All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called “guessing what was at the other side of the hill.”
–Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
One of the fascinating – and to some most enjoyable – things about a game that evolves is to see the way that new cards change old scenarios. Low-threat heroes like Spirit Glorfindel made quests like Conflict at the Carrock (still a personal favorite) much less intimidating, because they gave players the time to really prepare a solution to the troublesome trolls. As the game has grown, scenarios have gained nuance and dimensionality; the solutions are not so simple. For example, it is no longer sufficient to simply include a new hero or swap some old player cards for their latest, shinier, editions. What is needed is a real shift in thinking, away from the antiquated modes of thought and towards a new way of solving existing problems
New strategies do not spring Athena-like, fully formed from our heads and ready to fight. We must evolve these new ways of playing. Old cards can be used in new ways. Lessons can be taken from past experiences to make decks which are better prepared from the particular challenges of a quest. New cards, which can at first seem weak or overly situational, must be examined objectively and embraced.
Just as the Wellington quote above says so eloquently: it is important that we use what we know to help us learn about what we don’t know. We must be humble to the fact that some scenarios are so challenging when we first play them, and use that humility to learn about our enemy. Let there be no dissembling, the encounter deck is our enemy, and in order to beat the most difficult scenarios in the game we must use every weapon at our disposal to pummel it into submission.
Ever since Heirs of Númenor was released, Into Ithilien has been the source of some controversy. The first article that I wrote on this blog was about this meddlesome scenario, and my first thoughts on a strategy for surviving it. Suffice it to say, the last year and a half has brought many changes, not only to the card pool but the high-level metagame strategies. Against the Shadow has, if nothing else, proven that the seismic shifts brought in Heirs of Númenor were no fluke. Just looking at the first two Adventure Packs of the Ring-maker cycle we can see more evidence of this. Scenarios are only going to continue to test our deck-building and in-game strategy skills.
In the time since its release, Into Ithilien has become one of my favorite scenarios. That a past version of me would have found this last sentence ludicrous is a testament to the evolution of the game, and my own progression as a player. Certainly, the errata of Blocking Wargs helped to mellow its sting just a bit. Regardless, this scenario remains a serious challenge and is still considered one of the most difficult standard scenarios. Even with the latest cards and strategies, the encounter deck for this scenario can seem almost cruel in its severity.
Until more recently, I had held to the notion of having one or two solid all-around decks, which I would use for most scenarios. If Against the Shadow puts cracks in the foundation of this idea, The Voice of Isengard and Ring-maker cycle have been a pile of dynamite. The idea that single deck, even with a “sideboard” of cards to swap out, can handle every scenario in the game is increasingly becoming a myth. The simple fact is that modern quests are too varied in their approach, and two divergent in their requirements to be easily answered with a single deck.
This realization is a constant frustration for that small but vocal group of players that enjoy that game but do not enjoy the process of building new decks. While I share my co-host Matthew’s incredulous bafflement at the though of playing a Living Card Game when you don’t like to deck build, the issue remains. With such a vibrant community around the game, there is an alternative for those that want to enjoy the theme and strategic challenge of playing, without going through the process of building a deck: use a deck built by someone else.
With that in mind, I encourage those that want an excellent deck for Into Ithilien to try this build. I have evolved it over dozens of plays, and when played carefully it will net a very favorable win ratio against this daunting quest. While I have only played it solo, I have no doubt that it will perform admirably against this scenario in multi-player games, as well. Without further preamble, let’s get into what makes this deck work.
One of the first things that comes to the eye, when looking over the deck list below, is the disproportionate ratio of allies to attachments and event. Almost half of this deck is allies. Most of these allies cost 1 or 2 resources. It is no coincidence that this deck skews the 24/13/13 ratio that can be found in a vast majority of my decks.
With only 9 attachments – a full play set of 3 different cards – this deck runs very light on attachments. On the other hand, all of the 12 events cost either 1 resource or are absolutely free. This is yet another example of aggressive strategy that has been showing up in some of my other recent decks. Of all the scenarios in the game, Into Ithilien is one of the most relentless and unforgiving, so more than anything we need a deck that is ready from the first round.
It should come as no surprise that this deck features Tactics Boromir. Of all the heroes to bring to a scenario that features Battle and Siege quest stages, Boromir is one of the best. The fact that he can always be counted on to commit significant stats to the quest and still help out with combat duties, makes the first son of Denethor the heart and soul of this deck.
Boromir will not be going through Into Ithilien alone, with him will be one of the unheralded heroes from the Core Set: Thalin. Not only is his ability essential for mitigating one of the more obnoxious enemies in the scenario, but his well-rounded stats mean that he will be a worthwhile contribution to the quest, not matter what the stage is. Don’t underestimate Thalin’s nullifying the bats. In a scenario with so many nasty cards, having 3 cards in the encounter deck that now do absolutely nothing is a huge win for us.
The last of our heroes should come as no surprise. Spirit Glorfindel is the most efficient way to gain access to treachery and surge cancellation effects. His stats are amazing in both the first and third stages of this quest, and with Light of Valinor he can join Boromir in combat after he has contributing in the earlier rounds. Still, the number one reason why our third hero must be Spirit is to protect ourselves from the truly awful assortment of effects that the encounter deck brings to bear.
While many of the ally choices are pretty straightforward, there are two particular characters that I want to highlight here. Ian has a great spoiler of the Minas Tirith Lampwright over at Tales from the Cards. While his review of the card was more balanced, it is fair to say that many have found this ally to be underwhelming. From what I can see, he does not seem to appear in many deck lists and he is not spoken of by many as being a solution card. I have been using him more lately, and I can personally vouch that this card is actually very useful.
Blocking Wargs and Watcher in the Wood, two of the most troublesome cards in this scenario, both feature some form of surge. Watcher in the Wood technically does not surge in the final quest stage if your threat is below 37, but you will very seldom find yourself in that situation, so the point is only of interest to the most trollishly pedantic. The point is this, Into Ithilien is bad enough only revealing one encounter card per player per round, surge is something to be avoided at all costs. A Test of Will and Eleanor provide no protection from surge, and something like Denethor would be far to passive a solution to be viable in this scenario.
What we need is a cheap, easily expendable ally that we can use to mitigate the risk of surge. The biggest criticism of the Lampwright is that you have to guess the surging card in order to cancel it. I’m going to let you all in on a secret. The locations are not going to be the things that kill you in this scenario. In fact, once we clear the Ithilien Road on the first round, we can pretty much be grateful whenever locations are revealed from the encounter deck. Under no circumstances have I ever discarded the Minas Tirith Lampwright and named location.
This leaves enemies and treacheries. With Boromir and his army of eagle allies, enemies are very seldom going to pose a problem for this deck. The only enemy in the entire encounter deck that this build has any trouble killing is a single copy of the mighty Mûmak. With its engagement cost at 38, and our starting threat at 25, our goal will be to never engage that terrifying beast. Even i f we need to optionally engage the Oliphaunt, it will be before we quest out to win the game on the final stage. The only truly obnoxious enemy in this scenario ends up being the Morgul Spider, simply because of its nasty When Revealed effect and low engagement cost.
To make a long story short: you should almost always choose Treachery when you discard the Minas Tirith Lampwright to cancel a surge effect. I could not tell you the number of times I’ve cancelled a surge into Southron Support or Watcher in the Woods and been grateful to have a poorly animated, lamp-lighting, friend along for the journey. What to do with him on the fortunate trips through Ithilien that don’t involve any surge?
The answer to that quest is staring us right in the face. His stats are only useful for siege, and that barely a factor, so do not hesitate to offer up Lampwright pie as a main course to any one of the deadly foes in this scenario. The aforementioned spider is a great example of this strategy. In a battler quest where we want to hold back defenders, the spider easily be swinging for 7 or 8 attack. There is absolutely no reason to put Boromir in front of that attack, even if we have Support of the Eagles ready. A much safer option is to let the Lampwright take one for the team, and save our threat, and Boromir action, for a better opportunity.
Chump blocking is not without its Risks in Into Ithilien. Blocking Wargs can be every bit as bad as a shadow card as it is when revealed from the encounter deck. It would spell disaster to have this shadow effect remove the Lampwright as our defender against one of the many powerful enemies, we cannot afford to lose a hero in this scenario. This is where the Lampwright’s trait proves useful. Gondorian Discipline, another consistently underrated card from Against the Shadow cycle, comes to rescue. There are only 3 copies of Blocking Wargs in the encounter deck, so odds are pretty good that it won’t be a shadow card when we choose to chump block, but just in case Gondorian Discipline makes the perfect insurance policy.
If the shadow effect is one of the many that boosts the attack still further, we can heave a sigh of relief as our Lampwright is torn to shreds by a vicious band of Haradrim. Otherwise, we will be glad that we had a contingency plan. Gondorian Discipline is not just for chump blocking, it can also help if we need to defend against a Southron Company before we have defensive cards like Gondorian Shield of Support of the Eagles attached. In a pinch, it can even soak archery damage if we don’t want to risk putting our heroes too close to death. The fact that it is a response, and costs nothing, makes this card amazingly versatile, particularly when Boromir is going to be doing most of the heavy lifting.
In a recent article, I spent quite a bit of time singing the praises of the Westfold Outrider. I won’t bore everyone by repeating it all here, but everything that I said about this great cards applies for Into Ithilien. Along with the Lampwright and the Gondorian Discipline tricks, this card is one of the changes in strategy that allows this deck to be so successful against this quest.
Going back to my first article, it has always made the most sense to me to try to rush through the first stage with Celador alive. There are simply too many things that can go wrong with waiting. Southron Support, Blocking Wargs and Watcher in the Wood are all a constant threat to wipe you out. Wait too long and even death by Mûmak becomes a very real possibility. To top it all off, the built-in archery in stage 2 is a very immediate problem for any deck that does not include healing effects.
In general, aggressive questing is a solid strategy for many scenarios, and Into Ithilien is no exception. However, arriving at stage 3 without enough help can be a deadly mistake. Because engagement checks are no longer made, enemies can pile up in the staging area and make progress impossible. The locations in this quest tend to have a lot of quest points, so that will bog us down as well. Still, the risk of location lock is great, so we should almost always travel when given the option. There is nothing more hopeless that watching the staging area fill with threat and knowing that the game will end before we even make it to the final stage.
Even if we do manage to escape stage 3, if we spend too many rounds there it will make little difference. It is a rather unpleasant experience engaging 4 enemies at once in the final stage after they all piled up in the staging area. Even with the support of his eagle friends, Boromir is not actually invincible.
The best approach is to arrive at stage 3 with sufficient willpower that we can clear it in about 2 rounds. This is where the Outrider, along with Silvan Refugees, form an essential part of this deck’s strategy. It might at first seem odd to include an ally that is discarded after another ally leaves play. True, this can be an incredibly devastating effect when combined with the forced effect on Celador.
This is why we will never play the Silvan Refugee in the first stage of this quest. The refugee is included in this deck for one and only one reason: making a mad dash through stage 3. Nothing in this scenario punishes us for holding cards in our hand. So if we draw a Refugee early in the game, great, we can hold onto it until we actually need it.
The 3rd stage then presents us with two viable strategies. We either try to keep every ally in play and power through, or we use Westfold Outriders and direct damage from Gandalf to remove enemies from the staging area and make it easier for our heroes and other questing allies. While we obviously can’t use both strategies at the same time, there is no reason why we can’t switch from one strategy to the other, half way through the stage.
A good example of this happened in a recent game. With no Test of Will in hand, but two Silvan Refugees in play, I took the risk and committed them both to the quest. As it turned out, luck was not in my favor, and Blocking Wargs killed both Refugees, which in turned proved the death of Celador. With 6 willpower lost, one might think that my chances of victory had died with them, but this deck is a bit more resilient than that.
Arwen, Eagles of the Misty Mountains and each of my heroes still survived. Since I no longer had to worry about things leaving play, I discarded a Minas Tirith Lampwright and named treachery. The Watcher in the Woods that was revealed next would have raised my threat by 5, but instead was cancelled. Being able to use a 1 cost ally as another copy of A Test of Will is pretty amazing, if you ask me.
In any case, on the next round I spent 7 resources for a Westfold Outrider and a Gandalf, which killed the only enemy in play, a Southron Company with 1 damage from Thalin. Granted, this only removed 1 threat from the staging area, but in a scenario this demanding, ever little advantage helps. After questing with all of my heroes, Arwen, Eagles of the Misty Mountain and Gandalf, a Southron Mercenaries was revealed. Before resolving the quest, I discarded the Outrider to immediately engage the mercenaries.
This left no threat in the staging area and allowed me to complete stage 3. Gandalf took the archery damage and Boromir readied to defend the attack with his Gondorian Shield. Lastly, Boromir and a Vassal of the Windlord were able to finish off the pesky archer so that I was ready to power through the final stage. The Vassal leaving play after its attack was no longer a problem, as I had now switched completely to the “discard a will” strategy. With all four copies of Blocking Wargs in the discard pile, I could safely quest on the final stage knowing that the only card to beat me would be the last copy of Watcher in the Wood.
After all that, there was still one card in the encounter deck that could defeat me if I did not quest carefully. This is a testament to just how tense and thrilling an experience it is to survive a trek Into Ithilien. Feel free to leave your own war stories in the comments, and I hope that this deck inspires players to go back and look at this scenario with a fresh perspective. Good luck, making it out of Ithilien!
Vassal of the Windlord (TDM) x3
Minas Tirith Lampwright (EaAD) x3
Silvan Refugee (TSF) x3
Envoy of Pelargir (HoN) x2
Defender of Rammas (HoN) x3
Westfold Outrider (VoI) x3
Winged Guardian (THfG) x3
Arwen Undomiel (TWitW) x3
Eagles of the Misty Mountains (RtM) x3
Gandalf (Core) x3