The Top 10 Best Elves In Magic: The Gathering’s History
Following the success of my recent article discussing the top 10 goblins in Magic: the Gathering, and continuing in the same spirit, today I have decided to address a more populous and arguably more competitive tribe: Elves. There have been elves in their hundreds printed into Magic, across many planes and in many different guises, from the forest-loving Joraga tribe of Zendikar to the imperious and unflinching Gilt-Leaf of Lorwyn.
Among these many, many elves, it’s very difficult to pick out just ten to make this list. There are a myriad more I’d love to mention and some that certainly deserve a spot, featuring in competitive Legacy and Modern decks, which sadly just cannot fit, due to the sheer amount of elf cards that have been printed and the difficulty and criteria involved with the selection of just ten. And, though it really should be somewhere on this list, [c]Wirewood Symbiote[/c] is not an Elf!
That said, even if your personal selections are different, I hope you will all agree that the cards I’ve mentioned here are deserving of their places, and that though there are many other elves that could have had a spot here, that this only goes to show how strong the tribe is, and how excellent an Elf deck can be in almost any format.
Without further ado, on with the list!
10. Llanowar Elves / Fyndhorn Elves / Elvish Mystic
Being functional reprints of each other, I thought it was only fair to include both. The concept of the one-mana dork has been around since Alpha and to this day remains an excellent play across a number of different formats. Although these two are by no means the highest quality dorks available – see [c]Birds of Paradise[/c] and [c]Noble Hierarch[/c] – the fact that they have Elf in the typeline means that to the other cards with that typeline, they hold a lot more intrinsic value than being able to tap for any other colours. Who needs any colours but green anyway?
The simplicity in these cards is also their brilliance. Though they can’t do anything fancy, they have summoning sickness like normal creatures and they only add a single mana, ramping from one mana to three mana (or even more, if you have any of the combo pieces I’ll be talking about later) by turn two remains a great start in any Elf list. The fact that Llanowar Elves was originally printed in Alpha and is still a very playable card, and a four-of in Modern and Pauper lists, goes to show that some of the old mechanics, they really did get spot on.
The cards are powerful, useful, excellent turn one plays no matter which format you are in, and the ‘one-mana dork’ will continue to be a facet of Magic play for a very long time to come. I doubt that we will see anything as good as these cards printed into Standard sets again, especially judging by the quality of [c]Leaf Gilder[/c], however, there is always a chance – and I think it’s a return that many ramp players would be very happy to see.
9. Quirion Ranger
On the face of it, this card doesn’t look like anything special – a 1/1 for 1 which has a semi-useful ability with a large drawback. Though in some formats like Commander this is potentially the case, as its once-per-turn limitation means it can’t be part of any infinite combos, this card is actually incredibly versatile when you see it in action in competitive formats. It is an intrinsic part of the intricate puzzle which is the Legacy Elf deck (and, in fairness, the Pauper deck as well), and when you understand exactly what it can do, you can begin to fit together the pieces.
Essentially, Quirion Ranger acts as an engine which can untap the key parts of your deck:
- [c]Deathrite Shaman[/c] is an important hate piece against a lot of combo decks, and using it twice in a turn can be essential. Late-game, using it in your opponent’s turn as well and having three Deathrite activations per Shaman per turn cycle can be devastating to your opponent’s life total.
- Untapping extra elves can be a key part of [c]Heritage Druid[/c]’s ability as well, allowing you more activations per turn which means during big [c]Glimpse of Nature[/c] turns you can get the extra mile out of your creatures.
- Due to the fact that it can also activate during your opponent’s turn, you can use it to get free blocks out of a [c]Dryad Arbor[/c] by blocking and returning it to hand before combat damage, which can preserve your life total against midrange decks. You can also use it to save your Arbor (or any other Forest) from a [c]Wasteland[/c] in a pinch!
- If you have no more lands in hand, but haven’t used your land drop that turn, Ranger can generate mana by bouncing a tapped land and you can play it again untapped. This comes in particularly handy as Elf decks tend to have a low land count.
All of this is possible the turn you play it as well, due to the fact that it doesn’t need to tap to activate its own ability. It’s a very flexible and efficient piece that can add protection and value to the other cards in your deck, and though it serves no specific purpose, being more of a situational or all-round piece of the engine, the deck would be sure to lose a lot of percentage points without it.
8. Elvish Archdruid
A common sight in the Modern Elf decks, Elvish Archdruid is a standard lord which has a secondary ability to tap for mana (as many elves do!). The beauty about this card is that there aren’t many elves that actually buff each other – most simply create more elves – so this card is a very good way of trying to save your board from an [c]Engineered Plague[/c] effect, which is the biggest weakness of Elf tribal. If you have two, your whole board will live through a [c]Pyroclasm[/c].
Though the card has one of the highest mana costs among the ‘elf deck’ elves, it’s one of the more powerful plays available to the Modern deck and allows for some blisteringly fast finishes. When combined with [c]Collected Company[/c] it can easily add 7 or 8 mana on turn three, which is incredible (and very difficult to beat, if you’re on the other side of the table). If you get to untap with an Archdruid and either a Collected Company or an [c]Ezuri, Renegade Leader[/c], chances are that you’ve likely won that match.
This card is excellent in Commander as well. It will likely be tapping to generate well over twenty mana in some cases late game, and if you run Ezuri as your commander you have a very easy and conveniently game-winning place to dump all that mana into. Otherwise, you can use it to build up your board even more, perhaps untap it with a [c]Quirion Ranger[/c] and continue to cast every card in your deck over the course of one or maybe two turns. Left unchecked, this card is a powerhouse.
Unfortunately, it’s too expensive to see play in Legacy, given that that deck is mostly about the [c]Glimpse of Nature[/c] combo turn and the +1/+1 isn’t that relevant. Using three of your mana on one elf instead of on three just isn’t good business when you’ll be using a [c]Craterhoof Behemoth[/c] to win. However, although it doesn’t fit into the style of deck that Legacy Elves has become, if the Elves list ever did change enough to become less of a combo deck and more like Goblins, this card would see play in it for sure.
7. Oracle of Mul Daya
Taking a short break from the ‘Elfball’ type cards, this is an often-overlooked member of the tribe which has a really powerful and interesting effect. In line with the rest of the Elves on Zendikar, she has a small body for her cost and has an effect on your lands, but she is certainly one of the most powerful ones available.
For four mana, only one of which needs to be green, she has an excellent effect. Playing an additional land every turn provides you with easy and permanent ramp, which is a very handy ability. Her second ability is what sets her apart, though, as she takes part of the ability of [c]Courser of Kruphix[/c] and allows you to play lands off the top of your library. Playing lands without having to draw them for your turn is especially efficient, as you can play both lands off the top and dig deeper towards your good draws. If you have access to fetch lands or other shuffle effects, Oracle’s ability actually allows you to decide if you want to draw the card that’s on top, or shuffle it away if you don’t need it.
Although she’s very expensive, and her body is only a 2/2 which is way below the threshold for a good ‘vanilla’ creature, her ability is very powerful, specifically in Commander and similar formats, though she has recently begun to see the odd bit of play in Modern in the green/red [c]Scapeshift[/c] Titan lists. In the right kind of deck, Oracle can be a real powerhouse despite her high initial cost, particularly if you can protect her. She has always been a mainstay in a lot of green Commander decks, and given the right meta, could easily break into competitive formats as well.
6. Heritage Druid
Where to start with Heritage Druid?
This card can, very easily, immediately net two mana when it’s played. Doesn’t really sound like something a creature should be able to do, does it? Not only that, but the better developed your board is, the better it gets: it doesn’t have to tap itself, so you can use as many elves as you’d like to generate as much mana as you need.
Wouldn’t it be pretty great if there was an Elf that untapped every time you cast another Elf? Then you’d pretty easily be able to go infinite as long as you had cards in your hand. Oh, wait, [c]Nettle Sentinel[/c] exists. Card draw is really hard to come by in green, though, so sooner or later you’ll run out of spells to cast, surely. Oh – [c]Glimpse of Nature[/c]. I see.
As mentioned above, the Legacy Elf deck is all about pieces of a giant puzzle working together, and this is the most powerful part of the whole engine. With just one of these the deck can easily go off on the same turn it’s cast, which makes it incredibly difficult to beat with a sweeper, and because they’re irrelevant in multiples, the Elf player is very likely to either play one out as bait for a removal spell (a good way of checking the coast is clear, as this is a Bolt-on-sight card) while keeping the spare in hand, or just hold onto it until the crucial turn if he only has one of them.
Needless to say, this goes in every deck that can feasibly run it. Legacy and Modern rely on this insane mana engine to add consistency and speed to their combos, and Commander players can use it to ramp out and have incredibly explosive turns very early on in a game to get a fast lead. If this card didn’t exist, Elves as an archetype would not be anything like the crazy fast Elfball combo lists that represent the tribe today.
5. Ezuri, Renegade Leader
Although more expensive than most other playable elves, the raw power of Ezuri more than makes up for his mana cost. Not having to tap for his abilities is very important (are you noticing a theme here?) as it means that he can immediately have an impact on the board once resolved, even if he can’t attack or tap that turn.
He acts as protection for your whole board of Elves, and is especially good if you have a Heritage Druid or Archdruid which can tap for enough mana to regenerate several Elves at once. Additionally, he acts as a brilliant mana sink for all the green you can generate from your Archdruids and Heritage Druids, and because of Collected Company and [c]Chord of Calling[/c] you can just pool a ton of mana, find an Ezuri from your library and instantly use his overrun ability two or three times to kill your opponent with ease.
Though he doesn’t see any play in Legacy, again due to the combo nature of the list, he is even better in Commander than in Modern. Since he is Legendary he can be your Commander which makes your kills very consistent and easily achievable, as you can play him from the command zone, activate his ability and even if your opponents respond, the damage is already done. You can also put regeneration shields on your important creatures on the stack before he dies, meaning that the removal spell for Ezuri or the sweeper they’ve been preparing won’t be enough to stop you winning (although a sweeper would delay you a turn).
Ezuri has a very high power level, acts as both a win condition and a protection spell for your creatures, and though he is an expensive Elf at three mana, he is certainly one of the best mana dumps you can find for all the mana you can generate from your board. In Elf decks both Modern and Commander, he is almost certainly the best win condition you can use.
4. Bloodbraid Elf
Another quick jump into the ‘not-so-much-for-Elf-decks’ category, Bloodbraid Elf is nevertheless an incredibly powerful card. The Cascade mechanic, introduced in Conflux and never used again since (other than in supplemental products), turns this 3/2 haster from a slightly disappointing uncommon that’s kind of good in Limited into a Constructed powerhouse so good it had to be banned in Modern.
Bloodbraid Elf’s dominance in Jund strategies was renowned the world over. Although it is banned in Modern, it sees extensive play in the grindy Legacy Jund lists and is by far and away the best draw in the deck. One of the biggest fears about unbanning this card in Modern is that it can cascade into a [c]Liliana of the Veil[/c], resulting in a seven mana play for only paying four, then you can immediately minus Liliana to remove the only blocker and smack the player in the face – or, in Legacy, quite frequently, kill their [c]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/c] – and all of a sudden you have a massive advantage. It’s one of the most swingy cards that can take you from nothing to everything.
If you’re ahead, BBE is even more dominating. Although there is some element of randomness to the cascade mechanic, you are going to be aware of this during deckbuilding and will never put anything in that you are disappointed to hit. Whether it’s a [c]Thoughtseize[/c], a [c]Blightning[/c], an [c]Abrupt Decay[/c] or a [c]Tarmogoyf[/c], there’s always going to be something good that comes off the top of your deck. The best part? The cascade trigger happens on cast, not resolution, so your opponent needs two counterspells to deal with both your cards. It’s card advantage of the best kind.
There is a lot more I could say about the power of BBE – it’s certainly on the Modern ban list for a reason – but honestly, the card speaks for itself. I am among those who hope one day to see it unbanned, because I think Modern would be a lot more fun for it; but I can certainly understand the fears of the receivers of past Blightnings, who wish never to hear its name again.
3. Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
Rofellos’ art – the young, happy elf striding merrily through the sunlit trees – is a sheen of lies, for underneath the cheery exterior lies a terrible and ruthless combo enabler. Rofellos hums his way along with the birds chirping sweetly and the dappled rays of sunshine on the soft forest floor, while his opponents fall behind, screeching and wailing in despair, throwing themselves to the floor and cursing the deities they hold dear.
If Rofellos could be your commander, this is likely to happen in every single game.
There is a very good reason that he is banned. Playing him on turn two and having access to minimum six mana on turn three with no effort at all and still with seven cards in hand is just absurd. When Rofellos was legal as a commander, the decks he featured in could very easily and consistently whip out infinite combos on turn three or four, before anyone else had really got their grip on the game, and most decks would be powerless to stop it – because Rofellos just comes back from the command zone, and where your first infinite combo was foiled, don’t worry, there’s plenty more. That’s not even beginning to mention the disruption he can cause – [c]Plow Under[/c] and [c]Stunted Growth[/c] are not fun cards to play on turn three – and being able to do this with such consistency meant that soon enough, Rofellos had to go, and many people were very happy to see the back of him.
Although Rofellos doesn’t see play in Legacy, this isn’t due to his power level, but more due to the fact that the elf deck doesn’t run very many lands, preferring to rely on Heritage Druid and [c]Gaea’s Cradle[/c] to generate large amounts of mana early on, so Rofellos isn’t really a very good fit. What he does is incredibly powerful, though, and although Legacy may not be the right format for him, in the place he did find a home, he was unfortunately just too good to be allowed.
So, something for his ex-Commander opponents to take heart from, perhaps. As Rofellos goes by on his cheery way through the woods, behind that smiling visage we all know that his long journey to find a home in a Constructed format will probably never be over.
2. Leovold, Emissary of Trest
Leovold is an excellent example of a card that really could not, should not have been printed in Standard, but managed to sneak through in a supplementary set and boy, has he made a difference in Legacy. This elf has single handedly (with only a little help from the B&R announcements) changed the landscape of Legacy, making Sultai midrange-control a viable deck, where before there was only Delver and Shardless, putting a massive damper on blue combo decks, and giving BUG colours the edge in a grindy control mirror against UW. His low mana cost and incredibly powerful and unique effect soon saw him rocketing up the metagame, and his price rocketing up the charts.
At first, he wasn’t only good in Legacy. In fact, he began to see a lot of play in Commander as well, not only because of his ability which says ‘each’ instead of ‘target’, but also because of the fact that he is, to date, the only Legendary creature with the mana cost of BUG, making him the only three-mana Sultai commander.
Unfortunately, that’s when his own power level came back to bite him. Leovold prevents opponents from drawing more than one card a turn – meaning that if they don’t already have removal, it’s very difficult to try and find any more. In Legacy, this is particularly potent as the format’s most played card is [c]Brainstorm[/c] – which, with Leovold in play, forces the opponent to put two cards back on top without drawing anything. Jace, you have met your match. Even if they do have a removal spell, at the very least you draw a card from it so he will replace himself. If they’re a Storm opponent and you’re running [c]Flusterstorm[/c] or [c]Mindbreak Trap[/c] in your deck, even if they manage to go off without cantrips, well, all those copies of [c]Tendrils of Agony[/c] targeting you mean you have a decent chance of finding your counterspell before any of them actually resolve.
Leovold was soon banned in Commander, because his effect was too powerful to allow for fair and decent games. He lives on in Legacy, though, and with this printing and the banning of Top, the meta has really opened up, so I hope to see a lot more BUG decks running him in the near future.
1. Deathrite Shaman
Wizards HQ, 2011: (unconfirmed)
“I really like this new Ravnica set, I think we’re almost there. I just…. Golgari seems a little underpowered. Is there anything we could put in to fix it? People should want to play black/green more, I just need a card that really says “play me”……”
“I’ve got it! It’ll be a one-drop, but you’ll be able to pay black OR green for it, so it can go in either colour deck. It’s a 1/2, because we don’t want it dying easily. It’ll be like a normal mana dork for green, except the black element makes it use the graveyard – so how about you tap it and exile a land from the graveyard to make a mana of any colour? Birds of Paradise, but conditional?”
“That’s good, but it sounds like it might be outscaled quite easily. And it’s not often that lands ever end up in the graveyard. It might not be quite good enough.”
“OK. How about we give it another ability – exiling creature cards from the graveyard to gain 2 life? Everyone knows life gain is a bit rubbish, but that makes it useful late game when creatures have died. It also makes it handy against burn strategies – and as a bonus, it can hose reanimator decks that want to get their creatures back!”
“I like it so far. I think it’s too green now, though. We should balance it out – if there’s a green ability, there should be a black ability too.”
“Hm….how about, along the same lines, for one black and tap, it can exile an instant or sorcery from the graveyard and make each opponent lose 2 life? Then it’s super revelant, and could be a win condition all on its own? And it makes it more interactive too, so people running Snapcaster Mage can’t flash their spells back.”
“I love it!”
“Don’t you think it might be a bit too good now? A mana dork, win condition and graveyard hoser in one card, that’s one mana, can be run in two different coloured decks and blocks 1/1s for free?”
“Nope. It’s perfect. Send it to the printers.”
What do you think of my assessment? What are your top 10 Magic: the Gathering elves of all time and why? Do you disagree with any of the cards? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading,