I had a choice once upon a time: Do I pick Kirai with none of her summon models released or do I choose a "weaker" master with a full line up? In the end I chose Yan Lo on merit of actually being able to play him and secondly for my already expansive collection of Ten Thunders models from my Mei Feng and Misaki trials. Quite honestly, I made the right choice.
Yan Lo is a difficult master, he doesn't hit as hard as an Ortega or Misaki, he doesn't move as freely as... well Ortegas, or Mei Feng and he doesn't have as much synergy with the models in his faction as a whole host of malifaux masters do.
No, what Yan Lo does is everything, he heals, he's nigh-untouchable, has placement shenanigans, he has a solid attack with Ca stats that dwarf all non-Sonnia and Hoffman casters, he has a superb totem in Soul Porter who can push, raise Ca for 5 models and has a 9" threat range, Lo can even tar-pit remarkably well with damaging disengaging strikes, Misdirecting enemy attacks and Terracotta'in Cursing anyone nearby who wants to sneak by unmolested.
He can do a lot of things in a game, almost without fear of losing duels doing so... which is why a lot of people online consider him a weak master. Name an ability (other than healing) and someone will name a Ten Thunders or Resurrectionist master who can do that ability better, Seamus can move further with Belles who never ever fail lures (ever), every malifaux model is a better summoner than Lo is, his attack is rubbish why wouldn't I use McMourning? etc etc etc...
You can of course do this with every master (maybe except Levi and Perdita, one believes they are built to be without weakness) Summoners are too card and stone intensive, Lady J and the Viks fall to even the slightest whiff of aggressive attacks, Rasputina is too focused on a tiny subset of (fairly decent) models which don't work as well with other masters; Gremlins are really really fiddly to glue together! You get my point, if you want to trash on a master you can do so with ease with the right weaknesses in the spotlight. Malifaux players who have stuck with a faction, or even a single master know what their master fails at and creates plays that allow that weakness to not even come out. Rasputina for example (my first love) is infamous for her being shut down so long as a melee model comes into contact with her but with her push upgrade, that doesn't happen. With her other limited upgrade, she would use The Captain or Snowstorm to ensure that she is NEVER engaged AND aptly punish the poor fool with paralyzing December cursing death!
I'm off course, today I'm talking about Yan Lo. He is a master I've played more than 20 games with now at time of writing and he is such an enjoyable master to play. Win, lose, he creates fun games when played to his strengths. What are his strengths (and don't for the love of god say Ancestors)? Yan Lo decides where your opponent's models are going to be on the board, he decides, to an extent, how many cards are in your opponent's hand, he can quickly re-position and grab last second wins and ensure that key models are alive and buffed. With good list building skills and model positioning, Lo has the ability to control the whole board.
How does he control the board? Thunder Dance, Terracotta Curse and juicy combat models who are too lazy to charge and just want to flurry instead. With advanced planning, Yan Lo can chain-Thunder Dance most of your opponents crew to areas of the board YOU want the opponents models to be, with care it's possible to neuter a whole crew as early as turn 2.
How do you dictate an opponents hand size you ask? Duels, lots of them. Ca 8 vs the average Df/Wp6, it's going to force a lot of high cards, Terracotta curse, Hunpo Assault, Punk Zombie Slice and Dice, Bert Jebson's Crackerjack attack, Flurrys etc etc Forcing this much control hand use for defense means your opponent is on back pedal and trying to stay alive, rather than using their hand for what they need to do to win Vp, all the while Lo's crew is free to do as they please.
Yan Lo is massively versatile and not to be taken lightly, his base stats and lacking damage track lead some to believe him to be a master easily ignored but if you've ever had an Hunpo Assault go off in the middle of your wounded and thunder danced minions, he cleans house with that average attack. If you've ever tried to HIT Yan Lo, you tend to hit a Def/Wp18 wall or have one of your other models take the death blow instead, if you bypass that then enjoy that weak damage that's halved that can be Soulstone prevented. The best advice I can give players facing a good Yan Lo player is not to waste Ap killing Yan Lo, because it's not going to happen. Neuter him by any means for sure but you aren't going to kill him without dedicating a large amount of resources and Ap doing so.
His crew? Don't believe the hype of Ancestors, do you know what Yan Lo can do with Ancestors? He can take an upgrade you'll never seem to get a use from to potentially revive them and Soul Porter can push them. If Yan Lo "works" with Ancestors, then I can make a pretty strong argument that Ironsides "works" with Molemen because the opposing crew is too busy having a bar brawl with Toni to notice them.
No what you need is a turn 1 Chi battery (I prefer using Clockwork Trap for consistency as I play Thunders but any low-Wd cheap minion/peon will do the job) to ensure the most starting Chi. To do this, discard a card for Chi, Focus-Charge your Chi battery, luck out or cheat in severe to gain the 2nd Chi then kill the target for the 3rd. Zero action your upgrade of choice and there you go, you are set up for the rest of the game and with Soul Porter's help, 10" up the board ready for the Thunder Disco.
After that I like taking summoning Toshiro because summoning Toshiro is a boss, bringing along a Punk zombie and perhaps a Komainu to lend help slowing and flurrying T.D targets ready to be summoned upon after death by a minion buffing badass.
Chiaki is a no-brainer but I only bring her if I suspect my opponent has conditions that I don't really want to have, she isn't in every list but her ability to insignificant-ify a model and slow others from a decent range is nothing to take lightly.
After that I normally build to the scheme and strats, more often than not I will add a Pathfinder or a Katanaka Sniper for ranged support; nothing like finally being out of reach of Yan Lo to be gutted by a sniper for your hard work.
Chi Management is a big issue some find hard to get past, using the Chi battery it's not a big problem but it's all about timing and sacrifice, staying at Chi 3+ rigidly gets you nowhere but dumping it all to get all the Ascendant upgrades asap means you have Yan Lo at base stats, something everyone can agree on aren't great. Hunpo Assault comes up rarely more than once a game so why throw all 3 Chi at it early "just in case"?
Do you NEED to be Incorporeal? Are you moving through terrain for cover/LOS blocking or blocking another friendly model? Are you in a situation where Fury of the Yomi will benefit you? If not, you can leave it on the shelf and heal instead. I'd rather keep Toshiro alive and summoning rather than turn that 3 damage attack on Lo into a 2 damage attack.
That said, will getting an Ascendant upgrade you do need right away gimp you for the rest of the Ap following it? Do you NEED Ca8 or will Ca6 suffice? Are you in a situation where Misdirection or being impossible to wound are good enough defenses? Spend your Chi to get that upgrade that you NEED right away and use it immediately. Timing and sacrifice, use what you need at the right time and don't be afraid to drop your Chi below 3 if it benefits you, with 5 ways to gain Chi, it will soon come back anyway.
The upgrades I use don't vary all that greatly with for Yan Lo, my personal auto-includes being Fortify the Spirit and Misdirection. Fortify the Spirit is too good to pass up, Lo's Df & Wp being 5 means a lot of chances for savvy enemies to get a straight damage flip so being able to count tomes as having +3 to their cards is a life saver. Misdirection is another shield in front of the master of the paths many shields, Thunder Dance will more often than not do two things: either land you on your opponents table half out in the open, or have Lo in the middle of 3 or so guys just waiting to destroy your carefully crafted plans; Misdirection allows you to stand their and dare those 3 models to hit him, I will happily take some halved damage if an opponent has spent a card to cheat and another 2 just to hit (maybe a 4th to cheat the damage flip) that's a hand destroyed for 4 damage which has done nothing to advance the game.
As for other upgrades, I can normally do without. Recalled Training is a staple for Ten Thunders but I find Yan Lo's general disregard for ever losing duels means I never really need it. If moving 4 inches more the first turn mattered I might include Dragon Stone but again, spending 1ss for an upgrade to functionally serve the same purpose as the superior Wings of Wind a waste, the (0) focus might be useful if it wasn't a (0) action, Heals or upgrades kinda take priority. The Wings I consider an option if I have the stones spare and feel Yan needs that last turn push out of combat or simply as a means to increase his Thunder Dance web threat range; the zero gets very rare use as stated as if you're not healing, you're grabbing an ascendant upgrade; and if you aren't upgrade grabbing, you're likely healing some more; but the times where you're in a position of not doing either is a good time to shift a slow model into useful territory.
Broken Promises is done better by Misdirection, having both starts to become a detriment, Lo is already defensively based enough with Ascendant upgrades and Misdirection without giving the opponent a reason to completely stop caring altogether about actions against him. It is better served on the Henchman or enforcers you bring along. The last upgrade requires a crystal ball to use effectively (looking at you Servant of 5 Dragons) and unless my opponent really likes bunching up their LITS or breakthrough markers, every game, Lo is better off picking them up himself rather than hoping markers are still going to be within range the turn after he bamfs to someone.
With all masters, I found growing pains but everything I've said above is the result of trial and error in a range of games against whole factions of masters, I'll be following this up with reports of my future with Yan Lo to use as a guide to how I play him and to continue to better myself with him. He is far from top-tier I assure you but he is a strong master full to the brim with options and most importantly, very fun to play. If I have changed any minds or have ignited a spark within you to at least give the old man a go without prejudice, then I'll be happy. If not, well at least I will never have any mirror matches!
Have fun out there.