I'm Chrandersen. Or Chranderberries. Or Chrandercupcake. Or Chr&ersen. Hell, you can even call me Chrampersand and I probably won't care. Chris works too, I guess.
I am not Chranderson.
Pleasure to make your acquaintance, etc., etc.
I don't play much Magic anymore, but I've always wanted to write an article before limping off into the sunset of my proverbial Magic career. Unfortunately, my general disdain for people writing about things they have no idea about combined with the feeling that I myself have nothing worthwhile to say has kept me away from putting pen to paper over the last few years. The fact that I have a super hard time finishing papers hasn't helped too much either. But today, reader, you're in luck. I decided that I probably know enough about playing Combo Elves that composing this piece would be worthwhile.
So you want to learn how to play Elves, eh? Well I don't blame you; the deck is really sweet! You get to draw a bunch of cards and make a bunch of mana and play a bunch of creatures! What more could you ask for?
Well how about a list?
- 3 Birchlore Rangers
- 4 Elvish Visionary
- 3 Fyndhorn Elves
- 4 Heritage Druid
- 2 Llanowar Elves
- 2 Mirror Entity
- 4 Nettle Sentinel
- 2 Priest of Titania
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 2 Quirion Ranger
- 1 Regal Force
- 4 Wirewood Symbiote
- 1 Dryad Arbor
This is the deck I recently played to a Top 8 finish at the recent StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Cincinnati, and I happen to think the list is pretty damn awesome (obviously). The sideboard isn't perfect and is usually in flux, as I will talk about later; however, I've been happy with all the maindeck choices for a while now and don't see myself making any huge changes anytime soon.
Before I go into specific choices, let me show you (or refresh you on) how the deck works.
Combo Elves is built on the card drawing engine of Glimpse of Nature and the mana engine of Heritage Druid and Nettle Sentinel. The general idea is that you cast a Glimpse and play a bunch of green creatures, which each let you untap your Nettle Sentinel. In between the casting of your guys, you use your Heritage druid to tap the Sentinels for mana. The more cards you draw, the more creatures you play, the more mana you make...until eventually, your whole deck is in play and you win the game through an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, a Concordant Crossroads, or a Mirror Entity.
What most people don't realize, though, and what causes many players newer to the deck to make mistakes with it at first, is that Combo Elves is a misnomer. The deck is actually a grindy midrange deck first and a combo deck second. The reason Elves is such a fantastic midrange deck is that it has what I feel is the best card drawing engine in Legacy. No, not Glimpse of Nature; the true culprits behind this deck's power are these two little guys:
Just bouncing an Elvish Visionary and replaying it turn after turn draws you more cards than most decks in the format can keep up with. Remember, it's two extra cards per turn because you can bounce your Visionary both on your turn and theirs. Also, Symbiote gives you a makeshift Maze of Ith, letting you bounce your guy after you block. This lets you sidestep the most common angle of attack for most non-combo decks in the format, buying you enough time to overwhelm them with your superior card drawing and combo potential.
Another important point for playing the midrange game is that Glimpse of Nature doesn't have to be a one-dimensional combo card. Think of it as a split card with one-half being an Ancestral Recall and the other half saying "COMBOOOOOOOO." I probably use the "value Glimpse" almost twice as much as I "combo Glimpse." Also, sometimes you can just draw the nuts off your value Glimpse and it turns into a combo Glimpse.
More Interesting Card Choices
Mirror Entity - One of the most common questions I get when people look at my deck is, "Why no Emrakul?" When I hear this, I know that the person doesn't understand how the deck actually works. Emrakul certainly wins the game once I've gone off, but Mirror Entity does the same. What Emrakul does not do is give the deck excellent utility. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the infinite mana loop, you need:
and one mana in your mana pool.
Step 1: Activate your Mirror Entity for one, turning all your creatures into 1/1 Changelings.
Step 3: Activate Symbiote, returning himself to untap the third creature you used for your Heritage Druid.
Step 4: Recast your fresh Symbiote, triggering your Nettle Sentinel (two green in pool).
You're now at the exact same place you were before step 1, except with one more mana in your mana pool, so just rinse and repeat those four steps until you have as much mana as you need. (Remember not to deck yourself if you had cast a Glimpse.) At this point, start untapping creatures without summoning sickness with your Symbiote while still bouncing himself. You lose mana each time you do it, but you have access to unlimited mana so it doesn't matter. Then activate Mirror Entity for fifty thousand and swing in with your guys.
I'm not going to pretend that Mirror Entity is as clean a kill as Emrakul is. Sometimes they have enough blockers to stop you from winning that turn. However, I've never lost a game after I've Entity combo'd before, and I've played with this deck a lot. Also, playing Entity puts you into white which makes you more susceptible to Wasteland. However, I rarely care about Wasteland considering everything in my deck makes mana, and I'd much rather have my dual land get wasted than, say, a Gaea's Cradle. Also, running white opens you up to several good sideboard options.
Why is Entity better than Emrakul? It wins games where you weren't comboing. I've won dozens of games by casting a Mirror Entity, activating it for six the next turn, and swinging with four or five guys. An Emrakul in that position would've just been a mulligan. This is such a powerful option for the deck, in fact, that I ended up adding a second Entity to the list. I just always want to draw one in the grindy games.
If you aren't playing Mirror Entity, you're doing it wrong, plain and simple.
Qasali Pridemage - Yeah, I know this guy is not an Elf. The fact remains that there are a ton of problem enchantments and artifacts that will set you back if not just shut you down: Chalice of the Void, Ethersworn Canonist, Moat, Counterbalance, Engineered Plague, Umezawa's Jitte, Sword of Body and Mind; the list goes on. Pridemage and Harmonic Sliver are the most efficient answers I can find that are Tutorable. Viridian Zealot is not a good card for this slot because he costs more to use, which is relevant surprisingly often. He also isn't too good against an Engineered Plague for obvious reasons. I like Pridemage more than the Sliver because he's a better beater when you draw him and don't need to kill anything. This is certainly the weakest slot in my deck, and I wish there was something better to fill it.
Priest of Titania - Not as unorthodox a choice as many of the others being discussed, but I want to mention her because she wasn't in the Extended version of the deck and a lot of people underestimate her. If you untap with a Priest in play, it's very hard to lose. She makes tons of mana, and when you combine her with Symbiote and Quirion Ranger untaps, things get out of hand very quickly. I could see future lists of mine playing more copies of her.
Crop Rotation - Think of this as a third Gaea's Cradle, except it does so much more than a Cradle does. It can counter a Wasteland activation. It can be a combat trick with Pendelhaven. You can sacrifice the Cradle you have in play to get your other Cradle. I would play more of these if I felt the deck wanted more than three Cradles, and I would play three Rotations before I ran the third physical Cradle. I like to make the comparison of Crop Rotation to a green Dark Ritual for seven.
Chord of Calling/No Summoner's Pact - I used to have Summoner's Pact in this slot for a while, but then I came to realize that it was by far the worst card in the deck unless I was comboing off. Chord certainly isn't as mana efficient as Pact, but it gets you what you need quickly enough. This slot going to Chord over Pact reinforces the fact that this is a midrange deck first and a combo deck second.
Some Tips on Playing the Deck
You have nine Llanowar Elves in your deck.
Don't forget about Green Sun's Zenith for zero to get a Dryad Arbor. A turn 1 Llanowar Elves is the most powerful play you can make and using up a Zenith to ensure this happens, while not always correct, is the right play more often than you'd expect. Remember that Quirion Ranger and Wirewood Symbiote turn into Llanowar Elves when you have a creature that taps for mana in play.
Birchlore Rangers has morph.
Although it doesn't come up very often, sometimes just having a 2/2 is better than having a 1/1 Elf. Also, morphed creatures can block guys with green swords, which can be quite important. I have Time Walked more than one person by blocking their creature equipped with Sword of Feast and Famine with my morph, flipping him over, and then bouncing him with my Symbiote.
Green Sun's Zenith for a Regal Force is a super important play.
This comes up all the time when you have a Cradle or a Priest in play. It's surprisingly easy to get eight mana with the deck, so think twice before firing off your Zenith to get a one-drop.
Heritage Druid kind of sucks.
I've noticed most of my opponents tend to have an unreasonable fear of Heritage Druid. She doesn't really do much outside of comboing, and while sometimes she is the most important creature on the board, usually the title goes to something else like Llanowar Elves or Elvish Visionary. Playing a Heritage Druid as bait for removal is a nice move to protect your more important guys.
Look out for the Entity Combo.
Every now and then you will just draw all the pieces to your Entity loop. Take note if you're ever close to assembling Voltron naturally. Also remember that Green Sun's Zenith gets you three of the four pieces, so if naturally firing off the combo is your game plan, hold onto that Zenith to increase your odds of getting the piece you need.
Quirion Ranger bounces Dryad Arbor.
This means that your fetch lands are Maze of Iths when you have a Ranger in play.
When in doubt, fire off that Glimpse!
If you aren't sure you can full-on combo with your Glimpse or you have to get a bit lucky to make it work, it's usually correct to just go for it. What's the worst that can happen? You brick off and draw a couple cards with your Glimpse, further extending your board position? Seems fine to me! Of course, the upside is that if you do hit, you just go off.
I'm not saying you should just always Glimpse, by the way; it's a case-by-case decision. Generally, two guys in hand pre-Glimpse is a good amount if you have the mana to cast everything. Visionary, of course, counts as two guys, as does a Symbiote. Also, a Symbiote in play counts as a guy in hand.
Another thing that can be tough to gauge is how much you should commit to the board when you don't have a Glimpse. I feel that it's good to be pretty liberal with the amount of men you put into play. Having a Symbiote lets you reload if you happen to draw a Glimpse, and Zenithing for a Regal Force is just as good as having Glimpsed before casting all your guys. If you're trying to decide whether or not to bounce a guy back to your hand without a Glimpse just in case, ask yourself these questions:
Do I need this guy in my hand to go off if I draw Glimpse?
How important is this guy to have in play to press my board advantage?
Do I need to be Glimpsing to win this game?
The sideboard is very flexible for the most part. The only card I would have in there all the time is a Viridian Shaman. She is a very effective way to deal with artifacts and can be reused thanks to Symbiote. I wouldn't be opposed to running a second one in the board and possibly even one in the main (moving the Pridemage to the board) in the right metagame.
Mortarpod - I have been very happy with this. Without it, I'm dead to a Peacekeeper, which is kind of awkward. It's good against Dredge, Maverick, some Noble Hierarch decks, and Goblins. I highly recommend running at least one of these.
Scavenging Ooze - This guy should definitely be in the sideboard; I just couldn't find one in Cincinnati. He is a house against the right decks for obvious reasons. Any deck playing Green Sun's Zenith should have access to at least one.
Faerie Macabre - This is primarily for the Reanimator matchup, which is atrocious. Turn 2 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite es no bueno, and Iona, Shield of Emeria isn't much better. I've been thinking about changing them to Wheel of Sun and Moon, which is much better against Dredge. Dredge has been gaining in popularity lately and Reanimator has been waning.
Absolute Law - Mostly for Grim Lavamancer and Punishing Fire. Also clearly goes in against Zoo and Goblins. Do not board these in against Burn. They shouldn't be killing your people, so it's a waste of a card and two mana against them.
Gaddock Teeg - Tutor target for Tendrils decks. It's not very effective, but it's a small investment.
Vengevine and Buried Alive - These are often in my deck although they didn't make it for Cincinnati. Against decks where Glimpse comboing is more or less unrealistic, it's a nice plan B. I haven't been too excited about it lately because I don't like boarding out that many cards. I don't like cutting Glimpse because it's so powerful, and I don't like cutting creatures because it makes the Buried Alive plan less reliable.
Natural Order and Progenitus - I've only used this plan once, and it felt somewhat like a win-more. However, I think it might be worth looking at again. The fact that it requires less cards to board out and that it takes up fewer slots in the board makes it seem more appealing than Vengevine right now. Don't forget that Natural Order can also Tutor up a Regal Force.
Lys Alana Bowmaster - This is for Delver decks. Their best bet against you is dropping an early Delver or two and using all their resources to keep you from running them over while their Delvers fly over any Symbiote/Quirion Ranger defense you have. I haven't tested this guy at all, and he does seem a bit clunky. Ezuri's Archers might be more effective; I'm not sure. However, I thought I'd let you know what I'm looking at to solve that problem.
Boarding Cards Out
Sideboarding with Elves can be a little tricky. The deck is certainly centered around an engine and boarding in too many cards in any given matchup that don't have synergy within that engine can slow you down quite a bit. You should rarely board in any more than three of four cards in, unless you're bringing in a plan B package like Vengevine or Natural Order.
I tend to usually cut the Qasali Pridemage if I can. He has little synergy in the deck, and unless there's a specific enchantment you're worried about like Engineered Plague or Counterbalance, Viridian Shaman does his job much better.
Crop Rotation isn't fantastic against blue decks and can usually be cut. Getting a Crop Rotation countered is obviously just about the worst ever. While it's true that most of the countermagic being played in Legacy right now isn't very good at countering Crop Rotation, I tend to like to be on the safe side regarding this card. I don't think it's terrible against Delver though. You usually want to just wait until they Wasteland one of your lands before you fire it off to minimize any losses you might take.
The Chords are cuttable in most matchups. They're basically bad Green Sun's Zeniths most of the time and are just weaker than most of the other cards in the deck.
I usually like cutting a Birchlore Rangers if I have to cut creatures; he loses a good amount of utility in multiples and while nice to have, he isn't vital to comboing. Also cutting a Heritage Druid is fine in matchups that you expect to be grinds. Heritage doesn't do much unless you are comboing or trying to get enough mana for a Regal Force. Nettle Sentinel is similar in that regard, but I tend to keep him around because he bashes for more.
The matchups are pretty straightforward.
Bad Matchups: Combo, Dedicated Countertop with Punishing Fire
Good Matchups: everything else
More or less you can just overwhelm any deck that is designed to play fair. If they can't stop the combo then you just crush them easily. If they have disruption then you grind them out and draw a ton more cards than they do and win a long game. Unfortunately, because the deck is designed to be able to handle blue decks, it's not nearly as fast a combo kill as most other combo decks in Legacy. This means that you'll get stomped by Reanimator, LED Dredge, TES, and the like. Elves is certainly a metagame deck. Only a lunatic would play this deck no matter what the meta looks like. :B
Luckily, the metagame right now is a friendly one for Elves.
I highly recommend giving Combo Elves a try. It's the most fun I've had playing Magic in as long as I can remember, and it's surprisingly competitive. I might be a teeny bit biased, but it seems like more than a respectable choice for the upcoming Grand Prix in Indianapolis or any StarCityGames.com Legacy Opens you plan on attending in the near future. It crushes blue decks and aggro decks, so if you want to play something that is good against U/W Stoneforge, Delver, and Maverick, then Elves just might be the deck for you.