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The Midnight Express

If you have been paying attention to hexmeta.com recently you may have noticed a strange blip on your radar, an indicator of something amiss. It’s no reason for alarm and the website’s server isn’t spitting out a glitched decklist, I have just fallen deep in love with five shard decks again. Hi I’m LightReaper, and I have a prismatic problem.

Midnight Shepherd and I go way back, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a sentimental attachment to the card. Repeatable reanimator effects represent tremendous value and that potential is what got me interested in the card in the first place, despite its large drawbacks. I won the first Hextechs Open back in 2014 with a deck that was essentially just a hack job of a B/D Control list with the serial numbers filed off and Lixil, the Deathless Gem and Midnight Shepherd jammed in. I’d be lying if I said it was an optimized list, but Midnight Shepherd often gave me the edge in the mirror and Lixil was an infuriating card for many to play against. I played well, had Kismet’s favor and ever since I’ve been brewing with the Shepherd.

The Prodigal Plan

When Armies of Myth was first announced, I got very excited. I knew the set was going to have a lot of necrotic in it, and when I saw Prodigy of Volosolov for the first time, I knew that I had to try to build around that card. As a troop it’s subpar; a 3/2 for 3 simply doesn’t stack up when compared to other 3 cost troops like Phenteo, the Brood Priest or Vampire Princess. That said, once you achieve Volosolov’s Resonance the script is flipped, and suddenly you have a 5/4 for 3 that also buffs every other necrotic in play for +2/+2, yikes!

I built a deck from scratch that’s game plan revolved around playing a lot of cheap necrotic and winning through aggression. The deck was a blast to play and I really enjoyed it, but it got absolutely decimated by the Titania’s Majesty decks of the time, as I simply didn’t have a quick enough gameplan, and without a ton of interaction they could very easily assemble their combo to end the game at a moment’s notice. A lot of other decks had the same issue, and no doubt a lot of deckbuilders must have let out a sigh of relief when they saw the news that Titania’s Majesty had been banned.

A Sudden Awakening

I came back to the deck concept recently when I noticed how slow the format had gotten, with Rutherford Banks Midrange and Winter Moon Control rising to fight for the crown of best deck. They’re both incredibly powerful value engines, with the same basic principle — encourage the game to go long and then win through superior attrition. Winter Moon focuses on tempo plays and drawing cards, while Rutherford Banks works to present recurring threats that are hard to deal with. Usually the answer to these kind of decks is aggro, but cards like Crocosaur, Carnasaurus and Succulent Cluckodon present difficult challenges to overcome for traditional aggro decks. This group of dinosaurs excel at forcing the game to get drawn out, which is usually the death knell for aggro decks. So we have to be both fast and capable of scaling to the late game.  “Well how the hell does that work?”” I hear you ask.

Without further ado, here’s the slowest aggro deck you may have yet seen:

The Midnight Express

Champion: Sir Giles Rowan

Troops (28)

4x Valiant Escort
2x Deadeye Ripper
4x Flamehand Invoker
2x Midnight Shepherd
3x Prodigy of Volosolov
3x Lixil, the Deathless Gem
3x Hopeheart Unicorn
4x Forgotten Monarch (Major Ruby of Destruction, Minor Sapphire of Sky)
3x Neophyte Awakener

Actions  (8)

2x Shardcall
3x Martyr
3x Pride’s Call

Resources (24)

9x Diamond Shard
4x Sepulchra Crypt Dust
3x Shards of Fate
2x Ruby Shard
2x Blood Shard
1x Shard of Conquest
1x Shard of Hatred
1x Sapphire Shard
1x Wild Shard

Reserves (15)

3x Subtle Striker
3x Eye of Lixil
2x Frost Wizard
2x Soul Marble
1x Drowned Shrine of Ulthar
2x Solitary Exile
2x Kill

In this article I’ll be focusing on what new ideas this deck brings to the table. For short hand purposes, I shall refer to the board state of having all five threshold requirements met as Resonance, after Volosolov’s Resonance.

The Escort and his Steed

Believe it or not, two of the most important cards in this deck aren’t even necrotic! Firstly there’s Valiant Escort, and it’s one of the answers found when I asked myself “How does an Aggro deck fight past Crocosaur?”. For those unfamiliar with the card, Crocosaur is a 5 cost 5/6 troop that when it enters play, may battle two opposing troops. It’s a card with a very efficient body and a powerful enters play ability, and it represents one of the greatest draws to the Wild shard type when constructing a deck. So how does Escort help? well there’s a quirk about Crocosaur that might not be immediately obvious when first reading the card;  you can’t fight if there’s only one opposing troop in play.

Aggro decks want to empty their hand onto the board and apply a lot of pressure, but doing so naturally creates situations where Crocosaur can generate tremendous value. Escort’s activated ability to bounce one of your troops back to your hand can let you reduce the number of troops in play by two, often leaving the board with either 1 or 0 troops in play and thus no fight can occur. In addition, a 2/1 body for 1 is no joke, and damage inflicted by it can quickly add up over the course of a game.

Similarly, Hopeheart Unicorn acts as a powerful safety blanket for Blood matchups, where we must constantly live in fear of Extinction. Adding a Unicorn to the board allows us to play out our hand without overextending and becoming vulnerable to board wipes – especially important because of cards like Arachnophobia and Giant Corpse Fly, that punish us for holding back cards in hand.

It’s a tough world out there for troop heavy decks, and the Escort and Unicorn give us the ability to fight through heavy removal.

The Mighty Monarch

The next troop that I added to the deck was a necrotic that would buy the Escort a beer if given the opportunity – Forgotten Monarch. It’s one of the payoff cards for reaching Resonance, as it becomes a zero cost troop with insane tactical flexibility, possessing both a minor gem slot and a major gem slot. For our game plan, we equip the Monarch with the Major Ruby of Destruction and the Minor Sapphire of Sky. The major gem gives the Monarch a decent enters play ability that deals damage equal to the Monarch’s power when it hits the board, and the minor gem gives it flight to keep up momentum in clogged board states.

So why does the Monarch like the Escort? Well besides every king needing a retinue, Valiant Escort allows us to repeat the enters play ability. Now I’m not saying that you should just use the Escort’s ability willy-nilly, just that when forced to (usually because of a removal card or Crocosaur) we can get added value from bouncing the Monarch back to our hand. The Monarch’s power may only start out as two, but it becomes three if we successfully apply our Champion Power to a necrotic, and can only grow from there with cards like Soul Armaments, Prodigy of Volosolov or Monument of the Martyr in play. That damage quickly adds up over the course of the game.

The Deathless Queen

Lixil, The Deathless Gem serves a dual role in the deck. It helps meet our threshold requirements, and when we reach Resonance it becomes Invincible, becoming a hard to remove threat that can also defend against most non-evasive threats. Reaching Resonance is very important for most opening hands you’ll start with, and the advantages of having an Invincible troop in play should be immediately obvious if you’ve ever played against a Blood based deck.

Feeling Shifty

Finding windows of opportunity to use our resources effectively against control decks if often difficult, especially so if we suspect our opponent has a Crocosaur in hand, or an Interrupt action and the resources to use it. Flamehand Invoker provides an outlet to use our resources effectively even when we either cannot or will not commit more troops to the board. If left unanswered, Invoker can deal an appalling amount of damage over the course of longer games, plus the ability to shift its ability to another troop (like perhaps a Monarch with flight?) gives it some great flexibility too.

Deadeye Ripper speeds our game up a little, giving us another turn 1 play besides the Escort and Shardcall. Furthermore, it becomes a wonderful partner to Midnight Shepherd as the game progresses – a shifted Shepherd that can reanimate the turn it comes into play is a truly terrifying thing, building a powerful army from virtually nothing.

The Shepherd of the Flock

Midnight Shepherd benefits from the inclusion of the Escort, as it can protect it from removal cards while it sets up the win. Often times you only need it to survive one of your opponents turns before it completely takes over the game. Bringing Monarchs, Prodigies and Unicorns back from the crypt has obvious benefits, and that’s not even taking into account the troops your opponent may have in their crypt! Recruiting cards like Windsinger, Master of the Hunt to your cause is a lot of fun and I heartily recommend it.

The Apprentice and her tools

Neophyte Awakener in a vacuum is not a powerful card, as we’re paying 4 resources for a 2/2 — hardly compelling stuff when our opponent could be throwing out Vampires or Archmage Wrenlocke, etc. for that same investment. However, Awakener serves a useful role in longer games because of its ability to recycle many of our troops that have been sent to the crypt, turning the crypt into a useful toolbox. In fact, it is capable of getting back every other troop we play in our deck, as we aren’t running any other troops with a cost greater than 3 (assuming we hit two threshold for Forgotten Monarch), a conscious deck building decision.

Consider it’s synergy with Valiant Escort. This is one of the most common targets to bring back, because of it’s activated ability ensuring it’s very often going to end up in our crypt as the game progresses. Getting an Escort back allows us to protect our board a little better, and can contribute to a combo finish if we have a Monarch in play and our opponent is on their last few points of health. It also functions as a loop of sorts, as we can sacrifice it to bounce the Awakener back to our hand, then replay it getting back the Escort! Useful when you need a disposable blocker every turn.

Likewise, getting back Hopeheart Unicorn allows us to protect our board in matchups against Blood decks, insulating us somewhat against repeated Extinctions, the deck’s toughest matchup. Occasionally it might even be correct to grab a card in your opponent’s crypt, especially with so many decks running utility troops such as Giant Corpse Fly, Phenteo, Vampire Princess, Stargazer, and so on.

Clearing the way

My choice of removal for the main deck is Martyr and Pride’s Fall. Both were chosen because of their cheap cost and ability to interact with some of the most problematic cards we can expect to face. The cost of the removal is especially important, because you want to be able to hold up resources to answer threats on your opponent’s turn while still being able to develop your own board.

Martyr also has a secondary benefit, which is that you can use it on your own troops in situations where it benefits you. The most common scenario when this occurs is when you have a Monarch and Martyr in hand but it’s enters play ability is one point short of killing your opponent. In these instances you could Martyr one of your troops to boost the damage of the Monarch when you subsequently play it. It’s a minor thing but this deck is all about capitalizing on these synergistic interactions, and you’ll be surprised at how often they come up. Unfortunately Martyr does have a big drawback when used on your opponent’s troops (in that they get a Monument of the Martyr), but thankfully many of the popular decks aren’t playing that many relevant troops in their deck in the first place.

Bringing in the Reserves

For the more common matchups I’ll outline my reserve strategies as of the time of writing below, but please note that due to the ever-changing nature of the metagame you may want to develop your own reserve strategies.

W/S Winter Moon Control

IN:

To disrupt their value engine we bring in Drowned Shrine of Ulthar, Frost Wizard and Subtle Striker.

To provide another element to the deck and give us something to do when our opponent has interrupt cards and the resources to use them, we bring in Soul Marble.

OUT:

Hopeheart Unicorn is an easy cut as it doesn’t have a large impact on the matchup, and the additional cuts depend on the speed I want to take the game at. If I want to speed up, I’ll remove Neophyte Awakener and Midnight Shepherd, and if I suspect I need to slow down I’ll cut Deadeye Ripper and Flamehand Invoker.

D/W Rutherford Banks

IN:

Once again Subtle Striker and Frost Wizard are brought in to disrupt their champion ability and shut off crypt shenanigans.

Solitary Exile is brought in to provide a removal spell that doesn’t put the troop in the crypt, and we can afford to use the double diamond threshold card because we know due to the nature of their deck we won’t need the double diamond right away.

Eye of Lixil may come in if we suspect a lot of wild threshold threats, and usually I play this choice by ear.

OUT:

To make room I may shave a few Pride’s Fall, as well as take out Hopeheart Unicorn and Deadeye Ripper. If I don’t think they’re running much removal I’ll take out Neophyte Awakener.

Blood based Control decks

IN:

Solitary Exile will be brought in to deal with Xentoth’s Inquisitor and Monsuun, Shogun of Winda’jin, as well as Kill to provide more answers to Vampires.

As with Winter Moon, we’ll bring in Soul Marble, with the intention of shutting off their targeted removal cards as the game goes long.

OUT:

Prodigy of Volosolov typically doesn’t stick around long enough to make an impact, so some number may end up benched. Deadeye Ripper is very often rendered obsolete by Vampires so that too is removed. Finally, I’ll typically cut half my Flamehand Invokers.

Burn decks

IN:

Frost Wizard to provide protection against Ragefire, stopping the card from getting shuffled back into their deck, and it also stops Sunsoul Phoenix from threatening to return to play.

Eye of Lixil is impossible for them to remove once it hits the board, so may come in to present a durable threat.

If I know they’re playing lots of draw actions, I’ll also bring in the Drowned Shrine of Ulthar.

I’ll also change the minor gem in my Monarchs to the Minor Diamond of Life, to help keep my life total healthy.

OUT:

Pride’s Fall is taken out because it’s usually useless, and if they possess no troops I’ll also take out Martyr.

Midnight Shepherd and Neophyte Awakener are both simply too slow to be relevant in the match-up so they’re cut. If I need additional slots, I may also remove Hopeheart Unicorn as its double Diamond threshold requirement can often leave it stranded in our hand for a while, something we simply can not risk.

Possible Tweaks to Playtest

There are still a few cards I have not gotten around to playtesting yet, and could be worth considering if you’re interested in making some changes yourself:
Sudden Awakening could be an interesting inclusion because of the bounceback potential it provides; bringing Midnight Shepherd back into play from the crypt on my opponent’s end phase could be an exciting play, though it’s requirements to cast (and no sacrifice outlets to abuse it) may hold this card back.
Mistlord is an unimpressive card on paper but has a lot of play to it — we’re never going to play it for its mediocre statline, but the shift ability can provide repeatable utility for our Forgotten Monarchs and Neophyte Awakeners, as well as protection against removal. One to consider for slower grindier matchups.
Merciless Culler is one of the few options at our disposal for dealing with Spellshield troops, an annoying keyword that when put on a beefy troop can stall our game plan. Culler does help, but unfortunately its double Blood threshold means in order to seriously consider it we’d have to revamp the resource base of the deck.
Got another card in mind you think could fit well with the deck? Let me know! I love feedback.

Final Thoughts

Usually the strongest approach to take when first building a deck is determining what the weaknesses of existing popular decks are and exploiting them. It’s also very important to ensure you enjoy playing the deck, and the Midnight Express serves as a happy medium between the two for me, personally. One of the advantages of playing rogue decks is presenting new problems for which existing decks simply don’t have great answers, and with that often comes mistakes from the pilot of the deck.

I hope you’re able to take away some useful information from this article, and encourage you to try out the deck if you want to try something new. I’m not here to convince you that Midnight Express is the best deck, but in a troop-light environment where hard removal is less prevalent, it’s an incredible threat. If that doesn’t sway you, consider how cheap it is to put together! Everyone loves a bargain.

We currently find ourselves in an exciting time with the Invitational in everyone’s minds, and I’m stoked to see what comes next for this diverse meta we find ourselves in. Thanks for reading, and may you find yourself reaping rewards!

Twitch: twitch.tv/lightreaper

Twitter: @LightReaperHex

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

3 Comments on The Midnight Express

  1. Love the deck and will be trying it out tonight 🙂

  2. Saw you play this deck on Twitch last weekend. Loved the flexibility of it. Must have taken a lot of practice to get it right. Very impressed with your work and will try the deck out for myself!

  3. @Corpselocker: I’d love to know how you find it! Thanks for the comment.

    @dystopia1972: It’s been an on & off idea that I’d been messing around with for over six months, to mixed success until recently. It’s really easy to make a bunch of mistakes with this deck between knowing which thresholds are the best to get at a given moment, and how much to deploy to the board at any given time. I have made *SO MANY* mistakes piloting this deck, but the difficulty of all of the interactions has drilled into me a great game sense and discipline so I think it’s worth the trouble.

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