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Subject: Lets Talk About... Cultists (A Strategy Discussion Series) rss

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Steve Haas
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In this fifth installment of the series, we're discussing Cultists. Some questions to shape the discussion:

* Under what game circumstances are Cultists good/bad? When do you look to play them? When should you avoid them?
* What sorts of strategies/approaches do you find effective when playing Cultists? What problems have you had that you haven't figured out how to solve?
* What things should one be aware of when playing *against* Cultists? How does their presence/absence affect what other decisions you might make?
* What other questions do you have about Cultists? Is there anything you'd like to see more experienced players discuss about them?

Linking to (completed!) games where Cultists did notably well (or poorly) for purposes of discussion is encouraged, as is referring to any existing threads/posts/other strategy resources you may have found useful or interesting with regards to playing Cultists.

Previous Installments:
* Acolytes
* Alchemists
* Auren
* Chaos Magicians
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Tom Eccles
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Under what game circumstances are Cultists good/bad? When do you look to play them? When should you avoid them?
The cultists are one the most resilient factions in the game, perhaps only second to darklings in how well they can cope with setups and matchups. Having said that, these are all good:
- No other major cult factions in the game (chaos magicians, aurens).
- No yellow. No black might be nice too, but we'll never know because the darklings are in every game.
- Strong early cult bonuses (spades are great).
- Repeated early cult bonuses (R1&2). Repeated cult bonuses with one of them late (R4 or 5) are bad - they are likely to encourage factions to go up that track single-mindedly, and you can hit late cult bonuses strongly with no special effort.
- No BON6. Cultists aren't a big SH/SA faction.

But none of those are huge swings, and I think that if you're playing to win on tournament settings, the cultists should appear in most games (see also this thread, which argues that cultists should be picked over nomads and mermaids in setups that lead to MEND). And they are a very solid early pick - you are extremely likely to be in the top two seeds in whatever matchup you end up in.

If you see the engineers and witches in the game, you should pick cultists with glee. They are well set up to feast on the remains of the war.

Overall strategy
The cultists want to score very highly on the cults (shockingly), but are also able to compete economically using free cult steps. Expanding and connecting often isn't easy - frequently, your starting dwellings will be far apart. Usually I plan to connect, compete on network, and get at least two towns - a third sometimes happens, but is unlikely to be reliable - better to prioritise aligning with the round scoring and getting key BONs. More than any other faction you need neighbours - both in where you start, and where you are going. Try not to use too much of the map that noone else is going to be using, even though that may be the easy route for both connection and towns.

My usual placement is E6 and something in the East. Having E6 in the central scrum is great for early leech in both directions, and the East has lots of fertile ground. People talk about two dwellings in the East, but I tend to think that gives you rather limited options in terms of expansion, and will make it harder to offer lots of leech.

Getting leeched from
The cultists have a big mechanic. You want to build next to people. Also, you want them to accept your leech. Look for times when:
- The opponent really needs power. Some factions, like the engineers, generally need power more than others.
- The opponent isn't in strong competition with you on cults.
- The opponent isn't in strong competition with you for winningness.
- There are two opponents who can leech.
Unless there's an immediate power action you are racing opponents for, you should always be looking for ways to make their lives better through leeching.

Try hard not to rely on a leech for key cult step (e.g. the last for a spade). It's great to have a priest or FAV6 in hand for this - if you need a cult step, you can often get it off a leech if the opponent knows you have another way to do it.

If your opponents don't leech from you, don't despair, and don't stop prioritising adjacency. A pw for you rather than them when you build adjacent is no small thing.

How I think about leeching from the cultists
How much is a cult step worth? We pay 6pw for priests through ACT2, and a priest for 2 cult steps is a good-but-not-great deal. So a cult step is worth somewhere around 3pw - and if you decline it they get 1pw.

So if you are leeching 1 from the cultists, you are getting 1pw and giving them 2pw. In a 4 player game, that's a slightly positive trade, so you should default to accepting it. However, if the cultists are your only rival, or if this cult step is unusually good for them, it becomes a negative trade. Towards the start of the game, leeching larger amounts is worth more than 1pw, and so is probably a good deal.

If you are one of two players receiving a leech from the cultists, consider declining it if:
- You think the other player clearly *should* decline it.
- The other player has declined some other cultists leeches.
Don't reflexively accept these leeches, even though you'll feel silly when the second player leeches.

Other considerations when playing against the cultists
They are going to win most of the cult tracks. So invest less in them than normal, and favour going hard on one cult track to competing on two (cult bonuses allowing).
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Chris Harris
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I like your suggestions on when to leech from cultists, it’s not how most people play. And that could be an emotional reaction as much as anything.

I recently played a very interesting game in bga as engineers v cultists, nomads, mermaids (no black you’ll notice). Cultists never moved off the eastern island. They didn’t even form their second town before connecting via g6. And I played well and got pretty much all the breaks I could have hoped for, but still lost to cultists by a few vp.

The one thing I could have done differently was to decline more leech - I was generally the only recipient - and I did think about each one, but it always *felt* better value to me than to them. I suspect this feeling was often wrong!
 
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Tom Eccles
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I actually just spotted an error and edited - I'd forgotten the cultists 1pw on declining - but the basic point that the cultists gain significantly more than you when you leech from them still holds.

You can look at it another way, and try to estimate what a cult step is worth from what it gives you. For cult BONs, the average step is worth something around 1.5pw. 10 steps get you 8pw. It's hard to count VP for cult steps, but 1VP per cult step seems a decent average (note going from 0 to 10 on a cult is actually worth more than 8 VP, because it also takes VP from your opponents).

So the average cult step is worth 0.8pw directly, 1.5pw through BONs, and 1VP - not far off 3pw again. There's a *lot* of situational averaging in that, but it's certainly more than 2pw, which is the break-even point for leeching 1 from the cultists if they are your only rival.

I'd be interested to hear when people think two eastern dwellings is a good start for the cultists, and seeing games where it went well.
 
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Robert
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Depending on how the game plays out, building a round 6 SH can be a backup plan for the Cultists in case they end up with a lot of resources but no good other way to use it. 7VP for 12 resources is not overly attractive but better than nothing. With round 6 SA/SH scoring. 11VP for 12 resources can be a good deal.
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Space Trucker
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Lot's of good thoughts in Tom Eccles' post.

One minor point were i disagree a bit:
Tom Eccles wrote:
- No BON6. Cultists aren't a big SH/SA faction.

- BON6 enables cultists to do a pretty decent 2TE opening (especially if both TE neighbors are likely to leech and there are spades to be won)
- Workers can generally be pretty usefull for a faction that is rewarded for building a lot
- At least on the Classic Map Sanctuaries are pretty common for Cultists to form a city in the center, so often they can use it to some degree
- Most importantly, the other points are much more relevant - even if other factions could use BON6 even better, I would never pick or not pick Cultists based on the availability of BON6.


Last but not least, here's an example of one of the nicest top level Cultist games played so far: https://terra.snellman.net/game/4pLeague_S18_D1L1_G1
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Robert
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SpaceTrucker wrote:
Last but not least, here's an example of one of the nicest top level Cultist games played so far: https://terra.snellman.net/game/4pLeague_S18_D1L1_G1
Digging Cultists! Who still get 28VP from the cults! And four towns! 191 VP in tournament division 1! That's really impressive! thumbsup

And it's also a nice example how helpful it can be when two other players pick Engineers and Witches and then fight it out for third place.
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Hubert
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Tom Eccles wrote:
I actually just spotted an error and edited - I'd forgotten the cultists 1pw on declining - but the basic point that the cultists gain significantly more than you when you leech from them still holds.

You can look at it another way, and try to estimate what a cult step is worth from what it gives you. For cult BONs, the average step is worth something around 1.5pw. 10 steps get you 8pw. It's hard to count VP for cult steps, but 1VP per cult step seems a decent average (note going from 0 to 10 on a cult is actually worth more than 8 VP, because it also takes VP from your opponents).

So the average cult step is worth 0.8pw directly, 1.5pw through BONs, and 1VP - not far off 3pw again. There's a *lot* of situational averaging in that, but it's certainly more than 2pw, which is the break-even point for leeching 1 from the cultists if they are your only rival.

I'd be interested to hear when people think two eastern dwellings is a good start for the cultists, and seeing games where it went well.


This doesn't take into account the snowball effect of cult bonuses gained, which is why cultists are so strong with early doubled fire/earth bonuses.
 
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Guillaume Pilote
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With their ability to play on the cult track while maintaining a strong economic game thanks to cult incomes, Cultists are a fascinating faction - and I hate them. If I could remove one faction from TM, it would be them, expansion included.
I'm not good with them, but that's not the (main) point.
I hate playing against them because they often put their opponents in some prisoner's dilemma (do you really believe that if you decline leech others will do too later in the game?), or to put it more pointedly: either accepting leech and see cultists win, or decline and loose yourself.
And, as harq pointed out in another thread, it means your success playing cultists depends less on your skill and more on opponents' choices (and psychological profile). The situation get worst when cultists and another faction are each other's only neighbours. I recently played a game with the following matchup: Cultists-Swarmlings-Auren-Chaos. Not a too bad matchup in terms of balance? wrong. The problem was not directly the bule/green rivalry, but that Auren and Cutlists are each others' only neighbours; Auren dealt with that by declining every leech from me (cultists), and though it was very frustrating, I can hardly blame him, for his play was on the cult track. No need to say we both did badly.
On a side note, we all have experienced the frustrating feeling of playing against a (usually lower ranked) player who will terraform an hex that ruins your game even if it does not make sense for him, pursuing some kind of feeling of empowerment through his agressive action. Cultists trigger a different kind of psychological biais: the one who likes to sacrifice himself for the 'common good' (which is the two other players really in this case), and who will systematically decline leech. Funny thing is, though these are two very different types of men, the effect is exactly the same .
 
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Robert
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Yeah, there are few things as frustrating as picking Cultists and your first leech offer is declined right away. You can immediately suspect that you're playing against a hardcore "I'll never leech from Cultists because coming in 4th is ok if I can drag Cultists down with me" player. Btw. are these the same players who pick Witches to Engineers "I'm doomed anyway so why not push it onto the Engineer player that he/she made a risky pick"? :-P
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Steve Haas
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I think an aspect of this conversation worth thinking about it: how bad is it if people decline your leech as Cultists, really? Obviously you'd rather have the cult-up, but if you hit a game where literally every leech gets declined, does that actually doom you to last?

I'd argue not. If you make 2-3 builds every turn with leech declined, that's an extra 2-3 power gained every turn. And as in the opening a power is more valuable than a VP (and I'd argue that a power is still worth at least half a VP until R6), its not that hard to make the case that the power from declined leeches alone is worth 10vp. And when you factor in the fact that everyone else is weakened by getting less leech - that you can aggressively play next to everyone to get leech from them without them getting leech in return... I don't think its unreasonable to posit this is a benefit on the same order of magnitude as getting 5vp every time you finish a town. And its not like Witches - even played without their SH - are a crippled faction.

Granted, its not as good as getting the leech. Your result may indeed be worse. And you do need to adapt your strategy around the notion that you're only getting surplus power. But I think you can still make a game of it, overall.

Honestly, for me, the hard part about playing Cultists is not opponents that always decline leech - its the ones that strategically deny key leeches, and/or play off the uncertainty so you don't know whether they're going to accept or not. Making a plan that works if they accept is easy. Making a plan that works if they decline is often doable. Making a plan that reliably works whichever way they choose... is harder.
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I have completed 50 games of TM online, plus a handful "irl". I've never selected the Cultists. I'm sure a lot of that is just setup variance, but I've still been wondering about it.

The conclusion I've reached is that I err toward certainty/security in the early game, and Cultists are a bit lacking in that aspect. Obviously, the "will my opponents accept or decline leech?" is a factor, but there's more to it than that. Consider this rundown of the original 14 factions:

Can expand without power digs in round 1: Darklings, Alchemists, Nomads, Giants, Witches, Mermaids, Dwarves

Start with 9 power in bowl 2: Engineers, Halflings, Swarmlings, Mermaids

None of the above: Cultists, Chaos Magicians, Auren, Fakirs

Of the factions in "none of the above", two are underpowered to the point of being near-unplayable, while the Chaos Magicians have a uniquely powerful and desirable SA opening. The Cultists have a unique weakness here among tournament-playable factions.

Granted, people like FAV11, and in practice I suspect I'd get my power digs often enough. But it's something that restrains me from selecting Cultists in positions where I can't guarantee one of BON1 or BON5. And the secure ACT6 draws me toward Halflings in those situations when BON5 is available.
 
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Tom Eccles
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SpaceTrucker wrote:
One minor point were i disagree a bit:
Tom Eccles wrote:
- No BON6. Cultists aren't a big SH/SA faction.

- BON6 enables cultists to do a pretty decent 2TE opening (especially if both TE neighbors are likely to leech and there are spades to be won)
- Workers can generally be pretty usefull for a faction that is rewarded for building a lot
- At least on the Classic Map Sanctuaries are pretty common for Cultists to form a city in the center, so often they can use it to some degree
- Most importantly, the other points are much more relevant - even if other factions could use BON6 even better, I would never pick or not pick Cultists based on the availability of BON6.

That's fair - particularly the last point. BON6 probably doesn't belong on that list.

I'm surprised to hear about a 2TE opening for the cultists. Is there anything in particular about the cultists that make it a good opening? I tend to think of 2TE as an engineers-only play.

DocCool wrote:
Digging Cultists! ...

I don't think advancing dig as cultists is that rare - they are probably in the middle of the pack when it comes to advancing digging. (Has anyone done stats on the frequency of advancing dig with various factions?)

The point about the cultists' round 1 being uniquely dangerous is interesting. I've had some times when I've noted the danger of a spadeless R1, and gone for the cultists anyway - there are usually enough things that can go your way that one of them does.
 
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Steve Haas
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Tom Eccles wrote:
I don't think advancing dig as cultists is that rare - they are probably in the middle of the pack when it comes to advancing digging. (Has anyone done stats on the frequency of advancing dig with various factions?).


A bit dated, but yes.
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Space Trucker
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Tom Eccles wrote:
I'm surprised to hear about a 2TE opening for the cultists. Is there anything in particular about the cultists that make it a good opening? I tend to think of 2TE as an engineers-only play.

You're upgrading 4 times at opponents buildings, which can be 4 steps, you can grab/block some valuable early priest spots, two favors add to your early cult steps.
As you probably pass quite early, you're relativly likely to get a spade power action in round 2 (ideally act6) - missing spades in R2 would be bad.

It's not the strongest opening they can do, but in my experience it can be a decent option if there's no BON1 or ACT6 to be had in round 1.

Here's a tournament game were I think the opening worked quite well. I got ACT6 in R2 and the game also had D>>2 in round 2, which makes saving up the dwellings a bit more interesting:
https://terra.snellman.net/game/4pLeague_S18_D1L1_G5/max-row...

 
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Marek
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Zoras wrote:

I hate playing against them because they often put their opponents in some prisoner's dilemma (do you really believe that if you decline leech others will do too later in the game?), or to put it more pointedly: either accepting leech and see cultists win, or decline and loose yourself.


In fact, this situation differs from prisonner's dilemma significantly. In prisonner's dilemma, the players make decisions at the same time, without the knowledge of the other's decision - while in TM, the order of decision is strictly given, with the later players knowing the decision of the previous ones. Combined with the fact that the payoffs of leeching are different each time for each player depending on the situation... the micro-game is something very else, than the prisonner's dilemma.

That said, I basically leech all I can from the cultists, unless I have a good reason not to... not sure, if this is a good approach .
 
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J K
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DocCool wrote:
Depending on how the game plays out, building a round 6 SH can be a backup plan for the Cultists in case they end up with a lot of resources but no good other way to use it. 7VP for 12 resources is not overly attractive but better than nothing. With round 6 SA/SH scoring. 11VP for 12 resources can be a good deal.


Yeah Cultists are great in a lot of situations, but a late SA/SH scoring round can be a nice bonus. Their SH is boring but who cares, VP are VP. A round 5/6 SH/SA scoring is pretty good for them, in terms of raw points the only ones that come close is Mermaids (they REALLY want BON6/10 with it), CMs (just because their SH is so cheap, and like Mermaids they really want BON6 with it), and maybe Darklings (Darklings have better stuff to do normally).

Poor scoring rounds late game (example: R4 TP >> 3, R5 TE >> 4, R6 SA/SH >> 5) are pretty good for Cultists as your cult dominance can't be overwhelmed as easily by others' economies.

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Steve Haas
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So, a couple thoughts on Cultists.

Cultists are versatile enough to play in almost every setup. They are notable relative to most factions in that their faction bonuses provide both economic and scoring benefits, giving you the ability to lean into either aspect and play them either as more of a scoring faction or as more of an economic faction.

However, in terms of things you're looking for to make them better than usual - and the sorts of things that might cause you to opt for Cultists first rather than Darklings first:

* Having the same cult appear in cult bonuses more than once is usually good.
* The best cult bonuses are probably spades, and the weakest workers.
* Try to keep a realistic assessment of how many cults you're actually going to be able to get. For example, an R1 air or water spade can be hard to get, as even assuming you're building next to people 4 times, the odds that good opponents will actually give you all 4 cult ups are minimal. You really need a priest or favor to make it reliably. Similarly: it can be hard to fully exploit all of the cult bonuses in the first 2-3 turns, so frontloaded spades tends not to be quite as good as having them a bit more spread out.
* TE scoring, particularly lategame, tends to be not-so-good, as a) you tend not to want to build TEs lategame (as its late for scoring/econ favors and you don't necessarily need cult favors) and b) you have an advantage in getting high cult track values, but not necessarily in sending Ps to cults for the coin bonus.
* SA/SH scoring is nice lategame but useless early. For similar reasons, bon6 is not particularly beneficial.

So, ideally, you're looking for doubled cult bonuses, 2-3 spade turns nicely spread across the rounds, TE scoring early or never, S? scoring late or never, and probably no bon6. But you can get by without any or (almost) all of those in a pinch due to the high versatility of the faction.

The one other point I'd make is that you can't rely on the faction ability winning cults by itself. It gives you an advantage, and means you can win cults if you fight for them... but if you don't emphasize them more than any other faction, the number of points you get out of them is not necessarily that large. This is, because, structurally, the cult system provides particular benefit from *winning* cults more than incrementally improving from 4th to 3rd or 3rd to 2nd. Hence: emphasizing cults - by taking TW5 and (especially) TW6, trying to get a couple 3-spot priests, etc. - can be a powerful strategy as Cultists.

And conversely, denying those things to Cultists is not entirely a waste of time. You don't want to over-invest, certainly, but if everyone ignores cultists and they don't have to invest at all to win everything, they're going to win. By taking TW6 you get all its usual benefits, deny it to Cultists, and force them to invest more heavily in protecting all their cults, which is often a good play.

So I feel like the lesson is that the Cultists cult bonus doesn't mean everyone else should avoid cults - in contrast, it makes the good sources of cults (TWs, 3pt priests, and priests on the "good" tracks) more valuable for *everyone*.
 
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Oedipussy Rex
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Steve496 wrote:
For example, an R1 air or water spade can be hard to get, as even assuming you're building next to people 4 times, the odds that good opponents will actually give you all 4 cult ups are minimal.


??? Water cult is easy to climb first round. Grab the Water 2 favor
(level 2); take the Priest power action, even if you have to burn three to do it, and send it to Water (level 4 or 5); use the Water 2 favor (level 5 or 6). And that's before moving up with the Cultists ability, which will be used because the benefits of leeching in round 1 is greater than the punishment of denying it.
 
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Steve Haas
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My premise is not that 4 on water is unobtainable on R1. My point is that you can't do it with the cultists faction ability alone. Yes, leech is good on R1. Yes, your first couple leeches are going to be accepted. But if your opponents are good, you will get exactly 3 water-ups from leech, and they will decline the 4th (as it happens late enough in the round to be less valuable for them than the cult-up clearly is for them). You may find opponents who play it otherwise... but they're making a mistake if they do.

Which means - as I said above - you need a priest or a favor if you want to get 4 on water or air in R1. And yes, you can do that. And yes, sometimes its the right play. But you are giving up something by doing so. If you take fav6, you're not taking fav11, and you're not taking whichever of fav7 and fav9 is better, and those are usually stronger options. Getting a spade may well be worth it, but its still a cost you're paying to get that spade.

Similarly: if you're in 3rd or 4th seat and know what bonus tile you're getting (and that bon8 is likely your best option) - great, take bon8, and send it to water as needed. But if you're looking at taking cultists in first seat - and thus almost certainly not getting bon8 - that means the only way you get a P is from act2, and if you're spending power on act2 you're not spending it on act4, act5, or act6. And even if act2 winds up being the best play... to what extent are you benefiting from being cultists as opposed to some other faction that starts with 1 in water?

Again: Cultists are flexible enough to work with many different circumstances. But if you're looking at picking them in first seat, you'd far rather see an earth spade than a water spade, because one can be gotten with fav11 and 2 cult ups, regardless of what bonus tile you get, and one requires a lot more luck/specialized setup/opponent mistakes to fully capitalize on. Cultists can always force their game to fit what else is happening, but they're at their strongest when they're a natural fit already so they don't have to.
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