Basic Spellcraft Strategies – Part 4: Rush Strategies
Basic Spellcraft Strategies: part 5 – By-pass Strategies
The primary way one’s opponent can be damaged in Spellcraft is through the attack of an unblocked friendly minion. But the game does provide a number of other ways to inflict life damage. Decks that focus upon these alternate methods of doing damage (what I term by-pass decks) play very differently than other decks – they do not require openings on the board, and focus much less upon enemy forces – at least for offensive purposes.
I think it makes sense to begin a discussion of by-pass strategies by considering the cards that can be used for this purpose – these cards are both few in number and very diverse. Fire cards include lava giant, lava imps, heat seeker, ashes, burning blood, lava bombs, and siege cannons. Swamp cards include ancient ghosts, death is inevitable, miasma, mortality, and blood orb. Underworld has burrowing under. Air cards are cloud dragon, doom cloud, power dive, and spellstorm. And jungle has mortal wound, backfire, and smash. I expect to see other such cards in later factions, but I do not expect such cards to be frequent.
Observe that most of these cards are slow, expensive, or both. Most do very modest damage. And most are one-shot damages. In light of these observations, when constructing a by-pass deck, a very good question is “How long will this deck take?” For example, suppose I want a deck that uses heat seeker and lava bombs to destroy my opponent. Even if I take 4 copies of each, I will have only 24 points of possible by-pass damage. I will need 7 of my 8 by-pass cards to hit to inflict sufficient damage. By the time I draw the seventh of these cards, I expect to have worked through over 30 cards in my deck – and I may still need to wait for a timer to expire – far too slow for any reliability.
Another good question to consider is how much it will cost (in power points and in cards) to win a match. For instance, inflicting 20 points of damage via siege cannons would cost 40 power plus the cost of deploying the engines – this is akin to buying 8 dragons. If you consider the attack strength these dragons would bring round after round (figure 240 points total over the 10 rounds the siege engines would need to fire), the siege engines are a miserable investment. And most of the one shot cards (like power dive or burrowing under) cannot be expected to generate sufficient damage to win on their own.
Given these statistics, it is not surprising that most by-pass decks either rely upon other sources of damage for a fair amount of their offense, or use cards like blood orb which can be invoked multiple times. They may also use combinations that enhance the effectiveness of the by-pass, for example combining ancient ghost with bodyswap, burrowing under with chronochime, or power dive with overload.
The great strength of by-pass strategies is that they are almost impossible to stop. Because they don’t really depend upon one’s board position, one can choose board units for reasons other than their might. And, like removal strategies, they can be chosen to blend naturally with other strategies.
The drawback to by-pass strategies is that they don’t really stand on their own. Although they can accelerate the damages of other strategies, they rarely inflict substantial damage of their own quickly. Of course, if set up properly (which takes time), some by-pass cards (e.g. 4 blood orbs in play) can cause very serious damage.
By-pass decks can be unexpected, can suddenly change the entire tactical situation, and can be very dangerous, but they, at present, are pretty limited.
Basic Spellcraft Strategies – Part 6: Interference Strategies and Stall Strategies
I want to discuss the last two strategies more for completeness than endorsement. I have neither created nor encountered a consistently effective deck that employed either interference or stalling as an all-encompassing game plan (a true strategy). I have seen the techniques used to gain devastating situational advantages (as a tactic), but that is not my current topic.
An interference strategy is simply one that tries to interfere with an opponent’s ability to play/keep the card they wish to play in the way they wish to play it. Such strategies include hand attack, theft, trap, lane jumbling, and power restriction decks.
The major problem plaguing all interference decks is that interference does not naturally associate with any mechanism to actually win the game. Denying an opponent the ability to play cards is useless unless I can play my own. Having the resources to do so while effectively inhibiting an opponent is problematic. So the first key to a successful interference deck will be incorporating a win strategy.
The second problem with interference is guaranteeing applicability; that is making sure I do not devote all my resources to thwarting actions my opponent has no intention of taking. For example, darkling snatcher is pretty ineffective if my opponent has no items to steal.
Finally, interference tends to be subtle, not overwhelming; partial rather than complete. Psychic vortex hits both you and your opponent – its value is that you can prepare for it. Accursed only denies your opponent a variety of cards to choose from – not all cards. Ocean mist shuffles enemies contrary to your opponent’s original intent, but in no way diminishes them.
Stall strategies simply try to block as much damage as possible for as long as possible – usually with the intent of winning by depleting the opponent’s deck, although they can be used to “hold out” for occasional “big hits” on the enemy. I believe stall strategies to be potentially viable (particularly the second type), but it is the nature of such decks that they can never feel dominating.
I frequently find it helpful to consider simplified, but telling scenarios, and here is one such example. A strength 4 minion will destroy an overgrown forest barrier in 3 rounds; any other barrier in 1 or 2 rounds (assuming no combat immunity). If my opponent has 5 strong minions in play, I can expect to be replacing 5 or more barriers every 2 or 3 turns – assuming my opponent invests no resources to further damage my units. This is clearly not sustainable from either a card use or power point availability perspective. Rooted, for about the same cost as one barrier, will protect a lane for 6 turns. Narrow tunnels will last eight. But there are not enough of these cards to expect them to be available for all lanes.
Combat immunity is another way to obstruct lanes. But, because of numerous minions that cannot be handled well through combat, most good decks also have at least some other ways to handle minions. Thus I do not count on combat immune minions to last more than a few rounds. The only combat immune barrier (living maze) fares a little better, but is not really reliable either.
Safe hole lasts 1 enemy turn; I can take 4. And with perfect use of chronochime and aether fish, I might drag it out another 8 turns.
The point of this discussion is to convey a sense of how long one can expect to draw out a pure stall strategy. The answer is that with current cards, not long enough (probably about 10 or 12 rounds).
A second problem with pure stall tactics is that I must spend resources to maintain a stall, while my opponent needs no resources to chip away at it.
And finally, pure stall is generally ineffective against bypass and many stranglehold strategies.
While some element of stall is effective when combined with other strategies, stall is not presently, and likely will never be a popular, major strategic approach.
Models as Useful Spellcraft Tools
Several places in the forums, models have been used to try to analyze the effectiveness of decks and/or cards. For example, Valentino wrote an excel spreadsheet to try to analyze how different distributions of different power point cost cards in one’s hand affects the power point utilization of that hand. Valentino has also suggested computing how much damage a deck could inflict (under ideal circumstances) as a model of a deck’s speed. I have suggested how probability models can be used to answer questions like “How many cards should a deck contain that can be played on the initial three power point turn?” Here, I will suggest a mathematical model that can be used to address questions related to average rates of deployment. Not all players enjoy this quantitative, somewhat formulaic approach to the game; this article is intended for those who do.
There are numerous strategically interesting questions that require per-turn calculations. For instance, to assess the power of a fire prism card, I might want a reasonable estimate of the average per-turn damage a fire prism inflicts compared to the average per-turn number of health points my opponent can deploy to the board. Or to determine how rapidly I must inflict damage on my opponent in order to defeat him before I run out of cards, I need to know the average number of cards I expect to play per turn. Of course, these quantities are highly variable depending upon the deck played, how the deck is played, and even the order cards are drawn. Still one can benefit by knowing “typical” values. I think most players form reasonable judgments about this type of question based upon experience and intuition, but here I will offer a mathematical approach to these questions that I hope can reduce the need for trial and error, and even shed light upon potentially over-powered cards.
Most per-turn calculations require knowledge of the long-term rate that cards are played from a deck, which can be obtained from the number of turns needed to exhaust the deck. I begin with a mathematical model for that. I will then apply the model to a couple of example decks, and finally, I will the model to draw a couple of representative conclusions.
As with most models, it is a good idea to begin with a simple model (that typically makes several assumptions) and later to try to build in more precision and eliminate assumptions. So let me start with the case where one always has 5 power points to spend per turn, and where no cards are summoned or removed from one’s deck or hand. I will also assume all power points are used – none wasted or left-over, and that no cards are wasted (discarded). Finally, I will assume that one holds 5 cards in hand at the end of the turn when the last card is drawn from the deck. (Actually, this last assumption guarantees that the number of cards drawn equal the number played – a steady state condition useful for inferences.) Later I will relax all of these assumptions.
This simple model will have 3 variables
t = # turns until the deck is depleted of cards
d = # number of times the deck is tapped to draw a card
a = average cost of a card in the deck
t is the variable I am interested in computing. It turns out that d is completely determined by the assumption of no wasted cards or power points. Finally a is actually a parameter – a characteristic of a particular deck and easily computed.
Now we have two equations. The first is based on the idea that the deck is exhausted after all cards are drawn. Since hands begin with 5 cards, 35 cards remain to be drawn. One is drawn every turn, but cards are also drawn when the deck is tapped. Thus we have
35 = t + d
The second equation is based upon the notion that the total number of power points generated in a game will equal the total number of power points spent. But the number of power points generated is the number of turns times 5 power points granted per turn. And the total power points spent will be the cost of the cards played plus the cost of the card draws made. The total cost of the cards played will be approximately 35 (the number of cards that will be played) times a (the average cost of a card). And the total cost of draws will be 2 (the cost per draw) times d (the number of draws). This gives
5t = 35a + 2d.
Using a little algebra gives the conclusion
t = 5a + 10
If I calculate the average cost of cards in my deck, I will know the typical number of turns that deck should last. Note that, as I reduce the cost of my cards, I reduce the number of turns the deck will last by a factor of 5.
Now let me try to improve the accuracy and reduce my assumptions. This will come at the cost of introducing more parameters (not all of which will be easy to determine). Let
c = the number of cards called from deck to hand
u = the number of cards unused (including cards left in hand at end
and cards discarded or removed from hand)
p = total # of power points generated (negative values are power points lost,
wasted, or spent to power special abilities)
r = # of cards retrieved from discard (or stolen from opponent)
s = # of cards summoned from deck into play
Note that cards discarded from the deck can be considered as both called from deck to hand and unused from hand. Our two equations now become:
35 = t + d + c + s
5t + p = (40 – u – s + r)a + 2d
Using algebra to eliminate d and solve for t gives
t = (40 – u + r) a / 7 – (2c / 7) – [(2 + a) s / 7] – p / 7 + 10
I believe the only assumptions here are that cards summoned, retrieved or unused have the same average value as all cards in the deck, and that rare cards which move cards back into one’s deck or off the board into one’s hand are not used. Unfortunately, this formula is far more complex and requires estimates of things like the number of cards that will be unused and the number of power points that will be wasted. I have also disregarded the initial, 3 power turn, but this can be treated by considering it not a turn, but 3 power points generated for the next turn.
I should also comment that the coefficients in this formula are quite intuitive. Think of it like this: every turn, one is given 5 power points and draws one card for free. But power points can buy extra card draws at a cost of 2 power per card. Effectively, each turn one is given 7 power points worth of resources. Consumption of 1 power point of resources therefore requires 1/7 of a turn. Therefore, every power point generated will allow me to deploy my entire deck’s forces in 1/7th less turns (and every power point lost will require me to take 1/7th more turns). Cards moved from deck to hand save me the 2/7th turns resources needed to draw them. And the resources required to play an average card from hand to board is the average price of a card divided by 7. If I play a total of 35 cards, that is a net of 5 times the average card cost turns worth of resources for all cards played.
Let me now apply these formulas to two representative decks. Jason Mullins dominated the first Spellcraft tournament exclusively using his pyrovolt deck (published elsewhere in this forum). This deck contains 13 cost 5 cards, 4 cost 4 cards, 16 cost 3 cards, 3 cost 2 cards, and 4 cost 0 cards. Average cost is 3.375. It has no summoning, no recall, and no power point consuming special abilities. Although it contains 4 shimmer pearls, I expect they will tend to reduce and balance wasted power points, so the first, simple model seems appropriate. This deck should run out of cards in 5*3.375 + 10 = 27 turns.
The second example I will use is more complex. One of my favorite decks is a very defensive deck that wins primarily by wearing down an opponent until my minions become dominant. Should an opponent weather my defenses until one of us runs out of cards, knowing how long my deck lasts is important. It contains 8 cost 1 cards, 18 cost 2 cards, 10 cost 3 cards, and 4 cost 5 cards for an average cost of 2.35. It contains 4 ominous eggs (which summon from deck to board) and 8 cards (razorweed and deepspawn) with a cost 2 special power. If I disregard the summoning and the special power I can use the simple formula to determine that this deck is likely to last 5*2.35 + 10 = 21.75 (call it 22) turns. However, the summoning and funding of special powers, as well as turns when I don’t need to spend all my power are likely to have a big impact on this deck. So let me use the second, more complex formula. Here, c and r are clearly 0 and it is reasonable to assume s = 3 (3 of 4 ominous eggs trigger to call a minion from deck to the board). But u and p are hard to calculate. The main reason a card will be unused with this deck is that I prefer the cards on the board to those I might play (not that I can’t afford to play them or I use them to power something like jungle juice). Anticipating the card being unneeded, I likely will sacrifice power points rather than draw a card. Thus I expect about 8 unused cards and an average of 2 power points a turn fueling special abilities or just wasted. Using my previous estimate of 22 turns, this is about 44 wasted power points. This gives t = 32*2.35/7 – 4.35*3/7 – (- 44)/7 + 10 = 25.16 turns (which I will call 26 – there are reasons to round up). Compared to Jason’s deck, mine depletes faster.
Most inferences I want to make require an understanding of a gamut of possible decks. After numerous computations on my decks, I find most to take from 18 to 24 turns to deplete the deck. The small figures are all blitz decks, blood orb decks, or decks that deliberately use no cost 4 or 5 cards. Most of my “normal” decks are on the order of 23 or 24 turns to depletion. As I tend to use more small cards than most players, I expect the community average to be a bit larger than this. Moreover, I suspect these figures are generally underestimates because I assumed no wasted power points in nearly all cases. On the other hand, if I am interested in concepts like how rapidly an opponent can deploy health points, I want to assume they are not wasting resources. It is amazing how often a good assumption made to simplify a model is often a good assumption even if not needed for the model.
Knowing the time t (in turns) it takes to deplete a deck easily leads to determination of the average rate cards will be played from that deck: simply take the number of cards played divided by the number of turns required to play them. This is a key figure, for using it allows me to compute things like the average number of health points typically deployed in a turn.
For example, one of my larger decks will deplete (according to my model) in 24 turns – beginning and ending with 5 cards in hand (no discards). Therefore I will play cards at a rate of 35 every 24 turns: 1.46 cards per turn. The minions have a total of 68 health. There are no barriers. Since there are 40 cards in a deck, the average health per card is 68/40 = 1.7. If I play an average of 1.4 cards per turn, I deploy an average of 1.7*1.46 = 2.48 health per turn.
I claim this figure is extremely meaningful: I can expect to sustain a rate of 2.48 health deployed per turn. If I am unable to destroy a single aquamancer, it will, through its special power, be able to destroy 40% of my forces every turn – at no cost to my opponent! And this is one of my larger unit decks. I have a strong basis for the claim that the cost 2 aquamancer is grotesquely over-powered. This health deployed per turn figure also highlights to power of fire prisms and primeval flame.
Using the same deck, I can compute the average strength points deployed per turn. Its minions have a total of 78 strength. But it contains 4 overloads which effectively add 8 more strength points, so the average strength I gain per round is 86/40 = 2.15. If I multiply 2.15 by the 1.46 cards played per turn, I get 3.14 strength deployed per turn. I think this figure is a little less useful than health per turn, but it gives some insight into the power of stranglevines and even aqualid hunters.
Let me also consider direct damage cards like meteor, flame spike, forked lightning, as well as the wild growth card, and the special power of deep spawn in comparison to this deck. A meteor effectively consumes an entire turn, but will easily destroy more health than this deck will deploy on the average – definitely worthwhile. A flame spike only requires 3 power points, but it also uses a card, effectively 5/7th of the turn’s resources, to remove 2 health. This is an average of 2 / (5/7) = 2.8 health per turn – again better than the rate health is deployed. But a forked, lightning, unless it can strike more than one target, uses 4/7th of a turn’s resources for only 1 damage a rate of only 1.7 health per turn – far less than the health most decks will deploy. One wild growth in play would add 40% to the health deployed per turn; pretty impressive even if it doesn’t impact strength or hurt an opponent. A deep spawn special power costs 2 power points, or 2/7th of the turn’s resources (the card is already in play) to add 1 strength and 1 health point – that’s an average of 3.5 each per turn, far better than most deck averages.
I have clearly not exhausted the potential of this model; I merely wanted to demonstrate how it could be used. And most inferences will require computations on several decks, not the few I showed. However, I have found it provides me with interesting information that I wanted to share.
For me, at least, probably the most difficult aspect of Spellcraft is converting a good deck idea into a workable deck. I should remark that, at this point, I own four copies of every card so I am not limited by cards available to me – beginning players with less selection may have to approach deck building a bit differently.
I tend to approach deck building as a kind of a cycle: it begins with a deck idea, followed by assembling of cards, testing the deck, contemplating how the deck worked, re-assembling, retesting, etc. This post focuses on those parts of the cycle that relate to revising a deck.
I find I typically have little trouble with deck ideas – they come to me all the time as I see interesting combinations, read a card description in a new light, observe weaknesses in a certain strategy, etc. And initially assembling cards into a deck often arises naturally from the initial deck concept. Both of these are interesting topics, but not what I would like to focus upon here.
After these steps, I typically find well under 20% of the decks I assemble work well at all, and even those that do work can often be improved. And I have found numerous instances of deck ideas that I have tried and abandoned, only to later encounter other players using the same ideas in a truly outstanding deck. Thus I am hoping that discussing the revision process will help me do a better job with it!
I am also thinking that it might work best to have a specific example in mind. My current project is a deck idea I had tried some time ago, and abandoned as ineffective. But a recent in-game global chat has reawakened my interest in the deck. The basic idea is to develop an inferno based deck exploiting the summoning abilities of numerous underworld faction cards. I know from past experience that inferno is not easy to use. As it is very hard to insure inferno becomes available quickly and is not destroyed quickly, an inferno deck must be able to play well both with the inferno card in play and without the inferno card in play.
For a first pass at constructing my inferno deck, I am thinking I want inferno (of course). I also want kobo summoners (to summon units to the board), kobo tunnelrunners and kobo miners (to be summoned), and ominous egg (another summoning card). It seems silly to have summoning cards like kobo miners without something for them to summon and lava bombs synergize perfectly with inferno. With a bunch of cards that work well with inferno in play, I need cards to survive without inferno. Pyrosaurs could be quite handy if my opponent also takes a lot of cheap minions. Ominous eggs ought to have a chance to summon units better than kobos, and I can think of three excellent candidates: deepspawn (also a potentially dangerous threat), phantasma (good, if short lived strength), and primal ooze (excellent against creature abilities). Living bomb turns my cheap kobos into destructive forces. Then, there is cinderbox – great against low health opponents and cheap fodder for inferno. Ruby dragons, underdark worms and pyrohydras could add a lot of muscle to the deck. Implosion will be invaluable against might-based opponents. And mass collapse could quickly provide several cards for inferno to burn. But whoa – I’m finding far more good cards than I can fit into the deck. So, on this first pass, I settle on 4 each of inferno, pyrosaur, summoners, tunnelrunners, eggs, phantasma, ooze, and deepspawn. I take 3 miners, 2 lava bombs, 2 cinderbox, and 1 living bomb.
I take a few moments to calculate some proportions. I have 4 cost 5 cards, 16 cost 3 cards, 6 cost 2 cards, 12 cost 1 cards, and 2 cost 0 cards. The ratio of cost 3 to cost 2 cards is a little high, but I figure that is compensated by the deepspawn cost 2 power, the multitude of cost 1 cards, and the likely need to draw cards. I also calculate 31 forces (cards that occupy the front row) and 9 effects (spells or back row cards) – I do not expect to lack forces when I need them, but with all my cheap cards, I do expect to burn through them. So I am ready to test….
And the deck is miserable. It wins occasionally against weak opposition – but not convincingly. And it loses consistently against good decks. I do notice the deck uses its power well, but is quickly low on cards in hand. And the cards played just don’t work as planned. The phantasma are almost always used to block strength 4 opponents – and they don’t block long enough. I can never afford to grow the deepspawn because I need the power to draw cards. The pyrosaurs are almost always stymied by equal strength or stronger opponents I cannot remove. Ominous eggs are about 50/50 in drawing a good minion. Living bomb, although not numerous, doesn’t work well because the units I most want to destroy are almost always opposite the pyrosaurs or deepspawn. And the lava bombs are too expensive to be quickly triggered by the inferno. When I do win, the deck is slow and almost all damage comes from kobos and lava bombs. In general, my forces are far too weak without inferno, and are barely balanced even with inferno. Clearly, I have my work cut out to salvage this deck.
Some changes seem almost automatic. I will go to 4 living bombs to better handle big minions. I will swap the almost worthless pyrosuars for ruby dragons – at least they can clear their own path. And I definitely want overworld elixir; mobility of forces will better utilize living bombs, as well as provide escapes for cards like my summoners.
Avoiding hand depletion is another issue. I would definitely like something to draw cards, but neither fire nor underworld has anything; I’ll have to manage that through power point expenditures; but I don’t think the deck is sufficiently polished for this to be a priority.
Let’s see what happens if I simply try the alterations mentioned above. My deck now consists of 4 inferno, 4 ruby dragons, 4 living bombs, 4 darkling assassin (a new potential threat, able to clear its own lane), 3 deepspawn (I’m not yet ready to give up on these), 3 primeval ooze, 4 kobo summoner, 4 kobo tunnel runners, 4 kobo miners, 4 ominous eggs, 2 overworld elixirs….
All of a sudden, the deck shows signs of life. The living bombs are nice when I draw them, the assassins work very well, and I can’t imagine how I thought I could play this deck without underworld elixir. The deck fares well versus the AI, but seems pretty weak in PVP. And there are still a lot of things I don’t like about the deck. Either I am having a real run of bad luck in PVP, or the deck is too prone to bad draws. I do not draw cheap cards fast enough, and power points are a major issue. It is very hard to afford the ruby dragon special, and it is hard to keep pace with opponents who can accelerate their deployment with cards like storm core, power surge and brainstorm, or multiple instances of heart of darkness. Mass damage effects (like fire rain) can totally turn the tide of the game against me. And I am still finding all life damage inflicted is in one and two point hits; a little too slow for the current environment. Moreover, I am finding that in the games I win, I don’t need (and often don’t use) inferno, while in the games I lose, inferno is little help. Even when it wins, the deck feels clunky and unpolished.
My first priority is improving the deck’s consistency. Maybe a lucky player can get away with a deck like this, but I am not that lucky. Generally, there are two ways to improve a deck’s consistency: to reduce the chance of a bad draw, or to better cope with a bad draw.
Reducing the chance of a bad draw requires including more cards of the critical type(s), better summoning critical card(s), or cycling through the deck at a faster pace. But I have already maximized the first two, and the third would require a card like brainstorm, sunken treasure, or fluidity. My factions have no such cards.
Thus I must try to mitigate the effects of a bad draw. The biggest problems with the current deck seem to be when I fail to draw assassins soon enough (or when my opponent can destroy them immediately) and when I either fail to draw living bombs or my opponent has strong magic immune creatures so living bombs don’t work. Surprisingly, the usual consequence in these cases is lost tempo: while I can deploy cheap minions very effectively for a time, they just don’t last, so unless I can destroy my (usually stronger) opponent, I cannot deploy stronger cards and still maintain any semblance of a defensive line. So I need better clearance capability (preferably not magic based), and/or more durable defense.
But it’s often not best to resolve problems in isolation; there is a second big issue I still want to address – making inferno more decisive. I have observed that I cannot count on inferno clearing my opponent’s big minions – at least not immediately. It is especially good for maintaining a board position advantage or providing a boost to tempo. It is not a rescue card so much as a momentum card. So I should look for cards that grant tempo edges, and/or have better health. I am now thinking that the deepspawn have no place in the deck, that I could use fewer kobos, and I may want better removal cards than the ruby dragons. At this point, I should consider the options available. There may be some trial and error; there may be some “it doesn’t really matter” type decisions. But awareness of options is vital to good decisions. Viable options include:
flame spider – damage on entry could eliminate cheap or damaged cards leaving one less card for inferno to handle
cinderling – distributed strength could make assassins or dragons truly dangerous to almost everything, but could be useless on kobos
ruby hatchling – another option for quick damage, more flexible but less durable than spiders
magma sphere – good attack and durable even if self-destructing
primeval flame – won’t kill itself in fruitless attack, special power good for clearance
meteor – not as cheap as living bomb, but added destructive power and a card useful to remove expensive blockers opposite dragons
cinderbox – cheap, back row card for inferno (won’t cost potentially valuable minion slot), useful removal of weak units
underdark worm – great muscle, but I pay for it
phantasma – in earlier version, I didn’t like the short timer. But would it work better here?
dreamfeeder – excellent strength at, but would low health and need for opponent minions (ideally destroyed by inferno) prove a liability?
dark fey – excellent to reduce enemies and cheap, but magic immunity may conflict with living bomb
darkling snatcher – not really the card I think I seek, but a chance to draw key enemy items (and cheap ones that counter inferno) may be worth deck space
brain hound – inferno works better when my opponent holds fewer cards in hand, but brain hound really draws out the wrong one: I would rather remove the cheapest! And using the power is expensive
deeper darkness – a lasting defender with elusive ability to complement my underworld elixir. But cost 2 might lead inferno to destroy more valuable cards
wall of stalagmites – inflicted damage is nice, but has same disadvantages as deeper darkness
narrow tunnels – great for shutting down a lane – unless that lane is occupied by underworld elixir or inferno. Does not contribute damage
cave-in – nice removal, but won’t work with ruby dragons
delusion – cheap, but temporary copies of enemies
mass collapse -- quick, cheap walls, but not durable
I think I like the fire options best. Magmasphere’s good attack and defensive staying power seem exactly what I need, and the spiders, hatchlings, cinderlings, and flames all have strong appeal. I think I want to try the cinderlings. I want to see the effects of strength distribution and whether I can trigger it. More than any other card, I need to experience cinderlings to evaluate ite. I can always change it later. But this creates a second issue – you’ll see.
The second question is, “What should I remove from the deck?” As a scientist, I have been taught to make small changes, one at a time, to best gauge an effect without confounding variables. But unless I literally want to test the deck in thousands of games, that is not a good approach in Spellcraft deck revision. There is so much randomness in order of the draw that changing only one or two cards rarely makes a noticeable difference except in the case of game-changing key cards and key card summoners. I prefer to jump in with dramatic changes if I think they might be justified. Removing the deepspawn is obvious; that makes room for magma spheres. And I want to get rid of some kobos, but only one or two. But I still feel an urge to try out cinderlings for more offensive punch. Although I don’t really have an issue with primal oozes in the deck (they are excellent opposite voltas), they seem most expendable of the remaining cards. But now there is a problem – I will have 21 underworld and 19 fire cards which is not a legal configuration. I either have to replace 5 underworld cards with fire cards (making fire primary faction) or 3 fire cards with underworld. Although I might slightly prefer ruby dragons, underdark worms generally serve the same purpose. I’ll try it at least in preference to other changes.
With a deck now consisting of 4 worms, 4 assassins, 4 summoners, 3 miners, 4 tunnelrunners, 4 eggs, 2 elixirs, 3 cinderlings, 4 magma spheres, 4 living bombs, and 4 infernos, I am ready to test again….
And I like it. The magmaspheres provide both offensive and defensive punch witrhout the tempo problems posed by the deepspawn. I don’t miss either the dragons or the oozes (most of the time). And the cinderlings are proving wonderful. Even if the strength boost hits kobos, it has value – they survive until I can use living bomb. If it hits magmaspheres, they become formidable attackers and defenders. The deck is still not immune to bad draws. (I had one where I began with 3 infernos and 2 living bombs and the first two minions I drew were immediately destroyed.) But even in these rare cases, the deck came back gracefully (the aforementioned game ended with me losing only 0 – 2 despite my opponent having the further good fortune of drawing taken under twice at the perfect time.) Best of all, the deck no longer feels cluncky. It plays gracefully without the inferno. And when the inferno becomes available, I rarely have to hold back on using it because I lack the tempo to do so. I will not know if the deck is perfect without much more testing – I am still worried about magically immune creatures and about voltas, but I am ready to add the deck to my repertoire of “good decks”.
But before I finish this article, let me consider what this example shows about deck testing. A little reflection and synthesis will help me in the future.
First, it surprised me how my deck went from very bad to quite good. While there were numerous changes, they were not changes to the basic concept or key cards. Basic support cards may not always get a lot of credit, but can have a huge impact.
Second, the revisions took real effort. What I thought would be a quick and simple post has taken several days and a lot of contemplation. Randomly switching cards to see what happens rarely succeeds. Revisions must have purpose.
Third, while testing, it is important to be attentive not just to wins and losses, but to how the deck really plays. What works well; what doesn’t work and why? Does the deck play seem smooth? If not, why? What weaknesses and vulnerabilities become apparent? What is needed to make features work better? Are all cards filling their intended function? Are some cards serving unintended functions, and, if so, is that a pleasing surprise or a desperate compensation for something missing? Are there issues with power point utilization or card/hand management?
Fourth, after asking these questions, thought is required to address issues. Often, a direct solution presents itself, but other times (as with inconsistent draws in my example), one may have to address an issue indirectly. Awareness of options and familiarity with available cards greatly facilitates intelligent change.
Fifth, one should focus attention where attention is needed. My original big minion (pyrosaurs) lacked the strength to be effective (a big problem). But a choice between ruby dragons and underdark worms didn’t matter. Although much more subtle, deepspawn’s draw on resources was also a big problem; magmasphere’s limited duration was not.
And now, I am ready to conclude this study of deck testing techniques. But testing decks is a complex process. Please share your insights. Have I missed anything important? Can it be made easier?
Hey Quint, very interesting post !
I come with same process as you when building a deck. Maybe the only difference is that i discard a lot of the ideas i try as unviable and when i keep one i try to push the deck as high as possible in term of win rate, testing things with only few cards changed.
But really thank you for your time writing such interestings post !
Don't get me wrong; I discard a lot of deck ideas too -- many I probably shouldn't. In fact, had I not chosen this inferno deck idea to illustrate an article on deck revision, I would have abandoned it after the first rendition proved so abysmal! Lucky me, the final result is not only a very solid deck, it is fun to play with rich strategy.
You probably do hone your decks to a higher level of perfection; I tend to spend my time writing about them instead :)
This note arises out of my experience with two different decks. The first is an ocean/fire deck emphasizing high health and regenerating cards combined with burning world and rage. The second is an air/ocean deck focusing on archmages and sky hydras with lots of spells. In both cases, I find the destructive card (burning world or archmage) tends to work more often (if not better) than the growth card (rage or sky hydra). A natural question is whether this is a general principle, a consequence of the cards being compared (or the decks in which they appear), or a chance coincidence in the games I have played.
I can think of a couple of a few general advantages to destruction: 1. destruction is unblockable (strong units can always be blocked – either temporarily by almost anything, or almost permanently by combat immune creatures). 2. Destruction cannot be stolen (darkling slavers and especially bodyswap make holding high strength minions risky). 3. Destruction reduces enemy responses (an outmatched enemy on the board may still use special powers to devastating effect; dead enemies are dead). 4. The benefits of destruction are immediate (a unit able to inflict damage on an open lane) while the benefits of growth (a stronger creature) only manifest after opposing enemies are cleared. I am not convinced these advantages are sufficient to extrapolate my experience into a general rule. What are your thoughts on this?
By the way, there are significant implications of such a conclusion: for example, it would suggest taking darkling assassins over deepspawn, undead giants over blood vapours, aquamancers/ voltas/ triton assassins over deepsea things, and lightning golems over storm fiends – at least as general purpose units. For the most part this is consistent with my tabulated card frequencies. It also suggests that decks/factions geared toward destruction might be more successful than those geared toward growth. Any nay-sayers?
I tend to agree with your observations. However, I do find that massive creatures can be devastating with support or with cards that can clear the way for them. Some examples would be direct damage fire cards which can kill blockers, triton aquamancers or Primeval Flames which can also take out blockers, or Tide Callers/Sirens or Horrify or other cards that can move blockers out of the way. With this support, big creatures can make quick work of opponents. Of course they all have their drawbacks. High health creatures or regenerating creatures cause problems for direct damage and aquamancers. And Barriers can't be targeted by many of these cards. And then if your opponent has blockers in all five lanes, the cards that move blockers away become useless. Still, I find that with support, cards like Stitched Golems and Hydras can be devastating.
Deck Speed, how quickly a deck typically defeats an opponent, is a major factor in deck design. With blitz decks, designed to inflict fatal damage before an opponent can respond, the value of speed is self-evident. With control decks, greater speed usually correlates with seizing board control more rapidly or with tapping board control for victory more rapidly, and both help preempt the enemy from gaining control. Even stall decks – decks that might attempt to win by exhausting an opponent of cards – must be attuned to deck speed, if only to slow the opponent’s deck sufficiently to exhaust it before it wins. Not every successful deck must necessarily be extremely fast, but almost any deck will be improved if it can be made faster.
And basically, only 3 factors impact how fast a deck is: the average amount of damage inflicted per opportunity, the rate at which opportunities for damage are established, and the ease with which the opponent can impede these opportunities. Surprisingly, these factors rarely receive the attention they deserve.
Before I discuss these three factors, I want to comment on my use of the word “opportunity”; it is deliberately vague. I often consider a card played as an “opportunity” – a use particularly apt with quick minions or with something like heat seeker which immediately damages on opponent. Other times, I may consider an opportunity clearing a lane to allow a minion attack or simply having a minion left unblocked as an opportunity. Opportunities may be cards; they may be combinations of cards; they may be board situations – whatever is most convenient to analyze. I would probably not consider a “turn” an opportunity as “turn” has too many components to be a useful unit, but I might consider an “attack phase” as an opportunity.
The average amount of damage per opportunity is the most obvious but often least considered factor in deck speed. I believe it was Valentino who first suggested every player should consider how many “hits” are needed to kill an opponent. Assuming the typical 20 total health, cards inflicting one damage require 20 hits, cards inflicting 2 damage require 10 hits, cards inflicting 3 damage require 7 hit, cards inflicting 4 damage require 5 hits, cards inflicting 5 damage require only 4 hits, 6 damage still takes 4 hits, 7 to 9 damage takes 3 hits, 10 to 19 damage takes 2 hits, etc. Notice the rapid, but diminishing rate of improvement here. And note the balanced trade-off (where the amount of damage increase equals the number of hits reduced) occurs between 4 and 5. As generally, hits do less than 5 damage, this shows that inflicting 1 greater average damage is usually of more value than gaining one extra hit. Consider deciding whether to attack with an open 2/2 deepspawn (underworld faction), or to use its special power. Since it only requires 7 three point hits, but 10 two point hits to kill an opponent, I would generally prefer to strengthen the deep spawn at the cost of a hit. But if my deepspawn were already 5/5, increasing it to 6/6 does not reduce the number of hits needed – I would rather attack with it.
To alter deck speed by changing the average damage per hit, one must consider possible sources of life damage to an opponent. By far the most common is unblocked minion attacks. But a few spells (heat seeker, death is inevitable, ashes, miasma, power dive, and spell storm) do direct damage, some minions can inflict life damage without making attacks (lava giant, lava imp, cloud dragons, doomcloud), a few items (lava bomb, siege cannon, blood orb) do so, as do a few auras (burning blood, mortality, mortal wound), and a couple of traps (backfire, smash). With the solitary exception of spell storm, the average damage per hit is only changed by changing minion strength. A sure way to increase deck speed is to choose harder hitting minions or to make minions harder hitting through cards like wild strength, drums of war, or overload. A good (in fact, probably the only reliable) way to reduce opponent speed is to systematically drain enemy strength (cards like gravity well, horrify, dark fey, or water elementals).
The second major influence on deck speed is the rate that life-damage opportunities occur. The rate cards are played is certainly important here, but that is only part of the picture. A 3/3 pyrohydra is not a damage opportunity unless it is (or can be made) unblocked before an attack phase. So the speed of, say a fire prism deck, is a factor of the time required to set up the board for the prism (fire prism in play, triggers for the fire prism available, and units able to exploit cleared lanes ready to attack), the rate the fire prism can open lanes, and the damage inflicted by attacking minions. The speed of a blood vapour deck has to account for time to play the vapours, time for the vapors to grow dangerous, and time for the strong vapours to get clear lanes of attack, as well as the time for accumulated damage to equal 20. Despite this complication, faster play of the correct cards will increase deck speed.
To play any card requires two things: having enough power points and having the card available. And because power points can be used to draw cards, the topics of power point availability and card availability are clearly interconnected. Speed generally increases with more power points, fewer wasted power points, or more cheaply played cards. More power points are possible with power generating cards. Avoiding wasted power points is directly tied to power utilization. A cheaply played card is generally less effective than an expensive card – the trade-off between multiple cheap cards or one expensive card is the basis for many strategic decisions. Having necessary cards available in hand is a matter of probability which is assisted by having more desired cards in the deck or by summoning those cards to hand more quickly. Using specialized summoners (e.g. aeromancers for drawing spells) is of obvious value – especially when the deck is designed so the only available summon is the desired card. General, hand building summoners are also useful – especially in situations where one’s hand tends to become depleted. Many of these topics have been extensively discussed elsewhere.
But I do want to comment on power generating items (like shimmerpearls) and on hand building cards (like sunken treasure). Note that most power generating cards create one power point at the cost of a card. Since replacing the card costs two power points, generally using one is not cost effective. I often see a power generator used to match with an unused power point to draw a new card – this use is cost neutral and it contributes to exhausting one’s deck. Thus, with a few unusual exceptions, pure power generating cards are advantageous only when they allow the play of an additional card, or a more expensive card with improved timing. Exceptions are when the power generators can be reused (e.g. if recalled by a pearl diver), serve an additional purpose (power a fire prism or archmage, get sacrificed to an inferno, obstruct a lane where one doesn’t want a stranglevine to move, etc.), or facilitate cycling through ones deck to quickly reach a critical card. For the most part, power generators should be used with the intent of providing power to play an otherwise unplayable card. Except on the first (three power point) turn, this uses at least three cards from one’s hand – two cards played to the board and the power generator. One cannot do this often without replenishing one’s hand.
Hand depletion is much more ubiquitous than the play of power generating cards, however. Nearly every deck needs cheap (cost 3 or less) cards, not only to utilize the initial 3 point turn, but to improve power point utilization, to cheaply counter certain threats, and simply for the desirability of certain cheap cards. Typically, these low-cost cards are played in tandems, or even in triples. Hand replenishers (sunken treasure and brainstorm) are of benefit to almost every deck. And hand replenishers are useful even in some cases where hands are not depleted: they allow a greater selection of cards (which can help off-set a bad draw) and they can speed the search for a particular, critical card that has not yet been drawn. The only times these cards do not improve a deck is when the deck itself is prone to running out of cards (e.g. certain “stall”decks), the deck demands such initial quickness one does not want to risk drawing these cards early, or the deck handles hand depletion well without these cards.
The interaction between power generating cards and hand replenishing cards is particularly interesting for a discussion of deck speed. Observe that playing one sunken treasure and two shimmer pearls is a totally cost neutral transaction: two power points are used and generated; three cards are played and replaced. But the power could be used immediately and the cards replaced later – essentially a 0 interest loan on power points. Playing cards faster should improve deck speed.
Playing cards faster is not the only way to improve the rate that damage opportunities are created. Playing cards cheaper has the same effect as playing them faster. Examples include using kobo summoner to play other kobos for free, using giant turtle or trap vine to play two cards for the cost of one, or using an ominious egg to draw a costlier minion to the board. Beware of cards like triton ritual, jungle juice, or flowering – the time required to offset the initial cost (power and cards) may render them less effective than they appear.
Cards acting sooner – or more often – also significantly facilitate speed. A razor shark provides no damage opportunity on the turn it is played – until it is hit by an energize spell. And a volta firing twice might clear a lane that would otherwise be obstructed. Energize and over-world elixir very much accelerate a deck. Similar comments apply to triggered effects. A detonation spell is faster than a volcanic eruption, a fire shroud is faster than rage, and an aqualid hunter is faster than a water elemental because they act when played instead of at the start of one’s next turn. And a fire prism, archmage, jungle troll, or savage trapper can be devastating because their power can be triggered numerous times a round. Conversely, some cards (notably air pressure, lava bomb, even spell book) contingent upon a timer running out, or other cards requiring a trigger you cannot easily control (e.g. smash, backfire, or ant swarm) are not fast.
And let us not overlook the need to have critical cards available. If I could take 30 wolf packs in one deck, I could defeat almost any competition – very quickly. But, under Spellcraft rules, wolfpack is not a fast card. One simply cannot draw enough of them fast enough for them to be dangerous. Decks that rely heavily on one card, or that rely heavily on combinations simply must be able to summon those cards quickly to have any consistency. Hand replenishers or replacers (fluidity) rarely suffice unless there are either other summoners or viable substitutions for the key cards.
Finally, deck speed is impacted by the ease with which damage opportunities can be impeded. In a sense, the more damage opportunities are impeded, the lower the rate at which those opportunities actually occur, but I find it helpful to consider impeding damage opportunities separately. A sole underdark worm, despite its high strength, does not have high damage potential because it is so easily impeded. In fact any minion attack except that of an ancient ghost is impeded by a card obstructing the path. Most other forms of damage are much harder to impede: spell damage is only thwarted by Mesmer or spell net traps; minion power damage is only prevented by removal of the minion or its denaturing via liquefy or primeval ooze; other damage such as from items, auras, or traps is only stopped by preventing its trigger or removal of the threatening card. From this, one might erroneously think that non-minion based damage is the way to go for speed. But this overlooks that there are very limited sources of such damage (hence the cards are slow to draw), that most of this damage is not great (2 or fewer points), sometimes the damage requires costly triggers or sacrifices, and often the damage only occurs once. Almost all effective decks draw some damage from minion attacks, although alternate sources of damage (e.g. power dive) are often present in the fastest decks.
But in considering speed, I think it crucial to consider impediments to minion damage. Blocking can be thwarted by either bypassing it or preventing it. One approach to bypassing a blocker is to simply destroy it. Think not just meteor, but also pack attack, archmage special power, aquamancer or volta attacks, lost at sea, etc. Another approach is to burrow under or to separate the blocker from the attacking minion (tide caller, tide shift, wrong tunnel, triton illusionist). Blocking is prevented if either the opponent has no opportunity to block (as with quick units on open lanes), or lacks the resources (cards and power points) to block. The latter usually occurs because there are too many friendly open minions to block – either because they were deployed too rapidly or because they overpowered previous opposition.
At this point, I cannot avoid talking about tempo. Tempo is all about generating/thwarting threats faster than one’s opponent. These threats do not have to be life damage directly; an aquamancer is an extremely high threat even though its strength is only 1. Which would you rather deal with, a cost 4 razor shark, or the simultaneous deployment of a cost two blood vapour and a cost two aquamancer? Most players would feel much less threatened by the shark. Why? First, far more cards handle a shark than either a blood vapour or an aquamancer, second, a shark can usually be destroyed with cost advantage while destroying a vapour or an aquamancer usually costs more than the deployment cost of the minion, and third, while a shark never becomes tougher to destroy, both vapours and aquamancers quickly become almost indestructible.
Damage that is greater, hits that occur at a faster rate, and hits that are harder to stop all contribute to deck speed. Attention to these factors should improve most decks.
It is increasingly apparent that deck speed is a vital issue in Spellcraft. Having, in the previous essay, written about factors influencing deck speed, I now want to ask the question, “When is a deck too slow?” The answer is not always obvious: I have excellent decks that rarely play past 5 rounds; I have other successful decks that may average 20+ rounds a game. Game length is a function of many factors: luck of the draw, how quick the opponent is, how well a deck defends, how easily a deck breaks through an established opponent. “Too slow” is not a matter of measuring average game length, but depends upon a (somewhat subjective) judgment of other factors that vary from deck to deck.
There are two general approaches to almost any question about a deck: one is to test and observe its performance, the other is to analyze the deck theoretically. Both contribute to an overall picture, but tend to give incomplete information in isolation. Playtest results are very subject to factors of luck (draw order) and match-up (how the opposing deck works). Analysis can become overwhelming complex and can easily overlook crucial factors.
There are a few signs that arise in a playtest if a deck is too slow. Some are obvious: an opponent frequently winning (or acquiring an overwhelming advantage) before your deck really establishes itself; your deck stalling (unable to make significant progress) before the enemy has been defeated.
Some play-test issues may be more subtle signs that a deck is too slow. These include: having trouble playing cards fast enough in almost every game, losing due to deck exhaustion, extreme inconsistency in deck performance, regularly losing close games, a feeling of never holding the right card, or the deck failing against certain benchmark types of decks. Let me elaborate on these points.
Being unable to play cards fast enough could be because your deck is not designed to allow efficient deployment of cards – definitely a cause of decks being too slow. But it could be a feature of play or of the design of the opposing deck. I have lost plenty of games with good decks because my opponent happened to have a couple of cheap living bombs destroy my cost 5 minions or because a fire rain destroyed my entire line up of minions. These are issues of tempo rather than deck speed. On the other hand, if all my forces are eroded by stronger opponents until I have 5 empty lanes needing blockers all at once, the issue is probably speed – my deck needs to be accomplishing something while my units are dying!
Losing to deck exhaustion is a sign that you are burning through a lot of cards without inflicting a lot of damage. Unless something in the opposing deck design caused this, your deck probably lacks the damage potential needed to win in a timely fashion.
Inconsistency in deck performance is often due to failure to draw critical cards when they are needed. If the right cards are drawn, the deck is amazing, but if they aren’t drawn, the deck fizzles. While this could simply be “bad luck”, frequent occurrence suggests the deck is not able to draw necessary cards fast enough – either the probability of drawing the cards is too low, there are too many set-up cards, or there is insufficient “stand alone” effectiveness in too many cards. Another cause of inconsistent deck performance is a large number of bad match-ups. If a deck does not win against a significant variety of opponents, it is probably not fast enough – it is unable to win before its vulnerabilities lead to a loss.
Similarly, losing most close games is also an indication a deck is too slow. Close games are either an indication that two decks are evenly matched (in which case win-loss should be about 50%), or very near the point at which a slow, strong deck passes a faster, weaker deck. A deck that loses such matchups nearly all the time is too slow – if only by a small amount.
A feeling of never holding the right cards is usually an indication that a deck relies too much upon defense – and that the defense fails too easily. More speed relieves pressure from defense. Never holding the right cards could also be a sign of a sputtering offense. But better speed would prevent the offense from getting tied up.
To me, probably the biggest indicator of a “too slow” deck is observing it fail against certain types of decks – what I term benchmark decks. For example, there are a lot of mediocre fire-prism decks presently in play. A deck unable to defeat mediocre prism decks will struggle against a lot of other decks as well – losing to mediocre prism decks is a sure sign that opponents have too many opportunities to defeat the deck. (A subtle distinction is important – there are also very good fire-prism decks that see frequent play, and I am not talking about losing to these. A good prism deck is able to trigger the prism at least two times a turn for an extended period – 5 or more consecutive turns. A good prism deck has multiple types of triggers for the prism. And a good fire prism deck has a mechanism to speed the draw of at least one prism card. Mediocre prism decks lack one or two of these features.) Other benchmark decks include blood orb decks (unless the orb deck also matches up with a favorable defense), decks that draw a single aquamancer which only acts once a round, decks able to stop your attack essentially with only razor weed, etc.
An abstract analysis of a deck also provides valuable information about the deck speed. But how I conduct this analysis tends to be very deck dependent. I usually begin by asking the question, “How does my deck win?” Once I answer that question, I try to figure out how long it will take to establish the conditions under which the deck will win. Then I ask myself how the deck defends, and I try to determine how long I can typically expect to survive. Comparing the numbers is a good way to decide whether the deck is fast enough. I can also compare these numbers to actual play-test results.
Let me apply this analysis on a couple of example decks. I will start with my air/jungle “blitz deck”. This deck is loaded with minions having the quick trait. These minions are supplemented by 4 power-dive cards, 4 drums of war, 2 tornados, and 2 ambush. The deck basically wins by quick hits from units on unblocked lanes, coupled with damage from power dive. Aside from ambush, tornado, or possibly lightning golems, I do not expect to clear lanes of opposing enemies. So how long does the deck take to win? Assuming average luck, I figure one hit for two damage on my first turn, That minion will be blocked for turn 2, but I expect to either play another two minions + power dive, or 1 minion, drums of war + power dive – probably 6 damage on my second turn. I will probably have another minion blocked, but I should hit with another 2 or 3 minions on open lanes. I will figure 6 to 8 points of damage, and I’m at 14 to 16 damage. On the 4th turn, I should be able to hit on open land or power dive for another 4 to 6 damage. 4 turns would be about all this deck takes on an average play. With good luck, the deck could win in 3, but it would not be surprising to take 5 turns – especially if my opponent has a lot of cheap defenses.
In terms of defense, I figure my blitz deck has none – in general, I want my cards to attack, not defend. (Actually, I do have a few cloud fey and arcane thieves, which I might use to block in a pinch) Assuming my opponent has no quick units, but blocks mine with strength, I expect to take 0 damage turn one, 4 (from a strength 4 enemy) turn 2, and 8 (from the previous and 1 new strength 4 enemy) on turn 3. I have taken only 12 damage before the turn I expect to have inflicted 20. Even if my opponent gets a fourth turn, I think there is a very good chance I can divert a unit to sacrifice for defense against one of my opponent’s strength 4 minions, limiting him to 2 hits. Hopefully, at least one of those will only be for 3 damage, or I will have played a cloud fey to improve my health. Odds are very good that I will get a fifth turn. I conclude this deck is fast enough – at least if I get the first turn. If I get the second turn, my deck is extremely likely to win by turn four, and my opponent is still unlikely to win until turn 5, so I reach the same conclusion.
For a second example, let me consider constructing a deck designed to win by draining my opponent’s deck of cards. I will certainly want underworld as a faction so I can take albino cave slugs, pilfer, and maybe darkling snatchers. The second faction is still open – all factions have potential merit. But before I fret over the second faction, I want to consider the feasibility of this deck as I suspect it will be inevitably too slow. At issue is how long it will take to deplete my opponent’s deck. While many opponents may help my cause by deck taps, playing brainstorm, etc., I do not want to plan on factors out of my control. Besides, against a good opponent, I can expect that brainstorm type cards are played with a reason; they should accelerate his victory by at least as much as they speed his defeat.
The initial hand is 5 cards. That leaves 35 cards – 35 rounds if my opponent only draws one card per turn. Lasting 35 turns is a tall order for any defense. So let me consider the amount this can be reduced. It is probably conservative to expect an opponent to voluntarily draw 5 cards – either by taps or by summoning. I can expect to draw 3 or 4 cards through pilfer. I think it optimistic to think I can hit 4 times with a cave slug, but I’ll estimate 8 cards drained by that means. I might get one or two from a snatcher, but I won’t count those as I’ve already been generous with my slug estimate. Say that is 12 cards drained total. I’m down to a need to last 18 turns. But let me put this in perspective: I can only give up about 1 life damage per turn. Moreover, I must hold without drawing cards myself lest I deplete my deck first. Most good defensive auras have timers from 12 (rooted) to 15 (gravity well, narrow tunnels) these cards effectively last 6 or seven turns – 3 will be needed just to keep one in play through the game’s duration. A number of cards (blood orb, spellstorm, mortality) have ample time to defeat this deck, so I must be prepared to defend against auras, items, and spells as well as minions. Even with underworld, a faction with good countering potential, it is almost impossible to defend 18 turns on a consistent basis – especially without burning through my cards at a fast rate. At this point, I can categorically say that this strategy will never work as a primary focus of the deck – it is absolutely too slow. Unless I can incorporate other threats into my deck, or upcoming factions have significantly better card draining options than the current factions, I do not think this deck is worth pursuing.
There are many factors impacting the effectiveness of a deck: resource utilization, coherence (card synergies and usefulness), speed, and flexibility are probably the most important. Consciously considering the speed of a deck is an important part to evaluating a deck. This essay has addressed that issue.
How Many Minions?
A common question beginners often ask is, “How many minion cards should I include in my deck?” It is a good question; a poor ratio of minions is a certain recipe for disaster. And it is a horrible question because the most accurate answer, “It depends.” is totally useless. This essay is an attempt to expand that answer in a usable way.
It seems logical to begin by examining the role minions play in a game. I feel confident asserting that the primary role of minions is lane control. And lane control has three elements: obstruction/occupation, combating opposing forces, and infliction of life damage when unopposed. But this is where things get complicated. Not only do different minions do better at various aspects of lane control than others, the effectiveness of any given minion at any particular task also depends upon the cards supporting – and opposing them. Moreover, minions are not the only cards able to perform these tasks, and these tasks may not be the only, or even the primary, task for any given minion. In the hands of a good player, every card plays multiple roles. And even beyond that, the importance of lane control varies from game to game.
So let’s look at each of the three components of lane control more deeply, beginning with obstruction/occupation. If I have a unit in a given lane, with exception of ghosts or burrowing under, I prevent my enemy from inflicting life damage through minion attacks. But other cards can have the same effect. Auras like narrow tunnels, rooted, and safe hole come to mind. And barriers are usually better at this task than most minions. But the auras all have timers, while the barriers have far less flexibility. Greater health generally translates into greater longevity (although one must be careful of spells like implode). And greater strength (or combat immunity) generally translates into fewer options for an opponent to damage the unit. Weak units with an ability to do something other than attack (e.g. moving to another lane or invoking a special power) also have higher durability as the unit does not damage itself in a fruitless attack (a nice feature of barriers as well). Some units have great deterrent powers – few players will want to “sacrifice” a good, cost 5 minion if facing a toxipede’s poison ability. Occupation tends to be more important with slower developing decks – a factor which should definitely influence its emphasis and minions devoted to it.
The importance of minions in combating opposing forces is often overlooked – until one observes an enemy spore farm reach 20 health, a lowly 2/2 wolf pack reach monstrous strength because it cannot be removed until 2 other wolves are played, or an aquamancer sniping one’s forces from a safe-haven behind one’s own barrier. Yes, usually combatting enemy forces is to clear the lane for a damaging attack, but sometimes destroying an enemy is critical for other reasons. Some auras assist with unit clearance, and some spells are very effective for this purpose. But neither have the persistence of a minion presence on the lane. While high strength is the major issue here, do not overlook the value of certain special powers such as that of deepwood ash, water elementals, or darkling assassins. And sometimes a quick unit in hand can be more effective that a minion on the board – an aeromancer can destroy an angry hornet no matter which lane the hornet is deployed in. Removing dangerous enemies is always important; unfortunately, how many units and how difficult their removal is usually a function of your opponent’s hand.
The value of minions inflicting life damage is self-evident; however some decks do rely heavily on other cards for life damage. Blood orbs, power dive, and spell storm have been used particularly effectively in this capacity, but they are not the only possibilities.
Now particular minions may be, and often are, most valued not as a generic minion, but for their special power. However, if I only need a special power and not the minion itself, I would not consider the situation one in which I need a minion; hence, special powers tend not to be relevant to the general question unless a tendency to “discard” such minions after use increases my attrition.
Having examined when and why I need minions, let me briefly examine when I do not want them. First, if I already have 5 good minions in play, the only reason for other minions is to replace one – not an immediate need. Second, minions tend to be slow: unless they have quick, they do not act on the round they are deployed and relatively few minions have an immediate power that acts when they are deployed. Third, minions generally only impact the lane in which they currently reside. Fourth, minions do not generally reach or impact back row objects. Fifth, sometimes a friendly minion can actually work against me – for instance, if it feeds an enemy aquamancer, protects my opponent from law of the jungle, or triggers a waiting grave.
Before I start to suggest some actual numbers, it is important to consider the bigger picture. It really doesn’t matter whether I have great cards in my deck if I do not have them in my hand when I need them. One important goal of deck design – and the only goal really relevant to this discussion – is to maximize the probability of having an appropriate card in hand when needed.
So I’m finally ready to answer the big question. How many minions should a deck contain? Well, it depends….
Seriously, I will approach the question in two ways. First, I will attempt theoretical formulations of an answer; then I will give an answer based on my experience across a variety of decks.
In attempting a theoretical formula, I note that I would rather err on the side of too many minions than on too few. The consequences of not controlling (or at least contesting) lanes when needed seem far more severe than consequences of holding minions I don’t need. I also note that there tends to be more need for minions in the early stages of a game than in later stages – once all lanes are filled with minions, the urgency of placing minions decreases. And most non-minion cards are relatively useless until they have a minion to act on or against. I will also assume that the deck played is one in which lane control is important to win. While there are rare exceptions – some highly effective – I think it best to just treat them as exceptions to my “rules”.
So generally, one goal I have in a deck is to exert lane control as quickly as possible. I figure a good rule of thumb would be to have the ability to play at least 5 minions in my first 5 turns – this allows me to fill one lane a round until all lanes are full. Now it may be that some of those minions get destroyed before I finish deploying all 5, but with a well-designed deck, I would expect my opponent to spend as much time destroying a unit as I spend deploying it – i.e. I do not expect to fall behind if I can deploy at this rate. As I begin with 5 cards, and draw a new card every turn except the first of the game, by turn 5 I will have passed a total of at least 9 cards through my hand. To draw an average of 5 minions within this time, I need a minimum proportion of minions to total cards of 5/9 – about 55% or 22 minions in my deck. But if I only draw an average of 5 minions within the desired time frame, there will be a substantial portion of games in which I do not draw enough minions. In fact, I am far more comfortable drawing and average of 6 or even 7 minions in my first nine or ten cards. This corresponds to 24 to 28 minions in a deck. Extra minions also offer choice as to which I play.
But there are a couple of modifications I need to make to this figure. Cards that facilitate drawing desired cards (e.g. sunken treasure) allow a smaller ratio of minions. And realistically, I only need two or three minions (to inflict life damage) provided I can neutralize other lanes (say with a barrier or narrow tunnels), and provided I have means to neutralize cards like aquamancers without using minions. Finally, if I have high minion attrition, I will need to replace minions at a high rate. In most games, the ratio of minions in hand will tend to decrease from turn 1 to turn 5 as mainly minions are played. However, a 60% to 70% minion ratio will tend to cover this – I just need to be careful if I use substitutes that reduce minion ratio to 30%.
So I tend to use a target of 60% to 70% minions, but I will count lane controlling cards (barriers, tornadoes, rooted, etc.) for up to half of these provided I have at least 4 cards like liquefy or meteor to replace a minion’s ability to damage opposing enemies. Spells like swarm of bats, darkling slaver, or rebirth I count as half a minion (they don’t always apply when needed). I subtract power cards from the number of cards in the deck (they are often used to facilitate drawing a new card). And I subtract two times the number of sunken treasure or brainstorm cards in the deck. Thus a deck containing 16 minions, 4 barriers, 4 sunken treasure, and 4 shimmer pearls would have an effective ratio of 20/28 = 71% minions – certainly an adequate if not excessive number of minions.
Next, I share my experience. But you should be aware that my experience is highly biased by my playing style – a generally defensive style that probably requires more minions than the average player.
I have 16 decks currently saved that I have marked as effective. The number of minions present in them are: 6, 12, 14, 16, 20, 22, 23, 24, 24, 24, 26, 26, 28, 28, 28, and 32. This is an average of just over 22 and a median of 24. Half of these decks contain 24 to 28 minions – the proportion I typically target. And be aware that the decks with relatively few minions usually have unusual characteristics. The deck with only 6 minions relies upon ravagers combined with many barriers (especially razorweeds), and cards like law of the jungle and inferno to keep opposing forces limited. The deck with 12 minions contains 20 cards that either generate power or draw cards to hand, 4 mage towers, and 4 spell storms. The deck with 14 minions also has 16 barriers and 4 narrow tunnels.
In fact, if I use my theoretical formula, every deck but 1 meets the 60% minion criteria; over half exceed 70% minion. The one deck below 60% minions has 4 razor weeds (able to produce lane blockers without cards), as well as 4 inferno and 4 law of the jungle (to keep enemy minion density low). I also have numerous decks I have thrown away because they had an inadequate ratio of minions; I wish I could report how they matched up under my formula, but unfortunately I have not saved them. None the less, I think it is fair to conclude that my formula fits the decks I tend to use very well.
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