My favorites from the Sands of Harad and Haradrim Cycle

With the release of The Crossing of Poros, now is an excellent time to look back on this last Deluxe Box and its accompanying cycle. While a deluxe box in some ways sets the tone for the Adventure Packs which follow, the theme of a given block is by no means strictly defined by this initial set of cards. Especially when it comes to the player cards, the designers weave multiple themes throughout a block (the term that I use for deluxe box + cycle APs).

Whenever Choosing favorites, there is the ever-present risk of getting stuck in the mire of subjectivity. The choices here reflect my play style and current deck-building tendencies, so interpret them within that context. While the most game-changing cards are not always immediately obvious, this block had a variety of powerful cards to choose from. Selecting favorites from this cycle, particularly when it comes to allies, involves a series of difficult decisions.

Favorite Hero: Hirgon

I’ve long been a fan of Mono-Tactics decks, and the archetype has steadily been growing stronger with the addition of a few powerful heroes and some especially effective events. The Haradrim cycle provided yet more support to these decks, beyond just heroes, with Wait No Longer, Oath of Eorl and Proud Hunters. Hirgon joins the Tactics version of Prince Imrahil, as a new hero which provides interesting alternatives for getting Tactics allies into play more quickly. In Hirgon’s case, we even have the option of giving them a temporary stat boost, which can be invaluable in supporting early game momentum and keeping critical defensive allies alive.

Two of the biggest challenges with Mono-Tactics decks have always been resource acceleration and card draw effects. Ally Legolas has given Tactics-heavy decks their best solution for card draw, especially for decks which don’t want to include multiple weapons to power Foe-hammer. With his errata, Háma might not be considered an effective card drawing engine for Tactics, especially in longer quests which prefer repeatable card draw. Besides, with so many other powerful tactics events, you might want to save Háma’s ability for something else. For these situations, other forms of pseudo card draw like Prince Imrahil can be a more appropriate choice.

Where Prince Imrahil’s search ability provides something akin to a card draw effect, Hirgon plays a different role. His cost reduction can either be used in lieu of, or as a supplement to, resource acceleration. Obviously you can include Leadership with a hero like Denethor and staples like Steward of Gondor, and all of your resource problems are solved. As someone who predominately plays multiplayer, where hogging the staple cards is frowned upon, I am more interested in how Hirgon facilitates a less obvious approach to deck-building.

As with heroes like Théodred and Arwen Undómiel, which feature resource acceleration, the power of cost reduction on a hero is that you can use it from the first round. Not being reliant on seeing a critical attachment in your opening hand will make you deck that much more consistent. The secondary aspect of Hirgon’s ability is not to be overlooked. High threat is less of an issue with Mono-Tactics decks, as you are designed to engage and kill multiple enemies. With that in mind, being able to trade 1 threat for a combat boost on the ally which you bring into play is a powerful option.

In multiplayer, the fact that Hirgon does not raise other players’ threat is important. On the other hand, there are many threat control options for other decks to help keep the Hirgon deck in the game. I can see potential for interesting Valour decks, which use Hirgon’s ability to control their threat, specifically when they enter valour range. The math of card cost is quite important. For example, many of the most powerful Tactics allies cost 4 resources, making them impossible to play on the first round, without other card effects. Hirgon allows you to play ally Boromir, Legolas, Déorwine, or Eagles of the Misty Mountains on the first round.

Using Legolas as an example, this is a fantastic opening for a Mono-Tactics deck. At the cost of three resource and 1 threat, you have a 4 attack ranged ally, which gives you card draw for the rest of the game. Hirgon can work just as well in multi-Sphere decks, assuming you include enough Tactics allies to make use of his reduction. While his ability might be as obviously powerful as some heroes, Hirgon opens a multitude of possibilities for Tactics decks.

Honorable Mention: Fastred and Folco Boffin
Featured Deck: The Red Arrow

Favorite Unique Ally: Jubayr

JubaryShadow cards are one of the great mysteries of this game. Each round consists of critical decisions: how many characters to commit to the quest, how much attack and defense to hold back for the combat phase, saving resources for cancellation effects. All of these plans can be laid bare from one untimely shadow card that goes uncanceled. Any card which provides shadow cancelation without an additional resource cost gives players an invaluable tool to mitigate this risk.

The average size of enemies continues to creep up – by necessity as player cards allow heroes and allies to become ever more adept at martial aspects of the game. For most quests, in order for an ally to be an acceptable option for defense they need at least 3 defense. Three defense and 3 hit points is makes an ally a natural choice as a dedicated defender. In all but true-solo, Sentinel is the ideal keyword for your defender, even combat decks can end up with one too many attackers.

NaryaBefore we even get into his response Jubayr is already a great defender: 3 defense, 3 hit points, with Sentinel, all in a sphere without many strong defenders. The ability to discard a facedown shadow card from a non-unique attacker immediately catapults Jubayr into the upper echelon of best defending characters. In the early card pool, a cost of 5 would have been an impediment to playing him, but there are now many resource acceleration and cost reduction options, not to mention other tricks for getting allies into play without paying their full cost.

His response is limited to once per phase, rather than once per round, which is an under-appreciated detail. Treacheries can cause enemies to make immediate attacks during the quest phase. With access to ally readying effects like Narya, I’ve been able to trigger Jubayr’s shadow discard effect multiple times in a round. Whether you feature him in a thematic Harad deck, or a Spirit-heavy deck, Jubayr is one of the best defenders in the game.

Honorable Mention: Firyal
Featured Deck: Aggro Caldara v4

Favorite Generic Ally: Emyn Arnen Ranger

Emyn Arnen RangerWith the release of Ranger Spikes in Heirs of Númenor, Trap decks became a distinct archetype. It has been a strong archetype against certain quests, and a solid choice for a support deck in multiplayer games. One area of struggle for Lore decks in general, and Trap decks specifically, is questing. It’s all well and good to mitigate threat from the staging area, but sometimes you need willpower to make progress in a hurry.

The Haradrim cycle in particular features quite a few race-style quests. These scenarios require that you put as much progress on the quest card as you can, as quickly as possible. In this context, cards like Ranger Spikes and Ithilien Tracker are reactive cards, because they need enemies to enter the staging area before they are effective. These types of reactive effects are not sufficient for aggressive quests.

In this landscape, Emyn Arnen Ranger and Followed enter with much fan-fare. While they both technically require an enemy, these are the kind of proactive cards that the archetype desperately needed. Once you have an enemy trapped with Followed, your Emyn Arnen Ranger becomes a questing powerhouse. Followed is not the only trap which pairs well with the ranger. There is nothing more satisfying than trapping a giant Troll with a Forest Snare and then giving that enemy’s threat as willpower to your ranger.

Even if a quest doesn’t feature many high threat enemies, there are many opportunities for strategic advantage. For example, I like to trap enemies with Surge, Doomed, and annoying “When Revealed” effects and leave them in play for the rest of the game. Until one of your Ranger Spikes ensnares another enemy, your Emyn Arnen Ranger might only have 1 or 2 willpower, but you are also helping to keep annoying effects out of the encounter deck. Dúnedain decks, which benefit from keeping multiple enemies engaged, are particularly effective when paired with these kinds of effects. It’s appropriate that there would be such powerful synergy between the Rangers of Gondor and their northern brethren.

Honorable Mention: Kahliel’s TribesmanRider of Rohan and Steward of Orthanc
Featured Deck: Portugal. the Deck

Favorite Attachment: Magic Ring

Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of cards with effects that involve choices, and multiple potential uses. Back when I had more time to write posts about metagame and strategy, I even devoted and entire article to the concept of versatility. When a card is limited to 1 copy per deck, it’s a pretty good indication of how powerful the designer’s deem it to be.

In the case of Magic Ring, it’s not that any one of the effects on the card is too powerful. Having healing, resource acceleration, and readying effects all available in one place immediately makes this one of the versatile cards in the game. The cost of 2 resources from any sphere is totally reasonable for a card of this power level.

Early in the life of the game, the cost of raising your threat when using the Magic Ring would have been more prohibitive. Spirit decks now have a bevy of built-in threat reduction with heroes like Nori, Galadriel, Merry, Beregond and now Fastred. Even spheres without this kind of repeating threat control have access to effects like Core Set Gandalf, Keen As Lances, and Favor of the Valar. Ultimately, the few points of threat that you gain from using the ring are more than offset by the benefit to the attached hero.

For all of the things that it has, the Magic Ring is also powerful for what it lacks. Without the restricted keyword, it keeps both restricted slots available for weapons and armor. This is important, as the Magic Ring will be attached to your hero that carries the bulk of the load. The readying and healing are both excellent benefits for Ents, who cannot wield restricted attachments at all.

A limit of one per deck might at first make this seem like a niche card. However, powerful search effects like Gather Information, Heed the Dream, and Ally Galadriel can help make it easier to find this card. In general, the game has so many more card draw effects than it did in the early days that a one copy does not doom this card to be forever lost in the depths of your deck. In any case, even a minor ring of power like this is worth dedicating the resources to find.

Honorable Mention: Followed and Fireside Song
Featured Deck: Songs for Rosie

Favorite Events: Proud Hunters

Hirgon and Prince Imarhil provide new options for Tactics to muster allies quickly, one of the most essential requirements for any effective early game strategy. However, Tactics decks need to pay for powerful attachments and events, in addition to allies. Having extra resources gives a deck vital options, to adapt to whatever challenges a quest presents. This is where Proud Hunters fills a critical role, one that has been lacking for Tactics ever since Horn of Gondor received errata.

The Sands of Harad introduced these interesting cross-trait play requirements. These events were continued in the Haradrim cycle and many of them are quite unique and effective. While the requirement of two different unique characters with a particular trait can seem like a steep cost, it is often possible to fulfill this requirement with your starting heroes. This constraint can even make you consider hero combinations which you might no otherwise use.

By thinking creatively about your hero choices, it is often possible to include these events without sacrificing the core strategy of your deck. In the case of my featured deck, Éowyn is our dedicated quester and provides the Noble trait. Mablung, in addition to being one of my all-time favorite versatile heroes, brings more resource acceleration to pair with Proud Hunters, along with the essential Ranger trait. Rounding this all out is everyone’s favorite giant Troll-slaying bear.

Between Mablung and Proud Hunters, the featured deck has resource acceleration on par with all but the most resource-hoarding Leadership builds. Paired with card draw and search effects, readying and action advantage like Beorn, and this level of resource acceleration, Mono-Tactics has gone beyond a viable archetype and can often be a powerhouse. Decks like Bear on Vacation are proof that all three pillars can be built into an archetype which was previously relegated to combat duty. As a long-time fan of mono-Sphere decks, it is encouraging to see this level of versatility finally available for Tactics.

Honorable Mention: Heirs of Eärendil, Wait No Longer, and Oath of Eorl
Featured Deck: A Bear on Vacation

Favorite Player Side Quest: The Storm Comes

When they were first released, player side quests seemed powerful but the fact that they were each limited to one copy per deck made them seem like nice bonuses, rather than the lynchpin of a particular archetype. Every archetype needs a champion, and Thurindir is undeniably the champion of player side quests. Along with a new set of quests which allow three copies to be included in a players deck, a nascent strategy matured into a full-fledged archetype.

With no cost and only 5 quest points, The Storm Comes is not a difficult side quest to get into play, or to complete. Sure a one (or two) round hit can be a steep price, but once you complete this quest it completely changes the game for multi-sphere decks. Like all of the new player side quests, you are limited to one copy in the victory display but the way it is worded it would not make sense to complete multiple copies of The Storm Comes. This card is so powerful, that it even allows you to play allies for which you don’t even have a hero sphere match.

In the eponymous featured deck, Thurindir assures that we will always have The Storm Comes in our opening hand. At a steep cost of 5 resources each, the unique Harad allies are not easy to muster in a tri-sphere deck. The Storm Comes is the only thing that makes this crazy deck concept possible. It not only helps us with the expensive Harad allies, but the resource smoothing of not having to match the first ally you play even helps with smaller allies like Rider of Rohan – another amazing card in this side quest archetype.

This deck provides merely one example of how to exploit the power of The Storm Comes. There are as many ways to take advantage of ally resource smoothing as their are multi-sphere decks. My hope is that the upcoming cycle includes more player side quests, so that this archetype does not wither on the vine like some older strategies from past cycles. I look forward to seeing the radically dynamic decks that players design around The Storm Comes and the other powerful player side quests.

Honorable Mention: Keep Watch, Prepare for Battle
Featured Deck: The Storm Comes

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Portugal. The Country, and the Deck.

Mrs. Beorn and I had a wonderful trip to Portugal over the winter holidays, and I’ve finally had the chance to sit down and write a bit about it. Being adventurous sorts, we have a list of all the countries we want to visit in our travels. As a bear who loves to eat and drink, Portugal has always been near the top of this list. Among other things, Portugal is especially famous for Port Wine, which is a particular favorite of mine.

The photo above was taken at the end of a glorious day in the town of Porto, the eponymous city from which Port Wine takes its name. We walked all along the Douro river, sampling various wines, along with an amazing spread of cheeses and meats. My French is a bit rusty, but I believe “charcuterie” roughly translates to “all of the yummy things that you can fit on a piece of wood”. If there is an Ursine Heaven, I suspect it looks something like this.

At it’s heart, the city of Porto is built around a Roman Wall that was created in the 11th century. The sense of history is one of my favorite things about Tolkien’s writing, just as it is one of my favorite aspects of traveling to distant places. Once you have visited another land, tried (sometimes unsuccessfully) to speak the language, and shared bread and wine with the people, it is difficult to hold on to mistrust and apprehension. I suspect that many who blithely throw around negative generalizations about other countries have never actually visited the places they so casually disdain.

A highlight of our trip was visiting the capital city of Lisbon. It is a beautiful city in its own right, but in very different ways than Porto. After finding a group of friendly players in Versailles during our trip to France, I’ve made it a point to try to meet up with members of the community during my travels. We were truly humbled by the hospitality we found in Portugal, as one member of the community even invited us to dinner! Manuel (mtpereira from the forums) and his girlfriend Daniela graciously hosted us on multiple nights while we visited Lisbon.

One of many advantages to visiting a country with the help of locals is that they know where the more interesting and out of the way places are. Anyone can take a selfie in front of the most iconic example of architecture that a country has to offer, but this strikes me as a rather facile oversimplification of what it means to be in that country. I’m far more interested in the esoteric beauty, sights and experiences that a country hides a bit deeper beneath the surface.

Mrs. Beorn and I are quite fond a style of tile which the Portuguese adapted from North Africa, called Azulejo. Our visit to the Museu Nacional do Azulejos in Lisbon was a personal favorite. In an age of automation and disposable goods, seeing entire walls and buildings covered in painstakingly hand-painted tiles is awe inspiring. I am particularly fascinated by the intersections of cultures and Azulejos represent an intriguing hybrid between Arabic and Christian cultures and artistic styles.

We were able to make time on our trip for some geeky fun, and met up with another member of the community named Nuno for a night of board games and traditional Portuguese food. We learned to play a new, and devilishly challenging, cooperative game called Magic Maze. The premise of this game was quite amusing, as you are a band of fantasy adventurers trying to escape from a shopping mall. It’s interesting how even seemingly insignificant details can highlight the differences between two places and peoples.

Travel can’t help but make one a bit introspective about one’s own society. This game’s silly premise along with the general contrast of being in Portugal, caused me turn a critical eye to my native culture. In America, much of our society is deeply obsessed with physical possessions as an outward symbol of status and “happiness”. I’m a simple bear, looking to enjoy experiences, meet new people and broaden my perspective on life. My adventurous sense of freedom, and even stubborn assertion of individuality certainly fit with the culture that I was born into. However, I completely reject the notion that my success is defined by how many things I own.

The more that I travel, I realize that I am part of a community that is unique. So many genuinely warm and caring people are part of the online world which has built itself around this game, and I am deeply appreciative to find joy in a beautiful and fragile thing. The internet has changed many aspects of our world, for the better and the worse. It seems to me far easier to tear something down through destructive acts, or even let it deteriorate through neglect, than it is to build it up through toil and diligence. I am grateful to all of the people who I’ve met through this game, and all of those who I will never meet but whose work benefits me every day. Being fortunate enough to experience the breadth of good in this community inspires me to never take it for granted.

For those might prefer more of the game-related content, and less of an old Bear’s ramblings, I haven’t forgotten you. Here is a thematic Ranger deck which I designed, in my great fuzzy head, while I wandered the fog-covered streets of Porto. Safe travels everyone!

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Braving the Crossings of Poros


It’s been a while in coming, but The Crossings of Poros finally arrived and we had a chance to play it this week at our Austin LotR group. The wait was worth it as this quest is both unique and challenging. It uses several of the encounter sets from the Haradrim cycle, but unlike traditional quests, not all of the encounter cards are added when the scenario is setup. Instead, the heroes path to Gondor takes random windings and turnings, reflected in the cards which are added to the encounter deck.

One path leads through the Desert, adding the Desert Sands encounter set to the encounter deck, with its dunes, and sandstorms, and constant threat of dehydration. The alternative is for the heroes to take Kahliel’s refugees through the mountains of The Ephel Dúath reflected by the Mountains of Shadow encounter set. While this path avoids the scorching sands of the desert, it brings its own peril in the form of dangerous locations and a troublesome side quest which prevents threat reduction. Regardless of the path you take, The Black Serpent and his host are hot on your trail.

We went into our first play of the quest blind, and were fortunate that our decks had an ideal mix of strengths for many of the challenges we faced. Every location has a forced effect which punishes players for traveling. There is a very real danger of location lock in this scenario, and regardless of the path taken this pressure does not let up. Desolate Land, in particular is a brutal counter to the ally army which most questing decks employ.

Stephen’s location control deck helped us avoid the worst of these forced effects as Northern Tracker and Asfaloth could clear many locations from the staging area. Depending on the path taken, this scenario has counters for most common strategies. In the desert, Towering Duns will mitigate Northern Tracker and Rhovanion Outrider, and needs to be targeted first.

Luckily, we took the mountain pass through the Ephel Dúath so the location control served us well. Jeff saved his copies of Secret Paths for the few times that Desolate Land showed up. Once Jeff had Sword that was Broken on Aragorn, and we were able to consistently quest successfully and avoid location lock. That left enemies as the primary challenge, and in this quest that is a considerable impediment.

I played an updated version of my Bear on Vacation deck, mono Tactics with Beorn, Mablung, and Éowyn. At its heart, it is an Aggro combat-focused deck, but it includes a few tricks which proved useful. Vigilant Guard can in handy, as I was able to redirect damage from all over the table, including damage that Beorn took while defending. Stephen and Jeff were both running Warden of Healing to heal the redirected damage. Healing is essential choice as this quest features quite a bit of archery.

Another highly effective card was Azain Silverbeard. Regardless of which path is trod, the scenario features a large number of Harad enemies, and the other encounter sets include enemies that share a trait. During most rounds, there will be a valid target for Azain’s direct damage response, especially because it can target enemies in the staging area. Resource acceleration from Mablung and Proud Hunters helped pay for Azain’s ability.

On the final stage, Poros Garrison comes to the players’ rescue, while enemies pour into the staging area. Wait No Longer might seem like a counter-intuitive choice for such a situation, but events like Thicket of Spears and Oath of Eorl allow the deck to handle a large number of enemies. Many of the enemies in this scenario have “when revealed” effects and Wait no Longer allows you to add one of these enemies to play and avoid this effect. Thanks to this card we only had to reveal two cards on our critical round, which allowed us to hold back more character for combat.

This quest was tense and required coordination with a bit of luck, but that made for a thrilling victory. With the random branching structure of this quest, future games will take a very different track. This is a quest that may to some extent defy a single strategy deck archetype, because of this variability. Of all the quests in this cycle, The Crossings of Poros probably has the most replay value. It might have stretched out longer that anyone would prefer, but the conclusion to this cycle was a satisfying one.

 

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Withstanding the Onslaught at Helm’s Deep

The upcoming episode of The Grey Company covers Helm’s Deep, the first of the iconic battles of the War of the Ring. It’s only fitting then, that we tackled this epic quest tonight at our Austin LotR group. I was playing a modified version of Seastan’s 100 Willpower deck (top right), while Stephen brought his trusty Dwarven Digging deck (bottom left), and Terence played a Gimli, Legolas and Galadriel deck which fit the theme of the quest perfectly (bottom right). After an intense fight, and with two of us dangerously near 50 threat, we emerged victorious. Close and hard-fought victories are often the most gratifying.

Both Stephen and I were fortunate enough to mill Poisoned Counsels off the top of our decks using A Very Good Tale. This was a critical stoke of luck as discarding your entire hand can be fatal – especially if this card shows up in the first few rounds. With the absurd level of card draw in my deck, it was a real danger that I had to bear this burden. Losing a copy or two of Ethir Swordsmen would have crippled my deck. I wanted to run a thematic Rohan deck that I built for Helm’s Deep, but it didn’t have the questing prowess necessary.

Thror's MapAs it was, we needed every bit of willpower that we could muster to survive the siege. None of our decks featured location control, per se, just Thror’s Map. Ultimately, questing past the locations in the staging area was a superior strategy to using cards like Norther Tracker of Asfaloth. Most of the locations in this quest have terrible forced effects that trigger when they are explored.

Additionally, many shadow effects interact with the active location so there are times when the strategic choice was actually not to travel at all. One of the interesting tricks of this quest is that the climatic battle in the fifth stage is made easier if you avoid having an active location when you place the 8th resource token on The Defense of Helm’s Deep and the heroes charge into the climatic final stage.

This quest is one of my favorites, among an excellent crop of saga scenarios. The inversion of the core quest mechanics is illustrates just how flexible this game is. It was great fun to survive the onslaught with friends. We kept the history alive – the Horunburg has never fallen while defended. Keep an eye out for the upcoming episode of The Grey Company, we have a great conversation about this memorable moment in the story of the Lord of the Rings.

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Escape from the Dungeons of Cirith Gurat

After what seemed like an eternity, The Dungeons of Cirith Gurat was released today! We had a chance to play a four player game at our local Austin Lord of the Rings group. After an initial attempt that went quickly awry, we were able to safely make our escape from the ghastly dungeons. We even welcomed a new player who drove all the way from San Antonio! For those who haven’t played it yet I don’t want to spoil too much, but we all really enjoyed the new capture mechanic which this quest uses to represent the challenge of freeing prisoners from a dungeon.

This was my first chance to try out post-errata Caldara, and a first round Emery and Sword-thain were able to bring a bevy of powerful allies and prove that she is still a powerhouse. Still, the quest has some serious ally hate, so the early game had a tension which would have been lacking if I could had been able to repeatedly use Caldara’s ability. Some players may feel that the once per game limit to her ability was too strict – and one test is perhaps too early for any definitive conclusions – but I suspect that the errata will hit the sweet spot.

We have our Fellowship event here in Austin on Saturday, and I’m excited to rethink my Aggro Caldara deck and see if I can make it work – I know that Thror’s Key will be critical. I admit I was skeptical of the hero errata at first, and I am still a bit leery of the change to Háma, but I think that the change to Caladara is appropriate. Outside of some weird Gondor builds, there is now essentially zero reason to bring her back. This frees up a ton of space which was used for hero recursion. Caldara decks will now be more interesting to design and should exhibit more variety. This was precisely Caleb’s stated goal with the errata, so I would say that he hit the mark there.

We know that there will be a “big announcement” from FFG about the game on Saturday, and we all wait with bated breathe to see what the future holds. Check back here soon for my reaction to the news and in the mean time be safe and have happy travels!

Posted in Aggro, Alternate-Art, Austin LotR Group, Community, Discussion, Fellowship Event, Metagame, Mono-Sphere, Multiplayer, Opinion, Photo, Strategy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Poll Results: Your preferred play style

© Valtteri Mulkahainen/Solent News & Photo Agency

The fall is a busy time for a bear, what with preparing for hibernation and all, but I’ve finally had a chance to poke my head up and do some housecleaning around the hall. Our last poll asked players about their preferred play styles and the results where enlightening. Let’s dive into the numbers, and I can mumble my ursine mumblings afterwards.

Play Style Votes Percentage
Thematic 157 44%
Control 58 16%
Combo 33 9%
Whatever Seastan is playing 26 7%
Aggro 25 7%
Secrecy 23 6%
Tempo 18 5%
Jank 10 3%
RingsDB home page 6 1%
Draft 1 .2%
Winning 1 .2%

When I think about my own answers to this poll, it’s a fascinating reflection of changes in the metagame as well as my own evolving preferences in play style. Whether it was Secrecy, or just low threat decks featuring Spirit Glorfindel hero, the Dwarrowdelf cycle provided a multitude of tools for control play styles. In particular, low cost cards like Daeron’s Runes and Elrond’s Counsel made it much easier for players to slow the game down and control their engagement and quest progress. Location control, another fundament pillar of control style decks, practically came into being with the release of Asfaloth (with apologies to Northern Tracker).

Among other seismic shifts, the Heirs of Númenor and its accompanying cycle were a boon to the Tactics sphere. Encounter cards ushered in an upswing in the Aggro play style, with iconic quests like Into Ithilien forcing players to play at a quicker pace and more aggressive engagement and combat strategies. The Voice of Isengard brought with it powerful effects to punish ally swarms and players who hoarded too many cards in their hands. In particular, heroes like Celeborn and Éomer paired with quests like The Dunland Trap to support a “tempo” play style where allies are continually cycled in an out of play. This provided an interesting contrast to the traditional ally-swarm decks that dated back to Dain Ironfoot.

It’s gratifying to find the hidden gems among player cards, abilities which form surprising combinations or solve previously intractable problems. Of all the play styles, combo can be the most troublesome when it comes to game balance. Still, when it hits that sweet spot of being different enough without making the game too easy, it is one of my favorite styles. Using Círdan and Emery to super-charge my (pre-errata) Caldara deck was a particular delight. Some combo decks, like Rouxxor’s ingenious first turn win are fascinating as a thought experiment and design challenge, but not something I would ever play.

A benefit of a maturing card pool is the diversity of these and other play styles and deck archetypes. As with any game, once you become familiar with the mechanics and core strategies, it’s nice to spice thing up. If I grow tired of crushing orcs under the boots of two dozen dwarves, I can try my paw at a tricksy Silvan deck, where I only ever have three or four allies in play at a time, but I make maximal use of timing and player action windows. Likewise, I’ve found that a combo deck or “jank”-style that isn’t quite top tier can be a blast to take against one of the less difficult quests. The achievement of winning a quest with a sub-optimal but enjoyable deck can be as sweet for me as hyper-optimizing against the hardest saga quests. It also keeps the game fresh, which is important after all of these years.

Thanks to all who participated in this poll, and feel free to expound upon your preferred play styles in the comments below. The latest poll asks a question which is near and dear to many hearts: where should the game go now? We know that Caleb will make a “big announcement” about the game in a few weeks, and I’ve got my own fuzzy thoughts, but I’m curious to hear what other players want that announcement to be. Have happy and safe holidays, everyone!

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Wandering the Wilderlands

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 CrossingRace 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!

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