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
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.
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:
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.
Then 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.
One 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.
If 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,