Any Malifaux player will tell you how quickly you come to hate the black joker. My wife’s only played three or four games of Puppet Wars, and she’s already come to hate seeing the little guy! With a numeric value of 0 and the fact it can’t be cheated, the black joker is the representation of fate conspiring against you. And one of the most debated issues seems to be: what do you do when the card appears in your control hand?
While it will depend on what kind of crew I’m running, I personally tend to hold on to the little guy. While this does waste a card in my hand, it ensures that I won’t flip it at that crucial point of no return. There’s nothing worse than setting up an activation guaranteed to net you 1 or 2 VP’s, and then seeing the black joker turn up as you flip the top card of the deck. Especially in a full-size game, where you’re likely to be burning through your deck like wildfire on the all-important turn(s), it’s nice to be able to commit without fear of the black joker. At least you can cheat and replace an ace!
While knowing where the joker is, and knowing that you won’t flip it, is naturally a good thing, there is of course a downside to holding onto it. Having 1 fewer card in your hand (or even more than that, if your opponent has Arcane Reservoir, for example) is quite a downside, giving you fewer options throughout the turn and sometimes limiting what you can do. For this reason, while I will generally hold onto the black joker, I do sometimes tend to discard him – particularly just before a major turn so I know he’s in the discard pile and not the deck. Similarly, some crews need all the control hand cards they can get and can’t really afford to waste a control hand slot. For example, if I’m running Bete Noir and a couple of Nurses I probably won’t have the space to hold onto the black joker since I’ll need a crow for One with the Night and a couple of cards with particular suits for Illegible Prescriptions.
It’s worth remembering that the black joker isn’t entirely useless in your hand. If things are going well, and I don’t mind the possibility of flipping him from the deck, he can always be discarded to use Flurry, for example, or the Defensive Stance action. As before, this usually gives me a turn’s grace since I’ll know it’s in the discard pile, and so not in any danger of being flipped.
The other question that keeps occurring to me is, how much of it is psychological? I’m sure I feel a lot more confident when I know where the black joker is, even if the odds of it affecting the game aren’t high. There are 54 cards in the deck (minus the control hand and discard pile) so the odds of drawing the black joker are pretty low, statistically speaking. And of course, those games where we lined up our crew for a perfect display of tactical brilliance, only to be thwarted by flipping the black joker, are far more memorable than the games where plans did go off without a hitch.
In summary, I’ll personally hold onto the black joker until the end of turn 4 or just before a major ‘push’ turn, where it’ll usually be discarded in favour of hopefully drawing something more useful. Since the game is fairly likely to end after turn 5 / if the push goes well, this minimises the risk the black joker presents to me. While there are crews that need that full control hand and I will often ditch the joker much earlier in the game for them, I like the security of knowing that if I commit Seamus to the front lines, his hand cannon isn’t going to jam and fail at that crucial moment when the black joker suddenly turns up!
Of course, this is just one man’s opinion and I know many people out there discard the black joker as soon as they draw it. Let me know what you prefer in the comments, it’s always great to hear other views :)