The latest FAQ is hot off the presses, so it seems like a good time to take a step back and take stock of the meta-game. The Ring-maker cycle has just completed, and players are eagerly anticipating the release of the Lost Realm deluxe expansion and the next installment in the ongoing narrative of the Saga expansions. The general consensus is that the game is improving with each release, and this is certainly an opinion which I share. Still, with familiarity and love for this game comes a desire to see it become the best possible version of itself.
The most recent cycles and saga expansions have given us some great player cards. As cycles go, Against the Shadow might not have had the strongest heroes, but it bestowed a wealth of important cards, including Visionary Leadership, Gondorian Shield, Pelargir Shipwright and Mithrandir’s Advice. Even the mono-sphere cards, which might seem like a missed opportunity now, will only become more powerful as the pool of available heroes grows. Ever card does not need to be a game-changer for the metagame to shift; support cards play important roles too.
By contrast, the Ring-maker cycle gave us fantastic heroes like Celeborn, Mablung, Galadriel and Haldir. The deluxe expansions themselves bolstered Gondor and Rohan respectively, with Beregond and Éomer opening up new dimensions for Tactics decks. The saga expansions introduced Hobbit decks and one of the most powerful characters in the game in the hero version of Gandalf. These brief highlights don’t even begin to cover all of the other player cards in these expansions. All told, the player card pool has not only increased significantly in quantity, but quality as well.
Celeborn is a good example of a change in the design of recent heroes. Powerful, but not overly so, he forms the core of a new archetype, but not in a one-dimension way. Whereas the bonus from Dáin leads to Dwarf decks that play in a very straight-forward manner, Silvan decks involve a lot more decisions. When to play which ally, when to return a Silvan, and which one to return are all up for grabs. It even makes a big difference which event card you use to return a Silvan and the all-important moment when you stop the holding pattern and make a concerted push for victory.
All of these decisions are present in a Silvan deck, because of the various effects that form the core of this strategy. This is not to say that Dwarf decks don’t involve choices – every deck involves many decisions. However, the nature of “enters play” and “leaves play” effects is that they involve a great variety of decisions, and lead to decks with flexibility but less brute strength. This represents an interesting change in the style of archetypes in the game. Where a competitive card game might ban or restrict a card like Dáin, this game has wisely give him a more subtle but effective punishment – it has made him boring.
Many of the new heroes in the recent sets lead to these kinds of more nuanced strategies. Like the Silvan archetype, decks that feature Éomer and Prince Imrahil play with less traditional rhythm. Rather than try to get as many allies into play as quickly as possible, these decks tend to stay at a fairly constant number of characters. There aim is less about using an army to overwhelm the enemy, and more about taking advantage of heroes with powerful abilities and attachments. While this might at first seem to be a strictly inferior strategy, quests like The Dunland Trap underscore how a deck designed to utilize fewer characters and more response triggers can have tangible advantages.
If tempo decks aren’t your preference, the new cycles have provided plenty of support for Aggro decks as well. Mablung is an interesting example of a theme that we should see more of in the upcoming Lost Realm expansion: engagement-related effects. Not only is resource acceleration a great benefit for the cash-strapped Tactics sphere, but this ability fits in perfectly with other Aggro-style cards like Westfold Outrider and The Hammer-stroke. His Gondor trait is also quite useful as it allows him to use attachments like Gondorian Shield and Gondorian Fire – the latter a particularly good fit.
Ents and Dunedain look to bring their own unique twists on strategy. The nice thing about having a sizable card pool is that we have a decent number of Dúnedain cards already, so it should not too many more cards before a new archetype emerges for this trait. Tactics Aragorn in particular should be at the heart of some very interesting Aggro-style decks. Ents are still in a nascent form, with Treebeard having just been released, but they are already powerful, while still presenting unique challenges to deck-building. These are all signs of a growing and healthy metagame, and speak well for the future of the game as a whole.
A Growing card pool allows for decks which are both thematic and powerful. In the past, these two attributes tended to be mutually exclusive for all but a few powerful traits. With both branches growing in parallel, saga cards and cycle cards are combining to provide an interesting mix of cards. Archetypes like Hobbits and Gandalf decks obviously did not exist before, but there have also been more subtle shifts in the metagame. Cards like Dagger of Westernesse, Elf-stone and ally versions of Boromir and Galadriel can fit into many different kinds of decks, for example.
Another advantage of all of this diversity is that we can finally ween ourselves off of Dain, Glorfindel, Elrond, and other power cards. This is not to say that these are bad, but an over-reliance on any set of cards leads to an anemic metagame. Variety is important for keeping the game fresh and challenging. What’s more, these heroes can also been included in decks in which they are not necessarily the sole focus, but play more supporting roles.
We have also seen old traits and embryonic archetypes given new life. As of the Dwarrowdelf cycle, Rohan had the first glimmer of a Tactics deck. Certainly, Háma represented an eponymous archetype ever since The Long Dark. Thanks to Éomer, Firefoot, Rohan Warhorse and the fantastic Westfold Outrider (one of my personal favorite cards), Tactics Rohan is more than just a one trick pony.
As mentioned above, Celeborn and Galadriel bring new relevance to previously overlooked cards like Daughter of the Nimrodel and Silverlode Archer. Despite the disappointment that some may have felt after the Agaist the Shadow cycle, Gondor continues to see incremental improvement thanks to heroes like Mablung and interesting cards like Ithilien Lookout and Herald of Anórien. Even the seemingly forgotten Eagle decks received a lordly boon in the form of Gwaihir.
The latest errata is ultimately a good thing as well. When a card ends up being used in a way that is completely contrary to its original design, it can warp the metagame. Blue Mountain Trader is the perfect example of this. The card is useful in a multi-player game, and any piece of cardboard with the Dwarf trait is useful in some capacity. But the designer’s clearly never intended for this card to provide unlimited resource smoothing. This has been clarified, to the betterment of the game.
In a somewhat more controversial move, Will of the West is now removed from the game after it is played. I just want to say that I completely agree with this decision. The game does not need infinite combo decks. Some players on the forums have complained that this will prevent them for cycling their decks multiple times per game. The fact that this is even possible is a symptom of the fact that card drawing is somewhat out of control at this point.
Regardless, this errata does not prevent a player from getting their discard pile back after drawing half of their deck. It simply means that it is no longer possible to recycle your deck indefinitely. In a solo game, players are obviously welcome to play however they want and even ignore the errata, if they so choose. From the perspective of someone who plays primarily multi-player games now, I cannot think of many things less exciting than watching another player cycle through their deck a dozen times in a single game. To me, that is is opposite of fun. To put it another way, my play style is decidedly aggressive, so a game should be over with a dozen rounds at most. The fact that you have the time to use the same copy of Will of the West multiple times in a game is a sign that something has gone terribly wrong.
The Ring-maker cycle had some great quests. The Dunland Trap and the Three Trials have become personal favorites and I look forward to revisiting them with different decks in the future. Even the easy quest of the bunch, Trouble in Tharbad can be fun as a testing ground for more thematic or experimental decks. That said, I feel like the time mechanic has been hit or miss in this cycle. Sometimes it works really well a creating a sense of urgency and serving as a deterrent to past tendencies of decks to “turtle” while they setup for later stages (Conflict at the Carrock is a great example of a quest that can be ruined by the turtle strategy).
However, there were times for me playing this cycle when time, along with many of the other forced effects and passive abilities on encounter cards just felt mechanical. As this point, the pedantic reader might be tempted to reply that every effect in the game is mechanical – that is, after all, why they call them “game mechanics”. While true, this misses the larger point. At its best, what makes this game so great to me is that the game mechanics fall into the background, to the point where I don’t even notice them. Between the theme, the narrative aspects and the strategy of successfully overcome adversity, the game can be as engrossing as anything I have ever played.
Every game has rules, and as a game of deep strategy this game has a rather large and complex set of them. Still, when the Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is at its best the mechanics don’t feel like mechanics, they feel like part of the story. This is not easy to accomplish, and players of this game who might be new to card and board games in general might not even realize how good they have it. Sad to say, there are a lot of bad games out there.
Lazy design, amateur artwork, non-existent playtesting, broken rules and whorish money grabs (I’m looking at you, almost ever movie-tie-in game ever created) can all lead to a poorly executed game of limited entertainment and no replay value. The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is a great game, precisely because it has avoided all of these traps that so many game fall into. However, because it is so good it gets held to a higher standard. Most quests do an excellent job of representing an adventure through Middle-earth, accompanied by your brave companions, on a perilous quest, to overcome the forces of Sauron. However, this excellence means that when a quest falls short, when the gears of the machine poke through, it is more noticeable in contrast to its superior counterparts.
The enemy of elegance is complexity. At its best, there is a pristine elegance to the Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. Characters have three primary stats, which are used in three primary aspects of the game. The decisions that you make are all spokes on a wheel which revolves around these aspects. I think that the time keyword can be elegant, and when it is I appreciate it just like all of the other elegant features of this fine game. As my art teacher used to say, some techniques are best used sparingly, lest they overwhelm a piece. In my opinion, time, and any of these more maintenance-intensive effects need to be added to encounter cards very carefully, or they risk marring the beauty of a scenario and overwhelming other elements.
As much as it is nice to have a large card pool from which to build decks, there are downsides. One disadvantage is that it can be intimidating for new players. It also becomes increasingly difficult to ensure that cards are balanced, because of the sheer number of potential combinations with earlier cards. To be clear, this is not a criticism of the game, rather an observation of the inevitable consequences of a game growing and maturing. In other words, this is a good problem to have because it means that the game has lived long enough and grown large enough to have “big game” issues. It is worth pointing out these issues nonetheless, as there are steps that can be taken to help mitigate many of them.
FFG has adopted a new format for rules books in their recent games. This is a very welcome decision from my perspective. As someone who owns quite a few FFG games, I have always felt that the rule books were one of their games few weak points. In that regard, the rule books for their latest LCG Warhammer 40K: Conquest are a revelation. One rule book serves as a “getting started” guide, which allows you to start playing the game immediately, and slowly introduces concepts rather than trying to inundate you with new concepts and rules all at once. The other rule book is an appendix of rules and keywords which serves as the definitive reference for more experienced players to ensure that they are playing the game correctly down to the smallest detail. You start with the one rule book to get your feet wet, then as you become more familiar with the game you only really need the second rule book as a reference for specific rules questions.
The decision to have two rules books was an excellent decision, and I applaud FFG for realizing that they could improve the “out of the box” experience of their products. Now I only hope that they release a version of the Core Set with this new style of rule books. It would also be the perfect opportunity to provide easy mode rules with the game. As it stands, new players will often end up at one forum or other asking a series of (mostly the same) questions, and hoping desperately for assistance. Fortunately we have a warm and helpful community so these new players are in good hands and will quickly find answers to their questions. Resources like Ian’s New Player Buying Guide are an essential part of introducing new players to the game.
However, something as fundamental as Easy Mode is the kind of thing that should be presented in the rule book of the Core Set, so that the community does not have to point them to a PDF buried in the bowels of the FFG site. While I have long since abandoned my pipe dream of an improved Core Set, I think that having improved rule books is a very reasonable expectation. As an experienced player who has links to all of the rules sheets and FAQs this is not something that I want for me, it is for the benefit of the new players the come to this game and find themselves a bit overwhelmed.
As much as I appreciate the latest errata, it brings attention to a simple fact. There is too much errata for this game. The latest FAQ is 17 pages long. While not all of those pages represent changes to existing cards, this represents a burden of knowledge that new players must carry if they want to play the game correctly. It is unfortunate whenever a card does not play according to its printed text, but as the game grows this problem grows with it. Fortunately, the newer printings of the game are starting to include previous errata, along with the gold rings used for easy mode.
Still the longer a game lives, the further the actual metagame moves from the product itself. Some of the errata is so specific that it stops being entirely intuitive (e.g. gaining, adding and moving resources). It is becoming very difficult, especially with a large number of new players, for people to even keep track of which cards work differently than what is printed on the card. No doubt this was at least part of the impetus for the decision to stop A Game of Thrones LCG and reboot it with a second edition.
To be clear, I am not advocating something so radical as a reboot for this game. A Game of Thrones LCG, and the CCG that preceded it, has been around a lot longer than The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. Because the encounter cards make up at least half of each release, the player card pool for this game grows at a much slower rate. Still, a large body of erratum can certainly be an impediment to new players, and is something to keep an eye on. It be time to think about taking steps to clean up some of the game’s edge cases.
Lest anyone mistake my criticisms above as pessimism, the future of the game is as bright as ever. Deluxe Expansions and Cycles are running at full speed, with anticipation for both The Treason of Saruman and The Lost Realm approaching a fever pitch. Nightmare decks are steadily catching up to the latest content, and we now have Fellowship Event decks joining the GenCon quests as objects of expert-players’ desire.
The larger card pool means that player decks are as creative and innovate as we’ve ever seen. Rather than power creep with ever more game-breaking heroes, we have instead a plethora of options to facilitate vastly different archetypes and strategies. With a greater focus on narrative and the ongoing evolution of campaign mode, the game has even evolved beyond its episodic origins. There is no doubt that the game is in good hands with Caleb and Matt and a I look forward to an exciting 2015!
As always, these are one humble bear’s opinions, and I invite everyone to share their thoughts, rebuttals, questions and concerns in the comments below.