Hello again! Time for another strategy article.
If you missed the first part of this series, go ahead and have a read now. It introduces some important concepts of positioning that I’m going to be leaning on in all of my educational articles. Without it, some of my terminology may not make much sense.
Ready? Today I want to cover…
The Value of Strategic Positioning
So far, my explanations of strategic positioning have been fairly nebulous, because it’s a hard concept to summarise. The term itself relates to the distribution of your forces (and your opponent’s) in relation to the board itself. Which side of the board are you on? Who has more room to manoeuvre?
What I haven’t really explained yet is why it’s so important. Especially in Gauntlet, my win rates have increased considerably since I started paying more attention to my strategic positioning.
In CCGs, the term “board control” usually refers to the ability to make advantageous trades between your and your opponent’s minions, and/or avoid pressure from the opponent. You might have board control because there’s one small enemy minion in play while you have two large ones, or because you’re playing a control deck and successfully keeping the board empty. Some decks care more about board control than others, but it’s rarely irrelevant.
In Duelyst, the ability to make good trades relies on your units being in the right place, and your opponent’s ability to pressure you relies on their units being in the right place. Even as a control deck, you might have conditional AOEs that have more or less impact depending on where your opponent’s units are, such as Makantor Warbeast. This means that maximising your options for where to place your units, and minimising your opponent’s, can generate a strong advantage. How do you do that? Board control in the classic sense – owning territory.
Real estate on the grid is valuable in Duelyst. If you’re fighting in your opponent’s half of the board, you’ve boxed them in. Defensive manoeuvring is harder for them, as is protecting units to make a strong counterattack. Your AOEs and removal are more powerful because your opponent can’t spread out as easily. At the same time, if your opponent does do something strong, you have a ton of space to disengage – you have your entire half of the board plus more to retreat into while you look for an answer.
Consider this the other way around. If you’re fighting in your own half of the board, now you are squeezed on options. You can’t always spread your forces out to mitigate your opponent’s possible plays, to set up strong attacks, or to protect units. Your opponent can disengage and retreat whenever they want. Even your options for body-blocking are reduced when you’re up against a wall or corner. It’s tough, and each successive defensive play you make pushes you further behind.
So, knowing this, where do we start?
The centre tile
Duelyst has a single centre tile, and a lot of strategic play revolves around it.
In an even game, the player on the centre tile has an advantage. Occupying it pushes you towards controlling the board, and is usually a very valuable move in the early game. Not only does it give you good access to the mana tiles, but more importantly, it pushes the battle towards your opponent.
Imagine a line drawn between each player’s territory. Here it is at the start of the game.
Here it is after each player has had a turn…
…and here it is after Zirix takes the centre tile.
See how the line has shifted into Reva’s territory?
Even more than that, regardless of where the players are in relation to each other, the one controlling the centre tile always has the board space advantage.
Controlling the centre tile doesn’t have to involve standing your General directly on it. You can have a unit on it that isn’t trivially removed, or simply be between it and your opponent.
In every single one of these screenshots, all other things being equal, Zirix is winning. He has more movement options than Reva, and has an easier time of both retreating and attacking. He’ll be able to box Reva in more easily to power up cards like Blood of Air, Psychic Conduit, or Bone Swarm. He’ll find dealing with the Heartseekers a lot more straightforward than he would if Reva had the run of the board. Without any need of synergy, card advantage, or matchup advantage, Zirix has gained an upper hand in the game simply because of where he’s standing.
Slotted into the normal CCG ecosystem, good positioning is free value. Free value!
Controlling the centre tile is both an easy heuristic to help you make strategic positoning decisions, and a great tactic for getting ahead in the early game.
Your General as an anchor
There are three cards in the entirety of Duelyst that can move an opponent’s General. In my year of playing, I’ve come up against one of them once. (It was a Twilight Fox in someone’s Rift deck, and it moved the wrong thing.) Assuming the world doesn’t start teching 3 Mesmerize in every Arcanyst Faie deck after I make this bold claim, your General is to all intents and purposes an immovable, indestructible rock. (If your opponent manages to destroy your general, you have other issues beyond them being able to attack the ranged unit you were hiding.)
This means that if you really need to control a tile, or solidly body-block, your General does the job better than anything else. As long as you can afford to put them in harm’s way, being aggressive with your General’s positioning is usually quite productive.
Putting this together with the previous point, I usually try to get my General on the central tile as a priority on turn 2, especially when going first. Frigid Corona is an amazing card in the early game because of how easy it makes this – stunning your opponent rather than developing a two-drop sounds inefficient, but it gives you an enormous positional advantage, especially in the faction with infiltrate minions.
Threat ranges and area denial
So why does it matter where the battle line is?
Let’s look at one of those screenshots again. It’s Zirix’s second turn having gone first, and he’s just moved to occupy the centre tile. This puts the line between the two forces squarely in Reva’s half.
Here’s the same screenshot again, but I’m going to colour in red all the squares that Zirix or his units can stand on and still be attacked by Reva in her following turn, and in green the ones that he can occupy safely.
Now here’s the same board state from Reva’s perspective. Here, the red tiles can be attacked by Zirix’s forces next turn, and the green tiles are safe.
Zirix has a HUGE bonus to his ability to make safe plays, even from what looks like a minor board advantage. Reva is almost forced into body-blocking if she wants to protect herself or a minion next turn, whereas Zirix can happily deploy things he wants to protect in the large space behind him.
Notably, Zirix hasn’t even played a minion yet in this example (it’s his turn). Suppose he takes the lower mana tile and deploys a Hailstone Golem – now look at Reva’s safe spots:
Short of Planar Scout or Mist Dragon Seal shenanigans (using up precious cards), there are two. On a board of 45. Meanwhile, Zirix has 21 in his screenshot above, or 22 if you count the square he’s currently on (since the Hailstone Golem is now body-blocking).
As you might see from this, units in Duelyst have a surprisingly large threat range. Ignoring everything else, here’s the total area Zirix can attack next turn from his position:
31 squares in range of Zirix, and 14 he can’t hit. That’s over two-thirds of the tiles on the board, and basically all the ‘good’ ones.
All this means that if you move into your opponent’s half, it gets very difficult for them to dictate any trades. Generally, in order to be able to decide where a new minion will attack next turn, you need to protect it through your opponent’s turn, so they can’t attack it themselves first. When you have a strategic position advantage, you quickly close off your opponent’s options for doing this. They can only body-block so easily, and even that tends to expose their General to getting hit in the face, pushing you towards lethal. This often means you get first refusal on which minions trade with each other, which is a huge benefit. You can secure card and mana advantage by trading efficiently, and force your opponent to make subpar defensive plays in order to try to take back the board. Alternately, if your opponent plays a minion you don’t have a good answer for, you have the luxury of choice as to whether you run away (since you have all that unoccupied safe space behind you) or start going face.
This goes double when you have a minion that really, really likes trading, such as a Void Hunter or Dioltas. Not only are they solid against many removal spells, these creatures hugely reward setting up good attacks on enemy units and encourage your opponent to turtle up and hide in corners. Their high power also means the backup plan of going face tends to work out well too.
Provoke minions do a sterling job here. If Reva has a provoke unit in hand, she can use it to lock down the threat ranges of Zirix and/or the Hailstone Golem, opening up a lot more safe squares. Sure, it’ll die, but maybe she can finish off the damaged Golem next turn and spread out a little.
Pushing your opponent around
You can use this knowledge to close off your opponent’s positioning. Restricting their options makes them more predictable as well as increasing the chances that they won’t be able to effectively counter your strategy.
Whenever you play a unit, keep its threat range in mind. You ideally want to make sure your opponent can’t run away from it, or has to run away in a direction that benefits you, such as towards a corner. Forcing your opponent into an awkward body-block then punishing with a removal spell, movement effect, or rush creature is a surefire way to dominate a game.
This effect is a big part of the power of the card Holy Immolation. Aggressive Lyonar decks apply a lot of pressure early on, forcing you to back away in order to avoid taking tons of damage. This bunches you and your minions up, increasing their vulnerability to the 4-damage AOE.
Whether you’re attacking or defending, thinking about the threat ranges of your units can help you set up strong counterattacks from the very first turn. These threats can then affect your opponent’s decisions in a more complex way than “there is an enemy minion in front of me”. Setting up these visible ‘traps’ can be a gateway to getting value out of a card, even if you don’t get to attack with it.
I’ve heard the term ‘rattlesnake’ for plays like this before. Rather than hiding, the rattlesnake adopts a defensive posture and uses its namesake tail to signal a threat, warning off intruders. You can do the same thing by placing a minion in a relatively safe spot, but where it threatens to attack for value next turn if your opponent moves towards it (such as to take a mana tile, or to pressure you). Your minion might be out of position for a couple of turns if your opponent accepts the warning, but you can often move it into a place where it sets up another rattlesnake threat. Ideally, the minion should be something your opponent doesn’t want to tussle with. Usually this is because it will make an advantageous trade – maybe it generates value from combat (dying wish units, Sojourner, Lantern Fox) or something very resilient that will survive contact with the enemy and remain a threat (Suntide Maiden, Celestial Phantom).
Void Hunter is a great example. Because the Hunter draws you a card when it dies, but is killable by a single General hit, your opponent would usually prefer it to hit face rather than trade with a minion. The four damage may or may not be relevant to the game, whereas the card advantage and deck-cycling effect of drawing an extra card almost always is. I played Void Hunter in my Keeper Vaath deck for a while before Ragebinder came out, and here’s an example of how I typically positioned it:
Here Reva has moved forward and played the Void Hunter somewhere really quite safe, but where it threatens to attack Zirix’s Healing Mystic if the Mystic takes the mana tile, or a minion that Zirix might deploy on the central mana tile. It’s far back enough that Zirix can’t just get it over with by attacking it with the Healing Mystic either, meaning Reva also threatens to chuck a Killing Edge on it and go ham.
Zirix has two options here. He can either proceed as normal and let the Void Hunter make a good trade, or he can move upwards to use the top mana tile, running away from the Hunter and essentially invalidating it for a turn or two. Either way, Reva is still getting some value out of her fragile unit. She might not be able to trade it off for some time, but it can keep skirting the edge of no-man’s-land, essentially circling the combat until it can find a good trade, projecting its threat range until Zirix answers it or decides to stop running away from it. (This was ideal for me in Keeper Vaath, since my opponent would often avoid the Void Hunter for a few turns, letting me reliably get back my 4-drop with Keeper of the Vale on curve.)
Bear in mind that this is hardly an ironclad play. It gives your opponent the choice of whether they care about card advantage or board position, and still gets answered by removal. You have to accept that your unit might be skulking around holding up a threat range for quite a few turns, or end up lagging behind if combat moves in the wrong direction, only to get swept up in an AOE later. In the particular case of Void Hunter, beware of Vanar opponents – Chromatic Cold is a great answer to this play.
Coming back from a disadvantage
So what do you do from the other side?
Generally, when your opponent is beating you down, your goal is to try to outlast them. How possible that is depends partly on your deck – some decks just don’t play from behind very well, whereas others expect to fall behind on board and want to stall out the game until their opponent runs out of resources. If you have things like Enfeeble or Circle of Desiccation in your deck, your plan can often be to waste as much of your opponent’s time as possible until you can find your equaliser card, then blow up the world. If you’re playing a burn-heavy deck or one with a combo finish, you can run away and body-block while trying to stack up 25 damage. If you’re playing something more average, or a typical Gauntlet deck, it’s a mix of both.
You’re almost definitely not going to be able to win on card advantage, and your time is somewhat limited. When a game goes south, you might end up backed against a wall or into a corner and surrounded, taking face damage every turn, with your opponent largely dictating the trades. In this case, you need to figure out what has to happen in order for you to win the game (usually called “outs”, so if your opponent’s on 8 and you’re going to die but have Spiral Technique in your deck, that becomes your “out” to the situation).
For instance, I played a Gauntlet game once where my opponent swung the game in their favour in the midgame after some close early brawling and I found myself with my back to the wall (figuratively and literally) with alacrity. I managed to just about escape with a few points of health left. My opponent was on 7-8 health and was hovering in safety some distance away, sending a constant stream of big minions after me (including an EMP and a Juggernaut, as I recall). I managed to just about survive, but used up all my resources doing so. I figured that I wasn’t going to be able to win on attrition – I didn’t have removal left in my deck for another large minion, and at this point my opponent still had a 9/4 EMP and a freshly deployed Kolossus. What I did have was a single Stormmetal Golem. If I could run away for long enough and deploy the Golem somewhere my opponent couldn’t avoid it, I might be able to win the game.
It was time for some Yakety Sax-style fleeing. A heroic Sleet Dasher traded with an entire Grimes. The EMP stopped to eat something and I snuck away from the corner. I drew a Dioltas which bodyblocked the Kolossus beautifully, absorbing the hit then protecting me with the 0/10 tombstone. After a few turns, I drew it – the Stormmetal Golem had arrived! I slammed it down, my opponent couldn’t kill it, and I won the game. (This was on stream, but sadly I was using my partner’s computer for the purpose and don’t have it recorded.)
What I do have recorded is another example, from the ladder this time. This is a game from a while back – pre-Ancient Bonds – where I started out with the intent to cast Natural Selection on my opponent’s threat but was foiled by a Bloodtear Alchemist. Switching gears, I retreated and spent the early game trying to set up awful trades for my opponent, wasting their time and pulling ahead on cards. I had an Iridium Scale up, extending a pretty scary threat range from my general, and was able to take up space (and make trades) by playing Dioltas in awkward places where my opponent would have to go through them to get at me. Because I pulled back early and formed a plan for the rest of the game, I got away with it. Rewatching the video, I think my play was far from perfect – this was the game where I learned about this strategy (and to respect the Silverguard Knight + Bloodtear Alchemist opening from the opponent), and I was basically making it up as I went along. Nevertheless, I think it stands as an example of how to protect yourself when behind:
You can see that although I hadn’t formulated the ideas in my head at the time, I was making a lot of ‘rattlesnake’ plays, as well as leveraging the card quality of Keeper Vaath. My opponent had to advance cautiously thanks to the time-wasting power of Dioltas and the Iridium Scale equipped to my General, and as the game went on, the threat of typical Magmar nonsense such as Plasma Storm or Makantor Warbeast. I think if I played the game again now, I’d put the first Dioltas on the back row rather than in front of me, which does basically the same thing but gives me more options next turn, and protects it from a few of my opponent’s possible follow-ups.
I hope this article has shown you some of the remarkable power of controlling board space. I’ve found it to be one of the biggest contributors to win rate, especially in Gauntlet, where it gives you a large virtual increase to your card quality relative to your opponent’s.
As before, please let me know what you think, if I should clarify a point, or what you’d like to read about next. These strategy pieces seem to take a little while to put together, in part because they’re quite difficult to write, so feedback is always appreciated! I still have a few of my own ideas banked up, but I’m always keen for more. I think for the next piece, I’ll pick something a little less conceptual – maybe a guide on how I draft Gauntlet decks, since people were (rightfully) curious about my claims of reliably reaching the magical Seven.
I will leave you with this wonderful pair of axioms:
- Prior planning prevents prodigiously punishable positioning.
- Proper positioning provides precisely placed power.
See you next time!