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An Argument for a Restricted List in Thrones 2.0

Restricted List Thrones 2.0

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás (known as George Santayana in English)


Many Thrones players from the 1.0 game reminisce nostalgically about the game, and how 2.0 just isn’t quite “there yet.” For newer players whose Thrones experience began with 2.0, hearing old-timers’ talk of the glory days can evoke a sense of annoyance. If 1.0 was so great, why did the game need a reset? Certainly, a review of past 1.0 favorites like Ghaston Grey and Hatchling’s Feast suggest that 1.0’s most popular cards were at a minimum overpowered, and arguably game-breaking in a way that necessitated a reboot. From my vantage point, the final year of 1.0 was both the best gaming experience I’ve had with any TCG, and one in which it was difficult for new players to enter given the large cardpool. The environment was heavily curated with a Restricted List, but the cost of entry for new players was steep. So, what does this have to do with today? As the introductory quote from George Santayana observes, history has a lot to teach us.

An expanded use of the Restricted List (RL) would strengthen the competitive environment, add greater variety to deckbuilding and improve the overall community experience. To some extent, 1.0 players’ collective memory of the 1.0 game is skewed. People forget that early in 1.0, many of the same questions and issues we face today were challenges. The situation in 2012 isn’t so different from today. Ultimately, FFG implemented and then later expanded the RL, transforming Thrones into the game we loved by the end of 1.0.

What we can learn from the previous edition of the game.
Many of the issues the current Thrones LCG faces are similar to issues we faced long ago. In fact, as I reread an article I posted to CardGameDB in 2012, I’m struck by similarities more than differences. The environment then had much of the high-variance card interactions we see now. Like in 2012, powerful effects rather than challenge-phase mechanics of claim and unopposed generally determined a game’s outcome.

To be sure, personal preferences and playstyle vary dramatically in every card game. However, typically the best experiences most people have with Thrones are not one-sided blowouts. The games that focus on challenges tend to be most memorable and enjoyable. By that, I do not mean the “Challenge Phase” triggers like Flea Bottom or Last of the Giants into Jaqen. Nor do I mean the massive NW builders boards or any large number of in-play characters that rely more on counting STR properly than the tactical order of the challenges. As much fun as swing-y effects can be, the fundamentals of this game are about three distinct challenges. The more the core game centers around military, intrigue and power, the more fun the game typically is for both players.

Two key points in my 2012 article, which successfully pushed for an expanded use of the RL, seem relevant today:

(1) We were at a crossroads in the game. By 2012, FFG had tried to curate the game through design, as well as selective errata and card bans. While at the time FFG had employed a very short RL, it became increasingly clear that a limited use of the RL was not creating the fun, interactive environment most players wanted.

(2) Like today, there was much disagreement on the path forward. Evident from the responses to my 2012 article, there was much disagreement about the direction FFG should take the game. Many of the reactions to an expanded RL were negative. A cursory review of the several Thrones Facebook pages today suggests the same level of opposition to even the most minor use of a RL.

Ultimately, FFG decided to expand its use of the restricted list in 2012, with more than 40 cards on the joust RL, or about 3-4 per cycle/expansion on average. If FFG implemented the same approach today, roughly 30 cards would be added to a restricted list (presumably the top 3-4 strongest in each faction plus a few neutrals). That represents a significant change to the competitive environment, and a major mix-up that would add variety.

Why would a RL add variety?
Based on online conversations, there seem to be two primary reasons for opposing a RL: (1) the belief (in my opinion, erroneously) that the design process, rather than post-design intervention, is a better way to curate the environment; and (2) a fundamental misunderstanding about how a RL actually works.

Many players believe that printing future cards is the best way to address balance issues and add variety. Unfortunately, design-based solutions fall short for two reasons: (1) design-based fixes take 6-12 months to be implemented due to the schedule of design, manufacturing and printing, and (2) design-based solutions often miss by under-compensating (the solution doesn’t work) or overcompensating (creating new problems). To put it directly, if design frequently creates the problems, why should we expect design to be a consistent solution? History has shown that we should not expect that designers (and playtesters) are perfect. To use a garden as a metaphor for our competitive environment, curating the environment with card design is a bit like planting new seeds in an attempt to overgrow existing weeds. In the long run, a strong new plant may overtake the weeds, but not before the weeds do a lot of harm to the garden.

One common objection to a RL is that restricting options would further limit variety and deck building, but that is wrong. Those of you who know me or have collaborated with me on deckbuilding know that I am extremely (perhaps even aggressively) opposed to theorycrafting. I believe in using empirical data to drive decision making. The RL is a good case in point -- as a concept, it’s hard to see how the RL works. In practice, and as evidenced in Thrones 1.0 as well as some of FFG’s other LCG properties, an expanded RL that is constantly changing and evolving adds a lot to the variety of the competitive environment.

A good analogy to the RL list is that of a high-speed car race. Not all vehicles have the ability to travel the same speed limit. If we view getting to the final destination as a race, then typically the fastest car will win the race. Of course, the terrain matters -- a curvy road may require a car with better handling, and off-road terrain may require special tires. But generally, faster cars do better. However, if we limit the speed of the car, for example by limiting the size of the engine or the car itself (like formula 1 racing does), we accomplish two things. First, we push the focus back on the fundamentals of the race. That is, skill of driver and ability to maneuver versus opponents matter much more. Second, and perhaps where the analogy of the formula 1 race breaks down, a RL allows the slower cars to become competitive. A deck that cannot run all the “best cards” for any given situation must select from among some “good, but not the best” cards. We saw this happen repeatedly in 1.0 as FFG curated the competitive experience throughout the year.

The major point to understand is that a RL is not simply a tool to be used to stop broken combos. Certainly, it can be used that way, and often was in 1.0. The “Hyper Viper” decks or the problematic Flea Bottom combos can be frustrating, and a RL helps with those. However, the argument for an expanded use of the RL is an argument in favor of greater deck variety and a higher quality competitive environment. For example, if forced to choose between Flea Bottom and Dracarys, I must decide, “do I run a deck focused more on burn and character control, or a deck focused more on recursion? If 1.0 is a guide, we would see more of both styles of deck, and the cards in each deck would be different, resulting in greater card variety. Imagine a Targ mercenary deck without dragons, or a burn deck without the Flea Bottom + Second Sons combo. Weaker decks to be sure, but competitive if the same approach is applied to all other factions, and much more fun if the RL is curated to push decks toward interactive gameplay.

How this can work in 2.0.
The lessons of 1.0 teach us that a RL can add greater variety and refocus the game on fundamentals, which in turn increases enthusiasm for the game. However, not everyone will enjoy this approach. There were, as one might expect, many 1.0 players who became frustrated by FFG’s decisions to restrict their ability to play cards they loved together. Similarly, in 2.0 I would expect that Targaryen players may find it frustrating if FFG were to restrict the ability to play Flea Bottom + Dracarys in the same deck. Tyrell players may be disappointed if FFG restricts the ability to play Mace and Hightower together. Martell players may dislike the idea of restricting Last of the Giants and Varys, so that they cannot be played together. The list goes on.

The question we need to collectively ask ourselves is what type of game do we want to play? Do we want to play a game that is inherently high-variance, in which winning is largely dependent on seeing the right combination of cards? Or do we want this game to be one of skill, where I win or lose based on my ability to outplay and outthink the opponent?

If we decide to move this direction, much of the debate will be in the details. In concept, it’s easy to institute a RL. Much of the disagreement will occur in reaction to the cards listed. My personal preference would be to restrict cards that turn the focus away from the core mechanics of plot phase interactions, challenges and resource (gold and card) management. That isn’t to say we should dumb the game down. Quite the opposite. By restricting 3-4 cards in each faction, we’ll push deck builders to think more creatively and players to think more tactically during the game.

In hindsight, I think many players will agree that Lannister’s sustained dominance in early 2.0 was unhealthy for the game, or at least that Lanni-Dragon decks were a bit too ubiquitous. As we recount the past two years, we might also establish a general consensus that faction X remained dominant for too long, or card combination Y was too meta-defining for a competitive season. Hindsight is 20-20. We have an opportunity now to improve the competitive game, which will in turn improve the community experience. We should let history be our guide.
  • Bomb, BustaMazoo, JCWamma and 7 others like this


Great post Dan, thanks for writing it. I've got a few...musings, let's say - not counterpoints, because overall I agree that while we don't need a restricted list, the game would benefit from one.
Before I get into the parts where I debate, I just want to emphasise first and foremost that I think the game could benefit from a list. I don't want this post to be misconstrued as "Dan you silly sausage, of course we don't need a list!" - rather I consider it a philosophical debate on some of the wider points made.
My first query would be, with regards to the last year of first edition being the game's best year: how much do you account the restricted list (not in terms of breaking up power combos but in terms of the meta-policing you describe) for that success, versus simply a larger cardpool? From my perspective it felt like the large cardpool meant that there were a couple dozen different decks that had the potential to be highly-competitive in a given meta, and then the restricted list acted as a switchboard that decided, often somewhat arbitrarily, which of those decks would be the options for that season. "We haven't had Maesters and burn at the top for a bit, let's unrestrict Conclave and Feast"; "OK, they had their turn, let's throw Valyrian Steel Link and Dragonpit on there". Would the meta not have been more varied simply by allowing all those options at once? I don't ask that knowingly, but as a question I'd be curious to know the answer to. But the meta, to me, felt quite stale from list to list, and in particular if a new and/or problem deck arose, the wider playerbase made zero effort to beat the deck, rather just saying "OPrestrict". I remember this particularly with Boat decks, which were super-easy to beat if you actually tried... but people didn't want to try, they just wanted the deck to go away so they could go back to playing the decks they already were. Hooray for 'living' card games. 
My second issue would be that, in 2012, first edition had 6 deluxe boxes and was midway through the 8th cycle being released when the massive overhaul took place. Whether or not we're at a point to take on a restricted list, I'm not a huge fan of that specific comparison. That said, we can at least look at the argument of it having restricted approximately a card per two chapter packs, and whether that was a good thing. I think, certainly in retrospect, nobody would argue that the game hadn't evolved enough to sustain the list at the time - it did, and the game continued to grow. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that making a smaller list at an earlier time would have had the same effect - it's an argument of "was it the quantity of cards taken away, or the proportion?". Again, like my first query, this isn't rhetorical, it's a genuine question.
On the deck variety aspect, I think there are arguments and counter-arguments. The racing car analogy is an interesting one, but the Formula 1 analogy specifically is actually a huge backfire of an analogy to me honestly. In F1, there are a whole ton of regulations and restrictions, with different components being banned or limited in a variety of colourful ways. The end result? Of the 10 teams on the grid, 7 of them might as well not bother as far as winning the race goes - getting on the podium is their aim, or for some of the lower teams even just making the points. The point being, the teams aren't all working with exactly the same set of components in front of them, and placing limits on different components limits those teams in different ways.
Similarly, each faction has a different set of tools. If you think one car is fastest, as it were, and remove a component from it, and then a new car is the fastest, and gets a component removed, and so on, it's unspeakably tough to get all those cars to actually end up at the same speed. Now, obviously getting all 8 factions to exactly the same power level is a pipe dream, as is getting several decktypes within one faction to exactly the same power level, and I know that's not what you're advocating for - "close enough that someone with good instincts and/or dedication to go and figure out which is the best can do so, but not blindingly obvious to the point where everyone takes the same deck" is more the scope we're looking at, right? The thing is, it logically follows that the larger the cardpool, the lesser the impact from removing any one card from it - and that, therefore, the restricted list will be more effective the larger we allow the cardpool to get before we apply it. There are obvious counterarguments here - "it could be better later" isn't a good justification for not doing something now; when does "it could be better later" stop being true (the point of rotation?); and so on.
However, to use your Lanni Dragon example, that deck may have won Gencon and become the 'face' of that "First Snow through to Valar" meta, but it wasn't the only deck around by any means. Stark Fealty won US Nationals and Stahleck; Lanni Wolf won Worlds; Martell Lion was being pushed hard as an alternative; and so on. At that time, there was a very real sense of "if we push this deck down, a new deck takes its place", and that we didn't yet have the required components to remove to create a roughly-level playing field. Do we now? Maybe. I'd even go so far as to say probably. But I would disagree with the notion that we should've had a restricted list in cycle 1. I don't know if I'm right to disagree (I suspect I am, doubtless you suspect otherwise), but at the very least I think it would have been a lot less advisable then than it would be now.
My final point on this would be on splitting two cards apart creating different decks to utilise them. This is true only so long as both those decks are, firstly, as good as each other; and secondly, good enough to compete in the general meta. In your "burn or Flea Bottom" example, I think it's safe to say the burn deck would be playable - it was before Flea Bottom came out, and since then the STR of characters has dropped while the number of burn cards has increased; however, would your burnless-mercs deck exist? Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't. If we don't know, there's a chance you might not be cutting one worm in half to get two, but rather just...cutting a bit of a worm off. Possibly even ending up with two halves of a dead worm (not in the case of burn certainly, but if too much of, say, a defence deck was restricted, I think you'd see all of the components become unplayable rather than each separately playable).
Again, all that said, I want to emphasise that I do want a restricted list at this time. Freshening up the game is a risk, and it brings a reward; for me we are now at a point where the reward outweighs the risk. I just think that the list wasn't as perfect as we remember it, and hasn't always been as broadly applicable as it's presented here. I don't want us to default back to the first ed model when for me the game was great more for the cards we could play than the cards we couldn't, and fear for the game if we do just go back to it without serious thought to the application - after all, as a wise man once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
    • Twn2dn, Bomb, sparrowhawk and 1 other like this

James, I very much appreciate your thoughtfulness and helping think this through by making the counter case. Unfortunately, I'm posting during my lunch break, and just accidentally clicked "reset" and lost what I intended to be a thoughtful reply. Since my time is up, here's a much speedier reply... please call me out on missing detail, and I'll try to respond better tonight.


(1) My view is that a RL complimented the large card pool. More cards does mean more options, but NOT in a vacuum. If in 1.0 I could run a Martell deck with Venomous Blade, Viper's Bannermen, Game of Cyvasse, and Fear of Winter, I would have. So would many other players. And each time a new, powerful Martell card came out, all Martell decks would get a little more similar, a little less creative. The RL forced us to choose in a way that created variety, whereas an increasing card pool can result in fewer competitive options without a RL.


(2) I don't fully understand your point, but it may be because I'm rushing. Can you make it again, and I'll either agree or post a more constructive reply? As for your criticism of my racing metaphor, you are right. The problem with metaphors is they often break down when you get into the details. Hopefully you can understand the analogy was meant to help communicate an idea, despite its shortcomings.


(3 - Lanni Dragon) I can't argue that Lanni Dragon was the best deck, only that it was popular. Lanni Rains was similarly ubiquitous in some places. The goal of a RL isn't necessarily to neuter any one faction, but rather to curate a more creative environment that has more variety and evolves in a way that sometimes dominant decks prevent.


(4) You're somewhat right, in that how much restricted cards will see play depends largely on how powerful the cards are. If one RL card is much stronger, it will be dominant, and we saw that in 1.0 with Meera Reed. In this way, restriction can be a "soft ban." For example, in the case of Fleabottom and Second Sons, it will be difficult to play the latter without the former; it would be extremely uncommon to pick the mercenary over the army. However, as we saw in 1.0, this actually opened up more design space. In the Meera Reed example, some players ran Die by the Sword over Meera, and that surprise kill would be extremely impactful in some match ups. In short, as the metagame evolves or as new cards come out, those "bubble cards" on the RL might become stronger. Designers can create new cards that interact with Second Sons to make them more playable. I'd also point out that the RL isn't necessarily applied forever... in 1.0 there were cards that went on and came off it to mix things up. Playing against Fleabottom + Second Sons for 4 months out of the year isn't too bad. I think the idea is that we just don't want to play for it for the rest of the life of the game (or until one of those rotates out).


I hope this gets at some of the issues you raised. Sorry I lost my more thoughtful response :(

    • Bomb, JCWamma, TreyAlsup and 1 other like this

Great article Twn2dn and great response JCWamma.


you've hit the nail on the head regarding some discontent with the game I've had but couldn't quite put my finger on. Also happy to see some life and discussion around here.


I'm not a particularly competitive player and wont be threatening the leader board at Worlds anytime soon , I've come to the game as a fan of the books and show and know nothing of first edition; but it struck me as thematically odd use of the source material that you could have Tywin and Tyrion in the same deck (never mind the fact that their game mechanics synergised so well).


As you say limiting decks to an either / or  choice on some of the in faction headliners may reduce the competitiveness relative to an "all you can eat big guy beat sticks buffet" deck but it would increase the variety, and creativity of decks. And may give some life to some of the deck themes and traits that are in there and overlooked.


Your point about the slow nature of using future cards to fix current problems is well made, but could there be a third way?

to totally overextend your racing analogy, what if instead of trying to make all the cars the same we just let each driver run their own race. Twn2dn's racing in Formula 1, JCWamma  in the Indy 500 and I'll be in Mario Kart.

What about Agendas that promote different win conditions rather than gimmicks which restrict deck building it could solve a lot of the current problems (and create a whole bunch of new ones). everyone is trying to get to 15 power and some decks are just miles ahead of others but what if your win condition was kill 15 characters or mill 45 cards etc ? , or to use a totally underused trait how about about King of the Iron Throne, maintain a King on the board for 3 turns with more renown than any other King present to win. (FFG can have that one for free but I'm charging commission on any more suggestions.)


I'm all for any solution, be that more interesting agenda's, a restricted list or whatever solutions this debate provokes that moves the game away from shenanigans and borderline broken interactions that snowball a side to victory back towards its fundamentals of 3 challenges and a bit of back and forth between the players.


Also, if a card is in 95% of decks that alone is good reason to restrict it as nothing should be that ubiquitous or efficient, part of the greatness of this game is how many of your options both help and hinder you and your opponent, i.e the fact that the many impact-full plots have detrimental effects. trading pentoshi - giving away gold, march to the wall - hitting all players. No good deed goes unpunished in westeros.


any comments, compliments and criticisms are welcome. also i think a racing metaphors should be mandatory in all responses

I'm just happy that something is happening here, now I can read the article and the comments. :)

As I grew up under a communism (former Czechoslovakia), I developed a natural instinct to disgust any new restriction.


To achieve a decks variability I would much more welcome if FFG issue some cards errata, rather than a ban list. There are certain cards which are not played at all. Cards which are useless and no competitive deck is using those simply due to the fact of bad design = stupid cost, or stupid restrictions or weak ability, or combination of those.


From top of my head some examples:
Street of Silk, Street of Steel, Shadowblack Lane - without faction kneel condition, those would be actually playable
Muster the Realm plot - claim 2 plot can replace it, it just needs better numbers to be of any use
Hot Pie - for what he does he should've had at least some icon or cost zero
Each faction has some more or less never-used cards because of restrictive design or because there is another version of such card which is way better, f.e. Arya Stark.

functional card errata is the worst, no game should ever go there.