Howdy folks, and welcome to the Crystarium! Today I want to talk about our beloved game’s central mechanic, the one thing that, more than anything else, makes FF unique compared to other games. The entire game of Final Fantasy is focused on and balanced around the idea that you can discard any primary-elemental card for 2 CP, a decision made for many reasons that has countless implications for the way the game works. Some great articles have been written about CP efficiency and how best to use this mechanic in terms of resource advantage, so I’ll be focusing more on the other implications of pitching for CP. You can read more about CP efficiency in these articles by Jared Wallace and Robert Meadows, and I highly recommend them. Jared’s was hugely influential on me when I was just starting in this game, and I think it’s the single most important thing for any new player to understand. In this article, however, I want to address why it exists, what else we can learn from studying the mechanic, and how best to make use of it. That’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s dive right in!
I think a good question to start with is “what exactly led the game designers to settle on and implement this mechanic?” By understanding why it is in place, we will develop the groundwork for knowing what best to do with it. Clearly my opinion about their motivations is hypothetical; I can only guess at the intentions of people I’ve never met. I do think however that we can deduce a lot of the reasoning. The game was initially designed by MTG players who sought to fix some of what they viewed as integral problems of that game. Since FFTCG is so intimately balanced around pitching for CP, it’s clear that they saw MTG’s mana system as one of the big things that needed an overhaul. That system was incredible for its time, and still remains a great system, but everything can be made better. FF’s idea to improve upon it reduced the complete dependence on lands (backups) since now you can draw resources from almost every card.
On top of lowering the reliance on specific resource cards, CP discarding reduced the pressure on opening hands to be good by: giving you an outlet for less effective cards; sparking the need to draw two per turn which digs you into your deck quicker (this, on top of the 5 card hand limit, encourages you to discard for CP;) and encouraging design of cards that draw or search. I’ll talk about that last one in depth later, when I address the concept of “micro-mulliganing,” but before that I’d like to talk about what else the design team accomplished with the mechanic: destroying the traditional concept of aggro. Later I’ll address how the mechanic allowed the design team to remove the concept of sideboarding from competitive play.
So why is it that I say that aggro doesn’t exist in FF? We’ve all seen aggro decks, clearly they exist. Well, those aren’t what we call aggro in the traditional sense, at least not in the sense that we’re used to from other TCGs. In other games, aggro decks attempt to win the game before their opponent is able to set up. They play a tempo oriented game, where they leverage cheap threats against their opponent’s inability to play their more expensive cards in the early game. This is possible because in those games the amount of resources is directly limited by which turn of the game it is. On turn 1, you have 1 CP; on turn 4, you have 4. The idea is, if an aggro deck goes first and can win on turn 5, then every card in your deck that costs 5 or higher was a dead draw. Thus, even though they’re playing these small and weak cards, your stronger and more expensive cards are useless.
In FF, however, a card that costs six can be played on the first turn. In fact, there’s no card so expensive that you do not have the CP to play it turn one. An aggro deck cannot invalidate expensive cards in the same way that it could in other games. By diverting CP that would be spent on economy, a deck can throw huge roadblocks in the face of an aggro player. And since a Forward is able to block any amount of times in a turn, it is similarly impossible for an aggro deck to push through via sheer amount of Forwards, whereas they could in other games where a single defender can only stop one attacker. A single 9k can stop and break at minimum two attackers of lesser power (barring combat tricks like Belias) making “swarm” strategies less individually effectual. They become more reliant on synergy with cards like Snow, which in turn slows them down dramatically.
Another way that aggro decks try to win quickly revolves around the idea of “playing on curve.” This concept simply doesn’t exist in FF, that is, the idea of playing a one cost forward on turn 1, a two cost on 2, a three cost on 3. You can play these whenever you like. The only restriction is number of cards in hand, a very lenient restriction courtesy of drawing two cards per turn. This idea of tempo efficiency is a huge contributor to the success of aggressive strategies, and it fundamentally doesn’t work here, at least not in the same manner. Of course there will always be outliers, but even what we think of as hyper-aggressive decks like Cold Turkey and All-In Vaan function differently than traditional aggro decks. They don’t try to win before the opponent can invest resources, they try to win by ignoring the opponent’s invested resources. They create a critical mass of early attackers, then use temporary removal to push through for lethal. The idea here is that a card like Shiva is functionally Raiden except 7cp cheaper, provided you win the game before those Forwards reactivate.
There are other reasons aggro doesn’t work the same way in FF as it does classically, notably not getting your backups for free and the EX Burst mechanic, and I’d love to get into that another time, as well as how they neutered the traditional concept of Control. Today however I’d like to only focus on how CP discarding affects the game.
Another concept CP discarding introduces is what I call the “micro-mulligan.” The idea here is that, since many cards draw or fetch a card as part of their resolution, you have the ability to essentially mulligan a single card when you play them. On the most basic level, say you play Gramps with one discarded card. When Gramps allows you to draw a card, you’ve essentially replaced the card you pitched with the new one. We can use this to get rid of niche cards, extra copies of Characters already on the board, extra backups, anything that we are willing to turn into a new card.
Let’s look at a more in depth example of micro-mulliganing in action. Nael is an incredible late game card for many Fire decks. Because she costs 6, at least one card must be discarded for her cost. She then (hopefully) restocks your hand with two Forwards. This allows you to trade in a card from hand that is less relevant to the current game state for two chances at a more impactful card. In its most common usage, you can pitch a backup, since their effectiveness is dramatically lessened in the last few turns of the game, in order to get two Forwards to continue applying pressure. We can see this in many sections of the game, in backups that fetch key cards, for instance Norschtalen and Cid of Clan Gully, and in Break Zone retrieval like backup Exdeath and Luminous Puma.
But we can make further use of these micro-mulligans! Consider how using Break Zone retrieval allows us to essentially store cards in our Break Zone. This way, we keep the cards in our hand relevant to the current game state, and also we may grab these stored cards when they are useful. During Opus VIII, I played a traditional Earth/Wind deck with one spicy splash: Ultimecia. She was useless in the early game, and I sought to aggressively discard her for CP as soon as possible. Once in the BZ, she acted as an insurance policy. When I met her 6 damage threshold, I could use Miner/Minfilia/Apururu to return her to my hand, and play her out with Chaos/Totto/Sibyl to gain a huge tempo advantage that would almost always secure victory. In any other card game, this wouldn’t work, once you drew a card like Ultimecia she would be stuck in your hand for the rest of the game, unable to help you in any way, but FF lets us run these niche cards as we can simply use them for resources when they’re not relevant, then use something like Citra or Cu Sith to snap them back up when the time is right. If you’ve ever played reanimator strategies in MTG, you’ll recall your reliance on cards like Entomb and Tolarian Winds to stock your graveyard; here you can simply do it yourself. However, due to the ease with which we can fill our Break Zone, straight reanimation like Zemus and Phoenix can’t be on the same power level as in other games.
One other thing we can take advantage of here is that, later into the game, by playing a card like Gramps with solely backup CP, we essentially convert our renewable backup CP into a card in hand, which we can later discard for CP. This lets us bank our renewable CP in order to use it another time. Luminous Puma is one of the strongest examples of this, it has a huge upfront cost but it acts as a battery, storing 2 CP on the field that we can crack at will. It’s not often that we’ll use this aspect of the card over the options it gives us in terms of BZ retrieval, but it’s worth keeping in mind the ways in which we can carry over our renewable CP from one turn to the next, so that we can better dictate the flow of the game as we take it easy on one turn only to open the floodgates later.
Playing cards which allow us to draw/fetch other cards increases our options, allowing us to choose whether to use cards for their effects, for CP, or cycling them into something else. The best decks and the best players aggressively use this to improve the consistency of their decks. Merlwyb is a great example. We have draw/discard Merlwyb who gives us an incredible ability to sculpt our hand and BZ in the early game, letting us dig for more backups or anything else we may need as well as dumping two or even three cards into the BZ, which lets us stock targets for Porom, Lenna, Leila, and a host of other effects. Not playing anything that cares about your BZ though? Then we can play tutor Merl instead, and turn our hand into specifically the forward we want for the situation. This lets us fill our decks with more Silver Bullet type cards like Garnet and Cagnazzo. Both versions give us unique ways to exchange cards in our hands for new ones.
Which leads us into the next function of discarding for resources, baking your sideboard directly into your deck. If you’ve never played a game that uses sideboards, let me explain briefly. A sideboard is a small collection of cards that you register along with your deck, and after the first game in a match you may freely swap out cards between your main deck and your sideboard. This gives you some flexibility in deck construction, allowing you to run narrow answers to specific strategies without risking drawing those answers in other matchups. Let’s say you want to run Fenrir to deal with Kadaj, but are concerned about it being ineffective in other matchups; a sideboard would allow you to run it only in the matches you want it. Since FF is originally intended to be played Best of 1, there is no opportunity to swap cards, but even in tournaments where matches are Best of 3 we still don’t make use of sideboards. The reason for this is the central mechanic, discarding for CP.
It is intended that if we need narrow answers, we run them in our normal 50. This is because when we draw them in matchups where they’re not useful, we can pitch them for resources. Strong “sideboard” cards that have seen high level play include Mist Dragon versus BZ strategies, Doga versus greedy backup lines, and Forward White Mage versus AOE damage like Valefor and Fina. These have all been strong against specific decks in the meta while near useless against others, but we can get around that weakness by pitching them for CP.
Now, while being able to pitch cards does make narrow answers more playable, we still need to exercise caution when adding them to our deck. This is where it pays to understand and predict the metagame of whatever event you’re intending to play at. At the Water Crystal Cup in Seattle 2018, a good buddy of mine, Jake Hicks, predicted that Scions would show up in force, and added Trickster to his deck. This flipped their Alisaie from being a powerhouse to a card that actively sabotaged their own deck. It was pretty weak against many of his opponents, but absolutely changed what had previously been a bad matchup for him into a very favorable one. That one addition was a huge contributor to him placing Top 4 and winning an invitation to Nationals. Then at our next locals he ran the same deck, except this time no one in the room was running Scions, and Trickster did nothing for him all night. It was a huge waste of a slot. It could have been literally any ice card for all the difference it would have made. Our takeaway from this is that, while pitching allows us to run narrow answers, we still need to ensure they will be relevant in a large percentage of games, and that they will swing those games hugely in our favor. The less narrow the answer, the more flexibility we have in adding it in, making cards like Mist Dragon very appealing.
Lets go back to a point I just made, that an understanding of the metagame enhances your ability to best use CP discarding. There’s another way this understanding is helpful, beyond allowing us to run specific answers. By increasing our matchup knowledge, we can gain a better understanding of which cards in our deck are best positioned to handle an opposing deck. In the previous example regarding Trickster, we can see this in a very clear manner. Against Alisaie, Trickster is good; against anything else, pitch him. But as we practice and playtest, we start to see more subtle applications. Playing against a deck that won’t give you time to establish a strong backup economy? Maybe you use backups for CP more than you would in other matchups. Does the opponent play a troublesome backup like Unei that you need Alexander to beat? Make sure you don’t spend it early. The more intimate you get with each deck in the metagame, the better you know which cards are best to use for CP, and which you should hang on to. This aspect of CP discarding is likely to be the most rewarding to understand and practice, and the most beneficial in terms of converting skill and knowledge into win percentage. It definitely is something that we develop subconsciously over time, but by really examining the choices we make we can strengthen our play dramatically.
So with all this, we can see how important this one mechanic has been on the design and play of our great game. Hopefully I’ve helped shine some light on the ways it influences each and every design choice in the game, and given you some ideas on how to capitalize on it. It will affect every single game you play, often being the very first decision you make, as it will even influence your mulligan decisions. By really focusing on how we interact with it, by practicing and exploring the best ways to use it, we can grow as players and improve our game. As always, thank you for spending your time today with me. I wish you all the best, and look forward to seeing as many of you as I can once the competitive season starts up again. In the meantime, stay safe, my friends!