As the first month of L5R rolled by, we could all make some substantial experience with the new L5R. While the first big tournaments concluded and local tournament scenes sprang up all around the world, the first meta of the game is forming. I think most of us would agree that L5R in its recent incarnation is by all means an amazing game. Even the more daring concepts as the removal of a buildable economy and the lack of character permanence have paid off in dividends. The responsible designers deserve a healthy praise (and maybe a raise). This will not be followed by a ‘but’.
A completely separate issue is the cardpool. I have been very active in the old L5R scenes starting with samurai edition, winning many major tournaments, dabbled into conquest, invasion and played quiet some magic in my time. Through all my time flipping cards competitively, I have never seen a cardpool in such an atrocious state as in the L5R LCG. Currently, the L5R cardpool seems to be a negative example of all possible mistakes one can make during card design: oppressive cards create negative play experiences for new and experienced players alike, vast imbalances in factions, card costs and effects are common, extremely swingy feast or famine design, randomness above playskill and a whole faction designed to not make the time limit in tournament play. I am well aware that this kind of criticism can come across as a petty rant of a guy on a losing streak, who is unable to adapt his playstyle to new cards. I can assure you, this is not the case here. I anticipate the most common response to be: Deal with it, learn to play around these cards. To those I say: This argument is simply avoiding a discussion, as it can be used to defend any card, even a +100 skill card without any costs. Additionally, look at the numbers, look at the amount of dragon influence, check how many games can’t finish in time in a tournament setting. These are hard numbers and they do not lie, something needs to be done. I care very deeply about L5R, I want the game to prosper long term. In this Essay I want to list the current flaws of the cardpool and suggest a set of minimal invasive erratas that will most likely offend no one. I believe that the game could be one of the most amazing ever to be ever conceived, if actions are taken before the initial hype around the game is fading and its current flaws get more apparent.
But first what is wrong with the game? To make one thing clear, this is not a text about ‘Unicorn is to weak’ or ‘this and that is not balanced’. No one expected a new game to be completely balanced, so I won’t strive for an unrealistically long list of changes to achieve balance from my limited point of view. I am more concerned with issues that can suck the fun and competitive nature right out of the game, the absolute outliers. As such, only extreme cases will be addressed. Most issues can be attributed to three categories:
Oppressive card effects: at first glance, one could think that I am talking only about cancel effects. While these are most certainly a part of the issue, this also addresses cards that rob the opponent of any choices or ability to formulate any kind of offensive game plan, resulting into a stalemate or none-interactive loss. Sometimes in L5R, all you do is watch while all meaningful cards you play get negated and your opponent completely dictates where you can and cannot attack or defend. Control and disruptive cards are not generally a bad thing. However when they come in larger quantities, no cost and only minimal restrictions, they can accumulate. Offenders are: Lions Pride Brawler, Doji Challenger, Political Debate, the magistrates and to a certain extend even let go. It is not always about balance here, but about the quality of your game experience. This point hits the casual players the hardest, as not being able to do anything or make any good decisions is almost the textbook definition of a negative play experience.
Restrictions to the metagame: we all know of the ridiculous amount of dragon splash in the meta. As it currently stands, this won’t change, as these cards are just too universally applicable and efficient. With let go in every deck, why even print attachments with a cost of 2 or more. On the same note, a single card, assassinate, completely dictates how you can play the first turn, taking a lot of depth away from the game. The way deckbuilding is designed, the number of choices are already very limited, even relative to the actual size of the card pool. As certain patterns of play become invalid immediately due to the ever presence of their counter cards, deckbuilding decisions are very limited, leading to a stale metagame.
Randomness: The biggest offenders for this point are provinces. I personally think that the whole concept is the antithesis of a competitive game. But as long as the effects are not game defining, I could live with them. However, currently they are. Three major offenders come to mind: Shameful display, restoration of balance and feast or famine. If your chance of winning a game is shifted by over 30% by what province you hit on your first turn, that’s a problem. I often read that these issues are preventable by playing around these provinces. And for most provinces, this is actually possible, rewarding good players in the process. In the cases mentioned above, the measures that need to be taken to avoid a catastrophe in 25% of cases cripple you too hard in the remaining 75%. For shameful display, no intelligent outplay is available. But provinces are not the only offenders. Many decks rely on a small number of power cards to an absurd degree. Lion with or without lions Pride Brawler are two different factions altogether. A T1 assassinate goes a very, very long way to victory. Take Way of the Crane from a crane deck and watch how its win rate drops by double digits. This point hits the competitive scene the hardest.
To make L5R a better game and to start a discussion, I want to suggest a number of minimal invasive erratas to make the game more interactive, less clownishly random and simply put, more fun.
1.: Nerf the dragon conflict deck.
The dragon conflict decks contains card which are applicable in almost every turn of every game regardless of the matchup while having very low cost and potentially very high impacts. I would suggest to slightly nerf three cards: Let Go, Miromotos Fury and Tattooed Wanderer.
Let Go: ‘Action: Choose an attachment and give your opponent one honor – discard the attachment.’
As every deck at least contains the no-cost attachment, let go trades a card for a card in the worst of cases. However, its presence crushes more pricy attachments. So we have a card that is always worth to have in your hand, has no cost and a huge potential impact. It needs to have a cost, so you at least have to think about using it on a fine katana. It can’t cost 1 fate, as dragon decks are already very expensive, but an honor can easily be given, not to over-nerf the card.
Tatooed Wanderer: Lower the military stat to 1.
A personality with a relevant keyword and 3 stats for 1 is a good card. An attachment that gives covert for one is a good card. Card that can be both is not taxing the flexibility of this card at all. With a military stat of one, this is still a very usable card for every deck.
Miromotos Fury: ‘Action: During a conflict, if you control fewer characters in this battle than you opponent, your opponent chooses an attacking character with glory lower than X – bow that character. X is equal to the number of unrevealed provinces you control.’
Miromotos Fury is most often used to tie an undefended conflict or save a province. This is already very powerful and warrants inclusion by itself. The ability to easily win an opposed defense makes the card to flexible. The very thematic restriction of needing to have fever defenders than attackers prevents the fury to easily decide one-on-one situations. Furthermore, the current restriction can be almost ignored. It can still be used on every character outside of phoenix on the second attack. Even while defending your stronghold you can probably still find targets for this action, as one province is most likely not revealed.
In general, the nerf of the dragon deck opens up for more variety in deckbuilding. All 3 nerfed cards are still very good cards and some decks may not change their splash because of it. But now, they have to pay a little more for them while achieving a little less flexibility. Dragon will still be a very strong clan, I can’t see how these nerfs will change that. With fewer let go in the meta game, expensive attachments might be at least playable.
2.: Nerf Oppressive cards.
Cancel effects are good for a game, but poison when to readily available. Some cancel effects are clever, they hide as something else. Political debate is such a clever cancel effect. It not only takes a lot of intelligent guessing and skill out of the game by looking at your opponents hand, it also cancels his best card before he can even play it. In general cancel effects come at too little of a cost in resources, restriction or opportunity cost. Similarly, some cards heavily dictate how your opponent can play, leaving him only bad choices. This is ok when it happens in card combination or comes at high costs, but on single readily available cards with moderate costs and good stats, its just to much.
Lions Pride Brawler: ‘Action: While this character is attacking, choose an opposing character with lower mil skill than this character – bow that character’
You all saw this coming and most of you predicted that nerf. She will still be one of the stronger characters in the game.
Doji Challenger: ‘Action: While this character is attacking, choose a character controlled by your opponent – your opponent may choose to move that character to the conflict or give you one honor’
As was the case with lions pride brawler, the dojo challenger negates your opponent’s ability to make any meaningful decisions. Whatever you do, your best character will not be attacking. While the Brawler had the stronger ability, the challenger is king when it comes to stats: 3 mil, 3 pol and 2 glory combined with two (potentially) relevant keywords is just too much. With such a statline, you could almost do without an ability. Drag your opponent’s best dude in a conflict type he cannot perform in and laugh. The new ability is way weaker, but still very potent. However, you opponent will not feel strangled.
Forged Edict: Increase the influence value from two to three.
I personally would not have printed so many cancel effects with so little cost. However, this could be my personal judgment, maybe this is ok. A few cancel effects do not hurt a game. Being able to easily mass them in one deck without paying any real opportunity cost does hurt this game. Censure is the card with the fairest restriction. Phoenix can take it more easily, but at least all clans can compete. Voice of honor is an almost Crane exclusive card. Other decks can play it, especially lion, however, it is hard to activate it before entering a conflict outside of crane. And it is unplaybale out of scorpion. Forged edict is very, very easily playable out of crane (and many other clans) and it does not conflict with Voice of Honor. Hence, a heavy cancel deck is built too easily with too little of a real cost. Currently, a 6 cancel crane build can also easily include Calling in Favors, effectively having the answer to events and attachments to easily. This is to well rounded, too easy of a decision and to frustrating for your opponent. Getting everything you play negated and having to play against your own cards, that is a textbook negative play experience.
Political Debate: Change the challenge so your opponent can choose who you have to challenge, in or out of the conflict.
Currently political debate is an overpowered card. I play it 3x out of unicorn (giver of gifts is my only courtier). There is always a 0 or 1 pol opponent in a mil conflict which can be duelled by my 3 or 4 pol character. It is just too easy. Cards with duel mechanics should reward you for duelling stronger opponents. In this case it doesn’t. Most of the time, I do not even lose honor for using it, as I am just that far ahead in the relevant stat. Out of Unicorn. This card is free for Crane, dragon or scorpion. And two of these clans already have cancels. If you play against 6 cancel crane right now, he basically plays for you.
Display of Power: Change so the attacker still gets to claim the ring, but you get to use its effects.
In our group, we all, including our Phoenix Player, call this card the NPE, never display of power. It is not imbalanced, just the easiest way to scare a beginner away from the game: Yes you did everything right, you choose the best ring, now go and die anyways. That is discouraging. However not necessarily imbalanced. The issue comes with the favour mechanics. Phoenix is already in advantage here to begin with. With display of power, they just do not have to try anymore. If you want to use census, at least leave a dude open or win the first round. If I win two battles against phoenix while he did nothing but fail and he play one NPE (sry, display of power), I do not get the favour. As the favour is currently far more than 1 force, a nerf to display would still keep the card very relevant. Changing the target of a void ring is already 2 fate, changing an earth is a card advantage swing of four. All rings, especially an air in a tight honor race, are extremely powerful when changed. It does not need to effect the favour.
3.: Remove Excessive Randomness
Randomness is inherent in every deckbuilding card game. And that is good. One should be able to play every hand the deck deals you to its fullest potential. Additionally, this is controlled randomness. You should not build a deck that hinges on the draw of a single card. Randomness gets excessive when imbalances in power level make a single specific card to important to draw or when the randomness cannot be adapted to in any meaningful way while carrying too big of an impact on the game itself. The former kind is already addressed by a few nerfs above. The later kind is not and is mainly about provinces. Provinces should have a moderate, but noticeable effect on the game state, only getting oppressive in niche and mostly degenerate circumstances. Some provinces need to be played around a little. This is ok when one does not need to deviate to far from standard play. Endless Plains can be game breaking, but they come at a huge cost and standard play is to play two characters a turn, so it becomes manageable. This is not possible for the following three provinces, as accounting for their effects would put you to far behind to justify the 25% chance of hitting the province or no counter play is possible at all.
Shameful Display: ‘Action: Choose a character participating in this conflict - honor or dishonour that character.’
I know, this is a buff in some situations. But the current version creates an insurmountable differential in skill that persists on the table even after the conflict has resolved. With its province strength of 3 and most characters having 2 glory, this new version of shameful has an effective province strength of 5. This is ok. The worst thing about the current design is: There is no counter play. Currently, every turn 1 attack is accompanied with a silent prayer: Please no shameful.
Restoration of Balance: Restrict the maximum amount of cards to be discarded to three.
If you do not play an honor or dishonour deck, betting low against dragon just to avoid this province is cardboard suicide. Card-draw still wins games. Usually, we play legend of the five cards, and usually, hitting this monster turn one or two is GG, even if you attach everything before the battle. Just compare it to Night Raid, it is not even close. Hitting this Province is completely game defining. The meta in which people bet low turn one just does not exist. Three cards is still a lot. But at least recoverable.
Feast or Famine: Change it so only one fate changes fate.
The condition printed on this card describe the most common opener in the game: One with 2 Fate, one with none. A condition that is almost automatically met is no condition at all. And when it hits, a four fate swing is too impactful. The card has many advantages to meditaions on the tao as it is. The Character you are stealing from does not need to be attacking and you steal fate. This is strong as it is. At least the current card wins the award for the best named L5R card ever printed, as it does exactly what the name suggests: Fail miserably or win you the game. And the silly joke is neither you nor your opponent can influence this outcome. That is what excessive randomness is all about.
4.: Ban some magistrates
Some ideas are just beyond redemption. All magistrate are already very wacky cards with very random effects. Some of them are just rolling the dice (dragon, crab and unicorn), some can be tinkered around (Scorpion) and some just say: Your opponent can flatout not compete. He just cannot. The lion and Phoenix magistrate need to go. There is not a single card in the whole crab clan that can still contribute for against the Phoenix magistrate. And even all the other clans do not look good. There is only one Unicorn, Dragon and Scorpion Character, 2 Cranes, which both cost 5 Fate and three Lions. This is not remotely acceptable. In contrast, the lion one is a little more acceptable. However, against 5 of the 7 clans, he still is completely indefensible on his own on this first turn. Just attack military. If you do not hit a shameful, well done, there is nothing your opponent can do to you. Additionally, no magistrate is better at making sure you win the last battle as this one, especially with the ever growing amount of honor mechanisms in lion available.
As you can see, while quite a few cards are addressed, no nerf is actually too hard. All cards mentioned above are still good cards. And many offenders are still not addressed: Assassinate is too influential, the whole crab clan is focused on a style of play that cannot abide to any reasonable tournament time restrictions and the whole Unicorn Clan is a complete and utter mess. This is annoying, but at least, the game functions perfectly well if no one plays unicorn in competitive play, 2 fate cost personalities are generally ignored and the current rules for deciding a game winner in time situations are applied. A functioning game is all I want, everything else can be achieved in later iterations of the game.