A Wide Open Metagame
At the beginning of the set it was difficult to really push anything new since we had Sterne and Macherie generating free resources left and right. Thankfully before much time had passed, we were greeted with some welcome bans. This left the metagame really quite open for a while. Crystal Dominion has developed into a set that is all about presenting ongoing threats and answers for your opponents ongoing threats.
This has led us to a metagame where Sky Pirates and a broad range of decks with Amaterasu (most commonly tribal decks) are what stand ahead of the pack. While Sterne Leonis was a problem card, he did a really great job of saying Fire decks don’t get to play in the sand pit and his absence in combination with 2 efficient summons in Fire have comfortably filled the void left by Sterne.
Generally speaking the early turns are where Sky Pirates are most vulnerable and since playing a sweep is actively bad vs Sky Pirates and risky into Amaterasu, this has had an interesting impact on the rest of the metagame. When there are less sweeps present in the metagame, this can often leave room for aggressive strategies to find a place in the metagame. The problem there is that Samurais and Avalanche are more popular than Sky Pirates while also being real matchups for Sky Pirates. These tribal tempo decks don’t leave a lot of room for dedicated aggressive lists to get work done as they can navigate early turns and boards on good value.
Crystal Dominion also introduced the Crystals mechanic, which I think at first glance had everyone wary, but after playing extensively with it post bans, the 2CP backups have been a great boon. Robel Akbel in particular has seen the most success, not only as a reason to be playing Crystals but also as a great standalone forward for Earth decks. Lenna and Lilith along with their in colour support show a lot of future promise as well. Water/Lightning is the most fun I’ve had with any deck in a long time, most of that is because of the Crystal cards. I think it’s a solid Tier 2 deck which leaves me keen to see how Crystals are fleshed out in the coming sets.
With the broad strokes out of the way, I have some thoughts about the decks I’ve spent a lot of time with and against in Crystal Dominion. Tribal decks are often easy to build, generally popular and in recent sets they have been designed to compete. When visiting your LGS or in competition you should expect to see them.
Following that, I will be talking about how I’ve changed my perspective about summons in recent sets and why you should reconsider how you are building your decks at a fundamental level. Should you only have a limited amount of time or attention span, I would encourage you to jump ahead to that portion.
Throughout most of this set, I’ve maintained that Sky Pirates are the deck to beat, that it is the most unfair in what it’s doing. Short of Amaterasu in the opposing deck slowing down the speed at which you can field Vaan, Sky Pirates will be favored vs just about everything else on average draws. I have a lot of experience playing Sky Pirates at this point and wrote a little bit about how to interact with them near the beginning of the set. There have been countless testing sessions and I have thought about it a lot since. The decks that look decent against Sky Pirates either do so without consideration to other meta matchups or have Amaterasu in my experience.
With all of that said, it hasn’t quite put up the results I expect in tournaments given their apparent strength. At the risk of firing shots, I believe the deck is really quite difficult to pilot well and I say this with countless blunders under my belt. Sky Pirates are unintuitive and come with a really large margin for error, presenting a rather high skill cap at least in our current metagame. There are complicated decision trees as early as the first turn, depending on your discards, multiple triggers that are easy to miss, multiple ways to use cards and in general peoples inclination is to take actions, where I think the opposite is true for most Sky Pirate turns. If Sky Pirates only take actions when they’re forced to or at the last possible moment, Sky Pirates are much better off overall and there are fewer and fewer outs to stop them from running away with the game when their actions aren’t being forced.
If I were to pin the problem on any single card it would be Kytes, but there’s a lot of nuance here and it only works as a full package. First and foremost Kytes says that a whole heap of strategies don’t get to compete with Sky Pirates ever, in particular any that relies on a board wipe, because at minimum Kytes says you take 2 damage after your board wipe. So unless you have something to back up your sweeps, Kytes can just make you take 6 damage by existing in the opposing deck over the course of a game. If Y’shtola cost 1CP, could be played from the deck or break zone and did so when she was used, that would be Kytes in the context of Sky Pirates vs sweeps. That aside, in the early parts of the game where every resource counts, Kytes effortlessly fits into your curve and is very difficult to avoid, no matter what he does you will at the very least go positive in CP by simply playing the card.
For my money, Samurais are the easiest deck to do well with. With that in mind and expecting it a lot in the high tables for our upcoming regionals, I had it built to help people test. While there definitely was a pretty large period of time where it was an unga bunga turn 1 Tenzen deck (and don’t get me wrong, it still can be if people aren’t prepared). Both the additions of new Samurais and Summons add a lot of nuance and decisions for the deck which I didn’t feel were there in earlier Samurai sets. There are still some compromises in building the deck, keeping a healthy count of Samurais in deck means you still slot some rubbish cards like Hien and Iroha.
On the whole I believe Samurais have the healthiest matchup into Sky Pirates while still maintaining a good spread of matchups across the field. That isn’t to say that I think that Samurais are the deck you take to beat Sky Pirates, I mean that they go pretty even depending on how both decks are drawing on the day. Samurais is a deck you should be prepared to face because it is very popular, especially for those returning to competitive play after a couple of years without it.
The nature of the deck also leads to a small forward count which leaves you struggling against mill unless you make compromises to go deep on haste forwards. Truthfully, I don’t really consider mill a real deck, but it’s important to keep in mind depending on your local scene. I do however think it does a good job of highlighting a weak point for Samurais, which is if Tenzen is answered in a timely fashion with a summon, or if you know your removal can’t be countered with Amaterasu, answering Tenzen without leaving yourself vulnerable to Cyan sweeps should give you a healthy win rate against Samurais as their power off the top of the deck is relatively poor.
On the day of our first regional, given how it had been performing and not really wanting to subject myself to analysis paralysis as we had a regional the following day as well, I ran with it and secured an invite. There’s a number of slots to play around with so on the day I slotted Braska in to try it out (tip don’t play Braska in mono fire, your summons are better to play). I also spent my entire time playing Samurais without a sweep in the deck and didn’t miss it in any game, so do what you will with that info but I can’t fault you for playing Susano.
Avalanche is another unintuitive deck on the surface, but in a much different way than Sky Pirates, thankfully this one is much more straightforward to play. So much of how Avalanche cards read suggests that you want to be on at least 2 Earth and 1 Fire backup. However they see the most success from firing off of a single backup, applying pressure and recouping resources with Avalanche party swings, even at the cost of perceived inefficiency. This could be a symptom of a faster game, but I think it’s important to note here that every Avalanche party swing with Biggs or Jessie on board is roughly equivalent to 2 backups for that turn or sometimes better in the case of Jessie.
Avalanche is all-in on must answer cards and typically has to draw well to do well, they benefit a lot from Titan and typically find themselves running very few answers themselves short of Amaterasu. This kind of approach does very well against typical deck building but I don’t expect them to hold up well going forward without additions. I would encourage you to think a bit more about playing more answers if you are struggling against Avalanche, in particular if you’re struggling when they’re not drawing well.
Palom and Porom
The notorious twins have found a healthy pairing in this set, one that is demanding answers every turn which they are able to and as early as the first. They have had a popular showing in this set and can perform to a reasonable level. When you’re firing on all cylinders and can present the other twin on each of your turns, they quickly threaten to run away with the game. With a lot of games under our belts and as the metagame has developed, the lack of consistency has started to show. Decks have adjusted to run more answers and your mileage may vary, but they haven’t been able to stand up to Sky Pirates and Samurais reliably in my testing with them.
In my original article covering Sky Pirates I alluded to a Rydia, Palom and Porom deck which a lot of us have since given up on. I think the disconnect for the deck aside from being a 3 element mess, is that it’s trying to do two things at once. One being Palom and Porom. The other being Rydia, Amaterasu and other summons by extension. On the surface they have synergy by their category, however the consistency hit with them together across 3 elements is too much for two independent things that already struggle with consistency individually. It’s a tricky deck because when the deck high rolls and does well, it doesn’t feel like it can lose and does so very convincingly, but that is in the small minority.
Summons and why we should be approaching them differently in Crystal Dominion and onward
Personally I haven’t liked slotting or playing most of the summons in this game as they’re quite expensive, strictly reactive and don’t advance your board state. As much as I like interaction and enjoy getting an edge with the stack and playing chicken (Hecatoncheir being my favourite, not necessarily good summon). The situational nature and cost associated with them have historically put me in positions where I dead draw more often and they tend to put me behind in CP when I play them.
There are however times where a lot of different summons go from being a luxury to a necessity, sometimes it’s to cover a weakness a deck has (like Ranperre decks running Exodus), other times it’s to advance a decks strategy (Locke/Bismarck/Leviathan and Chocobo), very rarely they’re just rock solid like Amaterasu, Brynhildr and Bahamut. But these are the exceptions, the majority of summons have historically sucked or are a situational luxury, in the past I would always argue that slot is better off as a proactive play or reactive forward that advances your own board state.
My favorite example is Mist Dragon, which frankly isn’t a good card – now bare with me – because the effect is so unique, different metagames make it necessary. When Ritz was the deck to beat, Mist dragon was great at combating it, then as Ritz fell off, so too did Mist Dragon. Once Fenrir had good targets in Sophie and friends, Mist Dragon quickly became necessary again. Following that, a meta revolving around decks with Sterne and Macherie, it remained necessary for different reasons. Now it sits in the luxury spot, or frankly sucks. I’ve seen far too many dead draws use Mist Dragon to draw a card in this set, if you’re doing that more often than not, at least some of the Mist Dragon slots in your deck need to be reconsidered, because there isn’t much that demands you play Mist Dragon aside from Amaterasu and Balthier right now and cycling a Mist Dragon when you’re dead drawing very often means the difference between victory and defeat.
Now I want to talk a little bit about removal summons, and I think Ice does a good job of highlighting this issue. If you’ve found yourself wondering why Ice still can’t compete with the continued support it’s getting in solid cards (Physallis, Kam’lanaut, Orphan etc), it is in large part due to the removal in ice being conditional at least one way, then to add insult to injury the dull effects on your Ice cards are priced too expensively. So not only are passive threats not opting in to dull themselves for your removal pieces, you need some combination of 2 cards to remove a single card in a timely fashion. Ice cards that discard on entry look really awful in the face of an opposing Tenzen, Lakshmi or Robel Akbel generating a card every turn just by not dulling themselves. This leaves Ice in a very precarious position, where their only recourse is to go under the opponents setup which they aren’t particularly good at it. The solid cards they’ve been getting in recent sets are asking for setup and time that ice doesn’t have in a world where everyone is playing threats early and often.
Now what is all of that to say? Despite my previous convictions about summons, if I can get away with it I would rather not play too many removal summons, historically all they have done is remove a forward that already got value on play for damage tempo right now. On the other hand however I’ve let far too many threats live a turn or two more than I ever should this set and it has lost me a lot of games very quickly. With the sheer density of threats across the meta this set it’s very difficult to be holding forwards that cover all of the answers I need in time, despite my preconceived ideas and past experience, I think it’s time to start running more removal summons than I’m comfortable with. Now I’m advocating that they’re finally necessary in most decks, most of the time.
As an example let’s take a look at Alexander. Fairly straightforward 4CP for a break with an almost negligible condition. Historically this was a tech choice, one that started seeing play in Wind decks when Tenzen was first released. For a long time nothing good truly cost 4CP, it was next to impossible for Alexander to look good against many prior competitive cards at face value. However, if my opponent just played something like Bismarck, Tenzen or Shinryu and I don’t have a plan to kill them in the following turns with my own value forward, not only do those cards threaten to run away with the game very quickly, Alexander represents an investment, or rather a denial of future resources while also denying tempo. If we assume I wouldn’t otherwise kill the opposing forward that generates a card per turn for the next turn or two. Alexander, instead of looking like a 4CP card that reads break something of similar cost that already got value on play, represents a 0cp break (or better in the case of something like Bismarck) in terms of what it denies the opponent while also keeping you in the game.
For me at least, this set has shifted my perspective on summons in particular quite a lot and if I want to continue to do well I know that I can’t get away with playing as I have done in the past, the way I build needs to change because there are too many threats that put me in bad positions in our current metagame if I take the same approach I’ve grown used to.
So, what are the threats I’m talking about?
I’ve gone ahead and included potential threats that had traction in recent sets as well to paint a bigger picture of ones that may crop up again in the future or your local scene. Note that overall Lightning is relatively weak in this department and I think this speaks a lot to the issues there. While Wind doesn’t have a large selection, it has two of the best generic ones in Bismarck and Rosa. Water has seen an incredible mass of additions here in recent sets.
As you can see it is a really broad range of characters that you probably want to be answering, so it isn’t really a one size fits all kind of situation. Targeting high (4CP+ 8k+) and low (2CP 5k) feel like where you want to be at least in Crystal Dominion but very often it will be a meta call and depending on your current decks matchups. What I’m advocating for is for you to find space for more removal based summons in your current decks.
I hope I was able to provide some insight about my experience with Crystal Dominion and that whether or not you agree with my take on the metagame or matchups, I was able to provide some new ideas to consider. There is still a lot I would like to talk about, it’s difficult to cover everything when it comes to a broad metagame, the length of this article is already too long for my liking!
Until next time.