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:
- 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.
- 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:If 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.
- 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 Riftlasher. Vengeful Spirit’s trigger can turn what would ordinarily be one-for-one removal into two-for-one removal.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.