By the time my third Blood War league game rolled around, I felt that I was finally getting a handle on the Githyanki Dragon Knight. It would be tested severely in this match against Mike Dunlap, a tough competitor. As fate would have it, this turned out to be one of the longest, most closely-fought D&D Miniatures battles I've ever played.
Mike: Steve was my third opponent so far this league. I was still a bit out of practice, having not played any DDM since the internal War Drums league (back in the middle of '06), but having beaten Steven Montano and one other opponent already, I felt confident about facing Steve -- especially after the last time we'd played, when I completely creamed him! Having pulled what everyone claimed was one of the best possible draws for my army, I went into this match pretty secure in my ability to walk away the winner.
I wasn't entirely pleased with The Kings Road as my map. It came with advantages and disadvantages, and I felt that I could do better. For that reason, I switched to Dragondown Grotto. With all those steep slopes, under the right conditions, I could park the Dragon Knight at the top of a slope, swoop across the low ground to attack, and land at the top of the slope again.
Because the slope is bad for anything on foot, I also changed the warband by dropping the Soulknife Infiltrator and both Fiendish Snakes. In their place, I slotted in a Medium Copper Dragon. The Copper Dragon doesn't pack a big wallop, but because it can fly, it would complement the Githyanki Dragon Knight nicely on Dragondown Grotto. Yes, I was placing a lot of faith in getting my map choice.
Mike's warband was similar in some respects to Steven Montano's setup which had schooled me so badly in the first game.
My map gamble paid off when I won map initiative. That was one worry out of the way. I also won setup initiative and mistakenly gave Mike his choice of map end. Fortunately, he chose the end I would have given him, had I been thinking straight. On the right side of the map, I could set up entirely screened from a first-turn ice storm.
Round 1 -- Initiative Steve, first move Mike
The first round saw the usual jockeying for position. I gathered my force behind the deadfall forest. Mike advanced the Ice Devil and Marilith along the bottom of the map, the Skeletal Reaper across the middle, and the Doomguard toward the Greenspawn Sneak in the top victory area. My Dragonmark Heir cast protection from cold on the Githyanki Dragon Knight to make it immune to the Devil's ice storm, which would otherwise do double damage to the red dragon.
And so began the largest part of this particular game -- maneuvering for proper position. This match was 97% about piece placement -- something I'm pretty good at -- but with only one flying piece, I knew I was at a severe disadvantage from the start.
Round 2 -- Initiative Steve, first move Mike
Mike spotted an error in my first round dispositions that allowed him to advance the Ice Devil and hit the Medium Copper Dragon and Red Hand War Sorcerer with its ice storm. Both took 20 points of unavoidable damage, but the War Sorcerer stood his ground (no rout).
On my side, the Dragon Knight did exactly what he's good for -- swooped out of the trees, smacked the Marilith, and then swooped back into cover. The Medium Copper Dragon couldn't swoop like the Githyanki's mount, but it flew to the edge of the deadfall and breathed its Slow breath on the Marilith. It was a long shot -- the Marilith needed to roll only a 5 to avoid the Slow effect -- but it would have been sweeeet to see it lose those six attacks per turn. Happily for Mike, he avoided that humiliation.
At the end of the round, my warband was still concentrated behind the deadfall forest. I didn't see any reason to advance, because Mike was coming to me. The Ice Devil had line of sight to at least one figure, and the Skeletal Reaper had moved into base-to-base contact with the Red Hand War Sorcerer. I could have prevented that, or at least minimized it, with more careful placement, but I just didn't see it coming.
The Reaper, while far from being a good hand-to-hand piece, was doing exactly what I wanted it to. Namely, it was distracting Steve's forces and consuming his attacks while bigger, stronger pieces moved into position. With the Reaper's Undead traits (immunity to critical hits and no chance to rout), it was going to be a distraction for at least another round or two.
Round 3 -- Initiative Steve, first move Mike
This round consisted of a flurry of attacks all around between my warband and Mike's Skeletal Reaper and Ice Devil, which at this point rushed into the fray. It was an attrition round with quite a few hit points lost but no morale checks required. The Marilith was still not in that fray, as it was painstakingly picking its way across and around the terrain after being distracted by the Medium Copper Dragon. The Githyanki Knight relocated to the central victory area after attacking in order to keep out of the Ice Devil's reach.
All this time, however, Mike's Greenspawn Sneak had been sitting unmolested in the victory area at the top of the map, quietly racking up victory points. In a match like this one, where two high-point creatures are involved, I often don't pay attention to assault victory points. There's no way I can lose the game on assault points with the Githyanki Dragon Knight in my warband. For as long as it survives, the match would need to last 10 rounds before assault points matter. If it dies, the match is pretty much over anyway. I've never seen a match go 10 rounds, so I wasn't concerned about those assault points.
My Greenspawn Sneak is there only to accumulate victory points (and because I didn't have a good 6-point alternative in my draw). With its Hide ability and the victory area where I chose to park it, there was no chance of it getting hit anytime soon. I'll happily take 10 free victory points per turn.
Round 4 -- Initiative and first move Steve
We were getting pretty well tangled up at this point, with the Ice Devil and Skeletal Reaper right up in my creatures' faces. That was making me nervous, because it was my hope at the beginning to keep Mike at bay.
All the damage that was exchanged the previous turn would become important now. A lightning bolt from the Red Hand War Sorcerer forced a morale check on the Ice Devil, which it passed.
Here's a point where our different styles of play entered the picture. I'm phobic about attacks of opportunity (but becoming less so). I hate giving someone a free whack at any of my creatures. It's not that I don't see those situations where allowing an AoO is the best move -- I just hate making that move. As a result, I seldom foresee those cases where an opponent can benefit from giving up an AoO, because I simply don't look for them. That's a bad habit.
It bit me here, because Mike pulled back his Ice Devil, risking three attacks of opportunity and taking 15 points of damage from them. The payoff was getting to cast a 30-damage cone of cold over my entire warband (with the exception of the cold-immune GDK), an opportunity that almost never arises. Even if every figure made its save, which was unlikely, he was still guaranteed to hand out 45 points of damage, and more likely 60 or even 75. I might have been less surprised had I even remembered that the Ice Devil had a cone of cold -- that little detail slipped my mind. Important lesson -- pay attention!
The cone killed the Red Hand War Sorcerer outright -- he had only 5 hit points remaining after his tussle with the Skeletal Reaper. The blast also routed my Medium Copper Dragon, which had no difficulty racing off the nearby exit area. The Dragonmark Heir, no longer Fearless without the War Sorcerer, soaked up the damage but made a successful morale check.
This shouldn't have been such a surprising move to Steve. I did the math, and my Ice Devil couldn't stand where it was and hope to survive the round against the combined might of Steve's army. So, instead of only making one attack with a possible one-round Slow effect, I decided to risk all of the AoOs and use the guaranteed damage of the cone of cold. It's possible the Ice Devil could have died right there -- a critical hit from the wrong piece and the Devil would have dropped like a sack of potatoes. The gamble paid off, and I severely diminished Steve's army with my one piece and its 'self destruct' maneuver.
By using her Sidestep, the Heir was able to double-attack the Ice Devil. The first swing was a 20-point critical hit, putting the Ice Devil's life in her hands. Sadly, her weaker second attack missed, meaning the Ice Devil survived the round with 5 hit points remaining.
The Githyanki Dragon Knight, by contrast, was down only 35 hit points, with 90 remaining. The Marilith was still going strong, having taken no damage other than a half-strength acid attack from the Medium Copper Dragon, and it ended the round in base-to-base contact with both the Githyanki Knight and Dragonmark Heir.
All things considered, this was a discouraging round for me. I made a stupid mistake and paid dearly for it. It was one of those times at which it's easy to give up on the game psychologically. If the Ice Devil had fallen, it would have been a different story. A lot was riding on the next initiative.
Round 5 -- Initiative and first move Steve
It was with this initiative check that the whole game started to turn. If I had won initiative this round, I could have caused a lot more damage to Steve's already battered army. Heck, if I had won initiative more than once for the whole game, I could've done more damage to him … .
With the gift of first attack, the Dragonmark Heir managed to kill off the Ice Devil before it could cause any more havoc. The Marilith, however, polished off the Dragonmark Heir.
I had no intention of letting the Githyanki Dragon Knight get tangled up toe-to-toe with the Marilith. Instead, it lifted off, smacked the Doomguard, then flapped away to a safe spot. That was more like it.
On balance, though, the forces were now pretty lopsided. I was down to the Dragon Knight with 90 hit points. Mike had the Marilith, Doomguard, and Greenspawn Sneak. The Githyanki was by no means weak -- another 35 points of damage were needed to force a morale check. With no commander and a 30% chance to fail the save, however, a rout would end the game. The Marilith was a real threat. With Melee Reach 2 and Enhanced Mobility 2, the Githyanki Dragon Knight needed to land at least five spaces away from the Marilith in order to avoid those six attacks per turn. Speed 8 meant that the Marilith had an effective range of 9 spaces in order to make a single attack. It was time to get careful.
Round 6 -- Initiative and first move Steve
With no other figures to distract me or get in the way, I could get down to serious cat-and-mouse with the Githyanki Dragon Knight. This was the point at which Dragondown Grotto really started paying off.
The Dragon Knight crossed the map and killed the Greenspawn Sneak. Not only was it a cheap kill, but I noticed that Mike had collected 60 victory points for just sitting on a rock. Combined with the points he'd won for destroying the rest of my warband, he had 160 victory points -- only 40 short of a win. Six rounds was already an unusually long game. If it didn't end soon, I could lose with the Githyanki Knight still in action!
The Doomguard charged the Knight but missed. And the Marilith parked on the central victory area. Ten more points for Mike. This was getting serious.
With that annoying GDK still in action, I didn't have much choice beyond 'assault points to victory and attack when I can' tactics.
Round 7 -- initiative and first move Mike
We rolled a tie for initiative, but because Mike had a +1 commander and I had none, he won it …
… finally …
… and used it well. The Doomguard put a 20-point critical hit on the Dragon Knight, followed by another 10 from the Marilith. Five more would bring on the dreaded morale check.
Fortunately for me, the Marilith wasn't able to get into base-to-base contact (as it was, it was swinging up at the Dragon from the base of a steep slope). The Doomguard's attack of opportunity missed when the Dragon Knight flapped its wings, and the Dragon landed another 20 points of damage on the Doomguard before retreating to safety at the top of another slope.
Score -- Mike 170, Steve 111.
Round 8 -- initiative and first move Steve
Mike rolled a 1 for initiative this round, which was low enough to let me slither in ahead of him. The Dragon Knight swooped across the Doomguard, killed it, and again retreated to a safe perch. Unable to get close enough to attack, Mike took the next best option. He parked the Marilith on the victory area.
Score -- Mike 180, Steve 137.
Round 9 -- initiative and first move Steve
Mike's luck, which really hadn't been all that good up to this point anyway, finally ran out. Taking the first move, the GDK swooped, hit the Marilith, and triggered a morale check. Mike needed a 10 to pass but rolled an 8. The Marilith couldn't rally or collect any more victory points, so that ended the game.
Losing initiative so often and not being able to hit the broad side of a GDK added up to a loss for me. C'est la guerre.
Score -- Mike 180, Steve 210.
This was the closest, the longest, the tensest, and possibly the best D&D Miniatures match I've ever played. Just consider the endgame possibilities. If Mike had succeeded with his final morale check, the Marilith would have been ensconced on the victory area with 50 hit points left. All I could have done at that point was park the Githyanki Knight next to it, take a second attack, and hope for the best on turn 10. Nothing I did that turn, not even a critical hit, could have destroyed the Marilith on turn 9. The score would have bumped to 190:127.
On turn 10, initiative would be crucial. If I won, and assuming I had hit the Marilith with my second attack on turn 9, I'd have a chance to destroy the Marilith before it could attack. All three of those attacks would need to hit (both on turn 10 plus the second attack on turn 9). But if I lost initiative -- and that was a purely 50/50 proposition -- the Dragon Knight would be exposed to six +15, 10-damage attacks from the Marilith. Mike needed to roll 6+ to land a hit and needed all six hits to destroy the Knight, so that wasn't very likely. Only one hit, however, would trigger a potentially game-ending morale check on my part.
Obviously, this one could have fallen on either side of the blade. It was a nail-biter right down to the end, a top-notch match from just about every perspective. The fact that Mike lost ten out of the game's eleven initiative rolls was a hard blow. I'm of the opinion that lucky initiative rolls sway more games than do lucky critical hits, and I clearly came out on the top of that issue. (Personally, I felt this was the universe paying me back for the many, many times I've been hammered by bad initiative rolls. It's just unfortunate for Mike that he had to be the victim of my recompensation.)
Not to belabor the point, but I can't stress strongly enough what a taut match this was. By the end, my shirt was wet from sweat and my hand shook every time I rolled the die. In my notes, my handwriting deteriorates noticeably as the game progresses! It was a win for me, but I can only congratulate Mike on a tremendous contest.
Steve also has the distinction of being the only person who beat me this time around. I bested Ian, I bested Steven Montano twice (Steven, incidentally, ended up with eight wins and only two losses -- to me), and took on a variety of other folks. If I'd gotten my pick of map or won initiative once more in the mid-game (rounds 3-6), I think I could have taken this one. But it was a well-played match, and Steve has come a long way as a player since totally blowing the job of protecting his commander in our Underdark league match. I look forward to beating … er … 'playing' him again in the future!
About the Author
Mike Dunlap is a member of the Direct Sales department. He's been with Wizards since '99 and is living out his high school dream by working for WotC. A long-time player of D&D, Magic, and many other games, Mike occasionally even finds the time to do some real work around the office. Steve Winter, on the other hand, is not an employee of Wizards of the Coast, yet somehow does the work of three strong men.
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