This past weekend I finished first out of 268 people and secured a spot in the $100,000 Hex Invitational tournament. Sadly there’s no magic secret I can share (besides a good pool, luck to avoid shard screw as much as possible, and 12 hours of focus) on how I achieved it. I’ve already shared my evaluation of cards (Blood, Diamond, Ruby, Sapphire, Wild, Multi-Shard and Shardless) and archetypes for Set 3 and that’s exactly what I used when building my deck. Instead what I can share are some of my experiences and lessons I learned throughout the grueling 12 round journey on the road to secure my ticket to California. My strategies and philosophies are not the only way but is a way to achieve some success, so hopefully it will prove useful to some.
My Sealed Deck
As you can see below, I chose to play my favorite Set 3 archetype, Ruby Diamond aggro:
Good early troops and Urgnock to put the pressure, plenty of quality removal to clear the path of problematic troops, and some effective finishers to deal the last bits of damage (Sandstone Rumbler, Staggering Blast, and also Spirit Eagle(s) ). There’s some cute synergies in there for example Mistlord and Valiant Escort to bounce come-into-play troops like Sandstone Rumbler and such but honestly I don’t remember getting the chance to do that at all.
The MVPs were clearly Spiritbound Spy and Emberleaf Duelist which when boosted by Urgnock gave me quick starts but also represented threats that remained dangerous throughout the game (would have loved some Deathmask Assailant as well to be honest). Spirit Eagle and Ghost Feather were the other critical pieces of the puzzle. I’ve always thought every Ruby deck should have at least 1 Staggering Blast and the card never disappointed (and was also the card I was most scared to see being played against me). In some games where I had Staggering Blast in my hand, I was able to take my foot off the pedal somewhat, knowing I just needed to set things up right for the victory. The two Flamehand Invoker weren’t that great in my deck as I lacked much evasion, but they commanded removal from my opponents and that was all I needed out of them. I found myself taking out the Creepy Conspirators and siding in a Starshield often, since it gave my opponent’s even fewer outs to survive my early blitz.
Some Lessons Learned
But as you can see, most of the cards I’ve mentioned are straight old commons and so I wouldn’t immediately get discouraged if your pool doesn’t land some shiny legendary or bombastic rares, they are really NOT necessary.
In fact if anything, this reinforced a stance that I’ve always had: a decent aggro decks gives you a much better chance at success than a decent mid-range or control deck in sealed play, especially when it takes place over many rounds. To explain, imagine the limited format as a minefield where a few unanticipated sequences can spell your doom. That could be you not drawing your synergistic cards in the order you need them, your opponent landing that perfect combo or that bomb which you have no answer to, or perhaps just ending up in a totally random top deck war where your fate is determined entirely by Kismet.
Now I’m not saying a good aggro deck allows you to exit this minefield entirely but it does allow you to march forward upon it towards your opponent and forcing them to backpedal. Naturally you’re going to have much better chance avoiding these mines going forward and being in control with your opponent constantly treading backwards playing catch-up.
For example that Smash to the Ground your opponent would normally use to KO you out of nowhere might instead be used as a desperate effort to combat your early aggression and save one of their troops. That Dreamsmoke Mystic that would be problematic in the late game instead now trades with your Scraptooth Cackler straight up. Most of the time you enter the combat phase on your terms: you on the attack with your opponent tapped out and you having complete knowledge whereas your opponent must consider what tricks, if any, you might hold. There’s even two main archetypes in this set (R/W Cressida and B/S Spiders) that get rendered much weaker when you don’t give them time to execute their strategy. Especially in sealed format where your opponent has a slower deck and probably not as much removal as they would wish, while in your deck all your troops are pretty interchangeable and hence you can achieve a level of consistency, an aggressive strategy works out well over the course of 9 rounds. Sure flooding is a bigger threat for aggro decks, but as I said from the start, some luck is required.
My one loss came when I over-committed with a bunch of 1 toughness troops and even asked myself out loud “I can’t afford to play around Staggering Blast, can I?” as I was doing it. I ended up suffering the consequence the very next turn as my whole board was wiped out. Game 2 I got resource and color screwed and my opponent boosted a Chimera Guard Fallen with Invigorating Breeze and Soul of Battle and that was all she wrote. That’s all the room for error that I had for the day.
The “problem” was that this was only the 3rd game of the tournament. I was sitting at 2-1, pretty exhausted already from the previous night where I had to scavenge 7 IQ tickets to even take part in the tournament, and with the knowledge that I would need to go undefeated the next 9 rounds to win it. The tough part of these tournaments for many is that there really is only one winner. A lot of the serious competitive players are not entering these tournaments for booster rewards and since there’s no point system where having a top 16 or top 8 finish really earns you anything, it can really be brutal for the psyche to keep going for hours straight. Not much advice I can give here (besides obviously being well rested) but clearly I’m glad I stuck with it so take from that what you will.
Towards the last few rounds I was trying to console myself that it was no big deal if I didn’t Top 8 and that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to lose since I could finally go to sleep, but deep down I really wanted it. Once I got into the Top 8 then I really didn’t mind what happened afterwards, I’d achieved my personal goal. But at that point I also felt pretty confident as the draft format is my bread and butter where you do have control somewhat of what you and your opponents play.
At this point I didn’t have much of an idea on what my opponent’s tendencies or skill levels were in the draft format. I knew personally I wanted to go either R/D aggro, B/D shift or spirits, or alternatively R/W Cressida. I most definitely did not want to go B/S Spiders (no way I was going to let Spiderling RNG decide my fate) and W/S Wintermoon or Fliers was also not something I felt resilient enough to win 3 rounds.
My first pick was between a Skewer and Ghost Feather. The double Ruby threshold and my great experiences with Ghost Feather in the earlier rounds led me to pick the Diamond card as my first pick. The next few picks consisted of some Ruby cards but it was becoming clear that Diamond was being cut off and a bunch of Wild and Sapphire cards were coming my way. I had picked quite a few aggro Ruby cards and decided to go with Wild as my second color when a late Tempestuous Bladedancer wheeled my way. But as luck would have it, this didn’t end up being your average Ruby Wild ramp + expensive troops deck. Nor was it your mid-range Ruby Wild with Boomsmith or other impactful troops. Instead I was stuck with pretty mediocre cards and had to formulate a winning strategy out of it. What I ended up playing was a weenie aggro deck with, once again, the focus being on early aggression. With my 2 Nibblin Skirmisher (and often times a 3rd after reserves) and 3 Lunge, I guess this was the birth of a new terrible but at the same time wonderful archetype I hope I never have to play again. Still I feel a bit sick now whenever I see Nibblin Skirmisher, knowing I had my placed my destiny in its tiny, Javelin throwing hands.
First round I matched up against a W/S Wintermoon deck and despite drawing horribly and even getting Crocosaured a few times (it doesn’t feel any better in the top 8 of an IQ limited event, I can tell you that), I managed to pull it out. It did feel like the opponent hadn’t drafted quite what he wanted, having to play a Psychic Torment. The second round I played against a very good Ruby Diamond deck, pretty much the deck that I wanted to draft, but somehow edged out the W despite losing one match to a Mistlord + Ethereal Caller combo. Sorry if I can’t retell exactly what transpired because at this point I was up for the last 20 hours and running purely on adrenaline and cheap coffee.
In the final I played against a B/S spiders deck and didn’t really have too many problems. What I do remember very succinctly is the last few turns of game 2 with my opponent on 1 life and knowing I had the win on board, but having to hope for no spiders to spawn at the beginning of my turn. For two turns straight spiders spawned as my heart sank deeper and deeper. It was like Xarlox ruining your perfect Arena run, but with a shot at $100k on the line. Eventually I got the lethal in and this popped on my screen:
So now I’m going to California. I don’t know what awaits me there (besides this apparently) or how I’ll do but as a casual minded person who’s always preferred being completely open and sharing all my knowledge and thoughts, it’s going to be a different experience having to go in there with an ultra-competitive mentality. A few months ago we published an article called “Zero To The 100K: A Beginner’s Guide To Qualify For The $100,000 Hex Invitational” and while my 15 years of TCG experience doesn’t exactly qualify me a beginner, it does feel somewhat like I’m living the dream and I do plan to keep it going!