Going into GP Denver, I was the most confident I've been in a long time. I had just Top 4'd the Invitational, and was piloting the deck that I am one of the best with in the world—Elves. I even thought Elves was well positioned.
I’ve been trying to expand my depth as a player recently. Playing the type of decks you are most experienced with is all well and good, but sometimes they just aren’t viable. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I think the most striking example of this is when Guillaume Wafo-Tapa went from level 7 in a year where control decks were well positioned, to falling off the train the following year when creature decks dominated. I don’t want to be Elves guy or combo guy, I want to be a good overall Magic player. Thus, I was particularly proud of my Invitational finish with two completely fair, good-stuff decks. But that doesn’t mean I’ll never play the little green men or combo, of course.
Coincidentally enough, it was a list from the Invitational that convinced me to test Elves in the first place. Leon Kornacki took Elves to a Top 8 finish with a Craterhoof Behemoth in his Living Wish board as a win condition. I had tried Natural Order in Elves when Regal Force was the only target, so it wasn’t hard for me to put two and two together and figure out that Ordering for Craterhoof might be something special.
Wrapter and I played some pre-board games, and were fully impressed by Mr. Hoof. However, the Natural Order plan truly shined in post-board games. When BUG tried to jam a bunch of Engineered Plagues, you could just set up a Natural Order for Progenitus.
Between Nettle Sentinel, Dryad Arbor, Wirewood Symbiote, and Deathrite Shaman, it actually isn’t too hard to set up an Order through a Plague. In addition, you often have an extra creature to protect Progenitus from Liliana. Elves’ problem in Legacy has historically been post-board games, but with this plan my deck was matched up well against the fair decks even after boarding.
Once Wrapter and I decided the deck was good, we spent the remainder of our time figuring out exactly what the list should look like. The Deathrite Shaman count quickly went from 2 to 3 to 4. We figured out that we could fit in 10 fetches without frequently running out of fetchable lands, so Deathrite almost always served as a Llanowar Elves.
In addition, the interaction between Deathrite and the untap creatures (Symbiote and Ranger) is absolutely disgusting and closes games out quickly. Natural Order settled at 3 main and 1 side, because drawing multiples in game ones is annoying, but it is a huge part of your post-board plan.
One of the major contributions by Wrapter, innocuous as it may seem, was the Dryad Arbor in the sideboard. In post-board games against fair decks, you often want to fetch Dryad Arbor. It essentially makes two mana with Cradle in play, gives you a Natural Order outlet, and serves as Liliana protection. In addition, it also offers a target for Quirion Ranger or Symbiote. With those things in mind, here is the list we settled on:
The 60 was set a good day or two before the tournament, but the sideboard took some more discussion. The one Dryad Arbor, one Progenitus, and one Order package were a lock, as were the 4 Therapies for the combo matchup. We then decided that having access to a couple Decays was probably a good idea, as Counterbalance was still a problem. Even though it’s not optimal and our main plan was to circumvent it, it is still nice to have an answer to Engineered Plague.
The rest of the sideboard was mainly a function of two things: First, Elves is a combo deck and therefore can’t really sideboard much in any matchup—less is more. Second, Elves is generally a turn behind most combo decks in speed. Thus, we really wanted high impact anti-combo cards.
At first we were leaning towards Thorn of Amethyst, but then we realized that turn 2 disruption may not be fast enough. In addition, we already had Therapy for games that went past turn one. What we really wanted was some assurance that games would get that far, and Mindbreak Trap was perfect for that.
When you do sideboard, the cards that come out most frequently are Priest of Titania, Heritage Druid, and Nettle Sentinel. Priest comes out because it is so weak to decks with removal. Heritage and Nettle weaken when your opponent is better at shutting down your combo, because they don’t produce mana on their own. This makes them worse than the other Elves when you are on the Natural Order plan. I can’t stress enough that less is more when sideboarding with this deck. Combo decks are not built to handle big changes well.
There were a few notable moments from the tournament:
A couple of times during the tournament, I missed an attack with a few Elves. This is obviously not something that normally happens. Playing Elves is so mentally draining and takes so much concentration, that I forgot to get my pokes in where I could if plan A doesn't work. Specifically, when you use Symbiote or Quirion Ranger and turn them upside down, it can be hard to remember to attack with them. Obviously this was not too costly as I still made Top 8, but it is something to keep in mind. Embarrassingly, one example of me missing Symbiote attacks came in my feature match against Sam Black.
Another interesting game occurred playing for an undefeated record going into the clubhouse. My opponent played turn two Rest in Peace, which shut off my Deathrite Shaman. On the following turn, he played an Energy Field. I conceded. I don’t think it’s correct to have a maindeck answer to that sort of thing, but it was pretty tilting to know that even if I drew my whole deck I couldn’t win. Regardless, I managed to pull out games two and three and take down the match.
My most interesting match was against back-to-back GP Top 8'er Harry Corvese with BUG Shardless Agent. In game one, I used Quirion Ranger, Wirewood Symbiote, Dryad Arbor, and Gaea's Cradle to resolve a Green Sun's Zenith for 7 getting Regal Force. Unfortunately, my Regal drew into all lands.
Harry killed my Symbiote, but I still had a Regal holding back Harry’s 4/5 Tarmogoyf. Harry then ran a Shardless Agent into my Regal Force to get an artifact into the graveyard and pump the 'Goyf. I followed up with Deathrite Shaman off the top. After a turn, Harry found an Abrupt Decay for it. I responded by using my only black mana to remove an instant (since his life total was low) and then tried to remove the Agent as nonchalantly as possible by untapping my Deathrite with Quirion Ranger and activating the green ability.
Fortunately, Harry didn’t notice that I had removed the only artifact in either graveyard and ran his now 4/5 Tarmogoyf into my Regal Force. Just as I got distracted using so much mental energy on playing the combo element of the Elves deck, I think Harry got distracted trying to control the combo element of the Elves deck.
In game two, I had a situation where I resolved a Natural Order with a strong board. I had the choice between Craterhoof Behemoth and Progenitus. Craterhoof would put Harry to 4 life, leaving me with a Deathrite Shaman ,Quirion Ranger, Dryad Arbor, and the 'Hoof in play. Progenitus would still put Harry on a pretty quick clock and he would have to have something like Perish or die.
I ended up going for the 'Hoof plan and Harry had a Dismember with the trigger on the stack. I hasn't even considered that possibility. Harry followed up with a stretch of good draws and I ended up losing a game I certainly wouldn’t have if I had gotten Progenitus. I asked LSV afterwards if he would have gotten Progenitus, and he said yes. However, he agreed it was a tough call and that it is pretty tough to play around something as obscure as Dismember in Legacy.
In game three, I wasn’t about to make the same mistake with Natural Order again. I led off with a Deathrite Shaman, which immediately met a Dismember. Turn two, I played a Quirion Ranger and a Dryad Arbor and passed the turn. Harry was then left with a decision between Abrupt Decay and Hymn to Tourach.
He chose Hymn, since he thought there was no risk of anything too bad happening. Little did he know, this play put him at 5/6 to lose the game on the spot. My four-card hand contained 2 Natural Orders, meaning he would have to hit a 2/4 followed by a 1/3 to prevent me from casting Natural Order on the following turn.
It's incredibly gross that you can cast Natural Order off just a Forest, a Dryad Arbor, and a Quirion Ranger. The Hymn missed, and Progenitus took down the game. Afterwards Harry and I asked a bunch of people what they would do in Harry’s spot. There was no consensus.
The last really memorable game still stings: game one of the Top 8 against Pat Cox with Jund.
The big advantage to only playing Symbiote is that it leaves me an opening to play a fetchland. The fetch can get Dryad Arbor, which would allow me to make additional mana with the Ranger on the following turn.
Of course, I drew Natural Order for my turn, and was unable to cast it because I made play #1, and was a mana short. Pat had the Thoughtseize, which he of course used to take the Order. From there, he easily won the game. While I still don’t believe my play was wrong, it is frustrating to know that a different line of play almost assuredly would have won the game.
One random thing that came up twice in this match is that Birchlore Rangers has morph. This isn’t particularly relevant, both because the face-up side is usually better, and because it’s a 1-of so you don’t draw it very much, but it is certainly worth keeping in mind as an option when you absolutely need a 2/2 (or they have Engineered Plague on Elf out).
Even though it ended with a frustrating loss, Grand Prix Denver was a great experience for me. I had a ton of fun playing with a deck I love and am good with. I got to hang out with a lot of friends, including a bunch of Californians I don’t get to see because I’m in school on the east coast. Making Top 8 didn’t hurt, either. I’m going to try to record a video with the 75 I played at the GP, and should also have a Spoiler Spotlight coming out soon on one of my favorite Gatecrash spoilers.