The Judge is In: Holding Court in Standard with Verdict Control

In the first part of this pair of articles, we talked about how to think about new formats.  In this part, we talk about how to build a control deck to attack them.

Building Control in a New Format

So this left us with ideas as to what the good aggressive decks were.  But I…well…I really like drawing cards, and playing long games.  So I set about trying to brew control decks.  Brewing control decks isn’t hard – you just put in bigger and better cards than everybody else.  But brewing good control decks can be tricky, because you need to prepare yourself to survive anything that comes along.

Getting to the deck I felt comfortable with in this format took me a while, so I wanted to walk you guys through my thought process and the things I tried along the way.

Ask What the Good, Aggressive Decks Have in Common

Sad as it may be, games of Hex frequently end before you can draw your whole deck…so you need most of the cards in your deck to be good against the popular aggressive strategies.  So it’s really convenient if the aggressive decks all do the same thing.  In Lazgar’s Vengeance decks, all the aggressive decks went super-wide to get as many Lazgar’s triggers as possible, but didn’t really have any way to recover from a stabilized board state.  So stabilizers like Dark Heart of Nulzann were a sure way to land a win, and cards like Eldurathan’s Glory were extremely effective at clearing their boards.

The aggressive decks in Dead of Winter are both more explosive and better at recovering.  Cards like Palm of Granite or Pippit Pal can enable multiple momentum triggers in a single turn to build enormous dudes, but those same cards can also enable Exalted Pathfinder to draw multiple cards a turn.  Meanwhile, Confession of Embers and Lumagoth are single cards that immediately re-establish a threatening board position.

However, both of these decks don’t really have speed troops (Lumagoth excepted).  This means they’re vulnerable to basic-speed board wipes.

They also play a lot of tiny troops – candles are vulnerable before they get illuminated, and momentum troops are all tiny during the ready phase.

And they are 100% going to murder you on turn 4 if you don’t stop them.  This is the power of effects that put escalating amounts of power onto the board.  As anybody who’s been smashed for 30 damage by a momentum deck or double-confession-of-embers knows, it’s not okay to do nothing and hope you can stabilize.  You’re not going to stabilize and you’re going to die.

There Will be Blood

The blood shard has the best basic-speed board wipes in the game.  Clash of Steel leaves the most terrifying card on the board.  Dread End arrives dreadfully late, often on turn 5.  Blood also has the best troop-removal in the game:

In particular, looking at cards like Leprechaun Artist, Righteous Waxshot, Intrepid Conjurer and…candlekin, I felt like I wanted access to Cheap Shot.  Not only does it kill something, it makes me a 1-drop that I can throw under the bus of a giant momentum’d troop.  I also noticed that, with Ardent probably not being the most popular deck, and no obvious underworld deck emerging, that Casualty of War was again a playable card.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blood’s traditional problems of drawing cards and filtering were addressed by a recent champion addition, Bar’dak the Butcher (a.k.a. Screaming Fox).  Much like the recently-rotated Dreaming Fox, he could pull ahead in the late game if he had the life to do it by activating his champion power to draw two cards.  And far from just being dead to a powerful constant like blood decks of yore, the new Disruptor Drone gives any shard the ability to remove problematic enemy constants.

Finally, there are a number of powerful cards that can really only be access by mono-blood strategies, like Thought Collector, Vampire Prince and Bride of the Damned.  With Bride of the Damned’s ability to assassinate 1/1s early and take over the game after turn 5, it seemed like a mono-blood deck was well-positioned to crush the early metagame.

Decklist

Champion: Bar’dak the Butcher
15x Blood Shard
2x Casualty of War
4x Herofall
4x Vampire Prince
2x Cheap Shot
4x Strangle
4x Necropolis Coins
4x Bride of the Damned
3x Journey Into Nightmare
3x Massacre
3x Primordial Cockatwice
4x Blood Ice
4x Thought Collector
4x Zeddek’s Judgment
Reserves:
4x Withering Gaze
1x Cheap Shot
2x Casualty of War
1x Waltz of the Damned
1x Primordial Cockatwice
1x Journey Into Nightmare
3x Disruptor Drone
2x Robogoyle

Thoughts

This deck is just about removing your opponents’ board again, and again.  It plays Massacre, 10 main-deck removal actions, and some incremental advantage cards like Vampire Prince and some game-enders like Journey into Nightmare.  It also features 3 maindeck Primordial Cockatwice to beat control decks – uninterruptable early-game discard that turns into a late-game 3-for-1 is brutal for sapphire-oriented decks to deal with.

What I didn’t realize was how spoiled I’d become.  I can’t even remember the day that I played a deck with less than 8 ice, but in a mono-color you can only play 4.  While the deck’s best draws were unbeatable by aggression, it frequently felt clunky and unable to use its resources to curve out and interact efficiently.  It had problems dealing with a diverse range of threats – decks that weren’t troop-based, or constants like Merry Caravan that took over the game faster than it could.  It basically didn’t have the filtering that control decks usually require.

So I added a second color.

Wallet Warrior: Blood-Sapphire Control

I needed the ability to out-grind mirrors.  I needed the ability to interact on the chain.  I needed sapphire.  But I still thought that Bride of the Damned was the best thing I could be doing, and didn’t want to sacrifice threshold consistency.  So I essentially splashed Sapphire for 4 things:

  1. 4 Sapphire Ice. To control the enemy, you must control yourself.  And to control yourself…you need to control the top of your deck.  It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the main reason to go to a second color is to get to play 8 fateweave shards.
  2. Bounty of the Magus over Zeddek’s Judgment. Bounty can take over the game, late, in a way that Zeddek’s judgment cannot, providing a snowballing tide of card advantage.
  3. Major Gem of Clarity in Dark Heart. Dark Heart is a great general answer, and playing it on turn 4 can lock up a game that you were close in.
  4. Interrupts in the sideboard. These allow you to interact with actions that would crush you while they’re still on the chain.  Blood isn’t any good at interact with the stack, but Sapphire is the best at it.

Decklist

Champion: Bar’dak the Butcher
12x Blood Shard
2x Casualty of War
4x Herofall
4x Dark Heart of Nulzann – Gems: 4x Major Sapphire of Clarity, 4x Minor Sapphire of Lunacy
4x Vampire Prince
2x Cheap Shot
4x Strangle
4x Well of Cunning
2x Ryaalinth the Soulcursed
4x Bride of the Damned
3x Massacre
4x Sapphire Ice
3x Primordial Cockatwice
4x Blood Ice
4x Bounty of the Magus
Reserves:
3x Verdict of the Ancient Kings
1x Cheap Shot
2x Casualty of War
1x Waltz of the Damned
1x Journey Into Nightmare
1x Confounding Ire
1x Primordial Cockatwice
2x Disruptor Drone
3x Robogoyle

Thoughts

I had done it.  In Ryaalinth, I had a board wipe that got around spellshield.  All of my actions at 3 resources or below were quick.  And according to hex.tcgbrowser.com, my deck cost $236, a new record.  So how could anything go wrong?

It was there that I learned that I had fundamentally misunderstood the power of Bounty of the Magus.  The first bounty, is a bad card – it’s 3 resources to do nothing (that card you drew?  It would already be in your hand if you didn’t have Bounty in your deck).  The second bounty is a pretty good card – 3 resources to pick up an extra card at quick speed is playable.  By the third bounty, you’ve paid 9 total resources to pick up 3 extra cards at quick speed – this is a good deal.  The problem is that, unless you have a lot of other card draw in your deck, there’s no guarantee that you’re finding the second and third bounty.  And, with my lack of card draw in the deck, I found these games playing out a lot like the mono-blood variant.

 Blood-Diamond Verdict

All the experimentation was not in vain.  After a bunch of blood-centric games, I realized a couple of things:

  • Of big blood payoffs (Bride of the Damned, Vampire Prince, Thought Collector, Strangle), only strangle seemed particularly impactful. 1-for-1ing my way through the game wasn’t an efficient strategy vs. Eternal Seeker or Merry Caravan.
  • Dark Heart of Nulzann felt like a good way to slam the door vs. any number of decks, as well as like an all-purpose answer. The minor gems in Sapphire and Blood were deeply underwhelming.
  • I was missing a way to filter through my deck to find the cards I needed.
  • Zeddek’s Judgment always felt sneakily good. Sometimes the opponent would discard a card.  Sometimes they would sacrifice a troop.  Sometimes I’d draw a card.  I always felt like I was getting a bit more than 2 cards of value from it.

Inspired, I build a blood-diamond deck based on exploiting the verdict mechanic and eking out marginal advantages over long games.  The core concept here is simple:  We’re not playing bad cards just to fit a theme.  We’re going to be a Blood-Diamond control deck that happens to use some reasonable verdict cards.

Decklist

Champion: Adoni-Zeddek
7x Blood Shard
4x Diamond Shard
2x Casualty of War
4x Herofall
4x Dark Heart of Nulzann – Gems: 4x Major Diamond of Hope, 4x Minor Diamond of Protection
2x Cheap Shot
4x From The Ashes
4x Well of Retribution
4x Guidance
3x Journey Into Nightmare
4x Diamond Ice
2x Massacre
4x Blood Ice
4x Zeddek’s Judgment
2x Twilight Justice
2x Winter’s Grasp
4x Cruel Sentence
Reserves:
3x Diamond’s Favor
1x Cheap Shot
4x Primordial Cockatwice
1x Massacre
1x Journey Into Nightmare
1x Stalking Quarry
1x Winter’s Grasp
2x In the Halls of Twilight
1x Twilight Justice

Overview

The layout of this deck is simple:  We have filtering, removal, board wipes and bombs.  If we run into anything weird, we’re going to rely on our Verdicts to carry us through Game 1.

This is our filtering.  All of these cards draw a card, and the Verdict cards also slow our opponent down, or gain a small edge.  We’ll have an entire section devoted to how to best exploit the Verdict mechanic.  We never trim these cards.

This is our removal.  The notable thing here is that we’re not playing Strangle, because we frequently want to be able to play Guidance on turn 1 (which would make getting 2 blood thresholds on turn 2 impossible).  In a brief tangent:  control decks need to be able to cast their cards on time or they’re goin to die.  Don’t expect to play double-threshold requirements on 2 consistently if your deck is split roughly 50/50 in resources.

Back to the removal – we have maindeck Cheap Shot to ward off aggressive decks and spend our mana efficiently early in the game, Winter’s Grasp to do a Strangle impersonation, and Herofall because it’s the best removal in the game.  We also maindeck two casualty of war – there’s a reasonable argument that those should be additional Winter’s Grasp, but the metagame hasn’t flattened out quite enough.  Casualty is excellent vs. most decks that are not RW Elk with Communion of Wax.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are our board wipes – probably the best two standard-legal board wipes in the format.  We play 2 Massacre and 4 From the Ashes because From the Ashes is dramatically better.  One of the problems with basic-speed board wipes is that in the best case you destroy your opponent’s board and then they have a turn to rebuild and you might be in the same spot.  From the Ashes destroys your opponent’s board and takes their best threat, guaranteeing that you’re ahead on board.

A reasonable question to ask is “Why aren’t you playing Sunlit Sentence in your Verdict deck with lots of board-wipes?”.  The answer is:  Our deck is mostly basic speed.  If we’re holding up all of our resources on turn 5, it’s pretty clear what we’re doing.  Further, it only kills attacking troops, so it doesn’t kill the things our opponent played that turn – a similar problem to what most basic-speed board wipes have.  Basically, From the Ashes is a lot more powerful.

These are the cards we have that take over games.  We gem Dark Heart of Nulzann with Hope and protection, because occasionally we can play it on turn 3.  While flight and swiftstrike can be nice, we’re more than willing to pick up some occasional early-game power from top-decking a Dark Heart.  Journey to Nowhere is reliably card advantage – it will draw you an extra card every turn.  And the pair of Twilight Justices turns all our verdict cards into reliable card-advantage.  We’ll talk more about Verdict later.

It should be noted that a veteran TCG player will observe that playing Dark Heart of Nulzann and powerful constants is not a combo.  Here’s the thing:  If the Dark Heart stays on the board, you’re going to win the game, and Verdicts generate plenty of sacrifice-fodder.  Generally, you can afford to hold your constants until either your dark heart dies or you have enough random stuff on the board that it will stick around for a while.  Post-reserves, you can streamline to either lean heavier into the dark hearts against troop decks, or heavier into constants against control decks.

Reserves

Our reserves are a bit primitive (I wouldn’t call them refined yet).  We have 5 additional pieces of removal in Cheap Shot, Winter’s Grasp and Diamond’s Favor.  As you can see, we’re just going to tailor our removal suite to be able to line up well against the decks we’re facing.  We’re playing another massacre so that we can reserve up to 7 board wipes and bury decks looking to go wide against us.

Finally, we want to get around the traditional Blood problem of not being able to reserve out enough removal, so we need to have at least 8 cards to bring in against decks where troop removal (and massacre) is bad.  We have 4 Primordial Cockatwice, 1 Diamond’s Favor, a Journey to Nowhere, another Twilight Justice and two In the Halls of Twilight to make sure we can line up well against action-based decks.

We make sure to splash a bit of targeted hate:  Stalking Quarry eviscerates sockets decks (and is fine against just Dark Heart decks), and Diamond’s Favor is a versatile piece of interaction against Constants and big troops.  Here are some specific reserves plans:

Diamond-Wild Momentum and Candle Aggro

+1 Cheap Shot

+1 Winter’s Grasp

+1 Massacre

-2 Twilight Justice

-1 Journey into Nightmare

Our reserves against these go-wide synergy decks is the same; our maindeck is relatively well set-up here.  This deck has boatloads of trouble with board wipes, and has few useful ways to get rid of Dark Heart.  Hiding it under Decree of Banishing is going to get them into a lot of trouble.

Make sure to differentiate when you’re against the more ramp-y versions of this Diamond-Wild Momentum.  Against the ramp versions, consider reserving out Cheap Shots and bringing in Diamond’s Favor (and keeping the Journey into Nightmare).  We want to make sure that we don’t get obliterated by Merry Caravan as a reserves plan.

Mono-Blood

+4 Primordial Cockatwice

+1 Journey into Nightmare

+1 Twilight Justice

+2 In the Halls of Twilight

-2 Cheap Shot

-2 Winter’s Grasp

-2 Massacre

-1 Casualty of War

-1 Dark Heart of Nul’zann

…did ya see what we did here?  We turned into a 3-troop deck against the deck that has too much removal and can’t reserve it all out.  We kept in 6 pieces of removal (2 Casualty of War and 4 Herofall) just to deal with the annoying stuff, and now we’re all constants, disruption and card advantage.  And yes, I said 3 troops:  don’t ever play your cockatwices until your opponent’s hand is completely empty.  You don’t want to get them herofalled – the thinner your deck gets, the better a chance you’re going to draw a discard-2 that they can’t interrupt.

This is a phenomenal matchup, just because we are so much better than mono-blood at accumulating incremental card advantage.  We get to play all their good cards, plus a bunch of tough-to-interact-with constants.

Ruby-Wild Elk

-3 Journey into Nightmare

-2 Massacre

+3 Diamond’s Favor

+1 Cheap Shot

+1 Winter’s Grasp

This deck’s best draws are a beating – they can do a ton of damage on turn 4 from hand thanks to Communion of Wax with the double-damage gem.  Here, our goal is just to blow up all of their troops at quick speed.  While Casualty of War isn’t ideal (a lot of their troops are ardent), some of their troops are still reasonable targets.

Happily, this deck is also relatively inconsistent.  If we get to the point where we can hold up herofall, we can trade removal 1-for-1 and generally grind out the game.  Twilight Justice tends to be better than Journey to Nightmare here because of its ability to affect the game on turn 4 in games where Journey into Nightmare is too slow.

Blood-Diamond Constants

-2 Winter’s Grasp

-2 Cheap Shot

-2 Casualty of War

-2 Massacre

-4 From the Ashes

-1 Herofall

+3 Diamond’s Favor

+2 In the Halls of Twilight

+1 Journey into Nightmare

+1 Twilight Justice

+4 Primordial Cockatwice

If the opponent is playing an aggressive version, consider leaving Herofall, Massacre and 2 From the Ashes over Primordial Cockatwice or Journey into Nightmare.  Otherwise we’re turning into a lean, mean, 1-for-1ing machine.  A core concept of this deck is that we want to take out enough troops that their removal is dead, and enough of our removal that all of our cards are live.

Blood-Sapphire Bury

-2 Cheap Shot

-2 Winter’s Grasp

-2 Casualty of War

-2 Massacre

+3 Diamond’s Favor

+1 Twilight Justice

+4 Primordial Cockatwice

These decks come in two forms – troop-centric and control-centric.  Against control decks, you want to attack their hand with Cockatwice, whereas against troops you need to keep in removal.  Either way, your goal here is to run them out of cards and kill them before they can mill you out.  There’s a reasonable argument that I should have two Robogoyles in the reserves for decks like these, but the mill decks don’t seem to line up well against the aggressive decks.

How to Use Verdict

A lot of the deep lines in this deck come from optimally using your 10-12 verdict cards and your verdict hero power.  Let’s first state:  We don’t actually know how Verdict works.  We know that it won’t generate an option that does literal nothing.  What we have no idea about is how it chooses from the other options.  Is it random, equal probability?  Are the probabilities shifted?  I would love it if the Hex devs released the code so would could play accordingly, but for the meantime, we’re going to assume that all options are equally plausible.

So here are the Verdict Options:

Light Verdicts Dark Verdicts
Each opposing champion draws a card. Discard a random card.
Each opposing champion summons a Phantom. Sacrifice a troop you control.
Each opposing champion summons a Daybreak. Each opposing champion summons a Nightfall.
Opposing troops get +1[ATK]/+1[DEF]. Troops you control get -1[ATK]/-1[DEF].
Each opposing champion puts a random troop from their crypt into their hand. Sacrifice an artifact or constant you control.

 

Your goal, whenever you are casting a card with Verdict, is to get an effect you want.  So let’s look at how to narrow down the set of effects.

If you have no troops: You can’t get +1/+1

If you have no troops in the crypt:  You can’t return a troop from your crypt

If they have no artifacts or constants:  They can’t sacrifice an artifact or constant

You can generally achieve these 3 things early in the game – you have no troops, and most opposing decks don’t play early artifacts or constants.  So that leaves us with 7 options remaining.  With the 3 light verdicts (Draw a Card, Phantom, Daybreak), you are drawing cards or gaining life.  With the 4 Dark Verdicts (Discard, Sacrifice, Nightfall, Troops get -1/-1), you are getting card advantage or functionally gaining life on 3 out of 4.  In general, you want to play these cards when a particular option will be really bad for the opponent; if so, they’re more likely to be forced into a choice like giving you a free card.  If Zeddek’s Judgment reads “Draw 2 cards, your opponent discards a random card”, it’s an insane card.

This math changes completely when you have Twilight Justice in play.  Without it, to get an effect you want, the opponent has to be presented with two effects you want.  With it, to get an effect you want, only 1 of the two options has to be useful.  This means that frequently, Playing Twilight Justice and using your hero power on turn 4 can stabilize a board just by doing something like making your opponent sacrifice two troops, or giving your opponent’s board -1/-1 twice.

Always, always think about which options are currently available, and which you’d like to get.  Do whatever you can to limit that set of options.

Some notes on Verdict options

  • Being able to force your opponent to sacrifice an artifact or constant shores up a weakness that Blood and Diamond generally have – inability to kill artifacts.
  • If you can keep your crypt clean, do it. Your opponent does not want you re-playing a dark heart, and re-buying that with a verdict trigger is brutal.
  • Random discard is much better than the opponent getting to choose what they discard. Very good hands can turn into absolute junk if the wrong card falls out of it.

Tips and Tricks

We covered a lot of stuff in the Verdict section, but there’s some non-verdict nuances to this deck as well.

  • Cruel Sentence is quick-speed. If one of your Verdict options is going to get much worse (say they have Twilight Eclipse and no other constants in play, but are casting a Daybreak), be sure to Verdict them with Cruel Sentence on the stack.
  • Unless you have a specific verdict you need to hit to live, save your Verdict power until Turn 4 when you might have Twilight Eclipse. If you can’t think of a specific reason why you need it, or if you think you can get better odds later, save it.  When it reads “Summon a Daybreak or Nightfall”, you’re no better than Papa Goot.  When it reads “Draw a card”, it’s absurd.
  • You can cast Dark Heart of Nulzann for 3 resources if you draw him. If you’re guidancing and trying to decide whether or not your 4th resources should be slow…guidance first.  That way, if you hit a Dark Heart you can play a fast resource and cast it.
  • You get the deploy triggers from bringing back your opponent’s troops with From the Ashes. This is particularly useful against Eternal Seeker decks.

Conclusions

This is a grindy control deck.  It’s looking to stabilize with constants and eke out victory.  It has a lot of deep lines and a lot of thinking about probability.  If you’re into those things, and you’re into play 30 or 40 minute matches of Hex, this deck could be for you.  It’s probably not the fastest to ladder with, but it is a lot of fun.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of ways to make it budget – Dark Hearts of Nulzann, From the Ashes and Herofalls are all pretty critical cards.  That said, I think as people explore Verdict shells, they’ll start to balance

This was a bit of an experiment, article-wise:  I wanted to take everybody through the long process of analyzing a new format and brewing a control deck to target it.  Thanks for sticking with me for all of this! And let me know what you think by joining our discord! discord.battleshopper.com

 

2 thoughts on “The Judge is In: Holding Court in Standard with Verdict Control”

  1. “Cruel Sentence is quick-speed. If one of your Verdict options is going to get much worse (say they have Twilight Eclipse and no other constants in play, but are casting a Daybreak), be sure to Verdict them with Cruel Sentence on the stack.”

    ‘Daybreak’ on the chain*

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