Ancient Mathoms – Core Set Leadership

Hello again, and welcome to the newest series here on the White Tower! This series is produced in collaboration with the Card Talk podcast, and new entries will appear each Friday for the near future, alongside YouTube videos hosted both at my own YouTube channel and Card Talk’s flagship channel.

But first, an introduction.

Cardboard of the Rings – the pre-eminent podcast on our beloved LCG – has an occasional series in which they take an entire cycle’s worth of cards and evaluate the top 3 cards of the cycle, along with the 3 worst cards of the cycle. Now, I am an unrepentent tinkerer, constantly imagining ways in which things could be better, and listening to their takes on the bottom 3 cards makes me ask the question “what could make these cards playable?”

That led to the concurrent observation that a *lot* of the cards from the early cycles of the game have fared rather poorly over time, finding themselves displaced by newer and more efficient cards. Now, to give full credit to Caleb and his fellow designers and playtesters, power creep in this game has been extremely small and slow compared to other card games, with newer cards very seldom displacing older cards and instead opening up new deckbuilding spaces. But still, many of the older cards just find it difficult to compete in the modern card pool.

And now, the project. In collaboration with Grant Thompson of Card Talk, this series intends to examine the first 3 cycles of the game and identify all of the cards that are under the curve, and give them a little boost to be competitive in modern decks. We will also take a look at the most egregiously overpowered cards, bringing them back down to a more balanced level.

I’ll talk about nerfs and our strategy of approaching them in a later post. For this one, I’m going to give an overview of our basic strategy in boosting cards. None of these are hard-and-fast rules, but together they form the philosophy from which we are approaching this project.

First, honor the original vision of the card. That is, we are not going to be making broad sweeping changes that turn the card into something it’s not. The idea is to find a way to make the card’s basic idea as it is workable, not to create a new card that just happens to share the same name.

Second, smaller changes are preferable to larger changes. All things considered, we want a light touch. If a small change will make the card fine, then there’s no reason to make a larger change. This doesn’t mean that we won’t make larger changes, but they aren’t going to be the standard approach. And even the large changes will keep in mind the original spirit of the card.

Third, adding abilities are preferable to changing cost or stats. This is more of an aesthetic preference than anything else, and is probably the weakest of the priorities we are taking into account. But still, I do prefer to add an ability – especially one that opens up new and interesting deckbuilding space – over changing the cost or boosting stats in order to make a card worthwhile.

Finally, keep the cards relevant to the card pool they were originally released in. This will be more relevant to the nerfed power cards we will encounter, but it is also important for the underpowered cards we will be boosting. New abilities have to be good on their own, not only when combined with new archetypes from the most current cycles. It also means that we have to remember that when we nerf a card, we still have to make it useful in a limited card pool context.

With that said, let’s move on to analyzing cards. To break things up into bite-size chunks, we’ll be aiming to cover somewhere between 8 and 12 cards per entry in this series. For the Core Set, this will mean that each sphere will get its own entry, while later cycles might have multiple spheres in a single post. Today, we will look at our improved cards from the Leadership Sphere in the Core Set.


Steward of Gondor: Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way here first. Our first article, and we’ve already hit one of those cards that is so overpowered and meta-warping that it affects the entire breadth of the card pool. Leadership allies in particular – especially those from the first few cycles – have long had a well-deserved reputation for being overcosted, and you can make a credible argument that this card is the reason. It was just assumed that every Leadership deck would be running Steward of Gondor, and would therefore have the resources to be able to pay inflated costs for allies.

Even with access to the full modern card pool, it is hard to find a deck with Leadership access that wouldn’t be improved by adding Steward of Gondor, and even a number of decks without a sphere match still include the card, with cards like A Good Harvest or Reforged allowing you to get around needing a Leadership hero.

The reasons why this card are overpowered have been discussed at great length in the community, and I don’t intend to reproduce all the arguments here. The bigger problem is to find a means of bringing down its power level without nerfing the card into oblivion. Our self-imposed restrictions of avoiding sweeping changes, and specifically trying to keep the card relevant and useful for a Core Set only card pool add further layers of complication to the process.

We ended up settling on a multi-pronged approach. First, we would add a thematic restriction that would put some sort of limit on the number of decks which could include the Steward. Alongside that, we would also find some way to reduce the simply incredible efficiency of the card.

Our original instinct was to add the restriction “play only if you control a Gondor hero.” This would be extremely thematic, but had a slight problem. There are no Leadership Gondor heroes in the Core Set, and only 2 Gondor heroes outside the Leadership sphere. The paucity of the Gondor trait in the early game also killed the idea of restricting the card to attach only to Gondor heroes. So instead, we relaxed the thematic restriction somewhat to make it “play only if you control a Noble hero.” Less restrictive, easier to get around, but it still makes the card useful in the Core Set. As part of this approach, we also removed the text “attached hero gains the Gondor trait.” We felt that since there was a trait-granting attachment for Gondor already in the card pool, we didn’t need an extremely powerful resource generator that also gave the trait as an afterthought.†††

To combat the efficiency, we simply gave it the text “enters play exhausted.” The card is still powerful, even very powerful. But you can’t recoup the cost on the turn you play it. This means that you are forced into interesting and sometimes difficult choices about whether or not you can afford to get it into play on a given round, or if you need something that will help you right now instead of giving you an advantage in the long run.

Between the reduced efficiency and the trait restriction, we hope that the card has been made more balanced. But more importantly, we hope that the card has become much more fun to play.

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Theodred: Theodred is a reasonably useful hero, even in the modern card pool, so it might be a surprising sight to see him on a list of cards that we thought needed to be boosted. In fact, the only problem he has lies in the anti-synergy between his willpower and his stats.

Theodred is a 1-willpower hero whose ability requires him to commit to the quest. This is a simple problem, and has a simple solution. We have moved his point of defense to his willpower, giving him 2 willpower and 0 defense.

While this is only a marginal boost to Theodred, our hope is that it also provides a boost to Rohan decks, which have historically been one of the weaker archetypes in the game.

Brok Ironfist: Brok Ironfist has the dubious honor of being one of the absolute worst cards in the game. He is ridiculously overcosted, and completely underpowered. And if that weren’t enough, his ability is something that you should never be planning your game around. Losing a hero is often a death-blow to a run against a quest, and just getting Brok Ironfist in for free isn’t going to help with that.

This card was another challenging card to approach. His extremely high cost turns out to be a thematic home run, as is his ability. This made us even more reticent to adjust cost or stats, or to completely rewrite his ability. Instead, we focused on adding an ability that could be worth paying 6 resources for.

After a lot of workshopping, we settled on having Brok bring along one of his Ironfist kin from the far lands in the East where his clan dwells. After he is played from your hand, you may discard cards from the top of your deck until a Dwarf ally is discarded, and then put that ally into play. It’s still not a perfect card, by any means, but the chance of getting a powerful 3 or 4 cost ally for free is certainly something that might be worth 6 cost. In addition, some slight wording alterations made certain that, if you do lose a dwarf hero and get to put Brok into play for free, you still are able to trigger his second ability and get an additional ally. 2 free allies for a dead hero are far better than 1.

Longbeard Orc Slayer: The next ally on the list is another high-costed Dwarf ally. Unlike Brok Ironfist, his ability is actually powerful. But unfortunately, it is extremely situational, and in the absence of a decent situation in which to use it, he is far more expensive than his stats are worth.

For a long while, we pondered the idea of changing the Orc Slayer’s enters-play ability to affect more than just Orcs. Perhaps it might do a damage to any enemy, and then 1 damage to each Orc. Or perhaps it should just deal a damage to each enemy in play.

Eventually, however, we decided to focus instead on the underwhelming cost-to-stat ratio. Our inspiration came from the Erebor Guard, out of the Sands of Harad box, whose only ability is to discard 2 cards from the top of your deck to reduce his cost by 2. This is useful in a Dwarf mining context, and we decided to reproduce the ability verbatim for the Orc Slayer. This makes him a much more viable ally, even in the absence of a swarm of Orc enemies. In addition to gaining synergy with a new archetype that shows up in force later in the game’s lifespan, the cost reduction alone is enough reason to play the Orc Slayer even in an early-progression-series Dwarf deck. He can stand on his own, and gets even better when his ability is built around.

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Our concerns that this might dilute the usefulness of the Erebor Guard were satisfied when we realized that the Guard’s stats were far more efficiently distributed. He might not have an extra ability, but 2 defense/3 hit points plus the Sentinel keyword is a very good deal, while 2 cost for 2 attack with a large pool of hit points is still good, but it’s not exceptional.

Overall, the hope is that the reduced cost (via his ability) will make him an attractive choice for Dwarf decks, even before the mining archetype comes into its own. And in quests where it matters, his enters-play ability is still quite strong.

Guard of the Citadel: The Guard of the Citadel’s biggest problem is that it is bland. A 2-cost Gondor ally with 1 willpower and 1 attack is not useless – in the modern card pool, Gondor has enough static boosts that he can become quite respectable. His pool of 2 hit points is also useful, allowing him to soak up a damage from a treachery or the like. Unfortunately, his lack of ability means that he is often passed over for other, more generally useful Gondor allies, such as the Envoy of Pelargir and the like.

So, we decided to give the Guard a thematically appropriate ability. Avoiding the (rather scattered, to be sure) traditional Gondorian theme of interacting with resources, we decided to integrate the theme of being a guard. Choosing a hero and redirected quest phase damage from that hero to the guard felt like a reasonable step.

While this ability might seem quite powerful, it is important to note its limitations. It can protect a squishy questing hero from taking the direct damage of a treachery card, or it can be used to soak an attack from the staging area, even if you have to take an attack undefended. But since the trigger fires off of the Guard committing to the quest, and it only lasts until the end of the phase, potential power in redirecting combat phase damage is never realized.

Silverlode Archer: Like the Guard of the Citadel, the Silverlode Archer’s lack of an ability is a rather strong strike against it. In addition, however, the archer is rather overcosted. 3 cost for 2 ranged attack with no useful ability just doesn’t cut it in the modern pool, unfortunately.

In another parallel to the Guard of the Citadel, we decided just to give the Archer an ability. We also boosted its hit points to 2, because it was widely felt that the Silvan trait could use a few more allies who could take a little direct damage and still walk away from it.

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We wanted the ability to be an enters-play ability, in order to synergize with the Silvan trait as it would later be developed, but we also wanted it to be useful in other circumstances. In a parallel with the powerful Marksman of Lorien, we decided to have the Silverlode Archer reduce an enemy’s attack by 2 until the end of the round.

This gives you a turn to deal with the attacks of an extremely powerful enemy, like a Hill Troll from Journey Along the Anduin or a Nazgul from Dol Guldur. At the same time, we left the point of willpower instead of giving the card 3 attack, because we wanted to leave ranged attack dominance to the Tactics sphere.

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Son of Arnor: The final ally on our list is again overcosted. 3 cost for 2 attack and 2 hit points with no other stats is dreadful. The ability is remarkably useful – often more useful than you might anticipate. But still, at the end of the day he’s too expensive.

We considered adding a new ability to justify the cost, but that turned out to be ungainly or felt like lazy card design. So instead, we bent one of our guidelines, and just reduced his cost. This leaves us with a fairly efficient attacker along with a useful enters-play ability. While he still might not pass muster in a Dunedain deck, he’s a cost-efficient attacker in any Leadership deck, and a compelling sideboard option to deal with enemies who can’t leave the staging area.

Common Cause: Common Cause is a rather weak card. In certain situations, when you have a hero’s action available, you can maybe use it to save yourself from undefended attacks or the like.But the majority of the time, it will be sitting as a dead card in your hand.

To give this card a little bit of a boost, we made it boost the stats of the hero you readied. This makes it a little more attractive, we feel. It becomes somewhat analogous to the Tale of Tinuviel – that card gives much higher boosts, but that is balanced by the specific deck composition you have to play with in order to use it. And 0-cost is definitely useful.

Ever Vigilant: Ever Vigilant is another readying event in this sphere – the Core Set seemed to be full of them. It has a few niche uses in the modern card pool – mostly readying ally Faramir to double-dip on his willpower boosts – but by and large it is a forgotten card.

When you compare it to all the other readying-a-single-character events, it is lackluster. The others all do something else really helpful, like boost defense or attack, or else they cost 0, like To Arms! Now, of course, most of them come along with a restriction to balance that out, but it still leaves our card out in the dark.

So we did 2 things. First, we removed the restriction of readying an ally. Being able to ready a hero is a huge change that should drastically improve the stock of this card. In addition, it now grants that character Ranged and Sentinel until the end of the phase. Those keywords are almost always useful, and are very often difficult to get onto an ally that doesn’t have them natively.

Celebrian’s Stone: The last card on our list today, Celebrian’s Stone is another unusual card to see here. 2 cost for 2 willpower is a fine trade, and on an attachment, it’s safe from direct damage or ally-discard effects. The only adjustment we’ve made here is to remove the restricted keyword from Celebrian’s Stone. Again, this is more of a thematic change than a power one, but it feels right. More than anything else, this opens up a second restricted attachment that Aragorn might be able to use.

And that’s a wrap! These are all the cards from the Leadership sphere that we felt could use a boost, ranging from almost imperceptible all the way up to fixing-Brok-Ironfist level. Watch our companion YouTube show at Card Talk’s YouTube channel, or on my own here.

OCTGN files and printable images of the Core Set cards are available here, and we look forward to you enjoying them in your own games. We’d love to hear about any cool games you’ve had with these cards!

Tune in next Friday to see our approach to the Tactics cards!

3 thoughts on “Ancient Mathoms – Core Set Leadership

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