Legend of the Five Rings the Card Game is a highly strategic and addictive game that requires players to balance their military and political capabilities whilst maintaining the glory and honour of their chosen clan. The game is set in the realm of Rokugan, where rolling meadows meet jagged mountain spires that ascend above the clouds and the demon-infested shadowlands are an ever-present threat. The Legend of the Five Rings has existed as a role-playing game since 1997, so it is unsurprising that its iteration as a card game is so rich in lore.
I will not spend too much time explaining the gameplay mechanics as that could be a separate article in of itself but to summarise, the game requires players to play a combination of dynasty and conflict cards to conquer each other’s provinces, using magical effects from the eponymous five rings to help them on the way. Players can use a huge variety of tactics to secure victory as there are three different win conditions for the game. A player wins if they: conquer their opponent’s stronghold province; acquire twenty-five honour or reduce their opponent's honour to zero.
These conditions allow for numerous strategies to be effective and no two games to feel the same. This is where the game’s clans come into the picture. The land of Rokugan is divided up into different territories, each controlled by a different clan. These clans have their own cultures, values, ways of life and methods of warfare. In terms of gameplay, you will need to choose your favourite clan and theme your deck around them. I think of these clans as being very similar to the colours in Magic: The Gathering. The clans embody certain emotions and ideals, not just the nasty things you will be hurling at your opponent.
Unlike Magic: The Gathering, you will not be able to mix and match your deck. You may only use cards from one clan in your deck, however, there are some neutral cards available in the core set and dynasty packs to bulk up any deck if necessary. This makes choosing a clan a really big decision.
The core set does provide a nice opportunity to build a small functioning deck from any clan but if you want to start looking at dynasty or clan booster packs, it is a really good idea to know whether you are a ferocious yet honourable lion or a smiling scorpion that packs a sting. This list is my ranking of the clans that appear in the core set and is therefore just my opinion. I recommend doing some research if you are interested in picking up the game but hopefully, this list can give you some idea of who the clans are and what they are about.
Number Seven – The Unicorn Clan
First on the list are the unicorn clan. This clan embodies fast and ferocious ambush tactics, with high levels of mobility and sudden surges of offence due to their expert horsemanship. The clan is infamous for initially having left the empire to become nomadic. It would be easy to underestimate the unicorn clan as a group of uncouth barbarians, however, centuries of functioning as a self-reliant clan in alien territory taught them all they needed to know about diplomacy and the importance of mutual understanding. The unicorn clan’s military certainly derives some inspiration from tactics used by ancient Mongol forces. These include an emphasis on mounted combat, archery, ambush tactics and a style of swordsmanship focused on whirling scimitars.
In terms of gameplay, the unicorn clan are all about mobility and battering your opponent with cards that can be reused multiple times. Cards such as Way of the Unicorn and Breakthrough, allow unicorn players to keep the first player token and attack multiple provinces in succession. I Am Ready allows players to ready a character they have already used that round. Several cards such as Shinjo Tatsuo, Ide Messenger and Master of the Swift Waves allows you to move extra characters or swap certain characters in and out of conflicts, swaying the battle in your favour.
The mobility and shock and awe tactics of the unicorn clan can be devasting. This is a deck that can have an opponent severely on the back foot after the first few turns. However, I find the unicorn clan to be fairly one-dimensional and, in those instances, where things don’t kick off immediately you can struggle against an opponent who has focused on a more methodical and conservative playstyle.
Number Six – The Crab Clan
The crab clan are the robust and stoic defenders of Rokugan who hold off the demonic inhabitants of the shadowlands on a daily basis. The clan is comprised of hulking warriors who specialise in two-handed weapons and heavy armour, paladin-like shugenja (mages), nimble scouts, a network of merchants and brilliant engineers who helped to construct the wall and the counter-siege weapons that defend it. Some comparisons can be drawn between the crab clan and the night’s watch from The Song of Ice and Fire series. This is a fitting observation as the crab clan are arguably the roughest clan in Rokugan, as years of defending the wall and receiving little acknowledgement or thanks for their efforts has made many of the crab clan cynical with no time for pleasantries.
Unsurprisingly, the crab clan’s main strength is its defensive capabilities. These create a horrible headache for your opponent, they either attack you, get punished and lose honour or they don’t attack you and lose honour. There are some awesome crab clan combinations that force your opponent to attack even though they know they will be met by horrendous conflict cards. Cards such as Intimidating Hida cause opponents to lose honour for not attacking, whereas attachments like Pit Trap punish them for attacking.
The crab clan also possesses some really good holdings, cards that bolster your provinces. Cards like Hiruma Outpost cause opponents to lose honour for not attacking provinces withholdings. Crab clan also enjoys sacrificing its own soldiers for the benefit of others. There are some great plays that can be made through sacrifices weaker cards to boost your stronger characters.
If played well, crab clan can be an awesome deck to play and you can have a lot of fun in causing headaches for your opponent, seeing the colour drain from their face when they realise, they are in big trouble whether they attack or not. However, the crab clan’s strength is its weakness and it is very poor in terms of offence. The deck plays very thematically, in that you need to weather a storm from your opponent and hope your defences hold out while you chip away at their honour and potentially the occasional province. Playing crab clan is definitely a war of attrition.
Number Five – The Dragon Clan
Perhaps the most unusual clan in Rokugan, the dragon clan isolate themselves high in the mountains and use a minor clan (the dragonfly clan) as their messengers to the rest of the empire. The dragon clan may on occasion descend from the mountains to interact with other clans but their motivations tend to be mysterious. The clan is a combination of tattooed monks, alchemists, investigators and dual-wielding samurai warriors.
In terms of gameplay, the dragon clan’s strengths lie in Voltron strategies. These strategies involving deploying a reduced number of characters but then beefing these characters up with attachments and equipment to make them truly ferocious and terrifying to your opponent. The dragon clan does this in multiple ways. There are some cards such as Togashi Initiate and Seeker of Enlightenment that gain boosts to their military and political strength for each fate counter on the five rings. They and other cards in the deck ensure there are plenty of those counters available.
In the more traditional Voltron style there are lots of nasty attachments in a dragon clan deck that give characters beneficial keywords, boost their military and or politics stats and bestow key abilities like not bowing (tapping) after attacking. Cards like Agasha Swordsmith allows players to search the top five cards of their deck for attachments before adding one to their hand. Niten Master is allowed to ready himself for another conflict whenever a card is attached to him and Togashi Yokuni gains the ability of any other card that was triggered during the round.
The dragon clan have a really cool concept and are one of the most well-balanced factions in the game. However, they are particularly weak against any clan with nasty tricks that remove attachments. Once certain attachments are gone, dragon clan members can be outplayed by decks that specialise more towards military or political conflicts.
Number Four – The Crane Clan
The crane clan embody the political elite of Rokugan. The clan consists of silver-tongued courtiers and tea serving charmers. However, cranes do possess claws and this clan has plenty of fearsome duellists available who can eliminate opposing characters and earn the honour. The crane clan does possess some skilled soldiers but their true passion is the political arena, using their military forces primarily as a distraction whilst their diplomats wreak havoc on their enemy’s government.
The crane clan also has a strong tie to creativity and some members devote their lives to developing a form of illusion magic to create beautiful works of art. The crane clan are looked at as snobs and elitists, with stern social rules and standards, they provide a stark juxtaposition to the rough and ready members of the crab clan.
Crane players will be primarily focused on starting political conflicts with opponents and honouring their characters whilst only really flexing their military muscles when it comes to duelling. Crane decks can provide a sense of security for their players, as several crane cards inhibit your opponent from playing event cards which can hit you with nasty surprises. Cards like Voice of Honour and Above Question protect your characters from opponents, whereas The Mirror’s Gaze actually turns your opponent’s events against them.
Crane decks are full of the most ruthless politicians, Doji Hotaru provides one of the best political ratings in the core set and allows for additional activations of ring effects, whereas Kakita Kaezin forces an opponent’s character into a duel where characters can be discarded or sent away from the conflict.
The crane clan are one of my least favourite clans in terms of their background, lore and story. However, they are a really fun faction to play. The idea of a silver-tongued politically aware faction is really enticing and their gameplay style reflects this. Lots of cards that manipulate what opponents can do, lots of gift-giving opportunities, where opponents draw cards but can’t attack you and honouring your growing circle of snobs provides a really satisfying experience.
I have yet to play a multiplayer variation of Legend of the Five Ring the Card Game but I imagine the crane clan would be my go-to in terms of playing multiple opponents against each other. The crane clan fall just short of my top three due to their so-so backstory and their lack of general military power.
Number Three – The Lion Clan
The lion clan are by far the most military-focused clan in the game. The clan serves as the empire’s central army and focuses on brutal samurai warriors and swarm tactics to achieve victory. The lion clan are the most concerned with maintaining honour and not resorting to underhand tactics or manipulation to settle their disputes. The lion clan is compromised of the matriarchal Matsu berserkers (who are just as awesome as they sound), undefeated military strategists, priests focused on ancestor worship and a group of bards who are devoted to keeping military history alive.
The lion clan’s gameplay style is all about military conflicts. Lion decks will be designed around profiting from military conflicts and trying to cause as many of them as possible due to the Lion’s superior might. Effects will also be focused on honouring cards as much as possible to boost their military stats. Several cards in the deck will have the keyword pride, meaning the character will be honoured if victorious or dishonoured if they fail.
Where the lion clan really excels, however, is in raw destructive power. In a lot of ways, they do what the unicorn clan try to do but in a more effective manner. Cards such as Matsu Seventh Legion possess one of the strongest military rating in the core set, Master of the Spear forces opponents to remove a character from a conflict at the last minute. There are some other really cool thematic cards such as Deathseeker, which takes one of your opponent’s cards with it when it dies and Kitsu Spiritcaller, allowing for a discarded card to return for one final conflict.
The lion clan are one of the more simplistic factions in the game but not to their detriment. They embody the Mike Tyson philosophy of admonishing intricate plans, preferring to punch the opponent’s characters in the face. Their lack of political strength is balanced out by their ridiculous military prowess and the speed at which they can level opponent’s provinces. On top of all this, they are able to generate honour with an above-average level of efficiency. They might seem like one of the more boring clans but they are certainly effective.
Number Two – The Phoenix Clan
Rising from the ashes, the phoenix clan embody elemental energy and utilise the five rings to create some bonkers combinations that will leave your opponents awestruck. I would argue that the phoenix clan have the steepest learning curve in the game and have some very text-heavy cards. This can be off-putting to new players and maybe they are not the best choice for your very first game of L5R. However, they do provide some of the most satisfying gameplay opportunities if you stick with them.
The Phoenix clan’s job is to defend the spiritual aspects of the empire. They believe in peace and serenity and are made up of scholars who seek wisdom and knowledge in all matters, a council of five elemental magic masters, their students and samurai guardians and finally a group of samurai monks who defend sacred shrines.
In terms of gameplay, the phoenix clan focuses on gaining bonuses from the type of elemental ring declared in a conflict. Phoenix decks possess numerous cards that amplify or extend the abilities of the elemental rings. Fearsome Mystic gains an increase to her military and political strength when participating in air ring conflicts, Isawa Masahiro discards enemy characters during fire conflicts and Adept of the Waves allows another character to sneak past a defender during water conflicts.
The phoenix clan couples these bonuses with other cards that allow for ridiculous combinations to take place. Shiba Tsukune allows players to gain extra ring effects during their turn and Fushicho allows your characters to rise like a phoenix out the discard pile and onto the battlefield. How to maximise these combinations is critical to a good phoenix strategy. This clan is the definition of difficult to learn but satisfying to master. Although off-putting the phoenix clan rewards loyal players with some utterly earth-shaking potential.
Number One – The Scorpion Clan
In Legend Of The Five Rings, my personal favourite, the scorpion clan are the edgy clan, the mono black deck in Magic: The Gathering, the dark elf assassin in Dungeons and Dragons. Despite sounding like the immediate choice fourteen-year-old boys the world over, the scorpion clan avoid falling into parody through their surprisingly subtly backstory. The emperor’s ability to control the political arena and the battlefield are governed by the crane and lion clans respectively. However, when those clans, governed by honour can’t get the job done, the scorpion clan is summoned. The scorpion clan essentially sacrifice their own honour to carry out the missions that other clans can’t: blackmailing, kidnapping, assassinations, spying and theft are all within the remit of the scorpion clan.
There is a certain element of tragedy to the scorpion clan’s story. It would be easy to call them the ‘bad guys’ of the game, but they wear this label for the good of the empire. They give the other clans a common enemy which allows the scorpion clan to focus on ferreting out the real traitors and would-be usurpers in the empire. Although they act like the most disloyal and selfish clan, they are actually the complete opposite. The clan is comprised of master manipulators, blackmailers, seducers, ninjas, illusionists and protective ward masters.
The scorpion clan’s gameplay is situated around the honour dial. This system takes place before conflicts begin. Player secretly bid the amount of honour they are willing to pay to gain more cards from their conflict deck. These cards give them a hefty advantage. Whereas most clans want to be conservative with their honour, the scorpion clan does the opposite and wants to run low on honour. This is a delicate balance to walk as you need to avoid spending too much and losing the game, but many scorpion characters thrive off of low honour and being dishonoured themselves.
Cards like Blackmail can only be played if you have less honour than your opponent but allow you to steal an opponent’s character for the turn. However, the scorpion clan also rely on a varied selection of sudden tricks to catch tour opponent off guard. Ambush allows players to deploy cards from their hands or provinces to a conflict, Sinister Soshi diminishes an opposing character’s military and political value and Disguised Protector allows players to add their honour bid to their characters values for that conflict.
The scorpion clan is the sneakiest clan and once again the clan’s theme fits its gameplay style. I love this clan’s story and the way they play. However, the scorpion clan does have weaknesses and opposing players can level a lot of pressure of scorpion decks by pushing their honour so low that the fine line between losing and playing better cards becomes difficult to walk.
Despite my rankings in this list, all of the clans are really unique and have their own fantastic elements. I really recommend checking out this game and making up your mind on who the best clan is.