Beating Shi En: Overcoming The Opening Turn Powerhouse

Jason Grabher-Meyer

4/7/2011 11:03:00 AM

Last week I wrote about the top opening plays in the current format, and the combined effect they've had on this era of Dueling. It was a popular piece - I got a lot of feedback, all of it good (thanks for that!). Most of it came with a Question, too, phrased in a cheerful tone. A lot of readers sent me something like the following: “Hey, Jason! Great article! So, next week you'll tell us how to beat these plays, right?! =) Can't wait to learn how to turn stuff around and break the format wide open!”

If that was your response to last week's article, first let me congratulate you on your positive attitude. Positivity and forward-thinking is always an asset to any problem-solving process. At the same time though, I can't help but feel that I may've failed to get the point across. These openings are worth writing about because there is no simple answer to any of them: no magic bullet, and (at present) no consistent solution. The five openings I discussed range from “tough to overcome,” to, “Hell if I know how you're supposed to beat that.” If I were communicating with body language instead of the written word, I'd do so via shrugs of bewilderment and the occasional bout of tears.

Okay, so I'm exaggerating slightly – there are measures you can take against each of those openings, and I'm hoping to discuss them in-depth at a later time. A few monster search cards can help you dodge the threat of the Gravekeeper deck's Royal Tribute. Dimensional Prison, or the use of strong defensive monsters like Spirit Reaper, can withstand the first turn Synchro Summon of a Dragunity Duelist's Stardust Dragon. Careful card management that presents the opponent with no big chaining opportunities can stop the snowballing momentum of a Miracle Gemini strategy opening with Stratos, and so on.

But if you're like me, those weren't the openings that took center stage in your mind last week. No, let's be Honest: we were probably all thinking about Samurais. That first-turn Shi En Synchro Summon that can be achieved about 50% of the time in a build running triple Upstart Goblin may be the most feared play in the game right now, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had absolutely no good answer to it. On its own, that play is extremely hard to fight back against. Bolstered by the threat of Solemn Warning to stop comebacks involving a face-up monster, and Hand of the Six Samurai to stop set monster plays, it's even more difficult.

A Change of Plans
Since I didn't have any satisfactory answers myself, I decided to review the Samurai Feature Matches from YCS Dallas and YCS Charlotte. I counted somewhere around 25 such matches, and found that eight of them involved at least one Duel with an opening turn Shi En. I broke them all down for individual review, and I want to go through them to show you my findings. Let's take them in chronological order, starting with where it all began – Round 2, at YCS Dallas.

YCS Dallas Round 2 Feature Match: Honorable Jonathan Moore vs.Jonathan Sandlin

Jon Moore opened up Duel 2 of this Match with Shi En and Grandmaster, setting Scapegoat. Sandlin Set a monster and 4 cards to his back row, and when Moore threw down Zanji and Kizan on his second turn, Sandlin tried to draw out Shi En's negation by activating Infernity Inferno. Because Moore isn't brain damaged, he saw through the ploy and let the Infernity Inferno go. Inferno let Sandlin block a shot with Infernity Avenger, but it just wasn't enough: Moore proceeded to make a series of game-winning attacks over the next two turns. All of Sandlin's defenses were useless against Shi En.

Nothing special here: no Warning, Bottomless, Mirror Force, or anything else to defend Shi En. No Six Samurai United or Gateway of the Six, either. Just Shi En locking the win, all on his own.

YCS Dallas Round 11 Feature Match: Brandon Ogbonna vs. Honorable Jarel Winston

Jarel Winston opened Duel 1 of this match with a Shi En backed by Book of Moon and Solemn Warning. He also had Dark Hole in hand. His opponent, Brandon Ogbonna, Summoned Lyla, Lightsworn Sorceress, and Winston turned her face-down with Book of Moon to stop her effect from disrupting his Warning. He developed his field by setting a Kagemusha, and attacked to destroy Lyla. When Ogbonna went for Thunder King Rai-Oh next turn, Winston blocked it with Warning, and went to the face with Shi En, Kagemusha, and two more freshly-Summoned Samurai (Kizan and Hand). Ogbonna had Gorz, but Winston neutralized it with Hand.

A desperate bid next turn led Ogbonna to give up Pot of Avarice to Shi En's effect, letting him force through Monster Reborn to bring back his Thunder King Rai-Oh. That let him power over Shi En with Honest, but the damage was already done; a Dark Hole and a Mizuho later, and Winston had Duel 1 in the bag.

Here we saw the dreaded “Shi En plus some defensive cards” play. Winston had two pieces of monster hate to cover Ogbonna for two turns. He had complete control, so he was able to save his power card (Dark Hole) for when Ogbonna did have that lucky Monster Reborn to push back with. Even Reborn wasn't enough to save this one.

YCS Dallas Top 32 Feature Match: Honorable Karl Arbeiter vs.Honorable Brandon Wigley

In Duel 1 of this Match, Karl Arbeiter went off huge with Gateway and United, ending his first turn with a field of Shi En, Grandmaster, two Kizan, and Gateway, defended by 2 Book of Moon. Brandon Wigley tried to go for Black Rose Dragon with Kagemusha and a Grandmaster of his own, but Book of Moon shut him down and he immediately scooped.

Wigley would fire back in Duel 2! An opening of Shi En and Grandmaster with one back row card reinforcing them would prove to be too big of an advantage, as the tables were turned and a clutch Hand of the Six let Wigley outplay Arbeiter's set Fossil Dyna Pachycephalo.

Duel 3 was more of the same, as Arbeiter scored another massive opening. Six Samurai United and Gateway of the Six would let Arbeiter archieve a first turn field of not just Shi En, but also Grandmaster, Naturia Barkion, and two Kizan. With Gateway still active, and Mystical Space Typhoon and Solemn Warning Set, there was nothing Wigley could do here. He'd try to go for Black Rose Dragon just like he did in Duel 1, and this time he'd lose to Warning.

In this match, both Duelists brought out Shi En on the first turn of every Duel they opened. Wigley tried twice to mount a comeback with Black Rose Dragon, and was shut down in both instances: first by Book of Moon, and next time by Solemn Warning. Note that even though Arbeiter had the trump card in Duel 2 – Fossil Dyna – it made no diference because Wigly had Hand of the Six.

YCS Dallas Top 32 Feature Match: Honorable Arnold Alvarado vs.Justin Shaft

Duel 1 of this match saw Arnold Alvarado open with double Six Samurai United, Kageki, and Shien's Smoke Signal for a Kagemusha. Four draws later he had Gateway as well, and he wound up with Shi En, 2 Set Books, and a Double-Edged Sword Technique locked and loaded. Justin Shaft's Yellow Gadget and Machina Fortress next turn were no match for Alvarado's defenses, and he pressed for game a turn later with Hand of the Six and Grandmaster.

Again, we see the combo of Shi En, plus draw power, plus big monster control. Not even the easy Special Summon of Machina Fortress could save Shaft, though it is interesting to note that had he pressed through with that Fortress, he could've traded it for Shi En in battle, then used its effect to destroy another card – an advantageous 2-for-2 after claiming an extra card with his Yellow Gadget. But yeah: Book of Moon? It wasn't happening.

YCS Dallas Top 4 Feature Match: Honorable Arnold Alvarado vs. Travis Massengale

Arnold Alvarado started off the second Duel of this match with Gateway of the Six, Shi En, Grandmaster, and Kizan, backed by 2 Set cards in his back row. Massengale Set Gozen Match, Book of Moon, Smashing Ground, and Kinetic Soldier next turn. Alvarado dropped another Kizan to get Kagemusha from his Deck with Gateway, and when he Summoned it, Massengale tried to turn it face-down with Book: Alvarado allowed it. Kizan swung into Kinetic Soldier, but Alvarado destroyed it with Smashing Ground as soon as he left his Battle Phase.

Massengale got away with activating Pot of Duality and Necrovalley, then set Gravekeeper's Recruiter and Mystical Space Typhoon. Alvarado flipped his Kagemusha, and lost his Solemn Warning to Massengale's Typhoon: Massengale was trying to get his Gozen Match past Shi En, but Alvarado just didn't take the bait. He Synchro Summoned Naturia Barkion, and a series of attacks nearly wiped Massengale out. Massengale finally got the Gozen Match off next turn, but it was too late. There was just no coming back from 1800 Life Points.

This one was rough. Massengale had both Kinetic Soldier and Gozen Match – 2 of the cards he'd sided in for this matchup – and he still got crushed. Some careful decision-making let Alvarado reserve Shi En's negation effect for when he'd really need it, and Massengale couldn't kick out.

YCS Dallas Final Round Feature Match: Travis Massengale vs. Nizar Sarhan

Nizar Sarhan opened this match with a field of Shi En, Grandmaster, Kizan, and 3 set spell or trap cards, courtesy of Gateway and United. With nothing but a fistfull of spells and traps that Shi En could negate, Massengale couldn't do anything and lost on Sarhan's next turn. Sarhan would go on to win the entire tournament.

This one was a blowout, as Massengale's monster-free hand would've been tough to play out of in any matchup. Against Shi En, it was impossible. Sarhan could negate literally every card Massengale had, none of which could be sacrificed to create a viable play.

YCS Charlotte Round 4: Fusionist Jerry Wang Versus Honorable Dakota Vandawalker

Fourteen year-old Dakota Vandawalker ousted two-time Champion Jerry Wang in Duel 2 of this match, opening with Six Samurai United to get out Shi En and three cards to protect it. One of them was Solemn Warning, which Vandawalker used to negate Wang's attempt at Summoning Elemental Hero Stratos. Double Kizan plus another United would drop Wang to 1300 Life Points, and when Wang tried to fight back with Miracle Fusion, Vandawalker sealed the deal with Solemn Judgment.

As we discussed last week, the Miracle Gemini deck is all about grinding out those little bits of card advantage with Stratos, Gemini Spark, Hero Blast, and Elemental Hero The Shining, so it can capitalize on a flurry of 1-for-1 trades. With Shi En fending off those 1-for-1's, and Solemn Warning to stop Stratos right off the bat, this was academic for young Vandawalker.

So... When The Going Gets Tough, What Do YCS Duelists Do Against This Opening?
Nothing. That's basically what I learned by doing this research. Out of eight matches and ten instances total where we've seen an opening turn Shien in Championship level competition, it's only been beaten once, in the following Feature Match...

YCS Dallas Round 9 Feature Match: Honorable Rudy Monoz vs. Glenn Robinson

Rudy Monoz started Duel 2 of this Match with Shi En and four set cards to his back row, including a Set Solemn Warning. His opponent took control of Shi En with Puppet Plant, then Summoned X-Saber Pashuul. Monoz let the Pashuul go, choosing only to use Solemn Warning when his opponent tuned Pashuul to Shi En in a bid for Black Rose Dragon. With Shi En eliminated, Glenn Robinson would go on to win the Duel, and the match.

The mistake here should be pretty clear: when Monoz saw that his opponent was going to try and tune Pashuul to Shi En, he should've instantly activated Solemn Warning to negate Pashuul's Summon. Doing so would've been a simple card-for-card trade that would've guaranteed him the return of his Shi En: a no-brainer given both the level of control Shi En would've allowed, and the fact that he'd already sunk two cards into Shi En's Synchro Summon. I don't know what Monoz was thinking: everybody just has off days.

So yeah. As of YCS Charlotte, the only documented case of someone beating a Shi En opening involved a flub on behalf of the Samurai player, coupled with the lucky draw of a side deck card. Needless to say, that's not useful information to us. You can't assume that you're going to draw one of your few side decked cards as a live play, let alone assume that your opponent is going to misplay their Solemn Warning when they have you dead to rights. This isn't something that's repeatable.

But It's Not Totally Hopeless
The Shi En opening can be beaten, and just because it hasn't really happened in a Feature Match yet doesn't mean it hasn't happened hundreds of times elsewhere. As the days tick down to YCS Anaheim this weekend, there are techniques that are slowly proving to be effective against Samurais. No real silver bullets, but little tricks and methods that are chipping away at the previously-indomitable force of the Shien opening. First up is my new favorite card for the format:

Card Trooper:
Fili Luna put this card to work in an X-Saber deck at YCS Charlotte. After a long undefeated streak, a run of bad luck saw Fili tank at the last second – it really seemed like he was on the easy street to the Top 32. The use of Card Trooper let him fill his Graveyard for Gottoms' Emergency Call; swing over a variety of monsters with the insurance of Trooper's self-replacing effect; and bump heads with Thunder King Rai-Oh to nab a free card. That last one's especially noteworthy, as Thunder King's a classic problem-card for the X-Saber Duelist.

Trooper also gave Luna an interesting answer to the problem of a Shi En opening followed by Hand of the Six Samurai. Generally, if your opponent opens with Shi En and you set a monster, they're going to try to get to Hand of the Six so they can blow that monster away. This is especially true in Duels 2 and 3 of a match, where the Samurai Duelist has to worry about Kinetic Soldier and Fossil Dyna Pachycephalo. Luna's stroke of genius here was that he could draw out a Hand into Card Trooper or XX-Saber Darksoul, and claim a fast +1 in terms of card presence. He'd likely take a direct attack from Shi En and whatever else was by its side, but he could survive til his second turn and from there have all of his traps online that he'd set on turn 1. He'd be up a card thanks to Trooper, and if his opponent didn't use United or Gateway in the process of Synchro Summoning Shi En, he'd be up two cards total. That's the kind of card advantage you need to power through an opening Shi En.

This is a great strategy in X-Sabers, where Trooper teams up with Darksoul to generally discourage Hand altogether. But it works in other decks, too. We saw Jonathan Barber make the Top 8 in Charlotte with Flamvells, maining 2 Card Troopers. Trooper let him fill his Graveyard for Rekindling. We also saw it played in Chaos Plants. Personally I think it's a great addition to Miracle Geminis: it easily fits the deck's aggressive pace; it can bump with other 1900 ATK monsters to nab a quick plus; and it can fill the Graveyard with its effect for Miracle Fusion. Heck, being an EARTH monster, you can even use Trooper itself for one half of Elemental Hero Gaia.

The Samurai deck's relative impunity to set monsters is one of its biggest strengths right now. While Legendary Six Samurai – Mizuho can be trumped by Effect Veiler, Hand of the Six Samurai can play around it by tributing herself, making it an obvious play a vast majority of the time. If Samurai Duelists had to think a little more before unleashing that Hand, the trend that would result could give a global advantage that would extend beyond the immedate sphere of decks that run Trooper.

Puppet Plant:
While Monarchs with main decked Puppet Plant were popular to some degree in Japan, the diversity of TCG metagames have kept those decks from being attractive stateside. It's pretty easy to write this strategy off, and I've done so myself in the past; both Monarchs and Fish OTK can take advantage of the strong early game defense of a Frog engine, but only the Fish deck can leverage that into a 1-turn KO. The Monarch deck is, in many respects, just an inferior Fish OTK that has problems sealing the deal.

At the same time, though, it does have one big advantage: the ability to main triple Puppet Plant, and eliminate Shi En even in the face of Solemn Warning. Most decks that swipe a Shi En with Puppet Plant need to try and tune it to something else before the turn is out: if the opponent has Warning set, you're out of luck, because they're just going to negate your Summon, and your Tuner will never hit the table. You'll wind up in the precise position that Glenn Robinson somehow dodged in the Feature against Rudy Monoz. But decks with a high number of single tribute monsters have an edge here, because even though Warning can negate an attempted Tribute Summon, it can't stop the Tributing of Shi En itself.

While Puppet Plant is only useful against a couple different decks, the continued popularity of Gravekeepers might make main decked Puppet usage viable. Coupled with some simple discard-costed effects to keep the Plant viable in matchups where its effect can't be used, it could make an impact. And best of all, this strategy can be extended to any deck that packs a decent number of single tribute monsters: that means a shining bit of hope for teched out Blackwing, Machine, and Dragon decks, to name a few.

Counter Traps:
While Shi En's effect is incredible, it has the same fault that most negation-based monster effects suffer: it can't stop counter traps. As a Spell Speed 2 effect, Shi En's negation can't touch Solemn Warning, Solemn Judgment, Seven Tools of the Bandit, or Divine Wrath. While Warning and Judgment are everywhere already, Seven Tools and Divine Wrath are hugely underplayed.

Personally, I've started running Seven Tools over Trap Stun again, anywhere I feel I can get away with the Life Point cost. I wrote alot last format about how Tools is a 1-for-1 compared to a possible -1 like Trap Stun, and how chaining Seven Tools to Warning forces a Life Point payment that you can take advantage of. But in this format, the swing factor for me is simply the fact that Shi En can negate Trap Stun, but can't touch Seven Tools. If your opponent opens with Shi En and you have Seven Tools, you can set the Tools and try to stall out (ideally with something like Card Trooper). Once you get to turn two, you suddenly have Tools on your side to negate a trap card that would otherwise destroy a monster-driven comeback play. If you have Trap Stun instead, Shi En's just going to negate it: you've got nothing. But with Tools, you have the glimmer of payback.

Divine Wrath isn't being played anywhere at all, despite being a great card right now. Want to bust up Shi En? This card gets it done, and while Wrath does require a discard cost, that Shi En will usually require a consolidation of two cards into one for its Synchro Summon anyways – your Wrath for their Shi En is usually a straight 2-for-2. Roll in graveyard-live cards like Mezuki, Destiny Hero – Malicious, or Volcanic Shell, and suddenly you're coming out ahead on about every level imaginable. The best part is that you can main Divine Wrath in this format and rarely feel any negative repercussions: it's pretty great against Dragunities, Gladiator Beasts, X-Sabers, and Gravekeepers too. There's no more Cold Wave to lock you down, either. The only big matchup where you'd definitely want to side Wrath out in Duel 2 and 3 is Miracle Gemini: but even then, if you go first you can take out that key Stratos. Just watch out for opposing trap negation.

As time goes by and the full power of the Shi En opening truly starts to be appreciated, answers and counter-trends are slowly presenting themselves. If you want to do well at this weekend's YCS in Anaheim, do yourself a favor and try to employ measures that can beat this opening. The handful of tactics and cards I've suggested here are just the beginning – look hard enough, and answers will be found.

-Jason Grabher-Meyer

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