The past month or so has been something of a whirlwind experience for me. I’ve gone from zero to hero in a sense, through a mix of joining the tournament scene late and glorious blind luck in reviving an old archetype at exactly the right moment. (Never delete your out-of-date decklists. You never know when you might accidentally break the meta.) In a handful of weeks, I went from thinking of myself as someone who probably could make S-rank each month if he made time for it, to someone who’s bitterly disappointed after making some execution errors in the final of a 48-person tournament. In my head, those are (were?) miles apart as player archetypes.
To compound the bizarreness, my performance so far has earned me enough Duelyst World Circuit points to compete in this month’s DWC Qualifier, taking place a whole eight days from time of writing. Well, I guess I hope that Ancient Bonds doesn’t upend the meta completely, right? I just jam in some Lavaslashers and we’re all good?
Oh, it’s Conquest format?
For the uninitiated, Conquest, officially called Senerai on the Duelyst tournament circuit, is a popular competitive format for games like Hearthstone. It involves no sideboards, but each player brings multiple decks – in this case, three – each from different factions. A match between two players is best-of-five. Each player chooses one of their decks to pilot at the start of each game, but you can’t pick a deck you’ve already won with. That is, the first player to win with each of their three decks takes the match.
On top of that, if I make the top 8 bracket, I need to supply a fourth deck, and one of them gets banned by my opponent in each round. What.
If you’ve read my previous articles, you might notice a theme: I only have one proper deck. It’s a great deck, to be fair, but everything else in my collection is either a sweet netdeck I decided to have a quick look at on stream, or blatant jank designed primarily to amuse me and/or complete quests. So, I need to find at minimum two and ideally three new decks and train myself in playing them in just over a week. I might even need a fourth, if I decide Keeper Vaath absolutely isn’t going to work, but I think that might be a bit ambitious.
So why am I writing this?
The upside of this complete lack of a plan is that I can be your guinea pig! I intend to document my decision-making and testing process right here on 9moons, in the process of one or two more articles before the DWCQ itself, and then a report afterwards (regardless of how well I did). I’m not expecting to break the meta again – finding Keeper Vaath was an absurd stroke of luck, and as stacked as a typical Melee field often is, I’m going to be up against serious opposition here, in an unfamiliar format. If I can win a round or two, or even just put up a good fight, I’ll be a happy man; if I make top 8, I’m throwing myself a party. Nevertheless, regardless of how well my attempts turn out, I’m going to learn tons just from doing the preparation and playing the matches, and hopefully so can you.
This first article is going to lay out my initial thoughts on the format, with almost no testing done. I’ll talk about possible ways to construct a team, and go over my confidence level with each faction and where I think it fits into the meta. Fortunately, I have enough of a supply of cards and dust that my collection isn’t a limitation, so I think I can play basically anything that my skills will stretch to. The limitations here are the interesting ones – my impression of the meta, predictions of what other people will bring, and whether I think I’ll be able to play a given deck competently.
I also have to take Ancient Bonds into account. That’s no small feat. Brewing new decks into an unknown meta is a big ask; the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour is built around this, challenging players to build competitive decks and win two weeks after a new set is released. The tournament’s on the Saturday, Ancient Bonds comes out on Wednesday, and I have the intervening time to break the meta. Largely by myself. Eep.
Designing a team
I don’t know how much Senerai/Conquest is affected by overall team strategies. Is it important for me to choose decks that have some common thread, or a cohesive plan for the entire match? It probably helps, but I haven’t heard much about people doing this.
There are a few high-level strategic options that I know of:
Build strong stuff and hope
The first and most intuitive approach is just to build three good decks and play, without any particular slant. These are three decks you think will glean the overall highest winrate. A deck like this might be one of the format’s canonical ‘best’ decks (e.g. probably Bond Argeon, Control Faie and Control Cassyva right now), a new or obscure deck that attacks the meta well (Keeper Vaath when I started playing it), or a relatively unexpected combo deck you’re planning on surprising people with.
I think the strength of this method is that it’s relatively reliable. It’s not immune to fluctuations in the meta – far from it, since a deck’s power level is determined almost entirely by the decks around it – but it doesn’t rely very specifically on an accurate prediction, unlike the other option I’ve identified. It lets you just pick three decks you think give you the highest chance to win and go for it.
All your decks need to be strong, although if your lineup has one or two weak matchups, that’s largely OK. Since your opponent has to beat you with at least three decks, you can afford to accept that your Deck A might lose to Faie really hard, or even your entire lineup. In fact, you can probably get away with bringing three decks that all lose hard to one particular matchup but have inflated winrates against everything else, since your opponent can only earn one win from that deck (if they have it) before being forced to retire it. Using this method does rely on your other matchups carrying you pretty hard, so I’m not sure I’d be too keen on it in practice.
Target a specific deck
You have to win with each of your decks, but there’s no stipulation on which deck of your opponent’s that they have to beat. This opens the door to a sneaky alternate strategy where you bring three decks all targeted really hard at one particular deck you think your opponents will usually have. You lose two rounds, then go 3-0 against your preferred matchup. Value.
A lot can go wrong here. If your opponent doesn’t have the deck in question, you’re likely at a disadvantage. If your prediction of the meta is wrong and not many people are running it (if anyone at all), you’re going to be struggling uphill for the entire tournament. If the deck you teched against unexpectedly morphs into a form that’s a lot less vulnerable to your strategy, you’re having a rough time again. It’s a big ask for this to work, especially for a novice (me!) and double-especially with a new expansion releasing three days before the tournament.
I probably won’t be taking up this strategy, unless one particular deck absolutely floods the ladder in the days before the event. A lot of people are talking about Death Knell Abyssian decks (myself included, have you seen this nonsense?!), although if that does turn out to be viable, I suspect teching against it is going to be difficult.
It’s a new format – play aggro
Common wisdom among the Magic: the Gathering tournament scene holds that in the weeks immediately after a new format’s release, aggro is king. The control decks don’t know what to target yet, the combo decks are unrefined and underdeveloped, and the midrange decks need tuning. Aggro, regardless of however much work it needs, loves that sort of environment. When people have shonky mana curves, poor sideboards or decks built with relatively little respect to the rest of the format, the door is wide open for a bit of the ol’ SMOrc.
If Duelyst follows the same pattern, and people start experimenting with all the durdly synergistic cards from Ancient Bonds, it might be time for Plan F.* Assuming I, a humble n00b who jumped in at the right time, don’t personally break the meta in half in two days, it might be good to just build aggro instead of trying to find the best decks in an unknown field. Put on your red dress, Faie, and let’s tango with someone’s life total.
As a quick run-down, and to let me get my thoughts in order, I want to go over each of the factions and how likely I’d be to play them if the DWCQ started tomorrow. This information might become obsolete when Ancient Bonds shows up, but hopefully it’ll still be more or less accurate.
The Abyssian sisters have a lot of card quality and value to their name, but building Abyssian decks that work well is very difficult. A couple of card slots here and there can make the difference between a lean mean control machine and a clunky pile that runs out of gas more quickly than an airlock. Since the Rite of the Undervault nerf a few patches ago, it’s been much more difficult for Cassyva to put up a flurry of answers while also holding on to a strong late game, and Lilithe’s swarm decks aren’t much better off.
Swarm might be a good proactive strategy, especially if people cut back on AOE spells to fit in new toys or because they don’t expect many Wraithlings. Furosa is a hell of a card and the deck’s good draws can turbo out a pile of 3/3s or an early Grandmaster Variax for cheesy wins. Aggressive decks and Swarm’s usual bugbears of Tempest, Plasma Storm and Blistering Skorn are all offputtingly popular choices, but it’s an option worth exploring. I don’t think I have the chutzpah to pilot Cass control three days into a fresh new meta, especially one filled with ridiculous combos and massive new minions. On the other hand, Abyssians’ efficient removal might be exactly what’s needed to fight back against a wall of Golems, and if Healyonar’s meta presence is reduced, we don’t get humiliated for the crime of playing Kelaino any more.
There’s also Death Knell. The new Arcanyst to end (restart?) all Arcanysts, paired with a Nightshroud or six, is a clear contender for the first combo deck people are going to be trying to perfect out of the gates. I’ve tried coming up with a list, and my first attempt looks like complete trash, but I’ll have to put some ladder time into it to get a better idea of where I want to take the build. I’m not even sure which general is the right one. Lilithe gets Darkfire Sacrifice fodder and the option of a Furosa/Cryptographer early game, whereas Cassyva gets better survival tools and value plays as well as easy access to Punish.
Lyonar are unquestioningly the best faction in the game right now. Both Argeon and Zir’an are enjoying sustained success. Lyonar benefit from both card quality and card quantity (the latter thanks to Trinity Oath), and have access to both fearsome aggressive openings and disgusting combos.
Intuitively, all these signs point to me entering the collection manager and clicking on some Azurite Lions, but there’s a complicating factor. It’s very hard to get an edge in the mirror match if you’re just playing the ‘deck to beat’ of a format, especially as the player with less experience; instead, it’s generally better to find something that actually beats it. (This factor is the main reason for my initial burst of success with Keeper Vaath – it eats Healyonar, holds its own against the non-Divine Bond versions of aggro/tempo Argeon, and is pretty good against Control Faie, another hugely popular deck.) This seems like less of a factor in Conquest, since you need to find a bunch of decks and the mirror match is minimised, so it seems like a good idea for me to at least build and test a decent Argeon list and see how I like it. I have an idea or two for some spicy post-expansion goodness.
We all know I love Magmar, so I’ll skip the enthusiasm bit. Magmar stand to gain quite a bit from Ancient Bonds – Lavaslasher and Ragebinder are absurdly efficient midrange cards that go in almost any Magmar deck, including Keeper Vaath most likely, and Juggernaut is wildly entertaining if nothing else. A lot of early hype seems to be revolving around Golem Metallurgist/Celebrant/Kujata decks, which unsurprisingly occurred to me as well. I love Kujata decks, and I’d be surprised if I don’t make time to test at least a build or two before the tournament.
Of course, Golem-ish midrange is hardly the limit of Magmar’s domain. I built a Sphynx Starhorn deck a little while ago that really impressed me, and that seems like it’d be great against durdly combo decks like Death Knell or Ghost Seraphim builds. Collazo narrowly (but definitively) beat me with a Silhouette Tracer/Drogon build on ladder the other day, which is another good angle. Mech Starhorn is probably still a thing.
Magmar also have really good removal. Thumping Wave is both a transform and a powerful damage burst, although it’s rarely a card you can just casually cast. Egg Morph cleanly kills anything in the game provided you can get in range to attack it. Natural Selection and Plasma Storm are fantastic and scale well into the mid- to late-game (depending on matchup). Makantor Warbeast is Makantor Warbeast. With all these powerful, fairly generic cards, I’m likely to have clean answers in my deck to whatever my opponents want to bring.
The one thing Magmar don’t have is a really good three-dro- oh wait.
I used to play Songhai a ton. Specifically, backstab-happy Kaleos. I think at some point my desire to learn the ropes of the faction overtook my then-limited card collection. I picked a netdeck I liked (a hybrid midrange/backstab build by TheScientist, as I recall – basically a sleek combo deck with some Hamon Bladeseekers in it) and started figuring out how to play card gaming’s coolest faction. I loved that deck so much, and piloted it for months before the meta turned against it somewhat and I moved on to pastures new.
I’m rusty now. I dabble for quests sometimes, and I’ve been enjoying a highly unusual control Reva deck by Dragall, but I don’t have a lot of the nuanced experience with Songhai that the faction demands for good high-level play. Poor old Kaleos just isn’t that good nowadays, and Reva isn’t the same.
That aside, provided I can git sufficiently gud with a deck in the next week or so, I definitely like the idea of playing Songhai at the DWCQ. You can build a proactive, powerful combo deck, or a tempo deck, or a control deck, or something in between. If your opponent ever gives you breathing room, you can burst them down in a heartbeat, even with a controlling list. Ancient Bonds’ new faction Arcanysts look disgusting, and I have a vague sketch of a Sparrowhawk list already in mind.
The biggest obstacle to that idea is that tuning Songhai decks is always ridiculously hard. They have so many instant 3-of cards, and if I just head into the collection manager and start filling out a deck, I’m out of room by the time I’m halfway through the three-drops. Even if I can pick up some confidence with a deck, it’s entirely possible that my build will be total trash until I’ve refined it for a month.
Faie is something of an elephant in the room at the moment. Between Meltdown’s effect on competitive games, the sheer power of Enfeeble, and the eternally grouchable Mech Faie, she’s getting a not-entirely-undeserved bad rap. Post-expansion, there’s also the potential for Lightning Blitz + Ghost Seraphim + Spirit of the Wild combo decks, which if successful will be received entirely comfortably by the community and should inspire precisely zero salt.
I’m pretty happy piloting any of that nonsense myself, having spent quite a while experimenting gleefully with Vanar since Rise of the Bloodborn brought me Concealing Shroud and Grandmaster Embla. I don’t know if I’ll be able to come up with a good brew in time – while not as tough as Songhai, I’ve always found it very hard to get the right balance of cards in Vanar decks.
The comment I made on the Lyonar section about beating the mirror applies here, too. Assuming Control and/or Mech Faie remain popular, how do I find an edge? Mirror matches are often quite draw-dependent, and the last thing I want to do is rock up with my Windblade Adepts and Meltdowns only to just lose narrowly to people who are better at playing my deck than I am.
Oh, Vetruvian. It’s time to ask the same thing we ask every time a new expansion comes out: are you going to become good again?
Vet are in this awkward place where their cards are all actually really broken, but a bit awkward and easy to punish. Pyromancer, Obelysks, Wildfire Ankh, even stuff like Nimbus and Aymara Healer – if your opponent has it, you’re only falling further behind. The typical Vetruvian deck feels powerful when it goes off and useless otherwise.
I actually love Vetruvian, and always have. I like them aesthetically and for having the coolest, weirdest cards in the game. I’ll be testing them when Ancient Bonds comes out, seeing what I can break, but in my opinion the best chance Vetruvian have for me is for people to go easy on the dispel or Plasma Storms and let you get away with slamming obelysks. This is entirely possible, and if Vet get a cheap, highly efficient card in the expansion (to go with the powerful-but-slow Blood to Air) they might become viable purely on the strength of a Pax/Falcius/NewThing early game.
My leanings so far
I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to try and isolate a deck to target. The format’s too new and I’m only one, relatively inexperienced person. I like the idea of both getting super-aggressive and just playing the three best-looking decks I find – either of those seems like a reasonable option for me. I’ll figure out which over the course of my testing.
Given I’ve played them a ton recently, and they don’t look to get any weaker, Magmar are the strongest contender for a slot in my lineup right now. Lyonar need to be paid their due respects as the faction to beat, and based on sheer competitive pedigree, I wouldn’t be surprised if they or Vanar got in. Songhai are probably the most difficult but have a ton of appeal, Vetruvian hinge on the remaining spoilers and/or whether I think I can get away with it, and Abyssian are going to be difficult to build correctly but represent several potentially strong options.
At the moment, I’d describe myself as an even mix of excited and terrified. I’m champing at the bit to prove myself, but this DWCQ couldn’t throw me harder into the deep end with a diving bell. Demanding multiple new decks, in a format I’ve never played, three days after a new expansion totally upends the meta. Man. There’s the dream that I’ll be the one to find the breakout deck, or the best build of something, but realistically that’s unlikely; the pragmatic goal is just to put in the hours to find and tune three solid decks that have a powerful chance against the rest of this brave new world.
It’s going to be tough, but it’s an amazing challenge to take up. Let’s do this.