My Unfriendly Fires
SWTCG Deck - Part 1
"A card game that uses dice? No thanks; I have bad enough luck as it is. I prefer more skill-based games, like Magic: The Gathering."
This was my misguided first reaction to the Star Wars Trading Card Game. My friend, David Hsu, had acquired some cards, learned how to play, and was eager to find someone to play with. I was far from an easy sell. If you'd have told me then that in a few months I'd be the first Star Wars TCG Champion, I'd have probably laughed at you. I was very hesitant to play a game that, on the surface, appeared to have a very large random element. As I said, I have horrible luck when it comes to games, and if being good at this one means rolling dice well, I've lost before I've even started.
I'll admit I was curious since it was Star Wars, but the clincher came when my girlfriend, Laurie, expressed an interest in the game, even if it was mostly for its collectible value at first. I had been looking for a game we could enjoy playing together for quite some time. I tried to get her interested in Magic, a game I have enjoyed for years. Sadly, she was about as interested in Magic as I was in playing Uno, her favorite game. The Star Wars TCG appeared to be a good compromise so, despite me reservations, I decided to take the plunge.
I bought Light Side and Dark Side starter decks so we could get a basic idea of how the game worked, and as I acquired more playable singles, I added them to the decks. Laurie played Light Side, I played Dark Side. How that came to be, I don't know. Guys are just drawn to the Dark Side I guess *evil grin*. It was apparent early on that Light Side had an edge on Dark Side, a feature Laurie rather enjoyed. Nexu coupled with cost-efficient, high damage-output units, along with the absolutely devastating Darth Tyranus (A) seemed to slant things in Dark Side's favor in the character arena. Space and ground, however, were all Light Side. The Bravo N-1 and Jedi Starfighter beautifully complimented the Naboo Starfighter Squadron to form a devastating "weenie rush". On the ground, the two AT-TE Walkers (23X and 71E) along with the insanely efficient Elite Jedi Squad were just too much for the Dark Side and it's good, but not great, droids. We felt our decks were very good, and if we played with Light Side bid down to a starting build of 28, the games became amazingly close.
Playing a game is one thing, wanting to compete at it is another. From the moment I started playing the game, I knew I would ultimately start playing in tournaments. I've been playing Magic competitively for around seven years, so the step was just natural. Laurie wanted nothing to do with tourneys, so I was able to use her Light Side deck to compete! Fortunately for myself and all other players looking for some competition, Wizards of the Coast set up the Jedi Nights program, which allowed local stores to run tournaments every week with special foil promo cards as the prizes. David and I finalized our decks and started attending tourneys. Our decks were good, but it looked like my fears were confirmed: my horrible luck was losing me game after game. David, on the other hand, seemed to be doing quite well, and he managed to win a few of the first tourneys with a deck identical to mine. The tourneys David didn't win were won by a guy I didn't really know at the time, Steve Smith. I started getting frustrated with the game, but after finally winning one of the Jedi Nights tourneys, and knowing a new set named, Sith Rising was coming out, kept me playing… at least until I got the chance to see if the new set was any good.
Good? "Good" doesn't begin to describe Sith Rising. Not only did this set give us the infinitely cool Darth Maul and Mace Windu, but it also added a huge skill factor to the game. Before Sith Rising you could outplay your opponent, but still ultimately lose the game if you didn't roll well. After Sith Rising if you outplayed your opponent, you won, with very few exceptions. Not that's the feature I was looking for. If I was on the fence about playing this game long-term before, Sith Rising Force-pushed me over the edge.
We had been content to play the local Jedi Nights tournaments, but then Wizards announced the first Star Wars TCG Championship event to be held at Gen Con 2002. The list of prizes to be awarded to the winners was staggering. A trip to Australia? A 32" HDTV? Wizards was clearly serious about this game. We had already planned on attending Gen Con to work a friend's booth, but now our mission was clear. We wanted to win the Championship. Our deck-building and testing reached a frantic pace. We began reading the Star Wars TCG message boards on the Rebel Basers website every day, looking to share strategy and glean some key insight into what sort of decks to expect people to be playing.
David and I tried several different builds of the various Light Side and Dark Side decks. Since both David and I are Computer Science students, we wrote programs to analyze the various units available and simulate various combat scenarios. Our decks were pretty good, but we knew that if we were going to win, we were going to have to find a deck that was ahead of the curve. One afternoon David called me, thinking he had found the deck we were looking for. It was a combo deck involving Darth Sidious (B). Basically the deck was designed to get out a Sidious (B) every game during the setup phase, accompanied by one or more of the most expensive character units in the game. The deck would then sacrifice the expensive characters using Sidious (B)’s special ability, generating a load of build points which were used to drop a large ground or space unit, depending on where the opponent was weakest. I absolutely loved the idea!
We immediately put our heads together and built what we felt was the best version of this combo deck. It looked so good on paper that we dismissed early failures in testing as merely bad luck. We weren’t completely blinded by our desire for the deck to be good, though. We decided that in order to prevent us from falling into the trap of only testing against our own decks, thus skewing our perception of the metagame, we should find someone else to team up with. We wanted someone who was as good a technical player as we were, and someone who could give meaningful criticism to our decks.
It turns out our guy was Steve Smith, the guy who seemed to win all the Jedi Nights tournaments that David didn't win. Steve accepted our offer to team up immediately. He was very interested in hearing about our combo deck, but after putting it together and testing it some, he dropped on us what we had been to stubborn to admit: the deck was cute, but not very good. If Sidious (B) (or Sidious (A) coupled with Splinter The Republic) didn't show up during setup, or if the opponent attempted to contest the character arena, the deck had a hard time winning. We reluctantly went back to our old build of the Dark Side deck, which basically consisted of the cards that we felt were most efficient for the cost. All three of us had slightly different builds of the decks, but they were close enough.
The week of Gen Con arrived and we decided it would be a good idea to have one last practice session before we all flew out to Milwaukee. That practice session, it turned out, would change everything.
After playing a couple of games, I started spreading my decks out on the floor, and told David and Steve that I thought they should do the same, and defend why their decks were different. I thought that if someone could make a good argument for why his build was better, I'd change mine to match. It was my hope that if we scrutinized our decks closely enough, we may be able to find something we'd been missing. They humored me.
The first thing we discussed was Dark Side. David and I had been playing a little card called Unfriendly Fire. If you haven't seen it, it costs seven Force and allows you to deal two damage to every unit in one arena. We knew it was good, but our decks weren't specifically designed to take advantage of it. Steve was playing Unfriendly Fire too, but not four of them. He was, instead, focusing more on Force denial with the card Maul's Strategy, an aspect of Dark Side that David and I were not dabbling in at all. Finally it hit us, if you combined Unfriendly Fire with Maul's Strategy you got a savage combo that could allow you to play the arena-clearing card on the first turn, while leaving your opponent with only one Force, and almost totally helpless!
With winning the game via Unfriendly Fire as our goal, we proceeded to tune our decks to that end. Fast space units like the Droid Starfighter DFS-1VR were added. The Geonosian Fighter was replaced with the Geonosian Defense Fighter, which was able to survive to hold down the arena after an Unfriendly Fire. Where we were previously only running the (A) and (C) versions of Darth Maul, we now added in the inferior (B) and (D) versions, just to maximize the possibility of a devastating three-point force drain on the first turn. After some good debate over the various units, and contributions from everyone, we arrived at a final build for our Dark Side deck. The list is as follows:
After almost giving up on finding an "ahead of the curve" deck, it looked as though we had found exactly that. We were almost certain that no was playing anything similar to this, and we were excited about unleashing it on a (hopefully) unsuspecting crowd. With our Dark Side deck decided upon, we moved on to Light Side. We knew people generally assumed that Light Side was advantaged, and would bid moderately aggressive to get to play it. As such, we weren't as concerned with finding something outrageously different as what we had designed in our Dark Side deck. We just wanted something solid to fall back on should someone decide they didn't want to go another round versus our Dark Side deck.
One thing we saw as a potential problem was Force denial, which we had now come to respect and fear. Steve swore by Seek the Council's Wisdom as a solution to this problem, and we took him at his word. The deck shaped up as a typical, if not somewhat controllish Jedi-themed deck. We played a few games with our new Dark Side deck and something became clear: if someone else figured out the power of Unfriendly Fire, our Light Side deck would be ill-equipped to deal with it in the space arena. We scrapped the powerful-but-fragile Bravo N-1's and added four Senatorial Cruisers. This seemed good, but what we really wanted was something that had the feel of the Trade Federation Control Core, only in space. I picked up a stack of random commons, and started thumbing through. When I came across the Acclamator-Class Assault Ship, I did a double take. How had we missed this? I tossed the card on the floor in front of David and Steve and said, "Hey look, it's huge! It's like a bus!" Our choice was made, and the Acclamator had a new nickname. We immediately cut two of the Senatorial Cruisers for two "busses". We now had what would become the final version of our Light Side deck, with the list as follows:
The addition of the bigger units in space gave our Light Side deck the beef it needed to survive against any opposing Dark Side deck looking to wreck an arena with Unfriendly Fire. Our decks were now almost evenly matched. We were comfortable with them, and we were ready for the Championships at Gen Con!
We showed up bright and early at the tournament site, nervous with anticipation as we filled out our deck lists. We chatted with some people we had known only through our communications on the internet message boards. One group of guys we were especially concerned about was Nikolaus Vincent (aka PhoenixMaster on the message boards) and his team. They were clearly good players, as was evidenced by some of the strategies and decklists they had posted, and they were definitely very confident. The tournament organizer announced that there would be seven rounds of competition, with the eight players with the best records at the conclusion of the seven rounds playing single-elimination matches to determine the ultimate winner. The pairings for the first round were posted, and we were off!
I wound up playing against a younger opponent in the first round. His Dark Side deck had a Geonosian theme with an emphasis on creatures such as Nexu, Acklay, and Reek. Geonosian Picadors were in the deck to provide the creatures with a power boost. Unfortunately for him, the deck just didn't have the quality cards necessary to take on our Light Side deck, and I was able to win the match handily. Despite his loss, my opponent was very friendly through the match and it was a pleasure playing against him. I checked up with David and Steve and both of them had also won their matches. Definitely the start we wanted.
When the round two pairings went up, the worst possible scenario occurred. I was paired against David. Fantastic. Did I mention that my luck is less-than-good? We had played this matchup several times now, and knew it could go either way if neither of us made any mistakes. While it looked like I was poised to win game one, David made a beautiful comeback to take the game. Game two was all David and I was soundly beaten. The good news: David had a 2-0 record. The bad news: I was 1-1 and probably couldn't afford another loss. I knew what I had to do, even if I wasn't very confident of my ability to do it. I had to win my next four matches in order to intentionally draw with my seventh round opponent and make the top eight.
I took it one game at a time, playing very cautiously to avoid any errors. The power of our decks was shown game after game as Maul's Strategies crippled opposing Jedi, and Unfriendly Fire rained down on heavily damaged opposing units. From our Light Side deck, the Seek the Council's Wisdoms did precisely as Steve had claimed. Force denial was almost useless against us. In space, our opponents found the bus to be more than a small problem. Even that sneaky Sidious (B), from our ill-fated combo deck that we loved so much that we kept a single copy in our Dark Side deck, made a big-time showing in round five. He allowed me to sacrifice a Darth Tyranus (A) from an otherwise-uncontested character arena to gain nine build points, which, in turn, allowed me to drop the gargantuan Trade Federation Control Core. Needless to say, my opponent didn't have the tools necessary to recover from that in time.
Before I know it, I'm 5-1. If my opponent in the next round is willing to intentionally draw with me, I'm mathematically guaranteed to make the top eight. David is 5-0-1 at this point, having intentionally drawn with Nikolaus Vincent in the previous round and intending to do the same in the next round. Steve, sadly, was 4-2 with a long shot chance at making top eight should he win the next round.
My opponent in the seventh round was John Miller, and he accepted my offer of an intentional draw. David's opponent also accepted the intentional draw, and we were both locked in for top eight! We went to cheer Steve on in his final match. Although he played well and won the match to wind up with a 5-2 record, he just barely missed top eight, finishing in ninth.
Top eight brackets were posted. Nikolaus was first seed, David was second. Both were undefeated at this point. I managed to sneak the last available slot as eighth seed. The good news: I was guaranteed at least a Game Boy Advance even if I lost. The bad news: this means I have to play against Nikolaus "PhoenixMaster" Vincent, in the quarterfinals. At this point, I make phone calls to both Laurie and my parents. Around ten hours of competition can really be draining, and it was great to hear their voices wishing me luck. After filling out some forms and having our pictures taken in front of a huge picture of the Coruscant skyline, the quarterfinals were underway.
Nikolaus, for all his good-natured boasting on the message boards, was as friendly an opponent as one could ever ask for. Our games were very close, with a team of Jedi taking control and swinging the first game in my favor, and a timely Unfriendly Fire crippling his forces in the second. The match won, I rushed over to watch David as he defeated his quarterfinal opponent. Our little team from Atlanta had now officially put two players in the final four.
My opponent in the semifinals was David Inderstrodt. He was playing a pair of decks that we hadn't prepared much for, but had slowly discovered over the course of the day. Basically he relies on huge, arena-dominating units that he backs up with loads of damage prevention and healing effects. This turned out to be a very effective strategy that had served David and others well on the day. After I took the first game, we fought a long and very careful battle in the second game with both of us trying to establish dominance in space. His hulking Dark Side bombard ships were finally overwhelmed in a battle of attrition with my numerous swarming Jedi Starfighters. I was going to the finals. I was shocked that I had come this far after such an upsetting start.
I ran over to see how my teammate was doing in his semifinal match. David was beginning game three, with the winner of this single game advancing to face me in the finals. David, Steve, and myself had all agreed that should two of us face each other in the finals, the winner would take the loser to Australia with him. Otherwise, if one of us won against someone else, he would take his girlfriend. A lot was riding on this game for both David and myself as him winning would guarantee both of us a trip to Australia. As fate would have it, however, David's opponent, John Miller, managed to pull out the win in one of the closest games I have ever seen. So it was John and myself in the finals. David couldn't complain too much though, as the prize package for third and fourth place was absolutely incredible, including a 32" television, a Playstation 2, and much more.
It all boiled down to this. The finals. One match. Best two out of three games. I had always thought that, if put in the position of playing in the finals, I would be an absolute nervous wreck. For some reason that I can't explain, it just wasn't the case. I was completely focused. David Eckelberry, member of Star Wars TCG R&D, was on hand to take play-by-play notes of this final match, so for more specifics on the plays made, check with his article. Basically how it went was, in the first game I wound up playing Dark Side and, surprise, and Unfriendly Fire won me the game in fairly short order. The second game, however, was a long one. It again came down to space where I was trying to maintain control with a heavily damaged bus. On the final turn of the game, I was able to reinforce my dying bus by completing and deploying a brand new one. The addition of another huge ship to my fleet was enough to swing the space battle heavily to my favor. Although the game was not technically over, John saw the fight as a lost and extended his hand, conceding the game and match.
I was the winner of the first Star Wars Championship, and I was in complete shock. I called Laurie to tell her that we were going to Australia, and she could hardly believe it either. All the work and preparation our team had put in had paid off. Our team of three put its members in first, third, and ninth place. To those who thought this was a game of luck, think it no more. The Star Wars TCG is a fantastic game that balances good deckbuilding and solid play skill with an exciting interface that makes every game interesting. The thing that blows my mind is, we've only seen the beginning! With A New Hope set for release in early November, everything we thought we knew will be put in question, and the race to build the next killer decks will be on.
Incredibly satisfied with our success, we returned to Atlanta. We decided that our little team needed a name. Unfriendly Fire was certainly a card that won us a lot of games and caught many an opponent off-guard, but it just didn't have the personality that the Acclamator-Class Assault Ship had. We loved that last-minute addition to our deck, so we named ourselves Team Bus. We've since added another member to Team Bus in Bin Chen, an exceptional Magic player in the Atlanta area. Laurie has an outstanding invitation to join the team, but she seems to prefer the simple pleasure of winning more games than she loses against me when we play our regular games for fun.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email me at Krypt0s@yahoo.com. You get bonus points for knowing where the title of my article came from! Until next time, thanks for reading!