Duel Decks- Elves vs Goblins: Elves Deck Review (Part 1 of 2)
They may be a fixture now, but in the lifespan of Magic: the Gathering, Duel Decks have only enjoyed a rather brief run. First appearing in 1997, for their inaugural launch product Wizards mined familiar territory and assembled decks of Goblins and Elves to battle one another (although the series’ history actually had earlier roots). The card pool was fully bloated with these creature types, particularly the Onslaught block and the then-brand-new Lorwyn set, and these were heavily tapped to construct the decks. This would begin the Duel Decks tradition of alternating non-planeswalker-themed sets.
For this deck, what you see is what you get, no tricks or hidden surprises here. You want elves? Howabout twenty-eight of them?
Every Branch a Crossroads
This overwhelming tribal theme allows Elves to play some very narrow but powerful cards, and emphasizes the deck’s thematic ties. You can broadly divide the creature pool into five main categories, but before we do so let’s take a look at the deck’s creature curve:
This is about what you might expect from one of the game’s cheaper tribes- we’ll see little difference with the Goblins. Frontloaded with early plays and very little on the back-end, you should seldom expect any trouble in burining through your hand.
As an added hedge against mana stall and a way to power out the top of the curve a little faster, we have our first category of creatures, the rampers. The trio of Llanowar Elves here is a no-brainer, but the deck also includes a pair of Wood Elves to go alongside. Although as 1/1’s these elves would normally be fairly useless in the later stages of a game, as we’ll see there are plenty of ways to get extra mileage out of each elf, regardless its power or toughness.
Since we can expect the gobbos to be packing a lot of burn spells, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the elves are bringing a few lifegainers to the table. In an environment where you know you won’t be facing a Pyroclasm and have little to fear from overcommittment on the field, the two Wellwishers can yield an obscene amount of life, and if things do do awry and you lose some of your army, the Elvish Eulogists can give you a lovely parting gift.
Since we do plan on overcommitting our forces to the field and haemorraging elves at every turn, it would be useful to have some summoners to help refill our hand. The Sylvan Messenger as a 2/2 with trample is a bit of an odd construct that begs for augmentation, but has a nifty trick attached to it. When it comes into play, you get a lesser Lead the Stampede-style effect limited to elves. Since all but one of the deck’s creatures are elves, this should all but ensure the Messenger at least replaces itself. Rounding out the trio is an Elvish Harbinger which fetches upon entering the battlefield, and a Wirewood Herald which does nearly the same upon dying. While the Harbinger only places it atop your library rather than into your hand, she also counts as a ramper with her ability to tap for one mana of any colour.
As mentioned with the Messenger, it helps to have ways to make your fragile elves a little more robust, so the deck carries a half-dozen buffers to help your forces get through. Perhaps the best of these is the Imperious Perfect, and Elves carries an even pair. Not only does she act as a lord (+1/+1 to all elves), but she also acts as an elf-token generator for a very reasonable cost. Having a lot of elves in play is helpful in many ways, not least to increase the bonus granted by the Timberwatch Elf. Finally, there are two Gempalm Striders which are essentially a split card between a 2/2 elf and a combat trick if you instead opt to cycle him. Again given the homogenous nature of the deck, you’ll probably want to save the Striders as buffs for a lethal alpha strike.
Finally, there’s a Wirewood Symbiote, the deck’s lone non-elf creature. Not a buff per se, the Symbiote’s ability is solid here where so many of your creatures are inexpensive to cast. This not only gives you the option of reusing the tap-ability of one of your elves (say, the Timberwatch Elf), or to set up a recursive loop with a Wood Elves or Elvish Harbinger.
Our last category- the beaters– are also our largest. We begin with a trio of Elvish Warriors. While we know them today as the somewhat marginal Nissa’s Chosen, there was a time when a 2/3 for two mana was an exciting bargain back in Onslaught. These days the power of creatures has increased some so that the same cost gets you a Garruk’s Companion, and if you throw one more Green mana into the deal you end up with a Leatherback Baloth (which up-and-coming deckbuilder Jesse Smith recently called “the best turn-two creature in the game right now.”)
Beyond that, we have the Stonewood Invoker, which gives a powerful boost in the late-game if you have excess mana laying about (you might note that the Invokers were brought back as recently as Rise of the Eldrazi, with a new one for each colour). From there the deck gets truly dangerous. The Lys Alana Huntmaster is already a relative bruiser at 3/3, but he also helps pump out 1/1 elf tokens in the process. The Heedless One loves to see that, as her power and toughness are each equal to the number of elves you have in play. Combined with trample, she’s a definite closer most of the time that she touches down.
The Voice of the Woods isn’t much on his own- a simple 2/2- but he’s part of a cycle that lets you do powerful effects in exchange for tapping down a number of creatures of a given tribe (we’ve seen another of these- the Catapult Master– recently as part of Duel Decks: Elspeth vs Tezzeret). In this case, that ‘powerful effect’ gets you a 7/7 trampling elemental token creature- watch out, gobbos!
The Wren’s Run Vanquisher is a solid body with deathtouch, and you’ll usually be more than able to buy her at the discounted rate unless drawn late in the game. Like the Heedless One, the Allosaurus Rider has the potential to be one of the biggest bodies on the board. It’s alternate casting cost (removing two Green cards in your hand from the game) is no joke, and should only be used with the greatest consideration. It’s slightly less of a gambit here, as Goblins lacks outright-kill a la Doom Blade, and the Rider can be large enough to shrug off much of the burn it’ll face, but proceed with caution. Getting three-for-oned in decks with similar pacing and tempo can be a severe setback.
Finally we come to the deck’s foil premium rare, the Ambush Commander, another reason you should be grateful that this Duel Decks environment lacks board-sweepers (well, aside from this fellow). Aside from the activated Giant Growth, the fact that he can effectively double the size of your elven army makes him one of the deck’s all-stars. He’ll come into play with a bullseye painted on his forehead, so you may want to be sure you have some open mana to help protect him from the expected Red burn he’ll draw.
A Blend of Aristocrat and Predator
With that many creatures, there isn’t a lot of room left for anything else, but the deck does cram a few treats inside. There are the expected combat tricks (two Giant Growths and a Wildsize), of course. There’s a dose of card drawing to replenish depleted hands in the form of a Slate of Ancestry and a Harmonize. An Elvish Promenade doubles the size of your elven army on the spot, and the deck begs you to resolve this after the Commander touches down. Finally, in a most welcome inclusion you have a dose of direct damage! The trio of Moonglove Extracts aren’t cheap for the privilege, costing three mana to play, but give you some sorely-needed spot removal. Your Goblins opponent will have a ton of this at their disposal, and will be picking off your better elves with discouraging frequency. With the Extracts, you’ll have the opportunity to give it right back. Naturally, with only three in the deck, you’ll want to be sure to choose your targets carefully.
And there you have it, the elvish arsenal. An overwhelming swarm of elves of any and every stripe, with a small complement of support. You’ll do almost all of your talking in the red zone, but the deck looks packed with tribal fun. Next we’ll be looking at the Goblins deck, and from there we’ll be taking both to the field to see how they play. See you then!