Sullivan Library – A U.S. Nationals Elves Primer

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Friday, August 8th – With Mono-Red, Faeries, Elves, and Reveillark being some of the stronger Standard options at present, Adrian believes he has the best Elves build around… but is he right? Some of his numbers seems strange to the casual observer, but the deck won Sam Black a Nationals final spot. Adrian explains the genesis of the deck, and runs us through some of the strategies for success…

Zac Hill and I talked a lot about what to play at Nationals. From the get go, I was ready to run with Elves. I’d been working on the deck a lot in the run up to Hollywood, and I knew that the deck was good. By the end of that tournament, when Charles Gindy won it, it seemed clear to me that the archetype was something that was going to be a mainstay, even if I might not agree on some of the specific card choices or numbers.

Zac, for his part, was waffling with a lot of different decks. The problem with them all, from my perspective, was that they just didn’t put up enough in the way of numbers. Some of them were indeed very, very good. But they just didn’t have the oomph of the Elf list.

The Elf list itself had gone through a number of iterations. I had started testing against Elves by Owen Turtenwald in the run up to Pro Tour. I threw everything creative I could up against it, and again and again, he just kinda smashed me (or someone playing it). I might have a deck that looked promising, but then I would throw it against his basic build and find myself smashed to bits.

Just before Hollywood, it was clear that he was abandoning the list. In the end, I’m pretty sure he audibled to Adam Yurchick’s quasi-elf Troll/Hammer Green-Black. Yurchick would end up tied for Top 8, so it was clearly no slouch of a list, but at the same time, I was disappointed that no one had picked up the mantle of my alterations to Owen’s list. I had spent time testing it, and sent it out to the mailing list I was on, but as best as I could tell, it was too late. So soon before the PT, no one really paid it heed.

At Pro Tour itself, I threw it against everyone as my “test” Elf list. It didn’t have a board, but pretty quickly, it was clear that the deck was far outperforming the expectations that everyone had for it. People that mentioned that their Elf matchup was good were just losing to it in leaps and bounds. Zac and I joked that we should have been playing it, if only we had a sideboard for it (and the cards!), and the funny thing is, in retrospect, I think that maybe our jokes were actually right.

For Regionals, I once again didn’t play the deck, despite having a sideboard for it that I liked. Instead, I gave it to Madison player (and GP Indy Top 8 player) Ben Rasmussen, who pretty much wrecked house with it all day, qualifying (what seemed to be) quite easily. I didn’t qualify, but was hungry to try it out at Nats. I tested and tested and tested, and experimented.

In the end, I played exactly the same list I had given to Rasmussen, with Zac helping clear up one small hole that needed filling in a post-Swans world: no Urborg. It could just help them out too much.

I ground in on the Last Chance tourneys. After a rocky start, fraught with a terrible play error, a bad judgment call, and an impossible matchup, I came back to “rock” a 4-3 record. Madisonian Sam Black would take the deck all the way to the finals. Zac insists on calling the deck “Chevy Elves,” because it fits, in his mind, the Chevy requirements: it is the common archetype, but just so much better designed than all of the rest, that your playtest numbers against “the archetype” are liable to be wrong. I kept thinking about Chevy Fires, the deck that I helped work on that Zvi Mowshowitz took to Top 8 of Pro Tour Chicago, and I guess that the label works.

An Exercise in Comparing and Contrasting

First of all, here it is, Chevy Elves:

So, if this deck is “Chevy,” what makes it so? To answer this question, it might be best to take a glance at the other Elf lists that are out there. The baseline, in my mind, has got to be Charles Gindy. And, then, add to that, of course, my own experience in testing with Owen Turtenwald list, and you have the following:

Player Gindy Turtenwald
Forest 3 4
Gilt Leaf Palace 4 4
Llanowar Wastes 4 4
Mutavault 4 2
Pendelhaven 1 1
Swamp 2 3
Treetop Village 4 4
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth 1 1
Boreal Druid 1 2
Llanowar Elves 4 4
Chameleon Colossus 3 1
Civic Wayfinder 4 3
Imperious Perfect 4 4
Tarmogoyf 4 4
Wren’s Run Vanquisher 4 4
Garruk Wildspeaker 2
Primal Command 2
Profane Command 3 4
Thoughtseize 4 4
Terror 4
Nameless Inversion 4

My list was initially based on Owen’s base list, but I did definitely slightly hone it after Gindy’s list was publicly available. They both offer very particular things.

Gindy’s was a truly proven commodity. Quite importantly, to my mind, he pushed the envelope on greed. In building the list, again and again, it became hard to support simply the mana that I wanted. After playing Owen’s list, running one Boreal Druid seemed crazy to me. And, good lord, four Mutavaults? How was he casting things, even with Civic Wayfinder to help?

The answer is that Gindy was fine with being greedy. As you can tell once you’ve played the deck, the deck can mulligan down, down low, and still pack a wallop. Gindy was clearly willing to up the power level of the deck by making it a greedier proposition. It really seemed as though the deck wanted Owen’s two Boreal Druids. But at the same time, there were cards to fit.

Owen’s list, on the other hand, even with its ponderous Primal Commands, was simply a punch to the face. Gindy had included Terror, largely because the deck needed some kind of Terror, a lot of the times. But in doing so, it lost Nameless Inversion. This loss has amazing ramifications in a lot of ways. Tarmogoyfs become slower and weaker. Vanquishers are slower to hit the table, and less often. Gilt-Leaf Palaces get a smidge less potent. Black creatures become harder to kill. And sometimes you just lose that Giant Growth that will take someone else.

Beatdown is an archetype that is rarely given its just due. People don’t respect how hard it can be to simply get someone down to zero life. People win games all the time at one or two or three. The superior beatdown player or deck has the skill (or tools) to make those few points happen. Gindy’s deck can beatdown. But it isn’t going all out to do it.

Yes, it has access to a fourth Mutavault to provide some extra finishing punch, but the fact of the matter is that more often than not, this colorless source gets in the way. Yes, the Garruk can cause an Overrun, but unfortunately, by taking up those slots, it all but guarantees that the opponent will often have the few extra points of life that will make an Overrun necessary.

Still, though, there was something to those Terrors. Nameless Inversion might have all kinds of merit, but Terror was still something that seemed necessary. After a ton of time playing with other decks and in other formats, it just struck me how insane Slaughter Pact would be in a deck that could truly take advantage of its “Terror On Layaway” powers. Owen had already been interested in Shriekmaw. This just seemed far superior.

The deck was already crafted together before Hollywood, but with an annoying 61st card hanging in there, trying to decide who might get cut. Gindy’s greed served as a good inspiration. Mulligans would help me out, and I’d cut down to only five one-mana Elves. Now, all that was needed was a sideboard.

A third Colossus was a true necessity. There were decks that just had fits from it. Faeries definitely didn’t like him. Any random Black-heavy deck didn’t. And Elves also is unhappy with it.

Squall Line was the first obvious auto-include. I knew that I wanted a pretty sizeable attack on the air. Cloudthresher, while potent, still struck me as largely unnecessary. All you often wanted to do was just hit the air for one damage to get your men through. At other times, you really wanted to hit the air for four. Further, every once in a while, a Teferi’s Moat would come down and ruin your day. Squall Line was a perfect way to respond to that.

Kitchen Finks was another easy auto-include. It clearly isn’t enough against Red, but it is still a pain in the ass. A quick attacker is one thing, but it triple duties with its resistance to Wrath, and that bonus in lifegain. Toss in the ability to search it out with Primal Command, and you can really, really blow people away.

Primal Command was a card that had initially impressed me in the main deck of Owen’s list. It was so expensive, but so often, you’d have such a board presence, that just aiming the card at someone’s land and finding another man would just simply end it. In race situations, it almost always made the difference. In the board, it could certainly help serve that role versus Red, but it also had another purpose: the “I dunno.” “What do you board against [insert random deck here]?” “I dunno, Primal Command?” This actually works out better than you might imagine. Creatures were a thing you could largely answer with the copious removal in the deck. Random enchantments, on the other hand, could be a real problem. Did you really want to pack Grip? Yes, it would definitely answer a problem, but what would it do in the meantime? In multiples? Primal Command, on the other hand, can just play as Fallow Earth. In a beatdown deck, that can be more than enough to win the game. Tutoring out a singleton Faerie Macabre ends up making the Primals play amazing duties as threat to multiple deck types, but not making a sideboard of literally 22 cards. It’s true that Primal Command is cumbersome. I think it makes up for this in being incredibly versatile.

The Faerie Macabre can do wonders in a ton of matchups. Obviously, it is a strong Primal Command target against any number of decks. Amusingly, though, it can simply be boarded in as a quasi-subpar man, from time to time. It’s worth noting that this creature can be cast. Against some decks, this can be just enough damage to get the win.

And Sudden Spoiling. It still shocked me every time that people were surprised by this card. “It’s only good situationally,” is one common complaint lobbed at the card. Well, amazingly, that situation happens all of the time. I know that I got at least 3 five-for-ones or more with the card over the weekend. In the finals of the last chance, I completely blew out my Swans opponent as he attempted to go off. Versus Reveillark, you can “counter” their Evoke ability. Its strongest applications tend to be in the mirror, though. Elves on Elves can often be a game of unfun combat math, Colossus superiority, and other such shenanigans. Sudden Spoiling just turns all of this into an exercise in destruction. I don’t look forward to a world of Sudden Spoilings, where every Elf list has it, and combat math becomes ridiculous.

Why Play It?

This deck, simply put, is a complete powerhouse. If you’ve played Elves, you know how powerful the archetype can be. This version puts on a supercharger, and just smashes face. In every way that you can count it, it just add on the beatdown potential, from its balanced mana, to its removal configuration, to its creature configuration. Profane Command times four might not be the best in every matchup, but it does mean that you get to play your Commands liberally. Between it and Slaughter Pact and Inversion, you are often in the aggressive seat, and you can typically count on that role.

You have a powerful game 1 against any opponent, but even in your worst matchups, you still can have a shot. Even if you were to be playing against a complete unknown opponent, you can come up with a plan that will give you a decent chance.

But essentially, what it boils down to is this: your matchups are just so damned good.

Faeries: Clearly, this is the most commonly gunned-for deck. Most people will tell you that this is a close matchup. This build of Elves takes that and shoves it pretty deeply into the good matchup column. Mulligan draws that aren’t providing some kind of beatdown, and you’re liable to be in the match, even with poor draws.

Grade: A
In: 1 Chameleon Colossus, 3 Kitchen Finks, 4 Squall Line
Out: 1 Tarmogoyf, 1 Nameless Inversion, 4 Profane Command, 2 Imperious Perfect

You can’t expect the game to come down to Profane Command being of any use. It is just too easy for them to completely blow you out with a Scion. Finks, while not fantastic, is a path versus Damnations. If you know that you aren’t going to be playing against Damnation, Perfect becomes all the better. Note: Sam boarded in Sudden Spoiling against Paul Cheon largely to have more weapons against Shadowmage Infiltrator and noting that it had at least some use versus Masticore.

Five-Color Control: This deck has an infinite variety of versions. There are so many ways that you can build this deck, and the mana that exists these days pretty much makes it impossible to predict what it is that they might do. That said, there are still a lot of things you can count on: they will be slow. And they really have to hate out creatures for it to matter.

Grade: A-
In: 3 Kitchen Finks, 3 Squall Line, (and potentially Primal Command)
Out: 4 Tarmogoyf, 2 Chameleon Colossus, dipping into your removal and mana Elves if you need more space.

While you might keep in Colossus in some matchups, both as a survivor of Firespout, or as a tutor target, you don’t generally like that slow card. Finks still lives against Wrath, and Squall Line provides another Fireball-like effect. Tarmogoyf just doesn’t have the oomph necessary against a deck like this. Too often he is a Squire or Kobold.

Elves: In so many ways, the mirror is fairly close, but still, the edges pretty strongly go to this deck. They have an extra Colossus, typically, and Garruk can actually be a true threat here, but you have extra elimination, extra Command, and (usually) stabler mana.

Grade: A (to A-)
In: 1 Chameleon Colossus, 3 Sudden Spoiling, 3 Kitchen Finks
Out: 1 Boreal Druid, 4 Llanowar Elves, 1 Civic Wayfinder, i Nameless Inversion

For now, this deck has a great matchup in the near mirror. Once Elves at large picks up on Sudden Spoiling, this becomes closer and closer to a 50/50. The issue is this: They have, generally, a single Colossus as their only advantage, compared to Slaughter Pacts and an extra Profane Command. The closer they get to your list, the closer it becomes a coin flip, but at that point, you’re simply play a true mirror and not a near mirror.

Reveillark: Ah, Reveillark. This deck, in its Blue/White/Red Combo version, the more controlling Blue/White, and the midrange Green-based creature variants all work out largely the same way. They are strongly anti-creature, and you are a creature deck.

Grade: C (to C-)
In: 3 Sudden Spoiling, 3 Primal Command, 1 Faerie Macabre, 3 Kitchen Finks, (and potentially Squall Line)
Out: 4 Tarmogoyf, 1 Nameless Inversion, 1 Profane Command, 2 Chameleon Colossus, 2 Imperious Perfect (with potentially more Profane leaving)

This matchup varies wildly. If there are the highly controlling version, you want more Profane Command and Squall Line. If they aren’t, you want less. Fireballing is important here.

Swans: This matchup is surprisingly good. Game 1 you have access not only to a fast clock, but also Nameless Inversion and Slaughter Pact. It only gets better after board. The first game tends to a 50 to 60% game, but then…

Grade: A-
In: 3 Sudden Spoiling, 3 Primal Command, 1 Faerie Macabre, 3 Kitchen Finks
Out: 4 Tarmogoyf, 2 Chameleon Colossus, 3 Profane Command, 1 Imperious Perfect

Once you get Sudden Spoiling, it is truly unfair. They absolutely have to be prepared to hit your hand before attempting to go off, and yet doing so is very stretching. At the same time, they will generally plan on Firespout/Damnation as their path. Finks makes you resistant to this. Just keeping track of your clock and your amount of disruption methods is nice. Note, the Primal Command is usually here to be a Fallow Earth/search for Macabre. It’s surprisingly good in doing that, since the Fallow is often too much for them, all by itself.

Mono-Red: Before the event, Sam Black asked me about the Mono-Red matchup. I viewed it as highly favorable. However, I didn’t have enough data on the matchup versus Demigod based Red. This deck now seems to be the de facto build of the deck. That is a less exciting matchup, albeit still winnable. This board is versus the finals list, Mike Jacob. Other boards can be wildly different.

Grade: D+
In: 3 Kitchen Finks, 3 Primal Command, 1 Chameleon Colossus
Out: 3 Imperious Perfect, 1 Civic Wayfinder, 1 Boreal Druid, 1 Llanowar Elf, 1 Profane Command

This sideboarding plan reflects your Demigod plan. It’s not perfect, but it can make the matchup not a complete blowout. It is wildly different than your typical plan against smaller Red, in which out go all of the Thoughtseize. As Erik Lauer said, “If your matchup seems bad, you should just attempt to maximize your ability to just kind of steal it, right? Thoughtseize does that!” Overall, I think that this matchup isn’t any worse than 33%, and probably is closer to 40%. Not great, to be sure. But not awful.


I’m really excited that Sam was able to take this deck to the finals. I’m kinda disappointed in his finals performance (he definitely tossed away one game that would have clearly become a winner), but he rocked it really hard in the meantime, and it is always a pleasure for someone to take your deck to a high finish in a high profile tournament. I’m kinda amused also, that BDM chose to shout out to me and Brian Kowal, but it seems to overlook, oh, I don’t know, Bob Maher and Mike Hron (even if Hron is currently living at the Dharma Initiative). I’m going to give a brief slam to Bennie Smith for toying with my high-powered car here, and not planning the list as I gave him. Sudden Spoiling, Bennie, Sudden Spoiling!

I’ll be chugging away at Block and Extended for a while. See you next week!