One Step Ahead – Combo and Non-Combo Elves in Standard

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard open Comes to Philadelphia!
Wednesday, December 3rd – Combo Elves was by far the standout attraction at the recent Extended Pro Tour in Berlin. While the Standard counterparts are not as powerful as their wise old Extended cousins, they still pack a mean punch. Today, Gerry looks at the archetype and compares it to the regular Green/Black Elf strategy that has traditionally done so well. He also fires off the next volley in the “Cruel Ultimatum or No” battle between himself and Patrick Chapin…

Oh, Patrick. How you twist my words. You wrote:

The biggest reason some good players don’t like Cruel Ultimatum is because it generates such a powerful effect that it destroys the fun of building an incremental advantage. Magic is a game, and a lot of players don’t perform as well if they aren’t having fun. For some people, the most fun part of Magic is building a small incremental advantage over time that inevitably moves you closer to victory.

For me, I prefer winning the highest percentage of games, even if it means blowing people out sometimes where it is academic to continue. That is really what it comes down to. Some people wouldn’t enjoy a game of Magic in which they had cast Cruel Ultimatum, as it causes all of the work you did to build a little card advantage or whatever… well, it causes it to all look trivial. This isn’t fun to some people. They want each move to give them a percentage point here, a percentage point there, so that their victory is the symphony of all of their cards and plays.

I just want to win.

I said “I would much rather reduce my opponents to no cards in hand and no permanents than actually win the game. That is the definition of fun,” more or less in passing. At no point do I show up to a real tournament with a deck that I don’t think is the optimal configuration. I value winning above all else, even fun. Magic isn’t fun for me, man. Winning is fun. Winning is what matters.

You have taken that statement and somehow made it your main argument when it isn’t even how I really feel. If you think that your above description of me is accurate, you don’t know me at all. If you think that I would purposely mislead my readers, and give them lists that I know are subpar simply because I personally would rather have fun than win, then I am insulted. I take my job very seriously, and at no point do I write for the purpose of misinforming.

Patrick, you wrote:

It is a win condition much the same way as Gifts Ungiven. You may win when you play it, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t help you establish control.

That statement is comical at best. Gifts costs 3U, whereas Ultimatum costs a hefty UUBBBRR, and Gifts is even an instant. They are not even close to comparable. Gifts is much better at helping you not die than Ultimatum is, as it happens earlier, and aggro decks try to defeat you early, not give you time to ramp up to your giant spells.

I am a firm believer in velocity, and that is why I was so reluctant to cut my Mulldrifters for Tidings. I believe that consistency, velocity, and in general using all my mana every turn will win me more close games than a powerful seven-drop.

You wrote:

Not playing Cruel Ultimatum in Five-Color Control is like not playing Arcbound Ravager in Affinity.

Another bold, ridiculous statement.

Then you compare Ultimatum to Necro? Are you kidding? Again, I am insulted. I would like to think that not only can I understand that Necro is “good,” but that CU is no Necro.

The thing is, I believe that you believe it. You are also set in your ways, whether you are right or wrong (*cough* PT: Hollywood *cough*). You seem to think that it is a win condition, and an infallible one at that. I focus on reality, and very rarely is CU actually good against Kithkin, RDW, and GB Elves.

Someone compared Ultimatum to Upheaval from the Psychatog days, in that they both win you the game, and do nothing until that happens. That is somewhat true, although Upheaval protected your Psychatogs from removal, and instead of making them discard three and sack their worst dude, it killed all of their permanents.

Mana Short was also legal to fight a counterwar on your opponent’s turn. There isn’t really anything worth fighting for on your own turn anymore. Patience will probably win you the mirror.

I don’t think anyone can really argue that a mulligan in a deck with Fact or Fiction isn’t quite as hindering as a mulligan from a modern Five-Color Control deck. Psychatog was just a much more powerful deck and the aggro decks were much weaker. Defensive Upheaval was also a fine play that won me several games, as once again, killing all of their permanents is much better than what Ultimatum does.

The two cards aren’t very close in comparison either. What Ultimatum does is very unique.

In the Magic Show, ManuelB said Cruel is Mind Shatter, Tidings, Wrath of God, etc all in one, and made fun of me for saying I would rather play Tidings over it. My point is that Tidings is cheaper, and draws you into gas earlier, which allows you to keep killing their threats. Even if you cast Tidings on turn 7 or 8, you probably get to kill their best guy instead of worst guy, which, if a relevant Goat or Demigod, is going to be roughly the five life you would have gained.

In short, Tidings is better earlier and later, and is the second best card in the mirror, behind Negate. You said that Ultimatum is the best card, but that is definitely wrong. Despite playing with “subpar” Story Circles, lots of Wrath effects, Rhox War Monk, Kitchen Finks, and so on, I was able to go 10-0 in the Five-Color Control mirror on MTGO, most of them against very good players.

The first person to act usually loses a permission mirror, as the other player can generally win the counterwar (especially over a seven mana, sorcery speed threat), and then untap and resolve whatever they wanted. That proved to be the same here.

They would eventually feel like their Ultimatum would resolve, but with my four Negates, Bant Charms, and Cryptics, they were in a losing situation. I would win the counterwar, cast a Tidings to refuel, and we’d be in the same situation again. Or, I’d Shatter the rest of their hand away. Eventually, I would grind them down to nothing and either kill them with Treetops after I Mind Shattered away their removal, or my lone Oona, which gave me inevitability, as no one had a way to prevent getting milled out.

Even if they had your two Resounding Wave “tech,” I still had a mana advantage. If you want to board into the full amount of Waves and play that game, I don’t foresee you having many slots for anything else. Resounding Scream might even just be better. Either way, perhaps you should just focus on what matters, and be willing to give up on your pet deck and branch out.

Not that that really matters. As I’ve said, Five-Color Control has largely been hated out, at least on MTGO. It didn’t even perform very well at States, or not as well as you expected. You say we should evolve as Five-Color Control players as well, but some things you just can’t fight. Reveillark with Scullers and Fulminators is about as hateful as you can get, and nothing really deals with that stuff in an efficient manner, at least in a way that won’t harm your other matchups. In addition to that, Faeries is still as rough a matchup as it always was.

Tidings is much better on average, which is what I want. I would love for my win conditions to cycle when I don’t need them yet (Gaea’s Blessing), and to never get mana flooded (Oona’s Grace). I play enough lands and cards that dig for lands that I don’t get mana screwed. My deck will always run consistently. As long I don’t get mana screwed, mana flooded, or have to mulligan a bunch (usually because of awkward or slow hands, with not enough stuff to do early), I used to feel like I would win with Five-Color Control, at least against my good matchups.

You said that CU allows you to play more cards that allow you to beat Faeries, because CU sways the RDW and Kithkin matchups heavily in your favor. However, here’s some news for you: those matchups are heavily in your favor whether or not you play CU. At least, they are for me when I play the full amount of Wrath of Gods, and not cards like Pyroclasm.

I imagine that without drawing two sweepers early against Kithkin, you don’t get time to cast Ultimatum before their second wave runs you over. Yet you only had four sweepers total in your last list, and only two were Wraths, while the other two were sketchy Pyroclasms.

Ultimatum is great against midrange decks, not balls-out aggro decks or decks with Negate. The problem is those decks don’t exist in this metagame because Faeries has already hated them out.

If I felt like I could add a bunch of cards to beat Faeries while still being just as good against WW and RDW, I most certainly would. I tried. What happened was most of my matchups became close to even. Instead of being 80% against most of the decks in the field, and 20% against Faeries and Lark, I was 50% against most of the decks. While this is a solid strategy for someone who is the best player at a PTQ (one that I used religiously), it isn’t good for a Pro Tour. Statistically, you are much better off just hoping that when you are 80% against 60-70% of the field, you simply dodge your bad matchups instead of flipping coins every round.

Your deck probably has two or three Ultimatums, although with the amount you are hyping the card I wouldn’t be surprised if you still had three. Even with only two Ultimatums, Esper Charms, Cloudthreshers, and so on, how can you claim your deck is anywhere near consistent, with its ridiculous mana costs and almost impossible manabase?

Sure, for Worlds, maybe running an inconsistent but powerful deck is a fine idea, as you are shooting for 6-0 and then 3-0 in Top 8, but that isn’t what your readers need. Still, you can run a powerful deck while making it more consistent.

In the end, I am 100% not playing Five-Color Control at Worlds, for several reasons. As I said, I believe that it will be anticipated. Second, I don’t believe that it’s the best deck, and third, it doesn’t beat the best deck, despite what Patrick says.

Arguing about this is somewhat pointless, as Worlds is on the horizon, and we can let that speak for us if you want. Then again, one tournament doesn’t exactly tell us much, as you seem to believe. I said earlier that Chris Woltereck was probably the best player at the last StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open and deserved his win, and could have won with whatever he played. He won several tournaments with RG Ramp, which was, in my opinion, a pretty terrible deck.

Just because you see decks with Cruel Ultimatum in them win tournaments doesn’t provide you with much information. Certainly, you don’t have enough information to claim that “the results speak for themselves.” At the time of those tournaments, maybe Five-Color Control was so good and everyone was so under prepared that it won despite having two cards in their main deck that are mulligans until you hit UUBBBRR. Maybe the best players all played with Ultimatums. Maybe no one played without them.

Either way, you have no way of knowing for sure. I would assume that most people agree with you instead of me. You’ve been around longer, and you have some PT Top 8s, whereas I only have GP Top 8s. You have a large fan base. Even when I talked to Chris Woltereck in the week leading up to the $5K he won, he ended up playing with Ultimatums. The people love you, Patrick, and are willing to blindly follow you.

I also have a job here at StarCityGames.com, and mine is to inform, and I do the best that I can. I log a ton of games, and share my results, as do you. We simply have found things different, or we play different games of Magic. I value consistency, whereas you hope that things like CU are good enough to steal games for you.

Oh hey, I was going to write a real article, wasn’t I?

I was struggling with the lack of a topic for a while, as Faeries for the fourth week in a row, while relevant, seemed like it would be so “My Fires.” Standard seemed like the most popular topic, as my Extended and Limited articles don’t seem to get much of a response. I spent a few days thinking about what was fresh or hip that I could write about, but Standard is pretty dull, even now. We need some big tournament results to shake up the format.

Until then, I needed to think about a fringe deck to write about, as all the major topics have been covered to death. Initially, I thought about RW Lark, probably something close to Brian Kowal’s list (which he just won another tournament with, this time a Win Gold Qualifier). However, that deck did receive some coverage recently, even if it wasn’t exactly my usual (and favorite) “Here is what I started with, here is what I would change and why, and here is how you should play and sideboard.” Also, I didn’t want to have to rebuy Figures (among others) on MTGO.

After a brief consultation with those on my forums to make sure none of them were playing it at Worlds, I decided to focus on Combo Elves. I had two lists that I wanted to try, but couldn’t find cards in time for FNM or the Win a Gold Qualifier at my local store, so I just played Merfolk and Faeries respectively. Good thing there is always MTGO when you need to game.

The Standard combo is obviously much worse than the Extended one. Your tutors are borderline miserable, you are much slower, and there is a ton of removal floating around. Wrath was popular, and Infest is in everyone’s sideboard if they have Swamps in their main deck.

You don’t “combo” every game, from my experience. Sometimes you just Promenade for a bunch, and hope it’s good enough, but such is life. Game 1 it usually is, but Infest is a huge problem post board. Cards like Door of Destinies or Coat of Arms might seem like decent answers, but they really aren’t. They are much too slow to have an impact, and you also don’t want to play a lot of lands.

A transformational sideboard seemed like the best way to fight Infest, and even things that could disrupt your combo like Thoughtseize.

I decided to try these lists:

4 Heritage Druid
4 Nettle Sentinel
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Elvish Visionary
4 Elvish Harbinger
4 Regal Force
3 Ranger of Eos

4 Commune with Nature
4 Gilt Leaf Ambush
4 Elvish Promenade
1 Manamorphose
1 Roar of the Crowd

4 Windbrisk Heights
4 Brushland
4 Wooded Bastion
4 Gilt Leaf Palace
3 Llanowar Wastes

4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher
4 Wilt Leaf Liege
4 Thoughtseize
3 Mycoloth

4 Heritage Druid
4 Nettle Sentinel
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Elvish Visionary
4 Devoted Druid
4 Elvish Harbinger
4 Skullmulcher

4 Commune with Nature
4 Gilt Leaf Ambush
4 Elvish Promenade
4 Prowess of the Fair

4 Gilt Leaf Palace
4 Llanowar Wastes
8 Forest

4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher
4 Wilt Leaf Liege
4 Thoughtseize
3 Mycoloth

The Ranger/Heights list excited me the most. They both seemed like they added additional tutor power and stability. Regal Force is a one-card combo, whereas the second list relies on Skullmulcher, which is consistently fed with Prowess of the Fair. Prowess is more than fine on its own and even softens the blow from Infest, but having a two-card combo made the deck even more inconsistent. Four Regal Force might seem like a bit much, but you really want to draw one, and you want as many as possible so you can put it under Heights as often as you can.

Awkwardly enough, despite several attempts to search for “Muncher” in my Magic Online collection, I couldn’t find any. Apparently that guy mulches skulls, not munches them.

The first list didn’t have Devoted Druid, mainly for lack of slots, and I wanted to be sure and try Elvish Visionary. The Druid is one of the best cards in the deck, as you need all the acceleration you can get.

Commune with Nature is a very underrated card and I think it shines in this deck. While it isn’t even close to as good as Summoner’s Pact, it digs deep, very rarely misses, and allows you to find the all important piece you are missing.

The Manamorphose and Roar of the Crowd are the way you kill your opponent when you go off. Initially, I had Tar Fiend since it saved a slot and allowed you to play the fourth Ranger. However, after playing a couple matches against Faeries, it was obvious that you needed a way to kill them immediately, as sometimes you would go off but be dead on the counterswing to a flying army.

Tar Fiend is good in theory, since you make them pitch their hand and you have a ton of guys in play, but they can still rip that Wrath of God. Tar Fiend is probably better in the Prowess deck, but you still run the risk of losing to fliers, despite going off.

Between the Heights and Rangers, I rarely ran out of gas game 1 and then could theoretically sideboard in some fatties to counteract their hate. In practice, it didn’t work out quite like that. Honestly, my combined record with both lists is somewhat embarrassing. It seemed like I would win one of the games by swarming them, and then in two of the three, I would lose to their luck, me being unlucky, my deck’s inconsistency, or just getting Infested.

I told everyone to play four Infests, and they listened. Or, I was just getting two- or three-outered a bunch.

Comically, two of my matches ended when my giant Mycoloth got Eyeblighted in game 3 against GB Elves.

In the first match, I went off game 1 and showed him basically my entire deck. Second game, he killed me on turn 5 with Garruk, and he didn’t see any of my sideboard. In the final game, I attacked his Garruk down to two counters, and with damage on the stack, Windbrisked in a Mycoloth, sacking my guys. Post combat, I played an Elvish Visionary, leaving a Liege in my hand, which should definitely finish him off with all of my tokens.

In case you are wondering, I didn’t play the Visionary pre combat and sack it to Mycoloth because there was no reason to, and I wanted another blocker. Obviously, he untapped and Eyeblighted my Mycoloth, which he had no reason to keep in.

The second match was more of the same. I crush his puny Elf deck with my super Elf deck game 1, game 2 he draws the nuts: turn 1 Llanowar, turn 2 Vanquisher, turn 3 Colossus, turn 4 Garruk, turn 5 kill you. Third game, I move in on Big Myke, which is almost certainly game over if he doesn’t have an answer, and miraculously, he has an Eyeblight’s Ending.

I suppose you could argue that I had Regal Force or Skullmulcher they could kill, but if I’m casting one of those animals and it’s relevant, they are probably losing that turn. I don’t see how they could keep in a card that bad against my (nearly) all Elf deck. If that keeps happening, Mycoloth should probably get the axe, regardless of how awesome he is if you untap with him.

Against one of my opponents, I cast Commune with Nature, leaving two mana open, and found a Wilt Leaf Liege. I played a land, and passed the turn with one card in hand. He Thoughtseized me, laughed, and then beat me anyway.

Definitely some bad beats, although I feel as if both lists could be better. The side boarded Thoughtseizes don’t work well with the man plan. You would much rather have more threats, instead of things that are not Elves. I wanted Thoughtseize to hopefully catch their Infests, but after you have a bunch of giant dudes, Infest isn’t much of a problem anymore.

While the GW deck was more resilient, it was also more awkward. Windbrisk Heights and Wooded Bastion in an almost Mono Green deck with only 19 lands is asking for self destruction. I thought about Mosswort Bridge instead, and that might actually have some merit, especially post board.

The GB deck was great early game. I could frequently curve out, and my mana to spell ratio was solid, but I would often run out of things to do. Even with Prowess, Regal Force might have been better than Mulcher.

Overrun might even be good enough, as a do something. It’s not as flashy as Regal Force or anything, but it is probably good enough. Garruk is comparable, and maybe a mix is better, as Garruk takes the surprise out of it. They might sandbag an Infest, hoping to get your Promenade with it as well, only to end up filling out the match slip, wondering what happened.

The GW deck should probably have a Mirror Entity to Harbinger for, as sometimes, it would have been better than a Promenade.

Distant Melody is another option, and one that I may look into. It might not kill them outright like Overrun does sometimes, but it also much better early, when Overrun isn’t lethal.

Mycoloth still seems like a good man, especially against Red decks, and other Elf decks that don’t keep in Eyeblight’s. If anything, I would just cut the Thoughtseizes, maybe for Imperious Perfects. While they don’t protect you from Infest (although two of them certainly do), they are a huge threat all by themselves and demand a removal spell.

Generally, I was side boarding out Harbingers and Promenades when I transformed, and then some combination of Morphose, Roar, Visionary, and the big guys (Regal Force/Skullmulcher). Overall, I liked that plan and the deck transitioned well.

The card that least impressed me was Elvish Harbinger. While it was a tutor, and therefore almost an auto include, it never did anything amazing for me. Especially in the GW deck where you already had a ton of gas, you rarely needed it. I would definitely cut it for Devoted Druid in that list. I would like to cut a land, but the mana is so bad that you basically can’t. Consider the Windbrisk Heights like a spell.

Overall, I would consider regular old GB Elves a superior choice, especially at this juncture, where not many people are expecting it to show up. While you don’t get to do awesome stuff, you also don’t get blown out by Infest, and can easily run your own.

Here is what I would run:

Bitterblossoms main are great, but you don’t want the full amount because you can’t consistently offset the life loss, and you don’t want to draw them in multiples.

Profane Command is still one of the best cards in the deck, and going below three is a mistake. I would consider the fourth if you think it will impact a lot of your potential matchups.

The sideboard could contain some Mycoloths, as he has a lot of potential. Maybe he is better than Primal Command, but the Command is certainly more versatile.

Guttural Response might be good, if you really want to stick it to the Fae. Not only is Agony Warp a pain, but you can usually use it to force through a Thresher or counter a key Cryptic.

You could cut Mind Shatters, but those are my catchalls for the random control decks that still show up. Wrath is slightly less of a pain than it used to be because of Blossom, Garruk, and a ton of manlands, but you still want to be able to punish those types of decks.

I wish I could attend the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open tournament in Philly, but in addition to moving further west, I will also be in New Zealand chasing the dream. If you play Combo Elves, let me know you did in the forums, and good luck!