Preview: Challenger #5 – The Event
September 13, 2019 by JMJWilson23
After looking back at the path to qualification for every competitor in Part 1, it’s time to look ahead to Challenger itself. Since we last left off on the Gwent esports scene about 5 months ago, a great deal has changed in the Gwent world. Here, we will analyze what these changes mean for the upcoming Challenger, as well as use a bit of historical context to attempt to make some predictions surrounding the tournament.
New Faction, New Challenges
The most drastic shift since the last Gwent Masters event is probably the introduction of a sixth faction, the Syndicate. A change from utilizing four out of five factions to four out of six factions has a massive impact on designing lineups that cannot be overstated. As the old saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The same holds true for Conquest lineups as well. For any lineup, the most crucial part is the weakest one or, in some cases, two decks. We have seen this trend occur repeatedly at Gwent Masters events, such as in Gwent Open #8 where most series boiled down to which competitor could successfully secure a victory with their Nilfgaard deck. Not only does an additional faction raise the power level of the worst deck in a lineup on average, it also opens up the opportunity for additional strategies. Too often, competitors would seek to craft a cohesive strategy with all four decks, only to fall at the last hurdle when they are unable to come up with a fourth deck to fit the mold. With one additional option, the odds that competitive decks from four unique factions fit together into one strategy is heightened.
In terms of possible strategies, the new faction also has a profound impact on those. In the past, we have seen examples of “hard-targeting” strategies with mixed degrees of success. This strategy is most successful when a deck is common (to make the matchup more likely), while also being one of the weaker decks in a lineup so that it is easier to defeat. The addition of another faction makes the strategy weaker on both fronts by strengthening the average power of a lineup and also making the likelihood of finding a specific target matchup less likely. Instead, the new dynamic with six factions rewards an approach in which players are able to strengthen their lineup against key matchups while not emphasizing any one matchup too heavily.
Naxx Out, Fran In
The other key development leading up to Challenger is the release of a large patch only two weeks before the opening of Challenger and even closer to the deadline for the deck submissions. This left the competitors with the difficult task to not only quickly discover the strongest decks, but also practice them enough to craft a complete lineup. As ever, the importance of finding partners with which to practice in a controlled setting is vital to gain an accurate picture of lineup options and matchups and this importance is only heightened with such a short turnaround from the beginning of the season to the opening day of the tournament.
Following the most recent update, we seem to be left in a healthy meta with diversity and relatively even balance between the factions. The early candidate to absorb the most bans in the tournament is Francesca Findabair ('Mystic Echo') and the accompanying Harmony deck. This deck is resilient to its weaknesses while also offering built-in techs against many opposing strategies, such as Poison cards to deal with tall (high-power) opponent units.
That said, it is not impossible to envision a lineup in which Francesca is not the preferred ban and the player instead opts to utilize a greedy strategy heavy on engines to soft-target Francesca. The strategy is risky, as it can easily be defeated by many other decks heavier on control elements and drop games to Francesca Harmony itself. The upside of most likely finding the target matchup in most series is appealing however, so it remains an option for competitors. Aside from Francesca Harmony dictating the upper end of strategies, it is up to the players to find which of the weaker decks they can stomach most easily. Many series will likely be decided based upon the decks from Monsters, Nilfgaard, and Skellige that end up at the tournament and how they match up with each other and the more popular options.
It is of course an impossible task to predict what may happen in the tournament without knowledge about the lineups or even the bracket at this point. The best we can hope to accomplish is to use historical context as a means to analyze what trends may recur in this tournament once again.
Historically, experience has dominated Gwent Masters events. Of the last six Gwent Open tournaments, four have been won by competitors with past experience while only AndyWand (Gwent Open #5) and wangid1 (Gwent Open #8) have won in a first-time appearance. A Challenger (aside from the first of course) has never been won by a first-time competitor. At the same time, each tournament has introduced us to newcomers who break through by reaching the semi-finals or even the finals, so it is unwise to write off anyone in the field.
With little activity on the Gwent Masters front in recent months, it is difficult to estimate in what kind of form the competitors find themselves, so I must fall back on the context above to make any kind of prediction for the tournament. Before I move forward, I have to clarify that I do not mean to downplay the achievements or skills of any player in the field; each player has worked hard and performed at a high level to reach this point. That said, there are a few standout players that have delivered consistent performances over the past two years of the Gwent Masters circuit. Among them, I would put Kolemoen as the (very) early front runner because he possesses the best combination of historic performances (1 win among 3 finals appearances and 5 semi-final appearances) and success since Homecoming with his finals appearance in Gwent Open #8. As for a dark-horse candidate, I would keep an eye on magpie131. He may be a newcomer to the Masters scene, but he has demonstrated his tournament skills with a smart targeting strategy in the online qualifiers as well as playing consistently on ladder between Open #8 and this Challenger.
All things considered, this is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing Masters events in some time. We will see Syndicate in action for the first time with a cast of some of the game’s most iconic figures at the forefront. On top of it all is the implication for Gwent World Masters and the qualification up for grabs to the winner of this Challenger. It will certainly be exciting to see whether an experienced vet can secure the fifth Challenger ring or if one of the upstart newcomers can overcome the odds and capture glory.