The metagame shifts and wriggles, just like a salmon winding its way up-river. Some cards increase in value, enhanced by an emergent archetype, or a particular theme in new quests. Other cards, however, are diminished by one or more trends in quests and encounter decks. With new cycles come new keywords, novel and increasingly devious means for the designers to foil the heroes’ plans to save Middle-earth.
When discussing shifts in the metagame, Toughness and Archery are two keywords that come to mind. More than another other high-level trends, these two keywords have had perhaps the biggest impact on the game. Toughness has seriously limited the power of the various direct damage effects in player cards. On the other side of the table, archery has put a real pressure on conservative or “turtle” decks that prefer to take their time and leave enemies in the staging area, waiting for the most opportune moment to attack.
Just as the encounter cards evolve to challenge players in different ways, so too have player cards progressed to better confront these new trials. While the Core Set included several Gondor and Rohan characters, neither of these factions manifested full-fledged archetypes until later in the games life. Even then, limitations in these archetypes seemed to continually push players to splash other, less thematic, choices into their decks. Marquee heroes for each of these archetypes, Théoden and Faramir to name two, along with a bevy of powerful unique allies and attachments, have finally catapulted these factions into prominence.
While the kingdoms of men have been emboldened by recent releases, we have also seen the emergence of an entirely new faction. Ents, long remaining hidden beyond the borders of Fangorn forest, have arrived on the scene as suddenly as they did at The Battle of the Hornburg. With consistently lower costs, and excellent stats across the board, Ents are already one of the premier factions in the game, even though they were only really viable after the release of The Antlered Crown. With all of the upheaval in the metagame – for both player cards and encounter cards – it seems only appropriate to re-examine some of the staple cards from the game’s early days.
A Very Good Tale (TH:OHaUH)
Earlier in the game, the cost curve for allies had a much more bell-like shape. In general, the more powerful allies were more expensive while the weaker allies would only cost 1 or 2 resources. The Ents have skewed the cost curve quite a bit. The tree-herders are not alone in causing this shift, some very powerful unique allies have been introduced in the Saga expansions, many of them at a reasonable cost.
Where it used to cost 4 or more resources to muster an ally with heroic stats, it now can be done for a bargain. Quickbeam alone represents a huge shift in the metagame. With fantastic stats and a useful trait, this ally doesn’t really have any drawbacks. As we’ve seen with the Treebeard hero, not be able to use restricted attachments is a minimal constraint, all the more so for an ally.
In any case, ally mustering is still useful, if somewhat less necessary with so many low-cost characters wandering about. Event cost-reducing heroes like Théoden and Damrod make ally-mustering less of a priority than it once was. Still, A Very Good Tale has its place in many decks but it does have one serious downside when it comes to Ents. Having to wait a round for exhausted Ents to ready can seriously put the brakes on the process of ramping allies. If the allies that you bring into play with A Very Good Tale happen to be Ents, the issue is only exacerbated as they too will enter play exhausted. With quests that can hit hard from the opening rounds, this loss of action advantage in the early game is something to keep in mind. Again, this does not have to be a death knell for A Very Good Tale, it might just be less universal of a card than it was when it was released.
Gondorian Spearman (Core)
The Gondorian Spearman was one of the original ally staples from the Core Set. There was an early deck built around Thalin and the Spearman that was dominant all the way through Dwarrowdelf. The first deck that I built for dealing with Into Ithilien even featured direct damage from Thalin, though the Spearman had by then been replaced by Defender of Rammas. With the damage prevention available to enemies with Toughness the direct damage of cards like Thalin, the Spearman and Spear of the Citadel has become less viable.
With Derndingle Warrior, Tactics has yet another Sentinel defender to further push Gondorian Spearman to the periphery. As much as his direct damage can be powerful against weaker or already-weakened enemies, 1 defense and 1 hit point are a hard sell for an ally in the modern game. There is so much ally-hate in recent quest, that a character with 1 hit point had better be providing an ability which is truly essential. While the Spearman does possess the newly-relevant Gondor trait, there are now more low-cost alternatives with useful traits as well. Even within the Gondor faction, Defender of Rammas and Honour Guard are always going to compete with this card for deck space.
It’s not as if the direct damage deck suddenly lost relevance – it had been slowly declining from neglect for a while. It remains to be seen whether the resurgence of Traps with Damrod and direct damage from Leadership Anborn will bring Gondorian Spearman back into the spotlight. Paired with Thalin and attachments like Ranger Bow and Poisoned Stakes, the direct damage deck may yet see a return to relevance.
Staging area attack has long been an alluring but illusive strategy. It takes major effort to get Dúnhere to the point where he can kill anything. Even so, he was a staple of early decks that embodied the conservative or “turtle” strategy. Even with Rohan receiving a steady stream of support, this is one Rohan hero who find himself on the outside looking in.
With so many enemies featuring 2 and 3 defense, along with toughness, it is no longer as easy to kill enemies as it used to be. Most decks now feature multiple characters dedicated to killing enemies (often thanks to action advantage). Multiplayer strategies now involve having other decks designed to help with combat. A conservative strategy is often not viable in multiplayer, especially with Aggro decks gaining in popularity. While the staging area control strategy may still be viable in solo, there are new alternatives for this niche.
In many ways, the Haldir decks are a better version of what Dúnhere was trying to be. Not only does the Silvan guardian of Lorien feature the ability to strike his foes before they have even moved, he is also capable of attacking enemies that are engaged with other players – an ability which Dúnhere lacks. With more and more enemies featuring low engagement cost this latter ability is very important, particularly in multiplayer games.
In a strange twist for the faction, Forth Eorlingas! did further damage to Dúnhere’s stock. Éomer, riding his steed Firefoot, makes for a much more formidable attacker against enemies in the staging area than the lowly Chieftain of Dunharrow. Tactics is simply the best sphere for improving Dúnhere’s prowess, but that sphere has its own mighty warriors among the Rohirrim.
Thanks to the strength of Spirit Théoden, accompanied by attachments like Herugrim and Snowmane and allies like Háma and Gamling, the Spirit Rohan deck is back with a vengeance. While this might at first hint at a place for Dúnhere, his stats make this a very real challenge. The natural choice to help gather an army of Spirit allies is to pair Théoden and Éowyn. This leaves one hero slot for either Tactics (Éomer or Háma) or Leadership (Théodred or Erkenbrand). Alternatively, you can even go with Lore and the additional cost-reduction afforded by everyone’s least-favorite creeper, Gríma Wormtongue. Sadly, outside of some very focused and limited decks, there seems to be little room in modern Rohan decks for Dúnhere.
Haldir of Lórien (AJtR)
Speaking of Haldir, this ally has been pushed to sideline with the introduction of his hero card. Especially in multiplayer, hero Haldir is so powerful that it is hard to argue for the ally version. In the Shadows of Mirkwood and Dwarrowdelf cycles, allies with well-rounded stats were few and far between. Now with Ents taking the metagame by storm, there are easier ways to get allies with these kinds of stats.
Even in decks or games that do not feature the Haldir hero, the denizens of Fangorn provide excellent stats for a lower cost. Haldir benefits from the Silvan trait, but his relatively high cost makes him a less than ideal choice for the events that would return him to your hand. Even his ranged and sentinel keywords are less valuable now that Galadhon Archer and Defender of the Naith exist. Without an ability that triggers from Silvan characters (or himself) entering or leaving play, he does not fit as well into his faction as one would hope.
For two resources, Quickbeam is a more potent ally than anything else in the game. Granted, an ally like Arwen has a more useful ability, but nothing bests Quickbeam from a power vs. cost standpoint. It might not seem fair, but with Quickbeam being another unique ally in the same sphere, one has to compare Haldir to Quickbeam when considering which to add to a deck. As unfair as this comparison may be, there is very little contest there. While his ranged keyword and ability to wield trait-specific weapons can make him a powerful ally, it is likely that ally Haldir will find his way into fewer modern decks.
The original grey wizard had a long reign as the obvious high-cost ally choice for the vast majority of decks in the game. With the emergence of the Gandalf hero, the ally finds itself in unfamiliar territory. While the versatility of Core Set Gandalf is undeniable, there is now a lot of competition for this character. His effects and stats are powerful, but 5 resources for an ally that doesn’t stay around can be a steep cost for some decks.
The repeatable threat-reduction from Galadriel and Spirit Merry makes it much easier to design a deck around the Hobbit Saga version of Gandalf. It is unlikely that Secrecy will ever be a dominant archetype, but the options available now do open up a couple of different variants that will be powerful against many scenarios. The more persistent ally Gandalf is an important figure in Secrecy decks, as he serves the role of a fourth hero. It is even possible to use his powerful and versatile attachments with the other ally Gandalf, given that he will be staying in play for longer.
Even in decks that do not use other versions of Gandalf might have reason to exclude the Core Set version. For any deck that lacks traditional resource acceleration – essentially anything without Leadership – the cost of playing an ally that only stays around for one round is not trivial. Thankfully, there are alternatives that make sense for many decks. At four resources, the ally version of Treebeard can be a great replacement for Core Set Gandalf. This is particularly true for decks without a standout hero to serve as an attacker.
While Fangorn obviously lacks the versatility and willpower of Gandalf, he does not wander away at the end of the round and can be used as the centerpiece of a powerful Ent-based strategy. To be fair,it is not strictly necessary to include any Ents beyond Treebeard – his resources can always be used to ready himself. In either case, he makes an excellent choice for a “fourth” hero, something that which cannot be said for any of the allies which leave play at the end of the round.
As with other cards in this article, it must be stressed that this criticism should not be interpreted as damning. Core Set Gandalf is still a great fit for many decks, most especially any deck which features the Leadership sphere with access to Sneak Attack. That combo remains one of the most incredibly versatile and efficient uses of this staple card. It is a sign of a more mature card pool however, that Core Set Gandalf and many of these other cards are no longer auto-include in every deck which could remotely make use of them.
As in life, variety is a good thing for the health of a game. With the continuation of the Angmar Awakened cycle and the promise of new releases over the horizon, it will be exiting to see which staples are knocked from their mighty perches as “must-haves”, and which hidden gems becoming suddenly valuable in a shifting metagame. Of this we can be sure, there are fun times ahead for the game.