Since I wrote my last article, I’ve been brewing up an Elf deck in Block that makes use of Flooded Grove to cast Cryptic Command alongside Wren’s Run Vanquisher and Thoughtseize. With a liberal sprinkling of Faeries and Changelings, I was able to fit not only Gilt-Leaf Palace, but also Secluded Glen and Murmuring Bosk, allowing twelve full ways to realistically cast Thoughtseize on turn 1. As I believe turn 1 Thoughtseize is one of the most important plays in the format (given Bitterblossom and all), a three-color Cryptic Command deck that can still cast it on turn 1 is something I can really get behind.
The critical cards I was trying to play were Thoughtseize, Cryptic Command, Wren’s Run Vanquisher, Chameleon Colossus, Nameless Inversion, and Sower of Temptation.
I filled in the gaps with Leaf Gilder, Imperious Perfect, Broken Ambitions, and a couple of underwhelming Bitterblossoms. I played a few test games with the deck, mapped out some sideboarding plans, and got some suggestions from Zac and Adrian along the way to arriving at the following list.
- 3 Imperious Perfect
- 4 Leaf Gilder
- 2 Sower of Temptation
- 4 Wren's Run Vanquisher
- 4 Chameleon Colossus
- 2 Oona, Queen of the Fae
Adrian Sullivan convinced me to add two Oona (probably the best single piece of card choice advice I have ever received, literally), and Stillmoon Cavalier was some highly experimental technology against Kithkin and Quick n’ Toast. The theory goes that it’s basically Paladin en-Vec against them; QnT can only kill it with Firespout or late-game Cloudthresher blocks (it has protection from Shriekmaw, Nameless, and Kitchen Finks, and First Strikes right past Mulldrifter), and it has protection from the entire Kithkin deck minus Mirrorweave – which it can survive by spending a Black to add First Strike in response. (Yes, that does persist through the Weave.)
Having had to miss the St. Louis PTQ (boo), but with the Springfield PTQ impending like nobody’s business, I had three clear options. Should I borrow a stock deck from someone and make the trip? Skip the PTQ due to inexperience with the post-Eventide format? Or dry run with the experimental deck? Pff, this is easy.
Dry run, baby!
Round 1 — Roger S. with Treefolk
I am happy when such cards as Treefolk Harbinger and Leaf-Crowned Elder start entering play because I think I may be up against a “soft” deck. Unfortunately, the truth turns out to be that Roger is playing a highly synergistic – albeit slow – Treefolk build featuring both Nameless Inversion and Crib Swap powering up the usual suspects included alongside Leaf-Crowned Elder.
In both games, he resolves an Elder, I don’t have a Sower or Shriekmaw or Cryptic into counter or Thoughtseize for it, and I get stampeded by free beatsticks.
Losing to Treefolk is a sobering start to a PTQ, to say the least. That dry run idea isn’t looking so hot anymore.
Round 2 — Richard T. with Elementals
I lead game 1 with a Thoughtseize that reveals Nova Chaser, Incandescent Soulstoke, Rage Forger, Chandra Nalaar, and Flamekin Harbinger. Fortunately he is light on land, and I have Nameless Inversion for the Smokebraider he tutors up. I play aggro-control from there on, backing up my Wren’s Run Vanquisher with a few Dismisses and sealing the deal a few turns later with Chameleon Colossus.
Game 2 he gets Nova Chaser championing Harbinger, and I don’t have a removal spell handy. The damage and synergy are too much, and I fold quickly.
I get down some Leaf Gilders in game 3 and start beating with them while countering his most important spells and occasionally bouncing some of his other creatures. We’re in a pretty straightforward damage race, but since his guys are always getting bounced or countered, my board retains the upper hand and I win it without trouble.
Round 3 — Eric K. with Mono-Red
Eric leads with Tattermunge Maniac into Mudbrawler Cohort. I have Nameless Inversion to mute the damage, and play a series of blockers that are burned out while the Cohort chips away at me. Finally I stabilize, and we are both out of gas. After a few turns of both of us drawing lands, I topdeck Oona, and slam it down. Eric unhappily spends two burn spells to kill it, and we go back to drawing lands. I then draw the other Oona, and it goes all the way. (Admittedly, a Colossus would have done fine there – but hey, this was a lot more dramatic. Thanks, Adrian Sullivan!)
Game 2 is much closer. He has Maniac into Mudbrawler into Ram-Gang, and I am flailing to stay afloat. He gets me all the way down to six before I stabilize, but at that point I am taking four-point chunks out of his life total with Wren’s Run Vanquisher powered by Imperious Perfect, and he doesn’t topdeck six points of burn before I finish him.
Round 4 — Chris S. with Shamans
Game 1 is almost unremarkable win; Chris is light on land and I drop Bitterblossom, back it up with some counters, and then lay Oona to mop up.
The remarkable part comes when he plays Colossus with eight mana open, and I am at eighteen. This is a problem because I untap, my Bitterblossom drops me to seventeen, and all my blockers are non-Black. I have one option left: attack him to seven with Oona and dust off my Jedi robes.
Chris sends in the team – Colossus and two small fry – and counts up his mana. I interrupt, saying “look, I already did the math. I’m going to activate Oona to make a bunch of dudes, chump the 2/2s, and untap with lethal on board. Colossus will get in for sixteen, but I’m at seventeen.” All of this is true, so Chris scoops.
(Thankfully, Chris does not realize that untapping at 1 life with a lethal attack on the board is not very good when you have Bitterblossom in play.) [To the forums! — Craig, amused.]
The second game is a much more protracted attrition war. It takes awhile, but finally I get to play Oona on an empty board, with a lot of mana open. Chris misplays here, casting Firespout and then Nameless Inversion to finish it off. (If he had cast them in the opposite order, any tokens I made in response to the lethal damage would have been killed by Firespout.) I responded by making some fliers, which eventually killed him when neither of us drew any timely gas to stop the four 1/1s.
Round 5 — Brian Boss with Mono-Red
This time Mono-Red gets Tattermunge Maniac into Mudbrawler Cohort on the play. I kill off his Cohort and his backup Cohort so that I can play a Vanquisher and watch it eat the Maniac when it is forced to attack. I start mounting a counter-offense when he turns things around by playing Figure of Destiny and pumping it up. I Cryptic Command it on his end step and Thoughtseize it out of his hand, dropping to four life but clearing him out. From there on, I always keep at least four mana open with which to cast the Cryptic Command (and Broken Ambitions) in my hand, lest he topdeck Flame Javelin and finish me off.
Speaking of Flame Javelin, Boss was a good enough guy to call a judge when two of his cards stuck together, causing him to see the top card of his library after drawing his card for the turn. The judge gave him a warning and had him shuffle away the card – a Flame Javelin. Props to Boss for playing a seriously clean game.
Game 2 was yet another Tattermunge start (four for four in games against Red this PTQ), followed by – my life total pad suggests – some 2/2s that may or may not have been Mudbrawler Cohorts. I remember using Sower of Temptation to steal something and then immediately trading both Sower and the stolen card for incoming attackers, and after that my life total remained at 8 while his went 20, 14, 8, dead.
Round 6 — Joe with Scare – You Heard Me – Crows
The entire tournament, there’s been this buzz. “Did you hear? Someone is 3-0 with Scarecrows.” “Seriously, Reaper Kings at the 4-0 table. Vindicates flying all over the place.” Apparently the King dropped a match in round five to end up in my bracket. I should probably be scared of this deck, but…well, I am not a crow.
I start off the first game by missing my third land drop, three turns in a row. This is a substantial problem because I know from Thoughtseize that he has two Reaper Kings in his hand. (I took Cryptic Command over Primal Command and the Kings.) I draw another Thoughtseize when Joe is on four mana, but if I cast it to steal a Reaper King, I will have no mana left over to Broken Ambitions his other King if he draws a fifth mana source – and I am quite convinced he is running close to 50% mana sources. Instead I pass the turn and hope I either draw a third land or he walks a King into Broken Ambitions for one.
On turn 4, Joe uses a Cryptic Command to bounce one of my lands and tap my Wren’s Run Vanquisher, presumably digging for a fifth land. (Disclaimer: Richard Feldman does not endorse this use of Cryptic Command.) On turn 5 he uses Primal Command to Plow Under one of my lands and gain seven to offset the Vanquisher damage, and I quickly let it resolve despite being able to counter it with Ambitions. My reasoning is simple: if I blow my Broken Ambitions on this, I will definitely not have two answers for his Kings, and by acting like I have no choice but to let half a Plow Under resolve when I am manascrewed – especially after declining to counter Cryptic Command a turn earlier – I signal that I am not holding a counter. My only hope is that he doesn’t draw a sixth mana source next turn, which would let him resolve Reaper King through my Force Spike despite my desperate attempts to stop it through the manascrew.
Joe does draw a sixth land, but it is Vivid – and, as I had hoped, he runs the King out there. I Force Spike it and hit a third land after Clashing. Next turn I happily Thoughtseize the second King and am back in the game. Joe has used all of his Commands at this point, and although he topdecks another Primal Command and Cryptic Command, my hand is full of gas. I overcome a very protracted fight against manascrew to come back and win this one.
Game 2 is anticlimactic. Joe keeps a Big Spells hand and I keep a Counter-Elf hand. I play Wren’s Run Vanquisher, Imperious Perfect, counter, counter, and Sower of Temptation on your Reaper King to take the match.
Round 7 — Alex Kim with 5-Color Control
As AKim has intentionally drawn with a friend in the previous round, I have to battle him rather than drawing into the Top 8 as I would prefer.
Game 1 is a weird attrition fight; Alex’s draw is full of Crib Swaps for my Colossi, and I am constantly keeping Cryptic Command mana open to stop the Cloudthresher that Thoughtseize told me about. I make a mistake by revealing Nameless Inversion for a land when I was still holding a Colossus that I had revealed earlier, which stops him from blowing himself out with Makeshift Mannequin on a beater rather than on a utility creature. My notes are fuzzy towards the end of this one; all I remember is that eventually I came out on top, but it was close.
Alex mulligans in the second game and turn 2 Thoughtseize reveals a draw of two lands, Fertile Ground, Doran, another Doran, Mulldrifter, and Kitchen Finks. Alex tries to get me to take the Fertile Ground (“I’ll give you a hint – it’s the one that produces mana!”) but if he draws a third land, he can already cast everything in his hand. Instead I take the Mulldrifter; I am holding two Stillmoon Cavaliers, which are fantastic against his draw as long as he doesn’t dig up a Firespout for them.
The Cavs start knocking him down until I add a Chameleon Colossus to his board of Doran and Kitchen Finks. I swing with my team, and Alex declares no blocks. I think I have him dead if I pump my Colossus, but I am actually one point short because Doran makes the Cavaliers attack for only one. However, Alex doesn’t topdeck anything that lets him kill me from 16 with just Doran and Kitchen Finks, so I get him on the following turn instead.
Understatement of the year: “AKim was slightly unhappy to have been knocked out by Leaf Gilder.”
Quarterfinals — Andrew with Kithkin
Game 1 is simple. We trade some guys, he plays Mirror Entity, I play Sower of Temptation on it, he plays another, I tap his guys with Cryptic Command, and he scoops before I have to untap and make my team 6/6s.
I punt game 2 for lack of an abacus. I have two Stillmoon Cavaliers down, holding off his team, and I am beating down with just enough guys that I can stave off a lethal Mirrorweave if he does it on my Wren’s Run Vanquisher. I am also careful to leave a Black mana open so that if he Mirrorweaves, I can give one of my Cavaliers First Strike and retain a pro-White guy post-combat.
Finally the alpha strike comes, I declare my blocks, he Mirrorweaves, and I confirm with the table judge that giving my Cavaliers First Strike will make them 3/3 Deathtouch First Strikers after Weave on Vanquisher resolves. Having cleared that up, I go to record that I am taking twelve damage and dropping to three. My opponent makes things interesting by using “y’know, math” to show that, in fact, five 3/3s are unblocked, and I will be dropping to zero instead of three.
Yeah, I just straight-up miscounted and had been attacking with one too many critters on the previous few turns. Le punt.
Now, granted, had I attacked properly, I wouldn’t have been in the best position post-combat – but I had another Sower in my hand, and as long as Andrew did not have another Spectral Procession in his, I certainly believed that I had the tools to pull the game out.
Game 3 is unremarkable. Andrew gets a very fast start, and I have a two-land, two-Leaf Gilder draw. (Both Gerry and Adrian suggested increasing my land count at the expense of my Leaf Gilder count; I shied away from it because I wanted to make sure Wren’s Run Vanquisher was damn well Watchwolf, but realistically there were probably better ways to do that.) I have to choose between killing his guys and developing my mana, when I need to do both to stop the bleeding. To make a long story short, I can’t, and bleed to death with plenty of cards left in hand.
I give good man Mike Donovan a third of my box for loaning me almost all of the deck. (Ogre, also a good man, sat there and cracked Eventide packs until he found the rest of the stuff I needed and sold it to me.) Thanks, guys!
So how was the deck?
Impressive, given how much work this build needs. And it does need a lot of work. Yeah, thanks to these seventy-five, I’m 100% for PTQ Top 8s so far this season (hur hur, one out of one), but I didn’t once face Faeries, the deck I explicitly aimed to outmaneuver with this list. I knew Kithkin would be a close matchup, and I lost to the only one I played. In fact, come to think of it, I played against pretty much exclusively decks I didn’t test against – and while it’s encouraging that I beat all of them except Treefolk – that doesn’t change the fact that I’m pretty sure I misbuilt the deck considerably.
For those of you who watched me battle Gerry Thompson with Faeries in between rounds, you may be surprised to learn that my intention in building this deck was to get an edge over Faeries. Actually, it might put you straight into a coma. I was literally about one win and nine losses against Gerry by the end of the day; the Feldman playing Counter-Elves versus GerryT playing Faeries matchup is unbelievably bad.
… but is that a bad thing? Two weeks ago I stated that I was trying to play more tricky, interactive decks so that I could make playskill a bigger factor in my matches. I won 11 of the 15 quick games I tested against Faeries before the PTQ, but those weren’t against a masterful Faeries player. Do you know who is a lot better at Magic than I am? Gerry Thompson. Do you know who should beat the tar out of me when the matchup is skill-dependent? GT again.
Did it work in my favor, though, against my other opponents? I can think of quite a few times when it made a difference. People made some seriously questionable plays because they feared the Cryptic Command, and some didn’t fear the Sower of Temptation enough. One opponent forgot that Wren’s Run Vanquisher had Deathtouch and walked his fatty into it, and another took a serious hit when he left himself open to Nameless Inversion on one of his attackers.
Honestly, I’m pretty sure that the fact that I played complex, interactive cards was a major contributing factor to the fact that I beat six out of seven decks that I hadn’t tested a game against. (The fact that I played powerful cards probably did more of the legwork, but nevertheless I maintain that the impact of choosing to play a more interactive deck played a big part.)
Still, while I like the concept of Counter Elves, the build needs a lot of work. Grand Prix champ Mike Krumb, who got closer and closer to losing his lunch each time I advanced with this build (he took an early unintentional draw to a “methodical” opponent and a loss put him basically out of contention from there), described it as “Half the best cards in the format, and half absolute garbage.” He suggested taking out Broken Ambitions for Woodland Changeling.
I need to get Doran in here, and while I want to play more counters than just Cryptic Command, four Broken Ambitions is definitely too many. Adrian Sullivan suggested two Negate, which could make the main, but given how many times I’ve wanted to counter Cloudthresher, Mistbind Clique (and, y’know, Reaper King), and just a random Kithkin on the play, I can see myself keeping a couple of Ambitions in the list and boarding the Negates.
There are other changes I want to make – removing Leaf Gilders and Bitterblossoms to, among other things, mute opposing Peppersmokes, upping the land count, and so on – so I’m going to head straight to the workshop to begin tinkering. I should have something more concrete next week, but if you’re interested in a transition list for this weekend’s festivities, shoot me an email and I’ll show you what I’m working with.
See you next week!