This was quite the Magic weekend, on both the local and global scales. For those of us sitting in Pittsburgh, not qualified for the Pro Tour, at least we had a PTQ to whet our appetites. As my roommate Kevin and I battled through a 140-player tournament in a room set up to accommodate only one hundred players, the six-Elf Top 8 was locked in at Berlin.
This amused me quite a bit. At the last PTQ I attended before this weekend, Cedric Phillips was there playing some Extended with a friend or two, and he was playing a goofy Green deck with Nettle Sentinels and Glimpse of Nature. Everyone in the room was ribbing Cedric about how bad his deck was, and asking why he always wanted to play some trash like this. Fast forward to the end of the Pro Tour, and those of us who made fun of Cedric are feeling a little awkward. It turns out that the deck was not as much of a secret weapon known only to Cedric as I initially thought, but the point still stands.
If you missed the story, Elves Combo won Pro Tour: Berlin. It also dominated Pro Tour: Berlin. Back when PT: Hollywood was being analyzed, I tracked the performance of the Standard Faerie deck across the three days of play and came to the conclusion that the deck was being eliminated at a faster pace than players; in other words, the Faerie deck was making the cut less often than the average deck. The opposite is true for Berlin and for Elves Combo.
At the start of the Pro Tour, 71 out of 454 players were running Elves Combo. As Day 1 ended, 294 players, or approximately 65% of the field, were eliminated. This means that the "average" conversion rate from Day 1 to Day 2 was 35%. However, 38 Elves players were still in the running, which means that about 54% of the people playing Elves Combo made that cut, well over the expected amount. At the end of Day 2, 152 more players were eliminated from the tournament, putting the conversion rate from Day 2 to the Top 8 at 5%. Again, Elves Combo greatly outpaced this, with about 16% of players making the Top 8. And, of course, by the time the Quarterfinals were over, the only decks left in contention were four Elves decks.
The only conclusion I can possibly draw from those numbers is that Elves Combo is the best deck in Extended by a wide margin. This leaves me with two questions: which version of the deck is "the best," and how I can consistently beat a deck built around this engine.
Of course, an explanation of the engine itself is probably in order. It really boils down to Nettle Sentinel and either Birchlore Rangers or Heritage Druid. If you have a single Nettle Sentinel and a Birchlore Rangers in play, you can tap them for a Green mana, play any one-drop Elf (untapping the Sentinel), and then tap the Sentinel and the new Elf to move forward. You can do the same sort of thing with Heritage Druid, except that you must tap three Elves, so you can't just chain one Nettle Sentinel with your drops. However, since you produce one mana per creature, instead of one half a mana as with the Rangers, chances are good you can just play multiple Elves and then tap them two at a time instead of one at a time.
So that takes care of getting Elves into play, but how do you get them into your hand? Glimpse of Nature is the obvious answer, giving you a random card for each Elf that you play. You can also generate extra cards with Elvish Visionary and Wirewood Symbiote, or by tapping ten creatures to Chord of Calling for a Regal Force. It is possible for all of these methods to "fizzle" as you draw only lands, but you're still left with a huge number of creatures, and attacking someone to death after you untap isn't too difficult.
The deck that won the Pro Tour actually won the game by dealing twenty damage with a Grapeshot, and sometimes by dealing more than that after regrowing the Grapeshot with Eternal Witness. The deck played by Tomoharu Saito won the game with a Chord of Calling for Predator Dragon, and with Blasting Station after sideboarding. Yet another version of the deck could use Mirror Entity to turn Wirewood Symbiote into an Elf, meaning that the Symbiote could bounce itself. If you have a Heritage Druid, a Nettle Sentinel, a Wirewood Symbiote, and a Mirror Entity, you can tap your three Elves for GGG, spend one on the Entity's ability, untap Heritage Druid by bouncing your Symbiote, and replay the Symbiote, untapping your Nettle Sentinel. You can then spend your last mana to activate your Entity again, tap your three other creatures for GGG, and repeat. This gives you infinite mana and infinite creatures, which gives you infinite cards with Glimpse of Nature (be careful!) and infinite life with Essence Warden. You can then use Mirror Entity to actually win the game at your leisure, or use a post-board Brain Freeze to deck the bad guy.
The Predator Dragon kill requires the least effort of them all to actually assemble and win with. You can tap nine creatures to Chord of Calling for the Dragon, and then eat eight of those to swing for twenty. With a Wirewood Hivemaster spitting out Insect tokens, you really only need a small handful of Elves to assemble the win. On the other hand, relying on a creature, even a 20/20 Flying Haste creature, exposes you to things like Terror, Condemn, Venser, and so on. Blasting Station after sideboarding gives you a way to win without worrying about getting your Dragon messed with, and also gives you an out to potentially problematic creatures like Goblin Sharpshooter.
The Grapeshot kill, on the other hand, demands that you play a number of spells equal to your opponent's life total, so it's harder to completely win in one turn. However, because this version of the deck doesn't rely on Chord of Calling, LSV was able to "upgrade" the Chord to Weird Harvest. Chances are good that you can tap a few Elves to generate something like six mana without too much trouble, and a Harvest from there is going to do a pretty good job of locking the game up.
The Mirror Entity decks do the best job of winning by just attacking with a creature swarm because a Chord for the Entity will turn your Elves and Insects into a huge attacking force with just a few mana. They also have the infinite life combo, but that doesn't actually end a game, and the combo will tend to put you ahead on cards, so decking is something that you might actually have to worry about. Due to this, post-board games have access to Brain Freeze to solve the decking problem. You also can use the Brain Freeze to hijack your opponent's Storm count in the various "mirror" matches you might play, which can be a big problem if you do it while a Glimpse of Nature trigger is on the stack.
So which is the best? I really like the Dragon kill due to the ease with which you can assemble it, but I feel like you are at a disadvantage against people who actually prepare for the tournament and gun for the Elves Combo deck, because you have the least resilient maindeck win condition. The good news is that your speed can mitigate this problem; Terror isn't an answer if you're winning before they play their second land of the game. In this vein, I think that a top-notch player with experience should pick the deck that won the Pro Tour (the Grapeshot kill) because it is safer but more difficult to play. However, it will take some testing before I am fully confident in which version I plan to play in upcoming events.
Hating the Deck
There are two angles from which you can attack the Elves Combo deck. First, you can try to contain the actual engine of the deck. In other words, if you can stop them from activating their Heritage Druids and Birchlore Rangers, you can stop them from pulling all the Elf chain shenanigans that the deck is famous for. You can do this either by making sure that the mana producers are dead or by stopping Elves from coming into play and tapping for mana. You can also concede the fact that the Elf deck will be able to play its men and draw its cards, and try to defend yourself from the incoming Predator Dragon, Mirror Entity, or Grapeshot.
There are a ton of ways to hate on the engine, but they face various problems. First, the Elf deck is absurdly fast, so a five-mana answer is unlikely to actually affect the game. Second, the deck contains Viridian Shaman, so an artifact like Chalice of the Void or Ensnaring Bridge can be answered without too much trouble.
There are also ways to hate on the win conditions, but you then suffer from two problems. First, you might be hating out the wrong win condition for the specific list you're playing against at any given moment; you'll feel pretty silly holding Condemn as your opponent Grapeshots you for twenty. Second, you will have to be able to cast it at the right time, which can be difficult if the bad guy is packing sideboard Thoughtseize to strip away your defenses.
This is not to say that the Elf Combo deck is unbeatable. I am just stressing the fact that the deck is resilient and hard to nail down; there is no catch-all like Kataki that will keep it in check (at least not one that I've found yet). Still, here are some ideas that the CMU crew has come up with to stop the Elves from taking all the PTQ slots.
Chalice of the Void - Okay, we didn't come up with this one. There was a Tezzeret control deck in the Top 8 alongside the six Elf decks, and it was leaning on the Chalice set to one to stop Elves from running over it. A second-turn Chalice will tend to lock the Elves player out of the game until they can answer it with Viridian Shaman, Gleeful Sabotage, or Nullmage Shepherd. Even if the Chalice isn't an instant win, it will make sure that you have a little room to breathe, and possibly give you time to really lock the game up.
The following cards are all intended to stop the Elves deck from getting its engine online. There's not too much you can say about Stifle or Trickbind that isn't obvious, but cards that stop the engine take a little more thought.
Trinisphere - Another Tezzeret target, the Sphere stops the Birchlore Ranger + Nettle Sentinel chain. However, Heritage Druid can go over the top of Trinisphere if there are enough Nettle Sentinels involved (you really only need two). This means that, like Chalice of the Void, Trinisphere is not unbeatable but simply very strong against Elves.
Night of Souls' Betrayal - This is bumping up against the speed problem, given that it costs four mana, but it could easily be the final nail in the coffin if you've slowed the game down with Chalice or Trinisphere. While in play, there can be no Birchlore Ranger or Heritage Druid mana, and no Hivemaster tokens powering up Chord of Calling. It also nicely dodges Viridian Shaman.
Darkblast - This is sort of the miniature Night of Soul's Betrayal. If you have this in the opener, it will be very hard for the Elf deck to actually get everything that they need into play at the same time. Even if they lead with the Sentinel and then follow up with Birchlore Rangers, you can respond to the Sentinel's untap trigger by killing the Rangers to make sure that things don't spiral out of control from there.
Echoing Decay - Too much of a stretch? Either way, it will kill all of the Nettle Sentinels that your opponent has in play, and without the Sentinels untapping and tapping to make mana, it will be hard for the bad guy to play out his whole combo. It also gives you an out to a twenty-token attack, and can be used as a vanilla removal spell on anything like Wirewood Symbiote or Heritage Druid.
If you really want to stop the win conditions instead of the engine, you can play anything that counters the Storm triggered ability. You could play something like Runed Halo as long as you knew what to name. Cards like Gilded Light, Imperial Mask, and True Believer will all stop you from dying to Brain Freeze or Grapeshot, and Angel's Grace can fog the Dragon, counter the lethal Grapeshot, or at least buy you a turn against Brain Freeze. A Gaea's Blessing will fully solve the Brain Freeze issue.
Of all those, Runed Halo sounds the most appealing to me, because you don't need to hold it in your hand until your opponent is going off, which means it is less vulnerable to discard spells like Thoughtseize. It is also the answer with the widest range of applicability, so you won't be drawing dead Stifles against people attacking you with a Dragon.
All in all, the Elf Combo deck is going to be a huge contender in any upcoming Extended event, unless Wizards decides to ban something. While banning an Elf might seem a little silly, this Pro Tour reminds me quite a bit of Pro Tour: New Orleans, where seven of the Top 8 decks featured Tinker, and you'd better believe that Wizards solved that problem at top speed.
One thing that Cedric mentioned to me was that he "hoped everyone was happy that they banned Top/Counterbalance" because that would have been a great way to hold the Elf deck in check. If Wizards banned the Top due to balance reasons and not due to tournament format reasons (too many unintentional draws), I could see a future in which the Top was unbanned so that it could fight the Elf decks.
No matter what, though, you should take a serious look at this deck. You'll either need to know how you plan to fight it, or how to play it. Right now, I would be planning to simply join them, rather than fight them, because the deck is extremely powerful, and also a blast to play.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM