Dave of the Five Rings is an ongoing series chronicling David Gordon’s return to the Legend of the Five Rings CCG after several years. He will be tracking his progress from the launch of the game’s new core set, Ivory Edition, through to the season’s culmination at GenCon 2014.
Chapter 5: If You Ain’t Broke, It Ain’t A TCG
When last I left you, gentle reader, I had finished my attempt at the Feeding Hills Kotei during the first weekend of the season. After six rounds of Swiss matching, I had finished the tournament with my refined Welfare Crane Military deck with a solidly even win-to-loss record. Failing to advance to the finals, I headed home for the long wait until the New Hampshire Kotei during the last weekend of June.
Even with the rough luck of going against three of my toughest military match-ups twice each, I finished the Kotei with a renewed affection for competitive play. In my absence, the Legend of the Five Rings community continued to be devoted to helping others, generating a great deal of charitable efforts with its competitive play. The sense of camaraderie remained strong, and the love of the setting and all of its trappings united us.
I have played many games competitively over the years, but nothing sends a shiver down my spine like the call and response of the first banzai shout. By the end of the Feeding Hills Kotei, I was truly glad to have returned to L5R.
In the time between the Feeding Hills Kotei and the Londonderry Kotei, the entirety of the Kotei season elapsed. Tournaments were held literally around the world, giving the community and AEG insight into the competitive environment only available from such large numbers. As it turned out, this led to active involvement from AEG into the tournament scene.
As the first few weeks of the Kotei progressed, AEG noticed a very disruptive trend in the environment. Specifically, the finals of the Kotei throughout the world were repeatedly being dominated by the presence of Crane Clan decks. Rather than simply being a single deck archetype, the Crane Clan decks among finalists and tournament winners ran the gamut of military to honor to dishonor. Rather than indicate a single, dominating deck in the environment, AEG began to address the fact that the Crane Clan itself was unbalanced.
As a veteran of several Kotei seasons, I was among many caught off guard by AEG’s active monitoring of this trend – and their openness in addressing it. By the third week of Kotei season, AEG issued an official statement regarding the dominating presence of the Crane Clan and that it sought a solution to return balance to the game. Among the community, this was both lauded and criticized, with strong voices on both sides. Ultimately, however, the numbers did not lie. By the middle of April, with a mere four weeks of Koteis completed, the Crane Clan had pulled out far into the lead. Out of the eighty-four finalists across the tournaments, over forty had been playing Crane. The eminence of the Crane Clan created a problem in the environment, albeit one that had to be examined and understood before it could be addressed.
Ultimately, the dominance of the Crane Clan came down to three primary factors. The first was the strength of the Crane Clan sensei, the Akagi Sensei. All Sensei in the Legend of the Five Rings TCG modify the attributes of its Clan’s Stronghold as well as providing a secondary ability to emphasize a particular theme. The Akagi Sensei was meant to be the Crane Clan’s military Sensei, and it gave its player an ability identical to the powerful Ring of Water. Additionally, it increased the Crane Clan player’s Province Strength, making it harder to defeat them militarily. Its only drawback was to decrease honor gains from Holdings, a trait ultimately irrelevant to a military or dishonor deck.
Akagi Sensei was, simply, the strongest Sensei in the game, and only the Crane were able to play it.
The second factor in the Crane dominance was its Starting Honor. Starting Honor controls which player goes first. The Crane are tied for the second highest with Phoenix, and both are second only to Lion. With the Phoenix Clan lacking a strong competitive presence, this meant the Crane Clan had a strong advantage over nearly every other faction in the game. Historically, high Starting Honor Clans always dominate the early environment of an arc, having one of the most reliable advantages in the game.
Finally, the strongest contributor to Crane Clan domination was its Stronghold’s action. The Exquisite Palace of the Crane had an action to increase the Gold production or Honor gain of a holding in play. This gave the Crane Clan a strong, sustainable economic advantage over every other Clan. Early on, this extra gold allowed the purchase an additional holding or to afford a more expensive personality. Later in the game, it gave Crane the forward momentum towards an Honor victory or military victory that it needed.
Economic advantage in L5R has always been powerful, but previous editions had introduced Legacy holdings and Dynasty cycling in order to minimize its impact. By including a solid, sustainable economic advantage on the Crane Clan Stronghold, they could simply out-produce their opponents.
It was this ability, in fact, that drew me to playing the faction to begin with in Ivory Edition.
When combined with its high Starting Honor and Sensei without real flaws, the Crane Clan had an engine which could run nearly any deck style on a competitive level better than any other Clan.
Reigning in the Crane
AEG observed these problems in the environment and swiftly took steps to correct them. Rather than giving the Crane Clan half a Kotei season to dominate (like other factions had done in the past), AEG issued errata on two the Crane Clan’s cards. First, they modified Akagi Sensei, removing its +1 to Province Strength and restricting its action to targeting only personalities with the Scout trait.
Second, The Exquisite Palace of the Crane saw a hit, limiting the +1 to Gold or Honor production its action provides only to the phase the bonus was applied. While the benefit changed nothing for the Honor gain from holdings, nearly all of which were Limited phase actions to begin with, this effectively pulled the plug on the Crane economic advantage in the Dynasty phase. Without the extra boost of Gold, the Crane Clan’s military ability would be slowed enough to allow other factions to keep up.
While the change in the environment was not overnight, its impact was undeniable. After the effective errata date of April 18th, the Crane Clan remained in a strong position throughout the Kotei season, but they no longer composed nearly half of the top players. Going into the final week of the Kotei Season in late June, the Crane Clan still made up a little more than a quarter of all players who made the Finals, but the field had balanced out significantly with a greater inclusion of the Unicorn and Scorpion Clans each composing about a sixth of finalists.
In fact, out of all nine factions, only the Spider Clan had not yet won a Kotei, a position that made my continue usage of a Crane deck slightly more painful. As I prepared for the final weekend at the Londonderry Kotei, there was a second change to the environment to consider.
The Coming Storm was an expansion for Ivory Edition that released on June 14 2014, becoming tournament legal the following week. As such, it would be only be legal the last two weeks of the Kotei season, and there would be little in the way of preparing for its impact.
The Coming Storm introduced 156 new cards into the environment, split across both the Fate and the Dynasty sides of the game. In previous editions, expansions also typically included new Strongholds for three clans, introducing new themes for each and building their card pools up more so than others. Ivory Edition moved away from this model, only releasing two new Sensei cards viable for different factions, while expanding each factions’ card supply. Indeed, each faction received a selection of new personalities, along with a Strategy card geared towards their dominant military theme. While the Coming Storm expanded the card supply available, it was questionable how much it would truly change the game.
As it turned out, the cards rounded out the various themes effectively among all nine clans. Each faction received personalities and Fate cards with the keywords they needed. No new themes were introduced in The Coming Storm, and the cards added fell strongly in line with the existing power curve of Ivory Edition itself. Without any particular faction receiving notable boons, Coming Storm proved equally desirable, and undesirable, for all players.
That said, the strongest features the Coming Storm had going for it were several new and desirable Holdings, along with the aforementioned Senseis. Of the two Aranai Sensei introduced a powerful military sub-theme to its five playable factions, including the Spider Clan.
Suddenly, I realized could put together a fun yet competitive Spider Clan military deck. It only needed several key cards from the new expansion to succeed. However, it was only when I started buying the booster packs that I felt something was different than when I had started playing Legend of the Five Rings all those years ago…
Money, Money, Money
When I began playing L5R, it was a game which fought the trend of chase rares and pay-to-win tendencies. One of my favorite tournament victories was coming in third place at a major tournament by playing a deck cobbled together in fifteen minutes out of commons and uncommons from a communal box. Traditionally, L5R commons had been utility cards usable by all decks, uncommons had been the strong cards for given factions, and rares had been Uniques and power cards for specific themes. Buying several booster packs could fill out your deck with the commons and uncommons it needed to be updated for the environment, and the one or two rares you needed could usually be traded for.
Times have changed.
The most disappointing part of my foray into Coming Storm was realizing, ten booster packs deep, that I had pulled just one of the several power rares I needed to be competitive. Even with a healthy trading environment around me, it soon became apparent that I would need to go to the secondary market if I wanted to build the competitive deck I wanted to play.
As readers might remember, the deck I originally wanted to play was a Spider Honor hijinks deck, which utilized Political Standoff to achieve victory. After reviewing the cards I would need, it became obvious that I lacked the budget to create such a deck. This has not changed across Ivory Edition’s release or Coming Storm, and my attempts to gather a collection of cards with which I could build a competitive deck were stymied by this. While I do not believe I am looking at L5R through the glasses of nostalgia, falsely recalling the good old days of Power Uncommons, it drove home my first truly negative experience of returning to L5R.
Despite the fact that I have a larger disposable income than I ever did in my previous years, I find myself less inclined to spend it on booster packs, knowing that I will very unlikely get the cards I want. Instead I found myself referring to L5Rsearch.com and eBay to hunt them down. As a consumer, my money was now going to card resellers rather than AEG, and my money is being spent online instead of at my friendly local gaming store. On some level, this feels simply wrong to me, feeling more like other CCGs on the market and less like the game I left three years ago.
As of this this article, it is now the night before the Londonderry Kotei, and I still do not know what I will be playing tomorrow. Will I play an updated version of the Welfare Crane Military, reflecting the changes from the new errata? Or will I be able to finally cobble together the Spider Deck I desire? Or will I find another, even stranger deck to play? Only time will tell. Stay tuned for my next article, where I discuss my last minute preparation for my second Kotei, and how it went for me. Until next time, gentle reader.
David Gordon is a regular contributor to the site. A storyteller by trade and avowed tabletop veteran, he also has a long and complicated past with L5R. These are his stories. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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