Idraen represents an interesting shift in the game, on several levels. At 11 threat cost, she is a total outlier within the Spirit sphere. Her excellent and well-rounded stats, built-in readying ability, and supporting attachments all have helped to create a new and powerful archetype. But this archetype is not one seen before in the Spirit sphere: Aggro. As their name implies, Aggro decks are about straight-forward aggression. A Hobbit deck might hide from enemies until it is ready to spring a trap. A Dwarf deck will steadily build up an army to overwhelm the enemy with [numerical superiority]. Even tempo decks like the recent Rohan/Gondor are not looking to defend an enemy directly, but instead use tricks and the timely sacrifice of lesser troops to accomplish their goal.
Aggro decks, in contrast, take the direct approach by loading up powerful heroes with powerful attachments, supporting them with focused events and relying on them to achieve victory. This is not to say that Aggro decks cannot include powerful allies – and many of them do – but heroes are always the focus of an Aggro deck. The reasoning for this is simple, if you are going to include high-threat heroes in a deck, it makes sense to focus much of your deck’s strategy around them, otherwise it makes little sense to include them in the first place. The following is a list of five cards that are well-suited to Aggro decks, with a discussion of how they fit into these archetypes.
Readying effects are important for any type of deck. Control decks will often utilize Unexpected Courage to have repeatable readying. However there is a drawback to even this seemingly “must-include” card. Two Spirit resources can be expensive, especially for decks that might only have 1 Spirit hero and will want to save those precious resources for cancellation effects. An Aggro deck wants to be effective from the very first round of the game. Having to wait two rounds for that all-important readying effect can be dangerous for a deck with higher starting threat.
Such decks need an immediate action advantage. Whether it is through heroes like Aragorn (Core), Prince Imrahil, Idraen, and Boromir (Tactics), or attachments like Cram, Lembas, Rohan Warhorse and Miruvor, an aggressive deck takes particular benefit from readying effects. This is one of the major advantages of having high-threat heroes. When these powerful characters can act multiple times in a round, it allows your deck to handle the larger enemies that will inevitably be engaging earlier than they would against more conservative strategies.
There is a certain thrill in the risk-taking involved with these decks. By including high-threat heroes, you will face tougher enemies more quickly. Because you are closer to 50 threat and game loss, you can’t afford to take our time and wait until we have the perfect combination setup. Aggressive decks are less about combinations, per se, and more about taking advantage of powerful characters in ways that can be consistently repeated. With readying effects, most heroes will be committing to the quest, because you are secure in the knowledge that they can be used later in the round if necessary. This is what makes Cram so useful – it acts like an insurance policy in case a hero is unexpectedly exhausted and you find yourself vulnerable.
One last consideration when it comes to the value of Cram is the sphere that it belongs two. With Miruvor and Unexpected Courage, Spirit has some of the best readying effects in the game. However, Aggro decks are not always going to want to include Spirit. This is especially true in multiplayer, where other players can use Spirit and fulfill the support role. Just like a giant bear, Aggro decks just want to kill things and leave the sneaking, and talking, and even thinking, to the other archetypes.
In the last year, the game has taken a decidedly aggressive turn. This is a nice change of pace from the control decks that dominated The Dwarrowdelf, due largely to the gravity well of Spirit Glorfindel. The Spirit Noldor was, and still is, such a powerful card that his influence has rippled throughout the metagame. I look forward to a low-threat (but not too low) Spirit alternative to Glorfindel to bring some variety back to deck-building. With hero Gandalf measuring in at an almost reckless 14 threat, Glorfindel looks to retain his popularity for some time to come.
Still, with some amazing hero options in other spheres, it is no longer entirely necessary for decks with two champions to automatically include Glorfindel as their third hero. This is a good thing, and it opens up some interesting avenues in Tactics in particular. Now that finally have a decent number of weapons, it is much easier to turn a Tactics hero into a force on the attack. Even non-Weapon attachments like Support of the Eagles, Gondorian Fire and Firefoot can help to transform the right hero into an enemy-killing machine.
The problem with spending multiple cards to transform a hero into an offensive weapon, is that you can still be vulnerable to enemy attacks. Some decks will solve this by also including weapons and defensive effects like healing or shadow cancellation. While dedicating most of a deck to weapon and armor can be effective, especially with support from other players, it is not always the optimal design from a deck. In other cases, it makes more sense to use offense as your greatest defense.
For example, in one build of my Rohan/Gondor “Leaves Play” deck I have completely replaced Feint for Quick Strike. Feint is such a Tactics staple that this decision might at first seem foolish. To be fair, for some scenarios I will sub Feint back in, but for the most part I have preferred Quick Strike to Feint. The reason is simple: with Eomer loaded up and ready to kill, it better to spend 1 card and 1 Tactics resource to kill an enemy that 1 card and 1 resource to avoid that enemy for a single attack. Killing an enemy not only means that you avoid that enemy’s attack this round, but every other attack it would have made in subsequent rounds.
Because my Rohan/Gondor deck starts at 30 threat, I can often find myself with enemies left over at the end of the round, so it is not a foregone conclusion that I will kill every engaged enemy. However, by using Quick Strike in combination with Rohan Warhorse, Eomer gets to attack multiple times. Quick Strike I will use to take out the most troublesome enemy that I can handle. Quick Strike provides all sorts of options for this deck. If there is an enemy that I can damage but not quite kill, I can use Quick Strike to kill a weaker enemy, then exhaust Firefoot to trample some extra damage onto the stronger enemy. With the Warhorse readying Eomer for a later attack against the stronger foe, it is often possible to kill two birds with a single Quick Strike (and the support cards).
There is one last advantage of Quick Strike over Feint, and it is an unexpected one. Because Feint prevents an enemy from attacking, it can prevent a chump blocker from defending and dying. This means that Eomer and Prince Imrahil do not have a trigger for their responses, and the whole combat strategy for the round can be thrown off track. As strange as it seems, for the Rohan/Gondor archetype you often want enemies attacking, because it fuels all of your responses. In this situations, a card like Quick Strike is preferable to Feint, as it provided a greater versatility.
Power of Orthanc
As player decks become more powerful, and more consistent, the designers are faced with a conundrum. In order for encounter decks to be interesting and provide the right level of challenge against powerful player decks, scenarios have to utilize more lasting effects to hinder the players’ efforts. By lasting effects, I am referring to encounter card effects which are not tied specifically to an enemy or location.
High threat locations can be explored (often in the staging area thanks to Asfaloth and Northern Tracker). Powerful enemies can be killed (and often avoided entirely with Feint, Feigned Voices and Quick Strike). On the other hand, treacheries that become Condition attachments can burden players for the entire game – if you’re unfortunate enough to reveal one during setup. While these cards are frustrating, they are necessary to provide the risk of a player losing the full use of one of their heroes. And this is often what condition attachments do: diminish a hero’s ability to impact the game, often in dramatic ways.
The Voice of Isengard and Ring-maker cycle have continued this trend. Now Condition attachments can even target the current quest card. In Need of Rest is a particularly nasty treachery from the Weary Travelers encounter set in The Voice of Isengard. Because it is a supplemental encounter set for that deluxe expansion, it shows up in other scenarios in the cycle, and may even show up in one of the last two adventure packs. With the time keyword on almost every quest card in this cycle, this card can be more than dangerous – it can be outright deadly.
This is where Power of Orthanc comes to the rescue. In a solo game, paying 2 threat to remove a crippling condition from a hero is almost always going to be worth the cost. Still, there could be times that a solo player with access to Lore would prefer to use Miner of the Iron Hills – it does after all provide an ally with additional utility. This is especially true in dedicated Dwarf decks, where anything with the Dwarf trait is a welcome addition.
It is in multiplayer where Power of Orthanc really shines. Many recent scenarios have a sizeable percentage of cards with Surge. In a three or four player game, this can easily mean 6 or more cards revealed in a round. It is not uncommon in these cases for there to be two Condition attachments in play, draining strength from multiple heroes or otherwise wrecking havoc. In these situations, Power of Orthanc is salvation for Aggro decks.
By their very design, Aggro decks are susceptible to Condition attachments. Because they feature powerful heroes with game-changing abilities, they are more reliant on having each of their heroes act each round. This is in stark contrast to other archetypes like Dwarves or Outlands, where the heroes serve to support and bolster an army of allies. For example: a condition that punishes you for exhausting Dain Ironfoot will have negligible impact on a dwarf deck. On the other hand, being punished every time you exhaust Tactics Boromir is an absolutely brutal limitation that needs to be dealt with immediately.
Designing for a living card game is not an easy task. As the card pool expands, players have more tools with which to break the game. The intent of a card is one thing, that way that the card is used by players in the actual game ends up being something else entirely. When the distance between these two points is too great, errata can be necessary to reign in a card. Such was the case with Thror’s Map.
In it’s original form, it completely broke the way that players interacted with locations. This was particularly egregious in solo play, where fewer cards are revealed each round, and automatically traveling to a new location each round is simply too powerful. While the intent was certainly to allow players to avoid the increasingly onerous travel costs on many locations, the idea was not for a repeatable form of Strider’s Path. The errata to this card was warranted, but as with many errata, it left Thror’s Map with a stigma.
While the revised version of Thror’s Key is certainly not an auto-include, this is a good thing. Too many “auto-includes” leads to a stale metagame and a lack of variety in decks. Though it might not be as powerful, this card can still be a staple in Aggro decks. The reason this card is particularly important for Aggro decks has to do with something that I call “traveling strategy”. Ideally, an Aggro deck will be engaging any enemies in the staging area, once they are prepared to defeat them. Engaging enemies not only removes their threat from the staging area, but it protects other players, whose decks might be less capable of dealing with certain attackers. For much the same reason, an Aggro deck prefers to travel to a location, whenever there is one available in the staging area. This removes threat from the staging and helps to prevent location lock later in the game. This aggressive “engage everything” strategy works well in combat-oriented Aggro decks, but the corollary “travel everywhere” strategy is much harder to accomplish. Travel effects are increasingly demanding and can be especially taxing for an Aggro deck when they involve exhausting or otherwise hindering heroes.
This is where Thror’s Map shows that it is still a very relevant card. It is no small thing for the Aggro deck to be free to travel to whatever location makes the most sense, regardless of the cost. In newer scenarios, many locations have game-changing passive effects, sometimes even providing a benefit to the players. As a drawback, these locations will often have a dreadful travel cost, something that Thror’s Map completely circumvents. Granted, many unique locations have “Immune to Player Card Effects” so this attachment won’t allow you to avoid the marquee locations in a scenario, but this would remove much of the challenge and spoil most of the fun.
As long as the game has existed, players have wondered if there would ever be a Gandalf hero card. While The Road Darkens finally put that debate to rest, it gave rise to a whole host of new questions. What does a Gandalf deck look like? How do you build a consistently successful deck around a hero with 14 starting threat – other than the obvious crutch of using Glorfindel? What kinds of strategies does a Gandalf-deck give rise to?
Time, and a few more supplemental player cards, will ultimately answer these questions. Still, even this early it is safe to make a few observations about the game’s first (but hopefully not only) Istari hero. Gandalf is probably the perfect hero for an Aggro strategy. With 14 starting threat, the idea of sneaking around unnoticed by the Dark Lord is more than a bit absurd. Gandalf is the most powerful hero in the game, so it is only fitting to feature him in decks designed around utilizing the power of your heroes.
Even if you did pair him with two lesser heroes, to provide a more manageable starting threat, he still begs to be loaded up with gear. His pipe and staff are both staples in any deck featuring Gandalf as a hero. With the recent spoiler of Shadowfax, we know that more support is on the way for everyone’s favorite Istari. An attachment-heavy strategy makes all kinds of sense with Gandalf, particularly with readying effects, as you want to take advantage of his impressive stats.
With Gandalf’s guidance, always knowing what is on the top of your deck also lends itself to interesting strategies. Whether it is resource generation through Zigil Miner and Hidden Cache, or insane amounts of card drawing through Expert Treasure-Hunter, Gandalf unlocks the tremendous potential of many existing cards. Flame of Anor provides yet another powerful tool for the wizard, and brings the advantage of also being a readying effect. Even absent these specific combinations, knowing the next card on your deck is great with card drawing effects because it lets you know whether you need the next card in your hand now – or you can wait until later.
There is one last way in which Gandalf is particularly well-suited to Aggro decks. Because Aggro decks want to get setup quickly, they will often feature a good number of 0 and 1-cost cards. As discussed above in relation to Cram, being able to play cards for free is very important for a deck that does not have the luxury of a few rounds to setup. Aggro decks can expect to be engaged immediately, and thus need to be prepared. A deck that utilized Gandalf along with a large number of inexpensive cards, particularly events, can make use of his ability multiple times in a round. Not only is this a form of card drawing effect, but it also greatly mitigates Gandalf’s lack of a true printed resource icon.