What the Shadow Knows
The Shadow Elves are a bit of an enigma. They consistently do well in tournaments, grabbing a double fourth place finish in both. Outside of tournaments, they consistently lose matches. It’s like lady luck has a soft spot for the albinos and keeps providing them the benefit of her touch whenever the matches count. They’re a faction which we constantly underrate and under appreciate. And they’re the type of faction that can capitalize on an opponent’s lapsed judgement.
Of all the Master Set releases, the Shadow Elves are the only real faction that encapsulates the assassination style of play. They have, in general, high attack but low staying power. However, they have several tricks and movement options up their sleeves that can worm their units past defences to strike unprepared summoners. An enemy can’t really know where or how the Shadows Elves will strike next and it’s easy to forget just how far their reach can extend.
Unfortunately, they’re not the most adept as assassins. Along with playing aggressively, the assassination style has always been the hardest to perform. On one hand, it’s the most effective way to win the game. Wherein playing defensive you’re trying to create an economic advantage to turn into battlefield superiority and playing aggressive involves applying more pressure than an opponent can withstand, assassination goes right for the jugular.
Granted, because “assassinating” is kind of an easy concept to understand, your typical player is wary of leaving their summoner in easy reach. For most factions, a player is going to skulk their summoner on their back and furthest row from their enemy. That means an assassination ploy is going to involve getting a unit across the board in order to be in position. Walls and defenders will litter the way so you’ll need better movement to get around them. But unless your opponent is susceptible to assassination, like having a low starting health, then the match-up can be very difficult. You’ll have to work multiple units onto the summoner, or somehow get them to stick for a few turns. As such, it’s easy for a failed assassination plan to hand your opponent the match if you’ve got too weak an economy to defend against the inevitable counter attack.
So why would you want to play this dicey style? Well, outside of making a match very tense, the threat of assassination never really disappears. Depending on how the opponent can deliver their damage, defending against several attempts can lull your enemy into a false sense of security. If their army moves forward to crush you, your opponent may find himself quickly missing the defenders he had before to protect himself. And, since assassins generally use high attack values, their summoned defenders are still a threat to those would be avengers.
More likely, however, a player will switch styles throughout a match. You may be playing defensive, building up a decent economic pool while looking for an opening to strike your opponent. When that happens, you might throw a few assassins out before committing to a full aggressive push. Being flexible and keeping your opponent guessing is the best way to keep the threat of assassination open.
So what does this mean for the Shadow Elves? Well, they have to be adaptive in order to address their opponent’s style. If your enemy is going defensive, you can try to move a few key units forward to pull out extra defenders. If they keep hiding, you can probably pick of stragglers or draw forward walls until you get a good opening or they turn to an aggressive counter. Then you can pull back, lure them into your territory and slaughter their units. It’s much like a fencing match, with all the strikes and ripostes. A few hits on their summoner should dissuade a complete commitment to passive play and frustrate their plans.
This also means that my sister can be effective with the Shadow Elves since rushing your enemy, while not as strong as with an aggressive faction, can still have some teeth to it. I’m still not convinced that the Shadow Elves base deck is as strong as it appears – their only large victory of note in the Big Tournament was against the Swamp Orcs – but hey, if you can’t be skilled, you might as well be lucky.
Selundar (2R-7W-Out of Shadows)
Selundar is interesting in that he has a bit more health than normal for a ranged summoner. This is partly because if you’re going to get use from out of shadows you’ll probably be in place to be counter attacked. But a 2 range that can shift to a 4 melee is impressive for a summoner. He has some real potential to turn eager champions into mince meat should they blindly come after him. He’s a very dangerous assistant to your assaults. But he’s also more apt to play in the mid board position, looking for moments when he can use that four dice in effective but safe manners.
Learning when to advance and when to retreat is important for Selundar because the last thing you want is to be surrounded and “assassinated” yourself. Keeping tabs on the enemy’s magic pool is vital in order to predict what they’ll summon. If you get some units deep into enemy territory, they will naturally draw your opponent’s attention. But it won’t last long. All the Shadow Elf commons are pretty brittle so they won’t stand up to any abuse.
Selundar does have some tools to help him, however. His event Shadows is so representative of his style that it spawned an entire unit in the Alliances box. The event lets you claim a loss of one of your troops as magic for yourself. Get these early and a quick rush on your opponent can really leave their economy crippled as the money from your deaths are denied. If they had to summon a defender themself, this could leave your enemy with an additional turn or two without magic (outside of what he builds). It even lets you refund the cost of your own troops, to an extent.
And if your enemy gets emboldened by your early loses, you have Into Darkness to punish a fool hardy counter assault if they drop a hasty common retaliation. Unfortunately, Into Darkness discards the units instead of giving you the magic but if your two targets are both 2 magic, then you’ve done a significant tempo hit. Yeah, it’s a catch up event but I find it’s too situational to try and set up the conditions for it yourself. Its requirements are more apt to appear through natural gameplay and, given that the ability is almost half as effective as the other big catch up events, it isn’t as problematic for the game in general.
Stalking Advance is the Shadow Elf aggression event. It gives you as many single space moves as you have units on the board so it also doubles as a surprise event to extend the reach of your assassins. It’s a very good if incredibly unexciting event. I can understand why a new player may not be blown away by it on first blush. But after repeated games, Stalking Advance is certainly the event that can ruin your opponent.
Finally, there’s Summon the Night. Between this and stalking advance, you can create a very terrifying turn for your opponent. This event can really cinch a match. If you manage to have a strong board position and throw this out, it’s possible to get essentially “an extra turn” as your opponent stumbles in the one space restriction unable to strike anything. And it neuters ranged factions, forcing them to stumble into melee range where they are more vulnerable. This can really extend the life on your champions in particular as they and Selundar are the most susceptible to a fresh trio of summoned defenders surrounding and overwhelming them. That’s near impossible in the night. It’s also great on the defence, letting you quickly retreat Selundar from assassins or a strong attacking force while out-manoeuvring them with your defenders. It’s an all around fantastic event.
It’s a good but tricky suite and takes some practice to use well and to defend against.
Eh, rangers. I’m pretty unimpressed with them. They’re your only ranged common but they’re not particularly grand. One ranged attack is as disappointing as you get since they aren’t much of a threat against their similarly priced melee units which generally come with two health.
As such, they’re more effective when you’re on defence. Especially since Selundar’s board set up is so awkward. I mostly build them for magic more than anything else but something has to fill that role. As for their shadow arrows, they rarely ever work. First, they have to get a kill which is a tall task for one attack. They also have to be killing something that is within three clear spaces of another juicy target. And it eats up the magic that you get for the kill. Unless I can score a cheap shot on the enemy summoner or take out a more expensive archer of theirs, I usually ignore it. It is your “extra attack” for an aggressive faction however.
Scout’s scout scouts scouts. I can see some of the flavouring took a real long time.
I like the scouts if only because they’re free bodies. They provide the Shadow Elves a chance to always have just one more unit despite the state of their magic pile. Their ability is really good but don’t expect it to ever really trigger. The problem with it is it’s attached to a single health unit and that scout is going to chew up one of your movements in order to crawl onto your opponent’s board. Your opponent will likely then move a lone defender to go and claim the weak girl as magic.
I mean, you could protect it with a hardier target but that would mean you’re protecting a 0 magic unit with a champion or your summoner. And those are things you don’t want to be attacked either.
They’re basically a second magic fodder though it doesn’t hurt to keep a few back to assist with protecting Selundar or to attack anything that comes near your walls. With any luck they can kill things that cost more than them and you can just shoot the girls in the back with a ranger or two to deny their magic.
Swordsmen are hands down the best common in the Shadow Elves. I’d argue they’re one of the best commons in the game. At least they were before Alliances came out and significantly enlarged the common pool with much better units. I, personally, prefer 2 attack instead of 2 health on my melee commons if only because two health doesn’t provide that much more in terms of survivability in a game with plenty of two and three attack options in most factions. And 2 attack is twice as threatening to champions and summoners. Three of these guys springing from your walls and surrounding a newly minted champion can really ruin your enemy’s day.
But that brings them to their largest weakness. You only have three of them in your deck.
For some inexplicable reason, the Shadow Elves start with half their best units on the board. Not only does this effectively force Selundar to roll for first turn but it also means that the Shadow Elf player can’t get much use out of them. Likely, you’ll be attacking at least one because there is little chance all three of them will survive a turn and so, one turn into the game and already your best forces have been reduced significantly.
It’s one thing I haven’t mentioned but another large problem with some of the earlier summoners is that their starting line-ups really cut them off at the knees. Selundar is perhaps the worst offender of the bunch. You need to have these units in your deck so you have the chance to draw them throughout the game to gain the advantage and surprise of being summoned from your walls. Unfortunately, this is denied to the Shadow Elves unless they purchase a second box and deck build in extra swordsmen. I would have really preferred if only two or (preferably) one started on the field and there were seven or even eight of these guys in the deck. The Shadow Elves can stand to lose extra rangers and scouts.
Having so many fragile units on the board at the beginning really kills the Shadow Elves ability to field an efficient common focused force. And going first with so many melee units also hurts because you are reduced to only moving two. It’s so unnecessary to make the Shadow Elves first turn so difficult. They must stumble before through those first few rounds before they can gain the proper momentum and board state to run the clean and surgical strikes they want.
Granted, the poor setup of their commons just pushes the Shadow Elves towards a champion focused game. And they have some pretty decent champions.
Hydrake is the most terrifying on appearance. This fearsome lizard single handedly won the match-up against the swamp orcs. Three melee is good. Able to strike everything around it really discourages the natural tendency for opponents to crowd a champion when it comes stomping into their home. And since high strength range units are rare, this typically translates into an extra round or two of the Hydrake running around than any other champion.
Sometimes, the strongest defence is a ridiculous offence.
That said, eight magic is a tall order to achieve and if you draw him early he’s probably not worth holding onto since you’ve got all your events that you’re trying to time properly. There is a certain satisfaction when the enemy takes casualty after casualty until they finally bring the dreaded Hydrake down and as they reach to claim their prize you drop a Shadows to the board.
Malidala is just plain bad. Just like the Sand Goblin scavenger, she’s a card that is rendered useless because of the grievous absence of a necessary “may.” Maybe if she had the elusive 3 range stat I could recommend her. However, she just isn’t worth the investment when you can get the Hydrake for three more magic. Three wounds is absolutely pitiful but that her ability is so easy to negate is hilarious.
All the opponent has to do is attack Malidala with a one attack common and shadow dance is completely voided. Sure, it forces an additional attack on her but if she’s in a fisticuffs with another champion she’s just going to outright lose. You can squeeze a bit more usefulness with summon the night to save her skin and this isn’t bad if you have other units benefit from the reduced attack range. Course, in that situation, any ranged champion would have been good too. I’d take just about any other option over the weird double skirted cheerleader. But I don’t have anything so straight to the magic pile for you, girl (unless you happen to be my last champion in the deck)!
Xaserbane, however, is the real deal. When you’re first learning to play as and against the Shadow Elves, this guy is going to get so many good stabs. With stalking advance, he’s a total of five movement. Off a forward wall, you’ve got a good chance of striking the enemy summoner and forcing her to deal with bob cut albino. But he’s the definition of an assassin, easily folding in one round. But he’s cheap as dirt so it’s not too great a loss.
As always, summon the night can extend his life expectancy but even then, chances are you’ll only get one more turn since he’ll be receiving a minimum of two dice attacks. But the threat of Xaserbane can really affect your opponent’s behaviour. Expect your opponent to keep hawkish attention on your magic pool to know when she is or isn’t safe of a sudden stalking advance from this guy. And if he manages to get on an opponent and she fails to kill him on her turn, you’re practically golden for the rest of the match.
On the other hand, there’s nothing more disheartening than getting the perfect sneak with this guy and watching all three dice come up as misses.
So, yeah, I’m still surprised by the Shadow Elves performance. Even after doing an long write-up I still can’t really see how great they are. They have a few tricks that are decent, a few cards that are decent but nothing that is outright scary. And perhaps it is this acknowledgement that they aren’t some sort of “over powered” or “broken” faction that makes us far more exacting in how we play them. Knowing that we have to squeeze every last ounce of strength we can from each card perhaps makes our strategy all the better than when my sister or I have a faction we feel will win without a challenge.
Like I said, it’s almost this idea that the Shadow Elves unimpressive deck lulls you into carelessness. All you have to really do is kill their swordsmen and keep an eye out for that sneaking Xaserbane and you’ll be fine, right? And then, you remember summon the night only as the Hydrake is chowing down on the opponent and Selundar is sliding forward with a stalking advance and striking out of the shadows in a desperate play that pulls you into the grave.