Let’s Talk Builders!
Well, Florian Maas (in conjunction with JC Wamma) has finally published the now notorious Night’s Watch Kings of Summer Builder deck list. Wamma shared this deck idea with me over 2 months ago now and I’ve been wanting to talk about it ever since!
Now that the deck is common knowledge, I wanted to talk about a few things. In this article, I’ll discuss how this deck breaks conventions, how it works and the strengths and the weaknesses of the Builder deck and, ultimately, make some sort of conclusion about whether this deck is better, worse or about equivalent to your standard Wall deck.
I realize there have been a few videos talking about this deck, so I’m not exactly being original here, but I think there isn’t nearly enough written content in our community (because it is significantly more difficult to create) and a lot of people don’t have time for 1 to 2 hour videos discussing deck lists and playstyle. So, for your convenience, I’ve decided to write this article for those that prefer this form of media. Besides, as a fairly notorious all-Wall deck player in the community, it would be remiss of me not to comment on it!
Let’s get started!
What is the Builder deck?
For those unfamiliar, here’s a link to the list that Wamma used to win the Northampton Regional on June 17th.
For comparison’s sake, here’s a link to my most recent Night’s Watch Fealty (or ‘Standard Wall’) deck.
As you can see, the builder deck is extremely unconventional. The concept of the deck requires that you push yourself past conventional deck building strategies. When building a deck, typically one of the best places to start is with the strongest cards of your faction. In the Night’s Watch’s case, when building a Wall deck, you would typically start with 3 Walls, 3 Haunted Forests, 3 Old Forest Hunters, 3 Benjen Starks, 3 Ranging Parties, 3 Messenger Ravens, 3 Maester Aemon (Core Set) and build from there.
Well, this deck took a different approach. When the Night’s Watch Deluxe Box came out, I was very high on the builders (as you could see from my ratings of the builder cards in the CardgameDB review ). I built a deck that started with that base and then filled the rest in with builders. It took several iterations before I got to a successful version of the deck but, even then, it still contained 3 Maester Aemon and 3 Ranging Parties. It wasn’t until I discussed the deck with Wamma and removed those 6 ‘stalwart cards’ that the deck truly began to live up to the Standard Wall deck for me.
But how does the deck function? What makes it work? Why is it so strong? Well, that boils down to a hand full of key cards:
Castle Black Mason:
The Castle Black Mason came out in the Night’s Watch Deluxe Box and was met with mixed reviews. Some called it strong but niche, others said it was too expensive and too inconsistent, both in cost of the card itself and of the cost of his ability (kneeling two builders). Little did we realize that it would define the viability of this deck. With the help of several low cost builders, such as the Builder at the Wall and the Sworn Brother, this character allows you to search your deck twice a turn for any location or attachment in your deck. This can even be done in the dominance phase, so you can keep your characters standing to defend the Wall then, after winning (or at least contesting) dominance with your remaining builders, kneel them to search for a card, before standing them back up in the next phase. Or, if you really want to, you can kneel them after the standing phase during that same turn (so that, during your next turn, you still have both triggers available, if you need them). This is useful early game when looking for your Walls, Brandon’s Gifts, Haunted Forests and Abandoned Strongholds in order to establish your board and it is useful mid to late game when looking for Cravens, Milks and Practice Blades to lock the game down.It even allows for some niche cards to be included into your deck such as single copies of the Iron Throne, for match ups against Baratheon (which is actually not as horrible a match up as it is for the Standard Wall deck), and the Isle of Ravens, in order to recycle Cravens, Nightmares and Milks for re-use later in the game. It also allows you to drop locations such as Castle Black down to 1 copy and still reliably get it when you need it. As the ultimate cherry on top, this character stays on the board during a First Snow of Winter turn, which happens to be one of the weaknesses of this deck compared to the standard Wall build.
The other key newcomer from the deluxe box (aside from the Grizzled Miner and Builder at the Wall, due to being a low cost useful builders), Abandoned Stronghold also came with mixed reviews. You had players like me and Patrick Haynes who ear marked it as the next great location for the Night’s Watch and then you had, ironically, Wamma’s group, the Q&T Curmudgeons, who gave it a 1 out of 5 (granted, they took points off because they saw it as “boring as sin.”) If you’re looking for a reason to play the builder deck, it’s this card right here. As I mentioned in my review on CardgameDB, just getting 2 of these locations out (not unlikely due to the Castle Black Mason) and having a fairly stable board or 3 to 5 builders makes winning challenges against you extremely difficult. Your opponent has to overcommit enormously on each declared challenge just to win it. And you, as the defender, get to choose which ones you win and lose. In my testing of this deck, this combination led to a lot of blank stares and a lot of counting before, finally, one single large challenge was declared. Even then, it would often come down to a few triggers here and there as to who ended up winning (never forget about your opponent’s Halder, folks). Worst case scenario, if you can’t win the challenge, you can chump block it and have plenty of builders standing to perform Castle Black Mason’s ability, win dominance and possibly attack back if you were second player that turn.
Dolorous Edd and Practice Blades:
Both of these cards are run at 3x in this deck for a reason. As you can see, the icon distribution of this deck…sucks. Granted, the Shadow Tower Mason’s icon distribution is technically just a power icon, but he is easily a tricon on turn 1 in this deck, so it looks worse on paper than it actually is. The fact still remains – there is not a single character in this deck that has more than one native icon. That’s where Edd and the Practice Blades come in. Edd can come into any intrigue challenge and, with the assistance of Abandoned Strongholds and Halder, win and return to hand each round. This makes him unstealthable and always available to defend the intrigue challenge, of which there are no other characters besides the Shadow Tower Mason that are even capable of defending. In the worst case scenario, if he dies (by being kept on the field by losing or being burned alive by Dracarys), you have Close Call in your plot deck to resurrect him (my contribution to the deck! :D) and have him come back once you draw another copy of him. As for military, the Practice Blades offer a lot of versatility by allowing you to add a military icon to anyone for the low low cost of 1 gold or, if you’re worried about stealth, you can ambush them onto whichever builder was not stealthed for 2 gold. There have been times when my opponent had 3 stealth for military and I only had one practice blade, so I intentionally kept killing my Practice Blade holder as claim (wait for the stealth, ambush the blade onto an unstealthed character, allow my opponent to win, claim the holder, retrieve the blade) in order to have it available to do the same the following turn. With Edd and Practice Blades entering play from your hand each turn, the icon distribution becomes much less of a problem.
The (arguably) worst card of the entire first cycle finally has a purpose! It wasn’t that we thought the card was actually bad when it was released. It was just that the card pool didn’t support it in any way. Now it does. With a deck built around 27 characters, with 20 of those characters being builders, it is actually incredibly easy to get 2 to 3 gold out of this location every single turn. Be prepared to say “trigger the Gift” all day! How do you get so many builders into your hand in order to play so many each turn? Well, that’s easy…
The Watch Has Need in combination with the Kings of Summer agenda:
Remember when I was talking about the versatility of this card in my Night’s Watch Fealty deck discussion back in October? Well, this deck doesn’t use it for its diversity. Instead, it uses it purely for its insane and unmatched card advantage. When playing the event in this deck, 99 times out of 100, you’re using this card to call for builders (that 1 time out of 100 is when your opponent declares an otherwise unopposed intrigue challenge and you need to go find Dolorous Edd). I’ve had turns with Time of Plenty (7 reserve + 1 for Kings of Summer) where I’ve drawn 6 builders from this card. I’ve drawn 9 builders on a 12 reserve turn with Counting Coppers before. This card is key to overcoming one of the deck’s weaknesses; resets. The reason resets normally hurt a deck like this is because at a certain point, usually after your board gets wiped for the 2nd or 3rd time, you run out of cards to play. This event makes that problem trivial. So if you’re looking to slow the builder deck down, I would recommend cancelling this card. You’d essentially be taking 5 or 6 cards out of your opponent’s hand, minimum.
Grizzled Miner, Builder at the Wall, Sworn Brother, Shadow Tower Mason:
Without going into too much detail here (as it is quite obvious) – 1 to 2 cost builders are the foundation of this deck. When you have 5 builders on the board and the ability to play 5 more at any given time, your Abandoned Strongholds are an incredibly powerful force multiplier. The Shadow Tower Mason gets special consideration here because he’s a 2 cost tricon that, with Abandoned Strongholds’ help, can win nearly any challenge all by himself. You don’t find that kind of efficiency in any other card in this game. The Grizzled Miner also get special recognition as a 5 cost character that will usually only cost you 1-2 gold to play and stays on the board during First Snow of Winter.
So that covers what makes the deck so good. So far, it sounds like a blowout, no? How can the Standard Wall possibly compare to this deck if all it does is get locations and attachments at will, win every single challenge on defense and ensure a consistent flow of cards to hand and onto the board, with recycling of negative attachments to boot? Well, there’s a few things that this deck struggles with that don’t impact the Standard Wall deck as badly, if at all.
You live and die with your locations:
If there ever comes a time where Political Disaster is deemed required, this deck does take a significant hit. As much as this deck relies on builders, the locations are just as important. A board full of builders means nothing if you can’t find your Abandoned Strongholds, Haunted Forests and Wall. This makes location removal and, especially, Political Disaster potentially catastrophic. You need your Abandoned Strongholds to ensure you are consistently winning challenges on defense and you also need your Haunted Forests because you need to protect from the times when you just don’t see intrigue icons enough. Since both of these locations are non unique (a blessing and a curse), you cannot save them from being discarded in the case that your opponent has the ability to remove them. At least not yet…(future cards to protect locations incoming?)
The deck generally prefers large boards.
The more builders you have, the better your Abandoned Strongholds are and the less susceptible you are to heavy kneel and kill effects. In addition, having additional builders that don’t need to participate in challenges allows you to maximize your Castle Black Masons. However, this makes the deck susceptible to resets and it isn’t running a reset of its own. If your opponent can consistently clear or carve down your board, you will begin to run out of challenge strength and your chances of winning will decrease rapidly.
I’ve had games in testing where my opponent shut the deck down before it even got a chance to get going because they were doing 2 claim military attacks before I was able to get my Abandoned Strongholds out, destroying my builders faster than I could play them. This strained my already weak icon distribution and made it very difficult to maintain a board presence sufficient enough to do what the deck was designed to do.
I’ve also had games where my opponent ran 3 Iron Mines, 3 Bodyguards, a ton of dupes, Varys, Valar Morghulis, First Snow of Winter and Wildfire Assault. The Green Dreamer’s Alliance deck, for example. The games typically took way longer than a standard timed round, often resulting in modified wins. Being reset 3 to 4 times per game definitely slowed the game to a halt often enough to be annoying and cause problems for the deck.
Heavily reliant on low cost non unique bodies:
In order to make the Castle Black Mason and Abandoned Stronghold work, you need plenty of low cost builders (Builder at the Wall and Sworn Brother in particular). Not only does this make the deck susceptible to First Snow of Winter, but it also makes it susceptible to things like Blood of the Dragon + Nightmares on the Wall.
Now, Wamma will argue that First Snow of Winter is only a problem if followed up by Famine, but bloating your hand to 13 or 14 cards and forcing you to discard several cards to get back down to reserve can really hurt the consistency of the deck, since the entire goal is to keep as many builders in play and in hand as possible. Not to mention having to march a Grizzled Miner or Castle Black Mason the following turn can be hard on the deck as well. Forgotten Plans was actually in Wamma’s Euros deck, but was cut for Duel once it became legal. Ultimately, Forgotten Plans was scrapped because it was not consistently useful and it was much easier to just “take the hit” of First Snow of Winter, playing with it in mind. There are enough locations in the deck that you can still develop your board on the First Snow of Winter turn, then throw out all your builders on the following turn and be impenetrable again.
God help you if your opponent follows their First Snow of Winter with a Political Disaster though…
Also, as most of your characters are non-unique, and with no Maester Aemon in the deck, Valar Morghulis will basically always empty your board. of characters If your opponent can pull off a Valar Morghulis with 2 to 3 big bodies protected, they could make life hard for you in the long run. It was for this reason that, while testing and discussing with Wamma, both Varys’ Riddle and Battle of the Blackwater were heavily considered as a means to counter Valar Morghulis. But, just like Forgotten Plans, they did not reach the consistency required to be played in the final version of the deck.
The key to playing this deck is maintaining the balance between playing out your hand to make your Abandoned Strongholds and Icon Distribution sufficient, while not overextending to the point where you cannot recover efficiently after a reset. This goes especially for your Shadow Tower Masons. Don’t expose your Shadow Tower Masons to all dying to the same reset. They are far too important to the deck. This balance is probably the most difficult part of playing this deck successfully, and the main reason why I think Wamma is the best pilot for the deck.
Takes a little time to build up:
This deck really hits its stride with 3 to 4 builders and 1 to 2 Abandoned Strongholds out. Preferably, 1 of those builders being Shadow Tower Masons, due to their tricon status and one being a Castle Black Mason, in order to search for all the locations you’ll need (if you have targeted kill, these two should be your primary targets). However, this means it is ripe for disruption. If your opponent can clean the board consistently using tactics such as the aforementioned Blood of the Dragon + Nightmares combo/Qhorin Military attacks to kill your Castle Black Masons/Khal Drogo double 2 claim military attacks before you’re set up or multiple resets you could see a lot of your characters not lasting as long as you’d like.
Inherently weak from an icon perspective:
Yes, you have the practice blades for military icons and the Shadow Tower Masons for military/intrigue icons, but outside of that, builders are all power monocons. You have limited space for splashing relevant icons in, such as Dolorous Edd, but the risk remains that you could only see 1 intrigue icon in the first few turns. If your opponent has 1 intrigue stealth, such as Tyrion and you haven’t seen Dolorous Edd yet you could be kneeling the Wall more often than you’d like. This deficiency is covered by Haunted Forests to an extent, but the fact still remains that you’re likely to be walking the razor’s edge in the early game until you have your board firmly established. This weakness is even further compounded if your opponent sees a lot of early stealth.
Very taxing to play, especially in long tournaments:
How Wamma played and won 9 games with this deck all in one day is beyond my comprehension. During testing, I would need a lengthy break after 3 to 4 games because I was mentally exhausted from all the strength counting and board evaluation required to pilot the deck. As I’ve mentioned in the other segments, there is a certain level of forethought required in determining how many characters is too many at one time. A lot of decision points that could alter the game. How many builders will make your defenses impenetrable without exposing yourself to resets? How many locations should be played before a Political Disaster would ruin the game for you (granted, less of a concern because nobody plays that plot…yet)? The amount of counting strength and determining what challenges, in what order, can your opponent declare before breaching your defenses. And the waiting. Oh my god. The waiting that you’ll inevitably do as your opponent counts their strength for five to ten minutes each challenges phase, trying to find a crack in your defenses. It is enough to wear you down over the course of a test session, let alone with the added stress of a tournament environment.
Little to no supplemental power gain:
This deck can be maddening to play against. But there is one thing that will quickly slow it to a screeching halt.
If you Nightmares the Wall, there’s a very good chance that the Builder player is getting zero power that turn, especially if they were going first. If you’re second player, you at least have the opportunity to declare challenges if your Wall is Nightmares’d for the round. They may win dominance but other than that, they’d be hard pressed to find any power to gain on a turn that the Wall is inactive. This paired with the fact that there is virtually no supplemental power gain in the deck (no Thoren, no Longclaw, no Ser Denys, no Qhorin), if you can stop the Wall, there is basically nothing they can do to gain power that turn.
Even if you do it before their challenges phase, there’s a legitimate chance that they cannot win a challenge on offense, as so many cards in the deck are dedicated to benefiting defensive play (3 Craven, 3 Haunted Forest, 1 Shadow Tower, 3 Abandoned Stronghold, 1 Castle Black etc). Halder helps with this, as he can declare challenges and kneel those defensive locations for strength bumps but, even then, the most they’re getting is 1 power from a power challenge and any unopposed challenges they’re able to sneak through if they’re going second.
The deck currently only runs 1 6 or higher initiative plot and 4 plots of 3 initiative or lower. With no Kingsroads, it is very likely that the Builder deck will be going first on about half the turns, if not more. So, chances are, the builder deck will pass challenges and then their opponent can decide to either A.) try to win a challenge and Nightmares the Wall mid challenge to mess with the defender’s math, or B.) just declare any challenges they can win and then Nightmares the Wall before they go to dominance.
If you take a typical game, getting 15 power will take a Wall deck anywhere between 4 and 6 turns. Stopping the Wall triggering even twice (between Nightmares and an unopposed challenge here or there), can stretch the game to 7 or 8 plots. This gives other decks more time to catch up to or surpass the relatively slow power gaining builder deck. When you combine this with the amount of time spent waiting for your opponent to count strength and declare challenges each round, can easily lead to a game going to time, which can have negative repercussions in the long run, especially when it comes to tournament play.
The standard Wall deck, on the other hand, is likely running Qhorin, perhaps Thoren, and at least one Winter Festival. This ends the game 2 to 3 turns faster than the builder deck in the same situation and can mean the difference between a win and a modified win (or loss).
Limited space for neutral events that can heavily impact the mirror match:
This deck is tightly packed. It needs basically every card in it, from the Practice Blades, Cravens and Milks to the locations to the Watch Has Needs, 20 builders, 3 Edds and Old Forest Hunters/Ravens. There is very little, if any, fat to cut in this deck. For that reason, it doesn’t really have all that much space for important neutral events, such as Nightmares or The Hand’s Judgment.
In the first iteration that Wamma took to Euros, he didn’t run Nightmares. This means that in the mirror match with a Standard Wall deck, the Standard Wall deck not only has Qhorin, Winter Festival, Benjen, and perhaps Longclaw or Thoren to accelerate to the win, but they also have 2 to 3 Nightmares to blank the builder deck’s Wall and then still get their own Wall. Anyone who has played a Wall mirror match knows that it often comes down to who gets the Wall first (or who gets the 5 to 6 Wall triggers first). In my Store Championship win, I only won a Wall mirror match with a Tyrell Watch deck because I saw 2 of my Nightmares to keep 4 power off the board for him. I won on a turn where he had Winter Festival and we were both getting the Wall (I was first player, so I resolved my Wall before his Winter Festival to win 15 to 13.)
I believe Wamma ran into a couple of Standard Wall decks in Euros and a similar situation occurred (only with him losing in this scenario).
On the one hand, having a deck so tightly packed is a great thing. It means your deck has a purpose and is very strong in what it’s trying to do. But, at the same time, it also makes it difficult to adjust your deck to fit the meta that you expect and, ultimately, could lead to problems in a tournament.
In his Regional win, Wamma added 2 Nightmares to his deck which were, at least partially, for that exact match up in order to keep pace. The good news for the builders is, with Isle Of Ravens and their insane card draw, there is a reasonable chance that you can recycle and re-draw your Nightmares more often than the Standard Wall deck can find their 3 copies. Obviously, you can’t use Castle Black Mason to find the Nightmares but, between them and The Watch Has Need, you can easily thin your deck to 20-25 cards, meaning any card you shuffle back in with Isle Of Ravens has a much higher than normal chance of being drawn a turn or two later.
So What Deck is Better?
After evaluating these two decks and play testing both for months, I’ve come to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion, in my opinion.
Both decks are excellent. Which one is better will depend on the meta that you are expecting. Also, it will depend on if your meta is expecting the Builder deck to be played.
Before Wamma’s Regional win (as well as Roy Rogers’ and Chris Thompson’s showings in America at Regionals and Nationals with the deck), I would have been comfortable saying the Builder deck is superior to the Standard Wall deck in just about every way except for speed.
Now that the deck is common knowledge, I’m not so sure. Political Disaster still has the potential to destroy this deck’s legitimacy. When one considers the rise in valuable locations in factions such as Targaryen (Plaza of Punishment, Plaza of Pride, Shadowblack Lane, Isle of Ravens, Slaver’s Bay Port), Martell (Dornish Fiefdom, Ghaston Grey, Prince’s Pass, The Boneway), Greyjoy (Iron Mines, Sea Bitch, Great Kraken, their various Warships) and Baratheon (Chamber of the Painted Table, Spears of the Merling King, Red Keep, Iron Throne), Political Disaster may be a legitimate meta card for players that are worried about location heavy/dependent decks – which is quite a few right now, especially with the new economy locations considered! We’ve already seen two decks reach the top 4 in large tournaments in the last week or two that ran Political Disaster (http://thronesdb.com/decklist/view/9242/just-deserts-top-4-northampton-regional-1.0, http://thronesdb.com/decklist/view/9230/runner-up-mfp-51p-reset-the-world-1.0) and I doubt that trend will slow down any time soon.
It’s true that the Standard Wall deck isn’t a huge fan of Political Disaster either, but losing a Castle Black and a Haunted Forest, while painful for Standard Wall, isn’t nearly as painful as losing 3 or 4 locations is for a Builder deck. Dupes for Brandon’s Gift and the Wall are even more critical now than ever before.
In addition, Targaryen match ups can be a bit more tedious for the Builder deck, due to their 1 strength builder group, as well as heavy reset decks and Lannister Rains decks that can get around Dolorous Edd to trigger a Wildfire Assault mid challenges phase. The Standard Wall deck is generally more effective against all of these decks due to their more robust characters and less reliance on larger boards.
And, as I mentioned, the mirror matches against the Standard Wall deck can be touch and go due to the additional power gain available to them. The builders off set that by having more access to the Wall via the Castle Black Mason but, if the Standard deck can get the Wall out before or on the same turn as the builder deck, it could be tough sledding for the builders.
All that said, if you can come into a tournament with people not consistently running Political Disaster and with well thought out plans to execute against reset decks and Targaryen/heavy military claim decks, you too could come out on top, just like Wamma did at his Regional. While the deck is more difficult to pilot and has a few major silver bullets (Extreme, but niche and uncommonly played, weaknesses such as Political Disaster), the potential of the deck is sky high and it’s capable of doing some wonderful things.
With that, thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it, because I enjoyed play testing for and writing it.
I know I’ve slowed my writing to a grinding halt in the last several months. It has been a mixture of being busy, being distracted by L5R and not having things that have particularly inspired me to write until this deck. I had a few ideas for articles but I didn’t want to write on anything that I had not properly put through a rigorous testing. I considered writing a revised article on Jon Snow, both core and new, but without the time to properly test them due to testing the builder deck,I feared that my writing would be rather hollow without testing to back my opinions behind it.
I’ve been sitting on this article for about 2 months because, as I was writing it, I was approached by Wamma to help him test and refine the builder deck. That also, obviously, came with the request that I not shine any lights on it until his regionals/Euros season was over. We didn’t need people throwing Political Disaster in their decks in anticipation for it, after all :P.
Now that the deck is out there and this article is off my plate, I hope to eventually return to writing a new article every few months. These articles take several weeks to months to churn out, between testing, evaluating, discussing and evaluating again, so I apologize that they do not come out more frequently. If you have any ideas for future articles that you would like to see me write about, feel free to comment below or message me directly on Facebook and we can discuss.