by James Waumsley (JCWamma)
In the GenCon Meta (and, to a large extent, the current one), the way to succeed is to put out big, beefy guys and have more big, beefy guys than your opponent’s board of… you guessed it, big, beefy guys. The big, beefy guys will win challenges for you; a lot of them will accumulate power through renown; and you will reach 15 power – unless, of course, your big, beefy guys are killed by a removal effect (be that event-based kill like Tears of Lys and Put to the Sword, or repeatable kill like The Seastone Chair, Mirri Maz Duur, and Ser Gregor Clegane) or have Milk of the Poppy played on them when you stupidly forgot to include Confiscation in your plot deck.
While a shameless generalization, the previous paragraph is also a pretty fair summary of almost every deck that has been popular for the past few chapter packs (essentially since The First Snow of Winter came out and pushed everyone’s cost curves up). Even Martell, the seeming ‘answer’ with their icon control, has gravitated towards Ghaston Grey (to remove those big characters), and Tears/Tyene Sand (to remove those big characters) and are only different because they lack the renown to win quickly. The ubiquity of this build has actually been a cause of complaint for many people who feel the metagame is too “same-y,” or even random, with a “who can draw their big dudes/removal for the opponents’ big dudes first wins” feel.
I’m here to tell you there is, and has been, Another Way™.
If the game has become a quest of “who can drop the most big guys”, it seems like the easiest way to win that game is to reduce your opponent’s big guy count to zero. What’s the only card in that game that can remove all of the big guys at once? Why, Varys, the grand equalizer of the first year of second edition. I’m genuinely kinda staggered by how few people have been playing Varys in the current meta. So, moving forward from there, what’s the best faction to play Varys from? I may be looking at this through the, ahem, rose-tinted spectacles of my personal success with the deck, but I would like to put forward the case for House Tyrell.
Varys has five weaknesses, to offset how strong he is:
- You have to draw
- You have to be able to afford
- You have to protect him from soft-control(Milk/Nightmares).
- You have to protect him from hard-control(Put/Tears/Mirri/etc.).
- You have to stop him being cancelledby Treachery.
Now we’ll be outsourcing weaknesses 3 and 5 to our banner, but Tyrell is positioned like no other faction to deal with points 1, 2 and 4.
Drawing: as well as having access to the ONLY free, non-conditional draw in the game other than the double-sided Dragon’s Tail – Pleasure Barge – Tyrell also has two tremendous ‘fixer’ events in the form of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” (#trueBAMF) and Much and More, AKA A Gift of Arbor Red. Between these three cards, Tyrell’s chances of finding Varys are greater than any other faction.
Affording: The Arbor is good, isn’t it?? The most income any one card can provide for marshalling phase use, and unlike the Tywin Lannisters of the world, Varys doesn’t get rid of it. The Arbor will fuel a Varys deck like no other card can, and it’s loyal to Tyrell, baby. Now what’s the weakness with The Arbor? Why, drawing it. Wait a minute…
Protecting from hard control: in a word, Highgarden. As well as completely shutting down Tyene and halving the number of challenges you need to be able to beat Mirri on, it also helps shield you from the likes of Put to the Sword. Good luck winning by 5 on military when I can remove a character.
Now for the other two weaknesses, we essentially need to focus on hand control. Essentially, if the opponent has no hand, she can’t hold onto a Milk for when you drop Varys, and they won’t have Treachery or Nightmares left in hand come the dominance phase. And while Lannister might seem like the ‘go to’ option there, they really don’t have much beyond the loyal Casterly Rock and Cersei Lannister in the way of hand control. No, Martell is where it’s at here. Here’s how the Banner of the Sun can help with an aggressive protection of Varys, as well as what else the banner offers:
His Viper Eyes works wonders. On a Varys turn, as long as you have claim-soak, you are more than happy to lose a military, and it lets you target-remove any particular answer card you’re scared of, be that soft-control, cancel, or kill. If there aren’t any there, great! You get their best character instead, you lucky thing – that should make their attempts of rebuilding a touch harder, now, shouldn’t it?
Bastard Daughter is the ultimate troll card for helping increase the attrition. With my extra draw from Pleasure Barge and my focus on intrigue challenges, I’m more than happy to pay 2 gold for a 1-for-1 trade of cards that you have no control over…while also chump-blocking your military challenge.
One of the more subtle benefits of Banner of the Sun is that of First Snow-proofing. The First Snow of Winter has been one of the defining cards of the meta we play in now, to the point where several high-level decks have actually started dropping it out of an assumption that all decks have adapted to deal with it! Certainly not all, though, so being able to combat it is important. Thankfully, the Sun banner allows us to do just that. Palace Spearmen is a surprisingly versatile body, and Knights of the Sun, while not as good, have the potential to offer some much-needed closing speed in tight match-ups. Both sit at the all-important 4-cost slot, a slot made even better for setup reasons thanks to the Arbor, and both cannot take the Ward attachment, removing the vulnerability the cost-slot can suffer from.
Additionally, icon control, especially the military icon, is immeasurably better on smaller boards. Imprisoned can happily sit on most troublesome characters, and Nymeria Sand is versatile and especially great on the First Snow turn. She also makes for a great distraction from Varys, likely to draw Milk/Treachery/Nightmares before he ever hits the table. Lastly, Arianne Martell is delightful on First Snow – effectively giving you an extra character on a smaller board. The permutations she offers are as varied as they are useful.
It is important to focus on surviving First Snow and deploying Varys, of course, but that’s not all. We have a pre-Varys game for if the opponent starts off strongly: deplete the hand, set up econ, manage bombs; and we need a post-Varys game.This is the second part where Tyrell proves invaluable. Two of the most underrated characters in the game, in my experience – and I can only assume it’s because not enough people play Tyrell or Rose banners for people to remember them – are House Florent Knight and Olenna’s Informant. Both of these characters allow you deploy attrition on your opponent’s character-base. The Knight can even, if the stars align, discard the likes of Tyrion and Nymeria (no cards of lower STR on either side, Song of Summer to boost the HFK to 4 STR)! What I just described isn’t just a pipe-dream scenario either, but rather something I have accomplished multiple times. He also loves being dropped in with Arianne on a First Snow turn to discard Syrio, I hear. The Informant, meanwhile, offers an opportunity to provide the finishing touch to destroy an opponent’s board or hand, or else to just swing the power counts around very quickly. Both cards combo delightfully with Arianne, both are non-unique so can be run in a carefree, 3x manner, and both are wonderful at making an opponent say, “…ohhh“.
It is, of course, worth pointing out the sacrifice required to properly deploy the House Florent Knight – namely, no 1-drops. In the entire deck, the only STR 1 cards are the Bastard Daughters, and they won’t stick around long enough to prove relevant. While this decision might seem like too high a price to pay, let’s look at what the 1-drop reducers actually do: they let you optimize your setups to protect from Marched to the Wall (the fabled “Tywin/chud/Roseroad” setup is stuff of legend at this point), and they provide an economic boost in character form. With the Arbor providing a lot of economy already, and with Varys removing all character-based economy, we’re not too interested in that economic boost; as for setups, our ideal setup is either Arbor + 4-drop, Arbor + Highgarden, or Arbor + 2x 2-drops. Never mind cost 7, our only character above cost 5 is Varys – who needs 1-drops??
So with the main faction and banner faction both set in stone for various reasons, we end up with this list. Credit for the initial list, as well as joint-credit for all subsequent changes to it, goes to Antti Korventausta (WWDrakey), the man who worked out all of the above in his head, then told me slowly and repeatedly until it sunk in. There will also be a screenshot at the bottom, for those intent on reading the rest of the article.
With the deck set as Tyrell and Martell, let’s look at all the cool synergies on offer between those factions:
- Aforementioned Arianne + Informant/HFK
- Against an empty hand, A Gift of Arbor Red + His Viper Eyes to get round the downside of the Gift and filter their best cards away.
- A particularly devious one: Imprisoned to help root out the opponent’s Confiscation (play one on a Jaime or Gregor and it often appears quite imminently), allowing Pulling the String to act as pseudo-Confiscation for you. That Pulling performs this function importantly allows you not to run Confiscation yourself, freeing up a vital plot spot and preventing yourself from having to discard your own Imprisoned or Milk on plot 7.
- Of course, without Confiscation you need Rattleshirt’s Raiders, just in case they don’t play it. Good thing Imprisoned makes it easier to push the Raiders through, and that Arianne can drop them in mid-challenge phase. A personal favourite is declaring a military with the Raiders, the opponent opposing for 4 or 5, then triggering in Arianne to drop in Wildling Horde and triggering them to win the challenge. A similar, albeit less banterous version can be accomplished with Margaery Tyrell.
- Another application for Pulling the Strings: hand destruction as previously described will often bait an opponent running it into playing Counting Coppers, which, of course, is a contender for the best plot in the game to copy.
- The third application for Pulling the Strings: with the Arbor on setup, you will often be very happy to set up a Knights of the Sun or Palace Spearmen alongside it. An opponent who is perhaps unfamiliar with your deck, or otherwise overly-aggressive, will be tempted into Marching your 4-drop to the Wall. Marched isn’t omni-applicable enough to justify running 2 copies of it, but running 1 copy and a pseudo-second copy? Perfect.
- With Varys discouraging running high-costers and Arianne encouraging 5-cost or lower, Tyrell’s lack of good bombs (aside from Randyll) is actually warped into a boon for the deck!
- As well as being great on the First Snow round (and a general pain for cards like Gregor), Imprisoned helps make the attrition that the House Florent Knight and Olenna’s Informant push hurt even more.
- Lastly and most importantly, House Dayne Knight and House Florent Knight have the important distinction of being the only two characters in the game who have their traitsas their name, and you will get a warm feeling every time both are on the board for you at once.
The plot deck is worth touching on briefly:
Pulling the Strings – described above.
The First Snow of Winter: an important tool for keeping the board small in games where you can’t trigger Varys, or for decreasing the chances of a top-decking opponent being able to get out board presence post-Varys. Also a Winter plot to protect against Stark decks running Winterfell.
Marched to the Wall: ideal follow-up plot to Varys, and often to First Snow as well (especially if you’ve dropped in a chud with Arianne or ambushed in an Olenna’s Informant). Can regularly feature as the final nail in the coffin when you’re in post-Varys attrition mode.
Summons: finds what you need in a pinch, provides card advantage and high reserve. Often the opener.
A Song of Summer: high gold, can’t be Naval’d, useful effect that has the side-benefit of letting House Florent Knight hit juicier targets.
The Long Winter: 2 claim goes great with the Informant and often forces opponents to base their entire turn around it on a smaller board. Winter trait for the Stark matchup. And that ‘downside’ of power discard? I have won several games where I’ve triggered this plot and my opponent has reached 14 power. It even removes power from your faction card that the opponent could potentially steal!
Trading with the Pentoshi: not only allows you to play Varys even when you don’t see the economy in your draw deck but also tricks your opponent into overextending beforehand. It can also be flipped post-Varys, if you’ve depleted your opponent’s hand and board and want to move through the gears yourself. More generally it is the “Valar Morghulis” of second edition right now, the only plot you can flip that really gives you a chance to get back into a game you’re losing, and is highly undervalued for that function in my opinion – far from simply being a mindless first turn board-spam plot, it is an important tool to recover seeming lost causes.
Now, I’d like to flatter myself as a reasonable advocate for this deck; however I would be remiss if I did not emphasise how tricky it is to play correctly; it can feel like walking a tightrope – as long as you take every action correctly, you will make it to the other side, but one misstep… To give an example I’d like to link to the video of the final of the Reading regional, recorded and commentated on by erstwhile Southron Bannerman Ben Davy (shout-out to Ben!).
Now, having linked it, I’m going to spoil the results (though the deck description that includes a TR does much the same thing): I lost. A big reason I lost was due to a round-two Gregor trigger, in which Gregor pillages Wildling Horde from my deck to kill Arianne. Unavoidable error leaving me a victim of lolrandom high variance, right? …Except, that round, before Gregor was even on the table, I should have teched against him in the plot phase. My opponent, Miguel, had revealed A Noble Cause as his plot. I had revealed Summons, and had a choice between Nymeria and Arianne Martell. Blinded by the facts that a) I had a House Florent Knight in hand and wanted to take advantage of that totes awesome combo, and b) there were 3 Nymerias left in my deck versus 1 Arianne, I opted for Arianne.
Here’s a link to the video:
What I should’ve done was acknowledge that Miguel had just flipped a plot that was almost certainly going to be putting out either Gregor or Tywin; that my deck has a major vulnerability to Gregor (13 5-cost characters, whoop-whoop!); and that Nymeria is as anti-Gregor as it gets. If I fetch Nymeria there then there’s no Gregor trigger, ergo no game-ruination. That’s one example of the level of play you have to maintain throughout a game with this deck. There are several, every game. This is not a deck for the sane (sometimes characterized as a “Full-On Drakey” deck).
And, of course, the deck itself: