Kaijudo Article Contest: An Examination of the Pillars of Competitive Decision Making

zack hine

There are a half dozen trading card games vying for your support and attention at all times. Every game has its intricacies, but all of the major TCGs you’ll encounter boil down to “play guys and attack.” Since everything is so derivative on the surface, it’s easy to understand why the typical player gravitates toward whichever game is most popular.

Kaijudo is a fledgling game whose current player base is dwarfed in comparison to the Yu-Gi-Oh!s and Magics of the world. The Duel Masters pedigree and the Wizards of the Coast backing might have caught your attention for a moment, but then you probably just went back to tinkering with your existing Yu-Gi-Oh! or Magic deck. Anyone who has given the game a try has probably heard comments from spectators:

“Isn’t Kaijudo just a simplified version of Magic?”

”Isn’t Kaijudo just a slower version of Yu-Gi-Oh?”

Yes and no. “Simplifying” Magic is not synonymous with removing skill. “Slowing down” Yu-Gi-Oh! isn’t the same as removing the luck and excitement. I’m here to tell you that Kaijudo is worth a second look.

There are three pillars of Kaijudo decision making that better players will recognize and incorporate into their game: knowing when and how to attack, knowing how to navigate mana during the opening turns, and knowing whether to be on the play or on the draw.

The beauty of Kaijudo is that its simplicity on the surface masks a very thoughtful, probability-based core. Kaijudo rewards risk-takers and conservative players alike, but smart play in seemingly insignificant phases of the game can mean the difference between a win and a loss.

Why Not Rush?

If there is one mantra that best describes how to correctly play Kaijudo, it is this:

Thoughtful aggression can pay dividends, but unchecked aggression will often be punished.

There are no arbitrary life points in Kaijudo. In other TCGs, inevitable “power creep” threatens to shorten the length of an individual game as more and more damage can be inflicted at the expense of fewer and fewer resources. In Kaijudo, a vanilla creature with 1 power and a vanilla creature with 1,000,000 power both only break a single shield. You can choose to rush in with cheap attackers before your opponent has enough mana to stymie your assault, but be aware that against a skilled opponent, you are lowering your chances of victory with each shield you break.

In lieu of a Shield Blast, broken shields go to their owner’s hand. A single cheap creature can be banished with relatively cheap removal and multiple cheap creatures can be banished at once with moderately-costed removal. As you inch your opponent closer to defeat, you are simultaneously giving him or her free cards in hand, which will almost certainly help them to counter your board with said removal (not to mention the existence of powerful Shield Blasts that can wipe out your board entirely if not anticipated).

Imagine you go first, play a Magris the Magnetizer on turn 1, play two Blaze Belchers on turn 2, and your opponent does not play a blocker in the first two turns. This is a nut draw, right? Magris breaks a shield on turn 2, and then all three of them come in for three more shields on turn 3. You’ve successfully reduced your opponent to 1 shield before they have even had a chance to play a card!

This is unchecked aggression, and will often go awry. In this scenario, as the attacker, you have two cards in your hand at the start of your third turn. You can choose not to play mana on turn 3, and simply attack and then pass, keeping those 2 cards. You can play mana and then pass, keeping one card. You can play mana and drop another creature, leaving you without a hand.

Your opponent, on the other hand, now has a whopping 10 cards in their hand at the start of their third turn if no Shield Blasts were triggered. Sometimes your opponent simply won’t have enough mana to play the best cards in their hand, and if that’s the case, congratulations! You won!

Let’s look at some much more likely scenarios:

  • The first Magris attack triggers a Bone Blades. That’s two fewer shields broken by the time your opponent gets to turn 3, which is a significant drop off.
  • The final Magris attack triggers a Barrage or a Tendril Grasp. You’ve still broken 4 shields, but just lost your entire board.
  • Some facsimile of the above two bullet points happens, coupled with your opponent responding with a handful of level 1 blockers (Cyber Sprite, Chasm Entangler), or a Star Lantern, etc.

You can expect your opponent’s deck to average around 15 Shield Blasts (unless they are playing a single civilization). Knowing this, successfully attacking 4 consecutive shields with no setbacks virtually never happens. You’ve now exposed yourself, hoping to topdeck that Return to the Soil or Comet Missile you so desperately need. “Suicide bombing” will certainly win you some games, but given a large sample size, the structure of the current metagame disincentives it. You won’t find success in a five or six round Swiss tournament playing rush right now.

“Safe Attacks” Philosophy

If any opposing shield can be a Shield Blast, doesn’t that discourage attacking to the point where the whole thing is a crapshoot?

Not at all. The crux of the Kaijudo engine when it comes to combat is that every series of attacks is context-sensitive.

I could draw up a hundred different hypothetical board states, and then walk through the rationale for each possible attack. Often times, after giving it some thought, the order and number of creatures to attack with becomes clear. There are general guidelines you want to follow, but again, there are very few “hard and fast” rules for attacking.

What constitutes a “safe attack?”

  • Poking with the various level 3 “swing trigger” creatures (Aqua Seneschal, Gigastand) is oftentimes a safe attack, since the extra card you are potentially giving your opponent is mitigated by the draw / discard.
  • Attacking a tapped creature with a creature with greater power than any of your opponent’s blockers is obviously a safe attack, since your opponent is losing a creature in the exchange one way or another.
  • Double breaking with a creature like Dark Scaradorable while you have a shield lead is usually a safe attack, since Dark Scaradorable already broke a shield for free on the turn he entered the battle zone, so any Terror Pit or Root Trap you trigger will most likely be forced to target him to prevent any further damage. If the broken shields give your opponent the means to fast attack over the top with an Evolution creature or a Bolt-Tail Dragon, they will likely be forced to revenge attack your tapped Dark Scaradorable because of his sizable body. This in effect allows you to keep control of the tempo, since you can answer with a removal spell.

As that last example shows, you want to make the opponent answer your creatures with their creatures, while you answer their creatures with your spells and continually poke with your lower cost guys. You are making the opponent play on your terms, and will almost certainly have a shield lead.

If the tables are turned, you still want to play it safe and prioritize attacking your opponent’s tapped creatures instead of their shields when you can…unless that isn’t the best course of action.

When might a normally “safe attack” be a bad idea?

  • If your opponent has a significant shield lead on you, but you have managed to empty their hand and clear their board, you usually want to hold off on attacking. An errant Shield Blast on your last remaining blocker could give your opponent the win. Instead, react to the threats they put on board while slowly advancing your board state, and then try to win in one fell swoop.
  • If you and your opponent are in a back and forth tug of war, you may want to take your chances and make a few unsafe attacks if you can go for the win. When the game state is such that your opponent has a large number of possible in-hand outs, you find yourself in a catch-22. Sometimes it’s best to just go in and hope for the best. Hitting that last errant Shield Blast won’t feel so bad if you know your opponent was about to advance to 12 mana and summon both a Bolt-Tail Dragon and Gilaflame the Assaulter anyway. Think about what your opponent’s best possible response is in the late game, and figure out what would happen if they indeed have those cards. Be aware of the clock your opponent is putting you on!

Evaluating Your Cards: Anything Can Be Mana

The mana system employed in Kaijudo balances the speed of the game, but it also directly impacts deckbuilding. That narrow, matchup-based card can have just as much utility as the best finisher in the game if you find both in your opening hand, since any card in your mana zone is only as good as its civilization. Evaluating cards in Kaijudo is much more difficult than in other games for this reason; a card will certainly shine when it contributes to multiple victories, but a card that isn’t pulling its weight may slip under the radar because it at least provides value as a source of mana.

In Magic, perfecting your “mana base” of designated Land cards is a skill almost exclusively limited to the deckbuilding phase of the game. You can feverishly analyze probabilities, you can draw sample hands, and you can “best fit” your Land colors against your ideal creature curve. However, when you draw your opening hand, there’s usually very little ambiguity about the order in which to play your Lands. Once permanents hit the board, there are a vast number of possible interactions that can occur because of the existence of instant speed spells, but a well-built Magic deck usually has a linear progression in the early stages of the game. The game is won down the stretch.

Kaijudo, on the other hand, flips this paradigm on its head. As the game progresses, winning or losing can many times be a foregone conclusion because of the mana decisions you made over the first five or six turns of the game.

Managing Early Mana

Turn on all your colors as soon as possible, and throw all your high cost cards into the mana zone in the early game. Seems like the sensible thing to do, right? That’s one line of thinking that will many times benefit you, but can sometimes be to your detriment. Always consider how you think your board will look two or three turns down the road. If you are dependent on keeping creatures in the battle zone for the benefit of a certain high cost card you are holding onto, you can always choose not to attack shields.

  • Opening with multiple Terror Pits and/or Root Traps is a bummer, but don’t be so quick to just chuck all of them into the mana zone. Realize that without your powerful one-for-one removal, you may be susceptible to both midrange and late game threats.
  • Barrage is an easy choice for the mana zone on turn 1, but what about when you draw it on turn 3 and have a Gilaflame in hand? How is your board state progressing? Can you see hard-casting Barrage on turn 6 for at least 2 creatures as a viable play? Gilaflame is a fantastic card, but don’t be completely against tossing him into the mana zone if you have yet to unlock Fire.
  • That Gigabolver that you drew on turn 2 is pretty worthless right now, but you already have Darkness unlocked in your mana zone. What if you have Hydra Medusa in hand as well? Do you think you can get away with playing the Gigabolver alongside another card on turn 4 and then turn 5 Medusa? Do you play it safe and try to drop Medusa on turn 6, even if that means throwing your Bone Blades into mana in order to be able to hold onto the Gigabolver? What if you also have a Gigastand in hand, but you are going second? Can you risk the Medusa getting denied if Gigastand is dealt with?

Play or Draw?

To borrow terminology from Magic, to “play” with your opening hand means to go first, and to “draw” with your opening hand means to go second. In Yu-Gi-Oh!, the player who goes first has a decided advantage, since that person can Summon their monsters, play their Spells, and fortify by setting Traps without fear of any opposing interaction (barring “hand traps”). In Kaijudo, which choice is better?

While there is no mulligan, you are allowed to look at your opening 5 cards before deciding whether to play or draw. This is a unique aspect that further sets the game apart from Magic. You still want to win the die roll so that you can assess your hand and take the better approach, but many times your opponent will be satisfied with that extra card if they end up going second, so it makes the process a little fairer. There’s also no potential regret factor – for example, choosing to play and then having to mulligan down to 5 cards – like there is in Magic.

Why “play?”

  • You will have the first opportunity to attack with creatures.
  • You will be able to preemptively answer your opponent’s creatures before they attack (excluding fast attackers, of course).
  • You will constantly have more mana than your opponent at any given point in the curve (barring mana ramp spells and abilities).

Why “draw?”

  • You get an extra card.
  • If playing more than one or two civilizations, you have additional opportunities to draw into multiples of a given color, and therefore slightly less chance of tossing something into your mana zone out of necessity that you immediately regret.

If the idea of forcing your opponent to react on your terms appeals to you, you might think you always want to play. After all, that turn 3 Aqua Seneschal on the play can be a huge nuisance for your opponent. If the idea of having an extra card and being able to structure your plays with more information (both in hand and on board / opposing mana zone) appeals to you, you might think you always want to draw. The truth is that it changes from game to game.

Example opening hand 1:

  • Terror Pit
  • Prickleback
  • Tendril Grasp
  • Bolt-Tail Dragon
  • Razorkinder Puppet

What do you do with this hand? This is a mish-mash of colors and contains too many late game bombs for my taste. Prickleback can be a very powerful turn 1 play, since he gets in for a shield and then bounces back to be used as mana or Evolution bait later. But do you feel comfortable throwing Tendril Grasp in mana to unlock Nature? With no other low cost creatures or removal spells to be found, the opponent could build up a sizable board to the point where a hard-casted Tendril Grasp isn’t the worst thing in the world. So you could hold onto Prickleback and hope for a turn 4 Evolution and some other Nature draw in the interim, but is it worth sacrificing that many power cards to the mana zone to play it safe and still possibly not get there?

Conversely, if you were to tell me that Bronze-Arm Sabretooth was coming in my next two or three draws, I would gladly play this hand. The opponent is forced to deal with the Sabretooth, and then you end with enough mana to make holding onto both the Bolt-Tail Dragon and the Terror Pit a plausible course. There’s some ambiguity here, but in a tournament setting I would advise drawing with this starting five.

Example opening hand 2:

  • Fumes
  • Gilaflame the Assaulter
  • Root Trap
  • Terror Pit
  • Bone Blades

You can make a case to play or draw with this hand. It would be nice if we had a Razorhide or something, but Fumes is solid on both the play and the draw (although better on the draw), and the same goes for Bone Blades. We have a lot of different courses we can take with this hand, but we’re not constrained to the point where we desperately need that sixth card. Playing this hand and tossing Root Trap into mana on turn 1 is perfectly acceptable, but doing so means you are confident with the number of 3 cost cards your deck plays, because this hand becomes infinitely worse if you don’t do anything before turn 4. Turn 4 Gilaflame on the play is a little underrated in my view, but it doesn’t change the fact that if we don’t do anything before turn 4 and the opponent hits a Seneschal or a Gigastand, we are pretty much forced to follow up with the Bone Blades, making it far less likely we’ll be able to establish a battle zone full of roadblocks before the big guns come out. Gilaflame is a pretty good deterrent, though, and picks the opponent’s board apart, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world. When your hand doesn’t do any one particular thing spectacularly, but it is adaptable to different situations, I like playing it.

The “Snowball Effect”

Always consider the opportunity cost of doing the opposite. “If I’m on the play with this hand, what could happen to make my opponent’s hand advantage become a real problem? If I’m on the draw with this hand, do I run the risk of getting steamrolled before I’m able to set up?”

Every deck in the current Kaijudo metagame puts a strong emphasis on the third and fourth turns, and a strong emphasis on the late game (turns seven or eight and up). Each of these decks has an ideal play they are capable of making during that turn 3 to 4 progression that garners a lot of early advantage. When you don’t anticipate these plays, sometimes “the snowball effect” kicks in, and the free early breaks your opponent’s play provided makes it too hard for you to come back without relying on Shield Blasts, because your opponent’s finishers just end up having an inevitability about them. Having to rely on your own Shield Blasts to even have a chance is never fun, even if they will sometimes come through for you. You never want to leave a match feeling like it all could have been avoided if you decided to do the opposite on turn 1.

Consider this scenario:

Your opening hand is: Fumes, Terror Pit, Dark Scaradorable, Gigastand, and Root Trap. Using the metrics I’ve described above, you would want to play this hand. You have your two main colors, you have your turn 3 “swing trigger” creature, and you have Fumes who is good on the draw, but fantastic when paired with an unanswered Gigastand. Let’s say you instead choose to draw with this hand.

  • Turn 1: Your opponent manas Root Trap, and you mana Terror Pit.
  • Turn 2: Your opponent manas Logos Scan, and you mana a Prickleback you just drew.
  • Turn 3: Your opponent manas Screeching Scaradorable and summons Razorhide. You mana Root Trap and summon Gigastand.

By this point, you should already be dreading the possible implications of your decision.

  • Your opponent hasn’t shown you any Fire mana, and they haven’t summoned a blocker with over 2000 power. Had you been on the play, you would’ve gotten two guaranteed discards. You have no regard for the possibility of your Gigastand getting targeted with Heat Seekers before it can attack. Even if that had happened, it still prevents your opponent from developing their board on a key turn, making the turn 4 Fumes more likely to hit a card of value.
  • You don’t have any answer for Razorhide. If left unchecked, the extra mana he provides can be simply too much to deal with.
  • Your opponent threw Screeching Scaradorable into the mana zone. Not only does that mean they likely have a better turn 4 play – it means they’ve enabled both Bone Blades (which is a problem) and Rusalka (which is brutal) follow-ups.

What ends up happening? Your opponent manas Flamespike Tatsurion, summons Rusalka, bounces back the Gigastand, and gets in for a shield and an extra mana. Now Fumes is still probably your best play on your turn 4, but your opponent is going to get at least one more shield break in, and a definite extra mana, ramping them up to the all important 7 mana on turn 5! Now they can play Terror Pits and Root Traps freely if you can manage to drop a threat, but they can also drop two blockers, a blocker and a Logos Scan, a blocker and a Reap and Sow, and blocker and a piece of removal…the number of bad things that can happen multiplies. Chances are you’re going to lose this game. This disaster could have been mitigated if you decided to play instead of drawing.

Conclusion

Kaijudo is a very simple game to learn and understand. If you have played any TCG in your life, the mechanics of the game will be familiar to you. However, under the veneer of simplicity, there’s a highly competitive game that rewards both playing the odds and taking wild gambles, sometimes in a very back and forth fashion. Eventualities can be planned for, and the game can be ground down to a halt. Early game creatures can get out of hand. Timely Shield Blasts can fire off, eliciting laughter and cheers of those watching. There’s a lot of variety to experiment with and a lot of fun to be had.

Declaring Kaijudo superior or inferior to any of the other games on the market is not my intention, nor is it something I particularly care to measure. But what I do aim to accomplish here is to bring to light the pillars of the game that allow for outplaying your opponent. Sure, there is luck involved. If you haven’t gotten blown out by an unfortunate Shield Blast at just the right time, you haven’t played enough games of Kaijudo; the luck factor will exist in any TCG. But the fact remains that knowing when to attack, knowing how to prioritize the mana in the early game, and knowing how to navigate your opening hand will make you a much better player.

Hope you found this article informative! Thanks for reading!

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