Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Spotlight: Almeida Stewart

Fighter's Spotlight is an ongoing project concerned with tracking real-world professional cardfighters across the globe.
Almeida Stewart (far left) with Albert Lee, Adwin Leong and Kevin Lang. Original photo by Cardfight!! Vanguard USA.
Almeida Stewart
Titles Won: Belgium Regional Champion, European National Champion, World Champion (2013)
Current Status: World Champion (2013)
Deck Type: Kagerou (Dragonic Overlord), Gold Paladin (Great Silver Wolf), Aqua Force (Genovius)
Almeida Stewart is the second Cardfight!! Vanguard world champion, having formally succeeded his predecessor Brandon Smith on January 12, 2014. Although originally celebrated at his ascension, subsequent cheating scandals disgraced his reputation as a professional cardfighter within the community.

An eclectic player who had experience with many different clans, Stewart first made an appearance at the 2013 Belgium regional qualifier, taking first place with a Dragonic Overlord the End deck that would go on to be one of the mainstays of his emerging career. Stewart's qualifier had a turnout of 81 persons, which was relatively high for a European tournament but small compared to the size of regionals abroad. For the national finals he chose to play a Gold Paladin deck, coming out as the European national champion with using a Gancelot-Garmore Gold Paladin deck, and in the WCS2013 finals Stewart put Luxembourg on the map for professional play by becoming world champion with a modified Overlord build. As this was at a time when Kagerou had largely fallen out of favor in the international pro scene and was almost wholly replaced by Eradicator Dragonic Descendant, Stewart's decision to play a more deliberate DOTE than what had dominated in previous world championship qualifiers proved highly effective versus the rest of the world's top 8, then comprised entirely of Eradicator cardfighters save for one other player. Stewart made it to the top 2 with this other fighter, Albert Lee, who had been playing a Nova Grappler Beast Deity deck. Although the recordings of their games have not been made available to the public, Stewart achieved considerable fame for winning the world championship with an otherwise abandoned deck.

Stewart also did well in underground play, placing first in the March 9th BeNeLux tournament, at the time one of the larger unofficial tournaments of the Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg circuit.

In 2014 it came to light that Stewart was a repeat-offense cheater both in local tournaments and in professional play; individuals close to him came forward to Cardfight Pro with testimony against Stewart during the Paris regional qualifiers, and his fingerprints were later connected by the Luxembourg police with a robbery at card shop La Caverne du Gobelin on top of the existing accusations. Allegedly one of Stewart's personal mottos at the time  was "If you cheat, cheat good," and he favored draw triggers on in his decks so that he could touch them more frequently to stack the cards. Video footage from the Paris qualifier supposedly proved him stacking his deck on stream, but this footage was turned out by the organizers to Bushiroad without being disclosed to the general public, and Bushiroad later denied its existence. After his team was connected to the robbery at La Caverne, Stewart formally apologized, returned the stolen merchandise, and was banned for life from the card shop. Bushiroad has never instigated a further investigation of Stewart, nor issued any sanction against him for his behavior.

Decks and Play Style
Stewart's playstyle was marked by a heavy overall focus on draw power, consistency and acceleration, as auxiliary support for his deck's core strategy. He once commented that he played four draw triggers in his Aqua Force deck "because Aqua Force only has four." He tended to favor trigger lineups that ran six draw and six critical triggers, and card changing units to exchange the draw triggers after he'd checked them.

The Overlord decklist that Stewart won Belgium with is generally in line with the majority of DOTE decks being played in that era; by crossriding Dragonic Overlord the End over Dragonic Overlord, Stewart set up a base 13000 defense that allows standard 16000-power lines to be blocked with a single 5000 shield, while also creating a 21~23000 power vanguard line with either Embodiment of Armor Bahr or Flame of Promise Aermo. If the End's attack hit, his persona blast skill allowed him to stand for a +1 in card advantage and two extra drive checks, which in combination caould snowball into a high-power, high-critical vanguard line. The real value of the End during this era was its status as a "pressure unit" that forced the opponent to drop more defense than normal, as DOTE could absolutely not be allowed to hit in the minds of Stewart's opponents. The intention of the deck is thus not necessarily to use DOTE's persona blast, but to drop more cards than normal from the opponent's hand to prevent the on-hit skill where otherwise they would simply no-guard the powerful center lane. The first vanguard Conroe allowed both Bahr and Aermo to be searched effectively, while Gattling Claw Dragon controlled the opponents' first vanguard and built additional soul for Flame of Promise's soulblast. As Kagerou's damage unflipper, Bellicosity Dragon kept the damage zone open after using Conroe or Berserk Dragon's field control skill, to keep threatening the opponent with DOTE's persona blast. At endgame when it was certain that there was no more room for the vanguard to hit, it was then possible to use a rearguard Dragonic Overlord's counterblast 3 as a finishing move, with a rearguard in the range of 23000 power either crippling the opponent's frontrow while also dealing damage to their vanguard or draining their hand sufficiently that the game would end that turn.

The biggest difference between standard decks and Stewart's is the trigger lineup. Stewart chose to run additional draw triggers rather than critical triggers so that he would continually build card advantage while the opponent lost it from defending DOTE, and he would then use Gojo or Flame of Hope to card change out the draw triggers for more useful units. The use of Tejas to attack the opponent's backrow units is also unusual for an international deck where Nehalem as a base 10000 unit is more common, although it will appear familiar to Japanese cardfighters due to overall differences in unit usage. Running just four critical triggers did run the risk of running out of criticals entirely and losing out on one of the points that the End so threatening during this period, but that also requires the opponent to notice that there are only four critical triggers. This was also a period when some cardfighters were choosing to counter the End by not playing the mindgames he created at all and allowing his skill to go off early, guarding Bellicosity but letting the vanguard hit, putting them at higher damage to use for fighting back with limit breaks and leaving the DOTE fighter with a majority of their counterblast used up. Nevertheless, Stewart's strategy was brutally effective in Belgium and brought him to first place.

Winter 2013 Regional Tournament, Belgium
Card Pool: TD01-EB06, PR 0001-0071
Grade 0
x1 Lizard Soldier, Conroe (FV)
x2 Dragonic Dancer, Monica DT
x4 Dragon Monk, Genjo HT
x4 Gattling Claw Dragon DT
x4 Blue Ray Dracokid CT
x2 Red Gem Carbuncle DT
Grade 1
x2 Flame of Hope, Aermo
x4 Wyvern Guard, Barri
x3 Embodiment of Armor, Bahr
x2 Dragon Monk, Gojo
x2 Flame of Promise, Aermo
Grade 2
x2 Berserk Dragon
x2 Dragon Knight, Nehalem
x2 Wyvern Strike, Tejas
x4 Burning Horn Dragon
x2 Bellicosity Dragon
Grade 3
x4 Dragonic Overlord
x4 Dragonic Overlord the End

For the European national championship Stewart chose to bring his Gold Paladin deck rather than make a repeat appearance with Kagerou, using the established Silver Wolf Garmore with the Liberator Gancelot break ride that had just come out in a recent trial deck. At the time the international release of VGE-BT10: Triumphant Return of the King of Knights was delayed, having had its release date been deliberately staggered in time for the Christmas season, and instead BT11: Seal Dragons Unleashed debuted ahead of schedule. So while Stewart could have modified his Overlord deck using the Dauntless Drive Dragon break ride from that set, as many around the time of the European, Asian and North American nationals had been doing, he instead broke the trend to play Garmore.

Stewart's Garmore build uses five draw and seven critical triggers, an uncommon count at the time that helps to secure his break ride setup with higher on average acceleration. The deck's key feature is how it utilizes skill timing; Liberator Gancelot's break ride skill can give up to three Gold Paladin rearguards +5000 power, equivalent to riding a Soul Saver Dragon in Royal Paladin decks, but encounters the problem of having three rearguards on the field to power up. Since Garmore and Gancelot share the same timing of when Garmore is placed on the vanguard circle, Garmore's on-ride counterblast 2 can fetch a rearguard for Gancelot to power up, negating one of the major weaknesses of the deck while also breaking even in card advantage from dropping a second grade 3 to make the break ride take place. Garmore's ideal target is the grade 1 Dindrane, a base 6000 unit that when called from the deck can soulblast 1 to draw a card, playing into Stewart's advantage-based play style by effectively trading the extra grade 3 he puts down for a usable booster and then giving him another card in hand. Blaster Blade Spirit is also an important tech for the build, since Garmore can fetch Spirit and then use his on-call counterblast 1 to retire an opponent's rearguard, pushing the opponent down in advantage and making it more difficult for them to guard all three lanes which attack in the ballpark of 21000, 31000 and 26000 power. The build is also able to utilize Tripp to keep the damage zone open in the same way that Bellicosity was played in his previous deck, use Nimue and Viviane as early pressure units to convince the opponent to guard their counterblast 1 on-hit skills, and build base 21000 rearguard lanes using Charjgal with additional Garmore copies.

Due to the original Overlord fading out of use, at this point crossride defense was becoming a negligible element of the format, and this helped the use of lower power rearguards like Dindrane and Viviane where previously base 12000 attackers had been the staple cards of any competitive deck. Although the public was uncertain of which deck Stewart would bring to the championship, by the time of the international finals he was deciding between either a modified Overlord or a Scarlet Witch CoCo-Battle Sister Cookie deck, and had traded away this Gold Paladin deck.

Winter 2013 National Tournament, Europe
Card Pool: TD01-EB06, BT11, PR 0001-0078
Grade 0
x1 Spring Breeze Messenger (FV)
x2 Silent Punisher CT
x1 Weapons Dealer, Gwydion DT
x4 Elixir Sommelier HT
x4 Armed Liberator, Gwydion DT
x4 Flame of Victory CT
x1 Dantegal CT
Grade 1
x2 Charjgal
x4 Halo Shield, Mark
x1 Player of the Holy Axe, Nimue
x4 Knight of Elegant Skills, Gareth
x3 Listener of Truth, Dindrane
Grade 2
x2 Sacred Guardian Beast, Nemean Lion
x3 Player of the Holy Bow, Viviane
x3 Mage of Calamity, Tripp
x2 Lop Ear Shooter
x1 Blaster Blade Spirit
Grade 3
x4 Great Silver Wolf, Garmore
x4 Solitary Liberator, Gancelot

For the championship finals Stewart built his own variation on Overlord, incorporating the Dauntless Drive Dragon break ride that by then had become well established in pro play. Several supporting cards expedite his previous strategy's consistency; while this deck runs six draw instead of eight, the new draw trigger Artpique helps him power up his rearguards to break 21000 power and strengthen his vanguard line where necessary. Seal Dragon Kersey generally replaced Gojo's role, since it could card change one of his draw triggers out just by being called as long as the opponent has a grade 2 in play.

The game-deciding play for the deck is to break ride Dragonic Overlord the End over Dauntless Drive Dragon, forcing the opponent into a situation where there are no good decisions. Dauntless' break ride skill activates after the vanguard has attacked, allowing it to discard 3 cards to stand if it has not already stood that turn; the opponent is thus forced to choose between giving Stewart two vanguard attacks with a +1 from DOTE's persona blast or a -1 from Dauntless' skill, but if the first attack is defended then they also run the risk of the second attack connecting and triggering the End's persona blast. Earlier plays are made possible by break riding Dauntless over Dauntless, and the losses in card advantage are generally made up for by the draw-heavy focus of Stewart's build. The only safe counter is to no-guard the first attack and allow the persona blast to activate so that no more skills will activate that turn, but from a more pessimistic perspective this means that the safest play is to allow the End's skill to activate and improve Stewart's position.

Winter 2013 International Tournament, Japan
Card Pool: TD01-BT10, PR 0001-0078
Grade 0
x1 Lizard Soldier, Conroe (FV)
x4 Dragon Monk, Genjo HT
x4 Seal Dragon, Artpique DT
x2 Gattling Claw Dragon DT
x4 Embodiment of Spear, Tahr CT
x1 Blue Ray Dracokid CT
x1 Seal Dragon, Biella CT
Grade 1
x4 Wyvern Guard, Barri
x1 Flame of Hope, Aermo
x4 Embodiment of Armor, Bahr
x2 Dragon Monk, Gojo
x4 Seal Dragon, Kersey
Grade 2
x2 Berserk Dragon
x4 Dragon Knight, Nehalem
x3 Burning Horn Dragon
x1 Bellicosity Dragon
Grade 3
x4 Dragonic Overlord the End
x4 Dauntless Drive Dragon

Stewart surprised the professional community in early March by taking first in a BeNeLux tournament using an Aqua Force deck unrelated to his established builds. By using Penguin Soldier in his deck he achieved a similar level of acceleration and consistency to his other decks with its on-call draw skill, and because of his deck's focus on break riding over Transcore Dragon he generally has the 4 soul necessary to use two Penguin Soldiers per game. The core of this deck uses the Ripple evolution cards for ride security to search out Pavroth or Genovius, with the grade 1 and 2 Brave Shooter support for base 10000 and 12000 attackers that allow early aggression. This also works well with Pavroth's ability to stand and power up a rearguard in the midgame, turning Twin Strike Brave Shooter into a base 15000 attacker on the second strike.

Similar to contemporary break ride-based decks, Stewart's main strategy is to break ride his main grade 3 Genovius over the supporting Transcore Dragon; attacking with both rearguard lanes first brings the opponent to 5 damage, Transcore's skill forces the opponent to discard a card just to be able to guard Genovius in the first place to ensure a -3 even if they have a perfect defense card, and Genovius' persona blast stands both rearguard columns to ensure two more attacks waiting to receive any following trigger checks. The maneuver becomes even more dangerous if the opponent is already at 5 damage, where any one of the five attacks can win the game. For endgame purposes Stewart runs a tech copy of Blue Storm Supreme Dragon Glory Maelstrom, using Glory Maelstrom's ultimate break to prevent the opponent from guarding with perfect defense cards while increasing his own power. The decision synergizes well with his focus on draw power and grade security, where it's easier to acquire tech cards towards the end of a fight, but the build's synergy is hurt somewhat by the lack of card changing to drop Sea Otters for other units.

March 9th BeNeLux Tournament, Belgium
Card Pool: TD01-BT12, PR 0001-0078
Grade 0
x1 Starting Ripple, Alecs (FV)
x2 Ice Floe Angel HT
x2 Medical Officer of the Rainbow Elixir HT
x4 Pyroxene Communications Sea Otter DT
x4 Jet-Ski Rider CT
x4 Supersonic Sailor CT
Grade 1
x4 Silent Ripple, Sotirio
x4 Mercenary Brave Shooter
x4 Emerald Shield, Paschal
x3 Light Signals Penguin Soldier
Grade 2
x4 Rising Ripple, Pavroth
x4 Twin Strike Brave Shooter
x2 Tear Knight, Lucas
Grade 3
x4 Thundering Ripple, Genovius
x3 Blue Flight Dragon, Transcore Dragon
x1 Blue Storm Supreme Dragon, Glory Maelstrom