Guide: Deckbuilder Tips for Beginners + Prompts for the Experienced (Part 3/3)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

So you're already a strong builder of decks thanks to the past two tips. I've only got one left to give you, one that will (hopefully) keep you improving forever. It's only listed #3 because I like the narrative structure of it being last - IMO, it's actually the most important of all.

Tip #3: Don't Play Every Game to Win

Don't click away! I promise this is still about optimizing your win rate and getting better at deckbuilders. This isn't me saying "remember to have fun, it's just a game. :)" Because while yes, that's true, I know that's not why we're here.

This tip should IMO apply to everything you do in life, but deckbuilding is a good place to start because their design rewards experimentation much more than other games.

Dedicate games to experimental strategies that you'd normally avoid. In order to grow, you must view cards/strategies from new angles, in case you discover something better than what you're doing now.

i understand the fear of trying something strange

i understand the fear of trying something strange

There's a kind of tension for players who are concerned about playing well, and it's this: if you care a lot about victory and defeat, and you're grinding out lots of games to try and improve, you'll naturally start adopting patterns of play. Developing patterns is mostly good: save mental energy by formulating frameworks and strategies to follow, right? You had a great run with a specific card, so every time you see that card, you remember what synergies generally worked and try to replicate them. 

But adopting patterns creates problems when you start to accept too many things as a given. For example, "thin decks can be good with certain cards" can easily become "always keep your deck thin". Or "This card combo is pretty strong" becomes "I see this combo is available, so I'll ignore other potential strategies".

My theory is that some games cause humans to generate a lot of inaccurate 'rules' whenever game variables have a massive influence on your outcome but are ALSO so numerous that it's hard to account for each variable at once.

For example: what if your OP card combo five games ago only worked because there wasn't another card in the available pool that your opponent would have otherwise grabbed in response to your strategy? That one game 'proved' that your strategy was strong, so now you're stuck with a big head and a big miscalculation of power level.

No good.

If you're like me, it's ridiculously hard (and kinda boring) to look at every single card combiniation available and ascertain all of the theoretical synergies and counters that are possible. And to do such a thing every turn would make your playgroup hate you. It's arduous to perfectly logically think your way through this stuff. (Which is by design - if you could, the game would be "solved" and become stale.)

experimentation doesn't always pay off, but it's always worth trying

experimentation doesn't always pay off, but it's always worth trying

So what do you do instead? The answer is, essentially, the scientific method: just play through a bunch of games and try out different strategies in different contexts, and make internal note of your observations. If you keep your attention open, you'll start to formulate (almost subconsciously?) the nuanced contexts that make a certain strategy better/worse in different scenarios. And that's how you get better.

Whenever you play to win, you'll find yourself kind of "locking in" a set of rules for yourself to give you what feels like a consistent game. But if you never have experimental games, if you never try out something new, you'll never open yourself up to evolving layers onto your strategies. On the obvious level, you might learn that you undervalued a certain card. But on a less obvious level, you might learn that you had overvalued your go-to combo and can produce an equivalent effect by doing some other thing.

Finally: yes, if you can give yourself "win conditions" such as having fun or seeing how far you can take some janky strategy, you'll probably just have more fun with the game overall and avoid burning out. So that's nice too.

Now get in there and do some science! :)

+: Seriously, Keep Experimenting

This one's going to be short because, by design, this third tip is something that you'll probably be doing 'forever' if you really want to get good.

In any half-decent game, you'll never really stop benefiting from experimentation. Yes, after a point you'll get diminishing returns. But if you always do the same things, you'll always get the same output. Sure, you won't get lower results by staying the same... but you give up the chance of higher results too.

At a higher level of play, your experimentation just gets more complex and nuanced. For example, maybe you'll start testing the quickest turn that the opponent's strategy can adapt to a change in your own strategy when doing x deck vs y deck with abcd cards in the pool.

You get the idea - there's always something to experiment with. Just introduce more contexual variables and you'll have a new experiment. 

BUT. This only works if you keep an open eye to your results. Trying an experiment multiple times is important to see the same strat across tons of contexts. Taking internal note of what you see - more than once, ideally - is the key to improvement.
I guess just in general, that's how you learn in real life too.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading this series, and hope this information can be useful to you. And I especially hope that I've made you excited to play some deckbuilders!

Good luck out there. :)

Guide: Deckbuilder Tips for Beginners + Prompts for the Experienced (Part 2/3)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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

answer: buy a blender, never use it, buy a smoothie every week

answer: buy a blender, never use it, buy a smoothie every week

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:

You’re dueling a computer AI. Both of you have 10 health. The computer deals 1 damage on round 1, then 2, then 3, then 4, etc. This means you’ll lose all of your health by round 4.

Now let’s say on turn 1 you can either play “deal 5 damage” or “deal 1 damage every round, starting next round”. Since the opponent deals more damage every turn, you can’t afford to be slow. You KNOW you’ll lose if you let the game go on too long, so you need to sacrifice the cool long-term damage to just deal 5 damage right now. 

In this example, you’ve successfully identified yourself as the aggressor. You’ve recognized your opponent will win a long game no matter what, so you have to win before that happens.

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.



irl deckbuilding.png

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:

Disruption can be useful for any archetype if used correctly.

Disruption can be useful for any archetype if used correctly.

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! :)

Guide: Deckbuilder Tips for Beginners + Prompts for the Experienced (Part 1/3)

Part 1 | Part 2 Part 3

I'm testing a format for guides where I write something for beginners, and a + section for gritty details.

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. 

Some of these tips might help reframe your approach even if you're already good.

Tip #1: Never forget how terrible your starting deck is

wow thanks!

wow thanks!

All of your deckbuilding decisions rely on the fact that your starting deck is absolute garbage. Which makes sense. The appeal of deckbuilders is about seeing improvement over time, so an awful starting point makes buying cards feel way more rewarding.

After playing even a single game it gets pretty obvious that your starting deck is awful - so the big skill curve in deckbuilders is figuring out what you can actually do about that.

One approach to deckbuilding is to acquire tons of cards and make a "thick" deck. A deck with lots of decent cards dilutes the frequency of drawing bad cards. This approach works well if your game has a "curse" or "junk" mechanic that gives you useless cards. Most deckbuilders make it hard to remove cards from your deck, so while mathematically it's better to remove the bad cards outright, games tend to balance this by making it easier to dilute cards than remove them. 

The downside of making a thick deck is that variance prevents you from always grabbing the best cards possible. As such, you'll often have to 'settle' for decent cards. The result is that while your deck will be consistent, the ceiling is lower since you're actually diluting any 10-star cards you find with all the 7-star cards you picked along the way. (ie 10-star cards being amazing cards, 7-star being decent cards).

The opposite approach to deckbuilding is to remove as many poor cards from your deck as possible through scrap/exile/banish/sell/remove mechanics. Removing cards from your deck is ridiculously powerful because if you have even one good card, you could be drawing it every few turns once your deck is refined enough. It also means you'll draw specific card combos more often!

However, this strategy is vulnerable to curse/junk effects, because you'll ALSO draw dead cards more often if your overall deck is smaller.

Most beginner deckbuilders mess up their deck construction in one of two ways:
1) they feel obligated to spend their money whenever they can, and end up with a bunch of unnecessary mediocre cards. They forget that it's often fine to just pass the turn without buying anything.
2) they don't want to buy any cards outside of their "plan" and pass opportunities to get cards so much that their deck barely grows at all.

Just remember that it's fine to get something imperfect now in order to let yourself snowball a bit later on, even if that first card won't be useful later on. 

TL;DR for a beginner, all you need to know is: cards that remove other cards from your deck are awesome. Don't underestimate them.

There's some nuance as to how awesome they are, though, and don't be scared of going big instead.

I really recommend trying out mechanics that remove cards from your deck if you haven't yet, at least to appreciate how consistent your draws can become.

+: Recalculate average deck quality

Your deck quality is self-explanatory, but if you're having trouble analysing it, a good way to envision it is to think about the mean average hand that you'll draw on any given turn. For example, how much money/attack/defense/etc does the average hand draw give you? 

Or: when you're not drawing your OP two-card combo, what are you doing with your other turns? How can you make your combo more consistent, or can you have some secondary synergies if the cards don't line up?

Here's some things to think about when it's time to buy/choose a card: 

How well does this card synergize with the others in my deck?

Sometimes one card makes a ridiculous combo with exactly one other card. But are you happy to draw it with the majority of possible hands? Is it a useful card even if you draw it alone? Or, is it SO GOOD when it works that it's worth fizzling out a few times first?

Is adding this card worth delaying the time to draw (another powerful card I have)?

Taking 5 cards makes you take an average(ish) 1 turn longer to draw any other card in your deck. If you have one 10-star card in your deck, is taking this 7-star card worth reducing the likelihood of drawing your 10?

This effect isn't very pronounced with just one card, but it does add up.

Am I wasting the opportunity cost of an acquisition by spending my turn getting this card instead of another card?

You see this the most with a card that's free to cast/play and says "gain 1 (attack/money/defend). Draw a card." Any card that you can play for free, that draws you a card + gives a minor bonus seems awesome ("it replaces itself!") but... instead of spending money on acquiring this "free play" card, you could have spent that money on a more impactful card instead - meaning you potentially "wasted" a turn on acquiring a low-impact card. Yes, the card itself is fine, but how many of your resources do you need to sacrifice to acquire it?

*spends 5 minutes drawing and playing entire deck* "looks like i have uhhh 4 attack and 3 buy power"

*spends 5 minutes drawing and playing entire deck*
"looks like i have uhhh 4 attack and 3 buy power"

That's all for today's lesson on playing deckbuilders. See you later and good luck!