Tuesday, February 16, 2010

how to play elves

Since the GP win, I assume that there'll be a lot of discussion on Elves in the coming weeks- sideboarding strategies, different builds, numbers of Curios, and other such minutia. In my opinion, the variations in lists and sideboards are, combined, roughly 10% as important as knowing how to play the deck effectively. This is not a deck you can pick up and play; despite what Nass said, he didn't just have experience with the Standard version, he's played the Extended version pretty extensively (there's really no way to arrive at a list like that unless you do; a less experienced person would take LSV's word that Thoughtseize and even Night's Whisper is the way to go). Despite that, he played really, really horribly, but got lucky enough that it didn't matter. Don't try that at home: the majority of games lost by the deck could have been won with better play.

As I see it, there are three main aspects to playing it well: goldfishing, general strategy, and sideboarding. Goldfishing is probably the easiest to learn: just lock yourself in a room with either a paper or online copy of the deck (MWS works better here than MTGO) and combo until your hands bleed. Most of it gets pretty rote, but there are still some strategic and probabilistic decisions to be made, and most of them involve Summoner's Pact. If that card didn't exist, aside from the amazing level of consistency it would take away from the deck, it would be reasonably simple to play. Most of the time, you just need to know what to get in certain situations, like if you untap on turn two on the play with a Forest and Nettle Sentinel in play, and a hand of:

Verdant Catacombs, Summoner's Pact, Summoner's Pact, Nettle Sentinel, Nettle Sentinel, Glimpse of Nature

Obviously, it's ridiculous, and pretty much the best you can ask for. Assuming you want to show off the turn two kill to your friends, the play here is pretty simple: fetchland to Forest, Pact for Heritage and play it, play Nettle, tap them for GGG, Glimpse, Nettle (GG), tap Nettles and Pact (5*G) for Regal force, tap Nettles (8*G), cast Regal, do the happy dance as you draw six cards plus what you drew off Glimpse already and easily turn two. Obviously, this is a pretty basic goldfishing example with the absurd triple-Nettle-and-(pseudo)-Heritage in it, but it shows a few basic principles: first, don't be afraid of Pact. Pact is your friend, it's a nice card that would never kill you unless you've done something very very bad. Don't be afraid to Pact when you can Glimpse but can't fully combo with 100% certainty; the deck is just under a third one-cost guys, so if you can draw three or four cards off Glimpse and won't completely run out of mana, it's probably worth it. There are no hard and fast rules; just practice a bunch and see what works for you.

That example was using Pact in a situation where it was used early, for a very clear, obvious combo purpose. Sometimes, it's not that simple. For example, you could be trying to combo with one Glimpse, two Nettles in play, you've used your land drop already, you have seven mana floating, and you're down to lands and Pact in hand. What do you go for here? If your instant response was Regal Force, that is wrong if you absolutely must combo (but may be correct in some game situations). It'll use up all your mana, and you'll have to ship the turn with two untapped Nettles and a bunch of cards in hand. You might also think that the better play is to go for the third Nettle Sentinel, but this doesn't do anything for you- you're a mana short of going for Regal now, but if you draw a few more cards, you'll have essentially infinite. The correct play is to Pact for Elvish Visionary. When you play it, you'll draw two cards and have five floating. This means that if you draw into Pact or Regal, you'll win outright; if you draw Primal Command, you can use a bunch of mana but go for another Visionary to keep going; and you have twice as many chances to draw one-drops to keep things going.

This is why goldfishing is so crucial with the deck: when you're not even playing for two tickets in an online 2-man, you can try to combo on turn three when it looks like you shouldn't. You'll probably be surprised how often you'll draw the combination of cards you need if you assume that if you don't combo on turn three, you've lost. Then, when you need to do this in a tournament, you'll feel at least reasonably confident, and look like a true genius/total lucksack when you win with from a position that seems impossible.

As far as general strategy outside the combo goes, you'll need to always have a plan based on your hand of what your next few turns are going to look like, especially against decks that are beating you down. Against Zoo and the like, the tension for them is between removing your creatures and playing threats of their own: if they do nothing but play Goyfs and Knight of the Reliquary, you can goldfish them pretty easily. If they do nothing but kill all your creatures as they hit the table, you'll eventually draw into some way to combo, since if they only have one threat, it'll give you all the time in the world. Because of this, you'll need to think carefully about the creatures you're playing, and how your board position stacks up to the aggro player. Generally, if you do nothing but play dorky elves with no Heritage Druid, eventually they'll think you just don't have anything, and play more threats to kill you before you do. The most crucial thing is knowing when to chump block: if you do it randomly, you're not going to have enough mana to go off, and you'll die anyway; instead, you need to think about what, exactly, your plan is when you untap, and if you can combo, especially through a single removal spell. Generally how I win games against Zoo is to play out my Llanowars and sub-Llanowars, keeping Heritage in hand if I have just one along with a Glimpse, and waiting to go off until they either tap out for more creatures or I know that one removal spell isn't going to stop me. Minor note: it's often best to play Heritage as your third creature, giving them the choice between letting you tap your guys for mana, or using a removal spell on a suboptimal target. They'll misplay by killing non-Heritage when you can combo, or misplay by saving it when you just wanted to tap them to play out your hand.

It doesn't affect strategy too much, usually, but know that if you untap with Archdruid, you almost always win.

The Thopter-Depths matchup is, surprisingly, one of the more straightforward ones. They don't have much removal pre-board, so Archdruid will generally win the game by himself, and if they don't have the 20/20 really early, they'll have to spend their mana tutoring and casting Thirst for Knowledge. If you can't combo, just play out your entire hand and see if they have anything fast enough to stop it. There's really no use playing conservatively here.

Against slow blue control decks, just play a few 1/1s, keeping all your good spells in hand. Attack for three or four, turn after turn, until they feel like doing something about it. Then combo them. They have almost no clock whatsoever, so there's hardly ever a reason to play out more than four creatures or to try to force a combo into open mana. Try to bait them into countering superflous elves.

Against everything, just remember: what you want to present to your opponent is a difficult situation where they're facing threats on the table, but have no earthly idea whether or not you can combo. Keep this in mind at all times; sometimes a play will come up where you can trick your opponent one way or another.

As far as sideboarding goes, the important thing is to think about what you want your gameplan to be, and sideboard out cards accordingly- this is much more important than what you bring in. Often, people will over-sideboard cards that seem good, but don't help your game plan at all. Remember: if you are bringing in more than six cards, you are doing it wrong. This holds true against almost every deck. Generally, you want to take out a couple one-drops, unless hitting your 1/1s early and often is important (like against Faeries), and take out a couple Visionaries if your plan is to combo them as soon as possible, since they can be a bit slow. Faeries is the matchup that is worth mentioning specifically: they won't let you combo after turn three hardly ever. Instead, you want to make them trade their two-mana answers for your one-mana dorks. Take out everything that costs more than three, as well as Curio. On the play, take out a couple Pact; on the draw, Archdruid, since it's the only card you have that they can trade profitably with. The matchup basically comes down to Jitte, so hope you get one.

I hope this was helpful to everyone that wants to play the deck. Now get out there and... stay at home goldfishing.


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