Metagame: Part 3 – Traits and Choice

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.

Hirluin the FairIn 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.

Dain IronfootOne 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.

Anfalas HerdsmanWith 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.

MirlondeNow 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.

Silvan TrackerI 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.

Silvan RefugeeWhat 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.

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16 Responses to Metagame: Part 3 – Traits and Choice

  1. Glaurung says:

    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.

    That what make tnis game interesting. Different decks. interesting decision in the game, feeling you can lose any moment….. But this outlands just make whole game boring story. Who care what encounter deck can do if you can quest 60 and attack or 30? I dont like it! I dont want to play this deck either or maybe only against nightmare mode……..

  2. Vladimir says:

    Actually, FFG didn’t bring the traits to card games. Magic: The Gathering has it since its beginning and unlike FFG, WotC did a much better job of actually using and developing them.

    • Beorn says:

      You are correct, Vladimir, Magic had traits for creatures from the very beginning. Though I must say, my Goblin King and Zombie Master didn’t have many Goblins or Zombies to work with in the base set. It may be a case of splitting hairs, but one of the differences that I see is that in FFG games traits can go on any type of card, not just allies/heroes. For example, I really like that Songs can be attachments or events and that we can use the Rivendell Minstrel to fetch them regardless of the card type. Whether or not this is more thematic than Magic is obviously a subjective opinion. Personally, having played Magic for 10+ years after its release, including competitively, I certainly feel that LCGs are more thematic than Magic. I believe that traits are one of the reasons for this, that and having a release cycle that doesn’t necessitate creating an entirely new world every 6 months.

      • Vladimir says:

        Sure, you’re right. But I just wanted to point out that while in MtG, you have many cards that make use of most of the traits in one way or another (as far as I know), here many traits are just a worthless text on the card. Noble trait has….uh, two cards using it? Sylvari also have a few cards interacting with the trait. But how many cards use Warrior, Esgaroth, Dunedain, Dale or Steward? Why bother using so many traits?

      • Beorn says:

        Yes, I absolutely agree that most of the traits are worthless. I am hoping that between the Adventure Pack cycles and the upcoming Saga expansions, FFG makes a point to be a bit more focused in their design. I would hope that we have enough trait synergy around Silvan, Noldor, Beorning, Esgaroth, Wose, Gondor, Rohan, etc. to make viable decks with each, just as we can with Dwarves. To me, the litmus test of whether or not a trait has been truly developed is when you can make two completely different decks that both key off of the same trait. Even traits like Rohan and Gondor aren’t there yet as there is barely one viable deck that you can make with each. As they say, variety is the spice of life.

      • scwont says:

        Something to bear in mind:

        After 20 or so expansions, there are roughly 40 heroes and 240 other player cards in the game. That’s a very small number for this type of game. It’s about the same number of cards in a single large-sized Magic set (of which there are 2-3 per year, plus 1-2 slightly smaller ones)! Admittedly the rate that new cards are added in Magic is very high, for various reasons, but even compared to other Fantasy Flight LCGs the player card pool in LoTR will only grow at half the rate. (LoTR sets have a mix of both player and encounter/quest cards, and the other LCGs can dedicate virtually all their space to player cards.)

        The small size of the card pool will naturally limit the number of different traits and deck types that can be supported in the game at this point. Looking at it from this perspective, and with the exception of dwarves which have received a disproportionate amount of attention and power, I think the designers have overall done a pretty decent job of enabling a variety of different deck possibilities. Not everything can get equal attention early on; some things will just take time.

      • Beorn says:

        This is an excellent point, scwont. I need to be careful to phrase my observations about the development of traits with a tone of impatience rather than disappointment. If some of the other major traits (Silvan/Noldor, Rohan, Gondor) get the same attention as Dwarves have received to this point, I for one will be quite pleased.

      • scwont says:

        I’m normally as quick as anyone to complain about the imbalance of attention given to the Dwarf trait in particular, but the small and slow-growth card pool is something I’d been thinking about for a while. It’s also relevant when talking about staple cards that go into virtually every deck that can pay for them – I’m sure that will gradually reduce as deckbuilding options grow over time, and certain decks will be rewarded for more specialised/synergistic card choices over generically good cards. Dwarves are the one existing archetype which can already do this to a large extent.

        Good point about traits not being restricted to one type of card, although in practice most traits still only appear on one card type. Magic has also had a few sets with “Tribal” which allows things like Goblin cards that aren’t creatures, but those are the exception.

        Magic also has plenty of card subtypes which have minimal representation and little or no in-game relevance, and others (e.g. Elves, Goblins) which have received far more support than most, and pretty consistently so over a long period of time.

        For everyone interested in this discussion, if you haven’t already then I recommend reading this article about “linear” and “modular” design and why both have their place in this type of game. It’s written about Magic but the concepts are just as applicable to LotR:

  3. Tracker1 says:

    Yes outlands are very easy to play and win with. Any strategy is within first few rounds. If you want more challenge try secrecy. They function somewhat like a normal deck then. If still to easy try just Hurluin. It’s quite cool to stand against the distant threat of the hill troll in JDtA. The strategy is stll the same: get resources and get allies on the table, it’s just harder to do. But thats the strategy of a lot of decks, but I guess what makes outlands a litle more bland is that each of the 4 stat buffing allies just does the same thing for a different stat. With other traits, most player cards do so something different. like with dwarves each dwarf ally has a very interesting abillity that does somthing different for strategies and combos. With outlands, yes the allies are different, but really there all the same. No interesting combos, just try to get them in your hand and select the order to play them. The only challenge is making sure the outlands ally you need for a paticular situation is in your hand. There are no attachments needed other than steward of gondor. So, if you like to build up a hero as you play with attachments and such, none of that is needed.

    Nevertheless, i am an experienced player, and have beaten all quests with non-outland decks with all sorts of strategies, and I’m still having fun with the outlands trait, but I!m looking forward to some good synergy for some of the traits i actually have an affinity for. At least it broke my spirit Glorfindel addiction for awhile.

  4. Matthias says:

    Thank you for this great article. It tackles some problems in the current card pool. In my opinion, FFG made some blunders concerning traits in the LotR LCG. Some of them are mentioned is your article, e.g. the auto-pilot outlands trait or the over-powered dwarves. But I would like to add some other issues for discussion:

    Some cards with a trait only work in a deck which is focussed on that trait, like “Durins Song” in a Dwarf deck or any outlander in an Outlands deck. These cards are essentially dead for other deck types. And there are plenty of them in the current deck pool, which really decreases deckbuilding options. There are some exceptions: the hero Bifur is a dwarf but works really well in other decks (like your Master of Lore-Deck). These kinds of cards encourage creative deck strategies and can be integrated in various kinds of decks. From that point of view, Outlanders are really flawed. They serve their purpose as a powerful archetype for new players, but other than that they contribute not much new options to the existing cardpool.

    My second concern is that some traits are lacking a distinctive feeling or style. For example, dwarf are great attackers AND questers AND they have threat reduction AND card draw AND resource acceleration. Eagles, on the other hand, are good fighters and revolve around a “leave-play”-mechanic but they are lacking everything else. This fits the theme perfectly and it forces you to design decks, which can benefit of the strength of the eagles but can overcome their shortcomings. Another bad example is Dain and Leadership-Boromir because their abilities are too similar. It would be better, if dwarfs and men would feel more different. From this perspective, I have mixed feelings about the Outlanders. It feels different playing the Outlanders deck because of their swarm mechanic. But once the deck is running, Outlanders are capable to do almost anything and with them you can solve almost every problem the encounter deck throws at you.

    In conclusion, I hope that future traits
    1) offer some synergies with other deckstereotypes
    2) have a distinctive look and feel and clear strengths and weaknesses

    • Beorn says:

      I absolutely agree with these points. I wonder if FFG is hesitant to design new keywords. I definitely think keywords and/or designing around a specific game mechanic (e.g. leaving play for eagles) is the way to accomplish a) making a trait feel unique and b) making it distinctive enough that it can carve out a niche as a viable deck. I definitely agree about dwarves. In general I have found myself moving away from over-powered decks lately. The simple reason is that I find winning too consistently to be boring.

      At some point I will write an article about it, but I have been using deck building constraints to make the game more challenging. For example, if I play dwarves, I am not allowed to play Dain. If I play Elrond, I do not include Vilya. I stay away from Spirit Glorfindel as well, unless he is the perfect fit thematically (e.g. Flight to the Ford). By leaving out the heroes that I have over-used in the past, it forces me to look at new cards and make decks with different cards that I would not otherwise have considered. That said, it is unfortunate that some of the traits are underdeveloped and that there is too much overlap between different deck archetypes.

      • Matthias says:

        I would love to see that article someday, since I am constraining myself in a similar way. It is a sign of an imbalanced cardpool, when players need to create their own challenges to keep the deckbuilding aspect interessting. But not only the powerhouses like Dain and Glorfindel lead to this lack of variaty: there are a lot of auto-include support cards, which essentialy make every deck better: Daerons Runes, We are not idle, Stewart of Gondor, Sneak Attack, A Test of Will. There is no reason not to include these cards in every deck (like the power nine in MtG). Again, this limits the options in the deck building process and leads to very similar decks.

  5. Glaurung says:

    Maybe when we will have already many proff players we can create kind of restrict list of some cards you not allow to play. this can a give real challenge to the brains.

    • Vladimir says:

      Why bother creating a restricted list? This is not a competitive game, where it will make sense. Whether you want to play a cookie cutter deck to breeze through the quests or a deck full of supposedly crappy cards to show that they can be of use, it is your call.

      • Beorn says:

        I think that what Glaurung is talking about is just having a list of cards to avoid to make the game harder. You are right, Vladimir, as a cooperative game there is no need for a restricted list, in the traditional sense. That said, I do find that my games are more enjoyable when I stay away from the more powerful archetypes. For Nightmare mode, and a few of the other extremely difficult scenarios, it makes more sense. But using an Elrond deck for Passage Through Mirkwood is not my idea of entertaining. Just to be clear, I am not advocating using crappy cards. Keeping Count is not going into any of my decks, even if it makes sense thematically. I am interested in making good decks that stick to some kind of theme.

        The dwarf deck that I built without Dain is still a very powerful deck, I just find the challenge of building a viable Dwarf deck without the Dain crutch to make the game more interesting. I believe this desire to make the game more challenging and interesting is what Glaurung is talking about. I agree with these sentiments, though I wouldn’t call it a restricted list because that seems to get people upset about the use of a competitive term in a cooperative game.

        At some point I will post my suggestions for deck building constraints that make the game harder while maintaining theme. Like everything on this site, these are just the opinions of one crazy bear. I don’t expect or desire for everyone to agree with me.

  6. Pingback: Poll Results: Favorite Deck Archetype | Hall of Beorn

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