Welcome to the forum and that crucial first post, sir! If only some of the other visitors had plucked up the courage, this forum may have retained some of its early activity level. We are a friendly bunch here, even if there is an unhealthy Conquest bias amongst regulars (because there was no other forum for that under-appreciated game, perhaps a lesson about fragmentation weakening a hobby).
Thank you for your kind words. However, please note I've never won anything of note, I'm simply a theory-crafter with a strong card gaming background, The main reason I mention this is because when I am finally tested at the UK Expo Euros, I will not do well. The reason is because I have almost always exceeded the max. 75 mins tournament game length to win my Stronghold games - because I have been playing a safety first approach to win in untimed games. The game is so fluid that the length of time you need to win is a function of the "win trajectory" game length that you set yourself when you play the game, because of the fate mechanic and the efficiencies therein. In short, the safest optimal play to victory often requires longer than the maximum 75 mins artificial time limit required by tournaments. To win within time limitations requires you to play sub-optimally - any good player will confess they will let provinces go and race to win within a time limit. To me that makes a tournament game with its artificial tie breaker a variant of the real game. I believe this after current 12-0 unbeaten in Stronghold League games but almost every game has exceeded tournament time limits - and sometimes I would have lost within a tournament game limit horizon because I timed my game to win at a longer game length than this artificial horizon.
A good analogy would be the "suspend" mechanic from MTG. This is the closest to L5R's fate transience we get. But there is no point in playing a suspend spell that exceeds probable game length. The same is true of L5R's Fate mechanic. The reality is the fate mechanic and the time limit in win trajectory this creates makes any sort of fixed length L5R game such as a tournament game a variant of the game because you must win within X mins. In an unfettered game, you choose how long you plan to win a game by your + Fate lifetime decisions.
This is important to what you ask because it answers the question: "why still play Crane after its Core Set strength has not been reinforced?" (This thread may have helped establish Crane.Dragon that I championed as THE tempo deck.) Crane were stuffed in Imperial Cycle compared to most other Clans and the Phoenix Clan pack only applied more hurt to Crane in the form of Clarity of Purpose and Isawa Tadaka (because Crane lives or dies from its excellent events). Crane is most definitely the least improved Clan since Core, when I instantly identified it as strong in this thread. Of all the Clans, I would gladly play a 3x Core Crane deck more than any other Clan. They have gained so little.
And yet I play them because, if I want to win within time limits, they are probably a good choice. It's that artificial constraint of winning within a time limit that makes me prefer to roll the dice with the burst tempo of Crane over other alternatives that take longer to win. There is something intrinsically wrong with the game if you play a deck because it is the "quick win gamble" deck. Tournament time limits and tie-breakers (that favour Crane with its province breaks advantage) are surely not reflective of play skill. Or maybe you are required to practice hard to play faster and gamble with big investments face checking high impact unknown provinces so that you fall within tournament time limit parameters. And then there is the issue of published deck lists (a defence vs scouting) which actually influences deck-building because you must represent various threats in your deck list to dare the opponent to gamble.
This leads me to Dimensions of a Deck Build.
How LONG is your deck? Is it short and wins quick or dies? Or is it long, gains momentum and wins over a greater length of time?
How BROAD is your deck? Does it have so many x2 and x1 cards that it's difficult to predict but also difficult to focus a direction beyond luck of the draw? Or is it so narrow in breadth with its x3 cards that it's predictable in its optimisation?
How DEEP is your deck? And in deep, I mean how deeply are you committed to pursuing your win strategy? Are you 100% a province conquest strategy? Or 100% a dishonour or honour victory strategy? Or rather a hybrid with flexibility to switch from one strategy to another?
So what's all this got to do with your question, namely "how can I beat Phoenix with Crane, that I find oppressive?".
The first question you need to ask yourself is "what sort of Kyuden Isawa splash Dragon deck am I facing? What are its dimensions?"
The tempo build that has 3x Banzai and other tempo choices wants to win fast. In many ways, it's the hardest build to beat as Crane because it reduces the game length to draw better than your opponent. As a result your opponent may win simply because he/she drew better than you (Charge + Fuschicho with Tadaka to recall is the main variance play that you either cancel or have a tough battle undoing). In many ways, this is the closest to rolling a die beyond a Lion mirror that exists in the game.
So let's talk about how Crane beats a slower build which will undoubtedly win the longer the game goes. Here's the classic fast game vs slower game duel we all want to witness (rather than the high variance of 2 fast game match-ups).
Firstly, against Phoenix, understand Water is their key ring whilst for Crane, Fire is your key ring. This means you don't make yourself vulnerable to Water Ring in conflict 1 in the way that you add extra fate to characters and how you defend vs Void in a prior turn. You cannot have Doji Shigeru or a Political Rival on 0 Fate as 2nd player when your opponent can easily force a Military win in conflict 1 to bow it.
You also need a build that can win in either conflict because of Kuroi Mori under the stronghold.
At this point, I need to talk about the Rings. Have you thought about how they were designed? They are very much linked to Length and Depth of your deck, hence your strategy.
If your deck wants Short term impact and Board Position focus, Water has greatest impact.
If your deck wants Short term impact and Honour/Dishonour focus, Earth has greatest impact.
If your deck wants Long term impact and Board Position focus, Void has greatest impact.
If your deck wants Long term impact and Honour/Dishonour focus, Air has greatest impact.
If your deck wants a mix of Short term Board Position and Long term Honour/Dishonour, Fire has greatest impact.
Fire is the most important ring for Crane. You can't rely on Shameful Display to just Noble Sacrifice their best character to win the game (but this happens too often to claim this is a game of skill). It ensures Voice of Honour threat (pause or hesitate if you can cancel, even without it), Noble Sacrifice and turns all of your 3-costers into efficient 5 strength characters. And it funds your card draw (lagged), the oxygen of tricks you need to win.
If Crane were Keeper of Fire (alas they came 2nd and Lion took that role), Hotaru is better due to honouring a Keeper post arrival. And yet somehow, despite this random mechanic of player choice that shapes the meta, we are to believe Clans are balanced? Impossible! Try Phoenix Seeker of Void or Crane Keeper of Fire. There can be no balance because players choose an unbalancing mechanic. In Thrones v.1, around half of all "Champion designs" were Restricted. When are we going to accept having player input into design is incredibly unbalancing? If I was a designer, how the f*ck am I supposed to balance the game for each Clan when such an important factor (such as access to Feast or Famine) is unknown to me? So let's face it folks, either you want player input and an unbalanced game or you just discard this ridiculous constraint that actually further rewards the strongest factions (as opposed to the reverse draft that I proposed at the start of this forum). Let's not pretend there is any other choice beyond either Balance or Player Input Imbalance. This is why MTG is so careful at giving players design decisions.
"But none of this helps me win as Crane vs. Phoenix!" So here are some tips.
1. A well-built Crane deck can apply force via its card choices in any conflict. Or negate any amount of force via bow. Make opponents unwilling to over-commit in case of bow negation. There is a lot of invisible force behind every Crane probe and block. You get to evaluate the optimum lane of attack. It's difficult to explain but every Crane conflict is skirting with an effect that negates all your bonuses via bow. So if the opponent has this trump card, when are you going to waste your pumps? You need to fool the opponent into thinking they can win this flurry of conflict cards when you had it stitched up long before and the moment the opponent over-commits, you reveal your true nature. Crane to me feels like fishing - you cast your line and catch that fish and bait the opponent to over-commit resources to break/defend a province, only to have their plan negated. Playing Crane sometimes feels like playing a conman. If I'm winning but not breaking, my opponent can pump to deny me the win then I will pump so I am winning and once I have lured you into playing your tricks, I can bow with Admit Defeat and now I'm breaking with equal card resources spent. Crane has the loosest correlation between presence and threat.
2. Pass first. This is normally done in my Crane builds by playing a 3F+3F character then passing. You can do this because there are so many solid (but not amazing) 3F characters that threaten a break (especially with Way of the Crane). Your main first attack is almost always Fire, or Water to ready the defender you used in conflict 1. Accept a few province breaks if it happens at the start. You will stabilise and win with just efficient dynasty plays and early dynasty passes.
3. Always keep at least 1F spare. My most hated card as Crane is Goblin Sneak as there is no defence so read the opponent's deck accordingly (rarely will the opponent play a Sneak if you are at 2+ Fate unspent). The option to block on Shameful Display attack with a weenie then kill the attacking character with Noble Sacrifice can't be overstated. The high RNG that is Shameful Display can win or lose games with Crane especially - live with this randomness (cheers, FFG, for making this so random).
4. Appreciate which rings are first/second conflict and which are third/fourth conflict. To explain this better, I will highlight how the rings correspond to the "length x depth" face of your "deck cube":
Water has the shortest term impact (the rest of this round) + impacts the board (via bow or ready).
Earth also has short term impact (losing and gaining a card) + re-balances hidden resource (cards).
Void has a longer term impact (next turn presence at least) + influences your future board control.
Air has the longest term impact (late game alternate goals) + influences your future draw flexibility.
Fire is in the centre of the 2x2 quadrant and aids presence + future card draw via a lagged benefit.
A Crane tempo deck is very much in the Water-Fire-Void axis. It normally attacks in Fire conflict 1 to influence winning future conflicts and after defending conflict 1, will attack conflict 2 in Water to ready that defender. Fire helps Voice of Honour (always represent the threat and pause just a little bit even if you don't have it) and outside of Shameful Cheese, is the easiest way to trigger Noble Sacrifice to usually win the game due to efficiencies therein. Its defence against Earth-Fire-Air dishonour decks is its self-honouring mechanics that fund the oxygen of their card draw. A Crane without conflict cards is impotent because, beyond Guest of Honour, Doji Challenger, Brash Samurai and situational Cautious Scout (who often finds itself target of Policy Debate), Crane's Dynasty characters are clearly a downgrade on Scorpion.
It's really hard explaining how you win with Crane beyond saying "always threaten you can break with every attack" (this is hard when you have so little >3 skill characters). Crane is all about the threat of the possible. A good example is reading when to Fury or Admit Defeat, either playing with or against that card. You want to reel the opponent into over-committing with pumps before you pull the rug. Many Crane cards are a study in zugswang, the art of delaying your committal then winning a conflict. That's why Asami is an action but Blackmailer is a reaction. Why Kaezin is often an "I retreat" or has no impact. Why Nerishma is used to potentially cycle your dynasty deck at key moments when you don't want to pass, just delay a commitment. Crane is so much about giving your opponent as much rope as you can to hang themselves.
Against Kyuden Isawa, Guest of Honour is your best character - when it isn't Clouded or Twisted. But pressure via Earth ring can force an opponent to play these cards ahead of optimal timing. One good thing about the Kyuden spells build is that there is less focus on honouring compared to Mori Seido, hence Voice of Honour (especially to cancel Charge + Fushicho) and Noble Sacrifice are far more likely to bite. But the main benefit that Crane have over Phoenix is cost. The Phoenix Dynasty deck and Conflict deck (including recursion) is more expensive than Crane that you get to the Four Moving Parts paradigm far quicker (and perpetually) with Crane. And there are very few combos with Crane, unlike Phoenix. If you are aware of the Phoenix combos, you can save your disruption to negate their combo benefit.
There are many ways to play Crane but the way I play it is to undercut your opponent in speed of winning. It doesn't matter how close you are to losing (often to Dishonour as you greedily draw) as long as you win. Because if you try and play the long game, other builds will outproduce you. You have no Forgotten Library draw. No recursion draw engine with toolbox choice. No exponential benefit of board presence that is Supernatural Storm. A small board suits you best (thus hard then soft control is your friend) and you need to put the Phoenix player on the defensive else you will lose,
As an example, I have moved out of Charge in Crane and play a longer, pass early economic game. I have moved out of Kami Unleashed because when opponent defends vs their probe, they win the ring and it aids their Favour. I am still a fan of Admit Defeat (despite Clarity of Purpose) which you want to see early hence x3. For Shame and Mirumoto's Fury are so common that Ready for Battle seems a great counter for tempo gain. Whilst Legion works with a Scout, Samurai and Sneak. But it's Goblin Sneak that I've found to be most disruptive to Kyuden builds - having all the spells in the world doesn't help you cast them.
Here's my current favourite "footloose" (no attachments) Crane build, focused on attack (solo in Military, escorted in Political vs Court Games), aiming to break provinces, win fast.
"Splash Lion Goes Fasta!"
Short Game Aggro-Control
Influence: 9/10, 1 remaining
So yeah, Tadaka will always be a problem for an event heavy Clan like Crane. But there is an out in the Earth Ring, an always good ring to win anyway. A heavy conflict character presence that promotes pass early Fate choke is your best weapon against Kyuden Isawa in my (limited) experience.
I'm not at my best this time of night (UK time), especially "worse for wear", so apologies for the ramblings. But does anyone else have any insights into how Crane can beat the Phoenix spells build?