IlyaK's Musings on the Current State of Competitive Eternal, LSV, and Jennev Merchant Nerf

Musings on Set 5 Part IV:

This is my 4th musings on Set 5, check out the other ones here:

Link to part 3 (which contains links to part 2 and 1)

In any case, time for another journal entry on set 5.

Let’s get going.

LSV ON SABOTAGE HITTING SITES—“DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH”

So, I hopped onto one of LSV’s magic streams to ask him about sabotage hitting sites, and his response was “don’t hold your breath.” That is, it wasn’t an oversight that unlike in magic, in which the card duress says “Target opponent reveals their hand. You choose a nonland, noncreature card from it. They discard it”, sabotage simply says “spell or attachment”. Obviously, our discard is actually far weaker than our counterpart in Magic, because in Magic, in order to prevent cheating, your opponent must actually show you their entire hand; ergo, every single discard spell that involves you selecting a card at minimum is a full hand reveal (I.E. your duress vs. our sabotage, your inquisition of kozilek vs. our shakedown, etc.).

To hear LSV say that one of the few other ways of interacting with sites that doesn’t involve directly attacking them is intentionally left not working, given the power level of Howling Peak in particular, is extremely disappointing. I have made a thread on reddit asking for an errata to discard to work like duress does against planeswalkers/sagas in magic the gathering (and sites are a sort of hybrid of both planeswalkers and sagas—they don’t lose health for casting powerful spells such as an outright targeted removal such as gun down or cut ties, but at the same time, their completed agenda isn’t an outright game over like a planeswalker’s ultimate), and to hear that discard is even weaker in Eternal than being just a direct port of Duress, given the power level of cards like, Tavrod, Heart of the Vault, and Howling Peak (e.g. incredibly pushed threats, incredibly tame reactive options), seems incredibly lopsided.

My logic here is this: not all faction combos can have the best unit in the game. Sure, there’s some apples and oranges involved at some point, but not everyone has access to something like Heart of the Vault, Howling Peak, or some other super-pushed legendary. While those legendaries can exist, it seems silly that shadow can’t even have a basic working discard spell. I do believe that if a faction should be good at doing something, such as Fire having direct damage, Justice removing things, Time playing fatties, or Shadow discarding cards (or paying life to draw them), that those factions should actually be good at those things. If I’m playing shadow, I’m conceding that my units don’t have the staying power of Primal or Justice since they won’t have aegis. I’m conceding that my units will not be as fat as Time’s units. Please allow me to have a wide assortment of good discard with which to attack strategies. For instance, the fact that we have to pay 3 power in the form of Mug to not affect the board is obnoxious. I’d rather pay 1 power and 2 life. Yes, I know that’s Thoughtseize. If Time can have a whole assortment of fatties, and Hooru can curve aegis units, and Justice decks can spam removal, I think it’s reasonable to ask that shadow can be good at attacking a hand before the game turns into topdecks. Yes, it might not be “fun”, but nor is it “fun” getting every unit you play removed, or a Howling Peak mirroring a Molot, or whatever else have you. To borrow a meme from Riot games: X can have Y (EG Jinx can have 3 guns), but Graves can’t have a cigar? Same goes for Eternal. Time can have a whole parade of fatties, justice can have a whole pile of removal, but shadow can’t get a basic duress? Cut. Me. A. Break.

LSV, NEVER STOP BEING HONEST, AND NEVER CHANGE

One thing I do want to emphasize, though, is this. I know some people, or even some Dire Wolf devs may think: “Why should we answer questions, when we’re just going to get blasted on Reddit for our answers, when we have our reasons for making the decisions we do?” And the answer to that is this: There is nothing more infuriating than asking a question and getting either the “I refuse to answer that question” answer or “because we understand game design better than you do, and that’s that” answer. I’ve asked LSV hard questions before, and always wanted to keep following up, but if there’s one thing I have nothing but praise for, it’s that he’s a genuine, honest guy, whose answers I can take at face value. I’d love for him to be able to just have a sit-down Q-and-A back-and-forth with some of the members of the community, such as going on say, Neon’s podcast, where the community would feed Neon a bunch of questions, at which point he and LSV would have a nice back and forth chat. I know that when we had an AMA with Patrick Chapin, it was amazing, but I’d love to see a more organic back-and-forth.

In any case, even if the community may not agree on the answer or justification (at some point, it may be “because we felt sites weren’t playable enough getting picked out of hand for 1 power”), I will have nothing but the utmost praise for members of Dire Wolf’s staff who are willing to be forthcoming and public with their opinions. As far as I see, LSV is the most prominent such member; he’s a Dire Wolf dev that streams Eternal, and occasionally even some serious constructed decks (Combrei Alessi originated with LSV streaming Combaeckstrom). In terms of interacting with the community, he is head and shoulders above any other Dire Wolf dev. Eternal has its warts, but LSV is an absolute gem. I know I don’t hesitate to give Dire Wolf criticism for things I think they get wrong, but as I’ve said before, I’m going to compliment them for what—or in this case, who—they get right. And LSV is someone that Direwolf has very right, and is a huge reason as to why they continue to have my trust (though not always unwavering) in what they do with Eternal. Namely because of this one man. One last thing—hey LSV, can you tryhard the ladder some more so master’s players can have the opportunity to play against you? It’d be awesome.

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE...

I just saw that SecondBlue took down the Eye of Winter 3 classic with a deck concept that originated in the beginning of set 4—back in the days of 1-cost levitate and 2-cost accelerated evolution (nerfed because spells are a problem, not Alessi—cough cough), and did what the deck was built to accomplish—crush greedpiles with aegis,  recursion, and aggression. While SecondBlue’s list differs from my original one, the man himself told me months ago that he started his work with Feln Nightfall Berserk starting from my list and tuning it as he went. And for some people, a pocket nightfall berserk deck is just the thing that the doctor ordered to punish slow 3F howling peak control lists. An inbred control meta always invites a hard-to-the-face aegis attack, and scream seems to be just the thing to do it. That said, if I had to pick one deck to really punish an inbred Howling Peak meta, it would be a Combrei stand together deck based off my mono-justice aggro. That is, commit to the 1-drop plan, with something like District Infantry or Oni Samurai into Awakened Student, Crownwatch Paladin, or Master-at-Arms, followed by a turn 3 Siraf/Auric Record Keeper into Stand Together spam. The one disadvantage to a Combrei list, however, is that you have no merchant conducive to a dedicated aggressive plan. Winchest Merchant is trash on rate, and Auralian, while great in general, is pretty bad as a curve topper for aggressive justice strategies. I haven’t built such a list yet, but I think stand together with a good power base is the way to go.

IN ICARIA’S NAME, YOU HAVE NO SITE

So, pretty simple and straightforward musing here. The critical amount of health for your site to have is 4, because if your site has 3 or less health, you most likely will not be completing its agenda, because Rizahn will shoot it down. So, if you were ever thinking about the possibility of your Xenan Temple being super-effective, disabuse yourself of the thought. If you’re on the draw and without ramp (because your Initiate or Trail Maker ate a snowball or a torch), you’re getting off one spell before a Rizahn is coming down to deal with your temple. Regent’s Tomb must be coming down turn 4, and even then, the odds of seeing Elias against a high-curve Rakano deck depend heavily on avoiding an on-curve Rizahn (mug?). The sites which are the most Rizahn-proof are: Torgov’s Trading Post (comes down turn 2, will summon Torgov before Rizahn can see play if played on curve), and Ijin’s Workshop/Dizo’s Office/Howling Peak (4+ health). Praxis Arcanum may be a good play as well, depending on how much ramp you’re playing, and if you play it maindeck (given that high-curve Time decks play Auralian Merchant, I think this site is worth playing if you’re a heavy Time midrange deck, so you can accelerate one of your fatties, and maybe make one of your ramp dorks into a deadly defender). In any case, I very much like the fact that we have a 2-for-1 type of card that can check sites the way Rizahn does. That is, if you’re burning a card like Burn Them All on a site like Howling Peak, you’re already falling behind on power AND cards. It’s why I think that Torch and Obliterate hitting sites was a fine interaction. If you wind up torching something like Xenan Temple, your opponent already got to cast one spell, and you discard the torch. You come out ahead on power, they come out ahead on value. I am a huge fan of the fact that Rizahn is exactly a type of card that allows that sort of hard punish on certain sites.

DENYING EVEN THE MOST BASIC OF ATTACKS

Before set 5 released, when evaluating sites, this is a comment I made. Essentially stating that in order for a site to be worth playing given its low durability, a deck playing such cards must excel at denying attacks to the opponent to such an extent that the opponent will not be able to push even a single digit amount of damage. The success of Howling Peak decks have shown this to be exactly the case. While I’m not sure what Dire Wolf envisioned when they created sites, the result, at this point, I think is fairly loud and clear. Rather than encouraging committing hard to board to actively defend sites with units, the best sites encourage the exact opposite—actively keeping your opponent’s board clear of anything that can threaten them. And given that the only thing that can threaten a high-health site (that is, anything that Rizahn can’t shoot down) is a unit (again, by deliberate design, as evidenced by the complete inability of relic weapons to attack sites even if the opponent has no units, or Sabotage to even hit them—unlike Duress with planeswalkers or sagas in Magic), this makes the gameplan of a deck whose plan centers around a site (again, Howling Peak in this example, but we may see more) into that of a hard control deck—particularly a removal pile, at least in some cases. Certainly, Howling Peak is a fantastic tool for a removal pile—it’s removal, it’s a wincon even if you have a single Jennev merchant out, and it even fixes your Fire influence while sparking your Molot and Nokova! That said, I think there may be a way to attack the current meta.

HARSH RULE OUT? FATTIES IN

This is pure theorycrafting, but here’s the idea: if Howling Peak decks are going to depend on a slew of 1-for-1 removal to stay ahead of the game, you can attack those cards with discard. Hit the Vanquishes and Avigrafts with your choice of Sabotage or Shakedown, then just overrun them with 6+ health units such as Sandstorm Titan and better. Odds are, Argenport can do this too, and I think I can tune my Argenport Ramp/Empower deck to hit this type of metagame harder (enforcers, a runehammer, some top-end out, more Shakedowns, Sabotages, and Amilli with Tavrod in) than it currently does. There may also be a distinct possibility for a Praxis Dark Heart type deck to emerge that leans on Shadow discard early, then just crushes someone with a combination of Worldbearer Behemoth, Thundering Kerasaur, and Darya suddenly turning them into massive burn spells. That said, I’ve always been pretty atrocious at building these 3F greedpiles, and I have no clue how ChildRoland made his Dark Heart deck work. If you can somehow fit Sabotage, Thundering Kerasaur, and Darya in one deck and keep it from losing to itself, that deck will be a force to be reckoned with—just have a plan for the early game, because against such a power base, a Rakano or Skycrag aggro deck is going to be hungry.

I STILL CAN’T FIGURE OUT TJS

So, towards the end of the season, I tried to rework Aetherllama’s Dark Alessi/Moolessi ETS winning deck into something that should theoretically be able to work in Hidden Road Smuggler, and sites in the black market. The logic was that sites fed Alessi a lot of spells, so Alessi + Sites = should be good, and that a TJS shell might be a place to start looking. It was a trainwreck. The deck developed the plan too slowly, and essentially, Alessi was cute, but in terms of being a value machine, a few more 1/1s don’t really measure up to the value a Howling Peak deck can generate by mirroring cards like Rizahn. Furthermore, another issue I see with TJS is that Telut, one of the better top-end payoffs for a ramp deck, even one that makes heavy use of it such as Rakano Valkyries (to the point that he’s replaced Icaria because of her nerf in Tobboo’s list) essentially demands a 2-faction deck for his Justice sigil payoff to work. Furthermore, with Martyr’s Chains having a massive JJJJ influence requirement, the payoff for a 3F TJS deck doesn’t seem to be there, outside of potentially the evolution of the Talir combo deck into Talir Grinva. (Long story short: Talir Vodakhan as usual, throw a couple of Mystic Ascendants in there, play Grinva and sacrifice Vodakhan to her to dome your opponent for immediate lethal, and if that isn’t enough, devour a Mystic Ascendant to dome them for another 40). However, going off the assumption that Dire Wolf does not want the Talir combo deck to actually be good in any form, I still fail to see what they actually intended for the Kerendon faction to do. For instance, with cards like Howling Peak and Display of Instinct, it’s fairly straightforward to say that one plan for the Jennev faction (FTP) is to play a value-grinding game, and indeed, such a deck took second place at the Eye of Winter classic. Similarly, with FJS and Xo of the Infinite Hoard, you can see an intention for a different style of value-grind/removal pile style of deck, while with FJP, again, control. In contrast, with TJS, so many of the interactions just seem a little too cute. Governor Sahin + Pit of Lenekta at 7? That’s neat, but most likely inconsistent. The faction doesn’t have good enough card draw to really make use of the ramp it generates.

DITTO TPS

When Display of Knowledge was revealed, I was absolutely giddy over how good it was. And while the card itself is undoubtedly fantastic (having played with it, the card itself certainly isn’t the problem), it just isn’t enough to elevate TPS to a competitive state by itself. Simply, while we have a relic toolbox, we just don’t have good enough relics to tutor for. While eye of winter is absolutely amazing in Hooru type decks since it demands opponents extend further to the board so a Harsh Rule can gain massive amounts of value, the TPS faction simply does not have access to efficient sweepers (no, Withering Witch into Torrential Downpour is not an efficient sweeper, nor is Stray Into Shadow, and Hailstorm does not hit enough targets).

Furthermore, while Display of Knowledge is great for removing units with heavy amounts of investments poured into them, TPS lacks great cheap interaction, and by that, I mean Torch and Defiance. Permafrost and Suffocate are okay, but Torch and Defiance are just on another level entirely. Someone does the sharpshooter → warhelm combo? Just poof whatever got that 5/3 warcry charge buff for 1 power. Permafrost and Suffocate can’t do that. Equivocate is nice, but ultimately, it can come back to bite you if you’re only leaning on 1-for-1s to get you through to your wincon, especially that it gets worse and worse as you go up the curve (something that costs 8 can only be so bad). And while from play experience, Praxis Arcanum is undoubtedly going to be good in some sort of big time beatdown type strategy (give Xo viper’s bite!), it’s really not that great for the relic control style deck that Display of Knowledge seems to want you to play.

Then there’s Xenan Temple, which may very well be the most awfully positioned-site in the game. 5-cost site that has 3 health? Nope, nothing that can go wrong with that, Kappa. And then, of course, there’s the fact that if you’re going to bank on a relic toolbox, you better have an immediate answer to Bore, and those answers take deck or market space, which is at an absolute premium for a toolbox deck.

PEAK IN, CHANNEL OUT

So, just to screw around, I tried putting together a TJP control deck, and even tried to modify a netdeck. Results felt disastrous. Your top end payoffs (brilliant idea, channel) just feel a little too expensive (by design), while sites were created to deliberately hose the playstyle of “I’m going to sit back and not present a threat while picking off threats and drawing cards to build up a gradual card advantage”. Turns out, when the best method of building card advantage is defending a site, and Elysian’s seems mostly geared towards anything that isn’t a hard TJP control, the whole “give me channels or give me death” plan just isn’t as appealing anymore. So far, if you’re a control deck, the best plan seems to be:

Step 1) A few quality removal spells

Step 2) Some good midrange curve-toppers with good ETB (enters the battlefield) effects

Step 3) Clone them with peak, which also kills things

That is, there are so many payoffs for committing to the board. Would you rather your removal + draw cost 9 and do next to nothing as far as board impact (channel), or have it cost 6, with your card advantage coming in the form of board impact (Howling Peak)? Moral of the story? If you’re playing “control”, your archetypes are decks like a Peak control deck, or FJS/Winchest removal/haymaker pile, or even a Vara peak deck is where you’re looking. Essentially—if you want to play control, you need to actively contest the board—a few answers early on, and then get those threats out there to fight over sites, because if you’re sitting back with a spell-heavy control deck, you will fall too far behind to uncontested sites.

SITES AND MERCHANTS—THE INCENTIVE TO COMMIT TO THE BOARD

I feel this deserves its own separate topic as it stems from the above; ever since Svetya, Orene of Kosul was released, we saw Dire Wolf grappling with the problem of “how do you create incentives for more controlling decks to commit to the board?”. Simply, it’s not exactly fun playing against a deck whose modus operandi is “board wipe you until you run out of steam, then smack you with a relic weapon that’s still hard to interact with”. The answer has been that in order to access a special zone full of potentially highly-useful cards, you’ll need to play units which will activate enemy removal. Furthermore, you and opposing players can play cards that can generate obscene amounts of value, but whose most efficient answer (by far) is attacking them with units. Both of these relatively recent additions to Eternal provide ridiculous amounts of conditional value, provided that players ante up some units to start the action/interaction chain leading to more dynamic play rather than trying to simply slog through a temporal control deck’s “endless” removal (now more feasible than ever thanks to Regent’s Tomb), or as the most basic of mountains called the dynamic “let’s just set aside my life total”. I for one like that these new additions to Eternal, rather than be hamfisted solutions such as Eremot “if your opponent’s playing unitless control, they lose the game”, create incentives to commit to tempo-oriented, active play. There’s something awesome about the game that even in a Howling Peak mirror, that who wins or loses can be as simple as “who missed 6 on 6”. When the idea of vital tempo is present even in control matchups, there’s something awesome about that. That said, this does give me concern regarding one aspect of the game…

CUTTING THE STRATEGY SPACE

The flip side of creating incentives for one particular playstyle—that is, committing to the board with pushed units, or pushed cards whose counterplay is pushed units, is that if you think about some of the most iconic decks in Magic: the Gathering history—decks like Draw Go, Tolarian Academy combo decks, storm, dredge, prison, and other “notable and awesome decks that were ultimately meta-warping mistakes” is that they were unique in their approach to the game. It wasn’t simply a case of “this deck played slightly bigger creatures than that one”, but that these decks were fundamentally different in their approach to the game, and often attacked it from a completely unconventional angle. When there are heavy incentives for a particular type of playstyle, it does run the risk of creating a homogenized experience. For instance, is it much different to play against FTPeak midrange/control, FJPeak midrange/control, or Felnscar midrange/peak control? And are those much different than FJS midrange/control? Three of those (FTP, FJP, and FJS) are supported factions and are undoubtedly tier 1 decks in the metagame right now for the sheer quality of the cards they bring to the table, but they aren’t vastly different in both the way they play, and the way to play against them, either. Contrast that with, say, set 1. How much different were decks like Feln control, chalice, big combrei, rakano plate, and rally queen? While these back-and-forth punch-counterpunch games are undoubtedly fantastic for a time, and will likely continue to be, I hope that we get decks of similar power level, but that play vastly differently. While there is always the trade-off of “better games with more homogeneous decks versus two-vastly-different-decks-goldfishing-one-another”, I think that diversity in the strategic space—not just the tactical space—is vital. So far, sites blurring the line between midrange and control has been more a net positive than a net negative, but that may not always be the case. Furthermore, as far as unfair strategies go, Eternal has a pretty nasty track record in terms of how it treated these types of decks. Vara reanimator got nuked from orbit, as did echo revenge or echo excavate. Talir Combo may still exist in a fashion (Grinva combo), but the mechanics of its execution were pretty awful, and its setup is as dull as watching water boil. Ever since closed beta, those that wanted to attack the game from a more unfair angle have found their efforts constantly destroyed by the Dire Wolf balancing team. I hope for the sake of those that appreciate the road less traveled that we can get some competitive unfair decks soon.

JENNEV MERCHANT NERF—FIRST, DO NO HARM

This is a very recent addendum, and holy shit, did Direwolf shit the bed here. The way I see it is this: First, do no harm. The Ixtun and Jennev merchant nerfs were clearly aimed at one card—Howling Peak, and for good reason (the card is absolutely nuts in how good it is). The one problem? The Peak decks are most likely the least affected by this change as compared to all the proactive primal decks that used Jennev merchant to form the backbone of their strategy—decks like Feln berserk, Hooru aggro/fliers/midrange/clutchcaller, Elysian nightmaul, and obviously, any sort of skycrag aggro or midrange. Simply, Howling Peak smuggler, as a 2/2 for 3 that pumps damage spells just does not cut the mustard when your strategy revolves around “hit the opponent with units”. After these changes, only fire decks even have a merchant that hits for 3 at 3 cost. Meanwhile, in contrast, FJS decks now completely laugh at the new landscape now that their smugglers are uncontested in combat by other merchants. I understand that Howling Peak itself may have been oppressive. So the correct course of action would have been to nerf Howling Peak directly. Say, by giving it 3 health and putting it right into Rizahn’s sights. In the meantime, what we got instead was a bomb with massive collateral damage that most likely affects the Peak decks it was meant to target in a very small way as compared to all of the other primal aggressive decks that must now wait for a set 6 smuggler. The analogy of using a sledgehammer to kill a fly very much applies here. Very disappointing.

So that’s it for now. Let’s recap.

TL;DR:

LSV ON SABOTAGE HITTING SITES—“DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH”: Skycrag can have Howling Peak but Graves can’t have a cigar? Errr...shadow can’t have a basic duress? Direwolf, pls.

LSV, NEVER STOP BEING HONEST, AND NEVER CHANGE: agree or disagree with the changes Direwolf makes (a lot of disagreement from me), I think we can all agree LSV is the man, and that there aren’t enough good things to say about him. I just wish he’d tryhard the constructed ladder some more and streamed it.

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE: the more they stay the same. Congratulations to SecondBlue for taking down EoWC with a tuned version of Feln Nightfall Berserk—a deck that originated in the days of blitz mania and was considered second string—and interesting that it’s the last surviving blitz deck (though maybe Alessi blitz can be rekindled.) Oh, and with no set 5 cards, either. Hah. (Jennev merchant OP, Kappa.)

IN ICARIA’S NAME, YOU HAVE NO SITE: 4+ health on your site, or Rizahn makes you very sad. Or in two words, Rizahn gud.

DENYING EVEN THE MOST BASIC OF ATTACKS: to defend a site, you need to keep something with the durability of wet tissue alive. What does it say about the tier 1 decks that manage to consistently do this, and the play patterns they create?

HARSH RULE OUT? FATTIES IN: Surviving gun down is very desirable right now, and harsh rule has largely been cut from the meta. Argenport might have a really decent shot at sticking it to the meta since Amilli survives both gun down and can’t be hit by Avigraft.

I STILL CAN’T FIGURE OUT TJS: card draw not great, some of the best ramp and payoffs heavily dependent on justice sigils/heavy justice influence, not sure what the draw of the actual 3F is when AP and Combrei can both hold their own for ramp strategies with more consistent power bases.

DITTO TPS: you have card draw, but your methods of contesting sites are atrocious, not enough high-impact relics to tutor for, no good board-wide sweepers to synergize with eye of winter, 1-cost interaction in these colors not great.

PEAK IN, CHANNEL OUT: want to get high-value, X-for-1 cards? Commit to board, support with sites, win games. Howling Peak particularly good at this, Regent’s tomb is great in certain applications. If you plan to do nothing until channel, you will get outvalued by sites. Hard.

SITES AND MERCHANTS—THE INCENTIVE TO COMMIT TO THE BOARD: for a while, Eternal has grappled with how to create incentives for players to take to the board and put resources at risk. Sites (or the threat thereof) and merchants accomplish this, and make way for more dynamic games than we’ve ever seen before. For me, high-tempo games are more enjoyable and fascinating. However…

CUTTING THE STRATEGY SPACE: the big concern is removing strategies that are different in kind. Some of the most iconic decks in MtG’s storied history are so because they attack the game from a fundamentally different angle—EG dredge, storm, tolarian academy, etc. All had flaws (some even historic in nature that mandated the creation of the storm scale), but at least they were different. I hope we can have our competitive and completely different decks in Eternal.

JENNEV MERCHANT NERF—FIRST, DO NO HARM: far too much collateral damage here. Primal aggro/proactive decks get hit much harder than peak decks here.