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Re: strategy esays
— by Quintivarium Quintivarium
Deck Building on a Budget

It is very obvious that newer players do not have the resources (cards and gold) that more experienced players have; and hence, are far more limited in options and challenged  in construction of competitive decks.  In this essay, I would like to examine issues in deck construction when one has limited card selection and limited gold to buy cards.

Let me begin by discussing what I think are the four main issues in any deck constriction.  Although only one is strongly impacted by limited resources, decks that do not consider all four will very likely fail – thus wasting the resources invested therein.

Probably the most critical aspect of deck building is power point utilization.  Although there are a couple exceptions, the goblins have done a superb job pricing the cards.  In a typical situation a five cost card is far superior to a three cost card which is better than a two cost card.  But a three cost card together with a two cost card is nearly equivalent to a five cost card.  The biggest problem with many decks is having a hand full of three cost cards: cards incapable of keeping pace with an opponent’s five pointers, but cards still too expensive to play more than one a turn.  Tapping the deck to draw a new card is not viable in this situation – unless you occasionally play more than one card a turn, you hand remains full and you have no place for drawn cards.  Now there are times when I will gladly play a 4 point card (or even a two point card!) in preference to a five point card, but, on the average, such is not the case.  I want the playing of a cheaper card to be a deliberate choice, not something forced by the composition of my hand.  Three point cards should always be balanced with one and two point cards to play in tandem.

Now, for the most part, power point utilization is a function of card costs, not of the particular cards in a deck – the principles are essentially the same whether you own a complete set of four cards of every type, or merely have two or three booster packs to augment your starter deck.  But there are a couple of exceptions.  If you have a card in play with a triggerable power that costs power points, the potential to implement that power is akin to holding a card of equivalent cost – e.g. you can use the two power points remaining after playing a three cost card to grow an underearth deepspawn instead of using them to play a cost two card.  This also implies that if you expect to be using ruby dragon’s (fire faction) power – which cost three points, you want some cost two cards to play the same turn, even if you have no cost three cards in your deck.  Beginner’s decks are slightly less likely to have this concern since most special powers like this appear in less common cards.

Valentino has recommended 12 cost 5 cards, 16 cost 3 cards, and 12 cost 2 cards, and no cards of cost 0,1 or 4 as a good distribution.  While there are many other very workable choices, this does appear to work very well.  But here, the beginner does encounter an issue.  Most cost 5 cards are rare, and only the underdark worm (underearth) is a cost five common card.  Thus, newer players may not have sufficient cost 5 cards for this to be an option.  Rest assured, there are distributions more appropriate for low-resource decks.  For example, 6 cost 4 or cost 5 cards, 12 cost 3 cards, 18 cost 2 cards, and 4 cost 1 cards also works well for me.

I believe the second most important aspect of deck building is card management – it is important to hold a significant number of cards in your hand – both to be able to play multiple cards in one turn, and to have reasonable choice in what you play.  Aside from occasional (relatively rare) situations where cards are taken from you hand, hand depletion occurs because you play two (or more) cards in one turn, but do not replace the extra cards by drawing more into your hand.  Essentially, every time you play a card, you are using two resources: power points and cards in hand.  Thus destroying a forest dragon by using a flame spike followed by a forked lightening spell is not an even exchange – the two spells cost 5 power points combined – the same as the dragon – but the spells used two cards instead of one – a deficit without compensation.  Card management, in its most general sense, is arranging to have the cards you need where you need them – usually in hand.  It is both a play issue and a deck construction issue.  From the construction point of view, it is essential to design a deck with potential to gracefully regain cards in hand.  Generally there are two ways to do this: either by playing cards that summon other cards into your hand (e.g. ocean faction’s sink card or air’s aeromancer), or by buying card from your deck at a cost of two power points.

It is hard to overstate the usefulness of summoner cards: not only are they usually more efficient (for example. not only does ocean’s sink card, for cost 1, have a significant impact weakening an enemy, it’s free draw replaces it in your hand), summoner cards can often channel specific type of cards (e.g. forest’s faerie enchantress calling auras), or they draw cards from places where cards would normally be inaccessible (such as ocean’s sea dragon dragging a spell from the discard pile).  Unfortunately, many of the summoner cards are rare, and most of the rest are uncommon – a player with limited card choice might not have access to a full selection of these cards. In addition, because “cheaper” decks have fewer 5 point cards, they will more often need to play two cards in one round – depleting the deck more rapidly, and needing more opportunity to replenish a deck.  Three point cards to supplement a card draw are essential – but not just any three point card, three point cards that have the ability to hold against costlier cards (such as fire’s magma sphere) even if they don’t stand for very long.  Although low resource decks tend to encounter slightly greater challenges in card management, the basic issues and approaches are essentially the same as with full resource decks, and the magnitude of the challenges is similar.

The third key area of concern in deck building is type balance.  Spellcraft cards are minions, barriers, auras, items, spells, or traps and these cards play vastly different roles.  Holding 5 auras like forest’s wild strength or barkskin is of little use in stopping an enemy screaming skull (swamp minion).  There are different opinions on how many of each type card a deck should hold, but poor balance is a recipe for disaster.  I can think of no reason “cheap” decks need to approach this issue differently than “expensive” decks.

The least critical, in my opinion, of the deck design issues is win strategy, but this is the one area where low resource decks are severely disadvantaged relative to high resource decks.  The most obvious win strategy is to play stronger minions than your opponent.  Eventually the lower strength enemy minions lose their health, die, and you then hit your opponent for life damage.  The problem with low resource decks is that they very likely have far fewer big minions than a resource rich deck – they cannot count on winning by overpowering an opponent in this way; they must find a way to win by working around strong opposition.  They can focus on removing enemy opposition, say by using lost (underearth) or flame spike (fire), although enemies can be expected to have even better removal tools such as the rare meteor (fire) or the uncommon taken below (underearth).  They can try to impede enemy deployment (e.g. ocean’s lost at sea trap), or to evade it (say by ocean’s tide shift).  Or they can use cards like undead tritons (swamp) to reduce enemy minions to strength comparable to their own minions.  The point is that cheap decks need some win strategy that overcomes their innate disadvantages – ideally a win strategy as easily implemented by common cards as by rare cards.

Most players, when constructing a deck will find themselves with at least a little gold they can spend to complete the deck.  Let me talk a little about game economics.  By far the cheapest way to acquire cards is by buying booster packs, then selling back any useless cards (any copies beyond 4 of the same card), until one is only missing a couple of cards, then to purchase those cards outright.  It cost me about 4000-5000 gold to purchase a complete jungle faction – 4 copies of every card – in that manner.  But pragmatically, it is a rare player who will want to wait that long to get certain highly desired cards.  A reasonable compromise is to purchase only those cards that really make a difference, but to purchase them when truly needed.  My suggested priorities are: big minions (ruby dragons, pyrohydras, deepwood ash, forest dragons, sea dragons, deepsea things, underearth worms, deepspawn, bone dragons, undead giants, stitched golem, jungle dragon, giant constrictor); summoning cards in factions you use (especially those that call specific types of cards or those that call cards onto the board); special utility minions (lava giant, living essence, triton assassin, triton aquamancers, darkling assassin, primeval ooze, ancient ghost); and nasty effects cards (meteor, lavapults, evolve, liquefy, sink, darkling slavers, taken under, bodyswap, blood orb, null wand, stranglevines).  Avoid the two edged swords – cards like psychic vortex (underearth), catastrophe (fire), or ravager (jungle) with significant negative effects that impact you – it normally takes building an entire deck around such cards for them to be effective, and if you are building a low resource deck, you don’t want to have to acquire the eclectic mix of supporting cards such a deck usually demands.  One should also avoid buying cards specific to “gimmick” decks – decks built to exploit a particular card or card combo.  For example, it is tempting to load a deck with 4 fire wolves and 4 wolf packs thinking you can play the wolf pack cards to quickly grow several cheap wolf minions to dangerously high strength.  The problem is that, while occasionally this deck will win in impressive fashion, most of the time, even with 8 wolf cards, you do not draw the wolf cards fast enough for them to be problematic before they are destroyed.  The odds of getting even one copy of a particular card in your starting hand is under 50%; the odds against getting several specific cards quickly are very small.  It is true that there are several very nasty AI wolf pack decks –  but the AI cheats in the sense that it is not bound by the four copies of a single card limit players have.  The AI wolf pack decks probably have 10 or even 20 wolf packs in them.

Now, there is a sometimes subtle difference between a “theme” deck and a “gimmick” deck.  A theme deck is focused around particular ideas; a gimmick deck around particular cards.  Theme decks usually have considerable flexibility – they contain multiple good combinations and tend to be effective with a wide variety of possible draws.  Gimmick decks require specific cards and combinations to arise.  Theme decks tend to be consistently effective while gimmick decks are very hit and miss – usually miss.

So let me try to build a cheap theme deck.  I have a plan (theme) to open attack lanes for hard hitting minions.  As I search cards, I find ocean has a couple of common cards that can inflict bonus damage: razor sharks and sea snakes.  I also find ocean can move minions with the common tide shift card.  Even if I do not have 4 copies of these three cards, I am willing to purchase them – they are only 10 gold per card.  Tide caller and ocean mist can also move minions, but as these are uncommon, I may not want to buy them.  But choosing ocean as a primary faction seems appropriate.  Choosing a secondary faction is a little harder – fire, swamp, and underearth all have attractive elements for this theme.  Fire has nice common removal cards: flame spike and fire rain which could clear lanes for my sharks.  It also has lava elementals, another bonus damage minion.  But underearth has lost, wrong tunnel, and burrowing under as common cards to allow my hard hitting minions to evade blocking units.  And swamp has horrify to both move and weaken enemy units; decay and necromages to help remove troublesome enemies.  However, I’m seeing another feature of swamp that I like with the ocean components of this deck – an ability to weaken my enemies.  I like combining an offensive theme with a defensive scheme, so I will take swamp as a second faction.  Grab four copies of the common spell horrify, and, for now, four copies of decay.  I love the common minion undead triton for both its immediate weakening effect and as a cheap blocker so take four of those.  Back to ocean, I notice both shimmersquid and aqualid hunters are common cards with a weakening effect so grab four of each.  Aqualid mages are also a common card that can play havoc with enemy strength – I think I want those, too.  

Let’s see where I stand: I have 24 ocean cards (4 each of razor sharks, sea snakes, aqualid hunters, aqualid mages, shimmer squid, and tideshift) and 12 swamp cards (4 each of undead tritons, decay, and horrify).  I have 4 more cards to go, cards which could be either faction.  I also note that I have 24 “presence” cards (minions) and 12 “effects” cards (spells) – a very reasonable mix.  And I have 4 cost 4 cards, 8 cost 3 cards, 20 cost 2 cards, and 4 cost 0 cards: a lot of combinations that use 4 power points, relatively few that use 5 power points.  I also have a lot of low cost cards – which means playing two cards a turn and depleting my hand.  I have no summoning cards (not a surprise with a low resource deck), but I have few cost three cards to supplement a deck draw, so I anticipating pairing draws with cost two cards.  I am already thinking – before I even commit to buying the missing cards to test the deck – that I need to shed some cost 2 cards for cost 3 cards.  For that matter, I wouldn’t mind some cost 5 cards.  If I choose to remove some cost two cards, it’s probably the decay and shimmersquid that I would miss least.  So let me look further.  There are no common cost 5 cards in either swamp or ocean faction.  The only common cost 4 card remaining in either faction is ocean’s triton warmachine, the only cost 3 common cards are ocean’s triton wave riders, ocean’s calm seas, ocean’s lost at sea, and swamp’s waiting grave.  At one cost, I can get swamp’s flesh golems, zombie mob, or murder of crows.  None of these is particularly appealing.  Lost at sea is an ok card at a needed cost, but it does not advance the deck’s themes or needs.  Triton warmachine has good health and solid strength, but at cost four exacerbates the power point utilization problems of the deck.  If I had to stay with an all common card deck, I would probably settle for the previously mentioned necromages.  

But this is where the flexibility of theme decks comes in.  If I were realistically creating this deck, I would probably have already purchased a couple of booster packs from ocean and at least one from swamp.  So I have a few rare cards, and several uncommons – probably not four copies, but certainly cards I might use in whatever quantity was available.  And purchasing a few uncommon cards or one rare card is also probably not out of the question.  So what else goes well with this deck?  Deepsea things (rare, cost 5) benefit from cleared lanes so they can grow.  Sea dragon (rare, cost 5) gives a nice strength 4 minion and also recalls a spell from discard (helping my card management).  A giant volta (uncommon, cost 3) is the right cost and can help destroy dangerous enemies – although it will also destroy my fragile units if I am not very careful.  Sirens (rare, cost 3) give more ability to call units away from my sharks and the combat immunity gives them great defensive value vs. strong enemies – but they do tend to get clogged with enemy junk they can’t remove.  Water elementals (uncommon, cost 3) also reduce enemy strength, but despite their attractive cost, the cost of their special power (2) is not good for my power point utilization.  And of course, triton aquamancers (rare, cost 2) can play the same role as necromages – but at no life cost and with better durability.  Liquify (rare, cost 1) is frequently invaluable and a helpful cost.  I don’t think I would buy it as a rare card, but I would certainly use it if available.  Sink (uncommon, cost 1) is an excellent addition,  It fits the strength reduction scheme, has a helpful cost, and summons a replacement card to hand.  I would probably pass on ocean mist (uncommon, cost 0) – it’s too random for my taste even if it fits the deck.  But sunken treasure (uncommon, cost 2) is valuable to restock my hand even if its casting cost is wrong, and tide caller (uncommon, cost 1) is also a wonderful addition (although I don’t want too many of them).  From swamp, I would be delighted with bone dragon (rare, cost 5), ancient ghost (rare, cost 4), eternal knight (rare, cost 4), or undead giant (uncommon, cost 4).  howling banshees (uncommon, cost 3) would be excellent with the deck – in fact I would probably buy a couple.  Flesh golems (rare, cost 3) would also be worth including.  And bodyswap (rare, cost 4) cannot be passed up if available.  I may include one or two blood orbs (rare, cost 3), but would probably pass on other swamp cards.  I am happy to reduce my shimmersquids or my decays to accommodate most of the listed cards.

To have something to test, let me take my common card only version of this deck.
     4 razor sharks
     4 sea snakes
     4 aqualid hunters
     4 aqualid mages
     4 shimmersquid
     4 tide shift
     4 necromages
     4 undead tritons
     4 horrify
     4 decay
I realize this is not a true beginner deck: 4 copies of every card is not efficient until one has acquired 3 or 4 booster packs in a faction, and swamp is not even available until a certain level is reached.  But only the razor sharks and sea snakes really require 4 copies for this deck.  For example, one could replace one aqualid mage with a triton wave rider and probably never notice a difference in performance.  And buying common cards is not expensive – buying the entire deck card by card would only cost 400 gold.  Also, swamp is probably available before one is really able to do much deck building beyond enhancing one’s starting deck.  So let me go test….

After maybe 25 games vs. the AI, I am quite pleased with the deck’s overall performance.  It is winning about 70% for me.  As expected, it does have some power point utilization problems – I frequently only spend 4 in a turn.  But only occasionally (maybe 25% of games) do I feel my opponent is gradually over powering me with consistently stronger 5 power point plays – and although I think human opponents would better exploit this weakness, I think much of the feeling is simply do to limitations of common cards rather than the power point utilization.  I am also pleasantly surprised at the deck’s card management.  Although I do usually play 2 cards a turn, I find I can usually pause after blocking a big minion with an aqualid hunter, shimmersquid, or undead triton and use the remaining power points for a draw.  My cheap minion blocks a weakened enemy long enough to afford this luxury.  The necromages are also a pleasant surprise.  Although I almost omitted them, I find their ability to clear lanes – and especially to deal with combat immunity invaluable.  But there are some areas of deck performance where I am unhappy.  I should have predicted this, but my minions have no durability.  Fire rain is pretty devastating and I don’t cope gracefully with cards like undead giants.  I should probably reconsider some cards like triton war machines, giant urchins, and zombie mobs.  Another problem, again predictable, is a bit of inconsistency.  I sometimes do not get any of my heavy hitters (sea snake and razor sharks) until well into the game.  Sometimes the aqualids and necromages are adequate to fill the void, but at only two damage a turn, they are really too slow.  If all 5 lanes get filled, my enemy displacing strategy will not work.  The deck can definitely benefit from more units capable of inflicting 3 or more damage.  The final weakness I noted really did catch me off guard – I sometimes found myself with a hand full of spells and no minions!  Even though the deck has 28 minions (well above the normal number even I am prone to want), the deck plays like one that has too few minions.  I think this is because most of the minions in this deck are “throw-away” units – I burn them quickly out of my hand.  I especially find decay unappealing.  It is too slow; I prefer to deal with removal through necromages or through throwing undead tritons in front.  Perhaps I need to alter my play; perhaps I should replace decay.

Overall, I like this deck.  I don’t think it ranks with my best decks, but it is already solid.  And I am pleased with my common card deck experiment.  I not only have a nice deck, I have learned quite a bit about card management.  And I have gained insight into elements of my play style that cause me to need more minions than most players I talk with.  May you find this essay as useful!