On Failing Miserably With a Dark Horse Deck at a Large Tournament

After managing a measly five wins across Saturday and Sunday at The Calling Indianapolis, I would like to follow up on my previous post: On Riding a Dark Horse to a Big Tournament. In that post, I highlighted the possible pros and cons of riding into a big tournament with a potentially spoiling dark horse build. Personally, I felt that I had one. Ultimately, I couldn’t prove it due to misplays, lack of live testing, false belief in my own abilities, and probably just straight missing on the build.

We’ll get to the deck that I brought to the Indianapolis Calling shortly, but I know some of you don’t really care to see my Bravo, Showstopper list. Instead, let’s start with the feels.

On Failing

Preparing for a significant event in the world of tabletop gaming is a grueling endeavor. Michael Hamilton, who won the Indianapolis Calling’s main event, told Flake in a recent interview that he was playing upwards of 3 hours a day. The entire Pro-Quest season that led up to the event was also a great proving ground for archetypes, decks, and heroes to slog through.

The community discourse quickly rallied around a “Big 3” meta consisting of Starvo, Prism, and Viserai. By the data, Chane and Lexi were also performing relatively well. Personally, I love how Zach and Steven from Team Covenant broke down the meta post-Indianapolis on a recent stream. They acknowledged that one could build an anti-Starvo deck, we’ll call that deck X, however, X would have such a horrendous match-up into Prism (and probably Viserai), that they wouldn’t be able to survive the swiss rounds at a big event.

My Bravo, Showstopper list started as an anti-Starvo deck. When I saw how big of a representation the new hero was getting, I thought I’d have a good chance of moving through rounds of Swiss at Pro Quest events and making the top 8. However, Pro Quests bring out a lot of different decks. In the two Pro Quests that I attended, I was only paired against a Starvo twice.

Before the Calling, I adapted the list to have a better chance against Prism and Viserai; to do so, I did have to give up some of the anti-Starvo tech. By the time of the event, I had a detailed sideboard guide that made my deck present quite differently into most matchups.

My Friday night and Saturday morning were rough, but I won’t bore you with personal details. I made repeated mechanical errors all throughout the day on Saturday. By the end of Round 2, I had no chance of making day 2 of the event.

I felt deflated. I had spent so much time preparing, and I had been perseverating on the Calling for weeks. I didn’t have anyone to blame but myself, though. I have the mental capacity to have blocked out distractions and play my game plan, but I failed to do so and had to live with the consequences—namely telling my wife that I lost the first two rounds after making extreme efforts to get to the event.

With 6 times xp and a unique opportunity to play Flesh and Blood all day, I pressed on and tried to enjoy myself. I settled in at the “bottom” tables and enjoyed interacting with other players. Ultimately, though, the day was a bust.

As a family man, I don’t get out much. I’ve participated in one armory event ever because a weekly in-person appointment is a near-impossibility for me. I’ve tried to make it out about once a month for larger events, and I play a lot against myself and against the A.I. on felt table. The lack of live testing really shines through at big events. I end up learning so much when playing in the flesh and blood, but it’s to my extreme detriment only having these experiences when winning is more important than learning.

Self-testing has always been a large part of my training regimen for tabletop games. As a father, it is challenging to find play partners in the very early morning or late at night when I have the opportunity to play, so I’m often stuck discovering lines of play against myself. Now, there’s nothing wrong with self-testing. However, there is no way to replicate learning with a partner, group, or team on your own. A perfect example of this is on the most recent video on Arsenal Pass’s Patreon where Hayden and Brendan break down Brendan’s win-and-in round 12 of swiss at the Indianapolis Calling.

Without others to learn from or correct my own mistakes, it would be easy to overestimate my own ability and the validity of my deck’s construction. This is particularly dangerous when trying to play a meta-beater or dark horse deck because the list isn’t a tried and true, battle-tested build.

In a swiss tournament, especially with Flesh and Blood’s tiebreaker policies, losing early is detrimental to your chances of making the top 8. Every loss hurts, but a 1st round loss pierces like nothing else. Let’s take a general look at my pairings from the weekend before diving into the deck itself.

The Calling

On Saturday, I lost in Round 1, leaving only 1 real road to the top, winning out. In Round 2, I went up against Starvo. I was incredibly prepared for this matchup, and even if my data showed that I had the edge, there’s always RNG, high roll, and drawing brick hands. 0-2.

Winless and on the wrong side of the pairings, it was easy to let the depression in. Life is different at the “bottom” tables. In Round 3, I went up against Levia. I had a complete sideboard guide written out before the event, so I knew what to present to my opponent. Ultimately, it was great to get a win, but my day was already lost. I decided to stay in the main event for at least another round before jumping to a side event to try to earn some prize tickets. Round 4 brought me the lesser-represented of the Everfest trinity—Viserai. Funnily enough (to borrow the phrase from my friends from the Southern Hemisphere), I disliked this matchup more than Prism. It was extremely close, like all my losses, but the OTK turn brought me close enough to the brink of destruction that the OG Runeblade had plenty of opportunities to spend cards out of my hands and maintain his own single-digit life total for the rest of the match.

After that, I decided to jump into a 3-round classic constructed event that offered double points for prizes. I worked hard on my list and wanted another chance to showcase its power.

CC Side Event

In round 1, I got paired against another player from my area who was on Chane. I knew he had several Pro-Quest top 8s with the deck, but I felt confident that I could fatigue him with double null rune and Rampart. However (of course, there’s a however), when I flipped my equipment, I only presented 1 null rune. I still had a shot, but my percentage to win dropped significantly. 0-1. More devastation.

After a grueling 40 minute wait, I received a bye. I didn’t want the bye. I wanted to play. As I waited, I wandered the top tables of The Calling and spectated the feature matches. Finally, in my last match of the day, I was paired against Viserai. I felt positive going into the match and started racing damage early and often as my opponent built up his rune chants. Once again, though, I couldn’t disrupt him enough before an epic Sonata draw into my defeat.

Battle Hardened

It was a new day. A chance to reset the standings and prove something. I didn’t change anything in my list, but I hoped that I could learn from my fatal errors and actually play well on day 2.

Round 1, Viserai. The Runeblade was quickly becoming my weekend rival. I put some gas in the tank and started racing as he built up auras. Eventually, though, the OTK turn came. Vis was at 7 health and then presented 33 points of damage in 1 turn. Vis wins again, and just like that, I’m out of the running for the top 8 of the Battle Hardened.

Round 2, Chane. I’m feeling so defeated, but I know my Chane matchup is significantly better than my Vis, so I double-check my equipment and run a complete fatigue strategy. Win.

Round 3, Azaela. I should be excited, but I know that I am susceptible to various hit effects that could be leveled against me from Death Dealer. Ultimately, I should have gone full fatigue. Instead, my opponent uses Azaela’s ability with an empty deck to give his final arrow dominate and earn a victory. 1-2.

Round 4, Viserai. LFG! I needed a Vis win, and my deck accommodated. I was able to regularly present double-digit damage, including several Crippling Crushes. My opponent was accumulating Runechants, but I forced him to dedicate plenty of cards to blocking. My deck finally delivered into this match, and I got a solid, flawless victory: 40-0.

Round 5 brought me another win, and Round 6 would offer me a chance at a winning record and a chance to take down a Prism. I got off to a fast start. Often, I opted to push damage over keeping their auras at bay, but eventually, I was too tangled up in Prism’s passing mirage to finish the job: 3-3.

The List: Bravo, Show Stealer 😭

This list has undergone several iterations as I prepped for classic constructed in the Everfest meta. When I was opening my first case of the new set, my initial impression was about the amount of power that the Illusionist class received—I immediately messaged my brother that Prism would be the deck to beat this season. Of course, Starvo ended up being more consistent than I initially expected.

So my personal quest for a counterweight in the meta was on. Unfortunately, I’m the kind of player with only a couple of Legendaries in their collection, so my options of what to pilot going into the Pro-Quest season were limited. Post Briar errata, I had a Bravo, Showstopper build that I really loved that focused on using and abusing Mangle to destroy the opponent’s equipment while pushing disruptive damage with Crippling Crush and Tear Asunder. To prepare for Everfest, I eviscerated that list and changed about 30 cards—primarily to deal with the looming threat of Bravo, Star of the Show.

Like most people, adding Red Unmoveables was a clear start to preparing for repeated pumped, dominated attacks with go again. However, racing Starvo wasn’t going to be a feasible option for Showstopper, so I needed to add more defensive power that could get around Dominate.

Stonewall Confidence was another early adoption into the list. Here’s a quick video detailing how pivotable the card is against Starvo (particularly when he has dominate).

I wanted an additional way to block out significant hit effects on turns when Starvo activated his hero ability. Reinforce the Line quickly became a welcome part of this anti-Starvo package. As an instant, I could play it from hand or arsenal against any attack. It serves effectively as a pseudo Sink Below—a card that I cut because blocking 4 by itself just wasn’t good enough for the meta-breaking new hero.

Steadfast, a new card for Guardians from Everfest, took me a few games to really appreciate. It has substantial value in several matchups, including, of course, Starvo. With this primer into the deck completed, let’s dive into the game plans for the top-of-the-meta opponents.


Gameplans

Before I delve into the game plans directly, here is a slideshow of my sideboard guide. Having this written out was very helpful during the event. While I had it pretty much memorized, it was wonderful to clear up the brain space by getting into a routine of checking my notes at the beginning of the match tide sideboard accurately.

Other than occasionally removing my blue Lead the Charges, my sideboard allowed me to remove many reds from my deck for each opponent. Bravo, Showstopper, of course, wants a healthy amount of blue cards in his deck, and you may have noticed that my list runs a lot of reds. The reds that I present to each hero represent the inherent game plan for that round, while my blues constitute the core of my deck.

Bravo, Star of the Show

As I noted above, I packed a lot of defensive power into my list to deal with Starvo. However, in a typical match against the Star of the Show, he will likely have more turns against me than I have Unmovables and Steadfast to withstand his assault.

Before adjusting the list for non-Starvo matches, I was running 3 Remembrances. I never regretted this choice, but I had to make room for my strategy into Prism and Viserai. My primary targets with Remembrance are my Stonewall Confidences in the early game and Tear Asunder and Crippling Crush in the late game.

Anyone who has reps against Starvo knows that you shouldn’t throw your defense reactions against attacks that only present damage. Instead, it’s typically the best practice to save them for the disruptive hit and Crush effects presented by Oaken Old and Crippling Crush primarily.

With so many Stonewall Confidences, though, defending a 9-strength red Autumn’s Touch with one card from hand that blocks for 7. Taking 2 damage with no effects is worth keeping a 3-card hand for offense—although using 1 card to block out Winter’s Wail is also often worthwhile considering the efficient way that Showstopper can utilize a 2-card hand to create a Seismic Surge and swing Anothos for 6.

All in all, this deck gives me a great game into Starvo. Of course, it’s not 100%, but clean play coupled with a bit of a surprise build is enough to give me a solid chance going against the King of the Everfest CC meta.

Prism, Sculptor of Arc Light

Anyone paying attention to the content of the Everfest supplemental set knows that the Illusionist class received a treasure-trove of new tools. With only one current hero for the class, Prism was poised to break out.

Sadly, my overall strategy against Prism isn’t fully worked out. I adapted the deck at the last minute and only had a few test matches against Prism before Indianapolis. My lack of clear direction certainly came back to bite me in the event. I teetered between controlling the board to get to the end game and racing Prism by pressuring consistent double-digit damage turns while popping threatening auras along the way.

For example, I’ll go through the details from my day 1, round 1 of the Calling.

I made 3 huge misplays against Prism that round. The matchup is historically a nightmare for WTR Bravo. However, I felt that I brought enough answers to bring the match close to 50% in my favor.

Turn 1, I drew Imposing Visage, Spinal Crush, Cranial Crush, and another blue, let’s say Debilitate. In retrospect, this was the perfect 1st hand. My testing dictated that my best play was using Visage and the 2 blues for hunting out Nerves of Steel which would buy me time against 1-3 auras while I sculpted some high-damage output hands. Instead, I created a Seismic Surge token, activated Bravo, and attacked with Spinal Crush.

Sure, Spinal Crush has a great hit effect, and pushing through the damage is great, but it wasn’t the best play. In that matchup, I needed to make the best play.

My next mistake was on an Exude Confidence misfire. He didn’t block the attack, so I pumped it twice with the intent to use Snapdragon Scaler’s to give it go again, followed by swinging Anothos at Genesis. However, my opponent and I started clearing the combat chain out of habitual practices, and just before my Exude hit the graveyard, I saw that my Snaps was still sitting in its equipment zone. I am not the kind of guy to try to rewind that board state. I messed up and would deal with the consequences.

That Genesis ended up providing tremendous value, obviously, to my opponent. The consistent presence of Spectral Shields created a timer on the game as my life whittled away.

My deck is great at always having a card or more in hand to pop phantasm attacks, so Prism usually has a hard time building up a soul against me, but Genesis was a great workaround for that.

Somehow our life totals were still in close parity—I may have even had a bit of a lead. However, I know that didn’t really matter. The state of the board was the true indicator of who had the lead. My last misplay was similar to the second. This time it was with an Even Bigger Than That in arsenal that I left unplayed after speeding through the end of round priority. Like a fool, I missed out on an opt and a Quicken token and cleared out my arsenal for future use.

One mistake may have been overlooked, but all 3 coupled with solid play from my opponent was too much.

Viserai

I didn’t always switch out Anothos.

As you may have gathered from the above, Viserai proved to be my nemesis throughout the event. My strategy was simple enough based on how they’re approaching the match: against OTK, I race damage hard; against aggro, I fatigue as much as possible and capitalize on their missed hands.

In my last PQ before Indy, I found that Viserai had loaded up with d-reacts to pose a better threat against Starvo. Of course, the inclusion of those defensive cards made my job more challenging, so Exude Confidence with access to go again from Even Bigger Than That and Snapdragon Scalers became an obvious solution.

I would be too much of a reductionist to say that these games came down to the stellar draws from the Skeleta-Sonata turns, but I could have played much more cleanly in each of my matches against the original Runeblade.

During Round 1 of the Battle Hardened, I felt I was playing pretty well against a PQ-winning Viserai player. Of course, his first turn was Mordred Tide into Become the Arknight into Read the Runes to start with 8 Runechants, but after that, his production slowed down a little bit.

I got him down to either 6, 7, or 8 health prior to his Skeleta turn. He had over 20 Runechants and found 5 attacks to draw from Sonata. However, none of those attacks had built-in go again, so I knew that I would only be facing down 2 attacks before he had to end his turn. The mental math led me to think that I would survive the turn with double-digit health remaining.

He commented on his turn about not being sure if he had enough to kill me, and I remarked back that he would be able to get me close enough had he drawn a Rune Flash. Of course, he then showed me that he had a Rune Flash in hand from his previous turn. Ultimately, his OTK turn took 33 points of my health. Since he could also end his turn with more Runechants on the board, I knew I was toast.

The game wasn’t quite like this, but I was thinking about this video the whole weekend:


Conclusion

I would love to see other players test out this Showstopper build. I’m sure that there are some more optimal versions of the list that still preserve what the deck is trying to do, and I am quite confident that a more-focused pilot could have done well with this deck in Indy. However, I’ll never know. Just as one cannot step in the same river twice, that moment and that specific meta are now lost to time.

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