Deep Analysis – Introducing Counter Elves

Visit the StarCityGames.com booth at Grand Prix Denver!
Monday, August 4th – Today’s Premium content is a little different today… with Patrick and Stephen bringing us packed Nationals articles later in the week, today we have Richard and BPM. Richard brings us a deeper look at his excellent Counter Elves deck for Block Constructed, and runs us through the deck’s particular mana needs in exquisite detail…

That’s the what taken care of; now for the why.

Why Elves?

That much is easy – because Wren’s Run Vanquisher demands them, that’s why.

Vanquisher is huge in this format. He’s more than just Watchwolf, attacking fearlessly into Mistbind Clique, Chameleon Colossus, and Doran. In a world where the top deck is creature-based but rarely has a creature on the board at all on turn 2, he is the only two-drop in the format that even approaches the power of Bitterblossom, and he’s not even vulnerable to Cloudthresher.

That said, he’s a Snidd if you don’t play him with an Elf in hand. This makes the Elf count of any deck that plays him incredibly important, but unfortunately – as Gerry Thompson and Mike Krumb were quick to point out at the PTQ where I debuted the previous iteration of this deck – most Elves in this format suck. Chameleon Colossus is probably the best one.

Fortunately, in a deck with 10 Changelings, Scarblade Elite is an Elf that doesn’t suck. Besides bringing the deck’s Elf count to 18 (well, 14 if you don’t count Vanquishers, and I wouldn’t, as drawing two Vanquishers as your only Elves means one of them is a Snidd), Scarblade Elite also brings the Assassin count to 14. That means if you draw one Elite and it eats a Nameless Inversion, the one that follows will have its two-for-one set up in advance.

The three most important characteristics of Scarblade Elite are that he is an Elf, that he is a 2/2, and that he costs two mana. I previously had Leaf Gilder in this slot, but added the 2/2 requirement upon watching a horde of Gilders die horribly disadvantageous deaths to Peppersmoke. Two other candidates that fit this bill are Woodland Changeling and Wolf-Skull Shaman. I figured that in an 18-Elf (plus 3-4 Shaman thanks to Doran), 14-Assassin deck, both Wolf-Skull and Scarblade would trigger once or twice per game on average. Given that, and the fact that I’d rather have 1-2 free removal spells than 1-2 free 2/2s, I ruled out the Wolf-Skull Shaman option. The things that separate Woodland Changeling from Scarblade Elite are that Woodland Changeling can chump Chameleon Colossus and powers up Murmuring Bosk, Secluded Glen, and Wanderwine Hub, while Scarblade Elite can’t be 187’d by Shriekmaw and usually comes with 1-2 free removal spells per game. The latter sounded like a considerably more attractive proposition.

Why Four Colors?

Because the mana is reliable, so mise well.

Don’t believe it’s reliable? Check this out.

With 10 Changelings in the deck, all four of my tribal lands have at least 10 cards powering them up. Bosk has 3 Dorans, bringing my total to 13 Treefolk, Glen has Sower and Oona to put me at 14 Faeries, and Palace has Vanquisher and Scarblade to give me 18 Elves. More often than not, each of these lands comes in untapped when played in the first few turns of the game – even Wanderwine Hub.

Let’s look a bit closer at the rest of the color base.

6 Vivid lands, 4 Murmuring Bosks, and 4 Gilt-Leaf Palace yield 14 Green sources.
6 Vivid lands, 4 Murmuring Bosks, 4 Secluded Glen, and 4 Gilt-Leaf Palace yield 18 Black sources.
6 Vivid lands, 4 Murmuring Bosks, and 3 Wanderwine Hubs yield 13 White sources.
6 Vivid lands, 4 Secluded Glen, and 3 Wanderwine Hub yield 13 Blue sources.

Casting Cryptic Command and Sower of Temptation: Counter Elves versus Faeries

17 lands help cast Sower of Temptation and Cryptic Command. (If you count Reflecting Pool, and I would – the only way it doesn’t help you cast these two is when you explicitly draw at least 2 Reflecting Pools and all the rest of your lands are exclusively Gilt-Leaf Palaces and Murmuring Bosks.)

18 lands help cast Chameleon Colossus. (If you count Reflecting Pool, and again I would – the only way it doesn’t help you cast Colossus is when you explicitly draw at least 2 Reflecting Pools and all the rest of your lands are exclusively Secluded Glens or Wanderwine Hubs.)

Let’s put this bad boy head-to-head with a typical Faeries manabase:

9 Island
4 Swamp
4 Secluded Glen
4 Mutavault
4 Sunken Ruins

We both have 25 lands, 17 of which produce Blue or are Reflecting Pool. Again, provided you’re okay with accepting Reflecting Pool as a reasonable blue source for casting UU and UUU spells, this means that we’re talking about a four-color deck has the same number of lands that help cast Cryptic Command and Sower of Temptation as Faeries does. (Granted, Faeries has Sunken Ruins which contribute two Blue, but it also has draws that consist solely of Sunken Ruins and/or Mutavaults which must be mulliganed, whereas I have only the all-Reflecting Pool draw to cause an auto-mull due to what would otherwise be counted as Blue sources.)

In other words, if you think Faeries and its seventeen Blue sources are enough to reliably cast Sower and Cryptic Command, but you don’t think my slightly different set of seventeen Blue sources are enough to reliably cast Sower and Cryptic Command… well, you’ve apparently got a very specific eye for what is and is not reliable.

Since the numbers are exactly the same for Green sources – er, no, I take that back, I have one more Green source than blue sources, plus the usual Reflecting Pools – it follows that if everything’s cool with regards to 13 Blue producers and four Reflecting Pools supporting Sower of Temptation, then my 14 Green producers and four Reflecting Pools for Chameleon Colossus ought to be considered even more reliable.

Casting Scarblade Elite: Counter Elves versus Kithkin and Knight of Meadowgrain

22 lands help cast Scarblade Elite, counting Reflecting Pool – which is always fine except when you specifically draw only two Reflecting Pools and no other Black sources.

Now let’s look at a typical Kithkin manabase.

14 Plains
4 Mutavault
4 Rustic Clachan
4 Windbrisk Heights

That’s 22 lands that produce White with which to cast turn 2 Knight of Meadowgrain. (You can see where this is going.) As that’s the same number of Black sources I play to support Scarblade Elite, there shouldn’t be any complaints that I won’t be able to consistently cast that guy unless they’re paired with complaints that Kithkin can’t cast turn 2 Knight of Meadowgrain or Wizened Cenn consistently either. (Again, unless you happen to think Reflecting Pool crosses the dividing line between 22 on-color sources being reliable and it being unreliable…for some reason.)

Casting Doran: Counter Elves vs. an actual Doran deck

Finally, 25 lands help cast Doran. (Every single one of them!)

Consider Nico Bohny’s Pro Tour: Hollywood Top 8 Doran manabase:

1 Brushland
4 Gilt-Leaf Palace
1 Horizon Canopy
3 Llanowar Wastes
4 Murmuring Bosk
1 Pendelhaven
2 Reflecting Pool
4 Treetop Village
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
2 Wooded Bastion
4 Birds of Paradise

I’m just interested in this manabase’s ability to cast Doran, so I don’t care about Llanowar Elves (if I cast Elves, I already have Green) and I’ll count Birds of Paradise as producers of Black and White only for the same reason. To be fair about the fact that Birds often die before producing their mana, I’ll count them as a half-mana source each. That puts this list at 20 Green sources, 10 White sources, and 14 Black sources, plus 2 Reflecting Pool.

In comparison, I have 14 Green sources (6 fewer), 18 Black sources (4 more), and 13 White sources (2 more), plus four Reflecting Pool. Like Nico, I don’t have any lands that explicitly do not contribute to casting Doran (for example, turn 2 Mutavault or Sunken Ruins means no turn 3 Doran). If you count that all up, you notice that we each have exactly 45 Doran-contributing mana sources. However, Doran requires one Green, one Black, and one White – in equal proportions, so the more evenly distributed your colors are, the lower your chances are of lacking one of them.

Nico’s weakest link is his White count; he has only 10 White sources (according to the “Birds count for half” formula, of course; if you don’t consider Birds reliable, he only has 8 – but even if you think they’ll always survive, he still only has 12 to my 13). White is also my weakest link in terms of casting Doran, but I have 13 sources instead of 10. In other words, this Counter Elves manabase is actually more consistent at casting Doran than the Doran list that made Top 8 at the Pro Tour.


With all that in mind, Counter Elves is just as good as Faeries is at casting Cryptic Command and Sower of Temptation, and better at casting turn 1 Thoughtseize. It’s even better at casting Chameleon Colossus than it is casting Sower of Temptation. It’s also just as good at casting turn 2 Scarblade Elite as Kithkin is at casting turn 2 Knight of Meadowgrain, and it’s even better at casting Doran than Doran is!

In other words, despite the crazy numbers, this manabase can actually support the cards the deck is trying to cast with real consistency. Let that sink in for a second: a deck with Cryptic Command (1UUU), Chameleon Colossus (2GG), turn-two Scarblade Elite (BB), and Doran (BGW) actually has a reliable manabase. It’s a crazy Block Constructed world we live in.

Why Play This Deck?

I ran an even 70% with this list across 20 maindeck games against Faeries, with 3 losses apiece on the play and on the draw, which is enough to at least get my hopes up about the most important matchup in the format. If you think your skill is high enough compared to the Faeries players in the room that you can replicate those results, that’s a very big reason to play this deck. If you’re like me, and you’re in the market for something tricky and interactive that will let you set traps for less-skilled opponents, that’s another reason. If you want something competitive that few, if any, of your opponents will have tested against, that’s yet another. But there’s another big reason to play this deck that only one other deck in the format (Faeries) can claim: the incredibly high concentration of power.

My picks for top ten most powerful cards in the format are, in no particular order: Bitterblossom, Mistbind Clique, Sower of Temptation, Oona, Chameleon Colossus, Cryptic Command, Figure of Destiny, Mirrorweave, Makeshift Mannequin, and Doran. (Interesting that the first half are all Faeries…) For what it’s worth, Cloudthresher, Thoughtseize, Reveillark, Oversoul of Dusk, Wren’s Run Vanquisher, and Firespout would probably round out my top sixteen.

Faeries is playing fully half of those top ten cards – Cryptic, Sower, Oona, Bitterblossom, and Clique – and so am I, with Cryptic, Sower, Oona, Colossus, and Doran. No other decks in the format are playing such a high concentration of top-shelf powerful cards. Kithkin has only Figure of Destiny and Mirrorweave, control decks have only Cryptic Command and Mannequin, Merfolk has only Cryptic Command and occasionally Oona, and Mono-Red has only Figure of Destiny.

After Who’s the Beatdown, the most valuable thing I’ve learned from Mike Flores is to appreciate the value of powerful cards. No matter how consistent your deck is, there will be times when your library just does not serve up the goods, and you are low on resources. In those times, you want powerful cards – cards that have a major positive impact on most game states by themselves – to help you get back in the game. You’re out of gas and you topdeck Barkshell Blessing? Leaf Gilder? Scion of Oona? Bad beat.

You could theoretically play a deck that contains close to 100% powerful cards (we often call them “good stuff” decks), but you usually get more mileage out of including at least some narrower cards that are better – through synergy with the rest of your deck – than their more generically powerful alternatives most of the time, even if they are occasionally worse when you haven’t drawn the right cards to activate their synergies. Scion of Oona is a crappy 1/1 flyer for three when you are out of gas and topdeck it, but it’s quite the incomparable beating in the middle of a game when your board is littered with Faeries and your opponent is casting a removal spell into your three untapped lands.

The other great part about powerful cards is that they tend to help you out against unknown decks. Nameless Inversion is not much help against a homebrew deck sporting exclusively fatties, and you can seriously tank to a deck like that if you draw too many Inversions. Look at that top ten list above, though – how many of those are you unhappy to draw against a homebrew fatty deck? I count zero.

When you stumble upon a deck that can play a high concentration of cards which are not only powerful but which also create synergy with the rest of the deck… wow. Let me tell you, it is a great place to be.

I can play turn 2 Scarblade Elite off a Secluded Glen that reveals Chameleon Colossus, then follow it up with turn 3 Doran; then, if my Colossus is hit with Flame Javelin or a counterspell turn 4, I can remove it with the Elite to kill my opponent’s Figure of Destiny or Sower of Temptation. These kinds of interactions are a big part of what make the deck worth playing.


Okay, so let’s say you’re sold on the deck. How are you supposed to sideboard with the thing? Well, as I finished the list only a few days ago and Craig is running this article early, I don’t have an airtight set of plans to give you yet – but I can definitely give you what I’ve got so far.

First, I need to tell you about the Untouchables:

4 Cryptic Command
3 Doran
4 Scarblade Elite
4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher
4 Chameleon Colossus
4 Nameless Inversion
2 Crib Swap
2 Oona, Queen of the Fae

These don’t come out except under very specific circumstances; you should think very hard before boarding any one of these out. You basically always want to max out on Cryptic Command, Wren’s Run Vanquisher, and Doran (with respect to the Legend Rule against decks that will race him rather than removing him), and you need 14 other Elves to make Wren’s Run Vanquisher reliable. The Elf count is the really fragile metric here, and it’s the hardest to keep afloat when sideboarding because Scarblade, Inversion, and Crib Swap are often so tempting to remove for hosers.

The only real downside to dropping the Faerie, Treefolk, and Assassin counts is that they make Secluded Glen, Murmuring Bosk, and Scarblade Elite slightly less good, and boarding out Changelings makes Wanderwine Hub slightly less good. Dropping the Elf count, however, makes Wren’s Run Vanquisher much less good. It is practically a blank when you draw it early without another Elf in hand, and as turn 2 Wren’s Run Vanquisher is one of the most important plays in the deck, it is likewise critical not to let the Elf count drop so far that he is not consistently a two-drop.

The above list is generated from this need of Elves, combined with the need for Changelings to power the manabase, combined with the fact that it would take a really weird corner case matchup to make me want to board out a Cryptic Command or a Doran. The Queen of the Fae almost never wants to be boarded out; Oona advocate Adrian Sullivan suggests it might be right against an aggro-control deck like Merfolk, where getting her to stick is hard, but that’s about it. That said, here are the cards that can be boarded out on a regular basis.

4 Thoughtseize
2 Broken Ambitions
2 Sower of Temptation

Sure narrows down the ol’ sideboarding choices, eh?

Now, I should note that there are certain sideboard cards that can be boarded in for Untouchables without severe consequences. Say you were to bring in 2 copies of a card like Eyeblight’s Ending (let’s pretend you added it) for 2 Chameleon Colossus against Kithkin. After all, the Colossus is a bit of a Mirrorweave liability, and is fairly slow in a matchup where 4 Soul Snuffers are coming in. This keeps your Elf count right where it was, and although it decreases your chances of turn 1 Thoughtseize, you’re probably boarding out some or all of those anyway. The only other downside is that it ostensibly lowers your Assassin count, but realistically, Chameleon Colossus doesn’t hit the graveyard against Kithkin often enough to make that a serious consideration.

With all that in mind, here are some specifics.

Versus Kithkin:

+4 Soul Snuffers
+2 Shriekmaw
-4 Thoughtseize
-2 Broken Ambitions

This plan gives you fewer direct answers to Mirrorweave, but also decreases the chances that they’ll have enough guys left for it to be useful. I’m putting in Shriekmaw instead of the third and fourth Sowers mainly made in order to keep the curve low, but honestly Sower is so good, I’m debating leaving out the third and fourth Soul Snuffers to make room for the full set of Sowers.

Versus Faeries:

+4 Cloudthresher
-2 Sower of Temptation
-2 Broken Ambitions

There’s really no reason to go for the Untouchables in this matchup, and boarding out Thoughtseize would be pretty crazy in The Bitterblossom Matchup. That leaves only four slots – the Ambitions and the Sowers – worth boarding out, and Cloudthreshers occupy the four slots I’m most interested in bringing in against the Fae.

Versus Quick n’ Toast or Solar Flare:

+2 Crib Swap
+1 Doran
+1 Cloudthresher
-2 Nameless Inversion
-2 Sower of Temptation

Crib Swap for Inversion is a straightforward upgrade in this matchup, and as Sower of Temptation is a slow threat that will almost always die to a removal spell or Cloudthresher, I’d rather have a slow threat that’s at least hard to kill (read: Cloudthresher) in its stead.

Versus Elementals:

+2 Shriekmaw
-2 Sower of Temptation

Nothing too surprising here – just putting in another way to kill Smokebraider and taking out a 2/2 Flying against a deck with Cloudthreshers and Nameless Inversions plus ways to tutor for them.

Versus Midrange Green / Doran / Shaman Beats / Little Kid Green:

+2 Sower of Temptation
-2 Broken Ambitions

Sower of Temptation is incredible against these decks, so maxing out on them is great. Given the choice of cutting Thoughtseize or Broken Ambitions, I’ll take Ambitions.

Versus Mono-Red:

+2 Shriekmaw
+1 Sower of Temptation
+1 Doran, the Siege Tower
-4 Thoughtseize

Losing life sucks! Out come the Thoughtseizes, and in come the bonus Doran, Shriekmaws, and a third Sower. Broken Ambitions provides an important answer to late-game burn spells here, so it stays.

So there you have it: Counter Elves. Am I pumped about this deck’s potential in post-Eventide Lorwyn Block? Yes. Will I be battling with it at Gen Con? Yes. Will I have more information on it next week? Yes.

See you then!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]