On a cloudy weekend at the 2015 UK Board Games Expo in Birmingham, Varun Khetarpal was taking on all comers to become the UK National Champion of the Warhammer Conquest LCG, becoming known for his Dark Eldar ‘Packmaster Kith’ deck and a rock-solid control playstyle. A few months later and halfway across the world, Varun then swept to victory at the Fantasy Flight Games World Championship Weekend to become the 2015 Warhammer Conquest World Champion. (Which you can watch here.)
He’s also a friendly bloke who lives in Norwich.
Obviously, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be taught the fundamentals of Conquest by a World Champion. And so, after soundly demolishing me in my very first game, we sat down to talk about his tournament experience, the state of the game and whether Colchester really is the city of champions…
Rufus: When and how did you first get involved in Warhammer: Conquest?
Varun: I got a core set of Conquest when it came out, about a year ago, and split it with some friends, with each of us getting a faction. I used to play Warhammer a few years ago, or even, wow, a decade ago. I was never that interested in the universe. It appealed a little bit, but not on the same scale as something like A Game of Thrones.
But I really like the Warlord mechanic, where you secretly choose where you’re going to send your warlord and that bit of bluffing adds another layer of tactical depth. At the beginning I was restricted to three factions, I ended up with Eldar, Dark Eldar and Tau. So this whole thing about me going around playing Kith is more because I didn’t really have any choices in the beginning! I’ve also played various CCGs in the past, especially first edition AGoT, which gave me some familiarity.
“This whole thing about me going around playing Kith is more because I didn’t really have any choices in the beginning!”
R: Do you solely play card games then?
V: No, back in Colchester I used to go to a board-game club that was run by the UK Settlers of Catan champion and, back when they ran the competition, the UK boardgames champion (for five years in a row!) and then they stopped running it. He’s also been a Carcassone champion at some point.
R: I guess Colchester is where champions go to live?
V: Pretty much, yeah! Dunno why. There’s an ex-dominions champion there. One year we all went to the boardgames club and managed to accidentally break a load of playtester games.
R: When did you start playing competitively?
V: I started by going to a winter tournament at Athena, just kinda wanted to see what it was like. Before that, I’d been to the UK Games Expo and entered a Memoir 44 tournament despite never having played before. I’ve been in Magic tournaments before… Oh and I played competitive chess back in primary school and won a gold medal!
So my first Conquest tournament was pretty small, a few rounds of swiss and a top cut. I took my Kith deck and won it. From there I think…Two of my friends were going to the UK Games Expo and had a hotel room there….
R: That was the same Expo where we first met, right?
V: Yes! I felt quietly confident in Conquest in a way…I don’t normally spend much time on online message boards or anything, but I was pretty busy back then and the community was a little fragmented, so I spent a bit of time reading up on cards and occasionally making little comments like I knew what I was talking about. I did a little bit of theory-crafting, tried some things out.
R: Did you solely play with Kith?
V: I tried out the Tau and Commander Shadowsun, but never really got into Eldar. Those were the only factions I had then, but the friends I’d split the core with got so into Android: Netrunner and AGoT 2nd Ed that they ended up giving me the other cards.
But yes, the Expo, I bought a ticket for Nationals when they were like £5 just because it was something I wanted to have a go at. But then as we got nearer to the time I was really busy and my health got quite poor and I was starting to reconsider. The date came round and then I got…well…
R: I remember your own house-mate came to the Expo with us and he had NO idea if you were going to be there or not.
V: Yeah, I hadn’t arranged accommodation or bought a ticket for the expo itself, so it got to the day of the expo and I was… I think I felt like I needed to prove to myself that my mind worked in a way? I was so tired I was worried that I was losing some kind of edge? So in the end I just said, sod it, I’ll go and then at least I can compete. I had no idea if I had any skill at all.
So I went and, I had a massive assignment for my postgrad degree, I think I did some of it on the train? I ended up crashing in a friend’s room!
R: Yeah, I know at least one player who was sleeping in their car…
V: The guy I mentioned from Colchester? He drives and sleeps in his car all the time and then goes and wins these national tournaments!
So I went up and didn’t even see any of the UK games expo. I didn’t know whether I’d take Kith or an Imperial Guard deck that I actually had a higher win-rate with, but I was worried it had some bad match-ups and had no idea how it would fare competitively. This sounds really sad, but the night before I played the two decks against each other on my own, just to see! Kith the Packmaster absolutely destroyed the guard deck.
Even on the morning I wrote out both deck-lists, I had no idea what I was going to do. But at breakfast I met this guy from a really remote part of Scotland. He barely ever got to play and he sat down with me, I explained things to him and he pointed out that Nationals isn’t the time or place to test new decks!
So I went with Kith and it made sense as well because I think a lot of people have forgotten this, but in the Regionals Eldorath & Cato (Eldar & Space Marines) were winning most of the tournaments. In fact the UK’s top Eldar player at the time technically placed higher than every Kith player in the US.
R: You tweaked your decks between Nationals and Worlds, but why do you think Kith worked at both tournaments?
V: Yeah, so the point of that ramble was to point out that Eldar struggled against swarming and Kith can produce a swarm. Which gives a slight advantage, but not a major one. Two of my toughest games were against Eldar and, in fact, the game I lost in Swiss was against the Scottish guy from breakfast! Because of the FFG delays, the change between the Nationals and World’s cardpool hadn’t changed apart from the tyranids box. Which was primarily tyranid. The meta didn’t really change.
“Eldar struggled against swarming and Kith can produce a swarm”
I expected at worlds that there would be more Kith-hate decks, like Zarathur the chaos sorcerer is a bad match up against Kith. I mean, I use that phrase but part of the beauty of Conquest is the narrow margins, where a good player can win with most warlords. At Worlds there was even an ork warlord who everyone had written off in the top 4.
I did the same thing at worlds, where I wrote out two lists beforehand, this time Kith and a tyranid warlord I’d made a deck for. I was convinced that people saw Kith as more powerful than she actually was and would be ‘teching’ against that. I even considered Ragnar Blackmane and a space marine deck (Varun’s opponent in the finals was against a Ragnar Blackmane deck) but I didn’t want space marines to win worlds!
R: Is that a thematic or mechanical dislike?
V: A bit of both?
R: They are the poster boys of 40K.
V: At the end of the day, Kith was the deck I had experience with. I was at worlds, I may never have the chance to go to worlds again and this was the chance to play with a deck I enjoyed in a tournament where I only have one chance. I felt she was the deck which was most flexible in terms of being able to react to what the opponent was doing. She can run on low resources or low cards and adapt to the opposition. It really fit with my play-style.
R: I have a few more questions. Only a few. Obviously in our demo game you beat me horribly.
V: Those were some dodgy decks!
R: Orcs win gloriously or lose completely. What advice would you have for new players?
V: Erm…Play the game?
No, really! I think allot of experienced players say things and comment on cards and it can come back to bite them. I once had something quoted back to me and had to admit that I’d probably been wrong! I think people see cards and have ideas and then actually get it to the table and it works completely differently. Find something you like, all the warlords work except maybe Urien. Be aware what tricks the factions have and realise that you don’t always have to win first planet!
“I once had something quoted back to me and had to admit that I’d probably been wrong!”
R: What are your hopes for the future? Any specific set or expansions?
V: The next deluxe expansion is the Necrons, who can take cards from other factions and put them in their decks, which should be quite interesting. Elites. The meta has favoured swarm decks and there’s been this idea that Elites aren’t playable. Some new cards are coming out that really help Elites so I expect to see more of those decks around. How that’d end up could be interesting, obviously you don’t want someone to just drop a massive elite as the first move of the game.
R: I only have one more cheeky question for you: any hints towards the card you’re designing as your prize for winning worlds?
V: Heh, I have some ideas but I’m heavily NDA’d.
R: Will I like it? Will it have lovely art?
V: Maybe I’ll name it ‘Rufus’.
R: Do it! Can I have my own warlord?
V: I’ve wondered, because my name is weird enough, it could probably fit in the universe! FFG do let you design a warlord card, but then they decide on the ‘retinue’ cards for it.
You’ll just have to wait and see!