Fact? I actually have no idea if Qliphorts will survive the weekend. Nekroz is really the single biggest wildcard we've seen in this game since the release of Duelist Alliance, and its impact is a complete mystery: it could become the single next big deck-to-beat in competition, or it could see a ton of Side Deck hate, suffer under-representation due to availability, and flop right out of the gates never to be heard from again. Personally I suspect the deck will be successful - I don't think that's a tough prediction to make, though really who knows. To me, that's not the interesting question. The real quandary hinges on this: if Nekroz become the new competitive standard, which decks will survive?

It's with that thought in mind that I want to look at two strategies from the past two weeks: what were, and for the moment are, the two dominant decks of the format - Burning Abyss and Qliphorts. If YCS Charleston taught us anything it was that Burning Abyss is still wildly varied; that strategy's all over the place, with numerous different versions topping Regionals and Championships. But on the Qliphort side there's more refinement: the decks may feature different tech and some of them saw new, exploratory techniques, but the core strategy is at least the same across the lot.

While I'll be looking at several different builds of Burning Abyss in my analyses, one Qliphort deck from the past two weeks stood out head and shoulders above the rest: Adam Hairston's Top 8 build from YCS Charleston. While the party line on Qliphorts going into Charleston was generally conservative - Apoqliphort Towers was long seen as an unnecessary "win more" card by many, and Soul Transition was deemed too slow for being a trap card - Hairston played the single most ambitious build I've seen in 2015 and wound up making the Top 8.

This deck challenges conventions, takes risks, and teeters on the brink of dangers that make even me raise an eyebrow. It represents both the present and future of Qliphorts, and shows where the deck could be headed in the weeks to come... or some of the places it could be forced to go if Nekroz turn competition on its ear. Check it out.

DECKID=101749All the pieces of a standard Qliphort strategy are here... save one. We'll discuss what's missing later. For now, let's recognize that this Qliphort deck largely wins by familiar means: it assembles a Pendulum Scale, controls the field with a single monster equipping Saqlifice, and then builds overwhelming card advantage and field presence for quick wins, or less commonly, a resource-driven long game that sees it raking in scads of free cards and leveraging removal effects.

The big picture hasn't changed. But the devil's in the details here, and Hairston made several additions that take advantage of new opportunities. The result is a deck that does the same stuff, but does it better, bigger, and with arguably greater consistency.

What's New? And How Was It Played?
Those are the first two big questions we want to ask about this strategy, because it's the innovations and ambitions that make this deck so good. Right off the bat, the first standouts are in the monster lineup: while many duelists failed to jump on Qliphort Monolith while others went so far as to run two, Hairston arrived at what I believe to be the correct choice, running one searchable copy.

Since you can fetch Qliphort Monolith with Qliphort Scout, and since you don't really want it without the other side of your Pendulum Scale anyways, one copy's the right call. There's no need for redundancy here: you won't want to draw Monolith all that often and you don't need to draw it anyways, since it's searchable. By the same token there's little threat of seeing it destroyed, since your opponent will focus their 1-for-1 removal on Qliphort Scout anyways.

On the flipside you'd be be remiss to ignore the sheer advantages of card economy, momentum, and diversification Monolith offers, since it rewards you with free cards for making plays you were already going to make; gives you even more ways to accrue card advantage, expanding plays; and it draws instead of searches, so it gets you to cards Qliphort Scout can't. It's just better than Performapal Trampolynx, since Trampolynx can't be searched when you need it; has to be played in multiples to be consistent, but isn't nearly as good when you draw more than one; and only gets you to more of the searchable cards you could already get with Scout. Since Qliphort Scout thins Qli cards from your deck, Monolith's draw has a greater than normal chance of drawing you into unsearchable spells and traps. You wind up accelerating your strategy on all fronts, instead of just a limited number.


Qliphort Stealth's another new card that's seen play in varying numbers since it debuted in Secrets of Eternity. While everyone seems to have agreed that it's obviously worth running, I was kind of surprised when it was seen in big tournaments only as a 1-of in its first weekend out: a powerful card on its own, Stealth's ability to stop your opponent from chaining cards to its effect also makes Qliphort Carrier and Qliphort Helix better, since Tributing those cards triggers their abilities and adds them to the resulting chain before Stealth's effect – it thus protects all your trigger effects in that chain. Like Monolith, it makes cards you already run that much better.

Hairston played two copies, and like his decision to run one Monolith I think that's the right number. Yes, you can search Stealth as needed. But it's so good that it's tough to imagine any sort of gameplan that doesn't want it, and resolving two in a row is often game on its own – you want to draw it in the mid-game, and there are lots of situations where you want to have more than one. You don't need to see it Turn 1 since it requires a big Tribute and works best against an opposing field of several cards, but that's a reason to avoid playing three copies, not logic enough to run only one. Add the new imperative to search out Qliphort Monolith, and the second Stealth eases the strain on Qliphort Scout just enough to be the correct fit.

The real wonder to me is that even with Qliphort Stealth featuring as a new finisher, Hairston still played two Qliphort Disk, which is understandable, and one Qliphort Shell – a bit more surprising. While it would be easy to look at this deck and see it as a slow strategy given its use of certain slower-than-average draw cards, Hairston's clearly focused on leveraging those effects into results and winning as quickly as possible. He just wants to do it from an advantageous position, and I think running three different finishers across five deck slots gave him the diversity and consistency he needed to make that happen. There's a redundancy and dedication here I can't help but admire, and everything seems really balanced despite the ways in which it defies convention.

And Oh, Those Draw Cards
The biggest point of contention amongst Qliphort players the past several weeks has been Soul Transition. On one hand, it offers explosive openings in conjunction with a Qliphort plus a Saqlifice, setting up ridiculous Turn 2's. You pay for it by sending a Qliphort to your Extra Deck instead of losing a monster outright, so it's effectively a +1 instead of a 2-for-2 as written. If you Tribute Qliphort Carrier or Qliphort Helix you can trigger their abilities, getting even more control and card advantage out of the play. And it's chainable, easily bluffed, and punishes some types of aggression while discouraging others entirely.

On the other hand it seemed as if a majority of Qliphort players wrote this card off as too slow. Whether that majority was just barely over 50% or actually a landslide is unclear, but the consensus in most circles online was that the need to set Soul Transition made it a great opener, yet a potentially disastrous mid-game draw. And I think in a vacuum that's totally understandable: if you're relying on topdecks to win and flying by the seat of your pants turn by turn, one bad topdeck can and will ruin you. But I think the rest of this deck justifies that risk: with Qliphort Monolith drawing you more cards, you've got a much better cushion for that one bad topdeck when it does happen. And with Qliphort Stealth raising the power level of the deck in general, the impact of one bad topdeck is mitigated again, from a different angle.


With a 36% chance of opening with Soul Transition going first with a hand of five cards, Hairston had a strong shot at an explosive opening that other Qliphort players just didn't have. Barring an opposing Mystical Space Typhoon he could assemble at least some form of the Soul Transition Saqlifice set-up on Turn 1 more than 26% of the time, meaning he was likely auto-winning one in every four games. That's nuts. You can talk about the risk of a topdecked Soul Transition in the mid-game as much as you want, but I think the threat there is somewhat overstated, while the benefit of just win-buttoning a quarter of your duels speaks for itself.

More exciting – and questionable – was Hairston's decision to use Pot of Riches. If Soul Transition was lambasted for being too slow, Pot of Riches was regarded as so sluggish the dialogue about itnever really existed. We all looked at it, myself included, and wrote it off immediately. Was that a Mistake? Well, we now have Championship level proof that the card worked, so yeah; it's very possible we were wrong.

What's cool is that Hairston's successful use of the card hinges on a lot of bolstering techniques. He's not just running Pot of Riches in Qliphorts as the deck existed at the start of SECE and hoping for the best: he's playing a Tribute-heavy build with five finishers instead of four, aggressively sending cards to his Extra Deck a little bit faster than we might expect; he's running triple Soul Transition, again sending more cards to his Extra Deck than a more conservative build would; and he's running fewer Continuous Trap Cards, ensuring that his opponent uses basic removal on Qliphort Scout even more frequently than they would otherwise.

Hairston innovated in all sorts of ways, and the byproduct was a strategy where Pot of Riches actually makes more sense than one might first suspect. While Hairston himself admitted that the second copy played in his Side Deck was overreaching, he was happy with the Main Decked copy, at least for now. I don't know how long that will last, but for now it was a really cool culmination of subtle techniques leading to an innovative conclusion. You can see why I'm in love with this deck.

No Skill? No Problem
Since I've hinted at the lack of Continuous Traps twice now, it seems like a good time to acknowledge the one big compromise this build makes: it doesn't run Skill Drain. While that might seem like a big sacrifice – and don't get me wrong, it is – it makes sense when you break it down. As mentioned previously, Hairston was playing more Qliphorts with on-field effects than you'd normally expect, all of which he'd lose to a face-up Skill Drain. At the same time he was expecting to go up against Qliphorts many times over the course of eleven Rounds at YCS Charleston, and not playing Skill Drain would give him an edge in the mirror if his opponent was running it. While Drain's a better card in the Burning Abyss and Satellarknight match-ups, anyone playing those decks has had months to find ways to play around Skill Drain. It's not an easy feat per se, but it's far from an alien concept.

Moving forward though, I think this may be a point of contention. We'll need to see what the Top 32 at YCS Tacoma winds up looking like, but it's possible that depending on the success and impact of Nekroz, Skill Drain may become more desirable. The future's really hazy here. The speed, consistency, and explosiveness of this build and similar versions may make them a top pick for Qliphort players moving forward. Or, the momentary vulnerability created by Soul Transition and the lack of Skill Drain might make this type of Qliphort deck even more vulnerable to Nekroz and the wholesale ban on Special Summoning granted by Djinn Releaser of Rituals. There's no final answer – until we see the fallout from Tacoma, the answers don't even begin to exist.

But regardless of what the correct answer is, you need to know the full range of possibilities, and that's the real point of analyzing Adam Hairston's build. There are possibilities here we're not seeing at this level anywhere else, and it stands as a strong proof of concept for a lot of different ideas. The Nekroz threat is real: to survive it, the biggest strategies of the format will have to adapt. This version of Qliphorts may have some of the techniques required for this strategy to stay relevant, so it's really important to know what it does, how it works, and how it made Hairston so successful.

-Jason Grabher-Meyer