Fran-tic Pace: Hitting Pro Rank

There is a certain satisfaction that comes with taking the hard road to success. Blazing your own trail towards achieving your goals, rather than taking the path frequently traveled. This is not entirely that kind of discussion. This is more of an article that follows the first two steps of the instruction booklet, and soldiers on from there. This is about how you, too, can get to Pro Rank with Francesca.

I’ve taken the hard road to Pro Rank before, keeping my head firmly in the sand when it comes to net-decking sure-fire winners. When the world was obsessed with Skellige and Arachas Queen, I took Calveit to the promised land. When Brouver, Ardal, and Henselt were reigning terror, I brought Gernichora and Eithne to Rank 0. It was an exercise in stubbornness more so than me trying to prove a point. My goal wasn’t to show that off-meta leaders can reliably bring you to Pro Rank, it was merely that I wanted to prove to myself that I was a good player.

Not this time, though.

When Patch 3.2 released, it addressed dozens of balance issues and redesigns. I had stepped away from playing competitive Gwent shortly after it was announced that balances would be coming to sort out Syndicate, and beyond that Northern Realms. All considered, I hadn’t played Ranked since early July, where I was coming off a June finish in the top 1000. I was a little out of touch. The launch of 3.2 marked two entire patches where I wasn’t competing. With Challenger 5 around the corner, I wanted to play a ton of Gwent, and play it at a high level. I needed to get back to Pro ladder, and needed to get there as efficiently as possible.

Through all the channels and noise on the internet, it was abundantly clear. Francesca was strong. Waters of Brokolon and Call of the Forest made her an absolute force to play against. She was the safe money when looking to win, and win often. A fast-pass from Rank 10 to 0.

With no other guidelines beyond wielding Mystic Echo, and packing Waters of Brokolon and Call of the Forest, I started the journey building a deck I thought would be competitive. What I ended up with was a bulldozer that had no time for your silly tactics or bleedy ways.

Final List

Record from Rank 10 to 0: 56-13-1

The list’s core underwent a few changes as I progressed from Rank 10 to 0. Resisting the urge to continuously tinker with choices after each rare loss, I heeded the well-crafted advice of some of my Twitch viewers who questioned some of my card inclusions. The most prominent caution offered up was in regards to Nilfgaard, and the newly viable Tourney Joust. With Assassination floating around in pairs, Tourney Joust was now equally as detrimental to sending out early game units like Hawker Smuggler or Elven Swordmaster. These 4-point bodies were easy fodder for cheap removal, and perhaps it was best to include more reactionary cards, rather than send out some small bodies to die.

Ultimately, the core of the list stayed quite firm, and was able to play on both sides of the coin comfortably. I had a fairly confident gameplan going into each matchup, which inspired what cards to include. Though many of the suggestions I received were well versed and relevant, my final push to Pro was after reverting back to a deck list that closely reflected what I started out with, save for a few adjustments towards the meta.

Card Choices

Dwarven Skirmisher: I originally packed a pair of these in order to cheaply answer 3-strength threats such as the Fire Scorpion, or the Nekurat. As things progressed, I cut back to a single copy, as it became more of a liability in later rounds.

Hawker Smuggler: I had to defend this choice against doubters more than any other card. What many rightfully suspected was a card that was easily nullified by removal or movement, I stood by. My strategy was never to aggressively pursue Round 1, and as such, needed cards that gave me an advantage at later stages, while absorbing disruptions.

Alzur’s Thunder: Quite frankly, I needed a card that would immediately answer Skellige bronzes, as well as eliminate key cards in the mirror. Being able to zap away Pavko Gale, Botchling, Damien de la Tour, or other annoyances often shut down any attempts to pressure me.

Vrihedd Dragoon: The deck doesn’t feature many Elves, so throwing in a 5-for-5 that can trigger harmony, disrupt row-locked units, or rescue your own misplaced engines seems like a fair piece.

Strengths and Weaknesses

You can usually nail down the proper route to victory simply by seeing what leader you’re facing off against. As you climb the ladder, strategies and deck lists will become increasingly familiar and streamlined, allowing you to see your lines of play before the first cards are even dropped. Knowing which leaders will likely bleed you in Round 2, and which decks will prefer a longer final round shapes your own pace of play. Exploiting weaknesses of your opponent’s decks while protecting your own shortcomings is a finely tuned balance you need to find. That is, if you even have any exploitable weaknesses.

Francesca is fairly strong across the board. Able to fight through long rounds and go toe-to-toe in a three-card slug-fest, Francesca has her bases covered to compete in every match-up. When you aren’t worried about protecting your own weaknesses, you can concentrate on honing in on your opponent’s. Pressure and bleed, or pass into a long final round to maximize engine presence. You’ll be fine either way.

The flexibility of being strong in both short and longer rounds gives Francesca the freedom to make aggressive plays when warranted. Decks like big Detlaff and Svablod will look to squeeze resources from you, banking on a burst of tall points to overwhelm you. No problem. Pop your Waters of Brokolon and get to work against the bleed. Often times, you’ll escape the round up a card, with your opponent having committed significant cards to the mission. When met with a longer Round 3, you’ll have the luxury of dropping a double-dose of Waters to overwhelm your opponent with engines that make every subsequent play huge.

So where, if any, is the weakness? It exists, so don’t feel invincible. Francesca will be problematic when entering a short Round 3 without her Mystic Echo still on tap. Her invaluable ability to recall Waters of Brokolon, and immediately play a card to boost the Fledglings is a three-card move that your opponent cannot answer in one swoop. Without that opening play, without the added security of three bodies on the board, Francesca is witless and will succumb to bomb after bomb that your opponent will drop. Speartip, Golyat, Jutta, Olaf, and on and on. You won’t be able to keep up, even with a hefty arsenal of value gold cards.

Preserving your leader ability is vital. Given the option of going into Round 3 up a card, or on even with your Mystic Echo intact, more often than not you want that Mystic Echo. Some might challenge me on this, but I’ve played my ladder matches with this rule in mind, and the added punch of being able to chain two plays off to open a round has been the superior tactic. 

Strategy

Marching through the ranks, your margins for errors become razor sharp. Your feel for your deck – its limits, range, and recoverability – also become ingrained in your skill set while piloting. You become familiar with the cards, when to play them, and what rounds you want to win.

My approach to playing Francesca evolved from aggressively pursuing a Round 1 win, to passively donating somewhat inconsequential cards early in attempts to buy value pieces from my opponent, then bowing out. As I familiarized myself with the deck’s capabilities, I decided that I didn’t want to win Round 1, necessarily. I was content, in many cases, to concede the round at an opportune time in order to preserve two instances of Waters of Brokolon.

Obviously, my strategies would shift and sway to match the frequency my opponent was dialed in to. More often than not, however, I was satisfied with playing some Dwarves, and my Hawker Smugglers. Keeping Waters of Brokolon in hand, I never committed the card unless I was at risk of losing the round on even. 

More often than not, my opponent would be looking to answer the Smugglers or establish their own bronze point systems. If my Smugglers went unanswered, I’d selectively play into the round 5 cards deep, allowing myself an easy exit strategy. The points banked by the Smugglers were more vital than winning an opening round.

Down 1-0, you’re at the mercy of your opponent when it comes to how long you’ll have to endure the second round. With your opponent going first, however, you can often clue in to their intentions by how many cards they have in hand when they begin committing to the board. This may seem basic and obvious, but many players do not know when to commit Waters of Brokolon in Round 2 in order to survive the bleed. Playing it late robs you of immense mileage, while committing it to early will spark a no-consequence pass from your opponent. The correct time to play Waters is when your opponent plays their seventh card; that is, when your opponent has 7 cards and plays one. That broadcasts their intention of squeezing resources out of you, and you need to be properly set up to play over top of them at each turn. Waiting too long could mean falling too far behind, and thus losing both engine value, and possibly even card advantage.

Being bled in Round 2 is a natural move for several popular decks. Detlaff and Svablod will look to pressure you, as will many Nilfgaard builds. Don’t panic. You’re in a fine position, and often times will come out with an extra card on your opponent, a leader ability at the ready, and even 5 points of carryover with Gabor. Mapping out your Harmony plays may seem slow at first, but giving your opponent the scent of blood will encourage them to commit more impactful cards while you then begin to work your magic. Remember, you will have two cards to get the job done should they pass, and there is certainly a lot of gas in the tank to get it done, even in the face of a 20 point deficit.

Preserving your Mystic Echo is the crucial element to surviving Round 2. You’ll likely need to resist the urge to play it, even if it means going a card up. This goes against much of Gwent’s standard “last say” school of thought, but the meta isn’t quite leaning towards a last-say environment, and even if it was, your deck isn’t looking to answer too many late game bombs. Your deck is looking to amplify every card you play by a series of Harmony triggers. Mystic Echo into Waters of Brokolon will often translate to 12 or 14 points spread over two cards. That is much better than your Milean and even some of your Oaks.

When given the chance, you will thrive in longer rounds. Cards like Pavko Gale, Milva, and your Fledglings will generate passive points that will spread the wealth around, safe from tall removal tech like Korathi Heatwave. Bleeding isn’t always out of the question, as you’ll want to shake loose some big cards from Arachas Queen before playing for keeps in Round 3. Still, you’ll be well suited to deal with most decks on the market in short bursts, or long grinds. Francesca has you covered.

Matchups

I can only advise for matchups I frequently faced. There are many leaders I only faced once (yes, even Demavend!), and still a plethora of leaders I didn’t get to see. I don’t want to speculate or strategize in those cases, so I’ll only touch upon matchups I faced regularly in my pursuit of Pro Rank.

Big Detlaff: I’ll try to avoid as many “bleed” puns as possible, but the standard strategy here is that Detlaff will look to take Round 1 with Nekurat, Garkain, and a series of bleedy bronzes. Their only worrisome removal is Regis and Parasite, so you should be able to comfortably march out a series of bronzes early to stay relevant, yet non-committal in the round. Don’t be too afraid to throw your Hawker Smugglers out. Any removal cards they catch means your Fledglings will feel safe and sound. You’ll want to hang on to Morenn to lock down Orianna, and having access to Dryad’s Blessing can really come in clutch to rescue a unit susceptible to Gael. They’ll push hard in Round 2, so be mindful of a timely Waters of Brokolon. You should be able to match them punch for punch in a short Round 3.

Svablod: This deck can get really greasy. It has a far-reaching bronze package that, alone, can get unruly and out of hand. Alzur’s Thunder should be saved to answer Priest, and Morenn to answer Olaf. They will most certainly look to squeeze you dry in Round 2, but a timely Gabor will often be the difference maker in Round 3. Ensure you have access to two poison units that will help you escape the round on even. They’ll look to finish you off with two-three powerful cards, but maximizing your Harmony should be good enough to shut them down.

Arachas Queen: This is a close matchup, as Arachas is one of the few leaders you want to take Round 1 from. They often suspect you’ll favour a longer Round 3, and dry pass on them to preserve last say. What you want to do, rather is aggressively pursue Round 1. This may mean the rare instance where you play Waters of Brokolon early. Eliminating Slyzards on sight is vital. In Round 2, you’re going to really try to shake vital cards from their hand. Very often, they’ll hang onto Summoning Circle, meaning they’re playing with a dead card. Maintain your Mystic Echo, and keep dropping cards until you see Detlaff: Higher Vampire, Glustyworp, and Kayran. Arachas can still bite in a short round, but without Summoning Circle, and without time to swarm the board, you’ll have the stronger Round 3.

Hyperthin: Hyperthin is a filthy demon that can be tamed simply by its predictability. You know exactly what they’re playing, and how they’ll play it. This is a deck that can be 2-0’d, but can otherwise be beaten in the long run. On Red coin, consider being aggressive depending on your cards. A weaker hand of bronzes will steer you more towards a passive round, seeking more to merely threaten the round without actually wanting it. Dwarven Skirmishers can kill Fire Scorpions, and Morenn can lock Helge. Be sure to preserve double poison, as their Round 3 relies on immense bursts of points. Shredding 18 points off their board is a big deal. Also, be sure that their Vilgefortz does not have a target on their side to burn, freeing up their Tibor. If all their units are huge, they’ll need to otherwise kill one of yours, which often won’t be enough to put them over the top.

Ardal: This is a scary matchup, as Ardal is a leader that can instantly nullify your Round 3 Waters of Brokolon. Be wary. You’re going to see Muzzle, Assassination, Tourney Joust, and locks to shut down engines. Strategically placing units will be important to dodge a high value Treason. Stefan Skellen and Damien de la Tour can show up as your opponent’s second-to-last card, so hanging onto an Alzur’s Thunder is a reasonable move that can save the game. Be wary of Blue Coin here. An ideal pass is any pass where you can escape without losing on even. Ardal will use his leader ability if it means winning on even, so careful planning and intuition will serve you well early.

Francesca: This is where it gets dicey. My advice in the mirror is commit as few golds as possible in Round 1. Let your opponent win the round as cheaply as you can handle. The reason here is that in the mirror, playing first in Round 3 is actually an advantage. Being able to set up your Fledgling army before your opponent can means you’ll be first to respond to their units. With your Fledglings sprouted from Waters of Brokolon, your next move will be to Mystic Echo, and begin to threaten their engines. Milean. Morenn. Pavko. Whatever you have that can begin to shut down their point generation, make it happen. Every card you play will grow your own Fledglings, while theirs will struggle to survive. Double Poison can also connect for a big swing, but isn’t immensely vital. Be wary of their Oak by pruning down the rows as best as possible. Proactivity is key here, so get established. If possible, preserve Fauve to grab Dryad’s Caress to wipe away any poison they may be threatening you with. It is highly unlikely they’ll hold on to a third poison source, so you’ll be good to go.

Parting Shots

I’m not completely blind to how this comes off. Penning a breakdown of how I hit Pro Rank with Francesca is like a baseball player talking about how steroids helped him hit so many home runs en route to an MVP. The difference here, though, is that Francesca isn’t on any banned substance lists. Well, not until Challenger, most likely…

Flake

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