G/W Elves Primer

If you’d like to play G/W Elves at SCG Open Series: Salt Lake City or SCG Classic Series: New York this weekend, check out this primer by Zvi, the deck’s designer!

Designed by myself with help from Gaudenis Vidugiris, this deck is the latest spiritual successor to Mythic. The initial inspiration was a desire to use the new ability to have twelve one-drop mana creatures to accelerate to efficient threats, and it quickly became clear what the best threats would be. The classic problem with having more than eight one-drop mana creatures is that it leads to floods.

Elvish Archdruid was a good start, but it was clear that we’d need more than a few Mutavaults to solve this problem. Since Avacyn’s Pilgrim gives you four free white sources, splashing is close to free, although the use of Gavony Township then prevents you from branching out to other colorless lands as you are now at the key fourteen first-turn green sources and only have twelve white sources so you can’t spare one of those either.

I talked about the development of this type of deck, which I call hypermana, in my last article. A good additional illustration of the design decisions that were made can be found by comparing this list to the one championed by Chris VanMeter, which used an independent origin (I believe) to reach many of the same conclusions, including the need for Elvish Visionary:

There’s a mix here of one potentially good idea I hadn’t had, which is Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, although four copies is insane; a few ideas I considered, like Paraselene and Fog; and one of the classic and most common mistakes: violating principle number three that the threats you accelerate to must be game winners in their own right.

Restoration Angel, Acidic Slime, and Thragtusk are great cards. There’s a reason that Junk Reanimator decks dominated Standard for weeks on end and have proven highly oppressive to those wanting to play a variety of fun new strategies. However, as I discussed last week, Thragtusk is exactly the wrong creature to be playing in this sort of deck because people don’t die when you play a Thragtusk. People includes you, of course, since you gain five life and get a creature that’s hard to kill, but accelerating out a creature that grinds your opponent to death isn’t substantially better than playing it on schedule.

Restoration Angel is even worse at this because it requires a worthwhile blink target in order to gain you advantage and because the fact that those targets cost more than Restoration Angel means it essentially can’t be accelerated out. Even if it works, you’re buying a bunch of incremental advantage.

Trying to be a lousy Junk Reanimator deck with somewhat more acceleration isn’t going to get it done; the fact that such decks could use Unburial Rites to keep up the pressure combined with the threat of ending in Angel of Serenity is what made them so devilishly hard to beat. When I played my first game with the deck, I actually did try running Thragtusk because I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to compete with aggression, but that lasted for one game as it was clear right away that it would play infinitely better as Wolfir Silverheart.

Kalonian Hydra and Wolfir Silverheart are a different story. Playing a third-turn Kalonian Hydra puts your opponent to the test. It’s impossible to fight that with conventional creatures even if you go first, with cards like Thragtusk and Huntmaster of the Fells suddenly looking like laughable speed bumps. There are good answers like Doom Blade and Warleader’s Helix and of course there’s always Supreme Verdict, but if they don’t have one of them, it’s all over on turn 5 or 6. Often the best way to beat aggression is to race them with a Kalonian Hydra; once you’ve got it to 8/8, you can usually safely chump block with everyone else against most decks that are trying to kill you if necessary knowing they can’t survive your next attack.

Wolfir Silverheart can do a similar thing by hitting them for five on turn 3 and threatening another thirteen while providing a giant wall that will eat the largest attacker; suddenly they need to hold back a blocker or they’re dead on turn 4 if they’ve so much as played a shockland. The chances of being able to do this are exceedingly good because the three mana dorks draw gets you there, the mana dork into Elvish Archdruid draw gets you there, and the two mana dorks plus Elvish Visionary draw also gets you there. Wolfir Silverheart with reliable friends is a better card than Thragtusk and matches up especially well against Thragtusk and its most commonly available friends.

All those draws take opponents out of the game and run over traditional creature games. William Jensen reported to me that the deck simply doesn’t lose to creature decks, which matches my testing, because their creatures are in no position to fight yours even when Craterhoof Behemoth doesn’t happen.

The alternative sideboard is more interesting. With only one noncreature spell in the entire deck, it’s interesting to look to Thalia, which you can play on turn 2 while setting up a five-drop for turn 3 if you have multiple one-drops. If you had more white sources, this would be very strong. With only twelve white sources, Thalia being so much better early than it is late, multiples being weak, and the issue that it isn’t that powerful a threat on its own, there are many reasons to consider the third and fourth copies very weak.

Fog is a card I strongly considered as an answer to aggression since your strike backs are so often lethal. Again, a single copy is interesting since you don’t want multiples and you want to make your opponents paranoid about losing to Fog without your being forced to reply upon Fog. Paraselene and Ray of Revelation are obvious considerations for Bant Hexproof, and the more aggressive version has more incentive to go with Ray of Revelation over Paraselene since you can close out the game quickly and that makes hanging back to answer the big boost at instant speed a more powerful angle to pursue. If you use a sorcery, it allows them to rebuild.

That’s enough general talk. Let’s talk about a few key matchups. Right now it looks like Jund and U/W/R Flash are by far the most important, and I’ll round out the discussion with how to answer aggression.


The first deck I played against was Jund, and I won our initial set 9-1, with the matchup feeling better than I’ve ever felt against Jund with any deck. Jund is a hard deck to dominate! Later testing of course showed it isn’t anywhere near that good a matchup, but it’s still very good, especially if the Jund player doesn’t understand what you’re going to be doing to them. Tom Martell initially didn’t understand how Jund could be in bad shape looking at the initial list but quickly figured it out when he had to face Kalonian Hydra and Wolfir Silverheart.

Jund has Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk as their central core and is now playing Scavenging Ooze. Those cards aren’t “dead” exactly, but they do shocking little against Elves. Trying to play a slow incremental game is not a winning strategy, and there are never enough hard removal spells to respond to the sheer number of high-end threats. Half of Jund’s deck feels like it’s playing a different and mostly irrelevant game.

The compensation the Jund player gets for all those wrong cards is that they have Olivia Voldaren and Bonfire of the Damned, both of which are exactly the right cards. The key to playing the matchup as the Elves player is responding properly to these twin threats. You need to be asking yourself whether you can beat a hard cast Bonfire of the Damned (and whether it makes logical sense for them to be holding one since when they draw one they’ll almost always miracle it), whether you can beat a miracle, and whether you can beat Olivia Voldaren.

Beating Olivia Voldaren means getting out in front of it. You can’t remove her and she will eventually take over the game and kill you dead if you don’t win first, but that requires either for her to kill enough mana dorks to shut you off from casting spells while other cards control whatever has already gotten onto the board or for Olivia to start stealing your guys. If you’re on schedule, taking creatures is only scary if they went first and had the Farseek. In that case, they’re playing a third-turn Olivia, you respond with a third-turn big man, and they can steal it on their turn 5, after which she can potentially take over the game and won’t take long to kill you in the air even if she doesn’t. Alternatively, if they can use removal to slow you down by a turn, they can generate the same situations one turn later.

The important thing is that in these scenarios Olivia Voldaren comes into play before your five-drops come into play. When that happens, you’re in trouble and have to find a way to beat both the threat of them stealing your creatures and the option of them choosing to mow down your mana. The good news is that they have to choose what to do with their mana. If they use Olivia Voldaren, it essentially becomes their entire game other than cheap removal spells, which is why her coming down after your threat isn’t an issue.

If you play a second threat, she now has to choose. If she stays small, you’re making progress, and they’re losing ground. If she tries to mow down your mana, she still can’t fight against your threats for at least another turn, and she has to face down multiple threats. If she tries to steal your creatures, that means taking a turn setting that interaction up on top of the turn spent casting Olivia Voldaren, and it’s very hard for them not to be one turn too late on this if you got your threat down first.

The other bad news is that she can incidentally take out Garruk, Caller of Beasts, which means he’s reserved for sneaking in a game-winning Craterhoof Behemoth. If you draw both cards and any otherwise reasonable draw, only a well-timed Bonfire of the Damned can hope to stand in your way. Otherwise, Garruk is a strong card-drawing spell that soaks up five damage, which isn’t so bad, but that still costs you a turn so can cause you to fall behind. Once you fall behind on time to Olivia Voldaren, she takes over, so you’ll need other threats if you lack the mighty hoof.

Playing around Bonfire of the Damned isn’t always possible. One key mistake you can make is to try to play around it when you can’t realistically win the game if they have it, which only leads to them having time to win games in other ways. If you get too scared, Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk can get back in the game or Olivia Voldaren can hit the board first and ruin your day; your job is first to win the games without Bonfire and only second to win the games where they do have it with a decent follow up.

Even going second, it is often possible to race Bonfire’s growth thanks to Elvish Archdruid or play to recover from them sweeping your board, which forces them to have a properly supported Olivia Voldaren to finish you off; in general, if they have both cards and good mana, then your only chance is to race the Bonfire to make it irrelevant. When going second, that means second-turn Elvish Archdruid. When going first, this can be as simple as getting a five-drop down on turn 3 or even a third-turn Gavony Township activation.

If they then get two or three for one with a Bonfire of the Damned after you play a Kalonian Hydra, they’re still behind and taking eight. If you can get back your ability to play threats, the cards you’ve lost won’t matter much, and without a hard removal spell they’re already dead. If your five-drop is Wolfir Silverheart, they can’t even stop for the Bonfire without dying.

The biggest feel-bad situations are where you have no choice; they’re going first, and you have nothing but 1/1 Elves. If you go too fast, they can blow you out, and you won’t have the mana to recover. If you go too slow, they can use other removal to keep you off threats and get tempo advantage. Getting a second “extra” Elf is usually a mistake, but not having one extra is asking for it if you don’t have a read on them that either they won’t use other removal on your guys or they clearly have the Bonfire. Some players are nice enough to all but announce it if you’re paying enough attention.

If they have Lifebane Zombie, that’s obviously a net negative for you, but not a serious one unless it’s replacing bad cards since the good cards were already very good. Lifebane Zombie is a terrible blocker, and racing you on damage isn’t going to win them many games, so mostly this is having to survive hand disruption and annoying Garruk, Caller of Beasts. If they can run you out of threats, that’s bad, but they’re using three mana to not do anything scary to the board. In effect, it’s remarkably similar to Doom Blade. They spend the mana rather than you, and they get a small bonus creature and some information.

Sideboarding against Jund is tough because your problems don’t have good answers. You want to take out Loxodon Smiter (assuming that you still have it and they aren’t going with Liliana of the Veil) and most copies of Craterhoof Behemoth. The way the games play out isn’t good for either card’s ability to have an impact. Thus: -3 Craterhoof Behemoth, -2 Loxodon Smiter. You can also trim an Elvish Visionary and/or cut the last Craterhoof Behemoth. Trimming Garruk, Caller of Beasts is possible as well given the problems you’re facing and the lack of hoofs, but if they have Lifebane Zombie, that’s a good reason to keep them in so you can rebuild your hand and punish those kinds of lines.

I didn’t test after sideboarding, but Gaudenis was very happy with Garruk Relentless because it is an answer to Olivia Voldaren. Normally Garruk Relentless is a very marginal answer since the moment Olivia Voldaren is activated your plan stops working unless she gets tricked into blocking. However, note the tactics discussed above, which make it very clear that it’s not generally possible to hold back until the Jund player has six mana. Even leading with Huntmaster of the Fells can lead to disaster, and Garruk Relentless isn’t a terrible answer to that either. It’s not obvious Huntmaster of the Fells should even be in their deck after sideboarding.

Acidic Slime and Ranger’s Guile are also cards that are potentially worthwhile. Ranger’s Guile protecting a five-drop will often be the entire game and can get you out from under an Olivia Voldaren trying to take over by stealing your guys. If you see them trying to execute that plan, Ranger’s Guile becomes one of your best cards. I wouldn’t want more than two, but the first two seem strong. Acidic Slime is great if you can get to five quickly since you can prevent them from having enough mana to cast meaningful spells and later it can take out Kessig Wolf Run or occasionally attack a specific color. That was good enough for Gaudenis to give it a big thumbs up. It’s not perfect, but it’s solid and should be better after board when they have fewer bad cards to trade for it.

U/W/R Flash

U/W/R Flash looks at first glance like a bad matchup for hypermana decks, as well as for hypercurve decks that are the other type of deck I build often these days (see: W/G Humans, Dark Simic, my take on B/R Zombies, etc.), but looks can be deceiving. U/W/R Flash players wouldn’t describe it this way, but they’re essentially counting on you to do much of their job for them. Most aggressive players are willing to oblige and sign their own death warrant by playing cards that don’t have to be answered.

Removal is one half of the problem. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Stop putting removal spells in your creature decks!

The other half of the problem is creatures that don’t matter. Not mattering can occur in two senses. Sense one is that they are stopped cold by enemy creatures. If you can’t successfully get past Augur of Bolas, you’re playing into enemy hands, especially if the Augur can eat your man. That’s a man that won’t do anything for you or a removal spell you’ll have to use on an Augur. Either way, it’s not good Magic. The other sense of not mattering is that something doesn’t do damage quickly enough to overcome the natural ability of U/W/R Flash to generate card and life advantage; it might have evasion, but it’s too low impact.

The more you have of such things, the worse it gets, but in a sense this is a Boolean problem. Either you’re going to let some of your cards trade for things like Augur of Bolas or be forced to nibble them, in which case you have no choice but to trade off for every little thing or power through in a blitz or you are able to play in such a way that they can’t get value and are forced to deal with your threats in trades that are to your advantage.

My decks—and the way I play games against U/W/R Flash—are designed from the beginning to solve these problems with the second approach. Every card you play should advance your game plan in a way that they can only interfere with by spending a card, and you can both force a Supreme Verdict off a minimum number of cards and generate a maximum number of “waves” of attackers. Elves is no different. Your goal at all times is to play in multiple worlds at once and strive to win in as many of them as possible. In some of those worlds, they have a Supreme Verdict; in others, they don’t. The moment you realize you can’t beat a Supreme Verdict, walk right into it and hope it’s not there; the slower you play, the more time you give them to draw one or find another way. We can’t have that.

Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation are the ways they can generate large advantage. Supreme Verdict is also their only way to punish you for overcommitting to the board, and overcommitting is exactly what you want to do to punish Sphinx’s Revelation. You essentially play two types of games. In game type one, you’re planning that they’re going to cast Supreme Verdict, so you’re holding back a second wave. If you have enough lands to actually respond with something powerful, that’s awesome and is a strong reason to try to play around Supreme Verdict, but often you have to spend a turn redeveloping your mana. That’s not great, but it’s fine, especially if you have a Gavony Township.

In general, if you’re making it wrong for them to cast Supreme Verdict, you’re not committing enough to the board, but if they should cast it anyway, then you’ve cast enough things unless they’ve already showed you that they don’t have a Supreme Verdict. Trying to play around a topdecked Supreme Verdict is generally not worth it, especially since they can often cast it twice.

If Garruk, Caller of Beasts hits, they’re in a lot of trouble if they remove it on the spot and dead if they don’t, so that’s the card you want to sneak onto the board when you have an opening where they can’t counter. Once it hits, you’re so far ahead that the game is generally over. Our testing showed that game 1 is generally slightly in our favor.

Sideboarding is rough because they’ll often increase their Supreme Verdict count and pick up Izzet Staticaster. You can’t dodge Izzet Staticaster. The good news is that they must spend three mana to play Izzet Staticaster, so you get at least two turns to develop before that happens. Ideally you’ll be able to avoid playing duplicates, which will give you enough time to cast your big threats before they can get play Izzet Staticaster to take out your early drops.

You can also use Garruk Relentless to kill it, especially since they are essentially forced to cast it at sorcery speed so you won’t have access to your mana dorks on your main phase. That’s one good reason to sideboard Garruk Relentless in, and it can also take out Snapcaster Mage and Augur of Bolas in efficient fashion, so it’s likely to be worthwhile. Ranger’s Guile is also excellent, as it does here what Faith’s Shield does in W/G Humans. If you can counter a removal spell, you can afford to not overcommit to the board.

Taking out Loxodon Smiter is automatic here, but you need about three more cuts. Craterhoof Behemoth is relatively weak in this matchup, so some number of them come out, and trimming Elvish Visionary also seems reasonable. You don’t want to mess with your top-quality threats, and trimming mana dorks actually makes Izzet Staticaster worse for you since it means it has time to do its thing.

General Aggression

The reason for a lot of the stranger choices I made is that you need to be able to mount a defense against aggression. Aggressive decks are currently full of 2/2 and 3/3 creatures, so Loxodon Smiter is a very good man and three is exactly how much mana you want to pay for such a creature. The games against aggression take two forms. There are games where you’re trying to take control, and there are games where you’re trying to race.

Who’s the beatdown? More often than you think it’s you too. You’re great at accelerating into giant things, but your tools for interacting quickly are not so good. You can only fight well with either Loxodon Smiter or five-drops, and Kalonian Hydra is vastly better as an attacker, forcing you to be in a race condition. However, you can kill people very quickly once you turn things around; usually Kalonian Hydra only gives them two turns. Aside from the reminder not to think overly defensively in game 1s, play here is straightforward.

Sideboarding is all about lowering the curve and giving you early interaction. The more you can lower your curve, the better. Strangleroot Geist has haste, but it’s in the board to be a blocker. I considered Voice of Resurgence, but the white requirement isn’t something you want to lean on for too many cards and the upside is small when compared to Strangleroot Geist. In the places Voice of Resurgence is much better, it’s not clear you would want it, and you definitely don’t want Strangleroot Geist. Thus you bring those in for the Craterhoof Behemoths and some Garruk, Caller of Beasts as a first step.

The other card you bring in is solid gold in these matchups: Tree of Redemption. The turn it comes out you get a wall, and after that you force them to do thirteen in a single turn, which against blockers they usually cannot do and at a minimal cost. Together those two substitutions make it very hard to lose; you have a lot of ways to attack them that they can’t answer well, and you also have a lot of ways to not die and far more power than they have.

Final Note

A common thing people want to do to decks is to move cards to the maindeck if they often come in or cut cards that often get boarded out. Alternatively, they do this based on the most common two or three matchups. This deck has some obvious candidates for that kind of adjustment, but I’d offer words of caution on that.

The maindeck is designed to maximize raw power against unknown strategies and get full value out of the Garruk, Caller of Beasts engine. It’s also designed to do what you need to do in order to run the full engine without getting too punished in the early turns. After sideboarding you can be in a better position to know whether you need to maximize that raw power and that engine and trade those things away if they’re not needed. That doesn’t mean the deck needs to stay exactly the same, especially the choices in the sideboard, but these are things that should be kept in mind more than they are.