This upcoming weekend in Castel San Pietro Terme, Italy we will be seeing the very first Archon vault tour since the release of Age of Ascension. For the first time, we will get to see the best of the best from CotA and AoA going head-to-head and finally start seeing answers to one of the biggest questions players have asked since the release of the new set: what’s the new “best deck”? Far be it from me to try and give any sort of definitive answer to this question, rather, I want to spend the next few weeks talking about a few of the deck archetypes you should expect to see in the next few vault tours: what they look like, how they’re played, and what you can do to respond. To start us off, I’m going to talk about a deck archetype that it seems most people have either never heard of or are very concerned about.
Heart of the Forest
This deck is reliant on a new artifact in Untamed that caused quite a stir when it was first spoiled due to its potential to be extremely oppressive in certain contexts.
Once Heart of the Forest is on the board, no player can forge a key if they’re already ahead on keys. This means that if a player is sitting at one key, their opponent literally cannot win the game unless they have some answer to the artifact (more on what those answers could be later).
Here’s how the deck works: get Heart of the Forest on the board and whatever you do, DO NOT FORGE YOUR SECOND KEY. Once you’ve done that, there are a few different ways you can go about trying to win the game. This is almost certainly going to require having a key cheat available to you so that you can forge your second key normally at the beginning of your turn and then forge the third out of sequence during that same turn. Thankfully, AoA has a lot of ways to do this: Key Charge, Chota Hazri, Key Abduction, Might Makes Right, [REDACTED], Epic Quest, or even Key of Darkness (note Nightforge does not work for this because it specifies you cannot use it if you already forged a key at the beginning of the turn). Each of these options has its own pros and cons.
Key Charge: Big plus for being the only key cheat option at common and being in Untamed, meaning you’re much more likely to actually get this card with Heart of the Forest than any of the other options. The difficulty with Key Charge is that it requires some pretty major aember generation. You have to get enough aember to forge your second key at the beginning of the turn with enough leftover that you can get up to seven (or in many cases, more) to use key charge in one turn. With significantly less aember generation in Untamed in AoA, this is definitely a challenge for many decks.
Chota Hazri: Much like Key Charge, being in Untamed makes it much more likely to come with a Heart of the Forest but it requires pretty significant aember generation. Being a creature has the benefit of giving you an aember from Full Moon and the possibility to be recurred with Regrowth.
Key Abduction: If set up correctly, this can be a free key, and who doesn’t like those? In AoA we’re given a lot more opportunity to use the archive and especially with the recent Archimedes ruling (that is, that a board wipe will archive every creature but Archimedes himself), it seems easier than ever to build up a huge archive to win the game with this.
Might Makes Right: Any option that allows you to forge a key without needing any aember is going to be great with Heart of the Forest and with some of the bigger creatures and power engines in Untamed like Knoxx, Grovekeeper, and Panpaca, Anga, it typically won’t prove too difficult to get to 25 power total. However, it is a rare that is not in Untamed, so the odds of pulling a deck with both this and Heart of the Forest in it are pretty slim (at the time of writing, there are only 48 registered with this combo on decksofkeyforge.com).
[REDACTED]: This is my favorite option for out-of-sequence forging with Heart of the Forest. Since HotF gives you all the time in the world (at least until time in the round), the slowness of [REDACTED] is no problem. You can even feel comfortable just declaring logos three turns in a row to set yourself up so that all you have to do to win is forge your second key normally and then declare logos on your next turn. While you do have to watch out for artifact removal here, it’s likely that if your opponent draws it, HotF is going to be a bigger target than this (though a bounce or steal is an issue with this one). This combo also notably has the same issue as Might Makes Right as far as rarity is concerned (only 63 registered at the time of writing).
Epic Quest: As with Key Abduction, Might Makes Right, and [REDACTED], the best kind of keys are free keys. In a lot of decks Epic Quest isn’t a great trade-off since it relies on weakening your own board and likely still having to wait a number of turns to collect enough Sanctum cards to pull it off. With HotF, however, you don’t need to worry about maintaining a strong board presence; you are free to take a few turns to collect enough sanctum cards to trigger this effect with little to no consequence. But as with the previous two options, a deck with this combo is also quite rare to pull (only 63 registered).
So now that you know how a Heart of the Forest deck plans to win, what can you do to defeat it? Perhaps the most obvious counter is to make sure you’re carrying artifact control. But with this particular artifact, not just any artifact control will do. Since it doesn’t have a sacrifice effect and applies to both players regardless of who controls it, any abilities that use, bounce, or steal the artifact aren’t going to make a dent (that is unless you have your own key cheat that can be played after bouncing HotF). This leaves you with only cards that can destroy the artifact or put it on top of your opponent’s deck. These are, in no particular order: Poltergeist, EMP Blast, Destroy Them All, Neutron Shark, Strange Gizmo (but only if you can still forge a key), Rustgnawer, Crazy Killing Machine, Barehanded, and Gorm of Omm.
While this seems like a decent number of options, out of these nine only one of them, Rustgnawer, is a common and it is arguably the least reliable among them. Chances are, if you are only looking to bring decks with one or more of these cards, your options are going to be pretty limited. Thankfully, there are a number of other ways you can play around Heart of the Forest. Here are a few I’ve come up with.
Control the Weak: Unsurprisingly, the ability to choose which house your opponent plays on their next turn is still incredibly powerful. For a Heart of the Forest deck to win, in most cases at least, the player will have to forge their second key during their normal forge a key step, presenting check at the end of the previous turn and giving you a turn to respond. If you can force them to play a house in which they do not have a key cheat on the following turn, you can prevent them from forging their third key, winning the game when turn passes back to you as long as they don’t also have a way to stop you from forging in the house you chose.
Restringuntus/Tezmal: While not as powerful as Control the Weak, preventing your opponent from playing the house with their key cheat can win you the game. With two houses still available to them, however, there’s a higher likelihood they will have a way to also stop you from forging, buying themselves an additional turn. Tezmal in particular also requires you get it on the board prior to your opponent forging their second key, allowing them to remove it before making their move to forge their second key
Binate Rupture: Forcing your opponent to forge their second key is a really interesting way to get around Heart of the Forest and perhaps no card can do this better than Binate Rupture. If your opponent knows that their aember could be doubled at any time, they are forced to stay under three aember, restricting them from playing a lot of action cards and using reap effects unless they are prepared to forge their third key. This pairs very nicely with any cards that can give your opponent aember like A Fair Game, Fertility Chant, or…
Tezmal/Neffru/Soul Snatcher: In the same vein as Binate Rupture, all of these cards let you give your opponent aember by destroying either their creatures or yours. Forcing them to forge their second key when they don’t have the archive, hand, or [REDACTED] counters to forge their third key yet will frequently mean a loss for HotF decks.
Scrambler Storm: While it doesn’t stop every option a Heart of the Forest deck could use to win, Scrambler Storm outright prevents Key Charge, Key Abduction, and Might Makes Right; and throws a wrench into Chota Hazri and Epic Quest, as gaining enough aember to forge or playing seven sanctum cards without playing any actions will typically prove difficult. Unfortunately, the [REDACTED] version couldn’t care less if you have a Scrambler Storm on hand.
Lifeward: A somewhat weaker answer in the same vein as Scrambler Storm. This will prevent Chota Hazri and certainly cause problems for Epic Quest and Might Makes Right, but similarly cannot stop a [REDACTED] from going off and can still be thwarted by a well-planned Key Abduction or a Key Charge that generates aember through actions and reaping.
Dysania: While it’s not true of every Heart of the Forest deck, many are going to rely on their archive to put together the right cards to forge their third key. Against that strategy, a well-timed Dysania can set them back many turns by discarding the entire archive they’ve spent most of the game building. Notably, I would be wary of waiting to play Dysania until your opponent presents check for their second key as (if they have the foresight to) they may pick up their archive on that turn rather than on the turn they actually plan to forge the third key. Unfortunately, this once again cannot stop the [REDACTED] version.
Mimicry: Obviously this is reliant on what is in your opponent’s deck, but there is a chance that they have cards that would work well to counter their own plans. If you have mimicry, your opponent can no longer use or discard any of the action cards that can destroy artifacts or a number of the cards listed above. If they have two or three of these, their hand becomes very clogged up, slowing them significantly and potentially taking the game to time, at which you would win on turns by presumably having more keys and aember.
I’m sure there are a handful of other answers I’m not thinking of, but you get the point. Lacking artifact destruction doesn’t have to be a death sentence against this deck. If all else fails, don’t forget that you can always win by being ahead when the match goes to time. In many matchups, the only way to stop a Heart of the Forest deck is to keep them off of their second key, so don’t be afraid to be really aggressive about aember control if that is the case, even if it means you can never forge your third key. A win is a win whether the match was over in 10 minutes or if you had to go all the way to time to win on turns.
There’s been a lot of talk about this deck at my LGS and I’ll be interested to see if it has a decent showing in Italy this weekend. If it does, I’ll be even more interested to see how players respond in their deck selections for the following vault tours in Nürnberg, Indianapolis, Krakow, and Madrid. I’ll be back next week with another deck archetype to be on the lookout for. Until then, happy forging!