Icon-dancing for 7 straight hours (a WWDrakey TR)
A little background:
So, this weekend we had the Finnish Regionals, with 22 participants covering 3 nationalities (mostly Finns, but also a few Swedes and a lone Spaniard). That's the largest Tournament held in the Country, ever!
Since several people had trains to catch at 7 PM, and turnout was larger than expected, the Tourney went with 50 minute rounds with all games (even Cut games) being played to the end of the *phase*, not the round. Oh, and all games were played back-to-back, with a maximum of 5 minute breaks.
A history of dancing:
I've often been a strong proponent of Soft-Control over Hard-Control, since it just creates much and more interesting games... for both players. If you can just play whack the mole with *everything* somebody else brings to the board, where's the *interesting* part at? Feels about as subtle and cunning as a mailed fist to the face.
Now, my favorite form of Soft-Control has been Icon Manipulation, ever since that orange Princes of the Sun Box came out some years ago... and I've been tinkering with it ever since. In the end, it became one of my ultimate goals in the game - "To build or see a truly competitive Icon Manipulation deck". Oh, it's been splashed into 'Martell good-stuff' decks along the way, but I'm talking about it as a full-on main theme, like what Hyperkneel is to Lanni Aggro. Or pure burn is to Dothraki with Illyrio and Incinerate.
Now, it should also be pointed out that icon manipulation is... well, fundamentally both more interesting, and at the same time, weaker, than kneel can ever be. Why? Well, firstly, while a card can be either standing or flipped sideways, you can do selective removal of icons, which does not completely negate a character, but still allows you to Control the paths open to your opponent. Secondly, completely stripping a character from it's icons leaves it standing. And what does that mean? Well, it means that while a kneel deck can just kneel you out, pull off unopposed challenges, and then also grab dominance to accelerate it's win... an icon manipulation deck, even when stripping everything away, will still be feeding it's opponent power via dominance.
Anyway, for the longest stretch of time the theme was... well, nowhere near ready. The cards/engines just didn't exist. The first inklings of possibility started to appear when The Maester's Path came out, but since Black Iron Link was the only Link allowing removal of icons, and it only worked on intrigue icons, it just wasn't enough to kick the theme into gear. Finally, it was the Champions Cycle with the combination of Scourge / Brimstone / Vaith that really provided some decent engines... But no matter how hard one tried to crack that egg, it never quite opened out.
The reason? Turns out that real Icon manipulation needs some very specific things:
1) Like all Soft Control, it's the most card-consuming type of deck available... so a steady and strong source of draw is paramount
2) Due to it's mechanical interactions, it needs a plotline that it can leverage to supplement it's card effects
3) It needs a way handle the fact that the opponent is constantly accumulating power
4) it needs influence as much as Targ Burn does
That's quite a hefty order... and the criteria never could be quite filled out. Either a specific draw-engine was too weak, or too costly so it couldn't work with the double-resource curve due to influence, or the whole thing managed to Control but still lost the game slowly but surely to dominance losses. Honestly, I've built so many icon manipulation decks along the years, it's borderline obsessive. None of them ever really clicked. I do sorta pity Ire, he's had to play (and usually win) against so many of them, now that I think of it...
Finally, in the closing stages of the Kingsroad Cycle, a true solution presented itself, which easily ticked all the boxes - Bloodthirst. But then, there were some other issues left. The Scourge was still on the list (due to some knee-jerk reaction on House of Dreams, which was completely unfounded), as was The Orphan of Greenblood (due to being such a good overall card). Also, there's the fact that BT was everywhere (and teched against, hard), due to Burning on the Sands being such a badly designed card, Viper being the only 5g char really worth his cost, board sweeps being too easy and Prince's Plans errata being broken by Prayers. So, before the 5.0 FAQ, I just figured it's better to work on some of my other eternity-projects (ended up finally making my other old dream of 'Stark Murder Hill' working, and taking 2nd with it at our SC), and check back after the FAQ hit.
And once the FAQ hit, the conditions were... optimal, finally. So, after 4-5 years of impatient waiting, I could finally play competitively with the cards I'd always wanted to play with!
Let's start with the list:
House Martell / Bloodthirst
Loyalty Money Can Buy
Lead by Example
Lineage and Legacy
2x The Red Viper (Princes of the Sun)
1x Arianne Martell (Princes of the Sun)
3x Watchful Servant
2x Dayne Spearman
1x Maester Myles
1x Littlefinger (A Hidden Agenda)
2x Southron Mercenaries
1x Orell the Eagle
1x Quentyn Martell
1x Ellaria Sand (Princes of the Sun)
3x The Prince's Plans
2x Choosing the Spear
3x The Only Game that Matters
3x He Calls It Thinking
3x The Prince's Wrath
2x Paper Shield
3x Red Vengeance
2x Scorpions Underfoot
1x Hellholt Docks
3x Dornish Fiefdoms
1x Street of Silk
2x Lord Doran's Chambers
3x Summer Sea
2x Southron Stronghold
3x Kingsroad Fiefdom
2x Vale Rookery
1x Shivering Sea
1x The Vaith
3x The Scourge
1x Milk of the Poppy
...and then for some explanation:
The key parts of the deck to understand are the plots, and how they interact with Icon Manipulation. Be it Lineage and Legacy (which allows closing down of two challenges, just by controlling a single icon type), Lead By Example (which forces either over-commitment or closes down a bunch of challenges) or Desolate Passage (with Vaith + Myles/Only Game that Matters). Then there are the 'cutting down the weeds' plots in Wildfire, Valar D., Valar... which, when possible, were meant to be triggered via Vale Rookery, so as to always have a plot that *actually does something* revealed. Loyalty is more related to the way BT needs to keep a small but steady board-presence on the table, and it allows you to save-up a bit on card expenditure for a round.
So, what the deck really does is... control your Power-icons. Nope, not the intrigue ones, nor even the military ones... the power-ones. Why? It's a simple maths equation in the end: If you push through 2 unopposed challenges and win dominance, while I push through a single unopposed power-challenge at 1-claim, what's the overall net gain? 2-2. Yep, break-even. Working from that base, then selectively also tying away other challenges (or negating them with Only Game that Matters) and meanwhile leveraging numerous ways to help generate/steal a bit more power... that's how the deck rolls. It's fair to say, that 80-90% of the Challenges I ever make with the deck are... power-challenges. The rest are ones with either Southron Mercs, a Choosing The Spear'd Arianne for some supplementary intrigue... or the Viper going about for a final rush.
In the end, Power is Power.
Oh, and there's some important toolboxing in the deck for specific problem cards (Nightmares, Milk of the Poppy, Bastard), which help immensely... especially as they are all useful in any game, but especially help win some of the worst matchups (like blanking a Longship Maiden's Bane with Nightmares, then repeating the feat with Prince's Plans once or twice).
And... a fair-warning: The deck is hella hard to play right. I'd easily compare it to old school 'always return Forever Burning' -type Burn (before all these new-fangled Incinerate type point-n-click things appeared, but rather you had to combine a plethora of different effects to do something and only ran lackluster little characters). It fries your brain, if played for too long.
Round 1: Greyjoy N/A (Winter Aggro, Marauders, Search and Detain, Bay of Ice)
Generously, my deck decided that it would be a good way to start the day by denying me any influence... For the first 3 Rounds (that's about 20 cards from my deck). Having a Prince's Plans + 2x Scorpions Underfoot + Prince's Wrath stuck in my hand did not help. Hellholt Docks was doing a fine job keeping The Kingsroads from ruining my hand, but I had to spend way too many important events in order to stall the game up... which backfired hard, after a double Seasick stopped my Prince's Plans when I finally *did* draw into influence. That was the first tipping point, and I could not get my foot through the door anymore properly... was still holding on with Arianne, but a late game Search and Detain on her hit my economy a bit too hard, and that was game.
After this one, I had almost 15 minutes of time. Little did I know, it would be the only such luxury I would have a for a long time...
Round 2: Lannister Conquest(Martell) (Castellan + Ghaston + pain... maybe Rivers?)
After my second mulligan of the day into a horrible second hand, I was starting to think my deck had it in for me... a load of scrambling proceeded, but somehow I kept my head above the water... with my opponent edging uncomfortably close to 15. However, my early game tactic of forcing the Lanni to go first, then not bringing out characters - forcing them to leave their Nobles out to be Valar'd (M/D, either works) slowly withered away their eligible bounce-tech. Then, I was able to stop them just short of 15 and start pushing back and accumulating with Viper and Arianne. That's literally by the skin of my teeth... and just before time was called.
From here on out, every game I played started going close to time (or indeed, did not finish before). With all rounds being played back-to-back (we had a lot of people travelling from far away and needing to make trains etc.), and my BT not being the fastest to win or lose, it was going to be a *rough* day.
Round 3: Baratheon Black Sails (Melisandre's Scheme, usual BS tech, Battle for the Shield Islands)
My first thought: By rights this should be doable. My second thought: Last time I faced this guy, it was in our SC final, where he won against me with an Anti-BT oriented Baratheon deck. Uh-oh.
The Scourge was having a rough day. First it got discarded (twice) with NMLs against the Greyjoy, and now it was stolen round 1 with that fun Epic Battle. Well, thankfully it's not at all crucial to the deck. Nice to have? Sure. Reliable? Not really - Qhoyne is almost always better in this deck. Managed to deny the hold completely, which started slowly but surely unraveling his game... Salladhor hit the table round 2 and was dead or discarded by Round 3. A clutch draw from Bloodthirst into an Only Game that Matters allowed the Viper to steal back a The Scourge on the second Epic, and it all started unravelling from there. Fun deck, good match.
Round 4: Martell Summer (Summer + Ghaston + Rivers)
So... another game of two denial-ing decks matching up. What *fun*! Well, for once, my deck actually decided to not bite me after the Mulligan, and I got the first really decent setup/start of the day. This proved necessary, as I had to do quite a bit of work again to dismantle the Ghaston engine (well-timed Nightmares on it to leave Nobles dawdling for removal in Dominance etc.), hitting intrigue with Arianne to clear more nobles from hand etc. I had a pretty firm grip of the game by the end, but sadly our gruesome Control match took too long, and time was called during Marshalling, with me winning by... 11-3?. My opponent did have the Viper + To The Spears out, but I could've negated some of his icons along the way, so that wasn't really a problem.
Result: Modified Win
Round 5: The Old Way (Maiden's Bane, Naval Escorts, Gran etc.)
Eugh. I'm not a big fan of this particular matchup. When I started finetuning my deck, it was the one I *always* lost to, almost straight out. But, after some important fixes (Nightmares, Docks, Milk), and more importantly figuring out how it can be hamstringed, I knew I had a decent fighting chance. All I needed were time and the right cards... and well, The Old Way isn't really one to Rush. But the match was going to be *long*, a real grudge-match.
Thankfully, my deck was improving it's setups all through the day, giving me a nice board presence. First round saw a setup of Gran + 2x Naval Escorts + a few other warships, grow with some more board presence, a dupe on Grand and LIV. Meanwhile, I had something better: I was able to play more locations than him, and he had no saves on the board. He tossed some Seasicks on a Scourge (due to my influence-heavy start they were not gonna do anything) to keep icons, grabbed a little power and I just stalled somewhat. Second round... I Valar'd. Why? Because Gran ain't immune if you don't have more locations, now is he? Thinking on the dupe, and there went all his characters. And more importantly, with no characters left, there went the Naval Escorts.
From there on, the game started slowly shifting in my direction. Maiden's Bane hit the table, but I also drew into Docks and Nightmares Early, so I was able to keep it in check. A surprise Choosin the Spear killed an Iron Fleet Scout on the Old Way, while a military did in for another one. Southron Mercenaries were crushing opposition. I don't think I saw Milk, but thankfully Alannys and Baelor were also a bit late to the party. However, the length of this matchup meant we were most likely hitting time. And so we did, with me leading at around 11 to 2 or 3. Baelor had just hit the table at that point, but I'd gotten Prince's Plans off, so had a hand full of good control events that weren't in my discard... so all-in-all, it seemed to just be a matter of time before I'd have pulled it off... maybe 2-3 rounds more.
Almost had 5 minutes after this game, and had been playing the icon manipulation for 5 straight hours. My brain *hurt*. Still functioning, somehow, though.
Result: Modified Win
Top 8: Lannister No Agenda (Pentoshi, Cities, Kneel)
This one was... painful. I had to play characterless for something like 4-5 rounds, only pulling off some weeding with plots and doing a host of denial and triggering Vale Rookery... Why? Pentoshi screws havoc with my smaller characters, and couldn't spend the resources on a bigger one. Scourge and Qhoyne were getting A City Besieged away, so had to pull off every trick I had to stall the game... Thankfully I was also accumulating the cards I needed, although being at 0 power to 10 was... a bleak sight. Well, finally started really doing anything on the table on something like Round... 5 or 6?
After Littlefinger got killed by City of Soldiers, I brought in Ellaria, who stalled Tywin nicely. Then a duped Viper to match her, and finally Quentyn as support. A huge deal of icons magically disappearing in select places and Nightmares on Pentoshi allowed me a good push for the Viper... and once his Valar hit, I still stayed at 10 power (to his 11 or 12), thanks to Mr. Dragon-Bait's ability giving me back the 2 power I lost on Ellaria dying. He wasn't really able to come back from his own Valar anymore, and the Viper cruised. Apparently he liked the fact that I had shaved a similar beard to the one in the HBO series, and felt compelled to help me take this.
Top 4: Targaryen No Agenda (Dothraki, Fleeing to the Wall, Attack from the Sea, flood-o-flesh)
Ohh-kay. Apparently I was the only Finn left in the Finnish Regional (two Swedes and a Spaniard left) at this point, and had been running 6 hours of icon manipulation, straight. Remarkably enough, I was still, somehow, able to think through the patterns... at least to a degree.
Dothraki appeared, Dothraki got icons manipulated, more Dothraki appeared, there was a Rookery at one point... Attack from the Sea kneels my locations. And my power-challenges with 2-3 STR characters were burnt down by Incinerates, but I was still stalling him decently in Power. A huge pile of locations went to Fleeing to the Wall, which wasn't really an issue, since I had both of the important inf/gold locations left. Slowly, but sure I crept back into the game... lasted nicely to his (8th) plot (Valar), after which I brought out the Southron Mercenaries and started pushing even more. Hell of a fun game... except that my left hand started cramping quite bad due to the 7-hours of straight icon dancing with the BT. Literally, it was painful to hold the cards in my hand anymore.
So, we're at 12-13, with me going first. I've got a Southron Mercenaries in play. Cancels in hand. Drop a duped Viper into play, he has no intrigue icons, and I've got some icon manipulation tricks...
End scene: Time rings, just as I've given over Marshalling to him. Remember that 50-minutes and until the end of the phase I mentioned earlier? I don't know whether to laugh or cry. It's not like I did not know the risks of taking BT to a tightly timed Tourney... I knew them full well, and accepted them.
I had load of fun with the deck, it was awesomely fun to play. And it was real icon manipulation, truly working, against all other kinds of proper competitive decks.
Result: Timed loss
The final matchup ended up being Targaryen NA vs. Lannister Power Behind the Throne... and was apparently played on the boat to Sweden, since we were running tight on the schedule.
Playing the deck made me think a lot about NPE. All day, I was trying to make my case for the fact that BT... doesn't have to be NPE. Or rather, isn't NPE by itself, even though it can be leveraged in such a direction. Well, any more NPE than say, your average Lanni kneel or Targ Burn. Control is what it is, there's no bitching that.
But then, is getting hammered round 1 with a plethora of kill events and high claim... somehow a nice experience? Especially if your deck just can never get back up again, due to an endless flood of said behaviour? I wonder. I was told that I was "stalling", when I was removing their P icons to push through one of my own with the sole character I had on the board... and of course to not let them make one. Odd, here I always thought getting power was the *point* of the game, not the hitting of stuff on head, or trying to beat your opponent into submission?
At times I felt like the civilized party in some matchups:
"You go ahead and assault us with your armies and your spies. We will not attack you back, albeit we won't prove to be easy targets either. Sometimes we may trick you into hitting yourself, but that's your own fault from assaulting in the first place.
Meanwhile, we will work to amass power. Through legitimate means and exertion of authority. We may tie your hands with political deals and well-placed holdings, but that is merely self defence."
What I really felt aftwewards was, that the game needs more ways of playing it, without having to constantly hit all your foes in the face. Or burning them. Or discarding them. More tricks, less bashing, if you will. Be those tricks for gaining power, misleading your opponent or just causing chaos... Simply drawing more cards to remove more cards than your opponent, one way or another is... kinda boring.
Oh, and big props to all the Conspirators (you know who you are), and especially my Quill and Tankard Bretheren, for helping bounce/bash ideas, and playtest that deck. Also, thanks for Tapani for running a good Regional Tourney here in Finland, and everybody (especially the Swedes) for showing up!