The Return of Combo Elves

Posted in Reconstructed on May 7, 2013

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

One card out of Dragon's Maze is poised to shake up the metagame more than any other card in the set. It's close—and in some ways better—than a card that's already banned in Modern. The combo engine the original banned card was a part of was one of the most fearsome combo strategies to show up at the top levels of play in a while, enabling kills as early as turn two.

With the discussion about Modern and Dragon's Maze, and with Grand Prix Portland this weekend, it only makes sense to focus in on the card that's been on every Modern player's mind since it was revealed.

That card? Beck & Call.

Beck & Call | Art by Adam Paquette

Let's dial back the clocks to October 2008. The scene is the city of Berlin, a city where old meets new; where hard brick roads lead to a bustling nightlife; where towering 800-year-old cathedrals intermingle with contemporary glass architecture. But on one particular weekend in October, there was a particularly uncommon event taking place in the city of Berlin: the Magic Pro Tour.

I was there. At eighteen years old, it was the first Pro Tour I ever played in. (Although not the first I qualified for—that's a story for another time.) I had been diligently preparing for the Extended format for months leading up to this Pro Tour.

And it was about the time when Guillaume Wafo-Tapa—the renowned blue-black mage himself—came running around to every last person at the player party the night before the tournament asking for Glimpse of Nature that I knew there was a problem.

Glimpse of Nature

I knew what deck that card went in: Combo Elves. I had the decklist and had playtested it, opting to not play it. But if Guillaume was looking to play it, and was asking for the card openly to complete strangers, there were going to be a lot more Elves players than I had imagined.

It turns out there were a lot more.

In what Patrick Chapin would call "the deck everyone thought only they knew about," Elves appeared in force, with various versions taking a whopping six of the Top 8 spots. The rest, as they say, is history.

Luis Scott-Vargas winning the 2008 Pro Tour in Berlin

Why do I bring up this history lesson? Well, Combo Elves is back—in a big way.

What made the deck tick was Glimpse of Nature, a card that was banned in Modern after it dominated the first showcasing of the format. The Beck half of Dragon's Maze's Beck & Call is a two-mana Glimpse of Nature—with upside. Unlike Glimpse, it triggers on creatures entering the battlefield, not being cast, and is a "may," meaning you never have to worry about decking yourself. Oh, and you can also even cast the Call half on rare occasions!

I was a huge champion for Elves in Extended before Modern supplanted Extended as the PTQ format of choice, writing several different articles on the deck and playing it to success in several tournaments. Now it's time to look at the deck again—this time for Modern! Let's take a look at John Papadakis's take on the strategy:

John Papadakis's Elfball

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The Battle Plan

Okay, so I explained that it was a combo deck. But how exactly does it work?

From a deck-building standpoint, it's actually a work of art how this deck combos out. It's also extraordinarily complicated. Learning the ins and outs of this deck can be as complicated as memorizing algebraic formulas—but the moment it all comes together and you learn it is incredibly rewarding.

There several different paths you can take to combo out, so I'll try and explain it via an example.

This combination revolves around Nettle Sentinel and Heritage Druid. So, before going further, let's take a look at how they work

Nettle Sentinel
Heritage Druid

Let's say you have a bunch of one-mana Elves in your hand, and you cast Beck with Nettle Sentinel and Heritage Druid on the battlefield. You might only have a single green mana left over—but that's okay. You use it to cast one of your Elves and draw a card.

Then, you tap all three of your Elves for three more green mana. Then you play another single mana Elf—drawing another card and untapping Nettle Sentinel. With one green mana left in your pool, you play another one-mana Elf, drawing yet another card! You can tap all three of them for three more green mana and start casting more Elves and drawing more cards.

Let's say you drew a Summoner's Pact (or another Nettle Sentinel) at some point. You can go find a Nettle Sentinel, play it, draw a card, and untap your other Nettle Sentinel. At this point, every Elf you cast translates directly into three green mana, since your pair of Nettle Sentinels untaps every time you cast an Elf and you can tap the Elf you just cast. Oh, and you're also drawing a card every time.

Now you can keep casting Elves and drawing cards. Eventually, you'll hit a Summoner's Pact and can find a Regal Force to ensure you have all the cards you need. You can cast practically your entire deck, then cast Craterhoof Behemoth to make all of your creatures—including it—gigantic, and take the game.

But that's not all. What makes this deck so great is that it's not just a combo deck. It can also just kill your opponent by attacking pretty handily!

In addition to helping you combo out, Elvish Archdruid and Heritage Druid can cast a ton of creatures in short order. This deck is a plenty serviceable beatdown deck that can have some pretty fast draws and that always threatens being able to combo off to boot. Sometimes you can even get strange hybrid comb/beatdown draws where you will cast Beck, play a bunch of Elves, and then pass the turn with plenty of creatures crowding up the board poised to beat your opponent down.

Complicated to play? Definitely. Powerful? Absolutely!

Deck Breakdown

Every card in a deck like this can make a big difference. You will see a large portion of your deck while trying to combo out, so little tweaks have a big impact. Let's go through and see what's working—and what isn't.

Nettle Sentinel
Heritage Druid

These are two key combo pieces. You absolutely need four of each of these, no questions asked.

Llanowar Elves
Arbor Elf

This deck needs a critical mass of single-mana Elves to cast while comboing off, and these are some of the best ones out there. Mana acceleration in Elves both helps you cast your spells faster (and set up to combo quicker) and means you can play fewer lands—a crucial strength in a deck like this, where dead draws when your deck is trying to go off can be fatal.

Deathrite Shaman

While we're talking about single-mana Elves, it's also worth bringing up Deathrite Shaman. While Deathrite Shaman is a fantastic card, it comes with a high risk: the chance that your mana Elf will be unable to do its namesake job. The upside to Deathrite is you can gain some life, it has a second toughness (mostly just relevant for cards like Electrolyze), and, most importantly, it can provide you with a blue mana source for Beck.

To investigate Deathrite Shaman further, I built the deck and played some games with it (upping the fetch land count to ten, using Scalding Tarns to find Breeding Pools). While in most of the games it was fine, there were occasionally games where it did nothing—or worse yet, my opponent was on the play and deployed a Deathrite Shaman ahead of me, eating any ammo I could give mine. In a deck all about consistency, that's a large risk.

While being able to grant you a blue mana is a nice benefit, if you can activate his ability it usually means you've cracked a fetch land anyway—which means you should have a blue mana available. And, most of all, occasionally not being able to get the mana on turn two to cast, say, Elvish Archdruid is a gigantic problem.

However, I do want more mana Elves. Boreal Druid is another option, but that comes with the drawback of not being able to cast spells that cost only . In the end, I decided to split the different drawbacks and play two Deathrite Shamans and one Boreal Druid. You don't want to draw more than one Shaman because they quickly become weak in multiples, but with only two that won't happen often. You will often draw at least one fetch land, meaning if nothing else you can do something like power out an Elvish Archdruid.

And speaking of Elvish Archdruid...

Elvish Archdruid

If you untap with Elvish Archdruid, your opponent's chances of winning the game drop dramatically. The mana output on Elvish Archdruid is insane, helping to power out a lot of your early wins and creating some truly robust draws. He can power you into an early Regal Force on his own, which will often give you the gas you need to win the game. Additionally, he also lends himself well to the beatdown strategy, making your army of 1/1 Elves significantly more formidable.

While Archdruid isn't great if you draw him while you're going off, he isn't a dead draw, and the amount he adds to this deck is definitely worth playing. I've seen some people play three, but I want to cast him on turn two as often as possible, which makes me want four.

Elvish Visionary

This innocuous 1/1 for two mana is surprisingly one of the stronger cards in the deck. Digging you deeper into your deck and finding a critical mass of Elves helps your consistency a ton. Additionally, it also fuels a boundless combo with a card I'm going to talk about in a little bit—but that's for later.

I'll note that I've heard of some players using Coiling Oracle in addition to Visionary. While I would absolutely do that if Coiling Oracle wasn't also blue, the blue mana makes it prohibitive to cast while going off and makes me decidedly uninterested in it.

Scryb Ranger

This Time Spiral oddball card can have many uses. Untapping a creature to generate mana helps you hit critical mass while going off, and you can also "cheat" on your land drops a little by tapping a land, returning it to your hand, and then playing it again to tap.

The ultimate problem here is that the Ranger isn't an Elf. While you're going off, it won't work with Heritage Druid—which pushes it out of the deck.

Ezuri, Renegade Leader

When you're on the beatdown plan, Ezuri is a good creature to have by your side. However, already having a full boat of three-mana Elves you can draw while comboing off in the form of Elvish Archdruid makes me a little wary, and Ezuri is nowhere near as good when you play him on turn two off of a mana Elf. Every slot matters, and Ezuri isn't quite good enough main deck for me. (I would definitely consider him for the sideboard, though, to bring in if you anticipate the combo isn't a realistic option.)

Regal Force is one of the crucial cards for this deck. When you're going off, it's the card that seals the deal: you Beck, play a bunch of Elves, achieve a critical mass of mana, Summoner's Pact for Regal Force, and then you're good to go. The real question for me is not if this deck should play Regal Force, but how many is the correct number for it to play.

Back when I was playing Extended Elves, I played between one and two Regal Force depending on what I was expecting. Sometimes, I would play one Regal Force and one Ranger of Eos. (Mine had a Temple Garden for sideboard cards.) While you absolutely need one Force to combo off with, you can also just get draws with Elvish Archdruid that lead into a turn-three or -four Regal Force to reload on all the gas you need.

In this deck, I think I actually would like to play two. I'm going to have a lot of mana production, and Regal Force is just the card to draw in those situations.

Craterhoof Behemoth

Ah, the win condition of Elves. There have been many variations on this.

Some people used Emrakul, the Aeons Torn to achieve victory. Others used Grapeshot.

After a ton of testing, my old win condition of choice was two copies of Primal Command. When your deck has two copies of Primal Command and your engine is running at full speed, you can loop them over and over again (assuming your hand is full of creatures, which it will be), choosing to shuffle your graveyard back into your library—which includes another Primal Command.

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
Primal Command

In the meantime, you're putting one of your opponent's lands on top of his or her library. (Or, if you're low on life, you can gain 7 life once or twice to seal the deal.) Sure, your opponent does technically get another turn... but there's almost no situation where he or she can kill you once your life total is high and all of your opponent's noncreature permanents are on top of his or her library and you have every Elf in your deck on the battlefield.

Why did I opt for Primal Command over the less flashy Emrakul, the Aeons Torn? Well, because Primal Command also just did something. I hate drawing dead cards. While the Primal Command avenue took up two slots instead of one, you could just cast the first Primal Command to set up your combo or to set your opponent back a turn.

So, where does Craterhoof Behemoth fall into the mix?

Something I really like about Craterhoof Behemoth is that you can just cast it and win once you've hit a critical mana threshold. Eight is a lot more realistic than fifteen for Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Additionally, you can Summoner's Pact for it—even if you don't combo out all of the way, a Behemoth will often times be good enough to take the game.

The downside is it's nowhere near as active as Primal Command earlier in the game. Additionally, if it's Thoughtseized or otherwise removed, your opponent will get another turn after you go off. (With two Primal Commands, if one is discarded, you can draw the other and shuffle it back in.)

I think it's very close between the two for this deck. Only taking up one slot as opposed to two is alluring, but, unlike Legacy, Modern is a format where Primal Command is actually reasonable to cast instead of having to turbo combo out.

In the end, I settled on Craterhoof Behemoth because being able to just cast it (especially via Summoner's Pact) and break open board stalls against creature decks is quite worth it. I do think it's a close call though, and depending on the metagame I would try it both ways.

Fauna Shaman

Fauna Shaman seems like it would be custom fit for this deck—it searches up your combo creatures. What's not to like? Well, it's actually a little slow and takes a ton of time to get rolling. Additionally, with just one, there are few situations I would see where I'd rather search up Fauna Shaman over the creature I needed in the first place. Every card matters in a deck like this, and Fauna Shaman is expendable.

This is your key combo piece. You want to draw this, and you definitely want to play all four. I wouldn't normally play a Temple Garden since I think you will Call pretty rarely, but I think you would likely sideboard cards like Ranger of Eos or Proclamation of Rebirth so I'm going to include it in the final list. Additionally, I want to play one or two Horizon Canopys in this deck anyway, depending on how many Forests we end up with, so that can also cast Call in a pinch.
Summoner's Pact

After the combo pieces, Summoner's Pact is actually one of the most important cards in the entire deck. It can find you whichever Elf you need while going off and helps you find Regal Force when it's time to hit the finishing stages of your combo. It also helps your beatdown plan in games a little, if need be, by finding an Elvish Archdruid (which can then help pay for the Pact next turn). I would absolutely not play less than four copies.

Chord of Calling

While Summoner's Pact is fantastic, Chord is a little too slow for my tastes. Most of my Elves tap for mana anyway, because they're mana Elves or because of Heritage Druid, and if I'm going to be ignoring the convoke and casting an X spell like this with mana I'd probably look toward using Weird Harvest.

On top of all that, I just don't think there is room for Chord of Calling. There's an important spell-to-early-Elves ratio, and Chord isn't that impressive early. Additionally, even when you're going off it's not that great of a draw since it costs a combination of four mana/Elf taps (which are virtually mana) to cast. I'd rather play more Elves here.

Curiouser and Curio-user

There are a lot of extra ways to combo out that players have explored in Elves. For example, one card I've seen talked about a lot lately is Intruder Alarm. While I believe Intruder Alarm is mostly a win-more card since it only works when the combo is assembled and you keep drawing Elves anyway, it certainly helps out the process.

One card that I do believe has earned a spot is the oddball Cloudstone Curio.

Before I explain the card, first a bit of a story. What you may not know is that I'm not the only Elves fanatic here on! My Perilous Research brother-in-arms Jacob Van Lunen also fancies himself a Combo Elf deck, and we often seem to come to the conclusion at similar times. (As does Daily Decks writer Sam Black. Hi Sam!)

One week, in the old Extended format, Jake and I revitalized Combo Elves by making the Top 8 of two separate PTQs on the same weekend. Despite not talking about the deck beforehand, our lists were similar. However, they had a few differences. I played Elvish Archdruids, which Jake was against. Jake played Cloudstone Curio, which I was against.

After talking and playtesting we eventually realized... we were both right!

Elvish Archdruid was important. However, Cloudstone Curio was also fantastic. Why? Because it serves as extra ways to use your Glimpse of Nature effect, while also giving you ways to combo out without it.

How does it work exactly? Let me go through some of the loops.

Cloudstone Curio

The key element of Cloudstone Curio is this: if you have a Nettle Sentinel and a Heritage Druid, and you play another one-mana Elf, you can generate unlimited mana. Here's how.

First, tap all three of them for mana. Then, return the Heritage Druid to your hand via the Cloudstone Curio trigger. Then cast the Druid, leaving two mana floating. Cloudstone Curio triggers, returning the other one-mana Elf to your hand. Cast it again, tap all three for mana, return the Heritage Druid, and repeat as necessary.

Now, this provides you boundless mana and also as many cards as you'd like if you have cast Beck that turn. But that's just the start! In fact, to draw as many cards as you'd like with Beck, you don't even need Nettle Sentinel! Just return each Elf, replay it, and draw. Eventually you'll find a Sentinel, and then you can continue generating mana.

But wait! What if you don't have Beck? Well, Elvish Visionary serves that role nicely. If you have a Heritage Druid, a Nettle Sentinel, and an Elvish Visionary, you can draw as many cards as you'd like—and eventually you'll no doubt happen on another Elf to create unlimited mana with. Even if you haven't assembled a boundless combo, it can also just help you draw three+ cards a turn off of Visionary to help find what you're missing.

That's not all, though. With Cloudstone Curio, I'd also like to add two Essence Wardens. In addition to buying you time against beatdown, drawing them naturally is a perfectly reasonable way to gain boundless life. Just slot them into the above Heritage Druid setup with any other one-mana Elf and you'll be sitting pretty at 42 trillion. (Although it's important to keep in mind that against decks like Splinter Twin can still defeat you anyway! Be careful.)

Essence Warden

It's a tricky card to play with and requires practicing the combo a bit, but Cloudstone Curio allows you to combo out in all kinds of odd situations. It's this card where Summoner's Pact really shines, helping you find whichever Elf you're missing to go infinite in any one of three ways.

Cloudstone Curio is definitely worth three slots—you don't want to draw more than one, but one will absolutely fuel your victory.

With all of those changes, that brings the deck to:

Gavin Verhey's Combo Elves

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One thing worth noting about the mana base is that I've seen some people play with a Dryad Arbor to fetch up, since it triggers Beck. However, while that's a neat interaction, I don't actually think it'll happen that often. Conversely, every time you draw Dryad Arbor in your opening hand it's going to be a weak draw. I'd rather not take that risk, which is likely to come up for more often than fetching for a Dryad Arbor to draw a card.

As I mentioned earlier, the Temple Garden is for potential sideboard cards. I'd look to cards like Ranger of Eos and Proclamation of Rebirth that can help you attrition decks like Jund. Splashing black for Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek out of the board is also reasonable if you want to fight off combo decks.

Temple Garden
Ranger of Eos

Normally, I like two Horizon Canopys in Combo Elf decks to help counterbalance mana-flooded draws, but the Forest count was already so low I didn't want to risk running out of lands and being stuck with just one.

So, how good is this deck? Well, after playing some games, I believe it to be extremely competitive. While cards like Pyroclasm or Volcanic Fallout will liquify the Elves' cells and cause their skin to start to burn, those cards aren't seeing a ton of play right now. Elves is a fast combo deck with a reasonable plan B. If you're heading to Grand Prix Portland this weekend, you had better be ready for it. If you do well enough, I'll see you there competing on Sunday!

Honorable Mentions

There were many great Modern submissions this week—let's take a look at some of the other ones!

Lore's Flipwalkers

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Alex Lapinski's Shifted Maze-Run

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Takahashi Kazuyasu's Golgari Aggro

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Luke Paulsen's Mill

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Mark Ian Alloso's GW Hatebears

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Yuji Hirota's Turbo Gate

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Lee's Empty Cheerios

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Blake Campbell's Trollpod

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Trevor Cashmore's Just Kiln Time

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Ian Fontaine's Scavenging Shadow

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Daniel Watson's Zhur-Taawin

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Adam Moore's Beck and Affinity

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Liam Puknys's Possibility Brand

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Masato's 52-Land World Map

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