Good Ol’ Rock: Continentals Deck Testing

Hey all!  While the people who could actually attend GenCon have been posting tournament reports, I’m going to talk about how we ended up playing what we did.  While I wasn’t able to play myself, I was involved heavily in the testing.  Magic of friendship, etc.

So, how did it end up like this?

I will put this in any article where it is even vaguely appropriate.
I will put this in any article where it is even vaguely appropriate.

Initial Testing – Regionals

We started our testing in earnest right around Regionals weekend.  Unlike last year, there wasn’t a major release right around the tournament, so we could have started earlier, but that’s life.  (Of course, we do play every week, and even silly decks help you learn the cards and format.)

For Regionals we played whatever we felt was a reasonable thing to try, resulting in a bunch of different lists.   While pretty much all the team members made top 8, we had mixed feelings about most of the lists.

Everyone was pretty much agreed that Johnny’s was very strong.  (After other Regionals results were posted, we quickly lifted Queen Chrissy into the deck.)  Dream Quest seemed much rougher than before.  While it was obvious that some of the orange cards were great against the deck just from theorycrafting, it wasn’t obvious until playing it just how many of the Absolute Discord cards seriously skewed the previously favorable Maud matchup.  While an early Nightmare Moon is obviously rough, Popping Corn, Iron Will, and Nightmare Star are all dire as well.

Popping Corn deserves special mention.  It’s especially powerful against the deck, since it’s virtually impossible to run things big enough to get around it.  Cutie Pox Scare was already a big problem for Dream Quest, but was generally beatable because the high AT cost made it hard to advance your own game while keeping it up, and because Purple mains are all mediocre to garbage.  Obviously costing 1 AT and being in the color with the other super powered main is a huge difference.

Meanwhile, Nightmare Star shuts down basically everything the deck does that’s unfair outside RTO, particularly Snips and Snails, and Iron Will at a problem both prevents RTO use there and shuts down Snips and Snails.  And all of these cards go in Maud decks very easily.

Charlotte’s Reformer/Orange deck was cool, and Nurse Redheart + Popping Corn is a true dick move, but none of us (Charlotte included) were particularly convinced there was much reason to run it over a Maud-based deck.  Yellow entry is bad enough there’s probably no reasonable way to run Redheart in your Maud deck, sure, but there are only 10 total yellow cards in the deck, and 9 cards dedicated to unlocking the orange – and even then, it’s still not trivial to play all the brutal 4-req orange cards, like Carbo-Loader and Iron Will, all of which Maud unlocks trivially.

Steve ran Maud himself, specifically Maud/Blue.  Also, many of the higher-finishing non-team members at our Regional were on Maud variants.  Steve found the deck powerful and flexible.  There was only one problem: none of us really wanted to run Maud at GenCon.

Gunning for Maud

Even aside from our natural (admittedly irrational) preference for running decks primarily of our own design, there are good reasons we wanted to avoid running Maud.  Primarily, everyone knew Maud was good.  This meant that some number of people would be gunning for her, and also that a large number of people would be playing her.

Neither is ideal.  Obviously being gunned for is something you’d rather avoid, all things being equal.  And Maud mirror matches are pretty miserable.  While every game of ponies has a lot of decision points, there are also certain cards in the matchup that are just so powerful that drawing more of them than the opponent did can swing the whole thing.  And since Maud decks don’t have much draw power (and would rather not run it since they need Nightmare Moon – Deep Darkness to control DJ decks, especially combo) there’s not much to be done but hope.

So we decided it might be sensible to do the other thing, and gun for Maud.  Before talking about how we did this, I’m going to quickly clarify my shorthand.  There are a lot of variants of decks running Maud as the main, but by “Maud decks” I mean any of the ones that have villain farming as their primary victory method.  I’m sure there are other decks running Maud as a main, and some of them might be very good, but this is the constellation of decks we were mostly worried about.

In any case, there seemed to be several reasonable ways to do this:
-Good Blue cards.  Epic Win is legit great against Maud, and the various cards that let you move around at crafty times (primarily Fears Must be Faced, but also others) are strong against villain farming since they let you potentially steal the villains.  These cards want to go in a deck that tries to race Maud, supplementing early point gains with extra VP from the opponent’s own villains.
-Good Purple cards.  Purple’s send-home cards are an obvious foil to Maud’s plan – sure, she can move for free off Barricade a lot of the time, but if she’s not at the problem in her Troublemaker phase, she can’t farm a villain.  Ursa Vanquisher, I Just Can’t Decide, etc. all work well here.

So, we tried various blue and/or purple things to try to use these tools against the Maud deck.  If you’ve read anyone else’s report, though, you probably know this didn’t end up working well.  There are several major issues with these plans right now.

1) Rock and Rave mains are just too good.  This is the big one.  Maud and DJ are both just vastly, absurdly better than any other main in the game, certainly than any of the blue or purple ones.  There are blue and/or purple cards that are good against the Maud main, or against Maud’s strategy.  But you have to draw them, and your opponent can deal with them.  Maud begins the game in play, and can’t be removed.  One card exists which sort of controls her, but you have to draw it and it sucks against a lot of other mains.  Plus, Absolute Discord gave Maud super playable resource removal, and they can still run Flower if they want.  Basically, Maud and DJ, by having game-altering effects that you don’t have to draw and are very easy to unlock, fundamentally change how you design your deck.  Decks running those cards know they’ll have them all the time, vastly increasing the consistency.

2) Orange is off the hook.  While it was the weakest color in Premiere, and Canterlot Nights was pretty meh for everyone, Crystal Games gave Orange one of the most unpleasantly powerful cards in the game, and Absolute Discord loaded it down with super powerful goodies, chief among them Popping Corn, Iron Will, and Applejack’s Epiphany.  Even aside from that, it has some of the best targeted removal in the game, it has in-color resource removal, and it has multiple in-color ways to shut down problematic opposing friends, even difficult ones like Snips and Snails since it can remove their abilities as a continuous effect.  Not only does Orange have one of the two clear best mains in the game, the rest of the cards in color are deep and powerful.  And they interact well – many of Orange’s best cards have 4 requirement, making them difficult to unlock…unless your main routinely has 4+ power, like Maud does.  I tested a variant of EBugle from Reddit’s Stopping Corn deck for quite a while.  I loved the deck in lots of ways, but it was so frustrating how hard it had to work to unlock AJCL and Iron Will, when Maud just got them for showing up.

3) Purple and Blue are weak in multiple unfortunate ways.  Even aside from not having absurd Rock and Rave mains, Purple and Blue don’t even have good second-tier mains like Chrissy or Reformer.   Blue’s best main is probably Hanging Out, who’s fine, but flips the benefit of the Rock and Rave mains on its head: to flip her reasonably, you need to play swarms of cheap pegasi, which is exactly what you don’t want to do in a format full of Popping Corn.  And Purple’s mains are all either impossible to flip in a general utility deck, have terrible abilities when you do, or both.  Discord is probably the best of the bunch, but you still can’t rely on flipping him early enough that you can afford to just play the best cards and not worry about having some with req less than 3, which for better or worse is a hallmark of all the good mains at this point.  Even aside from the mains issue, where Absolute Discord gave Orange a bunch of general tools to deal with whatever comes up, both Purple and Blue lack critical tools to deal with what’s going on in the game right now.  Most glaringly, neither color has any reasonable way to get problem friends off the table, and neither can really win a game against an active Carbo-Loader (any more than any other non-combo deck can).  So your purple or blue deck is constrained in possible second colors to “ones that can remove a Carbo-Loader”.

So the situation is: blue and purple have some individual cards that are good against Maud, but it proved impossible to build good decks around them.  The closest was running DJ + blue aggro, or DJ + purple control, but we couldn’t get either where we wanted them.

The aggro is too vulnerable to Popping Corn, and against everything except orange, was just way worse than the three-color Dream Quest versions – we were diluting the explosive combo power of the deck to put in narrow cards that we hoped would give it a chance vs. Maud.  We also experimented with tweaking Dream Quest’s flex slots to include Epic Win (or even Pep Talk against Popping Corn) but it didn’t help enough – even with all the cards Dream Quest can draw, between entry to both blue and white and the narrow answer cards, the consistency just got too low to really be workable.  And of course it’d still sometimes just get hit by early Nightmare Moon – Deep Darkness plus Nightmare Moon villain, or similar nonsense.

The control was just incapable of winning fast enough, and the margins were too tight.  The Maud deck can generally accumulate a bunch of points before a lock is in place, and is just a few Iron Wills or an Applejack’s Epiphany away from shutting down Ursa Vanquisher or I Just Can’t Decide.  And shutting the basic Maud plan down is hard enough that it takes up most of your deck, plus you still need to be able to get Carbo-Loader off the table or you can’t ever close out the game.  There just wasn’t room in the deck to run all the cards it needed, let alone to also run the tools to let it beat anything else in the world.  It’s possible you could make a Tower variant that would beat Maud decks a fair bit of the time, but we couldn’t come up with any way to do that without jamming it so full of narrow hate that it couldn’t possibly beat much of anything else.  And with all that, you still have some games against Maud you just can’t win – things like a super early flip into Nightmare Moon villain before you’re set up.

So we ended up spending most of our testing time on ideas that didn’t work.  We did test a lot – not just blue and/or purple, but also things like the Stopping Corn deck I mentioned (way worse requirement issues than Maud), a Faithful Student/blue villain farming deck based on extra flip events (couldn’t beat AJCL), and others.  At the end of the day, though, even random uninspired Maud builds would beat them way more often than we found acceptable – we couldn’t get to what felt more than “a little favorable” (maybe 60%) and even those decks usually felt so focused on beating Maud they didn’t seem likely to deal with anything else well.  It culminated in a Store Champs up in New Hampshire where despite all of us going up with what we thought were some reasonable experimental builds, first place was taken by a local with a pretty mainstream Maud/pink deck.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…

So, reluctantly, we gave up.  The only deck we had that seemed to be sort of reasonable was Johnny’s pile combo.  I’m not sure why he didn’t end up running it himself .  Not that I think he should have (obviously his actual plan worked out well for him, since he won the whole event), but I’m not 100% sure on his reasoning, since he was still up in the air when he flew out.

For the rest of us, I had two major concerns.  First, the deck isn’t super easy to play, and because we all sorta dislike decks like that, no one else had much experience with it.  Meanwhile we’ve all played a fair bit of Maud, either in testing or just because we didn’t have much else inspiring to put together for an event, or whatever.  It seemed likely that Derek and Chash would have an easier time picking the deck up quickly, and since it was at this point about a week before GenCon, that seemed relevant.

Second, Pile didn’t seem like a knockout to me.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great deck (took second at GenCon, in point of fact, though the lists still aren’t up so I’m not sure how close the builds are), but Johnny’d been playing it for a while, and it never felt just degenerate the way Dream Quest or say Dragon Express at their heights did.  It wasn’t so fast that no fair decks could occasionally outrace it, nor so resilient to hate that it didn’t care that Nightmare Moon – Deep Darkness and the like were super common in the meta.  I like it more against hate than the whole-deck combo decks, certainly, since it has a lot of slots for removal and so forth, but at the end of the day, it didn’t seem so fast or so difficult to interact with that it would just destroy unprepared decks.  And, as always, a bunch of the best cards against it were easily run by the Maud decks.  So to me, it felt pretty similar to Maud as a play – a good deck, potentially worth running, but not an event breaker.

So we sat down to figure out what Maud variant we wanted to play.  Initially we were looking at Maud/blue or Maud/purple.  Our reasoning was this: we assumed Maud mirrors would be common, and both Blue and Purple have great tools against Maud, as noted above.  So we threw together both a light blue secondary (for Epic Win and Two of a Kind) and a purple secondary (for Ursa Vanquisher, and Destiny Drain against combo).  Then we put together a pretty stock Orange/Pink Maud build and went to town.

What we discovered, though, was that the secondary color seemed almost pointless, in all cases.  A vast majority of the games weren’t won off of Ursa Vanquishers or Epic Wins or Snips and Snails.  Mostly, one deck did Maud better than the other: either someone stumbled on flipping her (usually due to the secondary color cards jamming their hand), or someone drew one more Carbo-Loader than the opponent had Carbo-Loaders and/or ways to get rid of Carbo-Loader, and the Applejack Gap meant the less fortunate player became unable to ever win faceoffs and/or the game.

Furthermore, because the Orange and colorless cards in the Maud deck are so powerful and so flexible, we weren’t even really gaining much power by adding the secondary.  Of the cards that are good in the matchup, only Epic Win is something Orange alone can’t answer (and even there, Nightmare Moon villain makes it harder to work).  All of the rest are cards you can deal with regardless of secondary.  And unlocking the second color involved putting bad cards in the deck, particularly unlocking Epic Win’s 4 Blue requirement.

So, we reasoned, it seemed like the best way to maximize our chances at the mirror was to just minimize the chances our deck “failed to Maud”.  To this end, we decided that the best plan was to remove the secondary entirely, focusing on the powerful Orange cards.  Confronting our own problem didn’t even seem that hard, because the deck was 100% locked in to run Nightmare Moon – Deep Darkness regardless, and the Chrissy friend was a good fit anyway.  There aren’t a ton of great targets in our deck, but having a bad Carbo-Loader is better than having none, and it’s better than entry friends like Apple Brown Betty in any case.

We went back and forth a lot over the last slots, but we ended up, finally, with this list.  (Only Derek ran that exact list – because of the heavy Ultra-Rare requirements to build three copies of the thing, and since we’d just decided to run it a week before, Johnny and Chash were both a couple of cards short.)

Explaining the List

Most of the stuff here is pretty standard, but every time you build a deck, you go back and forth about some slots forever.  Here’s how we got where we did.

Farm Foremare: I’m not a huge fan of this card anymore, but without her the list would be super short on Earth Ponies, and you need a certain number of friends you can play before a Maud flip.  She’s pretty good for these, and Stubborn is nice.  Golden Harvest would also be defensible in this slot.

Resource Mix: For a while we were planning to have no Pile of Presents and just have three each Clipped Wings and Boulder.  But we weren’t super confident there wasn’t some dumb combo deck we weren’t aware of that we might want Pile against, and there was some concern that 3x Boulder 3x Barricade was a bit low on resources to play before Maud flipped, so we went to this configuration.

Troublemaker Mix: Nightmare Moon, Nightmare Star, and Chrissy are all mixed blessings for this deck.  Nightmare Moon screws everyone over in some sense, Nightmare Star shuts down Carbo-Loader, and Chrissy is difficult to defeat with just Maud (though not impossible).  But at the end of the day, we decided that the symmetrical effects on the first two were just too powerful when they were good to ignore, and that the 3 point bonus on Chrissy was also critical.  From everything I heard this was right on the day.  The random Ahui is obviously for value (and because we felt 9 TM was a bit low).

Problem Deck: This one worked out pretty well, but I think it’s possible Un-Unicorned would have been a better run than one of the other ones.  I could see starting it against other Maud variants, particularly Maud/Pink.  Fruit Bat Roundup is likely the cut, though Flooding is also defensible.  We avoided Want It, Need It because it seemed like a big liability in the Maud mirror – we had no colorless friends big enough to let us confront it through a Popping Corn, and our own Popping Corn in turn wouldn’t likely stop their Maud from getting it.  (This was a particularly subtle but important point that Charlotte figured out very early on, full props there.)

How’d It Go?

Well, everyone running the deck made top 16, and in the top 16 we lost only to teammates, so scoreboard I guess?

Joking aside – making top 16 is obviously great, and in my mind generally as much as you can expect.  While it’s technically true that our players in top 16 only lost to each other, the bracket was also cruel – Charlotte and Derek had to play in the first round, and the winner then immediately had to face Johnny.  So that means almost nothing – by bracket we were likely to lose mostly to each other!

The good news from our team’s perspective is that we didn’t seem to be wrong about how the metagame shook out.  We expected tons of Maud (it was a majority of top 16 and 7/8 decks in the top 8), expected Pile to be reasonable (it finished 2nd), and expected some kind of Element of Magic combo deck (several made top 16, though none made it into top 8).  So points for that, I guess.

I also feel like our deck was at least defensible in the Maud mirror.  We faced several (even aside from each other) and won most, including Johnny taking down historical team nemesis (but such a great dude we don’t mind) Nation Morath in the round of 4.  Obviously it’s hard to say if it’s really the best approach to the Maud mirror since at the end of the day any variant is going to be pretty similar, but at least it worked out about as well as we could have reasonably expected.

Of course, this is a situation where I’m a bit upset to have been right.  It’s super frustrating to feel like, even if you know what deck is going to be all over the format, it’s so stupidly good that you still have to play it!  Obviously you can’t always break the format, but I feel like in a healthy environment there should be enough tools that if you just don’t want to lose to a specific deck, you have a good shot at making that happen.  Unfortunately, none of our builds of Maud-killer decks got better than “slightly favorable”.  Given those decks had to do such esoteric things they couldn’t beat other decks, this doesn’t seem good.

So while I’d give our prep for the con high marks, I sadly can’t do the same for the format.  At this point Rock and Rave mains have dominated competitive play for the entire time since they came out (okay, okay, there was the brief period where Dragon Express was legal, but that doesn’t really count).  I’m excited for the idea of block format shaking that up, but in some ways that makes the problem for Harmony format worse.  Presumably Enterplay (rightly) doesn’t want to print more mains that are as good as DJ and Maud since the whole point of a rotating format is to remove the mistakes of the past.  But this means that I don’t see any reasonable way Harmony isn’t going to be the DJ and Maud show (with new sets determining which one beats the other) until the sun explodes.

Or until they ban Maud and DJ.  Which they should.  I probably won’t remember, but I feel like at this point on I should just end all my posts with Rock and Rave delanda est.  I think at this point despite some other issues (a few busted individual cards, color pie imbalances), at least if those mains weren’t around you wouldn’t have the best decks doing literally the same thing basically every game. 

The good news is, everyone I talked to still had super fun at GenCon, and the tournament was bigger than last year.  It’s a great game and a great community, so I don’t think it’s too late to fix things!  But unless we’re planning to move basically entirely to Block over Harmony play (which I would also be okay with), Maud and DJ need to go.

See y’all next time!  I’m heading out myself to BronyCon on Thursday, where I will be judging CCG events pretty much the whole time.  Feel free to drop by and say hi.

3 thoughts on “Good Ol’ Rock: Continentals Deck Testing”

  1. To elucidate on a few points:
    1: I think Johnny probably chose Maud because of my game with him in Regionals. Though the game did not matter, it did show how difficult it was going to be to beat an almost mono Maud with DJ. Prior to this DJ pile could just sit back and wait. But with Maud the time table is really extended and a good Maud player is going to make sure they can AJ epiphany mid to late game when Pile would go off.

    2: I think unicorned is probably not great in this deck. I ran it at one point to poor effect. Fruit bat round up can really stop the player who is saving up to snips and snails and DFO. If you hit that problem you are SOO sad. Esepcially with a NMM deep darkness on the table.

    3: Want it need it is a huge liability I was suprised to see it in a lot of decks. A few playtest games with Chash showed the really dangerous aspects of want it need it.

    All in all I hope Maud and DJ are banned. I just hope they dont ban the other two rock and rave manes because i love me some Mover and Shaker!

    1. I feel like they’re unlikely to get a S&S off against this deck and will likely hit their own problem if they do, so I’m less concerned about that. I feel like Un-unicorned can potentially do some good against certain combo decks and it decreases the extent to which you need to cover problems with Iron Will; it seems likely to be a good starting problem against most of the DJ decks, though you obviously don’t want/care about it in the mirror. I feel like having one in the deck to start in some cases might not be unreasonable.

    2. Obv Johnny can speak for himself, but he said he actually prefers Pile vs a room full of Maud. I told him on Thursday there were at least six EoM combo decks in the room and that’s when he decided he’d play Maud.

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