An Analysis of Faction Design Coherence
Bagoum / January 29, 2017
Beyond the questions of faction rankings, players have always been interested in the question of faction design. The purpose of faction-restricted cards, after all, is to provide each faction with a unique style of gameplay, with unique strengths and weaknesses.
Whereas Bagoum normally concerns itself with the strength of factions within the meta, today we're going to take a detour and discuss the strength of faction cards within a faction, as well as deal with some basic questions of faction design. First, we'll go through the factions in order, then at the end review the analysis and create a faction coherence tier list.
Within Lyonar we can identify two major themes: one, winning via dropping overstatted minions, small or large; two, winning via heal synergies. Fundamentally, all builds of Lyonar excel at close combat, due to overstatted minions and powerful effects. They have tools to force enemies into close combat, such as powerful Provoke minions starting from 3 mana and Decimate as a punish, as well as tools to abuse close combat, notably Holy Immolation.
Before Shim'Zar, Lyonar's primary weakness used to be cheap removal. Because Lyonar lacked a viable Tempo or Heal archetype then, a well-timed Hailstone Prison could render an Ironcliffe, and the entire gameplan, useless. Currently, it's difficult to pin down a weakness on Tempo Argeon, but Heal Zir'An can suffer from archetypes that develop powerful boards early or that can wipe hers, since she is very reliant on supporting minions.
Overall, Lyonar exhibits a high amount of coherence; its playstyles are brought about by its characteristic faction cards, and its playstyles can be interweaved between archetypes. However, there's ultimately no overarching theme; Tempo, Bond, and Heal play quite differently and have different win conditions. As another issue, Argeon has a notably high ratio of neutral card usage, especially Tempo Argeon. This is likely due to the fact that his BBS makes "ok" neutrals like Saberspine Tiger significantly more abusable. In non-Trinity Oath builds, Lyonar also exhibits reliance on neutral draw, but this issue is shared, not localized to any particular faction.
Songhai as a whole revolves around bypassing traditional notions of turn-by-turn efficient question-efficient response play. Its cards are noted for their ability to produce value far out of proportion to their mana costs, as well as make redundant traditional problems of positioning and passive trade advantage. Songhai also makes great use of spell procs, a feature mostly unique to the faction.
Songhai's strength lies in its ability to bypass the board-centric value game, but the price it pays for this is an upper curve far from as threatening as Spectral Revenant, and cards that are generally understatted when compared to cost raw. A lack of endgame value comparable to those of other top archetypes means that Songhai tends to get outvalued if its midgame burst and fancy effects are neutralized, even as Songhai can continue to threaten large amounts of out-of-hand damage throughout the game.
Overall, it's quite noticeable that this entire analysis of Songhai has been made without mentioning differences between generals-- this is largely because Songhai's cardset is very gradiented, even while one general is significantly better. Reva makes great use of Backstab and movement synergies in Katara and Juxtaposition, while Kaleos can equally utilize spell procs with Chakri Avatar and Four Winds Magi. Furthermore, the only neutral cards that Songhai consistently utilizes are draw cards, as Songhai's synergies are fully self-contained.
It's not fully clear what Vetruvian consists of as a whole, but there are two distinct identifiable themes within the faction, which are completely separate and cannot be realistically reconciled. These two themes are Obelysks and Artifacts. Obelysks are the only truly unique Vetruvian characteristic, whereas the Vetruvian uniqueness of the artifact builds only really consists of the two combo cards.
Vetruvian faction cards suffer largely from the fact that most of them are terrible outside of the Obelysks build. The few common minions that aren't terrible-- Pax, Falcius, Starfire Scarab, and Aymara Healer-- create no sense of identity; one is a value card, one is a tempo card, one is an slow midgame threat, and one is a reactive lategame card that has no synergy with the rest of the set. Furthermore, Blast, Vetruvian's featured keyword, is terribly undersupported.
Overall, it's difficult to evaluate Vetruvian's identity because it's not clear what it should be. Obelysks stands out as a coherent archetype, but every other well-performing Vetruvian archetype in the past--most recently pre-June Aggro Zirix and September Midrange Zirix-- has exhibited an unusually high amount of reliance on neutral value cards. Sajj has, furthermore, never stood out as a general, and it's worrying that her best archetype is a janky OTK combo build. Obelysks is ultimately the only well-defined Vetruvian archetype, which is questionable given the past prominence of Aggro, Midrange, and Control variants.
Unlike Songhai, Abyssian's themes are fully distinct. Swarm and Creep see almost no overlap, and thus it is difficult to talk about Abyssian "as a whole". The Swarm archetype is built around swarming the board and using powerful death-based effects to turn a few Wraithlings into lethal, and the Creep archetype is built around building Shadow Creep to strengthen midgame and endgame threats.
Swarm as an archetype threatens to quickly end games with cards like Deathfire Crescendo and Soulshatter Pact, but can have difficulty responding to AoE board clears if it overcommits to swarming. On the other hand, Creep plays a slow game and utilizes Abyssal Juggernaut and Obliterate as creep-based win conditions, and loses to efficient removal as well as creep removal. The synergies for each of these builds are entirely infaction, although Swarm Lilithe utilizes some neutrals like Cryptographer to amplify her swarm abilities.
Overall, Abyssian lacks a coherent faction theme, rather showcasing two very defined and very distinct themes. The few of its cards that are shared between its archetypes are done so for power or utility, rather than common synergies; compare Spectral Revenant to Scintilla. However, both its generals are viable, and, outside of dispel and draw, both its archetypes use mostly faction cards. Abyssian is also one of the few factions in which both generals are individually strong, so while amorphous, the Abyssian faction is not weak.
Originally, Magmar had a faction identity of big green lizards, with Starhorn branching off awkwardly. Now, it's much less clear what their identity is. The previously unifying theme-- big, green, slow, close-ranged lizards-- has been brought into question by Entropic Gaze and Tectonic Spikes. It's also unclear how Starhorn's excessively pushed draw synergies factor into the equation, and what kind of synergies we should expect moving forward.
Vaath and Starhorn share an awkwardly categorized fundamentally midrange archetype which can branch off into aggro or greed on Vaath's side and gimpy draw synergies on Starhorn's side. Currently, there are only two defined themes in Magmar, both at opposite ends; Control Vaath flashes out oversized minions to win the game, and Decimus Starhorn gimps the opponent with Decimus burst damage. Everything else comes in between with some awkward mixture of burn, sustain, and aggro.
Overall, Magmar's faction identity has grown less defined over time, especially as Starhorn, whose BBS is not in the least related to the core faction, has become more viable. However, Magmar does utilize a high number of faction cards, even if some of them have the greatest synergy with neutrals (Flash Reincarnation and Sunsteel Defender, for example). It's somewhat unusual that an entire half of the faction is based around a neutral card, and this hurts the perception of Starhorn's identity greatly.
When Kara ruled over the meta, there were a few voices decrying not only her power, but also the fact that about a quarter of her deck, on average, was faction cards. This perception of Vanar has changed little, and there are still very few good Vanar minions. Thankfully, the new expansion has brought several new tools to Vanar that give it more of an identity, even as Kara is now cast to the side.
Generally, modern Faie is characterized by a focus on "disruption". This trend has its origins in the Kara deck which would Hailstone Prison, Cryogenesis, or Ephemeral Shroud/Chromatic Cold every threat. Now, Faie combines these old spells with the trifecta of the expansion, Concealing Shroud, Frigid Corona, and Enfeeble. In this sense, Vanar's amorphous identity can be perceived as a negative of its opponents.
Overall, it's telling that Faie's endgame finishers are the neutrals Jax Truesight and Meltdown: Vanar is built around negating the opponent's play, rather than pushing its own strategies. Interestingly, this renders Vanar the only faction without a robust infaction win-condition (Grandmaster Embla is highly questionable). Vanar has a full-- and possibly the best-- array of faction spells, but its high-curve minions really need some love.
++ Fully infaction synergies, no prominent neutrals except card draw, gradiented faction themes, thematic generals, best faction thematic synthesis
-- Power disparity between generals
++ Mostly infaction synergies, gradiented faction themes, thematic generals, overall few prominent neutrals
-- Neutral reliance for some variants, questionable faction thematic synthesis
++ Fully infaction synergies, almost no prominent neutrals except card draw, most thematic generals
-- Disparate faction themes, influential nonthematic cards, completely lacking faction thematic synthesis
++ Mostly infaction synergy, thoroughly supported infaction spells, somewhat thematic general (Faie)
-- Neutral minion reliance, amorphous general theme (Kara), only one faction theme, amorphous faction thematic synthesis, power disparity between generals
++ High infaction synergies, thematic general (Starhorn)
-- Neutral reliance (Starhorn), amorphous general theme (Vaath), disparate faction themes, little faction thematic synthesis, infuential nonthematic cards
++ One infaction synergy
-- Neutral reliance, weak general themes, disparate faction themes, no faction thematic synthesis, power disparity between generals, influential nonthematic cards, weak keyword support
Above you'll find the final tier list for faction consistency. Overall, this ordering is fairly uncontroversial, although some players may rank Magmar above Vanar (before the Bloodborn expansion, I would have done so as well, but Entropic Gaze and Tectonic Spikes have rendered me unable to find an overarching theme). However, Vetruvian is by far suffering the most, and this is evident on the competitive tier list as well; it is standing on one leg of obelysks and may topple any moment.
It is also necessary for us to pay attention to how Magmar and Vanar develop over the next few months. Magmar is suffering right now from an identity crisis-- it's at the same time a close-range big stuff archetype, but also an aggro-burn archetype, and also a combo archetype, and every expansion pulls it in different directions. Vanar is finally seeing some sort of consolidation after the Bloodborn expansion, but still suffers from a lack of good infaction minions as well as a wide general disparity, which undermines its uniqueness even if it is currently at the top of the tier list.
On the other hand, Songhai, Lyonar, and Abyssian seem to be, in terms of faction coherence, the best designed. There are definitely questions to be asked about Songhai's board bypassing or Lyonar's stat efficiency or Abyssian's absurdly powerful value generators, but these questions do not detract from the sense of coherence in these factions.
I'm looking forward to seeing how CP improves some of the game's struggling factions in the future!