Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Top 20 Cards of 2011

As we head in to the last month of the year, and the release BT09 prevents a verdict from being drawn on just how 2012's competitive season will be closed, one question hanging above the pro scene's collective heads is just how deeply 2011 continues to affect the modern game. Contrary to the situation in certain contemporary TCGs, many old cards in Vanguard can make returns from year to year and modify the current format, and 2011's influence on 2012 has become more apparent in the aftermath of the Summer 2012 Japanese national season, as Gotou Kiyomi's Alfred deck has quickly embedded itself in both the Japanese and English formats. So while it's a little early to be definitively talking about the most influential cards of 2012 just yet, let's turn our eye to what last year is doing to us now.

#20 Wingal

Those of you familiar with my extensive discussion on how Wingal has affected the game's progressing format will not be surprised to see him here. At his introduction Wingal was Cardfight's autoflush toilet--a quickly-passing fad, he provided an alternate 16000+ line for Blaster Blade, but otherwise fell short of the mark without Starlight Unicorn on the field. Early Paladin decks that lacked top-of-deck superior calls or Alfred were free to include Bahr instead, or otherwise shift into Lien and Iseult once the first set was released. Wingal still had considerable influence on other clans, and his family of cards have gained momentum because of crossride proliferation, hitting just right to force 10000 shield out of Dragonic Overlord The End and similar units. Wingal also comes with very few strings attached due to being a 6000 booster for either Gallatin or Lamorak, and his family can also forcibly retire very common 9000-power grade 2s. For all these good qualities and the fact that he's aging like wine, Wingal gets the 20th place on this list.

#19 Flash Shield, Iseult

Like Wingal, Iseult is a card that's shared between many clans but never has quite the same text each time. Unlike Wingal, Iseult is now considered a staple card and necessary for any and all decks in the professional scene, usually in amounts of 3 or 4. While the evolution of the game has caused trends in deckbuilding to sometimes cut this back as far as 2, no deck is complete without at least that many perfect defense cards, and they've become an enduring necessity in all formats. This is one card that will likely never leaving the game, cementing her as the 19th most influential card of 2011.

#18 Weather Girl, Milk

Now a standard part of Think Tank decks, Milk's skill is much farther reaching in influence than just that. She taught us how to really boost a vanguard and use our skills together. It's because of Milk that OraThin was able to get its strong vanguard push into gear, and similar units have since been standardized all across the board for less directly powerful clans. While some may criticize point 18 for being too similar to point 20, Milk is a significant difference because she puts emphasis on the center line and has always been more effective than Wingal for directly forming a 20-24000 column with Amaterasu that went on to inspire Evil Shade, Leaf Racoon and many others. Her type of unit is not as glued to the pro scene as Iseult, but the influence is still far reaching and without Tron further down the line, Blond Ezel would be missing much of the success that he now touts. For teaching us how to make real power happen, I rank Milk above the previous two.

#17 Solitary Knight, Gancelot

Gancelot was the first grade 3 truly stuck to the Paladins, and is one of the oldest cards ever printed at this point, having originated from the very first trial deck. While his counterblast 2 proved to be expensive and conditional, Gancelot was the first card to have a skill that activates in the hand, preceding Iseult by several weeks. His ability to shuffle back into the deck and add Blaster Blade to the hand is the first example we ever had of a skill based around grade security, going on to influence multiple first vanguards and combo units in sets to come. He immediately outshined Brigitte in TD01, as both the heavy hitter of the Paladins and a simultaneous deck searcher that was useful for both getting off the second turn ride and calling rearguard Blades later in the game. Despite his low defensive power, the Solitary Knight has never quite left RoyPala decks, usually coming up in copies of 2 or 3 in both BT02's Soul Saver deck and BT05's Majesty Lord Blaster builds. The ability to search is simply one of the more valuable skills in the game, and it helps that Gancelot turns Blade into a searchable Berserk Dragon for field advantage purposes.

#16 Dark Cat

Dark Cat is one of the trickier units in Cardfight. An immediate draw is always helpful, and Cat comes with the maximum amount of raw power that a skilled grade 1 can have, but allowing the opponent to do the same is a drawback that leaves many cardfighters uncomfortable. It took much longer for the greater impact of Cat to sink in for most fighters, as the fact that Cat does give an immediate advantage was overlooked at the time of TD04's initial release. With both fighters drawing, the net effect that this has on the game is normally zero, since both fighters have equal capacity to attack and defend. However, without actually modifying the total advantage of either fighter, Cat allows his fighter to play one more card than normal and still meet the conditions to activate CEO Amaterasu and Goddess of Flower Divination, Sakuya's continuous skills, make a vanguard line that breaks the 21000+ border very easy to achieve. Since this also combos with Milk and Mocha, Cat aids in forming base 18000 rearguard lines and a vanguard line over 23000 to negate the main advantage of crossride units.

Cat's usefulness has only grown over time, finding deep importance for Tsukuyomi decks by shaving off cards from the top of the deck to reach a preformed stack of triggers, and for CoCo decks by forming the same 23000/18000 lines discussed above with both Glace and Mocha. Due to that easily formed line with Mocha, Dark Cat is also a choice unit for the new Battle Sister deck. His introduction scaled up Think Tank's scope of play, and sped up the game in general by creating a precedent for similar on-call draw cards like Nemain to come into greater proliferation.

#15 Super Electromagnetic Being, Storm

Storm is another card from the paired TD03-04 release, and again an overlooked subject. He tends to be forgotten as the originator of the ability to unflip damage on-hit, as thinking that Cursed Lancer created the skill is a common mistake, but that should key you into just how widespread the skill has since become. Storm however, makes it work much better than Lancer can, as he was designed for the original unflipping clan, Nova Grappler. His combo with Gold Rutile's passive vanguard ability allows two damage to be unflipped with one attack, putting added pressure on the opponent to guard at that moment, while Rutile itself can counterblast 2 to stand Storm for a second attack when his own attack hits, then have Storm put those just-counterblasted cards face up once more. For similar reasons Storm has worked well with Kaiser, as while that puts the unflip back down to 1, it gives Storm more opportunities to go through from the get-go. Nova Grappler may not have a whole lot of incentive to unflip without cards like Genocide Joker or Jack in the deck, but when it does need to get it done, Storm does it better than any other copy to come. With the dawn of the definitive Beast Deity deck, his role has become more necessary than ever before.

#14 Godhawk, Ichibyoshi

Ichibyoshi is the FVG for what is arguably the most famous Think Tank line. Being able to draw out superior rides of Tsukuyomi across successive turns from the top of the deck is powerful, but even more than that the card is valued for his ability to gradually stack the deck four or five cards at a time. With the aid of Tsukuyomi's supporting units, cutting down the space between oneself and the stack can be a daunting but nonetheless realistic task to accomplish. What I find most unique about Ichibyoshi though, is how the card has grown in the year since its release. The Godhawk-Tsukuyomi series was originally seen as "just" the best option that OraThin had at the time, praised for the grade security but otherwise passed over as a deck build that would come and go as new cards were released. What we see here is a case of the anime directly interacting with and influencing real life, as up until Misaki completely stacked and drive checked into her stack in rides 61-62, nobody knew that the Tsukuyomi line could do this. The strategy was planned and originated by a fictional character, and is now in widespread use among Tsukuyomi cardfighters, such that it has now become the main strategy of the deck.

#13 Fullbau

Another grade security FVG, Fullbau's introduction in BT04 marked the beginning of a new way of Cardfight. Coming out of the evolving rides of EB03, Fullbau brought with him the concept of a combined evolving ride, automatically adding the grade 2 Blaster Dark to the hand when the grade 1 Blaster Javelin was ridden over him. This pattern of 0-1-2 and then using the grade 1 unit in the rearguard to search a grade 3 proved highly successful, with an at least 41% chance to go off before factoring in the redraw, and it would go on to become one of the most prolific styles of play. Each member in the series also gave +1000 additional power to the next one in line, eventually creating 11000 power vanguards like Phantom Blaster Dragon, Stern Blaukruger and Enigman Storm. The 5000-6000/8000-9000/10000-10000/11000 power Fullbau-type chain ride was later reimagined in EB02 as Riviere's 4000-7000/8000-9000/10000-10000/11000 chain ride that simply searched out the top 7 cards of the deck for the grade 2, while alternatively moving the grade 0 unit to the rearguard on turns when its skills failed. While this came at the cost of the grade 1's ability to search for the line's grade 3, the modern form of Fullbau is arguably more reliable due to its move-to-rearguard clause, additional power backing the grade 1 and the unique on-ride skills that each member in the chain from grade 2 upwards possesses. It's certainly more prolific than the original form of the chain, being near-ubiquitous among Gold Paladin, Great Nature, Neo Nectar, Tachikaze and the Dimension Police clans.

#12 Battleraizer

Battleraizer's inclusion in this list has some simple reasoning behind it. Chronologically he's the second FVG to move to the rearguard, right on the heels of Lozenge Magus, and that one skill has grown to become a defining point for virtually every skilled starter today. While pre-EB02 Fullbau-type FVGs still stick to the soul no matter what, Riviere and her successors eventually incorporated this aspect into a 4000 base that makes a best of both worlds approach, combining Fullbau and Battleraizer into a single template. The reason that this slot is not taken up by Lozenge is that Battleraizer also went on to become a focal card for the Raizer series, today known as one among the strongest and most competitive Nova Grappler builds alongside Death Army and Beast Deity decks. This new play style was the only definitive alternative that the Grapplers had aside from their "best combination" deck of the Blau series and Death Army cards in late 2011, and the Raizer series generally turned up over that style due to its potential for massive power and critical gain. Even today this style is still a strong contender, one that has endured through multiple game-changers like crossride and limit break to survive in our current format.

#11 Lizard Soldier, Conroe

Conroe took the formula of an outrider card and added with it the ability to instantly grab any grade 1 or lower card from the deck. That's an enormously powerful skill, since it not only allows for a perfect defense card to come to the hand instantly, but it also allows for single cards to be included in the deck without fear of never drawing them. With the release of units like Flame of Promise, Aermo and Lizard Soldier, Raopia, who only have a limited field use and generally don't want to be drawn outside of that, Conroe only gets more powerful with each new development in Kagerou. The card also combats the issue of gradelock, since a Kagerou fighter can simply ride a trigger after taking damage and use Conroe to retrieve a grade 1, mitigating how hard being locked can hit the fighter down to a two turns at the most. It's doubtful that a more useful FVG will ever be printed; there are very few clans that would choose a different FVG over receiving their own version of Conroe.

#10 Asura Kaiser

Arguably the best vanguard that Nova Grappler has ever received, Kaiser's place is fairly straightforward. First, he numbers among the earliest of base 11000 units, defensively the best that you could do until BT05, and still very much a current number eleven boosters after his release. His actual skill, standing a rearguard when you drive check a grade 3 Nova Grappler, was very powerful in the beginning for grade 3-heavy decks, as the twin drive opened this up to potentially standing an entire line, and the release of the Death Army sibling units has opened this up to a full-field stand. Kaiser has always been freely usable in any Grappler deck, be it Cosmolord or Beast Deity, in addition to having multiple "best-of" decks dedicated to him over the years. Finding a good partner unit to him has always been one major objective of Nova Grappler cardfighters. By BT04 this was the Genocide and Blau series, in EB01 he could work with the Raizer cards to stand High-Powered Raizer Custom for another 16000 line, and in more recent times Kaiser has been used to give the Beast Deity deck real end-of-game plays outside of Illuminal Dragon. While other variations on the Grapplers are gaining speed, Kaiser will likely never stop being a part of the current format.

#9 Soul Saver Dragon

The Soul Saver Dragon deck is one that has gone down in legend. Despite the proliferation of many new strategies leading up to 2013, including the dawn of the crossride format and the rise of crosscounter decks, no particular strategy has ever dominated the scene so heavily as the mystic dragon--and neither have any of these decks ever taken Japan's senior nationals. Responsible for starting a chain of unbroken Royal Paladin dominance, two of Japan's three past championship decks have seen Soul Saver used, and it's only recently that she's faded from the scene as the need for base 18000 and powered-up 23000 lines has arisen. Although severely weakened in today's format, and in particular by BT09, there still exists a strong push among pros for Soul Saver to take the national cup this year. Only time will tell if the hybridized Soul Saver-Majesty deck will bring another year of Royal rule, or if the Royal legend is at an end.

She is also unique in that her skill was both very well anticipated leading up to her release, and it proved to be exactly as devastating as thought. Creating three lines which all break 20000 is a very difficult maneuver for most fighters to cope with, particularly if already at five damage. And much like CoCo further down, Soul Saver has no trouble reaching the 23000 vanguard baseline for fighting crossride units. Her primary trouble is making rearguard lines as effective versus those decks as CoCo's, but between the now-recognized factors surrounding Wingal Brave, Palamedes, Gallatin, Lamorak and Toypugal, if her heavy soul requirements can be met she may just have found her place in yet another Royal renaissance.

#8 Gattling Claw Dragon

Gattling Claw is one of those timeless cards whose impact simply won't disappear. Part of this is because his skill is not related to power, and because of how the format bounces around between Battleraizer-type and Fullbau-type first vanguards. With those that follow the Fullbau model now being able to move to the rearguard as a fallback, Gattling Claw is now never without a target from the game's opening, and his existence eliminates one of the primary problems with draw triggers--drawing them instead of checking them. This skill allows for so much control of the early game and restricts the opponent's ability to call enough so that when Kagerou was reimagined as Narukami, it was relegated to an on-hit skill on the clan's FVG and never properly reprinted as an activate. As probably the best draw trigger ever released, Gattling Claw has well earned his place on this list.

#7 Phantom Blaster Dragon

While his skill's impact has been heavily diminished today, the Blaster Dragon is the first unit to be properly introduced to the game whose skill is directly intended to gain +10000 power. At the time of his original release in BT04, Blaster Dragon was the only unit to specifically gain an entire two or three cards worth of shield in power, and his 11000 base made him both defensively and offensive useful. Having this backed up with a deck dedicated entirely to searching for and supporting him with call and draw skills, and you have a vanguard that taught us what power really was. Phantom Blaster Dragon showed us what we wanted to do in a match, how to set up and end a game in the new era. While his steep cost has been largely responsible for units like Death Army Cosmolord, Raptor Colonel and his own crossride putting him to shame, the guaranteed extra critical and heavy support for his skill from Nemain and Badhabh Caar has helped the cursed dragon to endure as the face of the Shadow Paladin clan.

#6 Goddess of the Full Moon, Tsukuyomi

While her grade security and deckstacking has already been discussed under Ichibyoshi's entry, Tsukuyomi is a unit that has demonstrated a place all her own. One of the only base 11000 units available to Oracle Think Tank, Tsukuyomi's skill has similar endurance to Gattling Claw because it is completely independent of power. Power-gain skills tend to become dated by format changes, as in the case of Soul Saver Dragon, but Tsukuyomi's ability to draw new cards is both fueled by her preceding cards' soulcharging and the existence of units like Oracle Guardian, Red-Eye and Psychic Bird, both focused on easy soulcharging. Even in a format with cards like Spectral Duke Dragon or Blue Storm Supremacy Dragon, Glory Maelstrom eliminating the use of perfect defense, Tsukuyomi's opportunity to continually add one new card per counterblast 2 to hand and soulcharge pieces of herself with that same skill gives her one of the strongest defenses in the game.

Furthermore, as the innovations of modern fighters have shown, the Tsukuyomi deck does not have limits. Even today, the strategy is evolving and developing into new and interesting ideas. At the time of this writing, the newest way to use the Goddess is to run her as the only grade 3 in the deck, using the four extra cards to increase grade 1 and 2 units, guaranteeing ride security and field presence. In the Glory Maelstrom format, the deck may even use extra grade 0s like Waffle or Kaguya for additional defense, and use those cards' skills to promote getting to six soul even more easily when not dealing with the unit. The future is still open for Tsukuyomi, whose heavy support and flexibility prevent her from becoming old hat.

#5 Dragonic Overlord

Like Gancelot, Overlord is one of the first grade 3s to ever be printed. He's aged considerably better, however. In the first place, Overlord exceeds Gancelot in terms of defense, being the very first base 11000 in Cardfight's history, but in second Overlord also provides a leap in advantage. For his counterblast 3 Overlord gets the ability to stand when his attack hits a rearguard, and his power jumps up by +5000 for a line that's all but guaranteed to break 20000 on the first attack and still provide a powerful 16000-power blow on the second and third. Each drive check also gives another opportunity for him to boost his power, while giving a total three-card advantage if his first two attacks hit, by providing one extra drive check and the elimination of two rearguards. Beyond this, the skill can also be used from the rearguard, making for a very devastating turn between powerful Kagerou vanguards like Goku and the rearguard Overlord.

And it's now impossible to talk about Overlord's success without discussing his crossride, Dragonic Overlord The End. In addition to having the potential to reach a continuous 13000 power for defensive purposes, The End's persona blast skill, being patterned off of his predecessor, allows him to stand whenever his attack hits. While this also lets him wipe out the rearguard as before, with his own custom booster, Flame of Promise, Aermo, The End can reach 23000 power, ideal for opposing all of the existing base powers including his own. Initially this created a scenario where The End was his own best counter, but his skills should be praised now for helping the game to evolve to the point where base 10000 units are once again the best offensive decks on the block, as without his existence the limit break format could never have developed as it has today.

#4 Dueling Dragon, ZANBAKU

Initially, ZANBAKU was met with a poor reception. As one of the more anticipated cards of EB01, his conversion from being Nubatama in the manga to Murakumo in the real world effectively shut the former clan out of becoming a full deck of its own. Still, ZANBAKU's skill had an immediate impact on the game, and it's a deceptively powerful one. In order to ride any unit while at grade 3 or above when ZANBAKU is your vanguard, the opponent must discard a card. Much like Mandalalord and Shirayuki to come, this skill is oriented towards a lockdown strategy, shutting down crossride decks or otherwise negating any advantage that The End could gain, while also severely limiting the power of Soul Saver Dragon and other on-ride units. Factor this into his 11000 base and the game's ever-increasing emphasis on crossrides, on-rides and break rides, and ZANBAKU is one card that is only getting stronger with each new set.

#3 Swordsman of the Explosive Flames, Palamedes

Palamedes is one factor in the modern dominance of the Royals. Frequently cited as an example of poor design, the card is nonetheless sensible in that it emphasizes the rearguard, a common feature of RoyPala. Against base 10000 and 11000 decks, Palamedes climbs up to 21000 easily, forcing out extra defense from typical opponents, and even in the crossride format Palamedes has an easy 18000 line with Wingal Brave and Gwydion. Because of this, Palamedes has endured over units like Bors or Genocide Joker, putting no loss to any existing resources while also allowing older decks to make a comeback in the new era. It is one unit that the Royals will probably never be able to replace, as an essential component of the rearguard.

#2 Scarlet Witch, CoCo

While generally treated as a joke card at release due to contradicting the existing, soul-heavy play style of the Amaterasu deck and being outmoded entirely by Tsukuyomi, the Scarlet Witch has since developed into a national-level championship deck. There are many factors behind this, including being very well complemented by new cards like Little Witch, LuLu and Glace, as well as older ones like Sakuya and Mocha, but one undeniable point regarding her is her simple effectiveness versus crossride decks. While Tsukuyomi's power before triggers is capped at 21000 with Milk, CoCo climbs up to 23000 with the same unit, hitting the same numbers as The End but without requiring a soulblast.

Her skills also promote having full access to most units in the deck, being able to replace the field with ease, forming strong 18000 lines and shutting down limit breaks based primarily around gaining power. The deck itself has transformed from being the bleakest of all underdog matchups to a serious contender in the pro scene, and due to the Witch cards blending so well with existing mechanics, it will be more difficult to not give the deck new support. With the exception of six-soul cards, an update to OraThin is an update to CoCo. Like in the ZANBAKU example, the proliferation of crossride also empowers CoCo further, to the point where you could say that an update to anything is an update to the Scarlet Witch. This is one deck to seriously keep a close eye on throughout upcoming seasons.

#1 King of Knights, Alfred

Alfred's continuous skill probably numbers among the most influential in Cardfight's history. While skills based around power can become outdated as with Phantom Blaster Dragon, Blaster Overlord and 2012's Garmore, the King of Knights has a special place because of his skills' flexibility. Namely, he can hit three key numbers simply by calling units as every deck wants to, which his own counterblast 3 supports. With just three units on the field, Alfred attacks for 16000 power, the baseline that the game's initial trial decks set out, and with one more he reaches the 18000 line that The End and similar vanguards demand.

Even in the theoretical world of grade 4s where Silvest and Dragonic Nouvelle Vague reign, Alfred remains a key unit for striking that last number. And while the format is itself shifting in favor of CoCo, Alfred and Death Army Cosmolord, units that stand at base 10000, the King has always struck for that magical 20000 power that brings heavy defense from them, completing the cycle. With Palamedes and Wingal Brave, Alfred has the easiest time of any deck in competing against the new wave, and even if a unit like Agravain and his potential base 15000 were to come into place, 20000 would hit the Knight of Fury much as 18000 does to Illuminal Dragon. The King has essentially turned the format around in a circle, creating a stable pro scene and remaining current despite the constant release of new cards.

Next time we revisit this subject, it will be on the Top 20 Cards of 2012.