They say you get to do whatever you want on your birthday. Well, last Sunday was my 24th birthday, and what I really wanted to do was play Legacy.
I didn’t really want to play boring Legacy. I didn’t want to Force of Will Stoneforge Mystics, and I didn’t want to Wasteland Underground Seas. I wanted to play fun Legacy, like casting eight-mana green creatures!
Lately I’d been feeling a bit lost in Legacy. Every once in a while I could put up a respectable finish, but as quickly as my new sleeves lost their shine, my deck would lose its appeal. Either some change in the metagame would make it a poor choice or a new card would be printed that invalidated the strategy. So I found myself, a few days before the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Philadelphia, looking to start from square one with a different strategy—a wildly different strategy.
- 1 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Wirewood Symbiote
- 4 Quirion Ranger
- 2 Fyndhorn Elves
- 4 Heritage Druid
- 4 Nettle Sentinel
- 4 Elvish Visionary
- 2 Craterhoof Behemoth
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
I turned to my teammate, master deckbuilder Andrew "Gainsay" Cuneo, who’s been playing Elves tirelessly since Luis Scott-Vargas and Matt Nass revived interest in the archetype at Grand Prix Denver earlier this year.
While Elves was not brand new to me—I’d played it in other formats and even played some antiquated Legacy versions of the deck—I’d never played it like this, with Craterhoof Behemoth and with the new legend rule now applying to Gaea’s Cradle. Let me tell you, these things represent phenomenal upgrades to the deck! Gaea’s Cradle in particular could be the most powerful card that’s thus far managed to evade the watchful eyes of the Legacy ban police.
Even when you have to mulligan or when you find yourself behind, you can often hope for a Gaea’s Cradle to pull you right back into the game. Such a land represents both card advantage and tempo advantage at the same time (think of one land that becomes multiple Forests when it hits the battlefield). That’s only the abstract way to describe the card. In the powerful Elves deck, tapping a Cradle for three or more mana very frequently leads to winning the game that turn or the one following.
In one match, I used two Gaea’s Cradles to hard cast Green Sun’s Zenith for X=8. Unfortunately, my opponent had Force of Will. Fortunately, I still had enough mana to hard cast another Green Sun’s Zenith for X=8 in the same turn! I searched for Craterhoof Behemoth and won the game.
While other Elves players have chosen alternative configurations like three Gaea’s Cradles and some number of Crop Rotations, I feel that Andrew’s simple and elegant choice of four Cradles and zero Crop Rotations is the best. Crop Rotation can serve as a "green ritual," but that’s not exactly an effect that is necessary in Elves. More importantly, it leaves you open to an effective two-for-one via Wasteland, Rishadan Port, or a counterspell. I’m thrilled to have the built-in advantage of Gaea’s Cradle, but I’m not willing to play a nonland card that makes a substantial sacrifice in order to get one in play.
A Simple Decklist
I’ve found a common theme across all Elf combo decks in all formats—the more cards you add to the deck that are not one-mana Elves, the less smoothly the deck functions. One thing that I very much like about Cuneo’s decklist is the way he’s stripped things down to the bare-bones basics; he plays four copies of the creatures he wants to draw and zero of the ones he doesn’t.
Cards like Priest of Titania and Elvish Archdruid strike me as "training wheels." They make it very easy and convenient to win the games where you untap with them, but they are not very good the turn you combo off and are excessively vulnerable to removal. On the whole, they should not be necessary.
The only change that I made to the decklist Andrew sent me (I made the change only after getting his blessing, of course) was to cut his maindeck Scavenging Ooze (and leave the second copy that he had in the sideboard). The Ooze is excellent in a number of the popular matchups, and Andrew said that he liked having one cheap creature that could pull a lot of weight on its own. Personally, I like to focus more on the combo aspect in game 1 and sometimes use more of a midrange plan after sideboarding if I bring in a lot of discard spells. If I had another tournament to play tomorrow, I would again leave the Ooze out of the maindeck. However, Andrew was right on every other card in the deck, so I certainly don’t feel like I have enough experience to draw a firm conclusion on the issue yet.
Birchlore Rangers is also not necessary but comes at a low cost since it is a one-mana Elf. I could see experimenting with one copy in place of a Fyndhorn Elves.
Beyond that, there’s one green creature that kills artifact and enchantments in the sideboard, which seems appropriate. Where Andrew had Qasali Pridemage, one could also play Viridian Zealot if they found the maindeck Savannah to be an annoyance.
Two Dryad Arbors is appropriate. It’s crucial to always be able to Zenith for one or crack a fetch land for one when you want to. They’re particularly important with Gaea’s Cradle and Natural Order.
Finally, there’s the Natural Order targets. The most common configuration seems to be one copy of Craterhoof Behemoth and one copy of Regal Force. However, Andrew told me, and I agree, that it’s extremely rare for Regal Force to win a game that Craterhoof Behemoth could not. A Progenitus off the sideboard makes sense after the opponent brings in extra cards to prepare for your combo. Additionally, Progenitus will be too slow against many of the combo decks but is a nice alternative game plan against decks trying to play fair against you. I felt great about the configuration of two maindeck Behemoths and a sideboard Progenitus.
The Legacy Open was certainly a trial by fire for me. While Elves is not particularly difficult to play at a basic level of proficiency, finding a way to win the tougher games can be quite a challenge. I certainly found myself picking up new tricks as the day went on and developing better instincts for those tough situations.
My only real complaint about Elves is that I mulliganed a lot—and I mean a lot. It had less to do with me being very particular in my standards for an opening hand and more to do with simply not seeing non-Cradle, non-Arbor lands (of which there are only fourteen). As mentioned above, I feel it’s correct to play four copies of Gaea’s Cradle and two copies of Dryad Arbor. To play more lands would begin to interfere with the power level of the deck. So I feel that this is simply a risk you have to take with Elves, and it’s one you’re likely to face with most Legacy decks that do not contain Brainstorm.
In many matches, I felt like I had one game where I would mull to oblivion or something else would go wrong and I’d barely get to play. That said, Elves is a super-high power-level deck, and I felt quite confident of winning most of the games where I kept seven or even six cards. Even when I got a frustrating loss in one game out of three, I felt like I had a fine chance to win the match if nothing else went wrong. In this particular tournament, I had good fortune in the sense that I got lucky when I needed to get lucky and my bad luck was distributed well enough that I was able to just barely win a lot of very close matches.
In the matches where I didn’t have a clear and direct route to victory, I found myself going straight for the engine of Wirewood Symbiote + Elvish Visionary. This is an excellent strategy against any non-combo deck and carries very little risk. The worst thing that can happen is they one-for-one the Symbiote, in which case you still got to draw two cards off your Visionary. Having a Symbiote in play provides at least a small amount of insurance against board sweepers.
For the most part with Elves, you’re happiest to be paired against creature decks, partly because of the strength of the Wirewood Symbiote engine. Something like Maverick or Zoo is ideal, but BUG is also an excellent matchup. Stoneforge decks only get tricky if they have a lot of board sweepers. Despite being told that Goblins is an unfavorable matchup, I did beat it twice over the course of the tournament. Pyrokinesis is excellent against Elves and the die roll matters an unbelievable amount, but aside from those things I didn’t feel like it was an especially bad matchup.
Among the harder matchups is RUG Delver. Game 1 is 50/50 or a sliver in the favor of the Elves player, and again, the die roll matters a lot. The problem is that after sideboard the RUG player usually brings in Rough // Tumble, which is difficult to play around since they have a lot of ways to punish you if you try to play slow. Thankfully, RUG doesn’t really have cards that are bad against Elves in game 1, so they only end up sideboarding out good cards for cards that are slightly better. All things considered, though, I view Elves as a small underdog against a good RUG player, and I’m pretty scared to play the matchup. RUG Delver was my one loss of the tournament.
The absolute worst matchup imaginable is U/W Miracles. Counterbalance is very hard to beat; Terminus is very hard to beat; the rest of their deck is filled with permission and spot removal to slow you down; and they might even have Supreme Verdict and Engineered Explosives too! Thankfully, Miracles is at an all-time low in popularity, partially due to BUG and Esper not being great matchups. This might be a unique time for Elves to shine in Legacy, but if it were ever to become a dominant strategy, Miracles would be a good way to counteract it.
Finally, there’s combo, which can be terrifying to play against, but I don’t feel it’s that bad statistically. Against a goldfish, Elves is about one turn (give or take) slower than most of Legacy’s popular combo decks. This means that you’re not at an advantage in game 1, but you can certainly steal games if you have a great draw or the opponent has a poor draw, particularly when you win the die roll. Deathrite Shaman and Scavenging Ooze are very powerful tools against Dredge and Reanimator. Elves is also unique in its ability to sometimes come back from an Emrakul hit to win the game.
After sideboarding, you can bring in a combination of discard, enchantment/artifact destruction, graveyard hate, or Mindbreak trap as appropriate. Here, you’ll be very thankful that unlike a deck like Storm, Elves has a perfectly fine route to victory in simply attacking with creatures. In fact, I faced Storm in round 4 and won for exactly this reason. Predictably, I lost game 1, but after sideboarding we both Thoughtseized and Cabal Therapyed one another so many times that there was little hope of either player comboing off. Given that, my deck had the great advantage because I just played out a couple of creatures and started beating down for four points per turn.
Painted Stone and Some Possible Changes
I can’t pay Andrew Cuneo enough compliments with regard to his decklist. It ran smoothly, and every card performed exactly the function that it was meant to.
I have some changes to recommend moving forward, but it’s a function of the changing metagame, not a correction of any imperfections in the decklist.
The mono-red Painter’s Servant deck that’s becoming so popular really fights on a different axis than other Legacy decks. Right from the first turn, it begins tightening its hold on the game by playing cards like Blood Moon, Phyrexian Revoker, and Ensnaring Bridge and protecting them with Goblin Welder and Red Elemental Blast. Given an equal playing field, Elves should have no problem winning this matchup, but in the absence of dedicated artifact and enchantment removal, you can easily be locked out of the game.
I faced Painter’s Servant in round 7 of the Open. In game 1, my opponent won the die roll and played turn 1 Blood Moon. I never cast a spell.
Game 2 went rather long, and he developed a board that included Blood Moon (this time I’d snuck in a Forest and some mana creatures), Ensnaring Bridge, Goblin Welder, Painter’s Servant naming blue, and Phyrexian Revoker naming Umezawa’s Jitte. He had one card in hand, which I soon learned was a Pyroblast.
I felt that my opponent played very well given the information that he had access to. However, the fact is that had he known my exact decklist, I could have been completely locked out of winning this game. I’d already used one of my two Abrupt Decays, which meant I had one Decay and one Qasali Pridemage left to remove permanents from the battlefield. I had no way to win as long as Ensnaring Bridge remained on the table, and Goblin Welder could effectively protect it. Therefore, if the Phyrexian Revoker had named Qasali Pridemage or if my opponent decided to save his Pyroblast only to counter Pridemage (Zenith can get around this provided I don’t naturally draw the Pridemage), I would never be able to win.
What ended up happening was that Phyrexian Revoker named Umezawa’s Jitte (which happened to not be in my deck but would have been one of the more devastating cards at the time that the Revoker was cast) and Pyroblast countered a Glimpse of Nature. The game dragged on, and I eventually drew another Glimpse and went through enough of my deck to get Deathrite Shaman into play and Abrupt Decay in my hand. I Decayed the Welder, then searched for Pridemage to destroy Ensnaring Bridge, and won the game.
In game 3, my opponent again played turn 1 Blood Moon on the play. This time, though, I’d mulliganed to six and found my one copy of basic Forest! Since he didn’t have much action other than the turn 1 Moon, I was able to win the game.
Needless to say, I got extremely lucky to win that match, and it was much too close for comfort. I feel that a few simple changes can dramatically improve the matchup and that it’s worth it to make these changes as Painted Stone continues to grow in popularity.
- 1 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Wirewood Symbiote
- 4 Quirion Ranger
- 1 Fyndhorn Elves
- 1 Birchlore Rangers
- 4 Heritage Druid
- 4 Nettle Sentinel
- 4 Elvish Visionary
- 2 Craterhoof Behemoth
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
Viridian Zealot is a weaker card than Qasali Pridemage, but attacking with exalted is very unlikely to change the outcome of a game with Elves. Also, at least Viridian Zealot is an Elf for the purposes of Heritage Druid. However, the bottom line of this change is that the Zealot is much easier to cast if you happen to draw it and allows you to cut Savannah from your deck and have a second basic Forest, which is helpful against Blood Moon and a number of other commonly played Legacy cards that punish nonbasic lands.
I felt that I wanted access to at least one more way to remove artifacts and enchantments, and Gleeful Sabotage has long been a pet card that I think finally deserves its day in the sun. It’s a huge blowout against any deck based on artifacts and enchantments since two mana is quite a bargain for double Vindicate. (I very narrowly beat Affinity in round 1 and would have felt a lot more confident in the matchup with one or two Gleeful Sabotages on my sideboard.) Note that the conspire copy of the spell will not trigger Counterbalance or Chalice of the Void and is therefore a nice out to such cards.
I’ve sacrificed the two Mindbreak Traps from the sideboard, which I will admit were excellent when I faced Storm combo. However, Tormod’s Crypt is also a good card against Storm and is just as potent against Dredge and Reanimator as Trap is against Storm. I prefer cards that come in against a wide range of combo decks to ones that are tailored for one particular matchup.
So with an excellent deck, some hard work, and a few birthday topdecks, I went on to win the tournament. Including the Top 8, my matchup breakdown was:
2-0 vs. Goblins
1-0 vs. Affinity
1-0 vs. Omni-Tell
1-0 vs. The Epic Storm
1-0 vs. Shardless BUG
1-0 vs. Painted Stone
1-0 vs. W/R/B Midrange
1-0 vs. Manaless Dredge
1-0 vs. Reanimator
0-1 vs. RUG Delver
I’d like to extend a special thank you to Elves expert Ross Merriam, who helped me out with some sideboarding advice that served me well throughout the whole tournament.
This event featured some of the closest and most intense matches I’ve played in recent memory; often, I barely escaped with my life. For anyone interested, you can watch the Top 8 here at the 13:00:00 mark.
And if you’re impressed by those matches, just wait until you see what I wished for when I blew out the candles on my birthday cake . . .