Breaking Burn - Neon
This article was originally published December 2016
To begin this week’s article, I’m going to share the story of my relationship with the Stonescar Burn archetype, as it provides a bit of interesting context for what I will be talking about today. After this story is done, the actual core of my article will be about the approach I take on beating decks. Obviously different people will have different methods, but I just wanted to provide you all with some ways of thinking about deck-building in order to attack specific players in the meta.
Story Time – The Challenge
For those of you who have been following my content for a while, you know that I had a lot of success with Combrei pre-wipe. My Combrei list became something of a standard for the “Big Combrei” archetype, and I piloted it to the #2 spot on ladder in the October season. About 3 weeks ago, a new archetype showed up that began giving me some grief – Stonescar Burn. The chunky blockers, Silence units, and value engines did not line up well against a deck planning to point fireballs at my face. After playing the match up multiple times, I began to realize how bad it really was. The match up could be bad enough to push my deck of choice from its dominant spot on the Tier list. I knew I needed to start looking around for new decks.
Although Combrei was my go-to deck of choice, it is hardly the only archetype that I am comfortable playing. Some of the decks I turned to initially…didn’t really offer much help. Although Armory has a handful of cards that are superb in the match-up, it still had a systemic weakness to Stonescar Burn. My build of Feln control didn’t feel well set-up against Burn, and there needed to be some heavy revisions to make the match up solidly positive. Even my Combrei aggro build was not really delivering what I was looking for, despite having some un-losable games. It was at this point I started taking to problem more seriously.
Two and a half weeks ago I began putting together a challenge for myself – what are the best strategies for beating Stonescar? Not just something that was ultra-tuned for this specific deck, but a list that could both compete on the ladder while having a strong BurnScar match up. I had begun to compile a few lists that I liked, which I was going to write about for my article two weeks ago. It was at this point that rumours began to spread about an impending wipe. Not only did this mean I had bigger fish to fry in terms of writing, but it also meant a whole list of balance changes would upset the decks I built to combat the BurnScar threat. Although I knew I would need to table this project, I would never have guessed where things would lie after the major overhaul of Open Beta.
Teching to Beat the Burn
When trying to defeat a deck we obviously need to start by looking at the deck itself, and assessing it for weaknesses. This involves both cross-examining the actual list of cards, as well as considering the bigger picture of how the strategy will generally play out. We have a few fundamental questions to consider first.
WHAT IS THEIR DECK TRYING TO DO?
Here I’m going to make some corny platitude about “know your enemy” and Sun Tzu and such. Although this lesson is extremely old, and has been repeated infinite times, it doesn’t make it any less true. In fact, it is probably better to refine this statement to say “the better you know your enemy the better your chances of beating them”. It is not enough to just have a vague idea of what your opponent does, because that may lead you to overly simple and imperfect answers. Let’s use the example of Stonescar Burn.
Stonescar Burn is a midrange deck that utilizes beefy efficient units to deal early damage to the opponent, complimented by burn to be used as removal spells or to finish off opponents.
The early game consists of some small creatures to apply early pressure, soften up the opponent, and trade with opposing threats.
The mid game consists of a parade of beefy monsters, usually with 5 strength. Some of these units have interesting Entomb effects, and most are evasive. These beaters are supported by removal in the form of burn spells and shadow removal to clear the way.
If the units are not enough to carry the game, the end game will consist of lining up several massive burn spells at the opponent’s face.
WHAT COUNTERACTS THEIR GAME PLAN?
For each of these points we want to now consider some cards we can use to counteract their game plan. It is not enough to have answers to just one aspect of their plan, although it is usually impossible to invalidate all aspects of any deck. For each of the points listed above, lets brainstorm some cards that counter what is going on.
Cheap conditional removal such as Torch, Vara’s Favor, Suffocate and Lightning Storm can address early units.
Removal such as Permafrost, Deathstrike, and Vanquish can answer the mid game threats. Those with Entomb effects are especially vulnerable to removal such as Feeding Time and Polymorph or units such as Steward of the Past and Statuary Maiden.
The end game of firing off Fire Blasts and Obliterates can be answered by anti-spell effects such as Sabotage, Backlash, or Aegis effects. We can also counteract this plan via Health gain through cards such as Stronghold’s Visage or Silverwing Familiar.
WHAT ARE THINGS THE DECK CAN’T DO?
Every deck has its own blind spots of things they either cannot do at all or cannot do well. For example, some decks have easy access to silence, while others do not. Having a mental inventory of the types of abilities a deck has access too is important, as it will help assess your own decks and other decks for weaknesses. Does every deck need to have answers to everything? Absolutely not! In fact, if you look at Stonescar Jito, a deck that has been incredibly successful on ladder, they have access to essentially none of these things, but that is because they are aiming to ignore their opponent and just kill them before interaction matters. The more controlling a deck is, the more answers it will need to have access to since it will need to actually deal with its opponent’s threats rather than just buzz-saw through them.
The purpose of this exercise is to find specific tools to punish our target’s game plan. Let’s say we thought our solution to the Burn menace was to play Haunting Scream, as it is has a proactive game plan and can leverage efficient removal like Permafrost for tempo. If Burn were playing a playset of Steward of the Past and Statuary Maiden (it doesn’t) Haunting Scream would look a lot worse as an answer! This process is helpful for both considering the types of decks a given archetype might have a blind-spot for, or finding cards to include as “tech” choices in a pre-existing deck.
So let’s use our inventory to do a catalogue on Stonescar Burn.
Silence – None. This implies that threats usually vulnerable to silence are potentially powerful. Some examples are Dawnwalker or Steward of the Past. Permafrost is also a potent effect that is vulnerable to silence.
Void hate: None. Once again, Dawnwalker seems well positioned against this deck. Reanimator decks would also have free reign to operate
Attachment removal: Limited to damage for Relic Weapons. This, along with a lack of silence effects, implies that Permafrost will be at a premium. Other troublesome Relics like Eye of Winter or Xenan Obelisk are going to just stay in play. Relic weapons are not spectacular because of the density of burn spells, but they are at least a form of pseudo-healing.
Anti-spell effects: None. Although the deck has access to Sabotage, I have seen very few lists actually play the card. Harsh Rule is reasonably powerful against them. Any removal spells you draw should be able to connect. They also cannot stop Protect if you have it.
Card advantage: None. We all know that card advantage is important, but what happens when there is a deck with basically no way to generate card advantage? It means any deck that is able to generate just a couple 2-for-1s should be able to out card advantage their opponent going long. Stonescar has very few ways to generate card advantage, and the few they do have access to are very situational. This means a properly constructed control deck will likely have no trouble overpowering Burn going long.
1-for-1 Removal: Lots, but mostly slow damage based spells. Although Obliterate and Flame Blast leave quite the impression when they are aimed at your face, I do not think this is actually the primary role of these spells in the deck. They are actually chiefly removal spells to clear the way for the more consistent sources of damage – units. Obviously the role of these spells shifts as the game progresses, and depending on the match up. Any unit with more than 6 health will be a major difficulty for the deck.
Sweepers: None. Although Stonescar has access to plague, it tends not to play it as it detracts from the central game-plan or beating down your opponent. Cards such as Assembly Line can be particularly annoying for them.
CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON!
Now that we have thought about the game plan of the deck, considered ways to counteract this game plan, as well cross examining the composition of the BurnScar lists to find things they can/cannot do, we can now try and put this all together to consider some potential approaches to defeating this deck. Now we are in a position to select a deck to combat this menace. For the purposes of this exercise, I limited myself to selecting from preexisting decks that were underrepresented in the current meta. If you are doing this yourself, you should also consider building decks from the ground up, as the “answer” might not be around yet. Here is a list of some of the decks that had some of the characteristics I was looking for:
Mono-Justice Aggro (as well as both Shadow and Primal splash variants)
From here I took each of these archetypes, put together functional lists with a few tech cards, and played them against Burn opponents. Shout out to RNG and Thundershot for helping with this testing. In each instance I would play the test deck, shifted a few cards, and tried something else. By doing this I eventually landed on reasonable configurations of all these lists that were well suited for the Burn match up, and decided to bring them onto the ladder. It is at the point we must return of our story…
Story Time – The Wipe
Through a process of elimination I arrived at 3 lists that I felt would be good at attacking Burn, as well as having reasonable positioning in the meta game as a whole. Here were the general archetypes and the reasoning why I choose each one. Pay attention to see if you can find a common thread between them!
Deck number 1: Feln Midrange. This was a deck looking to capitalize on BurnScar’s weakness to Permafrost and its inability to answer go-wide threats like Scouting Party. The true headliner of the deck was Champion of Cunning, is it would allow you to close out the game even faster than Burn, and could capitalize on their limited Fast removal.
Deck number 2: Hooru Aggro (Pajama Pants). An aggressive deck that exploited both BurnScar’s sometimes awkward early game, as well as a heavy dose of life gain in the form of Silverwing Familiar + Gilded Glaive. One of the real benefits of the Primal build was access to Permafrost as a hyper-efficient removal spell.
Deck number 3: Visage Control. Playing a deck with oodles of life gain from Stronghold’s Visage, as well as Permafrost and Eye of Winter for removal was a very strong plan for taking down Burn. Wisdom of the Elders and Push Onward could tie the deck together, with Sword of the Sky King or Channel the Tempest/Excavate loops as a finisher.
There are technically two things all these decks have in common. The first was having access to Permafrost, a card that I still feel is slightly undervalued. The second thing these decks have in common is that they had key cards nerfed! The issues were not all quite at the same magnitude, as the change to Stronghold’s Visage and Push Onward is more an annoyance, while the change to Champion of Cunning renders the Feln midrange essentially unplayable.
It was at this point I decided to take a break from my quest to conquer Burn, and let it conquer me. The deck was so good for the first week of Open Beta that I felt it was a mistake to play anything else. As a general rule, it is best to play a proactive game plan in a wide-open meta game, as you can ignore the diversity of strategies your opponents may be using and instead just kill them. Burn fit this wisdom to a T. I also knew playing the deck would open my eyes to potential vulnerabilities that I might have missed previously. After I climbed to master, I decided to return to my goal of breaking Burn.
Take Two – Post-Wipe
In the post-wipe world, the problem took on a new character. It was no longer that Burn was an up-and-coming nuisance that I was having trouble against. By joining Team Burn on my climb to master, I began to appreciate some nuances of the deck that had not occurred to me before. One important weakness related to tempo. Take a look at the curve of the BurnScar list I posted last week.
Not exactly the smoothest curve in the world. Oh, and that little bump at 0? Those are the 4 copies of Flame Blast, a Powersurge spell with FFF influence requirements. I would describe this as a virtual 5 or 6-drop most of the time. If we are generous and count them as a 4-drop we should actually have a curve that looks like this:
Why do I bring this up? A deck with a rocky curve can be easily out-tempoed. I noticed when playing against decks such as Xenan and Elysian that I was often spent time fumbling around while my opponent would be miles ahead of me in progression. This was most pronounced in the Xenan match up. They could effectively leverage the tempo boost from Initiate of Sands into dropping giant monsters a turn of two ahead of Stonescar. They were also able to get way ahead on board with the help of turns like Sandstorm Titan + Predator’s Instinct. It was for this reason that when revisiting the problem of breaking Burn that I decided to play some of the more proactive Time-based strategies.
Story Time – Killing It
Although the wipe clearly set back my testing progress, it made testing much easier since Burn was now extremely common on ladder. When returning to my challenge, my first stop was Elysian. I had played this deck a good deal before the wipe, so I decided to shell out the Shiftstones to get myself a play set of Cirso. This deck was fine against the meta, but there were a couple of holes. First, I felt like the early game was really lacklustre. I’m not crazy about Initiate of the Sands in Elysian lists because you are so often pinched on influence rather than power. This might be a mistake, but having so many early plays weak to Torch or Vara’s Favor meant that my early development wasn’t exciting, and I spent the mid-game trying to catch up. Cirso is obviously really good when he hangs around, but he is a lightning rod for removal, and needed better support. Although it might be a product of just not having the right build, I abandoned The Big Pig and friends to try Xenan.
Two weeks ago my article suggested that Xenan had been killed by the patch. The Dawnwalker + Predatory Instincts shenanigans were one of the main features of the deck, and without them there was no reason to play it. Last week I told all of you that I was wrong, on the back of Thunder’s climb to Master with a (sub-optimal) Xenan Killers deck. Today I am going to confirm that I am still wrong, and the deck is totally viable. I played the deck for a few days and peaked briefly at number 8 on the leader boards, before running into a string of bad match ups and subsequently tilting off down to the 50’s. Although you really notice the nerf to Dawnwalker, the deck is still functional. Here is the list that I played for those who are interested. I would probably make room for a fourth Initiate in exchange for a Reaper, as well as possibly trying another Deathstrike or an Annihliate.
4 Copper Conduit (Set1 #66)
4 Dark Return (Set1 #250)
3 Initiate of the Sands (Set1 #74)
4 Predator’s Instinct (Set1 #75)
2 Suffocate (Set1 #251)
4 Argenport Instigator (Set1 #268)
3 Friendly Wisp (Set1 #82)
3 Vara’s Favor (Set0 #35)
4 Beastcaller’s Amulet (Set1 #282)
4 Dawnwalker (Set1 #86)
3 Deathstrike (Set1 #290)
4 Impending Doom (Set1 #286)
4 Sandstorm Titan (Set1 #99)
2 Umbren Reaper (Set1 #299)
8 Shadow Sigil (Set1 #249)
5 Time Sigil (Set1 #63)
2 Amber Monument (Set1 #420)
4 Diplomatic Seal (Set1 #425)
4 Seat of Mystery (Set0 #61)
4 Xenan Banner (Set0 #52)
The deck has a positive match up against Burn, but it is not by much. Being on the play matters a TON. The early game is extremely important, as you need to get out ahead and put them under pressure to make them feel the awkwardness of their curve. Beastcaller’s Amulet is actually a very important part of this as you can get 6/5 worth of stats for only 3 power. The other advantage Xenan potentially leverages is card advantage. Burn is a deck that just has no source of card advantage, so a game that plays out in a relatively fair manner will favour the deck that is able to generate card advantage. Friendly Wisp, as well as Predator’s Instinct combos all have the potential to generate some modest card advantage, which you really feel as you move into the late game.
Although I was able to ride this deck to a relatively high position on the ladder, the issue with a “meta-deck” is that it suffers badly from meta game shifts. This deck has an atrocious match up against Shimmerpack decks, as they are able to lock down the ground so effectively. As these became more popular in response to Burn the Xenan deck began to struggle. The deck also just gets randomly hosed by a number of somewhat popular cards. Desert Marshall, Steward of the Past and Permafrost may not be at their peak right now, but they are certainly played enough to make your life difficult.
At present, there is still a lot of Burn in the top-tier meta game, but not nearly the level we saw at its peak. If I were still trying to climb into master I would seriously consider playing Burn as the deck is so powerful, and is very easy to play. I have been trying to find a good anti-anti-burn deck, and having mixed results.
After two weeks of Open Beta Stonescar Burn has begun to slowly recede from its previous position of dominance. There was a time where almost every match I played on ladder was a burn mirror, which was a nightmare. If you haven’t played it, the Burn mirror is truly miserable, as whomever stumbles first tend to lose on the spot. As more people have figured out how to get a slight edge over the deck, the meta has evolved to a more healthy equilibrium, though Burn still has a significant presence despite all the hate. Burn claimed both the first and second place at the Eternal Tournament Series that happened this past weekend, with both the finalists playing very interesting takes on the deck. This shows there may yet be room to innovate with this list, though it could also be a side-effect of a tournament format.
I was honestly surprised at how difficult this challenge was. None of the lists I played were able to definitively crush Burn. It is just a very very good deck. The cards are just so strong! Although some people will disagree with me, I do think the deck is a touch over the line in terms of power, and could use some rebalancing. I personally hope it comes in the form of a promo card that hates on this deck in some capacity.
With that being said, there are several decks that have positive match ups against Burn, some of which are still evolving. The well established decks I am aware of that are at least slightly favoured are Icaria Blue, Jito, Elysian, Haunting Scream and of course Xenan. Some decks that are still in need to further refinement are Shimmerpack, Hooru Control, Feln Control and Rakano Aggro. It may seem odd to classify Rakano and Feln control as decks in need of further evolution given they have been around since the start of the beta, but it is fairly clear that the community has not yet arrived at optimal builds of these lists. The Righteous Fury builds of Rakano appear to have a lot of promise, as well as being incredibly frustrating to play against when they “go off”.
As a closing note, I will summarize the process of meta gaming against a specific deck. The first step in understanding the game plan of the deck in question. Second, we should consider general strategies that counteract that game plan. Third, we should think about specific weakness of the deck, in order to select the cards that are best positioned to counteract the opponent’s game plan. Next we must either select pre-existing decks with some of the qualities we are looking for, and add in some tech cards, or we can begin constructing a deck from the ground up. Finally, we need to test the deck, and tune it based on actual games rather than just theory-crafting. I will be the first to admit that this process is over-simplified, as the topic of deck building is exceptionally deep. Teching a pre-established deck for a specific problem is a very small part of this. Hopefully this is a helpful start for your own adventures in meta gaming! Till next week!