(last updated 5/31/18)
Role: Punching bag.
Best cards (main): Thalia, Heretic Cathar, Umezawa’s Jitte, Sanctum Prelate
Worst cards (main): Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Batterskull
Best cards (side): Containment Priest, Ethersworn Canonist
Revoker targets: Wirewood Symbiote, Heritage Druid, Quirian Ranger, Birchlore Ranger
Best Generic Sanctum Prelate Number: 4, 1
Whatever Julian Knab tells you to play
Deck Strategy and Key Cards
Elves is a creature-based combo deck at heart. It’s truly a beautiful and complex machine; there are many moving pieces and the deck is difficult to master. The basic gameplan is (usually) to accelerate out a large number of elves and then end the game on the spot with a Natural Order for Craterhoof Behemoth. In many combo decks, cards like Ancient Tomb or City of Traitors feel broken; Gaea’s Cradle ends up producing far more than either of those cards, and allows the Elves deck to do some absolutely silly things very early on in the game.
Now while the Elves deck very frequently will just give you the ‘Hoof on turn 3, it’s actually not the scariest card in the deck. That honor goes to Glimpse of Nature. Glimpse is a value-generating machine that is perhaps unmatched in Legacy. With the rest of the engine of the Elves deck, it’s very possible to draw your entire deck as early as turn two using this card. Here’s how it usually goes down:
Heritage Druid plus any two elves allows you to get ahead on mana to start the chain. If you can keep the chain going, every three Elves provides you with three more mana. Since most of the Elves cost a single mana, that means that you can just keep going if you keep hitting live draws. If one (or more) of those elves are Nettle Sentinel, you can actually start netting mana. Once you are ahead on mana, you’ll have the resources to cast additional Glimpse of Nature to increase your drawing power or Green Sun’s Zenith to find pieces to solidify your engine and keep going.
The deck is surprisingly good at generating a ton of mana with its engine. Birchlore Ranger is an acceptable Heritage Druid mimic in the early game. Quirian Ranger and Wirewood Symbiote allow you to untap creatures for additional mana, and Wirewood Symbiote doubles as a draw engine with Elvish Visionary. The creatures you bounce with Wirewood Symbiote can trigger your Glimpse of Nature or be used for mana again with Heritage Druid, so it’s an extremely synergistic plan.
Should something goes terribly wrong and your combo fizzles, the deck can easily default to a beatdown role. Many fair decks just can’t deal with 10+ power of Elves that come down on turn two or three. It’s also not unreasonable to untap a Deathrite Shaman a few times a turn to bleed your opponent out. Since the deck also has a Green Sun’s Zenith toolbox package, it can shrink opposing Goyfs with Scavenging Ooze or deal with problematic artifacts very consistently with Reclamation Sage. While the deck isn’t terribly good at interacting with its opponent, it does have a multi-faceted combo approach with a backup plan that is pretty difficult to stop with a piece or two of single-target interaction.
There are actually some versions of the deck, known as Chaos Elves, that completely eschew the Natural Order plan. The name is quite cute; without [Natural] Order, there is Chaos. While these decks have one less, “I win now,” button, they trade that for increased interaction and a varied threat base. The Chaos Elves decks may run things like Umezawa’s Jitte, Shaman of the Pack, Gaddock Teeg, Crop Rotation, Sylvan Library, and/or Wren’s Run Packmaster that are much rarer in traditional Elves lists. If you are interested in the pros and cons of various builds, I encourage you to explore Julian Knab’s content
The Matchup and Important Interactions
D&T fares very poorly against creature-based combo decks like Elves. While Thalia, Port, and Wasteland tend to shut down the mana production abilities of most decks, Elves will pretty easily overcome our mana denial plan. A Natural Order plus about four creatures is going to be enough to kill us in game one. That’s a five mana kill button in a deck that is focused on producing mana. Sure, Phyrexian Revoker can stop one piece of the puzzle, but it’s often not enough; shut off Heritage Druid to deny your opponent mana, and soon a Wirewood Symbiote will start bouncing Elvish Visionary. Shut off Natural Order with Sanctum Prelate, and you’ll just lose to a giant Green Sun’s Zenith for Craterhoof Behemoth a few turns down the line. Given all those factors, that’s really bad news for us.
The Elves deck has us beat on card advantage as well. A Glimpse of Nature chain, even when non-lethal, often puts so many bodies on the board that D&T simply cannot keep up. While Umezawa’s Jitte can break board stalls in creature mirrors, Elves can often just ignore this card. Green Sun’s Zenith for Reclaimation Sage threatens to destroy it after one connection. Wirewood Symbiote plus any elf or Quirian Ranger plus Dryad Arbor can allow your opponent to block, bounce the blocker, and deny you Jitte counters. That means that you often need a flier or Mother of Runes plus Jitte to actually connect in a meaningful way.
So how do we hope to steal games? Honestly, it often requires your opponent to mess up or have poor draws. The Elves deck has inevitability in the combo finish and superior draw power. The Elves deck gets out of the gates faster than us. That leaves a very small sweet spot between one and four mana where we have a chance to interact and get ahead. Thalia, Heretic Cathar was a boon for this matchup. It slows down the Glimpse of Nature chains, makes Gaea’s Cradle enter tapped (making it Wasteland target), and makes your opponent have another couple of creatures before attempting the combo finish of Natural Order. THC isn’t a game ender, but it is a huge tempo play that gives you a fighting chance; unlike previously, you may actually have an extra turn or two to live, giving you time to do something like get a Jitte online. Accordingly, your best draws often involve a turn one Vial, a turn two piece of interaction, and a turn three THC. A Jitte connection on turn four is sometimes fast enough to lock up the game, but it is by no means a guaranteed thing.
Elves excels in the matchup primarily because it has so many combo finishes and angles of attack that you’re struggling to cover whichever one showed up in that particular game. The deck’s lines of play match up incredibly favorably against D&T’s answers, and you often have to sort of guess how your opponent is going to play out the game. If you are on the play and have a Revoker, you’re often forced to choose to try and shut off Heritage Druid[mtg_card] or Wirewood Symbiote[/mtg_card] preemptively; guessing right may steal you a game, but guessing wrong will leave you dead. It’s the unfortunate reality of the matchup.
Sanctum Prelate doesn’t really beat out Green Sun’s Zenith. If you put a Prelate on two, trying to stop your opponent from getting one drops from their deck, they can always overpay for the spell, so to speak; by casting it for X=2 instead, your opponent can ignore your Prelate and still fetch a one drop. Similarly, setting a Prelate to nine isn’t really going to stop the Craterhoof Behemoth for long.
This bad matchup doesn’t really improve much after sideboarding, unfortunately. Post-board we pick up Ethersworn Canonist to slow the Glimpse of Nature and Elvish Visionary draws, and Containment Priest to stop the Natural Order and Green Sun’s Zenith portion of the deck. Again, notice that our hate is only dealing with one facet of the Elves deck at a time, so it’s going to take many pieces of hate to really get anywhere productive.
You can trim Batterskull as your first cut; it’s just not going to connect in a meaningful way given the bounce shenanigans on the other side of the board, and you aren’t going to ever fetch it over Jitte anyway. After that, cut your Thalia, Guardian of Thraben; she is likely going to hamper you more than your opponent. If you have extra cards to bring in beyond that, it’s fine to start trimming your slower, less interactive cards. Be careful about cutting too many of your cards with flying though, as you really need to connect in the air given how gummed up the board gets.
The Elves deck, on the other hand, will trim a few less-relevant bodies or spells for interaction. Expect some number of Abrupt Decay and Null Rod to mess with your side of the board. Pithing Needle is relatively common as well, as it can stop Umezawa’s Jitte while also keeping Mother of Runes from stopping an Abrupt Decay on something like a Containment Priest. The Elves deck can board in discard against you, but it’s really not necessary in my opinion, as the primary game plan already grinds us to dust.
Though less than common now than in the past, the Elves deck may bring in Progenitus as a Natural Order target. In circumstances where a Craterhoof Behemoth would not be lethal, Progenitus provides a very reliable, two turn clock. Our only out to that card is Council’s Judgment, which is otherwise pretty terrible in the matchup. Council’s Judgment can answer an opposing Null Rod, but it’s terribly inefficient at removing little green men. I tend to err on the side of leaving them in the sideboard.
This is most certainly D&T’s worst common matchup. When one of our local players was getting rid of his Elves deck, I went out of my way to acquire it so that I eliminated another potential Elves player in my local metagame. That should give you a feeling for how much I dread this matchup. To put a number on it, we’re likely talking somewhere in the 30-70 ballpark. Elves attacks from all the right angles to beat our deck. While our resource denial and prison-esque plan beats on most of the blue decks of Legacy, Elves slips through relatively unhindered. Do not try to warp your deck to beat Elves. THC, Canonist, and Containment Priest will let you steal games occasionally, and that’s really good enough. This is one of the matchups that you need to hope to dodge. If your metagame is infested with Elves, you really just need to play another deck rather than trying to power through with D&T. You can try to get cute and play odd sideboard cards like Holy Light to try to combat the little green men, but every card you dedicate in your maindeck or sideboard to beating Elves is taking away from your match percentages elsewhere. Try not to get frustrated. Every deck has terrible matchups in a format as large as Legacy. This is ours.
Data as of 5/31/18
Win rate with WW D&T: 1-4 (20%)
Win rate with RW D&T: 2-1 (66.7%)