Shadowfist Strategy: Top 10 Mistakes in Shadowfist Play, by Max Hufnagel

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Home > Strategy > Top 10 Mistakes in Shadowfist Play
[posted 21 Jul 2004; links checked 20 Feb 2008]

Copyright 2001 by Max Hufnagel. This article originally appeared as a serialized article in Kii-Yaaah! issues 1, 2 and 3. The originals were available from until the website was redone in 2006. Reprinted here with Max's permission. Thanks!

Top 10 Mistakes in Shadowfist Play
copyright 2001 by Max Hufnagel


The best deck, card, or play depends on where, when, and against whom it’s used. The worst card in your deck may turn out to be the one that wins you the game. A sure-fire technique might lose it for you.

Although there are few absolutes in the game, this doesn’t mean every strategy is equally good. In general circumstances, some plays and techniques are better, some simply worse. The following are the most common mistakes I’ve noticed in my years of playing.

10. Keeping Your Initial Hand

Quick quiz: You’re playing a basic Architect deck. Your first draw contains one Arcanotechnician (of two in your deck), two Neutron Bombs (of three), one Nerve Gas (of three), one Imprison (of three), and one Sergeant Blightman (out of ten hitters). Because it’s the first turn, with no Power generation, you can discard as many of these as you like. Which ones do you keep?

Answer: Trick question – keep nothing.

Yes, you’ll dump some of the best cards in your deck. Guess what? At this point in the game, all that’s important is that your opening hand contains zero Feng Shui Sites and zero foundation Characters. You have plenty of good resource cards in your deck – but until you draw and play a Foundation Character they’re all useless. And if the cards you draw next don’t include at least one Feng Shui Site, you’re in Trouble.

If you don’t have a Feng Shui Site to play on your first or second turn, you’ll be behind on building your site structure – and behind on Power generation. If you don’t play a Feng Shui Site by turn 3-4, you’ll be playing the rest of the game at a severe disadvantage. You'll need superior strategic ability or outstanding diplomatic skills just to hold your own. While cards like Pocket Demon and Scrounging can ease the pain of slow site development, they are usually better used to recover from mid-game Power problems (like losing a Site or two.)

Note that in a duel, this mistake is even worse – missing even a single turn’s develop-ment can easily result in a game loss.

9. Holding Good Cards

This mistake is similar to #10 – you should consider #9 as the general case of which #10 is a specific instance. I treat this as a separate error because many people who have absolutely no problem throwing away a mediocre starting hand still find it difficult to dump a Thing with a 1000 Tongues or Neutron Bomb in the early game.

It’s not uncommon to draw a strong, expensive card early, long before you have the Power or resources to use it. Similarly, players often draw a card with high opportunity cost (like Bite of the Jellyfish or Claw of the Dragon) when a chance to use it soon is unlikely.

Generally speaking, if you likely won’t use a card in the next 2-3 turns, you should toss it – it’s just clogging up your hand. While you build Power / resources / opportunity to use that card, your opponents are discarding what they can’t use, drawing and playing cards they can, and smacking you around NOW. By the time you can play your killer card (if ever), it’s often too little too late.

Note that this advice applies to all cards, even Character removal (Die!!!, Nerve Gas) and denial (Confucian Stability, Brain Fire). In a duel, it is sometimes important to hang on to these even if an opportunity to use them seems a long way off. But in multiplayer, avoid holding on too long to any card. In fact in some playgroups consistently hoarding denial or Character removal is especially bad, as your opponents can force you to use such cards to their advantage. Don't be someone else’s stopper!

8. Missing the Obvious

This common error can take many forms:

To avoid these mistakes you have to keep track of what’s on the table. Unfortunately, that’s usually easier than it sounds. Multiplayer games get complicated, each player with a dozen cards in play plus a packed smoked pile. Add in the players themselves, who (in my experience) are usually a bunch of good-natured wise-crackers who incessantly throw around advice (some good, some bad), and friendly harassment to and at everyone present, and it’s easy lose track of things. The solution seems paradoxical, but isn’t:

  1. Pay attention.
  2. Ignore what's going on.

Pay close attention to table situation – the cards in play and in smoked piles, how much Power people have and, just as important, how much Power they’ll have on their turn. If someone has played a card that you don’t know by heart, take the time to read and absorb it. It’s usually worth the effort.

Ignore everything else. Don’t let your opponents distract you. Have fun and banter with them as you wish, but keep focussed on the game. In general, it is best to ignore their suggestions. Regardless of how good their advice may seem, realize that in the long run you need to rely on your own assessment of the game state – there’s only one winner in a Shadowfist game, and no one wants that to be you except you.

LAST ISSUE, WE STARTED A LIST of the 10 most common mistakes in Shadowfist play. That article discussed in depth the sins of Holding onto Cards Too Long and Overlooking the Obvious (i.e., Wake Up, You’re Dead!).

Here are the next couple of mistakes to watch out for if you want to take your game to the next level.

7. Playing from First Place

I have a fast, powerful deck that likes to bust out early with Sergeant Blightman or CHAR, burning its first Site while everyone else is building up resources. Later it uses Dragon hitters, recursion, and a more control-based style. Even ganged up against it’s a threat: a mere 2 Power = a Golden Comeback = Ting Ting’s out of my smoked pile, onto the board, and kicking butt. It’s a good deck, not subtle at all, but pretty good. Not surprisingly, it seldom wins in multiplayer.

It is an obviously strong deck. So obvious, in fact, that people can’t ignore it – so they don’t. From the start, they see it as a threat, and do whatever they can to keep it down. No one ever drops their guard against it. Every turn, they watch to make sure it can’t win; whenever possible they save up some kind of denial to stop its next winning bid.

I bring this up to illustrate a point: If people think you’re winning, they’ll hammer you. Better players tend to play from 2nd place – where they are perceived as less of a threat, and often win the game by surprise. It takes careful planning to grab 2 Feng Shui Sites in one turn, but it’s the kind of planning that often leads to victory.

Dueling is simpler; because there’s no diplomacy possible, and your opponent has only you to attack, there is never a reason to play from 2nd place in a duel unless you’ve built some Lose to Win specialty deck.

6. Protecting Your Sites

Simply put, protecting a site is a mistake when you lose more than you would if you had let the attack go through unopposed. In dueling this rarely happens, because the shift in strength resulting from losing a site is much greater than the cost (in Power, cards, Characters, etc.) of trying to keep it. In a duel, when your opponent tries to take one of your sites you should almost always try to stop him.

In multiplayer, things aren’t so simple. It isn’t always possible to protect your sites from everyone. Sometimes, protecting yourself from one player uses most of your and/or the attacker’s resources (cards, Power, Characters), leaving you both hurt and vulnerable to the next player.

It’s important to remember to look at the big picture. If someone can win the game by playing a Feng Shui Site then taking one of yours, don’t let him – even if stopping him means letting someone else take your Site without a fight. Don’t let the immediate and smaller threat of the loss of a Site blind you to the larger threat of losing the game.

5. Overextending

It’s true that it is impossible to win a game of Shadowfist without playing any cards. It’s also true that some people make the mistake of under-committing their resources. It’s more usual, though, to see people err in the opposite direction. There are a number of common ways people overextend, all worth noting.

Playing a site you cannot protect.

It’s surprising how often this happens. While it might simply be Very Bad Play, it’s usually a less blatant mistake.

Often, the error is in miscalculating how much damage an opponent can get through to your site – overlooking the +1 from an Entropy Is Your Friend, or forgetting about the point a Yellow Senshi Chamber can redirect. Sometimes, the error is in ignoring what cards an opponent might reasonably use against you. While you probably don’t have to worry about Operation Green Strike too often, if you’re facing someone with a bunch of Tech resources in their pool you shouldn’t be too surprised to see Orbital Laser Strike.

And once in a while, the error lies in thinking other people will make the best choices. Just because another person is in the lead and their site is a better target doesn’t mean yours won’t be chosen. Just because someone taking your site will practically give them the game doesn’t mean anyone will do a thing to stop them. Just because you can see the best play doesn’t mean other people can, and some people don’t or won’t listen to advice, no matter how good.

Matching Designators.

Before you play a card that shares a designator with another card in play, carefully consider the effects of cards like Discerning Fire and Smart Gun. Playing a Student of the Bear for free with your Family Estate is usually a good deal, but doing so when you have a big Pledged hitter on the board and one of your opponents has Magic resources and 2 Power available is just asking to be spanked.

Looking like a threat.

This ties in with Mistake #7 and, like that one, does not apply to dueling.

If you look like a big threat, other players will treat you like one – instead of focusing on building up their own positions or attacking someone else, they’ll be taking you down.

There are two really good ways to look like a big threat. One is to build up a ‘dangerous’ amount of Characters, i.e. significantly more Fighting than anyone else. If you only have Li Sen-Hao on the board, and everyone else has 6 or so worth of Fighting, no one is likely to single you out. Play another hitter though, and you’ve upset the balance of power. Be ready for a pummeling.

The other way to look dangerous is to be one site away from winning. Someone who is one Site away from victory can’t be trusted or allied with – except, of course, against some-one else who’s one Site away from winning. It’s almost always better to stay two Feng Shui Sites away from victory until you’re actually ready to go for the win.

Letting your opponent back into the game.

This applies almost exclusively to dueling. Basically, if you are winning, and if your opponent has any kind of comeback potential based on his Sites getting burned, don’t burn his Sites. It sounds simple, and it is. Even so, I’ve seen experienced players, dominating in a duel, choose to burn their opponent’s Site – and then instantly regret that choice when something like Avenging Thunder (or worse, Avenging Fire) gets dropped on them, often costing them the game.

LST ISSUE, MAX CONTINUED HIS LIST of the 10 most common mistakes in Shadowfist play. Previous articles have looked at errors related to card flow, board position, positional play (i.e., Front Runner syndrome), and defending indefensible assets. This series concludes here with a look at a last four common play errors.

4. Ignoring the Local Metagame.

There are few absolutes in Shadowfist. While we all have access to the same cards, play styles and strategies vary tremendously from region to region. Much of the game’s richness derives from the vast number of card combinations and interactions, but one should not overlook the influence of the players on the game. A card combo, deck, or play technique which works well in New York might fail miserably in San Francisco, or San Antonio, or the U.K.

For example, in one group I know, hardly anyone ever Burns for Power. Playing an Ascended deck, I discard any Bite of the Jellyfish as soon as possible – it’s pretty much a wasted draw. In another group, seeing someone Burn for Power is only a matter of time, and usually not a long time at that.

While the local metagame is something to consider strongly when designing decks, its influence on the way any particular deck plays should not be overlooked.

3. Ignoring the Strongest Player.

If the game is in its very early stages, you should attack left. Doing so minimizes the chance you’ll give a site to another player – if you attack left and only damage the target Site (as opposed to taking it) the player on your left has their turn to bolster their position. If you attacked someone else and failed, you’ve weakened them – making them a better target for the player on your left. While this is sometimes good strategy, in the early stages of the game it’s definitely a sub-optimal move.

After the early game, the best move is usually to attack the player in the strongest position. (If you are in the strongest position, you should attack the second strongest.) Attacking the strongest position means weakening the person most likely able to make a bid for the win (besides you). If you manage to take a site from them, they’re one step further away from winning; if you don’t take the site, they’re weakened but still able to defend themselves from other people trying for the win (people who aren’t you). Attacking the strongest player might seem to be inviting the strongest retribution, but refraining from attacking the strongest player is giving the game away.

Remember: In multiplayer Shadowfist, there is no second place. If Player A is attacking Player B for the win, no one is going to try to hurt Player C – everyone is going to try to stop Player A. This much is obvious. Less obvious is the fact that winning is not typically the result of a single play; the actual final attack is usually simply the last in a series of plays spanning many turns. Keep someone from staying in a strong position and they won’t be able to mount a big threat; allow someone to stay in a strong position unchallenged and see them crush all opposition when they eventually make their move.

2. Attacking the Weakest Player.

Many people, even experienced Shadowfist players, commonly make this mistake. Many people, even experienced Shadowfist players, will probably disagree with my calling it a mistake at all. To be fair, in some regional metagames it is a common, accepted practice, and in an area where everyone else is doing it, it doesn’t look particularly bad. In an open environment (at a major tournament, for example), though, the fact that this is a mistake becomes more apparent.

Now, obviously, if you’re making a bid for the win, you’ll try for the weakest, least protected Feng Shui Site on the board – regardless of who’s controlling it. In most every other situation, though, the last person you should be attacking is the person in the weakest position.

One way to see why attacking the weakest player is a bad idea is to envision a group of players who regularly attack the person in the weakest position. What happens when such a group plays?

While the initial turns may proceed smoothly, as soon as one person is at a disadvantage (which could be as early as the first turn, if they fail to draw resource Characters or Feng Shui Sites) others start focusing their attacks on him. While everyone else is building up, this player is falling farther and farther behind – when two or three people keep attacking one of your sites, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be keeping that site for long.

Once a player has fallen far behind on Power generation, it’s difficult to recover, even with comeback cards like Pocket Demon or Violet Meditation – and if the other players persist in attacking when he’s down, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever be much more than an annoyance.

The weakest player is soon reduced to zero sites, at which point his only role is to repeatedly play Feng Shui Sites he can’t defend for long. (Sure, he can thwart some attacks with cheap removal cards or defensive Feng Shui Sites, but if everyone treats him as a target he won’t be able to keep this up for long.) Eventually, someone takes one of his sites for the win.

Playing like this is a mistake for a number of reasons. Simply put, if you attack the weakest position, you make it weaker still. You’ve spent some of your resources putting another player in a position where they cannot defend themselves as well as anyone else. When someone makes a bid for the win, the player in the weakest position is likely to be the target. You spent Power and cards to take down someone already weaker than you are. Another player spent their Power and cards building up their forces. Who’s the one more likely to be able to make a winning bid? And who’s going to have to spend even more of their Power and card trying to stop the win, protecting the same guy they just made too weak to protect himself?

Although there is a strong strategic reason not to attack the weakest player, the biggest problem with this style of play is that it isn’t any fun from either side – while being a victim gets old fast, so does being a bully.

1. Forgetting to Have Fun.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? How could anyone playing Shadowfist forget to have fun? I’ve seen it happen, though, with beginners, World Champs, and everyone in between – and not just in tournament settings.

Maybe two people think a third is getting too powerful, so they both hit him hard – and the guy getting hit takes it personally. Or someone makes a poor play, allowing someone else to gain a strong advantage – and a third player gets upset because the first one has ‘thrown away the game’. Or maybe someone just gets angry because their deck isn’t working the way they want it to. You’ve probably seen people get like this, too, or maybe even been the person not having fun anymore. To them (or you) I have this to say:

Get over it.

It’s hard to keep a good attitude when your deck fails you, or you think you’re getting picked on, or you lose because of someone else’s error. No one says you need to be happy because you aren’t doing well – but if you’re going to stay unhappy, there’s no point in continuing to play. You’re not getting paid for it; you’re not getting graded on it. The whole point is playing is to have fun, so do it – get over your grump and go back to having fun playing Shadowfist with your friends.

And kick their butts.

by Max Hufnagel, 2001.

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