This guest piece was submitted Ninjela.

Hey folks! Did you enjoy the recent ECQ? Are you feeling like you didn’t see quite enough Cultists to satisfy? Want to know how you can get in on that Xenan action for this weekend’s Melee event? Well, you’re in luck! Those cultists carried me to a record of 24-4 in Stage 1 of the ECQ, locking in the #2 spot in the top 64, and I’m here to tell you all about them: the keystone cards, the choices I made for what to include, and even some tips for various match-ups you might encounter on the Expedition ladder.

Who am I?

My name is Angela, aka Ninjela (she/her or ze/zir pronouns). I’ve been playing Eternal since September 2018; I took a couple months’ hiatus starting around March, but came back in June, shortly after the release of Dark Frontier. Prior to Eternal, my experience with Card Collecting Games consisted of a brief and very casual stint with Hearthstone; and a childhood adoration of Pokemon cards, which was much more focused on the ‘collecting’ and less on the ‘game’ (though more for lack of opponents than lack of interest!). 

My adventures in deck building and tuning began when I found myself dissatisfied with the budget netdecks that had given me my start. I didn’t have the Shiftstone for the costlier, more competitive decks I had my eye on (or I didn’t want to spend it before I knew I liked how a deck played), so I started looking through my collection for cards that might fill similar roles to the more expensive cards I lacked. And it worked! My budget-ish versions were certainly not as effective as their top-tier counterparts, but they were effective. Before long I was analyzing my decks for weak points and swapping cards out not because I couldn’t craft them, but because I thought something else might work better in its place. Nowadays you’ll find me comparing notes with fellow deck builders over Discord, offering suggestions to brewers looking to take a new deck for a spin, and, well, writing articles like this one!

Now, without any further ado…

How About Them Cultists?

You can find my ECQ decklist here. It went through a lot of tuning and testing before I landed on this particular configuration of cards, and there’s still a lot of room for flexibility, depending on personal preference and the state of the meta; let’s get into some of the different aspects of the deck, and why I made the choices I did.

The Power Package

Getting stuck on low power with this deck is going to make for a bad day, while ramping up ahead of your opponent can close out the game in your favor before they have their feet under them. The High Prophet of Sol is your best friend in that regard, particularly in the early game, as is bargaining the Ark of Sol out of the market. The latter is especially helpful when it comes to influence fixing; securing the 3 Shadow and 2 Time influence required by the deck’s heavy hitters is key. 

I further ensure sufficient power draw by running three copies of Vara’s Favor, though the same role could also be filled by Talir’s Favored. The damage from Vara’s is useful both in the mirror match to deprive the opponent of their sacrificial fodder, and in other matchups against such frequent enemies as Shen-Ra, Unbreakable, Trail Maker, and Resolute Monk (as well as occasionally killing an enemy unit after chump blocking); and it contributes to the steeper Shadow influence requirement. Talir’s, on the other hand, provides another body for blocking or sacrificing, and this deck is always hungry for more of those. Each provides its own benefit; you might try out both and decide which works better for your approach.

In earlier iterations I ran full sets of both Emblems of Makkar and Grodov, but in the end I removed them both. This was more a personal decision than an objectively strategic one:  I found that when it came to deciding whether to Decimate, it didn’t matter which I did–I ended up regretting it. Either I saved the power for heavy hitters I never drew, or I spent it and got stuck with a hand full of expensive cards I couldn’t play. The cumulative damage was enough to prevent me from winning a few times; the extra units felt either insufficient or superfluous; and I found myself dreading every time I drew one. This was absolutely a case of the bad experiences standing out to me more than the good, but the end result was a lot of stress, frustration, and tilt. Removing them eliminated that stress, freed up my mental load to focus on the deck’s other decisions, and altogether made it much more fun to play. Sometimes knowing yourself is as important as knowing your cards; this was one of those times for me. But if you’re someone who hates to see power go to waste, or who thrives on the sort of card advantage emblems provide, then try them out and see how they work for you!

One option I’m considering for future iterations is including some Amber Coins. The shift toward depleted power could be a problem for the first few turns, and that concerns me; but on the other hand, a free source of more bodies to sacrifice has great value at any point in the game. It’s something I intend to try, and we’ll see how it goes!

The Sacrificial Fodder

Both your power ramp and your best removal get better the more units you have in the void, so we need plenty of them to be able to send there. These can be small bodies that don’t add much value to the field (such as Talir’s Favored and the Wisp from Amber Coin, mentioned above), or they can be small bodies that add value to the field when they die. Since I’m not running Talir’s Favored or Amber Coin (and since those sources aren’t cultists), my primary source of the first category is Nahid’s Choice. I will almost always play this for the two Cultists, especially in the early game; they are my best bet of activating the Ark of Sol, and are also excellent options for buffing Nahid’s Faithful or even just chump blocking some aggro. (That’s not to say you should never play it for the second ability; playing it the turn after they’ve pulled something from the market can really mess up your opponent’s day!)

In the second category, I have Slumbering Stone. A unit that replaces itself with a better unit when it dies? What’s not to love? The downside to the Stone is that it isn’t a cultist, so it doesn’t ramp your power with Sol or synergize with Karvet (discussed below). The upsides? Among others, sweeper such as Shen-Ra Speaks (without Decimate) or Malediction will leave you with some nice shiny flying gargoyles your opponent will still have to deal with. (If you think your opponent just pulled a sweeper from their market, it might be a good idea to hold back on blocking with or sacrificing that stone!)

For a while I was also running Dark Wisp, as another card that would provide value when it died. I found that at two cost, it was too slow to be worth it; as a non-cultist it didn’t contribute to the Prophet’s ramp, and the single card draw didn’t feel like enough of a payoff. It’s not the worst idea, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Removal Suite

There are a lot of people saying that Worthy Cause is the best removal in the format right now, and for good reason. Even when you don’t have enough units in the void to kill with it, the silence will shut down aggressive Mastery units like Varret, Hero-in-Training and Teething Whelp that otherwise threaten to kill you before you get to your endgame; once you’ve filled your void a bit, it becomes an answer to just about anything. And since it’s at fast speed, you can optimize efficiency with tactics like blocking one attacker, then sacrificing that blocker to kill another attacker, saving yourself from both sources of damage.

For those few cases where Worthy Cause doesn’t quite cut it, I’ve slotted some backup options into the market. Fell Ritual is good to grab when you know there’s a big threat coming down the line (such as a mastery you weren’t able to prevent going off or a site agenda finishing) or if they just played a big threat you need an answer to. (The Nihil Draconus it creates rarely comes up, but it is one more unit in your void, and it occasionally becomes relevant in ways I’ll discuss later in the Void Recursion section.) If their threats are spread across multiple lower-health bodies rather than one big guy, then Malediction is what you want to mess up their day. (Useful against aggro decks before they get off mastery, and in the mirror to kill their Prophets and sacrifice fodder in one fell swoop!) At one point I also carried Edict of Makkar for super-cheap early game removal, but I found that there were too many threats it couldn’t be used against (from Teething Whelp and Varret to the big threats of the mirror match), and when I wasn’t playing it until turn 4 at the earliest anyway, it was better to just stick with less restricted removal.

If you still don’t feel like you quite have enough removal, I’ve seen some people running Fell Ritual in the main deck instead of the market, and that may well be worth considering. Devouring Shadow is a less costly option that I’ve seen recommended, especially if you don’t find yourself bringing back the Nihil Draconus; it’s one I intend try out myself. I’ve also seen a number of people starting to run Edict of Grodov, much to my repeated frustration, and that is well worth considering; by putting its target on the bottom of the deck instead of into the void, it foils all our void synergy, and it can cancel your spells (after sacrifice) in addition to units.

While it may not technically fall under the category of removal, I’m going to give Scorpion Wasp an honorable mention as well. The combination of Ambush and Deadly has allowed me to deal with threats when, for example, Daring Gryffin came into play or the opponent gave their heavy hitter Aegis. I only found room for two copies in my deck; there were times I wished for more, but other times where it served only as dead weight in my hand. Overall I think it balances out and I’m pretty happy with two as the right number, but that might change as the meta shifts.

The Card Draw Engine

Between needing to replenish a board of units-for-sacrifice and, on a good day, having more power from ramp than we know what to do with, this deck is incredibly hungry for card draw. That comes first and foremost from four copies of Devour. One of my absolute favorite plays to make with this deck is to block an attacking mastery unit with a Slumbering Stone, then cast Devour on my blocker; they make no mastery progress, I draw two cards and gain a bit of health, and I get a 2/2 flyer. Even outside that ideal, this card turns any chump block into something that generates needed value for you. 

The other two primary sources of card draw I included are Eager Offering and Wingbrewer. I included three and two, respectively, but the numbers for these two are more flexible. Each has its pros and cons. Wingbrewer gives you more cards in the long run, and it generates more units in the end, assuming it survives that long; but you have to spend power for each draw, which is often not feasible until much later in the game. Eager Offering gives you a nice blocking body and then is one-and-done; much more feasible in the early game, but overall less value. (I’ve also noticed that opponents seem more willing to let Eager Offering go, whereas they’re quick to kill Wingbrewer when they get the chance, but that is strictly anecdotal; your mileage may vary.) Overall, I found it valuable to have both options available, with an extra copy of Eager Offering for its early game accessibility. I’ve also seen some folks running Fenris Nightshade as a card draw alternative, and while his draw is slower, his substantial body is well suited to a more aggressive strategy.

The Void Recursion

Let me tell you about my favorite early-game unit: Nahid’s Faithful. I almost always wait to play him until I have something to sacrifice for the buff, and between his size and the Lifesteal he may single-handedly be the strongest early game weapon in our arsenal against aggro decks. But for all his value on the field, I am always eager to trade him with an enemy unit and see him go into the void.

Why? Because then I can bring him back with Shadowlands Guide and make him even bigger. Truly, a one-cost 6/5 Lifesteal unit is a thing of beauty, one that your opponent will absolutely have to deal with–and those are resources they then won’t have available to spend on your later big threats. Haven’t been able to get any Faithful in your void? No worries, the next best thing is having the Guide bring back our old friend the Slumbering Stone!

I started out with four copies of Nahid’s Faithful and three of Shadowlands Guide, but I reduced it to three and two to make room for some of my late-game cards. If you’re a more aggressive player who wants to hit the early game hard and fast, then more is better!

Originally I was also running a full set of Immortalize in the main deck for further recursion, but I generally found that it was too slow, my best units were too often silenced in the mirror, and I just about never used more than one in a given game. I took it out and moved a single copy to the market instead, and have been much happier with it there. It stays put when I’m already winning, but in a close match where we’re both running short on cards, I’ll grab it out and bring back a big threat (say, perhaps, the Nihil Draconus from Fell Ritual) after they spend the last of their removal, and that’s been enough to turn the corner for me on a few occasions. It isn’t overly necessary to the deck, and it’s possible something else would be better in that slot, but I’ve been very happy keeping it as a backup option.

The Closers

Every deck needs its win conditions. This one has some really shiny, really fun win conditions. These are what everything else we’ve talked about is designed to set you up to play.

Incarnus, Makkar’s Listener is played for the card she creates for you on summon. Sure, the 3/3 unblockable is nice, and if her mastery is completed she becomes a monster; but that is by far the lesser concern. Her randomly-generated cards may provide the Lifesteal you need to get back in the game; the removal you need to turn the corner; or the win condition you never would have thought to look for. If I could play five copies of Incarnus, I would. (In fact, I have; she has a chance of generating a copy of herself as one of the three cards to choose from, and I will take it every time.)

Karvet, Solar Dragon is the reason I call this deck Cultists, not merely Xenan. With this dragon on the field, sacrificing your 1/1 cultists to Worthy Cause or Devour provides you even more value through the resulting Exalted weapons. He makes Nahid’s Faithful even more valuable; a 4/3 (or greater) Lifesteal weapon is no small thing. Even without any cultists on the board, his Lifesteal keeps you in the game, and with flying he is positioned to either defend against the majority of aggressive threats, or go on the attack himself. Karvet is an absolute magnet for removal, and I rarely see him last longer than a turn or two; but if you can follow him up with a second copy, chances are that’s lights out for your opponent. Some people like to run only a single Karvet in the market; I feel pretty strongly about running as many as I can, for that ability to follow up one with another whenever possible.

Xenan Temple takes all the necessary aspects of this deck–card draw, removal, sending things to the void–and wraps them up in a single package. Assuming I have the units out to defend it, it’s not uncommon for an opponent to concede the moment it hits the field. It’s particularly brutal in the mirror match; stealing the opponent’s units reduces the effectiveness Prophet, Worthy Cause, and Shadowlands Guide alike, all while making your own that much more powerful. It can lead to some particularly fun times with Karvet in play, as well: play Xenan Initiation on a cultist, trade it with an enemy unit, play the Exalted weapon with killer on another cultist, repeat, until they have no units left. And should you manage to defend the site until its agenda is complete, Worldjoiner is absolutely devastating. The only challenge with the Temple is that it does need to be defended in order to see the majority of its value; if you don’t have any units in play, it turns into very expensive card draw. I started out with Temple in the Market, but wasn’t satisfied having access to only a single copy, so into the main deck it went. I found three copies to be the right number; enough that I would likely see one or two in a game,  while reducing the chances of getting stuck with a hand full of Temples and nothing to play them with.

If all that still isn’t enough to secure you the win, Vara, Fate-Touched is waiting in the market to bring it home. Play Vara, bring back Karvet; the cultist he generates will allow you to bring back another unit. Grab Shadowlands Guide to bring back Nahid’s Faithful as well. When you do, sacrifice your Slumbering stone, which will summon a Gargoyle, triggering Vara’s ability yet again–and so on and so forth. Just be careful the order you select units in, so as to not accidentally cut the chain short; but also be quick about it, as it’s easy to run out of time. But with your board replenished with your biggest threats, and more coming back with each unit you play, your opponent is going to be hard-pressed to find a solution. If you’re a fan of void recursion and late-game play, you might even run two or three copies of Vara in the main deck; I found I preferred keeping her in my pocket as a reserve option and relying on my mid-game threats more, but I think either path would work. 

And there you have it; a nice, long-winded, in-depth exploration of what goes into my Cultists and why.

So how do you play them?

Okay I’m not going to lie, this has turned into a much, much longer piece than I anticipated when I set out. But if it pleases you to bear with me just a little longer, I wanted to offer some pointers for how to approach some of the most common matchups I’ve been seeing. 

Aggro (Stonescar mastery, Rakano Oni, etc)

-If you know what you’re up against at the start of the game, look for an opening hand with as much early play as possible. Ideally you want Nahid’s Faithful and something to sacrifice to buff him, along with some Devours and/or Worthy Causes. You don’t need to be as concerned with power ramp as long as you stay on curve, but you really need those early units on the board to slow them down. This isn’t as applicable on the ladder where you can’t really know what your opponent is playing until a couple turns in, but it matters a lot in tournaments with known deck lists!

-Early lifegain is absolutely critical, whether through Nahid’s Faithful, Devour, or Incarnus draws. Don’t trust that you can wait for Karvet and come back with his Lifesteal; you may not last long enough to rely on that. If you think they’re about to spend removal on it, attack in and get that bit of health back rather than holding it back to block. Look for every little bit you can get.

-Chump block, then sacrifice to prevent a unit with mastery from doing any damage!

Stonescar Midrange

-Their early game tends to look very similar to Stonescar aggro; a lot of the same advice applies. Make sure you have units on the field to block with, sacrifice your chump blockers to deny their mastery progress.

-Their mid and late game, however, revolves around many of the same big threats you play: Karvet, Incarnus, and sometimes Vara. Power ramp is much more important here; you want to get yours out before they get theirs out. Your Temple is also that much more powerful in these match-ups; if you can get those units into your own void, you have the chance to recur them in the end game.

Elysian

-Between Sodi’s Spellshaper, Sodi the Metamorph, and now the new addition of Sodi, Wingbreaker, Elysian can quickly outstrip you when it comes to card draw. Prioritize denying it wherever possible, whether chump blocking the Spellshaper or spending your removal on the card-drawing units.

-It is almost always better for your unit to be in your void with the potential for recursion than in your hand transformed into something else. Liberally sacrifice whatever they target with Equivocate off the Spellshaper.

Hooru

-There are a few varieties of Hooru going around, and it seems folks are still experimenting to find what works best; be prepared to see anything from aggro to curses to the beast that Antman took to second place in the ECQ.

-If your unit gets Permafrosted, don’t be too concerned; that just makes it a good candidate to sacrifice. (This is true of most curses; the curse will be discarded when the unit goes to the void.) Unless it’s Karvet, whose passive ability conveniently remains in place while he’s stunned. Feel free to leave him out there and keep playing cultists to turn into weapons all day long. 

-Be wary of the buff and particularly the Aegis from Parul’s Choice; it’s a good reason to keep a Scorpion Wasp in reserve.

Xulta Loyalist is a problem, and honestly one I haven’t figured out how to handle. You can’t get rid of it until it emerges; if you spend your removal on the units it buffs while shifted, you don’t have any left when it comes into play, but if you hold some in reserve, you’re liable to be run over before it ever comes to the surface. It’s another case where Lifesteal early and often is your best bet, and hoping for a good draw off Incarnus can help too. Beyond that, I’ll be looking into options to tech against that particular threat, and I’d be happy to hear any suggestions anyone has.

Hooru Pacifier was just added to Expedition this week, and it has the potential to really shake things up. With weapons out of play, the exalted weapons from Karvet’s cultists go into the bin; they become little more than board filler. It’ll take time and testing to see just how much that affects the matchup with Hooru lists, but I suspect the Pacifier will need to be a high priority for removal.

The Dreaded Mirror

-Prevent your opponent’s power ramp. Silence their Prophets, block their cultists so they can’t use Ark. It’s better to prevent them from ever playing their big threats than to try and remove them as they come out.

-If they get Prophet and a board of sacrifice fodder going and you don’t, grab Malediction to knock their feet out from under them! But be wary of them doing the same to you–keeping back that second Prophet and extra Nahid’s Choice an extra turn or two can allow you to replenish your board state and get back on track without missing a beat. 

-If they’ve just played a Merchant, that’s a good time to play Nahid’s Choice for its second ability. Don’t give them the chance to play that removal spell or Temple they just went to fetch!

-In the first few turns, attack in with your cultists even if they have enough 0/x blockers to block everything. Many opponents will suspect a trick and not block to preserve their units, and that will give you a chance to play Ark of Sol. Conversely, always block your opponent’s cultists; don’t give them that chance.

-If they hit your unit with Worthy Cause or Edict of Grodov, void recursion becomes worthless or impossible. Sacrifice their target to send it to the void with skills and stats in-tact. Conversely, if they play units you don’t want coming back, prioritize those as targets for your own Worthy Cause.

-Always be thinking a few turns ahead. In particular, look for how you’ll be able to kill their Xenan Temple before they play it. More mirror matches are decided by who gets the temple out first than anything else, but if you can kill it in the first couple turns its out, you’ll still be in the game.

-If they start the Exalted-killer-cultist chain, sacrificing the unit they target with killer will stop it in its tracks.

General Advice, or Certain Cards To Watch For

-Daring Gryffyn is obnoxious; even more than most decks, we don’t want to spend the extra spells to make it go away. Your best options are to put a Karvet in front of it, or catch it off guard with a Scorpion Wasp; both take advantage of its Reckless nature. You’ll see this a lot in both Hooru and Elysian matchups, or really anything running Primal.

-Edict of Grodov was mentioned in regards to the mirror, but it bears repeating here, as you may see it in Elysian or Combrei matches as well. Again, if they send your unit to the bottom of your deck, you can’t bring it back from the void! If you can, sacrifice the target to send it to your void instead and get some extra value out of the trade. And be aware that the Edict can be used to cancel your Worthy Causes as well.

That might not cover every card or deck you’ll find yourself up against, but it should cover a pretty broad spectrum of them. Now it’s up to you to take this knowledge, turn it into the cultists deck that works best for you, and play up a storm with it in the QCP Melee event this weekend!

See you in game!

If you want to submit a Guest piece, reach out to Mantid on Twitter or Discord.

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