Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Day One: The State of the Realm

Well, it's been a few months since I started my blog... and the A Game of Thrones LCG Core Set is finally here.  I actually have it in my actual hands!

So, after a few months of preparation the game is here and you can rush out to your nearest Friendly Local Game Store and purchase it (probably with three copies if you're pretty sure you're going to be getting serious about things).  But even though the game is brand new in stores we're in a rather odd place in that a lot of people (myself included) have actually been playing the game quite a lot already.

A lucky few secured actual copies at Gencon several months ago while FFG's printers were busily hoarding enough stock for the full release, many others took advantage of the super-helpful .pdfs of the cards that were posted online to create paper copies of the game to play in proxy form, and more still took advantage of the fact that the online tabletop platform OCTGN was updated to include the new cards.

The end result is the rather odd position that on Day One of the LCG hitting stores we actually know quite a lot about which cards and good and bad, and which strong decks people have found so far.  This absolutely isn't to say that there's nothing to explore or new decks to make, by the way.  The number of people about to descend on the game in stores far outnumbers those who have played to date and they could well find something new.  More games will be played, more combinations explored, more strategies tested.  The outcome of all that collective brainstorming is unknown, but the purpose of this blog is give all those guys a bit of a leg up by talking about what has been worked out so far.


If you've been one of those players tuning into the forum discussions about 2nd Edition then you'll probably agree that almost all of the focus has been around the strength of two factions in particular - Greyjoy and Baratheon.  In the very early days after Gencon, when people were first trying cards out, it was the Greyjoy deck that crystallised first.  With a bank of powerful characters using the Stealth keyword, impressive bonuses from launching unopposed challenges (eg. by using Stealth), and a strong suite of supporting Locations and Events it was clear almost immediately that the Greyjoys had what it takes to stand alone without needing to call a banner to their aid from anybody else, which meant they could benefit from the economy bonus of playing Fealty as their Agenda.

Playing against the Greyjoy Fealty deck is not pleasant, especially if you're new to the game and attempting to work out what your deck is supposed to look like.  I know how unpleasant it is for a fact because that was precisely my first experience of the A Game of Thrones LCG... being swept aside by angry ninja vikings.  My 'I think I want to try the Night's Watch, they sound cool' deck never stood a chance.  Before you go ahead and unleash the Greyjoys on an unsuspecting friend who you're trying to teach the game to then it's probably best to pre-warn them that they're about to have no fun at all, because that's pretty much what the Greyjoys do - they reduce your opponent to a spectator.

At the heart of the Greyjoy assault is a suite of options that make opposing their challenges either impossible (Stealth on Theon, Asha and Wendamyr, Kraken's Grasp, Balon Greyjoy) or unpleasant to attempt (Throwing Axe, Iron Fleet Scout, Drowned Men).  Unopposed challenges then allow the Greyjoys to trigger benefits as well as their standard claim effects (draw cards with Great Kraken, remove locations with We Do Not Sow, stand characters like Asha or gain power with Theon, etc...).

The Greyjoy war machine is very difficult to stop, as they Stealth past your characters with impunity and simply race away with the game while you have very little to say about it.  Character removal effects are at a premium in the Core Set and Stealth, which doesn't kill characters but does ignore them quickly established itself as the best pseudo-removal option around, propelling Greyjoy to public enemy #1.

This is a sample Greyjoy Fealty deck from Core Set, and I don't want to labour their strengths too much before I move on to Baratheon, but what's important to bear in mind is just how dominant Greyjoy initially seemed (and how potent and cohesive their Core Set cardpool still is)


If you go back to read my initial 'Review of the Review of Baratheon' blog then I described them as a faction where the power flowed outwards from their strongest cards - Robert Baratheon and Stannis Baratheon, which then transferred out through Melisandre and The Red Keep to give Baratheon control effects and the best card draw of any faction.  That initial read of how Baratheon works created quite an inconsistent deck, where if you drew your best cards you could dominate anybody but would pretty rapidly capitulate with a weaker draw.  In actual fact, you would often find that you didn't even have 60 cards you really liked in a Baratheon deck and were playing something just to make up the numbers in the hope you wouldn't actually draw it.

The matchup between Baratheon and the strong Greyjoy deck was very testing, because the Baratheon needed to draw particularly well to be able to control/race the Stealth of the Greyjoys unless they got something like the Robert & Lightbringer & Stannis lock to keep all their cards kneeling the entire game.

Baratheon was one of the decks with the best chance against Greyjoy, but even then you were hoping for a slice of good fortune.  That was Baratheon - hugely powerful one game and impotent the next, while Greyjoy was more consistently a threat in every game.

But we had missed a card.  The Chamber of the Painted Table - which had been rated at only 62% in the initial CardgameDB reviews of the Core Set - has turned out to be an absolute powerhouse, particularly in combination with The Iron Throne.  What the Iron Throne/Painted Table combination (or 'Table & Chairs' as I call it) has brought to Baratheon is twofold, both of which filled a gap that we didn't realise the deck really had.
  1. First of all, Chamber of the Painted Table is very good at ensuring that you don't actually lose the game on Power before you can draw your best cards.  If you don't draw Melisandre/Robert then the Chamber of the Painted Table will keep incrementally pulling back the Power scores in your direction even if you're losing the board position horribly.  It's easily worth a couple of extra turns in a game you were losing, which is a bunch more cards drawn as you look for Robert Baratheon or Stannis to come and save the day.
  2. Secondly, Chamber of the Painted Table gives Baratheon a real plan for how they're going to win.  In my 'Review of the Review of...' I pointed out that Melisandre's kneeling effects were good temporary removal, but without Stannis to prevent characters from standing it was difficult to turn that into long term advantage.  Chamber of the Painted Table means that you don't HAVE to turn it into a long term advantage, you just have to keep kneeling things long enough for the table to get you to 15 Power and the end of the game.

Pretty much as soon as the 'Table & Chairs' version of Baratheon Fealty arrived on the scene it shoved the old Baratheon decks aside, and it shifted the narrative away from "God I hate Greyjoy" to "OMFG how are you supposed to beat Baratheon?". 

Which is a fair question, so let's look at the strengths of Baratheon:
  • Best marquee characters?  Check (Robert Baratheon is the best character by a mile)
  • Most efficient control?  Check (hard to beat 'free' kneeling on Melisandre, Stannis and Robert)
  • Best Card Draw?  Check (The Red Keep is by far the best card draw location in Core Set)
  • Most resilience to removal?  Check (Maester Cressen kills Milk of the Poppy, Selyse Baratheon protects from Tears of Lys)
  • Best Power generation?  Check (Chamber of the Painted Table)

You can't take on Baratheon's characters in a heads-up fight, you can't kill them easily, they draw more cards than you and they stop your cards from doing anything.  Baratheon's impact on the Core Set games was extremely oppressive, and not many serious players would have contested that Baratheon were/are the strongest faction.

Moreover, in combination with the Greyjoys the strength of Baratheon created an unhealthy metagame for the small Core Set cardpool.  Baratheon kneeling beat the Greyjoy stealth (you can't Stealth when you're kneeling!) but if you wanted to try anything in the other six factions then the combination of the amount of kneeling and stealth being played made it a very tough environment for any new deck to find a niche and survive.

Having the Baratheons as the strongest faction by far may be a flavourful representation of the state of Westeros at the beginning of the novels, but it doesn't make for a great and varied card game unfortunately!


This narrative of Baratheon oppression changed somewhat when Alexander Hynes (aka Istaril) shared the Lannister deck that he had devised as a specific counter to the two dominant decktypes being played.

The Lannister deck had been well explored by many other players, but was ultimately found wanting.  Yes, you could Intrigue the opponent's hand away with Cersei and Tyrion, and yes you could draw a bunch of cards with Lannisport.  But when all that advantage was happening off the table, and on the table Tywin and Jaime were being knelt/stealthed past it was all somewhat academic.  Congratulations, you've got far more cards in hand than me... but you've no characters in play and I'm on 12 Power to your 3.

Istaril's Lannister deck is different precisely because of how much it plays down the classic Lannister strength of Intrigue card advantage and replaces it with more board control elements to ensure that you don't lose the game through Military at the same time as you're trying to win it with Intrigue.  More specifically, Istaril found a spot for two cards that had been largely ignored to date by many of the other early players.  In a similar way to how the Chamber of the Painted Table transformed how Baratheon played, adding Seal of the Hand and Varys gave the Lannisters the tools to counter both kneeling and Stealth.  

Getting all your characters knelt?  Stand them!  Opponent's characters waltzing past your defences with Stealth?  Discard everything from play and start again!  And on top of that, the Ambush in Lannister works well in both matchups as you can play characters after Baratheon has knelt targets, or Greyjoy has nominated who they will Stealth past. =

In truth by focussing on those two cards I'm horribly underplaying some of the subtleties in this Lannister build, and in particular the bravery it took to slay so many of the sacred cows of Lannister in the process.  By slaying sacred cows I'm talking about deckbuilding decisions such as removing Cersei Lannister to play Wildling Horde and Rattleshirt's Raiders, or removing Casterly Rock and Western Fiefdom to play Seal of the Hand and Put To The Sword.  But by taking those significant steps to rebalance the Lannister deck away from Intrigue towards a strong suite of board control effects is precisely what makes this deck work.


The recent development of this Lannister deck could be very important for the health of the Core Set metagame, and on until the Chapter Packs start to really shake things up.  On one level it's simply important to have a deck that can fight back against the manner that the Baratheon and Greyjoy Fealty decks tore away at your ability to defend yourself meaningfully.  Secondly, if the Lannister deck gains traction and is played by many people then it reduces the amount of Baratheon and Greyjoy being played, which in turn creates a more forgiving environment for the other houses to attempt to flourish.  It's also useful for the other houses to note that the Lannister deck is so focussed on beating Baratheon and Greyjoy (including niche cards like Seal of the Hand) that there are chinks in the armour for other houses to exploit.

It may not be very 'Nedly' for the devious Lannisters to be cast in the role of protector of the realm, standing up for the little guys, but that's what is happening.

So, here we are.  Day One.  The game is in stores, and really everything else has just been the warm up routine for the real play - tournaments and competitions will test decks more rigorously than players have managed so far.

So are there only three decks to play?  Do you just pick one of these three?

No, absolutely not.  This is what a lot of players have focussed on (and with good reason) but the arrival of the Lannisters in particular has opened things up for the other factions - Targaryen in particular could be well-positioned to burn down the key characters of the Lannisters and destroy Seals and Bodyguards along the way.  As well as what the other factions can deliver these three decks are all running no Banner, and there's dozens of House/Banner combinations to explore.

Is Baratheon/Martell better than Baratheon/Fealty?

Is Lannister the best banner for Greyjoy, or is it Tyrell?

I've got a Stark deck I think is very strong.  Other players are getting good results with Night's Watch, Targaryen and Martell decks.  The picture of the wider metagame is still unclear, but if you're just jumping in now then what we DO know is that the Greyjoy, Baratheon and Lannister decks are setting the standard, and defining the narrative.  

These three decks are not the end of the story of this LCG, not by a long shot, but they might just be where the story starts.


  1. One could argue Lannister are exactly the faction that SHOULD be taking Baratheon's healthy position of dominance and destabilising it just as events begin to unfold...

  2. First of all, great blog. Thank you for putting in the effort.

    When you say that Istaril shared his deck, where did this happen? I've tried to find the original sharing of this deck, but Google is failing to come with anything.

  3. @jdl Istaril runs the podcast 'Beyond the Wall' which is hosted at cardgamedb.com, you should be able to find it there. CardgameDB and ThonesDB are the places to go to find people's published decks.

  4. Big fan of the blog! Thank you for writing.

    Second, I've started working on Martell/Banner of the Watch defensive deck (http://thronesdb.com/decklist/view/623/staring-at-the-sun-martell-banner-of-the-watch-3.0).

    Confinement and then Tears of Lys are a potent combination that has the potential to get rid of some of those pesky Intrigue characters (Melisandre, Any Lannister, and Daenerys). Plus the Martell/Night's Watch decks will only get better with the plots from Taking the Black.

  5. Once more, thanks for a well written and very interesting article!

    I am just joining into the fun and do know very well that Greyjoy, Baratheon and Targ/Lion do do define the meta (looking at Worlds) but this Lannister tech-deck is news to me and makes the little Lannister in me happy.
    I assume that the power level of it will rise with the soon addition of the Hound.

  6. His subject is good, long while I find this topic and I think it is here, many thanks guys .

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