In my last article, I went over my preparation for the DWCQ. Once Ancient Bonds was released, I spent a total of 15 -17 hours frantically building and testing decks. It was ludicrously intense, but after three days of hard graft I felt like I’d figured out a reasonable set of decks.
I went into Day 1 with these:
I chose my lineup to beat what I expected people to bring: Golem Magmar and Zirix as the “level 0” decks (see my previous article if you’re unfamiliar with this concept), and primarily Faie as level 1. I brought a Faie list myself, alongside Reva, who tested extremely well and I thought would have a good chance against the level 0s. After much deliberation, I ended up settling on Keeper Vaath as the third deck; with a little teching it developed a decent Vetruvian matchup, but primarily it was there as a level 2 choice, preying on the Vanar decks. The dominating lords of winter are mostly ice cream to Keeper Vaath.
The Terrifying First Round
The day started off rather harrowing. My first round (against MarsupialLion) was easily the most emotionally intense round of Duelyst I’ve played yet.
I lost the Vaath ‘mirror’ in game 1 thanks to the power of Tectonic Spikes – a card that’s very good against Keeper Vaath due to it usually having a full hand, and which gave my opponent enough extra gas in the tank to kill me just before I stabilised. So far, not amazing, but not in itself a hugely disheartening experience.
Game 2 I kept Vaath and my opponent queued up Zirix, and I started out with an amazing hand. It was something like 2x Flash Reincarnation, Sunsteel Defender, Makantor Warbeast, Plasma Storm. When you’re trying to beat an aggressive tribal deck, that’s close to perfect. MarsupialLion dropped a Celebrant, I dropped a 4/3 forcefield… and then Lion’s connection to the game died.
I spoke to both my opponent and the tournament organiser (Counterplay’s excellent JuveyD) and decided that we would restart the game. I wasn’t best pleased, given how good my hand was, but I didn’t want to take a free win off my opponent after so little had actually gone into the game. I suggested that if it happened again, we should play it by the rules as written and I’d get the victory, which didn’t go down so well – I think my opponent was as stressed out by this as I was. I tried to make reassurances that I was more interested in keeping the tournament moving and avoiding any more awkward conversations about what was the right thing to do, but by now I was feeling ridiculously guilty and flustered. I hope Lion didn’t think I was trying to take advantage of the rules at all – quite the opposite – but I felt awful about the very idea.
Then we restarted the game again and I was going first (oh come on) and my opponent’s turns went like this:
- Celebrant, Golem Metallurgist, Golem Metallurgist, Dreamshaper
- (before I had the mana to Plasma Storm) Feralu + BBS
I’m glad my lady friend was out of the house, because when the Feralu hit the board I yelled a very angry swearword at the top of my voice. Instead of Plasma Storming my woes away I had to settle for something like Flash + Lavaslasher on the Iron Dervish so that I could Natural Selection the Feralu, and set up for Plasma next turn. Urgh.
I took some more damage, cast the Plasma Storm (phew!), took some more damage and went to 1 life, with my opponent still controlling the injured Sirocco and an Azure Herald.
I started my turn on 8 mana and looked at my hand. It was Flash Reincarnation, Grove Lion, and Earth Sphere. Angels sang, and the heavens cracked open and poured light upon me. The Lion would have to be played in a position where my opponent could kill it on board, but that would deal five damage to Zirix’s face and give me breathing room where I wasn’t being hit for once. I finished off the Sirocco for free, went up to 9 life and crossed my fingers.
And ended up winning! The top of my deck delivered a stream of the bomby cards Keeper Vaath is known for, my opponent didn’t find another Sirocco in time, and I closed it out. Karmic justice for my good deed.
Nevertheless, between feeling intensely guilty after discussing the disconnection rules with my opponent, the punch of regret after the restart, and the stress of how the game itself actually went, I had to step away from the table for a moment. My partner actually arrived home somewhere around this point and gracefully subjected herself to my frenzied ranting while I tried to relax. (I credit my success as much to Katie and my friends as I do to myself – they’ve been amazingly supportive both emotionally and logistically while I’ve been going deep on tournament after tournament this month.)
After calming down a little, I rallied and did my best to put up a good fight. Sadly, the match came down to my Reva getting surrounded by 3/5 golems and crudely bludgeoned into submission, and I lost 2-3. Bah.
Thankfully, the next two matches were far less eventful, and I started to feel better after some wins. I won a match 3-2 and then another 3-0, with my decks starting to flex their muscles a little. Round 4, I came up against NavySeagull with an unusual array of decks, including a Cassyva deck, something I really didn’t want to face. I took one game but ultimately the match didn’t favour me and down I went, to an overall 2-2 record.
By now, the emotional experience of the first round had faded and I was able to take the loss of round 4 comfortably. My tiebreakers were good, though, and I was optimistic. One more round to win and I was very likely to be in the top 8. A couple of players on three wins would take top 8 spots, and I was close to the top of the cluster of players on the same score as me.
Thankfully, the last round went well. I took the match three games to one and made it!
From what I recall, Faie was the general I spent the most time playing. Keeper Vaath loves playing against Vanar, and I expected people to lead with Faie a lot, so Vaath quite often showed up for the first match and won, taking himself out of the queue thanks to the Conquest rules. I kept Reva in reserve a lot, partly out of wonky confidence in the list and partly to preserve information about what it was running from my opponent (I have no real idea how valuable that is but it seemed useful for a Songhai deck). This left Faie in the middle, slogging through whatever my opponent had.
The Faie deck was still good, but everyone both brought and expected it, and the mirrors could be bizarre. It was also the hardest deck to play. It has a high level of mechanical complexity (mostly hand management with Arcanysts), sequencing traps (I lost a game to playing Enfeeble -> Circulus -> Kindred Hunter instead of Circulus -> Enfeeble -> Kindred Hunter; my opponent had Frostburn and without the 2/1 Illusion in my hand I couldn’t bond my Trinity Wing), and the largest number of potential game plans (tempo, combo, midrange, control). Keeper Vaath plays mostly one card a turn and I’m very comfortable with it, and Arcanyst Reva is similar to an aggro deck in that you almost always adopt the same strategy – go face and set up burst while trying to avoid falling behind.
Changes for Day 2
Between both days of the event, we were actually allowed to change our decks completely, and were required to submit four for Day 2. The top 8 was played with a ban, so you and your opponent would each pick one general the other was forbidden to play, and then play out a normal best-of-5 Conquest match with the remainders.
I decided not to stress out too much about this. The potential for agonising over deck builds was endless, but I was already feeling over the moon from just having made top 8 at all, and I figured it would probably help more at this point to go and do something else and relax for a while. There was a blissful time period between the end of round 5 and the point where I found out that we were allowed to make modifications to our lineups where, for the first time in days, I wasn’t frantically trying to put together something that had a chance of winning a round. I wanted to hold on to that feeling, dammit.
So I went to a café with Katie, jammed some Overwatch, slept in, and spent an hour drumming on Sunday morning before going out to buy some food. I sound like I’m joking, but honestly, this is a key part of tournament preparation – at some point you have to put your pen down, step away from your work, and clear your head. For the same reason as I locked in my decks on Friday night and had a slow Saturday morning, I deliberately decided to spend fifteen minutes or so double-checking my lists before check-in and no more. Past a certain point, getting some rest and fresh air would probably add more to my equity in a match than more hours of stressful tuning.
I ended up making one small change – I cut a Trinity Wing in the Faie deck for a Meltdown. Trinity Wing is a very powerful card, but an extremely awkward one that I often didn’t have the hand space for (or the bond synergy, or the mana, or…). Since I already had Blue Conjurers and to a lesser extent Circuluses, I wasn’t suffering for card advantage, and instead figured having the big dumb burst potential of Meltdown was worth it over another card that was often challenging to cast effectively.
As the fifth Beatle of my Day 1 lineup, Golem Zirix got the fourth deck slot. Although there would be Frostburns aplenty running around, the list had a few appealing qualities: it was easy to build, easy to play, and absurdly powerful. Outside of a few flex slots (Psychic Conduit, Rasha’s Curse, Grandmaster Nosh-Rak), the deck more or less built itself. So far, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a radically different one.
My quarterfinal match was a barrage of tempo mirrors against a player named Envest.
My opponent brought Zir’an, Zirix, Vaath and Faie. Thinking it either beat or mirrored most of my lists, I banned Zirix, and had my Vaath banned out. It turned out that every player besides myself and eventual winner Zaowi banned Vaath; according to the Discord chat, this is the new tech for countering Lavaslasher.
My choice may have backfired on me somewhat. My Faie vs Envest’s Vaath started out well for me, but I had a weak turn in the midgame that allowed my opponent to swing the board in their favour and take over. Zirix came out next and enthusiastically ran over something, then my Faie picked up a win against Zir’an in a heartstopper of a match. I started out hugely behind, but cleared out Envest’s board with a Frostburn on curve and slowly started to pull back. I dropped down to 6 health thanks to some Sunriser burst (my opponent had a really unusual aggressive playstyle with Zir’an, and looked like they were focused on using Sunriser for tempo and face damage) but managed to get away and hide behind an Owlbeast Sage. That stuck on board, and then Circulus and Trinity Wing came down and I started to surround my opponent with increasingly large illusions. My army totalled 90 health by the time my opponent called it quits.
Unfortunately, Reva betrayed me. The same problem that lost me game one cropped up twice more – one weak turn and the game was over. In the case of Game 4, I didn’t have a minion to play on turn one, and my opponent started to push hard across the board. This was a tempo-y build of Vanar, and I was taking a lot of damage quite quickly. I almost managed to claw something together, laying down a Four Winds Magi (which got dispelled) followed by a Trinity Wing with buffs in hand, but my opponent ‘had it’ just about enough to lock out my potential cheeky lethal. I held on as best I could, and considering how the game started out was quite pleased that I still almost put together some kind of win, but if I’d just been able to play something on the first turn the game would have gone so much more smoothly.
The same thing happened in Game 5. I dropped a Chakri Avatar on turn 1 but my hand was such that I just had to really hope my opponent didn’t have a Lucent Beam, which is an unusual choice but one I knew they were running. With no Beam, I’d take a mana tile and play an Owlbeast Sage or Spelljammer; with the Beam, I had nothing. Guess what? Windblade Adept + Lucent Beam. Rekt. Going first sucks.
By the time I had the ability to attack with a minion, I was on 4 health stuck in a corner with a Sunriser and friends barrelling down on me. Thus ended my DWCQ career.
Unlucky? Yeah, a bit. I was a little salty after that match. In retrospect, having played with the Reva deck a bit more, I know now that it’s very bad at playing from behind – no wonder those games felt so hopeless – but still, it sucks to be the guy with the bad turn in three out of five tempo matchups (well four if you count Game 2, where I started out with only an Aethermaster to play turn 1 going second, but I had the Frostburn to claw out of that one).
A few minutes later, though, I felt better. I’d still made the top 8, put up as strong a fight as I could, and played my best. If Envest had drawn differently for a turn or so I still might have won the fourth game (and therefore the match), and it’s entirely possible I could have gone with the flow and banned Vaath and benefitted that way. Or even Zir’an, given that I had two highly aggressive decks, but somewhat greedily, I thought it was going to be easy for Faie and Vaath to beat.
Ultimately, the round came down to an unfavourable matchup in the fifth game, and I find myself wondering if there’s any way around that. I’ve had a couple of Conquest rounds go this way now, and I think with more of a grip on the format I might be able to sequence my General choices in such a way as to avoid it. More on that in a moment.
What I learned
Tons. Tons and tons and tons.
This set is very strong. As well as some standalone power cards, the Golem and Arcanyst engines have gone from streamer-friendly jank to spinning at full power overnight. I found myself recommending a relative newcomer to the game craft playsets of Golem Metallurgist and Owlbeast Sage the other day – both are lynchpins of their respective tribal decks.
At the same time, there’s still some interest. Tribal decks run the risk of being overly linear, but these ones are fortunately a bit more nuanced. I think the Golem decks are more straightforward by far than the Arcanyst ones, but to make up for it, Arcanysts make for some of the most insanely complicated decks the game has ever seen. Basically, Vanar get to play Songhai now, with 0-mana positional spells that trigger abilities on their creatures and relying on weird spell generators as the main form of card advantage.
As I write this, a week on from the DWCQ, we’re also slowly seeing the return of the pre-expansion decks. A few people have spoken to me about Bond Argeon recently, and old-fashioned builds of Lyonar, Cassyva and Lilithe have been spotted laying down the beats at tournaments. Golem Vaath is still popular, but people seem to be trending towards Cryptographer/Healing Mystic/Drogon tempo builds now.
The meta vs. my predictions
Pleasingly, the DWCQ meta lined up almost exactly as I expected. Vaath and Faie were by far the most represented decks, and almost everyone had latched onto Faie. Builds varied – pure Control Faie with no new cards bar Mana Deathgrip, pure Arcanyst Faie similar to what I was doing, hybrids, and even some off-the-wall tempo lists. Aspect of the Mountains appears to be hugely popular at the moment, with almost everyone running a copy or two.
I saw a lot less Songhai than I thought would be there – presumably people didn’t see the same promise in it I did (for better or worse!). Zirix was strongly represented, but in lower numbers than I’d feared. There were more Cassyva and Argeon lists than I’d predicted, too – a bit of an issue. I had taken care to make sure my lists didn’t drift too far from being able to compete with Tempo Argeon, since aggro was something I was expecting, but I had basically no plan for Cassyva and that was a big problem. She was a severe weakness in my lineup.
In retrospect, I think I was expecting Tempo Argeon and Songhai for the wrong reasons. Kujata turned out to be quite rare from what I saw, and even Celebrant isn’t too common in the Magmar decks, so they’re a lot less clunky than I expected. People are still running Golem Metallurgist, but that’s just so they can play Metallurgist + Ragebinder on turn 1 going second, or jam Lavaslasher on turn 2; the card slots well into a tempo Magmar strategy regardless of whether you’re trying to go deep on tribal elements. This means that the Magmar decks are far less clunky or inconsistent than I expected.
On top of that, Golem Zirix is actually really good against other aggro decks. It generates absurd amounts of value and tempo thanks to cost reduction, Falcius, Boulder Breacher and Blood of Air; it can use Feralu and Inner Oasis to turn a board of chaff into a force to be reckoned with at any time. It can even keep up with Trinity Oath thanks to Dreamshaper and the “draw a card” buff spells. The same buff spells also beat small AOEs, and Sirocco laughs at spot removal. The deck is genuinely absurd – it has some wonky draws sometimes, and doesn’t dominate the overall metagame thanks to the omnipresence of Faie, but it has a much better matchup against other aggro or tempo decks than I’d thought. My Reva deck struggled against it due to the screen-filling power of Sirocco and the fact that people were running Bone Swarm – that caught me off guard.
Piloting the Arcanyst decks
Wow, these can be a pain.
Here are some of your priorities when playing a typical Arcanyst deck:
- Make sure you always have Bond synergy available so you can get the full effect of Trinity Wing and Kindred Hunter.
- Cast lots of spells every turn to trigger your Arcanysts.
- Protect your valuable advantage generators.
- Draw and generate loads of cards, but never go over the hand size, including at the end of the turn.
- Bait removal on the right Arcanysts so you can stick the ones that really matter in the matchup.
- Know which ones those are.
- Plus all the normal Duelyst stuff – control the board, set up good trades, position well, contest mana tiles, remove the right things, find AOEs when you need them, know your role in the matchup, use mana efficiently, don’t die…
Your available mana is a huge constraint, just as much as your hand size. In Vanar, Flash Freeze is totally amazing for letting you play your biggest or most powerful Arcanyst as early as possible, and immediately both trigger its ability and protect it from an attacker. Mana Deathgrip is really strong but is yet another card that requires setup and planning to pay off. Juxtaposition has proven godly in my Songhai lists for triggering Owlbeasts on the cheap while also removing threats from immediate circulation or setting up attacks.
Another limiter is the round timer. I mentioned earlier I made a misplay with a Circulus, where I played it after an Enfeeble rather than before. I was trying to play around my opponent having multiple generic ‘removal spells’, but I forgot about a much clearer possibility – Frostburn. Deploying a 1/3 and two 3/3s walks right into it, and if I’d played the Circulus first, it’d be exposed to a Mana Deathgrip (and in retrospect – so what? My opponent only had two cards in hand) but at least I’d have a 2/1 Illusion in hand to enable Bond on my Trinity Wing. I’m sure with a little more time I could’ve figured that out, but I spent 45 seconds of my turn deciding if I even wanted to Enfeeble in the first place, and where I wanted to move to. Duelyst is hard, man.
I’ve had turns where I’ve thought for 60 seconds, then played a Trinity Wing without making enough space for the spells and fizzled the one I wanted the most. I’ve had turns where I forgot my bloodborn spell would generate a 2/1 Illusion and milled an actual card. I’ve failed to attack, I’ve cast Flash Freeze on things I really wasn’t sure I should be freezing, I’ve played into Warbird because I was too busy concentrating on lining up my strategy. I think the only thing I haven’t done is attacked too much, because card advantage is fun and I’ve probably played far too conservatively. I’ve got 99 misplays but the face ain’t one.
Getting to grips with Conquest
Conquest is a really interesting, challenging format. So far, I like it, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I’ve had rounds where I’ve been able to predict what my opponent was going to bring up, and others where I just sort of ran through my decks in an order and hoped. I’m not sure which went better. With hindsight, there are a couple of rounds I wish I’d sequenced differently, but I don’t know if my decision was incorrect or not, or even if it matters that much. Considering how much good information there is available about almost any aspect of competitive gaming, I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything detailing the intricacies of Conquest as a format.
One thing’s for sure: Conquest is pretty cool. Not having to lose to the same deck (or the same draw) multiple times in a row is great for avoiding tilt, and playing a variety of your own decks helps keep the tournament fresh and interesting over the course of several hours. I really enjoyed that. Adding a ban in the top 8 throws another spanner in the works – the sheer amount of variables is really difficult to deal with, and my original set of decks was most definitely not chosen with resilience to a ban in mind. Losing Keeper Vaath in my quarterfinal match definitely hurt – it would have been pretty well-positioned against my opponent’s remaining line-up, as was the plan all along.
The five days after Ancient Bonds came out were some of the most intellectually difficult of my life, not to mention stressful. Having no basis for my deckbuilding and my lineup choices except my own (subjective) ladder experiences and my own (untrustworthy) meta predictions was very disorienting. I ended up trying so many (new to me) staples of high-level CCG play at the same time: figuring out a new set for a tournament, testing, predicting a meta in a detailed way, and coming up with decks to beat that meta using the new tools.
And… it worked! With support from my partner and my friends, information picked up from Reddit and Discord discussions, and some coincidental sterling effort by Pylons that let me work with a lot more confidence, I made it! Sadly I didn’t get far once in the top 8, but I put up a good fight against an eventual finalist.
I’m really happy about this. I can’t complain about the 10 DWCQ points I get either.
Thank you once again to everyone who’s helping me with this – friends within and without the community, our awesome tournament organisers, and of course Katie, my lady friend. You are all amazing and I couldn’t have had these fantastic experiences without you.
We got there. Onward and upward!