Sullivan Library – Feldman’s Counter Elves and Beyond

Visit the StarCityGames.com booth at Grand Prix Denver!
Friday, August 1st – Block Constructed, it seems, may not be the ultimate playground of those frisky Fae after all… Richard Feldman managed to rock out a Top 8 performance backed by Elves and Cryptic Command. It seems that harnessing the so-called “Blue Wrath” may be the key to the format… Adrian investigates this Brave New World.

I had an article all worked out for this week. But, alas, deck technology being what it is, I was asked not to bust out the goods. My next idea seemed like it was going to be totally sweet. I was going to compare and contrast my own Elf list, with Gindy’s, Zac Hill, and Seth Burn. But, again, alas, no dice… (darn you, Seth Burn).

Then, I had this fabulous idea for a game theory article. I went through and wrote a whole ton, and started to put the math together… and discovered that the premise that I was working with was completely wrong, mathematically. Well, at least I learned that an idea I had held (on the EV of choosing particular decks based on percentages and expected opponents, and the difference between that and maximizing your maximum result — the romantic strategy, as opposed to the classic strategy, in game theory — did not apply. If anyone wants to be regaled with stories of opinions that I’ve held that are wrong, let me know, and maybe I’ll write an article on it. But, I digress…

We’ve recently moved into a beautiful world, where it is possible to make a deck that runs some crazy thick mana. All of these new Graven Cairns really do some amazing things. These are not mere equivalents for the Karplusan Forests, Auntie’s Hovels, and Hallowed Fountains. All of those lands have some particular strengths and weaknesses, but one of the things that really distinguishes these filter lands is that they immediately provide double mana.

Take my old Warp World deck…

I haven’t updated this list for Eventide as of yet. But it does do something to illustrate my point. The Siege-Gang Commander is a card that is incredibly potent. But, not counting the Fire-Lit Thickets, there are only 1 Mountain, 2 Fungal Reaches, and 4 Grove of the Burnwillows to support it (along with Magus of the Moon as a “color-fixer”). If we were to simply add in 4 Karplusan Forest, ignoring the issue of pain, you’d still have a deck that might be able to cast Siege-Gang, but was strained to do so, and casting and activating would be quite hard indeed. But, add in those Fire-Lit Thickets, and you suddenly seem to have no trouble doing any of it.

This factor radically changes the format of Lorwyn Block as it exists now. It’s become quite clear that one of the defining powerhouses of the format is Cryptic Command. Faeries is happy to be a base-Blue deck and run it. Most of the other decks, aside from Merfolk, have to stretch themselves a wee bit to fit it, but they still manage to do so, all on the power of Mystic Gate, Sunken Ruins, Cascade Bluffs, Flooded Grove, and their friend Reflecting Pool.

UUU. It’s a lot of Blue to be effectively “splashing.” A quick reflection on the French Standard deck Quick n’Toast can remind us, though, that we can truly support a deck with UUU, GGGG, WW, and more, and all before we even had access to the new lands.

What this means is that we can truly find ways to explore putting Cryptic Command in any deck where we might want it. What might those decks look like? A good place to start, is Richard Feldman article on Counter Elves. Here is his list, for reference:

Here is a deck that doesn’t even attempt to truly go nuts on mana needs. It is a pretty simple Blue-Green combo, with the barest of splashes for Black. Your deck stats might tell you that the Blue and Black are of the same amount, but don’t let that fool you. Every Black spell only requires a single mana, and the Blue is holding up Cryptic Command, and Sower. In a lot of ways it looks similar to a Con-Troll list to me.

Perhaps the most recent Con-Troll list is Brian Kowal’s Wisconsin States runner-up list:

Mislabeled as “U/G Garruk Goyf,” it still is basically the list… a strange midrange/aggro-control cross, based on the original archetype that Brian and I designed for Grand Prix: Memphis a million years ago. It is perhaps closer still, to the old Brian Kowal “BUG” list from Invasion Block. He writes about it nicely at the old Sideboard, but the comparisons strike me as pretty huge. There is an early beater, some midrange stuff, and some high end stuff, held together by control spells. That deck would win a GP and several PTQs, and Richard Feldman strikes me as an inheritor to this Con-Troll-ish strategy.

Block is still going to have to bow to the king of the format, Faeries, but it does look like it isn’t going to be as hard a fight to have to fight. Only three (hehe) Faeries lists made the Top 8 of the Springfield, Missouri PTQ, and time will tell if that reduction will continue. I predict that it will. The winner, a Figure of Destiny-fueled Kithkin deck, played with slight Eventide upgrades, but wasn’t that ambitious. Richard’s list is far more ambitious, I think, even though it only includes four lands as its main deck new cards. It is essentially, the first deck of this kind of archetype.

What does this mean, really?

Basically, it means that all of the colors can enter the game of Cryptic Commanding. For Richard, this means potentially going from turn 2 Elf, to Perfect, to Command. If you think about that, it is actually incredibly potent. It is certainly more powerful than Bitterblossom, though it is far, far more fragile. I shudder to imagine an active Perfect up, with Command mana… Ugh!

Feldman’s deck does have some characteristics that I don’t like. While I’m happy that he took my advice to fit in two Oona (thanks for the shout-out, Rich!), I still can’t help but wonder if he might have done better without Leaf Gilders and Broken Ambitions (both of which strike me as probably underwhelming).

So, if you’re trying to hobble together a Blue/X/(y) deck, what are the things that you need to do to make it work? When is it rational to go there, and when is it silly? I think there are some general rule of thumbs.

1) Have something to drop before you get to that Cryptic Command.

This is pretty key. Faeries wouldn’t be scary if they couldn’t untap on turn 4 with a Bitterblossom and a pair of Faeries already out (even if maybe they died for the cause). Merfolk, not even having to worry about the splash, have a distinct advantage here, because they often have a lot out before the Command.

What this lets you do is play the role of an aggro-control deck. If you have the pressure on the table, even if it is a four-drop, you can take your subsequent turns in an aggressive role, even if you only have a few counters. You don’t have to ride it out for a long, protracted fight. You just have to hold it down for a while.

This is one of the reasons that Faeries could be so potent. In a lot of ways, I feel like the deck played like good ol’ Accelerated Blue (or PatJ.dec, if you prefer, in honor of Patrick Johnson, its progenitor)… generally a control deck, but able to shift into an aggressive role not unlike a typical counter-sliver draw with the right initial draw, or even just as the game progressed. Mike Flores was completely on the money about the essential nature of roles as being The Beatdown or the Control deck. A corollary, to this, though, is that one can act in the role of an Aggro-Control deck as well. This is a kind of Beatdown deck, but its specific properties can be very hard to handle. (For more on roles archetypes, read my article on the subject from last year.)

We can recognize the way this works for Faeries the moment that they begin a large-scale attack (usually after a Scion or Clique has given them the board advantage they want). Suddenly, your time to get back in the game has narrowed to a very short window. All they have to do is hold on for those few turns… You should want to be able to take advantage of that same power, even if you aren’t Faeries.

2) Have cards of your “off” color be relevant.

Feldman’s list is a great example of this. Wren’s Run Vanquisher is a very relevant creature. It can provide a fast beatdown, but also can play a strong defensive role. Perfect also has this quality, and acts as a “must-kill.” Chameleon Colossus is the seeming draw of the deck. Here, the GG of the Colossus is turned from a drawback into an easy-peasy cast. For a Faerie player, facing down a Colossus by itself is already incredibly hard work. But facing down a Colossus with counters to back it up is pretty incredible.

Even particularly hard cards to cast are now well within reason. Take a card like, oh, I don’t know, Oversoul of Dusk. That guy is a guy that almost no deck wants to see. With Mystic Gate and/or Flooded Grove, casting it actually seems within the realms of reason (though still difficult).

Just realize that you can try to push this envelope.

3) Back up that Cryptic Command.

Richard goes all-in on this, essentially having the control package of a fully-preboarded Faeries player, loaded up with the full amount of Thoughtseize and Broken Ambitions. Do this. You don’t have to run those particular cards, or even that amount of them. But you do want to be doing this. Not only does it make you able to be an Aggro-Control deck, but it actually lets you be a Mid-Range Control deck, depending on how the game is playing out.

This is one of the strengths of the Aggro-Control/Mid-Range Control crossbreed that Con-Troll style decks can hold. You can stick it out in a protracted control war, or you can take the strategically superior position, depending on how the draw turns out. While I’m not attempting to call Con-Troll-ish decks “the best evAr,” I do have to say they have a kind of flexibility that can make them quite potent. Not every deck with Command need be Con-Troll-ish, of course; some, like Faeries, are more Accelerate Blue, while things like Merfolk are clearly in the Aggro-Control camp. Even there, though, the same value for back-up holds true, because those decks can step out of archetypical role and move into situation role.

4) Really, really test the mana.

Maybe I’m wrong, but looking at Richard’s mana, I just have this suspicion that maybe it could be better somehow. And maybe it is just fine as is. But, remember, in Block you have a huge variety of tools to work your mana. Test it out, of course, but make sure that your mana is tip-top. The thing about mana is that it is subtle. You only tend to notice that it isn’t right when it isn’t working. That doesn’t mean that you can’t put in the effort and make something really, really good, that almost never fails you. Just test it.

5) Pay attention to those Faerie lists.

Are Faeries running cards in your colors? Well, you should pay attention to them! The archetype is so clearly potent, you absolutely have to take some notes from them. Cryptic Command isn’t the only thing of value in Blue. Check out those Sowers. Check out those Nameless Inversions. Look at their sideboards. Borrow from them. They are usually running these cards because they work. Don’t forget that. Don’t ignore it.

Overall, I’m pretty excited about the new format. Hopefully, we’ll see a lot of creativity pan out for people other than our dear Mr. Feldman. I take a lot of inspiration from his list, and I know I’m scouring all of the cards in the format again and again to find something that looks “just right” to me. I know that I don’t have something completely new in the works just yet, so I’m liable to just rest on my laurels and take up a barely touched up pre-Eventide list.

But I’m dreaming of Red/Blue. I’ll tell you right now, that’s what I hope to be playing…

As you read this, I’ll have either ground in to U.S. Nationals, or I won’t. Wish me luck, everyone, whether I’m in the main event or in the sides.

Adrian Sullivan