“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
Game of Thrones is inching ever closer to its eventual conclusion, as the smash hit HBO fantasy series only has a single season (of just six episodes) left in its run. Someone will end up sitting on the Iron Throne at the end of it all, but it’s still a huge mystery which characters will prevail in the wars to come.
Throughout the first seven seasons, we’ve watched dozens of men and women from politically powerful families attempt to scheme, bribe, blackmail, betray, and fight their way to the top of the pile. Some want the power for themselves, while others are content to serve an aspiring leader, hoping their loyalty will be rewarded if their chosen player ends up winning the game.
One obvious lesson from the show is that some players are better at the game than others, acquiring more power and staying alive longer than others. In this article, we’re ranking the 15 best players (even some who eventually ended up dying — they were doing so well though!) to step into the Great Game. It’s not just the strong warriors who make our list, as some of the best players in the game actually just lurk in the shadows and pull the strings.
When Season Eight eventually rolls around and concludes the tale, we’ll update this list again based on how everything plays out. But until then, here are the best players from the Game of Thrones.
15. Margaery Tyrell
Ever since she was a little girl, Margaery Tyrell wanted to be a queen. Not just any queen, though. She wanted to be THE queen. And she was well-positioned for it, being the attractive young daughter of Mace Tyrell, Lord of Highgarden and patriarch of one of the richest and most influential families in all of Westeros. She married King Renley Baratheon during the War of the Five Kings, but it was only a political move since Renley had the hots of Margaery’s brother Loras.
After Renley’s death, Margaery angles her way into a marriage with young King Joffrey, convincing him to cast aside his previous promise to marry Sansa Stark. Margaery becomes Queen, but her own grandmother Olenna Tyrell conspires to poison her new husband on their wedding day. Margaery gets one last chance, as she marries Joffery’s younger brother Tommen instead.
She briefly managed to control Tommen with her seductive powers, but when that turned Tommen against his own mother Cersei, the writing was on the wall. Margaery even managed to sway the High Sparrow into believing she had reformed herself as a disciple of the Seven. She played he game well, using brains and beauty instead of sheer power — that is, until Cersei blew her (and everyone else) up in the Great Sept of Baelor.
14. Euron Greyjoy
Euron was a late addition the game, but has proven (so far) to be a skilled player and valuable ally. He went unseen for the first five seasons of Game of Thrones, having exiled himself from Westeros following the failed Greyjoy Rebellion that occured before the series started. The brother of Balon Greyjoy (head of the house), Euron become a dastardly pirate and slowly assembled a small fleet and a crew of loyal men (well, he had all their tongues ripped out, so loyalty may vary).
Euron returns in Season Six and quickly establishes his power plays. He murders his older brother Balon and then usurps both Theon and Yara at the kingsmoot for control of the Iron Islands, openly admitting his crimes. He tells his people that he plans to sail to Essos and meet Daenerys Targaryen, where he will offer the vast Greyjoy fleet in exchange for marriage. Too bad Theon and Yara flee with most of the ships (with the same destination) before he has a chance.
In Season Seven, Euron pivots tactics, and offers the same fleet to Cersei Lannister as she prepares for war against the Targaryen forces. Again, in exchange for a marriage that would make him part of the Westerosi Royal Family (much to the disgust of Jaime Lannister). While it appears he cowardly backs out of the game when he witnesses a wight in person, it’s later revealed that Cersei secretly sent him back to Essos to secure the services of the Golden Company, a large mercenary army. Euron’s role in the game may have another twist or two before it all ends.
13. Jaime Lannister
Jaime Lannister may not have the cunning maneuvering or heartless callous of his twin sister Cersei, but the dammit the man knows how to survive. That includes being kept a prisoner of the Starks and having his right hand (his sword hand) chopped off. Before that, he was considered the best swordsman in the entire seven kingdoms. Even after learning how to use his other hand, he’s probably still top five.
He doesn’t seek the iron throne for himself, but has played a big part in the game so far. He slayed the Mad King and began the Baratheon dynasty, which his illegitimate children eventually carried on. He has struggled with the difference between keeping his sworn oaths and doing what is morally right. Unfortunately, he always seems to get played by his sister, a name we will see multiple times on this list before its done.
As the story winds down, Jaime seemed content to stand by his sister as she defended the crown against the invading Targaryens and the rebellious Starks. However, when he found out that Cersei planned to break her promise to help Daenerys and Jon Snow defeat the White Walkers, he abandoned King’s Landing and rode North. He may not survive the wars to come, but we have a feeling the Kingslayer will play an important part in the final outcome.
12. Arya Stark
We’re not sure anyone on Game of Thrones has gone through such a dramatic change than Arya Stark. She began the series as an innocent girl, until she witnesses her own father betrayed and beheaded by King Joffery. She always rejected the notion of being a “lady,” and was more interested in sword play and hunting. She almost reunited with her family at the Red Wedding, but the Hound’s quick thinking likely saved her life that day.
Arya eventually decides to take charge of her life, after wandering around Westeros with the Hound for a while, and later, Brienne of Tarth. She travels to Braavos to train as a Faceless Man, a band of assassins who worship the many-faced god of death. She completes her training to become “no one,” but can’t shake her family bonds.
She returns to Westeros as a killer face-changing assassin, intent to cross off more names on her death list. Killing the Freys was actually an important strategic move, even if that wasn’t her intention. She plans to head to the capital and slay Cersei Lannister as well, but when she finds out that the Starks have retaken Winterfell, she travels North instead. Reunited with her sister Sansa (who is a worthy player in the game as well), Arya brings down Littlefinger — a long awaited vengeance against the man who got their father Ned killed.
11. Tywin Lannister
“Whoever has the money, has the power.”
That quote describes Tywin Lannister perfectly. The patriarch of the richest family in Westeros (well, formerly) was able to have a great impact in the political maneuvering of Westeros, starting before the series even began. Tywin was Hand of the King to the Mad King Aerys Targaryen himself. He abstained from picking a side in Robert’s Rebellion until it became clear who would win. He showed up with his army at King’s Landing, claiming he had arrived to protect the throne. When the Mad King opened the gates, the Lannister army sacked the city.
Tywin successfully arranged the marriage between Cersei and Robert Baratheon, ensuring the Lannisters would stay in power and close to the throne. When Robert died and young Joffery took over, Tywin’s influence over his grandson effectively made him the King of Westeros, just unofficially.
Tywin’s tactical planning continued to work out. He orchestrated the Red Wedding, removing the Stark threat for good (kinda). Unfortunately for him, though, he underestimated his own son Tyrion (and to some extent, Jaime too) when he attempted to use them to get what he wanted, leading to a fateful run-in with a crossbow while sitting on a different kind of throne.
10. Jon Snow
It’s hard to figure out where to rank Jon Snow on this list. On one hand, he has survived battled with White Walkers, rose to become Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and (eventually) King in the North. Along the way, though, he has needed saving multiple times and actually ended up dead once. The best players in the game don’t end up dead, which means Jon gets this spot at No. 10 on our list.
Jon struggles with the same things his father (we know, we know) Ned Stark did — the moral obligation to do what is right versus making the smart decision that will keep you alive. He let the Wildlings into Castle Black because it was right. He was killed for it. He strode into certain death at the Battle of Bastards in an attempt to save Rickon because it was right. He almost died. He bent the knee to Daenerys because he saw it was right, even though the Northerners may never forgive him. Meanwhile, he’s been resurrected by Melisendre, saved by the Sansa and the forces of the Vale, and rescued from beyond the wall by Daenerys and her dragons.
Jon Snow plays the game well in spite of himself. Luckily, those around him understand that he has a courageous and honorable heart, meaning he always seems to get the help he so desperately needs. While he’s not interested in the throne itself, he does care deeply about the men, women, and children of Westeros. That’s exactly the kind of leadership needed in a King — which we recently found out Jon (aka Aegon Targaryen) actually is.
9. Olenna Tyrell
The Queen of Thorns could match wits with anyone, and rarely came out on the losing end of a verbal exchange. Even though she wasn’t technically in charge of Highgarden (her son Mace was), Lady Olenna always seemed to be pulling the strings when it came to the Tyrell name — especially when it came to her grandchildren.
She successfully conspired to poison King Joffrey rather than see Margaery marry a monster. She also openly mocked Tywin about the incestuous relationship of his children, one of the only people to publicly acknowledge the worst-kept secrets in the kingdom. Her downfall, though, was underestimating Cersei Lannister. Losing control of the throne as Margaery continues to seduce young King Tommen, Cersei does the unthinkable and kills hundreds by setting the Great Sept ablaze with wildfire. Olenna responds by pledging her support to Daenerys, only for Highgarden to be sacked in a brilliant tactical decision by Jamie.
Olenna is offered a peaceful death by the increasingly honorable Jamie, but she gets the last laugh with this memorable quote: “Tell Cersei. I want her to know it was me.”
8. Davos Seaworth
The Onion Knight might actually be the real MVP of the entire series. Ser Davos Seaworth came a long way from being a disgraced smuggler to serving as one of Stannis Baratheon’s key advisers. He may have failed during the Battle of the Blackwater, but he later set Gendry free before Melisendre could sacrifice him with blood magic — that would prove to be important in Season Seven.
After Stannis’s death, Davos finds himself at The Wall during a mutiny against Jon Snow. He convinces Melisendre, who has lost her faith since Stannis’s death, to use magic to revive him. Without Davos, Jon would just be a frozen corpse at The Wall. Instead, he became King of the North and is now romantically aligned with Daenerys as Westeros’ premier power couple.
Davos has a no-nonsense demeanor that has served him well, and also a strong sense of morality. Stannis would have been wise to listen to more of his advice and Jon Snow has already learned the value of the Onion Knight’s wisdom. He also couldn’t save Shireen, but try not to remember any of that.
7. Tyrion Lannister
He drinks and he knows things. Tyrion Lannister never really knew where he fit in with the world until he met Daenerys Targaryen. Before that, he was the outcast of his own family and a social laughing stock because of dwarfism. He turned to alcohol and academia to cope, with a steady dose of visiting brothels as well.
He actually acted briefly as the Hand of the King to his nephew Joffrey, but that was more of a babysitting role than an actual honorable job posting. Nonetheless, he figured out that King Aerys left a stockpile of wildfire in the tunnels beneath King’s Landing and laid a perfect trap for Stannis in the Battle of Blackwater Bay.
After being framed for Joffrey’s death (and losing a trial by combat — RIP Red Viper), Tyrion escaped to Essos where he eventually ran into Daenerys. He became her adviser and eventually was promoted to Hand of the Queen. As the great war approached, Tyrion made a few missteps though. He overvalued taking Casterly Rock, losing most of Dany’s fleet and allowing Highgarden to fall in the process. His reliance on diplomacy over violence is admirable, but sometimes violence is needed.
6. Sansa Stark
For most of the series, Sansa Stark seemed like she would never make it anywhere near this list, let alone inside the top ten. But the naive little girl from Winterfell, who genuinely loved her handsome King Joffrey before she realized how horrible he was, has come a long way. Although she spent months (years?) basically imprisoned in King’s Landing, forced to marry Tyrion when the Lannisters decided it made more sense for Joffrey to marry Margaery Tyrell, she used that time to watch and learn. As she witnesses the various conniving tactics of Cersei, Sansa was learning from one of the best. It would come in handy.
When she finally escapes the clutches of Cersei, she found herself another worthy mentor in Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. She watched him lie and scheme and murder his way to becoming Lord of the Vale, but then Sansa was basically given to the cruel Ramsey Bolton in a ridiculous attempt of a marriage alliance. Sansa was already smart about the ways of the world, but her torture at the hands of Ramsey made her hard and viscous — perhaps exactly what she needed.
Her two greatest plays of the game so far are summoning the knights of the Vale to help at the Battle of the Bastards and outwitting Littlefinger as he tried to drive a stake between Sansa and Arya after the sisters reunite in Winterfell. Her first decision saved Jon Snow’s life and turned the tide in defeating the Boltons. Her second decision put an end to Littlefinger’s constant scheming, something Sansa can now do with the best of them.
5. Daenerys Targaryen
From the moment her brother Viserys died, Daenerys became determined to take back the iron throne in the name of her ancestors and restore the Targaryen Dynasty as the ruling family in Westeros. She tamed Khal Drogo and earned the trust of Dothraki people. She freed the slaves and earned the loyalty of the Unsullied army. Oh, and she hatched the first dragons in centuries, which is more a lucky break than a shrewd tactical decision.
Nonetheless, Daenerys took her sweet time assembling an army and securing passage back to Westeros. It seemed like she had played the game perfectly, and was an overwhelming favorite to topple Cersei for the iron throne. Season Seven provided multiple shifts in the balance of power, though. A few missteps saw Daenerys lose the support of Highgarden and most of the Greyjoy fleet, provided by Theon and Yara. A rescue mission to North of the The Wall ended with the death of Viscerion, one of her dragons. Then the Night King resurrected the winged beast and now we have an undead dragon melting The Wall and allowing the army of the undead through.
Safe to say, the power has shifted. Daenerys has promised to help Jon Snow defeat the wight army, but could be taking her eyes off her ultimate goal of the iron throne in the process. We’ll have to wait until Season Eight to see whether she wins or she dies.
4. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish
Before the end of Season Seven, Lord Petyr Baelish would have been higher on this list. You could argue that the entirety of the events on Game of Thrones happened because Littlefinger kicked them off. His love for Catelyn Tully (later Catelyn Stark) motivates almost all of his decisions, including befriending (and then betraying) Hand of the King Jon Arryn, Lord of the Vale.
Littlefinger’s network of brothels garnered him a ton of secret information, rivaled only by the spy network of Varys. He uses that knowledge to operate behind the curtain and make political power plays. In Season One, he betrays Ned Stark and kicks off The War of the Five Kings. Throughout the ensuing battles (and even afterwards), Littlefinger schemes his way into marrying Jon Arryn’s widow (and then killing her) and becoming Lord of the Vale. After that, he attempts to gain favor from the Boltons (the new Wardens of the North) by offering them Sansa in a marriage to the sadistic Ramsay.
Unfortunately for Baelish, his ever-changing loyalty eventually comes back to haunt him. With the return of the vengeful Arya and the all-seeing Bran to Winterfell after the Battle of the Bastards, Littlefinger’s past crimes are finally revealed. Even as he tried to play Sansa and Arya against each other, they were secretly coming up with a plan to get rid of him for good — which they did Arya slashed his throat at the end of Season Seven. He was doing so well before that, but you can’t claim a top three spot on this list if you die before the end of the story.
3. Cersei Lannister
Cersei is the ultimate heartless dictator. She doesn’t just beat her enemies, she destroys them and their entire families. She learned many of her most brutal political tactics from her father, but she takes it to the next level. After two of her children were assassinated and she is forced into a Shame Walk by the High Sparrow (the increasingly powerful religious leader in King’s Landing), Cersei goes scorched Earth. She lures all of her enemies into the Great Sept of Baelor and blows the thing to ashes with wildfire.
Now leading through fear and power instead of compassion and policy, Queen Cersei rules with an iron fist, although the fist actually belongs to the weirdly undead Gregor Clegane aka Zombie Mountain. Along with her brother and lover Jaime, Cersei wins the first few battles against the invading forces of Daenerys. She also makes strategic use of Euron Grejoy’s lust for power, getting what she needs from him while offering almost nothing in return.
It remains to be seen whether she can continue to play the game with such effectiveness. She has summoned the services of the Golden Company, an army of sellswords, and plans to go back on her promise to help Dany and Jon fight the White Walker armies. However, her brother and closest confidant has abandoned her, unable to cope with her complete lack of morality.
One of the most mysterious characters on the entire show, Varys was born into slavery and sold to a sorcerer, who castrated him at a young age in order to perform a bit of dark magic. Afterwards, Varys was discarded into the streets and quickly learned to fend for himself. He also learned to keep his ears open, since secretive information is sometimes worth more than money itself.
Over time, The Spider (as he came to be known) developed a vast army of spies that he called his “Little Birds.” As his access to information grew, so did his place in politics. He eventually became the “Master of Whisperers” in the Small Council of King Aerys, and continued in the role for King Robert Baratheon. He continued to spy on Daenerys and pull the strings behind the curtain of the iron throne. Ultimately, though, he’s not interested in power himself. He wants to help install the very best ruler possible, for the good of all people. His adversarial verbal battles with Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish are some of the best scenes in the entire series.
Varys eventually assists Tyrion is escaping Westeros, as they travel to Meereen to pledge their support to Daenerys. Although his information and council is a nice perk, Varys comes through in a big way by convincing the Martells and the Tyrells to back the Mother of Dragon’s claim to the iron throne (even though both of those allies were expertly wiped out quickly by Queen Cersei).
He continues to serve Daenerys, and if the Targaryen dynasty does end up being restored by the end of the tale, it’s likely that Varys will play an important role in the shifting of power.
1. Night King
There isn’t a ton of information on the Night King, but what he do know makes him a frightening player in the great game. He was one of the First Men, but was captured by the Children of the Forest and turned into the very first White Walker. The Children hoped the White Walkers would defend Westeros from the “invading” First Men, but the Night King soon turned on the Children too.
Over the centuries, the Night King was waited patiently. He has slowly built an army of wights, as well as creating a small council of other White Walkers, some of them offerings of unwanted sons from Craster. Although we do learn that he can be killed with Dragon Glass or Valyrian Steel, his army gets a big boost after he raises the dead from the Battle at Hardhome, and again when he resurrects Viscerion the dragon after killing the beast with an ice spear.
The Night King is playing the long game, bidding his time until circumstances are just right to make his next move. That’s the advantage you have when you’re immortal. With The Wall finally crumbling at the end of Season Seven and Jon Snow rallying human soldiers for a fight against the dead, we’ll have to wait and see how the Night King’s story ends — some are already theorizing that it could be him on the iron throne when it’s all said and done. So far he’s done everything right.