There And Back Again – ELVES! in Standard

Monday, March 24th – A hearty congratulations is in order for Ryohei Masuno and Taischi Fujimoto who both managed to navigate through a difficult two days of Japanese GP competition with Elf decks. That said, they weren’t really playing Elf decks… I’ll show you an Elf deck!

At recent Grand Prix: Shizuoka an “Elf” deck made the Top 8. Here’s what it looked like:

A hearty congratulations is in order for Ryohei Masuno and Taischi Fujimoto who both managed to navigate through a difficult two days of competition with lists similar to this, and who truly deserves accolades for their accomplishments. That said, and tuning in our best Paul Hogan voice, that’s not an Elf deck. This is an Elf deck!


12 Forest
4 Karplusan Forest
4 Gaea’s Cradle

4 Quirion Ranger
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Fyndhorn Elves
4 Priest of Titania
4 Recycle
4 Overrun
4 Kaervek’s Torch
4 Seeker of Skybreak
4 Skyshroud Elf
4 Quirion Elves

While specific lists for Elfball may have been lost to time, the classic pseudo-combo deck sought to do very crazy things very quickly. A few early mana Elves led to a few more mana Elves, which led to a Recycle-fueled Kaervek’s Torch backed by Gaea’s Cradle for lethal, often very early in the game. This was an Elf deck doing what Elves should: producing mana and being tricky, instead of just muscling their way through the red zone by being undercosted 2/2s and 3/3s.

Is it possible to relive the glory days of ELVES! thanks to the tribal goodness of the Lorwyn block? To be honest, I certainly wasn’t intending to find out when I threw a list loosely inspired by a Tsuyoshi Fujita creation from Shizuoka together at 2am the other night. Foremost on my mind then was “I’m tired of testing Spirit Stompy” and that my good friend Blu McFarlane had talked to me during our PTQ Minneapolis trip about needing a deck for City Champs the following (this past) weekend. Here’s Tsuyoshi’s list for reference:

7 Forest
4 Gilt-Leaf Palace
4 Llanowar Wastes
4 Mutavault
1 Pendelhaven
4 Treetop Village

4 Boreal Druid
4 Bramblewood Paragon
2 Elvish Champion
4 Heritage Druid
4 Imperious Perfect
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher
4 Gaea’s Anthem
2 Garruk Wildspeaker
4 Hunting Triad

1 Elvish Eulogist
2 Elvish Harbinger
4 Overrun
3 Prowess of the Fair
1 Shriekmaw
2 Squall Line
2 Terror

I thought Fujita’s list was neat in that he took advantage of a card that had caught the eye of many deck builders when Morningtide was spoiled: Heritage Druid. Still, it felt as though he had given the world an “Elf” deck that was actually a bunch of good Green creatures that were Elves in name only. Wren’s Run Vanquisher is a heckuva Watchwolf but it lacks the traditional tribal flavor of cards like Wellwisher, Wirewood Herald, or Timberwatch Elf.

In the end the decision was made to forgo the “good creatures” Fujita focused, on and instead attempt to do degenerate things with Elf tokens. After a few iterations, this is the list that resulted:

I have been known to get heat from some of my Iowan cohorts for building decks using “the Golden Ratio” (a phrase coined by Jack “Black” Ewing) which is a straight 20 land, 20 creatures, 20 spells when building decks. Using the ratio isn’t always a conscious decision so much as a natural building guideline: it simply feels wrong to start the building process with a fine tuned, nuanced model deck featuring 1s, 2s, and 3s aimed at a specific metagame. More often the correct path seems to be directness, and as much of it as possible with the specifics to be hammered out at a later date (generally after strenuous testing). ELVES! has directness in spades working as a veritable shotgun on the Standard format by asking the question “I’ll have 15 creatures attacking you on turn 4. What will you do?”

The answer it was quickly determined for most decks was very little. The original list started with 24 Forests before remembering Mutavault existed and that Pendelhaven was free. You’re practically forced to play slightly more lands in this beatdown deck than you would normally because you’re trying to get to five mana for Overrun and Coat of Arms. Mutavault is a huge help in that regard as it lets you cheat on both creatures and land while providing +1/+1 while activated with Coat of Arms in play, and an extra Elf for Elvish Promenade. Pendelhaven certainly isn’t a breathtaking technological development, but when playing Mono-Green you run Forest 2.0 “just cus,'” and as few other decks are playing it, it’s unlikely to be legend ruled off the pitch.

Moving on to the actual cards in the deck… First, anyone worth their weight in dirt can repeat verbatim the fact that Gilt-Leaf Ambush is “terrible” in Constructed. To all you Negative Nancys out there (Negative Nancy is a fancy way of saying G3rry Th0mps0n), keep in mind this concept: a nail would make a terrible home, but put a few together with some wood, drywall, and a few floors and you carve out a nice little section of your very own Human Dream. Gilt-Leaf Ambush is the first nail in the token generation process for ELVES! Your curve skips the two-drop section in exchange for banking on a mana Elf allowing you to turn 2 your Ambush. Not only do you get to peek at the next card in your deck, but your three Elves can quickly lead to degenerate things, be it a doubling of your forces with Promenade (pretty tame, really) or exploding into 15 16/16 creatures on the back of a Heritage Druid/Coat of Arms/token generation rampage.

Of course, enabling you to go on that rampage are the uber token generators Hunting Triad and particularly Elvish Promenade. Naturally, you prefer to play the Triad first if you’re looking to go off (though against Wrath decks you often play Promenade and hold the Triad for a post-Wrath mini-army). With Heritage Druid, the card that allows you to feel all comboey, Triad and Gilt-Leaf Ambush cost a virtual one mana. They usually pave the way for Promenade, which generally costs negative mana and allows you to continue going off playing every card in your hand including Coat of Arms, Imperious Perfect, and additional token generators.

The next step in that combo is playing either Coat of Arms or Overrun to “go big” and rock the death knell for your opponent. That’s part of the reason you play so many lands in addition to 8 mana Elves. A typical game will consist of a first turn Llanowar Elf/Boreal Druid, turn 2 Gilt-Leaf Ambush/Imperious Perfect, turn three Hunting Triad/Elvish Promenade, and a turn four attack for lethal with five 4/4 (or larger) Elf tokens.

It’s true that Wren’s Run Vanquisher is a “better” creature than the 1/1s created by Ambush. Bramblewood Paragon beats Hunting Triad in a vacuum. What you have to remember is that this deck isn’t that deck. Vanquisher and Paragon can’t kill on turn 4. They are slightly more than fair, but not degenerate. ELVES! looks to be more than just simply the beatdown; it wants to be the fastest beatdown in the format and to ensure an opponent doesn’t have the chance to do anything about it.

On to the matchups…

UW Reveillark

Wrath of God is your bane in this matchup, but you are faster than they are by at least a turn and they may or may not be running a full four copies. There’s not much you can do about them having it besides a traditional path of playing around Wrath, which in ELVES! means playing Elvish Promenade before Hunting Triad when you would do it the other way around normally. Combo quickly by creating a token force through turn 3 then going big on turn 4 with either Coat or Overrun. Two situations will then come up: either they have the Wrath and you rebuild, or they don’t and you win the following turn. If they do blow up your board, keep swinging with Mutavaults and rebuild in an effort to force them to have yet another Wrath.

In: 4 Harmonize
Out: 4 Imperious Perfect

Take a deep breath. Relax. Okay. Imperious Perfect isn’t the be all and end all of Elf decks.

I said take a deep breath!

Now, the Imperfect is, well…imperfect when it comes to surviving and doing a great deal against the UW matchup. It may seem like blasphemy to suggest boarding it out, but remember your goal is to combo quickly by swinging on turn 4 or 5 with 4+/4+ Elves and rebuild after a possible Wrath of God. Harmonize goes a long ways towards helping you rebuild, as opposed to Perfect which typically has a huge target on its forehead from the moment it hits the table. The wonderful thing about ELVES! is that it takes only a single card like Hunting Triad to get right back into the thick of things, creating a mini-army pumped by Overrun or Coat of Arms.

Overall, the matchup feels challenging but about even. You have some resilience to Wrath and you’re a lot faster, but they have a small bit of disruption early in Rune Snag and are one of the few decks with actual Wrath of Gods main.

RG and RGb Ramp

Like UW after your turn 4, there are two situations that happen in this matchup as well. The first is that they have sufficient “Wraths” maindeck in the form of Void, Sulfurous Blast, or Pyroclasm, draw them, and make it nearly impossible for you to win. The second involves you taking advantage of the fact that they’re not certain what you’re trying to do and managing to stick a Coat of Arms before they can Wrath making your Elves nigh unstoppable. Either situation is difficult for the other deck to push through, but you have a slight edge in the fact you can resolve a Coat. Once you’ve done that, every token generator you play creates Grizzly Bears or better, and Mutavaults provide an additional +1/+1 for being activated. That can save your creatures from Sulfurous Blast or Pyroclasm, and each creature you create from that point onwards makes it harder and harder for them to win.

In: 4 Harmonize, 4 Door of Destinies
Out: 4 Imperious Perfect, 4 Overrun

Perfect comes out again in this matchup as it has an even bigger target thanks to Incinerate and Skred, and Overrun in the face of so many “Wraths” loses a lot of value and turns into a dead or “win more” card. Harmonize keeps you juiced in the face of massive creature loss while Door of Destinies gives you a virtual 8 Coat of Arms but of a slightly different and relevant flavor. Door necessitates a slight change of play style. Prior to boarding you were happy to overload the board and Coat or Overrun for the win. Door, particularly in your opening hand, asks you to sit back and slowplay your Elf spells after it is in play. It’s often right to hold your Llanowar Elf or Boreal Druid until turn 2 to feign having missed it on your first turn and give off the air of not needing to accelerate anything into play. Your opponent is likely to hold off on a Wrath until they feel they’re getting a more-than-one-for-one freeing you to play the Door on turn 3.

At that point nearly every single spell you play will make it more difficult for your opponent to kill the creatures that follow it into play. At first it will not seem a big deal, but by the second or third token generator they’re staring down multiple 4/4s. When you follow up with a Coat of Arms? Good night moon.

You still need to keep a few things in mind. Siege-Gang Commander can take advantage of your Coat of Arms, though your creatures will almost always be larger. Their Mutavaults will also take advantage of your Coats and could potentially be lethal on a counter swing once you’ve gone all-in. Intelligent players will also have boarded in some form of answer to Coat of Arms, likely Krosan Grip, that can hit your Doors of Destiny.

Even through that, however, the matchup is favorable. They may have a lot of Wraths, but they’re of the “Wrath” variety and slowrolling creatures until you’ve played Coat or Door post-sideboard generally trumps.

BG Aggro/”Elves”

They’re not playing Wraths or “Wraths,” so you’re in the clear to overload the board and swarm to your heart’s content. They will have the “superior” “Elves” you’re not playing, but when you’ve got a million nameless blockers it just won’t feel relevant that their creatures have deathtouch or do other cool things. Simply shrug, don’t die, then overwhelm them with all of your creatures charged by Overrun or Coat. Sure, theirs will be larger if you have Coat, but three or four super awesome lethal sized creatures are no match for ten or twelve boring but lethal-sized creatures tromping through the red zone.

Currently nothing

Elvish Champion is a card that has been bandied around (and was originally in the maindeck), but this matchup isn’t strictly challenging at the moment. Sometimes they’ll come out of the gates too quickly and overwhelm you, but those games are the exception more than the rule. If you fear Damnation you can consider sideboarding your Harmonizes to counter.


Bitterblossom and Scion of Oona will sometimes allow the Faeries player to keep up with you and when backed by Mistbind Clique to keep you off your expensive spells (provided you don’t have Heritage Druid), and Cryptic Command to work as a Fog, it’s possible for the UB flyers to simply out-tempo you into a win. Most of the time, however, you can come out of the gates fast enough to keep them on their back foot long enough to swarm for the dubya.

In: 4 Squall Line
Out: 4 Imperious Perfect

Originally Cloudthresher was in over Squall Line, but the Line is simply more flexible. It’s an X-spell that could potentially be relevant against something like Teferi’s Moat or Magus of the Moat from UW, while also killing Platinum Angel. Against Faeries it’s simply a great response to an upkeep Mistbind Clique, or when your opponent taps out to play Cryptic Command. The added security of a Wrath for their deck should tip the scales in your favor, though if they have Damnation you probably want to board out the Overruns for Harmonize.


A dedicated Goblin deck is probably your toughest matchup. They have the removal for your turn 1 Elf, they’re the only deck that can play as many creatures as you can, and they will sometimes be bigger after your Coat of Arms. You’ll struggle to stay in the match, but it’s certainly not entirely out of reach.

In: 4 Door of Destinies
Out: 4 Coat of Arms

For the sideboarded games take away their biggest weapon in the form of Coat of Arms and try a go-big that’s not symmetrical. It is unlikely you’ll be able to slowroll the Door of Destinies like you do against RG, but playing out an early Triad and then following up with Door to accrue counters as you build up your army is a fine plan as well.

Before we go for today, there is one rule it’s important to remember with ELVES! You should mulligan any hand which doesn’t feature a turn 1 mana Elf. That’s the key to allowing you to explode into the later turns, and you shouldn’t be afraid to mulligan to five in an effort to hit one. Oh, and how did Blu wind up doing at his City Champs with the ELVES!? He got there, naturally…

Until next week…

Bill Stark
[email protected]