In medieval combat, a shield is frequently worn on a warrior’s off-hand to protect what would otherwise be the weak side of their body. Your weapon can be used to parry and block many attacks, which is precisely why a smart attacker will look for their opponent’s weak point, away from their sword hand. Just like warriors in a battle, each sphere in Lord of the Rings has its weak side. Shielding is the concept of identifying and covering up these weaknesses, to prevent the encounter deck from exposing and exploiting them.
With the best resource generation in the game, one of the most obvious and critical weakness of Leadership is its lack of card drawing effects. Having a pile of resources on each of your heroes isn’t very useful if you don’t have any cards in your hand. There are several strategies that will help compensate for this shortcoming.
Including a Lore hero is one natural solution. This provides access to cards like Daeron’s Runes, Legacy of Durin and Gleowine, among others. Pairing resource generation with card drawing effects works well, and forms the core of many successful deck archetypes. However, having a Lore hero in your party is not always an option.
For Leadership decks which include at least one Dwarf hero, King Under the Mountain is the best solution to the problem of card draw. Alternatively, Valiant Sacrifice is a less ideal, but still workable solution. With the release of Squire of the Citadel, Valiant Sacrifice can be paired with cards like Prince Imrahil and Horn of Gondor to form the basis of a solid deck. Because it is an event with a response that cannot always be reliably triggered, Valiant Sacrifice is a less effective solution.
Erestor is another viable, if somewhat expensive option. He works particularly well in decks with duplicate copies of unique cards that would otherwise be dead in your hand. He is also a good choice for bolstering your willpower, another area where Leadership decks without Dain or Aragorn can struggle.
Campfire Tales and We Are Not Idle are technically card-drawing effects. We Are Not Idle is an essential piece of any Dwarf deck, and is a tremendously powerful card, even without the card drawing effect. On the other hand, Campfire Tales only really shines in multi-player games. It can also be used to thin your deck, but with a growing card pool you are going to be hard-pressed to cut the rest of your deck to 47 cards in order to make this an effective strategy.
Other than King Under the Mountain, Leadership lacks effective and repeatable forms of card-drawing. It does however, have access to some excellent alternatives that do not involve drawing cards, in the strictest sense. Regardless of the means, getting more cards into play is the ultimate goal.
For decks that start with less than 20 threat, or have one or more forms of threat-reduction, Timely Aid is an amazing card. Even after your threat has exceeded the Secrecy threshold, this card is still easily worth the cost. In a sphere with Steward of Gondor, Wealth of Gondor, Gaining Strength 4 resources is easy to pay. In the end, being able to put the best ally in the top five cards of your deck directly into play is even better than card-draw.
A Very Good Tale is another card that helps compensate for the lack of card-drawing in the Leadership sphere. Resource generation along with a host of good 3 and 4-cost allies make it relatively easy for a Leadership deck to get two expensive allies out early. Using allies like Fili that accelerate your ally base makes A Very Good Tale that much easier to utilize.
There is one other nuance of the game rules that is important for maximizing the usefulness of A Very Good Tale. Because the refresh phase occurs before the end of the round, allies that leave play at the end of the round (e.g. Core Set Gandalf) will refresh before they leave play. Because there is a player action window before the end of the round, you can ready an exhausted Gandalf then immediately exhaust him and another ally to pay for A Very Good Tale. Gandalf will then leave play, having effectively given you two rounds of usefulness.
While Tactics has by far the best cards in the game for combat, the encounter deck has increasingly clever ways of dealing damage to characters. Without any means for healing characters, this can leave Tactics decks at a disadvantage. At first glance it would seem that Beregond with a Gondorian Shield is an invincible wall. Against all but the toughest foes, this is true for traditional combat, but encounter decks are not limited to just combat.
Archery, along with direct-damage treacheries and engagement effects (The Necromancer’s Reach, Blocking Wargs, Umbar Assassin, etc.) can quickly turn the mightiest army into a memory. All of that defense strength is of no avail against these effects. The easiest solution would be to include Lore for access to Warden of Healing, Daughter of the Nimrodel, Self Preservation and Lore of Imladris.
For decks that cannot include Lore there are some other options. One of the very underrated cards in the Against the Shadow cycle is Tactics first true answer to this problem. Gondorian Discipline is a bargain for no cost. The fact that it is a response and can only target Gondorian characters may seem too limiting, but this card is perfect for keeping your best defenders alive. Whether it is Beregond who finds himself the target of a nasty shadow effect, or a Gondorian Spearman that is about to die to the forced effect of a Brigand, being able to prevent damage is essential for Tactics.
Another low-cost solution to the problem of healing, Born Aloft may seem like an unorthodox choice at first. Returning an ally to your hand to remove damage is certainly not the most efficient solution, but Tactics has some cards that can take advantage of this particular strategy. Horn of Gondor and Eomer (coming in the next Deluxe Expansion) will allow you to benefit from a character leaving play. In addition, allies like Descendant of Thorondor are designed to leave play.
A Descendant could take a point of archery damage, then get returned to your hand to damage the Southron Mercenaries that shot it. On the next round, the eagle can be played again and finish off the pesky Mercenaries. The eagle is at full health when it comes back into play, effectively healed.
Eagles and Bears provide even more options for Tactics lack of healing, though they can be expensive. While his price may seem excessive, the ally version of Beorn has an impressive 6 hit points. He can be used to soak up archery or other damage, then just before he dies you can trigger his super attack and shuffle him back into your deck. Assuming that you get him back, he will be at full health and you can repeat this trick again.
Landroval is another alternative to healing, though he can only be used once per game. One of my favorite strategies with the hero version of Beorn is to use him to tank against numerous enemies, while Landroval looms over his shoulder. Not having to exhaust to defend, Beorn can soak up a lot of damage from multiple enemies.
Once the bear gets tired and wants to take a nap, the Eagle swoops in and returns his ursine friend to the field of battle, at full health. Again, Landroval’s cost makes this strategy harder to pull off, but in a multi-player game with Horn of Gondor, it should be possible for a Tactics deck to bring out Landroval for his Bear-juggling trick at least once.
When it comes to questing, threat-management and effect cancellation, Spirit has everything well under control. Unfortunately, the world of Middle-Earth is not a peaceful one, and sometimes combat is a necessary evil. Combat is by far the one area of the game where Spirit struggles the most. Most Spirit characters have low strength in both attack and defense so it is very important for decks that feature these characters to have a fall-back strategy.
As with most weaknesses, there is often an obvious solution. In this case, including a Tactics hero is the obvious solution to Spirit’s martial inadequacies. Unfortunately Tactics hero (with the exception of Merry) have high starting threat, which can clash with the low-threat design of many Spirit decks. For Spirit decks that cannot include a Tactics hero, there are alternatives.
Glorfindel from Foundations of Stone is the best, and most popular means, for providing some combat strength to a Spirit deck. Coupled with Light of Valinor, he can commit to a quest and still be ready to help out with combat. With a lowly 1 defense, the elf is not going to be a good choice for defending, so it is best to dedicate him to counter-attacking only.
For defense, Arwen Undomiel is the most cost-effective choice to help bolster one of your blockers. In a multi-player game the Sentinel ability that she grants can be quite useful as well. There are some solid Spirit heroes with 2 defense that can be a good target for Arwen’s ability, but the single additional point of defense might not be sufficient against larger foes, particularly in a sphere that lacks healing effects.
Dunedain and Gondor heroes can take advantage of Blood of Numenor, which can transform excess resources into a defense boost. Currently, Eleanor and Caldara are the only Spirit heroes that can use this attachment, but we will undoubtedly see more Dunedain heroes before long.
With access to Stand and Fight and Fortune or Fate, another viable strategy for Spirit might just be to chump block, then return the defeated character to play thereafter. While this is certainly not the most efficient, or thematic strategy, Spirit is simply not equipped to handle the larger enemies in the game. If you must chump block, Eomund is the perfect candidate in any deck that includes a large number of Rohirrim. In a multi-player game, the best bet is to use Arwen’s ability to give another player’s super-blocker sentinel, then rely on them to protect you.
For counter-attacking larger enemies, Glorfindel is not going to be enough. This is where the bevy of four-cost Spirit allies comes into play. The utility of allies like Damrod and Elfhelm greatly depends on the design of your particular deck. However, in terms of its stats and ability, Northern Tracker is one of the best allies in the game and is a staple in most Spirit decks.
Even so, there are times when the staging area is clear of locations, and committing 1 extra willpower to quest is not really needed, particularly in a sphere with so many high-willpower characters. In these situations, holding back your Northern Tracker, Damrod or Elfhelm to help in combat is a wise choice. While their two attack on its own might not be enough, combined with Glorfindel and other, smaller allies, it should allow you to eventually overcome most enemies.
While Lore has plenty of amazing card-draw effects, it suffers from the opposite weakness as Leadership. A hand full of cards is great, but without any resources to play any cards, it’s still not very useful. Using two spheres that fill each others weaknesses is always a good bet, but sometimes you won’t be able to include Leadership in your Lore deck. Fortunately, there are options for getting around this lack of resource generation.
The single greatest answer to Lore’s lack of resource generation was just released in The Black Riders. For a cost of 1 resource Elf-Stone is, quite simply, amazing. Lore has some fantastic, but fantastically expensive, allies. Up until now, it has been a real challenge to pay to have characters like Gildor, Haldir or Anborn join your party. Now all it takes is a location play and a little bit of patience. Lore not only has the means to find this card, through card draw or effects like Master of the Forge, but also the means to trigger it, thanks to cards like Asfaloth, Thror’s Map and Strider’s Path.
After Elf-Stone, the solutions for resource generation tend to drop off a bit, which is a testament to just how powerful this new card is. While the errata certainly did him no favors, Master of Lore is still a viable option for mono-Lore decks. He is rather expensive at 3 resources and his measly 1 hit point makes him susceptible to a whole host of nasty direct-damage treacheries and encounter card effects.
But, assuming you can keep your librarian alive in the middle of all the carnage, he will pay off in the long term. The best way to make this card effective is probably to pair him with Elf-Stone, using the Beryl to get him into play as early as possible. This way you get your scholarly friend out early, and it will take fewer rounds to realize the point of that mountain of books that he makes you carry for him.
While Love of Tales may look like resource acceleration, most of the Song cards cost resources, so you’re not actually netting anything until you get multiple of this card into play. A better bet would be to use the new Mirlonde hero to field a party with less than 20 starting threat.
In this case you gain access to some great Secrecy cards, including the incredibly efficient Resourceful. Make sure to include Master of the Forge and cards like Daeron’s Runes and Mithrandir’s Advice, to ensure that you have Resourceful in hand as quickly as possible.
As long as you can get 1 copy of Resourceful out while you are still under 21 threat, it won’t matter if you don’t draw the others until later. The extra resource you gain will mean that are receiving 4 resources a turn, which is just enough to pay the non-Secrecy cost of a second copy of Resourceful. While spending an entire planning phase doing nothing but paying for this card may seem like a waste, imagine a mono-Lore deck with a hand full of cards that is gaining 5 resources a turn.
One last option, which only really count as resource acceleration in a multi-player game, is good old Bifur. The dwarf has great stats for a very low starting threat, but it is his ability that really allows him to shine when other players have resources to spare.
Assuming that someone else is playing Leadership, with Steward of Gondor and all of the other resource acceleration, Bifur can borrow one resource a round, even if the Errand-riders have been waylaid. In this case, cards like Harbor Master start to make more sense, as he will be getting an automatic defense boost every round, not only from the Steward of Gondor, but when the resource is added to Bifur’s pool.