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L5R Tier List and "State of the Meta" Post-Imperial Cycle


L5R Tier List and "State of the Meta" Post-Imperial Cycle

As the new cycle has been announced and players rush to test the recent Phoenix clan pack, I wanted to take a moment to try and write my overall thoughts on the game as it stands post-Imperial cycle - both in terms of where the factions seem to stack up competitively, what might not be going as well, and what changes (if any) I'd like to see going forwards.

Warning: this post is long!

Part One: Tier List/Meta Assessment

First up is my tier list. I base this on my own experiences playing in person and online, as well as what I've observed as a frequent streamer and commentator on tournament games from the Discord league. In terms of my own "credentials", I am a Dragon Hatamoto from Worlds 2017 and was at one time the highest Elo player on the online league, though I've since fallen a bit in the standings. I make no claims to be an ultimate expert, but I do follow the meta fairly closely and I like to think that I'm pretty good at playing Dragon, though I haven't had time for other clans as much recently.

That being said, here is my "tier list" at the end of the Imperial Cyle. I want to emphasize that this shouldn't be considered set in stone and that generally speaking all of this is just, like, my opinion, man:

Tier 1: Dragon, Scorpion
Tier 1.5: Crane, Crab, Lion
Tier 2: Phoenix
Unicorn Tier: Unicorn
In other words, Dragon and Scorpion are the "decks to beat" at present; both were strong pre-Imperial Cycle and have gotten stronger still.

Dragon benefited from the Imperial Cycle by picking up powerful Voltron target Agasha Sumiko and some great out-of-faction cards like Policy Debate and the infamous Feast or Famine. Further, they've proved to be the best-poised faction to play Pathfinder's Blade, one of very few cards that can help deal with provinces. Pathfinder's Blade is a really important card to have in the game right now - in general more province control would be really nice to have - but role choices mean that only Dragon, Scorpion, and Crane can play it in tournaments. Hopefully we'll be seeing more anti-province effects come out, especially ones that are open to other factions!

Scorpion benefited from the Imperial Cycle via a combination of meta shifts and one powerful control effect. The meta now strongly favors bidding heavily, and most players begin the first draw phase by bidding 5 almost regardless of what clans are in play. Scorpion loves to see heavy bids! Further, A Fate Worse Than Death is one of the only things in the game that can efficiently deal with big characters without requiring several other cards to set up.

Some claim Scorpion is unfairly dominant. This does not ring true to me, and I speak as a non-Scorpion player. Scorpion did not even make the top 8 of the current Discord League season; while they had a huge power spike once A Fate Worse Than Death came out, people have adapted and learned to counterplay it, and it's actually increased game depth significantly. Yes, Scorp is strong, but they are not dominant by any means at a high level of play. One thing that may be worth considering is whether Scorp is too unpleasant to play against at a low/medium level of play, as many report Scorpion games can be very frustrating, but that's not my area of expertise - plus, my sense is that control decks are often considered frustrating even if their overall power level is not so high.

Crane, Crab, and Lion are all similarly positioned to one another in my view - while these aren't the decks that everyone is worrying about, they've been able to adapt and play builds that can compete with the top decks, and this has led to fair success in competitive play. Crane in particular went from languishing a bit mid-cycle to being quite competitive again thanks to some innovative builds and strategies.

Phoenix is doing a little worse, with Scorpion in particular presenting a significant obstacle. Phoenix/Unicorn Voltron with Gaijin Customs looked like a strong deck midway through the cycle, but with more decks running attachment control and lots of dishonor effects in the environment (A Fate Worse Than Death is now being splashed in several non-Scorp factions) this ended up languishing a bit. Worse still, when Phoenix does get in the driver's seat it can be unpleasant to play against, with cards like Haughty Magistrate and Kuroi Mori having little counterplay for many decks. However, there's a light at the end of the tunnel - Disciples of the Void will hopefully add a lot of power and variety to Phoenix decks, as well as diminishing the strength of the unpleasant Haughty Magistrate by shifting at least some people onto the new stronghold.

Unicorn, on the other hand, is really really floundering, and that's probably the worst thing about the meta at present. To the best of my knowledge, Unicorn has not ever won any individual game in the top cut of a significant event (here defined as Worlds, Kotei, or Discord League) - they have won a few challenger round games or equivalent, but never an official top 64/32/whatever game that I've seen. They are widely considered the worst clan, and with good reason; most experienced players evaluate them as having the worst Stronghold in the game, and while there are certainly strong Unicorn cards many of them are Conflict cards that do better in non-Unicorn clans.

However, Unicorn aside the overall meta is quite good. The Imperial Cycle greatly succeeded in its objectives; balance is strong and the Imperial Favor, which was at times criticized as an "afterthought" and often forgotten during the core set meta, has now become a serious and competitive part of the game. One thing that I would like to see more of would be honor wins - they're still more or less absent from competitive play despite some support coming out - but overall L5R is in a great state right now. Congratulations to the designers!

Part Two: Issues and Solutions

For this part I'd like to briefly discuss what could be done to improve the present situation and where FFG can go to build on their past success. In doing so, I'll highlight a few issues with the game - it should be emphasized that the overall state of the game is very good and that these issues are far from insurmountable - it's more of a "here are some things to watch out for" and less of a "FFG PLS FIX NAO".

-First up, Unicorn. Unfortunately there's not much that can be quickly done with respect to their power level - any attempt to make them competitive via a ban or restricted list would likely have to devastate all other factions. The easiest "quick fix" option would be errata to their Stronghold (with +8 fate per turn instead of +7 being IMO the most interesting option), but this would require extensive and careful testing and errata is "impure". Perhaps the better move would be to just print strong Unicorn cards in the future, give them the next clan pack, etc.

-The other big problem is honor wins being almost unheard of. Hopefully future releases will address this.

The easiest way to do this, in my view, would be to print powerful cards that either give your opponent honor directly or honor their characters as an additional cost or "side effect". Dishonor would itself not be a very real win condition if not for staple cards like Assassination and Banzai having honor costs, and printing strong cards that give the enemy honor would help.

Note that cards that simply give you honor are insufficient unless they are strong cards under normal circumstances as well (Way of the Crane or Ikoma Prodigy are fine, Way of the Chrysanthenum isn't), because open decklists in the cut of major events mean that if you have enough Way of the Chrysanthenum or the like to reliably go for an honor win, your opponent can see that before the game and easily counterplay you.

-Given that things are so good balance-wise, heavy changes seem unnecessary at this phase, unless radical changes are made to the Unicorn stronghold (errata to "move into or out of" or else "+8 fate per turn" being the obvious ones) - and that seems risky. However, there are a few problem cards that experienced players are growing frustrated with. Taking action on these might help to improve the overall play experience, even if it has a limited overall faction balance impact. Here they are:

1. Feast or Famine is perhaps the most hated card by experienced competitive players, and it's even worse for newcomers who don't know what it can do! While in some respects a high-risk high-reward version of Meditations on the Tao, Feast or Famine has limited counterplay because it can reach out and touch characters that are not involved in the conflict; further, it can create massive, crushing swings. This card is so hated that it was outright banned in the unofficial draft format and limited to one per team in the unofficial team tournament format. As a Dragon Hatamoto, I know that removing Feast or Famine would be a blow to our clan, but for the overall health of the game I suspect this card should be outright banned or else errata'd into something weaker.

2. Kanjo District and Karada District are similarly unpopular for their very swingy effects on games. The "this card is OP but at least it's one-per-deck" design pattern is not well-liked by competitive players (as when it cropped up in Thrones or Conquest), and while it can be fun in casual games the fact that these cards are Imperial and can hence be tutored for with Miya Satoshi means they're more of an issue in competitive play than one might expect. Kanjo District in particular can create an unfun lock situation when coupled with Phoenix's strong ability to take the favor via their stronghold, and while Karada District is matchup-dependent it is so strong in its "good matchups" (Dragon, Crab mirror, Unicorn, to some degree Phoenix) that it has a warping effect on games. Karada District would be much less of a problem if not for Rebuild, which is itself often a broken card, especially when combined with Miya Satoshi to mitigate its early game unreliability.

The best option here might be simply to restrict these cards and their synergy elements - this is especially convenient because there are not really big balance issues elsewhere that would necessitate a restricted list for other purposes. One note is that the Lion and Crane districts, while they are one-per-deck in the same way that many dislike, are so weak presently that they are not an issue at all.

3. Kuroi Mori is so unpleasant to play against for some clans that it deserves a place here too, especially since it is likely to see much more play in the new Phoenix stronghold. When playing Kuroi Mori, one can often just assume that it'll be almost impossible for a Lion, Crab, or Crane opponent to break your strongholdl the repeated conflict type swap on the stronghold is a huge barrier to "one-sided" clans, especially since the clans that are most hurt by it, Lion and Crab, cannot play Pathfinder's Blade, and the next most affected clan, Crane, can only play Pathfinder's Blade if they sacrifice access to strong attachment control. Hopefully more anti-province effects are coming down the line!

Ideally, we would see an errata to this card that switched its ability into two separate components - a reaction to being revealed that let you change the conflict type and an action that let you change the element. That version of the card would allow for the powerful conflict type swap once (like the Rally to the Cause on stronghold that has become quite popular recently among Seeker clans), while still providing Phoenix with ring swap synergies and finesse plays afterwards.

Thus, my ideal set of changes for FFG to make would be:

BAN or ERRATA: Feast or Famine, Kuroi Mori
RESTRICTED LIST: Kanjo District, Karada District, Rebuild, Miya Satoshi

This is a relatively conservative list, which seems appropriate given the overall strong state of the competitive meta. Dragon and Lion in particular would take a bit of a hit due to losing Feast or Famine, though Dragon will improve a bit vs. Crab thanks to Karada District no longer being as oppressive and Lion will improve a bit vs. Phoenix thanks to Kuroi Mori no longer locking them down on the stronghold.

Some claim Dragon is not very good and don't deserve to have anything taken away - to be honest I can't agree, and I say this as a Dragon player. While Dragon has not won a Kotei event yet, they've won a season of the online league and have had advanced players make it far but have to drop for scheduling reasons. My sense is they are actually one of the strongest decks and will be putting up Kotei wins in time - I certainly hope to take a Kotei myself!

In the past, Dragon has been "strong but fair"; at present they are "strong but fair" except for the games that you automatically win thanks to FoF blowouts. These happen sometimes even in high level play - just the other day I was casting a game where I remember saying something along the lines of "okay, 50-50 shot here, if this unrevealed province is Feast or Famine Crane just loses..." - and IIRC that was in the quarterfinals of the Discord league! Losing FoF wouldn't push Dragon or Lion out of the meta, either - they'd just switch to Meditations on the Tao and be fine.

Lastly, I want to remark on a few other cards that some people have complained about and why I think they're actually fine for the game at present:

-Policy Debate has attracted a lot of complaints. However, taking action against this card seems like a misstep to me - here's why:

1. Policy Debate is the main card making the dueling mechanic real. Without Policy Debate, a huge majority of decks would not feature this mechanic at all, and that would be a shame - it's a really interesting one!

2. Policy Debate leads to much more interesting decisions in high level play. Whether it's waiting to use card draw effects to try to fire them after an opponent lands a debate, reevaluating what characters to send in to conflicts early in the turn, or even just the bidding decisions in the debate itself, Policy Debate is one of the most "skill testing" cards in the game at present - and that means a lot!

3. Policy Debate should not be banned and there are not enough other cards that are worth restricting for restrictions on Policy Debate to be very impactful.

One thing that could happen is that there could be a restricted list incorporating Policy Debate, Kitsuki Investigator, and Meek Informant - repeat hand reveal can be unpleasant to play against. Personally, though, I would prefer to let Policy Debate stand as it is for now.

-Attachment control is sometimes viewed as oppressive. Karada District probably is oppressive, but some complain even about Let Go and Calling in Favors. With the benefit of hindsight, Let Go (like Mirumoto's Fury) probably should have cost 3 influence rather than 2, but that's not worth errata at this juncture.

However, an environment without Let Go and Calling in Favors is much worse, because this game has several expensive attachments that are wildly, oppressively strong without attachment control to rein them in. Togashi Kazue is maybe the poster child for this, but there are several other cards (Jade Tetsubo, Sashimono...) that can just dominate the game if not countered. We've actually seen this in action during the draft games, where only one copy of each card was in the pool - decks without attachment control could be totally dominated by some of these power attachments with little possible recourse. Thus, I think attachment control is necessary for the game as it stands.

-Magistrates attracted a lot of hate from some quarters for not having counterplay. However, the only ones that really don't have counterplay are the Enigmatic Magistrate, the Haughty Magistrate, and the Stoic Magistrate, as those characters penalize you for deck construction decisions that are not interactive during the course of the game. However, even then there are some actions that can be taken to play around them (dishonoring Haughty Magistrate so that increasing its glory to use its ability will decrease its stats, prioritizing your attacks differently vs. Stoic Magistrate). I think these cards are not currently unfair and lead to some of the more interesting deck construction decisions in the present cardpool.

Part Three: The Future
Overall, L5R is in a great state right now, and I look forward to seeing what happens next. There's a lot of cool design space left to explore - dueling, potential new roles, more honor-based play, new stronghold options, expanded Shadowlands interactions. It's an exciting time to play L5R!

However, I do have one final note of caution - the release schedule for this game is messed up and FFG really needs to get that in check. Attendance at local events is significantly down in my area (and others I've heard about); in general, "content gaps" lead to dwindling playerbase in LCGs, and while players do come back when new things release it's easy for them to fall off again if the release schedule isn't kept.

That's why I'm actually very disappointed to see that FFG will be implementing 'six packs in six weeks" again. I liked this approach to "jump-start" competitive play for L5R, but the core of the LCG model is monthly releases to keep people in and engaged. FFG even acknowledges this on their own site, writing that "Monthly installments of expansion packs, each with a full playset of fixed cards, provide ongoing and regular additions to the available card pool. These expansion packs add customization, variety, and an ongoing sense of theme to your experiences with the game, while evolving the play environment in exciting new ways."'

Without those monthly installments, it's easy for players to be enticed away by other games, especially in the "golden age" of gaming that we're now seeing. I strongly believe that L5R will be healthier and more stable in the long run if FFG manages to actually implement its promised one release/month schedule - while I know doing this can be logistically difficult, I think it's important for the game. Obviously, FFG has internal metrics that I'm not privy to, but at least from my perspective the upcoming content gap before the Elemental Cycle (and presumably one afterwards as well) is a very significant warning sign.

That said, the overall state of L5R is looking great right now. The previous LCG I played, Conquest, had nowhere near this good faction balance after its first cycle and had many more "problem cards" to boot - FFG has really outdone themselves this time, and assuming they can get their logistics sorted out I think we'll be enjoying L5R for quite some time to come! Thanks again to all the designers and other FFG staff who have brought this excellent game to the public - I really appreciate your work in building a fun place for us to play.
  • Asklepios, BayushiSezaru, phillosmaster and 2 others like this


Great article!

Interesting and intelligent.


And yet, foolish though I am,...I remain loyal to the Unicorn clan.

The game is in so great states it requires 4-5 cards on errata/ban list after first cycle


This is Warhammer Invasion level of bad testing.

It doesn't require anything - if they chose to do nothing the meta would be fine. Personally, my preference is for more active management of ban/restricted lists - Conquest should pretty clearly have banned Klaivex Warleader, for instance. The few changes that I suggest are more tuneups than they are necessary fixes.

Do you think that with Stronghold Kits (and similar bonus kits) that include a special tournament with a special prize would be enough to keep the people interested in the game between the releases? And they anounceed the Elemental Tournaments that may help too.

Apr 07 2018 09:20 PM

Excellent article and overview. I agree with your restricted/ban/errata list except for Rebuild. It may need to be added at a point in the future, but its interaction with Karada District when Satoshi is not around is not bad enough to warrant restriction, in my opinion.


If Karada District and Satoshi were restricted, Satoshi would be removed from Crab decks and we'd go back to the mid cycle Crab decks that had to actually decide whether or not to run 2 or 3 rebuild due to the risk of it being dead in hand early on, as you stated. Satoshi filling your discard pile with several holdings to choose from has made it feel artificially strong in terms of its applicability at the moment in regards to Karada District.


If you think that it is too strong with Iron Mine for 12 total saves in every Crab deck, that's another discussion which I'd have trouble staying objective about, but adding it to the restricted list wouldn't resolve that issue because Iron Mine is not on the restricted list.


Regardless, I enjoyed the read. My only disappointment was it was not nearly as long as the beginning of the article appeared to promise! :P

Apr 10 2018 05:38 PM

I have a very similar opinion to Kingsley on the current state of the meta.  Competitively I think we actually have a pretty good showing between his tier 1 and tier 1.5 factions.  I do worry what a ban/restricted list would do to that current balance.  Though to be fair future releases are just as likely to throw that out of alignment anyway.


It does seem most of the time people are complaining not about imbalance (except in Unicorn's case) but more about feel bad cards.  As Kingsley points out that probably has a lot to do with just how ubiquitous "control" cards are in this game.  I also agree that removing Policy Debate will create more problems than it will solve.  Yeah it sucks getting Policy Debated, but some factions need that option to control crazy cards like WotC or AFWTD and as Kingsley points out in competitive games it actually creates some very interesting decision points.


It's no surprise a Dragon player wants the Karada combo in the restricted list :)  Though that proposed restricted list would greatly weaken the current competitive Crab decks.  Satoshi is really what is enabling the Crab holding theme.  Without him I found Rebuild to be actually a poor choice for Conflict decks since it was so unreliable.  In my experience lately Satoshi just get's Clouded as soon as he comes our most of the time anyway.  I agree that attachment control needs to be an option to every faction because otherwise the premium attachments would get ridiculously out of control.