The second season of the online Marvel: Crisis Protocol league is drawing to a close. The later stages has produced a top 4: 2 from the US, one from Europe and one from Australia. They’ve all agreed to talk to me and first up is a veteran from the first league: Doug Kroup aka Sploosh.
You can catch my interview with him from season one here. We build on a lot of ideas we talk about in that interview below.
Xavier Protocols: What are playing in the knockout section of this league?
Doug: Cabal. Same as last time. I definitely feel I’ve evolved since our last conversation; I’ve changed opinions on some things.
XP: What’s Changed?
D: As far as the the roster is concerned, the primary list is Red Skull, M.O.D.O.K. and Baron Zemo. I do still have Killmonger in the roster, but in my old list it was always Killmonger instead of Zemo, but now Killmonger is more of a flex for if the numbers get weird or if I want to audible something (make changes on the fly – Ed). If I want to play a 4-threat instead of a 3-threat I can add Killmonger and a 2-Threat character like Black Widow to make the numbers work. For example at 18 threat I might run Shuri and Valkyrie, but maybe I think Shuri won’t be good because the map doesn’t work; I could run Vision and Widow instead. You can get in to situations where you have one point left over: Baron would come out in that situation and I’ll go up a point with Killmonger.
XP: What has made you push towards Baron Zemo?
D: The first reasoning was that I know that M.O.D.O.K. is good and Red Skull is good and I want to play other good things in other factions. I find that Shuri and Valkyrie are very good: you can’t run Shuri or Valkrie at 15 threat if you are running Killmonger – it just doesn’t work. I told you last time we talked that I didn’t like 15 points much (this was excluded from the write up at his request so as not to give information to his opponent as the interview was published before the finals – ed), and even at 17 threat I didn’t like it that much, but since I have ‘cut’ Killmonger, I don’t hate those as much any more. It’s not Killmonger’s fault exactly; philosophically the reason that Killmonger is lower is that when I was originally playing the game there was fewer characters and I wanted dice mods. I was using Dark Reign and Usurp the Throne heavily. Inherently, even those attacks are still variance and it’s taking up two tactics cards slots which could be used for other cards; now we have Medpack there are more healing options it’s twofold – it’s making room in my tactics card hand and it’s making room for more characters in my squad. I’ve definitely relearned to love Baron Zemo in this league – I’ve played him every single game this league and I’ve never brought Killmonger once. It’s hard to pull the trigger and fully kick him out as I do like to have the option.
I’ve rethought a lot of the game: I still love AIM Lackey – it’s still my favourite card – but Baron Zemo he almost doesn’t need AIM Lackey, so that frees it up for other characters as Killmonger was hogging it. There is a lot of things you can do with AIM Lackey. Valkyrie for example loves AIM Lackey because she is not really as fast as Zemo and she hits really hard. Even Gamora with AIM Lackey is insane. I had a Shuri with AIM Lackey against Black Order – keep in mind this isn’t a pre-planned thing, it was just light a light bulb went off . He was playing Black Dwarf and Ebony Maw, Corvus Glaive and Proxima Midnight – it’s scary! I did AIM Lackey Shuri to push Maw and Dwarf back so that they are in his deployment area. He moved them back but couldn’t do anything with them, so then I used Cosmic Invigoration on Shuri and shot them again twice. Four attacks in one turn – I gained 8-10 power. I used that power for patch up, a tonne of rerolls. His Dwarf was in his deployment three times in the game. His Dwarf never attacked one time in four turns.
XP: Which other unaffiliated characters do you like bringing in?
D: I only mentioned four Cabal characters, so that leaves six other characters in my roster. I will say the roster is going to change with the new characters and the 16 threat objective to be mindful of. Right now my only 2-threat character is Black Widow, which has been an absolute MVP for me, but I think I’ll probably end up adding Okoye at some point, but for now she just fits when the math works. She’s also really good because of her Stealth. People bring nasty ranged characters or characters that only do range 2 attacks like Valkyrie, where she’s strong in both scenarios. I absolutely love Black Widow, but I see it like a sideboard in card game.
I have Vision who I tend to play if I am going to get swarmed – like against Guardians. I like the idea of him being able to beam 2-3 targets and he’s pretty solid against Rocket and Groot for example.
I’ve got Gamora who is kind of tricky because she is so squishy, but she hits so hard. I like her against people who aren’t trying to beat me up as much, so potentially Wakanda or the new Web Warriors affiliation. I’d be nervous to play Gamora in a situation where you are slugging it out like boxers.
I’ve got Hela, which is solid if someone is running Black Panther and Captain America, or against Wakanda, they don’t want to line up Panther opposite M.O.D.O.K., so they will try to go somewhere else, and I have Hela as that somewhere else so he’s not safe wherever he goes. Hela’s extremely good in Cabal. I went cold on her after the final of the last league: she missed every defensive roll and never got a chance to attack which was really awkward. She has a little bit of variance but she has such high dice pools in every regard and she’s so solid with Cabal – the free power keeps her Claim Soul working, and she’s just so fast with the 50mm base. She just does a lot. She is a flex slot though. I definitely don’t pla her all the time.
Killmonger still is an option. He’s still really good against a Thor or anyone committing to big characters, Usurp the Throne and Dark Reign are powerful, and get free VPs. He hits with energy and goes well against a squishy energy character.
The only thing left is Shuri and Valkyrie – they both have their moments. It comes down to do I want to kill things or do I want to control this game? It’s kind of like the concept from card games: who’s the beatdown? (Check out this great video explaining more – ed). In a mirror situation, I may have to decide if I want to be the person who is killing or I want to be the one that is controlling – if both people are doing the same strategy, one of them is wrong. It might be based on who is going first. You have to make that decision, and that’s a call I try to make before the game starts. Valkyrie does the killing and Shuri does the controlling.
XP: You seem pretty hot on Black Widow. How do you feel about Rocket in Cabal?
D: I used to be huge on Rocket. I don’t think Rocket is a bad character, but I think Okoye would be my second 2-threat pick. It comes down to dice variance: I’ve had Rocket do disgusting things to me and block a lot of attacks and I’ve done okay with Rocket, but I’m more about the fact that Okoye comes with rerolls and can be kind of aggressive and defensive. When I play Black Widow, she is 100% just playing the objective and hiding in the back. She does some cool things where she can steal objectives and then run away if people don’t position correctly.Okoye can’t really do that, and neither can Rocket, so Widow offers something that the others cannot do. However, if I was going to play another two-threat, Okoye’s range 4 attack is pretty solid. It’s four dice, reroll one, so basically 5 dice attack, which is the same as Rocket. It’s not range 5 – okay, fine – but she also has defensive rerolls and she is solid on all the defenses. She’s more explosive. She has the “blanks are blocks”. I think I would lean towards the consistent dice and a more offensive character – Rocket is kind of defensive.
XP: That’s a bold statement! Rocket seems pretty offensive to me!
D: When I say offensive I mean actually aggressively pursuing a position. For example, if I daze someone on an objective, I’m still not on that objective scoring it. He might knock you out, but he’s not physically there.
That’s actually a philosophical thing I’ve changed with this game too. I have this idea from playing Legion, that there is this gun-line and I play a bunch of ranged characters. For example I was playing Hela, Rocket and M.O.D.O.K., and in my head it made sense, as you are blasting away and you are safe. The problem with that strategy is: who is actually going to go over there and stand on the point or take that objective? Yes, Rocket can shoot people, but Okoye can shoot people and do something a little more aggressive positionally.
XP: Do you think then that a melee beater is a more preferable character to have in your roster than a ranged turret?
D: Here’s the thing: I love ranged turrets, but M.O.D.O.K. is never coming out. Nobody is going to fight with M.O.D.O.K. for that position. He’s doing such a good job of it that even though you might invent some 4-threat character that is ‘Baby-M.O.D.O.K.’, I probably might not play it because I already have M.O.D.O.K. It’s like the Protoss mothership from Starcraft with the little things buzzing around it. That’s how I play Cabal – I see M.O.D.O.K. as my mothership, and I have little Baron Zemo running around getting the work done. Maybe cleaning up his mess: someone dropped an objective token and I need Baron Zemo to go get it.
It’s like I talked about in our previous interview about letting my opponent make decisions and then I try to counter their decisions – that hasn’t changed, but mobility helps you with that too. If I chose to put Hela on the left, she is pretty committed at that point, but if I choose to put Baron Zemo on the left, that doesn’t mean anything. If you put him in the right spot, he can get an objective on D formation on both sides of the board.
XP: Are you still favouring choosing extracts when you get priority?
D: Mostly. Even though I am much more comfortable at 15 and 17 threat I would still rather not play those. In the Guardians game on Struggle for the Cube he was playing a swarmy 6 character list with beefy characters. I looked at his list aheads of time and I had a feeling he wanted to play struggle for the cube; that seems good for him and bad for me. Baron Zemo only has 5 stamina and I don’t want M.O.D.O.K. taking damage and he’s got a tonne of characters and a tonne of health. He won priority and did pick Cubes, but I was hoping to not let him do that – it was a tough game and it was made harder because he got what he wanted.
Against Wakanda, I tend to favour Mystic Herbs. If I pick Herbs it slows the game down a lot, so they can’t burst, get points on you and win the game over a very quick game. I did play one very good Wakandan player – Hoffburger. His only loss was to me until he got in to the top 16. I only beat him by one VP and it went to 6 rounds, and that’s because I forced Herbs. If I had picked Secures, I don’t know that I win that game. I do think the Wakanda is probably the best faction still, so that’s obviously important to being able to beat them.
Against Cabal, I don’t care as much as we are in a mirror match.
I know a lot of the best players in the game don’t agree with me about picking extracts, but it’s god that we don’t agree.
XP: How do you assess in the mirror, in particular, whether you are the beatdown or the control player?
D: I would say if I have priority, I’m probably the beatdown, and if I’m going second I have to play control. I have played games in the Cabal mirror where I never gained priority the entire game. I also played against a very good Avengers player where he had priority the entire game. He was playing a beatdown list: Thor, Venom, Vision, Cap. He was just coming at me – he did a great job. I used all my resources. It was a lot closer than the points showed. I always felt like I was blocking and he was striking the whole game – it was such a struggle.
When good players are playing, they both are trying to not lose their priority, so they are attacking in a tactical way, where maybe on the left side someone has activated all their stuff, so you don’t activate your left side stuff as it’s ‘free’ there. I feel like he was playing really smart. I had to fight in way to protect my characters by killing his unactivated characters, and he had to fight in a way to reduce how much damage he was going to take. It was back-and-forth, where he would knock something out, but I would knock something out so he ended up keeping his priority, and it was all based on the way we were organising the game.
XP: Do you like making ‘bold plays’, where you reach out and take an objective round one?
D: No, I’m not a ‘bold plays’ person. If it looks like I am making a bold play, it’s probably for a good reason, and its maybe not as bold as it looks. I do have a lot of game experience, and I do understand that sometimes you have to be bold as you are losing and I will try to be more bold in those situations. I definitely won’t start the game being bold. If anything, I’ll give uo VPs early for the opportunity later: positioning is more important early than any other time. If I see a bad matchup, I’m not going to run in to it because I feel commited tot hat bad matchup – I will just readjust.
XP: Apart from the most common cards, are there any other cards you find yourself playing a lot?
D: Pretty much AIM Lackeys. It does absurd things sometimes. You might be able to knock someone out and then AIM Lackey to an objective and then grab it. It’s like playing chess and you get to cheat for a turn – all of a sudden your knight gets to move like a queen. It changes all the rules of the game. Another thing I learned about AIM Lackey is that you can play it preemptively: if you are scared M.O.D.O.K. is going to get knocked out, because the card reads “next activation”, but it doesn’t say when. Sometimes, if I’m worried that M.O.D.O.K. will get knocked out and I need it, I’ll just preemptively say, “I’m playing AIM Lackey right now,” and the plop it on the board so nobody forgets.
I was huge on Dark Reign, but now that I have Zemo, M.O.D.O.K. with his rerolls and Shuri to help out with rerolls, I’ve been a lot more cold on Dark Reign. One of my last games I didn’t even take Cosmic Invigoration in my five. I’ve watched a lot of games on stream, and I’ve noticed a lot of Cabal players – even Pat Dunford in his last game – are using their Cosmic Invigoration at all. It’s a pattern I’ve noticed that if your opponent is trying to do that knockout punch on you, you probably don’t have the option to use Cosmic Invigoration. It’s a matter of taking damage and losing priority. Cosmic Invigoration can kill you and losing priority is sometimes worse than getting an extra attack.
I’m not saying it’s a bad card and I don’t play it. There are lists like Wakanda and probably Web Warriors or more passive versions of Avengers where they don’t try to punch you in the face. I’m okay playing it there, but if someone is ramming Thor in my face, and following it up with Vision drop offs: they are just all in on throwing my characters everywhere, that gets bloody and losing priority when there is so much going on in a scrum like that is dangerous. If you don’t have priority anyway, Cosmic Invigoration is better, because you are not losing anything from that.
XP: Have you advanced your thinking on which secure crises you like when you are forced to choose them?
D: I used to think that Riot Sparks over Extremis 3.0 was good for Cabal. I have won on it, however I was talking with a friend and the way the board is shaped is awkward for Cabal. I’ve switched to Infinity Formula as my favourite. I’m not a huge Gamma person: I just think there is too much random number generation (RNG) with Gamma – I prefer reducing RNG in the game. If someone spikes a hard hit, the points change so much in Gamma. The strategy is so little when the strategy is control the middle. It’s too explosive. I prefer the game to be more tactical, where my positioning matters more, and decisions matter more. Gamma is a fast objective points-wise, so you have fewer turns to make decisions. If someone is outscoring you and running away with the game, it’s going to be hard to catch up if something went badly.
XP: You said previously you don’t want to see Bodyguard across the table from you. Has that changed?
D: Yes it has changed. I’m not ‘all in’ on ‘smash the big guy’ as I’m not going all Killmonger any more. Really the entire strategy has changed completely. It should be more push the weaknesses and maybe let the board be more spread out as Zemo is more of a faster character. For example, an opponent dazed Zemo on round 2 and then thought he’d won that flank and moved everything away from Zemo towards my opposite side. As soon as he did that I smelled blood, because now if I Field Dressing Zemo, he can daze the character left there, activate first the next round and KO that character. So a 1 health Zemo took a ‘safe’ objective and turned it into a big VP swing. That kind of ‘smell blood’ super-reposition tactic is available to me, and that’s something I’m always looking for. You find the moment on the board – like in chess game where someone left their queen open. That’s more my thinking these days.
XP: Anything else you’d like to add?
D: I’d love to play against Pat. He appears to play Cabal completely differently from me. He goes 4 big characters and smash. I feel like I play a little bit more finesse-y, and it would be interesting to see those matched up against each other.
Also it’s fun talking to you know against then. I’ve got to thank Sooner for beating me in that final: it encouraged me to try harder. I put a lot more thought into what I was doing. I erased everything I knew and rewrote it to try to improve it, and I think I’ve done that a little bit. I’d encourage anyone that plays anything: if you have some losses, think about what happened and rewrite some norms that you assumed were norms. I hope I’ve improved enough, as my rematch against Sooner is coming up. I’m not nervous, as I know he’s a great player and losing to him is no shame, but I hope I can overcome that hurdle.
If ever the developers of this game read this, I’d love to have a mini-draft within your own roster. You place your leader and then they place their leader based on priority, and one at a time you select the characters you are playing, so you can develop your list based on what they are doing. Maybe you keep the tactics cards secret still? I think characters like Venom and Captain Marvel get a little more interesting because you might be able to hold them out to the end. That’s sort of what I’m doing anyway, except it’s all hidden.