Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #67: Lessons Learned From Playing Elvish Succession At Regionals

My goal that day was a winning record. I knew that I hadn’t playtested enough and would get caught by tricks and sideboards I had not anticipated. I also figured to lose one or two matches to manascrew, since I was running a two-color deck with non-aligned colors and no Birds of Paradise. That about summed up the day: Winning record, lost two matches to my errors, one to mana screw. But along the way, I learned some lessons about Rob Dougherty’s Elvish Succession, some changes in the metagame that have weakened it, and some tricks on playing it properly.

This article will have some Regionals highlights, a bit of tech, and some random musings. It’s not an article about how I qualified – I didn’t.

I play a lot of Magic – at least for someone with a full-time job and other commitments, but most of that is multiplayer and casual. Because I live in the country, my home internet connection is bad enough that I don’t play online. Therefore, I went into Regionals having played maybe four dozen playtest games since Legions became legal. I also had played marginal type 2 decks (like Squirrel Nest/Death Match) in multiplayer games and so forth, but that’s not playtesting. I had conflicts and other commitments that prevented me from playing in a single Standard tournament since February.

With preparation like that, you do not win serious tournaments. (At least I don’t.)

I like Wake, but I had not piloted a Wake deck since January, and had played exactly half a playtest game between rounds in a Friday night draft. I have never piloted Slide, and had only played against one twice. I hadn’t played against MBC since playtesting for States.

Ingrid and I did put together some decks, and I playtested against them. We had good, conventional versions of Tog, U/G Madness, R/G Beats, and MBC. Since Ingrid was going to be judging at Regionals, she played the conventional decks, and I kept trying to get my own deck ideas working. The Squirrel Death deck worked really well – unless the opponent could counter or destroy enchantments. The R/B land destruction deck, with Innocent Blood, Chainer’s Edict, Recoup, and Magnivores for the kill, could not beat U/G if U/G went first. The Mana Echoes deck turned into a really cool Emperor powerhouse.

Two weeks from Regionals, I decided I was not going to have time to build and tune my own deck… So I needed to find a net deck. I once felt qualms about using a netdeck, but I finally realized that I was not going to outthink teams of people who played Magic nearly full-time, nor would I outsmart the collective playtesting of tens of thousands of Magic players worldwide. I can occasionally claim to have worked on ideas long before they won PTQs, but my versions often missed certain critical metagame tweaks.

(For example, I had a deck built around Replenish, Pandemonium, and Saproling Burst two weeks before they were winning the first qualifiers – but mine didn’t have mana quite right. More embarrassing, my version of Beasts revolved around Oversold Cemetery, not Glory.)

Although I had decided to play a netdeck, I still had a strong reluctance to playing a Tier 1 deck. I was very used to U/G Madness, having playtested against that as much as anything… But I had never practiced the mirror. The same was true of Psychatog – I could play the deck, but I was a lot less experienced in the mirror than any good opponents would be. I looked at R/G, but pure beatdown is not my style.

I strongly considered MBC. I could play the deck, and the metagame looked about right.

I also looked for interesting decks. I love G/B, but having built and played Cemetery decks early on; I just didn’t think they were consistent enough for a long tournament like Regionals. I finally built Elves (hey – the cards are easy to get) and Elvish Resurgence.

I started playtesting Elves one evening against Ingrid’s U/G. To both our surprise, Elves just tore the head off U/G. In a typical game, Ingrid could keep dropping Wurms, but the Elves deck would have a Taunting Elf, a Timberwatch Elf, and a Wirewood Lodge, and the Taunting Elf would kill a Wurm every turn. Or the Wellwishers would make racing impossible. Elves also gave R/G a serious run for the money (it depended on whether they drew Violent Eruption often enough), and could outrun Tog unless Tog got good draws – meaning lots of creature kill and counters.

The down side was that Elves had to overextend, or the Timberwatches were useless. That meant it was very vulnerable to Mutilate, Slice and Dice, and Wrath of God. Moreover, Elves were almost completely wrecked by Engineered Plague. I knew MBC would run the Plague… But when I saw that U/G decks were running Gigapede and that Tog was sideboarding Plague to fight the ‘Pede, I figured the gig was up. I expected Midwest Regionals to have plenty of Wake, some Tog, Slide, R/G, U/G, and MBC, plus a lot of random stuff. That meant that Elves would be facing a lot of Wrath effects, and Plague from at least two main archetypes. Caller of the Claw just didn’t seem like enough to fight it. That meant it was a deck I would bring to play fun games between rounds, but nothing I could seriously consider.

We did try Nature’s Resurgence as a sideboard card against Tog, Slide, and Wake – drawing a ton of cards seemed good in theory – but it was too slow, and too likely to be countered.

I have no idea how Peter Szigeti managed to win Southern California Regionals with the deck – lucky matchups, I guess. Or maybe he is better at drawing the Caller of the Claw than I was.

I also liked the colors of [author name="Rob Dougherty"]Rob Dougherty’s[/author] Elvish Succession, and the fact that it had a lot of tricks. I put that together, and started playtesting it on the Wednesday before Regionals. I figured that was plenty of time to learn a complex combo deck; after all, I had played an Extended Phyrexian Ghoul deck in two or three tournaments a couple years back. Ingrid and I did not have much time to playtest – but we do commute to work together, and Ingrid is a really good judge and rules board guru, so we spent a lot of drive time discussing exactly how the combos worked, and how to stack the effects. I understood the deck pretty well. Heading to Regionals, I had both Elvish Succession and MBC all assembled with decklists typed out.

An aside – if you are heading to a big Constructed tourney, get your deck together and print out the decklist in advance, then check it. Then check your sleeves. Being married to a judge means I get to hear about all the problems at every tournament, and the number of good players that misregister decks or get match losses or warnings due to marked or worn sleeves is ridiculous.

Anyway, morning of the tournament, I was still undecided – but a friend needed to borrow a bunch of cards for an MBC deck. I simply handed him mine – it was a lot easier than making a decision. I was playing Elvish Succession.

Midwest Regionals had four hundred and forty players registered. That’s ten rounds, no top eight. After all, everyone who made the top eight qualified for Nationals anyway, and ten rounds is a long tournament. Just ask the judges and Tournament Organizers. (As one of the judges there, yes, it was a very long tournament – Ingrid)

My goal that day was a winning record. I knew I hadn’t playtested enough and would get caught by tricks and sideboards I had not anticipated. I also figured to lose one or two matches to manascrew, since I was running a two-color deck with non-aligned colors and no Birds of Paradise. That about summed up the day: Winning record, lost two matches to my errors, one to mana screw.

I won’t do a complete match-by-match report, since that gets boring. Some highlights and lowlights:

The All About Luck Match:

I was playing a very solid U/G player who won the roll and played Careful Study, discarding Basking Rootwalla and Ray of Revelation. This is really bad luck for me, but I get some Nantuko Husks in play, along with a Wirewood Hivemaster. I have Elvish Succession in hand, and when he taps all his green, I drop it. He has a Logic. We trade creatures for a long while – he could not draw a Wonder despite having multiple active Looters and digging forty cards deep into his library. I cannot draw another Succession or anything larger than a 1/1. Finally, he draws Wonder and wins.

The first game took thirty-four minutes. Game two, he double-mulliganed, and I smashed him in under five minutes. Game three, he again had bad draws, and I had double Wellwishers, but not enough pressure. We drew.

Who Loses To Orcish Artillery?

I lost round one. Round two, I ended up playing against a R/G deck piloted by a new player who probably didn’t own all the cards he needed. I saw a full set of Call of the Herds, but he played a Seton’s Desire over the fourth Elephant Guide. He also tended to throw his Volcanic Hammers at my head instead of my creatures. Game one was sad – I had a no-land mulligan, followed by the dreaded”double City of Brass, Swamp” hand. I got fried, with nine points of the damage coming from my own lands. Game two I won easily – Ravenous Baloth is very good against R/G.

Game three is another mulligan into a hand with Forest, City – and I draw the second City immediately. He gets pants on his Phantom Centaur, but I have a Hivemaster and chump with bugs, then get a Succession into play.

He plays Orcish Artillery.

That’s usually a bad card… But I am at six life and he is at twenty. I have two draws. On my last turn, I draw a Husk. I cast it, tap a Wirewood Herald and Hivemaster for mana, then sacrifice Herald to the Husk. I get the Soultiller, and tap everything for enough mana to cast it and go off. I had to tap both Cities – bringing me to one life – but going off let me dig for the Baloth and win.

After the match, I talked to him about using burn to clear a path, and gave him some other basic advice on playing the deck – stuff like attacking first, then playing creatures, and holding lands when you have six in play and a Wild Mongrel on the table.

Losing to Orcish Artillery would have been embarrassing.

Slide – Losing To Quirks:

This match happened once we were both out of contention. We commiserated about bad draws and random shaftings. I opened with a Forest, Llanowar Elves on turn 1 and Swamp, Husk on turn 2, then told him about nearly losing to Orcish Artillery. He played lands and cycled stuff turns 1 and 2, and told me about the opponent with turn 4, 5, and 6 Reprisals for his turn 4, 5, and 6 Exalted Angels. Turn 3, I beat for two, then played a Herald. He played a morph, and said he was tired of”losing to flukes.” I played my fourth land and attacked. He did not block, so I apologized, tapped the elves for mana, sacrificed them, cast Caller of the Claw #1, sacrificed it after its ability went on the stack, cast Caller number #2 and beat for twenty-four.

Game two I did it again, although this time I had to hold Caller of the Claw mana open in case of Starstorm.

A Tale Of Two Togs:

The first match of the day was against a Tog deck that just missed qualifying. We split games one and two, and I made my first match-losing mistake in game three. I got greedy and tried to Smother his Tog before attacking. He had seven counters the graveyard and had seen less than half his deck, but he had the last Circular Logic in hand. I should have waited it out.

I also played Tog in the last match of the day. Game one I had more pressure than he had counters, and I dropped a Caller in response to his turn 2 double-Blood, then resolved a turn 4 Husk. On turn 5, I played Verdant Succession and demonstrated the combo. He had no counters.

The second game was a lot longer. I got in some early damage, but he managed to counter and kill my stuff. He had a Compulsion, but I Naturalized it when he tapped out Compulsing at the end of my turn. He Upheavaled and dropped Tog with an untapped Island up, but I had floated four mana and got the second Smother through. Soon we were both playing off the tops of our libraries. I got two Composts in play, but he had double Engineered Plagues naming elves and drew more blue bounce than black removal. He dropped another Tog, but I had Smother. Finally, he had to Upheaval again, but did not have Force Spike for my Ranger. My next play was Swamp, Husk but he had Counterspell, so I beat for one – leaving him at one. He played Tog and I played Hivemaster, Ranger, and got a bug token. He played Engineered Plague, killing my elves and leaving me with just the Bug. At this point, he could not attack, because I was at twenty-three life and his Tog could do a maximum of nineteen. He was at one, so the bug token would kill him. I topdecked my last Smother before he topdecked removal, and the bug crawled over for the kill.

“This Is A Bad Matchup For You”:

I played a G/B Cemetery deck, but had to double-mulligan my opening hand into Forest, Swamp, Birchlore Ranger, and two Verdant Successions. He played Forest, Bird. I drew another Succession, played the forest and elf, and passed the turn. He played a turn 2 Cabal Therapy, naming Succession. I then drew lands on six of the next seven turns.

Game two my deck behaved, but game three I again mulliganed. He cast a turn 1 Bird, followed by a turn 2 Therapy that initially missed, but then was flashed back to take two Smothers. Then his turn 3 Therapy nailed the Fallen Angel and Baloth, leaving me with nothing but lands. He played Phantom Centaurs on turns 4 and 5, plus a Husk and Cemetery on turn 6.

His assessment:”This is a really bad matchup for you.” My assessment? Losing three cards to mulligans and six cards to Cabal Therapy by turn 2 makes anything a bad matchup.

Why Good Players Playtest:

I played two (!) different mono-black decks with Cabal Archon, Clerics, and Ensnaring Bridge. The first match I again double-mulliganed (no land, no green mana) and had my turn 1 Llanowar Smothered. I played a turn 2 Birchlore Ranger, but never played a second land. Turn eight I died to beatdown from three Festering Goblins. Game two went as planned, but game three he dropped a Bridge. I had not sided in all three Naturalizes and eventually died with lethal damage on the table and having drawn about two-thirds of my deck thanks to Compost, but I never saw a Naturalize or Succession.

The second time I saw the Clerics/Bridge deck, I knew what to do and won without much trouble; I sided in all the Naturalizes and the Skirk Marauder.

Slow Death To Wake:

I played a Wake deck early on. The first game was a sea-saw. I got through some pressure and beat him down to low single digits a couple times, but he gained life through Renewed Faith and stalled with Moment’s Peace. I baited Counterspells and managed to force the combo through. I hit a billion life and had millions of bugs and bears in play. However, he had his Mirari and both Wakes, and managed to Compulsion into a Wrath the next turn. I had just put almost all my elves and beasts back in my deck, so I had a lot more cards than he did, but he killed Succession with Ray of Revelation the next turn. Since we were already about thirty-five minutes into the match, I gambled that he could not deck me.

A bad bet. Forty-five minutes into the game, he cast Cunning Wish and got a Flash of Insight. Flash of Insight allowed him to remove Opportunity from his graveyard, meaning that with Mirari, Cunning Wish, and Flash, he could target me with Opportunity enough times to deck me. If he did not have the Flash of Insight, I could not have lost, and probably could have killed him. All his Angels and Renewed Faiths were in the graveyard, and I would eventually have found a way to get a creature through.

His Krosan Reclamation would also have allowed him to deck me, but not in the time left in the match.

“Yeah, But How Often Do You Get The Combo Off?”

I played an MBC deck, and got a fast Verdant Succession out in game one. Succession and a couple green creatures is pretty much game, even without the infinite combo. Creature kill just doesn’t cut it when everything just comes back. I then dropped a Husk, and he did not have the Smother. I won.

Game two, he played a Swamp and missed with a Duress. I played a turn 1 Birchlore. He played a swamp and cast Tainted Pact, hitting two straight Cabal Coffers (how lucky for me!). I played a Hivemaster, then tapped the Elves for a Llanowar and a bug. He played Swamp number three and an Edict, killing the bug. I played a Fallen Angel. He played Swamp number four, then tapped out to play Diabolic Tutor – almost certainly for Mutilate.

At this point, the player next to me was shuffling up and talking to his opponent about our match. He told his opponent that the combo was too fragile. His opponent argued that I had just won game one with the combo. The first player interrupted me, politely, to ask how often I had gotten the combo off. I said”four of five times.” The doubter then asked, as if on cue:”That’s the problem – how do you win if you don’t get the combo?” I looked at the board, at my hand, and said”Like this.” I declared the Angel as an attacker, cast the Caller of the Claw, put the Hivemaster trigger and the bear trigger on the stack, sacrificed all the elves, including the Caller. I then sacrificed the insect and the four bears to pump the Angel to 21/10 and won the match.

Hey, timing is everything with a combo deck.

Withered Wretch:

I played against three decks with Withered Wretch. The Oversold Cemetery deck played them, but I was able to Smother it before going off the game I won. The other two games I was so badly wrecked by Cabal Therapy that it was irrelevant.

I was able to play around them pretty well. One match against the Cabal Archon deck, I went off game two despite my opponent having two Wretches on the board and mana untapped. I did carefully explain each step, indicating what effects I was putting on the stack and allowing him an opportunity to respond each time. He let me complete the entire cycle, probably because he did not completely understand the stack. In any case, I was trying to get him to tap his mana, because I really wanted to be able to attack and force a trade without him being able to use the Archon… But since he let me go off and hit a seven-figure life total, it was irrelevant.

Overall Impressions:

Rob Dougherty put a lot of work into this deck, and it really is pretty good. It is much more explosive than it seems, and has a lot of options across the board. If you want to play the deck, study his articles. That is the best place to start.

And then practice the deck – a lot more than I did. You need to know the stack and rules inside out when playing this deck. I had an advantage – I playtest with a level two judge and rules-board guru, and we talked through the combo and options a lot driving to and from work. Be certain to understand how to deal infinite damage with the Skirk Marauder – that is not at all intuitive, but it is critical.

I have just a few quibbles with Rob’s piece: First of all, with more and more Tog decks running Engineered Plague sideboard, the”combo out, elves in” plan may no longer be optimal. Secondly, I wish he had talked about sideboarding against Wake. I never got to play a second game against Wake, but I had a long time to think about the sideboard, and Wake just looks like a bad matchup. Wrath makes overcommitting for fast pressure seem risky, while Ray of Revelation makes the Verdant Succession combo seem risky.

Overall, though, many thanks and kudos, Rob, for a great deck.


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