Running it Back (Top 8 at the Duelyst Open #4)

No rest for the wicked. Or indeed, the earnest newcomer trying his best to win some tournaments.

Since we last looked at my narrative of tournament reports, I’ve played another three: the fourth Duelyst Open, the Grand Melee, and another DWCQ. The Grand Melee is my next article, and today I’m going to continue where I left off and take a long look at the Open!

The Lineup

I played basically the same decks as at the DWCQ, forgoing Zirix on Day 1.

The Reva deck received a Blue Conjurer over a Trinity Wing, a decision I’m not sure was great – it’s not really a deck that cares about card advantage or efficient trading after the first couple of turns. Having something that helped me stay laden on minions was nice, though; as well as generating more Arcanysts for me, Conjurer lives through Lavaslasher and Makantor Warbeast, increasing the chances I’d be able to stick something on the board.

I also un-teched Keeper Vaath, expecting (correctly, it turned out) that Zirix would be dropped from people’s lineups in order to trim down to just two decks. The third Plasma Storm and the Kinetic Equilibrium transformed back into Adamantite Claws and Zurael, the Lifegiver. Claws is excellent against decks that can outgrind me (Cassyva usually) when I just need to SMOrc, and good in the Magmar mirror, which is often a damage/tempo race. Zurael counters Enfeeble and board-clearing plays in general, as well as reliably resurrecting Grove Lions.

Duelyst Open #4 Day 2 decks

The Day

I looked at the standings for this event and could feel only terror. 120 players, and absolutely rammed with big names. Pretty much everyone I’d ever heard of was there, including several Grandmasters. It was one of the most absurdly stacked fields I’ve ever seen.

The first day of the Open was seven best-of-three rounds of Conquest, a format I really enjoyed. BO3 Conquest involves each player bringing only two decks, and the first person to win with each of theirs takes the match. The rounds are short, and it’s easier to choose which Generals to play when, but you still get Conquest’s variety and unusual flow. I took Vaath and Reva into battle, leaving Zirix off since I felt it was the least targeted deck of the three, and the ones my opponents were most likely to target themselves.

My day started off with something of a bang, as JadedKronos killed me on turn 3 going first with what looked like all-in Swarm Abyssian. Ouch. Fortunately, I was able to beat Kronos’s other deck with both of mine and actually take the round, an auspicious sign. I lost round 3 to Yukarin, with the first game going south thanks to a fatal misclick where I Egg Morphed an Owlbeast Sage then passed the turn without killing it – I think I must not have input the attack on the egg correctly and clicked End Turn before the animations played out. I almost clawed it back, but lost narrowly, and got run over fair and square in game 2.

Vaath and Reva were firing on all cylinders for most of the day, though. I 2-0’d my next two rounds and nabbed a 2-1 victory over Dragall in round 6, avenging myself for my first Melee loss. Sadly rmoriar1 put an end to my ambitions in round 7 and knocked me back to 5-2, where I would have to rely on the will of the tiebreaker gods to get into the top 16.

Fortunately, I’d been playing against big names all day. Their combined might propelled me up the leaderboard to a comfortable 9th place, winning my spot on day 2!

The top 16 went back to best-of-five, three-deck Conquest, with no ban (unlike the DWCQ). I re-added Zirix to my arsenal, opting to run that rather than faffing around with Faie mirrors. Although a little soft to Faie itself, it was a straightforward, powerful deck, and I was confident my build was strong since there weren’t really many options after filling in the auto-pick slots. At this point in time, I hadn’t really found a build of Faie I would have happily played.

Day 2

My match in the round of 16 ended up 3-0 in my favour. As I recall, my opponent had an Argeon deck they queued up three times and each of my decks beat it, but that doesn’t mean things went flawlessly.

The Zirix game was close, and my opponent had two Tempests for my two Sirocco turns, but I had a lead on tempo throughout and made sure I was constantly working on Argeon’s life total. Many golems died in the holy quest for The Face, but we got there. I almost threw away the Vaath game by taking a greedy line and flooding my hand onto the board, letting my opponent catch up with a Holy Immolation. The second Trinity Oath meant I was now topdecking while they had cards, and I spent several turns trying to squeeze past the body blockers to deal the last few points of damage (including a tempo Zurael) before hitting a roughly 1-in-3 Makantor Warbeast off a Keeper of the Vale to steal the win. I don’t actually remember the Reva game at all; presumably I did some Songhai things and my opponent died.

Through to the top 8, in back-to-back weekends! I was pretty chuffed at this point. My next opponent was the fearsome Meziljie, and sadly, I lost 2-3. With the benefit of hindsight, though, I think I could’ve gotten the win.

My opponent’s generals were Faie, Vaath, and Argeon. The match went like this:

  • I queued up Vaath, expecting Meziljie to lead with Faie. This happened, and Keeper Vaath did its thing, netting me the first game.
  • I queued up Zirix next. I was a little nervous of playing the Reva deck and wanted to hold it back to avoid giving my opponent information about what was in it. My opponent stayed on Faie, and managed to shut me down by hiding behind a wall of buffed Prismatic Illusionist tokens. I lost, but to be fair, it was hilarious.
  • I stuck with Zirix and lost to Mez’s Vaath.
  • Zirix had one last chance at redemption against Argeon, and got there. (The Lyonar matchup is generally pretty good for that deck.)
  • Remember what happened last time I had Reva vs Lyonar in game five of a top 8 match? I had a weak turn 1, and Reva had her face summarily pushed in by Tempo Argeon beats, knocking me out of the tournament.

I’m not 100% sure why I didn’t pick the Songhai deck after the first game. I was anxious about playing it – to some extent I didn’t trust it, despite it doing really well for me on Day 1 – and had this flimsy reasoning about wanting to hold back information on the contents of the deck. I should have expected my opponent to stick with Faie, which is probably easier for Reva to beat than for Zirix. Not only that, but the Reva deck is really powerful if it doesn’t screw itself over early on – leaving it till last is actively harmful. It plays from behind badly but is quite heavily favoured to win if it gets a decent opening, and in that situation it doesn’t seem to have any really bad matchups except maybe Zir’an.

What I should have done (and would do, with hindsight) is to run out Reva in the second match. The Songhai list I built is powerful, aggressive, and genuinely better than I gave it credit for. I don’t know why I kept mistrusting it at the last minute if I was happy to take it to two separate high-profile tournaments. It can lose to itself, and on that basis it’s worth giving it multiple chances to win while I have the ability to absorb losses. Zirix can be defeated fairly easily by Faie (so I don’t even mind losing to that with Reva, since it gets it out of the way) and the Vaath matchup can go either way, so it’s not like I was expecting the Vetruvian golem army to cruise to victory.

What I learned

Every day I’m conquerin’

While I was already finding Conquest interesting, that final round hammered home that sequencing your generals properly is worth the effort. Predicting your opponent’s next deck feels arbitrary and is difficult when you’re already decision-fatigued, but it actively helps your win rate. Knowing your matchups well is vital, so you can gauge exactly how strong each of your decks really is. If you’re just putting each deck out there in some order until you win or lose, you’re missing out on substantial potential value.

Between three decks on each side, nine matchups are possible. In a match of three-deck Conquest you’ll never play more than five of those. It must be worth at least trying to make sure those five (or fewer) are ones where you’re favoured, and looking ahead to try to avoid situations like my DWCQ top 8 match, where the round came down to my Reva versus Envest’s Zir’an – never a situation you want to be in. I got a lot of mileage during both tournaments from simply leading with Keeper Vaath, expecting people to play Faie first.

Similarly, it seems worth allocating space to decks that are less reliable than others. If a match goes to a game 5, I think I’d rather be playing a consistent deck than an unreliable one (assuming even matchups for both). I’ve now had a few rounds where the Reva deck has had one shot at glory, missed its first or second turn and just died.

Thinking about it, I wonder if that means all my opponents who led with Faie could have benefitted from playing her last. I think a lot of people were doing the same thing as me, playing the wonkiest or weirdest deck at the end of a round instead of at the start. Maybe it’s better to play your best, most consistent deck at the end, so that if the chips are down, you know you can depend on the raw power and solidity of something like Arcanyst Vanar over your offbeat hopefully-anti-meta brew.

This is going to sound unrelated, but game designer David Sirlin wrote of his game Yomi:

The first step to making a rock, paper, scissors mechanic interesting is to have way different payoffs for winning with each option. For example, if winning with rock gives you $10, winning with scissors gives you $3, and winning with paper gives you $1, there’s a least a little more to it. […]

It’s a lot better if the payoffs for each option are unclear. In the example above, it’s trivially easy to know how much better the payoff is for rock than paper: it’s exactly 10 times better. To make it a lot more interesting, the payoffs should be extremely difficult to compare or even to compute in the first place.

I wonder if General sequencing in Conquest has a dynamic like that? We can look at it like this:

  • It might be good to lead with your most consistent deck last. Or perhaps you want your conventional decks first and your weird ones later. (Unequal payoff, either way.)
  • It’s definitely good to try to predict your opponent’s deck choice and choose something with a good matchup against it. (Rock-paper-scissors dynamic with a “double blind” choice, i.e. neither player knows the other’s decision before they pick, which is the sort of system Sirlin is covering in his article.)
  • You don’t know how your opponent wants to sequence their decks, or even what’s in them beyond the generals. (Unclear payoff.)

I haven’t been able to find any guides to the Conquest format out there, so I’d be really interested to hear your opinions on this, as well as exploring the format myself and reporting back. There’s a comment section on this article and I’m usually around on Reddit and Discord (as SonofMakuta) – give me a shout if you have any thoughts!

More tempo than a metronome shop

Wow, Duelyst is tempo-heavy.

For readers unfamiliar with the concept, “tempo” in CCGs is a hard-to-define notion that I usually liken to momentum. One player will have a tempo advantage at any given time, allowing them to make proactive plays and force the opponent to defend themselves. Most of the time, the player with tempo advantage is the one who’s ahead on board, or the player whose turn it is if the board is empty. They have the initiative, and the momentum of the game is on their side.

Controlling the tempo in Duelyst is hugely powerful. Being the first person to act lets you dictate how minions trade; being the first person to play a minion on an empty board lets you develop uncontested threats and take control of board space. If the board is empty on your turn, it’s much easier to play a Kelaino or an Owlbeast Sage in a safe spot (say, behind your General) than if your opponent has additional threats, especially without giving up ground in the process. Certain cards can provide tempo swings or mitigate an opponent’s tempo lead – for instance, Spectral Revenant can remove your opponent’s minion and develop a threat at the same time. Cheap removal such as Draining Wave or powerful AOEs like Makantor Warbeast provide heavy tempo gains, either helping you catch up from behind or pushing you massively further ahead.

Duelyst has a few traits that accentuate the strength of tempo:

  • Minions can attack each other, so the player ahead on board can keep an opponent on the back foot easily and make favourable trades in the process.
  • Generals can attack. This means that if your life total is not under pressure, you can generate card advantage and tempo by using your face to help kill things. This usually happens when you’re ahead on board. You can also trade damage with your opponent to push the game towards a conclusion.
  • The game has a spatial element. Body blocking, protecting or hiding minions, and pressuring the opponent are all easier if you have command of more real estate on the grid than your opponent does (not to mention the existence of mana tiles). Playing around AOE spells such as Holy Immolation is also much easier when you have the ability to spread your minions out.
  • Certain mechanics (bond, buff spells, Arcanyst spell synergy) are enabled or vastly improved if you can start your turn with a minion in play.
  • There are very few cards in the game that aren’t more effective when your opponent started their turn with no minions in play. Additionally, mitigating your opponent’s synergistic plays has a lot of value.

In summary: being ahead on tempo makes your cards better, your opponent’s cards worse, your positioning better, and their positioning worse.

I bring this up because I’ve been seeing a pattern in Duelyst for a long time that’s never been more evident than it is now: the ‘best deck’ or decks of a meta almost always turn out to be tempo decks. Right now, the top dogs are Tempo Magmar (otherwise known as “Turn 1 Flash Reincarnation, Spelljammer, move forward, go”) and Arcanyst Faie (a weird tempocontrolsynergymidrange hybrid thing, but fundamentally relying heavily on tempo plays via Owlbeast Sage, extremely efficient removal, mana acceleration, and Trinity Wing to own the board).

Even the control decks and combo decks usually act like tempo decks in disguise – outside of Vanar decks with Enfeeble, there aren’t many proper board wipes (and no cheap ones), so letting your opponent build up a board in order to get them with a [link me]Day of Judgment[/link] isn’t a thing. Combo decks likewise can’t buy enough time to assemble a win without fighting for the board early on; outside of the occasional absurd draw, it’s very difficult to play Songhai or Artifact Sajj and just ignore your opponent for the whole game.

I think that Tempo Argeon has quietly been the ‘best deck’ in competitive Duelyst for a long time, and was only recently ousted. The only reason it isn’t now is that Lavaslasher is insane against it. (Magmar were decent against Lyonar before Ancient Bonds came out, and now…) When you’re a tempo deck relying on sticking minions on the board, the last thing you want is for your opponent to play a 4/5 that kills your threat on turn 2.

In building and tuning my decks, this same theme stuck out. Focus on tempo. Find ways to constantly pressure the opponent while removing their stuff, or go face so ruthlessly efficiently that the opponent dies before they can properly fight back. Keeper Vaath does the former, and I wanted the Reva deck to do the latter. In practice, Reva ended up making tempo plays anyway – a lot of my wins came from clearing the opponent’s first couple of minions with Phoenix Fire/Lantern Fox then sticking an Owlbeast Sage and snowballing it to victory. The deck plays very badly from behind, having almost no cards that can catch it up on board, and staying ahead on tempo was vital. I think the meta might be more tempo-oriented right now than it’s ever been.

Wrapping up

I had a great time at the Open. Best-of-3 Conquest combines Conquest’s dynamism with short rounds and less demand on your ability to build and test an array of decks, and ended up being a lot of fun. (I also liked how it was easier to keep track of which generals neither of you had played yet…)

Two top 8s in a row isn’t an achievement to be sniffed at either, especially considering how absurdly stacked the Open was with great players. I’m delighted. In both cases I got in on tiebreakers, and I guess (results-wise) the goal is now to reach that elusive X-1.

That’s no mean feat, of course. As well as the skill requirement, a lot can go wrong every time you sit down to play, which I find really quite stressful if I’m honest. Worrying about it consumes me in the hour or so before an event. Between fatigue, misplays, misclicks and bad matchups/unlucky draws, it’s a miracle anyone wins rounds at all, really.

Attaching a goal to my win rate over a small sample size of matches is a fast track to disappointment, so instead my aim is to keep improving my command of the game and do my best to work on the mental and emotional aspects. Even just entering two tournaments on subsequent weekends is a feat of endurance, and I’m doing way more than that right now. I’m learning a ton and having loads of fun, but it’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. Given I have a day job and a ton of things to do that aren’t testing for Duelyst tournaments, I worry constantly that I won’t be sufficiently prepared, won’t target my decks correctly, won’t know matchups well enough, won’t know what my opponents are doing.

That’s just another obstacle to overcome, though. At some point this glut of events will ease up, and I’ll be able to sit back a bit and reflect. (Expect more articles.) I have a burning desire to actually become a Grandmaster, but I’m still a neophyte in comparison to some of these players – it’s difficult and statistically unlikely, so I’m better off focusing on the learning experience and having a good time for now. Try telling that to my brain the day before a DWCQ, though.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I hope it was interesting and informative. I’ll be back next time with my experiences from the Grand Melee!

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!