I almost fatally embarrassed myself on stream the other day. I was playing Gauntlet with a pretty ordinary Kara deck, sitting pretty at 6-1, and started talking about how it was surprisingly realistic to reliably hit the magic number of seven wins on a run. According to my hubris, if one had good solid grasp of Duelyst fundamentals such as positioning, earning another Gauntlet ticket almost every time was quite achievable. Of course, I then lost that game to fall to 6-2, managed to draw a nailbiter of a match, and then barely scraped through a win to hit 7-2 and avoid public humiliation. Good work, me.
I mean, I picked up the run on my next stream and got unceremoniously annihilated. But seven wins were achieved as promised. It’s all good.
So why would I say that?
Despite being a card game with shuffled decks and random effects, Duelyst is remarkably consistent. The replace mechanic makes it much more likely that you can find the cards you want, and the game’s playstyle encourages compact mana curves and card draw.
Duelyst is also very rewarding for the stronger player in a given game. There are a dizzying array of options on every turn (well, the ones where your opponent is on 8 and you have Spiral Technique are a bit easier). Even just moving your General and playing a minion has a large array of different positions that both units could end up in. Thinking about all of that while also minimising your opponent’s counterplay options and planning ahead for future turns takes a lot of mental effort and practice.
You and your opponent might have wildly different draws, but the player with better replacing and positioning decisions will get much more out of their cards than their opponent does. An out-of-position unit might as well not exist, and replacing badly can leave you devoid of win conditions, or answers to a powerful threat. As your fundamentals improve, it’s as though your draws and cards improve too.
Whether in Gauntlet or on ladder, these small decisions matter in almost every single turn you’ll ever play. In Gauntlet, where each player’s deck is more or less a pile, that effective boost to your card quality makes a tremendous difference.
This is the first of a series of articles going over as many of these fundamental strategic skills as I can. Between playing for over a year now, streaming, and competing, I feel like I’ve picked up enough to be worth passing on. I have a few ideas of what to cover, but I’m open to suggestions – let me know if there’s anything you’re particularly interested in and I’ll see what I can do!
I’d like to start with positioning. There are a lot of options for any given turn in Duelyst, and I want to delve into something both deceptively simple and deceptively complex: what it means to choose one square over another.
Why is positioning important?
It sounds obvious, but it’s worth considering. Why care about all this positional stuff in the first place?
Board position is woven into every fibre of Duelyst. The vast majority of cards can only be played on or next to a unit; the vast majority of units can only move a limited amount, and can only attack something adjacent to themselves. Where you put a unit defines what it can do next turn, and by extension the turn after, and after that and so on. Positioning also defines how your opponent can interact with your units, for all the same reasons.
On top of that, units block movement, so can be used to hinder your opponent’s positioning, and there are mana tiles that give you a tempo boost if you stand in a particular place. And cards that can disrupt the existing layout of each player’s forces. And provoke minions, which tie down enemy units. And radial areas of effect. And and and…
A huge minion that’s out of position does nothing, whereas a 1/1 in the right place can swing a game.
The vast array of possibilities and ramifications are mind-boggling, and in situations like this it always helps to start from a pared-down concept. I’d like to spend this article introducing two ideas that will set a foundation for all my other strategic articles: aggressive versus defensive positioning, and relative versus strategic.
Aggressive positioning vs. defensive positioning
- Aggressive positioning involves getting up close and personal with the enemy. This might involve putting your minions in harm’s way, pushing your general into enemy territory, or trying to capture ground. Usually, when positioning aggressively, you’re angling to set up attacks and engage with the enemy.
- Defensive positioning involves protecting yourself and your units. This might involve retreating, hiding behind other units, or spreading out to avoid areas of effect. Usually, when positioning defensively, you’re trying to survive and draw the game out, planning for some later payoff. This payoff might come next turn (attack with the minion you protected) or a long time later (stay alive and protect yourself until you can turn the game around).
What does it do?
Deciding whether you’re on the offensive or not in any given moment is a key skill in CCGs, more than worthy of its own article (it’s on the to-do list). In Duelyst, this decision in turn has a huge effect on how you move your general and place your minions – do you want to push into enemy territory or protect them in your own?
On the individual unit level, each option also has ramifications on the unit’s options for next turn. A unit positioned aggressively will almost certainly be able to hit something in your next turn, but is much easier for your opponent to attack in the meantime, potentially allowing them to make an advantageous trade. A unit positioned defensively is harder to attack, meaning it’s more likely to demand specific removal or survive the turn cycle; on the other hand, your opponent can potentially just run away from it and leave it unable to attack anything.
Thinking about each of your decisions in these terms can make it much easier to cleanly plan out your turns. Before playing or moving a unit, ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve with it. Does it need to attack as soon as possible, or get in your opponent’s face? Play it aggressively. Do you need to protect it to set up for later? Play it defensively. With that heuristic, you can quickly narrow down an array of options and have a better understanding of why you’re making each specific play.
Relative positioning vs. strategic positioning
- Relative (or individual) positioning is the placement of single units (or small groups) with respect to the units around them, especially your opponent’s. This might involve contesting mana tiles, hiding units from attack behind others, tucking ranged units away at the back line in safety, pushing a provoke minion to where it will have the most effect, and more. Most of the turn-by-turn decisions we make while playing Duelyst are on this level. Relative position decisions don’t care too much about where on the board the players are, unless one player is constrained by a wall or the mana tiles.
- Strategic positioning is all about overall board control. Whose half of the board is the action taking place in? Is one player pushing the other into a corner, or holding the centre, or backing off and giving their opponent free rein in exchange for breathing room? A strategic position advantage unlocks more relative positioning options while limiting your opponent’s. Strategic positioning is both easy to neglect (by focusing too much on the relative level) and easy to accidentally lose the game on, and I found that taking it into consideration at all boosted my winrate substantially.
What does it do?
Ideally, your relative and strategic decisions complement each other. Each time you play or move a unit, or even some spells, you make a relative positioning decision and a strategic one.
Relative positioning is very mechanical. You’re deciding which of your units your opponent’s board is allowed to attack, and which tiles you’re able to attack or occupy next turn. You might be spreading out to mitigate an AOE or stand near some mana tiles. The aggregate effect of these decisions and where they are on the board provides your strategic positioning, defining how much space both you and your opponent have to manoeuvre without being hit. The skill lies in making decisions that serve both needs at once – e.g. when you’re trying to take ground (strategic), placing a Dioltas so that it threatens to make a great attack next turn even if your opponent runs away (both) but can’t be hit by a Dancing Blades (relative).
Similarly, the results of your strategic positioning decisions affect both players’ relative positioning options. Putting a Hailstone Golem next to your opponent so it can hit them next turn (a relative decision) is much the same no matter where on the grid you are, but if your opponent is trying to play a Trinity Wing in a spot where the Golem can’t attack it (another relative decision), whether their back is against a wall or not matters enormously. It’s a weird and wonderful feedback loop.
Good relative positioning allows you to maximise the effect of each of your cards. Deciding to play something aggressively or defensively isn’t that much use if you don’t have a good way to do so, or walk into an easy punish from your opponent in the process. Good strategic positioning expands your relative positioning options, making it much easier to play the way you want and avoid your opponent’s AOEs, while simultaneously cutting off your opponent’s.
Without seeing it in action, a lot of this stuff sounds like so much theory and terminology. Fortunately, through the magic of some fake screenshots, I can attempt to bring it to life before your very eyes!
Whenever I try to explain high-level strategic principles without some kind of worked example, I end up waffling aimlessly. So, instead, the next section is going to be a narrative of two players’ decisions across a few turns of a hypothetical game. I’m going to go deep on explaining the pretend thoughts of these pretend players in terms of the concepts I’m introducing. (I hope this makes sense and isn’t too self-indulgent – I haven’t really used this approach in long form before, so please let me know what you think of it!)
I’m going to use a hypothetical Gauntlet game between a Zirix player and a Reva player. Generally, this matchup encourages the Vetruvian player to go on the offensive. Reva can generate ranged threats for free if she’s given space to do it in, and can use cards like Mist Dragon Seal to close any gap at any time. This means that pushing up the board and closing off her movement is valuable, especially for Vetruvian, who have limited removal options. Zirix knows this full well, and he goes into the match intending to pressure his opponent as much as possible.
I’m going to skip over the players’ replace decisions (and give them fairly straightforward hands) for the sake of brevity. I’ll list their hands each turn as though they’ve already replaced.
Zirix, Turn 1
Zirix’s Hand: Falcius, Maw, Vale Hunter, Hailstone Golem, First Sword of Akrane
Going first, Zirix develops a Vale Hunter on his back line and moves two squares forwards. The Vale Hunter is positioned defensively relative to the other units on the board (see what I did there?), in order to protect it from its natural predator, Saberspine Tiger. However, Zirix’s forward move is part of an aggressive strategic decision – he intends to use the Falcius or Maw in his hand next turn to contest his opponent’s plays and take the middle of the board, with fire support from the Vale Hunter.
Because it has a ranged attack, the Hunter can be part of an aggressive plan despite hiding in a safe spot, which is a huge strength of ranged units. It doesn’t block space in the middle of the board, but as a ranged unit in Gauntlet it’s perfectly capable of winning Zirix the game, so it doesn’t really need to.
Reva, Turn 1
Reva’s Hand: Onyx Bear Seal, Sojourner, Keshrai Fanblade, Sunset Paragon, Mist Dragon Seal
Reva moves diagonally upwards and plays a Sojourner. Although the Sojourner is theoretically in range to take a mana tile next turn, this is a classic defensive opening, both strategically and relatively. It’s quite easy for Zirix to play a minion on either the top or central mana tiles, but it’s very difficult for him to attack either Reva or her Sojourner. Certainly Zirix’s Falcius and Maw aren’t going to get a whole lot of value next turn.
Against a typical player 1 opening with a 2/3 near the middle of the board, this positioning also protects a Sojourner or Lantern Fox from getting attacked multiple times while Reva has a mostly-full hand. Here, that’s not a concern. Reva is very keen to avoid a potential Falcius, though. Falcius’ ability disallows the Sojourner from drawing a card when she counterattacks, potentially allowing Zirix to kill the Sojourner for free.
The downside of this play is that Reva cedes the valuable centre of the board to Zirix, ensuring she’s going to be fighting with a board space disadvantage at least going into the midgame. Mist Dragon Seal counters that to an extent, but MDS is a valuable effect, and setting yourself up to ‘have to’ use it this early in the game just to get decent attacks in can be counterproductive. This also plays into the typical dynamic of any match against Reva, to Reva’s detriment – the opponent is almost always forced to go on the offensive, and here Reva is more or less sitting back and letting that happen.
Zirix, Turn 2
Zirix’s Hand: Falcius, Maw, Scion’s First Wish, Hailstone Golem, Scion’s Third Wish
With his removal plans dashed, Zirix moves upwards and plays his Falcius on the top mana tile, then casts Scion’s First Wish on it. The Vale Hunter takes a slightly bold step forward.
This is another aggressive play, both strategically and relatively. Dropping Falcius for no value is an attempt to ensure Zirix isn’t going to fall behind on board space, and playing it on the mana tile denies Reva the ability to take that mana tile and play a 5-mana card (note that she can’t move either herself or the Sojourner directly onto the middle mana tile). The Vale Hunter moves into position to potentially stand adjacent to the lower mana tile next turn, letting Zirix play a minion onto it if necessary.
More subtly, the Scion’s First Wish is also an aggressive positional decision (strategic and relative). Intuitively, it might seem better to put the First Wish on the Vale Hunter, since buffing ranged units is so powerful. However, doing so lets Reva kill the 3/3 Falcius using just the Sojourner and her own attack, meaning Zirix would have no presence whatsoever in the middle of the board. If Reva were to do that then play, say, a three-drop on the middle mana tile followed by a Phoenix Fire on the buffed Vale Hunter, Zirix would fall massively behind and potentially lose the game from there. Instead, Zirix ensures that Reva’s on-board attacks still leave him with a 4/1, which either demands Reva commit some mana to removing it, or threatens to make an attack next turn.
A more defensive alternative might be to move downwards, play Falcius in safety on the lower mana tile, buff up the Vale Hunter, and cede the upper and middle mana tiles to Reva. This prevents her from drawing cards with the Sojourner for at least a turn, but allows her a lot of room and access to up to six mana. A Hamon Bladeseeker or an Owlbeast Sage + Phoenix Fire play could be incredibly costly for Zirix, who doesn’t have any worthwhile removal in hand, so he decides to try to push his opponent into the corner. Trapping Reva also helps enormously in containing her BBS-spawned Heartseekers, which form a substantial threat over the course of the game.
Reva, Turn 5
Reva’s Hand: Dioltas, Spiral Technique, Phoenix Fire, Onyx Bear Seal, Primus Fist
Fast-forward to later in the game. Zirix and Reva have traded blows. They started off in Reva’s half, and Zirix managed to mount a solid offensive in the early game. Reva eventually killed the Vale Hunter and another minion with a Dust Wailer’s Opening Gambit ability, swinging the board in her favour. Zirix killed the Wailer with another Falcius and played a Healing Mystic, which diverted him a little bit, and Reva is in the process of stabilising.
It’s Reva’s seven-mana turn. Starting the turn with nothing in play, she opts to move laterally, Phoenix Fire the Falcius, and play a Dioltas between herself and her opponent. She then uses her BBS to drop a Heartseeker behind her.
The Dioltas’ positioning is relatively aggressive. One might say it’s all up in Zirix’s robotic grille. At a glance, this might look like an attack – putting a 5/3 in your opponent’s face definitely counts as intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
However, Reva’s overall position is strategically defensive. She’s running away! The Dioltas is placed to bar the way between Zirix and herself, a tactic commonly known as body blocking. (Body blocking with generals hiding minions behind them is also common, letting your largely immovable general take the heat in order to defend a valuable minion behind it.) Despite its low health, Dioltas is an ideal body blocker due to its Dying Wish ability; a 0/10 provoke is a great way to defend Reva, and has a decent chance of spawning in a position that frustrates a potential attacker. Phoenix Firing the Falcius not only removes a potential threat, but furthere helps take heat off Reva by requiring Zirix to use either his own attack and his Healing Mystic, or a card from his hand, if he wants to clear the Dioltas.
Reva’s own position is also relatively defensive here – in Duelyst, defending one unit often involves putting another in harm’s way. It’s also always worth thinking about how you’re going to win the game from the position you’re in, and Primus Fist into Spiral Technique in Reva’s hand provide a lot of potential burst. If Zirix takes five damage from killing the Dioltas, then gets tied down for a turn or two by the tombstone, that could potentially spell victory for the Songhai Empire. Reva’s positioning invites Zirix to take the onboard trade.
The Heartseeker is both a way to use a spare mana and a potential way to start taking back the game next turn; it’s also something Zirix has to care about out of fear of Killing Edge, which might draw a little more flak away from Reva herself. Reva doesn’t actually have a Killing Edge in hand, but Zirix is forced to respect the possibility.
There is always more to Duelyst. I left out so many elements from that story, and it still filled half an article. Replace decisions, lengthy discussion of alternate positioning options, what to do when you have a lot of different options in your hand, more in-depth long term strategy, nuanced discussion of the matchup, what each player is looking to draw into…
Game is hard.
Of course, that’s why I’m writing a series! (If you come across an article saying you can Reach S-Rank With This One Weird Trick, they’re lying. Deploy snark appropriately.) I’ve started with just two core concepts, but the plan is to explore from here, building on top of each piece incrementally until we’ve covered as many aspects of the game as I happen to have unearthed myself.
Since the explanations meandered a little, I’ll summarise the two ideas again:
- Aggressive vs. defensive positioning: Placing your units to best attack the enemy or best avoid being attacked by the enemy, respectively. Thinking about this helps you decide on and execute your game plan.
- Relative vs. strategic positioning: The square-by-square decisions you make many times every turn, and the overall distribution of your forces (and theirs!) across the board. These should serve one another. Your relative positioning should help you take ground or make space (strategic positioning), which in turn opens up favourable relative positioning options.
Keep these four ideas in mind when you play. Any time you’re moving or placing a unit, think about whether you want to be aggressive or defensive with it, and go from there. Consider how your individual placements impact how much of the board you control. As a rule of thumb, try to hold as much ground as possible to keep your options open and restrict your opponent’s.
In the next piece of the series, I’m going to take a deeper look at strategic positioning, since it seems the most nebulous. I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about it quite recently, and it’s worth sharing. See you then!