“Sorry what does that card do again?”
“Free Folk is the best card Bara has received in ages.”
“This card is great anti-Bara tech… if anyone actually played Bara.”
We’ve heard it all before.
House Baratheon has suffered a long, slow, painful, and ignominious fall from grace after the lofty heights at the top of the meta in the Core Set era. The reasons for this demise, and the solutions for it, are just as numerous as each other. In order to ascertain these, one must be clear about a few things. When I say Baratheon is bad, I am speaking in general terms and about a whole host of issues: recent card releases, the power level of other key factions, economy, draw, characters, susceptibility to key cards, and the weaknesses in the three primary deckbuilding themes of Baratheon: kneel, power challenges, and dominance. All of this will be discussed herein.
Does this mean you cannot win any games ever with Baratheon? No, many great players have succeeded with Baratheon in recent times. However, on a competitive level the win rate and qualification ratio of Baratheon is downright pathetic. In the past 12 months of competitive level and higher events, according to statistics from the Annals of Castle Black, Baratheon has the lowest number of tournament wins, the lowest number of top cut qualifications, and the lowest popularity (ie, the lowest number of appearances in tournaments). Baratheon also has the second lowest overall qualification ratio. The stats don’t lie. Baratheon decks – particularly decks with ‘traditional’ Baratheon themes – are in an objectively bad spot right now, and it says a lot when the best Baratheon decks going around at the moment are probably either Baratheon Rose or Baratheon Alliance Rose Qohor – decks that are mostly only good because of the green cards in them, and are a truly far cry from the kneel and dominance decks that FFG was pushing early on and nailing so much of Baratheon’s cool tricks and economy onto.
So what are the problems with Baratheon right now?
A Problem of Character
One of the foremost problems with Baratheon for the longest time has been the uneven spread of characters when it comes to cost and loyalty. While Baratheon may not have the largest number of 3-cost characters in the game, it does have the largest number of 3-cost characters sharing the one trait – R’hllor. And so while other factions may have *more* 3-cost characters strictly speaking, Baratheon has to pack more of them into kneel decks. This leads to kneel decks having this glut of 3-cost characters. Why is this bad, you may be asking? The cost of 3 is the worst cost slot in the game. Too expensive to be an expendable chud, and too cheap to be an impact character that survives The First Snow of Winter, Ward, Ser Ilyn Payne, and a whole host of other powerful effects. Slapping on the R’hllor trait almost exclusively to 3-cost non-loyal characters skews Baratheon deckbuilding in a bad way, and makes Baratheon particularly vulnerable to some of the most powerful effects in the game. Speaking of loyalty, or lack thereof, Baratheon has a pathetic 7 loyal characters in the entire card pool. That means a meagre 15% of Baratheon’s character pool is loyal. By comparison, the worst abusers of Breaking Ties – Stark and Martell – have 18 and 19 loyal characters respectively. When you consider regularly played characters, the number drops even further. Out of the 7 loyal characters that Baratheon has, only Selyse Baratheon FOTOG, Robert Baratheon, and Moon Boy see regular play. So when your deck only has three, maybe four, loyal characters in it, a ubiquitous plot like Breaking Ties becomes a massive tempo hit. And the impact of Breaking Ties cannot be understated. In a faction with notoriously poor economy, in a faction with economy and other card effects tied literally to being in front in the game, that plot can be oppressive and debilitating, and sometimes even impossible to come back from in certain situations.
A lack of solid midrange characters has also plagued Baratheon since the Core Set days until very recently. The 4 cost slot is an important one to round out your deck’s cost curve and ensure a well-balanced spread of characters. Prior to the release of Sands of Dorne, Baratheon’s options at the 4-cost slot were little and less. There were the likes of Gendry (a dangerously Wardable character who needed you to win Dominance or else he would commit suicide), Lyseni Pirate and Salladhor Saan (who had neither a power icon nor a relevant theme), Marya Seaworth (effectively a Greyjoy card), Ser Axell Florent (expensive for his effect), and King’s Men (laughably low strength). The situation was so dire for midrange characters that Baratheon decks started to include Stannis’s Cavalry only for the 4-for-4 bicon body and not the bestow effect. It’s little wonder that Ser Davos Seaworth Core has seen play as at least a 1x in all Baratheon decks since the Core Set. Baratheon has yet to find a character as efficient as him until the release of Sands of Dorne, where the Stags received Ser Cortnay Penrose. Penrose provides a stand effect upon winning a power challenge, and The Bastard of Nightsong (a 5-cost character) provides additional power gain. The importance of Penrose and Nightsong to the Baratheon character pool is critical as it has bolstered Baratheon’s midrange character options where they were previously nigh on non-existent. The upcoming Red Ronnet will also be a welcome addition to the roster.
The lack of renown has been another persistent problem in Baratheon. If one does not include cards that give renown, gain renown, or otherwise do not have it natively printed, Baratheon has the equal second lowest number of characters in the game that gain renown. For a house whose members are supposedly the lords of the Iron Throne, the lords of Dragonstone, the lords of Storm’s End, the lords paramount of the Stormlands, the Master of Laws, and the Master of Ships, that is positively miserable. If renown is supposed to reflect power and authority, there is no reason why the likes of Stannis Baratheon and other major characters of House Baratheon would not have renown. Stannis Baratheon is not loved so he shouldn’t have renown, I hear you say. If renown is supposed to reflect popularity and love of the lords and smallfolk, then why do Ser Amory Lorch, Ser Gregor Clegane, and Ser Gerris Drinkwater have renown? If renown is supposed to reflect being known and respected among lords and smallfolk, then why do The Bastard of Godsgrace and Dacey Mormont have renown? Why does one version of Tywin Lannister LOCR have renown but the other does not? Really, the application of renown in this game is random and nonsensical. Baratheon’s only oft-played native renown is with Robert Baratheon. Ser Barristan Selmy TS and the Fickle Bannerman, the only other native renown options in Baratheon, do not see regular play due to cost and severity of downside respectively. With games becoming faster and faster than ever before as the meta moves firmly in the direction of rush, Baratheon’s lack of renown and lack of meaningful control effects leaves Baratheon firmly in last place and under threat of being overlapped.
A Problem of Theme
Baratheon has always been known in 2nd Edition to have three clear themes – power, dominance, and kneel.
The humble power challenge – many will tell you it’s the most important challenge type, the only challenge that matters. Since the Core Set, Baratheon has had a clear focus on the power challenge and this focus has been shown through cards like The Red Keep, Kingswood, Stannis Baratheon TIMC, Ser Cortnay Penrose, and others. Indeed, there is a wide variety of cards oriented towards the power challenge for Baratheon. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, the power challenge is a theme I support for Baratheon – it’s nedly, and when it ‘clicks’ it can be quite powerful. The problem comes with Baratheon’s relative lack of strength in power challenges, and the power level and punitive nature of some of Baratheon’s power challenge oriented cards.
Until the recent release of Blackwater Bay, Baratheon had weak draw – and this is inextricably tied to Baratheon’s weakness in its supposedly favoured challenge type, for the primary source of Baratheon’s draw for years was The Red Keep. And while the Red Keep assists you in winning power challenge, it also heavily relies on you to not lose a power challenge in the process (excluding also cancels and location kneel effects). Not losing a power challenge has proven quite difficult for Baratheon in an era of Tyrell, Stark, Greyjoy, and Targaryen dominance. These factions, simply put, have the beef – the raw strength of characters with power icons – to push through power challenges against Baratheon with relative ease. And if raw strength wasn’t enough, then stand effects to bypass kneel effects, strength pumps, burn, stealth, and challenge tricks aplenty can win the power challenge. Even against the Martells, usually not known for their strength in power challenges, can cause headaches for Baratheon with Shadow City Bastard icon stripping, Arianne Martell JTO and Breaking Ties bouncing, and The Prince’s Plan icon-giving and strength pumping. Nowadays, Baratheon only has true success in the power challenge against Lannister and Night’s Watch, two factions arguably sharing the doldrums of the meta with the Baratheons themselves.
With Baratheon’s power challenges in such a weak spot, it begs the question: who in their right mind would use cards like Fickle Bannerman, White Raven, and Kingswood? These cards essentially nuke themselves the moment you lose a power challenge, leaving you with a tempo disadvantage and, in the case of Fickle Bannerman, an extreme tempo disadvantage at that. What Baratheon needs, above all else, is cards that help them win power challenges, especially in the current meta. Interestingly, the card that probably helps Baratheon win power challenges the most – above Stannis Baratheon TIMC and The Red Keep and the others – is that little attachment called Traitor to the Crown.
If power challenges aren’t what Baratheon is actually good at, then what about winning Dominance? Remember when people used to complain about Bara Dom decks? Well, those days are long gone. Baratheon dominance triggers are no longer as feared as they were, and nowadays there not even any guarantee that Baratheon would actually win dominance. Drowned God decks are not just relevant but highly competitive and will beat whatever Baratheon can muster for Dominance 9 times out of 10. Other factions have a saturation of stand effects or far more beefy and efficient characters than Baratheon, and stand to win Dominance against Baratheon in their own right. Very few Baratheon cards help them actually win Dominance in the first place – only Fiery Followers, Edric Storm and Traitor to the Crown see any regular play over such bad cards as Flea Bottom Bastard and Light of the Lord. So Baratheon isn’t actually very good at winning Dominance, and while it is certainly nice to win Dominance and be able to trigger such powerful effects as Chamber of the Painted Table, winning Dominance is no sure thing. Even among the cards that trigger off winning Dominance, there are some stinkers – Melisandre GTR, Ritual of R’hllor, and White Raven make you wonder what the designers were smoking when they were thinking up Dominance-related cards for Baratheon. The other key problem with the Dominance theme of Baratheon is that it is more than just playing a Dominance deck, you live and die by winning Dominance. Cards such as Gendry and Northern Encampment trap you into play for, and winning, Dominance. Win Dominance or lose – that’s the message from FFG. The fact of the matter is that there is simply too much of a reliance on Dominance and winning Dominance for Baratheon, and the payoff is far too low. Passive power gain in Baratheon is decidedly lacklustre in comparison to the degenerate passive power gain of Mace Tyrell HOT or Drowned God decks.
Quite possibly Baratheon’s most iconic theme or archetype is that of kneel. Baratheon was reborn in 2nd Edition as a control faction, and therefore has access to the greatest number of soft control effects in the game in the form of kneel. In the early days of 2nd Edition, kneel was strong without being overpowered – a respectable archetype to take to a tournament in a meta that had a lot of aggro decks, passive power defence decks, and even a couple of knights rush decks. If you played kneel, you could have peace of mind knowing that unless the opponent succeeds in rushing to an early victory or using aggro to disrupt you before you are able to get set up, you would be able to control the game. Baratheon kneel was therefore strong, but not so strong that it had no weaknesses. High claim pressure from the first turn and rush were clear weaknesses, along with the entirety of House Stark. Thanks to Robb Stark Core and Jon Snow WOTN from the Core Set and Wolves of the North deluxe box respectively, the Starks were a faction that didn’t particularly care about kneel. Having a faction that stood as an ‘answer’ to Baratheon was healthy.
That was long ago, however. Since then, the game has seen a steady increase in stand effects. And not just any stand effects either, but efficient ones: Queensguard, Northern Armory, Plaza of Pride, Wyman Manderly, Aggo, and Shae, just to name a few. These effects are literally “pay a cost to stand” – you don’t even need to win a challenge. Sometimes the costs aren’t even really costs, like discarding Missandei for Plaza of Pride or using Wyman Manderly while you also have Robb Stark Core out. These are what I like to call “fake costs.” The aforementioned list of stand effect cards doesn’t even include the stand effects that trigger as a result of winning challenges, an increase in strength, or something else (like the blink ability of Mace Tyrell HOT which brings a character back into play standing). The game is saturated with stand effects, and I will go out on a limb and suggest that there are far too many stand effects in the game right now. This is, I feel, an uncontroversial statement: this game has more stand effects than ever before, and there are simply too many of them to make kneel a remotely viable, let alone competitive, deck archetype. There are too many stand effects even from an action economy perspective – whereby the game has devolved into a The Lord of the Crossing fest where whoever sees the most stand effects early can rush to victory – and far far too many to make kneel even remotely relevant. Stand effects appear to be given out like cash at a game show bonanza and have so few strings attached that it is pathetic (Non-Lady character only? Wow! What a restriction!). Meanwhile, FFG appears to be miserly with kneel effects. There is very little kneel outside of the R’hllor package of Melisandre Core. Kneel effects are rarely printed, and when they are printed it’s hilariously conditional: kneel one of your own characters too, have a King in play, give a power, up to 4 STR only, no attachments, win a challenge, and so on. This is all without even going into the Bara Tax.
A Problem of Economy
The so-called Bara Tax. Baratheon loyalists have been grumbling about it for some time now, but what is it exactly? In short, the Bara Tax is a clear push by the game’s designers to overcost Baratheon cards by 1 gold, sometimes as much as 2 gold, as if they’re scared about the power level of the cards they are designing and want to balance out the effect by putting a higher gold cost on it. We’ve seen this since the earliest days of even the Core Set. Almost every R’hllor character is overcosted by 1 simply because of the trait. There’s no reason why Light of the Lord and Red God’s Blessing couldn’t be 1 cost. They might have actually seen more play if they were. Marya Seaworth, Shireen Baratheon MOD, Valyrian’s Crew, Ruby of R’hllor, the list goes on. Nobody would bat an eyelid if 6-cost Ser Davos Seaworth GOH was actually 4-cost – and even then he may not see play over the efficient Ser Davos Seaworth Core! Meanwhile, other factions go on tax-free with disturbingly efficient characters like Scheming Septon, Shadow Tower Mason, The Hound TtB, Arya Stark Core, Myrcella Baratheon SOD, and so on.
The Bara Tax wouldn’t even be so bad if Baratheon had half-decent economy, but Baratheon have not received a good economy card since Great Hall – and that card is neutral! Northern Encampment is terrible, and corners you into playing a Dominance-focused deck as mentioned previously in this article. The other economy card Baratheon received, the Stormlands Fiefdom, was non-limited (which is very much welcome), but came with a truly mediocre effect. While there are some merits to the effect – such as moving power from opponent’s character to steal or moving power off your characters to protect from a reset – the card simply pales in comparison to the likes of Meereenese Market, Northern Armory, and Gold Mine. Why couldn’t Stormlands Fiefdom have been the opposite of Northern Armory, where you kneel a character as an action but Stormlands Fiefdom can no longer stand thereafter. Wait, that’s unconditional kneel – and not only is it unconditional kneel, but it’s also a kneel effect that gives you +1 gold. How silly of me to think Baratheon would ever get such a card.
A Problem of Tempo
The action economy and superior tempo plays with Stark, Targaryen and Tyrell have effectively left Baratheon in the dirt. How can a faction that has to hardcost their unremarkable, keyword-less characters in the marshalling phase compete with Stark (stand all your characters any time someone blinks), Targaryen (play 21 gold worth of cards for 4 gold), or Tyrell (draw a card and gain a gold every time you breathe through your nose, but if you breathe through your mouth you can draw a card and gain a power instead). Flea Bottom, Wyman Manderly, Plaza of Pride, Queensguard, even the Drowned God Fanatic AKA Vince all provide action economy – a small sacrifice of gold or cards for a tempo advantage, and sometimes a massive one at that.
The best cards in this game are the ones that feel ‘unfair’: Mace Tyrell HOT with The Hightower, Doran’s Game, Drowned God Fanatic, Flea Bottom with Shadow City Bastard, Flea Bottom with Breaking Ties, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with strong card combinations feeling unfair – that’s all part of a card game. The issue is when some factions have limitless access to Flea Bottom shenanigans, increasing the power value of that faction’s own cards dramatically. A powerful and ubiquitous neutral champ card such as Flea Bottom should be able to be used effectively by all factions. As it stands, Tyrell, Stark, Targaryen and Martell have gotten the best use out of Flea Bottom with ‘enter play’ and ‘sacrifice’ abilities. It’s no surprise that Greyjoy, Night’s Watch, Lannister and Baratheon are further behind in the meta compared to the other four factions. Flea Bottom is such an important card, and has been for many months now, where entire decks are built on the back of it and cards went from unplayed to busted (Second Sons, anyone?) almost overnight upon its release. For Baratheon to have no real use for Flea Bottom beyond “bring a chud in to die for claim soak” is a critical blow to the faction’s competitive prospects. Baratheon has no powerful ‘enter play’ effects to speak of, no loyal chuds to sacrifice and re-sacrifice with Breaking Ties beyond Moon Boy, and no strong ‘sacrifice to do X’ effects. For a faction with such a glut of 3-cost characters, this dire situation would almost be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Baratheon is perhaps the faction least suited to using (and abusing) Flea Bottom, so it’s no coincide that Baratheon is at the bottom of the meta in the age of Flea Bottom. The situation is so bad for Baratheon that many Baratheon decks are reduced to running cards like Barring the Gates and Seized by the Guard simply to stop Flea Bottom shenanigans (including Flea Bottom with Breaking Ties).
“I never asked for this crown. Gold is cold and heavy on the head, but so long as I am the king, I have a duty.”
The designers and developers of A Game of Thrones LCG over at Fantasy Flight Games HQ have a duty to make this game as healthy and competitively robust as possible. And yet the state of Baratheon in late September 2018 is far from healthy. The verdict is in, folks. Baratheon is weak at best and totally ineffectual at worst when it comes to winning games using any of their three themes: kneel, dominance, and power challenges. It’s no surprise that many resort to bannering Tyrell when playing Baratheon these days. There simply isn’t enough efficiency, redundancy, or competitive deck variety when it comes to Baratheon. Sure, you could slap a Wolf banner on there to make it a generic attrition deck, or a Dragon banner on there to make it a generic “Queensguard your big dudes” deck, but in terms of what Baratheon is supposed to do best, it’s simply not there competitively. “Goodstuff” decks essentially do not exist for Baratheon. You can’t simply slap together the 60 best cards for mono Baratheon and call it a day like you could for Stark or Martell, because you are usually shoehorned into going down the Kneel or Dominance route, both unbelievably weak archetypes at this point in the game’s life.
So how does FFG fix the problem of Baratheon?
First and foremost, they need to recognise that Baratheon has a problem and they need to work to rectify this immediately. At the start of this current cycle, it’s clear that FFG saw certain weaknesses in Stark and they immediately rectified them with the release of key cards: Wyman Manderly, House Umber Loyalist, Meera Reed, White Harbor, and so on. There is no reason why they cannot do the same for Baratheon. Each faction only gets 2 cards per pack – the time for messing around is over, Baratheon needs an injection of powerful cards linked to the as soon as possible if it is to become even remotely competitive in the near or distant future.
FFG also needs to stop giving out stand effects with the absurd consistency that they are doing right now. Stand effects are powerful. They should have an appropriate cost to them, they should be rarer than they are right now, and they should probably also be more difficult to trigger than they right now. The Baratheon event that cancels locations is just what the doctor ordered, particularly against the stand effects of Northern Armory and Plaza of Pride, but Baratheon has been suffering a downhill slide for years now when it came to a lack of answers for the myriad of stand effects in the game.
All FFG needs to do is look to 1st Edition to see some potent Lannister cards (the kneel faction of those days), cards that could potentially fix a lot of the problems Baratheon is currently suffering.
Cards like Harry the Riverlands and Flogged and Chained could keep more characters knelt for longer, allowing Baratheon decks to draw from Blackwater Bay and actually win power challenges and Dominance like they were designed to do.
Cards that assist in winning Dominance in this Drowned God era would also be helpful, such as the 1st Edition versions of Compelled by the King and the Baratheon Iron Throne.
In terms of power challenges, there were no better 1st Edition cards than Knight of the North and True Power, both would find a welcome place in Baratheon without completely negating the power level of other factions.
Altar of Fire would give a big boost to the Baratheon subtheme of hand control and hand destriction. A reprint of The Power of Faith targeting R’hllor instead of the Holy crest would give R’hllor decks the boost they need, and would also help those decks actually win Dominance too as the characters would be standing.
Lastly, The Westerlands is a card I have been wanting to see reprinted for some time now. A Baratheon version of this card, perhaps entitled The Stormlands, would give Baratheon some answer to the onslaught of powerful locations the faction has to deal with, particularly the locations that stand opposing characters.
Boosting other Baratheon effects would also be helpful if those cards were designed with the competitive meta in mind. The Smugglers theme, Warships, burn during power challenges a la Kingswood and Stannis Baratheon TIMC. All of these underdeveloped or undeveloped subthemes could be the key to Baratheon’s return to the forefront of the meta. I would also like to see the designers do a little more with the King trait in Baratheon. As the faction that has provided the realm three kings, and the last surviving king of the War of the Five Kings, effects surrounding the King trait would be appropriate.
Why is Baratheon in this state? My chat with a well-known player involved in analysis and playtesting suggests that Nate French was worried about kneel becoming too strong in 2nd Edition, so he reined it in at the beginning and printed efficient answers. When Danny Schaefer took over, he apparently never really got a read on Baratheon, since he came up as a designer when kneel was not being pushed. Hence you have this push for Baratheon over the past year or so to have more power on their faction card than the opponent, without any effective way of actually getting more power on their faction card in the current state of the meta. The kneel effects have been few and far between.
There are no two ways about it: House Baratheon is in a state of decay, and there is a need to stop the rot before it is too late and A Game of Thrones LCG turns into a game of seven factions instead of eight.