Thursday, April 5, 2018

The troubled history of old Megacolony

Imagine a world without Stand Triggers.
Megacolony was never bad.

The community's beef with the clan emerged day 1, when we learned Karma Queen's effect through the eighth episode of the anime series in February 2011. Megacolony was one of several stub clans to debut in BT01: Descent of the King of Knights, and there was an obvious design flaw with it. Their core units revolved around paying counterblast 2 to prevent an opponent's rearguard from standing, when Kagerо̄ for the same cost (Berserk Dragon) or less (Goku) could retire those rearguards outright. Why should Megacolony pay the same price for an inferior outcome?

I recall that some years ago, in the aftermath of the first Japanese national championships, Card Gamer magazine named Hell Spider the most underestimated card of the season. Their reasoning was that Hell Spider wasn't clan-specific. Unlike the Kagerо̄ retire units, you could splash his counterblast in any deck and gain access to a means of forcing the opponent to retire. This was at a time period when many decks were running supporting grade 3s whose primary function was on the rearguard circle, like Gigantech Charger in Royal Paladin or Oracle Guardian Apollon in Oracle Think Tank. Hell Spider was one of those supporting grade 3s, but his almost-constant 3k buff on the vanguard circle made him a more than serviceable ride that would sometimes be preferable to your main grade 3 just for being a constant 21k. In that respect, he was much more versatile than his grade 1 and 2 counterparts Lady Bomb or Karma Queen.

Card Gamer was pointing out what we as a community had missed about Megacolony; the argument went that (from the perspective of the affected player) you could get around a unit being paralyzed by calling a new one over it, and weren't actually denied an attack, but if you did that then what you had just handed the opponent was a CB2 retire. Any clan could be Kagerо̄ if they ran these cards.

Megacolony's strength was in its splashable nature, but fighters were generally uninterested in mixed decks. They wanted the simplicity of 50 cards all being the same clan, and Bushiroad would eventually rethink its set design to oblige them after the first block.

Looking back on BT01, our initial complaints came not from Megacolony being overcosted, but from a fundamental misunderstanding of how you were supposed to use Mr. Invincible.

I alluded to this last week when I talked about Great Nature, but Mr. Invincible was effectively the go-to boss card for stub clans. You could use him as a Nova Grappler boss to great effect, but Nova Grappler was lacking in counterblasts that would actually call for that; you had Magician Girl Kirara and Genocide Jack, and that was about it. The real purpose of Mr. Invincible in the game's first four booster sets was to enable playing counterblast- or soulblast-heavy stub bosses like Hell Spider or Rue. In Megacolony that manifested as countercharging every turn for your Karma Queen and Hell Spider rearguards, (and post-BT02, Lady Bomb) making them into functional counterblast 1s to paralyze a unit. You supported this with Dogu Mechanic and Hungry Dumpty, making Nova Grappler the "generic" support of choice for unfinished clans. Invincible on vanguard, stubs on rearguard.

If you were really feeling it, you could even set Madame Mirage as your FV. Aside from flavor, there were two reasons to do so; the first was to feed your grade 3 vanguard's skill (megablast for Mr. Invincible/soulblast draw for Master Fraud after BT02) and the second was that running non-Nova grade 1s meant having a bad time if you used Battle Raiser.

So like Great Nature, Megacolony began as a Mr. Invincible offshoot. Access to his countercharge enabled you to dedicate the deck space to Karma Queen and Hell Spider, with Bloody Hercules as an aesthetic choice over using King of Sword as your 10k vanilla. Access to countercharging made it much more manageable to spread the paralyzing skills throughout the game and repeatedly lock down the opponent's front row attackers and vanguard booster. (Long before Link Joker came into being, Megacolony had already defined the core of a "triangle lock.") You didn't have access to perfect guards until BT02: Onslaught of Dragon Souls, but neither did mainstream Nova Grappler.

BT02 brought with it perfect guards for the Nova Grappler end of the deck, and Lady Bomb and Master Fraude for the Megacolony end. Now you had more ways to paralyze/retire, and an alternate grade 3 that would let you utilize all that soul Mr. Invincible was building up. A contemporary option was to splash various stub clans together inside the Mr. Invincible build, so that you could have (for example) Voidmaster, Highspeed Brakki, Lady Bomb, Chigasumi, Karma Queen, Dreadmaster, Aermo, and Gojo all in one deck. These kinds of hybrids are today the purview of Extreme Fight, but back in the BT01~02 era they were a kind of high-risk high-reward deck that lacked the grade 3 punch of pure builds but otherwise had more versatile rearguard lineups.

BT04 brought with it a shift as Megacolony moved from a stub clan for collectors and into the realm of full support. Like Shadow Paladin and Dimension Police in the same set, the clan was given a generic ride chain rather than its own unique First Vanguard, but received arguably the best version of it as its grade 2 in the chain had a no-cost on-hit paralyze rather than a counterblast-intensive on-ride or a setup-dependent draw skill. Some Megacolony decks would even continue to use this version of Giraffa long after they had abandoned the ride chain, in a similar fashion to how Link Joker would later use Mobius Breath Dragon.

In total the there were four grade 3s by this time that Megacolony wanted on the vanguard circle: Hell Spider, Master Fraude, Evil Armor General Giraffa, and Death Warden Antlion.

Hell Spider and Master Fraude we've touched on already. Their major assets were their 3k power bonuses, with Spider offering another option to paralyze an opponent's rearguard, and Fraude giving an on-hit soulblast 3 to draw effect that made effective use of the extra soul from not having a Forerunner FV, provided you weren't going to use Giraffa at all. (You would miss out on the 11k base otherwise, as Giraffa needed his grade 2 form in the soul to maintain it.)

Megacolony got a bad rep for intercept and calling over paralyzed units overcoming its primary mechanic, but that discourse totally ignored its interactions with vital on-attack units. Picture for a moment the nightmare of the Megacolony-Great Nature matchup at this time; intercepting the Binoculus Tigers was almost never an option in this format. In kind, hitting the Storm Riders in Aqua Force, or the Silent Toms in Oracle Think Tank was a genuinely paralyzing play, precisely because these units were not easily replaceable with anything but themselves.

One of the unsolved questions of the format was what to do with Evil Armor General, Giraffa. (Or as we knew him then, Wicked Shell Shogun, Giraffa.) Giraffa provided an 11k body to work off of, and an on-hit field reduction skill that made optimal use of Violent Vesper and early game trash boosters that could then be replaced by Stealth Millipede and Karma Queen, but he was also only capable of exaggerating an existing situation, not improving it in any form. Against the top decks of the day like Alfred Royals and Tsukuyomi, a -2 to both of you would end in their favor. You would have to hit 2 Vespers 1 Water Gang and the ride chain to keep up with the advantage generated by the Tsukuyomi line. It wasn't much of an option to run Vesper outside of Giraffa, because this was the only build in which you could use the ride chain to freely swap Vespers for Giraffas as a form of security against having to ride a 9k base.

Antlion was especially overlooked compared to the other Megacolony grade 3s, in large part because his megablast wasn't particularly good. In a deliberate Antlion-Master Fraude deck he could gradually give you enough soul for a second Fraude soulblast, but stopping all rearguards from standing with his counterblast 5 soulblast 8 was nothing compared to the likes of Mr. Invincible's field-stand, Robert functionally retiring 3 units, or Stil Vampir turning the opponent into a grade 0.

Where Antlion was eventually embraced was in the Machining deck, first realized in Extra Booster 01: Comic Style Vol. 1. The Machining cards each revolved around having cards with "Machining" in the soul, and so Antlion's random soulcharges were used as the next-best thing to follow its main boss, Machining Stag Beetle.

Stag Beetle was the first time a Megacolony boss was uncontroversial. On-ride he superior called two Machinings from the soul and gained power equal to their base power; this would then be comboed with the subclan's unique FV, Machining Worker Ant, which did not possess the Forerunner skill but on-place could stand a Machining rearguard. With two opportunities to get a second Machining in the soul from Machining Hornet and Machining Mantis, the subclan was functionally like a ride chain that didn't give you the negatives of missing your grade 1 ride. You were nearly guaranteed to have a +2 on-ride and half your field full.

The weakness of this was that there was no way to get Worker Ant back in the soul, so you couldn't repeat the feat by reriding Stag Beetle, though you could do it just to gain power from calling out the previous copy. The deck had a strong early game, and an endgame if you could get to it, but struggled to cultivate a midgame. The best you could do was ride Antlion and try to randomly soulcharge one or more Machinings before transitioning back to Stag Beetle.

That was eventually fixed with a promotional card, Machining Armor Beetle, distributed between after BT10. Armor's skill was that on-place you would suck one of your Megacolony rearguards into the soul to paralyze an opponent's frontrow unit, making him a Megacolony version of Fiendish Sword Eradicator Chou-ou. Now you could ride Armor Beetle for your grade 2, paralyze a unit, then ride Stag Beetle for grade 3 and call out Armor Beetle and Ant to stand Armor Beetle, using Armor's skill to send Ant back to soul and paralyze again. The turn after you would ideally ride a second Stag Beetle to bring out the previous Beetle or another Machining unit with Ant, and use Ant to stand that. It was an incredibly efficient way to utilize multiple grade 3 rides, bouncing the Ant in and out of the soul to benefit from gaining new rearguards while locking down the opponent's key beaters. You could conserve more shield through cheap paralysis than you could through a crossride.

That's skipping ahead to the end, though. Back before Comic Style ever hit, Megacolony had to run a rainbow trigger spread and the Giraffa ride chain, a vanilla FV, or a trigger as their starter. (Yes, some fighters did this just to take a Stand out of the deck.) BT04 left Megacolony with a legendary rearguard lineup; most cardfighters if they had an idea of what Megacolony did at this time knew it had great grade 2s and not much else. We had Elite Mutant Giraffa as the best of the BT04 ride chain grade 2s, then Water Gang as a cheap single Rare Maiden of Libra clone, and Tail Joe as an always-active 11k attacker. On the subclan side of things, Giraffa had Iron Cutter Beetle for a 12k attacker, capable of making 20k columns with Phantom Black.

The grade 1s were less impressive--I think I used Gloom Flyman's skill exactly once in a year and a half--but it did give us Stealth Millipede, a 10k vanguard-only booster for while the opponent's rearguards were at rest. This was tied with Evil Shade for the best such booster in the game at the time, and wouldn't be rivaled again until soulblast boosters first began spreading outside of Lionmane Stallion in BT05.

The full body of Megacolony entered in a world that was already hostile to its core mechanics, as they were seen as underpowered and overcosted. But in reality the clan had an incredible lineup at low rarities by the standards of the format; Hell Spider and Master Fraude both had an easy time of it making a rare 21k center lane that other clans struggled to do the same for. Royal Paladin could only make a costless 21k center with Soul Saver Dragon or Lohengrin-Pegasus Knight, while doing it with Gancelot, Alfred, or Galahad required Margal and/or counterblast spent. Kagerо̄ could only achieve it through Dragonic Overlord's CB3 or Amber Dragon Eclipse's CB2.

Oracle Think Tank had Amaterasu and CoCo, who were both far more conditional than Hell Spider or Fraude. Nova Grappler could only do it by resting units with Cosmo Lord, Dimension Police needed to use Cosmo Beak or Masked Police Grander, Granblue had to mill with Evil Shade, and Spike Brothers only had General Seifried.

Dark Irregulars and Pale Moon were the two other clans with similarly-free centers, and this was only possible by way of the setup-intensive Amon and Barking Manticore, or through Stil Vampir with a Doreen behind him. On top of the rearguard lineup and powerful center, most clans required numerous Triple Rares to complete. Yet if you wanted to go the Hell Spider-Fraude route rather than full Giraffa you could have a fully competitive Megacolony deck where the only cards above R rarity were your perfect guards and one copy of Elite Mutant.

(Consider this; Dark Metal Dragon was the primary grade 3 for Shadow Paladin at this time, with Phantom Blaster teched foremost for his vanilla 11k and to avoid acccidentally riding Badhabh Caar. Megacolony had all the advantages of Dark Metal but with actual skills attached to their grade 3s, and not at RR rarity.)

The clan had everything it needed to compete, numbers-wise. An 11k base for defense, two other grade 3s with rearguard blasts that became 21k attackers, a 10k booster so that your 11k base could also become 21, effective 11k attackers, basic card advantage, and readily accessible control skills at both grade 1 and 2. Even once crossrides hit, Hell Spider/Master Fraude hit the magic 23k with Stealth Millipede, and by then the Machining subclan had already debuted with the first easy 12k attackers and 10k boosters ahead of Blaster support.

So what made them bad? Or rather, why did the community think Megacolony was bad when it had incredible versions of a ton of cards?

Beyond the problems of first impressions with Hell Spider and Lady Bomb, the community was unimpressed with Giraffa. It was an on-hit CB2 to -2 both fighters. The design intent was probably to have the Megacolony fighter build up first with Vesper and Water Gang, but Gang was a cumbersome way to implement draw power in a deck that sorely needed it to capitalize on Giraffa. They were also forced to run rainbow triggers at a time when there was a serious stigma against Stands and a somewhat ludicrous insistence that 12 Critical was the only competitive deck option. (Nevermind the fact that this was completely impossible for many decks.) Comic Style Vol. 1 giving them an option for 8 Crit 4 Draw may have been too little too late, as the fandom had already passed judgement on bugs as a deck.

The core mechanic of paralyzing units was also hard to sell fighters on up until Megacolony Battler B and Machining Armor Beetle promos debuted well after the clan's initial run. Battle B was a unit they probably should have had to start with, a grade 1 that could pay counterblast 1 after an attack it had boosted hit a vanguard, to paralyze any of the opponent's units.

In the Japanese format Battler B was late to the party, but in the English format it debuted ahead of the main body of support, not as a promo card but as an additional Rare in BT04: Eclipse of Illusionary Shadows. This actually hurt Shadow Paladin cardfighters the most, as the additional Rares took spots from Blaster Dark on the uncut factory sheets, making him a 0~1 per box card and bumping his price up to $8 on release.

The modified release order for the international game went BT01 > BT02 > BT06 > EB03 > BT03 > BT07 > BT04, hence some fighters were holding on to Megacolony cards for quite some time before the clan was formally playable as a full deck.

Extra Booster 3 brought with it two new grade 3s and a host of supporting rearguards. Martial Arts Mutant Master Beetle essentially replaced Giraffa as the go-to 11k of the clan, as he functionally had no condition to his 11k in a pure Megacolony deck. His limit break was unimpressive; on-attack counterblast 3 to paralyze 2 units. It was technically less expensive than Hell Spider or Karma Queen, but the limit break didn't exactly make Master Beetle the default deck. In the Japanese format Master was paired with Machining Stag Beetle as the next-best-ride, or alternatively played as his own build with Lady Butterfly, while in the English format Master was used to give the Giraffa deck an endgame after the opportunity for Giraffa to hit had passed.

Bewitching Officer Lady Butterfly was a generic grade 3 12k attacker that nonetheless found herself widely played. She was the means by which you would use Battler B and Pest Professor Mad Fly (Aermo clone) in a format with crossrides, and she wasn't exactly a bad ride either since she was still a 22k with Stealth Millipede behind her.

Alongside this terrible duo came Toxic Trooper and Toxic Soldier, units that could not be intercepted. The idea was that this would eliminate one convenient means of dealing with paralyze. The opponent would reserve their perfect guards for the Stealth Millipede-boosted vanguard and normally intercept rearguards, letting the Troopers fit in naturally by blocking off that route of defense.

The final contribution from this set was the First Vanguard, Megacolony Battler C. This was vital for being Megacolony's first Forerunner grade 0, attached to an on-hit counterblast 1 to send itself to the soul and paralyze an opponent's rearguard. Whether or not you ran it depended entirely on whether or not you were playing the Machining subclan or something else.

As a direct consequence of EB03 coming before BT04 in the English format, this card essentially killed the Giraffa ride chain as it had been known in Japan. Giraffa cardfighters in English instead played Battler C with Elite Mutant for a mean on-hit combo that could paralyze an entire column early in the game.

For a time, Megacolony went quiet. Comic Style hit in English after EB03, and the support was complete on both sides of the water. The clan would not find new cards again until BT15: Infinite Rebirth, eight months after Cavalry of Black Steel for Japan and eighteen months after Comic Style Vol. 1 for English. And it was at this point that Megacolony changed.

It had to change; Link Joker effectively coopted its entire mechanic, fulfilling the same function with Lock that Megacolony had sought to with paralyze, and in response R&D retooled its successors around stopping the vanguard from standing and making paralyze cheaper and faster compared to Lock. There was no way that Megacolony could stare down the increased power scale of the new format and keep on trucking away with Master Beetles.

So at the end of the day, what was the greatest Megacolony deck of this period? The most persuasive answer is likely Machining Stag Beetle. Having an on-ride +2 transferable via Armor Beetle into a +1 with paralyze, and the ability to repeat that maneuver to reduce the opponent's ability to fight back over the course of a game, was generally better than what was on offer from Hell Spider. The deck continued to be playable essentially until the moment late Nebula Lord/early Chaos Breaker outmoded a huge swathe of power-focused rearguard-centric decks, and would eventually find renewed life as Machining became a bigger and bigger focus of the clan as a whole.

V-Extra Booster 01: The Destructive Roar will see Megacolony reimagined as a Protect clan, with Machining Stag Beetle returning to the fore in June for Japan and July for the rest of the world.

Long live the Queen.