Radical Redefinition with Grandmaster Zendo

Ray Evanoff



Duelyst is a competitive online video game that combines the deckbuilding and mechanics of card games such as Magic the Gathering and Hearthstone with grid-based tactical movement as found in tabletop roleplaying and turn-based strategy games like X-Com. Players navigate a board with their general while fielding minions, spells, and items with the ultimate goal of reducing their opponent’s life total to zero. The result is something like a version of chess wherein pieces are played onto the board individually rather than beginning in active position, and competitors field customized piece sets with complex synergies constructed from a deep and periodically-expanded pool.

Duelyst’s grid-based combat prioritizes tactical positioning. A unit’s impact often lies as much in how and where it is deployed as its inherent strength: weak minions can be used to block movement and otherwise stall an advancing enemy, strategic positioning is necessary to thwart efficient retaliation, and sometimes inaction for the sake of preserving  a strong formation and board presence is the optimal play. The number of variables involved in a Duelyst match – what cards to play when, what cards to trade back into your deck in the hopes of drawing something more immediately useful, different ways to utilize cards’ inherent abilities and synergistic effects, how to position, where to attack, where to expend resources, what to sacrifice, etc etc – makes for an especially dense degree of decision-making within each turn’s maximum of ninety seconds. Like chess, Go, and other comparable games, Duelyst matches may open in relatively predictable ways but the cumulative effect of circumstances and decisions quickly leads matches into new territory. [1]

With strategic positioning being paramount and a turn’s success reliant on so many factors, plays that disrupt the opposition’s game plan or limit their options are especially effective: removing freedom of choice can be a powerful weapon. One of the most unique and impactful ways of doing so in Duelyst is Grandmaster Zendo.

Grandmaster Zendo


Grandmaster Zendo is a card playable by the Sonhai faction, which specializes in misdirection and unpredictability. Zendo is unique in that it removes your opponent’s control over their general: as long as Zendo is in play, the opponent’s main character (the Duelyst equivalent of a chess king) automatically moves towards and attacks the nearest enemy. The opponent is thus entirely unable to safely position their general and minimize the damage they take. This leads to situations such as the one shown below where the enemy general (in the lower right hand corner) automatically attacks an adjacent enemy and kills itself in the process, losing the game, all because Grandmaster Zendo is currently on board (positioned at the upper left).

GM Zendo OTK.gif

Playing Grandmaster Zendo thus denies your opponent some crucial capabilities. It opens up new avenues for victory. It quickly and decisively changes the tenor of a game. It is a single act that reshapes the spectrum of what is possible.


I often experience artistic problems – and life problems – as a field of undesirable options: the possibilities available at a given juncture all appear to lead to uninteresting, problematic, or tired ends. This causes me to fight towards forging new paths, however awkward this process may be and often regardless of the ends it reaps. Endeavoring towards discovery of new means is a strong compulsion that rules out valuable possibilities for the sake of its own experience. Payoff is much less important than redefinition itself, which affords its own character. It is not about planting a flag in uncharted territory, finding something undiscovered and claiming it, but undertaking a journey for the purpose of learning new things. My most urgent questions are: what else can I be, what else can I feel, and how else can I know? Journeys are defined by movement, so change is integral.

Grandmaster Zendo is a compelling metaphor for its ability to entirely redefine the parameters of an otherwise unaltered situation. Safe positioning and strong advantages may suddenly be wholly inadequate when your general is acting outside your control with rabid aggression. The possibilities inherent to a given set of circumstances become inverted; it can be hard to recover, and there is no going back. The narrative of a Duelyst match often accumulates incrementally; with Grandmaster Zendo, it rather is seismically shifted. What is possible is suddenly rewritten. Such a clear discrepancy between the scale of an action and its effect has its own kind of poignancy. The art form becomes preparing for the arrival of an opportunity to effect such drastic change. The art form also lies in recognizing circumstances sufficient for doing so, rather than perfect for it. The ideal moment rarely materializes; the imperative to compromise is omnipresent. Knowing what to compromise when and by how much, what cannot be compromised to maintain fidelity towards an often-hazy pursuit, and what adaptations are not compromises at all, is a virtuosity gained through experience that is difficult to articulate. It is unsteady knowledge, always subject to be rewritten.

There are many times in my life or in my art where I long for a Grandmaster Zendo to play for easy access to a paradigm shift. Am I better for the lack of convenience?

[1] As one reviewer put it, “Duelyst feels like an infinite puzzle game that constantly generates interesting situations, powered by the variety of cards and faction match-ups combined with the unpredictability of human opponents. Past the first couple of turns, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see the same board state twice between games.”