Going Deep – Navigating Board Stalls

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Hey Friends! Last week I posted a little survey about topics for my articles, and I got a ton of responses! Thanks to everyone that participated. The clear “winner” from that poll was “technical play” articles, so it is only fitting that I write on that subject this week. Today we are talking about board stalls! These are very common in both ranked and draft, so what I write should be relevant to both formats. Anything that I think is particularly important to one format over the other I will point out, but in general I will try and speak to both cases whenever possible.

Upon writing about this topic I realized there is a TON to say, so I am going to trim down my conversation to a few points. Unfortunately, this means I will need to skip some of the basics/fundamentals for now. I may return to the subject at another time if I feel there is enough here for a second part.

Know Your Role

Are board stalls a “good” thing or a “bad” thing? Well, that actually depends. If you haven’t read much on the topic of “role assessment” I would encourage you to check out LightsOutAce’s article on the subject. Although there are a number of important exceptions to this (which will be discussed later), a board stall tends to favor the control deck. If things on board are a stalemate, it means you can build up your power, draw cards, and find some of your trump cards. This is one of the many reasons that Sandstorm Titan is a great card for midrange and control decks. Units with more health than attack naturally create board stalls, since they block better than they attack. Most decks will have a hard time battling through a Titan if they don’t have a removal spell, which causes a board stall. This allows you to build up resources until you draw into a finisher, or just get Siraf online.

The other side of this is the aggressor. Your opponent is often trying to set up a board stall, in which case you might be in trouble. I am going to talk later about stall-breaking cards that aggro has access to, but for now let’s briefly discuss the posture aggro should take as their opponent is organizing a board stall. Depending on your hand/deck, you may be faced with some hard decisions. Simply put, you need to stop a board stall from developing, or you need to get in all the damage you can immediately. Take for example a situation where you are playing a deck like Rakano Jito. Your opponent plays a Sandstorm Titan, and there is no Vanquish in your hand (or deck). At this point you have to option of either “chump attacking” your units into the Titan to push a few points of damage or just sit back. While it obviously depends on the specifics of the situation, it is usually best at this point to just push damage and throw away your board. The board stall is likely to only get worse as your opponent chains Ironthorn into Owls into Siraf activations, so you need to get all the damage you can now since it is unlikely to get any better. This extreme example is particularly applicable to Rakano Jito, but another alternative that I saw most often with Rakano Warcry was 2-for-1ing yourself to avoid a board stall. Torch + Sword of Icaria will clear a Titan. Does it feel good to spend 4 power, 3 life and 2 cards to take card of one unit? No, but you often need to do it to keep the board from stalling out.

Role assessment is much harder in draft than ranked play. You usually know upwards of 90% of the content of your opponent’s deck by turn 4-5 in Ranked, but in draft you still only have a vague idea. Identifying who is favored in a board stall is harder given that you don’t know the contents of your opponent’s deck, but you know the contents of you deck. Are you playing a Time deck with Pillar of Amar as a top-end finisher? Or is your “finisher” just a Smuggler’s Stash? The Time deck is often heavily favored in these big board stall games given that you have access to giant monsters even at common and uncommon, but Fire decks especially have a hard time through a cluttered board. You need to make decisions early on to either discourage/encourage a board stall depending on what your deck is capable of. One of the most common ways to “trump” a big board stall in draft are fliers, which leads to our next topic…

Evasion

Evasion is an important effect to account for when navigating board stalls. One minute you and your opponent are sitting in your gentlemanly stand-off, and then they go and do something rude like play a dragon, and now you are in a deep hole. Evasion is any ability that makes blocking harder. People often simplify this to flying and unblockable, but there is so much more than that. Overwhelm is an evasion keyword, since it makes it harder for your opponent to stop damage. Deadly also acts as evasion, as it makes blocking more difficult. Same with Quickdraw.

So how does evasion help? Well, a unit with one (or more) of these abilities might be able to profitable attack, while other units cannot. The classic example that we have all experienced is the huge ground stall, but one play has a single flyer that is able to peck away for damage. This is most common in draft where removal is worse, meaning a single 2/2 or 3/3 flyer may do 10-15 damage over the course of a game. These lines of play are often fairly obvious once you are in that situation, but you should take a step back from that. For example, we may throw a Valkyrie Enforcer into a group block early on in the game, thinking that is 3/3 body is less valuable than something like else (lets say a Siraf that has been silenced). The game evolves in such a way where the Valkyrie would have done 6-9 damage, and your 3/4 did nothing but stare at the opponent’s blockers. I think a lot of people undervalue evasion in Draft especially, as so many games are decided by unchecked fliers. Any time my opponents get their fliers involved in trades I feel like I tricked my opponent into something, as they are so powerful in so many games.

Another interesting wrinkle to this that is particularly important in ranked Combrei mirrors is the importance of flying and Sandstorm Titan. People usually think that flying is useless in Combrei mirrors since there is usually a Titan somewhere on the field, but you can take advantage of this. Let’s say you the game evolved in such a way where your opponent has take 10-15 damage in the early game, but the game has moved into a gridlock where both you and your opponent has a Titan on board, and you also have a couple 4/4 owls. Your opponent may feel like the board is secure, but if you silence both Titans (that includes your own) you can suddenly push a ton of damage through and your opponent is in a lot of trouble! Although silencing your own units is rarely what you want to be doing, it is a great tool to have in your arsenal and allows you to push through damage with fliers that otherwise would be grounded.

When one player has an evasive unit and the other does not, the complexion of the board stall changes. It goes without saying that in a truly neutral board neither player has an advantage. If either player has even a single evasive unit there is now pressure on the opponent to act. This means that the player without the evasive unit needs to do something like find a removal spell or an effective blocker. I know that I have often been too passive in these states – the opponent is pecking away for 3 a turn with a Valkyrie when I am at 20… but a couple turns later I am now in single digits! I may not be excited to kill a 3/3 flyer with a premium removal spell, but my opponent isn’t going to stop until I do something. How quickly to react obviously depends on your hand/deck/opponent, but you need to do something first, and your opponent is unlikely to feed you a better removal target while they are making progress. On the flip side, I have seen some opponents make weird misplays in this regard. Say I am playing a deck like Hooru control, where I have a Throne Warden on board, and my Rakano opponent has a Valkyrie on board and some other smaller ground beaters. Playing out more knuckleheads on the board that can’t attack past my Warden does nothing other than further extend into a Harsh Rule. There are obviously combinations of cards where my opponent made the right choice, but it seems unlikely another 2/1 will make a difference in most games. Just be patient and ride your little bird as far as he’ll take you!

Continued Board Awareness

One of the most important skills in navigating board stalls is continued board awareness. What is that? Well, complex boards are difficult to unravel and require some careful thought in how to approach them. If you are constantly rethinking the board from the ground up you are going to have a difficult time keeping up with the game. Most game actions don’t change the board state that much, so something that was true last turn is probably true this turn. Take the following relatively simple board stall:

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Our Stonescar opponent doesn’t have good attacks because our 6/10 overpowers his entire squad, and we don’t have good attacks because our opponent can double block our 6/10 with the two 5/5s. Clearly a fairly simple board stall, but lets take a moment to catalogue the things that don’t change the complexion of this board state. What if we draw a unit that is 4/4 or smaller? It makes no real difference in the board state. What if they draw a 4/4 or smaller? Once again, no effect. How about killing a 3/3 or a 2/2 on our side? No difference. We draw a silence effect? Same.

It seems weird that I am listing all these things that don’t make a difference in understanding the board, but I have a point in this exercise. I often see people tank to try to process a board where there are no important differences from the turn before. I don’t have good attacks now, and them playing an Oni Ronin doesn’t change that. If I am trying to reprocess the board every turn I am more likely to make a mistake or get confused. It is also useful to develop a default plan. Let’s say our opponent were to attack with everything, and we could somehow know that had absolutely nothing in hand. What would be our block? Probably 6/10 blocks a 5/5, 3/3 + 2/2 blocks the other 5/5, while the remaining 2/2s block the 3/3. By developing this “default” blocking plan it allows us to think only about changes. Let’s say our opponent played Bandit Queen. How does that change our blocks? Well, the 6/10 on the 5/5 is still good (assuming they have nothing), but my other 2 blocks suck. Since I already have a plan in my head, it is easier to process how changes effect the board state.

I find this particularly useful for quickly processing the impact of things that matter, like removal spells. Every board stall is usually being caused by specific units on either side of the field. In our picture, the 6/10 is creating the stall on our end, and the 5/5s are creating the stall on their side. This means that we should be trying to find a way to remove the 5/5s if we can, and should try and protect our 6/10 if we are able. These things are fairly obvious in this board stall, but as things get more complicated it becomes harder to quickly recognize what matters. As long as we maintain continued board awareness, the layering on of more and more factors is manageable. I can think of a number of situations where there is a cluttered board, but my opponent has some safe attacks that they do not take. They have likely lost focus on the board state, and are just overwhelmed, so they take the cautious route and do nothing.

Stall Breakers

Although it may seem like board stalls are just endless and unbreakable, there are actually a ton of cards that break board stalls wide open. These can be broken into 4 categories – pump effects, value engines, area of effect (AoE), and direct damage. You need to know what your opponent is capable of an play around it, otherwise you will get punked out of a game! I’m going to break down each of these individually, but as a collective you should know that most opponents play some kind of board stall breaker. If they have them and you don’t, you may find that a board stall you thought was in your favor quickly wasn’t

Pump effects can represent an individual buff on one unit, or a buff of your entire team. The most popular is probably Xenan Obelisk. I’m sure we have all been in a deeply entrenched board stall, and then our opponent suddenly plays an Obelisk on 8+ power. Well, these boards become very un-stalled, very quickly. In fact, I think some people don’t push these advantages as best they could. If you have an Obelisk bonus, trading tends to favor you. Your opponent needs to commit premium units to blocking your middling units, and must double block your premium units. Even with optimal trades your opponent is left behind on board after the smoke clears and your follow up hurts even more! This is especially true in time mirrors where your opponent could just counter with their own Obelisk – now your advantage has disappeared and you are back at parity. One very important skill of high level players is that they will begin to process the effect of a buff like Xenan Obelisk before their opponent plays it. +1/+1 to team, or +2/+2 to team changes the board a lot, and trying to think through all the implications quickly is very difficult. You should start thinking about your attacks/blocks before either you or your opponent plays the card.

Another group pump effect that is worthy of mention is Stand Together. I’m going to word this strongly and it’s not an exaggeration – you need to figure out if your opponent has this card in hand. If you haven’t read up on Finkel’s article about pauses you need to check it out, but I would argue that Stand Together is one of the most important cards in the entire game where you need to know if your opponent has is. Pauses are only half the story of course – is your Combrei opponent lining up a strange alpha strike? The alarm bells should be going off at full volume. Stand is hard to play around, but it is possible. The two strategies I find most useful are either waiting until my opponent is powered down to make trades, or I attempt to block in such a way there my opponent needs to cast Stand Together to get reasonable trades that don’t leave me wrecked. For example, I block my opponent’s Titans with my own Titans + a 2/2 rather than a 1/1. I over-block some of my opponent’s units. I also make sure that lethal damage does not come across after Stand Together (obviously an important point). There are clearly a lot of board states where you just can’t play around the card, so you need to just hope your read is wrong or that they forget to play it. On the converse side, don’t expect you are going to “get” your opponent every time you play Stand Together. There have been a number of games I’ve played where my opponent makes a weird attack, I block like Stand Together is face up on the table, and there is this awkward pause where my opponent slowly realizes that they have lost the game. There are lots of people who will fall for this trick, but if you want to hang out in top Master you need to cut that crap out.

The final group pumps to mention – Rally and Bandit Queen. In some respects these are just direct-damage in the form of group-pump. These tend to be much easier to read, given that one involves a pre-combat action, and the other is fairly loudly telegraphed. Against either type of deck it is important to put some pressure on them as soon as you can. If you can force your opponent to chump block with some 1/1s you will save damage in the long run. I would also encourage you to use slow removal effects before a potential Rally. It may not feel great to Permafrost an Oni Ronin on turn 5 or 6, but it feels a lot worse to get punked out of a game by Rally or Bandit Queen.

The converse of pump effects is AoE effects. Since AoE is powerful, there are a lot that see play, and they are especially effective during board stalls. Some that come to mind are Crystallize, Lightning Storm, Black Sky Harbinger, Withering Witch and Harsh Rule. Lightning Storm and Harbinger are fairly easy to play around, especially given that they are often found in the same decks. Just don’t overextend tons of small units onto the board (or at least wait until you having something like an Obelisk buff). Sometimes a Feln deck may some weird attack with the hope of a post-combat Storm or Harbinger cleaning things up, but this is fairly obviously telegraphed in most cases. Crystallize is much more dangerous in board stalls. Elysian decks will often deliberately induce massive board stalls, and will finish the game with a big Crystallize + alpha strike turn. It is difficult to tell if you are against a crystallize deck since not every Shimmerpack or Elysian midrange deck runs the card, but you should do your best to trade resources before a potential Crystallize, since they can often win the game on the spot. Rule and Witch are another kettle of fish which I am going to skip over for today, but make sure to try your best to play around them in the case of board stalls. They will wreck you when you don’t.

Value engines are another important ingredient in breaking board stalls. The cards that should pop to your mind are Siraf, Mystic Ascendant, and Marshal Ironthorn. Unless you have some trump card or really sophisticated plan, if you opponent plays a card like this in a board stall situation, you need to kill it with fire immediately. They may not take over the game immediately, but if your opponent is drawing 2 cards a turn while you draw one, you are going to lose. Silence is often enough to handle things, given that a vanilla 3/4 or 6/6 is not going to win your opponent the game. I spoke extensively on the subject in my article on Combrei mirrors from back in closed beta, so you may want to check that out. Outside of Combrei value engines, there are a couple cards in Feln that count. Feln Bloodcaster is good in board stalls, but not insane, while Champion of Cunning or Vara are crippling. If you are the one playing them, make sure you land them at a juncture to gain maximum value, like playing Bloodcaster on 10 power, or with SSSSSPPPPP influence for Champion of Cunning.

Finally, lets talk about direct damage. This is obviously most relevant against Stonescar Burn. As a Time-based midrange deck you may feel favored in a board stall against Stonescar, but if your life total is 12 or less, you may be in a lot of trouble. If your opponent has the time to draw into lethal burn, you may still lose, even if you have a huge board advantage and value engines set up for the long game. The key here is to put on pressure, since sitting around waiting for your opponent to collect Flame Blasts is not a savvy strategy. Even though it may feel uncomfortable, you need to find a way to end the game. As a Burn player, you may get into a position where your opponent is beginning to turn the corner. You need to start pointing hot fire at your opponent’s face before you have the tools to finish the job since the board is locked up. It may feel desperate to Obliterate face with no follow up, but if burning your opponent out is the only viable way to finish the game you need to recognize that and go for it before your opponent can mount an offensive. Burn players making decisions about burning units or face is one of the most skill-testing elements of the deck, so a successful aggro player will need to manage this effectively.

Conclusion

Turns out board stalls are complicated. There is a lot to say, and I don’t even feel like I have done much more than scratch the surface. Hopefully this article had some useful tidbits for all skill levels! Anyway, until next week, take care!

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