This article is written by a newer player and is mostly aimed at being a useful resource for new players. It is specifically written for second edition (though many of the concepts will obviously translate from first ed.) and focused upon the Joust format (1 v 1 play).
Some basic card game concepts and terminology
In the majority of ‘lifestyle’ card games, there are some basic concepts that normally hold true, and terminology that may be a little confusing for new players.
- Card advantage: Basically the idea that cards are a resource. If you have more of a resource than your opponent, you’re potentially (and probably) ahead. This extrapolates into the axiom ‘drawing cards is good’. Although reserve caps your maximum hand size in AGoT 2.0, if you keep drawing cards, you can filter your hand to hold on to the ones most useful at the time.
- Board state: A bit of a nebulous term this one. Basically a catch all term for what’s going on on the table, what’s been played out etc. Typically used in combination with an adjective such as ‘strong’ ‘weak’ ‘ahead’ ‘complicated’ etc.
- Consistency cards: I tend to call these cards a variety of names, but consistency or glue cards (hold the deck together) are the terms I personally use most often. Cards that enable you to do basic game requirements. Anything that has an effect which draws you cards, boosts your economy, filters or searches your deck to improve your card quality etc. These cards need not only exist in your draw deck. Plots such as Summons, Counting Coppers, Here to Serve and Confiscation are probably all consistency cards for your plot deck. In AGoT, ‘reset’ plots such as Wildfire Assault or Valar Morghulis are probably also worth describing as consistency cards.
- Opportunity cost: This is defined as ‘the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen’. It’s a pretty important concept in card games, especially the ones FFG tends to design, where card combinations can often be segregated by your faction choice. This means that running Tyrell as your main faction gives you access to their loyal cards, but you lose access to the loyal cards of Baratheon for example. This extends to general decisions about what you put in your deck. In Thrones there are a lot of unique named characters and locations, but there can be multiple different variants of these characters, for example Sansa Stark (Core) and Sansa Stark (Wolves of the North), generally people only run one particular variant for reasons articulated below. Any cards you put in your deck are taking up deck slots that could be other cards, so pick carefully. You normally want to be running the minimum number of cards in your deck (typically 60), since the maximum number of copies of a card you can put in your deck is three. Tyrion may be the strongest card in the game. As such, any card you put in your deck over the legal minimum will reduce your chance of drawing Tyrion (or your other strongest cards), or having them in your opening hand for setup. In the author’s opinion, the level of consistency and lack of search (or ‘tutoring’) cards in thrones is not currently high enough to justify going over 60 cards.
Which of these is better for your deck? There’s nothing to stop you running both, but they can’t be in play at the same time, and if one of them is killed, the other is a dead draw, literally.
A final term worth noting and understanding is the term ‘metagame’. This word gets used an awful lot in the world of lifestyle card games, and describes the idea of what is going on in the game as a whole, what decks are popular or considered strong, what cards are commonly played and perceived as effective and efficient, or seen as weak and rarely used. Understanding and having a grip on the metagame can be challenging, especially when the word is simultaneously used to describe what people play and believe in local player groups, geographical regions and online communities, anything that connects players can lead to balkanisation or unification of game related concepts or understandings and opinions. Your understanding of the metagame can (and should) inform your deck building and choices. It’s important to remember that the metagame is generally just a collection of people’s opinions, albeit opinions often generated through significant testing and experience. Don’t be afraid to test new cards, deck shapes and ideas, this kind of innovation is how breakthroughs are made.
As of the time of writing, there are two ways to win a game. The first is to acquire 15 power before your opponent. This is hugely more likely than the second way to win, which is for your opponent to run out of cards in their deck (and have to draw a card) before you do. After more than a year of competitive and casual play, the only time the author has seen a player lose to decking was in an introductory game with one core set and thinner decks where neither player really knew anything about how to play the game. The number of cards in an Thrones deck is minimum 60 (an unnecessarily high number in this player’s opinion), and the number of cards and card effects that force self discard from deck or force the opponent to discard from deck are so low (mostly pillage) that at least at the moment, until recently, this victory condition was functionally irrelevant. The recent changes to competitive tiebreakers for organised play has made this effect slightly more relevant in that one of the tiebreakers if players are tied on power at the end of a game is who has most cards left in their deck. This leads neatly into the competitive scene, where you may get a modified win by being ahead on power at the end of time (typically 55 minutes per round, one game per round) or if your opponent chooses to concede the game to you.
The plot deck is at the heart of Thrones. It is highly thematic, and provides one of the most exciting, and (quite quietly) interactive parts of the game. Building your plot deck, especially as more and more plots are released, becomes some of the hardest, tightest, deck building you will ever have to do. The plot deck controls your baseline economy, whether you will be first or second player (initiative) how damaging your challenges are to your opponent (claim) and the maximum number of cards you can retain until the following turn (reserve). On top of all this balance, plots normally have an effect or alter the game state for the turn in some manner, which can be just as important (in many cases more so) than the overall stats on the plot itself. Building a plot deck is difficult, and can often require a lot of trial and error. There are some general important things to think about when constructing yours:
- What is your deck trying to achieve, and how can your plot deck help? For example, if you are aiming to take a strong military deck, you may want to look at including some plots with 2 claim, some high initiative plots and probably at least one reset.
- Is there enough money in your plot deck to perform your game plan? If your deck revolves around high cost-high impact events, you’ll need to include some economically robust plots to be able to marshal characters as well as have enough gold for the challenge phase.
- Does your deck revolve around specific cards? If so, you may wish to include some of the consistency search effect plots in your deck, or further redundancy such as Close Call.
- Are there any specific weaknesses in your draw deck that can be mitigated or even solved by your plot deck?
- Do you have a good ‘opener’ in your plot deck? Typically openers are utilitarian, good in pretty much any situation, with solid economy and reserve, or something with a good stall/protective effect. Calm Over Westeros might be the quintessential opener. You generally don’t want a plot deck full of silver bullet cards, as it’s relatively unlikely the specific situation will occur first turn.
- Is there a specific order to the way you’re going to play your plot deck? By no means is this necessary, but it can be useful, and it’s worth thinking of plots that have excellent synergy, for example First Snow into Famine into Marched. Modules like this can be more effective than the sum of their parts.
There are some specific decisions that are also probably worth discussing:
- Are you running Marched to the Wall? This plot is extremely punishing to single large character setups. Its presence in the card pool alone may be enough to warp the decisions of your opponent regarding their set up, but there’s no doubting the card is highly effective, especially in a deck with good military pressure. Up until the release of Valar, this plot had some of the highest impact shaping people’s decisions and play right from core set. No player will be able to avoid being stuck with only one character on the board in every game, and you bet if that happens you’ll wish you had this plot to punish them for it.
- Are you running Valar Morghulis? On demand board wipes are terrifying with the death mechanic in Thrones. The weak stats make this a tough one to stomach, but the effect heavily punishes players from overcommitting, makes military claim prior to Valar less relevant, and intrigue claim more important. A game defining card.
- Do you have a plot that can generate enough gold to play out any character in your deck? This can mitigate those games where you just find none of your draw deck economy.
- Do you require Confiscation? Negative attachments are a way of life in Thrones, though have dropped off a little with the release of Valar. Milk of the Poppy, Martell icon stripping attachments and Craven are all very real cards that have seen a lot of competitive play. Some decks, like the Night’s Watch, Targaryen and Baratheon can get away without playing Confiscation, most other decks cannot.
Initiative determines which player gets to choose who is first and second player. In the majority of situations going second is stronger. Marshalling second allows you to see what your opponent has played out for the turn, how much gold they may have kept to utilise in the challenges phase etc, and make appropriate decisions to mitigate their play. It also prevents any chance of critical characters (often Varys) you marshal being milked for the rest of the round (and gives you the chance to do the same to your opponent). In challenges, going second lets you make a lot of judgements about which challenges to oppose or not, and then work out which of your own you can push through when some of your opponents characters are inevitably knelt, or what you need to leave standing to win dominance. Basically, playing second allows you to play out your turn with the information advantage. Playing first normally should only be reserved for specific situations, for example if you gain a defined advantage through doing so (e.g. Greyjoy tech), if you can gain a critical military advantage (or push through a kill event), if there is a particular action/reaction etc you need to go first in player order (for example, a critical Nightmares), or if you need to act before your opponent to stop them closing out the game.
While your plot deck defines a large proportion of what you are doing and can do on a turn by turn basis, your draw deck alone defines your set up. Set up is an interesting mechanic in Thrones that allows the game to start off in the thick of the action. While other games such as Doomtown allowed you to set up your choice of characters from your deck, Thrones set up is higher variance, based on an initial opening hand. Rather than spend multiple boring turns ramping up into an actual gameplay state, you set up up to 8 gold of cards to start on the board, in what results in a mid-game scenario for other card games. There’s not a whole lot to say about set ups that you can’t get from the highly recommended resource AGOT setup analyser. There are a few points about set ups worth mentioning:
- Obviously setting up as close to 8 gold worth of cards is optimal from an economic perspective.
- Setting up as many cards as possible will redraw you more cards (since you draw back up to 7), which is also great.
- Events and negative attachments can’t be set up, and make your set ups weaker.
- Setting up one large character is often weak, and asking them to be Marched.
- Setting up a lot of sub-4 cost characters is potentially risky, if your opponent is running First Snow. It can leave your board state ruined and lead to you dumping a lot of cards to reserve.
As you can already see, your opponent’s plots can make a massive impact on your approach to the game, including set up.
Building a draw deck is a pretty personal thing, and it will definitely depend on the kind of deck you’re trying to build. Most decks contain roughly 50% characters (typically 30+). Characters provide the ability to make and defend challenges, and it’s important to have a solid core of them, at a variety of different cost slots. This will help with your set up by giving you more choice with your opening hands. Having a lot of characters will help you sustain your board against the effects of your opponent’s military claim. You generally want a reasonably balanced icon spread on your characters (at different costs) in order to sustain the ability to make and defend all 3 types of challenge throughout the game. The amount and type of economy you require will depend upon what else you’ve put in your deck, but I’d highly recommend putting in more, rather than less at the start, and then shaving it down during testing, if necessary. Generally, including all your 1 cost reducers, in faction reducing locations, Roseroads and Kingsroads is a solid start. Events cannot be set up, and thus you need to be careful how many you include, erring on the side of fewer is probably better.
Economy Cards and economy packages
Thrones is a game which could be described as having a ‘threshold’, ‘spike’, intermittent’ or ‘non-persistent’ style economy. Unlike games such as Netrunner or Conquest, where resources persist between turns, during the taxation phase in Thrones, you are normally reset to 0 gold. As such, how much gold you can generate on any particular turn is much more important than the overall amount you can generate during the game as a whole. You need to be able to hit the threshold values of the characters you need to play on the turns you want to play them because you cannot normally store up gold, mortgaging a weak turn now for a stronger one in the future. Weak turns are particularly bad in Thrones because of the function of military claim. You probably want to be marshalling at least one character a turn, due to the military claim your opponent may be pressuring you with. If the number of characters in your board size is being pressured and you cannot marshal enough characters to sustain military claim your board will start to shrink, and it can easily fall into an irreparable situation. Military challenges will be discussed in more depth later.
There are currently 3 main sources of economy present in the card pool at the time of writing:
- Plot gold
- Gold modifiers (on both locations and characters)
- Cost reducers
There are also other individual card effects, some of which will be briefly discussed later in this section.
Many economy cards are marked with the ‘limited’ descriptor. You can only setup one limited card (no, you can’t dupe The Arbor), and marshal one limited card a turn, in order to try to stop one player having a snowballing economic start. As more cards are being released, we are starting to see some non-limited economy cards released and in the pipeline which may provide some more dynamic economy options and take up some of the economic burden currently borne by plots.
Plot gold is at the core of the game, and is a critical benefit this game has over games with archaic resource mechanics, notably Magic the Gathering. The gold you put in your plot deck is the gold you have on tap, every turn to provide your baseline economy for that particular turn. This gives you the freedom (if you have built your plot deck carefully) to know you have the money on any given turn to play the most expensive cards you have built in to your deck. Of course, as discussed earlier, there is a tension within your plot deck between economy and plot effects (and other stats on plots such as claim, initiative and reserve). The below chart shows the distribution of printed gold values on all plots released up to and including Tyrion’s chain (with the exception of Summer Harvest at X+2):
Note that this graph DOES NOT take into effect the additional economy effects of numerous plots, including:
- Here to Serve
- Calling the Banners
- Ranger’s Cache
- The Long Plan
- A Noble Cause
- Ghosts of Harrenhal
It also doesn’t take into effect the (probably) negative effect of Fallen from Favour.
While the chart is not perfect, it shows that most plots you COULD put in your plot deck provide around 4 gold. Anecdotally some of the more critical plots such as Marched to the Wall and Confiscation which are commonly seen in plot decks have a gold value of 4. The utility search plots Summons and Building Orders also provide 4 gold. If you are expecting to play out many of the more effective characters in the game (or more than one character a turn) or have some gold left for game swinging events, you’re likely going to need to build in more economic plots and/or rely on the other economy sources present in the game.
The below chart shows plot gold vs initiative:
Not a great correlation here, but lower gold plots are a bit more likely to have higher initiative. (0 gold plot is Summer Harvest). If you’re going to want to have choice over 1st or second player, your plots may end up being slightly weaker economically. While most plots are chosen because of their effects, when you’re building your plot deck, it’s probably worth some consideration.
Additional gold modifiers
These cards basically do what they say on the tin, which is modify the gold value on your plot (in almost all cases, positively!). This is normally very reliable. The only nuance to this is the timing window in which you receive your gold income, which is at the start of YOUR marshalling phase. If your opponent goes first, in their marshalling, they have the ability to affect your cards with a gold modifier. This is primarily achieved by effects which blank cards’ text boxes, such as Milk of the Poppy, Nightmares and Frozen Solid. The other main economy reduction to worry about is out of the Night’s Watch faction, in the form of The White Tree and A Meagre Contribution, two cards which take one of your gold as you collect it, and redistribute it to the Night’s Watch player. The White Tree needs to be in play to trigger its effect, so you should be able to prepare for it (annoying as it may be). A Meagre Contribution, on the other hand, is, in some ways, scarier, as it is played as a reaction out of hand. These effects are typically played with the agenda Kings of Winter to form a full-on denial or ‘choke’ archetype, turn after turn. The final effects to be aware of are the plots Naval Superiority, Famine and Rains of Autumn. Naval Superiority is a high-skill plot which reduces the gold on certain (common, often economy) plots to 0, at the cost of a low printed gold itself. This can be particularly dangerous if you’ve built your plot deck with a lot of vulnerable plots, or you are desperately relying on a certain plot (often Trading with the Pentoshi or A Noble Cause) to be able to play out one of your larger, critical characters. On the other hand, Famine also sacrifices raw economy for the chance to increase the cost of EVERY character your opponent marshals by one for a round. This plot sees heavy play and is a great option for keeping the boot on the neck of a struggling player, particularly after a reset plot has damaged their board state. Rains of Autumn affects both players, and sees no play at all, even in a Lannister (the faction with the most positive gold modifiers) heavy metagame, so is not an effect you really need to fear.
Again, cost reducers also do what they say on the tin, they reduce the threshold gold value required to play out a card.
All factions contain a 1-cost character reducer at strength 1 which reduces in-faction characters. All of these characters are functionally identical with the exception of the Night’s Watch one which has an Intrigue icon instead of Power. All factions have a reducing location for in-faction characters, locations and attachments, again, with the exception of Night’s Watch (sorry Joe!) who have Meagre. The advantage of reducers is they will provide the reduction the turn they are played, unlike gold modifiers which will pay out on a subsequent turn. They are generally not as strong as raw additional gold, as that can be used to play events and pay for character effects such as those on Illyrio Mopatis. If standing, they will also not contribute to dominance, unlike your spare gold. Many of the cards that can control your gold modifiers like Nightmares will also be capable of preventing you using your cost reducers. Many cost reducers are locations, and that means they are kneel-able with Lordsport Shipwright. The final card to be wary of is Treachery. This is a heavily played utility card in Lannister or Lion Banner decks, and is a highly effective problem solver, but it often gets used to cancel the effect of Kingsroads. For them to play it, they need a unique Lannister character in play and a gold in your marshalling phase, which normally requires them to be the first player. Unfortunately, this card can leave you with a sacrificed and wasted Kingsroad, and at a severe economic disadvantage. If you fear Treachery, you may have to elect to be first player, if you have the choice.
Supplemental economy packages
The card pool in second edition is still very constrained. Nevertheless, some diversity in supplemental economy packages is starting to develop:
‘The basic package’ – The reducers, Roseroad and Kingsroad that forms the basis for economy in the majority of current Thrones decks. Cards that are generally efficient and are either available to all factions (albeit different versions) or neutral. Ocean Road supplements this Core Set package very well now.
‘Good Red Cards’ – Ever since the second edition of the game was released, Lannister have had a strong economic advantage due to Tywin and Tyrion (only recently rivalled by Tyrell). Setting up Tywin instantly puts you extremely far ahead economically, let alone the overall strength of a renown tricon with the strength pump. Tyrion will likely make you 2-4 gold in the challenges phase, which is often doubling your plot gold. This allows you to play out high impact events at will, ambush characters, as well as letting you bluff these effects very easily. It also puts you in a great position for winning dominance. The strength of these two characters has shaped the start of second edition Thrones very strongly, and has allowed Lannister players to run highly dynamic decks.
‘Arianne’ – Not necessarily an economy card per se, but the ability to use Arianne to make or defend a challenge, then bring in another character is getting ~double efficiency out of the 5 gold you spent to marshal her for the duration of the challenges phase. Can be marshalled over and over again with your reducer locations. The existence and strength of Arianne’s effect has had a warping effect on the design of Martell characters and decks.
‘Fealty’ – One of the most consistent economy options from the Core Set. Best with a faction with strong internal synergy, since you cannot include cards from other factions and are capped on the number of neutral cards your deck can contain. Pretty much every faction has been tried with Fealty at this point (partly a function of it being the only non-banner agenda in Core), and it’s rarely an awful choice. However, the more loyal cards (particularly highly relevant ones like Dracarys) are available, the better this agenda looks. The faction most likely to be seen with Fealty as an agenda is probably Stark. Stark have lots of internal synergy, a well fleshed out card pool (including many strong loyal cards) since they received their deluxe expansion so early, and further economic options that benefit from a monofaction deck shape in Bear Island and Donella Hornwood.
‘Kings of Summer’ – A general boost of one gold on summer plots. Summer plots are normally quite high gold anyway, so if you’re looking for a robust economic solution, this is a very good option. Of course, you need to build your plot deck around it, and hope that players you run into aren’t playing winter plots. This is a bit more flexible than Fealty as it gives you the gold to spend on what you want, rather than requiring loyal cards, it also does not constrain your neutral card distribution like Fealty, but instead curtails your plot deck choices.
‘The Beggar King‘ – A great economy package in a card for Targaryen. If you can marshal this on a character, and have built your plot deck to utilise it, it can make a huge difference to you. For a start, this card allows you to happily run some of the lower gold-powerful effect plots such as Counting Coppers and Famine (as well as Blood of the Dragon) without sustaining the negative economic impact that these plots would normally provide. It also allows you to utilise Summer Harvest to provide obscene amounts of gold (x=0 for the purpose of Beggar King).
‘Night’s Watch Choke’ – A combination of the White Tree, Meagre and the Kings of Winter agenda. The White Tree provides repeatable economy for you at the expense of your opponent. Meagre provides the same function, and both can be combined to cripple your opponent’s turn and bolster your own. Kings of Winter does nothing for your own economy but further hinders your opponent. It will be interesting to see how many further ‘gold theft’ cards are printed for Night’s Watch. There will definitely come a critical point where the gold swing from one player to another becomes too strong. This package is better as second player, as you can then utilise the stolen gold in your own marshalling, though if you’re first, you at least have some gold to threaten events in challenges.
‘Old Forest Hunter’ – During 2016/17 store championships, many Night’s Watch decks were running Old Forest Hunter as a critical economy card, combined with 2 copies of Counting Coppers in the plot deck. This economy combination was very flexible, as you could choose to either keep the cards or dump them for gold (or just dig for the Wall). Old Forest Hunter let you generate excellent burst economy at the expense of sacrificing your hand, or just tip you over the edge to get that one gold you need for the turn. Just beware of Cersei Lannister.
‘The Arbor’ – It’s +3 gold, and the cornerstone of almost all Tyrell decks. The advantage this card gives you in a game with on demand resets is very high. At worst, it will help you fuel events or win dominance.
‘Tyrell Jank’ – There are plenty of economy cards in Tyrell, notably Paxter, Bitterbridge and Queen of Thorns. Bitterbridge has already powered some cutting edge jank, and the ability to put characters into play for free is always going to have potential, we’ll have to see how it shakes out in future.
Perhaps even Renly Baratheon will see some play in the upcoming Alliance decks! (Probably not…)
The third cycle of expansions is looking poised to deliver some alternate economy locations for each faction along the lines of Golden Tooth. How these change the game will highly depend on the how difficult it is to meet the requirement to get the two gold payout. Any way you look at it, more economy options and diversity will probably be a good thing for the game and deck building.
Economy and Bluffing
There are critical events that can be played during the challenges phase, primarily ones which can threaten your opponents’ characters:
While there are plenty of high-impact events in faction, Tears of Lys and Put to the Sword are neutral, and so can theoretically be played in any deck. If you want to play these events, you’re going to have to save money from marshalling. As a result, you’ll see your opponent (if experienced) playing very conservatively if you have gold saved for the challenges phase, particularly if you have two: one could be coincidence, two looks highly suspicious! Even if you don’t have these events in hand (or even in your deck), by saving money to bluff and threaten, you can pressure your opponent into suboptimal choices with regards to defending challenges. You may even prevent them from making their own, because the consequence of being unable to defend a military challenge with enough strength to close the margin of victory to under 5 could be disastrous. Of course, there’s a fine line to walk, if you bluff with 2 gold and don’t put their big character to the sword when able, they can safely suspect you haven’t got it! If you coulda, you woulda…
A struggle for Power
The vast majority of games end with a player getting to 15 power. Whilst much of the information presented in this section should be self-evident, it is worth thinking in an academic perspective of where power exists and how power enters and exits the board state. It is typically harder for power to be removed from the game than to enter it, and so the game will inevitably, with time progress towards a conclusion.
There are 4 main ways power enters the game:
- Unopposed power
- The Renown keyword
- Card effects (a bit of a catch-all term)
Whilst there are two main ways power can be lost from the game:
- Removal of Renown characters from the board state.
- Power discard effects.
Power exists in two main states on a player’s game board:
- A shared pool between their house card and that of their opponent
- Individual pools held on other cards within the game board (largely Renown characters)
Let’s look at these in some more detail.
The ‘shared pool’
The fundamental purpose of the Unopposed Challenge and Dominance in the game from a mechanics perspective is to introduce power into the game. As of the current state of the card pool, neither player can start the game with any power at all. Whilst other effects may trigger off unopposed challenges, the power gained from one is the basic mechanic to introduce power into a shared pool between two players. This shared pool exists on both players’ house cards. While it may seem to newer players as if the power on their house card belongs to them, their ownership is only temporary. The power on house cards is part of a shared pool between players, of which you are attempting to swing the balance of this equilibrium as far towards your house card as possible. Your opponent can take your power from you if they win a power challenge, and vice versa. The rate at which you can move power around in this pool is largely static. It is controlled by:
- The number of power challenges that can be made in a turn (normally one per player outside of card effects, for two total)
- How effective those power challenges are (controlled by the claim value on the revealed plots).
In a ‘normal, balanced’ game situation, if both players make a successful power challenge in the challenges phase, a power will move back and forth between both players; the game state will not have appreciably changed, with neither player any closer to victory.
Your job as a player is to alter the equilibrium of the power in this shared pool in your favour. The most obvious ways to do this are to win power challenges and stop your opponent winning theirs, or to ensure that the magnitude of your wins are more effective (higher claim). You can also add power into the shared pool directly onto your house card via winning unopposed challenges and dominance, thus gaining power at a quicker rate than your opponent. Alternatively, (or additionally) you can also utilise card effects to add additional power into this shared pool on your house card (some basic examples being The Wall, Superior Claim and Doran’s Game).
The other place power exists on the game board is in individual pools on cards other than the house card of either player. In the vast majority of cases these pools are represented by a character with the renown keyword (or an equivalent such as core set The Red Viper). These pools normally grow by winning challenges with the character, though can also be affected by card effects. These miniature pools are in some ways safer and in other ways less safe than the power in your part of the shared pool on your house card. Your opponent cannot alter these pools by winning a power challenge, however, if they can remove your character from the board (via multiple common effects, notably the plot Valar Morghulis), that power will all be discarded from the game and lost from the overall system. These individual pools provide another critical role in the game by giving an opportunity to break power stalemates. It is unlikely, though not inconceivable that a board state could occur where both players can prevent any unopposed challenges occurring, can both win a power challenge every turn, and tie on dominance. The game state would never progress towards a conclusion, and the individual pools provide an additional mechanism to ensure this situation is as unlikely as possible.
Focusing on individual cards is well beyond the scope of this article, but here is a list of cards newer players should be aware of that manipulate the shared pool and individual pools in both power-positive and power-negative ways:
The Shared Pool:
- Superior Claim
- Doran’s Game
- The Wall
- Benjen Stark
- The Great Kraken
- Sansa Stark
- Heads On Spikes
- Winter Festival
- A Feast for Crows
- Rise of the Kraken
- Street of the Sisters
- Lady Sansa’s Rose
- The Boneway
- The Lord of the Crossing
- Thoren Smallwood
Closed pool effects (other than renown)
- Joffrey Baratheon
- Consolidation of Power
- The Red Viper
- Theon Greyjoy
- Gendry (both positive and negative)
- Small Council Chamber
- Catelyn Stark
- Eddard Stark
- Jory Cassell
- Riverrun Minstrel
- Viserys Targaryen
- White Raven
- Cersei Lannister
- Daring Rescue
- Drowned Disciple
- King of Salt and Rock
- Ritual of R’hllor
- Ser Robar Royce
- The Boy King
- Vaes Tolorro
Power Discard Effects (affect both shared and individual pools):
Claim manipulation effects (other than 2-claim plots and making multiple challenges of the same type):
- Calm Over Westeros
- Winter is Coming
- Vengeance for Elia
- Burning on the Sand
- Tommen Baratheon
Power movement effects:
- A Clash of Kings
- Chamber of the Painted Table
- The King’s Peace
- King Robb’s Host
- Ser Edmure Tully
Let’s now consider power within the game as a whole. The minimum power that will ever exist in a game is 0. The maximum is 28, with both players on 14 power each; this would represent a very close game indeed! Ignoring the power manipulation effects mentioned above and things like 2-claim plots, the most power that a player can reasonably expect to acquire in a turn is 5. 3 power from 3 unopposed challenges, a power stolen via power challenge claim, and a dominance win. This suggests a number of things, for a start, that most games tend to last at least 3 turns in length. While external factors (particularly renown) can accelerate this, this is relatively uncommon. At the other end of the spectrum, while it is not unheard of at all for games to exceed 7 turns, most tend to end by one cycle through the plot deck, though with the release of Valar Morghulis, games are lasting longer. This suggests that one of the players is gaining slightly more than 2 power a turn, on average. A net gain of 3 power a turn closes the game out on turn 5. So, how to accelerate this if you are winning? Winning challenges with renown characters, getting as many unopposed challenges as possible and winning dominance are strong strategies to stay ahead. Stopping your opponent winning power challenges to get back into the game is also going to help. However you probably want to be able to claim power from your opponent to accelerate your win condition, so you may want to consider letting them have some unopposed challenges (or win dominance) to ensure more power enters the shared pool so that you can take it away! On the other hand, what can you do if you’re losing? Well, as odd as it seems, if you have no power in the shared pool, they can’t take it away from you, which will slow them down. You need to try to hold as best you can until you feel you can meaningfully alter the board state. Do your best to not give away any unopposed challenges if you can help it, try not to let your opponent win dominance or their power challenge, if they do, try and make it cost them enough that if you’re going second, you can win that power back with your own, try to deny as much renown as possible (cards like Milk of the Poppy, Edmure and Ghaston Grey can help here), though that’s often a tall order if you’re behind.
Of course, the other two challenge types present other meaningful ways to affect the game state, hopefully in your favour…
It’s not all about raw power: The relevance of other challenge types
The military challenge is the one which most obviously impacts your opponent’s board, and yet can frequently be the least relevant. Realistically, the effectiveness of a military challenge is typically fairly binary: either you force your opponent to claim a low cost character of low relevance (often described as ‘chuds’) or you force them to kill a larger character (or enough characters to subsequently March someone of importance) which heavily impedes their game plan.
Who you want…and who you’re normally going to get…
The effectiveness of a military challenge is almost always determined by the size of your opponent’s board. The larger your opponent’s board becomes, the more low cost characters are going to be in play, and the less bite your military claim will have. So, what are your options? Well, if you’ve let your opponent’s board state spiral out of control, your best option is a ‘reset’ like Wildfire Assault, reducing the number of characters on the board in one fell swoop and making your military claim something to be feared again. Resets will be dealt with in a separate section later. If you don’t have a reset available, you may be reduced to accepting the best you can get out of your military challenges is a bit of renown and/or unopposed power, forcing them to kneel a character to defend, and causing some minor annoyance for your opponent.
There are a few cards that will always give your military challenges some teeth however:
Targeted effects like this are extremely threatening. Put to the sword is effectively a second military claim, but someone you actually really want to kill. Choosing your targets for kill effects can be very important, and not always as obvious as ‘kill their best character’. If you can kill a Targaryen player’s only Dragon for example, you can temporarily neutralise the threat of Dracarys. Similarly, while it might seem ‘bad value’ to use the effect on someone with a dupe or bodyguard, it really isn’t if you can follow up next turn with Valar, ensuring that character will die when otherwise it would have remained a thorn in your side. Making strong military challenges while holding one or two gold can really force your opponent to play differently, and commit more strength to defending than they would like.
Sustaining military pressure when you know the character that you will kill isn’t particularly relevant can be a chore, but may be worthwhile. If you’re forcing them to lose a character a turn, they must keep playing them out, or their board will contract. This way they cannot hold as much back to pad their hand to protect against Intrigue challenges (see below) or hold back characters for after a reset. If they are struggling on economy, then putting on military pressure can be very valuable, as making them claim their 1-cost reducers in this situation will hurt them. The more chuds you claim, the higher the chances your opponent will have to commit an important character to a challenge they know they will lose to prevent you gaining unopposed power. In the absence of any extra effects, it is optimal to defend a challenge you know you are going to lose with the weakest character possible, to preserve larger characters for your own challenges (if going second) or to contribute to defending other challenges or winning Dominance. Since lower cost characters generally have worse icon spreads, the defending player’s options on who to block certain challenges with will be curtailed. Constant military pressure can really hinder this ‘chump blocking’ strategy.
If your opponent’s board is small and you can push through a military challenge, they become highly pressured, as well as being susceptible to Marched (if you are playing a military-focused deck, you should almost certainly be playing this plot). This is your chance to get rid of an important character. If you are totally wiped off the board in Thrones, it is generally extremely difficult to reestablish yourself, especially if your opponent is in a strong position. Using 2-claim plots (or surprise claim raises) to put them in this position, or (even better) using one when they are already in this predicament can break them completely, or put them on the back foot, turn after turn. The smaller your opponent’s board, the better it becomes for you to go first, since if you can kill one of their few characters, they will not be able to use it to make challenges against you, or defend other challenges you make. Even if you cannot make a successful military challenge against an opponent’s small board, you may well force them to kneel out a large proportion of their strength, allowing you to get the other challenges through.
The dead pile mechanic in Thrones can make military claim (and targeted kill effects) especially scary, as if a unique character is killed, any further copies that are drawn are useless. To prevent this, unique character card duplicates can be marshalled on the played out character at no cost. Duplicates can be discarded to save the character from a range of effects, including military claim. While only forcing the use of duplicates may seem a weak result for military claim, as discussed earlier, it can make the character vulnerable to Valar Morghulis. Duplicates are really important in Thrones, especially nowadays, and if you can pressure your opponent into using them, you’re probably in a stronger position than you might initially think.
Unlike many card games, Thrones gives you the ability to attack your opponent’s hand as one of its core mechanics through the Intrigue challenge. It was discussed earlier how cards are an important resource, and so taking them away from your opponent is obviously an extremely powerful effect. Attacking your opponent’s hand is threatening their options. Anything that you discard from their hand is likely to be quite good, as if it wasn’t, why would they put it in their deck? Hitting characters will limit their ability to marshal next turn, and could result in them not being able to defend further challenges. Hitting events can preemptively disarm potential tricky problems for you. Additionally, the random nature of Intrigue claim could hit a critical piece they had been saving for just the right moment. Discarding cards from their hand may also give you a source of information about what their deck is trying to do.
Whilst Intrigue claim is good throughout the game, there is only one time it is guaranteed to be useless, and that is when your opponent has 0 cards left in their hand. In this case however, they are totally out of options, and are relying on the two cards they draw a turn to sustain them. Top-decking in any game tends to be suboptimal, but in Thrones, which is so snowbally, it is regularly a death sentence. In contrast, there are times in which Intrigue challenges are likely to be extremely good. At the very start of the game, assuming your opponent did not mulligan, you can probably reason they have some good cards in hand. While some of the cards in the hand will be redraw after set up and the two drawn after plots, it is reasonable to assume they still have some cards they wanted that they could not set up. If you can push through some early intrigue challenges, you are starting the work of narrowing down your opponent’s options, but also may hit something extremely spicy. You may hit some limited economy cards they are waiting to play on subsequent turns, which is often very damaging to your opponent, particularly in the long term. Conversely, while your opponent has few cards in hand further limiting their options by denying them those cards may be crippling. Whilst Intrigue claim can vary in relevance over the course of a game, over the course of a challenges phase it is often critically important. In many (most?) cases it is optimal to make your Intrigue challenge first if possible, simply because you might discard an important card from your opponent’s hand they were waiting to use later in the phase, for example an ambush character, or a nasty event.
Get rid of these cards if you can, as quickly as you can!
What can you do to mitigate the effectiveness of your opponent’s Intrigue challenges? If you feel you are ahead on the board, you may be willing to mortgage future strength (in this case, cards in your hand) for continuing pressure. In this case you may just roll with the punches, letting your opponent get their Intrigue challenges through. In many cases though, you probably want to protect your hand as best you can. If you are behind you are unlikely to be able to recover if you have few options in the form of cards, particularly if your board is weak and you are struggling to defend challenges. In this case, you’re probably going to have to evaluate the importance of defending your hand (Intrigue) vs defending your board (Military). If you are behind, you should probably strongly think about prioritising defending against your opponent’s Intrigue challenge, rather than winning your own. Another way to defend your hand is to keep it padded with irrelevant cards. The most common cards that tend to be irrelevant are duplicates of unique locations. Though more anti-location cards are currently seeing play due to the relative strength of locations, if you feel you can get away with it, holding spare copies of locations in hand will reduce the chance of your opponent claiming the cards you really want to keep. Similarly, dupes of dead characters are cards that are annoying to draw, but at least have a little use in protecting other cards in your hand. Finally, towards the end of games, economy locations, particularly ‘slow’ ones like the Roseroad might be better off as Intrigue chaff than on the board, particularly if there’s one particularly good card you’re holding on to for a reason.
Perhaps the card that has shaped the Intrigue challenge the most over the first part of Thrones’ second edition lifespan is Tears of Lys. It is an extremely low effort, high reward kill effect, and compares very favourably to PTTS in ease of triggering. The bane of characters without intrigue icons everywhere, this card rewards what you want to be doing anyway (making successful intrigue challenges) with what is often an exceptionally punishing effect for your opponent. If your opponent instigates an intrigue challenge with one gold available, you have to respect the looming threat of this card.
If you can establish significant card advantage, you may be in a position to benefit from a favourable reset…
Back from the Brink: The importance of resets
Thrones is an inherently snowbally game, due to the effect of the claim mechanic. While making a comeback is often very hard, it is not often that it is totally impossible, especially with the help of resets.
Currently, there are four main resets available in the game, 3 of which are plots, one of which exists in the draw deck:
All four of these resets work in different ways, and have different upsides and downsides. Let us look at the three plots, which can be used ‘on demand’ from your plot deck:
Wildfire Assault has pretty good stats and kills all but three characters on either side, with the caveat that the dead characters cannot be saved. This plot primarily serves two main purposes: it prevents the board state and challenge maths from getting overly complicated, and it makes military claim relevant again, due to the smaller board. These two factors alone are key parts of what make resets good, and often mandatory. Once you’ve lived through the misery of two Stark Fealty decks without resets engaging in a complicated mathematical snorefest, you probably won’t leave home without one again. Wildfire resets each player to three characters of their choice. This might seem like parity, but if your opponent’s best three characters are better than yours, or have more power on them, you haven’t really made up much ground in your comeback.
First Snow of Winter removes all the characters of 3 cost or lower from the board at the start of the challenges phase, rendering any remaining large characters vulnerable to military claim, or a Marched to the Wall in the subsequent plot phase. This can often result in players discarding many of their low cost characters to reserve, and heavily punishes factions like Night’s Watch who tend to prefer a board of lots of low cost characters to defend the Wall. This plot does allow some saves (though not Bodyguard) so duplicates are able to prevent the effect, making low cost uniques like Arya very useful. This plot strongly benefits decks which run characters with ambush or ambush-like effects, for example Burned Men or Arianne, as they can be played out during the challenge phase to provide claim soak, expendable Marched targets, or just a boost in challenge strength. It can also benefit decks running characters with strong ‘enters play’ abilities, such as Greenblood Trader or Areo Hotah, as they can be returned to hand to be reused on further turns. The existence of this reset means you should consider its effect on your setup, and probably also in your deck design – 4 cost characters look a lot better under this threat. Any deck with a strong economic advantage (typically Lannister and Tyrell) like this reset, as they can easily afford to play out the characters again, whilst the opponent may struggle to reestablish their board, though economically robust decks can leverage resets well in general.
Valar Morghulis is perhaps the most terrifying of these three. Pretty much instant death to non-unique characters with the exception of Risen and Iron Mines, Valar is an extremely efficient way of levelling the playing field. If you’d prefer your characters alive, you will need to be careful about protecting them with duplicates, Bodyguards or other saves. Like most resets, this plot punishes players overextending and playing out too many characters on to the board, and makes the relevance of Intrigue claim much higher. Many players will be forced to play around Valar, and hold characters in hand until they can find a save effect, which makes for some potentially spicy Intrigue pulls. If you can reduce their hand (and protect your own) to limit their options and THEN wipe the board, you’ll be at a severe advantage. Likewise, if you have an economic advantage and reset the board, you’ll be able to rebuild faster than your opponent, making The Arbor one of the strongest cards for reset-based strategies, but Lannister economy weaker, as it is mostly tied to characters that are more vulnerable. Heavy reset strategies favour location-based decks in general, since locations cannot be killed and remain on the board. This plot is extremely powerful, though the low gold, initiative, lack of claim and low reserve are very damaging. This means that if you Valar and are behind, you still may not completely catch up to your opponent, though it’s probably better than nothing. So, how best to deal with this game-warping threat? Try to protect your hand from Intrigue as best you can, avoid putting too many critical characters on to the board unless you have ways to protect them, and try not to overextend yourself. If you suspect your opponent may play Valar, you can protect yourself a little by playing a high economy plot to try to reestablish your board more quickly than your opponent (incidentally, you probably want at least one high economy plot in your plot deck for this reason, and make sure it’s not Calling the Banners!). You can also play a plot like Marched or Fallen From Favour. Both these plots (and most plots in general) have high initiative, and you can elect to go first and trigger your plot first, sacrificing a critical character so they can survive to be played out again later. Ultimately, it seems likely that the combination of Valar Morghulis with the death mechanic in Thrones will warp deck design the same way that it did in first edition, where most unique characters get relegated to single copies in decks.
Varys is interesting in that he’s currently the only reset played from the draw deck. There are obvious downsides to having your reset attached to a character. For a start, it’s not available on demand, as it would be to be selected and triggered at will from the plot deck. Secondly, as a character, Varys is vulnerable to kill effects and military claim, as well as Milk and Nightmares. He also costs a significant chunk of gold to marshal, though is a Lord so can be reduced by A Noble Cause. Characters can be saved from Varys. However, he does provide some advantages over the plots. Assuming you are second player, you can decide whether or not to marshal him after your opponent marshals characters (as well as protect him from getting milked). This advantage is important, as you have much more information after plots are played out than when you are deciding. Varys also renders saves based on kill effects such as Risen and Iron Mines useless as reset protection. Many players using Varys would traditionally use a high initiative-high gold plot such as Calling the Banners to go second, playing him out safely after the opponent had over-committed..
Generally it’s pretty beneficial to play some form of reset. It’s not always necessary, especially if your strategy is to play constructively and build a big board, but in such a snowbally game, having a catch up mechanic built in to your deck seems pretty sensible. Personally I’d much prefer the more elegantly designed Pale Mare to the blunt hammer of Valar, but unfortunately, we’re stuck with what we have at the moment. Perhaps it will be released in the future for constructed. Here’s hoping.
This is a compilation of information it took me a year and a half of playing Thrones to learn. Hopefully it will be of some use to new players in a similar situation.