Parts of your deck

The Rule of Fives - The Starting Mantra

Based on an article by Dave Van Domelen ©1995

To quote from page 10 of the Shadowfist rulebook:

"One-fifth of cards should be feng shui sites, one-fifth characters that have no resource requirements but that have resources, and the rest an even mix of other kinds of cards. You may have no more than five of a given card."

As far as this goes, it's a solid beginning foundation for deck building. As you start with six cards in hand, the odds are that you'll have at least one Feng Shui Site as well as a Foundation Character and are well on your way to getting to the more meatier portions of your deck.

Here's the rule:

  • 1 in 5 cards should be Feng Shui Sites.
  • 1 in 5 cards should be Foundation Characters. (You may find out you want to include Foundation Sites (faction sites which provide, but don't require resources) in this group as well.
  • 1 in 5 cards should be cheap Events and States. (Perhaps you include your power gaining events here as well, or put them down with everything else.)
  • 1 in 5 cards should be Characters that require resources. (This runs the full range from support characters to ramp characters up to your High-Octane hitters.
  • 1 in 5 cards should be everything else.

Of course, these are very general categories and in itself this 'rule' is just a starting point. After testing your deck, you will end up tweaking the formula until your deck ends up a fine-tuned winning machine!

Faction Strengths

Putting it all Together

Rainforest Bridge by Jason Ballard

So you understand the Rule of Fives and you’re ready to make your own deck from scratch. There is no perfect formula for building an effective deck, but here are some guidelines to help you through the process. In the example below, we'll build towards an 50-card Ascended style control deck and follow the basic "Rule of Fives" construction.

image: Drop Bears by Larry Wilson

In Shadowfist, there is a common goal, attacking your opponents to reach victory conditions first. How you get there is important. Do you want to blast your opponent's characters out of the way with direct character elimination as the Lotus and Architects of the Flesh do? Should you look at flinging as much damage on Feng Shui Sites as you can so that when one of your characters get through, the site is yours, like the Jammers?

Do you want to play with the synergies available with like designator-based decks?

There are quite a few tricks available in many different flavors. Look over your cards and see what combinations pop out at you.

image: Recruits by Ikaan Studio

This deck will have 10 Feng Shui Sites and 10 Foundation Characters. Select these first 20 cards with your theme in mind so they reinforce your goals.

For this Modern format control deck, Corporate Informer (x5) and Recruits (x5) should be your go-to foundations; keep the Police Escorts at the station.

You'll want to choose some Feng Shui that support the strategy, or that shore up weaknesses your deck may have.

image: Sworn Infiltrator by Diego Candia

Start with 2-3 Utility Characters (1 or 2 Fighting Characters with a non-combat ability). For this deck, we'll use the Cabinet Minister and Sworn Infiltrator.

4-5 Ramp Characters with Cost 3 and Fighting 4 with an ability come next. (Agent Neil North, Snap of the Crocodile)

4-5 Medium-Sized Hitters
(Cop on the Take, Death Shadow)

Finally, 1-2 Hitters (Jeanette Brusello)

image: Blood is Thicker than Water by Carlos Cara Alvarez

Five alternate power generation Events are usually a good starting point, but some players prefer more (Violet Meditation, Humble Beginnings, Bull Market). Other events to support a control deck might include Operation Snow Leopard, Secret Handshake (for the card pick), or Blood is Thicker than Water (usually better if you have the means to get additional resources, like Shang Bojing).

Your states in the Ascended control deck will obviously include some combination of Shadowy Mentor and Undercover Asset. Your theme of control is furthered by states like House Arrest, Path of the Wily Mongoose, and Shadowed.

image: City Hall by Sham Li

Any non-Feng Shui Sites you select should reinforce your theme as much as your Feng Shui Sites. If you are especially heavy on alternate power generation, The Lodge might be a good choice, as you’ll be able to sufficiently power its effect. If you are concerned about running through your best cards too soon, Wolf Den might be better.

Edges are sometimes harder to decide upon, and not everyone uses them anyway. They tend to be a lot more specialized in their usage but seldom hurt anything if left unused on the table. In a control deck that relies on a lot of power to stay functional, Everything Falls Apart and Extortion might be solid choices.

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.

Based on an article by Max Hufnagel

Quick quiz: You’re playing a Modern Lotus deck. Your first draw contains one Exorcist (of two in your deck), two Underworld Coronation (of three), one Spirit Wrack (of three), one Death of 1,000 Cuts (of three), and one The Mantle (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 Humble Beginnings 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).

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 Green Snake and White Snake or Spirit Wrack 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 "You Will Not Fail Me Again!") 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!!!, Fractured Soul) and denial (Confucian Stability, Winter’s Laugh). 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!

This common error can take many forms:

One of your big hitters gets Shadowy Mentored. Later, you realize your unrevealed front-row Site was a Stone Dolmens. You leave your Gambling House unturned because you forget that your opponent controls a Netherworld Trickster and a Character that is the subject of “What Have I Become?!” Your Abysmal Wyrm heals at the end of the turn, but you forget to activate your Crystal Heart.

To avoid these mistakes, you have to keep track of what’s on the table. Unfortunately, that’s usually easier than it sounds. Shadowfist games get complicated, with each player controlling 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:

Pay attention.

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 focused 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.

A fast, powerful deck can bust out early with Chiu Bagong or Test Monkey, burning its first Feng Shui Site while everyone else is building up resources. Later, it can use recursion, and control effects to dominate the table. Even ganged up against, it would be a threat (In Your Face Again and Final Showdown are both 0-cost). This might be a good, strong deck, but not subtle at all. Not surprisingly, it would seldom win after the first game.

It is an obviously potent 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 second place – where they are perceived as less of a threat, and often win the game by surprise. It takes careful planning to grab two Feng Shui Sites in one turn, but it’s the kind of planning that often leads to victory.

Simply put, protecting a site is a mistake when you lose more than you would if you had let the attack go through unopposed. 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.

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 Wired to Blow deals to one of your second rank interceptors after you take out one of the attackers. Sometimes, the error is in ignoring what cards an opponent might reasonably use against you. While “Torch the Place” doesn’t see too much play in various playgroups, C4 Sinkhole changed the metagame a lot and should always be anticipated when playing against a Jammer player.

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.

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, Austin, 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.

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 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.

Many people, even experienced Shadowfist players, commonly make this mistake. Some may even 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 further and further 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 Humble Beginnings – 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.

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.