Everything you need to know about the Unicorn Format
By Cory Thomas (IGN corybear88 and known on the Facebook as Daisy Tom)
Why is it called unicorn?
A unicorn is a rare and mythical creature. Winning a star realms game by completing missions on your first 3 turns is a rare event (possibly also mythical, but that’s debatable). So winning on your first 3 turns via missions was called a unicorn, and the name has stuck.
Feel free to #blamePolites for this interlude in the lesson to see what it looks like when a unicorn is bagged.
What is the format?
Unicorns have been found in dozens of different formats, but the generally accepted “Unicorn format” is:
The sets in the Unicorn format help generate the craziness and action that it takes to hit your three missions in your first 3 turns. An alternate name you’ll hear for this format is “Chaos”, which is entirely appropriate.
Unicorn format uses Colony Wars as the base set. Colony wars is the highest trade and swingiest of the base sets, which helps facilitate the hunt. But most importantly this is also the only base set with the “buy direct to hand” cards. Mmmm. Bacon.
I know that there is a sizeable group of our community who despise anything with Missions (hello Emom69 and MarkBot3000). Even if you’re in that crowd, I encourage you to still give Unicorn games a spin. See if you can make the mental adjustment that this is NOT a typical game of Star Realms and embrace both the chaos and the significantly higher number of decisions that you need to make each turn.
A note on commanders: the command decks are not designed to be played with missions, so those won’t be covered in this article. Playing with the command decks would certainly make it easier to hit 3 missions in 3 turns but I’m pretty sure CrankyDay isn’t going to let command deck games into the unicorn archive.
Why should I play Unicorn games?
For the casual player:
Unicorn games move fast. Very fast. Sometimes ludicrous speed fast. By deck 2 you’ll often be playing big bomb cards. Consecutive trade mission events to let you top that Leviathan and immediately play it? It’ll happen. Quasar, then warp jump, then wormhole? Big turn coming! If you’re willing to embrace the craziness Unicorn can be a lot of fun.
Another fun aspect of Unicorn hunting is CrankyDay’s naming. With 12 missions, there are 12x11x10 = 1320 possible unique mission combinations. Only 77 unicorns have been found, so there are herds and herds* of unicorns that have not yet been found in the wild. There’s more on his archive later in the article.
* (flocks? bunches? What do you call a group of unicorns?)
For the competitive player:
The Unicorn format just plays differently than typical Star Realms. Most players are unfamiliar with it – this includes some of the very best players in the game – and don’t make the right adjustments. Playing against opponents who make suboptimal plays is a good way to win. If you need some tangible evidence: in the 8 seasons I have used Unicorn as my home format in the BGG Platinum league – which is Star Realms played at the very highest level – my record in those home games is 78-41.
The Unicorn format has a reputation among the haters as being “random” or “coin flip”. I think this comes from recall bias – losing a game where the opponent hit all the events they needed and there wasn’t much you could do to stop them can be seared into your memory. But every version of Star Realms has a version of that kind of game where RNG just turns hard against you. We’ve all played a Vanilla game where we go first and get 3/3/3 trade and are stuck buying explorers and wasting trade while your opponent has a bike and patrol mech as their first turn buys. A game where the RNG is not in your favor and leaves you way behind after just a turn or two is possible in any Star Realms format and those types of games are NOT more common in this format.
In fact, I would argue this format is further from “coin flip” than most. Increasing variance does not decrease the need for skill. Ultimately, the best way to drive the value of skill in a game is to increase the number of tough decisions. With cards, trade, and events flying all over the board, there are substantially more viable decisions per turn in Unicorn than in a typical Star Realms game. This is particularly true in the first couple of turns – in many base set games you are making two or three decisions in the first deck, and often they are not very difficult decisions. When you are not forced to make difficult decisions, you are not given any opportunities to differentiate yourself from your opponent. Unicorn gives you plenty of chances to flex that Star Realms brain.
Strategies on playing this format to find a unicorn
If you get the unicorn you’ll win, obviously, but there are times when playing for the unicorn will call for a different play than playing to maximize your chances of winning the game.
- Hope that you get a quasar event the first turn and it triggers your armada mission. Somewhere close to half of all unicorns started this way.
- When faced with a low-probability draw – go all in. It takes luck to hit a unicorn. There may be times when you have five cards in your deck and you need one specific card from those five to show up to hit your mission. Those are low odds, but when you’re going for a unicorn you need to give yourself a chance for the unlikely draw to hit. So go ahead and pop that gambit and hope for the best.
- Plan out your path to the unicorn. Before you play a card, evaluate your missions and if you already see the cards you need to help get there. If you have hidden base, which mission will it be most helpful to achieve? Do you need to use your gambits to get the cards you need now, or do you need to save them to actually hit the mission?
- If you are able to hit a mission your first turn but don’t see all the cards you need for the rest of your missions, hope is not lost. Do what you can to stock up on cards which will give you options on your next turns (econ, heros, draw cards). Your opponent may also trigger some events and mix up the trade row for you.
- Cards which punch from the trade row are your friend. Whether you need to uncover an event or if there’s a certain card you need, being able to cycle the trade row is helpful.
Strategies on playing this format to win .
I’ll expand upon this in several of the sections below, but it warrants mention up front. THESE GAMES WILL BE FAST. Whether the game ends from damage or missions, it will be rare for a game in this format to get to turn 16 and the average finish is in the neighborhood of turn 12. Plan accordingly.
Missions vs damage
In my experience roughly 70% of unicorn games will end via missions, not damage. Your first priority should be missions. When I start a game in this format, my first thought is “what is my path to completing my missions?”. I am evaluating how my gambits could line up to complete missions, and whether there are any cards I need on the trade row that work towards my missions.
If the missions are really ugly, given the gambits and trade row, then I will pivot to a very aggressive strategy. These games do not generally last very long, so if you aren’t going for missions you do not want to go for a long game build (like red/blue). The game will very likely be over before that deck can come together.
Where this gets tricky is when two of your missions look good but there are no cards at all to help with your third mission. Say you have armada, ally, and exterminate, but there are no green cards on the board. In this situation you have two great missions for this format, but an unclear path towards the third. In this case I’m going to try and pull some early econ so that I can pounce on opportunities when they arise, but if the trade row is still starved for green by the end of deck 2 I’m going to pivot and hope my opponent is also whiffing on at least one mission.
The Machine Cult is where players most often make mistakes when playing this format competitively. Machine cult cards are just less valuable in this format than in a regular game. This is particularly true for the battle bot. When you play a battle bot and scrap a starter in this format you’ve turned your 5 card hand into a 3 card hand with a few damage points. Because these games are short, you get less benefit from the scrapping. You’re also unlikely to have enough trade in hand to buy the cards that you need for your missions. In this format I will also regularly pass on convoy bot, which is a card I love love love in typical formats.
To elaborate, play out a situation where you get an early battle bot and repair bot. Even when you’ve bought several scrappers in deck 1, it’ll be deck 3 or 4 before you’ve scrapped down to a really streamlined deck. As your opponent, I’m totally fine letting you take that approach in this format, as you leave me my pick of the board and give me a great chance to complete my missions before your deck comes together.
Don’t take the above paragraphs to mean that scrapping isn’t important. Thinning out your deck dramatically improves your probability of hitting the missions once you have the right cards in your deck. But in this format there are a number of other ways your deck will thin down. Hartmann, Morris, and comet are all available and offer ways to thin your deck without bogging it down. With the chaos inherent to this format wrecker and incinerator are also more accessible than in a standard game.
Scouts vs Vipers
In the age-old question of which to scrap first, I am firmly on team “it depends”. Across all the games I play I would say I scrap scouts a bit more often than vipers but it depends on the game format and the game board. For many flavors of Star Realms if you’re always doing one or the other you’re doing it wrong. In the unicorn format, however, there is ALMOST always a right answer — scrap the vipers first. In the scout vs viper debate the argument for keeping vipers is the extra damage you accumulate over the course of the game. In this format, the games aren’t long and typically aren’t decided by damage. Get those vipers out of your hand to maximize your economy. Even when I have vet pilots I will often scrap the vipers first in this format.
Cards which are more valuable in Unicorn
I like most of these cards anyway, but their value is increased in this format:
Warning Beacon – mmmm. Bacon. This card is an absolute gem in the unicorn format. It can contribute to 7 of the 12 missions. One of the most difficult decisions you will face in unicorn is whether to buy a bacon that you don’t need for your missions. It is not a fun card to buy when you can’t put it into play immediately but it will so often help your opponent that not buying it can be perilous. Leave this out on the trade row at your own risk.
Cards which punch from row (ravager, swarmer, screecher, hive lord) – There are several ways these can help.
- Early game, if the trade row doesn’t have anything good (or anything helpful for your missions), punch some cards from the row to hopefully flip something better.
- If you flipped something towards the end of your turn that would help your opponent, use these to deny your opponent those key cards
- Late game, if you’re needing a certain card or need to fish for events or for a particular card, these give you the chance to do so.
Heroes – they don’t bog down your deck and give you control over your timing of triggering ally abilities
Cards that draw – always useful, but these are particularly helpful in controlling when your deck shuffles and lining up cards to hit the ship/base combination missions.
Small bases (Storage silo, stellar reef) – In non-mission games I often steer well clear of these. But in Unicorn games even when I’m not buying these for my deck I view them as a threat because they help with so many missions. These are still situational cards, but I am more likely to buy them (or punch them from the row if I don’t need them) in this format than other formats.
Cards which are less valuable in Unicorn
Battle bot and Repair box – see above section on scrapping.
Factory world – this card is one where I see players make mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, it still a great card, but these games go so fast that by the time you’re buying it you might only get 1 or 2 plays out of it. If I have several base missions, this is still an auto-buy. But if factory world isn’t contributing to any of my missions, I’m going to think twice before buying it.
Oracle – like Factory World, this is still a good card in this format. But the value you get from it is much more about it being a base – it won’t be uncommon to have to pass on using its scrap ability.
Cards which grant authority – these are fast games. It will be rare for authority gain to be a decisive factor in a victory (unless, of course, you need it for diversify).
Late Game Strategies
Trade Row Management
There are two flavors of trade row management that warrant comment. The first is defensive. As you get towards the late game you need to be very aware of your opponent’s game state and how many missions they have completed. Each time you buy a card or punch a card from the trade row you are creating an opportunity for an event to pop. Even if you create some chaos that lets you hit your second mission, you’re also increasing the probability that your opponent will get to play the cards they need to hit their third mission. There may be times when creating some of that chaos is a risk you need to take but I’ve seen many players create unnecessary chaos and have it come back to bite them.
The flip side of that strategy is fishing. One of the ways in which having a lot of econ can help you is in the late game when you are close to winning but don’t quite have what you need to finish off your opponent. For example, you have all the cards you need to complete your final mission in your deck, but you didn’t draw them this turn. Buying cards off the trade row creates opportunities for an event or a favorable hero to show up and potentially let you end the game this turn.
There are times when, in setting up your missions, you need to be prepared to make plays that just feel wrong. The best example of this is discarding or not playing strong bases. Say, for example, that your final mission is exterminate (blob ship/base) and you have a couple of blob ships in your discard pile and a blob base in your hand. If your next hand is going to trigger a shuffle it may be the right play to discard that base rather than playing it. If you play it and your opponent destroys it that base misses the shuffle and you’ve missed your chance to hit that mission in your next deck. By discarding it, you’re shuffling it in with your other ships and increasing your probability of winning.
I’ve played so many games of Star Realms that I have a bit of a mental block to unorthodox plays like this and I suspect some players aren’t even thinking about discarding a base rather than playing it. Being able to evaluate a non-standard play like this to increase your probability of winning the game is part of what makes this format interesting.
Analyzing the Missions
Being a fantasy football nerd, I like putting together lists with tiers to evaluate alternatives. The list below has the missions grouped into tiers of how unicorn-friendly they are.
Tier 1 –
Armada – this mission is by far the most-unicorn friendly. Between gambits and events, it is almost certain that you can hit Armada at some point in a Unicorn-format game. The most common path to a unicorn is when there is a quasar in the starting deck and you’re player 2. Getting armada on that first turn means you can buy any card you want on the trade row and position yourself to hit those other two missions on your next turns.
Tier 2 –
Diversify – A clear #2 on the list of unicorn-friendly missions. With all the action in this format you’ll hit the 4 trade and 5 damage almost every turn once you’re in deck 2. The good news is that there are a ton of ways to get to the authority. Blue heroes, Rise to power and hidden base gambits, galactic summit event, and the trade fed cards are all available means to wrangle the authority you need to hit this mission.
Tier 3 –
Unite / Ally / Rule – These are “average difficulty” missions in this format.
Tier 4 –
Defend / Influence / Colonize – These are generally more difficult to include in a unicorn. The exception is the warning beacon – if there is a warning beacon on the row and you’ve also got the hidden base gambit, defend or colonize just went from tough to extremely doable.
Tier “It depends” –
Monopolize/Exterminate/Dominate/Convert – The extent to which these are good/bad for unicorn is situational. If you only get one of these and have some other easier missions, you can certainly still bag that unicorn. Having more than one of these as your missions will increase the degree of difficulty of a successful unicorn significantly. In fact, only a couple of unicorns with more than one of these missions have been found.
Named unicorns and the archive
The Star Realms community’s resident google sheets expert CrankyDay created an archive to track the details of unicorn games. He also created an algorithm to assign a name to each unicorn (determined by the 3 missions completed) which you can find in column M of the archive. The archive sheet also has other tabs with stats on the number of times each gambit and mission has been involved in a unicorn.
A Shout Out
Several times a week I’ll queue up a ranked unicorn format game online. Over half the time I’m matched up against Buckets328, who may well have played more unicorn format games than me. Sir/Madam, I tip my cap to your love of the unicorn format.
A Challenge to the Star Realms Community
I’ve bagged 13 unicorns (and counting), but despite some close calls and hundreds of games in this format, I’ve never had a unicorn found against me. Come be the first. I dare you.