Welcome back to Meta Watch, where each week we discuss a different deck archetype that is driving the competitive metagame. Last week we covered Heart of the Forest, a very particular kind of deck that only just appeared with the release of the new set (i.e., the printing of the card Heart of the Forest) and perhaps for that reason didn’t seem to make much of a splash at the Vault Tour in Italy this past weekend. So, for this week, I want to consider a vaguer category of deck that has been the topic of a lot of discussion since the first days of Keyforge and was certainly a huge presence this past weekend.
This type of deck has been called many different things: rush, burst, racing, etc. But all these terms are getting at the same thing: this deck wants to go fast. Beyond that, there are lot of different ideas about there about what does and does not count as a rush deck so for the purposes of this article, we’ll mostly think about rush as a playstyle rather than an inherent property of a deck.
What is Rush?
The rush strategy is based all around “tempo”, a term often used TCGs to refer to the control and pacing of the match. Essentially, controlling the tempo is all about being the player who is making moves that your opponent is forced to respond to. Playing cards like Ember Imp or Witch of Eye that must be removed as soon as possible often forces an opponent to shift their game plan away from the most efficient play, reducing their aember generation and the number of cards played and subsequently drawn. Rush decks take control of the tempo by consistently threatening keys, forcing opponents to respond with some form of aember control or let a key be forged. The most successful rush decks typically generate their aember primarily from play effects, allowing them to consistently threaten keys on most turns without relying on creatures remaining on the board. If everything goes according to plan, rush decks hope to generate all the aember they need to win the game before their opponent can get to most of the answers they may have in their deck. This deck from the top 4 of the Vault Tour in Italy this past weekend is a perfect example of this:
Right off the bat this deck has 20 bonus aember printed on the cards, a ludicrous amount that doesn’t even take into account potential aember gain from the two Shoolers, The Terror, Nerve Blast, or Hunting Witch. But that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the potential aember generation in this deck. With 2 copies of Nature’s Call, the 4 copies of Dust Pixie and the Hunting Witch become far more valuable due to the potential to pick up and replay creatures to double those aember bonuses. To generate all of this aember, however, this deck sacrifices board control. With no board wipes or really any unconditional creature destruction beyond Oubliette, this deck has to bank on closing out the game before an opponent can build up a wide board that could control the game and stop them from forging.
The potential to play a deck with a rush strategy isn’t always this easy to see, however. In a chainbound sealed event a couple weeks ago, I opened a deck that didn’t contain many cards I would typically think of as rush cards, but still played best with a rush strategy based solely on its aember generation.
The cards in this deck don’t’ scream “rush”. Sigil of Brotherhood and The Grey Rider are pretty board focused and most of the Brobnar house is intended to encourage fighting. But if you look at the numbers, it has an expected aember score of 30, well above average, especially for AoA decks. While it felt counterintuitive at first, the way to win with this deck was not to make the best use of board-focused cards like Sigil of Brotherhood and Drummernaut, but rather to just play as much as I could every turn and hope I could get to 3 keys before my opponent could collect the cards they needed to stop me. Especially in the AoA sealed meta where aember control is relatively low, be on the lookout for decks that may play best with this strategy, even if the card effects don’t seem to be focused on aember generation.
How to Beat It
First, the bad news. With a lot of rush decks, there are certain combination of cards they can draw that you simply cannot beat. As a very extreme example, if an opponent begins the game with these six cards: Full Moon, 2x Dust Pixie, Chota Hazri, 2x Nature’s Call, they can forge all 3 keys on their first turn and win the game immediately without giving you any chance to respond. The likelihood of this specific combo happening is exceedingly rare, but it’s not uncommon that a rush deck will be able to generate 18+ aember by turn 3 if they just get the right combo of cards. If they do this and you don’t draw into a card to answer it in your first few draws, you’re toast. That said, if you do get a chance to actually play the game, there are a few different strategies you can employ to take down a rush deck.
Aember Control: The most obvious way to defeat a rush deck is to pack a lot of aember control, and not just in big answers like Too Much to Protect or Effervescent Principle. It’s important that you have consistent, immediate aember control with cards like Bumpsy, Routine Job, and Shaffles so that you don’t have to waste a card with huge potential like Doorstep to Heaven when your opponent threatens a key with only six or seven aember. While it’s often only temporary, capture can also work quite well against rush decks since they are often lacking in board control and thus may have a hard time retrieving captured aember. With the recent change to Bait and Switch, you are probably less likely to have multiple big answers to opponents who stockpile huge amounts of aember, meaning you have to be more careful with how you use the answers you do have. Especially with Too Much Protect, keep in mind the huge swing that card might create when you are weighing whether it’s worth holding onto. Using it to steal five or six aember rather than one or two is worth slowing yourself down a bit by holding onto it while you force your opponent to overextend.
Increase Key Cost: One of the best ways to consistently prevent your rush opponent from controlling tempo by threatening keys is to increase the cost of keys and thankfully, AoA has given us a bunch of new cards that do this quite well. Artifacts like Grump Buggy, Proclamation 346E, and Lash of Broken Dreams can be devastating for rush decks, especially when combined with creatures like Angwish, Murmook, Nyzyk Resonator, or the upgrade Jammer Pack. By making keys consistently cost 8+ aember, you are forcing your rush opponent to generate significantly more aember to threaten keys and to ultimately forge all three. If the cost of keys has been increased to 10, even the strongest rush deck will struggle to generate 30 aember to get all three. Once your rush opponent is no longer threatening keys every turn, you are free to set up aember control engines like Groke and Sequis that can be difficult to make good use of otherwise. This strategy also makes your big answers like Too Much to Protect and Doorstep to Heaven far more effective, as your opponent is forced to overextend into them to even have a chance at forging keys.
Player Control: While not as reliable as consistent aember control or increasing key cost, controlling the player can be effective in slowing down rush decks just enough to slip past the finish line before them. Cards like Ember Imp, Restringuntus, Tezmal, and especially Control the Weak can prevent rush decks from making their most efficient plays by locking them out of the house where they would do so (usually Untamed) or by forcing them to take a turn to respond. While a lot of decks aren’t too worried about playing one or two inefficient turns to answer board threats or due to Control the Weak, rush decks are typically trying to close out games well before turn 10, meaning every single turn is absolutely critical. Discard effects like Subtle Maul and Deep Probe can also get rid of cards like Full Moon, Dust Pixie, and Hunting Witch which can be devastating for rush decks. If you are going this route, just make sure you still have a plan to actually win the game. All the control in the world won’t help you if you still can’t generate aember and forge keys before your opponent does.
Outrush: You know what they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. While it might not be a sign of the healthiest metagame, one of the best ways to beat a rush deck is to simply rush faster. Consider an opponent playing a deck that can generate aember like nobody’s business but doesn’t have much by way of aember or board control. If you can steal, say, 6 of that aember over the course of the game, suddenly they have to generate a total of 24 to win, while you only have to generate 12 outside of stealing. Bringing a bit of player control acts the same way, if you can buy yourself a couple of extra turns while trying to rush to the finish line yourself, you may be able to squeak past a deck with higher aember generation. If you find a deck that can steal a good chunk or control your opponent to slow them down while still generating plenty of aember itself, it may be a strong answer to even the fastest rush decks out there.
Considering three of the top four decks in Italy this past weekend were unequivocally rush decks (although Honk the Beneficially Topaz earns style points for doing so without Untamed), it doesn’t look like this deck archetype is going away any time soon. It’ll be interesting to see where this rush arms race ends up. Will triple Hunting Witch become the new must-play deck? Italy already had two quadruple Dust Pixie decks in the top four, how long until the 5x Dust Pixie decks start appearing? (according to DoK there are only three of these in the world, so maybe we don’t need to worry about that.) With three weeks until the next Vault Tour in Nürnburg and five weeks until the Indianapolis Vault Tour (where I myself will be playing), there is still plenty of time for the competitive metagame to adapt and plenty more deck archetypes to consider. See you again next week. Until then, happy forging!