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Recurring Nightmares – Elvish Pioneers

There have been a few periods of time where Elves has been an actual deck, and not just the plaything of the uninformed or underpowered casual Legacy dabbler. In these instances, a particular series of concurrences must align in order to facilitate the deck’s success, because in general terms the Elf tribe is underpowered when compared directly to other tribal aggressive decks like Goblins and Merfolk. In general, each of these other tribes have plans which are more resilient to the difficult opposing strategies and plans, but strangely enough, each tends to have a weak Elves matchup. Elves as a deck tends toward glass cannon status, although rather than folding to a specific card or deck, it folds inward during specific metagame trends.

As you can imagine, one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome for Elves is mass creature removal. At various points in time, Legacy has been a format where [card]Wrath of God[/card], [card]Pernicious Deed[/card], [card]Firespout[/card], [card]Pyroclasm[/card], and [card]Damnation[/card] have all seen maindeck play. In these periods of time, Elves was nearly unplayable, and only the most loyal holdouts would dare to attempt a run with the deck.

Beyond the maindeck sweepers, players have chosen to combat other tribal strategies via sideboarded [card]Engineered Plague[/card]s, [card]Perish[/card]es, [card]Humility[/card], [card]Moat[/card], and [card]Engineered Explosives[/card]. All of these cards have the capability of making life incredibly difficult for the Elf player, and can be much more punishing for Elves than either of the comparable tribal archetypes.

Spot removal can be situationally problematic, but in general decks which lean on a playset (or sometimes 5-6) of maindeck removal spells will have a difficult time with Elves. Of course, when a deck ups it post-board removal suite to include an additional number of kill spells, things become a bit more questionable. When factoring in cards like [card]Darkblast[/card], things can rapidly turn sour.

Alongside removal being anywhere from problematic to devastating, Elves has the unfortunate issue of occasionally having a nearly unwinnable matchup against blue decks – quite contrary to the expectations of its fellow tribal decks. In periods where [card]Counterbalance[/card] is top tier, Elves has a difficult time establishing any kind of board presence, as [card]Counterbalance[/card]/Top floating a 1 can shut down nearly half the deck (or more!). For similar reasons, the era of [card]Mental Misstep[/card] drove the deck nearly to the brink of obsolescence, as a free counterspell for any given card in the deck proved more than the engine could handle.

I recognize that I’m not giving a shining seal of approval for Elves as a deck here, but I’d much rather be honest about the situation as it exists in reality, rather than paint a picture of this being an unbeatable deck, guaranteed to give you top 8 at your next local Legacy.

On the other hand, when the situation as I’ve described above is not present, there’s a lot to be said for the deck. Like, for example, today.

Right now, in the wake of the banning of [card]Mental Misstep[/card], and the arrival of [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] control, Elves is in a unique and opportune position. The hate for one mana spells is lower than it has been in quite some time (which is great, since your curve basically ends at one), and there are fewer sweepers than ever being played. The major decks to have come out of the first few weeks are threat light, removal light, and midrange-y, which are all the kind of things that the Elf deck looks to capitalize on. In fact, looking at the results of the post-Misstep SCG opens, an Elf build has made top 8 or top 16 of each event – and considering the number of players who are willing to put real work into the “little kid” archetype, compared to picking up the latest GerryT BUG list and running with it, I’d say (without having the actual data in front of me) that the stats for Elves when compared with the field have to at least be reasonable. We’ll just have to wait for Alix and Jesse to compile the data and prove me misguided. Regardless, I’d say I’m more willing to give the Elf archetype a shot right now than I have been in the last five years – which is near the entirety of the viable history of the deck.

In fact, just for the sake of nostalgia (on whose behalf I do most things) I ran an Elf build at our local weekly Legacy for the first event with [card]Mental Misstep[/card] no longer legal. I ran a variation on Chris Anderson’s 11th place build from SCG Indy, with a few changes due to card availability and personal opinion. Here’s the list I ran:

[deck]4 Elvish Visionary
4 Wirewood Symbiote
4 Llanowar Elves
1 Fyndhorn Elves
2 Priest of Titania
4 Nettle Sentinel
4 Heritage Druid
3 Birchlore Rangers
1 Mirror Entity
1 Ezuri, Renegade Leader
1 Qasali Pridemage
1 Regal Force
4 Glimpse of Nature
4 Green Sun’s Zenith
2 Summoner’s Pact
2 Thoughtseize
1 Crop Rotation
1 Savannah
1 Horizon Canopy
1 Bayou
4 Forest
1 Pendelhaven
1 Gaea’s Cradle
1 Dryad Arbor
2 Misty Rainforest
3 Verdant Catacombs
2 Wooded Foothills
Sideboard
2 Absolute Law
1 Steely Resolve
2 Tsunami
2 Duress
2 Mentor of the Meek
1 Mortarpod
1 Scavenging Ooze
2 Viridian Shaman
2 Wheel of Sun and Moon[/deck]

At the tail end of the Extended PTQ season in which Faeries asserted its stranglehold, I took Glimpse Elves for one last hurrah, ending ninth on tiebreaks in an event where my only losses (in games) came from an unanswered, active [card]Umezawa’s Jitte[/card]. My sideboard strategy for that event was 7 Elf Lords and a pair of [card]Patriarch’s Bidding[/card], which was a blowout nearly every time I managed to set it up. I wanted to go back to that familiar territory with the Elf build above, but didn’t have the time to actually construct a reasonable maindeck to make it better function, and defaulted to a similar sideboard to Chris’s instead. The other issue was my inexperience with [card]Mentor of the Meek[/card], and whether the card would be worthwhile or wasted slots.

The above list, while slightly different from the Anderson list, is a fair representation of the style of Elf build that many of you are familiar with. The list was popularized during the Pro Tour where LSV and others blew out the collective candle of opposition and took the field quite literally by storm. The intent is to play the deck as nearly as possible to a mono-green Storm combo deck, with the backup plan of attacking for a bunch of damage. Ultimately, your major win condition (after having drawn most of your deck) is to play out the following cycle:

• Activate [card]Mirror Entity[/card] for one, turning all creatures you control into 1/1 Elves.
• Tap two [card]Nettle Sentinel[/card]s, along with another elf – any creature will do since they’re all elves, via [card]Heritage Druid[/card]’s ability, to make 3 mana.
• Use the ability of [card]Wirewood Symbiote[/card] to return itself to your hand, untapping an elf.
• Replay the [card]Wirewood Symbiote[/card], untapping the [card]Nettle Sentinel[/card]s.
• Repeat ad nauseam, netting one mana per cycle.
• Activate your [card]Mirror Entity[/card] for a billion, and attack with all creatures without summoning sickness.

There are variations on this cycle, which can increase or decrease the complexity of the combo. You can use the Symbiote to untap a [card]Priest of Titania[/card] over and over again, negating the need for [card]Heritage Druid[/card]/[card]Nettle Sentinel[/card]. You can pump [card ezuri, renegade leader]Ezuri[/card] a billion times, rather than using [card]Mirror Entity[/card], if your opponent can block. You can chain the combo half a dozen times or so without the full combo if you only have one [card]Nettle Sentinel[/card], using other elves in conjunction, but without going infinite. Knowing when you can cycle into mana, how much you can make, and how many attackers it leaves you with are all nuances that come with experience with the deck.

At the local event, the deck outperformed my expectations (which were admittedly very low), resulting in a 3-0-1 record, putting me into the top 4. In the single elimination rounds, I lost to a combination of very few lands (not surprising), zero mana elves, and a very large number of [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card]. Realistically, I felt like more than anything, I’d finally run into reality, as I was drawing like a golden god for the prior rounds. That didn’t stop me from complaining about my luck, of course.

I was wholly impressed by the deck. I knew that it had potential, because I’d done well with it in a similar format before – and the similarities between old extended and current Legacy are something that I should really address at some point. The two formats are eerily close – but I think there are a few places for improvement.

First, you absolutely, without a doubt, 100% need a second [card]Bayou[/card] in the deck. Especially after board, where you bring in additional [card]Duress[/card] effects, you want to be able to survive a Turn 1 [card]Thoughtseize[/card] into 2 problem spells + [card]Wasteland[/card]. Having a second [card]Bayou[/card] would have won me at least one of the games in the top 4. Second, [card]Summoner’s Pact[/card] may be entirely unnecessary, or at the very least, worse than [card]Chord of Calling[/card]. The caveat of “Green Creature” can be much more annoying than you’d expect in a deck with only one non-green guy, but when you want [card]Mirror Entity[/card], you NEED to find him. Adding Ezuri helps (a change I made from Chris’s original list), but sometimes the Changeling is a must. Third, [card]Crop Rotation[/card] and [card]Pendelhaven[/card] are both junkers. These are both slots I’d consider for the second [card]Bayou[/card]. The other should become the second [card]Horizon Canopy[/card]. Not playing a land that draws you cards seems like sacrilege in this deck, which can easily skimp on the lands, or use them to fuel combo turns. Finally, I’d like to find a way to fit [card]Quirion Ranger[/card] into the deck. As much as she lacks the utility of [card]Wirewood Symbiote[/card], she also provides some consistency to the mana, and helps you perform random tricks with your mana elves. She allows you to operate with far fewer lands in play, and protects your duals from [card]Wasteland[/card]s. At most, I see her as a one-of here, but a very useful one.

On the flipside of things, I very much enjoyed the addition of [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card] to the deck – something that wasn’t available during the previous outings with this deck. Having a way to assemble your team around the mana costs of the creatures themselves was invaluable – I actually beat a player who had resolved two [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] – on one and two – due to GSZ being variable in cost. The [card]Dryad Arbor[/card], although the weakest in this deck out of any deck I’ve seen it used in, was also excellent in providing additional utility out of the lands, which often sit dormant after turn 3 or 4. Out of the sideboard, the [card]Mentor of the Meek[/card] was absolutely amazing, providing more cards than I had ever expected, and it almost makes me want to return [card]Wirewood Hivemaster[/card] into the mix to go REAL deep. He acts like a sort of “Value Glimpse” that isn’t burned on a single turn, where you’re not trying to combo out with him, but gain marginal advantage while your opponent tries to keep up. Having every spell cantrip is an exhausting way to drain the resources of your opponent, and unchecked, it will give you the steam to roll into the combo within a turn or two. It’s also an excellent way to buy time in the face of [card]Sword of Feast and Famine[/card] (or [card]Mirran Crusader[/card], if that’s relevant), which is basically unblockable for the rest of your deck. I once again fell in love with the [card]Absolute Law[/card]s that have been sitting in a box in my closet for years, as a resolved Law on turn 2 singlehandedly blew out my Goblin opponent – who had opened a pair of [card]Pyrokinesis[/card] for our second game.

This is not the only way to skin the cat. As we can see from last week’s SCG Open in Nashville, a very different list piloted by Riley Curran had even more success than Chris Anderson’s, putting Riley into the top 8 of that event. While Riley’s list also featured the [card]Mirror Entity[/card]/[card]Priest of Titania[/card]/[card]Wirewood Symbiote[/card] kill, he eschewed the [card]Nettle Sentinel[/card]/[card]Heritage Druid[/card]/[card]Glimpse of Nature[/card] engine, choosing to play a [card]Fauna Shaman[/card] based list, instead.

[deck]4 Fauna Shaman
2 Mirror Entity
1 Ezuri, Renegade Leader
1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
1 Viridian Shaman
1 Gaddock Teeg
1 Sylvan Messenger
4 Quirion Ranger
4 Wirewood Symbiote
4 Elvish Archdruid
4 Priest of Titania
3 Llanowar Elves
3 Fyndhorn Elves
1 Stoneforge Mystic
1 Batterskull
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Chord of Calling
4 Green Sun’s Zenith
2 Bayou
2 Savannah
1 Dryad Arbor
2 Gaea’s Cradle
4 Forest
4 Misty Rainforest
3 Verdant Catacombs
Sideboard
4 Cabal Therapy
1 Dauntless Escort
1 Ethersworn Canonist
2 Krosan Grip
1 Mortarpod
1 Phyrexian Metamorph
1 Qasali Pridemage
1 Scavenging Ooze
3 Thoughtseize[/deck]

Riley’s deck is much more in the vein of the Survival Elves lists popular around the time of Grand Prix Chicago, rather than the Glimpse Elves decks of old extended. Riley uses a combination of Priest/Archdruid, alongside the [card]Wirewood Symbiote[/card]s and [card]Quirion Ranger[/card]s, to power out serious threats in rapid succession. Utilizing the [card]Fauna Shaman[/card]s multiple times per turn allows you to rapidly assemble the combo win, and failing that, to ramp up to 15 mana to hardcast an [card]Emrakul, the Aeons Torn[/card]. Riley’s deck features a backup to his backup plan, in a singleton [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] to find and utilize either [card]Umezawa’s Jitte[/card] (a traditionally strong card in this archetype) or [card]Batterskull[/card] (to which Legacy still has not perfectly adapted).

While perhaps lacking the speed and raw power of the Glimpse version – a position which I admit is debatable – Riley’s build makes up for this via strong alternate routes to victory and a redundancy which allows him to both replicate the same winning strategy over and over, or to adapt to the situation at hand should that path become unavailable.

The one point of contention which I expect will exist for those who are familiar with the latter style of Elves is the choice to exclude [card]Vengevine[/card] from the list. While not particularly exciting, [card]Vengevine[/card] gives the deck a sense of inevitability which is hard to capture in other creatures. Raw-dogging a turn 3 [card]Vengevine[/card] can often lead to victory in and of itself, and if you manage to convert a turn 2 [card]Fauna Shaman[/card] into a pair of [card]Vengevine[/card]s attacking on turn 3, things get out of hand rather quickly. The control decks of today have particular trouble with this line of play, as even their traditionally excellent cards against you (Perish, Deed, Wrath, Plague, etc) are all garbage against a 4 mana 4/3 Elemental with recursion. They turn each card you draw into kinetic energy, and I’m unsure what convinced Riley to run things like [card]Sylvan Messenger[/card] over them. As Riley played a similar list – within four cards – to a 12th place finish at SCG Pittsburg during the height of Misstep Mania this year, it’s possible he’s just comfortable with this build, and has tweaked it to his liking in the ensuing months.

Each of these builds has merit, and each can be considered viable ways in which to construct the Elf archetype. One of the major advantages that Elves has over its partners the Merfolk and Goblins is in its customizability – these two lists do not represent the only possible ways to construct the deck. Nor do they represent the only playable cards within the archetypes. I’ve mentioned, even in the context of this article, the fact that there are a slew of Elf lords which could let the deck resemble a more aggressive version of Merfolk, complete with its own Ringleader. I’ve also mentioned the [card]Wirewood Hivemaster[/card] plan, which LSV and others used to fuel a hasty, devouring Dragon in the Pro Tour. You could absolutely draw yourself into [card]Grapeshot[/card] or [card]Tendrils of Agony[/card] to take your opponent by surprise. You could add [card]Natural Order[/card] into [card]Progenitus[/card] (or into [card]Regal Force[/card] if you’re feeling saucy) – in fact, this deck did that before any other!

The customizability, adaptability, and strong Plan B of “attack them to death” is the allure of the Elf tribe.

I will reiterate one more time – this deck, or strategy, or archetype or whatever you want to call it, is by no means the go-to deck of Legacy. It is a sometimes-strong, oftentimes-weak deck that can be well positioned to attack specific deficiencies in the metagame, but should probably not be your weapon of choice in an open field. Where at one time, players looked down on the tribe as the “little kid deck” which was often associated with beginning players, and those with an unreasonable attachment to [card]Wellwisher[/card], the opinion of the Elf tribe should really be revised to appreciate the merits of the metagame deck.

I don’t plan to be an advocate for the Elves. I will be sure to let you know when and if I think the time is right to sleeve them up – and my pimped out elf deck from Extended season isn’t going anywhere, so I’ll be sure to bust them out myself on occasion – but I will be the first to tell you when to put them back in the bottom drawer, as well. I think this is a great example of the kind of thing Conley talks about when he says that going rogue is best done when it attempts to attack a niche in the metagame – not an example of Matt Nass thinking Elves is always the best deck when it’s legal. So for now, go ahead and grab yourself a [card]Llanowar Elves[/card] (Beta art only), and bust out your basic Forests. The window on playing them closes almost as fast as it opens.

Adam
@AdamNightmare

Bonus: Mostly Elvish, Largely Druish EDH list –

General – [card]Seton, Krosan Protector[/card] [deck]Arbor Elf
Argothian Elder
Birchlore Rangers
Boreal Druid
Citanul Hierophants
Civic Wayfinder
Devoted Druid
Druid Lyrist
Elvish Archdruid
Elvish Harbinger
Elvish Pioneer
Farhaven Elf
Fyndhorn Elder
Fyndhorn Elves
Gilt-Leaf Archdruid
Greenweaver Druid
Groundskeeper
Harvester Druid
Heart Warden
Heritage Druid
Joraga Treespeaker
Kamahl, Fist of Krosa
Krosan Restorer
Krosan Wayfarer
Leaf Gilder
Ley Druid
Llanowar Druid
Llanowar Elves
Mul Daya Channelers
Nantuko Elder
Norwood Priestess
Priest of Titania
Rofellos, Llanowar Emmisary
Stone-Seeder Hierophant
Wirewood Channeler
Wirewood Elf
Yavimaya Elder
Zoologist
Regal Force
Avenger of Zendikar
Primeval Titan
Primordial Sage
Skullmulcher
Patron of the Orochi
Seedborn Muse
Quest for Renewal
Symbiotic Deployment
Collective Unconciousness
Slate of Ancestry
Glimpse of Nature
Harmonize
Life from the Loam
Vitalize
Mobilize
Early Harvest
Rude Awakening
Natural Order
Tooth and Nail
Green Sun’s Zenith
Summoner’s Pact
Chord of Calling
Thawing Glaciers
Strip Mine
Wasteland
Evolving Wilds
Terramorphic Expanse
Windswept Heath
Wooded Foothills
Misty Rainforest
Verdant Catacombs
Tranquil Thicket
Slippery Karst
Wirewood Lodge
Gaea’s Cradle
25 Forest[/deck]

Discussion

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