“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Fighting a battle involves managing risk on many levels. Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is no different. Everything from keeping your heroes alive, minimizing your threat, and questing enough to avoid staging area lock – the game is filled with risk. Once an enemy is engaged, that brings its own unique set of challenges. Whether it is a single larger enemy, swarms of weaker foes, or the unknown specter of of shadow cards, combat is dangerous. Even gradual losses through attrition can be enough to lose a scenario; a diminished force might be unable to survive a final questing push, or the arrival of a boss enemy. A control deck is all about minimizing these risks as much as possible.
Staging Area Control
Since control is all about avoiding direct confrontation, it makes sense to deal with enemies and locations while they are in the staging area. Exploring a location from the staging area means avoiding travel costs that are often unpleasant. Likewise, many enemies have engagement effects that are best avoided, and entering in combat with an enemy means having to hold back a defender. What’s more, combat means shadow cards, which are yet another unknown that can wreck the best laid plans of any deck.
There are a few characters and attachments with abilities that specific target the staging area, and several events. Because these cards are spread across spheres, making a dedicated staging area attack deck can be challenging, but it is not impossible. Dunhere is the captain of staging area attack, and with the recent release of Dagger of Westernesse and Spear of the Mark he has plenty of help. One way or another, Dunhere needs an attack boost. Even with his ability, three strength is not enough to deal with most enemies. Many of the high engagement cost enemies that you will want to attack with Dunhere have a defense of 2 or more.
In addition to providing essential weapons, Tactics brings a host of useful events and allies that can help control the staging area. Hands Upon the Bow pairs well with Legolas, Bard and Brand, while Hail of Stones works in any deck with a bunch of cheap allies. Descendant of Thorondor is amazing with sneak attack, as is the more obvious choice of Core Set Gandalf. Beorning Bee Keeper is expensive, but can be effective against scenarios with swarms of weaker enemies. Paired with Thalin, the Bee Keeper can potentially clear the staging area of multiple threats.
Thalin is another staple hero for staging area control. His ability is particularly important for avoiding surging enemies. A good number of enemies with this keyword (or other nastier when revealed effects) have only 1 hit point. Because Thalin’s ability triggers while an enemy is being revealed, he can stop these weak enemies from effecting you in any way. This kind of passive cancellation is ideal for a control deck. In general, it will not be feasible to control everything, so using cards with passive or global effects is essential.
While Hands Upon the Bow is great, it is difficult to use an event consistently. Háma or Book of Eldacar can allow you to recycle it, but these cost precious resources and cards. A control deck is trying to maintain card advantage against the encounter deck. Any time you can use 1 card to mitigate multiple cards in the staging area, you are gaining an advantage. On the contrary, any time you use multiple cards to mitigate a single card in the staging area, the encounter deck is gaining the advantage against you. Even in the unlikely case where you are killing an enemy every time you play Hands Upon the Bow, the cards that you discard to trigger Háma’s ability can leave you without options for dealing with other encounter cards. To some extent, Foe-Hammer can offset this, but even this relies on having weapons.
In a dedicated control deck, Great Yew Bow is often preferable to Hands Upon the Bow. While it cannot be used outside of the Combat phase, it is repeatable and pairs quite well with ranged heroes like Bard the Bowman and Faramir. A control deck will want to keep its threat low as a general rule, so having to wait until the combat phase to attack the staging area is not a problem. As long as enemies stay in the staging area, Great Yew bow is an excellent solution for attacking them directly.
Another weapon that works very well in a control deck is the Ranger Bow. As an added advantage over the Great Yew Bow, it can be attached to allies. It also can be used as an action, which means that you can kill enemies during the quest phase and avoid having their threat effect your questing efforts. Being in the Lore sphere means that there are plenty of options for fetching the Ranger Bow into your hand. Beyond Daeron’s Runes, Mithrandir’s Advice and similar cards, repeatable effects like Master of the Forge are excellent for fetching the Bow, and the various Trap attachments that you will want to run with it.
Fortunately, there are many ways to keep enemies in the staging area. The Lore version of Pippin allows you to raise the engagement cost of all enemies, and works even better paired with other Hobbit heroes. Hobbit and Ranger heroes will also help reduce the cost of Take No Notice for a similar effect. Mono-Lore decks gain access to Advance Warning, which is even more effective for this strategy. Ranger Spikes will keep enemies in the staging area and reduce their threat, a fantastic combination of effects and a welcome boost for Faramir. For a more temporary solution, Fresh Tracks or Saruman can be used to avoid an enemy for one round. Expecting Mischief can kill a weaker enemy, if you time it right. Lore’s many scrying effects will help with this.
Cards like Spirit Pippin, A Light in the Dark, or Ithilien Archer are also useful for this strategy, though they are less ideal from a control standpoint. Because you have to first engage and enemy before you can use any of these effects, they provide no protection from all of the negative engagement effects. Still, in a pinch, any means for avoiding combat is welcome in a control deck.
The other side of handling encounter cards in the staging area is location control. It is no coincidence that the two most powerful cards for location control come from the Lore and Spirit spheres. These spheres include the most non-combat options for control decks. Asfaloth is an incredibly efficient card, even if you don’t attach to it Glorfindel. Being able to add progress to a chosen location without having to travel there is so powerful, in fact, that many newer locations are immune to player card effects.
Northern Tracker is the other obvious choice for location control, and has the added benefit of solid attack and defense in a sphere that normally struggles with combat. In scenarios with a high ratio of locations, or locations with particularly negative travel effects, even one copy of Northern Tracker can make all the difference. Multiple copies of Spirit’s most famous rangers can often entirely remove locations as a barrier to victory.
Other cards that compliment location control included two artifacts originally held by Thorin’s famous grandsire. Thror’s Map and Key both help manage locations, each in slightly different ways. Nightmare scenarios have introduced locations with some truly horrific passive card text. Being able to blank the text of these dangerous locales makes Thror’s Key an underrated asset.
On the other hand, the game has always included locations with unpleasant travel effects. After errata, the Map no longer allows you to avoid the threat of a newly revealed location, but you can still use it make a location active without paying the travel cost. Spirit allies like West Road Travel and The Riddermark’s Finest also help in this regard.
Assuming their are enemies in play, Legolas can also help add progress, but only when there is an active location. Last but not least, the lowly Snowbourn Scout can come in handy to provide that one missing progress needed to explore a location. However you do it, being able to freely explore and travel between locations without suffering negative passive or travel effects, is essential for control.
It all well and good to talk about keeping your threat low and handling enemies and locations in the staging area, but this comes with its own problem: threat. Many of the enemies that you will most want to avoid engaging also happen to have the highest threat. Having high-willpower characters to help with questing is one obvious solution, but there are other cards that can help.
As mentioned above, Ranger Spikes is an incredible card because it solves the problem of engagement and the problem of staging area threat at the same time. Unfortunately, there aren’t other cards with this kind of versatility, but you there are plenty of options for dealing with staging area threat. Ithilien Tracker is great, and repeatable. The ally version of Bombur and Power of the Earth are lesser solutions for locations, but their limited effectiveness means they rarely make the cut. Radagast’s Cunning and Secret Paths are the original single-use solutions to staging area threat and become more useful with each new scenario.
There are a handful of seldom-used cards that can also help with threat mitigation, though they tend to be very niche. Strider’s Path is a great way to get a location out of the staging area, but it has to be used immediately after a location is revealed. Likewise, Thror’s Map can make any location active, but after errata it can only be used to avoid travel effects. Ever Onward is a rather powerful card that allows you to ignore threat gain for one round, but it doesn’t fit well in a control deck. Because a control deck wants to take its time, you cannot afford to ever under-quest by much. Ever Onward might save you one round, but what will you do about the subsequent round, or the one after that?
The last way to handle threat is more of a reactive measure, rather than preventative. Spirit, and to a lesser extent Lore, include means for lowering one’s threat. In this way engagement can be avoided, and threat gain for unsuccessful questing can even be offset. The two best example of this are The Galadhrim’s Greeting and Elrond’s Counsel. Either of these cards are quite powerful on their own, and used together than can allow a deck to maintain a very low threat.
The Lore version of Aragorn includes an even more powerful effect, but it is limited to once per game during the refresh phase, so it is a bit less versatile. Lore also includes Needful to Know, but this card is not a consistent form of threat reduction. In general, control decks want to avoid cards which require combinations in order to be useful – this kind of card disadvantage weakens to the leverage that you are trying to build.
The reason why combat control is listed last, is because it is often the least efficient or desirable of the forms of control. Allowing an enemy to engage not only means dealing with any unwanted engagement effects, but it also open the potential for enemy attacks, shadow cards, and other unfortunate surprises. Ideally, a control deck wants to deal with cards in the staging area, where they pose the least hard to your heroes, and can be dealt with in a low-risk fashion. This is not always possible however, whether due to an enemy’s low engagement cost or the need to pull some threat out of the staging area.
Fortunately, when enemy engagement does become necessary, there are a host of solutions at your disposal. Appropriately, Tactics in particular excels at dealing with engaged enemies. Low hit point enemies can be killed immediately after a defender is declared, thanks to cards like Gondorian Spearman, Spear of the Citadel and Swift Strike. If these effects manage to kill an enemy immediately, the attack and shadow effect are canceled, which is the ultimate goal.
Even better, an enemy can be killed before they ever attack using cards like Goblin-Cleaver, Rain of Arrows or Quick Strike. Allies such as Farmer Maggot and Knight of Minas Tirith can also help in dealing with engaged enemies. Super defenders such as Beregond and Defender of Rammas are quite adept at dealing with enemy attacks, but this does not constitute control; it is merely a way to delay the danger. More than anything, a control deck wants to deal with engaged enemies quickly. The longer an enemy stays engaged, the more actions you will lose to defending and attacking it, and the more likely that a troublesome shadow card is revealed.
Even worse, waiting too long to kill an engaged enemy can mean the other low engagement enemies join their comrade, and the control player finds themselves outnumbered. Because the actions lost to combat are the biggest concern for a control deck, cards like Feint, Thicket of Spears, Out of Sight and Hobbit Sense are ideal for a control deck. Hobbits also have access to Small Target, but this card is ill-suited for a control deck, as it takes too many other cards in order to use consistently.
Other spheres do provided their own options for combat control, Spirit in particular. The secrecy event O Elbereth! Gilthonial! can be quite effective at removing an enemy, but you have to wait until after that enemy attacks so there is still some risk. Hasty Stroke does remove one major risk associated with an attacking enemy by canceling a shadow effect, but again, this is the sort of half-measure that a control deck wants to avoid.
Lore has more passive solutions for enemy attacks. Defense can be boosted with cards like Protector of Lorien. Shadow effects against a chosen defender can be canceled with the excellent A Burning Brand attachment, though again this is not a solution in and of itself.
Lastly, damage from attacks can be healed in a myriad of ways, including Warden of Healing, Daughter of the Nimrodel and Self-Preservation. Still, these kinds of solutions count more as survival than they represent any kind of control of the situation. Ultimately, a control deck wants to deal with each problem that the encounter deck presents in the least risky way possible.