How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Posted in Top Decks on June 11, 2009

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

I was having lunch with Zvi Mowshowitz last week (it was former Beckett Magic: The Gathering and columnist Mark Young's birthday!) and expressed that I was kind of bummed that there was no "real" Top 8 deck lists to discuss for Pro Tour–Honolulu. Zvi pointed out that there was absolutely no reason to not discuss the top eight decks as if they were played ... After all, from a Top 8-ness standpoint, the fact that the final rounds of the Pro Tour were Draft has absolutely no bearing on the cutoff mechanics for a tournament like Honolulu.

I defer to the Hall of Fame deck designer, writer, and Pro Tour champion (and brisket gobbler). You can find the Top 8 competitors' Block Constructed decks here.

So Honolulu wasn't quite 32 Bloodbraid Elves, was it? That said, the uniquely interesting thing about this format—as we introduced last weekis how players approached the Bloodbraid Elf problem. The Esper Stoneblade decks played Vedalken Outlander main deck to blank Bloodbraid Elf, containing it on the board and dodging the typically accompanying red removal (often Terminate and Bituminous Blast) simultaneously; moreover, they ran Ethersworn Canonist to restrict cascade card advantage (or at least demand removal before the opponent could go off with cascade spells). One of the Five-Color Control decks—Michal Hebky's—played 4 Double Negatives to counteract the cascade card advantage and potentially steal mana (even when Double Negative is being pointed at something other than a Bloodbraid Elf / Bituminous Blast / Enlisted Wurm, it is usually cheaper than the card it is countering).

Ethersworn Canonist
Double Negative

As expected, however, half of the Top 8 just threw in and summoned some Bloodbraid Elves themselves. Conley Woods stretched his three slot to include not only Jenara, Asura of War, but Sedraxis Specter! On the other end of the five-color spectrum, Zac Hill included—believe it or not—Kathari Remnant to help find Wall of Denial (a card that itself is quite good at holding off a Bloodbraid Elf).

So I was working on this article and my old Two-Headed Giant teammate (Two-Headed Giant the team, not the format!) Paul Jordan called me up and insisted that I write something about Green-White. As you will see in an upcoming Honolulu metagame feature article by Paul, Green-White was awesome. Green-White may have gotten less press due to not being played by any of the Top 8 competitors, but it was the deck of choice of recent Player of the Year Tomoharu Saito (as detailed in the coverage) and numerous other notable players. Green-White as a macro archetype posted one of the best win percentages in the tournament (against the field as a whole), did so at scale, and managed its scrappy win percentage without the benefit of a Bloodbraid Elf.

Here are versions of the Green-White deck played by Hall of Famer Raphael Levy of France and Shingo Kurihara of Japan:

Raphael Levy's Green-White

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Levy's deck takes advantage of its incidental Seaside Citadels to sneak in one copy of Rafiq of the Many. Knotvine Paladin should probably be called Knotvine Paddlin' in this deck ... Turn one Noble Hierarch, turn two Knotvine Paladin, turn three Rafiq? Levy can chomp half the opponent's life with a 5/5 Knotvine Paladin on turn three!

Shingo Kurihara's Green White

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Kurihara's version is a neat illustration of how some players anticipated Bloodbraid Elves. Rhox Mendicant is the same cost as the Elf and is big enough to walk away from (or scare off) a Bloodbraid Elf. While the Mendicant doesn't generate the virtual mana of a cascade spell, it does (or at least can) draw a card to stay even on the absolute count.

Behemoth Sledge
Martial Coup

Meanwhile, as the deck slows down the opposing attackers, Behemoth Sledge can keep life total manageable, and Martial Coup can flip the board on its ear. Who exactly is winning again? When you have the Coup in your hand, you can play dead, dragging through turn after turn with bad blocks "just to stay alive" (really to maximize your life total) while the opponent commits to the board. Then, pow! You've destroyed all the creatures (and if you do it right, it's mostly opposing creatures) and get to walk way with a Dragon's worth of power on the board.

The most exotic deck of the tournament may have been the Sphinx Combo decks. Here is one played by the sensational David Williams:

David Williams's Sphinx Control

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In addition to playing lots of manipulation (cycle my Glassdust Hulk!) and two-for-ones like Sphinx Summoner and Sharuum the Hegemon, this deck actually plays a gigantic combo kill. With Glassdust Hulk in play, the Sphinx Control deck can move to set up two copies of Sharuum the Hegemon; whether there is a Sharuum in play or in the graveyard is irrelevant, though. Basically you end up with one or more Sharuum triggers on the stack, and one or both Sharuums in the graveyard. Because the "legend rule" applies faster than you can even put the trigger on the stack, the two Sharuums are already in the graveyard when you're picking targets. One Sharuum picks up the other, which itself picks up the first one. As a state-based effect, both die ... but not before triggering further reanimations! The same scenario occurs again ... two legendary creatures killing one another and returning one another to the board, over and over. You let this go on for as long as you like, the Glassdust Hulk getting bigger and bigger each time. When you have decided you have pumped the Hulk enough, you swing and that's the end of it.

Glassdust Hulk
Sharuum the Hegemon

The cool thing about this deck is that even when it is not comboing off, it is positioning itself better and better on the board throughout the game. For example you can cycle Glassdust Hulk to draw a card, and then later play Sharuum the Hegemon. Now you have two bodies in play, one of which is pretty dangerous. You can play around like that for a while, while you wait for an opening to get your Hulk in, then you can combo off. Or you can attack, block, and trade per normal ... After all, your deck is all about getting stuff back from the graveyard anyway. You've got the tools to play catch up (and anyway, you can't go infinite without playing at least one more Sharuum the Hegemon).

All that is left is attacking, roughly, for one zillion.

Also, Elves!

Block Constructed is an interesting format, but for most of you, the format of more immediate interest is Standard. Standard is, after all, the present PTQ format ... but it was also the format of the Honolulu LCQ, where dozens of players battled it out for one of four immediate invitations to Hawaii's big Pro Tour dance.

The unique happening this time around is that of the four decks that qualified for Pro Tour Honolu, all four were Black-Green Elves decks!

While the decks had much in common (like four copies of Llanowar Elves each, or three-plus-one of Chameleon Colossus), they also had points of difference and differentiation.

Gabriel Carlton-Barnes

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Robert Gildea

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Brett Blackman

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James Bishop

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Okay ... So how does Elves work?

Elves is essentially the same deck that we have been looking at since the early days of Lorwyn, the deck that excelled at the New York World Championships, eventually won Pro Tour–Hollywood, and continued to place well throughout the summer. It is a linear tribal deck drawing on the synergies injected into Lorwyn block, but piggybacking on the Tenth Edition availability of Llanowar Elves as a catalyst. Civic Wayfinder, that nearly blue green two-for-one three-drop is conveniently an Elf; it keeps the deck going as the spells get more adventurous, and stands as an unusual green source of card advantage. While the deck has no Bloodbraid Elf, Civic Wayfinder is a superb stop sign, countering body for body, and extra card for extra card.

Garruk Wildspeaker
Chameleon Colossus

Elves has some nice attack options, of course. It can implement a swarm plan that can link lots of tiny hands with Garruk Wildspeaker as a proxy Overrun. It can also function as a solitary attack deck, clearing the path and freeing up mana to pump a lone, but deadly, Chameleon Colossus whenever it can make it through (or as The Abyss, eating one or more blockers with every attack).

Puppeteer Clique
Profane Command

Elves draws on many angles for its offense, as befits a more flexible midrange deck. Its ways to win range from swarm beatdown to the elegance of a sideboarded Primal Command or Puppeteer Clique to find the right solution, or use the opponent's resources against him. And for most of these Elves decks, there is the direct damage option on Profane Command to consider! I know that I have lost too many matches due to simply not respecting the previously unheard-of reach on a deck like one of these; don't make the same mistake. Unlike against past incarnations of The Rock, you can't necessarily play willy-nilly with your life total, expecting to lock out damage not coming from the Red Zone.

Additionally ....

Putrid Leech – All four decks played all four copies of this two-drop, which seems halfway between a Wild Mongrel and a Flesh Reaver. Some current theories say that this card—non-Elf that it is—has been instrumental in resurrecting the archetype by ensuring double awesome two-drops (along with the four Wren's Run Vanquishers that all four players also ran). Putrid Leech helps smooth out the Elves' offensive curve, and makes for a deadly attacker that's surprisingly hard to kill for a two-mana spell.

23 Lands – Thought they didn't necessarily agree on which 23, all four decks played a combination of Mutavault and Treetop Village. The capacity for double man-lands can't be overstated. When the opponent taps out, it is here that the man lands get activated. Attack! Moreover, the many man-lands allow Elves to "overplay" its hand against control. The opponent may have the short-term upper hand regarding card advantage, but tapping low will leave an opening for an uncounterable cadre of damage sources already on the board.

Maelstrom Pulse

Maelstrom Pulse – All four played all four, even if half played one in the side. Nevertheless, the presence of a full set everywhere is a strong vote for this Alara Reborn sorcery, another newcomer that seems to be helping to make the deck. Maelstrom Pulse is particularly punishing for decks that rely on Borderposts for mana.

Crusades ... with legs! – Blackman and Gildea played Wilt-Leaf Liege, which is excellent against Blightning, Cruel Ultimatum, and the like. Gabe Carleton-Barnes opted for the speedier Imperious Perfect; there are perfectly good arguments for each card, though Imperious Perfect has the longer pedigree in Elves decks, Wilt-Leaf Liege has been a sometimes-contributor to Kithkin, Tokens, Green-White "Little Kid," and just as a "Dodecapod." Surprisingly, James Bishop played not a one, instead relying on his Kitchen Finks to just attack through opposing lines.

Wilt-Leaf Liege
Cruel Ultimatum

More or less three Profane Commands – Again, Bishop's deck is the odd Elves out with no Profane Commands ... but the other three players were all Fireballing and reanimating their opponents out with this versatile—yet very powerful—and unique spell. Profane Command is a good attrition tool for a deck with Civic Wayfinder—that is, a deck that can hit its land drops. You can trade, trade at value, and keep coming. It is also quite the "get out of jail free" option, especially on a locked board. Big fear plus big Fireball leads to some really unhappy opponents.

3 + 1 Chameleon Colossus – This may be the most important card, and numbers on a card, to look at and think about for the upcoming week. Chameleon Colossus is a breaker in the Elves mirror. It is an extremely difficult threat for Jund Mana Ramp to try to deal with. It is superb against Faeries, almost guaranteeing damage early, and almost can't be killed by Five-Color Blood. My argument? Maybe the deck should run all four copies! Or, maybe other decks should expand (or "regress" in the case of the Five-Color family) to playing four copies of this best of Elves. We have seen sharp metagame turns from Black-White Tokens to Cascade Swans to Faeries and now to Elves, with one or two strategies completely dominating in the short term, constantly swerving the field at sharp, sometimes unexpected, angles. For the current version of the Standard metagame, Chameleon Colossus looks superb.

I put together a short video featuring specifically Gabe Carleton-Barnes's version of Elves. In addition to some basic discussion, you can see some game play against Jund Mana Ramp and the kind of domination (and respect) that we suggested in the Chameleon Colossus section just above.

Hopefully this quick primer on Elves will be helpful to you the day-after-tomorrow. The metagame (this year) is a swiftly changing animal. We have gone from clear "best deck" to "clear" best deck, week after week. But hopefully—especially if you take our advice on Chameleon Colossus (or at least preparing for it)—you might have a slight edge over most everybody else in the room as you storm for the Blue Envelope!

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