The start of a new set and the way it defines the meta is one of my favorite parts of any trading card game -- there's such a beautiful, wide-eyed naivette to a game when a new set releases. Everyone is trying new things, exploring new cards, and testing new tech. The time just after a new set launches is such a wonderful period where everything is possible and the meta is the most diverse because nobody is particularly concerned with grinding out with the most competitive "tier 1" decks.
But now that we're a month into Empire at War and regionals are on the horizon, it's time to buckle down and get a bit serious. Australian Nationals have come to a close and with their conclusion we've gotten the first glimpse at what a pool of competitive players looks like in the Empire at War metagame. The results were, well, in a word... yikes.
You can see all the deck lists and the result of the swiss here and you can actually view the swiss and the top 8 here. If you don't like spoilers, you should check out both those links. The stream quality is stellar and the commentary is crisp, and I wouldn't want to spoil the experience for you.
Let's get down to the nitty gritty.
There were only five Hero decks in the top 32:
- 1x Padme / Rieekan / Instructor (#13)
- 1x eHan / eRey (#21)
- 1x ePoe / eMaz (#22)
- 1x Sabine / ePoe2 (#31)
- 1x eK2SO / Padawan (#32)
Fourteen of the top 32 were blue/red Villains including some combination of Kylo2, EmoVader, Nines, and Phasma.
The rest of the top 32 field included:
- 7x Thrawnkar
- 4x eCad Bane/ ePhasma2
- 1x Unkar / Seventh Sister / Magnaguard
- 1x ePhasma2 / Nines / First Order Storm Trooper
The top 8 consisted of:
- 3x eKylo2 / eNines
- 2x eEmoVader / ePhasma2
- 1x eKylo2 / ePhasma2
- 1x Thrawnkar
- 1x eCad Bane / ePhasma2
The final featured:
- eEmoVader / ePhasma2
- eKylo2 / eNines
That's not a very encouraging first outing for the competitive Empire at War metagame. Now, I'm not one for overreaction and sensationalism -- after all, a single Australian Nationals does not a meta make -- but it's concerning to see that the Empire at War scene has been overwhelmed by a pair of incredibly powerful cards from the Two-Player Set that released weeks prior to the set itself. We knew that Phasma was going to be a mainstay in the metagame, but putting out competition with Nines at the 13-Cost spot before his expected nerf comes in is a feat in itself.
What we're seeing here is the culmination of a meta trend that began with Awakenings and has continued throughout Destiny's lifespan: Characters with good dice, impactful abilities, and high health pools win games. Cute tricks don't win tournaments. This might seem obvious, but it's worth reminding ourselves and keeping this information in mind as we progress through the Empire at War meta. Even if Kylo2 doesn't remain a dominant mainstay over the course of the next several months, it's important to understand why this blue/red Villains archetype was so successful at Australian Nationals so we can strive to emulate the deck's strengths in future tournaments.
• 21+ Health on two characters -- A small but significant aspect that ensures a deck's long term strength. Having a good pool of health means that your upgrades are going to stay around long enough to be resolved a couple of times in a metagame that is rife with high burst damage
• Incredible dice quality -- Since it appears that the Destiny design team is looking to condense games into around four rounds, being able to get the most out of your character dice (and having four of them!) is crucial to being successful in this game. It doesn't feel good when you have two upgrades on the board compared to your opponent's one and they're still outputting more damage per round because their characters dice are just objectively better than yours. Don't be cute and saddle yourself with bad character dice unless you have a really good reason for doing it.
• Two colors -- There's a pretty good reason why there weren't many successful heroes players in this tournament: Heroes has traditionally relied on mono colored lists and Kylo2 wrecks them. Sabine is killer and blue Heroes has been able to maintain some traction with Empire at War, but they can't withstand automatically taking 2 Damage every round. Kylo2 counters himself in that he includes a variety of colors, including at least 4 Gray cards, if not more.
• Really good removal -- Take a look at any of the top lists at Australian Nationals; they're all running 6+ removal pieces at minimum. Removal is the best way to outpace your opponent regularly. When you have four character dice that deal consistent damage, you can afford to spend more of your resources on removing their damage while continuing to kill their characters. Even better if you're sitting in villains and have clutch 0-cost removal like Doubt, He Doesn't Like You, Manipulate, etc. If you're not running removal, you're setting yourself up for defeat.
There weren't many surprises in the top 8, though there was some variety between character suites, particularly when it comes to events and specific removal pieces. Isolation and Doubt made it into every list that included blue. Lightsaber Throw was heavily featured, making it into all but one of the blue lists, which was understandable considering that list included Nines. From there, removal of all kinds was included in the blue/red decks, from High Ground to a single copy of It Will All Be Mine to the Manipulate/Anger removal suite. Both EmoVader/Phasma lists included two copies of New Orders as well. The variety is understandable; there are a ton of removal options in blue/red Villains, leaving players the opportunity to pick and choose which ones they felt the most comfortable using in the largest variety of situations.
Many of the featured upgrades, especially in the blue/red Villains archetype, included a lot of items that we're more than familiar with at this point: Ancient Lightsaber, Riot Baton, Vibroknife, Crossguard Saber, X-8 Night Sniper, and so forth. Rocket Launcher made its way into every Nines list. Force Illusion was prominently featured in every blue list without fail.
The only support that was featured in decks that weren't Thrawnkar was Imperial HQ, which was in every Kylo2/Nines list and the single Cad/Phasma list in the top 8. This card has quickly made a case for itself being a dark horse in the Empire at War meta. Imperial HQ does so much to fix resource issues over the course of the couple rounds that it's typically active, changing a poor roll into a potentially explosive one.
The major difference in most of the blue/red Villains is largely in the choice of upgrades and amount of removal. A list that includes Nines is going to want to take resource generation in Enrage and Logistics to find the money to string 3-cost upgrades like Rocket Launcher and Captain Phasma's Blaster. Alternatively, a list with EmoVader/Phasma favors a Holocron suite with less resource generation and more removal.
There were three outliers in the top 8 we should also discuss:
Kylo2/Phasma with 8 upgrades: 2x Force Illusion, 2x Hate, 2x Force Speed, 2x Ancient Lightsaber. This deck ran the most out of hand events in the tournament, including a Force Strike that can only be used on Kylo's dice and an Intimidate for getting rid of shields. This was arguably the most unique blue/red deck in the top cut, as it eschewed a reliance on upgrades (no Vibroknife!) and instead tried to push out as much damage with events as possible. The Hate+Feint combo on Kylo is something I'm tempted to try now. I question the lack of a Crossguard Saber here, though, because that free damage is heftily in line with what this deck is trying to accomplish through free damage without relying on dice rolls.
Cad/Phasma felt like it had a very standard list for the character suite, but the big take away I had from this list was the inclusion of Truce. I dig it. With Cad Bane's 3R for 1 side and all the upgrades that have resource costs, I like the idea of your opponent underestimating your ability to kill off a character before you throw down the Truce and teach them a lesson about considering the worst case scenario. Hell, just throwing down Truce to get out another upgrade before rolling out Cad feels pretty good in itself. This is a card that I'm interested in doing some more testing with in Cad Bane lists.
Thrawnkar lists are still in the testing stages. Our perspective on Thrawnkar is a discussion for a much different article, but there were some cards in this list that I want to talk about. The big red flag here is Block and Dodge -- two cards that are largely considered unplayable. When I think about it, I don't actually hate the idea of using them in Thrawnkar. Whenever Block or Dodge are played against me, they typically result in a blow out for the round. It's never a card you're expecting to see on the other side of the table. I can see this working regularly just because Thrawnkar cares so little about its resources. I'm just worried that you're trading efficiency for potential with these two cards; they feel more suited to a sideboard, but nothing like that exists in Destiny. Yet?
Cheat is another interesting card, as it affords you more deck consistency by recycling cards that are useless in a certain situation for cards that are better but have already been used. I'm apprehensive about how awful it feels to draw this early instead of a different piece of removal, but I imagine the one-of include is a buffer against a blowout from a timely FILP. Detention Center is a card I want to like, but haven't seen enough success with to get excited about. When your opponent forgets about Detention Center, it can be devastating for them, but I feel that most good players play around it well enough that it feels like an expensive and character-specific Honor Guard most times.
Thrawnkar is here to stay. If you want to play in tournaments, you need to be doing reps with this deck to learn its inner workings, weaknesses, and how to play against it. Having such a wide showing in the top 32 of a tournament despite being a high-skill deck in a metagame filled with competent aggro shows how much staying power Thrawnkar can have despite the fact that it doesn't typically aim to kill characters. Don't be taken off guard when you set up opposite Thrawnkar; the game changes completely when you play against this deck, and you need to be prepared for the amount of removal and shenanigans that are going to be thrown at you. The Buyout tech is something you need to constantly be on your toes for and if you can't learn to adapt against this list, you're going to fail in major competitions. Keep your eyes peeled from our upcoming deck tech discussing all that comes with being an evil tactical genius.
Kylo2 isn't unbeatable, but like Thrawnkar, you need to learn how to play against it. Don't be afraid to include Gray cards in your deck and when you have them in your hand, be selfish about holding them until Kylo activates. Don't overwrite or ship your Vibroknife unless you absolutely have to, because it deals with their Illusion. If you're playing a mono-color deck, don't feel beholden to going after Kylo first; be open-minded. Phasma's dice are just as good as Kylo's, if not better, but she has 2 less Health and killing her turns off The Best Defense. Be mindful of removal and take damage when you can.
Sound the Alarm is incredible and you should be trying it in your lists. Like Doubt, Sound the Alarm isn't always good, but it does have good odds of being at least marginally helpful and doesn't inhibit your ability to spend resources for the rest of the turn. This is one of the most shockingly underrated cards in the set and it's Gray, which means it does an excellent job of keeping your hand from being predictable for opponents running Kylo2.
Rainbows Nines is out in a very permanent fashion if there isn't a meta shift in the near future. Even without a rules update, Nines has suffered a bit of a fall from grace against the brutal efficacy of the new Phasma. Nines is no longer the only character that can output a Round 2 kill and snowball out of control and there are more character suites that can output the amount of pain that Poe/Maz did in Spirit of Rebellion. Nines also lacks the advantage of being up against a cadre of 3-character lists for Bala-Tik to exploit. Worse, Nightsister's volatility puts the list in a situation where it's smacking itself in the face enough to help put its opponent ahead. Rainbow Nines was so good was because it had some of the best character dice in the field while being the best at using upgrades to finish an opponent in an efficient manner and utilizing just enough control to hamper opponent's best dice. Now that characters have better dice condensed into two characters, Rainbow Nines has lost some of its value.
Poe/Maz is struggling to keep its hold on the game for similar reasons. I have more hope for Poe -- I think with Empire at War refinements on the list, he can still maintain his relevance going into this set. But as it stands, the mentality that people had in Spirit of Rebellion about this deck has lead to little success for some of the same reasons Rainbow Nines is feeling the hurt. The disappearance of 3-character lists is hurting the efficacy of those big Thermal Detonator and U-Wing plays, while more quality character dice make Poe's limited removal options progressively worse. There's still something here, though, and I think we'll be back to hating Poe once someone puts some new twists one the deck to reestablish its relevance in the shifting state of the game. I imagine part of Poe's delay to prominence in Empire at War is the fact that people are just... tired of him, and no longer want to be 'that' guy.
3-Dice lists are unplayable in a meta with so much removal where a deck like Thrawnkar has come into prominence. The imminent threat of Prized Possession is such a substantial worry for a deck that only has three character dice, especially considering those decks typically front load most of their early damage in two key dice -- like Darth Vader: Sith Lord. Having a wider spread of useful dice makes your opponent's removal less impactful over the course of an entire round. Losing one of Kylo2's dice hurts a lot less than losing one of Vader's dice, especially if they're both on their best damage side (a 2M and 3M respectively). Outside of Sabine, who is arguably best used with Ezra for 4 dice, none of the 3-dice main characters have the action cheating necessary to dodge removal and keep themselves out of Prize Possession's reach. Vader himself, who was the premiere 3-dice beat stick, was falling out of favor even in the Spirit of Rebellion meta. I don't see this issue getting better or changing in Empire at War. Endurance's one resource cost might be too much to help these character dodge removal.
As I said before, this one tournament doesn't make for a preview of the whole metagame, but some of the lessons learned are important in going forward with future deck building. Are the new Phasma and Kylo the first two horsemen of the Destiny apocalypse? Do you think Sabine is still the aggro titan despite Kylo2's prominence? Is Elrathion the source of all the world's problems? You can join us as we discuss all these things and more on our Discord server. And if you really want to put your money where your mouth is, join us on October 22 for another one of Artificery's constructed tournaments!