You might think that a Top 10 ladder ranking is solely about a player’s skill, but that has never been the case and still isn’t.
I’ll give my thoughts on what worked on ladder since the Party Hour metagame when I started playing. Overall, earlier seasons really rewarded skillful piloting as Party Hour and Big Combrei had skill intensive mirrors. It also rewarded you for abusing the matchmaking system- you would often be matched against the same player a few to several times in a row, so picking a deck that is good against their deck was a good strategy. Or, you would simply stop playing for a bit so that you would get matched with a different opponent. Part of the reason why Unearthly is a good player is because he picked up on that.
Since then, high level play has become less skill intensive as Tier 1 matchups have fewer opportunities for players to make good/bad plays. There has also been more try-harding as fewer high-level players would play fun decks like Sunyveil’s Dark Clockroaches, partly because jank is less viable and partly because DWD introduced a badge beside a player’s name for previous’ season ranks.
However, I suspect that the current ranking system creates advantages for players who play at certain times of day. Due to win streaks, some normal players will achieve an ELO/MMR rating that exceeds their skill level. I suspect that playing during certain times will increase the number of matchups against such players. There is some phenomenon going on where the game’s highest-skilled pilots like Finkel are ranking lower on ladder than lesser-skilled pilots.
This metagame was defined by three cards: Scouting Party, Champion of Cunning, and Witching Hour. Before it was nerfed, Champion of Cunning was breaking the metagame since it would grant your entire team charge.
Champion would combo with The Witching Hour for a 1-hit kill (3o damage in one turn) that was difficult to interact with because of Charge. It would also combo with Scouting Party (which costed 5 instead of 6 back then) so that Scouting Party would hit for a lot of damage and be difficult to block. Scouting Party would also reduce the cost of The Witching Hour by 4 when played. These 3 cards were synergistic and all 3 of them have subsequently been nerfed.
During this metagame, Party Hour was by far the most prevalent deck. The mirrors were skill intensive and players were slowly figuring out the best tech cards for the mirror (e.g. Sabotage, Backlash, or Spellswipe?). However, other decks were viable for a Top 10 ladder performance. Aggressive Combrei playing Slow and Jito Queen had good matchups against Party Hour.
Party Hour received a huge nerf to The Witching Hour, whose cost reduction now only applied to non-power cards. This made the deck much slower and it fell out of Tier 1 power level.
Players slowly figured out that Combrei had good matchups against aggressive decks like Rakano, Jito Queen, and Bandit Queen especially if you played 4 Harsh Rules. Eventually, Combrei rose in popularity and it became the deck to beat. Combrei decks would tech for the mirror by going bigger, playing greedier cards like Marshal Ironthorn, Mystic Ascendant, etc. As Combrei rose in popularity, control decks with favorable matchups against Combrei became popular. Clockroaches was the ultimate control deck (it had excellent matchups against control decks) and became viable, although it was never a Tier 1 deck. As control decks made up a portion of the metagame, aggro decks were also viable as they had good matchups against the slowest decks.
A wide range of decks were viable in Top 10 ladder play- Big Combrei, Elysian midrange, 4-Faction control, Bandit Queen, Rakano, etc. Towards the very beginning of that metagame, my fringe deck Monojustice splashing Shadow was viable since some players still clung onto Party Hour and weren’t playing Combrei. It was possible to crack Top 10 ladder with a fringe deck like that. As that metagame matured, 4-Faction control was discovered. And later, players discovered the early Burn variants: Weiseguy’s Rakano Burn, Dudewitbangs’ Rakano Armory and my version of it, along with Burn Queen. Many decks were viable including fringe decks.
Back then, the matchmaking system was different because it would often match you with the same opponent several times in a row. The player pool was also much shallower since Eternal was in closed Beta. You gained an edge by picking a deck to counter the last deck you played, or simply waiting some time before re-joining the matchmaking queue so that you would hopefully get matched with a different opponent.
Ladder camping and other odd edges
Because ladder ranking was very sensitive to short-term fluctuations in winrate, top 10 ladder placement often depended on assembling an amazing win streak. So what some players like myself did was to stop playing after a good winning run was achieved. One season I stopped playing after hitting #2 and ended at #5. Sunyveil was consistently #1 on ladder simply because he took a vacation (podcast).
A lot of my personal ladder success has been because I bootlegged my way on. I hit #2 with a mixture of Combrei, patient Bandit Queen, and Rakano Armory. The reason why I played different decks was to try to get favorable matchups against the same opponent repeatedly. My Combrei piloting skills were not that good compared to other top players. Because I don’t enjoy long games of Boardstall Titan mirrors, I did not play a lot of Combrei.
Stonescar burn slowly takes over
For the longest time, nobody discovered the Stonescar Burn variants and realized how powerful they were. I wrote about playing Jito Queen with burn cards and didn’t think that much of the deck. It took me a while to realize that Burn Queen was a dominating Tier 1 deck. Right before the wipe and shift to open beta, Weiseguy held the #1 spot on ladder with a slower version of that deck. Winrates were quite high because you didn’t have to play the mirror, not many people understood how to play against the deck (intelligently race it), and because nobody was teching against it.
After the wipe, players rather quickly figured out that the “Big Burn” version that teched for the mirror was the strongest version of that deck. In came Umbren Reaper, Impending Doom, Soulfire Drake, and four copies of Vara’s Favor.
During this time, the Tier 1 options were either Big Burn or something that is teched against it- Rakano with Righteous Fury, Shimmerpack, etc. Peramfrost rose in popularity with 8-silence Combrei out of the way.
The gap between players became much smaller
My personal winrate plummeted from 70% to 55% and I did not do well at the end of the first post-wipe season. I would argue that the season largely depended on:
- Showing up with a Tier 1 deck. While this has always been the case, the crop of Tier 1 decks had fewer interesting decisions to make and rewarded skill less.
- The time of day you played.
The reason why the gap has narrowed is because most players at the higher portions of ladder were playing Tier 1 decks by the end of that season. I wasn’t facing opponents who made the mistake of picking a non-Tier 1 deck like Icaria Blue. That edge disappeared.
The Stonescar Burn mirror was not very skill intensive, so that edge disappeared. The mirror did not provide a lot of opportunities for players to make suboptimal plays (punts).
Old edges like abusing the matchmaking system also disappeared.
I did not play in January and February, so I can’t comment on those periods.
Thoughts on patch 1.18 metagame
I am not having a lot of success in this meta and have ranged from #89 to #250. Previously I would have moved between #1 and #50.
I am also looking at the top players list and don’t see a lot of old names in the Top 10- especially Finkel, who is a really good player and dominated ladder in the past. I don’t think that his skill has changed. Rather, his skill is not being rewarded as much now that 4-faction control is dead.
There are some minor contributing factors. Partly, the playerbase has grown so competition is tougher. Steamspy.com screenshot below:
Partly, I think that more people are reading Reddit and getting information on Tier 1 decklists.
Partly, there has been less room for innovation. Kudos to NeonBlonde for coming up with Rakano Jito. But there has also been less innovation in off-tier decks like Xenan Killers which became popular on ladder. There are fewer players playing off-tier decks for the fun of it. The prevalence of off-tier decks causes rapid shifts in the metagame and opportunities for those who can quickly fine-tune their decks with the right tech cards. With fewer people playing off-tier decks, those edges are diminished.
High-ranked play going forward
DWD’s buffs and nerfs will affect how skill-intensive future metagames are. I really have no idea what will happen. Some imbalanced metagames like Party Hour did lead to skill-intensive metas where it was possible to Top 10 ladder with fringe decks. Balance mistakes could make ladder skill-intensive.
DWD could make ladder more skill-intensive by balancing towards fun and not nerfing decks like Clockroaches. The presence of off-tier decks make the metagame more complex.
DWD could avoid introducing new cards that lead to uninteresting gameplay (e.g. Throne Warden because it creates gamestates where the opponent cannot keep a unit on the board when the armory player has a stack of armor on a relic weapon). The game has become more complex (cards like Siraf have more text on them) without being more skillful. That being said, Eternal’s skill cap only affects a tiny percentage of the playerbase. DWD could try to make ladder more skill intensive if it makes business sense for them to do so. I do however disagree with the unnecessary complexity and unfun variance (e.g. power flood/screw) that exists in the game.
Perhaps the next edge will be figuring out what’s going on with the current matchmaking and ELO/MMR ranking system. There is something going on that causes lesser-skilled players to outladder skilled players like Finkel. (Skill as in the skill in piloting a deck.) I think that it’s the time of day (and week) that you play. Somebody may put in the time and effort into figuring out how to get ELO/MMR-favorable matchups.
We’ll see what happens.