Innovations – An Innovative Elves Primer

Read Patrick Chapin every Monday... at StarCityGames.com!
Monday, July 21st – Nationals season approaches for most of us, and all non-Aussie eyes are now on Standard. With Eventide in the mix, promising to punch the metagame in the face, it serves us well to look at some of the currently popular strategies in preparation for the Big Show. Today, Patrick recaps all we know about the powerful Elves strategy, and thrusts it into the new Eventide metagame…

The Standard format has evolved a lot over the past year. Ever since Lorwyn replaced Ravnica Block, we have seen a continuous push towards linear decks unlike anything we have seen since the days of Odyssey, Onslaught, and Mirrodin. Lorwyn Block, and Morningtide in particular, are so strong that they define the format for everyone else.

The tribal linear is pushed hard, and as a result several of the top decks are simply natural extensions of the best builds of each of those tribes. Many players don’t like the fact that they are so heavily pushed to find the best versions of Elves, Faeries, Merfolk, and so on, after being used to years of being able to play multiple strategies in each of most of the color combinations.

Still, there are non-tribal decks enjoying success, such as Reveillark, Quick n’ Toast, Big Mana, Red Demigod, and Red Storm, so perhaps there is still hope.

This week, I want to review a deck that you are very likely familiar with if you have been actively involved in the tournament scene. Why spend the time on a deck with which people are already familiar? There are a variety of reasons to review.

First of all, not everyone has been in the Standard tournament scene much this year. This article aims to be more of an introduction to the Elves strategy for those players. Next, this article is a reminder to players everywhere that Elves may not have received the sort of press that Faeries and Reveillark have, but it has been silently putting up consistently good numbers in event after event. It never goes out of style, many different people are winning with it, and it is very resilient, never really able to be hated out.

It is actually at a really interesting level: it is just good enough to be Tier 1 without drawing much hate, unlike Faeries, which has suffered as a result of being so good that everyone is pre-boarded against it.

Elves is the deck to beat, as it has won the last two major events, both the South American Grand Prix and Pro Tour: Hollywood. It has consistently put up good numbers since Lorwyn’s introduction, including placing multiple copies in the Top 8 of Worlds last December. Here is an update of the GP Winner Francisco Braga’s winning deck.

Elves, these days, should probably still be G/B, built as an aggressive midrange creature deck that hits hard with independently strong creatures that abuse the Elf linear in multiples.

While Vanquisher is the best Elf card in the Elf linear, the Elves don’t actually rely that heavily on tribal synergies, unlike decks like Faeries and Merfolk. Imperious Perfect is an unusual lord in that he doesn’t actually need any troops to pump to be a game winning threat, but without countermagic, the Lord aspect he provides is still very vulnerable to cards like Firespout.

Chameleon Colossus provides a one-card semi-soft lock that continues the beats but steals free wins from opponents that just can’t deal with it, especially if it is brought out turn 3 on the back of a mana elf.

It is supported by flexible staples like Thoughtseize and Terror. Terror is chosen over Nameless Inversion on account of its ability to deal with cards like Mistbind Clique or other Tarmogoyfs. That said, one may still want to go back to Nameless Inversion for its ability to fuel your Vanquishers, Gilt-Leaf Palaces, and Tarmogoyfs. As a matter of fact, much to Adrian Sullivan delight, the right mix might be 2-2.

The big trump card is still Profane Command. Profane Command is very much this deck’s version of Cryptic Command (the best card in Standard). First of all, it can be used for value at most points in the game simply as a nice two-for-one. More importantly, though, it can end the game from almost any life total, if the game moves into an endgame.

Finally, it should be noted that Standard is home to many incredible so-called “Man Lands” and no deck takes as much advantage as Elves, featuring the full 8 pack of Treetops and Mutavaults. This ensures that even if an initial assault is halted, Elves will surely have more troops in reserve attacking from the resource row.

A typical game might see the Elf deck sneak in six points of damage and then end the game in one fell swoop with a Profane Command for four, making the opponent lose four life and making four of the Elves gain fear. While it is easy to do fourteen in this way, just make sure you are not banking on giving Fear to your Pro: Black Chameleon Colossus.

Elves, like so many G/B decks, is known for being relatively close to 50-50 in many if not most match-ups, making it a great choice for someone who wants a fighting chance against everyone. You have fewer free wins from opponents who just can’t beat your strategy, but you also have fewer auto-loses from your deck just not being able to compete with your opponent’s plan.

It is nice that you have a little edge on Faeries and Merfolk, though Reveillark is kind of tough and some Faeries have a tricky (Damnation) sideboard plan against you.

General Match-up Strategy Against the Big Three

Versus Faeries: It is vital to get on the offensive as fast as possible. Put whatever clock you can on them. These games basically fall into three camps: games with Colossus, games with Bitterblossom, and games with neither.

If you have a Colossus, the entire point of the game should be to sneak your Colossus into play. If you have a Profane Command or Terror, to make sure you don’t lose to Sower, this should be enough to beat almost any draw they present. Just make sure they don’t race you by throwing blocker after blocker in front of it, taking advantage of things like Mistbind Clique in combat to throw off your math.

If they have a Bitterblossom, their entire deck will operate at a much higher level. As such, if you can’t stick a Colossus, you just have to hit them as hard as possible. If you can force their first four or five tokens to block, then it is very possible to put them in a position to have to champion or bounce their own Blossom to avoid dying to its damage.

If you have a Thoughtseize and you are on the draw, if they didn’t suspend Visions turn 1, you should probably play it over a mana elf. You want to hit their Bitterblossom in this position, and if they don’t have a Visions or Bitterblossom then you can afford the tempo loss as waiting doesn’t really favor them without these two.

Finally, in games where Blossom and Colossus are not involved, you just want to fight lots of little battles. Try to get the read on them. Do they have Rune Snag? Spellstutter Sprite? Cryptic Command? Mistbind Clique? What would it cost you to play around them?

The biggest skill to combating Faeries with Elves is reading them. If you can figure out what tricks they have, you can push the match-up in your favor. A lot of people knock the skill of the Faerie deck, but they may not realize that sometimes the real skill is the poker face or the ability to read the other guy.

As an Elf player, it is of vital importance to not let the Faerie player know if you have a Colossus or Terror or Profane Command. Most of your cards are just dumb dudes, but knowledge of those cards in particular will influence the Faerie player’s strategy.

Sideboard in Squall Line and Slaughter Pact. Garruk in particular is weak, as their evasion makes it difficult to build any loyalty for Overrun. Play around Damnation if you can.

Versus Reveillark: This match-up is a straight up race, for the most part, with only token disruption on the part of Elves. Thoughtseize is reasonable; Reveillark is actually fairly resilient to it, as it can have either the Body Double or the Reveillark in the graveyard to start the combo, and Gargadon is typically safe from such an attack.

This match-up is a reasonably difficult one for Elves as a result, although it is important to note that Reveillark can’t really establish any meaningful control. While it can block or bounce or counter or even sweep a few things, it still needs to combo off quickly.

As an Elf player, it is of vital importance to determine what sort of a Reveillark deck your opponent is. The primary types are U/w, U/w/r, and Five-Color. Even more important than that is figuring out what, if any, sort of sweeper they use. The most popular choices are Firespout and Wrath. If a Reveillark deck hits you hard with one of these, it is going to be difficult to mount a comeback before you are comboed out.

In addition to knowing what sort of sweeper your opponent plays and if you can play around it, it is important to pace the Reveillark player. You need to really get a feel for how close he is to comboing off. Try to imagine what he would have to have in his hand to make him play the way he is playing.

For instance, if he plays a Mulldrifter for five mana when a Reveillark would have been a stronger play, he probably doesn’t have the Reveillark yet, though he will have dug two cards deeper towards it.

The primary reason this is important is that you need to know how fast to try to kill him. For instance, if you have reason to believe that he has the whole combo, you typically will have no more than one turn to win, as he will have to play one piece (or a card to discard it), then play the other on the following turn.

Sometimes this means that you have to play in such a way that you can only win if he doesn’t have a Rune Snag for your Profane Command. Other times you will be able to play around the Snag by waiting a turn. You merely need to know how much time you have to work with. Sometimes you actually need to play in such a way so as to assume you will draw Profane Command next turn, as it is the only way you can win in one turn.

To summarize, reading the opponent is once again the most important skill the elf player will be asked to demonstrate, followed by determining how fast of a clock to present. Unlike the Faerie match-up, though, you do not typically know the tricks the Reveillark player has at his disposal. You must determine if he plays Rune Snag, Cryptic Command, Firespout, Primal Command, Makeshift Mannequin, Venser, Momentary Blink, Wrath of God, and so on.

When sideboarding, Faerie Macabre is a must. In addition, you must try to determine if there is a chance your opponent plays Teferi’s Moat. If they do, you will need the Krosan Grips. Terror is pretty bad in this match-up. If you ever have more cards to take out than to put it, Squall Line and Kitchen Finks are both reasonable choices (Squall Line against Moat, Finks against Firespout or Wrath).

Versus Merfolk: The Merfolk match-up is somewhat favorable for you, as their dumb dorks are typically outclassed by yours. That said, it is important to not lose to Sower of Temptation or chains of Cryptic Commands.

This match-up typically plays out with the Elf deck being the aggressor as the Merfolk are typically not in a position to rumble with the Green men, especially when Terror is saved for Reejerey or Sower.

The permission in the Merfolk deck is not super important, though it is nice to play around Sage’s Dousing when possible. Also, try not to get your Profane Command countered. This is one match-up where Profane for value should be the main plan. By the time you try to do it for lethal, it is likely going to get countered. However, often early you will get a chance to kill a Reejerey and get back a guy, or even just get in six points of fear damage.

In this match-up, reading the Merfolk player is not as important, as all you care about, for the most part, is the Cryptic Command count. Typically, when you Thoughtseize, you are just trying to take Cryptic Command, so there is no problem waiting on it until a convenient turn.

The Merfolk player’s plan is to stall you long enough to set up a Cryptic Command to tap your team, followed by countless Lords attacking. One tactic to watch for is if you can ever play around this by leaving Mutavaults and Treetops untapped.

Sideboard in Slaughter Pact and Kitchen Finks. Then listen to “I Feel like Dying” by Lil’ Wayne, but do so in reverse. Aside from being one of the most powerful songs in recent memory, it is a true work of art when you consider what it must have taken to backmask an entire song on top of it.

Merfolk have a real problem with the Finks, as they can’t really fight him and taking a three a turn really adds up. The Slaughter Pact helps make sure you have answers to their lords and Sowers.

The combination of disruption, removal, efficient creatures, mana acceleration, and Profane to win with make Elves a Tier 1 strategy that must be tested against extensively and seriously considered.

Some other notes:
Against aggressive Red decks, you obviously want Kitchen Finks, but also remember to bring in Slaughter Pact to help combat Magus of the Moon, who is a bit of a problem.
Against storm decks, attack all out, typically playing cards in as fast of a Goldfish way as possible. Hopefully you will force them to blow burn on early guys. If they get a big Empty the Warrens, you will have to Profane your way to victory. You usually don’t want to Thoughtseize them until the turn before they go off.
Against Quick n’Toast, a resolved Colossus is usually game, as they have few reasonable answers to it. Beyond that, just try to play around Firespout when you can, but don’t be afraid to lose to Firespout (i.e. play out all your guys) if that is the only way to give yourself a chance to win.
Against Big Mana decks, we have another situation where you need to try to figure out what sort of sweepers and instants they have. For instance, people with Firespout usually don’t play Wrath. Six mana probably means Cloudthresher, etc.

Elves’ Weaknesses include:
Removal with value, such as sweepers like Firespout and Damnation, as well as Control Magics like Sower of Temptation and Persuasion.
Powerful spells that take advantage of Elves’ fairly high reliance on dumb Green men rather than large amounts of interactive cards, such as Cryptic Command, Reveillark, Teferi’s Moat, Swans of Bryn Argoll, Juniper Order Ranger, Ward of Bone, Zur the Enchanter
Its lack of library manipulation leaves it very much at the mercy of its own draws.

New from Eventide

There are some interesting options in Eventide that allow Elves players to take their deck in a slightly different direction.

First of all, Talara’s Battalion and Nettle Sentinel are very aggressive and open the door to a more Stompy-esque approach. Both encourage you to play as much Green as possible, and perhaps replace cards like Thoughtseize and Nameless Inversion. This allows you to hit harder than just about any other fast deck in the format, though the loss of what interaction you had is not very appealing to me. That said, someone will find the right mix of Stompy cards to make a go of it.

Next, we have the B/G filter land, Twilight Mire. With both Gilt-Leaf Palace and Llanowar Wastes, one might thing that this card is not needed. However, if an almost Mono-Green version of Elves does emerge, it might still want to have the option of Profane Command. Twilight Mire is a fantastic way to splash the Black Command without having to slow your deck down with cards like Civic Wayfinder.

Finally, there is the option of the B/G hybrids, which I tend to think work better in a Doran deck. Most of the B/G hybrids really want you to be more about the Gold cards, where as Elf decks are essentially just Green decks with Profanes, as I have said.

Okay, okay… you want some crazy, innovative new deck? I can respect that. I’ll tell you what, here is something I brewed up last night that is certainly outside the box. Heck, this one has never even been remotely near a box.

At first glance, it is easy to dismiss this list and the ranting of a madman, but there may actually be more to it than meets the eye. First of all, obviously this deck takes incredible advantage of Sanity Grinding, featuring 66 Blue mana symbols for an average grind of eleven cards, though the interaction between Sanity Grinding and Ponder is medium up good (Flores told me to say that).

Some of the interesting plays include:

Grimoire Thief with Memory Sluice.
Drowner of Secrets with Grimoire Thief, and the cantrip creatures.
Broken Ambition for value.
Shelldock Isle triggering by turn 5, no problem.

Can this deck compete with something as fast as Kithkin? Odds are, probably not. However, I didn’t promise this deck was the next Solar Flare (that deck is still insane). I just wanted to share something new that might help stretch your imagination. Besides, you know what? It might be able to be tuned to beat Kithkin after all.

Remember, even the best deck builders in the world build nine bad decks for every good one. So why bother with experiments like this that are even longer shots? Because that is how you end up with things like Red Storm, Korlash, Pros-Bloom, and original Sligh. Sometimes all you can do is try the crazy stuff to see what it teaches you.

On a mostly unrelated note, I finally got to do some Shadowmoor-Shadowmoor-Eventide drafting this past week… and I have to say, I like what Eventide adds to the mix. It is interesting, and it changes enough elements to make the format feel fresh, but at the same time it doesn’t overshadow the Shadowmoor cards.

In particular, I like how you can draft any of the ten guild color combos, or you can draft mono color, or even three or more. The door is wide open, and the fact that the cards are hybrid, not Gold, leaves you with more cards that are playable, rather than fewer.

So far, my strategy has been primarily to pick one color early, then settle on a second one once I have a strong reason to do so. In particular, I like the enemy colors, as I am usually mono-color after pack 1, then move into a second color with pack 2. Since the Eventide enemy hybrids are more heavily concentrated, if you only have one pack of each, then typically the enemy colors will reward you more.

I still love White, but have been experimenting with W/R and W/B and enjoying a fair amount of success. It is interesting to try to determine how late the enemy hybrid cards will go, as some of the more parasitic ones can’t be well used by more than one or two people at the table, but are particularly strong for those people.

Okay, I gotta pack. We are heading to Chicago soon to start filming. See you next week, usual place, usual time.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”