Navigating board stalls is a weakness in many players’ games. They don’t happen very often, so it’s hard to get enough practice to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing. They mostly happen between slow Time decks (and sometimes Rakano), but they can occur once in a while in every matchup (like Sunyveil’s Stonescar Burn against Missingtoez’s Elysian midrange at the invitational last weekend).
Board stalls are also difficult because often there are only a couple cards in each deck that matter, so any small mistakes you make are irrelevant. That said, there are some small edges to be gained, and it is good to play correctly all the time, even when it is unlikely to matter.
What you are supposed to be doing in a board stall depends on who has inevitability in the matchup. Determining who has inevitability is a skill that is developed through playing many games and figuring out how games are likely to end in the matchup. It can also change throughout the game – for example, a controlling Shadow deck might have inevitability with The Last Word, but if the relic weapon is destroyed or discarded suddenly that player could not have inevitability any longer.
The player who is favored when a game goes into the super late stages is said to have inevitability. Usually the slower, more controlling deck has inevitability and tries to extend the game for this reason, but burn decks also often have inevitability because you can’t stop them from burning you out regardless of how many units you have on board.
So how do you use this information to help you win on a stalled board where neither player has great attacks? The first thing you need to do is identify who has inevitability. If your opponent can burn you out or has Crystallize in their deck and you don’t, your opponent has inevitability and you need to force the issue and attack. If you have a bunch of unbeatable units like Champion of Mystery or Siraf and some way to protect them like Azindel’s Gift or Protect, you have inevitability and should take it slow until you draw one of your haymakers. Conversely, if you have Crytallize or Siraf in your deck and you know your opponent doesn’t, you can just play defense and make sure you don’t die before you draw one of those cards.
Some common inevitability engines or board-stall breakers are:
Withering Witch + Lightning Storm
Champion of Cunning
The Last Word
Bartholo, the Seducer
Channel the Tempest
As you can see, this category of cards comes in three flavors: kill the opponent instantly given a large enough board (Crystallize, Witch-Storm, Shimmerpack), grind more incremental value than the opponent can possible overcome (Siraf, Champion of Cunning, The Last Word), and deal direct damage to win regardless of the board (Bartholo, Obliterate, Channel the Tempest).
Generally, kill the opponent instantly cards beat grindy, incremental value cards because they are faster at winning the game. This puts the onus on the grindy deck to attack earlier and trade off units to simplify the board so the opponent can’t kill them in one hit. Even if the trades are bad, they are worth making since you can make up the value later as long as you don’t lose.
Direct damage cards make the game into a race; even if attacking puts you at risk of dying to removal or charge units, you must attack direct damage decks or they will survive long enough to draw enough burn to kill you. Chalice control oddly becomes a deck like this fairly often, where it just needs to hang on long enough to point a couple of 12 damage Channel the Tempests at your face.
When Breaking a Board Stall isn’t Possible
Another common situation is that neither deck is built for winning a board stall. This can happen because they never intended to get into one in the first place or because both decks have grindy incremental value cards or can stop each other’s instant win or direct damage cards. This commonly occurs in matchups such as the Big Combrei Mirror, Chalice control against decks with Eilyn’s Favor and/or Eilyn’s Choice, and decks with Stand Together to stop Crystallize.
When this is the case, it is important to recognize it as soon as possible. These matches can very easily come down to one player losing by decking, and if that is a consideration you want to draw either way more cards than the opponent or a few less. If you draw way more cards you can probably overwhelm your opponent’s defenses and kill them, but if you only draw a few more they will likely have the resources to stymie your attempts to win the game and can wait you out.
Most games outside of Chalice won’t actually go as far as decking, though, so you need to be able to hone in on what’s important and what is not so you can allocate your removal and silence effectively. It is sometimes very obvious – Siraf and Mystic Ascendant snowball out of control, so kill them. Sandstorm Titan does nothing against your 6/6, so ignore it. Sometimes, though, it isn’t obvious – especially when there are sweepers involved.
Harsh Rule is one of the most interesting cards in these slow board-stall-prone matchups. You want to not get blown out by Harsh Rule, but you also want to press your advantages when you get them. It’s a tight balancing act. A good rule of thumb is to always have only one more relevant card on the board than your opponent. If both players have 2 Sandstorm Titans staring at each other, you can play a Siraf or Ascendant – Harsh Rule will just be a 3-for-3. If you have an Ascendant facing 2 Titans, though, you already have the only relevant card on the board (assuming health totals are relatively high) – don’t commit another good threat!
Another key thing is to not give your opponent good chances to answer your best cards. If you are behind on a board in the late game and are forced to Harsh Rule, don’t immediately run out your Great Parliament – that gives your opponent a chance to use Harsh rule to cleanly answer your best card. Wait until the opponent commits a Siraf or Heart of the Vault or something to the board, THEN play the Owls. That forces your opponent to Harsh Rule away their own threat to avoid dying to your air force over a turn or two. Sure, your play was slightly worse if they didn’t have Harsh Rule, but chances are they had one, and if you can make it worse for them by playing around it to some extent you might as well do it.
Another thing you can do is build some way to break these long board stalls into your deck. It only takes a couple of deck slots, as the games will go on for a long time and give you ample opportunity to find your stall breakers. A single copy of The Last Word or Crystallize can go along way!
Board stalls are a very convoluted and difficult situation to approach, but with practice and critical thinking they can be solved. You need to understand both your deck and your opponent’s to figure out what your role is to make sure you approach the situation the right way. ResidentSleeper no more – complicated boards and long games can be very fun and exciting if you understand what’s going on.
Until next time, may all of your boards break favorably.