One of the best things about Living Card Games is that they are not static. With most games, the experience that you have the first time that you open the box is very similar to the 100th time that you play. Granted, you will become more comfortable with the rules, devise and develop strategies for how best to play the game, and come at it with new motivations. Even so, games without new content are just not the same.
As someone who loves to build decks, and think about archetypes and high-level strategies, having an evolving card pool is a great thing. Every time a new pack or expansion is released, not only do I get to enjoy new cards, but I get to don my archaeologist’s hat and reexamine old cards for new interactions. With The Black Riders not yet publicly available, I wanted to reward my readers for their patience by highlighting some of these old cards.
When they were released, some players may have dismissed these cards as too weak, or too conditional. At the time, these assessments were often accurate, but as the game evolves, and new archetypes and strategies come to the fore, cards that once seemed weak can suddenly become powerhouse. This is particularly true when you can set aside old prejudices about a card, and learn to appreciate and accentuate its strengths. Without further ado, here are a handful of cards which I believe are only going to get better with the upcoming releases.
If I had to choose one word to describe the Hobbit heroes in The Black Riders it would be cohesive. Not only are each of their abilities unique, and for the most part very thematically appropriate to the respective characters, but their overall design is very cohesive. The idea of optionally engaging enemies with higher threat, something that players have always used strategically, has now been developed into a full fledged deck archetype. For lack of a better phrase, and because explaining it in detail takes too many words, I am going to call these decks Hide and Seek decks.
At GenCon, it was awesome watching Ian, of Tales From the Cards, run his newly-built Hobbit deck. After optionally engaging a Nazgul, Sam would ready and receive +1 to each of his stats, Pippin would allow Ian to draw a card. Equipped with a Hobbit Cloak and with help from his trusty companion, Bill the Pony, Mr. Gamgee would defend. Then Merry, armed with a Dagger of Westernesse, and ofter joined by Legolas on my side of the table, would finish off the foul Black Rider. Merry could then ready Legolas, allowing the Elf to help with other combat elsewhere. With a low starting threat, access to cheap and powerful attachments, and heroes with well-defined roles, these decks can be very effective.
Because secrecy was never fully developed as an archetype in the Dwarrowdelf cycle, cards like Unseen Strike have not seen much use. When Dwarf decks were all the rage, cards like Khazad! Khazad! seemed the more obvious choice, for being less conditional. For countless other decks, the only Tactics event that made the cut was Feint. Now that Hide and Seek is a fully fledged strategy, Unseen Strike may have finally found a home.
Thanks to Dagger of Westernesse (one of my 5 Favorite Cards from The Black Riders), and this event, Merry can easily attain an attack strength of 8, which will fell all but the most fearsome enemies. By their nature, Hide and Seek decks are multi-sphere; regardless of which Hobbits are chosen, heroes from multiple spheres will be needed in order to maximize the synergies from their abilities. The fact that Unseen Strike is free, with conditions that are easily met in a deck with low starting threat, makes it the perfect fit for Hide and Seek decks.
For much of the life of the game, Secrecy decks have started and ended with Spirit Glorfindel. His minuscule starting threat of 5 has practically been a requirement for fielding a party of heroes within the secrecy threshold. While it was good that this hero even allowed these decks to exist, it lead to a very anemic, and one-dimension metagame for secrecy decks. Pairing Glorfindel with Elrond’s Counsel and Galadhrim’s Greeting was the way to design a secrecy deck, and remains so now. This rigidity, combined with the fact that not enough Secrecy cards were ever printed to support alternatives, is ultimately why a full-fledged Secrecy archetype has never emerged. With low-threat heroes across all spheres, even Tactics, The Black Riders may finally herald the resurgence of this all-but-abandoned deck style.
Each release includes new and powerful unique allies, many of which are becoming central to the design of different archetypes. Because of their higher stats and versatility, these allies are often expensive. Anborn, for example, is at the heart of a new Ranger-Traps style deck, and is essential for his Ranger trait, high attack, and ability to return cards like Ranger Spikes and Poisoned Stakes to a player’s hand. For Leadership decks, now including the new Outlands archetype, Faramir has often been a vital ally for maximizing the questing prowess of any army of cheap characters. Regardless of the archetype, Gandalf is great in any deck, particularly when you can get him into play without having to pay his full cost.
In a deck with low starting threat, which is already essential in many archetypes, Timely Aid is an amazing card. Unfortunately, building a viable Secrecy deck that included Leadership, has until now been very difficult. With the introduction of a certain gardener extraordinaire, low-threat decks with Leadership are now a much more viable proposition. Paying 1 resource to search the first 5 cards of your deck for your best ally, and put it into play for free, is one of the most powerful effects in the game. This is all the more true because many low-threat decks need powerful allies to compensate for the lesser stats of their low-threat heroes.
Protector of Lorien
When Protector of Lorien received errata, to limit the triggering of its effect to 3 times per phase, many players were non-plussed. The fact that the card needed errata at all is a sign of just how powerful it is. Eowyn is rightly renowned for her questing prowess. For a cost of 1 resource, Protector of Lorien puts a hero almost on par with Eowyn for willpower potential. The fact that it also can be used to boost a hero’s defense is what makes this card so powerful. As I’ve covered elsewhere, versatility is a tremendous asset for dealing with the various challenges that scenarios present.
The more readying effects in the game, the more powerful Protector of Lorien becomes. Between attachments like Unexpected Courage and Cram, events like Grim Resolve and We Do Not Sleep, and characters like Aragorn (Core) and Sam (The Black Riders), being able to boost multiple stats on a hero is invaluable. With the introduction of Siege quests that require defense, this card becomes that much more useful.
While the cost of having to discard cards might at first seem steep, this too becomes easier to manage as the card pool expands. With so many inexpensive card drawing effects, it is not unusual for a player with access to the Lore sphere to find themselves with a hand full of cards by the end of the game. Even with resource acceleration, some of these cards, unique ones in particular, will end up dead in one’s hand. Being able to get use from these dead cards is yet another strength of this attachment. Unlike some of the other, less fortunate cards to receive errata, Protector of Lorien remains quite powerful.
Seemingly every new scenario introduces another, game-ending treachery. In the Black Riders, treacheries like The Nine Are Abroad can absolutely wreck even the most powerful decks. Since the core set, it has been standard practice for any deck with access to Spirit to include at least 2 copies of A Test of Will, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes you won’t have one in your hand when you need it.
In most scenarios treacheries are like spiders, they come in two varieties: mildly annoying, and deadly. While it’s fine to be without protection for the former, less lethal cards, not having a cancel when these game altering treacheries are revealed will often spell doom for the players.
In The Black Riders, you can exhaust The One Ring and pay a Fellowship resource to cancel an encounter card, shuffle it back into the deck, and reveal a new card. This effect ends up being invaluable, even with the rather harsh drawback of having to shuffle the card back into the deck. While her ability only works on treacheries, Eleanor has the distinct advantage that the cancelled card is put into the discard pile, rather than shuffled back into the encounter deck.
One of the real problems with Eleanor has always been what to do with her when treacheries are not revealed. While it might be nice to have her as insurance for the worst cards, she could end up being pretty useless for half the game, especially because most encounter decks primarily consist of enemies and locations. While her low starting threat of 7 is always nice, her stats are paltry, and even with 2 defense her 3 hit points make it dangerous to risk using her as a defender.
This is all changed with the introduction of two recent cards. Blood of Númenor is a zero-cost Spirit attachment that allows any Gondor or Dunedain hero to become a defensive wall, so long as they have resources to spare. By boosting her already compete 2 defense, it is possible to make Eleanor into a viable option as a defender. With resource accelerating effects like Wealth of Gondor and Gaining Strength, not to mention Steward of Gondor, extra resources is something that is easily accomplished with the right deck.
In addition, her low starting threat makes it is easy to splash Eleanor into a deck, and only include a limited number of powerful Spirit cards like A Test of Will and Unexpected Courage. In this case, it is much more likely that you will have extra resources to power Blood of Númenor. Alternatively, she can act as the third wheel in a mono-Spirit deck that relies on other characters like Eowyn and Glorfindel to handle the questing and combat.
If Blood of Númenor showed a spark of promise for Eleanor’s alternate utility, then Gondorian Shield was a shaft of light from the heavens. By far one of the most powerful attachments in the game, Gondorian Shield gives Eleanor an impressive 4 defense, for the bargain price of a single Tactics resource. With this card, combined with cards like Hasty Stroke to avoid the worst shadow effects, it is no longer such a risky proposition to use Eleanor as a defender. All of this discussion of making her into a competent defender is ignoring her true strength. Having a backup plan for the many game-ending treacheries, when A Test of Will is not at hand, is a power that should not be underestimated.
Even recently, many players have bemoaned the relative sparsity of useful traits in the game. Fortunately, The Heirs of Númenor deluxe expansion, Against the Shadows cycle and The Black Riders saga expansion have all started to address this deficiency. One of my favorite traits to receive some attention in these releases is that of Ranger. As the lynchpin of the previously mentioned Ranger-Trap archetype, this trait is probably most important for providing a target for the great and underrated Ranger Bow attachment.
As mentioned earlier, in the discussion of Timely Aid, Leadership seems an unlikely sphere for a Secrecy Deck. Thanks to the new low-threat Hobbit heroes, there may yet be space for a new kind of secrecy deck, built around Leadership and Lore. Utilizing allies like Ithilien Tracker, Anborn and Ranger Bow, along side Secrecy cards like Resourceful, Timely Aid and Dunedain Wanderer and staple leadership cards like Steward of Gondor, it should be possible to trap and avoid most enemies, while questing aggressively.
Dunedain Wanderer is an overlooked card, even among overlooked cards. But having the Ranger trait, along with good all-around stats, makes him a perfect fit in this kind of deck. For the bargain price of 2 resources in Secrecy, the Wanderer has ultimate utility. Give him a Ranger Bow and let him snipe the staging area. Or use his ranged and sentinel abilities to help other players in a multiplayer game. With the aid of Faramir, he can even be used as a decent quester. Even chump blocking with him is not the end of the world, as you only spent 2 resources for him, and you can trigger other “leaves play effects”.
Admittedly, the Wanderer is the biggest stretch of all of the cards described here. But I include him to illustrate a broader point. It is easy to immediately dismiss cards as useless upon their release. With entitled disgust, we promptly file these cards away, to collect dust and never been seen again. While I would not argue that the Dunedain Wanderer is great, I can certainly make the case that he is now useful. This is precisely why cards like Ranger Bow are so important. Not only is it a very powerful card, in its own right, but by keying off a trait the way it does, Ranger Bow has great potential for expanding the metagame. Any future cards with synergy around the Ranger trait, will push cards like Dunedain Wanderer that much further out of “coaster” territory, and into the magical realm of playability.