The year is 2017. Cheers erupt from the halls of Winter Court as the first Shogun of the Legend of the Five Rings LCG is crowned. It’s Lion, the proud and fearless military clan, looking as powerful and as invincible as ever.
The year is now 2018. The cheers from the Lion clan have been squelched as only a measly four Lions scrape their way into Day 2 of the Winter Court. No Lions make it past the Round of 32. And there are no tears to be shed, for there are no Lions left to shed them.
What was once a mighty offensive juggernaut has now become an empty husk. While people have started to recognize that Lion is no longer what it once was, nobody on the outside seems to be sounding the alarms like they did for Unicorn through the Imperial cycle. On the inside, Lion is in a state of disarray, with many clan loyalists growing discontent with the state of the clan following Worlds. Other clans continue to get stronger, while Lion has hit a plateau. Why isn’t Lion winning anymore? What is Lion even supposed to be doing?
For the past few months, as results have been worsening and my own will wavering, I have asked myself these questions over and over, trying to find a definitive solution for our lack of winning. I wondered maybe if it was one particular thing that could be solved by a new release, or maybe a slight change in game play. But as I tried different cards, different splashes, different strongholds, I came to the conclusion that it was never just one thing, but instead an issue with the clan as a whole.
The purpose of this write-up is to examine some of the issues that Lion currently faces and to spark some discussion–hopefully even within FFG’s development team–about the current state of Lion and the needs of the clan moving forward. Nothing in here is novel or groundbreaking, but I wanted to take a moment to address the problems that my fellow Lions and I have observed over the past year. For the sake of this write-up, I classified the issue into three major areas: lack of value, lack of flexibility, and lack of identity. There are many issues within each of these areas, but I grouped them into these categories for ease of discussion. Without further ado, let’s go into each one.
LACK OF VALUE
Lion as a whole is supposed to be a clan that crushes their opponents by overwhelming them with military might. The heavy military skew of their dynasty is a clear suggestion of such. However, it’s not quite as heavy as it appears: Lion ranks 5th in average military strength per dynasty character, behind Crab, Dragon, Unicorn, and even Phoenix, leaving only the two politically oriented clans behind them. This is coupled with Lion’s tied for 5th rank in average political strength, making Lion one of the lowest statted clans in the game. On a per fate basis, Lion is also tied for 5th lowest stat per fate.
Ordinarily, low stat totals at certain fate thresholds generally indicate that a character has a strong ability to counterbalance the drop in stats. Take for example a card like Agasha Swordsmith, whose 1 military strength and 2 political strength are quite middling for two fate. Its mediocre stats are a price to pay for a very powerful action that allows you to search the top five cards of your deck for an attachment and add it to your hand–quite the strong ability indeed, since Dragon’s play style relies heavily on attachments. Add on top of that Agasha Swordsmith’s valuable Shugenja keyword, and you have a character whose value far exceeds its lesser stat line.
However, for Lion, low stats don’t necessarily come with any powerful effects to compensate. Direct comparison of cards between clans isn’t an exact science but look, for example, at Gifted Tactician. Gifted Tactician is also a 2 fate character, with 2 military and 1 political. Unlike Agasha Swordsmith, Gifted Tactician’s ability is a reaction to winning a military conflict, after which the player can draw one card.
This is typical for most Lion characters–14 Lion characters have reactive abilities or traits, while only 7 have actions. The reactions are generally only in response to conflict resolution or occur when the character enters play, which means that Lion only has a select few means to interact with combat through their characters alone. Even within these options, Lion is met with a number of restrictions: must be more honorable, only certain conflicts, etc. Without powerful active abilities, the onus is on Lion to win with the numbers they have on board alone, or otherwise turn to their conflict deck (more on that later) to supplement their numbers. At such low stat totals, however, Lion struggles to put forward the requisite power even with a large number of characters.
Perhaps the most egregious example of flawed Lion dynasty design is Ikoma Ikehata, a 3 fate courtier released during the Elemental Cycle. In a vacuum, Ikehata provides a number of benefits where Lion was previously lacking: innate Covert, an honoring effect, and a card draw effect. Unfortunately, Ikehata also bears a plethora of restrictions on his usefulness. First, he has a horrific stat line of 1 military and 2 political with 2 glory, the average stats of characters 1 fate cheaper. Second, his ability only works if you win a political conflict, something that the overwhelmingly military-based Lion clan has much difficulty doing, even with Ikehata’s Covert ability. Finally, Ikehata must also be participating in the winning conflict to work, which leaves him susceptible to dishonor effects, bows from Shizuka Toshi, and a number of other effects that can negate his attack and force the Lion player to leave empty handed.
Taking all of this into perspective, it’s no coincidence that Lion’s three most powerful characters–Lion’s Pride Brawler, Kitsu Spiritcaller, and Ikoma Ujiaki–also happen to be three of Lion’s few characters with actions rather than reactions, are characters that are all reasonably statted, and are characters that work in both military and political conflicts. However, because all the power is so heavily concentrated in just three characters, Lion becomes very susceptible to effects like Cloud the Mind, which can negate huge chunks of Lion’s power level. Naturally, the way to dampen this effect is for Lion to have more quality options in dynasty that demand answers from the opponent. But as of right now, these options just don’t exist.
LACK OF FLEXIBILITY
Where dynasty cards generally form the skeleton for most clans’ frameworks, decks get filled out through their conflict cards. Since core, the strength of Lion’s conflict deck has been military strength. Way of the Lion and A Legion of One are examples of cards that can provide huge military buffs that are difficult for other clans to match efficiently. Lion makes some of the best use out of Charge! thanks to high military skill characters like Akodo Toturi and Matsu 7th Legion.
That’s about the extent of what Lion can do.
If Lion isn’t on offense, their number of options drastically dip. Cards like Strength in Numbers, Master of the Spear, and even Lion’s Pride Brawler can be quite powerful, but only while attacking. Lion’s defensive options, on the other hand, border on non-existent. Most clans currently have at least one of the following as an in-clan defensive option:
- Bow effects (Void Fist, Doji Fumiki, Against the Waves);
- Send home effects (Void Fist again, Moto Nergüi);
- Event cancel (Voice of Honor, Forged Edict);
- Event/action denial (Isawa Tadaka, Guest of Honor, Hida Kisada);
- Attachment hate (Let Go, Calling in Favors, Karada District); or
- Hard removal (A Fate Worse than Death, Noble Sacrifice).
Some clans have the additional protection of having strong defensive provinces: Restoration of Balance, Secret Cache, Kuroi Mori to name a few. At the moment, Lion has none of the above, having to rely instead on inefficient neutral cards or splashing to cover their weak points. Because there are so many defensive holes for Lion, however, this also means that any single splash will not cover all of Lion’s weaknesses.
It isn’t necessary for every clan to be balanced on both sides of the coin. Clans can be oppressively offensive or defensive to counterbalance their lack of options on one particular side. Crab, for example, generally lack in their ability to bolster their skill and interact with characters while on offense. However, thanks to their stronghold and cards like The Mountain Does Not Fall, Fight On, and Steadfast Witch Hunter, they can defend stoutly and efficiently while waiting for the appropriate windows to make their counterattack. On the offensive side, Unicorn can send an all-out blitz on one attack and still use cards like Border Rider and Shiotome Encampment to have characters available for the next conflict. The common theme between the two clans (along with Phoenix and to a lesser degree Dragon and Crane) is that both have efficient and viable ways to have characters ready for multiple conflicts.
For Lion, these same options are not as readily available. Lion currently only has three ways to keep characters standing or ready for a future conflict: Tireless Sodan Senzo, an understatted 2 fate Shugenja who does not bow only after losing; Sashimono, an expensive 2 fate attachment that is prone to being removed; and Heroic Resolve, a 1 fate attachment that requires Lion to first claim two rings (currently only done through winning conflicts, outside of Phoenix cards).
With such limited options, ultimately this means that a commitment to offense is indeed a commitment. Unfortunately for Lion, they excel in only one conflict out of the usual four. Shut them down during this conflict, and they are left with few other options given their defensive and political weaknesses. While shutting down Lion in military used to be a daunting task, other clans have been receiving more and more options to either help keep pace with Lion or otherwise negate or mitigate the need to deal with Lion’s military attack. Cards like Cunning Magistrate, for example, can drop a Lion’s big military swing to 0 strength in one fell swoop. Lion’s latest stronghold, Hisu Mori Toride, encourages them even more to lean heavily on their military conflict and go for a boom or bust strategy–one that in recent times has lost its luster as clans gain more answers and learn to play against it.
LACK OF IDENTITY
As previously mentioned, in the recent sets, other clans have gained numerous tools. Lion, on the other hand, has stagnated. Since the core set, the only card ubiquitously played in Lion decks is Ikoma Ujiaki, one of the big three powerhouse cards mentioned above. While there have been a few moderately useful cards since that time (Ageless Crone, Gifted Tactician, Tactician’s Apprentice, A Legion of One, Ikoma Reservist), none of these cards have made enough of an impact to significantly change the status of Lion in the current meta.
The closest Lion came to a possible breakthrough was with Hisu Mori Toride, which shortly after its release led to a brief surge in Lion results at major tournaments. However, once the dust from the Elemental Cycle had settled, not only did other clans have the knowledge and tools to better deal with the triple conflict onslaught, but Unicorn was also blessed with…the same stronghold. The purple version of Hisu Mori Toride granted Unicorn the same additional military conflict effect under a much less restrictive condition of winning with more characters as opposed to having to win by 5 military strength. As an additional “bonus,” the Unicorn HMT traded off 1 province strength for 1 extra influence.
While few people would complain about the boost that Unicorn was getting after their incredibly lackluster core and Imperial sets, Lions were left wondering why Unicorn was suddenly (and literally) encroaching on Lion design space–or, more importantly, what IS Lion’s design supposed to be? In the recent Lion Clan AMA session on Discord, the developers stated that Lion thematically is supposed to present an unbeatable military challenge. The developers identified Lion’s strengths as hoarding honor, having lots of characters that can be divvied up between conflicts, and building a snowballing force. However, looking at all of these themes that were identified, none are heavily or well-supported in any of the cards Lion has received to date.
Let’s take a look first at “hoarding honor.” Lion has a number of cards that are contingent on having more honor than your opponent. Obstinate Recruit, Steadfast Samurai, and Venerable Historian all have effects that trigger at certain thresholds of being more or equally honorable, with the Recruit being discarded if less honorable, Steadfast being unable to be discarded if at 5 or more honor, and Venerable Historian being able to be activated if you are more honorable. These effects are joined now by cards like Writ of Authority and Akodo Kage, and while not extremely powerful, most provide tangible benefits.
The issue with hoarding honor is that it’s not easy to do, simply put. The most common means of gaining an honor lead come during honor bids in the draw phase. A 5-to-1 bid can create an 8 honor differential to start the game, which generally should be enough for a little while to manage to use Lion’s “more honorable” abilities. However, the issue with bidding low is that this allows your opponent to start amassing a sizable hand advantage over you. With other clans’ conflict decks being significantly more powerful than Lion’s, either Lion’s honor effects would need to be powerful enough to compensate for the lack of cards, or Lion would have to have consistent and reliable means to draw cards to make up for the low bid. As it currently stands, these effects for Lion just aren’t enough to justify the loss. Additionally, Lion’s few means of drawing cards are conditional and contingent on winning conflicts (which Lion has trouble doing on low conflict cards).
Currently, there are only two in-house static honor gains for Lion: Ikoma Prodigy and Honored Blade. However, within the game itself, there are far more ways to lose honor than gain: unopposed conflicts, dishonored characters, Kakita Asami, Watch Commander, etc. Accordingly, staying “more honorable” is often not sustainable for the entire course of the game. A single unopposed conflict early in the game or an early air ring may put honor totals at even or slightly in an opponent’s favor, easily turning off Lion’s effects. It may be more feasible for Lion’s future honor conditions to be online while over a certain honor threshold (ie. while above 8-10 honor), the opposite of some of the new Scorpion cards like Alibi Artist and Kyuden Bayushi. For the time being, however, Lion must struggle to keep their honor afloat should they choose to use these effects.
We can look at “having lots of characters” and “building a snowballing force” together since the two seem to go hand in hand. While Lion does have the ability to buy lots of characters, it’s hard for Lion to divvy them up between conflicts because Lion lacks the value and raw power to afford being able to split characters up. By default, Lion has access to a vast array of cheap characters, with access to 16 characters in-house that cost 2 fate or less. They also have access to Staging Grounds, a holding that allows them to buy more characters than usual during the dynasty phase. However, as previously discussed, very few of these characters have significant value, especially in the political realm. None of these characters have a base stat total of more than 3, and only one has a base stat equal to 3. Accordingly, while Lion has plenty of characters that they can buy, they’re forced to do so to keep up in value with other clans.
As far as creating a snowballing force, Lion was blessed with one of the strongest means to keep characters around: For Greater Glory, which rewards Lion for breaking provinces in military conflicts and adding a fate to all of their participating Bushi characters. However, in modern times the card has seen little to no play, as it swiftly found its way onto the very first restricted list. Lion hoped and prayed that the card would be removed following lackluster performances at post-RL Koteis, but the card remained after the most recent update on December 11th.
The obvious question is, “Why isn’t Lion just running For Greater Glory?” Though many have tried experimenting with the card as their restricted card, the problem is simply that For Greater Glory does nothing to help Lion actually win or break a province during their military conflict. As previously discussed, Lion needs all the help it can get to win their military conflict, and so Charge! becomes the card of choice. Prior to implementation of the restricted list, Lion was able to swing momentum in their favor at any given moment thanks to being able to Charge! valuable characters into a conflict and For Greater Glory to keep them around another turn. Now, however, Lion must choose between the two, and with For Greater Glory often being a dead card in hand, it has fallen by the wayside.
There is little doubt that For Greater Glory is a powerful card that can create some undefeatable board states for Lion. Perhaps even more dangerous is that it could potentially do the same for Unicorn. However, the other issue with For Greater Glory being restricted is that Lion never received any other means to “snowball” to replace the missing effect from their decks. Lion has always had access to Stand Your Ground, a 0 fate card that allows you to remove an “Honored” status token from your character to prevent it from leaving play. However, Lion has very few means to efficiently honor their characters that are not either expensive or highly conditional. When compared to cards like Reprieve or Iron Mine that work with no conditions, Stand Your Ground lacks the power level necessary to truly give Lion’s dynasty the staying power it needs to build up a lasting army.
It’s clear that these intended identities for Lion are not fully supported given the current card pool. But rather than release cards that support and strengthen these ideas for Lion, Lion has instead received other cards for subthemes that are also not supported. The Elemental Cycle provided Ancestral Armory, a holding that can recur Weapons from the discard pile–an effect that sounds great, except that Lion currently has access to only two in-house Weapon cards, Kamayari and Honored Blade. Lion also received My Ancestor’s Strength, a card that only works with Shugenja–but again, Lion only has two in-clan Shugenja.
Since Lion came out of the gate as a military powerhouse, it makes at least some sense that subsequent card releases aren’t necessarily geared heavily towards having even more military effects. But as Lion patiently waits for new cards, more and more of the effects that players would expect to see in Lion have been appearing in other clans, namely Unicorn. Lion is now heading down a long and winding path, and there doesn’t appear to be any end to it in sight.
SO WHAT’S NEXT?
What does this all mean for the Lion clan in the future? There have been bright spots for Lion in the past few months, thanks to excellent performances by AkodoT1 at Worlds, and Kitsu Shadowblade at the Madrid Grand Kotei. But these performances, albeit impressive, feel more like outliers than signs of a paradigm shift. Ask any tournament player now, and they’ll most certainly tell you that Lion is the worst clan at the moment. The power level of other clans continues to rise, and it becomes more and more difficult to win as Lion as time goes on.
Thankfully, Children of the Empire is on the horizon, with the ever so slight glimmer of hope resting in the 80+ new cards that will release. Already Lion has seen one card that inspires some faith in Hand to Hand, an in-house attachment removal option (albeit one bearing restrictions). If the card proves to be effective, Lion can hopefully move away from the accursed crutch of Dragon splash and bolster some of the other more promising splashes, such as Crane and Crab splash. Similarly, the recently spoiled Honorable Challenger, while not a high impact card, partially addresses Lion’s re-stand/ready deficit and may help flesh out the lower and weaker end of Lion’s dynasty deck.
But one or two cards alone do not solve all of Lion’s problems. Since Lion has functionally missed out on the past few series of releases, it’ll take a larger number of solid, good, or better cards to rebuild Lion to match the strength of their competitors. We need better overall quality of dynasty instead of a multitude of conditional effects. We need cards and effects that efficiently help us represent a threat in multiple conflicts instead of just one of four. We need a unified theme and direction for the clan, instead of various subthemes to maybe be addressed later.
The Lion clan pack is due out some time during 2019, and if issues haven’t already been addressed by the release of Children of the Empire, then hopefully this will be the injection of quality cards that Lion needs to re-enter the meta as a threat going forward. But for the time being, the threat of Lion is minimal. Where there once were kings of the jungle now stand a collection of declawed house cats. My hope as a Lion player is that we can reclaim our former glory, but it’ll take awareness of our issues and corrective action thereafter to rise up once again to the top.