On the Friday of MagicFest Portland, I watched my teammate Devon (@arbitraryarmor) take down the Standard PTQ with Jund Sacrifice. At some point that afternoon, I jokingly told him that I’d make it back-to-back Team Rankstar wins the next day in the Modern PTQ. My expectations for the weekend were relatively low given how busy I was leading up to the event; with final exams looming over the month, I decided to trust in my experience and sleeve up Elves, my treasured pet deck.
Elves has historically been a reasonable choice in Modern, with the deck experiencing its most success around 2015-2016 when Michael Malone took down Grand Prix Charlotte and Liam Lonergan won the SCG Invitational. In more recent times, Elves has been an underplayed, underrated archetype that mainly suffered under the reign of Izzet Phoenix. With Thing in the Ice and friends losing their grip on the format following the Faithless Looting ban, prospects began to improve for Elves. G/B Elves took down a PTQ in Phoenix, and 5-0 leagues became more frequent for the archetype.
Most tribal decks do up to two things very well; they apply pressure with synergy, and/or they apply pressure alongside built-in interaction. Merfolk is a good example of applying pressure through tribal synergy, whereas Humans is a good example of applying pressure in tandem with built-in interactive elements. Unlike most tribal decks, Elves applies pressure through the simultaneous development of board and mana advantage. To illustrate how my version of Elves functions in Modern, I want to establish a few overarching points to keep in mind when thinking about the Elves archetype:
- G/W Elves operates on the interaction between combo potential and aggressive potential; sometimes you dump your hand on turn two and run away with board advantage, and other times you assemble Druid + Vizier or 2x Druid + Ezuri and win out of nowhere. Combo potential and aggressive potential hit the sweet spot of demanding different answers while not being mutually exclusive, meaning that you can often attack on both axes at the same time.
- Elvish Archdruid and Heritage Druid are your pseudo Tron pieces; they work to generate obscene amounts of mana for the price of playing Elf creatures. Instead of utilizing its mana advantage engine on a couple giant bombs, Elves spends its mana on more specialized payoffs. Ezuri, Renegade Leader and Shalai, Voice of Plenty fill this role consistently in tandem with Chord and OUAT to search for them. When mana advantage cannot be effectively capitalized on, going wide offers a reasonable alternative route to victory.
- Chord of Calling allows G/W Elves to effectively utilize a silver bullet package. Collector Ouphe is well positioned in the current modern landscape, and Scavenging Ooze covers a lot of important angles that would otherwise be left unchecked (i.e. graveyard shenanigans, burn, etc.). Shalai is absolutely filthy to grab off of a Chord in response to any spell or ability that targets; for example, in my first round of the PTQ I got to Chord for Shalai in response to a Gifts Ungiven and fizzle it. In addition to those maindeck bullets, the sideboard features seven one-of creatures that provide additional versatility in postboard games.
My impression of Modern leading up to the event told me that Elves wouldn’t be the best choice in modern because Oko and Urza are warping and homogenizing the format. Urza strategies are capable of generating a comparable amount of mana to Elves while utilizing some of the most broken cards in Modern, including Mox Opal and Oko, Thief of Crowns. These decks are incredibly flexible and malleable to the demands of the format, positioning them well to tackle a wide range of problems. In a world where I have as much experience with Urza as I have with Elves, I would unequivocally register Urza; my decision to play Elves primarily came down to the thousands of hours I’ve poured into it over the past few years. Modern has historically been touted as a format where archetype expertise is rewarded, so I figured it would be worth putting that adage to the test.
Many tournament reports feature lengthy round-by-round analyses, filled to the brim with detailed play-by-play accounts. I’ve found this strategy to be an ineffective learning experience because it only tells the reader what the author did as opposed to why they did it. To understand the “whys” of my tournament, we must first examine the anatomy of the Elves deck and use it to help explain common play patterns and sideboard strategies.
Elves is comprised of four integral components that together form a powerful, cohesive strategy. Below is a basic outline of the components, in no particular order:
The Mana Engine
- Consists of: Heritage Druid, Dwynen’s Elite, Llanowar Elves, Elvish Mystic, Boreal Druid, Elvish Archdruid, Devoted Druid, Once Upon a Time
- Function: To establish and maintain mana advantage
- Notes: A turn two Archdruid is one of the best things this deck can do to establish mana advantage. Heritage Druid leads to explosive starts, and OUAT improves early-game consistency by giving us additional looks at a land or a dork.
The Combo Engine
- Consists of: Devoted Druid, Vizier of Remedies, Chord of Calling, Once Upon a Time, Ezuri, Shalai
- Function: To provide an alternate win condition that meshes well with the go-wide beatdown plan
- Notes: 2x Devoted Druid + Ezuri + the ability to make 5 mana with no -1/-1 counter activations = infinite mana and pump. This one catches people off guard constantly and is fairly reasonable to set up in many circumstances. There are some spots where I’ll assemble Druid + Vizier without an Ezuri/Chord but with at least two dig effects (usually its one OUAT and a Horizon Canopy); this usually only happens in desperation, but it can be a nice potential out in spots where you’d otherwise be dead. Shalai is a nice payoff for spots where you cannot land an Ezuri.
The Go-Wide Squad
- Consists of: Dwynen’s Elite, Nettle Sentinel, all of the one-cost mana dorks, Ezuri, Elvish Archdruid, Chord of Calling
- Function: To establish and maintain board advantage
- Notes: Going wide is a natural strength for Elves; with so many one cost creatures and Elite, we go wider than the vast majority of prevalent strategies in Modern. Establishing a huge board state sets us up to win board stalls through inevitability and/or push through large chunks of damage.
The Silver Bullet Package
- Consists of: Scavenging Ooze, Shalai, Collector Ouphe, Phyrexian Revoker, Selfless Spirit, Eternal Witness, Reclamation Sage, Chameleon Colossus, Kitchen Finks
- Function: To address specific problems and shore up blindspots
- Notes: Scooze, Shalai and one Ouphe occupy maindeck slots, while the rest (including the other Ouphe) occupy sideboard slots. Every silver bullet serves a purpose, even including the supposedly unplayable Chameleon Colossus. Colossus is incredibly hard for Jund and Shadow to cleanly deal with and serves as an additional mana sink, which is valuable in those matchups since your mana sinks often get Thoughtseized or killed on sight. Having a maindeck Ouphe improves your game ones against Tron and Urza variants, and it sometimes becomes relevant against decks playing EE, Bauble, Walking Ballista, etc.
The sideboard cards I didn’t mention fill a more contentious role; they are the only non-creature interactive pieces, and their usefulness is up for debate. Although Veil of Summer was not boarded in very often at the PTQ, I still firmly believe that playing less than three in the sideboard is a mistake. Veil is integral to our game plan against heavy interaction and leads to insane tempo swings in those matchups. Path to Exile is important in racing matchups where a single removal spell can be the difference between winning and losing; I tend to board it in more frequently on the draw since interaction is more effective when you’re behind as opposed to when you’re ahead.
The two Damping Spheres serve as important tools against Storm, Tron and Amulet Titan, but given the current state of Modern they may not be necessary. In retrospect, Aven Mindcensor would have filled this role better by virtue of being Chord-able and taking up half as many sideboard slots. As a general rule, I try to find creature sideboard options for everything and only resort to spells if it’s absolutely necessary; although Path and Veil can’t really be replaced by a couple creatures, Sphere can be seamlessly replaced by one or two creatures. If I were to run this list back in a PTQ today, I would swap the two Spheres for a Mindcensor and an Eidolon of Rhetoric.
Now that we’ve covered the core anatomy of G/W Elves, our focus shifts to the guiding principles of gameplay. Below is a list of essential guidelines that illustrate how to play G/W Elves, in no particular order:
#1: Find the optimal intersection between combo potential and aggressive potential for every game and every matchup
As I stated previously, G/W Elves operates on the fluid interaction between combo potential and aggressive potential; some spots incentivize you to play toward the combo, while other spots incentivize you to play toward the beatdown. Before each game and during each turn, you should be able to evaluate the result of this interaction in order to determine your next course of action. To demonstrate this principle in action, let us consider an example of how to pivot your role based on a reassessment of the potential interaction.
Imagine that you’ve started a game on the draw with this opening hand. Both players keep seven cards, and your opponent starts with a turn one Monastery Swiftspear off of an Inspiring Vantage, signifying that they are almost certainly playing Burn. You draw a basic Forest for turn and cast a Once Upon a Time that shows you Devoted Druid, Elvish Archdruid, Chord of Calling and two lands. What would you take in this spot? Although this decision seems innocuous at first glance, it has significant implications for how the rest of game will play out.
Let’s weigh the pros and cons of each option. Combo-ing is generally pretty good in this matchup because it forces your opponent to spend Lighting Bolts on your creatures instead of at your face; the caveat to this, however, is that being on the draw makes your board much more vulnerable and incentivizes you to double-spell as often as possible. Taking the Druid increases your combo potential and decreases your aggresive potential, whereas taking the Archdruid does the opposite. In addition, your opponent is fairly likely to Searing Blaze your turn one dork, meaning that your aggressive potential might be stymied anyways. The biggest issue with taking Druid, however, has little to do with the Searing Blaze; casting a single creature on turn two gives your opponent an opportunity to exchange a Lightning Bolt for your entire board presence. Casting Boreal Druid and Heritage Druid on turn two after your turn one Llanowar Elves gets blazed gives you a better chance at starting your turn three with a creature on board. To this end, I would always take the Elvish Archdruid in this spot because your combo potential is very low and your aggressive potential is a little below average; hence, it is best to play to the out of keeping a single creature alive with the hope of eventually running your opponent out of removal and sticking an Archdruid.
#2 Find the optimal Chord target for every matchup and every spot
Boreal Druid and Nettle Sentinel are the only two creatures in the 75 I would never, ever consider Chord-ing for; every other creature has a time and place in which you should Chord for it. To illustrate this point, let’s walk through a couple of common yet unintuitive Chord options.
- In spots where you need to attack and block effectively, grabbing Dwynen’s Elite with a Chord for X=2 can be backbreaking. With one Archdruid out, you get five power/toughness spread over two relatively disposable bodies; this setup can allow you to seize initiative through favorable blocks, soaking up damage and a strong swing-back.
- Heritage Druid gets grabbed in spots where you have a couple creatures, little mana output and at least one mana sink in hand. This happens frequently in games where you take lots of mulligans and spots where you’ve just started to recover from a board wipe. Similarly, you’ll sometimes grab Llanowar Elves or Elvish Mystic on your opponent’s end step in spots where you can only spend four mana (including convoke) and need an extra mana to function properly during the next turn.
- There are lots of times where it’s correct to speculatively Chord for Devoted Druid on your opponent’s end step even when you cannot assemble the combo. This happens most often in spots where you have one additional combo piece (Chord, Vizier, Shalai or Ezuri) and need to hit the other in order to have a chance at winning the game. Chording for X=2 with neither combo piece on board will often confuse your opponents and allow you to punish them on your turn.
Other spots have much more intuitive Chord decisions. If an end step Chord for Ezuri wins you the game on your turn, it’s almost always correct to go for it. If you suspect that your opponent will Plague Engineer you in the near future, it can often be correct to preemptively grab an Elvish Archdruid and force your opponent to spend time and resources dealing with it. Shalai is a great Chord option for spots where your opponent needs a targeted spell to resolve in order for them to pull ahead; the tempo swing resulting from this sequence is devastating and will often just win you the game on the spot. Chording for the right silver bullet in specific spots can be the difference between winning and losing; an early Chord for Collector Ouphe can slow down Urza or severely hinder Tron, while an early Chord for Scooze can do wonders against Burn or Dredge.
#3: Sequence your Heritage Druids effectively
This one is fairly simple: sequence your early plays so as to ensure that your Heritage Druid will survive and generate you mana. As a general rule, you want to play Druid last in your first chain of small Elves, which forces your opponent to remove a less impactful Elf if they want to delay your mana acceleration. This becomes trickier in spots where you are reliant on Dwynen’s Elite and would risk losing out on a token if you play Druid last; this sort of spot is a rare one in that you are often forced to play the druid before the Elite so as to ensure you get value out of your Elite. Once a Heritage Druid makes it onto the board with at least two other Elves present, your mana engine is online and ready to rumble.
#4: Spot removal isn’t that good against Elves unless you let it be
Out of all the things I say about Elves, this is the point that I consistently get the most flack for. Many players claim that they have favorable matchups against Elves because they run 4-8 pieces of cheap interaction, and this might hold true against Elves pilots who do not understand how to mulligan and sequence properly in the grindy matchups. With a proper understanding of matchup dynamics and play patterns, it becomes evident that a few removal spells will simply not do the trick. To that end, I want to share three brief tips for how to approach matchups where you expect your opponent to throw lots of spot removal at you:
- Deemphasize your combo elements and focus more heavily on your aggressive and go-wide elements. Prioritize keeping hands that are capable of creating a large board state quickly, and look for redundancy in your important payoffs.
- Force your opponent into spots where they have to kill relatively unimportant creatures, making your odds of sticking a payoff that much higher. The easiest way to accomplish this is by slow-rolling your payoffs until you starve your opponent of interactive tools.
- Don’t be afraid to chump attack into one or two large creatures if your board is wide enough, even if you have little to no payoffs on board. This comes up most frequently against Death’s Shadow variants because they’ll often decrease their life total to the point that one or two all out swings can finish them off.
Now that we’ve covered the overarching strategies of G/W Elves, I want to shift our focus to more applicable concerns. I have comprised a comprehensive matchup guide for the most important matchups in Modern right now, and I’m incredibly excited to share it with the world!
Key Cards: Chalice of the Void, Walking Ballista, Blast Zone, Karn TGC
Matchup Analysis: Favorable. Play/Draw makes a huge difference in how games play out; for example, Chalice is decent on the draw and useless on the play against us. Ensnaring Bridge off of Karn can be tough to beat if our goldfish is slow and our combo potential is low (attacking with a zero power Devoted Druid and pumping it arbitrarily with Ezuri before damage feels really good), but in most cases you’ll be in a good spot on either one of those fronts. Blast Zone seems much better on the surface than it usually plays out to be; you need three other mana to pop it, and if you want to hit larger creatures you have to wait one or more turns and use your mana for it instead of developing your board. Assembling Tron drastically changes this dynamic, but E-Tron isn’t that good at consistently assembling Tron and the Eldrazi plan B is very medium against a swarm of Elves.
+1 Rec Sage, +1 Phyrexian Revoker, +1 Collector Ouphe, -1 Scavenging Ooze, -2 Nettle Sentinel
Simic/x Urza Variants
Key Cards: Oko, Cryptic Command, Engineered Explosives, Grafdigger’s Cage
Matchup Analysis: Slightly Favorable. The move away from combo elements and toward midrange/control elements is beneficial for Elves; there are no real sweeper effects, and Oko is relatively easy to deal with just by going wide enough. Some Urza decks will side in lots of spot removal, but as we learned earlier, Fatal Pushes and Abrupt Decays aren’t the end-all-be-all. Cavern of Souls does a good job shutting off the countermagic angle and allowing Elves to land its payoff creatures safely. A well timed EE can be really backbreaking, but most of the time it’s a little awkward because the Urza player is stuck choosing between killing the one or two three cost payoffs or sweeping the one-drops. To make matters worse, Collector Ouphe shuts EE off in critical spots, forcing the Urza player to spend their mana interacting with the Ouphe instead of killing your board state.
+1 Ouphe, +1 Revoker, +1 Reclamation Sage, +3 Veil of Summer (on the draw), -2 OUAT (on the draw), -2 Nettle, -1 Boreal Druid, -1 Scavenging Ooze (on the draw)
Bant Snow Variants
Key Cards: Oko, Teferi, Supreme Verdict (they don’t always have this), Stoneforge Mystic (for Sword of Fire and Ice or Viridian Longbow, Batterskull is a joke against Elves)
Matchup Analysis: Very Favorable. The Equipment package is too slow and forces the Bant player to tap out on their turn two, meaning that you pretty much always get to develop your board. Path is their only real spot removal, and the planeswalkers are fairly easy to overrun. Supreme Verdict is the best card Bant can possibly play against us, and even then they’ll rarely resolve two and don’t run enough card draw to consistently find it (this assumes 2x Verdict, which is the norm for Bant Snow Control decks, Bant Snowblade lists play 0-1 in their sideboard). I would be happy to play this matchup over and over again because it is really tough for the Bant player to find edges against us without sacrificing too much against the field at large.
+1 Revoker, +3 Veil (on the draw), +1 Selfless Spirit, -2 OUAT (on the draw), -2 Nettle, -1 Boreal Druid (on the draw)
Death’s Shadow Variants
Key Cards: Oko, Plague Engineer, Fatal Push, Temur Battle Rage
Matchup Analysis: Even. This matchup is very close and usually comes down to deckbuilding decisions, sideboarding strategies and luck. Back before Oko existed, Elves had a very favorable matchup against Grixis Death’s Shadow because their removal was narrow and their pressure sources were easy to block. Nowadays, the four color Shadow variants have more tools at their disposal to fight back; Oko is strong in tandem with pressure, and Traverse the Ulvenwald gives the deck more consistency and utility post board by serving as copies 2-5 of Plague Engineer. Veil of Summer is very important for us in this matchup because it allows us to gain a huge tempo advantage in response to a removal spell or an Oko. Similarly, Chameleon Colossus is very close to lights out in this matchup; although Oko is a fairly effective answer to it, it pretty much happens to be the only possible answer for Shadow.
+3 Veil, +1 Chameleon Colossus, +1 Eternal Witness, -2 OUAT, -2 Nettle, -1 Collector Ouphe
Key Cards: Blast Zone, Oko (sometimes), Field of the Dead, Engineered Explosives
Matchup Analysis: Very Favorable. Elves races Prime Time super effectively and can trample over a board of zombie tokens. Titan decks tend to pack relatively minimal interaction, making Devoted Druid combo a fairly reliable route to victory. To make things worse, Damping Sphere is a brutal hate card against the versions of Titan running lots of bounce-lands because it shuts off both their color fixing and their acceleration. Once again, I’d be very happy to run into Titan strategies constantly since it is one of our best matchups.
+2 Damping Sphere (only if they’re on Amulet + bounce-lands), +3 Path (on the draw), +1 Selfless Spirit, -2 OUAT (on the draw), -2 Nettle (on the draw), -1 Scavenging Ooze, -1 Collector Ouphe (on the draw)
Key Cards: Oblivion Stone, Ugin, Karn TGC, Wurmcoil Engine, Blast Zone
Matchup Analysis: Favorable. The maindeck Collector Ouphe does wonders here by keeping our turn four goldfishes safe through an O-stone and stunting early Maps and eggs. Our postboard options only serve to strengthen the matchup, with Damping Sphere, Revoker and Reclamation Sage providing additional angles from which to attack.
+2 Sphere, +1 Revoker, +1 Rec Sage, +1 Ouphe, -2 OUAT, -2 Nettle, -1 Scooze
Key Cards: Eidolon of the Great Revel, Searing Blaze, Lighting Bolt
Matchup Analysis: Slightly Favorable. Although this matchup has historically been a coin flip where the player going first almost always wins the match in three, the maindeck Scavenging Ooze and Shalai serve to flip the script. Chording for Shalai is backbreaking, and trading your creatures for burn spells and opposing creatures works towards a large Scooze that will usually take over the game. Even though you’ll still lose a fair number of games on the draw due to being a turn too slow, your chances on the draw are still much higher than burn’s chances on the draw because your counterplay is so much stronger.
+1 Kitchen Finks, +1 Rec Sage, +1 Spirit, -1 Ouphe, -2 Nettle
Mono Red Prowess
Key Cards: Lava Dart, Crash Through, Lightning Bolt
Matchup Analysis: Even. Two friends from my local LGS play Prowess (one got 9th on breakers at the PTQ), so I’ve played against it fairly frequently. This matchup is very play/draw dependent, and Lava Dart is very good against us. When we’re on the play, we force the Prowess player to decide between killing our creatures or developing their board in the early game, and once we start playing multiple creatures in a turn the game begins to snowball from there. When we’re on the draw, the Prowess player gets to deploy a turn one creature and follow that up with removal and more threats, meaning that even if we double-spell on turn two we are likely to start our turn three without a board state. I’d put my odds at about 55% on the play and 45% on the draw, factoring in variance.
+1 Finks, +1 Spirit, +3 Path (on the draw), -2 OUAT (on the draw), -1 Ouphe, -1 Boreal Druid, -1 Chord (on the draw)
Key Cards: Inkmoth Nexus, Distortion Strike, Blighted Agent, Oko
Matchup Analysis: Unfavorable. They’re at least a turn faster than us, and our post-board interaction is very medium. A Melira, Sylvok Outcast in the sideboard would greatly improve the matchup, but it’s not currently worthwhile to sideboard heavily for Infect since it is not one of the top handful of decks in the format.
Bring in Paths, but prepare to be sad when your opponent casts Vines or Blossoming Defense.
Key Cards: Devoted Druid, Vizier of Remedies, Walking Ballista, Giver of Runes, Oko
Matchup Analysis: Slightly Unfavorable. They do the combo thing better than you, and their payoff also happens to be good against you when they aren’t comboing. The sideboard Paths come in handy here, but Giver of Runes into Druid into Vizier is basically impossible to stop unless you can stall with Phyrexian Revoker. You can definitely win games on the play, but winning on the draw is fairly difficult.
+3 Path, +1 Revoker, +1 Collector Ouphe, -2 OUAT, -2 Nettle, -1 Scooze
If there’s a matchup I missed or a question that you’d like me to cover, feel free to DM me on Discord (Doc28#4701) or Twitter (@Doc28CCG) and I’d be happy to provide a full overview including a corresponding sideboard guide. If you’re thinking about building Elves in any format, consider joining the Elves discord! If you’re interested in learning about and/or supporting Team Rankstar, check out our discord, our Patreon page and the team’s official Twitter account (@TeamRankstar).
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you at the Player’s Tour