Team Elspeth – a (winning) M10 Standard deck

I split in the finals of today’s $1K at Superstars using a last-minute version of a deck that I’ve been pondering through the week leading up to this tournament. The deck operated exactly as planned throughout the tournament, and I think I’d happily recommend it for Standard tournaments in the next week or so, given the current play environment.
More on that, along with a deck list and tournament report, in the extended entry.

Team Elspeth

20 Creatures:
Llanowar Elves
Noble Hierarch
Knight of the Reliquary
Kitchen Finks
Enlisted Wurm
16 Spells:
Path to Exile
Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Garruk Wildspeaker
Primal Command
24 Land:
Terramorphic Expanse
Sunpetal Grove
Wooded Bastion
11× Forest
Gargoyle Castle
15 Sideboard:
Pithing Needle
Lapse of Certainty
Behemoth Sledge
Hallowed Burial

This green-white, all-four-ofs build is the Saturday morning final take on a concept I’ve been mulling over all week. It began with my desire to address a metagame that I suspected, post-U.S.-nationals, would look like this:
Five-color control
R/x burn
I figured there would be some amount of five-color control based on the deck’s success in U.S. and other nationals. At the same time, I imagined that folks would see that success and build against it, which fairly naturally leads to R/x decks running Anathemancer and giant piles of burn, and to what I’m calling “cascade” decks, where that usually means Jund cascade, but could also include four- or five-color Blood decks. I also figured we’d see Faeries, because players in the Bay Area seem to like Faeries more than players I hear about in other areas.
The core concept I was going for vis-a-vis five-color control was “keep them off their plays.” To that end, I knew I wanted to use Primal Command in the tempo/disruption position. In fact, one of my opponents today referred to my deck as a Primal Command deck, which seems like a reasonable assessment. In a sense, I was going for the “plow under” version of the Fish ideal – stick a dude, then keep the opponent off their plays while you kill them with the dude.
My first take was white-green-blue, with the idea of holding up some amount of countermagic to protect my offense. Unfortunately, this build did not close effectively, and the five-color control player would be able to finally stick a Broodmate or Cryptic, and then it was all over.
So much for blue.
My second approach moved from Bant to Naya colors, generating the “Hushblade Aggro” build. This design ended up being a Naya Elves build, with Hushblade and Vanquisher in the two slot, with Knight of the Reliquary and Thoctar at three leading to Bloodbraid at four.
Keep track of that Knight. It’ll be back in a moment.
The Hushblade Aggro build did not develop nearly enough pressure, and once again, the five-color build would stabilize, drop something horrible, and that was that. The deck similarly had issues with R/x builds, which could burn out the early attackers and then come over the top with, say, Demigod or Figure. It was a big mess.
That was the deck I had overnight. When I gave it a look this morning, I decided it genuinely was no good, and certainly it wouldn’t be worth my time and money to watch it crash and burn at a tournament. My fundamental realization in evaluating the deck this morning was that the tempo loss and mana quirkiness I was building in by trying to run three colors simply wasn’t worth it.
I took a moment to consider green decks from U.S. Nationals 2005 and the Ghazi-Glare build, and decided to just go for it with a green/white build featuring the most powerful, card advantage-laden spells in those colors.
An aside – I hate synergy.
That’s not exactly true. I appreciate synergy. But I don’t want to build for synergy, because it so often leads to terrible topdecks. I want my cards to be individually powerful whenever possible. That said, I like a sort of synergy in how the deck uses its resources. This is one reason I dislike modern, Vivid-powered five-color builds, as they’re so clunky sometimes when you’re trying to jam all those colors into one deck. I don’t want my manabase to have the opportunity to let me down. In a sense, I want my land topdecks to be good, too.
So, given all this, I went for this basic play target:

  • Turn two three-drop
  • Turn three planeswalker
  • Turn four Primal Command

I figured this would give me enough momentum to overtake most opposition. Let’s look at the deck’s parts:
This deck runs eight mana dorks, with four Elves and four Hierarchs. This may seem curious given that it also runs twenty-four lands, but trust me that it’s correct. You’ll be trading in a lot of those lands later, and you really do want to hit your first several turns worth of lands drops and have a mana dude so that you can play out the walkers, Primals, and Wurms.
The three drop slot has four Finks, everyone’s favorite “just plain good” creature, and four Knight of the Reliquary. Knight is a card I like in the abstract and used earlier in the Austin PTQ season to tutor up Treetop Villages, but I didn’t figure out what I was actually supposed to be doing with Knight until this week. Consider the following sequence of events:
1) Play Knight.
2) Don’t attack next turn.
3) At the end of your opponent’s turn, use the Knight’s ability to sacrifice a forest. Go get a Terramorphic Expanse. Immediately crack it for another land. Congratulations, you now have a 4/4 Knight.
This was my SOP for Knight today. Play, wait, power-thin your deck. This is also why there’s value in having 24 lands, as it means you can be cranking through the lands in your deck while still hitting your land drops. This is why the deck has two Terramorphics. You don’t want one in your opening hand, but you do want the ability to have one as your search target for the Knight.
Knight is also excellent for thinning your deck should the board stall down (see the semifinals match from today, for example). You simultaneously improve your draw quality and get a giant, giant Knight. Also, as a plus, your subsequent Knights are huge.
The creature list tops out with four Enlisted Wurm. Wurm is basically a Kamigawa dragon for this deck. In the main deck configuration, your Wurm may be:

  • 5/5, exile a creature
  • 5/5, play a Kitchen Finks
  • 5/5, play a mana dork
  • 5/5, play a Knight
  • 5/5, play a planeswalker
  • 5/5, Primal Command

Wurm into Command or planeswalker is a terrible, terrible beating. I also like how Wurm provides so much more gas for the late game, making it an excellent topdeck or Primal tutor target.
In the main deck, we have four Path to take out key blockers or highly threatening attackers (e.g. Demigod, Figure, Wilt-Leaf Liege). In general, your creatures should win in fights otherwise, so Path is to be held back for real problems, or when it will get you through for ht win.
The only other spells in the main are the eight planeswalkers. These are card advantage enginers, of course, by dint of their ability to churn out critters. Elspeth gives the deck tremendous reach, as she can launch one of your big attackers over a wall of blockers to smack the opponent around.
This deck is Forest-heavy so I can hit that turn one Elf or Hierarch. Beyond that, the two Terramorphics are there to be hunted down by Knights and chained into more lands. There’s one Gargoyle Castle and one Mutavault; I used the Castle a lot, and the Mutavault never. There’s only one Plains – it’s typically my first Knight target. The Bastions are as good as always, and I love the Groves. Turn one Forest and Elves into turn two Sunpetal and Knight is an ideal opener.
Also, I was averaging one damage from each Anathemancer played against me in this tournament. That’s definitely on purpose.
Hm. This sideboard is mostly untested, and I don’t know that I can vouch for all of it. The Lapse of Certainty is there to come in against five-color control, where the idea is that you’ll Lapse a Cruel or Broodmate, and then kill them in the free turn. Threshers are clearly there for Faeries, and could also come in against Kithkin to kill those spirits. Hallowed Burial is for tokens or Kithkin builds as well, and turned out to be an excellent card against B/G Elves. The single Behemoth Sledge is for aggro matchups, and possibly Kithkin as well. Finally, double Pithing Needle is a giant shrug waiting on situations I hadn’t considered ahead of time.
Tournament report
Okay, with all of that out of the way, let’s go to the tournament report. This 1K was really more of a 0.5K as we had reduced attendance (notably, a number of Bay Area regulars are at the Boston GP right now, and recent site issues at Superstars online meant that some other folks simply didn’t know it was coming). Thanks to Mashi for running the event today. Here’s my round by round, in somewhat limited fashion (I took poorer notes than usual, as I still have a huge sleep deficit this week and was kind of drifting at times today):
Round one versus Albert playing Faeries
I opened game one with a first-turn Terramorphic that I followed with Knight to hunt down the other Terrarmorphic, giving me a fourth-turn 5/5. Albert had lagged a touch on mana, and I Primaled away his Crumbling Necropolis more than once while the Knight beat him up. I think this reflects one of the deficiencies of those Faeries decks that are splashing other colors to deal with Great Sable Stag – they’re forced to run lands that enter the battlefield tapped, and those are wonderful, juicy targets for Primal Command. Game one was done in under ten minutes.
I sideboarded like this:
+4 Cloudthresher
-4 Garruk Wildspeaker
Game two went longer. Albert hit an early Bitterblossom while I ran out Elspeth, only to see her take double Lightning Bolt. Nonetheless, I’d managed one flying soldier hit, and the Blossom continued to run its clock on Albert’s life total. I played out Cloudthresher number one, then tried to follow it with an Enlisted Wurm that ran into, of all things, Double Negative. Unfortunately for Albert, I had the second Thresher to evoke and wiped his board, then ran him down with Thresher number one.
Round two versus Sam playing Faeries
My opening hand was double Enlisted Wurm, Garruk, and some lands. I pitched it. The next hand was something like triple Elspeth and three other spells, so it had to go as well. The five-card hand was Garruk, an Elf, and three lands. With me being so behind on cards and anything, Sam basically raced me, starting with Blossom on turn two and eventually playing out Scion and just killing me. I had to pitch that opening hand, but there wasn’t much I could do with the hand I ended up with. So it goes – we need to do well in most games so we can afford to let luck crush us every so often.
I sideboarded like so:
+4 Cloudthresher
-4 Garruk Wildspeaker
I went to six cards in this game, but the hand I kept at was solid. I managed to get an early Knight that made it to 6/6 relatively quickly, before I started getting chumped by Blossom tokens. A Vendilion Clique back the other way nicked me twice before things kind of settled down and I traded my Gargoyle (from the Castle) for the Clique. Eventually, however, Sower came down to steal my Knight, and I didn’t draw into Threshers (and Path was countered by a Sprite). I chumped for a while, hoping to draw into a good solution, but by the time I drew a Thresher there were enough Faeries in play to let Sam Sprite it.
I really just need Arashi.
After the match, Sam asked if I had Stag and I said I didn’t. As he noted, he’d been playing around the possibility of both Stag and Thresher the entirety of game two. Note that Sam was running a pure U/B Faeries build, which is much better against this deck than the splashed Faeries decks. I don’t think this is an unwinnable or necessarily even a tough match, but you do need the right opener. Ideally, I’d like to see the T2 Knight T3 Elspeth opener, with Thresher providing air cover.
Round three versus Alex playing controlling Blightning
When Alex played a Mountain, I cheered inside. My opening hand had a Kitchen Finks, and I had to figure that was good enough to keep me going until I started hitting walkers and Primal Commands. Indeed, I played out the Finks, traded it for a Ram-Gang, took random nicks from Anathemancers, hit Primal Command, started playing creatures, and that was that. I ended the game on 26 life.
I sideboarded like this:
+1 Behemoth Sledge
-1 Garruk Wildspeaker
Yeah, not a lot of change there.
Game two went a lot like game one. Play Finks, take a couple hits, play Garruk, play Primal Command, etc, etc. This deck is nearly the pessimal matchup for burn-based decks. Who runs quad Primal in the main deck?
After the round, I told one of the other players there that if I could have this round’s matchup for the rest of the tournament, I’d be happy.
Round four versus David playing long-game Blightning
So, yeah. Go me.
In game one I took an early Hellspark hit, then played a Finks, followed by an Elspeth. David burned two Volcanic Fallouts killing Elspeth, only to see me drop my backup Elspeth. I cast Primal Command and Finks while David hit his third Fallout and some other effects to clear my soldiers and burn out Elspeth. I followed this with another Primal and started beating down with creatures while David was out of resources.
+1 Behemoth Sledge
-1 Garruk Wildspeaker
I took an early hit in game two from Figure of Destiny before various creatures and things stalled the board out entirely. The sideboard finally came into play, however, as I equipped Behemoth Sledge to an Enlisted Wurm and started swinging, going immediately to 26 life. David played out a Demigod of Revenge. I took another hit and swung once more with the Wurm, going to 31. I followed this with a Primal Command to gain life and bounce one of David’s lands. This was followed by yet another Wurm swing, finally forcing a mass block by Demigod, Figure, and a Bitterblossom token. However, with Blossom eating David’s life and two big hits in from the Sledged Wurm, David was done shortly thereafter.
As David pointed out after the game, the tempo effect of bouncing lands with Primal is enormous. I kept him off six mana (to 8/8 his Figure) for two turns with Primal Commands, and that was key in forcing an untenable many-for-one block against Wurm. The life gain isn’t too bad, either.
Round five versus Frank
Given the size of the tournament and our point totals, Dave and I could draw in, so we did. I watched a close match between Cascade Jund and Kithkin and then took the opportunity to move my car from “free during the day” parking to “free at night” parking. The second game in this match was a great demonstration of the power of cascade, as the Cascade Jund player mulliganed to five, then basically dug himself out by using removal to live through the early game and then cascading into powerful cards late in the game.
Quarterfinals round versus Brandon, playing Cascade Jund
I’m not great at scouting at tournaments, so I had trouble recalling if I’d seen what Brandon was playing. When he led with a tapped Savage Lands, though, I was a happy camper. He got one early hit in with Putrid Leech before I stuck a FInks. My notes here are pretty bad, but I think I went Elspeth, flying Knight soon after, and Brandon had no outs against a flying beater.
+1 Behemoth Sledge
-1 Garruk Wildspeaker
When you’re largely maindecked against a certain build, there’s not a lot of sideboarding to do.
This time around, Brandon vigorously killed my Llanowar Elves to keep me off early plays, hitting one with a Deathmark, and another with a Lightning Bolt. Nonetheless, I had double Finks right out of the gates, followed by Elspeth I sent in two flying Finks hits while Brandon blew a ton of resources killing Elspeth…only to see me play the backup Elspeth. This, incidentally, is why I’m happy to run four in the deck. When I cascaded from Enlisted Wurm into Garruk, Brandon kind of laughed and packed it in.
Semifinals round versus John playing B/G Elves
We had two B/G Elves decks running around in this tournament, and both seemed to be doing okay. I know people have been dogging on B/G Elves since Tenth rotated out, but I think it’s a solid deck that, like the deck I played today, benefits from having a stable manabase in an environment where people can just plain lose to their manabases.
Game one was long, but kind of stupid. I kept a hand with three Forests, two Elves, a Finks, and a Knight, and didn’t see a white source for about a billion turns. Nonetheless, this deck is a survivor, and I was able to play out several Finks and a Primal Command to stay alive, if not in it, for a long time. Unfortunately, the power of “lots of stuff backed by Wilt-Leaf Liege” was too much for me, and I folded.
Having seen that John’s deck was able to really fill the board with creatures, and solid, quality creatures at that, I decided that I wanted to be able to clear the decks at will. Thus, my sideboarding plan:
+1 Behemoth Sledge
+4 Hallowed Burial
-1 Garruk Wildspeaker
-4 Enlisted Wurm
I never really like cutting any part of the main deck, and briefly debated between losing more planeswalkers and losing the Wurms. I decided that losing the Wurms made more sense, as a Hallowed Burial with a planeswalker in play leaves me with a planeswalker, but one with Wurm in play isn’t so good.
Another aside: When I was discussing this deck with David (from round 4), he identified the Elspeths, Garruks, and Burials as the “expensive” cards. This amuses me a little since the Burials have felt to me, for a long time, like this pseudo-Wrath I spent a few bucks for for the final PTQ of the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor block season. But I don’t really ever sell cards, and suddenly Burial is the Wrath effect for Standard. So it goes. My Elspeths were cheap when I bought them, too.
Game two began with a Finks followed by Garruk, who managed to summon one Beast before Pithing Needle shut him down. From there, it was Elspeth and flying beasts, followed by progressively more copies of Finks and then a giant Knight that could only be chump blocked for so long by Mutavaults.
The third game began yet again with Finks, first for me, then for John. I played a mid-game Primal Command to get to a comfortable 21 life (gotta watch out for those sudden Profane Command kills!), and then the board stalled out. John tried to set me back by bouncing a land and searching for a creature. Unfortunately for him, he targeted my Mutavault, which I activated, fizzling the Primal Command. I knew to do this because I made the same mistake last year. Oof. That took some of the wind out of John’s sails, and I can’t say I blame him at all. Eventually, the strength of John’s board concerned me, as I thought I might possibly lose to a Profane Command driven alpha strike. I’d been churning through my deck for several turns with a Knight, but couldn’t attack due to a defending Vanquisher. I’d also been sandbagging a second Knight, not wanting to lose two to a Maelstrom Pulse. I did one last activation of Knight, then swept the decks clear with Hallowed Burial and played a post-Burial Knight. That Knight was now a 10/10, and John didn’t draw an answer in time.
I split in the finals, taking home a convenient chunk of store credit and then heading out to get some food. I think I was favored in the final matchup as it was yet another R/x deck, but I thought food, rest, and the good karma of letting someone else go get some food outweighed the benefit of getting a little bit more money.
Parting thoughts
I’m very happy with how the deck worked out. It did exactly what it was supposed to do, taking down the Cascade Jund and R/x decks I expected to see, using a mix of tempo, card advantagey threats, and life gain. I expect the sideboard can use some adjusting, and I’d really like to see the deck tested against more archetypes (for example, I didn’t run into either of the Time Sieve decks at today’s tournament). Still, it was a very satisfying deck to play, and I’m definitely considering running a tuned version at next week’s $5K.
If you give the deck a shot, I’d love to hear back from you about your experiences with it, too.

7 thoughts on “Team Elspeth – a (winning) M10 Standard deck

  1. congrats on your good finish, well deserved with some mature deckbuilding decisions.

  2. great tournament report & excellent finish! 🙂 this is very similar to a deck list i’ve been toying around with. what do you think of harm’s way? against agro (red, jund, kithkin)? i’m not sold on lapse of certainty. did you like it?
    also, are you playing at the 5k this weekend? i’ll be there. 🙂

  3. I’m not sure about Harm’s Way – I don’t know when I’d bring it in. As you can see, I barely sideboarded for aggro-on-aggro matchups, and I didn’t end up needing to test my 5CC plan. In aggro head-to-heads, so far the life gain and card advantage in this build means you can just sort of grind straight into them and almost always come out ahead.
    I’m not sold on Lapse, either. It was for the 5CC matchup, and that never came up, so I’m back to deciding whether it’s worthwhile or not. On that note, yes, I’m planning on hitting up the 5K this weekend, assuming nothing comes up. Unless I have another massive epiphany before then, I’ll probably end up playing a tuned version of this deck.

  4. w0w – very nice set up. I’ve been thinking lately of the Knight but have not come up with anything that quite fitted appropriately. Thanks for the details regarding reasons for inclusions for the various supporting cards.

  5. something you might not have considered with knight of the reliquary is that
    if you turn 1 mana dork
    turn 2 knight
    and have a land play for turn 3 then you can play a 3rd turn primal command
    I am not sure how useful this is… but you never know

  6. Thanks for posting this. I’d be really interested in a follow up report on how the deck does if you play it in the 5k.

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