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Wars are Won with Quills - Joust Deckbuilding Analysis

Small Council Wars are Won with Quills Reldan

I've been building decks for decades now, beginning in the '90s with Magic and moving through many different games over the years. Over the years I’ve picked up ideas and methodologies for deck building and refinement from both personal experience and reading the wisdom of others. Like any skill, deckbuilding is something you develop over time, learning to quickly separate what works and doesn't work. In this column I want to share what I know of deck construction for Game of Thrones, probably the most fun game to construct decks for that I’ve encountered.

I can boil down my basic ideas for deck building for AGOT into a handful of questions that I ask every new deck idea, and if I don't like the answers I keep tweaking the deck until I do. And if I never like the answers then I know it's time to move on to something new, but I usually try to identify what it would take to make the deck work and catalogue the deck concept

Question 1. What are the plans to consistently get extra cards into hand?

This should be fairly obvious, but decks that don't have some plan for drawing or recurring cards during the game will not consistently win against decks that do. More often than not, you end up losing games more to attrition than anything else. It honestly doesn't matter which card draw engine you're using (there are several and they've mostly been covered in past articles here and elsewhere), but it matters that you're using a sufficient one that you can count on getting at least 1-2 extra cards in hand every turn. One key thing to consider is that the more cards you draw, the more you'll draw into the cards that will then draw you even more cards! You want this to be an upward spiral, because efficiently compounding your card draw wins games and ensures you get to make use of all the pieces your deck needs every game. I almost always try to put at least two different card draw engines into my decks so that I can count on getting at least one out through random draw, and then using that one to prime the Plan B engine to take over if my opponent has some devious trick to shut down Plan A.

A straightforward example of this would be your typical Long Voyage deck. Long Voyage is an incredibly reliable Plan A, but that doesn't mean you don't also run at least a Plan B with Samwell+Ravens, or Viper's Bannermen, or Dale Seaworth, or Street Waif, or any number of other card advantage cards. In a Stark Kindly Man deck I'd put Kindly Man as Plan A for getting card advantage, but I'd also be running multiple Plan Bs like Maester Luwin, Jeyne Westerling, To Be A Wolf, and Harrenhal. These cards let you grab other cards that let you also grab other cards - you're trying to build a wall of card advantage and to do that your deck needs a solid foundation.

Questions 2. What does a winning game with the deck look like?

Which is to say, what cards do you envision being in play when you win? How do you plan on bringing that scenario to light?

I don't ask how the deck wins the game. Like most decks, I'm sure it wins the game when it gets 15 power. For me the important question is what kind of board position does your deck need to set up to result in a winning game, and it should be clear which cards get you there. In fact, you should seriously reconsider any cards that you can’t justify in terms of how they develop into that winning board.

For some decks this is a pretty straightforward question. A Bara power rush deck envisions having 3-4 Renown characters with some combination of standing effects on the table that allow it to grab 7+ power a turn and shut the game out within a turn or two, while having an answer ready for the inevitable board clearing effect (this can be Nobles+Power of Blood, Outwit, Narrow Escape, Art of Seduction - lots of different things).

Other decks may not be so cut-and-dry. Greyjoy Choke is winning if they can establish board parity while removing their opponent's ability to ever increase their own board position. Lanni Kneel wants to have more cards in hand and enough abilities on the table to kneel out at least half their opponent's board each turn. Like with card draw, it's not important that you use a specific victory scenario as much as that you can at least clearly envision what the scenario looks like and what form it would take.

Question 3. What is your answer to Valar Morghulis?

Valar is by far the most ubiquitous plot in the history of the game, and it has more impact on how the game is played than any other card, bar none. Every deck absolutely needs to have an answer for Valar but fortunately there are quite a few valid ones. You can focus on getting enough saves on the board that you can save your way through Valar and come out the other side with board advantage. You can try to time plots to counter a Valar with Power of Blood or Outwit, although both these options require the rest of the deck be built to support them. You can even just concentrate on having enough card and resource advantage that you can safely assume you will recover faster than your opponent after the Valar hits - this usually entails holding back enough characters in hand to reestablish board presence. Just have a general plan in mind and know how to execute it.

Question 4. Is the gold curve manageable?

This is a hard one because there are a lot of moving parts in AGoT. Having card advantage doesn't do you a whole lot of good if you don't have a way to play those cards - a situation that Greyjoy Choke is entirely premised around. The biggest thing here is that you don't want to choke yourself by getting stuck only playing 1-2 cards each. I'd suggest that you aim at being able to afford to play at least 3 cards a turn every turn, and this comes from having the equivalent of ~5 gold a turn between plot and other resources and an average card cost around 1.5 gold in the typical deck. Typically assume that for every 10% of your deck you devote to economy locations you can count on 1 gold per turn. If you're running more expensive than that, you should adjust your resource/plot choices upwards to compensate. For example, Baratheon decks may average closer to 2 gold per card, but they've got access to cards like Seat of Power, King Renly, and Royal Entourage, and often run 4-5 gold plots on top of that to make their curves work.

Question 5. What does the deck excel at doing?

When I say excel, I mean what do the cards in combination allow you to do that breaks the game in your favor. Do you keep the board clear (whether through kill, discard, or kneel)? Grab power insanely fast? Exploit card advantage or resource advantage in some way?

This is what separates the Jaime decks from the Shagga decks typically. The Shagga decks either tend to be able to very frequently perform some cool tricks that don't really accomplish a whole lot for actually winning the game or they can infrequently pull off a huge impact move that would get banned/errata’d if they could actually do it consistently. The Jaime decks are the ones that pull off medium impact or better tricks, and can do so frequently. Maesters are a great example of this. Without The Maester's Path they tend to be a Shagga kind of deck - you either get a lot of cool little tricks or you go for some massive chain combo uber-dude (or maybe drop 15 on Viserys for the win). However, with The Maester's Path those same tricks become a Jaime device, because you consistently can pull off medium impact tricks, like getting just 2-3 chains that work well together onto a character each turn and gaining substantial advantage that way.

This is also where you really need to be honest and not let flashy cards or non-flashy combos bias your analysis. Using Varamyr Sixskins with The Iron Throne to drop Balerion into play is a big impact trick, but you have to face the fact that it's quite a few pieces that have to come together, some of which aren't all that powerful or efficient alone, and even pulling it off doesn't guarantee a win. On the flip side, getting a Black Iron Link, Valyrian Steel Link, and Iron Link on an Oldtown Scholar doesn't have the same excitement as dropping Balerion onto the table, but it's not hard to set up and still has a significant impact on the game.

Question 6. What doesn't your deck handle very well and how prevalent is that in the meta?

Just about every deck has a nemesis that it would rather never encounter. Lannister Kneel doesn't want to go up against Targ Ambush/Burn, and Bara Rush doesn't want to go up against Lanni Kneel. No one really wants to go up against Greyjoy Choke. It takes two to joust, so it's equally important to recognize what your deck is bad at handling and then determine how much of a problem you think that will be. If your Kryptonite is some crazy control deck that no one actually plays, don't worry about it. If you're scratching your head and worried about going up against aggro decks that are running lots of card advantage, then you may need to reconsider what you can do to shore up those weaknesses. This is usually the point that makes or breaks a deck for me - whether it can be tweaked to compete with popular decks without losing itself in the process.


For me to consider a deck to be near complete, I need to have compelling answers for all of the above questions. The better the answers, the better I feel about the deck even before going into the playtesting phase. Playtesting is where you turn the art of deckbuilding into a sort of science. Treat the answers to the above questions as your hypotheses for how you predict the deck will behave, and see how they stack up in actual games. If you find out that you were dead wrong about how you approached something, learn from it and don't make that same mistake again. If you think you have this great plan to use Maester Lomys as your Valar counter but then discover that it doesn’t work 90% of the time in practice, go back to the drawing board, but first try and figure out why you thought that was going to work in the first place. Examine the assumptions you were making that led you down that path to drawing bad conclusions, and reevaluate whether you're making those same assumptions in other places as well.

The longer you spend doing this, the better and faster you'll be able to separate good ideas from bad ones when building a new deck. Treat each design as a series of assumptions about why you think the deck will work, and treat each game as a way to prove or disprove those assumptions. Most importantly, keep an open mind and learn from experience.
  • WWDrakey, moneylender, samuellinde and 24 others like this


That is one fantastic article, Ser! Thanks!
Jul 30 2013 09:37 AM
Very well written. Good job.
Jul 30 2013 12:00 PM
Thanks! It's a very interest article.
Great article!
This is amazingly well-written. I'm curious about the process of building a deck outside of the box of current meta favorites. Is there any reason to show up to a tournament (I don't play competitively) with a deck not conforming to the commonly accepted tier 1 joust favorites and their iterations? If so, how do you go about constructing a surprise deck that can actually compete? Since I play casually, I don't care about winning much (just look at my submitted decks here...) and focus more on the Nedly aspect of the game and/or using cards that don't see much play.

So, yeah, there's my question: What's the design principle or, even, value, for making a deck that doesn't fit into the current meta staple box?

    • OKTarg likes this
Your biggest advantage is the surprise factor. Your opponent won't know what you have until after it's too late. Moreover, he won't have meta answers for your deck, while you can still include meta answers against popular builds.
    • bigfomlof and scantrell24 like this
Flint's answer is a part of it - most people who win tournaments have taken the time to playtest extensively against the known field. An unknown deck that has the chops to compete then is at an advantage.

Consider that all commonly accepted Tier 1 tournaments decks were new decks at some point. They had to come from somewhere, so there's a distinct advantage in being the person to debut the deck.

When you playtest a known deck in preparation for a tournament, you're typically working to hone your skill at piloting the deck, because the deck is a known quantity. Other people have already demonstrated that it mechanically stands up against the other top decks. A deckbuilder playtests because they don't actually know that the deck works or not - the goal is to acheive a refinement of design rather than skill.

However, Tier 1 decks are Tier 1 because they are consistent. The minimum bar to compete with them is set fairly high and most decks simply do not make the cut. It's a difficult but not impossible challenge to get to the point of creating something that does and it takes a lot of experience and knowledge of the meta. The first step is that you have to know what makes the Tier 1 decks tick if you want to beat them.

At the Gencon Melee last year I placed 5th-9th with a Neutral Faction deck. Nobody knew what the hell I was trying to do until it was too late, and there was quite a few folks having to read my cards because they'd never had to try and play around them before. People make mistakes when they don't understand what they should be looking out for, and that's an advantage you can capitalize on.
    • Archrono, bigfomlof, Flint and 1 other like this
Is there a link or what have you that breaks down the deck tiers?
It shifts around a bit but for most games it tends to work like this:

Tier 1: Tournament level decks. Tried and true, consistent, and effectively makes use of the most efficient cards. If it's legal but people debate whether it deserves an errata or restriction, it's probably Tier 1. In the hands of a skilled player, a Tier 1 deck makes its own luck.

Tier 1.5: Decks that can compete with Tier 1 decks but are not as consistent. These decks can win, but need luck to be on your side to a greater degree than Tier 1 decks, and so tend to not make the cut or win as many tournaments. In any single game though, they're probably good enough to win 3 or 4 out of 10 games against even the best decks.

Tier 2: Most decks fall into this category. Usually these are the more "fun" decks people play where they're exploring a theme or combination that just isn't consistent or powerful enough to win games against the carefully honed decks in the higher tiers - probably having only a 10-20% win ratio. Usually not a tournament deck, although people will bring them to tournaments.
In your Tier 1 description, what deserves an errata or restriction? Some of the cards?
Jul 30 2013 06:09 PM
One of the best articles I've read in a long time, lots of good things to think about there.
kido: A example of a Tier 1 card that needed a errata/restriction would be The Long Voyage. A second example would be Negotiations At The Great Sept. Cersei's Scheme is another great example. Right now its hard to say what is tier 1 and what isn't. The meta has just shifted and we are waiting to see what decks establish themselves as a tier 1 deck. Until after Gencon, anything anyone says will only be speculation as there are no big tournaments to actually bring the metas together and find out.

In your Tier 1 description, what deserves an errata or restriction? Some of the cards?

Exactly. The most recent examples were TLV and Negotiations, and before that you had cards like The Maester's Path and Ghaston Grey to name just a few. Some cards are strong enough to build entire decks around, and whether those decks are simply so good that they're bad for the game as a whole is something the community tends to argue over most vigorously. However, they do set the bar for what's possible and what competitive play looks like, and thus are Tier 1. Everything else is relative.
    • bigfomlof likes this
Thanks for the article. Question 2 is a good one
Great article David!
Aug 03 2013 03:56 PM
Spectacular article! Definitely First Tilt material on deck building with emphasis on draw, Gold curve and thoughts about Valar... while also getting my gears spinning on more advanced concepts like envisioning a specific win condition and building to accomplish it (hopefully by plot 2-3 for rush, or later for control) and developing the tools to block other deck archetypes!

How many cards do you typically devote to combat #6(weaknesses)?
I feel like Nightmares x3 or to a lesser degree, Paper Shield x3 seems to be the broad answer while deck types with larger holes (like a Brotherhood deck) seem to devote a lot more cards to weakness defense. I often seem to choke my hand with too many defense cards and I was wondering what is a good balance.

How many cards do you typically devote to combat #6(weaknesses)?
I feel like Nightmares x3 or to a lesser degree, Paper Shield x3 seems to be the broad answer while deck types with larger holes (like a Brotherhood deck) seem to devote a lot more cards to weakness defense. I often seem to choke my hand with too many defense cards and I was wondering what is a good balance.

That sounds like it'd be the good topic for a full article. My short answer is that it depends, and ideally you'll have offensive cards that can double as defensive abilities and reduce the number of strict counter cards needed - for example in Stark you don't need Nightmares if you're running Meera. In Lannister/Targ/Martell you don't need Paper Shield if you're running Confession. More to come, I'll have to think on this a bit.