Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Bouquet of Blades: Remembering Legion-era Neo Nectar

All was not well.

Neo Nectar ended 2013 and began 2014 walled by Link Joker, heavily disrupted by Kagerо̄ and Narukami, and generally neutral in its other matchups. The clan's more developed focus on cloning units and giving them power gave it powerful plusses for little cost and an explosive endgame, but this was made possible by drawing on support that was now approaching 20 months old. The Arboros deck meshed brilliantly with the newer support but suffered from high variance versus the ease of retires from Eradicator, Nouvelle, and Overlord decks, while Glendios and Chaos Breaker could turn off its win condition at will. The Venus Trap deck could utilize its Lock cost to gain a +2 each turn and intercept away the new cards on the opponent's, but it didn't play well with the other grade 3s and short of running Sephirot its best bet for endgame was to check Stand Triggers. Wisteria was more relevant in the deck for his +2000 power than for his superior call, Sephirot could be played but didn't exactly mesh with Trap's random top 5 calls, and the next best thing was running Maiden of Trailing Rose for her persona blast. Musketeers had gained the ability to grab immense amounts of card advantage by topdeck calling off Sylvia and trading out those calls with the old Rebecca/Kaivant engine, but their inability to effectively interact with the new support limited their options, and their reliance on a 10k base boss card hurt them defensively.

Fighter's Collection 2014 brought this last deck its final Limit Break in the form of Holly Musketeer Elvira, who would go on to become the cornerstone of many Neo Nectar decks during their first real boom. Prior to Elvira, Musketeers was an incredibly consistent deck that could make 21k columns easily thanks to its searchable 9k booster and 12k attacker, but it was held back by a lackluster grade 3 with low base power and an underwhelming Limit Break. There was good reason to play Musketeers over the other builds, but it was a hard argument to articulate because Sephirot could do the same numbers with a wider range of units and could actually make the center swing just as large.

There were two reasons Elvira caught on; first, she had an 11k body that was finally up to the standards of the format. Second, while Cecilia could only retire and replace a Musketeer once per turn, Elivra could retire and replace as many times as she could pay soulblast 1.
AUTO Limit Break 4: [Counterblast 1] When your card with "Musketeer" in its card name is placed on Rearguard Cirlce due to an effect from one of your cards, you may pay the cost. If you do, this unit gets Critical +1 until end of turn.
ACT [Vanguard Circle]: [Soulblast 1, Choose one of your rearguards with "Musketeer" in its card name, and retire it] Look at 5 cards from the top of your deck, search for up to one card with "Musketeer" in its card name, call it to Rearguard Circle, and shuffle your deck.
Her retire skill was otherwise identical to Cecilia's, but was much easier to work with Sylvia's calls to fix the field and get Augusto-Mirkka columns going. Elvira's Limit Break would be valuable in the early game if it weren't gated behind 4 damage, and notably could be used multiple times, but it wasn't especially useful and wasn't the reason you ran her.

Elvira did not revolutionize the Musketeer deck, but merely bring it up to speed with the tools Arboros and Venus Trap had at their disposal. The subclan's first "top" came from Fukaya Kimitaka, a cardfighter from Nagoya who competed in the Open-class division of the Bushiroad Card Fight 2014 Nagoya regional qualifier. Fukaya did not actually place in the top cut that we know of, but rather was selected for the "Doctor O prize," an award given for inventive or unique decks. (This was the award that the infamous Crazy Diamond deck was shooting for, but it accidentally won the 2013 national championship instead.) We know precious little about Fukaya or where Vanguard took him after this, but his deck is very close to the quintessential Musketeer deck of the period. The standard list ultimately replaced Four Leaf Fairy with Bullet Chestnut, and took slots away from Ruth in favor of Rebecca.

Grade 0
x1 Broccolini Musketeer, Mirkka (FV)
x4 Hibiscus Musketeer, Hanah HT
x4 Blue Rose Musketeer, Ernst ST
x4 Four Leaf Fairy DT
x4 Night Queen Musketeer, Daniel CT
Grade 1
x4 Red Rose Musketeer, Antonio (Perfect Guard)
x4 Water Lily Musketeer, Ruth
x2 Lily of the Valley Musketeer, Rebecca
x4 Dandelion Musketeer, Mirkka
Grade 2
x4 Cherry Blossom Musketeer, Augusto
x4 Lily of the Valley Musketeer, Kaivant
x4 Pansy Musketeer, Sylvia
Grade 3
x4 Holly Musketeer, Elvira
x3 White Lily Musketeer, Cecilia

Back in December 2016 Last Second Designs started producing a line of commissioned playmats that told their player "how to play" various clans--how to play Granblue, how to play Shadow Paladin, how to lose against Kagerо̄, and so on. This is counterfactual history, but I think if a similar playmat were produced for Neo Nectar in late 2013, it really wouldn't be clear what to put on it. How did Neo Nectar win games at this time? Those that explored the options thoroughly came to side on either Arboros or Venus Trap or a combination thereof as the optimal Neo Nectar deck, but in the popular consciousness there wasn't a go-to description of their win condition because the clan didn't interact with its zones in the same level of detail as contemporary clans. They had a smorgasbord of effects from calling out of the top 5, to cloning cards on-ride, and retiring to topdeck call, but there was a serious lack of synergy and focus across the clan's many effects.

What would this playmat look like if it were for Neo Nectar? Frankly, it might just say "shuffle."
As we left Neo Nectar, they had just been confirmed to be among the first clans to receive support in the new Legion format. This was a great upset in the game's history, and the second "soft reset" after Chaos Breaker's debut in BT13; only a few stragglers from Limit Break format endured into Legion, as in the eyes of many cardfighters Legion was inherently superior to Limit Break. They had every reason to believe this, and in many cases they were right--Legion was a return to form in which cards could now activate their skills at any point in the game, no longer beholden to the damage restrictions of LB4 or LB5. Many praised this, as it was something of an open secret since 2012 that Limit Break was a redundant mechanic on top of counterblast that arbitrarily restricted many skills that didn't need it, and the only reason it had eventually begun to succeed more than a year after its introduction was Bushiroad rapidly ramping up the power scale of the game.

It wasn't so much power creep that made Limit Breaks finally work, because "creep" implies subtlety. Combos like Dragonic Descendant-Vowing Sword and Mordred-Raging Form came stampeding out of the gate like nothing we had ever seen before, and as the third block of the game developed local shops saw questions like "So do you have to hit, or not hit?" answered with a resounding "No." Despite this, the only Limit Breaks that survived into Legion were ones with incredible amounts of support, unique properties not shared with their Legion equivalents, or those that simply didn't have a Legion to replace them. We're talking cards like Glendios, Nouvelle, and Dragruler. This seeming invalidation of the old guard was what Legion was criticized most for, along with its property of returning triggers to the deck.

As we are now four years out from the first Legion cards and the mechanic is becoming increasingly obscure, I will summarize it here: to perform Legion, a vanguard with the Legion ability must return four cards from the drop zone to the deck during the main phase, search the deck for its specified Mate, and attach that card to itself on the vanguard circle. This causes you to possess two vanguards simultaneously, and when the vanguard attacks the power of the Legion Mate and Legion Leader are combined; most Legions were 20000 power combinations of an 11k grade 3 and a 9k grade 2, but Bushiroad eventually created the "Revival Legion campaign" comprising new grade 3s that legioned to existing ones to make combinations of 11 + 10 or even 11 + 11. Any skills the Mate possessed could also work on the vanguard circle so long as they would normally work on it, like Blaster Blade's on-ride retire or Great Daiyusha's Limit Break. Unfortunately this last mechanic ended up woefully underused outside the Revival Legion campaign, as the majority of new grade 2s were made without vanguard circle skills specifically to prevent them from being used with Legion.

Seeker Sacred Wingal and Blaster Blade Seeker, the first Legions.
Going into Legion format, Bushiroad's overall design objectives can best be summarized as, "Give them the same skill as before, but make it a Legion." Consider;
  • Solidify Celestial Zerachiel gives all Celestial units 3k if there is a copy of her face-up in the damage zone. Holy Edge Celestial Malchidael gives all front row units 2k while she is in Legion, and if there is a copy of her face-up in the damage zone gives them 2k more.
  • Bad End Dragger gives the unit that rides him the ability to give their rearguards 10k when they attack and then sends them to the bottom of the deck. Bloody Ogle gives all rearguards that attack during the turn it Legions 5k and then sends them to the bottom of the deck.
  • Demonic Lord, Dudley Emperor can counterblast 2 and put 2 cards from hand to soul on-attack to superior call 2 units from deck. Emerald Blaze can counterblast 3 and put a copy of itself or its Legion mate to soul on-attack while in Legion to superior call 2 units from deck.
  • Omniscience Regalia Minerva can counterblast 1, soulblast 3 and discard 3 at the end of the battle she attacked to stand and gain 5k. Rising Star Trois can counterblast 3 and discard 3 at the end of the battle she attacked a vanguard while in Legion to stand.
  • Silver Thorn Dragon Tamer, Luquier can counterblast 3 in the main phase to superior call one unit of each grade from soul, and she gets 3k for each unit called from soul to rearguard circle. Cracking Beast Tamer can counterblast 2 on-legion to soulchage 2 and superior call three units from soul, and gets 3k for each unit called from soul to rearguard circle.
  • Star-vader “Ω” Glendios can counterblast 1 and discard a “Яeverse” in the main phase to stop the opponent's rearguards from unlocking during their next end phase. Star-vader Dark Zodiac can counterblast 1 on-legion to stop the opponent's rearguard from unlocking during their next end phase. “Ω” Glendios can also call a “Яeverse” unit once per turn to lock a card; Dark Zodiac can persona blast once per turn to lock a front row and back row rearguard.
Each of these skills were generally equivocal to one another, albeit with modifications to account for cost and conditions. (Trois has no soulblast cost, but pays 2 more counterblast than Minerva, while Malchidael gives less overall power than Zerachiel as a trade-off for being able to power up non-Celestials.) This was the primary reason why Legion format swept away many clans' past deck options, although it was also propelled by misconceptions about Legion. Many fighters would tell you the Legion mechanic itself was a "pure plus" (a statement which misconstrues just what a "plus" is) because it returned triggers to the deck, and was often conceived as being costless.

In reality, Legion needing to return cards to the deck most often translated to earlier guards, making its functional cost "discard 4 cards and return them to deck." If the cost were worded like that, fighters would have balked at it, but they thought nothing of changing to a guard-everything mentality that left them with lower handsizes earlier and more vulnerable to taking large amounts of damage at once in the mid- and lategame. You could get around this by playing Quintet Walls, which called the top 5 cards of the deck to guardian circle for counterblast 1, but this meant running fewer perfect guards. Quintets effectively translated the cost of Legion into "counterblast 1, discard 1, mill 5 and return 4."

In general, most clans received two types of Legions. The first would be a Sacred Wingal clone, which did something on-legion like superior call a unit from deck or retire an opponent's rearguard. The second would comprise their unique finisher, most commonly a restander like Thing Saver Dragon, Phantom Blaster “Abyss,” or Dragonic Overlord the Great. The idea was that you would build up your early game with one or two rides of your Wingal clone, then close the game out with your finisher. It was one of the best times to get into the game as a new fighter because of how much of the old game was rendered irrelevant by this model, as you were effectively starting from zero--not unlike the Standard format today.

The Wingal-Thing Saver model did not work for every clan, however. Clans which did not have such simple and direct card mechanics couldn't benefit from the model in the same way. How do you make a Sacred Wingal clone for Great Nature, whose primary gameplay consists of stacking on-retire draw effects onto a unit that replaces itself when it's retired and then pumping it up really big for a massive endgame plus? With that kind of gameplay there's little room for these kinds of small buildups, as the clan tends to explode all at once rather than gradually make plays that set up an endgame push.

Neo Nectar might have been able to sustain the model. A generic on-legion unit that clones a card in play would have fit in with the existing game mechanics established by Arboros and Venus Trap “Muse,” and for the finisher could have copy-and-pasted Arboros' own Limit Break as an "If this unit is in Legion" skill. Bushiroad Research & Development instead chose to focus on developing the established Musketeer subclan for Booster Set 16: Legion of Dragons & Blades. This was part of an overall push in Legion format to build on existing subclans rather than print generic support, a decision that would come back to bite R&D hard in subsequent years; on top of the design objectives described above, the Legion Mate block focused on building up the previous year's subclans to the detriment of their alternative decks. This was another source of frustration for the player base, as it narrowed the playing field to decks that already had support like Liberator, Revenger, and Regalia, while telling decks like Artemis, Ildona, and Ezel, to get out and stay out.

One major exception was the Eradicator subclan, which was likely blacklisted out of fear because of how overwhelmingly dominant Dragonic Descendant had been even after it was restricted to 2 copies per deck in Limit Break format. These exceptions simply prompted Bushiroad to develop new subclans like Seeker, Brawler, and Perdition, making the format even more exclusionary to old cards.

Our first peek at the new wave of Musketeer support came in the form of a dual Card of the Day profile for the two Lycoris Musketeers, Vera and Saul. Like other Legion skills, Vera was a straight implementation of an existing Limit Break but with the damage requirement substituted for Legion conditions; "Durning the turn this unit Legioned, all of your units with 'Musketeer' in their card names get Power +3000." This was essentially a copypaste of Arboros' skill from BT08 but with the same-name requirement replaced by a same-subclan requirement, limiting the deck from venturing outside of its subclan in exchange for being Arboros-but-better. While it was true that Vera's effect would disappear the turn after she was used, and thus would require reriding in order to Legion again and gain power, Musketeers were much more effective at swarming the field and pushing the opponent to 4 damage before anyone even reached grade 3 in the first place, and in an average you would draw 2 copies of a card you ran 4 of anyway.

On top of her status as a superior Arboros, Vera shared her secondary skill with Cecilia;
ACT [Vanguard Circle]: [Choose 1 of your rearguards with "Musketeer" in its card name, and retire it] Look at 5 cards from the top of your deck, search for up to 1 card with "Musketeer" in its card name, call it to Rearguard Circle, and shuffle your deck. This ability cannot be used for the rest of that turn.
So Vera could set up Sylvia plusses and/or Mirkka-Augusto columns and give a power boost to the entire field, while taking advantage of Legion putting two units on the vanguard circle to swing 26k unboosted, 38k with Mirkka--16k more than Sephirot. Vera's one shortcoming was her mate, Saul. Saul could return three normal unit Musketeers from the drop zone to the bottom of the deck when he attacked during a Legion turn to draw a card, which wasn't bad per se but didn't facilitate the overall objectives of the deck and took space away from Augusto, Kaivant, and Sylvia.

Vera prompted immediately speculation as to what Musketeers' face card for the set could do, as she was a mere Double Rare and we had already seen the subclan's Triple Rare teased during Bushiroad's annual press conference. Thankfully we didn't have to wait long, as the ninth issue of Monthly Bushiroad magazine leaked just three days later.

The debut of Peony Musketeer, Martina.
ACT [Vanguard Circle]: [Counterblast 1, choose 5 normal units with "Musketeer" in their card name from your drop zone, and place them on the bottom of your deck in any order] If this unit is in Legion, look at up to 4 cards from the top of your deck, search for up to 2 "Musketeer" units from among them, call them to separate Rearguard Circles, and shuffle that deck. This ability cannot be used for the rest of that turn.
AUTO [Vanguard Circle]: When this unit attacks a vanguard, if you have another unit in your center column, this unit gets Power +3000 until the end of that battle.
While Vera was a unique finisher in the mode of Thing Saver and Egbert, Martina was Neo Nectar's take on Sacred Wingal and Skybeat Dragon. But rather than an on-legion clone, she was akin to a Legion implementation of Cecilia's Limit Break, a CB1 normal unit cycle to +2. The operative difference being that Martina didn't need to call grade 3s and go through the hoops of replacing them via Kaivant/Rebecca calls, and possessing Legion made her immediately superior to Cecilia.

Martina was unfortunately dead on arrival. Cecilia was a defensively-oriented Limit Break from the highly-experimental Asia Circuit block of the game, when Bushiroad was looking into alternative play styles and deck types that would later find themselves relegated to "Technical Boosters" years after the fact. In any world where Vera existed, Martina was invalidated; the deck's overall win condition was to aggressively push the opponent to 4 in as few turns as possible and go for broke on fast 27k columns with Mirkka-Augusto-Vera. Look no further than that year's BCF2014 tournament series, where decks either ran Vera with Elvira, or opted instead to not run a second grade 3 and make do with 4 Vera. Martina being a net +2 could help in mass-retire matchups like Nouvelle, except that these matchups were slow to set up compared to Musketeers' extremely aggressive play style.

Her mate Toure was similarly disappointing, but there wasn't much else she could be: a counterblast-free clone of Kaivant that only worked if you were in Legion. If Musketeers played more slowly Toure could be a viable way to trade out units without spending the counterblast on Kaivant, but that just wasn't how the deck or the format worked.

The only other units of note to come out of BT16 were Phalaenopsis Musketeer Kirstie (Quintet Wall) Anemone Musketeer Susanna (Lemonade clone: soulblast 2 to countercharge 2 on-call) and Gypsophila Musketer Raisa, their new First Vanguard. Raisa's skill was to counterblast 1 when she was retired while the vangaurd was in-legion to call a Musketeer out of the top 4 cards of the deck, effectively getting a +1 off of what would otherwise be a replacement retire.

Quintet Walls were useful for enabling Legion quickly without sacrificing cards from hand, but in Musketeers they served the dual purpose of fueling the drop zone for Martina and Saul's skills. (Which was a lot more compelling if you were actually running Martina, but I digress.) Susanna was a clone every clan was clamoring for at the time, and for Musketeers was especially powerful because she could be immediately retired to make way for a better booster. Few decks actually ran Raisa, as Kira did a perfectly acceptable job of being retire fodder while also giving the option to get out of being gradelocked at 2.

BT16 did two things badly. First was making compelling boss cards--Vera was easily the best grade 3 in the game for Neo Nectar, but she was just a remix of two existing units while Martina was left utterly unremarkable. Second was the more complex issue of getting us to run different grade 1s and 2s. Rather than compelling units in their own right, the new Musketeers were forcing their way into the deck by being the Mates of their corresponding boss cards. The majority of Neo Nectar support in the set was vanilla Legion support nobody ran, like 8k grade 2s that gained 4k while the vanguard was in Legion, or 10k vanguard boosters that only worked while it was in Legion. The set could actually have been more compelling if it had reprinted Rebecca, Kaivant, and Augusto, and made the Musketeer deck more accessible, but instead the cards shot up in price due to being essential to making the subclan function. You couldn't actually build the Musketeer deck out of the set, as most Musketeer lists only ran Vera, Saul, Susanna, and Kirstie from this chapter of support. In practice that was 10~12 cards in the whole deck, with the remaining ~40 coming from BT08 and promo cards.

Grade 0
x1 Broccolini Musketeer, Mirkka (FV)
x4 Hibiscus Musketeer, Hanah HT
x4 Blue Rose Musketeer, Ernst ST
x4 Bullet Chestnut CT
x4 Night Queen Musketeer, Daniel CT
Grade 1
x2 Red Rose Musketeer, Antonio (Perfect Guard)
x2 Phalaenopsis Musketeer, Kirstie (Quintet Wall)
x4 Lily of the Valley Musketeer, Rebecca
x4 Dandelion Musketeer, Mirkka
x3 Anemone Musketeer, Susanna
Grade 2
x2 Lycoris Musketeer, Saul
x4 Cherry Blossom Musketeer, Augusto
x4 Lily of the Valley Musketeer, Kaivant
x4 Pansy Musketeer, Sylvia
Grade 3
x4 Lycoris Musketeer, Vera

Of note is that this batch of Musketeer support was initially mistranslated by Bushiroad on their official blog (the now-defunct as "Squire" support, and the Lycoris Musketeers were called the Licorice Squires. Metalborgs became Metal Vogues. Never let that one go.

Neo Nectar's sole full fight in the Legion Mate season, episode 174. Raul Serra dropped the clan after this episode.
In the lead-up to the season's airing there was an open question of who exactly would be playing Neo Nectar, and the fantasies ended up far surpassing the reality of the situation. Could it be Misaki, changing clans once more, this time to avoid oversupporting Genesis as Bushiroad had done for Oracle Think Tank? Or perhaps they would bring Maki back from the third season, to reprise her role as Neo Nectar representative and integrate her into the recurring cast?

Neo Nectar ended the season without a real representative character. Antagonist Raul Serra was used to show the cards off, and with his butler Morris Pennyworth using Megacolony it seemed the two were to be a kind of dual representative of the Zoo nation. However, Serra ultimately became a clan-hopping antagonist that could use whatever needed to be pushed in that particular week of the anime, whether it was Musketeers, Pinot Noir, or Venom Dancer.

While the Musketeer support was powerful, Bushiroad's decision to push subclan decks over generic decks created one of the first great schisms among Neo Nectar cardfighters. Though the Musketeers' focus on constant deck shuffling attracted some annoyance before, this was the first format in which Musketeer hate became a thing.

This was owed in large part to the subclan's ubiquity. By the end of the Asia Circuit format, you had free choice between Trailing Rose-Arboros, dedicated Arboros, and Cecilia. By the end of Link Joker, your options were between Trailing Rose-Venus, Arboros-Wisteria, Cecilia-Elvira, and Venus-Wisteria. In Legion format, if you weren't playing Vera you didn't matter. It was the one and only Neo Nectar deck that could make any difference whatsoever, and was an intrinsically better implementation of Arboros' power swings, Venus' topdeck calls, and even the cloning mechanics Gene and Cherry Bloom had pushed.

As a result, while previous years could be disputed, there's not really any question of what the best Neo Nectar deck was in 2014. Musketeers' stiffest competition was Arboros, and only because of the ride chain-break ride synergy. Arboros was just Vera with 16k less power and no 12k attacker to make 21s with Mirkka. You could make the case that Venus Trap had a better midgame, but she was building up to nothing--making 2 16k rearguards and praying for Stands was not a better gameplan than making 27-33-27 across. The latter took away 20k more shield on a normal day.

And perhaps for the first time, facing Link Joker was not an automatic game loss. That's not to say it was an easy matchup--there was palpable tension over the need to push the game to end quickly--but because of Link Joker being generally restricted to turn 3-on lock, Musketeers could be that much more powerful by having the Link Joker fighter at four damage before they ever rode a grade 3. Venus-Arboros' gameplan in the third block versus Glendios was to go ham, rush with triggers if need be and beat them down to 6 damage using Arboros before they could get more than one front row unit locked. Musketeers could do that and more, turning their triggers into 21k columns.

If the Legion block of Neo Nectar accomplished anything, it was resolving those disparate effects described above into a cohesive gameplan. The calls, the retires, the deck thinning, were all building towards maximizing the Vera turns and the impact of returning triggers to deck while easily fielding powerful rearguard columns.

The subclan's greatest weaknesses were its inaccessibility and the general lack of understanding most cardfighters had about the deck. To the experienced Neo Nectar fighter Musketeers weren't particularly complicated, but I recall a number of high-level fighters that had no experience with it simply throwing their hands up and trusting the opponent to know what they were doing. Somehow the repeated top 4 calls and power buffs from Mirkka, Augusto, and Vera, proved too much for most fighters to comprehend. Maybe the community just didn't get the deck, maybe it didn't want to, but somewhere along the line Neo Nectar had become obtuse, and it was one of our more embarrassing moments to be sure.

What began as a promising format turned stale the moment BT16 hit and Thing Saver Dragon became an omnipresent aspect of the game. For the duration of Legion format the Guardian Dragon was accounting for ~40% of all tournament play, and while there was still significant room to maneuver and pilot your deck of choice, it turned competitive events into one long gauntlet of TSD matchups. The format stagnated quickly, many clans were undersupported, and the anime was operating on a shoestring after all of the budget was poured into Miyano Mamoru Neon Messiah. Local scenes were fast losing interest in the game and Bushiroad slammed the panic button, leaving us with the shortest season and set block of Vanguard ever until GIRS Crisis and G: Z. Bushiroad's task was now to court the player base they had just spent the last eight months alienating while maintaining a deathgrip on the mainstream neophytes brought in by the franchise's first theatrical release, and Vanguard R&D cooked up one of the game's most extreme mechanical shifts in response.

Everything was going to be fine.