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Birds versus Elves
Zvi Mowshowitz

You wanted a high impact decision and you got one. I have to say, I think that MagicTheGathering.com is starting to scare me. I think the site is great, but I'm not sure these kinds of decisions should be left in the hands of regular Magic players who may lack the knowledge base to make them properly. As I begin writing this, I don't yet know which side I'm going to take, but I'm going to figure that out as I go, hopefully making my case while I'm at it.

Both cards have a long history dating all the way back to the original set. Both fall into the same power level along with such cards as Counterspell and Duress. They are constructed staples, slightly undercosted on purpose in order to give flavor to the colors and enable certain strategies. The primary question is whether we want to enable those strategies. Then there are additional issues that come from the fact that one is common and one is rare.

Llanowar Elves is a beatdown enabler. Beatdown decks need one drops desperately, and they also often need mana acceleration. Llanowar Elves offers both. It can cast your spells and then later on attack as a 1/1. Llanowar Elves allows a creature deck to run a lot of mana sources without worrying about mana floods. If you have too much mana, the Elves still 'count' as a spell you can use in many matchups. Whenever you play with them, there will be a few games here and there that you win because the other cards traded off and the Elves went the distance, or the Elves got to trade with some aggressive creature.

Birds of Paradise, on the other hand, is an enabler for multicolor decks that run creatures and expensive spells. Today's best example is Squirrel Prison. These decks actively benefit from having their mana base contain creatures, which is why they are able to use Llanowar Elves as well, allowing them to use their mana as spells. But while these decks would likely do just fine without Elves, they would be unlikely to splash their third color if they did not have access to Birds of Paradise. Birds of Paradise provides decks that can afford to have creatures with four 'free' sources of off-color mana. Another deck that used both Birds and Elves was Fires of Yavimaya. Having a lot of both mana and mana acceleration was key to making that deck function properly.

Oddly enough, the only deck that runs Birds of Paradise without Llanowar Elves in the pre-Judgment Standard environment was Kowal's version of Red/Green. There were several reasons why it did so, and once I played with the Birds I understood. First, the deck uses a ton of spells that have no colorless mana in their casting costs, many of which cost one mana. A second green mana was not particularly useful, but often the deck needed a second red mana to do things like Reckless Charge a Yavimaya Barbarian or cast two Firebolts. Birds of Paradise can provide that. In addition, Birds of Paradise provides flying to a color combination that otherwise would have no access to playable flying creatures. In this case, that allowed it to use Reckless Charge to come over for the win in many more games than you would expect.

The problem with Birds of Paradise is finding a deck where they belong. Most of the decks that run three or more colors are control decks, and these decks often cannot afford to expose their mana to burn and removal spells they could otherwise ignore. Birds are unreliable mana due to their tendency to die or even be countered. In addition, Birds require that your primary color be green so that you can cast them reliably on turn one. Again, most multicolor decks want to base themselves in other colors - most of the time they want to be blue. Often Birds doesn't go into a pre-existing deck - it is the reason you're based in green. There are exceptions, of course. Both Birds and Elves get played in decks like Fires or Opposition where mana acceleration is vital and their status as creatures is an advantage.

Llanowar Elves is a narrower card. When you play Llanowar Elves, it means that you're playing a deck that is mostly green, because it requires you to have enough green mana to cast it on turn one and gives you back more green mana. Birds of Paradise helps a deck whose primary color is green branch out into other colors, but Llanowar Elves forces it to focus in on green. Llanowar Elves is almost always better in those decks where your mana is good enough not to need the color from Birds of Paradise, but Birds are better when your mana requirements are more. Interesting.

So it comes down to an issue of flexibility. Do we want to encourage green's primary strategy of beatdown, or do we want to help its secondary ability to be the primary color in multicolor decks? Without Birds of Paradise, green decks will have to stick to the same rules as the other colors. Sure, you can use Rampant Growth or one of its tweaks to get all sorts of color, but once the Invasion Block shifts away there will no longer be an incentive to have a Domain in play. Without that incentive, the spells involved are exposed as painfully slow. The only exception is Lay of the Land, but that leaves with Invasion Block.

As a side note, if anyone's listening and it's eligible, I would like to put Lay of the Land into Eighth Edition, either in place of Rampant Growth or on its own merits. Modern mana curves have proven too quick for Rampant Growth, and it also forces a player to reach two mana without it - before it can be cast - and by being cast on turn two, it gets exposed far too often to counters. Even in Seventh Edition draft Rampant Growth lacks efficiency because the format is designed around a mana curve starting at two mana. Lay of the Land is a much more interesting card right now in both constructed and limited. Several attempts were made to play decks in the full Invasion Block that used Lay of the Land, but only Domain ever tried to use Rampant Growth.

Do we want to encourage green's primary strategy of beatdown, or do we want to help its secondary ability to be the primary color in multicolor decks?

Back to the issue at hand. If we select Birds of Paradise and Vine Trellis, we get two cards that are interesting in multi-color green decks that either play with expensive creatures worth accelerating to, are planning to control the game or both. It gives players constructing new decks pause to consider whether to try and use green as their primary color. If we select Llanowar Elves and Utopia Tree, we have a card that is somewhat better at helping green beatdown decks survive when Odyssey Block is taken away (the majority of the time Eighth Edition is in Standard it will not include Odyssey) and then we have a useless card for tournament play, although one which many casual players like. Between being 0/2 and costing a second mana, Utopia Tree is too unreliable for Standard.

For this reason, I'm coming out in support of Birds of Paradise. Birds keep things interesting because they encourage people to come up with new strategies and multi-color decks. They are also the only way to ensure green remains the color to play when you want to play a four or five color deck. Utopia Tree would not be able to replace it. Birds also provides green with a wild card flyer, and that's always cool. Without Birds or the undercosted green creatures from Odyssey Block like Mongrel and Rootwala, green will be in danger of being too weak. Its pie needs to include multi-color decks, and to have that be more than a theoretical advantage it needs to keep Birds of Paradise.

Llanowar Elves are important for green as well, but for a less interesting kind of green deck. These decks will probably be two colors, with the other color being minor while green is primary. These decks will always exist, and they are easy to enable by printing more cheap creatures. The Elves also help many of the decks that also contain Birds, but the decision has already been made that one of them has got to go. About a year ago, I would have agreed completely that having eight mana accelerators was dangerous. In fact, Birds and Elves were the reason I started looking so heavily at Fires decks in the first place. If we return to the land of 'fair' Magic again, this will become an issue. But right now, we live in the realm of unfair Magic, and these cards are worth keeping around. Long term, I think on balance one of them is indeed enough.

All right, that settles the issue of where I stand for the vote. While I'm at it, I think I'll deal with the practical matter of the current application of the two cards in Standard. The problem with these creatures right now is that the mana curves of decks that would otherwise use them now start at one and peak at two instead of starting at three and peaking at four. A Red/Green deck can play Basking Rootwala or Grim Lavamancer on turn one, and wants to play Yavimaya Barbarian or Wild Mongrel on turn two. If you have a Llanowar Elves, what does that let you do? Raging Kavu on turn two is nice, but given the creatures out there right now there isn't much point. Kowal's deck is the exception to the rule, and it still only uses Birds. Opposition decks can use both creatures since they are based on three and four casting cost spells and can utilize extra creatures with Opposition.

Blue/Green is a strange case. There's no question that my nationals deck would have loved to be able to use mana acceleration, but the colored mana didn't work out. With only four Yavimaya Coast to help with the color, the deck needs to support Counterspell and Wild Mongrel. Already that overtaxes the mana base, which is probably the decks' biggest weakness. If Birds were added to the deck, it would have to lean green with its lands in order to cast the Birds. Even with the Birds, that would mean having to use City of Brass if the deck wants to keep using Counterspell. In addition, Careful Study and Merfolk Looter allow the deck to use only 22 lands. If it added Birds, could it cut land? If it can't, the deck is losing a lot of power by cutting spells for Birds. Cutting lands means cutting color, and already the green mana requirements have actually gone up.

That's the problem with these creatures. While they're very good, the mana requirements are steep, and they take up a lot of slots. When the other cards make Birds and Elves fit right into a deck, they make it much more powerful. When they work, they allow things that can seem downright unfair. The problem with them is that they put a strain on a deck's mana requirements, one that right now most green decks cannot afford to pay.

- Zvi Mowshowitz


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