It came as no surprise that at 3 Modern Grand Prix across the world, Eldrazi proved itself to be far and away the best deck in the format. I was among the poor souls who brought something other than Eldrazi Temples and Eye of Ugins to battle. And you know what?
I wouldn’t change a thing.
My weapon of choice last weekend was Elves. I went 12-3, which was good for 32nd place, beating six of my seven Eldrazi opponents along the way!
Elves is a generally high power level deck and matches up great against Eldrazi. You’re faster and more powerful, and it’s impossible for them to play enough spot removal spells to tilt the scales in their favor.
It seemed to me that, aside from Eldrazi, Elves was the tribe that had the biggest (and best) showing at Grand Prix Detroit. A number of high profile players brought it to battle. Interestingly enough, though, their deck selection seemed to be largely independent of one another, and there was little consensus on the best way to construct an Elves deck.
To name a few examples: Andrew Baeckstrom played GB Elves with Shaman of the Pack and Chord of Calling. Josh Utter-Leyton and Matt Nass played Combo Elves with Beck // Call and Cloudstone Curio. Andrew Cuneo played GB Elves without Chord of Calling (despite not ending up unanimous on a deck list, I owe a lot of my Elves knowledge and card choices to Cuneo). And yours truly played classic GW Elves.
For those who might not have seen Modern Elves in action very much, it’s one of the most explosive decks in the format. Most of your cards are capable of generating mana, and it’s not uncommon to have 10 creatures in play by the third turn of the game. From there, you can use Shaman of the Pack, Ezuri, Renegade Leader, or simply a couple of Elf lords to deal your opponent 20 (or, say, 500) damage.
Here’s an example of an Elves draw that’s very good, but well within the realm of possibility:
Turn 3: First, use a combination of your lands and your non-Archdruid creatures to play out any other cheap Elves in your hand. Next, tap Elvish Archdruid for 5 to 8 mana, and use Collected Company or Lead the Stampede to put more creatures into play. New creatures give you more mana via Heritage Druid. Eventually, your board presence becomes insurmountable with more Archdruids, or a copy of Ezuri, Renegade Leader.
Turn 4: Attack and overkill your opponent by a huge margin.
Each take on the Elves archetype shares common strengths. All are fast, explosive, and excellent against opposing creature decks. That said, I’ll try to make the case for why my build is the best of them all.
Cards I’m Not Playing
All builds of Elves are going to win an extremely high portion of the games in which they have a good draw including Heritage Druid, other cheap Elves, and enough action to spend the mana on. Because of this, all cards that were only good alongside Heritage Druid quickly got the axe. This includes Cloudstone Curio and, notably, Nettle Sentinel. Sentinel does painfully little in your less-than-perfect draws, and is often overkill in your good draws anyway.
Similarly, Shaman of the Pack is good when things are going well, but poor otherwise. When you can get multiple Shamans into play, or when you’re able to successfully attack for big chunks of damage to supplement a Shaman, you’re likely to win. But it’s rare that you can shoot your opponent for 4 or 5 damage with a single Shaman, and then piece together the remaining 15 damage when things aren’t going your way. If your opponent resolves a board sweeper, or if you’re against a deck like Jund that kills most of your creatures on sight, you simply can’t achieve the critical mass to make Shaman good.
Additionally, the 3-mana slot has a ton of great options for the Elves deck. 4 Elvish Archdruids and 3 Ezuri, Renegade Leaders are non-negotiable. Additional lords (like Imperious Perfect), Lead the Stampede, and Reclamation Sage are likewise appealing options. If you want Shaman of the Pack as well, things get crowded quickly.
I should note that Shaman of the Pack does offer a few valuable traits. It’s good in unfair matchups where you simply have to goldfish as quickly as possible. It also offers a way to win the game without attacking, which is great against cards like Ensnaring Bridge and Worship.
So even despite everything negative I’ve said about Shaman of the Pack, I probably still would have played it, if not for what it does to your mana base. Replacing Boreal Druid with Elves of Deep Shadow and adding Overgrown Tombs and fetchlands to your deck is worth an average of about 3 life points per game—starting things off at 17 instead of 20 is a very real cost (granted, you might not play Horizon Canopy, but that’s bad for a different reason). You also lose access to white sideboard cards, which include powerful silver bullets like Stony Silence and ways to combat board sweepers like Burrenton Forge-Tender and Dauntless Escort. Finally, Horizon Canopy does wonders for the consistency of a deck like Elves, and is a card that you should not leave home without.
Chord of Calling is clunky and works against the explosive nature of the deck. Chord is great in a deck like Abzan Collected Company where you’re trying to assemble a very specific 3-card creature combo. But when you’re spending 3 extra mana to put an Elvish Archdruid into play, you can do better.
4 copies each of Horizon Canopy and Elvish Visionary. A deck that’s mostly mana, yet only has 17 lands that can produce green mana on turn 1 is going to have some consistency issues. You have to mulligan a lot of hands due to having too little (or the wrong kind) of mana. You also run the risk of running out of gas in the midgame and having nothing to spend all of your mana on. I cannot overstate the value of having 8 cantrips built into the structure of your deck for combating these consistency problems. Horizon Canopy lets you keep your land count relatively high and mulligan relatively infrequently, and yet you get to look down on turn 4 and realize you have free gas still in your tank! Elvish Visionary can be slow, but with Heritage Druid and Elvish Archdruid, it won’t cost you much in the way of mana. Since you can take it off of Collected Company and Lead the Stampede, it lets you keep your momentum and continue churning through your library.
I also have the full 4 copies of Ezuri, Renegade Leader. The game plan of Elves is to put creatures in play, make mana, and win with Ezuri. It’s faster, simpler, and more reliable than trying to win in any other fashion. Versions that play Chord of Calling will find themselves searching for Ezuri more often than anything else, so why not just cut out the middleman and play 4? The legend rule is rarely an issue, since any opponent who can will kill him on sight, and any opponent who can’t will be dead the following turn!
Lead the Stampede is one of the less-exciting cards in the deck, but you can’t rely on a few lords and 4 Collected Companies to be enough. Lead the Stampede is the best option for winning grindy matchups, and making sure you don’t run out of gas against anyone.
Finally, there are the white sideboard cards. Most of the white cards in my sideboard are self-explanatory (and I think you’ll agree, pretty awesome!). But I will mention Pay No Heed since it’s a card that I haven’t seen other players use, and only stumbled upon because of one of my compulsive adventures through gatherer.wizards.com.
Pay No Heed can Fog an infect creature, even through Vines of the Vastwood. Since that matchup is a race, and often decided by one turn in either direction, it’s a welcome addition. It can also prevent the damage from a Pyroclasm effect, and notably, can stop Kozilek’s Return, which Burrenton Forge-Tender cannot. The place where it shines the brightest is against Scapeshift, where you can bring it in as insurance against cards like Anger of the Gods, but you can also prevent the damage from Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. It won’t save you if the Scapeshift player is overkilling you by a lot, but if they’re forced to go for it with only seven lands, or if things are otherwise running on thin margins, Pay No Heed can blow them out.
So that’s why I believe that classic GW is the best way to build Elves. Horizon Canopy and the consistent structure of the deck minimize the frequency of awkward draws, and the white sideboard cards give you the best countermeasures for the cards people will try to use to beat you. BG Elves can get some exciting Shaman of the Pack draws, but since GW Elves can play 4 copies of Ezuri, and has a lower failure rate, I’d argue that it goldfishes just as quickly on average.
So if you’re looking to beat up on Eldrazi while it’s out there, I recommend Elves. If you find yourself looking for a fresh start after a possible change to the banned list, I also recommend Elves. Try it for yourself!