“So clearly, I can not choose the wine in front of me” – Vizzini, The Princess Bride
Hello everyone! ThufirHawat here, bringing you the riveting tale of me trying to figure out what to play for the CCS, how that went, and how to change to the metagame post CCS.
The Pre-CCS Meta
Right now, the Standard meta-game has been accurately described by fellow Battleshopper columnist BurgleBurgle as “Durdle Nirvana”. What may be difficult to remember is that three weeks ago, the meta-game was awesome and terribly complex. In this article I’d like to go through the process my testing team, Prismatic Conclave, and I followed to come up with our CCS decks, as well as a guide to the deck we ultimately came up with. The deck is a lot of fun, and it carried me to 6-1, top eight finishes in both the Cosmic Crown Showdown and the 1/20/2018 Bash. If you have not tried it, and you like either combo or control decks, I hope you’ll give the deck a shot. But to start, let’s jump back to what the Hex Constructed world looked liked a week before the CCS.
Here are links to the two Bash tournaments immediately preceding the CCS.
Please take a moment and click through those pages. They are the context CCS qualifiers had to use to decide what to play. Testing teams, or solo players, of course look at a lot of sources of data when projecting the meta-game for a specific event. These include what decks they’ve played against recently on the ladder, what decks members of other testing teams or prominent streamers have been playing, Five Shards tournament results, and their own subjective evaluation of the quality of the prominent decks in the meta-game. However, the decks people play when they have to pay an entry fee and where there is real money to be won tend to be the best signal of where the meta-game is and where it’s headed. I spent a lot of time thinking about those two pages in the week before the CCS.
Going into this event, the field was wide-open. I gave very real consideration to playing nearly a dozen different decks, and have never had such a difficult time picking one for a CCS – and I’ve played in all of them to date. The ascendant deck was the Ruby/Wild Avalanche Ramp deck invented by Rolfusius. Jeff Hoogland had made the top eight of both of these Bashes with his version of this deck. The Saturday before the CCS the deck represented 3/8ths of the top 8, and I, playing fairly traditional Sapphire/Diamond control, lost in quarterfinals to it (and to my biggest recent Hex blunder, but that’s another story). Vazrael, piloting Ruby/Diamond Candles, had also made the top 8 of both events. Mono-Blood and Ruby/Wild Ramp had gradually muscled Ruby/Sapphire Sockets out of the top places, but it was still a very dangerous deck that had been dominant a couple of weeks prior. Mono-Blood looked to be very well positioned, with no particularly bad match-ups and a whole lot of good ones. It also had the prestigious endorsement of Shinshire’s top 8 finish. He always plays carefully chosen, well tuned lists. Then beyond that we had to consider various flavors of Sapphire/Wild, Sapphire/Diamond Control, Sapphire/Diamond Turbo Ascension, Mono-Ruby Aggro, Blood/Diamond Verdict, Blood/Sapphire Mill, Yasi’s Blood/Sapphire Sparrow Reanimator, Blood/Diamond Spirits, Ruby/Diamond Ardent (a bit out of favor, but still powerful and dangerous), Blood/Wild Deathcry (which always seemed just about to break out but never quite did), Blood/Ruby Aggro, Blood/Ruby Deathcry, Ruby/Sapphire Draw-Go Control, Wild/Diamond Momentum, and Wild/Diamond Ramp.
I tried most of those decks out in the weeks before the CCS, and gave many of them a real shot. There’s an argument to be made that it was an inefficient use of testing time to cast so wide of a net, but I’m a Control player at heart. If I were honest with myself, I was likely going to end up playing some manner of Control deck, and that meant it was important to understand the decks I’d be playing against. The best way to do that is just to play them. But there were so many good decks that attacked from such different angles that it was fiendishly difficult to come up with a deck that was well positioned against even nearly all of them (please refer to the opening quote).
Narrowing Down the Options
Then two things happened that made the process a lot easier. The first is that one of my testing teammates, MustacheMagic, suggested testing a deck list that was a variant of the Sapphire/Diamond Turbo Psychic Ascension deck, sometimes also referred to as Sapphire/Diamond Elementals. This version played four main deck copies of Dark Heart of Nulzann and two Clash of Steel. I was immediately intrigued.
While the previous incarnation of Turbo Ascension had lost a central piece in Cyclone Shaper and important role players in Arcane Focus and Transmogrifade, the core of Cassia Goldenlight as champion along with Light the Votives, Heart’s Whisper, Cosmic Calling, Consult the Talon, Runebind, Guidance and Psychic Ascension remained strong and cohesive. One thing I had already decided is that whatever deck I played had to do something truly powerful. My favorite approach, where I try to disrupt my opponent’s game plan, stay alive, and figure out how to win sooner or later just wasn’t going to cut it. Decks were too potent and too varied for a strict Control style to be reliable.
Psychic Ascension as a middle-game rather than late game plan certainly qualifies as something truly powerful. Additionally, I really wanted to play both Runebind (fantastic against Wildlife, a key card in Ruby/Wild Ramp, and good against Ruby/Diamond Candles) and Wax Sacrament (which I believe to be the strongest PvP Hex Card ever digitally printed), and there were some intriguing Elemental synergy options in Unhenge and Wrath of Elements.
Various versions of Sapphire/Diamond Cassia had popped up near the top of tournament standings over the previous month and a half, with Gojira notably achieving some good results, and I’d tried different versions myself. But most had seemed a little bit too fragile for my tastes, too easily disrupted and too vulnerable to Ruby/Diamond Candles and Ruby/Sapphire Sockets. Adding Dark Heart and Clash of Steel would go a long way towards shoring up those match-ups. I’d initially dismissed the idea because your own Candlekin are valuable resources, and Dark Heart of Nulzann is not much of a team player, ruthlessly snuffing out the adorable little buggers. However, he does work in the otherwise dodgy match-ups against aggressive decks, including Ruby/Sapphire sockets (Altar of Nulzann, Sentry of Nulzann, and Burning Banner are all both important and non-socketed, while a 4/6 blocker matters too).
The initial list MustacheMagic suggested was here. I loved its match-up against Ruby/Wild Ramp, which was one of the three decks I was most worried about, along with Ruby/Diamond Candles and Mono-Blood Control. He brought the list up to our group on the Monday before the CCS, and I quite quickly got to testing it along with a few others in our team. We all had promising initial results, though the Mono-Blood match-up had me rather worried. I also tried Warpsteel Shardsworn over Arcanovex in the list, and decided that it was on the whole an upgrade. It worked better with Dark Heart and Consult the Talon, and the Fateweave gem helped smooth out the curve and ensure shard drops (important in a 20 shard deck). This deck was gradually becoming my front-runner, though I was still seriously considering playing traditional Sapphire/Diamond Control, Wild/Sapphire Mid-Range, Blood/Diamond Verdict, or Ruby/Diamond Candles (which actually had the best win rate in testing of any deck I tried).
Then the second notable event happened. Mid-week before the CCS, constructed Verdict decks and Aggro decks got punted into the Phantom Zone by brutal nerfs to champions Adonni Zeddek and Haraza the Incinerator. This dramatically narrowed the scope of decks we had to worry about, which was invaluable when it came time to tune our own, particularly in the reserves. For instance, it was no longer necessary to dedicate reserve slots for constant hate such as Scouring Light. The match-ups against traditional Sapphire/Diamond Control and Ruby/Wild Ramp were already fantastic, and I was at least comfortable against Ruby/Diamond Candles and Wild/Diamond Ramp or Momentum (though the Ramp version seemed more likely to show up to us), so I could devote most of my attention and most of my reserves to figuring out a workable plan against Mono-Blood Control.
Fighting the Mono-Blood Menance
Mono-Blood, on paper, was a bit of a nightmare match-up. Turbo Psychic Ascension makes a lot of 1/1 troops. Bride of the Damned eats a lot of 1/1 troops. We had no troops that could block flyers, so Vampire Prince was often a problem, particularly if the Blood player had two of them early on. Dark Heart of Nulzann is vulnerable to Herofall. Psychic Ascension is vulnerable to Withering Gaze. We’ve got a difficult time answering Journey into Nightmare, or mass discard options such as Primordial Cockatwice and Demented Whispers. But our deck was so good against everything else that I really wanted to make this match-up at least playable. Another of my team-mates, smovens, is a skilled Mono-Blood specialist, and he was kind enough to repeatedly stomp me as I tried to figure something out.
Eventually, I came up with the plan of going all-in on Psychic Ascension in post reserve games, bringing in 13 of the 15 available reserve cards and changing two main deck Sapphire Shards to Nameless Draught (useful both as a painless discard to Cockatwice or Demented Whispers and as a way to reduce the cost of Psychic Ascension). We identified Into the Unknown as a particularly important catch-all answer to Bride of the Damned, Vampire Prince, Dark Heart of Nulzann or Journey into Nightmare. The basic, critical discovery was that our deck was really two decks: In our main deck configuration, it played out as a slightly weaker than normal (though still strong) Sapphire/Diamond Dark Heart Control deck. But with our reserve plan, we could cut Dark Heart, cut Runebind, cut Clash of Steel, and shave on Warpsteel Shardsworn to transition to a dedicated Turbo Psychic Ascension deck. This had a lot of advantages against mono-blood. Their powerful, efficient single target removal in Herofall and Strangle became a bit clunky. Bride of the Damned lost powerful targets to steal. A third copy of Psychic Ascension gave us insurance if the first Ascension we found was lost to discard. Dreamcall protected us against Primordial Cockatwice. All together, it was enough to bring the match-up close to 50/50, though I felt Mono-Blood still had slightly the better of it.
The Cosmic Crown Showdown
After an easy round one against a friendly opponent who had a prior commitment that would not allow him to stay for all of the tournament, and had so brought a fun brew, I played four consecutive matches against Mono-Blood. When something in a game of Hex goes other than I wish it did, I often make a sharp exhalation resulting in a noise that my wife describes as “The Angry Turtle”. Mono-Blood was not a match-up that I was hoping for, and the battle cry of the Angry Turtle echoed through our apartment each time I saw Bardak the Butcher as my opponent’s Champion. Fortunately, smoven’s and my hard work paid off as I was able to go 3-1 in those matches, even winning in round 2 despite a couple of significant misplays in game 3. The reserve plan was working well.
Going into round 6, I had the best tie-breaks of anyone, so if I could win that round I would have good chances of sneaking into the top 8 on tiebreaks even with a round 7 loss. Somewhat awkwardly, my round 6 opponent ended up being another teammate, SargonVito, who was playing his pet deck Wild/Diamond Ramp. There are few things scarier in Hex than playing against a strong player playing a deck they specialize in and love. Sargon feels that Turbo Psychic Ascension is the worst match-up for his deck, and I was able to win that match 2 games to 1, but it was tense and hard fought throughout. In round 7, I ended up with a mirror match against another player running Sapphire/Diamond Turbo Ascension. My opponent’s version was heavily invested in elemental synergies, running Arcanovex, Unhenge, and Wrath of Elements. Fortunately for me, this left less room for card draw and interrupts, and my additional copies of Heart’s Whisper, Verdict of the Ancient Kings, and Weave into Nothing carried me to a 2-1 win and into the top 8.
Afterparty: The 1/20/2018 Bash
One week later I played the same 75 cards, but decided to move the Dark Heart/Clash of Steel/Runebind package into the reserves and run most of my anti-Mono Blood configuration as the main deck. This switch served me well in the initial 7 rounds, and I was fortunate enough to finish them at #1. Mono-Blood was indeed the dominant archetype. However, the #8 seed happened to be the sole aggro deck in the top 8, which is not a good match-up for this configuration of the deck (even if I was able to ride Dark Heart to victory in both reserve games against the same opponent earlier in the event), and I lost 0-2 in the quarterfinals. In hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have chosen the wine in front of me?
4x Warpsteel Shardsworn – Minor Diamond of Fate
2x Psychic Ascension
2x Verdict of the Ancient Kings
4x Consult the Talon
4x Cosmic Calling
4x Light the Votives
4x Heart’s Whisper
4x Weave into Nothing
4x Into the Unknown
2x Winter’s Grasp
4x Dark Heart of Nulzann
If you have comments or questions, I’d love to hear from you! Please join us in the Battleshopper Discord!
Coming in Part 2 – Deck Guide!