Travis Pinter (14Shirt) is that one guy you’ve seen at tournaments but did not realize was him. He has been an AGOT player since 2012, is a wolf at heart, and always tries to keep his sense of humor even while in the throes of a humiliating defeat.
Every now and then in this illustrious game we all love, a card is introduced into the pool that sort-of sneaks past the numerous podcast pundits and the community at large, and ends up making a rather large impact on either the way a particular faction functions, or even the meta-game as a whole. Those of us who’ve been around long enough should know better. We’ve got over 2,000 first edition cards in our attics and myriad battle scars to prove it. But every once in a while . . . some tricky little card slips through the collective community and then just, well . . . kicks some serious ass.
Stark’s Winterfell Kennel Master (TRtW, 21) is one such card. He’s pretty puny on the surface. He’s not your big-ticket item meant to instill shock and awe (I’m looking at you, Ser Gregor Clegane). A two-gold, one-strength power mono-con with the Ally trait (which, honestly, gives me pause to shudder from the past trauma of first edition ally-hate more than anything yet available). The stats aren’t much to look at. The art, as suggested during a particularly funny riff on an episode of Banter Behind the Throne, does appear as if the Kennel Master is smoking a cigarette. Now, we all realize this isn’t the case, but I like to believe he is indeed. Why? Because he just “had his way” with my opponent and is taking a brisk walk afterwards to enjoy a good drag. Here’s how he’s doing it . . .
Challenges Action: If you control a participating [Stark] character, kneel a Direwolf character or a character with a Direwolf attachment to have it participate in the current challenge on your side. (Limit once per phase.)
As it turns out, being able to change the composition of your offense or defense during a challenge . . . is good. Real good. What this means is that a qualified character (i.e. Direwolf or character with Direwolf attachment) on your side of the board can enter a challenge as part of an action outside of the challenge declaration itself. Veteran players remember this as the “naval” mechanic from 1.0. What it does is screw with your opponent’s head and his/her combat math. The threat of activation here is what plants anxiety in the heart of your enemy. And the Winterfell Kennel Master is the boogey man.
Early reviewers considered the Direwolf trait limitation to be significant here, and in many ways, it would be . . . except that Lady (TtB,4) is a card that exists. This little one-cost attachment (with spectacular artwork) buffs any Stark to which it’s attached with +2 strength, but most importantly, it’s a Direwolf attachment, and . . .
Action: Pay 1 gold to attach Lady to a different character. Then, if attached character is Sansa Stark, stand her. (Limit once per phase.)
What this means is that a character with Lady, though not a Direwolf itself, is now eligible for the Kennel Master’s “jump in” effect. Furthermore, if you have a gold handy, you can pass Lady over to any eligible character and now make that character eligible for the Kennel Master’s effect. As an action. Mid-challenge. And if we haven’t figured it out already, we now know why the Kennel Master is smoking a cigarette while leading a ravenous wolf through knee-high snow in arctic conditions. He’s a badass. The kind of dude that walks away from explosions. Or informs some poor sucker he brought a knife to a gunfight. Let’s look at some of his fun maneuvers. I would call them “tricks,” but the beauty is, in keeping consistent with a Stark theme of “nothing up my sleeve,” all the ammo is on the table. No tricks here, only complications to keep track of . . .
Maneuver One: “Momma Said No.”
It’s widely understood that Catelyn Stark (Core,143) is very good. She doesn’t allow your opponent’s card abilities to trigger when she’s involved in a challenge. One of her only downsides is that irritating lack of a military icon. Hate it when you can’t get a Put to the Sword or Winter is Coming or Ice through on a military attack because of those pesky Hand’s Judgments, Treacheries, etc.? No worries if you’ve got Lady on Cat or a gold to spare and Lady on somebody that can shift it to Cat. Because you now can put her in the challenge. And get all your nasty kill effects through w/o fear of cancel. You see, when you use the Kennel Master’s ability outside of the declaration step during challenges, you don’t even need the “right” icon. Or any icon at all (looking squarely at you, Nymeria Sand)! Works just as well on defense, to deny a nasty event. Usually when you see your opponent salivating, with hand poised over his or her remaining gold pool, it’s a good time to jump in Cat.
Maneuver Two: “Sit. Stay.”
I find that Grey Wind’s (Core, 145) Intimidate keyword is oft-overlooked by my opponents. Maybe because they’re too busy contemplating this inevitable kill effect and when/where it will strike. In any case, Kennel Master makes this surprise even more forgettable. Leave Grey Wind out of challenge declaration, only to “jump” him in mid-challenge and get a surprising “win by x” number to kneel something big. Tywin. Randy. Sometimes even Big Bobby B. Feels good, doesn’t it?
Maneuver Three: “Crouching Sansa. Hidden Danger.”
With all this stuff for your opponent to remember, it’s especially easy to forget that Lady synergizes with Sansa Stark (Core, 147) quite nicely in that it stands her when moved to her and attached. With all the complicated scenarios impacting combat math, your opponent will begin to “factor out” knelt characters while surveying the board because, well, even the mighty Kennel Master can’t include those . . . unless one is named Sansa Stark and has just had Lady attached. That’s a surprise +4 boost to your challenge STR. For bonus points, trigger her ability to claim a power while doing it. As an extension of the “surprise kneeler,” don’t forget that Grey Wind can also use his ability to kill one of your own characters. With Robb Stark (Core, 146) on the table, this means you get a whole lot of surprise stand, and a whole lot of sudden targets for your Kennel Master mid-challenge.
Maneuver Four: “Who Said Anything About a Joust?”
More of a rule strategy than a maneuver, this still bears mentioning. Tyrell knight decks are starting to make a real impact. Central to the deck is usually The Knight of Flowers (Core, 185) and/or everybody’s favorite new toy, Mare in Heat (TKP, 44). In both cases, the intent is to force an opponent to defend with a single character (and sometimes remove it). Kennel Master’s ability functions outside the defender declaration step, so can “cheat” around this restriction by moving in another character mid-challenge. Good times.
I took a WKM Stark Fealty deck (featuring 3xWKM and 3xLady and all the wolves) to a decent-sized tourney in Chicago last weekend (29 players) and went 2-2-1 overall. I’m certain the deck would’ve done better in the hands of a more skilled player and/or once I’ve had enough reps with it. But despite my mediocre results, the strength here was obvious. I beat the eventual tourney winner in our round-two matchup (after which I was 2-0) and I had a helluva knock-down, drag-out 13-power tie with last year’s winner (Tommy from The White Book Podcast) in my third match. Challenge decisions got so taxing that we both needed strong drinks afterwards. Then I bombed out, unfortunately (but not because of the Kennel Master). However, players elsewhere are proving my point better than I did. Francesco D’Alessio took down a 38-player Italian tourney recently with WKM Stark Fealty, and his deck was then piloted by Kirk Dunkle to win a Fresno, CA store championship. Alex Hynes, from Beyond the Wall, also used a deck of this kind to finish second in his store championship. People are starting to notice.
I’m here to tell you that, after a slow start, the era of House Stark is very nearly upon us. Nate French recently revealed in an interview on Beyond the Wall that more direwolves are coming in the soon-to-be-released Wolves of the North Deluxe Box (surprise, surprise) and that at least one will be another “moving wolf” attachment. He spoiled Stark’s Nymeria on their cast, and without getting into all the specifics (listen for yourself!), it gives another tool for Stark to make a character a direwolf in mid-challenge. I can only assume that many more possibilities for this deck-type exist in that box. It appears that Winterfell Kennel Master is only going to get stronger.
I have played Stark almost exclusively since the 2.0 launch, and I am going to go out on a limb and assert that this particular deck-type is their most competitive to date, and in fact, will remain one of their top choices for the next couple of years until the Winterfell Kennel Master finally smokes his last cigarette and ultimately goes back into the binder. I, for one, will say a sad farewell when he does.
I fear we shall not see his like again.