Down And Dirty – Enlisting the Extended Elvish Army

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Wednesday, January 27th – The demise of Combo Elves as an Extended powerhouse has been greatly overstated, and the pointy-eared menace has been popping up in PTQ Top 8s with alarming regularity. Kyle takes us through his version of the deck, played by Billy Moreno to a PTQ finals position, and runs through all the fun you can have with a Cloudstone Curio…

It was Thursday, and I was planning on sleeving up Zoo with Billy for my Saturday PTQ. I wasn’t too happy about it, but we had a nice Glare of Subdual sideboard plan along with a wicked fast game 1 with twenty one-drops. Then he sent me a text saying he was going to audible to Elves after reading Gavin’s great article on the subject. “Elves? WTF?” I asked him, and he just told me to read the article. I was one of the many who assumed Elves was dead after losing Wirewood Symbiote, Hivemaster, and Birchlore Rangers, but this weekend surely taught me a lesson in humility when condescending and underestimating the greatest tribe in ALL of Magic. I’m also going to note that I’m not going to repeat a lot of what Gavin’s already written about, so if you’re serious about learning how to pilot the best and hardest Extended deck to play, it would do you good to check his article out before mine.

I’ve played various different combo Elves in various different formats. I’ve always favored combo decks to control or aggro decks the entire time I’ve played Magic. I’ve a pretty good understanding of how to work out complex turns with lots of mana buzzing around my pool, but this deck challenged me in a much harder way than practically any other I’ve played before. Granted, my difficulties where definitely enhanced because I only got an hour of sleep after picking the deck up for the first time. But this deck is so difficult to play that it actually makes you believe that each loss you had was because you must’ve screwed up on your ever-changing plan assessment.

The absolute best way to describe this deck is that it’s a flame-juggling assassin at a circus. It walks around the amusement park finding its mark, all the while biding time putting on a brightly clever entertaining act by balancing the fire it wields. Then once it finds Joe Blow, it goes about a complicated juggling routine before hurling the flaming torches. Uh yeah, that description should work nicely…

I headed over to the store to pick up a couple of copies of the deck. I assembled everything pretty easily; however, they were out of Elves of Deep Shadow, so I had to get creative. I talked with Billy and Gavin on the subject, but couldn’t come up with anything too promising on the fly, so I pulled out some Essence Wardens, Devoted Druids, and more Viridian Shamans to potentially fill the void. I asked Gavin about Cloudstone Curio. He said he was unfamiliar with it but had positive feedback from others, so I pulled some of those out too just so I didn’t miss something if I wanted to switch it up when we checked into the hotel Friday night.

On the drive up, Billy and I went through our usual pre-game talk about potential interactions, matchups, etc. We decided to cut Elves for Devoted Druid when we came up with several situations where DD was better. We also cut Weird Harvest for Curio after figuring out the infinite mana and draw combo without needing a Glimpse via Visionary. Those changes made an already hard deck to play significantly harder. For instance, here’s a list of very realistic potential combos you can use with Curio:

Curio + Elvish Visionary to keep digging to stock up your hand. This one is pretty simple, but its elegance and ability to make something out of nothing gives Curio a lot of depth on top of combo capability.

Curio + Regal Force. Once you’re comboing off, a lot of the time you don’t want to really cast Glimpse of Nature; instead, it’s better to set up drawing your deck with either Visionary or Regal Force. In the absence of Visionary, bouncing a Regal Force to draw gets the job as well. There are also a handful of situations where you’re not going to combo the turn you cast Regal Force, and protecting him to ensure you’ll have him next turn by bouncing him back to your hand is another good way to maintain the attrition war against the decks that have lots of hate, like Explosives and Chalice for one.

Curio + Heritage Druid + Two one-drops + Glimpse of Nature to draw your whole deck. You’ve got Curio in play, you have two-one drops, cast Glimpse, cast Heritage Druid, Curio trigger on the stack you tap for three mana, return a different one-drop, cast the one-drop (2 floating), draw a card, return a one-drop, cast one-drop (1 floating), draw a card, return one-drop, cast one-drop (0 floating), draw a card, Curio trigger on the stack tap for three mana. Rinse, wash, and repeat until you find Summoner’s Pact, Nettle Sentinel, or Devoted Druids to start producing mana.

An Aside on Loops
It’s also very important to note how many steps your cycles are, and how the board looks afterwards. If you explain this to your opponent, it makes it much easier to 1) get a read if they have a way to interrupt you, and 2) go about executing your combo in a reasonable time frame. It’s very annoying from their perspective to sit there and watch you do all these cool things, which is definitely something you can play on, and often they are pretty disheartened and looking to speed things up too. In the previous situation, you can tell him you have a loop, leave the Elves in play without going through the tiring process of return, bounce, blah blah, and just draw three cards as many times as you need to find the missing combo pieces. Personally, I don’t let my opponents go about this cycle business since it forces them to play very tightly, and it might make them mess up, but if you’re in a crunch for time it’s in their advantage to let you do it, since you really only need to take one extra turn to win with this deck at any time. This deck takes an absurdly long time to execute its combo, much like the Elves decks in the past, but this one has more variables to consider since its much leaner than the previous ones. This means you’ve got to grind out the wins and be scrappy with your attackers if you’re going to pilot this deck perfectly.

Curio + Heritage Druid + Nettle Sentinel + one-drop to make infinite mana. This one is just like the situation described above, but I’ll explain it again. This one is a little more unique, because if you’ve got two Nettle Sentinels you can actually wait to cast Curio until the turn you combo, but most of the time I’m looking to drop Curio turn 2 via an Elf. If they don’t have a removal spell for it, I am threatening the combo on turn 3, so they don’t have much time to be proactive on their end. You’ve got Curio and a one-drop in play. Cast Nettle Sentinel, cast Heritage Druid, Nettles untap and Curio trigger on the stack, tap for three mana, return the one-drop, cast the one-drop (2 floating), return Heritage Druid, cast Heritage Druid (1 floating), Curio on the stack, tap for three, return the one-drop (4 floating). This creates a loop, so you inform your opponent you’re going to do it a million times. Now that you’ve got all that mana, you’ve got to do something with it, so you’ve got to have a Summoner’s Pact, Elvish Visionary, Primal Command, Glimpse of Nature, or Regal Force. If you don’t have one of those sixteen cards, you’re dead in the water, and probably shouldn’t have gone to such extravagant lengths to make so much mana to scare the crap out of your opponent for no reason. However, I’m pretty sure there is a decent percentage of young PTQ players who will scoop ’em up if you run the bluff, when you really just have lots of mana and nothing to do with it. If you do have a Elvish Visionary, it leads to this interaction…

Curio + Elvish Visionary + Heritage Druid + Nettle Sentinel to draw your deck. Assuming you don’t have another one-drop to make infinite mana with, this interaction is the same as the previous except it nets you 0 mana per loop, however you draw your entire deck in the process and hopefully have a one-drop left to ease your mana problems.

Curio + Elvish Archdruid + Devoted Druid + Heritage Druid + one-drop to make infinite mana. This is one of the more subtle combos that Curio can produce, which essentially turns Devoted Druid into a Nettle Sentinel. Clearly this is extremely valuable, since there are a variety of ways to take away combo pieces in this format via Extirpate, Castigate, Thought Hemorrhage, or Cranial Extraction. With Curio, Archdruid, Devoted Druid, Heritage Druid, and another one-drop in play, you cast one of those creatures, Curio on the stack, tap Devoted and the two one-drops for three mana, return a one-drop, cast the one-drop (2 floating), return the other one-drop, cast it (1 floating), untap Devoted Druid, tap for three (4 floating), return one-drop, cast it (3 floating), return one-drop, cast it (2 floating), untap Devoted Druid (2 counters), tap for three (5 floating), return one-drop, cast it( 4 floating), return one-drop, cast it (3 floating), return Devoted Druid, cast it (1 floating)… and we’ve got a loop with Devoted Druid with no counters on him and can now make infinite mana. This one took 21 steps, but it has the same outcome as the infinite mana combos from above. Once you’ve got the mana you can use any of the sixteen “draw” cards to get your deck in your hand and win the game. The tricky part about this combo, is that it’s so scarce that many people don’t even know it exists since they’re busy playing their painful Elves of Deep Shadow. Clearly this interaction brings a whole lot to the table since, with a pair of Devoted Druids, with two Archdruids you can make infinite mana without even having to cast one-drops, giving you a perceivable out to Chalice for 1 as long as you’ve got a Heritage Druid in play. If you had a means to give them haste, you wouldn’t even need Heritage Druid, since you’d be able to juggle a pair of Devoted Druid while making mana because Archdruid pumps them.

These are only the interactions spawning from Curio, and when you’re sitting there with lots of Green cards in play, Green cards in hand, and a Curio somewhere, you’ve got to know all the possible interactions to look for if you’re going to pilot this deck perfectly. One of the most important parts is doing your homework and goldfishing this deck until you show up morning of the PTQ and the judge makes you change your sleeves. You’ve got to be comfortable with the plays you’re making, otherwise this is the type of deck where you’ll second guess yourself over and over, and end up making snowballing mistakes.

With those interactions on our mind, here’s the deck we registered for the PTQ…

On the way up to Ft. Worth, I was pitching Dead/Gone in the sideboard to Gavin n’ Billy, for Dark Depths and the mirror. After realizing I’ve already got Blood Moon and Shaman coming in against Dark Depths I decided I didn’t really need a narrow Shock to board in for Elves, but Billy kept it as a two-of over my Primal Command and Horizon Canopy.

We get to Ft. Worth around eleven, hang out in the room, eat pizza, and attack a bottle of Johnny Walker Red before everyone but me passes out. I lose track of the time and forget to hit up the hotel bar before last call to meet up with those chicks from last time, so with my roomies passed out, no air conditioning in our room, and my bed lamp out of working order, I hightailed it downstairs with my bottle and gold fished in the lobby for a few hours to figure out exactly how the deck works without disturbing my Billy, Benito, or Larson. Melissa was at the desk again, making this our third encounter, and she came to sit next to me on the couch. It was just after two, and she was already tired, but she loves whiskey so I poured her a few drinks to give her some energy. She appreciated the company, since she usually has to weather the storm of drunken buffoons stumbling back to their rooms alone, but this time I helped her out on door duty. I even escorted a severely inebriated marine back to safety. She was very friendly in return.

I fumbled back into the room around six, got a solid hour or so of sleep, and woke up with the same smile on my face that accompanied me to sleep. A quick shower, some Saturday morning religious cartoons, and some Goldfish for breakfast later, and we were on our way to the event site. I had proclaimed that no less than three of us would make Top 8. I had a good feeling going into this tournament, despite being arrested earlier in the week and only having an hour of sleep.

After five rounds, my record is 4-1, only losing to Kevin Ambler’s Faeries after running the one land gamble in game 3. Billy starts 5-0, and Larson is also sitting on 4-1, while Benito was out of contention as soon as he turned in his deck registration sheet. The PTQ was a little over a hundred people, seven rounds, and with my tiebreakers boasting the highest of the twelve-pointers I was playing round 6 as a win-and-in situation. Of course, I’m up against my arch-nemesis, Derrick Steele. He and I go way back, and he always seems to maul me each time we play, and of course this weekend was no exception. He beat me with Merfolk when I had that miracle Top 8 with Puca’s Plans in Fort Worth the weekend of the first SCG $5k Open. He also forced a draw in a game in which I had in complete control after jedi-mind-tricking him into not killing me when he had lethal damage, to knock us both out of Top 8. As of right now, I’m 0-2-1 lifetime against Derrick, but it’s the manner of the losses that really gets my goat…

He’s playing U/W Thopter combo, and gets Academy Ruins + Engineered Explosives game 1. Game 2 he mulligans to five, and I put six Elves into play on turn 2 and bash his face in with Archdruid. Game 3 goes to the wire, but he has ample removal for my Elves. He had a hard time assembling his combo, so the game went pretty long. Once he drew into his combo, I couldn’t really put up much of a fight, and my hand was too thin to attempt any combo action.

In hindsight, this is probably my worst matchup. He had Wrath of God, Thirst for Knowledge, Shadow of Doubt, Ancestral Vision, Spell Snare, Mana Leak, Path to Exile, Ethersworn Canonist, Umezawa’s Jitte, Engineered Explosives + Academy Ruins, and probably Chalice lurking around somewhere in there. I don’t have a good chance to go beatdown because his combo comes out of nowhere, clogs the board, and puts him well out of attacking range. Plus he’s got Wrath, so I’ve got to try and combo in one turn, which falls victim to Shadow of Doubt. Boo-Urns!

The deck is insanely good, but there was a certain spike of Elves decks this week in PTQ play, so it might not be the right choice from here on out. The deck can really only be successful in a field that doesn’t have lots of ways to stop it. Thopter Combo has a very good match against Elves, so if you think the Elvish Army will continue to grow in support, Sword of the Meek and pals would be a good strategy.

As for the deck, I found halfway through the tournament that I didn’t want to sideboard in my Blood Moon. Ever. Never ever. I honestly didn’t feel like I needed to board in Jitte much either, but it gives the deck another dimension on which to play, and it’s just as great as a proactive answer to them trying to stop the combo as it is as a reactive answer to their Jittes that destroy me. I would highly recommend you take Moons out, because they’re about as useful as a puddle of mud. You really don’t want to sideboard into some janky “I WIN” card, because sideboarding with this deck is a very sensitive subject. Just like the fire juggler mentioned above, you’ve got a delicate balance you must uphold if you’re going to give the combo shot any sort of legitimate chance. You never have more than three or four cards you can justify taking out, and Blood Moon is just a cute way of saying “I don’t have a very good plan and just want to mise some wins.”

I don’t exactly have a definitive alternate sideboard plan, but I’d much rather run either Thoughtseize, Proclamation of Rebirth, or Ranger of Eos than Blood Moon. Thoughtseize is also a bit too narrow, so I’m fairly certain, even without testing, that some combination of White cards in the board is my next step for the PTQ in two weeks. Proclamation in particular is going to be necessary, given the huge rise in Elves decks popping up everywhere, plus the expected hate in the usual Explosives and Chalice. Being able to send Heritage Druid out there to be countered, only to get it back with Proc, is really attractive. From there, I might also extend myself to bring in Ethersworn Canonist for the mirror. Since Curio is an artifact, it leads to the situation where you drop Curio and a creature in one turn, bounce the Canonist, then go off uninhibited. However, I also need Jitte for the mirror, so I might make my deck a little too thin to justify the Canonist plan, but it also works nicely against the troublesome Storm or Hive Mind combo decks.

After my bubble match loss, I hit up that hotel bar and met up with the cute redhead that works there. She said she might be in SA in a couple of weeks, so that’s the most positive interaction I had all day. I got back from the bar just as Billy was finishing his tournament, and watched him punt game 3 of the finals no less than three times. His first blunder was when he double-blocked a Tarmogoyf with a Doran and Hierarch out, pumped his Nettle Sentinel with Jitte twice, then forgot to pump his Heritage Druid with Pendelhaven to save it. Another mistake was that, after his first Jitte was destroyed, he opted to play another creature instead of starting to charge up his second Jitte.

The last wasn’t exactly a big mistake, but was very controversial nonetheless… The game was winding down, and Billy had Dead//Gone in his hand. He asked his opponent – nicknamed Extra Medium because he always wears medium shirts that are too small for him (hehe!) – if he had played a land yet that turn. He responded yes, so Billy used Gone on Treetop Village to set him back two turns. When he saw that, he changed his tune and said “wait, I haven’t played a land yet…” The judge confirmed that he hadn’t played a land, and Billy was allowed to take back his play, but the damage had been done. Extra Medium knew Billy had a trick up his sleeve, and used his Thoughtseize next turn pre-combat to get rid of it before he activated Treetop Village! Burned to a crisp!

Still, this deck is insane. You should definitely check it out if you want to blame your losses on mistakes rather than the usual empty “he got so lucky” excuses. I have a very good feeling that a lot of the people who pick this up will also grow as Magic players. There are so many very important triggers that you can’t miss, along with a very wide range of different plans that you have to keep adjusting to, no matter how the game is playing out. You’ve got to know when to drop your hand and cross your fingers, and when to hold off a couple of turns to give yourself odds to draw into the combo. One thing is for sure… this deck is very powerful, and it’s very hard to play to perfection. The adventure is truly in the challenge.

I also want a third Curio in the deck, so I’ll probably end up cutting the second Regal Force, or a Devoted Druid. Playing turn 2 Curio is almost as deadly as playing turn 2 Archdruid!

Thanks for reading…