Intrigue at court
I had to get an unpleasantly early train to get into London on the Saturday morning, but I probably shouldn’t complain, since most players were coming from farther afield. I’d arranged to meet Steff, one of the other Reading players going at Waterloo, and we also ran into an old acquaintance from dearly departed Conquest, Alex, on our way out the underground. He was waiting for Dangles, who I knew very well also, so we’d already formed a friendly knot of sociable nerdery before we’d even arrived at the venue. I expected to know a fair few people at the event from other LCGs (Netrunner, Conquest and AGoT), and looked forward to meeting some new people from the L5R old guard, who to be honest, I’d had almost no interaction with. I know that the UK LCG scene is very close knit, and from what I had heard from others, the L5R scene is the same. L5R veterans: As LCG players, we look forward to bringing you into the fold, and nothing I would experience over the course of the day would suggest that it will be anything other than a good fit.
The venue near London’s Borough Market was decked out, and during the day I did get a good laugh at the London hipster community looking a touch aggrieved and confused to see their safe space had been infested by a festival of nerds. The inside was spartan, but functional, and held the 150 or so people fine.
I managed to catch up with some other friendly faces such as the host of Troll5R, winner of the podcast wars and Notamoto Darren Hazelden, as well as the entire Greenway family, who it was lovely to see. I knew the Greenways as stalwarts of the Bristol Conquest scene, and they brought some variety and an injection of youth to the event. Fun fact, Tim, the elder of the two sons absolutely CRUSHED me in the UKTC final Conquest team tournament last year, and it was somewhat funny to hear someone (who will remain nameless) comment:
At first I was kind of a little annoyed that these kids were invited when so many of my friends from Old5R missed out, but then the kid started asking me loads of pertinent questions and it became clear he deserved his slot.
The new prize support was on show in a cabinet some poor sucker had clearly had to transport to the venue. It is clear that FFG are actually trying this time with Organised Play, after some seriously lacklustre performances in the last couple of years, and they should pat themselves on the back. The overall look of the cards in this new core set is stunning, and the offerings were similarly attractive. Everyone was handed out a core set from a huge stack, a coffin-style deck box, and a pin and set of full bleed ‘Way Ofs’ for their chosen clan, and building was kicked off…
Wind of change
Whilst I had initially planned on playing Phoenix, during my playtesting I ended up enjoying the play style of Scorpion far, far more. Wamma pointed out that applying to get into the event as a member of one clan, but turning out to be a Scorpion player was pretty thematically appropriate anyway, so the decision was made.
These were the decks I ended up playing:
Role and provinces:
I played Seeker of Air at the event, mostly because that was what I’d played in the few practice games I’d managed. I was aiming to dishonour people, which would require me to bid 1 pretty much every time, but would leave me with few cards. Consequently this role allowed me to run both Secret Cache and Fertile Fields, compensating somewhat for my lack of draw. I was happy enough with this role choice throughout the day, but if I were to play with a single core again, I would heavily consider both Keeper of Air and Keeper of Fire for Scorpion. In a game where you are attempting to dishonour your opponent, the Air ring is going to be contested basically every conflict phase. If you are going first you should choose it to further your win condition (and to prevent your opponent from recovering, since it is likely your opponent will do the same in an attempt to gain honour when they go first). If the opponent selects the Air ring, it furthers your game plan to defend and win the Air ring challenge in order to stop them recovering. As such, the Keeper of Air role can provide an additional bonus when defending. Both these Keeper roles provide access to the Keeper Initiate. The Fire ring is generally important for Scorpion as another way of removing honour from your opponent. The additional influence is non-trivial, but likely to be more so in a full constructed environment.
In addition to the draw provided by Secret Cache and Fertile Fields (seriously, don’t leave Cache at home, it’s brilliant), I rounded out my province deck with Shameful Display, Entrenched Position and Night Raid. Shameful Display again furthers your dishonour win condition and can create a large board state swing. It also happens to have great art and be thematically one of my favourite cards (apparently kissing Scorpions is bad for your reputation). Scorpion are weaker militarily, so Entrenched Position made sense, it also has 5 base strength, and provides the most likely option in this province deck to go under the stronghold. City of the Open Hand has the lowest strength bump for provinces so it seemed reasonable to me that you want to put something a bit tougher under it, and this seemed the best option. Night Raid was selected as part of the ‘choke the opponent’s cards’ strategy, since they would be forced into bidding 1 also every turn, or just lose. In practice, this is probably the one province I’d consider changing. Over the course of the tournament there was only one game where it flipped and made my opponent lose more than one card (in this case 2). It is a reaction to flipping, so only happens once, but the discard is not random, which also really hurts it as a choice. The tight economy in the game means conflicts where people are attacking with more than one character are rare, and anything more than two attackers seems likely to only happen when someone thinks they can push through a win (typically on the opponent’s stronghold). For this reason this is another potential choice in this deck to pop under your stronghold, but I’m not sure this does enough to earn its slot. It could be a straight up Fire swap for Meditations on the Tao (which triggers every time) or in the case of a Seeker role, where you omit a province type altogether, you could ditch Fire and play Water’s Elemental Fury instead. Although also a Province that only triggers when flipped, this could allow you to get a clutch Air or Fire ring swap when your opponent is trying to recover. If I were playing a Keeper Role, I’d probably run a deck of Elemental Fury, Entrenched Position, Shameful Display, Secret Cache and Night Raid/Meditations (probably Meditations).
I look forward to the release of more provinces, as along with the release of new Strongholds, I think this is a way to inject some serious variety ands choice into the game. Plot decks in AGoT 2.0 were quite predictable at the start, and there were a LOT more plots released in that core set than Provinces in this one.
There weren’t really much in the way of deck building considerations when it came to the dynasty deck for one core. A lot of the neutral cards are either highly inefficient like Wandering Ronin and Miya Mystic, efficient but limited when you do not hold the Favour (Otomo Courtier and Seppun Guardsman) or Holdings (Imperial Storehouse and Favourable Ground). Your role defines your access to either Keeper or Seeker Initiates. I haven’t done the maths on the other factions, but I basically had a choice over 2 cards in this deck. In practice games I had been screwed by flipping multiple holdings as part of the dreaded ‘neutrals flop’ and so there was no way I was going to play any more than 3 total in the deck. Functionally, this meant I had a choice between including either the Storehouses or the Favourable Grounds. I elected to go for the Storehouses due to my low draw from bidding one all the time. Looking back I might ditch the City of Lies for a solitary Favourable Ground (due to the low number of events costing Fate in my conflict deck) if I were to play a single-core event again. I played the full complement of Scorpion Dynasty cards (assessing all of them to be better than pretty much all the neutral options), and so the deck looked like:
- 3x Otomo Courtier
- 3x Seppun Guardsman
- 3x Wandering Ronin (Bleugh!)
- 3x Miya Mystic
- 2x Seeker Initiate
- 1x Bayushi Manipulator
- 1x Bayushi Liar
- 1x Sinister Soshi
- 1x Young Rumourmonger
- 1x Blackmail Artist
- 1x Yogo Outcast
- 1x Soshi Illusionist
- 1x Shosuro Actress (The Mai Star)
- 1x Favoured Niece
- 1x Shosuro Miyako
- 1x Yogo Hiroue
- 1x Bayushi Yunako
- 1x Bayushi Shoju
Over the course of the event my flops were favourable enough that I don’t think I ever had to install one of the really inefficient neutral characters, though there was a game against Dragon I considered, but decided against installing a Miya Mystic.
There was quite a bit more space to get creative with the Conflict Deck:
- 2x Fine Katana
- 2x Ornate Fan
- 1x Jade Tetsubo **
- 1x Reprieve *
- 1x Watch Commander ***
- 1x Fiery Madness
- 1x Court Mask
- 2x Assassination
- 2x For Shame
- 1x Spies at Court
- 1x Outwit
- 2x Court Games
- 2x Banzai
- 2x Contingency Plan
- 1x Levy ***
- 1x Way of the Scorpion
- 1x Forged Edict
- 1x Calling in Favours
- 1x Ambush
- 1x I Can Swim
This probably wasn’t a completely efficient conflict deck, though it certainly did a pretty decent job. For a start when I looked through it to write the list it was on 1 Outwit and 1 Spies at Court, when it should have been on 2 of whichever I thought was better, I think I decided on Outwit, then didn’t change it in all the chaos of the start of the event. I’m not sure the splash faction choice was hugely important in an inconsistent format, but I elected for Crab, mostly for Watch Commander to further facilitate the dishonour strategy. I didn’t get much work out of Levy on the day, and am unsure if it will be worth the splash in constructed either. I don’t think Contingency plan is a very good card at all, but it guaranteed an point of honour loss, and in the single-core I wanted every card I could find to remove honour. There is no reason not to play the maximum number of Banzai, because the card is stupid, and Assassination is particularly good for Scorpion, as the honour loss can be used to turn on your Stronghold. If I played the event again, I’d cut I Can Swim, since in a dishonour-based deck it was almost impossible that I would meet the play requirement. This would free up a space for the second Outwit/Spies at Court. I had already ignored Blackmail for the same reason.
We played five rounds of Swiss on the day, and I only played one person I’d met before. All of my opponents were friendly, and the games were mostly pretty close, which I think is a good achievement in what is traditionally a pretty swingy format. This suggests to me that the balance of the core set is actually in a pretty good way. It’s the best experience I’ve had out of an FFG core set since they switched model. It’s still not as good as the Netrunner core, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Conquest and Thrones, AGoT in particular being basically unplayable out of a single set. Multiple copies of all neutral cards is the correct decision (cough, Tears of Lys, Put To the Sword, cough) especially for competitive players. The faction balance feels excellent.
Game 1: Rob – Unicorn
Game one was against Rob who plays at Travelling Man in Leeds. Rob was careful with his bidding from the get go, and the route towards dishonouring him was a grind. I didn’t feel like we were playing particularly slowly, and we were both progressing our own win conditions. I steadily reduced his honour with Air and Fire, and him having to let Shoju have unopposed conflicts to preserve his low political strength characters. Rob got on with the business of starting to break provinces. I’m struggling to remember as much of this game as I should have, as it was the first of 5 on the day. There was a critical moment where he could have made a larger political conflict with one of his cavalry characters, and he held off thinking he could move it in by triggering Golden Plains Outpost, but that only works in military conflicts. We were neck and neck, and I think I had him down to one honour going in to the final turn where I would be the first player, but he played a crucial Way of the Unicorn to maintain the initiative on a turn when I had an exposed Stronghold. This is the point where time was called. Both of us were totally in the game, and we discussed the boardstate, which was on a knife edge. Rob knew he couldn’t break the Entrenched Position under City of the Open Hand, but astutely sussed that if he picked the air ring, he could hold on one more turn before being likely to be dishonoured. We both felt confident that the game would probably run another turn, and after we had the tiebreaker process explained to us (unclearly), I just elected to concede to speed the process along as I felt I was very slightly behind.
Postgame, we both felt none-the-wiser about tiebreakers, though we had some good discussion about the merits of certain cards, particularly Endless Plains, which neither of us felt was particularly effective. It might be better as a psychological threat your opponent has to respect until they identify if you are running it or not, than an actual province worth running. It seems particularly bad in single-core, where a lot of the games were going to time, and breaking your own province was weakening your own tiebreakers significantly.
Game 2: Rick – Phoenix
Second game was versus Rick from Hertfordshire(?), who apparently also knew Dangles (seriously, does everyone know Dangles?!). Rick was far less conservative than Rob with his dial bidding, and the dishonour victory condition was on, despite a cheeky ring swap here and there with Kuroi Mori (whatacard) and Elemental Fury. He had some particularly nice shenanigans with Solemn Scholar after swapping rings to ensure he had the Earth ring, kneeling out one of my attackers and making me flub what seemed at the time a critical conflict. We moved into turn 3 and I was first player, with Rick on 2 honour, but with me with 3 broken provinces and an exposed stronghold. It was this point that time was called (this would be a familiar theme throughout the day). We were run through the tiebreaker procedure, and neither of us was willing to concede. This time the process was more clear to us, and both of us wanted to play out the final turn to conclusion. I had a Blackmail Artist and Banjo Hiroue, and thus could complete the dishonour win with the political conflict Air ring. I went in, and pulled in the useless Shiba Peacemaker with Hiroue, which prevented Rick from using his Vulgar Display of Power, since the conflict was now opposed. Another tight game.
We had a nice lunch, where clearly the brie and grape sandwiches were the premier option, and Rick and I chatted about the sad demise of Conquest. Turned out at last year’s Conquest Nationals he had to play my mate Craig and his stupid Aun’Shii deck, and got bloodied turn one and assassinated turn two. Many sympathies were given, as I had to play test against that deck far too often.
Game 3: Quinns – Crab
I forgot to get a photo of Quinns, but luckily there’s a load from his work at Shut up and Sit Down, so I got to pick one that was as almost unflattering as if I’d taken it myself:
Quinns was a lot less conservative than my other opponents on the day with his bidding, and ate two high value bids when I bid one, putting him in the red zone. We were both Netrunner players in the past, so reverted to comforting terminology of clicks and credits. I should have dishonoured him out on turn two, but I got greedy and stupidly didn’t take the Air ring, opting for one with money on it instead, giving him a little breathing room. The first turning point in this game was when I assassinated a Hiruma Yojimbo with 3 fate on it to gain a significant economic advantage. The second was when I managed to live the dream with Hiroue, pulling in Quinns’ terrifyingly stacked Kisada with Jade Tetsubo, Sashimono and Honoured Blade, and then parasuckering him down with Sinister Soshi and Shoju.
Again we went to time, and Quinns was ahead on provinces, but I held the Imperial Favour and the Honour lead. Neither of us would concede, and I managed to see a line of play where I bounced in an Adept of Shadows, selected a ring with fate on it, allowing me to bounce in a further Unassuming Yojimbo to break even on broken provinces, for a mod win.
Game 4: Aonghus – (Dragon)
Aonghus was also highly careful about his bidding, announcing to me early on that he’d lost his previous game to Scorpion due to doing the opposite. I elected to play this one differently, and this was the one game I bid more than 1 in, accruing some card advantage and pressuring Aonghus with City of the Open Hand instead. This was a very back-and -forth game, showcasing some of the best New5R has to offer. I made a critical mistake early, not reading the text on Miramoto Raitsugu. I’d also had no experience in duels from my limited practice games, and lazily had assumed for some reason they also contained action windows – how wrong I was. Ultimately this led to me bouncing in my Adept of Shadows into a very low impact conflict and getting it duelled and discarded. This led to a some serious pressure from Aonghus, especially with a Seeker of Enlightenment that was fat and cared nothing for any dishonour tricks. She got Assassinated, and I managed to swing the game back my way with a pretty critical Jade Tetsubo. Aonghus had been investing significant fate in his characters, whereas I had opted to ‘play the flop’ . as it were, and play wider and with tricks. He had me in a fork until the Assassination, where I needed to take fated rings to shrink the Seeker, but in doing so I would perpetuate the Enlightened Warrior he had on the board. I managed to bosh the fate off the Enlightened Warrior with the Tetsubo, and both these constricting threats went away. Aonghus misplayed slightly and walked into another Tetsubo bosh, losing more economic tempo, and a double Banzai managed to bring me to the point that I could legitimately threaten a conventional win, after breaking 3 provinces. I swung in with everything, and he defended with a Niten Adept (uuurrgghhhh), attaching something to it, ready for the bow effect, but I had a second Assassination to seal the win.
This was a really interesting game, where both of us had to think very carefully about the choice of rings. I also learned that Fiery Madness counts for the purposes of Mountain’s Anvil Castle (yuk!).
Game 5: Diego – Crane.
Going into the final game, I’d already secured my plastic stronghold, which was my main aim for the day, Daz had dropped a game in round 4, so he wasn’t going to make Hatamoto, basically life was good.
It was pleasant to meet two opponents who had travelled from far afield in Aonghus and Diego, and we settled in to quite an interesting game. I had Shoju on the bench on turn one, and put him out then passed, claiming the extra fate. Diego could take the Void ring, but I had a Reprieve in hand, and knew I’d get at least 2 turns out of Shoju, which seemed reasonable. Unfortunately I ran him straight into a Meditations on the Tao, cutting a turn out, though breaking it. Diego then resolved the Void ring, taking the second fate off him. It’s cool, I’ve still got the Reprieve, oh, wait, I didn’t read it and it costs one, and I wasted that one fate I had left on something relatively low impact earlier. Oops. Lesson: Read your own cards and plan your turns, particularly when you are tired towards the end of an event. Diego was bidding pretty high, putting himself in the honour hole, and I tried to get the choke on, I was actually ahead on broken provinces, but I made further mistakes in this one, for some reason assessing that giving Diego cards by repeatedly attacking into a Fertile Fields was safer than just exposing a new Province… If a nice little perk of attempting to dishonour your opponent is choking them of cards, releasing that chokehold by voluntary action is the opposite of sensible. This card advantage allowed Diego to swing what was supposed to be a big turn for me with lots of money, Shosuro Miyako and Adept of Shadows by Clouding both their minds. Enabling Cloud the Mind was the most positive play I saw from a Miya Mystic all day by the way. Eventually the card advantage I’d fed Diego paid off when we went to time, as we were closely matched, but he was able to break an additional province after cancelling my Banzai to win on tiebreakers.
Meditations and contemplations
The tiebreaker and going to time process is not particularly intuitive, and having it shouted out over the mic when people are desperately trying to finish their games was not sensible. It would have been better to just give every player a piece of paper with a flowchart of the process on it. This was probably my only complaint about the way the event was run however. There were a lot of games going to time, and four out of five of mine did. I didn’t feel that myself or any of my opponents played slowly at all, and historically I think I’ve gone to time in only one Netrunner game, one AGoT game and never in Conquest in countless tournaments as a competitive player. Whether this is due to the less consistent nature of the format, or people learning the ropes is yet to be seen, but maybe it is worth considering running events with rounds of 65 minutes, a la Netrunner, rather than the 55 minutes of Thrones.
In further thoughts about tiebreakers, it certainly favours a dishonour strategy, where you will naturally be ahead in one of the categories by default. This seems particularly pertinent since the opposite side of the coin strategy in honour win seems unviable as of this moment. It is also good for your clan accruing the most honour, and getting free tokens, as well as the other mound of swag given out:
Not pictured here is the free core set that the players got, though I recycled the box, since I’ll end up with two more, and couldn’t be bothered to carry it home on the train from London (sorry). I wanted to maintain a full set of Way Ofs for my chosen clan, but I did some trading post event to help other players out with what I was less wedded to. The ones I have here I’ll either keep and see if they are available from future events, or hold for some prize support, the same goes for the initiates.
Overall, I played five different factions on the day, and none of the games felt one-sided at all, a remarkable achievement for single-core. It also bodes well for full constructed. The most popular faction turned out to be Scorpion, and the least Lion, for whatever reason, but the distance between those outliers and the rest of the pack was not high.
Some brief comments on the Strongholds for the clans, since these are always in effect, providing a constant threat, and do the most work in influencing deckbuilding:
- Most of the Strongholds were triggered a lot less often and were less impactful than I initially assumed would be the case, from the discussion during and after the tournament. They seem a bit lower impact in terms of influence over the game than the equivalents in Netrunner (identities) or the Warlords in Conquest.
- Of these, Shizuka Toshi seems to me to be the strongest, as it has no requirement at all to trigger, and provides a constant effect that needs to be played around for the opponent. I can see this being the ETF/Kate or Eldorath/Kith perennial favourite of this core set, though I don’t think it’ll end up quite as bad. We’ll have to see what else gets released.
- The stat pump strongholds seem generically useful, and particularly helpful for ‘temporising’ in an action window during conflicts. Mountain’s Anvil Castle can work in both attack and defence, in both type of conflicts, but requires effort and investment to activate. Yojin No Shiro is the weakest in terms of stat pump (military attack only, and requires multiple characters) but has a high ceiling and can be used to break provinces, whereas Shiro Nishiyama provides better pump, but not in a situation that advances your win condition.
We shall see over time how it shakes out. Some thoughts on Scorpion:
- Dishonour is plenty viable as a win condition, even if your opponent doesn’t make wild bids. Even in an inconsistent single core environment there was just enough options to threaten the win. It also turns off one of the most powerful neutral core set cards for your opponent (Assassination). The players at the European launch were a lot more careful with their bids than it sounded like those players at GenCon were (maybe Europeans are just better at the game? – Have at it Yanks! Alternatively, maybe they just learned from your mistakes).
- It will require a focused deck to get the most out of it, and some of the Scorpion cards will not fit this well or at all (play from behind honour cards like Blackmail and Yogo Outcast, cards requiring a higher honour bid such as I Can Swim).
- Alternative mechanisms to lose honour yourself to try to get behind your opponent to turn on City of the Open Hand (Assassination, Adept of Shadows, dishonouring your own characters with cards like Calling in Favours, Forged Edict, Court Mask), are great for Scorpion, and you can become particularly dangerous with little honour on the board for both sides.
- There’s no reason why playing from behind and drawing loads of cards, keeping yourself in the game with the Stronghold isn’t a viable strategy, though it wasn’t really one I attempted much at the Honoured event.
- Ambush seems like an extremely powerful alternative economic accelerator in a game with a very tight economy and few true economic options . It looks like a constructed staple.
To conclude, I heartily look forward to the future of the game. Thanks for the invitation! I’ll finish off with a quote from Dave Ruddock:
Not sure what was best about the weekend – the number of old friends regathered or the number of new faces excited for New L5R
…and this charming photo from the principal organiser Alex Watkins, after the completion of the event: