Mastering Draft: Navigating the Board Part 1 (Attacking)

Hi everyone! For today’s article, I wanted to talk about some of the more fundamental strategies and principles in draft, namely how to navigate the board and how to decide when and how to attack. This is an extremely crucial skill, because the missed damage or bad trade that you took at the start can easily cause the game to snowball out of control while a smart block can help you stabilize and win the game. I also think that the lack of aggression by most players is often the reason why games devolve into a huge ground stall with an unanswered flier deciding the game. This is also the beginning of a newer sub-column within my weekly column, where I try to delve more in-depth into higher level game-play and more complex theorycrafting.

Who’s the Beatdown?

Now, the first thing to do in any game is to establish who’s the beatdown. While roles are more fluid in draft, there is always going to be one player who should be taking the role of the beatdown. An inaccurate assignment of roles is one of the easiest ways to lose the game. Now, this topic of role assignment has pretty much been talked about to death, so you can check it out here, here and even here. I don’t want to harp on it too much but it pretty much boils down to 3 salient points:

  1. Are you playing for tempo (beatdown) or for card advantage (control)?
  2. Who has the inevitability in this matchup? (That’s the control)
  3. Who is able to get on board faster and apply pressure? (That’s the beatdown)

It’s important to appreciate that the roles are extremely fluid in draft, as most decks seem to fall under the umbrella term of “midrange”. Moreover, without open decklists, its hard to tell who has the inevitability. As such, it is often good to constantly reassess your roles as you see more cards being played. It’s also important to not overcommit to a role, and play to hedge your bets. (E.g. Even if you think you are the control in this MU, it is good to get in chip damage with units that you don’t intend to block with. Thus, if you later shift into the beatdown role, you have a headstart on the damage clock.)

Do you attack?

If you think that you are the aggressor, the answer to this question is always tilted towards yes. As the beatdown, your objective is always to try and force through as much damage as possible. It is often fine to let your opponent take favorable trades if it helps you to put a faster clock on them. For example, if you have 3 2/2s and a 3/3 on board, while your opponent has 2 2/2s, it is often fine to swing in with all your units. If your opponent elects to go for the greedy, but favorable double block on your 3/3, you still benefit by pushing in 6 damage, whereas swinging in with just 3 2/2s will result in a double trade of 2/2s and only pushing in 2 damage. Moreover, there is always a risk for a fast spell blowout, so your opponent might not even go for the double block!

As the beatdown, you also often want to trade your units as much as possible to keep the board small. A small board is much less likely to stall out, whereas a larger board often gives your opponent the chance to make favourable double blocks or even triple blocks. As such, A+space is often your best friend. By keeping the board small, and by getting on board faster, you often make turns awkward for the control player and force him to make suboptimal plays and blocks just to stay alive. Going back to the same example, losing a 3/3 for a 2/2 may be sub-optimal, but it is good to help clear the way for something like a 4/4 that you can play on your turn. Similarly, if you had swung with your 2/2 the previous turn, your opponent might have traded the strangers and you wouldn’t even be in this spot to begin with!

How good are the units as the game progresses?

Another thing to consider when deciding which units to attack with is to consider how the value of your units change as the game progresses. For example, if you have 4 vanilla 2/2s on board while your opponent has a 3/3 on board, there is an argument for just swinging in with all 4 2/2s. If you have no way to remove the 3/3 from your opponent’s board, you will always end up losing a 2/2 to it if you attack with your 2/2s. Moreover, as the game progresses, your opponent will usually play more and more units, in which case your 2/2s lose value. An all-out attack now turns the 2/2 unit into 6 damage. In contrast, an attack later could result in your opponent being able to block and trade for the other 2/2s, turning the 2/2 unit into a 2 or 4 damage burn spell instead.

Now, the inverse is also true. For example, if I have a Baying Serasaur out on Turn 4, with a Fishing Dinoch in hand, I wouldn’t attack with the Baying Serasaur unless I am 100% sure that my opponent won’t be able to remove it. Missing 4 damage is not ideal, but losing the +3/+3 buff on Dinoch can easily cost you the game. A 6/6 often dominates the board and forces multiple blocks while a 3/3 does nothing much on a clogged board. Similarly, I’ve often had opponents who suicide in a Thunderhoof Warrior and spend the next turn twirling their thumbs with 6 power! Back to the initial example, there is an alternate argument for holding the vanilla 2/2s back if I have Rally in hand.

There is also an interesting contrast in decision making as you will also need to take into account how valuable your opponent’s units are. For example, I think it is often right to simply swing in with a vanilla 2/2 when your opponent plays a Trail Maker on turn 2. While both cards have 2 attack, Trail Maker provides ramping, something that your opponent is likely to value highly. As such, they are often reluctant to trade it, and you can get in a 2 damage! Similarly, knowing that your opponent has units that they prioritize can make bluffing much easier. For example, if you played a Time Weaver and saw that your opponent has 2 Scourstone Sentinels and no other Sentinels in hand (1 of which you Slow obviously), you can aggressively swing in with 2/2s into an Ageless Sentinel. The cost of losing the only Sentinel on board and stranding the Scourstones in hand will often deter the opponent from blocking.

Maximizing Values from Tricks

One very important aspect of combat is fast spells. Fast spells severely mess with combat math and utilizing them well is often key to winning the game. Similar to units, it’s important to think about the value of utilizing the fast spell now, versus the potential value of utilizing them later on. For example, if you were to swing in with a 2/2 and your opponent blocks with a 3/3, using a Finest Hour is effectively just trading a fast spell for a 3/3 and exhausting your 2/2. This is generally a pretty bad utilization of one of the best tricks in the game and you can often get much better value blowing out double blocks on future turns with the finest hour, getting a 2-for-1 rather than simply trading 1-for-1. There are of course exceptions, such as if you have 3 2/2s on board being held back by a single 3/3, that makes trading a finest hour for the 3/3 much more worth it.

The threat of a trick is also often as powerful, if not more powerful than the actual trick itself. By showing pauses, you can often influence your opponent to make sub-optimal blocks to play around a trick. For example, if you opponent is aware that you have a trick, they wouldn’t multi-block your biggest attacker unless they are able to play around all possible tricks. On the flip side, you must also be careful of overplaying your trick, such as swinging with your large unit and getting blocked by all the units from the opposing side will often result in a bad trade for you.

Power considerations could be another argument for using tricks sub-optimally. For example, if you hand consists of a 2-drop, 4-drop, 5-drop and Finest Hour and you currently have 3 power, it might be worth trading the Finest Hour for your opponent’s 3/3 since you don’t have the power open to play it in subsequent turns.

Bluffing

Another aspect of attacking is bluffing. Knowing when to bluff, how to bluff and pulling off bluffs is also crucial to winning the game. This is a whole other can of worms, and this article on channelfireball.com delves much deeper into the topic if you want to jump down the rabbit hole. As a tl;dr, when thinking about bluffing, its important to think about the following 4 points:

  1. Risk vs Reward
    You need to contemplate whether the reward of your opponent not calling your bluff is worth the risk. Of course, its not just a linear relationship as you will also have to weigh it with how likely your opponent is to call your bluff. For example, swinging with a 2/2 into a ground 3/3 is much more likely to be called than swinging with a 2/2 into a flying 3/3, since your opponent likely values the flier much more.
  2. Consistency of your bluffs
    When you make a bluff, you need to be consistent with it. For example, if you were representing a Finest Hour the previous turn (and had a pause window), you should attack representing the same trick again. Similarly, if you want to represent a pump spell, you should often attack with multiple units, not just a single big unit since that gives your opponent the opportunity to chump it.
  3. Putting the fear of losing into your opponent
    One of a player’s greatest fears is losing a game that they could have won. Knowing this fact, you can also utilize it to your advantage by playing so as to create a scenerio in which your opponent can potentially lose and thus, make them play around it. In one of my recent draft games, my opponent was at 8 health, with a 2/2 Silverwing Avenger and 5 ground units in play. I was at 2 health, with a 2/3 flying Maimed Watchwing and 4 other ground units in play. I had a Finest Hour, a Stranger and 2 power in hand. Now, there was no way for me to deal with the flier, so I was dead as soon as I hit my end turn button. Now, I have shown fast spell pauses, but I haven’t shown that it was a 1-power fast spell. So, I played out my Stranger precombat and moused over my units multiple times, “pretending” to count out the damage, before finally attacking with the Maimed Watchwing. Now, for all intents and purposes, this reeks of a desperation attack, but by consciously playing the 6th unit pre-combat, I implanted the idea of my Fast Spell being Strength of Many for exact lethal, and induced my opponent to block with the Silverwing Avenger. He proceeded to not draw a flier for the next few turns, and I ended up winning the game.
  4. Tantalize your opponent with the allure of victory
    Another interesting way to get your opponent to “dance” to your tune is to give them the false sense of victory. Imagine a scenerio where your opponent is at 10 health and has 2 4/4 Striped Araktodon on the ground and you are at 4 health, with a 3/1 flying Skysnapper and a 4/4 Striped Araktodon. Your hand consists of only 2 cards: a Sigil and a Cloudsnake Breeder. Now, it is entirely possible that you can win by simply attacking in with the Skysnapper multiple times (but that requires you consistently topdecking blockers and hoping your opponent doesn’t find an answer for the Skysnapper). However, an interesting line to take would be to play the Sigil, and attack with both units. Now, you’ve shown that you only have 1 card left in hand, and that makes it extremely enticing for your opponent to not block since he thinks he has lethal on crack-back if he doesn’t trade. By playing out the Sigil, you are creating the illusion of victory for your opponent, causing him to overplay his hand and speed up your clock by 2 turns.

Conclusion

Well, this was a pretty fun article to write, all in all. Do stay tuned for the next article on this series, where I talk about the other half of board navigation, declaring blockers! Do let me know what you think of this Mastering Draft series! It is definitely something that I’ve been thinking about a lot and finally got round to writing about. As always, feel free to share your thoughts with me on the reddit thread. Until next time, remember!

Face is the place! SMOrc, SMOrc, SMOrc!
Flash2351