Thursday, June 8, 2017

Reviewing Zerkova I

              A couple months ago I started looking for a new warcaster to playtest.  I wanted to try something a little “different.”  I have pedestrian tastes—I am drawn to the original prime casters.  In spite of those preferences, I kept coming back to Zerkova I.  She looked tantalizingly off the snowy path.  I was vacillating between Sorscha and her when PP released her reskulpt—sold!  Thus I give you this review from a non-tournament playing, low experience son of the motherland.


              Lady Z is nothing special on paper.  Her 15 defense, armor, and 16 boxes are solidly mediocre.  At MAT 6 and RAT 5 she is barely better than a winter guard recruit.  Her twenty-eight battlegroup points are the MKIII warcaster default.  Cold immunity, pathfinder and sacred ward are useful grace notes.  Her sword is a standard magical melee weapon—there to check the magical armament box rather than for utility.  She is extremely squishy while posing a minimal melee threat.

              Zerkova’s value comes from her feat and spell list.  Her feat denies enemy shooting originating in her control range and stops enemies giving/receiving orders, making special attacks/actions, power attacks, and running/charging for those activating within her control range.  This is the mother of all denial feats since it cannot be shaken, shuts down shooting, and prevents models from doing most of the things used to supplant shooting (charging, trampling, running…etc.)  Since non-warnoun spells are special actions/attacks, it stops non-focus/fury users that activate in her control range from casting spells.  The only way to bypass her feat is to activate outside her control range and/or employ elements that can strike from more than 14 inches—hunters under Sloan’s fire group spell for example.  While the feat does not fix accuracy like icy gaze, it is also a lot harder to circumvent.  Add to this the fact that it hits infantry, warjacks, warbeasts, casters/locs, and huge bases equally and it becomes the centerpiece of Zerkova’s toolbox.

              The rest of her kit is less sexy but no-less useful.  Freezing mist lets her “place” a three inch LOS blocking cloud template within her control range for 2 focus.  Models within the template suffer a -2 to attack rolls—melee, ranged, and spells.  This lets her cut off line of sight with the vaunted cloud wall, trigger prowl/concealment, and debuff enemy attack rolls.  True sight and eyeless sight are rare outside legion and Cygnar—making the template bunker a hard counter to many lists.

              Ghost walk is her only spell that actively supports other models/units.  For 2 focus, it lets a target friendly faction unit/model ignore terrain and free strikes.  At first this looks like an inefficient way of deploying pathfinder.  In reality it is a versatile tool that lets Zerkova’s forces walk out of combat and run through terrain on command.  Since it is not an upkeep, she can spread it around.  The first couple turns it lets units move through delaying terrain features.  In the late game it lets Zerkova pull multiple targets out of combat without penalty—which is especially good against cheap jamming elements.

              Watcher is her only upkeep spell.  Once per turn, it lets a member of her battlegroup make a full advance followed by a boosted ranged or melee attack against an enemy model that moves within 6 inches of her.  I found this spell to be a bit corner case.  In theory it should enable out of action counterattacks and battlegroup blocker movement.  In practice it never came into play.  If Zerkova was close enough to the enemy to trigger watcher then her battlegroup was already engaged.  Zerkova has so much denial between her feat, her offensive spells, and her cloud wall that by the time enemy models got within six inches watcher was irrelevant.

              Lady Z has two damage dealing spells.  Frost hammer is a power 12 8 inch spray with critical freeze for 2 focus.  It is useful for dealing with multiple targets, especially if you can spare the extra focus to boost the to-hit roll and fish for the critical.  Considering that rod of whispers and hex blast top out at power 13, frost hammer is a strong offensive option for the points.

              Hex blast gives her a 10 inch power 13 small blast for 3 focus.  On a direct hit, all upkeeps and animi on the target expire.  Although somewhat expensive, hex blast serves as a useful debuf, ranged damage dealer, and mass removal tool.  I often found it difficult to decide whether to go all in on the hex blast root or to try and hit targets with multiple frost hammers.  One costs less with a potentially devastating critical while the other can do more damage.  In most cases frost hammer is the better choice since you can fully boost 2 frost hammers or drop 4 unboosted sprays.  Assuming you have the range, the increased output does more work than the extra point of power on hex blast.

              Zerkova has three magical items, each of which may be used once per turn.  A single casting may only benefit from one of her items.  Focus sphere cuts the cost of a spell by 1 to a minimum of 1.  This lets her protect her battle group’s advance with four cloud templates in the early game while transitioning to cheaper offensive spells later. This means Zerkova plays like a caster with 8 focus worth of resources but 7 focus worth of accuracy.  True sight only supplements spells, not rod of whispers; so is only relevant to hex blasts.  Lens of Tarvodh gives her a once a turn five inch range boost to a hex blast.  It lets Zerkova plink away at targets in the mid game while staying out of the danger zone. 

              Rod of whispers rounds out her kit with a 10 inch range power 13 ROF 1 magical gun.  If Zerkova kills an enemy living model with the rod, she can leave it in play, change its facing, and use it as an arcnode for the rest of that turn.  The model dies at the end of her turn whether or not she channels through it.  A lot of reviews paint the rod as her core strategy.  My experience is that its limited range, Zerkova’s low RAT, and the dearth of infantry in MKIII render it more of a nice if it happens sort of thing.  The gun is handy for removing pesky incorporeal solos.  If you get an assassination vector with grave door, so much the better but it is not worth building your entire strategy around its utility.


Play experience:

              It is difficult to pin Zerkova’s style down.  Most casters have strategic themes.  Some are generalists like Butcher I.  Some are support casters like Irusk.  Some enable other models through their personal offense like Sorscha I.  Zerkova does not fall cleanly into any one category.  I want to use words like generalist or versatile to describe her but these imply a breadth and depth that I am not sure she deserves. 

              Outside of watcher, Zerkova has nothing that specifically interacts with jacks.  She wants to keep her entire stack for cloud walls, attack spells, and camp.  Zerkova only has one spell that benefits infantry in particular (ghost walk.)  Freezing mist is a powerful tool for LOS denial, generating concealment, and debuffing enemy attacks.  She can throw down a magical storm with hex blast and frost hammer but lacks the threat potential of the butchers and Sorscha.  This leaves her dependent on her feat and clouds to deliver her army.  She does not speed up her forces.  She does not increase their accuracy or hitting power.

              I tried her with everything from Rorsh and Brine to demolition corps to a heavy jack list.  Her playstyle changed every time.  One game she bunkered her way across the board, completely shutting down the opposing list.  Another time she walked around removing enemy linchpins while a unit of demolition corps ran wild.  I am used to looking at problems and choosing from static options.  Zerkova has this tendency to morph into something unexpected.  True sight or a 5 inch range boost on hex blast lets her take a standard spell and change the game state.  Mage hunter coming up a flank? Here is true sight.  Got something you cannot target directly?  Charge a jack into combat with it and lob a 15 inch hex blast into its back and boost the blast damage.  Got a caster hiding behind an infantry screen?  Drop one of the screens with a boosted rod of whispers shot and nuke the caster.  Are your demolition corps tied up with a couple of jammers?  Ghost walk them into another threat.  Her toolbox is so eclectic as to lack focus but that very diversity gives her an unusual degree of tactical relevance.

              That flexibility still leaves her with a couple weaknesses.  Despite personal pathfinder and ghost walk, Zerkova runs slow.  She does not increase threat range.  The cloud wall defense tends to brick up her forces until she goes on offense.  If she wants to run, she has to setup the cloud wall before she starts her movement which limits how far forward she can push the LOS screen.  While this is fine for jacks and man-o-war, cavalry and infantry—especially forward scouting elements—have to choose between the bunker’s protection and maximizing their forward movement.  This can leave her behind on scenario even if she eventually delivers her army.

              Zerkova has to balance the desire to push her board presence forward with her need to avoid assassination.  On paper she shuts down enemy models.  In practice I found that after her forces broke from behind the cloud bunker, her 14 inch control range was not enough to shut down every threat vector—especially if she played behind a screen.  Playing conservatively limits her feat turn, cloud wall placement, and offensive range.  Playing aggressively enough to maximize her board presence leaves her sitting on 0 camp hoping her army and sacred ward do enough work to save her bacon.


List building:

              It is easier to say what Zerkova does not like than what she prefers.  Between the cloud wall and zap slinging, she rarely has enough focus to support more than two jacks.  This is not to say that she cannot support an all-jack force but that her toolkit prefers more independent elements.  Huge bases cannot be screened by cloud walls so require careful consideration.  Bigger units such as a winter guard circus can pose screening challenges—especially in larger forces where safe landing zones are at a premium.  I found that she does not do well with intermediate range shooting such as the decimator.  The dozer’s 10 inch range combines with Zerkova’s slower deliberate style to leave me wishing for range 12+ guns or a stronger melee presence.

              My favorite battlegroups for lady Z are 2 destroyers or Behemoth and a rager.  Both of them give a mix of 14 inch shooting and focus efficiency.  The rager package gets you a nice mix of offense and defense as well as a sacrificial objective holder.  The destroyer package perfectly spends her warjack points and functions just fine with the powerup focus until they get into melee.  Ruin is a great option with sacred ward and arcane vortex.  Juggernauts make great watcher targets.  The grolar has built in movement buffs and an accuracy fixer in its hammer.  I like all of these options but over and over again I found myself wishing for that 14 inch shooting.

              The big question I had to answer was to theme or not to theme.  Zerkova is one of Khador’s most mercenary friendly casters.  Her cloud wall protects utility pieces and heavy hitters.  Her spell list lets her zap out control solos and smaller units while her hired soldiers hamstring enemy fulcrums.  She benefits from Sylys or Reinholdt—my preference is Sylys for the 2-inch range boost and free upkeep but the speculator certainly has his charms.  Hutchuk, Gorman, and Ragman provide valuable damage boosts—Hutchuk also provides ambushing knockdown on a stick which is so so sweet.  A&H plus Valachev gives you spot removal and a nice damage boost.  While three models for 12 points probably seems a bad deal, it gives Zerkova much needed utility while keeping her model count down.  Orin and Alexia II are strong denial pieces.  Rorsh and brine give you boostable guns, a 14 inch non-linear charging heavy, and a strong assassination threat against living models.  Alten is expensive at 6 points but provides a RAT 8 14-inch gun with reposition, prowl plays into Zerkova’s clouds, and targeted shooting is always a good thing.  Eiryss II out performed expectations every time.  Opponents knew hex blast was on the table and decided not to risk taking the damage and having their upkeeps removed anyway.  Like Alten, she could move up, take a shot, and reposition into cover or behind the cloud wall—which really started to annoy opponents.  If you can pull off the bunker, lady Z gets a lot of use from utility models that would otherwise die before seeing much use.

              On the flip side, Khador’s themes provide strong incentives to stay in-faction.  I feel that legion of steel and winter guard are great for what they are but require Zerkova to manage too large a footprint—in smaller games perhaps but not at 50 and above.  Even though jaws of the wolf should not work with a non-jack caster, I think it is Zerkova’s best themed option.  At 25 points she can take Behemoth, a rager, and marshal 2 destroyers with 2 free forge seers.  The forge seers can empower which ever jacks they want taking the focus Burdon off Zerkova.  Even if the destroyers just sit and aim, they are hitting at RAT 8 under the marshal’s rule.  This list hides well in the cloud, ranges well, and offers a strong cleanup presence on feat turn for very little focus investment—expand to taste.

Theme or not, lady Z is a big fan of annoyance models.  Eiryss, eliminators, man hunters, kossites, and widowmakers pick at your opponent’s patience.  They get tired of dancing around and over-extend—just wanting to make the pain stop—and boom, the cloud wall comes down, the feat drops, and they get alphaed.  She rewards a patient player using list elements to bate out the opponent.

All that being said, Zerkova’s best games came with man-o war.  Full disclosure, I play big red because of these guys.  Any caster that boosts their stock gets my vote.  While bombardiers were so-so, shock troopers with officer loved the ability to run for a couple turns of cloud wall with impunity.  Ghost walk let them seamlessly transition from hammer to anvil and back again.  The unit my opponents hate hate hated though was demolition corps.  Especially in smaller games they ruled the field.  It was like having a mini battle group.  Cloud wall meant they got stuck in on their own terms.  Ghost walk let them walk from one target to another, usually leaving some poor sod open to a nuking.  Once they started trucking, they would not quit.  They made me wish I had more than one unit.  Sure, Sloan turned them into hamburger but that’s nothing new.  I cannot wait for the MOW theme to come out to see how Zerkova performs.


Fury’s Mutterings:

              Zerkova is one of those casters who would make the ‘A list’ with a couple tweaks.  I feel like PP looked at her arcane items and said “naaa, we have to give her limits.”  She deserves to be focus 8 rather than 7 with a once-a-turn discount.  That one change would make her feat far more dependable.  Along the same lines, I do not get why PP just did not give her full-fledged true sight.  This is par for the course for Zerkova.  She is fun to play but her design feels just a little bit clunky such as how her gun lets her create arc nodes but she only has RAT 5 or how most of her magic items are only really useful with hex blast.

              For me, Zerkova’s appeal is her unique factional toolkit.  The package lacks a unifying theme but provides a diversity of options that is fun to play even if it is not as competitive as I would like.  That novelty cuts both ways.  Opponents—used to Khador’s usual straight forward style—had trouble adjusting to Zerkova’s quirky approach.  One opponent remarked after my third premeasurement that I was unusually strategic for a Khadoran player…thanks?  If one wishes to be successful with lady Z one needs that level of strategic awareness.  Which brings me to the other thing I like about Zerkova.

              She demands a high level of tactical awareness.  I like casters that give me choices—that challenge my mechanical knowledge.  For all that I would like her to be a stronger competitor, Zerkova offers many choices in order of activation, defense, and offense.  For example, freezing mist can be placed in many ways—to block line of sight, to provide a +2 defense bonus against shooting and melee, to reduce shooting attack rolls, and to force counter magic resource expenditure.  She pivots quickly from offense to defense through a variety of tactical options.  So she is fun and demanding.



              Zerkova is a solid caster.  She is fun to play if for no other reason than the variety of her feat and spell list.  However, her novelty does not mask her second tier status.  She is a great learning experience—just be aware of her limitations.

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