V:EKN Clan Gangrel Antitribu Newsletter, October 1999

OFFICIAL VEKN GANGREL ANTITRIBU NEWSLETTER, VOLUME 2 NUMBER 10 OCTOBER
1999.

In this issue ..
FICTION: QUEEN NEFERATA'S MINES [part one of a story about the Warhammer
Vampire Counts vs Orcs campaign that Michael and I are just beginning.
Not very VTES you might say, but we do play other games at Legbiter
Mansions, and the idea here is to play a series of linked games of
Warhammer, Jyhad and Magic which will all form part of the story].
BUILDING A !GANGREL DECK PART I: STRATEGY AND TACTICS OF COMBAT DECKS
[what it says - a sort of general article about how to go about rational
deck construction, in answer to various people's queries. Next month I am
going to show how to apply the principles in this article to a practical
example].

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FICTION: QUEEN NEFERATA'S MINES
As night falls on the World's Edge mountains a solitary figure can be
seen picking its way up the winding road that leads to the Silver
Pinnacle. Its way is occasionally lit by the flare of giant rockets,
rising up from the Chaos Dwarf siegeworks to the east, and plummeting
down on the slopes of the mountain ahead. It reaches a silent and ruinous
rampart, and looks up at the still figures populating the parapet.

"Pray announce Lord Legbiter, and admit me to the presence of your
mistress."

The gate opens with a creak, and I walk in, to be instantly surrounded by
mounted Wights, each armed with a Magic Sword. They form a tight guard
around me as we make our way up to the citadel. The swords aren't happy
about this. "Kill 'im right now! Smash 'is 'ead in! Gorn, ya brainless
bastards!" they cry, in their booming metallic voices. But the silent
guard continue on their way, and I note with satisfaction the mighty
regiments of skeleton warriors that flank our route, and the shrill cries
of the vampire bats overhead.

At the door of their mistress's palace the Wights dismount, and we go in
past more guards to the audience chamber where the Queen of the Dead
awaits. So lovely she is that my heart would skip a beat, if I still had
one. I drop on one knee and kiss the hem of her green satin robe. "Mighty
and Beautiful Queen, allow thy humble slave the priviledge of presenting
his respects and compliments to your Greatness!" Neferata smiles, and
raises me up with her remorselessly-strong hands. "Lord Legbiter, this
meeting was foretold, and you are welcome. Guards, leave us." They do,
not without some further grumbling from the swords. "Don't be daft! Kill
'im an' drink 'is blood! Do it now, ya silly moo!" Neferata arranges her
delicious body on a becushioned divan, and pats the place beside her to
indicate where I should sit. "Now Leggy, what can I do for you? Are you
going to ask me to marry you at last, after all these years?"

I smile and kiss her hand, long and tenderly. "I think that Lady
Legbiter, and my other Brides, might have certain paltry bourgeois
objections to that, dearly as I wish it." Neferata pretends to pout with
disappointment, but of course she knows perfectly well what I really
want. And since we are both busy vampires, I cut the flirting and proceed
directly to business.

"You will know, most enchanting of Queens, of the rising of the Uruk-Hai
which threatens Our domains in Sylvania, and that it is led [a curse upon
the night of his spawning!] by my own rebellious progeny Anklebiter. I am
here to beg for your aid, and that of your mighty army, against that
young rascal's minions. In return, I will use my influence with the Chaos
Dwarfs to lift the siege which they have so insolently laid to your fair
citadel, and I will reaffirm that fealty to your crown which is your
right, and due."

Neferata smiles again, and shifts a little closer to me. She strokes my
cheek and neck with her fair white hand.

"Dearest Leggy, how prettily you speak. You know that I can deny you
nothing, and that I must forgive you for everything, including your
transparently-obvious setting of the Chaos Dwarfs against me. No! Do not
insult me by pretending to know nothing of it! My spies are always closer
than you think, and if I did not love you it would go hard with you my
friend, hard indeed. I WILL help you, but the price is other than you
think  come here, my darling ."

Her voice has grown thick and syrupy, and looking into her eyes I feel
myself drowning in the sea of her beauty. Sometime later, and in my case
considerably whiter, we dress and walk hand-in-hand to the map-room where
Neferata's lieutenants await. The crash of the rockets outside has
ceased, and we begin to plan the Downfall of the Greenskins and their
rebellious young leader.

********************************

BUILDING A !GANGREL DECK PART I: STRATEGY AND TACTICS OF COMBAT DECKS
People often ask me how to go about building decks, assuming
[flatteringly but quite wrongly] that I have some deep insight into the
process which allows me to build decent decks and win with them. In
reality I make and play with decks that reflect my current mood, or that
explore some card combination or role-playing idea that intrigues me, and
if there's any general principle about my decks therefore it's that they
reflect my personality. However, many different pilots wrestle with the
controls in the cerebral cockpit of the Legbiter Mark 1957 as it weaves
its stately way through the skies of life; and so over the next two
newsletters, and largely for the benefit of those new to the game or to
combat decks, I want first of all to introduce some general concepts
about deck-building, and then to apply them more-or-less logically to a
specific problem, namely how to build a !Gangrel deck within certain
constraints, the main one being that it should contain a strong element
of combat.

Personally I always groan inwardly when I come across "game theory" type
articles about Jyhad/VTES on the NG, so here is a health warning for
those who share my instinctive distaste for such things: this IS a
theoretical article, AND it contains the phrase "game theory", though I
hasten to add that I'm not going to use classic game theory at all.

As the more mathematically-minded among you will know, classic Game
Theory was developed by Johnny Von Neumann to deal with the correct
strategy in rock-paper-scissors type games, and has been successfully
applied in the field of evolutionary biology [most notably by John
Maynard Smith] to explain the evolution of apparently-altruistic
behaviour under strict Darwinian Natural Selection [there's a nice
popular account of the basic idea in The Ascent of Man by Jacob
Bronowski, published absolutely aeons ago by the BBC. You can look at my
copy if you come round to my house; or you can read Game Theory and the
Evolution of Fighting by Maynard Smith, chapter 1 in a book called John
Maynard Smith on Evolution published by "Edinburgh", ie the University
Press, in 1972]. It's also used in stock-market computer programs,
arguably less successfully, since one of the big crashes of the 1980s was
blamed on this type of software. In principle Game Theory COULD be
applied to CCGs, because Magic and Jyhad at any rate are at bottom rock-
paper-scissors type games. However, this basic mechanic is rather deeply
buried in CCGs, and I personally am sceptical about whether it's much use
to try this approach rigorously, nor am I aware of it having successfully
been done by anyone else [of course, the co-operate/defect idea IS worth
applying, but that's another topic].

In this article I want to talk about something a bit different from
classical game theory, and my arguments are not going to be quantitative
but qualitative. Basically this article is about why it is so hard to win
multi-player games with combat decks, and what you personally can do to
make it more likely that you will win whilst playing such a deck.
However, some of what I am going to say is relevant to strategies other
than combat, so non-combat junkies may not want to give up reading JUST
yet.

We need to start with some airy generalisations about how to play Jyhad.
As we all know, this game is about resource management. To win, you must
maximise your own resources, and minimise those of your opponents. Some
of these resources are obvious - pool, vampires, your hand and in-play
permanents. Less obvious but absolutely critical to success are actions,
and here I mean not just the Jyhad-sense actions that you take on your
turn, but reactions, modifiers and combat cards too. The more actions [in
this sense] that you can take, the likelier it is that you will win.

Essentially there are six basic strategies in Jyhad: Bloat, Bleed,
Politics, Combat, Intercept and Takeover. Bloat works by increasing your
pool, allowing you to play more vampires. Bleed works directly on
reducing your opponent's pool. Politics is arguably the strongest
strategy because it is the most flexible - there are political cards that
can affect pool, actions, your opponents' vampires and in-play
permanents, and politics can also be used to affect the success of most
of the other strategies. Combat is probably the weakest strategy because
it can only affect one kind of resource, namely your opponents' vampires,
and it does this either by removing them from the scene, or else by
reducing their ability to take actions. Intercept is another weak
strategy because it is reactive - you stop your opponents from doing
stuff, but if that is all you are doing, you are not going to win.
Takeover is not a weak strategy, since it is about purloining your
opponents' resources and using them against those very opponents. It
always surprises me how few players try this - Ventrue decks with
dominate and Setite decks of various stamps aren't by any means the only
possible ways to implement this strategy, and maybe aren't the best,
either. However, this article is mainly about combat, so for the moment
we will leave that on the side.

So the first point I want to make is that a successful combat deck AS
SUCH is a non-starter. You must always have a plan B, because taking down
your opponents' vampires is not, by itself, going to win you the game -
though it should certainly stop THEM winning the game. I should qualify
this remark by saying that in a two- or three-player game a straight
combat deck really OUGHT to win, because it should be possible for you to
beat your opponent in a duel, or opponents in a threesome, simply by
preventing them from winning. It's still true however that you have to
have a second strategy, but it's the simplest possible one of multiple
bleeds for 1 once your opponent[s] is/are lying on the floor groaning or
in the kitchen making the coffee, their vampires all having taken a dirt-
nap. What your second strategy is going to be will depend on your combat
tactics - so for a weenie potence deck it would probably be bleed and/or
bloat, for a bigger [especially Lasombra or Brujah] deck it might be
politics, and Takeover is also worth thinking about if any of your
minions has dominate. And this is really why Combat, Intercept and
Takeover are all intrinsically weaker strategies than Bleed or Politics,
because whereas a Bleed or Politics deck can win the game solely by
implementing its core strategy, all the other strategies MUST have a
back-up plan B, which reduces the focus of the deck.

The second point I want to make is a bit more subtle, and as far as I can
tell it is also original - the ground we've covered so far is pretty much
orthodox stuff as far as the combat chattering classes are concerned
anyway. This second point is that it in principle it is much easier to
win a >3 player game with a combat deck if there is an even number of
players than if there is an odd number. This is because of the knock-on
effect of your combat actions. Suppose you're in a 4-player game and you
knock out one of your prey's vampires. S/he is thereby weakened, and this
strengthens your grand-prey, who in turn puts more pressure on your
predator, who is therefore less likely to hurt you. Thus, your action has
a beneficial knock-on effect, in addition to its beneficial direct
effect. Now suppose you do the same thing in a 5-player game. Your prey
is weakened, strengthening your grand-prey, weakening your grand-predator
and thereby strengthening your predator, which is NOT good for you! And
it's no good you jumping on your grand-prey, because this will just
ensure that your prey wins the game outright; nor alternating between
jumping on your predator and prey, because by exactly the reverse of the
above cause-and-effect argument, this will indirectly strengthen your
prey or predator. In fact, in a game with an odd number of players that's
greater than 3, your best bet as a combat deck will often be to
concentrate ENTIRELY on your sequential predators, with the aim of
knocking them all down one-by-one and winning by having 2 VPs to everyone
else's maximum of one. This is a very flimsy strategy, unfortunately,
since firstly the slightest miscalculation on your part is going to give
someone else two VPs, and then your best possible outcome is a draw: and
secondly, at least the first of your new predators is going to be
stronger than your old one was.

Now the above discussion assumes that every other deck/player on the
table is equal, and this assumption, as we all know, is actually almost
always false. And this is where things start to get complicated, and
interesting. As far as the combat player is concerned, there are two
useful ways in which the decks at the table can be heterogeneous: the
first is when there is another combat deck, or decks, at the table: and
the second is when there is another very strong player at the table,
together with several weaker ones.
If there's another combat deck at the table the ideal situation is that
they are your grand-predator, and in any event not your prey. In that
case, and especially if you can co-ordinate your attacks according to the
above discussion of table dynamics, one of you really ought to win. That
sounds pretentious and complicated but it really isn't, as an example
will show. Suppose the other combat deck is your grand-predator in a
five-player game. Then the right strategy will usually be for each of you
to concentrate on bashing your prey [perhaps helping your predator a bit
if you are the one with the other combat deck as grand-predator], which
should result in the game whittling down to three roughly-equal players
of which two are combat. Then we're talking about a three-player game,
and you ought to be able to manage that. If the other combat player is
your prey you will benefit because indirectly your predator will be
weakened by your prey's activities, so you probably ought to go for your
prey, combat deck though s/he be.

If there is another very strong player-deck combination at the table [all
these things are relative, of course], then you may have to mount cross-
table attacks against them. This is a principle which is best outlined in
Musashi's Book of Five Rings, a manual of samurai warfare which has
lately found favour as a guide to success in business. One of the things
that Musashi says, the relevant one as far as this discussion is
concerned, is that when you are fighting several opponents at once you
should always try to kill the strongest one [literally, the guy with the
biggest sword] first. Of course it's true that in a sword-fight killing
one opponent does not automatically strengthen another, as is the case in
Jyhad, and so this tactic may appear to be flawed: but this would be to
forget the social nature of Jyhad, where intimidation can be a most
effective tactic, especially against less-experienced opposition. I'm
not, incidentally, advocating bullying here - just making the point that
if you brutalise excellent player A's vampires, then the other players
are going to be more cautious, even irrationally so, about hurting you,
unless they are VERY experienced.

These points about in-game tactics feed back into the consideration of
how you should build your deck, since you do not usually know in advance
how many other players there are going to be, nor the order in which they
will play, nor what other kinds of decks will be on show. Perhaps the
most important idea is that your deck should be able to cope under the
worst possible scenario, which is that you are the only combat deck at a
five-player table: especially because if you play combat decks in
tournaments, this is what is usually going to happen in the final [people
play their best decks in tournaments, not their funnest decks, and that's
why you will mainly meet bleed and politics decks]. Your deck is
therefore going to have to be able to shut down your predator, and to be
strengthened thereby, so as to be able to deal with each subsequent
predator as they come up. This probably means that your plan for the
first few turns should include getting combat-enhancing permanents into
play, which will usually mean a lot of vampires and/or ways of
reactivating sleepy ones, and might include weapons, certain master cards
[especially depravity, the Art of Pain and cards that give you
intercept], various retainers or maybe political cards. If you have
politics or dominate then diablerising [but only if they are juicy or
tooled-up] or grave-robbing your torpid victims will almost certainly be
a good idea [rarely indeed, in my opinion, will a successful combat deck
aim to actually burn its opponents in combat]; and whatever you are doing
you should aim to establish a reliable supply from your vampires back to
your pool - Rack, Palatial Estate or Hunting Ground, in each case with
several Blood Dolls, being probably the best options. In going for the
long-game like this you are going to have to be careful not to run out of
library cards - easy to do with a potence-combat deck in a five-player
game.

Finally in this theoretical article I need to mention the one card that
EVERY combat deck MUST HAVE: namely, Life Boon. You need this card
because it can always happen that your beautiful plan goes wrong: you're
the only combat deck at a five-player table, you've been following Wise
Old Uncle Legbiter's Manual of How to do Combat Properly to the letter,
and still you are teetering on the verge of destruction by the time your
grand-predator ousts your predator. Well, if it's one of the qualifying
heats, you can still use Life Boon to pick up a VP which may be the one
that gets you into the final, and even if it's the final, that VP will
preserve your player-ranking intact, near enough.

****************************************************

Alright, I think that's quite enough rational thought for one month. Next
month we will see how to apply these ideas in practice to design a
!Gangrel combat deck, at least those of us who don't drown douking for
apples or choke on the treacle scones during Samhain. Until then, may the
Antediluvians sleep soundly, and let the anarchs of your domain fight
amongst themselves.