Better. Stronger. Faster.

To an extent, this is my Fisticuffs and Fangs post for the last few days.  But, I got into a discussion where I was beating the dead horse with my mantra that to be the more successful player with V:TES (equally applicable to other multiplayer CCGs) involves being a better player not a better deckbuilder.

But, what does it mean to be a better player (of multiplayer CCGs and V:TES specifically)?

I have a few posts from the long, long ago … the Summer of ’14 … that address aspects of better play.  I’m too lazy to look back to see if I listed various things in a previous post, though it feels like I have.

Whether I’ve gone to this well before or not, here are areas where improvement in the area should improve results, everything else being equal.  Obviously, if you go from playing with poor players to playing with good players, results may get worse even if skill gets higher.

1 – Know the cards

There are those who do really well without knowing what most of the cards in the game do.  If that’s you, why do you care about this blog post?

I don’t memorize all of the cards.  I, in fact, barely have a sense of the recent VEKN sets because I have no intention of putting the slips of paper in my decks.  I do have a general sense of what every card does and know what most cards do specifically.  Wherever someone is on the spectrum, knowing what more cards do matters.

What I find kind of odd is that this isn’t something that everyone wants to pursue.  If people are getting excited by new sets, it’s because of new cards, which don’t do the same things as existing cards – in other words, learning about more cards is always something going on when you keep up with a CCG, so why not learn even more about the card pool?  Now, the caveat in there is “when you keep up” as I find that many players don’t keep fully engaged in CCGs.  Seems weird to me, but, again, I don’t rate as a typical cardflopper.  Certainly, where a lot of the vocal playerbase was complaining about how quickly WW was putting out expansions for V:TES, I was finding the rate of expansion to be really slow.

2 – Know the decks

Why know what cards do?  Besides the tactical play in CCGs, there’s the strategic play of understanding how decks win and lose.

I’m sure I used this example in this blog before, but reiteration is iteration with two! more!! letters!!!  Last major Wheel of Time tournament I recall and one I wrote an article for for Scrye Magazine involved the winner playing a “kill your starting character” deck (for the Shadow side, I don’t recall what he played on the Light side … Maidens?).  He destroyed opponents.  They weren’t prepared for Genocides, Genocide recursion, et al.  I wasn’t playing in the event, so I didn’t really care who won, but I was somewhat frustrated by how easily he won those games where he played this deck because our playtest team had playtested such decks a lot and they sucked … if you understood how they won (in detail and not just that they murdered your “lose the game” character(s) when they won).

Now, there’s a lot to know about knowing decks.  Malk94, to me and maybe only to people of my ilk, is different from other Malk stealth bleed decks that rely on Dominate and Obfuscate.  A Mask of a 1000 Faces, Command of the Beast deck and other builds that are much more DOM/OBF are not the same as the Aus/Dom/Obf builds that might actually block something or Dom/OBF builds that go out of clan or tricked up decks with a clear Madness Network plan or whatever.  And, obviously, Kindred Spirits decks produce different states from Govern the Unaligned decks.  The former will gain pool as it takes actions and can get out of control poolwise, while consuming little blood as none of KS, Eyes of Chaos, nor Confusion use blood, where the latter can easily burn two blood on Govern/Conditioning and rather than gain pool with actions, preserves it with superior Governs.  Both styles of stealth bleed can easily gain 6 pool in a shot, but their vulnerable points poolwise differ.

Again, my interest in CCGs over and above other competitive games has a lot to do with discovery.  Besides playing lots of stuff, I also look online for information on decks.  I’m not going to play everything, and my regional metagame may bias things.  While finding other people’s decklists decreases the total number of decks I could build, as I see no reason to “build” someone else’s deck (even if I’m willing to build someone else’s deck to test *their* deck out), I’ve gotten tons of ideas for my own decks based off of other people’s decks.

You don’t have to put the effort in – everyone has different priorities, but the effort to learn more about how other people play the game translates into avoiding the “OMG!!  XYZ is unbeatable!” thinking that occurs when people are exposed to something they have no familiarity with.

One more aspect of this is know your own deck.  How many copies of cards does it run?  How many cards are left?  Probability calculations on what someone is going to draw (or, for Wheel of Time, what the dice will generate) are ubiquitous.

3 – Know the rules

I don’t know all of the rules.  I’ve certainly become less interested in the esoteric and the obscure when it comes to V:TES and my knowledge of Shadowfist timing is “I don’t really understand Shadowfist timing but it sounds like old Magic timing and here’s what I think happens”.  Knowing how Psyche! actually works or how Mask of a 1000 Faces actually works or whatever is one level.

Another level is knowing such things as that you can use a Blood Doll the same turn you play it, something a number of newbs I’ve played with didn’t realize.  Having down the “During X, do Y” rule comes up a lot.  There are people who still don’t know precisely how the No Repeat Action (NRA) rules works, probably because it’s not remotely intuitive and was bolted on to the game to make the game less broken.  For instance, that hunting, leaving torpor, rescuing from torpor are all things that can be done repeatedly can be rather important to know.

As with all of these categories, it’s a spectrum.  When you know what it means that “wakes” are “magic” and the precise order of events during diablerie and the like, that much further along.

Actually, one more example because I need to up my Glory Rank with some Perform: Storytelling (Bragging).  Our playtest group created the timing rules in Wheel of Time.  As Magic players, we came at things with a Magic mindset.  Now, others may have looked at things similarly and/or were inclined to adopt what we had adopted in our play, but, basically, I told Precedence what we did in the absence of the game having actual timing rules and that’s what I saw got used.  Consider how many people didn’t know the rules … because, uh, there weren’t any until after the initial set was already published!

4 – Be psychic

This is a V:TES in joke that I’ve mentioned before, from the newsgroup days and David Cherryholmes complaining about people who think they will know what will happen in a game.

While players aren’t psychic, they should try to be.  But, obviously, not rigidly.  In other words, anticipate, predict, extrapolate, but realize that you don’t know for sure and that the very act of anticipating something changes what will happen, while card play is kind of intended to change game states.

Let me try some more specific examples.

When does a combat deck have no combat cards in hand?  Because this will happen … a lot.  Sure, some decks have like 60+ combat cards and it doesn’t happen, but whatever, let’s live in the world of useful and not extreme cases that have little impact to winning more often.  You extrapolate.  That someone rushed someone and didn’t full on nuke the minion may or may not be relevant.  That a wall blocked and punched for one rather than Crows, Chiropteran, Breath may or may not be relevant.  Can read the player, can read how recent actions have gone, can inspect the ash heap, or whatever, but thinking about how decks don’t magically give the players every card they want outside of Yu-Gi-Oh!’s world is essential.

When will someone get ousted?  This can be really hard to judge.  Maybe someone gets tapped out with no wakes and their 20 bounce cards are worthless.  Maybe someone cycles into the first of eight straight Second Traditions.  What if DI gets played?  Golconda?  Fame?  Still, V:TES is a game where ousts occasionally happen before time and they have some sort of impact on who wins tournaments.  Predicting when someone will get ousted, which becomes a lot easier when people have 1 pool than when they have 30, can have a substantial effect on decisions.  I’ve often gotten screwed by someone either getting ousted sooner or lasting one turn longer than I expected.  In a lot of cases, I just didn’t do the math right or didn’t talk to the players to get a better sense of where things were at.  Of course, in some cases, you just don’t know because random card draw is one of the features of CCGs.

What will the rush deck do?  The bleed deck?  The vote deck?  What will your new predator do when your first predator was ousted?  What will you face when you oust your prey?  Paying attention to both current game state and potential game states is huge, potentially large.

I find playing stealth bleed to be fun … when my prey can actually defend … as I have said before.  What makes it fun?  Predicting what sort of defensive plays my prey will make and trying to figure out how to defeat them.  If I lead with a Tasha Morgan bleed with two vamps with DOM untapped, will my prey try to block?  How big of a bleed do I need to make to get my prey to play the only bounce card in hand?  How likely will my prey draw into more defense?

On the other side, trying to minimize damage interests me.  Do I take the Govern bleed from the OBF minion to avoid Faceless Night?  Do I think Elder Impersonation will defeat my copious amounts of intercept (I tend to forget about Elder Impersonation when defending)?  What do I bounce?  Do I try to block first?  How likely am I to draw into more defense?

I was in a tournament when I tapped The Barrens while being bled at too much stealth for my !Gangrel rush deck to deal with.  I played the Archon Investigation I drew.  I actually expected a good chance of that happening.  Now, I was playing a rush deck and I don’t know how to play rush correctly and took too much pool damage from my first stealth bleed predator to survive my second, so it didn’t really matter to my position, but there is psychicness and that psychicness needs to be cultivated to be more accurate.

5 – Communicate

The reality is is that results change when perspectives change.  Games are not played on autopilot.  As soon as someone breaks out the “clear leader! clear leader!”, the players change how they play.

Common situation.  I want to bleed on my next turn and have just finished my turn.  My prey runs bounce.  I might consider talking to my grandprey about keeping someone extra up so that I’m not helping my prey exploit a vulnerable turn.

There can definitely be too much table talk.  I prefer more of my table talk to be joking about how absurd the game has been, like the Jake Washington ousts multiple prey because of Life Boon game.  But, players are often myopic or otherwise missing something.  I completely pooched winning a tournament because I forgot I was supposed to rescue someone after playing Dramatic Upheaval, while Dragonbound was in play.  I had arranged the plan to rescue before seat-switching, which was good, then got blinders on when finishing out my turn.

Two-player CCGs don’t have this component.  Multiplayer CCGs are often determined by this component.  While some love to make deals or whatever, which is certainly one form of communication, there are many ways to let people know something to help you not lose.  Today, I DIed an Ivory Bow from my predator when my grandpredator was playing a deck with Gremlins.  I should have talked to my GP before making any decision, even though it was probably correct to play the DI.

6 – Know your opponents

Does some loon play Jyhad, 4cl decks in tournaments?  Does Roger McRushie always play rush decks that destroy a few minions and then get ousted (I’ve played against a couple people like this)?  Does Sandy Salmon always destroy her predator and say to her prey at the beginning of the game “don’t mess with me and I’ll spend the whole game going backwards” (I played with someone who had this style and said something basically like that to me at the beginning of a game)?

Does Ted Oscar Anthony Dreyfus never play enough wakes, so that Ted is tapped out and dead?

Does the group despise vote decks and seek to crosstable them to death immediately (I played with this group, too, which included that “I only care about killing my predator” player)?

Is someone better than everyone else?  This is a concept I have had that came up as a discussion item on a trip down to LA one time.  Because I see the same people win all of the time, for a while it was me – there’s a reason I was an original hall of famer based on constructed play (while being a much better limited player based on, you know, winning like five straight tournaments and being ranked second in the world for a year), I got to wondering why players don’t think “if we just eliminate the clearly best player, then all of us less good players are more likely to win”.  Now, this is a feature of local play that may not be relevant for other groups.  We’ve often had a highly uneven distribution of results, so picking out the “oh, that guy wins all of the time” player has been easy at various times.

Some might consider it an out of game consideration to identify a superior player and work to see their end, but I don’t know how that can be argued.  The whole point of posts like this one is that play skill is more important than deck construction for multiplayer CCGs, which means, by definition (well, by logic) that a game consists of not just a deck but a player of that deck, which means that adjusting to the player is as valid as adjusting to the deck the player plays.

I think it’s mostly a matter of not considering that some sacrifices in short term goals can be better for the long term goal of taking the table.  I probably didn’t go into this enough in the Communicate section.  V:TES, probably more than Shadowfist, certainly more than Babylon 5, is a game of keeping the big picture in mind.  If I win every game by having my prey get the first VP, oh no, the horror.  If time is running out and I’m not in the finals yet or not winning the finals, my “I will always win … after 4 hours” deck needs to get off its ass and reduce my prey’s pool.

7 – Be mindful

Pay attention!  V:TES, for whatever reason, seems to have players pay far less attention than other games.  I get that Babylon 5 is a race game, so everything going on affects whether you may lose.  I get that Shadowfist might see someone attack anyone and effects can be huge, e.g. Neutron Bomb.  I don’t quite get why it’s so hard to actually follow what other people are doing during V:TES games.  The most similar I can recall is how players will check out during RPGs when their characters aren’t involved in the current situation.

But, also pay attention to your own game.  A ton of errors get made when time is running out and players who haven’t bled in the first 1.5 hours suddenly start doing forward actions.  Forgetting things that happen during untap, master phase, putting counters on Temptations and taking minions, using Heidelberg, saccing Wider View – we all do these things.  Technical play matters.  Not always.  I subscribe to the theory that a lot of mistakes don’t actually hurt in the end because people adjust to your inferior plays.  But, they also will decide games, especially early and late.

In one of today’s games, I was playing an Aus/Dom/PRO/THA deck with a weenie Ass combat predator.  I got Priority Contracted right away and Famed pretty quickly and never went down because I had a lot of Fleshes of Marble.  But, I stupidly wasted one in a fight where Evan Rogers got a Weighted Walking Stick and I was planning on playing Blood Rage!

Games

And, now, for something completely different.  Game reports.

Shadowfist

Thursday, we played two, four-player Shadowfist games.  They lasted similar lengths.

Joren (borrowed Architects good stuff) -> Justin (Ascended/Lotus assassins) -> Ray (Ascended) -> Ian (Monarchs/Syndicate!!)

Yup, Monarchs/Syndicate.  I am looking to build more multifaction decks and decided to roll randomly to determine the factions.  Street Sweepers and Fire Engineers – synergy.  Queen of the Ice Pagoda and Hirake Kazuko – yikes.  I played Jessica Ng as a “ramp” character(!!) to get four Syndicate resources for Kazuko.

If I would have won, I would have retired the deck.  I didn’t win, so, maybe, everyone will figure out why I’m playing the characters I’m playing.  I actually enjoyed the deck even though it’s full of self-inflicted wounds.

Justin murdered a lot of my characters, which made me impotent.  Ray won, off of Might of the Elephant, I think.  Justin and Ray did the most characters and fighting thing.  I was only relevant when Queen of the Ice Pagoda was in play before a Hand of Darkness took her out.

Ray (Kun Kan) -> Ian (Purists) -> Joren (borrowed Dragons blow up the world) -> Justin (7 Masters/Hand)

I played six 36-Legged Horrors, one from Martyr’s Tomb.  They all ended up in my smoked pile.  Joren’s Obsidian Eye never got taken out by my various Symphonic Disciples, though my third one took out Justin’s Shield of the Pure Soul.  Joren ran into the problem that the deck he borrowed just doesn’t have much in the way of relevant characters, so even after murdering lots of stuff with Carnival of Carnage and Final Brawl, he couldn’t take advantage.

Justin got Ghost Wind out and Black Belt Rebels but wasn’t doing a whole lot.  Ray put out Kun Kans that got blanked a lot but only nuked a couple of times.  Eventually, Justin won with Red Bat, when we could only stop Jade Willow’s reign of terror.  A Yellow Senshi Chamber got passed around a bit.

The Purist deck is too 4-fighting focused.  I need to put in hitters as even this deck was at like 14 power at one point during the game.

V:TES

Today, we had three games.

Brandon (Anarch Pre bleed) -> Eric (Aus/Cel guns) -> Sergio (Cybele Beast) -> Ian (Jyhad Pre bleed)

Brandon’s Anarch Troublemaker and Sergio not drawing a skill card earlier slowed down Beast action.  Eric couldn’t defend well, so he sucked lots of bleeds, including Public Trust bleeds on his way to oustage.  I brought out Uma Hatch, Courtland Leighton, Demetrius Slater, Black Cat, Jazz Wentworth, and Hostile Takeovered Brandon’s Amber(!) for minion dominance … before putting out Gideon Fontaine!

By the time that Sergio just gave up on having the full combo and brought out the Great Beast, I had a hand full of Majestys and didn’t need them to swarm him to death.

Brandon (Hektor) -> Ian (!Ventrue combat) -> Eric (Matthias and Unre) -> Sergio (as above)

Sergio got going and had the Great Beast with Cybele.  Unleash Hell’s Fury was helpful for slowing Hektor.  Hektor still ate Cybele, the Great Beast, and the next Cybele.  Eric and I played our own game over on the other side of the table in that I tooled up and Eric bled.

So, really, I played my own game of Neighbor John gets an Abbot, Freak, Improvised Flamethrower, Freak, Harvest Rites, Freak, Vial of Garou Blood.  Jephta gets Abbot, Ablative Skin, Guardian Angel, takes Vial of Garou Blood.  Randel, The Not Coward gets Vial of Garou Blood.  Ulrike gets Ivory Bow and Weighted Walking Stick.  Brandon laments the matchup.  When Hektor finally comes over to play with Jephta a bit, I don’t even bother using the four Rolling with the Punches and Resilience in my hand, I just prevent with Guardian Angel and Ablative Skin.

Eric ousts Sergio after allowing Sergio another Cybele to threaten Brandon.  Brandon is at 1 pool temporarily, gets up to more than one and gets ousted by evasion bleed.  I get bled some but Neighbor John getting Spirit Marionetted doesn’t hurt me that much and Eric concedes.

I did burn one Vial of Garou Blood, but Hektor maneuvered to long.

Ian (Aus/Dom/PRO/THA) -> Brandon (Brujah P/J 4/5) -> Andy (borrowed Aus/Cel/Pre guns) -> Eric (Kiasyd) -> Sergio (borrowed Horde of Ass Beating)

I mentioned something about this game above.  None of Eric Kressida, Frere Marc, or Frere Marc’s Dual Form went to torpor, but Sergio got out five minions and recovered fairly easily from my Walk of Flame and Wolf Claws.  Brandon’s Tara got emptied right away by Andy.  Andy intimidated Eric into not blocking, so the deck’s Zephyrs were not useful as Eric just took bleeds until he died.  Brandon recovered to oust Andy as Zephyrs were not wakes and Andy got tapped out too much.

I let Brandon call a Neonate Breach to oust Sergio, though playing to win would have been to deal with Sergio to not have that happen.  Brandon eventually conceded with his minions largely in torpor.

I love the crypt for my deck.  I enjoy playing Walk of Flame with presses from weird disciplines, like Protean or Thanatosis, but there is no ousting power in my deck, well, besides the Codex of Edenic Groundskeepers I added right before we played to have something that was plus bleed.  I have the same problem with various other combat decks and am not sure how I want to address or if I want to address.

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