Too Many Words about Mage Knight (pt 1)
This series of articles cover my (evolving) thoughts about Mage Knight strategy, tactics and planning. There are many ways to play MK, but typically I play solitaire (Volkare or Solo Conquest) or Cooperative (usually Full Co-op scenario … Conquest again). My thoughts are tailored towards that. Most of this will be useful if you play competitive, but some won’t. I have zero PvP experience, so remember that.
On the other hand, after not playing much the last sixth months I’ve been binging with 25 games in the last few week, putting me well over 250 plays (99% solo/co-op) and have scores ranging up to 270 or so in Solo Conquest (standard settings, harder cities can score more), so I possess some skill. I see session reports of people who have much higher scores than I do; I hardly know everything.
I’m going to assume you have Lost Legion, but if not most of this will apply. I do have Shades of Tezla, but those monsters aren’t really incorporated into my thinking much.
Many strategy discussions focus on “which advanced action card is best?” or “which skill is best?”
Interesting discussions, to be sure, but we set the table before the meal is served. Just as it is a mistake to study Joseki (opening patterns) before tesuji (typical attacking/defending moves), so too should we start at the beginning. There are several concepts that form the core of MK.
Mage Knight is about Bombs. Breakpoints appear all over MK … you have enough or nothing. When facing a Medusa (4 Armor, 6 Fighting, Paralysis), ranged attack three is worthless, and you will likely discard your hand to avoid taking two wounds then discarding your hand. Range Attack 4? You win, and get a tasty spell/artifact. Seven influence + a mana buys a spell at a mage tower. Six influence? Nope (well, there may be something available, but not always). 4 Movement won’t get you into a forest at night. You need five. All or nothing.
Therefore, hand size is a bomb. Because you can play a (non-wound) card sideways for +1 Move/Influence/Block/Attack that means that bonus hand size is effectively helping you achieve breakpoints. Don’t undervalue cards that give hand size (typically next turn).
Also, Mana is a bomb. Because mana typically adds two points (with the right card).
Wounds are typically an anti-bomb, but the counter to that is that MK is a timed game, like baseball. You have so many turns before the round is called (by the dummy). If you don’t risk any wounds you are probably going too slow. Ideally you have only a wound or two, but you can win with a surprisingly large number. (Granted, it will hurt your score). If you play conquest at a higher level, avoiding wounds is impossible. You can limp along with a wound, but if you have more it’s probably best to rest (you can still crystallize, heal or do other non-move, non-actions. Being on a useful space like a mine or glade makes that turn more palatable).
You want to do something every turn, but ‘something’ is flexible. Walking to a crystal mine and crystallizing a token from the source is a fine turn during the first day. Presumably you are moving towards another goal as well. (Rarely backtrack in solo-conquest). Getting a peasant in turn one is something. You can’t get an artifact every turn. Yes, sometimes you just rest and get a better hand, rather than limp along for 3-4 turns, or burn your hand to get to a magic glade, to start the healing process.
Too much of something isn’t flexible. If you only got attack skills and cards and spells, you’d be a walking advertisement for murder. If you can walk far enough. Better to get some attack, some movement, some block, some mana generation, because
Typically, in Mage Knight you are defined by your minimum. You will regret being mana short (and relying on the fickle source) or having no followers, or having no bonus movement when the swamps arrive.
You have to spend money to make money. Crystals don’t exist to score 1 pt each at the end of the game. They make your hand more potent, you can often spend them for much great effect early on. You don’t dungeon delve just to take an artifact for 2 points (plus the points for the monster and adventuring). That artifact lets you do something amazing. Sometimes I discard it the very next turn and only get a single use from it. Spend it, but wisely. An artifact you use once to conquer a city bloodlessly is better than getting three uses from it while also carrying a few wounds (or even just being slowed down a turn or two by having to lay siege two or three times).
Cards will come at poor times, need some flexibility. Attack does you no good if the nearest enemy is too far away. Movement does you no good if a dragon will smack you the first step you take. Any card can show up at a poor time. You can’t avoid bad draws. You can mitigate it. But there’s a bit more to it. The game state changes as well, and what is a great card at one point may grow or change as the game goes on. The most obvious cards are spells — they (potentially) work much better at night (or underground), but all cards have some variability. Well, I say that, but it’s not entirely true.
Skills and Followers are always in hand. Followers aren’t as flashy as artifacts, but you know they’ll be there in the opening hand. Yes yes, you can’t use them in dungeons or against monasteries, but you know when they aren’t available.
Finally — Time your actions to the dummy. Should you spend a card for +1? Well, that depends. If your deck is going to run out first, you can afford to pause for a turn to let the source reset, maybe draw some cards that let you be more efficient, etc. Has the End of Round been called? In that case squeeze every last drop out of your hand and followers. This shows up in a few ways.
Let’s discuss the game state in some detail.
The phases of the game
On the first day your goal is to level up. It doesn’t have to be on your first turn, but it shouldn’t be on the last (you want time to enjoy your new advanced action and skill). A follower would be nice, as would several crystals. Artifacts and spells work, too. It’s entirely possible to sac a dungeon on your first or or second turn (or burn a monastery), possibly at the cost of some wounds. But a bad draw could see you discard your hand. In that case, try again. (The TaoLing had a recent game where his first two dungeon raids required him to discard his hand to avoid wounds. On his third try, he got an artifact and was off to the races. A slow start, but recoverable).
You don’t have to get a follower, but it doesn’t hurt. You don’t have to crystallize a token (or sit on a mine), but it doesn’t hurt. Ditto artifacts and spells. Ditto exploring. In general, as long as you expand your power, you are happy on turn one. Sometimes I’m at level 3 by the end of the first day, but not always (or even often). Fame will come later. As long as I’m at level two and have some reasonable growth (an artifact, spell, follower, crystals, or significant forward motion) I don’t mind being ’empty’ in one category, or having a few wounds.
The first night is similar. I’d like to be at level 4 by the end of the night, but it’s not as pressing as level 2 was. Now you start with a skill and advanced cards, you should be able to stockpile power and routinely take a dungeon/maze/monastery and most ruins, although Dragons and White Tokens may give you problems.
During the second day my goals are to make sure at least one core tile is played while grabbing enough fame to get to six hand size (level 5). Getting more powerful cards is nice, but I want a shot at attacking a city on the second night (when spells are more useful) or at least recruiting a large unit. And the hand size
Core tiles require more movement, a lot more swamps/wastelands/lakes, but at some point movement is going to diminish in value. If you haven’t killed your reputation, then influence is going to go up, because once you take your first city you can spend influence (and you’ll get ~3 bonus, +reputation) to buy cards, and possibly the great city followers.
By the third day, I’m preparing for the final assault. I’m hitting targets of opportunity, and sometimes I’ll attack a spawning ground/keep/whatever just to grab a level or increase my handsize, but I’m selective on my targets. Followers are there for city assaults, unless I’ll get a bigger buff spending them early (or its the third day and they’ll reset before I attack on the third night). Note that (except vs Volkare) ranged attacks are not a big deal — most city defenders will be fortified, unless I’ve picked up something like Expose. (If I have a handful of ranged attack, that’s when I start looking at ruins or other enemies to convert those cards into a buff card).
I discuss the state of the game because values change. Swiftness is a great card on a first day battle but mediocre vs the final city assault (unless you can remove fortifications). Buying 10 advanced action cards is great, unless your deck becomes a hodgepodge where you may have all your attacks at the bottom. You might want a +attack skill and +influence skill, but you probably want the attack skill first and the influence skill second, and not vice versa. Naming a card or skill ‘good’ or ‘bad’ also means discussing ‘when.’
The basic deck
You have sixteen cards. So let’s consider the ‘base’ opening deck, independent of the upgraded card. You’ll have these all game, unless you throw some of them away.
Stamina (x2) and March (x2) — Move 2/4. You need lots of move in the game. Typically you won’t need much move towards the end (as you camp outside the final city or wait for Volkare to wander up) but movement is good. Extra movement lets you swing out of the way to sack an extra target, or cross those annoying swamps (or deserts/forests at the wrong time). Movement is better than block against cumbersome foes, because you may be able to partially spend and reduce a wound. Beware of spending too many of these cards early, unless you are just going to camp on a dungeon for points to end the round.
Let me digress to state that picking up a single movement boost (skill or advanced action) is fine, and if I get a lot of cards, a second is not unreasonable. You can wind up with too many ‘cool’ cards and find yourself sitting or spending your cool cards for +1, so picking up move/attack/block/influence in rough proportion to your starting deck isn’t a bad idea.
Swiftness (x2) — As discussed above, ranged attack is great early and mediocre late. Early, I want to use this to shoot something (and not have to block). Later on? If I can use it for shooting, great. If not, movement it is. Also, I’m content tossing these away for better cards (via Training or other effects) or for crystals (via Decompose) around the halfway point. I don’t often do (those cards don’t show up often), but it’s possible. Again, playing vs Volkare Ranged attack never really goes out of style.
Rage (x2) — You need attack to kill stuff. Later on, you may spend this as block, but early on unless you are going to be paralyzed, its usually better to eat some wounds then kill your enemy, and level up and earn your reward.
Concentration (x1) — Concentration is the bomb. It gives you a mana (which is a bomb) or if you spend a green mana it lets you pump another card by four (instead of two). If you have Concentration + Swiftness (with a green mana) and one other card in your hand you could reasonably attack a dungeon on T1. Add in a block and now you can defeat a shadow or gargoyle (albeit at two wounds) or a crypt worm (3).
Block (x1) — Lost legion made block much more important. Block Five (with a blue mana) will take care of most early game things you’ll face, although there are exceptions.
Improvisation (x1) — Without spending a mana, this basically lets you play two cards sideways for +3 instead of +2. That’s not bad (it’s like having an extra ‘blank’ card), but when you spend the mana now you are spending two cards for five. That’s more like it. The flexibility makes this a good card for emergencies (at least, when red mana is available).
Promise (x1) / Threaten (x1) — I want to get an early follower, but I’m not desperate. Especially if there’s no convenient place to stop, these are the most likely to be spent sideways. Do I threaten? If I have to. Obviously I’d prefer not, but especially if I’m getting a reasonable T1 follower (more on that later), I’m fine doing it. If there’s no great follower on the first day, I’ll try to grab two the first night (once I’ve got level three) but … there may not be two available.
Tranquility (x1) — The problem with healing yourself: you have to draw Tranquility with the wound. If you just have a single wound, well, that’s not likely. If you have lots of wounds, that’s its own issue. But if you have a follower wounded then you always draw tranquility at the right time. You can also spend this for another card, effectively shrinking your deck. (Or spend it for two cards if you have a green mana), which may help you over a breakpoint. If necessary, take a turn spend a green mana and grab one card over your handsize, then wait one turn to reset the mana pool and go. Not a great turn, but do-able, and if you are sitting someplace useful, such as a crystal mine, it may have other benefits.
Crystallize (x1) — Again, if I have a free turn I grab a crystal from the pool (of course). But I’m also fine just using it to turn a blue into what I need (assuming no gold). Unless I’ve seen concentration go by, I’m usually pocketing green unless I know what I’ll need next turn (assuming I have no mana) or a color I’m missing (especially if the source is missing). Second choice is usually white (for Mana Draw and Swiftness). But often it’s just ‘what am I missing?’ Unless I’ve picked up a lot of great cards of one color, I want to be flexible.
Mana Draw (x1) — Basically a bizarro Crystallize, except you get a spare mana that you use right away (sometimes to Crystallize, yes!). There will be times when the source locks up or threatens to lock up, and in those cases you may want to spend a white just to turn a black/gold die to a color you can use, even if it costs you a crystal.
The Tactics Deck
In both solo and co-op the player(s) pick their tactics, then dummy chooses randomly. You rarely want to take a high number, but there are exceptions. At night taking Preparation (5) can help if you need one key card (usually a spell or artifact) for an assault if you have a good hand, or Sparing Power (6) if you have a poor hand and plan on building up to one huge hand. (Alternately, attacking ASAP and then taking the cards from S.P. next turn to ensure you have at least one real card, so you can discard all your wounds).
Against Volkare there’s something to be said for taking The Right Moment on the third day. The double turn lets you fully commit to a defense (or attack) and then declare the end of the run immediately on your doubled turn. (Obviously, you have to have an empty deck). Attacking Volkare (or defending) and then instantly calling the round is one of the key tactics against Volkare. Unless you have built an overwhelming force (which you can do in Solo) you’ll want to attack with all your units, then reshuffle your deck, reset your units and do it again.
Also, against Volkare’s Return (where you frequently wait in the city for him to arrive) you don’t care about turn order as much. It’s just two points (if the deck doesn’t end). But Volkare deserves his own section.
Back to Solo Conquest. Typically on the last day/night take the lowest number to ensure going first. With nothing better to do early I will grab the 1 on the first day, but I will grab the 2-4 as needed (whichever one speeds up my first level up). First night, if you are in a good mana situation tend to take long night (and hope the dummy doesn’t draw the one) because it makes my deck 3 cards larger, so I can spend a bit more dramatically and rush forward. But if not, taking the Mana Manipulation (3) card is a life-saver. Preparation to fix your hand is an option (taking Tranquility while you have two wounds, taking a card to ensure your first combat, etc).
In Co-op you’ll have to discard one of the player’s cards, but we still tend to take the (no special ability) 1 card whenever convenient then discard it. That makes the next days/nights a bit safer.
Let us discuss public relations. In Solo Conquest, a slightly negative reputation isn’t big deal. If you are at -2 when you take your first city, you’ll be slightly positive after your +3 reputation at the city (one per chit you killed). If it’s the red city (artifacts at 12 Inf/pop) that’s bad, but for each of the other three you’ll be able to buy a card (Green), spell (blue) or unit (White, which allow you to buy any units). Useful. If you build up your reputation even a bit (no pillaging, no burning monasteries, and killing a few orcs and dragons) to +1 or +2, you can often sit for several turns (again, not at red) and buy several card. Nice. But the downside is that keeps and mage towers are also -1 reputation, so it’s incredibly easy to drop five slots (or so), from that. A threaten, a keep, a mage tower, attack the city, that’s four steps. Sure, you’ll kill 2-3 orcs ASAP, but after that? Only when convenient.
So in my typical (Conquest) game, I am slightly negative reputation. Some games you can tell you are going to go hard negative. -5, or even the dreaded X. In those games, you want to get a few followers quickly, and then if you are lucky enough to see Thugs (before you get to X) or Magical Familiars grab them . The rewards for going negative will be good (an artifact for each monastery burnt, plus more fame). Typically I may try to save a Dragon for after the first city: kill it to go from X to -3, and then interact once or twice before the final assault. But what you don’t want to do is drop hard before you get a single follower.
And Norowas? You probably don’t want to go hard negative with him, at least not until late.
In Volkare’s return, you are likely to be camping in the city for a turn or few before Volkare shows up. In that case, a solid positive reputation gives you sometning to do. Chuck your influence (and movement) cards for a spell or advanced action. Even 12 Influence for an artifact is doable, if you are positive.
Your deck is what you have to work with. And the map is … what you have work on. The meals you partake on on your way to the final banquet. A smorgasbord of locations to visit, set aflame, and cook your meals on. Sometimes literally.
Villages — You can recruit, heal (3 inf/wound) and by no means should you forget the ability to pillage (-1 reputation for +2 cards).
Crystal Mines — Good stopping points, and good places to spend resting or even just crystalizing. Ditto Magical Glades.
Keep — Better recruiting (more common, anyway). The hand size bump (when near a keep) isn’t a great buff, but they stack, and there is always a keep next to the white city.
Mage Tower — A spell is a serious incentive (at least the first one or two until diminishing returns set in, unless you have a good source of mana). On the plus hand you can select your spell, versus the artifacts blind draw. Sometimes you sac a monastery and get two artifacts that aren’t much use (duplicate what you are already good at). For both Keeps/Towers you want to sidle up on them early on just to make sure they don’t have something you can’t kill (Golems and other high-armor and/or physically resistant targets)
Monster Den/Dungeon — Both of these are a single brown token (that you can’t see before you commit). The monster den only gives you two crystals, but you can bring followers. The Dungeon is an artifact (2/3rds) or spell (1/3rd). Unlike fortified sites, you can use ranged attacks. Sometimes you have a choice, and the choice is dictated by your hand. If you have ranged attacks, head for a dungeon. But without those (and only mediocre block) you may want to take a fortified site b/c you are sure you can hit it. The advanced sites are similar but with tougher monsters. Of the two, the Spawning Ground is better — two browns is less of an issue than a Draconum, and adding crystals ti an artifact (Grounds) is better than adding a spell (Tomb).
Maze — A somewhat tune-able Dungeon. You have to spend 2-6 movement (and movement from the movement phase does not carry over) but you can take a single follower. Often in the early game, two crystals is the best shot.
Monastery — Ah, the Monastery. These have the ability to interact (for advanced actions and followers) or burning. (Note — the purple defender isn’t fortified!). Often enough, you interact one turn, flambe it the next. As discussed above, assuming you have a follower or two already, the reputation hit for the first time isn’t bad. Burning a second monastery (or lots of threatening) may spiral your rep to the point you never get another unit. But (assuming you can handle the majority of draws) the three steps of reputation will be easily balanced out by the artifact and ~5 fame.
Rampaging Units — These aren’t sites, in one respect, but like sites they cost time and cards. Both are in short supply. The first orc you kill? Great, that’s a level (usually). Killing one later on, not so useful (except in the cases where you can literally shrug off the damage and the card would be one you’d likely discard anyway). Later on kill rampaging units when it’s convenient or you have to to move on. Killing a Dragon is valuable (points wise) and sometimes necessary but typically requires significant resources. Are those resources going to be needed? Time your deck. There is nothing worse than killing a dragon before walking into the final battle and realizing your deck cannot generate the attack needed to kill the last unit.
Putting it all together — You can’t really plan on sites, but you know what to expect. Just as with your deck you’ll have to go with the flow, but the game is all about tradeoffs.
In Part Two — Some comments about the Conquest vs Volkare’s Return, the heroes and the minions.