One of the highlights of GenCon was definitely having the chance to pickup the Black Riders saga expansion early. I then had the privilege of playing through the three scenarios with Ian from Tales From the Cards and Matthew from The Progression Series. The quests in this expansion are everything that I love about the game – compelling adventures filled with strategic depth and thematic cohesion. Back Riders makes me very excited about the upcoming saga expansions based on the Lord of the Rings; the game continues to get better and better.
As expected, the player cards introduced in this expansion make Hobbit decks a fully-realized archetype. Bilbo (THfG) and Frodo (CatC) have been available since the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle, but until the recent release of Pippin in the Encounter at Amon Din, it was not even possible to make a deck with all Hobbit heroes. The limited stats on those three means that such a deck would have serious difficulty defeating many scenarios.
With a special version of Frodo (with the newly-created Fellowship sphere) that is automatically included in each of the Black Rider scenarios, the spirit version of Frodo is not even an option for decks in this saga expansion. The great news is that the heroes introduced in Black Riders are quite good, especially because their abilities have a lot of synergy around the Hobbit trait and the low starting threat of Hobbit decks. To distill the Hobbit archetype into one concept: benefitting from optionally engaging enemies with a higher engagement cost than a player’s current threat.
Not only are the heroes quite strong (particularly Sam, Merry and Pippin), but many of the other player cards work quite well with this new deck archetype. For those that are less interested in this new archetype, have no fear. Not only are the player cards in this expansion perfect for including in Hobbit decks, but many of them are also quite effective in other deck archetypes. What follows are 5 player cards that I give two paws up!
As good as the new Hobbit heroes are, the new Sam Gamgee card is arguably the best of the bunch. With an excellent 3 willpower and a really powerful Response ability that frequently allows him to ready after questing, Sam is a ver versatile hero.
While his 1 starting defense might seem paltry, his 3 hit points can be boosted by the new Bill the Pony ally (which is free when Sam is in play). In addition, Hobbit Cloak is a natural fit for Sam’s ability and will often provide him with an impressive 4 defense.
While the defense bonus of Hobbit Cloak is conditional, unlike cards like Dunedain Warning or Ring Mail, the low starting threat will most often mean that this card is effective. Being able to pay 1 resource for +2 defense is a bargain, and becomes especially important to cover for one of the Hobbit archetypes real weaknesses, relatively weak defenders. In non-Saga scenarios, Spirit Frodo will obviously be a natural choice as your defender in Hobbit decks, but as he is not available in Black Riders, the Hobbit Cloak becomes all the more vital.
Dagger of Westernesse
One of the critical limitations of most weapons in this game, is that they are only available to characters with a specific trait or traits. Cards like Dwarrowdelf Axe and Rivendell Blade are very powerful, but they can only be attached to Dwarves and Elves, respectively. These limitations serve to preserve both a thematic sense of realism, as well as game balance. Even so, it can be frustrating when a card would fit so well strategically (e.g. Rivendell Blade attached to Bard the Bowman), but cannot be attached because of these limitations.
For this reason, weapons without these trait requirements possess a unique flexibility. Being able to attach a weapon to characters with less common traits, like Hobbits, also gives a deck access to powerful cards like Foe-Hammer, Goblin-Cleaver and Bofur (H:OHaUH). Dagger of Westernesse, in a worst case scenario, provides +1 attack for one resource, along with the ability to use the cards mentioned above. In a deck with low starting threat, as Hobbit decks have, the dagger provides an impressive +2 attack bonus against enemies with a greater engagement cost than the player’s threat. As with the Hobbit Cloak, being able to pay 1 resource for a +2 bonus is a real bargain. Outside of Hobbit decks, this card is also a perfect fit for Dunhere, allowing him to attack into the staging area with a mighty 5 strength. I hope that the dagger is merely a precursor to other cards in a Rohan deck archetype that goes beyond just power-questing.
Without a doubt, the Hobbit archetype carries with it a certain risk. Many recent scenarios include enemies with low threat thresholds, or other forced effects which cause them to attack immediately. Having low defense, and few hit points, Hobbit heroes will not survive long against powerful enemies that sneak in under a player’s current threat.
This is where the friendly inn-keeper of the Prancing Pony comes into his own. After seeing how important his ability is in a Hobbit deck, one can understand why Gandalf blessed his beer to several years of prosperity. Just like the recently-released White Tower Watchmen, Barliman can take damage from undefended attacks. In his case, this ability only works when each of your heroes is a Hobbit, but this is the most common time that you would actually want that effect, so it fits well strategically. With 3 hit points, he even has a chance of surviving attacks from smaller enemies, attacks which might kill a Hobbit with only 2 hit points. Reasonably priced at 2 resources, the inn-keeper can be committed to a quest and still help protect your Hobbit heroes from an undefended attack.
With the errata to Master of Lore, the Lore sphere is back to having limited options for resource generation. This limitation is underscored by the fact that Lore has so many inexpensive ways to draw cards. With a hand full of expensive allies, attachments and events, but no way to pay for them, Lore-heavy decks often need to include Leadership in order to fill anything but a support role. The original version of Master of Lore was a solution for mono-Lore decks, but after the errata the Master is a high-risk choice. Expensive at 3 resources, the Master of Lore is very fragile with only 1 hit point. With an abundance of direct damage treacheries in recent encounter decks, there is a very real risk that the new version of Master of Lore will never pay for himself.
The newest Lore attachment, Elf-Stone fills one of the most important gaps in Lore decks, all for the bargain price of 1 resource. Even better, this attachment is not effectively limited to mono-Lore decks, as it works with every ally in the game. Being able to, at no additional cost, put Gildor Inglorion, Beorn (Core Set), or Gandalf into play is an amazing effect. Sure, you have to first explore the active location, which also gets +1 quest point, but in a Sphere that includes cards like Asfaloth, Thror’s Map, and Protector of Lorien, this will not be difficult to accomplish.
Even better, because the first player gets to trigger the effect on Elf-Stone, you can time the use of this card to allow other decks, particularly ones without resource acceleration, to get expensive allies into play at no cost. While Elf-Stone is unique, it is discarded when the location is explored, so there is no reason not to include 3 copies of this card in most any Lore deck. Of all of the great cards included in Black Riders, Elf-Stone may be the most powerful.
The Baggins sphere events in the Hobbit Saga Expansions are hard to use effectively. Because Baggins resources are so vital for triggering other effects, it is often not worth it for an event that only effects one character. Frodo’s Intuition, on the other hand, is an amazing card which transcends the limitations of these earlier events. While Fellowship sphere resources are invaluable for triggering the One Ring, you typically will not need to use the ring every single round. This will result in extra Fellowship resources on Frodo that go unspent. For decks with only Hobbit heroes, this card is tremendously powerful. On the round when you control Frodo (which is every round in a solo deck), you can spend 2 Fellowship resources to draw 4 cards and give each of your heroes +1 willpower.
In Hobbit decks, being able to quest heavily is very important. While optionally engaging a single enemy works well for triggering multiple powerful effects on your hero cards, a Hobbit deck is by no means built for handling several large enemies. For this reason, it is important with this archetype to quest aggressively and clear a scenario before the player’s threat gets too high, and tougher enemies start engaging.
Letting your threat exceed the threshold of tough enemies will mean that you cannot trigger all of the powerful effects on your Hobbit heroes. What’s more, cards like Hobbit Cloak and Dagger of Westernesse are much less effective against enemies with an engagement cost that is less than your threat. Additionally, Hobbit decks have access to very efficient readying effects. Between Sam Gamgee’s ability and Fast Hitch, the best readying attachment in the game (for Hobbits), there is very little reason not to commit all of your heroes to the quest. Being able to commit four Hobbit heroes to the quest, draw four cards, and add +4 willpower to your questing efforts, makes this card absolutely amazing.
Not only is this card strategically powerful, but it fits perfectly within the theme of the Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo was a character that the other Hobbits rallied around, and someone who’s intuition and leadership they trusted implicitly. It is encouraging, in the very first Saga Expansion for the Lord of the Rings books, to see a Fellowship event that can serve as the cornerstone in a new, and thematically important, deck archetype. With the release of Black Riders, it is undeniable that Hobbit decks are here to stay, and this bear is excited to see the new and different decks that evolve from this archetype.