Whether you're getting into Slay the Spire, Monster Hunt, Dominion, Star Realms, Hero Realms, To Arms!!, Ascension, Legendary, or any other deckbuilder, I've got some sweet tips for you. Even if you're already good, some of these tips might help reframe your approach if you've hit a plateau in your skill level.
Tip #2: Know Who's Faster
For the sake of transparency, I must disclose that I learned this from a Magic: the Gathering article a few years ago. You can find it here if you'd rather hear it from the source instead of my sultry writing tone.
I should also say that I found this article about Dominion right before publishing this blog post. This is also a fantastic source of knowledge about understanding deckbuilders. I'm going to go broader than the above article, but it's worth a read if you care about Dominion specifically.
Anyway. The moment you make a different decision from your opponent in a deckbuilder, the God of Chance and Tactics (Let's name them "Pag") has already decreed who is fated rush faster and who is fated to scale farther. You must know your relative position to your enemy, and lean into the advantage you've been given to secure victory.
Here's my shot at the most broad explanation possible:
In any competition, one person is always fated to have a better return on resource investment than another. If your long-term resources won't be as good as your opponent's, your only option is to finish the game before you get outscaled.
Outracing your opponent means focusing more on acquiring cards that are easy to obtain/use (but tend to be weaker). End the game before the opponent's plans come to fruition. You'll likely still invest resources in early scaling, but you need to be able to switch gears before your opponent has time to outscale or outlast you.
Outscaling your opponent means focusing more on acquiring cards that are stronger (but tend to be harder to obtain/use). You must predict how "greedy" you can be with investing your resources in scaling effects before your opponent wins. You must plan to start cashing in on powerful card synergies/effects before your opponent closes out the game on their terms. Some games provide block/heal effects that slow down the enemy long enough to get your own engine rolling.
With either strategy, some deckbuilders let you disrupt the opponent through effects that make their plays worse (like curse or discard effects). If your aggressive opponent would get in that last trickle of damage/points next round, or that slow-rolling opponent would slam down some massive combo next round, disruption makes their plan (whatever plan it is) get delayed by a few turns, giving you a window to sneak in a victory.
I bet you already have an intuitive grasp of this concept. Let's invent a game to demonstrate an example of how you already know this:
During a game, you must constantly compare your plan against your opponents'. You must ask yourself: "if I let the game continue on for a few more rounds, will I become more likely to win or will my opponent?"
Recognize what round your opponent's deck will reach its "peak" over yours, and when yours will "peak" compared to theirs. End the game before their deck becomes stronger than yours - or, stall out until your deck becomes stronger than theirs.
Every deckbuilder makes you decide between quicker payoffs now or stronger later payoffs later. Knowing if you're aggressive or not will help you make those decisions.
That's all for beginner tips. Destroy your enemies!
(Or read on for gritty details.)
+: Moment-to-moment planning
Here's a problem: the god of Chance and Tactics decrees that your deck' relative power and speed are actually quite difficult to figure out, especially because the variables change from round to round. Maybe you were the aggressor before, but your opponent just made a weird card acquisition that made you realize you really need to slow down and establish a long-term plan. This is especially tough because you need to track not only yourself, but each opponent as well. It's tough knowing whether you should be acquiring a card that pays off in the future vs now, and it's also tough knowing whether you should be playing a card that (pays off later/now). Here's some prompts that I've found around the internet and through talking with players.
- Calculate the relative number of deck shuffles left before the game's over. For games where you can buy stuff, if the game will end after 2 deck shuffles, that means you'll only draw that +$$ card twice, meaning you'll only draw whatever it could purchase a single time! In this case, you might as well just start buying pure damage to end the game. The extra $$, in this case is useless. For games where you directly buy victory points or play single-use cards, clogging your deck with victory points or exhausting your one-use cards around <2 shuffles definitely seems worth it, since they'll hardly get in the way that much.
- Calculate the minimum amount of setup needed to consistently execute your plan. The manifestation of this depends a lot on the specific plan, but basically what I mean is this: if you're planning on going aggressive, you already know that even fast decks need to buy a few +$$ cards. But when do you stop?
The answer: only buy however much you need to afford your planned "capstone" cards.
The next question: how do you figure out the "capstone"?
The answer: the most expensive thing you can afford to buy AND get to play for a few turns before your opponent outscales you with their own plan. The % of health total per attack card is the vague calculation you'll need to make.
In games like Slay the Spire, swap out +$$ with block cards and "purchase" with "safely play".
The above is my example if you've realized you're the aggressive player. If you're the slower player, you must think these resources in reverse. Even a terrible aggro deck that buys total junk and hardly scales has a "clock": for example, a "4 round clock" means that your enemy's average damage will kill you in about 4 rounds (if you do nothing about it). If you think they'll win in about 8 turns through early damage, you better have a plan to either stall them out so you can slowly ping them down, or assemble a "win the game instantly" combo by turn 7. People who like to build their card synergies (like me) have a problem where we spend too much time assembling our card engine. In doing this, we neglect to realize that we passed the window where we *could* have had a power spike and steamrolled our opponent. I'll build a $50-per-turn deck that's perfectly ready to transition into buying attacks/victory points... but then turn it into a $100-per-turn deck instead of getting around to actually winning.
- Every turn, re-evaluate if you need to start racing your opponent or not. Regardless of anything else you've read in this article, variables and unforeseen combos and weird circumstances sometimes mean that you very suddenly NEED to race your opponent to victory to have any shot at winning. Leave your fate to Pag, because "playing it safe" after a certain point just means "losing slowly" instead of playing risky for a shot at victory.
The following infographic can hopefully help illustrate the relative power curves of different strategies, as well as how disruption (theoretically) works to slow the opponent:
I hope some of this knowledge comes to good use! It's not necessarily stuff you can just plug into your games and directly reap rewards from, but from knowing some deckbuilder theory you'll hopefully find yourself being more self-assured with your choices and more adept at recognizing your areas of improvement.
Good luck out there! :)