by: A. Joki/Talvi
As most learn fairly early, Star Realms is a game with deceptive depths. Over time, players often find themselves stuck on a plateau: unable to move forward and sometimes even backsliding. Typically, plateaus happen at similar points (around levels 6, 12, 17, 22) and come with realizations of key techniques or principles. If you are stuck, here are the most common reasons and the levels at which they often occur.
Level 1-5 (typically level 4) and/or win percentage under 40%
At this level, most players are playing moment by moment, with only the thought of buy cards to get damage to bring the opponent’s authority down to 0.
Scrappy is Happy – Scrap Away Those Starter Cards. At this level, one of the first things you need to recognize is the power of a ‘fast’ deck. A fast deck is measured by how quickly you go through every card to reach the next shuffle. A slow deck will take 5-7 hands to get to the next shuffle and will have a lot of ‘junk’, such as starter cards (Vipers and Scouts) as well as economy (give gold) cards. A fast deck makes it in 2-3 hands before you have to reshuffle. If you think about it, a slow deck with 15 total damage will lose out to a fast deck with only 12 damage – since the fast deck will have gone through two shuffles (twice that 12 damage, so 24 total) while the slow deck only dealt 15 damage. Fast decks also have a greater chance to get extra damage/benefits from allies since there are fewer starter cards to get in the way of the same color cards coming up together in your hand. The way to a fast deck is a combination of having Machine Cult cards that scrap, ways to draw cards (as with the Trade Federation’s Command Ship or Star Empire’s Recycling Station) and/or bases that stay out in play and therefore don’t take up room in your deck. Primarily, though, you make your deck fast by using Machine Cult scrap cards such as Missile Bot or Supply Bot. Because of the power of scrapping and drawing, Machine Cult base Brain World (scrap up to two cards then draw as many cards) is considered one of the most valuable/powerful cards in the game.
Tip: at the beginning of learning to play Star Realms, you may wonder why your opponents get so lucky about drawing all their good cards together all the time – especially for the killing blow at the end of the game. But if you examine their deck, you will often find that they heavily scrapped in the early game so there are only good cards to draw – nearly all the Scouts and Vipers are gone.
Figure 1: With no Vipers and only 1 Scout, this is a fast deck now, providing continual defense and damage. Ally abilities get especially potent.
Where’s the Gold? Buying Economy Cards Early. Econ/economy, means having cards which provide gold. It becomes fairly obvious that the initial starter cards (2 Vipers and 8 Scouts) will never get you to the valuable 6+ cost cards. It’s a tenet of the game that in the opening hands, it is only in rare instances that you would not seek scrap/econ cards first – and avoid buying straight damage cards. If you don’t have economy cards such as Trade Pod (gives 3 gold) or Freighter (gives 4 gold), your deck will slow down with ‘junk’ that just don’t do damage fast/large enough or protect you well enough. It’s the difference between sending a mosquito (Imperial Fighter) verses a T-Rex (Dreadnaught) after your opponent. So although that Imperial Fighter looks so buff in an opening trade row because, wow, it makes the other guy lose a card, what you really need is to buy a card like Trade Pod. It’s not flashy, but it’s going to get you to cards like Battle Blob (8 damage) or Command Ship (Draw Two cards, 4 authority, 5 damage). If you purchased the Imperial Fighter, it would mean one less gold in your hand and less chance to get good cards – all for a few damage points and discard. Just don’t buy too many economy cards – or you’ll never have enough damage to actually win the game!
Tip: One good situation in which to buy a damage card would be when you already have an economy-providing card in that same faction. E.g., it is quite common to buy a Blob Fighter (3 damage) if you also had a chance to purchase a Blob Wheel (sacrifice to get 3 gold) or a Trade Pod (gives 3 gold).
Figure 2: Economy cards are key in the early game. You have to be able to buy the 6+ bases and ships
Level 5-10 (typically level 7) and/or win percentage under 50%
At this level of play, most players recognize the need to get their decks to work faster. But now it is time to learn key points that make the difference between a great and a mediocre deck.
Junk Food – Filling But Fattening! One of the obvious mistakes at this level is to always buy something with your gold – whether it really helps your deck or not. This bloats the deck and ensures that you a) have a ‘rainbow’ deck of all 4 colors and therefore your cards rarely ally; b) your deck is a slug that never seems to deal enough damage or get a great combo. Especially later in the game, when buying a Trade Wheel or Trade Pod – even if they ally with cards in your deck – isn’t really going to help you damage your opponent and win the game. And too often, you’ll draw those cards and instead of killing your opponent, give them time to kill you instead. Remind yourself that you don’t need to buy that Blob Wheel or 2 Explorers just because you have 4 gold hanging around. The best players keep their decks lean and mean, often forgoing a purchase even with 5 or 6 gold hanging around.
Tip: economy cards like Explorers (2 gold, sacrifice for 2 damage) are great early game but don’t hang on to them for too long! They won’t ally with anything and take the place of a card that could have allied with the other cards in your hand. Many players don’t keep Explorers past the second ‘deck’ (shuffle). Avoid buying them in the later game for damage or because you hate to waste gold – almost any other non-starter card is a better draw than an Explorer so you don’t want it in your deck then. It doesn’t ally anything!
Figure 3: With 3 Scrap cards in my deck already, I would be foolish to buy the Trade Bot
Impulse Control – Buy What You Need, Not What You Want. There is an art to buying cards from the trade row. Most importantly, if you don’t need the card to win/are already winning, don’t buy anything! Sure, that Imperial Fighter is waving at you saying “hey, I’m another Imperial – I ally with all your other yellow! I make discard, I’m a lion!” But if you already have enough damage in your deck to kill your opponent, adding another card doesn’t help – and instead when you buy it, you could reveal a card the opponent needs to save him/her or to kill you! Imagine buying that Imperial Fighter – and then turning over a Command Ship for your opponent to top deck with Megahauler or an allied Freighter. Suddenly, that ‘lion’ turned around and bit you instead.
Tip: Cards like Corvette and Survey Ship often are tempting – after all, they don’t slow down your deck since they draw a card and replace themselves. But at the same time, and especially early game, buying them means revealing a card that can give an important advantage to your opponent. Too often, I see a player buy a Survey Ship and then reveal a Freighter or Supply Bot for me to purchase next turn. Be very cautious early game or when you are winning – don’t make it easier for your opponent to beat you by ‘building their deck for them’.
Figure 4: Sure, I could purchase that Blob Carrier. But with a Red/Yellow deck, is that wise?
Level 10-15 (typically level 12)
Now you begin to tighten your play with little things that aren’t obvious but make a marked difference in your win percentage.
Discard Pile Penitentiary. Cards that have an ability to allow you to draw another card(s) are usually very useful. But here’s a surprise: they can also lose you a game by causing your most powerful cards to be sent directly to discard pile jail. This can amount to those cards skipping a whole deck cycle – 5+ turns without being able to draw them! How? Take this example: you have your two best cards in your hand and a Recycling Station. You activate the Recycling Station and discard two cards – but in order to draw two new cards, your deck gets shuffled. At the end of the turn, those great cards go into the empty discard pile (the deck was already shuffled so they don’t go in there). Now they will sit there until you have played all the cards in your deck and it gets shuffled again. Often, that’s around 17 cards, so at least 4 hands. Worse, if they ended up at the bottom of the deck in the new shuffle, you may not see those great cards again until 9+ hands – and by then, you’ve lost!
Similarly, if you have a draw card in your hand, make sure to buy your cards first before playing it – so the card you bought is in the discard and then is immediately shuffled into the deck with you play your draw a card. That way, the card you just bought doesn’t sit in the discard pile penitentiary, talking about the good old days with its ‘draw a card’ friend who forced a shuffle mid-turn.
Tip: Recycling Station (discard up to 2 cards, then draw as many cards) is one of the most misused cards in the game. I’ve seen players send their Battle Blobs (8 damage, ally draw a card, sacrifice for 4 damage) or Dreadnaughts (7 damage, draw a card, sacrifice for 4 damage) into Discard Pile limbo because they activated a Recycling Station to draw 2 cards, causing a shuffle, and then after being played, those cards didn’t come up again for the rest of the game. Similarly, I’ve seen Battle Blobs bought AFTER using Recycling Station and causing a reshuffle: no Battle Blob coming to visit for many turns, when it could have been shuffled into the deck and even drawn that turn! Unfortunately, most players believe it to be ‘bad luck’ that they didn’t draw their good card for so long – failing to recognize that they made their own ‘bad luck’ by not thinking things through. The Megahaulin blog has an in-depth discussion of this topic by Rick DeMille (Darklighter) entitled The Reshuffle: A Strategy Guide.
Figure 5: Here, I discarded two cards, which forced a shuffle so I could get 2 new cards. That means all the lovely cards I play this turn go to the Discard Pile Penitentiary! If I hadn’t used the Recycling Station, they would have been shuffled into the deck. A Blob is a terrible thing to waste!
You’re Da Bomb! The Cards That Are Factionless Buys. Some cards are so good, you buy them when you can. These are called bombs – and they can be bases or ships. Most are 6+ cost (in an interesting analysis on the Megahaulin Blog, top rated player Benjamin Gartner noted that the winning games almost always had the highest percentage of 6+ cost cards). Battle Blob, Command Ship, Brain World, Battle Pod, Battle Screecher, Battlecruiser, Flagship, Recycling Station, Dreadnaught, Fleet HQ, Brain World – these are all cards that are nearly always useful so you nearly always buy them regardless of your deck’s current factions.
Similarly, some card synergize well with a certain faction or color. E.g., Battle Pod and Battle Screecher can be lone Blob cards in a heavy Trade Federation deck – simply because they clear out the trade row and give more opportunities for your Megahauler, Freighter, Construction Hauler, and other econ cards. Recycling Station works beautifully with Machine Cult scrap cards – allowing a player to discard two cards to draw two new cards, and giving fodder to the discard pile for the scrappers to sack. So don’t get in a narrow focus when playing – there are many synergies to be found (and discovered with future releases) within the Star Realms universe.
Tip: If you have a choice of several bombs on the table, often the best choice is the one your opponent would want most – not the one you want most. If he’s low on damage, take away his bomb and he may never get a chance to do enough damage to beat you. This goes for bases, too – lower the synergy of his deck by taking away a Hive in a Blob-heavy deck (and hey, even if you can’t faction it, it still does damage!). And don’t forget that some factions work great together – Blob damage with Machine Cult scrap is tough to beat! As well, blue authority gain can often give a person with scrap cards enough life to survive long enough to have a deck that deals 40+ damage a turn by the end of the game.
Figure 6: The bomb of bombs – it scraps AND draws!
All Your Bases Are Belong To Us! Just Because They Are Pretty, It Doesn’t Mean You Buy Them. Around level 7, I see a lot of emotional buys. Players love a certain faction or card, and always buy regardless of whether it works. Star Realms choices are dictated by the trade row and game situation. So as much as you love scrap cards, if you are buying them late game, they will clog up your deck, take away opportunities to get damage cards, and you’ll be soundly defeated. And yes, that Imperial Fighter forces discards, which is nifty, but if you buy it early, you run the risk of stalling your deck with an inability to get enough gold to buy the game-winning 6+ cost cards.
Tip: Some emotional buys are always valid. A favorite among players is the Imperial Frigate. The nice thing about buying this card is that it sacrifices itself to draw a card – so you aren’t stuck with a lone yellow card in your Red, Green, or Blue deck. It replaces itself but gives you a free 4 points of damage and forced discard.
Figure 7: Imperial Fighter is fun and Stare Empire decks rock! But not on the first turn when the Blob Wheel can give you economy (you might even get the Dreadnaught by Sacrificing the Blob Wheel later)!
Level 10-15 (typically level 12) (50-55% win rate)
Now you are starting to understand that there is a big obstacle to your game: your opponents! Time to rein them and take control of their choices!
Hate Drafting. It may sound mean but is actually a natural part of the big picture game. In Star Realms, you can always check your opponent’s discard pile. In the online ap, you can also check what he/she has in their draw pile. The more of one faction in a deck, the greater the chance to trigger ally abilities and the more effective the deck. Too often, I see players completely disregarding their opponent’s strategy – and so while they are happily buying Blobs and Trade Federation, their opponent has amassed a Star Empire armada that completely shuts them down (discarded Blobs deal no damage!). The better players continually count the damage their opponent’s decks can make at a minimum (before ally abilities and counting their own life gain) and compare that to their own deck’s damage ability. A large inequity signals a potential loss. If you see your opponent’s deck getting too many of one faction, it’s time to start ‘hate drafting’ and buying that faction’s cards out. Sure, that Imperial Fighter may not do much in your Blob/Trade Federation deck; but at the same time, you really don’t want that Imperial Fighter to have fun playing with his friends in your opponent’s deck (and causing the dreaded multiple discard situation!). Similarly, if an opponent has enough Trade Federation cards, you’ll have a hard time keeping up with their authority gain and ample gold buying power/drawing.
Tip: The Star Empire is a latent faction – it has hidden potential that most players fail to recognize or even capitalize upon until too late (and it is often the number one faction to hate draft). Sure, the ability to draw or force a discard is nifty but the real power behind this faction is the ‘Sacrifice to Draw a Card’ ability that so many possess. If you are stuck at some point, cards like Imperial Frigate (4 damage, 2 ally damage, sacrifice to draw a card) or Battlecruiser (5 damage, draw a card, ally: discard a card, and sacrifice to destroy target base/draw a card) give you the opportunity to draw a card. Either for extra gold (to buy a power card) or for extra damage (to kill a powerful base or draw more damage). Of all the factions, this latent ability for the Star Empire makes it the most powerful, unpredictable, and versatile – especially since damage adds up fast through ally abilities. It also makes it difficult to see how powerful the deck will become. But beware its weakness – there’s not a lot of easy econ in yellow; early purchases of the Star Empire can shut you down fast mid game since you can’t buy anything but junk cards.
Figure 8: My opponent has gone heavy red – I may hate draft the Patrol Mech rather than grab the Battlecruiser. Especially since I know my opponent is low on economy and couldn’t get the Battle Cruiser either (while I can likely get it next turn, too!)
You Win Some, You Lose A Lot! That’s the cool thing about it though – no one can really dominate. The same mechanics that keep the game fresh can also frustrate. The top players in the game win only every 6 in 10 games. That’s a lot of losses over time and can be daunting. The average win percentage of the top 25 is 60%! But this also means that Star Realms is a game for all level of players – a level 2 player can beat a level 60 player – and it happens often. The trick is to not get frustrated with a game that can feel very ‘streaky’ – where you win 5 straight games and then lose the next 7 in a row! I see many get frustrated – but the downstreaks are temporary and then you are up again.
Tip: if you find you are on a downward spiral – losing levels and losing a lot of games – remember two things: every player has experienced this (some losing 3-4 levels at a time!) and it is part and parcel with winning a whole bunch of games and leveling up. If you find yourself in a plateau or losing streak, sometimes it is best to take a couple of days off and then come back to it fresh. If you play a lot at one time, you can get into a rut and make decisions by rote rather than being flexible – leading to excessive losses.
Figure 9: The dreaded base wall. I don’t think I will survive this situation! Chalk up another loss for me.
No Soup For You! Control Your Opponent. Another situation that can feel like bad luck (but really isn’t) involves controlling what your opponent can do – limiting opportunities. This includes hate drafting, removing bases early through sacrificing, and most especially scrapping cards from the trade row. Sure, there is a random aspect of what goes into the trade row. But you can control what’s available as well. Blob cards such as Battle Screecher, Battle Pod, and an allied Blob Destroyer can scrap cards from the trade row – revealing cards you need or denying key cards to your opponent. As such, the savvy players always buy trade row control cards to ensure the game goes more in their favor.
Tip: If my opponent gets a Megahauler (5 authority, acquire any ship without paying its cost and put it on top of your deck, ally: draw a card)), I’m going Blob to clear out the trade row of ships, leaving nothing but bases. Similarly, if a player buys a Blob Carrier (7 damage, ally: acquire any ship without paying its cost and put it on top of your deck), you’ll want to deny him as many Blob cards as possible to keep it from allying and pulling in big ships/revealing ships in the trade row.
Figure 10: He has a War World? Heck yeah, I’m taking that Imperial Fighter (even though I have no Star Empire cards in my deck)!
Level 15-22 (typically 17) (55 -58% win rate)
Now we see the big picture – the metagame! Like chess, it’s about what’s happening further in the game and knowing with fair certainty the outcome of the next few turns.
The Oracle Complex. Play For the Future, Not The Immediate. This is really a key reason for hitting a plateau – buying what looks good on the trade row rather than what your deck needs for synergy. Yes, those bombs are enticing – but you have to analyze the deck you have so far and figure out its weaknesses. Typically after the second shuffle. If you have good damage, you may need to pass up a Blob Destroyer in favor of a Battle Station just to shore up defenses. If you leave yourself wide open, you may spend all your damage knocking down their bases while they come right through and bring you to 0 (or, as seasoned players say, send the damage “in your face”). Similarly, if you have plenty of econ, why are you buying that Freighter mid game? Do you have 3 scrappers already? Better concentrate on more protection or you won’t live long enough to scrap out your deck.
If you are matched against a top player, you’ll often find yourself behind a ‘base wall’ that you can’t break through to deal final damage. So while you were happily buying all the damage that appeared in the trade row and got them down to 5 authority, they were fashioning a deck with no weaknesses: one that becomes invincible at the end. Those players invest in a balance that often goes like this: early game buys are econ/scrap, midgame buys are damage, and late game buys are purely defense (bases or authority). It creates a balanced deck that addresses the needs at all three stages of the game.
Tip: Remember, you have to react to your opponent’s choices. If he/she ends up with a lot of Star Empire or Blob damage, you’ll have to invest in bases early to slow them down or the game will be over before you even got started. If they get scrap early, you’ll have to go heavy aggro damage to take them out before they can scrap down.
Figure 11: Intriguing possibilities. With that many Star Empire cards showing, building a strategy around War World just might make sense over the Blobs here. In this game, I sacrificed a Ram to get the War World and went straight yellow. This especially made sense after my opponent hate drafted the Blob Destroyer from me. A discarded Blob Destroyer deals no damage and she discarded a lot that game!
Sacrificing For Fun and Pleasure – Don’t Be Timid With Early Base Sacrifices. In a Twitch broadcast during a match, Samuel Hall (baX) shocked watchers by sacrificing two separate Trade Posts to remove his opponent’s pesky bases very early in the game (turn 5 or so?). He explained that those bases he removed (e.g., Barter World) gave his opponent too great a head start early in the game. Most players are reticent to enact a permanent sacrifice (sacrifice a Trading Post) in order to enact a temporary solution (base removal). But what players don’t realize is that by allowing opponents bases to remain up early, the access to 6+ bases/ships or extra damage (as with The Hive or Royal Redoubt) is often the difference between winning or losing. A Trading Post may be marginally useful mid/late game but sacrificing it and taking out a resource/damage base can be pivotal – and that can often swing the game in a player’s favor. Don’t forget the late game sacrifice to win the game – Barter World and Battle Station for damage, Port of Call can destroy a base and draw a card for the win.
Tip: One of the best things about the Star Realms community is an opportunity to see a top player walk through how he or she wins game. If you haven’t done so already, check out https://www.twitch.tv/hbax11 and watch Samuel walk through key decisions and discuss strategy techniques. He’s helped many players become more savvy and increase wins/get over plateaus.
Figure 12: If I let that Barter World Live, he’ll likely get a Battle Blob next turn. So heck yeah, I’ll sacrifice the Trading Post to kill it.
Level 22+ (typically 22) (58% win rate)
At this level, little things begin to mean a lot! Getting over this level of plateau is usually an individual thing and not a general technique you are missing. Time to analyze your play style, how you control your opponent, and why you are losing: Do you go too aggro and leave yourself defenseless? Are you too slow to build? Do you rely on scrapping but leave yourself wide open? Do you recognize an opponent’s strategy and immediately begin to address it? Are you inflexible and keep doggedly to an early game strategy that didn’t pan out in the trade row?
To Blob Or Not To Blob. Being Flexible and Learning How To Pivot. It can’t be stressed enough how important flexibility is with the game. At level 22, the best players are the ones who analyze game state continually or at least by the second deck cycle (the second time you shuffle) and immediately recognize when a change in tactics is needed. E.g., Blob damage is great but if the opponent is damaging you faster than anticipated with Star Empire, you may need to sacrifice a Ram for a Trade Escort (gain life) or Battle Station (protection). Did you invest early in a frigate but your opponent got all the other Star Empire cards? Sacrifice those frigates for the faction your opponent has disregarded. Imperial Frigates, Trade Wheels, Space Stations, and Rams are key early game cards: they can be sacrificed for benefits and don’t lock you into a faction.
As well, understand your own play style. Typically, players gravitate toward aggro (aggressive damage with little defense) or control (a slow deck that builds up over time and then explodes for massive damage near the end). Little tweaks such as sacrificing Vipers instead of Scouts when you are a slow deck builder (more opportunities to build your little atom bomb deck) or scrapping Scouts when you are aggro (often translating into an extra 8-10 damage over 4-5 turns) are key. But at the same time, if you are taking heavy damage, be ready to stop buying damage and investing in more defense or life gain.
Tip: Remember that since you are, for some part, at the mercy of chance (in draw and trade row), be prepared to do moves/plays that would be suicide in nearly any other circumstance. As an example, if on your first turn you have 4 gold and see a Battle Pod and two Blob Fighters, you grab them all even though that doesn’t follow the ‘buy only econ or scrap early’ rule.
Sometimes, it just about stopping and analyzing what you are doing in order to help with a plateau. Challenging high ranked players and seeing their choices (or watching a Twitch broadcast of a game) can also be very helpful. There are many other reasons players plateau than those listed here; these are just the most common. But once you get over that hump, it really does feel great and things get smooth again.
Figure 13: aw, and I really wanted to scrap that Scout! But gotta grab that early Freighter instead! Hey, I’m flexible and can throw away a scrap opportunity for a greater gain.
Of course, there are many reasons for a plateau – these are representative of the ones I’ve seen most often. You may not plateau at the same place as others (or for the same reasons) but hopefully, you’ll find a key point in here to take your game to the next level and raise your win rate.
And remember, sometimes your opponent (or you) is just going to get really, really, really lucky!
Figure 14: Hey – I had to make sure I had enough damage to get past that Battle Station, right?