The Shadow’s Embrace (TSE) is the latest expansion for the Legend of the Five Rings CCG. It contains 159 different new cards. Unlike standard L5R CCG expansions, it is not sold in booster packs or starter decks, but is only available directly from AEG – $200 for the whole expansion, or $150 for a playset of non-Clan-specific cards plus one Clan-specific set of your choice. The Shadow’s Embrace just released, and will go legal immediately before GenCon 2012. This review will look at The Shadow’s Embrace for a more casual player – the Strange Assembly podcast will, as usual, do an in depth audio review/discussion of the set.
The ongoing interactive storyline in The Shadow’s Embrace heats up the tensions between the Clans in the Empire’s new Colonies – the Lion and Phoenix continue to snarl at each other, the Crane and Mantis have come to blow, the Crab are cranky and are (along with the Scorpion) gunning for the Spider, and the Dragon and Unicorn are getting testy over an engagement gone wrong.
It’s the elephant in the room, so let’s get it out of the way – there’s was a reasonable amount of sturm and drang over the release of The Shadow’s Embrace as a factory set. First, why is it being done this way? Well, the base set, Emperor Edition, was supposed to come out in November 2011, then the first expansion (Embers of War) would have come out in February, The Shadow’s Embrace would have come out as a normal expansion in May 2012, and the next expansion Seeds of Decay was slated for September 2012. But Emperor Edition was itself delayed until February 2012 (largely due to flooding in the area of China were the set was printed), which pushed Embers of War back to May 2012. AEG says it considered all sorts of options for all to deal with the mess, and what (IMHO) it probably came down to was that they couldn’t afford to drop a release entirely and couldn’t cram three normal retail releases into the span of five months (Embers in May, TSE in July, Seeds in September). So it came down to this.
Retailers were not happy although really when they lost a set release to sell was back in November 2011, since 2012 is still seeing releases at all the normal times. AEG keeping their plans for TSE under wraps probably unnecessarily caused hurt feelings among retailers, who felt blindsided by the announcement of a factory set, even though it was at that point a set they hadn’t previously known existed. IMHO, what’s ultimately bad for the retailers in the long run is what’s not ideal for the casual player – it’s another big one-time expense that can deter people from picking up the game and later buying packs. I know that the Forgotten Legacy direct to player set from 2011, which is relatively overpowered and a must-buy for competitive play, was already seen as an obstacle, even though it costs half as much (what’s the difference between a direct-to-player and a factory set? A direct-to-player set is smaller, doesn’t contain a normal rotation of strongholds, and aims to have a higher card power level than usual).
Which is a shame because, ultimately, The Shadow’s Embrace (and Forgotten Legacy) are much more economical than buying booster boxes until you get a playset. There’s no way to build up pack by pack, but a one-time shot is way cheaper than the net cost of all those packs, and is substantially cheaper even than buying boxes online at reduced prices.
The most impactful aspect of any L5R set is the Strongholds, and since TSE is a normal set in funny packaging, it has the usual three (plus the Experienced versions of the Celestial Swords of those three Clans).
The strongest-looking Stronghold is the one I’m least fond of, because the Crab did not need any help right now. Bishamon’s Tower features reusable and nearly restriction-less kill for Crab Berserkers – any enemy card without attachments, so long as it has lower Force than your 7F+ Berserker (who may be bowed). It will be interesting to see how the “kill Stronghold” v. “prevention Stronghold” battle plays out in Crab Berserker decks (last time the defense Stronghold, Razor of the Dawn Castle, won the battle over The Seventh Tower).
The Crane receive Twin Forks City, which supports their Magistrate Duelist theme. The original Crane Magistrate box (The Aerie) created a duel itself. Twin Forks City instead makes the duels you already have better, by protecting your Personality who won it. In story, Twin Forks City is a Crane city that lies on the road between The Second City (the capital of the colonies) and the Crane and Mantis coastal holdings (The Aerie and Kalani’s Landing, respectively).
Finally, the Phoenix get The New Foundries, which in mechanical flavor and actual flavor text is a callback to the old Agasha Foundries. The Foundries are a curious box (designed for the elemental destruction military theme) that lets you shove Spells from your hand underneath the Stronghold, and then discard them later for an effect based on the elemental keywords on the Spell. Unfortunately, the particular effects you can get, while OK (straightening three guys or drawing a card more so than the Ranged 4 Attack), have to compete with the normal printed effects you would have received just from playing the Spell (and you can’t use it easily on defense). So I have to admit that I’m not particularly impressed.
TSE includes a cycle of nonhuman Personalities for the Great Clans – an elephant for the Crab, a golem for the Dragon, and so forth. We see the arrival of a new powerful supernatural entity on Blood of the Preserver, and an Event (Discovering the Temple) that tutors for it.
Other cards that have generated buzz are Duel to First Blood (it’s a duel; duels are always hot), Forged Documents (it’s no Bane of the Bastard, but it does have the possibility to wreck someone’s turn), Fortress of the Lidless Eye (yes, we’re still in L5R, not LotR – Open lockdown out of the dynasty has real potential), Natural Aviary (an improved version of Farmlands/Utaku Meadows), On (anti-honor Event), Platinum Mine (a 6-for-6 Holding when paying for attachments), Sudden Movement (switch the location of two Personalities), Unexpected (bow a card without attachment and maybe draw a card),
The Crab continue to be the most tournament successful Clan (all four of their themes have done well in tournaments), and pretty much any Crab military deck will be salivating over the new Celestial Sword of the Crab – has repeat use “Battle/Open: Straighten this unit” ever not been great? Crab Scout decks will enjoy a minor Rallying Cry in Hiruma Hikazu, and a free-for-them destroy target attachments effect in Unstable Ground. Fan favorite Hiruma Nikaru reappears in an Experienced version which is, thankfully, not ridiculous like the base one was. The new fan favorite Crab from this set will probably be Kuni Renyu, daimyo of the Kuni and younger brother to the Little Bear Hida Kisada (he’s leading the anti-Spider charge).
The Crane, on the other hand, continue to be the least tournament successful clan in Emperor Edition, picking up a Kotei here or there out The Aerie but generally falling short. Their Celestial Sword is less exciting, handing out Force penalties (and, if you’re playing the Courtier theme, an honor) – basically a bad version of Temple of Persistence. Since it doesn’t work when bowed, it seems tough to work into a military deck, and costs an awful lot for an honor deck (although it does at least gain you honor when it comes into play). Crane are more fond, however, of Kakita Saki, who makes free Armor, and his admirer Kakita Ichigiku, who makes any duel against a dishonorable Personality lethal.
The Dragon cooled considerably with the release of Embers of War, but continue to field tournament-worthy Kensai and Kitsuki decks. Those two decks get incremental improvements with cards like Forge Your Soul and Kitsuki Yoyugi, which won’t push the decks any higher, but should help stop further slippage. The woeful Tattooed Monks actually get cards that aren’t bad which will, hopefully, let them become relevant after Seeds (which will likely include a new Dragon Monk Stronghold). Among those cards is Togashi Korimi, who has been lauded for her “great art” (although I think it’s mostly the lack of clothing that’s earning this praise; Togashi Kasuru has art that’s just as high quality, but you don’t see nearly as many comments about how the shirtless old guy is great art).
The Lion continue to field the hottest honor deck (Ancestors) and do good things with their Paragons, either alone or in combination with other themes. Lion blitz looked to have a lot of potential after the Kotei 2012 promos went legal on July 1, but there’s only been one storyline tournament since then, so we haven’t really had the chance to see anything. Those Kitsu got another good Ancestor-generator in Kitsu Sorano (plus the Spell Our Ancestor’s Call). And while the Lion Tacticians have been used so far mostly as an ancillary part of decks, TSE gives them another decent Personality (Akodo Furu) and a fantastic kill action (Tactical Assault).
The Mantis have done better lately on the back of Kalani’s Landing, one of the most powerful Strongholds in the game, and I’d expect that to continue. Their Kitsune decks are also severely underrated, and have done a lot better in tournaments that most players realize. Mantis may be some of the biggest winners from TSE, starting with the bonkers Moshi Rukia (toast an attachment, take another action). All of the Mantis themes pick up a goodie or two, including some solid combos in the economic warfare deck with Yoritomo Kanahashi’s blanket gold cost reduction trait.
The Phoenix position prior to the release of TSE reminds me of Celestial Edition – really terrible at making the cut, but several tournament-viable decks (and managing to win tournaments as well). They’ve done well with elemental destruction and both honor and dishonor decks out of their Inquisitor theme. Phoenix get several really juicy cards this set. Their Celestial Sword temporarily resurrects people for free; so, pretty nuts. Although the new Foundries stronghold doesn’t impress, TSE also brings a new Agasha daimyo who (in addition to working with the box) lets you recycle spells out of the discard pile. The underperforming Henshin theme picks up a powerhouse card in Direct the Path, which better-than-kills anything without attachments. There’s a Unique Shiba with a printed lethal Battle duel.
Scorpion have been struggling to get dishonor moving as well as they’d like, but it has still put in decent performances, and Paragons of Loyalty continues to perform reasonably well. Their currently lackluster Magistrate decks get a big pickup in Cowed and Defeated, which dishonors someone and probably dings for 5 honor loss. But the deck with the most improvements might be their Ninja, which continues to add reasonably high Force with decent Battle actions (Shosuro Keirei xp, Shosuro Nobu), plus good Strategies (including Sneak/Ambush in the form of Shinobi Assault).
Spider haven’t made a big splash in wins, but they’ve dragged themselves out of the dumpster recently in general tournament effectiveness. They’ve largely accomplished this on the strength of the Goju stronghold, which supports about 9 actual Goju/Ninube and then whatever random awesome Personalities you feel like throwing in. Most of their themes pick up a couple of good additions (sorry, Commanders), including the totally free Overcome Adversity for their Paragons (do something, draw a card, take another action is always good), and a couple of new Kensai for the Sohei deck (including an experienced version of the favorite and often-used-out-of-Clan Yamazaki).
Unicorn ramped up its performance in the Embers of War environment, with the big surprise (at least to me) being the real success of their Death Priests decks. They also has luck with Battle Maidens and “random good guys + attachments out of one of the two Tactician boxes.” The favorite Unicorn card out of this set will surely be the current Khan, Shinjo Min-Hee. Unicorn also pick up a solid Unique in their nonhuman, Longtooth (the experienced version of Unicorn War Dogs), which will eat Personalities through Spells and Items.
In addition to the cards, TSE comes in a rather sturdy box (with some really great art on it) that can be used to carry about 3000 cards around in, and comes with plastic dividers to separate out card types (including different Personality alignments).
That’s it for this expansion. Don’t forget to check Strange Assembly in the next couple of weeks for the longer audio set review. See you in a couple of months for Seeds of Decay!
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of review material.