By Rabid Schnauzer This is the weekly installment in a regular column looking at how to play with or against the week's free Puzzle Strike characters. Because the free characters tend to be played more than the other characters, understanding how they affect play is an important part of mastering online Puzzle Strike Play. This week we look at Grave and Rook, and we focus on the expansion character Gwen. Grave The man with his picture on the side of the arcade game, Grave is a very strong econ character. Worst Matchups Grave's toughest matchups are against characters who can either beat him in the very long game or against characters who can rush him down despite the resiliency Reversal gives him. His overall two worst matchups are likely against Setsuki and Troq. Setsuki can generally beat even Grave's phenomenal economy if there are economy ramp-up or wounding chips for her to Double-take. And Grave needs some bank help to make the long game even. Troq can rush to crashing 4-gems on successive turns while slimdecking to have a better late game than Grave, and many of Grave's favorite chips are equally good for Troq. Best Matchups Grave's easiest matchups are against characters who can neither rush him down nor match his economy. He has notably good matchups against Valerie and Zane. Valerie lags slightly behind his economy and prolongs the game every time her Chromatic Orb hits Grave's Reversal. Zane has the problem that his Maximum Anarchy is far more likely to benefit Grave than himself, making one of his key character chips a liability. Noobinators Against a naive Grave player, Midori's Dragon Form rush renders Reversal's counter-crash useless and tends to end the game well before Grave's econ and engine-building potential can matter. At higher skill levels this match is bank-dependent but roughly even on average. Worst Bank for Grave and Counter-Picking against Grave: Grave generally does not want to see a bank without fork chips, since that doesn't allow him to use the extra draws on his character chips for anything but bigger buys. Enders which give draws (Draw Three, Now or Later, Gems to Gemonade) and enders which offer ways to upgrade chips (Risky Move, Training Day, Chips for Free) give opponents the ability to emulate his strengths. Grave also tends to be disadvantaged if the entire bank is low cost, since that doesn't let him bring his economic advantages into play as much. Against Grave, most characters will want to pull out either a fork or an expensive chip and pull in either a low cost economy ramp chip or a chip which helps their rushdown. Best Bank for Grave and Counter-picking for Grave Grave benefits immensely from being able to get an early fork. Gem Essence and Button Mashing can be huge for him as they offer both extra actions and deck-thinning. However his great economy means that he can often get One-Two Punch, Punch-Punch Kick or even Custom Combo in the first few turns. Grave also does really well with Improvisation, since two of his character chips can offer + if improved into and two of his character chips can offer + if Improvisation-ed into and one of his character chips can remove gems from his deck to reduce the odds of a useless Improv. That Grave has one of the best economies in the game means that he also usually benefits more from higher-end chips than most opponents, so It's Combo Time, Master Puzzler and The Hammer are usually better for Grave than for his opponent. Grave will usually want to counter-pick out an upgrade or rushdown chip and counter-pick in either Button Mashing, another fork or a high-cost chip. Rook: The current version of Rook is still somewhat under-explored at high skill level matches. This means that if you spend the time to truly master Rook, top players are likely to be under-prepared to play against him. Worst Matchups Rook's worst matchups are against characters who either have strong disruption or who can interfere with the timing of his Crash gems. Thus his worst two matchups are likely against Persephone and Vendetta. While not quite as rough for Rook, Valerie deserves an honorable mention here, since she has pile control to handle Rook's added ante and she also has great synergy with many of the chips that pose problems for Rook. Best Matchups Rook's best matchups tend to be against late-game characters who don't have the pile control to cope with his rapid and repeated s His best two matchups overall are probably against Quince and Gloria. Rook's added ante from Strength of Earth renders Quince's Flagstone Tax full of loopholes and lets Rook build to sending s which Gloria's Healing Touch reaction can't handle. Noobinators Against a naive Rook, things aren't all that much different than against a skilled Rook, but for alternate counterpicks: Argagarg's defensive disruption and Zane's ability to force cycling and Potato Crash gems are each viable against Rook. Worst Bank for Rook and Counter-picking Against Rook Rook is unhappy in a bank with neither forks nor to washers, since he has no innate fork and only one arrow on his character chips. In such a bank, his only real options are to mono-purple with Combines or to mono- to a Double Crash and then mono-purple with Combines. Several chips can give Rook problems. He has real difficulty against wounding chips (Really Annoying, Just a Scratch, Ouch!), since his only deck-improvement ability is limited to s and he can't cycle fast in the early turns, meaning that wounds will stack up rapidly. Chips that can deny Rook the opportunity to crash are also a problem, so Stolen Purples and to a lesser extent Chip Damage cause him problems. Interestingly enough, Rook does well against Color Panic, since his pair of purple character chips protect his Crash. Knockdown is a mixed bag for Rook, it can deny him the ability to slow the game with Stone Wall, but he can use it's well himself. And of course, the one chip Rook has the most trouble against is Mix-Master, which turns Strength of Earth into a liability. Against Rook most characters will want to swap out a fork or cantrip and swap in Mix-Master, although wounding chips are also a thought. Best Bank for Rook and Counter-picking for Rook Rook benefits greatly from puzzle chip forks such as One-Two Punch, Button Mashing, Custom Combo and most of all Gem Essence, which has the added benefit that it removes small s from Rook's deck while Big Rocks upgrades his other gems giving him great money density. Rook's decent defense and good economy combine with his innate brown arrow to make cantrips very strong for him, One of Each, Roundhouse, Punch Punch Kick and even It's Combo Time tend to be both strong and affordable for Rook. In a bank with cantrips, Rook has reasonable odds of getting to one of the $12 cost gold chips against most characters. However, Rook's vulnerability to a variety of chips means that there are opponents and banks where he should consider swapping in a reaction to cover that vulnerability. Overall, Rook will most often want to counter-pick out a and counter-pick in either Gem Essence or a cantrip. Looking at the metagame for both and Free Character Head to Head A match between Grave and Rook is likely to be pretty close. Grave has somewhat faster economy but Rook has the ability to combine to a in his pile fast enough to threaten a credible rush while also keeping things close in the econ race. Furthermore, both characters benefit from many of the same bank chips, so counterpicking in this matchup is tricky. Overlap / Commonality My first choice character for favorable matchups against Grave and Rook would be Midori, whose Dragon Form rush ignores both Stone Wall and Reversal. While Troq and Vendetta are decent alternate considerations, the expansion character I'll look at in depth this week is going to be Gwen Greyson - who fares well against these two due to her innate fork; how well her synergies serve her against Rook and her ability to out-econ Grave via Shadowswarm restricting the targets for Martial Mastery. On the flipside, if you want to avoid characters with generally unfavorable matchups against both Grave and Rook, you might want to steer clear of Gloria this week, and DeGrey and Quince are somewhat questionable choices. As for chips, both of this week's free characters do well with forks, cantrips and high cost chips, so those should be high priorities to counterpick out when matching against someone switching between this week's free characters. Counter Counters For characters who generally have at least even games against Grave and Rook plus the suggested nemeses of Midori, Gwen, Troq and Vendetta, I would suggest either Master Menelker or Mistress Persephone, although both of them only have a few favorable matchups and many close ones against that set of characters. This Week's Relevant Expansion Character: Gwen Gwen has nothing left to lose except this match, in puzzle strike she has very fast deck cycling and can build a strong engine deck while also playing s very well. Worst Matchups Gwen's worst matchups are against characters who can force her into taking wounds from discarding Shadow Plague. This happens against characters who threaten fast rushdown, since Gwen needs to play s to counter the rush. Her worst two overall matchups are Zane and Vendetta , each of whom who cannot merely put together a strong rush, but who also have character chips that can force Gwen to discard Shadow Plague. Best Matchups Gwen's best matchups are against other econ characters who can neither threaten rushdown nor try to match her in the exchange. Thus her two best matchups are likely against Grave and BBB. Noobinators Against a naive Gwen, Gloria and Onimaru both have a strong reaction that can negate or even reverse the early economic advantage Gwen gains from Shadowswarm. At higher skill levels these matches are closer, but probably still unfavorable to Gwen. Worst Bank for Gwen and Counter-Picking against Gwen: Gwen really wants a bank which offers her ways to cope with Shadow Plague. She's looking for s and/or s and/or wound-removal options. If the bank has none of those, she's unhappy. Gwen also plays most chips very well and wants the bank to have some red-banner chips. A bank without reds limits her options. The reactions on Really Annoying, Money for Nothing and Self-Improvement pose problems for Shadowswarm and generally make adopting a heavy strategy a poor choice for Gwen. Gem Essence and One True Style are forks that offer colored arrows which are almost always more useful to Gwen's opponent than to Gwen. Finally, since rushdown can force Gwen to play early s instead of Shadow Plague, chips that increase the tempo of the game, such as Ebb or Flow (used to ante a ), Risky Move, Risk to Riskonade, Knockdown and Combinatorics can pose problems for Gwen. Thus when counter-picking against Gwen, opponents should first determine if they can remove the only chip that let Gwen play around Shadow Plague. If there is more than one chip that Gwen can use to deal with Shadow Plague, they should instead consider removing a or a cantrip or Hundred-Fist Frenzy. Opponents should usually swap in a strong reaction or a rushdown chips against Gwen, although some opponents should consider Gem Essence or One True Style. Best Bank for Gwen and Counter-picking for Gwen Gwen is an extremely good engine-building character with a lot of synergy, but with the major drawback of Shadow Plague. She really wants cantrips for engine building, and then she wants forks and/or s to be able avoid discarding Shadow Plague. Gwen can do well with many s, but it's worth noting that Pick Your Poison is red cantrip with a and Color Panic is a red attack which can be a fork, so both of these s offer her ways to accommodate Shadow Plague while also helping her build a better engine. Hundred Fist Frenzy is extremely potent for Gwen, as she has an innate to trigger it, plus an innate to play additional s and an innate fork to get it into play and immediately use it, before giving the opponent a chance to remove it. Gwen's top priority when counter-picking is usually being able to cope with Shadow Plague, but she has many ways to do that. In general she will want to counter-pick out the best or tempo-increasing chip and counterpick in either a cantrip or a that gives her particular opponent problems: Mix-Master against Rook or Jaina, Stolen Purples against Midori, Ouch! against Troq, etc. Although it can often be highly worthwhile for her to pull in Hundred Fist Frenzy. Until Next Week: May the chips fall your way.