Editor’s Note: Fresh from the podium of the 2018 Capital City Meltdown, Larry kicks off a new series at Third Floor Wars: Ways to Lose Less. I had a bet with Larry based on the number of games I’d lose at CCM. If I won the bet, Larry would write an article for us. If he won, I’d paint a model for him. Larry won the bet (shocker) but was kind enough to write the article anyway. Like most of the top players in Malifaux, Larry is generous with his knowledge and lessons learned. There is gold in this article. His insights on cheating and your control hand alone makes this a worthy read. Enjoy!!
The One, The Only, The Mottola
Regardless which miniature war game you play, there’s an online community and probably several online forums dedicated to that game. For Malifaux, the biggest and most well-known is the Facebook group “A Wyrd Place”. Posts there run the gamut from rules queries to photos of crews and recent paintjobs. The most frequently asked questions relate to getting better at the game. Be it a complaint about a Master being too powerful, choosing the best schemes, or simply asking which Master should a newer play start with; all of these questions fall under the larger umbrella of “how can I win more of Malifaux games.” Below are five ways to get better at the game so you win more and lose less.
#1: Know Your Crew
It sounds simple – “know your own crew.” And on some level, everyone knows what their favorite Master and related models can do. You’ve read their cards at home. On the toilet. At your desk job. You’ve played with them in casual games. Ideally, you’ve even used them a bunch and know certain stats and triggers and ranges all by heart.
And if that’s where the knowledge of your crew ends, you’re destined to fail.
When I say “Know Your Crew,” what I really mean is know every model in your rotation with a given Master. Malifaux is a complicated game, and the model pool has only grown larger with time. The amount of choices available once you factor in Mercenaries, Masters with expanded hiring pools, and dual-faction hires can be daunting, so it’s important to stay focused on your Master and its core, and then branch out to your select utility models for each role based on the Strategy and Schemes.
(Since I primarily play Arcanists, for the rest of this article, I’ll use them and my familiarity with them for any illustrative purposes. Deal with it, #Tomes4Life)
When I first started Malifaux in mid-2015, my very first Master was Rasputina. I chose Arcanists because their models looked cool, and I chose Raspy first because I liked her theme and was told that she was pretty strong and not overly complex. I grabbed a few of her thematic supporting models, such as Snowstorm, December Acolytes, Silent Ones and of course, the Mechanical Rider, and I used Rasputina exclusively for all of my games.
By soloing Raspy for several months, I learned what her strengths were, but I also learned what her weaknesses were; while Raspy is most often described as a Blaster, IMO she’s really a control Master with her additional threats of paralyze and ice pillar creation, but she’s extremely slow and generally has a hard time in scheme-heavier pools that require more AP. By learning what her weaknesses were, I was better able to identify what Schemes and Strategies she was best suited for, what supporting pieces her crew needed to score VP in a given situation, and when to simply take another Master for the job.
Sandeep is the more recent example. After seeing his power firsthand when Grrn (Eric Lodal) used him against me at CaptainCon 2017, I began playing Sandeep exclusively in March of 2017, in an effort to get up to speed with him as soon as possible for the upcoming inaugural Malifaux ITC event in England.
Over those 2+ months, I played over a dozen games with Sandeep who, all things considered, is one of the more complicated (and most powerful) Masters in the game. Beacon is an extremely unique ability, and one which while incredibly powerful, means you need to constantly juggle the possibilities not only for your Master, but for his Crew. The simplest way for me to get a handle on all of Sandeep’s options in the various GG 2017 scenarios was to focus on a core of models. My Sandeep core quickly became the Essence of Power, the Arcane Effigy, and 3 Oxfordian Mages. After Sandeep upgrades and a minimum cache of 6ss, I had roughly 20ss remaining to round out my Crew based on Strategy, Schemes, and Opponent’s Faction.
By keeping that core consistent, in a short time, I was able to master the order of my activations, learn which models tended to make better use of Beacon opportunities in the early game, and learn how to maximize things like keeping Mages closer in deployment and shooting my own friendly models for early game pushes.
That was the easy part.
The hard part became those remaining 20 or so soul stones. When you have an entire Faction at your disposal, picking 2-4 models to fill that void is an interesting and complicated exercise. Do you need scheme runners? Do you need Practiced Production? Do you need more models with upgrades for Show of Force? Do you need a Henchman or two for Entourage or Punish the Weak? The answer to one of these questions invariably will be “yes” in any given game, and so the next question is always, “Which one(s)?”
The only way to answer that question correctly is to have enough exposure and familiarity with a combination of models and pools so as to know what works for you so you can act accordingly in that short window of time we get to build a crew. Knowing *what* your models can do and *how* you can deploy their ability most effectively is likely the single biggest thing you can do towards improving your play. Practice makes perfect, in life and in Malifaux.
#2: Know Each Faction’s Strengths and Weaknesses
Okay, so you played a bunch of games with your Master and messed around with some different crew loadouts for all the Schemes and Strategies. You’re ready to go win an event…right?
While knowing what your Crew can do in a bunch of different situations is a massive leg up, you absolutely must expose yourself to the other 6 Factions out there, or you risk being caught out by an ability or alpha strike strategy that you never even knew existed. Even within a given Faction, there’s a wide variety of strategies based on the opponent’s Master, and what may be a weakness for one Master may not hold true for another. My suggestion is to start with a general Faction-wide approach, and narrow your approach as you identify the likelihood of Masters and models appearing based on the Strategy and Schemes.
Let’s take Ten Thunders as an example. As an Arcanist player, my general approach going into a game against Ten Thunders will be to include Armor and/or Damage Reduction, as Ten Thunders have limited ways of dealing with Armor and Incorporeal. This is true whether my opponent takes Shen Long, Asami, or even McCabe to some degree. Maybe McCabe is better vs. Armor, due to his ability to hand out a glowing sabre or two, but in general, Ten Thunders *as a Faction* have issues cutting through Damage Reduction. Now I’m not saying to shoehorn in subpar or non-synergistic models, but I am saying that in the course of Crew building, I keep these things in mind. Working off of my previously-mentioned Sandeep “core,” maybe I take a model like Anna Lovelace or Joss – both durable Henchmen who can stone and come with Armor. However, having played against Ten Thunders quite a bit, I’ve learned that while Damage Reduction in general gives them a harder time, I also recognize that they have access to the largest amount of Pushes in the game. Maybe I want to minimize the impact of their pushing once we get to grips, and so in the Joss vs. Anna conversation, maybe I side with Anna and her Armor 1 because of her Clockwork Dress, over Joss and his Armor 2 and HTK. Maybe the pool calls for Practiced Production, and so Carlos is a natural fit and trumps them both with his pseudo-Armor 1+ and Showgirl characteristic.
Maybe I’m playing Ressers, who I know generally have lower Df and higher Wp, often attack Wp with things like Lures, and almost all have Hard to Wound or Impossible to Wound. Since their Df is lower, and Hard to Wound makes it less likely to score Moderates and Severes, I want models with higher minimum damage. A model like Sue, who is essentially Min 3 on his attack due to built-in Critical Strike, has more value vs. Ressers since his Sh5 characteristic may be less of a drawback than it would be vs. Neverborn, who tend to have higher Df stats. Maybe I take an M&SU Henchman, because the synergy with plus flips on Wp duels on my Oxfordian Mages due to their Student Loans is particularly valuable here, and if I do take a Henchman, I may as well take Warding Runes to get the passive buffs from the Mages’ Wards while also snagging Counterspell – the best way to make a model immune to the dreaded Rotten Belle lure.
Obviously, the easiest way to familiarize yourself with the other Factions is to play against them. Ideally, your Meta has a large enough player base where all Factions are represented, even if it means certain players play multiple Factions. And even after you’ve played against a Faction a dozen or so times, you’ll still have to learn the various tricks available to the Masters and models within the faction. There’s no way to guarantee what Master or model your opponent will take, however, so it’s best to have a general idea of what their Faction is both good and bad at, try to identify what models or Master(s) are particularly prevalent or powerful in the current Meta, and make educated guesses on what they may take based on prior experiences against that Faction in a given Strategy or Scheme pool.
Ultimately, you’ll never remember every rule for every model in the game, and that’s why I said knowing *your own Crew* is the single biggest factor at improving – as long as you know what your models do, and what your plan for each model is going into the game, you’ll be able to react to whatever your opponent brings. And when it’s crunch time, there’s nothing wrong with asking questions during a game or reviewing your opponent’s card(s) when you’re at a critical decision and you’re unsure of the options your opponent actually has to foil your plan.
#3: Re-evaluate Your Cheat Selection
The Fate Deck and Control Hand are biggest mechanical differences between Malifaux and other miniature wargames that I’ve played through the years. On a given turn, you’re going to have access to 6 cards in your Control Hand, barring models or upgrades with additional card draw like Nicodem, Sue, Hannah, Arcane Reservoir, etc. Since you’ve played a bunch of games with your Crew and know it inside and out (…right???), you know which models and abilities are more impactful for a given task. These are the ones you should be allocating your highest cards in hand for, be it keeping a model alive on a given turn, making a key Leap, or passing a Horror duel.
When I play against newer players, one of the biggest mistakes I see involves cheating cards from the Control Hand on less impactful duels. Your Control Hand is a precious resource – both for the cards it actually holds, and for the unknown impact having cards in your hand may have on *your opponent’s* decisions. Barring access to a ton of card draw, it should be treated as such. Some decisions are easy, and generally involve Simple Duels and Target Numbers. You took Colette, you’re trying to Prompt a model, you flip a 4 – that’s generally a no-brainer Cheat situation if you’re holding a card in the 6-8 range (spoiler: she needs a 6 to hit the TN). By playing Colette, it’s assumed you expect to Prompt quite often, and so allocating less useful, middling cards for her Prompts is part of what you learned by playing her Crew over and over.
Opposed Duels are a bit more complicated. Before cheating *any Opposed Duel* you should be going through a quick mental calculation where you weigh the Pro and Con of the cheat. Literally, stop and ask yourself three things – “why am I cheating this duel?” “What is the likelihood of success after I spend my resource?” “Do I have another important use for this card?”
Much of this is dependent on game state as well as the stats involved. Since the Attacker wins any tie, it’s important to always keep that in mind, particularly when considering cheating in any Severe card. Generally, you want to hold Severe cards for “guaranteed” successes, or something major like a Kentauroi summon or a fatal damage attack. Start with the first simple question and just ask yourself, “Why am I cheating this duel?”
Maybe you’re playing a Collect the Bounty, it’s Turn 2, and you’re winning the Strategy 2 to 1 after having killed an enemy Enforcer. Your opponent’s last activation is Anna Lovelace. They walk Anna into range, and spends the remaining AP on a min3 Ca6 shot at your nearly-dead , Df5 Enforcer, the Sabretooth Cerberus. Assume they passed the Terrifying duel. Maybe you’re only holding a card or two, a 12 and a 4. Your opponent flips a 9, you flip a 6, making the duel 15 to your 11. Your 4 is worthless.
Do you cheat the 12?
Answer: it depends.
“Why am I cheating this duel?” – obviously, you want the Cerberus to live, so you score the Bounty point instead of giving up a Bounty point. This one action could be the difference in the game, despite it being only Turn 2.
“What is the likelihood of success?” – if your opponent is holding an 11 or better, and they are willing to use it here, 0%. But you don’t know that. Lots of factors affect this question, including how many cards are remaining in their hand? How many high cards have come out of their deck? Did they opt not to cheat other, impactful duels where an 11 or better may have made a difference?
“Do I have another important use for this card?” – What suit is it, and is that relevant to your crew? Are you playing a Summoner, where any Severe card could be valuable in subsequent turns? Do you have spare soul stones to use for drawing cards at the start of Turn 3 if your Control Hand is mediocre?
Maybe you say “what the hell,” toss in the 12, and force your opponent to cheat up and use their last remaining card, a 12. Your Cat dies, they score the point. Did you make the right decision? That’s up for debate, and the rest of the game will tell that tale. At the very least, you forced them to also use a powerful resource, and realistically, you were losing the Cat on the initial Fate Deck flip anyway. Was burning that 12 worth the chance that they weren’t holding an 11+? Given the board state described above, I’m inclined to say yes. One point scored and denied on Turn 2 could very easily swing the entire game, especially in an alternate scoring Strategy like Bounty, as well as dictate the pace for Turns 3-5.
In my experience, newer players tend to cheat less impactful duels, particularly early on in a turn, and lose the ability to react to their opponent’s moves as the turn progresses. You’re going to lose plenty of duels and flips – that’s just how the Fate Deck works – but if you take a little more time to think through the value of the cards in hand for your future duels and actions that round vs. the value of the duel before you at that very moment, you’ll learn how to make the most of your Control Hand and prioritize things that are critical to *win the game* and not just that one duel. Lose the battle, but win the war.
#4: Take Stock of the Win Conditions and Evolving Game State Each Turn
Unlike many other miniature games out there, it’s very easy to lose more models than the opponent – and sometimes even be tabled – and still win the game. This isn’t Warhammer, where your objective was “score VP by killing enemy units,” this is Malifaux, and the win conditions change game to game. I find that newer players tend to lose sight of the Strategy or their Scheme win conditions during the middles turns in favor of killing other models or the enemy Master, burning AP and Cards on actions that seem strong in the traditional sense of war gaming, but don’t score them any VP. Taking stock of *your* win conditions, as well as the opponent’s known and possible win conditions, and doing so several times a game, can be the difference between losing close or staying focused and winning a game despite having killed fewer models.
The Strategy is the only win condition you know that your opponent has when the game begins, and presumably you and your opponent based your Master selection and geared at least a part of your Crew selection towards scoring those 4 VP. The Strategy is the easiest thing to remember, as it is right in front of your faces and you’re both trying to score it as early as Turn 2.
For Schemes, it’s a completely different story. The beauty of Malifaux is the hidden information involved at the start, and the evolving game state as Schemes are revealed – or not revealed. Experienced players will build their Crews not only to achieve certain Schemes and leave themselves options before committing to Scheme selection, but also to counter certain approaches the opponent may take. Maybe Show of Force is in the pool, and while you’re considering taking it, you know you also want the option of denying it if your opponent takes it, and so you take an extra upgrade or two instead of a spare model or larger Cache. Maybe Take One For The Team is in the pool, and so you opt out of taking a large, expensive beater model like Howard Langston since his 12ss price tag means basically any one of your opponent’s models can be the “sucker.” Maybe you opt for two models in the 5-8ss range instead, giving you more options in your own selection if you opt for Take One For The Team, while potentially denying “sucker” options for your opponent.
Thinking about the Scheme pool doesn’t end after you’ve built your Crew and selected your two Schemes, however. You need to always keep in mind the 5 available Schemes, as early as deployment. Maybe your opponent has 3 or 4 possible Minions that enable a Public Demonstration score. Maybe they have a bunch of smaller, faster models deployed on Flanks, enabling Surround Them. Maybe they’ve loaded up on Upgrades, and you’ve put them on Show of Force.
Your first chance to gain actionable information, generally, is the end of Turn 2 – when incremental scoring Schemes are revealed, if possible. If your opponent has more Upgrades than you in the center of the board and yet doesn’t reveal Show of Force, that’s as close to a guarantee as you can get that they didn’t take Show, but maybe bluffed it or simply wanted to deny it to you.
Other Schemes are harder to uncover, particularly if there’s overlap in the pool. Round 5 of Capital City Meltdown contained both Dig Their Graves and Search the Ruins in the pool. While an opponent’s dropping of Scheme Markers near the 6” circle could be a tell for Search The Ruins, the inclusion of Dig Their Graves also means they could be bluffing Search, while opening up area for a Dig score. The only way to know for sure is to be mindful of any casualties near the markers, and look for opportunities where your opponent could have scored or announced a Scheme, but didn’t. If you lose a model near a Scheme Marker and they don’t announce Dig, it’s time to make a push to shut down that end game Search the Ruins.
As the game is winding down, it’s time to take stock of the game state and the VP score once again. Maybe you’re winning the game 6-4 on Turns 4 or 5. Both of your Schemes are revealed, while your opponent has one Scheme still unrevealed. You know that you can at most score 3 more VP between the Strategy and one of your Schemes. If you can reliably get to those 9 points, your *only goal* at that point becomes stopping the opponent from getting to 9 or more. Think about what was in the Scheme pool. Go through the calculations as to what their 2nd unrevealed Scheme could be. It’s safe to say that incrementally scored Schemes weren’t selected (or if they were, are of less concern at this stage in the game), so focus on the possible end game schemes. Was Take Prisoner in the pool? What about Entourage? Covert Breakthrough? More importantly, ask if you can you do anything to stop these Schemes. There’s nothing worse than realizing what an opponent’s Scheme is too late to do anything about it, and that’s why I strongly encourage everyone to stop and think about possible Scheme selections each and every turn, but particularly Turns 4 and 5. It’ll help you map out your final activations and use your resources – both Control Hand and AP – to get the best odds of scoring your VP and denying the opponent’s.
#5: Learn From Your Mistakes
The simplest – and often most difficult – piece of advice to improve your Malifaux game is to simply learn from your mistakes. Be accountable, and think about what *you* could have done better or played differently, starting from Turn 1. Do NOT blame flips of the Fate deck. Yes, there will be turns the Fate deck will brutalize you; it’s always that Black Joker flip that you hear about in the chatter between rounds. There will also be times when you rip off several successful duels without having to cheat a single card, but those times will barely stick in your memory. That’s just how humans operate. The beauty of Malifaux is that the deck is the same 54 cards turn after turn, and odds are that things will even out as a turn progresses. Your job as the player is to put yourself in the best position to win with the things you can control – movement, activation order, AP expenditure, soul stone use, and cheating Duels with your Control Hand. Even when you win a game, there’s always something you can do better the next time, but if you don’t learn from it, that experience is worthless.
After the game, particularly against someone who is a better player, ask them what they would have done in your position. Ask them what they were worried about in a given turn. Ask them why they chose the crew they did, or took a certain upgrade, or chose a certain Scheme. Talk through your plan with them and make a note of the things you did that didn’t work out, or models you chose that performed below expectations. The permutations for Crew selection are endless, and there will be times you forget a rule on your model (or your opponent’s) and you lose a game because of it. That’s why we practice. Losing because of a “gotcha” rule interaction or situation is perfectly harmless if it happens in a pickup game or even some more casual one day events. Learn from your close wins, learn more from your painful losses, and you’ll be better prepared when you play in a more competitive environment.