Winning by Losing

House Martell in A Game of Thrones: The Card Game

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“Sometimes it is best to study a game before you attempt to play it. How well do you know the game, Arianne?”
   –Doran Martell, A Feast for Crows

In the south of Westeros, the Dornish men and women are well known for their taste for vengeance. Today, we join Will Lentz for another A Game of Thrones: The Card Game guest article, as he shines the spotlight on the vipers of House Martell and their penchant for losing to win!

Will Lentz on Losing to Win with House Martell

House Martell can be, without a doubt, one of the trickiest factions for players to wrap their minds around. A Game of Thrones: The Card Game is largely about careful, back-and-forth maneuvering through challenges, with sudden bursts of crushing impact. For most factions, this involves calculating their wins and losses during these challenges—judging where they can get the biggest impact and what they can afford to lose.

House Martell, of course, does the same thing, but their perspective is different. Like a viper in the grass at the feet of the other factions, Martell is seeing the same battlefield, but with a viewpoint that shows different opportunities and drawbacks. And while other factions look to the field they know, a subtle Martell player may strike with an opportunity that their opponent never saw coming.

“Oberyn was ever the viper. Deadly, dangerous, unpredictable. No man dared tread on him. I was the grass. Pleasant, complaisant, sweet-smelling, swaying with every breeze. Who fears to walk upon the grass? But it is the grass that hides the viper from his enemies and shelters him until he strikes.”
   –Doran Martell, A Dance with Dragons

In actual gameplay, then, this often means that Martell can win by losing. They have plenty of unique card effects that they can only trigger if they lose a challenge and some of these are quite potent. This is where their perspective shifts—most factions reward you for winning challenges in some form, whether on attack or defense. When you’re playing as House Martell, your opponents may fear or second-guess the benefits of winning a challenge against you, but a truly potent Martell player knows the right time to take the offensive in a way that seems almost reckless, throwing challenges out as an attacker… with the intent of losing more challenges, tempting your opponent into attacking, and triggering powerful effects.

Let’s look at some examples of these effects in play:

Ghaston Grey (Core Set, 116) – This is one of the iconic “punishment” cards in A Game of Thrones: The Card Game. For a very low investment, Ghaston Grey can sit quietly on the table, taunting your opponent and making them second-guess every attack. Should they charge into Ghaston Grey with their most potent character, winning an important challenge, but losing their biggest character (and not only gold, but renown, duplicates, and terminal attachments)? Or should they try to minimize their losses by using less force and allowing you to win the challenge if that’s most beneficial for you? And of course, in the second scenario, Ghaston Grey is still sitting on the board, quietly mocking your opponent every time they attack…

His Viper Eyes (Wolves of the North, 32) – One of the most potent loss effects featured by House Martell, His Viper Eyes is a great way to punish your opponent for winning a military or power challenge against you. Not only do you remove a threat or an answer from their hand when they may need it most, but the knowledge that you gain about their hand can inform your plans for the rest of the game. You can even combine His Viper Eyes with Ghaston Grey. When you have both, you can chain their Reactions to put a choice character back in your opponent’s hand with Ghaston Grey, then discard it with His Viper Eyes. These are the sorts of powerful swings that make other players fear House Martell.

Vengeance for Elia (Calm Over Westeros, 96) – This is another surprising punishment effect for House Martell. Here, you effectively turn the challenge back against your attacker by making them suffer the claim—in joust at least. This is already a potent effect, particularly with few characters in play—it can almost be like having a fourth challenge of your own. In melee, however, your vengeance shines even brighter by letting you deflect the incoming claim anywhere you like. As a deal-making (or breaking) card and a way to keep leaders in check without making yourself the bad guy, this is an exceptional tool.

Maester Caleotte (Core Set, 107) – Overall, Maester Caleotte is one of my favorite cards for the more “reckless” strategy of losing challenges. Sure, you probably only include a single copy, but in many ways, he’s a grass card. He’s great for attacking in a challenge you don’t actually care about winning. He has low STR, so if your opponent defends, they’ve knelt a larger character, and then, you trigger Maester Caleotte to remove an icon from another character! On the other hand, your opponent can choose not to defend, in which case, you’ve won an unopposed challenge and the benefits that come with that. The trick is bluffing your opponent into thinking you want the challenge to unfold in one way, when you truly want the opposite.

The Boneway (The King’s Peace, 56) – This is probably my favorite Martell “win by losing” effect, since it’s the one that most directly equates to generating power, which is the win condition of the game! A great feature of this card, though, is that it works when you lose a challenge as attacker or defender—supporting styles of play simultaneously. Unlike our other examples, The Boneway stays in play, with no cost to use the Reaction beyond losing the challenge. This means that in a joust game, you can theoretically trigger The Boneway six times in one challenges phase. Granted, it’s unlikely that your opponent helps trigger The Boneway that many times, but getting two to four triggers per turn is perfectly reasonable.

Ultimately, the way that The Boneway alters your opponent’s perception of the game is subtle, but wide in scope. And that’s barely scratching the surface of what it offers in melee, where those benefits and capabilities are magnified. In melee, it’s easier to attack someone who wants to win when you want to lose and you have that many more opponents who want to attack you when you look like a threat or an easy target. And every single time you put a token on The Boneway. It’s not uncommon to be in a situation where your opponents literally cannot stop you. If they win a challenge against you, you win the game with The Boneway, and if they lose the challenge, you win the game normally.

There you have it, folks, a brief look at some of the challenge loss effects belonging to House Martell, along with a few ways to use them. In the end, I think I’m reminded of a quote about another house, that I feel quite fits the way that opponents of House Martell can feel:

“I have won every battle, but somehow I’m losing the war.”
            –Robb Stark, A Storm of Swords

Will Lentz is a long-time player of A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, starting back in the Dawn Age of 2002, shortly after the launch of the collectible card game. Since then, he’s been an avid player of the joust format and constant proponent of the melee format. Over that time he’s written quite a lot about the game, co-founded the first A Game of Thrones: The Card Game podcast, claimed multiple top cut finishes, and earned the moniker of “championship-level player.” These days, you can find Will at www.whitebookpodcast.com, where new podcasts are launched each Friday, alongside regularly submitted articles, winning deck list archives, and event listings throughout the week.

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