(Metagame Archive) Theoretically Speaking: Initiative Choice

By Shane Wiggans

Welcome to the third installment of Theoretically Speaking. In this article, I will be wading through ground that seems a little bit, well, theoretical. In my previous two articles, I talked about very concrete concepts that are in the forefront of most Vs. System players’ minds: formation and the chain. Today, I would like to invoke my column’s namesake just a little bit. Without further ado, allow me to reveal the mysterious topic that we will be exploring together next: initiative choice.

First, let me explain to you how I came to this topic. As the time this article was due drew near, I had no idea what to write. I have been frustrated with finding fun time for Vs. System, mainly due to my preparations for Pro Circuit San Francisco. At the time of writing this article, there was a deck that many players thought would dominate the PC, so my attention was focused on trying to find the tech to beat it. So when it came time to write my article, I was dumbfounded. I had spent most of the last week working on ways either to play or beat this new deck instead of cultivating glorious topics for you and me to explore together.

What did I do, you ask? I went to the man who has all the answers: Tim Batow. It’s my understanding that Tim Batow is the equivalent of Hercules: gods give him all kinds of information and an uncanny ability to do gymnastic moves! Although, when I informed him I was using that statement, he said that he was nowhere near the size of Hercules, to which I replied, “Thank you, thank you very much.” (He made my short joke for me; that’s how cool Tim Batow is!)

I told my dilemma to Tim, and he responded, “Well, you know, you could talk about initiative.” I dismissed it in a heartbeat. Initiative? Bah! Everyone knows how that works. Then he said, “Well, obviously from a technical aspect it doesn’t offer much, but from a theoretical aspect there’s a myriad of topics to cover.” As I thought about it, I realized Tim was right, which brings us back to the article you are reading.

History . . . Man, I Hated School!  

I wasn’t going to include this section, but I feel that if we don’t learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it. What follows is a brief explanation of how initiative choices have evolved in Golden Age, and why.

  1. The First Golden Age: Taking even initiatives was the way to go. Common Enemy devastated the environment. Evens was the preferred initiative because Common Enemy players wanted to recruit Dr. Doom, Diabolic Genius and use Reign of Terror before their opponents could do the same. While there were other decks that tried to take advantage of this choice of initiative (specifically, The New Brotherhood), evens was still the predominately picked initiative.

 

  1. Curve Sentinels, or The Robots that Wouldn’t Die: When Patrick Yapjoco brought Curve Sentinels to the forefront, it cracked the metagame in the head. This was a deck that preferred the odd initiatives and dealt handily with Common Enemy. All of a sudden, it was purple everywhere, and you heard a collective, “I will go first,” at the start of every round.

 

  1. Squadron Supreme, or Look Mom, No Hand!: Again, the metagame shifted, as this novelty deck went from janky premise to totally dominating in no time. This deck typically played for the evens to get a turn 6 kill, though it could swing for the fence on turn 5 just as easily. Also, New School jumped into the game as well, calling evens to get the most out of Dr. Doom, Diabolic Genius like the original Common Enemy builds did, as well as the new 6-drop recruit, Spider-Man, The Spectacular Spider-Man.

 

Looking at that brief synopsis of how the Golden Age environment has changed, we have learned that the initiative choice at any given time is influenced by the environment. The goal of the rest of this article is to prepare you as much as possible for making the initiative decision yourself, as it is a critical decision in every game. Without further ado, let’s delve into the exciting world of initiative choice!

Man, It Would be Nice to be a Jedi!  

Every time I roll a die, I am tempted to wave my hand over it like Liam Neeson did in Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace to try to influence the result. Sometimes I am strong with the Force (and get my desired result), and other times, well, my opponent gets lucky. How to determine initiative is always a point of contention. I have seen players who steadfastly refuse to use any method other than a die roll. I can somewhat understand this, as a flip of the coin is not completely arbitrary. It is my understanding that there is a 51% chance the coin will land on heads and a 49% chance it will land on tails. Even though it’s a negligible difference at best, I have heard players say that it’s still prudent to do everything you can to give yourself the best shot at winning the initiative choice.

When it comes to initiative rolls, you should always be prepared. Have a die on hand, as sometimes no one else around does, which can cause you to lose a precious few minutes off your match time. Trust me, when you are playing a stall-type deck that requires a late game win condition, or a deck that requires a lot of thinking and decision making, those extra minutes count.

It’s Always Best to Go First, Right?  

It’s funny to me when I hear individuals blindly assume that going first is the best choice for initiative. In many other trading card games this may be true, but for Vs. System it is not a steadfast rule, and that is what makes me love this game. Taking the initiative is a strategic decision that requires a lot of thought as well as knowledge of your deck, the metagame, and your opponent. Let’s first talk about initiative decisions in regard to your own deck.

Me, Myself, and . . . My Deck?  

Not every deck will want to take the odd initiatives. This can be due to a variety of reasons. For one, if your deck goes for a victory turn on turn 4, 6, or 8, it makes sense to try to have the initiative on those turns. Fairly simple stuff so far, right?

Now, let’s consider a deck that can win on either initiative. How do you determine which one to take? This is the best type of deck to take to a major event, because it always allows you to win the initiative rolls. You never have to gamble on whether or not you get your preferred initiative. You won’t be going to your friends and responding to them when they ask, “Did you win?” with a shake of the head and a simple, “He got the initiative.”

Determining which initiative works for your deck isn’t that simple, though. There is a general consensus that taking the first initiative is always the way to go. I want to urge everyone reading this article that the previous statement is false. Look at the combos and goals associated with your deck. Just because Deck A prefers to take the first initiative doesn’t mean that yours does. In the end, you should try to maximize your deck’s potential. Taking the time to learn which initiative your deck prefers can go a long way to helping you be successful in this game.

Know Thy Enemy

Having an adequate knowledge of the metagame is always a key to a player’s success. I did well in PC: Atlanta because I knew what to expect. (Though, to be honest, we only had an Energy/Mental deck and not a straight Mental one.) I was able to predict matchups and know what my opponent would be trying to accomplish. While this knowledge has an application for many different concepts in this game, we are going to focus on its impact on initiative choice.

Knowing what initiative your opponent is going to take has a huge impact on the game. It can have the effect of you playing a completely different deck, theoretically speaking. If you only playtest going on your preferred initiatives, you don’t know how your deck runs against the grain. Even if you run it on your non-preferred initiative, that doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Again, knowledge of the metagame is critical. If you know that Squadron Supreme is a machine on odds but operates like a car in need of gas on the even initiatives, you obviously have an incentive to try to make the Squadron player have the even initiatives. Hence, initiative choice can severely hamper an opponent’s win percentage.

What you must keep in mind is that initiative stealing is only effective if you are not limiting yourself by your choice. If you know that your deck works well on the odd initiatives but not on the evens, and you are playing against a deck that prefers the even initiatives and does not do well on the odds, you must make a metagame call using your knowledge of which deck is stronger on its non-preferred initiative. If yours is stronger, it might be worth the gamble to take your opponent’s preferred initiative away from him or her.

Know Thy Format  

Much like the metagame, having adequate knowledge of the format you are playing can be helpful in determining which initiative to take. All the tools required for an understanding of which initiative a Sealed player should take are at your fingertips. Each set that is used for the current Pro Circuit Draft format is well-known to all players before the PC. So, this isn’t as much of a prediction and guessing game as it is a number-crunching exercise. Through testing and experience, a good player should be able to determine which turns are the victory turns given any particular Sealed environment.

For example, in the current Draft format for Silver Age, evens is the preferred initiative. I can’t fathom a time when I would want the odd initiatives. The way the power swings in this format, a turn 6 win is very likely. If I did happen to get a bomb 7-drop that I wanted to play, I would still be tempted to take evens just to ensure that I make it to turn 7. There is no clear-cut way to determine which initiative is worth taking. I only make this statement after multiple X-Men drafts and experience playing with different deck archetypes, and I urge you to make this a practice of yours as well.

Drafting and the Initiative  

I gave this concept a section of its own, as I feel it is very important. As I stated above, knowing the preferred initiative is very important in Sealed play, since knowing when games end can help determine which initiative to take. Clearly, this concept also affects drafting strategy. If you know that you want to take the even initiatives, you may be less inclined to value a 7-cost character over a 6-cost character. Conversely, in an environment where you expect to hit turn 7 regularly, and occasionally make it to turn 8, 7-drops will be valued more because the odd initiatives will be more popular. You want to draft to your victory turn, and knowing which initiative you want to play will aid you in making those decisions.

So, what influences Sealed play initiative choices? Generally, it’s the available sets. For example, let’s take a brief look into The X-Men and determine what makes this set prefer the even initiatives. I tend to look at character selection when trying to determine where the strength of the set lies.

Normally, your curve’s average stats are as follows:

Turn 1:  1 ATK / 1 DEF

Turn 2:  2 ATK / 3 DEF, or 3 ATK / 2 DEF

Turn 3:  4 ATK / 5 DEF or 5 ATK / 4 DEF

Turn 4:  7 ATK / 8 DEF or 8 ATK / 7 DEF

Turn 5:  9 ATK / 9 DEF

Turn 6: 12 ATK /12 DEF

Turn 7: 15 ATK /15 DEF

For The X-Men, there are characters that fall into that average curve, but they also offer a full team of curve-jumping characters. Look at the maximum ATKs below for each drop:

Turn 1:  3 ATK / 1 DEF (Angel Dust)

Turn 2:  5 ATK / 1 DEF (Plague)

Turn 3:  7 ATK / 2 DEF (Thornn, Lucia Callasantos)

Turn 4: 11 ATK / 4 DEF (Feral)

Turn 5: 14 ATK / 7 DEF (Sunder)

Turn 6: 16 ATK / 9 DEF (Scaleface)

Turn 6: 20 ATK /12 DEF (Hemingway)

Almost every character mentioned above is a full step above the average curve in regard to their ATK. However, these characters all have drawbacks to them so they won’t send the game into a tailspin. That being said, in a rush deck, it’s easy to see how splashing a non-reinforceable 16/9 on turn 6 is ok, especially if it’s your attack step, as you likely will win before the drawback becomes relevant. By taking time to analyze the set,* you can learn which initiative works best.

Conclusion Time!  

In the end, the concept of initiative choice is very abstract. Making a good choice requires work—you have to know your deck, the metagame you expect to see, and the format in which you’ll be competing. Hopefully, I was able to bring attention to an aspect of the game that is not given nearly as much thought as it needs. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line. I look forward to hearing from you and meeting all of you who have been kind enough to tell me to say hi at PC: San Francisco. Until next time, may your Tim Batow jokes be plentiful!

* Other ways to learn include locating key finishing cards, like Scaleface, Callisto, etc. Also, determining the power level of key plot twists that help jump the curve or bounce attacks can give clues as to which initiative to take.

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