Welcome to the first in a series of articles taking a deep dive into the Defiance limited format. I realize this is a bit delayed, but the set had an unfortunate release date for me, since I spent a good portion of December traveling, then it was right back to work after the holidays.
Nonetheless, I hope this series of articles is of use to some folks out there who may just be picking up the game, or perhaps some of you who have been around may find the more in-depth set reviews helpful.
I do want to preface this and all of my set reviews with the fact that I’m a filthy casual. I don’t devote tons of time to grinding card games anymore, but that just means that I try to play at the highest level possible when I do find the time. If I only have an hour to play, I damn sure want to win if I can, or revel in memes if I can’t. That does color my reviews a bit. I may be off on some cards due to lack of experience or desire to meme, though I hope that I at least do a decent job justifying the line of thinking that leads me to particular grades.
In addition to this article, I have also written six card-by-card reviews with grades and discussion for each card. Those are linked below:
This article, on the other hand, will include very little single-card discussion. It is intended to be an overview of the format as I see it. I’ll go over the primary archetypes, as well as any other noteworthy potential build-around cards and cycles. First, and most importantly:
Defiance is a three-faction format
Any format that has powerful three-faction cards at common and uncommon is going to be a format where you are basically forced to play three factions if you want to win. Defiance backs that up with a number of faction fixers at low rarities. You may be able to draft cohesive two-faction decks, but you will be missing out on a great deal of potential power from the three-faction cards.
Only five of the ten possible three-faction combinations are represented in Defiance, meaning you’ll want to slot yourself into one of those for best results. I’ll discuss each of them briefly below. But first, there is one mechanic found across all five factions, and it’s quite an interesting one: Pledge.
Pledge allows you to play the card as if it were a sigil of any of its factions, but you can only do this on your first turn. After that, Pledge does nothing. It’s a bit of a weird mechanic, seemingly tacked on at random to a lot of cards at all rarities. It is better on the more expensive cards, since your opening hand is exactly where you don’t want to see an 8-drop. However, there’s nothing really to do with Pledge. Nothing cares about whether or not a card has Pledge. It’s just a first-turn-only upside. What it does do is sometimes turn a hand that would be unkeepable into a keepable one, effectively adding an extra power to it. Don’t draft a card specifically for pledge, but do take note of how many pledges end up in your deck at the end. If you have enough (not sure on the exact number), you may be able to shave a power, but probably never more than one, since pledges drawn after the first turn won’t help you.
I’ll discuss the faction combinations individually in a moment, but drafting is a gradual process. You need to start somewhere, and the best strategy is usually to stay as open as possible until you see something worth committing to, such as a late Display or other splashy three-faction card. Taking hard-to-play multifaction cards with your opening picks is not always a great strategy because you could find yourself cut off from that faction pairing later on, meaning you’ve wasted your first pick(s)!
However, in this format, you are eventually looking to settle into one of the five multifaction wedges, meaning you’ll actually have a little more freedom to take two-faction cards in the opening picks. The five wedges break down as:
If you look closely at these combinations, there are five two-faction combinations that appear in multiple wedges. These are:
Skycrag (Instinct, Honor)
Rakano (Honor, Ambition)
Argenport (Ambition, Vision)
Xenan (Vision, Knowledge)
Elysian (Knowledge, Instinct)
With that in mind, it’s highly beneficial to start your draft in one of these five pairings, since you’ll be able to tack on one of two other factions, depending on what is open. Keep that in mind while drafting. If you wind up in something else after pack 1, say, Combrei, you really can only go from there to Vision, unless you abandon an entire faction’s worth of your picks. Not ideal!
While it’s surely possible to draft a good deck outside the five main wedges, you’re losing out on a lot of potential power from the strong multifaction cards in those wedges. Don’t force yourself to play a wedge, certainly, but an “alternative” deck should be a fail case, not the norm.
(I am not certain which of the names is the “official” name of these factions. I’m going to go with the trait, Instinct, over the location, since that’s somewhat future-proof.)
The Instinct mechanic is Amplify, which allows you to pay the Amplify cost any number of times to repeat the card’s effect. These cards are generally fine for their cost at the base rate, with amplify being a significant upside that will allow you to turn your single card into multiple cards worth of value if the game goes long. To amplify most cards, you’ll need 7 or 8 power, or even more if you want to leverage multiple amplifications. Dune Painter (above) is a nifty little build-around card for the Amplify deck, and I could see them getting pretty crazy in multiples, if you are lucky enough to have them and a sufficient density of Amplify effects. The amplify cards are mostly playable without ramp effects, but keep an eye out for them during drafting, as an early amplified Sauropod or similar can slam the door in a hurry.
The curated packs include Trail Maker which is absolutely bonkers in this deck, both fixing and ramping you (and providing a body for your Sauropods or Mighty Strikes to target).
Honor is, apparently, all about winning combats by cheating. No, really, you get bonuses for altering the terms of an “agreed-upon” combat.
Renown is the Honor mechanic. The first time you either play a spell or weapon targeting a creature with Renown, you get the bonus. It only works once, so keep that in mind.
It will be interesting to see how a clearly beatdown-oriented mechanic fares in a set with slow power bases. The Renown units are fairly mediocre without their renown bonuses, but few of them are truly bad. You’ll want a generous number of tricks and/or weapons to make this mechanic work. That will lead to some number of games where you just draw either all units or all enhancements and wind up getting outclassed by your opponent. However, when the Renown draw comes together, your slower opponents are going to die before they can execute their game plan.
With that in mind, you’ll want to be sure you curve out. This may be the kind of deck where you especially want to be in two primary factions, probably Rakano, splashing some of the better cards from the third, instead of a full three factions, since a beatdown deck is punished much more for stumbling than a deck with bigger catch-up plays. This is doubly so because the deck leans on a specific mix of renown units and things to trigger renown, so sometimes you will be faced with a decision between fixing and a desperately-needed piece of the deck.
For that reason, Barrel Through is very high on my list of picks for this deck. It serves double duty as a key enabler and a fixer.
You might notice a lack of cohesion in these faction examples. That’s because Ambition has no set faction mechanic, for some reason. The classic “goodstuff” combination lies at the intersection of Renown and Empower in this set. FJS has historically wanted to play the midrangiest of midrange games, grinding an opponent down with big units backed up by removal and card advantage. The upside of lacking a cohesive mechanic is that the deck has many interchangeable parts, and you’ll never have a deck completely whiff if you draft the best FJS card in each pack.
Fire and Shadow have the most efficient removal out of all the colors, and Justice gets access to efficient, if conditional, removal as well. Despite being in Fire and Justice, you’ll be able to draft decks that want to play a more relaxed game than the typical Honor decks, taking trades where available, and overwhelming your opponent with bigger threats and card advantage generated through things like Display of Ambition or simply your bevy of hard removal on their weaponed-up threats.
You’ll also have outs to draft Honor-style beatdown decks, replacing Primal’s tricks with Shadow’s removal. You’ll need to be careful when doing this, not to get bogged down by too many of Ambition’s tempting grindy cards, lest your deck wind up lacking cohesion.
Blaze, the tri-faction common here, is pretty bad if you’re behind, which does hurt the faction overall. If you can stall the game out, it gets pretty nuts, but paying 5 power to deal 2 damage in the mid-game is pretty terrible, and you just can’t justify playing too many copies.
Despite its name implying a certain forward thinking, Vision actually takes a step backward to Set 1 for its mechanic, Empower. It’s simple: every time you play a power, you trigger all of your empower effects. The interesting thing this time around is that there are quite a number of ways to play multiple powers in the same turn in Defiance. That means things like Bleak Basin Guide or Resilient Wagoneer (not pictured) can get real scary in a hurry. Vision is another grindy midrange faction wedge, but where Ambition leans slightly more heavily on removal, Vision is more about its efficient threat base, thanks to the inclusion of Time. There are two styles of deck in Vision, which may be to its detriment. One is a beatdown-type deck, full of 2-drops and Bleak Basin Guides, and the other is a go-big ramp deck with all of the various ramp spells curving into a thick top-end.
The split there may lead to some draft decks that wind up falling short of a good version of either of those decks, which means you’ll then be trying to win with a deck that lacks a real cohesive plan. This is especially true since the more aggressive empower cards like Bleak Basin Guide are temporary bonuses, so they will be very bad on defense if you can’t trigger them on your opponent’s turn.
For this reason, I think that one of the best ways to draft this deck may be to start off Xenan or Argenport, with outs to audible to Knowledge or Ambition, respectively, if you find the Vision cards aren’t coming together nicely.
Knowledge is all about relics. There are lots of cards that riff on relics, and several ways to make sure you can have your relics at the ready. This is another synergy archetype, where you’ll want a higher proportion of relics than normal, which can lead to awkward draws. Cards like Acantha’s Outrider are obviously quite strong when they are “on” but a 6-power 3/3 flyer is very mediocre when you can’t cheapen it. Drafting Knowledge will take a bit of finesse, but it’s probably the most rewarding when you get there, both in terms of power level and in terms of fun gameplay, since it will involve a lot of grinding and drawing cards while utilizing some odd, niche effects from your relics.
There are a few more aggressive relics in the set, like Secret Passage, and if you can back those up with things like Acantha’s Outrider, you can actually present a very quick clock despite the clunkiness that might be suggested by the “do-nothing relics” archetype.
Though there are five supported wedges in this draft format, a few of them have multiple different styles of deck that they can support. This can be to their detriment, as they don’t get more cards per pack to account for their split-personality.
The beneficiaries of this are Instinct and Honor, primarily, which are pretty laser-focused on their plans without requiring too many moving pieces that are bad on their own. Honor does need some synergies to come together, but “dudes and tricks” has never really been that bad of a plan.
Knowledge does have a cohesive plan as well, but it is much more vulnerable to whiffing on good synergies than Honor is, since half of its plan is dependent on often-niche relics. One thing it does benefit from is that many of its cards are narrow enough that they won’t often fit into the other wedges that share its factions. Honeypot, for example, is a nice build-around removal spell that pretty much only belongs in this deck, despite it being in Instinct factions; Instinct isn’t often going to have the relics required to make it good.
Ambition just straight-up doesn’t really have a plan at all. It just wants to be a generic “goodstuff” deck, but that can be complicated with many of the Fire and Justice cards leaning more aggressive than it might like. There are certainly going to be viable aggro Ambition decks, but all that means is that the wedge is overall less consistent, but perhaps not so inconsistent as Vision.
Speaking of Vision, I think it really suffers. I haven’t drafted it enough yet to know how difficult it truly is to navigate, but I feel like the cards are too evenly split between beatdown and ramp to be able to commit to one or the other early enough to guarantee you can wind up with enough playables that fit that plan. One notable absence from the re-tooled curated packs is Awakened Student. Taking some generic Vision cards in pack 1, then opening pack 2 with an Awakened Student or two could have been a really great signal to commit to the Empower beatdown, but the removal of Student from the curated packs means that the signals for which way to go will be a lot more muddled. I guess DWD thought it might be too strong in the deck?
I am leery of the generic midrange decks in a format like this. I want to either be doing something aggressive or something way over-the-top. When the power level of threats is as high as it is in Defiance, midrange decks can get easily overpowered in one direction or the other, since their more generic tools may be unsuited for decks with a specific plan. For that reason, my initial impressions would class Vision and Ambition as the weakest of the wedges on average, with Honor and Instinct taking the top slots. Over time, we’ll see if there’s any truth to that.
Now that I’ve gone over the basic archetypes, let’s take a look at some notable aspects of the format as a whole.
The power level of Defiance is very high
I’ve alluded to this previously. Stronger cards on average are a symptom of three-faction formats, since the three-faction cards are naturally going to be a bit stronger than other cards of their rarity, in order to incentivize players to play the full three factions.
However, DWD has pushed more than just the multifaction cards. There are pushed cards all over the place at lower rarities, which can lead to some very sweet decks and very sweet games. In addition to outright-pushed cards, we get lots of interesting synergy-based cards that can achieve really bonkers power levels if you draft around them. I love high-powered formats where multiple strategies are viable, which is why Cube is the king of Magic formats.
Speaking of multiple strategies, the previous format was very aggro-centric due to mechanics like berserk and tribute that both punished blocking. Defiance leaves much more room for slower strategies to flourish, meaning…
Greed is back on the menu!
Because decks in three-faction formats either A) tend to miss on their faction requirements some of the time or B) contain lots of depleted power (e.g., Tokens, Petition, Seek Power), decks that need a little bit of setup time to play more expensive threats or for synergies to align can make that happen more frequently.
The last four of these are older cards from the curated packs that look a lot better in a slower meta. Some, like Bonepicker, were already very solid cards that get even better. Others, like Moondial, just required to much investment to shine, but now you’ll have more time to leverage them. Pretty much any grindy, power-sink type card falls into this category.
In addition to these options, there are tons and tons of crazy bomb rares and legendaries. You can’t guarantee you’ll see them, but even if you don’t, there are several lower-rarity options like Magmatic Sentinel and Tunneling Gargantua (which are basically the same card) that should find their way to you if you want to draft the splashy ramp decks.
In addition to the many new ramp tools in Defiance, the curated packs contain Trail Maker and Secret Pages as ways to accelerate your splashy plays. Trail Maker in particular seems to me like a card that is absolutely bonkers in this format. It was already strong, but the ability to fix for your powerful three-faction plays in addition to ramping you into them faster is a big game.
With all that said, however, the best thing you can be doing when players tend to have clunky powerbases is not to go big and over the top…
Beatdown is still the place to be
Honor is, in my estimation, the best faction wedge in the format. While the greedy decks are certainly a lot more viable than they were in Fall of Argenport, the nature of the 3-faction format means that a good curve-out draw is going to be hard to overcome, especially if you play a turn behind due to depleted power. The renown mechanic further punishes trying to block, since you’ll not only expose your units to getting killed by combat tricks, but your opponent gets even further ahead due to their renown bonuses.
While Honor is the place to be, a well-crafted Vision or Ambition beatdown deck will do the trick, too. These will come together less often, for reasons I outlined above, but if you see the opportunity to be there, take it.
Other notable cards or decks
The Mill Deck
Defiance gives us these two interesting tools that actually make decking your opponent semi-viable. Is it a real deck? No, almost certainly not. But I will be slamming the first Mournful Deathcap I see and giving it a try anyway.
Sadistic Glee on its own can kill an opponent if you’re able to get multiples or things like Dark Return to loop it. You’ll probably need to mill about 30 cards to kill most opponents, all while avoiding dying. The only other non-legendary “mill cards” are Banished Umbren and Fallen Oni, out of the curated packs. These just don’t have high enough impact to really accelerate any sort of clock, and they don’t even block particularly well. Sadistic Glee seems like an okay back-up plan, but I don’t think this deck is good enough to be plan A reliably.
Dubbed so after the classic “I was losing, but now you’re dead” card from Magic, there are a LOT of dangerous cards in this format of which you should be aware when making race calculations in the later turns.
While these aren’t upstairs burn spells like the traditional Fireball, these all represent huge late-game plays that can remove multiple blockers or produce multiple attackers and push through huge chunks of damage. Maddening Whisper is the only one of these that isn’t really a card I’d be super happy including in my deck, but it’s not horrible either, so people will play it, and you will die to it. We’ve had cards like this before (Cloud of Ash, Flame Blast), but they have tended to be very situational or hard to cast, and they have not been in the format with such density at low rarity.
Bottoms Up and Mighty Strikes are the most dangerous of these cards, as your opponent needs only a single thing getting through to be able to dump 8 or 9 power into just killing you out of nowhere. However, as I said, Maddening Whisper is the only one I’d be even slightly unhappy running in the main deck, so people will be playing these cards quite often. If you see Skycrag factions, do your best to not leave yourself open to these off the top on turn 10. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do, of course, but it pays to keep them in mind.
A word on relics
There are TONS of relics in this set. If you’re looking for them, you’ll find at least a few. Many are quite situational or just straight bad. Try to be choosy, and don’t freak out if you get a few relic-matters cards early on. Every time I have drafted the deck, I’ve wound up cutting mediocre relics, so you can be a little bit choosy. Use your judgment, obviously, but don’t go taking Frost Talismans fourth-pick in pack 1 because you’re worried about turning on your relic-matters stuff.
Merchants were fantastic in Fall of Argenport, and these guys are even better. A Black Market is a market in which none of the cards are also in your main deck. In draft, pretty much every market was already a Black Market, since you don’t often have or want multiples of the situational or inefficient cards that go into markets.
Three of these merchants are probably slightly stronger in terms of their bodies than their FoA counterparts, but the real draw to all of them is being able to access multiple factions, which means having access to more situational cards like relic removal or void hate. One key drawback to these merchants is that you won’t be able to easily fit power into the market, since you can’t really use sigils in a black market. So if you do happen to snag a merchant early, you should try to keep an eye out for an off-faction banner or token that you can stick in the market, even if you don’t need the other faction(s) on it.
While you won’t see them very often, these are all very powerful, and there are some weird rules associated with them. It pays to understand them thoroughly, so that you don’t make the same blunder I did when I first played against one. They are very similar to planeswalkers from Magic, but the rules interactions are not quite the same.
Sites occupy the board like units do, taking up two slots. Each of them has a passive ability that gives you a small bonus in addition to everything else. Sites also have a health stat, the big green number. Unlike units, this does not recover at the end of the turn, and once a site reaches zero health, it’s destroyed.
When the opposing player attacks, they have the option to send their units at the site. This is an all-or-nothing choice; you can’t split attacks between an opponent and their site. The site’s controller can block as normal to defend their site. One very important thing to note: you cannot attack sites with relic weapons, even if your opponent has no units. This is perhaps the easiest of the site rules to mess up; since your units can attack sites directly just like players, it’s easy to reason that your relic weapons will function the same way they do with players. I mentioned a blunder above, and this was it. The first time I encountered one of these, I had a relic weapon in hand, with the option to trade it for a unit, then attack, leaving them one unit short of defending their site. Instead, thinking myself clever, I attacked first and got them to trade and chump everything off to protect the site, then played my relic weapon thinking I’d get to finish the site and keep my relic weapon in the exchange. Instead I had to hit their face and went on to lose that game because I didn’t clear the site.
Moving on to what the sites do besides sit there, each site has an agenda associated with it. You should be able to mouse over the card to see each of its agenda spells, if you’re unfamiliar with them. When you play a site, you get to pick one of the agenda spells to play immediately. If your site survives, you get to pick another at the start of each of your turns until the agenda is exhausted. You can’t pick the same agenda spell twice, so keep that in mind. And the spell is chosen at the beginning of your turn, before you can do anything else. This is important to note for things like Mirror Image or Xenan Initiation that require you to target a unit; you can’t wait until you play one. A subtle difference from Magic’s planeswalkers, but it makes turns a lot more streamlined, which I like.
So you’ve been unable to kill your opponent’s site, but at least you’ve weathered the agenda, and now it’s just down to its passive ability, right?
Not quite. Notice the name next to the agenda? Kaleb’s agenda, Worldjoiner’s agenda, and so on? As if three spells plus a passive wasn’t enough, once their agenda is complete, that character shows up to help out! Again, mousing over the site will show the charater’s card.
The bottom line here is that sites represent an absurd amount of value if they aren’t immediately killed. It’s almost always right to abandon all plans of attacking your opponent to send everything you’ve got at a site, since they’ll take over the game very quickly when not dealt with. The only exception to this is if you think you can kill your opponent in the next turn or two.
Phew. There is a lot to unpack about Eternal’s first three-faction draft format, and I’m sure I managed to overlook something. All-in-all, this looks like a great format to explore. There’s room for many different archetypes here, from aggro to control to even “combo” decks. I hope this was a useful read if you’re new to drafting Defiance. While I have done my best to outline the format above, I’ve only covered a small fraction of the total cards in the set here. At the top of the article are linked my detailed set reviews in which I go into deeper discussion about each individual card in Defiance. Give those a read if you want more analysis about particular cards.
If I had to give a two-sentence summary of Defiance it would be this: Be aggressive if you can, and do something over-the-top sweet if you can’t. Just try not to get stuck in the middle.