Deconstructing Constructed – Looking at Elves

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Tuesday, November 18th – A number of pro players who were at Pro Tour: Berlin have expressed feelings that the Elves deck is simply too powerful for current Extended. Others have rallied around the turn 2 kill percentage, which ranges from roughly a quarter to a third depending on whom you ask, citing this is a turn too quick for a ‘healthy’ format.

Hello everybody, and welcome to another edition of the Magic Show. This week we’re going to take a look at Extended, a text montage of Elves and bannings, what I’m currently playing, how I’m doing with it, and a bone to Standard players. Let’s go!

Elves 2008

Elves returned with a resounding boom a few weekends ago, winning Pro Tour: Berlin and placing six copies in the Top 8, rallying the internet punditry into cries of bannings. I was going to write a long treatise on how this shouldn’t be done haphazardly, and how the current inflexible B/R announcement schedule was hamstringing good decision making. Then I read Tom LaPille most recent article on the mothership and saw the following:

The next scheduled announcement concerning changes to the Banned and Restricted lists is December 1, and those changes would take effect on December 20. This is bad timing for two reasons. First, there will be six rounds of Extended at the World Championships the second weekend in December that we would not be able to take into account when making our decision prior to the announcement on December 1. Worse, if it turns out that something does need to be banned in the wake of Worlds so that Extended remains healthy, the first time we would be able to do that is March 1, and this would take effect on March 20 – well into the Extended Qualifier season for Pro Tour: Honolulu.

We are not willing to ban cards unless we believe it is absolutely necessary, but we are also not willing to sacrifice the health of a format for the first half of a Qualifier season just to stick to a schedule. We anticipate that our December 1 Banned and Restricted announcement will not change the Extended banned list. However, we reserve the right to announce an unscheduled change to the banned list between the World Championships and the upcoming Extended qualifier tournaments if such a change is necessary.

Damn, there went about half my article. That said, kudos to those running the B/R list for seeing this as a possible solution, instead of just sticking with the status quo. However this still leaves the big question open: should anything from Elves be banned?

A number of pro players who were at Pro Tour: Berlin have expressed feelings that the Elves deck is simply too powerful for current Extended. Others have rallied around the turn 2 kill percentage, which ranges from roughly a quarter to a third depending on whom you ask, citing this is a turn too quick for a ‘healthy’ format. Finally there’s the argument that Elves itself is within power acceptability but too resilient to hate cards, or that there are no universal hosers available.

Now a little background… I’ve played during the Trix era, part of the Academy — High Tide days, Affinity, and a few other formats that would be considered busted. I also currently play Vintage, where most combo builds commonly get turn 2 kills if left unimpeded, and even many of the control decks could consistently win on turn 4 for a time. Thanks to this variety of experiences, I tend to have a solid grasp of what a truly broken deck tends to look like and how much it will warp the metagame / format.

And in all honesty, I think Elves is only a slightly better Dredge deck, and more ‘fair’ in a sense.

Let me get a few clarifiers out there before people attempt to warp the meaning of the statement. There are a few common things we can agree on to set the comparison up here.

Dredge and Elves are both decks capable of turn 2 kills if left unimpeded, and almost assuredly on turn 3 barring mulligans or other odd circumstances.

Both decks had a decent amount of resilience to hate cards. There is a key distinction here though, so more on this later.

Both decks were linear designs that had an alternative beatdown plan in place if the main one fell through. I will obviously concede that Elves does this better than Dredge, but I’m sure there are many who can tell you sob stories about trying to beat turn 2 Akroma or Sundering Titan.

Dredge was claimed to have ruined a good deal of design space in the format, simply because of the warp it put on sideboards and how fast your deck had to interact with people. Elves have much the same argument levied against it.

So is the turn 2 / 3 combo deck more broken now than it was a year ago? I would wager no. Both decks force opponents to react by turn 2, and often on turn 1, to at least pose the threat of being able to speed-bump or stop the Elves/Dredge players progress in comboing. One could make the argument that this sort of thing is simply unneeded in Extended and should be done away with. That argument is damaged by the complete inaction of the DCI in regards to Dredge last year.

I already hear the cries, “But wait Josh! I had Leyline of the Void and Tormod’s Crypt last year to beat Dredge! There’s no easy answer to Elves!”

Yes, Timothy, that would be correct. There really aren’t any universal answers that completely hose the Elves deck to the degree that Leyline of the Void and Crypt hosed Dredge. On the flip-side though, often those 4-8 cards were the only ones that mattered, and if you didn’t see them, you were SOL. Elves, although no single free card* maims them, has the distinct difference that a third of your deck could matter against them and won’t necessarily suck in every other relevant match-up.

* Leyline of Singularity does do a pretty good job of stopping the combo kill and making beatdown difficult.

Given a choice where only a few cards matter in a match, and if you aren’t running those you scoop to your opponent, or vice-versa if you do see them; or having a deck loaded with cards that give you a shot in the match, but no universal hoser that you can just slam down and declare victory from, which would you rather have? For me, and I imagine many others, it’s the latter.

Not only do things like discard, counterspells, and stack control (see Ethersworn Canonist or Chalice of the Void as examples of this) hurt Elves just like all combo decks, but almost any removal can help speed-bump the deck. This means with almost any deck you play, odds are you can make a few sacrifices along the way and change the deck in such a fashion that you have a relevant plan of attack in the match without necessarily destroying your sideboard for the rest of the tournament or becoming a glass cannon.

By playing tactically, even with decks that are typically non-interactive with combo, you can become a serious threat against Elves. You can take a stock Zoo list and have a shot pre-board, but once you modify the list a bit to take the deck into account, suddenly you can see some real improvements. Now to me, this sounds acceptable; you get to mod the deck to be good against Elves without resorting to a bunch of narrow answers like in the Affinity days.

There’s also the argument that the deck having a valid Plan B of beatdown is just too much. To me, this argument is silly; ever since storm was printed, combo has had a valid Plan B from Empty the Warrens. Nobody really complained about having to deal with twelve 1/1s, so why complain about six or seven? If anything, I like that the deck has a valid set of options when it can’t necessarily combo out as soon as possible. It gives players the chance to actually participate in a game instead of just playing blackjack.

Finally, though unrelated to the strength of the deck, banning a key piece in Elves unleashes a huge number of other combo options upon the format. Decks like TEPS, Ad Nauseam, New Dredge, BubbleHulk, and Swans all suddenly become valid options. Unfortunately, many of these decks require different strategies to beat, which would give us a metagame of ‘hope you don’t get paired wrong’ with whatever you sleeve up as your 75. So that’s a small bonus, in a sense; that you largely only have to prepare for Elves, with Dredge and Swans being semi-viable, though in need of some updating.

Ultimately, is Elves good enough to be banned in the first place?
Yes. It’s a borderline banning, where it (at this point in time) is clearly the best deck in the format and does something inherently unfair.

Should it be banned?
I say no, and I believe the DCI is leaning this way as well, considering the response from LaPille’s article and the approach taken to Dredge last season. There will always be a top deck, and odds are good that it will be because it does something broken consistently, something that isn’t easy to stop and can’t easily be emulated by other decks. Elves is the top deck at the moment and has the potential to be this through the remainder of the season, but just being the best isn’t good enough. It has to get to a point where there simply is no valid reason to play anything else, or be so dominant it ruins the ‘fun and diversity’ of a format. In the Top 16 of the Pro Tour, there were 10 non-Elves decks, 5 of which were Blue.

I think people simply underestimated the Elves deck. It sounds clichéd, but after poring over many of the Day 2 PT lists, you simply don’t see the same dedication in sideboard or deck choice against Elves that you saw against Dredge at PT: Valencia. At that one, you had 32 of 68 on day packing some amount of Leyline of the Void at minimum as hate. Here you see people coming at the problem from either one angle only or throwing four cards at it and calling it a day. I will admit a bit of bias though from my recent playing time and test time against the deck on Magic Online, which leads me to my next segment.

Current Events

At the moment, my deck of choice for the Magic Online Extended queues is either Zoo or whatever wacky Ranger of Eos deck I’ve figured out. So in other words, Zoo modified to beat Elves, Faeries, and Red, and boy do you get a lot of play time against Elves on MTGO. Here’s my current listing:

There you are, the greatest deck of all time, Zoo a.k.a. Easy Action. For reference, I heavily modeled the deck after PV and Jeremy Fuentes Zoo builds. The big thing to remember is that my main foes are going to be Elves, various Red decks, and Faeries, in that order. So the reasoning behind cards like the 4th Mogg Fanatic and the singleton Seal of Fire either over the 4th Canonist or Sculler depending on who you are, are largely based on the number of X/1 guys I need to die. I cannot count the number of times I either wanted or needed to remove one of the various mana accelerators, Dark Confidant or a Faerie carrying a Jitte from play. It also allows for more openings where you can afford to lay double one-drops on turn 2 simply because you have ones that do more than beat.

Canonist is a concession to the sheer number of Elves decks floating around online, and the Sculler are there both against Elves and Faeries, where he can be devastating. Many Zoo builds choose to keep only one set of creatures between the maindeck and board. Originally this was my starting point as well, but the more I played, the more I felt I wanted access to both creatures game 1 even if it meant lowering the number of one-drops I had. Figure of Destiny was simply getting chumped too often or was too big of a mana sink to pump without wrecking the rest of my game plan.

Bant Charm is simply amazing. There are a few situations where it ends up worse than Oblivion Ring, but in the majority Charm is better. Although you’ll typically only be using the destroy artifact or remove creature parts of the card, there are occasions where you want to keep the mana open to represent the counter side. There were words exchanged the first time I ever countered a Chord of Calling with it, and preventing the tap-out via Cryptic Command from Fae can win races.

I’ve replaced the basic Forest originally in the maindeck with the basic Mountain, because the Forest ranged somewhere from free mulligans to merely a kind of backbreaking awful. The days of Blood Moon are mostly behind us and honestly unless it’s a turn 1 BM effect, I’ll probably be able to win the game anyway. Otherwise the only thing that I’m currently debating for the manabase is the switch of the basic Plains for the second Godless Shrine. The extra basic is highly appreciated against red decks though and allows for the off-casting cost cards even if I start off with something like Blood Crypt. Still, the extra B/W source would definitely make the mana a bit more stable.

Sideboard-wise, Duergar Hedge-Mage is there against Threads of Disloyalty, Bitterblossom, Jitte, Shackles and a host of other artifact and enchantment annoyances. This guy is incredibly versatile and the extra body comes in handy since you can charge him with carrying the rock. Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender is there purely to get another hyphenated name into the sideboard; and I guess smash any red deck like Goblins, Burn or All-In Red. Same goes with Finks, except Finks also comes in for the mirror match as the best non-Tarmogoyf guy on the field. The mixture of Jund Charm and Pyroclasm gives you the requisite four sweepers against Elves, complimenting burn and Jitte, and the mix keeps opponents guessing about your options.

Match-wise, Elves has the upper hand game one with either the Chord or Weird Harvest version. If you get Canonist down and have some pressure, you’ll likely take game one pretty easily. Bant Charm can also surprise a lot of people going for turn three kills who don’t expect Pact or Chord to get countered. It also stops Big Mike (Mycoloth) and small-ball Predator Dragons if someone tries to take advantage of you dropping to 12 life. You also have a decent mid / late game plan of simply getting Umezawa’s Jitte online at which point the Elves player usually scoops.

The key to this match is playing control, killing off Heritage Druid, Nettle Sentinel, and Wirewood Symbiote on sight if possible. Symbiote in particular can really slow you down while advancing Elves game-plan by allowing Elves to block your biggest guy each turn at no cost. In addition if that creature happens to be Elvish Visionary, it means many drawing of cards will ensue and you won’t last long against Elves drawing 2 cards a turn and stopping your best guy unless you have a sick board.

Post-board, Tribal Flames and Kird Ape usually hit the bricks for being a little too slow and weak. Flames is good, but the instant speed aspect of Helix is more important, and it is the same with your sweepers being able to kill multiple Elves at once. Kird Apes leave because, on the draw, your one-drop better be Mogg Fanatic or Seal of Fire and on the play you much rather have Wild Nacatl or Fanatic followed up by Sculler or Canonist. At this point you have the following against the Elves deck:

Five turn 1 plays that can kill an Elf, and another seven that come online on turn 2.
Four sweepers, Sculler, and four Canonist, and two Jitte for the mid-game.

In my experience, you have the edge in the post-board games simply due to the amount of removal you have, pressure you can put on them while disrupting them with two-drops, and the ability just to attack from multiple angles. Do not try to win the game purely by going crazy with removal (especially cards that need to be used on your turn, because they can trump that in the early game with ease). Even if you dislike these options, there are others to try, like Moonhold in response to Glimpse of Nature, Pyrostatic Pillar* and winning a ground fight, etc. Ranger of Eos into double Martyr of Ashes was presented as one that I think has some merit, simply due to the difficulty Elves has in beating multiple ‘destroy the board at instant speed’ sweepers.

* I didn’t like this option as much as others at first, but if the Grapeshot build becomes the main one, then Pillar is awesome. They literally cannot combo win through it.

Do not underestimate the deck and you’ll find Elves quite beatable. Just be careful with testing / games against Elves, often times the opponent can make mistakes that cost them games and over time this factor will be lessened and the match percentage will slowly drift back from this landslide of victories for your modified deck. If I was only going by Magic Online results in 4-man and 8-man queues, I’d be 10-1 and a landslide favorite against Elves. Of course, that would mean counting games where an opponent committed suicide with Pact for no good reason and others where they played directly into Bant Charm instead of winning around it.

Against control like Faeries, the most important cards you need to be aware of are Jitte, Bitterblossom, and Mistblind Clique. Engineered Explosives is annoying, but basically irrelevant if you can deal with the other three. Sole exception to that being if you have a hand of, let’s say three one-drops and cards that don’t say Tribal Flames, then things become dicey and you might not be able to shrug off the Wrath effect. Otherwise Bitterblossom is very annoying because it fuels the other two relevant cards in the match and makes too many blockers to constantly burn away.

On the play, Wild Nacatl and Tidehollow Sculler are usually the best cards on your side, the former because he can single-handedly force removal and the latter because it strips the best card in the Fae player’s hand. Oh, and I’ll say this for anyone who didn’t get the memo, don’t just take a removal spell if he has one in hand. If you see the Fae player’s hand and it’s mostly irrelevant cards, then go for it because you have five power on the table at that point anyway. Otherwise it’ll almost always be beneficial in the long run to take the best card in their hand and make them waste mana and tempo killing Sculler to get it back. The main power of Sculler isn’t that you get to remove a card for a few turns; it’s that you get complete information and can sculpt your next plays.

Sideboarding is usually saying goodbye to Jitte, Seal of Fire and Canonist for two Finks, Sculler #4 and Duergar Hedge-Mage. I’ve already extolled the virtues of Hedge-Mage, but being able to rescue a man from Threads of Disloyalty while gaining another 2/2 creature is just a blow-out. Finks doesn’t get hit by Spell Snare or Spellstutter as easily and can trade with Vault or Clique and stick around, so it gets the nod over Canonist. You still want the vast quantities of removal in this match, so there really was nothing else I wanted to cut for the third Finks, but note that you have more creatures post-board than pre-board.

This is not an easy match like red against Fae in Standard, you actually have to work for your wins and they can crush you with the right draws. Play smart and try not to walk into tricks like mid-combat Mistbind Clique, Vendilion, block, sacrifice to Miren, the Moaning Well and having a Goyf stolen that you can’t kill / get back.

Red is easy. Play guys, burn theirs, bash, equip Jitte every so often and just win the game. Never take land damage if you can help it. Oh, and read PV’s article from last week if you need more than that on this match. Boarding is obvious, take out some irrelevant cards for Finks, Forge-Tender, and any extra Jitte, if you run them.

Overall I’ve been doing quite well with the deck online, and I suggest those of you down on the Zoo deck from the Pro Tour results take another look at your deck and the metagame and get to work on it. Zoo is one of the few decks that can produce a high amount of pressure while disrupting combo decks while still having plenty of game versus other creature decks. There are a lot of options other than the ones I mentioned and Zoo is a very adaptable deck after the core base of cards.

1k Tournament and Blightning Beatdown

This weekend was a 1k tournament at Superstars in San Jose, and the finals were split by Blightning Aggro and Faeries. This is a bone I’m throwing out to all of you Standard players, just like the deck I posted last week, this takes advantage of some major weak points in the metagame and has some great matches as a result. It may not have done very well at States in general (sorry Dave), but you should give it a shot. Congrats to Derek Cockrell for splitting the finals.

Blightning Beatdown
Derek Cockrell, 1st at Superstars 1k Standard

4 Demigod of Revenge
4 Flame Javelin
4 Figure of Destiny
4 Mogg Fanatic (Over Deathraiders obv. IT’S MOGG FANTASTIC)
4 Incinerate
4 Blightning
4 Ashenmoor Gouger
4 Bitterblossom
4 Tarfire
3 Ghitu Encampment
2 Reflecting Pool
4 Sulfurous Springs
4 Auntie’s Hovel
4 Graven Cairns
2 Swamp
5 Mountain

3 Thoughtseize
4 Magma Spray
3 Firespout
3 Soul Snuffers
2 Chaotic Backlash

Derek was nice enough to offer up a quick run-down of his matches and results, so I’ll go ahead and leave you with this, see you next week!

Rd1: Nip Gwyllion b/w — 2-0 (matches 1-0)
Rd2: UB Faeries — 2-1 (Matches 2-0)
Rd3: UBW Faeries — 2-0 (Matches 3-0)
Rd4: UB Faeries — 0-2 (Matches 3-1) — Josh Leyton, Fae player who split in finals.
Rd5: UW Lark — 2-0 (Matches 4-1)
Rd6: ID

T8: GB Elves — 2-0
T4: Jund Aggro — 2-1
T2: UB Faeries by Josh Leyton, split.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at JoshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom