My tournament in Nice was an interesting experience to say the least. These last couple weeks have been a whirlwind of traveling, so I ended up writing this report on the go from my iPhone somewhere in the south of France. Here’s my final thoughts on what happened at Pro Tour Lille.
Leading up to the event, I had three decks packed with me in Europe – Viserai, Briar and Dash. I had relegated the Dash testing process to the Dash specialist, Mr. Matt Rogers, with my focus being on optimizing the two Runeblade heroes. This was pre-Singapore, and at the time the prevalence of Fai was a lot higher and as such, my pecking order of decks was Viserai, Dash and Briar. In testing Briar, I often struggled against Mask of Momentum due to requiring a critical mass of cards for its best turns. This meant on a per turn cycle basis, Fai was always a card worth of damage ahead thanks to Mask of Momentum and unless I played a very early Channel Mount Heroic, I felt behind in the matchup. This is in contrast to Viserai, which functioned well off three-card hands, happily blocking and never having to worry about Mask of Momentum triggers.
This all changed after the Calling. Although the proportion of Prism/control/aggro decks was about what you would expect, the specific heroes that comprised the Top 16 differed. Fai did a lot worse than expected with the lone copy in the Top 8 looking more like a clunky mutated Katsu deck rather than the lean, mean, Pouncing Lynx machine we had seen at Utrecht just weeks before. This meant that Briar was suddenly a lot more viable and took its spot as a Top 2 aggro deck in the format. The hyper aggro Dash deck, also known as “Wombat Dash,” was another unexpected surprise to come from Singapore and meant it would also bring the archetype into the spotlight.
I’m a big believer in the Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, which describes a phenomenon where 80 percent of results come from roughly only 20 percent of input. It’s an approximation, but the core concept is an important one with respect to testing. When trying to choose a deck, you only need to put a relatively minimal amount of time to get the gist of where it falls in the metagame (20 percent of time for 80 percent output) but in order to get that last 20 percent of optimization from a deck requires the majority of your time and effort. Arriving in Lille, I had an immediate decision to make. Given the Pro Tour starting on Friday and with at least two half-days dedicated to draft, I had to lock in my CC deck earlier than I would have liked if I were to play Dash. As such, I decided to lock and load Dash the Monday before the PT and focus 100 percent of my energy to learn the last 20 percent of the deck, a feat of which I’m still unsure if I achieved.
A lot of people came up to me over the course of the weekend to express a number of emotions, ranging from approval to surprise, at our team’s deck choice. By far the most asked question was “would you do it again?” to which my answer still remains “I don’t know.” If you were to ask my teammates, Matt and Nick, you would get a resounding yes. Most likely, if I were to run back the Pro Tour, I would probably still end up on Dash, but a part of me really wanted to register the best card in the format, Channel Mount Heroic (CMH).
To explain why we ended up on Dash, I will need to go on a bit of a tangent to talk about the concept of agency in card games. One can think of agency as the ability of any given player to control and impact the course of the game. During deck selection, the illusion of agency is a common fallacy that players fall into, often believing themselves to have more control over the output of a match than they actually have. For example, if Prism were to have a 65 percent win rate but Briar had a 75 percent win rate, you should always go to Briar, as it is the deck that maximizes your overall win percentage. A common error may be getting tempted to use Prism as you have many more decisions and chances to “outplay” your opponent, but in reality what you’re likely doing is trying really hard only to achieve roughly your average win percentage, +\- a standard deviation.
With that being said, we wanted to find the highest overall win percentage for the metagame, regardless of archetype. Of the established decks, Viserai and Briar were perceived to be the best decks in a vacuum, but they suffered from three key issues. First was the unavoidable Runeblade issue of drawing non-functional hands, forcing suboptimal block turns. Second, they had overall poor matchups into Guardians which we (correctly) predicted some high percentage of players would bring to counteract the aggro trend in the metagame. Finally, they also had no perceived edge in the Runeblade mirrors, especially in the Briar mirrors which were very much dictated by CMH and the timing of when CMH was played. In our testing, the findings were that Dash was favored in games when there were no early CMH or Viserai games that avoided very good Mordred Tide turns. Therefore, given we couldn’t pick up the extra percentage points anyways in the aggro mirror, we decided on Dash to increase our odds versus the Guardian matchups.
In addition to this, it’s not like Dash doesn’t have her own high roll turns. Maximum Velocity coupled with High Octane often led to 20 damage-plus turns. We were also playing Tome of Fyendal, which by it self represented a 10+ damage swing when played from Arsenal. Uprising Draft also played a big roll in our decision for CC deck. Given the high volatility of Draft, we felt that it would be highly improbable to 3-0 the Draft portion barring extremely good variance, meaning a 7-1 record would be needed in CC in order to Top 8 and as such, we wanted to avoid decks with super polarized matchups versus Guardian or Prism.
From a macro prospective, I think Uprising was a well-balanced format. Every hero can beat every other hero with access to the correct tools. However, in practice, this was a lot easier said than done. Packs moving from 15 to 14 cards meant that there were three less cards per deck, coupled with the low power level of generics in this set, meant that even average-plus decks were playing some amount of undesirables.
This was further exacerbated by the fact that Iyslander and Dromai both required key cards in order to be functional. The functional difference between an Iyslander deck with only one other Iyslander in the pod compared to two other Iyslanders in the pod was night and day, with the same holding true for Dromai. This was quickly picked up by the general population and led to Fai being the most popular deck to draft due to the overall higher amount of playables in that archetype compared to the other two heroes.
Some notable pros, such as Micheal Feng and PT winner Matt Foulkes, even vocally subscribed to the mantra of “just force Fai.” While I agree Fai is one of the stronger heroes, he does have several pitfalls that are intrinsic and can’t be overcome. Our teams philosophy was simple: try to find or create a lane where you would be in one of the least drafted heroes at the table. Going in depth would require an article of its own, but we found a way to effectively pivot as late as pick five or six if needed, as well as several different underdrafted archetypes within each hero.
Unfortunately, the other uncontrollable factor of Uprising draft is that dice rolls have to go your way. A very good Fai deck against a medium Fai deck will still be unfavored should you lose the dice roll, but this was out of everyone’s control and not something we dwelled on.
Congratulations to Matt Foulkes for taking down the whole event with what was definitely the most novel version of Briar in the Top 8. What makes his win even more impressive is the fact that Matt worked largely in isolation fine-tuning the deck, testing primarily against himself and through random matches on FAB online. The UK national champion made short work of Prism in Top 8 before winning two mirror matches to take home the crown, and he shows no signs of slowing down headed into the World Championships!
If you’re versed in TCGs, Christian Hauck needs no introduction. Interestingly, the German powerhouse and his teammates also ended up registering midrange Dash for the weekend. Unfortunately, Christian was taken down by public enemy number one Briar, but not before showing the world the power of Dash. An interesting point of discussion was the decision to start Pounder over Chamber. Bartosz Ziemba correctly identified the weaknesses of Pounder and played his game to perfection, leaving us all to wonder the results of a world where Christian started with Induction Chamber. Credit has to be given to Bartosz, who clearly tested the matchup the night prior and executed what seemed to be a well-practiced game plan to perfection.
Pro Tour New Jersey winner Pablo Pintor, debuted in back-to-back Top 8 appearances with the purple menace, Viserai. Pablo did what I was too chicken to do and cut all copies of Rune Flash and Amplify the Arknight from the deck. These cards were definitely the clunkiest cards in the deck and by doing so he was able to make room for more copies of Read the Runes and Runeblood Incantation, gaining valuable percentage points versus Guardian. Unfortunately, even Pablo fell to the power of Briar, but not before establishing himself as possibly the best player in the world and definitely the top pick heading into the Flesh and Blood World Championships!
With Prism gone, the metagame is in for a big shake up. Guardian and Wizard decks gain huge percentage points which in turn should quell some of the aggressive Runeblade trends we’ve been seeing. Belittle/Minnowism, while powerful, seem to be okay in the format as the above-rate payoff comes at the cost of a very restrictive deck requirement. CMH is currently on my watch list as it is easily the single best card in the game. With Nationals and the World Championship on the horizon, my first order of business will be to explore Dromai and the Guardian heroes. Whatever happens, I’m excited to see what the next couple of months bring with the upcoming Dynasty set and the first ever World Championships!