Toward a better constructed deck

Toward a better constructed deck

In this article, Justin Walsh shares some of his guiding principles on constructing a tournament winning deck.

1. Inspiration

Designing a deck with an eye toward competitive play can be a daunting prospect. In this article I aim to provide a brief overview of the principle that has guided my deck construction processes for a long time, and which has met with some success.

The principle is simple, and is as applicable to and by a new player as it is any veteran. It is a principle of enquiry, and so is best presented as a question:

What is it my clan does better than anyone else?

Anyone can answer this, and answer it meaningfully to their level of experience and expertise, whether as a new player identifying a core mechanical focus of their faction, or as a more experienced player, framing the same question in the context of a greater environmental understanding. What your clan does better than anyone else could involve something as broad as an entire game dynamic, or something as narrow as a single, powerful card that spawns a new strategic approach. Sometimes the ‘thing’ is blindingly obvious, and sometimes it may take days or even weeks of concentration before several seemingly disparate elements merge to form a coherent strategy.

Whatever the thing might be, its most important quality is this: it provides a starting point.


2. Investigation

Once the idea has been identified, it needs to be investigated. The entire available card pool needs to be scoured for every card that might support the idea. This process can be messy, especially if the idea is unusual or complex. The cards available may present several nuanced approaches to the same problem, providing many possible, overlapping solutions.

Lists and notes can be helpful at this stage, as aids to both organisation and memory.

Currently (as we near the launch of the L5R LCG) the range of deck possibilities is heavily restricted by a limited card pool—so the likelihood of perceiving a truly unique approach and building a truly unique deck is low. As the card pool expands, these opportunities will increase, but the burden of knowledge required to build a competitive deck will increase in measure. This leads us to an inescapable conclusion: that regular play is an investigative tool, and arguably the most important one. Regular play builds familiarity with cards, game dynamics, game environment, and what can be considered ‘powerful’ within the game’s constraints.

Even so, it can be difficult to project or imagine how successful a new idea might prove in competitive play. Therefore, as a shortcut, I will often apply three criteria to an idea.

Is the idea:

  • Impactful?
  • Consistent?
  • Unique?

There is no point in pursuing an idea that doesn’t present a major challenge to an opponent. As with most aspects of a card game, the depth of this question correlates directly to a player’s skill and experience. For a new player, their challenges will centre on learning rules and interactions, and developing the understandings that will carry them forward to deeper levels of play. For an experienced, competitive player, the ability to shock their opponent is arguably the most critical of all three criteria (though consistency is a bedmate).

Consistent. A strategy is not competitively viable if it pile-drives an opponent one game in every three, but flounders helplessly in the other two. Consistency can transform an idea from impactful to dominating. The types of consistency—and how to achieve, improve, and exploit them—lie beyond the scope of this article, but could warrant investigation in a future article. All great decks are both impactful and consistent, and most are unique.

Unique. There are two qualities of uniqueness here. The first is a double check: ‘is my clan really the best at what I’m trying to do?’ If it is not possible to answer at least ‘maybe’ to this, then the idea should be discarded. The second is more intriguing: ‘has anyone seen anything like this before?’ Being able to answer, ‘no’ here is exciting, because a lot of tournament card play is based on preparation, and presenting a difficult, new puzzle to an opponent can impart a huge advantage. If an opponent is not familiar with what they’re facing, there is a far higher chance that they will unwittingly commit a mistake. Success in tournament play is based on the narrowest of margins, and uniqueness can provide that decisive edge.

With all that said, if an idea fails either of the first two criteria, it should be discarded without a second thought. Uniqueness can decide whether an otherwise questionable idea deserves further consideration.

But a word to the wise: exactly as with the question, ‘What is it my clan does better than anyone else?’ the understanding of the investigative process will evolve with the experience of the player—and it is worth noting that sometimes veteran players will wrongly discard an idea because ‘it shouldn’t work’ according to their experience. Wherever possible, a measured and considered approach should be taken to avoid regrettable oversights.

Once an idea has been thoroughly investigated, it’s time to take the nascent deck list into playtest.


3. Playtest

The purpose of playtest is to prove that your deck isn’t good enough. This is not intuitive, and strives directly against the human impulse to create, so it bears repeating (and louder):

The purpose of playtest is to prove that your deck isn’t good enough.

After many years’ experience, I am convinced that this is the mindset with which you must enter playtest. If you enter playtest to prove your deck works, you will find excuses to believe that it does. However, if you enter playtest to prove that it doesn’t work, you are far more likely to rigorously and fairly test its parameters. No deck is perfect, and you need to find out where yours is weak, against what, and why.

Playtesting for the L5R LCG presents some unique challenges due to the high volume of decision points for both players, and the number of decisions that impact each subsequent decision. In many ways, the non-linear play features of the L5R LCG make playtest data very fuzzy, and it’s hard to project what kind of impact this is going to have on optimising a deck—or if traditional concepts of optimisation are even valid for L5R.

There do, however, remain a few standard playtest techniques, which bear mention.

Goldfishing is a solo playtest method that involves repeatedly playing the first two or three turns of a game without an opponent. The value of this in L5R is questionable, but it should at least provide some indication of whether you are getting flooded with holdings too often, and whether you are seeing the traits and keywords you want to see early—essentially testing certain elements of your deck’s consistency, in a vacuum. You should keep track of how often you wouldn’t be able to play a card in your hand, and anything else that could negatively impact your success. With more experience in opposed game situations, you should develop a feel for acceptable and unacceptable limits of consistency. However, goldfishing is likely to prove a poor method of testing for L5R.

The main source of playtest data for L5R appears that it should come from actual, opposed games. And if you are testing a specific deck ahead of a tournament, you will need what is called a ‘gauntlet.’

A gauntlet is a collection of the best ‘standard’ decks for each clan that you can find. Standard decks aren’t doing anything bizarre, and are the decks you might expect to face in a majority of rounds at a tournament. If you can find successful tournament lists online, these provide an ideal basis for a gauntlet. These decks are proven, and many players will copy and play such lists themselves, often changing only one or two cards.

When testing against gauntlet decks, it is often worth simulating their various ‘best’ draws, to see if your deck can handle the toughest they throw against you. And, at a minimum, you should play against decks from two different clans for each viable victory condition (e.g., at the moment that would be two conquest decks, which aim to break your provinces, and two dishonour decks, which aim to reduce your honour to zero. Until someone cracks it, honour-running just isn’t consistent enough.)

During playtest, continually assess each card in your deck. If, during your gauntlet testing, you are frequently unhappy that you drew a certain card, it should probably be cut. Even when you’re not unhappy with a given card, you should always be asking yourself if a better option exists, or if there’s a different way to approach the problem each given card is supposed to be solving.

Inevitably, you will decide to switch certain cards in and out of your deck. If several candidate cards are vying for a slot in your deck, mark the cards that currently occupy that slot (a slip of paper slid into each sleeve will do). Write the names of the candidate cards on a separate page, then track which card you would have been happiest to see each time you draw a marked card. With diligent play and recording, you should be able to develop a clear picture of which cards are working best for you.


4. Onward

The process of deck development is one of constant enquiry, testing, and results. It is, in essence, an educational process. Once you have completed the process and developed a refined deck, whether you find success or not, your understanding of the game should have improved—and you can begin again.

This time, however, your questions should probe a little deeper. Your answers should be a little different. As new cards are introduced, paradigms will shift, and new opportunities will arise. But always, you can meaningfully ask yourself:

‘What is it my clan does better than anyone else?’


5 Replies to “Toward a better constructed deck”

  1. Good read! And I completely second the idea of using tabs of paper to represent alternate options to see what you would rather have in a given moment or to track how well certain options pan out.

    But also a great insight into a world champion calibre player. Nicely done!

  2. Fantastic article.

    One thought about the overall process: I think you’re organizing question is a great starting point, but one has to be careful that it doesn’t lead you inadvertently towards gimmicks. Sometimes the best deck for a faction isn’t the best at anything in particular, unless that thing is very complicated. A successful deck can sometimes be built around A unique combination of strengths, more than being best in class at one thing. Still, as an inspirational idea, it is a good place to begin.

    1. Absolutely. The requirements for impactfulness and consistency–and for testing each deck to fail it–should hopefully help lead around that bugbear. I’ve found the question useful because it drives an intense scrutiny. It sometimes absolutely leads to gimmicky ideas, but the rest of the process should act as a failsafe against any true flights of fancy.

  3. This was very helpful for me. I’m new to L5R and I’d like to be able to play locally-competitively. I have a tendency to enjoy building and playing theme decks with “gimmicks” but I know that they don’t win regularly. And that’s where I struggle. I like building custom decks but they often can’t compete with highly tuned performance decks.

  4. Hey Zzzzman74. Glad there was something you could take from it. Building and playing theme decks is every bit as valid and fun a way to enjoy the game as any other, but never getting to show off the coolness of a deck because some pile of tournament monster cards stomps you inside two turns can grow to be dispiriting. That said, I don’t think the mindsets between making a great theme deck and making a great competitive deck are that different. Competitive decks do lose a lot of the romance of theme decks, but they can gain an efficient beauty of their own. You just need to shift your gaze a little bit, and the differences will blur. Thanks for reading!

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