Originating as a series chronicling David Gordon’s return to the Legend of the Five Rings CCG after a several year absence, Dave of the Five Rings continues on as he examines the current and future of the iconic world of Rokugan upon the game’s sale to FFG in 2015.
Chapter 41: When Only One Problem Won’t Do
Let’s talk about The Bird.
But first, welcome back, dear reader. August has been a busy month for Legend of the Five Rings, with five Premier level events in the LCG and developments in both the fiction and RPG. The community itself is beginning to heat up with a rally around the new Elemental Roles, which went into effect at the start of September, and testing has begun for November’s Winter Court World Championships. I am pleased to inform you that I will be in attendance at this year’s Winter Court (barring unforeseen disaster) and will be competing in at very least the Last Chance Qualifier. Hopefully I will be able to see you there!
It has also been quite the busy month personally. I was a featured guest on both the Dice or Death Twitch channel and the 6th Ring – Rolling in Rokugan podcast in August, and as detailed last month, made my annual trek to Gen Con. Show your support for Dice or Death and the 6th Ring by checking out those two episodes and giving them a listen.
I have also started graduate school, and as such, apologize about the unexpected delay in this month’s piece. Finding the time to write has been a little difficult but future delays should be minor now that things have stabilized.
In the final bit of housekeeping, I would also like to take a moment to bring your attention to a new Kickstarter. Trevor Cuba, a long-time friend in the L5R community, has started a Kickstarter to build support for RokuCon. RokuCon aims to be a community-organized, fan-run Legend of the Five Rings convention to be located in southern Michigan and planned for May 2020.
RokuCon intends to feature panels, tournaments, open play, and general support for all things L5R, whether it is the current incarnation under Fantasy Flight Games, the many years under Alderac Entertainment Group, and even the time it was owned by Wizards of the Coast (remember that?).
While the Kickstarter is seeking a campaign goal of $10,000 USD for support, as someone who has worked with event planning in the past, this cost is likely more just proof of concept and support from the community. An actual convention can easily cost twice that amount simply to set up. Fortunately, Trevor and his team have a history of running conventions, and know what they are getting into. If you would like to learn more, and possibly support an awesome event, please check them out at Kickstarter, which is currently live and in need of some assistance to cross the finish line.
But really, let’s talk about The Bird.
The Not So Grand Kotei
With the release of the Dynasty Pack, Bonds of Blood, in July, the meta of the Legend of the Five Rings was shaken up hard by two incredibly impactful cards. Earth Becomes Sky provided the Phoenix another powerful counter to the present Tower strategy (single powerful Character) of play.
Likewise, Forbearer’s Echoes gave the Lion Clan an Event which copied the powerful Action of the Kitsu Spiritcaller, bringing a Character from the Discard Pile into play during a Conflict. Both were locked to a particular element, Earth and Air respectively, but both made a resounding impact on the meta almost immediately.
The first major tournament which felt these effects was the Grand Kotei at Gen Con 2019.
As one of the attendees of this Grand Kotei, I felt pretty good going in. I had put together a version of my Dragon Clan dishonor deck (a deck I played regularly since January) and tested it at a local tournament. I took Top 4 with it, missing the Finals due to a game going to time and losing on tie-breaker points. Though a Top 4 at a local tournament may not sound like much of an accomplishment, not many feature a field of 17 players with 3 Hatamoto and 5 World Championship invitees. So I’ll consider my efforts a well-earned success.
I played against the Dredge Bird multiple times in this tournament and managed to win each time. My deck ran Scorpion splash off of Keeper of Water, giving it a surprising edge as few knew how to play effectively against it. For reference, my decklist can be found at this link.
So, yes, going into the Grand Kotei I felt confident in my matchups. I had a strong deck with a lot of experience and a good matchup against Phoenix’s Dredge Bird archetype, the Scorpion’s Keeper of Air dishonor deck, and Crab’s general survival deck. I knew my game against both Crane and Unicorn would likely come down to player skill and some luck, as did the mirror.
Of all the decks out there, my biggest challengers were the dominant Lion Clan deck due to its high Honor and high Military skill and Scorpion’s Kyuden Bayushi due to its fast pace and access to Military Skill characters whom I could not duel. With some luck in matchups, I considered I might even have a chance at taking home a Dragon Hatamoto title – something which I desired a great deal.
Unlike most Grand Koteis in 2019, Gen Con only had a single Day One qualifier. Most Grand Kotei have two Day Ones, both of which allow for qualification for Day Two. The reason for this scale-back, despite being a four day convention, was never given. 196 players signed up for the event, as was evidenced by the fact that Registration took an entire hour to register the decks and collect tickets. Cascade Games went forward with using Lotus Pavilion to organize the event, something which the community was very grateful for, as it allowed anyone with a smartphone to check their pairings with each round. Round one started at 11:00 AM on Friday with little fanfare, and we immediately got down to playing cards.
My first pairing was against Brandon Trepp, playing a Kyuden Bayushi Scorpion deck. A spicy High Kick bowing my duelist caught me off guard, and Brandon was able to ride the tempo wave to victory. My second pairing was against Mike Pretchel, running a surprising Isawa Mori Seido Phoenix Clan deck with Crane splash for Festival of the Fortunes. I did not see a Daisho for the first twenty five cards of my Dynasty deck, and got my DH lock in a round too late to secure the win. My Stronghold was destroyed by a wave of Honored high Glory Phoenix Characters with my opponent on just enough Honor to survive.
Down two losses, I felt pretty disheartened. I could no longer qualify for Day Two and getting a Dragon Clan Hatamoto was highly unlikely. I made the decision to drop at my next loss and enjoy the remainder of my Gen Con experience.
With that in mind I faced off against a Crane Clan dueling deck using Kyuden Kakita, piloted by John DiGiovanni. My Scorpion splash shined in this match, allowing me to abuse Calling In Favors to steal key dueling attachments, and I was able to secure the win. It took me until round 4 of the tournament to face an on-meta deck, with Rory Wagner playing for the Crab Clan. I managed to bomb his Honor by 10 points in the second turn by forcing Hida Yakamo to win four duels in a row against Mirumoto Hitomi after she had been whacked by a Wicked Tetsubo.
Alas, my rallying efforts were for naught in the end. I finally scored my third loss in the fifth round of the tournament, taken out by Willaim Carriker and his Kyuden Bayushi deck. I did not see a duelist with a Daisho by the second turn, and Kyuden Bayushi was just able to beat me down. With an hour and a half left before the Expo Hall closed, I dropped and wished my friends good luck.
Despite having a deck built to tear apart the on-meta decks, I died in what is colloquially called the Jungle of major events such as Gen Con. Like a MOBA, I spec’d too hard for the top tier and got caught off guard by decks which would have died to the top tiers in an instant. While I might not have achieved my goal, I am satisfied with my performance and always respect losing to both luck of the matchup and the skill of using jank. I wish to give a shout out to Mark Armitage and Luis Espinoza, both of whom are local players who made the top 16 among those playing Scorpion. Honor and glory to Bradley Emon, who took home the top prize, and Jeremy Campshure, who came in second. Lastly, I would like to give a shout out to Jasper Mangus, who reached the Top 8 with a Dragon Clan Seeker of Void deck, taking home the Dragon Clan Hatamoto title I covet still.
However, my poor placement pales in criticism to that of the event management itself, with little to no visible support from Fantasy Flight Games during Gen Con. Matt Holland provided an immediate, physical presence, but it was still very easy to miss the L5R presence.
For one, there was no streaming setup despite there being multiple steams operating for other FFG games. According to several sources, streamers who volunteered to provide this to FFG were initially refused and it took a last minute setup by Hisshou Gaming just to get coverage of the Top 4 on Saturday. Moreover, there was not even a round clock for L5R. Cascade Games had round clocks available and visible but they largely sat unused. Finally, there was the aforementioned debacle with the Lion Clan Pack and the Gen Con promos (or lack thereof), but I digress.
The Bird Is Indeed The Word
A fuller, more comprehensive writeup of the entire event, complete with day by day breakdowns, can be found on the Imperial Advisor.
The biggest takeaway, based on the numbers, is the sheer impact of the Dredge Bird Phoenix Clan deck. 44 of 196 players at Gen Con – a full 22% – were playing Phoenix, with a strong positive win ratio across the field in every matchup except Scorpion and Unicorn. Six of the Top 16 were using the deck, with five reaching the Top 8, and three reaching the Top 4. Brad won with the Dredge Bird deck, and it looked very much like August was going to be a month dominated by this deck.
Reactions to this within the community were swift and addressed repeatedly by Matt Holland, FFG’s new Community Coordinator of Organized Play.
The deck relies upon a special combination of effects, specifically Miya Satoshi to seed your Dynasty discard pile, Forbearer’s Echoes to fetch Fushicho, Fushicho to fetch other powerful Phoenix Characters, Keeper Initiates to control the Imperial Favor (and thus turning off Censure as a cancel), and Kyuden Isawa to recur Forbearer’s Echoes. Both Matt and Tyler directly acknowledged the issue and spoke of playtesting solutions. Any concrete answer, however, would not be coming anytime soon.
That said, The Bird’s presence at subsequent events was nothing short of ubiquitous, even if its top tier win ratio obfuscated that fact somewhat.
The Sydney Kotei arrived on August 10th with 41 players, 9 of whom were playing Phoenix. While the Phoenix Clan consisted of the same ratio as the larger Gen Con Kotei, only one qualified for Day Two before dropping. This set up a Top 4 of two Scorpion, a Lion, and Unicorn. Honor to Paul Hallett for winning Sydney for the Unicorn Clan.
Next came both the Krakow Grand Kotei and the Canadian Grand Championship in Toronto on the weekend of August 23rd. Krakow defied expectations, with only 41 players out of 246 (17%) across both Day Ones playing Phoenix Clan. Yet no Phoenix deck made it out of a Top 16 on a Day Two dominated by the Scorpion Clan, and Konstantinos Paltoglou took home first place for the Crab Clan. The Canadian Grand Championship saw a more predictable outcome, with 9 out of 30 players (30%) playing Phoenix Clan. Phoenix did end up taking the day, although winner Matthew Beck did so running a Seeker of Void deck instead of the on-meta Dredge Bird.
Finally, August 30th saw the Eastern United States Grand Championship at NOVA Open in Arlington, Virginia. The field of 41 players was surprisingly well distributed across the Great Clans, with only a slight favoring of Crane Clan. While the Imperial Advisor only has a small amount of information regarding the tournament, it was won by Arash Afghahi playing Scorpion Clan, over Aneil Seetharam playing Phoenix Clan. The Top 8 only saw two Phoenix Clan decks, with an equal amount of Scorpion and Crane.
With that the month of August came to end, bringing with it change to the Elemental Roles – notably negating Phoenix Clan’s access to Keeper of Air until at least the Role Draft at the World Championships in November and shoving the power of the Dredge Bird once more to the back burner. It may have only taken the top prize in just one of August’s five Premier level events, but its impact was felt at all levels of play. It became the deck which dominated the meta, serving as an effective blockade to the majority of decks which did not have an effective answer to its powerful, explosive play. No one will be forgetting the lurking threat of Dredge Bird anytime soon.
The selection of the new Elemental Roles, however, opened new rifts into the community.
Throughout the summer of 2019, the Elemental Championships provided the top two players of each Great Clan at each tournament a Vote card. These cards provided the winner one (or two) unique codes which gave them a vote for the next Elemental Role their Great Clan would have. These cards were not linked to a particular player, event, or Great Clan, however, opening up the theoretical potential for the votes to be sold online to other players.
As was pointed out by many, there was literally nothing to stop a single person from gathering as many of these cards as possible and then using these votes to sway an entire Great Clan’s picks in a particular direction. Beyond such abuse, the access to these votes also sparked fierce debate within the player community. What exactly would be the best Elemental Role for each Great Clan going into the World Championship in November was something that many of the loudest voices had opinions about.
On August 22nd, FFG Organized Play made a significant announcement regarding the L5R LCG. Tyler Parrott directly addressed many of the growing issues in the community in regards to its plans with the Elemental Role voting going forward.
In short, the Elemental Championships will be going away, rolled into the Store, Prime, Grand, and Continental Championships beginning in 2020.
There would still be vote cards as prizes, but these cards would not be tied to any particular time period. They would, on the other hand, be restricted to a particular Great Clan. This highly limits the ability of a single player to negatively impact the votes of a Clan they do not play but without punishing players who earn (or buy) additional votes. I feel that this is a necessary action by Tyler and FFG’s Organized Play, especially considering the results of the most recent round.
Out of Seven Great Clans, two voted for Keeper of Air, one for Seeker of Air, two for Keeper of Earth, and two for Seeker of Earth. As already pointed out, these Roles have been selected solely for their access to specific, meta-defining cards.
In this case, the card which inspired more than half the Great Clans to take an Earth Role, previously considered nearly radioactive in how little it was desired, was Earth Become Sky. As a 1 Fate, 1 Influence Event, Earth Becomes Sky immediately bows a Character after it readies, as a reaction. It is a powerful tempo piece, preventing a potent Character from becoming available to your opponent without sacrificing an action to do so. Air’s popularity continued from the last round of votes, due to cards such as Soul Beyond Reproach, Mark of Shame, and Forbearer’s Echoes.
The Air Role opens up powerful Character kill effects for both the Crab Clan (through Mark of Shame and Warden of the Damned) and Crane Clan (Mark of Shame and Noble Sacrifice). Dragon Clan’s choice for Seeker of Air provides them with a strong Province row, but very little else. Some of these victories came down to a single vote, leaving certain Great Clans deeply divided in their community; others, like the Dragon Clan, simply had no good Elemental Roles to choose from.
Going into Worlds, there are the Clans that can run Earth Becomes Sky to shut down powerful Characters (Lion, Phoenix, Scorpion, Unicorn), Clans that can just kill powerful Characters (Crab, Crane, Scorpion), and a Clan who cannot do either (Dragon)…which also happens to be highly dependent on its powerful Characters.
The results of this round of voting has led to a call for FFG to “Free the Roles”, removing the Organized Play restrictions on which Great Clans can run which Elemental Roles. This has come from voices previously on the other side of the debate, most notably from the Jade Throne podcast and the Imperial Advisor.
While IA breaks down several key points about the debate, I echo the sentiment that the LCG has outgrown the Role Restriction in Organized Play and that it is now a failed system. The only purpose it serves at present is to lock Clans out of their best deck archetype for four months. This would be fine if that Clan has more than one viable deck archetype. When it doesn’t, then it basically becomes the situation facing the Crab Clan right now. Losing Keeper of Water shuts out their strongest deck. Will Crab’s Keeper of Air deck with powerful Character kill be able to keep up with the meta well enough to win? Only the World Championship will tell.
What’s more, being locked out of your best deck for months on end discourages play and experimentation. There’s simply not enough reason to play L5R casually to support the “just play open roles at home” argument. L5R is a hard game with a fiercely competitive tournament scene. Playing decks which you cannot play, and playing against decks that cannot be played, does not help you practice for the competitive environment.
The exclusion worked when Elemental Roles were chosen once a year via draft. Taking Seeker of Void as Scorpion was as much about giving the Scorpion Clan a powerful row as it was about keeping everyone else from it. By making the Elemental Roles no longer exclusive, you have the situation before us for the next four months where nearly everyone is running some form of Tower kill, and if you like playing Dragon your Role limits you to one worthwhile buildout.
It is evident that the LCG needs to move forward with freeing the Elemental Roles, but how that is accomplished is open for debate. Simply unlocking the Roles for Organized Play is one solution, but it removes the value of the votes and the World Championship draft. Creating five new Roles which any Great Clan can take is another, with a focus being shifted to the Keeper / Seeker split. However, how would these Roles be released? Would they come at a cost? Would FFG explore the design space of “When you claim your Ring, Do X”? Or perhaps another solution still.
Fortunately I don’t have to solve this problem for FFG, but it is definitely one which needs a solution sooner rather than later.
Readying For The Act Break
In other L5R related news, three new fictions were released in quick succession last month, bringing the story of the Inheritance Cycle to a close. The Crane Clan are primed for a civil war, the rightful heir is on the run with a powerful sorceress and a mysterious tattooed man, and Bayushi Shoju has reluctantly fulfilled the last promise he made to his oldest, dearest friend. The balance of power in the Emerald Empire has shifted dramatically, and the story has closed on what is truly its first act. The stage is set for a war which will start in the capital but will quickly spread to all corners of the Empire before it’s through, leaving many bodies in its wake.
From a literary perspective I find the re-imagining of the Scorpion Clan Coup to be interesting, and I am curious to see how it will shake out in the months ahead. I have my bets laid on who will still be standing at the end of Act Two, and it will be an interesting ride seeing how it all falls apart.
The Beauty of Little Moments
Finally, August also saw the announcement of a new supplement and adventure for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. The Path of Waves is another deluxe book, matching the size of Emerald Empire and covers everything a GM and player would need to tell a story featuring the Ronin, gaijin, and peasants of the Emerald Empire. This will incorporate several of the rules and tidbits I got to sample playing in the Highwayman adventure at Gen Con, an adventure with a storyline impact I came to learn in my interview with Tyler.
Additionally, Sins of Regret is an adventure designed to incorporate the material in this supplement, able to be run on its own or as part of a greater campaign. And it’s easily one of my most anticipated products to try in quite some time. Path of Waves is the book I have been waiting for since Way of the Wolf all the way back in First Edition. As much as L5R is a game about the intrigues of the Great Clans, I have always found more space for the little stories in the RPG. It will be hitting shelves in the fourth quarter of 2019, and rest assured that I will be giving it a thorough review.
And that is all for this month, dear reader. As it is already well into September by the time this article reaches you, you can guess what my next month’s article will feature. I hope to speak with Trevor Cuba about his plan for RokuCon, a fan run L5R convention in early 2020, but more importantly, we will be talking about release dates and why they remain the greatest failing of FFG’s support of L5R in 2019.
Until next month.
Carry the Fortunes.
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 on Twitter.
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Photo Credits: Legend of the 5 Rings images by Fantasy Flight Games.