Saturday, December 22, 2012

The History of Professional Cardfight: Part 2, May-August 2011

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

(Previous entry: The History of Professional Cardfight, February-April 2011)
VG-BT02: Onslaught of Dragon Souls was released on May 28th, 2011 in Japan and was timed to coincide with the start of Japan's first competitive season. This set added a series of cards to each clan focused on charging and blasting the "soul," the area beneath the Vanguard unit, and expanded on the established game, with more superior rides and megablast units introduced. The set's cover card is Blazing Flare Dragon. Granblue and Spike Brothers were completed in this set.

Kagerou itself was arguably the main draw of BT02, which left a lot to live up to coming on the heels of Goku's success story. In that respect, the sealed dragons were a little too dramatic to actually live up to the consistency expectations that Goku set, but the cards drew a lot of fans all the same. Back in BT01, Kagerou was introduced with the Aleph superior ride sequence as an alternative build. The basic idea was that you would ride a specific grade 2 while having a specific grade 1 and grade 0 in the rearguard, then with the grade 2's skill put those rearguards into the soul and ride a grade 3 from your deck. This works out to a +/-0 overall when accounting for the extra drive check, so that functionally no card advantage was lost nor gained through these plays. The problem with the setup is that getting three specific cards in hand can actually be pretty troublesome, so the sequence was later refined into the Ezel model in 2012 where the grade 0 was also your first vanguard.

BT02's sealed dragons were from the same model as the Aleph cards. By riding the grade 2 Blazing Core Dragon, and putting the grade 1 Iron Tail Dragon and grade 0 Gattling Claw Dragon into the soul with Blazing Core's skill, you would ride Blazing Flare Dragon from the deck to unseal the Lord of Explosive Flames. Then came Blazing Flare's own skills. In the vanguard circle his soulblast 5 retired an opponent's rearguard, a cost that was fueled by his own superior ride sequence that gave him 4 soul to start out with, and additionally supported by the previously mentioned Gattling Claw as well as Kimnara, both units that could counterblast 1 and move to the soul to retire an opponent's rearguard of the same grade as themselves. So while Gattling Claw and Kimnara by themselves evened out by giving both their player and the opponent a -1 and limiting it to grade 0 and grade 1 units, they could eventually lead into an additional -1 to the opponent with no counterblast cost to carve out a real lead after eating up a lot of the cards in play. Blazing Flare's vanguard/rearguard skill gave him +3000 power when an opponent's rearguard was retired in the main phase, which brought some synergy between him and Kagerou's existing cards since you could having a 21000 power rearguard line going to support Overlord or Goku after using Berserk Dragon, but he didn't have the kind of strong vanguard presence that most boss cards are supposed to bring to the table.

Sealed Dragons Unleashed reprint.
As a rule, prominently featured decks of a particular set have a secondary grade 3 so that you can get most of your deck finished by buying from that one pack. Blazing Flare's secondary was Seal Dragon Blockade, a card that went from staple to tech overnight. Poor quality images of KeroKero Ace magazine with few proper scans were a recurring problem that was never resolved within the magazine's lifetime; and initial translations reading from blurry photos of KKA listed Blockade as having "Continuous 【V/R】: During your turn, your opponent's units cannot intercept." As was later found out, Blockade's skill was vanguard circle-exclusive, so you couldn't just put it down next to Dragonic Overlord and lock especial intercepts from coming into play. In an interesting interplay between the card lore and the actual game, most everyone predicted that Blockade was a preview of things to come. Blazing Flare's card lore described his seal as being broken through the combination of Blazing Core's heart with Gattling Claw's gun and Iron Tail's blade. Blockade's card lore described him as still being sealed even in his present form. Considering that BT04 was being designed at the same time that BT01 had hit the store shelves, it wasn't hard to imagine Blockade as a card that would come back in the future. Unfortunately, that wait meant that playing BT02's sealed dragons was generally not as practical as playing Goku or standard Overlord, even though Gattling Claw and Kimnara became staples of Kagerou play practically on release day.

That's in contrast to Soul Saver Dragon, probably the most infamous card to come out of the set. Soul Saver received her +3000 power just by attacking the vanguard, but only when she herself was in the vanguard circle. And when she was ridden, her soulblast 5 autoskill would give +5000 power to up to three Royal Paladin rearguards; this was the best field boost available at the time and would remain so until September of 2012, leaving cardfighters in awe at her debut in the late April issue of KeroKero Ace magazine. Your general gameplay was to first drive the opponent to 5 damage with Alfred, then ride Soul Saver Dragon to have three lanes breaking 21-26000 power before triggers, so that the opponent would have to drop around seven cards to stop every attack that turn. Generally speaking, the Holy Charging Roar maneuver was the finishing move that would close a match.

More than just the card itself though, her support system was especially good. She was directly searchable using the grade 1 Pongal whose counterblast 1 moved him to the soul to add her to the hand directly. Since the discussed gameplan involved having a previous grade 3 to factor into the soul at the moment that you would ride Saver Dragon, Pongal also acted to enable her soulblast just as well as Kimnara did for Blazing Flare. Unlike Kimnara though, Pongal himself was searchable, through the grade 2 High Dog Breeder Akane, whose on-call counterblast 2 would add Pongal to the field directly, and naturally you could also search him out with Alfred from the previous set. The Royal counterpart to Gattling Claw was Margal, a draw trigger that could move to the soul to give a Royal Paladin +3000 power, providing another way to quickly set up for SSD. All of these soul building options were extraneous in the face of one though, a different setup that had been present ever since BT01 first hit the shelves.

Most cardfighters have heard of Barcgal even if they aren't entirely aware of what exactly it was that she did to the tournament scene. Barcgal was at the time the Royal Paladins' only real first vanguard option, moving out from the soul on-ride. Generally she was placed behind the vanguard line because of her low boosting power, so that even if she stayed on the field up through grade 3 you would be able to compensate for that with Alfred, to whom her power was irrelevant. Barcgal's skill was very basic, resting in the main phase to call either Flogal or Future Knight Llew from the deck, both trigger units. This then went into Llew's skill, who paid a counterblast 1 cost to send all three of them into the soul and ride Blaster Blade from the deck, mathematically working out to a net change of +/-0 as with Blazing Flare by giving you that ride from the deck and paying the cost with units that Barcgal was giving you for free. So on the first turn you'd ride over Barcgal to call her out from the soul, then rest her to call Flogal, then on the next turn rest her to call Llew so that you were at +3, and then use Llew's skill to go to +0 and ride Blaster Blade from the deck for a +1. Barcgal and Pongal allowed Royal Paladin cardfighters to completely avoid grade 2 and 3 lock so long as they drew their grade 1s, which was an enormous advantage in a format where everything was generally less consistent than what we see in the modern age. This also built up a guaranteed five-card soul after factoring in your Alfred ride, which set up Soul Saver immediately. Where Blazing Flare had a playable but inconsistent support base and useful but expensive skill that didn't do too much on its own, Soul Saver Dragon had supporting cards that would go off in every game to make her cost practically free and devastate the opponent after building up using a grade 3 that she had a high amount of synergy with. It's a testament to her strength and versatility that SSD was still relevant up until the game's tenth booster set, and even today sees use as a mainstream soul building engine for Thing Saver Dragon.

What people tend to forget about Soul Saver is that she was originally envisioned as a counterpart to Blazing Flare. Both of them were base 10000 grade 3 dragons with soulblast 5 costs themed around their clan's specific mechanic (controlling the opponent's field vs. amassing strength in numbers) that had a +3000 power boost skill and were searched from the deck using a counterblast 1, Blazing Core vs. Pongal. Blazing Flare Dragon was marketed for a long time as Kai's new ace card, just as Soul Saver was Aichi's. Both of them were featured extensively in promo material and the anime, even getting the nendoroid treatment from Good Smile Company alongside Blaster Blade and Dragonic Overlord, but where Soul Saver turned out as one of the definitive reasons to buy the set and a major boss card across multiple years of play, Blazing Flare was mostly notable for making 21000 rearguard lines and otherwise wasn't very successful. Probably recognizing the card's dual lack of popularity and long-term potential, both Bushiroad and TMS Entertainment began phasing Blazing Flare out from the franchise after ride 29 where Aichi would keep on using SSD until the end of the first season.

Blazing Flare did build up a fanbase of his own even when he wasn't exactly at the forefront of professional play. This reflected one of Cardfight!!'s better qualities at the time. Given a sufficiently dedicated fighter, even the most lackluster of units can have the best brought out in them. Dedicated Blazing Flare decks did arise using the Vortex Dragon megablaster from the previous set for their soul synergy and alternative strategies to one another, and because Conroe's counterblast and absence from the soul wasn't always in tune with these strategies, various other first vanguards saw use in these more experimental builds that brought better diversity to the format as opposed to more cut-and-dry Kagerou decks. Since Vortex and Flare both had vanguard/rearguard skills and identical base powers they could be fairly interchangeable, and Vortex's megablast would even bump Flare up to a 19000 power base that could easily go to ~26000 with a boost.

The secondary show after Flare and Saver were Spike Brothers and Granblue, two clans that had been introduced in BT01 and seen a small amount of exposure in the anime, but were only just now becoming complete decks in their own right. Where most clans take two or more sets to develop into a strong build, the Spike Brothers stood as a contrast because they came barreling out of the door ready for competitive play. The first sign of this was that it came in with two types of critical trigger and a draw, as well as a Conroe clone in Mecha Trainer, setting it up as Kagerou 2.0 but with rapidfire assault through battle phase superior calls as the theme.

The second second sign was that the Spike Brothers' primary boss card was designed by Itou Akira. "Itou-sensei," as the father of the franchise, responsible for Cardfight!! Vanguard's original concepts and characters, works as one of the game's primary illustrators for card artworks. Alfred, Soul Saver Dragon, Dragonic Overlord, Vortex Dragon and Blaster Blade were all his work. Since Itou is primarily a manga artist and the cards that he creates are usually for whatever chapter he's currently working on, those cards are typically more outside the box than the ones made by the professional game designers.

They're supposed to be cool and appeal on an emotional level rather than a gameplay level, as well as appeal to kids--that's why you have cards like the original Blaster Blade that can arbitrarily retire anything he wants when he's placed on the vanguard circle, or Alfred who enters the field able to summon an army out of his pocket, because these cards represent Aichi's growth, the point at which he's at his most powerful as someone armed with imagination and courage, and to some extent they also embody that for the player. There a lot of symbolic cards that come from Itou that can be either really impractical or absolutely amazing. So when Seifried appeared with a big black "SECRET" box planted over him in KeroKero Ace, it was a big deal. Any time that Itou is illustrating, you know that you're in for something special.

General Seifried was originally made for chapter 4 of the manga, 004: "Join the Cardfight Club!?" where Morikawa would use him versus Aichi. Unlike a lot of manga cards, Seifried's skill survived almost completely intact in the transition from his original appearance. Befitting a card made for Morikawa, Seifried's skill activated by drive checking a grade 3 Spike Brothers, superior calling that unit to an open rearguard circle. In his original incarnation, Seifried could call it to an unoccupied circle if he wanted to, but the new open circle requirement was intended to function with the clan's grade 3 and 2 staples, Juggernaut Maximum and Highspeed Brakki. Seifried couldn't actually increase your own card advantage in this way, but he could enable a chain of attacks that would wear down the opponent by bringing out more offensive plays per turn than they would be able to anticipate, all while using his on-attack +3000 power to create a 16000+ line with the clan's specialty grade 1 Dudley Dan.

To give an overview of these key units, Juggernaut Maximum was a grade 3 from Descent of the King of Knights that has acted as the backbone of most of their best strategies since his introduction. When he attacked from the rearguard, Maximum would soulblast 1 and get +5000 power, then shuffle back into the deck at the end of the battle. This was important since he could attack independently for the big numbers of the day, or otherwise go for 21000+ power after boosting to force the opponent to drop two to three cards to stop his attack or make them take a fourth damage before Seifried went at them with a 21000 line of his own. Shuffling back into the deck meant opening up the field for another unit to call, which combo'd well with Seifried since it actually added another grade 3 Spike Brothers back to the deck, increasing the chances of his skill activating. Juggernaut also had a grade 2 counterpart in Highspeed Brakki, who had 9000 power and the same skill, but despite opening up the field in a similar manner Brakki didn't have as much synergy as Juggernaut because he couldn't improve Seifried's chances.

Unlike the majority of decks at the time, this incarnation of Spike Brothers ran three kinds of grade 3s, with the third being Sky Diver. Diver was Seifried's BT02 support, and another rearguard grade 3 like Maximum. When his attack hit, Diver would duck into the soul and call a Spike Brothers from the hand, following through on their relentless attack strategy. So for example, you could attack with an unboosted rearguard Juggernaut Maximum and his soulblast first, sending him back to the deck, then with a vanguard Seifried and drive check Sky Diver, calling him to the open circle that Maximum had created, then using Sky Diver with the booster to land another attack and call a second Maximum from the hand for a third attack, using the extra soul that Sky Diver provided to fuel Maximum. Every attack in the sequence comes in at full power, while Seifried forces the opponent to consider that they may be facing two to three more attacks that turn instead of just one, and Sky Diver acts as a pressure unit that makes them want to guard--even if you have something like a 19000 line with Diver and Wonder Boy against their 9000-power Maiden of Libra or a trigger on Diver's booster that brings their line up to 21000+ power. It's been noted elsewhere that Spike Brothers' dual 11000-power rearguard setup was so effective in BT02 that they could actually be run without Seifried, and this was an acceptable approach for the time, but the decks that topped ran all three options in tandem with priority given to Juggernaut and Seifried.

The last of their supporting units was actually a grade 1, Dudley Dan, who when he boosted a Spike Brothers vanguard would counterblast 2, move a card from the hand to the soul, and then call any Spike Brothers to an open rearguard circle from the deck. This was invaluable because in spite of his low power and his skill not actually being a plus, Dan could get anything he wanted onto the field while forming at least a 15000 power line with any grade 3 Spike Brother. So you could actually search out and call those Juggernaut Maximums or Sky Divers whenever you wanted, opening up the possibility of using two in any combination of Brakki and Maximum before the vanguard attacked and then using Dan to fill one of those circles while Seifried filled the other. Early in the match you could even use him to call Devil Summoner, whose skill would then reveal the top card of the deck and call it if it were a grade 1 or 2 Spike Brothers, allowing for an actual +1. All these maneuvers came at the price of counterblast that otherwise went virtually unused in Spike Brothers and putting poor cards like draw triggers in the soul to get better ones from the deck, fueling more soulblasts.

The result was a clan that was very good at quickly grabbing up small leads and then eating into the opponent's hand to stress the lead's importance. Although he does not play perfectly, if you consider the video below--uploaded on BT02's release day--by the seven minute mark the Spike Brothers cardfighter has himself at +1 and his opponent at -4, a five card difference made by taking advantage of Mecha Trainer, Dudley Dan, Devil Summoner, Sky Diver and Juggernaut Maximum to quickly cut into his opponent's hand. While checking several draw triggers helped him, as did his opponent's booster troubles, this gives you a good view of how Spike Brothers played around Onslaught of Dragon Souls.

The main issue with the Spike Brothers strategy was that while they had a great trigger setup and excellent search skills, their winning image involved a string of self-induced losses with very weak grade 1 options outside of Dan and Wonder Boy, and their grade 3 makeup was awkward compared to other clans that could just pick two grade 3s and go 4-4 of them, enough so that the center lane was more often than not an 11000 power vanilla. General Seifried was the best and only real vanguard option, but was a terrible card to actually drive check with his skill because getting him off the field to make room for more capable units was difficult, so you'd see people running decks like 3 Seifried-4 Juggernaut Maximum-2 Sky Diver. This was made possible because most of what the vanguard lane was actually doing in a game was being done by Dudley Dan rather than Seifried himself, and Seifried just made a good 16000+ line with Dan. Diver was searched out by Dan, but Maximum was the key to pre-Dan and pre-Siefried plays, so you had to draw Maximum rather than search him, hence why he was run at 4.

Seifried did set the standards for the Spike Brothers vanguards to come, as a high-offense low-defense vanguard. The mainstays of the future would follow a similar theme of having a 10000 power base and getting +3000 power when attacking the vanguard. Looking back, it's unfortunate that Seifried has been outclassed after so long, because it's a really fun card and Itou created a cool character. The card just didn't come with enough guarantees compared to the amount of commitment you had to put in by sending one to two rearguards back into the deck.

While Royal Paladin stole the show with its Soul Saver deck, of everything introduced by BT02, the Spike Brothers definitely got the best deal. In the context of its own format, Spike Brothers had an amazing raw introduction and was a part of competitive play the moment that Onslaught hit the shelves. Not very many clans can actually attest to that kind of debut. By contrast, Granblue had a relatively barebones introduction that wasn't followed up on directly enough. Their theme was built around being a crew of undead pirates able to resurrect infinitely so that the opponent could never truly count any unit on the field out, and on sending cards from the deck to the drop zone for power, gradually wearing away at the one resource that will absolutely kill you if it runs out, the deck itself.

Their boss card, King of Demonic Seas Basskirk, was also the clan megablaster with a standard main phase soulcharge to get +2000 power. His Bermuda Gate megablast would allow for up to five rearguards to be called from the drop zone to different rearguard circles, which had the dual effect of being able to reuse any on-call skills by calling some of those rearguards over existing ones to send those rearguards to the drop zone while the skill was still in resolution and then call the ones that had just been sent. This skill was rarely a straight +5 as it may appear, since most circles usually were filled that late in a match, but it allowed for total and absolute control of the rearguard, which was what Granblue prided itself on.

To support Basskirk you had Spirit Exceed, a variation on the Blazing Flare superior ride that avoided needing a specific grade 2 altogether. By putting the critical trigger Knight Spirit and the grade 1 Samurai Spirit into your soul when you had a grade 2 vanguard, you could ride Spirit Exceed from the drop zone. The catch with this is that you had to get Exceed into the drop zone first, which Granblue could only handle through nonspecific "send X amount of cards to the drop zone" cards that used these deck destruction tactics as costs to get power boosts.

So where Blazing Flare could be safely run at 2 copies because he was ridden from the deck, Exceed was designed to be run in as many copies as possible despite being a 10000 power vanilla with no skills outside of his superior ride. The benefits of riding him in this way were enormous since you were looking at three extra soul for Basskirk, likely putting you in the range of six or seven soul after riding the King of Demonic Seas, but it was inconsistent and hard to pull off.

Where Granblue really shined were its rearguards. The Samurai Spirit that Spirit Exceed wanted for his own support was actually a unit that far outlived him, because it had 7000 base power and could counterblast 1 from the drop zone and retire a Granblue rearguard to come back to life. While it was a net change of +/-0, Samurai Spirit had the benefit of being next to impossible to actually kill while also letting you put key units into the drop zone so that you could manage your field well, and it was semi-searchable for that superior ride sequence. Captain Nightmist (left) was a similar unit but at grade 2, who would retire a grade 1 or greater Granblue with his counterblast in order to resurrect. This created a hole in Granblue's synergy. Their lead card was a megablaster, but their resurrection mechanic was dependent on counterblast to function and the clan had no damage unflipping skills. Basskirk would be great if you could use his skill consistently, but because Spirit Exceed's superior ride wasn't generally worth dedicating the grade 3 space to, you would only keep it around in case it happened by happy coincidence and instead of waiting around for the 8 soul to megablast with your strategy was to use that soul as fuel for soulblast skills and not care about how much of your damage zone you were using in the meantime. Captain Nightmist would also get +3000 power if there was a Nightmist in the drop zone, but this only worked in the vanguard circle when it really needed to be vanguard/rearguard to work well.

The main way that Granblue made use of the soul was through Dancing Cutlass, a clone of the Oracle Think Tank card Luck Bird, who when called would soulblast 2 to draw a card. In this way you could exploit Basskirk's high soul count to rapidly plus, doing things like using Samurai Spirit as your grade 1 ride early in the game, then later on calling Cutlass to send Samurai into the drop zone and get a +1 and then using Samurai's counterblast to retire Cutlass and call Samurai Spirit as a more effective booster. Since the clan's main critical trigger, Rough Seas Banshee, was also a move-to-soul-to-draw copy of OraThin's Psychic Bird, this also played back into Cutlass, drawing more cards to draw more Cutlass to draw more cards and eventually set up a field of Samurai Spirit boosters. The whole thing was brought down by Captain Nightmist though, who couldn't hit more than 15000 power with Spirit and so would flop against any 11000-power vanguard.

The reason that I keep mentioning that there wasn't much room for Spirit Exceed is because of Negromarl, the grade 3 that everyone underestimated and then found themselves running once the set was actually out. Negromarl set a record for the lowest base power of a grade 3, but his on-call counterblast 2 could call anything from the drop zone, which is even more potent of a +1 than it sounds because Negromarl could be turned into Samurai Spirit instantly, so you could get around the Nightmist issues entirely by calling something like Ruin Shade or another good grade 2 in front of Negromarl and then using Samurai's counterblast to kill Negromarl and resurrect Samurai Spirit in his place. The problem is that you could never really ride Negromarl, so you could never have as many copies as you wanted of him but you also couldn't have enough of him. Similar to Spike Brothers, the grade 3 setup was strange for its day, so that you were looking at something like 3 Basskirk-2 Spirit Exceed-3 Negromarl.

Granblue's weakness was that its core strategy was based on dancing around Vanguard's "Golden Snitch" condition--the deck out. By continuously pouring cards into the drop zone, you could make better and stronger plays, but no matter what your damage was the moment that your deck ran out you would lose the game. So you had to play with a long-term plan in mind to avoid gameplay suicide, but you were also in constant danger of sending triggers to the drop zone and creating dead drive checks, so you had to memorize what the most recent cards to come out of your deck were to get an idea of if you were about to see triggers or not, and how many triggers of each kind you had remaining to play Granblue well. The problem with this is that all the skilled play didn't really pay off compared to playing Spike Brothers from the same set or any of the previously established clans. Granblue didn't have a good center line going and what you were really looking at was a pair of vanilla 10000 vanguards, one of which could build up a good soul for Dancing Cutlass abuse but otherwise didn't have a lot of tricks up its sleeves. The ability to manage your rearguards was a powerful tool, but the columns that you created weren't always that great. Compared to Royal Paladin, Kagerou, Oracle Think Tank and Spike Brothers, the only other clan that couldn't make consistent 20-21000+ lanes in some form was Nova Grappler.

On that subject, BT02 was not the upgrade the Grapplers were looking for. The booster introduced Lion Heat, whose counterblast 2 did different things depending on which circle he was in. In all cases he needed to land an attack against the vanguard, but if he was in the vanguard circle when doing so he could stand a Nova Grappler rearguard, while if he was in the rearguard he could only stand a grade 1 or lesser Grappler. Running him in place of Mr. Invincible, you had a vanguard that could act as a pressure unit in the midgame by getting the opponent to guard when they normally wouldn't or otherwise let you get the opponent to five damage faster to transition into Asura Kaiser for more of an impact, or a supporting unit for Kaiser that could stand boosters while Kaiser stood the frontrow rearguards. The problem with this is that if you used him after Kaiser, assuming that Kaiser's skill went off, you were telegraphing to the opponent how you intended to use Heat, but if you used him before then you were dedicating 2 counterblast with no guarantee of standing a full column.

Heat's vanguard role was really undermined by Kaiser doing his skill for free, and due to the nature of it you wanted to ride Kaiser as soon as possible as those grade 3s would generally be coming out of the deck sooner than later. The skill would have been leagues more playable if it could activate when hitting a rearguard, and/or if the vanguard version of it standed an entire column, but as it was printed it just wasn't very effective compared to using Mr. Invincible to recycle counterblast. BT02 did finally open up a strong counterblast option in Magician Girl Kirara, a Nova print of Maiden of Libra, and when compared to Heat she was more practical in general as both pressure and for what her skill actually did, so the counterblast was better dedicated over there.

Ultimately, Goku was not what stormed the national championship. The tools were there, and Kimnara even gave the deck additional retire options while Gattling Claw acted as a countercard to move-to-rearguard first vanguards, but standard Overlord was was more popular in the BT02-on format. There's also the issue of parallel development--while English-speaking cardfighters figured out Goku early, he didn't gain widespread recognition in Japan until he became the secret deck in the 2011 Grand Prix. Instead Soul Saver Dragon rose to prominence here, creating an enormous lock in the tournament listings where Royal Paladin served as a cutoff point between decks that could make it and decks that could not.

Never before had a card of Soul Saver's caliber touched the professional scene. This was the first time that a real, modern strategy with all of its overwhelming power and consistency had been put in the hands of fighters. With BT02's added soul support, direct search skills and holdover cards from BT01 acting to help set up Saver Dragon, Royal cardfighters had zero trouble paying her five-card soulblast. From the fourth turn onward, +5000 power to three rearguards was almost free in a standard Royal Paladin deck, and came attached to the most advanced forms of grade 2 and grade 3 searching yet available. The game has never been played the same way since, and her impact was such that up until the New Year six months after, it was very difficult to imagine a world in which Soul Saver would not dominate.

Saver Dragon's era began with the Sendai regional tournament, where Murakami Kazuya's deck first defined the senior format, and following this the pro scene was met with an influx of Royal Paladin decks that cemented their total dominance over the world of pros that would go virtually unchallenged for the next sixteen months. Ironically, his opponent Gotou Hirotaka, once regarded as out of touch with what BT02 was introducing to the format, would go on to be regarded as ahead of his time when the Alfred deck that he pioneered was perfected early in the 2012 tournament cycle.

By the time of the national finals for the Summer 2011 National Championship, there were two qualified cardfighters from each region participating in the senior nationals, with all but two of them fighting with a Soul Saver Dragon-based Royal Paladin deck. These sixteen were the original leading figures in the pro world, although most of them would not be taking future titles due to the sudden shift in the format. Notably, Takagi Tatsuki did later reappear after converting to the Shadow Paladin deck, as part of the 2012 Team Festival's Hakata team.
  1. (Sendai) Murakami Kazuya (村上和也) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon, Gotou Hirotaka (後藤裕隆) - Alfred / Bors
  2. (Sapporo) Ishiwaka Yuuji (石若佑二) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon, Nozaki Koutarou (野崎耕太郎) - General Siefried / Juggernaut Maximum / Sky Diver
  3. (Hakata) Takagi Tatsuki (高木龍輝) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon, Sakamoto Takuma (坂本卓磨) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon
  4. (Osaka) Anonymous (匿名) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon, Kagota Tatsuya (駕田達哉) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon / Alfred Early
  5. (Okayama) Shitakawachi Kouta (下河内広太) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon, Sakamoto Kan (坂本歓) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon
  6. (Nagoya) Kagami Takuya (鏡味拓也) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon, Kamachi Yutaka (蒲池豊) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon / CEO Amaterasu
  7. (Tokyo B-Block) Nomiya Youhei (野宮陽平) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon / Alfred Early, Kashimura Yuuta (鹿志村祐太) - Dragonic Overlord / Dragonic Executioner
  8. (Tokyo A-Block) Kawashima Shoutaka (川島掌太) - Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon / Alfred Early, Shimamoto Yuuichi (島本雄一) - Alfred / Gigantech Charger
(The Osaka regional champion is signed as 匿名 tokumei meaning that he did not wish for his name to be known. This is very rare as most pros prefer the publicity, but to this day his identity remains undiscovered.)

July 2011
Out of all this, Shitakawachi Kouta was crowned national champion, with Murakami taking second and Kagami Takuya third, creating a Royal Paladin best three. While the majority of pros did go toward the established and stable Soul Saver deck, the field was not completely devoid of innovation. The juniors' division of this era was in the midst of one of its most innovative periods, with Kagerou coming out as the most prolific decktype, and as the junior cardfighters caught on to what their seniors were doing, they began to adapt and experiment with the Royal Paladin deck for their own purposes. Unlike with the seniors, many cardfighters from this division are still active today; three national championship titles belong to junior fighters who started playing during this period.
  1. (Sendai) Satou Rei (佐藤伶) - Dragonic Overlord / Blockade, Ohara Takeshi (小原雄志) - CEO Amaterasu / Oracle Guardian, Apollon
  2. (Sapporo) Otani Yuuhi (大谷友飛) - King of Knights, Alfred / Gigantech Charger / Alfred Early / Solitary Knight, Gancelot, Marunaka Shouta (丸中翔太) - General Siefried / Juggernaut Maximum / Sky Diver
  3. (Hakata) Outa Ichiki (太田壱基) - CEO Amaterasu / Oracle Guardian, Apollon, Yadosato Kousei (宿里幸生) - Dragonic Overlord / Blazing Flare Dragon
  4. (Osaka) Nishara Tomoya (西原朋弥) - Dragonic Overlord / Sealed Dragon, Blockade / Demonic Dragon Berserker, Yaksha, Nakagawa Asuka (中川明日香) - Asura Kaiser / Mr. Invincible / Lion Heat
  5. (Okayama) Kamosaki Mayu (鴨崎真悠) - Embodiment of Victory, Aleph / Sealed Dragon, Blockade / Dragonic Overlord, Horikawa Kanata (堀川奏太) - King of Knights, Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon
  6. (Nagoya) Horikawa Eiki (堀川詠生) - Asura Kaiser / Mr. Invincible / Genocide Joker, Eboshida Daito (烏帽子田大翔) - Asura Kaiser / Mr. Invincible / Genocide Joker
  7. (Tokyo B-Block) Hirano Yuutaro (平野裕太郎) - King of Knights, Alfred / Demon Slaying Knight, Lohengrin / Alfred Early / Solitary Knight, Gancelot, Saitou Souta (斎藤綜太) - King of Knights, Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon
  8. (Tokyo A-Block) Yamamoto Akihiro (山本晃大) - King of Knights, Alfred / Soul Saver Dragon, Miyama Akito (深山暁人) - Dragonic Overlord / Embodiment of Victory, Aleph, Blazing Flare Dragon
Kamosaki Mayu would go on to become the Grand Prix National Champion, and reappear in the Fighter's Road 2012 senior class competitions. Before qualifying at Nagoya, Horikawa Eiki had previously participated as the third place finalist in Osaka using a traditional Royal Paladin deck, then placing in Nagoya with a Royal Paladin-Nova Grappler hybrid, and would go on to become a major player in Fighter's Road 2012 alongside Okayama runner-up Horikawa Kanata, where their team would take the Kanazawa regional Trio Fight cup.

Eboshida Daito was using a close to identical hybrid deck in 2011, and would later become the runner-up for the FR2012 Kanazawa regional championship, using a Gold Paladin deck. In an interesting historical coincidence, Horikawa Eiki and Eboshida Daito first appeared together in the 2011 Nagoya finals; among the finalists was a young Rikino Sakura in third place with her own variation on the hybrid deck, who would become the first consecutive national champion as well as the first female champion during the Grand Prix and FR2012. Eboshida also reappeared in mid-2013 in the best eight of Kanazawa's FR2013 junior tournaments, using a new Gold Paladin deck.

In a surprise move, Kamosaki would convert to the Soul Saver build for his championship matches, taking the title of national champion while Hirano Yuutarou would become the runner-up, and Otani Yuuhi would round out their own Royal Paladin best three. Kamosaki used other means of soulcharging, through Giro and Margal's skills, to make room for Alfred Early in his deck while Otani's take was geared toward versatility, using Mr. Invincible's unflipping to fuel many different skills from single-copy grade 3s, and supporting his megablast with the Barcgal line.

While most westerners had no comprehension of Japanese at the time, thanks to the efforts of Sakota (an earlier community organizer in whose shadow I am forever laboring) and the then-booming Vanguard Rider forums, the national tournament results were well publicized among the international community. At the time westerners did feel it was strange that Royal Paladin was maintaining such total dominance over tournament play. From her debut in KeroKero Ace magazine, Soul Saver Dragon was expected to do well--right from the moment the card was unveiled, she was thought of as the new Royal Paladin in the sense that Blazing Flare was the new Kagerou. She was not supposed to do this well, however. Attention should be paid to the fact that no one at the time knew why. Up until the very day that Barcgal was restricted, nobody knew what was wrong the deck, and very few people believed that the tournament was being affected by game imbalance. The general consensus was that RoyPala was popular and had a lot of support, and if they didn't take the cup then Kagerou would.

This next subject is a point that few fighters are willing to admit, because in general the balance in Vanguard is done so well that any clan can fight on equal standings with what is currently dominating professional play. Game balance has been a kind of sacred cow for the game since its inception. However, every other clan being able to consistently beat the top builds does not mean that there are no dominant builds. Soul Saver Dragon was objectively the best deck in format circa VG-BT02. If you consider how Royal Paladin was being run around BT09, it was essentially unchanged. Certain key units were updated--Bors changed out for Palamedes, Randolf for Lamorak and so on--but the roles played were identical. The deck no longer had access to Barcgal, so Wingal Brave or Drangal and three types of critical trigger with some copies of Margal mixed in to finish setting up the soul were run instead. The deck still had its cohesive strategy, while the greatest difference in play was that it could take longer to prepare five soul, but even that was countered by Sharron, Margal, Dream Painter, Pendragon and other soul-focused cards. Soul Saver remaining unchanged while the rest of the builds were being constantly updated and innovated upon highlights her nature as the-then best deck in format. Why risk not getting a grade 2 in hand, when you could play Soul Saver and unfailingly ride a grade 2 in every game? Why try to set up a megablast at all when Soul Saver has a cheaper cost and even more dramatic skill? Why try to take the lead in advantage through Kagerou's retire skills when you could get that by playing Blaster Blade and more with the Soul Saver support? Why try to play Oracle Think Tank's card advantage game when you can take the lead instead by directly searching and calling units to the field with Royals?

Barcgal was the cornerstone unit to Soul Saver's reign as the best deck in format, but he was not the ultimate source of her effectiveness and his end should not be confused with her end. Would-be pro fighters often like to tout Barcgal as "broken" but this is a new idea. If you were to time travel back to May 2011 and suggest to a group of cardfighters that Barcgal was somehow unfair, you would be laughed out of the room. When the restriction came about, the general reaction was that it made sense and was "probably" for the better. Nobody threw their hands up in the air screaming about how he was broken or that Bushiroad should have restricted him from the start. The idea of "Broken Barcgal" is a 2012 invention that overhypes a card that was called "okay" in his own time. Like all BT01 first vanguards, Barcgal's primary goal is to leave the field, and in a fashion that hurts the fighter's advantage as it was built up to that point. Soul Saver's long reign is the product of a combination of highly effective skills with an extreme amount of synergy to one another. Her consistency was unprecedented in the 2011 format and she remains one of the best decks of all time, setting both the precedent for every competitive deck to follow and the model for the Royal Paladins of the future. When the new Royal Paladins of the G-era debuted in G-BT01: Generation Stride three years later, their primary boss cards Altomile and Saint Blow Dragon were Soul Saver and Alfred made modern.

Moving away from just the historical context, a typical setup for Soul Saver Dragon decks was to ride Lien, move Barcgal to the rearguard, then rest him to call Flogal and use Lien's skill to change out anything unneeded like excess copies of Alfred (Flogal always preceded Llew regardless of turn order; logic being that critical was more valuable to the deck and Flogal was usually run in lower numbers, so damage checking her on the opponent's turn would guarantee that there were none left in the deck.) On the next turn they would use Lien's card change skill again, then rest Barcgal to superior call Knight of the Future, Llew, and activate Llew's counterblast 1 to soulcharge Barcgal, Flogal and Llew and superior ride Blaster Blade from the deck. Because both ride and call always default to the stand position, Blaster Blade would come out standing, which is how Lien could be capitalized on in the same turn.

From here there were a couple ways that the game could play out; generally you would spend your initial grade 3 turn as the King of Knights, Alfred. Alfred gains +2000 power for each Royal Paladin rearguard but can't be boosted, and in those days his skill was invaluable because only the Kagerou, Nova Grappler and Spike Brothers clans had base 11000 grade 3 units. So Alfred could hit major players like CEO Amaterasu, Goku and Mr. Invincible for all the right numbers to outright demand 20000 shield to defend with, climbing up to 25000 if they wanted to guarantee that his attack would not go through. Because all Royal Paladin grade 3s at the time were base 10000, for being able to touch 20000 consistently Alfred was his own best counter. Amaterasu's continuous skill could do something similar while also hitting base 11000 units, but was dependent on having four cards in hand, and that conditional factor gave her a difficult late game because of how much shield she was dropping each turn to stop Alfred. Dragonic Overlord could also break these numbers, but required a counterblast 3 to do so and was only likely to get this skill off once or twice in the game. General Seifried and Soul Saver Dragon were the only other units that could do what Alfred did consistently, and the fact that every Royal Paladin grade 3 in the deck can reach these same numbers gave pressure toward the RoyPala play style over other clans.

The turns spent as Blaster Blade and Alfred would be spent setting up the final turn. As touched on previously, Pongal was very popular since with his and Barcgal's skills both grade 2 and 3 could be guaranteed by the Royal Paladin deck of the time. Pongal could also be targeted for a search by both High Dog Breeder, Akane at grade 2 and by Alfred, regardless of whether these units were in the vanguard or rearguard circles. Essentially, no matter how the game progressed Soul Saver Dragon could be guaranteed to the hand with Pongal while the five soul for her soulblast was already prepared by the Barcgal-Flogal-Llew combo. As long as no frontrow units were called during the first turn, the opponent would have to attack the vanguard to guarantee themselves a drive check and not fall behind in card advantage, creating a situation where the opponent was forced to activate the superior ride.

That isn't to say that there weren't counters to Barcgal, but they all depended on the Royal Paladin cardfighter taking the second turn rather than the first. In that situation, Kagerou cardfighters could retire Barcgal with Gattling Claw Dragon for a simple counterblast 1, or if the RoyPala opponent had checked a critical trigger, then either Berserk Dragon or (in a mirror match) a vanguard Blaster Blade could do the same. This was unfortunately dependent on a coin flip, die roll or janken. Like Conroe, Battleraizer and Guiding Zombie, Barcgal was never really intended to be stopped. A skilled fighter could overcome the Royal Paladin deck of the time, and in fact many fighters did so--using other Royal Paladin decks. Unfortunately, this set a historical precedent for the future. When one deck emerges with many strengths and no concrete weaknesses, the majority of pros tend toward that deck rather than toward giving themselves a harder time with others.

After several turns of swinging with Alfred the opponent was likely in the range of 4~5 damage, so what remained was to ride Soul Saver Dragon, triggering her soulblast 5 for +5000 power to three rearguards. The rearguard setup of the time typically used Blaster Blade for his on-call retire skill, Gallatin for his base 10000 power and the 11000-power attacker Randolf as a substitute for a second Gallatin, which the Royal Paladins did not have access to in those days. The grade 3 Knight of Conviction Bors was also a very valuable rearguard, since he could counterblast 1 when attacking for +3000 power, breaking the 21000 line with Marron as his booster. A typical assembly of the deck can be seen below, with key cards highlighted in blue, while you can refer to the official website for Shitakawachi Kouta's national championship decklist.

"Cardfight!! Vanguard the Keychain" merchandise
Grade 0
x1 Barcgal (FV)
x4 Yggdrasil Maiden, Elaine HT
x2 Flogal ST
x4 Knight of the Future, Llew CT
x3 Bringer of Good Luck, Epona CT
x3 Margal DT
Grade 1
x3 Flash Shield, Iseult
x4 Little Sage, Marron
x4 Lake Maiden, Lien
x4 Pongal
Grade 2
x4 Blaster Blade
x4 Knight of Silence, Gallatin
x1 Covenant Knight, Randolf
x2 High Dog Breeder, Akane
Grade 3
x4 King of Knights, Alfred
x2 Soul Saver Dragon
x1 Knight of Conviction, Bors 

The September 5th Restriction
One disadvantage to Barcgal being restricted is that it effectively put the developing pro scene on  indefinite hold. The restriction was first announced on August 3rd, 2011, taking effect on September 5th, and every effort to perfect the strategy was put aside. Had Barcgal remained active, soul-heavy Lohengrin and decks relying on cards like Borgal and Gigantech Dozer would have a greater presence in the pro scene, the eventual Majesty Lord Blaster deck would have had deeper competition at the professional level, and the Blaster deck itself would have several more ways to run its plays.

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