(Previous entry: The History of Professional Cardfight, May-August 2011)
Released in Japan on August 6th, 2011, VG-BT03: Demonic Lord Invasion was themed around new uses of the soul, introducing the first soul-based superior call mechanics with the Pale Moon clan, and charging up and blasting the soul as ammunition with the now-completed Dark Irregulars. In addition to this, BT03 brought in the concept of ride evolution, with this incarnation of the mechanic using first vanguards that search through a limited number of cards off the top off the top of the deck to find a specific unit to ride. Tying into the soul theme, the final cards of each evolutionary line used their skills by soulcharging at key stages in the evolution and then maintaining a soul of six to activate their skills with. A lesser theme of the set was powering up vanguard and rearguard lanes by meeting specific conditions. Much of what BT03 brought to the game could probably be summarized as "this unit gets +3000 power." This set's cover card is Gwynn the Ripper. Dark Irregulars, Pale Moon and Tachikaze were completed in this set.
|Doreen the Thruster.|
It should also be noted that Stil Vampir is one of those cards that is more than the sum of its skills. The card represents the final work of veteran artist Ashida Toyoo prior to his death on July 23, and so for some cardfighters has taken on a special meaning. Ashida was an important figure as an artist who stood at the forefront of animation when animation in Japan was at a turning point, shifting toward a more mature appeal, having served as the animation director for Space Battleship Yamato from 1974-81, filling the same role for Yatterman in '77 and designing the cast of Cyborg 009 in '79. Ashida died just two weeks before BT03's Japanese release; he never saw Stil Vampir after it was printed.
Between Amon, Stil Vampir and the plethora of powerful rearguards that they received, the Dark Irregulars were easily one of the most cohesive of the non-core clans on release with two very good grade 3s that fed toward an explosive offensive. So why were they not the Soul Saver killer that was projected? First, their trigger lineup on release was one critical, one heal and two stands. When combined with the rampant, random soulcharging of the deck, it was entirely possible to end up playing a game with no critical triggers, and the Irregulars never had even the most basic draw power to come back from a bad hand. Draw power as a whole summarizes the clan's core weakness. The lack of consistent, specific search skills and a general inability to see more cards from the deck acted as a serious restraining bolt on the clan from release, so that games would either be very good or very bad with no middle ground. For some time it was predicted that being able to run four to six draw triggers in the Irregulars would make them into the monster they were initially predicted as, but this never truly fell through. It speaks volumes to how much this lack of draw power held them back that the Irregulars did not make the cut at the regional or team level until 2012.
Robert's megablast was like Vampir's an activate skill, forcing the opponent to move all of their grade 1 and lesser rearguards into their soul. This would instantly put an opponent with a full field behind three cards, potentially turning into a field wipe if they used their front row to intercept, which left them scrambling to fill those emptied circles while also defending Robert's attacks. Pale Moon's play style was consequently a little more tactical than the Irregulars', building up those same strong rearguard lines but instead of creating an above-and-beyond powerful center line, they built up a megablast that would force the opponent to play catch-up in card advantage and then transition into the center focus with Manticore. The clan also had a third strategy to make up for missing out on an equivalent to Gwynn the Ripper, in three more units of grades 1-3 that all shared a skill.
The problems faced by Pale Moon were the opposite of those faced by the Irregulars. While the Dark Irregulars couldn't get enough draw power, Pale Moon had too much of it, introduced with a trigger pool of one heal, two draw and one critical. The situation wasn't nearly as bad as it was for the Irregulars, but what both clans shared were a serious need for a second critical trigger that they were a long time off from seeing.
Tachikaze is where BT03 dropped the ball. Like the Irregulars, they were a clan that had been around since BT01, but where the Irregulars' new cards blew everything short of Blue Dust out of the water, Tachikaze's best units came from BT01 and BT02 with the rest of the deck essentially as filler to make them have a full build of their own, and this would stay true up until April of 2012.
The second grade 3 that BT03 gave them was Raging Dragon Blastsaurus, a 9000-power unit that when moved to the drop zone could have a skill activated where he discarded a Tachikaze to search the deck for another Blastsaurus and call it. He also had a much weaker, 5000-power grade 1 incarnation in Sparksaurus with a similar discard-and-call skill, but the key point to these two is that they couldn't ever be put in the vanguard circle because of their extremely low base power and that they didn't actually counteract the loss in card advantage taken from Deathrex's attack connecting as Skyptero and Dragon Egg could. They did give the deck a more concrete strategy as supporting rearguards than Gigarex did, since Tachikaze cardfighters could use this to constantly thin the deck of nontrigger units while also being able to have a third attack that turn that they could use to attack an opponent's intercept with, as the new Blastsaurus would come out in the stand position.
Unlike the Irregulars or Pale Moon, Tachikaze wasn't really built up to live to any expectations, and you weren't so much running Tachikaze in this era so much as you were running Deathrex with 46 other cards that let you play him. This is the rawest hand that BT03 dealt to any of the clans it supported, and it's made worse by Gigarex having had to contend with Palamedes from the same set.
For all the good it did, Demonic Lord Invasion was the first time that the game was very strongly shifting toward boss cards that did nothing in the rearguard circles. If you consider BT01's design philosophy, most of the bosses like Alfred, Lohengrin, Dragonic Overlord, Amaterasu, Apollon and Mr. Invincible all did something in the rearguard circles that extended beyond what they were capable of in the vanguard line. BT02 retained some of this with Blazing Flare Dragon, Lion Heat and Basskirk, but the reality is that the future of Vanguard lay in cards like Soul Saver Dragon, Seifried and Blockade. Stil Vampir was still part of the old V/R card design and it was perfectly possible to get off his megablast without ever riding him, but the changing design of Vanguard was clearly evident in Amon and Manticore. Palamedes was able to get away with V/R by not being an intended vanguard ride at all but by being an intended rearguard like Alice, and while this splitting of the grade 3s into vanguards and rearguards wasn't necessarily a bad thing, having bosses that could do things in the rearguard made the original Cardfight much more freeform and fun to play. By BT04 there's really only one key grade 3 left that does something in both the vanguard and rearguard circles, and by BT05 they've evaporated entirely; the center lane focus at the point of BT10 has gotten to the point where megablasters can't megablast in the rearguard anymore.
Palamedes was what rounded out the Royal Paladins into a deck with no flaws, something that very few clans can actually attest to. Unlike with the previous three clans, assuming that you could afford all of the cards spread out across the different booster sets, there was really no reason not to play Royal Paladin if you wanted to play it. The intended design was probably that the Royal Paladin offense would be offset by every grade 3 having just 10000 power, but the lack of an 11000 defense was negligible from the perspective of Royal cardfighters in a format where every lane was effectively Deathrex. While it's true that the ever-snowballing numbers game was churning out consistent 20000-power lanes that would not have threatened an 11000 defense, and that those lanes would become even more well proliferated as new sets were released, all of the front row units that were key to these lanes from before BT03 and after BT05 would have a base power of 9000 or less, so even when the opponent had a defensive vanguard that could shrug off Alfred's attacks, the same was not true of their rearguards. The Royal Paladins could match and then surpass the numbers of the Irregulars, Pale Moon and so many decks to come while picking off the key rearguards of those decks and overwhelming their vanguard. I should highlight that even in the face of this, BT03 was a relatively balanced format that saw serious diversity, and that the point being made with Palamedes here is that the need to balance clans by giving them crippling flaws is illusory. Ideally every clan eventually gets developed to the point that they are all decks with no flaws, as this is how decks like Soul Saver Alfred become so attractive to professional cardfighters in the first place. When you looked at a strong Alfred build from this period, the dominating phrase that I recall was there being "nothing wrong with it." There were no overbearing problems that could internally cripple the strategy, and this was similarly true for Oracle Think Tank at this period.
Her skill could only be used if she had six or more Oracle Think Tank in the soul--achieved through riding the previous cards in the series to build up to five and then using units like Psychic Bird, Amaterasu or from the same set Oracle Guardian Red-Eye to get that sixth card in. For 2 counterblast, Tsukuyomi could then draw two cards and put one into the soul, getting an immediate extra card while filtering out less useful ones like draw triggers or other copies of Full Moon. This could be done two to three times per game, and together with the evolving Moon cards that set a possible bar of a +6 throughout, while also providing an alternative strategy if you didn't get the Full Moon by providing a five soul base for Amaterasu to quickly accelerate her own soul into eight with. Tsukuyomi was designed to offset her advantages through her -2000 if you missed one member of the series while also providing a serious setback in that you would have 3 soul the moment that she was ridden, a loss in momentum that was very difficult to come back from. What wouldn't be realized until five months later was that these disadvantages could be outright negated, but this is far ahead of where we are now. At her release, Tsukuyomi was easily the best thing to ever happen to Oracle Think Tank, and I would argue that she remains so. For future generations of cardfighters, Amaterasu could never be played the way that she was in March 2011 again. There was no reason to not run Godhawk through Tsukuyomi's Crescent Moon form after they were released, even if you weren't running the Full Moon, as being able to amass a large base of soul for Amaterasu and potentially get a +3 out of it was too good. It speaks a lot to how much of an upgrade she was that most incarnations of Oracle Think Tank to come would have to have clauses that would specifically rule out the Tsukuyomi line from being used to ensure that she wouldn't be played in those decks.
The Royal Paladins also received their own version of Tsukuyomi's evolving cards in the Galahad line, but with the soulcharge 2 condition being swapped to ride the grade 3 over the grade 2 to prevent using it in normal Alfred decks with Soul Saver Dragon. Galahad's grade 3 skill wasn't especially notable as it had the same six soul conditions with less soul support and only gave him +3000 power with an extra critical. In contrast to Palamedes, Galahad's impact on the game was practically invisible.
|Infinite Phantom Legion reprint.|
Immediately preceding the release of BT03, around the 25th of July, Nova Grappler received a somewhat surprising update in the Joker half deck inside the August issue of KeroKero Ace magazine, which brought them the new grade 3 Genocide Joker. Joker was a base 10000 unit that could counterblast 2 in the main phase to get +4000 power, which was useful as a supporting unit to Kaiser because it could form a consistent 21000 line with Death Army Guy that would completely restand for consecutive high-power attacks. The dominant pro deck of the time didn't have any base 11000 options however, so Death Metal Droid was generally more popular for doing effectively the same thing for a single counterblast and being much more easily available in TD04.
These were all the most notable changes brought on by Demonic Lord Invasion. Following Barcgal's restriction, the Soul Saver deck did not ever entirely die off. The restriction was designed to take place one month after the release of BT03, so most fighters simply converted to the new Galahad evolving cards. With the basic deck already so heavily proliferated, amassing the R and RR grades 0, 1 and 2 cards was fairly simple. This Royal Paladin pastiche was interesting because its existence depended on Barcgal's restriction--it shows fighters of the time overcoming a technical limitation by fusing two disparate strategies. Similar combinations were necessary for Nova Grappler from the beginning, who up through the last half of 2011 and early 2012 were forced to run a "best of" deck drawing from the three existing sets that combined Asura Kaiser, the Death Army units, and in October the Blau series into one all-star strategy. Probably the most disappointing thing about this period is that there was no major tournament between BT03 and BT04, as in many aspects the third booster set was the last time that every clan was introduced with a completely unique identity, while the fourth booster was the beginning of standardization.
Also translated as "Empty Shadow God Eclipse" and "Eclipse of the Hollow Shadow God," VG-BT04: Eclipse of Illusionary Shadows was first made available in Japan on October 29th, 2011. This set was noted for the expanding the concept of evolving cards and building on the soul mechanics of BT03, giving evolution lines to five different clans with a heavy overall focus towards defensive vanguards that gained power for having specific cards in the soul. The set's cover cards are Blaster Dark, Blaster Javelin, Fullbau and Darkside Trumpeter. Megacolony, Dimension Police and Shadow Paladin were completed in this set.
To give some background on the set's development, the completion of Shadow Paladin was the main draw of the set itself. Blaster Dark was shown in a promotional poster before any actual information on BT04 was circulated, the card then debuted in ride 33 of the anime series ahead of the set information, and some key cards like Phantom Blaster Dragon were shown sans their actual skill text in one of Bushiroad's live web broadcasts. Bushiroad's advertising engine had the public absolutely hooked on the Shadow Paladins without ever actually showing what they would do.
Of the clans BT04 supported, only the Shadow Paladins featured on the set's cover could really own evolution as a mechanic. This was their defining feature. Where all of the other clans would go on to abandon BT04's evolution mechanics at their first opportunity, the Shadow Paladins would stick with it for the next two years in part because that was the defining support base for their boss card and in part because they had no other options. Even after they were given a new first vanguard in December 2012, some Shadow Paladin decks would continue to use the grade 1 part of the line for his search skill. Unlike BT03's evolving cards, BT04's operated by adding a specific grade 2 directly from the deck to your hand when you rode a specific grade 1 over the grade 0. The grade 2 would then have a vanguard circle skill to reward you for riding it, that would snowball the advantage from riding the grade 1, and the grade 3 would build on that with a skill that would force the opponent to defend in some way or otherwise destroy their resources. Each member in the line would get a passive power bonus of +1000 or +2000 power for having the previous member in the soul, so that they would have the highest unrestrained possible power for their respective grade. For better consistency, the grade 1 part of the line--in the Shadow Paladins' case, Blaster Javelin--could also discard any grade 3 of the same clan when called to a rearguard circle to search for the evolution line's grade 3 and add it to the hand. This is one aspect of BT04-style evolution that is missed out on in later sets, as later refinements to the model would omit the search aspect in favor of giving the grade 1 a higher base power and a unique skill.
The first Shadow Paladin ever revealed was actually a promo card, Cursed Lancer, who was included in the in the CD release of the anime's second opening, "Believe in My Existence" almost a month before BT04 went on the shelves. Lancer was a copy of Super Electromagnetic Lifeform Storm from the Nova Grapplers, a 9000 power grade 2 that could unflip one damage when his attack hit a vanguard, and established one of the early characteristics of the Shadow Paladins that would be expanded on more thoroughly in the third season; damage unflipping. This card was one part of the mass promotion Bushiroad set up to get the public interested in the Shadow Paladins, but it turned out to be one of the more lackluster ones since there was never much room for Lancer in any of the Shadow Paladin builds. It did spark some heavy speculation at the time as to what ShadowPala would actually do to necessitate using more than five counterblast in a game. During his actual English release, Lancer was packaged with BT04 as an extra Rare, but this created more problems than it solved because while in the Japanese release you were guaranteed one of each Rare with one repeat, Lancer's inclusion alongside Megacolony Battler B in the English edition instead meant that none of the BT04 Rares would repeat in a box and you would be missing one, and the prints of BT04 were biased to not include the Shadow Paladins' core grade 2, driving his secondary market price up to eight times the cost of any other Rare.
|Fighter's Collection 2013 reprint.|
So while it's unlikley that Bushiroad could ever create a card that would live up to what their hype machine had made, they certainly could have done better than making him a dedicated part of an evolution line. All of his skills were vanguard-exclusive. If Blaster Javelin was in the soul, Blaster Dark's power would jump up to 10000, and when he was ridden Dark could counterblast 2 to retire one of the opponent's rearguards. The strong defense was probably his best quality and the only real edge that Dark had over Blade. His on-ride counterblast was lifted straight from Blaster Blade, but being at 2 or more damage at grade 2 was unlikely because it meant either the opponent had gotten a critical trigger or that you were letting rearguard attacks through early on that you should not be. Furthermore, the Shadow Paladins turned out to be an immensely counterblast-heavy clan and there wasn't a whole lot of room to use Dark's skill because it was bettered budgeted for their other grade 2 units. Blaster Dark's evolution line was inconsistent on its own because their first vanguard, Fullbau, would never move out from the soul so the extra one-card advantage could only be gotten from riding Blaster Javelin, which meant that four copies of Javelin were stapled to every Shadow Paladin deck when riding him was only a 46/100 chance. Blaster Dark really ought to have had a rearguard skill in the first place, and it speaks to how uneven the situation was that when the two Blasters were later redesigned to have the same skills in 2013, Blaster Blade's downgrade was Blaster Dark's upgrade.
While BT04 was released in October, all this promotion actually began in late August and went up until the day of release. The clan's boss card, Phantom Blaster Dragon, had been known about from the beginning because he was namedropped in Javelin's skill text, and his Special Parallel alternate artwork created by Itou himself was previewed in promotional images, but his skills remained a mystery until the end of September. The card itself was highly experimental, being the first time that the game really played around with built-in extra critical as a mechanic, and the results worked against the Shadow Paladins.
|Fighter's Collection 2013 reprint.|
This didn't work.
Coming on the heels of BT03's amazing innovations, Phantom Blaster was probably the most disappointing card of the whole set. There were already a lot of expectations riding on his shoulders, but the card would have remained disappointing even if there weren't. The first problem was the counterblast cost, which in a clan that would go on to be very reliant on counterblast 2 and counterblast 1 rearguards, there wasn't much room for. Factoring into this is that any variant on retire or discard are the biggest costs you can pay in Vanguard because you are either removing units that you will then have to put further cards down from the hand to replace, weakening your defense, or you are outright sending that defense to the drop zone. Any skill that requires a main phase retire is actually double its stated cost because of the replacement rearguards you have to put down. So having to counterblast as well as retire was redundant and made the skill immensely overpriced. With retiring rearguards for power as their main theme and counterblast-heavy rearguard skills to support that, the Shadow Paladins really needed to have counterblast-free retire skills, but this is something that they wouldn't get for two years. The second problem was the retire 3 itself, which is too much for ten thousand and a crit. Every other unit printed with this type of skill paid less than drop 3, typically taking a drop 2 loss. Phantom Blaster went with retire 3 chiefly to create a contrast to Soul Saver's empower 3, but the skill was not scaled accordingly.
The third problem was that +10000 power and +1 critical wasn't something anybody was asking for. The skill probably should have been a retire cost to retire the opponent's rearguards, or a self-stand skill, both skills that would go to other grade 3s also in BT04 and that the Shadow Paladins would receive in BT12, but because of how it was designed Phantom Blaster Dragon inevitably ran into a perfect defense card every time that his skill was used. Since perfect defense cards were going to be used anyway at the stage of the game when the extra critical and power would be helpful for overwhelming their hand, the opponent was taking a -2 that they were always going to take while Shadow Paladin cardfighters were throwing a -3 at themselves that they didn't need to pay in the first place. So it was better to not use Phantom Blaster's skill at all and sit on a vanilla 11000 vanguard--this was the first boss card in the history of the game where it was always better to not use his skill when able to do so. Where BT03 answered all of the fans' expectations with things beyond their imagination, BT04 advertised something that wasn't actually very good.
Part of the issue was that the Shadow Paladins were made to be defeated. The various Dark Zone clans, Megacolony and some of the Dragon Empire crowd were certainly antagonistic, but the Shadow Paladins were the ultimate evil of the first season, led by a wicked dragon that wanted to plunge everything into despair, and as a whole they were created with the idea in mind that they couldn't be too powerful because Aichi had to beat Ren and Phantom Blaster Dragon had to lose to Blaster Blade. This design would thankfully not carry over into subsequent years as the developers learned from this, but that didn't help the clan when it was actually being released.
Japanese fans in general were more receptive to this skill than westerners, but the tourney results can stand on their own for how ineffective the Shadow Paladins were. By contrast, Megacolony in this set made much better use of the retire mechanic. They shared the Shadow Paladins' evolving mechanics, here based around the Giraffa cards, but their grade 2 and 3 units were far superior and naturally outlasted both Blaster Dark and the Dragon. Elite Mutant Giraffa had the same stats as Blaster Dark, but when his attack hit he could choose an opponent's rearguard and prevent it from standing at no extra cost. This skill was useful no matter the situation because it would either restrict the opponent's plays or convince them to defend earlier than normal without taking any resources away from the user.
Overall this made for an incredibly consistent deck whose only real issue was that it was still struggling with an enforced trigger pool of 4 Heal 4 Draw 4 Critical and 4 Stand, but even after Megacolony's second critical trigger was introduced in EB01 the clan would remain underhyped and underplayed. In fact, Megacolony is probably the most underplayed clan in the history of pro play considering that it avoided many of the pitfalls of contemporary decks like the Irregulars and Shadow Paladin. Megacolony hasn't ever had the same cool factor as the Paladin decks or Oracle Think Tank, and suffered from a lot of complaining about the stand denial skills being less useful than Kagerou's straight retire, but its results were consistent and Megacolony fans have had less actual flaws to complain about than any clan short of the core 4 throughout Cardfight's history--in spite of having less support than the other clans. Megacolony was designed just about perfectly in that its build was consistent, competitive, and actually felt like you were playing the clan that you had chosen, something that not all clans can attest to.
After the cost was paid, Stern would lose his twin drive, so the skill itself was actually a -1 unlike Laurel, but it shared several of Laurel's strengths because the opponent could never afford to just eat the skill. The chances of Stern checking critical triggers was just too high, and like with Laurel any damage that Stern dealt was multiplied by his stand skill, so that any no-guard was risking four damage instead of two as with any other vanguard. Dancing Wolf also made the second attack stronger than the first, and as with Laurel, Stern required minimal commitment. Even without the bonus of card advantage, Stern still had a devastating effect on the game because of how he ate up the opponent's perfect defense cards at no cost. The overall strategy then became to build up with the Blau series until the opponent had very few cards in play and took an attack that brought them to five damage, then switch over to Asura Kaiser and the Death Army units, as the endgame of the fight when the opponent is at five damage are when stand skills go from annoying to the most dangerous ability in play.
It was in November that the first official international tournament was held, in Australia. The first Australian national championship, Grand Prix 2011, was done using Japanese cards from BT04 and earlier. National champion Zachary Rappold won the tournament using a Stern Blaukluger deck. Even though it was smaller than the tournaments of the future like WCS2012 or the international Team League, this attests to Stern's strengths as a unit and how much of an upgrade he was to the Nova Grapplers.
The disparity in support should be visible by now. These key units of BT04, Giraffa, Storm and Stern Blaukluger were all what Phantom Blaster was really contending with at release. Why counterblast 2 and drop 3 for +10000 power and +1 critical when you could just counterblast 2 to grab the extra crit with a 21000 line that would hit the same perfect defense but not cost you any card advantage in the process? Why counterblast 2 and go -3 to the opponent's -2 with Phantom when you could go 21000 with Giraffa and Stealth Millipede to pressure the opponent into dropping a -2 every turn at no cost to yourself, or otherwise go -2 to -2 trading out bad rearguards to kill the opponent's good ones? Why jump through all these hoops with Phantom when you could take a -1 with Stern Blaukluger and get a third drive check with a vanguard line that's already pushing 21-26000 power and multiplies critical just through playing normally? The problem is exacerbated by every single one of these decks getting better with age, not worse, while halfway through 2013 Phantom Blaster has still not developed into a playable skill.
The main issue was the commitment factor. While it would still be a heavy cost, his retire 3 would be much more playable if it were an autoskill that triggered when attacking the vanguard, because the rearguards could actually be used to attack the opponent beforehand instead of demanding that Shadow Paladin cardfighters lose three rearguards, then call three replacements, and then still be able to defend things like Daiyusha or Stern after all that commitment. In fact, this exact idea would be done two years later in BT11 with Tachikaze's Ancient Dragons. BT04 did a lot of things right, but the Shadow Paladins were not one of them. The professional scene at the time saw primarily Soul Saver, Goku, Tsukuyomi and Stern Blaukluger in senior class play, but even Daiyusha and Giraffa made appearances during the ensuing tournament season while Phantom Blaster Dragon never showed up as his own deck.
Even so, the months closing 2011 were something of a golden age for Cardfight. For the first time, every clan was playing with an even field, with no real top deck or strategy controlling the format. Royal Paladin would eventually continue its train of dominance, but this was nowhere near the level of format control that SSD had previously exerted, and the top brackets were still very closely divided with Oracle Think Tank and Kagerou in an equal position to RoyPala. If anything, the most frustrating part of the period was that the less visible clans were not leaving enough of a tournament impact, as people really wanted the BT03 clans to do well when it was the clans from BT01 and BT04 that were seeing the most play. It is generally believed that any clan could have taken the winter cup, but first we need to dive into how the 2011 Grand Prix began.