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Must all men die?

valar morghulis agot 2.0 restricted list big guy meta dead game poor design blame 1.0 players time for agot dice game 2.0 is NOT 1.0

Must all men die?

I remember it like it was yesterday. Summer 2016. The previous night, a Thursday, the Cavs had won and forced a 7th winner take all game in the NBA finals. On this morning, we were all playing in the national championship for A Game of Thrones, the living card game, Second Edition. Jake Johnson was trying to spit game at any fiancee he could find. Toggle was on full mega title due to Hectoring. Brian Fred had renounced shirts with sleeves. Later that weekend, Nate T would win what is still the largest 2.0 national championship on this continent.

Lannister in all its forms had proven to be a dominant force. However, the biggest scuttlebutt that caught on like wildfire during the day had nothing to do with cards legal for the event. Somewhere, in the dark reaches of the internet, it had been spoiled that Valar Morghulis would be printed in 2nd edition. The reactions were myriad: many veteran players applauded the inclusion, lamenting only that it hadn't been released sooner; some felt it didn't go far enough; and others, myself included, were really turned off by the card. The only iteration of the game I knew was swinging big, iconic characters like Tywin and Gregor against each other. While I appreciated that not everyone enjoys that style of play, (and not everyone is skilled enough to excel in such a format), I also was mortified about the game reverting into nameless, faceless 2 and 3 drops battling back and forth. Most 1st edition decks I saw people playing casually after 2e events seemed to be that way, and that style of play does not appeal to me at all.

I was so worked into a shoot by Valar that I had noted I planned to quit the game once Valar became tournament legal. At worlds later that year, I spoke with a number of folks, including Corey from DC, and they convinced me to stay around and give it a try. So I did. Fittingly, my first event with Valar was a store championship I lost due to my own misplaying of Valar. Now, eventually I adjusted, and in some ways 2017 was perhaps more successful for me than 2016. However, the game was just... different. And, in my view, not for the better. With the addition of subsequent cards to the pool, it is clear to me that the metagame we currently play in is negatively impacted by the inclusion of Valar.


What the hell happened?

The purpose of this article is to explain why Valar Morghulis is incredibly problematic in the current metagame. To be clear, it is not arguing the card be banned. Likewise, it is not any effort to gloat about my initial fears of Valar being realized - to be sure, several of the most problematic Valar interactions are ones involving it within the context of new cards.

1. Was Valar needed?
Debatable at best. Certainly, big guy decks were the dominant choice in 2016, with Lannister bannering either Dragon or Wolf winning the (no pun intended) lion's share of events. However, the metagame was already changing, or set to change, due to new cards: Craven made Night's Watch defense decks a more viable option, and if your opponent is only playing one bigger guy each turn, Craven has a significant impact. The winter agenda introduced some resource denial options. While some of the dwindling attendance numbers are just a result of the typical LCG fatigue, so we must be careful to not draw a false correlation, it is curious at the very least that the year where Lannister/dragon was the dominant deck saw the largest attendance of the yearly North American events (US Nationals, Gencon, Canadian Nationals, Worlds). The Lannister deck was not unbeatable - for example, the DC Martell/Wolf deck at Gencon beat several Lannister builds (while, admittedly, losing to one in the finals). I recall my own deck that someone supplied to me, a Greyjoy/Dragon that feasted on Lannister decks.

However, we got Valar, and it gave rise to...

2. Problems caused or exacerbated by Valar
Valar was hailed as the great skill tester of our time. It was also cited as a way to get back in a game when your opponent got a big jump. Perhaps. Consider, though, that it in a way has increased the importance of variance: if both players are using a deck with duplicates, Bodyguards, and Valar, then whoever draws more saves will likely win. Is the game really better if its now all about who draws their duplicate of Tywin, instead of who draws their Tywin? I recall a game I played at a store championship a few months back. I had Tyrell, with 3 copies of Margaery (AMAF), 3 lady-in-waiting, and 2 bodyguard. 7 extras to duplicate Marge with. My opponent had a Lannister deck with 3x Cersei and Jamie, but no bodyguard or other saves. Unfortunately, I had to play out Marge mid game and I had not drawn saves; he played out Cersei and Jamie with a duplicate on each. Valar hit and my game was lost. Now, statistically, I'm usually going to draw 1 of my 7 dupes before he draws 1 of his 2 dupes more often than not. But, AGOT events don't last for 100 games - they are 5, 6, 8, 10ish with a cut maybe. So, that increased variance has a significant impact. This is no doubt why Greyjoy became one of the most played decks throughout the fall and winter: access to Iron Mines, Risen From the Sea, and (if you want it) bodyguard, in addition to good location control. One can only wonder if a meta with only Duel, Valar Dohareis, and Breaking Ties would be enough to control big guys without Valar Morghulis. I suspect it would be.

For the sake of argument, let's say that at the time of its release, Valar was needed. Even if this were true; the reality is that now it absolutely is not needed. Perhaps this is an indictment of the meta at large, but we went from people claiming that they could never kill Tywin, to a format (between Giants/Varys, Mutiny, Duel, Breaking ties, the OTHER Valar, and so on) where you can never reliably get a big guy to stick for too long. Something like new Arya is absurd with Valar: its not even enough to have saves any more, now you need saves and an answer to Arya.

Th rise of attrition decks was fueled in large part by Valar. When your deck is all a bunch of cheap jobbers, who cares if a few die? But you get to hammer any mains decks that fails to draw its saves. The attrition decks would still be good without Valar - they have plenty of resources available. But Valar made them oppressive for a time.
Bounce a guy, Mutiny a guy, Ward a guy, March a guy, all of these benefit from access to Valar.
Flea Bottom works so well in Valar decks; kill the board and then bring back some guy who got discarded earlier in the game. If they have a sacrifice ability, you can do this every turn, constantly dodging Valar. This isn't an article about Flea Bottom though. For those that dislike it, know that Valar makes it better as it provides another source (beyond what is in play and in your hand) to get a character from.

I'll mention in passing the Gencon winner deck, Martell Stag. It like to use Vanguard Lancer to remove power from your opponent, and siphons more power with Chamber of the Painted Table. It is a deck with a ton of small, replacement level characters, and it gets a lot of mileage from Valar.

Valar is something that really made Targaryen one of the prime time players in the meta. Valar has an effect of forcing some decks to lower their curve, which Targaryen burn decks love to feast on. Beyond that, Targaryen has a plethora of cheap characters with multiple icons, so on one hand, they can afford to lose some to Valar, and on the other, they can refill the board quickly (to say nothing of Fire and Blood, which puts a dead dragon right onto the table). While the new iteration of Danerys is cited as the card that put Targaryen over the top, the reality is that it has been strong for a while, with only one archetype really holding it down.

What deck kept Targaryen in check? COMBO. The reality is, Valar being a card is one of the key culprits as to why combo has existed in some iteration for 9 months. I know some people questioned this assertion when I made it previously, so I would like to really dig deep here because it is an important point. From a very basic standpoint, one of the best ways to beat combo is to outrush them. However, most combo decks play their characters and win on the same turn, so there is no change for them to be punished by a Valar. Conversely, if a combo opponent plays out their hand too soon, a Valar can wreck the opposing player and give combo the opening it needs.

Consider the combos:
1. Viper. This combo plays Viper and wins generally in the same turn; is effectively immune to Valar
2. Cersei. This combo sometimes wins in 1 turn, sometimes over a few turns, but it brings all of its characters in through Lannister "jumper" events, and is immune to Valar
3. Ladies. There are some other iterations, but the general premise is the same. While Ladies decks sometimes play out characters a turn before they combo, they have duplicates for all of them, so Valar does not hurt too much. Conversely, I witnessed a game in the top 4 of Canadian nationals, where the Ladies deck was being rushed by Tyrell. Ladies deck had king Tommen in play, and flipped a Valar, killing a duped King Renly.

There are other combos (the Tyrell Alliance Sun/Wolf to use Orphan of Greenblood to play Riverrun Minstrel 15 times to have House Tully Knight win the game in marshalling is fun, as is the Baratheon deck using the ritual to win during dominance, and I think there is probably something broken with Kraken cards too), but the 3 I mentioned are the most prominent, and all are not only largely immune to Valar, but, by having access to it, and it being in the meta in general, actually benefit from Valar existing.

But... despite all this, the defenders like to talk about the...

3. Drawbacks to Valar
The drawbacks - low gold, no claim, limited deck space - are all, at present, minimized, if not completely irrelevant. Consider the Rains of Castamere agenda; the Wars to Come agenda; and the Rookery format as a whole. All 3 of these items allow more deck space in some form, such that Valar being 1 of your 7 is not such a problem. Ironically, in the initial months with Valar, Lannister proved one of the stronger decks, utilizing the Eyrie for saves, while being able to use its natural gold advantages and the Rains agenda to flip out of Valar to get claim and have better reserve. The minimization of drawbacks doesn't even look at specific corner cases. For example, one rarely may oppose a military challenge from an opponent with a Valar revealed; however, Winter is Coming can be a game changer in those kinds of scenarios.

The low gold drawback has been reduced to a great degree by an increase in economy locations available, better gold plots being printed (so you can play out more on previous turns), and the printing of better quality cheap characters (and, of course, those characters interactions with Flea Bottom). Economy is so strong now that the Winter agenda is basically unplayable. So many summer plots exist that Naval Superiority is not very reliable at all now.

So where are we at now?

4. Certain decks are unplayable because of Valar

"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." - Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park (1993)

You got your Valar. And because of it, aggressive decks and midrange decks are basically unplayable. Like - what is even the point of printing knights and knight helper cards unless they are a lord (bodyguard) or lady (lady in waiting)? You thought First Snow hurt 3 drop rush decks cause you had to replay your guys the next turn? Well now you can't even replay your guys cause of Valar. And yes, I appreciate that to be competitive you need to adapt or you will lose. However, the adaption for the competitive meta now is to play one of a very small subset of viable decks. That doesn't seem good to me.

I know what some of you are thinking: but, what about Tyrell crossing? That's a good rush deck. What about Tyrell rains? That is a good midrange deck. Or Tyrell HRD? That can be a good big guy deck, heck it gets to use Mace and he is broken!

Well, calm down kids. None of those things mean the meta is okay: it means Tyrell is really good. Ironically, while Valar came out to supposedly slay the Lannister beast, Tyrell got cards that made them better than Lannister at basically everything: better economy, better draw, better gold locations, more renown characters, better ambush guys, and more redundancy through cards like lady in waiting and AMAF Marge. Oh yeah, they are also involved with every combo deck that matters.

So, let's not let one overpowered house bury the point: many fair decks are now unplayable due to Valar. And yes Greyjoy big guys, cause of their 6 in house saves, can survive a Valar, but is weak to a lot of the other attrition decks.

5. Conclusion

There are no easy solutions; but step one is to admit we all have a problem. I have not been a fan of a restricted list as a general concept; but I appreciate the possibilities it provides to curtail abusive and boring decks. While I appreciate that not everyone enjoyed the big guy meta from the game's first year, I feel that we could have moved towards an equilibrium where many different deck types were competitive. However, it seems pretty clear we have swung too far the other direction. There is still time to correct, and a enlightened, nuanced use of the restricted list seems as good an option as any.


I would love to hear any feedback, both supportive and those that would like to offer valid counterpoints. A big thanks to Nicolo Merusi for sharing some of his thoughts on Valar with me and allowing me to steal a few of his concepts for the article.
  • davedave, America, Itachi and 3 others like this


There are no easy solutions; but step one is to admit we all have a problem.


After reading all this, I am unconvinced.


Was Valar needed? Maybe, maybe not. I remember the big guy meta being oppressive, you're saying it was going to change even without Valar. I don't know. But Valar sure caused a shakedown of the meta, and I liked that.


Combo decks kept Targ in check, and those decks relied on Valar? To me this sounds like a stretch. Using the hate towards combo decks to substantiate your point about Valar - seems like something a politician would do  :)


Certain decks are unplayable because of Valar? Sure, but then again, without Valar some other decks would be unplayable.


Overall, a lengthy post, but the arguments are not very convincing. Especially since the topic (Valar) is not very hyped right now. Still, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, it was an interesting read.

    • MrDav and GeorgeG like this
May 21 2018 04:06 PM

Totally disagree. Midrange decks do not shine because the win condition is a problem for them. And the win condition of a midrange deck is none. Decks who shined relied on big guys to gain renown and save them or passive power grabbing. 

Problem is not valar, problem is that other decks gain powers better.

    • MrDav and GeorgeG like this

Apart from the commentary on combo decks, I completely agree. Valar M as printed was a huge error that solved no problem, disproportionately advantaged certain houses in an unfair way, and simply increased variance in games.  The drawbacks of low gold, low reserve, and low claim are/were basically meaningless, and was a huge miss for the design team.   Like most of the bad decisions made in 2.0, the card was just printed to let 1.0 players get their rocks off on nostalgia. 

In my opinion, the biggest tragedy is that it heavily disincentives any attempts to put together interesting combinations of characters and character effects, especially characters that are difficult to save, like Dornish Paramour and Grey Worm.  And there are a whole lot of interesting (and potentially great) cards that simply can't be played because of the threat of Valar; King Robb's Host comes to mind––a very unique, interesting card with a powerful effect worth building around, but one that will never see much play because no one wants to dump all that power on an Army that could leave play at any moment.  There is a long list of cards like this.  It's a damn shame.

    • spellfire and GeorgeG like this

From melee perspective, Valar Morghulis is both pretty annoying (much higher risk of being played) and necessary, where the game stalls at everyone having full board. Yes, non-unique based theme decks (e.g. knights) suffer a lot, but all in all I think it's good to have VM, while it may be also good to put it on the restricted list.

 King Robb's Host comes to mind––a very unique, interesting card with a powerful effect worth building around

Indeed, unique ;) So just use dupes.

    • GeorgeG likes this
I disagree with the premise of this article.
You have a card you dislike, Valar Morghulis, and try to justify your feelings by citing the general game balance.
In my opinion, this is putting the cart before the horse and not worthy of a scientific paper (which I assume you tried to write).
I would tackle this whole discussion from the other end, first establishing what "game balance" we are trying to achieve (e.g. all houses factions being equally represented in tournaments) and then getting empirical data exposing the problem (e.g. https://thejoustingpavilion.com/stats).
When talking about game balance in the sense I exemplified above, the number of tournament entries for each faction is not as important as the tournament success. But we still must not neglect it completely, since it would be unreasonable to expect a faction that nobody plays to get as many wins as everybody's favourite faction.
If we accept that the method thejoustingpavilion uses to measure success (Pavilion Points) is reasonable, which I do, than we have to look at the difference of entry to pavilion points.

At the time of writing this, these are the numbers:
Faction       | Entry-% | Point-% | Difference
Targaryen     |  14.75  |  18.46  |   +3.71
Tyrell        |  15.66  |  17.76  |   +2.10
Martell       |  13.22  |  13.18  |   -0.04
Night's Watch |  10.51  |  10.37  |   -0.14
Greyjoy       |  14.42  |  13.83  |   -0.59
Lannister     |  12.10  |  11.34  |   -0.76
Stark         |  10.73  |   8.60  |   -2.13
Baratheon     |   8.61  |   6.37  |   -2.24
So we can see that Tyrell and Targaryen do better than they should, Stark and Baratheon do worse than they should.
What needs to be investigated next, is what causes those factions to do well or bad respectively. In order to get an understanding of that, we need to look at the decks and common card choices.
This is a little bit trickier, since http://thronesdb.com/ doesn't seem to provide any statistics the likes of "how many tournament winning stark decks run Valar Morghulis".

I will leave it to the reader to dig through all of that data manually. Here is my gut feeling about it:
  • Tyrell has Lady in Waiting and Margaery who likes Lords to die, so they like Valar Morghulis.
  • Targaryen only has one character they really care about, Daenerys, keeping one character save from Valar Morghulis is doable by holding back, so while I don't think they gain too big an edge from Valar Morghulis (since other resets often are just as viable to them), they aren't hurt by it either.
  • Stark hates Valar Morghulis. Stark has plenty of Renown on way too many characters and almost no way to keep them from dying except for dupes and Bodyguard. Other archetypes, like Direwolfs, don't mind Valar Morghulis as much but are not as strong to begin with.
  • Baratheon even has in-faction saves in the form of Davos Seaworth and Spears of the Merling King, and their theme of kneeling works better the fewer characters there are, so I would argue they actually want to like Valar Morghulis. They just lack enough good cards to make a deck out of it.
But all of this is a moot discussion. Valar Morghulis is in the meta, it is not going away (until it rotates out, of course).
So the only question worth answering really is: what do the underrepresented factions need to combat the overrepresented ones?

Because adding new cards to the pool is not only a possibility but a certainty.
    • mplain and GeorgeG like this

Thanks @davedave, that's some interesting data!

@davedave: while I like your reply a lot, I find it hard to agree with it. The type of game balance you elaborated ist clearly distinct from the one meant in the article. The article diagnoses a certain lack of diversity in playable decks. If you don't have an answer to valar, you have a problem, much like in 1st ed. I personally can live with that, but at the same time I must admit that it's a shame that certain decks will never be viable in a valar environment. Direwolves e.g. suffer a lot from valar, contrary to what you said, because their big bodies cannot be saved. Non-uniques are only good in the valar meta if they are cheap and expendable or work well with FB. This effect of valar is also critisized, as AGoT 2nd ed should revolve around the important unique characters from the books. But the more removal we get, the harder it gets to keep the game this way. So welcome to a world of Shadow City Bastards and endless Second Sons...
    • FedericoFasullo, GeorgeG and bdanv like this

I think I do mostly agree with this article. Maybe I am not objective, I genuinely hate decks that just wait for the opponent to build up and then reset everything, valar, varys, double marched, build up economy and locations... it seems to just drag on the game, making everyone wait for the big explosion, forced to play an hour at least, building up slowly...


And the point about "it's all about who has the most dupes" is so true. How often have u felt like this, that dupes were all that defined ur game? I think it is too often. Almost every time actually, all that matters seems to be who has more saves...


I think at the current state of the game there are enough answers to Valar, but I really agree that it is a very problematic card that should see some restrictions...

    • chriswhite likes this