Designers' Deck Analysis: Elf & Nail

Feature Article from Jay Schneider
Jay Schneider
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Elf & Nail has proven itself to be a Tier 1 rogue deck. This statement is based on a quantitative analysis of Elf & Nail's record at 2004 Regionals. Of the 5 players tracked who played this deck the total record was 39-14-2, including a 1st place undefeated finish (Seattle 2004 Regionals) and a 10th place finish (OH 2004 Regionals).

A traditional challenge to the Tier 1 status of a deck is made that the deck is a "metagame deck" or "it just received lucky match-ups". Although the argument can be made that many if not all Tier 1 decks have a Rock to their Scissors, it is reasonable to require a deck have at least a fighting chance vs. the other Tier 1 decks. Here's how Elf & Nail's matches at 2004 Regionals broke down:

Opponent Match Results (W-L-D) Match % Game Results (W-L) Game %
Ravager-Affinity 15-8-1 65% 36-22 62%
Goblin-Bidding 5-3-0 63% 12-6 67%
Tooth & Nail 5-0-0 100% 10-3 80%
MWC 4-0-0 100% 8-0 100%
U/W Control 3-1-0 75% 7-3 70%
Slide 3-0-0 100% 6-0 100%
B/G 2-0-0 100% 4-0 100%
Mono-R Goblins 0-2-0 0% 2-4 33%
Other 2-0-1 83% 5-2 71%
Totals: 39-14-2 73% 90-40 69%

Notes: The intentional draw vs. Ravager-Affinity was not counted in the % computations. The other draw was counted as .5/win for % computations. Other included R/G Beasts-LD, Mono-R Ponza Control and a Reactor deck.

From the above quantitative analysis of the deck results the evidence shows that Elf & Nail has a solid match-up against the entire "Rock-Paper-Scissors" of the current Type II metagame (Ravager/Goblin Bidding/MWC) as well as strong match-ups against most of the secondary decks in the field. The final challenge to statistical evidence of a deck's performance is the argument "Only the top players played that deck." Of the 5 players playing Elf & Nail only 1 had Pro-Points and 2 of the other have only been playing tournament MTG for about a year and a half (including the Seattle Regionals winner Sameer Merchant).

So, with that said, why does this level of evidence need to be presented as to the Tier 1 status of Elf & Nail? Because the deck is extremely challenging to evaluate - even by top players. When I first was presented and early version of Elf & Nail, my reply was "Interesting. I have no idea how to evaluate this deck without testing it." I'm grateful that Chris & Jason provided me with the chance to test it. In addition to being one of the strongest decks in the field Elf & Nail is also one of the most enjoyable.

This leads to how Elf & Nail came about. The deck was originally proposed by Jason Hager to Chris Chang during an Apprentice match. Chris was playing our rogue deck but put it aside to collaborate with Jason on Elf & Nail. Chris is on my Seattle-area team, the Seven Samurai and he brought Elf & Nail to our group for refinement and testing. Jason worked on the deck with Kyle Cordle in WV and between the two groups the deck was heavily tested and I feel optimized. This coast-to-coast collaboration reinforces one of my strongest beliefs about deck design, refined deck builds are built by teams - no one develops in a vacuum.

So with that introduction, I'm going to present the decklisting then deconstruct the deck. First the general concepts as to how the deck works, then an analysis of key maindeck cards, this will be followed by a discussion of the match-ups and how to sideboard these fights.

Main Deck
4 Birds of Paradise
1 Darksteel Colossus
1 Duplicant
1 Fierce Empath
1 Kamahl, Fist of Krosa
1 Sundering Titan
1 Triskelion
3 Vine Trellis
3 Viridian Shaman
3 Wirewood Herald
4 Wirewood Symbiote
4 Wood Elves
Creatures [27]
2 Chrome Mox
4 Skullclamp
3 Tooth and Nail
4 Vernal Bloom
Spells [13]
20 Forest (350)
Lands [20]
Deck Total [60]

3 Creeping Mold
1 Duplicant
4 Oxidize
3 Reap and Sow
1 Tooth and Nail
1 Triskelion
1 Vine Trellis
1 Viridian Shaman
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

To be broadly categorized, Elf & Nail is a combo deck. This is the primary idea to keep in mind when playing the deck. To be strictly fair, Elf & Nail is actually several combo decks all rolled into one. Which combo is appropriate revolves around the opposing deck. For example against Ravager you're a Symbiote/Shaman combo deck, against MWC you're a Kamahl "I win" combo deck and against Goblin Bidding you're a Vernal Bloom/Tooth & Nail combo deck. One of the most important elements of playing Elf & Nail is understanding what your deck is. Once you understand this you'll know how to win each match-up and how to sideboard for them.

This combination of combos' is truly the key to Elf & Nail, of the non-mana spells there isn't a single card that doesn't wind up on the cutting (side) board at times. Although, this makes the deck difficult to evaluate through expert observation (without testing), refreshingly, this doesn't make the deck difficult to play. When playing generally the correct play is apparent as long as you know the resources available in Elf & Nail.

One last general element of the deck design is the two stages of Elf & Nail. The first stage is the "Setup" stage. This can be as short as 1 turn (vs. Ravager - Forest, Bird) or as long as 5 or 6 turns (sideboarded vs. Tooth and Nail - Wirewood Symbiote and 3-4 turns of Wood Elf Recursion). Either way this is the part of the game where you build your mana base and draw the cards needed for the second or "Finish It!" stage. This second stage is where you bring down the hammer, as from the previous examples: vs. Ravager - Turn 2 Viridian Shaman followed by Turn 3 Wirewood Symbiote, untap the Bird/bounce the Shaman, replay the Shaman; and boarded vs. Tooth and Nail, Turn 6 or 7 cast Tooth and Nail fetch Kamahl and Sundering Titan, Titan a pair of their lands and overrun them on the following turn.

To start the analysis, the mana base needs to be considered. For most of our testing the manabase was 22 Forests. The primary argument that I can make for 22 basic manasources is we tested 21 and 23. 22 felt superior in testing and I don't think any of the testers felt a need to adjust this number. The change in design from 22 Forests to 20 Forests and 2 Chrome Moxen was driven by the Goblin matchup. This change in testing made a dramatic difference in Goblin Bidding matchup and seemed to win almost 10% more games than the 22 Forest build. These extra wins occurred from speeding up the Vernal Bloom deployment by a full turn. As it didn't dramatically change any of our other match-ups, the 2 Chrome Moxen found a home in the manabase. It might be worthwhile to experiment with 3 Moxen if you're in a heavy Goblin metagame.

The action card analysis starts with the Setup stage team: Bird of Paradise, Wirewood Herald, Wood Elf, Fierce Empath, Vine Trellis. These cards are the core of the early game and should be looked at as "cantrips with feet" (technically Vine Trellis doesn't have feet but it's a metaphor.) These guys are here to do a couple of jobs, mostly mana acceleration, tutoring for utility and then to die. This death can come either at your hand by way of the Skullclamp or the opponent's hand by way of removal, chump blocking or by the dreaded Sharpshooter. Whenever one of these guys fulfils his role of fetching a land/finding an elf, producing mana and then dies, he's earned his spot in whatever Forest Elves achieve in the afterlife (I think it's Onslaught #347 or #349). If an elf manages to live and do tricks courtesy of the Wirewood Symbiote, or earns a mass removal spell from the opponent or best lives long enough to be Skullclamped so much the better.

The other 1 drop creature in the manabase are the Wirewood Symbiotes. This guy is a one man/one mana combo engine. Depending on the fight he's the only 1/1 that's worth the opponent spending a spell on. He's so important that in the Ravager fight he's worth a turn 2 Shrapnel Blast. One key rules issue with the Wirewood Symbiote is that his activated ability is "Untap target creature". His "cost" is to "Return an elf to your hand". Because bouncing an elf is a cost, this part of the Wirewood Symbiote's activated ability can not be responded to/stifled nor can the elf being unsummoned be Shocked, destroyed or otherwise prevented from returning to its owner's hand.

The Wirewood Symbiote's functions are mostly apparent but it's worth reviewing the big ones: bouncing Viridian Shaman to wreck Ravager; bouncing Wood Elves to draw (and play) 2 extra lands per turn; the undying blocker - block then bounce the creature; untapping Colossus after attacking (just unfair). For completeness, a couple of single card strategies with the Wirewood Symbiote:

1) "Always use his ability on the opponents turn."
This might be after the elf to be bounced has been declared as a blocker (often is) but at a minimum during the opponent's end of turn phase. By bouncing on the opponent's turn as well as your own, it provides an opportunity of a second use (on your own turn) of the Wirewood Symbiote's unsummon/untap cost/ability

2) "Remember the Wood Elf's Forest comes into play untapped & you can untap a mana producer."
When you take into account the untap and the mana from the untapped Forest this means that the net cost of playing a Wood Elf is only 1! This cost is reduced further with a Vernal Bloom out where Wood Elves deploy for free (or even less with multiple Blooms.) You'll find that with multiple Wood Elves or Wirewood Symbiote's, you'll have turns where you'll play 5 or more lands/turn

Vernal Bloom is the ultimate combo card and often creates abusive hands. Coming out as early as turn 2 (with Bird & Mox); the Bloom regularly leads to Turn 4 entwined Tooth & Nails. I can best describe Vernal Bloom by citing Chapin's Law: "If you untap with a Wake in play, you just win." Needless to say Pat wasn't referring to the +1/+1 to all of your creatures. Vernal Bloom provides this deck with that same kind of power. This is enough power to entwine a Tooth & Nail, fetch a Kamahl/Triskelion and have 3 mana "left over" to animate opponent's lands. In many games it's enough mana to hard cast a Kamahl, animate a few lands, and use the overrun ability for fatal damage on a single turn. Of all the setup cards that the opponent can board in removal against (Mana Creatures/Elves, Skullclamp, Bloom, lands), testing has shown it is a mistake to bring in removal for any or all of them with the sole exception of Vernal Bloom.

The last of the setup game spells is the Skullclamp. Technically, the 'Clamp is a transition card as sometimes in the Finish It! stage you'll make heavy use of the Skullclamp to draw a grip of cards to access the finisher you need. There's not much that needs to be said about Skullclamp that hasn't already been said. Perhaps a quote from one of Elf & Nail's lead designers "The most powerful spells in Mirrodin Block are Skullclamp and Tooth and Nail, why not play both?"

The Finish It! stage cards start with Tooth and Nail. Tooth and Nail by itself does nothing (ex. with a depleted deck) by itself, however; in conjunction with the correct cards it provides and deploys the tools you need to win the game. Note that there are only 3 Tooth and Nails in the main deck. This is because the draw power in Elf & Nail is sufficient that the 4th Tooth and Nail usually just clogs your hand. Even with 3 copies, Tooth and Nail is the most common spell imprinted on the Chrome Mox. The reason for the 4th copy in the board is vs. Goblins when the deck goes into strict Bloom/Nail combo mode and nothing else really matters.

The main tricks with Tooth and Nail are to:

1) "Remember the cards you tutor for don't need to be the cards you put into play."
Very often you'll have the cards you want to deploy in your hand. So you'll tutor for "lesser" creatures and after putting the expensive creatures in play via the entwine, using your "left-over" mana.

2) Don't be afraid to pick low casting cost creatures with the search.
Against Ravager, it's a regular occurrence to entwine Tooth and Nail and fetch a Wirewood Symbiote and Viridian Shaman. Hopefully you've got something less embarrassing to deploy with the entwine but if not you just drop out the Shaman & friend. If it wins, just do it.

The "Big Men" begin with Kamahl. He's the Liu Kang of the fighters in Elf & Nail, the go-to guy when it's time to end the game. He single handedly beats MWC (they can't Wrath/Vengeance without you animating their lands), combos with Triskelion to remove a swath of the opponents key lands and given sufficient mana (around 26 but it depends on the exact board position) will often just kill immediately.

Next on the list is the Darksteel Colossus. He's a handy way to put up an unstoppable creature and often is deployed from the entwined Tooth & Nail. He has the advantage of being mostly unstoppable and that makes him the tutor target of choice over Kamahl under certain circumstances.

The Triskelion fills a utility and combo role. He's the decks answer to Sharpshooter and other annoying "Little Men" but most often fills the role of LD/Shooter killing the lands that Kamahl animating on the other side. This combination was one of the initial design theories of Elf & Nail and originally Elf & Nail used Noxious Ghoul in this role. Although the Ghoul is aesthetically more pleasing and often leads to "bigger wins" the Triskelion is sufficient for the job. Testing has shown you that in practice the need doesn't exist to kill more than 3 (targeted) lands of your opponent. This combined with Triskelion's castability pushed the Noxious Ghoul to the sideboard and eventually entirely off the sheet.

Duplicant is a utility card you can't do without. He answers opposing Big Men specifically the Darksteels or the Abunas that the opponent deploys. The last Big Man to be cut from the main deck (to allow the Sundering Titan), was the second Duplicant. The ability to Tooth and Nail for 2 Duplicants, the turn after an opponents casts Tooth and Nail for two hitters is a really powerful threat (and ability). It forces the opponent to cast defensively or risk losing their two biggest men (and leave them with two big problems.)

Sundering Titan is the last of the Big Men both listed and to make their way into the design. He's there first and last to handle Bidding. Goblin Bidding's big weakness is the difficulty in getting the mana just right to smoothly and appropriately cast Bidding. The Sundering Titan disrupts this plan and is (single-handedly) the reason that the numbers are so dramatically different in the matchups between Goblin Bidding and Aggro-Goblins. At times you'll event fetch him and a Viridian Shaman (or Duplicant) when you want to (and can afford the time to) destroy 4 of the Bidding player's lands.

Now to the matchups:

Ravager Affinity: A major reason to play Elf & Nail is its favorable matchup vs. Ravager Affinity. Our testing showed Ravager Affinity to be about a 67% fight in our favor. The results from Regionals reinforced these numbers. The way to win this fight is to achieve the Wirewood Symbiote & Viridian Shaman lock. In this fight very little else matters as this strategy will take away every permanent they own. This fight was so favorable that in testing we weakened Elf & Nail in this matchup (to strengthen it in others) by moving 1 Viridian Shaman to the sideboard and the removal of 1 Wirewood Herald.

To sideboard this fight you strengthen your combo and bring in 4 Oxidizes (turn 1 LD) to buy you the time to get your lock down.

In: 4 Oxidize, 1 Viridian Shaman, 1 Vine Trellis, 1 Triskelion
Out: 3 or 4 Wood Elves, 1 Sundering Titan, 1 Kamahl and/or Colossus, 1 Duplicant

Goblin Bidding: The second most significant matchup is also in favor of the Elf & Nail player as well. Our testing showed it to be only slightly favorable (closer to 60%) and we were pleased to see the actual results beat those numbers. I believe the reason for our improved results (based on personal observation) are sideboarding and play mistakes (due to a lack of familiarity in the matchup) by the Goblin Bidding player. Notable mistakes included boarding LD/artifact destruction spells (thus reducing creature speed/threats) and not aggressively muliganing slow hands.

These mistakes illustrate the key concepts in the fight - the Bidding player loses the long fight, something the Goblin Bidding player isn't used to. Sure a "perfect Bidding" will win for the Goblin player, but if they wait for the "perfect Bidding" more often than not they're going to lose their manabase to either a Sundering Titan or a Triskelion/Kamahl. The proper play for the Bidding player is to take on the mindset of the Aggro-Goblin player. The slow Skullclamp -> Bidding hand is suicide in this fight. The Goblin plan is all about the turn 2 or 3 Warchief and swinging for a "bunch" with the Siege Gang team on the following turn.

Similarly the Elf & Nail side of the fight is all about a speedy Vernal Bloom. If you can drop a turn 3 Bloom/turn 4 Tooth and Nail you'll almost always race the Goblin Bidding player. Fetch a Titan/Colossus or Kamahl/Triskelion as appropriate and the matchup is yours.

To address the number one question/comment about the deck: "Isn't the Goblin Sharpshooter really bad?" Yes, the Sharpshooter's pretty bad especially on turn 3 (after a turn 2 Goblin Warchief) but he's not fatal unless you've kept an Elf only hand. Sure it's annoying to have all your Little Men die without even the chance to chump-block/get clamped or cost the opponent the mana/tempo of a mass removal spell. Still it's not fatal; the loss of elvish reuse costs you about a turn and change of speed. If you've kept a Bloom hand it's often inconsequential. The Sharpshooter is much worse for you in the Aggro Goblin fight as you don't have time to deploy an answer (answer = Triskelion) and being slowed down by a turn and change in that fight is always fatal.

In: 1 Tooth & Nail, 1 Vine Trellis, 1 Triskelion, 1 Duplicant
Out: 4 Wirewood Symbiote

Aggro Goblins: This is your worst fight. The 0% match win was a bit disappointing as we were expecting about a 33% ratio (as per the game results) but I can't say I'm too surprised. On a personal note, I find it ironic that I worked on a combo-deck that has a glass jaw to mono-Red Goblins but it's something the Elf & Nail player has to come to grips with. The Goblins are too fast for you unless you have a near perfect draw - turn 3 Vernal Bloom, turn 4 Tooth and Nail. Sadly, the Aggro Goblin deck often races even that alpha draw. The Sundering Titan trick isn't a solution as they don't need 5 mana for any of their spells (4 & the Warchief max) and you wind up only LDing a single land. Besides, they're just going to show you their Shrapnel Blast and point at your Dome.

We heavily tested Ravenous Baloth and every other deck configuration we could find for this fight. Nothing worked. Aggro-Goblins is simply Elf & Nail's foil. They don't have a hand they keep that doesn't wreck you. Even the "control" card, Goblin Sharpshooter is a beating against you.

The sideboarding plan is targeted at the Artifact heavy Paskin's build. Your hope is to get lucky and be able to LD their Great Furnaces and buy enough time to go off. It's not a great plan but in testing this fight literally hundreds of times this was the best we could develop.

In: Same as vs. Goblin Bidding but also 4 x Oxidize & 1 Viridian Shaman (if Paskin's)
Out: Same as vs. Goblin Bidding but also 1 Skullclamp, 1 Sundering Titan, 1 Kamahl Fist of Krosa (unless you suspect Threaten then board our Darksteel Colossus), 1 Wirewood Herald (vs. Paskin's)

MWC & W/x: MWC is probably your easiest fight. If you remember Kamahl it's actually sort of hard to lose. Kamahl and mana, they lose the ability to Wrath or Vengeance and they're on a one turn clock as well. The only game plan for MWC is to race you to win and they need 10 mana to do this (Decree for 4 Angels or Mindslaver). This is really not their game and the 100% wasn't surprising and matched our test numbers.

W/x where x = U has the best game vs. Elf & Nail. The W/u with counterspells can attempt to counter all your big threats. It won't work in the long run as Darksteel Colossus doesn't go away and you have more card power than they do. Still they can actually make it to 10 mana and occasionally pull out some games.

Out: 1 Sundering Titan & 2 Viridian Shaman
In: 3 Creeping Molds vs. the W/x with Bribery you remove the Colossus instead of the Titan (so it can't be Briberied.)

Tooth and Nail: The Tooth and Nail fight is an interesting one as the Elf & Nail player is heavily disadvantaged in game 1 but this disadvantage changes to even more heavily advantaged fight after sideboarding. The reason for this transformation is twofold. In the primary matchup Vernal Bloom is a worse than dead card. You're usually forced to cast it, however the Tooth and Nail player gains the ability to use it first and so races you to Big Men by over a turn. Even worse by Elf & Nail playing out a Vernal Blooms you guarantee the lethality of the Tooth and Nail deck's Fireball. If you choose not to play the Bloom then they simply race you, again by more than a turn to the casting Big Men. Our testing has shown the best bet is to just drop the early Bloom and hope they don't have action in hand. Usually they do but it's still the best bet.

After the sideboard the fight is a different matter entirely. Although 6 LD spells doesn't seem like it would be significant, in this case the effect is magnified. The magnification occurs as the LD work as tempo spells. They allow you to either totally disrupt the Tooth and Nail mana development (aka Urzatron) in the best case or simply delay them by 2 or 3 turns. This time shift is dramatic as it allows you time to achieve sufficient mana (without a Bloom!) for a Kamahl or Sundering Titan (their Forest and their Mountain - nothing of yours) and/or other Big Men to take the game. Testing has shown and 2004 Regionals results confirm that game 1 is 70/30 in favor of Tooth and Nail and the sideboard games are 80/20 in favor of Elf & Nail.

In: 3 Creeping Mold, 3 Reap and Sow, 1 Duplicant, 1 Vine Trellis
Out: 4 Vernal Bloom, 1 Tooth and Nail, 2 Viridian Shaman, 1 Triskelion

Deck Design Credits:
Lead Designers: Jason Hager & Chris Chang
Design Team: Kyle Cordle, Gerald Linn, Sameer Merchant, Ken Nichols, Matt Ruhlen, Jay Schneider, Jeremy "J.V." Virden

Thanks for your time,

-Jay Schneider
Seven Samurai

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