Sometimes it’s difficult to wrap your head around the subtle changes within a format that shift one deck from laughably bad, to marginally ok, to reasonable, to good, and back again. It’s not always the deck that changes, or even the cards within the deck. Sometimes it’s the metagame that shifts around the deck, changing the competition. Occasionally the cards that limit the viability of a certain strategy suddenly disappear, and a deck goes from zero to hero without changing a thing.
In those instances, maintaining an air of flexibility in your perceptions can be the difference between winning with a deck that’s been dismissed, and losing with a deck that’s unprepared.
Once upon a time, Goblins was the quintessential little kid deck, perpetually the butt of the jokes about stupid little green men, and never taken seriously — Until it was. With the printing of Onslaught, the red tribe got a massive push toward competitive, and was suddenly top tier — and stayed there in Legacy for years, until eventually the format shifted away from it. Even now, Goblins represents a totally reasonable choice in an open field.
It has the speed and resiliency to compete with Griselbrand decks, it has the ability to overwhelm the resources of the Delver decks, it has the removal and card advantage to swarm past the Maverick decks, and it has the tutoring and flexibility to go toe-to-toe with control. While it isn’t the best deck (and hasn’t been for a long time), it is by no means a little kid deck, and will occasionally smash an event and pop into the top ranks.
Merfolk followed a similar path: While it never had quite the same reputation for silliness as Goblins — probably due to the luck of being in the game’s best color — Merfolk has spent time in the limelight with the original Fish decks, been terrible, brought to the forefront again with Opposition/Static Orb, fallen off the radar, and worked its way from a mediocre player in Legacy to the best deck in the format for over a year. Again, changes occurred outside the deck itself (which largely remained the same for about six months too long) that led to its fall from grace; but the printing of Master of the Pearl Trident in M13 (along with a small amount of success in recent weeks) has players looking back to Fish as a real way to attack the upper tier of the format — which is largely blue in hue.
For me, the tribe associate with “little kid” has always been Elves. Strangely enough, if you head WAY back to the beginning of the game, Elves was a real competitor, as strapping an Aspect of Wolf on an Elvish Archers was something a lot of the (not overtly broken) decks of the day had trouble with. Once we left the wild wild west, and headed into the world of real decks, the Elves fell away to become something every Wellwisher-toting 10-year-old couldn’t get enough of. It remained this way until the printing of Nettle Sentinel in Eventide, which quickly paired with Heritage Druid to do some work on the highest levels. Of course, even then, very few players took it seriously as a Legacy deck. Very few players take it seriously today.
Part of the reason for this bias against the real little green men is that for quite some time, players couldn’t divorce themselves from the old Elves style — the Concordant Crossroads, Priest of Titania, Staff of Domination-style deck that needed everything to go right for them in order for their “combo” to take off. This type of Elf deck is fairly academic to disrupt, and manages to lose not only to creature removal, but to artifact hate as well, and even counterspells to boot. Unfortunately, the inability to break out of old habits is a hallmark of the Legacy player, and we’re often guilty of sticking with known quantities far beyond the point where they lose viability (if they ever had it in the first place).
The thing that interests me about the Elf tribe in a Legacy context is not so much how few people give the deck the credit it deserves, nor in its viability at this moment or the next moment — because there’s no telling if it will be worth playing tomorrow, if it is today — but rather, the manner in which players have designed those decks they’re bringing to the table right now.
Most of the successful decks right now are derivatives of the Chris Andersen Elf style — Combo out on turn two or three with Nettle/Heritage/etc, and if you don’t get there, attack for a bunch. This plan is very strong against fields with a small number of removal spells, which can’t effectively trade one-for-one with your creatures — especially in the presence of Glimpse of Nature, which is the closest thing Elves has to a must-counter. When the deck is on, it’s very difficult for the fair decks to beat. It has a better backup strategy than a deck like TES, and isn’t all that much slower than that deck on average. This deck preys on decks like RUG Delver and Maverick when the two decks have their attention turned toward other styles — and when they have to overload on answers to questions the Elf deck doesn’t ask.
The problem with this strategy is when that attention begins to focus on Elves — which isn’t always because of the Elf deck itself: it has a tendency to fold quickly and hard.
When RUG is running a card like Forked Bolt in the main deck, it isn’t because the pilot is concerned about its Elves matchup. More likely than not, they’re thinking they may get a two-for-one out of a Noble Hierarch and a Mother of Runes, or off of a Delver before it flips in the mirror. Unfortunately, Elves suffers serious splash damage from this trend, as it can’t compete with the decks that are capable of removing a significant number of threats while backing it up with a clock, as RUG has a tendency to do. There’s not enough card advantage to freely trade off threats with a deck running Tarmogoyf and Nimble Mongoose, unless you’ve already won by resolving and utilizing a Glimpse.
This brings up the first idea I’ve been considering. While, to this point, the most successful builds have been descendants of LSV’s PT Berlin-winning deck, there may be more merit to a build similar to other lists in the Top 8 of that tournament, who were running Wirewood Hivemaster and Essence Warden. Perhaps Warden is overkill, but the Hivemaster has the ability to generate a seriously problematic board state for a deck attempting to go one-for-one with you, with the occasional two-for-one. In effect, it’s much like Glimpse — it provides a second body to pair with each threat you produce. In conjunction with an engine like Wirewood Symbiote, it can generate an enormous number of creatures in rapid fashion.
In testing M13 in Legacy, I recognized a second truth:
Yeva, Nature’s Herald
This changes everything.
While I mentioned briefly last week how much I thought Yeva brings to the table, I significantly undervalued her impact on the way the deck operates.
First of all, a 4/4 flash creature for four mana is nothing to sneeze at. I’ll be honest, when I reviewed her last week, I had myself convinced she was a 2/2. At 2/2, she was pretty good. At 4/4, she represents a significant threat on her own, without factoring in the significant flexibility she adds to your natural strategies. Having a second creature that can stand up to a Goose or Goyf in a fight and live to tell the tale (with only Regal Force as another) is a huge bonus, and coming up with four mana (rather than seven) in the face of removal is much easier, as well. Beyond even that, surviving Lightning Bolt is huge.
Of course, none of those reasons are why we’d play Yeva. If they were, we’d be playing Tarmogoyf.
Yeva excels in the Elf deck for a specific role — playing Elvish Visionary on the opponent’s turn.
I cannot begin to describe the number of times I’ve gotten into the position with the Elf deck where I have one or more [card wirewood symbiote]Symbiotes[/card], a Visionary, all the mana in the world, and I’m just bouncing the Visionary every turn digging for gas. Being able to bounce and play the Visionary on the opponent’s turn not only allows you to save mana on your own turn, but also the ability to play any subsequent creatures you’d draw — putting the onus on the opponent to react during an awkward point in the cycle, and allowing you a clear path for your tutor spells and [card mirror entity]Mirror Entities[/card] on your own turn.
It doesn’t sound like a huge advantage, but believe me, it is. Yeva acts like a pseudo Seedborn Muse for the Elf player, and having her in play truly feels like you’re in a can’t lose position.
The list I’ve been working with for the last few days:
I haven’t had a lot of time to test out Caleb’s Humility sideboard strategy, but it seems interesting, to say the least. Having a way to shut down [card elesh norn, grand cenobite]Elesh Norn[/card] is a big deal, because otherwise you’re actually drawing dead to the card.
I also haven’t had sufficient time to test out Cavern of Souls. While I’m fairly certain that it’s amazing in this deck, it limits the number of utility slots you have for lands, and tends to make your Quirion Ranger(s) look foolish. It’s probably worth running to combat the tempo spells like Daze that can actually disrupt you effectively in the first few turns, or to stop a [card force of will]Force[/card] on a game-winning Mirror Entity.
My build currently eschews Gaea’s Cradle, mostly because I recently got an offer I couldn’t refuse on mine, and no longer possess one. I think the mana base, in an optimal configuration, would look something like the following:
You don’t really need Pendelhaven. It doesn’t let you win a fight with a Nimble Mongoose; it doesn’t let your guys survive a Lightning Bolt. If it did either of these things, it would be a much better choice — but as it stands, I think the slot is better served as Crop Rotation, despite the fact that it opens you up to some real blowouts.
I’ve been doing a lot of testing on Magic Online, surprisingly enough. It’s still true that Daily Events and 8-man queues don’t ever fire (or even come close), however, it’s pretty easy to jam a bunch of 2-man queues to test out decks. I’ve been successful in those testing sessions (some of which I’ve even recorded), but I have noted a general trend from the decks I’ve played against on Magic Online.
I think the cat is out of the bag on how strong of a deck this is.
Between Caleb and Chrandersen doing well in the Open series, and the subsequent articles that have come from those performances, you’re not sneaking up on anyone with Elves any more.
I’ve begun to see a shift in the RUG Delver lists away from Chain Lightning, and back to Fire//Ice or Forked Bolt. Along with that, you gain splash hate from Submerge, which is surprisingly effective against you. It’s quite frustrating to be blown out by that card when Green Sun’s Zenith-ing for the remaining combo piece. Or — almost as bad — simply being set back a turn while beaten over the head with an Insectile Aberration. The Absolute Laws out of the board go a very long way toward allowing you to ignore much of the removal RUG can use against you, but overloading on them takes a large number of slots, and you still need to resolve both the enchantment itself, and a bunch of creatures to get pro: red. At that point, you’ll begin to race, as the opponent is left with no choice but to aim those removal spells at your dome. While it’s true that this deck can race quite well with most of the decks in the format, it’s not unheard of for a tempo deck to sneak a win out while you’re stuck durdling around. That’s the unfortunate consequence of running an Elf deck, I’m afraid.
Beyond RUG Delver, I’ve also witnessed an increase in very aggressive RUG-ish decks that run Kird Ape and Grim Lavamancer. If there’s a single card that this deck cannot afford to see in vogue, it’s Grim Lavamanacer. The man simply tears this deck apart limb by limb. It’s almost as effective at neutralizing a team of Elves as an active Umezawa’s Jitte (a card you can never beat in a million years if left unchecked). The deck running Lavamancer runs almost Zoo levels of burn-based removal, and it seems like you’re just never beating that much hate without an Absolute Law.
Still, despite the trend toward decks better prepared to stem the flow of Elves, I’ve been having a reasonable amount of success in the 2-mans, which makes me think this deck could be resilient enough to battle through most of the opposition it sees. With the introduction of Cavern of Souls, you may even be able to beat a resolved Counterbalance, or a Chalice of the Void on one! Those were nearly complete death knells prior to the printing of Green Sun’s Zenith, and they’re only slightly less awful for you since then.
The trick to success with Elves, beyond the obvious “know how the deck works,” is to be flexible and adaptable within your metagame to know what kind of hate your opponents are likely to throw your way, anticipate it, and find a way around it. The deck does have the tools to be capable of that type of change; much like Goblins has never gone away despite our collective best efforts. Even Engineered Plague is not a death sentence.
One of my favorite Elf stories comes from a PTQ in 2009, where I took Extended Elves to a 9th place finish, running 4 Elvish Champion, 3 Imperious Perfect, and 2 Patriarch’s Bidding in the sideboard. I knew the format was heavy on removal, but came mostly in the form of Damnation and Pernicious Deed. Against most of the BGW decks, I would jam a lord on turn two, and allow them to get a marginal advantage via Raven’s Crime and Deed, until I could top deck a Patriarch’s Bidding for the blowout. It gave them a one-turn window to find another answer, or else 40+ power of forestwalking fury would be sent their way. The maneuver didn’t fail a single time. We forget that cards like Bidding or Elvish Champion exist, because we’re used to seeing the same cards in lists over and over and getting locked in that rut. Exploring the options for alternative angles of attack — even within the same general strategy— is a great way to skirt the hate that you may run into over the course of a few weeks.
Pro tip: Don’t side Bidding if you think Reanimator will be a big metagame factor. Or at least, don’t side it in.
While writing this article, Adam was listening to: Minsk – The Ritual Fires of Abandonment