Grand Prix Charlotte was this weekend's major event, and the talk of the town was the event-winning Elves list piloted by Michael Malone. The elf deck is nothing new to the Modern metagame, though it hasn't been a significant portion of the field since the banning of Green Sun's Zenith. With Glimpse of Nature starting on the Do-Not-Play List since the inception of the Modern format, the engine options for Elves were limited. Banning the most cost-effective tutor remaining (not counting Summoner's Pact) was a death knell for fans of the "other" little green men.
That's not to say the elf deck was unplayable - there were certainly spots of light for the tribe despite the nerfing of its engines along the way. John Ostrem made Top 16 at SCG Indianapolis in February of this year with a list later demonstrated by our own Frank Lepore - but it wasn't until the Collected Company breakout that a reliable engine once again brought the Elves into the spotlight. Gaining ground mostly online, I first noticed the Collected Company Elves deck when Pascal Maynard posted a few videos piloting the deck on Channel Fireball, though now it would appear the proverbial feline has left the bag.
Malone's list combines the mana-generating engine of the elf tribe first broken open by Luis Scott-Vargas's Pro Tour Winning list - spearheaded by the Nettle Sentinel / Heritage Druid combo and supported by various Llanowar Elves variants – with the Theros powerhouse Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx doing its best Gaea's Cradle impression. Combining the two mana engines creates some fairly absurd explosiveness, which easily translates into damage via the three copies of Ezuri, Renegade Leader for a massive attack in rapid fashion. To find the right pieces of the puzzle, Malone uses a set of Chord of Calling (nothing new to the Elvish), and a singleton Fauna Shaman to perform its best Survival of the Fittest impression. The new addition of Collected Company gives the elves a fresh angle of attack: an instant-speed source of card advantage and pseudo-tutoring affording them both an explosive attack from out of nowhere and the ability to play through countermagic and sorcery-speed board sweepers alike.
More than simply a replacement for Green Sun's Zenith or Glimpse, Collected Company is in line with the role previously played by Ranger of Eos – though the spell doesn't search the whole library, it trades that in exchange for instant speed flexibility and the ability to hit creatures with higher converted mana costs. This is important when combining with creatures like Eternal Witness, Spellskite and Reclamation Sage, which can be situational but are incredible in the right situation. It also allows you to better find your Ezuri, Renegade Leader which, in conjunction with the absurd mana the deck is capable of producing, can afford you protection for your team from Pyroclasm-like effects. Important to note is that this structure relies heavily on the Ezuri, Renegade Leader strategy as the lack of a flexible tutor like Green Sun's Zenith makes a Craterhoof Behemoth or Regal Force plan prohibitively expensive (in combination with Chord) or non-functional (Collected Company).
Regarding some of the less synergistic alternatives included in Malone's build, I can't help but feel the Thragtusk stands out. What I assume is a metagame consideration for the Burn and Abzan/Jund matchups – serving both a lifegain role and a grindy, better-than-one-for-one role respectively – seems largely out of character for a deck focused on a Collected Company game plan. Conveniently the deck plays the creature I would have expected in this slot (Kitchen Finks) as a three-of in the sideboard, and I can only suspect that the much larger body of Thragtusk makes up for the additional cost. The sheer mana capabilities of the deck do relegate the difference between three and five mana marginal, though I would imagine that the ability to play a Finks on turn two against Burn would be a benefit over the third- or fourth-turn Thragtusk play, despite the additional life gain. By that time the Burn opponent may be better able to utilize a Skullcrack or Atarka's Command, rendering the extra life moot. Slightly less anti-synergistic but still a little surprising is the maindeck Scavenging Ooze. While I have seen the card played in many versions of this deck, it seems to be more of a long-game, grindy creature that's contrary to how I'd imagine most games play out. Certainly cutting off Snapcaster shenanigans is worthwhile (and I'm always up for hating on Living End decks), but the spell seems unreliable and I can't imagine you'd be looking for that card specifically in many game ones. I would much rather have the second Eternal Witness for example - a spell that is more likely to have an impact congruent to your plan when drawn naturally in game one.
What's fascinating about the Elves deck in Modern, and Extended before that, is the success of the deck despite the ease with which the deck can be "hated out." Much like Dredge in Legacy and Vintage, it is rather trivial to beat Elves if you stretch your deck far enough to do so - but most people can't afford to do that given how broad the spectrum of decks in the format can be. In Modern today, it is much more important to be able to kill off tall threats like Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Tarmogoyf; smaller threats like Llanowar Elves are trivial, and trading a Terminate for them feels like a losing proposition. The number of Electrolyzes floating around is at an all-time low, and you're more likely to lose a Nettle Sentinel to a Kolaghan's Command than get two-for-one'd by a Forked Bolt. As the number of Grim Lavamancers and Electrolyzes dwindle, an opening is created for the vulnerable elves.
This is the essence of the metagame deck, intended to be played when the situation warrants it but not so often the average opponent is prepared to Oust it. While it is possible that the addition of Collected Company pushes the power of the tribe far enough to be a natural contender without the need for metagame positioning, it seems unlikely to me that the deck can survive targeted hate for too long. I can't imagine a resurgence of sideboarded Engineered Plagues would be a welcome sight for the Elf deck – though I must admit that the combination of Lords in the maindeck and the very important upgrade of Viridian Shaman -> Reclamation Sage would be beneficial in that battle.
This list reminds me of the last PTQ season of Extended with OLS, where the format was dominated by Zoo, Faeries, and Life from the Loam decks. While Elves sat atop the heap as the best deck in the early phases of that season, bolstered by LSV's Parisian victory, the hate had presented itself early on and the deck was relegated to one viable option among many over the next few months. By the end of the season, Elves was largely off the radar screen despite no significant card pool changes rendering it a poor choice – players had simply evolved the metagame beyond it. I managed to snag a heartbreaking 9th place finish at a PTQ with an Elves list trying to capitalize on the format going full circle, and the subsequent lack of non-spot removal:
(Keep in mind this was 6 years ago, long before most of the sweet elves played in Malone's list were printed.)
My list was fortunate to include Glimpse of Nature, making it much faster in game one and focused on comboing out as soon as possible. Post-board, I often boarded into a similar style of deck as Malone - seven Lords and a pair of Patriarch's Bidding - to reload the board after a sweeper took my team down. Access to a pair of reset buttons to draw off the top of the library was an enormous boon in attrition-based "fair" matchups, and getting a boost off The Champions and Perfects usually meant I was at or near lethal range as soon as I untapped.
The Grand Prix winning list has the same kind of potential, only there's often no need to wait a turn for summoning sickness to wear off, as an end-of-turn Collected Company into Ezuri, Renegade Leader tends to accomplish the same goal in a much more compact fashion. Given the right board state, Collected Company can simulate an Overrun via five Lords in the deck – and it's worth mentioning that Elvish Champion's second boon is quite relevant in a format that's focused on the fetchland/shockland dichotomy.
Elves is particularly adept at dodging the effects of Modern's most effective mana hate. The high number of nonbasic lands in the deck paired with the low absolute number of lands would tend to scare most non-red decks in Modern, with Visions of Blood Moons waking them in the night – but the Elf deck is so adept at creating mana via non-land means that it's trivial to maintain a sufficient number of green sources once the first turn passes. With five basic Forests (and no fetches to go along with them), you'd think hitting green mana would be problematic, but 15 of the 18 lands in the deck produce green on turn one, securing your ability to play an Elf on your opening turn. As three is the critical mana cost for the deck, it's no great burden to make three mana on turn two, either via a Llanowar Elves or Elvish Mystic, or a Heritage Druid and a pair of friends. This is possible even with a turn two or three Blood Moon, since you're likely to be well-established with creatures by that point.
Today, Elves seems well positioned for a comeback in the Modern metagame, but it's to be determined how long the format will allow for that before self-correcting. Unlike many decks, nothing particularly powerful is happening to push the deck beyond the limits of the format's strength – it's more a question of the preparedness of the opponent, the credit they give to Elves in their own deck's construction. Whether Grand Prix Charlotte is a Harbinger of weeks of Elvish Fury or simply a Glimpse, the pointy-eared tribe has piped up to remind us that 22 years in, Forest -> Llanowar Elves is still a strong opening play.