Thursday, May 9, 2013

Aqua Force Extra Study Material: Blue Storm Dragon, Maelstrom

Photo by rawritzrichii, not to be reposted elsewhere without the original photographer's express permission.
Battle phase manipulation is a difficult mechanic to work with. One of the biggest problems that Aqua Force cardfighters face when using cards like Algos or Dorothea is that while their skills involve dramatic effects that can drastically turn a game in their user's favor, the restrictions surrounding them make the skills difficult to pull off consistently and often require a heavy devotion of resources toward one sequence of attack that is unlikely to succeed. Released just last week, VGE-BT08: Blue Storm Armada fleshes out the Aqua Force's manipulation of the battle phase and provides a boost in synergy that every bearer of the clan will want to take advantage of.

The unique first vanguard introduced by the set is Aqua Breath Dracokid, a base 5000 Forerunner that can move back to the soul to give an Aqua Force unit +1000 additional power and a skill; when that unit's attack hits the vanguard, if the number of battles in the turn is four or more, you can draw a card. In theory this skill would be best applied to the vanguard in the early game when another booster is available, in order to ensure that the opponent would have to drop at least 15000 shield to stop the attack when they are at lower damage and would normally not guard anyway, but the problem with this Dracokid is that the new skill's restrictions generally want the unit that he's used on to be the last to attack in the turn, after the opponent has already had the opportunity to damage check triggers and upset the entire setup. Dracokid moving to the soul means that you don't actually get extra cards this way, but instead trade Dracokid for the card that you draw with the +1000 being the only concrete bonus. His skill is useful for opening up the field, but it's a little cumbersome and doesn't have a tremendous amount of synergy with the existing card pool.

Unique first vanguards are not always the option that professional cardfighters go after, and Aqua Force is exemplary of this practice. The FVG that the pro scene as a whole actually prefers is Officer Cadet Erikk, a standardized grade 0 that can counterblast 1 to soulcharge himself and search the top 5 cards of the deck for a grade 3 Aqua Force to add to your hand. Veteran readers can see the criticism coming the moment that this card is mentioned, since under normal circumstances this is a skill that would only be useful later in the game when more cards have been removed from the deck, after most retire-based skills have hit the field and after you're already at grade 3. 4000 power also hurts the effectiveness of the battle phase, where Erikk has trouble bringing the unit he's supporting up to 16000+ power, and in a typical deck Erikk would only have an approximate 30% chance to go off with all of the remaining grade 3s in the deck. However, Aqua Force is one of those rare clans that actually prefers to run nine to ten grade 3s because of how endemic supporting grade 3s are to its strategy. Because of this, Erikk is the single most used FVG among pro cardfighters, opening up the field in the same way as Aqua Breath while having more guarantees in maintaining the existing difference in cards and having more synergy with that high grade 3 count. Whether this speaks to Erikk's synergy with this specific clan or to Aqua Breath's skill being poor is an open question.

The new base of triggers allows for two types of critical or two types of stand to be run, and some mixing of them is encouraged because of how units like Coral Assault play into the deck, but at this stage of its development Aqua Force has access to enough cards that change up how the battle phase works that stands are not necessary.

Opening the grade 1s, Torpedo Rush Dragon is the Aqua Force equivalent to Toypugal, a base 6000 power grade 1 that gains +3000 power when it boosts and specific conditions have been met. While Toypugal wanted two Royal Paladin grade 3s to be in play, Torpedo Rush activates when it is the fourth or more battle of the turn. Unlike Toypugal, Torpedo Rush is really only useful to have a maximum of one or two on the field at any given moment, and he's best devoted to the vanguard and second rearguard line. With Navalgazer he can go up for 22-25000 power, the same general area as Soul Saver Dragon with Toypugal, and while you would generally prefer that Dorothea take that spot, Torpedo Rush can work as an effective substitute if you don't draw her in time. He has natural synergy with Coral Assault and Xenophon, both units whose skills bring them up to 11000 power for an effective 20000-power rearguard line to pressure the likes of Alfred and CoCo, he can allow 9000-power units to reach numbers effective against crossrides and he reaches 20-25000 power with every core vanguard introduced in this module. However, Torpedo Rush's requirements are much more restrictive than Toypugal because in order to work with the vanguard line at all he requires a rearguard unit that can either stand itself or somehow create an extra battle so that the vanguard's attack will be the fourth of the turn. With the cards described so far, this is impossible.

Enter the Storm Rider cards. Storm Riders Basil and Diamantes are grade 2 and 3 variations on one single skill, where when they attack a vanguard and if it is the first battle of the turn they gain +2000 power and then at the close step of their battle, swap positions with an Aqua Force unit on the same column. The power increase compensates for their extremely low power, 8000 on Basil and 9000 on Diamantes, and the positions of the swapped units remains the same, so either Storm Rider will have to attack unboosted in order to have the rearguard that they swap with attack and create an additional attack on the turn. This is similar in utility to standing a unit in Nova Grappler, because it allows for an additional but lower-power attack, but it is much more crucial to the Aqua Force play style because it turns subsequent attacks into ones where skills activate. For example, you can attack with Diamantes first, then swap positions with the base 10000 grade 2 Tear Knight Lazarus behind him, have Lazarus attack, then attack with a Coral Assault on the opposite rearguard column boosted by Theo for a 19000-power attack to remove a 9000-power rearguard like Burning Horn Dragon, then use your vanguard line with Torpedo Rush to activate Torpedo's skill. None of these attacks have to be able to hit to count as an additional battle, so in terms of activating your unit's skills even crossrides pose no threat, but the Storm Riders remain the clan's greatest weakness in addition to being their most key support. Aqua Force's skills depend on them to activate, but using the Storm Riders weakens your battle phase until the opponent can effectively ignore two of your four attacks and devote their defense toward blocking the skills that you're trying to use. To use this generation of Aqua Force well, you must master the Storm Rider cards, and being forced to use them is a dealbreaker for many cardfighters. Because of this restrictive play style, if you can avoid placing Torpedo Rush behind the vanguard and go for Dorothea instead, Torpedo Rush is then best reserved for the final rearguard line to attack.

The grade 1 Storm Rider Eugen shares Basil's skill, but applied over a 6000-power base. While it can be a good fallback and experimental tech, Eugen doesn't really work in the same deck as Basil and Diamantes because all of their skills demand the first attack of the turn as their priority, so multiple Storm Riders on one field have poor synergy among one another. The space that Eugen would occupy is better devoted to Torpedo Rush Dragon or Dorothea.

The actual payout of the Storm Riders comes not from Torpedo Rush, but from other fourth-attack units that have innate synergy with him. You'll recall that Algos from the previous unit can draw a card when his attack hits the vanguard during the fourth or more battle of the turn, and as Aqua Force has difficulty maintaining a strong handsize without hitting Otter Soldier draw triggers, this is a very good skill for them to get off. Tear Knight, Valeria is another base 9000 fourth attack unit, his counterpart who gains advantage by reducing the opponent's cards rather than increasing your own. When Valeria's attack hits during the fourth or more battle of the turn, you can retire an opponent's rearguard, so together they exist as alternatives to one another to grab card advantage using different strategies based on the situation, or otherwise to force the opponent to defend at irregular points in the game.

Considering the Navalgazer setup from the previous module, this puts the opponent in an interesting situation. The first two of the attacks of the turn from Diamantes and Lazarus should be blocked with just 5000 shield, and under normal circumstances taking damage at that point would be a misplay because every attack to come will take more shield to defend. However, Navalgazer will be going for 26000 power with his limit break and Dorothea active, a second attack from Lazarus will be coming if his attack hits, and either Algos or Valeria will be further reducing card advantage regardless of whether their attack is actually defended or not. Not stopping Navalgazer means opening oneself to a potential critical trigger followed by Algos/Valeria going for 23000 power with Torpedo Rush preceded by Lazarus attacking once more. It's a very different situation to work with than when fighting other clans, and requires rethinking when exactly is the right time to defend.

The new Navalgazer support introduced in this set is Hydro Hurricane Dragon. While Hydro has no rearguard skills, two of his vanguard skills are shared with Navalgazer; he gets +3000 power when he attacks the vanguard, and when his limit break 4 counterblast 2 is activated in the main phase, he gets +3000 power for a 26000 total with Dorothea and a new, on-hit skill. This new skill operates such that when Hydro Hurricane's attack hits the vanguard, if it's the fourth or more battle of the turn, he can retire all of the opponent's rearguards. This is an interesting combination of Demon-Slaying Knight Lohengrin, Amber Dragon Eclipse and Navalgazer Dragon, and shows just how much more dramatic an effect limit break can have on the game versus standard skills. Like Navalgazer, it forces the opponent to defend the vanguard's attack regardless of the cost because the amount of cards lost in defense will almost always outweigh what would be lost by allowing it to hit, but Aqua Force is relatively low on counterblast and the opponent is unlikely to pull out two to three turns of consecutive perfect defense as late in the game as Hydro Hurricane's limit break comes in. 20000 shield in defense versus Hydro Hurricane is still only a one trigger pass defense, so the opponent will eventually start losing three or four cards every turn compared to the relatively cheap counterblast cost that Hydro Hurricane carries. This is all taking place in addition to the damage that you will be sneaking in with the Storm Riders, and with Valeria and Algos' skills further harassing the opponent, so you can dramatically decrease the amount of cards they have in play very quickly in a Hydro deck.

However, Hydro Hurricane is not the only dragon to be introduced by Blue Storm Armada. The real boss card for the clan is Blue Storm Dragon, Maelstrom. Maelstrom is a deck of his own completely separate from Navalgazer. His base 11000 defense alone is a welcome addition to Aqua Force, forming a 21000 line with Dorothea and 20000-power line with Torpedo Rush for an equally strong offense. Maelstrom's limit break is another fourth battle skill, automatically giving him +5000 power when he attacks a vanguard at no counterblast cost and another skill over that. When his attack hits, Maelstrom can counterblast 1 to retire an opponent's rearguard and draw a card. This is an immediate two card difference on top of dealing damage, with everything in play that makes Maiden of Libra's rearguard attacks powerful. Unlike Navalgazer or Hydro Huricane, Maelstorm needs no preemptive counterblast to threaten the opponent, and he can strike down crossrides automatically even with just Cyprus or Theo while also providing another means of getting card advantage outside of hoping for draw triggers. Maelstrom is simultaneously a powerful boss card while filling the same niche as Nemain and Leo-pald in the same breath. While the grade 2 makeup for Maelstrom is generally a combination of Basil, Lazarus, and Valeria or Algos, the grade 3 makeup is typically four Maelstrom and Diamantes with a third grade 3 that can substitute for Maelstrom in the vanguard circle, like Lazarus or Navalgazer. Maelstrom is heavily reliant on Diamantes as a supporting grade 3, and Basil may not be necessary as a consequence.

On the whole Aqua Force is known for its continuous, rapid offensive style that forces the opponent to stop every attack, stalling limit break units while also quickly picking up card advantage from key sniper maneuvers. While it lacks a strong early game buildup, its mid to endgame is overwhelming and the main issue is access to a consistent boosting line because of how weighted Aqua Force decks are toward their grade 3s. Just keep in mind during the deckbuilding process that it's grade 2 space, not grade 1 space, that you want to give up in order to run those additional grade 3s. Next time that we seriously delve back into Aqua Force, it will be to discuss their crossride Glory Maelstrom and the gradual shift in mechanics away from battle phase manipulation and toward changing which cards the opponent card guard with.

Three pros use this clan.