The Lord of the Rings LCG is an unrelenting game. From the first round, until you complete the scenario (or die trying), the game is doing everything to try and foil your plans. Like most card games, this is a game of resource management. Each player starts the game with one, two or three heroes in play, nothing more. Regardless of the specific quest, the challenge is essentially the same: make efficient use of the resources provided by your heroes to pay for allies, attachments and events in preparation for the inevitable onslaught of the encounter deck. In Lord of the Rings, the difference between triumphant victory and ignominious defeat will usually come down to a single, critical round, often even a single phase. One of the keys to winning these critical moments in the game is an understanding of how to pace yourself as you progress through the stages of a scenario.
One of the great things about the Lord of the Rings LCG, is just how different one scenario is from another. Even stage by stage within a scenario things can change drastically. Some scenarios are chalk-full of enemies with low threat that will engage the players immediately, other scenarios are location-heavy and require high-willpower characters and cards like Asfaloth and Northern Tracker to avoid getting stuck with too much threat in the staging area. Even if your deck has all of the cards that it will need to deal with the particular challenge of a scenario, it is important to understand the optimal pace that will afford you the best chance of beating a given scenario.
Pace refers to how many characters, with how much willpower (or attack/defense in the case of Battle/Siege) you commit to the quest each round. Too slow a pace and you will quest unsuccessfully or get stuck on an active location and die to threat death. Too fast a pace and you can rush headlong into the harder stages of a quest without adequate allies and attachment support; there is nothing like staring down a Hill Troll, alone, without any weapons, armor, or even a burning brand to help in your fight.
A great example of a scenario where pace is of vital importance is Into Ithilien from the Heirs of Numenor deluxe expansion. The scenario starts with Ithilien Road as the active location and one copy of Southron Company per player in the staging area. You also have Celador, a friendly Gondorian Ranger who starts in the staging area and automatically commits to the quest each round. Ithilien Road has the following passive effect:
While Ithilien Road is the active location, the engagement cost of each enemy in the staging area is 0.
As we say at the Carrock, “Ouch”. So, first round, you pretty much have to quest as hard as you possibly can. Unless you are able to exceed the threat in the staging area by at least 4, you are in for a world of hurt. Alternatively, another location can be revealed and you can do shenanigans with Thror’s Map or Strider’s Path. Otherwise, Ithilien Road will still be the active location and the Southron Companies along with any other enemies in the staging area are going to engage.
Since the first stage is a battle quest, the Southron Company have an attack of 5, and with the nasty shadow cards in this scenario they can easily be hitting for 6 or 7. Even super-blockers like Dain Ironfoot, Elrond and Beregond will feel the pain of these guys attacking. This is a great example of where a scenario can dictate the pace at which you quest and take your other actions with your characters; as much as you might be tempted to exhaust Beravor for two extra cards, doing that in the first round of this scenario is a very bad idea.
So, after a heroic first round effort, your intrepid band of heroes has managed to successfully explore Ithilien Road. You have narrowly avoided being overrun by the Southron hordes, do you keep questing hard in the hopes of powering through the scenario before your threat gets too high? The answer depends on many factors.
Celador, your friendly neighborhood ranger, will actually determine the next stage of this scenario. If the players complete the first stage with Celador in the staging area, they advance to Stage 3 (The Hidden Way), if they complete it but Celador has left play, they move on to Stage 2 (Southron Counter-Attack).
Stage 2 is a siege quest with built in Archery X (where X is the number of players) and Stage 3 is normal (Non-Battle/Siege) and does not have any enemy engagement (optional or otherwise). Which route is best for your deck will determine the pace you should follow through the rest of the first stage.
For example, if Dunhere is one of your heroes, or your deck includes cards like Hail of Stones or Hands Upon The Bow, then you are well-equipped to handle Stage 3 and you may want to quest harder in Stage 1 to keep Celador in play. Being able to pick off the enemies while the are stuck in the staging area will make questing easier and should allow you to clear the battlefield in preparation for the final quest stage.
On the other hand, if you have many high-defense characters (Beregond seems made for this scenario, Winged Guardian is a steal for 2 resources) and characters to soak up the archery damage (father and son, Gloin and Gimli seem to thrive on being shot by arrows), then you will want to quest more slowly. In this case, sadly, you will need Celador to die before you finish the first stage.
The Hidden Path represents a real risk to getting stuck. Since no engagement checks are made, the only way to effect enemies once you get to this stage (barring Son of Arnor, which is expensive and no one really plays), is cards like Thalin, and the aforementioned events. One workable strategy, if you want to go this route, would be to use Dunedain Cache to give Háma ranged and then use Hands Upon The Bow repeatedly to try to clear the staging area while the rest of your characters quest.
An added complication is that the Hidden Path is a “normal” stage (as opposed to the Battles and Sieges) so all of those zero willpower, high attack characters that were awesome in the first stage become useless at this point. To make matters worse, even if you do manage to clear Stage 3, all of the enemies left in the staging area will make engagement checks if Stage 4 is the active quest when it comes to the encounter phase. So if you chose to keep Celador and pass through the Hidden Way you will need to have plenty of high willpower characters so that you can rush through this stage as quickly as possible before the staging area fills with threat.
Since Celador takes a damage every time a character leaves play or you quest unsuccessfully, it is not difficult to ensure that you avoid Stage 3 is it doesn’t fit the strategy of your deck. A couple of chump blockers and a Blocking Wargs (more on this card below) and our Gondorian friend has been removed from the game. His two attack committed to the quest each turn is useful, critically so in the early game, so even if you ultimately want to sacrifice him, it makes sense to wait until right before passing the first stage until doing so.
Pace is a nuanced concept, it can’t be neatly summarized with generalizations or hard-and-fast rules. Once you’ve cleared Ithilien Road, you will want to spend a few turns building up a base of high-attack allies to help with the Battle quest. You will also need to engage (optionally or not, depending on your starting threat) at least some of the enemies, just to keep the staging area from getting too crazy.
Travel is also an important part of keeping the staging area clear, and as mentioned above Ithilien Road will make this decision a much more difficult one, depending on who’s waiting to ambush you. Including Ranger characters in your party, to help deal with Overgrown Trail, can significantly aid in location management.
You will need at least one excellent blocker to soak up the attacks of the larger enemies like Southron Company and Haradrim Elite — if you waste too many allies chump blocking attacking enemies, you will not only kill Celador, but won’t have anything in play to help you quest successfully (or chump block the Mûmak when it shows up). The best blocker will be a high-defense hero, with some way of readying (Tactics Boromir, Unexpected Courage, Cram, Miruvor, Erebor Record Keeper) and some way of dealing with the nasty shadow effects that come off of the encounter deck (Hasty Stroke, A Burning Brand, Dunedain Watcher or, in a pinch, Self Preservation and a lot of hit points).
This super defender will not only soak up the big attacks, leaving your other characters to counter-attack, but they also save your allies from being wasted needlessly. These decisions all require careful analysis of what you have in play, what you have in your hand, and what you feel that your deck needs to be in a position to be successful. Sometimes, the best decision will be to let your Errand Rider get trampled by a Mûmak – oliphaunts happen. In the long run however, if you don’t have enough allies in play, you will not make it through this scenario alive.
Another example of the more difficult decision making in this scenario is how to deal with archery. Even with heroes like Glóin and Gimli in your party, and relatively low current threat, you may not want to leave too many Southron Mercenaries in the staging area. Without a lot of healing, leaving too much archery in play can seriously backfire, especially because the second stage will add an additional Archery point per player on top of whatever other archery is already out. It can be hard to execute your strategies when the air is filled with arrows before your enemies have even attacked.
While you want to spend some time building up an army of allies, this scenario gives you very little breathing room, even if you can make it through stages 1 and 2 (or 1 and 3 if Celador lives), Stage 4, Approaching Cair Andros, is no picnic. Not only does it have 15 quest points, but it has a forced effect that raises each player’s threat by 2 at the end of the round — this is on top of the 1 threat that each player raises at the beginning of the Refresh phase. Not only that, but if any player’s threat is 37 or higher, Stage 4 becomes a siege. Essentially, once you get to Stage 4, you will want to pass it as quickly as possible. Every time I have beaten this scenario I always ended up questing with everyone on the last stage and using any quest buffs that I could to just finish out the quest before I was overrun.
A discussion of pace as it relates to Into Ithilien would not be complete without mentioning the infamous treachery, Blocking Wargs. There are a lot of cards in the encounter deck for this scenario that can ruin your day, but none more so than this one.
When Revealed: Deal 1 damage to each character committed to the quest. (If the current quest has the battle or siege keyword, shuffle this card back into the encounter deck.)
Stages 1, 2 and 4 (in the likely event that a player has at last 37 threat) are all Battle or Siege quests, which means that, unless you cancel it, every time this card is revealed from the encounter deck, not only will it do a point of damage to each questing character (bye bye Vassal of the Windlord), but it will shuffle itself back into the encounter deck to harass you again later (or sooner). In the unlucky event that the last card of the encounter deck is Blocking Wargs, and you don’t have A Test of Will in hand, or Eleanor ready, Blocking Wargs will actually create an infinite loop and you will lose the game. (Note: Since this article was written, Blocking Wargs received errata to remove the shuffle effect, making this kind of infinite loop impossible.)
I cannot overstate how important this card is to the pace with which you quest in this scenario. Unless you manage to cancel this card every time it comes up, it will shuffle itself back into the encounter deck. This means that, as the scenario moves forward, the proportion of Blocking Wargs in the deck to other cards will only increase. Even if you avoid the infinite loop of death, you can still end up in a situation where there are very few cards left in the encounter deck, and a couple of them are Blocking Wargs. Did I mention that the card has surge?! Needless to say, this is a very bad situation, so your best bet is to try to push through most of the stages as quickly as you can while safely managing the archery and enemies in the staging area. The one part of this scenario where you have some breathing room to try and build up your base of allies and support attachments is in the first stage, after you’ve cleared Ithilien Road.
As you can see, pace is a complicated subject, one that is highly dependent of where you are in the quest and what your deck is designed to do. If you are running an Elrond deck, then you really don’t want to rush out of the first stage until you’ve got Vilya setup and hopefully an Imladris Stargazer or Gildor Inglorion to help you get those high-cost allies out in a hurry. Likewise, if your strategy centers around using a pissed-off Gimli to mow through the Southron-hordes, you will want to get a Citadel Plate, or Ring Mail on him and then find the right opportunity to get some damage (but not too much) on him before he can go to work.
Understand your deck and what it needs to be successful, but realize that you don’t have all the time in the world to get things setup before the encounter deck will run over you like a drunken Mûmak. Remember also, the mulligan is your friend, if you are playing the aforementioned Elrond deck and your opening hand doesn’t include Vilya or a Stargazer or at least a Master of the Forge or Daeron’s Runes, you should seriously consider pitching that for six new cards.
That’s enough strategy talk for one day, I’m getting antsy from all of this typing, my paws are itching for some more Orc-killing. In the next article, I’m going to talk about synergy and how the value of a given card is very much context sensitive. Feel free to leave comments, questions, riddles, Elvish runes, or unintelligible curses below.