Twenty Years of Memories is a series of interviews (mostly of World Champions, GenCon/North American Champions, and European Champions) by Aaron Frede to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of Legend of the Five Rings. Strange Assembly will be hosting a series of those interviews this week. This is the second; the first is available here. You can find a full introduction, and links to more of the interviews, on the AEG forums.
by Aaron Frede
Twenty Years of Memories: 2003, Part 1
The year is 2003. Gold Edition which brought many sweeping changes to the game is coming to an end. The days of “original” L5R are still cemented in the minds of many but Diamond Edition is on the horizon hoping to build on some of the changes implemented in Gold.
The year is 1160. Putting their differences aside the children of Toturi march into the Shadowlands in an attempt to stop the schemes of the Dark Lord Daigotsu. Meanwhile in the heavens Fu Leng marches on the gates of Tengoku itself to try and claim a place among his brethren.
Today we are hearing from Bryan Reese, Lead Designer of the Legend of the Five Rings. Bryan if people are looking for you online, what handle are you hiding behind on the boards?
Bryan Reese (super clever, right?)
I guess as a lead designer you don’t get to have any anonymity. Where are you from, tell us about your playgroup.
I am from Sacramento, California. Our playgroup has changed quite a bit over time. Initially it started with many local players who played at our local shop, which was run by Steve Horvath. To anyone unfamiliar with the name, Steve got 4th place at the 2nd Day of Thunder in 1997, shortly thereafter became Brand Manager of L5R, and is now the #2 at Fantasy Flight Games. Carlos Rentas was not part of our local shop, but close enough that we saw him at most tournaments. Carlos won the Orem Kotei this year and the Dark Oracle of Water tournament last fall. Since those early days, players have come and gone, but some notable names are Sean Raycraft, John Seals, Tanweer Ahmad (Tan to most people), and Brandon Snyder (new PDT member).
How did you hear about or get involved in L5R?
Steve, our shop owner, learned about L5R at a local convention back at Pre-Imperial (maybe Imperial) and brought it back to the shop. After a little bit of convincing, the shop was hooked and it became our main game, right alongside Magic.
Do you consider yourself a clan loyalist?
At first I was a Unicorn Loyalist. I played nothing but Unicorn for the first 4 years or so playing, all the way through Imperial, Jade, and Pearl, switching to other Clans and playing with everyone shortly before Gold released.
What did you like about or what drew you to the Unicorn clan?
To be honest, I don’t really know. I always have been a control player, and back then Unicorn had good controls options, mostly due to combining good gold, Cavalry, and cards where you could spend money to kill things (Kolat Master, Kolat Assassin, even Geisha Assassin). Heck, I played Evil Portents in my Unicorn deck. Poor Otaku Kamoko didn’t like that very much. 🙂
Once Scorpion had solid control options in Gold Edition, I found myself much closer tied to them than to Unicorn. I tend to enjoy at least some parts of all the Clans, but I always lean towards control decks.
What was your first L5R tournament experience?
Funny you should ask, because it should have killed the game for me forever, but for whatever reason, I stuck with it.
Early in the game, before Forbidden Knowledge had been released, there was a tournament at the AEG offices to which a few of us drove down. I was around 15. I had two main decks, a really good Crane Honor deck and a Unicorn military deck. Being the loyalist I was at the time, I decided to play Unicorn. Now the tournament format was a bit different from what we are used to today. It started off multi-player, 6 players to my table, and then the top 2 players from each table went to the single elimination rounds.
So at my table, a Crane player took his first turn. Then the Crab player took his turn. He played Breach of Etiquette to make the Crane player loses 5 Honor, which the Crane player canceled with a Defend Your Honor. He then played another Breach of Etiquette, and this time it went through. The Crab player finished his turn and it was the next player’s turn who was also Crab. He played another Breach of Etiquette. At my 4 Starting Honor, I was now the highest at the table. I lost 5 Honor, went to -1, and could not afford the Honor Requirements of any Personality in my deck (and had no way to gain Honor without people in play). So before I ever took my first turn in my very first tournament, I was eliminated. As the tournament was single elimination, my weekend was done.
Ah the good old days. 🙂
Do you have a favorite story or quote from the fiction?
“I am my twenty strongest men” – Yoritomo
While a bit generic, many have this quote as their favorite. I think it has always stuck with me because it so perfectly encapsulates the Mantis Clan. Arrogant enough to think that he is his twenty strongest men (and likely believed it), yet he was doing it to sacrifice himself so that others may live. A great summation of the Clan he created, in my opinion.
How about a favorite character?
Isawa Sezaru. I helped create him (in his Phoenix form), he was an incredibly powerful character in the story, and incredibly powerful card in the game, and he was just a wee bit crazy. A fantastic combination.
What is one of the best memories or experiences you have had playing L5R or because of L5R?
I cannot say definitively that this is my best memory of L5R, there have been so many, but this is certainly a memorable one.
Again it was back when the game began. Shadowlands had been released, not Forbidden Knowledge. We decided to play 3 on 3 team. Now, there are a couple of things to keep in mind as I tell this story:
1) This was a time when decks were 30/30 minimum (not 40/40)
2) We were terrible players, and so all of our decks were 60/60. This was a much more common thing back then. 🙂
Ok, so I go to take my first turn and the first card I flip up is Unexpected Allies. I get my Lion Clan Champion, Matsu Tsuko. Sweet!. My Dragon Teammate gets his Dragon Clan Champion, Togashi Yokuni. Holy cow! Our Naga teammate gets his Clan Champion, Qamar. No freaking way! We were ecstatic. We were jumping up, high fiving each other, the whole nine yards. What are the odds of this happening? Must be one in a million or greater. And I promise you, this is real and it was not set up. So anyway, I finish revealing my Provinces on my first turn and what do I reveal? Occult Murders. I kid you not. All of our Clan Champions died. Why was I even playing Occult Murders in Lion military? Did I mention we were all bad players?
So that was a great memory. 20 years later and I still haven’t forgotten.
Do you have a favorite deck that you built or played?
Reese’s Pieces. It was a Scorpion dishonor control deck back in Gold Edition, when Scorpion dishonor was not supposed to be a viable thing (everyone else was playing Scorpion corrupt blitz). I got 3rd place at Gen Con 2002, and in the Top 32, Top 16, and Top 8, I won with three different victory conditions (dishonor, honor, and military, respectively). The Top 8 win was against a Shadowlands player too, when dishonor was supposed to automatically lose when it faced Shadowlands.
Do you have a favorite arc of the game that you played in?
I am going to answer this solely from when I was a player, so pre-Samurai Edition. In that context, I would have to say Lotus Edition, because everything was broken and unfair and when you were a top player like myself, especially a control player, that was fantastic. It was really, really bad for the game, but great for me! In that environment, I built multiple decks that destroyed all of your opponent’s holdings on turn 2 and continued to do so every turn, I built a deck that enlightened on turn 2, a deck that destroyed/bowed every person your opponent had in play every turn, and a deck that destroyed every person your opponent brought into play while discarding their hand while creating lots and lots and lots of Ratling Raider tokens.
As you can probably tell from the descriptions, none of these decks were fun to play against, but they were all very fun to play with!
Tell us about the lead-up to GenCon ’03. What was the environment like? How did you prepare and how did you decide on what deck to play?
It was the end of Gold Edition, and anyone who remembers Gold Edition knows that it was more or less the same as the beginning of Gold Edition (each set changed the environment very, very little back then). One difference was Corruption’s Price, which started seeing a lot of play as soon as it was printed, because Corrupt Iron Mine, Corrupt Geisha House, and Corrupt Silver Mine were all legal.
I had taken a little bit of a break from the game as the environment was very stale, and as such, I was just playing a friend’s deck which was Phoenix control that used its money to kill things and played a lot of Ratling cards because Kan’ok’tichek could buy them all. So I played that deck on Thursday in the grinder at Gen Con and it was good, but I just barely qualified. I noticed a lot of people were playing Corruption’s Price which was devastating to my deck. So I knew this deck would not be the one to play on Saturday. A friend, Leon Phillips, had asked me advice on a Phoenix Ratling deck he had been playing, so I was familiar with it, and it was good. It was also different from other Ratling decks at the time as it was not a Corrupt Holding blitz deck, but a slightly slower, more battle control oriented, which was more up my alley.
So that Friday I found Leon and asked if I could make a copy of the deck and play it, and he was fine with it. So I went back to the hotel and re-created it from the best of my memory. I got one card wrong (playing Superior Tactics instead of Return for Training), but otherwise built the deck properly. Having never played it before, I got a lot of testing in that night, and a lot of that was to Brandon Flores. After some time, we went back to the hotel room we were sharing to crash, only to see that so many people were in there, there was not physical space for two more bodies. So we stayed up all night and played.
Two days later, Brandon and I met in the finals and I won Gen Con 2003.
What was the mood or feeling at the event? Were people excited about the story prize?
The build up to the event was pretty exciting. As a member of the Dynasty Team, we had a story goal in mind and we set out to achieve it and did so. We divided our players up to play as many clans as possible since the Top of each Clan got a story vote. At the end of the day, we won out and Hantei Naseru became Emperor.
Can you recall any details of the final match or any intense moments throughout the tournament?
I went first all three games, even though the environment was “cut plus honor” to see who went first. The one time he “out cut” me was the one game I drew Take the Initiative. In those days, there was no compensation for going second. I don’t recall anything major happening in Game 1 (which I won). In Game 2, I got a poor economic start that was luckily minimized by a Kan’ok’tichek. However, Brandon played a very well-timed Interesting Sticks and crippled my gold on a key turn (3 or 4). I could never recover so we went to the last game. In Game 3, I resolved Lost Souls on my turn three, which was just devastating. It affected me almost not at all, but Brandon started his turn three with all of his Holdings bowed. That basically was the game, though a well-timed Peasant Revolt, bowing out Brandon’s defenders (and not affecting me) on turn 6 or so sealed the deal.
The culmination of the Four Winds Saga had some fairly unique story opportunities: 1 Wind would become Emperor, and 1 would die. As the winner of the events you didn’t get to pick the Emperor, this was decided by a vote of all the Top of Clan players. What was the feeling from those of you that were top of clan at this unique distribution of a story prize?
As mentioned above, Dynasty had split up our resources to capture as many Top of Clan prizes as possible with a unified story goal in mind. As the winner of the Event, I got the most votes (3), but our goals as Dynasty were successful, so I basically just went with the flow. I couldn’t tell you how the other Top of Clans felt, but we certainly enjoyed the story prize.
Who did you vote for?
I didn’t actually. As I had borrowed the deck from Leon Phillips, and knocked him out of the tournament in the Top 4, I let him decide all of my votes for me. The vote was Naseru for Emperor, Tsudao to die (I really did not care for Tsudao).
You did have in your hands who would die since you could choose to bring 1 Wind into your clan. Sezaru was safe from an attendance vote, also a very neat prize for all the players there so after Naseru was picked Emperor you could pick between Tsudao and Kaneka to join your clan or die. What made you pick Kaneka over Tsudao?
I never cared for the character of Tsudao. She was the warrior who always did the right thing because it was right and therefore it was right and good. I found that boring, personally. I understand that people may have a different interpretation, but that was mine. Kaneka was a much more flawed character, IMO, which was interesting. Sezaru was my favorite, and Naseru was my team’s goal. For playing a Samurai game for so long, I don’t actually find the Code of Bushido interesting. At least not the aspect where you always do the good thing for the good thing because it is the good thing. Same reason I don’t care much for Paladins in other game settings. Maybe this is partly why I am drawn to Scorpion.
You also chose a role for the Phoenix clan, Voice, Right, Left and Underhand. Was Voice the role you felt they most suited or did you just want to see Sezaru in Phoenix colors as well?
I am pretty sure this was Leon’s choice, as I believe his favorite was Sezaru (though it might have been Kaneka). Certainly I enjoyed seeing both Sezaru and Kaneka join the Phoenix as I felt it mirrored the Samurai-Shugenja synergy they have always had, going back to the days of Shiba and Isawa.
Your deck was tainted, did that have any repercussions on your pick? Was it an intentional choice? I only ask because in ’05 you were the last remaining corrupt player and would have set Rokugan down the path of Dark Lotus had you won. Are you hiding a secret love for the Shadowlands from everyone?
I do indeed love the bad guys, though as much because they are good at controlling things as anything else. In 2005, as you mentioned I was the last standing Corrupt player (3rd). That was mainly because I was playing Crane control, which summoned Onis to do its dirty work. It was not due to any devotion to the Shadowlands, though I do enjoy stories where heroes fall into darkness, which Dark Lotus certainly would have done.
As for Gen Con 2003, I had three copies of Ikiryo in the deck, but that was because it was just a good Follower and worked in the deck (it was also Leon’s choice, not mine). There was not a specific goal to make the deck tainted. Not that I recall at least.
Anything else you would like to tell players about L5R at that time, or any stories to bring back some fond memories for old school players or inspire new ones?
Nothing that I haven’t already recounted above. L5R has been a part of my life for 20 years now and has created many, many fond memories, too many to recollect in this email. Maybe in our next interview I can recount some more for you.
Thank you Bryan for doing this interview and for your continuing work to grow and evolve this game we all love.