Elves! with a capital exclamation point was the story of the tournament from a player perspective. The supposedly secret tech only surprised people with the fact that everyone seemed to have it. As I mentioned previously, the Judging staff got the first hint that something was up when we heard about the dealers selling out of Glimpse of Nature the night before. The fact that some thirty of forty Judges couldn’t fathom what kind of deck might use let alone win let alone dominate with said card tells you all you need to know what we know.
When the tournament started the next morning, we got our first glimpse of the deck (pun intended). I was on the deck checks team, which is responsible for counting all the decklists for 60 and 15 as well as checking for format legality. I quickly came across a few Elves! lists and the pieces started to fit into place. Super mana from Heritage Druid to power out a bunch of dorks that draw you more dorks. I even caught onto the Chord of Calling for Predator Dragon kill portion of most of the decks. What eluded me at the time was the Nettle Sentinel engine that really put the deck into overdrive. That I didn’t fully realize until I saw Olivier Ruel piloting the deck.
That brings us to the first Judging related problem with the little Green deck that could: it can be glacially slow. While watching him go through the combo to spit out more and more Elves, the longest Olivier stopped for any one action was about 20-30 seconds when he counted up his creatures to see how close he was to a lethal alpha strike. He had drawn most of his deck at this point, and for some reason he didn’t have the finisher, so he counted, played out a few more guys, then passed the turn to his Zoo opponent, who couldn’t do much more than attack and pass back.
The half a minute when he counted up his team was the only time during the sequence of events where I was close to calling Olivier for Slow Play. And yet, the sum total of all of his actions – tap for mana, play a creature, untap Nettle Sentinel, draw a card, bounce a guy with Symbiote to untap a guy, etc. – took several minutes. I can’t remember exactly, but I want to say that it was at least five to seven. This is for a sequence where no action or pause to think took more than 5-10 seconds.
Simply put, Olivier was playing very briskly, and it was clear that some combination of his natural aptitude for the game and plenty of practice with the operations of the deck were helping him make his actions and decisions very quickly. There were times when he would do something and it would take me a moment or two to catch up. Now, as an impartial observer, I had the luxury of not caring, or more correctly only caring about the legality of the plays and not the potential implications to the game. His opponent did care, but he didn’t interject himself too much while Olivier was going off.
What I’m getting at is that this was one of the sharpest minds in the game piloting the deck. His opponent seemed to know how the Elf deck worked, and did not stop to scrutinize the plays. Now try replacing Olivier with an average Magic player, his Zoo opponent with someone playing a far more interactive deck who needs to stop and think after each play to decide whether he is going to pop his Engineered Explosives or counter that Wirewood Symbiote. Suddenly, Olivier’s five minute turn might take as long as fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes for one turn! We’ve dealt with such absurdity from decks like Mind’s Desire and Heartbeat of Spring. They will typically load of and take one big turn. I’ve seen mediocre players piloting such decks against opponents who don’t quite know what’s going on. The end result is “five extra turns” at the end of the round taking 20-25 minutes.
Sensei’s Divining Top was blamed as the culprit of slowness in Extended tournaments. To this day, I maintain that it is the players that are slow, and if nothing changes in terms of bannings, we might potentially get a taste of a glacial freeze come January. The word is that R&D plans on watching Elves! at Worlds to determine if a banning is appropriate. However, watching the best in the world to determine if a deck is degenerate only focuses on the metagame portion of the problem. What R&D should really be doing (or also be doing) at Worlds is watching the Extended tournaments in Public Events to see how slowly non-Pros operate the deck.
Time isn’t the only issue with this deck. The sheer number of small actions that takes place opens the door for mistakes, especially of the missed trigger variety. Take the signature card in the deck, Glimpse of Nature. It creates a triggered ability every time you play a creature. It’s a mandatory trigger as two unfortunate Elf players discovered at Berlin when they tried to “go infinite.”
Very briefly, for those of who are not familiar with the particular variant of the deck. I believe the most common infinite combo involves Mirror Entity. You activate it for one to turn all of your creatures into Elves (in addition to every other creature type). That allows Wirewood Symbiote to return itself to hand to untap a creature (let’s say Heritage Druid). Now you replay the Symbiote, which untaps any Nettle Sentinels you have. You can repeat this over and over because the Wirewood Symbiote considers itself a new object in play, so it resets the “once per turn” part of the ability. With one mana spent on Mirror Entity (which you have to do each iteration because Wirewood Symbiote’s creature type also resets) and one mana to replay the Symbiote, you can end up netting one extra green mana each time off of Heritage Druid in addition to going to infinite life with Essence Warden.
Seeing a demonstration of the loop, the Elf player’s opponent asked “How many times?” to which the Elf player responded with some large, possibly made up number, forgetting that a Glimpse played earlier in the turn would force him to draw a card for each iteration of the loop when he played the Symbiote. The player tried to back out of his potentially lethal loop, but his opponent held him to the play. A Judge was called and it was ruled to be a legal loop, no matter how foolish it might have been. Now this apparently happened twice, with the same player playing the role of the opponent. On one of the calls, the ruling was appealed to the Head Judge, and Sheldon upheld the ruling, codifying the ruling at least for the duration of the tournament. I say that just because at least one Judge objected to the ruling that it was a legal loop. When the Elf player went to demonstrate the loop, he did so without resolving the triggered ability, which in that Judge’s opinion made it an illegal loop and should have stopped it dead in its tracks at the point of the Missed Trigger.
Essence Warden is another common card in the deck with a mandatory triggered ability, unlike many such abilities that are optional (“you may”). The thing with mandatory triggers is that you can’t ignore them, even if you want to. One Elf player found this out first hand. He was in the process of “going infinite,”(which in this case was not a true infinite, but more of just the general “spit out twenty dudes” sequence) had already forgotten a handful of Essence Warden triggers, and asked the Judge if he could simply ignore the rest of them for the turn while he proceeded to win. His opponent readily agreed with this solution; he knew he was probably going to lose, and if his opponent’s combo somehow fizzled out, it couldn’t hurt to have him not gain life.
The Judge disagreed. We cannot allow players to ignore mandatory game actions, even if both players agree to do so. He did, however, suggest an alternative to recording the change in life total every time a creature came into play, a tedious and time consuming procedure. Instead, the Judge told the player he could either keep a tally of the number of creatures played, or put those creatures in a separate pile and record the change in life total as a lump sum. Taking shortcuts like this is an important skill to acquire when you are playing a deck like Elves that can get bogged down in the minutia of repetitive actions involving Nettle Sentinels and Wirewood Symbiotes going off. Olivier Ruel went through his iterations without any unnecessary life total changes from Essence Warden. If he had stopped to change his life total after every creature, things would have once again gone into the snore zone.
In the Top 8 of Berlin, one Elf mirror came up with a rather interesting solution, which was to have the opponent keep track of the life total change while the active Elf player went through the motions. While some of you might be worried about unscrupulous opponents mis-recording the life changes, that would be cheating, just as it would be for your opponent to mis-record a creature’s damage during combat or only take two damage from your Incinerate. Just because your opponent is the only one recording the life during the sequence doesn’t mean that he has free license to cheat. It’s certainly a solution that solves some of the worry of taking too much time.
Of course, many people still hold out hope that we won’t have to worry about any of these issues come January. In his article on the Mothership, Tom LaPille pretty much said that Worlds would be the test to see what, if anything, they would do. Ask any Magic player and they already have an opinion on the subject though.
There has been a call for Sensei’s Divining Top to be unbanned because “T1 Top, T2 Counterbalance kolds Elves.” Halleluiah! All of our problems are solved. Forgive me, but isn’t plan akin to releasing Sylar to help catch the escaped Level Fivers? While the unbanning of SDT may keep Elves in check, I don’t see how it can be a good thing to reverse direction like that and unleash another unstable element into the format. While I disagreed with the banning of Top, they made their bed; now it’s time to lie in it. A Topless world they wanted, and a Topless world we shall live in. Besides which, I can’t recall them ever unbanning a card in Extended. Even after the rotations of Reanimate and Exhume, there was no talk of unbanning Entomb (of course, by then Dredge would have made that an impossibility).
In my opinion, Glimpse of Nature and Wirewood Symbiote are the likely hits, with Nettle Sentinel and Heritage Druid bringing up the rear, and Birchlore Rangers a possibility as Heritage 1b. No matter what, all eyes will definitely be on the Extended portion of Worlds to see if the format will break or find a balance (but not a Counterbalance). I will be on site in some capacity, working at my first Worlds. In the weeks leading up to Memphis, I will be catching up on my last few weeks of Judging at States and GP: Atlanta.
Until next time, this is Riki Hayashi telling you to call a judge.
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