Deck Building 101: Part 1 – Deck Abilities
Here we begin the official Tales from the Cards guide to deck-building. It will be an ongoing series, covering a variety of topics to help guide players in constructing decks. It can be an aspect of the game that feels intimidating at first, especially since the card pool has grown much larger than the days of the Core Set (and will only be growing with time). For those who are new to customizing decks, but interested in the theme and gameplay of LOTR LCG, learning how to build decks may seem like a barrier to simply playing and enjoying the game. However, with some practice and an understanding of key deck-building considerations, it can actually become something you look forward to as part of the fun.
In Part 1, we are going to be looking at Deck Abilities. Before even thinking about such things as how many allies to include or what spheres to use, you need to start by asking a very simple question: What do you want your deck to be able to do? Now, of course, in an ideal world, you would want your deck to do a little bit of everything, and it is theoretically possible to do so. In general, however, it is better to focus on a few key abilities for your deck to have, so that your deck has better consistency. Consistency is a game concept that refers to the predictability of deck performance from game to game, including what cards reliably come into play. If you include a few cards that cover every possible deck ability, you might draw some healing and willpower boosting cards one game, and then some direct damage and defense boosting cards in another game. Focusing on a few abilities instead will ensure that the effects you want are more reliable and more potent. If you are building for a pure solo game, by necessity you will have to cover more of these bases in a single deck. However, if you are building two (or more) decks to complement each other, you have the benefit of dividing up these abilities between them and specializing more heavily.
How to use this guide: One way to think about building your deck and thinking about what abilities to focus on is imagining your deck itself as a character in an RPG or adventure. What kind of abilities and skills would you want your character (deck) to have? What kind of character (deck) would you want to be? What would lead to the most success? What kinds of play-styles spark your interest? Below you will find the major card abilities that you can include in your LOTR LCG decks. I have collected them into categories associated with a certain “character” type, along with listings of the important heroes, allies, attachments, and events that provide that deck ability. By grouping them into character types, I am not suggesting that you necessarily build decks based on those categories (though that certainly is possible and a useful starting place). What you should do is pick out the 3-5 deck abilities that you want to serve as the foundation for your deck. Afterwards, you can “splash” in a few others as a secondary focus.
In Tolkien’s world, the wizard character is not as flashy as his counterpart in other fantasy milieus. You won’t see him tossing out fireballs like candy or studying spell books. Instead, the role of the wizard, best exemplified by Gandalf, is to guide the actions of others, to inspire heroism, and to help unite the various factions of Middle-Earth. The wizard is the one that sets the stage and puts everything in place to ensure success against the Enemy. With that in mind, I consider resource generation and card draw, essential for almost all decks, to fall under the Wizard collection of abilities.
* Resource Generation
Resources are the lifeblood of the game. Without resources to pay for allies, attachments, and events, you will not be able to put cards on the table or use any of the fantastic abilities you have included in your deck. The more spheres you have chosen to include, the greater the need for generating resources. This is not one of those “nice-to-have” abilities, this is a must. The only way you may be able to avoid thinking about resource generation is if you are running a mono-sphere deck. One thing to keep in mind is that resource generation comes in two flavors: “active” resource generation includes cards and effects that actually give you resources, and “passive” resource generation (more accurately called resource manipulation) allows you to get more out of your existing cards by giving multiple resource icons to heroes or moving resources between characters. Both are essential.
Resource-generating heroes: Bifur, Elrond, Gloin, Theodred, Thorin Oakenshield
Resource-using heroes (these heroes need good resource generation to be at their best): Aragorn (Leadership), Boromir (Leadership), Elladan, Elrohir, Glorfindel (Lore).
Best sphere for generating resources: Leadership
Resource-generating allies: Envoy of Pelargir, Errand-Rider, Radagast, Zigil Miner, Master of Lore
Resource-generating attachments: Steward of Gondor, Horn of Gondor, Love of Tales, Miruvor, Narvi’s Belt, Resourceful, Songs of Travel/Kings/Wisdom/Battle, Vilya, Sword That Was Broken, Celebrian’s Stone, Good Meal
Resource-generating events: Parting Gifts, We Are Not Idle, Wealth of Gondor
* Card Draw
Along with resource generation, this is one of the core abilities to include in your deck (and is central to most card games of this kind). More cards in your hand give you more options, and ensure that you will have the right card when you need it. There’s no point in building a magnificent deck and designing great card combinations if they never see the light of day. With most games not lasting long enough for you to draw your entire deck (or even most of it), you need to make sure you include some card draw capabilities so that what you really need doesn’t end up buried. The foundation for victory is often set in the first few rounds, so the more cards you can get in your hand and in play during that time, the more likely you are to be successful. Also keep in mind that cards in your hand can be used to power certain effects, like boosting Eowyn’s willpower or a character’s defense/willpower using Protector of Lorien.
Card-drawing heroes: Bilbo Baggins (Lore), Beravor, Ori
Best sphere for drawing cards: Lore
Card-drawing allies: Erestor, Gandalf (core), Gleowine
Card-drawing attachments: Legacy of Durin, Song of Earendil, Ancient Mathom
Card-drawing events: Campfire Tales, Valiant Sacrifice, Lorien’s Wealth, Daeron’s Runes, Foe-hammer, Peace and Thought, Renewed Friendship, Taking Initiative, We Are Not Idle
There are various rangers in Middle-Earth, from the Dunedain wanderers of the north to the Ithilien rangers of Gondor. They are characterized by a knowledge of the lands around them, including which are the best and safest paths to take. In addition, rangers know how to avoid enemies when necessary, or how to best neutralize the dangers they pose. To this end, I consider treachery cancellation, encounter deck manipulation, location management, and threat management to be all a part of the ranger collection of abilities.
* Treachery Cancellation
Treacheries come in all shapes and sizes, but most can ruin your day if they come up at inopportune moments. While the nastiest enemies can definitely ruin your day, and while certain locations may be a bit tricky to deal with, it is treacheries that are often the most dangerous to heroes’ chances of success. What makes matters worse is that there are so far only a few options to deal with treacheries. If you know that the quest you are facing has treacheries of a fairly mild nature, or you feel confident that your deck can survive them in most instances, then you may be able to go without any forms of treachery cancellation. However, it is a rare quest indeed that this is the case. In practice, you almost always are going to want to play with a few A Test of Wills in your deck (the worst treacheries are when Eleanor comes into play). Indirectly dealing with treacheries is your only other recourse, which can be accomplished through encounter deck manipulation.
Treachery-cancelling heroes: Eleanor
Best sphere for cancelling treacheries: Spirit
Treachery-cancelling allies: None
Treachery-cancelling attachments: None
Treachery-cancelling events: A Test of Will
* Encounter Deck Manipulation
This refers to any cards or effects that allow you to either scry the encounter deck in order to see what is coming next, or to actually move cards around inside it. Used strategically, this can be one of the most powerful abilities. It is also one that takes some time to master, and can be frustrating as it does not always bear fruit. However, those who do not include this ability may be leaving out a key ingredient of success. Because there are so few methods of true treachery cancellation, encounter deck manipulation can serve as another means to avoid the nastiest treacheries that quests can serve up. I have also included in this category those cards that allow you to dodge, avoid attacks, or move enemies around the board, as this is a means of manipulating what the encounter deck has served up.
Encounter deck manipulating heroes: Denethor, Eleanor (replaces a treachery with something else), Thalin (can eliminate 1-hit point enemies, including surging ones).
Best sphere for manipulating the encounter deck: Lore
Encounter deck manipulating allies: Henamarth Riversong, Son of Arnor
Encounter deck manipulating attachments: Forest Snare, Ranger Spikes
Encounter deck manipulating events: A Watchful Peace, Expecting Mischief, Gildor’s Counsel, Needful to Know, Out of the Wild, Risk Some Light, Rumour from the Earth, Shadow of the Past, The End Comes, A Light in the Dark, Feint, Out of Sight, Fresh Tracks, O Elbereth! Gilthonial!, Thicket of Spears
* Location Management
While you will often hear me say that locations are the easiest to deal with out of the three encounter card types (enemies, treacheries, locations), that does not mean that they should be ignored. Quests that have many locations or include treacheries that play upon locations (such as increasing their threat or drawing them out of the deck or discard pile), can severely restrict your progress, even leading to defeat through threat increase. While many successful decks are built without including any form of location management, it is an ability that can aid you in making progress more quickly and clearing out those locations that have particularly nasty side effects.
Location managing heroes: None. Legolas indirectly helps with this by putting progress on the active location using his ability.
Best sphere for managing locations: Spirit and Lore
Location managing allies: Bombur, Longbeard Elder, Lorien Guide, Northern Tracker, Ravenhill Scout, Snowbourn Scout, The Riddermark’s Finest, West Road Traveller
Location managing attachments: Asfaloth, Power in the Earth, Thror’s Map
Location managing events: A Watchful Peace, Ancestral Knowledge, Ride to Ruin, Secret Paths, Short Cut, Strength of Will, Strider’s Path
* Threat Management
In many quests, the biggest danger is not the destruction of all your heroes, but threat increases, both big and small, that eventually cost you the game. Threat management refers to cards and effects that either directly lower your threat or cancel the threat provided by enemies and locations. This is an ability whose necessity depends on the particular quest you are playing, although the indirect aspect of cancelling the threat of enemies and locations is something that I think almost all players and decks can benefit from. Some quests include many treacheries, locations, and enemies that directly increase your threat. Others may entirely ignore this aspect. How much direct threat management you include should be a direct reflection of what you are facing. However, managing your threat is also important for avoiding particularly nasty enemies with high engagement costs. I, along with many others, first learned the utility of threat management when facing down the Hill Troll in Journey Down the Anduin, where starting with too high of a threat led to being engaged in battle before one was truly prepared. With that in mind, if you find that you are not including many abilities from the Warrior category, you may want to load up on threat management to make sure that enemies are staying away from you when needed.
Threat managing heroes: Aragorn (Lore), Dwalin, Nori
Heroes that use/raise your threat: Boromir, Frodo, Glorfindel (Spirit)
Best sphere for managing threat: Spirit and Lore
Threat managing allies: Damrod, Elfhelm, Gandalf (core), Ithilien Tracker, Wandering Took
Threat managing attachments: Ever My Heart Rises, Power in the Earth, Ranger Spikes, Song of Earendil
Threat managing events: Elrond’s Counsel, Ever Onward, Needful to Know, Radagast’s Cunning, Renewed Friendship, Secret Paths, The Galadhrim’s Greeting
Tolkien’s world is filled with warriors, both heroes and anonymous foot soldiers, that fight to stem the tide of Sauron’s legions. The warrior collection of deck abilities encompasses those that deal with combat. I want to take this opportunity to mention that there are different styles of engaging in combat in LOTR LCG. While the specifics will be mentioned in a future article, for now know that there is the uber-hero style that aims to build up certain heroes (and even particularly strong allies) to the point that they swing for huge amounts of damage each turn. Then there is the swarm style that hopes to put as many allies on the table as possible in the hopes that they can absorb whatever comes up at them, and team up to take down the bigger foes. Finally, there is also a tanking style that really focuses on having a strong, impenetrable defense and absorbing damage rather than dishing it out, selectively taking out enemies when necessary. Because of this, certain of these abilities will be more useful than others depending on your general approach to combat.
* Direct Damage
With this ability, you are aiming to put damage directly on enemies outside the usual combat sequence. This is especially useful for hurting those enemies with a high defense, softening them up for more traditional combat. It can be used by those decks that aren’t well-suited for regular combat, as direct damage can be a means of supporting another player that is taking on most of the enemies or it can allow you to at least thin out the amount of enemies your characters will have to defend against. It can also be useful for all-out warrior decks that want to hurt enemies in all possible ways, clearing the board in the blink of an eye. Those who are focused mostly on defending can also benefit from direct damage in order to soften up enemies so that a Gondorian Spearman or Spear of the Citadel-wielding defender can finish them.
Direct damage heroes: Boromir, Thalin, Dunhere (not true direct damage, but close enough in that he gets a free swing on an enemy in the staging area)
Best sphere for direct damage: Tactics
Direct damage allies: Beorning Beekeeper, Descendant of Thorondor, Gandalf (core), Gondorian Spearman, Longbeard Orc Slayer
Direct damage attachments: Dwarrowdelf Axe, Spear of the Citadel
Direct damage events: Expecting Mischief, Fresh Tracks, Goblin Cleaver, Hail of Stones, Heavy Stroke, Infighting, Rain of Arrows, Swift Strike, Taking Initiative, Hands Upon the Bow, Quick Strike (*Note: The last two enable instant attacks, which is equivalent to direct damage effects)
This refers to any cards or effects that either boost the defense/hit points of characters or get rid of shadow effects (given that much of the danger of combat actually comes from the unpredictability of shadow cards). Note that the main form of defense for some decks is the inclusion of cheap, weak allies that can be used as “chump blockers” to absorb enemy attacks, thus protecting the heroes. The use of defense/tanking abilities in your decks means that you are not relying on chump blockers as the primary means of defense during combat. One thing to take into consideration, as with all deck abilities, is how necessary it will be for the particular quest you are playing. If there are not many enemies with high attack values or not many enemies in general, then this ability may not need to be a primary focus.
Defense/Tanking heroes: Beregond, Beorn, Denethor, Dain Ironfoot, Elrond, Frodo, Elrohir (*Note: This was based on those heroes with high defense or, in the case of Frodo and Beorn, with abilities centering around defending)
Best sphere for defense/tanking: Tactics
Defense/Tanking allies: Beorn, Defender of Ramas, Gandalf, Gildor Inglorion, Winged Guardian (*Note: Again, this is based on those with a high natural defense); Dunedain Watcher, Rider of the Mark (These two deal with shadow effects); Dori (can take damage for a hero); Arwen Undomiel (the quintessential defense boosting ally)
Defense/Tanking attachments: Blood of Numenor, Protector of Lorien, Ring Mail, Support of the Eagles, Boots from Erebor, Hardy Leadership, Citadel Plate, Self Preservation, A Burning Brand, Dark Knowledge, Song of Mocking, Dunedain Warning
Defense/Tanking events: Behind Strong Walls, Durin’s Song, For Gondor!, Light the Beacons, Dawn Take You All, Hasty Stroke, Stand Together, Blade Mastery
This refers to any card or effects that boost the attack values of characters. The utility of this is obvious, in that it allows your heroes and allies to be more effective during combat. How much this ability is useful to you will depend on the defense values and hit points of the enemies you will be facing. For example, playing one of the Khazad-Dum quests that involves lots and lots of squishy orcs will probably not require as much of this deck ability as one that features trolls. A deck that includes many attack/hulking effects will be able to clear enemies quickly, but just make sure you pair this with readying effects. There is little point in turning Gimli or Boromir into a superman if they only get to hit one enemy per turn. One thing to note is that the new Heirs of Numenor quests, with their battle mechanic, has also dramatically heightened the importance of attack/hulking effects in that they now become invaluable for questing as well.
Attack/hulking heroes: Boromir (Leadership), Gimli, Hama (can recycle attack/hulking cards), Dain Ironfoot
Best sphere for attack/hulking: Tactics
Attack/hulking allies: Eagles of the Misty Mountains, Erebor Battle Master, Vassal of the Windlord (can be viewed as a kind of disposable boost to attack for one round), Beorn
Attack/hulking attachments: Dwarrowdelf Axe, Keeping Count, Rivendell Bow, Support of the Eagles, Blade of Gondolin, Dunedain Mark, Dwarven Axe, Rivendell Blade
Attack/hulking events: Durin’s Song, For Gondor!, Grave Cairn, Hands Upon the Bow, Khazad! Khazad!, Unseen Strike, Blade Mastery
Thinking about standard RPG archetypes, I was almost tempted to call this category the Cleric, but that didn’t quite fit Middle-Earth themes. I then started to think about who played the role of healing, readying, and giving counsel (player deck manipulation) in Middle-Earth when the heroes needed it. It was people like Elrond and Galadriel who played the role of Sage to the more active participants in the events at the end of the Third Age. This collection of deck abilities is all about keeping heroes and allies at peak condition, bringing them back from the edge of death when necessary, and providing the right aid or tool just when it is needed.
Fairly straightforward, healing involves removing damage from characters and bringing them back from the discard pile. Any quest that involves heavy amounts of combat or includes treacheries and enemies that deal damage directly to heroes and allies might require some of this deck ability. While healing is usually used to keep heroes alive and kicking, preserving allies can help guide you to victory as well by ensuring that you get the most out of resources spent on them.
Healing heroes: Elrond, Glorfindel (Lore)
Best sphere for healing: Lore (Spirit for resurrection)
Healing allies: Daughter of the Nimrodel, Radagast, Silvan Tracker, Warden of Healing, Landroval, Longbeard Map-Maker
Healing attachments: Self Preservation, Healing Herbs
Healing events: Beorn’s Hospitality, Lore of Imladris, Dwarven Tomb, Fortune or Fate, Stand and Fight, To the Eyrie, Will of the West
A key part of making sure that your deck is performing to its true potential is getting multiple uses out of heroes and allies each turn. To that end, readying effects are those that either ready characters or allow them to perform certain actions without exhausting. With this deck ability, you can be more effective in questing, defending, and attacking, as your characters will not have to devote themselves to just one aspect. While some of the abilities I have discussed are less useful depending on the make-up of the encounter deck, readying is something that is always welcome in any scenario that you will come across.
Readying heroes: Aragorn (core), Boromir (Tactics), Brand son of Bain, Elladan, Elrohir, Prince Imrahil, Beorn
Best sphere for readying: Leadership and Spirit
Readying allies: Eomund, Erebor Record Keeper, Westfold Horse-Breaker, Gandalf (OHaUH), Trollshaw Scout, Watcher of the Bruinen
Readying attachments: Unexpected Courage, Fast Hitch, Cram, Ever My Heart Rises, Miruvor, Spare Hood and Cloak, Light of Valinor, Path of Need,
Readying events: Behind Strong Walls, Common Cause, Ever Vigilant, Grim Resolve, Lure of Moria, Renewed Friendship, Light the Beacons, We Do Not Sleep
* Player Deck Manipulation
This ability is a close cousin of card draw, in that it allows you to more quickly get what you want from your deck. In this case, you are getting a chance to actually look at what is coming up in your player deck, and possibly even re-arrange the cards to better fit your plans. I also include under this heading those cards that allow you to pull cards from your deck and put them into your hand or put them into play directly. This deck ability becomes of prime importance when you are creating a deck that relies heavily on certain cards (Spirit Glorfindel with Light of Valinor, Elrond with Vilya, etc.) to come up in the first few turns. Player deck manipulation also can be significant when dealing with other player cards or encounter deck cards that base their effects on what is drawn off the top of your deck.
Player deck manipulating heroes: Elrond (with Vilya)
Best sphere for player deck manipulation: Spirit, Lore, and Leadership
Player deck manipulating allies: Bofur (Tactics), Fili, Kili, Gildor Inglorion, Hunter of Lamedon, Imladris Stargazer, Keen-Eyed Took, Master of the Forge, Rivendell Minstrell
Player deck manipulating attachments: Vilya
Player deck manipulating events: A Very Good Tale, Gandalf’s Search, Mustering the Rohirrim, The Eagles Are Coming!, Timely Aid, Will of the West, Word of Command
Last, but not least, every adventure in Middle-Earth requires the character whose sole focus is on accomplishing the quest, and whose primary weapon is faith, courage, and strength of mind. A ringbearer does not have to refer only to Frodo Baggins, but applies to any character whose main focus and skill is in moving forward with a task against all odds. Bilbo was one when he continually found ways to save the Dwarves and keep the adventure going when all seemed lost. Eowyn was certainly one when she faced down the Witch King, one of the fiercest and most frightening enemies of the age (which is why I think she deserves the high willpower she has been given). Only one deck ability falls under this category, willpower boosting, but it is an important one. If you can make quick enough progress through a quest, you may be able to beat it before the encounter deck can do anything truly nasty to you. The new Heirs of Numenor quests have perhaps lessened the utility of these cards a bit, but the vast majority of the quests will benefit from this ability.
* Willpower Boosting
Willpower boosting hero: Eowyn, Dain Ironfoot
Best sphere for boosting willpower: Spirit
Willpower boosting ally: Bofur (Spirit), Escort from Edoras, Faramir
Willpower boosting attachment: Celebrian’s Stone, Dunedain Quest, Sword That Was Broken, The Favor of the Lady
Willpower boosting events: Astonishing Speed, Elrond’s Counsel, Late Adventurer, Rear Guard, Untroubled by Darkness
Phew! Well, that concludes Part 1 of this series. In subsequent articles, I will cover other important considerations when building decks, and also walk through a few examples step by step. I intend for this particular article to be a living document, to be updated as the game grows, and new cards and deck abilities are added. Leave your comments and thoughts below.