Thursday, December 13, 2012

The History of Professional Cardfight: Part 1, February-April 2011

This is a series on the complete history of Cardfight!! Vanguard's pro scene, examining both English and Japanese formats in chronological order.

The power balance of Cardfight over the past few years has been by and large kept in check, primarily through the introduction of clan-exclusive mechanics, but also through the natural development of strategy and counterstrategy. While this makes Cardfight easily the most balanced TCG of its time, there have always been hiccups and power bubbles. 

The story of these hiccups began with the release of the game's trial decks. Released on February 26th, a month prior to the first set release, these decks introduced the practice of having two different names for each deck, a practice exclusive to Japan. In kanji the names are VG-TD01: Shining Swordsman of the Sanctuary (聖域の光剣士 Seiiki no Hikari Kenshi) and VG-TD02: Raging Dragon of the Empire (帝国の暴竜 Teikoku no Bouryuu) while in the furigana that indicate how the name is read aloud they are presented as TD01: Blaster Blade (ブラスター・ブレード Burasutaa Bureedo) and TD02: Dragonic Overlord (ドラゴニック・オーバーロードDoragonikku Oobaaroodo.) When these decks were later released in English on December 3rd of the same year, the names used were based purely off of the furigana.

Fighter's Collection 2013 reprint.
The first power bubble was Kai's initial trial deck, TD02. From the moment of release, it had a drastic advantage over Aichi's. The basic strategy that these two decks were characterized by were their respective grade 2s, Berserk Dragon for Kai and Blaster Blade for Aichi. Both of these units had 9000 power and could counterblast 2 on-call or on-ride to retire an opponent's rearguard, with Berserk retiring a grade 2 or lesser unit while Blaster Blade could retire a grade 2 or greater. Blade had the slight advantage of being able to retire any rearguard when ridden, but only one copy was included in TD01 while TD02 came with four Berserk Dragons.

Blaster Blade also played into the skills of his deck's key grade 3, Solitary Knight Gancelot, who could add Blade to the hand directly by returning to the deck, and if Blaster Blade was in the soul while Gancelot was in the vanguard circle, Gancelot could activate his other skill to counterblast 2 and get +5000 power with an additional critical for the turn.

BT01 Special Parallel print.
This was offset by Gancelot's extremely low 9000 base power, the second lowest in the game for a grade 3 which made defense very rough on the opponent's turn as many attacks would take an extra 5000 shield to stop. TD02's overall strategy was superior because its core grade 3s were not reliant on riding a specific grade 2 that there was only one of in the deck, and their offense and defense were equally balanced instead of swinging drastically in one direction or the other.

The deck's exclusives included the cover card Dragonic Overlord and Dragon Monk Goku, both regarded today as some of the best cards ever printed. In addition to being the first base 11000 unit and thus very good defensively, Overlord's skill was important for being usable in both the vanguard and rearguard circles. By paying a steep counterblast 3 in the main phase, he would get +5000 power and then in the battle phase stand when his attack hit a rearguard. This was balanced out by Overlord losing his twin drive ability when his skill was used, so he could only check one card per attack while in the vanguard circle, ultimately allowing him to max out at three checks but making the opponent's defense a little more manageable because they would only need to account for one trigger when defending a vanguard Overlord.

Fighter's Collection 2013 reprint.
Lining him up with Bahr from the same deck, Overlord had 24000 power on his initial attack, which was more difficult to stop in the days of trial decks than it is today, and even after that base 16000 was just the right number to stay current up until January of 2012. Gancelot specifically had trouble stopping this if Overlord waited to use his booster until he attacked the vanguard, because while a base 10000 unit could drop two units with a total of 15000 shield to stop that attack, Gancelot was forced to place at least 20000 shield down.

Goku's skill was vanguard-exclusive, retiring any of the opponent's grade 1 or lesser rearguards when he drive checked a grade 3 Kagerou. Taken alongside the chance of triggers turning out, Goku not only dealt damage against the vanguard, but also narrowed the back row, forcing more calls out of the opponent while using rearguard Overlords to take out the front row and cut more cards from their hand for defense. Goku's success only snowballed with the release of BT01: Descent of the King of Knights, where the first vanguard Lizard Soldier Conroe allowed Kagerou cardfighters to either bring out their perfect defense Wyvern Guard Barri to draw out the game with while Goku continued to plow through rearguards, or to run several single-copy grade 1s and use them to adjust to the situation.

Goku's skills were also complemented by the Flame of Hope Aermo, the first unit that allowed his fighter to drop a card and draw a card--"card change"--when an attack that he boosted hit. Aermo answered two problems, one exclusive to Goku and one universal to the game as a whole. Goku's issue was that his skill encouraged his fighter to run more grade 3s than normal, generally between eight and ten, which then become dead weight in the hand as he could not defend with them and only one Dragonic Overlord was needed for the rearguard per game. The universal issue was that the drive check has always been public information, so skilled opponents could and still do memorize drive checks throughout the game to eventually determine your hand once you start riding or calling cards that you didn't check. Aermo dealt with both problems by getting rid of the drive check, always guaranteeing equal to or more shield than was discarded when dropping a grade 3, and obscuring the Kagerou cardfighter's hand from the opponent.

VG-BT01: Descent of the King of Knights was released on March 12th, 2011 in Japan. While the card pool of the first set, spanning ten different clans, was so diverse that there wasn't a strong overall theme to its cards, in general BT01 placed greater emphasis on megablast units than future sets would. Superior ride mechanics focused toward building up the soul were also introduced here. The set's cover card was the King of Knights, Alfred. Royal Paladin, Kagerou, Oracle Think Tank and Nova Grappler were all completed in this set.

Where the Goku deck began is unclear. The pros of this time were not professionals in the sense that we know them today, as the first regionals did not start up until after May. They were anonymous and their deck strategies spread quickly, both throughout Japan and to the small overseas playerbase of the time. Additionally, parallel development ensured that both groups, despite the language barrier, would create similar or identical strategies without actually knowing that the other was doing so. Besides these factors, even though the cards existed, the Goku deck was not widely used in Japan even after tournaments started up, until the Grand Prix in the last four months of the year. The other clans were around at this time and had powerful moves of their own, but for Goku the balance was heavily tipped in his favor due to being cheaply available (~1050 JPY for one deck, about 13 USD, meaning that a basic assembly of an entire Goku deck only cost 52 USD versus a four-card playset of Overlord from BT01 alone costing in the vicinity of 20 USD), the search skill of his first vanguard and the availability of useful rearguards. Compared to acquiring four Blaster Blade or Maiden of Libra, Berserk Dragon and by extension Goku was more practical.

With regards to Barri, perfect defense is an interesting mechanic in that it doesn't appear to have been originally intended as something that every clan would receive. Although often forgotten today, of the eight clans introduced in BT01, only three of them received a perfect defense card initially. Nova Grappler in particular did not get Twin Blader until BT02, and it wasn't until that time that cards like Barri and Iseult were codified as necessities in decks. Accordingly, it was more common to run just two or three perfect defense cards until January and April 2012, as four was viewed to chain down the hand and restrain your ability to call.

Another factor is that Kagerou received two critical triggers ahead of the other clans. Oracle Think Tank and Nova Grappler did not receive their second critical triggers until BT02, while both Royal Paladin and Kagerou had access to a second one in the first set. Part of this is Aleph's fault--like Llew from the Royal side of things, Tahr is a critical trigger that plays a role in a superior ride sequence, so by necessity he needed to be a slightly-higher rarity card and couldn't be included in a trial deck. This then required Raksha to be created.

Additionally, the Crested half deck used in prerelease workshops and distributed in KeroKero Ace magazine early in Cardfight's history included four copies of Tahr, which expedited Kagerou's early dominance through KKA's subscribers. Flash fight decks KAD01: Stardrive and KAD02: Crested were less widely distributed than the main trial decks, consisting of 25 Royal Paladin and 25 Kagerou cards intended to be used to learn the rules. These decks included the rare but underpowered Stardrive Dragon and Crested Dragon units, but other than the easy access to Tahr they were unremarkable.

Between Goku clearing out the back row with drive checks, Dragonic Overlord taking out the front row with rearguard attacks, and Berserk Dragon providing good field control and a constant strategic threat to the opponent across the course of a match, the deck's overall image was cohesive and consistent. The danger of flaming out in the endgame due to counterblast being exhausted was also not as high as in other Kagerou decks, because Goku's skill came at no actual cost. So while navigating the very precarious endgame, Goku could provide a sudden and unstoppable punish during the attack step, depriving the opponent of one additional card over their defense for the turn.

The climate of BT01 was simple but also fairly diverse. Royal Paladin was the strongest contender with Kagerou once the set was released because of a comparable amount of support, with two critical triggers, a perfect defense card and a theme based around searching and calling for specific units from the deck for effective field manipulation. Controlling the opponent's field and controlling one's own field are both strong strategies, so it's natural that clans based around them would be effective in pro play, and with Blaster Blade Royal Paladin managed to distill both of those strategies together to some degree.

Fighter's Collection 2013 reprint.
Royal Paladin decks had the benefit of the set's cover card also being their boss card. Alfred would go on to become a template for many cards of the future, and he's definitely the second most enduring Royal Paladin in the history of the game after Blaster Blade himself. Like Dragonic Overlord, Alfred had a counterblast 3 that could be used in either the vanguard or rearguard circles, letting him search the deck for a grade 2 or lower Royal Paladin and call it. The skill has continued to be effective throughout history because it immediately gives Alfred decks an extra card of their choice with no chance added, and because of how it is constantly being updated despite the card never once having been modified. Essentially, the more cards that the Royal Paladins receive, the more targets Alfred has. At five damage he could even superior call Blaster Blade directly from the deck to use Blaster Blade's counterblast to immediately carve out a two card difference between himself and the opponent. While this wasn't always useful in BT01, the skill has gotten better over time as the Royals have received more on-call skills that Alfred can trigger.

The King of Knights' other skills were exclusive to the vanguard circle. First, for each Royal Paladin rearguard he received +2000 power, so with five rearguard circles this was capped at a +10000 power boost, but to balance this out Alfred could also not be boosted. While it meant that he could not hit any 11000 power units like Overlord for super important numbers, it did give Alfred an edge in matchups with other vanguards like Goku, against most offense-heavy units, and against himself. This also allowed the rearguard circle behind Alfred to be freely used as a space to store weaker units that only served to power up Alfred, and it let Royal cardfighters use their card changer Lien to drop unimportant cards and draw better ones. Lien's skill required her to be rested before the battle phase, so by placing her behind Alfred, they would be able to use her without losing out on a booster. All these characteristics made Royal Paladin decks very cohesive, although they didn't have much in terms of an alternative vanguard because Gancelot's power was so low that it was better to stay at grade 2 than ride him, so instead they had to make use of more lackluster grade 3s like Bors and Lohengrin who at least had 10000 base power for defense.

Oracle Think Tank was next in level of use following Royal Paladin, because like the first two clans its core mechanic had inherent sway. While Kagerou destroyed the opponent's field, and Royal Paladin called new cards to control its field, Oracle Think Tank's major strength was drawing cards. Ironically, this would make them one of the most well balanced clans, in no small part because Bushiroad was aware of the pitfalls of previous games that had decks with similar mechanics and took care to avoid them. Probably the biggest mistake that draw themes make in trading card games is the "lose one to draw many" card, what in Magic: The Gathering was called Ancestral Recall, in Yu-Gi-Oh! called Pot of Greed, and in Pokémon called Bill. The essential idea behind these cards is that you lose the card you just played to draw two or more, which gives one extra card overall or in Recall's case two more. Greater access to the deck allows for the deck's key plays to come out more easily, which is the central principle of card advantage as a whole. And because they manipulate this core principle of advantage, draw builds in games that have these cards tend to have an overwhelming amount of control over the course of the match.

Oracle Think Tank skirted around this idea, first by being introduced with two draw triggers instead of critical triggers so that it could run a maximum of eight to generally have more cards in hand without being able to actually control that factor, and second through on-hit skills. As Royal Paladin had Blaster Blade and Kagerou had Berserk Dragon, Oracle Think Tank had Maiden of Libra, whose counterblast 2 let her draw a card when her attack hit. This could be used to snag up an extra card, or to create a two-card difference by targeting an opponent's rearguard and then using the skill, but it was dependent on the opponent allowing it to hit and so Libra's primary value was indirect as a unit that the opponent was not allowed to not defend. As a result, Oracle Think Tank's draw power in this early incarnation came not so much from actually being able to draw but from forcing the opponent to expend more cards per turn than the OraThin cardfighter was, a considerably more balanced strategy overall. Building off from this, the clan also had skills based around maintaining a high hand count, like the clan's boss card CEO Amaterasu.

Fighter's Collection 2013 reprint.
Amaterasu's continuous skill gave her +4000 power during her own turn when there were four or more cards in hand. There was a similar skill on Oracle Think Tank's custom vanguard booster, the grade 1 Weather Girl Milk, who normally has 6000 power but could boost for +4000 more if there were four or more cards in the hand. The key difference here is that while Amaterasu's skill was continuous, Milk's was an autoskill. This means that there needed to be four cards in hand when Milk boosted, while Amaterasu could get her +4000 power just by having four cards in hand after her twin drive check. So while it was a little tricky to manage, OraThin could effectively create a vanguard line that would always break 21000 to punish both Overlord and Alfred, just so long as their cardfighter was playing smart and managing their hand effectively.

CEO was more than just power, however. She was the first "megablast" unit, a grade 3 with a soulcharge skill that can also counterblast 5 and soulblast 8 to finalize a devastating strategy. At the start of the main phase each turn, Amaterasu would move the top card of the deck into her soul, then look at the next top card and get to choose whether to place it on top or on bottom. This fortune telling skill was created to supplement OraThin's strategic draw power, as by itself Libra and hand management wouldn't really be able to carry the clan. This way Amaterasu could check if the top card of the deck was a trigger, or a card that she wanted in hand, and then leave it on top if she wanted to drive check it. The skill was also valuable for intimidating the opponent in the same way that Libra did, as no longer what the card actually was, so long as the opponent thought that there was a trigger on top they would treat Amaterasu as though she had much more power than she actually did and drop more cards for their defense that turn. A grade 1 version of her divination skill was printed as well, Battle Sister Cocoa, who only had 6000 power but when called could likewise choose to leave the top card on the deck or on the bottom in order to predict the better outcome of the turn.

Amaterasu's megablast skill activated when her attack hit, letting her draw 5 cards when she paid the cost. This instant +5 has always been impossible by design to come back from once it has hit, as like Libra the value is more strategic than practical. Building up the 8 soul took a very long time in the first place, as many as five turns after reaching grade 3, and no opponent would Amaterasu's attack hit once it was ready, but as both vanguard and rearguard Amaterasus could trigger the megablast she forced out defense as Libra did. On paper there is some conflict between Libra and Amaterasu because Oracle Think Tank had no way to unflip the damage zone, but in practice neither skill can hit, so the damage zone was always open to threaten the opponent with. Oracle Think Tank's other grade 3, Apollon, was simply a grade 3 version of Libra with 10000 power, and a special skill in the vanguard circle that let him counterblast 2 to draw two cards when his attack hit and then return a card to the deck and shuffle. This was a little more practical than Amaterasu's on-hit and a good way to refresh the hand, but the fact that it would actually go off and take two counterblast with it made Apollon a much better rearguard than vanguard. By far the biggest problem that Oracle Think Tank had as a deck was its difficult in pushing the midgame, as at the time their grade 2 options were limited to Libra, Wiseman and Mocha, and the now-famous Silent Tom would not come until later on in BT02. Compared to some of the problems that would cripple future clans altogether, this was a relatively tame weakness.

Amaterasu's first print in Japan had an infamous error, where her megablast was listed as an activate skill instead of an autoskill. The skill text was still correct, as it did correctly describe the skill's timing as "when this unit's attack hits" but Amaterasu still needed to be corrected through the official website and subsequent printings of the card have corrected it. Like some other misprints to come, this CEO has been valued by collectors more than her corrected print.

Nova Grappler had a somewhat rockier history than any of the previous clans. Their core issue throughout the history of the game is that the mechanic they're based around doesn't give you an intrinsic advantage over the opponent. Retiring the opponent's cards, calling your own, and drawing extra cards are all immediate addition or subtraction to how many cards you or the opponent control. Nova Grappler's specialty is modifying the battle position of its units, mainly for the purposes of standing rearguards after they have attacked to make a second offensive. This could be a minus to the opponent if they're forced to defend one of the attacks, but it's not guaranteed, there can be problems with even getting the attack to hit if the opponent damage checks triggers or has a high base power, and in general standing requires more complex strategy than retire, superior call or draw. Furthermore, no matter how many attacks you make, it doesn't increase the damage that your units deal. Standing is the most effective endgame strategy, but it suffers in the early to midgame where extra critical or draw power are more helpful, and this applies to the trigger types as well. As a clan forced to run two types of stand triggers with no draw and only one critical at introduction, it's easy to see why Nova Grappler was so slow to be picked up in professional play. The clan was still a lot better off than some of the clans that we'll see later on, but it was the least played of the original four in this period.

The clan's key grade 3 was Asura Kaiser, a defensively heavy vanguard that would go on to become the cornerstone of Grappler play throughout the first season block. Kaiser's skill was that when he drive checked a grade 3 Nova Grappler, he could then choose a rearguard and stand in. Kaiser shared some of Goku's strengths in that he effectively had six to seven other cards in the deck that could be considered triggers, and the card was perfect for Nova Grappler because it allowed the clan to stand its units without actually relying on stand triggers, so that the deck could be played with more critical and draw triggers once those were introduced. Beyond this first step though, Kaiser still had effective synergy with stands since his skill could serve to make a "double stand trigger" easier to get, having an entire column instead of one attack that would otherwise only draw an intercept out of the opponent. Kaiser's main weakness was that his deck involved a lot of sitting around, waiting for good things to happen. Unlike Goku, who at least had Dragonic Overlord and Berserk Dragon, if Kaiser didn't check any grade 3s then there wasn't very much going on in his turn.

Mainly this was owed to a lack of a good partner card. Nova Grappler's support unit, Mr. Invincible, was a megablast card like CEO Amaterasu but with her topdeck check replaced by unflipping one counterblast, and with no power added to him. Nova Grappler was the only clan at introduction that could not form a 20-21000 center line with their core grade 3s, and this hurt them offensively. Mr. Invincible's megablast stood the entire field, including himself for a +2 from his extra twin drive, but it only activated on-hit and actually amassing the 8 soul was extremely difficult, even moreso as Nova Grappler would continue to move away from the soul focus that Oracle Think Tank developed. Where OraThin could use its draw power to stall out until that 8 soul developed, the Novas didn't have a high amount of synergy with their clan's actual megablast, instead using Invincible's soulcharge-and-unflip mechanics to support a lot of small counterblast costs over many turns.

The damage unflipping itself was Nova Grappler's secondary mechanic, but it suffered from an issue of not having very much to unflip for. At introduction the Grapplers had Genocide Jack, their grade 2 who needed to counterblast to be able to attack each turn, and not much else. Future sets would remedy this issue, but at the beginning the Grapplers suffered from being the only core clan to not have a perfect defense card, less of a direction for their secondary mechanic, and not enough support for their primary one. One way that Grappler fans overcame these weaknesses was by taking advantage of the extra grade 1 space to run Kagerou grade 1s and Lizard Solder, Conroe as their first vanguard, then including Dragonic Overlord along with Mr. Invincible. This was made possible by Conroe not requiring a Kagerou vanguard to use his search skill, and by Overlord only needing another Kagerou rearguard in order to keep his 11000 base power. Asura Kaiser would have been disruptive to the strategy since Dragonic Overlord would have been a dead drive check, so Invincible was the deck's lead card.

The idea was to combine Overlord's counterblast with Mr. Invincible's unflipping skill. This allowed Overlord's self-standing rearguard skill to be repeated in serial across multiple turns, and this was further supported by grade 1 and 2 cards from the Grapplers' unflipping engine. The Invincible Overlord deck was a product of the game's pupal stages, when the mechanics were new and nothing was set in stone, and is the only deck described here that has no place whatsoever in modern play. The idea was completely absorbed by other Kagerou decks after the introduction of Bellicosity Dragon in early December, with Goku himself employing it.

While all of this was taking place in the Japanese scene, in the west the primary exposure to Cardfight!! Vanguard came through Crunchyroll's official simulcast of the first season, as well as through the translation of Japanese blogs about the game and by extension scans of KeroKero Ace magazine. Very early on in the game's existence Hammergirl Anime, a card shop based out of New York began selling the Japanese TCG and related merchandise, as well as hosting regular tournaments, and some of the matches from those subsequently went up on YouTube. In a time when there were only three or four Cardfight videos on the net and they were all either commercials featuring DAIGO or an early trailer for the anime, this went a long way towards promoting the game and western interest in it. Heart of the Cards was another important part of the game's international development, providing cardsleeve inserts with English translations of the Japanese text written on them to ease the process of playing.

This western exposure culminated in the creation of Cardfight Capital, a BYOND-based platform for playing the Cardfight!! Vanguard TCG on the net attributed to Devourer Of Souls. The program was troublesome. To use it, you had to have a BYOND account, download the Cardfight Capital client and access one of the servers that had to be hosted by individuals, joining it through either the BYOND main page or through your own friends list after having friended a server host. The servers were frequently overloaded, with constant lag, and unlike similar programs for other TCGs or games like chess, you had a virtual avatar in the game selected from a list of anime characters and then had to seek out other avatars and challenge them. Actually getting a match going was difficult because shyer players were paralyzed into only playing with their friends, the ones that would actually accept random challenges were usually crass and just wanted their opponent to hurry up and lose, and skill level varied so immensely that you could end up playing someone on par with a regional tournament champion or you could end up in a game with someone who was really only using the program to sext.

"CFC" as it was called is important for understanding how Vanguard developed in the west because the way that cardfighters in the United States, in France and Germany experienced the game was fundamentally different from how Japanese fighters were. Westerners were playing in the dark, online with keyboards in a virtual world with a deeply maligned shuffler, becoming acclaimed "experts" at a game when they had never touched physical cards before. Their tournaments were organized by and for fans, were free, conducted in a best of 3 format with a lot of cursing and telling the opponent to hurry up. Japanese fighters were walking into actual card shops, paying weekly entry fees to play with a group of regular opponents in best of 1 tournaments while politely taking as much as time as they needed. Americans faced anonymous nobodies for free, Japanese fighters paid to give back to a community of regulars.

The experiences couldn't be more disparate--it's like trying to compare the generation of original Street Fighters that first played SSFII in arcades, to the current wave of online players wearing their thumbs out on gamepads having never heard what an arcade stick sounds like. It's difficult to talk about CFC in realistic terms without becoming derogatory because while the program did a lot of good, nothing in this world has a perfectly positive impact with no drawbacks. CFC was an unpredictable factor that marked the point when Bushiroad's plan for how international audiences would learn of the game fell apart, as they lost control of the TCG and it took on a life of its own. When those western cardfighters did finally get a physical tournament scene of their own, the backlash was immense as they were introduced to a tournament environment completely alien to what was familiar to them, run by flesh and blood tournament organizers instead of avatars.

Westerners were not getting the Vanguard that Itou Akira had envisioned when he first began writing for the franchise, but the Vanguard that they had created through a cross-imitation of the TV show and previous net versions of card games that they were accustomed to. It attests to how this experience affected western views that one of the number one complaints about the English-language TCG tournaments concerned the tournament brackets not being done by a computer, and that Bushiroad would later address that concern by creating a tournament organization program just to appease them. How good or bad online Vanguard's effect really was is debatable, but there's certainly a lesson to be learned from CFC; you can't become a pro cardfighter through the internet or a video game. You have to be at the table, pile shuffling, scraping your hands on second layer sleeves, looking the opponent in the eyes and learning through a cardfight in real space, not in an imaginary one.

Continue Reading: The History of Professional Cardfight, May-August 2011