Greater Fortitude (The Grand Melee)

Thanks to an initial burst of success, I topped the leaderboard for the Duelyst Melee series, tying with Munkbusiness at 6 points. This qualified me for the season finale, the Grand Melee, which took place a few weekends ago. Sixteen players were invited, and a mighty field it was too – you’d be hard pressed to find a higher density of grandmasters in the Chess Hall of Fame. It was basically fifteen terrifying people and little old me.

The format was single-deck with a sideboard, like the Melee events themselves. For the unfamiliar, this involves building a normal 39-card deck called your “main deck”, and allocating an additional ten cards to be your “sideboard”. You start each match playing your main deck, and get to swap in cards from your sideboard between games, adjusting your deck to counteract whatever your opponent is doing.

Normally, this is used in best-of-three matches, but the Grand Melee was to be best-of-five. Ouch. Day 1 involved players being grouped into fours and each playing everyone else in the group (round robin); the two highest scorers from each group would then go on to Day 2 (also known as the top 8 for those keeping score at home). This was then a normal single-elimination bracket with some astounding cash prizes. This makes for up to fifteen games with the same deck per day, against the cream of the Duelyst crop. It makes me tired just thinking about it.

Preparation

At this point, on my third subsequent weekend tournament, pure logistics was starting to take its toll. I was eager not to let Duelyst take over my whole life (that way lies burnout), and still had to find time for streaming and writing as well as that ‘job’ thing I do to make sure I can plug my computer in somewhere comfortable. What this meant is that I was competing on the weekend, streaming on Monday, resting on Tuesday, socialising Wednesday and Thursday, and only had Friday and Saturday morning as well as the odd hour squeezed in here and there to test.

I also had to develop a deck, unable to continue with my Conquest lineup. With only one deck available per player, I found myself confronted with a new and intimidating decision point: which of Magmar or Faie did I think was going to be more popular?

At the moment, competitive Duelyst has a very polarised metagame. We have two very clear top decks – Tempo Vaath and Arcanyst Faie. Although each one has its strengths and weaknesses, and can very much be countered, there is a significant problem: nobody’s come up with a way to counter one deck that doesn’t lose to the other.

Play Tempo Argeon to rush Faie down? Get ruined by Lavaslasher. Ramp out big minions to trump Magmar’s board? Get wrecked by Faie’s unconditional removal. Go wide and swarm the board? Frostburn, Plasma Storm and Enfeeble are the best AOEs in the game. Try to race? I hope you picked (and drew) the right removal. Play traditional control and run Vaath out of gas? Good luck doing that against the Circulus/Blue Conjurer/Trinity Wing spam deck.

Keeper Vaath, as my stalwart Melee deck and my best-performing competitive list so far, was obviously the first contender. Unfortunately, it was very weak to Tempo Vaath. In a longer game it would win easily, and I had a few convincing victories with it on ladder, but the strength of Tempo Vaath is that it never gives the opponent time to set up. Against prepared opponents, that was unlikely to work.

I also didn’t want to play Tempo Vaath myself if I expected Magmar to be popular. The last thing I wanted to be doing is going into a mirror match with a far more experienced opponent. (Foreshadowing alert.) Mirror matches seem to be a nightmare across all the CCGs I’ve played – neither of you has a defined role throughout and it comes down heavily to each player’s specific draws. Skill and preparation are also a huge factor, in part because you can’t simply rely on knowing you’re on the aggressive or defensive side of a matchup. Keeping up with the shifting flow of who has the initiative is extremely difficult.

Of course, this exact same complaint applied to Faie. I didn’t want to bring Faie to a field of herself. I could build a Faie deck teched to be strong against Magmar – especially with access to a sideboard – in the same way I could bring Keeper Vaath to beat up on Vanar.

This binary, polarising decision caused me no end of anguish. I scoured decklists from recent tournaments and the last chance qualifiers, trying to figure out a pattern. I looked again for a deck that reliably beat both the top contenders and came up empty. I had lists that I was happy with for both factions ready to go, and tuning them or setting up a sideboard wouldn’t be hard. I just needed to figure out which side of the great metagame divide I wanted to stand on.

In the end, I picked Faie. I had a bit of a bad run with Keeper Vaath during testing that dipped my confidence in the list a little; I figured Faie would be best against other decks that might crop up (such as Bond Argeon or Golem Zirix); but primarily, I thought Vaath was going to be the more popular of the two at the event.

I was very much not confident in this choice. I described it as it being 51% that Faie was correct and 49% that Vaath was – it was ridiculously close. Perhaps I thought myself into a corner, and tried to get too fancy – playing a deck I knew was complicated instead of a deck I knew almost inside-out. Perhaps I should have just jammed Keeper Vaath and put six cards for the Magmar matchup in my sideboard (to be fair, part of the decision was that I couldn’t easily play dispel for my opponent’s BBS stacks).

In hindsight

While writing this article, I realised something that should have been blindingly obvious.

My plan to beat Tempo Vaath involved simply playing Arcanyst Faie. My plan to beat Arcanyst Faie involved playing Keeper Vaath – a different deck to Tempo. This meant that (to my knowledge) Tempo Vaath was unfavoured against Faie. Keeper Vaath is not widely played. Assuming my estimation of the matchup is correct, this would make Faie the de facto ‘best deck’, and logically, people would gravitate towards it.

Additionally, I’d played against some of the same folks (and other players of similar calibre) in recent tournaments. A lot of them led with Faie. In writing my article last week, I explored people’s patterns in sequencing their Conquest lineups; a good number seem to start with what they see as their best deck and work downwards from there. Logically, this might indicate that at least some of my opponents considered Faie to be their best deck, and therefore probably play it at the Grand Melee.

Realistically, it’s still impossible to tell. Even if I’d figured this out earlier, anyone else at this tournament could have made the same line of reasoning and played a counter to Faie, a counter to that counter, and so on. Knowing about this was a part of why the selection process was so stressful – I certainly didn’t want to underestimate my opponents and assume they wouldn’t be able to go deep on their choice of deck the same way I was.

The tournament

I think the event itself may have been the most stressful four hours of my life.

As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t confident with my deck choice, and it turned out that I’d have been much better going with Keeper Vaath after all. Faie had a mild popularity lead; we had seven Faie players and five Vaath. More problematically, the other three players in my group – Meziljie, Kolos, and Briguy77 – were all playing Faie.

Damn.

I’ve heard each of those three described as being in the top 10 of Duelyst players. They were all running a deck I didn’t want to come up against and were likely more experienced with it than me as well as being better players overall.

You can bet the panic set in immediately.

Round 1 vs. Meziljie

I started off scared, and it didn’t really get any better. I fell foul of a weird rules interaction in the very first game that I didn’t know about, failed to kill my opponent’s Circulus and fell behind quickly from there. It turns out that if you cast Aspect of the Fox on a frozen minion, the fox loses the stun effect, but is still unable to act (the game represents this as it being exhausted, as if it’s already attacked). Having seen a stunned egg transform into a fully mobile Drogon the previous night, I expected this to work in my favour, but instead just had to pass the turn. My opponent of course immediately played an Owlbeast Sage, a 2/1 Illusion the Circulus had generated the previous turn, and another Frost Freeze. GG.

Allow me to take a moment to give Meziljie credit here. I wasn’t sure if the game had bugged on me or not, and spent a while chasing some developer clarification in Discord (tournament organiser Pylons chased this up for me – much appreciation, Pylons! – and it did indeed turn out to be intentional). My opponent was sympathetic, and understanding of me basically hoping to get the game annulled. Thanks, Mez.

Despite everyone being nice to me about it, it’s hard not to tilt after something like that. It also became quickly apparent that I had no idea what I was doing. Trinity Wing, a card I previously thought was strong but awkward to make hand space for, turned out to be a total powerhouse in the mirror – it provides resources, spell synergy, burst, valuable healing, and advantage in a race thanks to giving your General bonus attack. I was expecting the mirror to come down to who stuck a Blue Conjurer first. As it turned out, unless someone got run over, the games seemed to revolve much more around each player’s life total. Winning on cards didn’t matter that much, since both players would usually have a full hand for one reason or another. It’s easy to end up hugely ahead on board and resources but then get raced down to zero if your opponent plays a pair of Trinity Wings. You have minimal healing and your opponent has tons of chip damage, so Trinity Wing in practice provides a ton of burst.

The match was pretty tense but I ended up losing 2-3. I think with more aggressive positioning in the last game I could’ve won it, and I think being more aggressive throughout would have helped. Not really knowing the flow of the matchup going in, I learned a ton in that round and would play it quite differently if I could do it again (even setting aside the rules interaction in game 1).

I was also getting a feeling that going second in the matchup was a huge advantage. The first person to deploy a minion often got blown out by Circulus + removal, instantly falling behind on tempo. The additional mana bestowed on the second player helps a lot too. Freeze effects make contesting mana tiles hard, so getting Owlbeast Sage down early is very difficult for player 1, and the deck is mana-hungry in general. I think that if you’re going first in the mirror match, it’s actually better to play Frigid Corona on your opponent instead of developing a minion. Throughout the tournament, the first player to drop a Circulus or other Arcanyst and interact with the opponent’s minion won almost every game I played.

For context, I got to go second once in the first two rounds. You bet I was salty about that.

Round 2 vs. Kolos

This match was a little less interesting from a matchup analysis perspective, because some of it was just plain luck. I won the first game, but then got absolutely curbstomped. Kolos had (what seemed like) great draws three games in a row while I floundered. Some of that is still down to skill – thanks to the replace mechanic, good Duelyst players actually do “draw better” – but I’m not sure there’s much I could’ve done to actually win those games.

What was interesting was Kolos’ decklist and playstyle. I have long suspected that the right level of hybrid between Arcanyst and Control Faie would be extremely strong, and Kolos had a list like that. I suspect it was tuned for the mirror. He had the Enfeebles in the main deck (unlike most of us) and was running three each of Crystal Wisp, Azure Herald, and Meltdown.

This allowed him to position himself as the control player in each of our games, which I didn’t quite catch on to for a game or two before I figured out what he was doing. From what I can tell, the deck’s plan is to ramp as much as humanly possible to enable Enfeeble + Frostburn and Meltdown. Kolos drew two ramp spells in most of our games, which coupled with going second, allows an 8-mana play on turn 4, or turn 3 with a mana tile. Turn 4 Meltdown is what I would call “unreasonable” (and perhaps some louder, more acerbic terms).

As in the first round, I felt throughout like my opponent had a far more coherent game plan than I did. Props to Kolos for his adaptations to the deck – it thoroughly crushed me.

At this point I was basically shaking with stress, and probably playing quite badly. I tend to undereat during tournaments because I’m distracted and nervous, which didn’t help. I’d also spent three games getting repeatedly punished or blown out, and although I think I was strategising broadly correctly, every minor error or misclick contributed to my feeling of panic.

Now 0-2 in matches, upset, and unable to make the second day, I almost quit the tournament. I’m glad I didn’t, though.

Round 3 vs. Briguy77

It turned out that the third person in my group had also gone 0-2, meaning neither of us could make it to day 2, so we battled it out purely for honour. Briguy seemed in much better spirits than I, and the lack of pressure combined with some much-needed support from a few excellent people perked me up a bit (shout out to Zabiool and a couple of my real-life compadres – you are all wonderful). I took two games relatively easily, then lost another two and almost started to panic again. Fortunately for me, I started out the last game strongly (I went first, but my opponent had a weak turn 1) and although I started to run out of gas after a while, managed to cobble together enough momentum to scramble my way to lethal. A pair of Prismatic Illusionists as my only available threats meant I had to hope for no Frostburn and flood the board. Briguy didn’t have it, and I scraped together a match win!

Before we played, Briguy mentioned that he was in a similar spot to me regarding preparation for the mirror match. For all that it’s the ‘best deck’ in Duelyst, both of us struggled finding opponents running it on ladder. (I habitually put ‘best deck’ in scare quotes because taking the concept at face value is something of a trap.) This was tangible in the games themselves – his play was much more like mine, and I felt we were quite evenly matched, which was quite gratifying for me after two rounds of worrying I didn’t deserve to walk among these giants.

The aftermath

Realistically, of course, my performance is still good. I won six games (and lost eight) against three of literally the best players in the game, but I wound up feeling awful for most of it. I’d been worrying about what I was supposed to play for a while, got punished for my decision, and started off on a bad footing, emotionally speaking. I’ve come back from upsets like that before, but I was also hungry and really, really nervous – I’d piled up a lot of pressure on myself. Big prizes and big opposition will do that.

I won’t pretend I’m not a little bit disappointed. I know I made a lot of mistakes, both strategic (especially early on) and mechanical. Perhaps I should’ve just picked the deck I know better (Keeper Vaath) and hoped the matchups lined up, but I had a horrible run of test games with it immediately prior to the event and I thought its nominally good matchup (Faie) was going to get a lot worse with people now playing Hailstone Prison. I definitely could have played better against Meziljie in particular, and I point to my inexperience with the matchup for that.

Still, I did pretty well, especially considering the circumstances and the quality of the opposition. I can’t win everything. I knew full well it was kind of stupid to be upset, but that didn’t stop me from spending the rest of the evening kicking myself. (Can confirm it didn’t help anything.)

An interesting arc

Looking at the match in summary shows a smooth development that, in retrospect, makes me feel a little prouder of myself.

Round 1 I lost because I had no idea what I was doing. Aside from the rules mistake in game 1, I totally mis-positioned myself strategically. I should have been a lot more aggressive and more cognisant of the tempo-heavy nature of the matchup. I went into the event primarily concerned with things like protecting Owlbeast Sage and getting the most value off Blue Conjurer, but it turns out when you have two tempo-ish decks that have almost no healing, face damage matters a huge amount. Trinity Wing is really good in the mirror because of that.

Round 2 I won a game and then Kolos drew far better than I did for three games in a row. I’m sure there are things I could’ve done to give myself a better chance to win from my own perspective, but I’m also mostly sure that it didn’t matter that much. I seriously got crushed. I think I made roughly the right strategic decisions, but Kolos had the right counterplays at every turn and also consistently ramped into Meltdown for high effect. It happens – sometimes you just lose. Seeing how his deck was built was eye-opening, though.

Round 3, my opponent and I had a fair, close match. Our draws and builds matched up relatively evenly and I was able to apply what I’d learned in the previous rounds to claw my way to a narrow victory. I made a few pretty risky plays, not to mention the odd disheartening mistake (or misclick – I had quite a few of those over the course of the event), but I got there. I don’t doubt that without my new understanding of the matchup dynamics, I wouldn’t have won this match.

Next steps

Where do I go from here?

  • Take a little while off to recover. Catch up on my backlog of videos to make. Test without pressure.
  • Find someone or multiple someones to do proper targeted testing with before tournaments. If you’re interested in co-tryharding, please give me a shout! I’ve spoken to a couple of people about it in the past and I’m keener than ever on it right now.
  • Keep writing. I love making these articles and they help me consolidate and analyse my experiences.

At present, I have one more tournament to write up (the DWCQ for March) and there’s a possibility I play in one of the events this coming weekend that give a final shot at Worlds. After that, I think I’m going to take a bit of a breather, and spend time only playing Duelyst for fun. I have some ideas for more instructional articles that will go over high-level concepts of the game or particular decks, so I look forward to writing something different for a while too.

As always, I’m around on Reddit, Twitch and Discord if you want to say hello. See you next time!

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 15 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!