Segmenting Card Play – or, Why Not “Play All”? – by greylag

by greylag (originally posted at the Star Realms BoardGameGeek forums)

When I get matched in the app, sometimes I can tell by the avatar or the name if I’m up against a high level player. But not all high level players use Recycling Station, or Yacht, as their avatar. So if that doesn’t give them away, one of the biggest signs I’m up against a strong player is the way they play their cards, particularly their trade cards.

Imagine the row looks like this in the early/mid-game.

Fleet HQ / Cutter / Battle Pod / Defense Center / Blob Wheel

When I started playing (and often still now), if I had 4 scouts on a row like that, I’d click “Play All”, then take the Cutter, then probably the Battle Pod if nothing else good came up.

But what I notice is that higher level players will often play out their turn like this:

Scout, Scout
=> Buy Cutter
Scout, Scout
=> Buy Battle Pod
Viper
=> Hit authority for 1 damage
=> End turn

I call this process of alternating between card play and actions multiple times in a turn segmentation. But what’s going on here? What’s the point of holding back the 3rd and 4th scout until after the first buy, and why am I writing about it?

Even if this was the paper game, it’s not like Dominion, where sometimes you want to keep cards hidden, because unlike Dominion, you can always search someone’s discard after their turn to see what they did. (And you can’t hold back cards online at all.)

And it’s not because it gives any kind of a technical advantage. The turn plays out exactly as if they’d just done Play All and taken the ships one after another.

Play All is a bad habit, sure – it can mess you over if for example you have a Fleet HQ or Embassy Yacht in hand, and it gets played out of turn, causing you to miss out on a card ability. So it’s right not to Play All as a matter of course, and that can turn into a habit of avoiding the button, just in case you mistakenly click it when it matters.

But I think something more important is going on in the minds of players who segment their turns like this. And that’s the logical separation of logically distinct actions.

The Star Realms twitter account has occasionally posted #srwtp (“Star Realms: What’s The Play?”) images, asking what you’d do with a particular amount of trade on a particular trade row. On a row like the one I introduced above, a common answer might be, “Cutter and Battle Pod”, or, “Cutter and Explorer”.

These might often be the right play. But by thinking of the turn as “Cutter, Battle Pod”, you hide other possibilities, for example:

=> Buy Cutter
Flips a Cutter
=> Buy Cutter

The right play on this row isn’t “Cutter, Battle Pod”, but, “Cutter, wait to see what flips, buy the best 1- or 2-drop”.

And this is what segmentation is doing. It’s a discipline of play which says, “Ok, the first task in this turn is to buy the Cutter. Play out the prerequisites (2 Scouts), then take that action. Good. Now the next task is to read the row. Ok, I read it. Now what’s the next task?”

Otherwise, if you spammed all your Scouts at the start of the turn, it’s easy to go, “Ok, yep, I had my plan. Get the Cutter, get the Battle Pod, oh damnit, a Missile Bot came up and I wasn’t thinking, gah, too late now.”

It’s worse if you have Stations in play which let you take optional trade (or scrap for trade). If I have a Blob Wheel up, and 4 Trade, in some decks it would be a tragedy to take Cutter, Battle Pod, if the Cutter flipped a Battle Mech which I could have gained by scrapping Blob Wheel.

You might swerve to change your direction of play even if you can’t acquire what flipped. If you buy your Cutter and underneath it is a Brain World, you should now be thinking about your chances of getting BW, and whether you want that Battle Pod to scrap it off the row, or an Explorer to maximise your chances of scoring it.

Star Realms is a good game because it contains lots of important decisions, some of them quite subtle. Skill at the game is about making the correct decision, but also about identifying decision points that others might not even notice (much of the discussion on shuffle timing, scrap-to-shuffle and avoiding the shuffle falls into this category).

The discipline of segmentation is about ensuring you pause for thought at every potential decision point – at the very least, at every moment at which new information is revealed. Practiced properly, segmentation leads to turns having a sort of back-and-forth rhythm to them which you can feel as you play. Scout, Scout, Buy. Think. Scout, Scout, Buy. Viper, Shoot. End.

I’m using trade as an example here, because it’s a situation where information is revealed after each Buy action, making it clear why it’s important to stop and think. But when I’m practicing this properly, I actually do it with base kills, scrap actions, all kinds of things, even where no new information’s coming out. I find it makes my play much cleaner, and often means I make smarter choices with selective abilities on stations like Trading Post, or scrap-from-trade-row abilities like Battle Pod’s. Segmentation can apply to all aspects of card play.

Sure, underlying even segmented turns is a provisional turn plan – there’s definitely an idea that, “Hmm, yes, I’ll probably get that Battle Pod, it goes well with what I’ve got”, in the back of the mind of the player who puts out 2 Scouts and takes the Cutter first. The difference is in the degree of provisionality of the plan, and in how many natural moments the play style allows to return to and revise the plan.

Of course, segmentation isn’t the way to achieve thoughtful play. There are strong players who, for example, put out all their trade, then think at a high level about how to spend it, buy by buy. Segmentation might be an even more useful tool for us low/mid-level players who more often miss decision points, or don’t pause properly to make the best choice even if we’re sort-of-aware of them.

But whatever your level, if you haven’t used this technique, I suggest trying it for a few weeks and see if it improves your play – it certainly has mine.

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2 thoughts on “Segmenting Card Play – or, Why Not “Play All”? – by greylag

  1. MattM

    Excellent article! I think your article accurately captures the manner in which I segment. I even have a typical order in which I segment. I usually 1. play my bases, 2. play cantrips (cards that allow you to draw more cards, 3. scrap, 4. buy, 5. play remaining damage cards, and 6. distribute damage. Of course you want to scrap before you redraw, etc as the hand develops. I highly recommend this article to new players desiring to improve!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. Mark Vorster

    I would love to see an article on this since the events expansion. Then again I haven’t read everything here. If I get through it all and find nothing maybe I’ll write one 😛

    Like

    Reply

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