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Modern Elves Primer

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Adam Koska
Adam Koska

About Adam Koska

Adam is an experienced player from the Czech Republic who has a number of high-profile finishes under his belt:

  • 14th at Pro Tour Portland 2014
  • 9th at Worlds 2009
  • 9th at Pro Tour Kyoto 2009
  • 64 Lifetime Pro Points
  • Three times Czech Nationals Top 8

Modern Elves Primer

Hey everyone! Today, I'm going to talk about Elves in Modern. Several weeks ago, I was unsure what to play in this format - after experimenting with Scapeshift and various forms of Jeskai, I felt that the results were ok but not great, and I wanted to find something better. At the first Modern WMCQ, Daniel Říha finished second with an Elves list and since I had almost all the cards for it, I decided to give it a try - and ever since then, I've been hooked. In this article, I'd like to explain why I think the deck is competitive in Modern and share everything I've learnt about it in the weeks that I've been playing it.

Can a Deck With Just a Bunch of 1/1s Actually Be Good?

Those of you who know me a bit probably also know that I'm a big "blue control aficionado", even in Modern, where being a control player is a much harder task than in other formats. So how did I become a big proponent of Elves? It started more or less as a joke - after having some mediocre finishes with the decks I played before, I just sleeved up Elves for one local tournament, expecting that I would perhaps, for a change, have fun playing a completely different archetype than usual, one that I would put back on the shelf once the tournament was over and I'd get back to playing serious decks. But instead, I found out that I really liked how it played - so I started tweaking it and playing it in more tournaments. Several weeks later, with 2nd and 1st place finishes at PPTQs, with a combined record of 26-5, I feel that I have found a version I really like and also that I'm pretty confident with the deck, knowing it inside out. This is my current version:

The main deck is pretty straightforward, but it took me a while to figure out what the sideboard should look like, based on how the post-board games work. Elves are a great example of a "game 1 deck", one that is very strong in the games without sideboard, just like Dredge, Storm, or Reanimator. The reason for this is that there are not many main deck sweepers in the format right now - control decks are not too numerous and even lists like Jeskai usually only run one or two sweepers in the main deck. Even R/G Tron lists started running Lightning Bolts instead of Pyroclasms, which is great news for Elves, since it turns the Tron matchup from really bad to really good. Basically, in game one, you want to be as fast as possible, without any durdling around. Untapping with an Elvish Archdruid will usually mean a game win, as it enables you to Overrun with Ezuri (a card that you virtually play as a 6-of, thanks to Chords) or just bury the opponent under the Collected Company value train. But the most important game 1 card is by far Shaman of the Pack. Modern is a format where fetching and playing untapped duals costs a lot of life, and with a curve as low as the one Elves play, you can typically also deal some damage by attacking with your Nettle Sentinels and Dwynen's Elites. When you do, having eight cards that "Fireball" the opponent for anything between 5 and 10 is absurd. From my experience, Elves usually goldfish on turn 3 or 4 when the opponent puts up little resistance. Removal spells set you back, but are only a serious problem when the opponent plays them along troublesome cards like Grim Lavamancer or Kalitas. The way it goes, Collected Company usually more than undoes removal and helps you push through.

Games two and three are a bit tricky. I started with a sideboard that consisted of a lot of reactive silver bullets like Burrenton Forge-Tender, Selfless Spirit and Chameleon Colossus, thinking that your trump cards could win you the post-board games. However, the reality was different. Chameleon Colossus is great against Jund, for example, but since the opponent boards in sweepers and more removal, casting a Chord for 4 becomes really difficult. As for the "anti-sweeper" cards like Forge-Tender and Selfless Spirit, they're good when you already have a board presence and can keep Chord for 2 up against their mass removal spell. But in reality, that's again not how the games work out - keeping creatures in play against something like Jund, Grixis, or Jeskai is an uphill battle post-board, and leaving five Chord mana up means that you must commit to the board and not attack with some of your creatures, which simply doesn't happen. The final nail in the coffin was when one Jund player swept my board with a Languish when I kept mana up for Selfless Spirit, expecting Damnation or Anger of the Gods.

That's why I decided that a different approach was needed. First of all, I found Fecundity as an answer to sweepers and removal in general. However, the card doesn't do anything against Anger of the Gods and gets laughed at by Kalitas. Step two was Evolutionary Leap - a card that works against any sweeper if you leave a couple mana up and can actually turn into card advantage even on a stalled board, thanks to Dwynen's Elite and Elvish Visionary. Evolutionary Leap is the best sideboard card against any matchup where the opponent boards in tons of removal.

Second, I found that many of the cards that are hard to beat are creatures - Kalitas, Grim Lavamancer, Izzet Staticaster, just to name a few. Because it's much harder to set up the "Elf-ball" solitaire with the opponent interfering, I started boarding out some of the Elves that don't do much unless you're winning (Heritage Druid, Nettle Sentinel, Ezuri, Shaman of the Pack) and instead started boarding in Dismembers. I've seen Abrupt Decay or Maelstrom Pulse in some Elves' sideboards, but I believe that Dismember is just better - with only twelve sources of black mana, it's not all that simple to have access to it every time you need it. Abrupt Decay does answer some other problematic cards like Grafdigger's Cage, but since I started boarding out Chords in many matchups where the opponents bring in the Cage, the deck doesn't get hosed by the one-mana artifact so much anymore - and the bonus of being able to kill a Kalitas or Siege Rhino with Dismember is pretty big.

Thoughtseize is a card that I had in the deck for a while, then I took it out and then I put it back again. Honestly, whether you need the Seizes depends on what the metagame looks like. If you think that chances are high that you'll play against decks that can goldfish faster than you (Ad Nauseam, Infect, Grishoalbrand), I think it's correct to run the discard spells. Also, if a Jund or Grixis opponent has more than three sweepers post-board, you might need the Seizes in your deck (which is why I only board them in against Jund for games three when I have enough information). But if there aren't that many combo decks in your area, it might be correct to add one more copy of Kitchen Finks or perhaps another Reclamation Sage and Chameleon Colossus - it really depends on what you expect to play against.

Although the manabase of this deck looks rather simple, let me spare a few words about it. First of all, I don't like lands that don't tap for green. Nykthos, for example, can be great when you already have some board presence, but with only eighteen lands, you're often forced to keep one-landers with a mana-elf, which you can't do if the land taps for colorless. And even with two lands on turn two, you often want to play two one-drops, which Nykthos doesn't allow you to do.

Only one Cavern of Souls might look suspicious in a deck full of Elves, but there are almost no counterspells in the format right now (and if the opponent has one, they will likely want to counter Company or Chord anyway), so Caverns are not needed. What is needed, though, is black mana for Thoughseizes and Dismembers post board. Gilt-Leaf Palaces are very close to Bayous here, but sometimes you will need a fourth untapped land for Company and you won't have Elves in hand anymore, which is when Palaces can underperform. That's why most of the mana base consists of fetchlands. Once you have a Palace or Cavern, you can start fetching for basics, which doesn't cost you almost anything and thins your library to prevent CoCo misses (something that doesn't happen very often in this deck).

For a while, I ran one Temple Garden in the deck, but drawing it and losing two life can cost you the game in matchups that are pure races. And since I cut down the number of white sideboard cards to just a single Kataki, I don't think the G/W dual is needed anymore (should you draw Kataki, you will sometimes be able to cast it with Horizon Canopy or Cavern on Spirit, although I recommend having the 2/1 in your deck as a Chord target rather than drawing it).

The Matchups

Jund - even to slightly favorable

In: 3 Dismember, 2 Evolutionary Leap, 2 Scavenging Ooze

Out: 4 Chord of Calling, 2 Heritage Druid, 1 Ezuri, Renegade Leader

Despite the number of removal they have, game one is pretty good. Their Lilianas do almost nothing and discard becomes dead after turn 3 or so, when you empty your hand. This changes post-board, when you should play carefully and not over-extend into mass removal, unless you have Evolutionary Leap. Collected Companies are huge in this matchup.

Affinity - favourable

In: 1 Kataki, War's Wage, 1 Reclamation Sage

Out: 2 Elvish Visionary

Game 1, the matchup is a straight-up race. If they don't draw Cranial Plating + a flying creature (Vault Skirge is the hardest to play against), you should be one or two turns faster. For games two and three, be careful not to lose to Whipflare - if you can, play around it, though sometimes you won't be able to afford such a luxury. Most Affinity sideboards only run one or two, so ignoring it and hoping they don't have it won't punish you as often as you might expect. I don't like boarding in Dismembers because it's rarely the creature that's the problem, it's usually the Plating that it carries and paying four life for a Dismember is not that far from taking the hit by the Plated creature.

Merfolk - favorable

In: 3 Dismember, 1 Reclamation Sage

Out: 2 Chord of Calling, 2 Elvish Visionary

Again, game one is a race and depends a lot on the die roll, but you should be faster more often than not, since it takes them some time to assemble their lords, while it usually only takes you to untap with a single Archdruid or Heritage Druid. Some Merfolk decks board in Grafdigger's Cages, which is why I board out two Chords, not to be hit by it so badly. Visionaries are slow (you only want them against decks with removal), so unless the Merfolk opponent plays Hibernation, you should be fine.

Grixis Control - unfavorable

In: 2 Evolutionary Leap, 3 Dismember, 3 Thoughtseize, 2 Scavenging Ooze

Out: 4 Chord of Calling, 2 Heritage Druid, 1 Nettle Sentinel, 1 Ezuri, Renegade Leader, 2 Shaman of the Pack

Game one boils down to how much early damage they take and whether they can stabilize with a sweeper, but it's typically fairly even. Post board, they can have a lot of cards you absolutely must answer (Kalitas, Izzet Staticaster) and quite a lot of sweepers as well - which is why you try to take out some of the fragile Elves and replace them with creatures that can win the game on their own (Scavenging Ooze). But even that way, the matchup is still far from great.

R/G Tron - unfavorable, unless they don't play sweepers main deck

In: 3 Thoughtseize, 1 Reclamation Sage

Out: 3 Elvish Visionary, 1 Chord of Calling

All Tron decks have some sort of Pyroclasm effects post-board, but at the same time, you can't afford to play around them by waiting with Evolutionary Leap, since by turn 4 or 5, Tron starts deploying threats that end the game quickly. You don't really care about Karn Liberated (and one way how to win is when the opponent only has Karn as finisher after completing the Tron), so you should play the first wave of creatures as quickly as possible but leave a few back in case they have a sweeper but not much else. Collected Company is great here, since it allows you to play instant-speed threats after they sweep the board.

Jeskai Control - even

In: 2 Evolutionary Leap, 2 Dismember, 3 Thoughtseize, 2 Scavenging Ooze

Out: 4 Chord of Calling, 2 Heritage Druid, 1 Nettle Sentinel, 1 Ezuri, Renegade Leader, 1 Shaman of the Pack

This matchup is fairly similar to the one against Grixis Control, except for the fact that Nahiri is not all that great against the swarm strategy, unlike Kalitas. Having discard post-board is great here, since you know when to hold creatures back and when to go all-in. Snapcasters are annoying, as they can re-cast an Anger that you discarded, which is why Evolutionary Leap is a crucial card here again - it allows you to play your creatures without having to worry about sweepers too much. The matchup really depends on how well prepared they are for fast creature decks - Ancestral Vision and Nahiri is good news for you, while Angers, Electrolyzes and Staticasters is not.

Naya Zoo / Burn - favorable

In: 2 Kitchen Finks, 2 Scavenging Ooze, 1 Spellskite, 2 Dismember

Out: 2 Chord of Calling, 1 Ezuri, Renegade Leader, 1 Shaman of the Pack, 3 Elvish Visionary

There are cards that you don't want to see, like Grim Lavamancer and Searing Blaze, but overall, the matchup is decent and I would even say very good if you manage to win the die roll. A turn-two Eidolon of Great Revels can hurt you, but fortunately, you have four Collected Companies that improve the board tremendously while not costing any life. Post-board, Scavenging Ooze becomes your trump card, since it wins the game in just a few turns, while making sure you don't die.

Infect - even

In: 1 Spellskite, 3 Dismember, 3 Thoughtseize

Out: 2 Shaman of the Pack, 3 Elvish Visionary, 2 Chord of Calling

This is one of the very few matchups which actually improves post-board. Game one is a race which they can easily win if they win the die roll and / or have Blighted Agent. As I've mentioned before, Elves can win on turn 3 (or even on turn 2 if you're super lucky), but you need a pretty good draw for that and without one, beating Infect is not easy. Dismembers and Thoughtseizes help a great deal for games two and three, as does Spellskite, although we still want to cut some Chords, as the opponent might have Grafdigger's Cages and Twisted Images. If Infect is popular in your area, I suggest running a singleton Melira as a silver bullet in the sideboard.

Scapeshift - even

In: 2 Evolutionary Leap, 3 Thoughseize

Out: 3 Elvish Visionary, 2 Chord of Calling

Game one, you usually want to go all-in, which means that if they have a sweeper, you're in a pretty bad spot. On the other hand, Scapeshift decks don't usually run that many Angers and if it costs them five mana to cast it with Bring to Light, that might be a bit too slow already (or you can protect your key creatures with Ezuri). Post-board, Thoughtseizes again improve your outlook by quite a bit, since you can make sure they can't go off with Scapeshift or strip them of their sweeper.

These are the most common archetypes and how the matchups go. If your metagame is full of midrange decks, then I highly suggest giving Elves a try - it's a turn or two faster than Melira Company and while being a bit more fragile, even removal and sweepers are not the end of the world. I must say that I was surprised how resilient the deck can be thanks to Evolutionary Leap.

Let me know if you have any questions or if you've perhaps been trying other cards in this archetype.

Thanks for reading and see you next time!

Adam

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