Interview – Andrew Ornatov

So, you’ll probably be able to tell from the first part of this interview that Kevin Kennedy did with Andrew Ornatov that, well, I’ve been kind lax in getting around to formatting it for posting. Oops.

And so it begins . . .

Andrew Ornatov won GenCon three years ago with his goblin/breeder deck. While he did not win the past two GenCons personally, he was responsible for the decks that did win. Ornatov is “camera” shy and did not want to be recorded for an interview but he was willing to sit down for a chat interview. He immediately wanted to talk about the Forgotten Temple errata.

Kevin:
Hi Andrew

Ornatov:
Hihi. My opinion differs from Bryan’s on what should have been done about the Forgotten Temple deck.

Kevin:
That’s something I definitely want to talk about right there.

Ornatov:
Heh, ok. Yeah, I really think that the errata was heavy-handed. I think that Kali-Ma should have been banned and I think that the ability on the forests should have been errataed to say “When one of your forest holdings . . . ” This would keep the deck from being ridiculous, yet keep it playable.

Kevin:
Kali-Ma has been banned hasn’t it?

Ornatov:
Yeah, it has. But it was banned for story reasons. I am of the opinion it should have been banned for power reasons.

Kevin:
I agree with you there.

Ornatov:
Anything that allows one to look through their deck, choose multiple cards, and put them directly into play is bound to be overpowered.

Kevin:
Do you think that the banning wasn’t also a product of its power level too?

Ornatov:
No, I don’t think so. I believe Bryan when he says that it was purely for story reasons. I’ve had a couple of conversations with him about Kali-Ma, both when it came out originally, after errata, and after GenCon. He’s of the opinion that the power-level of the card is acceptable. I am sure he realizes that it’s a very powerful card. But he doesn’t believe it’s broken. We disagree on that part.

Kevin:
Bryan seems to have a higher tolerance for card power level than you and I.

Ornatov:
Well, that’s true. I do think he took the errata to forests too far, however. Unless he knows something that we don’t – for example – if Forests of Shinomen is in EE – I fully agree with the errata. But, for CE, and CE’s power level – the errata was unnecessarily heavy-handed.

Kevin:
I don’t know if he took the errata with Forests far enough actually.

Ornatov:
Oh?

Kevin:
I think I would have done the errata differently. Right now, they still produce amazing gold for non-shadowlands nonhumans and that could potentially be a problem. However, I don’t think it’s possible to build a non-shadowlands nonhumans deck that’s truly frightening.

Ornatov:
Yeah, I agree. There’s not too many non-shadowlands nonhumans that can take advantage of the good gold. (that have a HR of -1 or less)

Kevin:
Yeah, I was doing some research on before we talked.

Ornatov:
Heh, yeah, I looked at L5Rsearch immediately after the errata was announced. I still think there’s a Forgotten Temple deck that’s tier 1. I just don’t know what it is. The ability on the stronghold is very, VERY good. Removing the luck factor from late-game flips is amazing.

Kevin:
I totally agree.

Ornatov:
I think there might be a big oni deck, where you buy just one very large (10F+) oni on the second turn, and a holding or two. That way the ability on the stronghold gets to shine late-game, where you’re re-filling your provinces gigantic oni. The goblin deck has been giving me headaches. It’s so good against military but just absolutely sucks against honor. And putting in meta dilutes the deck far enough where it starts to suck against military.

Kevin:
The goblin deck was the one I was afraid of going into GenCon.

Ornatov:
Nah, nothing to be afraid of from that deck. It has to play match-up lottery to win a tourney. Once it hits ToP Phoenix honor – it’s done. Embassy honor is sort-of doable, since they don’t force-jab people.

Kevin:
So, what would you have done to Forests of Shinomen? I have my ideas but I’d like to hear yours first.

Ornatov:
I would have made the ability say “When one of your forest holdings bows to…” When the ruling came out that the Forgotten Temple didn’t get the bonus from Forests, we playtested the deck, and it didn’t beat everything. Sometimes it lost. So, that was the correct power level. And then the ruling was reversed.

Kevin:
That’s the complete opposite end of the spectrum from what I would have done. I would turned the gold production trait into a reaction which limits it to one extra gold per turn but keeps it able to pay for Shadowlands cards.

Ornatov:
I think that makes the deck into a tier-2, though

Kevin:
It might but as far as errata is concerned, it’s better to be on the safe side. I think it’s better to do something you know will work then to try something that might not achieve the desired results.

Ornatov:
See, I disagree with that. I think errata should either try to reduce the card from “overpowered” to “powerful” or there should be no errata and just bannings. I am a very big fan of no-errata policy. If the card is too powerful, it simply gets banned.

Kevin:
I think that’s a reasonable opinion. Errata creates headaches.

Ornatov:
Yeah, it really does. Much easier to remember that one can’t use the card, than it is to remember what exactly changed about the card.

Kevin:
You also have to explain things to new players and people who aren’t staying up to date.

Ornatov:
Yup yup.

Kevin:
The drawback is that you remove options.

Ornatov:
I think that with CCGs that are as mature as L5R, removal of options is not that big of a deal. If it’s a clan-aligned personality, yeah, you’ve just removed one of 20? 30? personalities available for that clan to play. If it’s something any clan can use, well, the variety there is much greater.

Kevin:
And some players have a stronger negative opinion about something being banned than something being errataed.

Ornatov:
Yeah… But, yeah, overall, I’m not thrilled about the errata. I’m glad something was done. I would have just done things in a different fashion and I’m not just saying that because it’s “my deck”

Kevin:
Ok, let’s do the “proper” interview stuff

Ornatov:
Ok. What’s the proper interview stuff?

Kevin:
Who is Andrew Ornatov?

Ornatov:
Oh, that’s me. I’ve played L5R since pre-imperial. I work as a computer programmer to support my gaming + L5R habit. I live in Seattle and I have 2 cats with my wonderful wife – Marike Reimer.

Kevin:
I assume you are an actual human being and not some card playing robot from Jigoku?

Ornatov:
I am an actual human, yes. As for my L5R creds – I’ve won… 16? 18? sword tournaments, US Nationals, Worlds, a Jewel Championship, and I’ve designed the decks that won the last 3 GenCons. I think that’s about the maximum amount of egotistical stuff that I can come up with.

Kevin:
How long ago was pre-Imperial? I’ve only been playing since Samurai

Ornatov:
Pre-Imperial was… (feeling old right about now) 16 years ago.

Kevin:
So from the beginning of the game?

Ornatov:
Yeah from the beginning of the game. I used to frequent every gaming convention that I could when I was young, and at one of them some people were demoing this cool samurai game. At this point, the only card game I’ve ever played was Magic. I sat down, and we played a multi-player game where there were Ogre Bushis, Fu-Leng’s Monstrous War Machine, etc… Eventually I found out that the people that I played that game with were Ryan Dancey and Dave Williams, the original designers of the game. So, I bought some starters and booster when the game actually came out and I haven’t been to quit since (not for lack of trying).

Kevin:
Were there times when you wanted to quit?

Ornatov:
Oh, many. Many. I’ve quit the game, and re-started… probably about 6-7 times by now. Mostly frustration with broken cards, the realization that I’m spending all my free time thinking/playing/designing L5R decks – that type of stuff. The game has always drawn me back. Last time I tried to quit was after GenCon 2009.

Kevin:
Was any particular time worse than others?

Ornatov:
Yeah, when the Spirit Stronghold was legal. Before Reese took over the design, and power-level of the game fluctuated so badly, it was almost unbearable. There were cards that were so ridiculously overpowered, it made me want to quit. Nowadays, the power level of cards is (mostly) under control.

Kevin:
What was the Spirit Stronghold?

Ornatov:
0-4-6. You start the game with 6 provinces. At the end of your turn, you may draw an extra card and then discard a card. It was and is the most broken stronghold ever printed for the game. Having 6 provinces, even if the PS is 0, meant such a huge advantage in production over other Strongholds. The two main decks out of that stronghold were Corrupt Spirit and Spirit Honor. Corrupt Spirit abused the personality that said “If you have less honor than any other player: Gain 5.” And played all the shadowlands people. Spirit Honor abused the region that said “At the end of your turn, gain 2 honor. This province doesn’t hold dynasty cards.” Not holding dynasty cards is not nearly as much of a disadvantage when you start with 6 provinces. (done ranting)

Kevin:
Was corrupt spirit an honor deck or military deck?

Ornatov:
Military. It lost a lot of honor when it bought all of the corrupt gold (free gold holdings that produces 2 gold, but caused you to lose honor). Didn’t matter, since there was a spirit personality that gained you 5 honor every turn.

Kevin:
The last time you almost quit was in 2009, what happened then? Hadn’t you just won GenCon?

Ornatov:
Quitting after GenCon 2009 was mostly a “Nothing left to do in the game, might as well quit” That didn’t last too long after someone pointed out that I haven’t won Euros yet.

Kevin:
And next time it will be win Euros and GenCon in the same year

Ornatov:
I don’t think so. That’s just silly. Also last time I went to Euros I went 3-4. So, I’ve got some work to do if I’m to figure out the European environment.

Kevin:
I believe in you, I think you can do it. Your forum name says “Russian Oni Wrangler”, are you originally from Russia?

Ornatov:
Yeah, I moved to the US when I was 13. My parents moved so I, obviously, came with. I was born in Russia, St. Petersburg.

Kevin:
Have you always lived on the West Coast?

Ornatov:
Oh, no. We lived in New York for a bit, then moved to Twin Falls, Idaho. Lived there for several months, then moved to Seattle. After that I moved around the country for a while – I’ve lived in North Dakota for a couple years – eventually I came back to Seattle. And I’m staying here – the weather’s nice.

Kevin:
You’re also a computer programmer so the work is in that area.

Ornatov:
Yeah, I’ve worked for Microsoft for the last 10 years. A couple of months ago, one of my good friends convinced me to work with them at a pet-insurance company, so that’s where I’m at now.

Kevin:
Where did you go to college and what did you major in?

Ornatov:
Well, that’s an interesting story, I do not have a degree. I went to University of Washington for 1.5 years. In that 1.5 years I earned a total of 5 credits, and I failed Russian. I’ve been taking courses off and on for the last 16 years. I might finish my degree sometime, but it’s not very likely. While at UW, I majored in Physics, and Calculus and Physics are the only courses that I have 4.0’s in.

Kevin:
So if you finished you’d have a physics or computer science degree?

Ornatov:
Computer Science, at this point, I think? Not overly sure. I’ve not checked in quite some time.

Kevin:
How did you get into computer programming?

Ornatov:
I bought my first computer when I was 13 or so. Ended up playing around with it for a while. I didn’t really have any formal training or anything just liked to experiment a lot. After my attempt at University, someone pointed out to me that Microsoft hired folks without degrees. So, I decided to apply, and got an interview. They asked me some questions and I think they were impressed by my non-standard, non-textbook answers. So I got a job offer from them, and have worked there ever since (well, until a couple months ago). But, yeah, I mostly got into computer programming simply by fiddling with my first computer.

Kevin:
Stupid question: did you ever meet Bill Gates?

Ornatov:
Yes, I was in a car that almost ran him over. My friend and myself were driving into work and we were trying to find a parking space. My friend was driving and wasn’t paying much attention. So, when he saw a parking spot, he raced to it and almost ran over this guy with glasses. After taking a closer look, he realized that he just almost ran over Bill. Other than that – I’ve never met him or spoke with him.

Kevin:
You said earlier you use your job to support your gaming and L5R habit. What other games/types of games do you play?

Ornatov:
Oh, dear. I play computer games – mostly MMOs: World of Warcraft, Rifts, EQ2. I play board games – any and all board games. Settlers, Tikal, Java, Stone Age, Small World – just to name a few. Normal card games – I am very fond of pinochle. CCGs – I’ve played Magic extensively, and I would be playing Warhammer: Invasion if there were any sanctioned tournaments in my area.

Kevin:
I’m a big board gamer so feel free to go into detail on that area.

Ornatov:
As for board games – I’m a big fan of strategy board games, any of the 18xx series, Axis and Allies has held my attention for a while and pretty much any German board game that has been released recently. Notre Dame has a permanent space on my bookshelf and so does Fresco. Lately I’ve been looking into various Fantasy Flight games – just to see if there’s anything of substance behind the pretty presentations that they have and it seems that there is, so I’ll be playing Fantasy Flight games in the next couple months.

Kevin:
I’ve played Notre Dame and Fresco. The 18xx series are those war games or train games?

Ornatov:
Train games. There are many versions, they’re always about the railroad building that happened in the 18xx years. They’re fairly long but do involve quite a bit of strategic thinking.

Kevin:
I’m a big fan of Small World. Did you like Small World: Underground?

Ornatov:
No, I didn’t. It was a bit too much like the original Small World. I really liked the small expansions that Small World put out over the last couple years. So I really had big hopes for the big expansion. Instead, it ended up being just being a rehash of the original game. Some what of a let down.

Kevin:
I wasn’t enthused either actually, although most of my friends are big fans of the relics and places of power.

Ornatov:
I think they had a good formula in releasing a couple new races and a couple new abilities every 6-ish months. I gotta jet for dinner in a bit.

Kevin:
Quick question: do you play any of AEG’s board games?

Ornatov:
Yes, all of them. I will buy every AEG game that ever comes out. Didn’t like any of them overly much. Thunderstone was the closest to being enjoyable but it seemed like that other deck-building game. I have not tried Ninja. Once it’s out – I’ll definitely buy it. I saw people playing it at GenCon and it seemed good.

Kevin:
I actually really like Ninja.

At this point, Andrew and I broke for dinner. We picked up our conversation later on where we talked more about L5R.

Kevin:
How long have you played Shadowlands?

Ornatov:
I’ve played Shadowlands ever since Yogo Jungo’s Army was a legal stronghold. I think that’s 13 or so years [15 years – editor].

Kevin:
Have you played anything other than Shadowlands?

Ornatov:
Yes, absolutely. I started out playing Phoenix corrupt honor, then moved to Crane honor. Other than those two, I’ve not played a significant amount of other clans.

Kevin:
Somehow I can’t imagine you starting out as an honor player.

Ornatov:
🙂 It’s what I enjoyed the most. I used to think that military was too difficult to play. Honor was nice and easy, and I understood it well. Military was difficult. It took me several years to become comfortable with playing military decks, and those several years were spent losing most of my games. I think I’m ok with it now. Hopefully, I can do better yet this coming year. Beginning of arc seasons are my favorite.

Kevin:
I started out playing honor too. Do you think you’d ever go back to playing an honor type deck?

Ornatov:
Yes, absolutely. I’ll be playing the Mantis honor theme a LOT this coming year. I think it’s a strong theme, not just because of the cards, but because of the mechanic “Buy a dude, get a free dude.” Plus, I kind of miss honor. It’s nice not to have to think about how to attack, and when to attack.

Kevin:
Do you think a lot of players start out playing honor?

Ornatov:
I think that a lot of players should start out playing honor. It’s the easiest way to learn about L5R, and the easiest way to learn about attacking/defending/winning. Learning how to defend makes it a lot easier to learn how to attack. I’m glad that I started out as an honor player, otherwise I wouldn’t know the weaknesses of honor decks, and would have more trouble attacking into honor decks. Decisions such as when to attack all-at-one province, and when to split for multiple provinces are very important in L5R, and one wrong decision can mean losing a game. Having played the defensive side of those decisions, it’s a lot easier for me to make the correct one, now that I’m on the attacking side. It gives you a good idea of when to try to overwhelm the honor deck’s defenses as opposed to when to try to whittle them down.

Kevin:
What other advice would you give to players who are trying to learn how to play military?

Ornatov:
Biggest advice is to figure out what benefits them most – playing games or watching games. I hardly ever play any games of L5R when playtesting – I mostly observe others play. It helps me much more to see both sides of the table, than just my side. Obviously when one is trying to figure out what one’s deck does, it’s important to play as many games as possible. But when that stage is done, I would recommend trying to watch some games – I think people would be surprised how much they learn from observing, that they would miss when playing. Having visibility to both players’ hands, and being able to judge the board position with that information in mind is really valuable to learning, in my mind. So, I guess my advice would be – once you have your deck figured out – play some games, then watch some games. If observing games yields more useful information – do that as your tournament preparation.

Kevin:
Have you ever played games against yourself? Gotten two decks or a program like Egg of Pan Ku and played against them against each other?

Ornatov:
I tried, but didn’t find it useful. Decisions made with full game knowledge are SO different than decisions made with knowledge of only your side, such that it completely changed the way the games were played. I do a ridiculous amount of gold-fishing (playing the first 3-4 turns of a game with just 1 deck), but as for playing 2 decks against themselves – I find that a waste of time.

Kevin:
I tend to use statistics for that personally but I find problems like that inherently interesting and they’re much more work than most people want to do

Ornatov:
Yeah, I do a bit of that myself as well. How many gold holdings, how many people, etc. But, I’ve found that when goldfishing, I actually read the cards in the deck, and tend to think of ways that they interact together, and it leads me to various deck-design decisions that I wouldn’t get with statistics alone.

Kevin:
So you’ve been a Shadowlands player primarily for the past 13[still 15 – that annoying editor again] years, how did you feel about not having a Shadowlands stronghold for most of this arc?

Ornatov:
Well, at first I felt excited about having something new – a Spider stronghold. So, I quite liked that. Liked it to the point of winning the only Kotei to be won by Spider (outside of the less-than-20 players Moscow kotei) the year they became a legal faction. 🙂 Eventually, Spider started to feel like yet-another-clan, so I was really hoping for a return of the Shadowlands Horde as a playable stronghold. And that desire to have a playable stronghold for the bad guys that wasn’t part of a “Clan” was the main reason behind the Jigoku thing.

Kevin:
So how would you say you feel about spider now?

Ornatov:
Indifferent – just as I feel about the rest of the clans. They’re part of the Empire – I’m not interested. They were a very nice home when they were the outsiders. Now, they’re just a mix of Crab and Scorpion, which is just boring to me.

Kevin:
Now, my understanding is if Jigoku had won out in the War of Dark Fire, then the Shadowlands would have been allied with Kali Ma in some way. Are you happier with the Dark Naga than you would have been with Kali Ma?

Ornatov:
I am happy with the result that yielded the Spider becoming a great clan. 🙂 The vast majority of the people who chose to ally themselves with the Spider wanted to be a great clan. They got what they wanted – this makes me happy. I got what I wanted – a stronghold that allows me and my friends to play the outsiders, without having to ally ourselves with any one clan. It’s a win/win situation, really.

Kevin:
I thought so too. I really missed having Maw’s Grave at the beginning of the arc.

Ornatov:
Yeah, so did I. When it was still legal – I was experimenting with the Spider clan, so I missed out on playing Maw’s Grave at tournaments. When CE started, with no Shadowlands stronghold – I was somewhat concerned. It seems that those concerns were unfounded. 🙂

Kevin:
If everything else could be the same, do you think you would have preferred Kali Ma or the Dark Naga?

Ornatov:
I am not a fan of Kali-Ma, so definitely the Dark Naga. I wasn’t overly excited about Kali-Ma being the bad guy (gal), and the Dark Naga looks like a bad-ass on his card, at least much more so than Kali-Ma. So, yeah, if all things stayed the same: definitely The Dark Naga.

Kevin:
How you have felt about the other clans this arc? Who do you think were the top performers? Were there any decks that surprised you?

Ornatov:
I keep thinking that Lion is overpowered, they just don’t have a star player to prove it. The top performers this arc, in my mind, were Crane and Lion – I’m not sure if the tournament results back this up, but being able to virtually guarantee to go first late-arc is very good. As is being able to buy most of your people in your deck for any 2 holdings in your deck (Lion). There have not been any decks that surprised me with their good performance though I am surprised at Crane’s lackluster performance. Starting at 8 honor, and having such a good personality/action lineup – I fully expected to see at least 4 Cranes in the top-16 at GenCon. And definitely 1 in the top-4. Lion and Unicorn surprised me by not utilizing their Paragon line-up as much as I thought they would. Other than that – not too many surprises.

Kevin:
Were there any decks that you particularly did not enjoy playing against this arc?

Ornatov:
I think I piloted the most NPE decks this arc. 😐

Kevin:
I thought you might say that.

Ornatov:
I never enjoyed playing against Breeder, and I really hated playing against Forgotten Temple. The rest of the decks were perfectly fine to play against (and lose against), because I never felt helpless. I always felt that there was something I could do to salvage a game. Against Breeder – facing down 20+ zombies gave me a feeling of “Why bother?!” The same against Forgotten Temple, when Kali-Ma resolved, and there were 8+ oni on the other side of the board. That exact feeling, btw, is what makes those decks so good. People tend to give up (for good reason – sometimes), and sometimes they lose games that they had a chance at winning.

Kevin:
Besides mantis and oni out of FT, is there anything else that you’re looking forward to in the next arc?

Ornatov:
I don’t know much about the next arc. I look forward to seeing what Spider becomes. I look forward to what the rest of the Mantis themes become. And I look forward to any of the new things that the Design Team introduces. I am hoping that the Design Team pushed the envelope in terms of introducing new things to the game – L5R doesn’t really do “new” very well, yet. And, to quote Bryan Reese, “I look forward to seeing what cards you make me regret printing.” I really like to break cards that the Design Team thought were ok, but that’s not edition specific. Overall, I’m just excited about a brand new arc and brand new themes for almost every clan. I think it’ll be a fun time.

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