Shadow Era TCG » Articles » Mage Strategy and the Art of Death Racing
(This is a guest article by kamman13.)
NOTE: Based on the changes present in 1.28, this reasoning now applies only to the human mages. The shadow mages were both given more control-style abilities.
The powerful mages
So, what do mages have going for them? The answer is easy: offense. Their class specific cards have the most powerful, damage efficient spells in the game, and those spells can't be mediated by armor, or really defended in any way. I should mention that, by damage efficient, I mean they do the most damage per resource.
This means, of course, that mages are masters of the art of death-racing, and excel at race-style gameplay. They have the spells needed to drive an opponent right in the ground. Additionally, Portal grants allies haste, allowing them to attack faster, further complementing a race-style gameplay.
But can mages run a control style deck? Short answer- no. Snow Sapphire, Voice of Winter, and Freeze are great controlling cards. Portal can also double function as a way to win back board control, and Supernova is a great board clear. But most of these cards function primarily as delays, giving you a few more turns to do damage to your opponent while they can't do damage to you. Delays don't win you games, they prevent you from losing games for a few turns.
Mages are missing several key elements that allow a control deck to truly succeed. To run a control deck, you need cards that counter strategies, control the game, or heal you significantly, allowing you to wait out your opponent until your late game win condition kicks in. Mages have few counters, no heals, and no late-game win conditions. The only dependable late-game win condition for mages is a direct damage death race with Fireball and Lightning Strike, which only works if you've done enough damage to the hero from early game allies and spells. But if you're playing a control-type game, you're spending your early turns attacking their allies instead of the hero, eliminating this source of damage. The only answer here is death racing from start to finish.
What about Engulfing Flames and Poison Gas. These are great control-style damage abilities, but unfortunately don't work so well in a race-style deck. In a death race, you are expecting the game to end by turn 8-9. The earliest you can cast these spells is turn 4, meaning they net you about 1 damage per resource against the hero. This is slightly better than Lightning Strike, but Lightning Strike also gives you an extra 3 damage to use against an ally. Plus, if the enemy has allies out, it is often vital to use a Lightning Strike at turn 4 to kill those allies, meaning you won't be able to play gas or flames until a later turn, when it is even less damage efficient. Once mages gain the ability to consistently delay games for additional turns, then these two spells will become useful. But in a death-racing deck, you mind as well just use the almost as efficient but more versatile Lightning Strike at turn 4.
Now that we've established that the mage's bread and butter is their direct damage abilities, we run into a problem. Although these spells are really efficient sources of damage per resource, they are not efficient sources of damage per card. Allies are the most efficient source of damage per card, as they are a neverending source of damage if never killed. But a Fireball, at 4 damage for 3 resources, still only gets you 4 damage for one card when it's all said and done. To run mages effectively, you need lots of cards.
The mages have a nice unilateral draw engine in Research, but Research has problems. It's a slow draw, since it takes 4 resources to get 1 card, and 6 to get 2. This means research doesn't get you cards until you can safely afford to donate resources to it, which is turn 5-6. Not great. Additionally, Research does not complement the art of death racing. In death racing, you want to be dedicating your resources most efficiently to damage, not to card draw. This means you are better off relying on the two cheapest draw options in the game, Bad Santa and Bazaar. When a control-type mage deck becomes viable, then so will Research. Till then, put off your studies and hit the market.
The Art of Death Racing
Death racing, although a seeming simple-minded strategy, requires a fair bit of good decision-making to be effective. The idea is simple- bring your opponent's health to zero before he does the same to yours. To do so requires knowing when to attack the hero or the opposing allies. A good rule of thumb is looking at your allies' attack relative to your opponent's allies' attack. If they can do more damage to your hero per turn than you can do to them, then it's time to take out some enemy allies. Another rule of thumb is to be efficient with your attacks. If an enemy ally only has two life left and you have an ally with four attack, probably best not to waste the damage on that ally.
Another concern is board clears (Supernova or Nish's ability). If you can clear the board on the following turn, then go for their hero rather than the allies. Chances are their allies will "waste" their attacks killing your allies instead of attacking your hero, allowing you to wipe them the next turn. Here "waste" means not converting ally attack into hero damage, the primary concern in death races.
Portal is key in death racing because it does two things. First, it allows you to attack with allies as soon as they are summoned, meaning you can directly convert attack to hero damage without a chance for your opponent to kill your ally first. Second, you've created a threat on the board that your opponent must deal with before it translates into further hero damage. This means your opponent has to use resources or ally attacks to destroy your summoned allies, meaning they act as a sort of "meat shield," soaking up damage your hero might otherwise take. Thus, death racing has some defensive perks, when run well. Besides allyless mage decks, every mage deck should be running 2-3 Portals for its versatility.
The main idea in death racing is that any attack which does not attack the enemy hero must have a very good reason, as that is a "wasted" attack, damage that could have got the opponent's life down faster was instead spent somewhere else. The only real reason to attack something other than the opposing hero is if you save more damage to your hero in the long term than you would have done to your opponent. Making such a decision involves your current hand, knowledge of what's left in your deck, and knowledge of your opponent's probable counters and allies.
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