Opening the Black Scroll – A Critic of L5R LCG Design

Opening the Black Scroll – A Critic of L5R LCG Design

This is article started as a review of the Dominion cycle, but turned into a general critic of what seems to be the current design ethos of the game and ends with a proposal on how players could take control and improve the game themselves.

Now that the full Dominion cycle is out, I felt it might be a good time to look back and consider the overall game. This cycle has been pretty crazy with each pack having at least one card that shook up the meta significantly. It also introduced the Rally keyword, one that I was deeply concerned about at the start of the cycle, and I’m pretty sure those concerns were shown to be well-founded. Looking over a cycle can give us an idea of the design philosophy that the designers are taking and in so doing give us an idea of where the game is going.

Rather than jumping straight to the power cards, instead, I want to look at some of the cards that look like they’re dead on arrival. These are the cards that go straight from pack to binder and never leave. Now it’s always possible down the line that one of these cards ends up quite good, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve under-estimated a card’s power level.

  • Inventive Buttressing. This 1 cost attachment gives a province +3 strength during a military conflict. So you’re only going to play it on your own provinces, it only works during military conflicts, it only has an impact when your opponent has won the conflict and is trying to see if they’ve broken the province. This effect is so narrow that I can’t see how it will ever be worth the 1 fate cost. The limitation to military conflict only seems to be an attempt to be flavourful, which is strange considering every other province strength somehow is fine being military and political.

  • Hidden Mountain Pass. This holding has an interrupt at the end of the conflict phase which turns its province facedown. Having on-reveal provinces and ways to turn them face down is pretty cool. Dragon do not play many on reveal provinces. This holding has to randomly land in a province that either is already face-up and not destroyed or that your opponent for some reason chooses to attack. Then you have to save the province during your opponent’s attacks in the conflict phase before the effect will actually trigger. While a nice idea, it’s pretty clear the design is inherently flawed.
  • Sudden Tempest. This neutral dynasty event costs 1 fate to remove an unclaimed ring from the game until the end of the round. Way of the Phoenix is not a card that sees play, it is an event that you can hold in hand for the right moment and costs 0 fate. Sudden Tempest has to be randomly drawn from your dynasty deck (you could hold onto it, but why?) and costs 1 fate and a dynasty action to trigger. It’s difficult to see how you would use this card in any proactive manner and there aren’t any counter plays you could use this card with that would justify the 1 cost. At best, it does have Rally.
  • Ethereal Alignment. This 5 cost Phoenix conflict card has the impressive effect of ‘unbreaking’ a province, which is pretty cool. It can only be used at the end of the conflict phase and you can only target a province where you have the claimed ring in your pool. So you’ve managed to claim a ring, typically by winning a conflict, but somehow have 5 fate leftover but are behind enough that you need to restore a province? The effect is great for coming from behind, but the requirements all mean you’re already winning the game.

  • Kakudaira. This Phoenix holding reveals facedown cards in the province at the start of each phase. No one is really sure why you would want to do that. Getting to reveal a holding could be proactive as you’d get to use that holding straight away, but dynasty events and dynasty characters can only be purchased during the dynasty phase so beyond some minor filtering you’d get from discarding the face-up card it’s difficult to know what even the intended purpose for this card was. Possibly, at some stage dynasty events were useable outside the dynasty phase?

  • Command By Name. This continues a series of province reduction effects that never see play for the same reasons effects that boost province strength don’t. In this case, you spend 1 fate, lose 1 honor, and discard a card from your hand to reduce the province strength to 0. This is massively over-costed and will only be relevant in that narrow window where you’re winning the conflict but don’t break the province. That this was designed when so many previous cards with this effect don’t see play is a bit of a wonder.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, just a sample of cards that unless I’m very much mistaken, will never see play. That should be immediately evident to anyone who actually plays the game. These aren’t cards that need testing and play to work that out. These are all designs that someone not familiar with the game would think are a neat idea, but in practice just don’t work.

Let’s have a look at some of the more powerful cards in the set. These are cards that caused a stir when they were spoiled and quickly made their way into decks. 

  • Exposed Courtyard. You mill some of your own conflict cards and then get to play an event from your discard pile. Zero downsides and the Battlefield trait is useful for some Lion cards. It doesn’t even remove it from the game, they go to the bottom of the deck. The effect is like the original version of the Phoenix stronghold but better and on a non-unique holding instead. This amazing card draw and recursion effect came at the end of an extensive push for Lion who had already seen an excessive amount of amazing cards. It was almost as if the kitchen sink was being thrown at the Lion in the hopes that something would work.
  • Lost Papers. A 0 cost dynasty event with Rally that lets you select one of the characters with the most fate in play and bow them. A card so ridiculously good it became ubiquitous in the meta and randomly won games when it turned up. It looks like it was intended to be anti-tower meta, as you typically put 3+ fate on towers when they enter play. The design seems to have missed the core element of the game where fate ticks down, so characters with 1 or even 0 fate ended up getting hit by this. It ended up with decks not willing to play characters over 3 cost any more and Lost Papers even hitting 1 cost characters when it came up.
  • Contested Countryside. Another card that was everywhere in the brief window between being released and restricted. As a neutral holding with Rally, there were no downsides for playing it. As it was everywhere, people abandoned provinces it could be used against and there was a mass shift to Keeper roles as Contested Countryside was role locked. A key element of the game is that attacking is better than defending, you get to trigger the ring if you win and maybe destroy your opponent’s province. This encourages aggression. Similarly, the defender gets to take the first action and importantly gets the benefits of their province. Contested Countryside turned that core design concept on its head.
  • Bayushi Kachiko. You get to go through your opponent discard pile and play up to 3 cards out of it per round. If you can’t deal with her when she comes into play, her owner has an obscene hand advantage and their opponent ends up penalised for playing cards! She is expensive at 5 fate and only works during political conflicts, but the effect is so over the top good that none of that matters. Late game you end up picking the best 3 cards out of your opponent’s discard pile which will often be half of their deck and while she’s in play, anything your opponent plays, you can play yourself.
  • Stoke Insurrection. Charge was too good. How about we remove the military conflict restriction and have it take 2 characters instead of 1? We can up the cost to 4 fate but then add a clause to reduce it back down to 2!  It doesn’t always happen that the Scorpion player gets to bring in 2 big characters for just 2 fate, but with the addition of Governor’s Spy it’s actually not that hard. That the Scorpion gets to use their opponent’s cards means they can run a dynasty deck with cheap characters to save fate for events.

These are all pretty massive cards. Tyler talked a little about the idea of ‘meta game pressure’ in relation to some of these cards. The idea that the existence of certain cards in the meta-game will discourage players from playing the best cards. In particular, Lost Papers and Contested Countryside appear to be designed under that idea. Lost Papers is now banned and Contested Countryside is restricted. These cards did exert meta-game pressure, but rather than focusing on specific decks or cards that were powerful, they ended up distorting the entire game by applying that pressure on core elements of gameplay.

Tyler has previously discussed some overperformers and underperformers from previous sets. Moment of Perfect Beauty was intended to be a big flashy card, but he didn’t realise the value of not playing cards during a conflict. He didn’t expect Fan of Command to be on large towers. Masterpiece Painter was supposed to be a multiplayer only card. He saw Ceaseless Duty as a less powerful version of Reprieve. So the cards in this set don’t appear to be an aberration, but rather a recurring pattern of design where some cards are unplayably bad while others are meta-distorting.

All of this leads me to a single conclusion, Tyler doesn’t play the game enough and is designing from a theoretical level without actually playing cards in decks. And who can blame him, there’s only so many hours in the day and this is a job, not a passion. As I’ll discuss a little further, his design approach seems to come from his experience playing Magic the Gathering and a lot of his ideas that haven’t worked in L5R have worked successfully in Magic. Before I get too far into this, I have to acknowledge that all this is supposition. I don’t know the reasons behind Tyler’s choices or his design ethos. I can’t say for certain if a design was his, or one from an earlier designer or a colleague in FFG. All I can do is look at the cards he has produced, the comments he has made, and do my best to guess his intentions.

I’ll also note that for the last two years Tyler has been working on this game alone, something that I feel FFG has been incredibly negligent in. Game design is not a solo endeavour and in addition to designing for L5R Tyler has been asked to support with other games like Keyforge (who lost Brad) and run the story team (until Katrina was hired again). I would love to make this article non-personal, referring to ‘design’ and never mentioning Tyler by name, but FFG made this a one-man show, so, unfortunately, if I’m going to critic design then it’s just Tyler. He has had an unenviable job and no doubt is underpaid and under-appreciated for his efforts, all while Asmodee continues to fire employees. That said, the goal of this article is to look at how the game is being designed and unfortunately, that means criticising Tyler’s choices.

Earlier I mentioned Magic, it was the first collectable card game to come out and has remained highly influential in card game design. It is not, however, a good game. It has many flaws and continues as a game due to its behemoth nature more than anything else. There definitely are lessons we can take from it, but not all. Below are some lessons from Magic that I believe do not apply to Legend of the Five Rings.

  • Mechanics are split across the Color wheel. In Magic, the 5 colours have distinct mechanics associated with then. This means each color feels unique and distinct. As each color has it’s own power cards, splitting them out stops any one deck from having everything. A similar approach was attempted with the L5R clans, but rather than 5 colors there are 7 clans. In addition, each clan already has a distinct feel from the background. This, I feel, has resulted in conflicting themes for each clan leaving some unfocused (e.g. Dragon) while others are funnelled powerful cards based on the wheel (e.g. Scorpion control cards). The L5R LCG game itself has a lot more moving parts than the simple framework of Magic and as such, there is a greater disparity in the power of certain mechanics. This hypothesised mechanic wheel seems to have been developed during the initial design of the game and doesn’t appear to have changed since. This means some clans have cornered especially powerful mechanics while others have niche themes with little impact. With Magic, decks typically have 2 colors, with access to each color only limited by the lands and mana needed. The L5R LCG has a far more restrictive influence system, and decks are essentially mono-color with 3 to 6 cards splashed from a single other part of the wheel. Having each faction have a distinct flavor makes sense, but I believe the color wheel in L5R, as currently exists, is an overarching burden on how this game is designed and will continue in the future.
  • New sets mean new mechanics to spice up the game. In Magic, as the game progresses, mechanics in old sets cycle out and new mechanics cycle in. We’ve seen this approach applied the L5R also, but we don’t have any cycling. In addition, these new mechanics often seem underdeveloped. Sometimes they fall flat like Composure and other times they end up over-powered like Rally. As they only appear in a single set, each clan has to hope the cards they get for that mechanic work well in their decks or they’ll never get another one. For mechanics like Composure that don’t work, this doesn’t make too much difference, but for powerful mechanics like Rally if a clan doesn’t get good cards they’re left out in the cold. Clans that benefit from Rally will bring their advantages with them into future sets, but clans that did not get any good Rally cards will never have that addressed. There doesn’t appear to be any particular reason for this beyond mirroring the approach of magic.
  • Bad cards serve a purpose. Mark Rosewater wrote two excellent articles about why weak cards are important in the game. Tyler touched on this briefly in his own article about ‘Hits and Haymakers’. Having weak cards in a CCG allows players to play the weak cards either in draft or their earlier decks until they can get their hands on the more powerful cards. In an LCG, where players buy fixed packs it makes a lot less sense. Cards that will never see play are a literal waste of cardboard. That doesn’t mean every card needs to make it into competitive decks, that’s not really possible, but we shouldn’t be seeing cards that simply don’t work. That’s either lazy design, where there was a deadline that needed to be met, or intentional design to produce bad cards. Every one of these cards could be expanding a secondary theme for a clan instead.
  • Super powerful cards are fun. Opening a booster and finding a rare power card in it is always a rush. Getting to play powerful cards feels good, at least for you. Often less so for your opponent who is on the receiving end. In a collectable card game, that gives you a push to buy more cards. Keyforge is a great example of this, you keep buying decks in the hope you’ll get a more powerful deck. If you end up playing against a super good deck, it encourages you to buy more in the hopes that you’ll get something more powerful to beat it. In a non-collectable card game where everyone has the same pool of cards, that’s not the case. If that powerful card can be played by everyone, it will be. You don’t drive sales of extra pacts, as everyone already has it. If only 1 clan can play that card, then everyone else will end up on the receiving end.  There are two important aspects of this that are problems. 
    1. First, the core gameplay of LCG game is a decision heavy game with incremental advantages. A hypothetical card that breaks an enemy province for free, goes completely against that gameplay. Although we’ve yet to see anything at that scale, we’ve seen several cards that are so powerful they break the back and forth gameplay. This inherently changes the game from a chess-like decision game to a Yu-Gi-Oh style ‘heart of the cards’ approach, where players are just burning through their decks and whoever gets to draw their power cards first wins. Randomness is important in games, but not to this extent.
    2. Second, unlike with Magic, where if a particular colour is overly strong everyone just plays that colour (or a specific counter to it), one of the defining features of the L5R is faction loyalty. So a super powerful card in a particular color is exciting as it shifts the balance and the meta. This one is arguable somewhat controversial but it’s indisputable that throughout the history of the game faction loyalty has been a core feature. That many of the currently successful players constantly switch between clans as the meta shifts suggests that this is currently a problem. Getting the balance between the 7 clans is tricky, and introducing super powerful cards throws that to the wind. Having a rotating system where different factions ‘get their time in the sun’ as Brad talked about in an early interview, isn’t a good thing. Rather than keeping everyone happy, as I’ve no doubt it was intended, it diminishes one of the selling points of the game and alienates players loyal to factions who are weak. It also sets up storyline prizes for specific factions, removing player agency. Power cards that favour one faction (or even a small number of factions) aren’t a feel-good draw from a booster pack. More often than not, seeing a powerful card appear in a dynasty pack is a negative experience as you try work out if your faction has any counter and hope it will soon be banned.

The Pillars of Degenerate Gameplay

As an aside, while IA was producing podcasts, we regularly talked about the pillars of degenerate gameplay. These are mechanics we’ve seen time and again which distorted games to such an extent that the games were no longer fun. That’s not to say cards with effects like this should never exist, but it does mean they should only be designed with great care. The pillars are:

  • Cost Reduction – The resource system of a game is a core component that keeps everything else in check. For L5R that means 7 fate a turn. If you’re able to find a way to get 7 cost reduction, you’ve essentially got a free turn over your opponent which is massive.
  • Card Draw – Card draw is again another core mechanic of the game. A typical L5R game has 4 dynasty cards and 5 conflict cards drawn by each player every turn. 
  • Recursion – If a card was worth playing once, playing it again is even better. There are many cards we’d like to have more than 3 of in a deck, and there are good reasons we can’t.

What I’m currently seeing is Tyler throwing darts at the board without really understanding what he’s doing and after the cards are released see what lands and what doesn’t. Cards that aren’t playable get left by the wayside stuck in binders, they don’t cause trouble so design doesn’t have to worry about them. Cards that are too powerful eventually hit the restricted list and possibly the banned list over time. As new sets are designed something like 2 years in advance, any lessons Tyler is learning now won’t manifest for years to come. That means the cycles we’re due to see, were designed without any idea of what the current meta is like. Worse, they were designed without any understanding of what the meta was like 2 years ago when the set was being designed! This is a compounding problem with top tier clans just as likely to get power cards as any other. The weak clans shouldn’t be expecting anything to save them anytime soon. One case where we did see a problem being corrected was with the Lion clan, and the ‘fix’ ended up being a torrent of over-powered cards that needed bans and restrictions to keep in check.

We are due to see a new restricted and banned list which will try to address some of the current issues, but the restricted system is already overburdened. Currently, there are 22 restricted cards and you only get to include 1 in your deck. You should always be including the most powerful cards from that list in your deck, which leaves 21 dead cards (and entire pack!). Any new problem cards added to this list will still appear in decks, they just push out the less powerful restricted cards. This is why we now have 14 cards on a banned list. Back in 2018 I wrote an article called Adjusting the Environment about the various options available, I described the approach we currently have as a ‘shotgun approach’ and that was back when we only had 8 cards on the restricted list. In the article, I also talked about the next steps with restricted lists, where additional groups are formed. Developing the restricted list would require a certain amount of work from Tyler, I’d love to see it happen, but I doubt he has the time or will do work through it. So we’ll see a few more changes with the next restricted list, but largely it’ll be the same. New packs will come out and the meta will be focused on power cards rather than incremental play.

This has all been a bit doom and gloom, but what does it all mean? 

  • The game still is fun. The core mechanics of the game are solid and it generates engaging game-play. If you’re playing at home and not in tournaments, keep having fun.
  • The banned and restricted lists are constantly behind the curve with the stream of new power cards. The most powerful cards on the restricted list are still seeing play and often the top decks are close to or are degenerate. For enjoyable games, you and your opponent will need to either avoid degenerate decks or embrace them and the new style of game they create.
  • Over half the cards you buy in every pack will never see play. Unfortunately, it’s just a sunk cost. Some are due to terrible design while others are edged out by the top tier of power cards.
  • Clan loyalty is only worth it if the clan you’re being loyal to are already top tier. Until the current design ethos changes, clans with powerful themes will continue to get powerful cards, clans with poor themes will continue to get poor cards.
  • We aren’t going to see major changes coming from Tyler, he’s over-worked and underpaid and the L5R LCG seems to increasingly be considered a minor game in the FFG suite. From previous cases, they expect late-life LCGs to become stale, so FFG aren’t going to innovate or invest. The current plan is to keep it on life support as long as it makes some money, but with zero investment until the business has the appetite for a new core starting the cycle over again.

2020 has been a super strange year. It’s put our entire hobby on hold, with the majority of players unable to get a game and the die-hard fans moving over to third party online versions. It’s hard to say how the 2020 tournament scene would have gone, but based on the decks from the online events it seems games are decided largely by who flipped their power cards at the right time. Life isn’t ever going to be the same, but as we look forward to a vaccine and a chance to meet people face to face again in 2021 it’s a good time to consider how L5R is going to fit into that world.

Up to now, we’ve had major L5R LCG tournaments organised and run by FFG organised play. In time, I’m sure that will kick off again, although as FFG seem to have laid off the majority of their organised play team that might be slower than expected. This may be a perfect opportunity for player-led events to consider their own options. Not everything can be fixed, but there are some options, and I have no doubt, that a player-led team could put together a better tournament format that FFG currently could. That could include:

  • An aggressive ban list trimming the card pool as part of a core reset.
  • Expanding the restricted list into multiple restricted groups to break up combos but leave card options open.
  • Some minor rules tweaks could improve the game (I’m looking at you undefended honor loss).
  • Deck construction rule adjustments. This could be a little more ambitious, but any deck construction rules (like roles, influence, side-boards) can be tweaked. Players can adjust their decks ahead of time and focus on having fun during the actual games.

Only Tyler can produce new cards (although NISEI may have some things to say about that), but everything else is on the table. L5R is a fantastic setting, and the LCG is easily one of the best games I’ve played. It rewards practice and skill and has a wonderful amount of depth. It can still have a bright future, even if FFG no longer seems to have the desire or the will to make that happen.

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.

11 Replies to “Opening the Black Scroll – A Critic of L5R LCG Design”

  1. This was a though provoking and well argued article. I’ve been playing the game since its release and I’m still enjoying it as much as I did in the early days (or possibly a touch less), but I do agree with some of the points made here.

    I have only played a handful of LCGs (Netrunner, L5R, and now Marvel Champs) so the experience I have to draw on is less than those players who have played more card games and other, quicker, CCGs like Magic, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh etc. However, I do agree that some of the cards that have been released recently have made the game less fun and much more prone to blow out games. For example, if you can’t stop Stoke Insurrection (and against scorpion even having a cancel like censure is no guarantee that you’ll be able to stop it) then you pretty much lose the game. Against Lion, if you cant compete with the card draw of tactical ingenuity, logistics, and exposed courtyard then you are most likely going to lose the game.

    I like the idea in particular of a “grouped” RL. It seems to be a practical and simple solution. I do hope we don’t have to go down the NISEI route just yet. I’m not sure the community is as large as that for netrunner, but also, the game is still officially alive whereas NISEI was created after the death of Netrunner!

  2. I love reading these. Always well thought out. I feel L5R is in dire need of a reset. You could then reprint cards with corrected / amended wording etc. Change the rules slightly. I’d rather not have multiple brackets on a restricted list. Banned and Restricted is as far as I think it should go. Having to consult and cross check an encyclopaedia each time I want to make a deck should be unnecessary although I can appreciate unforeseen card interactions can happen.

    Due to the passion and loyalty of the L5R community can’t FFG offer unpaid consulting or something similar? Just look at the what LLO have been able to accomplish.

  3. One week after this article,Tyler made another Imperial Law work. It seems he is still focusing on Scorpion clan. It is hard to understand why every change at restricted or banned list always contains scorpion cards when other cards are free on table.This is not balancing,because scorpion clan is constantly weakened,meanwhile other clans still get powerful cards. The errata to City of the Open Hand is an exemple: it is now a useless 1 strenght stronghold that gives you 1 honor,Kyuden Bayushi will be still preferred at this point. On Jigoku scorpion players who win some matches are few now, going in this direction means that all will end to play lion,unicorn and crab. I am agree with this article,excellent work.

  4. Excellent article, and I agree with Nick that the game is in need of a reset (and most certainly a revised Core Set that contains three copies of every card).

    The thing that irks me is all these banned and restricted cards (as the card pool is already very limited), and then packs having useless cards in them as well. To top it all off cards from the core are still very good, so buying dynasty pack after dynasty pack might be one or two new additions (x3 but one specific card), so it’s frustrating. Because of this my biggest fear is that the game suddenly ends, which would mean that despite owning all the cards I would be stuck with a limited card pool meaning deck experimentation would be minimal.

    1. I don’t think the game will survive at the end of this cycle,or the next one. In some countries the game stopped with inheritance cycle,and people at asmodee told me that it going bad almost everywhere. I have the same concerns, but if you play local (and now you are forced to) you have enough cards to do some decks

      1. This is a really interesting question. It definitely reminds me of the ‘Who killed Hannibal?’ meme, with FFG shooting the L5R LCG and wondering why the players ruined the game. A number of countries did have translation licences and have stopped, but I get the impression that they did this because that’s where the set spoilers were coming from. So I’m not worried about that. The pandemic, of course, has had a massive impact on the game industry generally and for FFG’s LCG’s I wouldn’t be surprised if L5R as suffered more than the others as it’s the last remaining competitive LCG.

        That said, the L5R LCG is the core of the brand. While the RPG has moved departments within Asmodee, it still seems to be going strong. We’ve also seen the arrival of serious novels from Aconyte which has been fantastic. So the brand seems to be growing, and it doesn’t really make sense to drop the LCG. Especially as it’s one of the few product lines FFG have remaining after the miniature games got syphoned off to Atomic Mass Games. That said, FFG have certainly been stupid about shit before.

        The real test is going to be the next box set. We haven’t heard word of one yet, but it would fit the pattern. The last one was Clan War which was announced on 17th of Jan last year, so we should hopefully see a new box announced before the end of the month. That will mean FFG are still supporting it.

        1. Surely here in Italy Asmodee has already given up. The last material translated and distributed was Shoju’s duty. I asked for explanation,and they gave me the reply I reported

    2. >Excellent article, and I agree with Nick that the game is in need of a reset (and most certainly a revised Core Set that contains three copies of every card).

      This won’t happen. There was a revised core set and when Tyler had it finished, management refused.

  5. Por mi parte estoy contento de que por fin se haya desmontado el mazo de deshonor de escorpión, al fin Tyler lo ha hecho. Ha tenido el valor y la inteligencia. Era una lacra para el juego. Tenías que hacer mazos pensando en eso constantemente. Para mi el juego ahora está más equilibrado que antes. Gracias Tyler.

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