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Taking the Black Review (Part I)

Taking the Black Review - A Game of Thrones

This is the first part of a series of reviews of the Chapter Packs and Deluxe Expansions available for A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (2nd Edition), starting right at the beginning of the Westeros Cycle with Taking the Black. But before getting stuck into the cards themselves, there are just a couple of things I want to mention.

First, in order to give newer players a sense of the growth and development of the card pool over time, as I move from one expansion review to the next, I will mostly be attempting to evaluate each card in terms of its impact on the game at the time of its release. However, I will occasionally look forward and make references to cards released at later points, and sometimes refer to the "current" card pool (which, at the time of writing this review of Taking the Black, consists in 18 Chapter Packs and four Deluxe Expansions).

The second thing I want to mention is that throughout this series of reviews, I’ll be referring to statistics derived from ThronesDB, which contains a searchable list of player-submitted decks. I will freely admit that the statistics I’m using could be somewhat skewed by cases where a single player has submitted multiple versions of exactly the same, or very similar, decks.

However, I still think these stats are pretty useful for the purposes of gaining a rough indication of the overall popularity and playability of individual cards. (The stats I refer to in this review of Taking the Black were produced on 7th November 2017 and were based on filtered searches of a total of 8,726 player-submitted decks. When I refer to stats “over the last 6 months”, I am restricting the search to 1,327 decks submitted between 7th May and 7th November 2017.)

Night’s Watch

First, to step into the ring, wearing the black trunks and weighing in at four cost and three STR, it’s Will. He brings the total number of Rangers in Night’s Watch up to five and is the only Ranger to possess both military and intrigue icons (a fact which remains true even up to the latest release, House of Thorns). He has both the Stealth and Insight keywords, which is a powerful combination and nicely augments the single instances of Stealth and Insight featured on NW characters in the Core Set (on Ghost and Samwell Tarly respectively).

The only downside is his negative ability, which has the potential to be a real burden if you can’t prevent it from being triggered. Overall, though, Will is a decent addition to NW at this early stage of the game’s development. He features in a respectable 4.6% of all decks posted on ThronesDB. Over the last six months, the figure drops to just 0.8%, but this is presumably due to the recent prominence of Builder decks. Hopefully, Ranger decks will become more of a thing as the card pool continues to grow.

The second NW card is a one cost event, The Watch Has Need. The main problem with this card’s ability is that NW simply doesn’t have enough Rangers, Builders or Stewards at this early stage of the card pool. Including Core Set characters plus Will, NW has access to five Rangers, four Stewards, and just one Builder. These are low numbers compared to the current pool, which features 15 Rangers, 14 Stewards, and 10 Builders.

Interestingly, though, ThronesDB does not show an increased use of The Watch Has Need over time. The event features in 2.2% of all decks, but only 1.9% of decks over the last six months. I’m not sure why this is, but if I had to speculate (from a mainly casual player’s perspective), I’d point to the “swarmy” nature of NW as a faction. With a few exceptions, NW doesn’t really care exactly which characters hit the board, as long as a board presence is maintained. So why take up deck slots with an event that tutors for characters with specific traits?

Stark

Only two factions did not get a Maester in the Core Set: Targaryen (who still don’t have one and presumably never will) and Stark. However, even though with the arrival of Maester Luwin Stark can now boast a Maester of their own, the utility of his ability is still limited at this point. Luwin gives Rickon Stark the pillage keyword, but the first version of Rickon doesn’t arrive on the scene until the release of the 1st Deluxe Expansion, Wolves of the North.

Similarly, Luwin gives Jon Snow stealth, but Stark can only access Jon by bannering to the Watch to include the Core Set NW character. They’ll have to wait for the Wolves box in order to get an in-faction version of Jon. Nonetheless, Luwin’s all-around usefulness is reflected in his modestly decent ThronesDB stats: he’s included in 5.7% of all decks, and 4.2% of decks in the last six months. Not great, but still respectable.

Next up is Lady, a one cost non-loyal Stark attachment with the Terminal keyword and the Direwolf trait. Lady brings the total Stark Direwolf count up to four (or five, if you include the possibility of bannering to the Watch to access Ghost). Fans of all things lupine shouldn’t get too overexcited, though. Stark’s Direwolf tech doesn’t really start to do any serious work until much later in the card pool.

Until then, while they may look strong and threatening, their possession of exclusively military icons makes them hard to build an entire deck around. Still, Lady itself is a good card. The fact that it provides a moveable +2 STR pump is great for making your opponent’s challenge maths difficult. Lady features in a very respectable 7.7% of all decks on ThronesDB (although this does drop to 4.0% of decks over the last six months).

Tyrell

Next, we have Arbor Knight, a two cost one STR non-loyal character providing Tyrell with its second instances of the Knight and House Redwyne traits. Arbor Knight is a very solid two-coster, as evidenced by his inclusion in 9.7% of all ThronesDB decks, and 6.3% of all decks in the last six months. His House Redwyne STR pump ability is not particularly significant (since even in the current pool, there are still only five House Redwyne characters), but even so, if you have the gold to spare during challenges, the fact that he can pump his own STR means that you’re giving your opponent some extra maths homework, and that’s never a bad thing. Also, let’s not forget that he’s a Knight, which is a trait that does see a lot of development as the card pool grows.

Pleasure Barge is one of only a small number of cards in Taking the Black that has a higher percentage of inclusions in ThronesDB decks over the past six months than inclusions overall. Overall, it features in a decently chunky 7.4% of decks. Over the last six months, this rises to 8.8%. Why? My guess would be that the economic penalty imposed by Pleasure Barge’s -1 income modifier has become less of a hit over time, as the number of economy locations available in the card pool has continued to increase.

What else can I say about Pleasure Barge? Well, it’s a Barge. Does that count for anything? Seemingly not. Even in the current card pool, Pleasure Barge remains the one and only Barge (and there hasn’t yet been a card that references the Barge trait in its ability). But that doesn’t matter. Pleasure Barge is still a great card. It costs you nothing, you take a small economic hit, and you draw three cards. In a game where card draw is highly valuable, a timely Pleasure Barge can make all the difference.

Baratheon

Oh dear. If it wasn’t for Merchant Prince (who we’ll have the dubious pleasure of meeting in Part II of this review), Renly Baratheon would probably win the award for the least inspiring character of the whole of Taking the Black. Sure, he’s a Lord and possesses all three challenge icons. But for six cost, you’re not getting much. No renown. No insight. Just a one gold reduction on the first non-loyal character you marshal each round. Meh. No wonder he features in only 1.7% of all ThronesDB decks and drops to 1.2% over the last six months. Is he utterly unplayable? I guess not. He might pop up in decks that need a shedload of Lords to trigger powerful abilities. To be honest, though, there are a shedload of better Lords to choose from.

Each of the eight factions got exactly one Weapon in the Core Set. Now Baratheon gets its second: King Robert’s Warhammer. It’s not a bad card, and it may well have a place in a Baratheon ‘kneel’ deck, but Baratheon was one of the stronger factions out of the Core Set, and it’s probably fair to say that at this early stage of the card pool, they have better options to go to for a ‘kneel’ build.

The ThronesDB stats reflect this, with King Robert’s Warhammer showing up in only 2.5% of all decks and just 1.6% over the past six months. (I have to admit, though, that I’ve had fun building one or two decks with more recent cards - Salladhor Saan, for instance - that allow the Warhammer to be put into play during a challenge for the surprise kneel effect.)

Lannister

Without any doubt whatsoever, The Hound is the star card of Taking the Black. At three cost (or four to ambush) for six STR, with both military and power icons, he provides ridiculously good value. Plus, his ability allows him to go straight back to hand after winning, which makes him very hard for your opponents to hit with a kill effect. (Of course, you might still lose him to intrigue claim once he goes back to your hand.)

He’s also non-loyal, making him at least a 1x inclusion in pretty much any Banner of the Lion deck. It’s no surprise that he features in a whopping 19.7% of all decks on ThronesDB, and 14.2% over the last six months. If forced to find a negative thing to say about The Hound, I could point out that he’s neither a Lord nor a Knight, and that his House Clegane trait hasn’t seen any real development up to this point (no card abilities reference it in the current pool). But this is probably for the best. If he had the Lord or Knight traits, it might just tip him over the edge from being an extremely strong card to a downright broken card.

Cersei’s Wheelhouse is a 1 cost loyal location that gives you a -1 initiative modifier, but lets you either draw a card or gain a gold whenever you become the first player. It’s a coherent enough idea: you probably want to go second more often than not, but if you do end up having to go first, Cersei’s Wheelhouse gives you a little something to compensate for it. Even so, it’s not a card I’ve been eager to include in many decks.

In my mind, it just seems to take up deck slots that could be filled with something better. And this is especially true in the more recent card pool, with a wider range of more potent Lannister locations available. The ThronesDB stats reflect this, with Cersei’s Wheelhouse showing up in a modest 2.6% of all decks, and only 0.2% over the last six months (the lowest percentage of all the cards in Taking the Black).

That's all for now. In Part II, coming soon, I'll take a look at the remaining 10 cards in Taking the Black and offer some concluding thoughts on the Chapter Pack overall.