Monday, December 17, 2012

My Time with the World Champion; Reworking the Shadow Paladin Deck

Going into this tournament, I had no illusions of placing first. I had heard of the event purely by coincidence--my main objective was always to meet and interview the world champion, but when we called to ask about their hours, my father came out of the phone call telling me about a commemorative tournament. I wasn't certain of the circumstances, but if Mr. Smith were participating, I wanted to show him my ability at a fighter.

I was determined to use my Shadow Paladin deck. Spectral Duke-based Gold Paladin was a temporary clan that I'd adapted for the purposes of the world championship because BT04 was not available at the time, they were not my deck and I was and remain eager to get rid of them. This was a difficult situation. Eclipse of Illusionary Shadows, the Shadow Paladins' proper debut set, was released internationally on the 14th, but the tournament was on the 16th. I had only two days and two boxes to get together a deck with. Making matters worse, my local shop tournament on the 15th had been called off because of low attendance--the Yu-Gi-Oh! regionals had apparently drawn most of the regulars away. Only two other fighters had arrived that day, so I was only able to trade for a third Blaster Dark and a third The Dark Dictator. Ideally, I wouldn't be running three of the latter, but I had to adapt my strategy because I didn't have a second Phantom Blaster Dragon, so I couldn't fall back on his defense when building up a strategy. It would be like trying to play Aqua Force without Maelstrom; doable, but much more difficult.

To resolve the issue, I studied decks from the 2011 Grand Prix. That was the last major Japanese tournament in which BT04 was the most recently released set, so it was my ideal starting point for finding new strategies. As it happens, there was only one Shadow Paladin pro at the time, Sakamoto Kiyomasa, an elementary school boy from the Hakata ward of Fukuoka. He'd placed fourth in the regional tournament, but fourth place out of several hundred fighters was still very good.

Although it's not entirely certain, the kanji on their award papers suggests that Sakamoto Kiyomasa is probably the boy wearing glasses, second from the right.
I had taken a look at his deck once before because we shared clans, but back then I had been absolutely baffled by it. Still, I tried to remain objective and see the deck for its real strengths rather than focus on weaknesses alone. Probably the most startling thing about it was that the deck ran twenty grade 0s, using three copies of Zapbau. Zapbau was effectively a Stardust Trumpeter for the Shadow Paladins, a grade 0 that you run if you're only buying packs instead of boxes and haven't pulled Fullbau yet. Modern booster sets don't even print them--after the sixth set, Breaker of Limits, Bushiroad had chosen to just throw a bone to those cardfighters and give them clan-specific copies of Bermuda Triangle Cadet Shizuku, who at least moved to the rearguard when ridden over. The fact that Sakamoto had been using three of them in addition to Fullbau, looked bizarre.

I worked out what he had been doing quickly enough. Zapbau has a unique combination of base 6000 power and 10000 shield, something that no grade 0 has normally. The majority of trigger units have either 5000 or 4000 power, to balance them for having 10000 shield, which gives a much more powerful defense than you can get from grade 1 and 2 units. Battleraizer and Lozenge Magus-type triggers are the only units to give a 6000 power boost, and they return to the deck after doing so, again to balance that they give equally good offense and defensive power. Zapbau is useful for forming lines that reach 15-16000 power, while also giving an extra 10000 shield than normal. In that way, he can compensate for a lack of perfect defense cards. This was another point of Sakamoto's deck, he had no copies of Dark Shield, Mac Lir. Without Mac Lir, he had no guaranteed way of stopping powerful vanguard attacks.

I had an advantage over Sakamoto, in that I had one copy of Mac Lir, and could use the remaining three Zapbau to compensate. It wouldn't be a perfect replacement, but it would be enough to let me defend against several current decks like Garmore-Ezel and in a mirror match, my very own Shadow Paladins. I also had Knight of Fighting Spirit Dordona, a second base 10000 grade 2 that also forms those 16000 lines with Zapbau. A Shadow Paladin deck that runs the Fullbau-Blaster Dark line can also run as few as eight grade 2s and reach that grade with the same reliability as a deck that's running ten, although just because you can do so doesn't mean you always should. This was a desperate retuning of my deck on my part; I wouldn't encourage anyone to follow my example.

A last-minute trade was able to secure for me my first copy of Skull Witch, Nemain, who proved instrumental later in the tournament. This trade let me work out the final problems with my deck, in particular riding Badhabh Caar. I cut my third Caar from the deck to run just seven grade 3s--my preferred number for riding from one grade to the next securely--then included another Dordona to help prevent riding Nemain. This was the final balancing point for my deck. The whole situation was very precarious, so even that one Caar made all the difference. Contrary to what I thought, there was no entry fee, but since I came prepared to pay one anyway I bought a BT04 pack, partly to thank the shop and partly to test my luck, hoping to get at least a fourth Blaster Dark. The pack's rare card was Water Gang--I've been getting a lot of Megacolony lately. My second box had the RRR Evil Armor General, Giraffa when I would have preferred a second Phantom, but there was no helping it.

As I recall, there were seventeen or more participants in all. By the time the opening matches began, I had dispelled all thoughts of whether I could or couldn't place highly in the tournament. I was focused entirely on winning the fight in front of me. There were fifty minutes to a round, each was best of three with who took the first turn decided by die roll, and the loser of each match would go first in the next one.

My first matchup was against a Dragonic Lawkeeper-Dragon Monk Goku fusion with Dragonic Overlord included for rearguard support. I've written about the original deck from 2011, but the Lawkeeper-Goku fusion is a modern innovation of the English pro scene that I'd already faced several times before, particularly at the Chicago regional championship. I knew the deck's specialties inside and out, although most modern takes don't seem to use Overlord in favor of leaving the counterblast to Berserk. My first game was lost when the opponent surprised me by riding Overlord, but in the second he rode Lawkeeper instead while I was on The Dark Dictator. He kept firing off Lawkeeper's limit break to bind my rearguards and retire one at the end of the turn, but Zapbau made defending very easy on me and at the end of every turn I would call Badhabh Caar before the others to use his skill to superior call the top card of the deck, ensuring that Lawkeeper did not give him any advantage. I actually gained 5000 shield by superior calling Dordona in this way, and was also able to consistently keep The Dark Dictator at 20000 power to pressure Lawkeeper. It was a very long match, more than a half hour in all I think, but I directed the fight to a situation where the opponent could no longer defend, then brought out a second ride of The Dark Dictator and used his soulblast to finish him at five damage.

For the third match, because of the length of the second we hit overtime quickly. I was actually going to be gradelocked, so knowing from experience where that would lead me in the late game, after riding Charon for my grade 1 turn I called a full line of Abyss Freezer and began to mount a complete attack. I admit, I completely forgot about the overtime rule--once the round runs out of time, the fighter with more damage loses, or if it's tied play continues until someone takes damage. (Heal triggers will prolong the match because they are not part of the damage zone when they activate, so after a heal trigger is resolved the damage is equal.) I brought out a critical trigger on the previous turn, so my opponent was at three and overtime was called in their battle phase, right after they had dealt two. Looking at my hand back then, I had plenty of trigger units and Zapbau to defend with, so even if we were tied there would be no way that I would take damage that turn.

In the second round I played a Great Nature cardfighter, running a Leo-pald deck with Magnet Crocodile for the rearguard. The first game was won with the opponent locked at grade 1 and myself having pulled out Dictator's soulblast, but you can probably imagine my surprise when in the second game the opponent pulled out the grade 4 Silvest. My play up until that point had been good, but I hadn't taken enough of an early lead to overcome Silvest's 13000 base and 31000+ power every turn. I knew that the match was likely over when he rode it, but I have a philosophy of continuing play until the very last damage is checked. That second match was lost, but the third was won easily with a strong rearguard setup for Dictator and my opponent already taking heavy damage while stand triggers meant that he was being pressured while I was at grade 2, but he ended up gradelocked again and resigned the match by the time I reached Dictator. In the previous match he'd ridden Crocodile before reaching Silvest, and I was looking forward to playing Leo-pald in the third match as Great Nature is one of my favorite clans--they require very smart play to fight well with--but that was how things broke down.

The third round was versus an Angel Feather deck running the Ergodiel line with Kiriel and Shamsiel both as alternatives. My opponent had very strong rearguard setup with the Pegasus line breaking 25000+ every turn, so to counter this I guarded their other attacks, dropping Zapbau versus his unboosted vanguard line, and then only took damage from the Pegasus setup. Since eventually he started running out of ways to set them up, and had to sacrifice card advantage by soulcharging Nociel, I was able to play damage control throughout our matches and drain his hand with Dictator's soulblast. The second match was won by planning from the first turn, until he had only 5000 shield left in hand and 5000 on the field, but he also had four heal triggers left in the deck due to boosting with Sunny Smile earlier. To deal with this as best I could I rode Phantom Blaster Dragon while he was at five damage, then used Phantom Blaster's counterblast to make a 29000 Critical 2 line versus Kiriel so that he would need two consecutive heal triggers to survive. It did not go well for him.

The fourth round was actually against Brandon Bastianelli. That was a surreal experience for me, cardfighting someone that I'd written articles about, but it was an amazing pair of matches. He was running a Dimension Police deck, using Super Dimensional Robo, Daiyusha and Enigman Storm, although it wasn't yet complete since he was still waiting on some of his Daiyushas to come in. In the first game he rode Daiyusha but couldn't get its skill set up, and I retaliated with The Dark Dictator to make a 20000 line again. Zapbau was instrumental in my defense here, and proved to be again after I won the match and our second game began, as in that fight he was able to bring out the evolving ride while I wasn't and I was dealing with an 11000 base opponent who with Cosmo Beak was getting an extra critical. Without Zapbau to make my defense that much stronger, I could not have made it through that onslaught. Essentially, it would have been a repeat of how I'd played in Chicago, with only two perfect defense cards--back then I had made it through six rounds and been eliminated in the seventh, but after four rounds here I was in the semifinals.

By this time I was exhausted and running purely on the adrenaline. I think it was around 10:30 PM when the semifinals cleared, because we didn't leave until around 12:00 AM on the 17th. I had arrived in Michigan at around 12:30 AM of the 16th, then woken up at 6:45 AM. I had to do this to be up for the earlier, contemporary church service rather than groan my way through the traditional service's hymns. My father is a reverend, so attending his sermons are naturally a condition of coming up to his house for the week. It's something you become accustomed to as a pastor's kid; put your smile on, shake hands, talk about how great school is going, listen to people. Keep the world turning from 9:00-10:00 AM, then sequester yourself in the senior pastor's office until everyone's cleared out for the day. Between this and trying to fit in going to my local store for the planned shop tournament on the day before, and leaving Cincinnati by 5:00 PM after arranging to get my luggage delivered to him while he was on his way to pick me up, the 15th and 16th were like one long, continuous day of travel and cardfights.

The semifinal round was a mirror matchup versus another Shadow Paladin deck, this one running Origin Mage Ildona with Badhabh Caar. An elf deck. That made my strategy clear before the fight even began--I would go for Dictator rather than retrieve Phantom Blaster with Javelin, to exploit Ildona's 10000 base. The Origin Mage can't actually generate card advantage by himself, only preserve existing advantage from Nemain and Caar, so by using Zapbau with trigger units I could easily stop his 21-24000 power vanguard attacks to put the role of damage dealing on his poor rearguard lineup, and use the same to keep him from unflipping damage if he brought out Cursed Lancer. Once that counterblast was exhausted, his field and hand would be paralyzed and I could go for the kill with a soulblast. In our first fight he rode Nemain as his grade 2, so immediately I laid down a full field, Rugos and Charon on one side, Blaster Dark in the center, and for the right I improvised with my one Mac Lir and a Grim Reaper to force him to defend with at least 10000 shield if he didn't want to hit five damage dangerously fast. From experience online I knew that Nemain was close to impossible to defend. Both matches went by much faster than I expected due to early triggers, with the second one actually ending in a double draw trigger placed on Blaster Dark with Arianrhod, after he had already exhausted perfect defense on Dictator. I do recall one other key move, a stand trigger put on a rearguard Dark Metal Dragon, who was at 15000 already from The Dark Dictator's soulblast, and so could go for 20000 again on Ildona, but I can't remember if this was the first or the second match.

The finals were probably my most daunting matchup. My opponent was a Spike Brothers cardfighter using Dudley Emperor, a deck that I had done poorly against both locally and at the Chicago regionals. However, all those matches had been using the Gold Paladin deck, and I reminded myself of this going in. The Shadow Paladins are different. In both games, several moves that I had wished I could pull out in Chicago came through. Since the opponent wanted to use Dudley Emperor's late game power as early as possible, he opened with three attacks on the first turn in both games. In the first match I blocked one, but this left me with three damage from a critical trigger, after which I was done taking damage for the game. I pulled out Blaster Dark's counterblast next to retire Mecha Trainer to limit what he could do with it, then used Nemain's counterblast to reinforce my hand and called an Arianrhod for her to attack a front-row Wonder Boy with, forcing him to defend. I had already brought out Blaster Javelin's evolution ride, so this created a three-card difference in the first turn that helped me continue to defend throughout, and Zapbau was again a critical card as thanks to him I could stop a critical 2 Juggernaut Maximum's soulblast later on and stay at three damage. Emperor's soulcharges and his cards leaving the field caused him to fall behind immensely on top of my own skills, then in the second game I called Nemain behind Dictator for the advantage boost as well as the +2000 from having her on the field. That game fell my way as well from the strong early lead, as I could hit Emperor for 20000 every turn in both games and resort to the same soulblast tactics as ever once he was exhausted.

Ultimately, I had six undefeated rounds with my incomplete Shadow Paladin deck. This was beyond my expectations--the Shadow Paladins are not a popular pro deck. I used them because Ito is my favorite artist, because I wanted to be seen with my personal clan, not with a competitive one. Going in, I didn't think that I would make it this far. When I reported the results of the finals to Mr. Smith, he was pulling something out of the back of the store. I told him that I had won my match and, standing up with a deckbox in hand, he said "All right. Let's fight."


I had figured out after signing up that Mr. Smith was just hosting the event, not actually participating. It was understandable. He had only been world champion for a week, and international travel and competition are both strenuous. I didn't think I'd get to fight him unless I came back later on in the week.

Brandon Smith is on the left; Touya is on the right, in dire need of a haircut.
The exhibition round was conducted in a best of 3 format just like before, only this time who began each round was decided with another die roll rather than with a loser-takes-first rules. Naturally, there was a lot of shuffling. Brandon Smith was using his world championship deck, the same one he'd started with in Toronto and brought all the way to Tokyo. I did everything I could, but Mr. Smith dominated the matches with expert play.

Initially neither of us brought out our evolving rides and both were playing with base 10000 Dragons as a result, while after my initial loss, in the second match his Vortimer line came out in full. I did my best to negate the advantage of his on-ride skills, but Mr. Smith was playing perfectly and without drive checking triggers to turn the tide in my favor, I couldn't come up with a maneuver to defeat him. In the second match I believed that I would be gradelocked, as I had no grade 3 and only Nemain to ride--had I not drawn Rugos at the last moment, I would not have ridden her.

Thinking back on it, I can recall where the match fell entirely out of my hands. I called Nemain to form a left line but couldn't get rid of her cleanly, and should have instead called her behind my vanguard Badhabh Caar; there were three Dictators left in the deck, so it would be more unlikely for me to not draw one of them, and as I eventually did, this would have been the better setup. I could have used Caar to attack his rearguard rather than vanguard, then passed any potential critical triggers to my own rearguards to try to turn things around.

I also made a poor move in the semifinal turn of the second match, where I put a damage trigger on Rugos, thinking to defend my rearguards for a soulblast next turn with a Dictator that I had in hand. This was a mistake; I was at four damage at that point, he had healed one damage with his drive check so he was at three and my soulblast would be wasted if attempted, and I was too concerned over a critical trigger coming up in his third check when there were only three left in the deck, not four as I thought at the time.

Had I given the power to my vanguard, my mindset would have changed toward no-guarding his third check and I would also have to drop less shield to stop his Gigantech-Gareth combo, then potentially having enough on his final turn to get through. Whether or not that would have really turned the fight in my favor--I doubt it. Mr. Smith had made no mistakes. He's an intense cardfighter, I don't think he sees anything but the game when he plays. My moves were geared toward safety, but safety was not what was going to win that fight, if anything could. My inability to recognize that cost me deeply. But despite my crushing defeats, in my eyes the exhibition round was easily the best set of fights of the night.

My memory may be spotty on the match content--it's been almost 20 hours now. When the last match closed, Mr. Smith set down his cards and said "Let's see what we can do for you." For taking first in the tournament, I was awarded thirteen packs. Five of them were from Eclipse of Illusionary Shadows, and before the tournament I'd been asking Mr. Smith if he would trade me any of his Shadow Paladin cards, so I get the feeling that he was trying to help me out.

Ultimately I pulled several high-rarity cards from the assortment, although none of them were ones that I needed. Still, the cards will help with trading back home where several of them are in high demand, and the fact that I was able to take first with my brand of Shadow Paladins is more important to me. I'm looking forward to bringing them to the 2013 tournament season.