With Rasputina recently dominating my stable of Rasputina, Rasputina's BFF and Rasputina's close friend I decided that another master should take the limelight in playing Gaining Grounds games when the scheme stars line up for her (which honestly, I'm playing by default now). Ironsides having a part of my heart that enjoys Tar-pit masters who are consistently singing Tubthumping whilst cracking skulls.
Then I hit a wall, a wall I told myself that I wouldn't bother smashing my head against unless I had proverbial cause and reason to. The last game I played was Guard the Stash with Convict Labor, Take Prisoner, Exhaust Their Forces, Search The Ruins and Occupy Their Turf and I couldn't for the life of me find a reason to take Ironsides over Rasputina. Guard the Stash requires models to stand in two places and tank hits which to be fair any Arcanist master can do, it's the schemes that forced Ms Toni back into the box.
Take Prisoner is awful for Ironsides as she's the prime target for it and giving away 3Vp when both Feng and 'Tina can simply railwalk/push out of combat is plain silly; Exhaust Their Forces is even worse as Toni welcomes enemy models into combat, even when she's not trying, so now I'm 6Vp down. Quite frankly, taking Rasputina and choosing Search the Ruins and Occupy Their Turf was the better call and despite losing against a very good Jack Daw player, he was clearly struggling and only scored 3vp more than me by luck of the draw and expertly hiding what schemes he was doing until the very last moment.
We had a discussion after the game and I mentioned my wanting to play Toni Ironsides more but the scheme pool just wasn't great for her, he then asked me the sensible questions of: What scheme pool is Ironside's scheme pool? Like what would you put in a scheme pool that Ironsides would clean house with?
I honestly couldn't answer.
Not out of thinking she is terrible in all schemes but more so that I've never asked that question myself: What does Ironsides excel in? So I looked deeper.
Out of the strategies I would only take Toni in Extraction as the middle is exactly where she wants to be and enemies have to take part in the royal rumble in order to score. Feng would still do well, as would Rasputina but in terms of who I would prefer, Toni is better for it in my eyes.
Those of you with keen eyesight may well notice that Extraction is one out of four common strategies, thus my first complaint, I can't see myself wanting Ironsides over Raspy or Mei in the majority of games I play and that's a big problem.
Onto the schemes. Out of the suited/always available schemes that I would pick Toni over the other two for, I simply wouldn't. Toni can do Exhaust Their Forces but then my opponent can do exactly the same back causing Zero Sum. Convict Labor and Leave Your Mark I would prefer Mei Feng for as as much as I have wild fantasies about Toni being this vortex of aggression, for the most part a savvy player is going to stay the heck out of the way increasing the chance that my markers aren't going to be able to score. Show of Force any master can do but I would prefer Feng or 'Tina to lead an upgraded crew into battle and Hunting Party is much easier to do when you're not bogged down by two models and can pick and choose death targets.
Again, a massive problem as now I'm playing a master who can play one strategy and who won't be able to take half of the scheme pool made available. Need I go on?
My first thought was why I even liked Ironsides so much back in the day if with this improved scheme pool is so bad for her? Maybe it was beginners luck or playing against players who were unaware of how lethal Toni can be if you feed her models to ramp up her Adrenaline but maybe it was more due to her potential greatly outshining her actual presence on the table.
You see, when Toni was first revealed in Crossroads and even in beta testing, forums and players alike were saying how mad broken she was and what insanity she could perform when she got her adrenaline engine going. How she could break the game with Hand Picked Men and the combos that could outmatch Mei Feng.
The realization set in fairly quickly once the fog of giddy theoryfaux faded away. Hand Picked Men always seems to fall short no matter how one sets it up and Adrenaline?
There's never enough Adrenaline.
Make all your arguments, tell me how Mouse and the Captain are supposed to pull models into Ironside's melee range allowing her maximum Adrenaline when she activates; but even with maximum models in melee with her, everything you want to do becomes a detriment. Want to combo into Toni's Uppercut? Lose 2 Adrenaline, Want to combo again? Lose 2 more. Wanna move to another target? Lose 1 more. Heal? Lose all of it. Trying to save it for future turns? Lose one every turn to heal a single wound.
Even if you weren't to focus on Adrenaline, a 2/3/4 vanilla damage track even at Ml7 is lackluster and whilst I love Uppercut, trading a whole activation for a (2) action to do 4-5 damage and give out Slow simply isn't enough especially when it's Ml4 base before Adrenaline.
Let me be fair, what happens when the perfect set up happens? Allow me to share:
Toni is next to an enemy she charged last turn and is sitting on Adrenaline +2. The Captain then Airbursts a target into melee with Toni. The opponent activates and nimble + charges The Captain who takes damage allowing Toni to discard 2 low cards for Adrenaline. Other activations happen during which time the opponent activates the models in melee with Ironsides and activates Good Shot, My Turn thrice. Ironsides activates and with her defense trigger and Protective alongside the two enemy models within 2" she has Adrenaline +7. She opens with Brass Knuckles using the trigger to combo into Uppercut killing the first enemy model. She does the same with the second enemy and uses her final Ap to lure The Captain's opponent into her melee range and then uses her Stand Up, Stand Tall to heal 3 wounds in order to tank the next turns damage.
Again, perfect set up. To actually achieve this set of unfortunate events you needed to have Toni end a turn on Adrenaline +3 (Which requires you to discard cards, stone for the non-in-built trigger on her attack or pitching Tomes to her def trigger, a lot of resources that no one else can use). The next turn having the Captain be in range to grab a critter then conveniently take non-lethal damage twice within 6" of Ironsides (which she has to pitch more cards to) THEN having both enemies wound but-not-too-much Toni forcing more Tomes or Stones and then being on life totals that allow 6-7 damage to finish them off. Then, luring another model into the fray which may result in needing to cheat a card taking more damage then seeing Toni on little to no wounds after three models worth of attacks and forcing her to dump her Adrenaline so she stands a chance next turn. To those counting at home, 4 discards (two of which need to be Tomes), 2 high Rams/2 Soulstones then a medium to high card in order to ensure the lure. In other words, your whole hand and this is the perfect set up. You might ask "You don't need that much Adrenaline", you do if you want to actually hit with Uppercut.
"What about Hand Picked Men?" Okay, another way to play Ironsides is as a luring support piece. With models preventing her from taking the damage by standing in charge lanes and other friendlies getting in nice and close with auto-focus attacks. Great on paper but with proper terrain lay-out models are going to get stuck on corners or be out of LOS more often than not. If I wanted my whole crew to be focused all the time I would play Shen Long or Collodi. If I wanted to stay in Arcanist then Marcus or Collette can do exactly the same Focus/Lure tactic and have a LOT more options in a game in terms of mobility and winning Vp. Trying to make a master like Toni work by erasing 80% of her card is not going to win any hearts.
I won't go into what changes I would make as that's a slippery slope that leads to "Ml9 on every stat and every model in her crew gains Focus+2 when they activate" and quite frankly outside of an ENORMOUS errata, none of what I or anyone else says or suggests would make much of a difference. Toni is simply too much of hassle to play competitively with.
She is a great looking model and one of the few stories I really enjoyed reading in the books, alas, whilst I can rave all day about how she's this great threat in mosh-pit melee, when I look at cold hard facts and table experience, she just doesn't do enough. She wants to be in the middle of a brawl but lacks the capacity to survive within it. She wants to deal lots of damage to lots of models but once she hurts the first target, she suddenly becomes unable to do so to others. It's a sad sorry state of affairs to be in Toni's steel toe-capped boots.
As much as I really want Ironsides to be the great model that I once envisioned her to be, it's simply not meant to be. I could conjure up lists and ways to make her more manageable or find ways to make her "work", adding M&SU models haphazardly or adding models that I hope get ignored to score Vp but when I play a game and say to myself "I could be earning Victory Points so much easier if I had taken anyone else" that's a sign of a bad master.
It's a strange day when I would prefer to take Yan Lo of all models over Toni Ironsides. The old man's constant fidgety movement removing targets from areas they need to be is unfortunately more likely to score Victory Points more often than the brawlers rooted punching. Even Ramos with how dreadfully boring he is can at least fill the board with mobile scheme runners.
Fortunately, the remaining masters in my stable of champions I'm having a lot of fun playing and with Ironsides no longer being forced into games, it means at least Mei Feng is able to get the games that she deserves against more than just a gunline. Alas, Toni will have to join Ramos in the case of un-used masters for the foreseeable future until I find myself in the mood to playing inefficient or plain dull crew leaders.
Stay true to yourself and have fun out there.