These are my notes on Youko Hamasaki as I play her. This is not a competitive guide--I'm playing in M3E as a casual player, so while some notes will talk about time, it's a not a note of encouragement for the kind of play where you plan on not finishing, but pointing out something relatively obvious (for the context) that is a reality of playing in Malifaux's competitive setting.
I post here so I can access my own notes from any particular device and to provide a below average player's perspective on playing the master and trying to utilize her. It may be a nice starting point as there's very little literature on the master and may provide an evolving view as I continue to play M3E as long as I do. There will likely from time to time be better content to get ideas on how to play Youko as a master, e.g. Third Floor Wars when they eventually do a deep dive. Assuming TFW doesn't update it's deep dives, however, then this may provide additional insight as the model pool grows.
Comments are welcome, to which I'll try to respond and/or account for in updating my thoughts in this main post.
As a note, if you're reading this, you probably already know about her in keyword primary mechanic, and since these are my notes that I'll (try to) regularly update, I won't go into what Leverage is., what her front of card abilities do, etc. That also goes for some concepts of her crew as they'll (probably) be implied by what I write here as I update.
Additionally, I did not play during the beta for M3E, and because I didn't buy the TT book when everyone else was on first release, I don't have it nor extensive access to known, unreleased models. So I don't have a full grasp of all options, and thus models that may be very popular may not be mentioned much because I just haven't had a chance to really review them--my primary method of reviewing models for consideration is through the publicly available card .pdf files, which don't include models like kabuki warrior.
Basic View of how Malifaux M3E works:
Because Malifaux largely relies on a 54 card deck with shuffling to determine most results in player interactions, it is inherently a game of chance. Thus, mechanics and play styles to maximize favorable probabilities should often yield more success, by extension more wins, provided overall strategy and situational play is roughly the same strength as the opponent's strategy and play.
The primary source of variation in this game comes from the fate deck. The fate deck mechanic is largely, IMO, categorized into 3 major components, in no particular order: (1) the control hand; (2) the flipped cards; and (3) deck manipulation, e.g. simple knowledge or actually changing cards. Any mechanic (currently) related to the fate deck modifies the game by changing one or more of those three mechanics, usually just one. Which one is "more" influential in any given game will vary primarily based on crew composition, then on play that is executed to at least partially address one of those three categories.
Every crew in this game more or less needs cards to be higher than the average 6-7 at some point. If we all had our way you'd have all the cards stacked from highest to lowest value order with your hand containing 13s, the red joker, and a 12 of your choice.
But, since that isn't very likely, you want to play in a way that maximizes your ability to use the cards that come from your fate deck in any of the three ways they do, because the fate deck is critical to your crew succeeding in accomplishing your in game objective and/or denying your opponent achieving the same to secure a win.
This leads to the bookend thought that fielding a crew that can majorly influence at least one of the three categories very consistently will do better.
Youko's primary mechanic to address the fate deck is to flip multiple cards during duels with the luxury of more often choosing the better suited card. She additionally has minor deck manipulation for herself and/or the opponent via Youko's aura, and she manipulates the control hand with a world wide hand size limitation. She can address all three categories meaningfully in some way, with an emphasis on flipping more, hopefully better cards. So, she should try to play to that as her strength and build crews and play accordingly.
The above is not to say that manipulating the fate deck is the ONLY way to win. There is something to be said for activation control and just having raw model count and/or tricks to effectively achieve activation control, greater than normal levels of action efficiency, etc. Doing these things can also win, and some of these are things Youko utilizes or tries to mitigate against opposing crews. If you can generate hyper activation efficiency, you can often win just by getting points, even if you're mostly tabled by the end of the game.
I focus on the fate deck discussion because outside of basic activation control via pass token generation, IMO Youko tends to really focus on making duels better via fate deck manipulation. Just note that non-fate deck related mechanics are in fact important to winning Malifaux and can be a large, sometimes primary factor for winning, but I don't think there is a currently a crew that can sustain > .500 win rate without winning any duels, opposed or simple ones. If you're sustaining > .500 win rate while losing all your duels against competent players, congratulations you're playing the objectively best crew of the game and are about to set the meta.
Youko Hamasaki: Seems flexible in that you can activate her early and use your high cards to cripple your opponent's control hand early and/or mitigate early activation damage. You can also activate later in the turn to close the door so to speak on any random shenanigans the opponent may have with their last cards, e.g. forcing cheats because not doing so loses a duel, results in the "worse" choice for a pain choices (e.g. blackmail), etc. Wants to be within 6" of a low wp model for bonus action and blackmail with discard aura, other 2 ap being for positioning, focus, etc. Getting 2-3 other low wp models in the area would be amazing, but given she just has serene countenance for defense, seems unlikely. More likely the 1-2 ap will be to catch up to any model that is attempting to outrun her, barring you get off a lure. Very fragile master I feel as her primary defense won't mean much against the high damage output models who get resources anyway to get straight or positive flips, and largely won't mean anything against indirect damage models. It essentially seems to stop trash attacks as most of these types of attacks will largely be within her threat range, either right away for her actions or within 1 AP walk to cover with bubble. Feels stone hungry right now but reps will hone my sense on this. Not particularly rules reliant.
Chiyo Hamasaki: Scheme runner and pass token generator. Probably takes 2-3 turns to catch up to barring you have particularly efficient movement tricks or extreme activation control. Back of card seems mostly bad since the crew likely doesn't typically have an abundance of scheme runners, meaning this guy/girl needs to fulfill that role. If you're playing death bubble and Chiyo is part of it, maybe, but then you have to really lock down a couple low Wp models for Chiyo and assumedly Youko to get any real mileage--that seems too rube goldberg to be worth it compared to just running schemes, generating pass tokens, and having a quick activation.
Bill Algren: Beater who will double as a scheme runner/runner hunter. Only source of healing, rescue, and scheme marker manipulation in keyword. Probably auto-include for a while. Great for deterring early scheme reveals which can factor into decision making if round time becomes an issue. His ability to dole out damage isn't amazing, but it's probably above average once the pass token engine gets going. Largely doesn't seem stone hungry given what I read and the available triggers.
Geisha (3x): Sacrificial lamb pieces for the most part. One of the in keyword lures and has one of the few in keyword movement tricks you can play with when using trained ninja. Pretty much a distraction piece for Youko as it provides a 2" aura forcing negative flips on Wp duels, enabling Youko heavily and other Wp duels. Currently I feel you have to run at least 1 to escort Youko, and I will start experimenting with 2x, though I'm unsure as to how to work the math for 2x just yet. 2x also seems a little costly for two models that won't effectively scheme run (without trained ninja) and largely serve as cannon fodder and/or Wp auras that the opponent cannot afford to ignore too long.
At this point there aren't many in keyword models, and most of my core crew currently comes from the box. A nice thing about that though is getting reps in will yield a great deal of knowledge on what she needs for the core as I refine it and what her pain points are in each strategy and scheme (S&S) set. I have seen people describe her as a control master with a crew that will largely not kill much and mostly run schemes while preventing the opponent from scoring their own points. I'm unsure I agree with this, given my impression of how TT worked in M2E and my understandings/impressions of the models available to Youko. She basically gets beaters in melee when in keyword, excellent beaters at range when looking out of keyword (OOK), and support for those beaters otherwise.
That's not to say she doesn't have access to scheme runners. In keyword, she currently has effectively two choices in keyword: bunraku and kunoichi. The former is much more straight forward, but lacks oomph to contest other runners/runner hunters and their defensive capabilities are lackluster considering the bonus action is to ping 1 for a 3" push, which won't get you far enough to drop another scheme marker in the same turn and hurts for ~18% of the health pool with no realistic ways to heal mid game barring unusual circumstances. The latter seems better suited to playing around the outskirts of the main engagement area while asserting and/or maintaining advantage, but doubles as a scheme runner with less idea defensive abilities than a bunraku. But, as a runner hunter she offers more consistent oomph and the ability to counter scheme marker schemes with a 3" re-position trigger in an environment where engagement ranges max out at 2" for the most part. Bunraku will likely be the primary scheme runner choices in the cost slot as is in addition to the free Chiyo, providing what seems to be the average "2-3" models that run the more schemy schemes instead of the killy ones.
With my understanding of general numbers and some of the crews I've faced/read (mostly read, so take this with a huge grain of salt) at this point, I would probably re-purpose a henchman/enforcer into a runner hunter who runs schemes for the solo point, sometimes second point. This would likely only be an effective strategy in situations where time was particularly important, but may be worthwhile if my thoughts on what Youko's score range is are correct.
I think Youko is actually a mild control master who largely employs a larger than average front line of beaters with several largely independent control pieces to score 4-6 points while denying the opponent points. The literature I've read on these forums favor Hinamatsu and Fuhatsu, and I largely agree both are great as they play into Youko's primary mechanical advantage: playing favorable probabilities and pressuring the opponent's control hand. Youko's keyword, however, leaves scheme running a thing to be desired currently, and my take on her "core" crew currently is fairly expensive without a ton of room to play around.
There is a caveat to that statement, but based mostly on my understanding, she doesn't favor running interaction heavy,schemes, e.g. most scheme marker related schemes. she prefers schemes you can get mostly passively while eliminating high impact models so that she can re-purpose her models into VP denial in the mid-late game. Her beaters are great at getting in range for their raison d'être: beating people's faces in. She isn't the greatest at killing on paper until you start getting the pass token engine going, but once the engine activates, likely turn 2 in tournament, turn 3 in casual games, basically everyone is burning through the deck and should largely hit above average, generating control hand pressure and inciting inefficient actions.
With that, my current core crew is as follows, with the mentioned caveat to follow. The core costs 33. for 6 models
Fuhatsu--11SS b/c trained ninja is stapled to him
The caveat I keep mentioning is that in some pools, you may find it worthwhile to swap out Hinamatsu or Bill for multiple models, alternative models, or to make math work so you have a large SS cache. In M2E having a large cache was generally important to me because I played Ressers and Arcanists, primarily Molly, Kirai, and Seamus in the former with Sandeep and Raspy in the latter, all of whom were very card & stone hungry. I generally want to take 10 SS cache because that's the max, but like the Bill/HInamatsu swap, you may want to lower the cache amount if you feel your opponent won't field a particularly killy crew or you need the runners more than the beaters. I don't think you can line up better beaters for Youko specifically, as you'll have positive flips on everyone if your leverage engine is going and with a 10SS cache you'll more often get the triggers you want when you go for them. That being said, there are times and places where running is more important, and while the 5 runner builds are now a thing of the past, subbing one beater out only gets you one more runner and then you get to play tetris with the remaining stones.
With the remaining 17 stones, I generally want to hire a 7 total cost in model(s) so that I have a 10SS cache--the reason being I want a stacked hand whenever possible, so I plan to stone turns 1-3 with the option to stone turns 4 & 5 without worrying that i'm not leaving any for in game interactions. Also the core features 4 SS users, 3 of which are henchmen. In reckoning this could be a recipe for disaster, but if the opposing crew isn't a bunch of irreducible damage, stones are largely your primary defense for most of the beaters Youko wants to hire. Hinamatsu has armor 2, but a lot of models ignore Armor and if they don't, high damage means a lot less while draining effectively more resources when you stone for reduction regularly knowing you have the pool to support it. 10 SS may be a too much, and further reps will probably have me lower my preference, but I like it because when I math out the remaining 7 stones, tech pieces like charm warder, bunraku + upgrade, etc. fit in decently and I can just drop a stone or so to get it while giving up essentially the 1-2 stones that would be turn 4/5 card cycle; while that's an opportunity cost, if I'm desperate turn 4 or 5 for the card cycle, I'm probably hosed anyway because my engine isn't strong and/or the board state isn't great for me either.
Typical non-core hires I currently factor in are:
Charm Warder--fits to give 10 SS cache, has a variety of abilities that are situationally useful. Bonus action can poop crews that depend on long term deck manipulation. Chi synergizes with leverage engine. Only model that can generate irreducible damage. Glass cannon though so wants to stay out of heavy fights--better for clean up and forcing awkward positioning. Doubles as a runner hunter or scheme runner, though not so much the latter.
Geisha + 2 upgrades--lowers cache, could be 2x Geisha if you're crazy about the aura/Lures or just need that much cannon fodder.
Katanaka sniper--realistically most map layouts don't have enough terrain IMO, so snipers are generally pretty good. Probably really 10 stones though between tax and trained ninja so this guy doesn't just explode turn 1 or 2.
Bunraku/kunoichi + upgrade--lowers cache, but you might need that extra runner/runner hunter.
Yamaziko--Lowers cache. Nimble more or less makes up for Mv 4 and means she has a pretty decent threat range for runner and/or sniper hunting. I would hire her for runner hunting primarily, with a mid-late game flank in. If I need another beater, other models suit the purpose better. She just does it well against runners, particularly when they run in packs, but solo ones are fine as well. Hard to outpace so can help run schemes as well, probably just as well as bunraku just based on numbers In a full fight she's a glass cannon, but when she's flanking wide, her one on card defensive ability is massive to prevent drop in shenanigans, especially when paired with trained ninja.
There are many more, some of which I've seen suggested, some I haven't. For example, Tanuki is definitely a model I've considered, but I don't include it because I have a preference for models that offer more direct impact and I'm trying to feel out how far I can stretch my resources before I have to hire more models, modify the core, etc. I'm pretty sure the core crew I've listed above is mostly solid, especially for my purposes, and flexible enough that as the model pool grows, I won't feel too restrained as I want to make swaps.
General Strengths and Weaknesses:
Youko has incredible pressure in duels to stack odds in her favor via flip probability. This goes for actual opposed duels for your attack actions and generating more favorable odds when defending in duels. An interesting use is also to use leverage to pass simple duels to more easily avoid "monkey wrench" mechanics like terrifying, manipulative, etc. that seek to stop your duels from occurring by putting up a medium-high medium difficulty simple duel as a gatekeeper to actually starting an opposed duel as the attacker. It needs to be said that leverage doesn't just take care of duels--it simply increases probability that you'll do better, so using this is more of a scalpel than a hammer--taking unfavorably lopsided duels because you have a positive flip will yield poorer results than taking similar stat duels and putting pressure on your opponent to react and act, typically with cheats, SS, etc. Where this should shine is taking even stat or slightly advantaged (+1 favorable stat) duels where you should significantly more often win the cheating game (forcing your opponent to cheat first), letting you cheat with knowledge, cheat bait, or just gain hand knowledge or other advantage.
Youko's crew gets a lot of its benefits passively. Leverage is completely passive--out of Youko's direct control, but once activated, requires nothing mid-game to obtain. How much leverage does will be based on, in order from greatest to least: (1) how many models have the leverage ability and (2) how you use the leverage tokens. Additionally a number of the models in the core gain benefits without having to do much--Chiyo can camp an uncontested corner generating 3 unimportant activations (himself, 2 pass tokens), Bill heals and gets fast for the opponent playing the game, etc.
To the second point above, leverage's mechanic allows Youko to play flexibly between high pressure or disproportionate activation control. She can use the pass tokens in quick activation sequences with high pressure duels, especially when using ruthless model(s) that ignore monkey wrench mechanics like terrifying. Alternatively, Youko can use them to assert activation control to mitigate threats and strike when able, relying on her by default larger hand size and probability with any left over pass tokens to generate pressure.
Neither of the above approaches will always be necessarily correct at this time, IMO, though this could change depending on how popular the following are: (1) alpha strike crews; (2) low model count crews; and (3) aura/pulse based death ball crews. If Youko had similar stats as in M2E, she would likely play similar to her "counter part" Nellie, in that activation control would typically be absolutely critical for most of the game given the popularity and availability of strong alpha strike and heavy activation control crews--I don't think Youko would be popular in M2E unless she could generate pass tokens under a summoning mechanic as the rules provide now, but if she could she might have been a decent to better control master.
A little thing about leverage also is that if you do not need to use pass tokens, you can save them to effectively ensure winning initiative in subsequent turns. I had a game where my opponent flipped a 12 but I won initiative because I had 4 pass tokens left and flipped a 9, putting me at 13, giving me initiative on turn 4, which was critical for getting my beaters in quickly to assert extra activation control and pressure.
Youko is also fortunately not particularly reliant on maps featuring any particular type of terrain or board set up out of the ordinary, assuming you board(s) have sufficient terrain in sufficient variety. She benefits greatly from having lots of LoS blocking terrain as she often has to spend turns 1 and 2 walking for set up with potential strike opportunities, but not to any significantly greater extent than most other crews.
She also does not currently have too many unusual rules interactions, so for people who play competitively she shouldn't have too many situations where a particular ruling for an interaction her crew started will be needed. Other crews can be the exception, but knowing how a TO or relevant authority will rule is part and parcel of Malifaux's tournament scene, at least in M2E.
I'm including this part last because while I don't think it's something that should be encouraged, it's a real consideration, especially if someone reads this with the thought they may gain insight into playing Youko competitively: she is probably a monster for playing to time in timed environments. Opponents don't want to reveal schemes super early because a leverage engine netting 6+ pass tokens on top of natural pass token generation a turn means I don't have to do anything before most/all of your crew has activated, but not doing so could mean that playing to time wins you the game with how scheme VP are scored in M3E. If your goal is to win within the rules and your opponent leaves themselves vulnerable to a win by time, you can take the opportunity. Alternatively, if your opponent reveals at least one scheme early, you are essentially playing a more powerful crew than normal. I say this last sentence because anecdotally I find players locally are revealing schemes turn 3, meaning Youko would get a 2 turn leverage engine.
I'm sure there will be some backlash to the above paragraph, but timed environments bring a new factor into the game and my background in gaming is typically competitive, so my thoughts are to think of whatever min/max strategy within the rules will win. Malifaux is one of my few current leisure activities where I don't want to be in the competitive scene, so I won't do this personally, but it's worth mentioning because people may look at this and think the same way and/or play in an environment where that's a normally accepted practice.
This is NOT an encouragement or endorsement for "slow play" such that activations are taking abnormal amounts of time for the sake of doing so; doing so is actually against the core book rules in a couple spots if I recall. But, a regular set pace with good record keeping and accuracy double checks takes time and when round times are (typically?) 2 hours, games going to time will often be the norm unless you go quickly through decisionmaking and execution. I hate the "gamer's inch" measurement, but in casual play I don't really care barring it's particularly egregious. The same goes for misplays; I'll retcon my win into a fail if I ignored a negative flip by mistake even if that would lose me the game because I'm not particularly invested in winning casual games. In timed play, typically competitive, however, I will often double check accuracy, measurements, etc. I don't want to be an ass about it in not trusting my opponent, but people misread cards and letting things go through without checking actions/abilities work the way they're being used can be game losing. Malifaux is a massive game as far as player options, making studying and internalizing all player options a massive, unreasonable requirement; it is thus reasonable to read my opponent's cards and check for errata/rulings. For big ticket issues, e.g. M2E's interaction for Carrion Emissary with the My Little Helper Upgrade, checking with the TO is a must and expected, but for all the other issues reading at time of play is reasonable. All of this takes time to do at an effective pace, so playing to the clock is part of competitive play if you choose to make it so.
Leverage is currently limited to Qi and Gong models, and will likely remain so. This means Youko wants to hire as many models in keyword as possible, which is a weakness as most of her models have counterparts that do what the Qi and Gong version does but more often are better, but the opportunity cost from losing a model with leverage alone, never mind the OOK tax, may make the swap non-optimal. Bunraku are not terrible scheme runners, but there are better ones in faction, e.g. Tengu cost less with tax, but losing leverage will often make the swap a non-starter. Youko really wants the opponent to think twice about revealing a scheme early for two major reasons IMO: (1) the later the reveal, the more scrambling to score schemes there will likely be, meaning likely more lower action efficiency; and (2) in a timed environment, revealing the scheme for Turn 3 can result in major plays quickly or revealing too late means time will run out and deny points by virtue of mistaken planning.
It sounds like I'm describing a strength above, and leverage is a strength, to be sure (otherwise no one would play Youko), but to make leverage an actually effective mechanic and threat to the opponent, Youko will typically NEED to hire mostly, if not all, Qi and Gong. If it's not in keyword, there needs to be a lot the model brings to the table. As an extension of this, my core crew contains one non-Qi and Gong model because Fuhatsu answers a large number of issues that Youko has--the moment a model with leverage releases that fills Fuhatsu's role with near equal or better efficiency, I'm pre-ordering that guy because that's more pressure through the primary way I win: favorable probabilities in roughly equal to slightly advantaged duels.
As noted above, Fuhatsu is in the core crew to answer some of the in keyword flaws: (1) bad answers to range models; (2) models with terrifying/manipulative; and (3) high mobility models. There are no in keyword models with good answers to range--virtually all of them are melee centric and the ones that aren't are the master, totem, charm warder, and Geisha; the first two are part of the control engine and don't want to engage the ranged if possible, charmer warder is a niche pick (which is fine, but still not an anti-range model), and the last has to lure to set up beaters. The only in keyword ruthless model is Bill, who plays more as a second entry beater to another true front line model like Hinamatsu--he'll often get a turn 3/4 heal, but he doesn't really have much in the way of defense, so while he can be the anti-terrifying/manipulative, he has to play around the situation as opposed to just slugging at the enemy. Lastly, Youko's models are pretty slow for the most part, and should encounter trouble chasing down higher mobility targets like enemy scheme runners. Fuhatsu isn't fast by any means, but a 17" threat range for two shots at stat 6 with positive attack flips is considerable., especially when Youko's scheme runners do generally lower damage at average stat attacks; Yes, kunoichi can do comparable damage to Fuhatsu on a single target, but they have to get within melee for that and their threat range with a ranged attack is significantly shorter.
I don't go into the strengths against other crews Youko has because I think it's more suitable for the Matchups section, but I think it's worth mentioning crew types Youko will have trouble against because that's where players like me will need help more. IMO, Youko will more often have trouble against other low model count crews (natural pass token generation greatly increases leverage effectiveness), crews that manipulate pass tokens (e.g. Somer), crews with good healing, and crews with high damage reduction abilities (only charm warder and Hinamatsu can ignore damage reduction, with the former having to go in melee as a sub-par melee model and the latter only ignoring armor by giving up an onslaught trigger). Hopefully future in keyword releases the damage actions are less "big number" (Bill with 3 min, kabuki warriors with 3 min) and more specialized (e.g. an attack that ignores incorporeal only or armor only without triggers that does like a 2/3/4 and doesn't have built in positive attack flips).
Additionally, "keep away" crews are almost always an issue. If you listen to Third Floor War's deep dives, some of the deep dives describe crew building for the tournament level as playing essentially keep away with surgical attacks, mostly in situations where you can't do anything. Youko can mitigate some of this with a leverage engine, but in timed environments in particular, it can be rough to get traction quickly/in time. Since "keep away" is typically playing high mobility or a gimmick like Tara's bury manipulation, Youko often will struggle to keep up. At least so far in my play, the general idea before making match up considerations is to pick schemes that allow me to bubble around my scheming "area" to deter the free anti-scheming. The opponent will attempt anti-scheming anyway, but Youko punishing it hard when it happens may prevent it from happening or mitigate/eliminate the opponent's ability to permanently deny those points.
Finally, and this might seem very fatalistic, especially early into M3E's release, but it's here so that I have a reference point as I get more reps in, I experiment, etc. I think Youko, barring particularly useful releases, will likely be a mid-higher mid tier master if you're looking to play competitively, and will be a higher mid tier-high tier master in casual play environments where players aren't running the "in meta" masters with by and large optimized lists. She lacks the options to really answer some of the most common ways people will play in more competitive environments, and this is due mostly to a small in keyword model selection and to a lesser extent OOK options. In most setups she can't "score" turn 1 with 1-2 schemes set to score turn 2, which will likely be more of a factor in timed environments but still a consideration in casual play. Her AP efficiency is about making duels better, but not auto-win, and she still has to win them by and large because she doesn't get many free actions on her models' cards by and large. She is a master that currently leads a crew "honestly" with walking to an area and taking rulebook interaction actions to accomplish interact schemes while charging/shooting at you to accomplish the killy schemes. This isn't to say Youko can't be played, but she probably isn't the best all comer master--more likely a secondary master to pull into S&S sets where her weaknesses aren't easily exploited for a loss.
I'll continue to play Youko, at least for now, as my primary master because I want to play in a casual only environment. So, I'll probably maintain a lower win rate if my local meta runs more "meta" masters with optimized lists, but I want to keep model acquisition costs relatively low and starting with a master that has few in keyword choices does that. I could also be VERY wrong about Youko as far as competitive viability--maybe she'll fit very well into it because of how tournament games go in M3E, e.g. time limitations still generally result in 3-4 turn games, so schemes get revealed early and/or playing to the clock is a reality of tournament play.
To be written.
Strategy and Scheme Decision Making:
To be written.