Conquering ChallengeStone

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Last week, I participated in the first ChallengeStone tournament, hosted by Kripparian and TempoStorm. The idea behind the tournament series is to force players to adapt and think on their feet rather than simply copying popular decks and playing whatever happens to be king of the hill in the current metagame. In order to accomplish that, each tournament has unique deckbuilding rules that are only revealed to the players immediately before a timed deckbuilding period.

This is what all of my notebooks looked like throughout school

This is what all of my notebooks looked like throughout school

I was excited to be invited to the first of these events, because this is the kind of thing I love about collectible games. My absolute favorite part of TCGs is the ongoing challenge of figuring things out, not just within the gameplay itself, but in the deckbuilding process. When I was a kid in grade school and high school, my notebooks used to be filled with pages and pages of decklists as I was brainstorming ideas in class.

What has kept me playing Magic after over twenty years, and a big part of what keeps me interested in Hearthstone enough to stream nearly every day, is the fact that there’s always new stuff to figure out. New cards or the rise of new decks in the metagame means new solutions to find, and more opportunities to innovate.

I’ve always felt that I’m better at deckbuilding than I am at actually playing card games. I enjoy it more and thus spend more of my time focused on that element of the game than on perfecting my technical play. That’s not to say I’m a bad player, but there’s a reason that I do much better in constructed Magic tournaments than I do in draft. I just enjoy the deckbuilding process of constructed more, so I put more effort into succeeding there.

I frequently see people in chat in my Twitch channel ranting about how it’s crazy that I’m playing a deck with a particular card, because “It’s bad”, or that I’m not playing some other card, because “It’s an auto-include.” I try to tell these people that just isn’t how deckbuilding works. You can never discover good cards without playing with cards other people think are bad, and you can never build a good deck without building a bad one first. Close-mindedness is never going to get you anywhere.

That’s all a long way to saying that I felt like the ChallengeStone event was a great opportunity for me. The format highlights my strengths as a player since it focuses on exactly what I enjoy most about games.

The lineup for the tournament included quite a few strong competitors. You can take a look at the brackets here.

The restrictions we were given were as follows:

 

Only EVEN casting cost spells

Only ODD attack minions

 

We had twenty minutes to build three decks. I know some players went about the process by looking through their existing decks and deciding on cards to swap in and out, but I felt it was more valuable to consider the implications of the ruleset systemically.

There were four main factors that I kept in mind:

 

What are the best cards that are allowed by these rules?

What are the best cards that are *not* allowed by these rules?

What cards increase in value due to these rules?

How is the pacing of the format impacted by these rules?

 

The fun police are off duty today

The fun police are off duty today

One of the first things that came to mind was the fact that a lot of key utility minions have even attack, which excludes them from the format. Ironbeak Owl, Keeper of the Grove, and Spellbreaker are all out, which means minions are largely protected from silence effects. The Black Knight isn’t allowed, which makes big taunt minions stronger. Both Defender of Argus and Sunfury Protector mean that taunt isn’t easy to hand out. And, perhaps most importantly, Big Game Hunter is banned, which makes large minions much better than in typical Hearthstone.

I actually thought of the three classes I wanted to play pretty much right away. Druid and Paladin both seemed very strong, since they retain some of their most powerful class defining spells despite the restrictions. Innervate and Wild Growth are really the core of any Druid deck, and they pair well with the big minions that I wanted to play already. Equality plus Consecration offer powerful board clear to Paladin, which is even stronger than usual in a format where players are pushed toward larger minions. Lastly, I felt like Priest seemed like a strong choice in a world without many of its worst enemies like Piloted Shredder or Rogue decks with Auctioneer or Sprint. While you can’t play with Shadow Word: Death to kill big threats, you can play both Shadow Word: Pain and Shadow Madness in a format that is sure to be full of three attack minions. When almost all of your opponents are likely to have things like Sludge Belcher in their decks, those cards are especially powerful.

I also felt like the format was likely to be substantially slower than typical Hearthstone. The ban on even attack minions means that no one can play 2/1 minions for one mana, which form the core of most aggressive decks. It was clear that Warlock could be a solid choice, since it retained Flame Imp, Doomguard, and Implosion, but without Abusive Sergeant, Dark Iron Dwarf, or Power Overwhelming, it would have trouble breaking through larger minions. Neither Mad Scientist nor Mirror Entity were legal, which makes tempo Mage decks a lot worse, and it was hard for me to imagine anyone wanting to play Hunter without playing at least one of Leper Gnome or Savannah Highmane. Even Kill Command and Houndmaster were out of the picture, effectively neutering every element of the Hunter card pool.

A slower format shifts not just the kinds of cards you want to play with, but how many of certain classes of cards you want to play. I felt like lots of games would go long, which means lots of big creatures crashing into each other toward the end. As a result, I wanted to load up more than usual on big minions in my decks – not only were they not vulnerable to Big Game Hunter, but they would certainly come in handy in games that end up as long attrition fights.

Odd/Even Format All-Star

Odd/Even Format All-Star

Other quirks of the format similarly informed my card choices. I played Spider Tank as my three drop in both my Druid and Priest decks (with Dark Cultist also in the latter) despite no mech synergies because the rules effectively assured that there would be a lot of 3/3 minions that its 3/4 body lined up well against. Similarly, I felt like Power of the Wild was likely to be especially strong in my Druid deck because there would be so many similarly sized minions fighting it out – to say nothing of the synergy it has with Violet Teacher, who happens to have odd attack. Mark of the Wild was the beneficiary of a lack of silences as well as similar minion sizes, since it helps your creatures win fights and lets you build a strong board without its traditional weaknesses in the normal format. Blessing of Kings is capable of generating even bigger swings, and making your Silver Hand Recruits far more valuable than they might otherwise be.

One of the cards that I felt went up the most in power in a midrange focused format is Coghammer. I think Coghammer is vastly underrated in the normal Hearthstone format, where it suffers somewhat from the proliferation of weapons that Paladin decks often have when they’re playing both Muster for Battle and Truesilver. In a world with a lot of similarly sized creatures – or even just a lot of 3/3s on one side and 5/5s on the other – Coghammer is very powerful at enabling profitable combat exchanges. You can often get a free kill from the divine shield the turn that you play it, and then use the weapon charges to chip away at either your opponent’s health or their other minions. With almost no silences in the format, you can even pass the turn with your divine shield up rather than breaking it immediately, which is very often a huge value spew in normal play.

Because weapons weren’t restricted by the rules of the challenge, I thought there was a good chance that other players might end up playing decks using them. As a result, I chose to play Harrison Jones in all three of my decks. Part of my reasoning was that the card’s usual drawback – it relatively weak stats for its cost – wasn’t as big of an issue due to the format’s rules. When four attack minions like Piloted Shredder and Druid of the Claw aren’t allowed, Harrison’s four health is less of an issue than it might be otherwise. It felt like a reasonable hedge in case weapon decks were popular, and could even come in handy against an opposing Jaraxxus. (*spoiler alert: it did*)

You can watch the deckbuilding process here.

Ultimately, these are the decks I ended up with:

BMKChallengeDruid BMKChallengePaladin BMKChallengePriest

An amusing note about my lists is that I probably would have included Illidan if I actually owned the card. Because it’s not in my collection, it didn’t show up in my searches when I was building my decks, so I didn’t think about it. Similarly, I think I likely would have played Captain Greenskin in my Paladin deck, but it is another of the small number of Legendary cards that I don’t actually have.

I don’t want to spoil what happened in the games themselves if you haven’t watched them, because there were some pretty cool things that came up. I definitely made a few mistakes in the games, which I think is going to happen more often when you’re playing with and against decks you haven’t played before, but liked my play overall. I certainly had a few straight up blunders, mostly from playing too quickly and just not thinking everything through, but that happens sometimes.

On a related note, I think that commentators in Hearthstone should focus less on trying to find what they think is the best play themselves and pointing out what they think are “misplays” and more on trying to frame what a player’s options are, what they might be thinking about, and what’s important in the game at any given time. Focusing on trying to find the best line of play yourself and claiming anything else is wrong can only make either you or the players whose game you’re commenting on look bad. While everyone does make clear-cut mistakes from time to time, usually the players involved in a game have a better idea of their plan than the casters. If you focus on the bigger picture, it’s more valuable to the audience who wants to know *why* a player might make certain plays rather than what you think might be the best option in any given spot – especially when you end up being wrong about what the best play actually is.

In any case, you can watch the VODs here.

After dispatching Xixo in the quarterfinals and Chakki in the semis, I went on to face Trump in the finals.

 

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