Summoner Wars has been going strong for over ten years, and the Alliances Master Set is the pinnacle of the series. For those of you that haven’t been paying much attention to this incredible game, I’m going to start with a brief overview and extol its virtues. Then I’ll dive into ranking and discussing many of the 40 unique faction decks that have been released, which make for over 1,000 different thrilling match-ups to try (and that’s without any deck construction).
The journey started in 2009 with the release of two simple, unassuming base sets. Each came with 2 faction decks, a plain paper mat, dice, and wound markers — everything you need to play. The game is a two-player card-based combat game where your goal is to eliminate your opponent’s leader using your faction deck’s unique unit and event cards. The original base sets featured Prince Elien of the Phoenix Elves squaring off against Grognack of the Tundra Orcs, and Oldin of the Guild Dwarves lined up against Sneeks of the Cave Goblins. Many of you probably played the game back then and never gave it a second thought. The game has come a long way since then, in both intricate mechanisms and quality components, so it very much deserves a second look.
The game was first expanded through a series of faction decks in 2010 and 2011. These decks required a base set to play the game, but could be matched up against each other or any of the earlier factions in any combination. This is when we were introduced to Ret-Talus of the Fallen Kingdom, Sera Eldwyn of the Vanguards, Vlox of the Cloaks, and Abua Shi of the Jungle Elves. These were not my favorite decks as I’ll discuss later, but they do contribute nicely to the incredible variety of the possible match-ups.
Summoner Wars really hit its stride in 2011 when the Master Set was released. The game finally got the beautiful (and still very functional) mounted board that it always deserved, but more importantly, the designer Colby Dauch worked up six great new factions and put them all in this set. It’s a fantastic entry point for the series despite its somewhat misleading name. The Master Set included Selundar of the Shadow Elves, Tacullu of the Benders, Sunderved of the Mountain Vargath, Krusk of the Sand Goblins, Tundle of the Deep Dwarves, and Mugglug of the Swamp Orcs. I love how the descriptor in the faction name is not just window dressing. There are three distinct kinds of elves (Phoenix, Jungle, and Shadow) each with their own feel and style, and the same goes for orcs (Tundra and Swamp), dwarves (Guild and Deep), and goblins (Cave and Sand).
At its essence, Summoner Wars is essentially what would happen if the classic 1940s board game Stratego grew up in a post-D&D, post-Magic world. I loved Stratego as a kid, and I enjoy games with a lot of setup variability, so it’s no surprise that I see Summoner Wars as a huge achievement in game design. The precision of the wording on the cards, the functional nature of the thematic ability descriptions, and the even-handedness of the diverse matchups make for a game that showcases the designer’s incredible attention to detail in a way that makes playing the game even easier and more enjoyable than almost anything comparable out there.
2012 was a lean year for Summoner Wars, but we still got one of my favorite factions ever that year. Two more faction decks were released: The Demagogue of The Filth and Rallul of the Mercenaries. These expansions brought us up to a total of 16 different factions in the Summoner Wars universe, which appears to be the grand total for the foreseeable future. It’s a nice round number (for a single elimination tournament), although as you’ll see, we’re looking at 40 unique faction decks now due to some clever shenanigans.
Those shenanigans are now known as “second summoners.” I was very skeptical at first. The idea is essentially to make an entirely new deck of 35 cards for each of the 16 different factions. The summoner would be new, as well as the common units, champion units, and event cards. The only thing that would remain the same would be the faction name and the thematic elements. There’s actually a very nice post on the publisher’s website discussing the differences between first and second summoners. This was also meant to expand deck-building options for those that want to customize the experience further, but I much prefer to stick with the faction decks as-is so that the game works well out of the box with others that don’t own their own copy. (I get plenty of deck construction with Netrunner, which unfortunately makes it hard to play against folks that don’t own the game or similarly obsess over the strategies of designing a decklist.) I waited for a while before diving into the “second summoners” but eventually I tried a few out and realized that I was missing some really interesting and distinctive faction decks. 2013 saw the release of six “second summoner” decks: Queen Maldaria of the Phoenix Elves, Torgan of the Tundra Orcs, Bolvi of the Guild Dwarves, Frick of the Cave Goblins, Mad Sirian of the Fallen Kingdom, and Samuel Farthen of the Vanguards. 2014 brought us Nikuya Na of the Jungle Elves and Jexik of the Cloaks.
The inspiration for this post, the Summoner Wars: Alliances Master Set was released at the end of 2014. This innovative set is what brought the total number of faction decks up to 32 and the eventual total up to at least 40 once all of the “second summoners” were released. The idea was to take pairs of all different sixteen factions and mash them up into somewhat strange combinations. So, for instance, you’ve got the Fallen Phoenix, which is a hybrid of the Phoenix Elves and the Fallen Kingdom. This set really reinvigorated my interest in Summoner Wars and in trying as many of the numerous match-ups as possible. The faction decks included were Immortal Elien of the Fallen Phoenix, The Warden of the Cave Filth, Hogar of the Tundra Guild, Glurblub of the Swamp Mercenaries, Moyra Skylark of the Vargath Vanguard, Marek of the Sand Cloaks, Endrich of the Deep Benders, and Melundak of the Jungle Shadows. The Alliances Master Set also came with an interesting new board that is like a giant mouse pad that is a nice cushion for rolling dice and sliding cards around.
And then in 2016, we got the remaining eight final “second summoners,” including Shiva of the Benders, Saturos of the Shadow Elves, Malenatar of the Mountain Vargath, Scraven of the Sand Goblins, Brath of the Deep Dwarves, Natazga of the Swamp Orcs, Little Meda of the Filth, and Farrah Oathbreaker of the Mercenaries. I haven’t had a chance to play these 8 decks enough to include them in the ranking below unfortunately.
So those are the 40 faction decks for this incredible game, but which are my favorite, my least favorite, and why…
- Selundar (Shadow Elves, 2011 master set)
The top spot is easy. It goes to my favorite summoner and faction deck because of the great mix of summoner ability, commons, champions, and events. I love how Selundar’s ability “Out of Shadows” encourages you to bring him into the fray when the timing is right because it significantly buffs his attack value when attacking an adjacent enemy if he started the turn with no adjacent enemies. I think the thing I like least is when the summoners on both sides hang back and hide throughout most of the battle, so I like this ability that rewards calculated use of your summoner in the fight. I also really like the varied prices of champions, ranging from a cheap 4-cost champion to a very expensive 8-cost champion. I can get frustrated with a deck where all the champions are really expensive, making it difficult to bring them out. Finally, the commons are cheap and have interesting abilities, like the “Shadow Arrows” used by the Ranger to teleport into the space occupied by eliminated enemies. I thought the Jungle Elves were going to be one of my favorite factions based on theme alone (and my long affinity for elves), but it turned out to be the Shadow Elves instead because of engaging mechanisms, combined with appealing artwork and nicely thematic elements. Each faction deck in Summoner Wars really needs the whole package to excel, which is what makes the embarrassment of riches released so far particularly impressive.
- The Demagogue (The Filth, 2012 faction deck)
The second spot definitely goes to one of the most innovative faction decks, which was The Filth. This deck introduced a new type of card to the game – mutations. These are cards that you play on top of your common units to mutate them into bigger, better units with unique abilities. This lets you turn a regular old Zealot or Cultist into a Claw Mutant, a Winged Mutant, a Bestial Mutant, and others. You can even play a different mutation on top of a previously mutated unit. I thought the whole idea of mutations seemed clever when it was announced, but was really impressed with how it was implemented and how well it works in practice. It’s a great example of how the individual faction decks can tweak the basic rules for the game in order to push the boundaries of the game without overly complicating the simple underlying structure. It reminds me of the many great Age of Steam map expansions in some ways, which tended to do the same sort of thing. The Demagogue is definitely my second favorite faction to play.
- Glurblub (Swamp Mercenaries, 2015 alliances set)
Rounding out the top three with the bronze medal is the Swamp Mercenaries deck, which takes the idea of “Vine Walls” from the Master Set and perfects it. I really enjoyed the introduction of “Vine Walls” in Mugglug’s Swamp Orc faction deck, so am happy to see them make a return in Glurblub’s Swamp Mercenaries deck. It often makes for a very interesting and tactical duel when the battlefield becomes littered with walls that have the potential to obstruct movement and deal damage.
- Nikuya Na (Jungle Elves, 2014 second summoner)
The next few spots are a little less clear cut because I like a handful of factions about the same after the first three, but I’ll try to rank them nonetheless. I’m giving the fourth spot to Nikuya Na of the Jungle Elves because this is my favorite “Second Summoner” deck. It really redeems the original Jungle Elves deck, which you’ll see near the bottom of the list. I think Nikuya Na’s “Poison Cloud” ability is a great way to incentivize engagement of the summoner, like with Selundar mentioned above. This deck also has a great mix of cheap and expensive commons to give the player a lot of options for different paths to take and ways to adapt throughout the game. The events in this deck are also more interesting than in the original Jungle Elves deck, since it includes an interesting range of buffs to give animal powers like cheetah speed to your units on the board.
- Sneeks (Cave Goblins, 2009 base set)
Rounding out the top five is my favorite Base Set faction from the original 2009 releases. All of the original factions are actually quite good and remain remarkably interesting to this day. The game has done a truly admirable job of avoiding the “power creep” that many comparable games with expansions wrestle with. That being said, Sneeks is my favorite because he has so many zero-cost units that he can spam the board with. This runs the obvious risk of feeding your opponent lots of magic, but it can also overwhelm them. Sneeks also comes with one of the most interesting champions in the game – The Eater – which automatically destroys an adjacent common unit each turn, but the big downside is that he dies if there are no adjacent common units. The enemy has to decide whether to run away to try to starve The Eater, and then you have to decide whether to feed him your own commons to keep him going. It’s a great card design that makes for interesting decision-making on both sides.
- Krusk (Sand Goblins, 2011 master set)
The next few spots go to a number of faction decks in the Master Set, perhaps showing my bias toward the Master Set as the best collection of Summoner Wars decks. After the Shadow Elves mentioned at the top, the Sand Goblins are my second favorite faction from this set. This is due less to the summoner and more to the commons, champions, and events. The cheap two-health commons are hardier than most commons and have nice abilities, including the shield that the Scavenger can build from vanquished foes. The deck is rounded out by some cheap champions that have interesting and unique disabilities instead of abilities, and by fun events like Mirage, which lets you rearrange your normally immovable walls, and Taunt, which lets you rearrange some of your opponent’s units.
- Mugglug (Swamp Orcs, 2011 master set)
Like Glurblub above, Mugglug is awesome because of the vine walls. These two-health walls have a 50-50 chance of trapping enemies that move over them and dealing damage. They also help block line of sight. It’s great fun littering the battlefield with vine walls and watching your opponent either trip up moving through them or spend time hacking away at them. I just wish the art of the vine walls was a bit more distinctive from regular walls to make it easier to tell them apart at a glance.
- Sunderved (Mountain Vargath, 2011 master set)
I really enjoy how hearty Sunderved’s units are. Like with Krusk above, Sunderved also has two-health common units that survive much better than most commons. They also have unique and thematically appropriate abilities like a knock back ability (which reminds me of an old hero that my friend played in our Descent: Road to Legend campaign many years ago). Lastly, I love how this almost all melee deck has one ranged champion, Quen, who feels extra special in a deck that otherwise has to get all in the enemy’s face.
- Prince Elien (Phoenix Elves, 2009 base set)
If there’s one thing that can be frustrating about Summoner Wars, it’s when the dice really are not going your way. After lots of consecutive misses, it’s nice to change things up by playing with Prince Elien. The Phoenix Elves excel at being “precise,” meaning several of their units automatically hit rather than rolling dice. Of course, there’s a downside, which is that Phoenix Elf units tend to be very fragile, so you have to position yourself carefully in order to take down charging foes rather than rushing headlong into the fray. I’m not always so good at that, but it’s an interesting and challenging change of pace.
- Samuel Farthen (Vanguards, 2013 second summoner)
Rounding out the top 10 is Samuel Farthen, the “Second Summoner” for the Vanguards. I was not a big fan of Sera Eldwyn, the original Vanguard summoner, because she seemed to encourage hyper-defensive turtling. But Samuel Farthen has defensive units (as befits the Vanguard) that are more mobile, like the Woeful Brothers with their wrestling maneuvers that allow them to change places with attackers.
- Tacullu (Benders, 2011 master set)
Rather than go with a traditional Top 10, I’ll include one more here because The Benders are probably the deck I enjoy that surprises me the most. I did not expect to like a deck that had such weak units and relied on such shenanigans as unsummoning opponent units and using telekinesis. But what I most enjoy about this deck are the interesting ways that you can use the Mind Control event to take over an opponent common at the perfect time, and the many different ways that you can use the Deceiver’s stun ability to lock down opponents at critical moments. The Benders have an impressive bag of tricks as long as you take some time to get a good handle on them.
- The Warden (Cave Filth, 2015 alliances set)
- Grognack (Tundra Orcs, 2009 base set): The contrast with Prince Elien is wonderful, in that this faction is the opposite of precise, but rather wild and reckless, enormous and treacherous, rolling more dice and sowing more chaos as a result.
- Rallul (Mercenaries, 2012 faction deck)
- Marek (Sand Cloaks, 2015 alliances set)
- Torgan (Tundra Orcs, 2013 second summoner)
- Ret-Talus (Fallen Kingdom, 2010 faction deck): The implementation of the thematic elements with Ret-Talus are remarkably well done, with this zombie lord bringing units back from the dead in an inspiring and inspired manner.
- Frick (Cave Goblins, 2013 second summoner)
- Hogar (Tundra Guild, 2015 alliances set)
- Mad Sirian (Fallen Kingdom, 2013 second summoner)
- Moyra Skylark (Vargath Vanguard, 2015 alliances set)
- Queen Maldaria (Phoenix Elves, 2013 second summoner)
- Oldin (Guild Dwarves, 2009 base set)
- Bolvi (Guild Dwarves, 2013 second summoner)
- Melundak (Jungle Shadows, 2015 alliances set)
- Immortal Elien (Fallen Phoenix, 2015 alliances set)
- Jexik (Cloaks, 2014 second summoner)
- Vlox (Cloaks, 2011 faction deck)
In order to keep this article from being far too long, I’ve decided just to list the rest of the factions that I enjoy above without description, and to skip ahead to briefly discuss the five factions that I like the least personally. The Cloaks have simply never been my cup of tea. By way of analogy, I’ve always been more of a Halo or Titanfall person in video games, rather than Splinter Cell or Metal Gear. Stealth just doesn’t work for me, and I just don’t seem to enjoy it. The entire raison d’etre of the Cloaks is anathema to my animating purpose. I’m glad that I own them so that I can play against them whenever I have an opponent that is interested in them, and then I can occasionally see how well they can work in the right hands. But I’d be happy never having to use abilities like Blindside, Greater Sneak, or Cloak of Shadows ever again.
- Endrich (Deep Benders, 2015 alliances set)
It’s surely no surprise that the Deep Bender end up near the bottom of this list based on my description of the Deep Dwarves below. It’s probably just me, but I can never afford to use all of these expensive abilities and actually cast units, so I end up with the worst of both worlds, and find myself wishing that I was using one of my Top 11 decks above or really any of the 26 decks that I most enjoy.
- Abua Shi (Jungle Elves, 2011 faction deck)
This was the deck that I most expected to love and was most surprised to dislike. I think that has a lot to do with the number of Lioneer units that cost so much for a common unit, and the Chant events that I did not find interesting. Ultimately, it’s somewhat ineffable what exactly about this deck failed to draw me in, but Abua Shi, and his Chant of Growth, while I stick to Nikuya Na and his Poison Cloud.
- Sera Eldwyn (Vanguards, 2010 faction deck)
The reason I love Nexus Ops, but despise Antike and Twilight Imperium, is the same reason I cannot stand Sera Eldwyn. Games that encourage players to “turtle” and play very defensively are boring to me. I want to proactively engage my opponents, and I want the game to encourage or reward players that actually advance the interaction or combat. The units and abilities in Sera Eldwyn’s deck basically tell the player to sit back and construct an impenetrable fortress around your summoner. That’s just not an experience that I enjoy at all.
- Tundle (Deep Dwarves, 2011 master set)
The competition for my least favorite deck is easy, and strangely enough it comes from possibly my favorite set. I find the Deep Dwarves to be the most infuriating to play because of the cost of using most of the special abilities. Spending precious magic on common abilities like Tunnel or Insight has always seemed foolhardy and always seems to backfire, and two-cost units with only one health, like the Gem Mage, are a recipe for disaster. At the end of the day, the units all seem to have overly convoluted abilities that are effectively blank due to how rarely worthwhile they seem to be. I’m sure someone will come along and reply that the Deep Dwarves are the most powerful faction for one reason or another, which is fine, but I’ve tried them a number of times and never found them any fun.
But to avoid ending on that note, I will reiterate that I love this game, and I consider it a true masterpiece of design!
Opinionated Gamer Thoughts
Mark Jackson (208 plays): I agree wholeheartedly with Talia, even though we don’t play it nearly as often as we used to. We did a lot of customizing of decks using the well-made iOS app and there’s a great argument to be made for a Grognack-based deck that I called “Speed Tundra”, as well as my younger son’s weirdly tough-to-beat “Lots of Fire” Phoenix Elf deck and my own “Wallcrusher” Guild Dwarves deck. Back in the day, I wrote the 2011 OG review of the Master Set… which you’re welcome to go back and read!
[Talia: Wow, I cannot believe that I completely forgot about that excellent 2011 review, or everything I wrote at the end of it. In looking back at that review, I also unexpectedly just found a long 2012 article that I appear to have written about Summoner Wars, called Summoning iOS Gold, that I have no memory of writing. And here I thought that I was finally getting around to writing about one of my favorite games for the first time! At least this shows that the game holds up well after 8 more years.]
Matt Carlson (A few plays, dozen at most): At the time of release, I was very interested in the game and got a hold of one of the first two factions. After playing around with it a bit, it just never got onto the table again. There were too many other non-wargame options and when we were looking for a more war-like title, others seemed to crowd forward. For me, the half-card half-wargame side of the game ended up being sort of lukewarm to both. I gave my copy away, but then got the master set when it came out, but it wasn’t enough to really draw me in, and I’ve only recently gave that away as well. I like the game, but time is short and there are many other games that cry for my attention.
Opinionated Gamer Ratings
- I love it – Talia Rosen, Mark Jackson, Erik Arneson
- I like it – Matt Carlson
- Neutral – None
- Not for me – None