Howdy, folks, and welcome to HowWL! Today we’re looking not at the exciting parts that make a deck stand out and shine, but rather the oil that keeps those parts moving freely, avoiding clunkiness: that’s right, we’re looking at backups! Whether gaining you CP turn after turn, or leveraging powerful abilities, the less combat-oriented characters of your deck are quietly putting in a ton of work, and today is the day we celebrate that! We’re going to dive in to their varying value as the game progresses, proper ratios for different styles of decks, how deep in a pack it pays to start taking them, and how taking some of them will continue to affect your draft decisions. Without further ado, let’s see what our support line has to offer us!
Because games of draft tend to be a bit shorter than constructed, due to the lower damage count and smaller deck size, it’s harder to eke out as much CP from each backup. Your standard 2cp backup has a real cost of 4cp, since once you play the card from hand you can no longer discard it to pay for anything. In order for such a backup to break even, you have to activate it four times before the game ends. This has a couple of implications, the first being that backups without strong abilities are dead draws late game. Some stay relevant late, especially those with strong ETFs. Cid (FFL), Waltrill, and Apururu are good examples, as they either directly affect the board, or allow you to convert less useful cards into stronger cards. Backups that are good both early and late game should be valued higher, as they give your deck the most flexibility during gameplay. The second implication is that the value of backups scales directly with the speed of your deck, with aggressive decks caring about their backline much less than grindier decks.
Decks with an aggressive bent can often get away with as few as 11 or 12 cards dedicated to the backline. They want to move into the late game almost immediately, and while they still want some amount of backups to help that along, and especially to make odd costs more bearable, it’s not uncommon for these decks to only drop two, or sometimes even only a single backup. When playing a deck like this, you are trying to close out the game before the opponent’s backups can start to accrue value. If your opponent plays a 2cp backup and you end the game after two activations, that’s two CP you denied your opponent. When attacking slower decks, this build phase is where they are weakest, where they have risked CP on investments and have to wait for them to pay off. If your backups allow you to heap on the pressure early like Red Mage, Reno, and Yotsuyu, you’re positioned very well to take advantage of the speed difference.
For the slower decks, a much higher backup count is desirable, as they want to be generating constant value. Your goal when playing a deck like this is to drown your opponent in CP advantage, and the quicker you can fill your backline the better. You want your backups to be as efficient as possible, cards like Prompto which can functionally cost less than two, or cards like Norschtalen which fetch you more backups. These decks can want their backups counts to go as high as 16, to ensure reliable early access to them. While efficiency is certainly desirable for this archetype, you will also want some strong stabilizers or late game plays like Machinist, Cocytus, and Dark Knight. Decks with a high backup count will also prioritize breakables. Drawing Lid late game can be a great way to replay your bomb, but if your backline is full then you can put a lid on that plan. Proactive abilities are much more flexible for this, as cards like Layle and Lunafreya can’t exactly be broken at will.
Most decks however will end up in the middle, enjoying the flexibility to play however the situation demands. This helps to avoid the variance inherent in pushing the backup count to either extreme. It always stings getting flooded with few in the deck, or starved when you loaded up. Your average draft deck will usually end up with about 13 backups.
When drafting, a good question to ask yourself is how early into each pack you want to start taking backups. In Opus VIII, there are very few backups that define a deck, unlike Opus VII with Snow and Exdeath, and I feel that it is rare that it is correct to start working on resources in the first handful of picks. You’ll first want to define your draft by seeing what powerful bombs you have access to, and by feeling out what elements your neighbors are likely to be in. As the packs go on, and your deck’s direction solidifies, it is more and more correct to take backups in the first few picks, especially if during review you notice you are much lighter than you would like to be. Despite this, some powerful options defy this trend and ask to be taken immediately. Cid (FFL), Prompto, and Lid can demand immediate action. These are cards that carry a threatening presence no matter at what point in the game you draw them.
Other backups can cause you to consider moving into a specific archetype in order to maximize their usefulness. An early Norschtalen can pave the way into Wind/Earth, as Layle is the only out of element backup it can grab, or if you find a Sherlotta or two you have the option to use Norsch as the backbone of a Wind core splashing whatever it wants. The Mask works best with Earth or Lightning, giving access to Graham, Shango, Jinnai, and the Warriors of Darkness. The VI cards, Edgar and Setzer, work best in Fire/Ice, although in a pinch you can move into Water for Strago and Relm. Red Mage begs you to find Ark Angel HMs, and it, Cocytus, and Summoner prefer you to be heavily invested in their element. Thancred works best paired with Fire, for access to Samurai, Warrior, and Zenos, but can buff Astrologian in Water too.
Many other cards also suggest what to do with your backups. Repeatable effects with an element cost like Rain R and Lasswell want you to have access to a backup of a shared element. Umaro perhaps the most so. Squall is best when he has two Ice backups, or his active ability is unusable. Shango asks for as many Lightning backups as you can find, and Sakura asks for even more. Bahamut and Raiden want you to hit 4 backups.
Always think about how to best utilize the effectiveness of each backup you take; don’t just expect them to do all the work in the relationship, you gotta put up results too. Find other sources of damage to make Reno lethal. Load up on summons for Fire and Lightning Black Mages. Pick up some durable/expendable forwards for Paladin. Build a control deck for all your EX Bursts like Gramps and Matoya.
Another thing to consider is how many backups are in each element at C/R. As a quick reference for O8:
This means that you can wait longer than usual to take Ice/Earth backups, as statistically there will be many more of them in the draft. Conversely, each backup in the other elements becomes that much more precious, as there will be fewer opportunities to take them. Decks that want loads of backups will find it much easier to be in an element that affords them the ability to take a ton. Wind especially needs to grab backups early, as Thief and Matoya are often difficult to get value out of, limiting your good choices to only Waltrill, Ninja, and Norschtalen at C/R.
Often your splash doesn’t want any backups in that element. This was especially true in O7 with cards like Bomb and Flan which had utility without any other cards in their elements, and with Shantotto and Moogle (FFCC). Splashing is a bit more cumbersome in O8, but a line of Norschtalen Waltrill Sherlotta makes it much easier, with Waltrill able to dig to your splash (or ditch it if you need) and Sherlotta able to produce any element, and Norsch able to search for whichever piece you need. Returning cards from the Break Zone, like Setzer and Apururu, can also aid a splash, allowing you to discard splash cards early for CP and then retrieve them when you need access to that element.
There aren’t many odd cost backups in O8, just Cid (FFL), The Mask, Machinist, Gosetsu, and sometimes Apururu and Lunafreya. Almost all O8 backups are functionally 2cp, so you don’t have to worry as much as other Opuses about loading up on cards that are awkward to play on Turn 1. Because of this, most ideal Turn 1s are going to involve dropping two backups, as a curve of 2cp into 3cp isn’t likely to line up, and this allows for playing a backup Turn 2 off your existing backups. I know I’ve mentioned her a lot, but Norschtalen excels at this.
Some notes on Opus VIII backups I didn’t get the opportunity to talk about elsewhere.
Scholar is good in a deck that wants backups early and late, as you can pop her at almost no cost to free up your fifth backup slot. Just don’t expect to actually get a card off her.
Sophia hoses a lot more cards than you may expect at first. She stops the haste from Red Mage, Summoner, Electric Jellyfish, and Jake. She dulls a Back Attacking Jinnai before he can block. She gets in the way of a double trigger Freya, or a Leadershipping Rain, or a surprise Alba, or Alphinaud with Alisae. Samurai, Tifa, Moogle Knight, Nacht, and XV forwards buffed by Ignis can all have their Brave turned to a weakness. She’s pretty unassuming until she outright wins the game out of nowhere.
Marlene’s only options are two Legends and three Starters. Don’t grab her early and expect to find targets for her. They won’t come.
Turk Light is a shockingly strong S. Since your opponent has no idea whether or not you have access to more copies of Reno, your ability to dull their forwards is not as telegraphed as it may seem. Load up on Reno, he a gud boi.
Shamonde P Grauche stops almost nothing in the set.
Backup removal is really bad in this set. Ninja costs a ton to activate, and the targets for Hecatoncheir and Cid Highwind almost all netted value with their ETFs. There are so few backups with abilities you want to get rid of, the best targets being Yotsuyu, Lid, and Lunafreya. Sure maybe sometimes you really need to cast a summon so you Ninja Layle, but those cases are few and far between. And if you’re hitting a backup with Alexander, I don’t even want to know what’s going wrong in that game.
Garland (IX) most often is dulling a backup. Getting a monster like Deathgaze (IX) out is best, but when you’re unable to do that, its probably time to select a backup. Garland triggers after you draw, so take a little time to really plan out your turn and decide which backup is least useful to you before committing. Don’t take too much time, slow play ain’t cool, but give it some thought. Nothing is worse than getting halfway through combat and realizing you really need the redirect from Paladin after all. Also, be aware of his freeze ability, and take care not to get locked out of an element of CP or an action ability that you really need, like White Mage.
Each Opus is a different environment, so unfortunately a lot of these card specific tips won’t be useful forever, but the lessons we can learn from them will continue to show up again and again. Building our understanding of what we have now makes it that much easier when we dive into a new Opus, especially when so many of the broader lessons remain as applicable. Thank you for joining me on this foray into backline strategy. The more you support the people supporting you, the stronger the whole will be.