Hello again! It’s learning time!
For this article, I’m going to divert from talking about positioning (don’t worry, it’ll be back) to go on to another valuable topic: Gauntlet draft strategy. Building Gauntlet decks is very different from the way you’d construct them in the collection manager, and over time I’ve figured out an approach that’s been working well for me. I want to go over what I understand about the format, and lay out how I’ve tackled its unique constraints.
In Gauntlet, you can’t go all-in like you can on the ladder. You can be more aggressive or more controlling than average (and certainly more than your opponent, which is worthy of an article in itself), but it’s basically impossible to build a fully fledged aggro deck or a fully fledged control deck the way you would with a preconstructed deck. Starting a Gauntlet run with the expectation that you’ll always be going face or always be playing for resource advantage is an easy mental trap to fall into, and will cost you games.
This is because pure aggro or pure control decks require a lot of specific, focused tools, and in Gauntlet you will have a certain amount of ordinary dorks and mediocre removal in your deck. Your opponents can also have more or less anything. You can slant your draft one way or another, but there’s no guarantee you’ll draw the right parts of your deck at the right time. If you’re trying to be hyperaggressive you leave yourself vulnerable to healing, provokes, or a slower start than your opponent; if you’re trying to be controlling you might just lose to a random legendary or your opponent having a slightly slower, greedier deck (or draw) than your own.
My preferred approach is to look to make a flexible deck that’s decent at all stages of the game. I want to be able to draw a quick opening when my opponent stumbles, and defend myself when my opponent starts out fast. I want to be able to make tempo plays to swing the board, grind resources in the midgame, and push face damage to progress towards victory. In theory, I can glue all of these options together using the replace mechanic, and maximise the impact of each card with solid positional play.
That is, my draft strategy aims to:
Win on all axes at once
- Go face – A game of Duelyst is won when someone takes lethal damage. Any opportunity you have to progress towards that win condition is valuable, so I want to set up to take those opportunities.
- Get or stay ahead on resources, unless/until it’s irrelevant – Running out of cards relative to your opponent makes it very hard to win unless your opponent is on low life. During the early- and midgame, I want to be efficient with my use of cards, and try to keep ahead on resources. This means that I’ll be ahead if the game goes long.
- Get or stay ahead on tempo, unless/until it’s irrelevant – Card advantage is useless if your opponent owns the board and is applying heavy pressure. Conversely, as we’ve seen in my articles on positioning, having a lead on tempo makes it much easier to trade efficiently, constrain your opponent, and bash them upside the head. I want to be able to own the momentum of the game and control the board.
That seems like a tall order, right? “Hey Adam, how do I win at Gauntlet?” “Oh, just have a deck that’s better at every aspect of the game than your opponent’s, replace well, and position well. Easy seven wins every time.”
Fortunately, it’s not that bad. The ideal Gauntlet deck does fit that description, but the point is more that (in my opinion) you should prepare for combat on every axis.
In Constructed play you’re discouraged from including mismatched themes – don’t put Frostfire in your Control Faie deck, or Circle of Desiccation in your low-curve aggro deck. Drawing an off-theme card is similar to drawing a blank, and will use up your valuable replaces.
In Gauntlet, usually about half your deck is generic OK stuff – Hailstone Golems, random two-drops, bad removal. This means that if the remaining half is divided among themes, you still have a portion of your deck that works with each theme. Suppose I have a Vanar deck with a strong late game and solid defensive cards. I’ll still run a Frostfire because making a Crystal Cloaker into a 7/6 on turn 2 and bashing your opponent in the face is a really strong play. You get ahead on tempo, put your opponent on the back foot, force them to deal with the 7/4 and chop off a quarter of their life total. In Constructed the risk of not assembling the combo, or the chance your opponent can easily remove the 7/4 and heal the damage, is too great to justify throwing the card in; in Gauntlet the power level is much lower. If your Crystal Cloakers don’t show up, you can just replace the Frostfire (or hold onto it to make a 7/6 later) and carry on casting your ordinary generic bodies.
When drafting, there are five main things I pay attention to:
- Curve – You want to use your mana efficiently every turn, which is best accomplished with a good mana curve.
- Card advantage – Drawing extra cards or removing minions for free can pull you ahead on resources.
- Raw stats – Big, hard-hitting minions force your opponent to come up with answers or they’ll die.
- Answers – You need to stop your opponent from doing all of this stuff to you first.
- Synergy – Break the balance of the game by playing cards that combine to be greater than the sum of their parts.
Generally, I won’t pick a card unless it advances my goals in at least one of these measures (assuming it’s not a bad card up against two other bad cards). I do my best to keep track of how I’m doing in all of these sections and make up for any deficits as I go along.
Following your dreams
Despite my encouragement of playing balanced, midrangey decks, it’s rare that a draft will wind up exactly on that average midpoint. You might have a deck that’s a bit slower or a bit faster than the ideal, or leans more heavily on synergy. This is absolutely fine, and can reap benefits if you draft to support the theme without overcommitting to it.
The first five or ten picks of a draft will shape the overall direction of the deck, and the rest are usually spent fleshing out that decision. If I’m going to be able to support a tribal theme, be more aggressive, or be slower, this will usually be evident in the first third of the draft. Similarly, if I take one or more strong cards that have a high chance of winning me the game if I support them properly, I’ll be heavily incentivised to move in that direction. Later on in the draft, I probably won’t have the ability to build around those cards the way I’d want to, so jumping on them early can be rewarding.
For instance, I once drafted a controlling Magmar deck after first-picking a Fractal Replication, an absurd late-game card that wants me to run multiple other big expensive bombs. If the Replication had shown up towards the end of that draft, chances are I would have been too committed to a typical, lighter curve to make use of it. Having taken the card early on, I shaped my draft around defence and was able to take more 6-drops than I usually would, in order to put together my hopefully-overpowering late game. (I also took a Golden Justicar for the wombo combo.)
Other cards I could’ve opened to the same effect include Tectonic Spikes (play aggro!) and Morin-Khur (play a rebirth combo deck!).
With this in mind, let’s go over each of my drafting goals in its own section.
Your mana curve in Duelyst is very important. Duelyst is a heavily tempo-focused game, and spending your mana more efficiently than your opponent can put you far ahead in a game. To do this, you want to maximise your chances of having a relevant, strong play on each turn of the game up to about turn 6 or 7, and the way to do that is by paying attention to your mana curve.
1- and 2-drops
As often bemoaned by justifiably salty players, missing your turn 1 play in Duelyst is too often a death sentence. Although your opponent’s deck is less likely to be able to punish you in Gauntlet, it’s also harder for you to come back from the tempo deficit, so you still want a good number of 2-drops in your deck. 2-mana minions are also easy to play alongside a removal or buff spell in the midgame, ensuring you don’t spend your entire turn answering one enemy minion. At the same time, you don’t want to end up topdecking them later if you can help it, since they tend to be individually low-impact. 1-drops are usually passed over for being bad cards, but there are a few good ones, most notably Bloodtear Alchemist and the fearsome Katara; I tend to lump them in with 2-drops in my thinking.
From experience and some approximated maths, I recommend including 5-6 one- or two-drops in your deck that you aren’t unhappy playing on turn 1 going first. This means Ephemeral Shrouds and Phoenix Fires don’t count; you need to meaningfully affect the board. You want that stuff too, of course – cheap removal is great for tempo swings – but the value of being able to reliably plop down a 2/3 on your first turn cannot be overstated.
The best 2-drops are the ones that can win you the game, like Vale Hunter or Circulus. The next best ones are those that have good bodies and some mid- or late-game utility. Primus Fist, Healing Mystic and Rust Crawler are great in Gauntlet, with Primus Fist in particular being one of the best cheap neutral minions you can pick up.
When you’re going second, 3-drops are also playable on the first turn, effectively increasing your pool of turn-1 plays 50% of the time. The majority of them will at least trade with a 2-drop, although surprisingly few will do a lot more than that; almost every 2-drop will die to combat with a 2/3 plus a General hit. Duelyst doesn’t have a ton of great 3-drops compared to the other slots, especially prior to Ancient Bonds, and in Constructed in particular you’ll tend to see the same ones over and over again. (I expect this is to avoid exacerbating the slight advantage player 2 gets.)
The outstanding 3-drops are mostly pretty obvious; just go and look at the ladder for a bit. Silverguard Knight, Ragebinder and Ki Beholder are great, and the other ranged minions don’t suck either. Sojourner is lovely. Kindred Hunter is awesome if you’re very, very lucky, and rubbish otherwise. I want to give a shout out to a subtle overperformer here, which is Ghoulie. Ghoulie has a great body – it survives cheap removal and eats 1/3s without dying to a General hit. It also adds power and redundancy to any and all tribal cards you happen to pick up, making it a lot easier to enable things like Frostfire and Scion’s Third Wish. Tribal payoffs tend to be very strong, and I’m more than happy to pick up a 3/4 for 3 that works with any random overpowered buff spells I happen to come across.
Thanks to how mana tiles and Bloodborn spells work, 4-drops are the meat and potatoes of a lot of Duelyst decks. Player 1 can take a mana tile and play a 4-drop on turn 2, then will probably be stuck casting another one next turn as the mana tiles are gobbled up (or they might be able to play a 4-drop onto a remaining mana tile and BBS). Player 2 doesn’t usually get a mana tile on their second turn, but can naturally play a 4-drop followed by 4-drop + BBS as their turn 3 if they don’t have a 5-drop to hand.
Duelyst also features a profusion of good 4-drops for all factions and playstyles. There are loads of great neutral ones that fit into any deck – regardless of how aggressive or controlling you are, any Gauntlet deck appreciates a solid body to throw out on turn 2 or play alongside another card later on. The likes of Dioltas, Blistering Skorn, Sunsteel Defender, and even Hailstone Golem represent both value and tempo, as they have a hefty board presence and can trade with multiple enemy cards. Silhouette Tracer is a quietly powerful card – as well as its potential with artifacts, it usually reads “Opening Gambit: Deal 2 damage”. It’s been doing a lot of work for me in Vet deck as an efficient way to kill Vale Hunters, which the faction normally wouldn’t have access to.
On paper, 5-drops are somewhat less necessary than 4-drops, but there are some extremely powerful ones out there. Five mana is just under ‘bomb’ territory, so you won’t usually see cards capable of winning games by themselves here, but there are some extremely good ones that require minimal support to pick up victories. Just in the neutral minions selection we see Dancing Blades, Blue Conjurer, Sunset Paragon, Inquisitor Kron, the underrated Sworn Defender, and more. There are lots of powerful faction cards too – from the obviously bonkers Lavaslasher and Ironcliffe Guardian, to the weird and powerful Onyx Jaguar and Second Sun, to the two best AOEs in the game in Frostburn and Plasma Storm.
The sheer card quality at the 5-drop slot – without being as clunky as a lot of 6-drops are – makes it almost inevitable that a few will wind their way into your deck. Don’t run too many, since flooding on them is bad, but use them and win games with them.
6- and 7-drops
I always do my best to make sure my deck has one or two legitimate bombs in it. Having a 6-drop means you have something great to topdeck when the game goes long or if you run out of cards, and the jump in sheer size between 5-drops and 6-drops is considerable.
Unless I’m playing a very controlling deck, I’ll try not to pick up more than two. This has the pleasing side effect of allowing me to pass on random expensive cards in favour of lower-curve tools until quite late in the draft. There are lots of expensive bombs to go around, and they appear in packs quite often, so I don’t prioritise getting one until the last 10 picks or so. A deck without one can still win, whereas a deck with too many will struggle getting on the board early on. The bomb doesn’t need to be anything fancy; I’ll usually aim to pick up a Stormmetal Golem or Silverbeak. Being large and immune to dispel is its own rules text. (First Sword of Akrane is an acceptable substitute, but for some reason always underperforms compared to its bigger brethren.)
The reason behind this light touch when it comes to the top end is because my overall strategy tends not to need it. I’m usually trying to draw extra cards, meaning I can keep spending mana efficiently into the late game by playing multiple cards per turn, rather than aiming to play 7-drops. I’m also trying to put pressure on my opponent and chip down their life total, using tempo advantage to get in repeated damage. None of that really needs an 8/8 for 6 or a big legendary, and they mostly act as panic buttons. If everything’s gone wrong and you’re out of stuff to do, or the game is grinding on and you just want a big impactful play, slamming a random huge body is a perfect solution.
All that said, if you offered me the chance to put a Pandora in my deck, I’d take it every time. Cards like that (or the Fractal Replication I mentioned earlier) are their own gameplans. A direct route to victory like that has value all to itself, and is worth diverging from the basic strategy for. Just don’t feel like you need to support your 3/10 wolf generator with a cohort of Stormmetal Golems; you’re still better off with tools that put your opponent off balance early on and force them into a reactive role, stretching their resources for when you land your combo/legendary/other game-ending play.
Most experienced Duelyst players will know why card advantage is good. Having more resources than your opponent advantages you if the game goes long, gives you more options for each of your plays than they have, and improves the value you get off the replace mechanic. Like mana, cards are another resource that warrants using efficiently.
I value card advantage quite highly in Gauntlet, especially card advantage that affects the board. If I can make a minion and remove a minion with the same card (Maw, Falcius, Dancing Blades, etc), I’m earning tempo and card advantage. I’m winning both the immediate game and the late game. Straight-up draw spells such as Divine Spark are a lot worse, but I’m very fond of minions that fill up your hand passively or removal spells that hit multiple opposing creatures.
There are a surprising number of good ways to earn extra cards in Duelyst. Sojourner is one of the most popular – everyone’s favourite Gambit Girl is common on the ladder for good reason. She fills up your hand and digs through your deck while still occupying space on the board, and although she doesn’t hit all that hard, she carries buffs very well. Golden Mantella and Void Hunter are fragile, but if you set them up to trade with an opposing minion rather than die to a General hit, they can be extremely powerful. There are lots of removal spells that can clear multiple targets – anything from Tempest to Blood of Air to Adamantite Claws.
More subtly, card advantage also comes from good trades on the board. If I eat a 3/4 Scintilla with a 4/6 Hailstone Golem, I’ve traded with your minion and kept a 4/3 on the board. Imagine a 4/3 for 4 that destroyed a minion next to it – how disgusting would that card be? That’s what my Golem just did.
This also makes minions or artifacts that can attack for free extremely powerful. They can go face without suffering the typical attrition of the General’s counterattack, and they can kill a theoretically unbounded number of enemy minions over the course of a game. Infinite card advantage, and a healthy helping of tempo along the way! Examples of these powerhouses include ranged minions (Vale Hunter), blast minions (Pyromancer), forcefield minions (Sunsteel Defender), self-healing minions (Suntide Maiden, Sworn Defender), and Arclyte Regalia (Arclyte Regalia). During the draft, value these cards highly; during the games, play to support them as best you can. They will win you games like nobody’s business.
Void Hunter and Necroseer
These two are so underrated! Void Hunter dies to a General hit, yes, but you can hide it in a spot where they can’t attack it to make for a perfect rattlesnake. Your opponent either has to give you a value trade or spend turns hiding their minions from your random 4/2. Necroseer is just big enough where it’s not that easy to remove and feels pretty awful to hit with your General, and even if they kill it easily, you draw a card (or if they dispel it, you use up their dispel and get a 5/4 in profit). Necroseer is somewhat upstaged by its more powerful cousin Grincher, but it’s still a perfectly good card.
Captain Hank Hart
Dank Hart has been the centrepiece of quite a few of my Gauntlet games. At four mana, he’s clunky for a ranged minion, but his ability lets him survive repeated chip damage from AOE spells, pings, or attacking enemy ranged units. He’s surprisingly annoying to get rid of, since if an attack doesn’t kill him he’ll counterattack and restore all that health again.
It’s important not to undervalue minions that are simply quite large. “Big” is its own line of rules text; although you don’t typically see them played on ladder, cards like Stormmetal Golem command attention from your opponent that smaller creatures just don’t. Bonus points if it’s something that doesn’t shrink when dispelled, like a Golem or a Chaos Elemental.
The main weakness of minions like this is clunk. They usually cost a lot and don’t contribute much to the battlefield when not attacking smaller targets (such as the enemy’s General). They tend not to have good immediate utility or defensive power; the ones that do are usually legendaries (Spectral Revenant and Elyx Stormblade for instance) and will rarely show up.
Despite this, running a couple will still get you far (as I mentioned earlier). They shrug off most forms of removal or minion trades, and hit like a ton of bricks. An 8/8 can attack almost anything in the game and survive, only dies outright to hard removal, and chops a third of your opponent’s health total off when it connects. That’s a whole lot of utility for something that may not have any explicit text at all. Offsetting the tempo loss of playing some expensive bomb, they also body-block well; you can often shove them close to the enemy without fear, and they’re not too easily displaced.
On a subtler level, this extends all the way down the mana curve. Nobody wants to drop Ephemeral Shroud on turn 1; you want a 2/3 or something with substantial upside. Looking out for minions that aren’t likely to die on the cheap or be outclassed by your opponent’s next play will get you far. Since Gauntlet is unpredictable, playing small minions with weird abilities doesn’t work very reliably, but big things with minor upside tend to slot together well.
Knowing health breakpoints gets you far in Duelyst. Playing minions with power and/or health that matches these breakpoints will help you make good trades and frustrate your opponent’s:
- 3 health means it doesn’t die to a General hit or a typical two-drop (2/3).
- 4 health means it doesn’t die to Saberspine Tiger, Dancing Blades, Vaath on turn 3, Frostburn, or Phoenix Fire. A lot of 3-drops are 3/3s or smaller, so the few 3/4s have an advantage here.
- 5 health means it doesn’t die to a 2/3 and a General hit. This is why Silverguard Knight is so good; it forces the trade (since it has provoke) and survives unless they have some other source of damage. 5 health is also bigger than a few very strong removal spells you would like to avoid getting blown out by: Cryogenesis, Holy Immolation, Lavaslasher, and Makantor Warbeast.
- 6 health usually survives two small effects (cheap/incidental removal, General hits, small creatures). 4-drops with 6 health tend to be removable by the opponent in their turn, but only with some effort. Playing Hailstone Golem on turn 2 is almost always great, and (I think) often better than 2-drop + Phoenix Fire unless your opponent’s minion is really strong (e.g. Circulus, a ranged minion).
- 7 health and above means it doesn’t die to anything mentioned above + a General hit. In my opinion, 7 health is where minions start getting really sticky, and a 7hp body in the midgame takes significant time and effort to remove.
To Gauntlet diehards, Oculus is fairly well-known as a card that gets out of hand very quickly, but it bears repeating here for anyone unfamiliar with it. Crimson Oculus looks bad on the surface – it’s small, vulnerable to dispel, and not all that cheap – but it’s just about efficient enough that its absurd ceiling is worth it. Tuck an Oculus away safely in the early turns and your opponent will be running away from an 8/9 before they can say “Where’s my Saberspine Tiger?”. Even if you draw it later on, provided your opponent still has cards in hand, it will grow to a respectable size rapidly considering how cheap it is to deploy.
A small tip for playing with this card: Zirix, Lilithe and Reva will cause it to trigger when they BBS. (I used to have another tip here, but apparently it was wrong – thanks Sylvermyst!)
Yes, it has to be next to your General. Yes, it gets wrecked by dispel, Daemonic Lure, Repulsor Beast, or whatever. That doesn’t matter. Pick this card. It’s massive, undercosted, and helps maximise Afterblaze (another card you’ll want to run if you can).
Even if it gets dispelled, you can Roar it into a still-respectable 2/8 and go from there. Pick this card.
Silverbeak and the 5-6 mana Golems
I mentioned these already, but it’s worth reiterating. Brightmoss Golem, Diamond Golem, Stormmetal Golem and Silverbeak all look boring, but adding one or two to your deck is a really good idea. They’re powerful simply due to their sheer size, and a chore to remove. I sometimes keep Stormmetal Golem in my opening hand when I’m going second because I can just jam it on turn 4 and see if my opponent has an answer.
In Gauntlet, Brightmoss Golem has most of the advantages of Ironcliffe Guardian despite being neutral; it’s a way better card than it looks. (Sometimes you can even fake the provoke by body-blocking with it.) Back in the day, there was a period of time when Hollow Grovekeeper was absolutely everywhere, and some Lyonar players actually ran this card in proper decks as a substitute for everyone’s favourite airdropping Divine Bond magnet.
Dragonbone Golem is iffy – although it’s suitably enormous, seven mana is a lot. Ideally, if I’m paying 7 I want some kind of bomb legendary that represents multiple kinds of threat, such as a Pandora or Dark Nemesis.
Removal and dispel are key components of any Duelyst deck, and in Gauntlet this is no different. You need to be able to gain tempo by efficiently removing enemy minions, deal with powerful utility creatures hidden far away, and avoid dying to large bombs (such as described in the previous section).
At the same time, most removal spells are situational. They might have a condition on their casting, only work against a subset of enemies, and/or be expensive. This doesn’t necessarily make them bad cards – far from it – but it doesn’t mean you can pack your deck full of them. You won’t always have the right one for the situation, and minions can also be used to remove other minions (as well as control the board or win the game), so a healthy mix of spells and minions is the way to go. Ideally weighted towards the “has power and health” end of the spectrum.
On the pure removal spell front, I like to have:
- At least one card that can kill really big things, such as an Aspect of the Fox or Blood of Air. Ideally 2-3, if they’re good ones.
- One or two dispel effects. I wouldn’t like to run more than one Ephemeral Shroud since it’s quite situational and its body is so small.
- A couple of cheap removal spells. The more efficient and flexible they are, the more I want; I’d gladly play 3-4 Chromatic Colds or Natural Selections.
- Anywhere from 0 to about 3 AOE spells depending on what they are. Some AOE cards are a bit too low-impact to be worth a slot (Ghost Lightning), rarely worth their own awkwardness (Kinetic Equilibrium) or expensive/clunky (Necrotic Sphere). Others can win you the game on the spot (Frostburn, Plasma Storm, Enfeeble, Metamorphosis, Holy Immolation). Since AOEs often affect your own stuff too, whether you can make good use of them depends partially on your deck, but remember that you’re the one deciding whether to pull the trigger – they’re never truly symmetrical.
I will supplement these with:
- As many decent-sized minions that provide any of the above as I can get my hands on. Maw, Falcius, Saberspine Tiger, Blistering Skorn, Dancing Blades, Sunset Paragon, Lavaslasher/Makantor if we’re in fairyland, you name it. These cards fulfil all our win conditions at once.
- A pump spell or two, if I can find good ones. You can get solid bursts of extra tempo from things like Greater Fortitude – sometimes removing an enemy minion your opponent didn’t expect and leaving yourself a bigger threat than you started with. Afterblaze, although expensive, is king of this.
- Good artifacts. If you’d play it on ladder, it’s likely worth a pick. If you wouldn’t, it probably isn’t. Be careful with some of the Songhai ones since they’re primarily synergy pieces.
All together, this adds up to around 5-8 removal spells plus a buff. Usually, the rest will be minions, unless you have an artifact or some really powerful combo spell. In Gauntlet, drafting cards that don’t affect the board in some way is a risky strategy; Duelyst is so board-focused that you often can’t afford the time off, and in Gauntlet you have reduced access to tools that let you make up for it.
Why not just play removal for days?
Here’s a little bit of CCG theory mixed with personal opinion: I would much rather be proactive than reactive.
“Proactive” here means that you’re working towards ending the game, whereas “reactive” means you’re trying to stop your opponent from winning. (This parallels the aggressive vs. defensive dynamic I discussed in my first strategy article.) Typically, playing reactively implies you have some plan to win the game later on, be it an insurmountable late-game or a winning combo you need to set up.
Playing reactively has two potential problems:
- Both dominating late-games and combos are much harder to put together in Gauntlet than on the ladder, and you have no real guarantee that your late-game is better than your opponent’s.
- Stopping your opponent from killing you is much easier when you have a lead on the board. Playing reactively after you’ve gotten off to a proactive start is more productive than staying in defence mode for the entire time, because you’ll have minions on board that can attack and control space.
Removal spells are inherently reactive. They stop an enemy minion from threatening you, but by themselves, don’t help you actually win. If neither of us have anything on board save for your Hailstone Golem, and I Martyrdom the Hailstone Golem then pass the turn, all I’ve done is returned to equilibrium. You could play another, larger minion next turn and I’d be even worse off.
Used to supplement a proactive strategy, however, removal is very powerful. Suppose we look at the example above again, but now I have a Hailstone Golem of my own in play as well. I can attack your Golem with mine and my General, then play a bigger minion. Or, I can play Martyrdom and go face, protecting my Hailstone, getting in damage, and keeping a 4/4 on board that you have to respect. I can stay ahead and force you into the weaker, reactive role. I also have a choice of whether or not to use the Martyrdom – I can save it to potentially answer your five-drop.
Removal is often cheaper than the minions it’s meant to destroy, too, or comes with some upside. You’re rewarded for using a kill spell on its intended target. This means you can make tempo swings when you’re behind, or push an opponent further under when you’re ahead. For instance, if I have a Healing Mystic I can play alongside my Martyrdom in the example above, I can kill your Golem and start fighting back with a 2/3 in the first case, or blow up your only minion and leave you under pressure from two threats in the second case.
In each case, the more minions I can have in play, the better. Drafting too many removal spells risks you flooding on them, and can leave you unable to do anything other than stall out the game until your opponent finds something you can’t easily answer. Committing to the board at every chance you get rarely leads you wrong, and using removal to supplement and protect your minions is a much more reliable way to win games of Gauntlet than some scenario where you hypothetically just kill everything your opponent plays and win later.
On top of all this, there are plenty of occasions where a kill spell isn’t quite enough. Phoenix Fire against a 3/4, Blood of Air against a buffed 3-drop on turn 2, Frostburn against a lone large Golem. There are also minions that generate additional value on Opening Gambit or Dying Wish, embarrassing removal by leaving the minion’s controller up on resources after the exchange (nobody wants to Phoenix Fire a Void Hunter). Having the wrong removal spells in hand is a huge risk in an answer-heavy strategy, whereas you can rarely go wrong with just playing minions until your opponent is forced to answer your questions.
Even Constructed control decks, which get to run the indomitable finishers and precise mix of answers they need, benefit from proactive plays in the early- and midgame. There’s a reason Lavaslasher sees loads of play and Cryogenesis doesn’t. In Gauntlet you rarely have that luxury – so don’t be too greedy with removal spells. Pick them and play them, but remember that you’re almost always trying to win by jamming minions on the board and seeing if your opponent dies.
The final piece of the puzzle is trying to incorporate some synergy in your deck.
Two synergistic cards are better than the sum of their parts, so you’re (often heavily) rewarded for combining them. Sometimes synergies are explicit, like Golem Metallurgist discounting other Golems or Arcanysts asking you to run a bunch of spells. Other times they’re more subtle, such as Shiro Puppydragon + ranged units (ranged units benefit disproportionately from power increases), or Kara Winterblade + small utility minions (pushing them above the power/health breakpoints I talked about in the Raw Stats section).
Whenever you’re evaluating cards, especially when comparing two close options, check to make sure if a particular card will improve the ones already in your deck. This goes doubly for the choice of General you get at the end – most factions have one that’s substantially better than the other, but with the right deck even the off Generals can be powerhouses.
There are two awkward aspects of synergy in Gauntlet. One of them is gauging how much you want, and the other is making speculative picks of tribal or combo cards early in the draft.
How much synergy is too much synergy?
There are definite downsides to drafting a heavily synergistic deck. Although it may be insane when you go off, your own draws and your opponent can throw a wrench in your plan at every turn.
If you only have a few situational cards in your deck, you can replace them when you don’t want them, and your deck has a solid fallback plan of playing ordinary Gauntlet. If you’re leaning hard on synergy, you don’t have that luxury, and your draft and play has to do a fair bit of work to overcome the downsides of playing your cards for no extra value.
Again, it’s worth comparing to Constructed. Unless you’re insanely lucky, your draft is unlikely to hand you 30 on-theme cards. On the ladder, you can play 20 spells and 19 Arcanysts with a meticulously planned mana curve, tons of efficient removal, Circulus and Blue Conjurer to provide infinite fuel, and so on. In Gauntlet, you might get a few Arcanysts and a few spells, but most of your deck is still going to be Primus Fists and Brightmoss Golems. Usually, you’re better off snapping up the more overpowered Arcanysts when they show up (Conjurer is a house even with just your BBS) and focusing on putting together a deck that almost always has something worth doing.
As an example, in my last draft, I could have had some absurd Golem payoffs if I’d been greedier. I saw three Dreamshapers and a Sirocco! Ridiculous. Unfortunately, even if I’d picked every Golem I came across, I’d only have ten or twelve in total – including some very bad ones and some expensive ones. The Metallurgist-Celebrant-Dreamshaper openings characteristic of real Golem Vet decks would be a distant fantasy, and I’d be relying on drawing my one Skyrock Golem for efficient Bond enablement. Urgh.
Instead, I wound up drafting possibly the best Gauntlet deck I’ve ever seen. Who needs to take risks and build cool combos when you can just win games with Dancing Blades the way Eric Lang intended it?
This segues into the other concern I wanted to talk about:
When to take the plunge
It’s your second pick. You open two serviceable cards and Iceblade Dryad. Do you pick it?
You’re seven picks in. You have one Vespyr so far. Your options are an Iceblade Dryad and two decent curve-fillers. Do you pick it?
You’re 20 picks in. You have one Vespyr. Up pops the Dryad. What about now? What if you already had three Vespyrs, or six? None at all?
Deciding when to bite the bullet and draft something overtly synergistic is something of a black art, one I’m still very much refining. I don’t have a hard and fast rule for you, partly because Gauntlet is too complex for that, and partly because I haven’t finished building up my own intuition for when to go for it. I can give you my thoughts on the problem, though.
I like including a couple of situational, powerful cards like our hypothetical Iceblade Dryad, provided I have a good plan for how to use each one. One or two shouldn’t strain your replaces too much, and sometimes you can sit on them in hand until you can make good use of their ability. Iceblade is an extremely strong card when you trigger its ability, and has a disappointing but not humiliating fail case of just being a 3/3 Vespyr for 3. It’s also not massively difficult to enable, since Vanar have a lot of low-rarity Vespyrs (unlike the similar Kindred Hunter, because Arcanysts are harder to pick up, especially cheap ones).
In the Vetruvian draft example above, I saw a Dreamshaper on my third or fourth pick, up against something pretty good. Dreamshaper is sweet, but a cut-price Divine Spark isn’t quite worth the sheer amount of effort in both draft and play it takes to enable the thing. Perhaps if I’d known the Sirocco was coming up, I’d have gone for it, but I took the goodstuff card instead (and was presented with the exact same decision on the next pick).
When you make a decision like this, you’re essentially weighing the chance of the synergistic card paying off against the equity of how good the other cards in the pick are. Sometimes it’s easy – Golem Metallurgist is perfectly serviceable in a deck with zero other Golems – and sometimes it’s difficult, like the Dreamshaper. The ones I tend to go for are the ones where I can envisage winning the game when I cast them for full value. Iceblade Dryad is a huge tempo play or burst of damage, which tends to tip the balance heavily in your favour. Frostfire is closer to the borderline, but has a great gameplan: turn 1 Crystal Cloaker, turn 2 attack for 7. Between Gauntlet and Rift I’ve gotten a lot of free wins from doing that and just killing my opponent on turn 4. Its backup options of being a permanent Saberspine Seal or making a 6/7 Ghoulie aren’t awful either.
…Did I just write all that?
Like, actually? No wonder this stuff takes me a while.
There’s a lot to unpack in this article, and I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve missed or haven’t learned yet, too. Gauntlet is a fascinating format with a lot of depth, and a lovely pure expression of Duelyst’s fundamental gameplay.
If I had to summarise the key points:
- It’s hard to make Gauntlet decks that are all-in in one direction or another. Pure aggro, pure control or pure synergy are unlikely to come together. Focus on making all-rounder decks, earning wins with good drafting and thoughtful play.
- Allow yourself the option to be aggressive, controlling or synergistic during the game, depending on both players’ draws and decisions. Identify what you’re going to do to win, and lean on your replaces and positioning to make it happen.
- Your mana curve is extremely important. I like to have lower curves than most, but with a bit of card draw to keep me going into the late game, and one or two bombs.
- Simply having a big minion on the board is a substantial asset. Turn 2 Hailstone Golem is a really good play.
- Removal is excellent, in moderation. Being proactive is usually the route to victory.
- Void Hunter is a great card. Haters gonna hate.
As always, please let me know if you have questions! Gauntlet should be back with us in just a couple of days from this guide’s publication, and I can’t wait to get back to it. (Ideally on stream.) I hope this helps improve your drafting and strategising – get in touch if it did or if you want to know more!
Edit: I’ve since spent some time on stream putting all this into practice in as much detail as possible. The footage is up on my Youtube channel in no less than 13 parts. Here’s a link to them in a playlist, starting from the top.