Fire and Blood: On Valar Morghulis

Should a game penalize a player for being ahead and building his advantage?

Profile photo of Zach Bunn By Zach Bunn On April 19, 2012 Posted In Game of Thrones LCG

Valar Morghulis is always going to be a hot topic. With the most recent Two Guys, One Throne there has been an extra about of commotion about the card. So what’s the big deal? First, let’s take a look at the card.

I’ll never forget the first time I read Valar. We were playing our very first game of Game of Thrones and I was playing whatever deck (Stark, I believe) had this plot. After a few turns I was definitely behind in character count and then discovered this gem in my plot deck. I giggled as I began playing my next few turns extremely aggressively knowing what I was going to be doing to the board.

The power of this card was only amplified because none of my opponent’s knew the card existed. So, a turn or two went by, I was way behind (except for on total power count), and I dropped Valar. After reading what the card did my opponents (Steven, Robert, and Tim) all had to take a look at the card and make sure I wasn’t trying to pull one over on them.

It’s been many moons since that game and now everyone in our playgroup knows about this card. Not only that, but we have all started playing around it. It is here where this card starts to become suspect. In my history as a tabletop gamer (more particularly, a card gamer), any time there is a card that 90%+ of a group of players use, it is immediately on the watch list. However, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s broken or causing harm to a tournament environment.

So, let’s examine the card a bit.

It’s a Plot!

The first thing we have to realize is that this card is a plot card. In most card games, you don’t have a stack of cards that you get to choose one of to play each turn. Plots are inherently more powerful than other cards, because:

1. You can call on them whenever you need them
2. They don’t take up space in your deck. This also means that you don’t have to draw it, spend a card to use it, etc.
3. Most games end before you go through your plots. If the plot has a negative effect, you don’t have to use it

The reason you don’t hear people complaining about cards like Westeros Bleeds is because it’s a standard card. If you want to use it, you have to use card slots in your deck. You also have to have four influence AND the card in hand. You also have to have all of this happen when you actually need to use the card. If you’re winning, it’s likely that this is a wasted card draw.

What an Ability

There is no denying it. Killing all characters on the board in the form of a plot (on command) is an epicly powerful ability. You could possibly make the argument that if you use this, you kill your own characters, but it’s likely that if you are dropping this card it’s not because it is going to affect you as equally as it affects your opponent. If you are choosing when this card happens, as I did in the example game earlier, you can play two or three turns knowing that this is coming.

Of course… now that we’ve all seen it everyone is playing with the idea that it is coming in a turn or two! Part of what really needs to be assessed here is what exactly this one card is doing to the entire tournament environment. You literally have to approach a deck and meta completely differently because of this one card. Again, any time a card is having this big of an effect you have to take a look at it.

Now, maybe you look at what this card does to the environment and you are pleased with it. Maybe you are only frustrated by it. Whether or not you like the grand effect, it does exist.

But Wait! There’s More…

Valar fits all of the requirements to make it suspect:

1. Everyone (or most everyone uses it)
2. Everyone plays around it

But as I was really looking at it I wondered why this was such a big deal. I started thinking about what made this so different than other, similarly powerful abilities in other card games that I’ve played. As I was playing a game of The Spoils TCG last night (for those who don’t know what that is, for this example just imagine MTG). I was ahead by two or three characters and then I made a play that killed off two of my opponent’s characters (putting me way ahead). If there were such a card as Valar in this game and he played it right now, what would happen?

That is when it hit me like a ton of bricks. The problem with Valar is directly linked to the fact that cards in play are the only resource in this game that stick around. For most decks, the majority of the cards in play are characters. With the Spoils, even if you wiped my board I am likely ahead by the score of the game as well as having resource and card advantage. With The Spoils wiping the board completely balances board positioning, but I’m not completely at a loss.

In Game of Thrones, not only is there something that can clear the board (ie a great equalizer), but that same equalizer puts most players back at square one with the major resource in the game: characters. It’s not just about board control any more (like in The Spoils), at this point the plot is affecting a major currency of the game. If I make a great play (or inversely you make a bad play) that results in me getting character advantage, you can get out of it with a Valar play. This creates two problems.

First, knowing that you can always Valar yourself out of a situation means all players can be less risk adverse. If you are sitting there wondering, what happens if this doesn’t work out so well? Valar. What if my resource curve is not balanced and sometimes I draw the wrong cards? Valar. Having a safety net that actually rewards bad / riskier play seems intrinsically wrong for a game.

Second, it encourages against building too big of an advantage, which again feels intrinsically wrong for a game. Who hasn’t had several times when they are ahead a few character and just don’t play more characters because of a potential Valar play?

This is where Valar becomes too much. I’ve played well and put together a deck that allows me to get several characters ahead. Now I have to not play cards because you put a Valar in your plot deck. The ultimate question comes down to this: should a game penalize a player for being ahead and building his advantage?

  1. Personally, I’m not playing Valar and I don’t plan to play it in the Regional. In my opinion it’s a (very very powerful) crutch, like you described. I can play sloppy and count on it to save me, but I’d rather play strong and never need it. If I do need a board reset, then I should probably go back to square one and come up with a better deck to begin with.

    As for playing around it, it’s something I’ll have to do at the Regional (here’s where my lack of play time shows) but I’m not used to it. In fact, my plan right now is to try and build as big an advantage as possible without depending on specific characters. If I don’t mess up too much, I should be able to recover from a Valar without too much trouble… but it’s all theory until I can get the cards on a table.

  2. I do get this debate, but I’m still of the opinion that reset cards are a necessity in any game where you have a 60 card deck and you’re likely only going to see about 30 of those cards on a really good draw (12 cards in initial draw and 3 cards per turn for 5 turns) and around 20 in a limited draw (10 cards in initial draw + 2 cards per turn for five turns). That means you usually only see one third to one half of your deck in any given game. I don’t care how great your deck is, there’s enough randomness there for the draw alone to screw you.

    I’ve had enough games where I thought my deck was pretty solid, but I just didn’t draw any of my locations until Turn 4 (even though there were 17 locations in the deck). There are other times I’ve played where I got every critical piece of my combo early and the other opponent (who also had a good deck) who had drawn zero events, no saves, and no cancels (even though he should have). Valar helps to overcome the randomness of this (especially in a game with as many moving and varied types of pieces as AGoT).

    I think reset plots have a balancing effect in the game. Without them, I really think a lot of games would be LESS fun for all players. It increases interactivity because you’re not just having to plan for it in your deck, you have to read your opponent to see if you can anticipate when it’s happening. I also argue that there are enough non-plot kills in this game, that not having Valar would have little effect on what you decide to run as far as saves go. It probably has a bigger impact on plot choice than save choice. Even if Valar wasn’t there – you’d still be running saves for your most important pieces.

    My biggest complaint about the debate is the fact that it somehow “changes” the game. I don’t think so. I think this WAS a design decision. It’s in the Core set – it’s PART of the game. Planning for its use is something we are all supposed to watch for. It prevents the runaway game and it can actually be used offensively (rather than just defensively) like First Snow of Winter.

    I don’t always run Valar. I’ve won games without it, but I’ve also lost games when it might have turned things around – it’s a risk. Some people may hate the card (and, until recently, I’ve tried hard not to run it at all), but I now see the need for it. I do think it’s a balancing effect – it isn’t penalizing you for a good deck. My argument is that a deck that doesn’t plan for Valar is a bad deck. If your strategy can’t survive Valar – you didn’t plan it well.

    1. That came across as far more passionate than it’s intended. I love the discussion and I’m open to having my mind changed. I hated this card at first – really. But, I’ve now seen it used strategically in a few games and now see it as a game piece that both you and your opponent control – bringing it into play when needed.

  3. Sounds like Robo Brontox and common Beacon all over again.

    Although it’s different here. Coming from the books, it does have support from the source. Uber powerful houses tend to get targeted…or capitulated to. And the greater that power difference, the more likely that house is to be targeted. The prime example of that is house Targaryen. The overthrow and near annihilation of those house prior to the first book sets in motion the current Game of Thrones…in game terms, you could say that the Targaryen player built an unassailable lead in characters (dragons) that forced one of the other players to call upon Valar Morghulis.

    I wouldn’t see it as something that penalizes poor play. In fact, I’d see it as a plot that forces you to always be wary of the reset button. You can’t build your edge to be too great, because you never know when someone’s going to bring it all down.

    Also, can’t you build cards into your deck that would allow you to save a character from being killed by VM? Wouldn’t that temper the use of VM, knowing that maybe, just maybe, the leader will still have that character edge once the blood’s all done flowing?

    1. There’s plenty of counters….power of blood, outwit just to name two in the plot phase. Not to mention saves and the like.

      And the 2/0/0 stats make it tough on the Valar-er to recover.

      It’s no secret I like the card and will be running it in most decks. Is that because I’m not as good and I need to catch up? Maybe. It’ll be interesting to see how it changes with experience.

  4. Should a game allow a power rush player or someone who out-flops you to steamroll ahead and win just because they were ahead at the start?

    Try playing against power rush when the opponent knows you don’t have valar and see how fun that is. (Spoiler: it’s not)
    Or against weenie rush that can throw their entire hand down with zero worries…

    And please don’t call it a tool used only by bad players or ones that are “sloppy”. It’s a tool used by many people – some good players, some bad – but choosing to use it doesn’t mean you are a bad player. Debate whether it’s good for the game – but don’t try to read into someone’s skill based on their use of one card.

    1. I agree – I also think it’s important to remember that the penalty to the person playing the card is pretty severe. Barely any gold, no initiative and ZERO claim is pretty awful. It’s actually a pretty balanced card.

    2. I’m not sure Phil meant personal offense — it’d be grossly out of character for him, actually. But I agree, the language is loaded and misleading. Valar takes a high degree of skill to play and play against — it isn’t going to hand anyone an undeserved win EVER.

      The only “no brainer” cards are ones that are auto-plays…you draw them, play them immediately pretty much every time, then win mainly because you drew them. They are definitively untimed, offensive go-ftw cards that don’t actually care what the opponent has played or is holding. The card is good and wins for you, despite yourself.

      And even that shows a layer of intellect. You looked at the card and saw how potent it was, then built a deck where drawing it was a huge leap toward the win for you. (Assuming you built your own deck and didn’t net-deck…which is not “wrong” but not any great feat of skill.)

      1. I’ve definitely found that if I play valar as a desperation move, I almost always lose anyway. It’s like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.
        However, when I’ve used it strategically, even in games where I’ve been behind (but it wasn’t desperation time), I’ve had much better luck.

      2. Just to clarify, I’m more concerned with what this is doing to deck building and general play. As I’ve said over and over concerning Monsterpocalypse, it’s not so much what it does that is relevant. The effect it has on the game without ever even being played is what is in question.

      3. I’ve never played a game that didn’t have some piece that you had to plan for or be aware was out there. Plus, I look at it as an intentional thing – it’s in the core set, it’s been around since day 1 many, many years ago… obviously it’s something that is supposed to guide deckbuilding as an essential part of the game.

        To be honest, many plots guide me as much if not more than Valar.
        Fear of Winter, First Snow, Loyalty, Threat from the North, Time for Ravens, Power of Blood, Retaliation… each of these are ones I either routinely plan decks around or ones I know I have to plan for since they are almost as common as Valar. (Almost)

      4. Zach – I think that’s my baseline point. I don’t think Valar does anything to the game at all. I think it’s part of the game design. I believe they felt it a vital part of gameplay from the beginning and designed the game with a card of this type in mind. Theorist actually contributes a significant analysis to the discussion that lends more credence to design intent… in my opinion.

        The fact that they’ve added multiple other types of reset-like plots since Valar cements it for me. They believe the game design NEEDS reset in order to remain fun and enjoyable and competitive. Deciding which reset to run or when adds a lot. Some Targ burn decks don’t run Valar, but they tend to run Threat from the North… which can be a one-sided reset when played skillfully (even a 3-of dupe on a 5 gold character won’t save you from a well-timed Dragonpit+Feast+Threat) and that can be devastating.

    3. I’m not trying to say that everyone who plays Valar is playing “sloppy” I’m just saying that I can afford to be more lax in my deck if I depend on a reset instead of other synergies. It’s a totally valid tactic in this game, but I just prefer not to use so that I’m forced to play it out.

      I’m certainly not trying to judge other players. I still have to play around other people using it, but I’m not going to let myself depend on the card because I don’t like the meta and mentality it leads to.

      1. Come to TN with your “lax” deck with Valar in it and I’ll play one of my decks. Let’s see how that goes for you. 😉

        I’m sorry, but in no way can you afford to ever be “lax” in deck design unless you just like losing. Go to Gencon and don’t play Valar and see how many times you wish you had it on your way to a 1-5 record.

        Valar lets you afford to be “lax?” Man, that’s laughable.

      2. Again, pretty sure this is just word choice. Phil, correct if I’m wrong on what you mean here — but I read what you say as this:

        If you include Valar, you MUST use it on one of your first 7 turns. This means your deck, plan of attack, etc must all shift with that in mind — you aren’t just planning to survive the opponant’s Valar, you are stuck surviving your own as well. It creates a certain type of deck that you personally prefer not to build/play.

        You prefer to play a deck that does not include the mandatory reset turn via your own Valar, instead just building to survive IF the enemy uses Valar. You look to avoid getting steamrolled by opposing military challenges in a different way. The deck build that comes out of that is more to your tastes.

        @Nathan: If he’s referring to gold curve or the rate of hand play-out, “lax” is technically applicable (if not quite appropriate). When you must intentionally slow-play to avoid a sweep, you can begin to neglect (but never outright ignore) some deck-design principles that are otherwise going to be completely in play.

        There is of course nothing AT ALL that says you can’t build a deck that is fully streamlined as if it wasn’t running or facing Valar, then play with/against Valar with that deck. Has its advantages, especially if you end up vs choke and/or a deck not running Valar — suddenly you have a strong spam out option to punish those opponent choices.

        I think that’s where Phil might really be in error here (though I’m hoping he’ll explain further). I’m curious what he feels a deck SHOULD do and include that Valar encourages a player to neglect putting in.

      3. Well his exact wording is that Valar allowed him to be lax in his deck. I take that to mean deck design and the cards that you have included in it. If he meant that it allows me to slow play a game and hold back then that is what he should have said.

        At the end of the day, Valar is in the game to stay and you must account for it when you are PLAYING a game. Unless my deck is heavily reliabt on one or two main characters or characters with lots of renown then there is no reason to let Valar dictate what cards you put in your deck.

  5. The value of challenges changes because of Valar.

    Military victory leads to winning all 3 challenges (intrigue/power typically unopposed) and dominance. With no check (no Valar) to military machines in place, military challenge is THE thing to win. With Valar in place, this snowball gets halted before it overshadows the importance of other challenges.

    Without Valar, hands play out to near-zero cards. There is much less reason to hold back helpful cards. Intrigue challenge becomes opportunist, just a way to accelerate the win. With Valar, suddenly intrigues are nearly as important as (and sometimes MORE important than) military challenges. They become a real threat, and meaningful.

    Without Valar, power challenge is won by whoever is militarily winning. It’s just win acceleration, and not that different from intrigue in nature. It’s completely background. With Valar, this challenge in a way takes center stage — you can sweep a character over-commit, or just militarily match what your opponent does play and gain power here to win.

    In order to make the game about the power challenge (and to some degree the intrigue challenge), the game NEEDS Valar. Otherwise this becomes an army vs army game that is almost solely about whithering the enemy board while creating a super-force too large to defeat. I like that aspect of GoT but it’d be a shadow of its former self without Valar in the mix.

    And you don’t really know your opponent is going to Valar until turn 7, when they don’t and you realize you’ve been holding cards for no reason. =P

      1. I am with Phil in that I’d always look for a way not to include Valar in my plot deck. To me it is one of many decisions — the question being “If it all starts to go south, how to I get myself back in the game?” Valar is just one answer. It’s easy to time because it’s a plot, with some significant downsides (gold, claim, FORCED to eventually play it).

  6. Having played Valar for quite a while now, it’s maybe used as a reset 10-15% of the time. It’s a purely offensive tool for me. When you’ve overextended your forces and put too much out, I drop Valar. When you flop your two awesome uniques on setup, I drop Valar. When you’ve played all of your 0-cost and 1-cost weenies and have no hand…guess what’s coming!

    I like that it forces players to not just play the “I have X Gold, I drop X Gold worth of stuff” game.

    1. There is absolutely NOTHING that stops a deck from tweaking out to drop fast. All they need is a Narrow Escape (and maybe Paper Shield) to go pretty much Valar-proof and run you down. The tools exist to make relying on Valar a fatal mistake. It can be “I have X gold, I drop X stuff” if a player builds their deck to make it that game.

      However, I don’t think a player can expect to be lax in their respect of Valar when building their deck and find themselves in that kind of game. Never going to happen.

    2. I’m with Steven here: I use Valar to sweep when the opponent overextends and I can flood the board faster than he can upon reset.

      I’m also with theorist: Valar increases the strength of other challenge types, and that’s good for the game.

      And a side note: do you think Valar Doheris feels left out?

      1. Haha – I’ve thought that as well. I’ve even tried to come up with ways to play Valar Dohaeris… but could never find a good reason to do so. Has anyone ever seen that plot played?

      2. You can threaten to win dominance with it, and it practically forces some challenges which plays into certain cards (like Red Vengeance!!!). It’s more of a combo card than a stand-alone predictable effect. Those tend to need just the right deck to find their place.

      3. I’ve used Valar Dohaeris against Across the Summer Sea in a melee game. It was pretty awesome, but I would normally only consider it with clansmen.

      4. You could maybe get a good combo off with something like Shadows and Spiders into Rookery of Sunspear, but only if they make you second player that turn. I also like Toll Gate.

      1. Val all by herself is pretty good, although I’m 99% sure that I misunderstand that card. She doesn’t kneel, so I can use that ability 3 times? I can see how Laughing Storm could be handy there, either way.

        I’m not getting Pyromancer’s Cache. It’s a card up front for the promise of +1 cards…if you put it on a location instead of kneeling said location for other things. And that’s not 5 cards a turn, that’s 3 cards a turn. Missing something there.

      2. Val + Laughing Storm means you don’t discard the card even if you can’t play it. You do it pre-Draw phase or some other phase when you usually can’t play cards and it just stays in your hand. Another reason Laughing Storm should still be restricted.

        Pyro’s Cache generally draws two, which gets you to 4. If you have two out it’s easy. Then there’s Samwell Tarly for seasons, Longship Iron Victory, etc

        *edit: Nathan got to it first! Clipping post.*

  7. Every deck I build has a way to draw up to 5 cards/turn. I’ll list them here…

    Bara – the one and ONLY Val + Laughing Storm for +3 cards/turn. Awesome Combo. Not much draw other than this in the Bara decks though.

    Lannister – Golden Tooth Mines, Pyromancer’s Cache, Insidious Ways, Tommen Baratheon, Gold Cloaks. Don’t forget that Cache draws you 2 cards if you have a King or Queen in play. Just get out Tommen and that is an immediate +3 cards and you’re at the draw cap.

    Martell – Where do I start? Currently I run Valyrian Steel Link, Samwell Tarly + Carrion Birds & Black Ravens, Summer Agenda, House Messenger, The Viper’s Bannermen. I know the last two aren’t technically “draw” but they are better as they get around the draw cap of 5 per turn.

    Targaryen – Samwell Tarly + Black Ravens & Carrion Birds, Meraxes, Jhogo, Summer Agenda OR Valyrian Steel Link depending on which Targ deck I break out(Summer or Maesters)

    Stark – King’s Landing, Samwell Tarly + White Ravens & Carrion Birds, Blackfish, Ser Kyle Condon, Guard at Riverrun. Drawing 5 per turn is the most fulfilling out of this House. How sweet it feels to finally be able to do it consistently.

    Greyjoy – Samwell Tarly + Carrion Birds & White Ravens, Longship Iron Victory, Longship Blackwind, Euron Crow’s Eye(new). This house honestly has the worst draw of all the houses right now. This one is not as consistent as the others unless I’m playing Maesters with Pyromancer’s Cache OOH(for free of course with Pale Steel Link, no way I’m paying 3 gold for it) :)