Friday, February 15, 2013

The Easiest VP You'll Ever Get

Here I sit in a Burbank coffee shop, killing time until I can drop by Mike's place for some pick-up games. I figured it might be high time to finish up a post with which I've been toying for a while. So, caffeine-infused enough risk posting, here it is.

Oh no, my young Jedi. You will find that it is you who are mistaken, about a great many things. 
- the Emperor, Return of the Jedi, 1983

At a recent tournament, a visiting player made a favorable comment about my old weenie Presence deck. A few weeks afterwards, I was struck by a terrible thought that turned his comment sideways.

What if I'm doing it all wrong 
and my local metagame is making it worse. 
It could be encouraging all my wrongdoings.

Many of my current deck-building efforts have been influenced by an excellent, but largely unknown player. I'll preserve his anonymity in hopes he has a breakthrough performance at an upcoming Championship.

This guy's approach is often reflective of the game worldwide - big minions, Villein for everything, Bless them, gain more pool, then crush the end game with a lot of +bleed minions and card recursion. It's good stuff, often powered by a broken mechanic (card recursion, not Villein)

My response to those decks cropping up is a visceral "Screw you and the Tablets you rode in on!" I yearn to crush decks these decks before they can get going. So I've been building very fast, very aggressive decks like the War Ghoul deck from the last blog entry and a [THN] deck that usually bleeds for 16-21 in the first 3 turns (believe it or not, it's true).

I revel in the table hate these decks generate. I guffaw at anyone uttering the words "table balance" in my company (yeah, that's a topic for another blog). I merrily point out that others' concern isn't merited anyway: I'm not getting a disproportionate number of game wins with these decks.


Wait just a second. That last sentence is troublesome. It's apparent what's happening. 

I'm trying to win by getting the "World's Most Difficult VP."
It sits to the left of my crippled initial prey.
Even getting that difficult VP doesn't guarantee a game win.

Holy Crap on a Cracker......

Now witness the firepower of this fully ARMED and OPERATIONAL battle station! 
- the Emperor, Return of the Jedi, 1983

Combining the speed of today's pool management (Villein instead of Blood Doll) with player's natural tendencies to "wall up under pressure" makes the first VP harder then ever before - so VP #1 is getting tough to garner quickly that it used to be.

Then, even the best aggressive decks run right into a new prey, who is likely using the same wholesale blood recursion tools as the first. Only now its prey has a fully developed play space, instead of one stunted by early pressure. Among the fast archetypes, only stealth bleed is routinely capable of easily getting that second VP.

Even when successful in getting the second oust, the aggressive deck faces more predatory pressure than its Y2K analogs would have, simply by virtue of the longer time-to-oust associated with contemporary deck design.

All this suggests a metagame conflict with the fast and lean decks I've been trying out.  I'm going to contrast this with a different perspective.

Should I be trying to get the "Worlds Easiest VP?"
Ousting the last other (remaining) player is effectively worth TWO VP.
No other VP is "just gifted" in the same way.

This is how decks like "Stickmen" function. When they are the last man standing, they receive that free gift VP. They are patient, resilient and opportunistic. They are happy to see global resource deprivation (e.g., Smiling Jack)  in play. They use others' actions to their advantage by redirecting bleeds. They have enough resources for independent mid/late-game lunges.

But the fact remains, it's all set up to reach and win an endgame duel, which I'll call the Ohio Syndrome(tm)

Before leaving the NAC last year, a friend told me "Play more Dominate" with just this thinking in mind. I submit that it's not that bleed part that makes Dominate rock solid in decks like Stickmen. It's the resilience associated with Deflection.

So I wonder if what he should have said was "Play more bounce.  You'll live longer, generate offense at no cost and get into positions to earn the World's Easiest VPs."

I think there's a hidden causality buried in that, specifically as it relatives wholesale blood recursion (Villein ).

The direct effects of Villein's use is 
more large minions in play

The design philosophy behind Villein was specificall to make larger vampires more competitive - it was resoundingly successful from that standpoint. Maybe the intent wasn't to see 9 capacity vampires played like 3 capacity minions (low blood on the minion, one discipline used) with great special text, but the deep Minion Tap approach had been used by some ever since the first Inner Circle members were printed. We shouldn't be surprised to see it employed with Villein. And yes, Lilith's Blessing exacerbates the problem when drawn early in games.

 An indirect effect of Villein's use is 
higher average pool totals in the later stages of games.

With more players using larger minions and Villein, I'm seeing the last minion drained at least as heavily as the first ones. Folks are influencing to the same 8-10 pool total to get their final vampire, then Villeining immediately drives their pool total into the 14-18 range for the end game (not counting any Villein/Golconda shenanigans).

This is a huge change from the slow drip-drip-drip of pool seen in the Blood Doll/Vessel days. It creates a shorter window for effective surges in offense. It follows that good player's offensive approaches should address that change.

Successful lunges must be perfectly timed or much larger in size then before.
Pool-grinding approaches should strip more than 1 pool per action to be effective these days

Simple and intuitive so far. Here's the leap of faith.

Is an unexpected side effect of Villein's use
making bounce stronger?

That part requires some reading between the lines but the gist is clear. If people are indeed bleeding more often or in larger chunks to offset the effect of large-scale direct pool recursion, bounce must also be getting better as a result.

It's easy to say that everyone running at higher pool totals, so the net effect of more bleeding is maintaining an old status quo. I beg to differ, as I think we're living in an era of increasing pool volatility.

That minor sidetrack set aside, the underlying theory looms large and I would be a fool to not consider it.

The Path of High Risk for High Reward now seems 
less balanced against other approaches.
The game is increasingly played with large pool totals, 
often based around the free last-man-standing VP. 

As I test the theory, I wanted to put a spin on the Stickmen discipline spread of Auspex, Fortitude and Dominate. I've wanted to build a deck with Matthias and Anatole for a long time, here was my chance.
  • They both have +1 intercept, [AUS] and [for]
  • They can both play Spirit Marionette and Gift of Sleep, just in different ways.
  • Renewed Vigor is Owain's ability on steroids.
Since I'm leveraging Matthias, [OBE] and intercept anyway, it seems inevitable to provide create a deluge of blood on a minion that no one elsewants to see gain blood....Maris Streck. She can also play outferior Spirit Marionette, Gift of Sleep and feeds intercept to my minions, making her an excellent 3rd minion (for when I can Villein/Renew Anatole early).

Building around these 3 vampires makes a terrible card intriguing: Babble. Babbling my prey's minions when they aren't elligible to block creates a untapped Spirit Marionette target. Cute, huh? The "yeah, but is it effective?" remains so unanswered that the card got cut from the initial design.

Finally, I think there's incredible synergy between Spirit Marionette and Codex of Edenic Groundskeepers. As prey to that combination, which minions should tap or leave untapped? Will they just get Spirit Marionetted? And at [obe], or [OBE]?  It creates just enough confusion to encourage errors.

The resulting deck is not as stable as Stickmen. It grows more slowly (no Govern down). It has less Fortitude, less hitback, fewer Deflections, less transient bleed. The trade-off is having light stealth with permanent bleed, much more (pimpable) intercept, directed blood deprivation (Spirit Marionette) and more significant blood recursion.

So it probably fails on the "easiest VP" criteria - it just isn't as fundamentally invulnerable as a typical grinder. But it's a lot more fun to play.  The 3 test games I've played so far suggest that I really need to be better about Anatole's special and that more [for] defense might be necessary (perhaps with a counter-press for [ANI] decks.


Deck Name : [REBOOT] Truely Inferior Babble
Author : Darby Keeney
Description :

Crypt [12 vampires] Capacity min: 6 max: 9 average: 7.58333
4x Matthias               7  AUS FOR OBE nec               Salubri:2
3x Maris Streck           9  AUS OBF ani dem dom  justicar Malkavian:3
3x Anatole, Prophet of Gehenna     8  AUS DEM OBF dom for           Malkavian:2
1x Dr. Douglas Netchurch     6  AUS OBF dem dom               Malkavian:3
1x Tony                   6  AUS DEM dom obf               Malkavian:3

Library [66 cards]
Action [13]
  1x Lord of Serenity *// I suspect this is worth including
  2x Pulse of the Canaille
  4x Renewed Vigor
  5x Spirit Marionette
  1x Unburdening the Bestial Soul

Action / Reaction [1]
  1x Treat the Sick Mind *// another card likely to be removed

Action Modifier [9]
  3x Cloak the Gathering
  4x Freak Drive
  1x Repulsion
  1x Veil the Legions

Action Modifier/Reaction [4]
  3x Gift of Sleep
  1x Random Patterns

Ally [1]
  1x Carlton Van Wyk (Hunter)

Combat [4]
  4x Superior Mettle *//may need 2-3 Hidden Strength

Equipment [5]
  1x Bowl of Convergence
  1x Codex of the Edenic Groundskeepers
  1x Heart of Nizchetus
  1x Ivory Bow
  1x Sniper Rifle

Master [17]
  1x Bleeding the Vine
  1x Dreams of the Sphinx
  1x Giant's Blood
  2x Heidelberg Castle, Germany
  1x Pentex(TM) Subversion
  1x Rack, The
  1x Rumor Mill, Tabloid Newspaper, The
  1x Sight Beyond Sight
  1x Smiling Jack, The Anarch
  5x Villein
  1x WMRH Talk Radio
  1x Wider View

Reaction [12]
  1x Eagle's Sight
  4x Eyes of Argus
  1x My Enemy's Enemy *//probably should be 2 of these
  2x On the Qui Vive
  4x Telepathic Misdirection

Crafted with : Anarch Revolt Deck Builder. [Mon Feb 11 10:16:27 2013]

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Unexpected Detours

Through the Looking Glass

“I don't think..." then you shouldn't talk, said the Hatter.” 
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865.

I've been thinking a lot about V:tES lately. I've had to. Three or four months ago, I broke down most of my assembled decks. Designing that many new, competitive decks is a long and difficult process, but one that was overdue.

I haven't been blogging about things I'm exploring with these new decks, at least until now. It didn't help that my last post was lost to an errant keystroke and Blogspot's stupid autosave "feature."

But I know pounding keys for the blog makes me think about V:tES in fresh ways and the effort is always worthwhile. Remember that I said will turn out to be prophetic.

I won't turn Inferior Babble into a vehicle for deck design/critique. It's always been more philosophical than case-specific or practical. I don't want to change that. But sometimes the best way to describe something is by example. You're going to see some very rough, experimental designs as we explore concepts together.

Just a side note here: all my decks are designed with absolutely no prospective net-decking. The design process ends up taking twisty, turning, torturous paths to decks that often possess a unique flavor. It's this creative process that I find most intriguing. Usually, the toughest part is finding an inspiration that can be turned into a competitive deck.

This time, I started with a pure heart and noble intentions. Huzzah! I wanted to commemorate the release of V:EKN's latest set by working with Danse Macabre. Silly me. The best thing about the card is the artwork. Every time I read the text, I'm stuck by how it piles insult on injury.

Danse Macabre, Original Pencil Artwork, Heather Kreiter, 2006
From the auhtor's private collection

  • Ummm.   Is using an MPA for a prospective, inferior Freak Drive really my best option?
Choose a ready Sabbat vampire.
  • That's one small step away from saying "choose a member of the high school marching band". It should include a parenthetical "without Fortitude." 
  • Of the 498 Sabbat vampires, more than half can access better options for multi-action, leaving maybe 220 crypt cards that merit using Danse.
...successfully performs an action...
  • OK. Now we tape a "KICK ME" sign on that young band member's back and push him into the school hallway. Do you really think Carlton won't be attempting to block his path?
...may burn a blood to untap...
  • Right. Even when everything does go right, some bully is still stealing this poor pimply-faced geek's lunch money.

Despite all those drawbacks, there is a certain opportunistic feel to Danse Macabre. Maybe it can be well used by
  • small minions racing to complete actions before blockers arrive,
  • steathly Malkavian Antitribu or Kiasyd accessing additional actions, or
  • any minion generating an unexpected surge of offense at a key juncture

Of those options, I felt that the first was an most elegant and unique use of Danse Macabre. The last point creates some synergy with that approach, if those small minions can manage successful first actions and have blood to spend.

The next step was to find something important for 2-3 capacity minions to do in their first turn.
  • Bleed, then use the Edge to pass a Legacy of Pander or a Crusade.
  • Recruit a retainer, then employ a War Ghoul.

Legacy of Pander decks usually have 2 minions in play from their first turn, so they can already get the Edge and vote. After that first acting turn, voting Pander aren't likely to have any worthwhile second action. Finally, Danse is useless for the 1-capacity parts of the crypt. Scratch one concept.

If there were a Sabbat small-to-mid cap [pre] crypt planning to Crusade, vote, cap and bleed, then Danse could fit. My gut feeling is that MPAs would limit the scale of exploitation. Designs like that might work better with Change of Target than with Danse Macabre and use Toreador Antitribu for vote push. Wait, isn't there a solid deck like that already?

That leaves War Ghouls. Since War Ghouls tend to directly address potential blockers though rush combat, such a deck might have find ways to create successful actions and get late game mileage from Danse Macabre. It seems to be a viable foundation for the deck.

The Six Million Dollar Deck.

“We can rebuild him. We have the technology. 
We can make him better than he was. 
-- Oscar Goldman from "The Six Million Dollar Man", ABC Televsion, 1974.

(author's note: Sorry, I couldn't find an Alice quotation for this.....)

There's already a solid archetype capable of producing 2nd turn War Ghouls. It doesn't focus on speed, there's a limit to how many copies of Jake that deck can include before risking self-contestation. Using Danse with some retainers offers a second path to the same objective, without colliding Master cards. The resulting deck CAN focus on speed more than the prototypical version. It may not be as robust, but opens options for a hyper-aggressive player like me.

So I set out to create a deck that poops out a War Ghoul on the second turn in 75% of its games. 

It's an arbitrary goal, but one that drove several decisions in design. The resulting deck, named Blintzkreig (it leaves its opponents flat as a pancake), is provided for reference.

V:TES deck - Reboot Blintzkreig
Deck Name: Rebooted Blintzkreig
Created by: Darby Keeney
Crypt [12 vampires, average capacity: 3.41667]
1x Ana Rita Montana VIC aus dom obf 5 Tzimisce:3
1x Elizabeth Westcott AUS ani cel vic 5 Tzimisce:3
1x Rose, The PRE VIC aus 5 Tzimisce:3
2x Lolita Houston VIC aus 4 Tzimisce:2
1x Terrence ani aus vic 4 Tzimisce:2
2x Wendy Wade ani aus 3 Tzimisce:2
2x Horatio vic 2 Tzimisce:2
2x Piotr Andreikov aus 2 Tzimisce:3
Library [60 cards]
Master [20]
1x Carver's Meat Packing and Storage
1x Charisma
5x Danse Macabre
3x Dreams of the Sphinx
1x Fame
6x Jake Washington (Hunter)
1x Mob Connections
1x Parthenon, The
1x Tribute to the Master
Action Modifier [2]
2x Changeling
Action Modifier/Combat [2]
2x Plasmic Form
Ally [14]
1x Gregory Winter
2x Vagabond Mystic
11x War Ghoul
Equipment [1]
1x Codex of the Edenic Groundskeepers
Event [4]
1x Anthelios, The Red Star
1x Dragonbound
1x Unmasking, The
1x Veil of Darkness
Retainer [7]
3x Ghoul Escort
1x J. S. Simmons, Esq.
2x Jackie Therman
1x Tasha Morgan
Combat [10]
4x Pulled Fangs
6x Trap
Crafted with: Anarch Revolt Deck Builder [Wed Dec 12 09:31:17 2012]

Including 5 Danses provided some interesting options.
  • Another path to a War Ghoul (Recruit, untap, employ). The result roughly parallels running 11 copies of Jake Washington.
  • Another card flow option for "The Perfect Storm" of TWO 2nd turn War Ghouls (Jake doesn't need to recruit/employ in the second option).
  • The Codex can be used twice per turn ("A" bleed, "B" equip, "B" untap, "B" bleed), creating an on-demand offensive surge. Late-game Jakes provide blood to maintain the process across multiple turns.

I don't want to get into too much math, but I spent some time with a spreadsheet and crunched some numbers. OK, it was a LOT of time and a LOT of numbers...have you ever started something only to wonder if it were worth the effort? I think I just became the poster child for that syndrome. But once started, I had to finish.

  • The crypt fails to provide minions that can be influenced into play from every Seat 1 (no 1 caps) and 14% of Seat 2.
  • The library misses a 2nd turn War Ghoul combination in 23% of games.
  • All these probabilities exclude the effect of Dreams of the Sphinx, to be discussed later.

Look back at those last paragraphs. I want (no, NEED!!!) an immediate War Ghoul in 75% of games, but in some I won't even decrypt a minion that can be influenced up.

MUST        NOT        FOLLOW        THE       FRIGGING        BUNNY

"I almost wish I hadn't gone down the rabbit-hole--and yet--and yet--...”
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865

This is where I started to fall down the rabbit hole. Yup, everything in this post before now was just a preface.

I thought I was just building a commemorative deck and hit a decrypting and acceleration issue. What I found was a convoluted mash-up of deck design interacting with tournament population, idealized deck selection and seating.

What the Hell?

Some preface is probably necessary here. These days, my local playgroup is largely inactive. Tournaments of 8, 9 and 12 are commonplace. Looking at the TWDA, we don't seem to be unique. Unfortunate, but true.

I expect those numbers to be important. Each tournament of those sizes will have some 4 player tables. In 8 and 12 player tournaments, it's ONLY 4 player games until the finals. As a player who wants to win, I need to reach the finals. I might even consider the differences between 4 and 5 player games when selecting a deck to play for just that reason.

“It is better to be feared than loved.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865

Maxim: In 4 player games, aggressive decks should plan to "shape" the table.   
When a grandprey's deck trumps yours in a heads-up end-game, plans change immediately

If I can suppress my predator, I can make more offensive choices or recover from a mistake. Partnering with my grandpredator helps suppress my predator.

In a 4 player game, my grandpredator IS my grandprey.  If we both adopt this thinking (and are equally effective), we mutually benefit from our combined strength in exactly the same ways. We "shape" the table to our advantages. We can even both work left-facing instead of right-facing and the result is the same, that table shaped the way we want.

This War Ghoul deck is the thing I would usually consider able to shape a 4 player table.
  • It's fast, but can decelerate to address the inevitable "table threat" propaganda. 
  • It acts both forward and backward, shaping a table without external assistance. 
  • Combat becomes more impactful with fewer players at the table and further gains in strength as the table shrinks.

All that seems to make sense. Here's the rub.

Compared with people at 5 player tables, those at 4 player tables are 
20% more likely to have 1, 2, or 3 transfers
and 38% less likley to have 4 transfers.

I know some folks are thinking "Wait a second, I play first in 20% of 5 player games and 25% of 4 players games - that's only a 5% difference." That's a correct statement, but it fails to make a relative comparision. We're really talking about that difference compared to the 25% baseline.

See the problem yet?
  • The Danse Macabre deck relies on a first turn minion to create a second turn War Ghoul.
  • It fails to get that minion from every Seat 1 and 14% of Seats 2.
  • It's more likely be in Seat 1 or Seat 2 when playing 4 player games.

Aha. This deck is strategically well suited for 4 player games, but mechanically fails more often in that setting. Zoiks!

“Well, I never heard it before, but it sounds uncommon nonsense.” 
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865

For something so simple, it's humbling that I hadn't explicitly thought about table size impacting speed in this way before writing this blog. I always hated going first, but I hadn't thought about how much more it happens in 4 player games.

Extending the logic a bit, capacities of 1, 5 and 9 are 100% predictable, they will always be available in turns 1, 2 and 3 at any size table.  Capacities of 4 and 8 are those most frequently turn-deferred with decreased table size.

Ever hear a person say "I was going to play a deck with an 8-cap star vampire, but I shouldn't's a 12 player tournament and I can't give up the early turns." They would be mathematically correct in that statement, at least if speed were an overriding concern.

In practical terms (and for most decks), this effect is largely lost in the noise created by other variables. Archetype interactions, different degrees of deck optimization, player skill, and the random nature of card-drawing obscure most early-turn problems with influence speed. Despite a lack of concrete evidence to provide, I still suspect there's something real here.

Certainly, for this particular deck and it's arbitrary 75% Go-Go-Ghoul Plan, the effect is real and will continue to impact design decisions. 

Speaking of which.....

Accelerated influence gives the deck a means to address it's current shortcoming. Of the available options, Dreams of the Sphinx is the best - it solves more than just one problem.
  • The crypt needs only 1 additional influence to get rolling (the exact amount a Dreams can produce.)
    • That influence is needed only in the first turn from Seats 1 and 2.
  • There isn't much risk.
    • Contestation is unlikley when only 1 player has an opportunity to play  Dreams before my critical first use.
  • An early Dreams can also improve upon the current 78% success rate for library draws leading to a War Ghoul.
  • A late Dreams can dump excess War Ghouls and cycle for the Codex.

“Which way you ought to go depends on where you want to get to...”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865

With that decision being made, the obvious question becomes "How many Dreams?" The convention wisdom is "As many as you can stuff in the deck." I've never liked that answer, it isn't elegant or entirely correct (despite working, cause Dreams is THAT good).

Having fallen this far down the rabbit hole, I decided to free-fall completely and do more math, starting with the crypt.

In each case, I felt it important to NOT just focus on the Seat 1 shortfalls. If I were to do that, I would end up grossly over-weighting the needs to address a problem that doesn't exist in the majority of games. So in each evaluation following, I use a normal distribution for seat positions.

This graph shows how well Dreams can address not getting that first turn minion for this deck. Three copies of Dreams achieves a tolerable failure rate (1 game every other tournament) for 5 player tables, but a whopping 5 copies is needed when table size drops to 4 players.

So, do I start with 3 copies of Dreams (increase to 5 for smaller tournaments) or run 4-5 copies (and never change the deck)?

Just looking at the crypt can't provide a clear answer, so I looked at the library for additional clues.  Quantifying the card-drawing effect of Dreams becomes convoluted in a hurry. There are a lot of variables (is it needed for influence, is it needed for cards, is it drawn in the initial 7, is it drawn as a replacement). This is why few people try to model Library performance beyond "is it in my opening 7 cards."

The model I built has simplifications that introduce minor errors (from infrequent occurences), but the results are still about right. Seat 1 or 2 uses for influence are properly considered.

  • Three copies of Dreams increases the library's ability to produce 2nd turn Ghouls from 77% to ~85%.  
  • Adding 2 more copies of Dreams nets another 3.2% gain (~88% overall probability of success). Most of the time, Dreams aren't even needed to make the library work, so modest benefits from increasing Dreams isn't surprising.

In the end, it still comes down to a gut check. Since the library benefits little from additional copies of Dreams, I stuck at 3.  The crypt and library come together properly about 71% of the time with that design, close to the 75% initial target. With only 3 Dreams for card flow, I am believe another Codex will be necessary.

“Do you think I've gone round the bend?"
"I'm afraid so. You're mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are.” 
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865

So yes, I went completely overboard with that last part. I've convinced myself that V:tES is best not subjected to mathematical evaluation on this scale. But I did learn something about why some decks hate 4 player tables and I now have an interesting (and fast) War Ghoul deck. Not a bad more-than-one-day's work.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Back in the Saddle Again

I have come to grips with the fact that I'll never write day-by-day NAC summaries. There are too many friends to see, games to be played, beer to be guzzled and sleep to be slept.

I had a great time in Columbus this year. The organizers did a great job - I'll offer my thanks to those folks once again.

It rough at the tables, though.  Several of us commented on the meta being completely unreadable. Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock has always been huge part of the game. I believe I created a previously unknown "ripe manure" gesture. I'll leave it to readers to create the appropriate mental image for how that interacts with "rock", but the take-home message is that my overall performance was lackluster.

There were a few of amusing highlights:

  • Hugh Angseesing "reduced my Blood Brothers bleed" with Archon Investigation.....on 2 of their first 3 attempts.  He bounced the other with......wait for it.....Lost in Translation.
  • I used Drop Point Network to create an oust. I'm astonished that this card is not yet included in the TWDA.
  • I set a new personal record for losing unique vampires: 11 in NAC Day 1.
This WoN/NAC reinforced a few points in my mind.
  • I'm devoted to shaving decks to smaller and smaller size. I ran out of cards only twice with 60 card decks: once with a Imbued deck expressly intended to put cards in the Ash Heap, the other in a very unusual Legacy of Pander situation (a game I ultimately won because of a once-per-game card finally floating into hand).
  • The Uncoiling is a mandatory inclusion in any serious deck that doesn't run its own Events. Anthelios and the Unmasking are simply too strong to leave in the end game. 

Lastly, thanks to those who took the time to say they liked the blog. Hearing that you enjoy spending a little time with me is inspiring.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Imperfect Persistence, A Combat Flaw.

One of the conclusions from the last post is

Combat is a tactically superior function,
but suffers from strategic inferiority when used as an ousting strategy.  

This isn't a surprise, Garfield's original vision didn't feature combat as a central offensive function (source needs to be found, I think it was the intro to the original Strategy Guide).  The thinking was that most decks would take unsuccessful actions or block others' actions.  Combat would result.  Therefore, most decks would benefit from having some combat functions for the inevitable result of failed actions.  

Of course, we've seen that is patently untrue.  Large card collections and more stealth options allow players to completely avoid combat within their turns.  But silly us, we saw this tactical function and a few cards intended to enable it - so we built decks around it.  Now, we have to grapple its shortcomings as a viable strategic design (or stop playing combat).

In the "Enkidu SMASH!" case study, part of the endgame combat package I played was "Mantle of the Bestial Majesty."  I like thiscard in a multiaction decks because it's such an efficient way to create aggravated damage across a whole turn.  Playing that card when I did highlighted a problem (not just the strategic one). My combat that lacked persistence.  I sent vampires to torpor with blood.  Counteracting my progress cost cross-table players only actions, nothing else - most of the blood cost was paid by the minions in torpor. 

To play combat decks in competitive environments, 
it must be more difficult to "undo combat" with rescues.

First, we should discount aggravated damage as a stand-alone function for a rush combat deck.  Vampires sitting in torpor with blood is bad.  Progress can be reversed with minimal overhead cost, vampires can self-rescue and we don't prevent our prey's blood-to-pool conversion.  The resulting situation is terrible for an active combat deck - repetitive rushes with no concrete outcome.   For the same reason, we shouldn't be looking at hands-prevent-Disarm as a stand-alone combat design.

That isn't to say aggravated damage is bad - it shines in defensive combat decks.  The card-efficient nature of aggravated damage minimizes hand-jam when we need freely-flowing intercept.  If resulting combats are meaningful, the acting player spends an additional actions rescuing.  Creating a free "null" action effectively doubles the block/action ratio we might otherwise require, even when we don't interfere with the rescue.  That's all good - it's meant to cause delay and deplete the value of assets, not be a complete removal of them.

But we're talking about active (not reactive) combat decks in this blog. When we strip all the blood from opposing minions in combat, at least we're making rescuers spend their own blood.  The rescued minion will be likely be hunting next turn.  We increase the cost of rescuing, which seems good.

It comes with a hidden downside.  Remember when we said combat decks had to fight the clock for game wins?  Combat alone is time-intensive enough.  Now consider:

Every time an empty vampire is rescued cross-table, 
the game is lengthened by 2-3 actions.

Whoa, that's not what we wanted.  Our rush was intended to remove a minion from the ready region.  At least part of the effect was nullified with the rescue.  We might have knocked several beads off the minion and they won't find their way back into a players pool, so the effort had some payoff.  

  • But that minion is still active and we haven't gained an numerical advantage in play space - we'll end up rushing it again.  We can count either the first rush or the second as the lost action - either way, its two functions where we intended one to suffice.
  • The rescue action itself could have been productive offense - a lost opportunity cost.  It's fairly certain the rescuing player didn't really intend to take that action when he constructed his deck, so it's a second effect lost.
  • Even the rescued vampire is a potentially null minion.  It might be lost in hunting next turn or it might block a subsequent rush (either way, a 3rd action lost).  
Obviously, we have to go further in discouraging rescues, simply because we can accept neither unproductive use of our assets nor games lengthed by so many actions.  The question is "How?"


I've come to realize that threatening rescuers with rushes is counterproductive - despite the fact that it is the one actionable option we have.  Cross table rescues are often motivated by this very fear of being rushed, making a threat only makes the fear more justifiable.  It creates a downward spiral of endless rescues and unproductive turns.  


Revenge feels good, but is clearly a bad choice in the 5-player game.  It reinforces someone else's position using our assets and resources, but does nothing to strengthen our position in the process. Even hunting is usually a better option in terms of creating a beneficial outcome (and that's a very low bar).

Discourage (by Increasing Cost)

Hmmm, maybe this is a viable option.  It's kinda of subtle and still allows some choices, but makes other players think twice instead of reflexively rescuing.  And if rescues to ensure, they will be fewer since they require expending more blood.

We've already sworn off aggropoke, because of its minimal opportunity cost.  Extending that logic, how can we make rescuing even more costly? 
  • Carver's Meat Packing Plant:  We only include 1 copy and it isn't universally beneficial.   So it is unreliable, squared - but still almost required for serious combat.
    • That one copy is our contingency against the Breed-Boon vs Combat whack-a-mole contest, a fight we cannot win unless we thin the herd.  
    • It limits the number of chump blockers throwing themselves on grenades for their elder brethren
  • Torpid Blood:  While this feels like a viable inclusion, it's really not.  
    • The -1 hand size (even if temporary) is a significant downside, especially given our deck's near-certain use of Dragonbound as an end-game ousting mechanism (an additional -1 hand size, permanently).  Put simply, trying to run a 5-card rush combat hand usually leads to either hand jam or decking yourself though the insane card flow it requires. 
  • Pulled Fangs:   Why don't we see more use of this card?   
    • It's accessible by any minion and provides synergistic combat damage  
    • It effectively triples the overhead associated with rescuing - 3 actions should be a serious disincentive
    • It shines in the large capacity meta-game, where Blood Doll and Vessel are seen less often. .  
    • This card is now completely restricted to close range (recent errata).  So it's usable by ranged archetypes like [CEL] guns, but they have to be prepared to accept a close-range return strike (or dodge/additional strike).
    • It's important for any deck using this card to also include cards to destroy locations - specifically Hunting Grounds and Heidleburg Castle.  


Aha, not so subtle, but effective.  It tends to raise eyebrows - players might not see torpor as a terrible threat, but they really hate to lose minions for good.  There are a few ways to achieve this, though not all can be applied in typical pure combat decks.
  • Theft:  
    • Graverobbing and Raw Recruit creates a huge, favorable swings in power.  Depriving another player of assets while gaining your own is a game-changing event.  
    • Since these decks have [dom], they have alternate pool damage and defensive options - moving them outside the realm of pure combat into hybrid designs, and different overall requirements result..
  • Diablerie (including Amaranth) and Pillowfacing:  
    • Diablerie is risky for any vampire not immune to blood hunts, which clearly restricts deck parameters.  Pure combat constructs frequent influence 1-2 capacity sidekicks explicitly for this purpose - we trade resources, but hope to net a gain.  
    • Pillowfacing Imbued is relatively risk-free.  With the banning of Edge Explosion, Conviction accumulates so slowly that using them for anything but their text functions (or return from the incapacitated region) is poor play.
  • "Burn" Text: 
    • Gregory Winter is the prototypical culprit, though other options (like Nephandus) exist.  Since Gregory's card text effect is synergistic with combat blood removal, the only obstacles to his inclusion are the pool cost and recruitment action he consumes.   
    • Anathema has a significant overhead - We have to be running a titled Camarilla vote/combat deck, passing votes most people won't want to see successful.  Ugh, near cornercase.  I have been discussing a viable use of this card with a friend - I hope to see the deck at the NAC next week..  
    • Sacrificial Lamb suffers from being associated with [POT][OBF] decks.  Since [POT] tends to empty vampires in the course of sending them to torpor, this card's unrefunded blood cost and extra action requirement seem prohibitive.
    • Vulnerability seems useful, but isn't.  Since we have to wait until our next MPA to use it, we still encounter all the risk of cross-table rescues, the very thing we are trying to eliminate. It is an interesting option for intercept combat wanting to create extra breathing room.  
  • Finishing Moves:  
    • Unhealed aggravated damage.  Working the combination of aggravated and normal damage to ensure that a minion is in torpor for the agg damage can be very challenging.  Generating large chunks of aggravated damage may be even more difficult and/or blood intensive.  Both are "star minion" moves and combat with a star minion is risk intolerant.
    • Decapitate is another card I don't see played enough.  Yes, it is moderately expensive and there is no refund of blood - but this is usually quite playable before/after a reasonably large Taste of Vitae and doesn't require a follow-up action.  It's also usable at long range, which opens the door use in "Flung Junk" decks (ranged [POT] strikes with Increased Strength).  


Most of the previously posted combat-and-egg analogy was predicated on a single, near-fatal flaw of combat decks.  They usually enter the 3 player game with no VP and must crush the resulting 3 player table to get a game win.

There are a silver linings in the cloud of doom. 

Having reached the 3 player end game,
the incentive for cross-table rescuing is immediately diminished.

Not many people rescue their predator's minions.  If they do undertake a campaign of upstream rescues, they tend to create less offensive pressure.  It's never optimal for a combat deck to see rescues, but at least it is contributing to blood attrition our both our left and right.  The reduced incoming pool damage creates breathing room for us to continue generating pressure and in the long run, this should all be to our benefit.  

Likewise, it's fairly rare for the general populace to rescue their prey's minions in the late game.  Wily players do this in an attempt to "feed their predator to their prey" then win the end game duel, but it's a fairly unusual play.  It requires a specific VP distributions to even consider, tends to create a war of attrition and works best when the combat decks resources are in short supply.

Either way, our combat deck is now in a position where cross-table rescues are the exception, rather than the rule.  This is clearly an improvement - our egg shape is starting to get more circular and our tactical tool is becoming increasingly well-suited as a path to victory.

The changes implied in the 3 player game is a topic for a follow-up post, both in managing the players or positions we see in that sub-game and how the end game is played.