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Mindless Decks?
— by Quintivarium Quintivarium
Most players play and encounter certain decks that seem to require virtually no thought – they almost play themselves.  And since many players find much of their enjoyment of Spellcraft to be its rich strategies, these decks are a disappointment – especially when they are highly successful.  This thread is to discuss certain decks that players find “mindless” as well as means to bring strategy back.  It is inspired by insights offered by Tsiflikas in global chat, but I invite participation of any interested players.  I am moving the discussion from global chat because I find the forum a more pleasant venue for in-depth discussions.

Incidentally, many decks that require very little thought to play actually required substantial thought and ingenuity to create.  They often revolve around well-planned power point utilization and numerous clever combinations, as well as designs that facilitate quickly drawing critical cards.  But during play, power point utilization and quick drawing are almost automatic, and combinations, once discovered, become routine.  As a player, I have heard a few complaints about mindless decks, and there is probably a lot of grumbling I don’t hear.

So my first question is “What makes (contributes to) a mindless deck?”  And I can think of several factors.

Card interchangeability is an obvious one.  If all cards are equal, I don’t need to consider which one I play.  I have a very successful ocean/swamp “might” deck.  It is designed to quickly play cheap 5/5 stitched golems.  It is loaded with strength 3 and 4 cards like bone dragons, sea dragons, vampire consorts, wraith soulcatchers, sea snakes, as well as sunken treasure to facilitate quick draws (and discards), sink to undermine strength based counters, liquefy to handle special effects minions, and dancing jellyfish to quickly defend or fill lanes.  The strategy is mindless: get two minions in discard, play a stitched golem, and repeat.  If stitched golems are unavailable (or discard pile is not ready), play anything.  If a sink or liquefy is needed, play it with a stitched golem or with a cost 4 minion.  I typically don’t care what a card does – only that it’s big – and they’re all big.  And my opponent tends to respond mindlessly too; subtlety is rarely possible responding to wave after wave after wave of big.

The insidious aspect to card interchangeability is that it is also a part of what makes decks effective.  Combinations that require two specific cards may be spectacular at times, but they are not a sound foundation for a deck because they demand a draw where both cards become available at the right time – far too dependent upon luck.  But if you can find combos like playing rage on a board with any regenerating or high health cards, the combination works because it arises frequently – especially when you can substitute for rage cards like law of the jungle, dreadmarsh plague, or burning world favorably on the same board.  To a large degree, this deck plays as though it has two cards: a generic high health minion, and a generic “exploit high health” card.

A second big contributor to mindless decks is the drive toward (and almost need for) quickness.  If I can defeat my opponent quickly enough, I don’t need to respond to, or even pay attention to what that opponent does – I just play to forward my own offense.  A classic example is my air/jungle blitz deck.  The whole idea is to inflict enough damage to kill my opponent with quick units on open lanes (or power dive) before the opponent can play his generally superior cards.  As much as possible, I avoid enemy cards, focusing solely on inflicting damage.

Fire prism decks also illustrate this point.  The basis of most prism decks is to establish a situation where the prism inflicts so much damage that an opponent can keep no forces in play.  Once this occurs, an opponent is helpless.  The whole key is to establish this situation before losing.  This focus on establishing one’s own strategy faster than one’s opponent establishes his leads to formulaic play where the situation on the board is secondary to obtaining the “right” cards.

If one looks at the popularity of “accelerator” cards (power generators like captured flame, hand renewal cards like sunken treasure, or extra action cards like energize), one could argue that there are a lot of mindless decks out there.

A third contributor to mindless play – despite the goblins’ diligence in preventing this – is the existence of over-powered cards.  It frankly does not take much thought to defeat an opponent holding vastly inferior cards.  Although I may be biased, it seems to me that several players owe their success more to their ability to recognize overpowered cards and to effectively load decks with them (and perhaps a bit to luck in drawing those cards) than to brilliance in playing cards well.  

Also, when a card is overpowered, it tends to take control of a game.  The strategy almost completely narrows to using or destroying (depending on your perspective) that card.

A forth contributor is dangerous cards with few counters.  In Spellcraft, there are far too many possible threats for one to think he can take a specialized counter for each.  Specific counters (like melt) are really only helpful if I am expecting to face a particular threat (e.g. fire prisms).  And if I can’t defend against most threats, I really have 3 logical options (all of which reduce the strategic level of the play).  I can take a shot in the dark, and hope the counters I include are the right ones for the deck my opponent plays, which reduces the game to a matter of luck (deck selection).  Or I can try to endure the threats, which is not viable if it is a good threat.  Or I can try to beat my opponent to the punch by having my own offense come faster.  And that not only focuses my efforts on me rather than my opponent (I believe this is less strategic, although that might be debatable), it also tends to reduce the game to luck (who draws their critical cards faster).  

Generally, to have interesting back-and-forth play, I absolutely must be able to respond to any card my opponent might play with either a general purpose counter (e.g. liquefy), or a card I am likely to actually want in (and naturally take for) my hand (e.g. countering voltas with pyrohydras).  If 100 of Spellcraft’s 294 player cards are beneficial against any given card my opponent plays, I am likely to have thoughtful responses in hand (or at least in deck) making for interesting exchanges with my opponent.  If only 10 cards are viable responses to certain cards, reaction based strategies become non-viable and a thinking, strategic component to the game is lost.

There are other important questions that remain to be addressed.  For instance, at what point does a deck become “mindless”?  Certain combinations have become almost cliché: volta/pyrohydra, kobo/blood orb, triton ritual/fire prism, nobbling trickster/hunt, ancient ghost/body swap, etc., etc.  But does a deck become mindless for including them?

And what can be done to promote richer strategies?  How much does this depend upon me?  How much does it depend upon my opponent?  How much upon the game designers?

I hope these and other questions will be addressed in other posts – for now, this one is long enough.