In any endeavor where you have many choices, it can often be the smallest details that make all the difference between a positive outcome and disaster. As a bear, I love to eat. The best recipes not only use superior ingredients, but the ingredients that best accentuate each other. This is what synergy is all about.
The best Lord of the Rings LCG decks aren’t the ones that include all of the most powerful cards, they are on the ones where the cards that are included all work well together. This might seem like an obvious statement, but cards that at first appear boring can end up being essential to a deck’s overall strategy.
Over at Tales from the Cards there is a great article titled: 5 Things I Wish I Would’ve Known When I Started Playing LotR LCG. My favorite item on the list is #1: All that glitters is not gold (learn to appreciate the less flashy cards). The cards mentioned are really good examples of why card synergy matters in deck building. You may look at cards like Secret Paths and Radagast’s Cunning and think:
Meh, why would I ever play with these cards when I could use those card slots for the “power” cards?
This is the secret of card synergy. In the right deck, cards that seem insignificant can become power cards. In the best decks, cards will actually work together to make each other more powerful than they could ever be individually, this is a classic style of deck design: the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
At this point it’s important to make a clear distinction between cards with synergy and cards that create a combo. Cards have synergy when they are useful in and of themselves, but become more powerful or more useful when used in concert. Combo cards, on the other hand do very little by themselves, but once you get all of the cards for the combo, the effect can be quite powerful. All else being equal (some combos are truly game-breaking), synergy is typically a better design style than combos. The reason for this becomes obvious once you look at a few examples.
Erebor Hammersmith is a personal favorite, for 2 Lore resources you get a Dwarf ally with 1 willpower, 1 attack, 1 defense and 3 hit points. Even before you look at his ability, those are excellent stats for only 2 resources. But it is his ability where the Hammersmith brings real synergy to your decks:
Response: After you play Erebor Hammersmith, return the topmost attachment in any player’s discard pile to his hand.
So when you play our hammer-wielding friend, not only do you get an ally with great stats and the most useful trait in the game, but you (or one of your friends at the table) can get an attachment back from the discard pile, for no additional cost! The opportunities for synergy with this card are many.
Say you have a Leadership/Lore deck with Dain Ironfoot, Bifur and Ori as your heroes. Dain’s ability depends on him being ready, but he is also you best defender, so it makes sense to use Cram as a way to ready him after defending so that all of your dwarves still get the attack bonus. Since Cram is discarded after use, you will want another way to ready Dain (or one of your other heroes) and Erebor Record Keeper is an absolute bargain for a measly 1 lore resource.
By itself, Cram is a good card; for zero cost, you get a single use attachment that readies a hero. By itself, Erebor Hammersmith is a good card, 2 cost for a solid ally with an useful “played from hand” ability. By itself, Erebor Record Keeper is a good card, sure his stats are bad, and he can’t attack or defend, but his ability is quite useful and he is one of only a handful of allies in the game that cost 1 resource.
By themselves your heroes are good cards (Dain is actually one of the best heroes in the game, but that is a discussion for another day), they have relatively low starting threat for their stats and are each good at doing at least one thing (with A Burning Brand, Bifur can even serve as a solid back-up defender in addition to questing).
Our deck thus far is made from good ingredients, but it is the way that these ingredients accentuate each other that will make the whole something much greater. Assuming a good draw, first turn you can move a resource from Dain to Bifur and play both a Record Keeper and a Hammersmith. This will mean that you have five dwarves in play so turn 2 you will already be drawing an additional card for Ori’s ability. Each of these dwarves get the bonuses for Dain’s ability (including Dain, if you ready him after he commits to the quest). Between Cram and the Record Keeper you will be able to get multiple uses out of your heroes each turn and ensure that, even with treacheries or attacking enemies, Dain stays ready at all times. So what happens turn 3 when you draw another Hammersmith and there’s a Cram at the top of your discard pile?
This is synergy. The Hammersmith is never a dead card in your hand, with Dain out he quests for 2, or attacks for 2, or soaks up an enemy with 3 attack and survives. Cram is never a dead card in your hand, if nothing else put it on Dain to make extra sure that he is never exhausted when you need him. Because it costs nothing, you will always be able to play it, even if you have other, more expensive, cards that you need to pay for as well. Likewise, the Record Keeper is never going to be a dead card, he costs 1 so you will always be able to move a resource to Bifur to pay for him (or activate his ability) and if nothing else, he quests for 2 each turn thanks to Dain’s bonus. None of these card interactions are combinations, because they do not explicitly depend on one another to be useful; every single card I’ve mentioned is good in its own right, they just become that much better when you use them together.
A good example of a combo, as opposed to the synergy I described above, would be Descendant of Thorondor and Born Aloft. Although the Descendant is a good card, it is a little on the expensive side for its stats, because its ability is so good (and triggers both when it enters and leaves play). Especially in a dedicated Eagle deck, the Descendant is a good, if expensive, choice because you can get the two uses out of him and then stash him under an Eagles of the Misty Mountains when he finally leaves play.
The problem card is Born Aloft. Although, at zero cost, this cards looks like a great combo with the Descendant there are numerous problems with this strategy. First and foremost, Born Aloft is a dead card if you do not have a Descendant of Thorondor in play when you draw the attachment. Dead cards are the opposite of synergy. This is a fundamentally important criteria to use when examining potential cards for your deck, ask yourself:
THE GOLDEN RULE OF CARD UTILITY:
When I draw this card, what else has to be in play or in my hand in order for it to be useful?
In the best decks, the answer to the above question will almost always be “nothing”. Because synergy will mean that all of the cards in your deck have at least some use, no matter the circumstances. Ordinarily, returning an ally that you already paid for is a completely self defeating proposition. Even if you didn’t have to pay the full cost to get Descendant into play because you used Sneak Attack, it makes no sense to waste a spot in your deck for Born Aloft because Sneak Attack will return him to your hand at the end of the phase anyway.
This is the critical distinction between synergy and a combo. In a combo, many of the constituent pieces are not useful in isolation. Descendant of Thorondor is useful on his own, and he has synergy with Sneak Attack because both cards are useful separately but they become really good when used together. Descendant of Thorondor does not have synergy with Born Aloft because without the ally in play the attachment immediately becomes the worst card in your deck.
Well, there’s a honeycomb and some fresh bread calling my name. That’s all for today, I welcome your comments and feedback below. Check back soon for further posts in the series of key concepts. Next up will be a discussion of how to pick your heroes with an eye for which role they play in your party.