Card, Card, crazy card….
With the release of War for Cybertron: Siege II, there’s a new dimension that’s been added to the Transformers TCG.
Daring Escape is our first alternate win condition. Up until now, every game of Transformers TCG has fundamentally boiled down to a damage race. Can you damage your opponent faster than they can damage you? Daring Escape adds a new axis to fight along. A different progression towards victory that’s orthogonal to the primary damage axis.
This necessitates an entirely different philosophy of card design for us and deck design for you. When everyone is fighting along the same axis (and more importantly, you know that everyone is playing the same game), then card valuation is linear and more akin to a tug-of-war. You Plasma Burst me? I Medic! right back.
We work hard to add more dimension than a pure race of raw card efficiency (see my article “Amplifying Excitement”), but as long as the game is fought along that one axis, there’s always a pull towards that particular bottom line.
Over the course of the past six months since we announced organized play, we’ve seen different archetypes rise and fall. At Origins, heavy blue Three-Wide Primes was the top dog as well as much of the top 32. At GenCon, the top tables were dominated by hyper-aggressive bugs and cars decks. With our latest release, Daring Escape creates a combo deck with two variants that aren’t trying to win through damage.
The first is a slow combo, that wins by filling up your hand through a card draw engine like Jetfire (while also KO’ing a few cards with Daring Escape) before finally playing a last Daring Escape and winning.
The second is a fast combo, which uses cards like Involuntary Promotion to swap specialist upgrades around and chain actions and upgrade plays until you’ve played the majority of your deck in a single turn, before finally wining with Daring Escape.
Fight the Power
By design, combos like this are hard to fight with the tools you use for a linear battle of offensive and defensive power, so how do you fight a combo deck?
- Race It: Most combo decks have a “critical turn” which is the first turn that they can reliably assemble their combo and “go off”. If you can KO their whole team before that, you’re golden. We like it when the fastest combo deck in an environment is a little bit slower than the fastest aggressive (aggro) deck. This means that the person who is “fighting fair” has an advantage, but both are incentivized to find ways to slow down their opponent just enough to ensure their own win.
- Disrupt It: Many commonly played cards have “splash damage” against some combo archetypes. For example, if your opponent is playing the aforementioned Slow Daring Escape deck, then a well-timed System Reboot will partially reset their clock. Against either version, a well-timed Espionage or Jam Signals can buy you a turn or two.
- Hate It: In design parlance, “Hate Cards” are cards that have been specifically designed to punish particular narrow strategies. Usually, these don’t explicitly target the strategy as much as they target the pillars that enable strategies like this to flourish (namely, card draw and chaining action and upgrade plays). Siege II introduces a number of new hate card options that I will discuss at the end of this article.
Toys on the Side
Hate cards come at different levels of impact and effectiveness and a similar number of nicknames. The distinction is colloquial and inexact, but generally we call cards that can completely shut down a strategy hard hosers while soft hosers usually just disrupt a strategy a bit, slowing it down or making it more painful.
Generally, the stronger a hoser is, the narrower it is. This is a convenient artifact of how these cards tend to be constructed—the more targeted you are in a card’s effect, the fewer situations it is relevant in. A hate card’s total power can be thought of as how strong it is when it’s relevant times how frequent those situations are. This in turn leads to the wonderful outcome of self-balancing metagames. If you provide the correct tools at the correct power level, they’re too weak to be played until the environment shifts to a point that they become strong, which then pushes the environment in another direction. Incidentally, there’s an added psychological bonus to this scaling of effect with narrowness. We have defined a baseline for what is “Typical Transformers TCG play”. Draw a card, play an action and an upgrade, and attack to do a good chunk of damage. The further away you get from that, the more you’re pushing the boundaries, the harder our hosers push back, so when they “push back” you’re less likely to feel bad, it’s more like “yeah, you got me”.
This brings us to our main topic for the day, sideboarding. All of the tools I’ve mentioned above can exist in a world without sideboards, but they “junk up your deck” (to use a technical term), and if you end up spending too much of your deck fighting the worrisome decks of the metagame, then your deck doesn’t have enough slots left to do its own thing. The consequence of that is that people stop playing most answers and it turns into a real Wild West out there. We don’t want a world with a bunch of blowout matchups, we want you to have the tools to be “in the game” in every match you play. And, when you do get completely destroyed by a new deck that came out of nowhere, we want you to say “Nice! OK, I know what I need to do to fight that next time.”
When we introduced sideboards in to the Transformers TCG, a lot of people were excited to give themselves options against decks that they were weak against. There were the tools to improve your matchup against orange decks or blue decks, tall decks or wide decks. But, the true power of sideboards is not in turning a 45/55 matchup into a 60/40 matchup. It’s in turning a 10/90 matchup into a 70/30 matchup. As we diversify the scope of the game, it becomes impossible for your main deck to have all the answers, and that’s where the sideboard shines.
In our game, we have two distinct types of hate cards:
Character cards have the advantage of starting the game on the battlefield. This means they can be immediately effective against your opponent’s strategy, making them ideal choices against fast combos. The downside of character hate cards is that they comprise a significant portion of your team, forcing you to disrupt your own plans to deploy them. This is a significant cost, but well worth it as a tool against decks that you have no other avenue to attack.
Another downside of character hate cards is that they are vulnerable. Your opponent can attack them, and once they’re KOd, your opponent is home free to engage in shenanigans. The good news is that this will force your opponent to significantly alter their plans and their deck to deal with them, which should slow them down enough to give you time to complete your game plan.
The final downside of characters as hosers is that they are known information. As soon as you reveal them, your opponent knows what they need to do to fight your answers. This might seem like a lot of downside, but they immediately and powerfully impact the game. Cards like Private Turboboard and Raider Caliburst can stop a fast Daring Escape deck in its tracks, and Raider Needler can turn off cards like I Still Function and all the antics that enables.
Battle cards, by contrast start the game in your deck. Their advantages are (in contrast to character cards) that they can catch your opponent completely by surprise, they impact your deck function far less, and they are much harder for your opponent to answer. But, the cost of course is that you have to draw them. This makes them stronger against slower strategies. Cards like Hijack can turn your opponent’s ridiculous card draw to your own advantage. The aforementioned Jam Signals can (when timed perfectly) interrupt your opponent’s key play, and against a completely different deck, Overheat can let you dodge a massive attack. It’s no accident that all of these are Secret Actions. The more “unfair” your opponent is being, the more important it is to interact with them on their turn. And we give counterplay, so if your opponent is going nuts with their Secret Actions, bust out a Decipher.
With all these tools available, the last remaining question is how to sideboard. This is an incredibly complex topic, on which scores of articles have been and will be written, so I’ll just give some theoretical guidelines.
First, know what you’re up against. Whether your personal metagame is the expected field at the Energon Invitational or that annoying Spaceship deck that your best friend keeps kicking your butt with, know what decks you’re going to be fighting against, and more importantly, know which ones you’re worried about.
Second, prioritize. There isn’t space to answer everything, so fight the biggest enemies first. Sure, Photon Bomb might give you an extra 10% in the matchup versus Aerialbots, but that’s less important than answering a non-interactive deck that absolutely destroys you. What’s the biggest threat? Make sure you have enough answers to deal with it, then see how much space you have for the next threat.
Third, look for overlap. Let’s pretend your biggest worry is the fast Daring Escape deck. Maybe with your deck, Private Turbo Board is the strongest answer and Raider Caliburst is next best. But, you’re also worried about a new Sunstorm deck you’ve heard rumblings about. Switching to Caliburst could give you help for free against the Sunstorm deck without hurting your Daring Escape matchup too much.
Fourth, don’t over-sideboard. Remember that for everything you put in, you want to take something out. Understand what cards are weak in your problematic matchup and how many of them you can remove without disrupting your own plan too much. The number of cards you want to side out is the upper limit on the number of cards you want to side in. Manage your sideboard slots carefully and don’t overcommit to one matchup.
Fifth, look for opportunities in your main deck. Maybe you’ve dealt with every worrisome possibility except the Slow Daring Escape deck, and you’re out of room. You could consider changing your maindeck Work Overtimes for System Reboots, which is weaker overall, but stronger for this particular matchup.
Finally, remember that herd immunity is a thing. The more people who are sideboarding answers to a problematic deck, the harder it is for that deck to be successful, and the less likely it is to show up. Beyond a certain critical mass of hate, those types of deck quickly become unplayable and disappear. That means that with proper sideboarding, you’re not just helping yourself, your helping your friends and your team. This also means that if you think everyone else is worried about a particular deck, you’ll be tempted to play the odds and skimp on your own answers. It can work, but it’s a risky game, and if you get burned, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Good luck to everyone in this final month leading up to the Energon Invitational. I hope you have a blast exploring the new Siege II metagame and can’t wait to see what you bring.