Card advantage is king.
Yeah, I know - coming from the guy who used to start each decklist "3 Sakura's Decision," this is hardly a surprising statement. And given that this writer hasn't played Naruto since Sakura's Decision was actually legal, certain elements among us would dismiss that statement as the deluded theories of some crazy old man blind to the metagame where a deck can function with no hand.
But it's the truth!
Look at the current metagame - the format is dominated by a clear best deck (No-Hand Water) and two close contenders (BR Earth and True Allies). There are other fringe decks, such as Dogs and Mental Power - but none of them are really close to being better than the top three decks.
We'll get back to this metagame in a moment.
In card games, there are two different types of card advantage engine design: hard engines and soft engines. Hard engines are those that are strictly created by the designers to fit into one archetype - stuff like the Blackwing continuous search spell in Yu-Gi-Oh, the Ally card-drawer in M:tG, Karin in Naruto. Card game designers should be careful when creating these - as the synergies emphasized by a designed theme can quickly become overpowered relative to the power levels of independent cards.
Soft engines are cards or sets of cards that fit into many different archetypes. Often labeled "staples," these cards are usually generic draw or filtration, or card advantage with an easily met condition. These cards are best at enabling several different types of strategy - most often, ones that aren't hard-designed into the game. Examples of soft engines include cards like Pot of Greed or Graceful Charity in Yu-Gi-Oh, Ancestral Recall or Thirst for Knowledge in Magic, and Sakura's Decision or Shadow Clone Jutsu (Eternal Rivalry).
That last example (SCJ) might be a little bit of a surprise to some of you - how, you might ask, does a pump spell equate to card advantage? The key here, is the enabler role that soft engines often play. SCJ could equate to pure card advantage for decks such as Chain Lightning, which relied on the graveyard as another resource to make up for the otherwise card-inefficent nature of Lightning. SCJ could equate to virtual card advantage for decks such as Hybrid NVS, which relied on the threat of SCJ to force through a swarm of ninjas - and were the opponent to block, could trade SCJ for sometimes as many as 3 of an opponent's ninjas.
To look at another example, Sakura's Decision has been used throughout Naruto CCG history to enable everything from Tide of the Deadly Combat to Gaara IP to Puppets to even Chidori Stream.
However, that Gaara IP example in the last sentence should give you pause - for that is exactly the problem with hard engines. Not only can they take advantage of the natural card advantage engines given to them by the designers, but they can also employ the enablers that all the non-theme decks use. However, Gaara IP was kept in check due to the fact that the entire engine relied on one ninja - a fatal weakness in many instances. Thus, in order to maintain a diverse play environment, the designer-created themes should be limited in power level to keep them in line with what is possible with non-spoonfed decks, right?
Well, the current metagame lends credence to that thought. What we have right now is an example of hard engines run amok. Look at all the top decks - all three of them are Bandai-designed monstrosities. Sakura's Decision? That card was your father's card - an elegant weapon for a more... civilized time. As for now, it's just a brawl between different Bandai designers over who can create the most overpowered theme.
The trouble with the current themes is that the card advantage generated by their hard engines is just too easy. For No-Hand Water, the advantage comes in generating chakra while dumping the player's hand away - a task easily accomplished by a number of cards (the largest offender being the incredibly overpowered Suigetsu's Joy). And once the No-Hand Water player dumps his or her hand (again, not very hard of a task at all), he or she gains access to any number of mega-powerful effects at little to no cost. For example, take Tayuya - if another ninja had the exact same effect but without the hand requirement, what would the turn cost be? Judging by the existence of Cautiousness Yamato, it'd have to be a turn 5+ with a hand cost at least. Yet Water gets access to Tayuya on turn 2 (with ambush!). It's the same with Karin - what would the cost be of a ninja that both instantly draws you a card, but also lets you draw a card whenever you play a card? I'm thinking at least 7 would be the turn cost, as it's definitely a game-ending effect. Yet Water gets access to this effect on turn 1 - for simply turning on its card advantage engine!
For BR Earth, the advantage comes in simply allowing the opponent to attack. Each BR taken back (again, an incredibly easy task due to the opponent being forced to attack to win, as well as the cards provided by Bandai) is not only card draw, but also life gain (rendering the resources spent by the opponent in achieving those BRs useless). Thus, the theory behind the deck Thomas and I played at GenCon (when the very similar Dreams deck ruled the format) - there is no reason whatsoever to allow Dreams to get its massive card advantage off taking back BRs. So how do we win without taking BRs? Don't attack at all until the game is locked up with Chidori Stream (and the opponent on turn 0)! Not attacking until after an inordinate amount of turns - does that even sound like a healthy metagame? While BR Earth is not quite as powerful as Dreams, it too has the same degenerate effect upon the metagame. And it has the same reason for being overpowered: card advantage comes too easy, in a form available only to that particular archetype.
And finally, for True Allies, the advantage comes in simply drawing or tutoring for a Sakura [True Allies]. Once you get that first piece, the rest of them come - and then it's endless card advantage for as long as you can keep the True Allies alive. True Allies is the closest thing to a soft engine amongst the top three decks, as you can fit many different types of decks into a True Allies shell. In fact, without No-Hand Water or BR Earth, we could be seeing a metagame entirely based off of True Allies variants (sort of like the Destiny Hero days of Yu-Gi-Oh). While that may be relatively preferable compared to the current metagame, it's still unwise to have a subset of cards creating a soft engine powerful enough to force inclusion in virtually every deck.
It's alright to design themes - in fact, Bandai has been doing them correctly in the past. Decks like Animals, Puppets, Taijutsu - these were all decks with their own hard engines that have historically done well, but not been overpowered whatsoever. But right now, with the system of design being one person responsible for an element... it's only natural to attempt to create an overarching theme within that element. However, as we are seeing at the moment, this is not necessarily a good thing. Sure, the element may have a cleaner, more linear feel overall... but at what cost? With an entire element positioned around mostly one theme, there becomes no reason to play anything but that theme - after all, that's how the game is designed. Deck design becomes less of searching for various puzzle pieces strewn throughout various sets, and more of taking the latest Bandai-designed deck out of the box and playing with it.
You know, I wish I could say something positive - like I've found the soft engine answer to a broken format (sort of like NVS in the 9K metagame and Chidori Stream in the Dreams metagame)... but I just don't see it happening. There needs to be a whole slew of cards put on the rogue list, as well as wholesale changes in the mindset of Bandai's designers, before the spoonfed theme decks stop dominating the metagame.
Bonus Section: Turning Water into Whine
Sasuke State 2
These are the cards that give Water its ridiculous power - without these, I feel it becomes a much more fair deck. Of course, then Earth and TA might need to be hit... but that's the problem when the metagame is dominated by overpowered hard engines.