Grand Prix Oakland was a bit of an awkward tournament for me. A year ago, if there was a Grand Prix an hour away from me, I would have been spending all of my free time testing for it. However, this year, I was going to the big leagues: I won a Magic Online PTQ and qualified for Pro Tour San Diego. The Pro Tour was Standard and Draft, neither of which would help much for the extended Grand Prix.
As a result, my main sources of testing were a few local GPTs and the last-chance GPTs before the Grand Prix. In those, I mainly played Elves and only did o.k. I knew that there were some weaknesses in my deck but I couldn’t pinpoint the mistakes. Right before the Grand Prix, I talked through the deck with Josh Utter-Leyton and we had two important insights. Most important was that I needed to splash White rather than Black: that allowed me to play Ranger of Eos (which ended up winning me a bunch of games). The other important change was that I needed a fourth Cloudstone Curio. Here is the list that Josh and I came up with for Grand Prix Oakland (unfortunately for Josh, he elected to play Thopter and did not perform quite as well):
This list turned out to be very tight; the only change I would make is to figure out something to cut in the main for a Viridian Shaman. Candidates I would consider are Ranger of Eos (which is still great in the sideboard), Elvish Archdruid, and Arbor Elf, but they are all valuable in the main deck. The only other change that seems cute is potentially running Dark Depths as Ghost Quarters 5-8 in the Sideboard. Depths has some synergy with the deck because if you get infinite mana, you can use it as a mana sink.
This deck is probably the most misunderstood deck I have ever played. For example, players are often criticized for not mulling enough. However, this deck allows you to keep lots of hands. In fact, at the Grand Prix, I mulliganed significantly less than my opponents, leading to a lot of free wins. The key idea is that instead of the usual optimal hand being three lands, with two and four land hands being keepable, this deck prefers two land hands, and doesn’t mind one or three landers. Because the deck only plays 17 lands, one to three land hands are very probable; almost every hand is a keeper. Four-land hands are dangerous (but fortunately uncommon) unless the spells are something like Heritage, Nettle, and Glimpse.
One criticism of the deck is simply how complicated it is. It just isn’t easy to see how the deck wins just from looking at a decklist. The most common win is via Cloudstone Curio and Heritage Druid. Here is a list of the loops the deck can create with those two powerful cards.
Heritage + Nettle + one drop: Create infinite mana by tapping all three for mana with the Curio trigger on the stack and then bouncing back and forth the one drop and the Heritage. You will be in the same place up one mana each time you do this loop. Once you’ve made infinite mana, you can use any comes-in-to-play ability as many times as you want.
Heritage + Essence Warden + one drop: Create infinite life by trigger on the stack floating three mana and then bouncing all three and replaying them. You will be in the same place up two life with this loop (Warden doesn’t trigger on itself)
Heritage + two one drops + Glimpse: Draw infinite cards by looping all thee guys after floating mana. You will be in the same place up three cards each time you do the loop.
Heritage + Nettle + Visionary: You can also draw infinite cards by floating mana with the trigger on the stack and then bouncing the Visionary and the Heritage back and forth. You will be in the same place up a card each loop.
The other way to combo with this deck is with Glimpse, which isn’t quite as clean and doesn’t have as many hard and fast rules. The most important thing to do is to figure out whether you are going to be tight on mana or cards. Usually you will have lots of one of these resources, but be very tight on the other. Once you have figured out which you are more desperate for, you make plays based on that. For example, if you have a Glimpse going but need cards, playing Elvish Visionary before Nettle Sentinel would be right, but if you have a Glimpse going and need mana, playing Nettle first will gain you much more. Another thing to note when comboing with Glimpse is that you will almost always end up looping with Curio. That is, the second you have the mana to play Curio and a creature to get one of the loops going, the combo is a sure thing and thus is the safer play.
Another important advantage of this deck is that it exploits a hole in the metagame. The cards that make Elves players sweat aren’t found in many sideboards because they are not good against the major decks. For example, players won’t sideboard cards like Chalice of the Void, Ethersworn Canonist, or Rule of Law because they are ineffective against the most common decks, and sweepers are only good against Zoo. Anti-aggro cards that are particularly good against Zoo–Eyeblight’s Ending (totally ineffective) and Exile into Darkness (far too slow)–(as in Gerry Thompson’s Depths build) don’t hurt Elves. Similarly, Umezawa’s Jitte is incredibly powerful in the abstract, and great against Elves, but wasn’t great for this tournament because it’s only o.k. against Zoo and weak against everything else. Interestingly, Petr Brozek’s deck exploited the lack of Jitte’s in the meta in a similar way. These are the type of sideboard cards I hoped and expected to see later in the GP.
The bottom line is that playing around the cards that are designed to attack the metagame can be very successful: half of the decks that made Top 8 at the Oakland GP were designed with this strategy, including avoiding metagame hate cards: My Elves deck, Travis Woo’s Living End deck, and Tomoharo Saitou’s Hypergenesis deck and Petr Brozek’s Boros deck.
Unfortunately, when you look at weak players’ sideboard, there will almost always be “4 graveyard hate 4 combo cards 4 sweepers and 3 cards he heard were good against the best deck” (probably Damping Matrix for this Grand Prix). This type of sideboard can be very difficult for decks trying to exploit holes in a metagame, because while it is not very well prepared for the major decks, it does have something for everything, including decks that weren’t planning on having to deal with sideboard hate.
When you play a deck like Elves that is trying to attack a hole in the metagame, bad players and bad decks are much more difficult to play against than good players and good decks, because generic sideboard cards work against you. Conversely, better players analyze the actual value of each card with respect to the dominant metagame decks. For example, Conley Woods (who created a stir with his deck) understood that although Umezawa’s Jitte was a perfect fit for his deck, he only played one main and one side. Furthermore, pros don’t just play sideboard cards for aggro control and combo; they play the card that fits best for the particular aggro, control, or combo deck that is popular at the time. Because of this, niche decks often do well at higher level tournaments like Pro Tours and Grand Prix Day Twos, but are not as successful at local FNMs or other tournaments with less serious players.
A great example of this was my experience in the last chance GPTs. Between the three GPTs, I went 2-3. My wins were against Dark Depths Thopter and Zoo and my losses were against Scapeshift, Hypergenesis, and All In Red, all tier two-three decks. Firespout is an ok sideboard card right now, but the Scapeshift build I played against surprised me with it game one. Iona is not very good against the field right now, but the Hypergenesis build I played against had it and crippled me with it twice. AIR has tons of dead Blood Moons, but my opponent decided to draw Chalice of the Void game one when I was lacking a Viridian Shaman. Ironically, because I didn’t do well at local GPTs, my rating dropped below 1950. Thus, I only had one bye for the tournament.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember too much from Day One, but there are a few highlights that are worth mentioning. Early in the tournament, I faced AIR. Game one was my favorite game of the tournament. I went land Heritage go. He went land go. I went Heritage Druid attack for one (no land). He went land Chalice at one. I went land go. He went land Magus of the Moon. I went go. He went Seething Song, Deus of Calamity, attack for two. I then went into the tank on my turn. I had two lands out, and only one of my lands was a Forest, which Deus was about to kill. My hand was Summoner’s Pact, Summoner’s Pact, Primal Command, and a bunch of other Chalice-able one drops including Glimpse and Nettle so it would be easy to go off if Chalice was gone. I ended up casting Pact for Elvish Visionary, since it is my only non-one drop that only costs one Green and then Pact for Elvish Archdruid and play both. I took eight going to ten, and lost my Forest. I then paid for both Pacts and passed the turn. I then took another eight going to two and lost a Mountain. I then cast the Primal on his Chalice, and went off with Glimpse and lots of Elves. Of course, this sick game would not have been possible with a Viridian Shaman in my deck because killing Chalice would have been a lot easier, so maybe one should make the cut
Fortunately, I did get through the early rounds and it was smooth sailing from there on Day One. Round after round I just confidently played my cards and won with ease. That is, until I faced the surprise deck of the tournament–Brozek Deck Wins–with a feature match at 8-0 each. Fortunately, Brozek Deck Wins against almost everything except Elves! I had accidentally next-leveled Petr Brozek by playing the deck that beats the surprise deck. My clock was a tad faster than his (yes, I know his deck is explosive) and I had plenty of chumpers for his super-powered Lynxes and Geopedes. In Game 2, I had four Umezawa’s Jiites in from the sideboard which I could consistently get active on turn three, which forced him to keep removal mana up in post-board games. I also had Rangers to keep the gas flowing and potentially tutoring up Burrenton Forge-Tender to safely hold a Jitte or Essence Warden to get out of burn range. I beat Petr pretty handily. My sideboard plan for this matchup was -4 Archdruid -1 Curio -2 Summoner’s Pact -1 Regal Force +4 Jitte +3 Ranger +1 Forge-Tender
That ended my 9-0 day one and I was feeling good. However, I made sure not to be too cocky because at the last Grand Prix in California, one of my friends was 9-0 after Day One. He was overconfident and instead of going to sleep early he simply hung out, drafted, celebrated, and talked about how he only needed to 3-3 to top 16 and make the Pro Tour. Next thing he knew, he was begging his opponent to draw with him so he could guarantee his top 64 spot and 200 dollars. I did not repeat my friend’s mistake, and went to bed at a reasonable hour (about 11:00).
My Day Two started with yet another feature match, this time against Adam Yurchick. This match is on the Wizards coverage, so I won’t talk about it too much, but it was basically mulligan crazy. Fortunately, I was doing less mulling than Adam, and took the two where Adam was two cards behind me to start off. My sideboard plan for this matchup, which was Elves vs. Depths, was -4 Summoner’s Pact -1 Regal Force -1Curio +2 Ranger of Eos +4 Ghost Quarter
For round eleven, I faced John-Paul Kelly. He was playing an interesting Tezzeret list. John was 9-0-1 and got paired up to me, as I was the only 10-0. In game one, John played land go. Then I played land mana elf. John then did the thing I least wanted to see: land Chalice of the Void. On the next turn, without even blinking, I slammed down my Summoner’s Pact and put an Elvish Archdruid into play. I was not going to win this game if he had much gas, and the Chalice ruled out Path to Exile. John had nothing and I paid. The turn after I paid for my Pact I Primaled his Chalice on top and then shuffled it and his graveyard into his deck. The next turn I had an untapped Archdruid and went off easily. I didn’t feel as bad about drawing my one Primal to answer his Chalice this time, as the Chalice was probably a one-of for him. Again, this interesting game was brought to you by the lack of Viridian Shaman in my deck (which would have made my life simpler). My sideboard plan for this matchup was -1 Arbor Elf +1 Viridian Shaman
In the next game I used the beatdown plan effectively for the first time. I got John down to four life with an army of Elves including Archdruid to pump the team. John had a Thopter Foundry in play, and was forced to Transmute Muddle the Mixture for Sword of the Meek and play it to make sure he didn’t die to an onslaught of Elves, which gave me the perfect opening to combo kill him.
For round twelve, I was surprised to see a familiar face across the table. A player at my local store, Lokman Chen, was 10-1 with a Krark-Clan Ironworks / Thopter Foundry / Sword of the Meek combo deck. Once again, a powerful metagame choice with a poor match against Elves. The race was clearly in Elves’s favor and Lokman never got the chance to combo as I raced game one and Viridian Shaman + Curio ate away at his mana game two. My sideboard plan for this matchup is -2 Arbor Elf +1 Viridian Shaman +1 Gaddock Teeg.
It would have been interesting if Lokman did combo and created infinite tokens and gained infinite life. Even in this case, it would probably end up being a win for me assuming I could combo the next turn because I could use Primal Command to make sure I didn’t deck while gaining infinite life myself.
In round thirteen, I faced Travis Woo. Travis was playing Living End, which I think is a slightly favorable matchup for Elves. I took game one simply by racing, but in game two I was in a position where Travis had a few cycled guys in his grave and Violent Outburst mana up. I did the math and found that he was a few points short of killing me with the cyclers. I passed the turn after playing a Visionary. Travis Outbursted at the end of the turn, and then had another one on his main phase. I thought the additional three points was lethal and scooped up my cards. First of all, this is unacceptable. NEVER scoop until you are absolutely sure you have lost or have serious time concerns. However, I think there were a few mistakes I made that others including me can learn from. First, I was a lock for Top 8 at this point. I focused less because of this, and it cost me. Second of all, I assumed Travis would save the Outburst as an instant speed Wrath if it wasn’t lethal. As it turned out, his play was completely reasonable because the previous Living End had destroyed three Visionaries, so casting a Living End mid-combo would probably help me–by giving me three cards more–than it would hurt. Note that Travis did nothing shady and in fact played very tight and the mistake was completely my fault and cost me a game. Fortunately, I was on the play for game three and simply comboed him before he got to cast a cascade spell into Living End. My sideboard plan for this matchup is: -1 Summoner’s Pact +1 Loaming Shaman
In round fourteen, I was paired against Joby Parrish. Joby was playing a pretty generic Zoo list. I feel like the Ranger version of Elves has a pretty favorable matchup against Zoo, but my hands were pretty weak and Joby played pretty tight. He managed to kill the right things at the right time, and made some good reads with [card]Meddling Mage[/card] to win. This was my first loss of the tournament (and ended up being my only real loss). My sideboard plan for this matchup was -4 Elvish Archdruid +3 Ranger of Eos +1 Burrenton Forge-Tender (if you see lots of Jittes post-board, you may have to work in the Shaman for an Arbor Elf)
In round fifteen, I was paired against Conley Woods. I didn’t know Conley, but he is a member of ChannelFireball, and since my pursuit of perfection was over, I happily scooped him into Top 8 (plus, I had a good matchup against him!).
The Top 8 was set, and I seemed relatively well-positioned. I was facing Brozek Deck Wins round one, which is very favorable, and the only deck I was really concerned about was Saito’s Hypergenesis. All three of my top eight matches are on coverage, but I will try to do a quick rundown of each anyway.
Against Brozek, game one his hand was just too slow to really clock me, and grindy games are in my favor. Game two, Brozek was on the play with a very fast draw and my draw was kinda slow, so the game wasn’t too close. Game three, I was in a pretty dominant position. I played around the Volcanic Fallouts I knew were in his board very carefully by keeping up Pendelhaven, not overcommiting, and Rangering for Forge-Tender at the first chance I got; I eventually won.
In the semifinals I faced Conley Woods. For some reason, no one wanted to scoop this time so we actually had to battle! This match was very fun considering the gravity of the match, as we were both quite relaxed and were joking around. This matchup is quite favorable for as Jitte is pretty powerful against him, and I could legend rule his best hate card. The game I lost was due to a fast draw from Conley in which he used removal on the creature I tried to equip with Jitte a couple times to slow me down. Game three was the only time in the Top Eight I felt flustered due to pressure. I accidentally searched my whole library (instead of the correct four cards) after a Path even though there was an Aven Mindscensor in play. Fortunately, that was just a warning and I easily won the game due to pressure from Jitte forcing Conley to explode his own Noble Hierarch. My sideboard plan for this matchup was -4 Archdruid -1 Cloudstone Curio -1 Regal Force -1 Summoner’s Pact +3 Ranger of Eos +4 Jitte.
The first game of the finals was not too interesting. I had a pretty mediocre draw, and simply ripped a Glimpse the turn after getting a Glimpse Duressed to kill him. Game two was much more interesting. I had a hand that lent itself to simply playing out a bunch of guys and using that as my clock, so that’s what I did. I played out most of my hand and sent my creatures into the red zone when the opportunity came. There was a turn or two where I had a chance to Ghost Quarter an Academy Ruins when he had Engineered Explosives in his graveyard. Although it surprised some commentators, I chose not to do so because I did the math and realized that recurring Explosives was not going to be good enough considering my board and hand. In addition, if he assembled the Dark Depths combo at any point I did not want to be on a one turn clock. As it turned out, he did assemble the Depths combo on the second-to-last turn and would have killed me if I had made the other play. Ironically, the final game of the tournament was the first time I actually killed someone without fully comboing the entire tournament. Using aggro as a threat is fine, but this deck rarely uses it to actually win.
Suddenly, I was Grand Prix Oakland champion. Before I could soak it all in various media people were grabbing at me and trying to interview me. I held up my trophy for the photo op, did my interviews, and went on one of the best drives home of my life.
If anyone has any questions about how to play the deck, my sideboarding plans, or anything else you are curious about, feel free to put them in the comment section and I will respond as fast as possible.