Decision Making: The Odds and Risks

by Counterplay Games  /  July 31, 2016

Hello, fellow Duelysts! For those who don’t know me, I’m J, also know as @nowayitsjj, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time playing and winning Duelyst tournaments.

For this article, I’d like to cover an important topic: Measuring risk and reward.

At some point in your Duelyst match, you face this difficult question: “Should I play it safe or should I take a risk that’ll win the game for me next turn?” The former keeps you alive in most circumstances, but the latter can instantly win you the game—assuming you’re not punished for it.

The key point here is knowing the odds of your opponent punishing you next turn.  

In this article, I’ll delve into situations when it’s better to play it safe and when it’s better to take risks. I’ll also help you see risks that you may not even be aware of. Here are a few examples from my tournament games:

Unnoticed Risks

Common Risk #1: The Turn 1 opener.  It’s very easy to overlook if you’re not accounting for the entire possibility space.

Here’s an example: This is a very common placement I see not only in lower ladder play, but even high level play. The opponent plays something far away and you want to have a very good chance to ramp into 5 next turn, right? This can lead to a very powerful turn 2, and since your opponent positioned so far away, there’s no way your opponent can deal with the minion, right? Although good in theory based on your hand, you need to think of all the ways your opponent can punish you for this, especially based on their faction. For example, the Bloodtear Alchemist is very common in the current meta, and it’ll punish you for not anticipating it.

Besides Neutral minions, let’s look at some factions. Songhai has two very common cards to deny your mana acceleration in Saberspine Seal and Phoenix fire. Ghost Lightning is a play that can hurt this opener a lot in the Songhai faction—though not as common, it’s still a threat. They remove your minion easily, while even being able to develop something as scary as another Chakri Avatar since you left the mana tile up. These punishing beat downs can stop your game plan instantly, giving your opponent a big early game lead. This is a risk you almost never should take against a deck that has so many options to remove this opener.  This opener, however, isn’t bad against factions with less punishes such as Lyonar. Since their only cheap removal is Tempest, and Lyonar decks are not commonly known to run either Maw or Bloodtear Alchemist, you can possibly get away with this opener to ramp into Ironcliffe Guardian.

So enough about all the ways your opponent can answer this turn 1 opener. Let’s figure out how to make it better as Lyonar!

Movement Option

Both of these openers seem to be better against this Songhai opponent, mainly because 3 of the 4 openers we talked about no longer kill WindBlade Adept. Saberspine seal, Ghost lightning, and Bloodtear Alchemist no longer clear which is also great. While Phoenix fire does, there’s nothing you can do about it and hopefully you get a Silverguard Knight instead of Windblade to survive that too! I’m sure you’re wondering which of these two options are truly better—normally, I prefer the diagonal opener. In this specific game, however, I’d walk up twice and put Windblade Adept on top since the opponent positioned so far away you want to add more pressure by being closer.

Playing to Win vs. Playing Not to Lose

There’s quite a big difference between playing to win vs. playing not to lose. Sometimes you’re in a very tough situation where you’re very behind, and you just have to take a huge risk. You could heal up, but you’re so behind and that it won’t help you win but create a stall, so you need to find a way to come back with a risk. Sometimes you lose by the punish, but don’t let that make you think about the play you did being wrong, sometimes you lose even if you’re doing the right thing.

So a little summary:  I played Azurite Lion and roared it drawing into Dioltas, replaced a card, and Sun Bloomed 3 of his minions.

Here’s the takeaway: Even if you lose to what could kill you and it seemed “surviving” was better, it’s not. In the example above, the opponent had 6 Shadow Creep tiles, and a possible Shadow Nova, adding 4 more up to a total of 10. Now I could Martyrdom my own ‘The Scientist’ to survive from everything, but then you need to ask yourself “How will I win?” The answer is you sometimes can’t win even if you survive, since you have little board presence and your opponent has the initiative. So I played the Dioltas instead, risking the Shadow Nova as I recognized ‘The Scientist’ is what I need to win the game and compete late game.  This is a winning line of play where I only die to Shadow Nova (with 2 left in his deck), giving me a huge lead if I’m not punished.

Based on that play, I can now perform a crazy comeback. The heal play would’ve lost to his Dancing blade board play giving me no way to comeback. I can Bloodborn Spell the Dioltas to draw a card, kill off the Dancing Blades, Martyrdom the Tombstone to heal 10 and draw another card. All while having 5 in hand to utilize against his 1 in hand, giving me the win later on. These types of plays are important to think about. In this case, the risk paid off. Even if I survived by healing a turn earlier, I’d still be too far behind to win the match.

Knowing The Odds of What You Lose To

If the situation looks grim, you can still win by playing a bit safer than a risky play that would guarantee you win the next turn (but higher chance to loses more). Play a bit safer if you have a chance to win while doing so. Only take the full risk and play around nothing if you can’t win no matter what.

Quick example: I had Shroud in hand, played Abyssal Crawler, then Rite of the Undervaulted to draw 5. Opponent used one Saberspine Tiger so far. So here’s the question: “Do you go for the Darkspine Elemental below the opponent’s General or do you heal?” Lets consider both options:

1 – Darkspine Elemental will almost certainly win the game for me next turn no matter what. I know he runs Arclyte Sentinel and Repulsor Beast and he hasn’t used any Holy Immolations yet. I would lose to Arclyte Sentinel/Repulsor Beast + Immolation/Saberspine+Roar with this play.

2 – Healing Mystic play:  Killing the Sentinel puts me at 9, gives him no Roar target, and only loses to Saberspine+Immolation/Divine Bond.

So the Darkspine play is probably worse here. In general, don’t give the Lyonar 2 free damage if you can avoid it by letting him have a Roar target. This is a very hard turn to think on, but in the end I realized he only had 2 Saberspine Tigers in his deck, and he needed one to kill me with this line of play. Although the Darkspine play loses to other 2 card combos that don’t need Saberspine Tiger, it can be used to kill me.

Overall as you can see both plays would’ve been safe here as he can’t do 11 with Saberspine Tiger alone if I used Darkspine, but would not have known he only had a Saberspine. In short, you want to play the odds to the best of your ability. With the Healing Mystic line of play, I have a good chance to win since I’ll also have a bigger hand.


Main point: think out your turns and recognize how your opponent can punish you.  Make sure the odds are in your favor on plays unless you absolutely have no choice. For plays even as simple as replacing make sure you think it through, making sure the risk has a good enough reward to compensate! Sometimes you lose even when you pick the right line of play, but sometimes you also get heavily rewarded for it. Taking risks when you’re behind is the best way to come back so make sure you take them if needed instead of stalling the game with no win condition. If you have a chance to win no matter how small, take it.

Hope these pointers helped you. Good luck with your games—whether you win or lose, play to your strengths!