In the Old World and the New

Regional Differences in A Game of Thrones: The Card Game

#AGoTLCG

He lifted his eyes and saw clear across the narrow sea, to the Free Cities and the green Dothraki sea and beyond, to Vaes Dothrak under its mountain, to the fabled lands of the Jade Sea, to Asshai by the Shadow, where dragons stirred beneath the sunrise.
  
–George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

The 2016 Fantasy Flight Games World Championships ended just over a week ago, leading to the crowning of a new champion for A Game of Thrones: The Card Game. Players from dozens of countries came together to participate in this prestigious event, showcasing unique decks and battling for the title of World Champion. But are these players from around the world really playing the same game? What does A Game of Thrones: The Card Game look like in different countries?

Today, Alex H., an active member of the A Game of Thrones community and the founder of The Annals of Castle Black, shares some facts and theories about the regional differences of A Game of Thrones: The Card Game!

Alex H. on the Regional Differences of A Game of Thrones: The Card Game

At the local level, it’s easy to imagine how your experience with a Living Card Game® might differ from another person’s experience in a different part of the world. Maybe your store’s best player only plays House Greyjoy, or there’s a regular who always plays Varys (Core Set, 29) and you need to be prepared for it. Still, in this era of online communities and decksharing, it makes perfect sense to believe that the wider metagame is, on average, uniform. If House Stark is doing consistently well in Australia (and it is), surely it’s doing well everywhere else?

Thankfully, we have a tool to look at the metagame at that level, in the form of The Annals of Castle Black—a community driven project that compiles tournament results from all over the world. To tackle today’s question, we’ll limit our analysis to North America and Europe, which together account for more than 80% of the over 12,000 recorded tournament participants from the launch of the Core Set until For Family Honor was released. While treating either of these continents as uniform is misleading, there’s still more shared attendance for tournaments within the continents than between them (and they each have their own pan-continental tournaments). With this in mind, it should be possible for us determine if their metagames have characteristic features.

Let’s start with the most zoomed-out comparison between the two: what factions have people on both sides of the Atlantic been playing?

Not only do our two columns look almost identical, but a temporal approach (not shown) establishes that they’ve behaved in roughly the same way over time: they’re at similar points now, but they’ve been that way pretty much throughout the game’s lifespan. There’s a long-held belief, dating back to the first edition of the card game, that European players are “faction loyalists” and tend to play their chosen factions even if they aren’t expected to do well, while North Americans are “faction opportunists,” more likely to switch to the deck they think is performing well. If this were the case, we’d expect the European meta to have a more stable composition, less sensitive to the rising and falling fortunes of factions over time. The graph above (and the temporal approach) shows no evidence for this idea. 

So the metas are the same. End of story, hurray for globalization, three cheers for the Internet? Not so fast. Another picture entirely emerges when you look at the decks making the cut. My preferred way to do that is a metric called “qualification ratio.” In brief, a positive ratio means that a faction is more common in the cut than in the field, while a negative ratio tells you that the faction is underrepresented at the top. 

There are two main take-home messages here; the first is that the decks enriched (or depleted) in the cut are very different in North America and Europe. Baratheon, Martell, and Stark perform a fair bit better in the old world, while Lannister and Targaryen perform much better in the new. It’s difficult to explain this by deck choice alone: as established by our first graph, these decks are performing very differently in nearly identical fields. By a number of different metrics, however, another important trend emerges. The cut in Europe more closely resembles the field, while the cut in North America diverges from the field, primarily through a pronounced enrichment of the two most popular factions. 

Since we can’t explain this by the factions these decks are facing, we have to turn to the other variable: the pilots of the decks. Could it be that while most players act the same, the best players act differently on opposite sides of the Atlantic? If good European players, likely to make the cut, are sticking with their faction of choice, our data would be expected. European tournaments also tend to incentivize this behavior by rewarding players who finish at the top of their faction with faction-specific prizes. Another possible explanation is that North Americans tend to build for larger tournaments as a group—with many skilled players taking the same decks. While this would explain the enrichment of popular decks, I believe this behavior only happens at a few events, making it too small to influence continental trends. 

There is a simpler possibility, however: although the factions are played in similar percentages between the Old World and the New, the agendas being played are very different.

The popularity of banners is, and apparently always has been, very different between the two metas. At some points the difference has been as high as a 20% gap in prevalence! While the metas appear to be converging—in some part due to new agendas like Kings of Winter (Called to Arms, 38) and Kings of Summer (Called to Arms, 37)—the difference is clearly a source of historical divergence. Interestingly, the rankings of different banner agendas are very similar: for both Europe and North America, Banner of the Lion leads the way, followed by Banner of the Sun, Banner of the Rose, and Banner of the Kraken. It’s obvious that the fields are still very similar… but Europe is banner depleted. As an effect of our last two graphs, this means that in North America, 48% of decks in the cut have had Lannister cards (either House Lannister or Banner of the Lion), while in Europe that number is a full 10% lower. 

So what side of the story does this information support? Well, as is often the case, whichever you prefer. Players’ deck choices, as determined by faction, are the same—but they perform differently in Europe vs. North America. This could be due to the agenda choices, with the abundance of banners somehow favoring a Lannister and Targaryen rise to the cut in North America. Perhaps faction loyalty is the deciding factor, and banner-aversion is a logical symptom of players preferring their faction’s core mechanics to remain undiluted. Personally, I still favor the idea that paints the best North American players as “faction opportunists” and the best European players as “faction loyalists”—it remains unproven, but it’s plausible. And before you dismiss either approach, keep in mind that since Worlds moved to Minnesota, our Joust World Champions are evenly split across the Atlantic (and at least one of them is a notorious faction loyalist). 

Founder and curator of The Annals of Castle Black, Alex H. (istaril) can't seem to cut down his involvement in A Game of Thrones-related projects. He's also co-host of the Beyond the Wall podcast, curator of the rules forum on CardGameDB, proofreader for FFG, honorary member of the Quill & Tankard Regulars… and probably a few other things he either doesn't remember or isn't allowed to talk about. 

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