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Deckbuilding, Synergy, and You

Hex has a wide variety of cards to choose from that support a wide variety of playstyles, but generally they will fall into two broad categories: ‘synergistic’, and ‘individually-powerful’. When deciding to build a deck, one of the first questions that a player should ask themselves is how far they want to skew in one direction or the other. Synergistic cards offer some powerful payoffs in cards like Electroid, Prodigy of Volosolov, and Chimes of the Zodiac—whereas individually powerful cards are great in a vacuum, such as Vampire Princess and Angel of Dawn.

Speaking broadly, the payoff for playing very synergistic cards is that when these synergies start to manifest they become greater than the sum of their parts. The trade-off for this is that often a synergistic card becomes far less impressive when unsupported; Brood Baron is a thoroughly unimpressive card if you don’t lean into its strengths when building a deck around it, for example. Individually-powerful cards are very much of the plug-and-play variety; you could put Living Totem in most any Diamond-based deck and have it make a strong impact. Two of the mistakes I often see budding deckbuilders make is that they either lean too heavily on synergies without ensuring that they can take advantage consistently, or they jam individually-powerful cards into a deck without thinking about how they affect things like their threshold requirements, their resource curve and sometimes even their game plan.

When designing the first few sets of the game, it’s clear to see that the developers wanted to develop some powerful synergies for each of the eight founding races of the game, though the true extent of these synergies varies. The dwarves as a whole are one of the more synergistic races, and with the exception of a few outliers (e.g. Reese, Mesmeric Hypnoscientist) don’t function fantastically well outside of their own archetype. On the other end of the spectrum, humans can generally fit well in many constructed decks outside of the human archetype, but still possess a few synergistic cards for those wanting to play to a theme. For this article, I’ll be outlining my process for evaluating synergies both on the individual card level, and on a broader conceptual level. This is done by asking myself a series of questions:

How well does the card perform outside of synergistic interactions?

This is a relative straight-forward question to answer: we simply ignore the synergistic aspect of the card and look at it in a vacuum. What’s its worst case scenario? Ideally, all the synergistic cards you pick for the deck should be effective by themselves, and a great example of this is Exarch of the Egg. Exarch is a 1/3 for 2 with lethal, which is fantastic even if you never get to take advantage of the spiders it generates! It can clog up the board and ensure non-evasive threats cannot attack profitably, and it does so at a cheap cost. A card that would struggle when put through this same test is Wakuna Crowfeather; a 2/4 for 4 just isn’t terribly impressive in the constructed metagame as it’s neither big enough to dominate the board in the combat phase, nor possesses abilities/keywords to make up for this shortfall. Many players (including myself) have the tendency to look at a card and see only the very ceiling of the card without acknowledging the floor. But in a format as tightly tuned as constructed is right now, the floor has to be capable of impacting the game in at least some way to succeed.

Is the payoff worth the investment?

This is the bit of evaluation that’s fun: what’s the best-case scenario? Chimes of the Zodiac is a card that screams value, and if you resolve just one or two actions with this in play it becomes very difficult to lose. Generally you want the payoff for the synergy to be huge, game-swinging stuff. A Tectonic Megahulk that gets one successful attack in during a long game will often seal the deal. Cards like Uzume, Grand Concubunny unfortunately don’t scream “I win!” in the same way—getting a random Shin’hare each turn is great, but when most of these Shin’hare are wimpy little troops it’s unlikely to win a game where you find yourself on the back foot. Payoff cards should be game-changers, capable of propelling you back in control when you find yourself behind.
There is an exception to this however: if the investment for the synergy is low enough, the payoff doesn’t have to be fantastic—and cards like the previously mentioned Exarch of the Egg are examples of this.

How easily can your opponent interact with this synergy?

Phrased another way, how fragile is the house of cards that you are constructing? Deckbuilders can often get very cute when it comes to combos, and after evaluating the payoff of the combo they click ‘Save Deck’ with glee and rush to the gauntlet, only to find themselves losing in rapid succession because the plan was too easy to pull apart. The less your opponent is capable of interacting with the synergy, the better it’ll stand up to actual game scenarios. For troops, this can mean planning around the removal that is currently being commonly played, so if Pride’s Fall is making up the majority of players’ removal suites, look to smaller troops to render it ineffective. Martyr is all the rage? Go wide and try to flood your opponent with numbers. Cards like Buccaneer and Time Ripple make up 60% of the metagame? Try to take advantage of this by having your synergistic cards utilize powerful enters-play abilities.

Non-troop synergies don’t have to worry about this quite as much but it’s still worth considering. If you’re utilizing powerful but expensive actions as part of your combo, what’s the backup plan if it gets interrupted by Countermagic? If a deck is overly reliant on one specific interaction, you’re likely to fail unless that interaction is powerful enough to win the game on the spot.
Azurecannon is a deck that utilizes a fragile combo piece but plans around this weakness to compensate. Although Azurefate Sorceress is extremely fragile, it can be gemmed with the Minor Sapphire of Mischief to give it quick. This is so that pilots can ensure they can deploy it only when their opponent is incapable of interacting with it, then quickly take advantage of its synergies (the inspired Major Ruby of Destruction) while they have a window of opportunity to do so.

Are you compromising the overall quality of the deck to facilitate these synergies?

This happens to the best of us—we become so focused on building around synergies that we lose sight of the forest for the trees. No matter what sort of deck you are building, ensure you leave enough space for the fundamentals: early game interaction, redundancy, and a decent resource curve. Your deck needs to be capable of grinding out wins even when all the pieces don’t come together, and when you let the synergies dictate every single card choice you will find yourself with an inconsistent deck in one or more of these three categories.

The resource curve in particular can be devastating, because your deck should always be capable of doing something on as many turns as possible. If you’re not playing any cards other than resources for the first three turns of the game, you’re losing out on a tremendous amount of tempo—and most decks are successful because they are capable of squeezing every bit of value from each turn they get. Underachieving when it comes to tempo often leads you too far behind and you have to fight an uphill battle, which renders many cards less effective.

So why bother?

With this many hoops to jump through when taking a synergistically-minded approach to deckbuilding, this is a very valid question to ask yourself. Everybody has their own reasons for exploring synergies, and I can only speak to my perspective.

For me, it’s about the satisfaction of a plan coming together, watching as you do something truly powerful that transcends the individual pieces that went into it. It’s about bringing out the strengths of cards that many others had long since cast off as clunky and unplayable.

To come back to Azurecannon for a moment, consider Mesmeric Hypnoscientist. This was a card that was on absolutely no-one’s radar, until someone cottoned on to the interaction between cards with tunneling (that typically have high costs with the ability to get it into play for cheaper) and Azurefate Sorceress, who cares about high cost cards for its inspire ability. Hypnoscientist is a strange one, possessing high damage potential but relatively poor comeback potential. But paired with Azurefate Sorceress it can represent ten damage on the turn it surfaces—a synergistic combo that propelled the card into constructed relevance.

By thinking about the interactions between cards and utilizing synergies, powerful decks can emerge that defy convention. There are cards out there that enable powerful synergies, that are just waiting for the right deck to come along to propel them to greatness.

Five shard deck aficionado and punt master. Dedicated to bringing meta-game analysis and rogue deck building.

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