This is a guest blogpost from Will Morgan. Will is a gamer and programmer. He manages engineers at Factual, a startup based in Los Angeles, where he lives with his fiancee Nancy. In his free time, he writes simulation software to help him find winning strategies for the games he plays. Congratulations to Will on his amazing performance and 2nd place finish in the Epic Card Game World Championship.
Hi! I’m Will, and I played in the Epic Card Game 2016 World Championship. I ended up making it to the finals, where I played John Tatian in a five-game match. Here’s how I got there, and what happened in the championship match.
In the Beginning
I played the old Epic TCG back in 2009. Although the fundamental concepts were largely the same, the old game was much more similar to MTG: it had counterspells, phases, and free cards that were actual cantrips (called gifts). It was also BROKEN. There was a Necromancer Lord, but in addition to its expend ability, you could also pay 5 health to get the same effect, as many times as you wanted. T-Rex could draw you up to 3 cards. There was a Brachiousaurus, but instead of a Fire Shaman that dealt 3 damage, there was the Lizard Guard that drew you a card. Time Master was a common in the base set, and it was a bad card, they banned five cards after the first constructed tournament, etc…
That game lasted for about a year, and ran a single World Championship in Philadelphia that I top 8ed. I never expected to hear about it again. Then earlier this year, someone at work had bought the new Epic Card Game, and I was quite impressed with the improvements they had made. The lack of responses brings it more in line with non-MTG games, especially online ones, and recycle is much more balanced than gifts. They also carefully avoided any of the brokenness of the old constructed format. Loyalty is a great way to encourage a direction in deckbuilding where the old game mostly just had ally triggers, and I love dark draft.
At the same time, they kept all the best concepts. I especially like the intensity of the strategy: Every turn of Epic is like your most important turn in a game of MTG; you can never play on auto-pilot.
The Worlds Announcement
I got very excited when Worlds was announced. The prize pool made it feel like it was worth the time investment to learn the game and get good at it. I believed I had a good chance at qualifying and coming up with a broken deck for constructed. There was just one problem: I was in Los Angeles with no one to play with. I decided to test on my own rather than trying to get a group together. I loaded two decklists into Cockatrice and started playing games, with me on both sides. I played a lot of games like this. When I found out that my qualifier would be sealed, I wrote a sealed deck generator and started testing that solo, too.
The commentators at Worlds mentioned how often I was spending my gold before my opponent. I think this is due, at least in part, to how I tested. When you can see both hands, it gives you a good idea of the limits of your exposure to leaving your opponent with a gold up. Many times the worst case scenario isn’t as bad as you think, and often they just don’t have something to punish you. In the best case, it encouarages them to overextend, and you’ll take advantage of that next turn.
I timed a trip out to Florida to visit family with the weekend of a qualifier out there, and won a 7-person tournament. After that, it was just a matter of waiting for the Uprising spoilers.
The Pro Player Invites
The announcement of the special invitations of the MTG and Star Realms players caused some consternation in the community. They felt that their accomplishments in earning a qualification were cheapened by the free invitations, and were worried about large prizes going to pro players.
Now that the results are in, I think we can all breathe a little easier about the MTG and Star Realms invitations. As a group, their results were below average. There were 13 special invites who played in the tournament, and one of them made top 8 ($2,500). Of the rest, three were in top 16 ($1,500), one in top 28 ($1,000), one in top 40 ($750), and the remaining seven in the bottom prize bracket ($500). By my math, they were 20% of the player pool but got only 12% of the prizes.
Viewed in that light, I would say that the the pro player invites were a success, to the extent that they:
Generated interest in the game and legitimized it,
Proved that Epic is a skill game of its own caliber, and
Didn’t meaningfully take away from the prize pool for players who qualified the hard way.
And if, next year, they again want to round out the competition with more players from other games, I think the Epic players should welcome that. In Worlds 2016 anyway, each one of their invites improved the prize of the players who qualified in tournaments by an average of $150.00. Every match we played against them was like getting paid 84 bucks.
Assembling the Team
I flew out to my home state of Massachusetts on Thursday and connected with my MTG buddies who had caught Epic fever. Three of us ended up playing in Worlds: me, multi-time MTG Grand Prix finalist Dave Shiels, and pro poker player Jon Lewis, who I’ve been friends with since 6th grade, and who would end up top 8ing along with me. We taught Jon the game on Thursday, and he qualified in a constructed LCQ.
If anyone could pick up the game on Thursday and top 8, it would be Jon, and not just because he’s an ultra-competitive crusher, though that helped. The difference is in the quality of the playtesting. There’s practicing, and then there’s practicing for 8 or 10 hours straight, no distractions, with long-time friends who have studied the game for months, who give you the best constructed deck they know of, and whose number one goal, on Friday and Saturday at least, is to get you qualified for Worlds. That’s the kind of practice Jon had.
The idea of the deck came to us when we were testing Josiah Fiscus’ Sage-Evil control vs. the Roanoke Sage-Wild tempo. In that matchup, both decks were just trying to play Thought Plucker and Knight of Shadows as often as possible. The Evil deck had cards like Final Task and Necromancer Lord, and the Sage deck had Mist Guide Herald. We tried building a single deck that played both. This is what we ended up with, as a pre-Uprising deck for our friends to take to their LCQs:
1 Wolf’s Bite
3 Surprise Attack
3 Thought Plucker
3 Knight of Shadows
3 Mist Guide Herald
3 Guilt Demon
3 Unquenchable Thirst
3 Raxxa’s Curse
2 Thrasher Demon
3 Zombie Apocalypse
3 Angel of Death
3 Final Task
3 The Gudgeon
3 Raxxa, Demon Tyrant
2 Necromancer Lord
1 Soul Hunter
This deck works by playing and recurring the two hand-attack champions, as early and as often as the opponent will allow. The Evil cards are a robust set of answers whose goal is to neutralize everything they do. Your winning game state is one where you have them down to 1-2 cards in hand, you with 7, then you play a sweeper, then you play an Amnesia. At that point how you’ll actually win is irrelevant, but Zombies or Demons are the fastest.
Testing the Deck
The deck in its above incarnation was played in the constructed LCQs by several in our playtest group. This ended up giving us a lot of feedback for future tuning.
While our friends were grinding, I was brewing. I thought that our deck was well-suited to burn and other control, but I had two main concerns:
The list is fairly obvious, and the fundamental plan is the same as Josiah Fiscus’ deck, which had been public for a month before the tournament. I expected the field to have prepared for the matchup, and to possibly be playing similar decks.
What do you add from Uprising? Raxxa already does the job of both Raxxa’s Enforcer and Rift Summoner. Consume can be cast early, but won’t ever take out their big guys like Unquenchable Thirst can. Grave Demon dies to Drain Essence. Frantic Digging might be OK, but what do you cut? Muse?
I was convinced that there was a scrappy tempo deck in the format. Throughout the days leading up to Worlds I would grab Dave, who was practicing with the deck, and throw everything I had at him. Finally around 5PM Saturday I lost my last, long game, and decided I couldn’t beat ’em, so I needed to join ’em. Jon, Dave, and I would play the same 60 cards in the tournament. Interestingly, since I was the de facto designated gauntlet player, and we were so crunched on time, my first time actually playing the deck was round 5 of Worlds.
At this point we didn’t know anything about the Kark decks. There was buzz about it at the tournament site, but we didn’t have a list, and we thought intuitively that a deck that relied on playing several health gain cards and a Loyalty X champion would be weak to discard.
Jon qualified in a 2-hour final match of the last constructed LCQ. He had at that point put in probably 20 hours of competitive play in the two days since learning the game on Thursday. He was very much in the zone, and gave us valuable feedback on what was working and not working for him:
He never played Apocalypse.
Necromancer Lord was always good, and sometimes they can’t kill it on the first turn, and then you just win.
Soul Hunter and Wolf’s Bite were also great.
This is a general deckbuilding principle in Epic. If a card is conditionally useful and not good in multiples, then you shouldn’t play three copies of it, even if you feel like you always want to draw it.
Drain Essence is like this. You want to play three because of burn, but in matchups where it’s bad you run the risk of drawing two at the same time, and in that situation it’s like your hand is one card smaller. We decided to swap it out for a Zannos, Corpse Lord, which also gains health and offered a way to break through when you’re way ahead on cards against grindy decks like the mirror and Kark. We also went down to two each of Raxxa, Erase, and Raxxa’s Curse.
We kept The Gudgeon at three copies, which was questionable, but the card is an OK play most of the time. It’s something you can run out on the first turn without any risk, and protects you against burn, discard, and Amnesias.
You can find the final list here:
The competition at Worlds was the toughest I’ve ever played against. Every decision mattered, and there were no easy wins in the limited portion. I went to time in all of my first four round, but fortunately wound up with only one draw. My two dark draft opponents were Jon Lewis, who beat me in extra turns, and Dave Shiels, who I beat in extra turns.
I went into the constructed portion of the tournament with a 2-1-1 record, then promptly lost a game to Jonah Acosta’s demons. I came back to win that match, though, and won a straightforward two-game match against Nathan Overbay’s burn in round 6. Winning two rounds back-to-back helped me to calm down, and all of a sudden I was in contention. In round 7 Jon and I got both the feature matches, and won against Wild decks.
The Kark Plan
Top 8 was announced and we went to dinner. We were aware at this point that there were a few Kark decks in the top 8, but didn’t have any lists or know who was playing what. There were only a few Kark decks in the field, and none of us had played against one. I got home around midnight and found that the lists had been published online. Choosing between sleep and testing, I loaded up my deck and the list of my top 8 opponent into Cockatrice and started playing games.
The results were grim.
The Kark deck was in fact very resilient to discard, and very difficult to pressure on the board. Almost all of its removal was a banish effect, so I might have an empty discard pile for most of the game: not great for Final Task and Necromancer Lord. Their game plan also blanked so many of our cards. Basically all the sweepers and removal became dead draws.
However, my deck could win, sometimes. If I got a great draw and they faltered, then I could get them down on cards early and press an advantage.
I went to bed a few hours later after coming up my plan:
Their discard pile needs to stay at 0 or 1 cards. You need to keep them from recycling as much as possible. Guilt Demon is even better than Amnesia in this matchup, because they recycle so aggressively and you’re not likely to be able to recycle yourself.
Ancient Chant is a critical card for them, but you can still win if they only draw 1. Just get rid of it, let them draw the card, and hope that they don’t draw another one.
Since Kark decks play very little actual removal, especially free removal, Muse and Necromancer Lord are two of your best cards. Lean on them.
Squeeze value out of the cards you do have. Wolf’s Bite won’t kill anything useful, so fire it off as soon as you can recycle. Medusa is just a 6/8 ambush, but if they’ve already spent their gold on their turn then it’s better than nothing.
Vary your threats between tokens and non-tokens to play around Inheritance. So Raxxa’s Curse your Thrasher Demon if you also have a Muse in play.
Kill your own stuff pre-emptively! If you have two Thought Pluckers in play, and none in your discard pile, use Unquenchable Thirst on one of them to vary your threat profile. If they play Divine Justice on their turn, then your Final Task and Necromancer Lord are still threats. Kark decks typically play only one or two discard hate cards.
Hope to 2-0 the dark draft and win the first constructed game.
I figured that I’d lose to Kark maybe 3/4 of the time, but with a 2-0 lead, that’s better than even odds to win the match. In hindsight, my chances of winning of the third game of the match were probably better than this, since I also had the advantage of surprise.
Quarterfinals (Gabriel Costa-Giomi)
I did 2-0 my dark draft in top 8, and the crucial game went my way. I led with Knight of Shadows, and he discarded Ceasefire, and played another Ceasefire at the end of my turn. On my following turn I used Amnesia to play around recylers and attacked. When he Drain Essenced the Knight, I knew I was in good shape. In my testing, taking 9 in that situation was the correct play. In this matchup, both health totals are irrelevant. What matters are the hand sizes, and I’m thrilled to get one card out of his hand and one into my discard pile where a Necromancer Lord can find it later. A turn or two later he played his third Cease Fire and his third Blind Faith, and from then on things were easy because I didn’t have to play around as much. By the time he found a sweeper, I had broken enough of my own champions to bounce back with recursion effects pretty quickly. In the final turns of the game, I had three Zombie Apocalypse in hand. I made 10 zombies, got Withered, made 10 more, and finally I won it after about an hour-long game.
Semifinals (Jonathan Lewis)
I 2-0ed the dark draft in two tight games against Jon. Our game of constructed wasn’t nearly as close. I hit him with three discard champions in the first two turns, and he played a single Thought Plucker in the whole game. In a way I felt bad that our constructed game was so lopsided, but if you figure that he and I had equal chances of a blowout draw, then I’m just glad I got mine first. Winning 3-0 gave me time to eat and try to relax before the finals.
Finals (John Tatian)
You can watch the stream of the finals match here, starting at the 7 hour mark:
Sorry to anyone who watched my dark draft. I wanted to give you poem, but instead you got a book report. In my defense, I was exhausted, and, not to complain, but around pack 4 or so they whispered from off camera that they wanted me to tilt the cards I was picking in a different way so that they camera could see them, and that really broke my concentration. I kept forgetting which cards I had picked and passed, and instead of thinking only about the draft, I had to think also about whether the camera could see my cards. I know that sort of thing goes with playing on camera; to me it makes John’s performance all the more impressive, since he had already drafted twice in the hot seat and won both his matches.
In the end I thought my deck was clunky, a little on the weak side, but with lots of free cards and good fighting chances.
Not Konging the Juggernaut
In game 1, I died too soon, with too many cards in hand, and with John at too low of a health for me to feel good about how it worked out. On turn 2 I had a Wolf vs a Juggernaut, 19 vs 27 health and my hand was this:
Angel of Light
I also knew he had Erase and Ice Drake.
The commentary suggested that playing Kong here is the obvious play. I don’t like playing Kong in this position at all:
If I play Kong, then I’ll have no good plays on his turn, since I’ll have lost loyalty for the Draka’s Enforcer.
If I draw a Sage card, the Forcemage can kill Juggernaut.
Blind Faith is also a good way to kill Juggernaut if I can block it.
If I can’t kill Juggernaut but manage to Kong something else, then my 13/14 matches up quite well against his 9/3.
In hindsight, maybe best was to just play the Cave Troll and pass. If he attacks, I can block and still go for my Blind Faith play. Then my Enforcer is still online. If he plays Ice Drake, then I can Kong it, and be far enough ahead that missing a solid play on his turn might be OK.
What happened in the game is that I passed, he took his turn, and then Erased my Draka’s Enforcer after I blocked with it. If he had Erased before blockers, he probably would have won right there, but he likely wasn’t thinking of Blind Faith, which I was able to use to save 9 health, albeit without recycling.
I did Kong the Juggernaut on my next turn, he had Medusa for it, and I never was able to stabilize enough to leverage the advantages I did have.
The commentary gives you the idea that you win a game of Epic by making good plays. That is true, but at this level we’re both going to make good plays. In Epic, sometimes, even oftentimes, you’re going to have a worse deck, a worse draw, or be behind in a meaningful way. Playing a solid, straightforward game against a skilled opponent in this situation means that sooner or later you’re going to lose. Strategically, what I’m trying to do is create asymmetries in the position. That means if I’m down a few cards, I see if I can trade more cards for a board or health advantage. If he’s got big champions, I try to make tokens. And if he’s pressuring my health total, I’m trying to judge how low I can go while drawing cards, and play as the control deck.
If you have an Inner Peace in hand, and your opponent has two burn cards, it’s better, in a way, to be at 10 than 30. When you create asymmetries, you and your opponent need to make judgement calls about how the game will shake out over the next few turns, and if you judge better, you can steal a come-from-behind win. Many of my limited games in the tournament were like that.
When it goes wrong, it looks like game 1, where I’m not doing enough to get off the back foot. When it goes right, it looks like game 2. In game 2, the commentary was so excited about John’s first turn: Thrasher Demon, Velden your guy, Consume your Muse. Yes, I was at 16, but in practice I’m up four cards, and there’s very little chance that I lose from that position. It was the most lopsided game of our match. Vanishing on my Dark Knight was a nice flourish, I suppose, but what was he going to do about my Draka?
We went on to the constructed portion tied 1-1.
Game 3 (The Amnesia Play)
A recap from the stream: Going first in game 3, I played a Thought Plucker, he discarded Ancient Chant, and then I used Amnesia to banish it. At the time there was confusion from the commentary booth and criticism from the peanut gallery, but the more I think about it, the more obvious this play becomes for me.
If you’re not familiar with the matchup, Kark vs discard often looks closer than it really is. Even though all of our games went long, I’d say that all three were basically over by the third turn. Health totals don’t matter. The board doesn’t really matter. My hand size (!) doesn’t matter, as long as I have one decent play every turn. The only important variables are how many cards the Kark deck has in hand, and how healthy our discard pile are.
If I can make it to turn 3 and he’s got 3 cards in his hand, no discard pile, then I’ll probably win. If he’s got 7 cards in hand and two in the discard, then I’ll probably lose. Ancient Chant is one of the Kark deck’s most important tools against discard. Even ignoring the Lesson Learned combo, just recalling it advances his game plan and stymies mine. If he discards it, he will definitely draw at least one card off it. It will help him recycle. My hand size doesn’t matter, and I had a Muse and a Final Task in hand already. My way forward in the game is to remove the Ancient Chant, and hope that’s the last one that I see.
Like my quarterfinals opponent, John misunderstood the matchup at first. He played a Royal Escort. He Drain Essenced my Thought Plucker. Those two plays were all it took for me to push him below the critical hand size and lock up the game. Unlike my quarterfinals opponent, however, John was 1-1 going into the constructed portion, and the world champion wasn’t going to make the same mistakes in any subsequent game.
I played game 4 pretty badly. I led with Knight of Shadows and he discarded a Drain Essence, signalling to me that any easy win like game 3 was now out of the question. I passed and he played a Noble Unicorn and took three from my Thrasher Demon. On his turn, he drew 2 with Lessons Learned and passed back. I Surprise Attacked into a Mist Guide Herald and found a Medusa, which I needed to take to kill the Noble Unicorn, but I ultimatedly decided to take the second MGH into a Thought Plucker. That was a mistake, as killing the Noble Unicorn was too important in that situation. I can’t pass back to him and let Unicorn draw him two additional cards.
On my turn, with a Necromancer Lord in hand, I decided to play a Zombie Apocalypse before attacking and giving him a chance to draw extra cards with his Unicorn. At that point I was still doing OK, although I was running out of things to do on his turn. Necromancer Lord came down after he wiped my board, and I started getting back discard champions. However, on the following turn he had Heinous Feast into Plague to knock out my advantage and we were back to even.
I walked into a Cease Fire that I knew about on the next turn, but I was already in rough shape. My hand after my first attack was 2x Soul Hunter, Unquenchable Thirst, Final Task, and Thrasher Demon, and even if I had gotten to attack with Thought Plucker, it turns out that John was ready with a Fumble. Probably a better line would have been to Final Task the Necromancer Lord into a Thought Plucker, but without a play on his next turn I would have had an uphill battle. Mercifully John already had the Kark so it was a quick game.
I had a pretty weak start to game 5. I mulliganed four cards, then a Surprise Attack into MGH into Thought Plucker left me with a hand of Zannos, 2x Thirst, Hurricane, Erase, and Raxxa’s Curse. I chose to Erase the MGH to play around an Inheritance, but as a plan I think that’s just too slow, and Inheritance isn’t even really a threat to me on that board (and it makes Zannos a good follow-up). I should have attacked, gotten Fumbled, and Erased the Thought Plucker. It was going to be tough no matter what I did though, as my next few draws included a Drain Essence, two Soul Hunter, and a Raxxa, Demon Tyrant. By the time I played the Zannos, it was pretty much a lock for John.
For my second place finish I got $10K, a trophy, and an invitation to next year’s Worlds.
Thoughts on Kark
Kark decks have variously been called combo, control, and even beatdown. I think that Kark is a prison deck; it works by locking down combat. Chamberlain Kark is not the problem. It’s actually a valuable pressure release valve. The card puts a lower bound on how effective stall needs to be before we can say that it’s good enough: if you can’t stop me from getting to 60 health, I win. The question we should be asking is whether defense is too good.
Does constructed have a problem? I’m not sure. The problem, inasmuch as there is one, is that a particular set of defensive tools work together very effectively to lock out every strategy that relies on attacking with champions. It’s hard to put all the blame on Ceasefire, since you only get three copies of it, but Ceasefire does something unique in the game: it shuts off an avenue by which your opponent can gain an advantage. Ceasefire is the only card in the game that you have to answer preemptively (by group attacking), or else not at all.
At the same time, Worlds was the very first tournament with Uprising cards, and there were plenty of surprises. Going in, our team certainly wasn’t prepared for Kark at all.
How would we know if there was a problem? As far as I know, nothing beats a Kark deck except a Kark deck tuned for the mirror. I thought it was really clever how Gabriel’s and Jason’s decks played only two copies of Kark, but how much more clever was it of John to play three, and always have one against other Kark decks? We might see the rock, paper, scissors of the metagame reach the point where Kark decks tune for the mirror so heavily that they start to lose to the field, which loses to the more standard Kark decks.
That would be sad. My intuition would be that the problem would lie somewhere around Ceasefire, Fumble, and Blind Faith: champions that recycle are OK, but recycling events feel a little too good at it, since they put themselves in the discard pile where another one can recycle them.
Kark decks absolutely have their weaknesses. I think a big part of their recent success is that not enough cards have yet been printed that can exploit the holes in the strategy. For example: Kark decks have trouble removing a single, problematic champion. What champions give you an advantage independent of battle or drawing cards? Necromancer Lord, maybe Hunting Raptors and Fire Shaman? That’s not a lot. If there were more cards that presented a robust threat outside of combat, then Kark would need to play answers to them, at the expense of some of the stall.
We could see more cards that are good against Ceasefire. Writing this report had me looking at the old Epic TCG cards when I came across a very interesting mechanic from that game: Swarm. Champions with Swarm can be expended to add them to your attack. Having a few of those around would help to reduce the threat of Ceasefire + Fumble shutting down your turn.
I’m still giving Kark a chance. We don’t know what the next constructed tournament will tell us, now that the deck is open knowledge. And the designers clearly have their options for making non-Kark strategies more viable.
White Wizards put on an excellent tournament. The tournament staff kept everything moving through four days of events. Ian and the rest of the judges were professional and helpful. The commentators were engaging, and as excited as we were about the matches. Every one of my opponents was polite, fair, and unyieldingly competititve.
Congratulations to John Tatian, as solid a player as I faced over the weekend. Even though I came up short, I can’t say that he deserved it any less than I did.
Thanks to Jon Lewis for driving me around all weekend, and to my dad for giving me a place to sleep. Thanks, finally, to Rob Dougherty, for giving us Epic and running the whole show, with a head cold, and making sure everybody had what they needed to make the weekend a success.
I’ll be taking a short break from Epic to recover, but I’ll be back before you know it. Looking forward to seeing everyone at next year’s Worlds, or sooner.