Dilution reduces its potency (a PTQ report and meditation on altering a deck)

Today I attended our last area PTQ of the Austin qualifier season. I brought a variation on a deck I’ve done reasonably well with lately, namely the “Team Elspeth” design. I updated it to try and pick up percentage in some of the unfavored matchups, but I think, in retrospect (and honestly, part way through round three today), that was a bad idea. Essentially, I reduced my overall likelihood of winning by being unwilling to straight-up lose the occasional match.
Click through to the extended entry for a deck list, a tournament report, and a revised deck list that attempts to embrace the concept of just accepting some losses.


Here’s the list I ran today:
Team Elspeth, Siege Tower edition

20 Creatures:
Treefolk Harbinger
Noble Hierarch
Knight of the Reliquary
Doran, the Siege Tower
Cloudthresher
17 Spells:
Path to Exile
Maelstrom Pulse
Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Primal Command
Profane Command
23 Land:
Murmuring Bosk
Sunpetal Grove
Wooded Bastion
Twilight Mire
Terramorphic Expanse
Plains
Swamp
Gargoyle Castle
Forest
15 Sideboard:
Pithing Needle
Ethersworn Canonist
Deglamer
Kitchen Finks
Profane Command

The thought process behind this variant is discussed to some extent here. My basic concern was the tendency of the original build to auto-lose to tokens-based builds, either Kithkin or G/W. I was also somewhat concerned about the deck being more vulnerable to Baneslayer than I liked, as I had only four cards that were actual, strict removal. With that in mind, I did a black splash, which gave me the opportunity (and perhaps even the temptation) to add in Doran, to make the deck more aggressive. I’ll speak to that aggression point more after the report.
An aside – one of the big issues I find I have in deck design is the “might as well” effect. Putting in Murmuring Bosk to support a black splash in a G/W deck? Might as well add Doran, right? And then might as well add some other Treefolk or Changelings…or perhaps not. In the last year or so, the single biggest “might as well” offender for me was Engineered Explosives, which tempted me to add in Trinket Mage, which in turn tempted me to add in other searchable one-of artifacts, which in turn led to a deck that couldn’t close, leading to some very drawn-out games. In this case, I mostly resisted the temptation, and I don’t think the Doran add itself was a bad one. The error this time was a more general one, which I’ll discuss after the report.
With that in mind, on to the report.
PTQ time
This PTQ was decently attended, with 177 players (the room looked even more packed than that, but that may have had to do with people filling the aisle by the counter hoping to buy cards). Apparently the store was all out of Baneslayers, leading to some interesting substitutions (I heard of a guy playing Purity; I would have gone for Archon of Justice instead, since at least an Archon can take down a Baneslayer in heads up combat and comes down at the same pace).
Round one versus Trevor playing B/G Elves
I was on the play here and Trevor mulliganed to six. I have a vague memory of being a touch worried about my keep, but I lead with Harbinger setting up Doran while Trevor started with Vanquisher. I ran Harbinger toward Vanquisher, but Trevor eschewed the trade and just hit me back instead. He offed Harbinger with an Inversion and then dropped a Chameleon Colossus, which, as it happens, is a much bigger problem for this version of the deck than for earlier ones. I was stuck on a fairly low land count as the Colossus smacked me around a bit, then Trevor played a Wilt-Leaf Liege. I drew into a fifth land with a hand of double Primal Command, double Cloudthresher (and me at 13 life).
Now, this put me in an interesting position. Primal Command gave me some time to dig for outs. Sort of. At least, Doran could stand in the way of Liege (or a Finks that was also out), and the life gain would get me through the first hit. However, I was unlikely to draw an out (Path, basically), and I would be revealing to Trevor that I had Primal Command, which is a powerful component of this deck.
So I conceded, which earned a “Really?” from Trevor. I promised to explain afterward.
Going into game two, I sideboarded as follows:
+4 Kitchen Finks
-4 Cloudthresher
I led with Hierarch, which ate a Dearthmark, then followed with Harbinger for Doran. Doran hit Trevor for his usual solid 5, and then I followed up with Elspeth to yield flying giant Doran, taking Trevor down to 7. Elspeth ate a Pulse, and I played Primal Command to plow Trevor under and grab a Knight of the Reliquary. Trevor had a Finks out, and the game slowed for a bit as Doran beat up some Kitchen Finks. Trevor played a Putrid Leech and a Vanquisher, and I think I played my Knight. Eventually, Trevor pumped his Putrid Leech, taking him to 8 life…and I played Elspeth number two and flew Doran over for the win.
Toward the tale end of game two, a Puppeteer Clique smacked me with my own Doran, and I, in turn, Pathed that Clique before flying over for the win.
Game three was uneventful, as my play sequence of Harbinger into Doran into Primal Command was up against Trevor’s play of Twilight Mire into Pithing Needle into no second land.
Round two versus Jeff playing Merfolk
I am not fond of this matchup. Merfolk seems to explicitly screw with my normal play modes in a way that other, less tempo-oriented control decks do not. That said, this was actually a very fun match, and I’m glad I ran into it, as I’d like to become more comfortable playing around fish decks.
I was on the play in game one, and started with a decent hand featuring Noble Hierarch…that stalled on two lands, Hierarch, and several 4+ mana cards. Hm. Perhaps not such a good keep, right? Jeff, in turn, made his usual land drops and started hitting me with Adepts, eventually finished me off with a team of double Adept and Sygg. I attempted to play an Elspeth and a Primal Command in there, but a late start against Merfolk is death, and both ate counterspells.
For the rest of the match, I sideboarded as follows:
+4 Ethersworn Canonist
+4 Kitchen Finks
-4 Primal Command
-4 Cloudthresher
In game two, Hierarch gave me a turn two Canonist followed by a turn three Kitchen Finks. Jeff came back at me with an Adept, but I was winning that race, and Canonist really clipped the velocity of his deck. Jeff played a Wakethrasher (scary – I Pathed one of these in game one, not that that helped), and I replied by playing Kitchen Finks and Pathing Wakethrasher. Jeff untapped, drew his card, and then I realized what I’d done, stopped him, and called a judge. On myself.
Ethersworn Canonist is, in the last year, my GRV kryptonite. This is the second time I’ve cast a second, non-artifact spell during my turn with my own Canonist out. More generally, I appear to have issues with cards in this vein, as I’ve also done this once with a Rule of Law out. Jeff and I explained the situation to Alexander, one of our excellent judge crew, and he went off to check with the HJ about what they wanted to do. The final decision was that, as Jeff had gone ahead and drawn his card, the game state would remain as is and I’d pick up a Game Rule Violation warning, with Jeff getting a Game State warning. Jeff opined that this hadn’t made a big difference, as I was clearly going to Path Thrasher on his turn if not on mine, but I’m not quite sure, as that would have let him counter the Path, depending on the contents of his hand.
Jeff Sowered my Finks, and I Pulsed his Sower, getting it back.
I let the Adept swim by my Canonist as Finks hit Jeff again, then eventually ran my Finks into his Adept to trade (well, trade half a Finks for a whole Adept). By this time, Jeff was down to 6 life…but he’d drawn his second white producer to let him play Sygg with protection up (I’d figured he had Sygg in hand for a while, but was unwilling to play it out sans protection).
Then I drew Elspeth and flew an Exalted Finks over Jeff’s Sygg for the win.
In game three, Jeff led with an Adept while I ran out a Hierarch into a Finks into a Knight of the Reliquary. Various Merfolk hit the board, but we were pretty stalled. A Sower came down to take my Finks, and I Reliquaried a forest away for a swamp, and Pulsed Sower. I was able to play Elspeth and swing over for 6 (I think with an Exalted, flying Canonist), and managed to get a free kill on an Adept when Jeff forgot about the “it gets big” aspect of Reliquary, as I blocked, then tapped it to run the Terramorphic chain and go to 6/6. Unfortunately, an attempt at flying Reliquary ate a Path next turn, and we were back into a stalled board with me at 17 and Jeff at 6…and with me with a Profane in hand and only one black source. Then Jeff played a Reejery, and a Wake Thrasher…and I started chumping, but as we went into extra turns, I did not have the win in hand, and that was that.
This was an excellent match, and I found Jeff a fun opponent. Note again how players, even good ones, can be screwed up by unfamiliar cards, as I basically picked up a free dead Adept off of the unfamiliarity that is Knight of the Reliquary (by far the most read card in this deck).
I thought this was a solid performance for me against Merfolk – I’m starting to figure the fish matchup out.
Round three versus Alex playing Blightning Beatdown
During this round, I started to notice how the attempt to pick up some matchups might be causing problems to me for what were my good matchups for prior versions.
I began with Harbinger into Doran, while Alex had a Figure of Destiny. I managed two hits for the powered-up Harbinger, and then ran Doran into a 2/2 Figure and a Bolt. I followed up with Elspeth and got in a flying soldier hit before Fallout swept away a soldier and I took back-to-back Blightnings to kill my hand. From there, I drew lands and a single Path (that took out a Ball Lightning) and Alex drew Anathemancer and a Boggart Ram-Gang. I did not recover from there, and went down to Boggart, Anathemancer, and Flame Javelin. Ouch.
For game two, I sideboarded as follows:
+4 Kitchen Finks
-4 Cloudthresher
In game two, a first-turn Hierarch ate a bolt, but a Kitchen Finks filled the gap before anything horrid happened to me. I took a Blightning, then dropped Doran. Alex was very willing to throw burn at my creatures, and started smacking down my Finks as Doran came in. He played a Demigod, which I Pathed, and then conceded to Primal Command plowing him under as Doran came in again.
Game three saw an early Blightning, and me playing a Hierarch and a Harbinger for a Forest to try and turn on a couple Primal Commands in my hand. Thought Hemorrhage for Doran shuffled that Forest away, and I didn’t get past four mana for nearly the rest of the game, taking another Blightning and an Anathemancer along the way. I Pathed a Figure only to see a follow-up Demigod, and eventually hitting mana for Primal Command was not nearly enough to get me out alive.
Certainly, earlier versions of Team Elspeth rocked this matchup, and I had a feeling that I’d given up too much in going for the black splash.
Nonetheless, I decided to play on for a while. After all, it’s just fun to play, and I didn’t have anywhere else to be for a bit.
Round four versus Randy playing Mannequin Jund
I mulliganed to six on the draw here, and watched with some interest as Randy played out Vivids, which is not really a good read on what deck one is playing these days. When he evoked a Mulldrifter, I still wasn’t sure, but I was happy to be able to resolve Doran. The follow-up Bloodbraid cascading into Pulse (goodbye, Siege Tower) pushed him firmly into Jund(ish). I had a Harbinger out, and played Elspeth, making a guy. Randy played Bloodbraid into Leech then swung, and I let Elspeth take one hit, with her soldier eating another. I played Knight of the Reliquary and made a guy. He ended my turn by Mannequining back Mulldrifter. When he swung with the team on his turn, I flashed in Cloudthresher, killing Mulldrifter and setting up a nice block, trading Knight for one Leech, killing the other Leech with Thresher, and blocking booth Bloodbraids. He played Finks and then swung the following turn with his team, and I flashed in Thresher number two. After that, two swings with a flying Thresher did the trick.
Going into game two, I didn’t sideboard, as Threshers are kind of awesome in this matchup, and I didn’t want to cut anything else for Finks.
Randy kept a semi-sketchy keep in game two (double Fire-Lit Thicket, Forest, double Stag), and I ran out double Harbinger into Doran, giving me an effective team of one 5/5 and two 3/3s. I ran Harbingers at him while he tried to race back for a bit, before playing a Finks. I’d been sandbagging an Elspeth for a while here, as I thought I could play it out for one big (winning) swing. As it happened, it worked out exactly that way, as Randy swung with both Stags, taking us to 10 all. I played Elspeth, pumped Doran, and swung with (effectively) a flying 8/8 and two ground-bound 3/3s. Finks blocked one, but the 11 that got through put him to -1 life when we got around to checking state-based effects (which happens before any triggers — such as persist — resolve), and he was dead.
The original Team Elspeth concept was built to take down card-advantage-oriented Vivid decks, and this match had worked out accordingly. Sadly, that didn’t hold true for the following round.
Round five versus William playing Five-Color Control
William was on the play in game one, and my play of second-turn Hierarch ate a Fallout. The first Elspeth was stopped by Broken Ambitions, and the second by a Negate. I Harbingered for a Forest so I could play an EOT Thresher on him a turn later, which resolved, hit once, and ate a Hallowed Burial. I main phased the next Thresher, and it ate a second Burial. At that point, I drew some dead removal, and he played Ajani Vengeant. I didn’t draw anything meaningful in time, and Ajani was able to zap me twice, which, combined with Thresher damage, Fallout and double Lightning Bolt, ended the game.
Hunh. Okay, then. I had no sideboarding going into game two.
In game two I lead with a Finks that managed some early beats, followed by a Knight of the Reliquary, and then started playing sequential Primal Commands, each time plowing the same Vivid Creak and searching up a creature. Note that the Knight was critical here, as I was stuck on four lands, but the Knight meant I could tap a Forest for mana, then cash it in for an untapped Forest and hit five mana (thanks to commenter swoop2004 for pointing out the potential for this kind of play). Unfortunately, before the now large Knights could swing in, a Runed Halo fell on them. William followed this up with a Baneslayer, and despite my having bulked up on removal for, among other things, this reason, I drew into nothing to deal directly with it. Eventually, Baneslayer plus Cruel Ultimatum plus Lightning Bolt did the trick, and I was done.
Thoughts
The splash for black was partially intended to solve bad tokens matchups, and partially to allow a bit more aggression in the form of Doran. In retrospect, I think this was not the correct play — in bringing up my percentage in a handful of truly unfavorable matchups, I lost significant power in what had previously been very good matchups. So what were my specific issues?
Some tempo loss
I noticed a distinct, if somewhat subtle, tempo loss in playing the deck today. I was aware of this in testing, but it felt as if it showed up in force today, and I don’t think I should have been surprised by that. Clearly, nearly any three color build is going to be slower than the otherwise equivalent two color build, but it was more than just the splash, or even the potential for more lands to enter the battlefield tapped. The eight mana dorks in the prior builds were actually really important components in the effort to make my good matchups ridiculously good. Having my three drops consistently hit on turn two was powerful – more so than having an effective 5/5 that hit on turn two sometimes, and on turn three much of the time.
Major card advantage loss
The core running through the original Team Elspeth concept was concentrated, atypical card advantage. Concentrated inasmuch as there was a lot of it, and atypical in that it isn’t exactly card draw or, in most cases, cascade. Instead, we had the thinning and grabbing power of Knight of the Reliquary, the persist on Finks, the general card-advantagey nature of Elspeth and Garruk, and the two-for-one aspect of Primal Command (which is almost always used in some combination of life gain, creature search, and plowing under, and only rarely to reshuffle).
The black-splashed version I ran today saw the sideboarding of Finks and the removal of Garruk, along with the loss of the Enlisted Wurm from the original. In its place, it gained powerful but fundamentally non-advantaged cards like Doran and, in all actual uses today, Maelstrom Pulse.
I think these two deviations from the original concept are largely where today’s variation went astray. A look around today’s PTQ showed that I probably should have gambled on not hitting more than one Kithkin deck on the day, and on seeing none at the top tables — so based on pure percentages alone, I had a likelihood of not hitting one in the first two rounds, and having enhanced matchups versus other archetypes would have kept me away from them for the rest of the day.
Okay, so I diluted the concept and it didn’t work. In that case, it’s time to revisit the concept and take a look at a variation I would recommend running, as long as you don’t expect perhaps more than 5-10% of your field to be running Kithkin (and for everyone else to obligingly murder the hobbits for you).
Team Elspeth Reloaded

21 Creatures:
Llanowar Elves
Noble Hierarch
Knight of the Reliquary
Kitchen Finks
Acidic Slime
Cloudthresher
16 Spells:
Path to Exile
Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Garruk Wildspeaker
Primal Command
23 Land:
Sunpetal Grove
Wooded Bastion
Plains
Gargoyle Castle
Terramorphic Expanse
10× Forest
15 Sideboard:
Pithing Needle
Guttural Response
Ethersworn Canonist
Oblivion Ring
Acidic Slime

About this version
Clearly, I’ve returned to some of the original concept. We’re back to white and green only, with all eight mana dorks ready to drop turn two Knights and Finks, and turn three Elspeths and Garruks (and turn three or four Primal Commands). I’ve stuck with twenty-three land including triple Terramorphic, to allow enhanced Knight chaining. In the main deck, I’ve swapped in one copy of Acidic Slime where previously there might have been a Behemoth Sledge, with the idea that the Slime can be tutored for by Primal and handle potentially annoying enchantments and artifacts…or where it serves as a fifth Primal Command, pushing Vivid decks off-tempo.
We keep the Threshers in the main, as they’re generally just so much better than Enlisted Wurm. A 7/7 for 6 that can spank Planeswalkers is solid enough as is, but flash makes Thresher awesome — I’ve killed so many attacking creatures with a flashed-in Thresher.
Garruk is back, for more card advantage shenanigans.
Over in the sideboard, we have double Needle, and four Responses to shore up the Faerie and Merfolk matchups (I was invisibly slapping myself for not adding these in when I faced Jeff in round two). I’m keeping the Canonists to make Elves play on my terms, and then adding in triple Oblivion Ring for those difficult Baneslayer matchups. We end on two Acidic Slime, which can come in as needed.
Superstars will be holding Standard tournaments for copies of From the Vault: Exiled (which is a great way to handle distribution of this set, by the way), and I think I’m likely to bring this updated TE, or some near variant of it, to battle for some Exiled cards.

1 thought on “Dilution reduces its potency (a PTQ report and meditation on altering a deck)

  1. Awesome report. Just awesome. That’s given me a lot of think about. I like the use of the slime. Good add.

Comments are closed.