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?"

Threaten

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.  

Punish

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.  

Eliminate

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).  

Survive

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.  

8 comments:

  1. Really good analysis. My personal oppinion about the whole combat strategy is that the first problem about it is that most of combat cards are incorrectly priced or don´t give what they should give. For example: Pushing the limits should cost 1 less blood or undeath strenght deal 1 more damage. For protean there should be agravated damage at superior for free. Second agravated damage doesn´t do damage at all, it only sends the vampire to torpor. In my humble oppinion it should actually do damage so a vampire with zero blood taken agravate damage should burn. Third combat ends is to powerful, so must combat decks need to include specific cards to counter it and there are few general permanents that can counter it. First strike should do the job what is intended for, if combat ends is done before first strike what kind of first strike is that ?

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  2. Really good analysis. My personal oppinion about the whole combat strategy is that the first problem about it is that most of combat cards are incorrectly priced or don´t give what they should give. For example: Pushing the limits should cost 1 less blood or undeath strenght deal 1 more damage. For protean there should be agravated damage at superior for free. Second agravated damage doesn´t do damage at all, it only sends the vampire to torpor. In my humble oppinion it should actually do damage so a vampire with zero blood taken agravate damage should burn. Third combat ends is to powerful, so must combat decks need to include specific cards to counter it and there are few general permanents that can counter it. First strike should do the job what is intended for, if combat ends is done before first strike what kind of first strike is that ?

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  3. I enjoyed your article. Are you reading the text of Sacrifical Lamb correctly? It gives the acting vampire blood equal to the burned vampire's capacity, not equal to the blood on the burned vampire. Unless the target vampire's capacity is less than 3, the cost of SL will be refunded.

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    1. True enough, and thanks for the correction Aaron. I'll leave the original article as-is, with a link to your correction.

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  4. I'm a little lost.

    In your previous post, you argued that it is fairly risky to enter the 3-player endgame with 0VP and you also opined somewhere on this blog that creating and winning the ideal 3-player endgame requires careful manipulation of players and VPs, but now you're saying that entering the 3-player endgame with 0VP sets the player in a beneficial position.

    Or am I missing something?

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    1. I see how you might be confused, and I think you extrapolated one piece incorrectly.

      I do say its both risky and normal to enter the 3 player with no VP. I do say that entering the 3 player is a good thing. I didn't say entering the 3 player with no VP is good :) I'll discuss later that "manipulation of players and VPs" part.

      Here's the thing from the first 2 posts, boiled down. Combat is boned in a 5 player game, because rescues are rampant. In the 3 player game, there is less incentive to rescue. This has to be good for us, right? So we want to HURRY to this point to have time to win in a sub-game where combat matters.

      At the same time, because combat decks don't oust their first prey in the fast process, pushing into the 3 player as fast as possible will usually result in entering the 3 player game BEHIND in the VP race. This is sad panda, but the alternatives are not reaching the 3 player at all or without time to win. Both is those scenarios are worse.

      So it really is a mixed bag - but in the end getting into a situation where our deck can remove vampires more permanently (the 3 player game) outweighs any other consideration.

      OK?

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    2. That makes sense now. Thanks for the summary. :)

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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