After a period of quiescence, we find a sudden flurry of activity leading into the holidays and the much-anticipated completion of the Haradrim cycle. I had planned on writing an article about the new FAQ 1.9 which Caleb announced on Wednesday, but the Warden of Arnor already beat me to it with his own excellent summary of the latest errata. Seeing quality articles like this released with such alacrity after a new FAQ is a testament to how thriving our community remains. All the more so as we are smack dab in the middle of what could rightly be described a lull in new content.
While the subject of this article is not directly about the FAQ and errata, I encourage everyone to read the Warden’s article first as it is germane to the topic at hand. It is only natural that the dominant archetypes have changed and diverged greatly since the game’s inception. Some strategies which worked in the early years of the game have become less tenable as quests evolved. Specifically, encounter decks have become smaller and more focused, allowing the developers to craft strategies, or at least general foils for the most common brands of player decks. Likewise, new player cards have combined with the existing pool to form potent engines which could not have been conceived of, much less executed in the early years.
Some player cards are so powerful that they manifest as de facto archetypes, even in the cases where there might not be specific combinations with earlier cards.Any discussion of the metagame, errata and general strategy must inevitably concern itself with power, as that is the currency by which cards are judged. Astute readers will notice, for example, that cards have never received errata for being too weak. In that regard, power can be said to take two distinct forms: general and specific.
General power can be found in heroes like Leadership Denethor, whose early game resource boost works in a whole host of deck styles, and is in no way limited to a narrow range of viable archetypes. A reciprocal to the Steward’s resource acceleration is the potent card draw afforded by hero Erestor. While the end of round discard gives him a natural fit among Noldor decks, the sheer magnitude of his card advantage allows Erestor to slot easily into a multitude of decks. Any deck which provides enough resource acceleration or cost reduction to play three or more cards per round is going to find Erestor a welcome addition.
Specific power stands in rather stark contrast to these sorts of tool-box heroes. This is the realm of the combination decks. Prince Imrahil ally is a perfect example of this. A vast majority of decks are designed with a very conservative strategy when it comes to keeping their heroes alive and in play. With the exception of some aggro decks built around hero Beorn, it is very rare to see non-Caldara decks with any explicit and intentional strategy around hero sacrifice. In this context, ally Prince Imrahil has an ability which does essentially nothing for the vast majority of decks.
Pedants might argue that he is worth including even-so, as his ability gives you a sort of emergency backup plan in the unfortunate case of losing a hero. While this is of course true, Spirit now has so many powerful allies (Northern Tracker, Sulien, Jubayr, Glorfindel, Elfhelm) and outside of some theoretical Gondor builds Imrahil is only really fixing the resource lost from a defeated hero. Because he does nothing until you lose a hero and those other spirit allis have consistently useful abilities, including more than a single copy of ally Imrahil in most decks represents a very real opportunity cost.
On the other hand, one could argue that ally Imrahil in a (pre-errata) Caldara deck is one of the more powerful allies in the game. With the ruling that Imrahil becomes a hero immediately after the cost is paid on Caldara (but before the effect is resolved) he becomes tremendously powerful in that specific situation. The fact that Caleb mentions Imrahil (and Sword-thain) in the discussion of Caldara’s errata underscores how specific power can be sufficient to break the game. This can even be true when those cards would otherwise not be very powerful at all as evidenced by the fact that Prince Imrahil and Sword-thain see limited use outside of Caldara decks. To put it another way: ally Prince Imrahil is not moving the needle on the power-level of any decks which do not also feature Caldara.
Through this lens, it is easy to divide the errata from FAQ 1.9 into two categories, one to address generally overpowered cards like Boromir and Háma, and another for cards which are only over-powered in specific situations like Out of the Wild and Caldara. The Warden of Arnor has already done yeomen work to break down the individual changes in the above referenced article. Instead, I want to look at the changes from the latest FAQ as the pertain to the speed of the modern game.
I wrote a key concepts article about game pace, but that was years ago and there has been a torrent of water under the proverbial bridge since that time. At the risk of over-generalizing, the pace of the game has increased rapidly in the years after that article was written. Heroes like Arwen, Leadership Denethor and Erestor are the vanguard of this change, along with player cards like Heed the Dream which smooth out the early game. New forms of resource acceleration and cost reduction pair with a multitude of new powerful unique allies (saga allies, Haradrim, etc.) to allow even non-swarm decks to pack a punch in the early game.
As with all metagame shifts the scenarios have been evolving as well. Recent quests even have titles which reflect their break-neck pace: Escape from Umbar, Desert Crossing, Race Across Harad. Among other more specific changes to the metagame, I supect the errata from FAQ 1.9 will only further push the pace of the game. Caldara is only bringing allies out of your discard pile once per game, if you aren’t seeding your discard pile quickly and rushing to get Prince Imrahil and Sword-thain into play as quickly as possible, she likely is not worth the deck space and effort.
Likewise, Háma is now only recurring three tactics events over the course of a game. It makes much more sense for this to be a few extra early-game uses of Foe-hammer to give Tactics that critical card draw. Gone are the days of toolbox-style Háma with one or two copies of many different kinds of events. It’s not to say that you cannot make such a deck with post-errata Háma, just that such a deck becomes much more dependent on getting maximal use of his ability in the early game. Otherwise, with heroes like Legolas available he seems like a waste of a hero slot for those stats.
Ultimately, I see the change to speed up the pace of the game as a good thing. One of the most frustrating things about multiplayer (a mode which I play quite frequently these days) is the way a three or four player game can grind to a halt. Faster games, or at least ones where the outcome is decided more often in the first four rounds of the quest, allow for more replay. If nothing else, it feels less onerous to reset and try again after a second round blowout loss than it does after a heartbreaking surge-fest 45 minutes into a marathon quest.
Anyone who listens to my rants on the Grey Company will know that I’ve long advocated per-round, per-phase and per-game limits (as appropriate) on player card effects. It’s been proven time and again that a lack of these kinds of limits ultimately leads to broken card interactions – even in seemingly innocuous cards like Protector of Lórien. So while I may disagree with the specifics errata on one card or another, I absolutely agree with the principal of adding limits to player cards to provide a hard cap on their power level. I also hope that all future player card effects are designed with explicit limits to forestall many of these sorts of unintended interactions going forward.
Limits are all well and good, and I think that the latest FAQ largely succeeds in Caleb’s stated goal of “making the game more fun”. Specifically intriguing is the case of two of the most dramatic changes. I now look forward to building and playing new Caldara and Boromir decks to see just how much the errata has affected them. Still, not all is “Rosie” in terms of the complexion and power-level of more recent player cards.
In particular, player side quests remain a peculiar anomaly in the overall trend toward a faster game. One of the interesting trends in recent quests is the use of progress on the main quest as a kind of resource. Not only is this mechanic found throughout the Haradrim cycle but also in the latest Fellowship quest, Attack on Dol Guldur. As a design conceit, I quite like this mechanic. A once familiar constraint becoming suddenly new is one of the best things about an evolving game. In the past, most quests had a purely progress-based threshold and other than the odd treachery, encounter and quest effects rarely removed progress from the main quest.
All that is changed now. The ability to control exactly how much quest progress is made, as well as potentially adding progress during non-quest phases, both become even more valuable then they already were. The designers have taken pace, which had always been a bit more subtle, and made it a much more explicit part of the quest mechanics. Unfortunately, all of these nuanced interactions between player cards and the main quest are largely broken by player side quests.
When the player side quests where first released in the Angmar Awakened cycle, the quests were specifically designed to account for side quests. Not only did half the quests involve an objective ally which directly interacted with the number of quest cards in play, but scenarios featured encounter card side quests. In one form or another scenarios in the cycle were “side quest aware” and the potential for players taking side-treks away from the main quest was acknowledged.
With the Haradrim cycle, player side quests have come back to the fore. In the form of Thurindir, player side quests even – to some extent – now have their own archetype. I say “to some extent” because this strategy represents one of the more precarious archetypes in recent times. Having experimented with the concept a fair bit, I can say first hand that these decks are an awkward fit for many recent quests. When the entire crux of a quest is to spend progress from the main quest for benefit, or to avoid harm, it behooves you to play to focus on this. Choosing to use deck space, card draw, and in some cases resources, to play a card which specifically prevents progress from being placed on the main quest is highly counterproductive.
Unless you are reaping the full benefit of a player side quest within the first four rounds, they are likely not worth the opportunity cost. Bold statements risk being proved false by exceptions, but I feel confident making such a strong claim about recent quests because of how fast the game has become and how critical progress on the main quest is in so many scenarios. Sure, Thurindir solves the problem of drawing the most critical player side quest, but this doesn’t matter when the scenario is actively punishing you for choosing that side quest on the first round. If you end up having to wait several rounds before you can even safely make your side quest active then it highlights just how ill-fitting side quests are in the current metagame.
Lest readers misinterpret, all is not gloom and doom with this trend. The sped up pace makes the game more exciting and allows for quicker turn-around time when you get a bad draw or your deck is not a good fit for the quest. The latest errata has made several powerful cards and archetypes more appealing, particularly for veteran players who studiously avoided what the consensus perceived as “broken” decks. New players and players working there way through the card pool in a progress style will also benefit from these changes as they need not become reliant on overly powerful cards only to have those cards taken away later. A hero cannot be “nerfed” if you have yet to use that hero in a deck.
We have a big announcement confirmed for December, but all indications are that there will be at least one more cycle. There is still time to adjust some of these issues with the metagame. Overall, many of the player cards in this cycle have been filler or at best support for existing archetypes. Harad is probably the one solid archetype to emerge from recent releases. This dearth of truly notable player cards makes the strategic mismatch of player side quests all the more frustrating.
Like Secrecy and Valour before, there is no reason why player side quests have to be the totality of a deck. Still, with the cost and power of side quests, it takes effort to make them work. If player side quests continue to be a part of the card pool going forward, it would be nice if new scenarios in some way facilitated or at least allowed for these cards. Otherwise, they become a bit of a dead-spot in the current metagame.
With the holidays fast approaching, I wish you all safe travels and happy adventures!