Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise used to be staples of Standard. Year in and year out we could rely on those cards to be in the core set and give aggressive green decks a powerful start and clear identity. Whether they were ramping into Call of the Herd, Troll Ascetic, or Thundermaw Hellkite, they were competitive.
Yes, that's an actual thing that happened. I'm still upset that Rewind beat Dismiss, and can you imagine how much less people would complain about Modern would be if Dwarven Miner had beaten Blood Moon and Static Orb had beaten Ensnaring Bridge? Hindsight is 20/20.
Since that moment, devotees of mana creatures had to be content with a single one-drop mana creature in Standard, with a few moments where two were legal at the same time, though the combination of Avacyn's Pilgrim and Arbor Elf just wasn't the same as the classics.
Then, with the rotation of Elvish Mystic, we were told that one-drop mana creatures are simply too powerful to be evergreen in Standard, a flavor fail for sure and a dagger through my heart. However, the reality is that WotC was right. The games where Mono-Green Devotion or G/R Monsters had Elvish Mystic were so much different than those without, and your win percentage when untapping with it on turn 2 was too much to let stand. It took a while for the power of mana creatures to be properly understood, and it's clear that they should only be allowed in Standard format with the density of cheap removal needed to contain them.
Right now Standard is in such a place. After years of players decrying the weakness of removal relative to creatures and other threats, complaints which I found overstated in the first place, we now have a Standard format with an absolute plethora of great removal options. Fatal Push is the best removal spell printed in years, and Vraska's Contempt is having a similar impact on Standard the way Hero's Downfall did during Theros Block.
Red has Magma Spray, Shock, Lightning Strike, Harnessed Lightning, and Abrade to cover all your bases, blue has a solid suite of counterspells, and white brings up the rear with a still fine slate that includes Ixalan's Binding and Baffling End. There are good sweepers ranging from Golden Demise and Fiery Cannonade at the low end to Fumigate at the top, and even some awesome sideboard options in Chandra's and Liliana's Defeat. Answering threats is as easy as it's been in years in Standard, which made for a perfect environment to boost the threat side of the equilibrium and bring back one of Magic's most iconic cards in a set that is already dripping with nostalgia: Dominaria.
For a long time, the plane of Dominaria was Magic. The universe has expanded a ton in the last fifteen years, but for those of us who have been around for a while (aka: are very old) this is what Magic was like when we were fresh-faced and new to slinging spells. I didn't catch on to the power of Llanowar Elves until it was too late for Standard, but now I get to make up for lost time, and I intend to do that as quickly as I possibly can. So while I have to play Modern this week at SCG Cincinnati, my mind has been drifting to Standard and how best to utilize an attacking Mox Emerald.
The Power of Mana Creatures
Before I get into a few potential homes for the card, I want to go over exactly why Llanowar Elves and cards like them are so powerful. When Elvish Mystic was taken out of Standard I saw a lot of people arguing that it wasn't too powerful and the real issues with Standard were the overpowered midrange threats. I also felt compelled to put Jonathan Rosum on blast after it came out that he doesn't afford mana creatures the respect they deserve.
As a community, our analysis of tempo has come a long way in the last twenty years. Card advantage is a much more overt resource to keep track of. For the most part you can simply count the relevant resources and compare those numbers, and cards that gain card advantage are pretty obvious in doing so. Of course, you always have to adjust for the relative power level of those cards, but that's getting beyond the point.
Tempo is a much more nebulous concept to understand and track over the course of a game. Even today we don't have an agreed upon set of ways to measure a tempo advantage over the course of a game. It's one of those things that you get a feel for and evaluate subjectively, though its importance is well-established. We all know how valuable it is to curve out and build our decks to do so as consistently as possible to punish opponents who stumble.
It's also well-accepted at this point that curving 1-3-4-5 is better than 2-3-4, at least enough to build your deck in a way to maximize mana creatures. It's at the middle of the curve where you get the biggest increases in power level of threats so jumping ahead at those spots of the curve provides a significant advantage.
What I think gets overlooked is just how much better a one-drop mana creature like Llanowar Elves is than those at two mana. Sylvan Caryatid was a format staple and added some things that Llanowar Elves doesn't: resilience against removal, defense against early aggression, and color fixing, but it's a much worse card on the balance. A similar argument could be made for Servant of the Conduit as well. Why is that?
The obvious answer is that being able to deploy your threats starting on turn 2 is that much better than casting them on turn 3. Llanowar Elves does what Sylvan Caryatid does in allowing a four-drop to be cast on turn 3 and a five-drop on turn 4, but only Llanowar Elves lets you cast a three-drop on turn 2.
What this does is increase the ceiling of your deck's potential without reducing your floor by very much. The color fixing provided by most two-drop mana creatures certainly aids in consistency but not by much, and importantly, most of those creatures lower a deck's floor via their vulnerability to removal.
Trading evenly for two mana removal or behind on one mana removal makes Servant of the Conduit and Drover of the Mighty a liability against many cards while Llanowar Elves will never do worse than trading even on mana. Also, being able to land a threat on turn 2 before many removal spells come online puts your opponent in a bind. They have to make a decision as to whether they want to stop the mana acceleration or protect their life total by answering the more powerful threat.
Then there is the potential for double-acceleration draws. Starting on turn 2, your double acceleration draws don't pay off until turn 4, which is the turn that Vraska's Contempt comes online and Mono-Red slams Hazoret the Fervent. The ideal is to get underneath cards like this so starting the threat parade on turn 3 is an important upgrade to make. Only cards like Llanowar Elves enable those kinds of explosive draws.
Building Around Llanowar Elves
So when I'm looking to build a deck that can leverage Llanowar Elves I'm looking for a supportive two-drop mana creature and at least one high-powered five mana play that is very good at pressing an advantage. The goal here is to maximize your high end draws with your best cards and use the filler cards to provide some resilience, particularly through mana sinks. With that in mind, here are my first drafts:
- 2 Carnage Tyrant
- 4 Channeler Initiate
- 4 Glorybringer
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Rekindling Phoenix
- 4 Resilient Khenra
- 1 Rhonas the Indomitable
Glorybringer is the obvious prize for the five mana slot. It's just about the best card ever printed for Standard at pressing an early advantage. Casting it on turn 3 and killing a Winding Constrictor or Jadelight Ranger is incredibly powerful, and forces your opponent to have an immediate answer or you're going to get a second exert trigger.
G/R Monsters is a fine shell for Llanowar Elves, but really isn't trying to do what mana creature decks want by getting out of the gates early. Instead it uses the synergy between explore and eternalize to generate card advantage in the early turns, leading to a midgame with powerful threats and an end game that is actually quite powerful. It's a midrange deck through and through so I had to cut away from those synergies in order to fit mana creatures and make the deck more explosive.
First, Resilient Khenra gets a lot better, since its first trigger is now useful on turn 2. Curving Llanowar Elves into a three point attack isn't ideal, but you still want some of the eternalize creatures as mana sinks. Earthshaker Khenra is now the worse of the two since even though the deck is getting more aggressive it's doing so by landing the bigger threats early, not by curving out with smaller creatures, which are those helped most by falter effects.
Jadelight Ranger stays as the three-drop of choice in large part because of how it fixes the mana. Ideally I'd have at least twelve sources of green mana for turn 1 to support Llanowar Elves, likely closer to fourteen, but here I've had to stop at eleven to fit enough red sources for the double-red threats. Channeler Initiate, my supplementary mana creature of choice, helps fix the mana here but it's not the most exciting card. Killing our own Rekindling Phoenix after attacking is a cute synergy though, should you want an immediate 3/4 and not fear opposing removal or graveyard hate.
The mana here is certainly concerning, and it's unclear whether cutting away from the attrition aspects of the deck are worth the gains in aggression. I'd rather build from the ground up around Llanowar Elves and Glorybringer, which brought me to the next list:
- 2 Bristling Hydra
- 3 Carnage Tyrant
- 4 Glorybringer
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Regisaur Alpha
- 2 Ripjaw Raptor
- 2 Servant of the Conduit
- 4 Thrashing Brontodon
- 1 Ghalta, Primal Hunger
- 1 Rhonas the Indomitable
This deck is built to ramp out the most powerful five and six mana creatures possible and to do so very consistently with ten mana creatures and twelve high end threats. Thunderherd Migration may not count as a creature, but that's a bonus against removal, and I have just enough Dinosaurs to enable it by making a single concession of playing two copies of Ripjaw Raptor over more Bristling Hydras. Also, the presence of Llanowar Elves means you're under less pressure to cast it for two mana, since you can simply accelerate into the three mana version on turn 2 anyway.
The minor energy package allows the deck to play Aether Hub, and with the removal of Rekindling Phoenix to focus on more green cards this list has fifteen sources of green mana on turn 1 with enough red mana to support Glorybringer. The energy theme also allows you to play the most versatile red removal spell, Harnessed Lightning, in a deck that has limited spots for removal and needs to make those spots count. I'm worried about how often Aether Hub is going to be stranded as a colorless land and balancing the needs of the tribal and energy themes is certainly an important part of tuning this list going forward.
As for the threats, Glorybringer is still the star, but Regisaur Alpha is quite good right now as cards that make multiple bodies are difficult to answer and following it up with a Carnage Tyrant will end the game on the spot much of the time, especially when that's your turn 4 play. These kinds of draws are going to put a lot of pressure on your opponents to have cheap removal early, and that removal is going to be a liability going long, leading to some awkward draws from your opponent when they have the wrong answer in a given moment.
The only strange sideboard option is Raging Swordtooth, a card that undoubtedly has negative synergy with Llanowar Elves, but is far and away the most powerful card against the various token strategies that have popped up in Standard in recent weeks, whether they be based around Sram's Expertise or Call to the Feast. Having a huge threat that answers most of their battlefield is perfect, and I'll gladly sacrifice a mana creature that has already done most of its job for that effect.
We're still weeks away from the earnest beginning of the preview season for Dominaria, but I can't imagine any card grabbing my attention the way Llanowar Elves has. So much of my success in Magic has been predicated on leveraging the power of mana creatures, and I'm looking forward to continuing that trend.
If Llanowar Elves proves itself as well as I expect it to, then it will make for an interesting tension in Standard where black and red have the best cheap removal to answer mana creatures, while white has the sweeper in Fumigate to clean up everything, thereby negating the tempo advantage and cleanly answering cards like Bristling Hydra and Carnage Tyrant that are resilient to Vraska's Contempt. You can play both, but then working The Scarab God into your deck becomes problematic on the mana.
After an opening metagame dominated by Hazoret and Mono-Red Aggro, Standard has been a midrange player's paradise dominated by The Scarab God. Having an incredibly powerful threat like that backed up by great removal and some card advantage has put those decks above the rest, but Llanowar Elves is the kind of card that can tip the scales back toward aggro decks.