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The letter M!y favorite Christmas movie is probably Elf. Elf is an Iron Man–directed gem of a Will Ferrell vehicle, chronicling the adventures of a changeling (cue foreshadowing) accidentally reared near the North Pole as one of Santa's. Elf is the movie that made all of us nerds fall in love with Zooey Deschanel—voice first and foremost—before she became a science fiction darling or legitimate chick rocker with her duo, She & Him.

The title probably gives away at least part of the relevance that Elf might have on a Standard Magic article, but for cheek's sake, I wanted to talk about the jobs that in Elf are available to elves: "You can bake cookies in a tree. As you can imagine, it's, uh, dangerous having an oven in an oak tree during the dry season. But the third job, some call it, uh, 'the show' or 'the big dance,' it's the profession that every elf aspires to. And that is to build toys in Santa's workshop."

I always thought of that as funny (especially the part about an oven in an oak tree). In Standard, Elves have been relegated to fairly niche positions as well ... until now. Apparently Elves are up for some new job opportunities (you know, beyond waiting in line for a fear-some Profane Command). And one of those new configurations is down right interesting.

These are the two decks that finished first and second in the recent Star City Games Atlanta $5,000 tournament:

Christopher Greene's Jund Elves
Standard - 1st place, StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open, Atlanta, GA


Charles Schutt's Elves Combo
2nd place, StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open, Atlanta, GA


As you can see, both decks feature the Elf tribe prominently.

Greene's tournament winning deck is kind of a cross between a three-color Jund Cascade deck and Black-Green Elves. The deck is chock full of non-Elves creatures, including Anathemancer, Boggart Ram-Gang, and the ubiquitous Putrid Leech ... but amidst a palette of cards we usually see in more centrally Bloodbraid Elf–themed decks, Greene found room for Wren's Run Vanquisher ... and enough support cards to make it worth playing, like Chameleon Colossus, Nameless Inversion, and of course Bloodbraid Elf itself.


Schutt's deck ports over one of the best decks from this past year's Extended and shows the kids at home that the powerful combo is alive and well, if appearing in a surprising place.

For those who have not seen this kind of a deck, its "special something" revolves around the synergy of two cards: Heritage Druid and Nettle Sentinel. Heritage Druid can produce mana when helped by even summoning sick Elves, and Nettle Sentinel can untap repeatedly under the right conditions, tapping for Green Mana even when theoretically summoning sick.

BFF

The get up and go in the Standard Elves combo strategy comes from Ranger of Eos. Antoine Ruel's Invitational card is a four-of here, and can dig up both halves of the combo, Heritage Druid and Nettle Sentinel both, with a single search spell. The deck keeps moving thanks to its large concentration of green spells. Unlike in Extended, when these decks could produce tons of mana while drawing cards with Glimpse of Nature, the Standard deck must be a little more methodical and needs a little more initial operating mana, but it is still plenty fast enough to win in the first four or five turns, even when playing loosely.


The Standard deck is a little more difficult to keep going once it starts than the Extended precursor. In Extended it was relatively simple to "break even" on mana and cards with the many one-mana spells (especially with multiple Nettle Sentinels). The Standard deck does not enjoy the simplicity and power of the Extended engine even once it has its machinery in play, but it can net mana with Commune with Nature or Manamorphose and the Nettle Sentinel; the power card-advantage cards—Ranger of Eos, Primal Command, and of course Regal Force—then give the deck big bursts of potential cards and mana.

Regal Force—a one-of in the Extended version with Summoner's Pact—is upgraded to four-of status as the main guts of the deck. Regal Force transforms the combo Elf deck's board position into a full hand (to presumably keep playing one mana Elves or other low mana cost spells to keep the Nettle Sentinel going)... It is pretty difficult to draw seven to ten cards and not find something useful staring back at you.

I really like the main-deck Primal Commands. Besides being power and fuel for the deck, Primal Command has really made a good name for itself in Standard. In some decks, Primal Command is the death knell for the opponent should it rear its flowering head. Red decks, certain midrange decks, and many five-color configurations can all be put on their heels by a timely Primal Command. While the Elf combo deck doesn't then set up an Anathemancer, it can gain 7 life as a buffer, or set up a "next turn" explosion (if not outright win) with Ranger of Eos or Regal Force and a decent board position.

Schutt's deck has a Mirror Entity, which can be used to turn whatever untapped creatures that started the turn in play into gigantic threats. When this list includes a couple of Nettle Sentinels, you can even use your existing creatures to make lots of mana, then untap and use them for the attack when Mirror Entity becomes part of the conversation; it is actually pretty simple to send a couple of 20-power attackers across the red zone this way, but you don't have to. The Standard combo Elves deck harkens back to a time when combo decks didn't have to instantly win to profit. You can just get started with this deck, and either screw up or just not have the goods to win (that turn), and still be all right with your forward push. You keep tapping and untapping, run out a Regal Force, draw cards, untap some more, muster the mana for a Primal Command (which gets you whatever you want for next turn), and when it's all said and done, you might not have won-won, but you are in a tremendously better position than you were at the beginning of the turn. You didn't win? So what? If you are up against a "regular" deck, it probably can't get through your wall of one-mana garbage guys, and your opponent is probably going to have to respect your Regal Force. No deck is going to be happy with your improved board, especially one that has already eaten the half–Plow Under thumping of a Primal Command.

So clearly, in Standard, the Elves tribe is showing itself open to new opportunities, options, color configurations, and strategies. Nice job getting out from under that tree-based bakery, guys!


Speaking of new opportunities, I thought I would weigh in on the Magic 2010 rules changes this week, what with M10 previews starting up next week. Please keep in mind that the new rules are just as new to me as they are to you, and I haven't had a chance to play with them yet (though I have thought about them, especially one of them, quite a bit). So even though there isn't much practice behind the following section, I feel like opening up the dialogue from a different perspective might be beneficial.

I originally had a few paragraphs written about mulligans, terminology changes, and mana burn, but the paragraphs that sat under each heading all said the same thing—I don't know that these changes will affect me overmuch, one way or another, and consistency and flavor and simplicity are all good things, so changes that promote any of those are okay in my book.

The one change that has many players all tangled up is that combat damage no longer uses the stack. I know that this is a jarring concept for some of you ... but it really doesn't make that much of a difference in Constructed. Why? Most of the situations that I have heard talking about M10 combat in a negative light involve strange cases where one 4/4 attacks into two 4/4s, the defending two 4/4s each take 2 points of damage, and then the attacking player runs a Pyroclasm of some sort. Well—how shall I put this?—when was the last time you saw something like that happen? Yes. Certainly you have fewer options as a Pyroclasm player in this kind of a scenario, but that kind of a scenario didn't ever actually happen (at least not very often) in Constructed.

Instead, let's look at a scenario that might actually happen.

Imagine the second turn of an Extended game. You are attacking with a Mogg Fanatic (I know, poor Mogg Fanatic) into your opponent's Sakura-Tribe Elder. Your opponent also has Birds of Paradise, tapped, alongside one land; together they summoned the Sakura. Now, under pre-M10 rules, that scenario is almost always going to end up with dead Birds of Paradise, dead Sakura-Tribe Elder, and dead Mogg Fanatic.


The new rules, however, actually give you more options and a more interesting set of results. If it's me on the other side, I am almost always going to block with my Sakura-Tribe Elder; I am going to dig up a land unless I am horribly flooded (which it doesn't sound like I am). If I play like this, we are going to end up with a pre-M10 "everybody's dead" board anyway. But sometimes the defender is going to let one point in, and the Red Deck is going to have to decide how much it respects Birds of Paradise. This is a much more realistic board position where decision making is more interesting and results vary much more widely than they do under pre-M10 rules.


The fact of the matter is that it is not clear what the best path is. You would have to assess your hand as the red deck .... There would be some games—unbelievable under today's rules—in which you might not attack! I mean, what's the point if the opponent is just going to block and sacrifice Sakura-Tribe Elder anyway (assuming you don't respect the Birds)? It's possible. If you want to talk about skill .... This is a more skill-testing second turn than we often see today.

It is more skill-testing because the outcomes are much less efficient, for the most part, than the one situation we would almost always see under pre-M10 rules. Inefficiency, by the way, breeds winners with much greater discrimination than perfection, because you actually have to make choices and weigh the value of the different outcomes. Every winner in the real world, from arbitrage traders to online media buyers, succeeds in job opportunities by finding market inefficiencies, buying low, and selling for true market value, and these processes tell us the losers with equal—pardon the pun—efficiency. If you get good at reading the new board inefficiencies, you will actually profit, and have an edge over players who are mired in the old way of doing things.

In the real world, the rules get changed on us all the times. Liberties flit in and out of legality, words get assigned as rights or not, processes go from free-flowing to regulated, every day. Damage no longer using the stack is a reality now (or will be), and we don't get to pick if we want to conform. If you are a serious tournament player ... you just gotta play with the new rules. I am not a "doom and gloom" guy very often anyway, but in this case I think I can safely say—for the purposes of Constructed Magic—I don't see a lot of down side. I think it will be like mana burn going away ... something that certainly matters and changes the tenor of some games, but something that will be, if not completely irrelevant, a minor factor in the majority of Constructed games. Or, as in the Birds / Mogg / Sakura scenario presented above, things will be more interesting (if not as efficient) much of the time.

I can't multitask like I used to.

Now this is not to say that there aren't big losers. Because there are. Big ones. Like the oft-mentioned Sakura Tribe-Elder. I must say that Sakura Tribe-Elder has been one of my favorite cards since the moment it was printed. It is considerably worse now; like when your opponent attacks into it with Dark Confidant on the third turn, you will no longer be able to trade at value (or break even really, this turn); instead you will have to decide if it is more important to you to get a land or kill a Maher. That said, I think that I am okay with that.

Under pre-M10 rules, if you played a second turn Sakura Tribe-Elder against a beatdown deck, at least on the play and often on the draw, regardless of the style of beatdown deck, you won a ridiculous proportion of the time—often in blowout fashion. When playing just a single Sakura Tribe-Elder before the opponent got even a first attack, my guess is that you will still win most of the time. In fact, when the creature coming across is a Kird Ape or Wild Nacatl, you will be in basically the same situation under the new rules as before, as there will be no appreciable change ... But what about when that attacker is Mogg Fanatic or Savannah Lions? As someone more apt to play Sakura Tribe-Elder, I can tell you I am still going to block and search in that spot. However, my opponent gets to keep his creature instead of losing it, which is tremendous for him. Will I, as the Tribe Elder side, still win, usually?

Usually.

But not as often. That is to say that I didn't just script out a twenty-turn game merely by being lucky enough to win the flip and play a 1/1 for two on the second turn. Does anyone else see this as being a positive?

Yes, Ravenous Baloth and Ghost Council of Orzhova just got a lot worse. Ravenous Baloth ... There is just nothing to say there, he's worse (but he's also approaching rotation, so he won't have to stare at old black-and-white photographs, bitter over a now-distant career as a passable Extended card). Ghost Council, that once proudest of Standard 4/4s for four ... No, I don't think anyone will play it now ... but how many people were playing it anyway? Ghost Council was and is a great card that just didn't have the same foothold in Extended that it enjoyed in Standard (and it doesn't look now as if it is going to get one).

So what about poor Mogg Fanatic? Yes. It is worse. Much worse ... and still one of the best one-drops ever.

Mogg Fanatic is dead. Long live Mogg Fanatic!

I am a little jostled by the new rules, just like you probably are, to begin with. But just like the Elves who are exploring new opportunities, flirting with different colors and bleeding creatures into combo decks, we can see the move to the new rules as an opportunity. Ordering blockers is the new "damage on the stack," and ordering blockers more expertly is going to give us an edge in technical play if we are good at ... just a different edge than we had under the old rules.

Speaking of new opportunities .... One last thing:


However you feel, whatever you are thinking right now (or what you thought yesterday, if you were sharp enough to spot the card in the Visual Spoiler) ... Yeah, that's pretty much how I felt when they told me they're reprinting MOTHER-LOVING LIGHTNING BOLT. Discuss (I know you will); official Magic 2010 previews start next week. And yes, they're awesome.

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