I don't want to write a long theorycraft article. Instead, I'd rather engage in a discussion. I go to forums to engage, it’s virtual-social infotainement during dull moments (work, trains etc). I would like to discuss well-known gaming concepts as they relate to Thrones. Hopefully this will help with your strategising (deck-building) so forum prowlers have a reason to visit – and ideally contribute to the debate.
So let’s discuss a few concepts to prompt the clever people at The Citadel, Brotherhood Without Manners, Taking The White, Wardens of the Midwest and other great content blogs to bring up these topics in article form, sadly not as engaging or collaborative as a forum thread discussion (like the infamous Etiquette thread). So, for a few concepts, I will write a couple of paragraphs as they relate to Thrones and then it’s up to you, dear forum reader, to agree/disagree with what I wrote, come up with your own insights and bring other concepts onto the discussion table (I’ve listed a few classic ones I've not covered with links – please write your Thrones twist on them). And infotaine everyone in the process!
Every strategy in all games has trajectory. In simple terms, are you planning to win fast, mid range or slow? Some cards favour a fast win strategy (synonymous with Rush in Thrones), some favour a slow strategy (synonymous with Control) but most builds I see are mid range (I guess that leaves Aggro). Often I see deck lists where this over-riding approach is not consistent. I will use one of my own examples: I recently listed a Targ Rose build here (using Excel and memory while at work) which I had built with a fast trajectory but, seduced by control opportunities, I chose Power Behind The Throne (a low gold control plot with an effect) over A Clash of Kings (the stereotypical fast finisher), a great example of inconsistent strategy. I even forgot to put 1x Silver Steed, a niche card perfect for this strategy. Fast decks need “work compression” like burst economy (Kingsroads) and efficiency (Jaime non-kneeler, Asha re-stander) that leverage Tempo. Whilst slow decks want sustained economy (Roseroads, The Arbor) and draw (The Red Keep, The Mander) as they leverage Card Advantage. Of course there is a spectrum between them.
So next time you build a deck, try to be consistent with trajectory. A fast deck does not really care much about the harm that a Wildfire will do to its multiple uniques, all listed x3. Because it leverages Redundancy. The slow deck will undoubtedly have set back effects (we have no full reset, Varys is closest) to delay the game or control the Tempo the opponent will generate. So a slow deck will be more toolbox, it will have singletons and doubletons of silver bullets, be less focused and probably only list max. 4 uniques with duplicates for Wildfire (if you have your top 4 in play, you’re winning).
There are many subtle ways that trajectory impacts on your build – but also your play. You know that moment in board games when you stop maximising efficiency (invest resources to increase your rate of resource generation) and start leveraging a superior production into victory point (VP) generation to win from behind? It doesn’t usually happen suddenly (unless there is an “X minutes left” announcement in a timed game) but instead you segue your focus from efficiency to winning. As power total is your proximity to victory, we see this in the game by the growing importance of the power challenge, the challenge that does not help your game state (actually worsens it with initiative and effects like Mance). Nobody cares how untenable your position is as long as you time your trajectory to win when the TO calls time, something I have been badly guilty of misplaying. The classic example is of course Joffrey loving Wildfire, watching his mother, dwarf uncle and Littlefinger burn to win the game.
Make sure you play to your deck’s trajectory - which must be realistic for tournament time limits (Drakey is well-known for not adhering to this; he’s an artist and pragmatism is artless). Know when to change a trajectory if you can see your opponent’s trajectory out-races you (I detailed this epiphany in the Lannister Deck thread here when I didn’t rush play Crossing vs. The Wall). Like writing a PowerPoint presentation, anticipate the length of the journey you plan to take to win. How far you can let your opponent gain power whilst you instead focus on Card Advantage that is winning military and intrigue challenges? Or you focus on power challenges, unopposed and dominance and let the opponent gain game control, confident you have the tricks (plots, power surge events with cancel cover) to win before control is lost? The race parameters are 15 power or 55 minutes. Unlike me with my timed losses in complete control, choose your game trajectory based on your match-up and cards drawn by both players to suit those parameters so that you come out ahead when the race ends.
Kennon has written an excellent article on this already back in 2012 here. Please read the article. It’s very good and very pertinent. There are excellent articles in Magic archives on this topic too.
A classic example of Redundancy are Seal x3 builds, often linked to Voltron (Balon, Tywin, Dany). Whilst associated with fast decks, even slow decks use critical redundancy, like The Arbor x3. Magic initially had a Legendary rule that only allowed 1 copy of a unique in play, no matter who controls it. They then changed it to only 1 copy per player (was this after Eric Lang showed them their error with Thrones?). Thrones added dupes as a way of giving redundancy benefit – added resilience vs. removal and claim soak if a character. But to counter this, Thrones has a dead pile and dead uniques cannot be played. And effects like Wildfire, Dracarys! and Plaza promote deck diversity rather than dull 3x decks (like this meta-call Stark deck here).
Let’s take another example, the full-on Greyjoy unopposed deck that throws everything into the unopposed theme with maximum repeatable stealth/reduce to 0 STR effects (example here). Now in actuality, if you want to just win challenges, the first evasion card you play has maximum impact (it negates their best eligible character) and each subsequent evasion card has lessening impact. So by focusing on a single strategy, you are reducing variance but you are also increasing inefficiency. However, unopposed is a threshold so requires a focused approached: if you have X stealth characters and Y Longships going first in a challenge, you stealth X characters without stealth and with attachments and the opponent has to kneel Y+1 other characters to guarantee opposed - and if he does, you can lose the challenge and use Longships in other challenges. Thus redundancy is leveraged to ensure triggering a key binary threshold.
It isn’t just marshalled cards: Thrones has many once-per-challenge events. 3x Put to the Sword has far less one-turn potential than 1x Put to the Sword, 1x Put to the Torch and 1x Tears of Lys. But if you are strong in military and focusing on targeted kill, you accept the small chance of having the former in your hand for the reliability of drawing a military kill frequently. This also applies to once-per-round that is “kneel your Faction card”. Here a balance must be achieved, especially Fealty builds can threaten a repeat effect (Seastone Chair or Shadowblack Lane) but failing its successful conditional use, can still use the agenda to power an event (We Do Not Sow or Dracarys!). But whilst max. 1 per challenge events can be sequenced over turns, having too many faction card uses is poor deckbuilding (thus the Wildlings module will not be in Fealty with the Horde's naval +2 STR as a key benefit).
So when you build a deck, you need to identify the level of redundancy you want and appreciate the trade-off between increasing reliability of draw and diminishing impact when played.
All card games I know have at least 2 choke points:
(1) the rate at which cards go from draw deck to hand (this is draw choke)
(2) the rate at which cards go from hand into play by spending resources (this is resource choke)
2E also has a third choke point – reserve:
(3) the rate at which cards go from hand to discard (let’s call this reserve choke).
This ceiling choke point is a function of a player applying resource choke to a build with plenty of draw (why Night’s Watch like Sam and Iron Throne and Fealty plays loyal Hunter Rangers). This choke point is being explored in cards like Wraiths and the Kings of Winter/Summer as well as reserve modifier cards.
When building a deck, many strategies focus on pressuring one of the choke points. A military deck pressures resource choke by constantly culling cards for which resources were spent, removing resource generation (Put to the Torch, We Do Not Sow etc) and applying proxy claim via tempo plots like Naval Superiority. This works best in conjunction with Winter effects that reduce reserve to punish opponent’s unrealised draw glut, why factions like Stark and Greyjoy are Winter houses. Meantime an intrigue deck will pressure draw choke by constantly culling options (all games are about maximising your options and minimising your opponent's options). But here a floor is easily reached (yes, military decks can "floor" with a boardwipe but then you have aggro’s version of control) and the opponent can top deck, so bounce effects are powerful to power this approach. Houses like Baratheon and Tyrell are natural Summer houses with their in-house draw because raising the reserve helps their plentiful draw whilst intrigue based houses like Lannister and Martell apply pressure on draw choke, reducing options.
So identifying these choke points, either focusing on a single line of attack or having versatility like Lannister Crossing then exploiting an opponent’s weakness to a particular choke point, is a critical part of every card game.
This is the concept that triggered this thread of (hopefully collaborative) articles and discussion. And the card in question was Ahead of the Tide. Not the old 1E version (and some 1E veterans dismiss reprinted cards without accepting the key differences in the game; e.g. we now have far more resource choke with the expanded gold curve and no non-limited location economy – until Tourney Grounds, paradoxically a control card as it allows control to leverage their greater card draw with event based effects). But instead the better conditional cantrip version we have in 2E (cantrip is a self-replacing card, tutor is search, both Magic terms with no net card disadvantage).
Now I don’t really know the answer to this question but back in Magic, there was a card called Manamorphose. I thought “wow, I’m playing with a 56 card deck with mana fixing" because I can change 1 red/green + 1 other into any 2 mana and draw a card, I've paid 0 net resources and 0 net cards and fixed my mana. But it was not played in any top deck and I didn’t understand why. Because deck thinning is good, right? You increase the density of your good stuff. However, a far more skilful Pro Magic player friend (I was just a mediocre scrub, scraping occasional Pro Points by winning PTQs or getting Day 2 of GPs) explained to me that whilst it seems like you’re building a 56 card deck, you are actually reducing the options in your hand, especially at the crucial start when you can’t afford the 2 mana buy-in and you have no idea what you will draw instead (it can also be countered). Its opportunity cost was not the usual “it takes up a 60 card slot space” but instead “it takes up space in your starting 7 options”; in Thrones, it takes up precious non-set up slots in your deck. However, the deal breaker was because it didn’t do anything that a well built deck did not already do (colour fix).
Now with Ahead of the Tide and For the North!, both conditional cantrips so they can’t always be used to draw a new card for 0 resource (For the North! needs a successful military challenge and draws post-Marshal), there is actually a benefit. So I don't really know if the same applies. There's also the concept of meta surprise, playing "that card nobody plays" for maximum impact. It would be great to hear discussion on this topic - after all, it was the card that motivated me to write this piece. My own thinking is that, when the card pool is small, these "fixers" have value - but as we get a larger card pool (eg. more plots with high initiative you can play in your strategy) and more than 57 good cards competing, they become devalued in time. Your thoughts, please?
I think that’s enough from me for the moment. I want to read other people’s thoughts on both the above and other concepts. Here are list of concepts anyone can write on (c’mon, AlexFrog and others!). Please do contribute.
This is the value of threat and is taken from Poker. Anyone who has played with/against Jinteki in Netrunner understands this. A Thrones example is having 2 gold spare and a Burned Man in hand with opponent going first with an unprotected Dany, you not ambushing him to defend and claim soak, instead losing a superior blocking Red Cloak, then in your challenges attacking with Jaime and Gregor as first challenge, watching him over-defend to deny +5 – and only after all challenges (because you want to represent Tears, Support, Wail etc) do you ambush Burned Men to discard to your Marched next turn. Representing is mind games and you need to evaluate your opponent’s awareness of the game – there’s no point with subtle threats if it goes above your opponent’s head. This is a huge topic and I will let a specialist Poker player (or Netrunner player) explain this concept. Netrunners will know all about this by the face down card plays (and advances) in that game, the threat of a SMC into Clot etc. So someone please apply this concept to Thrones?
The Mill Fallacy
Istaril had a very un-Canadian rant about mill in a classic 1E episode of Beyond The Wall. In 2E, mill is a win condition (Drakey is probably looking forward to sadistically winning this way one day). There's a great article about this and other fallacies on Netrunner's Stimhack (that AlexFrog co-founded as a lead thinker). The gist of it is that a player knowing his own discard pile is more useful to that player than the opponent, that milling a key card is no more likely than having that card at the bottom of your deck and actually recursion effects benefit the target of mill. Again, I hope some thinker in the hobby will take up the challenge and cover this one in a post.
This concept was coined by a lead thinker in Netrunner and is about sacrificing tempo now for tempo later. Long Plan and Ranger’s Cache are classic examples but so are discard with no cost for burst benefit cards (like Kingsroad, Bodyguard and Silver Steed). You are in effect embedding a benefit for later. Again maybe a Netrunner player could detail how this applies to Thrones? In many ways, it’s simply a very focused aspect of Tempo.
Game Theory is an area of mathematics that can be applied where simultaneous decisions are made, used for market manipulation and tendered bids. Prisoner’s Dilemma is populist Game Theory, as is the iocane powder battle of wits scene in Princess Bride. The application of Game Theory is clear in games with double blind bids like Thrones' Plots and Conquest's Commit Dials. There’s a very good reason why base initiative wise, Trading < Calm < Winds < First Snow < Calling < Wildfire < Marched < Clash. The most obvious one is an advantageous Marched when you feel your opponent with 3 premium characters (only 1 military) vs. your 2 military premium characters will Wildfire, take first player and trigger his Wildfire before triggering your Marched with military overlap of 2 vs. 1 – but if he doesn’t Wildfire, your discard is better than his. Game Theory has a huge influence in Thrones. Maybe someone can explain it better than me and how it can be leveraged to improve the most important decisions in the game?
The big one, there is a great Wikipedia entry that also details all the old Magic articles on this at the end as links – they are all great reading which will improve your card gaming skills.
I touched the surface of this huge topic in the Lannister Deck Thread here (the entire thread is full of examples of Tempo, Control, the value of initially mixed-reaction Bastard Daughters etc.). It would be great if someone distilled all this knowledge and applied it to Thrones, sharing these insights so that we can all gain.
And this is the most difficult, subjective one – I myself view it as the flip side of Card Advantage. Again there is an incredibly good Wikipedia entry with source Magical article links at the end.
This is probably the biggest, hardest topic to cover, probably best dealt in mini-topics (Redundancy and Work Compression are both subsets). Good luck to the brave soul who tries to cover this topic! I hope someone does - else I will feel the need to cover it and you don't want another long post (with "too little italics" for this TL;DR attention-deficit generation).
Over to You!
So my challenge to all you content writers is to pick a topic, any of the above or one I didn't list, to post your thoughts here or in your blog then post the link here. I am sure others more skilful and knowledgeable than me can cover such topics far better and more in-depth. To improve all our skill at this game.
Meantime, I urge any visitor with an opinion to post their thoughts – contrary opinion, whatever. Tell me where I’m wrong, show me the error of my thinking (I do often back down and concede good points). And to enliven the forum with healthy debate.
So over to you, folks!