Elves has been one of the premier tribal decks throughout Magic’s rich history. LSV took down Pro Tour Berlin with his Elves deck, which later lead to bannings in Modern. It’s still a force in Modern even without the crazy turn-2 combo potential, but Legacy brings another dimension to the deck.
Glimpse of Nature never got to see the light of day in Modern—it’s simply too powerful. It does require intense deck building restrictions, such as playing green and filling your deck with creatures, but that isn’t a cost when the Elves are so strong. Combining Glimpse with mana-producing Elves allows for explosive combo potential.
Green Sun’s Zenith is the other key card to separate Legacy from Modern. Zenith was legal in Modern, but it didn’t last long. At 1 mana spell it can search out Dryad Arbor to help ramp you, after which it can retrieve any other important creature in your deck. Without Dryad Arbor in Modern, there’s a chance that GSZ could have stayed around—but it’s too dangerous. Being able to search up all of your most powerful creatures while serving as a ramp spell makes GSZ an easy 4 of in any Elves deck.
While searching through deck lists, I stumbled upon the results of MTGO player Julian23. Julian has piloted Elves to multiple 5-0 finishes in Legacy Leagues, which is an impressive feat while not changing a single card from the deck list.
JULIAN23, 5-0 in an MTGO Legacy League
4 Deathrite Shaman is a must in Legacy—it’s the best mana accelerator in the format. It may not be as consistent as a card like Noble Hierarch or Birds of Paradise, but it does produce all of the colors and have an additional +1/+1 on these creatures. If your deck is looking to attack with a single creature, like Infect, or has uses for lands in the graveyard, like Knight of the Reliquary, then Noble Hierarch is probably the best choice for you. If you’re looking to interact with opposing graveyards, have some reach, gain some life in tight races, and also have an Elf with power, Deathrite Shaman blows them away.
With cards like Past in Flames, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Cabal Therapy, Lingering Souls, and all sorts of reanimation shenanigans to put cards like Griselbrand and Elesh Norn into play, Deathrite Shaman is critical.
Elvish Visionary has been called the best card in Elves. While Visionary may not be as important for going off and winning, it’s a key to the consistency of the deck. Without access to it, the deck becomes exponentially weaker. It is one of the cards you most want to see, a card you’ll often search up with GSZ, and with other synergies in the deck, the card you most want to return to your hand to cast again.
In order to return Elves to your hand, you’re going to need 4 copies of Wirewood Symbiote. You can use this ability on both your turn and your opponent’s turn, giving you the ability to cast Elvish Visionary multiple times. It untaps an Elf to produce additional mana while returning an Elf to either combo with Glimpse of Nature or to have another untapped Elf in play to produce even more mana.
Symbiote is also key at protecting your Elves. You can bounce a key Elf in response to a removal spell to make sure that Symbiote is the first thing your opponent will need to target if they want to fight your army. You can also return an unnecessary Elf to your hand on your turn to preemptively play around a sweeper and still have it ready for a Glimpse of Nature turn.
Heritage Druid is an integral part of the strategy for Elves in all formats. It essentially will turn all your future Elf spells into Llanowar Elves with haste. By continually playing 1-mana Elves, you break even on your mana development while you deploy threats. Thanks to GSZ, you don’t need to run the full 4 copies as the second copy actually doesn’t do anything, but you really want the first.
Nettle Sentinel is the best combo with Heritage Druid. Each green spell you cast will net you a mana per Nettle Sentinel since it’s 1/3rd of the 3 Elves you need to tap. You will need to have other Elves in play untapped to get this extra mana each spell, but it will scale. With 2 Nettle Sentinels in play, each Elf will allow you to produce 3 mana. Cast a 1-mana Elf, use it and 2 Nettles to produce 3 mana, and cast another Elf. Rinse and repeat, netting mana each time.
Quirion Ranger is similar to Wirewood Symbiote in that untapping Elves goes a long way toward continuing your strategy. This is essentially free mana while going off as you don’t care about how many Forests you have in play. Quirion Ranger also only costs a single mana, so it’s always a great draw mid-combo since it will produce mana immediately. Incidentally, Ranger can help protect your dual lands from Wastelands, which is a nice added benefit. Quirion Ranger and Deathrite Shaman can also occasionally “machine gun” out an opponent by removing multiple spells per turn. With enough black sources, you can even do this twice on your turn and once on theirs, using the Rangers once-per-turn ability on both players’ turns!
The remainder of the deck is fairly customizable.
Llanowar Elves itself, the original Elf from Magic’s first set of Alpha, is still one of the most solid mana producers. Llanowar is the next best behind Deathrite Shaman.
A single Birchlore Rangers is likely all you want. You can search it up with Green Sun’s Zenith, and it helps produce mana on turn 2. It’s also one of the few cards that can be cast through a Chalice of the Void on 1 or an Engineered Plague on Elves. While those cards will likely still win the game, sometimes you need a couple more damage, and a 2/2 morph will actually be relevant.
Craterhoof Behemoth is the usual kill. You can spit out tons and tons of little creatures, but you don’t want to pass the turn, especially in a format with cards like Supreme Verdict and Terminus. With enough mana, Craterhoof will be a lethal threat and you can even search it out with GSZ if you don’t want to keep combo’ing off until you’re at the bottom of your deck. Even if you had to tap all of your Elves that weren’t summoning sick, you can find Symbiotes and Quirion Rangers to untap them for a final swing.
Gaddock Teeg single-handedly shuts down a number of decks. If your opponent is going to beat you with a Sneak Attack, or a Past in Flames/Tendrils of Agony, Gaddock Teeg is where you want to be. Teeg actually shuts down your own Green Sun’s Zeniths, so you don’t want it unless it’s excellent in the matchup. These matchups also happen to be some of the most challenging, such as Storm where they can kill just as fast, if not faster, as you can. This card can be moved to the sideboard in the right metagames, but it’s pretty awesome to have a single main-deck card that can win you so many games when you technically have access to 5.
Reclamation Sage is a concession to a number of tough cards to beat. The most important one is Chalice of the Void, as a Chalice set to 1 will shut down almost your entire deck. Other cards, such as Counterbalance, are problematic. It’s not easy to trigger a Counterbalance on 3, or 4 when you cast a GSZ to go get Reclamation Sage. Other cards that would be unbeatable, such as Moat, also fall to Reclamation Sage.
I’m not big on a Scavenging Ooze in this deck. It does invalidate a number of strategies, but if I have to spend 3 mana to GSZ for it, I’m rarely going to be happy. This feels more like a sideboard card for me since it can win the game single-handedly, but in game 1, I’m okay relying on Deathrite Shamans. It’s still a 2-mana green creature that can fight Tarmogoyfs in attrition battles, which is nice, but unnecessary.
Shaman of the Pack can deal a huge chunk of damage. If you aren’t able to find quite enough mana to get to Craterhoof, Shaman can certainly help out there. It can also be a great find in the games where you happen to go beatdown. This happens fairly often, where you can’t combo or don’t have a reason to try to combo, and are instead just incidentally dealing small chunks of damage each turn. In conjunction with Deathrite Shaman, Shaman of the Pack can close a game quickly.
Finally, there’s Wren’s Run Packmaster. I’ve never actually seen this card played before! I’m not sure I fully understand all of the implications, but it can win the game if you’re able to play a mana Elf the turn before Chalice of the Void comes down. I’m really not sure when you would want to GSZ for this since, if you have a ton of mana to make Wolves, doesn’t that mean you had a ton of Elves in play and Craterhoof or Shaman would be better? This is a very cool card, and I’m going to enjoy trying it out to see what it’s all about, but I think there’s a reason why I haven’t seen it in any other lists before.
Sylvan Library is simply a value card. It’s one of the most powerful cards in Magic’s history, good enough for Vintage, and in a deck where you will often be able to pay ~12 life to draw extra cards, it’s just some extra value. I don’t think it’s necessary at all, but it’s powerful.
Crop Rotation is another value card, even though it doesn’t seem like it would be. In this case, it’s mana value. You can spend a single mana to produce far more with Gaea’s Cradle, and Crop Rotation gains even more value after sideboard if you bring in Karakas. Karakas can really shut down some decks, such as Sneak and Show. Crop Rotation can even get instant-speed Dryad Arbor or Pendelhaven for a blowout in combat, in response to an edict, or to attack an opposing planeswalker.
I’ve already touched on Dryad’s Arbor, Pendelhaven, and of course the fetchlands to go find the needed mana or Arbor. A single basic Forest is useful to fight against Blood Moon, but the rest of your lands can be Savannahs or Bayous, depending on which cards you play. Bayou is already a must thanks to Deathrite Shaman.
The really intriguing aspect of Legacy Elves is getting to play 4 copies of Gaea’s Cradle. Cradle is one of the most broken lands ever printed and with the change in the legendary rule a couple years ago, you can actually have access to 2 shots of Cradle mana in a single turn. Turn 1 Elf into turn 2 1-2 more Elves with Cradle as the land drop that turn is an insane amount of mana. Cradle increases your ability to go off on turn 2 dramatically, and going off on turn 3 is easy with Glimpse and an assortment of Elves. Mana really gets unconstrained quickly when all of your creatures allow the Cradle to tap for a ton.
For the sideboard, the Elves’ biggest weaknesses are to faster decks, decks that can stop/interact with the game plan, or decks that are able to go over the top quickly.
The faster decks are the all-in combo decks—decks like Storm and Belcher that require a bunch of spells and are looking to accelerate their mana. An early Gaddock Teeg is already great against these decks, but you can do more.
Discard spells pull double-duty against fast combo decks, controlling combo decks, and control alike. Thoughtseize and Cabal Therapy happen to be awesome together as you can guarantee a good hit on your first Therapy. In a deck full of creatures, Therapy is really going to shine, as a single mana and a creature to look at your opponent’s hand and make them discard all copies of whatever you want is a good rate in this format. The fact that you can sometimes already know what’s in their hand or blind hit on your Therapy against a key card makes it broken.
If you’re trying to stop combo decks from going off, or any deck from casting a bunch of spells, then Thalia, Guardian of Thraben will do the job. It’s cheap to get into play, deals a couple damage per turn, and will single-handedly defeat a deck like Storm that needs to chain Rituals together to win. There are a number of decks that rely on chaining through cheap spells to do what they need to do, such as Brainstorms, Preordains, and Ponders. Thalia can punish all of them. For decks trying to use spells to produce more mana, such as Dark Ritual, Rite of Flame, or High Tide, a Thalia can be devastating.
Other strategies that can ruin your day involve getting a huge creature into play. This can be a Griselbrand, but an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or an Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite wiping the board is even more oppressive. I mentioned earlier that having access to Scavenging Ooze to help stop graveyard shenanigans, and Karakas out of the sideboard to Crop Rotation for naturally helps. Surgical Extraction fights these graveyard strategies while doing double-duty against decks like Storm that may rely on Past in Flames to win the game. With decks like Dredge and Punishing Fire variants in the format, being able to interact with the graveyard is important for creature strategies.
The biggest issue holding Elves back is that Miracles is one of the toughest matchups. Unfortunately, Miracles also happens to be one of the very best and most popular decks in the format. It’s certainly not unwinnable, but the Miracles deck happens to feature a murderer’s row of cards that are excellent versus Elves. Top plus Counterbalance can lock out this deck even more than most since almost every spell has a CMC of 1. Swords to Plowshares is awesome. Getting a key Glimpse, creature, or GSZ countered is tough. Terminus and Supreme Verdict are completely back-breaking. It’s not fun! You do have some good tools to help fight back.
The discard is useful—you can sometimes take a Top or Counterbalance before they’re online. Therapy can strip their hand with a little bit of luck. You also get Abrupt Decay can keep Counterbalance off the table, and Pithing Needle and Null Rod shut down Sensei’s Divining Top, and are both excellent against a deck relying on Grindstone or Thopter Foundry.
Fighting against the Elves deck is straightforward, although far from easy. Miracles has all of the tools: disruption, spot removal, continual card advantage (including virtual with a Counterbalance sitting in play), and sweepers. Spot removal is almost never enough to fight the menace, although it can certainly slow the deck down. With access to Glimpse of Nature and Green Sun’s Zenith, the deck can continue to reload with important tools, even if it’s just recurring Elvish Visionary once or twice per turn.
You can be faster than Elves, but they’re pretty fast and likely far more consistent. A Storm deck that doesn’t draw the critical card will fold, but an Elves deck won’t. They will continue to attack for a handful of damage each turn until they can go off or someone is dead.
You can go over the top of Elves by cheating a big creature into play, but they have the tools to go off before you can even cast an accelerated Show and Tell and can even win once an Emrakul gets Show and Tell’d into play. They also have the tools to stop any creature from coming back from the graveyard or strip a key card from an opponent’s hand.
There are cards, however, that crush Elves. Cheap sweepers, or an early Chalice of the Void on 1 will both put you in great shape. Elves can beat these things, which makes it one of the most powerful decks in one of the most powerful formats. If you enjoy attacking, making tons of mana, and an awesome combo finish, this is definitely the deck for you!
Are there any other Green Sun’s Zenith targets you love in this deck that nobody else is playing? How about awesome sideboard cards that don’t fall into the sweepers or Chalice of the Void territory to beat this deck? Sound off in the comments!