Strategic Leveling in Draft: Late Game vs Aggro

by vandergus

In Part 1, I outlined some basic rules of thumb for what types of cards you should try to level in your draft decks. If you follow those guidelines along with some basic pick orders from a tier list, you will probably do well in draft. You will win more games than you lose. But knowing when to deviate from the standard guidelines is what separates good drafters from great drafters. It’s what fuels forum arguments about lines of play and it’s what gives Solforge its strategic depth. It’s pretty easy to throw out some basic rules that everyone can agree on, but it’s much harder to figure out the appropriate times to go off script. I’m going to lay out a few examples but they are really just the tip of the iceberg.

There are a lot of reasons why you might decide to level cards differently than normal. You might want to counter a specific strategy like armor or develop an answer to a specific threat like Onyxium Phantasm, but I’m going to keep the discussion more broad. I’m going to talk about shifting your strategy mostly in the context of playing an aggro deck vs playing a late game deck. Specific threats and strategies come and go with each new draft format but, the question of who is the aggressor will always be a part of Solforge. The examples I use are particular to the current draft environment but the concepts can be applied more widely. This article will focus on playing a late game deck when matched up with an aggressive opponent.

Before getting into the finer points of leveling strategy, it would be good to sketch a brief outline of the matchup. In general, the aggro deck will be playing high stat creatures early on in order to gain a board advantage. They might use synergies between cards to build large threats like Windborn Hellion or Harbinger of Spring or they might try to build an unkillable monster with Cypien Experimentation, Pummel Pack or Shardplate Graft. The late game deck cannot match the offensive power of the aggro deck early in the game, so they rely on defensive answers to survive while leveling powerful late game finishers. The late game deck is less likely to have creatures on board at the start of a turn and it’s more likely to block defensively than to open lane creatures. The cards you level should able to perform in these situations.


The goal of a late game deck is to weather the early part of the match then win the game with powerful level 3 cards. The important thing to keep in mind when leveling for the late game is that you don’t need to level the most powerful cards in your deck, but rather cards that are more powerful than your opponent’s. The distinction becomes important when you are up against aggro decks that are trying to rush you down.

Here’s a good example from a recent game. My opponent was playing an AT mobility deck and being very aggressive about it. They were consistently using movement to get in damage rather than make trades so it was clear that I was going to be on the defensive for most of the game. Midway through rank 1, I was faced with a difficult choice. Do I level up my bomb finisher and risk getting overrun or do I play it safe and accept a weaker late game.


In this situation, I think it is better to play Fangwood Bear than Scrapforge Titan, for a couple of reasons (Uterradon Mauler is my other play). First, playing Titan puts me quite behind on board and I’m getting almost no value out it, preventing just 6 damage and doing 1 damage to a creature. While Bear doesn’t clear either of the Cloudcleaver Titans immediately, it does at least trade, or more likely, it leaves behind a big body when Cloudcleaver moves again next turn.

More importantly, though, is how the Bear levels compared to my opponent’s win conditions. At levels 2 and 3 it beats Cloudcleaver Titan in a fight. I’ll be able to play it in front of attacking Cloudcleavers to clear them while leaving behind a decent sized threat. Scrapforge Titan, while monstrous at level 3, still won’t clear a Cloudcleaver in rank 2, and against aggressive decks rank 2 is where you really need to start locking things down. If you’re significantly behind on life when you drop your level 3 Scrapforge, they can dodge it and finish you off before Titan even matters. That’s the weakness of big single lane threats. Fangwood Bear, while still a single lane threat, at least gives me better board presence in ranks 1 and 2, which is important against aggressive decks. I ended up finishing this very close game at 17 life, an amount that could have easily been given up by playing understat’d creatures early on.


Another set of cards that are crucial for surviving aggressive opponents are cards that can affect multiple lanes. Specifically, cards that can block one creature and clear another. Cards like Magma Hound, Venomfang, Torrent Soldier, Scourge Knights and Roaming Warclaw are great examples. If your opponent blocks with a mobility creature, Hound and Venomfang can potentially finish it off before it gets a chance move and attack. Cleaning up wounded creatures also limits an aggressive player’s ability to use pump spells or setup synergies with creatures like Windborn Hellion.


Other cross-lane tricks like Grove Huntress, Matrix Warden and Ordnance Captain are ok but oriented more towards offense than defense. They are more effective when you have creatures on board and are pushing an advantage, something you’re less likely to be doing against an aggressive opponent. I would even go so far as to avoid leveling Ordnance Captain in this matchup. Not only does it require at least one creature on board to setup but it also requires specific lane placements to trigger. If those lane placements don’t line up with the blocks you need to make, it’s really hard to use. A late game deck cannot afford to invest plays into leveling a card only to be rewarded with a 8/14 in rank 3. Instead, you need cards that are strong regardless of what your current board state is and regardless of what lane they are played in.

Dirge Banshee and Iceshard Berserker are another sort of defensive card, good at single lane rather than multi-lane control. The former can blunt the attack of hard to block mobility creatures, while the latter can take down creatures that have been buffed with armor. Iceshard Berserker is usually saved as an underdrop blocker but if you see a lot of armored creatures coming your way in rank 2, it’s worth leveling early.

It’s hard to say what your target number of leveled tricks should be in this matchup. Ideally, you still want to level as many finishers as possible, but you’re often forced to play more tricks or removal spells just to survive. If you have to play more than 2 or 3 (the baseline mentioned earlier) don’t hesitate to do so. What’s most important is that the types of tricks you level are well suited to answer your opponent’s strategy.

Flexible Finishers

Just as your defensive tricks should be able to stand on their own, so should your finishers. Corpse Crawler is a great big fella, but it needs some fodder around to be playable. In a defensive situation, you may not have an expendable creature on board to sacrifice. It’s going to feel real bad to pass your giant win condition because you need all your resources for blocking. In the previous article, I mentioned Necroslime as something you might not want to level against an aggressive opponent since it starts out small. While that’s true, it’s still a very good standalone threat, being able to grow each turn without much help. It’s the type of finisher that I might try to level up in rank 2 if I feel like I’m in control of the game.


Against aggro decks, it’s better if your win conditions not only provide you with big bodies but also some sort of additional board control. For example, Torrent Soldier gives you full size stats along with cross-lane cleanup while Ionic Warcharger can police multiple lanes. And of course, Borean Stormweaver, which is probably the best card in the format for late game decks. Not only does it have a huge body at level 3, but its levels 1 and 2 are very capable. It provides free pings for board control and demands an answer at every stage of the game, all in one common little package. If you’re trying to choose between leveling one of these cards and a Forgeplate Sentry, for example, the more fexible win condition will probably be better against an aggressive opponent.



This was a very tempting Ferocious Roar. Matriarch in front of Master of Elements, Roar, then ping the Flamestoke Shaman leaves their board clear and mine with three reasonably sized creatures. However, my deck doesn’t really have the tools to snowball an advantage like that. I don’t have aggressive level 2 creatures to maintain the pressure and I’m unsure that Roar would be playable when I draw it later in the game. This deck was better built for a long game with a few oversized threats and a lot of chip damage to keep the board clear. I would rather level up a Magma Hound to deal with their two Kadrasian Stonebacks than a pump spell, especially since that line still leaves me slightly ahead on board. It was close, but I chose the play that sets up consistent control in the late game rather than blow out potential.

bitterfrost-totem_fullbitterfrost-totem_fullIn rank 2, I’ll start to play my spells more freely, especially defensive spells. If I foresee the need to fend off big creatures where a blocker would be too slow or too small, that’s when I level my soft-gated removal like Grave Pact, Tangle, and Dendrify. Even a level 2 Bitterfrost Totem can take the sting out of a threatening mobility creature, giving you time to get a blocker in place. Frostshatter Strike also starts to show its versatility in this part of the game. Early on it can help you clean up combat in multiple lanes or take down a single large threat while later it pushes big chunks of damage through clogged boards.

Final Thoughts

Broadly speaking, late game decks have two goals in this matchup. First, level up powerful finishers. Second, keep the opponent’s board under control. All of the leveling decisions you make must help support one of these two objectives. Your leveling needs are often at odds with each other, but playing a late game deck properly is about striking the right balance between these two goals. Against aggressive decks, you have to lean more towards board control, but you still have to make sure you have a way to win the game. Hopefully some of the examples I discussed above will help you work through those decisions in your own games.