While you may think that just grabbing your favorite tier 1 netdeck and charging forth is enough to quickly climb the ranks, you may run into more trouble than you expect. As it turns out, there's much more to earning victories than just picking the right deck, and a lack of understanding of these concepts is a quick way to rack up losses instead. So if you've found yourself on one too many losing streaks lately, take these concepts to heart the next time you brave the ladder.
So let's say you're at 20 life with the card Fighter in play, while your opponent is at 15 life with a Mercenary Drifter and a Goliath in play. Who's winning in this situation? If you're new to the game, you might be tempted to say it's you; after all, the point of the game is to get the opponent to 0, and you're still at full life! But sadly, that's not the case. Your opponent is not only winning right now, but is actually much further ahead than you. This is due to the concept of board control.
Board control means being ahead in the current state of the game, be it through having the most followers in play or having the biggest threats in play, or a combination of the two. In the example above, you only have a Fighter, a basic 2/2, while your opponent has a 3/2 and a 3/4. Not only does your opponent have more minions, his have higher stats than yours too! When you're in a position like your opponent here, you're essentially controlling the flow of the match. The onus is on you try and come back, while your opponent can just keep developing his own board and furthering his own gameplan.
But how does one get board control in the first place? Perhaps the most important concept related to board control is the idea of trading, which is the way you use your cards to deal with your opponent's. Most trading happens in the field of battle, but using a removal spell to kill a follower is also its own form of trading. When dealing with trades, there are a few to keep in mind.
The most common type of trade is an even trade. This is when you use one of your cards to deal with one of theirs, and both cards are lost. If your ram your Fighter into your opponent's Fighter, it's an even trade because both followers die in the process. While even trades will happen many times every game, you can, and should, shoot for much better trades.
The holy grail of trading is called a free trade. A Goliath running into a Fighter is an example of this: your opponent lost his Fighter, but your Goliath gets to keep on living to fight another day, so it was a free trade on your end. Recognizing when you can get free trades is key to gaining and keeping board control, as you have a net gain and your opponent has a net loss, putting you in a much better position and giving you card advantage, which is another key concept when it comes to winning.
Of course, getting free trades all day isn't very feasible. But there are other trades that put you farther ahead than an even trade, such as using minions to trade up. In these situations, you use a weaker follower to take care of a much bigger threat. A Blood Wolf taking down a Malicious Ghost is fantastic trade for you and a terrible one for your opponent. Despite both followers dying, you gained much more control of the board removing a more impactful follower. You traded up, and your opponent traded down, which is something you want to try and avoid happening as much as possible. If your opponent has a Water Fairy in play, you may want to think twice before tossing out a Spectre, as it trades down with the Water Fairy, and play your Spartoi Sergeant instead. In the same vein you'll want to prioritize killing the opponent's Spartoi Sergeant rather than their Deathchaser if you yourself have a Mercenary Drifter in play. Recognizing how to minimize your opponent's effective trades is just as important as recognizing how to maximize yours, as both are the keys to board control and gaining value and keeping up your tempo.
Imagine that you're currently piloting a Swordcraft deck, and you have 2pp left on your turn. You have the option of either playing Conscription, which will draw you two more officers, or just playing a Fervid Soldier to develop your board. Which card do you play? The answer depends on whether you currently need more value or tempo. Value is the overall worth you get out of a card, while tempo is the pace of the match and the speed at which you play your cards. These two concepts are invariably linked, and while there will be times you can gain both other times you may have to sacrifice one for the other.
Playing for value means trying to get card advantage over your opponent, which just means currently having more cards than your opponent. Card advantage takes into account both cards in hand and cards on the field, so even if your opponent has 3 cards in hand and you only have 2, having 2 followers in play means you're still up on cards. Having card advantage is very powerful, as the player with more cards has more options at hand, allowing them to be flexible with their answers and threats and letting them save key cards for when they really need them. The path to such power mainly lies in using your cards to deal with multiple cards of your opponent's. If you managed a free trade with your biggest follower, which then gets hit with an opponent's removal spell, your follower just went 2-for-1; your card managed to take down 2 of your opponent's. The grand daddies of this concept are the board clears: cards like Themis's Decree or Calamitous Curse can often destroy many enemy followers, granting you huge value and putting you way up in cards. Utilizing card draw effects is another effective way to gain card advantage, both with straight draw effects like Fate's Hand or removal spells that give you a card, like Magic Missile or Sylvan Justice. Since these removal spells give you a card, though you used one card to deal with one of your opponent's you actually end up with a net positive in terms of card advantage.
However, spending time off to cast card draw spells or taking a turn off to wipe the board will have devastating effects on your tempo. Playing for tempo means using your play points as efficiently as possible each turn and consistently staying ahead on the board. Using a Themis's Decree on turn 7 against an opponent's two followers is a good value play, while using two Sylvan Justices and then playing a Dark Elf Faure is a good tempo play; you may have used up more cards, but you used all your play points and gained board advantage. Gaining tempo is also related to gaining a play point advantage: if your opponent plays a 6pp follower and you use a 3pp removal spell to deal with it, you're up 3pp to your opponent, giving you more play points to work with overall. Trying to get play point advantage will let you consistently pump out threats and answers faster than your opponent, which can end up completely overwhelming your opponent and leading you to victory.
Which side do you focus on? Do you want to try for card advantage or do you want to play out your cards efficiently and try to keep up the tempo? The answer depends on the state of the match and what deck you're playing. A minion-focused, more aggressive deck like Midrange Swordcraft is much more likely to want to keep up the tempo, while a slower control-oriented deck such as Heal Havencraft will likely focus on value. But even then, there are times when the Havencraft decks instead wants to push for tempo to overhwlem a combo deck like Spellboost Runecraft before they get their combo off. Knowing when to focus on gaining value or gaining tempo is an important thing to pick-up as you play, and one mechanic, the Evolution mechanic, is a core piece of gaining both.
Evolution is the marquee mechanic of Shadowverse, and making proper use of your evolve points will help you pave the way to victory. Evolving your followers is a key source of both card advantage and tempo advantage, as it allows the follower to attack immediately and gives them a stat boost, meaning they'll probably survive the attack and net you a free trade. If your opponent then uses a removal spell or has to sacrifice another follower to kill your evolved minion, then you've gotten a lot of value out of that one evolution point.
The biggest example of how strong this can be is the class specific 4pp evolution cards, a cycle of basic uncommons gotten through the story mode that all do something when they evolve. For example, Dragon Warrior deals 3 to an enemy follower, Playful Necromancer summons two 1/1 ghosts with storm that are banished at the end of the turn, and Floral Fencer summons a 1/1 knight and 2/2 heavy knight. All these effects generate huge tempo advantage and card advantage, as all these cards generally go at least 2-for-1 by killing two followers upon evolution, or, in Floral Fencer's case, generate such a powerful board advantage that your opponent will have a hard time dealing with it. In general, when using your evolves you want to try and go at least 2-for-1 by having your evolved minion live through their initial attack. Wasting evolve points just to have both your follower and the follower they attack die is not a good idea, though sometimes it may be necessary to save yourself. If you're not gaining good tempo and board control through your evolutions, you might find yourself in a situation where you lose all your evolutions before your opponent has used any of theirs, which is practically game over for you.
You can also use that same stat-boosting effect in a defensive way. Dropping a huge ward and immediately evolving it, even if you have no followers to attack, might be enough to curb your opponent's aggression. And if they don't have any way to deal with the now massive follower, you can apply an immense amount of pressure. This is a little risky though, because if your freshly-evolved follower just eats some hard removal then you completely wasted an evolution, and that could come back to bite you. In general, using evolves solely to boost stats is always a risk, but sometimes it's a game-winning move, so being aware of this option is very important. You can also use evolutions purely for value, most often seen with cards like Merlin or Elven Princess Mage, which have very strong evolve effects that don't directly relate to board control or tempo. While it may seem wasteful to do one of these evolutions and still be behind on board, it's often better for the decks that play these evolution effects in the first place, since they're more concerned with furthering their combo than fighting for board dominance.
Evolving to gain or retain board control is not the only way to use the mechanic, and its other uses add a lot of complexity to evolutions. One such example is using evolutions to push for damage: you don't have to evolve a follower that just came into play to immediately attack another follower. Sometimes just getting the stat boost is reason enough, and when you're playing an aggressive deck it's often the right choice to evolve a follower already in play to really boost your damage output and make your follower overall much more threatening. This is especially powerful on a storm follower, since they can come into play, evolve, and still hit face. Using evolves this way is a common part of finding lethal damage, since sometimes all you need is that 2 extra damage.
Now, getting completely blown out by your opponent's Priest of the Cudgel might seems pretty unfair, and you might wonder if there's anything you can do against something like that. Well, though you may never be able to stop your opponent from playing the card, you can do your best to mitigate its effects through proper counterplay.
The last, and most difficult, tip to keep in mind when shooting for wins is called counterplay. Counterplay is the act of playing around your opponent's cards, both during the game and during deck construction. In the above example with the Priest of the Cudgel situation, trying your best to mitigate its effect is a form of counterplay, since you're playing with the assumption that they have the card in hand. How you would do this is try to not only have 2 followers that both die for free against it; maybe you trade in a weakened follower even if it means trading down, maybe you play multiple 1 drops instead of one big minion, etc. The idea is to make it so the Priest isn't just a clean sweep of your board so you maintain some tempo. Another common kind of counterplay is playing around board clears; if your Bloodcraft opponent is in vengeance and has at least 4pp available, you can expect them to drop a Revelation. In this situation, it might be best to play slower: to not develop your board any further or to just play weaker minions and save your more impactful followers for after the board gets wiped. You cannot stop the board wipe, but you can save your gas to play after it happens, since playing out your whole hand and getting everyone killed would be a disaster situation that you may never recover from. Proper removal usage is another form of counterplay: you want to save your best removal for your opponent's biggest threats. Knowing when to use your hard removal or banish effects against certain decks and when to save it and maybe even just tough it out is a more advanced, but very helpful, skill to develop.
Counterplay is difficult because it involves a lot of outside knowledge. You need to be familiar with every class, you need to know what deck your opponent is playing and what decks are common in the meta, and you need to know at the very least the most impactful cards your opponent might have, if not be familiar with every single card in the game. It's something that comes with time and practice, and you may face a lot of losses before you finally figure out the best way to lessen the impact of certain cards. You also have the option of running tech cards in your deck as a form of pre-emptive counterplay. In a meta where Forestcraft is dominant, you may want to start running Angelic Barrage, since it efficiently deals with Forest's board flooding potential. In a meta where everyone's playing Shadow and using Mordecai the Duelist specifically as their win condition, you might want to think about replacing a late game card with Odin to banish him.
Counterplay extends past just which cards to play as well. Against certain decks, you might want to play your entire deck differently. If you're facing a combo deck as a control player, you'll want to put on much more pressure than you normally do, because you will likely lose otherwise. If you're an aggro player playing against another aggro player, you'll probably want to be even more aggressive than usual, or play more defensively if you're losing the race. Proper mulligan is a key part of this, as you'll want to mulligan very differently against different decks. When you're the combo player, you'll want to keep your removal against aggressive decks and your card draw against both control decks and other combo decks. Knowing how to mulligan correctly is a small detail that will have a big impact, since being prepared for your opponent's deck lets you fight against it that much more effectively.
While trying to be play around your opponent's cards as much as possible is generally a good idea, it's also important to know when to stop being cautious and take risks. Holding followers back against board clears is a great idea in theory, but if you're playing an aggressive deck and your opponent has been successfully controlling you all game, you might have to play out your hand anyway just to get that extra pressure on. Yes, if your opponent then wipes your board you're going to lose, but if you continue to play slowly while your opponent counters everything you do you're definitely going to lose. Sometimes you have to take big risks to win what otherwise looks to be a losing situation, even if it means playing right into your opponent's hands. After all, sometimes they just haven't draw the board clear or removal and you'll be rewarded for your extra aggression.
Though it may be an overall complicated and difficult skill, getting used to counterplay and playing around your opponent's best cards is absolutely vital to winning above the low ranks. It's okay not to worry about the intricacies if you're just starting out; it'll come to you in time. Once you've grown comfortable understanding board control, getting the most out of value and tempo, and gotten a grip on evolving, then it will be time to start looking into proper counterplay. And hopefully, all these factors combined will finally give you the win streaks you've been looking for.