jmccarthy's post on the maester's path prompted me to start a forums conversation i've been meaning to start for a while; i'm starting a new thread, however, as i don't want to hijack a thread that will be dedicated to justified complaining over that particular agenda.
in that thread, jmmccarthy wrote:
IMO, I think FFG should make a bunch more cards like the Stark armies, KLE Red Viper, and the old HOTH Tywin that care whether a person is running an agenda or not.
i disagree with this fairly strongly, as my assessment of the problems seemingly inherent to agendas requires looking at the card type in a very different light. i'm of the opinion that it would be a very good thing for the game instead if we had a cycle that consisted of something like 30+ very different agendas and a bunch of cards that helped to flesh out the huge variety of new themes that those agendas brought into the game, or the existing themes that those agendas were designed to enhance, so that each and every deck played an agenda, each of which allowed that deck to do something fairly different than a deck built around every other agenda. agendas are the card type that has the greatest potential to bring flavor to the game; if we had a broad and diverse array of agendas to choose from (a mix of agendas that could be played out of any house, and agendas that were house specific, and treaty agendas specific to different sets of houses -- e.g. martell and targ, or stark and baratheon -- that allow players to combine houses in thematic ways that a generic treaty agenda like alliance can't support), players would build very different deck types within each house, each of which might take advantage of the different building blocks a house has to offer in very different ways. instead, we have a small set of competitively playable agendas in the current environment which don't do much to encourage diversity of decktypes within each house. as of right now, within each house there are one or two competitively viable decktypes, even though we have a ton of cards in the environment; and half of the few agendas we do have pretty much address the same issues of card and resource advantage in different ways.
for example, there are tier-1 or tier-2 competitive builds of martell/maester's path, martell/kings of summer, martell/kothh, and martell/city of shadows in the current environment. sadly, each of those lists looks and plays substantially the same when optimized -- each is within something like 10 cards of each other, and they all really are using the same key cards and overall goals to win games. the agendas we have right now don't do anything for me if i want to make a competitive "martell/sandsnake/red viper revenge deck," or a "martell/house dayne/summer/fortress"; instead, agendas like kings of summer simply allow for building the usual martell stuff with more card advantage, and kothh simply allows you to add to that usual martell build some events with influence. city of shadows just allows you to bolster your martell deck with king's landing and some control locations that play well with all the other control cards the deck has, and the maester's path just allows you to take that same spicy martell sauce and play some extra chains for toolboxing and to fill in the gap martell has concerning attachment hate.
the few agendas that encourage diversity are fairly new -- alliance and heir to the iron throne (only in its targ-only form) -- and don't yet have enough support to make decktypes in joust that are consistently competitively viable. then there are a bunch of agendas all of which simply give card or resource advantage, and don't do much to make for deck types between and within the houses that feel much different: kings of summer, kings of winter, knights of the realm, the maester's path, and to a great extent knights of the hollow hill (i'll write more on this one later). there are still other agendas that simply make decks more efficient: the wildling and night's watch agendas don't give rise to different deck types; rather, they're used to fill in the holes in the character bases of the houses (NW largely for intrigue, and the wildlings in houses that lack a lot of stealth or beef). the stark and targ nw/wildling decks i played to great success last year didn't look different than non-nw/wilding stark and targ decks would have looked at the time; they simply allowed me to draw on a pool of very bland but cost-effective and highly efficient neutral characters that i could use to remedy the lack of efficient characters within either of those houses. gualdo, dobbler, and rings last year all played martell/wildling decks that played exactly the same as a non-wildling martell deck; the wildlings just gave them better characters to fill in the holes where crappy in-house characters would have gone instead. the brotherhood agenda is more of the same; if there were a bunch of efficient, in-house brotherhood characters it might have been different, but instead we have a neutral deck that is the same no matter what house it's in (it just happens to be best in lanni and martell because those are the decks with the best card advantage and in-house tricks). city of shadows has largely been used in the same way as the last two subsets of agendas i've described. and in yet another example, siege of winterfell didn't give rise to a new type of stark deck -- it just encouraged players to cut some of the beefier stuff with MIL icons for smaller and faster stuff with MIL icons, and the resulting deck plays out in the same fast aggro way any other stark deck does.
an example of how a different approach to designing one of the bland agendas could have led to different and distinctly flavorful decktypes within each house: consider the way the maester theme was approached in the oldtown cycle. the maester's path could have required that you place chains on maester characters only, not allowing for the apprentice collar to allow you to use the agenda with any old character. at the gates could have required you to pull an in-house maester only, and instead of a bunch of neutral maester characters (and other non-maester junky characters the houses didn't really need) the oldtown cycle could have given each house a few unique maesters and a non-unique maester or two. in this way, each house would have had a maester theme that had a distinct flavor, rather than the same small bunch of specific maester-themed cards being played out of each house with fewer variations. and to make each in-house implementation of the maester theme feel "maester-y," each could have done something that simulated the maesters supporting the house's main lords of ladies, or sending messages via ravens, or studying and teaching, or any of the other things maesters do. (we get a little bit of that in the set, as those of you who have seen the spoilers on the uncut sheets or on agotcards know, but it's a minority of cards in oldtown, and many of them are inefficient or just sort of useless.) instead, we'll have a bunch of decks with the maester's path agenda played out of each house that aren't substantially different from the other decktypes in that house (see the martell example above), and each of which use the same few very powerful maester cards independent of the house being played (every house will have a deck that puts a few key chains on the maester's path, pulls luwin on the first turn, uses the same few very powerful maester/learned crest events that are neutral, etc. -- and these components won't be much different between any of the houses).
with this in mind, it's important not to accuse the agenda card type of anything, but rather the game designers for not using the card type in a way that gives rise to a variety of distinct and creative (and competitive) decks in the environment. agendas could be designed to bolster very specific themes; and i contend that the game would be much better off if every competitive or casual player had a huge variety of different agendas to choose from no matter which house he or she is playing, or no matter which theme he or she wanted to use. would it not be awesome for the game if every time the designers decided to introduce a new theme like "dothraki" or "raider" or "clansmen" they printed not one but two or more different agendas to be used with that theme -- one agenda that allowed the theme to be played on its own, and at least one that tied that theme in with other existing in-house or neutral themes in very different ways? furthermore, agendas that are similar to the brotherhood or NW agendas could be created for use in any house, so that instead of guiding a specific use of a theme on a player as some agendas would, we also have a huge variety of agendas that could be used very creatively by players to give rise to unexpected decktypes within each house that were simply enabled by an agenda, rather than being dictated by one. greg's knights of the hollow hill agenda, too, is one designed with this hope in mind; in theory, it should encourage decktypes that use cards with an influence cost where other cards cannot. however, it hasn't yet given rise to many unexpectedly creative deck types due to the fact that there aren't many in-house, competitively playable cards that do anything substantially different than cards without an influence cost. if the current mode of design continues to dominate, i think the best thing it will do for the game is add to the existing decktypes alternate builds that allows for favorable ground to be played to combat decks based heavily on locations; but because of its inherent slowness, i have my doubts about that, too, and i'm still waiting to see the day when a location-lite kothh deck rises to the top of a large, very competitive tournament.
i know that some in the old guard have predispositions that would lead them to rue an environment in which agendas are ubiquitous, but i think these attitudes are founded in great part on the specific uses of the agenda card type we have seen in this game, many of which i would classify as poorly designed cards. i'd encourage those players to rethink whether they simply want a bunch of cards to be printed to discourage players from playing agendas -- or whether we should beg the designers to make cards that discourage players from making use of the bland set agendas we have today, and direct our collective whining toward making a bunch of agendas each of which is fun to play with. if agendas were made more along the lines of what i've described above -- agendas that give us a reason to play house dayne, clansmen, dothraki; and do so in ways that make it actually feel like we're playing something different than the usual sauce in martell, lanni, or targ, or combine those themes with the houses' most efficient cards in ways that give rise to decks that don't feel like the other efficient in-house builds -- i contend that there would be few players who would not enjoy the environment immensely more. i agree that more agendas along the lines of the maester's path or knights of the realm aren't the way to go, but at the same time i think we should be begging more creative thematic diversity of our designers rather than marginalizing the agenda cardtype altogether.