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Extended Elves in Berlin

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As part of a special series, Latest Developments will be hosting a whole run of guest slots from some of the many people who work on Magic development. Enjoy! 
–Kelly Digges, magicthegathering.com editor

The letter T!he overarching goal of Magic development is to make sure that playing Magic is as fun as possible. We do this in many ways. When we work on future sets, we try to make the cards as fun as possible for all of our players no matter how they are played. However, one of the amazing things about Magic is that its depth allows it to stand up as a great game, and we are also responsible for how fun our Constructed tournament environments are. We think the most about Standard, both because it is the most popular tournament format as measured by tournament attendance and because we have the most control over it, but we constantly have our eyes on other formats too.

Magic R&D talks a great deal internally about what it takes for a format to be fun. Individual members may not always agree on minute details, but we mostly agree about the big picture. We strive to have the viable decks in an environment be diverse, both in terms of the number of archetypes and the number of different strategies. We know that it is repetitive to play against the same deck over and over again every time you play a format. We also know that for every deck archetype out there, there is someone who enjoys playing it. There are players who prefer very fast aggressive decks. There are players who prefer grinding control decks. There are players who prefer crazy combo decks. Tournament environments are the most fun when players are able to play decks they enjoy while still feeling like they are competitive.

Matej Zatlkaj and Luis Scott-Vargas both played Elves decks in the Finals of Pro Tour–Berlin.

Two Fridays ago at Pro Tour–Berlin, the world's best Magic minds played Extended for the biggest prizes Magic tournaments have to offer. This particular iteration of Extended had never been played before, because Invasion block and Odyssey block rotated out with the release of Shards of Alara. Extended formats now contain seven years' worth of cards, which means that they offer the potential for tons of unexpected and unexplored card interactions. Last Extended season, combo decks built around Mind's Desire, Enduring Ideal, and the dredge mechanic performed well, but were part of a healthy metagame.

Thursday night in Berlin, there was tons of buzz about a Glimpse of Nature-fueled Elves combo deck. On Friday night, that deck was the deck that had the best Day Two conversion rate of any archetype in the tournament, with 38 of 71 Elves players making the cut (see Paul Jordan's recent feature article for more statistical breakdown of the tournament). On Saturday night, six of the Top 8 decks of the tournament were Elves. On Sunday afternoon, Luis Scott-Vargas won the tournament with his build of Elves, and both of the non-Elves decks in the Top 8 had lost in the Quarterfinals. Clearly, Elves were the story of both the tournament and the format.

Why is the deck so strong? I won't go into detail about the mechanics of the deck, because Mike Flores covered them here, but I will paint some broad strokes. The deck is built around a few cards that break the rules of Magic in narrow but fundamental ways. Birchlore Rangers and Heritage Druid allow Elves to ignore the summoning sickness rule and tap to produce mana the turn they come into play, and Nettle Sentinel is a creature that can tap multiple times in one turn. This gives the deck access to tons of mana, and Glimpse of Nature provides a card advantage engine that gives the Elf players things to do with all of that mana. The deck also happens to be really fast and can kill you on turn two some small amount of the time. All that takes is a first-turn Llanowar Elves followed by a second-turn Glimpe of Nature, Birchlore Rangers, and Nettle Sentinel. With a few more one-mana elves, eventually a second Nettle Sentinel, and a little luck, the Elf player can win the game right there on the spot with an enormous Brain Freeze, Grapeshot, or Predator Dragon (with red or blue mana courtesy of Birchlore Rangers).

Not surprisingly, there has been consternation from players about the strength of the deck, both because of what it is capable of and because of its apparent domination of the Pro Tour. It is clear that the deck is powerful, and it is also clear that an environment where one deck consistently makes up three-fourths of the Top 8 would not be what we would call "good" or "diverse." The natural question, then, is to ask what really happened to put six Elf decks in the Top 8 and what that says about the format.

While the Top 8 was almost all Elves, however, the Top 16 had a reasonable amount of variety in it when taken as a whole. The 9th- through 16th-place decks consist of three mono-blue Faeries decks, two Dredge decks, a Death Cloud deck, a Goblin deck, and an All-In Red deck. If you add the six Elf decks, a blue-black Faeries deck, and a Tezzeret the Seeker control deck from the Top 8, the top of the format looks much more varied. For things to have turned out as they did, the Elves decks near the top of the tournament had to dodge being paired against each other to avoid cannibalizing their own numbers. Had the pairings gone differently in the last few rounds, Elves might have only had four decks in the Top 8—a far cry from six. Had that happened, the story of the Top 8 might have been Elves against the world as opposed to just, well, Elves against Elves.

Of course, the Elves deck's success was not a fluke either. Even though it made up 15% of the tournament, many players were unprepared for it. Mind's Desire and other combo decks had a higher profile before the tournament than Elves did, and therefore many of the popular anti-combo sideboard cards that were played didn't hit Elves. For example, a common sideboard card was Thorn of Amethyst. This played right into the Elf decks' hands, because they don't rely on playing many non-creature spells in a turn. In fact, Luis Scott-Vargas's winning Elves deck list used the Thorn itself to fight against other combo decks. Also, many of the cards that are very effective against Elves happen to be artifacts, such as Chalice of the Void and Ethersworn Canonist. Unfortunately for those cards, the Elves deck has a main-deck Viridian Shaman that it can tutor for, and every Elves list in the Top 8 had at least one more copy of that card to sideboard in. Had players come with cards like Rule of Law or Pyrostatic Pillar that Viridian Shaman could not hit, the tournament might have gone differently.

Many main decks were also tuned in ways that made them weak against Elves. For example, many Zoo decks either skimped on Mogg Fanatics or chose not to play them at all. Despite being a staple of last season's Zoo decks, the card was deemed both too slow against the speed of the expected spell-based combo decks and not effective enough against creatures like Tarmogoyf, Wild Nacatl, and Kitchen Finks. However, a Zoo deck without Mogg Fanatics is very weak to Elves, because it must keep mana open to kill an elf on the Elves player's turn. I expect that going forward those players who choose to play Zoo will include all four Mogg Fanatics, and other decks will be tuned in analogous ways to be better positioned against Elves.

One of our tools for keeping formats with large card pools healthy is the banned list. Realistically, we can't do major surgery on a format that includes thousands of cards just by releasing a single set containing either 249 or 145 cards. However, the banned list is a tool that we cannot use lightly. Banning a card is breaking our promise that you will be able to play in our tournaments with the cards you buy. This is something we really don't like doing, but we are willing to break that promise if it is necessary to keep the game fun and the environment balanced. The Elves deck did well at Pro Tour–Berlin, but it did not do so well that it is clear that something must be banned. We believe that Extended contains tools that can fight Elves, and we hope that those tools will do their jobs.

The end result of this is that given the data we have right now, it would be difficult to decide that something should be banned in Extended. The next scheduled announcement concerning changes to the Banned and Restricted lists is December 1, and those changes would take effect on December 20. This is bad timing for two reasons. First, there will be six rounds of Extended at the World Championships the second weekend in December that we would not be able to take into account when making our decision prior to the announcement on December 1. Worse, if it turns out that something does need to be banned in the wake of Worlds so that Extended remains healthy, the first time we would be able to do that is March 1, and this would take effect on March 20—well into the Extended Qualifier season for Pro Tour–Honolulu.

We are not willing to ban cards unless we believe it is absolutely necessary, but we are also not willing to sacrifice the health of a format for the first half of a Qualifier season just to stick to a schedule. We anticipate that our December 1 Banned and Restricted announcement will not change the Extended banned list. However, we reserve the right to announce an unscheduled change to the banned list between the World Championships and the upcoming Extended qualifier tournaments if such a change is necessary.

Despite the Elves decks' dominance of Pro Tour–Berlin, the Extended format is hardly solved. I have played with the Elves deck as part of the "research" component of my job, and I was not surprised to find that the deck was very strong. However, my opponents have been adjusting, and in the past week winning with the deck has become more challenging. Opposing main decks have become more and more tuned to deal with swarms of 1/1 creatures. I have also played against Rule of Law, Pyrostatic Pillar, Pyroclasm, Umezawa's Jitte, Thoughtseize, Chalice of the Void, and many other cards that are quite good at stopping me from going off. Sometimes when I play against those cards I am able to win by attacking with Elves the hard way. Other times, I am not able to do this and I lose. My instinct based on these experiences is that the Elves deck is very good but not at all unbeatable. Time will tell if the rest of Magic R&D and I are correct in our assessment.

Here in Magic R&D, we spend lots of time talking about how our cards are experienced by every kind of player. However, we never lose sight of how awesome it is that there are players out there who are willing to go to Friday Night Magic tournaments every week, drive multiple hours to try to qualify for the Pro Tour, or regularly fly around the world to play in Grand Prix and Pro Tours. It's extremely important to us that we serve that audience well, and all of Magic's developers were once part of that audience too. We know that many of you will be playing Extended seriously at the beginning of next year. We have our eyes on the format, we value that you love to play Magic, and we are committed that your Extended Pro Tour Qualifier tournament season be fun and competitive.

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