One of the thing that my Sunday playgroup (which includes some fantastic people like Ian L. and Brandon H.) likes to do is theorize on how to improve the game. Our lunch breaks afford us the opportunity to think deeply and critically about the state of the game. Because, let’s face it, as much as we all love VTES, the game has problems. And not just balance or card problems – strategies to embrace new players, rescue former players from torpor, and retain current players is a common topic of discussion for us. Indeed, a lot of my ideas regarding on how to run demos and build demo decks have come directly from these conversations. Hell, conversations like these inspired me to start this blog! But one topic that inevitably rears it’s ugly head week after week is Dominate.
You don’t have to look far to see the influence of this discipline. As I’ve previously discussed, every single clan that has Dominate as a clan discipline is counted as a Great Clan (wins more than average). The only exception to this is the Kiasyd bloodline – and while they don’t win more than an average major clan, they win far more often than is average for a bloodline. An an example of the power of Dominate, there were 136 tournaments in 2015, 90 of which were won by clan decks (which I define as >50% of the crypt must belong to a single clan, and there must be two different crypt cards of that clan). 29 of these victories were won by clans with access to Dominate, and another 11 were won by decks that managed to graft Dominate onto a clan that doesn’t usually have access to it (like Stanislava decks). That means that 40/90 clan decks, or a shocking 45% were won by Dominate. No other discipline is represented in such numbers!
The reasons for the ascendency of Dominate are many, but that list is almost certain to include Govern the Unaligned (arguably the best bloating / crypt acceleration action), Conditioning (the strongest bleed modifier in the game), and Deflection (an incredibly strong defense against the default ousting strategy that can even be used by weenies). I think many people would also point to Seduction (one of the few block denial cards in the game), although I suspect that the card wouldn’t be problematic if it weren’t backed up by the heaviest bleeds in the game. Finally, in regions where combat is a popular defensive strategy, Obedience (the best way to avoid combat) is likely to get added to the list. And while none of these cards on their own is likely problematic, the fact that one discipline contains all of them certainly is. But, having identified some of the key problems, the question becomes what to do about it.
One school of thought (to which I’ve often adhered) is that Dominate should be made weaker by having certain cards banned. Which card should be banned likely depends on who you ask, and when you ask the question. But while this strategy is certain to curb the power of Dominate, I think there are a number of very good arguments against it. First, I doubt that we could get anything approaching consensus on the topic of which card should be banned to “balance” the discipline. And second, nobody likes it when cards are banned. Players don’t enjoy being told that cards in their collection can no longer be played. Sometimes banning is the only option (let’s face it, the game includes cards that should never have been printed – I’m looking at you Heart of Nizchetus!), but it’s never one to be exercised lightly.
Banning power cards isn’t the only way to bring balance to the game. Another, far more interesting school of thought is that other disciplines should be empowered so that players aren’t forced to make the difficult choice of playing with Dominate or playing a sub-par deck. This is clearly the direction that the game has been moving in for some time. Cards like Deep Song, Camera Phone, Flurry of Action, Trochomancy, Old Friends, Loss, Revelation of Desire, Ancestor’s Insight, Brutal Influence, and many more have attempted to give additional ousting power to disciplines and clans that previously lacked them. The VEKN design team has continued this trend by designing cards like Suspension of Disbelief and Adhocracy. The efficacy of each of these cards can certainly be argued, but the fact remains that they are attempts to give ousting power to traditionally non-ousting disciplines.
But all of these cards seek to mimic the offensive capabilities of Dominate. None of them attempt to provide a replacement for the potent defense afforded to a deck by Dominate. My own personal pet theory is that the inability to mount a proper defense is what keeps historically unsuccessful clans and strategies out of the game. This concept is supported by the fact that the number one strategy employed by successful clans without Dominate is intercept combat. My recent experiences with the Nosferatu Antitribu provide some anecdotal evidence as well: although the clan has a number of interesting ways to eventually oust, the decks often can’t survive long enough to put their plans into motion. My Nosferatu Antitribu politics deck (which I’ll post after some more playtesting) has swept several tables, but only if my predator is playing a deck that doesn’t provide much forward pressure, or if he’s been pounded into submission by my grand-predator. Any decent forward movement makes my deck fold like a house of cards because the clan has very few defensive options outside the tiny smattering of intercept provided by Animalism. In short, the lack of effective defensive options keeps clans and strategies out of the game.
So how can we provide additional defense to clans without Dominate? Well, one possibility is to give them bleed reduction, maybe even stronger forms of it than are presently available. This idea allows us to keep Dominate and Auspex as the kinds of bleed defense, while also providing traditionally defenseless clans a way to mitigate the damage done by bleeding. This design ethos has found it’s fullest expression in the card Ophidian Gaze, which was an attempt by the VEKN designers to give the Followers of Set some badly needed defense (although I think it would have been much preferable to give them some intercept to allow the clan to utilize their many blocking-dependent cards like Mental Maze, Extortion, and Revelation of Despair). But the largest and most damning problem with bleed reduction is that it slows down the game.
Judging from my local games, the majority of VTES rounds time out with a winner, and a small but significant minority time out with no winner. But you don’t have to take my word for the prevalence of game time out. VTES ONE has a number of articles (like this one) where he collects data from each year’s European Championship (which remains the largest VTES event in the world) and how many games time out. The numbers change somewhat dramatically year to year, but taken together, his data suggests that >40% of games time out, and about a quarter of games have no winner. Those numbers are crazy – how many other games do you play that just arbitrarily stop at some time? This puts VTES side by side with games like Monopoly and Risk that features player elimination and can significantly overstay their welcome. That having been said, I’m not advocating for a quicker game (although I certainly wouldn’t mind…), but rather suggesting that any card or ability that slows down the game any more should be designed with great care and avoided if at all possible. That means that bleed reduction is out.
But bleed reduction is hardly the only defensive mechanism. Another possibility is giving more clans access to intercept (like the poor Brujah). While this idea has some merit, I think many VTES players would agree that casual or sporadic intercept is not sufficient to base a defense on. This leave us with the mighty bleed bounce. Unlike bleed reduction, bleed bounce doesn’t slow down the game at all. It doesn’t inherently reduce the damage being dealt, it simply shifts it to another player. It’s presence also forces players to be much more strategic about their bleeds. A big stealthy bleed is a bad idea first your vampire might get burned by an Archon, but it’s also a bad idea because there is a descent chance that you’ll just end up bleeding your grand-prey, bringing your prey that much closer to their coveted 6 pool and 1 VP.
While bleed bounce is good for the game, it’s exclusivity is not. Providing bleed bounce to clans that don’t presently have access to it would provide then with the defense they need to survive long enough to see their non-traditional ousting strategies prevail. But wait, you might say, everybody has access to bleed bounce in the form of Lost in Translation! Well, let’s take a look at that card:
Lost in Translation
Reaction – 2 blood
Only usable when an ally or younger vampire is bleeding you, after blocks are declined.
Tap this reacting vampire. Choose another Methuselah other than the acting minion’s controller. The acting minion is now bleeding the chosen Methuselah. Only one Lost in Translation may be played each action.
We can immediately see that this card includes a huge number of restrictions. Like inferior Redirection (a seldom used card), it can only be used when a younger vampire or ally is bleeding you. Redirection‘s restriction comes with a one blood discount (as compared to Deflection), and it includes a fairly simply way to circumvent the restriction – acquire superior Dominate. Lost in Translation, on the other hand gives you the same restriction while costing one more blood and providing no way to overcome the restriction (other than playing 11 cap vampires and skill cards?). The blood cost is also an issue – how many cards are there in the game that cost more than 1 blood that actually get played? Oh sure, there are cards that grant long lasting benefits like Ankara Citadel, Heart of the City, and Sensory Deprivation that see regular play, but what about cards that have a one time effect? The only card I can think of is Entombment – a card that instantly sends a vampire to torpor or kills an ally. That’s the what you need to do to convince somebody to spend two blood on a single card. Bounce one bleed with significant restrictions? Yeah, I think I’ll just pack Dominate skill cards and Deflections, thanks.
So what’s the Solution?
Assuming that you are on board with my argument that weak clans are marginalized due to their lack of proper defense, that bleed reduction isn’t a viable strategy because it slows down the game, that intercept isn’t viable because no single intercept card will ever be enough to provide a viable defense (without being totally broken), and that Lost in Translation is a horrible card, then the inescapable conclusion is that we need another discipline-less bleed bounce card. While it should be less powerful than the existing cards (as discipline cards should be better than discipline-less cards), it does need to be strong enough to actually see play, so that it can actually do it’s job. Remember that we want to create a viable alternative to Dominate, not just another wallpaper card. With all that in mind, allow me to present my discipline-less bleed bounce card:
The Folly of Arrogance
Reaction – 1 blood
Requires a ready vampire with capacity 6 or above.
Only usable when you are being bled, after blocks are declined. Tap this reacting vampire. Choose another Methuselah other than the controller of the acting minion. The acting minion is now bleeding that Methuselah.
This card is essentially inferior Deflection, but it trades the requirement of an inferior discipline for a capacity requirement. Deflection is still superior because it carries no capacity restriction (useful for weenies), and it allows vampires with the superior discipline to remain untapped. Redirection requires a superior discipline to achieve the same effect, but it ignores the capacity restriction and saves you a blood. I’d say that it is a bit better than this new card, but the argument could go either way. The true power behind Telepathic Misdirection and My Enemy’s Enemy is their flexibility – being able to play the card for intercept or bounce allows these cards to be useful at all phases the game, and they provide defense against a multitude of actions rather than just bleed. My Enemy’s Enemy trades the inability to pick who the bleed is bounced to for a cost reduction.
Whatever name is ultimately given to this discipline-less bleed bounce card, it meets both of my initial criteria – it is powerful enough to see significant play, but is strictly inferior to most the existing discipline cards, and is no more than on par with the others. Honestly, I think our game will be a lot healthier and non-traditional clans and strategies will flourish because of it’s presence. But let’s say that you don’t want to dive into my somewhat crazy idea quite so far. You want a slightly weaker version of the card. Well, look no further:
Reaction – 1 blood
Requires a ready vampire with capacity 6 or above.
Only usable when you are being bled, after blocks are declined. Tap this reacting vampire. The acting minion gets -1 stealth to a minimum of 0. Choose another Methuselah other than the controller of the acting minion. The acting minion is now bleeding that Methuselah.
This version reduces the stealth of the acting minion, making it easier for the next player to block the bleed if they so choose. This is still a lot more viable than Lost in Translation, and it carries an obvious inferiority as compared to any discipline bounce card. I think this card would also significantly improve our game. Another option to decrease the power of this card is to change the requirement – either changing it to titled vampires only (in which case I suggest we call it The Chain of Command!), or increasing the capacity necessary to play it. But remember that if the card is powered down too much, it will join Lost in Translation as yet another card that failed to fix this very real problem.
So what do you think? Should this card (or one like it) be play tested in the next VEKN set? Would discipline-less bounce help unsuccessful clans? Is there another / better way to solve this problem? Post your thoughts below!
Until next time, may your bleeds only be bounced by discipline-less cards, and your votes always pass,