One thing I absolutely love about Magic is that no matter what archetype you’re building, there’s no one correct way to build a deck. There are dozens of ways to modify existing decks and archetypes into something unique. Just look at the variety of Splinter Twin decks in Modern, or the plethora of different Delver decks in Legacy. Whether it’s adding or subtracting a color, some crazy new piece of tech, or just a slight shift in focus, you can produce entirely unique outcomes.
With Modern PTQ season on the horizon, I have found myself in a bit of a No Man’s Land as far as playing the format was concerned. The Modern scene in Toronto has been bogged down by Blue decks, which make my Goryo”s Vengeance and Scapeshift decks cringe. Remand is a staple in pretty much every store I go to, which is infuriating as a combo player. As well, without having access to MTGO due to my owning a Mac, I had very few outlets to test out brews on a competitive scale. Thankfully, with the upcoming Grand Prix Boston (at the time of my writing this), I suddenly had several Modern GPTs sprouting up. It was enough to dust off my pile of Modern cards and get to brewing.
I had a couple of ideas in mind, but most of them admittedly sucked. They were janky little combo decks that worked about 40% of the time I goldfished them, which roughly translated to never working in a real match in a million years. That’s when I decided to check out Joshua Claytor’s videos on a whim, only to see an UG Elves deck that abused Intruder Alarm and Beck // Call. It was…interesting to say the least, as Beck // Call Elves was a deck I had discussed with friends since Dragon’s Maze was released. However, he pointed out too many awkward matchups for my liking, especially in the RUG Splinter Twin matchup. I knew there had to be a better way.
Fast forward two weeks later to my LGS’s weekly Legacy night. I was sitting beside my buddy trying to go off with Elf combo against Merfolk, when he suddenly dropped the plan and went on the beatdown. Because the Elves were able to empty their hand and refill it so quickly he quickly generated more creatures than the Merfolk player could handle, and that’s when it hit me: Modern Elf decks don’t have to be combo decks!
Santa’s Unionized Workforce
It looks like a combo deck, but plays like a Fish deck! Immediately, what jumps out is the sheer number of mana dorks in the list. Llanowar Elves and Arbor Elf are nice and all, but if I was looking for any semblance of consistency, Elvish Mystic was it. With Elvish Mystic I now have twelve one-drops that effectively say “Tap: Add G to your mana pool”. As well, I have the Legacy-tested combo of Heritage Druid and Nettle Sentinel to generate boatloads of mana. This increases the odds of being able to produce three mana on turn two dramatically, which is necessary to set off the second stage of the deck.
There are currently four Elf lords in Modern: Elvish Archdruid, Elvish Champion, Imperious Perfect, and Joraga Warcaller. That’s a potential 16 slots in the deck dedicated to pumping up your team, and conveniently enough they each cost three mana. With the twenty (20!) one-drops in the deck, I’m able to get a lord out on turn two with startling consistency. This is on par with Legacy Merfolk’s undercosted UU lords, but the main difference is my lords have abilities beyond simple evasion. Elvish Archdruid on turn two, followed by even more one-drops on turn three allows me to drop a massive amount of power on the table before my opponent is generally able to deal with them. Where Merfolk really hits its stride is when it is able to drop multiple lords in a turn, and Archdruid allows me to do this a full two turns faster. Notably, Joraga Warcaller is an absolute beast with a turn two Archdruid, since you can kick it multiple times with relative ease on turn three. With this sequence I can generate 15 power on turn three!
I decided to drop the Elvish Champions in favour of two Ezuri and two Craterhoofs. (Craterhooves? Big angry Overrun monsters.) My rationale is that there aren’t too many decks running Forests in Toronto these days, so the evasion is almost negligible outside the Pod and GBx matchups. Instead, I now have four creatures that read “Eight mana: Win the game”. Dropping the Craterhoof is game over, and Ezuri, while flexible enough to drop without Overrun mana up, can also be dropped and activated immediately for eight mana. Ezuri also has the advantage that he can be activated multiple times if I have two Archdruids. What can I say? I’m a firm believer that the best kill is overkill.
Rounding out the rest of the deck are four Elvish Visionary and four Lead the Stampede. These act as my card draw since casting Lead in a 40-creature deck often nets me 4-5 cards. This is perfect for restocking my hand after dumping a bunch of elves on to the board, or even just online casino recovering from an aggressive mulligan. It even has the advantage of filtering my draws, since I can send any lands I don’t need to the bottom of my deck.
I’m only running 16 lands because of the mass amounts of mana-producing creatures in the deck. I only really need two lands to operate at peak efficiency, which makes mulling particularly great compared to other aggro decks. Despite this, I’ve elected to not run any fetchlands because although they allow me to decrease the odds of drawing extra land, fetchlands also have the downside of decreasing my odds of drawing extra land. Hear me out: If my first land is a fetchland, there are only 14 lands left in my deck. Should my first elf die before I can drop a lord, I’ve decreased my odds of being able to cast multiple elves in a turn and effectively hindered my own ability to beat down. I have ways of using land flood, such as Warcaller or Ezuri, but being stifled on mana early on is a veritable death knell for the deck.
For my sideboard, I’ve opted for cards that can be played without really disrupting my curve. The problem I have with the sideboards for a lot of aggro decks is that the cards are too reactive and interrupt your ability to just jam creatures into play. What I’ve found with this deck is that because this deck can generate so much mana I can run out my sideboard cards while maintaining my own curve of creatures.
Elvish Champion is definitely better suited for the sideboard, especially given Toronto’s tendency to use Islands. Champion is great against the various Birthing Pod, Jund, and GB Rock decks that can jam up the ground with Wall of Roots and Tarmogoyfs. I usually bring in Champions over the Craterhoofs and two Elvish Visionaries because they give the same evasion as Craterhoof but at a much cheaper mana cost, and Visionary’s 1/1 for 1G body is fairly lackluster in these matchups. Champion also ups the lord count to a whopping 16, giving the deck even more consistency and beatdown power.
Sweepers are the absolute bane of any aggressive deck, and Elves is no exception. Thankfully, Pyroclasm has been on the decline as of late thanks to Wild Nacatl’s unbanning, making it easier to drop enough lords into play that they get out of Anger of the Gods range. However, sometimes I have a slower draw that’s maybe one lord and a bunch of mana dorks. While still a sizable army, it’s also susceptible to Anger. That’s where Wrap in Vigor comes in. By regenerating all my creatures, I can blank an Anger of the Gods/Slagstorm/Firespout, untap, and drop even more creatures into play. Wrap is also clutch in the Tron matchups where they can just Oblivion Stone away my board, as well as the UWx control decks that run Supreme Verdict.
One card that has been flipping in and out of my sideboard is Dismember. Like Jason Biggs in American Pie, New Phyrexia screwed the Color Pie in a way that burned many players by giving non-Black decks access to one of the best removal spells in the past 5 years. Dismember is there for Splinter Twin, picking off both Deceiver Exarch and Pestermite at instant speed, as well as having an out to the various combos in Melira and Kiki Pod. It should be noted that if Twin is not a huge part of the meta, these slots can very well be Reclamation Sage. In this case, I bring them in for Affinity, Tron, and Bogles.
The last two cards in my sideboard are a bit of an oddity. Damping Matrix is one of those cards that can shut off activated abilities of my opponent’s Kiki-Jikis, Birthing Pods, Arcbound Ravagers, and Oblivion Stones, while leaving my army’s mana abilities untouched. Most importantly, because 3-drops are functionally the same as 2-drops in this deck, I can power this out on turn 2 and force my opponent to dig for an answer that they most likely didn’t sideboard in. There are a plethora of activated abilities in Modern that can really mess you up, and being able to drop Matrix, slow my opponents down to a crawl, and overwhelm them with my board is a boon.
Lastly, Root Maze is one of those old school rares that most people have to pick up, read, and be reminded of constantly in a game. Having all lands and artifacts come into play tapped offers Elves a strange sort of tempo game by disrupting when the opponent is able to play their curve. For decks like Scapeshift and Birthing Pod that rely on a fetchland-heavy manabase, Root Maze is a beating because it makes them have to wait two turns before they can use the lands they get from their fetches. The fetchland comes into play tapped, then the land they find comes into play tapped. If their plan is to play a mana dork on turn one, a Root Maze on the play can utterly shut down whatever curve the opponent was planning on running. More importantly, because our mana is predominantly from creatures rather than lands, Root Maze has next to no effect on our ability to power out creatures.
The deck’s matchups are pretty much how you’d expect an aggro deck to play out. The sheer speed that it plays creatures allows you to swarm the slower, midrange decks in the format like Jund, Pod, and GB Rock by putting up a clock that keeps them on the back foot the entire game. These decks tend to be heavy on the discard effects, so between just dumping your hand on to the table and using Lead the Stampede to reload your hand, you can blank the majority of their disruption. The deck also trounces other aggro decks like Zoo and Affinity because of how quickly it can outsize the opponent’s creatures. At the time when Zoo has a 3/3 Nacatl and a Tarmogoyf in play, you can have, on average, a board of six 4/4s. While Affinity does race you in dumping your hand, your creatures become considerably larger than theirs within a turn, forcing them to play defensively. I don’t have to tell you that when Affinity has to play defense, it’s a death knell for the deck.
The various UWR decks in the format can be tedious grinds to play, as they tend to pack more removal than any one deck should. Electrolyze, Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix, and Path to Exile are all colossal pains in the neck for Elves. However, I’ve found that I can let their own fetches and shocklands chip away at their life total enough that I can push through lethal damage with just a bunch of 2/2s. Of course, the Root Mazes in the sideboard are amazing in these matchups by keeping the opponent off using their mana long enough to build up an army that simple spot removal can’t beat.
Our Tron, Scapeshift, and Twin matchups are awkward, to say the least. These decks often don’t care about any beatdown we can throw their way and can kill us out of nowhere. Thankfully, much of the sideboard is geared toward these matches, with Root Maze for Tron and Scapeshift, Damping Matrix for Tron and Twin, and Dismember for Twin. Sticking these cards can buy you the time and the clock to kill the opponent before they can really fight back. As well, you can just as easily win if they don’t draw their necessary combo pieces, which happens from time to time and can give you enough wiggle room to win. However, if they manage to hit you with a board wipe or just straight up counter or combo through your hate, it’s pretty much game over.
Elves is one of those rogue strategies that a lot of people will underestimate at first, but I believe it to be an excellent aggro deck that can carve out a spot in the pantheon of aggressive Modern decks. For roughly the price of a Scalding Tarn and a Verdant Catacombs you can build this entire deck and start thrashing your opponents, which is great value given the ever-increasing prices of Modern cards. While I’m not saying it’s the absolute greatest deck in Modern, if you’re looking for a deck to get into the format and start putting the hurt on some PTQs, you can’t go wrong with Elves!
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