Chapter 1, Lesson 1:
We all play a lot of games, and we may even win a lot of games, but why? Coming from a gamer’s standpoint, often I will pick up a difficult game and INSTANTLY start to lose. I understand the rules, the mechanics, and I even know some of the basic strategies, but what I don’t know is how to play those strategies to success. In game design, these are called the dynamics of game play, which is to say knowing when and how to implement the strategies you have seen so many other players successfully tackle. It wasn’t until I read a fascinating book The Art of War, that I started to understand the philosophies behind deeper strategies and tactics. Now, you may be asking yourself “What does a book written by a guy named after a flaming ball of gas from centuries ago have to do with gaming, and more specifically, Mage Wars?” And that is a valid question.
The answer, like so many other answers books have to offer us, is between the lines. He talks a lot about the strategies and tactics most successful in war. It’s when we understand that war simply defined is direct conflict that we start to realize why so many successful businessmen have used Sun Tzu’s seminal work not for violence, but for victory. And it’s applying these strategies to Mage Wars that we can really begin to see just how deep a game can go. It’s not simply about why we make a move, or why we plan a card, but it’s about why this move is better than any other move that you could make, or why picking this set of cards is better than any other set of cards in your spell book.
In this series of articles, I am going to go through Sun Tzu’s book, from cover to cover, and explain the theory as it applies to Mage Wars. This will be a journey for your eyes and my hands as we work to understand just how to be the most dominating mage in the game. So, with out further ado, let’s tackle our first lesson together.
The Five Factors of the Arena:
Sun Tzu starts off by discussing the difference between a victorious general, and a defeated general. He explains that there are five factors every general must understand and follow if he hopes to effectively determine the conditions obtaining the battlefield. These five factors are:
- Moral Law- Causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.
- Heaven- Signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.
- Earth- Comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.
- Commander- Stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.
- Method and Discipline- are to be understood by the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officer, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.
Now, don’t go running off yet! This may seem like a mass jumble of words that could not possibly be connected with any gaming , much less Mage Wars. But, in fact, these five factors are something we already subconsciously do every time we play! For example, do you look at the opponent’s health and mana totals? Do you look for the nearest path of least resistance to the opponent’s mage? These are all important realizations that the five factors try and get us to think about in game. Let us delve deeper into what these factors mean as it pertains to Mage Warring.
The Moral Law
Creatures seem like a huge investment. I mean, you have to waste a turn, pay a lot of mana, and they don’t even get to attack when you cast them! But why are they so useful. The moral law simply means that you need creatures, and they will die. It is through their death that you will win the game. We need our creatures to die. I mean, think about it. On a basic level, every attack that the opponent is using on a creature is one less attack you have to deal with. It is life you are not losing. Every time a creature attacks the opposing mage, it is one less attack that you have to waste an action on. Every enchantment and incantation they cast on this creature, every trick they employ is something not happening to you, the mage. It is through this brutal beat down of your creatures that you will live. This is the Moral Law.
So how do get our opponent to attack our creatures? The answer is simple. Never cast a creature you cannot make an immediate threat against the opponent with. This is why with swarm strategies I will often cast a fatty first in order to give the opponent something to deal with while I cast smaller creatures. I always want to make my opponent choose between getting extremely hurt in order to attack me, or to try and take out the creature. This decision will end in my creatures downfall, but that is okay, because it is through that death that I have gained enough tempo to swing the game in my favor.
The reverse side of this is not to support your creatures too much. You want to support them just enough to make them a threat, but not too much that you are losing sight of the main goal, which is killing the mage. Let your creatures die, I promise you it will be worth it.
When I first started playing Mage Wars, one of the most hated parts for me was the opening few moves of the game. I never knew what my opponent was going to do, and I always felt like my opening moves were just worse compared to his. But, as I learned the game, it’s cards, and it’s inherent opening strategies, I began to build reactively to what the opponent was doing. Heaven is simply what overall strategy the opponent is building to, as well as what obstacles he creates in order to for you to stop his strategy. For example, Temple of Light is an obstacle to defend against the opponent’s creatures and temples.
This is where study and play of the game will help the most. Knowing what the opponent is going to open with, as well as the strategy he is going to implement is vital to the success of your own. If you can play around his strategy, you can more efficiently but your strategy into action. So study! The opponent sprints to Near Center of the board, what is his strategy? The opponent casts Mana Crystal and Battleforge, what is his strategy? Know what you are going up against. Think of the opponent’s strategy like rain on the battlefield. You have to know what to do when it rains, because if you don’t and your opponent does, you have lost before have even begun.
I can’t tell you the number of times I have tried to cast dissolve and realized I was too far away. Or when someone has tried to attack me with a flameblast, only to realize that they were too far away. Or even when the opponent has forgotten that hindered does not care if you are fast. Earth is the realization that you are within a close proximity to the mage. You need to know how close you need to get, how fast you need to get there, and the most efficient way to get there without your opponent getting to you first.
This is important for any style of play, be it control, swarm, or aggro, as you always need to know your clearest line to and from the enemy. Know the range of your spells so that you not to get closer than needed, and so you can also not lose tempo by incorrectly casting a spell that would otherwise completely change the game. It is incredibly important for you to know your best lines of attack and your best paths to kite, as it gives you the ability to plan much further in advance of the opponent. If I know that I am going to be here next round, and that my opponent will most likely be doing (Heaven), then I will know exactly what I have to do in order to keep damaging the mage while keeping tempo.
You are the mage. It is you, alone, that will decide your fate in the arena. Commander is this realization. You have to do whatever it takes to win the game. No, I don’t mean cheating, or some other nefarious method of getting ahead. What I am talking about is that when it comes down to it, your creatures will die. Your conjurations will fall. You need to know that it is you that will win the battle for you. You can’t depend on lucky die rolls or enchantments. You will have to outthink your opponent with your wits alone. As well, you should always realize how much life you and the opponent has left. This is an important resource that you can expend to get ahead.
But how does this relate to the factors in any way? Well, the factors are an examination of the Battlefield. Are you not apart of the battlefield? You and your opponent both are the largest contributors to the battlefield, in fact. You need to know your spellbook inside and out. You need to be able to know what to any situation you are put it. Know that it is you that will win you the game, but it is also you that will lose it.
The other commander, the opponent, needs to be assessed as well. What mage is he playing? Is he a strong opponent? As you play, you will notice certain ticks the opponent makes, such as always placing a facedown enchantment under himself when he knows he’s about to be attacked, or attacking every creature he comes up. He may try to kite every single attack you try and make. Understand his thought process. If you do this, you can make logical assumptions as to what he is going to do next. Be one with the opponent. It is your only chance at true victory.
Method and discipline
Alas, we come to the final factor. This one is rather simple, actually. Know how much mana you have. That’s it. But it’s not that simple. You need to also know how much mana you will spend on any given turn. Your mana is not unlimited. Don’t use it for unnecessary reasons. It is for this reason that you need to plan out well in advance what you are going to cast in any given turn. You never want to be in a position in which you cannot pay the nullify cost, or you can’t teleport as far as you need to, or cast that game ending spell, or summon a threat to the board. Once you have figured out what you are going to do, stick to that plan as much as you can. Sure, you may have to adjust for what the opponent is doing, but have an outline. As well, I always try and save my mana in order to build to something, such as a Drain Soul. It’s expensive cost will give me a structure, so that I am not spending my mana needlessly, as well, it gives me something to end the game with.
Your opponent should always be afraid of something you can do. Always make sure you have enough mana to threaten what your opponent may think you have. Often, I will hold off casting a spell in order to have five mana in the pool to bait my opponent into thinking I have a Reverse Attack on me. By giving structure to your mana supply, you can more effectively and efficiently save mana, while playing yet more mind games with the opponent.
These five factors? They are only the first page of the Art of War. These five factors as so important to winning this game, I cannot stress enough. So, let’s try an exercise. The next game of Mage Wars you play, I want to you to make a small list of these factors. During the first round of the game, after the Action Stage, apply these factors to your current board state. Repeat after the second round. This may lead to a longer game, but I think it will be interesting for both you and I to learn all we can about these five factors, as this is the foundation the Art of War builds on. Feel free to email me at Padawanofthegames@gmail.com with your findings. Next week, we are going to cover seven considerations you can use to divine victory or defeat at any time. Enjoy my friends, and welcome to the Art of Mage Wars.