Is Dain Broken?
We all know Dain Ironfoot is one of the most powerful heroes in the entire game. We also know that Dwarf synergy, largely built around Dain, is the most potent deck type around. The question that I have seen many players bring up, however, is whether Dain’s effect (and by implication, Dwarven synergy) is actually too strong, whether it is, in fact, broken. In this article, I’ll be taking on this issue, not so much in the spirit of seeking out a definitive answer, but moreso with an attitude of exploration.
First, let’s get on the same page as to what we’re talking about. Dain Ironfoot is a Leadership hero with the following text:
While Dain Ironfoot is ready, Dwarf characters get +1 willpower and +1 attack.
This is what is known as a passive ability, meaning that it runs continually at all times, and does not need to be “triggered” by exhausting, using a resource, or paying some other cost. The only requirement is that Dain must be ready. The reason why this ability is so powerful should be fairly obvious, as global boosts like the one provided by Dain are usually the most powerful effects to be found in a game. The fact that he gives extra willpower and attack is what makes this card so bonkers (either would have been strong by themselves). However, while Dain’s ability is powerful, what really prompts some players to declare him “broken” is the ease with which it is possible to get a Dwarf swarm on the table, either directly through cards like Kili/Fili or A Very Good Tale, or indirectly through effects like Legacy of Durin (which allows you to draw more cards and get more Dwarves in hand as a reward for playing Dwarves in the first place!) or Thorin/Ori (both heroes play off of having 5 Dwarf characters, and give you extra resources or cards, which makes getting more Dwarves in play easier). The more Dwarves you get on the table, the more powerful Dain’s ability becomes (with only 2 or 3 Dwarves on the table, his ability is still useful, but not game-changing), almost to an exponential degree. I’ve been able to muster insane amounts of questing power in one turn using Dain, approaching 30-40 in a two-handed game. Similarly, a swarm of even fairly weak allies can bring down the largest enemies with Dain’s attack boost.
Still, acknowledging and understanding the power of Dain’s ability is one thing, it is quite another to declare it “broken”. In order to do that, we need to be crystal clear about what it means for a card to be broken in this game specifically. What makes this difficult is the fact that this is a fairly unique cooperative card game compared to the array of competitive card games that exist out there. In the context of a competitive format, it is relatively easy to determine which cards are broken or not: any card that gives one player an unfair competitive advantage that cannot be reasonably overcome by strategy and deck-building falls into that category, in my opinion (and keep in mind that this is usually influenced by tournament considerations ). However, in a cooperative format where we are playing against a random encounter deck, how do we create a clear criteria for determining what is broken or not (I touched on this issue briefly in my disccusion of the recent FAQ)? I am not in the know as to whether FFG has a guideline for how they make the final decision on what receives errata and what does not, or if it simply a matter of making the call on a case-by-case basis based on what seems best for the game at that particular moment. There seem to me a few possibilities for defining what constitutes a broken card in LOTR LCG:
1) Any card or combination of cards that guarantees victory against most or all scenarios should be considered broken – This seems the most straightforward, but still would be difficult to measure. Is a 60% success rate too high? 70% 80%? Does this need to apply to both solo play and multiplayer? How many quests need to be sufficiently challenging for a deck? In sum, what is the threshold of victory that a single card effect or card combination would have to reach before it is just too much for comfort?
2) Any card or combination of cards that leads to infinite or near-infinite production of card draw or resources should be considered broken – Again, this is fairly straightforward, but there is always the difficulty of figuring out the right cut-off point for “near infinite”. This rationale semed to be behind the nerfing of Master of Lore, as it was one piece of a multi-card combo that allowed infinite card draw. Beravor was also limited because there were ways to constantly ready and exhaust her, leading to an insane amount of card draw. However, with the combination of Ori, Legacy of Durin, and King Under the Mountain, I can also draw cards like there is no tomorrow. So how much is too much? Obviously, the infinite examples are pretty clear, but beyond that the lines become more fuzzy.
3)Any card or combination of cards that fundamentally alter the mechanics of the game in a way not intended by the designers – This is the hardest one to pin down with clarify. In my mind, this is where something like the old Zigil Miner would fit in, as although a large part of the problem with that card was the massive amounts of resources it could generate, it also dramatically transformed deck-building by encouraging the design of decks for the sole purpose of maximizing Ziggy (running mostly 4 and 5 cost cards, running all cards with the same cost, etc.)
Now that we have some basic, if problematic, criteria down, the question is whether Dain fits any of them, and is thus broken. I’ll return to criteria #1 in a moment, because that’s probably the best case, but let’s deal with #2 and #3 first. In terms of #2, Dain is not broken. He does not allow the infinite or near-infinite production of card draw or resources. Remember, we are only talking about Dain and his ability here. Whether Dwarven synergy overall and combos like Ori/King Under the Mountain/Legacy of Durin are broken is another matter entirely. In terms of #3, he is also not broken. Although buffing willpower and attack globally for Dwarves dramatically improves the performance of players in questing and combat, it does not alter the mechanics of these phases (in other words, it makes you quest and fight better, but doesn’t change how questing and fighting work).
So we are left with #1. Does Dain guarantee victory against most or all scenarios? To me, the word “guarantee” is key. In my opinion, in order for a card effect to be considered broken under this criteria, it must make victory a virtual certainty, meaning that no matter the particular cards a player draws or what comes out of the encounter deck, a win is pretty much assured. This is not easy to determine objectively, and there a lot of factors that play a part. I’ve personally played a pair of Dain-centric Dwarf decks against almost every scenario multiple times, and the win percentage is very good (I would estimate 70-80%). Of course, this is heavily dependent on quest. Against certain scenarios, playing the game is a formality as victory is assured, while against the more difficult ones (I’m thinking Into Ithilien here), then the win percentage is less. So how do we truly figure out if Dain is truly broken according to this criteria? Again, what is the win percentage that pushes a deck over the edge? More importantly, how do we isolate Dain’s effect from the other cards that constitute Dwarven synergy since these are almost always used together? The mono-Lore and mono-Leadership decks from my Deck Building 101 series also have a very high winning percentage when used in tandem. Does that mean they are broken?
As I said, I have more questions than answers here, but I think it’s worthwhile just to take the time to ponder these issues more deeply and really get specific about what we mean when we apply the word “broken” to LOTR LCG card effects. In order to try to reach some kind of conclusion, I’ll say that just in terms of Dain’s ability, there is not enough evidence to say that it is broken. The cards that have been truly broken have tended to meet 2 or more of the criteria I outlined above, while Dain at most meets #1 (and that is up for debate). In addition, I believe that errata should be focused mainly on violators of #2 and #3, in other words those cards that enable infinite or near-infinite card draw and resource-generation and those that fundamentally alter the mechanics of the game in a way that is not intended. When it comes to criteria #1, there are two main schools of thought concerning cards that seemingly guarantee victory (of course these are broad generalizations):
* One school of thought tends to believe that players should police themselves. The logic behind this is that those players who feel a certain card or combination of cards is overpowered can simply stop using them if they want a greater level of challenge. In general, people who hold to this viewpoint hope that the designers will minimize errata. Some additionally feel that even infinite loop cards and outright game-breaking cards should not receive errata either, as in the conext of a cooperative game, it is essentially a “victimless crime”.
* The other school of thought tends to believe that FFG should take an active role in policing the game and card pool. The logic behind this is that broken and even simply overpowered cards violate the integrity of the game by throwing off difficulty and balance. Some additionally take competitive considerations into account, like how the power of cards/decks might affect scores or even eventually the new tournament format.
I land firmly in the first category, although I sympathize with those in the second (sometimes it’s easier said than done to intentionally neuter one’s own deck), and this definitely affects my viewpoint. I also heavily take into account the cooperative nature of this game. If Dain existed in A Game of Thrones LCG, I would definitely see the logic in declaring him broken and issuing errata (or putting him on a restricted list). However, in terms of the cooperative LOTR LCG, I have to say that Dain is extremely powerful (more accurately, Dain as part of Dwarven synergy is extremely powerful) but not broken. Whether other Dwarven card combinations are broken is still up for question. There is a lot about this game that makes these questions difficult (I feel like a broken record by this point, but the point remains). Without a draw cap or hand limit, powerful card draw effects will flirt with brokenness. When the competition is a random encounter deck rather than a human opponent, designers are faced with a hefty challenge. On one hand, if they design encounter decks to provide a challenge for the most powerful Dain/Dwarf decks, other decks will often find them too difficult. On the other hand, if they try to make more balanced scenarios, Dain/Dwarf decks will often be able to blow those quests away. There are no easy answers, other than encouraging players who have won every quest with Dwarf decks to try out other deck types or implementing new ways of varying the difficulty level of quests. Still, my love for the game is not diminished by the existence of Dain or this complexity, in fact I personally can have a great deal of fun using him and his Dwarf buddies, and that is what is most important at the end of the day.
Readers, what do you think? Is Dain broken? Do you have any particular criteria that you would use to judge whether a card is broken? Do you think Dwarven synergy itself is broken? Sound off!