usually a bomb in Limited but there are better cards for Constructed. Fiend is the typical power for an intro deck rare.
A 5/5 flier for eight mana was probably good in MTG’s early days, but Tombstalker becomes interesting when you can reduce the mana cost by a lot. It was played in some brews as the first cheap delve beater.
Soulflayer has a cool ability as one of the first cards to have this text. It asks you to play with cards with different abilities and a 4/4 creature with a lot of abilities has potential. And players always try to brew decks capable of producing a double strike, hexproof, lifelink flier for two or three mana.
There were Dimir () Constructed decks built in Standard to take advantage of Empty the Pits as a control finisher, but it never left tier 2. The prospect of making a lot of zombies on your end step is frightening and there are probably EDH decks out there that play this card.
Tarmogoyf is usually a 3/4 or 4/5 for two mana, right? Well, Gurmag Angler can be a 5/5 for or even . It’s a good sign when you compare favorably to one of the most playable creatures of all time. Besides, the more cards you exile with delve cards the weaker your opponent’s Tarmogoyf will be. This common creature is very playable in a lot of formats including Pauper, Pioneer, and Modern.
Tasigur, the Golden Fang’s size as a 4/5 for potentially one is already good, but the fact that it has built-in card advantage is what seals the deal. For four mana you fill your own graveyard and draw the card your opponent chooses, but they don’t usually have a good choice either way. Plus it’s a legendary creature in Sultai () colors, which fit in EDH perfectly.
4/4 trample for three is usually the norm as a Constructed playable, and Hooting Mandrills can be at least a 4/4 for four. Unfortunately this is the ceiling for it and beaters do more than stats these days.
Become Immense is played alongside infect creatures as a cheap buff. +6/+6 is huge and can kill out of nowhere in an infect deck. You could also play it with cards that give double strike for the combo kill.
Modern (and Legacy to an extent) was dominated by Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis for a while. It has convoke and delve, which means that the cost needs to be paid by at least two green/black creatures and five cards from your graveyard. This is a downside in Hogaak since you can’t pay with mana and other resources.
But past that the card is all upside. Self-mill and dredge decks usually mill a good part of their library and win with cards like Vengevine, Bloodghast, and Prized Amalgam. These cards help to cast Hogaak while in play and, it doesn’t even need to be in your hand!
Hogaak had to be banned for its dominance, and it added consistency to already-great dredge decks. Still legal in Legacy, and it can be your commander too.
In order to make the most of the delve mechanic you need a graveyard full of cards, but that doesn’t mean that you’re playing a dedicated self-mill strategy. Instead you can play a normal game of Magic, casting spells and naturally fueling your graveyard.
That said there are some cards that excel at doing this.
Faithless Looting does this job almost too well.
Every deck in Magic plays some amount of fetch lands for deck thinning and mana fixing. These are perfect in a deck with delve cards because they fill your graveyard.
Turn 1 fetch land and Thought Scour gives you a land, a card, and four cards in your graveyard. This is effectively four mana for a delve spell.
Cards like Lightning Bolt, Daze, and Spell Pierce are already staples in Izzet () Tempo and Delver of Secrets decks. They have a lot of synergy with delve cards. Not to mention that playing multiple spells a turn is a good way to fill your graveyard.
Cards that fill your graveyard like Mishra’s Bauble count as a different type of card for effects like delirium and replace themselves.
Izzet Murktide in Modern
Murktide Regent | Illustration by Lucas Graciano
Izzet Murktide aims to play cheap spells from the beginning, attacking with Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Dragon’s Rage Channeler. You then use counterspells to protect what you’re doing, or Fury to wipe the board.
The finishing blow is to cast a huge Murktide Regent for cheap and have counterspells to protect it for the win.
Hogaak Dredge in Modern
Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis | Illustration by Vincent Proce
Hogaak Dredge (pre-ban) wants to self-mill with cards like Faithless Looting, Stitcher’s Supplier, Satyr Wayfinder, and Insolent Neonate. Your graveyard will be full of creatures like Gravecrawler, Bloodghast, and Vengevine from the self-mill and these creatures return to the battlefield from the graveyard. They’re persistent threats that your opponent has to exile to get rid of.
Once they’re on the battlefield these cards help you cast Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis via convoke since they’re green and black.
Tasigur, the Golden Fang | Illustration by Chris Rahn
Once cards are exiled with the delve ability the cost reduction is already applied to the delve spell being cast, so there’s nothing to be responded to. But you can respond to the spell being cast with the delve ability.
No, delve is a static ability.
The mana value of a delve spell is the printed mana value plus other additions to the spell’s mana cost as with any other spell. So even if you delve cards to lower the mana needed to cast it, delve doesn’t affect the mana value.
Let’s say an ability from your opponent (like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben’s static ability makes your Murderous Cut more expensive to cast. Murderous usually costs , but it now costs because of Thalia’s ability. That’s the new total cost of the card, and you can delve up to 5 cards to pay this additional cost since it now costs five generic mana instead of four.
Delve only counts for cost reduction of the spell as it’s being cast. Additional costs that go to the stack because of counterspells like Mana Leak have to be paid with mana.
Delve is only applied to the generic mana requirement of a card. Let’s say you want to cast Treasure Cruise and its mana cost is . The most cards you can exile from your graveyard to pay the cost is seven.
No, delve only applies to generic mana in a delve card’s cost. Any colored pips have to be paid with a mana from a mana source.
Will of the Naga | Illustration by Wayne Reynolds
Cards that exchange one resource for another have a lot of potential to be abused and broken, and delve is one of the clearest and most obvious cases. (If you’re interested, you can learn more about resource exchange in this course).
Delve decks need redundancy like cheap cantrips and self-mill. It was balanced for Standard and Draft where it was always a good but clearly not broken mechanic. There are three cards with the delve mechanic that were banned in up to three formats and restricted in Vintage.
The fact that delve cards are very powerful and cause all kinds of development problems mean that they’re not returning anytime soon. And the design space for this mechanic has already been very thoroughly explored. We’ll probably only see delve in Commander supplements and Modern Masters/Horizons-type sets.
What’s your favorite experience with delve cards? Do you have a favorite delve card? Let me know in the comments below or in the Draftsim Discord.
As always, stay healthy, stay safe, and I’ll see you in the next one!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: