Ha Ha, Dead Elf

Magic: the Gathering Champs
logoI thought it might be interesting to detail how I started from scratch to test a new format, and which decks I am currently testing. In the course of this article, I will present three different decks for your consideration. None of these decks are the finished article, they have all received some testing and seem to be based on sound principles, but you’ll need to test and adapt them further before they are tournament ready. Oh, and I’ll also explain the rules of the game “All Elves Must Die!” a classic tournament subgame that’s fun for Red Mages the world over.

Dear readers,

As I am sure you are aware, for the past year the Affinity deck has dominated Constructed formats, with its unstoppable ability to cast a rapid succession of undercosted artefacts to activate the Storm ability on Temporal Fissure to act as a one-sided Upheaval

What’s that? Arcbound what?

It was at States last year that the Affinity deck made its first appearance. Kai Budde, no less, presented his very first version of the Affinity deck, with no fewer than four copies of Temporal Fissure alongside the more traditional affinity cards such as Frogmite, Myr Enforcer and Thoughtcast. One year on, and somehow I think that the Affinity deck will manage to survive the loss of Temporal Fissure.

In trying to design new decks for States, it is worth bearing in mind that Affinity has had a year of being improved from its debut last year, that it has lost nothing from Onslaught, and that its main rivals have been gutted by the rotation of the Onslaught Block. It is going to be the most popular, and almost certainly the strongest deck to play. But life would be boring if no one ever made an effort to use all the cool new cards and make decks which might be able to knock the best deck off its perch, wouldn’t it?

I thought it might be interesting to detail how I started from scratch to test a new format, and which decks I am currently testing. In the course of this article, I will present three different decks for your consideration. None of these decks are the finished article, they have all received some testing and seem to be based on sound principles, but you’ll need to test and adapt them further before they are tournament ready.

For me, the very first step whenever any new format needs to be tested, has been the same for many years. Phone up John Ormerod. John is the current English National Champion, and we have an extremely agreeable division of labor whereby he comes up with lots of brilliant new ideas and I write about them. Just for clarity, any good ideas that you read below are John’s, while any horrible ideas are mine. The testing follows the principles that I wrote about a while back here, so you won’t see any spurious percentages claiming that the test decks beat Affinity 58% of the time, but rather a description of how and why they win and lose.


“Hello, John speaking.”

“Hi John, it’s Dan. I thought we could do some testing to find out what the best decks in Standard are.”

“What about the internet? Surely that will tell us which the best decks are?”

“The internet is of little help. The format is too new for that. Mike Flores has posted a horrible mono-Blue deck, though. I thought we could make a Red deck.”

“O.K., let’s meet up next week so I can have a think and check the new cards. Isn’t there a Rampant Growth guy in the set? Sounds interesting…”

Over the course of the week, we did some theorizing. Without the fetchlands, multi-color decks were going to be less consistent, and bitter experienced had shown that Affinity was the obvious best deck. We used Eugene Harvey’s deck from GP: New Jersey to test against, as a perfectly respectable example of an Affinity deck which John happened to already have built. Then we started the search for decks which might be able to beat it.

One piece of advice which aspiring players are often given is that they should learn to play the “best deck”, rather than always playing your favorite deck or a version of the one that you used to play. This is fine by me, because by some amazing coincidence my testing always reveals that the Red Deck is the best deck. When starting out testing, though, building new versions of the same old decks which have served well in the past is an extremely good idea.

When I first played John, shortly after Visions had been released, he had a mono-Green deck, and defeated me with, amongst others, Uktabi Wildcats and Splintering Wind (and I will be not merely impressed but awe struck if you can remember what both of those cards do without having to look them up). John, in other words, has been making and playing mono-Green decks longer than I’ve been playing Red Decks. Every time Wizards of the Coast releases new cards, John makes a new mono-Green deck. Two of the more successful examples of this were the Trinity Green deck, and the Tooth and Nail deck with which he won Nationals this year. There was also the year when we both went to Worlds and he gave me his Survival of the Fittest deck and finished 2-4 with a truly pitiful mono-Green beatdown deck, but we have an agreement not to talk about that. Since we already had most of the cards for a Tooth and Nail deck, it made sense to start by trying to update that one.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Elves. I like targeting them with burn spells, I like tapping Goblin Sharpshooter and killing them, and I like making them chump block my large and powerful Red creatures. I even invented a game a while back, called All Elves Must Die. The rules were very simple. During a tournament, each player scored one point for each Elf that their opponent put in their graveyard. Svend Geertsen won the inaugural Elf Kill tournament at the European Championships in 2000, and I hold the all time record of 57 dead Elves in the course of one tournament.

Recently, I have noticed that the Elves have been getting sneakier. It used to be the case that Elves all came with amazing mana producing abilities when tapped. This was good, because it meant that when I killed my opponent’s Elves, it also made it harder for them to cast their expensive spells.

The only problem with this is that if all the Elves are really bad, then people stop playing with them, and then it is harder to score points for killing them, as they become scarcer (a classic dip in the predator-prey curve). So in response to this, Wizards R&D have taken a number of steps. They’ve expelled the Goblin infiltrators who ran R&D for a while, and who played games like “who can design the puniest Elf”, they’ve made Elves which have powerful abilities when they go to the graveyard, and they’ve even stopped calling them Elves. Like this little guy:

Sakura-Tribe Elder – 1G

Creature – Snake Shaman

Sacrifice Sakura-Tribe Elder: Search your library for a basic land card, put that card into play tapped, then shuffle your library.

Already, this guy (who is so obviously an Elf) has a number of names. Apparently, he is known in R&D as “Rampant Growth Guy”, and officially is a Snake Shaman. Personally, though, I prefer the name by which he is known in the Skirk mountains, “Ha ha, Dead Elf”.

Whatever you call him, though, he’s a natural inclusion in the Tooth and Nail deck. There’s precious little else from Champions, especially since any big creature has to compete against the 11/11 indestructible trampler for the main striker’s role. So here’s the Tooth and Nail deck which we have been testing with and against:

4 Tooth and Nail

4 Triskelion

1 Duplicant

1 Darksteel Colossus

1 Platinum Angel

4 Eternal Witness

4 Haha Dead Elf

4 Oxidize

2 Viridian Shaman

4 Sylvan Scrying

4 Talisman of Unity

1 Leonin Abunas

4 Reap and Sow

4 Urza’s Tower

4 Urza’s Power Plant

4 Urza’s Mine

9 Forest

1 Plains

The only other mildly controversial choice in what is a well known deck is having four Triskelion. The theory is that resolving an entwined Tooth and Nail should win the game, so the need is not for yet more powerful-but-uncastable creatures, but ones which can be summoned should an entwined Tooth and Nail not be possible, preferably creatures which plug the gaps in the deck and which are good against Affinity. Triskelion fits all of this as creature removal and easy enough to cast as a six mana artifact. The Elders replace the Vine Trellises which were in John’s Nationals deck.

There’s not much to be said about the Tooth and Nail vs. Affinity matchup that hasn’t already been said over the last few months. The Elder is decent, but isn’t exactly the kind of card which would transform this kind of matchup. Removing slow cards like Oblivion Stone and Mindslaver helps in this matchup as against other aggressive decks which are likely to predominate at States. I think that the above listing is a good one to test against, and by making it, we had two very different decks to throw our new creations up against.

Next time, I am going to write about the two decks, Red Deck and White Deck, which I think might have some promise, but I’ll finish up for this article by talking about the deck which we definitely couldn’t get to work.

In a new environment such as this one, one of the first things to try to do is to build five mono-colored decks, one for each color. Mike had already built the mono-Blue deck, which we liked and modified slightly. That left only the Black deck.

I know that every since the rotation of Odyssey, people have been trying to resurrect some kind of Mono-Black Control, with lamentable success. I don’t see that there is anything for this archetype which could give it the slightest hope of beating Affinity. What interested me, though, was a much older decktype.

Back in Tempest Block Constructed, I finished 20th at Grand Prix: Birmingham with a Grave Pact deck. I wrote about that, here’s the decklist:

4 Blood Pet

4 Thrull Surgeon

4 Corpse Dance

4 Grave Pact

4 Mindless Automaton

4 Rats of Rath

4 Bottle Gnomes

4 Stalking Stones

3 Coffin Queen

3 Stronghold Assassin

2 Dauthi Mindripper

2 Wasteland

18 Swamp

Bad as that collection of cards looked, it could handle decks ranging from Hatred decks, Living Death decks to mono-Blue Tradewind Rider decks. And I’d love it if Grave Pact’s time could come again.

In theory, a Grave Pact deck has good game against both Affinity and Tooth and Nail. If it can get a Grave Pact into play and a reasonable way of sacrificing and recycling creatures, then neither deck has that many outs. Grave Pact even handles things like Darksteel Colossus, and the deck can have access to the wide range of Black disruption spells to make it good against control decks. But whether it is because I haven’t found the right combination of cards to make it work, or because they are yet to be printed, no build of this deck was anything other than lamentable. I also tried Raffaele Lo Moro’s Mono-Black deck from World’s, with Wicked Akuba and Nezumi Shortfang in place of Rotlung Reanimator and Headhunter, but that was every bit as bad as it sounds. I would be eternally grateful if someone could make a good Grave Pact deck.

So, to recap, what we’ve done so far is to build and update the best still viable decks from before the rotation and looked back through old decks to try to find strategies which might have become viable once again. On Monday, I’ll tell you how we got on updating the two most popular decks of all time – mono-Red and mono-White.

Take care,

Dan xxx