Pauper Elfball: It Ain’t Easy Being Green

My tour of Pauper continues with an adventure deep into the heart of Llanowar Forest for a team-up with one of Magic’s oldest tribes—ELVES!

Elves, or “Elfball,” is an archetype that has existed in various forms across Magic ever since I can remember. LSV famously won his Pro Tour with Extended Elves in Berlin. Elves are good enough to see play in Modern and Legacy. Welcome to Pauper, where Elves are one of the most potent weapons in the format.

Some people call the deck “Elves.” I like “Elfball” better. Is it an homage to Elf decks that used Priest of Titania to ramp out Fireball? Is it a reference to how once the deck starts rolling it’ll roll you over? To me, it suggests Elf deck combo.

Fast and Consistent

Elves is consistent and straightforward. I’m not doing anything too far from the beaten path, and I have very few “fun-ofs.”


Brian DeMars

Ah, the life of an Elf is grand! Mana and combos.

The biggest question I faced when working on my list was, “how deep did I want to go on the combo?”

Duh, all the way!

Distant Melody and Mob Justice come at a high price—blue mana. Birchlore Rangers are the only way to make non-green mana.

The upside is that these cards give you a consistent way to win without attacking or needing to pass the turn. Mob Justice is also the only out in the deck to a “fog lock.” I won a game yesterday where my opponent had over 100 life and had me Fog-locked.

The cost is hard-to-cast cards, but the upside is access to a whole other gear.

Another controversial slot in Elves is whether to play Land Grant.

In the abstract, Land Grant is upside. It finds a Forest when you don’t have one and it thins out your deck to make Lead the Stampede hit better. Marginal, but real.

Don’t be fooled: Land Grant isn’t as free as it looks…

You can lose games outright to being on the draw and having your Land Grant countered. Those beats are real. Also, revealing your hand so that your opponent can play perfectly is a significant cost.

I’m out on Land Grant, but it’s a viable option.

Sequences and Interactions

Elves is a synergy deck. Individually, its cards are weak. But when they work together, Elves are able to accomplish great feats and go ramp into Voltron mode.

Playing the Core Combo

Fairly straightforward. You tap Nettle Sentinel to make mana with Ranger’s ability to cast a green spell and Sentinel untaps. Rinse and repeat. You make 1/2 of a green mana per spell. 2 Sentinels makes G per spell and so on and so forth.

Lys Alana Huntmaster adds to the degeneracy. Every time you cast an Elf you gain a free 1/1 Elf Token that can be tapped for 1/2 of a mana via the Rangers. These free bodies add up to a lot of mana over the course of a big turn and allow you to keep the Elfball wheels turning.

Essentially this is what happens when you “go off” all the way. You are typically netting mana per Elf cast and generating double the number of total Elves because of the Huntmaster. If you can find a Distant Melody under these conditions, chances favor you drawing every card in your deck and winning.

Side Combos to Be Aware Of

Ranger is pure gas and one of the best enablers. You have lots of creatures with valuable tap abilities that you’d like to use twice in the same turn. The deck is light on land (13 Forest), which means that you will often net a mana from replaying a tapped Forest when you didn’t have another land drop for the turn.

Vanguard gets +1/+1 counters whenever any Elf enters the battlefield, so the tokens from Huntmaster cause it to trigger.

The Sideboard

The Elf sideboards I noticed that they were all over the place and played a ton of situational 1-ofs. Likely the result of experts going deep and people copying whatever wins.

A sideboard with a bunch of 1-ofs is typically either completely genius or completely useless, and it all depends on how well you know how to use it. There are approximately 50 unique sideboard cards that people play in Elves.

Many of the options are just too conditional for my enjoyment. There is a big difference between being able to envision a situation where a card would be good and actually knowing when to bring it in and for what.

I like simple. I like flexible. I like necessary.

I noticed that there are a lot of decks that can kill you very quickly by making a giant unblockable monster:

Singularly, there isn’t one pump deck that makes up a huge percentage of the field, but collectively, decks that utilize the strategy make up a big portion of the field: U/R Blitz, Infect, Hexproof Auras, R/W Tireless Tribe, White Heroic, and even G/R Aggro.

Not being able to block is a huge problem in racing situations and it turns Elves into a one-dimensional deck when it cannot defend. Apostle’s Blessing and Slip Through Space are a problem I rectify with Moment’s Peace.

Also, it’s worth noting that “going off” gets a lot trickier after sideboard when the opponent is overloading Electrickery and firing off Holy Light. Post-sideboard, interaction becomes more necessary, whereas it’s easier to run people over with the Elf Mobile in game 1.

You’ll also notice the absence of Wellwisher. I’ll admit the card is powerful against certain matchups, but its value fluctuates too much for my taste. Wellwisher felt like a do-nothing in more than half of my matchups (gaining life didn’t matter) and when it mattered it died immediately to burn or removal.

I’m sure there are plenty of Elf players who swear by Wisher that will disagree with me and I welcome discussion of the card in the comments.

Essence Warden can’t hard-lock people like Wellwisher can, but the difference between 1 and 2 mana is pretty huge in this deck, especially when comboing off and trying to net resources.

These are all straightforward and should be in every Elfball sideboard in some quantity.

Gleeful Sabotage is a blow-out card against Affinity and Auras, and a solid answer to generically powerful artifacts and enchantments. The downside is sorcery speed.

Viridian Longbow is a house in the mirror or against token decks. Pair it up with Quirion Ranger to get multiple pings. It can mow down an army when you have Priest of Titania to equip several times in the same turn.

Scattershot Archers is a problem for blue Faerie decks. It goes completely ham on Spellstutter Sprite and Miscreants.

Spidersilk Armor is a hedge against sweepers like Electrickery, Holy Light, and Nausea. It’ll also push your X/2s out of range of Evincar’s Justice.

When I’m playing a powerful combo deck like Elves I’m always careful not to go overboard with sideboarding. Every card in the main deck is focused on executing the Elfball plan. You will always be sideboarding out a card that helps you combo for a card that doesn’t. I’d say that in 80% of my games I sideboard between 2-5 cards.

Playing the Deck

Elves is likely the most powerful deck I’ve played in Pauper so far, but there are some significant stipulations that come with the raw power.

First of all, Elves is tricky to play on every level. The sequences are nuanced and often require you to plan out your mana production for several moves in advance and everything can fall apart from just one missed trigger (of which there can be hundreds in the same turn!).

Sideboarding is also tricky, since you need to be cognizant of not only stopping your opponent’s threats but also counteracting their powerful answers to your army of small creatures. Also, assume all opponent’s have a good plan, because Elves is one of the scariest combo decks in the format.

When people play the cards that are good against you, it hurts—a lot. Be prepared to draw an opening hand that is virtually perfect, but is completely wrecked by a sweeper. Or, wading your way through sideboard games against a deck that can kill you on turn 3 with an unblockable Kiln Fiend but also has Electrickery

Difficult Things to Work On When Playing Elves

  1. The sequences are nuanced and you have a ton of actions to take on your big turns. There are lots of triggers you can forget (making 1/1s, adding +1/+1 counters, untapping Nettle Sentinel), and mistakes you can make if you’re not careful. Obviously, it gets easier to manage with experience.
  2. Utilize the sideboard properly. Not only do you need to sideboard in order to stop other fast decks, but sideboarding against hate cards (Electrickery, Holy Light, Nausea, etc.) is really important. It’s a balancing act. You need a sideboard you feel comfortable using. Your deck is busted, and everybody knows, so they’ll packs lots of cards that are extremely effective against you. It’s kind of like playing Affinity in Modern. You know that Shattering Spree, Stony Silence, and Hurkyl’s are waiting in people’s sideboards to wipe you out.
  3. Play your role well. Elves has the potential to go Elfball in every matchup, but obviously people are going to try and stop it. The control matchups can be tricky, and are often won through playing a grindy game and attacking for chip damage.

The bad news is that the deck is challenging. It certainly pushed me to the brink this week! But I was happy for the challenge and learned a lot about Pauper by going green. I’d almost recommend that any serious Pauper player proxy it up and practice it just to understand how it works.

Going green caused me to waste triple the normal amount of scratch paper keeping track of huge quantities of mana and tokens. The deck is tier 1, and I would recommend it with one caveat: It is important that you enjoy micromanaging minutiae, because that is kind of the theme of the deck. The devil is in the details with Elves.

Overall, Elves proved to be a rewarding play. I am convinced it is one of the best decks in Pauper, but also one of the most difficult to pilot. It’s the kind of deck I could really see myself going deep with at some point. I do enjoy challenging combo decks like Storm or Elves, and if I was looking to lock in on something, Elves seems like a great choice to dig in and master. Part of me wants to run it back next week, but I’m going to stick to my goal of playing my way through the format before I settle down with one special deck. Elves has proved that it is in the running to be the deck I eventually settle down with.

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