5 Things I Wish I Would’ve Known When I Started Playing LOTR LCG
Let’s face it, The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game can be a very frustrating experience for new players. I remember bashing my brains against the Hill Troll quite a few times when the Core Set first came out, rage quitting over and over again when trying to beat Escape from Dol Guldur solo, and being mushed into a fine paste by Louis, Morris, Rupert, and Stuart during the Conflict at the Carrock scenario. Thankfully, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this is a game that you get better at the more you play, and nowadays my moments of defeat are tempered with the knowledge that I will eventually beat whatever scenario I’m facing with the right strategy and right deck. This makes difficult quests feel welcome instead of making me want to set my card collection on fire. It reminds me of when I was first learning to play guitar. During that time, figuring out how to get my fingers to stretch or be in the right places at the right times could be incredibly frustrating. Now, after many years of playing, there are still songs or techniques that I find difficult to learn, yet I don’t feel as overwhelmed because I have an understanding based on experience that mastery is just a matter of practice (and I have a toolkit upon which to draw). The same could be said of this game. Therefore, while I would by no means say I’m the best player around (which is a hard thing to measure with this game anyway), there are a few tidbits of wisdom won through experience which I would like to share with those who are new or fairly new to the game to ease your transition and that immediate barrier of frustration. The following is a list of the 5 things I wish I would have known when I first started playing LOTR LCG. For those who are experienced with the game already, please read on as well and see where you agree, disagree, or would like to add to my list.
#5) Some rules are easy to miss at first
We all make mistakes when learning to play a game (or any new activity really), and there is no shame in that. I made plenty in the beginning, and in order to save you that same trouble of figuring out later that you have been misinterpreting rules, here are some commonly made errors. These are based on my own and others’ experiences. They may seem simple in retrospect, but you would be surprised at how often they come up when first learning the game.
– Yes, if you do not commit characters to a quest, the threat in the staging area still applies and it will count as failing the quest for that round.
– Damage from undefended attacks must be placed on heroes. You cannot put the damage on one of your allies instead. For this reason, you should almost never take an undefended attack if you can avoid it. You may think you have available hit points on your heroes to soak it up, but many shadow effects boost the attack strength of enemies and often get nastier if an attack is undefended. There are times where I strategically take an undefended attack, but those moments are rare.
– When revealing cards as part of the set-up, all effects (including treacheries) are applied, if possible.
– Don’t forget that you can always mulligan your starting hand. Knowing when to mulligan or not is a very important part of the game. You should know ahead of time what card or cards you need to have in your initial hand in order to have the best chance of success. If that card or cards is not there, then you should probably mulligan.
– Progress tokens always go on the active location. You almost never are allowed to put them straight onto the quest card if there is an active location (if you are able to do this, a card will tell you so directly). On the other hand, enemy effects that remove progress tokens only do so from the quest card itself, not the active location (again, unless it directly says otherwise).
– When you complete a quest stage, it finishes right then and there, no matter what phase you are in, and you have to move to the next quest stage and resolve its effects immediately. This can hurt you if you are not prepared (see #2 in this list).
– The threat of engaged enemies and the active location does not count towards the total threat during quest resolution.
#4) Know your action windows
This sounds fairly basic, but not understanding exactly when action windows occur and what opportunities they provide is a common mistake that new players (and even those with a few games under their belt) can sometimes make. An action window is when players are allowed to play event cards and take actions. One of the most important action windows happens right after the staging step (when cards are revealed off the encounter deck) and before a quest is resolved. A common mistake of newer players is to play event cards too early, such as at the very beginning of the quest phase. For example, take a card like Astonishing Speed, which boosts the willpower of all Rohan characters by 2.
You may play this card before you commit characters to the quest, which will allow you to know exactly how much willpower you are committing (including the boost). This is a perfectly valid move. However, you can instead wait to play Astonishing Speed until after you know exactly how much threat is in the staging area and before quest resolution happens. The benefit of this approach is that if you have made what you judge to be an acceptable amount of progress, you can save Astonishing Speed for an instance when you really need to use it. In general, it is better to play such global buffing cards only when you know you need to use them, rather than play them blindly in the hopes that they will be necessary (of course, in some instances it will be obvious that you need to play them no matter what). This particular action window is also important for such cards as Radagast’s Cunning or Secret Paths, which allow you to cancel the threat of an enemy or location respectively for the duration of a phase. There is absolutely no benefit to playing these at the beginning of the quest phase when you don’t know what the highest threat will be. Instead wait until the action window right before quest resolution, and then you can use these cards to take out what you now know to be the worst enemy or location in terms of threat.
Another quirk to be aware of is that there is an action window at the end of the refresh phase (after characters have readied) but before the round ends. This is usually not as important a window but it is something that new players often miss. So, for example, you can use this window to exhaust a readied Gandalf to play Word of Command (which requires you to exhaust an Istari character to pick out one card from your deck) right before he pops out of play. Study the action window chart at the back of the rulebook until you know it by heart. Know that there are certain times during the round (like most of the combat phase and planning) where you can take actions at will.
*Addendum: On the issue of action windows, the provided chart at the back of the rulebook is a pretty good resource, but I find it easiest to state things in terms of when you can’t take actions. The following instances are when you cannot take player actions (and keep in mind you can only play ally and attachments cards during the planning phase, in the specified player order):
– While players are placing resources and drawing cards (usually doesn’t come into play)
– While you are drawing encounter cards from the deck during staging (you have action windows before and after)
– While you are calculating quest resolution (but you have a convenient action window right before that you can use)
– While you are traveling to a location (you have action windows before and after the actual act of traveling)
– While you are optionally engaging enemies (you have action windows before and after)
– While engagement checks are being made (you have action windows before and after)
– While shadow cards are being dealt (you have action windows before and after)
– While you refresh all cards, raise threat by 1, and pass the first player token (you have action windows before and after, including right before the round officially ends)
Everything else is fair game for you to take actions!
#3) Don’t always chump block
One of the first strategies that players discover in this game is to sacrifice cheap, low-powered allies in order to soak up enemy attacks. This is no doubt a useful strategy as it keeps your more powerful heroes readied and avoids the danger that a nasty shadow effect might tear through one of your defending hero’s defense and hit points and kill them. It is a viable and useful approach no matter how long you have been playing the game, with some variation as to how much particular players employ chump blockers. My word of advice though is not to let this strategy become an automatic reflex. One of the keys to winning most scenarios is to build up a pool of allies for questing and combat in order to gain a numbers advantage over the encounter deck, and if you are constantly sacrificing these allies, then you will forever be working your way back up from scratch. Furthermore, a chump blocker used now is one that you can’t use later when you may really need it. Granted, I have won quite a few games using a limited number of allies and mostly just my heroes, but it is better to get in the habit of thinking strategically about when to sacrifice and when to use a hero to defend. You should always have one hero as a dedicated defender, and arm them with attachments to limit the dangers of defending (Burning Brand, Dunedain Warning, Citadel Plate, etc.). Great natural candidates are any hero with a starting defense of 2 or more (3 or 4 is best).
That being said, this game is all about calculated, managed risk and defending is the epitome of this. If you do not feel confident that a hero may survive a given attack because of known shadow effects (attack boosts for the enemy are the most common danger), and you have no possible way to cancel potential effects, then by all means throw that ally to the wargs! However, the point I’m trying to convey is that you need to build up the capability of your heroes to absorb attacks, so that you can build up enough of a base of allies to be victorious. If you can throw an Unexpected Courage or Fast Hitch on your hero defender, so much the better as they will be able to handle multiple attacks per round. To sum up, let me put it this way, that flimsy West Road Traveller may make a tempting chump blocker, but then you have lost 2 willpower every round for the rest of the game. If you can prevent that for an acceptable level of risk, do so.
#2) Pace yourself
When I first started playing this game, I wanted to put as many cards into play each turn as possible, and use up as much of my resources as I could. LOTR LCG is a bit scary in that you never know what will come off the encounter deck in a particular round (usually), and the game can swing in dramatic ways. It is tempting to just put everything out on the table whenever you are able to in the hopes that this will keep you safe. Resist that urge. It is sometimes better to play absolutely nothing even when you have available resources and playable cards, if it means that you will be able to save up for a combo or better card later. The simplest example is to imagine that you have only one Leadership character, a Dunedain Warning in hand that costs 1 resource, and a Steward of Gondor that costs 2 resources. You can play that Dunedain Warning to increase one of your hero’s defense by 1 for the whole game, definitely a good thing, but that choice means you will be unable to play the Steward of Gondor the following turn. In most cases, it is wiser to hold off on playing the Warning and save up for the Steward of Gondor, which will give you a powerful resource advantage for the rest of the game (and allow you to play the Warning on that same turn if you so choose). This is a simple example, but it does illustrate my point because the reality of the game puts us in the position of making difficult choices. What if a nasty enemy comes up on the turn you are saving up for the Steward, you have no allies in play as blockers, and you find yourself really needing that extra point of defense from the Dunedain Warning this turn? That is always a possibility, and your job is to have a contingency plan in place or be comfortable with an acceptable level of risk in order to build a stronger basis for victory. Another situation is that you may have a few cards in your hand that are playable but not immediately useful, in which case I advise you to save your resources. Maybe you will draw a strong 3, 4, or 5 cost card on your next turn and you will be glad you have the resources to immediately play it.
Pacing also applies to how fast you progress through quest stages. The immediate impulse is to simply barrel as quickly as possible through each quest stage. This is necessary and valuable in some scenarios. In other scenarios, you will jump straight into your own demise if you do this. Conflict at the Carrock comes to mind, where the powerful trolls will rush you before you are ready if you progress too fast. Another example is the first quest of the Khazad-Dum box, Into the Pit, where on the third stage heroes do not gain resources. If you are not prepared for that lack of resources and for the final push, you may suffer greatly. Knowing when to build your power and when to move ahead as fast as possible is a key skill to develop.
#1) All that glitters is not gold… (aka Learn to appreciate the less flashy cards)
Certain cards in this game immediately jump out at you as powerful when you first encounter them: Steward of Gondor, Unexpected Courage, A Test of Will, etc. Others may appear to be not quite as useful or even look quite useless at first glance. Looks can be deceiving, however, and those seemingly pointless cards can be your best friends in the long run. I definitely fell victim at first to the tendency to overlook cards that seemed weak at first glance, and immediately dismissed some that I now swear by. Certain cards have very subtle effects that may be easy to ignore because they will not win you the game by themselves. However, the consistent use of several such cards throughout the course of a game may in fact win you the game. Radagast’s Cunning and Secret Paths are two cards that you will see me mention in this blog a lot as they are two cards that I include in almost every deck that includes Lore. Radagast’s Cunning allows you to cancel the threat of one enemy in the staging area during questing, while Secret Paths does the same thing for a location of your choice.
When I first got the game, I hardly ever used these two cards other than the first few games when I was trying everything. On the face of it, these two cards are not that powerful, being limited to a one-time use and merely canceling the threat of a location/enemy, not disposing of it permanently. But take another look and they are very cheap, costing only 1 resource token, can be played after staging since they are events (meaning you can pick out the highest threat location/enemy), and essentially give you the equivalent of an extra 2-5 willpower for questing (depending on what you can cancel in the staging area). You can’t ever miss on them because if nothing worth canceling comes up, then simply hold onto these cards for another turn. Another example of an under-appreciated card is Strider’s Path, which for a cost of 1 allows you to travel to a location as soon as it is revealed (without resolving the travel effect). At first glance, this may seem useful only for ignoring travel effects, which is a fairly hit-or-miss proposition and probably not worthy of inclusion in a deck in place of other cards. However, the real value of this card is in clearing a potentially high-threat location out of the staging area before the quest resolves. Use of these three cards could allow you to progress much more quickly through quest stages (when appropriate), meaning you will be on your way to victory while another deck is getting swamped with enemies, locations, and treacheries.
You will notice that Lore has a lot of these subtle-yet-powerful cards, and it is the sphere that is perhaps most low-key in its effects (with Tactics being the most straightforward). However, this phenomenon is not limited to Lore. A recent Spirit card, A Watchful Peace, provides another illustration of this concept. It costs only 1 and allows you to put a location that leaves play back on top of the encounter deck. Someone might ask, why the heck would you want to do that? Besides regaining the benefits of a location that gives you some kind of positive effect, there are three other reasons even if the location is negative: 1) it allows you to know at least 1 of the cards that will come up next round during staging (caveat: remember this is true only if there will be no combat on the round this card is played, as shadow cards dealt that round will draw this location first), 2) it means that you are replacing a potential enemy or treachery with a location (generally locations are the least nasty of the 3 types, but again there must be no combat that round for this to work), and 3) it can guarantee that if there is combat during the round it is played that at least one of the shadow cards will be harmless (if that location has no shadow effects). While I am not saying this is the most powerful card effect in the game, you will become a much better player once you understand these core tenets:
* The more you know what will come off the encounter deck, the better prepared you will be. Put another way, usually the devil you know is always better than the unknown in this game (in that you won’t be caught surprised).
* Learning how to manage the player deck will make you a good player. Learning how to manage the encounter deck will make you a great player. Cards that do the former will leap out at you. Cards that do the latter will often appear less glamorous, but don’t shortchange them.
I hope new players have found this article useful. I hope veteran players will contribute their own insights and bits of wisdom in the comments below for newer players (and everyone) to benefit from.