Thursday, February 7, 2013

Study Guide: Kagerou

Photo by rawritzrichii, not to be reposted elsewhere without the original photographer's express permission.
The Kagerou clan is one of the most prolific in the professional scene. Emphasizing field control, advantage through retiring the opponent's cards, and gaining momentum from the opponent having less rearguards, the clan has been a favorite for pros since the days of trial decks. Kagerou has an organic strategy that restricts the opponent's plays, punishes them for making strong moves and allows those who fight with it to control the flow of the game. To get a deeper understanding of this however, we have to look at both the clan's high and low points in design, with special attention paid to taking control from the opponent.

Out of the box, Kagerou was introduced to the world through a trial deck that has gone down as one of the most tournament-ready in the history of the game, likely surpassed only by TD08 and 09. To briefly summarize from the aforelinked history article, the highlight cards of Raging Dragon of the Empire are the grade 2 Berserk Dragon and grade 3s Dragonic Overlord and Dragon Monk, Goku. Berserk offers control of the opponent's field by retiring a grade 2 or lower unit for a counterblast 2 when called, while Goku retires the opponent's grade 1 and 0 boosting units whenever he drive checks a grade 3. Dragonic Overlord is valuable as a grade 3 that can be used in either the vanguard or rearguard circles; for a counterblast 3 he loses twin drive but gains +5000 power and can stand when his attack hits a rearguard, allowing for him to drive check three cards in the turn while retiring two of the opponent's and probably depriving them of more for their defense. Because of these units, Goku became one of the most powerful decks in the early scene and to this day it remains a viable build for tournaments.

The fact that subsequent trial decks did not catch up to TD02 until very recently attests to the deck's enduring power. Relative to its own time it was incredibly consistent, but even now going out and combining two copies of the deck will create a deck ten to twelve cards short of tournament viability. Of course, Kagerou's success is more than this deck; by the time of BT01: Descent of the King of Knights the clan already had access to one of the most well-rounded first vanguards in the game, and the first to run on base 5000 power. Lizard Soldier, Conroe has essentially maintained his place as the go-to FVG for two years uninterrupted, being a unit that forms a 16000 line by default with any base 11000 or higher unit--for many Kagerou decks, all of the grade 3s run on this kind of power, or even higher. And for a counterblast 1 and self-retire, Conroe can search for any grade 1 or lesser Kagerou in the deck and add it to hand, ensuring that the Kagerou cardfighter will never be trapped at grade 0 for more than one turn. Conroe circumvents gradelock, can grab Barri to be used as a perfect defense card, and allow for multiple single-copy grade 1s to be brought out, adjusting to each fight on the fly as the opponent's strategy becomes apparent.

This flexibility is unparalleled. There are any number of units with which Conroe can be combined to. Consider Demonic Dragon Madonna, Joka, a base 6000 grade 1 that gains +3000 power when one of your opponent's cards is retired in the main phase. With her skill active, Joka can form a 20000 line with many of the clan's grade 3 units, or a 21-22000 line with Dragonic Executioner and several other grade 3s that give themselves power. However, Joka's low base power won't initially form a 16000 line with many grade 2 units, and as her skill will most likely not be active every turn this makes running four of her inadvisable. Conroe solves this by allowing for just one of her to be run, bringing the unit out consistently at very little cost.

While she can still see some use in decks with the correct rearguard setup, Joka has since been outmoded as the vanguard booster by Lizard Soldier, Raopia. Like Joka, Raopia is a base 6000 grade 1, but his boost extends only to the vanguard, giving it +4000 power for a very easy 20-22000 line whenever the opponent has two or less rearguards. There are a number of ways to use this, as Kagerou excels at removing the opponent's rearguards, but one way to handle this is by pairing him with Dragonic Overlord. Using Overlord's counterblast for a selfmade 16000 line without Raopia's boost, the opposing front row can be cleared away, leaving the opponent with just their back line, which will likely not be completely filled--and if it is, it can be narrowed to just two circles by dropping a Berserk earlier in the main phase. With Raopia's boost saved for the third and vanguard attack, Overlord can then go for 26000 power plus whatever triggers he checked beforehand, as their effects will persist between battles of the same turn. Outside of these extended plays, Raopia is also valuable for the psychological effect he has, discouraging the opponent from intercepting your attacks and encouraging them to use multiple trigger units for defense earlier instead. Because Raopia is restricted to giving the vanguard his boost, running one copy of him to fetch with Conroe is a very sensible maneuver, as it leaves room for more grade 1s while still accessing a valuable unit.

Of those other grade 1s, Demonic Dragon Mage Kimnara, Heatnail Salamander and Flame of Hope, Aermo are the most notable. Kimnara is another base 6000, that counterblasts 1 to send herself into the soul and retire one of the opponent's grade 1 rearguards. Heatnail is her boost-based counterpart, returning to the deck in the end phase of a turn where an attack that he boosts hit the opponent's vanguard, to do the same job. Both of these cards remove the opponent's boosting units while not changing the net difference in cards in play, but Heatnail keeps the damage zone open and pressures the opponent to defend earlier, whereas Kimnara can place a strain on the damage zone and fills the soul. Heatnail is the subject of an interesting trick. When running multiple copies you can call one and use his skill as normal, but then in the next turn use Conroe to get him right back and bring another of the opponent's boosting units down.

Aermo is a trial deck exclusive, coming with a card changing skill that activates when an attack that he boosted hits, dropping one card to draw another. This is useful in concealing your hand from the opponent, discarding drive checks so that they cannot tell what you have, or dropping less useful units to sift through for others. Broadly speaking, the more of your deck that you see the more consistently your strategy will come together. Aermo allows you to put that strategy into play by giving you the pieces one card at a time, filtering out the unnecessary things in the process.

Wyvern Strike, Jarran is the last of these grade 1s that you may want to search with Conroe. He's a Kagerou print of Wingal, giving a total 10000 power boost to Wyvern Strike, Tejas exclusively. This is important because Tejas has just 8000 power, letting him break past the 16000 line and even hit crossride-relevant numbers consistently where he wouldn't be able to do so with Bahr. Additionally, Tejas' skill allows him to do battle with a back-row unit on the same column as him. With Jarran's boost, Tejas can put down Marron, Gareth and other base 8000 boosting units, severely crippling the opponent's strategy by undermining lesser power rearguards and Valkyrie Laurel copies with one blow. At 8000 versus 18000 it would take the opponent 15000 shield to stop the attack, two cards to protect one, placing the Kagerou cardfighter in a situation where momentarily there is no bad outcome, as the opponent either loses a valuable rearguard or loses card advantage.

In terms of trigger bases Kagerou's draw trigger, Gattling Claw Dragon, has Kimnara's skill but applied to grade 0 units instead of grade 1s. This lets you nip many outrider FVGs in the bud, again without actually change the difference in advantage. While the timing is up to a coin flip for Gattling to touch units like Kyrph or Barcgal, this unit is ideal for hitting LuLu before she can be returned to the hand with Sakuya, Spring Breeze before he can try to bring out Pellinore, and other first vanguards that want to use their skills later in the game. Gattling Claw placed on the Top 20 Cards of 2011 for good reason, as he eliminates the main problem with drawing draw triggers by being almost never without a target right from the opening of the game. Gattling Claw and Kimnara both confer a psychological advantage by restricting what the opponent can call; decks which are able to call draw triggers and similar units to boost will be hesitant to, for fear of losing those units immediately. Of course, the opponent can play this game right back at you by recognizing when you don't want to lose Kimnara or Claw. Unless you're pulling something off like removing Milk or Tron from the field, you will generally not want to use these cards unless you already have a lead of some kind, be it by one card or by ten. So while Gattling is definitely one of the most useful draw triggers ever printed, he must be used carefully.

There is one stand trigger that sees consideration, a unit that actually doubles as a target for Conroe. Flame Seed Salamander is a stand trigger with Heatnail's skill but applied to grade 0 units. While his 4000 power base can be troublesome, in the early game this means having access to being able to eliminate those superior ride units that Gattling Claw could only touch when the opponent took the second turn, and pressuring the opponent to defend earlier. Once you've acquired counterblast, Flame Seed becomes retrievable by Conroe, helping to eliminate the typical guesswork of running stand triggers in the deck. The main trouble with this is that you won't be able to search Flame Seed early enough for it to matter versus those first vanguards, and at that point you would probably be better off searching for Raopia. Flame Seed does come with some of the advantages of a cycling trigger, maintaining a higher trigger ratio over the opponent as more cards are removed from your decks, but many pros would consider this subverted by his being a stand instead of a critical or draw trigger.

Like the Royal and Shadow Paladins, Kagerou has access to two types of base 10000 grade 2 in Cross Shot Garp and Dragon Knight Nehalem. This means more combinations of 18000 lines are possible in crossride formats, and that the plethora of base 6000 units described above are more viable in Lord formats. Unlike these others however, Kagerou also has a third base 10000 unit, Dragon Armored Knight. Armored Knight does drop down to 8000 if there are no other Kagerou on the same line as he, but has the advantage of being able to counterblast 1 to gain +1000 power until the end of the turn. Since this is an activate skill it can be repeated as many times as you have counterblast, which makes him more flexible than the others and probably recommended over them because he can attack base 11000 units unassisted and strike for 18000 with base 7000 units boosting him, making Armored Knight very valuable to crossride matchups. Despite having these three, you're unlikely to run all of them together at once; grade 2 space is somewhat strained because of Berserk and Tejas taking center stage, and every build has its own third grade 2 that it wants to support the vanguard.

That brings us to Dragon Knight, Aleph. Aleph is a base 9000 grade 2, that when you have the grade 0 Embodiment of Spear, Tahr and the grade 1 Embodiment of Armor, Bahr on your rearguard circles, you can pull them into the soul to superior ride the Embodiment of Victory, Aleph. The math for this gives -2 for the loss of Tahr and Bahr, then +1 from the grade 3 ride that's not coming from your hand and +1 from the early twin drive, breaking even while giving you the advantage of drive checking one more card than you normally would throughout the entire game. The Embodiment of Victory is a base 10000 unit who can counterblast 4 to gain +4000 power and +1 critical. This is acceptable in the vanguard despite the steep cost, but more importantly having a rearguard that can increase its own critical is exceptionally rare in Cardfight, and one that will hit 21000 with a base 7000 booster at the same time only makes a better case for him. Further tying into his superior right though, Aleph can soulblast Tahr, Bahr and his Dragon Knight form to unflip the entire damage zone. On one hand this allows his skill to be repeated across multiple turns, or simply used twice within the same turn, but more realistically this makes Aleph the clan's Mr. Invincible, allowing Berserk Dragon, Conroe, Kimnara, Overlord and the tike to be used with impunity. Aleph doesn't have quite the same level of extensive abuse as Invincible because his skill will generally be used just once in a game, and because he does not have Claydoll Mechanic/Hungry Dumpty to support him, but this is more than sufficient for what Kagerou is trying to do.

His superior ride also ties into another grade 3, Vortex Dragon. Vortex is the clan megablaster, bringing with it all the troubles of building up 8 soul and having an unflipped damage zone, and to a clan that's less than ideal for it because their most ideal rearguard is one that both exits the soul--never to return--and uses up counterblast. Vortex will age better when we cross over into Comic Style Vol.1, but for now consider that Aleph's superior ride gives three extra soul than normal; Tahr, Barh and the Embodiment of Victory himself. While it's true that riding Vortex will negate the breaking-even aspect of Aleph, this will be a necessary sacrifice in a Vortex deck. Every turn at the start of the main phase, Vortex will automatically soulcharge 1 to give himself +2000 power, hitting 20000 with Bahr, 21000 with Joka and 22000 with Raopia. If Lizard Runner, Undeux is used as the FVG instead of Conroe and the superior ride goes off, we're looking at seven soul, one turn away from bringing out that megablast. While this effectively locks you out from counterblast for the time being, the reward is being able to retire any three of your opponent's rearguards, without restrictions on what kind of targets you can have. That means that grade 3 attacking units like Palamedes and Charger will disappear immediately, clearing out their front row and probably their vanguard booster as well for a -3 overall. This is the main reason that you'd want to run Joka over Raopia. In a Vortex Dragon deck, the megablast can have her push for 27000 with Vortex's +2000, while Raopia is restricted to 22. With Aleph's superior ride this can activate on turn four, but the trouble with Vortex is that it hinges on that superior ride going off to activate consistently, demanding that you have three specific units out with a very limited window of activation. There is a remedy for this, however.

BT03: Demonic Lord Invasion gives us Flame Edge Dragon, the Kagerou equivalent to Blue Dust. A base 9000 grade 2, when his attack hits he can soulcharge 1, speeding up Vortex and increasing his viability considerably. This is one of those units that you would want to run at four in a Vortex-specific build, trying to maximize your odds of reaching that 8 soul goal. While the Vortex deck is soul-based, unlike the Irregulars and Pale Moon it isn't reliant on having a high soul count or even specific units within the soul through the entire game, which helps to mitigate the potential deck out brought on by building up the 8 soul.

Moving away from soul-based Kagerou, there are three other units to consider as either potential decks of their own or as support for an existing build. The first is Seal Dragon, Blockade, introduced in BT02: Onslaught of Dragon Souls. Unlike Overlord, Vortex and Aleph, Blockade's skill is vanguard exclusive, preventing the opponent from intercepting during your turn. Strategically this is valuable for effectively nullifying the front row's importance, crippling strategies that rely on Nemean Lion or Gordon while forcing the opponent's defenses to come wholly from their hand. Versus a Kagerou deck that can counterblast freely, that hand will already be low from having to call replacement rearguards--which the opponent was likely betting on intercepting with to make up for the difference in an emergency--forcing the opponent to dedicate a large amount of their hand to defense earlier if you're playing aggressively. This also allows you to focus your retire skills on the opponent's back row, although versus decks that pride themselves on front-row grade 3s like Royal Paladin and Murakumo, Blockade loses his impact.

The second is Dragonic Lawkeeper, the clan limit breaker from EB03: Cavalry of Black Steel. Lawkeeper's main skill is a work of tactical brilliance, counterblasting 1 at limit break 4 to bind all of the opponent's rearguards, then allow them to call up to four of them in the end phase of the turn and drop the rest. Despite never once actually retiring a unit in the text, the opponent has five rearguard circles, and so with a full field Lawkeeper's limit break effectively becomes Demon World Marquis, Amon's counterblast. However, the break has both more strategic backing than Amon and more weaknesses. In terms of strategy, when Lawkeeper attacks from the vanguard circle and the opponent has two or less rearguards, he gains +3000 power. Since all of the opponent's rearguards are bound when he attacks, that means that he goes for 23000 with Raopia every turn, and also activates the skills of Dual Axe Archdragon and Dragon Dancer Lourdes. These are grade 3 and 1 units respectively, which gain +3000 power in the rearguard when attacking with the same conditions as Lawkeeper. Archdragon will then likewise go for 21000 every turn with Bahr, or at least guarantee himself 18000 with almost all boosting units in a crossride format, while Lourdes can hit 9000 as an alternative rearguard for the front row should you be lacking in units. Lourdes herself tends to be underestimated, much like Gururubau in the Shadow Paladins, but because her skill activates in both the vanguard and rearguard circles she has serious longevity throughout the game. Early on the opponent is unlikely to have a very large field, so Lourdes is valuable for early aggression as well as a replacement for lost units, to give more flexibility to the field. She can also form a 16000 line with any base 7000 booster, although unlike Gururubau she does not have the advantage of forming one with herself. Because she attacks for 9000, this gives you one more unit that can hit a Charon or Blaster Javelin-type unit at the grade 1 stage, negating the defensive advantage of Fullbau-type evolving rides. While Lawkeeper can be a build of his own, he can also be an update to the old Goku deck to give it endgame longevity, as the two complement each other as alternative vanguards and work well with Archdragon.

The final unit we're going to discuss is Dragonic Waterfall, the third unit of the clan to be designed by Itou himself. Like Blockade and Lawkeeper, Waterfall's skills are vanguard exclusive. First, he gains +3000 power when attacking the vanguard, going for the same 23000 with Raopia that keeps Lawkeeper relevant in crossride formats, and second when he attacks he can discard a grade 3 Kagerou to gain +10000 power, possibly hitting as high as 33000. This unit can be effectively integrated into almost any Kagerou deck due to the generalized nature of his skills, but in particular he's a natural partner for Goku in place of or in tandem with Overlord because of their mutual grade 3 focus, playing off of Goku decks tending toward running between 8 and 10 grade 3s. Waterfall's ambiguity as a unit is both a strength and a weakness, as even Goku is arguably better off sticking to Overlord and Lawkeeper, while Waterfall has no deck of his own. Just as some Royal Paladin decks not based on her run a single copy of Soul Saver Dragon as a fallback or surprise turnarond however, Kagerou can do the same with Lawkeeper.

With all of these skills available, it's easy to get wrapped up in the idea of mass retiring and squandering counterblast on taking down units, but you need to keep in mind a coherent strategy and think instead of in terms of wiping out the field, in terms of "How many units do I need to retire?" With Heatnail around, it's entirely possible for the Kagerou cardfighter to operate on small leads by bringing out one copy of Berserk or Tejas early to gain a one-card advantage, then use Heatnail and Kimnara to maintain that advantage while lowering the total number of cards in play, making a comeback very difficult on the opponent. On the other hand, Goku has the ability to drop the opponent's cards every turn, and Overlord's self-standing skill can snowball with trigger checks. Lawkeeper is one of the most consistent decks and remains so even in the crossride format. Every build of Kagerou has its own internal goals, whether that's to retire three units, build up a certain soul or count down to the opponent's resources having been exhausted. And every build also sees continual upgrades with each set; next time that we revisit the clan, I'm going to discuss Blazing Flare Dragon and his support cards, with special mind paid to his alternative model of a soul-based deck.