The Novice Student, by Andrew Brown

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Home > Strategy > The Novice Student
[posted 20 Mar 2005]

Originally posted to the (now-defunct) Shadowfist Northwest wesbite in July 2004 by Andrew Brown. Republished with permission of Andrew and Steve Feldon, Shadowfist Northwest's publisher.

The Novice Student #1: Introduction to the series, and Power Advantage
The Novice Student #2: In Denial

The Novice Student #1: The Fundamental Principle of "Power advantage" (or, introducing Captain Obvious!)

Introduction to the series

Let's get one thing out of the way right at the outset: I'm not a good person to write Shadowfist strategy articles. This isn't false modesty; I simply haven't played the game that much, nor do I have a wide variety of experience with games in general. Heck, I'm an avid reader of the very well-developed strategy community surrounding Magic: The Gathering, a game I've played a lot more than Shadowfist, and I'd never dream of writing an MTG strategy article. But since there really isn't a similar community for Shadowfist, there's really no way to "study and grow strong", in the words of Frank Kusumoto, founder of the now-defunct Magic Dojo [, 20 Mar 2005], who really started the whole Magic strategy scene. So here's my contribution, and we'll see where it goes. I decided to call my series "The Novice Student" after the Shaolin Showdown character because it seems to fit – I'm certainly both relatively new and still learning.

So why am I doing this? What's the goal? Well, I propose to write a couple of articles – I have one other in mind beyond this one – outlining in some detail the strategies I use when building Shadowfist decks. I'm a better deck builder than a player (which is not necessarily saying a lot), so that'll be my primary area of focus. Basically, I'm going to say "here's why I do this" as a (somewhat) novice player, and hopefully provoke better players into rebuttal articles which, when taken together, will provide a useful service to other folks who are still learning how to play the game.

Just so I'm clear from the outset: I play to win [, 20 Mar 2005] (though you wouldn't know it to see my decks, probably). Please don't be offended if I stomp on your idea of a "fun" deck. Fun decks are great – please play them if you enjoy them. But the whole point of a strategy article is to improve your game, and my goal will be to provide information that, if properly used, will make you win more. If winning = fun for you, then these articles will be about having fun; I'll leave the wacky theme decks to the esteemed Mr. Feldon. :)

One more quick note: there are exceptions to absolutely every "rule" I espouse or argument I make. You can always come back with "well, but card X doesn't behave that way, so you're wrong". However, I don't believe that's a productive way to react – strategy rules can be useful in general terms even when they are broken by certain situations. Contrast this to the kind of very accurate rebuttal I'm expecting which states that I'm wrong because a type of card (by which I mean "Character denial" or "anti-State card") breaks the rule, and that type is seen relatively frequently in our metagame. Put another way: don't nitpick and bring up one-off situations where I'm wrong; correct me using examples which are broadly applicable across a range of decks.

Okay, so, what does the title of this article mean, anyway? What is "Power advantage"? Well, let's start at the beginning…

Your resource producers also are your win condition

First, let me define my terms. At a very broad, basic level, I view CCGs as having two components – the cards you draw, and the resouces that allow you to play those cards. In Magic, the resource is called mana; in ‘Fist, it's called Power. So a resource producer in Magic is most often a land and a resource producer in ‘Fist is most often a site (and if you're already coming up with exceptions – stop it. : ) As a die-hard Magic player, the realization that your win condition in Shadowfist also tended to be your resource producers was an important step for me. When I first realized what a fundamental difference this was between Magic and Shadowfist, I found it quite profoundly changed the way I tried to find analogs to the Magic strategy principles I knew so well and apply them to Shadowfist.

An extremely quick refresher course for those who've never played Magic or just haven't in a while: in Magic, you only draw one card per turn under normal circumstances. That's it. If you empty your hand, you're out of cards unless you want to hold each new card as you draw it, or else find a card that lets you refill your hand. But by the same token, in Magic you can play a resource producer (land) for free, every turn. Moreover, the resource producers are not generally vulnerable – yes, there are "land destruction" decks, but WOTC thankfully realized how un-fun they were to play against and started nerfing land destruction cards such that they aren't generally competitive in tournament play.

Aside: I consider Shadowfist decks which specialize in removing resources in the smoked pile to be essentially the same as land destruction in Magic. I have the same response to both kinds of decks: as soon as it's clear that's what you're doing, I will forfeit the game, politely acknowledge your victory and superior deckbuilding skills, and find a new opponent (or suggest you choose a different deck if you'd like me to stick around). Nothing personal, just that I'm wasting my time if I'm not having fun, and those decks suck the fun out of the entire room. See also: Stasis decks.

"Card advantage" – everything in Magic, nothing in Shadowfist

So in Magic, assuming you aren't screwed on your draw and can survive for a while, you can pretty much play whatever cards are in your hand – no matter how much they cost -because your resource production is increasing all the time with no downswings and no real upper limit (in stark contrast to Shadowfist). You can design a deck without much effort which will dump your hand extremely quickly, but once you've done so, you become constrained not by resources (mana), but by the number of cards you can draw. This fundamental truth led to the discovery of what I believe was the very first Magic strategy principle, called "card advantage". The principle is simple: all other things being equal, the person who draws more cards will win, because cards do things and doing things tends to be how you win. Hundreds of pages have been written since which hotly debate the more detailed specifics of card advantage, as by itself it's somewhat simplistic, but for new players it is definitely an important fundamental.

One point on card advantage bears noting before we move on: if you can use one of your cards to remove more than one of your opponent's cards, you have gained card advantage. So card advantage does not equal "draw more cards" by any means, although that is one way of gaining such advantage.

By now the Magic players are bored stiff and the Shadowfist players are getting pissed at me, so I'll move to the point: in Shadowfist, because your resource producers are also your win condition, the game by design strictly limits how many you can have in play. This means that relative to Magic, you have far less ability to produce resources. This led (presuming it was the chicken, not the egg) to players being allowed to draw far more cards per turn in Shadowfist – because it was harder to play all of them, at least the big fun stuff, so the same overall balance was achieved.

Aside: resource producers as win condition is IMHO a bad game design decision, and is why I ultimately like Magic better than Shadowfist overall. This is absolutely subjective (and probably a result of playing Magic for ~5 years before starting ‘Fist), and I'm very much looking forward to some debate on it. : )

So, if card advantage as defined in Magic is essentially a useless term in Shadowfist, because in ‘Fist you draw up to six cards each turn, then is there a similar fundamental principle to card advantage that would apply to Shadowfist? I believe there is…

Power advantage (or "thank you, Captain Obvious!")

As a Shadowfist newbie, my first evaluation of where to start when it came to "breaking the rules" was focused on the most restrictive element I saw, and that was not cards, but the amount of Power you could produce. With nearly-unlimited (or so it seemed) card drawing, the successful player would be the one who could produce more Power, because he could play more cards with that Power, and do more mean things to his opponent as a result. This is, incidentally, why I chose the Ascended as my first faction – after scanning various card lists, I determined that they seemed to have the most cards that produced Power (note that the Purists did not exist as a separate faction at the time).

I tried decks that focused on generating tons of Power – including playing Feng Shui Sites like Blessed Orchard and Gambling House – but of course I was still too new to really know what to do with that Power. But I felt I was on the right track. Then I played against an Architect deck for the first time, and it was a revelation.

Remember how I said that card advantage in Magic did not necessarily equal "drawing more cards"? How if you could use one card to eliminate two of your opponent's, you had gained card advantage? Well, why shouldn't that principle apply to Power advantage? It seemed simple that if you paid five or six Power for a hitter, and I sent it to the smoked pile using only one Power, I had gained a significant advantage (all other things being equal). I think this principle can be used to explain why a number of cards are good:

Those of you who have played against me extensively are now probably thinking "ohhhhh…that's why he plays _______!" – because, yes, Power advantage is behind almost all of my card choices and deck ideas, and is incidentally also one of the big reasons why I play a lot of Character denial.

So that's it. Power advantage is, to me, one of the fundamental principles of deckbuilding in Shadowfist, based on the way the game is designed regarding resource producers vs. card drawing. If you're a newbie, maybe this will help you look at the game in a slightly different way. If you're a pro, feel free to add, subtract or friggin' rewrite the whole thing with real theory. After all, that's what this is all about, no…?

Andrew Brown
"The Novice Student"
(because Chad Ellis already took "Weak Among The Strong")

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The Novice Student #2: In Denial (or why character removal is really good)

It is a reasonable generalization that you need characters to win in Shadowfist. Yes, there are decking strategies, and you can drop your fifth site and win if none of your opponents has a site in play, but for all practical purposes, you win by reducing a FSS to zero with one or more characters. The corollary to this would naturally be that if you don't have any characters in play, it is very hard to win (this doesn't mean not having any characters in play at the start of your turn, of course). Therefore, it makes sense to say that getting rid of characters is one of the most important ways to wreck your opponent's game plan and increase your own chances of winning.

This simple reasoning is a big part of why character denial cards are almost invariably part of any Shadowfist deck I build - but still only a part. The other key reason that I've become known as the resident character denial player of our group is because of the concept of power advantage. If you haven't read my article on power advantage, you might want to do so, although it will probably be fairly easy to pick up from context since some of the most popular character denial cards are also some of the best examples of power advantage.

I'll pause here to properly define what I mean when I use the term "character denial". To me, a character denial card is a non-character card which when played at minimum prevents another character from attacking, intercepting or generating an effect for an indefinite period of time. The simplest way of doing this is to simply smoke the character outright, and indeed, most of the commonly-used character cards do just that. However, there are other ways to achieve a similar effect at times.

So, we've established that you need characters to win, and that there are cards that can eliminate characters. But what's even better in my mind is the fact that so many character denial cards are incredibly cheap when they are compared to the characters they are eliminating! This makes perfect sense from one standpoint because characters are permanent and can thus potentially continue to effect the game for many turns, while a Nerve Gas is used and gone. Characters can also, as mentioned, actually win the game. But it does mean that character denial cards are very strong in terms of power advantage.

Character denial cards also make States even more risky. One Nerve Gas makes short work not only of a character, but also of any States on that character. That's why I don't bother to play any dedicated State removal at all - why bother? With both Characters and States taken care of, that's a good chunk of an opponent's deal right there.

This is, incidentally, why I value certain hitters highly and others somewhat less so. If I'm holding a Neutron Bomb and have the power to play it (and I often do), there are very few Characters that scare me when they hit the board. Same goes for Nerve Gas and Imprisoned, although "gas masks" are a bother. Conversely, it's no accident that I favor CHAR, the Golden Gunman and Eastern King because of their relative immunity to character denial. I just can't see investing 4-7 power in a guy who can get smoked so easily by a cheap Event.

So for me, ultimately, it comes down to this: characters are too costly to fight other characters while gaining any real power advantage; states are vulnerable to the character being removed in addition to actual state removal, edges generally don't have character removal properties - all of which largely leaves Character denial Events backed by hitters who themselves are immune to such denial as the most effective path to victory.

IMHO. : )

Andrew Brown
"The Novice Student"

* not technically true, but close enough.

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