Positional Play in Shadow Era

I’m not much of a chess player, but I’ve dabbled in it at times.  One of the lessons that really stuck with me had to do with the uses and values of knights. Because the knight has such a unique pattern of movement, it has several interesting characteristics.  One is that typically people value it more highly than bishops in the early game, and less highly than bishops in the late game. Another is that knights are strong in the center of the board and weak on the sides of the board.  Essentially both of these properties have to do with the knight’s potential movement, and what it means for you in terms of options, and the opponent in terms of threats.

chessA knight in the center of the board has many options for movement (as shown by the black knight in the picture), whereas a knight in a corner or a side has limited options for movement.  Therefore it is often a goal, even without a set strategy for later in the game, to position a knight in a central square. What this does in terms of the game is limit the potentially strong plays that the opponent may make, while also giving you more options.
Similarly, a knight in the early game has more options than a bishop, because having pieces in the way does not hinder a knight’s movement the way that it would for a bishop.  In the late game, when there are fewer pieces available, the bishop is able to show its strength and can claim large portions of the board. This general concept of using the position of pieces for increased advantage is known as positional play.

So what does that mean for a card game?  Well, we gain position in Shadow Era by having more and diverse cards in hand and on the board.  We lose position through fewer cards in hand or on board and poor variety of cards on board or in hand. Essentially we want to have more good options for ourselves, and fewer good options for our opponents.

Hand Position

Having cards in your hand represents possibilities; potential counters or potential threats that you may use at any point in the game.  Your opponent knows that you have these options, and so they must play around them.  Likewise, you have multiple options and can handle threats or present them in a variety of ways.  This is one reason that having a strong draw engine is so important in this game.  A simple example is a priest with a full hand of cards.

The opponent can expect that a Tidal Wave will be among them, and so they will likely be very hesitant to play a lot of allies in a turn, even if they are capable of doing so.  In this way having a strong position affects your opponent’s game. It also leaves you open to handling threats in a variety of ways.  Having Zail’s hymn and Tidal Wave in hand means that a priest may decide whether to just try and control one ally or wipe the board, which is a much stronger position than just having Tidal Wave.

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This is a screenshot from the Europe/Africa Regional Championships vs Ka Final Rain. As you can see I have mediocre board presence – two disabled allies and a weapon with 1 durability as well as my draw engine. Final Rain has an ally and a weapon with 3 durability. My hand is full, I’ve got full shadow energy and I’ve got 9 resources, which gives me a lot of options. I can kill his ally or disable it, I can increase my weapon’s durability and I can destroy his weapon or abilities. I can also draw cards by destroying and killing (because of Ill-Gotten Gains), which will give me more options.  Additionally I can steal Ka Final Rain’s cards using my ability. This is a strong position for me. The only thing constraining my choices here is my low health, which means I have to be cautious in how much damage I allow my hero to take.

Board Position

Having multiple cards on board is also important. It is possible to build a deck around buffing Knight of the Golden Dawn with attachments, which can create one very strong ally on board and relatively few cards in hand.  Such decks were briefly popular in Dark Prophecies, when the card first came out.  The problem with these decks is that while they created a strong ally on board, they traded many cards in hand, and many potential allies on board in order to achieve this.  Thus this strategy could very easily be countered by single cards, such as Mind Control, which would essentially win the game.  It is much more difficult for Mind Control to sway a game when there are several threats on board. It is possible that a single ally can give you a strong position, but allies can only do so by increasing your strategic options and limiting your opponent’s options.

A single ally, no matter how tough, will be limited in their ability to do this.  Therefore it may be useful to distinguish between a strong board presence – where there is a serious threat on board, and a strong board position – where the things on the board serve to enhance your options in any given turn and limit your opponent’s options.  A lone Dakrath, can only do one thing in a turn so it doesn’t really enhance your options (attack ally or attack hero), but it does limit what the opponent can do, so it may hamper their position. However, it is undeniably a strong board presence.

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In this example (also from regionals) BP LightningFury has excellent board position.  He’s got many allies, as well as a powerful item in play. Even though he has an empty hand, there is no way that I can effectively destroy all the threats that he has presented me with here.  As far as his options, he can deal a lot of damage, he can buff his allies, he can draw by destroying my allies/items and he can survive anything I might throw at him (Black Garb, Spirit Shuriken, Stop, Thief!, etc.). His allies are varied, which makes them stronger, for example, his Viska will give me problems using weapons, his Aeon will soak up as much damage as I may want to throw at him, and his Nightshades will easily destroy black garb without taking any damage. In addition, he has denied me the option to steal a card from him, by having an empty hand, and by having an ally with high health and protector. This board has guaranteed him a victory here. Note that in a different matchup, for example, if I were playing Priest; this would not necessarily be a strong position, as a Priest can kill all the allies simply by playing a tidal wave. In such a matchup, he would be better off having two items and two allies, with the diversity protecting him against any single form of destruction.

Hand Diversity

Card diversity is also important.  Depending on my deck, sometimes I may have a very strong combo in my opening hand, where I can envision a path to a very strong turn 5, with a big fatty and 2 strong weenies on the board, for example.  The only drawback is that as I’m setting this up, I may have to resource one of my few strong ally removal cards, or my draw engine.  This may actually work out well, and it might win me the game. But what if something goes wrong along the way?  What if someone kills my fatty, or the opponent wipes the board with a Supernova / Tidal Wave?  I will have sunk all my cards into one combo that fizzled.  Indeed there are decks that  aim to do this, like certain Aramia or Gravebone decks that focus on buffing a homonculus or bringing a Dakrath into play.  Those decks often win or lose the game by turn 5 because their combos are all-or-nothing.  They trade a fast strong board presence for weak hand position, and can be easily countered as a result.  Setting up those all-or-nothing style games also requires deck construction that limits card choices and limits potential responses to opponent’s plays.

Those sorts of decks can be very powerful, but also very one-dimmensional, and often have some very hard counters that will win consistently against them, as well as other games where the luck for the combo just doesn’t come together completely and so they become weak.  In my decks, particularly because I tend to play a control style, I often include answers to a variety of strategies.  My hand positioning therefore involves resourcing choices that leave me the most options to counter the likely threats that I may face in the near future. Although Oliver Fagin is a very strong card, I will often resource him if I draw him in my opening hand, this is simply because I would rather have more options on turn 1-6 than a very strong turn 7 play.  As turn 7 comes closer, I become much less likely to resource an Oliver Fagin, as I recognize his potential for improving my position.

Board Diversity

Card diversity also applies to threats that you leave on the board.  Having multiple threatening allies, items and attachments is a much stronger position than simply having a lot of threatening allies on board, as it is much more difficult for your opponent to deal with a diverse array of threats.  Similarly, within allies, it is often better to have diverse abilities that can handle a variety of threats.

For example, you are probably better off with one Jasmine Rosecult and one Raven on the board than having two Ravens or two Jasmines.  An opponent may easily address two Ravens with crippling blows, or two Jasmines with allies with haste or direct damage abilities. The combination of the two cards lets you deal with a variety of threats in a variety of ways and forces your opponent’s counter strategies to also be diverse. It gives you more options in a given turn, and limits your opponent’s options at the same time.

Versatile Cards

Taking a cue from FDL, I thought I’d add a brief section on versatile cards.

Certain cards can be used for multiple purposes, and depending on how effectively they accomplish these purposes, they can also contribute to strong position.  Examples include Layarian Diplomat, which can be a cheap ally, but can also be used to cancel a variety of ally abilities.  This can make it possible to kill allies, such as allies with stealth, or Phoenix Urigon.  It can also help you cancel ally on-death abilities, such as Tainted Oracle’s draw.  Many cards have different degrees of versatility, which should be considered when selecting them.

Twilight ritualist, for example is versatile by being able to destroy items or abilities, and can serve as an ally.  It is of course limited by the need to be able to activate the ability and the limit on the item/ability cost.  Stop, Thief! can accomplish some similar goals, but is more flexible when destroying items.

However, it doesn’t have ritualist’s ability to destroy abilities, nor can it double as an ally.  If I were choosing between two cards with overlapping uses in hand, I would weigh my options based on broad predictions about my opponent: Does it seem like they might play important items?  If not, I may be better off with ritualist in hand. Does it seem like they may play expensive items? If so, choose Stop, Thief! Do I have other allies that I want to play in hand? Does the opponent’s strategy rely on an ability (e.g., warriors and Blood Frenzy)? Is ally removal easy for my opponent?

The consideration that we should make when choosing cards for strong positions is: which cards offer me the most options that are relevant in the given game (when selecting cards within a match) or metagame (when building a deck)?  Often, to gain versatility in a card, you sacrifice some brute strength.  This should also be considered when choosing individual cards, as you probably want a mixture of the two.

Amount of Resources

Resources play a role in determining position as they limit the cards that can be played in a given turn.  Having enough resources to play each card in your hand is certainly desirable.

Beyond that, you probably want to have enough resources to potentially play two cards in a turn.  It doesn’t mean that you have to play two cards per turn, but it is nice to have that option. It is sometimes necessary to sacrifice hand position or board position for resources, and this is a bit of a balancing act.  When making these difficult decisions it is worth considering both the short-term and long-term impact on the game.

In my Oliver Fagin example, I am fairly comfortable sacrificing one or even both of my Oliver Fagins in the first two turns.  This is because I know my deck can win without that card. I would have a much harder time as Zaladar, deciding whether to sacrifice a Mind Control, if I drew 3 or 4 in my opening hand as it severely hinders me to keep them all in hand until usable, yet I know they will be very useful in the game.

There is often some diminishing return with resources, where more resources may not actually help you to play more cards in a given turn.  This usually happens because there is a bottle neck at the number of cards in hand, or the nature of cards in hand (if I’ve got a hand-full of Mind Controls, I can only play as many MC’s as there are opposing allies in play).  For this reason, many decks have a sweet spot with resources, where they don’t really try to go over it.My current deck is fine at 6-8 resources, although sometimes I’ll resource more cards because I know they’ll be useless in this particular matchup, or because I need to make room in my hand to draw more useful cards – thereby improving my hand position.

Defensive and Offensive Positioning

Positioning can be used offensively and defensively.  Most of the examples I just described have to do with maximizing your own position, which may contribute to your ability to attack your opponent.  But you can also attack your opponent’s position (not just their hero).  Essentially the hallmark of a control strategy is a focus on limiting the opponent’s position.  This can be done by interfering with all of the things that I described above.

Board position can be ruined by removal cards, and hand position can be ruined through discards or forcing the opponent to waste cards.  Playing allies like Murderous Hulk can limit board position by scaring the opponent from playing allies, as can simply playing as a Priest (since they’re afraid of Tidal Waves). Similarly, playing cards like Wulven Tactician may limit their hand position by reducing the cards that are playable in a given turn. Essentially, anything that limits the opponent’s options is going to reduce their position, and leave you in a stronger relative position.

This is why I love playing as Serena, as her discard ability is so effective at limiting the opponent’s position.  When playing against her, I find myself resourcing cards just because I don’t want her to steal them (and enhance her own position). In this way, she’s affected my position, even without stealing anything!  When I play as her, I can feel the position shifting throughout the game, as she typically starts weak, but grows in power as her hand grows and the opponent’s shrinks.

Knowing the Rules and Breaking Them

You can see that the simple lesson of the knight can apply to all sorts of strategy games.

Although superior position is not always necessary to win, it is often an important consideration.  Being aware of position and how you are gaining or losing it in any given moment will help you improve your game.  Even if you choose to have a bad position for some sort of short term advantage.

Knowing that you are making that choice will also help you to be consistent with your choices (if I resource my draw engines, I may as well go all-in on this super-combo that I’m trying to achieve).  If you build a deck that sacrifices good hand position for strong board position (such as a weenie deck), then it is important to recognize that this is a limitation of your deck.  If your deck sacrifices board position for hand position (such as a burn deck), then it will also be limited in some ways. If your deck sacrifices both hand position and board position for one or two strong allies, then you should be aware that you’re committing yourself to an all-or-nothing sort of game.  There’s nothing wrong with those strategies, per se, they just have limitations as much as anything else.

Positional playing is a broad type of play-style or strategy, but it’s certainly not the only viable strategy.  You can do very well using strategies that are extremely reckless with position.

However, you will do better if you also understand how and why you are wasting your position. As Preybird pointed out in his guide to maximizing luck, the important thing is understanding yourself, your opponent and the state of the game you are playing. Positioning is a part of this.

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This is another screenshot from the regionals vs KA Final Rain.  Here I have resigned myself to a mediocre position.  I have no draw engine, and so I have fully committed to the board, with only one card in hand, knowing that it is only a matter of time before Final Rain, with his superior hand position and draw will take control.  Indeed, in the following turns, he takes back his Armored Sandworm with a Retreat! and destroys my Spirit Warden, I then draw a Backstab, which I use on my Nightshade, and attack his hero, ignoring his Layarian Seductress and I play the Crippling Blow on his Sandworm.  I continue to put pressure on his hero, knowing that my only chance to win is to exploit his very low health before he completely takes control.  By acknowledging that my position is horrible, I take the only choice that can possibly lead to victory: abandon my control strategy altogether and embrace the death-race.

Summary

In closing, I hope I’ve given you a sense for how to think about the game in terms of positions, how certain moves and choices convey subtle advantages or disadvantages, and how that may affect your games.  Positioning is about maximizing your options in any turn and reducing your opponent’s options.  It is choosing what cards to use, play and keep in hand based on knowing that they will give you more choices, not less.  This concept is one of the reasons that good players wind up looking so very lucky to novice players.

They seem to always have the right card in hand for the situation.  It’s not just luck, it’s forethought that went into deck  building and resourcing.  It’s the fact that if you have many diverse choices, you are much more likely to have at least one good choice among them. If I have a Layarian Diplomat at just the right time on turn 5, it’s probably because I chose it over an Oliver Fagin on turn 1 – because I knew it left me in a more flexible position (Diplomat is my knight, and Fagin is my bishop). On that note, good luck to all of you in your positional playing!

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Bob Ross
Author: Bob Ross View all posts by
BobRoss has been using the pseudonym (based on the television painter, Bob Ross) since he first got AOL in 1993. He's got a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and has been an avid video game player and computer user his whole life. He used to love Magic The Gathering, also way back in those AOL days, and has been playing Shadow Era almost since its inception. He has been mostly a casual gamer, but recently took a more active role in the community with several articles on Shadowera.net and by participating in the World Championship tournaments, where he earned the title of Regional Champion for Europe and Africa (although he lives in New York).

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