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Primordial Knowledge – Learning to Ramp

Mar 25, 2016

by Varranis

Howdy HEXers!

Some of you may know me from my longtime involvement in Hearthstone, but most of you probably don’t. While I’m currently an analyst for professional gaming organization Fade 2 Karma, my fascination with TCGs began many years ago. I still have fond memories of suspenseful wins and losses to literal coin flips in the Pokemon TCG when it first released in 1998, but I attribute my love for TCGs to a much more obscure game that came out a few years later. It was on a fateful day, waiting and bored at a doctor’s office, that my dad decided to gift my brother and I forty packs of the Warhammer 40,000 CCG he had found on sale at the local Gamestop. It was Christmas in July (or whatever month it was). I had never seen that many cards before and each wrapper I peeled back felt like a unique gift packaged specifically for me. I don’t even remember why we were at the doctor’s. I don’t remember why we were waiting so long. But the memory of the joy and fascination I felt as I read every card and sought to piece together their greater purpose sticks with me to this day. I also whet my competitive spirit on that game. I competed at a major convention. I started running tournaments myself. I had found an entirely new way to engage in competition and comradery, and I couldn’t get enough.

My love for TCGs has led me to play nearly every game released over the last eighteen years. The World of Warcraft TCG was no exception, and ended up being one of my favorite TCGs of all time. It was also my introduction to the then fledgling Cryptozoic Entertainment as they took the helm of the WoW TCG about halfway through its life. Given my love for the WoW TCG and Cryptozoic, I couldn’t help but back HEX when I found the game on Kickstarter. I’ve been playing HEX a lot lately, and I’m excited for this opportunity to share my accumulated knowledge with this fantastic community.

LEARNING FROM THE PAST

If I’ve learned anything playing TCGs for the past eighteen years, it’s that innovation trumps all preconceptions. A dash of the unexpected goes a long way toward throwing your opponent off sync as they scramble to identify how best to apply their dated stratagems to tackle a new situation. As a game still in its early years, HEX is prime for innovation. When exploring a new TCG, I find the best place to start is with cards and archetypes which are similar to successful strategies from the genre’s past. One such card that really stood out to me in HEX was Howling Brave. I’m fascinated by how this card is used currently. Amongst top tier deck lists, it sees play almost exclusively in Rutherford Banks Wild/Diamond ramp decks as copies five and six of Chlorophyllia. I found this somewhat shocking as it is very different from how similar cards are used in other games.

One resource troops that exhaust to generate a resource have a very rich tradition in the history of TCGs. The essence of their strength lies in their ability to play a three resource troop on turn two. While that may sound innocuous at first, the tempo gained from such a play is frequently enough to overwhelm an opponent. If your opponent cannot answer your turn one accelerator, you will be a turn ahead of them the entire game. Or possibly even two turns ahead of them if you were on the play!

So why in HEX has Howling Brave been relegated to Chlorophyllia’s sidekick? While there are many reasons, I believe the primary reason is the lack of high quality three resource troops. When you narrow your choices by shard and strategy, your options get even sparser. While Vampire Princess and Phenteo the Brood Priest are arguably the strongest three drops in the game, they are unplayable using Howling Brave since Howling Brave requires Wild on turn one while Vampire Princess and Phenteo the Brood Priest would each require two Blood on turn two. Our few, strong, playable options include Lord Alexander, the Courageous and Monsuun, Shogun of Winda’jin. Unfortunately, these cards do not share a shard with the Brave and both are unique. Decks which successfully utilize cards like Howling Brave to their fullest potential are accentuated by meticulous deckbuilding aimed to emphasize consistency. A consistent deck generally requires playing the maximum copies of your key tools. Limiting the number of shards you’re playing is also generally a good way to increase your deck’s consistency. While playing four copies of Monsuun or Alexander would mean we could often play them on turn two, we are also more likely to have a redundant unique troop in hand, effectively giving us one fewer card to work with. Playing both troops in the same deck means we’d need to play Wild/Ruby/Blood. A three shard resource base is difficult to support on its own, and nearly impossible to create if you’re looking to always go Wild turn one and require an active shard of a specific type on turn two.

Not only are there not powerful three resource troops for Howling Brave to consistently ramp into, but Puck, Dream Bringer overshadows Howling Brave in the decks that are trying to go big. Despite being unique, Puck is about as good as it gets if you’re trying to play an early five-drop. Puck will frequently ramp for at least two resources, allowing you to play a Jadiim or Crocosaur on turn three.

However, there’s still a big reason we want to keep Howling Brave in mind when building decks. While playing a turn three Jadiim off Puck is powerful, it isn’t quite enough to get around the meta’s ubiquitous permission action – Countermagic. Howling Brave is promising in the current meta due to its ability to ramp into a powerful troop on turn two, before an opposing Winter Moon can have Countermagic online.

Primal Dawn is looking to change everything for Howling Brave.

Rune Ear Hierophant is the powerful, three resource troop Howling Brave has been waiting for. Not only is the card strong, but it only requires one Wild threshold, allowing for flexibility in deckbuilding. With both cards in Wild, you can play Hierophant and Howling Brave in a variety of shard combinations. Depending on the shards you choose, Hierophant’s dual sockets allow for several very powerful combinations. I expect Minor Wild Orb of Conservation to be socketed into its fair share of Rune Ear Hierophants as Spellshield has always been a fantastic way to protect threats. If paired with Diamond, Major Diamond of Solidarity gives you a means to buff your accompanying accelerators. Personally, I expect the most popular pairing to be Major Wild Orb of Dominance and Minor Ruby of Ferocity. Speed allows you to activate the Orb of Dominance immediately, while Orb of Dominance not only builds a strong early board, but triggers Rune Ear Hierophant’s ability. Unless the meta changes dramatically with Primal Dawn, it is unlikely your opponent will have a blocker for a turn two Rune Ear Hierophant. You will often have two 3/3’s and a 1/1 at the end of turn two with the ability to play a four drop on turn three. Socketing Hierophant with these gems also gives him a self-contained means for growing beyond the size of most of the game’s popular threats on curve. A turn two Hierophant is a 3/3 against Vampire Princess, a 4/4 against Vampire King, and a 5/5 against Angel of Dawn. Equipping Hierophant with Wild Orb of Dominance also gives you leverage against Extinction. Unanswered, Rune Ear Hierophant will single-handedly create a board which will demand your opponent answer with Extinction. Post Extinction, a fresh Rune Ear Hierophant quickly rebuilds your board.

OUR PRIMORDIAL BREW

Now that I (hopefully) have you excited about playing Howling Brave and Rune Ear Hierophant together, you’re probably wondering what to play to fill in the other 52 cards of your deck. If our goal is to play three drops on turn two in order to dodge Countermagic, we’re already leaning toward a fairly aggressive strategy. Due to the efficacy of Speed paired with Wild Orb of Dominance, it seems reasonable for us to start with Ruby as our second shard. Ruby just so happens to offer us another powerful tool to add significant consistency to our deck.

What’s better than running four Howling Braves? Running eight! Kidding aside, we need more than four copies of Howling Brave if we hope to play turn one accelerator into turn two three drop consistently. Fortunately, Ashwood Soloist does an admirable job at being copies four through eight of Howling Brave. While we’d prefer a troop that could exhaust for resources in order to interact better with our Speed troops, Ashwood Soloist has the added benefit of being able to both ramp and deal damage. While it’s not our ideal turn one play, it’s the only other option we have alongside Howling Brave accomplishes the job well enough.

Playing Ashwood Soloist also allows us to consider using Feralroot Acorn. And we really want to play Feralroot Acorn if at all feasible. The allegiance resources are the best in the game due to their ability to provide active shard options on curve or another benefit if we’ve reached our deck’s necessary thresholds. Feralroot Acorn is the epitome of resource efficiency. This efficiency directly translates to consistency for our deck as Feralroot Acorn is a resource which allows us to play either of our accelerators on turn one and fills in the necessary threshold for our three drop on turn two. Since our deck is looking to use all of its resources each turn, we need a dual shard which doesn’t set us back a turn like Shard of Savagery does. Feralroot Acorn and the other allegiance resources are the best resources we can be playing, so we’re definitely in the market for a few more good elves to add to our deck.

While Periwinkle is a staple in many ramp decks, I’m excited to see what some of the new elves in Primal Dawn bring to the table (aside from cheese). I’m particularly excited about Justicar of Aryndel in our aggressively minded deck. Justicar of Aryndel not only offers superior stats for a three drop, but touts the new Empower keyword. Empower turns the Justicar into a six resource, uncounterable 8/8. Justicar of Aryndel fills in our curve at both the crucial three resource slot and later in the game when we need larger threats. Uncounterable becomes particularly relevant when Empowering the card since your Winter Moon opponents will almost certainly have their Countermagic primed to snipe a threat on turns five and six. The only downside to Justicar of Aryndel is its triple Wild threshold. This means we can never cast the card on turn two off Ashwood Soloist. For this reason, I think it is likely not correct to run the full four copies of Justicar of Aryndel. I believe two copies should work well with the consideration of additional copies in the Reserves to bring in against Countermagic decks.

Tempestuous Bladedancer is another incredibly powerful elf in our deck. While a 4/4 for five resources is far from a deal, the keywords more than make up for the resource premium. Speed in particular is a keyword our deck values very highly, and Crush means we’ll usually be getting some damage in. Tempestuous Bladedancer becomes especially powerful if we use Cressida as our champion since we can frequently play Bladedancer on turn three with Cressida’s Charge Power. The Bladedancer has already seen some play in Cressida builds due to its powerful synergy with Periwinkle (who doesn’t like eight speed damage?), and that synergy is at its best in a deck which can consistently cast Periwinkle on turn two and Bladedancer on turn three. While Tempestuous Bladedancer isn’t splashy, it checks every box our deck is looking for.

Artisanal Cheesesmythe

Artisanal Cheesesmythe is a fascinating elf. While its stats are on the poor side of average, Lethal guarantees you will never be too displeased with how it trades. Similar to Justicar of Aryndel, the Artisanal Cheesesmythe truly shines against opposing control decks. His ability to create random cheeses means you will be drawing two cards per turn to your opponent’s one. The cheeses aren’t too shabby either. Kraken Barrel Cheddar offers a veritable buffet of tools to employ against your opponent while Cheese Goliath increases your deck’s threat density in a bid to outlast your opponent’s permission and removal. Dragon Valley Brie is the worst of the bunch, but can still serve to generate an incremental advantage in a long game. Unfortunately, the Cheesesmythe is yet another troop that cannot be played on turn two off Ashwood Soloist due to threshold restrictions. However, even if the card doesn’t make our final cut, I think he is worth considering in the Reserves depending on the meta. He could be especially useful if the meta’s control decks shift away from Countermagic and more toward removal. Against removal heavy decks, it can be correct to send our Braves and Soloists to the reserves order to increase threat density since card advantage and quality become more valuable than speed. When you’re looking for value, little is better than a cheap troop that draws you an extra card each turn.

Now that we’ve identified the core of our deck, let’s take a stab at an initial build. I believe Cressida will be our best choice of the champions as her Charge Power will allow us to fill in gaps in our curve and smooth out poor hands. Check out the full list below.

CHAMPION: Cressida

4 Arborean Rootfather socketed with Minor Wild Orb of Conservation and Major Ruby of Destruction
4 Rune Ear Hierophant socketed with Minor Ruby of Ferocity and Major Wild Orb of Dominance

The goal of this build is to run redundant threats at every resource cost in order to ensure we’re playing a high impact troop on each turn of the game. The most critical resource costs are one, three, and five since our accelerators let us skip turn two and our Charge Power lets us skip turn four. Our most common line of play should be to play turn one Brave or Soloist, turn two Rune Ear Hierophant, and turn three Tempestuous Bladedancer. This line means we will likely be attacking for eleven damage on the third turn. Not bad.

Wrathwood Master Moss serves an important role as our plan B. If we don’t hit our turn one Brave or our curve otherwise flops, a hand of three resources and a Master Moss all but guarantees we will have a resilient 5/5 on the board on turn three. Master Moss also serves as an excellent turn three play if we’re looking to save our Charge Power for a turn four Balthasar or Onslaught or a turn five Arborean Rootfather. Wrathwood Master Moss is also excellent against Blood as it survives both Kill and Extinction. Aggressive decks of this nature often thrive off threats which are either difficult to remove or threaten a lethal board state on their lonesome. Wrathwood Master Moss is one of the most difficult to remove troops in HEX while still being a formidable threat – making him the perfect addition to our deck.

Onslaught is another card which is sure to raise a few eyebrows. I searched for decks using this card on hexmeta, and only four decks showed up. Three of those decks were eliminated in the early rounds of an IQ. Needless to say, I don’t think Onslaught is on too many players’ radars. But it should be. Big spells like Onslaught are often dismissed as unwieldly and borderline unplayable. And that would likely be true if our deck was like every other deck and didn’t play threats until turn three or Onslaught until turn six. However, our deck ups the ante. If our line is turn one Howling Brave, turn two Rune Ear Hierophant, turn three Wrathwood Master Moss, and turn four Onslaught, we’re looking to swing for as much as twenty-eight Crush damage. On turn four. Granted, that hand is about as primal as it gets, but it should offer an inkling of the shenanigans you can pull off with Onslaught. Onslaught also happens to have significant synergy with many of our deck’s other cards. It turns our accelerators into threats and offers a huge payoff for developing a Rune Ear Hierophant socketed with Wild Orb of Dominance. Not only that, but the card gets cast twice if you have a Periwinkle in play. Talk about blowouts. Giving your board +6/+6 and crush will break nearly any stalemate you may find yourself in. It also allows the “on champion damage” effects of Wrathwood Mossling and Rune Ear Hierophant to more reliably trigger, increasing our ability to proliferate Rhinos and resurrect Master Mosses.

Our deck also goes into Reserves incredibly well without sacrificing much of its game one strategy. Against aggressive decks, we look to drop Arborean Rootfather, Onslaught, two Master Moss, and Periwinkle for a full suite of Succulent Cluckodon, a pair of Carnasaurus, and triple Burn. The health gain and fight abilities combined with our deck’s already ferocious early game should make games two and three challenging for decks looking to Burn us out. Burn offers efficient removal against troublesome troops like Sunsoul Phoenix and Quash Ridge Tusker. While our deck should already excel against uninteractive midrange decks, a second Onslaught comes to blow open board stalemates. Turbulence lets you take the upper hand in a race against Blood’s vampires. Against control decks, you can drop two Crocosaurs for the remaining Justicars. It’s important to note that the Reserves will change a lot as the meta evolves post-Primal Dawn.

For those who can’t wait for the powerful three drops coming in Primal Dawn, I’ve built a proxy version of the deck to sate your appetite for this madness. While this deck is considerably weaker without Rune Ear Hierophant, it will give you a good sense for the deck’s consistency and potential power level.

CHAMPION: Cressida

4 Arborean Rootfather socketed with Minor Wild Orb of Conservation and Major Ruby of Destruction
4 Nelebrin Skirmisher socketed with Minor Ruby of Ferocity

Give it a try online and let me know how it goes! I hope you enjoyed this foray into competitive deck building and I look forward to chatting with you fine folks in the forums.

Until then,

Varranis | Twitch | Twitter | Team Fade 2 Karma

Varranis is an analyst for professional gaming organization Fade 2 Karma. He has played countless TCGs over the last eighteen years and brings a unique lens to HEX theory crafting and deck building based on his historical experience. Varranis has numerous tournament wins and top finishes to his name across several popular TCGs and has coached and supported players in world championship level events.

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