With the Steward’s Fear released and The Drúadan Forest set to add more ally goodness in less than a week, the Outlands trait has hit the scene like a crazed Mûmak. One can certainly make a convincing argument that Dwarf is still the trait that reigns supreme, but the upstart is definitely staking a claim to be among the most powerful deck archetypes. Since cards like Dain and Lure of Moria effect all dwarves in play, and not just ones you control, it does have a distinct advantage when it comes to multi-player games. Even so, Outlands allies are so efficient for their cost that they have even allowed players to beat some scenarios with only Hirluin as their starting hero. Successfully using a single hero, Dwarf or otherwise, has until now been impossible in this game.
In the big picture, I see the sudden ascension of the Outlands trait as good for the game. As I have discussed previously, new players have not been provided with the smoothest introduction to this great game. Telling someone who just bought the Heirs of Numenor that their next step is to go trawling eBay for out of print Shadows of Mirkwood Adventure packs is not what I would call a warm welcome. Now, we can point these new players to The Steward’s Fear and The Drúadan Forest as a perfect, and readily available, path to starting the game.
Along with HoN and the Core Set, the cards in these adventure packs provide more than enough tools for new players to field powerful decks. Reports are already coming back from players who have successfully defeated the Heirs of Númenor scenarios with Outlands decks. Between this new deck archetype and the recently announced Easy Mode, new and casual players now have much more gentle introduction to the game. Kudos to Caleb and the other designers at FFG for addressing one of the few weak points of the game, especially for doing it in such a timely fashion.
On the other hand, as an experienced player, I find myself rather underwhelmed by the Outlands trait, and the change in texture that it represents. As detailed here, trait synergy is one central pillars of deck design in this game. A look at the latest poll confirms this. Among the major deck archetypes, easily half of them have traits at the core of their design. Dwarves (the reigning powerhouse), Eagles (given new life thanks to HoN), Gondor (surprisingly still under-developed), Rohan (ironically not viable in battle quests) and now Outlands (good at everything) are all built around one defining trait.
One of the best design elements that FFG brought to card games is the trait. Tellingly, they feature traits in each one of their Living Card Games, which adds a much welcome depth thematic depth, as well as the potential for truly adaptable design. Traits are of particular importance in an evolving format like Living Card Games, as they provide a means to quickly transform the landscape of a game, all without errata or other, more awkward design changes. For example, a card like Dain Ironfoot immediately and irrevocably changes the relative value of every other card in the game with the Dwarf trait. This ability to re-contextualize a wide swath of existing cards so quickly is of the utmost importance to keeping a game fresh and interesting. The death of any living format is not disagreement, but apathy.
So it is that, despite protestations to the contrary, I found myself making an Outlands deck to test with Mrs. Beorn in our recent sojourn through the backstreets of Gondor. It certainly lived up to my expectations, as I was quickly questing for 20+ willpower with plenty of allies held back to defend for 3 and attack for 2. It definitely reminded me of other powerful (some might say “broken”) decks that I have played in the past. Whether it is the pre-errata Zigil Miner deck or, more recently, the Elrond + Vilya engine, the more powerful decks seem to dominate the game in a way that can at times seem absurd.
My wife was playing her old standby, a very well-tuned and battle tested Aragorn (Lore), Glorfindel (Spirit) and Legolas deck. By the middle of the game, I had allies for which I had spent a single resource that were questing, attacking and defending on par with each of her heroes. This definitely felt strange, both thematically and from a cooperative game balance perspective. In reality, we needed the extra boost that Outlands provided, as the more thematic deck that I used on our first attempt got utterly stomped by brigands and a glut of locations.
Powerful deck archetypes are nothing new in this game, but I can’t quite shake the hollow feeling of our victory against The Steward’s Fear last night. Ultimately, my reticence to even build an Outlands deck was well-founded. While the deck is undeniably powerful, it was not particularly interesting to play. With Dwarves and Elrond + Vilya, there are many different choices to make, and subtle, fun combinations to exploit. In contrast, the synergy between Outlands cards is so aggressively one-dimensional that it leaves very few meaningful decisions to the player.
There is joy in discovering the right combinations of playing the ally version of Gloin and Bifur (and even using them as chump blockers) to maximize their utility, or the first time I realized that Lure of Moria and We Are Not Idle form a mighty resource generation engine. Likewise, using Elrond to play an Unexpected Courage or Grim Resolve for no cost, after exhausting a bunch of allies to use their abilities, represents a deeper understanding of the power inherent in that particular strategy.
With Outlands, there is very little nuance, you play the allies, they get stronger and the deck practically plays itself. The only meaningful decision I found playing Outlands was in the early game, before the resource acceleration from Steward of Gondor and card draw from Beravor had been fully established. The decision that we are left with is: which allies to play in which order. I quickly realized that Anfalas Herdsman was the key to keeping my allies alive. Particularly in The Steward’s Fear, where Zealous Traitors were always lurking in the shadows, waiting to kill my entire army, the extra hit point provided by the Herdsman proves essential.
With this strategy in place, the space of available choices starts to collapse toward zero. By the end of the game, I had an absolute army in play and, thanks to Steward of Gondor and Beravor, extra resources and a fist full of cards. As a software developer, I find it somewhat troubling that I could fairly easily write an algorithm for playing the Outlands deck, as a general purpose solution to most of the scenarios in the game. Truthfully, the same could probably be said about Dwarves or Elrond + Vilya decks, if you hew to the most simple strategy. At least in the case of those decks there are some very real choices and alternatives to account for in even the most ideal algorithms. It is noteworthy that, with Outlands, the trivial algorithm is almost identical to the ideal algorithm, whereas I still feel that these other decks (Dwarves, Elrond) would be better piloted by a skilled human player than a computer program.
Now that I have confirmed my suspicions about Outlands, I am happy to break apart that deck and turn my attention to other, different deck archetypes that I find more nuanced and interesting. The recent spoilers for The Drúadan Forest give me hope for these more subtle strategies. While the new hero, Mirlonde, may seem weak to some, I see the potential for some interesting strategies.
Not only will she allow for previously maligned high-threat Lore heroes, but her ability supports truly workable Secrecy decks with three starting heroes. Between her and new cards like Mithrandir’s Advice, and the forthcoming Anborn, mono Lore looks to become a viable deck archetype in the near future. I sincerely hope that FFG, in addition to providing entry-level strategies like Outlands, continues to push the outer edges of the game with these less obvious strategies.
I remain cautiously optimistic that other traits, like Silvan, will receive a boost and become viable in their own right. Cards like Silvan Tracker have such promise, if they can just follow-up with further cards to round out that trait synergy, it will lead to some very different, and interesting deck archetypes. In that vein, I actually really like the design of the Silvan Refugee from The Drúadan Forest. Not only is the card the first 1 cost Spirit ally in the game, but it points to some very interesting alternatives in deck design. Up to now, Sneak Attack + Gandalf has rightly been seen as a mainstay to any deck that included the Leadership sphere. Along with cards like Horn of Gondor and Prince Imrahil, the “allies leaving play” archetype has existed since the Core Set gave us Snowbourn Scout and Valiant Sacrifice.
What if there is a different type of deck that doesn’t want allies leaving play? Yes, this archetype currently looks inferior to the “allies leaving play” deck from every possible angle, but this is precisely why traits are powerful from a design perspective. Defying existing conventions and forcing people to question long-held assumptions is exactly what makes traits so important. With any card game, the more diversity there is within the deck archetypes, the better it is for the game.
This archetype especially makes sense thematically as the Elven havens were designed specifically to protect to Eldar from the growing menace of the Dark Lord. As someone who most enjoys this game when I can combine my love of crafting unique decks with an appreciation of Tolkien’s settings and themes, I sincerely hope that the designers have something for us as well. It would be great if the next trait to get the blessing from the powers that be, does so in way that allows for more choices.