Elves can begin as either Fighting-Men or Magic-Users and freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game. Thus, they gain the benefits of both classes and may use both weaponry and spells. They may use magic armor and still act as Magic-Users.Gamers are still debating exactly what this means. Greyhawk didn't make the situation any clearer, as it now enabled elves to "work in all three categories at once (fighter, magic-user, and thief) unless they opt to never be anything other than in the thief category." In retrospect, I see this as an early statement of what would become AD&D's multiclassing rules, which are quite different than the way OD&D describes elves' ability to function as either a Fighting-Man or Magic-User on an adventure-by-adventure basis.
By contrast, Tom Moldvay's Basic Rulebook is quite clear on the topic:
[Elves] can be dangerous opponents, able to fight with any weapon and use magic spells as well, but prefer to spend their time feasting and frollicking in wooded glades ... Elves have the advantages of both fighters and magic-users. They may use shields and can wear any type of armor, and may fight with any kind of weapon. They can also cast spells like a magic-user, and use the same spell list.As a balancing factor, they generally require about twice the amount of experience to gain levels as does a fighter of the same level. It's really an elegant solution to the problems in understanding the text of OD&D on the topic.
Of course, once I was exposed to AD&D, I felt D&D's race-as-class solution was anything but elegant. In fact, I recall finding it downright ludicrous: "All elves are fighter/magic-users. That's silly," I would say. I had no problem with elven fighter/magic-users, of course. What I objected to was what I perceived to be a lack of meaningful options when it came to playing an elf (or a dwarf or a halfling, for that matter). Back then, race-as-classs was evidence that "Basic D&D," as I called all non-Advanced versions of the game, was "a kid's game," lacking in the sophistication and depth I associated with AD&D.
I don't think that anymore. In my Dwimmermount game, there's a single elf character, Dordagdonar. Initially, I used the Swords & Wizardry version of the "elven adventurer," which is one interpretation of the OD&D rules. We quickly found the switching back and forth between fighting-man and magic-user to be unwieldy in play and so opted for an interpretation that's actually pretty close to Moldvay's, although I retained OD&D's strictures about spellcasting in armor, which is why Dordagdonar still wears leather +1 rather than heavier armor.
Aside from mechanical simplicity, what I really like about race-as-class, at least in the case of elves, is that it helps emphasize their differences from humanity. Moldvay elves are much more strongly archetypal and feel more folkloric to me than do AD&D's elves. Indeed, they remind me of Poul Anderson's elves and that's never a bad thing in my book. Moldvay's dwarves and halflings somehow don't quite generate the same degree of fascination for me, perhaps because I don't have a solid conception of what their archetype is. As I've said before, I'm ambivalent about halflings in D&D generally and dwarves generally seem to be treated as caricatures rather than archetypes.
Still, none of this has any real impact on the notion of class-as-race so much as the specific implementation of them in Moldvay's rulebook. I like the elf more and more as I use it. I find it very effective at conveying a difference between elves and humans, something that's important to me when portraying elves. They shouldn't just feel like short humans with pointy ears; they should follow their own rules.