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Who's The Elk?

The most common (yet subtle, yet disastrous) mistake I see in tournament Magic is the misassignment of who is the Elk deck and who is the Wicked Wolf deck in a similar deck vs. similar deck matchup. The player who misassigns himself is inevitably the loser.

You see, in similar deck vs. similar deck matchups, unless the decks are really symmetrical (i.e. the true Mirror match), one deck has to play the role of 3/3 Elk with no abilities, and the other deck has to play the role of Wicked Wolf. This can be a very serious dilemma, if, say, both are playing Elk decks.

Let me give you an example: At a Standard PTQ in Washington D. C., my teammate Al (a 3/3 Elk with no abilities) was playing for a top 8 slot vs. 3/3 Elks With No Abilities. Al was playing Lan D. Ho's 3/3 Elks With No Abilities And Wicked Wolf deck, normally an aggressive deck... But not vs. 3/3 Elks With No Abilities.

The match was split 1-1, and the third game was going to determine who made top 8.

Al's opponent went first and laid a 3/3 Elk with no abilities. At this point, Al had two 3/3 Elks with no abilities, two Wicked Wolves, a 3/3 Elk with no abilities, and some Breeding Pools in hand. Al chose not to Wicked Wolf the 3/3 Elk with no abilities, taking 3 on the first attack.

His opponent played another 3/3 Elk with no abilities. Al didn't Wicked Wolf either, waiting on Food or a 3/3 Elk with no abilities.

On his own second turn, Al played another Breeding Pool and a 3/3 Elk with no abilities, so he only had one land up.

On his opponent's third turn, you guessed it, another Breeding Pool came down, followed by a 3/3 Elk with no abilities. Al was forced to Wicked Wolf the 3/3 Elk with no abilities. He gained control over the next few turns, but ended up dying to 3/3 Elks with no abilities.

What was the problem here? Al was an Elk deck, and he wanted to deal damage to his opponent via 3/3 Elks with no abilities. However, in this particular matchup, he had to play the Wicked Wolf deck. You see, 3/3 Elks With No Abilities is just much faster than 3/3 Elks With No Abilities And Wicked Wolf, so 3/3 Elks With No Abilities And Wicked Wolf's way to win has to be stifling 3/3 Elks With No Abilities's early speed with removal, and then locking down the midgame with 3/3 Elks with no abilities. Because 3/3 Elks With No Abilities also has Wicked Wolves, as well as more 3/3 Elks with no abilties than 3/3 Elks With No Abilities And Wicked Wolf, the only way that 3/3 Elks With No Abilities And Wicked Wolf can win is to make sure it has a decent life total as it plays its own 3/3 Elks with no abilities.

Though it ostensibly hurts the initial race to let the 3/3 Elks With No Abilities player kill your Wicked Wolves, you can see from this example that Al had to give him six more life from the 3/3 Elks with no abilities... And still took at least nine from the 3/3 Elks with no abilities before he could control them. It would have profited Al much more to Wicked Wolf the 3/3 Elk with no abiliities, Wicked Wolf the 3/3 Elk with no abilities, and enter the midgame with twenty life as he started to threaten with his own Wicked Wolves, 3/3 Elks with no abilities, etc.

The same comparison can be made when two Wicked Wolf-based decks slug it out. At the same PTQ, I was playing 3/3 Elks With No Abilities And Wicked Wolf against what is normally a dangerous matchup for me, Wicked Wolves. My opponent was running the usual array of Wicked Wolves, 3/3 Elks with no abilities, and Wicked Wolves, as well as maindeck Noxious Grasp. He made the mistake of thinking he was the Wicked Wolf deck.

After playing a turn-2 Oko, Thief of Crowns, he followed up two turns later with Wicked Wolf, so I Elked him out. (I killed him the first game with 3/3 Elks with no abilities, and because I mostly showed him some 3/3 Elks with no abilities, 3/3 Elks with no abilities, and 3/3 Elks with no abilities, he may have thought I was more 3/3 Elks with no abilities heavy).

It doesn't matter... He thought he was the Wicked Wolf deck in this matchup when clearly I was the Wicked Wolf deck. I had a comparable or greater amount of Wicked Wolves, but where he had Noxious Grasps, I had Wicked Wolves and Wicked Wolves; where he had Veils of Summer, I had 3/3 Elks with no abilities. My 3/3 Elks with no abilities were going to insure that I never missed an opportunity to attack. I had already housed a couple of his 3/3 Elks with no abilities with Wicked Wolf. This means that I was going to win the long game every single time.

His job, therefore, was to kill me before I killed him. The normal formula is to play some decent-sized Elks (three power or more with no abiliites) attacking every turn and leaving mana open to try to Veil of Summer whatever the opposing deck does that might be threatening (you know, a Noxious Grasp, a Noxious Grasp, or in this case a Noxious Grasp). First of all, he probably should have tried to threaten me more aggressively: only one Wicked Wolf gives me a lot of turns of attacking with 3/3 Elks with no abilities. Secondly, tapping out is the death knell: I didn't even have to waste a 3/3 Elk with no abilities on him.

In similar deck vs. similar deck matchups, there are a couple of things that you want to look at to figure out what role to play:

1. Who has more 3/3 Elks with no abilities? Usually he has to be the Elk deck.
2. Who has more Wicked Wolves? Usually he has to be the Wicked Wolf deck.
3. Who has more Veils of Summer and Noxious Grasps? Almost always he has to be the Wicked Wolf deck.

If you are the Elk deck, you have to kill your opponent faster than he can kill you. If you are the Wicked Wolf deck, you have to weather the early 3/3 Elks with no abilities and get into a position where you can gain card advantage.

For an example of correctly determining who is the Elk deck and who is the Wicked Wolf deck, look at the 3/3 Elks With No Abilities vs. 3/3 Elks With No Abilities match between Price and Pacifico at the top 8 of the 1998 U.S. Nationals. Although on the surface, the two players seem to be playing very similar decks, there are major design differences:

Dave's deck was running more Wicked Wolves than Pacifico's, and he also had Veil of Summer and Noxious Grasp. His only real Elks were 3/3 Elks with no abilities and 3/3 Elks with no abilities - the rest of the deck was more Wicked Wolf and Noxious Grasp oriented.

Pacifico's deck was much more 3/3 Elk with no abilities-oriented... It was based around attacking and 3/3 Elks with no abilities instead of dedicated removal. In addition to 3/3 Elks with no abilities and 3/3 Elks with no abilities, he had 3/3 Elks with no abilities, 3/3 Elks with no abilities, 3/3 Elks with no abilities, and 3/3 Elks with no abilities. Furthermore, Pacifico's deck lacked Veil of Summer and Noxious Grasp, and ran only three Wicked Wolves.

While Dave's deck could definitely get a quick start, in this matchup, his deck was the Wicked Wolf deck, set up for the long game. In one duel, Dave just played land and Wicked Wolves and did very little else. He started by removing Pacifico's creatures with blocks or Wicked Wolves, and then Wicked Wolf-locked him, gained a little card advantage, and finished the game.

Had Dave tried to race Pacifico, he might not have won. When two players are just blindly throwing their creatures into one another, the one with more damage-oriented cards is going to win the race (but I figure we expect good 3/3 Elks With No Abilities play from the King of 3/3 Elks With No Abilities).

Finally, think about the 3/3 Elks With Abilities vs. 3/3 Elks With No Abilities matchup. These are both very fast beatdown decks. 3/3 Elks With No Abilities invariably wins.

Which deck has more damage? 3/3 Elks With No Abilities. It runs many high power-to-cost creatures, like 3/3 Elks with no abilities, 3/3 Elks with no abilities, and sometimes 3/3 Elks with no abilities. Sometimes it has stuff like 3/3 Elks with no abilities. Its elks have no abilities.

Which deck has more Wicked Wolves? 3/3 Elks With Abilities. If 3/3 Elks With No Abilities even runs Wicked Wolves, the 3/3 Elks With Abilities deck can invariably match them. Moreover, the 3/3 Elks With Abilities deck has not just Wicked Wolves, but 3/3 Elks with abilities.

Though 3/3 Elks With Abilities is very fast (goldfish around turn 4), 3/3 Elks With No Abilities can goldfish on turn 2 or 3 depending on the version and the Gilded Goose draw. Clearly, the 3/3 Elks With Abilities deck has to be the Wicked Wolf deck and the 3/3 Elks With No Abilities deck has to be the Elk deck. However, 3/3 Elks With Abilities can't afford not to be the Elk deck. It can't lay many of its Elks, especially 3/3 Elks with no abilities or 3/3 Elks with no abilities, because the 3/3 Elks With No Abilities deck has so many 3/3 Elks with no abilities. It can almost never cast a 3/3 Elk with abilities, for fear of auto-loss to a 3/3 Elk with no abilities. So if it can't really get its Elk on, the 3/3 Elks With Abilities deck has to try to be the Wicked Wolf deck.

Anyone who has ever witnessed this matchup (at least when the 3/3 Elks With No Abilities deck gets a decent draw) knows how well Wicked Wolf-oriented 3/3 Elks With Abilities turns out.

Misassignment of Role = Game Loss.

After sideboarding, the 3/3 Elks With Abilities deck has traditionally done much better. By taking out a lot of its "3/3 Elk With Abilities" cards for Wicked Wolves and Noxious Grasps, it can play the Wicked Wolf role more adequately, and has a much improved (if not great) chance of winning.