How will I take the Iron Throne? That is a question that has been stirring within me for about a month now, since I secured one of the very limited tickets to the Kingslayer event at Gencon. For those of you who are uninitiated, the game to which I am referring is A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, Second Edition (long assed name for a game); also known as AGoT:LCG, a game which Fantasy Flight has been Publishing in one form or another since 2002.
In 2008, FFG relaunched the title under their new LCG modus operandi, which is the same model now used by Conquest, Netrunner, Star Wars, and Call of Cthulhu among other third-party titles (such as Doomtown and the yet-to-be-released VS 2 Player Game). The LCG model has been a great boon for FFG, even if it is a struggle for game stores to find room for as many SKUs as the titles require stocking. That said, the model (combined with their aggressive and effective use of licenses) has rocketed Fantasy Flight Games from a relatively unknown game operation out of Minnesota to become one of the premiere game producers in North America in only 7 short years.
Last year FFG announced that they would be discontinuing support for the struggling Game of Thrones LCG, it was burdened by a quickly aging rules set, and a card pool that was an impossible barrier to entry - much like a certain wall in a certain book. They would not be stopping their production of Game of Thrones cards, but rather they would be relaunching the game (a second time) under a 'second edition' banner, which would feature a more modern, streamlined rules set, as well as an established set of guidelines regarding the card pool.
They will be launching the game at GenCon this year alongside a limited entry launch event in which participants are given a single core set and are instructed to build a deck with which to defeat their enemies and take power for their chosen house. This means that a person needs to pick a house (and a secondary house with which to ally yourself) in order to build the best possible deck.
So, with that in mind, I need to begin narrowing down which houses I would like to consider for both primary, and secondary roles in my deck. I like the fact that the game is really borrowing liberally from the "loyalty" mechanic that was such a big part of the conquest roll-out. Thrones has always had loyal cards (the old House X only deckbuilding restriction), but this feels more elegant, since it was very strange to see rules text on cards that only had meaning before you even play!
So I know how to play Thrones, I was a fairly regular and competent player in the regional metagame for about 18 months after I picked it up until first edition died off in the region. I was the inaugural winner of the Hub City Hodor Classic, and I was a hair's breadth from the title at the only Store Championship I attended during that last season. This means that I understand the deckbuilding considerations that go into establishing a gameplan and developing a strategy which will best execute that plan. However, for a lot of you, this might be brand new information (Game of Thrones hasn't really been covered here yet, and despite FFG's best efforts it has dwindled in popularity and participation worldwide!), so I'll go through some of the basics before diving into the reality facing me at Gencon.
Game of Thrones is very different from the other LCGs (and other card games in general) as the mode of victory has always traditionally been a manipulated currency known as Power. Once any single player had accumulated 15 power on his or her faction card or characters (or locations or attachments if they stated that this power counted for victory), they win instantly. The difference between this and a game like Netrunner (in which the two players are competing over a similar resource), is that in Game of Thrones the players can swap power back and forth during the game as they compete in challenges.
The challenges are the most unique part of this game, as they differ wildly from the "battle" phase in Conquest, and the "run" action in Netrunner. Challenges are even quite different from combat in Magic! Each player, during the challenges phase each round, has the ability to declare up to three challenges (one of each type) by kneeling (tapping, exhausting, etc) the characters they assign to attack. Then the defending player (generally the opponent in a two-player joust) can declare their defenders.
So far this sounds very Magic-adjacent, but the beauty is the way the three challenge types interact: Military challenges are where the fate of individual soldiers is determined; intrigue challenges determine the viability of a long-term strategy, while power challenges are the most common way of stealing an opponent's power. The fact that each character has some or all of the icons necessary to attack or defend in a particular challenge means that players are often forced to make very difficult decisions when it comes time to assign one or more characters to the fray!
In a military challenge, the attacking player kneels any number of characters he or she controls with a red "axe" icon, and the defender chooses the character who will stand in opposition to the challenge. If the attacker counts a higher total strength (think "power/toughness" in more generic terms) then they are victorious, and the defender must choose and kill a number of characters they control (whether they defended or not) determined by the "claim" number on the attacker's plot card. In an intrigue challenge, the basic mechanics are the same, except a victorious attacker strips random cards from the defender's hand equal to claim. The same is true for power challenges, except the prize is moving power tokens from the defender's house card to your own (bringing you closer to victory, while putting your opponent further behind).
In most cases, the claim on your plot card will be 1. This means that winning a military challenge will kill off one character, an intrigue challenge will randomly discard one card, and a power challenge will steal one power token from your opponent. The interesting part comes in how aggressively you construct a plot deck based around your game plan. Are you a very aggressive player who wants to come out swinging with a number of two-or-higher plots, knowing that those plots tend to have drawbacks associated with the high value of claim? Are you a passive control player who is willing to bide his or her time by initiating fewer high-value challenges in exchange for higher gold, a better chance to go first each turn, or some other plot-specific effect?
That is where the complexity of deckbuilding really takes a step forward. A control deck is generally accepted to be most viable with the largest possible card pool. This has been accepted as reasonable theory for over a decade in the Magic community - and I feel there is a lot to the theory as it relates to Thrones. This means that for a limited-pool tournament such as the Kingslayer (wherein each player has to build their deck from only a single copy of the core set), it is imperative to correctly determine what the strongest strategy will be; be it actively rushing for power - generally through multiple high-claim power challenges and as many characters with the renown keyword as possible, aggressively stripping the opponent of options either through military or intrigue challenges which reduce the opponent's ability to pull ahead, or a slow-paced game of parry and counter attack, by letting the opponent think they are ahead before pulling a reset out of your plot deck and stabilizing.
It seems unlikely that a strong pure control deck will be viable, and even a soft control deck (like the parry and counterattack strategy noted above) is unlikely to be a good choice in such a limited card pool. The strongest and more pure reset card in the game has been revealed to not be present within the Core Set, which means that stabilizing from a losing position will be very difficult. This means that one of the two aggressive strategies (rush or aggro) will be the most practical.
This leads me (finally!) to the actual houses that are currently being previewed by FFG on their home page. There are eight factions within the Game of Thrones card game; Houses Stark, Baratheon, Lannister, Greyjoy, Targaryen, Tyrell and Martell as well as the Night's Watch, and each of these have very specific strengths and weaknesses (see: colour pie).
Traditionally, Targaryen has been a very diverse faction - having themes based on the Dothraki Hordes, the Dragons, AND Daenerys' quest to reclaim her throne. In Second Edition, it feel as though they have consolidated the first and third of these themes into a single element - no longer are you forced to choose between strong military Dothraki, and Dany's desire to initiate multiple power challenges... the Targaryen are a Military Challenge faction with access to some incredibly strong direct character control elements.
This makes Targaryen a very strong contender for a primary faction - having access to their burn events (which are loyal) as well as having access to character such as Khal Drogo, and Daenerys Targaryen (also loyal) will really form a strong foundation upon which to wage war. The issue is there is a small sub-theme within the core set cards of "stormborn" synergy - the three dragons are represented by hatchlings which all improve Dany in some specific (and very potent) way. The fact that each of the three dragons (as well as Dany herself) are all good cards by their own merit helps to assuage the inherent issue with a Voltron deck in a limited pool environment.
The other option is to include Targaryen as a supporting faction , which would mean that I have to include 12 non-loyal Targ cards from the pool into my deck. In this scenario I'm far less excited about the faction - they have a good number of serviceable low-cost characters, but very few of the non-loyal cards play very nicely outside of their faction. Cards like Drogo's Arakh, and even the Dragons (despite being perfectly fine) don't really feel like they contribute to a viable strategy when included as supporting cards.
House Stark in the first edition was essentially all in on Military challenges; their top tier deck was an aggressive rush deck in which you could only claim power via military challenges, and the deck tended to be incredibly single-minded. The previews for House Stark don't really add up to that same single-minded focus, including a number of trickier cards (such as Bran Stark), as well as making the Direwolves accessible from the word go. They don't seem to have the same directed kill as Targaryen (which was another one of their strengths in first edition), instead being resilient in a way they really weren't before. They have the ability to stand, or negate the effects of event cards, while also featuring some limited direct kill effects as well as the ability to raise claim on a single challenge.
This hodgepodge feels like it might not be direct enough to really perform well as a primary faction - are you trying to live, or are you trying to kill? It is a confusion in role that often leads well-intentioned decks to the scrap heap. You cannot be both the aggressor as well as the controller unless your deck has a very specific parry-thrust that can be leveraged in order to switch your role at a certain point. Stark, in the core set, does not feel as though it has that sort of aggro-button.
As a supporting faction, Stark is interesting - Eddard Stark is not loyal (though Ice is, ironically), nor are Bran, Arya, Sansa or the Dire Wolves. this means that a supporting Stark Faction could be very useful in establishing a late-game for a fledgling control deck. Being able to countermand opposing effects, while also gaining the resilience of Eddard Stark and Arya might give a more focused control deck a better late-game than they otherwise have.
The Night's Watch is a strange bag. They were introduced into first edition with a cycle dedicated to them - in which they shared the spotlight with an equally poor wildlings subfaction, but they never managed to catch on as a viable faction in the competitive scene. They had too many built in drawbacks to be able to compete with the rush-ier decks or survive the control decks that were running rampant for years in the first edition scene. In second edition, FFG appear to have taken away their principal drawback (needing 21 power to win the game instead of 15) while also giving them some unique tools they didn't have the first time around.
The Night's Watch doesn't really play the Game of Thrones in the same way as the factions represented by major Houses; they aren't interested in the intrigues of court, nor are they vying for power in order to manipulate the lineage of the monarchy. The Night's Watch defend the wall; that is the entirety of their purpose, and this is represented in the game by having access to "The Wall" a location that gives the NW player 2 power every turn in which they successfully oppose all challenges directed at them.
The Wall feels incredibly powerful, but as a linchpin for a successful limited strategy I don't like it. The fact that you are reliant on a single copy of a very powerful card in a 50 card deck means that the games you win or lose will have very little to do with how well you played, and more to do with whether or not you saw your copy of the wall (and if you could leverage it). This means that automatically I am not considering Night's Watch as my primary faction for the Kingslayer. If it turns out that the NW get three copies of The Wall in the core set, then I will reevaluate.
As a support faction, they feel very much like the Targaryens; their non-loyal cards feel like they play off the various themes in Night's Watch more effectively than being individually powerful outside of those confines. The very presence of Maester Aemon as a non-loyal NW character means that you have to consider them, however. Being able to soak up a single military claim every turn for the whole game is a very powerful effect, and if he is all there is to Night's Watch, you might have to think about including them just to stem the bleeding.
There are some interesting pieces in the non-loyal segment of the NW, including The Wall (since the wall belongs to no man and belongs to the whole of the realm), but there really isn't any identity to the non-loyal side of the Night's Watch that would really compliment either a control or an aggressive strategy. You can take your one copy of the wall, and use that as your late game grinding option in a hard control deck, but there isn't even a hard control deck in the format! In short, as much as I would like to try out the Night's Watch in the wider game, they are out of my consideration for the Kingslayer tournament.
House Baratheon was one of the two factions that I really embraced in the first edition of the game. I loved the interplay between the grindy control elements (constantly returning characters forcing your opponent into an attrition game they aren't prepared for) alongside the vast numbers of renown characters really enabling the deck to flip the switch and turn into a rush deck. Neither of these two themes seem present in the new iteration of House Baratheon, which is a shame, but I am interested to see what they have added to replace these two elements.
FFG announced in their Baratheon preview article that House Baratheon is going to be about staying ahead. It feels like they are building the house around the Dominance phase, which was one of the sub-themes for the house in first edition; but this feels very narrow - a house needs to be multidimensional in order to be viable in this new edition of the game.
They actually addressed both of these themes would be supported by giving the big Yellow someone else's piece of the pie. Kneeling has been a part of the Lannister color pie (ironically still yellow) since day one in the LCG. I didn't play the CCG so I don't know whether or not the Lannisters knelt others in the legacy days.
Kneeling is a very interesting form of control - Melisandre has the ability to kneel any character whenever a R'hllor character is marshalled, consolidation of power lets the Baratheon player kneel any four characters in exchange for a single power (and a gold to play the event). These effects will combine with the intimidate and renown on cards like Robert Baratheon in order to ensure that the Baratheons will get ahead, and will find a way to stay ahead.
Interestingly enough, it is Baratheon which has me most interested, despite the fact that their color pie has shifted the most of all of the houses we've seen so far - they combine the kneeling of Lannister with the power rush abilities of old-school Baratheon. This feels like a very powerful set of abilities (plus the cards which will support the Dominance subtheme), as they support each other in a very direct way without being dependent upon any single element in order to close out a game.
I instantly thought of combining the Baratheons with Starks in order to supplement the kneeling effects with the direct kill of Stark (along with the very strong defense built into the Ned Stark card). The low-cost character in House Stark (Arya, Bran, Sansa, and the wolves) will help to cement a house that has historically been about haymakers. For the North! and Like Warm Rain both will help to offer some added backbone to what is bound to be a very strong utility event setup in House Baratheon.
As a support house itself, we see the R'hllor cards being non-loyal, as well as Maester Cressen (strong condition tech), which indicates that the non-loyal portion of the Baratheon house is the aspect that has the least external synergy (at least outside of the box), since there are likely going to be few to no R'hllor cards outside of Baratheon for a few chapter packs at the least! This makes me see Baratheon almost exclusively as a main faction house, since their best effects are all loyal and the cards that are splashable won't synergize very well with the other houses.
Perhaps there will be cards in Greyjoy or Targaryen (the other 'holy' factions), but at this point I can't see a reason to splash Baratheon, you need to be filling your deck with cards that aren't going to synergize with the main faction - this will simply lead to a dilution of effects, in which neither portion of the deck will be able to function as it was designed.
That was the first four factions that have been revealed so far, and I've already given myself a ton to think about. I'll be back early next week with a look at the rest of the factions as well as my thoughts on all eight in general as well as determine my plan. I hope you've enjoyed this overview of the new edition of Game of Thrones, and I hope you will join me as I continue this journey all the way to Gencon, and beyond!