Hi all! Austin here, Kingmakers 2016 champion (King? Presumably.) and Tulsa 2016 top 8 competitor, with some knowledge to drop. I was asked to write an article about my experience in Columbus and Tulsa, and the decks I played. Fourteen cans of Cherry Coke Zero later, you’ve got an article, and I’ve got a problem.
First off, I’ll take you through my deckbuilding process, and before we get into the deck that won Kingmakers, we’ll talk about how my deck from Ashes Weekend transformed into it.
The Three Musketeers of Ashes.
It all started as Coal Roarkwin (my favorite Phoenixborn), but its first form close to this was in a Jessa deck that was tearing up the Toledo meta, Pain Train, which in turn quickly evolved into Savage & Associates, the Brennen Blackcloud deck I took to Team Covenant in Tulsa, OK.
SAVAGE & ASSOCIATES
3 Charm, 3 Ceremonial, 4 Natural
2 Chant of Protection
2 Enchanted Violinist
3 Final Cry
3 Fire Archer
3 Hammer Knight
2 Ice Trap
3 Molten Gold
3 Summon Butterfly Monk
2 Summon Gilder
1 Summon Three-Eyed Owl
3 Sympathy Pain
Out of 53 players, Erik Rodriguez’s BDR and this deck were the only ones that went undefeated after 5 rounds of Swiss at Team Covenant. Erik scraped his way into first seed over me by a single blood point, then I was knocked out of the cut by Tim Keefe, finally placing 6th, with Erik ultimately taking home first.
It has always been my opinion that efficiency is the name of the game, and in that game, this deck is king. Here are the highlights:
- All of the summon spells cost only a single die to activate.
- Your allies are extremely efficient: Violinist is free (speaks for itself), Fire Archer costs 1 (and does a damage! Utility!), and Hammer Knight… is Hammer Knight.
- Three-Eyed Owl and Gilder both have 2 life (and Butterfly Monk usually has 2 life by round 2 or 3 once it’s focused).
- Each of your summons has utility beyond just being a body: Butterfly Monks will heal approximately 5 damage over the course of an average game, Gilder does a damage to a unit when it is summoned (beware of Golden Veil!), and the Owl perhaps has the most intriguing utility of all. A “good” Ceremonial player will generally discard an Enchanted Violinist or a Fire Archer or another ally with 0 or 1 attack so that it can be retrieved later that round. However, this has taxed your opponent for 1) a side action (Ceremonial power), 2) a damage (likely), 3) a meditate (likely – to get the power die). The best players will simply kill the Owl round 1 – but these are resources that did not go towards removing your Hammer Knight. And if your opponent is unprepared and discards anything else, that’s huge – they got a First Four, and you got a First Five. Regardless, an exhausted Owl is a prime victim for Spirit Burn.
- One time, Bob Klotz misread the name of the deck as “Sausage & Associates” on my decklist. He has laughed from that moment, continuously and without interruption, until the present day.
- Redirect can go toe-to-toe with Hammer Knight, Frostback Bear, Sympathy Pain, and more – and you come out ahead resource wise. Your opponent spent more than one die (two if you count the die to summon the unit taking the damage) to do what you just negated.
- Chant of Protection is essential for the burn matchup – 3 life can make a huge difference. Brennen’s spellboard is only 3, but it’s quite easy to do without Summon Three-Eyed Owl towards the end of a game. Also, don’t forget you can meditate away all of your Summon Butterfly Monk spells, causing your Butterfly Monks to die (as they now have zero life), and instantly heal/trigger Final Cry as a side action.
- Ms. Savage (and a few of her associates) are packing a whopping 27 points of direct damage. This isn’t counting Spirit Burn.
Speaking of Spirit Burn…
“Spirit Burn is your friend. Fun is mandatory.” – The Computer
I see a lot of Brennen decks floating around running Frostback Bear. I disagree. Brennen’s entire gameplan revolves around her nuking her own units to damage the opponent, so, in the name of efficiency, she wants to sacrifice units she paid as few dice as possible for. The pain of having to Spirit Burn a bear is comparable to that of losing a Wanton Destruction to the brain damage from Amped Up, for those of you that play Android: Netrunner. For those of you who don’t, it’s roughly as painful as getting burned at the stake.
“Choke the shit out of Brennen.” – Rich Lomauro
“Kinky.” – Me
The usual First Five consist of Hammer Knight (3), Fire Archer (1), Summon Gilder (2), Summon Butterfly Monk (1), and Summon Three-Eyed Owl (1), for a Thunder Number (why do we still use this silly name? Someone come up with a better one already.) of 9, counting Spirit Burn mayonnaise. Your rogue die ought to be a Natural power, so you can ping something with it. This gives you 5 points of ping damage (read: unit removal) in your FF, even though you didn’t include a single “removal” card. This First Five is universal against everything except wolf dice.
Sitting across from Illusion scum, trade the Hammer Knight for an Enchanted Violinist. This lowers your TN to a much more manageable 6 and allows plenty of wiggle room. Andrew Webber (who went 2-3 with an earlier version of this deck at Tulsa) failed to heed this advice and lost all of his games against Illusion because of it. It can be tricky to play around good purple players, but it is very doable and those games are absolutely winnable. There’s so much to anti-Illusion strategy that I reckon it warrants its own article.
I could go on for days. As you all know, I’m a #teamBlackcloud fanboy. But I know you’re itching to dive into the Jessa deck in detail. Without further ado, here’s the only deck that went undefeated at Kingmakers:
4 Ceremonial, 6 Natural
“The first step in solving any problem is acknowledging there is one.” -Will McAvoy, The Newsroom
This list is a powerful collection of cards and ended up taking me all the way to first place. But Double Hammercide started as an acknowledgement of the Brennen deck’s weaknesses. In my Ashes tournament career to date, I’ve lost only three games – to Tim Keefe in the cut at Tulsa (moral of the story: don’t get punked by Ice Trap. Answer an early Hammer Knight with a 3-life unit), and twice to Phil Ryskamp, a good friend from the Detroit area. Phil homebrewed an Aradel deck and piloted it expertly against me, beating me at a tournament in Detroit and again in Toledo, the second time even in spite of the tech I added against him.
Long story short, Brennen got hosed. Aradel’s Water Blast offers the same utility as Spirit Burn in the ground war matchup without sacrificing its own board state, which is something Brennen cannot do in said matchup. So I set my mind to work to create a deck that could defeat that Aradel and similar decks with ease, while still enjoying favorable matchups against most of the meta as Savage & Associates does.
5 Hammer Knights > 3 Hammer Knights. ‘Nuff said.
I had also noticed, in my experience, that games in which your Hammer Knight survives into round 2 and you draw a second one, or games in which you draw your other two Hammer Knights round 2, are oftentimes easily won. The idea struck me to build a “board control” deck that could recur Hammer Knight cheaply with Bound Soul. The following points occurred to me and influenced my deckbuilding greatly:
- A 4/3/3 or 4/4/2 dice spread, in my opinion, was going to be too weak against the explosive popularity of Hidden Power builds with two purple dice. One of the magic types would have to go.
- I knew I wanted Bound Soul, Hammer Knight, Molten Gold, Fire Archer, and some others, so it looked like Charm was out. Sorry, Saria, but your sadomasochistic Sympathy Pain wasn’t going to make the cut this time around.
- I had been playing something similar to the Brennen deck in Leo Sunshadow for a while in preparation for GenCon. Without a way to clear out your own battlefield, it can become clogged pretty easily, which puts you at a significant disadvantage. Wanting to mitigate that, 3x Blood Chains were certainly in. It’s a great way of dealing with a 3-or-more-life unit (Frostback Bear, Hammer Knight, Dread Wraith, etc.) without actually having to waste damage on it. As it turns out, it’s also a direct counter to itself – your unit gets X exhaustion tokens, rendering it effectively out of the game, so you turn its uselessness back on your opponent by playing a Blood Chains of your own.
- I’ve come around to Choke and changed my opinion on it quite a bit. It’s easy to forget that it can stop unit abilities as well, and this is often more important that countering a Phoenixborn ability. Ambush (Stormwind Sniper/Fire Archer), Freeze (Frostback Bear), Song of Sorrow (Enchanted Violinist), Detonate (Crimson Bomber), Pain Link (Living Doll), Blood Oath (Blood Archer), and Distract (Rose Fire Dancer) are all abilities on units that I’ve Choked to significant effect. At best, it prevents 2 damage, and is a more efficient Redirect/Chant of Protection. I decided to include a single Choke as First Five tech (since this deck would have a much more flexible FF than Savage & Associates) against Brennen, Aradel, Dimona, and any time I expected an opponent to First Five a Stormwind Sniper.
- An early draft of this deck included a singleton Summon Sleeping Widows. It can be a very strong tempo play if you First Five it, but I think the card really shines in Brennen – too often I was left without an opportunity to trigger it, especially against opponents who knew it was coming.
- Ice Trap, I decided, was too low-impact in a meta shifting to 3-or-more-life units. It disappeared. In its place would be Fear, the king of board control spells. With Fear, obviously, came Jessa Na Ni.
“Nobody’s ever been arrested for a murder; they have only ever been arrested for not planning it properly.” – Terry Hayes, I Am Pilgrim
The most crucial step of building a successful deck, in my opinion, is expertly crafting First Fives. I posit that this is one of the essential skills of Ashes, and certainly catapulted myself and Erik to the top of these large tournaments. When building a Netrunner Corp deck, I decide which server I am going to install my ICE on when I build my deck, not when I draw it during a game. Likewise, in Ashes, you ought to know what your First Five is going to be well before you sit down across the table from your opponent. Try playing quick games just to the end of the first round, trying out different FFs, and see who is ahead. Also consider how your First Five changes against Illusion scum.
My usual FF with this deck is Summon Frostback Bear (3), Hammer Knight (3), Fear (0), Summon Butterfly Monk (1), and Fire Archer (1). This gives you a TN of 8 and two dice to recur your Fire Archer, ping some units, or pay for Screams of the Departed. Sometimes the Fire Archer is traded for Choke. In some matchups, especially against Stormwind Snipers, you may not get to play the Choke round one – which discourages many people from First Fiving it – but being guaranteed to have it round 2 can be essential, and the other four cards in your First Five can hold up just fine on their own. Against wretched, fun-hating players, the Hammer Knight goes and the FF becomes Summon Frostback Bear, Summon Butterfly Monk, Fire Archer, Choke, and Fear. This leaves you needing only half of each of your types of dice and is pretty resilient against purple shenanigans.
An important concept in deckbuilding that is missed by many: Three copies of a card are not included because I need all three. I don’t need nor will I likely play three Chant of Protection or three Summon Frostback Bear. But you absolutely want to draw the second copy of many instrumental cards, like Summon Frostback Bear – and including that third copy doubles your chances of drawing it. This is essential in most games, hence triples of both summon spells.
One final note, about Fear – it is insanely more valuable to Fear a conjuration as opposed to an ally. It is very tempting to Fear a Hammer Knight, and while this is not the wrong play 100% of the time, it is usually. Consider this – Fearing Hammer Knight turns Fear into a card that says “my opponent loses 3 dice.” Which is good, but it could be better. If you Fear a Frostback Bear, Fear only says “my opponent loses 2 dice”. The difference, however, is that the Hammer Knight is just gonna come back. Allies have a habit of doing that. That Bear, however, is gone forever; banished to the conjuration pile.
Maeoni and Noah look like RuneScape characters.
Drake Cutcher (who ended up getting third place with Maeoni Viper) and I drove down to Columbus from Toledo Friday morning. Just down the street from Origins Game Fair, we met everyone in a board game cafe-pub-thing called Kingmakers. We unfortunately did not have time for a cut, as the venue was only allowing us there from 9-5, so five rounds of Swiss decided the eventual top 4.
Throughout the tournament, I played two Jessas, two Brennens, and a Rin. The noteworthy games for me were the third and fourth rounds, in which I faced off against Nick Conley (Jessa) and Rodney Smith (Brennen).
I made an enormous mistake against Nick in the first round of our game, summoning a Butterfly Monk before I had any damage on my Phoenixborn (or a unit), allowing him to trigger Screams of the Departed when he destroyed it. This let him gain value from killing it (instead of having to pay a die to have my wound total remain the same) and caused me to gain very little from the summon. The end of our game saw me finally defeat Nick in a very close mirror match with 17 wounds on my Phoenixborn (after I had used a Chant of Protection; he had not). Nick ended up going 4-1 on the day, taking second place, meaning the tournament had essentially been decided by a single point of damage!
The next round, I played Rodney Smith from Watch It Played!, who made the long haul from Canada to be with us. Rodney’s Brennen deck was almost identical to some of my first drafts of that deck (the deck I won the first Beat Bob badge with), before I refined it into what I played in Oklahoma. Rodney has exactly what it takes to be a great player and I was very impressed at his improvement since the Covenant event two months prior.
Bound Soul was absolutely an MVP during the tournament, as was Choke. Enchanted Violinist has a surprisingly low impact on all of my games. Since then, I’ve dropped it for a second Choke. I found myself wanting a second copy in many of my games.
Some closing advice/thoughts/comments:
- Record your games on the Play Plaid website, or in a notebook. Preferably both. Write down your mistakes, and you won’t make them again. Review your notes periodically. This will make you a better player.
- If you somehow manage win a large-ish tournament with Iron Rhino, I’ll eat a Phoenixborn of your choice at GenCon this year. No, using Coal to Slash someone to death with the summon spell does not count.
- If the winning game also involved Redirecting an attack to an Iron Rhino with Spiked Armor on it, I’ll eat two Phoenixborn.
- Don’t make excuses. It’s always someone else’s fault. “If only you hadn’t hit Hammer Knight with that Sympathy Pain!” It’s always the fault of random elements. “If only I had rolled a Ceremonial power!” Take responsibility for your own misplays, and analyze the situation from a spectator’s viewpoint. You’ll never get better if you don’t learn from your mistakes. How could you have made the best of that situation? What lines of play (perhaps considering ones that you haven’t explored) would have allowed you to gain advantage? If nothing can be done, then perhaps your deck can be changed to accommodate. Very rarely do games of Ashes: A Game About Reducing Variance, come down to chance.
- Most importantly, have fun! Ashes is a game, after all, and games are about having fun. The Ashes community is the most valuable resource we have as players, and it’s one of the best in tabletop, and it’s because of every one of us. Let’s keep it that way.
Hopefully my caffeine-addled brain has produced something coherent enough for you to derive meaning from, and hopefully you’ve emerged from this article a better player! If you like, you can contact me on Facebook, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. I’m icecoldjazz in the Slack chat. Unfortunately, you can’t find me on TTS yet, but I’ll get it eventually, I’m sure. Take it easy, friends.
P.S. – I’m just kidding about you Illusion players.
But not really.