The Care and Feeding of Underdrops

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prowlerProbablythe most common complaint of Solforge players is the game’s equivalent of manascrew in Magic – missing your leveled cards.  Rank one can go perfectly, with Stonefist Giant and other strong levelers hitting the table and trading on even terms with cards that don’t level up as strongly.  Maybe you’ve outplayed your opponent so that in addition to having added more to your deck you’re actually ahead on the board.  Rank two goes the same and you enter rank three with two big armor creatures and Stonefist Giant all at level three and with a couple of creatures on the board.

Then your opponent hits more high-level drops and you lose.

First, the bad news.  This is a legitimate factor in the game.  I’ve drawn hands of all level one creatures as late as rank five.  I’ve gone into rank three having played a six copies of Technosmith and having board advantage and then gotten pushed off the table by my opponent playing six gold creatures in a row while I muster only two silver.  It happens.

Now, the good news.  Strong drafters are able to make it matter much less when it happens through the drafting and correct use of underdrops – cards that are good even when played at level one.  Recognizing the importance of these cards and learning how to use them will go a long way to helping you win games even where your opponent’s draws are luckier.

Let’s start with an example from a hard-fought game against Davvol.  He’d given me an early beatdown by pumping a level one Nightgaunt to 10/10.  As is usually the case, the right play here was to take it and try to gain advantage elsewhere (or at least not take too severe a beating) while waiting for a higher-level creature that can trump his regeneration and one-shot him.  That came in turn two of rank two

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I held the initiative for most of rank two.  Going in to my last turn of the rank, the board state was an 8/3 and a 7/9 (with armor 2) in lanes one and five for me (both active) and an 8-power Gaunt (level 2 this time) with regen ten in lane two, an active 5/5 in lane three and an inactive 5/5 in lane four.  Assuming I block his active creature the health totals will be 60-42 in my favor after combat.  A great position to be in, and if I had level two plays to add to the board the game might be all but over.

The problem?  I drew a hand of all level ones.

The thing is, it wasn’t much of a problem – because two of them were Deepbranch Prowlers.  I dropped them on lanes 3 and 4, swung and passed the turn.

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Now my opponent’s remaining 5/5 is set to die but it’s hard for him to do anything about it because he’s facing fifteen points of active damage in lanes one and five.  He has to deal with that, which means that my Prowlers are going to swing unopposed unless he gets something that can affect multiple lanes (level two Gloomy Gus would be big here).

As it happens, my draws in rank three weren’t terribly good but it didn’t matter.  The pressure I had on the board was enough to carry the day and the Prowlers were still alive when my opponent died:

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Now clearly I was in a good position and might have won without my underdrops.  But suppose instead of playing 7/7 breathrough creatures I’d played a couple of Xithian Crushers?  They would have traded with my opponent’s tokens, meaning that when he dealt with lanes one and five he would no longer be under any pressure.  If I look at the actual end of game state and then my hand (even if for the thought exercise we replace the level two Prowler with a Crusher) it’s clear that a tough battle would lie ahead and I might well be the underdog at that point.

So what is an Underdrop?

At a basic level, underdrop is a pretty straightforward concept.  As we said at the start of the article, it’s a card that is good even when played at level one.  But this is a bit misleading because “good” can mean a lot of things.  Ideally you want your underdrops to be in a mix of categories (so you can get what the situation calls for) weighted appropriately for your deck.  So let’s review the types of underdrops you can find:

  • High power creatures.  This is the most obvious and generally best type of underdrop.  When you’re ahead, as I was in our example, these underdrops are almost as good as the real thing because your opponent may not have time to block them.  When you’re behind or even, they can help take down higher-level cards.
  • Finishers.  These are cards – usually spells in Alpha but RotF offers a number in creature form, like Brambleaxe Warrior.  These cards are rarely good level one plays but can allow you to force through final damage against a chump blocker by giving a creature mobility or trample.
  • Control cards.  These help negate opposing cards.  Most control cards can easily become irrelevant so you want to be careful with these.  My favorite is probably Electro Net, a card I think is often undervalued; in a race situation putting -5 or -10 attack on an enemy creature can be far more powerful than adding a creature of your own to the board.

The type of underdrops you want depends on the type of late-game battle you expect to be in.  If you’re playing a control deck with a few powerful finishers, then you probably want cards that can either help your big threat deal damage or that stall your opponent.  (One of the strengths of that archetype is that Jet Pack both turns a level three Forge Guardian Alpha into an offensive threat and gives it mobility, making it a perfect underdrop finisher.)  If you’re playing a rush deck then you want solid attackers that can turn an empty lane into a real threat, overwhelming your opponent’s defenses.

To see how this matters in practice, consider the following underdrop candidates: Deepbranch Prowlerand Marrow Fiend.  The Fiend has an extra point of power, making it better at blocking, but its single point of toughness (and lack of breakthrough) makes it vastly worse as a new threat.  Any token neutralizes it completely, as does Magma Hound, Gloomfiend or Venomfang, whereas the Prowler can usually only be killed by the full attention of a higher-level card.  If what you want is a creature that can jump in front of your opponent’s wounded level 2 and take it down, the Fiend is fine.  If you want an attacker, he’s a high-risk proposition.  Small wonder that my collection currently holds only sixty Marrow Fiends, compared with 214 Deepbranch Prowlers.  (I’m actually surprised the ratio is as close!)

Before RotF entered the environment my number one archetype was probably the highly-aggressive “Stompy” deck.  (The other was the highly-aggressive Five Lane Green.)  Part of Stompy’s power was its consistency – since I was quite happy to lead in rank one with Deepbranch Prowler, Storm Caller or Rimehorn Charger, I drafted them much higher than anyone else and would naturally have no shortage of “underdrops” during rank two.  I also didn’t mind as much if I didn’t hit my higher-level cards, since 8/8 with breakthrough is really not much to miss if you’re playing a 7/7 instead.

Funny aside.  I’m on an email group with Ethernurst and Avignon, two top SolForge drafters; we were a team during the Magic team draft days of old.  Someone asked which creatures, if any, the group thought were too good such that they actually made games less fun.  I thought there were just two – Weirwood Patriarch and Battle Techtician.  Ethernurst argued that Scrapforge Titan be added to the list.  I was stunned.  Scrapforge Titan?  It was crap at rank and just OK at rank two, so in my mind it was totally fair that it be really good at rank three.  I’d lost games to it, sure, but usually I was pretty happy to see it hit play during rank one.  I couldn’t imagine considering it broken.  Ethernurst seemed surprised to hear that I thought there was real risk involved in playing it at its low levels and that you often wouldn’t ever see it at level three.

DM331-1 colorThen we compared notes on how late our games were ending.  About 80% of mine were ending in rank three or earlier, whereas his were typically going as long as rank six.  No wonder we had different ideas about how likely Scrappy was to dominate a game!

Do not try to defeat Scrapforge Titan at level three.  That’s impossible.  Instead, only try to realize the truth.  The truth?  That there is no level three.  Then you will see it is not Scrapforge Titan that is defeated, it is only your opponent.

Stompy is a lot harder to make work now (or perhaps I haven’t figured out how to do it), but one of the reasons that aggression is so valuable is that it makes cards more powerful.  Imagine if instead of going in front of some 5/5s I’d had to put those Prowlers in front of my opponent’s larger threats?  Not a happy thought.

Before we go on to look at more controlling underdrops,, I’d point out that Aggressive is a fantastic ability for an underdrop in, well, an aggressive deck.  I would always snag a few copies of Lightning Wyrm for my Stompy decks because once I had pressure in multiple lanes that humble 4-2 is fantastic at adding to it.  Consider the damage race between a level one Wyrm and a level two Stonefist Giant:

Turn played: 4-0, Wyrm

Opponent’s turn: 8-0, Wyrm

Your next turn: 12-9, Wyrm

Opponent’s next turn: 18-16, Giant.

A level two bomb card needs to get through on two of your opponent’s turns before it pulls ahead (barely) of a level one card most people seem not to respect.  The same thing applies after you gain a rank (if you reach the mythical rank three); seven points of Aggressive attack on an open lane is often a better finisher than sixteen points of durable but non-aggressive attack.

More controlling decks are less likely to benefit from a small aggressive creature.  Sure, any deck will sometimes be on the attack and want to add pressure but if your deck is built around dominating the late game then it’s more important for you to blunt your opponent’s initiative than to try to take it for yourself.  High power creatures are still good here, but so are creatures that leave tokens behind.  At worst they absorb two attacks; at best they actually wear down and take down their betters.

blockadeOne of the best defensive underdrops in the game is Vault Blockade, from Rise of the Forgeborn.  This unassuming little guy shouldn’t be played against Nekrium but against other factions it can hold off a mid-range attacker all day.  Nice Forgeplate Sentry you’ve got there.  Be a shame if nothing happened to it, ever, because it became totally irrelevant.  (OK, the original mob version is catchier.)  This isn’t a card you’d want in an aggressive deck, but in anything mid-range or slower I’d be very happy to have one or two for neutralizing a lane my opponent owns.

Leveling up your Underlevel cards

In general you don’t want to play your underlevel cards at level.  That’s sort of the point.  But sometimes you may choose to.  Stompy is an extreme case because you’re not really thinking in terms of underlevel as much as dominating the early game, but sometimes even in a more normal deck you may gain enough board advantage from playing an underlevel card early that it becomes tempting.

The cost of doing this is pretty obvious.  Later on if you may have less powerful options.  In the deck from my earlier example I had two copies of Electro Net.  Most removal is risky at best to use on-level because there’s a good chance that when you draw it later on there won’t be a worthy target.  In this case, I was experimenting to see how good Poisoncoil was.  (Experimentation can be costly in tickets but in the long run it’s the best way to improve.)

I thought it might be good to Net the first creature my opponent put opposite the coil, since this would basically kill that creature and buy the Coil at least two more turns to spread its venom.  That came up and I followed my plan, to great effect – in that level.  Later on, however, I drew level two Electro Net three times when I would much rather have had any level two creature to add to the board.  There’s a happy ending – I went 4-0 with the deck (which had more to do with Echowisp than Poisoncoil!), but it was a good reminder of what can happen to your later power if you indulge in playing underdrops early.

Conclusion

SE012b-3eIf you feel like your decks fall apart when you don’t hit your levels, try to focus more on underdrops.  Remember that while Stonefist Giant is a better card than Storm Caller that’s only true for some number of Giants.  You can only play so many cards in rank one and when later levels come along you need your underleveled cards to be relevant.  In particular, try to do the following:

  • Keep track of how many underdrops you have and what roles they fill and adjust your valuations if the ratio doesn’t seem right.
  • During play, keep track of how frequently you don’t have a good underdrop when you need one and adjust your picks accordingly.

Drafting and using underdrops is, for me at least, as much art as science so deliberate experience is the best teacher.  The first step is to realize how important underdrops are to a strong Solforge deck.  Once you’ve started thinking actively about how to draft and use them, those turns where you don’t get the silver or gold you were looking for won’t be nearly as bad.

Unless it’s rank five.  Then you’re probably toast.

Hugs ‘til next time,

Chad Ellis

28 Comments

  1. moicanorj

    When a player draw 2 level 3 top tier card and the other player draw a entire level 1 hand i think its a game over just like draw of 3-4 mana in a row in a balanced game of magic
    Its sad but it happens…

    1. TheCable

      Often that’s the case. However, these games happen maybe 5% of the time. If you had more life, you can certainly take some amount of damage and wait until you draw your own Lv3s. Don’t forget that every Lv3 they play, they are *that* much less likely to draw another one.

      I think in most cases when people complain about opponents drawing Lv3s, they were far behind in the first place without realising it. A lot of people don’t notice that, for example, when you’re the first player, when your turn ends you are supposed to be *at leas*t 1 card ahead on the board. Let’s say your opponent dropped two Lv3s while you had a random 10/9 on the board. If your opponent blocks it with their 16/16 creature, he will be left over with a 16/6. If you drafted properly you should be able to kill it. If they dropped 2 Lv3s on an empty board, however, you most likely were losing anyway and needed to get lucky in the first place.

      1. chad.ellis

        I think 5% is an underestimate. I just lost a game where I took a lead early and held it throughout, but on the last turn of rank 2 and the first of rank 3 I drew only ones while my opponent dropped silver, silver and then gold GGP. By the time I drew gold, two turns later, it was over. I think luck disparity of this sort happens in maybe one game in ten; sometimes it doesn’t matter (because the lucky side is the one that’s ahead) but one in 20 seems low to me.

    1. chad.ellis

      Boo! Not to the idea of trashing cards, but to the thought that another game would make Green the color of stupid by not even thinking about it when something cool and rules-breaking gets introduced. Uterra turns unwanted animals and plants into compost, so instead of seeing them ever again you get new and healthy growth. So there!

  2. AssKicker

    Good article, Chad. Though sometimes there is literally nothing that you can do to mitigate the frustrations of under drops. I had what I consider to be my best draft deck at 3-0 yesterday and was riding on a high. I went into the match and it was pretty even matched through Level 1 and half of Level 2, but I would say my opponent had a slight advantage. Level 2 evened it out for me and the game was starting to swing.

    And then Level 3 hit.

    I had 5 turns in a row where my opponent played 2 golds each turn and I had 1-2 golds and 1-2 silvers *the entire 5 turns*. It was simply an unrecoverable scenario, and the elusive 4-0 draft remains.

    Oh well, at least I got 7 tickets to do it all over again. ;)

  3. mtgarden

    I’d like to disagree with one point in your assessment.

    Vault Blockade is not a good card to block with. At least not unless its an emergency or you have bulwark bash. The problem isn’t that they are defensive, but that they have zero attack.

    The one time in draft an opponent used them aggressively, I crushed him because I just dropped creatures behind it that I didn’t want to attack. In this case it was the new flame guy that activates and gives extra power to other creatures. Sitting in that protected zone, I could safely play a creature that normally would be risky and get destroyed due to weak stats. That left him in a position to either replace or pump the Vault. He tried both, but fairly unsuccessfully.

    Unless you can give it power, it is a safe zone for your opponents more interesting creatures. It should be used with great care.

    1. chad.ellis

      It seems to me that people are misunderstanding my suggested use for Vault Blockade. The fact that an opponent used them poorly against you doesn’t mean that they are poor cards. Dropping one onto an empty lane is silly. Dropping one in front of an attacking creature that can’t kill it can be very powerful. If your opponent then replaces that creature with a utility creature then you replace the Blockade with a hitter. Either way, your underdrop neutralized their hitter.
      Clearly, Vault Blockade is a highly-situational underdrop. I don’t mean to argue that it’s as good to have in your deck as a more versatile card, but in the right situations it can be golden.

      1. VirusBomb

        Also consider that since Vault Blockade is in the Alloyin faction, you have many options for pumping up its attack value (Techtitian, Alloyin General, Matrix Warden) then converting it into an attacker (Jetpack). So I think it’s a mistake to look at that card, or any card, in isolation.

    1. chad.ellis

      I assume you’re being ironic. :) Obviously a 0-power defender is a poor choice for blocking a utility creature — Savant, Techtician, etc. But if a level one play can block a level 2 combat-oriented creature indefinitely then you’ve as good as killed it. You would never play it onto an empty lane; you play it reactively to neutralize a creature you would otherwise have to use an on-level card to deal with.

      1. kbs666

        The point is once it is one the field it becomes an ideal lane to play your utility creature into. Then your opponent has to replace it which a lot of players seem to have trouble doing.

        1. Ethernurst

          Well now this isn’t really the fault of Vault Blockade is it? Good players will have no issues replacing their own creatures. Have you ever had someone drop a Level 2 Grimgaunt Predator in front of a dormant level 1? Most often the best play is to overlay your creature with something that can trade.

          I might not agree with Chad about the value of Vault Blockade but I have learned not to dismiss any cards outright.

    2. nottom

      Obviously tossing it out in front of you opponents Onyxium Phantasm or Poisoncoil isn’t very smart but the fact that a lvl 1 card can essentially negate a premium level 2 like Forgeplate Sentry or Stonefist Giant, does make it quite good in the right situation. I find them particularly good in decks that have some sort of mass buff effect (Ferocious Roar, Group Meal, etc) as even a few points of power can turn it into a reasonable threat, espescially when combined with a timely Jet Pack to take care of a creature in an adjacent lane once it has finished off its initial target.

  4. spikeching

    Im sure the article has a good message and was well written thought i didnt read it all yet.after all its a chad.ellis article.
    However outisde of reddit and facebook, i wish there was a better way of communicating such an important concept to peeps all over.
    Hope campaigns will have lessons like this shown in an effectve manner

  5. flamejuggler

    great article on how to work around one of the games biggest “flaws”…but given its a digital game, I don’t get why the engine doesn’t mitigate level screw somewhat and diminish this flaw from being such a factor in the first place!

    It’d be easy for the game to “pre-draw” all 4 hands in a player level behind the scenes, and ensure that you had at least 1 lvl2 card in PL2 and at least 2 cards greater than lvl1 in later levels. this would smooth out level screw a lot by ensuring you had options more often. sometimes, you’d pull that lvl2 electrojet vs a board that needs creatures and these lessons still apply, but it would diminish how often you just lose to drawing all lvl1s at the wrong moment.

    id also like to see a “culling” mechanic like Chapel in dominion/Void Initiate in Ascension, to take out less useful cards from your deck as the game goes on. that would be a good faction ability to give a non-alloyin faction (since they already have a similar mechanic in early lvling) that would act as a somewhat inverse technosmith in smoothing out later turns by removing the worst under drops or situational cards from your deck that will be less relevant in later player levels.

    1. TheCable

      The problem is that you would be changing the basic easily understood mechanism (you level 8 cards out of 30 and then reshuffle the deck to have a chance to draw them).
      While I don’t necessarily disagree that the perceived variance is too high, making this kind of change would drastically alter the power level of every card in the game. The point is that in most games where “level screw” lost you the game you weren’t supposed to win that game anyway either because you didn’t get far enough ahead up until that point or because your Lv3s are just as good as your opponents.
      Drawing Lv3s to put in front of each other over and over again doesn’t accomplish anything, someone has to win and if neither deck got an advantage you are essentially flipping a coin anyway.
      The times where you truly miss on Lv3s and your opponent plays 3 or 4 in a row happen extremely rarely.

  6. TheCable

    “Remember that while Stonefist Giant is a better card than Storm Caller that’s only true for some number of Giants. ”
    Very important point!

    1. chad.ellis

      The most obvious way to see this is to imagine a deck of all Stonefist Giants fighting one of all Storm Callers. (The Giants are not going to win that one…)

      1. TheZvi

        The real-world problem with this is that every Stonefist Giant makes the Storm Caller deck worse at what it is doing (not counting the first few since you can incidentally trade with them sometimes), whereas every Storm Caller makes the Stonefist Giant deck better. In practice I don’t find people getting in under me and ending it in levels 1-3 when I draft and play “responsibly.” Metasight at your own risk, of course.

        1. chad.ellis

          I think if you draft well and manage the initiative (e.g. playing your underdrops on-level if your opponent’s deck is ultra-aggressive) then early deaths should be rare. That said, I’ve won a LOT of games in rank 2 and some have been effectively over in rank one. This is sometimes because I’m playing 7/7s and 7/8s and my opponent either doesn’t have cards to match them or doesn’t see the danger and keeps playing good levelers. Sometimes, though, you play Hounds on turn one and then a Sower and Lifeblood Dryad on turn two and even someone who reacts well may not recover.

          1. TheZvi

            I find that if you let up on the pressure even a little the aggressive strategy loses, so you need a deck that goes all-out and even then things can go wrong especially against aware opponents. You don’t just need good cards at level 1, you need enough MORE of them for level 2, and that’s really hard to get. You can win if they fizzle in level 2 / early in level 3, and don’t get paid off, but normally they do.

            If you get a constructed-style start like a Lifeblood Dryad activation, and keep the pressure on, that’s another story, but that seems quite rare. My normal thought here is “If I draw my level 2s I’ll win at 40 life, if I get out-2ed then whoops.”

  7. SuiGeneris1

    Excellent article.

    I feel like there are stages of evolving into a better player and drafter, and learning when to not pick what is considered a better [late-game] card versus the mid-game underdrop is a huge skill. Finding a Beta as your 25th pick is fantastic, but if you already have a bunch of must level R1 cards, perhaps that Storm Caller or Lurker would even out your deck and help you survive that awful mid-game draw!

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