Designers' Deck Update: Elf & Nail

Feature Article from Jay Schneider
Jay Schneider
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Elf & Nail has gone from a rogue deck to one of the triumvirate of decks that comprised the U.S. Nationals metagame. This article will discuss the changes to Elf & Nail that were made by the original designers in preparations for the U.S. Nationals. These changes were successful and resulted in a 2nd place (6-1) constructed finish by Sameer Merchant. This article will not discuss the initial Elf & Nail design, for basic Elf & Nail strategies please see the previous Designers' Deck Analysis article.

U.S. Nationals is a rather unique metagame. Ironically, this uniqueness is derived from the lack of variety in the U.S. Nationals metagame. Unlike Regionals, States, Grand Prix or Pro-Tour events the U.S. Nationals main event rarely introduces new decks. About all you ever see is the surprise sideboard card. Also the main deck in the format, Affinity in the current environment, is usually disproportionately represented.

The first issue we debated was the G/r build vs. the Mono G Elf & Nail build. Previously, in our Regionals testing we tested the G/r build with Pyroclasm but found it ineffective against Goblin Bidding, the primary Goblin build at the time. However, against the newer R/g Goblin builds we had to question if Pyroclasm was of sufficient merit to warrant the additional color.

While Pyroclasm does win you games that are otherwise unwinnable, our testing showed that the total number of games (testing 10 sets) that Elf & Nail would win vs. Goblins doesn't significantly increase by the addition of Pyroclasm. What seems to happen is you just wind up winning DIFFERENT games. The Red splash seems to lose you as many games as it would win. It's counter-intuitive that a deck with action spells starting at 6 wouldn't benefit from Pyroclasm. But that's what our testing showed repeatedly. This combined with the degradation vs. Affinity (game 1 often comes down to a life or two), led us to maintain our build in the Mono-G configuration.

What the Nationals metagame meant to us was to expect a lot of Affinity and no real rogue variants therein. This is a good thing for Elf & Nail as it can control this fight depending on how focused on Affinity killing it chooses to become. We also expected to see a lot of Elf & Nail mirror matches as we many players would choose Elf & Nail for reasons similar to our own. We felt comfortable with this as we were willing practice the mirror heavily and dedicate sideboard space as needed. Finally, we realized there would be Goblins but in declining numbers. To be quite honest, we choose to not to focus on the Goblin fight as they can control the fight much more than the Elf & Nail player can. Besides, Goblins are a lot like ostriches. If you can't see them they can't see you.

We optimized the Elf & Nail deck for U.S. Nationals to the following build:

Main Deck
4 Birds of Paradise
1 Darksteel Colossus
1 Duplicant
1 Fierce Empath
1 Kamahl, Fist of Krosa
1 Triskelion
3 Vine Trellis
3 Viridian Shaman
3 Wirewood Herald
4 Wirewood Symbiote
4 Wood Elves
Creatures [26]
2 Oxidize
4 Skullclamp
3 Tooth and Nail
4 Vernal Bloom
Spells [13]
21 Forest (350)
Lands [21]
Deck Total [60]

1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
2 Chrome Mox
1 Duplicant
2 Mindslaver
2 Oxidize
1 Sundering Titan
2 Triskelion
1 Vine Trellis
1 Viridian Shaman
2 Wall of Mulch
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

The changes made from the previous (Regionals) build were as follows:

Main deck changes:
+1 Forest, +2 Oxidize
-2 Chrome Mox, -1 Sundering Titan

Sideboard Changes:
-2 Oxidize, -3 Creeping Mold, -3 Reap and Sow, -1 Tooth and Nail
+2 Wall of Mulch, +2 Mindslaver, +2 Chrome Mox, +1 Triskelion, +1 Sundering Titan, +1 Akroma, Angel of Vengeance

The main deck manabase changes of +1 Forest, -2 Chrome Mox left the deck at 21 turn 1 manasources. The reduction from 22 to 21 turn 1 manasources reflects the lighter mana requirements of the Affinity matchup. In the fight vs. Affinity our testing showed Elf & Nail only requires 21 or even 20 turn 1 manasources due to the low cost of Oxidizes. We couldn't reduce down below 21 as that is the minimal number needed in the mirror fight. The 22nd primary manasources seen in our Regionals build is reflective of the Goblin matchup (where a turn 3 Vernal Bloom is key), a matchup we'd already decided to marginalize.

The changes in type of Turn 1 manasources from Chrome Mox to Forest is mostly to strengthen the Affinity fight (where cards are key) at the expense of the Goblin fight (where the acceleration is key). An additional factor is the fragility of the Chrome Mox; in the mirror it often provides a relevant target for unused Viridian Shamans.

The move of the Sundering Titan to the sideboard was due to the collapse of the Goblin Bidding deck. Sundering Titan is a key card in the Goblin Bidding fight but dead weight in the Affinity and mirror matchups. The addition of a pair of Oxidizes to the main deck was an easy one. The addition of maindeck Oxides turns a solid but challenging game 1 matchup vs. Ravager to almost 70% advantaged.

The 2 maindeck Oxidizes also impact the Game 1 mirror matchup significantly. Generally, in the mirror you hold your Skullclamps in hand until you can use them on a "big turn", expecting them to be destroyed as soon as the opponent can cast a Viridian Shaman. With Oxides you have a counter strategy for the "big turn" plan, as discussed later this is one of the keys to winning the mirror fight.

The most sizable sideboard change is the elimination of the land destruction board. These 6 slots (3 Reap & Sow, 3 Creeping Mold) were focused on Tooth & Nail as well as Control decks, both decks we didn't expect in significant numbers.

This change provided room for the 2 Wall of Mulch, 2 Mindslaver and 2 Chrome Mox. Wall of Mulch is an incredibly versatile sideboard card. It's boarded in for every major matchup except Ravager. Against Goblins we found Wall of Mulch to be roughly equivalent to Ravenous Baloth from the board. More importantly we found the extra draw power of Wall of Mulch to provide a slight but noticeable edge in the mirror fight.

The Mindslavers are the most important card other than Duplicant in the mirror. The Elf & Nail mirror match goes one of two ways. The first case is where one player gets a killer Wood Elf/Skullclamp draw and out mana accelerates & card draws the opponent. These games are fast as the player without the Wood Elf recursion and/or Skullclamp is quickly destroyed. The second is the long fight where each player has approximately 3 threats (ex. Akroma, Kamahl, Colossus) and they need to find a way to win when their opponent can Duplicant/eliminate the first 2 threats with almost a 100% certainty. Even worse, once they do eliminate the threat they wind up with a credible threat of their own. This leads to a long matchup with neither player wanting to be the aggressor. Mindslaver becomes a key card in this long game with its "cheap" cost of 10 mana. "Cheap" is of course relative, being compared to the single turn Kamahl / Overrun alternative plan.

The Chrome Moxen and Triskelions are the board strategy against Goblins. Chrome Mox is often misunderstood in the Elf & Nail vs. Goblin match. Our testing has repeatedly shown that Chrome Mox is more important than even additional Triskelions vs. Goblins. With the board Moxes the fight is nothing new, the Goblin deck controls most aspects of the fight but unless the Goblin deck is designed to hate out Elf & Nail, it still only wins slightly more than half the matches. Sameer faced one Goblin deck at U.S. Nationals and won (2-1).

The final new sideboard card is Akroma, Angel of Vengeance. Her role is as a replacement for Colossus when there is a concern about Grab the Reins or Threaten and as a blocker for Somber Hoverguard. She is board rather than main as the Colossus is a superior finisher aside from the aforementioned cards (including Somber Hoverguard) which only show up in opposing sideboards.

The success of these changes/boarding strategies can be best judged by their results. Sameer went 6-1 at U.S. Nationals with Elf & Nail as presented. He went 2-1 vs. Affinity, 2-0 vs. Mirror, 1-0 vs. Goblins and 1-0 vs. G-W control.

The question most often asked is "What's in store for Elf & Nail now?" With the implied question being "Is Elf & Nail dead now that Skullclamp is banned?" I don't think Elf & Nail is dead but it will need to transform. The Wood Elf mana engine is still solid as is Turn 3/4 Vernal Bloom. Tooth & Nail is also one of the most powerful effects in the game. I suspect Elf and Nail will need to become more combo-oriented or possibly more medium control. However, the two elements that comprise Elf & Nail - Elves & Bloom/Nail are still available and still powerful.

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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