So, when you start out with Puzzle Strike, one the first questions you face is who to play. This post is provides basic overviews of the flavor, playstyle, trickiness and perceived tierings for the entire cast. This post is also a port of material originally posted elsewhere, and for which StickyPaws and Medioxhcore deserve my thanks)
Story: Grave is an honorable warrior who in the course of his adventures learns that his own honor is holding him back from his true potential. And if that doesn't put you to sleep, you may want to get help
Focus: Grave generally has three game plans to choose from: buying and upgrading his gems for big money to get a fast Double Crash or Master Puzzler; using puzzle chip forks to build a full deck cycling engine, or buying mainly Combines for an old-style mono-purple rush where his +$2 and upgrading chip offset the economic downside.
Difficulty: Low to Moderate
Tier: Grave is generally believed to be mid-tier, and probably in the upper half of mid-tier
Who should play Grave: If you want a high-money character who is easy to play or if Ryu is your main Street Fighter Character, you should play Grave.
Story: Jaina is Street Fighter's Ken reskinned as Grave's sister, a reckless archer with fire-themed powers.
Focus: Jaina has the fastest rushdown in the game. Jaina's main plan is to increase tempo by adding gems into her own and her opponent's pile while buying and playing as many Combines as she can, in hopes to win with a single uncounterable Unstable Power crash including a 4gem before the opponent has built a deck which can send enough gems back to recover.
Difficulty: Moderate to High. Jaina has a lot of ability to shoot herself in the foot and Jaina players need to keep careful eyes on pile heights, their next draw, whether their opponent may have a Crash in hand and when to buy wounds to power Burning Vigor. However, a Jaina player who can handle all those factors will win a lot of online quickmatches. The truly difficult part of Jaina play is getting her to win the matchups where she has to use an alternate plan.
Tier: Jaina is widely believed to be top-tier, the rushdown corner of the "big three" characters in the game.
Who Should Play Jaina: If you want to try to climb the online leaderboards quickly or if you only have a few weeks to get good with a character for an upcoming tournament, Jaina is your gal.
Story: Midori is Grave and Jaina's mentor. He's honorable, turns into a dragon and dies in a deathmatch. But dying in the story mode doesn't keep him out of the game's cast.
Focus: Midori is a rushdown character who can transition into decent economy if his rushdown doesn't work.
Difficulty: Moderate. Midori's most powerful chip is the very double edged Dragon Form and newer players are often overcautious in deploying it and undercautious in ending it. Once you figure out how to time Dragon Form, Midori's earlygame often plays very mechanically and he only gets tricky when things go into the midgame and later.
Tier: Midori is widely believed to be mid-tier. I personally suspect he may be notably better than that, but that might just be because I've done well with him in prior tournaments.
Who Should Play Midori: If you want a rushdown character but think Jaina is over-focused and want a better lategame economy, Midori is good for you. Alternately if you like playing characters who die in the lore (such as Johnny Cage, Yoda and Charlie) then Midori's flavor is what you want.
Story: Setsuki is a ninja student and as a Sakura reskin her backstory is that's she's a Grave fangirl. Personally I find this pretty horribly sexist, but that could just be me.
Focus: Setsuki is all about using her Double-take chip in the first three turns to gain a large advantage and usually building a powerful engine of a deck.
Difficulty: High. Setsuki's basic openings are not hard, but there are so many variations, not merely in choosing the optimal puzzle chip to target with Double-take in any given bank but also in successfully using her extra draw and piggy bank effects to line draws up for maximum impact, and also in choosing what to transition into after the early Double-take that optimal choices are nearly impossible. On top of that, a Setsuki player must make sure not to over-engineer against opponents, whose best shot is generally to rush Setsuki down.
Tier: Setsuki is widely believed to be top-tier, the economy corner of of the "big three". I personally suspect that an optimally played Setsuki would be god-tier and it is only the difficulty of playing her optimally that has prevented the playerbase from outcry and asking for nerfs.
Who Should Play Setsuki: Apparently, people in competition for national Bridge rankings, as such people have won multiple prior online tournaments with her as their primary character. If you're that sort of math-obsessed card counter, Setsuki is the character for you to break this game with.
Story: Rook is an immortal stone golem. He busted DeGrey out of Daggerfall Prison and the pair then decided that the best way to oppose the toxic politics of Flagstone was to hold the Fantasy Strike magical kung-fu tournament where competitors of different backgrounds could find common ground through the spirit of competition. This is pretty high minded stuff, kept from getting too serious due to the hilarious mental image of the Henry David Thoreau reskin character being freed from prison Kool-Aid Man style. Civil Disobedience - OH YEAHHHHH!!!!
Focus: Rook threatens a rushdown win by bulding a 4-gem in his pile very fast; but Rook's abilities to benefit from increased early height bonus and to improve the gems in his deck give him a more than solid economy, letting him decide whether actually rushing down or just using pressure to force the opponent on the defensive is a better option.
Difficulty: Easy. Rook is relatively straightforward and suitable for a total beginner.
Tier: I personally place Rook in the top-tier, but he is not regarded as one of the big three.
Who Should Play Rook: Beginners who want to be able to win with an easier character. Rook probably offers the best combination of simplicity and power of the entire cast.
Story: DeGrey is a mashup of Ben Franklin and Henry David Thoreau - he espouses ideals of personal liberty against a corrupt state while wearing a powdered wig. He also traded his soul for enough lifespan to complete some not yet revealed task and is therefore haunted by a protective yet mocking spirit.
Focus: DeGrey has the ability to thin his deck and a powerful red attack which cripples most opponents' ability to pursue economy strategies. Thus DeGrey is usually playing for the long game and trying to build a deck which draws and plays the exact same chips every turn.
Difficulty: Moderate to High. Balancing DeGrey's trashing ability against his current buy needs is a tightrope act and he has some specific vulnerabilities which are fairly well known and can be hard to cover.
Tier: DeGrey is generally believed to be low-tier (which is not trash tier), but he has not been terribly popular in tournament play, so this assessment may be wrong.
Who Should Play DeGrey: Contrarians. Whether the flavor of justified anti-authoritarianism appeals to you, or you want to shake up the conventional wisdom by playing a likely under-rated, and certainly under-played character, DeGrey is the guy for you.
Story: Valerie is a collection of 'bi" puns. She's a bipolar, bichromatic, bisexual who flys biplanes and grills bivalves while listening to Jello Biafra, etc. Due to the political allegory within Fantasy Strike, she's also the cute poster girl for repressed minorities and as she's an artist fighting against a repressive state censorship, a good case could be made that she's an analogue for Robert Mapplethorpe.
Focus: Valerie is very flexible - she can pursue any one of the three main strategies of this game.
Difficulty: Low to Moderate. Valerie is very easy to play, and her innate pile control gives her additional survivability for new players. However choosing which strategy to pursue in a given match as Valerie is not always simple, and sticking to a given strategy well enough to win with it can be difficult. Valerie often ends up in drawn-out games hoping that her opponent gets an unlucky draw before she does.
Tier: Valerie is low-tier (which is not trash tier), however, she is fantastically popular and fairly well understood. There are a number of players who play her very well, and she performs decently in quickmatch - it's only in the later rounds of tournaments where expert players have repeatedly exploited her lack of focus to give her the single worst tournament win / loss ratio of the entire cast.
Who Should Play Valerie: Valerie is a great character for new players to learn the basics with. Or if you like the flavor of puns, artistic freedom, creativity, standing against sexual repression by the state or just big-tittied blondes, then you should play Val.
Story: Max Geiger is a subtle rip on the Watchman's Dr. Manhattan. The precise, logical mind trained in clockworks has made a breakthrough that allows manipulation of time and possibly contact with the ancient, advanced but vanished [-]Protoss[/-], [-]Vorlon[/-] Vortoss civilization.
Focus: Geiger is a generalist. He has deck cycling and stacking tricks which aren't quite as good as Setsuki's, but he's more resistant to rushdown and more capable of rushing down than she is.
Difficulty: Low to Moderate. Geiger is pretty forgiving for new players and his character chips give he some safety margin against rushdown and many red-heavy strategies.
Tier: Geiger is generally regarded as low tier (which is not trash tier). and there is some consensus that his Research and Development should probably have been buffed to compensate for the 3rd edition changes to Combine. The best current online Geiger player extols his consistency and his use as a character to play when teaching the game to new players.
Who Should Play Geiger: If you like making time-related puns, if you're teaching or learning the game, Geiger is a great choice. Otherwise, I would steer most players towards the more-powerful but more difficult Setsuki or Onimaru or to playing with houseruled tweaks to R&D.
Story: Lum is a panda. A gambling panda. Who wears a fez.
Focus: Lum play is about using his extra draw from Panda's Bargain to gain the upper paw. This means he wants to buy a lot of puzzle chips that work together usefully, which in turn means that he usually wants to build either a rapidly cycling engine deck or to chain together many red attack chips.
Difficulty: Moderate. Being able to buy puzzle chips that work together in the right ratios and compensate for Lum's low number of purple orbs is not simple, and tracking the opponent's gems to judge if Jackpot is safe to play can be difficult.
Tier: Lum is generally regarded as mid-tier. He is not a very popular choice amongst top players for tournament play, so that rating may not be accurate.
Who Should Play Lum: [ Anyone who likes Pandas, or gambling, or especially both.
Story: Arg is a fighting pacifist water shaman from the swamp. The merfolk are another repressed and misunderstood minority in the Fantasy Strike universe.
Focus: Arg is about wounding the opponent and slowing the game down until the opponent is rendered ineffective over due to their deck being clogged with wounds.
Difficulty: Moderate. Arg play is not decision heavy,, his hardest choices are making appropriate opening buys to deal with the opponent+bank, deciding when to play Crash vs Hex, and not gumming up his own combining with Protective Ward.
Tier: Arg is low-tier, and while not trash tier, he probably should be tweaked if the game ever sees another edition. Unlike Geiger, there is zero consensus what those tweaks should be, and as prior playtesting has shown, Arg is very easy to accidentally buff into an overpowered monstrosity with even minor changes.
Who Should play Arg: If you enjoy frustrating your opponents, or if you like proving points with unpopular characters who are considered weak, or if you like the flavor of fighting pacifists then Arg is your amphibian.
Story: Quince is the main villain of the first couple Fantasy Strike games (which don't exist yet). Like the Street Fighter Character who inspired him, Quince is a ruthless dictator, however Quince is a charming local politician using lies and propaganda to achieve his ends instead of a foreign druglord using violence and intimidation. Most fascinating to me is that a careful reading of the lore shows that the supposedly horrible ends Quince is striving towards via deceptive means are the closest to modern political and philosophical ideals out of any in the cast. While Midori and Menelker are deathmatching over a dynastic struggle for the heir to their power, Quince is using horrible lies and slander to win votes and spread democracy.
Focus: As suits an underhanded politician, Quince is about oppressing and tricking his opponent. His usual game plan is to restrict the opponent's buys via Flagstone Tax and then use the action advantage Patriot Mirror gives him and the discard searching of Two Truths to extend his advantage in the long game.
Difficulty: Moderate. Quince's chips are pretty simple to play, however his purple-orb buy restriction and pile height tracking chips mean that optimal Quince play involves carefully managing pile height with a minimum of purple orbs, and that's not easy in most banks.
Tier: Mid tier. Quince is generally regarded to be mid-tier, and is presumed weak against characters who can increase their own ante.
Who Should Play Quince: If you like tricking your opponent into "heads I win, tails you lose" choices, then you can have loads of fun with Two Truths. Alternately, if you like the flavor of playing the bad guy characters, or enjoy the ironies of real history where horrible people provided some of the fundamental building blocks of modern society while supposed heroes like Queen Elizabeth scoffed at the notion of indoor plumbing, then you should consider Quince.
Story: Onimaru is a general, charged by Quince with the enforcement of the rule of law of Flagstone. He commands an army of automatons and fights with both overwhelming strength and a brilliant tactical mind.
Focus: While Oni is primarily considered a defensive character because of the pile control Double Slash gives him, Wartime Tactics provides incredible flexibility and he can take on a strong rushdown or economy game in many banks. He really enjoys a bank full of cheap puzzle chips, which he can play in the early game without having to buy them, and chips with arrows on them, as he can use them to chain into the puzzle chips he's already bought.
Difficulty: High. Knowing what your opponent's plans are is crucial to being able to counter their plan with your early buys, and making good use of the pig on Riposte can be critically important throughout the game. The multitude of options given to you by Wartime Tactics leaves a lot of room for error.
Tier: Onimaru is considered top-tier, the "defense" corner of the "big 3". Unless the bank is very unfriendly, Onimaru generally has strong play against the entire cast, and is the best character against rushdown.
Who Should Play Onimaru: Players who love to improvise can have lots of fun with Onimaru. Moreso than most characters, Onimaru has to develop his plans based entirely off the matchup and the bank. He really doesn't have a go-to plan, because combines, crashes, and money are usually suboptimal buys for him, so what puzzle chips are available to you is extremely important to how you will play the game.
Story: Troq is a benevolent beast who hails from the Golden Plains who started out as one of Flagstone's footsoldiers but was recruited into Zane's Blood Guard with potions of Giant Growth. Don't let his friendliness fool you, however, as he is very powerful and capable of holding his own in battle. Troq has the ability to grow in size, quickly dwarfing his opponent and summoning huge amounts of strength.
Focus: Troq can be considered both an economy and a rushdown character. His giant growth not only removes low-value 1-gems from his deck, leaving him with lots of 2-gems to buy big-money chips quickly, but also allows him build pile bonus early, and plop 4-gems from his hand directly into his pile to pressure his opponents faster than they might be able to combine gems in the usual fashion. Troq's More Shiny does a great job of improving the 1-gems he doesn't thin away via Giant Growth into 2-gems, and Beast Unleashed presses his height bonus advantage even further, at least when he can wash the brown arrow!
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate. Once you learn a few rules for playing Troq, he can seem relatively straightforward. Use More Shiny to trash gems from your hand, not your pile until you're at imminent risk of losing; and use Giant Growth as much as possible early. In the midgame, make sure you find a way to wash the brown arrow on Beast Unleashed, and make sure that you take the opportunity to buy purple orbs when you can, (usually a Combine before you play giant growth or a Double Crash gem when you reach $9). The hardest thing about playing Troq is defending against rushdown, as you will need to invest in more pile control early and be more discerning about using Giant Growth, sometimes abandoning it much earlier than you normally would to buy combines. Dealing with wounds is also very difficult, and it can be hard to decide whether your opponent is wounding you fast enough to warrant abandoning your normal economy plan in favor of something more rushdown-oriented.
Tier: I personally beleive Troq to be narrowly in the top tier of Puzzle Strike characters, although he is not one of the big three. Other knowledgeable players consider him to be only one of the better mid-tier characters.
Who Should Play Troq: Troq is a fine choice for players once they have learned the basics of the game, as he generally can attempt to execute the same game plan time after time to great success. However, it's easy to fall into the trap of never abandoning your main plan because of how good it can be, and playing him perfectly in those situations can be very difficult.
Story: BBB is a clockwork soldier, built by Geiger for use in Flagstone's army. However, BBB is sentient, and thus does his own thing rather than follow Oni's orders like his brethren. He is an extremely dynamic fighter, as he has the ability to constantly upgrade his parts and counterattack his opponents with a long-range Rocket Punch.
Focus: BBB is considered an econ character, as his ongoing Cog Engine gives him a constant source of money, and his Upgrade lets him slowly turn his deck into a powerful assortment of puzzle chips while his opponent is still stuck with a pile of 1-gems. Some tricks BBB loves to pull include turning his 1-gems into trashable or semi-trashable chips to improve his deck quality, (like Secret Move, It's a Trap, Thinking Ahead, or a 2-cost chip and then those into Button Mashing) and upgrading his crash gem early into a powerful 6-cost puzzle chip, like X-Copy, Combos are Hard, Punch Punch Kick, or Roundhouse, or even a 3-gem to supercharge his economy to get a Double Crash Gem.
Difficulty: Hard. BBB is faced with a multitude of options every time he plays Upgrade, and knowing what chips are good to upgrade to and from is usually difficult. Furthermore, you have to balance things like pile control and forking, as BBB frequently trashes his Crash gem early, has a purple-orb-buy restriction on Cog Engine, and frequently is overloaded on enders due to Upgrades and his character chips. His ongoing pig also forces you to consider what you're likely to draw next turn before you start taking actions or upgrading your entire hand. BBB is probably one of the three most difficult-to-play characters, along with Onimaru and Setsuki.
Tier: BBB is most likely top tier, although not one of the Big Three. Though he lacks in overwhelmingly favorable matchups, BBB has game against every character. A well-played BBB is hard for anyone to beat consistently, though playing him well is no trivial matter.
Who Should Play BBB: The same types of players who like Onimaru should enjoy BBB, as he is largely focused on building a deck full of puzzle chips, and is always playing the bank. He is probably less of a good choice for beginners, however, as it's easy to build a deck full of chips you don't have the arrows to play, and knowing how to build an engine quickly is critical to playing him well. If you enjoy building engines with Grave or Setsuki, but also like the dynamic bank-dependent play of Onimaru or Lum, BBB is a great place to go next.
Story: Perse is a demigoddess and a dominatrix and did a bunch of seemingly random and contradictory stuff in other characters' backstories presumably for some very long term end to be revealed in future lore. Perse is a very dark character, and her mind-control abilities blur the line between BDSM and outright rape in a way that makes some people uncomfortable; yet it's intentionally ambiguous which side she's really on.
Focus: Perse has a few different game plans. Usually, she wants to go red attack heavy and wound her opponent into irrelevance and win the long game. When that doesn't work, she has the best "snatch victory from the jaws of defeat" potential of the entire cast via Mistress's Command. Finally, she can sometimes use her super-pigs to clump her gems together and buy expensive chips early -- mainly a turn 2 Combos are Hard, but if she goes nearly mono-money in her buys, she can sometimes she can pull out a Double Crash or Master Puzzler faster than most opponents expect.
Difficulty: High. Perse play involves a lot of hand tracking of both players, a lot of avoiding accidental dead draws of her purple orbs and it is fiendishly difficult to figure the optimal play when your Mistress's Command connects -- many top players have missed potential wins by misplaying a MC after landing it..
Tier: Perse is generally regarded to be in the upper-half of the Middle tier.
Who Should Play Perse: Morrigan or Rose fans, mind-control fetishists and people who want to infuriate their opponents.
Story: As an Akuma reskin, Menelker is the antihero of Fantasy Strike lore. He's also Grave's true mentor - while Midori teaches Grave about honor and compassion, Menelker teaches Grave about how the real world only cares about winners and sometimes ya just gotta deathmatch a fool for standing in your way.
Focus: Menelker is about using the timing or the threat of Deathstrike Dragon in conjunction with his other chips to ruin his opponent's plan and play a style of game the opponent is not comfortable with.
Difficulty: High enough that I consider him perhaps my own most glaring weak spot. Smart use of Into Oblivion requires at least basic knowledge of every other character's most likely game plans, and correct timing of Deathstrike Dragon is non-trivial.
Tier: Menelker is generally considered mid-tier, but has a very important place in the metagame as a strong counter to Jaina and other hard rushdown characters.
Who Should Play Menelker: People who are tired of losing to Jaina in Quickmatch and people looking to seriously improve at the overall metagame by putting in some serious practice.
Story: Hopeful healer fails at triage, heals bad guy instead of sister, sister is now turning into undead monster, and only Gloria's healing touch holds the undead transformation at bay. .
Focus: Gloria is usually about playing the high-end economy game better than her opponent and being able to fend off characters who rely on disruption, although she can occasionally put together a surprising rushdown via buying a Combine on each of her first three turns and then using her piggy banks to time her Crash.
Difficulty: Very easy to play, very hard to play at truly competitive level, as her abilities to aid all players require very careful deck-tracking and purposeful use of pigs and cycling to avoid giving her opponents the tools with which to beat her.
Tier: I personally consider Gloria to be at the very bottom of the mid-tier. Other knowledgeable players consider her low-tier, with at least one notable vote for "weakest character in this game"
Who Should Play Gloria: Gloria's game-slowing pace, paired reactions, extra $, extra draws, pigs, fork, washer, height bonus manipulation and minor deck-thinning abilities make her a great learning character. She has nearly all icon types on just her character chips, making her a great first-game example character , and her strategy touches on just about all tactical aspects of Puzzle Strike play. Her help-everybody abilities also make her a blast to play in multiplayer FFA, where multiple opponents working at cross purposes mitigates much of the risk of her helping opponents in the first place.
Story: Gwen is turning into an undead monster due to infection with the Shadow Plague. She's still human for now, but will turn into a brain-eating zombie any second. Thematically, she's desperate to win because she doesn't have much time left.
Focus: Gwen is about cycling fast and building a big money, big engine deck that and/or about making excellent use of red attack chips from the bank.
Difficulty: Moderate. Gwen's chips are all straightforward to play. But in the early rounds, Gwen has to be very careful about managing her draws and washing her arrows and cycles to play around the intentional drawback of having the worst character chip in the game.
Tier: Gwen is usually considered low tier, but there are a couple notable high-leaderboard players who main her, so that assessment could be wrong.
Who Should Play Gwen: Gwen is a great character for learning some key parts of the game's strategy. The bits about playing chips in the wrong order, saving the wrong thing with a piggy bank, and learning when you're better off not using a character chip to draw are all really important parts of play for a large number of the cast, and Gwen's chips will make misplays in such areas immediately obvious. Alternately, folks who are fans of the undead might want to play her for flavor reasons.
Story: Vendetta is an undead assassin and spy for the Dreadlands, currently undercover as an undead assassin working for the anarchist terrorists in the Blood Guard.
Focus: Vendetta is Puzzle Strike's only disruptive rush character. He wins by building a 4-gem in his pile and then Surgical Striking away his opponent's chance to crash for a cycle. He's also pretty much the only Puzzle Strike character without a viable plan B.
Difficulty: Moderate. His single plan gives a narrow focus, but that plan is not trivial to execute.
Tier: Vendetta is low tier, but is important in the metagame due to having matchups which are pretty lopsided in alternating ways against many of the top-tier characters. Thus he's an important tournament counterpick character.
Who Should Play Vendetta: People absolutely certain that their opponent will not be playing Onimaru, and people who like big glowing green claws.
Story: Zane heads a loose organization of rebels, malcontents, anarchists, and cyborg monkeys. He believes that the only way to free humanity from tyranny and oppression is through destruction. He waxes philosophically about how what he's doing is exactly the same as what Quince is doing, and about the philosophies of the "good guy" characters justify his actions - and it's honestly terrifying that in his trolling he's probably right about those particular points.
Focus: Zane is about anarchy, confusion and trolling. He has a wide variety of schizophrenic game plans, any of which can be viable. With a little bank help he is capable of a $7 buy on turn 2 or with an ideal run of luck he's also capable of winning the game faster than any other character with a 3-turn Risk-to-Riskonade rush. He also has a potato, which he intends to give to you.
Difficulty: High. Zane's functional flexibility is really powerful and great for catching opponents off guard, but he requires a very high degree of bank and opening draw based match assessment to choose a winning game plan from among his options.
Tier: Zane is usually regarded as mid-tier and he has favorable matchups against some of the top-tier characters.
Who Should Play Zane: Since Zane likes to troll, These guys are probably the best example of the type to play Zane.