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Re: strategy esays
— by Quintivarium Quintivarium
Making Quick Decks Work

Valentino, among others, has observed that “quick decks” in Spellcraft tend to not work as well as muscle decks, and I concur.  This article is intended to examine the quick deck, seeking ways to improve its competitiveness.  

First, for purposes of this article, I consider a quick deck to be a deck that wins by creating too many threats too quickly for an opponent to respond.  Thus a deck in which, every turn,  you play a dragonfish (strength 5) that your opponent cannot effectively block is a muscle deck, not a quick deck – even though it might win in only 4 turns.

In many ways, this article is a work in progress – I am hoping that through talk and analysis, I will get the insights required to create viable quick decks.  I do not know the solution as I begin.  

I think it is helpful to begin by observing how quick decks can ideally work, identifying factors that keep them from working in this ideal way, and finding ways to address these factors.  I would like to begin with some (idealized) simulations.  What I will do is not really Spellcraft because I want to see the issues in their simplest manifestation – but it should apply to Spellcraft.  As I have not really played other CCG’s, I cannot bring in that experience (perhaps a reader can).  I am limited to my own brainstorming.

Let me start with an example where quickness works.  Suppose we consider a game where we are always allowed to play 2 quick minions with 2/2 stats (think dactyl hatchling) every turn – except the first turn where, with only three power points, we can play 1.  Our opponent can play 1 4/4 creature with no special traits (think underdark worm) each turn.  Suppose we never run out of space to play, and creatures can never oppose each other.  Here’s what happens round by round:
Us
turn     creatures in play     damage done      cumulative damage
1               1                               2                          2
2               3                               6                          8
3               5                              10                        18
4               7                              14                        32
5               9                              18                        50

Opponent
turn     creatures in play     damage done      cumulative damage
1               1                               0                          0
2               2                               4                          4
3               3                               8                         12
4               4                              12                        24
5               5                              16                        40

Notice how our speed allows us to jump out to a quick lead (in terms of damage inflicted), and allows us to grow that lead every round.  That is how I would like my quick deck to work!  But, of course, this is not a realistic situation.  

So let me change my simulation slightly – let me allow our opponent to place units opposing ours so his stronger units will, eventually, kill our units.  Now the results go as follows:

Us
turn     creatures in play     damage done      cumulative damage
1               1                               2                          2
2               2                               4                          6
3               3                               6                        12
4               4                               8                        20
5               5                              10                       30

Opponent
turn     creatures in play     damage done      cumulative damage
1               1                               0                          0
2               2                               4                          4
3               3                               8                         12
4               4                              12                        24
5               5                              16                        40

Notice how we jump out to a lead, but our opponent eventually catches and surpasses us.  In this case, it is a nail biter, but because we inflict our damage before our opponent inflicts his, we will still win Spellcraft on turn 4 as we inflict 20 damage first.  But we would lose if the game started players at 21 life!  This is very typical for quick strategies: we get a good start, but have to win before our opponent catches up.  

But let us look deeper at why the outstanding results of our first simulation turned to the mixed results of the second.  And I think it is easy to see the difference is the attrition our (weaker) units took.  With a quick deck, we are generally giving up strength for speed – it is inevitable we will have higher attrition than our opponent.  But a viable question is how we can switch the tipping point (the point at which our opponent over-takes us)?  

Suppose we were allowed to play two 3/1 quick units a round (think giant owl reduced to cost only two power points).  Now the results become
Us
turn     creatures in play     damage done      cumulative damage
1               1                               3                          3
2               2                               6                          9
3               3                               9                         18
4               4                              12                        30
5               5                              15                        45
6               6                              18                        63
7               7                              21                        84
8               8                              24                       108

Opponent
turn     creatures in play     damage done      cumulative damage
1               1                               0                          0
2               2                               4                          4
3               3                               8                         12
4               4                              12                        24
5               5                              16                        40
6               6                              20                        60
7               7                              24                        84
8               8                              28                       112

The tipping point has switched from round 4 at 20 points cumulative damage to round 8 at 108 cumulative damage, and our nail-biter is now a decisive win.  How did we enact this change?  By inflicting a higher rate of damage.  It really doesn’t take a simulation to believe that more damage equates to a better tipping point, but the simulation does re-enforce our intuition.

It would also seem that a lower relative attrition rate could have the same effect, so let’s try simulating this.  Same as above, but this time, let’s suppose we could play two 2/3 quick creatures a round.  Essentially, we simply allow our minion to survive long enough to block our opponent’s for 1 round.  We obtain:

Us
turn     creatures in play     damage done      cumulative damage
1               1                               2                          2
2               3                               4                          6
3               4                               6                         12
4               5                               8                         20
5               6                              10                        30
6               7                              12                        42
7               8                              14                        56    

Opponent
turn     creatures in play     damage done      cumulative damage
1               1                               0                          0
2               2                               0                          0
3               3                               4                          4
4               4                               8                         12
5               5                              12                        24
6               6                              16                        40
7               7                              20                        60

Again, the tipping point has shifted in our favor, but not as dramatically as in the previous simulation.  If we assume the two modifications to be equivalently easy to achieve, the simulation suggests that increasing damage will have a bigger effect than decreasing attrition.  Yes, that is a big assumption, but still is worth considering.

But tipping point is not the only issue to consider with quick decks – there were several unrealistic assumptions in all my simulations to date – at least two of which are critical to my analysis.  The first is unlimited lanes.  We all know that Spellcraft only provides 5 lanes – I cannot have 8 “dactyl hatchlings” in play at once!  To remove the variable of attrition (so we can look at lane limitation in isolation, without confounding effects) let me change my simulation again.  We can play up to 2 “dactyl hatchlings” a round.  Our opponent can play one combat immune unit a round (think “smoke elemental”).  Obviously, with unlimited lanes, we inflict 2, then 4, then 6, then 8, etc. damage in successive rounds.  Our opponent has no threats, and cannot keep up with blocking.  But now limit the board to the actual 5 lanes allowed.  We inflict 2 points damage round 1, then 4 in round 2, then 6 in round 3.  But here all lanes fill, we have no meaningful plays.  So round 4 we inflict 4 damage, round 5 we inflict two damage, then our opponent clogs the final lane.  We have inflicted 18 damage, and the game stalls.  Our decisive win becomes a deadlock.  It should obvious that quick decks must deal with stalled lanes.  This can be done in multiple ways: lane clearing (e.g. tornados), board clearing (e.g. catastrophe), stall inhibiting (e.g. poison darts), non-lane based threats (e.g. heat seeker), etc.  I will defer analysis of these to keep this article manageable.

The second issue that quick decks face is hand exhaustion: -- running out of cards to play.  Suppose I devise a clever way to play two 3/1 stat quick units a turn:  I play a 2/2 dactyl hatchling, then play fire shroud on it.  Unfortunately, playing this combination twice also requires 6 power points, so I will assume the goblins magnanimously give me a 0 cost fireshroud.  I begin turn 1 with 5 cards in hand; I use two.  Round two, I draw a card, bringing my hand to 4 cards.  I have good luck! Those cards happen to be my two dactyl hatchlings and 2 fire shrouds.  I play 4 cards.  My hand is now empty.  I cannot continue this pattern another round, and I lose the game catching up on cards.  Again, there are ways to cope, but generally quick decks will exhaust hands quickly.  Without bogging down in details, I would consider the following solutions:  channeller cards (e.g. kobo summoner), hand growers (e.g. sunken treasure), multi-threat cards (e.g. swarm of bats), super-cheap cards (e.g. cave rates) with intent to draw a card while still playing 2.

There are probably other challenges a quick deck faces, but these three (viable tipping points, lane stalling, and hand exhaustion) are the major ones I have found.

At this point, I want to examine two quick decks that do work.  It might be instructive to investigate how they deal with these issues.  

The first is my take on the now familiar kobo-blood orb deck:
     4 x kobo summoner
     4 x darkling schemer
     4 x kobo miners
     4 x kobo tunnelrunners
     4 x ominous eggs
     4 x darkling slavers
     4 x undead tritons
     4 x bodyswap
     4x cloud of bats
     4 x blood orb
This is a quick deck in at least two ways: the kobos give it an initial rush, while the blood orbs – combined with cheap minions pose threat of sacrifice damage from multiple sources.  

The deck (when it works) wins the tipping point battle because it is capable of massive damage per turn (8 with cloud of bats and 4 blood orbs in play).  It mitigates high attrition with cards like darkling slavers, body swap, and ominous orbs (which effectively have to be destroyed twice), although its attrition is still very high.

The deck has minimal issue with lane stalling: body swap helps, but the bulk of the damage inflicted is from blood orbs which don’t require open lanes.

Hand exhaustion can be a problem, but the problem is reduced by the kobo summoners, the ominous eggs, the darkling schemers, the cloud of bats (able to produce numerous creatures at once – allowing card draws or numerous sacrifices at low cost), and the extremely cheap cards allowing multiple plays along with a card draw.

The second example of a viable quick was submitted as an entry in the deck design contest and is reproduced here with permission of the submitter (who remains anonymous to protect the integrity of that contest).
     4x deepwood ash
     4x forest dragon
     4x faerie enchantress
     4x nobbling trickster
     2x deepwood fey
     3x fey spirit
     3x horde of animals
     4x giant constrictor
     4x hungry crocodile
     4x pack attack
     4x ambush
I classify this deck as quick based upon its numerous cheap cards – minions that both threaten to inflict damage and to trigger the pack attack aura.

This deck appears to deal with the tipping point issue by compromising speed with enough big minions to hold their own – at least for some time (basically reducing attrition to almost zero).

The deck deals with lane stalling in two ways.  Ideally, enough pack attack auras trigger to prevent an opponent from establishing himself on many lanes.  When pack attack is unavailable or not triggered, the giant constrictors and deepwood ash are very inimical to stalled lanes.

Finally, the deck primarily deals with hand exhaustion (when it works) by clearing enemies through cards already played – allowing opportunities to draw cards, usually before the hand becomes exhausted.  Of course, the channeling of fey enchantress and hordes of animals doesn’t hurt.

I’m still not sure how to make consistently viable quick decks.  The three issues I’ve identified (regularly achieving a favorable tipping point, managing stalled lanes, and avoiding hand exhaustion) are all significant problems for such decks, and very difficult to deal with – especially since we need to deal with all three while still keeping the deck quick.  But I think there are models of how such decks can work.  We simply need the right ideas.