After playing CCGs for over a decade, I’ve been searching endlessly for a good online CCG. I could never stomach the randomness of Hearthstone, which paired enormous slot machine effects with the roulette wheel involved in summoning your largest minion on-curve. Magic the Gathering is an amazing CCG on paper (in both respects), but the online client was awfully designed and I could never justify the amount of money needed to build a tournament-worthy deck.
For years, I’ve been waiting for the perfect CCG – a game that I could fit around my university schedule, without needing to ritually sacrifice my credit card or spend months earning in-game currency before I could afford a competitive deck. Hopefully a game without decades’ worth of articles written about it, so that I could get involved in the community and publish original content.
And after so many years, I eventually found Duelyst.
Duelyst has everything that I love about CCGs. Between the constant decisions created by the replace mechanic and by positioning your units on the board (both of which reward forward planning once you know what you need to plan around), Duelyst feels like a fencing tournament. It’s a fast-paced game that punishes you hard for your mistakes, but shows exactly when you messed up and how to improve in the future. It has enough randomness to offer unique puzzles in every game, but has enough consistency to let you solve those puzzles without relying on luck.
But since most of those puzzles require background knowledge to solve, Duelyst has a much steeper learning curve than most other CCGs. You need to learn a wide range of tactical concepts before you can really compete at the highest levels – none of them are complicated on their own (especially if you’ve played other CCGs before), but most of them aren’t spelled out in-game. And if Duelyst is your first CCG, then learning this library of little tricks as well as general CCG strategy can present an enormous amount of information for you to process at once.
It’s about time that we fixed that.
On Turn 1 Mystic, I'll be helping new Duelyst players reach the highest levels of competitive play – this includes veterans from other CCGs, but especially players that have no prior experience with competitive CCGs whatsoever. I’ll focus on the essential lessons that aren’t mentioned in the tutorial – concepts such as tempo, board control and card advantage that underpin competitive CCGs as a whole.
If you’ve played other CCGs, then you should still love this series – I’ll provide specific examples of how those familiar concepts apply to Duelyst, as well as shortlisting the best cards to craft on your new account and explaining how to use them. After some clear explanations, you’ll be able to weaponise your background knowledge and carve your way up to Diamond or S-Rank, rather than stalling while you figure out how to apply your existing skills to a completely new game.
My goal is to help new players to reach Gold Division in a single month, allowing them to unlock the end-of-month reward (free copies of the monthly Epic and Legendary) and expand their collections as quickly as possible. Reaching Diamond Division requires much more experience but only adds a copy of the monthly Rare to your reward (which isn’t much), so reaching Diamond isn’t a priority. On the other hand, climbing to S-Rank adds the monthly Common and another random Legendary to your prize – a reward worth fighting for.
This encourages you to reach Gold Division as quickly as possible, then choose how seriously you want to play from then on. Since your monthly rewards aren’t much higher in Diamond Division than in Gold Division, the real choice is between aiming for Gold Division or S-Rank. You might want to experiment with loads of fun decks in Gold Division without any pressure, or maybe you’d prefer to master your favourite deck and start aiming for S-Rank – you have the freedom to choose without being forced in either direction. But you should always aim to reach Gold Division first.
With all that established, let’s get started.
The Plan of Attack
In my first series, ‘The Language of Duelyst’, I’m starting at the very beginning – with a replay analysis of my first Rank 30 game on a newly-created account. By discussing each decision that I made in this game, I’ll teach you about five of the most important terms in Duelyst:
Because this series is aimed at completely new players, I’ll also explain the reasons why I chose to keep or replace different cards in my opening hand. I’ll explore the deeper justifications for these decisions in my next series, but ‘The Language of Duelyst’ should teach you everything that you need to hit the ground running after installing the game - we'll get onto that topic in November.
After introducing all of the background information here, I’ll examine each of these terms in separate articles, using examples from this replay as demonstrations. I’ll also highlight especially powerful Basic and Common cards that new players should include in their decks, using them as illustrations for how each of these terms are important. Because this is a Rank 30 game, the cards on the screen are as straightforward as possible – you won’t need to learn about all of the most powerful cards to understand what’s happening in this replay.
I’ve already eaten heavily into my word count, so with my sales pitch out of the way, let’s take a look at how this particular game began. You might enjoy using the browser extension AutoCardAnywhere to turn all of the card names into popups (which is great on websites such as Reddit), but you won't need it to understand this article.
The Opening Hand
We’re Player 1 in this game, which means that we have 2 mana to spend on Turn 1 and 3 mana to spend on Turn 2. Because our minions are summoned first and therefore get to move first, we also have the first opportunity to capture the two mana springs in the central column using our units. This means that we can potentially spend 4-5 mana on Turn 2 (you rarely get to spend 6 mana), provided that we can capture the mana springs before Player 2 can prevent us from doing so.
There’s a simple checklist that I use when evaluating my starting hand – let’s see how it applies as Player 1 in this situation.
Do I have a strong minion to play on Turn 1?
Summoning a minion on Turn 1 is essential in Duelyst, both for capturing the mana springs and for removing your opponent’s units from the board. Player 1 only has enough mana on Turn 1 to summon a 2-mana minion, so finding one in your starting hand is almost always your first priority.
Player 2 can choose between summoning a 3-mana minion or using the central mana spring to summon a pair of 2-mana minions (one on the mana spring and a second nearby). But since both players need plenty of 2-mana minions (9+) for the games when they’re Player 1, it’s common for Player 2 to summon 2-mana minions on Turn 1 as well.
Healing Mystic (far right in our hand) is strong enough as a 2-mana 2/3 on Turn 1 - even if I can’t benefit from its Opening Gambit effect, it can survive a fair amount of damage and still capture mana springs or be useful in combat. It’s also a powerful utility minion if I find a better 2-mana minion to summon on Turn 1, so I’m definitely happy to keep it in my starting hand.
Do I have a 4-mana minion that I could play on Turn 2?
4-mana minions are usually the most individually powerful cards that you can play on Turn 2. Player 1 needs to capture a mana spring with their Turn 1 minion in order to reach 4 mana – they often will do this, since it allows their 4-mana minion to move and attack before whatever minion Player 2 summons on Turn 2. Attacking first is huge, for reasons that will be explained later.
Player 2 will always have 4 mana on Turn 2, so they can keep a 4-mana minion in their starting hand in total confidence that it will be useful. Although it’s possible for them to summon a 5-mana minion on Turn 2 if they can capture a mana spring, this is a relatively rare situation that Player 1 can usually prevent, so 4-mana minions are still the most reliable option.
Primus Shieldmaster (centre right in our hand) is a durable 4-mana 3/6 Provoke minion that excels at eating the 2/3 minions that everyone plays, as well as keeping my opponent away from the mana spring and preventing them from attacking any injured 2/3 minions that I want to save for later. It’s an excellent tool whether I’m playing aggressively or defensively, so I’m definitely happy to keep it.
Do I have cards that can immediately effect the board?
Because most minions cannot attack on the turn that you summon them, just playing the strongest minion in your hand won’t remove your opponent’s must-kill threats before your opponent starts the turn with them. Your opponent always knows where minions that started your turn on the board can reach, so if they place something with a powerful effect on the far side of the map, you won’t be able to remove it using melee attacks unless your opponent messed up horribly.
This means that you need cards that can immediately affect them – something that can destroy or otherwise answer those minions before your opponent starts their turn with them, despite your opponent being careful to place their minion out of melee range. The most common examples are spells and minions with Opening Gambit effects, as well as minions with Rush that can kill targets that would have been out of melee range if you hadn’t moved and attacked them in one turn.
Ephemeral Shroud (centre left in our hand) is a 2-mana 2/2 that can remove all effects and stat boosts from a single nearby minion when it’s summoned. This gives me a flexible answer in reserve against any minions that my opponents play one square outside of my units’ melee range, especially minions with low stats that rely on their effects to be useful. My opponent’s faction has many such minions, so Ephemeral Shroud is absolutely perfect. I’ll most likely want to keep an Ephemeral Shroud in my hand through the entire game as a panic button, so I’m definitely keeping it in my opening hand.
Ephemeral Shroud has since been changed from a 2/2 to a 1/1 in Patch 1.74, several weeks after this game was recorded - I suggest reading read Alexicon1 and Watabou's discussion of those balance changes.
Do I have a plan if I can't summon a 4-mana minion on Turn 2?
Although Player 1 often wants to summon a 4-mana minion on Turn 2, there are many ways that Player 2 can prevent this from happening. Apart from simply killing Player 1’s minion and preventing them from claiming a mana spring with it, they can also force Player 1 to play reactively.
If Player 1 needs to attack with their 2-mana minion or spend mana on a card like Ephemeral Shroud, then summoning a 4-mana minion won’t be an option. This is less of a problem for Player 2, since they can always summon a 4-mana minion on Turn 2 – the risk of Player 2 missing an entire turn’s worth of playing cards is much lower. On the other hand, Player 1 should look for a less-expensive minion to summon on Turn 2 whenever reasonably possible, since completely missing your Turn 2 play can be enough to cost you the game.
The only such card in my hand is Rock Pulverizer (dead centre in our hand), a 2-mana 1/4 Provoke minion that I don’t expect to be useful against my opponent’s deck in particular. Since I have lots of cards in my deck that would be much better to play on Turn 2, I’m willing to take a gamble and replace away a card that I could potentially use for this job – my opponent’s faction also has very few cards that could destroy my Turn 1 minion and punish me for this decision.
Do I have cards that I want to play on Turn 3 or later?
It’s extremely important to consider this last, because Duelyst is an inherently ‘snowbally’ game – the player who starts their turn with the strongest board can choose which minions they want to attack, picking all of the best fights and increasing their lead even further. This leads to the strongest player building up momentum like a snowball rolling down a hill – there are cards designed to help the losing player get back into the game, but it’s usually best to avoid being in this situation altogether.
The tutorial mentioned briefly that you should replace expensive cards in your starting hand, but this is the reason why – it’s one of the most important lessons to take away from this article. You can tell because it gets its own block quote.
Keeping an expensive card in your opening hand is effectively the same as reducing your hand size by one. By reducing your options at the start of the game, you have less opportunities to create the early-game advantages that will improve every following turn in the game – snowballing early is more important than saving late-game cards until Turn 5 or 6.
It’s not true that you should never keep an expensive card in your opening hand. In certain matchups, there are some cards that are so potentially game-winning that it’s worth gambling on keeping a weaker starting hand. Occasionally, you’ll have the perfect set of cards to play on Turn 1 and Turn 2 – in that case, you can keep those late-game cards without worrying about your opponent snowballing before you can play them.
But the main reason that you usually shouldn’t keep them is the replace system.
You have at least two opportunities to draw one of your late-game cards every turn – once when you (may) replace a card at the start of your turn, then again when you draw a card at the end of your turn. This means that you can be reasonably confident that you’ll draw one of those expensive cards again before you have enough mana to cast them, while knowing that keeping them in your opening hand will reduce your opportunity to get in the lead.
Learning which cards to keep and replace at different times is mostly a matter of practise, and it’s one of the skills that separates players in Gold Division from S-Rank players. But as a rule of thumb, you’ll almost always replace any cards that cost 6+ mana and frequently replace 5-mana cards as Player 1 – Player 2 has more room to keep 5-mana minions if they have a perfect opening hand, since they can always play them on Turn 3 and sometimes play them on Turn 2 using a mana spring.
The last card in my hand is Divine Bond (far left in our hand), a 3-mana spell that permanently increase the Attack of a single minion by its Health at the time of casting. Because it’s strongest when cast on expensive minions with high Health, and doesn’t make your smaller minion live long enough to really exploit the Attack boost, I’ll replace it away and hope to find more early-game options. Divine Bond is mainly used to end the game – your starting hand needs cards that can put you into the lead, not cards that only work when you’re in the lead already.
Wrapping Things Up
In this article, I've explained my plan for this series and given a basic overview on how to sculpt your opening hand in Duelyst, so anyone reading this series as their introduction to competitive Duelyst will have a decent foundation to work from. My next series, ‘What’s in a Mana Cost?’, will revisit these concepts in more detail, going into much more detail about the sort of minions that see play at each point on the mana curve. I'll also talk more about early positioning as both Player 1 and Player 2, using that to demonstrate how you should build your deck around particular points on the mana curve.
There’s loads more to explain, but this article explains the minimum amount that someone who’s just installed Duelyst should know. You can read the old version of 'What's in a Mana Cost?' here if you don't want to wait, but I'm going to make it much more reader-friendly and update it to include all of the changes since Shim'Zar was released.
Next week, I’ll examine positional advantage. Positioning your units tactically is one of Duelyst’s defining features, and it’s impossible to overstate how important positioning is in high-level competitive play. We’ll finish that article with our second turn as Player 1, then move on to Player 2’s second turn once we start talking about board control.
Although the series will only update once a week because of university commitments, I’ll happily answer any questions that you send me through social media. Either jump into our Discord channel or message me on Reddit – I’ll usually get back to you within 48 hours and I’ll happily chat about deck building, decision-making or just how awesome it felt to steamroller your opponent in that perfect million-to-one scenario that happened last night.
If you’ve found this article useful and haven’t played any ranked games yet, then consider using my username (ardentdawn) as your referral code. You can only use one referral code per account – they give you a booster pack’s worth of gold for free, then reward me with free loot as you improve at Duelyst and climb up to Silver and Gold Division.
If you have any friends that also play Duelyst, they’d probably enjoy the free booster packs as well – since you can only use one person’s referral code, you should use your best judgment. I love free loot as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t hold it against you.
That just about wraps things up for today. I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading my article, and have fun playing Duelyst!
On Turn 1 Mystic, we aim to teach new players how to climb to Gold Division as soon as possible, then from Gold Division to S-Rank as soon as you're interested and have time.