Experimental Deckbuilding – In the Shadows

I’ll preface this post by noting that I haven’t given up on the narrative writeups – I’ve been working on those as well. They just take longer than these experimental deckbuilding posts, and I think that I agonize over wording a little bit more. Anyways, this week has been exceptionally busy – I’m preparing for a vacation, which includes doing the deckbuilding so that anybody who wants to play a game of Lord of the Rings in our down time can just pick up a couple decks and a quest and have fun with it.

Anyways, one thing led to another, and I started revisiting some old ideas to take them with me on vacation and I ended up with another post for this series. So here we go, and I hope you enjoy the ride!

One of my favorite heroes is Thurindir. I don’t know exactly why, but I just love the whole side quest archetype, and he is the great enabler for that style of play. Recently, I’ve been meditating on the side quest style of decks, and I remembered something that had been rattling around in the back of my head, and I found the idea quite intriguing.

The Land of Shadow saga expansion brought a number of interesting cards. It’s probably most notable for Damrod and his enabling of the entire Trap deck archetype, and for good reason. Snowmane and Gamling provided some final missing links for the predominant Rohan archetype, and even Leadership Faramir and the new version of Anborn had interesting possibilities.

But one card from that expansion stands out as entirely odd, and perhaps out of place. In the Shadows is a 3-cost Lore event that reduces the attack and defense of every enemy engaged with you that has an engagement cost higher than your threat by 1. On the surface, it seems almost useless. But it reduces the cost to play it by 1 for each Hobbit or Ranger hero you control.

This was the really odd point – it seemed to be pushing some sort of Hobbit/Ranger synergy, either with the Ithilien Rangers of Gondor, for some sort of Hobbit/Gondor Trap deck, or with the Dunedain of the North. But the Dunedain of the North have their own mechanic, and it does not really synergize very well with the Hobbit mechanics – Dunedain want to keep enemies engaged with them, preferably in traps to keep the number of defenses manageable. Hobbits, on the other hand, are fine engaging enemies – especially if they have engagement cost higher than your threat – but don’t have the muscle or the incentive to keep them around for turn after turn.

Paired with this observation is a similar card from the Black Riders expansion, Take No Notice. It has the same cost reduction effect, but allows you to add 5 to the engagement cost of every enemy in play until the end of the round. Again, there is a sort of Hobbit/Ranger synergy. Taken together, these cards hint at some sort of deck that uses Rangers and Hobbits to sneak by enemies, engaging them only on its own terms, and on the most advantageous terrain.

I thought nothing of it for a long time. After all, these cards were widely panned, and there really didn’t seem to be any sort of unifying mechanic between Hobbits and Dunedain that could justify the pairing. But then the new side quest synergy in the Harad cycle started coming out, and pieces started falling together.

The Halfling Bounder turns into a Test of Will once you have a side quest in the victory display, while Halfast Gamgee reduces his cost for each side quest completed. The Vigilant Dunadan does not exhaust to defend, and Thurindir makes sure you have a side quest in your opening hand.

Suddenly, there was a unifying mechanic. Thurindir is a low-threat hero, at only 8 threat cost, he costs the same as Samwise. Side quests power up a few Hobbit and Dunedain allies, and do so in a completely different way than the standard Dunedain mechanic of “engage all the enemies.”

So I decided that I wanted to make a deck that explored this new design space. Taking my inspiration from In the Shadows and Take No Notice, this deck will aim to avoid engaging enemies via low threat and judicious application of effects that increase the engagement cost of enemies.

The first order of business, of course, is to choose our heroes. Thurindir, of course, is an obvious choice. We’ll also need a Leadership hero if we want to be running Halfast, and some of the best Hobbit-boosting cards are in the Leadership sphere as well, so Samwise Gamgee also finds himself slotted in. Our third choice should help keep our threat low, so that we can avoid engaging enemies, and we are left with a choice between Pippin and Folco Boffin. Folco gives us a lower starting threat, and the ability to drop that threat by 7 in an emergency. On the other hand, Pippin gets us card draw and boosts the engagement cost of enemies.

Originally, I chose Pippin as the third hero, and he was very effective in that role. However, I’m currently revising the deck to pair with the mono-Spirit Hobbit deck we built earlier on in this series. Since that deck uses the Spirit version of Pippin to decent effect, we’ll go with Folco Boffin this time around.

It’s a little bit odd to do a deckbuilding post about a deck that’s already published, but I’m also going to go through some of the choices I made and alternatives I weighed early on in the process, in the hopes that seeing that cut will be helpful.

Allies

The first thing I wanted to do was add all the in-theme allies that could get benefits from side quests. So that meant 3 copies of Halfling Bounder, 2 copies of Halfast Gamgee, 3 copies of Vigilant Dunadan, and 3 copies of the East Road Ranger, to help us clear the quests. With Samwise in play, Bill the Pony is another obvious inclusion. For a Hobbit deck, 3xRosie Cotton is an auto-include.

The newest adventure pack spoiled for this cycle – Fire in the Night – includes an ally that is going to be a perfect fit for this deck. Thalion is a 4-cost Neutral ally who readies at the start of the combat phase if there is a side quest in the victory display. In addition, if there are at least 3 side quests in the victory display, he becomes a hero with the resource icons of each sphere on a side quest in the victory display.

I’ll take a brief pause to note the glaring issue – if I want to include Vigilant Dunadan, I’ll need to include some way of getting him into play. The Lore sphere provides an excellent means of doing so, via the attachment Elf-stone. In addition, the side quest The Storm Comes also adds an alternate means of doing so, while still bolstering the mechanical focus of the deck.

I also added 2 copies of Northern Tracker, to have another powerful and useful Dunedain ally to bring in via Elf-stone or pay for with The Storm Comes, and 3 copies of the Dunedain Lookout. Finally, I had 2 copies of Robin Smallburrow, who provides a useful willpower boost, even though he doesn’t key off of side quests.

Attachments, Events, and Side Quests

In addition to the 3 copies of Elf-stone I had already committed myself to, I added all of the basic Leadership/Lore Hobbit tech: 3 copies of Fast Hitch, Hobbit Cloaks, and a Staff of Lebethron to make Sam a powerful defender. Then, 3 copies of Legacy Blade to boost attack power – even though we are going to be questing past a lot of enemies, I wanted to be able to kill them if need be. 3 copies of Woodmen’s Clearing, the new attachment from the Withered Heath adventure pack, offer some threat reduction, and 3 copies of Entangling Nets will help the Vigilant Dunadan do his job. Finally, 2 copies of Steed of the North offered some readying for Thurindir, while 3 copies of The Road Goes Ever On help me to keep fetching side quests.

For side quests, I grabbed Gather Information, The Storm Comes, Send for Aid, and Prepare for Battle. Extra card draw, and a bunch of ways to smooth in important off-sphere allies were the focus here – again, primarily thinking of the Vigilant Dunadan.

Events were simple. With Fast Hitch, I have easy actions out of my Hobbits, so I included Peace and Thought for card draw, along with Daeron’s Runes. Take no Notice and In the Shadows rounded out the ensemble, just because they were the events that sparked the whole idea.

Cutting Things Down

The first version of the deck really tried to get a lot of use out of the Vigilant Dunadan. Entangling Nets brought enemies attack down so that the Dunadan could defend more safely, as did In the Shadows. But, as you can see, I very quickly ended up with over 60 cards in the deck, and the deck’s mechanics were kind of all over the place, trying to do a number of things, while doing none of them particularly well. So we had to start pruning limbs off and reshaping others, to see if we could get the deck into a decent place.

As part of the process of cutting down, I ended up eliminating the Dunadan and almost all of the tech that enabled him. Part of the problem was that I also had a lot of cards meant to pump Sam up to become a high-class defender – Rosie, Hobbit Cloak, Staff of Lebethron – and I had to make a choice between Sam as a defender and the Vigilant Dunadan. There just wasn’t space in the deck to get both working without sacrificing some other core functionality. And, since Sam’s stuff was all in-sphere and didn’t require really tricky plays to get everything working just right, I chose it. In the end, I think the deck is a better deck because of it, both thematically and mechanically.

Getting rid of The Storm Comes and Elf-Stone also meant dropping the Northern Tracker as well, and I eventually cut the Dunedain Lookout as well. While I really like the Lookout, especially as a 2-cost Lore Dunedain ally that isn’t focused on how many enemies are engaged with you, his ability really doesn’t provide enough general value in this deck – too niche, and his stats are not good enough to include on their own merits.

As part of the whittling down process, I decided to focus more on the part of the deck that played with engagement costs. If – as I had decided – I was going to pump Sam up to be a super defender, I wanted to ensure that as many enemies had engagement costs greater than my threat as possible.

Towards that end, I included the ally version of Halbarad. Part of the reason I kept the side quest Send for Aid was because, between Halbarad, the East Road Ranger, and Thalion, I still had a number of expensive allies that I could cheat into play. But this way, even if I didn’t get them out via the side quest, I can still pay for any of the cards I draw.

Still, the biggest reason I included him was because he boosts the engagement costs of enemies engaged with me by 10. This keeps Hobbit Cloak functioning even after my threat has gone up substantially, and also helps to trigger Sam’s effect upon engagement.

Now, without Elf-stone in the deck, Thalion was a lot harder to get into play without paying the full 4 resources. Admittedly, he’s definitely worth it, but 4 resources can be hard to come by. However, it turns out that if you use the card Sneak Attack to get an ally into play, and that ally becomes a hero before the end of the phase, you do not return the new hero to your hand. Because the card you got into play is no longer an ally, the instructions to return the ally to your hand no longer apply. And, if I was going to be including Sneak Attack to get Thalion into play for cheap, I decided that I might as well include Gandalf as well. He’s especially thematic in this deck – rangers and hobbits questing together, with a little help from the wizard that keeps track of them. I dropped the 3 copies of Woodmen’s Clearing to make room – Gandalf’s threat reduction is better, and I didn’t have room for both.

I also dropped the Steed of the North on Thurindir – I really didn’t need the readying. The only thing I would find useful to do with it was to play Legacy Blades onto Thurindir and use him to attack as well. But I could just as easily attack with Sam or Pippin (remember, my first choice for the third hero), and I already had readying for them. And even if I didn’t have readying, I can sacrifice 2 willpower from Pippin in order to attack with the Legacy Blades much easier than I could sacrifice the 5 or more willpower from Thurindir.

Since I was doubling down on Sam as a high-profile defender, I added in 3 copies of Dunedain Warning, so that he could tank boss enemies if needed. I also added in 2 copies of the Imladris Caregiver for some healing. It’s not really the most potent healer in the game, but it’s a thematic choice. I sideboarded the Long Defeat – it’s more effective in multiplayer, and can be used as healing against quests that have a lot of direct damage.

Finally, I ended up replacing Daeron’s Runes with 2 copies of the Dunedain Pipe. The pipe draws fewer cards, but is more repeatable. And I found in my test draws on RingsDB that I seldom wanted to discard a card, except for duplicate copies of unique characters. There were often cards that I didn’t need at the moment, but I much preferred sending them to the bottom of my deck where I could draw to them (after a convenient shuffle) later, when I might need them more often. In addition, this leaves me with more cards to discard to the Imladris Caregiver if needed.

That got me to the published version of the deck, more or less. It actually only took a very little tweaking from there to get a version that was compatible with the mono-Spirit hobbit deck. Replacing Pippin with Folco Boffin helps with threat, but loses some card draw. However, since I have an extra measure of threat control, I added 3 copies of Deep Knowledge to replace the missing card draw from Pippin. It will also increase the threat of the other deck, but there is enough threat control in that deck that I’m simply not concerned, and the other deck can use some card draw to jump-start its own engines.

Hobbit Sense 2.0

Speaking of the mono-Spirit deck, it has also undergone some revisions. I’ve done a little bit of solo playtesting for it already, and there’s also been some excellent feedback given by numerous community members.

First, I swapped the Hobbit-Ponies for Steeds of Imladris, dropped Lords of the Eldar entirely, and replaced the 2 copies of Smoke Rings with 2 copies of Dwarven Tomb. In my plays, I found Smoke Rings to be almost a dead card, because I wanted to wait until I had all 3 copies of Hobbit Pipe in play before I ever played it. The 2 cost was also an issue at times. Dwarven Tomb, on the other hand, lets me recycle my more consistent threat reduction.

Lords of the Eldar just never got played, and was never needed. And the Hobbit Ponies were mostly included for shenanigans with Elevenses. Replacing them with Steeds of Imladris, on the other hand, gives me an additional option to discard Elven-Light, which can be exceptionally useful in getting the engine up and running.

In addition, I also just dropped Gildor Inglorion, Galdor of the Havens, and the 3 copies of Stand and Fight that were included in the deck. They were inconsistent and janky, and required specific combos to even be effective. Since the point was to include some combat punch to an otherwise somewhat vulnerable deck, I replaced them with 2 copies of Guardian of Rivendell, a third copy of Elevenses, and a third copy of Resourceful. I now have an alternate defender who also has enough attack to be dangerous at need, and more consistent threat reduction and resource acceleration.

Now, we needed to make a few more changes to get the deck ready to be a part of the fellowship. Unfortunately, Sam Gamgee was no longer eligible for inclusion, due to being one of the heroes in the other deck. In addition, I’d been noticing that it was rather difficult to get the Celduin Travelers into play – I was often out of secrecy for long periods of time with this deck, after using the abilities on Frodo or Pippin. Finally, without the off-sphere allies to get into the discard pile, the Elven Jeweler had sort of lost a lot of its utility. The Steeds of Imladris were more consistent, and the Guardians of Rivendell had the same effect as the Jeweler but offered a better ally to go with it.

So, I dropped Sam, the Jewelers, and the Celduin Travelers, and replaced them with 3 copies each of Curious Brandybuck and Wandering Took. As questing allies, the Brandybucks are less consistent and the Tooks less powerfull, but they do all give me more options for threat reduction with Elevenses. In fact, unless I need the extra willpower desperately, I will probably save the Curious Brandybucks until a turn when I can use Elevenses to remove a large number of Hobbits from the quest, thus reducing my threat considerably.

Finally, to support the side quest theme that drives the companion deck, I added a copy of Double Back. Although the threat reduction from this sidequest won’t trigger the Hobbit Pipes, it is a very powerful effect. In fact, it’s better for not triggering the Pipes, because I can clear the quest early and not have to worry about using my threat reduction sub-optimally.

Testing Regimen

Alright. Now that we’ve gotten the decks ready to work together, let’s start asking ourselves the important questions here. How should we test these decks?

My experience with the last Experimental Deckbuilding fellowship convinced me that 6 quests was too many. I am going to get to those last 2 quests, but I’m a little burned out on that fellowship right now. So, for this deck, we’re going to cut things down to 4 testing quests. That means that there can’t be any deadwood, every quest we test against has got to be pulling its weight.

So the first quest – which was going to be Journey Along the Anduin – needs to be a good, well-rounded quest that puts pressure on us from a number of angles. Journey Along the Anduin is going to be too easy to do that under our new constraints. However, the Nightmare mode for this quest should be exactly what we are looking for. It requires us to control our threat to avoid the Hill Troll early on, tests our questing ability on the second stage, and the third stage requires us to handle a lot of combat. I’m not very familiar with the nightmare mode for the game yet, so this will actually be my first attempt at a Nightmare mode quest.

For the second quest, I’m going to pick The Wastes of Eriador. This quest puts pressure on the threat dial, features numerous low engagement cost enemies, and threatens us with a great deal of direct damage. All of these are stress points that our decks need to be tested on.

The third quest will be A Knife in the Dark. Part of this is for thematic reasons – I love the idea of testing the sneaky hobbit decks through the part of the saga campaign where the hobbits were trying to sneak past the Nazgul – but the other part is the requirement to fight a whole bunch of Nazgul all at once during the last stage of the quest. The only problem with this deck testing is that I can’t include Frodo Baggins as one of my heroes, since I am required to use the Fellowship version. I will make a straight substitution for Fatty Bolger – also a Spirit Hobbit hero who can use your threat as a resource to trigger his ability. And, like Frodo, he’s a hero who can be used for defense in an emergency.

The final quest I want to test against is one that can sorely punish our deck for playing side quests. Normally, I’d go for Intruders in Chetwood for this type of quest, but I’m intrigued by the newer quest Escape from Umbar. Perhaps I’m just a glutton for punishment, but I really kind of want to see how these decks can function against a quest that really makes it difficult for you to play side quests and get their benefits.

So there we have it! Our new fellowship, and the 4 quests we are going to test it against. I’m going on vacation this week – I don’t expect to get any deck testing done, unless I can convince my family to play these decks with me. I do, however, expect to finish writing up some of the backlog narratives for Agents of the White Council, like I’ve promised to do. Hopefully, the next time I post, it will be to let that story out into the wild.

Until then, check out the new decks here!

2 thoughts on “Experimental Deckbuilding – In the Shadows

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s