Arena Mortis – A Steel City Review

Intro

Some people might call this review late… well they are not wrong. The good news is that by looking at cards over a month after release I can give you a much more informed opinion as not only have I personally played with the cards a ton but I’ve also been keeping an eye on how these cards have affected the general meta. I’m going to be using the gold standard Steel City rating system here but to change things up a bit I won’t be simply listing all the cards alphabetically, instead I will be grouping them into arbitrary categories of my choosing. We’ll be skipping any of the cards that reference raise counters, at this point I consider them Sepulchral Guard warband only cards, and while that is really cool it’s not relevant to 99% of the player base.

If you haven’t been playing during the pandemic then I hope this will help you get up to speed going into Direcasm. For those competitive fanatics who are at the cutting edge of all the online events, there might still be a few tricks in here that you hadn’t noticed.

If you want a festive way to enjoy this article then have a drink every time you read the word ‘Voltron’.

Rating System

5 – Best in class effects that should go in basically every deck that can take them (Calculated Risk, Temporary Victory, Distraction)

4 – Powerful or versatile effects that are extremely strong in a particular archetype or pretty good in any deck (Tome of Offerings, Gathered Momentum, Spectral Wings)

3 – Solid effects that will find a place in many decks (Great Fortitude, Supremacy, Sidestep)

2 – Limited effects that might be useful in some specialised decks (Imbue with Life, Regal Vision)

1 – Just plain bad cards (Headlong Charge, Our Powers Combined)

All right, that’s all the boring stuff out of the way, let’s dive into the cards themselves.

The Mortis Relics

I’m going to start with the triple threat. Three upgrades that synergise with each other by granting extra bonuses if you have at least two of these equipped.

Gauntlet of Command

In my opinion the weakest of the three, which might give you a general idea on how highly I rate these upgrades as this one is pretty amazing. The reaction is like Duellists Speed except it works on any fighter in your warband and triggers after an activation not an attack. So you can do something like use Varclav to push all your chainrasps and then use this to push the Queen into a better sniping position, or something even more crazy like summon a Skaven with Scritch and then push them onto an objective token. At a worst case the reaction is just like Duellists Speed – letting a range 2 or 3 fighter hop around the boards, getting attack after attack in.

The downside is that for every time you use the reaction you have to spend a glory, which is a legitimate cost. You likely can only spam this if you are snowballing hard but using it once or twice in a round for a specific purpose will get you a lot of value. This is essentially Sidestep on a stick and if you can pay for it that’s pretty amazing.

Oh and the combination bonus is +1 wound, one of the better bonuses you can get from an upgrade.

Rating 3

The Crown of the Dead

The reaction effect on this is probably the most niche of all the mortis relics. Drawing 2 power cards is a great way to churn through your deck but for most people they won’t want to throw away a card every time in order to do it. The decks that want to play this are probably ones that run objectives like To the End/Digging Deep/Frantic Exchange or are looking for triggers for specific surges like Shortcut. 

The bonus ability of a re-roll is absolutely bonkers powerful. Awakened Weapon is an upgrade printed in Shadespire that had to be restricted because of how good it was. A re-roll is so close to being an extra dice that you can almost count them as equal. This upgrade really allows you to make one of your fighters super accurate, especially if you combine it with upgrades like Strength of Terror.

Rating 3

Gauntlet of Dominance

The daddy relic. If the Gauntlet of Command is Sidestep on a stick then this is Distraction on a stick. You might have noticed that one of the stand out cards that I use as an example as a number 5 in our rating system is Distraction. On balance I think this is weaker then Distraction because of its limitations but if you have glory to spare then this honestly utterly snowballs a game under your control. Hold objective decks are already suffering in the post Arena Mortis meta and if I had to pick one card to blame for it would be this. Try scoring Supremacy now. 

Oh and the bonus effect is literally Great Strength.

Rating 4

These relics are somewhat balanced by the face that you need two equipped to the same fighter in order to access the bonus effects and that the reactions can be a big glory sink. I do think they contribute a lot to the current dominance of the Voltron meta that we are seeing, if you get all of these on a big fighter then they become a monster. Outside of the extra stats, those reaction abilities are good enough that it’s a serious consideration to take the single one that fits your playstyle. The only reason I don’t recommend taking all of these in every deck is that the upgrade slot has become a lot more contested recently. You might notice a few other powerful upgrades as we continue with this review…

Cards that Give free glory and other ‘stuff’

We have a few cards in this expansion that allow you to either manipulate glory or grab a free upgrade, these have been traditionally been very powerful effects in Warhammer Underworlds, lets see how the Arena Mortis offerings hold up.

Divine Reward

If you have killed an enemy fighter (excluding Crown of Avarice shenanigans) you will gain a glory by default. So you already have the ability to at least play one upgrade from your hand. This card lets you grab another for free but only on your fighter that just made its successful attack. In a lot of cases that fighter will have already charged, meaning you only really want to put defensive upgrades on which is pretty limiting. This does synergise exceptionally well with a very powerful upgrade from Arena Mortis which I am saving till later but that’s not always going to be in your hand alongside this card. The other powerful synergy with this card is on someone like Mollog, who when inspired can charge again. This is very niche but it might find its way into some decks. 

Rating 2

Grand Offering

Both more accessible and at the same time slightly more restricting then Overkill, a card that almost never see’s play but I legit ran it for a short period in Beastgrave with the Troll and found to be decent. I don’t think its likely this will see play in many Championship decks, it’s a nice reaction for aggro but in general I’d rather take cards that secure me a kill then ones that reward me more for making one. When Nightvault rotates at the beginning of Dircasm we will have a much smaller card pool, this might be a solid choice around then, also a decent option for Grand Alliance decks.

Rating 2

Making Ends Meet

On the surface this one seems pretty rubbish as it doesn’t actually generate you any extra glory. I think the best way to think about this card is that it’s either a free upgrade, or another way to sink glory into some of those spenders mentioned above and below. If you are playing a hard control deck that is all about denial then I can see a place for this. Most people will probably skip it however.

Rating 2

A Risky Prospect

I low key love this card. This is the type of dice rolling RNG that I can get behind, Rebound being the example of when it goes to far and needs to be punted straight onto the FAR list. A risky Prospect gives you about a 50/50 chance of generating a glory and I think about a 75% chance of dealing a damage to one of your fighters. There are definitely situations where you do want to deal damage to your fighters:

  • A Skaven/Skeleton/Crypt Ghoul/Horror that you want to reposition and/or remove the charge token from by killing it
  • Triggering some of the on death effects that exist – a few you will see below
  • Intentionally dealing damage to yourself to inspire – Ironskullz Boyz/Mollog’s Mob/ weird new Slanesh people
  • Scoring suicide objectives like Martyred

You do have to have a very specific plan in mind when running a card like this and then to be willing to trust to luck a bit. But I can absolutely see playstyles that want this effect and the odds are very good of at least one of those results happening when you roll a dice.

Rating 2

Glory Spenders

Now we have generated all that free glory with our cards that give us free stuff, lets look at the new and various ways we have of spending glory.

Distracting Wealth

Twist the Knife was an incredible card back in Shadespire and definitely deserved its place on the first FAR (technically BAR at the time) list that was created. The ability to essentially pull a damage out of your ass is pretty strong, if you are landing attacks consistently then you simply pick the one where that extra damage would net you a kill. The added bonus that Distracting Wealth gives is that it has no range limitation, Thundrick’s and Farstrider players rejoice. There is some bad news though, in the form of 2 separate glory having to be spent in order to use this. Yikes, 2 glory is a big cost. I can see why it exists, GW are obviously using the glory cost as a balance factor on a strong card, but I can’t help but feel this would have hit the mark better by only forcing you to spend 1 glory. 

Rating 2

Enhanced Blow

So, Haymaker but instead of the downside being that you lose your defence dice for the round, you have to cough up 2 glory. There is a little more nuance here with the ability to only spend one glory but realistically, if you are frequently using this for its one glory effect you should just pack Determined Effort into your deck. Accuracy is a much sort after effect from top players, you want to reduce factors that you cannot control as much as possible, so the upside to this card is pretty decent. That downside of a glory spend just feels too harsh for Enhanced Blow to really be worth taking, just like Distracting Wealth I think GW were a bit too cautious here and we could have gotten +2 dice for one glory.

Rating 2

At Any Cost

I’ve had the unfortunate experience of practicing into a good player running this in their aggro deck. I literally had a chance to get back into the game and it was completely shut down by this card. You only pack this if your deck can reliably generate glory quickly, so right now at the end of Beastgrave this is a decent pick but when Nightvault and some of those powerful surges rotate out this might be a bit much to ask. The playstyle that benefits the most from this is obviously aggro, specifically distributed aggro that has a lot of fighters wanting to make attacks, Godsworn Hunt I am looking at you.

Rating 2

Vision of Glory

There has been a veritable sea of 2 rated cards trying to drown this review out in the sludge of mediocrity. But what’s this, I can see something glinting down there, can it be, oh yes, it’s the most powerful card in the expansion.

The number one factor that all the Mollog haters use to justify their petty existence is his ability to charge twice when inspired. Or even better, to charge once, attack twice and then charge again in the 4th activation of a round. Vision of Glory lets any fighter in the game do that for only 2 glory. 

Let that sink in for a moment.

Imagine Thundrick charging into your opponent’s half, popping a cap into some poor ghouls’ ass and still being able to threaten their entire board with his 3-range attack because he can simply remove his charge token. Imagine Skaeth, he has Tome of Offerings and Trophy Belt equipped… need I go on? I’ve said above that Gauntlet of Dominance is the number one Arena Mortis card that is keeping hold objective play in check, well this card is the main reason that everyone is focusing all the eggs into the Voltron basket right now. The biggest issue with stacking all your upgrades on one fighter is that you still only get to charge with them once in a round. Well now you can literally double that fighter’s efficiency with just this one card.

That fact that vision of glory costs 2 glory to use, 1 to equip and one to discard, does stop it being a completely runaway broken card, you will rarely be able to use it to full effect in round 1 and it can limit your ability to equip other upgrades in a tight game. It’s also probably not quite an auto-include in every deck, if you are playing Godsworn Hunt or Despoilers style aggro you generally don’t expect your fighters to be able to survive a counter charge, making this a lot less relevant. On the other hand, this is a reaction that happens after an activation, you can block all sorts of tricks with this including all the Snarlfangs jaw attacks.

So not absolutely everyone will run it, but it’s so good that those who can’t are severely disadvantaged.

For reference this is the card I was referring to when I talked about Divine Reward up above.

Rating 4

Cards that care about Combo

There are a trio of cards here that are not combo or traditional attack reactions to combo but that still care about the keyword. Combo itself has never quite seemed viable for the entirety of Beastgrave, an interesting option that gets crowded out by more efficient playstyles. Will these cards tip the balance into viability?

The Old One-Two

For this card to be useful you need to be running not only attacks with combo but attacks that react to said combo attack. If that ideal situation comes up where you have a fighter ready to go this gives a nice boost to your accuracy. In a pinch this can also be used as just another +1 dice ploy if you only have the combo attack equipped. This isn’t amazing, but it is serviceable.

Rating 2

Fancy Footwork

Did someone say card draw? This is a really interesting piece of card design, forgo some of the potential power of the combo attack by losing your reaction attack and replacing it with drawing 3 power cards. The added upside is that this works if you only have a combo attack equipped, without needing the reaction upgrade. Three cards is a very solid amount to draw so the upside is big here, especially as combo decks are likely to be more reliant on power cards then others.

Rating 2

Winded

This is currently the best reason to build a deck focused around the combo mechanic. The ability to force a charge token onto a fighter is crazy strong, Transfixing Stare is restricted for a good reason and that’s just a move token. Needing a fighter to be adjacent can be a bit tricky, the easiest way is to simply move/charge next to the target but that can feel a bit like a wasted activation into a fighter that you are giving a charge token to anyway. Personally, I feel like Spiteclaw’s Swarm with either of the Gauntlet’s gets the absolutely maximum value out of this, ‘summon’ a clan rat onto a starting hex, push a friendly or enemy fighter with one of your gauntlets as a reaction if you need to, then deploy a charge token onto your hapless victim. The fighter your summoned could also be Hungering Skaven with Black Hunger equipped…

Rating 2

Notice how I gave all three of the ‘cares about combo’ cards a 2? Honestly that’s just the nature of these type of cards interacting with our rating system. The rating system we use is all about how ubiquitous a card should be and these cards are only going to find a place in very specialist decks. Lets take a look at the more traditional combo cards to address how viable I think the strategy is:

Actual Combo Cards

Here are the real combo cards. The attack actions with the keyword printed directly on them (openers) or the reactions to said successful attack(finishers).

Ignoble Blow

This is a deceptively good card. Three fury isn’t anything to write home about, it’s probably the baseline for an accurate enough attack. Three fury that is close to having an innate success is a heck of a lot better. That free success, if you trigger it, will often be the deal breaker for your attack going through or not. I’m not going to math hammer this out but I think it actually works out as more accurate than a 4-fury attack, which is getting into the pretty damn accurate territory. The damage is fairly standard at 2 and we have a standard attack range of 1. Honestly if you ignore the combo keyword this is a decent attack action that I can see some horde warbands taking.

Include the combo ability and this becomes my new favourite opener.

Rating 3

Head Bash

After my new favourite opener comes my least favourite finisher. The stats are almost exactly average and we get the added ability to give a charge token if this attack is made as a reaction to a combo attack. Charge tokens are great but generally if I hit a fighter twice I expect them to die. It is interesting how tight the margins are between a good card and a ‘bad’ one in my mind, I just spent a paragraph talking about how much I loved the stats on Ignoble Blow and now I am sitting here telling you that Head Bash is a bit rubbish despite having very similar stats. Those few differences do add up though. Head Bash isn’t a trash card but its far from good enough to see play in any deck I can think of.

Rating 2

Flashy Follow-up

Now here is a finisher I like. When used in reaction to a combo attack it’s a 3 smash and 3 damage attack. That’s enough to reliably finish off the vast majority of fighters that you have hit with an opener and its accurate enough that you have good odds of making it work.

Rating 2

Desperate Swing

I really don’t know what to make of this card. It’s certainly an interesting design space. A card that is conditionally good if you are currently losing the game. The big problem I see with it is that there are not enough ways to control how much glory your opponent has, anyone who has played with the objective Martyred will know that your opponent’s attacks are at their worst when you need them to actually kill one of your fighters. If you do trigger the condition it’s still less accurate then Ignoble Blow, so really you should just take that instead. 

Rating 2

Audacious Feint

Arena Mortis has honestly done a great job at introducing different cards that really make you think about how you want to build your deck. Audacious Feint is a perfect example, by far the most accurate opener we have with a fantastic 4 smash, it also gives the added upside of a free guard token to your fighter even if you somehow miss. The massive downside is that you cannot modify the damage characteristic of this attack action. If you put Great Strength on a fighter with this equipped then it’s only relevant for the follow up attack, if you have one equipped. Surely the answer to this is to pick a finisher that has high damage? Well the best one for that is finishing blow and the issue there is that its only 2 smash for accuracy. Do you then boost the accuracy with cards like Strength of Terror? Sure, but that feels a bit wasted when your opener is already at 4 smash.

So, this is a card with clearly defined strengths that are hard to build upon. Personally, I like this paired with Flashy Follow-up for a pair of attacks that are likely to hit and that can take out most fighters in the game. If I want to build a super combo fighter with all the upgrades on, I might look elsewhere though as this just doesn’t synergise that well with them.

Rating 2

My overall opinion on combo right now is that its still not quite there. If you want to build a deck around the mechanic you need to pack about 3 combo attacks and 2 finishers in order to reliably use it before round 3 and that’s a lot to ask, especially with how good upgrades in general have gotten these days. There might be space for a deck that just uses the openers and combines them with cards like Winded or Fancy Footwork for specific benefits but again it just doesn’t quite feel like enough yet. Do keep an eye on this mechanic, if we see more support for it in Direcasm it might become a properly competitive strategy.

Odds and Sods

This is the category for cards that I cannot easily put into a category. 

Fractured Memories

The majority of fighter’s in this game use 1 defence dice, Fractured Memories is useless against all of them. In the cases where Fractured Memories is useful its around the same as a +1 to your attack dice, so like Determined Effort essentially. If this was -2 defence dice to a minimum of 1 I still wouldn’t recommend it. The only way reducing defence dice is going to be relevant in this game is if it goes all the way to 0.

Rating 1

Outrageous Fortune

I have really tried to make this card work. As a fan of Rippa’s I am intimately aware of just how powerful Narrow Escape is, I thought that I would take an effect like that on Mollog no matter the downside. Unfortunately, the downside here is actually too big. Losing an upgrade that you have spent glory on is pretty bad, the only time its worth doing is if the damage reduction is enough to stop your fighter from dying and if you are playing this card like that then it will sit in your hand round after round when you could be drawing other more useful cards.

If we ever get any upgrades that give you a benefit when you discard them, hey that would be a neat idea, then this obviously goes up massively in value. For now its mostly a miss from me.

Rating 2

Soulsurge

We all know that free actions, especially attacks are an incredibly powerful effect in this game. Gating it behind a 50/50 dice roll is fairly off putting for myself but the other requirement of killing another fighter first means that this will only work in certain positions, generally against horde warbands. A lot of people enjoy random elements in the game like this one and its nice to see Games Workshop making some fairly well-balanced cards to cater to that crowd.

Rating 2

Deserved Confidence

The more I play with this upgrade the more I realise that it is absolutely bonkers. Forget the 5+ and 9+ abilities for a moment. The first bonus that this upgrade gives is +1 wound and you cannot be driven back. Not being driven back means that lethal hexes are a lot less likely to hurt you, it means that Snare no longer affects you and it means that ping damage based on position (i.e. Lethal Ward or Collapse) have a much lower chance of hitting your kitted-out fighter. I personally count not being driven back as 0.5 wounds. So if you have Deserved Confidence and 2 other upgrades on the same fighter you are getting around 1.5 wounds. That’s fantastic.

The gravy on top is the extra move at 5 upgrades.

The cheese curds on top of that is the innate fury and smash that you get at 9 upgrades. Yes, I have done this in games with Mollog and yes, it is hilarious.

Any warband or deck that is going to end up putting multiple upgrades onto one fighter should probably be running this card. 

Rating 4

Draining Leech

Range 3 is nice, 3 fury is ok, 1 damage is bad, destroying an opponent’s upgrade is great, discarding after one use is terrible. If you can consistently get support for this attack it starts to feel reasonable accurate. With all these super powerful upgrades floating around being able to destroy a specific one has definitely gone up in value, I’m just not sure that this method of doing it is worth it.

Rating 2

Frenzied Assault

The ultimate go big or go home card. What if instead of stacking combo upgrades on a fighter you simply put this on and then stacked as many accuracy upgrades as possible? It’s certainly an interesting proposition. Right now, I am fairly confident that we don’t have enough accuracy upgrades to make this reliable but with Nightvault rotating out who knows what the new season will bring. Even if we do see enough direct support for this upgrade it feels like you have to build a fair bit of your deck around it and then you run into the problem of simply not drawing this one card that ties it all together. With Bag of Tricks rotating we lose our only source of tutoring currently in the game is going as well. A few different things have to align for Frenzied Assault to be a real contender but if they do, this could be a blow out.

Rating 2

Heart Thief

Range 4 is a pretty nice stat to get on an attack action upgrade. The potential to deal 2 damage at that distance is likewise very attractive. The big downside here is the 2 fury. Even if you get a single support this isn’t very accurate, the range does help you create the trapped condition which could tip the scales though. Very interested to see if anyone finds a use for this, I suspect they won’t.

Rating 2

Tight Defence

Survival Instincts had to be restricted because being able to be permanently on guard is extremely powerful for fighters with 2 dodge or more, which is not that uncommon these days. Tight Defence has the added downside of only working against range 1 and 2 attacks but comes with the upside of blocking certain reaction windows, Potion of Rage, and counting as a reaction itself for scoring objectives like Treacherous Foe. So, for Thorns of the Briar Queen this is actually a better card then Survival Instincts. For everyone else, if you have a 2-dodge fighter that you don’t want to die then you take this, otherwise you generally skip it.

Anyone running Substance Siphon with this on Mollog is also a happy troll.

Rating 3

Weirding Staff

Potential for a level 2 wizard to hit for 4 damage in one attack is nice. That accuracy though. I wonder if warbands like the Godsworn Hunt who have a level 2 wizard leader that doesn’t already have decent stats should take this? Use this with something like Haymaker and you have a pretty efficient combination.

Rating 2

On Death Effects

I have left this category until last because it contains a very powerful card that appears to have flown by most players. These are all the cards that trigger off one of your fighter’s dying, so they are generally better in warbands that have a higher fighter count.

Last Gasp

Ping damage is a generally strong effect that gets increasingly powerful the more of it you pack into a deck. Being dependent on one of your fighters dying is certainly not the best condition to trigger off of but for some warbands, see anything with 6 fighters or more, it’s one that will happen multiple times in a game. The way Last Gasp is worded you can self-trigger this, either with ploys that deal damage to your own fighter or by running through lethal hexes. Normally with ping damage you want to stack it onto a specific fighter, like one holding an objective token, to kill them without having to use an attack, it feels like Last Gasp is more there to soften an enemy fighter up before a counter charge. 

Rating 2

Spiteful Lunge

Earlier in this article I said that I am glad that Games Workshop is catering to the crowd that loves to gamble and had seemed to find a pretty good balance for them. While Spiteful Lunge is fairly balanced around its 1/6 chance, I think the effect is absolutely monstrously strong. When this goes off it wins an entire game on its own, when it misses it’s a dead card. Obviously at its strongest in warbands that can resurrect fighters again and again. I honestly hate swings this big based off a single dice roll, this is for that certain class of player that use a restricted slot on Rebound.

Rating 1

Shattering Howl

This is the one.

My secret tech which saw me… only win 1 out of 3 matches in the UK Masters… ahem

To be fair I blame facing Thorns twice for that, Grymwatch really do not like that matchup.

It is really nice to see a counter to the very Voltron (I swear this is the last time I will use that word) meta created in this expansion within the same expansion. Here is a reliable way to kill a specific upgrade on an enemy fighter. On the face of it that means you can hit targets like Deserved Confidence or Vision of Glory, powerful upgrades that really mess with your opponent’s game plan if they get discarded. One level deeper and you realise that this can also hit upgrades like the Scattered Tome or The Avatar of the Ur-Grub (EDIT – you cannot remove the completed Avatar – just its components), potentially destroying your opponent’s whole strategy for gaining glory. I have to give a shout out to Jimmy Molini for the third and ultra-secret level, the timing window on this card means you can destroy Tome of Offerings or Amberbone weapons before they get the extra glory, denying that glory from your opponent.

Like Last Gasp you can also self-trigger this if you absolutely have to take something like the Scattered Tome off of a key target. 

Rating 3

Outro

Phew – that’s another massive article done, just in time to start prepping articles on the new Direcasm stuff. Apologies its late, I hope that my added insights justified the long wait. Personally I’m feeling pretty hype about the game right now so I should be able to keep the content mill churning.

Tom has recently successfully completed a house move, so you might see a new episode of Chatting Crit next week.

You lucky buggers.

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