With the influx of new Summoner Wars players via the iOS app, I was reminded just how far behind some new players are, and how much insane depth there is to this game. It's why, as Bistro has mentioned on the podcast, a lot of us get so angry when reading Summoner Wars criticism--most critics have no clue about the rich depth of this game, especially those who play games without any spatial tactics, risk management, asymmetry or hand management.
All over the web I've seen people saying they're struggling even beating iOS AI, so I've put together this list of the 12 biggest "Aha!" moments I've had in my time playing Summoner Wars, principles that have helped me improve my play. They're listed in roughly chronological order. (And I have further to go yet; there are many players in the community that I consider to be definitively better than me.)
Summoner Wars veterans, please add your own thoughts below on what realizations upped your Summoner Wars game. Here's my list.
I took my summoning skills to the next level when I...
1. ...memorized my units' abilities.
The first step to improving your Summoner Wars game is sitting and studying your units so that you have a sense of what each one can do. Until you move away from thinking Summoner Wars is all about marching around rolling dice and understanding that's it's a game of leveraging abilities against each other, you'll never be able to compete.
When you have Jungle Elf archers on the board, it's critical to always be thinking about ways you can take advantage of their ability to shoot through other units. It's the abilities where the real strength of your army lies, not in attack values and sword/bow symbols. The abilities are what separates your army from your opponent's. At the same time, you need to be aware if you're facing the Guild Dwarves that Gror could show up any moment to wreak havoc with his hammer quake, and that those defenders will stop your movement. Don't get caught by surprise by the plain content of the faction units--either your opponent's or your own.
2. ...stopped summoning units that won't immediately move or attack.
Summoner Wars allows a very strict 3-unit limit for both moving and attacking each turn. As a beginner, try to not summon a unit unless you're planning to attack with it that turn, or if you're going to move it into position to attack next turn. Otherwise, it's just a target and a potential magic point for your opponent without doing you any good.
Eventually you'll learn there are good reasons to summon units you won't use this turn--blocking lanes to your other units for example--but as a general rule, don't summon new units when you've already got enough units on the board to reach your move and attack limits. This also means planning out your whole turn before you summon anything, which is the real reason this tip will up your game.
3. ...started taking event cards seriously and planning my strategies around their anticipated arrival.
At first I saw event cards as kind of a bonus to use when convenient--helper cards that made a marginal difference. That outlook couldn't be more wrong. Event cards are the lifeblood of your deck, swinging the game in your favor as much as a solid unit, usually without costing you any magic.
The Cave Goblins aren't all about Fighters and Slingers and Mook, they're about Goblin Horde Attack and Goblin Invincibility. The Vanguards aren't all about Priests and Guardian Knights, they're about Summoning Surges and Holy Judgments. Even before you get your best events in hand, plan your strategy around them, knowing they're going to show up at any moment and you'll be prepared for their use in advance.
4. ...learned to build early commons as magic unless there was a good reason to summon them.
At first, it's agonizing to build any unit as magic. Every unit you build is a card you're never going to get to use for its more active purpose. But being used as magic is an important role of each card, and when you've got 4-8 more copies of the same common in your deck anyway, you can safely build it knowing another one will show up in no time. On the flip side, if you don't build your early commons as magic, you might end up with 3-4 of the same card in your hand and you won't have any flexibility of what to summon next.
Thanks to James Sitz, this is the #1 tip people give to beginners: "Build magic." At first it's coutner-intuitive to think that burning through your deck early on will pay off in the long run, but it always does.
5. ...kept track of both magic piles, anticipating champions that could appear next turn.
Summoner Wars beginners generally draw a champion and think, "Oooh, I need to summon that guy; I better build some magic so he can get to the battlefield next turn." But wouldn't the guy/gal be more effective if (s)he could hop right into the action this turn? The draw phase is before the summon phase, after all. So if you've got a Phoenix Elf Warrior in hand at turn's end and aren't sure whether to build it as magic or keep it in hand, count your magic. If you've got 6 magic, that should swing your decision to build the Warrior as magic, because the Fire Drake could be drawn next turn and you'll be prepared with 7 magic. Plus, since you built the Warrior, you'll draw one more card next turn so you'll be more likely to draw the Drake.
A veteran opponent will understand this as well and, seeing that you have exactly 7 magic, will have to play as if you're going to summon the Fire Drake next turn, even if he's not in your deck. In the same way, be aware of how much magic your opponent has, and think through which champions they could be preparing to summon.
6. ...kept track of my opponent's powerful events.
At any point during a game vs the Cloaks, you should have in your head how many Magic Drains, Raids Assassinates, and Spys that your opponent has left. That way, you're well-prepared and can guard against their effects. But just as important, you'll know when they're out of those and can stop worrying about Thieves running amok from halfway across the board.
Memorize the event inventory of each summoner and each turn, repeat to yourself how many of each your opponent has left. Although there are some events that aren't worth keeping track of, most are, and as the game goes on and you realize Sera still has 3 Holy Judgments to play, you'll be properly cautious around her priests. On the other hand, when The Demagogue is out of Heretic's Rebukes, it's time to charge in!
7. ...learned the power of phase-warping events and abilities.
It's impossible to overestimate the importance of phase-warping events. Most of the time, a blocking enemy unit between your unit and your opponent's summoner keeps their summoner safe, since you'll have to move your units first, then attack after. But wait, what's this? Burn and Greater Burn together? Suddenly the unit is destroyed and you have a clear path to bludgeon the opposing summoner. Burn and Greater Burn's value isn't just that they add wounds; it's that they add wounds before the movement phase. In a tightly arranged game like Summoner Wars, such a phase-warping card is powerful, and there are many in the game that cause wounds before your movement phase is over.
Even more important than doing damage before movement is summoning during your event phase. Since Walls are played during your event phase, Any card that allows you to summon during the event phase means you can place a forward wall, then play the event, then summon a unit from a place (probably near the enemy summoner) your opponent didn't expect! Currently the cards that allow this are Summoning Surge, Forced Summon, Mirage, Channeled Summon and Reinforcements. Save them until you have a wall and then punch the surprised enemy summoner in the face!
8. ...came to understand Summoner Wars' unique card economy.
When you pay for a unit, you pay its summoning cost from your magic pile, but that also means that your unit is going to the battlefield instead of going to your magic pile to pay for something else. That means every unit's true cost is its summoning cost + 1. It costs 1 magic to place a Slinger--itself. It costs 2 to place any 1-cost common: the magic you spend and the unit itself. Every unit you summon and every event you play is one less magic you could've used for something else.
This is an important consideration and when you grasp it, it can change your perception of the game. For one thing, it increases your appreciation for champs. Whereas formerly, 4 Defenders seemed to cost the same as Baldar (4 magic), you now see that 4 defenders effectively cost 8 magic while Baldar costs just 5. It also helps you realize that no draw is truly terrible because even the worst-timed hand is worth 5 built magic toward the stuff in your next hand.
9. ...found a group of talented players and got beaten into the ground by them until I started learning from them.
If you can only listen to one piece of advice on this list, it's this one. There's no better way to get better than getting crushed a few times by superior players and learning from them as a result. And there's no better way to stunt your skill growth than to stick with the same people (or to stick with random pick-up matches on iOS) and fool yourself into thinking you're good because you have a solid win percentage among that group.
Start a club in your area, go out of your way to participate in tournaments (GenCon is just around the corner!) and if you've got an iOS device, don't just play random matches against whoever's in the lobby. Add yourself to this list and especially give it your best shot vs. the players who post in this thread, who are some of the best around. Playing great players is the number one way I improved as a player, and it's the number one way I've seen other players improve.
10. ...understood that Summoner Wars is a hand-management game.
I've always loved trick-taking games like Euchre and Hearts and (especially) Rook. They give you tough choices on what cards to play, what to hold back, and in what order. Some of the best modern strategy games, especially card-driven wargames like Twilight Struggle, also benefit from the subtle nuances and tough choices of this gameplay mechanic. I doubt it's what Colby set out to do and was likely not even on his mind, but in Summoner Wars, he's gone and created the greatest hand management game of all time.
Like most hand management games, you get a random draw of cards. In Summoner Wars, you end up with a near infinite number of decisions to make regarding your hand. What to play? In what order? What to keep for a future turn? What to build as magic? What is the likelihood I'll get another one of these? To what benefit is it to play this card now vs. waiting until I get the perfect card to combo with it? It's all up to you, and learning to manipulate your hand with these decisions will make you an elite player. Understanding how to get the most out of your hand--and to ensure that your next hand will be as good as possible--is a key cog in Summoner Wars strategy. Examples of this strategy were discussed in points 4 and 5, but they happen at every turn, if you just look out for them. Play 2x Besiege the Walls now or let them clog up my hand inefficiently while I wait for my opponent to lay down another wall? In Summoner Wars, every decision outside of maneuvering your units is a hand management decision.
11. ...stopped complaining about dice rolls.
It's certainly tempting to blame a loss on bad die rolls. Just yesterday my wall-destruction-oriented Guild Dwarves fell to Vlox shortly after I had rolled 1/10 against a Cloak champion over two turns. But a while back I created a rule for myself: Never say it's the dice's fault, always congratulate the other person on a game well played, and try to learn from your mistakes.
That rule has improved my play considerably. When we complain about die rolls, we are ignoring our flaws as a player and reinforcing our bad habits. We end up banging our head against a brick wall over and over just waiting for better luck instead of searching for a better way around it. Your luck is hardly ever as bad as you remember it, and often the player just leveraged their units into rolling more dice than you, yielding better results. When I've held my tongue after a seemingly unlucky match, it's cleared my mind to reflect on the mistakes I made and the opportunities I missed that could have turned the game in my favor despite some unfavorable dice rolls.
12. ...put my (non-fragile) Summoner in the line of fire.
This last point takes the most wisdom and discernment, but can make a big difference. When you've got a Summoner with 6 or 7 life (Abua can usually take some abuse too before disappearing away with a Chant of Deception), consider sending him/her out into the fray. Always have an escape route planned, of course, and don't leave them vulnerable to a surprise 8+ die attack from the Jungle Elves or Cave Goblins or Deep Dwarves, but otherwise get them in the action. For one thing, there are certain cards and abilities that are useless vs. summoners (anti-common cards, Burn/Greater Burn, Tark, Claw Mutant, abilities that rely on destroying a unit, etc) so your summoner is stronger in those cases than your other units.
But more importantly, putting your summoner in the fray sets an alarm off in your opponent's head, and it takes a disciplined player to ignore that alarm. The alarm says, "WIN CONDITION! WIN CONDITION!" Most players will spend their resources inefficiently in order to try to wound your summoner at all costs. If you have an effective escape plan, your summoner will get away with 3 or so life left, and you will have a much taller magic pile and draw pile than your opponent for the rest of the game. I put this point last because it takes wisdom to not screw it up, but it will up your win percentage if you do it right.
So those are the 12 big "Aha!" moments I've had in my 15 or so months playing Summoner Wars. New players, I hope you find this guide helpful. Veteran players, please add your own "Aha!" moments or otherwise comment below.