Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Vampire: the Eternal Struggle’s newsgroup was my world. The format and structure of the newsgroup may seem archaic to all you neonates out there, but for Methuselahs like myself the newsgroup was a special place. Filled with griping, yes, but also passionate discussion, deep strategy, and a real sense of community too. The names of the early newsgroup’s frequent posters attained an almost hallowed status – these were the people laying down the tactical DNA of tournament-winning decks that’d continue on, in some shape or form, for decades. And one of the most recognised names was Peter Bakija.
B: When did you first learn about Jyhad, and what caused you to pick it up?
P: I was a reasonably avid Magic player in the early 90’s (I started playing Magic during Unlimited, right after, uh, Beta I think; I was never a ringer and never played super seriously or anything), and regularly picked up The Duelist magazine. One of the early issues of The Duelist came with a big Jyhad rulebook and a booster pack. I liked the card art, and the game rules seemed clever, so I picked up some cards, figured out how to play, and taught a few friends. We accumulated cards bit by bit, but then really scored a bit later when the game changed names, and we could get booster boxed of Jyhad for, like, $5 a box.
B: What were your initial impressions of the game?
P: The game was clever; specifically designed for more than two people, a lot of good tactical decision making, a lot of different strategies that worked. Like, at that time, there were not a lot of CCGs; I had played Magic, a little bit of Shadowfist probably, and a few weird fringy games that didn’t survive. I was mostly a board game player—Star Fleet Battles, Titan, Advanced Civilization, Ogre, Car Wars were the game I played mostly till Magic hit. We played a lot of Magic when it was new, but again, my buddies and I were never super serious Magic players. Jyhad/VTES seems like a good crossover between tactical/strategy board games and CCGs, that had that nice draw of “Get New Stuff All The Time”. And ‘cause we got into Jyhad not real long before they decided to change the name, again, it became real cheap, real soon.
The thing, more than anything that sucked me in initially was some of the card art. Good old Duck (3 cap Nosferatu with pot, obf from the original set) was a great, stylized portrait of Klaus Kinski from the 1979 Nosferatu movie, which struck me as awesome. So that was really the thing that sold me on the game. Then we played, and liked the mechanics and different strategies.
B: Having gotten into the game so early, the deck archetypes we see today weren’t yet codified. What were some of the emergent archetypes you saw in your group, and what were some of your favourites from those early days?
P: Malkavian Stealth and Bleed (Malk ’94?) was the earliest and most obvious deck strategy, even at the very start of the game. I remember hosting an incredibly early Jyhad tournament at a local game event in, like, the summer of 1995 or so, where we were using a 4 card limit (as that was the thing to do at the time), and we promised to hand out Malkavian Dementias at the door. The killer deck that was also around that I ran into at Origins in Philidelphia in 1995 where I don’t think there were actual tournament rules yet, and was the main argument *for* the 4 card limit, was “12 Caitif and 60 Kine Resources Contested”, as you could just play as many vote cards as votes you wanted to push votes through. That became the main reason the actual rules of the game eventually removed that vote pushing rule. Other than that, decks tended to be kind of slipshod and usually theme based (and as such, not real good). Large vampires didn’t show up much (too slow and too expensive); no one really had many “superstar” decks, as no one really thought of it, although I did spend a long time trying to make “The Deck That Only Works If Marty Lechtansi Comes Out” viable, which it never really was. It took a long time for enough Freak Drives to get into circulation that “a single big dude with a lot of Freak Drives” seemed like a good idea.
Eventually, the rules of the game got kinda shaken out, and most of the folks on the newsgroup embraced No Card Limit and the Sensible Persons Tournament Rules (which eventually became just the actual rules—no vote pushing, no repeat actions, no card limit). My group had been very interested in pushing the edges of the combat part of the game since the beginning, and spent a lot of effort trying to make combat as a strategy work, even under 4 Card Limit play (which was an official tournament rule very early from the Wizards of the Coast tournament organization, and then was a common house rule for the early part of the games history. And the main source of flame wars on the newsgroup for a long time), and when we finally truly embraced No Card Limit (i.e. the actual rules) and got a whole lot of cards for cheap (again, there was a period of time in the mid 90’s where you could get a box of Jyhad boosters for $5. We ordered *cases* of them for the group), I ended up cornering the market on Immortal Grapple (which was difficult, as it was a Rare), and figured out that a Potence based deck with a dozen Immortal Grapples and a dozen Bum’s Rushes could be perfectly soild.
My playgroup included a couple of guys who also showed up on the USENET newsgoup a lot (and show up a lot in early Jyhad/V:TES discussion/websites/decklists), Josh Duffin and James Hamblin. The three of us, along with the other numerous folks we were playing with started pushing the game a lot, and talking things up on the newsgroup a lot, and talking up/discussing Rush combat decks. We started hosting and going to a lot of tournaments, and I (and Josh and James) would play various combat decks all the time. We won some tournaments with combat decks (I’m pretty sure the very first deck in the old TWDA that was hosted by The Lasombra, and still exists in some form somwhere, is a Brujah Rush deck that Josh was playing), and were encouraged, and kept doing it. This was still moderately early in the game (1996-1997?), and I remember playing at some big tournaments at, like, Origins or something, and regularly having to explain how Immortal Grapple worked, people being both confused and surprised, and then being sad when they were demolished. I can recall numerous instances of people rage quitting games after, like, I had KoKo (the 2 cap Nosferatu with potence) burn their IC Member with Pulled Fangs (which could do that, before the 7/7 rules reset).
I kept pushing combat/Rush decks through my history in the game, and as time went on, the game caught up with combat—Fame got changed to be an offensive combat technology, cards like Dragonbound got printed, etc. Late in the era of the game before it got cancelled for the third time, it became a lot harder to do with with straight up combat, as there was so much flexible combat technology in the game, and ways to cancel Immortal Grapple, and a lot of various counter combat technology that wasn’t completely corner case, that Rush decks became a lot harder to do well with. But for a long time, weenie Potence/Immortal Grapple Rush combat was actually a totally viable, and strong tournament contender, if for no other reason than people just not expecting it. I won a big Qualifier one year with my traditional combat deck (“The Nosferatu Hate You!”, Mk. Whatever), and won a few other big tournaments with that. I also had a good string of success with weenie Animalism (i.e. 20 Aid from Bats, etc.), which got some traction in the world as well.
B: I remember you being one of the movers and shakers of the newsgroup. What was the newsgroup like from your perspective, and what role do you think it played for the game and community?
P: The USENET newsgroup was hugely important to the evolution and survival of the game. It was where everyone figured out the rules, got the game fixed, figured out strategy and technology. Most of the people who still are running the game (if not all of them) were newsgroup regulars—Ben Peal, for example, was a huge newsgroup guy, and now he pretty much runs the game. L. Scott Johnson (LSJ) was the main rules guy, a job he got by basically taking it over. Most of the folks who still regularly post about the game on Facebook, for example, are largely old newsgroup people. rec.games.trading-cards.jyhad was the heart of the game for the whole of the early life of the game. We posted decks and strategies and argued about all the stuff that was too strong and needed fixing. LSJ was good at listening and taking what we all said into account, and a lot of the time, when the various rules updates were rolled out, you could go through the list of card tweaks and attribute them to specific newsgroup posters. At some point I was pegged to be the “Newsletter Editor” by White Wolf folks, and organized newsgroup Clan Newsletters for a significant number of years, where individual newsgroup posters would be the official representitives of a given clan, and would post monthly newsletters with fiction, decks, and strategies (I was Team Nosferatu for a long time, and published, like, 50 of them). They tended to be fairly uneven, depending on who was driving a given newsletter, but at the high point, it was a lot of fun and good strategy.
Eventually, in the early-mid 00’s, it got really hard to get into USENET; most ISPs stopped offering it as a service. We mostly ended up having to go into the newsgroup via google.groups, which kind of mirrored it, but it was a bad interface. When the game died it’s third death in, what, 2010 (?, after White Wolf stopped publishing it, as the licence agreement between WW and WotC ended, and no one had the heart or interest in figuring out a way to renew it at that point), LSJ decided to move the official V:TES discussion to Board Game Geek. We all tried that for a little while, but it was kind of a terrible place for V:TES discussion; the topic structure was too fractured, the moderation was too heavy, people would try and post tournament reports (which was a regular, important part of the newsgroup) in the “sessions” forums, and they’d get rejected by the moderators for not being appropriate “session” reports. It was a huge drag. Then someone put the V:EKN website together, and discussion migrated there, but the web interface wasn’t super great (for my money), and the population changed a lot. After the game died the 3rd death, I kept playing for a while, but eventually gave the game up, as my group lost enthusiasm in general, and for me, the lack of a good place to discuss the game online (at the time) was a significant cause of me giving the game up. I missed the newsgroup 🙂
I still keep track of the game tangentially; when Ben posts updates and announcements on Facebook, I’ll check them out (and am pleased that they *finally* fixed Parity Shift and Pentex Subversion. After 20 years.), but I probably haven’t played an actual game of V:TES for 5 or 6 years now. I still have my favorite decks assembled, however.
B: Before we move on from there, what are those favourite decks?
P: Mostly I still have the decks that existed when I stopped playing, except for some that I ripped apart to sell sets of cards on e-bay over the years (like “Hey! Buy these 23 Freak Drives!” kind of auctions. That went pretty well). Looking over the deck boxes, I still got:
- Weenie Obfuscate bleed
- Weenie Animalism block/combat
- Brujah Pot/Cel flung junk combat
- Jimmy Dunn/Blood Brothers Anarch Celerity, Fortitude, Potence rush that was pretty effective.
- Lasombra Dom/Pot bruises/bleedy deck that was pretty good and won a smallish tournament once.
- Some ridiculous Obt/Nec/Dom deck that used Nocturns to get Shambling Hordes. Not remotely a tournament deck, but fun and modestly effective.
- A G5/6 Samedi deck that used Reanimated Corpses and Shambling Hordes. Also not particularly competitive, but fun, and won games. And I think it got into the finals of a tournament once.
- A G1/2 Nosferatu Royalty Con Boon/3rd Tradition deck. Probably my most competitive deck still in existence; won a few tournaments with that one. Although it is probably less good now, due to them fixing Parity Shift 🙂
B: What’s at the heart of your love for the game? And have you found any other games that have scratched the V:TES itch for you, in the intervening years?
P: Vampire was a good multi player game with an infinite (well, ok, a theoretically infinite, but mostly limited by the existence of Dominate…) amount of strategic options and paths you could follow. The theme was great; like I was never a huge role player, and didn’t actually ever play Vampire the Masquerade, but I certainly picked up various source books and stuff, just to get more background on the various V:TES clans/cards/whatever. The art was generally top notch. It was all around a great game.
But in the end, what did me in more than anything was driving 4 or 5 hours to and back from a big tournament, late in the era of the game, and getting killed in the tournament due to the vagaries of the multi player dynamic working poorly (i.e. like, “My prey is doing nothing but stopping me from going forward. So I die. And then eventually my prey dies. And my prey never had any chance of winning. And his prey swept the table…”) and/or another getting killed again by another deck that was nothing but Dominate and Parity Shift or something. And my play group was all “Yeah. That isn’t gonna ever get fixed, especially now that the game is officially dead again…”, and we all kinda lost interest. Which is sad. As I did very much like the game, and got a lot of entertainment out of it for a long time.
I stopped playing collectble anything when I stopped playing V:TES, so that “I wanna get lots and lots of stuff, and trade and collect and whatever” has mostly fallen out of my life. I still play various board/card games all the time, but nothing that much like Vampire these days. I’m playing a lot of Terraforming Mars; I played a lot of Eclipse (and am currently still waiting for the 2nd Edition to ever get shipped to the Kicksters :-); I still play Star Fleet Battles, which I have been playing since I was, like, 12.
B: The game clearly holds a fond place in your heart even if you haven’t played for some years. Are you happy with the direction that the game has taken under Black Chantry’s leadership? Anything that you’d do differently if it was Bakija Productions at the helm?
P: I haven’t been paying enough attention to what Black Chantry is doing to really have an opinion. I mean, like, I look at the new stuff they are releasing, and it looks good, and as far as I can tell, they are doing a fine job. But I haven’t really paid any attention to the nitty gritty. But again, that they finally fixed Parity Shift and Pentex Subversion indicates that they are certainly doing things right 🙂
Like, a few month back, someone posted a deck that won a big tournament on a V:TES Facebook discussion, and I looked at the deck, and was all “Huh. 20 years later, and 10 years after I stopped played, it is good to see that you can still win a tournament with a bunch of Dominate, Parity Shift, and some Pentex Subversions…” (which is, ya know, sarcasm on the level of “Hey! It is good to see that Michael Caine is working again!” :-). But at least it seems like the guys at Black Chantry are at least trying to fix that.
B: Cheers Peter!