The Big Picture: Looking at Dead of Winter from the Top Down

Introduction

When the Dead of Winter spoilers got released, Hex content aficionados saw an overwhelming wave of set reviews.  They’re great!  Experts go through, card by card, and tell you what they think will be good.  But in contrast to the close-up examinations of cards that these reviews take, I prefer a macro-level approach.  So in this (extremely long) two-part article, I wanted to walk you through my review and testing process for Dead of Winter, and then talk about how I settled on brewing a control deck for the format.

Dead of Winter Analysis

Take a Moment to Think

Before we even get to look at the cards, let’s remember some big-picture ideas.

Two Sets Rotated Out

Those sets had some important cards!  Transmogrifade, Rune Ear Heirophant, Arcane Focus, Emperor’s Lackey, Thunderfield Seer, Cyclone Shaper and Rotten Rancor saw real play in the many good decks.  All 3 of the best decks in the format had access to a racial shard to give them more resource-consistency.  Now, running pure two-shard decks with challenging threshold constraints could be problematic.  So we should be on the lookout for cards that could serve similar purposes – if we see these cards, it’s an indicator that some archetypes from the previous season might survive.

On the other hand, did any top decks not lose anything?  Ardent Haraza decks (both the earlier sockets version and the more-popular straight Ardent version) lost barely any cards.  This provides us with a good starting point in testing.  We know that this Ardent deck will be about the same power level in Dead of Winter (maybe a bit better if it picks up some additions).

Frostheart Mechanics Have Another Set

This is the second set of a pair.  So Gladiator, Fateweave, Frostform, Illuminate, Runic and Boon all have a whole second set of cards featuring these keywords.  Other archetypes, like BW deathcry, BD constants, and BS Chaostouched/Bury, seem like they were supported with splashy mythics like Lord Blightbark.  So it’s worth keeping an eye out to see whether or not these decks receive additional support in Dead of Winter

There are New Mechanics, Too

Verdict, Momentum and Portal were new in Dead of Winter.  It’s worth keeping an eye out to see if these mechanics end up having a critical mass of otherwise reasonable cards.  In particular, Momentum is a mechanic that gains power the more you can trigger it – non-linear mechanics tend to be either really good or really bad, so it’s worth paying attention to.

Remember What’s Good

  1. Cards that cheat resources have the potential to break formats wide open
  2. Cards that cost few resources are always more important than big expensive ones, because every time you draw them, you can play them. They get their value every time.
  3. Cards that are flexible, or good in many situations, will always get their value.
  4. Some cards take over games single-handedly and are obviously powerful. We’re not proud – we’re definitely going to play these.

Lay Out the Archetypes

You’ll sometimes here me refer to decks as Pre-Constructed (Pre-Cons).  The Hex devs, being generally good at their jobs, tend to test the big archetypes in a set.  Here’s a fun test:

  1. Pick any mechanic you want: Frostform, Gladiator, Illuminate, Runic, Momentum, Verdict, Bury, Deathcry
  2. Go search for all cards containing those words.
  3. You’ll find a set of cards in 2 shards that has playable cards at every spot on the curve.

Ladies and gentlemen, the decks you build from these are the Pre-Cons.  The Devs made these decks.  They’re going to be playable.  And the first step to understanding the format is to figure out which of the Pre-Cons is good – which of these mechanics are the best.  Here’s the list I came up with after seeing the full spoiler, in no particular order:

Blood-Sapphire Bury Control

A lot of bury-cards-from-your-opponent’s-library cards got released in blood and sapphire.  The sapphire ones tend to have a more control-ly plan to them.  Was there a spot for a BS deck whose win condition was milling the opponent out?  Cards like Fall into Despair, Demented Destiny, and Demented Whispers seemed like they would fit nicely into a troop-less BS Control Shell with Yarna of the Lost Voices as a champion.  You could see this deck being good in a slower meta, where its implacability and disruption gave it an edge.

Mono-Blood Bury Aggro

One of the classic problems of Bury decks is that they attack on two axes (health and burying your library), but you only need to succeed at one to win.  It’s sort of inefficient.  Grix’shal the Profane solves this problem, a bit, by giving a troop an attack buff based on how many troops are in the opponent’s yard.  So the more you bury, the bigger your troop is – when you combine this with evasive troops like Squirming Terror, Malevolent Mi’go, or Vampire Prince, you get a low to the ground aggressive deck that also threatens to bury your whole library.

Sapphire-based Necrotic Control

With a pretty chase mythic in Lixil, and a reasonable tempo swing on turn 4 (play Heartsworn Mordrom, then steal their turn 3 play), this seemed like the basic replacement archetype for the old-school Dreaming Fox control builds.  A whole bunch of sapphire-based necrotics had just been printed, as well as a necrotic-based sapphire champion.  The question was, were there enough necrotics that fit into a control shell to support this as an archetype.

Ruby-Diamond Candle Aggro

  

Wrath of Elements and Flame Barrage jumped out at me as cheap, efficient removal (remember what’s good?), while Choir of Lumos had a cost-reduction mechanic.  Candlekin were almost a deck previously, and the additional cards it received were inexpensive interaction.

Diamond-Wild Momentum

Shamrock was the first card in this set that jumped out at me.  A 4/4 for 3 resources, that was virtually guaranteed to generate card advantage, produced non-slow fateweave resources…what’s not to love?  The real question was, what shell would use him best?  A value-oriented DW deck, or an aggressive momentum deck?  In general, you want to test the aggressive builds in a format first, so a Lady Avalanche DW deck seemed like the best guess.

Diamond-Sapphire Evasive Frostform

There was a lot of support for elementals printed.  All frostformed troops are elementals.  A DS frostform deck was well-positioned to use the tempo generated by cheap cards like Wrath of the Elements and Unhenge to run its opponents over with hard-to-block cards that were big threats late, and cheap threats early.

Blood-Diamond Verdict Control

The verdict mechanic occurs only in Blood/Diamond, traditionally the constant and grindy-late-game decks.  Given that the premier combo deck in the format (Turbo-PA) was leaving, it seemed like it might be time for a deck that had the best troop interaction.  A bunch of cards with Verdict on them are pretty reasonable in their own right, so if the verdict could regularly get reasonable value, it might be a reasonable way to get to Blood-Diamond’s powerful end-game.

Blood-Wild Deathcry Lords

BW Deathcry decks with Lord Blightbark, Promiscuous Succubus and Rune-Ear Heirophant had some popularity in early Frostheart standard before the Lazgar’s Vengeance decks got optimized.  With so many plant and undead lords, and so many undead plants, as well as interesting cards like Plague and Famine, it seemed like this was a potentially explosive deck.

Ruby-Sapphire Runes

 

This deck picked up a legitimate card-advantage action in Runic Passion, as well as a second super-powerful 4-drop.  It seemed possible that, if Scars of War was good, an action-based control deck oriented around runes, with cards like Flame Barrage and Return to Cinder for early power and a lot of value from Runic could be good.

Prioritize and Test

Given those initial archetypes (and a few others), it was time to prioritize and test.  I prefer to always test the linear, aggressive decks that have high upside, as they tend to set the pace early on in a format. Control decks are created to react to those, and are generally only popular when the set of super-aggressive decks is both narrow and dominant.  For instance, before the Lazgar’s Vengeance ban, Diamond-Sapphire control was the most popular archetype in the Bash, as it could fight and beat Slagpot Redlings and Mono-Ruby Tork.  After Lazgar’s Vengeance was banned, those two decks were worse…and Diamond-Sapphire control was never seen again.  The Lesson:  the best aggressive decks set the metagame and everything else reacts.

Based on that, I wanted to try the two synergy decks first – Diamond-Wild Momentum and Ruby-Diamond Candles.  Synergy decks are always hard to evaluate on paper, because they’re greater than the sum of their parts.  A single illuminate is bad, a second illuminate is okay, the third illuminate is good, and the 7th illuminate is ridiculous.  The easiest way to figure out if these decks are going to be good is to test them against the best aggressive deck of the last format that survived.  After testing them both vs. Ruby-Diamond Ardent, it because clear that these two aggressive decks were just bigger, more reliable and more powerful versions of the Ardent deck.  They had better interaction and could reliably kill faster and generate more value.  This basically sets the bar for the new format.

We then tested these new decks against some of the other decks like RW Communion of Wax and a modified version of Blue Sparrow Reanimator.  RW Communion’s best draws were extremely powerful, but it suffered from threshold consistency issues.

In the second part of this article, we’ll look at how to build control decks to target a new format, in the meantime, come talk to us about this article in our new discord! Found at discord.battleshopper.com

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