The Fundamentals of Drafting

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SE012b-3eHeyeveryone.  My name is Chad Ellis (and I go by ChadEllis in game, shockingly). Once upon a time I was a Magic drafter of some repute and wrote strategy articles under the title Weak Among the Strong. Now SolForge has replaced Magic as my draft obsession and I’m here to share the strategies and tactics that have brought me near the top of the monthly wins stats.  In future articles I’ll delve deep into particular areas of strategy but for today I’m going to talk about the three most important things a player can focus on to improve their odds of winning at draft.

These three things are consistency, aggression and synergy.

Consistency

You will not 4-0 or even 3-1 a draft if your deck isn’t consistently improving your board position.  To do this your deck should have a mix of the following:

  • Cards that you need to level in order to be powerful, like Stonefist Giant.  You will prioritize playing these during Rank 1 and hopefully draw and play them in Rank 2 and beyond.  These are the late game power of your deck.
  • Cards that improve your board reasonably well even when under-leveled.  These generally fall into two categories – cards that are strong at level one but don’t gain much (e.g. Deepbranch Prowler) and cards that gain a lot at level two but not so much at level three (e.g. Sparkblade Assassin).  You play these cards during Rank 2 when you don’t have one of your level two cards to play.
  • Cards that are useful in specific situations, especially finishers or stall cards to help you win the race at the end.
seedling

This little guy can soak up a lot of damage late in the game!

The last point speaks to why Grove Matriarch is such a good card.  It has solid stats at each level so if you’re leveling it up it will typically trade fairly and then leave a useful token behind.  But if you don’t level it up then a Matriarch can still prevent 40 damage from a level three Scrapforge Titan by blocking twice.

A lot of strong drafters from other games started off Solforge grabbing removal.  If Terror is a first pick in Magic, is Cull the Weak a first pick in Solforge?  No, and the problem – the main one, at least – is consistency.  If you Cull something during Rank 1 you may draw it without a good target during Rank 2, in which case you’d much rather be drawing a Level 2 creature you could play.  Or you may not draw it during Rank 2 and then in Rank 3 it’s useless against the most important threats whereas a level two creature could help bring a bigger creature down.

Aggression

One thing many of my opponents get wrong is aggression.  Some aren’t aggressive enough.  Others are, but engaged in the wrong type of aggression – forcing through early damage rather than pushing for board advantage.

Cinderfist BrawlerIn a recent game, for example, my opponent led with Cinderfist Brawler.  The Brawler isn’t a bad card, but he generally falls into the second bucket of cards – the ones you play under-leveled.  With a 7 attack he’s a good blocker but ironically he’s a pretty weak attacker (unless you have multiple threats out) because almost anything can block and kill him.  (This, by the way, is one of the general rules of Solforge draft– high-attack/low health creatures are usually better at defense than offense, while a card like Rimehorn Charger is gold in a highly aggressive deck in large part because it has 8 health.)

I was happy to see the Brawler particularly since I had Ether Hounds in hand.  I played the Hounds, hoping that I’d already gained a half card, and played another creature.  My opponent then played Jet Pack on his Brawler, dodged my Hound and hit me in the face for twenty.

Twenty health is a lot – a fifth of my total – but this was an awful play.  My opponent had now invested his entire first two turns in one creature that still only had three health.  I blocked with a Grove Matriarch and played another creature.  Now I had creatures in every lane to my opponent’s empty board.  It didn’t take long for my opponent to be the one behind on health and I never let go of my dominant board position.

Proper aggression in SolForge is what in Magic would be called “aggro control”.  You want to be damaging your opponent round after round but the main thing is to create favorable trades, establishing board advantage that leads to more and more damage.

So why do I advocate aggro control rather than just pure control?  Why not just focus on board position?  For example, it’s easier to set up favorable blocks if you wait for the creature to become active – if board control is more important than damage, why not let creatures punch you in the face once in order to set up a favorable trade when no tricks are available?

Shardplate DelverThe main problem with this is that health totals matter too.  If you fall behind on health, you have to start blocking. A lot of Solforge’s best creatures in draft, like Spring Dryad and Shardplate Delver, are much better when they’re attacking and forcing the opponent to work for the trade.

The other problem with falling behind is that your opponent can ignore one or even two of your creatures while forcing you to defend against their threats. Having a creature be effectively dead because it’s in a lane the opponent can ignore is terrible.

As an aside, I win about two to three totally lost games a week because my opponent chooses to block and trade with one of my creatures instead of putting their new creature into an empty lane.  A trade that might be the right play when we’re both at eighty can throw away a win if you’re at eighty and I’m at fifteen.  I have even had people make this sort of play when I’m at five health and they’re undamaged…and in one case I came back from single digits against a person with 100 health and won when I was totally dead if they’d just factored healthtotals into their decision.

Synergy

Deck synergy is very important in Solforge draft but it’s also where a lot of drafters seem to go wrong, or overboard.  You want to draft cards that are individually solid (i.e. they don’t depend on synergy to be good) and that, if possible, have synergy as a group of cards with lots of potential pairings.

Ferocious-RoarA common example is the Uttera multicreature/full lane deck.  You first-pick Ferocious Roar so you know you’re going to be taking token-generating cards like Brighttusk Sower a bit higher than normal.  That, in turn, makes Dryads higher picks than they already are.  Each of these cards is good on its own but what can make that archetype unbeatable is that there are so many opportunities for synergy that “lucky” hands are really common.

Another opportunity for synergy comes up when a single card offers a dramatic effect.  The trick here is not to get sucked in by the Danger of Cool Things. If you’ve drafted Uranti Warlord then it’s OK to take other Yeti slightly higher, but only slightly.  Yes, you may blow up your opponent’s world, but unless you’re OK playing a Yeti and having it live and die on its own, don’t add it to your deck just because it might get you an extra kaboom trigger.

For example, in a recent draft I opened with Emberwind Evoker.  She’s got solid stats and a very powerful ability and I hadn’t yet had the chance to draft one so I was happy to see what she could do.  With her in my deck I rounded up the value of mobility (already generally the best creature ability) and was leaning towards Alloyin as a second faction but I didn’t try to build a mobility combo deck.  I picked good mobility creatures a bit higher than I would have normally but didn’t get lured in by weak ones or start first-picking Wind Callers.  In the end I had a strong Tempys-Alloyin deck that happened to have explosive potential if that combo came up.  I won games one and two without ever playing her.  In game three she came out and I was able to trigger her multiple times at different levels to crushing effect.  In game four she came out again but my opponent’s Techtician was able to lead him to a tight victory.

Synergy doesn’t just mean direct interactions, of course.  Highly aggressive cards are much better together than alone, simply because part of their strength lies in forcing your opponent to react to them to protect her health total.  Defenders don’t just have synergy with cards like Jet Pack or Relentless Assault; they’re also better in decks with powerful Level 3 bombs that need to survive the early game to win.  Just as with direct synergy, the real power comes from cards that work together as a group, rather than relying on highly specific interactions.

Which, of course, brings us back to consistency.  A bomb combination that’s weak if it doesn’t come up isn’t consistent.  It’s particularly bad if it needs to come up at every level; in that case you shouldn’t play it even when you have it because what you gain during Rank 1 will be more than lost when you draw weak or unplayable leveled cards in Rank 2.

Let’s tie this all together with a look at my first 4-0 deck in the new format:

2x

Oreian Battledroid

Cypien Augmentation

Metasight

Forgeplate Sentry

Grave Geist

 

1x

Tower Vanguard

Hungering Strike

Death Seeker

Aegis Conscript

Metatransfer

Gloomfiend

Corpulent Shambler

Sparkblade Assassin

Metamind Operator

Cypien Steelgraft

Gloomspire Wurm

Light Sabre Patrol

Xithian Crusher

Charnel Titan

Xrath, Dreadknight of Varna

Witherfrost Banshee

Scavenger Scorpion

Darkheart Wanderer

Skynight Glider

This was a somewhat unusual draft.  I took an Oreian Battledroid first and was hoping to go Alloyin-Uttera, since pump effects are incredibly good with Battledroid.  Then the second pack had Xrath as the only good card and not a single Uttera or Alloyin card.  When I got a second Battledroid I really wanted a Spirit Leash but never saw one; I also got relatively few Zombies to go with Xrath, but he’s fine on his own.  (If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t draft him.)

Forgeplate SentrySo what’s my plan?  My most important cards to level are the droids (unless my opponent is playing Nekrium, in which case I won’t play a droid even to block an active 5/5), the Forgeplate Sentries and (especially if I’m on the Droid plan) the Cypien Augmentations. Skynight Glider and Xithian Crusher are also good targets for leveling, and Charnel Titan has gone from “sometimes good but often a trap” to “does this card ever not trigger” so if he’s going to come out as a 6/8 I will definitely play him.  I’ll also be happy to Metasight any of these cards.

Scavenger Scorpion and Sparkblade Assassin are cards I’ll only play in PL1 against very aggressive decks.  They’ll come out, if they come out at all, in PL2 when I don’t have enough on-level cards to play.

I have a very small group of Zombies, but they’re each good individually so I’m happy to run them out and if I get them in play together that’s a nice cookie.

When is this deck hoping to win?  Clearly in the later levels.  I don’t have enough mobility or early aggression to try to put my opponent on the ropes so I’m clearly counting on large armored creatures to dominate the board.  This means fighting an attrition battle, trying not to get behind on the board early and making sure I don’t fall low enough on life that my opponent can ignore my big guys and use his own mobility to finish me off.

Korok4

Not enough to take down a solid draft deck!

My deck is short on real bombs, but it can perform very consistently – particularly at the higher levels, courtesy of 2x Metasight.  With that consistency and a clear game plan I was able to go undefeated, including a round three where my opponent came out of the gate fast and played Koros, Khan of Kadras five times.

I hope this article, and the ones to follow, help you win more games and have more fun at Solforge draft.  Just like in my Magic writing days I’ll check out the forums to answer any questions or comments you may have and I look forward to learning more about this game together.

Hugs ‘til next time,

Chad Ellis

 

19 Comments

  1. scurvy

    This guy is legit. I keep losing games against him that I think I should win, which goes to show me that I have plenty more to learn about this game.

  2. Tb_v2

    Hi.

    Great article about some of the fundamentals of drafting, looking forward for more.

    What i miss is an article about the current draftingsystem, such as the randomness of it and the problems of drawing an “only lvl-1 hand in turn 2.4 or 3.1 which is one of the major problems of drafting at the moment.

    Thank you
    Tb

      1. chad.ellis

        I do think you can mitigate this somewhat by drafting good underdrops, but there’s no doubt that there’s big variance in how many on-level cards you’ll draw. I’ve lost a game at PL5 because I drew two hands in a row with one level 2 cards and zero level 3s. Ultimately I think this is just something we live with; my guess is that Stoneblade considers it a feature rather than a bug because it means that anyone has a shot at beating anyone else and big comebacks are possible. (That doesn’t mean that I like it, personally!)

  3. flamejuggler

    great article. one thing i wanted to ask about though was MetaSight. Ive seen many post they think it is unplayable in draft, as you spend half your turn giving zero impact to current board state, and that this tempo is usually too much to endure outside of a tightly crafted constructed deck. presumably you disagree? Do you think its a solid pick in a game planning to go long and win in PL3/4+?

    1. chad.ellis

      I like to have 1-2 Metasight in every Alloyin deck I draft and I also take Technosmith pretty high. I know there are some top drafters who disagree, but I discuss Solforge regularly with two other top drafters and we’re all fans of these cards.

      1. diablo

        I would suppose your general strategy for playing Metasight is to play it when you’re not terribly behind on board (or you’re ahead). The general counterargument is that you should always be applying pressure, even if you’re already ahead, to make it that much harder for your opponent to come back. Do you have any specific rebuttals to this point, other than “well, sometimes it’s just better to level more cards than to apply more pressure”?

  4. SkyAnemone

    Awesome article. You did a great job airing out some basic-but-not-obvious concepts that hopefully will become common knowledge soon.

    That is a pretty interesting point about how much to value health early on compared to board position. I’ve found that a lot of times it makes sense to take a few hits from some creatures early on so that you’re not caught out by combat tricks, mainly because early on, the damage generally isn’t that high, and you can end up saving more health over the next few turns by keeping the board under control.

    Of course, it all depends on how much you’d actually gain from having combat happening on your turn—no use leaving that 6/6 Spring Dryad alone if you don’t have the right removal, since it’s probably not going to get any easier to deal with on your turn, and you wouldn’t want your health levels to get so lopsided that you can be burned down in a few turns, or be forced to block with high level Shardplate Delvers and such.

    But I guess the specific tactics of blocking was already covered on the site not long ago.

  5. TheCable

    I think the main problem with perception a lot of people have with SF and “level screw” is that they don’t think about picking cards which are fine even when underleveled.
    A lot of players don’t realize that you can only level relatively small % of your deck overall, so having some high attack Lv1 guys in your deck and almost never playing them during PL1 is a good way to minimize “level screw” at later levels.
    There’s a difference between “bricking” with a hand full of Lv1s if all of them are random 4/5s with no abilities compared to if they’re multiple body creatures like Death Seeker/Grove Matriarch etc. OR high attack guys even at Lv1 like Marrow Fiend/Swampmoss Lurker etc.

    1. chad.ellis

      Exactly. It’s simple probability that you’re sometimes going to get hands at PL2 (and beyond!) that are all level one cards. Now, if this happens at PL4 or 5 you may just be screwed, but if you can play cards with power of 7+ then you’re probably OK, especially since your opponent is also unlikely to have a perfect draw.

      Similarly, cards that are really weak at level one but strong at level two are great for those situations where his 10/10 just beat up your 9/9 and you have to throw something in front of it. If that something is Sparkblade Assassin then you’re losing card advantage but you’ve given yourself a solid play for later levels.

      1. robezdbobez

        Well stated, and good article, but it does highlight why I’ve really cooled on solforge lately, to the point where I doubt I’ll play it much longer.

        I have played MTG since 1994, and one of the things that has given it longevity despite its incredibly obsolete basic structure is that there have been many mechanics in play to help with mana flood/screw. This helps minimize luck based on winning/losing based on no land/all land draws.

        In solforge the comparable cards are things like metasight and technonaut, which is fine/a good addition to the cardpool. However, even if I have a few of each of them, drawing a hand of lv 1s in PL4 or 5 pretty much instantly dooms me, all other variables being equal.

        In other words, there are not enough ways to mitigate the auto-lose factor related to drawing a hand of lv1s late in the game. While this is less likely when you have other cards that level cards up, it still happens, and solforge is such a tempo-heavy game that it’s generally game over right there. At least in MTG I can do things like cycle lands, funnel excess lands into ‘X’ casting cost spells, etc.

    1. chad.ellis

      Thanks! I remember when Justin came by the house with his “three pieces of paper in each sleeve” prototype. I liked it then, but it’s proven to be an even deeper and more engaging game than I expected. I’m looking forward to writing about it.

  6. Zadok13

    Great article. I am guilty of a few things you pointed out here, like focusing too much on a “sick” combo and building my deck with weaker cards because of it. I think these tips will help me construct more dependable decks in the future. Thank you!

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