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Deck Upgrade #5:  Evaluating Cards in SolForge

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?

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One comment

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