My first game in the Wizards of the Coast internal Blood War limited league was a crushing rout … but I get ahead of myself.
The league was set up as follows --
The figures I landed in two boosters were middling --
Githyanki Dragon Knight (98 pts)
-- a nice top end, OK middle, disappointing fodder.
Out of those, here's what I chose to run with --
Githyanki Dragon Knight (98 pts)
Normally, I prefer warbands that favor a kick-in-the-door-and-chop-'em-down style of play. Finesse is not my thing. But this band looked interesting, and limited play is a great time to try new things.
In this first contest, my opponent was Steven Montano. Steven and I have faced each other over the battlemat quite a few times, and I'd say we're pretty evenly matched.
Steven: Indeed. Steve walloped me good in the Underdark league, but I got lucky and took some revenge during the Wardrums league. Our games are always a lot of fun, vastly amusing, and just a bit demented.
Here's what he brought to the table --
Fire Giant Forgepriest (84 pts)
As we were adjusting into our chairs and reviewing each other's warbands, Steven mentioned several times how he considered this to be a "fun" warband rather than a really competitive force. And I believed him … more fool me.
Steven: To be fair, I still consider this a "fun" band, mainly because so much of its competitive viability depends on winning map initiative and being able to land the Ice Devil's ice storm spell early in the match. I'm normally not comfortable running so few activations, even in Sealed play. After the original version of my Sealed band -- which utilized a Maug, an Orc Wizard, and a second Greenspawn Sneak in place of the Ice Devil -- got thoroughly decimated by Mike Dunlap's Marilith + Ice Devil squad, I thought I'd give old Icey a try just for kicks. He and Yellow-Beard make a fairly frightening combination, although making optimal use of both pieces in the same band calls for more finesse than I'd originally thought. One thing I do like about this low ctivation band is that it gives me lines, bursts, and a cone -- the whole gamut of Area of Effect attacks that can make maneuvering for your opponent such a world of fun. Despite what Steve says, I really didn't expect this combo to perform that well, as the one victory that I gained with it previously had been the result of incredibly lucky dice and little else. But sometimes -- such as in this case -- I'm happy to be proved wrong.
Map selection went to Steven, so we were on The Keep of Fallen Kings. As much as I want to like this map, I've never found 'the key' to doing well on it. In this game, I would pay sorely for my unfamiliarity with the map.
Knowing that the Ice Devil has that devastating ice storm spell, my chief concern was finding setup spots that could shield my warband from a first-phase hammering. The Githyanki Dragon Knight was particularly vulnerable, because he's large and he takes double damage from cold. Without thoroughly checking the lines of sight ("finesse is not my thing," remember?), I chose start area A and concentrated in the corner furthest from the exit squares.
Thankfully, I won initiative on the first round. That allowed me to cast protection from energy (cold, obviously) on the Githyanki Dragon Knight and move the Dragonmark Heir to a safe spot. Then, thinking I was clever, I moved a Fiendish Snake well out front to act as closest target against the Ice Devil's storm -- just in case.
This was the point at which I learned that a) Steven knew something that I did not, which was b) there is no safe setup space on The Keep of Fallen Kings. Steven: Actually, there are safe zones, but they are few and far between. I'm honestly surprised that I don't see this map used more often, for that very reason. The Ice Devil maneuvered a bit from its start area opposite mine, to a carefully chosen spot where it couldn't see my Fiendish Snake (drat!), and then lashed my start area with its ice storm. One Fiendish Snake died instantly; the Soulknife Infiltrator and Red Hand War Sorcerer each dropped 20 hit points; and the Sorcerer routed. Ouch. And that was only his first activation.
The rest of round 1, as usual, involved pieces jockeying for advantageous position going into round 2. The Dragon Knight stomped Steven's Greenspawn Sneak to prevent it from claiming victory area points, establishing a trend for the match. That, and my Red Hand commander routed again, stopping three spaces short of the exit.
Steven: The Red Hand's failed Morale Check and subsequent failure to rally were just plain bad luck on Steve's part. Based on how I normally roll, I am convinced that being named "Steve" ensures that you will have miserable dice during at least 37.5% of your games. I have searched and searched for some magical ceremony that will enable me to escape this horrid curse, but salvation continues to elude me.
Steven won initiative. His Ice Devil swooped over and finished off my War Sorcerer with a cone of cold. Steven: It felt like a cheap shot, but I really wanted that sorcerer off the board. It was sort of like using a flamethrower to kill a cockroach. And a fleeing cockroach, at that. My Dragon Knight swooped out, chopped at the Fire Giant -- missed -- and swooped back to a safe distance. The Fire Giant then killed my remaining Fiendish Snake to prevent me from claiming any victory area points. Steven: With a gratuitous critical hit, no less.
The initiative swung back to me. As in round 2, the Dragon Knight swooped up to the Fire Giant, chopped -- missed -- and withdrew to a safe distance. Things perked up slightly when the Soulknife Infiltrator, at least, connected against the Giant with a ranged sneak attack. It wasn't much, but so far, it was the high point of my game.
By the end of the round, the Fire Giant had based the Githyanki Dragon Knight, the Ice Devil and Red Hand War Sorcerer had combined to inflict 35 points of damage on the Dragon Knight, and the Soulknife Infiltrator was wondering how he got saddled with such pathetic teammates. Only the Dragonmark Heir managed to inflict any return damage, with a melee sneak attack against the Giant.
Steven: My goal at that point in the match was to block the Dragonmark off from Big Red. As much as I didn't want to suffer the indignity of Sneak Attacks from both her and the Soulknife, it was more important to me to prevent the Dragon from benefiting from an adjacent bodyguard. Anyone who's ever lost to a "Korducopia" band knows how frustrating that can be.
Steven took initiative. His Fire Giant killed the Soulknife Infiltrator with its first attack and routed the Dragonmark Heir with its cleave. Steven: Another natural 20 wasted. It was getting a little silly. Because of the map position, the Dragonmark Heir had to rout directly past the Ice Devil. Needless to say, she didn't make it.
The Giant's second attack bounced off the Dragon Knight, but the Ice Devil's didn't. The fact that I made successful saves against the Ice Devil's slow effect (negated) and the Red Hand Sorcerer's lightning bolt (cutting it to 10 points of damage) were but dimly-seen points of light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. The Fire Giant, however, was low enough in hit points that, if the Dragon Knight connected twice, the Giant might fail a morale check. It was a slim chance, but straws were all I had left to clutch at. I wasn't terribly surprised, or even annoyed, when the Knight hit only once. The writing was, as they say, already on the wall.
Steven: At this point in the match, I did find it morbidly amusing that neither of us had been keeping score. When I asked Steve what said score was, he merely assured me that I was "way ahead."
Initiative mine. With nothing better to do, the Dragon Knight attacked twice and hit once. It was becoming a habit.
That one hit, however, was enough to force a morale check on the Fire Giant, and it routed! That would at least buy me a one-round respite, even if the darned thing did rout practically adjacent to its commander and rallied immediately.
Steven: In my first match -- the afore-mentioned thrashing that I received from Mike Dunlap of Direct Sales -- the Fire Giant failed his +13 Morale Check and his +13 Rally attempt. Mike's Ice Devil, however, made its +11 Morale Check, just as his Doomguard made her +7 Morale Check. Sometimes, life just isn't fair.
Sadly, this time I muffed the saving throw against the Ice Devil's Slow effect. Steven: Another bit of lousy luck. He only needed to roll a 4. With only a 50/50 performance by the Dragon Knight so far, that boded ill for the coming round.
But it didn't matter, because the Dragon Knight never got a chance to make its slowed attack. Steven won initiative. The Ice Devil slapped the Dragon Knight, who failed his morale check, ending the game. Steven: This time, Big Red did roll a 4, but he needed a 7. I don't deserve nearly as much credit for this win as Steve's D20 does.
In the after-game reward phase, Steven pulled a Gnoll Barbarian and I scored a second Free League Ranger. Neither of them is likely to see much use in this league but, as Steven observed, it was better than getting a third Soldier of Bytopia ....
I'd like to say, "it was closer than it sounds," but it wasn't. Initiative split right down the middle, with no occasions where the outcome was crucial to the game. Much of it came down to damage -- Steven spiked me for 230 points, and I pinched him for 90 -- which killed only the lowly Greenspawn Sneak. Certainly my lousy results with the Githyanki Dragon Knight contributed to this awful showing. It scored three hits and inflicted a grand total of 50 points of damage in the whole game, with the Soulknife Infiltrator and Dragonmark Heir each contributing 20 points from single hits. Yes, that's five hits in a six-round game.
With hindsight, I can also see that I made two crucial mistakes. First, once the Dragon Knight was immune to cold, it should have led the charge toward the Ice Devil, not some lowly Fiendish Snake that Steven was able to sidestep anyway. Steven: That would have been an excellent move. Until I read this article, I hadn't even considered that he might do that. Second, the Dragon Knight should have made much better use of its Flight/Mounted Melee Attack combo. With it, I could have demolished Steven's Red Hand War Sorcerer, then played cat-and-mouse with my speed and flight. I hate giving up attacks of opportunity, but this was a situation where it was warranted. Steven: That was my biggest fear going into this match, and it was precisely why I based the Githyanki Dragon with both of my big hitters as quickly as possible. I had to give it some incentive not to fly away. Otherwise, the Red Hand was doomed.
Knowing how I lost isn't very instructive without understanding why I lost.
Neither the bad rolls nor the poor in-game decisions cost me the game -- not really. In the end (or the beginning), it all came down to preparation.
Steven made an excellent choice in The Keep of Fallen Kings map, and he prepared thoroughly by scouting all the possible lines of sight that his Ice Devil could exploit on the first round. He had a spot of luck in gaining map initiative, but winning usually involves making the most of whatever opportunities you're presented -- and even more, of being prepared to make the most of those opportunities.
I picked my warband hastily (based on advice from the forum -- thanks a lot, fellas) and then spent exactly zero time thinking about how to get the most from it. I sat down to the game without a plan or even a clear idea of what my pieces could do together. Steven was exactly the opposite -- which is to say, ready to win. With that advantage, he won a resounding victory in a game that should have been close but wasn't.
Steven: I'm sure it also helps that I'm a completely obsessive player, and that when I'm not playing D&D Minis I'm planning out battles in my head. Yes, I need help.
Which demonstrates solidly that the metagame is frequently every bit as important as the battle itself.
About the Authors
Steve Winter likes to think of himself as an accomplished gamer cursed by evil luck. Unfortunately, sometimes the dice don't desert him, and his true paucity of skill is revealed. In those instances, he claims to have a migraine. Steven Montano describes himself as "financial geek at large, occasional freelance writer, also known by the unlikely nickname 'Daezarkian' while online … which is where he usually is."
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