Sunday, 30 August 2015

Faction Review (Review): House Martell

Six factions down and just the two southern houses to come; Martell and Tyrell, both late to the game in the books, are a fitting place to be wrapping up the CardgameDB reviews of the Core Set factions.  Martells first and it seemed as though the reviewers were all on pretty much the same page in agreeing that this faction is still a work in progress.  Doran Martell doesn't play the game of thrones the same way as many of the other house leaders and, quite flavourfully, the Martell's don't really approach the LCG in the same way either.  You can see exactly what Martell are trying to do in trading early weakness and biding their time before delivering a lethal game-winning strike, but what's not so clear yet is that this plan is actually going to work.

Going back to my first review of the Starks I said that the word which sprang to mind was 'solid', while for the Lannisters it was 'powerful'.  For the Martell's I think the most telling word, both for its good connotations as much as the bad, is 'potential'.  There's a lot of potential power in Martell, there's a lot of potential for the future of the house... but right out of the Core Set box they might just be the weakest of the eight factions.

Let's talk about what the Martell plan actually is, though.  The dream would be doubling through the strength boosts from Doran Martell and Sunspear on the 7th turn to make the Martell's champion The Red Viper into an unstoppable 17-19 Strength threat, then launching an Intrigue challenge to play Doran's Game and cash in a huge amount of power at once (as much as 5 from Doran's Game, plus maybe 3 or 4 from The Red Viper's ability).  If you manage to pull this off then if you've accrued even a few points of Power in the game so far it could be enough to win the game outright in one challenge.

The downside to all this is how passive it makes you in turns 1-5 because so many of your best cards are waiting for the big payoff down the line.  In Doran Martell and The Red Viper the house has almost certainly got the two faction leaders who have the least impact when they're played.  Against a determined opponent the Martell house will find their house and their plan in tatters long before the masterplan can kick in.

Interestingly the Martell strategy might be one that works out better in Melee games than it does in Joust.  In Melee you can attempt to hide amongst the pack and let everyone else fight it out while you prepare for the strike, and in a melee game you're more likely to have a weak opponent to pick on when the time is right for Doran Martell to play his hand.  In Joust, when you're the sole focus of your opponent's ire, there's nowhere to hide and nobody to turn to for aid.


It's not all bad for Martell and there are some cards in particular that really stand out as good enough that any faction would be proud to call them their own.  The banner card for this is perhaps Ghaston Grey, which perhaps gives the single most certain and cost-effective solution to the best characters your opponents will play.  Ghaston Grey gives you the ability of the Lannister's The Things I Do For Love for a fraction of the cost and this is a crucial tempo play - TTIDFL costs you the same amount of gold to remove Robert Baratheon from play as it does to play him, Ghaston Grey lets you do that while paying only 2 gold and playing another powerful card as well.

Areo Hotah is another card that sits nicely alongside Ghaston Grey as a way of stalling for time, although ambushing him in for 5 gold telegraphs the play somewhat.  That advanced warning can be avoided with the neat interaction with the last of Martell's really good cards: Arianne Martell.  Arianne's ability take a little though to really appreciate but one way to think of it is almost as a Standing effect, because you can kneel Arianne to launch/oppose a challenge and then return her to hand to play a second character that arrives in play standing.

Unfortunately for House Martell once you drop down beyond their few banner cards you really get into a bunch of things that just don't seem to achieve much, or are notably underpowered compared to what other houses have got.  It feels as though as part of handing Martell the theme of 'stall for time' the designers not only gave them abilities like Doran's that get better over time but also looked to nerf their other cards to the extent that all Martell CAN do is stall for time.

Ghaston Grey is powerful but it's a temporary reprieve, the same for Areo Hotah and perhaps the most useful Martell event continuesthis theme.  Confinement compares quite easily to the Baratheon event Consolidation of Power as removing icons for a turn is similar a lot of the time to kneeling a character... but it's another temporary solution.  You get a slice of that ability on Maester Caleotte as well.

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken is another similar event - it can prevent a challenge of your choice once you've lost a challenge, which is a lot like The Night's Watch card A Sword in the Darkness although that actually prevents all challanges.  This is another unfortunate trend for Martell cards, which is that often they just seem a shade underpowered compared to what other houses get, eg. Obara Sand is a 3 STR monocon who can defend Power where other houses would expect to get a straight 3 STR bicon for a 3 gold unique (Rhaegal, Margaery Tyrell, Waymar Royce, Black Wind's Crew).  

You see this just a little bit too often, and combined with weak faction leaders it leaves House Martell very little to go on for how to win.  Ghaston Grey is good removal but entirely defensive and there's no support for challenges aside from the so-so Confinement.  Their weapon is playing a long game, their events are nerfed and narrow in focus, their midgame characters are weaker than they should be to ensure you can't go on the offense and disturb the flavour of playing as Martell.


It's not that many of the Martell cards are actually bad, it's more that not enough of them are actually straight-up good.  Yet.  I feel as though House Martell are in a similar position to The Night's Watch, but reversed.  The Night's Watch have got all the support cards but are waiting for something compelling for them to support, while House Martell have got a clear plan but are waiting for enough solid cards outside that plan to ensure that they haven't already lost before they get to try and win.

And, again, I do feel as though they're going to be better in Melee then Joust.  At least initially.

I'm adding the following section after seeing Martell in action a bit more.

One of the biggest challenges for a Martell deck attempting to play a longer game is that it doesn't actually have any card draw outside of Doran Martell's Insight ability.  It's worth noting that six of the factions have a card draw effect in the Core Set, from Messenger Raven all the way up to The Red Keep, and only two go without - Targaryens get the Plaza of Punishment and the Martells have Sunspear.  Both these locations are quite similar in that they work more as additional board control than they do as additional card draw, and arguably of the two cards Sunspear is the more potent.  A Martell deck prefers to be the second player (with quite often means playing Plots with high initiative so that you can choose to be second, which is a bit counter-intuitive but there you go) and Sunspear is one of the strongest reasons for this, as it's blank when you're the first player.

As the second player Sunspear becomes a real problem for opponents, who have to carefully judge when they can afford to actually win a challenge and have it rebound back on them at double strength.  The Martell's don't believe in an eye for an eye, and if you're not careful about when you cross them they'll take both eyes.  Sunspear is more situational than a lot of the other card draw locations, but arguably in the right scenario it's actually stronger as adding +1 Military claim and destroying two characters that the opponent has invested gold to play is a better effect than your opponent drawing more cards.

The CardgameDB guys rated Sunspear a pretty weak 60% and I think that may turn out to be criminally low.  Sunspear is another card that makes House Martell a more dangerous foe in Melee over Joust - being a spiky target to hit may persuade players to look elsewhere for their challenges - and it's also another powerful Martell card waiting for the chance to shine when the house as a whole improves a bit.  


  1. Interesting review, one correction though: on turn 7, the there will be 0 plots in the used plot deck since they get picked up when you play your last plot. This makes turn 6 Martell's most powerful turn for Doran, Dawn, etc.