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Superior Tactics #5: Held Terrain

Denial has always been a side strategy to L5R. Decks don't win by preventing the opponent from using his resources; this prevention hopes instead to stop the opponent from winning so that the player may set up her own bid. This week, Philippe Duchon examines "take two" of one of the earliest denial cards.

Held Terrain - Rare Action (DJH) - 0G - 1Fo
Battle Terrain: If this Province is destroyed during this battle, the Attacker can target and destroy one of the Defender's non-Fortification Holdings if the attacking army's Force total is greater than the Province strength plus the Holding's Gold cost.

Dark Journey Home was one of those expansions that changed the face of Legend of the Five Rings for, at least, some time. It introduced three new Strongholds, two of which have widely proved their worth in tournament play -- while the last one immediately stole the title of "Most Basic Game Rules Broken" from the original Shadowlands Horde. It also was the expansion that brought us such cards as Blessings of Isawa, Golden Sun Plain, the "Ashigaru draw" Followers, Rise from the Ashes... and Held Terrain.

Huh? Held Terrain? Isn't that some kind of Occupied Terrain?

No. Er, yes. Well, it's what Occupied Terrain should have been. Kind of.

I wasn't around in the L5R universe when Occupied Terrain was released (which was in Imperial Edition), but, basically, it let the attacker trade a Province kill to destroy a Holding. I suppose it didn't take long for each player to figure that, even though destroying a given Holding may come in handy, a Province kill is much, much more valuable in about 99% of "real" play situations, and Occupied Terrain quickly became another name for "coaster" in L5R speak. Not surprisingly, it disappeared from the basic set as soon as it could, Jade Edition, since that was the first set that actually rotated cards out.

Now, let's move to this column's subject, Held Terrain.

Let's be clear from the start: it's a terrain that doesn't help you win the battle -- and that's a major drawback for many competitive military decks. Since their major concern is to win battles, they tend to focus on terrains that either let them stop the battle here and now (Deadly Ground, Night Battle) or that give them some tactical advantage (depending on the deck style, that may mean Higher Ground, or some movement terrain like Traversable Terrain or Accessible Terrain); while non-military decks will tend to use terrains that let them survive, usually Entrapping Terrain or Flooded Pass.

During the battle, Held Terrain has one advantage: it will prevent the defender from playing his own defensive terrain. Unfortunately, to make this possible it will often be necessary to "trump" the defender's option to play the first battle action -- with a Sneak Attack, or a Scout. What's more, Held Terrain will suffer the usual weakness of terrain, which is that they're easy to destroy with a very widely used card, Superior Tactics. [Generally speaking, it's a good idea for the defender to play a Terrain as her first action if she has lots of things to do, since Deadly Ground gets used a lot. However, the attacker often has some dangerous Personality in his army (like Hitomi or Asako Hosigeru) which must be dispatched before they get a chance for an action. -- ed.]

Let's sum it up: Held Terrain doesn't let you gain much of a tactical advantage -- during the battle, it's more of a tactical disadvantage. But that's because it's a strategic terrain. It doesn't help you win the battle; it's there to help you win the game.

Provided you win the battle and manage to kill the Province, it will let you destroy one of the defender's Holdings, thus either crippling his development even further (if you destroy a gold-producing Holding), or destroying a Holding that may be key to his strategy. Basically, I think the first use is the main one -- further the advantage of destroying a Province by slowing the opponent's possible recovery.

Even if you kill an undefended Province by a 1 point margin, you'll be able to destroy a 0-cost Holding, and even with Plague of Locusts around, 0-cost Holdings are still very much around. Merchant Caravans, Small Farms, or anything corrupt, are often the key to fast early development. Note that the defensive, losing army, doesn't count for Held Terrain: if your 10-Force army destroys a 5-Strength Province defended by a 4-Force army, you can destroy a Holding up to 4 Gold cost, which will often mean any Holding the opponent has in play -- a very good result, if you manage to keep your Terrain in play.

What kinds of decks will most benefit from Held Terrain? Hands down, I believe a usual Unicorn attack deck is the answer. What's the main force of Unicorn attack decks? Cavalry, which usually lets them attack undefended Provinces early on. The typical Unicorn attack will go where there are no defenders, sending in just enough Force to kill the Province. Excess Force is lost -- but if you're using Held Terrain, you can put that excess to good use.

Of course, any military deck that tends to intimidate the defender into not defending by sending a huge force that the defender cannot match will also be able to use this terrain -- but what will it gain by it? If your Force is already overwhelming, there is little need to slow your opponent even more -- you're already winning anyway. While killing an opposing Holding will also help avoid the usual Unicorn weakness: the endgame, or "last Province syndrome". Basically, a Unicorn deck will often manage to kill all Provinces but one or two, only to find that the last one(s) are too tough to crack, because the opponent (especially if it's a military deck) will get higher Force Personalities out of 2 Provinces, than the Unicorn will get out of 3 or 4. But if the cavalry deck manages to destroy the opponent's Gold, it may delay the point in the game where that opponent can buy anything that appears in his Provinces, thus making the Province advantage decisive.

[Additional: Gold denial is most useful in the early game. If you can amass enough Force to take out your opponent's Holding on a second-turn attack, you've essentially set him back a turn. But how likely is it to get enough force to exceed your opponent's Province Strength by 4 (sufficient for a Jade Works) that fast? A turn or two later you still get a decent development advantage, but you'd also gain such an advantage if you replaced Held Terrain with a card which let you take another province or a card to save a province. However, in the later portions of the game, you can destroy a naked province and also get rid of a pesky Bridged Pass. This saves you a wasted attack, and possibly wins you the game. Exceeding one province's Force by 4 may prevent the need to win by 5F where there's an Unscalable Walls. Of course, Held Terrain could be replaced, more or less, by a Charge for better effect in that situation. But versatility is the key. Other Holdings worth hitting are Kitsuki Iyekao, Den of Spies, and Ikoma Histories. Lots of decks would love to get rid of Imperial Ambassadors, but they usually aren't the ones that attack.

A natural reaction to a card like this is to consider other methods of doing the same thing. The simplest Holding-destruction card is Explosives. Of course, if you play it second turn (after purchasing a Holding), you've pretty much just set both players back one turn. Fist of Osano Wo, which destroys a Holding after the purchase of a Shugenja and the 5G Spell works with roughly the same expenditure. Depending on the Holding's cost, Night of 1000 Fires may find a willing Ninja Spy to deliver the payload. Hurricane will destroy (most likely) the best Holding your opponent has, but it'll hit yours too. Contested Holding will deprive your opponent of a Holding, provided you can win a duel. It's best used second turn if you can muster 5G and a Personality on the first turn and your opponent buys a Holding without a Personality. Toku in Yoritomo's Alliance will fit the bill. Attack decks also have the Kansen available, but if its force is increased, it can (for the most part) only eat Farms and Merchant Caravans. Bandit Attack hits a Merchant Caravan and another Holding, but your opponent must play with the former. Kolat Servant works about as well as destroying a Holding, and can be brought out quickly thanks to Kage Sensei (don't forget your Plans Within Plans!). Roughly half of these cards encourage a style of play designed to whittle your opponent away and attack with a normally weak army against a defenseless opponent. The other half encourage aggressiveness, sending out attacks in the first few turns. Of course, another method to free your opponent from Holdings is through judicious use of Bayushi Aramoro and co. However, there's a good chance that whatever you get rid of will be replaced by a Holding itself. The best targets for dynasty discarding tend to be Personalities. After all, the purpose of gold denial is to prevent your opponent from bringing out Personalities with any speed.

Like duels, Holding destruction doesn't win games. Unlike duels, it doesn't even get rid of the cards which win the game, it gets rid of the methods of acquiring said cards, which means it's powerless if you find yourself in the jaws of death. I think a military deck with Holding destruction as a side theme could be effective, though it'd take a lot of work to get tuned right. It'd probably also need some "discard and draw" abilities, such as those provided by Agasha Gennai. -- ed.]

Card text copyright FRPG, 1995-2000.
Article text copyright Philippe Duchon, 2000.

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