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Champions Favour

Welcome to Champions Favour, a new series in which I will be looking at top tier decks in the Game of Thrones meta and evaluating them - what they accomplish, what cards go in them, why they are good, how to play them effectively, and how to counter-play them. I will also include example decks where available. This series will be aimed at newer players who want to improve their understanding of these decks, but hopefully the breaking down of such lists will help players of any skill level. To start off we will examine in closer type the deck archetype that won Gencon, amongst other events...

Issue #01: Lannister Banner of the Dragon

Lannister Banner of the Dragon is not only arguably the strongest deck in the current meta, but also effectively the meta's "centrepiece" deck, in that it dictates the playstyle that all factions are following. Its cards essentially fall into four categories:
  • Resource cards (The Roseroad, The Kingsroad, reducer chuds)
  • Tremendous high-end characters (Tywin Lannister (Core), Mirri Maz Duur, Ser Jaime Lannister (Core))
  • Disruptive hard-control effects (Put to the Sword, Tears of Lys)
  • Ultra-efficient cards that fall outside the above three categories but are too powerful not to make the cut (Treachery, The Hound, Burned Men)
Note that some of the most important lynchpin cards, like Tywin, Tyrion Lannister (Core) and Mirri, cross over into multiple categories. This approach continues into the plot deck, with plots tending to be resource plots (A Noble Cause, Trading with the Pentoshi), plots that emphasise the quality of the high-end characters (Wildfire Assault) disruptive hard-control plots (The First Snow of Winter, Marched to the Wall) or special one-off efficiency cases because they're too powerful to leave out (Confiscation).

How it plays is quite simple in many respects. If I was to write an ethos of the Lanni Dragon build (and apparently I am), it would be "Maintain more high quality characters on the table than your opponent. Accomplish this primarily through disruptive means like Mirri and the events; however, equally important is the additional resources provided by Tywin and Tyrion to help maintain a constant stream of strong characters to overwhelm opponents."

The first sentence of that ethos is essentially the ethos of ~90% of decks in the current meta. What sets Lannister in general, and Banner of the Dragon in particular, apart from other builds is a few things:

Economy. No other faction but Tyrell has access to the economic power provided by the likes of Tywin and Tyrion, and no faction can leverage it as effectively as Lannister. Half the cards printed for Lannister thus far feel designed to synergise with the Imp, and given the entire nature of the deck is to put out high-cost characters, both characters (Tywin directly and Tyrion by meaning you don't have to save gold) help you put out even more characters, quickly creating a snowball effect. Lannister have several advantages, but make no mistake, this is advantage numero uno and cannot be overstated.

Efficiency. Better than perhaps any other deck, Lanni Dragon can utilise stand effects from Seal of the Hand and Magister Illyrio. This is in part due to the previous point - Lannister have the resources to play Seal where other factions may struggle, and Illyrio is one of Tyrion's best friends. It also has several worthwhile targets, both in terms of volume of Lords and Ladies to place the Seal on and in terms of characters worth standing with Illyrio. Tywin is possibly the prime target for both effects, but getting to use Mirri in two challenges in one round can straight up decide a game; likewise, Ser Gregor Clegane swinging on attack for military then remaining an inpenetrable wall on defense can put your opponent in a no-win situation.

Power-gain. The deck lacks the sheer concentration of power gain that other decks can muster, a point we'll return to later, but as more and more characters hit the table you will find that Lanni Dragon can get, and as per the previous point re-use, several renown characters. What this ends up causing is a weird effect where you may feel that you're going toe-to-toe with the Lanni Dragon on board position, fending off their tricks quite well, and yet their power is increasing at a faster rate than yours somehow.

Variety. If a game gets bogged down with several characters on either side, Lanni Dragon will amaze you with its ability to find an answer. Maybe it will be First Snow of Winter, removing your side of the board aside from a character or two it can claim for military or march to the wall (while protecting its own stronger characters with a Burned Men, of course); or maybe Ser Ilyn Payne will cut a swathe through your cheaper characters (and I hear if Magister Illyrio is on the table you can pay Ilyn 2 gold overtime for him to work a double shift); perhaps a high STR military challenge will leave your characters Put to the Sword, the gold provided for from an intrigue challenge (unless the gold was spent on poisoning your best characters with Tears of Lys, of course); if you go to the effort of stopping the win-by-5 it may be that your strongest character dies anyway, thanks to the clumsy-yet-potent swordsmanship of Gregor; maybe you'll go all out to prevent that military challenge and neglect to protect yourself from the attacks of Mirri, a task made even tougher if The Hound accompanies her on a power challenge before running away when it comes time for claim, or if she falls under the tutelage of Syrio Forel; all of these threats could be neutralised of course, perhaps through the help of some powerful character or location... only for Treachery to give the Lanni Dragon player a route in; and even if, somehow, you dodge or neutralise all of these threats, and keep ahead on power, your plan could come crashing down around you with a bit of interrogation from The Tickler (another man who can put in a second shift with Illyrio).

With Lannister able to push bodies out like nobody else, make those bodies do strong work and boast a plethora of "X factor" cards to unscrew the lid off a tight game jam jar, it's very easy to feel overwhelmed. How can one cope with this deck?

Do not despair, because there are answers. I won't lie, nothing is particularly reliable, hence the deck's general success, but there are possibilities. The key point about this deck is that it is as conventional as can be. Therefore it is highly vulnerable if you press any one aspect particularly hard. If you play the "generic aggro game" then you will struggle, because it's the best example of a general hard control/aggro deck in the meta; however, if your deck is more 'specialist', the deck may find itself overwhelmed.

A big part of this is the lack of draw the deck features. Typically the deck cannot find room for Counting Coppers, the easiest draw in the game. This includes imrahil327's Gencon-winning deck, and that deck actually opted to forego The First Snow of Winter and Marched to the Wall (feeling the meta would have adjusted for it), yet still couldn't find room for Coppers. Because of the lack of draw the deck has, Lannisport becomes a very difficult include. That may sound counter-intuitive - "it has so little draw, it cannot afford draw" - but it's because the less draw you have, the more consistently you need to draw something specific due to the increased top-decking, and there are too many phases in a typical game where getting a three gold location that has no effect on the board can be costly. A typical Lannister Dragon deck has room for 1x Grand Maester Pycelle, maybe a Summons, and maybe a Littlefinger. When asked if he found the lack of draw detrimental at Gencon, imrahil327 had this to say:

"YES! Oh goodness yes, I wished for [Counting] Coppers a lot...but really, there isn't a good spot for it."

This weakness ultimately creates several openings.

Firstly and most simply, less draw tends to mean fewer cards in hand. This is further compounded by Lannister's ability to generally play what it draws. As a result, the cards left in Lannister's hand tend to be the, shall we say, spicier ones - Treachery, Put to the Sword and their ilk. If you remove those cards, you remove a lot of the deck's ability to leverage its versatility.

Additionally, if you deplete the hand, the Lannister deck is left incredibly vulnerable to a reset. A successful Varys trigger will often mean game over - though of course, Varys will have to make it through the challenge phase and dominance to be able to explode over the board. You can also accomplish this the more straightforward way, where you systematically remove all the characters from the other side of the board. Rather unhelpfully this can be easiest for... other Lannister decks, with their access to Trial By Combat. However, Targaryen have options as well, with Khal Drogo and Dracarys!/Plaza of Punishment providing extra character attrition. Furthermore, there is currently the sword of Valarcles hanging over this deck - once Valar Morghulis is released, it will be interesting to see if the Lanni Dragon deck is able to adapt and survive.

Of course, not every deck is able to attrition away the Lanni Dragon player's board and/or hand. However, there is another element of glaring weakness about the Lannister deck - namely, its vulnerability in the early game. Often by turn two, and almost always by turn three, Lannister has built up a strong selection of characters; in that first turn, however, there's often a window of opportunity. If you can delay the Lanni Dragon player's tempo - say, by playing Ghaston Grey, or Milk of the Poppy, or Nightmares, or Craven, or by triggering a kneel effect - you can find that window of opportunity extending. A similar effect can be achieved by attacking the Lannister player's resource base. Often they will look to open with a high gold plot, especially if they were unable to setup Tywin - as almost all high gold plots are Kingdom or Edicts, or (in the specific case of Summer Harvest) key off your gold, Naval Superiority can be a highly potent opening plot. An aggressive choke can be hard to pull off if the Lanni Dragon player sets up well (the fabled "Tywin/chud/Roseroad" setup), but even then there are options - Milking Tywin, for instance. A first turn Nightmares on The Kingsroad can often ruin a Lanni Dragon player's whole game.

What is important when applying this tempo hit is to leverage it. That could be through reverting to the hand/character attrition previously described, or it could be through developing your own board position, or it could be through rushing ahead in the power grab game (especially if you can put the power on your faction card, safe from all their removal). It is fundamentally important to play pro-actively though; if you allow the Lanni Dragon player to recover their position after an early tempo hit, you will find it tough going.

On the subject of the power grab game, Lanni Dragon is solid-but-unspectacular when it comes to power icons and renown. With the exception of reducers and The Hound, it will typically have at most 1 or 2 characters below cost 4 that have a power icon; aside from Ser Jorah Mormont and maybe Ser Amory Lorch, the deck has no renown below cost 6. Therefore, if you press power hard (and early, as mentioned before), you have an option to outpace the Lanni deck even as your board position crumbles around you.

One example I gave for how to apply the tempo hit to the Lannister player was to utilise negative attachments, and this comes back to that "defeat them by specialisation" approach from before - the deck runs 2-3x Rattleshirt's Raiders, and the top versions even run support for those Raiders (see imrahil327's list with its copy of Mance Rayder); however, when it comes to reliable attachment removal, 1x Confiscation and hope for the best is all the deck can really afford. Typically once you land the second Milk on Tywin after they've Confiscated the first, that's his gold bonus done for the game. This again comes back to the draw - most factions have a similar approach to attachment removal, but they also boast the draw to reliably see their Raiders. Lannister doesn't, simple-as.

Lastly I want to give some sample lists for reference, taken from ThronesDB. These decks aren't based on my own subjective opinions of what makes for a good Lannister Dragon decks, but are simply lists that have found success in large and/or prestigious tournaments.

imarhil327's list (Winner, Gencon)
MatsuPeke's list (Winner, Reading Regional (55 players))
Domo's list (Top 8, Dutch Nationals)
Sharingiscaring's list (Top 8, Canadian Nationals)

If you have any thoughts on the deck, either aspects of it not covered in the article or alternative ways to beat it, or if you just have questions about the deck, or suggestions for future editions in this article series, please direct your attentions to the forum topic here!
  • celric, LorasTyrell, 14Shirt and 13 others like this