by Anthony Junta
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Tales of Aria preview season is just around the corner, so join us as we take a retrospective look at some high level takeaways from Monarch for both Constructed and Limited!
After back-to-back Skirmish seasons pre- and post-Monarch in the US and Europe, the global Road to Nationals season finally shifted the focus from Blitz back to Classic Constructed. Without much recent high-level competitive play in this format, the meta was far from solidified, with plenty of exploration at the start. Classic Constructed brought a breath of fresh air and I hope we’ll continue to see regular CC play even after the current season ends.
Before we get into my main takeaways, let's cover a few things I'm not saying about Monarch Constructed. I do not believe that the meta is unhealthy. While I think there is a clear top deck in aggro Chane, there are a number of other heroes capable of competing. That said there is a lack of diversity in overall deck strategy (see takeaway two). I also do not believe that the speed of the format makes it any less skill-testing than previous constructed metagames. While decks may be more linear (see takeaway three), there is plenty of room for skilled players to rise to the top by finding the most efficient lines and knowing their game plan.
Takeaway One: Talentless Heroes Can Still Compete
With the introduction of talents to the world of FAB, there might naturally have been some concern about whether the original “talentless” heroes would still be able to keep up with the expanded card pool available to the talented heroes introduced in Monarch. Intuitively, this would make some sense. For example, Dorinthea has access to 39 different cards (not counting pitch variations) in the Warrior card pool. Boltyn meanwhile gets access to 65 non-generics across the Warrior, Light Warrior, and Light card pools. While this theoretical deckbuilding advantage seems significant on paper, Boltyn and Dorinthea have put up very similar numbers during the Road to Nationals season, suggesting roughly equivalent overall strength.
It would seem that the power level of the original heroes' abilities and specializations, coupled with the focused deckbuilding requirements of the new Monarch heroes--effectively limiting their ability to leverage the larger card pool--is enough to offset the raw advantage they have in available card options.
Heroes that didn’t get class support in Monarch are also still making regular appearances, with Katsu, Bravo, Dori, and even Dash making regular appearances in the Road to Nationals Top 8s. While Chane has certainly outpaced his talentless counterpart Viserai, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Takeaway Two: Aggression is IN
Speaking of Chane, there can be no argument that his emergence has dramatically altered the Classic Constructed landscape. Within a short time it became clear that Chane was both the top aggressive deck and the deck to beat in the format writ large.
The massive card advantage Chane generates with soul shackles after turn four-ish forces a number of decks and strategies out of the format. Decks that would normally seek to accrue incremental damage through efficient blocks and strong attacks on your opponent’s “off turns” just can’t compete with Chane’s sheer card advantage. This weakness is compounded by the lack of disruptive hit effects in the generic pool, which gives mid-range decks (outside of Bravo and Azalea) little opportunity to stop Chane once he gets rolling in the "mid-game."
A number of decks can try and race Chane to 40 damage with very few blocks. Aggro Katsu, Heralds Prism, and Boost Dash are all seeing play. With the right hands, these heroes can force Chane to block before they themselves must; and once resource starved, Chane can certainly founder. Early iterations of Chane were also vulnerable to fatigue, if the opposing hero managed efficient blocks and some early life gain, prompting a resurgence in control strategies (Katsu, Bravo, Dash). However, more current Chane lists often include options to counter the fatigue gameplan. Leaving one option: RACE.
Even traditionally slower decks like Dash and Bravo are now shifting to at least have a strong aggro pivot, if that isn't the deck's primary strategy from the start. “Control” strategies are a small portion of the current meta and are declining as more Chane and Katsu players move towards all-out aggression.
Takeaway Three: Interaction is Down
Accompanying the increase in aggression is an increase in the number of decks with highly linear gameplans. This means we are seeing less blocking and exchanging of cards than in previous CC formats. Chane is probably the chief example (and instigator). He might block some early, but generally his plan is to create card advantage with soul shackles and go wider than the opponent's blocks. This approach cares little for what the opponent is doing on their turn, and is often indifferent to which parts of the combat chain the opponent blocks: damage is damage after all. Barring a few exceptions like CnC or pummel--or the more serious disruption available to Bravo and Azalea--Chane is often playing against his own deck to maximize damage more than the opposing hero.
The group of decks trying to race Chane follows this linear trend: playing to their own most efficient lines while basically ignoring the opponent's turn until they are facing lethal or have won. It’s hard to blame them: preventing damage from Chane early hardly helps when the game becomes unwinnable by turn 5 or 6 with Chane on a decent life total. This leads to less interactive games, where players do little or no blocking in favor of maximizing their own damage output. While finding the most efficient lines and maximizing damage output is certainly still skill-testing, it is a move away from the back-and-forth exchanges that characterized earlier Constructed formats.
Monarch was the first limited format that many in the US and Europe had a chance to really dive into. The pre-releases, “Pack 1, Pick 1” web series, and coverage of the Limited Callings in Oceania were excellent in terms of elevating the profile for Sealed and Draft and signaling LSS’s support for high-level Limited play. I wish I had gotten the chance to do more drafts of Monarch and I hope to see even more local stores running drafts for local Armory events come Tales of Aria.
Takeaway One: We Took Defensive Tools for Granted
To put this bluntly, Monarch was the worst set to date we have had defensively. This is true across at least three axes. The defense reactions, average block value, and Arcane damage defense all fall short of what we were given in WTR and ARC.
For Defense Reactions we got Soul Shield--which is quite good--and Guardian of the Shadowrealm at Majestic, and Rise Above at Rare. Two resources for 6 defense is pretty reasonable on rate, but at Majestic, you couldn’t count on these to bolster your defenses. With no defense reaction at common (already a downgrade from WTR and ARC), that left Rise Above as the main player, which just can’t stack up against the efficiency of Sink Below or Fate Forseen. (I will give a shout out to Rally the Rearguard for its defensive flexibility.)
The average block value in Monarch was also lower than previous sets due to the prevalence of 2-blocks and 0-block instants. Of Monarch’s non-equipment, non-defense reaction cards, just 52 out of 112 block for 3 (not counting pitch variations). In ARC that ratio is over half (42 out of 80); and in WTR, a whopping 53 out of 79 block for 3. The increased frequency of cards that block for 2 (or can’t block at all) made defending challenging and the rare “blue that blocks for 3” all the more coveted in Limited. It also made games less likely to go to fatigue and rewarded decks that applied strong, consistent pressure.
With the return of Arcane damage we were also left pining for a set of null rune (or even a Rusted Relic, perhaps)! Instead of repeatable sources of cancelling Arcane damage with Arcane Barrier, Spellvoid allowed players to cancel an instance of Arcane damage but at the cost of a permanent loss of the card. This meant there was a fixed amount of Arcane damage your deck was able to absorb (rarely above 3 or 4) and a few points of late game Arcane damage was often unavoidably lethal.
Takeaway Two: Deckbuilding Complexity Increased
Limited deckbuilding in Monarch was noticeably more complex than what we saw in WTR and ARC. The inclusion of Light and Shadow talent cards alongside the typical class cards and generics naturally adds some complexity; but more importantly, most Monarch heroes needed to balance deck construction around multiple factors/constraints. Levia has to ensure she has enough 6+ power cards and enough cards that allow her to banish those cards to turn off blood debt. Boltyn needs a critical mass of cards that can charge his soul and a number of ways to increase the power of his attacks beyond the base. Even Chane is seeking to balance cards that can be played from banished and a number of non-attack actions that power up his abilities. Cards that fulfill both constraints are rare and highly sought after in Draft or can make/break a good Sealed pool.
Conversely, in WTR and ARC, there is typically only one constraint that deck builders must consider: a critical mass of blue pitches in Bravo; ways to give your weapon ‘go again’ for Dori; non-attack actions that can be played using Kano’s ability; 6+ power cards in Rhinar. While great decks might include other more specific factors, meeting the basic requirement will typically result in a deck that’s functional and gives you a chance to win.
The multiple, competing constraints felt by most of the Monarch heroes made deckbuilding quite challenging at times, particularly in Sealed. Throwing all your playables into a pile and presenting it (looking at you, Viserai) wasn't a winning move in Monarch, and the format was better for it.
Takeaway Three: Light Dominated Sealed
While most of the Monarch heroes suffered from these competing constraints, Prism offered a more straightforward path in Sealed if your other card pools didn't quite get all the pieces they needed. Her aggressively-costed Heralds, potent weapon, and more flexible deck construction made Prism a perfect fallback in the Sealed format. She could easily incorporate and get value from a good number of the generic cards, and the scarcity of 6+ power (non-illusionist) cards meant her undercosted attacks were always a threat (except perhaps to Levia).
Put simply, Prism had a very high floor. None of her cards are bad, and most Sealed pools can build a pretty reasonable Prism deck that gives you a chance to play for a win every game. Boltyn, though certainly more restrictive than Prism, can still reliably build functional decks with strong generic and light warrior attacks and decent blocks. This was less true for the Shadow heroes. While it was certainly possible (and often quite fun) to build strong Shadow Sealed decks, for many pools the Shadow heroes were simply not viable. Bad Chane and Levia decks could often kill themselves, either through fatigue or blood debt, without all that much help from your opponent.
This disparity was borne out in the Sealed metagame and results. Prism dominated the player count in the Oceanic Callings and put up good results across the Sealed events.
That’s it: my three top takeaways from Monarch Classic Constructed and Monarch Limited! The Limited format felt great and Classic Constructed does feel diverse despite the trend towards aggression and linearity. I’m very excited for a Tales of Aria Limited format that looks very interesting to draft and I’m optimistic that Tales of Aria will include some new tools to disrupt Chane and swing the metagame back towards longer games. Let me know in the comments or on Discord if you agree or think I am wildly off base and make sure to check back at FAB Foundry for our Tales of Aria Limited Set review in a couple of weeks!