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Deck Upgrade #5: Evaluating Cards in SolForge

Evaluating cards is a key part of deck building.  You need to be able to figure out which cards are broadly strong, which are narrow but strong, and which are just plain weak in order to figure out which ones belong in your deck.  Card evaluation skills are important in general, but they will become particularly important with the upcoming release of drafts (estimated for later this month or next month).

Reviewing other people’s evaluations of card strength is useful, but only up to a point.  I recommend that everyone check out columns like Raidrinn’s card reviews (available for Nekrium, Tempys, Alloyin, and Uterra), but those evaluations are necessarily general—they don’t take into account the specifics of how you will be using those cards.  Likewise, comparing a creature’s attack and health to the averages for its level (a summary of those averages is available here) is useful but is only a starting point.

In this column, I want to focus on three specific points about card evaluation in SolForge.  First, you have to evaluate a card across all three levels, not just at one level.  Second, to paraphrase the traditional rule about property, the three most important things in evaluating a card are context, context, and context.  Finally, context isn’t just about your deck—it’s about your opponents’ decks as well.

Evaluate the Whole Card, Not One Level

During the period before the Core Set’s release, whenever SBE spoiled a new card, players would comment things like “Level 3 is overpowered” or “Avatars aren’t that good because their Level 3 isn’t very impressive.”  Both of those comments are of a type that are not even wrong—they just don’t make sense as a way of analyzing cards.  A single level of a card can’t be a reason, on its own, to conclude that a card is weak.   Similarly, it is impossible for a Level 3 version of a card to be overpowered without considering the other levels of the card, and virtually impossible for a Level 1 card to be overpowered without considering the other levels.  I can easily construct cards with arbitrarily powerful Level 3s that are still balanced or underpowered overall.  I can’t promise that these cards would be fun, but they could be balanced.

Consider a hypothetical spell, “Nekrium Death Curse,” which has the Level 3 text “Your opponents lose all life and lose the game.”  Overpowered, right?  Not necessarily.  Imagine the Level 1 version reads “You lose 50 life.  This card cannot be leveled without playing it.” and the Level 2 version reads, “You lose 45 life.  This card cannot be leveled without playing it.”  That card would be weak.  Playing it would make you extremely vulnerable to any burn or any card advantage and would give up card advantage to boot.  It might be possible to play it as a less good Arboris, Grove Dragon, pairing it with life gain cards like Glowstride Stag and Lightbringer Cleric.  But even then, it would be a sufficiently fragile strategy that it would not be overpowered.  Likewise, a 25/25 Level 1 creature could be balanced, if the Level 2 version reads “You must play this card if it is in your hand.  You lose the game.”

Of course, a particularly powerful level or a particularly weak level matters for evaluating a card.  Chrogias would be massively overpowered if it had an even average Level 1 and Level 2 version—the powerful Level 3, weak Level 2, and terrible Level 1 are what make it balanced.  Similarly, the Avatars are all powerful in monofaction or monofaction with a splash, because they have phenomenal Level 1s, strong Level 2s, and average Level 3s.  Who cares that 15/15 is only so-so at Level 3 when you’ve been 2-for-1-ing for two Player Levels?

Whether a card with one strong level and two weaker levels is worth playing depends on the central point in card evaluation:  context, context, context.

Context, Context, Context 

Cards are not strong or weak in the abstract, but only in context.  Which is a stronger card, Deepbranch Prowler or Chrogias?  It depends entirely on what cards you’re playing it with, what the game plan of your deck is, and what the circumstances of the board are.  If you’re playing a deck filled with Technosmiths and Synapsis Oracles, designed to level up cards without necessarily playing them and then win with Level 3 bombs, Chrogias is the clear winner.  If you’re playing a rush deck designed to seriously damage your opponent during Player Level 1 and win in early Player Level 2, Chrogias is worse than worthless and Deepbranch Prowler is a strong card.  The difference is all about context.

When I think about the context of cards I’m evaluating, I consider synergy; my deck’s game plan; and important niche filling.  Each of these topics deserves more consideration than I can give it here, but I’ll lay out the basics.

Synergy is the way in which a card becomes stronger when played with certain other cards.  Battle Techtician and Alloyin General are both reasonable cards on their own, but together they become much more effective because of the strong synergy they have.  I’ve written about synergy (and its cousin, dependencies) before, and I suggest reading those articles and considering their applications to card evaluation.  One particular thing I’ll mention is the difference between constructed play and draft or other limited formats.  Soul Harvest is a much stronger card if you know that you can include cards like Zimus, Death Seeker, and Flamespirit Mystic in your deck.  In constructed, you can make sure that will be true.  In draft, you’re unlikely to get a Zimus and may not even get a Death Seeker, which means you have to lower your estimate of the value of cards like Corpse Crawler and Soul Harvest that need sacrifice targets.

A deck’s game plan is how that deck wins games.  It’s not “what would the perfect draw for this deck be?” but rather, what are the realistic, tested paths to victory.  For a deck based on playing spells and triggering powers, the game plan is level up Savants/Flamespeakers/Master of Elements, then chain together strings of free spells and use the combination of Savant/Flamespeaker triggers and the spells themselves to win the game.  For an Uterra/Alloyin leveling deck, it might be level up Chrogias, Echowisp, and Scrapforge Titan, and then use them to overwhelm your opponent.  Typically, a strong deck will have multiple paths to victory—if you build a silver-bullet deck around one card, your deck will fail if you don’t draw that card.  And flexibility in your game plan also lets you play around an opponent’s deck.  If your plan is to Phytobomb and play Deepbranch Ancient and Lifeblood Dryad, you may find yourself in trouble against a Grimgaunt Devourer and Spring Dryad deck.  If you can switch to playing your Shardplate Delvers and Spring Dryads as an alternate path to grow to victory, you have a much better chance of winning.

In general, a card that fits your game plan will be more valuable than one that doesn’t.  Matrix Warden has mediocre stats and an only so-so ability, but in decks that rely on boosting attack, it can be an important support card for core cards like Hinterland Watchman or Oreian Warwalker.  It’s not just that the card has synergy with the rest of the deck—a card that fits the game plan gets additional value because it enables the deck to achieve its design.

The last major aspect of context I want to discuss is the role niche cards can play in a deck.  While typically you want cards that fit within your core game plan, sometimes you need to include cards to deal with problems that may come up.  For example, a power-leveling deck may nonetheless include Deepbranch Prowler.  Prowler can serve the twin purposes of providing early game board presence if you are otherwise in danger of being overrun by a rush deck, and giving you options when you get an unlucky Level 1 hand in later Player Levels.  In that context, Prowler is not a part of the deck’s game plan—if the deck performs ideally, the Prowler would never see play.  But it still has higher than ordinary value, because it fills a necessary niche in the deck.  It provides a tool to deal with the other part of the context—what your opponent runs against you.

The Context of Your Opponent’s Deck—The “Meta”

Your opponent’s deck is almost as important as your own in determining the strength of your cards.  Of course, you generally can’t build your deck based on what a specific opponent will play, but you can make some educated guesses about what might be in your opponent’s deck by considering what decks players in general are using.  Trading card game players traditionally use the term “the metagame” or just “the meta” to describe the overall play environment—what decks are popular, what cards are seeing lots of play, and equally importantly, what isn’t seeing play.  The difference between the constructed meta and the draft meta can be huge—even if Everflame Phoenixes are a must-answer in constructed, played by many players, they will never be a major presence in draft, where vanishingly few players will have even one.

In addition to specifics of individual cards (in an environment with lots of Savants, Gemhide Basher is stronger), speed matters.  The faster matches are likely to be over, the more important Level 1 is and the less important Level 2 is.  The speed of matches depends on how fast your deck is, how fast your opponent’s deck is, and how the interaction of the two decks affect things.  A lot of this has to do with play of the game—there’s no downside to playing a card like the Avatars, with a very strong Level 1, if you’re in the last Player Level the game will reach.  But it also affects deck design—bombs like Chrogias are more powerful in slow games than in fast games.  In particular, because we can expect draft and other limited formats to be on average slower than constructed, cards with weak Level 1s and strong Level 3s will generally be stronger in limited than they are in constructed.

Ultimately, reaching your own opinions on which cards are strong and which are weak—and critically on which are strong in your particular deck, in this particular meta—is one of the most challenging but also most enjoyable parts of a trading-card game.  This column outlined some of the aspects I focus on.  What do you rely on?

Deck Upgrade #4: Closers

Consider the following board position:

Deck Upgrade 4 Image 1

It’s Player 1’s turn.  Player 1 is playing a mono-faction deck, with all cards of one faction.  Which player would you bet on?  If Player 1 is playing Tempys, there’s an excellent chance that Player 1 will win.  If Player 1’s hand includes a Firestorm 3, a Lightning Wyrm 2 or 3, an Ashurian Mystic 3, a Lightning Spark 2 or 3, or several combinations (Ashurian Mystic 2 plus Lightning Spark 1, or 2 Firestorm 2s, or Scorchmane Dragon 3 plus Firestorm 2, or others), Player 1 will win this turn.  If Player 1 is playing any other faction, it is almost certain that Player 2 will win—perhaps an Uterra player could win with Echowisp 3 and Ferocious Roar 3, but even that is far from certain.  Double Epidemic 3 could reset the board, but that’s an exceedingly unlikely hand—and even that would leave Player 1 behind a full card, with only 12 more life.  Player 2 has a commanding board position, and Player 1 doesn’t have much life.

Why does Tempys have a good chance of winning?  Because Tempys has good closers—cards that allow you to take the last few points of life away from your opponent.  Tempys isn’t unique in having closers, but it has the best and fastest ones.  All of the other factions’ closers require a little more time to work.

In today’s column, I’m going to discuss the various types of closers, what their different advantages are, and how they work.  I’ll then discuss some things to think about in terms of including closers in your deck.

Why care about closers?

You don’t need closers in your deck to win.  You can develop Card Advantage, use that Card Advantage to do damage, and defeat your opponent without any closers at all.  So why should you care about closers?

Closers allow you to, at the margins, increase the number of games you win.  First, closers allow you to end the game.  That avoids the risk that your opponent will suddenly become really lucky.  It’s common to reach end-game positions where you will win unless your opponent draws X, Y, and Z cards, or unless you suddenly start drawing useless cards.  If you have a closer that allows you to end that game with a win, you avoid that risk.  If you can convert 95% chances of winning into 100% chances, you end up increasing your overall win rate.  Second, closers allow you to win a game that you’re losing control of that would otherwise be a loss.  That’s most common when you have been playing a fast, aggressive game against a slower deck.  If your opponent has been leveling up powerful late game cards, and you’ve been pushing damage through, then given enough time, your opponent will generally win.  Closers let you take away that time—as in the example at the beginning of this column, closers let you win even though your opponent has taken control of the board.  This isn’t just a consideration for rush decks, though.  Some games swing back and forth, with first one player doing damage, then the other, or perhaps both dealing significant damage at the same time.  If the game is swinging towards your opponent as you enter the end-game, closers may let you finish the game in your favor before your opponent wins.

SolForge is always a race of sorts—whoever gets an opponent to zero first, wins.  Sometimes it plays like a sprint, sometimes it plays like an endurance race in which going too fast early on can be a critical error.  But in any race, having the capability for a last-second sprint to the finish line is valuable.  Closers are that capability in SolForge.

Types and speeds of closers

There are four basic speeds of closers:  faster than combat, combat speed, slower than combat, and closing the game out on a subsequent turn.  The faster the closer is, the more advantage it gives you as a closer, although it may give you less advantage for other purposes.  If your opponent has a board that will win when you hit the Battle button, regardless of what you play, a faster than combat closer will let you win.  Anything else will typically lose.  (A combat-speed closer might conceivably pull out the win or a draw if you can reduce your opponent to a lower or equal negative life to the life total you end up at, but that will often not be the case.) Of course, that doesn’t mean that faster closers are inherently better.  Lightning Spark 1 is a faster (and therefore better) closer than Lightning Wyrm 1, but Lightning Wyrm 1 is a better card to play to do 4 damage on the first turn, because it gives up less card advantage.  Lightning Wyrm also synergizes better with Rageborn Hellion.  Currently, we don’t have any cards that synergize well with burn, although there’s some obvious design space for future cards. In any event, the point of thinking about speed is that there are games where speed matters.  In some game situations, faster than combat closers will let you win, but everything else will cause you to lose.  In others, combat-speed or faster closers will let you win, and so forth.

What are the basic categories of closers?  Essentially, these are the same as the methods to get damage through without Card Advantage that I discussed in Column 1.  The only major difference is that now we’re focused on their speed.

  1. Burn:  Burn cards are the quintessential closers—they typically act at faster than combat speed (e.g. Lightning Spark, Firestorm, and Scorchmane Dragon 3 can be played before combat to get in additional damage, and Flameshaper’s trigger can activate before combat.)  A few sources of burn damage are slower—Volcanic Giant has a burn component, but its burn component is slow—operating on your subsequent turn as a faster than combat burn.  Graveborn Glutton also has a burn component, but the speed of its burn component depends on how it is played.  It can be faster than combat (play a Graveborn Glutton, then sacrifice it before combat), combat-speed (play a Graveborn Glutton into a situation where it will block and die), or subsequent turn. Deathgasp Invoker’s burn trigger can also trigger faster than combat, combat-speed, or on a subsequent turn, depending on circumstances.  Despite these exceptions, burn is typically faster than combat, and is in fact the only type of closer that typically will be.
  2. Swiftness:  Cards with the Swift power, whether directly or because of another card like Flamestoke Shaman, function as combat-speed closers.  As long as your opponent has an unblocked lane, you will be able to use a Swift card to get some damage in during combat.  Note that Flamestoke Shaman has some power as a closer, but it functions as a subsequent turn speed closer (and in fact—as a subsequent-turn, combat-speed closer—is a little slower than a Volcanic Giant).
  3. Removal:  Removal can function as a closer.  Play Cull the Weak to eliminate the card that is blocking your Cinderfist Brawler 3, and you can win a game against an opponent at 28 life.  Removal is typically a combat-speed closer.  Under rare circumstances, removal can be a slower than combat closer.  Consider the case of an opponent with 16 life and using removal to allow a Cinderfist Brawler 3 (14/16) to hit the opponent.  Because Cinderfist Brawler’s trigger activates after combat damage is applied, you would deal the lethal damage as slower than combat.  Once in a blue moon, that will mean the difference between winning and losing.  Also, some removal (notably Scourgeflame Sorcerer) functions as a subsequent-turn closer.  Removal is also a significantly more limited closer than Swiftness.  It requires that you have an offensive creature on the board to benefit from the removal. But despite its limitations, removal is an important way to close out games.  The conditions will frequently be right for it.
  4. Buffing unblocked creatures:  Buff spells can function as a form of a closer, but they are more contingent than other closers.  If your opponent leaves a creature unblocked, and you have a Primordial Surge or similar card in hand on your next turn, you may be able to buff the unblocked creature to win the game at combat speed.  The difficulty is that cards like Primordial Surge aren’t always closers, or even frequently closers like removal.  They are at best circumstantial closers.  Still, buffing unblocked creatures to close out games is worth considering, even though it can’t be considered a major closer.
  5. Breakthrough:  Breakthrough is the last major source of combat-speed finishing.  In particular, Ferocious Roar 3 is important as a closer because it can allow you to push through enough damage to win at combat speed despite being blocked.  Ferocious Roar has the major downside of only serving as an effective closer at Level 3—an additional reason to seek to level up the card aggressively if you play it.  While Chrogias 3 and Deepbranch Prowler also can serve as closers with Breakthrough, they act at subsequent-turn combat speed.  Also, it’s difficult to keep Deepbranch Prowler’s Breakthrough relevant in the late game without major buffing, and Chrogias 3 requires a great deal of challenging leveling.  Still, they have some value as closers.
  6. Move:  Move is an excellent source of closing capability.  Cards with Move generally function at subsequent-turn combat-speed closer—you play a Wind Primordial or Ionic Warcharger on your turn, planning on using its Move ability to win on your next turn.  Like with Swiftness, Move has the disadvantage that you’re your opponent can block it by blocking enough lanes—in some games, you won’t be able to get any damage in with Move.  Still, it’s an important closer, and notable as the only major source of closers in Alloyin at present.  Among the many advantages of Windcaller Shaman is that it functions as a combat-speed closer.  Move your blocked, active card to an open lane with a Windcaller Shaman, and you have a combat-speed closer.

Thinking about Closers in Deck Design

All else equal, a deck with better or more closers will win more games.  It will be able to steal a couple wins that would otherwise go to the opponent and ice some games where otherwise the opponent would be able to come back with some luck.  At the same time, closers are not necessary parts of successful decks.  The Alloyin Starter Deck is perfectly competitive with the other starter decks (many of the SBE devs rank it as the strongest), and yet it has very poor closers—Ionic Warcharger and (if you have an unblocked robot) Munitions Drone and Tech Upgrade are basically all it has.

I tend to think of closers as a tie-break sort of consideration.  If I’m considering two different cards, both of which will have about the same value in the run of the mill situation, but one of them has a better finishing capability, I’ll go with the one that is the better closer.  I would tend to play Uranti Bolt instead of Lightning Spark, even though Lightning Spark is a better closer.  There’s typically a trade-off between the cards that are better closers and the cards that have more utility overall (although some cards, like Windcaller Shaman, are very useful both as closers and in mid or early game play).  But if I’m constructing a Nekrium/Tempys deck, and I only have room for either Firestorm or Epidemic, the fact that Firestorm is a better closer weighs in its favor.

The other aspect to think about is the overall deck strategy.  If you’re playing a Robot deck, where the goal is to gain complete control of the board in late Player Level 2 or early Player Level 3, there’s not a lot of need for closers.  Once you have control, the ability of your opponent to hurt you should be limited, although if you have low health you could lose to your opponent’s closers.  If you’re playing an aggressive rush deck, trying to have the game won by the start of Player Level 3, you really need some powerful closers.  The odds are simply too high that you will have your opponent almost beaten, but have lost control of the board.  And that’s when a Lightning Spark or a Swift creature can mean the difference between winning and losing.

What are your favorite closers?  How important do you think it is to deliberately build closers into your deck?

Deck Upgrade #3: Dependencies

This week’s column continues my examination of the relationships among cards by discussing dependencies.  Dependencies are similar to synergies, the subject of Column #2. A card has dependencies when it needs another card to be played effectively, instead of simply benefiting from being played with another card. On an empty board, with non-synergistic cards in hand, a Flamestoke Shaman is a perfectly good card to play. Even a Windcaller Shaman makes a plausible blocker when played on an empty field. Those cards have synergies with other cards, but they have no dependency. Conversely, if your field is empty, and you have two Corpse Crawlers and three Grave Pacts in hand, you have no plays that will get you any value at all. You’ll pick two cards to discard and level, and you’ll give your opponent an enormous boost of Card Advantage. Corpse Crawler and Grave Pact have a dependency: they require a creature that you are reasonably happy to sacrifice. In fact, Grave Pact has two dependencies—it needs both a creature that you’re happy to sacrifice, and an opposing creature that provides a reasonable target.

Deck Upgrade 3 Image 1

Not exactly the hand you want to draw here…

Dependencies are different in degree from synergies, not different in kind–there’s a continuum, but it’s still useful to distinguish between the two.  Corpse Crawler is near the edge between a card with synergies and a card with dependencies—except in the unusual situation where you have only Corpse Crawlers and spells in hand, you will be able to play a Corpse Crawler even if it requires sacrificing a creature you would rather keep alive. The problem is that two plays to produce a 7/8 Level 1 creature is mediocre. It’s roughly equivalent to playing a 4/5 vanilla and then Enraging it—nothing to get excited about. The higher-level versions are better (particularly at Level 3) but again, not particularly strong when analyzed as two plays. Combine it with a Death Seeker or a Vengeful Spirit, however, and Corpse Crawler goes from okay to awesome.

Most dependencies can be satisfied by happenstance. If you played a Blight Walker 1 which killed a Cavern Hydra 1 (leaving a 1/1 Blight Walker), you’ll often be perfectly happy to feed the Walker to a Corpse Crawler. You don’t get a significant bonus, but you give up very little (a 1/1 creature with an ability that may never trigger again) to gain an over-sized creature. Likewise, you can play Ferocious Roar (a card that has a dependency on having multiple creatures in play) in a deck without any obvious means to get value from it, and luck out when you have multiple creatures on the board with perfectly even trades to make. But good deck building is about minimizing the need to luck into a good position, and maximizing the chances that the deck will produce what you need for success.

Dependencies by Faction

I’m going to quickly run through each faction, identifying cards with dependencies in each, as a way of showing how I identify dependencies.  Note that almost all spells have dependencies, requiring either creatures on your field to buff or creatures on your opponent’s fields to debuff or destroy, depending on the spell.  The only exceptions are spells that can directly target a player (Druid’s Chant or Lightning Spark, for example).  I only highlight spells that have additional or unusual dependencies.

Nekrium:  Nekrium has some of the most obvious dependencies.  Most Nekrium cards with dependencies need to sacrifice a friendly creature to produce a beneficial effect–Scourgeflame Sorcerer, Grave Pact, and Corpse Crawler all have strong effects at the cost of sacrificing a creature you control.  They thus depend on having either cards that produce multiple creatures (esp. Death Seeker), such that the sacrifice is less than a full card, or cards that have advantageous effects on death, such as Vengeful Spirit and Graveborn Glutton.  Grave Pact and Hungering Strike are also notable as spells that have more than one condition–in order to be played, they must have both a friendly target and a hostile target.

Alloyin:  Alloyin’s dependencies connect to its “tribal” bonuses for Robots.  Tech Upgrade, for example, does not merely need a creature to target; it needs a Robot.  Similarly, I would categorize Brightsteel Sentinel’s ability (granting Armor to all Robots) as having a dependency.  The power can be extremely strong if there are several Robots on the field (and ideally an offensive opposing creature that you can block with the Sentinel itself).  But without multiple Robots, Brightsteel Sentinel can be a lackluster card.  This is on the edge between a synergy and a dependency, but I would categorize it as a dependency.  Playing Brightsteel Sentinel in a deck without many other Robots is asking for disappointment.  You could also categorize some of the Alloyin cards with weak Level 1 versions and stronger higher level versions (Technosmith, Scrapforge Titan, and Scout Drone, for example) as having a dependency on cards like Technosmith and Synapsis Oracle that allow you to level cards without playing them.  I view that as a strong synergy, however; Scrapforge Titan can be an effective card even without level-manipulating cards.  Alloyin shows the continuum between cards with synergies and cards with dependencies; the exact dividing line could reasonably be drawn in different places.

Uterra:  Uterran Packmaster is the principal Uterra card with a dependency.  Without a large number of Uterra cards for it to boost, Uterran Packmaster is very weak.  In a heavily Uterran deck, it can be quite effective–especially with the previewed but not yet implemented shift to an Activated power.  Ferocious Roar and Soothing Radiance can also be viewed as having a dependency on cards that will produce large numbers of cards on the field–generally swarming cards like Echowisp and Hunting Pack, but also durable creatures like Cavern Hydra or Deepbranch Prowler 1.  Soothing Radiance is particularly notable because it requires both multiple creatures on the field, and multiple friendly creatures that have taken damage and survived in order for it to be effective–a dependency that makes most players view Soothing Radiance as not very effective.

Tempys:  Few of the Tempys cards we’ve seen have dependencies.  Even the Tempys spells have fewer actual dependencies than most factions’ spells.  While a card like Cinderfist Brawler has strong synergies, it doesn’t depend on Windcaller Shaman in order to be effective.  Flameblade Champion, however, might rise to the level of a dependency.  Flameblade Champion’s stats are weak–not terrible, but below average, and only capable of producing an advantageous trade against a handful of the weakest creatures.  Its power can be game changing, but it is unlikely to ever use its power without help from a Flamestoke Shaman, a Windcaller Shaman, a removal effect, or perhaps a little Card Advantage and a creature like Cinderfist Brawler that can pose an even greater threat.

Dependencies and Deck-Building

In terms of deck-building, the important point about dependencies is that they typically require balancing the cards that have a dependency with the number of cards in your deck that fill the dependency. This is somewhat akin to balancing lands and non-land cards in a Magic deck—you want to get the right mix so that you have neither cards that you can’t use effectively, nor a glut of cards that are intended as support cards. But if you’re playing three Corpse Crawlers, three Grave Pacts, and three Scourgeflame Sorcerers with three Death Seekers and no other cards that are easy sacrifices, you will  likely have trouble satisfying your dependencies. You’ll be looking for lucky board positions at that point, instead of shaping the game to your liking.

Dependencies are likely to play a particularly important role in deck construction for limited formats like draft or sealed.  We don’t know much yet about how limited formats will work in SolForge, except for the bare fact that at least draft will exist.  But it can be easy in a draft to see a card like Corpse Crawler or Scourgeflame Sorcerer and to think, “that’s a great card, worth taking as a high pick.”  Perhaps.  But only if you can pick enough Death Seekers, Vengeful Spirits, and so forth to satisfy those dependencies.  Similarly, a Brightsteel Sentinel may be unusually weak as part of an Alloyin splash in a mostly Tempys deck.  Cards with dependencies are disproportionately likely to be stronger in constructed formats than in limited formats.

In closing, I want to stress that dependencies aren’t inherently bad.  Corpse Crawler and Brightsteel Sentinel are great cards, despite their dependencies.  They simply require a little extra care in the deck building process, and a little extra work to balance the deck.

Deck Upgrade #2: Synergies The Heart of SolForge Deck Building

SolForge players often talk about which cards are strong and which are weak, whether a card is brokenly unbalanced or unplayably weak. However, cards aren’t strong or weak in a vacuum—their strength can only be evaluated in context. Is Windcaller Shaman a strong card or a weak card? If you played it in a deck with only cards from the Version 1.0 Demo, it would be at best average. 3/7 is right around par for a Level 1 card (Attack+Health=10). Getting through a little damage is nice but not a huge deal. Better to play Wind Primordial which doesn’t requite that you have a creature already in play, and use Move to damage your opponent at least once and occasionally multiple times. But add in a bunch of cards that trigger on damaging your opponent (Flameblade Champion, Riftlasher, Rageborn Hellion, Cinderfist Brawler), and Windcaller is suddenly a must-play for many Tempys decks. Many players would list Windcaller Shaman as one of the most powerful commons, or perhaps even one of the most powerful cards overall. The difference is entirely a matter of changing synergies.

In today’s column, I’ll discuss synergies.  Two cards have a synergy if they are more powerful when played together than when played separately—when one of the cards makes the other card more useful.  Synergies are what make a deck strong, by making each card worth more than it would be worth in a vacuum.

Identifying Synergies

Synergies are the difference between an average card and a good card. Cinderfist Brawler and Volcanic Giant have comparable stats. Before the starter decks came out, Volcanic Giant was viewed as a pretty strong Tempys card. It has solid stats (5/5, 10/10, 15/15), with good trade potential, and a nice ability that can end games. Post 2.0, Volcanic Giant has a better ability (average damage went up at all levels)… and is played much less. Volcanic Giant is rare in the current Forum Games scene—only 4 out of the 32 decks in Community Tournament 5 included it, even though 18 out of the 32 decks played Tempys. Why? Volcanic Giant has very little synergy with other Tempys cards, whereas there is a ton of synergy among the other Tempys cards. Volcanic Giant is still a strong card in a hypothetical environment without synergies, and may be a good fit for some decks, but Cinderfist Brawler with its synergy with Windcaller Shaman and Flamestoke Shaman is much stronger.

The Starter decks are a good place to develop your skills at identifying synergies and seeing how they fit into deck design. Every one of the four Starter decks is built around a set of effective synergies. Not surprisingly, they’re more powerful decks than the Demo decks, which have fewer and weaker synergies—the Demo decks have comparably powerful cards, overall, but the synergies in the Starter decks make them more effective.

With Tempys, the key synergy is between cards that have beneficial triggers upon hitting your opponent (Flameblade Champion, Cinderfist Brawler, Riftlasher, Rageborn Hellion) and cards that help you damage your opponent unexpectedly (Flamestoke Shaman, Windcaller Shaman, Uranti Bolt, Firestorm). It’s worth noting that some of the cards have synergies with themselves—an offensive Flamestoke Shaman’s power makes another Flamestoke Shaman in hand more valuable. Some of the cards have fewer synergies—Ashurian Mystic synergizes with the Hellion, but less with the other cards; Primordial Surge synergizes with Flameborn Champion and Cinderfist Brawler, but less with the rest. The importance of synergies doesn’t mean that you should expect every card to have synergies with every other card. Still, the Tempys Starter Deck is a great example of how synergies make a deck effective.

Cinderfist and Windcaller

With Tempys, the key synergy is between cards that have beneficial triggers upon hitting your opponent (Cinderfist Brawler) and cards that help you damage your opponent unexpectedly (Windcaller Shaman).

The Uterra Starter Deck’s synergies are built around getting large numbers of creatures out and buffs that benefit multiple creatures or benefit from multiple creatures. Spring Dryad has obvious, strong synergies with the swarm cards (Echowisp and Hunting Pack), as does Uterran Packmaster. Less obviously, Uterran Packmaster has synergies with Spring Dryad and Shardplate Delver. Both Dryad and Delver have the potential to grow to sizes that make them hard to kill, making Uterran Packmaster more valuable. Also, because of their ability to grow, they are high priority targets for your opponent—which makes it more likely that your opponent will be unable to both kill them and your Packmaster. Deepbranch Prowler and Lifeshaper Savant are both relatively hard to kill creatures, which makes it more likely that you will have multiple cards on the board to benefit from your Uterran Packmaster, Soothing Radiance, or Ferocious Roar. Even Toxic Spores has some synergy—at Level 3, it allows you to play an extra card, which fits in with the swarm theme of the deck. Again, not every card has strong synergies; Fangwood Ravager, Grove Huntress, and Glowstride Stag have less obvious synergies with the rest of the deck, although they may still be useful to its overall ramp up over time design, and Grove Huntress can keep your growth cards alive long enough to grow more. Of course, just because a card has good synergies is not reason enough to want to play it. Many players would rather replace Toxic Spores with a faster removal card (Cull the Weak or Uranti Bolt, perhaps), even though those cards don’t synergize with the swarming aspects of the deck. Even so, the strength of the Dryad-Echowisp-Hunting Pack-Packmaster synergies are still key to the deck’s effectiveness.

The Alloyin Starter Deck has four main sources of synergy. The most obvious are the Robot “tribal” synergies, with unusually strong bonuses that apply only to Robots. Brightsteel Sentinel’s ability would be broken if it applied to all creatures, but limiting it to Robots makes it reasonable, and at the same time creates a synergy with every other Robot card. The second main synergy revolves around leveling: cards like Synapsis Oracle and Technosmith have a strong synergy with cards that have weak Level 1 versions but are strong at higher levels (Scrapforge Titan, Technosmith, Forgeplate Sentry). Technosmith is another example of a card with a strong synergy with itself—the downside to Technosmith is its weak Level 1 stats, so if you can level a Technosmith 1 with another Technosmith, you have a potentially strong play. The Alloyin deck has several cards that provide Armor boosts (Steelshaper, Brightsteel, and Tech Upgrade); those cards have a synergy with cards that have Armor, either intrinsically or because of a previous buff. Each additional point of Armor is more valuable than the previous point, because it increases the likelihood that an attack will not penetrate at all and increases the number of times that the Armor is likely to matter. A Forgeplate 1, with 1 point of Armor, is likely to be killed in a single attack. Increase its Armor to Armor 3, and there’s an excellent chance that it will take at least two attacks, getting double value from the Armor, to kill it. The Alloyin Starter Deck takes advantage of the synergy between multiple sources of Armor and multiple cards with Armor. Finally, the Alloyin Attack debuff (Sonic Pulse) can make opposing cards incapable of penetrating Armor or incapable of killing high defense creatures quickly, allowing Alloyin General and Synapsis Oracle to use their powers more often.

Nekrium has sacrifice related synergies. Grimgaunt Devourer’s Attack and Health grow when creatures die, so it has a synergy with cards that require sacrificing creatures like Scourgeflame Sorcerer, Corpse Crawler, and Grave Pact. Epidemic runs a risk of killing your own creatures—which gives it a synergy with creatures that don’t mind dying, like Death Seeker and Vengeful Spirit. Scourgeflame Sorcerer, Corpse Crawler, and Grave Pact have powerful effects that require sacrifices to trigger (or to play, in the case of Corpse Crawler). Those effects basically require creatures that you don’t mind sacrificing, which makes Death Seeker, Vengeful Spirit, and to a lesser extent Graveborn Glutton and Fleshfiend, indispensable. In fact, the connection between the sacrifice requiring cards and the sacrificial fodder cards is so strong that it almost rises to the level of a dependency, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

It is no coincidence that all of the Starter decks have a great deal of internal synergy. Every good deck is going to be built around a cluster of synergies. When you build your own decks, synergies are an excellent place to start. Why are your cards stronger because they’re being played together? What does a card need in order for its value to increase? Whenever you think, “wow, if I had this on the board and drew that, it would be awesome,” you’re noticing a synergy. Playing off those synergies is key to building a good deck.

Timing and Synergies

An additional point to consider is the timing needs of your synergies. Some cards need to be Offensive in order to make the most of their synergies, and thus must typically be played in a prior turn—for example, Scourgeflame Sorcerer must be played on the previous turn to get a full synergy with Death Seeker, and Flamestoke Shaman must likewise be Offensive to grant Swiftness to a Flameblade Champion. Other cards, like Spring Dryad and Grimgaunt Devourer, benefit from being played before cards with which they have synergy, but need not be played on a previous turn. Yet other cards need to be played after the cards with which they have synergy (notably Corpse Crawler, Grave Pact, and many spells). And some cards (Windcaller Shaman, removal cards) benefit from being played when the cards they have synergy with are already Offensive. Those issues are mostly issues in play, not deck building, except it’s worth keeping an eye on the timing of cards as you build your deck. If you find that a very large number of your cards need to be Offensive  to gain benefit (or a very large number need to be played after other cards are in play) you may have a conflict that will make your deck less effective—you’ll find that you often can’t make the most out of your synergies.  Playing a deck with a good mix of timing requirements for your synergies will let you make the most of them.

Building Your Deck with Synergies

Synergies provide many useful tools for building a deck.  I often begin building a deck by identifying some synergies that interest me.  Spot a few synergies, toss those cards in a deck, look for other cards with synergies to fill it out, and you have a draft deck list.  Also, when tuning up a deck list, you can look for cards that lack effective synergies to drop, or for other cards with synergies to add in.  It’s not the entire process of deck building–you may find that there are cards without synergies that fill holes in your deck, or protect against weaknesses.

What are your favorite synergies?  How do you use them as you build your decks?  Tell us about them in the comments.

Deck Upgrade #1: How to Win at SolForge

I’m Cerebral Paladin, and I’ll be writing Forge Watch’s new column on deck-building theory and analysis.  There are plenty of other columns out there (Forging the Deck is just one) that provide pre-fabricated decks for your use or to spark your own ideas.  I won’t be doing that here—I’ll rarely provide a full deck list.  Instead, I’ll talk about concepts in deck design—what makes a deck strong, what can make it weak, how to identify weaknesses and opportunities in deck building.  My goal is to give you the tools to think about how to build your own deck, how to analyze other decks, and how to make decks better.

There are lots of different goals that you can have in building a deck—trying to win games, trying to see if you can make a typically underpowered card effective, trying to pull off an awesome combo, trying to do something wacky, just trying to play a card you really like as much as you can.  Those different goals are all fun and worthwhile.  I particularly recommend those goals that involve experimentation.  Trying different things in SolForge is one of the best ways to learn more about the cards and the game, and to deepen your skill.  In general, though, this column will focus on a single goal:  building a deck that wins games.

In that vein, I want to start by discussing how decks win SolForge games and a couple of ways in which they don’t.  You win SolForge by doing damage to your opponent.  For analytic purposes, we can divide ways to do damage into two broad categories: you can gain card advantage and use that to deal damage, and you can get damage through to your opponent without getting card advantage.  Mixed strategies that use both approaches are possible and common.  I want to focus on each of them separately, however, because there are only a handful of ways to achieve either.  This is intended as an exhaustive list.

Dealing Damage Through Card Advantage

Card Advantage is a basic concept in SolForge strategy.  Noetherian provides an excellent introduction to the concept in SolForge Module #6.  The basic idea is as follows. The normal pattern of SolForge play is that Player 1 plays a card, then Player 2 plays one card to match the one that Player 1 played and one additional card, leaving Player 2 up a card on the field.  That might be two unblocked cards on the field to one unblocked card, or it might be one unblocked card to zero cards, or it might be one unblocked card and one blocked card against one blocked card.  Player 1 then plays two cards, normally going from down one card at the beginning of the turn to up one card at the end.  If you can gain card advantage—destroying one of your opponent’s cards with less than one of yours—you shift that dynamic.  Once you have more than a full card’s worth of Card Advantage—that is, at the end of your turn, you have at least three more creatures on the field than your opponent—then you will be able to force through substantial amounts of damage unless and until your opponent can eliminate your card advantage.  One of your creatures will have to go unblocked, and that unblocked creature will deal its Attack in damage every turn.  If you can gain and keep Card Advantage, you will generally win the game.  So, how do you build a deck that gains Card Advantage?

There are four basic paths:

  1. Swarming and bonus actions.  Some cards produce more than one creature, either immediately (Echowisp, Hunting Pack) or eventually (Fleshfiend at Levels 2 and 3, Death Seeker, Yuru).  If a card produces two creatures and they each successfully trade with one of the opponent’s creatures, then you have immediately gained one card of Card Advantage.  That’s perhaps most likely when you play Echowisp against two offensive creatures—unless it’s played against a particularly high health creature, it will trade.  Hunting Pack and Fleshfiend 2 are less likely to produce a full card of Card Advantage directly.  However, if a Hunting Pack trades with one card and damages another, it provides partial card advantage with which you can build full card advantage.  Similarly, a handful of cards allow you to take an additional action—Scout Drone at Level 2 or 3, Toxic Spores at level 3.  That allows you to gain Card Advantage directly, although at the cost of a subpar card (neither Toxic Spores 3 nor Scout Drone is particularly good for its level except for the bonus action).  In any event, swarm cards and cards that provide bonus actions are an obvious, easy route to Card Advantage.
  2. Uneven trades.  If swarm cards are the most obvious way to Card Advantage, uneven trades are perhaps the most important: the bread and butter of SolForge Card Advantage.  If you can kill one of your opponents’ creatures with a creature of your own that survives, you have, all else being equal, gained Card Advantage.   Part of getting uneven trades is about placing your creatures carefully, blocking with advantageous matches and avoiding combat with disadvantageous matches.  The other key aspect is taking advantage of different leveling curves and, later, of having more cards of higher level than your opponent.  Cards like Deepbranch Prowler, which start out strong but level-up poorly, can get uneven trades with other Level 1 cards because their Level 1 version is unusually strong.  Conversely, cards like Scrapforge Titan, Scorchmane Dragon, and Chrogias can in general get advantageous trades at Level 3 with other Level 3 cards because they have unusually strong Level 3 versions (and correspondingly weak Level 1 versions).  In general, the cards with strong Level 2 and 3 versions provide greater and more durable Card Advantage than the cards with strong Level 1 versions—if you plan to win by getting Card Advantage from Deepbranch Prowler 1s and similar cards, you had better win very fast.

    Also, playing more higher level cards than your opponent can produce Card Advantage—if you can play more Level 2 cards in hand than your opponent has on the field and in hand, you can likely use that advantage in Levels to gain Card Advantage by killing Level 1 creatures with your Level 2 cards.  Sometimes you can play more higher level cards than your opponent through luck, but you can make that situation more likely by using cards like Synapsis Oracle, Technosmith, and Scout Drone (2+) that allow you to level up more cards.

    Another way to get uneven trades is through snowballing creatures—creatures that get larger the longer they remain in play.  Several cards in SolForge have the property that if you don’t kill them early, they can grow to become very, very big.  Most of us first encountered this pattern with Grimgaunt Devourer, but Shardplate Delver and Spring Dryad both have the same pattern, especially at higher levels.  If you can give one of these cards time to grow, it can require 2, 3, or even more equal-level cards to destroy it.  Every time your opponent loses one card to a Grimgaunt Devourer and still has to play a second card to defeat (because it has grown), you gain Card Advantage.  When a snowballing card gets out of control and takes many plays to stop, it provides an enormous gain of Card Advantage.

    Finally, buffs and debuffs can be used to set up (or to break up or reverse) uneven trades.  If you play a Cavern Hydra 1 (4/7, Regen 1) and your opponent blocks it with a Forgeplate Sentry 1 (4/4, Armor 1), your opponent has set up an even trade.  However, even as small a buff as +1/0 (or 0/+1) can allow your Cavern Hydra to kill the Forgeplate and survive.  Any buffing effect converts that even trade into a source of card advantage.  Note that if you have to play a card to gain that buff (as when you play an Enrage on a Cavern Hydra so it can kill a Forgeplate), you haven’t directly gained card advantage.  You’ve played 2 cards, your opponent has played one, and you have a creature on the board.  However, if you can get the buff without having to spend a card on it (say, trading a Grove Huntress with one of your opponent’s creatures while buffing the Cavern Hydra), or if your surviving creature is strong enough to kill a second creature and survive, you have then gained true Card Advantage.

    In the category of buffs and debuffs, it’s particularly worth thinking about the snowballing buff cards (Rageborn Hellion (at least as it exists in the current iOS release), Uterran Packmaster (esp. at level 2 and 3)).  Cards that provide a series of buffs to all cards on the field can result in multiple cards snowballing, and each gaining Card Advantage that they otherwise wouldn’t.  Rageborn Hellion 3 and Uterran Packmaster 3, played in an advantageous board, can turn a small advantage or a neutral board into a game-winning one. The version of Rageborn Hellion shown in the recent Brian Kibler video demoing the PC beta is significantly more limited than the iOS version, buffing only the cards that actually damage the opposing player in combat. Even that version, however, can result in multiple other cards snowballing, and the general point remains valid.

    Additionally, buffs and debuffs can frequently keep a snowballing card alive, allowing it to grow. Consider the following board position, where you’re playing a Nekrium/Uterra deck and it’s your turn, pre-combat:Deck Upgrade 1 Image 1If you play an ordinary blocker against the Wind Primordial and declare combat, Lane 2 will trade.  But if you play a Grove Huntress 1 into Lane 4 and buff the Grimgaunt, you will instead have a 18/7 Grimgaunt 2 left on the board–that will certainly give you one card worth of advantage, and may give you two or more.  Buffing a Rageborn Hellion, an Uterran Packmaster, or a Spring Dryad can be similarly valuable.

  3. Triggers, secondary effects, and Activation powers that allow you to affect creatures in other lanes can give you Card Advantage.  Flameblade Champion’s trigger may be the most obvious one—a Flameblade Champion can potentially wipe out 4 creatures on the opposing side in one turn, providing enormous card advantage.  But Flameblade Champion is hardly unique—Magma Hound’s power can turn partial Card Advantage into full Card Advantage (or eliminate an opponent’s partial Card Advantage) by killing off low Health cards, as can RiftlasherVengeful Spirit’s trigger can turn what would ordinarily be one-for-one removal into two-for-one removal.
  4. Finally, removal can produce Card Advantage, although it often doesn’t (or does so only indirectly).  Removal is a term for Spells or abilities that eliminate opposing creatures, either directly (“Destroy target Level 1 creature”) or indirectly by causing damage or applying Health debuffs (“Do 6 damage to an opposing creature” or “Opposing creature gains -3/-3”).  Cull the Weak costs one card to eliminate one creature—you gain no direct card advantage from playing Cull the Weak.  However, if you remove a card that would otherwise have an advantageous trade with one of your cards or that would use a power to gain Card Advantage later (as when you remove a Scourgeflame Sorcerer to prevent it from sacrificing a Death Seeker to kill one of your creatures), you indirectly gain some Card Advantage.  Nonetheless, some removal can directly produce Card Advantage, usually by removing more than one card at once.  If a Firestorm kills multiple opposing cards (or kills one and makes a combat advantageous against another), it provides Card Advantage.  The various board wipe removal cards are important in significant part because they can often provide Card Advantage, especially at higher levels.  Note that this is also how Brimstone Field provides benefits—the second time a Brimstone Field destroys an opposing creature, it provides you Card Advantage.  Because Brimstone Field persists, it doesn’t need to provide Card Advantage immediately to provide a substantial long-term advantage.

Dealing Damage Without Card Advantage

While Card Advantage provides a straightforward way to deal damage to your opponent, you can also damage your opponent without it.  Indeed, it’s possible to win a SolForge game without ever having Card Advantage, by bypassing or removing your opponent’s blockers so your attacks deal damage to the player.  The challenge is doing enough damage to win without giving up too much Card Advantage in the process, which frequently requires the use of card abilities that are well-suited to your strategy (e.g. Cinderfist Brawler).

There are seven ways you can damage your opponent without card advantage.

  1. Move (and Move-like effects like Windcaller Shaman’s ability):  It is very difficult to block cards that can move.  Play a Wind Primordial 1 (Move 1) in an open lane, and your opponent needs to fill three spaces to prevent it from hitting—the space directly across from it and both spaces adjacent to that.
  2. Swiftness:  The Swiftness ability, whether inherent to a card, or granted by an effect like Flamestoke Shaman’s Activated ability, allows a creature to attack before the opponent ever has a chance to block it.
  3. Leaving cards unblocked to pose multiple threats:  If you place your cards to block your opponent’s creatures, then you need to develop Card Advantage (more than a full card’s worth of Card Advantage) in order to start doing damage.  If, however, you play your cards to unblocked lanes, you can get attacks through with less Card Advantage, or even no advantage at all, if you have a situation where, for example, at the end of your turn your opponent has cards in Lanes 1 and 2 and you have creatures in Lanes 3, 4, and 5.  An inevitable part of this approach is that you allow your opponent to damage you.  But if you can do more damage than your opponent—especially if your deck is much faster than your opponent’s deck—that’s a price well worth paying.
  4. Removal to get attacks through:  If you play a creature, and your opponent blocks that creature, then playing removal on your opponent’s creature will allow your creature to damage your opponent.  This is a key technique for increasing the value of both your threat creatures and your removal cards.  A Cinderfist Brawler 1 blocked by an Echowisp 1 is no threat at all.  But a Cinderfist Brawler 1 blocked by an Echowisp 1 when you have a Firestorm 1 in hand is a tenth of the way to winning the game—more if you have a Rageborn Hellion on the field or other ways to benefit.
  5. Opportunistic attacks when your opponent leaves a card unblocked:  There are numerous reasons why your opponent might choose to play a card that doesn’t block one or more of your creatures—to keep a card with a valuable Activated ability or trigger alive longer, to avoid a disadvantageous combat, because your opponent is trying to damage you directly, because your opponent wants to play a Structure or Spell instead of playing a Creature.  In any event, whenever your opponent leaves a (non-Defender) creature unblocked, you will be in a position to damage your opponent.  This is also a good opportunity to do additional damage with buffing—a Primordial Surge can provide some additional damage to your opponent if you play it on a card that’s unblocked.  This tactic also works well after playing removal on your opponents’ creature.  However, you need to consider whether buffing an unblocked creature will end up giving up more Card Advantage than you want to.  If you play Primordial Surge 1 on an unblocked Cinderfist Brawler 1, you do an impressive 20 damage.  But if your opponent plays Uranti Bolt 1 or Cull the Weak 1 on your 10/6 Brawler (or even blocks it with a Wind Primordial 1), you’ll lose two cards at a cost of only one for your opponent.  Still, this uneven exchange might be worth it to do that much damage, and it’s certainly something to consider when you are looking to end the game. 
  6. Burn:  Direct damage abilities that can target the opposing player, whether through spells or through triggers (for example, powers like Volcanic Giant’s power or Flameshaper’s trigger) don’t care what the state of the board is.  They just whittle the opponent’s life down.  Currently, burn is not viable as a primary plan for winning.  You can’t do enough of it fast enough, and most of the cards that do direct damage to the opposing player sacrifice some board control to do it.  In particular, the burn spells either do too little damage (Firestorm) or give up a full card of card advantage every time you use them to attack the opposing player (Lightning Spark).  But that doesn’t mean that burn is irrelevant—in fact, it’s an important part of almost any deck that tries to win without establishing board control.  At the end of the game, Card Advantage is irrelevant.  If you have a Lightning Spark 3 in hand and it will win the game, who cares that it will leave you facing an unblocked board?
  7. Breakthrough:  The Breakthrough ability is almost its own category, because blocking affects it but it still allows you to get damage through.  Two points to consider about Breakthrough.  Because Breakthrough only functions on the Offensive, if you plan to push through damage with it, you want to avoid placing your Breakthrough creatures as blockers; second, Breakthrough synergizes well with buffs, because they allow you to both make the combats more advantageous and to push through more damage.  Currently, Breakthrough is a rare ability, but some decks will want to play Ferocious Roar precisely because of the ability to confer Breakthrough with Ferocious Roar 3.

Timing

Neither developing Card Advantage and then doing damage nor doing damage without Card Advantage is inherently fast or slow.  A fast deck can be all about bypassing the opponent’s blockers, with Windcaller Shamans, Cinderfist Brawlers, Swift cards and the like.  Or it can be based on getting early Card Advantage through cards like Deepbranch Prowler and Echowisp, and then using that advantage to deal damage in turns 3-8.  Similarly, a slow deck can rely on developing late game “bombs” that will grant Card Advantage or on developing late game mobility for getting damage through (Scorchmane Dragon 3 notably serves this purpose well).  Either way, timing is key to SolForge.  You should design your deck with a clear eye towards the speed it will typically play at, whether that’s trying to stall and stay alive long enough for your cards to develop or trying to win quickly before you lose control of the game.  You should also think about how your deck will handle atypical situations.  If you’re playing a slow deck against an even slower deck, you may find it necessary to switch into a rush mode—trying to win with your Forgeplates before they can get their Chrogiases out, for example.  If you’ve designed your deck with a clear eye towards the speed of its progression, you will be better positioned to play it effectively, regardless of what its planned approach to winning the game is.

Three Important Ways that SolForge Decks Don’t Win

Now that I’ve covered all the ways that SolForge decks can win, I want to focus on a couple of ways that SolForge decks don’t win.  At present, you can’t build a SolForge deck around winning through combos, through straight-up burn, or through a single “silver bullet” card.

  1. True combos:  At present, we don’t have any examples of deck designs that are based on game-winning combos in a Magic the Gathering sense.  We have synergies, cards that are stronger when played together rather than when played separately.  Synergies are a vital part of deck design in SolForge—I’ll discuss them at more length later.  But there aren’t any examples of playing to try to get card A on the board and then play cards B and C to instant win (or to lock in a dominant position that allows you to make sure that you win).  The few examples that come close (e.g. Flamestoke Shaman 3 on the board, Cinderfist Brawler 3 and Primordial Surge 3 in hand (dealing 60 points of damage and leaving a block-or-die card on the board), or Echowisp 3 plus Ferocious Roar 3 to produce a board full of 15/10 Breakthrough creatures), are too rare to build a deck around.  They require leveling up exactly the right cards twice, and then drawing them together at the right time.  Instead, a deck might play each of Flamestoke Shaman, Cinderfist Brawler, and Primordial Surge because they have synergy together.  The hope isn’t to play the monster combo, but rather to get value out of playing the cards together in whatever combinations you happen to get, and with the other cards in your deck.  This may change in the future—especially if Stone Blade Entertainment releases cards that let you search your deck or hold cards from your hand for future play.  But even then, it will likely be more about maximizing synergies and less about building a game-winning combo.
  2. Straight-up burn:  You can’t currently build a deck that’s designed to win through direct damage.  Burn can be a useful part of a winning deck.  Burn cards make great “closers”—cards that you play to win a game when your opponent is low on life.  And burn cards often do double-duty as removal cards.  But the sources of direct damage are too small, too slow, and sacrifice too much Card Advantage to make that the primary part of your strategy.  Imagine a deck consisting entirely of Lightning Sparks (currently, the most efficient burn card).  Assuming you play second, it would take you roughly nine turns to kill your opponent—nine turns in which you did nothing to control the board.  By that point, any deck would have overrun you.  You need to, at a minimum, remain close on the board while getting damage in.  Giving up a little card advantage can be okay—completely abandoning board control to your opponent is a recipe for a fast loss.
  3. Silver bullet cards:  Regardless of how good any one card is, you can’t build a deck that wins consistently around a single card.  If your plan for your deck is purely, “I’m going to level up Grimgaunt and then win with it” or “I’m going to level up Scrapforge Titan and win with it,” your deck will at best win sometimes.  This is mostly just a matter of probabilities.  With a maximum of three copies of a card, even if you play it every time you see it, you only get slightly less than 1 Level 3 version on average in Turns 9-12 (roughly 8/9 copies, although that is a little high because of the possibility that you will draw all three Level 1 cards in the same hand and be unable to play it).  That’s way too vulnerable to targeted removal, a generally bad turn, or situational factors to be the core of a winning deck design.  Indeed, about 1 time in 27 you won’t see a single copy of a given card in all of Turns 1-4 (and the odds of missing all of your Level 2 copies in Turns 5-8 are higher).  If that card is the only way your deck can win, you’re giving away a set of games right off the bat.  Also, all of the “game winning” cards have weaknesses.  Grimgaunt Devourer is a great card, but it does very little when you’re badly behind on Card Advantage because it blocks poorly until it has grown.  If you’re facing a board with three dangerous, unblocked cards, Grimgaunt 3 is not the card you want to play.  Scrapforge Titan 3 blocks well and attacks well, but it has a very weak Level 1 and a mediocre Level 2.  Playing it aggressively every time you see it runs a real risk of losing before you ever see a Scrapforge Titan 3.  If your deck is focused on a single card, its weaknesses become weaknesses of the entire deck.Strong cards form part of winning deck builds, but winning decks aren’t built around a single strong card.  Instead, good decks have multiple routes to victory—instead of “I’ll level up Scrapforge Titan and win with it,” which is way too luck-dependent to be a reliable victory plan, you might think in terms of Brightsteel Sentinel, Forgeplate, and Scrapforge Titan as the heart of your deck, with the aim of leveling up key cards in Turns 1-4, pulling even in Player Level 2, and then building up Card Advantage that wins in Player Levels 3 and 4.  Likewise, you can’t build a deck entirely around Grimgaunt and win reliably.  You need other ways to win in your deck.  A deck that plays both Corpse Crawler (with suitable sacrifice cards like Death Seeker) and Grimgaunt is a typical example within Nekrium—even if you never see your Grimgaunt Devourers, Corpse Crawler can gain Card Advantage and then push through enough damage to win.  Another example would be playing both Grimgaunt and another potentially dominant late game card (e.g. Scorchmane Dragon, Chrogias, Scrapforge Titan) from a different faction, or another snowballing card (Spring Dryad).  Almost every effective deck will have a plan to deal with single silver bullet cards.  Their plan may not work, but including a plan for stopping your opponent’s Grimgaunt Devourer (or Echowisp, or Scrapforge Titan) is a core part of winning deck design.  That means that you need to be prepared to win despite the fact that your opponent stopped your best card.  If they spend their Cull the Weak on killing your Grimgaunt, that means they don’t have it available to play on your Corpse Crawler.

In future columns, I’ll discuss specific aspects of how to build your deck effectively.  As you think about your deck building, you can think about which of these general approaches you plan on using to win the game.  If your goal is winning through Card Advantage, how do you plan to build that up?  How do you plan to deal with an aggressive deck that seeks to bypass your defenders?  If you plan on using a swarm, how do you deal with cards like Firestorm that can wipe out multiple of your weak Health cards at once?  If you plan on bypassing your opponent’s creatures, how will you avoid losing control of the board and allowing your opponent to overwhelm you with Card Advantage?  Figuring out a basic game plan for your deck is the first step in making it effective.

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