Going Deep – Looking Back and Moving Forward

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Hey Friends!

We are quickly approaching the “Dusk Road” – the third set for Eternal! I am sure you are all as pumped as I am. Lots of people are going to be talking about the new cards, but I actually wanted to take this opportunity to look back on what happened with Omens of the Past. I always meant to do a re-review based of my articles I did for Omens, and this feels like the best time to do it. What types of cards did I misunderstand? What mistakes was I making? Were there things I got right? The bulk of this article talks through my reflections on the set review, as well as giving commentary on the design of the set after playing it for months. At the end I also have a note about some plans moving forward.

You can find the actual articles here. All the cards are in their original form, and have not been changed as a result of subsequent balance changes.

Fire/Praxis
Time/Xenan
Justice/Hooru
Primal/Skycrag
Shadow/Argenport

Stuff I Got Right

Revenge is a Weird Mechanic

There are a couple themes that run through the review. The first really focused on how revenge is just a bizarre mechanic that was difficult to evaluate, build around, or play with. After playing with revenge for almost 6 months, I can say I am only slightly better at evaluating revenge cards now than I was when I first saw them. The only time revenge has been particularly successful is when it can be leveraged into doing something insane like the first generation of Grief-Roaches or the more recent incarnations of Echo-Revenge decks. Though it is difficult to speak to the actual power level of the revenge-Roach deck given we had it for so short a time, the Echo-Revenge decks of today are probably more fun than good. The impact in draft was also super polarizing since it is so difficult to control your draw. Overall I would say the mechanic had mixed results, with some players hating it, and some players seemed to love it. I am very curious to see where it goes moving forward.

Argenport Aggro Was Not Great

Related to the above, I didn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in Argenport Aggro being a big deal. Cards like Auric Bully, Bloodletter and others did not get exceptional grades. There were a lot of people concerned that Bart would take over the game from the moment he was released. In reality he was fine until Tale of Horus Traver.

Mentor Cards Were Not Very Good

Looking back through my review I basically figured out that most of the mentor cards were not great. There are a few exceptions – I overvalued Spirit Guide, Watcher of the Big Ones and Nostrix – but I didn’t seem to feel “Mentor” was going to be a deck. Clearly mentor was not a popular mechanic, so I doubt that we see much more of it going forward. The reasons are actually fairly complicated. I wrote about mentor in this article, but I have even more thoughts on the subject now, though I will not expand on them here.

Skycrag Aggro Was Great

This is not a particularly impressive accomplishment, since the deck was incredibly obvious. Cheap dudes + Permafrost + burn felt like a winning combination. This has clearly been one of the defining decks since Omens came out, though it has gone through ups and downs. No need to really expand on this, since it was the easiest call of the whole set.

Too Many Meme Relics

When I was doing the set review I noticed that there seemed to be an incredible volume of relics at rare and legendary. If you specifically check my review of Means to an End I go on a pretty long rant about how there are all these meme relics in the set, and I wasn’t comfortable with that. I think that impression has been fairly vindicated. Yes Knucklebones was a surprise hit, but the majority of these relics didn’t even make it to “meme deck” status. Do you every play with/against Shard of the Spire? Maelstrom Bell? Mind Link? I would expect that majority of you have not. I think meme relics (and meme cards more generally) do have a place in the game, but the volume in Omens was too high for my liking, and ultimately was probably hurtful to the set. Having a lot of the legendary and rare slots taken up by fairly unexciting cards did end up being frustrating. Though I fully expect more of these cards to be made in the future, I think/hope DWD has learned a lesson about volume.

Lifeforce Decks Were Kind of Aggro

This was an interesting discussion that happened around the time we were first getting cards. Some people thought lifeforce decks needed to be very defensively minded, so were confused why I was talking about lifeforce aggro builds. I overestimated the power of the archetype, but I think I was basically right in how the deck played. “Aggro” might be a bit strong of a word, but it was certainly aggro-slanted-midrange.

Xenan Ramp Was Not Good

Between Mask of Torment, Worldjoiner, and Azindel (the promo) it seemed like Xenan was supposed to have a ramp deck. As I said in the review, ramp is not really my thing, but I was not enthusiastic about the deck. Worldjoiner is not the pay-off you want, and Spirit of Resistance was too risky. I still have my eyes open for interesting pay-offs, but Xenan ramp continues to not be a competitive deck.

Stuff I Got Wrong

Overall Power Level Was Low

Omens of the Past was not as powerful as Set 1, but that is not as big of a deal as people made it out to be. Set 1 had to be a very powerful set because it was setting the baseline of the game. If DWD wanted aggro to be a viable archetype they needed to give you enough 1-drops, weapons and burn to make aggro a deck. If Omens of the Past was as impactful as Set 1 I would expect we would have all complained about how the Omens cards were too powerful, or that DWD was making the game “P2W” since the people doing the best were those who just bought up a bunch of Omens packs. Instead, we got a set that was lower power than The Empty Throne, which is probably a good thing. Still, the power level was a bit lower than it should have been, and lower than what I expected.

I think there are some big misconceptions about the power level of Omens of the Past. Some people talk about it like there was 0 impactful cards in the entire set, and this is flat wrong. If you did an honest accounting of meta impact once you take into account balance changes, Omens of the Past was only slightly behind where I might have “wanted” it to be. Obviously subsequent balance changes are a really big part of that, but it is hard to know how much to “grade” DWD based on the original versus final design of the cards. Ultimately, this means I think my scores were slightly inflated across the board. My average grade should probably have been a .5 grade lower than what I gave it.

Big Midrange Got A Lot Worse

This is a complex phenomenon, and as I have tried to write out my thoughts I am realizing that I would need a lot more time and space to work through all of the factors, caveats and implications of this. The moral of the story is that decks that play Siraf or Xenan Obelisk got way worse after Omens of the Past. Once upon a time those decks made up a massive chunk of the metagame, but now are a much smaller fraction. Most midrange decks now tend to lean aggressive, or have fully transitioned into control decks. Cards like Pearlescent Drake and Leave a Witness have been hit very hard by this shift.

In terms of impact on gameplay, I think big midrange becoming less dominant is probably good. I am comfortable playing these types of decks, but the volume we were experiencing them at was just too much for a time. “Midrange Soup Metagame” is fine for a while, but when ladder is always an experience of mashing my greed pile against your greed pile and seeing who has the greediest pile, it begins to become really exhausting. I wouldn’t be surprised to see if big midrange gets a bump in Dusk Road.

Fire Aggro Didn’t Work the Way I Expected

There are a couple Fire cards that I really missed on. Groundbreaker was a huge disappointment, and although Sindok made it into some meme-tier decks, it was certainly not nearly as good as I predicted. For Sindok I will admit that I was just overexcited to play with an interesting card. The cost mechanic that it uses was too difficult to evaluate for me to come down as strong as I did. Groundbreaker was a bit more complicated. FFF is just really hard to hit in any deck other than mono-Fire, and the incentives for mono-Fire are just not good enough. In addition, removal just got way better. Banish and Slay are some of the best cards in the game, and filling an aggro deck with units that trade at a power disadvantage with such cards is risky. Chalice becoming one of the defining decks of the game was also a really big deal. How on earth does Groundbreaker get past a Lumen Defender or a swarm of chump blockers?

In some respect this ties into something I have really enjoyed in the post-Omens (and in particular the post-Horus) metagame: Rakano is on a break. As someone who has played almost every day since I started in May of the 2016, it is nice to go a little while without running into Champion of Glory and Deepforged Plate. The same forces that pushed Groundbreaker out of the metagame were responsible for punishing Rakano. I wouldn’t be surprised if it came back in the future, but the break has been lovely.

Workshop Forge Was Not A Real Deck

This was another case of me getting overly excited about a cool design. Workshop Forge is a baller card that is a total blast to play with, but the warp cards are just not powerful enough to come together and make a deck. It is particularly of note that the curve for the deck is wonky. There are more 3 drops and 5 drops than you could ever want, but the 2’s and 4’s are pretty unexciting. Warp ended up being a fairly popular mechanic – especially in draft – so I expect it will show up again in the future. Still, I systematically overvalued a lot of warp cards because of my misevaluation of Workshop Forge.

It should be noted that Tesya might have changed this. Though it requires more testing, she does go really well into the Forge decks. SirRhino’s most recent build can be found here.

Primal Is Worse Than I Thought

It has become increasingly clear to me that Primal is really in a rough spot. I look back at a card like Torgov. He had so much promise! He looked like he was going places! What has he actually done? Basically nothing. I can’t quite put my finger on what keeps back all the Primal cards. Is it really as simple as being bad against Titan? Is it the fuzzy “identity”? I still have my eye on things like Swindle, Torgov and Pearlescent Drake to find a home, but for the time being I just don’t know what we are supposed to do with them. I really feel like all of the factions except Primal have become clear in my mind as distinct well-defined factions, but Primal is still struggling to get settled. I was able to pick out most of the multi-faction Primal cards that would have a big impact, but I certainly over-valued some of the Primal cards.

The Mono-Faction Cards were Really Bad

I have a question for all of you: imagine if they removed all the mono-faction cards from Omens of the Past from every faction but Time. Does the meta change? So that means all the Omens mono-Fire, mono-Justice, mono-Primal and mono-Shadow cards. If you remove them all do you think the meta shifts in an important way? Take a moment to really think about this.

I would bet no, and that is wild. I understand why DWD put the majority of the power level of the set in multifaction cards, but it ends up making the set “feel” weird. There is not a huge range of decks that Ayan or Heart of the Vault or Kothon can go into because of their influence requirements. It is really hard to get “cross-archetype all-stars” when all the cards are sectioned off because of influence restrictions. This likely contributed to the feeling that Omens was lower power level than it was. In Set 1 you have cross-archetype powerhouses. Temple Scribe is a more impactful mono-faction card than any mono-faction card in Omens of the Past, and it is probably only barely in the top 5 mono-Time cards from The Empty Throne.

The moral of the story here is that I systematically overvalued mono-faction cards. This was also clearly one of the shortcomings of the set, and although in many ways is more a “perception” thing than a “real” thing, it was still a thing.

Didn’t Figure Out Shadow Was Bad in Draft

I’m not going to dwell on this much since this is focused on ranked, but in the draft review I did with SirRhino I failed to identify that Shadow is really bad. We did not give out a ton of erroneous grades on the subject, but we should have picked up on the fact that the whole faction was uninspiring. Hopefully the next draft set is a bit more balanced.

Lessons

Did DWD Stop Giving Out Pre-Cons?

Pre-con is short of “pre-constructed”. MTG (and other card games) will sell pre-con decks, typically for beginners. It is a good way for new players to get started playing without needing to know anything about deckbuilding. There is a joke that certain competitive decks in MTG are pre-con decks because they are so obvious to put together. For example the mono-Black zombies deck that won the Pro Tour about 6 months ago. You could imagine someone coming up with a really close approximation of that deck basically on day 1. Eternal has some very clear examples of this in the early days. Rakano is basically a pre-con deck, and although the original versions of the deck were not well tuned compared to today’s standards, it didn’t take a genius to put together a reasonable version of the deck. Some of the other early decks like Bandit Queen and even Feln control were pretty obvious to put together in their earliest forms. This was much less true of Omens of the Past decks. Jamming all the Warp cards into a deck did not give you a competitive deck. Lifeforce was not a particularly easy deck to build, and the most recent versions are actually quite light on the lifeforce cards. Mentor was obviously not even close to a playable pre-con deck. Given what we know so far about The Dusk Road, I doubt we are going to get a lot in the way of pre-con decks. There may be a minor 3F theme, and those deck are going to be difficult to build. As of this writing we don’t have a lot of information about the Nightfall, Ally or Bond mechanics, but given that we have only 3 mechanics I doubt they will be distributed in such a way that decks can be built around them. Maybe the days of “per-cons” are behind us? Hard to know of course, but I would bet we are not going to get the same hand holding in deckbuilding we got during The Empty Throne.

Chalice Warps the Meta

The more I reflect on the state of the game right now, the more that I think Chalice has an incredibly warping effect on design and the metagame as a whole. You know that discussion about big midrange dying that I mentioned above? Chalice is one of the main reasons for that. From my experience Mystic Ascendant decks are basically universally a dog to Chalice. Obelisk decks fair a little better, but they are certainly not great either. Chalice also steps on control as well. There are a lot of control decks that struggle going toe-to-toe with an opponent that is drawing multiple cards a turn and grinding them out with their dorky units. As others have pointed out many times before, the play patterns of Chalice can be problematic.

It is not necessarily a problem that a control deck exists that sits on big midrange decks – that is kinda what they are supposed to do right? As I see it Chalice has 3 problems. The first is that it limits future design space. Any value unit that costs 4 or less with strength 2 or less is going to be a consideration for Chalice. That is a pretty strict set of constraints. Second, it invalidates a wide range of decks. Aggro decks have trouble against the sea of value blockers, midrange decks get out valued, and control just dies to chaining Channel the Tempest. Obviously the deck doesn’t have a 100% win rate, and it does have some bad match ups, but it is scary good assuming it gets a functional draw. Third, the play pattern is borderline toxic. If you are able to get the Chalice going the decisions of either player basically don’t matter. Although as I understand it the win rate for Chalice is far from outrageous, the pressure it puts on the metagame and set design more broadly is pretty remarkable.

Chalice is very much a card to keep you eye on in the first weeks of the expansion. Do the new cards find different ways to counter this powerful control deck, or does Chalice pick up a handful of value dorks to add to its collections (or potentially leverage Temporal Distortion as being a finisher)? If it still sticks around as a popular choice I wouldn’t be surprised if DWD took action against it. This leads me to the next point about change in Eternal.

Rhythm of Change

Though DWD has not officially disclosed plans around future sets, I think we are beginning to see a rough rhythm of things. This year we got 2 new sets and 2 new campaigns. That seems like a pretty sustainable release schedule for the time being. Also, it seems like we see a regular balance change about a 1 or 2 month after a new release. We got a major balance patch in the summer that pushed Banish to 3 and then took a big bite out of Armory. About a month after Tale of Horus Traver we saw Bart move to 4 and Purify move to 2, as well as some other changes. It seems like this is just “the schedule” now, so people should be prepared for a balance patch within a month or two after The Dusk Road hits.

The community would do well to accept that balance changes are going to just be part of the game. I was thinking about this a lot recently, since I feel it will make a very big difference in the health of the game going forward. One of the features of Eternal and any digital card game is the ability to rebalance cards after they have been printed. Magic the Gathering doesn’t get that freedom, and there are a lot of cards from the past 2 years WoTC would consider rebalancing if they had the chance. Hearthstone has been surprisingly restrained in balance changes over the years, and this reluctance has lead to some serious issues with game health. DWD seems to have embraced balance patches not just as a tool for managing overpowered decks, but also to maintain healthy churn in the metagame. In the last balance patch we saw 1 nerf – which was probably necessary – but we also saw a half dozen buffs that are not “needed” per se. These really helped keep the game fresh for the last month or so, even without any major content releases.

Given that DWD has a unique approach to handling balance, I think the community should consider better ways to respond to balance changes. The first is understanding the importance of ebb-and-flow. Armory is a great example of this. Over the time of the game Armory has gone between top-tier to unplayable multiple times. Every time Armory is pushed out by a new predator or a nerf people talk like it is the death of the game, but 2 months later Armory is back on top! This cycle is very healthy for the game, since things are more enjoyable when we sometimes play against a lot of Armory, and sometimes we get to ignore it. If your favorite deck was nerfed, there is a chance that some new-and-improved version is just around the corner!

This relates to an important point – the community should be a little more patient with DWD since balance changes are likely going to come. The hysteria around Tavrod when he was first released was honestly hysterical. He is a good card and the deck he was in was very good, but they we not degenerate. We had a month where Argenport midrange had its turn being the deck to beat, then Bart got hit by the nerf bat, and now the deck is totally fine. That pattern is healthy. I similarly recall the season that Part Hour was popular. Once again, there was a month long period where 1 deck was dominate, and it was interesting, then DWD changed things before everything went too far.

Giving DWD a long leash on balance will ultimately be healthy for the game, and that means balance changes should not be less thought of as “mistakes” but more as “course corrections” or maybe a “different stage of evolution”. For example, was Barthollo at 3-cost a “mistake” originally? I don’t really think so. Argenport aggro was an OK deck, and it was frustrating to lose to the little bastard, but you can’t argue that it was out-of-bounds in terms of power level. When Tale of Horus Traver came out the pairing of Bart and Tavrod ended up being too powerful, to at that point Bart was hit with a change. Was the printing of Tavrod a mistake then? I don’t think so, since he is a very interesting card that has given new life to a range of strategies. Was it a mistake to let Tavrod be released while Bart was still a 3-drop? I don’t think so, since no one had adequate data to show that this combo was too good. I don’t think there was any point along this path that was a “mistake”, and the ultimate change to Bart represents not “correcting an error”.

Instead I think it is better to view the ultimate change to something like Bart as being a “course correction”. Imagine driving a car down a straight road. You point your vehicle in the direction that you want to go, but given the curvature of the road, the alignment of the tires and many other small effects, you will eventually drift in one direction or another. When you redirect your car so that it stays on the road, does that mean you “made a mistake” when you set your direction initially? Not exactly. In fact it is almost impossible to make such a journey without course corrections. I think balancing Eternal has taken a similar approach, where initial conditions are set as best possible, but inevitable something is going to be slightly off, so it is better to course correct gradually over time rather than stubbornly sticking to the initial bearings.

I want to continue this metaphor by speaking to the community response to balance changes. Imagine going for a drive, but you could never use course corrections, or that course corrections could only be used in extreme cases. How would that inform your trip planning? Wouldn’t you choose the most conservative route possible? Stick to streets you knew really well rather than explore new territory? I think so. If the community loses its mind when things are slightly out of balance it encourages DWD to be very conservative in the cards they print. The best way to avoid angry feedback is to just print cards that are safe, but that is less interesting no? Everyone is allowed to have opinions about cards or decks that they don’t like, but taking an overly reactionary stance tells DWD you want them to always play it safe. Since we have the safety valve of balance changes, I prefer if things were a little risky! Maybe the meta is a bit nutty for a month, but balance patches usually bring things under control, so it is better to at least try out what is possible.


With that, I want to talk about some changes that are happening here. It has become clear to me that my Going Deep column is consuming too much of my time. I really love having a space to explore my thoughts and discuss them with all of you, but I need to commit more time to my work and my family for the next little while. As of right now “Going Deep” will be on a hiatus, though I intend to continue writing my Event Primers and the “Hot Takes for Filthy Netdeckers” series. I will also do a set review for Dusk Road. I expect I will be able to come back to “Going Deep” in the future, since I really love doing it, but I realize that I need to focus my time and mental energy elsewhere. I am very proud of the work that I have done in this series, and although I feel like I have dozens of other articles swirling around in my head, those will have to wait. I’m not going anywhere, so I am still part of the RNG team and will still be around Discord and such, so you can still find me.

Love,

Neon