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Taking the Black Review (Part II)

Taking the Black Review - A Game of Thrones

Welcome to Part Two of our Taking the Black Chapter Pack review! Today we continue by looking at the final 10 cards in the Chapter Pack.

Greyjoy

The Seastone Chair is a one cost loyal location which, in exchange for a faction card kneel, lets you replace the normal claim effects of an unopposed military challenge by choosing and killing any character without attachments. For quite a while, this was one of the strongest cards in the game. Up to the release of Valar Morghulis, halfway through the second cycle, it was hard to dislodge an opponent’s high-cost/high-impact characters. Once on the board, they tended to stay there and dominate the game. Targeted kill effects, like that offered by The Seastone Chair’s ability, were one of the few ways to deal with them and were therefore extremely valuable.

More recently, this has become less true. Board states are much more fluid now, with a lot more possibilities of movement between hand, board, discard and dead piles. Targeted kill effects still have a place in the game, and can still be devastating in the right circumstances, but their value has undoubtedly decreased as players can no longer drop massive seven-costers on board and expect to stomp their way to an inevitable win. The ThronesDB stats reflect this evolution of the game. The Seastone Chair features in 9.0% of all decks (which, for a loyal card, is pretty substantial), but this drops to 4.1% over the last six months.

With Rise of the Kraken, Greyjoy gets the honour of receiving the game’s first loyal plot, and it’s a pretty damn good one too. Granted, the five reserve is merely OK and the two income is not great by any means. But that’s fine, as it’s essentially an end-game plot - a closer, not an opener. It’s only the third two-claim plot to be released (after Sneak Attack and The Winds of Winter from the Core Set), and with its eight initiative, it ties for third place as the highest initiative plot in the game so far. (Only Sneak Attack, with eleven, and A Clash of Kings, with nine, are higher; and only A Storm of Swords and Marched to the Wall can equal its eight.)

Its ability allows you to gain two power, instead of one, for winning an unopposed challenge. And there is no limit on this. So during a single round, three unopposed challenges (including a two-claim power challenge) have the potential to rake in a total of eight power. Unsurprisingly, Rise of the Kraken has a plot deck limit of one. Its potency is reflected in its ThronesDB stats, as it features in 8.4% of all decks (not forgetting that it is loyal), and a healthy 6.0% over the last six months.

Targaryen

At three cost for three STR and with a lone intrigue icon, Merchant Prince has to be the most underwhelming character in the whole of Taking the Black. His ability allows him to gain +1 STR and a military icon if you put an attachment on him, but it feels like a waste of an attachment to do so. (True, sticking a Noble Lineage on him would turn him into four STR tricon, but I can’t imagine wasting precious deck slots on Noble Lineage just for this reason.) The only other thing I can say about him is that he’s a Companion (the fifth one so far), but this trait remains underdeveloped. As befits his unremarkableness, Merchant Prince features in a mere 0.7% of all ThronesDB decks, and 0.8% in the last six months.

Vaes Dothrak is a one cost loyal location, with a peculiar attachment removal ability. As a reaction to revealing a plot, it allows you to discard an attachment from hand in order to discard an attachment with equal or lower cost from play. While attachment removal is generally useful - and can often be game-changing, if your key characters have been neutered by an opponent's negative attachments - I just don’t like the idea of having to discard attachments from hand in order to achieve it.

Maybe one day it will be viable to build incredibly attachment-heavy Targaryen decks with a lot of built-in redundancy to allow you to marshal some and discard others. If so, Vaes Dothrak may eventually come into its own (even if just as a cheeky 1x include). Until then, I can’t see the point in running the quantity of attachments necessary to make it work reliably. I appear not to be alone in feeling this way, as Vaes Dothrak shows up in only 0.7% of ThronesDB decks, and just 0.5% over the past six months.

Martell

Just like Arbor Knight, who we met in Part I of this review, Bastard Daughter is a very fine two cost for one STR character. She only has a military icon, but her ability - forcing a random discard on your opponent when she or The Red Viper is killed - makes her ideal for military claim soak or as a target for other kill effects. She’s also a Bastard and a Sand Snake, and while these traits aren’t worth much at the time of this pack (with only four Bastards, two Sand Snakes, and no abilities that reference either), they are seeing gradual development over time (although, to be fair, Bastards are more of a Baratheon thing in the current card pool). Given the overall value she offers, it’s unsurprising to find Bastard Daughter in 11.6% of all ThronesDB decks and a consistent 11.5% over the past six months.

The Long Plan is the second loyal plot to be released. Although its gold (four), initiative (three) and claim (one) values are nothing to write home about, its higher than average reserve (eight) value combined with its ability (gain gold for losing challenges and don't discard gold during the Taxation phase) give it a lot of potential as a momentum-gathering tool in Martell's arsenal. I have no doubt that an extremely skilled player could utilise this plot to great effect, especially as the card pool grows and Martell's playing-for-the-late-game mechanics become fully realised.

The problem (for me) is: I'm definitely not a top-tier player. Even though I've tried to include The Long Plan in a few Martell builds, and have flipped it over with the vague notion that "I should get a bunch of gold next round ... which seems good!", I certainly cannot claim to fully understand the nuances of how to build a deck that maximally optimises this plot or times its execution effectively. (Still, getting a bunch of gold next round is good, right?!?) The ThronesDB stats for The Long Plan are pretty solid (especially for a loyal card): 5.4% inclusions overall, rising to 6.5% over the last six months.

Neutral Cards

Support of the People is a one cost Neutral event that always makes me think of one of those adverts: “Overwhelmed by debts? Consolidate all of your existing loans into one easily manageable debt!” Except in this case, it goes: “Including too many locations in your latest build? Can’t decide what to cut? Consolidate all of your existing 2x and 3x locations into one easily tutorable batch of 1x locations!” Admittedly, it’s a bit of a long-winded combo that requires you to have Support of the People in hand, one spare gold to pay for it, and sufficient board presence to push a ‘win by five’ power challenge through. But it can be made to work, and when it does the payoff is obviously great.

After all, this is no mere “search the top X cards of your deck” ability. It’s “search your deck”. Your whole deck. So you can grab any 1x location you want to (as long as it’s three cost or lower, of course). What’s more, it’s not just an “add it to your hand” effect. It’s “put it into play”. Awesome. I really do like this card. And, of course, it's not only useful in decks that want to tutor from a selection of various 1x locations. It's equally useful in decks that just have one or two key locations they really want to find. Other players seem to share my enthusiasm since Support of the People is included in 11.9% of all ThronesDB decks - although this does drop to 5.7% over the past six months.

Street of the Sisters is a one cost Neutral location that lets you kneel your faction card to gain one power after winning a power challenge by five or more STR. The ability is clearly not a bad thing to have available, but the faction card kneel requirement makes it an awkward card to play alongside Fealty (the only non-Banner Agenda so far available), or any other cards whose abilities impose the same cost. It's potentially the kind of card that might slot into a 'rush' deck, but I think the unfortunate truth is that as more (and better) rush tech becomes available in the card pool over time, Street of the Sisters struggles to justify its inclusion even in a deck that's going all-in on power-grab effects. On ThronesDB, this card is seen in 4.4% of all decks, and 2.3% over the last six months.

In the Core Set, only three factions were given a way to raise the claim on a revealed plot. Lannister got Cersei, who raises claim while attacking in an intrigue challenge; Martell got Sunspear, which can be knelt to raise a claim for challenges of a type you've just lost; and Stark got Winter is Coming, a one cost loyal event which can be used to raise claim during any challenge. Now all factions can access a similar ability thanks to Muster the Realm, a Neutral plot which raises its own claim value during any challenge in which you control an attacking Army character.

Are there enough Army characters available to make it worthwhile? At the time of its release, probably not. The Core Set contained eight Army characters - with one being Neutral (Wildling Horde) and the other seven being divided up between each faction (with the exception of Martell, who need to wait until the fifth Chapter Pack, Calm Over Westeros, before gaining an Army of their own). So at this point, it might be fair to say that Mustering the Realm offers value only to players building Banner decks to include Armies from two factions plus Wildling Horde.

There is also the question: why bother attempting to raise claim with Mustering the Realm when you could just run a two-claim plot like Sneak Attack or The Winds of Winter (or, for Greyjoy, Rise of the Kraken)? Granted, Mustering the Realm has a marginally higher reserve value (of six, compared with the five of each two-claimer), but you can get higher initiative from both SA and RotK, and a higher income from SA. Why not just give yourself a guaranteed two-claim challenges phase, rather than relying on having the required Army characters out when you need them? ThronesDB users seem to feel the same way, as the plot features in a fairly pitiful 1.1% of all decks (and only 1.3% over the last six months - despite the fact that quite a few more Army characters are now available).

Here to Serve is a Neutral plot which allows you to search your deck for a three cost or lower Maester and put it into play. The income value of three is not great - but of course, you should be putting a three cost character directly onto the board for nothing, so the "true" value is six, not three. Are there any Maesters worth searching for with this ability? There certainly are. Two of the most clearly valuable examples would be Baratheon's Maester Cressen, with his Condition attachment removal ability, and NW's Maester Aemon, who can save NW characters from being killed.

Interestingly, in November 2016, almost a year after the release of Taking the Black, Maesters won out in FFG's Battle of the Trident, a process which allowed tournament winners and other players to vote on which of three traits (Army, Knight or Maester) would receive a dedicated Agenda in a future release. Subsequently, The Conclave was released as part of the House of Thorns box, and with the Maester trait benefiting from this extra development, the potential utility of Here to Serve has undoubtedly increased.

It's probably still too early to make any judgments about the long-term value of The Conclave and its effect on the playability of Here to Serve, but as of right now, ThronesDB shows that Here to Serve features in 8.0% of all decks, and 7.4% over the last six months.

Taking the Black - Highlights

Best Three Cards

The Hound / Rise of the Kraken / Support of the People

Worst Three Cards

Merchant Prince / Vaes Dothrak / Renly Baratheon

Best Card Art

Although I like the shiny, almost 1980s Miami-Vice-style, sunset scene depicted on Arbor Knight by Carlos Palma Cruchaga, as well as Victor Manuel Leza Moreno's image of a particularly maniacal-looking Bob Baratheon on King Robert's Warhammer, I'm giving the award for Best Card Art to the image of Lady by Smirtouille.

Most Favoured Faction

Because The Hound is such a high-value card, it could easily be argued that Lannister gets the best deal from Taking the Black. However, I'd suggest that at the time this Chapter Pack was released, Greyjoy got the biggest boost to its potency as a faction by gaining both Rise of the Kraken and The Seastone Chair.

Don't forget to read Part One of this Chapter Pack Review!