Deckbuilding Concepts

Greetings, fellow duelysts! I hear deck guides are in vogue these days.

Well, I was writing deck guides before they were cool. I actually put together this article rather a while back, but it sat gathering dust until now. May it finally see the beautiful light of day!

Today, I want to go through some core concepts of deckbuilding. Creating a deck that functions smoothly is harder than it sounds, even before you take your opponent into account. Your deck needs to be able to play something every turn, deal with the opponent’s most threatening plays, and find and deploy threats of its own. Ouch.

But do not despair! There are ways to approach this problem, and combating it will expand your understanding of the game. Regardless of what it’s built around or what it’s doing, your deck needs three things: a decent mana curve, a decision made between synergy and raw power, and a gameplan. Roughly, that translates to what you intend to play each turn, how your cards relate to one another, and how you’re going to win.

Mana Curve

A deck’s mana curve is its number of cards at each cost – one mana, two mana, and so on. Like this:

If you drew a line across the top of that graph, it would form a curve, and its overall shape dictates the approximate speed of your deck. If we think of the deck above as being medium speed, this one is probably faster:

And this one is probably slower:

There’s no right or wrong mana curve! Each of these is a valid way to build. However, it’s important to understand what each type of curve means for your deck.

The reason your mana curve correlates with speed is it points out how quickly you are likely to drop your hand on the table, and how likely you are to be able to make certain kinds of early or late plays. If your deck has a high number of 1- and 2-mana minions, you are almost guaranteed to be able to play a minion on turn 1 when going first, or two minions when going second. You’re then able to play two cards in a turn easily during the midgame and three later, assuming you still have anything left in hand. If your curve is higher, you may miss out on early plays – running fewer 1- and 2-drops lowers the chances you’ll see one on the first turn – and you’re probably playing one card per turn for most of the game. This exhausts your hand more slowly, and because expensive cards are larger and more powerful, you’re able to maintain a number of different options in hand while contesting the board.

You might notice that all three of the decks above run a healthy number of 2-drops; in general, even a very slow deck wants six to nine cards that cost two or less mana. Because of the mana tiles in the center of the board, being able to play a minion on your first turn has huge benefits; you can aim for an additional mana on your second turn, deny mana tiles to your opponent, or punish them by killing a small minion that they use to take a mana tile. Duelyst also rewards fighting for control of the board, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed if your opponent already has three minions down by the time you play your first; there are very few cards that can reverse that situation, and you’ll end up taking a lot of damage. All of this gets a lot easier to manage if your first turn is “Healing Mystic, go” as opposed to just nothing. Most decks prefer 2-drops that have at least some utility at any point in the game, such as Primus Fist or the aforementioned Healing Mystic. That way, when you draw your obligatory cheap cards later on, they’ll have more of an impact.

Slow and Fast Opponents

When two decks are matched up against one another, the deck with the lower curve usually takes the aggressive role, and the higher-curve deck the defensive role. Deciding which player is the aggressor and which the defender at any point in a game is a very complex and nuanced subject, worthy of multiple articles in its own right, but devoid of any other information, it’s a safe guess that the faster deck will start off on the offensive.

Let’s say I’m playing the lower-curved deck. I can get on the board more quickly than my opponent, so I have the opportunity to overwhelm them with speed. However, my cards are individually less powerful, and I probably won’t be able to keep up with them late in the game when they’re drawing Vorpal Reavers and I’m drawing Primus Fists. This means I should use my cards to deal damage rather than trying to outlast the opponent and run them out of resources.

On the other hand, let’s look at the slower deck’s perspective. In any long game, I naturally win because my cards are huge. The opponent draws and plays a 2/3 and I draw and play a Dancing Blades, obliterating it and making a huge threat. I might have big removal spells (such as Dark Transformation) if they play anything important, and I can keep them in my hand while deploying other threats, since my cards are likely to be impactful enough to trade with multiple cards from the opponent. (For instance, my Dancing Blades can blow up a 2/3 Healing Mystic with its opening gambit, then attack into a 4/4 Four Winds Magi and kill it, then probably die to a General hit, dealing 4 damage to said General in the process. In this way, I’ve used one of my cards to deal or “trade” with two of my opponent’s, over the course of two turns.) All this is for nought, however, if my opponent gets off to a fast start, and I’m struggling to clear multiple minions every turn because I can only play one of my cards to every two of theirs. This puts me in a defensive position – I need to protect my General’s health, and survive to the point where I can take over the game with my huge minions.

We can flip this knowledge on its head. If you want to build a fast deck, build it with a low curve. Leave those 6-mana minions at home, and make sure you can always spend your mana cores in the early turns by playing lots of cheap threats. If you want to build a slow deck, include enough cheap minions and spells that you can fight for the board early on and defend yourself, but leave plenty of room for those big, expensive monsters – whether they’re basic Stormmetal Golems or legendary Pandoras. You want to make sure that you can turn your survival against a fast deck into an eventual victory, and keep up with other slow decks when you’re both delivering huge minions. Alternately, you can build a deck that sits in the middle – it plays defensively against really fast decks and aggressively against really slow decks. We’ll revisit these concepts in a little bit when I talk about overall game plans.

Synergy vs. Raw Power

Alongside speed, one of the biggest axes on which to judge (or build!) a deck is its use of synergy versus raw card power.

Synergy in this context refers to your cards working better together than the sum of their parts. Duelyst has a lot of clever interactions between cards that you can exploit to go above and beyond what the cards alone would do.

As an example, Arcanyst minions almost all have an ability that works better when your deck has a lot of spells in it. Chakri Avatar, one of the more widely played Arcanysts, has the ability “Whenever you cast a spell, this minion gains +1/+1”. By itself, the card is weak – it’s a 1/2 for 2 mana, when the baseline 2-mana minion is a 2/3 or 3/2 – but if you have a decent number of spells in your deck, Chakri Avatar gets out of hand very quickly. For two mana, I can play a 2/3, or I can play a Chakri Avatar, a Mana Vortex to reduce the cost of my next spell, and my general’s Bloodborn Spell (such as Kaleos’ Blink). Now I have a 3/4 for 2, probably in a safe spot, which threatens to take over the game. By building my deck in a certain way, I’ve gotten something I would never get from an ordinary 2-mana card alone. Then, if my opponent doesn’t kill the Avatar, I can play more spells next turn and watch it get bigger and bigger and bigger for free!

This approach has a downside, however. If I don’t draw the Chakri Avatar before playing my spells, or don’t draw any cheap spells to play alongside it, I’m stuck with a useless 1/2. If I draw Mana Vortex by itself with no other spells or Chakri Avatars available, it does absolutely nothing. If my opponent has an Ephemeral Shroud to dispel the Chakri Avatar, it ignominiously loses all its amazing potential, and my deck is now full of cheap spells that don’t amount to much until I draw another Avatar. Ouch.

How do you avoid this? By going in the other direction and focusing on cards that are good entirely by themselves. I could play a Chakri Avatar and mess around, or I could just play a Healing Mystic, which is a 2/3 all the time. I could try and follow up my Avatar with a load of spells and hope it all comes together, or I could just slam a 3/6 Primus Shieldmaster on turn 2 instead and know that my entire plan doesn’t fall apart to a well-timed dispel effect. I accept that I won’t have games where my 6/7 Chakri Avatar rampages around the board destroying stuff while I point spells at anything it can’t reach, but I know that I also won’t have games where my deck doesn’t really come together – as long as I can reliably play a minion every turn (i.e. I have the right sort of mana curve!) my deck will be at least decent in every game, regardless of what my opponent does.

A big element of Duelyst is this trade-off. We have highly synergistic factions like Songhai, factions with powerful but vulnerable cards like Vetruvian, and factions whose cards do exactly the same thing every time, such as Lyonar. There’s something for everybody, and you can use the breadth of options in your faction and the neutral card pool to tune your deck to be more synergistic (more powerful, but less reliable) or rely on raw card power (more reliable and less synergistic). Even the synergy-happy Songhai have cards like Lantern Fox and Hamon Bladeseeker, which combine well with other cards in the faction, but very rarely do absolutely nothing, and are hard to deal with.

Happily, decks of any speed can be built either way you want! Our Chakri Avatar from earlier lends himself well to fast decks, but slower Songhai builds that draw a lot of cards and inexorably win the game with a barrage of spells and powerful Arcanysts or powered-up Heartseekers are just as viable. Most raw-power Abyssian decks are slow, playing a lot of strong removal and high-mana-cost legendaries, but you can build low-curve ones that want to swarm out the board and finish the opponent with Shattersoul Pact and Dark Seed or reload with Rite of the Undervault.

Very few decks have absolutely zero synergy or absolutely zero raw power. Finding how much your deck wants of both is fascinating and fun, and usually requires playing it repeatedly (oh, what a shame) to get a good feel for how the deck plays and which cards work best or worst.

Have a Plan

The other big thing you need to consider for your deck is what its overall gameplan is. How do you intend to conduct a typical game? How do you envisage yourself winning? What if your opponent is especially fast, or especially slow?

Your deck’s plan will usually inform how fast it needs to be, and therefore its mana curve. Most of the time, you choose the game plan first – I approach all my decks from the idea of “I want to build a deck that does X”. In Gauntlet, you choose good cards until the skeleton of a plan starts to form, and then fill in the gaps to produce a cohesive deck; playing on the ladder with preconstructed decks, you have the luxury of deciding ahead of time, and finding the best 39 cards in your collection for the purpose.

Aggro

Aggro (short for ‘aggressive’) decks want to hit the ground running and relentlessly attack the opponent’s health total. With a low curve and high speed, a good aggro deck can end the game before the opponent’s plan ever gets off the ground, forcing them into a purely defensive playstyle for a few turns before hopefully planting the nail in the coffin with a final burst of damage.

It’s important to have a low curve to keep the opponent on the back foot. Being able to play multiple cards per turn every turn of the game lends to a hefty momentum advantage, and a fast deck maximizes the impact of cheap soft removal such as Demonic Lure and Repulsor Beast. Above all else, though, an aggro deck prioritizes cheap, reliable sources of damage to the opponent’s General.

This can begin with the general choice. Argeon, Faie and Vaath all have bloodborn spells that can deal immediate damage to the opponent; Lilithe, Zirix and Reva create additional minions (maintaining momentum) which can deal damage next turn, including if the opponent’s General has to attack them. Starhorn’s bloodborn spell may look more passive, but drawing additional cards allows you to find more and more sources of damage as the game goes on, and due to your speed and focused plan you don’t really care how big the opponent’s hand is. Kara’s can ensure that your cheap minions become bigger threats a few turns in, providing a more resilient board and dealing increased damage when they get to attack.

This reliance on immediate damage continues through the decklist. Any card that can deal extra damage the turn you play it is worth considering. Rush minions such as Saberspine Tiger, artifacts such as Snowpiercer, Opening Gambit minions like Flameblood Warlock and Primus Fist, and pump spells such as Greater Fortitude are all staples of aggressive decks. You don’t care too much about the card disadvantage inherent in spending two of your cards to create one largish minion or throwing a Saberspine Tiger away for 3 damage to the face – all you need is to hit fast and hit hard, and drop them from 25 to 0 as quickly as you can.

Of course, being so focused doesn’t necessarily mean you lack ways to interact with the opponent’s board. Clearing away opposing minions while deploying your own and dealing damage is a very powerful way to play Duelyst. Any card that removes or displaces a minion on the cheap (such as Phoenix Fire or the aforementioned Repulsor Beast) or can clear minions while also hitting the General (Makantor Warbeast and Holy Immolation are amazing for this) is a valuable addition to an aggro deck.

Low synergy example: Faie aggro (otherwise known as Faiece). Tons of early damage, great cheap removal and a hero power that makes it very difficult for the opponent to ensure their safety.

High synergy example: Anything featuring the Mechaz0r squadron. Cheap bodies with a reward for playing five of them, usually enhanced by way of pump spells to make up for their lacking stats, card draw to help find the full five, and a solid curve of supporting minions.

Control

Control decks are the opposite of aggro – they’re the rulers of the late game. A control deck isn’t concerned with its opponent’s life total; just their board presence and the cards in their hand. By drawing additional cards, setting up ways to trade one of their own cards for multiple of the opponent’s, and efficiently countering the opponent’s biggest plays, a control deck defends itself continuously and eventually runs the opponent out of resources. With the opponent at the control player’s mercy, taking them to 0 life can be done almost as an afterthought, and is usually done quickly with large board-dominating minions or spells which also happen to deal substantial face damage. (Cards like Vorpal Reaver, Spectral Revenant and Obliterate all fall into this category.)

A control deck usually has a high curve. Because a control deck wants to answer the opponent’s plays using as few resources as possible, most control decks lean on a curve of cards with very heavy impact (which tend to be expensive). Early two-drops are still necessary so the opponent doesn’t just run you over, and playing powerful minions early on by way of mana tiles can buy you a lot of breathing room. Even if your opponent immediately Egg Morphs your turn 2 Primus Shieldmaster, that’s a turn spent not developing minions and one less Egg Morph for a 6- or 7-drop later in the game. The less your opponent does, the better, because you’re trying to be slower than they are; if the game goes long, that plays directly into your hands.

Control decks need a mix of efficient removal, large threats to dominate the board, and defensive cards that sustain you through your opponent’s damage. Healing and provoke are very common, potentially protecting you from dying next turn once your health total gets low. Cards that play multiple roles are highly valuable, since they make your hand more flexible and can often answer multiple plays by the opponent (netting a resource advantage). Dancing Blades is a great example – it’s removal plus a large minion (which can trade with an opposing removal spell or attack their minions, and is big enough to be a reliable wall for your General to hide behind). Grove Lion allows your General to attack things for free (removal), has a hefty 5/5 body (board domination), and protects you during your opponent’s turn (sustain).

Low synergy example: Vaath Magmar control. Tons of ways to efficiently kill tough minions (Natural Selection, Egg Morph), remove multiple minions at once (Plasma Storm, Makantor Warbeast), dominate the board (Earth Sister Taygete, Vaath’s bloodborn spell), sustain (Earth Sphere), and a built-in way to eventually win in the form of a 6+ power General.

High synergy example: Cassyva Shadow Creep control. This deck starts out by deploying cards like Abyssal Crawler and Ooz that can generate shadow creep. It rules the midgame with great Abyssian removal and big monsters, sculpts its hand with Sworn Sister L’kian or Rite of the Undervault, stays alive with Shadow Sister Kelaino, and finally wins with Abyssal Juggernaut, Ghost Azalea, Grandmaster Variax, or Obliterate after having accumulated enough creep. The core game plan of a control deck (kill everything, win eventually) matches Cassyva’s bloodborn spell perfectly and buys lots of time to accumulate a morass of creep.

Midrange

Midrange is the balance point between control and aggro. With a curve normally centering around powerful 4- and 5-drops, a midrange deck wants to play defensively and dominate the board against aggro and play the beatdown against control decks. It usually runs the best two-drops it can find, good removal, and a few expensive bombs to help win the late game.

The strength of a midrange deck is its versatility. You have a plan against everything, and often run the most straightforwardly powerful minions you can get your hands on in order to eat small threats and stretch an opponent’s removal. Card draw is a natural supplement to the strategy, protecting you from running out of resources, and the same large dual-role cards that serve control decks well can do the same for you. Midrange decks are almost always very minion-centric and care deeply about the stats of their creatures – bigger minions are harder to remove and can trade for a larger number of enemy minions, or hit harder when you decide to attack the General.

Lyonar are the most midrangey faction by default. Ironcliffe Guardian is one of the midrangiest cards in the game; it’s big, defensive, hard to kill, and threatens a rapid lethal by way of Divine Bond. Excellent two-drops, oversized provokes and hard-hitting removal spells let Lyonar get ahead and stay ahead. Most Gauntlet decks also fall somewhere along the midrange spectrum; it’s hard to make a very focused aggro or control deck with the largely random cards that Gauntlet offers you. Most decks will have some early drops, some late drops, whatever removal they can pick up, and a preference for minions with high stats or high impact over quirky abilities.

Low synergy example: The aforementioned Lyonar midrange. It’s quite easy to make an effective Lyonar deck comprised entirely of generic “good stuff” besides the obligatory Divine Bond.

High synergy example: Arcanyst decks. With Owlbeast Sage and Prismatic Illusionist plus a battery of spells, you can put more total health on the board than your opponent can ever possibly deal with while removing their threats and cycling through your deck to find the next big play. Eventually your opponent is trampled beneath an onslaught of 2/7 Illusion tokens.

Combo

Combo decks are the extreme end of synergy. A combo (short for ‘combination’) deck is built around some interaction between cards that is powerful enough to win the game on the spot. Before the deck got hit with a nerf, Songhai decks featuring Tusk Boar, Saberspine Seal, Killing Edge and Mirror Meld – to create multiple large, rushing attackers – were extremely popular on the ladder. Magmar players will occasionally win games with Flash Reincarnation + Elucidator + Fractal Replication for 15 rush damage. Some enterprising jank fiends will run things like Blood Taura + Spirit of the Wild or Grandmaster Embla + Razorback for sneaky one- or two-turn kills.

Combo decks come in two broad flavours, which roughly reflect their speed (a running theme in this article, it seems). Fast ones look to assemble the combo as quickly as possible for a cheap win. Knowing the potency of their deck’s win condition, they try to ignore whatever the opponent does and draw as many cards as possible, with a minimal defence. They’ll often feature the likes of Aethermaster or Spelljammer to see as many of their cards as possible. Once the combo is in hand, all they need to do is find just enough space to execute it, and victory is achieved. The Songhai Mirror Meld deck mentioned above is an example – the deck wants to focus on getting its combo out as quickly as possible, before the enemy can win.

The other kind of combo deck is a slow controlling deck with lots of defence. Instead of digging frantically for their combo pieces, these decks use time – they’ll draw the right cards eventually. In these decks, draw mechanics are used for smoothing out their curve and ensuring they have a good quantity of options. Being able to replace combo pieces in the first couple of turns is vital – getting stuck with a late-game combo in hand when you need removal is a huge problem. In these decks, the combo usually takes multiple turns to set up, but most of the pieces are more useful in a normal game, and the deck is usually capable of winning without it. An example is Arcanyst decks with Divine Bond or Polarity – the idea is to make a massive Owlbeast Sage and instakill your opponent by giving it +20 power. These decks play like normal Arcanyst midrange builds for their faction, and can easily win by grinding the opponent down with removal and high-health minions. Hopefully, at some point the player will start their turn with an Owlbeast in play, a big Arcanyst in attack range of the opponent, and several more spells + Divine Bond/Polarity in hand for the win.

Wrapping Up

Deckbuilding is hard, and nuanced, but endlessly interesting. Today, I’ve hopefully introduced you to several important core concepts that can guide you in designing decks of your own. Choose a plan, decide between synergy and raw power, figure out your intended mana curve, and go for it!

I hope you enjoyed this article! I’m SonofMakuta in-game and on Discord and Reddit – please let me know if you have any questions or feedback. (I also stream and YouTube.) I’m always happy to hear from people, so go ahead and give me a shout if you have any questions or comments. Happy deckbuilding and dueling!

 

Adam Thomas
Adam makes videos of himself playing Duelyst, Magic: the Gathering, and whatever else he decides to put together in the future!

He's on Twitch at https://www.twitch.tv/apocalyptic_squirrel, currently streaming every Monday at around 8:30pm GMT onwards!
About Adam Thomas 12 Articles
Adam makes videos of himself playing Duelyst, Magic: the Gathering, and whatever else he decides to put together in the future! He's on Twitch at https://www.twitch.tv/apocalyptic_squirrel, currently streaming every Monday at around 8:30pm GMT onwards!