Twenty Years of Memories: Tolis Koutsikos (2003)

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 third; the first two featured Eugene Earnshaw and Bryan Reeseis 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 2

In 2003 there was also the second ever official European Championship, held in Frankfurt, Germany with a chance at Fortunehood on the table.

Today we sit down with the winner of that event, Tolis Koutsikos or tolis k. on the forums.

Where are you from, tell us about your playgroup?

I’m from Athens, Greece and 35 years old. I’ve been playing since the game first came to Greece in Jade Edition, and am currently one of the last active players from that first generation of Greek L5Rers. My local co-players includes one Dragon, one Spider, one Unicorn, one Phoenix (3 Kotei wins), and one Crane (1 Kotei win), gathering once or twice a week in our FLGS and playing it out. Sometimes more players join, but not every week. None of them are currently on the Playtest Team that I am a part of, so it keeps things refreshing for me. They are all people I’ve met through the game over the years and became friends.


How did you hear about or get involved in L5R?

My best friend at that time told me about this super cool new game that our FLGS employee had told him about. “It is about samurai and ninja and honor, and it is really good and strategic”. I was sold instantly.


Do you consider yourself a clan loyalist?

I was a clan loyalist for a very long time (Lion), picked my first clan because of its backstory and stuck to it for many years, ’till its story took an entirely different direction and I was no longer interested in it. Then I started playing everything, but in storyline tournaments I will only play a clan that I am interested in promoting its story. Mainly what draws me in a clan is its association with the historical Japanese setting, the coolness factor of its original backstory, and its current consistency to it. Went from Lion, to Spider, to Scorpion so far.


What was your first L5R tournament experience?

I used to play for weeks with my real-life friends but didn’t really know many other people who played. I was super excited with L5R at the time, so wanted to get really into it. One time I was playing a game with the local gaming shop employee, when another guy at the store was watching us play. When the game ended he told me that he and his friends were attending an L5R tournament in a gaming shop near them, and I should go. I wasn’t completely certain because I didn’t know anyone there, but he told me my deck was good and I should definitely attend because it would be amazing. Having people to talk about cards and strategies sounded great, so I went alone, the tournament was a success and it instantly became a weekly thing. I can faintly remember some of the highlights of my matches even now, everyone was very passionate about their clans and favorite personalities. I was lucky enough to place well even, 2nd or 3rd I think. Beginner’s luck as they say! Made friends with everyone there, still keeping in touch today with most.


Do you have a favorite story or quote from the fiction?

Story? I remember the part where ancient Heigai (former Ginawa) rises and challenges Isawa Mizuhiko, in regards to his bloodsword. The paragraph of his tranformation from a sickly, dying old man to the legendary samurai of the stories is quite epic, and very nostalgic for us old players. I will cheat and choose another one, the one where Nitoshi kills his father, Paneki’s Disgrace. Nitoshi’s portayal as a delusional sociopath is amazing, and very fresh in the setting.


Who is your favorite character?

Matsu Tsuko, the most passionate character ever created in L5R. She embodies the spirit of her clan better than any other personality for any clan.


What is the best memory or experience you had playing L5R or because of L5R?

Wow, so many. But winning the EC at 2003 probably stands out, I still remember people cheering for me during the finals (I think I was the crowd favorite, or maybe the Lion were more vocal), all my friends hugging me simultaneously immediately after the game, and how exhausted I sounded when I had to give a speech at the award ceremony.


Do you have a favorite deck that you built or played?

Mmm, so many. I like control decks because they represent a huge challenge, trying to counter anything the opponent puts on the table while sticking to one of the game’s victory conditions. I also liked old-school tactician decks, because they are very different compared to any other military, and alternative approaches like that had forced me to become a better player when I was starting. In the end, I will have to choose my ancient Ninja Abandoning The Fortunes/Doom of the Dark Lord control deck. So much control, so many different parameters, but it was very satisfying to know that you would win the game a long time before your opponent realized it :).


Do you have a favorite Arc of the game that you played in?

Diamond, because it was a very fresh reboot after Gold, with many new mechanics, looked balanced, and with a solid power level.


Tell us about the lead-up to Euros ’03. What was the environment like? How did you prepare and how did you decide on what deck to play?

No special preparations. I had no idea what to expect, didn’t bother with the Internet much at the time. I was playing Lion, and everyone thought they were strong. I only knew that I played an unbelievable amount of games during that period, and I won a lot, like 85% of them. I simply had built the most efficient Lion deck I could, and kept playing it for weeks. We are talking about online games via Gempukku 1-2 days per week, and 3 real life gatherings plus a tournament every week. Hundreds of games per month. The stories about the previous Euro were legendary, 650+ players participation, playing till 2-3 am, so I was just excited to get a chance to live what I had missed the previous year. It would also be my first trip abroad, so it was as much about tourism and sightseeing as for L5R.


What was the mood or feeling at the event? Were people excited about the story prize?

There was a lot of excitement, the game had been growing very fast in the previous years, and everyone was very enthusiastic and passionate. Officially it was only the second ever European Championship, if I remember correctly. Having a multi-national group of players alone was cause for major excitement, everyone was curious about what/how people in other countries played (information was not as common then, the internet was younger and online L5R resources rarer), a lot of playgroups came prepared with their t-shirts etc. The story prize sounded legendary, and there was a lot of discussions and theorycrafting between players of the clans about who to choose to become a fortune, especially near the end after the top 32 cut. While clan councils were not officially a thing back then, there were several small gatherings of clanmates to discuss things, share decks, talk about the story etc.


Were there any unique or special occurrences at the tournament?

I will never forget my game at the top 4 winner’s bracket, which very few people saw, if any. I was against a player that would happen to become one of the most successful L5R players ever after many years. That guy was running an anti-Koto (soul of Toku) “campaign” throughout the entire tournament, he just hated the card of the little guy. He had “Koto must die” written across his forearms and signed by his opponents, and a lot of other people in the tournament that he had recruited in his campaign. Also he had spelled “Koto” and “Die” below his knuckles! Even one of my friends from Greece had signed his forearm! So we sit across the table and I ask him about it, he explains his campaign to me, and I reveal to him that I run Koto in my deck (my deck was blitz and I could utilize him in many ways). Things got a lot more serious then! So we start the game, I play first, and I get the most perfect god-draw imaginable, without any exaggeration, including all 3 Koto in my first turn! All my draws and flips were perfect beyond imagination, there was nothing he could do, and I won the game on my 4th turn. It was so fast that when one of my friends came over to ask me who I was playing with, he didn’t believe me when I told him we had already played the round and I had won. I can only explain it as karmic vengeance or something. My opponent was very cool though, and we joked about it after the game. It was the beginning of a good friendship that lasts until today. All thanks to Koto the zero gold cost guy!


Can you recall any details of the final match or any intense moments throughout the tournament?

There was a winner’s bracket/loser’s bracket system involved, I came undefeated from the loser’s bracket and had to wait more than two hours for the other games to finish before we could start the finals, I was totally exhausted and kinda feverish even by then. I can still remember almost all of the key plays. I won’t go into specific cards, but in the final game I did lose a major battle and 80% of my army while attacking and with a 4-2 province advantage, leaving me with very few personalities remaining to defend. I congratulated my opponent on the spot for a well fought battle, but told him I wouldn’t concede. I managed to climb back to a somewhat even board position and took a large risk attacking him again after two turns, finally managing to destroy his army by 1 force and winning the game after that.


Were there any major changes in the game from Gold to Diamond or just a new base set and smaller card pool to work with? How did this affect your choice of deck or clan?

Not many rule changes (actually can’t remember any right now, but maybe I’m forgetting). Just a fresh card pool to work with. It didn’t affect my choice of clan at all, was going to play Lion no matter what. My deck-building mentality at the time was maximum efficiency, ignore meta, so I went with that. Coincidentally, Lion had the perfect card pool for that attitude, so everything worked out in the end.


In the aftermath of Fu Leng’s war in the heavens the story prize for Euros was the ascension to the Fortunehood for one living member of the winner’s clan. Goemon was your third pick, did your prize feel diminished at all that he wasn’t your first choice?

Not at all, although I was very worried about the future continuation of the storyline of my first choice (Akodo Ginawa). In my mind, ascension to Fortunehood was a very appropriate ending to Ginawa’s story, so it felt liked a huge missed chance. I was very happy for Goemon however, because he was a personality that always got reprinted and legal, but never got any storytime! So it was well-deserved. Not to mention, his card was one of the reasons I had chosen to play Lion when I started, because I liked the art. So I kinda owed him, and that’s why I had picked him anyway.


Goemon would go on to have an important role during the Rain of Blood as the General of the Legion of the Dead in the battle for the Spirit realms. Was his story satisfying as a story prize?

It was a good story, but the whole Spirit Realm setting seemed a bit far and removed from the major setting of Rokugan, so I wasn’t much invested in the story. But I was very satisfied that he got storytime after so long!


You are now a member of playtest and worked on 20F what is one of the favorite cards that you have gotten the chance to help develop through playtest?

Mmm, my favorite card from the whole arc is in an upcoming set, so I won’t spoil it now. From the base set alone, I will have to choose Taitaken Sensei, a strong card that supports several themes at once, its power properly balanced with appropriate costs, and with several cards to work with in a deck-building level.


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?

There are so many stories to share. People were more passionate about the story and the characters, at least in the way they expressed it in the card game. Decks were much more personal, and playing with a tainted or Kolat card, for example, mattered a lot. I remember at that time (Gold to Diamond) Tsuno were introduced, a thing that made Lion players unhappy for a lot of reasons. So one of my friends, in the EC one year earlier, had eaten several copies of Tsuno cards in front of the Story Team Lead writer at that time (Rich Wulf, I think) because he wanted to make a point! So that is indicative of the spirit of the game at that time, the perfect mix of coolness and nerdness that all us gamers are so fond of. It what has driven the game for 20 years. And I have seen an L5R card eaten once again, when another of my friends ate a copy of Chagatai after the end of a Kotei where the winner had won the finals solely due to him. I was the guy that had lost to Chagatai, so my friend wanted to express his disappointment, I guess.


Thank you to Tolis for chatting with us about Euro’s, the Lion Clan, and the strange obsession L5R players have with eating cards. I recall a similar infamous incident with Toturi III.

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