A reader of this blog, and well-known community member from the FFG forums, has been working tirelessly on an ambitious task. John Constantine has revamped many of the player cards from the Core Set and first cycle of the game, to improve them in various ways. The cards feature updated art and game text, and I encourage readers to download the cards – the scope of this project is impressive.
When the Core Set was first designed, there was no way for the original designers to know the future (they had no Palantir on hand). Archetypes like Silvan, Noldor and Dúnedain did not exist, as such. Even archetypes like Eagles and Rohan, which were largely created in the first cycle, were too new to be judged within the context of the larger metagame. For that matter, a metagame didn’t actually exist yet provide such a context. The initial designers and playtesters faced the onerous task of testing the game in a vacuum. The fact that The Lord of the Rings LCG has gone on to be a smashing success speaks to the excellent work of these trailblazers, but the early card pool is not without its warts.
In general, the early card pool seems to suffer from a few classes of problems. I will discuss these problems in brief here, and then provide some examples of John’s work where he addresses these issues. Again, I encourage everyone who is curious to check out the entirety of his work as it is too broad in scope to be covered in a single article. For anyone interested in meta-gaming and game design, it is fascinating to see another player’s take on how to evolve the early design of a Living Card Game.
First and foremost, the Core Set and early cycles include some of the game’s most overpriced cards. A great example of this is Silverlode Archer. With the vastly superior Greenwood Archer now available, there is very little reason to ever include the Silverlode Archer in a Silvan deck. For that matter, the Greenwood Archer’s ability even allows it to fit into non-Silvan decks, a hard sell for the one-dimensional Silverlode Archer. While this sort of power-creep is inevitable, it is unfortunate in a game with a card pool which grows as slowly as this one.
Another problem with many early cards is that the various archetypes were not yet established, so even some of the most iconic cards feel disconnected with the modern metagame. For example, Core Set Glorfindel does not fit into the Noldor archetype in any meaningful sense. Because this archetype was developed later in the game’s life, his ability is at odds with what Noldor decks want to do (get cards in the discard pile) and he is underpowered compared to either of his more modern counterparts. Again, this is not a criticism of the original designers – there was no way for them to know that the various discard mechanics would largely come to define that archetype. Still, having one of the Core Set heroes be essential a dead card in terms of archetype synergy is a terrible waste given the small number of hero cards to date.
One other problem with the early pool, though this is less common, is over-powered cards. The prime example of this is Steward of Gondor. This card is so powerful that is has completely warped the metagame around resource acceleration effects. In essence, every card which adds resources to a hero’s pool (or reduces the cost of cards) had to be weaker because this card is so powerful. The cost of Leadership cards for the first few cycles was seemingly inflated to account for the tremendous advantage of a card that immediately pays for itself and then reaps a huge resource benefit over the course of the game. The Silverlode Archer above is a great example of the inflationary effect, which we are just need getting away from with cards like the Greenwood Archer.
With these three concerns in mind, I’m going to cover a few of the cards from John’s redesign of the early card pool, with his comments added. As with any design, these cards will not be to everyone’s tastes, but players who have been with the game long enough can agree that some of these early cards really have not aged well. While I don’t agree with some of the decisions that he made, I will say that John has done an excellent job reimagining some of the more troubling dead cards in the card pool. It is exciting to see an interpretation of a card that I have never used, that inspires me to think about the kinds of decks it allows for.
A great example of a promising card which has simply never lived up to its potential is the Radagast ally from the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle. With a high cost and ridiculously low stats, unless you could cheat him into play (which wasn’t really possible in the early life of the game) you would rarely ever get your money’s worth for this card. When you think about the other things you could do with those 5 resources – not the least of which is to simply play for the Creature cards that he ostensibly is helping to muster – Radagast is drastically overpriced.
John’s version of this card retains the original cost, but adds vastly improved stats and few interesting wrinkles. On stats alone, this card is certainly worth the price. He might even be too strong now – considering he sticks around – as an iconic and unique character, it seems fitting that he would be significantly more powerful. With the Istari and Healer traits, there are a few different decks in which he fits, outside of just the typical Eagle builds. His healing now applies to all characters, providing an interesting option for non-Lore decks that desperately need healing and can pay the cost (Leadership ally army decks come immediately to mind). Here are the designer’s comments:
I never quite understood why they made such expensive and UNIQUE character, also iconic and an Istari, so weak. 5 resources is 1.66 turns worth of resources without any acceleration, it needs to get the work done for the invested resources. +1 to all stats was a no-brainer, however it obviously couldn’t be bumped to the level of Gandalf due to him not leaving play at the end of the round. Extending the healing ability to any character, but making it stronger on Creatures, was another step in direction of making Radagast overall strong and potent addition to many decks, not just the Eagle ones.
A major focus of his redesign was Mount attachments. While this might seem like a less obvious area of concern in the early card pool, his changes not only work mechanically but address some thematic concerns – particularly where characters can ride three horses at the same time with the current card pool. I have long advocated that Mount attachments be limited to one per character and that is precisely what John has done with his mount cards in the redesign. Not only does that resolve the thematic oddity of a single person riding multiple horses, it also allows these attachments to be a bit more powerful.
Gone is the ability to have Éomer ride his trusty steed Firefoot at the same time as he rides the more generic Rohan Warhorse. This is an example of where a design change doesn’t just increase the strength of a card, but finds a better balance for that card within the card pool as a whole. Because mount attachments can no longer be combined on the same character, there is no longer any risk of unintended (aka Seastan) interactions between Mount attachments.
Speaking of Firefoot, astute readers will notice that Mr. Constantine has borrowed from an excellent design trick on Snowmane. Instead of giving an extra attack bonus when ridden by Éomer, Firefoot loses the restricted keyword. This makes all kinds of thematic sense as a skilled horseman can keep both hands free to fight when riding a familiar mount, essentially steering the horse with their legs. Likewise, Asfaloth, still one of the most powerful (perhaps broken) location-control cards in the game receives some very necessary changes. In addition to gaining the restricted keyword for everyone by Glorfindel, Asfaloth now requires the attached hero to commit to the quest before they can use the horse’s ability. Here is John’s commentary on Mounts as well as character-specific attachments:
I thought it wasn’t thematically appropriate to have more than 1 mount on any given character at a time, so I added a limiter on each mount card in the game to prevent that from happening. That limiter enabled me to buff the mounts in return, as people can no longer ride 7 steeds at once. Let’s take Rohan Warhorse for example. Vanilla version lets you ready on a kill, and is restricted. My rework version gives +1 attack, lets you ready on a kill, is restricted, and limits the number of mounts on the attached hero to 1. Keep in mind that it doesn’t just prevent a second Rohan Warhorse, it prevents any other mount in the game from being attached to the same hero, while still taking a restricted slot, hence the justified +1 attack bonus. Regular weapons usually give an optional +2 attack (and are rarely played unless that optional condition is fulfilled), while not preventing other weapons from being attached, so I felt like this +1 attack on Rohan Warhorse was a reasonable addition.
As for character-specific cards, I suspect you asked about them in tandem with the mounts because of the Asfaloth, so I’ll use him as a reference to the treatment I gave to the various character-specific cards in my rework. To be blunt: I hate it when in a card game with so many heroes, a card comes out that is only usable with one of them, regardless of the way it’s enforced – either by limiting the card to the name directly, or providing a bonus/penalty that makes the card reasonable only on that particular hero. I fight that approach by making card power level the same regardless of the name it used on, but I make small adjustments that make the card easier to use on the characters of that particular name. For example, with Asfaloth, unlike the vanilla version, it always places 2 progress, regardless of who rides it, however now it boasts a Restricted keyword, and only loses it if attached to Glorfindel, which also strikes a thematic goal for me – Glorfindel is good at riding his steed, which allows him more flexibility with the stuff he uses while riding.
With the size of his project, it would take many articles to scratch the surface of John’s redesign, but I wanted to finish this brief introduction with an example of his fixes to over-powered cards. The pair of Blood of Númenor and Gondorian Fire has been featured in several game-breaking decks in the modern metagame. They have not received errata, but of all of the cards to warp the game in recent times, they seem like the most likely candidates. The confluence of Tactics Boromir (and to a lesser extent, other heroes like Tactics Aragorn), repeatable threat reduction like Galadriel, and resource acceleration (namely Steward of Gondor), these attachments have the potential to trivialize many of the games most difficult quests. Because the bonuses they provide are not limited to a single defense or attack, these cards become obscenely powerful when paired with consistent readying effects.
John’s changes help to address these problems in several ways. First of all, he added a limit of 1 per hero for each of these cards. I almost wonder if all new attachments shouldn’t feature a “Limit 1 per character” as a general rule (with exceptions for some cards, of course). Secondly, he changed the bonuses provided by Blood of Númenor and Gondorian Fire to only apply to a single attack.
Granted, this eliminates the ability for these attachments to help with Battle and Siege during the quest phase. However, they were already so powerful in their primary usage for combat support that losing their (limited) ability of quest support seems like a fair price to pay. Limiting one per hero along with per-attack scope immediately dampens the extent to which these cards can trivialize the combat phase. Paired with his proposed change to Steward of Gondor, it is interesting to imagine what the metagame would look like if these were the official versions. Here again, are the designer’s thoughts on these cards:
One name: Boromir. The main offender. Stack the resources on him and defend/wipe any board by spending two resources. I like how these cards pack a punch and allow you to get through tight pinches, I just didn’t like how they were abused to literally annihilate anything. Limit of once per attack, and one attachment per hero, keeps that in check.
As someone who is interesting in game design, it is fascinating seeing what other players focus on when they go about proposing changes and improvements to existing cards. I hope that you enjoyed this brief introduction to John Constantine’s redesign project and I heartily encourage to download it and look at the cards for yourselves. For me, discussing these kinds of projects is just as fun as reading about them, so feel free to leave your thoughts and feedback in the comments below.