This week’s arena fascinated me. It uses just the Star Realms Core Set, a deck I’ve been shuffling up for more than four years. It introduced just two rules, one of which was just a straight cost-reduction mechanic. This week should be easy, I thought.

Not so much. I started 0-2. Humble pie is served. I’ve gotten better – currently winning more than 60% of my games in this week’s Arena. Join me through this process of gameplay discovery, won’t you?

Format Rules & Technical Data

Recruiting Drive has two rules: Bases cost one less trade to acquire, and when a player acquires a ship it goes on top of their deck.

The only technical note I have this week is the cost of bases do not change on the cards. Blob Wheel only costs 2 trade, despite the printed cost of 3. This isn’t a bug, but it might catch you by surprise.

In my ten games this week, games ended on average on turn 17 or 18. There does not appear to be an overall advantage to either the first or second player this time around, though there are some shocking plays the first player can make before the second player can defend…

Trade Makes the Realm Go ‘Round

Because any ship you purchase goes to the top of your deck, early trade is amazing. Turn one Trade Pod results in 6+ trade on turn two — possibly as much as 8 trade! At that point, you can get anything you want into your deck before the first shuffle!

Trade continues to be worth purchasing throughout the game. You’ll be purchasing ships in most games all the way to the end, including on the final turn of the game. Be careful though, as some of the best trade-generating ships are not amazing in this format — sorry Freighter, you aren’t even above average this time around.

Avoid Most Bases; Create “The Clamp”

Because bases are now much, much slower to impact the game than ships, most of them are not worth purchasing at all. Even with the one-trade discount. There are several exceptions to this rule, but generally you should avoid bases entirely this week. Here are the ones I purchased, and why:

  • Barter World, because a five-damage scrap ability isn’t too bad in Core Set-only. Buying this on the first shuffle proved to be a smart investment of just three trade, giving something else for my opponent to shoot at while gaining authority or trade as needed.
  • Port of Call, when nothing else was worth buying. The three trade it provides plus the scrap ability to destroy a base (roughly 5 damage) and draw a card is very strong. Good to buy right before the last shuffle.
  • Blob Wheel, if neither player has cards that generate more than two trade and there is an expensive card on the trade row.
  • Brain World, because it’s Brain World. (Or, to be serious: On-demand draw two is even better than in the normal game.)
  • Recycling Station is a must-purchase.
  • Fleet HQ is actually worth it this week. 8 defense means there will be many turns where it isn’t being destroyed, and with the amount of ships you will be drawing the damage is real.

Since bases are generally not worth buying, they tend to clog up the trade row. You can use this to your advantage with a strategy I call The Clamp. There are three steps to this strategy:

  • First, either get trade row scrappers into your deck or be in the lead.
  • Then, don’t purchase bases. You were likely doing this anyways, as was your opponent.
  • Finally, you want to end your turn with bases in all five spots in the trade row. (Ending with only four is good enough.)

This strategy greatly reduces your opponent’s options for improving their deck. Sure, they can buy a base, but every base they buy is a card they don’t get to take advantage of for several turns whereas every ship they buy is a card they get right away.

If bases are not finding their way into the trade row, you can’t make The Clamp happen. But if the game starts with three bases, prioritize those Blob scrappers and give yourself a chance to lock the game down.

So Many Tricks, So Little Time

Any card that lets you draw a card is worth putting into your deck. The ability to buy the best card on the trade row, put it on top of your deck, then draw it… is amazing. The player with more of these cards in their deck than their opponent is very likely to win the game. (Too bad Cargo Launch isn’t legal this week!)

When you are putting every ship you buy on top of your deck, there are many tricks that become available, altering the valuation of all sorts of cards.

  • As decks are getting close to running out of cards, you can ensure ally abilities will work by buying allied ships and not drawing them on the same turn.
  • Buying two ships of the same faction ensures that their ally abilities will work. I won multiple games this week by buying multiple Federation Shuttles on the same turn. This trick will tempt you into more than two factions — buying two Machine Cult cards with a Trade Federation / Blob deck. a dangerous road but sometimes you need to take risks to win.
  • Explorers go to the top of your deck, too. Sometimes this is the best way to set up your next turn, for trade and for combat! (You will almost-always scrap your Explorers the turn you play them.)

It is important to note that bases are not generally worth buying as a defense measure. Possibly before the first shuffle, such that the difference of card use between the base and the ship is much smaller, but not really beyond that. Because this is true, authority-gaining ships are worth much more than in other weeks.

Just because you can buy a good ship, it isn’t always the right play. Check to see if you are delaying a shuffle by buying too many cards. If your best cards are in your discard pile, it might be worth it to skip buying. It is also important to manage your purchases if you are employing The Clamp. (See above.)

Stream Replay & In Conclusion

Here is a link to my second arena run. Fun games, I think! I talk through much of these concepts in greater detail.

This has been a fun week! I am likely to stream my arena runs on Mondays at 7am EDT / 11am GMT on my Twitch channel. I hope to see you then!

Andrea Davis is an award-winning designer and producer. They have designed Star Realms promos, Hero Realms Boss Decks, and cards for Epic Card Game. Andrea is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Game Design and Development at the University of Limerick in Ireland.