I have to admit, I’m very disappointed with how few characters I can add to the tier list after season six. I had hoped that we would get to see a lot more fighting than we did. There were so many sudden de-escalations throughout the season that we don’t even see Jaime draw his sword. Daario Naharis once more fails to fight a single character of importance, meaning I can’t justify moving him from the honorable mentions. The waif shows very impressive form and maneuverability. But we only see her beating up a blind girl rather than facing a worthwhile opponent. Then we see her march through Braavos doing her best impression of the Terminator before being killed off-screen in the dark.
After all the times we were teased with foreshadowing for great fights, I felt particularly cheated when we didn’t get to see the Blackfish in combat and even more so when Areo Hotah inexplicably puts his back to the Sand Snakes and is assassinated without a struggle. One of the most badass and tense moments of season five was when Hotah swings his longaxe and taunts Jaime, one of the highest-ranked characters, and now we don’t even get to find out whether or not Hotah would have lived up to his bravado. Both Yara Greyjoy and Ramsay Bolton were surprisingly impressive during their brief skirmish – they moved well and used impressive technique with little wasted motion. But we don’t see either of them return to combat, meaning that their only on-screen kills were each other’s nameless soldiers. Just like with the faceless men, we only really get to see the aftermath of their fights. I had hoped that we would see Ramsay fight with Jon in something that would resemble Jon’s encounter with Karl, but Ramsay’s decision to grab a bow nipped any hope of ranking him in the bud.
Thankfully, we still saw some new faces and I get to place some of them into tiers. Now that all of the existing rankings have been updated and we have a more complete idea of what it means to fall within a certain tier, we can fill in some space with these new additions. First off, we have Sandor Clegane. I already mentioned that The Hound would be a good fit for tier three, but I want to take some time to elaborate further. We see The Hound in two main instances of single combat: first against Beric Dondarrion and then against Brienne. I also want to note that Clegane frequently fought off multiple assailants at a time. When fighting Lannister soldiers over some chickens at an inn, Sandor stood still in the middle of the room and let himself get surrounded. While this is a damning mistake, it doesn’t translate into the nuances of single combat, so I’m willing to forgive and forget.
I firmly believe that the direction for Sandor’s trial by combat against Beric consisted largely of “we’re going to fill a small enclosure with lots of fire and dangerous stuff then have two people smash into as much of it as possible.” Both Sandor and Beric come off as drunken brawlers for most of this battle. Much of the fighting is slow and clumsy as both characters choose to stand still and hammer at each other rather than do anything remotely effective. This is why The Hound belongs in tier three: he’s strong enough to cut a man in half, but very generously chooses to wait for Beric to finish his dramatic spins before attacking. A more advanced swordsman would have disarmed Beric the first time he spun his sword around. While it provided a very cool visual effect that conveyed the omnipresent danger in the cave, spinning around a flaming sword is very ill-advised. You can tell from how far in front of him Beric spins his weapon that he has no real strength behind his attack – it’s all coming from his wrist rather than the larger muscles of his arm. Any blade contact mid-spin would have yanked the handle right out of Beric’s hand. The fact that Sandor refused to attack or take advantage of any of the several windows of opportunity in which Beric was vulnerable combined with the fact that the fight came down to a matter of superior muscle indicates that The Hound is not qualified to join the superior tiers.
Then we see The Hound square off against his antithesis, Brienne of Tarth. I already talked about Brienne’s approach to this fight in my initial rankings, but I think it’s important to note the dynamic between the two in greater detail than before. The Hound’s performance here is better than it was against Beric: he is clearly stronger than Brienne, even in his weakened state, and more or less controls the battle with frequent punches and blows with his sword. As is typical of tier three, Sandor still makes the mistake of throwing all of his weight into each one of this attacks, indicating that Brienne could have at some point disarmed him as she did Jaime, but Sandor still holds his own after the duel devolves into a fistfight.
Of course, The Hound eventually falls to Brienne’s uncanny ability to recover and win any duel, no matter how much of a beating she’s already taken. Whether the frequent shifts in which character was in the lead are due to adrenaline and rage or strategic adjustments, I don’t know. But I do know that Clegane was not doing himself any favors along the way. Grabbing Oathkeeper with his bare hands was a great power move, but undoubtedly weakened him for the rest of the fight. This sort of self-defeating but cool-looking decision can be game changing. These mistakes, counterbalanced by The Hound’s incredible strength and resilience, solidify Clegane’s claim to the middle of the pack in tier three. We know that he is capable of impressive maneuverability from his brief faceoff with his brother, but Sandor chooses to limit himself by not using this approach in most of his battles. I hope to see the Hound win a worthwhile battle in season seven, but until then he’s staying in the third tier with the other muscular brawlers.
So who is the best swordsman out of the third tier, which is now bursting at the seams? First off, I think that Clegane will fall early. We already saw him lose to Brienne, and I think that both Jon Snow and Alliser Thorne would outmaneuver him fairly readily. Of course, if Jon falls back to his old style then he would be killed off almost immediately. On that same note, I am impressed with Jon’s development but I don’t think he’s quite ready to surpass Alliser. It might be a close fight, but I feel that Alliser is still more developed in terms of both technique and tactics, as it took Tormund performing a risky and advanced maneuver to take him out. So the real question is who would win between Alliser and Brienne. This is very difficult to call, because it once more depends on whether or not Brienne chooses to draw out the fight or if she moves to redirect Thorne’s momentum and disarm him. In the case of the former, I think that Alliser may finally be able to break Brienne’s hot streak. But as we saw with his battle against Tormund, Thorne can be forced into a pattern and drawn into a trap, so Brienne may be able to use that to her advantage.
In the future, I may break tier three into two subgroups, especially if Grey Worm becomes more comfortable in battle. Until then, I don’t mind having a larger tier only because these four characters represent the true middle of the group and aren’t skewing the data as would a large cluster at the top or bottom.
Finally, we arrive at Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. I won’t be assigning a rank to Ser Oswall Whent, only because we don’t see enough of him on his own to get an idea of his skill level. Dayne, however, definitely belongs among the best in the series. I’ve already gone into some details of Dayne’s technique at the Tower of Joy, but I haven’t explained how his skill level translates into a specific ranking.
Many of my problems with Dayne’s technique and decisions with the battle stem from group combat. He lets himself get surrounded by Ned’s soldiers and frequently resorts to spinning his two swords to deflect his multiple assailants. Just as with Clegane, I can forgive these issues because they stem from the fact that Dayne was fighting multiple people at once. None of this happened while he was engaged in a one-on-one swordfight. But before I move on, I want to take another second to talk about the blade spinning. I mentioned earlier that Beric’s sword spinning was a fatal flaw and I stand by that. So why am I more forgiving when it comes to Dayne? First of all, Beric was attacking in close quarters while Dayne was merely trying to parry while keeping his distance. This is far from the best technique for a parry, but it could be argued that if someone had suddenly closed the distance on him that Dayne would be ready to convert one of these spins into a sweeping control of the opponent’s blade. In fencing terms, this would be a take-bind combination, and in HEMA terms it would be similar to binding and winding. Swinging a sword around like this is a bad decision either way, but Dayne’s use of spins were less likely to get him killed than were Beric’s. Secondly, Beric spins with his sword out in front of him, indicating that he is relying only on his wrist for strength. Dayne pulls his swords a little bit closer to him so he can utilize the muscles in his arms and shoulders. This means that the same sharp parry that would disarm Beric may not be as devastating to Dayne.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can focus on Dayne as he performs in single combat, which is what really matters for our purposes. I mentioned earlier that Dayne leaves himself vulnerable almost every time he kills one of his opponents, but the kills themselves are very well-executed. I already went into detail on Dayne’s techniques for picking off the northerners when analyzing the battle at the Tower of Joy, but the overall theme is that Dayne had superior tempo and balance and took full advantage of both. Dayne is patient when holding off multiple assailants, but he wastes very little time and fights very aggressively when picking off a specific target. His parries are immediately followed by well-controlled ripostes, and he makes effective use of his opponents’ slower tempo. This means that had Dayne fought these swordsmen in a real one-on-one scenario, he never would have been in any true danger. He has all of them readily outmatched with his tempo control alone; his tactical ability to single them out and isolate them while outnumbered is just icing on the cake. Compare this following kill to how Sandor allows Beric to finish his spin in the above gif.
So where does Ser Arthur Dayne, canonically the greatest swordsman who ever lived, fall into the rankings? It’s a tough call, but I’m placing him in tier two along with Jaime Lannister and Ned Stark. It was a difficult decision to not let him join Bronn and Tormund at the top of the list, and most of the reason comes down to screentime and exposure. The reason that Bronn and Tormund are the finalists are because we see them use their brains – they efficiently and effectively set up and execute their tactical plans, drawing people into traps and tricking them into making mistakes. It’s undeniable that Dayne has some of the best technique, blade twirling aside, that we see in the Game of Thrones universe, but we simply don’t see him perform with the same level of tactical mastery and manipulation that we see out of the two finalists. Is he capable of doing so? I would bet that he is, but that’s pure speculation and extrapolation, which I unfortunately cannot count towards a ranking. Maybe in season seven Bran will grow curious as to how someone became so much better than his father at swordplay and spend some time watching Dayne fight. But unless that happens, we simply don’t get enough exposure to Dayne as a combatant to justify placing him any higher.
Now that tier two has been almost completely revamped, let’s take the time to figure out who’s the best among Dayne, Jaime, and (young) Ned. As we imagine this JV championship, it should go almost without saying that Ned Stark is the least likely to take the title. Aside from that, it’s difficult to predict because we never truly see Jaime fighting at his best other than his quick encounter with Jory.
The fight could go one of two ways. The most likely situation, I think, is that both swordsmen would start out using reserved, conservative actions to try and get a read on the other. Either that or Dayne would continue his pattern of aggressive tactics and attack Jaime straightaway. In both scenarios, I think that the battle would be over quickly, just like all of Dayne’s kills at the Tower of Joy and Jaime’s dispatch of Jory. It’s hard to say who would come out on top, but right now my money is on Jaime, assuming he got to use his right hand. Here’s why: it’s more likely that Dayne will be the one to attack based on the aggression that we’ve seen. This leaves Jaime with the opportunity to perform a quick, clean parry-riposte, which is the action that both Dayne and Jaime used to execute their most effective on-screen kills. Of course it’s possible that Dayne will be prepared to execute a parry or otherwise prevent Jaime’s riposte from arriving; no one at the Tower of Joy posed enough of a challenge for us to see how good Dayne is at recovering when his initial plan fails.
Now that everyone is ranked, we have our final tier list.
Edit: One astute reader pointed out an error on my part. What I had described as Dayne's first kill, not counting when he immediately incapacitated Howland Reed, was actually performed by Whent. The reader pointed out that Dayne is seen dueling Ned in the background as Whent kills his opponent. Also, Whent uses his off-hand to help throw the northerner off balance as he spins, which is something that Dayne's second sword would have prevent him from doing. This is seen in the second-to-last gif included in this post. Previously, I had given all of the credit to Dayne as I hadn't realized that Whent had actually contributed to the fight.
I will not be ranking Whent even in spite of this update because while his one kill was showed an impressive level of control over his own balance, Whent looked equally unimpressive when Stark killed him. Though Whent is probably on par with some of the swordsmen from tiers three and two, we simply don't see enough of him, even with the knowledge that he killed one of the northerners. Also, I will not be changing Dayne's ranking. I'm still very impressed with his performance and taking this one kill away from him doesn't alter my opinion on his talents.