Unbroken Wall Part 5: Playing Defensive Decks

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

We’ve finally reached the (much delayed) last part of this series, and hopefully you now have a better idea about the kinds of cards that should go into defensive decks and how the archetype plays in general. Whether you want to use that to play a defensive list yourself or improve your deck against them is up to you.

For the final article we’re going to be looking at some of the tactical and strategic considerations when playing. This is as important as the cards you put in the deck, if not more, as without a good gameplan you could be running the 32 best cards in the game and still not stand a chance of beating your opponent. Something that’s often missed when looking at tournament-winning lists in Shadespire as in any other game is understanding not just why the cards were chosen but also what the person running the deck was actually doing with them.

I’m not going to go through all the choices I make when playing here – firstly because the article would be unreadably long, and secondly because we’ve got some Grand Clashes coming up in the next couple of months (most excitingly the UK Team Championship in October) and I want to keep at least a few secrets.



Before getting started on strategy, I wanted to quickly introduce the concept of heuristics. Heuristics are a decision making tool that are essentially mental shortcuts along the lines of “in situation x I will do y”. You almost certainly use them every day when you decide to bring an umbrella or wear a coat because the forecast says rain or whatever. They won’t always be correct, but unless you have additional information you can’t know this ahead of time. By applying heuristics to choices you can make sure that you make the right choice most of the time without spending ages analysing everything.

In most situations in competitive games you don’t have perfect information, and are operating within what can be pretty tight time limits, so you need to use heuristics to make an educated guess at the best play to make. Again, this is probably something you are already doing – for example when your opponent puts down Reavers or Fiends you assume they are on an aggro deck and make do-over and deployment choices accordingly.

In this article most of my tips will essentially be a set of heuristics (in bold) to help you when playing a defensive deck. They aren’t always going to be the right choice, and a lot of the skill in playing competitive games is identifying when you do want to do something differently, but if you keep these in mind then most of the time you’ll be able to make the right decision.

In general these apply more during game 1 against an unknown opponent, where you probably know nothing more that what warband they’re playing. In game 2 or 3 of a best of 3, or when playing someone you know who’s playing a deck you’ve faced before you have a lot more information and can start making more specific choices.


Before The Game

Most of these may seem like common sense, but they’re still important to keep in mind. In order to plan out and execute a gameplan, you need to understand both your own and your opponent’s decks so that you can make the right decisions.

Make sure you know what cards are in both your objective and power decks. It’s really important to be able to remember what you’re running, so you can know how useful drawing a power card or replacing an objective actually is and whether there’s any point doing so (especially in round 3).

Make sure you’re familiar with common deck archetypes and cards they are likely to be running. No-one can blame you if your opponent plays an uncommon card like Frozen in Time and surprises you, but you need to be able to play around the staples that a large number of decks run – Great Concussion, Trap, Twist the Knife, Ready for Action, My Turn and so on.

Make sure you’re familiar with each warband’s fighter cards. The most important things to know are movement and attack range – as that gives you the fighter’s threat range – and their base damage, so that you know how many ploys or upgrades they need to have to be able to one-shot you. Knowing who gets access to cleave is also important for most of the warbands that are suited to defensive play.

Put together, these considerations inform your decision-making and how you use your activations and ploys. You can know that, for example, you’re probably safe 8 hexes away from Gurzag as he’d need +4 movement to get to you (not impossible, but not likely) while being 8 hexes away from Skritch means you’re just 1 push away from being in charge range.


Choosing Boards

The roll-off for board choice is one of the most important rolls in the game as it determines whether or not you get a headstart on your gameplan or not. Unsurprisingly, you want to win the roll-off (like basically every deck except hold objective ones) as against an unprepared aggro list this basically just wins you the game, and even against something like aggro Skaven or a good Fiends list with the tools to reach you and score passive glory it makes a huge difference.

As there’s nothing you can do to influence this roll, you need a good plan for both when you win and when you lose, maximising the impact of getting to choose set-up when you win and minimising the impact of your opponent getting the choice when you lose.

If you lose the roll-off, pick the board below. This gives you 2 back edge hexes and 1 second row hex on both long edges, so you can maximise the distance from your opponent no matter how they deploy (assuming that they will connect on the long edges). Working this out in our testing for the original ScaredyKat relic deck made a huge difference in win rate against aggro decks when we lost the roll-off.


If you win the roll-off, instead pick the board below and deploy the boards with the short-edges connecting and your opponent’s board rotated such that there is as much space as possible between their closest hex and your board. You want the labelled group of starting hexes at the far end from your opponent’s boards – these are your default positions for deployment.


These heuristics assume that your meta is predominantly aggro decks (which is generally going to be the case). With more hold objective or defensive decks you might want to instead deploy with the long edges connected so that you can more easily reach your opponent (especially if you have a hybrid deck that leans more towards aggro).

In addition, there are some cases when placing diagonally or choosing a different board might be slightly better but that’s really only something you can decide for yourself through play – it depends on the exact composition of your deck and what you are playing against.

Placing Objective Tokens

You probably only care about objective tokens for tiebreakers and maybe The Formless Key. Given the prevalence of aggro decks the same is probably true for your opponent unless they are playing the Chosen Axes, although you need to watch out for lists that have Supremacy as a backup objective (e.g. aggro Skaven).

If you’re placing three objectives, it’s worth putting your final objective on an edge hex so that you can Hidden Paths onto it for tiebreakers or The Formless Key at the end of the game. If you know your opponent doesn’t care about objectives, then consider putting it in their territory as well so that you can stop Denial and Contained at the same time.


Doing Over Starting Hands

Whether to do-over or keep your starting hand can be one of the trickiest choices you have to make in the game and, while it’s not immediately obvious when it happens, making the wrong decision here can cost you the game.

Always do over your power cards when you have 4+ upgrades, unless the 1 ploy is invaluable in the match-up (Great Concussion is the main thing that I would keep here, sometimes Quick Thinker). Your deck wins by having answers, and even though you’ll usually be able to spend most activations in round 1 drawing cards you want to be starting off with more than 1 option in case your opponent does something like immediately come in with Hidden Paths or Spectral Wings.

Always do over your objectives if you have 2+ end-game objectives. It hurts to lower your maximum glory, but you aren’t going to be getting any if you have to work off 1 objective a round.

Always do over your objectives if you have 2+ score immediately objectives. There are some situations where you actually do want to keep these, but you’re typically best getting for passive objectives in round 1.

If there’s a ploy I think is particularly key in a match-up, the bar for keeping a hand without it increases. Against fast aggro decks and objective decks this is pretty much any push (especially Great Concussion) while against slower aggro decks you can almost keep any hand as long as its not complete garbage – you’ll have enough chances to draw power to make up for a rough start.

Setting up Fighters

When setting up, your main concerns are reducing the possibility of a turn 1 charge and enabling your objectives. You want to maximise the distance between your fighters and the closest enemy, giving you as many chances as possible to get the answers you need before

Always let your opponent deploy first unless they are playing a warband the same size as yours. This gives you (slightly) more ability to react to their placement, and has no effect on whether or not you get the bonus crit for the roll-off. You just need to remember NOT to do this when playing against another warband that’s the same size.

Deploy as far back as possible from your opponent, unless your objectives and ploys suggest otherwise. For both of the boards above, the furthest starting hexes from your opponent give you two adjacent fighters. If you have an opening objective hand with Alone in the Darkness and Perfect Planning (or even just Alone in the Darkness) you may instead want to deploy one of your fighters further forwards so that you can score Alone in the Darkness without needing to use ploys or move actions.


Activation Roll-Offs

The rolls to see who chooses to go first each round are another key roll-off, although significantly less important than the roll for board placement. They become increasingly important as the game goes on and your opponent’s fighters close with you. Unfortunately there’s nothing in Warhammer Underworlds (yet?) that lets you influence this roll, so the only thing you can do is plan for what to do if you do win.

Always choose to go second unless you have a good reason. If you win the roll you should almost always let your opponent go first. Going second gives you an activation that your opponent can’t react to, and priority in the final power step, which is a big advantage in the vast majority of situations.

The two main times where this isn’t the case are if you need to attack a nearby fighter before they attack you (usually when there is a good chance that they’ll one-shot one of your fighters), or if you need to have priority in the first power step (so that you can use ploys to get fighters out of charge range etc).


Action Phases

Efficient use of Activations

One of the main things to consider during each round is how to spend your activations. You’ve only got 12 total, so you want to make use of them as efficiently as possible – your deck has a low margin of error against most opponents, due to your generally low glory cap, so you really can’t afford to waste activations.

Your top priority is stopping your opponent, which usually means making sure they can’t attack (and definitely can’t kill) your fighters. You then need to look to scoring your own objectives and stopping your opponent’s, then finally once you’ve got control of the game you want to increase your ability to maintain this advantage through to the next round. My general rule of thumb for assessing priorities is as follows.

1: Negate enemy fighters that threaten yours either by moving away or attacking them before they can attack you. Often you’ll be able to do this with ploys in the power step (Great Concussion, Hidden Paths, Frozen in Time) or as reactions in your opponent’s activation (Quick Thinker), saving your activations for furthering your own gameplan.

2: Maximise the glory you will score at the end of the round. Sometimes this means drawing power cards (trying to find pushes, or just an extra ploy for Ploymaster), sometimes it means discarding a sub-optimal objective to try and find a better one, and sometimes it will mean making move actions to reposition your fighters. You want to score 2 or more of your objectives each turn, so you need to make sure you keep your chances of doing so high and react to changes in the game state accordingly.

3: Minimize the glory your opponent will score at the end of the round. Hopefully you’ve stopped them getting aggro objectives by denying charges etc, so you need to focus on possible passive objectives. Push fighters out of your territory to stop Swift Advance, make sure you have adjacent fighters if you aren’t trying to get Alone in the Darkness yourself, and in round 3 try and get a fighter into their territory to stop Denial and Contained. There’s some passive objectives you can’t do anything against, but try and control the ones you can do.

4: Attack enemy fighters if there’s no risk of counter-attack. If you have a risk-free (or acceptably low risk) attack that has a good chance of killing an enemy then you should take it if you’ve already got the higher priorities sorted. Often this is going to be a charge in the last activation against a fighter that’s already moved and so can’t use Quick Thinker, using one of your fighters with enough damage to kill them. This becomes more important when you have score immediately objectives as then it also falls under 2 as well.

5: Draw power cards if you don’t have a better action. Especially in round 1, you tend to have a lot of free activations which you can use to start digging through your deck and building up an advantage for later rounds. This makes it more likely for you to find the ploys you need to stop your opponent and gives you a wider range of upgrades to choose from in your end phase.

The Power Step

Most of your interaction happens here, rather than in your activations – particularly when it comes to scoring your objectives and stopping your opponent scoring theirs. While you might not be looking to interact by rolling attacks (unless necessary) you

Wait until the last opportunity before using your ploys. The same goes for upgrades, actions, and anything else you want to do. In general you want to be giving your opponent as little opportunity as possible to react to and recover from what you’re doing. For ploys this tends to be the final power step of the phase, meaning that if you do something like push your opponent’s fighters off objectives with Great Concussion they have to answer with ploys rather than having the ability to use their activations to recover.

This does leave you open to No Time, so if you have good reason to expect your opponent is running that then you need to be a bit smarter with your timing. Fortunately most decks don’t include it, so most of the time you should be fine. Also remember that “the last opportunity” is sometimes the first power step depending on what you’re doing (e.g. creating space between your fighters and your opponent’s).

Only play ploys that have a meaningful affect. Sometimes you may need to burn a ploy to get Ploymaster, but the rest of the time you want to expend the minimum amount of effort to achieve your goals. There’s no point pushing an enemy fighter another hex away if that doesn’t change their ability to charge you – save that push for later when it can make a bigger impact.

This does mean you do need to be able to fairly accurately determine what is and isn’t meaningful (for example, that extra push may be useful if it gets you out of Spectral Wings range), but if you’re following these tips you should have a decent idea – the rest comes from experience.

Avoid playing upgrades in your power step unless you need them that round (for example putting Soultrap or Deathly Fortitude on one of your fighters to protect them). If you don’t have Escalation or similar objectives then playing unneccesary upgrades just makes it easier for your opponent to score their own Escalation.


End Phases

Hopefully you’ll score a bunch of glory here, and your opponent won’t. After that’s out of the way you then need to set up for the next round. Going into round 2, and especially into round 3, you should be looking to have key upgrades in place on your fighters and a good hand of ploys to support you in the next activation phase.

Play all the upgrades you have glory for, and discard the rest. Unless you run Ready for Action, Escalation, and other upgrade-based cards (and maybe even then) you want to be drawing as many cards as possible to increase the number of ploys you have access to.

Discard any ploys that don’t help your gameplan. Quite often you’ll find that some of your ploys don’t actually do anything against your opponent’s deck, or at least aren’t going to do anything in the next round(s). Re-roll or damage ploys against hold objective decks, for example (or aggro decks in turn 3 if you’ve already taken out a bunch of their fighters). If you’ve still got power cards left to draw (and don’t need them for Ploymaster), then discard these and draw replacements – again, you want to be maximising the cards you draw whenever possible.

Discard any objectives you can’t realistically score next round, with the possible exception of having 1 of your end-game objectives at the end of the first round. You need to be scoring consistently every turn to maintain a lead and reduce the chance of losing to end-game glory swings from your opponent.


The End – For Now

That’s it for this series of articles. Hopefully you’ve found it interesting, no matter where you stand on defensive lists, and have learned at least something from it. There’s obviously a lot more I could have covered, but really there’s no substitute for getting some practice games in to learn how to play a particular deck. In the future I’ll probably re-visit this archetype as the season 2 releases come out, and review how the new cards and warbands affect it, but otherwise that’s it for now.

In the meantime my co-authors have some ongoing series and more great articles planned, so check back again soon for more Warhammer Underworlds content. Until then, good luck and have fun – I hope to see you at a Clash or Grand Clash soon!


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