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Tournament Report – Games Lab PPTQ Madrid ~1st~ with Atarka Elves

After a short tram ride from St Kilda and picking up a Macca’s breakfast on the way, I was finally at Games Lab for their PPTQ Madrid event. I couldn’t help but think that I’d gone a little bit crazy as I registered my deck, Thornbow Archers and all.

Atarka Elves

Creatures: (32)
Gnarlroot Trapper
Thornbow Archer
Dwynen's Elite
Leaf Gilder
Elvish Visionary
Shaman of the Pack
Nissa, Vastwood Seer
Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen
Sylvan Messenger

Non-Creature Spells: (8)
Atarka's Command
Collected Company
Lands: (20)
Bloodstained Mire
Wooded Foothills
Swamp
Forest
Cinder Glade
Smoldering Marsh
Llanowar Wastes

Sideboard: (15)
Eyeblight Massace
Rending Volley
Duress
Ultimate Price
Self-Inflicted Wound

Swiss

Round 1 vs Zhengjia Liu on 4C Control

Round 1, I was paired against Zhengjia Liu, who was piloting a spicy 4 colour (no red) control deck.
Game 1 he was quickly overwhelmed by my onslaught of Elves.
Game 2 I chose to play into the chance that he had Languish, since I didn’t believe I could beat his Siege Rhino otherwise, and was punished by him having the Languish. Total blowout.
Game 3 a combination of Siege Rhino and Tasigur, the Golden Fang was enough to dwarf my puny Elves and I was slain. This had absolutely nothing to do with me forgetting to cast a Dwynen’s Elite on Turn 5 (when I had 2 mana spare for it).

Despite the disappointing start, I was still very live and was determined to remember to cast my spells as I moved into Round 2.

Round 2 vs Rupa Samanta on Jeskai Black

I was paired against Rupa Samanta, who was piloting Jeskai Black. Personally I have a lot of respect for Rupa – he always plays clean and tight and is often rewarded with excellent finishes. Once again in Game 1, the raw linear power of the Elves got there.
Game 2 ended up devolving into a top deck war, which Rupa won with a timely Dig Through Time.
Game 3, I Duressed Rupa and saw double Radiant Flames. I decided that I had to try to fight through them, so I took the first copy. The next turn I managed to top deck into a second sideboarded Duress to hit Rupa’s second Radiant Flames. In the end the game was very close, with an Atarka’s Command finishing Rupa off when he was about to untap and hit me with a lethal attack.

Round 3 sv Fernando Smith on Jeskai Black

With newfound confidence in my list, I was paired against another Jeskai Black player, Fernando Smith for Round 3.
Game 1 he slew me thanks to an aggressive start featuring both Mantis Rider and Butcher of the Horde, but in Games 2 and 3 he was unable to contain the power of my little angry green men.

Round 4 vs Jay Kinkade on GW Megamorph

My metagame call continued to pay off as I was paired against Jay Kinkade piloting GW Megamorph.
Game 1 the game stalled out and I killed him with a pair of Shaman of the Pack triggers.
Game 2 he managed to get an aggressive start, curving into Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, on the play and I was unable to mount an effective defense.
Game 3 he was unable to pressure me enough to stop the onslaught of elves and he was slain once again.

Round 5 vs Han Gao on GW Megamorph

After my Round 1 loss I found myself facing a win-and-in for Top 8 in Round 5, paired against Han Gao on GW Megamorph.
In the first game I managed to hit a full four targets on a Sylvan Messenger (about an 8% chance) which allowed me to chump block many a Deathmist Raptor while cobbling together enough Elves for lethal. That game did include a funny moment where I flipped a Nissa, Vastwood Seer and chose to make an Ashaya token to play around my opponent’s morph being a Den Protector (which would be able to kill Nissa or me with its evasion otherwise). He then flipped the morph up, revealing a Hidden Dragonslayer which slew Ashaya.
Game 2 my opponent was unable to apply enough pressure and the horde of Elves slew him.

Round 6 vs Luan Kash on Jeskai Black

As standings for the end of Round 5 went up, I realised that due to my Round 1 loss, I would be paired down and forced to do battle in the final round. I was paired against Luan Kash, my third Jeskai Black opponent for the tournament. In both games he was able to keep pace with my Elves for a while thanks to his package of Draconic Roar + Dragonlord Ojutai, but in both games my payoff cards were able to close the game out when our life totals both got low.

TOP 8

I finished the Swiss as the only player with a 5-1 record, locked for top seed. I spent a while chilling with my good friend Trent Clark as we both prepared for the Top 8, fully aware that there was a strong chance that we would have to battle in the quarters. Funnily enough exactly that happened and I found myself facing Trent’s trademark Mardu Dragons deck. I hadn’t tested this matchup at all, but I had a feeling that it would be similar to the Jeskai Black matchup (due to the similarity in interaction) but with Dragons filling in the role of Mantis Rider.

Quarterfinals vs Trent Clark Mardu Dragons

Thanks to my top seed, I was on the play for Game 1. I had a strong start and Trent quickly fell to a measly 3 life points, albeit with a Soulfire Grandmaster in hand. I decided to slow roll my Atarka’s Command rather than firing it off into open mana and I held up Atarka’s Command for a couple of turns as I set up lethal on board. I forced Trent to cast a Crackling Doom in an attempt to survive my lethal attack and I was able to respond with an Atarka’s Command for lethal.
As we shuffled up for Game 2, I was acutely aware of the Radiant Flames which Trent was sure to be siding in and for the first few turns of the game I was careful to not play into it. I managed to get Trent down to a measly 5 life, but a timely Draconic Roar with a Soulfire Grandmaster out managed to bring him back to a relatively healthy 11 life. Eventually the game devolved into a top deck war, with Trent holding a Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury which he lacked the fifth land for. On the final pair of turns, Trent topdecked a Smoldering Marsh which had to enter tapped and attacked me with a single Thopter token, putting me to 7 and setting up lethal for the next turn. I untapped and drew Atarka’s Command for the turn, dealing exactly 11 damage through Trent’s optimal blocks for lethal.

Semifinals vs Marco Tessari on GW Megamorph

I was paired against Marco Tessari on GW Megamorph in the semi finals. In Game 1 I curved Turn 1 Gnarlroot Trapper into Turn 2 Dwynen’s Elite + Gnarlroot Trapper into Turn 3 Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen for an absurd 12 power on board on Turn 3. Needless to say that he was unable to survive that onslaught.
In Game 2 Marco put up more of a fight, but in the end his deck’s low quantity of interaction was not enough to deal with my horde of Elves.
As I was waiting patiently for the other semi-final between Esper Control and Jeskai Black to end, my girlfriend Emily arrived and commented on how my chances in the impending final looked good. We both agreed that the Esper player had little to no chance of defeating my deck, while the Jeskai Black had proven to be a favourable matchup in the Swiss. After 3 games, Geoffrey Marshall and his Esper Control deck was finally triumphant and the stage was set for the finals.

Finals vs Geoffrey Marshall on Esper Control

In the first game, I was able to curve Turn 1 Gnarlroot Trapper, into Turn 2 Elvish Visionary + Thornbow Archer, into Nissa Vastwood Seer while Geoffrey still hadn’t cast a spell. On my Turn 4, I chose not to cast the Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen in my hand. Instead I simply passed turn, planning on breaking tempo by casting Collected Company on Geoffrey’s end step and then untapping to cast Dwynen. Since he would still be on only 4 lands, it seemed unlikely that he would be able to answer both and would die to one of them. As it happened, Geoffrey countered the Collected Company and I was able to untap, cast Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen alongside an Atarka’s Command for a Turn 5 kill.
In Game 2, I had a much more aggressive start of Turn 1 Thornbow Archer into Turn 2 Dwynen’s Elite. On my Turn 3, I had a choice between casting Atarka’s Command and hitting Geoffrey for 11, or continuing to build my board. I chose to Atarka’s Command since I figured it wouldn’t get much better than this against control and I didn’t want to play into a Turn 4 Languish from Geoffrey. Over the next few turns, I was able to hit Geoffrey for some chip shot damage, slowly whittling him down to an extremely low life total. I finally ended up with lethal on board and couldn’t think of a way for Geoffrey to survive outside of having a wrath of some kind. As Geoffrey untapped and cast a Dig Through Time (with only 2 mana left up) I was sure that he was dead. However, I had completely forgotten about Arashin Cleric! He was able to cast another two Arashin Clerics over the next few turns, but thanks to Gnarlroot Trapper granting Deathtouch, each of Geoffrey’s Arashin Clerics traded for an Elvish Visionary. Eventually after a bit of a grind Geoffrey ran out of gas and narrowly died to my meager remaining army.

Metagame

After winning the PPTQ, I can strongly recommend Atarka Elves as a trump to both GW Megamorph and Jeskai Black. It looks like both of these decks continued to be popular at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar and I don’t see them losing much popularity any time soon. For this reason I firmly believe that Atarka Elves will remain a solid metagame choice for the immediate future. However, of course the deck has some bad matchups. The primary weakness of the deck is that it struggles to play from behind – with no main deck removal, creatures which are poor at blocking (outside of maybe Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen), a relatively painful mana base and no life gain outside of Dwynen’s on attack trigger, a strong aggressive start can spell impending doom for the deck. This makes it weak against both Atarka Red and Abzan Aggro.
Moving forward I don’t think I would change the list at all – the main deck was excellent all tournament and the only parts of the sideboard which were left unused were the 3 Eyeblight Massacre and 4 Self-Inflicted Wound, both of which are vital against the deck’s bad matchups of Atarka Red and Abzan Aggro.
At it’s core, this deck functions like a burn deck with 8 burn spells (Shaman of the Pack and Atarka’s Command) which each deal 6-8 damage. All of the other creatures in this deck simply provide a shell for Shaman of the Pack and Atarka’s Command to truly shine. At this point it’s worth mentioning that the deck would be much worse if my girlfriend Emily hadn’t convinced me to play Atarka’s Command.
The strength of this deck is that it is a powerful aggressive deck which is hard to grind out (due to the card advantage offered by Collected Company and Sylvan Messenger) and which doesn’t care too much about blockers thanks to Gnarlroot Trapper granting Deathtouch combined with the absurd amount of reach offered by Shaman of the Pack and Atarka’s Command.
Having said that, it isn’t without fault and needs to be ahead of its opponent on tempo to win. If your opponent curves out strongly with a Mantis Rider, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Siege Rhino, or similar then it can be very hard to come back from behind. Thankfully at the Games Lab PPTQ, aggressive decks were undrepresented and my metagame prediction of a field chock full of GW Megamorph and Jeskai Black came true.
Atarka Elves is able to attack GW Megamorph on a very fundamental level of positioning. Since GW Megamorph has very little interaction (usually only 4 Dromoka’s Command, while Valorous Stance and Hidden Dragonslayer are downright embarassing against us), we are able to simply goldfish them. Since Atarka Elves is built as a highly linear aggressive deck, it is extremely hard for GW Megamorph to compete. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that GW Megamorph’s plan against aggressive decks is typically to block with Deathmist Raptor and then overpower them in the late game thanks to the recursive capabilities of Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector. However, against Atarka Elves, blocking isn’t an effective strategy due to the absurd amount of reach afforded by Shaman of the Pack. It’s easy for Atarka Elves to drag the game out to the point where a Shaman of the Pack trigger or two leads to certain death for the GW Megamorph player, just like I was able to do in Round 4, Game 1 against Jay.

Sideboarding

against GW Megamorph:
In:

Ultimate PriceUltimate Price

Out:

Thornbow ArcherThornbow Archer
You might be tempted to sideboard in some number of Self-Inflicted Wound, however I feel that it detracts from our linear game plan and is not worth siding in here. It is made especially bad by GW Megamorph’s ability to simply sacrifice Deathmist Raptor, only to recur it later in the game. This is one of the few matchups where I like Sylvan Messenger post-board as it helps us dig for the all-important Shaman of the Pack and lets us chain chump blockers against their more aggressive starts.

against Jeskai Black:

The matchup against Jeskai Black is less one-sided, but still certainly favours Atarka Elves. Jeskai Black fundamentally has two modes – mode 1 where they’re killing you with Mantis Rider and mode 2 where they are grinding you to a pulp with the card advantage of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Ojutai’s Command. What enables both of these strategies is the slew of powerful, cheap removal options available to Jeskai Black – especially Crackling Doom. This ensures that in mode 1, Mantis Rider remains the most formidable threat on the battlefield and in mode 2, they’re able to trade 1-for-1 so they have time for their card advantage to kick in.
The key here is that in both modes, Jeskai Black’s main advantage over the rest of the format is the removal it has access to. Elves trumps this by going wide and making Crackling Doom extremely clunky. An early Mantis Rider can be problematic as we have to either race it or block it using Atarka’s Command or Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen. When they’re attempting to grind us out, however, we are able to set up our Elf ball and kill them with Shaman of the Pack or Atarka’s Command.

In:

DuressDuressDuressRending VolleyRending VolleyRending Volley

Out:

Thornbow ArcherThornbow ArcherSylvan MessengerSylvan MessengerDwynen, Gilt-Leaf DaenDwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen
There are two cards which we fear out of Jeskai – Radiant Flames and Mantis Rider. Radiant Flames can mop up our team and punishes us for our strategy of going wide, while Mantis Rider is a very quick clock while also playing defence against our swarm of tiny green idiots. We have Duress and Rending Volley in our sideboard to combat exactly those two cards (while still being solid against the rest of Jeskai Black’s cards). We have to be careful to balance applying enough pressure while not overextending into Radiant Flames (when we haven’t Duress-ed it away).
In general when sideboarding with Atarka Elves, you want to minimise the number of cards you sideboard. The deck is extremely streamlined in the main deck and basically any card that you sideboard in will dilute the linear game plan. It’s important to know which of your opponent’s cards may be problematic and focus on beating exactly those cards (like what I explained against Jeskai Black). A couple of good rules of thumb are that you can’t really sideboard out more than 2 Collected Company hits otherwise Collected Company itself ends up being too weak to be worth playing. Similarly, I don’t like having less than 30 hits for Sylvan Messenger, so I don’t like sideboarding out more than 2 Elves. For these reasons, the most common cards to come out in any matchup are 2 Thornbow Archer, followed by 2 Sylvan Messenger and the 3 Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen.
Having said that, here is how I would sideboard against a few of the other popular decks:

against Atarka Red:
In:

Eyeblight MassacreEyeblight MassacreEyeblight MassacreUltimate PriceUltimate Price

Out:

Thornbow ArcherThornbow ArcherSylvan MessengerSylvan MessengerCollected Company
This matchup is pretty bad for Atarka Elves, since we can’t interact with their Become Immense + Temur Battle Rage combo at all in our main deck. Thankfully Eyeblight Massacre is a bit of a silver bullet in this matchup and Ultimate Price is a strong means of interacting with them. It may seem odd to sideboard out a Collected Company here, but it is worse than Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen in this matchup and we really only want to draw exactly one Collected Company against them. I haven’t tested this matchup extensively yet, so it may be correct to Sideboard in Duress in place of Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen if we really need to interact with Become Immense + Temur Battle Rage that desperately.

against Abzan Aggro:
In:

Self-Inflicted WoundSelf-Inflicted WoundSelf-Inflicted WoundSelf-Inflicted Wound

Out:

Thornbow ArcherThornbow ArcherSylvan MessengerSylvan Messenger
This matchup is another bad matchup for Atarka Elves, since Siege Rhino is a huge beating and we can struggle to deal with their cheap efficient creatures. Self-Inflicted Wound does a lot of work in this matchup, acting as our most efficient answer to Siege Rhino while also helping us clock them a bit faster.

against Esper Control:
In:

DuressDuressDuress

Out:

Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf DaenDwynen, Gilt-Leaf DaenSylvan Messenger
In this matchup our plan is to go way under Esper’s interaction with our slew of one and two drops. Don’t be afraid to fire off an nonlethal Atarka’s Command or Shaman of the Pack to chunk them out – by chunking them out you can often force them to play scared of cards which you might not even have! Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen and Sylvan Messenger aren’t great here since both of them are a bit slow and are easy for Esper to interact with. I prefer keeping in a split of the two since both are worse in multiples. This matchup does feel incredibly good, since they often just die before they can really do anything.

To anyone who is considering picking up Atarka Elves – the deck is a tonne of fun and rewards tight technical play. You’ll often have multiple choices of what cards to cast, due to the extremely low mana curve and sequencing them is important, especially in the early turns. I’d recommend it if the metagame remains dominated by GW Megamorph, Jeskai Black and Esper Control, but I’d either change the deck or move off it entirely if Abzan Aggro and/or Atarka Red make a resurgence.

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