To Play, or to Style?
Playstyle is a somewhat popular topic in various cardgaming communities at the moment, so I thought I’d talk just a bit about the idea of playstyles and how they should and shouldn’t affect you. This is more of a general TCG topic than one specific to WS, but I think it’s important to at least think about where WS is, and why playstyle isn’t super-relevant to its competitive scene.
We’re all familiar with the very basic idea of playstyle, but for the sake of discussion, I’m going to define it here in the context of cardgaming.
Playstyle refers to the collective tendencies and preferences a player has in relation to deck and card choice, in-game gameplay choices, and approach to the game in general.
It’s a very touchy topic at times, primarily because you never really bring playstyle up in non-touchy situations. The most common time to talk about them is when someone loses. It’s really not uncommon to hear people say they lost because ‘this deck didn’t suit my playstyle’ or ‘I just don’t like strategies this linear’. These are fairly objectionable excuses, and attract ire and rebuke, as they should. It’s a dumb crutch that people use to overlook mistakes they may have made at any point during their prep.
However, a similarly flawed idea is the extreme of this viewpoint. It’s very common to hear players say ‘there is always an optimal deck and play’. That’s mostly true. The logical conclusion here is that ‘preferences and playstyle aren’t a factor’, because any variation on ‘the optimal play’ is suboptimal, and therefore lowers your chance at winning the tournament. There is little room for personal preference when it comes to making the correct or incorrect play. That’s a fair statement when you need to counter someone blaming their loss on a playstyle disparity. If you take that logic to its own extreme, then playstyles are just a myth, a crutch for lesser players to use when they can’t properly mull over a complex decision.
I’d like to clear something up. Playstyles definitely exist, even in games that lack the MtG triangle of aggro-combo-control. That does not excuse people for using them as a catch-all excuse when they lose, though. Playstyle is a standalone concept, a facet of you as a player. This might be obvious to some, but playstyle relates, first and foremost, to enjoyment of the game. Players become known for specific decks and styles because they play those decks and styles more often. And why do they do that? A variety of reasons, but it all boils down to enjoying the game more that way. The more you enjoy a deck, the more likely you are to think about it, and the more likely you are to want to experiment, playtest and innovate with it.
People have preferences when it comes to playing. This is simply an undeniable fact. Some people are extremely patient and relish the thought of puzzling every game down to core decisions. Others hate to take risks, and attempt to draw the game out until it is as safe as it will possibly be for them. Others still aren’t much for long staring contests, and prefer to play things and slam them down. People are different, and you need to take advantage of your strengths. Successful aggro players tend to be great at calculating risk and instinctively knowing when to push forward. Successful control players are often consumed in thinking further ahead than anyone else, and on a wider scale than anyone else. Say what you want, but even the best players of all have definite preferences when it comes to deck choice and risky plays, and it is important to accept and make use of this both in deck choice and during a match.
Playstyles by themselves do not and should not have any bearing on obviously correct plays, but cardgames are not a collection of obviously correct plays. Cardgames are not solveable. There is always a statistically ‘correct’ play, but oftentimes the degree of ‘correctness’ differs from the next option by a preposterously small percentage, at which point it is extremely defensible to take either option. If you think you can pick the correct play in every single circumstance with every single deck you’ve built in any given metagame, you are either a liar, or extraordinarily arrogant. Even ignoring the fact that fatigue and deck unfamiliarity makes even pro-level competitors misplay very frequently, there are a ridiculous number of variables at every point in tournament preparation. Why would you deny yourself the option of going with something you’re familiar, when that also means you’re giving up the advantage of playing something that you know suits you better?
Different Strokes, Different Decks
It’s impossible to talk about playstyles without delving into the different deck types that lend themselves to categorically separating players in the first place. Before I go on, I should make a note that I personally favour slower decks, known by a variety of names – control in Magic, lock in Pokemon, glacier in Netrunner, etc. I enjoyed endurance decks like LB Starduster and DC Seitokai, but that sort of deck doesn’t really exist in Weiss Schwarz anymore (Index doesn’t really count). WS evolves rapidly based on new set releases, and right now the metagame is quite defined. We might want to rethink playstyle in the context of modern Weiss Schwarz. For that purpose, I need to offer a contextual primer on the traditional deck styles in MtG.
- Aggro – aims to finish the game quickly by taking advantage of the most direct win condition, which is usually life depletion. These decks typically play fast, efficient threats that force answers.
- Control – aims to draw out the game to a point where the opponent cannot carry out their gameplan, all whilst making use of resources more efficiently than the opposing deck. This may be through amassing card advantage, answering every threat the opponent has at low cost, and/or rendering pieces of the opposing deck worthless.
- Combo – a facet of a deck that uses the specific interaction between two or more cards to achieve a win or accelerate inevitable victory.
- Midrange – a deck that assumes the aggro or control role based on what it faces. Usually plays cards that are stronger than what aggro can deal with, and that are faster/generate more value than what control can profitably deal with.
All WS decks are a midrange concoction, sometimes with combo elements. Each deck can play offence (slam a climax), and each can play a slightly more passive game (focus on value and swing for less damage for awhile). The simplest scale of measurement is how frequently the deck is positioned and designed to play a global soul climax, with or without a combo. The continuum really is that simple.
I don’t think true traditional control is really a thing in WS. There are precious few ways to defend from damage to the face, and the only true stability comes from being 6 or 7 damage ahead with some form of damage mitigation in hand. This is a gamestate that requires a lot of things out of your control to go right. Control simply isn’t easy in a game where every creature is effectively unblockable, every single deck runs some number of nigh-uncounterable Overrun, and ‘lifegain’ is not only expensive, but practically unplayable until you are actually near death. It doesn’t help that literally every card can be cashed in for advantage by any sort of deck.
Does this mean the aggro-control continuum is a bust? Not quite. I think that you can still regard a specific split of tactics as control vs aggro. Deciding which category a deck falls into relates to that deck’s primary focus and gameplan. Before anything else can be said, the most important thing for any deck, regardless of gameplan, is the ability to generate and maintain advantage. While this goal is normally reserved for the control designation in other games, advantage is the core of WS, and all good decks focus on it. Clocking only gets you so far, and every successful deck in the current metagame has several potent advantage engines. A deck does not even reach the judging podium unless it has a properly built base to work with, and you cannot simply slap the label of ‘aggro’ on something because it has to slam climaxes and go for bust. That’s disingenuous and misrepresents the actual good ‘aggro’ decks in the game.
As mentioned above, the control route is attempting to achieve a state where they cannot lose. This is that mythical concept we refer to as compression. I move to say that control decks in WS focus on compression more than anything else, and they often do so by way of field-based advantage. Many decks can compress well, but it is rare to see them doing so without some level of strong field-based advantage. Decks like Fate’s Rider.dec or Blue Girlfriend Beta aim to control the field by putting big characters there. These characters proceed to generate advantage and compression simply by being there and not needing to be replaced. Meanwhile, the opponent loses value attempting to fight them. Even if you need to play counters to maintain these characters there, you get bonus value by either allowing direct attacks on those rows, or forcing your opponent to encore in some fashion. The extremely unintuitive part is that this ‘control’ tactic will frequently leave you with less hand than your opponent, especially if their advantage engines do not depend on battle victories. This runs counter to the standard control wincon of ‘gain card advantage’, but on that note the best ‘control’ decks will also run combos that maintain card advantage both in-hand and on-field. This compression element is a large part of GFB’s continuing representation at the top tables of tournaments worldwide – it is the closest thing we have right now to a high tier compression-focused deck.
If that’s the case, what is aggro? I suppose aggro is the deck series that focuses more on what we call ‘tempo’. This refers to doing something that takes advantage of a vulnerability in the opponent’s state of play, which usually boils down to raw soul rushing. These decks care less about stabilising, and instead continuously focus resources at disrupting the opponent and pushing through damage. There really aren’t many actual aggro decks nowadays, but good examples include some of the +2 soul Disgaea builds, Do-dai decks, and YGB Little Busters, all of which utilise +2 soul to hit the opponent before they refresh and hopefully make them skip Level 1. Most trial decks also function as bad aggro decks. As with aggro decks in most games, these tactics cause you to run out of gas quickly and rely on the opponent failing to answer their threats a lot of the time (ie. not cancelling). Therefore, these decks don’t see nearly as much play as the more controlling decks unless there is an exceptional advantage engine incorporated into the rush. This happens to be the case with all three examples I listed, but it isn’t common at all. There are usually a couple powerful aggro decks at any given point in time, but since the best method of pushing damage (playing global +soul climaxes) can fit into control decks as well, this label is only reserved for decks that plan to play multiple climaxes early on, preferably +2 soul.
Lastly, combo. Almost every deck in WS has a combo element to it. It’s just that the combo element is usually more of a synergy than an actual game-winning combo. The closest thing we have to a game-winning combo is Yami’s bounce climax play, but even that isn’t foolproof. It’s more like Snapcaster Mage and Lightning Bolt than it is a Splinter Twin combo – it’s still two cards that add to make more than the sum of their parts, but that sum doesn’t equal infinity.
Different Strokes, Different Folks
The other element of playstyle is in-game decision making and risk taking. Firstly, I want to note that deck preparation and in-game decisions are inextricably linked. I’m sure you’ve watched a game and seen someone side attack where you would front, or clock a card you never would have considered clocking. Don’t be too quick to judge. It’s quite possible that they run a higher count of X card than you would. For example, I would almost never clock the PQ Naoto when I have it at Level 0 or 1 with my Execution deck, but other people might run 4 Naoto, which gives you significantly more freedom to do so. Some people hold onto their Pendant of Promise because they only run 1 event bonder. I run 3, so I am significantly more likely to clock mine than those people are. Everyone has their different ideas on the ‘optimal’ build for their deck, and each of those people may be right in their own way. That being said, there are plenty of instances where even the same decklist will present differing gameplay paths to different people.
For example, take Index. It’s a deck that’s been topping very widely and has pushed some old cards’ price up threefold, so I’ll use it in some examples. Most people play 4 Index brainstorms, but have you ever thought about why? An immediate answer might come to mind for you, but there are always different justifications for the same choice. Perhaps you’re aiming to get 2 in the backrow as soon as possible, but other people simply want to maximise the chances of drawing just one. Some people want them from turn 1 because they plan to use it every turn. Maybe other people value them as suicidal attackers that give +1k to the center for a turn. Some people might even bump the count up by elimination, simply because they really don’t want to run 3.5ks at Level 0 generic for celebrex. There are literally dozens of somewhat different justifications for such a simple deckbuilding choice that many people consider automatic.
It’s very difficult to break down playstyle preferences into distinct attributes or spectra, and I might dedicate a full article to some of the major trends I’ve noticed, but for now, it’s best to remember that your deck is fully customisable to meet your personal needs. So long as you have properly reasoned card counts and are comfortable playing with what those card counts gift you, don’t let anyone else tell you that you are completely wrong. Take their advice into account, and think about why they are telling you that. Chances are that you are doing something wrong in their eyes, but nobody’s judgement is absolute, and there are always small differences when it comes to what each person considers optimal.
Playstyle in Practice
So, you can kind of maintain an aggro-control continuum in WS. Cool, I guess. But what exactly does that mean? What am I supposed to take away from this article? That’s actually a very good question, and one that can’t be appropriately addressed as WS is now. Normally, thinking about your playstyle should be part of your tournament preparation. There’s no point in choosing a pure permission deck if you have no patience and just want to slam Wild Nacatls. Orthodox beatdown decks hold no value for the gimmick-lovers. Some people wonder why you would cast Liliana of the Veil on turn 3 instead of Karn.
The purpose of this article is to give a reference for when competitive TCG players come from other cardgames and ask for a deck that suits their playstyle. There really isn’t an answer for those people. As I mentioned, every deck is mostly midrange, with the option to be slightly controlling or slightly aggressive based on the situation. It is rare to see any dedicated aggro or control deck in WS. That being said, there is still a degree of deck choice available. More controlling players would prefer decks that get to an endpoint and sit there safely, such as Index, LB Twins or Symphogear Alchemists. More aggressive players are somewhat out of luck right now, but there are fairly competent decks running heavy on the rush element, like Yellow-focus Milky Holmes, Green-based Charlotte, and Maria-focused Symphogear.
That being said, there is one particularly cumbersome part of WS that probably won’t ever go away. The vast majority of deck choice in WS isn’t based on what you think will be the best-positioned deck. It boils down to the most viable series among the series you enjoy most. It’s almost like a regional Modern or Legacy metagame, where people will play a specific deck purely because they don’t have the cards for other decks. Competitively speaking, this is not a desirable place to be, but it comes with the territory. It is the culture of the cardgame we all play. You can see it reflected in WGP results every time a new set comes out – the new set will surge and put up results for awhile, but people will drift back to old stalwarts eventually.
Weiss Schwarz is designed with some amount of competitive intent in mind – that’s why every new and accessible set has excellent crisis management tools. That’s why every set has competitively placed endgame cards. That’s why they keep printing high-power things to compete with the current defined top tiers. The fact of the matter is, however, that players will not play a series if they don’t like it. I’m no different. It’s very lucky that I enjoy Nisekoi and Little Busters, or else I wouldn’t really have a high tier deck to play. It’s a good thing I didn’t care much for Charlotte or Cinderella Girls, because I don’t think either of those decks is particularly good.
When it comes to Weiss Schwarz, you shouldn’t let your playstyle bar you from playing a series you enjoy. Even if you’re a hardcore aggro player, if you decide Sayaka is the best meguca, you should be fine playing her slower, steadier deck. It doesn’t matter if Nisekoi’s Sweets deck does literally nothing so long as you actually like Haru as a character. Enjoy Melty Blood? I would suggest that you just stay in #mbaa and avoid WS. To that end, I strongly advise people to pick a series they like and adapt it to your own preferences. I already mentioned that I believe playstyle is based on enjoyment. I guarantee you that you will enjoy a series you actively like more than a supposedly strong series whose characters you can’t even name. It’s the big draw to WS, so you should just accept it. It’s perfectly possible to build a deck incorporating tactics you enjoy in WS, and I actively encourage people to tinker rather than just netdeck and be done with it. Still, even though I think that you can modify a series to the point where you enjoy it more than the standard meta build, you should stick to the tried-and-true standard if you want to make tops at locals more often. Until you become a suitably competent deckbuilder and player, anyway.