Moo, I say
Sometimes we like things that we shouldn’t. Children can’t get enough of ice cream. Americans can’t get enough Adam Sandler. My sister can’t play enough Mountain Vargath.
Continuing my review of some older Summoner Wars decks, I come to an important transition point. Last week, I covered the abysmally performing Cloaks and their feeble line of champions and commons. This week I’ll be looking at the mountain goats. Both of these factions are notable for two reasons. One, they have a consistent low performance across tournaments. Second, they’re both near and dear to our hearts.
The Mountain Vargath had an equally poor showing as the Cloaks. They claimed two victories in our Master Set tournament. They claimed nothing in the Kitchen Sink Combat. The only reason they edge out the Cloaks is because one of their two victories was against the hapless rebels. And… well… someone had to be on the bottom and frankly the Cloaks have an overall worse deck than the Vargath.
But after these two we actually start entering murky waters. The nice thing about the goats and rebels is that they are clearly, distinctly terrible. When calculating a rough ranking for these factions to decide how I’d post them, most of the factions were fairly close. But the Cloaks and Mountain Vargath were half the ranking of their peers. No matter who played them or how we approached the decks, these two factions kept falling on their faces. For the Cloaks, we could see that pretty much every option they had to field for battle was both brittle and underwhelming.
But the Mountain Vargath are oddly the opposite. There’s not a single 1 health unit in their ranks. They actually have access to two attack commons fairly effortlessly. And their champions aren’t quite as terrible as the Cloaks.
So what went wrong?
I’ve discussed before the difficulties of aggression in Summoner Wars. There’s inherent design that makes charging across the battlefield to combat your opponent a noticeably weaker strategy than sitting back and waiting for the enemy to come to you. Most of the factions that are effective at aggression have some advantage to match the ability to instantaneously reinforce and surround an attacking force.
I believe the Mountain Vargath were the first faction to try and address this. Looking at their numbers, they’re kind of insane. Unfortunately, in order to leverage their advantage, the Mountain Vargath kind of reveal new issues that being aggressive hadn’t revealed before. I think, in their attempt to fix one problem, the designers stumbled into other ones.
Alright, I tried to ignore it but I can’t. I have to say it. I hate the Mountain Vargath art. It’s not just because of their dopey faces. I hate that they are just bland, brown smudges. From their commons to their summoners and across their champions, they’re all just brown, boring blobs. There’s no interest. There’s no inspiration. Even the colour palette is chosen to just get lost in the greater whole. And the poses are pretty lacklustre. The only way I can tell a champion from a summoner is to read the name.
Anyway, let’s put the bad art aside.
Sunderved is the standard for aggressive summoners. He’s melee so to cash in on his shorter range he gets an additional health and an additional attack. It’s a pretty good bruising stat line. Of course, if you’ve read my Alliance review, you know that it’s a bit misleading. You don’t lead the charge with these summoners. You still lose the game if they go down and while seven health is hearty, it isn’t insurmountable.
Course, this is where Sunderved’s ability comes in. And what an ability it is. Every Mountain Vargath common within 2 spaces of their commander gets an additional attack.
Let me repeat that. Every common in two spaces of Sunderved gets an additional dice in their attack.
Moyra only gives one common one additional dice. You can get a bonus three with this goat. Course, the catch is you have to use commons. And, unfortunately, Sunderved lives and breathes in the time of catch-up events and common hate. We just saw a summoner who had two powerful events that only trigger on having less commons than his opponent. And Assassinate only goes after commons. And Vlox isn’t even the meanest to commons. And his opponents are mostly going champions.
But that’s not to take away from the fact that Sunderved gives his a nice boost. And the boost is good against anything be it walls, conjurations, summoners or champions. He makes his commons quite the threat on his cheap little kids.
So, yeah. It’s good.
Unfortunately, not everything is as rosy. Sunderved’s events don’t measure quite as well as his ability. Let’s start with the lowest hanging fruit.
Torodin’s Advance is awful. It’s your one off event and isn’t even impressive for something you have to dig through over thirty cards to find. And it’s a combo card requiring you to have the matching champion Torodin on the field to have any effect. So surely it must do something spectacular right?
Wrong. You can move him two additional spaces.
Like, this is the definition of a bum card. It’s awkward to pull out. It’s not something you want to stuff your hand to play. It doesn’t even do anything good when you actually play it.
Sadly, things don’t improve much from here. Next up is Superior Planning which is an event tutor. Yet, you have two of these and the aforementioned Advance makes it so one third of your events to search for don’t do anything. They can pull from the discard, though, so they aren’t the worst tutors. And if you draw them before your other events you can at least thin your deck.
Next we have Muster which lets you pull two commons to your summoner. It should be good but it ends up not being that useful despite Sunderved wanting units around him. Partly because, once again, it’s a combo card. You either need commons really out of position or have them in your hand to summon when you get the card. Or you’re trucking it around and stuffing your hand slowing down your draw and magic generation.
Then you have Fall Back. It’s necessary to allow Sunderved to retreat from a failed advance. Unfortunately, retreating from your opponent ends up weakening your chances of victory.
You see, nothing adds to the survivability of Sunderved’s forces while he’s charging headlong at his enemy’s face. So while he’s trucking across the battlefield, his opponent is raising walls and surrounding his army. Two health, while better than one, is still quite easy to take down in a single turn as players are apt to prioritize their own cards with two or greater attack. And once those wounds start landing, Sunderved can do nothing about them.
In fact, the fastest way to stop Sunderved is to get four wounds on him. Not a herculean task especially since you’ll have two or more turns while the goat tries to angle a good position on your summoner to accomplish this. With only three health left, the goat has to bleat and retreat and once he’s cowering on his own side of the battlefield, he’s significantly less of a threat.
And that’s been the story of Sunderved in nearly all battles. Rush forward with glory and fame filling your eyes, get man handled for a turn or two and run crying back home. Sunderved is a bully in the classic sense of the word. He’s all bluster and pose without anything to back up his big words.
My sister hates the brutes. I think they’re decent. You probably won’t pay for a lot of them, however, because that 2 magic could easily be 2 more warriors. However, they do give Sunderved a little bit of trickery. Opponents can sometimes forget that you can knock around your own units and you can fastball special Sunderved into the enemy’s face. Preferably with a Fall Back primed since for the manoeuvre to work you need to put 1-2 wounds on your summoner (a rare situation where the lack of a “may” in a seemingly positive ability turns out to be a negative). The 1 attack at 3 health isn’t a particularly popular statistical spread mostly because of how poor 1 attack is. However, keep them close to Sunderved and that’s easily a 2 attack at 3 health for 2 magic.
Unfortunately, their ability isn’t all that impactful. Positioning your brute to propel enemies in useful directions is far more clumsy than you’d imagine. They’re really good at punching enemies away but getting them to throw a helpless victim into the middle of your herd is far less likely. And if you’re just trying to keep an enemy away, the opponent can simply walk it back to place next turn especially since you have no other movement options to cover lanes.
They make good bodyguards for Sunderved. Alas, they are hard to get into position. This underscores the biggest issue facing a Sunderved assault. Moving all your pieces ends up being incredibly cumbersome and slow. You want to keep units around Sunderved to reduce the number of attacks that are directed his way. However, you also need to advance Sunderved to keep his warriors and rushers gaining his command boost. With only three movements per turn, you can’t move Sunderved and cover all his flanks. This is one of those primary issues facing aggressive factions that the Mountain Vargath revealed. It’s not just health that’s needed to keep a forward force to apply pressure against an enemy but mobility as well to get that force across the middle line.
And you aren’t going to use Brutes to overcome that issue. Their requirement to wound a unit to knock it around removes the natural health advantage of the Mountain Vargath commons. If they aren’t within range of Sunderved, their attack also has a non-insignificant 33% failure rate. And if you were relying on that knocked unit to cover Sunderved’s side then you’re in a massive heap of trouble.
So we’re looking at a rather unappealing stat line on an active ability that’s only relevant when the attack lands and doesn’t do a whole lot when it occurs in the first place. And it has limited utility outside of smacking enemies.
I don’t fault my sister for not being a fan.
The rusher is as uninspiring as his name. He is, unfortunately, the only mobility option available to the Mountain Vargath. So, unless you’re relying on finding those Musters, these are the guys that can easily reinforce an active assault from your walls. Sadly, after their first turn, their ability essentially turns off. Kait loves nothing more than pitching these people across the field to perform hapless single dice attacks against her enemy. They’re great for being a diversion in that regard but unless she’s fighting one of the more fragile summoners like Endrich then these guys are rarely threatening.
They do benefit the most from Greater Command, however. That four space reach means that their constant forward charges can still pick up Sunderved’s bonus dice. However, their usefulness dramatically falls off as the enemy gets their walls raised and lanes blocked. Their mobility isn’t too difficult to work around and since you have such a limited window they never present an assassination threat.
They’re cheap, however, and can easily keep within Sunderved’s sphere of influence so maintaining them as 2 melee 2 health isn’t that rare. They won’t be winning awards but they aren’t Vlox’s scrappers either.
Warriors are the most over powered common that no one talks about.
It’s funny. The Mountain Vargath warrior, on paper, is a beast. One magic for a unit that can, pretty easily, be a 2 melee or 3 if near Sunderved. With 2 health. By the numbers, this card should be absolutely broken. And yet, somehow, they seem unable to pull Sunderved from the bottom tier.
So what went so wrong?
For one, their bonus die is reserved for commons only. Yeah, champions are all the rage, but surely these guys can apply pressure before champions start dominating the field. Except, that bonus die isn’t applied to the enemy summoner either. So you need Sunderved right behind them if you want that scary 2 melee for 1 magic baseline. But if Sunderved is behind them then either he’s exposed or you’re already late into the game that champions are appearing. And late drawn warriors have a lengthy march to catch up to their fearless leader where they can be peppered by slings and arrows before they ever get to a face to smash.
Furthermore, these guys are pretty helpless against walls. Two attack isn’t fantastic against the nine health obstructions which your opponent is immediately going to crawl behind when they see the goats take the field. Your opponent knows that these guys are basically blank when on their own side and, because they are such a good unit if aggressive, your hand is basically forced by their presence. Woe to the Mountain Vargath that has to struggle through any early wall cards their enemy might throw down.
It’s almost a catch-22. Warriors are great so you want to use them and shape your strategy around maximizing their effectiveness. But because they are so good your opponent is going to avoid them and prioritize them. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to alleviate that pressure and Sunderved, as mentioned, has no preservation skills. They don’t have any tricks to get out a burst of crippling damage and they don’t have any sustain to survive a war of attrition. Worse still, they aren’t great on defence. You’re better off with rushers as at least they maintain their mobility.
I feel it’s necessary to point out they aren’t ranged here.
It was definitely a balancing decision to keep the Mountain Vargath from having really any range option. Sadly, they weren’t compensated with anything to make up this short coming. I think the designers erroneously felt that the extra bit of health would let them weather the first volley that a range attack grants. However, defensive archery units are quite capable at limiting retaliation angles so the lack of mobility hinders the Mountain Vargath yet again. They really needed more durability to survive the enemy’s defensive fire. While the designers gave them quite an astonishing amount of attack dice, they ended up being far too frail to leverage those attacks.
Growden is the champion that you don’t want to play but you’re likely to keep in your hand just in case you need him. Nothing brings an assault to a screeching halt that one or two wall cards hedging a timid summoner in. Those nine health speed bumps are more then enough to stall a game for a proper defence to be summoned and for Sunderved to be surrounded. And it’s trivially easy to attack the Mountain Vargath if they attempt to siege a walled position given their lack of ranged pressure.
Growden can break that line. Two auto wounds is a sufficient barrage to rip down a wall in about three turns. His base three attack is also threatening enough that once those pesky walls are down he’s still a problem. He can even keep breaking down those obstructions while murdering the defenders. So why not summon him all the time?
Well, as mentioned, Sunderved is a common focused leader. He gains little to nothing from Sunderved and you want to be using his hefty six cost to play more rushers and warriors. He’s also not the best against other champions. The best of the elites have powerful abilities that make them even more threatening in a fight. Growden’s hammer won’t ever give him the edge in a head-to-head conflict with another champion especially if they can be reinforced through a summoner’s abilities or events.
He does address a problematic tactic, so in that case he’s useful. It just always hurts whenever I have to put him on the table.
Quen (2R-4W-5M-Chain Lightning)
Phew, Quen. You are the sole ranged option available in Sunderved’s base deck. And, consequently, you’re far more costly than other equivalent ranged champions in other decks. But since you’ve got a monopoly on bows, you’re begrudgingly worth the price.
It further hurts that the old girl demands more magic for her ability. But then she does have 4 dice at range which is enough to be a sizeable killing threat if she can have a safe corridor to advance on the enemy summoner. But that four health. Phew. So much for the goats being hardy. She needs almost as much protection as Sunderved.
But she can be quite the surprise if the enemy forgets that the goats can sling shots. She’s the champion I try to field the most and it is often to your benefit to chain lightning against two different targets if you can clear the board of the threats. Otherwise, she’s your best answer to other champions so you want to hold on to her until the first of the enemy’s chosen falls so you can retaliate with her electricity.
Unfortunately, your hand can get pretty clogged if you’re waiting with Growden, Quen and some events in your hand.
You’d think that, given he’s the only champion with his own event, that Torodin would be some kind of monster. And yet, he’s easily the worst champion in Sunderved’s arsenal. He has the lowest attack of the group (if you take in the fact Quen can pay to double hers). Two attack on a champion is grossly lacklustre when you remember that the mighty warrior can have 2-3 depending on circumstances. To make up for it, Torodin has the mighty trample ability. He can pass through common units to inflict an automatic wound against them. Sadly, he has no improved movement capabilities so we’re looking at a single auto wound. On a common. You know, those units that your warriors are trained to murder wholesale.
And since he can’t trample champions, he’s straight up inferior to most in a head-to-head fight. He’s designed to combat the thing that the rest of Sunderved’s deck is design to combat but yet he ends up being worse at it. Use his 6 magic to get six warriors. They are better in nearly every way.
Build him and his awful event for magic.
I can’t help but find the Mountain Vargath interesting. Though their design ended up missing the mark, I feel they were on the right track. There’s a number of good ideas for making a hyper aggressive faction here. But to understand the difficulties facing aggression requires an intimate understanding of Summoner Wars more wonky attributes.
We all know the adage, “A good defence is a strong offence.” Sadly, this isn’t true (yet) in Summoner Wars. The nature of the game’s mechanics put a significant benefit on being defensive. It’s a combination of summoning off walls helps defenders more than attackers and the limitation of 3 moves and attacks a turn put a greater benefit to ranged units than melee. Wall summoning ensures that defenders can get their melee units into range on the turn they summon them – an advantage attackers sorely lack. Having to fight around their walls typically lets the defender determine attack avenues and limit options for their stronger units to get surrounded. And stopping to attack walls means that defenders get first strike when they summon defends to protect them.
And when assaulting units fall, it’s really hard to reinforce them. Unlike defenders, who can spawn infinitely from their walls (which can appear instantaneously away from crowding forces), attackers must march their units after their forward advance, often giving a free turn or two to finish off the first wave of weaken and destroy the reinforcements. This is even more dangerous for Sunderved who needs to be amongst his units to boost them to effective levels. Whenever a common falls, it opens up Sunderved’s flanks.
So what are hallmarks of a successful attacking force?
The nice thing about Alliances is that it’s a refinement of prior ideas and attempts. Moyra is essentially Sunderved 2.0. While Moyra’s presence only boosts one common, it also gives them a bit more movement to catch up with the rest of the force. She also has cherubim as her primary attacker, a unit with swiftness and slipperiness so that the little angels can catch up easily or wiggle through defenders to get into good positions. They’re ranged, so without Moyra’s influence, they have a threat zone of six spaces. That’s one more than the rusher and doesn’t put the cherubim out of position as it does the melee Mountain Vargath.
But having a stronger core unit isn’t the only advantage Moyra offers. Her defenders and blinding light toughens up the entire force, increasing survivability of the primary force and increasing the odds they can survive the inevitable counter attack. Moyra also intervenes on key units, taking the hits for them. She also has Father Benjamin to ease the pressure of the inevitable wounds that come her way to keep her presence on the front lines.
The other methods for more successful assaults are to overwhelm defenders with bonus movement and attacks like the Cave Goblins or to get forward summoning points that matches the defender’s wall advantage. Rallul can summon off his stone golems. Swamp Orcs are built entirely around overwhelming the enemy with vine walls to block summoning points and give them forward spawns.
So the Mountain Vargath serve an important point in design history for demonstrating that the bar for assaulting needs to be just a little higher. They were a valiant attempt, however. I can respect the design philosophy even if it came up short. I have more forgiveness for these earlier summoners as they tread new waters. It remains to be seen if their second summoners address these issues, however.