Monday, December 31, 2012

Single-Clan Counterblasts, Break Rides and Double Clan: An Analysis of the Current State of Pro Cardfight

There is a war brewing in the community. As typical of these arguments and claims that one clan or another is "broken," this war comes out of recent end-of-month announcements from KeroKero Ace magazine. While in the past these infights arose from crossride, limit break and other allegedly scale-tipping evolutions in gameplay, in this time the conflict is over Solitary Liberator Gancelot, the Eradicator subgroup and new Spike Brothers units. Blaster Blade Burst is another well-discussed but less widely vilified card. Opinion is vastly split on the issue, mainly due to the introduction of power-based break ride skills that seemingly invalidate the old sets altogether.

One common statement is circulation is that the phenomenon of power creep has come to Cardfight. I caution all readers against this view; this very same reaction emerged when Great Silver Wolf, Garmore and his accompanying Charjgal surfaced. Similar statements circulated at the onset of crossrides, and with each new booster set since BT02. We have survived worse than this. And while many are content to toss the game aside and leave things at that, we will make no progress, headway or innovation of any kind by sitting and whining idly. In Cardfight, the white flag is never an option.

The most concrete argument for power creep lies in the base power of these units. Base 11000 was once unprecedented and very carefully given only to clans that could not easily form lines exceeding 21000 without triggers. These days it's being handed out like candy in trial decks. However, this new base 11000 is very different from the old, in that if you have a unit not of the same clan on the field, then the base 11000 unit cannot attack regardless of position. This dispels the myth of power creep immensely, because these new base 11000s are being pushed for in sets and trial decks based around mixed clan decks. In the February-on JPN format, double clanning will not just be more viable than ever before, it will be a necessary component of many professional strategies. And from a design standpoint, it would be both clumsy and restrictive to have every card intended for a double clan deck to have "[CONT]: This card is also treated as..." printed on its text. One of the main advantages to a double clan deck is being able to mix cards not of the same clan, giving options for fifth and sixth base 8000 boosting units, or of integrating skills intended for one clan into another. As Rikino Sakura and her contemporaries demonstrated in 2011, Soul Saver Dragon's Barcgal base could be neatly integrated into other clans to give her power-based advantages to a clan with other specialties. If double clan decks were to lose these multifaceted aspects of their play, then they would be double clan in name only. Because of this, we can safely assume that Spirit card skills will not be heavily distributed to double clan cards, and so the new Gancelot will not be usable by those decks.

Note that many new units, in particular Blaster Blade Burst and Bad-End Dragger, require their counterblasts to be composed of units of the same clan. Bushiroad has very carefully planned for this from the ground up. The only clan with real control over what cards are in their damage zone is Angel Feather, and if you'll notice, all of the Feathers are dependent on a clause which requires the cards placed into the damage zone to be of the same clan. What this means is that Blaster Blade Burst, Bad-End Dragger, and other cards with these same-clan counterblasts are near to unusable in double clan decks. Eradicator, Dragonic Descendant takes this even further, requiring three discards to be of the same clan in order for his skills to activate.

While Bushiroad is pushing for a strongly double-clan February format following the official onset of the restricted list in January, more than ever before they are dividing the world of pros between single clan and double clan decks. It is already clear that double clan decks will not be able to use single clan cards effectively. The new base 11000 clause allows those units to be distributed more freely, but also makes them unable to take advantage of the new strategies, turning every matchup into something of a The End versus CoCo fight. Yes, the new Gancelot is powerful compared to what came before it--but in the greater scheme of things, will it immediately swarm the championship and take the title with a Gold Paladin Best 4? Most likely not.

Break rides are not as simple as they are being made out to be. The new Gancelot comes with many restrictions of his own; as with Soul Saver Dragon, there must be three units of the same clan set up on the field before the break ride is initiated, and they must be defended appropriately, giving more power to Kagerou and Narukami. Furthermore, an appropriate grade 3 needs to be in hand, potentially bringing an 8-grade 3 ratio back into vogue over the currently common 7. This also gives less credibility to rearguard grade 3s like Gigantech Charger, though the new Dignified Gold Dragon helps circumvent that. This second grade 3 ride comes at a -1 that would not normally be otherwise incurred, it has the same general speed as a crossride, and can only be performed at 4 or more damage, denying the Gancelot cardfighter the chance to use limit break support due to the ride phase taking place before the main phase. Factor the damage requirements into the the opponent needing to be at 4 or more of their own for the power boost to truly matter, just as it would for Soul Saver Dragon or The Dark Dictator, and you have a card which inherently forces the user to not play damage control in a damage control deck. Soul Saver-type strategies truly shine due to their use of the soul instead of counterblast, allowing them to take very little damage at the start and then stonewall the opponent while they take damage throughout the rest of the game, forcing them to become overly defensive in the late game while the Soul cardfighter can no-guard multiple attacks and accept critical triggers with a shrug.

Two things should be clear from this. The power creep is not from the power of the individual units, but from the distribution of them. The trial decks are stronger now. This is because new cardfighters need ways to keep up with long-time titleholders. Bushiroad's decisions are primarily geared toward the Japanese pro scene, which has already had four national championships and seven champions, one of which is a repeat holder and is still reigning. Even the most recent champion, Eboshida Hiromi, was someone who had already taken a regional title in the previous year. By the end of 2013, those numbers will be bumped up to six and nine. It's much more developed than in North America, where there is only one champion and one championship.

We need to consider what the 2012 nationals format will look like. The Japanese nationals are held twice a year, with the initial run for this year being May to July. At Fighter's Road 2013, the available booster sets will be BT01-BT11, meaning that the new Alfred and new Overlord will both be in play in addition to these recent announcements. The second point that should be clear from all this is that these new units are nothing more than an update, and perhaps distraction to keep pure Gold Paladin, Narukami and Spike Brothers relevant in the February-on format. Their base 11000 coming with the Lord keytext rather than losing -2000 power if a rearguard of the same clan is not present, is conspicuous because as previously stated that makes them unusable in mixed decks. The clan-specific counterblasts and discards are likewise conspicuous. Rather than designing the next top tournament deck, Bushiroad is laying the groundwork for the BT10-BT11 decks to remain balanced, operating under the assumption that the new Alfred and Dragonic Overlord will be flocked to en masse. Bad-End Dragger and the like should not be feared for their strength in battle, but because their very existence implies that there will be equally or more powerful mixed builds available for Spike Brothers, Gold Paladin and Narukami. These mixed decks will be much more dangerous because they will be able to use the pure skills of both clans (for example, being able to use Alfred's counterblast with Tripp's unflipping) rather than just one, as the situation for Dragger, Gancelot and Vowing Sword Dragon will be.

With regards to Burst, it's clear already that the new card is intended to be a dual replacement for both the original Alfred and Majesty Lord Blaster, whose recent restriction prevents them from neatly being integrated in the same deck. Primarily, Burst serves as the former, as not just Majesty decks but also other Royal Paladin decks can use him as a substitute Alfred that works more cleanly, due to being targetable by Wingal Brave. The primary difficult with Burst is that his counterblast 2 is expensive in a clan with no damage unflipping, which already uses Blaster Blade's base form as their means of field control. With the introduction of the Liberator and Eradicator subgroups, field control is going to become very important to the new format. So while Burst can reach 31-33000 power easily, his skill cannot be used very frequently, and on the turns that it is not, his unboostable nature means that opponents can safely drop one card for defense instead of two. Base 11000 and higher units can simply put a heal trigger on the guard circle and guarantee that that attack will not connect.

There is of course, the natural possibility that the double clan mechanics introduced in BT09 will not be followed up on in BT10 or 11, and that the Spirit cards are a one-off mechanic. However, in a scenario in which we must either have break ride balanced by the new mechanic, or be drowned by a swarm of Lord vanguards metamorphosing professional Cardfight into a break ride stalemate just as a Soul Saver stalemate once emerged in early 2011, and the existing evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the former, I will stand by these statements. It is not enough to look at the pro scene we have in December and anachronically pick specific cards from a format that another country will not have for another month to insert into the current scene, pretending as if this covers the full depth of a format that will not be fully definable until April of 2013. As I stated previously, cardfighters do not know surrender. We have all seen sixth, and seventh damage heal triggers. It is unfitting for any among us to give up so soon. This new scene has many implications and is already inspiring new strategy, moving toward especial intercepts, the abandoning of the increasingly-irrelevant crossrides, and the revival of older strategies like those surrounding rest-based Megacolony and Dueling Dragon, ZANBAKU. How we confront the new year will be remembered and analyzed by the cardfighters of future generations; it would be shameful, to childishly call Cardfight ruined forever and walk out in fear of break ride, a mechanic that will come and go as any other new gameplay element does. Not only does break ride share the weaknesses of traditional limit breaks, requiring a second grade 3 ride combines that with the vulnerabilities of crossrides with no way to circumvent them and no defensive recompense.