Best-Laid Plans: The Scarlet Keys

Spoilers

This is a campaign deep dive and as such it doesn’t hold back anything. There are detailed spoilers for the Scarlet Keys campaign ahead. I highly suggest that you stop reading now if you have not played this campaign once or twice before. Give the campaign a try on your own first, then come back later, once you have been globetrotting for a bit.

Introduction

Weirdness abounds and this time it’s not just restricted to some small town in Massachusetts for some reason. All over the world, things and people are disappearing from existence. At the same time, a mysterious “Foundation” agency press gangs the players into investigating an equally mysterious “Red Coterie”. This coterie consists of exceptional people in exceptionally red clothes and soon it becomes clear that they are related to the disappearings… somehow. The investigators are free to travel around the world and interact with the Red Coterie to uncover the secret behind what’s going on.

This article takes a deep dive into the challenges posed to the players as they make their way along the campaign with all of its twists and turns, special mechanics and recurring themes. As in previous Best-Laid Plans, i will also give some suggestions for investigators and player cards that might work particularly well in The Scarlet Keys. Due to the intricate nature of the campaign, parts of this Deep Dive have been spun off into standalone articles because it would otherwise become way too large for a single page. You’ll find the links to those articles in the appropriate places.

Traveling the world

The most flashy new feature of The Scarlet Keys is its non-linear campaign structure. While the first and the last scenario are fixed, you can move around a world map in whatever way you want. This means you can determine yourself which other scenarios to visit and in which order.

Find all the details about the world map and what’s on it behind this link:
Best-Laid Plans: Traveling the World

The Red Coterie

The are two primary factions that provide the enemies for this campaign. The first is the Red Coterie, a cabal of people (using this term loosely) with extraordinary abilities and influence. Their prime members are in possession of “The Keys”, a bunch of artifacts that are the source of their powers. Like any cult worth its salt, the Red Coterie also has a bunch of rank and file followers and those are making up much of what we find in the encounter deck in terms of enemies.

Their signature keyword is “Concealed”, a new ability introduced in this campaign that spawns these enemies in a dedicated play area called “the shadows”. Notably, enemies in the shadows also have abilities that allow them influencing the game from the shadows even when they aren’t currently on the board at a location. They might attack from there or simply carry a doom like the well-behaved cultists they are. The common coterie enemies aren’t terribly dangerous, but having to root them out of the shadows before being able to engage them does turn them into considerable action drains. Basically, concealment is sort of an enhanced version of Aloof.

The Outsiders

The other faction consists of a weird kind of otherworldly enemies that aren’t human (or even humanoid) themselves, but able to mimic whatever they want to. They are what’s behind the disappearances and in an ongoing conflict with the Red Coterie. Like with the coterie, outsiders come in various levels of impact. There are some truly terrifying Elite level threats among them, but of course also plenty of more common enemies which form the main body of what the players will have to deal with.

Outsiders are also tied to a central mechanic, called “hollowing”. These are effects that remove cards from the game, most often from the top of a player’s deck but there are also some that remove cards from hands or even from play. After removed that way, these cards count as “hollows” which can be referred to by other card effects, for example to trigger extra attacks or provide additional health to an Outsider. Outsiders are much more dangerous than Coterie in a straight up fight, but hollowing is less impactful than concealment as an ability.

It should be noted that since Outsiders are able to mimic other entities, there are some that employ concealment as well.

Concealment

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at these two signature mechanics. Concealment is used a lot throughout the whole campaign, with a couple of scenarios even built around it and using it as a centerpiece. Actually, every scenario but Marrakesh features concealment in some capacity, so being able to deal with it is paramount to doing well in this campaign.

To determine how to best deal with it, let’s first look at the mechanical details:
– When an enemy with conceal spawns, it doesn’t appear at a location or engaged to a player, but is instead put into the shadows.
– While in the shadows, the enemy can’t be discarded, defeated or damaged.
– It is represented on the board by a face-down mini-card that is shuffled together with a certain number of decoy mini-cards which are spread across the nearest locations. So the enemy is actually at one of X locations and it’s the players job to find out which one.
– Exposing a face-down mini-card takes an action and a successful test against combat, intellect or agility, using the location’s shroud as difficulty.
– Alternatively, mini-cards can be exposed by replacing any testless Fight or Evade effect, the testless discovery of a clue or the application of one or more points of damage. Only one mini-card can be exposed this way per effect.
– If a face-down mini-card is spawned at a place that already has one or more such mini-cards, they are shuffled together at that location so the players don’t know which of them is the new one.
– If no enemies are in the shadows, all mini-cards still on the board (presumably decoys) are removed from play.

There are some immediate conclusion to draw from this. The first is that Concealment is a rather heavy form of action tax. Potentially, a player has to go through each of the decoys and uncover all of the mini-cards before being able to interact with the actual enemy in a meaningful way. So even a meager Coterie Agent with 1 fight and 1 health would need up to three actions to be exposed because they come into play with 2 decoys. In fact, it’s even worse than that because those three mini-cards are spread across three locations. So rooting out the Agent would potentially also need extra movement to cover these locations. For that reason, some thought should be put into where to put those mini-cards when spawning the enemy. The instructions say to spread them across the nearest X locations. This does include your current one, but you often have a choice which connecting locations you want to choose for the rest.

The next thing to take away is that the difficulty scales with the shroud value on the locations. That means you will want to be able to routinely pass tests against intellect, combat or agility with varying difficulties. And preferably you will want to be able to do so without having to use a limited resource like charges, ammo or resources unless you can make sure that you have a steady supply of them. This massively favors investigators with a printed 5 (or at least a 4) in at least one of those skills. Since exposing with a basic willpower action isn’t possible, this is a challenge to overcome for many Mystics. But also many investigators with more balanced stat lines (or even the dreaded 3/3/3/3) will have to make up for their shortcomings in dealing with The Scarlet Key’s central mechanism.

Especially in high player counts, the mini-cards put into play by one enemy might overlap with those of another. Since this triggers a reshuffling of the mini-cards at that location, this leads to them stacking up in a way that makes it even more difficult to root out specific enemies. Having many concealed enemies will also prevent previous decoys that were put into place from being wiped from the board, so enemies that were dealt with rounds ago can still have a lingering effect until the final enemy was dragged from the shadows. It is therefore recommended to not let the number of concealed cards grow too much. Even if they don’t have an immediate impact, they can become a problem at a later point so it’s usually going to be a good idea to just go after enemies as soon as they appear.

Ways to prepare for concealment in your deck include:
– Lowering shroud values. Skeleton Key busts this mechanic wide open and in a more limited fashion so does Breach the Door. But even just something like a lowly Flashlight can put in some work.
– Testless effects that can replace expose tests. Discovering testless clues or dealing testless damage can be a great way to help with concealment. Not only does this allow bypassing high shroud values, but often you can get such effects in addition to something else, so you aren’t actually spending a full action on exposing a single card. As examples, triggering Grete Wagner or Alice Luxley can do the job, as can a Breaking and Entering.
– Investigator choice. Some investigators come with repeatable abilities that either grant bonus actions or testless effects that can do a lot of work. Examples include Roland Banks, Ursula Downs, Finn Edwards, Agnes Baker and Rita Young. Anyone with a printed 5 in combat, intellect or agility also has a definite advantage here.
– Bypassing the spawn trigger. Concealment is anchored on replacing the spawn of an enemy. So if you can “put it into play” instead of “spawning it”, you will not have to deal with concealment on that enemy at all. Kicking the Hornet’s Nest and On the Hunt are the two cards to mention in this context.
– Bonus points if you find ways to expose cards at connecting locations. Not only can that save you move actions, it can also stay out of locations with mini-cards in them (which is sometimes relevant) and make it so exposed enemies enter play without engaging anyone. Examples for cards that do this are Grete Wagner, Intel Report and, if you are feeling spicy, Dynamite Blast.

Hollowing

Where Concealment brings a whole new dimension of gameplay to the table as it does warp much of the decision making around it, Hollowing is a much more grounded ability. At its core it is simply an ability that removes player cards from the game, something that is not all that new. It is usually a rather rare effect though and having it around in this campaign in a more prominent fashion is certainly not without its consequences. Marrakesh, Alexandria, Kuala Lumpur and Buenos Aires all don’t have any Outsiders in it at all, but for the other six scenarios there is at least a little bit of hollowing going on. The mechanic has its peak in the secret scenario and the finale.

There are two parts to hollowing. The setup and the payoff. Setup means removing cards and putting them out of play “as a hollow”. This alone has not further immediate implications beyond the fact that these cards are now removed. Some cards do provide some extra payoff however, like enemies getting extra attacks whenever a card is played that has a copy in the hollows, enemies gaining health scaling with the amount of hollows or a treachery discarding copies of hollowed cards from hand and play.

The payoff effects are very far and between. Often scenarios will go by with the distinction between hollowing and just removing a card barely even mattering. So the primary concern about this mechanic comes from the limited access to player cards. There are some considerations to make based on it, if you want to prepare yourself for dealing with Hollowing as best as possible.

These include:
– Spreading out your upgrades. Investing your hard earned XP into two copies of a 5XP card and then seeing them removed from the deck sucks. A lot. Consider spreading out your upgrades, maybe upgrading 5 cards to level 2 instead of 2 cards to level 5. That way, the innate swingyness and variance of Hollowing can’t hit you that hard.
– Bring redundancy. If you build your deck around one specific card and then see it go bye-bye on turn two, your deck should still be able to function. This could concern cornerstone cards like Salvaging or True Magick, but also something like weapons or combat spells for your enemy handlers. Better pack some extras.
– Avoid being particularly vulnerable to removal of cards. What i mean with this is to not base your deck around something like a cornerstone card in the first place. But there’s also a couple cards that will hurt you more than others when they get removed. For example, this is really not the campaign to go and assemble Three Aces or the Pendant of the Queen because having one of the three pieces removed will strand you with two junk cards that will annoy the hell out of you.

Elite Enemies (and other big baddies)

Almost all of the scenarios are in some way tied to one of the prime members of the Coterie and the player’s attempts to either gain their support or their “Key” artifact. More often than not, that means having to deal with that coterie member in the game where they usually take the form of an Elite enemy with impressive stats, oppressive abilities or both. The scenarios centered around the Outsider threat also feature big monsters to overcome. As a result, being good in combat is a hard requirement for most of the campaign. The prevalence of big enemies also lends a lot of value to evasion, to stop them from attacking for a lot during the enemy phase and/or from retaliating on failed attacks.

Marrakesh, which features neither concealment nor hollowing, is built around this completely. It’s one of the most fight heavy scenarios in all of the Arkham LCG, with swarms of enemies only rivaled by some of the peaks in Innsmouth or the waking side of Dream-Eaters.

While the large number or Elite enemies would suggest that cards that specifically work on non-Elites are a bit devalued, there are actually enough big targets among the non-Elites as well to put your Waylays, Spectral Razors and Disguises to good effect. For example, the Outsiders encounter set features an enemy very reminiscent of Innsmouth’s Deep One Bull and chucks that into the encounter deck as early as scenario 1.

Damage and Horror

As has been a trend with the last couple campaigns, there is a large amount of both horror and damage raining down on the investigators. Mostly this comes from treacheries, but of course the large amount of enemies also does its part. The scenarios that test your soak the most are Buenos Aires (Carmen Sandiego keeps sniping at you while the encounter deck is full of damage/horror), Marrakesh (constant onslaught of enemies, among them several hard hitting elites) and especially Kuala Lumpur (umbrella girl carries a nuke).

I assume the countermeasures are well known by now: Bring extra soak on assets and also consider using healing to stay out of reach of damage spikes. As usual, a high willpower and/or agility allows dodging some of the treacheries, but there is a decent amount of testless sources around so this is less of a thing to feel safe behind than usual.

Chaos Bag

This campaign has by far the worst chaos bag of any of the existing campaigns so far. High negative modificators are everywhere and many of the token effects do have impactful extra consequences on failing (and you will fail. a lot.)

One of the prime offenders is the Cultist token. You start with none of them in the bag, but as the campaign goes on, you are instructed to add another token at certain time thresholds. These are usually -4 or even -5, usually with other things tacked on. But the other token modifiers for your regular skulls, tablets and Elder Things aren’t restrained either.

The campaign also uses a particular token effect multiple times that can be particularly devastating for some investigators, where the modifier itself is minor, but all icons from committed cards are ignored. Something to keep in mind if you are playing an investigator like Winifred or are relying on the likes of Grizzled or Promise of Power to push through crucial tests.

The rough chaos bag combines with a relatively high difficulty on many tests (especially shroud values) to make reliably passing tests in this campaign a real challenge. Even Easy and Normal often will require you to be at least 4 skill value over difficulty to have a solid chance. This does again put a huge disadvantage on any investigator with balanced statlines (or worse) and pushes players towards specializing in doing one thing really well. The Scarlet Key Investigator Expansion might have come with a 2/2/2/2 and a 3/3/3/3 investigator, but i would really advise to take those into a different campaign unless you are sure that you know what you are doing and that you are compensating for how much behind the curve they are here from the start.

Trust vs Deception

While we are on the topic of the chaos bag, now and then the investigators are asked to either trust or defy someone they meet. Depending on their action, the chaos bag changes. Whenever they choose to trust someone, agree to deals or help that person, a Elder Thing in the chaos bag is removed and a tablet is added. On the other hand, if they lie or betray or simply refuse cooperation, they remove a tablet and add an Elder Thing. The chaos bag starts with one of each of those tokens on all difficulties. Adding the token is not tied to the removal of the other, so even if you have zero of one and two of the other, you can still add a third of the second type of token.

Opportunities to choose between Trust and Deception are:
London(R&R): accept or refuse Flint’s offer.
London(Interlude): tell the truth to Taylor or not
London(revisit): tell the truth to Quinn or not
Buenos Aires: handle Bolivar’s inquiries
Istanbul: help or deceive Ece
Anchorage: make a deal with Thorne or not
Alexandria: work with the Knight or not
Kathmandu: accept or refuse the whistle

Should the players be instructed to add a token, but already have all four in the bag, they gain an XP instead. Since there are a total of eight times where this choice could come up and they already start with one of each symbol token already in the bag, they could gain 5XP in total this way if they always choose the same thing (and run into all those choices in the first place).

The players could also go for a balanced approach and make their choices in a way that they never add a token without also removing one. The reward for this is a somewhat more friendly less hostile chaos bag.

Action Taxing

One other thing that this campaign features in a noticeably large way is how it taxes your actions. Meaning, you have to regularly spend some of your actions on scenario or treachery effects and are thus unable to advance your own gameplan (or at least slowed down a lot). I already identified concealment as an action tax mechanic and as mentioned it’s in all but one scenario. But many of the treacheries also stack up on this. Most importantly the Spreading Corruption encounter set does a lot to stop players from actually getting to play the game, as does everyone’s least favorite omnipresent Core set menace: Striking Fear. Three of the scenarios even have Striking Fear and Spreading Corruption at the same time and it’s just a huge pain.

In response, players should aim to be very efficient about their actions that they actually get to take. Additional actions are of course great, as are effects that don’t require actions like events with Fast or free trigger abilities. Sandbagging a Ward of Protection(2) to neuter Frozen in Fear also goes a long way.

The Keys (and other story assets)

Obviously, the so-called Keys are an important element to the campaign, important enough to name the whole thing after them. Although i would just like to note here that only three of the keys are actually red, nevermind scarlet… and except one, maybe two, they don’t resemble keys either! But anyways, these things are artifacts of varying degrees of power, ranging all the way from “barely worth talking about” to “gamebreakingly strong”. And of course the players will want to get their hands on them, preferably on as many of the latter category rather than the former.

So here’s an overview over all the Keys, how useful they are and how to get them:
Best-Laid Plans: The actual Keys of The Scarlet Keys

Note that several of them fulfill criteria that we already identified as useful to deal with concealment, as you can for example use the Weeping Lady or the Mirroring Blade to expose mini-cards without spending an action or passing a test.

Alternate endings

The campaign always ends in the same place, in Tunguska. However, there are three different versions of the final scenario and it is preceded by a trial where the members of the Red Coterie vote on how to deal with you. There’s six different outcomes to this vote, from the coterie being destroyed to you taking a place among them.

Again, i will leave you with a link to a standalone article which goes into the details, so please read on here:
Best-Laid Plans: Scarlet Politics

Experience

Okay, bear with me here because this is going to be quite a bit more complicated than usual. The truth is that the sort of XP overviews that you could use to gauge how much you could expect to pick up during the campaign is not going to work very well for Scarlet Keys. This is because depending on your route through the campaign you could end up with very little XP overall or if you are lucky with at a somewhat healthy amount. Unless you are going to supplement your XP income with the likes of Delve Too Deep or Charon’s Obol you are not going to swim in experience ever, though. All together you can assume like 4-5XP per scenario plus a handful earned during travel. The rough part is that these XP are often tied to actually winning the scenario. If you end up failing a scenario or two, you might leave them completely empty handed.

Alright then, let’s get into listing all the stuff up for grabs and see where that leads us. The scenarios first:
London: 3 (locations) + 1 (Apocalyptic Presage) + 1 (Red-Gloved Man) = 5XP
Buenos Aires: 3 (Targets) + 2 (Sanguine Watcher) = 5XP
Istanbul: 5 (locations) + 1 (Umbral Harbinger) +1 (Emissary of Yuggoth) = 7XP
Marrakesh: 1 (Amaranth) + 1 (Khalid) +2 (civilians saved) + 2 (more civilians saved) = 6XP
Kuala Lumpur: 4 (locations) + 3 (saved geists) + 1 (Tzu San) +1 (subjugate Tzu) = 9XP
Havana: 4 (locations) + 1 (Desi) = 5XP
Alexandria: 1 (Bourse/Catacombs) + 1 (Beast/Claret Knight) + 4 (Key Loci) = 6XP
Anchorage: 3 (locations) + 1 (Void Chimera) + 1 (Apocalyptic Presage) + 1 (Emissary of Yuggoth) = 6XP
Without a Trace: 5 (locations) + 1 (Protoplasmic Reassembler) + 1 (Apocalyptic Presage) +1 (successful resolution, with Agent Quinn)= 8XP
Tunguska: 4 (locations) + 1 (Apocalyptic Presage) +5 (successful resolution) = 10XP

In addition to these, XP is also awarded for:
San Juan/Quito/Reykjavik/Kabul: retrieving your stolen key: up to 4XP
Nairobi: If Tuwile sees you as a friend: 1XP (locks Bermuda)
Bermuda: If Tuwile sees you as an enemy: 3XP (1XP otherwise)
San Francisco/Moscow: Taking XP in each safehouse: 2XP
London(revisit): Too late to start Without a Trace (or lacking the whistle): 2XP (1XP if able to start WaT instead)
Shanghai: Helping Flint: 1XP
Bombay/Stockholm: After visiting both of these locations: 2XP
Rio De Janeiro/Perth: meeting Dr. Irawan for the first and second time: 2XP
Manokwari: Too late to meet Dr. Irawan for the third time: 2XP
Ybor City: Picking up the Mirroring Blade in Desi’s safehouse: 2XP
Kathmandu: refusing to take Aliki’s offer: 1XP

As mentioned, you also gain an XP if you are instructed to add a tablet or Elder Thing to your chaos bag while it already has four of them. The maximum is 5XP.

When looking at this massive list of XP sources, one could think that you are in for a rain of XP that leaves no wishes unfulfilled. However, remember that every single one of these numbers comes with a cost of time. And very often, this time cost is actually higher than the XP gain. Generally speaking, if you are able to trade a time for an XP, that is a trade worth doing because you will usually not get that exchange rate over the course of the campaign on average. My suggestion is assuming that you go into the finale with 30-35XP and plan your deck accordingly. For reference, that is roughly what you’d expect to get in Path to Carcosa. It’s enough for most deck ideas, but if you want to go deep on something fancy (like the new Customizables) then you will probably want to look into some player cards that give XP (or make upgrades cheaper) as well.

Investigator Choice

There is quite the large roster of investigators available to us by now and not everyone is going to be equally well equipped for the specific challenges of The Scarlet Keys. To recap what was said earlier, i would value a good statline pretty highly due to it making it much easier to interact with concealed mini-cards. You’ll also want to be fairly durable. The campaign rewards being able to both fight and evade well within your team.

Here are two suggestions per class:
Nathaniel Cho: If you plan on going very combat heavy, maybe even moving into Marrakesh straight away, then Nate can do an excellent job of providing the necessary muscle. Thanks to concealment, he’s even useful outside of combat in this campaign.
Sister Mary: People constantly underestimate the impact that a steady supply of bless tokens has on the chaos bag. Having Mary around can do wonders to keep the bag a bit more friendly, as a support character you’ll want to play her in a full group though. That being said, you’d be surprised at the tests that you pass with Mary wielding two Ritual Candles.
Daisy Walker: Not only does she have that crucial 5 intellect that does *everything* in this campaign, but she also has a bonus action. When the game relies that heavily on draining all the player’s actions, it’s good to have a freebie to fall back on so you get something done every turn.
Minh Thi Phan: She is not only a great seeker, but she can also play a support role and have an impact on other peoples tests with loads of icons from commits.
Trish Scarborough: Her ability allows evading Elites without testing, something that comes in extremely handy in several places.
Finn Edwards: Even without a printed 5, he brings a very valuable statline to the table. What’s more, he gets a free action every turn that can be used on exposing a mini-card.
Akachi Onyele: Dealing with concealment puts a heavy drain on charge based spells. Akachi is the one who’d be best equipped to deal with that heads on, but using cards that don’t actually use charges (for example Sixth Sense, Summoned Servitor) might be even better.
Lily Chen: Can start with a 5 in a non-Willpower stat, which is of course exceptionally valuable here. Of course, she’s not really a Mystic but a Guardian, but oh well.
Darrell Simmons: Turns out you don’t have to care what sort of hellscape is going on in your chaos bag if you drop all important difficulties to zero.
Silas Marsh: Silas is excellent both at fighting and evading and that sort of flexibility pays off a lot in Scarlet Keys. He can also use his skills very efficiently, giving him a needed leg up on the chaos bag.

As usual, i want to stress that these are only suggestions. This is even more true here as some of your requirements surely are going to shift depending on what places you visit. If you feel like you aren’t bringing enough combat to the table for those scenarios, you can just feel free to not stop in Marrakesh or Kuala Lumpur. I am certainly not going to stop you from going into TSK with a team of Amina, Carson and Patrice either. I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathy. Nah, seriously though… you can totally make anything work, the card pool we have today is nuts.

Notable Player Cards

Speaking of the nutty cardpool, the same applies here as for the investigators. You can make pretty much anything work, but there are a couple cards that stand out as especially great in the context of the specific campaign challenges.

Again, let’s look at two per class:
Alice Luxley: Poor Alice isn’t really all that great in other campaigns, but here she can use that free damage to expose an extra mini-card per turn as long as you pass an investigate test.
On The Hunt: Allows pulling enemies out of the deck without triggering their concealment. This can save a lot of hassle down the road. Kicking the Hornet’s Nest does the same thing (and more because it also lets you expose a mini-card at the same time) for Rogue.
Ancient Stone(Elders): This is pretty much a battery of free mini-card exposes.
In The Know: Certainly a niche card, but i do try and mention those here. The ability to remotely expose mini-cards is quite useful and In The Know can help a Seeker to both save some actions moving around and lets them stay away from harm.
Skeleton Key: Allows cheating at concealment. This card is ridiculous here, especially when it comes to certain Elite encounters that heavily feature concealment which makes them scale with shroud.
Underworld Market: Are you afraid that some Outsider effect is going to hollow your expensive upgrades? If they are Illicit, you do have the option of stowing them away in their own side deck, where they are safe from such shenanigans.
Wither: Ha, i did it! I snuck Wither into a list of recommended cards! Look, it’s the cheapest way you have of being able to unconceal enemies using your Willpower without spending charges. I suppose you could use Sword Cane instead but for what it’s worth, that one exhausts and Wither doesn’t. The cane also takes away a hand slot and you are going to need those for your…
Ritual Candles: These are just amazing whenever the chaos bag starts acting up. Once you walk around with two candles and all those -4 cultists and tablets are actually only -2, you can play much more relaxed.
Ms. Doyle: No matter which cat you get, all of them are able to expose mini-cards at skill level 5. Once you can use the ability to trade a cat for another, you can even guarantee your exposes. This is really nice for a wide spread of survivors which tend to have rather flat statlines.
Will to Survive: The ability to not reveal any tokens for your tests has rarely been better.

Surge

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2 Replies to “Best-Laid Plans: The Scarlet Keys”

  1. “If you feel like you aren’t bringing enough combat to the table for those scenarios, you can just feel free to not stop in Marrakesh or Kuala Lumpur.”

    Honestly, from what I’ve heard not stopping in Kuala Lumpur just sounds like a good idea overall.

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