Sullivan Library – Revisiting Elves for Standard

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Friday, December 5th – Tomorrow’s StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open promises to set the bar for the Standard metagame come Worlds. While most of the more powerful archetypes, such as Faeries or Five-Color Control, have been well covered, it seems that a lot of eyes have overlooked the reliable old Green/Black Elves. Adrian Sullivan investigates…

Worlds is right around the corner, and the clock is ticking down for everyone heading down to Memphis to slug it out. Much like Memphis native Zac Hill, I won’t be making it down there for the event. While Zach is all tied up in obligations in Malaysia, I’m tied up in my own obligations here in Madison. I know that we’re both disappointed that we won’t be able to make it for all manner of reasons. Besides merely missing Worlds, Memphis is a great city. The last time I was in Memphis, I was slugging it out in an unwinnable matchup (Con-Troll versus Enchantress) in a Grand Prix Top 8. Hopefully, even though I won’t make it down there, one of my decks will find its way into the Top 8 in Memphis this time around.

Before Worlds, the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open will be informing everyone with more real-world test data. This is going to be on of the truly interesting tournaments of the year. Rarely will you see people that are working on actively different levels of the metagame competing at the same time.

What do I mean by this? Well, let’s pretend that you are showing up for the event and you are not one of those lucky few who are currently qualified for Worlds (or working with someone who is). In that case, there is absolutely no reason for you not to show up with your best and brightest deck. You are there to maximize your best chance to win, so why hold back?

On the other hand, undoubtedly some people will be playing at the event who are planning on playing at Worlds. The decks that they are planning on playing will fall into two major camps: the well-established and the obscure (if not unknown). While many pros won’t mind playing their best deck at an event like this, especially if it is a commonly recognized deck, even then, they might not play the exact version. While John Smith’s 9th place decklist might not get much notice from those playtesting for Worlds, you could bet that Patrick Chapin decklist would. As a result, on the off chance, for example, that Patrick Chapin shows up to play in the $5k, it would almost certainly be with a deck that is not the exact 75 cards he plans to sleeve up in Worlds, if it is even of the same archetype.

In the end, this will mean that some elements of the metagame, played by some of the better players, are likely to be somewhat quasi-archaic, so to speak. They will rise to the top on some level, based on their basic solidness and the strength of the player piloting it. On the other hand, other less established players will just be going for it. What ends up on top is liable to be quite interesting.

For my own tastes, there are a lot of decks that I like. Updating Brian Kowal’s awesome Red/White Midrange deck is very appealing, and I think that deck is well-positioned in today’s metagame. I’m also very partial to three flavors of Fish. Perhaps the most successful, Adam Prosak version was piloted by three players (including LSV) to Top 8 finishes in Ohio, California, and Arizona, with a win by one of my favorite Magic players, Cedric Phillips, in Indiana. Richard Feldman Fish deck made Top 8s in Iowa and Missouri (piloted by the man himself), and won this year here in Wisconsin, piloted by young Colin LaFleur. To my mind, Richard’s deck is very analogous to Blue/Green Madness, as far as Aggro-Control decks go; it isn’t to heavy on the counter-elements or card advantage, but just seeks to get down a huge clock really quickly and hold on for a few scant turns, whereas Adam’s deck is a lot closer to classic Fish, with much less interest placed on a fast clock. I still like my own list of Bant Fish a lot, albeit with two more White sources (likely Adarkar Wastes) than I initially ran and Wrath of God over sideboarded Razormane Masticore.

I spent some time talking with Richard about Standard, but we quickly got sidetracked into an extensive multi-hour long discussion on Magic theory. At one point, we joked about how much effort we spent on the game and thinking through how it works. “Imagine if we were putting this energy towards poverty or world hunger?” I asked. Richard groaned. “I don’t even want to think about it…”

Once we had finally wrapped up our talk, I asked him what Standard deck he felt was overlooked these days. He came back with “Elves” incredibly quickly, and so re-tackling this subject was definitely the order of the day.

It’s crazy to think that it’s been four months since I gave Sam Black the Elf deck he piloted onto the U.S. National team.

Before the tournament, this was exactly the list I would have given to everyone to play. It’s a fantastically powerful deck, and had a strong plan against everything. Everyone that had tested the deck was deeply impressed by it, and I had given the exact same 75 cards to GP: Indiana Top 8 finisher Ben Rasmussen, and he had easily cruised to a Nationals qualification with it. I used it to grind into U.S. Nationals as well.

At the event, the dominance of Demigod Red over other Red variants proved to be a difficult fight to face. Figure of Destiny encouraged Demigod decks in ways that simply weren’t rational before Figure existed. And it was a rougher matchup.

To my mind, though, this kind of Elf deck is the kind you wanted to be playing. I built my list on top of the list that Magic’s Winter King, Owen Turtenwald, had worked extensively on for Pro Tour: Hollywood. One of the key things about Owen’s list that was so impressive to me was that it was a list that didn’t mess around. It knew what it wanted to do, and it was out to do it: it was here to kill you.

The big mistake of a lot of Elf decks, I feel, is that they were stepping down a path towards Garruk. Garruk can be an incredibly powerful spell, of course. It is most powerful, though, in the decks that primarily use it for the “Worn Powerstone” effect that it provides. My problem with Garruk in Standard Elves largely stems from the way that it stunts the massively aggressive possibilities that Elves can provide. Yes, Charles Gindy won Pro Tour: Hollywood with Garruk, but for the most part, I view that as largely predicated on the composition of the 58 other cards in his main deck (and 11 to 13 cards in his board). Garruk’s best use in Elves is in either the mirror or against those decks that are already somewhat weak against Planeswalkers (like 5cU).

At this point, it is worth mentioning Elves big loss: Tarmogoyf. Is it even possible to be the kind of Elf deck that I think is the way to go? There was a window in which Elf lists, primarily those that were played initially out of Japan, moved away from Tarmogoyf, even when he was legal, and started running Bramblewood Paragon. Perhaps that is a worthy alternative if we want to remain deeply aggressive.

Mining the lists and spoilers, the options are pretty few. Shards of Alara really didn’t do all that much for Standard Elves. If you’re looking to place cards in the main deck, your short list involves, essentially, the following: Nettle Sentinel, Twinblade Slasher, Wolf-Skull Shaman, Bramblewood Paragon, Obsidian Battleaxe, Wilt-Leaf Liege, and Nath of the Gilt-Leaf.

Honestly, the only cards that seem worth thinking about in here, to me, are Wolf-Skull Shaman, Bramblewood Paragon, and Wilt-Leaf Liege. Here, though, the Liege is fighting against some pretty stiff competition for the four-drop; Colossus ain’t no slouch. The difference between the two two-drops is more interesting. Bramblewood Paragon helps to make your creatures more formidable in a fight, while the Shaman increases your forces on the ground without making you overextended. The other alternative, here, that bears mentioning, would have to be Bitterblossom.

Bitterblossom could be a very appealing inclusion, especially if you were able to mitigate the life loss. One of the problems with Bitterblossom is that it isn’t especially aggressive in a deck like this, without Scion to help push things around. A Wolf-Skull Shaman bears the closest comparison. Whereas the Bitterblossom is less fragile and will always be pushing out little men, the Wolf-Skull Shaman can create more potent creatures, as well as actually attack on turn 3. This is very important. Overall, I think that the biggest incentive for Bitterblossom is its strength against Wrath of God. The more that you’re expecting to see Wrath, the more that you should be interested in leaning on Bitterblossom. It’s worth noting how anemic Bitterblossom is in some fights, though, and how it blunts your strategic attacks against opposing Bitterblossoms (Cloudthresher, etc.). Don Spinelli’s Massachusetts State Championship deck provides at least some degree of vetting for the value of a Wolf-Skull Shaman, without getting totally crazy.

The question of the three-drop has become a somewhat contentious one. The classic choice has been Imperious Perfect. If we’re imagining that we’re playing against the goldfish, the Perfect is the most intensely potent card choice. It can also be the most potent threat, sometimes, versus Faeries. It is, however, deeply fragile, and slower to become aggressive after a board sweep. Craig Wescoe (co-creator of the Free-Necro decklist that Brian Davis took to the finals of Bob Maher’s Pro Tour: Chicago) adapted my decklist to improve the matchup versus Demigod Red by making the Perfects into Kitchen Finks, as well as adding in a singleton Loxodon Warhammer.

One player in Hollywood, Adam Yurchick, took this step on the three-drop to its most aggressive conclusion: Troll Ascetic. Troll-Hammer, combined, is a scary threat for pretty much every deck. While Troll can simply be offed by Wrath, where Finks is more resilient. Finks is a better blocker. But a Troll, like a Stillmoon Cavalier, can fundamentally change the direction of a game in many matchups. Yurchick has been a proven talent when it comes to innovating on decks in very effective ways.

Yurchick shows us that this approach is not only credible, but also actually powerful, finishing as a virtual Top 8 in Hollywood. It is unsurprising that Yurchick’s deck ended up where it did; on some level he was potentially influenced by Owen Turtenwald, who also played the same cards. Turtenwald, you’ll remember, pushed Elves into as aggressive a space as he could, and was the basis for my own deck. It is unsurprising then, that my inclination is to marry the two.

Of course, there is the Enemy:

I decided to choose Matt Hanson’s deck because I like him, trust him to make good choices, and think his deck is both fundamentally sound and potentially scary for a lot of Elf decks to fight. As you can see in the finals match between Sam Black and Michael Jacob (however misplayed I felt that match went), sometimes it feels as though the Red deck is playing the Beatdown and Control rolls simultaneously in the matchup. This matchup is the Enemy because of the way that this can potentially happen.

While 23 land was a clear agreement of the two lists, it is also worth noting that both of these lists also had a Boreal Druid. Further, Yurchick’s had two to help support the heavier mana requirement that were necessitated by Trolls and Hammers. An extra land is one direction to step to take care of this requirement, but what one? There are really several choices. One, an extra basic land helps support the options for turn 1 Thoughtseize or Llanowar Elves. Two, the missing Mutavault could be brought into the list (Gindy’s four seemed crazy to me with his manabase; all and repeated testing indicated to me that it was one too many, Yurchick went so far as to cut two from his list, though I know he had less time to test it). Three, a Reflecting Pool could be added. While some people have started including Twilight Mire here, it really boils down to one situation: how often do you not have any of a color versus how often you want to split your actions over two turns (typified by the need to Thoughtseize and then wait until their turn for a Black instant). Both happen pretty infrequently, but I’ve noticed more of the second case. Unfortunately, it’s a very hard phenomenon to capture to really gain a sense of which is more frequent. The jury is definitely still in.

The question of elimination beyond Profane Command is actually pretty simple, if you ask me. Eyeblight’s Ending is the most effective at killing pretty much anything that isn’t the mirror, but it does cost three mana. After that, the benefit that one used to gain from Nameless Inversion, its tribal-ness, is much more moot without Tarmogoyf. While versatile in a way that Terror is not, it also fails to kill important Big Things. To my mind, despite the extra cost, it has to be Eyeblight’s Ending. Too many important creatures are either black or X/4 or larger. Other elim will have to be relegated to the board.

So we come to a main deck:

This list is definitely the love-child of Yurchick’s and my own, taking into account the realities of current Standard. Tarmogoyf’s translation into Wolf-Skull isn’t perfect, certainly, but it mixes the aggressive desires of the deck with an almost Bitterblossom-like feel as well. Should your metagame be incredibly intensive on Wrath of God, changing some number of these over to Bitterblossoms would certainly be acceptable.

What I like about this list is that it is keeping with the tradition of what makes Elves so potent. The creatures attack. They are fast. It doesn’t mess around, and it maximizes Thoughtseizes since it knows that it can expect to be the aggressor. A single Wolf-Skull Shaman triggers on a whopping 25 spells. Trolls, while not good blockers immediately, shouldn’t usually have to be, except for in the most difficult case.

Remembering the Enemy from above, if we think about what Hanson’s deck is capable of doing, particularly after sideboard, it is heady. Not only is Stigma Lasher in the main deck, but it is liable to stay after board. Furthermore, it is liable to connect. This is bad. One of the ways that the deck expects to fight a deck like Red is to pull away with Loxodon Warhammer. Clearly, you can’t count on that. Furthermore, as late-games come into the mix, both Demigod and Figure of Destiny represent real problems. Even more aggravating is the access to four Unwilling Recruit, ready to cause real mischief.

It is absolutely imperative that there is some kind of reasonable plan versus this deck, even if it isn’t a winning plan. The goal is to merely be in the running. Since you cannot expect to be the Control deck in this matchup, one goal could be to stake out the Beatdown role. While you could attempt to do that with cards like Nettle Sentinel, this path is potentially fraught with anemic draws. In addition, you still have to deal with the problem of Unwilling Recruit letting your opponent completely take the lead in a race, particularly if the Lasher has stung you.

An early removal spell might be a way to get there. After examining all of the choices, the card that comes most to the fore for me is Soul Reap. While unable to strike down Ram Gang, it is capable of killing every other creature in the deck, at least as it is typically constructed. It is also a rare removal spell that can kill Demigod of Revenge. Furthermore, there are situations where you can actually use it to take out a player.

Still, the Red deck is capable of being able to seize the Control role and ride you into the ground with it. One card that ended up sneaking out to me as I was thinking of another matchup, though, sprung to mind here as well. That card?

Fungal Bloom on steroids: Necrogenesis.

Trades of all kinds are liable to be happening in this matchup. Necrogenesis, while mana intensive to some degree, serves as a means to reap some reward from that situation. Perhaps most importantly, though, it gives you a weapon against resuscitated Demigods of Revenge. Before, the second Demigod was nearly always the whole shebang, but with access to Necrogenesis, it is merely a big threat. Granted, you still have to kill it, but your options are actually quite limited in this regard.

In the otherwise problematic Reveillark matchup, Necrogenesis really shines. Simultaneously answering Wrath of God while eating up any of the food that a Reveillark likes to eat, Necrogenesis is perhaps the one card that came out of Shards of Alara that might actually be of any use to Elves.

The question of the Faeries matchup absolutely has to be omnipresent. I think that it boils down to one of two cards: Hurricane or Cloudthresher. Each have their allures. Cloudthresher can be cast as an instant, but unless a Clique is attacking, can’t kill it. Hurricane can be cast for two mana to wipe out a board, or can become a Fireball, but it has to be cast on your own turn. Ultimately, neither card is as good as Squall Line, but I think I’d have to lean to Hurricane (or perhaps a split). An extra Colossus could serve as a threat (as well as adding a little bit of oomph to the now-more-rare mirror match). Alternately, some small number of Guttural Response could keep Cryptic Command held down ever so slightly without bogging down the beatdown (and would have the added bonus in being useful versus 5cU and the occasional Bant Charm).

For the last slot in the board, the question of the Unanswerable still remains. Cards like Story Circle do exist, even if they are deeply uncommon. I think it still remains worth having access to, say, a pair of Primal Command as a kind of catch-all. Alternately, Wickerbough Elder could be given a shot. Overall, I think I prefer the Elder, if only because he can attack. Most of the decks you might want to Disenchant are also decks that you don’t actually have to worry about spending a little time to do it.

This gives us the following board:

4 Hurricane
4 Soul Reap
3 Necrogenesis
2 Wickerbough Elder
2 Guttural Response

Obviously, I’m not playing in Worlds this year, but I do know that this is a deck that I’d be more than comfortable playing in a high profile tournament. The metagame isn’t as easy to crack open right now as it once was, I think. I know that I’ll be keeping my eyes on the StarCityGames $5k to see what else we can learn before the big event. Taking this deck for a whirl at the event would be a great option, I’m sure.

Best of luck!

Adrian Sullivan