If you've never come along with me for one of these before, welcome. I tend to write these a lot like Mommy-bloggers posting recipes, in that if all you care about is the recipe (or cards in this case) you're going to want to scroll for awhile until you see something that looks like an ingredient list. If you follow the rest of it, you'll get a lot of background and story that doesn't have a damn thing to do with jambalaya, but you get to come on a little trip with me. Either way, enjoy.
When FFG announced the cancellation of l5r, like most other players I was disappointed, if not completely surprised. While I knew online would continue - for awhile at least - I had low hopes for in-person play resuming. And much as I enjoy online play, the fun of the game has always been sitting across from friends and throwing cardboard at each other. Online is for practice; I play in-person.
As such, I was extremely excited when Mark Armitage announced the L5r LCG Celebration Event, an in-person event at this store in Lebanon, New Hampshire to get players together in-person again. It was pitched as a local event but guests were welcome. I waited about a week to make sure locals got first crack at slots, and when Mark made a follow up post on Facebook I bit the bullet, bought some Amtrak tickets, and started making plans. I also tried to rope some of my local players into making the journey with me, and was quickly joined by Solo (a.k.a. Dan Solo Austin), one of our local players who'd started to ascend just as the game ended, and one of two Community Management leads on the Emerald Legacy board. Dan traveled to his first Worlds in 2019 and went 5-0 in the LCQ. I'd just started to get to know him when the pandemic hit and I was very excited to be traveling with him.
We booked train tickets, a hotel, picked decks, and in about a month it was time to go.
We headed out on Friday, a day before the Saturday tournament. I chose Amtrak for a number of reasons. The first is that I live in DC and Solo lives in Baltimore; the drive up to New Hampshire was estimated at nine hours, not counting stops. That's a long drive, especially if the plan is to travel one day, play, and travel back the next. Flying was going to be close to $600/person and the airport was still 15 miles away. But Amtrak had a train that went right from DC to a town just four miles away with a hotel across the street from the station, and the tickets were only $100 each way. Sold.
I actually love rail travel. My wife and I did a train trip to the Grand Canyon several years ago that, except for the part where I got mono and spent the trip horribly sick wondering if I was literally dying, as one of the top travel experiences of my life. I enjoy the calm pace of travel, the freedom from having to pay attention to anything as in a car, the ability to eat and drink at leisure, to read, to play games, to watch the landscape change, and especially to go to the bathroom whenever I wish. Solo and I chatted together for the first few hours, played some battlebox l5r (it's small enough we could play on the tray tables), and then I read most of the rest of the way. One of the books I brought was Anäis Michell's Working on A Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown. I'd recommend it for anyone interested in the musical or in exploring the writing, editing, and revision process of art.
Train platform in Springfield, MA.
Second view of train platorm in Springfield, MA.
Switching out electric locamotive for diesel in New Haven, CT.
View of a bridge from train in New Haven, CT.
Food on the train was good enough, about what you'd expect from a movie theater that has gone one step above hot dogs and popcorn. I had a microwaved bowl of macaroni and cheese ($7.50) for lunch that was better than you'd expect from that description, and later a Coca Cola and a snack pack of pretzels and hummus ($6).
Amtrak's policy requires masks on the train unless one is actively eating or drinking (their emphasis), and for the most part the rules were followed and enforced, barring one couple on the trip home, which did make me feel pretty comfortable.
And we kept watching the world go by.
Eventually we arrived in White River Junction. Overall the trip was scheduled to take ten hours and ended up taking ten and a half. Not bad. The platform had an old locamotive from the nineteenth century on display which still cast an imposing view next to our modern diesel.
Our reservations were for the Hotel Coolidge, a nineteenth century railway hotel that's stayed in business all these years. It's very apparent that this is an older hotel - for example, it's clear that the in-suite bathrooms were a later edition, and the heat and water pressure reflect that. AC is provided via window units. Etc. - but is still pleasant for all of that. Service was very good, and I did appreciate having actual room keys rather than key cards that my phone could erase. We booked through Expedia and after taxes and fees we paid $150/night for a double.
The hotel is located in the middle of downtown White River Junction (which is itself a very small area) with several restaurants and shops in walking distance. It's literally across the street from the Amtrak station so very easy to get to if you're traveling by train. I would definitely stay here again if I were passing through the area.
After checking in we unpacked (even if I'm only staying a brief while, whenever I travel if I'm staying more than one night, I like to unpack. I don't mind living out of a duffle bag, but unpacking always makes me feel like I'm claiming the space and making it my home, if only for a short while. It feels very ritualistic) and then set out to explore the town. We found bulletin boards with notices for upcoming performances, none of which would work with out travel schedule unfortunately. I was very sad to be missing Richard Thompson, one of my favorite folk singer-songwriters. We found several intriguing restaurants, an outdoor theater, public art, and a dance party fundraiser.
For dinner we met up with David Gordon Bursesh, Rhiannon McCullough, and Brandon Lane. None of them were playing this weekend but they made the trip up to see us and have dinner together. As per Mark's recommendation, we had dinner at the Tuckerbox, a Turkish restaurant practically next door to our hotel. The restaurant was actually Mark's recommendation and it was spot on. He'd also recommended a particular waiter, Zach, who provided great recommendations and service.
Turkish Delight cocktail.
Now many of us know of Mark Armitage as "the nicest guy in l5r" and it's true but I'd never seen it firsthand like this. When Solo and I were making our arrangements Mark reached out to one of the local players to get us a ride from the hotel to the store, so that we wouldn't have to use public transportation or Uber. That was swell. He recommended a great restaurant. That's being a great host. But what none of us knew until after dinner was that Mark had also called ahead to the restaurant and arranged to cover all of our drinks himself! It was an incredibly kind and generous act and I'm very thankful to Mark for going out of his way to take care of us.
After a fantastic dinner, Solo and I walked around a bit more, then retired to the room. We played one game of l5r on the room floor, me piloting his tournament deck and him running a strange Dragon deck. Solo's deck was a Unicorn HMT deck using Khanbulak Benefactor and doing all kinds of tricks with her discount to not only play stuff for cheap/free but to get enormous boards that for some reason just kept attacking and persisting. It was a really weird deck, at least from my perspective, but it worked. I was impressed.
Eventually we turned in. There were cards to play tomorrow.
We got up, took turns in the shower, and headed back to Tuckerbox for breakfast. The hotel gave a small voucher for it, but honestly after last night's dinner it didn't take much persuasion to go back. In fact, we'd go back for breakfast each day and try a good portion of the breakfast menu.
Great food, beautiful place!
After breakfast we headed back to the room and got ready for the tournament.
As previously stated, Mark had even arranged transportation for us. We got a ride to the store from Local Hatamoto Nick Mason (TM). I'd known Nick a bit from his work on The Meek Informant Podcast (they actually interviewed me and Arash two years ago as part of their deep dives into each clan) and I'd met him at Worlds 2019 when he signed my playmat. We had a pleasant drive to the store, chatting mostly about how people had been keeping busy during the pandemic.
At the store we checked in. Everyone was required to both wear masks for the entire event and present a vaccination card (physical or photo) to play, rules which were enforced. Overall, I'd been pretty happy with protocols this trip. There is no such thing as a risk-free public activity at the moment, but my impression was that everything was being done to minimize risk via reasonable precautions and protocols.
The first hiccup of the tournament was that Mark couldn't make it. All of this work and effort he put into put together his celerbation event and, due to a medical emergency, he couldn't be there. I found out later that everyone was fine, but I felt bad he was going to miss out on his own event. In spite of that, Mark recruited a backup Devin Bell as a backup TO and with Devin's help and the store's staff, the tournament still went off.
Part of the draw for the tournament was that Mark was blasting through all the accumulated promos and prize kits that had built up over the seasons. The prize tables (note the plural) were enormous. One table contained relatively common kit promos and anyone could have as many promos from it as they liked, free to take. The other contained much rarer promos that were awarded after each round. The structure was that after finishing a round, the loser got first pick from the rare table, then the winner got to pick. Furthermore, there was a Box of Greed with even rarer cards in it, with blind draws being sold at $5 each (or three draws for $10), all funds going to the Stop AAPI Hate organization. It was a good day for swag.
The "take whatever you want" table.
I am proud to say that I had my own donation to the rare table. David Robotham helped me create a set of promo cards using the l5r cocktails I created with Kakita Kaori and he even helped me get them printed. I was very pleased that they were picked up very quickly. If you missed your chance to get them in New Hampshire, all I can say is there may be a way to get them at Gen Con this year...
After a tournamet, unsleeve the card and show it to your bartender.
Players filtered in. Some were people I'd never met and some were folks I'd known but obviously hadn't seen in close to two years. Some folks hadn't played since lockdown, while others were active online players. A lot of folks were using proxies. Everyone came with a good attitude. This was going to be fun.
Okay, it's been about five pages and I still haven't talked about cards. Let's get to those games.
Solo - Unicorn - Hisu Mori Toride - Keeper of Void - Scorpion Splash
It's a long-standing joke that if you travel more than an hour with someone to a tournament, you'll end up matched together in the first round. Well, it happened again. Solo's initial flop looked good, but mine was stronger. He got Chagatai, while I flipped two Togashi Mitsu's and had two Ki Alignments in hand. He was first player so he bought chags and passed while I loaded up Mitsu. Having piloted his deck the night before I knew its tricks and that wasn't going to go well for Solo. He attacked with Fire. I defended and had Mitsu play Hurricane Punches to build my hand and we passed out the round On turn 2 I was first player while he flipped Moto Beastmaster, Khanbulak Benefactor on Wind's Path, and Ride at Dawn. I did a naked pass to build fate (this was going to be my turn to buy attachemnts) and prevent the Ride from going off. I attack, use the Ki Alignments, and Solo realizes he can't do anything. His KB tricks won't work since I can just Void Fist her home before she'll give him his discounts, and that means his whole deck is turned off. He concedes rather than draw it out. This will end up being Solo's only loss of the day.
Results: Victory (1-0)
Kyle Kress - Unicorn - Hisu Mori Toride - Keeper of Fire - Lion Splash
I'm normally pretty confident with this matchup, but this game would turn that around. I get my worst flop of the weekend - not just in l5r but in every game. I end up buying a Monastery Protector who face-plants into Endless Plains. Kyle wrecks some of my provinces. Turn two I get a Teacher of Empty Thought and I start building him up. Kyle breaks Upholding without Shinjo Ambusher, then draws one off of Spoils of War. I use Upholding to discard the Ambusher (maybe he'll hit Resto?) but I lose track of the other stuff in his hand... including the Unleash the Djinn. In fact, my own Unleash the Djinn card (Unleash the Gin). As a result when he attacks my third province I waste my Defend Your Honor on a Captive Audience. He has a second, then plays UTD. I'm not completely out of gas but it means he gets to my stronghold at the end of turn two rather than the start of turn three, so when he Cav Reserves in Tetsuko I'm out of fate. Kyle will go on to go 4-0 in the Swiss so I don't feel too bad.
Results: Defeat (1-1)
We take a one hour lunch break, during which I grab some vegetarian chili from a food truck. Solo talks a bit to everyone about Emerald Legacy introducing himself as Community Manager. People seem interested. We resume play.
Derek McConnell - Dragon - High House of Light - Keeper of Earth - Phoenix Splash
I know Derek from before, and we actually played at the last Worlds. That said, he plays around with different clans while I tend to be very Dragon-focused and I'm actually pretty confident about the mirror. The flop changes that. He gets first player and flops Mitsu while I have to make due with a Tranquil Philosopher. He attacks but his Restoration of Balance and breaks it. That bows him out; I counterattack and get my own break. Turn two I flip Togshi Ichi but still not Mitsu, so I naked pass in order to build fate to build up a different tower than I'd planned. I attack and Derek hits me with Fury; I counter with an unexpected Ready for Battle, break the province, then Disguise in Ichi for another break. Turn three he's on my stronghold. He plays cards and I rapid-fire three Defend Your Honor so that I can hit his Mitsu with Void First before he can get Ring fate. His Mitsu dies at the end of the round and I get mine out at the start of turn four with a huge pile of fate for attachments. He sinks all of his fate into a Yokuni whom I covert out of the stronhgold attack and he concedes.
Results: Victory (2-1)
Local Hatamoto Nick Mason (TM) - Crane - Seven Folds Palace - Seeker of Air - Scorpion Splash
Turn one Mitsu.
Okay, I'll go deeper than that, but honestly that could be the whole report. LHNM gets first player. He talked about getting a first turn Noble Sac on Mitsu in another game that day, so I know his deck can run tower kill and mulligan not for Ki Alignment or anything like that but just some armor pieces, and I'm rewarded by finding a Belief in the Little Teacher. I flip double Mitsu's, he buys one character and passes (no Finger of Jade or Swell of Seafoam for me). I buy my Mitsu, toss a fate on him, and Belief. We both bid five and he attacks. This is basically his one chance to win the game. If he honors a character in the conflict and wins the Fire ring then he can dishonor Mitsu and use Noble Sac (assuming he has it) before I can use Belief. If not, the game's probably over. I throw everything I have into defending fire, and win the conflict. Mitsu stays ordinary. Next turn I'm able to break stuff, including a Teahouse, with impunity and break two provinces, losing none, and Mitsu is now honored with a bunch of other toys stuck on him, including a Finger of Jade. He's untouchable. LHNM concedes.
Results: Victory (3-1)
That's the end of Swiss. Now I haven't talked about my deck yet, but here it is: https://www.emeralddb.org/decks/b5a2e4a9-f996-4da5-a5ce-b32eba3a22ee
It's not terribly different than previous versions of my monk deck. The big difference is the addition of Shoshi ni Kie (which may come out) and replacing In Service to My Lord with Ready for Battle, which honestly feels more like a sideways step than a downgrade. With Swell, we don't really need more stands (hence why Shoshi may come out) so ISTML wasn't a huge loss, and RFB deals with the, "Oops, I got bowed" problems. The deck is disgustingly reliable. Not unbeatable (round two showed that) but reliable.
I think I'm done playing this deck.
Quite simply, the deck wasn't fun. It did what it was supposed to do, which is to say it played a lot of cards, but for the most part it was just stacking numbers. It was playing cards for the sake of playing cards, rarely because the cards themselves mattered, and it very quickly reached the point where my opponent couldn't do anything about it. That didn't make for an interesting game, and it certainly didn't make for a fun one. I'm glad Dragon has these tools, though obviously there's a power level that needs to be addressed. I'll let wiser minds than my own try to figure out what those corrections are, but for now at least, I'm done. There's other stuff I want to build and other things I want to play around with. This morning I played a top 8 discord match and the deck fired exactly like it was supposed to. I won that match but it was so disspiriting I don't want to play the top 4 with it. After I post this, I'm going to concede. Good luck to Comebackman and Togashi Kohml in the finals.
So back to New Hampshire.
I had the same thoughts. I went 3-1 with this deck and, after SoS, I was ranked second in the Swiss. Did I really want to go on to the cut? Did I want to be that out of town player who brings an oppressive, competitive deck to a casual local event and stomps all over it? Was there some big prize for the champion I was desperate to win? Did I need to prove this deck was competitive? Was I even going to have fun?
The decision was pretty clear. I dropped. Let someone else have a chance.
The original final schedule was going to be
Myself vs. Drew Horgan (Lion)
Kyle (Unicorn vs. Solo (Unicorn)
Drew had been planning to play for twenty minutes and then concede to his opponnent (he had a hard deadline he needed to leave by) so presumably I'd have won that. Solo would likely have beaten Kyle (more on that below) so finals would likely have been me vs. my local friend. And given how round one went, I can make a guess how that game would have ended. I was glad to walk away. Instead, another player, James Huff, and I start a Shadowlands game.
Meanwhile the new semi is:
Kyle (Unicorn) vs. Jason Riendeau (Phoenix)
Solo (Unicorn) vs. Ian Oneail
Solo and Kyle both win their matches and sit down to the finals.
The final battle has begun!
Kyle is running a pretty traditional Unicorn HMT deck with Lion splash. Makeshift War Camp appears to be the big boost he's getting from his splash. Utaku Tetsuko is his RL card, which doesn't do much in the matchup. Solo is focusing on getting extra use out of Khanbulak Benefactor, using her to get a lot of cheap/free attachments, turn Forgery into a free cancel, play Shadow Steed and Ring of Binding for free, make money off of Messenger of Misery, and other tricks like that. None of the tricks are very strong but it very quickly adds up.
This whole board only cost seven fate!
It's a tough as nails game and very, very tight. The game - and HMT vs. HMT game! - nearly goes to time, but in the even Solo pulls out the victory! It's an exciting match and, for the second time that day, I wish I'd been streatming one of Solo's matches (his round four match against Durocher's Lion conquest deck was something spectacular to behold).
The store employees are being polite but trying to close up. We get packed up as quickly as possible and again hitch a ride back to the hotel with Local Hatamoto Nick Mason, who is extra kind and returns to the hotel ten minutes later when I call him having forgotten my hat in his car.
That's all for cards, but read on if you want to hear more travel drama.
Once Upon a Time There Was a Railroad Line...
We get back to the hotel. We're both famished and exhausted - I do a shot of bourbon - but before we can get food we get an e-mail from Amtrak. Apparently our train home the next day has been canceled. Hurricane Henri has shut down all train service north of New York City. It takes about half an hour before we get connected to an Amtrak representative. Eventually we're able to get rebooked for Monday. I go down to the front desk and extend our stay at only a modest increase $10 increase. I grumble about that but it's still cheaper than ubering to a different hotel. We set out in search of dinner.
It turn sout that small, rural, Vermont towns don't have much of a late night dining scene. We'd hoped to go to the great-looking BBQ place we saw the previous night but they're closed. Eventually we head back to the hotel and the night manager recommends a local pizza place. It's perfect.
We watch some episodes of The Simpsons on my Kindle (really wish I'd brought my laptop) and turn in. Tomorrow we have a big day of... wait, what exactly are we going to do?
A Day of Leisure
With nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no rush to do it in, we meander. We have a late breakfast at the Tuckerbox and take a walk around the town. There are thunderstorm and flash flood warnings - all hurricane related - scheduled throughout the day so we don't want to get too far, and I haven't brought good walking shoes.
On the plus side: Solo met a doggo!
At breakfast we had a great local hot sauce that's actually made in-town. Unfortunately they're closed on Sunday so we end up walking across the river. We find a food co-op and while that particular sauce (Purple Hippo) isn't available, I pickup one of their bottles from a different line to take home (Black Bison). Triple Berry, Ghost, and Scorpion peppers. This should be fun.
To be fair, it's a very pretty river to walk across.
We check out some of the local shops, including a Turkish food and goods store run by the same folks that run the Tuckerbox.
Storm clouds are starting to come in so we head back to the hotel. Solo teaches me how to play Magic with the two Commander decks he brought. I haven't played since about 1996 - twenty-five years, good God! - but he's a good teacher. It's a fun way to spend the afternoon. The storm still hasn't broken so we walk over to the BBQ place we couldn't get to last night: Big Fatty's BBQ. I get burnt ends with slaw, he gets pulled beef nachos, and we split an order of pulled pork mac'n'cheese. Everything is just as good as you'd want it to be.
Left: Pulled pork mac'n'cheese
Right: Pulled beef nachos
Storm still hasn't broken and but it's just starting to get some extremely light rain, so we take a little walk around town, then head back to the room. Solo shows me some of his favorite animes and eventually we turn in.
Once Upon a Time There Was a Railroad Station...
The next morning we have our last breakfast at Tuckerbox. The previous day we'd seen an amazing-looking purple drink and today I breakdown and get it: a mermaid lemonade. It think the purple was lavender and it was delicious.
Have you ever wanted to know what purple tastes like?
We meander a bit. Charge devices for the train. Get drinks and bahn mi sandwiches to bring onboard, then head over to the station.
Solo made another friend.
The train was running fifteen minutes late but at least it came today. We got onboard, found our seats, and settled in. We were both tired from the weekend, so while we talked a bit - especially mentally replaying Solo's final - it was a much quiet trip, watching the world go by.
New York and Philadelphia from the train.
Swapping out our diesel locamotive for an electric one.
I did some more reading, finishing Marie Brenan's excellent The Night Parade of 100 Demons, and watching some downloaded episodes of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. We got into DC about 10:30 PM, only half an hour late. Solo and I hugged goodbye and departed, him to drive north to Baltimore (note for next year: have Solo pick up train in Baltimore rather than drive down to DC to ride back north), and myself to the Metro. One transfer and a few stops later on the last train of the day, and my wife picked me up from the station. I got in the door a bit after midnight.
I have to say, this was one of my favorite l5r experiences over the life of this game. I got to travel with a friend, play some great games, meet new players and meet up with old friends, eat delicious food, read great books, and in general just enjoy myself. Even with the delay and the forced extra day, I had a fantastic time. I can't express my thanks to Mark for organizing the event, to Devin and Tony for stepping up to run, or to everyone who came out to see us and play games with us.
On the train Solo and I talked about our hopes for the future of the game. I want Emerald Legacy to succeed. I want the game to survive in this new incarnation, but part of the reason I took the time to make this trip was because of the fear that this might be my last chance to do so. I don't think that'll happen, but if so, this was a great note to go out on.