Hello all, welcome to The Breakdown! This week, we are going to analyze Death.
We’re going to take a moment to look at each of the mechanics present in the cards and break them down into Major and Minor categories. We’ll then talk about the (many) Tribes that Death contains and then we’ll tie it all together to see what synergies the undead hordes have for us.
Without further ado, let’s break down the spoopy legions of Death!
These are mechanics that are represented by a substantial number of cards and have well-defined synergies present within the Grand Alliance. These are things you can build around.
The first Major Mechanic we’ll talk about is the keyworded Stacking. Shared with Destruction, this keyword basically allows you to circumvent the rules requiring the lane to be empty before playing a Unit on it (assuming the lane is occupied by another Unit, not a Spell), as long as the Unit you are Deploying on is another Stacker. By being able to “pile-on” your Units quickly in a single lane, you are able to accelerate Unit-heavy Quests like Skeleton Champion a lot faster than otherwise and maintain tempo.
As for the Stacking Units themselves, Death has 4 total Units that allow Stacking. 3 of the 4 cards are offensive in nature, pushing this archetype to a more aggressive place with Skeletal Legion, Skeleton Warrior and Grimghast Reapers. Skeletal Legion can help protect his stack when he’s on top but makes a fine base Unit for a Stack, as their damage doesn’t change. Grimghast Reapers is very end-loaded, dealing a whopping 4 + Support (the number of cards under him, to a maximum of 2) value on its 4th corner, making it a high risk for removal but packing a wallop if it manages to make it there. Skeleton Warrior is a pretty mediocre Unit…unless it gets Support 2, in which case
The one defensive Unit, Crypt Shield Skeletons, is quite good with a base value of 1 that increases with Support. The ability to Stack on another Unit has more value on a defensive Unit because, unlike offensive Units, they don’t actively advance the game state on their own so timing them properly (and not having to worry about clogged lanes) is a boon.
Unfortunately for now, this archetype in Death is a little under-served at only 4 Units (and nothing that specifically cares about Stacking in Death) so be on the lookout for this Mechanic to get a bit of love come Onslaught.
UPDATE (2019/02/05): Stacking Units are now able to only Stack on top of *other* Stacking Units, similar to the tests run during Season 1.
Shocking to precisely no one, the Grand Alliance called Death is really, really good at Removing things. Outside of the obvious Devour, you have Units (Charging Black Knight and Frenzied Vargheist) and Spells (Soul Feast and Born from Blood) that remove Units. You also have Champions like Bloody Vampire Queen and Neferata, Mortarch of Blood who benefit directly from removing Units (amongst others). You even have an option for Removing Spells with Shrieking Terrorgheist.
Along with the ability to outright Remove Units, Death has several options for making Units Dormant. Fearsome Crypt Flayer locks down his lane for 2 turns while dealing damage and Terrify can potentially lock down 2 lanes for 2 turns but the grand-daddy of the them all is Supernatural Horror. This one Blessing locks down every Unit an opponent controls for 3 turns, giving you plenty of time to capitalize and try to end the game (or Remove them all safely with the options above!)
With these tools and generic damage reduction Units and Spells, you have an Alliance with a heavy emphasis on controlling when and where an opponent can play.
Continuing the controlling-trend is Life Gain. The most basic of which, Unholy Vitality, brings a very respectable 6 healing over 3 corners, cancelling out most aggressive Units.Feasting Vargheist is a powerhouse card, gaining you a Life immediately the turn you play it and the next, followed by drawing 2 cards, providing some nice card advantage.
There are also a variety of “Drain”-style effects, ones that deal damage and gain you Life back. Carrion Feast is a total 14 point Life-swing, and Unhallowed Mortis Engine is a one-time drain for 3 (for a total of 6 point Life-swing). Freaking Crypt Horror is also a slow but potent 6 point Life-swing over 4 corners, and conveniently completes 3 of the 4 corners of Crypt Haunter Courtier by itself.
There is also incidental Life gain on cards like Call of the Grave and Spirit Torment which all help to top you up and grind out your opponent. Overall, along with the above-mentioned Removal/Board Control, helps Death gain an advantage over long games.
The last Major Mechanic I want to go over is the preponderance of effects that let you repeatedly use your resources. Along with the side effect of Devour and Call the Grave which put cards back into your Deck for you to redraw, Death is able to bring Units back from the Discard pile to either your Hand or even directly onto a Lane.
For cards that bring Units back from the Discard pile to Hand, Nagash, Supreme Lord of the Undead is the most impactful, with a Once Per Game Heroic Act that brings back up to 4 Risen Units. In the late game basically just reads “Draw 4 cards.” Armies of the Dead is a Blessing equivalent, broadening its typing to bring back Risen or Spirits but providing a bonus Action to deploy your new (old?) toys. Bloody Vampire Queen lets Vampires get in on the Recursion goodness as well with the help of Removal..
As for bringing Units directly into play we have Commanding The Dead as a plain-and-simple resurrection spell. Unholy Power provides a repeatable version of the effect. Grave Call is a spell version that (very slowly) gets back 2 Units, and Neferata, Mortarch of Blood will bring back a Unit on the back of a piece of Removal.
Overall, Recursion is a huge part of what makes Death “tick.” It helps give Death repeatable threats that let it go long in control matchups and provides a potential “toolbox” playstyle if future sets provide tools to get Units from your Deck into the Discard Pile (looking at you, Fuel the Gravetide!)
These mechanics make up a smaller amount of the total cards in Death, but they clearly represent a thematic trend and can be built upon.
A small but powerful bit of disruption, there are several cards that help take away your opponent’s options by picking apart their Hand. Frightful Touch and Turmoil of Souls deal damage and attempt to strip 2 cards from your opponent’s Hand, while Frightful Strike jumps through a few hoops to try and remove another card. Lastly, Morbid Terror gives you 3 chances to take tools away from your opponent as you play out Units to advance your game plan.
While making your opponent discard cards won’t directly win you the game, it can disrupt their plans long enough to let you take over the game.
Ability Buffing/Death Burn
Another narrow mechanic that actually has a lot going for it. Death, while being known for its more controlling mechanical focus, can actually go for a more direct-damage route. The most popular card for this is Abhorrent Ghoul King, powering up adjacent Mordant Champions’ Abilities. The Royal Hunt and Cloak of Mists and Shadows are powerful payoff cards that can let you close out a game quickly under the right circumstances.
Coupled with Cursed Strike and Frightful Strike, you can make quick work of 30 Health 4-5 damage at a time.
In a complete 180° from Chaos, Death is chock-full of Tribal goodness. All your favourite Hallowe’en monsters combine to make up the hordes of the Undead.
Risen (and Spirits)
These 2 Tribes (well, 1 and a half right now) have a few commonalities. Firstly, they both share Stacking as a keyworded mechanic. Secondly, they both attempt to provide some form of “Removal protection” between Ethereal Horde’s “bounce back to hand” effect and Skeletal Legion’s “prevent Removal with Support 2″ and Skeletal Icon Bearer actively prevents Removal on adjacent Units.
Aside from that, Risen are a bit more fleshed out (ironically) and thus are more spread out in what they can do. There are a few defensive Units in the form of Crypt Shield Black Knight and Crypt Shield Skeletons, heavy hitters in Zombie Dragon and Infected Terrorgheist and even a couple utility Units in Shrieking Terrorgheist and Charging Black Knight for Removal to go with the Stackers.
Risen Champions are pretty cookie cutter with Skeleton Champion being the Risen-equivalent of Orruk Boss, Chaos Champion etc. Barrows Wight King is an easy Champion to quest on, assuming you invest heavily into Risen. Hell Knight deserves special mention as a cheaply-costed Champion with a relevant effect, much like Knight-Heraldor out of Order and combos nicely with Charging Black Knight and the above-mentioned heavy hitters.
Funny enough, Spirits actually has more Champion support than it has actual Units! Keldrek, The Knight of Shrouds hints at a Rotation Manipulation subtheme, while Spirit Torment and Reaping Cairn Wraith have synergies with the Removal/Controlling themes in Death. Onslaught looks to be fleshing out this archetype a ton, considering the poster child for this particular set is Olyander (a Spirit) so hopefully this Tribe will see some play soon.
Another Tribe with more Champions than it has Units! Vampires are kind of all over the place right now as they, too, suffer from the card pool being a bit shallow right now. Murderous Vargheist is a simple, but very solid, damage dealer that would fit in a more aggressive deck. On the other hand, I’ve already sang the praises of Feasting Vargheist for his Life-gaining, card-drawing ways which screams a more controlling deck. Finally, there is Frenzied Vargheist which hits sort of a middle ground, being a quickly rotating Unit who Removes something and even grants a bonus Action if it succeeds in killing something.
Frenzied is probably the best “supported” of the Units as it combos nicely with Bloody Vampire Queen (and less nicely with Neferata, due to a weird rules interaction that prevents the damage and bonus Action from triggering due to the replacement effect happening in between), and helps deal with the abundance of Removal corners on Vampire Champions.
The most interesting thing with Vampire Champions, I feel, is the fact that they are all Warrior/Wizards. This cements Death as probably the best (or at least, most flexible) Spellcasters in the game. Born from Blood, Soul Feast and Terrify just seal the deal on their Wizardly superiority.
As new sets come out, be on the lookout for more Vampire Units that fill out some of the major themes. Personally, I expect they will continue along an aggro/Board Control trajectory.
This faction mirrors Vampires pretty well, though is a bit more focused than the Vamps. All our Mordant Units deal damage, have a higher number of corners (3-4) and 2 of the 3 (Freakish Crypt Horror and Fearsome Crypt Flayer) mesh perfectly into our Major Mechanical themes (Life Gain and Board Control, respectively).
The Champions we have to pair with them are fairly bog standard. Crypt Haunter Courtier deserves special mention as it hits on our Major Mechanical theme of Life Gain, and can have 3 of it’s 4 corners rotated by a single Freakish Crypt Horror. Crypt Infernal Courtier is…okay, a bit slow with 3 Units back-to-back but not particularly impressive (and doesn’t care about Mordants at all). Varghulf Courtier synergizes with spells, the primary spell probably being Black Hunger to go with your Mordant beaters.
Special mention should also go to The Royal Hunt, which cares about a very specific set of conditions, including having a Mordant Champion present.
Lastly, Abhorrant Ghoul King might as well be an honorary Mordant despite being a Vampire as it:
- Encourages us to use Mordant Champions directly.
- Pushes the “Death Burn” archetype, which centers around Mordant Champions
- Requires a total of 3 Mordant Units in order to flip.
Frankly, it is more Mordant than Crypt Infernal Courtier is in everything but Tag.
Themes and Synergies
Before we wrap up, let’s look at everything we’ve just analyzed and see how it all fits together for when YOU go to build a deck.
Classic Control (Board Control + Hand Control)
This archetype is basically some combination of controlling aspects, mixed with some form of win condition. Varieties include Mill (a version of the deck that wins by running the opponent out of cards to draw) and a more “Mid-Range” style where you still go for a Damage-based win but heavily emphasize Board Control elements mixed with Life-gain to grind your opponent out.
Death Burn (Mordant + Ability Buffing)
This version of the deck leverages Abhorrant Ghoul King (or Kings), cards like Cursed Strike, Frightening Strike and Opportunity Strike in order to quickly deal direct damage to the opponent with Abilities (which are harder to counter than traditional Units and Spells) while playing out Mordant Units to help push through damage and heal up and slow down the board. Sometimes coupled with a few Control-oriented spells in order to slow down the opponent (courtesy of the King), this plays very differently from the more Controlling-style of decks that Death tends towards.
After analyzing Death, there are a few conclusions we can come to:
- Death wants to grind. Outside of Death Burn, many of Death’s greatest assets center around making the game go long. Whether it be Recursion to recycle threats or playing out Units that help stall or Remove your opponent’s creatures or Life Gain to ensure you stay topped up, Death has all the tools to play the long game.
- Death has the best Wizards. Mostly on the back of Vampire Champions like Bloody Vampire Queen and Abhorrant Ghoul King, Death loses the least by playing Wizards and gains the most with powerful spells like Frightening Touch and Terrify, while still retaining the ability to play Units pretty much wherever they please.
- Death’s Tribes need filling out. Death has the most Tribes, as well as a couple of random Beasts (Bats) and a Vehicle (Unhallowed Mortis Engine) but has itself stretched rather thin, with Vampires/Mordants and Risen/Spirits having a lot of overlap. As new sets come out, hopefully we’ll see diversification and more playstyles emerge.
Death has a lot of play to it. It runs the gamut from the slowest of the slow decks (Mill and Classic Control) to the fastest Burn deck. There are also skeletons (pun intended) of future archetypes like Reanimator (needs more ways to get stuff in the Discard pile currently) and better support for things like Stacking. Death is probably the most interesting to see how it grows with Onslaught later this week.
Next time on The Breakdown we are finally going to cover the boogey men themselves, the greenskinned menace, Destruction!
Want to try and build your own Death deck? Think you can crack the meta? Try out the Deckbuilder and share it!