Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Play to Win: The Right Weapon for a Rogue

So those of you who are regular readers of the Bandai forums may have noticed my latest exploration into fiction, the "Oregon SJC Live Coverage" thread (which was basically me posting fake updates every few hours). Eventually, the thread somehow got derailed into an argument about whether AX or GenCon is a harder (real talk: I feel like AX is harder, but only because there is a higher chance of running into the million DBagz at AX vs randoms at GenCon I don't know. There really isn't an appreciable difference either way.).

My initial nonsensical statement got jumped on by a variety of people, so I threw out a vaguely more logical one involving the following "facts:"

1. The population of bads is higher at GenCon than at AX due to the presence of players only interested in promos.
2. The population of bads at GenCon often results in a competent player starting 3-0 with no real difficulty.
3. AX has 7-8 rounds, GenCon has 8 rounds and a T16. Thus the number of wins to top should be 5-6 in AX's case or 6 in GenCon's case.
4. Therefore, AX requires 5-1-1+ whereas GenCon only requires 3-2+, making AX harder.

Now there were some differing opinions from the peanut gallery on how to best attack this argument. Veazie had the brightest idea of going after my credibility, since I remembered 8 rounds at AX when there was only 7. It's an effective strategy in a public forum for sure, but in the end my "argument" allowed for the possibility of 7 rounds - making that line of attack irrelevant in the end. Some less articulate people (names withheld to protect the ignorant) made arguments involving (paraphrasing) "even though you start 3-0," "same number of quality rounds," and something nonsensical involving football. There is a reason Veazie has had more success in children's card games than the unnamed posters. Although he did not attack from the right angle, the path he took was strictly better than trying to meet my argument head on.

You cannot win against my argument on the surface. Let's assume X% of Naruto players are trashcans. Therefore, X% of Naruto players at AX or GenCon will be trashcans. However, GenCon also has people who show up purely for promos (this is the only fact in this argument). Let's label them as Y%. No matter what, GenCon's percentage of trashcans will be higher because it is X+Y% rather than just X%. Therefore, with a similar amount of rounds, GenCon will always be easier than AX since the percentage of bad players is higher.

If you make any argument involving rounds or starting 3-0 or anything of that sort, you have already lost. The math makes it impossible for you to win because of one key fact.

You are fighting on my terms.

The most appropriate argument that topples the house of cards is an attack on basic assumptions. Yes, X% of Naruto players are trashcans. Does that mean they are evenly distributed among locations? Of course not. The assumption that both GenCon and AX will have X% trashcans is inherently flawed. Additionally, the "3-0" assumption isn't even getting close to being backed up by the math I use in the rest of the argument. There would need to be an inordinately high percentage of terrible players to guarantee anything close to a 3-0 or even 2-0 start (although if you are in the top 5% of players at an event, that guaranteed 2-0 start is not a pipe dream assuming you are immensely better than the next 95% - realistically speaking though, there is too much variance in the game for skill to play such a large role). Again, that is an angle of attack that renders an entire key assumption moot.

So what, exactly, does this lengthy anecdote have to do with the card game?

If you are building a rogue deck to attack the defined "best decks" of the format - everything.

It's amazing how many people build their rogue decks to attack the best deck head on and try to fight it at what it does best. I'll give you a hint: that deck is considered the best deck because it is the best at what it does. Fighting against it on its terms is a low percentage strategy that cannot be relied upon to carry you through a multi-round event.

Come ride with me through Naruto CCG history, and I'll show you where deckbuilders fell asleep on the job (and how the smarter people succeeded).

I'm going to gloss over the Fire/Water and Freedori eras, simply because Fire/Water never was oppressively strong and Freedori simply had no equal (Monowater splash Brokages was the best alternative, but it still tried to beat Freedori on its own terms. Tempo sought to attack it from a different angle but was just too inconsistent. Rule #1 of a good rogue deck: make sure your deck is actually a good deck!).

The first real metagame where a clear "best deck" was successfully attacked by a best deck was the Over 9000 metagame. Over 9000 did its thing extremely well: it found Gaara, it protected Gaara, and it buried you in jutsus with a card advantage engine that could not be matched. Many common attempts at rogue decks tried to execute the simplest answer to Over 9K: kill Gaara. It seems simple enough, doesn't it? Deal with Gaara, and the deck has no card advantage engine and no jutsus.

Wrong. The strength of Over 9K was in its draw power - it could easily find multiple Gaaras, especially through the use of ADP + shuffle effects. Additionally, Over 9K players were not stupid - of course they would play cards to protect their key card! By attacking the problem head on, rogue deckbuilders were making decks that failed because they tried to fight on Over 9K's terms. You can not win a jutsu war consistently against O9K.

So what was the right way to win against Gaara? Ignore him. Or rather, make his strengths irrelevant. The same ADP draw engine that so consistently allowed players to find Gaara IP? It also made for a pretty weak early game. Gaara owning you with jutsus? Attack him with Gaara TN outside of the EOJ (thanks to the awesome ninja effect timing rules at the time). Or use an untouchable ninja with a jutsu that can 3 for 1 (Lee HSM + Shadow Clone Jutsu). Or use a ninja that makes 2 other ninjas to soak up 3 jutsus with 1 card (Kakashi AD).

The two decks that most effectively attacked O9K (Hybrid NVS and Dogs) did so by making it so the deck built upon the assumption that draw Gaara = win, didn't actually win when it played Gaara. The second lesson of building rogue decks: if you can find a strategy that bypasses theirs, you are in a hugely advantageous position before the match has even started.

Over 9K later experienced a resurgence as part of the next metagame we are going to examine (the 3rd Sannins), but rather as merely a part of a wide open metagame. This metagame was unique in that it didn't really feature a clear best deck, but rather a bunch of decks that did the same thing. This is because most Naruto players, when faced with a wide open metagame, will return to the familiar formula of 30 decent ninjas, 10 missions, and 10 jutsus. The most basic assumption in the game is: if you can win the key jutsu war, you will win the game. The better players understood this assumption and built their decks for the long term by focusing on components that could help them win that critical jutsu war.

As longtime readers might know, we have an affectionate name for those types of decks around here: "fair" decks.

Fair decks are garbage when we are playing to win.

What's the best thing a fair deck can do? Most likely, make a drop every turn and then unload a hand full of jutsus to wipe the opponent's board. The assumption is, if that happens, they'll be too far behind to recover.

I've explained the thought process behind Greedy.dec many times. Play the most unfair cards possible, play them as early as possible, and draw lots and lots of cards to keep the unfairness coming. The advantage of playing 45 missions and ninjas? You're most likely going to play a mission every turn (besides 0) and a ninja+ every turn. Those missions let you find the ninjas that cheat out more ninjas. Low jutsu count? What does it matter when you have 4 more ninjas in play than your opponent? What if they best-case-scenario you and dump their hand full of jutsus onto the board? Great, they have no hand and we're at par on the board. That means that 1 Concealed Weapon we've been holding is going to hold far more value due to it breaking the stalemate than all the jutsus they've used to reach that point. Again, attack the assumption their deck is built around, not the means they use to accomplish it. The third lesson of going rogue: if what you are doing is inherently more unfair than what your opponent is trying to do, they will have to fight on your terms. And that puts you at a huge advantage.

The next Sannins featured a return to the oppressive "best deck" metagame - Respective Dreams. Dreams seemed like a perfect deck - it could negate its opponents attacks while simultaneously destroying their hand, and could win the game in two quick battle phases with Four Pillars Prison. Additionally, Yamato could blank every single ninja below 5 in the opponent's deck. The most common rogue deck trying to attack this was many different forms of Lightning aggro, and the most egregious example of fighting a battle on the opponent's terms. Ostensibly, the goal of the aggro deck was to take BRs faster than Dreams could take them back.

Hello? You play to win the game! Why are you trying to fight Dreams' strength? Winning BRs against Dreams directly fed its draw engine. Of course there was the occasional game where Lightning just overloaded all the Dreams and Asu/Shikas and First Hokages and whatnot but that was a best case scenario, and that didn't even win all the time. If your best case scenario can't even beat the best deck's middling scenario, what is the point of playing your deck?

The assumption behind Dreams was that as long as it could reach the late game, it would win due to Yamato CBF shutting down everything and its powerful jutsus, as well as the opponent running out of gas from trying to take BRs.

But what if... you never attacked? When I first told Pat and Andrew that our strategy to beat Dreams was to just sit there and do nothing, they laughed (in their credit, they came to understand the reasoning behind it quickly though). But why not? What if Dreams made it to the late game, then came to the realization that the other deck had a more powerful late game? Building up board presence doesn't matter when the other deck can reset you to turn 0 while wiping your board in one turn. You can't win a jutsu war when your opponent's Orochimaru drains your chakra and your draw engine is dependent on an action they absolutely refuse to take (while theirs is independent of anything you do - and can consistently net +'s to make up for your discard). The Dreams deck then gets forced into doing something it is not suited to do: aggro out before the Chidori Stream deck can set up - a difficult role reversal against a deck designed to do exactly what Dreams does, only better! The fourth rule of going rogue: if your deck forces your opponent to change their strategy... blah blah huge advantage etc. Don't be afraid to break the most common assumptions in the game if they give you a better chance at winning.

The last metagame I will analyze in this article is the one from the last Sannins - a return to a more open metagame, as long as you played 3 copies of ANBU in your deck. Of course, there were many different variants of ANBU - True Allies, Attunement/9PD, Rush, etc. All of them, however, harkened back to the assumption of the wide open metagame: the player who can win the key jutsu war will win the game. Or in this case, open up ninja advantage to slowly grind down the opponent through multiple combat phases (due to the presence of so many free drops). And to do this, lots and lots of cards needed to be drawn in order to keep up with the opponent.

And of course, you all know which deck I'm going to point to as the proper solution for the format. The World of Fire God Only Knows played exactly 1 jutsu in a notoriously jutsu heavy format. It played exactly 1 element in a metagame known for crazy multi-element decks due to wide variety of multi-element cards available. And with that, it completely shattered the assumption behind the format because of one key fact - it needed exactly one ninja to win (Furido).

Every single ANBU deck revolved around the combat phase, drawing lots of cards, and removal. TWoFGOK denied the combat phase, turned the opponent drawing cards into a win condition, and didn't care about removal. In fact, by avoiding combat and playing cards like Kiba WF, the deck literally blanked 20% of most decks by making their jutsus useless. Imagine your opponent automatically starting every game with a mulligan, and every 5 turns drawing a dead card. Strategic superiority. Higher percentage.

It turns out even the football argument was somewhat relevant. The current subject of discussion in that surprisingly still unlocked thread is Rob Gronkowski, the tight end for the New England Patriots. As in football, as in card games - the reason for the success of Gronkowski is the same reason for the success of well designed decks: they represent tremendous strategic mismatches. Teams are forced to devote tremendous resources to defending Gronkowski instead of defending their usual comfort zone - they are forced to play on the Patriots' terms.

But it's funny - Gronkowski is tremendously fortunate to be the topic of discussion. For if Lee Evans had been able to hold onto the ball, or if Billy Cundiff hadn't missed such a high percentage kick, we might be talking about how the Ravens defense is such a mismatch for any offensive line. And back in Thomas Cao's first Sannins, if Jeremy had flipped tails on his Double Sand Blade, if Brandon Sherlock hadn't completely punted game 3 away, if Lance hadn't somehow miraculously upset Jerry, and if Joe made the right decision - one of the most well positioned decks of all time might have been remembered as nothing more than a T16 afterthought.

The final lesson: deck construction can only give you a higher percentage. It can never win the game for you. Variance will always play a factor.

But good deck construction? Fortune favors the bold.


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Blogger zbkillaz said...
there goes jdragon, a living legend.......

I still say greedy.dec was poop :D

Blogger yodaz said...
I agree with a lot of what you said but disagree in regards to the jutsu's. I agree that generally jutsu's do not win the game in and of themselves. However, they are definitely the cause of most variability in game. Generally speaking, if you have jutsu's that are easily playable and will cause your opponent to keel over, why not run them?

I don't disagree with your logic of more ninjas/missions --> better curve, but I do think there are other ways of going about it. I find I have been leaning more towards 27 ninja, 14 missions, 9 jutsu, with 17-20 being 0 or 1 drops and 0-3 being 2 drops.

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