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Superior Tactics #24: Naga Shugenja

The Akasha is greater than the sum of its parts. However, this week Lemar Johnson explains why you may want to ignore that fact and focus on the parts.

"Force! Bring me men with swords and spears to cut down my enemy. Swiftness comes from demoralizing your enemy, not outrunning him." -- Hida Kisada

Some clans have very distinct signature cards. Mitsu may join every other clan, but he still fronts for Dragon. Kachiko threatens to eat up every bit of personality left in Scorpion. Yoritomo's Alliance has, um, Yoritomo. Naga has one card hovering over it since the first Naga cards came in Dragon starters, oh so long ago. Or maybe I should say holding it down. . . ?


Naga Shugenja - Common Personality (IE, EE, OE, PE) - 1F - 1C - 0HR - 6G - 1PH Shugenja. Nonhuman. Open: Bow to add a 1F bonus to all Naga cards in play until the end of the turn.
There is one more card whose stats should be pointed out:
Naga Warlord - Common Personality (IE, EE, OE, PE) - 3F - 2C - 0HR - 5G - 2PH Naga Samurai. Nonhuman. All other Naga cards in Naga Warlord's unit have a 1F bonus while they remain in his unit.

The reason this card has been brought up will be reviewed in a moment. First, let us review the Naga Shugenja in two contexts: 1 vs. 1 and multiplayer.

1 vs. 1

The Naga Shugenja is not what it appears to be. It looks like icing on the cake -- you get out a bunch of peeps and they all get bonus Force, sort of like a weak Evil Portents from Dynasty. But it never works that way. Consider the disadvantages:

1) The Naga Shugenja is a support card. Like all support cards (Fortress of the Dragonfly, Master Smith, etc.) you don't want to get it first turn. Or even second. This is a very significant problem since Naga doesn't have many tourney-worthy strategies available except SpeedKill. Speed decks run by having as many cheap personalities as possible, ensuring that every pull provides additional, consistent Force that can't be undercut by bad money draws or early support cards.

2) The Naga Shugenja does not immediately pay for itself.
2a) The Naga Shugenja doesn't provide that much Force (!).

Go back up and read the Warlord's stats.

Let's say you bring out a Naga Warlord on turn one and someone else on turn two -- doesn't matter who, as long as they don't have a ranged attack you plan on using. The Naga Shugenja turns up in your Provinces, next to an Issut. Which gives more force? The Issut, at this point. If you're running lots of "3 Force for 3 Gold" Personalities (Issut and the Warlord), there needs to be three Personalities in play, in an average draw, before a Naga Shugenja would be useful. In fact, Force-wise, there need to be four other grunts before the Naga Shugenja breaks even (considering its higher cost and fragility).

Some may take issue with the comparison of the Shugenja with 3-for-2s and Oseuths and other thumpers. (I have lots of euphemisms for guys that break heads in and don't do much else). For those, it should be noted that the Shugenja is eating up a card slot, even in the repetitive Heart decks. It costs Stronghold plus a Holding, unlike the thumpers which cost only the Stronghold -- and that is extremely significant. There's no such thing as a free lunch: you will make the "Shugenja or Thumper" choice if you pack them in tourney decks.

2b) The Naga Shugenja reduces the number of battle-ready units for tactical excursions (BRUTEs, henceforth, because acronyms are amusing). [To be precise: the Naga Shugenja does not increase the number of BRUTEs. -- ed.]

One of the crux issues with L5R is that unit elimination is superior to card elimination. One must overwhelm the opponent's ability to eliminate entire units -- and that ability generally increases as the game progresses. If three Force 3 units charge your opponent and one is sent home, the leftover Force is 6. If two Force 5 units charge your opponent and one is sent home, the leftover Force is 5. Soul's Sacrifice, the Imperial Favor, Iaijutsu Duel, and, everybody's favorite, Block Supply Lines, are ubiquitous. A strong deck can pack them all; a Naga player can pack only three A Test of Courage. Your units will get distracted. Then you'll have less BRUTEs. The Shugenja aggravates the situation by concentrating the Force in a few BRUTEs. You put all your eggs in one basket, as it were.

So, basically, I've said the same thing twice: the Naga Shugenja doesn't give you enough Force... in the early game.

Given that a tournament game is generally decided by turn six or so (Naga SpeedKill should have attacked at least around three times by then), the Shugenja's viability is in significant doubt.

3) Forget Communism. Followers are a red herring.

This topic can be covered in exhaustive thoroughness elsewhere; it doesn't seem appropriate to cover every Naga Follower here. Suffice it to say that no Follower justifies the Shugenja, in and of itself. Remember, Issut and the Warlord are 3F for 3G. Naga Bushi are 2F for 3G. Most Naga Followers are LESS efficient than the Naga Bushi. Thus, is stands to reason that the Naga Shugenja benefits Naga Followers no more than it benefits Naga Personalities, as the latter are actually less costly. Token Naga followers, which are overpriced, actually need the Naga Shugenja to justify their existence, or at least a Naga Warlord. [Followers can come out before an attack and get pumped, allowing a province (or more) to be taken a turn earlier. However, buying a 3F Personality (or two) instead of the Shugenja on a previous turn may well accomplish the same end. -- ed.]

Simple, yes?

Those are the drawbacks. As the major advantage -- Force -- doesn't hit until late-game (and late-game shouldn't happen in the first place), there aren't many gains.

If your Force comes from cheap sources, the Naga Shugenja can be overpriced, but it does have one nice effect. Cards it boosts are less vulnerable to ranged attacks. Ranged attacks are frustrating enough without the would-be victim jacking up all the Force 2 Personalities and Followers to 3.

There is another, rather unique purpose the Naga Shugenja can serve in a 1 vs. 1 Naga deck. The Shugenja should have the trait Naga Clan Lightning Rod. Despite all evidence to the contrary and familiarity with the way Naga decks work, many players still target the Naga Shugenja at all costs with everything they have. This allows the thumpers to go in and do their work without being Kolatted out of existence. In Open, the Wasting Disease will target the Naga Shugenja more often than not (especially if the controller brings his or her other Personalities above 2 Chi). This is obviously a mistake, unless the Naga player is fielding around six to eight units, as unit elimination is generally better than reducing Force bonuses. Play fast and act deadly, however, then get an evil grin as you bring out the Shugenja, and you may be able to panic the opponent. Whether this is worth four gold and a Dynasty slot is your decision; metagame.

If this trick doesn't work, you well may find yourself slapping Followers on the Shugenja and attacking after all his comrades die during the foe's Limited phase.

Note: In the case of ranged attack decks facing Naga decks, killing the Naga Shugenja before the BRUTEs might be a good idea.

As usual, I seem to have nothing good to say and nothing better to do than badmouth a WoTC product. Not true! There are plenty of important, edifying things I could be doing instead of this, but I also have some good things to point out about the Shugenja. The context, however, must change.

Multiplayer

This is where the Shugenja belongs. This is his home. ("Are you too good for your home?!" Erp. Sorry about that.)

The Naga Shugenja usually comes into its own after turn six or seven, when you've gotten out a few people. A good Naga multiplayer needs to either a) have good personality protection or b) be willing to recycle dead guys. Other than that, the Force is there. No clan can foot the force Naga can in multiplayer. It's like playing Scorpion kingmaker decks except far more brutal. With enough Shugenja out, one unit will be able to take on an army at a Province.

All the tricks to keep the fragile, near-death 1F 1C Personality alive come into their own in multiplayer as well. Fortress of the Dragonfly isn't anything near a hardship and Shashakar might even fit in. Mamoru looks odd in a sea of green, but Balash will get over the human once he's caught a couple of poisoned shuriken aimed at the pearl jugglers. Pack Ki Rin's Shrine and watch out for dishonor (Dashmar, anyone?). Metagame for your play-group. Don't forget the Ring of Air -- the Wasting Disease is a very bad thing.

Playing with the Shugenja takes some finesse, however. In a five-player game, the Shugenja will be bowed out 4/5ths of the time if you use them. If the other players don't admire the elegance of megaforce units, they very well may turn on you. There are several ways to handle this issue:

a) Kill, don't wound. Take players out when you attack, then assure everyone that you're done stomping. Try to get other players involved, or better yet, ally on another player's turn. They'll gain the honor, but they're now ahead in the honor race and a bigger target. Leaving players hurt and strong is suicide.

b) Bow one or two Shugenja at a time, only. This doesn't give you the overkill factor of a 9F Warlord before followers and items (this, of course, is with Olyah's [ST#3] copying) but usually such force is excessive, anyway. Using a Shugenja at a time gives you an edge without playing out your position. If you have enough Naga out, people will stop counting your force and just remain mildly intimidated whenever you bow just one Shugenja. No matter whose turn it is, you can face them with significant force. In six-plus player games, this option isn't terribly useful, but few strategies will save you in such a large match.

c) Never bow them. This is an odd, subtle tactic. Make it very clear how much basic force you have. Never use the Shugenja. Keep your army's strength unnoticed. Once several players bow out, go nuts and see if you can send one unit to each Province of a foe. Truly cunning warlords will use Delicate Calculations. This trick will work exactly once, if at all. Variations are possible (such as quietly Foxwifing and Spirit Guiding them when your turn rolls by and never using the abilities).

[Don't forget that you can wait to bow your Shugenja until battle, but watch out for Deadly Ground. Naga may use Hiruma Sensei. -- ed.]

Keeping the Shugenja alive can be tricky. In multiplayer, they are even greater lightning rods than in duel. It is my personal experience that nothing stops constant attention from other players like losing. (The Scorpion are right). Fail at battles, or suffer from attrition, and point it out. Note your huge dead pile. Do stuff and be weakened as a result. As long as it doesn't antagonize everyone else, Naga isn't a particularly easy victim in multi, and no one wants to pick on someone who's both tough and active.

However, while remaining willing to loose troops, play with Ashamana. A canny player can get away with several reincarnations without everyone else realizing the power escalation. Or, of course, one could play with The Naga Stronghold from Siege of Sleeping Mountain. Recycling effects seem, to me, to be easier then Kolat cancellations and similar. Remember, a player who is balked can become annoyed and try twice as hard to off your people. [Of course, Kitsuki Kaagi's Journal not only prevents the carrying Shugenja from getting whacked and cancels Kolat and Ninja actions against other Shugenja, but it also lets you attach the Night Medallion for even greater force-counting headaches. -- ed.]

Cards that screw the Shugenja over, and how to deal with them

Oh, yeah, I suppose you could pack Avoids and the chi-boost holdings mentioned earlier, but Doom of the Naga is too specific a hose not to be somewhat spiteful. :-)

Responses to Straw-Man Arguments That Make Me Look Smarter Than I Really Am

I've gotten the following pointed out to me before. These are the easy ones:

"But, hey, it's still a Shugenja. You could use it for Pearl Magic or something in a 1 vs. 1."
From the outset, if I need to drop a Pearl Magic, I'm having Force problems. If I'm having Force problems, I don't want to aggravate it by bringing out the Naga Shugenja. It took them umpteen expansions, but they have non-suck Naga shugenja now: check out Ghedai, a mini-Isawa Tomo that comes out for box. If you need spellslingers, pack four of him. SpeedKill decks of any vein are not known for their flexibility. [And Ashlim comes out for a simple Forest. -- ed.]

Speaking of flexibility, note that Dragon is, by designer admission, the most "flexible" clan. Note the huge number of tourney wins they rack up. Flexibility is what happens to you when your deck is screwed.

"By turn [insert something higher than three], my Naga deck can dish out [name some Force higher than fifteen] consistently due to Shugenja, so I don't know what you're smoking."
Tourney games are decided in the first four rounds, as the rule. The exceptions are small. If a military deck can't foot fast force in the present environment, the opponent will have controlled it out of the game, pounded its Provinces, or won by Mo5 or somesuch. Late-game force is irrelevant. If a speed deck is doing its job, there is no late-game. Shugenja are the wrong medicine for the disease. [If you can delay much of anything from happening until turn X, you may have a case, but your best option for delay is Rise From the Ashes (along with Entrapping Terrain and whatnot), which is far from reliable in the first few turns. Many decks would shine could they just get a few turns of relief from the speed decks, but so far they're left hoping. -- ed.]

Cards that Take Advantage of the Naga Shuggie

Anyone can use a bit of Force as a general rule, but there are some cards that utilize bonuses better than others. (NOTE: None of these combos are recommended for 1 vs. 1. If you can pull it off against competent decks consistently, however, you may well be deserving of our worship. Or are a member of the design team going nuts with the MRP).

Another Odd Trick: Arithmetic Lesson

... Or, "How to get your opponents to stop paying attention to you."

Drop the Ancient Spear on one Warlord (Radakast is more effective but that's not the point right now). Drop the Battle Standard of the Naga on another. Spread out Follower tokens. Bow the Naga Shugenja. Point out that Naga cards on the Warlord get Warlord bonuses, do the math, add in the Shugenja, then point out the Standard's bonuses... Then Dragon Pearl the Standard.

If this comes up enough, the other players will start to assume that your Force is simply vast enough that it's not worth counting. This makes you less likely to be attacked or toyed with, unless you're bowed out. Remember, most people want to finish games within a week and don't want to count all day like some sort of nightmare version of Sesame Street. [Affecting a Count von Count accent may be another way to get your opponents to ask you to stop counting your force. -- ed.]

Conclusion

The Naga Shugenja is not a flexible card. It is a support card most useful in long games -- that is, multiplayer games. It forces many bad decisions in 1 vs. 1 matches, where bringing out support cards early is cutting your own throat (and that's never profitable unless you sell meat pies). It must _not_ be thought of in terms of what it could do if your opponent does nothing to you and lets you build up. Instead, it must be considered in the harsh environment of the 1 vs. 1 scene, where one player is doing his best to eliminate all of your units. In multiplayer, where players have the attentions divided, the Shugenja shines.

A Theory

This is speculation based on sparse evidence, but it seems that the reason for such weak Naga Personalities during the first story arc was due to the assumption that every Naga player would run Naga Shugenja to counter the Force disparity. Obviously, not all Naga Personalities were bad: the Warlord is one of the most economical cards in the game, Balash is priced right, and Radakast is... let's not get into Radakast right now. But we, as Naga players, suffered through Mara, Qarash, Ramash, and -- the kicker -- Shagara.

(There is no excuse for Shagara. None in Heaven or Earth. Not even the Adversary would dare defend that card; when you're up against the divine, you learn to pick your battles.)

Ahem. Anyway, the early cards, and many later ones, were weak for their price, especially in the force department (considering that they were military Personalities). I believe that the multiplayer strength of the Shugenja were over-stressed, and as a result, the early peeps suffered from severe playing-down before the release. There were some comments from some playtesters of yesteryear that support this.

If you have any comments or suggestions, send them to the L5R list. Strong Naga strategy is woefully undersupported. Also, if I'm wrong about anything, I'd like to know before the next tournament. :-) [The design team is on record stating that they can't hope to keep all clans balanced in a two-player environment, so they designed some clans to be strong in duels and weak in multiplayer and some the other way around. They seem to be trying to give the latter a duel boost in recent expansions, partly because not many people play multiplayer games anymore. -- ed. 6/26/00]


Card text copyright FRPG, 1995-2000.
Article text copyright Lemar Johnson, 2000, edited by Trevor Stone.

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