All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.
With the 2011 Kotei season winding down there are only a handful of major events between now and Gen Con. These last couple weeks of Kotei will be highly scrutinized by players looking to get a read on the tournament environment in preperation for Gen Con. I have no doubt that winning and cutting deck lists will be posted, and that those deck lists will be reconstructed on kitchen tables all around the country as people try to find the next winning deck for the biggest L5R tournament in the country, or at least try to learn how to beat that deck. I also have no doubt that many people will build these decks, play them only a handful of times, and decide summarily that the players who won or made the cut with the decks were either extremely lucky or playing against a very weak field. Obviously this is rarely the case, the truth is that most players simply do not know how to effectively use posted deck lists.
When someone posts a deck list online, it isn’t like a recipe in a book that you can simply follow and expect the same results. Hell, many times the same player may take the same deck to another event and not do as well with it, why should anyone else believe they could do any better? The environment is always changing, shifting, evolving. Each event will be impacted in some manner by all the events which came before. Some times this can be as subtle as a single card people begin playing in their decks in response to it performing well for another player at a previous event. Other times it can be a massive shift in the environment as often happens when a new pool of cards, especially new Strongholds, become legal for tournament play. These adjustments to the environment big or small mean that what was good at one tournament will not neccesarily be good at the next tournament. The deck that won or cut in a previous tournament will not always do so in the next tournament. The environment is constantly shifting, the decks played in that environment must also constantly shift to meet the demands of the new environment or they will fall behind. A deck list posted online should never be considered as a list for a future event, instead it should be evaluated to determine it’s potential effect on future tournaments and what changes may be needed to maintain it’s competitiveness for future events.
Much like starting with the borders when putting together a jigsaw puzzle, the first step is to define what the deck does. What is the victory condition of the deck, is it military, honor, dishonor, or enlightenment? Is it something else all together such as an event based victory, or could it possibly be a combination of two or more victory conditions? Consider what that might mean to the environment in the future. If the deck is an honor deck and honor has been a dominating deck in the most recent events, consider that the environment may shift to meta honor more heavily and that the deck may need to adjust to adapt to that shift. If the deck is a dishonor deck and dishonor has not been doing well in recent events, what about this deck makes it viable where others have failed to perform?
Once you have a good idea of the broad strokes of the deck, look at it in detail. Consider each card individually and how it interacts with each other card in the deck. Are there cards or combinations of cards you hadn’t thought of before? Are there cards which look completely out of place to you in the deck? Are there cards which you feel should be in the deck but the deck’s designer did not include them? Consider why the deck’s designer included each card and possible reasons he may not have included other cards. There is usually a good reason for these decisions, a good deck is rarely built without considerable attention to each small detail. Looking at each card which is or is not present in a deck individually will help you discover the subtleties of the deck which should in turn lead you to an understanding of why the deck did well at a particular event.
Once you have a good idea of how and why a deck works, compare the deck list with similar deck lists which performed well, preferably at the same event, but you can look to other events as well. What cards are the same between the decks, these are likely the core cards of the deck which define it in an environment. Even within these core cards you are likely to find small differences between decks. Perhaps one deck runs only two of a card which the other runs three of. These small variances often have some significance if you look for the reasons behind them. Next look at the cards which are different between the decks, this is where things get interesting. Small differences in card selection can have a major impact on how a deck performs, especially where meta is concerned.
Now that you have a solid idea of what the deck does, why it contains the cards that it does, and how it compares to similar decks, you can consider playing a deck like it. Notice I did not say to play the same deck, I said to play a deck like it. Take what you learned from evaluating the deck and adapt the deck to your own play style and what you expect the environment to be. Play it many times before you bring it to any kind of serious event, get familiar with it and keep fine tuning it until you are happy with how it plays for you. If you follow this advice you will do much better with the deck than you would have had you just taken the list and played it as is. There is always more personal reward to doing well with a deck that is your own rather than a deck you lifted off the internet. Your final deck may closely resemble the original deck, but the smallest difference of just five cards can totally change how a deck performs.