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Nov 06 2008 9:27am
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Explorations #6 - All About Elfball

Steve Gargolinski

At Pro Tour Berlin this weekend, the entire top four (and six of the top eight) decks were Elf combo decks.  On one hand, that's a mostly unprecedented level of dominance for a single deck, and on the other hand it's sort of a bummer.  I'm always disappointed when major tournaments are dominated by a single deck like this.  Talk about boring tournament coverage!  "Ok BDM, let's go from this Elfball vs. Elfball matchup to the back table - featuring...  Elfball vs. Elfball." 

This level of deck dominance is also a potential sign of an unhealthy metagame (my definition of a healthy metagame is one in which many different decks are viable).  It's likely that we don't have much to worry about in this case - with any luck the metagame will adjust and we'll end up with a format with more than one archetype in the top four.  It usually does.

In addition to the metagame issues, haven't we seen enough of tribal decks lately?  I certainly expected Pro Tour Hollywood to be filled with Elves, Faeries, and Merfolk, and Kithkin - but I figured we'd all get a break from this sort of thing during the Extended season.  Instead, we got six Elf decks and one Faerie deck as seven out of the top eight decks.  I understand that Elfball is a pretty unconvential typical tribal deck, but still!

With all of this being said, it's time to learn about the deck that took over Pro Tour Berlin.  If you're planning to play Extended anytime soon, then you're definitely going to face this deck.  Whether you're a fan of our new Elvish overlords or not, it's always worthwhile to learn about something new.  Hopefully this article is a good start.

As is often the case, I think it makes the most sense to begin at the beginning. 

Forest
Llanowar Elves


Ok, that's a bit too far back - but it's funny to think how long this has been coming.  Magic players have been making Elf decks even when there was no real reason to - just because they liked those pointy-eared little guys.  After Onslaught (and later Lorwyn), people actually had a reason to.  Enough ancient history - back to the deck at hand.

How did all of this craziness get started?  How did we end up with a 278/278 Predator Dragon at the final table of a Pro Tour?  I mean, it's not like this was a well-accepted part of the average's player's view of the Extended metagame.  On one hand it seems like this deck pretty much came out of nowhere, but on the other hand almost 25% of the day two field played this deck - so it's not like we're talking about some super secret technology.  I guess it's just kinda secret technology?  Not really secret at all technology?

It's very rare for a new metagame deck to jump out like this, played by such a huge number of people in the field.  Remember the last Pro Tour innovation?  Five Color Control, which was only played by a handful of players.  During the daily wrap-ups, BDM called this deck, "The worst kept secret ever."  I think that's probably fairly accurate.

Rogue Hollywood

Let's go back in time a few months.  The original public unveiling of this deck archetype was in a different format altogether.  The wild and crazy Alan Comer played a deck at Pro Tour Hollywood called Elf Grenade:

The basic idea here is to play out a few mana Elves, summon Heritage Druid, bring a bunch of tokens into play with Hunting Triad or Elvish Promenade, generate a ton of mana via your Heritage Druid, cast Distant Melody to draw fifteen or twenty-five cards, and create an absolutely ridiculous board position.  From this point the deck can either attack with fifty or sixty tokens to finish off the opponent, or cast Roar of the Crowd as a win condition that doesn't require the red zone.  Furystoke Giant is used somewhat redundantly with Roar of the Crowd, as an additional route to victory.

Here's a link to a video of Alan Comer himself explaining the deck.

Comer did alright at the Pro Tour, finishing 247th, but his deck was largely ignored in the new Standard metagame as players chose instead to shuffle up Faeries, Five Color Control, Merfolk, Kithkin, or more traditional Elf decks.  Then a few months pass and suddenly the deck is back, running the tables at Pro Tour Berlin.

Without any further stalling, here are the top four decks from Pro Tour Berlin:

 

 

 ...and finally, Pro Tour Berlin champion Luis Scott-Vargas...

These decks are all pretty similar, with differences that I'll talk about a bit below.  Here's what we're looking at for the main components of this deck, pretty much across all four versions:

Heritage Druid
Nettle Sentinel

Heritage Druid is still the main driving force behind the deck, but he gained a powerful BFF in Nettle Sentinel.  This combination becomes the backbone of Elf Grendade as it makes the transition from Standard to Extended.  Every creature that you cast untaps Nettle Sentinel and gives you access to more mana.

It turns out that generating a gigantic amount of mana by casting small creatures over and over while drawing your entire deck is extremely powerful.

 

Glimpse of Nature


The card that makes this strategy so exciting in Extended is definitely Glimpse of Nature.  Not only do all of the creatures coming into play untap your Nettle Sentinels and fuel your Heritage Druids, but they also refill your hand with plenty of cards to keep the combo going.

Note that Glimpse of Nature triggers when you play a creature spell, NOT when a creature comes into play.  This important distinction nudges the Extended version of this deck away from token-generating sorceries/instants and towards actual creatures.


Wirewood Hivemaster

When it coems to token-generating creatures, this guy is the man.  Once the combo gets rolling, a few Wirewood Hivemasters are able to produce an absolutely ridiculous amount of Insect tokens.  During the top eight of Pro Tour Berlin, Wirewood Hivemaster fueled a 278/278 Predator Dragon.  That's how many tokens we're talking about.
 

Elvish Visionary

Elvish Visionary is the only across-the-board maindeck card from Shards of Alara.  Her main role in Elfball is to keep the combo going once we get started.  Glimpse of Nature is obviously the preferred method to keep our hand full, but Elvish Visionary provides some redundancy for this function.

Wirewood Symbiote

This deck relies on casting creatures, and untapping creatures.  Wirewood Symbiote gives us a huge boost to both of these deck functions.  It returns Elves to our hand in order to draw more cards from Glimpse of Nature and untap our Nettle Sentinels, enables Elvish Visionary recursion, and helps the deck's key pieces dodge removal.

Summoner

Summoner's Pact was Standard legal when the Standard version of Elf Grenade was running around - but it wasn't used.  That deck leaned much more heavily on non-creature cards, whereas the Extended version has all sorts of creatures to tutor up.

Chord of Calling

Speaking of creatures to tutor up, Chord of Calling gives us four more ways to search our deck.  The combo pieces required to make this deck are all creatures, and these two tutors are able to grab cards to get the combo going or cards to keep the combo's momentum flowing.

Chord of Calling doesn't have the 'only green' restriction of Summoner's Pact, which allows Elfball decks to run toolbox-ish sets of creatures in order to get the deck out of tight spots.  We'll look a little bit closer at this later on during sideboard discussion.

Each top four player ran a full playset of Chord of Calling except for LSV, who ran zero.


Birchlore Rangers

Birchlore Rangers adds redundancy for Heritage Druid while also providing a way to produce non-green colored mana.

Viridian Shaman

Each deck ran at least one maindeck copy of Viridian Shaman, with more in the sideboard.  The reason for this is simple:  there are lots of artifacts in the format than can hose our strategy big time.  Chalice of the Void for 1?  Trinisphere?  How are you going to combo your way out of those?  This little 2/2 Shaman can take those artifacts out without a problem.

Ok we've made it through the functional kernel of Elfball, Grapeshot Elves, Elf Grenade, Elves!, Dragon-Elves - or whatever you want to call it.  All of these cards form together into an explosive, powerful combo deck.  Elfball is easily capable of winning on the second turn.  Here's a quick turn log to show just how quickly this deck can get the job done:


Turn One:
Play Forest.
Cast Nettle Sentinel.

Turn Two:
Cast Glimpse of Nature.
Play Forest.
Cast Birchlore Rangers.
Draw a card.
Use Birchlore Rangers to tap Nettle Sentinel and Birchlore Rangers and cast Nettle Sentinel.
Untap Nettle Sentinel.
Cast Wirewood Symbiote.
Draw a card.
Untap both Nettle Sentinels.
Float mana.
Return Birchlore Rangers to your hand.
Cast Heritage Druid.
Draw a card.
Untap both Nettle Sentinels.
Cast Birchlore Rangers.
Draw a card.
Untap both Nettle Sentinels.
Use Heritage Druid and tap double Nettle Sentinel and Birchlore Rangers to cast Nettle Sentinel.
Draw a card.
Untap all Nettle Sentinels.
...
Cast Chord of Calling for Predator Dragon.  Win.
Cast Grapeshot.  Win.
Cast Brain Freeze.  Win.

As you can see, this deck is extremely explosive.  It almost reminds me of the old High Tide combo decks.  We're tapping lots of stuff, immediately untapping the same stuff, drawing cards, getting more and more resources as we go, and then finally using this mass of resources to finish off our opponent.  This is, in some ways, how all combo decks work.

Now that we've gone over the basic function of these four Elfball decks, let's take a look at some card choices that were not widely accepted across the maindeck top four.


Regal Force

LSV and Saito both decided to run Regal Force in their deck.  This Eventide junk rare can either be hardcast (with a possible assist from Summoner's Pact), or tutored up with Chord of Calling min-combo to reload your hand big time.  After resolving a Regal Force, you should be able to do pretty much everything your deck is capable of doing.

Essence Warden

The most impressive, non-infinite display of Essence Warden lifegain that I have personally every witnessed took place during the top eight at Berlin - sending Thaler to 359 life and his opponent Juza to 313.  There aren't many times in life where you have a 278/278 Predator Dragon which is not lethal.

The addition of Essence Warden provides a line of strategy similar to the old Life decks - gain a whole ton of life and put your opponent in a position where they are just not capable of dealing enough damage to finish you off.  This pushes the gamestate towards a world that many decks do not just live in.  Can you imagine a Zoo deck trying to deal 359 points of damage?  If sure seems like decks are going to need to be able to deal with an opponent at 359 life to be competitive in the upcoming Extended metagame - see the sideboard discussion below for some ideas about how.


Elvish Champion

Thaler and Zatlkaj both decided to run the Lords of the Elves - most likely to support some sort of backup Elvish beatdown plan for when the combo route is cutoff.  The other potential use is to counter -1/-1 or 'one damage to each creature' type effects.

Forest

Zatlkaj and Saito ran a large number of basic Forests instead of the non-basic lands favored by the other two decks.  This didn't help them specifically in the top eight (or the top four), but it definitely has the potential to help dodge Blood Moon or Magus of the Moon while navigating the Swiss rounds.

One of These Things is not Like the Other

All four of these decks are pretty similar, but LSV definitely took a little bit of a different route while designing his deck.  Here's a quick overview of what LSV left out, and what he added in to his maindeck:

What LSV Played What LSV Didn't Play
Elves of Deep Shadow
Grapeshot
Eternal Witness
Regal Force
Weird Harvest

Chord of Calling
Predator Dragon
Wirewood Hivemaster

The main differences between LSV and the rest of the top four is that he favors Grapeshot over Predator dragon as a finisher, and runs a playset of Elves of Deep Shadow instead of Wirewood Hivemaster - as well as only sixteen lands.  He also runs Weird Harvest instead of Chord of Calling.  These changes sacrifice some resilience and long-term threats in favor of pure speed.  In addition, Elves of Deep Shadow

LSV's deck isn't able to produce hundreds of creatures, but it's certainly able to produce tens of creatures - which is pretty overwhelming against everything other than the mirror match.  The lack of Wirewood Symbiote takes away some of the deck's ability to protect important creatures, along with some late game recursion.  This strategy obviously worked out for him, he did win the Pro Tour after all.  I'm really interested to see how this deck is templated for the PTQ season.

What's in the Sideboard?

The sideboards of these decks are, as usual, equipped to handle a wide variety of situations.  Here are the four sideboards side by side:

LSV Saito Zatlkaj Thaler
1 Mycoloth
1
Nullmage Shepherd
1
Pendelhaven
2
Thorn of Amethyst
4
Thoughtseize
4
Umezawa's Jitte
2
Viridian Shaman
2 Blasting Station
1 Ethersworn Canonist
3
Fecundity
3
Gleeful Sabotage
1
Goblin Sharpshooter
1
Orzhov Pontiff
3
Thorn of Amethyst
1
Viridian Shaman
1 Burrenton Forge-Tender
1
Ethersworn Canonist
3
Fecundity
1
Gaddock Teeg
1
Goblin Sharpshooter
1
Orzhov Pontiff
1
Tar Fiend
4
Thorn of Amethyst
2
Viridian Shaman
1 Brain Freeze
1
Burrenton Forge-Tender
2
Choke
1
Ethersworn Canonist
1
Gaddock Teeg
2
Sundering Titan
4
Thoughtseize
1
Umezawa's Jitte
2
Viridian Shaman

First off, as mentioned above, each deck complimented their maindeck Viridian Shamans with more copies in the sideboard to fight powerful artifact hosers like Chalice of the Void, Trinisphere, or Engineered Explosives set to one or zero.  Saito seemed particularly concerned about the artifact threats, also running three copies of Gleeful Sabotage.  LSV's list runs Nullmage Shepherd, which is another option for the anti-artifact/anti-enchantment sideboard slot.

Speaking of LSV, his sideboard is a bit different than the others - mainly because his deck runs zero copies of Chord of Calling.  Chord of Calling allows a toolbox of creatures to be run in order to get the deck our of a variety of situations.

Burrenton Forge-Tender
Ethersworn Canonist
Orzhov Pontiff

Burrenton Forge-Tender can be brought out at instant speed via Chord of Calling to protect a huge Elvish team from red-based creature sweepers such as Firespout or Pyroclasm.  Another common sideboard card is across these decks is Fecundity, which provides a similar function.  It doesn't save your guys, but at least it fills up your hand.

The obvious use of Ethersworn Canonist is to stop storm decks (like TEPS) from doing their thing, which Thorn of Amethyst also helps with.  But that isn't the Canonist's only use - she is also a strong card in the mirror match.  If you are able to get ahead on the board quickly and then lay down the Canonist, your Elfball opponent has very few ways to get back in the match.  Unless your opponent can kill your Canonist (and a
ssuming that your hand is reasonably well stocked), they're going to be behind for the rest of the game.

Orzhov Pontiff is included for the mirror match.  Chord of Calling turns Orzhov Pontiff into an instant speed, potentially mid-combo spell that reads "Kill all of your guys."  It's also useful against the Empty the Warrens plan of TEPS or other storm variants.  Goblin Sharpshooter fills a similar role, capable of wiping out an entire team of 1/1s - assuming that you're able to untap with him still alive.


Brain Freeze

Brain Freeze takes a different approach towards gaining an advantage in the mirror match.  Why kill your opponent's entire team when you could just mill them for sixty instead?  Using your opponent's storm count agaisnt him is the oldest trick in the book.  Moving forward into the PTQ season, I wouldn't be surprised to see many copies of Brain Freeze in sideboards everywhere.

Other storm cards (you might be thinking of Grapeshot, Empty the Warrens, or Tendrils of Agony) are all sorceries.  They might have a use in this list, but not in the 'thought you had me, but you didn't' sideboard slot.  Remember above when we talked about Essence Wardening to 359 life?  Everyone knows that the best way to kill someone with 359 life is to run them out of cards - depending on how common Eternal Witness ends up being, Brain Freeze might become essential.


Thoughtseize

Thoughtseize is classic sideboard material, especially when running anything resembling a combo deck.  Start off with Thoughtsize, Duress, or something similar prior to going off in order to strip away your opponent's best chance at stopping you.

Blasting Station

Saito ran two copies of Blasting Station in his sideboard, which probably has the most in common with Grapeshot out of all the cards previously discussed, in order to enable another route to his combo kill.  Blasting Station has some potential synergy with cards like Fecundity in order to get yourself out of a bind while comboing off, and also avoids splash damage - seeing as the deck doesn't have a strong artifact presence.

Umezawa

Did someone say 'strong artifact presence'? 
Umezawa's Jitte has been turning 'harmless' utility creatures into nightmare threats ever since Kamigawa block hit the scene.  Running four of these legendary artifacts allows a bit of a transformation to take place after sideboarding, turning from a combo deck into an elf beatdown deck.  LSV used this against the Tezzerator deck in the quarter-finals, check out the match coverage for a pretty impressive display in a tough matchup.

Lasting Impact

So that's the basic idea of this crazy new Elfball deck.  This deck is definitely going to impact the metagame moving forward, although it's tough to say how big of a deal it will actually be in the PTQ season.  I'm sure this deck will be all over the place at local qualifiers.  I mean, it does have quite a bit going for it:

  • It's powerful.
  • It's exciting to play.
  • People love Elves.
  • It's cheap to put together.

So I'm pretty sure Elfball will be common, but how successful will it be?  I've already seen a bunch of forum posts wondering, "What is Wizards going to do about this deck?"  Apparently worried about the state of the Extended metagame moving forward.  To me, it's far from clear that anything needs to be done.  I mean what are you going to do, ban Nettle Sentinel in Extended?  Are you kidding me?  I guess it could happen, but it seems extremely unlikely.

One thing I was really surprised by is how little hate there was for this specific deck at Berlin, seeing as everyone apparently knew about it.  You've got to think that now that the cat is REALLY out of the bag (and not just somewhat secretly out of the bag), that the metagame will react and figure out the best way to hate out the 1/1 creature combo strategy.  The best comparison I can think of right now is the Dredge deck from the last Extended season.  Dredge was a super-powered combo deck that could be very easily hated out, but yet still did great on the PTQ level.

Slice and Dice
Leyline of Singularity
Firespout
Chalice of the Void
Pyroclasm
Trinisphere
Extended sideboard material for the upcoming PTQ season?

There's nothing as obviously anti-Elfball as the Dredge turn-zero super-hoser Leyline of the Void, or the zero-mana Tormod's Crypt - but there is definitely no shortage of ways to deal with small monsters and lots of spells in Magic.  There does not seem to be a shortage of techniques that hate out Elfball, assuming you're willing to devote the sideboard space.  Maybe we'll see more Chalice of the Void and Trinisphere?  How about Slice and Dice?  Jund Charm simultaneously attacks both Dredge and Elfball, maybe that card will see Extended play?

It'll be interesting to see how many sideboard slots people will be willing to devote to this matchup, and how much more difficult things get for Elfball now that it's a full-fledged part of the metagame.  We've got the full Extended season to figure it out on the PTQ level, and then the Worlds Championships to see how the pros react.  One of the formats for Worlds this year is Extended, so keep your eyes open for results there.  It'll be fun to see how everyone adjusts to this powerful new piece of the metagame.

Thanks for reading!

Steve Gargolinski
spgmtgo@gmail.com

7 Comments

Sorry for the Mistake by spg at Fri, 11/07/2008 - 09:00
spg's picture

Yep you're right, my bad on the Symbiote.  I'll make sure to add a corrected version of the combo in my next article.

Gotta say, by Anonymous(Unregistered) 72.4.249.2 (not verified) at Fri, 11/07/2008 - 13:12
Anonymous(Unregistered) 72.4.249.2's picture

I was wondering how this deck was working. It helped me a lot. Thanks.

Thanks by spg at Fri, 11/07/2008 - 14:05
spg's picture

Glad I could help - thanks for the feedback man.

by (Unregistered) 165.122.174.66 (not verified) at Fri, 11/07/2008 - 15:36
(Unregistered) 165.122.174.66's picture

I've already seen a version of this on magic online using Nettle Sentinel, Intruder Alarm, Sprout Swarm.  It's not a total Elf Ball more of a variant, but just as annoying.

 

intruder alarm by spg at Fri, 11/07/2008 - 16:01
spg's picture

 If anyone is wondering, here's a deck that uses the strategy mentioned...

Breeding Pool
10  Forest
Island
Pendelhaven
Yavimaya Coast


Birds of Paradise
Coiling Oracle
Essence Warden
Imperious Perfect
Llanowar Elves
Wren's Run Vanquisher

Intruder Alarm
Remand
Sprout Swarm
Umezawa's Jitte


 

by Isotope(Unregistered) 74.39.232.97 (not verified) at Fri, 11/07/2008 - 07:36
Isotope(Unregistered) 74.39.232.97's picture

It was already online in stupid numbers...

FYI: you can't tap the Symbiote with Heritage Druid (in your turn two scenario).  It's not an Elf.

That's another interesting bit of tech for this deck, though.  A Mirror Entity activation for 1 gives your creatures all creature types.  This turns your Symbiotes and Insects (from Hivemaster) into Elves, so you can tap them for mana, and you can get infinite use out of a Symbiote's "once per turn" bounce ability to draw your entire deck with Glimpse of Nature.

Elfball by Katastrophe at Thu, 11/06/2008 - 19:48
Katastrophe's picture

I hadn't been following the Pro Tour so this came as a surprise to me. The analogy to High Tide sounds right. I haven't played this deck but that's what it looks like.

I think this deck will appear all over Magic Online. It's mostly commons and uncommons (which have gone way up in price), it's elves, and it just won a major event. Since someone has made a pauper version of TEPS I'd be less surprised to see a pauper version of this too. Since it'll be played so much it was definitely worth breaking down the synergy card by card.