A Game of Thrones: The Card Game 2nd Edition (fondly referred to as 2.0 by its cult-like fanship) is a living card game. Supposedly, that's because the game itself is alive and evolving - every month (or so), a new pack of cards is released and changes the game completely. But it's also because it is one of these games that some people call a 'life-style' game - you can literally make this game into your life style, your only hobby, your main obsession. It's an interesting experience to step out of one hobby community, the board gaming world, and step into a completely different one - the Thrones community, which is a part of the LCG community if it's part of anything. A lot is very similar, much is different. I came to Thrones with the same love of games that brought me to board gaming - for me it playing Thrones is a similar experience to playing other games, except there's a somewhat structured competitive play. But for the lifers, the people who play Thrones (and other LCGs) as their main hobby, the game is something totally different. One of the main reasons I play games is to clear my head - to engage super seriously in a taxing and challenging competition that I know, in the back of of the back of the back my mind, will not have any real impact on my life prospects. Unlike the challenges of work, school, parenting, family and life in general - the ones I encounter at the gaming table, aren't really that important, in the grand scheme of things. Don't get me wrong, I'm quite competitive and I like winning. Games are important in the moment because I made them important. And that's what's unique about games - you can spend a lot of time and energy on a serious challenge that would nonetheless won't affect you're prospects in life.
But when lifers want to get away from real life they don't play a game, they play Thrones. And they do so extremely seriously. The competitive scene of Thrones that I've tasted since the second edition was launched is simply amazing. There are an impressive array of really smart people who are not only good at this game, they are dedicated. They work at this game after hours - building decks, testing them, playing against themselves, playing against each other, making videos, writing articles, rating cards, recording podcasts, collecting and analyzing data, posting winning deck lists, recording some more podcasts, creating websites to manage decks or analyze setups or run tournaments and whatever else you can think of. And so much of it is geared towards helping new players get into the game, sharing helpful tips with others, discussing tactics and perceptions endlessly, debating rules and lots of other things. And that what makes it a community - people working together towards maintaining an enterprise that is larger than them. I've said here before that every competitive play is a cooperative effort on the meta-game - where we agree to play together by the rules. That's true about a single evening with a Kemet skirmish that's wild and aggressive and is done after an hour. It's true on a larger scale when we're talking about maintaining a competitive environment for such a complicated game, for some many people. It's just fun and inspiring to be able to join a community and be a part of it so quickly, enjoying all the free labor of smart wonderful people. And it's fun to be part of something that's really challenging in a way that I have not yet experienced in tabletop gaming.
That being said, I don't know how much longer I can keep up with it. The game is indeed living, and though it's probably one of the best games I have ever played - my insatiable appetite for variety in gaming is starting to take over me. I might go back soon to my old habits of moving from game to game like a monkey hopping from one tree branch to another. It's also really hard to keep up with the game and keep playing well, when so many new cards come out every month and change the meta. The game doesn't only rewards commitment, it requires it (if you want to play reasonably well). And I'm not sure I can keep up with it for very much longer. So before I fall behind or move to the next thing, I decided to sit down and summarize some thoughts about the game because it really is freaking incredible.
Last disclaimer - though I have been playing the game quite a bit since 2.0 was launched, I have not played the previous version or any of the other LCGs/CCGs (apart from dabbling a bit in Magic in my youth). Since the card pool is still pretty small, some of the veterans players feel like the experience of the game is still not what it's meant to be. My perspective is therefore that of a new player who has only played this recent iteration of the game and have played lots of other games, though not much any LCGs.
(note: this post turned out long - so I divided it into two parts; this part discusses the deck-building aspect of the game, and the next will discuss the actual game)
First: The Deck-Building Game (the actual metagame)
There are actually two games that involved in playing an LCG. One is the actual game, which involves playing cards that represents characters and location, accumulating power, engaging in intrigue to discard cards from your opponent's hand and killing your opponent's characters. But while you're playing that game, every LCG involves another, much more complicated, game: that of designing, building and testing a deck. Properly, that's a meta-game - though some players distinguish between playing the 'meta' (which means adjusting your deck to what you think you'll encounter in a particular setting, like a tournament) and building your deck, more generally, which involves the skill of evaluating particular cards, balancing the different components, testing and tweaking, figuring out answers to other existing decks and of course - figuring out a winning strategy for the deck. To add to the confusion, the common lingo among Thrones players (as the game is affectionately called) is to call local gaming groups 'meta', presumably because each of them develops a common set of beliefs and fashions that make for a unique meta-game. But the truth is that the real metas cross geographic areas - by playing online, watching youtube videos, co-hosting podcasts and so forth - the group of people that is playing the same meta is not necessarily geographic, though local groups remain important. A few people play in several metas or in an overall cross-metas meta.
In any case, the two kinds of deck-building games are both very important, and the designers clearly care about both experiences of deck-building, making them challenging as well as exciting. There are cards whose in-game effects are, at least in my humble opinion, not very interesting: they close, rather than open, decision-making options, and they don't really require much skill to exploit or even play against. Yet they often open very interesting deck-building decisions create cool dynamics in the deck-building meta-game. For example, the Iron Throne has a passive ability that doesn't have to be triggered and cannot be canceled, and it effectively ensures you win the dominance phase on most turns. Sometimes it will effect your decisions by allowing you to attack with more characters without losing dominance, or forcing your opponent to keep a few characters back just so he wouldn't lose it. But even in these rarer cases, the decision is usually a no-brainier. So the Iron Throne is something that you're typically happy to see on your side of the board, it has no great downside (it's not very expensive) and it's doing you a bit of good every turn. But when you build your deck you will soon discover that it's pretty hard to find the room for the Iron Throne in your deck. With so many other good locations, making the Iron Throne works meaning building around it, at least to some extent. It is easier in some decks than in others - Baratheon has a lot of cards that make it worthwhile for you to win dominance. In other houses, you have to work harder to make the Iron Throne work. But the interesting decisions that this card brings to the game are not made when it's on the table or even in your hand - it's in the deck construction. To build a good deck that uses the iron throne you have to adjust your plot deck, your play style and your path to victory. Someone picking up your deck wouldn't know how to play it well if they didn't know how it was built. The deck building is right there at the heart of playing the game - when you play with a certain deck, you might not have as many paths to victory or grand strategic decisions. Those were already made in the deck construction - all you have to do now is 'pilot' it well, weathering the unexpected weather and dodging the bullets that your opponents fires. But you can only use whatever was loaded onto your aircraft beforehand, in the deck-building.
The deck-building game is a very complicated one and it's really in that game that the most committed players are rewarded most. It's a deep game but it's also very wide: there are a lot of cards involved, even with the relatively small card pool, and each card has a variety of parameters you have to consider. But that's not even all of it - to build a good deck you have to a good understanding of other decks out there and what they can do. You have to be able to provide your pilot with tools to counter them or at least work around their tricks. Even if you don't build around the Iron Throne, you have to be prepared for a deck that wins dominance easily and exploits it to gain power quickly or card advantage. Either you include in your deck a card that destroys or neutralizes the Iron Throne, or you build a deck that wins so fast that dominance becomes irrelevant, or you do something else to work around it. And the best part in the deck-building game is that testing your deck, a crucial part of the process, means playing the actual game which is a super awesome game. Paying to test a deck and playing to win is not always the same thing, but it's only through playing a bunch of games that you can learn how to build a deck or even just adjust an existing deck list.
As I said, the deck-building process is one of balancing a variety of different consideration. In the game itself, each card in your deck has just one use - it can be played for its effect by paying its gold or else it can be discarded from your hand by some nasty effect (so you can think of cards as fodder for such discard, protecting other more valuable cards; this is called using them as 'intrigue claim soak'). Many other modern card games, whether classics like Glory to Rome (and all of its successors), Race for the Galaxy and Twilight Struggle or smaller games like Summoner Wars and Red7, have realized that part of the fun in card games is that you can use cards in variety of ways. They make you choose whether you want to use a card for its effect or as resource, sometimes using the card's rotation and placement for different effects. As noted, the cards in thrones can be used in-game in only one way (or as claim soak) but in the deck-building game each has a variety of different roles: they take up slots in your deck according to their cost, their effect, their kind and so forth. Each card matters for it can do, but also for its place on the cost curve, whether or not it can be used on set-up, whether it survives the first snow of winter and many other considerations. What this means is that if you remove or replace just one or two cards in your deck, it often sends a ripple effect throughout your deck and requires you to make a variety of changes. For example, when The Road to Winterfell expansion pack came out I really wanted, like many others, to add Nymeria Sand to all my Martell decks. Adding a 5-cost character is not something you can do without interfering with your cost curve - the first question to ask is: can I afford to play another 5 gold character given my existing gold resources? Even if I add Nymeria by removing some other 5 gold character, I have to think about the different challenge icons that might be disturbed by the replacement. If I take out Arianne to add Nymeria, I make other cards (such as Areo) less useful in my deck. Or, in a different context, adding Nymeria to my Night's Watch/Martell deck makes me all of a sudden much more vulnerable to cards like Milk of the Poppy (as most of my Night's Watch characters cannot be targeted by Milk and Nymeria suffers from it more than others) - does that mean I need to add to my decks some Milk counters (in this case, attachment control cards, like Confiscation)? The chain of effects is endless. Adding Confiscation to your deck changes your gold curve as well as your ability control initiative, which might mean you can't enjoy the benefits of some other cards in your deck like Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken or Sunspear. Removing those would mean you are more vulnerable to some other game effect and so the process goes on and on.._. A good deck is a balanced construction where all the bits fits together nicely. You want to have enough gold to play what you need, but you don't want to have gold wasting while you have no cards in hand - so your income needs to be balanced by draw, or other ways to get card advantage. Some experience players talk about individual cards in terms of the absolute value (how efficient or cost-effective they are, for example) and there is certainly a great deal of value in that kind of talk. But it seems to me that the real value of each card really depends on the deck it is in, and even the best of cards (which include fan favorites like Tywin, Tyrion and Robert Baratheon but also obscure locations like Ghaston Grey) really shine if they are put in a deck that has room for them. A really good card - like Tyrion - will always be good and can fit in almost any deck. But its value varies in different deck; if you add him to your Targaryen-Lannister deck alongside Daenerys, Jaime, Drogo and Illyrio, you might have a hard time playing him as well as all your other high cost character. In contrast, in an event heavy deck that uses the gold Tyrion makes, such as Lannister-Lord of the Crossing (aka Leaping Lions) he really is among the best of the best.
Posting your deck list, and explaining why and how you got to it, is an individual contribution to the communal enterprise of 'solving' the meta-game. It gives you an opportunity to be smart and shine but it also invites feedback, pushback and constructive criticism. And though some people are solitary geniuses, most people really need the support of a team in order to play the deck-building game well. So much so that some people claim that Thrones is actually a team game - a game where different metas work separately to try and 'solve' the metagame, meeting in tournaments with their respective refined solutions where all members of the meta are playing the same deck (with some small variations). This is, of course, a provocative view that many think undermine the competitive spirit of tournament play, where prizes are given to individuals, not teams. But it illustrates that the deck-building game is actually very similar to many other cooperative games, and it benefits (in both level of achievement as well as enjoyment) from bringing together a few minds to work at it.
And so, this is the great reveal: the deck-building game is not a solo game, but a cooperative one. For most experienced Thrones players (and I assume other LCGs as well), this is not a great reveal. But for many others, this can be an episode of 'you're doing it wrong' - if you've been building your decks on your own, in the darkness, as you sip dark wine solemnly and silence or jazz music engulfs you - you are probably having fun. But next time you go to a meetup - consider spending some time working with your friends on the deck you're building. And while you're at it, do it like you're playing Pandemic - with your hand of cards on the table. talking to them about your choices and getting their feedback. It's not just that they're doing you a favor or that you're giving up your secrets - it's the group of you putting your minds together to tackle a task that's clearly larger than most of us. When you play a competitive game, you don't want your opponent to know what's in your deck. But when you're deck-building, keeping back information stands in the way of both success and enjoyment.
However, there's a catch. Though the deck-building game is a cooperative game, it's not explicitly so. Which means - the game doesn't tell you to show your cards, or gives you specific roles or structures the interaction to make sure it works well and it's fun for everyone. That means that when you're playing the deck-building game, all of that is on you - you should make sure you're playing to your strengths, or that you're avoiding quarterbacking (aka 'alpha' gaming). That's not so difficult, if you think about it for two seconds - we do lots of things cooperatively in life. But that's why it seemed worthwhile to point out that way deck-building is basically a cooperative game. If you're only playing it solo - you're missing out on half of the fun.
Next time: the game itself!