Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Raw Deal, Card Access, and My Concerns About Tara

To begin with, today marks a rebranding of my Malifaux blog to reflect my new job and location in the eastern part of these United States. I’ve accepted a position as a postdoctorate student in Blacksburg, VA (before you ask, no, I don’t know what a Hokie is) and as such this place could hardly be considered “Midwestern” anymore. Therefore, to keep the alliteration intact, the committee (me) have voted to rechristen the site Midatlantic Malifaux Musings. Even though I Blacksburg isn’t on the coast.

What do you want from me? This isn’t a geography blog.

Anyways, what better way to start things off than with a quick battle report that led to some further musings on my part. My Gencon order arrived promptly last week (thanks to EricJ for leaking that the webstore was open on his twitter, I snuck my order through the gate almost as soon as it became available to do so.) Thus armed with shiny new cards, a rulebook, and knowledge that I was moving at the end of the week, I went back to the old game store for one last Malifaux hurrah on the way out the door. I played Nick, who hadn’t done a lot of Beta M2E playing, so I thought this was a fine opportunity to try out some of the Misaki stuff I’d looked at but not had a chance to play. I was even more excited when he broke out Outcast Tara, as it would give me an opportunity to see the new hotness in person.

Misaki vs. Tara, 40SS Reckoning
Misaki-Stalking Bisento, Misdirection, 6SS
Ototo-Thundering Upgrade
Yamaziko-Smoke and Shadows
Schemes: Vendetta (Ototo on Nothing Beast) and Bodyguard (Yamaziko)

Nothing Beast
3xVoid Wretches
Some upgrade cards and soulstones (your guess is as good as mine, I wasn’t paying attention)

Schemes: Entourage and Vendetta (Void Wretch on Archer)

The game started out with me advancing in a turtle cluster that was shielded by some terrain and some Misaki deployed Smoke Bombs while the Tara crew came at us in two groups, the NB, Tara, and Karina on one side and the wretches and Taelor from the other. Misaki buried herself after the smoke bombs and popped out in the midst of the Taelor/Void Wretch pack of dudes. I had a plan here, despite how suicidal this appeared.

Tara starts the second turn pinging off of Misaki to make her whole crew fast, pitching three cards. Misaki discovered how difficult it is to kill incorporeal things but dropped one Void Wretch, damaged Taelor, and repositioned a bit. Taelor came up at this point and attempted to smoosh her, only to discover that while Nick thought it was funny that I was voluntary going to let him discard cards with the Misdirection upgrade, it was less funny when I was SSing in masks to make Taelor beat on her own models instead (more on this later.) On the other hand, Yamaziko was getting hit a bunch by the rest of Nick’s crew walking politely up and taking one attack, as brace Yari is a very good ability, particularly when the opponent has no blasts to force you not to castle up. The Nothing Beast came up and did some damage, allowing me to charge Ototo into him and score 1 for Vendetta. Alas, my rush of victory was short lived as the NB then proceeded to bury him in response. Karina rubbed salt in the wound by setting him on fire.

Somewhere in the void, Ototo got angry.

Misaki was feeling slightly outnumbered next turn, so I went ahead and killed the Nothing Beast to get Ototo back on the board and even the odds. She popped another Void Wretch, I believe, to score from Reckoning this turn. Taelor introduced the Torekage to her hammer with a red joker damage flip, and Tara killed Yamaziko scoring for Nick. I now saw another concern with Tara, as Nick was unable at this point to use her “make everything fast” ability, as it would have sped up my whole crew as well. Ototo came out and was in angry mode, smashing hard into Taelor.

I discovered that Ototo’s laugh off ability has the side-effect of also allowing you to flip 12+ cards whenever Tara attempts to bury him, so long as you laugh like a jackass while flipping the cards (I’m sure it’s in an errata somewhere, as this is how it worked the rest of the game.) The remaining Void Wretch peeled off to go eat my archer. Between turn 4 and 5 this would score 3 for Nick from Vendetta. However, Misaki and the enraged Ototo proceeded to mulch the rest of the Tara crew, leading to a 5-4 win in my final game of Malifaux in the old stomping grounds over one of the area’s best players, albeit one who had not really played any M2E.

Shut up. It counts.

The Trouble With Tara

Once upon a time, a younger version of myself played a CCG based on the WWE franchise known as Raw Deal. (Stop judging me. I got to go to Wrestlemania one year for free because my team was playing in the World Championship.) Anyway, this game involved players building 60 card decks of maneuvers, reversals, and actions cards representing a match between the two wrestlers you were basing your deck around. Each WWE Superstar had a different hand size and special ability that in some way reflected their ring presence. From the beginning, it was obvious that the cards in hand were a potent resource, as HHH effectively had no special ability outside of having a ten card hand size and was still one of the most effective characters in the game. At this point in time, nobody was really dominant, but HHH and a handful of other superstars proved themselves consistently to be strong. All of that changed, however, when the Backlash expansion came out, introducing the Right to Censor (bonus points if you’re enough of a WWE nerd to remember them) into the game and I made the fateful decision to persuade my friend Bryan Witte, who had absolutely no interest in wrestling whatsoever, to try the game.

The world of Raw Deal would literally never be the same.

Feel the Charisma

Bryan came from Magic: The Gathering. He was a blue player, and delighted in combo/denial style decks. In a way, Bryan was similar to what Eric J. described as “that guy” in one of his recent blog posts, though not necessarily for the negative connotations implied by that title. In his spare time, he liked to pick up other CCG’s that were still in their first iterations and deconstruct them to find the strategy that inevitably broke the game (you didn’t even want to try and play him at Pokemon back in the day.) This wasn’t done out of malice so much as just enjoying the intellectual challenge of trying to find the most reliable ways to win at contests that interested him. It should have been no surprise, then, that when I suggested he try this silly wrestling game since there was a denial style deck I thought would match up well with his interests, he would jump at it and eventually end up changing the game forever. Fast forward a couple of years, and Bryan had thrown out most of the cards I suggested in the first RTC deck, redesigned it and made it into an unstoppable force that would lead him to become the 2003 World Raw Deal Champion, and in doing so demonstrating to me one of the undeniable tenants of CCG’s: the power of card access.

Here’s a picture of the card he got to design for being champion. Bryan’s the dude getting punched.

The reason Bryan’s deck was so unstoppable had nothing to do with the RTC’s strong reversal cards, as countless other WWE characters had arguably as good if not stronger specifics available to them. It was all about the card access. The RTC started with a not-insignificant hand size of 8 after boosting it in the pre-game phase, but more importantly were able to, once per turn, put the cards in their hand in any order, place them on the bottom of their deck, and redraw the same number off of the top. Most people underestimated the significance of this. First of all, it let Bryan see usually about 1/5th of the deck per turn. More importantly, however, it meant that, usually by the seventh turn of the game or so, Bryan now knew where and in what order all of the cards in his deck were, giving him a HUGE advantage in the subsequent rounds. This level of card access was completely unmatched in the game, but it underscored a point that became more and more obvious as time went on: the strongest Superstarts to play as in Raw Deal invariably consisted of those that had the best card access. Whether it was the Undertaker being able to ditch 2 from his hand to grab any one card from the discard pile (an ability which got stronger as the game went on, since “damage” in Raw Deal was represented by cards milling out of your deck) or JBL’s 12 hand-size and ability to hide any 2 cards from his deck inside of his limousine before the match


card access was king. Eventually, I realized that the same principles were true for other CCG’s, as most of Bryan’s strategies to break other card games revolved around getting access to as many cards from his deck as he possibly could. Today, Malifaux is an interesting hybrid of card game and table-top miniatures strategy game, and I’ve often found that, to one degree or another, this rule also applies here. There’s a reason nearly every Neverborn crew in 1.5 used the Primordial Magic totem if able to, since it increased your card access by pushing up the maximum hand size.

And all of this, ladies and germs, is why I have some serious reservations about Tara.

Say what, now? 

For the uninitiated, Tara has a suite of abilities between herself and her crew that encourage her players to shrink their control hand every turn. Namely, she ditches three from her hand to grant fast to everybody within 6” of her and the defense stats of her Nothing Beast and Void Wretches shrink dramatically based on how many cards Tara is holding. In exchange for this, she gets massive bonuses. Fast to her whole crew for 1 AP out of a potential 7 that Tara will be using during the turn is huge. Her beasts get massive bonuses when attacking other fast things (there will be at least one fast enemy model, as you have to include one to cast it on her crew.) She can bury and unbury friendly models nearly at will with the right upgrades, giving her 1.5 Dreamer-esque mobility. Her crew hits hard; moves fast; can be pretty survivable with the incorporeal, high base defenses on her minions, and her ranged defense trigger; and can perform equally well in objective based as well as kill-y strategies. On paper, she is a very, very strong crew that has titillated a lot of the best and brightest players in the Malifaux community, and with good reason.

I’m just not buying it.

Don’t get me wrong, I bought the box set and I’ll probably play her in fun games, but I have some serious reservations about a crew whose abilities encourage players to hamstring themselves in this manner, particularly when it comes to competitive play. One of the selling points for Malifaux is the ability to take one’s fate in one’s own hand by having a hand of cards with which we can modify the card flips which determine interactions in the game. No more would be the days when your Khorne Berzerker marine squad charges a lone Imperial Guard platoon, only to roll a pack of 1’s and lose the game on the critical turn. Without this resource, we are now subject to the vagaries of the chance, and despite what Yu-Gi-Oh! may teach us, sometimes you are going to get hosed whether or not you believe in the heart of the cards.

The flip side to the strong superstars in Raw Deal were the Mankind, X-Pac, and Spike Dudley’s of the world. They had amazing cards (just like everybody else.) They drew more cards per turn than their opponents. But they started out at a disadvantage due to having a starting hand size of 2,0, and 0 respectively and, to no great surprise, these superstars were underrepresented when it came to top competitive events. The reason was simple. Even though they were burning through their deck much faster than their opponent, they started out at such a disadvantage that it was impossible to recover, particularly if those two or three cards they drew on the first couple of turns sucked.

The same principles can be applied to Malifaux, in my opinion. Everyone has seen the triple + attack flip come out with no face cards and, sometimes, nothing higher than a five. It happens. Sometimes you roll 1’s. It’s part of the game. But for Tara crews it’s going to seem like this happens a lot more often, I’m predicting, because when it does occur she will have limited resources to correct for it. Obviously, when you ditch 3 of your cards to pass out fast (half her hand, if you’re not good at fractions,) you’re going to keep the three best out of the bunch. But the bottom line is, that is now three total cards you have available to fix those bad flips during the turn, and that’s assuming you don’t then turn around and use those cards up to try and improve your minion’s defense stats (the Nothing Beast is a much less impressive defense of 6 with three cards in hand, while the Void Wretch is a very average 5.) At times in our game, Nick was forced to cheat in flips that weren’t that important simply because he knew his models were in trouble and were going to need to push up their defense just to survive.

All of this is just looking at things from your perspective, but what about your opponent? Well, it turns out he/she will know the situation you’re going to be in from the beginning of the game and, if they’re smart, use it against you. Nick chuckled as he saw me putting Misdirection on Misaki before the game, amused that I was going to give him more ways to pitch cards. That amusement went away rapidly the first time he saw me burning stones to throw masks onto her defense and leaving him with the choice of either cheating away 2/3rds of those good cards he had saved in his hand or be unable to hit Misaki while she stands in the middle of a crowd. Once the stones were gone she now became hittable at least (albeit with her now receiving + to defense flips) but now turned every Bisento attack she made where she flipped a crow into a decapitate, again forcing Nick to make hard choices or, as happened several times after Nick had cheated his hand down to 1, having no choice at all. This is an extreme example, but I think every crew will have some way of exploiting this AND SHOULD, given how potent Tara’s crew can be.

Now, caveat time, I have played a total of one game against a Tara crew and have yet to use her myself. I saw no examples of Tara battle reports after a cursory examination of the Wyrd boards. Our game ultimately turned into “Line up and run at each other,” as many playtest games do, and I have a feeling Tara crews will be much more successful playing surgically and going for objectives rather than getting into a knock-down drag out (though anybody who thinks the crew isn’t tough has never gone up against Taelor with Fast.) What I’m saying is, I am far from an expert on this crew. Moreover, Malifaux isn’t a pure CCG and good players can make up for bad cards with excellent strategy and play on the board. Would I be blown over to see a Tara crew winning tournaments at Gencon next year? No way. A few flips going the other direction and this game was Nick’s, I have no doubt. The raw power of this crew is undeniable, but the fact is that I had these reservations about Tara from the first time I saw her crew cards in Wyrd Chronicles. I still can’t shake the feeling that, when you play Tara in a tourney, a crew like this is always going to have that one game where the deck seems to turn on them and they can’t do anything about it, and the next thing you know you’ve got a loss and you’re running uphill to try and climb back into contention. Given the choice between this crew and one with better card access, like a Lynch crew with Born with a Hand and Mulligan that basically gets to draw a brand new control hand at the end of the turn, I’ll take the Lynch crew every time for competitive play and never regret the decision.

Let the comments on why I’m wrong begin!

I can hear them coming, already. 

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