Is it time to free the roles?

Is it time to free the roles?

With the addition of the Inheritance cycle and the recent release of the second pack Bonds of Blood, players have once again questioned the value of the role locking clans. While it is widely accepted that having cards locked into specific roles is a great system, locking clans out of roles is less popular.

To understand the current system, we need to go back to the start of the game. In the initial incarnation of role locking, each clan had one role that was selected by the top of clan at Gencon and then Winter Court. Without doubt, this is an awesome prize and lets the top of each clan have a major influence on the decks of the rest of the clan. An immediate flaw with this system was revealed when the top Scorpion player Mark Armitage intentionally passed over the Seeker of Void role, claiming it was a gift for the Phoenix. At Winter Court 2017, Mark, again top Scorpion, then picked the Seeker of Void role and Scorpion went on to dominate the Kotei season in part due to the power of the role.

Mark Armitage, our villian

Initially, Seeker of Void was considered the best role. Part of this was due to the limited card pool where the role’s ability was more important than the cards it gave you access to. As fate gained from the seeker roles was more impactful than the Keeper influence, players preferred seeker roles. As the void provinces where the strongest provinces at launch, Seeker of Void was the best pick. Meanwhile, clans who performed worse at the event ended up with weaker roles. So the top clans got their pick of the best roles while the weaker clans ended up with the leftovers.

The current system still retains the Worlds pick but has added a second role to each clan. Each role lasts for 8 months and a new role is selected every 4 months. In addition to the selection at worlds, the top 2 players of each clan in Elemental Championships get to vote for the next role. Unlike with worlds, clans can end up with the same roles so weaker clans aren’t limited in what they can pick.

Unfortunately, while this system solves some of the issues, it also raises others. In some events, due to the small numbers, players ended up with multiple votes and in other cases vote cards were sold or traded. As the votes weren’t clan locked, some players actively sabotaged other clans. Even within clans, this system has caused conflict as players have aggressively clashed with each while lobbying for their preferred role. We’ve even seen playtesters under NDA leak cards to make sure their clan selected the ‘correct’ role. While a certain amount of tension within a community can be positive, this is instead divisive and has unfortunately left some players feeling betrayed or cheated.

As the votes are going to the top players at each event, and those players often travel to multiple events, the decisions are really being made by a small percentage of players. These are players who are primarily interested in refining the most efficient deck rather than having a wide range of fun options. This certainly happened for the Crane clan who had Seeker of Fire and gained Seeker of Void, this was a minor change but made their best deck more effective. For players who wanted to play a keeper deck, with Defend Your Honor, for example, that wasn’t an option.

Although roles are intended for competitive play only, in practice, the majority of players stick to playing tournament-legal decks even in casual play. This is similar to the restricted system, where players could choose to ignore it, but stick with it. While players could ignore role limitations on their kitchen table, doing so at their local store would be frowned on. That players were so positive online about the ‘Elements Unbound’ pods at Gencon, but on the day more players opted for normal pods, just goes to show how rare it is for players to play outside the locked roles.

At the game’s release, as already mentioned, the focus was on the raw mechanical benefit of the roles. Since release, however, we’ve had a massive influx of role-specific cards. Not everyone wants to play Seeker of Void anymore as the card pool has significantly expanded. Every clan has at least one card for each element and for keeper/seeker and can, of course, splash another clan. Currently there are definitely incentives to play each role. That said, a few key cards dominate the discussion:

  • Water for Fight on.
  • Air for Mark of Shame, Soul Beyond Approach, Forebearer’s Echoes
  • Earth for Earth Becomes Sky.
  • Fire for Unleash the Djinn or before it became restricted Feast or Famine.
  • Void for a New Name or The Fires of Justice.

These, however, are the more powerful role locked cards, many others don’t factor into the role selection and never end up legal to play. This means we aren’t going to see a fire role Scorpion poison deck with Adopted Kin and Imperial Librarian. Not because it’ll necessarily be a bad deck, but because it won’t be the popular Scorpion deck with top 1% of players who pick the roles. Every clan has a handful of cards that might see play otherwise, but are locked into roles and aren’t powerful enough for top players to consider that role.

Before we finish up, lets look at the positives and the negatives from the current role system:


  • It is a cool prize for the top of clans at Winter Court.
  • Shifts the meta every 3 months.
  • Easier to know what to expect from an opponent’s deck.
  • Can stop clans always playing the best role.

The big benefit here of course is the top of clan prize, if the roles were open there would definitely need to be something to replace it. One option which has been suggested is to still pick a role, but rather than being locked into just that role, have a benefit like bonus influence when the clan plays that role. Interestingly, this would also open up the Support of roles which could make these lesser played roles a little.


  • It reduces deck variety.
  • Top players pick the ‘best’ roles, casual players can’t play their fun decks.
  • If a clan doesn’t have the best role, they are weaker than intended.
  • Harder to balance clans during playtest as they may not have the expected roles.
  • The role system has to be explained to new players who otherwise have illegal decks.
  • The system encourages leaks as playtesters have an incentive to keep their clan informed.
  • Decisions can be divisive in the community as players who don’t get the role they hoped for feel betrayed.

A lot of the above, and arguably the biggest problem with the system, is the idea that the top players will pick the best role they can and the only decks not being played are the fun decks.

The current system in attempting to strike a balance between accessibility and restrictions, unfortunately, has ended up in a situation where clans always have access to the best decks. The only roles a clan cannot play are the ones with experimental or fun decks. Right now, allowing clans access to all the roles wouldn’t significantly change the top end of the meta. Where it would make a difference is on the mid and bottom tables where players who have fun ideas would be able to bring them to a tournament and have some fun.

So while there are definitely some positives to the system, I certainly feel like the time for locking clans into specific roles has passed. What about you?

If you have any comments or feedback please post them in the comments section below. Check us out on the Imperial Advisor website, podcast, and YouTube channel for more discussion about the L5R LCG.

16 Replies to “Is it time to free the roles?”

  1. I think your last sentence sums it up quite nicely; that the decks at the top of the meta are unlikely to significantly change and that they will still win the major tournaments, but we would see an awful lot more fun and experimental decks. I think I like the idea!

      1. I don’t even come anywhere close to winning even low-level tournaments with “Best-of-the -meta” decks so from my perspective, freeing up the roles would only lead to more fun and flexibility!

  2. A typically good article from Imperial Advisor.

    A few thoughts:
    As more role locked cards are produced, the pool for each role becomes wider and the potential for each role to be “good” changes (hopefully, increases). This could make the current system more viable.
    How do we know the “fun” decks that players would like to build and play aren’t the new meta? It could be that a Unicorn Seeker of Fire deck would be deck to win all. Until we are allowed to play each role, no-one can truly say.
    Why don’t we have a system, at least at Worlds if not all choices, where the worst performing clan gets first choice of role? [I’m thinking of something like the draft in the NFL.] This would help to potentially level the field.
    And finally, to be open, my personally preference would be to give players free choice of roles. I don’t like being restricted into one of two archetypes when there are 14 (keeper/seeker/element)+ 6 (support of) available.

  3. I agree and disagree with some of the assessment. I agree that the roles should be unlocked but not complete for all the reasons lists. Some are 100% correct though.
    I think that this version of the game has lost some of the flexibility of the previous game. Yes, there were decks considered more powerful than others, but that was generally in a constant state of flux. That wasn’t so much based on a tournament or casual environment though, only the available cardpool. By using the Role-locking to limit cardpool there is too much of a restriction on cardpool limiting entry in the game for new players. What’s worse is that it discourages the type of creativity that has existed in prior editions of this game as well as other major ccg’s that bring people together to play at non-tournament times. I believe that the company should primarily make rules that should assist in growing the community or players not casual vs competitive, just the community itself. The creative diversity breeds direct player engagement with the game. I think that since the product is now being delivered on a “monthly” basis, the cardpool is changing enough to keep the game from being stagnant. Amusingly enough, keeping roles locked actually makes the game more stagnant reducing the new cards usable in each faction.

  4. The statement of “Harder to balance clans during playtest as they may not have the expected roles.” isn’t valid. During playtest we are encouraged to test with any role we want. Given the fact that testing of products occurs in a “future world” where roles are not selected it would be impossible to test the game properly in an environment that constrained testers to roles that will likely not be available to the clan tested when the product finally launches.

    1. But that was part of the point- if testing is done with whatever Role suits the deck, then that testing risks giving Design an inaccurate view of the metagame they are designing for. Testing may show Crane KoV is a good deck that will ensure Crane is competitive, and other Clans get balanced around that. But then when that environment actually happens, Crane may not have access to KoV, throwing the whole balance out of wack. It’s not a failing of Playtesters, but it is a failure of the system they work in.

  5. The whole thing with the role is very simple.
    1. The design must have more role restricted cards so the players vote more choices an not the obvious.
    2. The role circle must be done for the company in order to give all the roles in random row to the clans.

  6. Great article.
    Having cards locked into specific roles is a great system, locking clans out of roles is a very bad idea.
    Role locking killed the game for me by making this game boring.
    It was a very bad decision from the start and espacially at the beginning of the game when the card pool was slim.
    7 clans, dynasty deck, conflict deck, province deck mean you need a bigger card pool to make exist different archetypes than others games.
    Northern wall sensei could never be played because of role locking while there was room for him between cycle 1 and cycle 2.
    I want to play Lion with fight on and FGG but I can’t and I don’t know if I could because we have rotation now.
    A lot of role locked card are powerful with a weak influence cost compare to non role locked cards.
    They are often the support of deck archetypes.
    Role locking is a good system only for try harder players because they don’t like surprise decks.
    Players who loves to deck building have already move to others games.
    Your article says all my other points.
    I hope to see the day where roles are free before I stop to play to L5R.

  7. Allow me to vent for a moment. Had I written this article and posted it in my local L5R group chat and asked for people’s thoughts I would have gotten, and I quote.

    “Role locks are fine”
    And of course

    Like what on God’s Green Earth am I supposed to do with that? BUT! I agree 210%, also I still love support of roles. One day… a man can dream.

  8. I went to a few events in 2017, but didn’t find the camaraderie and joy of competition that I was looking for. The game was young, and I didn’t know it well yet, so I’ve been debating going back for PAX Unplugged 2019. In the meanwhile though, a group of 5 friends and I have been playing casually with much more relaxed deck-building rules: pick any role, RL doesn’t matter. I find the thought of going back to a more homogeneous and restricted deck-building a bit tiresome. I feel bad on one hand for not being able to support the community at events, which have always been the focus and measure of health for New5r. On the other hand, the way that FFG wants the game to be played isn’t what I find fun, and I enjoy myself more in our unrestricted micro-meta.

  9. I love that the fact that you write this article about “us”, the low to mid-level players, while most of what comes from FFG and most of the discussions in the Facebook groups are focused on competitive play. (Even the Restricted list is based on performance at the larger events, that don’t really have relevance to the way many, many players play.)

    After playing the game for about a year (and enjoying it a lot, let’s be clear) I find myself less and less interested in pursuing “competitive play” and hammering out the “best deck”. I find the joy of innovation and surprise in deck-building, and just the creativity of the game, to be the best part.

    It would be nice if more of the rules, more of the cards and more of the discussion allowed more space for that part.

    (Growtilltall, can I join you and your friends?) 😀

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