Tuesday, December 30, 2014

News: Sakuma Kazuki Takes National Crown with Dragonic Overlord “The X”

Early this morning the Japanese winter national championships were broadcast live over NicoNico Douga, featuring the best-of-one final match between Tokyo and Kanazawa regional champions Sakuma Kazuki and Ishida Koudai. Ishida had previously turned pro at Fighter's Climax 2013 Kanazawa with his teammates, back when he played Dauntless Drive Dragon with the End, while Sakuma had done so in the top 8 of Fighter's Road 2014 Tokyo under the alias Sakumagazuki. More than thirteen thousand viewers tuned into the broadcast, watching a tense game between two experienced Kagerou cardfighters playing Dragonic Overlord “The X.” After a nearly half-hour game, Sakuma Kazuki was crowned the next Japanese national champion. The broadcast was recorded and the video of it is presented below, with analysis.

In contrast to the victory of Thing Saver-“Abyss” at the preceding summer tournament, the success of “The X” at the national level was in doubt prior to the finals. The new Overlord deck has only been playable for the past three of eight regional qualifiers, but within days of its availability saw instant adoption by professional cardfighters. Prior to this the Fighter's Climax 2014 tournament series was dominated by Shadow Paladin fighters maining Phantom Blaster “Abyss” decks. They were closely tied with Royal Paladin and Kagerou cardfighters playing Thing Saver and Perdition Dragons. The lack of Shadow Paladin in the FC2014 finals was enough of a surprise that master of ceremonies Doctor O had to correct himself when discussing the clan breakdown of the finals. According to Doctor O, the top cut consisted of three Royal Paladin and four Kagerou cardfighters.

(Ishida is on the left, Sakuma on the right.) Ishida opened the game on Dragon Monk Gojo, using his card changing skill to drop and draw a card that would help set up his legion later on. An early heal on Sakuma's end allowed him to accelerate in the same fashion, which when taken with Calamity Tower Wyvern's soulblast 2 and his discard for stride on the next turn, helped set up his legion without any extraneous measures. Going second thus gave Sakuma an advantage in the fight, as it allowed him to stride first and pressure Ishida to defend early with the grade 4 Mahmoud's on-hit skill. If Divine Dragon Knight Mahmoud hit, he could swing the game by retiring Ishida's rearguard Overlord or Red Pulse Dracokid.

Current theory in international play holds that on-hit strides are not worth defending because of their immense power--31000 power in this case--combined with triple drive giving more opportunities to bring the attack through even if guarded for two-to-pass. Japanese pros instead prefer to take a defensive stance against on-hits where feasible to prevent the opponent's game from accelerating, made possible through the recycling property of legion units returning used perfect defenses to the deck for later. It's telling that Ishida followed by mirroring Sakuma's play on the next turn, and that Sakuma responded in kind with a Protect Orb Dragon of his own. Sakuma in general hit more triggers throughout the fight; Ishida's triple drive that turn turned up nothing, while once his rearguard Overlord hit, Sakuma healed out of damage for the second time in the game.

With the fighters standing at a single card's difference in advantage on the turn of Sakuma's legion, -3 to -2, “The X's” on-legion skill and the End's on-hit preserved the current situation in grandeur by searching out a copy of the End and immediately persona blasting it after attacking a rearguard, setting Ishida back by -1 and Sakuma forward by a net +2, in total -4 to 0 (reading across the field from left to right.) While in other situations it would be possible for Ishida to pull Sakuma down by persona blasting “The X,” because Sakuma had only a single rearguard and was at just 2 damage at the time this was not an option. Sakuma would have had to enable the play by both calling rearguards and guarding “The X,” and would not knowingly walk into the trap. His three card lead after Ishida added a copy of the End to hand allowed Sakuma to guard early, and because of Sakuma's conservative play style Ishida was not in a position to punish that. He could equalize the card advantage by drawing out defense, but could never surpass Sakuma in how many cards he controlled, causing the game to spiral out of control in Sakuma's favor.

To Doctor O's surprise, Sakuma transitioned into Dragonic Overlord the Great partway through the game. This is normally regarded as a defensive play. As seen previously in the video of the Sakura VGCS finals, staying on the Great for too long leads to being overwhelmed by “The X” in mirror matches because of how the Great encourages an unflipping-centric play style that focuses too much on the rearguards and too little on attacking the opponent's center column. Sakuma instead used the Great for defensive snowballing, playing damage control to stay close to 3 damage throughout the game while restanding his vanguard every turn of the fight after riding the Great. In total Sakuma restood six times in the match, twice with the End and four times with the Great, versus Ishida's one.

Ishida attempted to retaliate by reriding “The X,” using Calamity Tower to recoup the loss in advantage and set up a Dragonic Burnout. After searching out a copy of “The X” for his on-legion this set the two fighters at -4 to -4, giving Ishida a small window to turn the game around within. Seemingly he achieved this when Sakuma dropped three cards to protect his Burning Horn Dragon. However, at this time the damage was at 4 to 2, and Ishida being at double the damage of Sakuma gave the latter the opportunity to ignore his opponent's last attack and continue with his own offensive. Sakuma was beginning his second turn on the Great at -4 to -7 and equalized damage, but that equalized damage was achieved through Ishida catching up rather than overtaking him completely. On that turn he was able to vastly swing the game in his favor by maximizing his trigger checks with the Great, retiring one rearguard by attacking it, taking out 20000 shield with his vanguard attack, a perfect defense and its cost with a trigger-empowered rearguard, and one last 5000 shield guard with a remaining Burning Horn. Setting Ishida at -10 to Sakuma's -5 left Ishida going into his turn with just four cards in hand after his draw.

Ishida attempted to destabilize the game again with smaller plays, but small moves like his use of Neoflame around the 17:45 mark failed to make a significant enough dent in his opponent's field. Towards the tail end of the fight Sakuma  deliberated over whether or not to stride Route Flare Dragon; doing so would allow him to retire a column and still get an additional drive check from its triple drive, but by using Dragonic Burnout with the Great instead he was able to achieve the same effect by retiring one for Burnout and one with the Great's attack, while getting a fourth check instead of just three. Route Flare with Burnout would have achieved a greater impact in terms of field advantage loss, but an additional dive check was more valuable to Sakuma over an additional retire.

Ishida responded by making the stride that Sakuma decided against, but by this time the game was too far in his opponent's favor. Sakuma began and ended his game on “The X,” setting it up by defending with Protect Orb while he had a Protect Orb on the previous turn so that he could unflip a damage, and then taking one more so that he'd have counterblast open for the End.

Several things can be extrapolated from their fight; the importance of conservative play, having independent vanguard skills and maintaining damage control. Retire skills like those of “The X” are only live when one's rearguards are exposed, so avoiding rush-based strategies entirely and keeping grade 1 and 2 units in hand until absolutely necessary can be rewarding in the G-onwards format versus field control decks. And one point that international players studying the fight should be aware of is that neither cardfighter made use of “The X's” persona blast during the game. In every situation in which it was available, it was optimal to ride over that copy of it on the next turn and return additional triggers or utility cards to the deck, using Calamity Tower to soulblast the Overlords in the soul and then use them to pay for Dragonic Burnout's cost. The threat of “The X” vastly exceeds its performance in practice.

In terms of damage control, the cheaper overall costs of the Great gave Sakuma an incentive to stay on it for the majority of the game after creating a lead for himself with “The X.” Based on Sakuma's decision to not stride around the 19 to 20 minute mark, it can be argued that the value of one more drive check exceeds that of retiring a rearguard. This is an important generalization not just towards decision making when playing Kagerou, but also to deciding on deck choices as a whole. It means that any boss card that pays the same cost to drive check the same number of cards as a different boss card retires from the opponent's field is a better unit to build around than its retire-based counterpart. The bias created by additional trigger checks is significant enough to make this a viable argument. (In Sakuma's case, he actually paid a higher short-term cost to restand the Great by discarding two cards and counterblasting 1 than he would have had to pay for Route Flare's stride cost, although in the long term Route Flare can only be used twice per game.)

The live broadcast enjoyed a 79.9% positive reception and over two thousand comments posted during its airing period. This is only the second time that any portion of the national tournament has been shown in Japan, as while some of the junior national games from 2012 were aired back-to-back with the first world championship finals, for the most part Bushiroad has maintained a policy of secrecy regarding the inner workings of their competitions. The shift towards showing the tournament finals could be seen as a step towards transparency.