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Is Dain Broken?

by on April 9, 2013


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 extradain ironfoot 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!

  1. Dain Ironfoot is exhibit A in my case that Master of Lore and Nori should not have received errata. If the argument is that a card can be so powerful that it breaks the game, I cannot see how he would not be the first card to receive errata. Not that I want him to, mind you, it just seems absurd to see lesser cards receive errata while Dain + Dwarves, Elrond + Vila and Glorfindel (FoS) + Light of Valinor all run amok. I definitely fall into the “players should police themselves” camp, particularly as this is a cooperative game, and it is not hard to make it more difficult if they game seems to easy. An obvious example, try playing dwarves without Dain, Elrond without Vilya or Glorfindel without Light of Valinor. I suspect that many players who thinks the game is too easy would change their minds using these constraints.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Definitely agree. If Dain doesn’t meet my criteria, then Master of Lore and Nori definitely don’t either.

  2. Argh. I hate that I can’t edit my comment, now the typos are just staring back at me, taunting.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design…

  3. I don’t feel Dain is broken at all. I feel he has a great static ability that when coupled with other Dwarf synergistic cards and combos he comes off feeling possibly overpowered. I can say from a player who has played in many multi-player games with at least two players playing Dwarf decks and one using Dain we have still lost our fair share of games. I agree with the “player’s policing themselves school of thought” if the game is too easy, make it not so. I personally fall into the second camp though not for the thoughts of scoring or being competitive.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      I think there is definitely a distinction to be made between broken and overpowered. As you said, Dain can probably be called a bit overpowered, but he doesn’t break the game.

  4. Glaurung permalink

    Dain himself is not a broken. Broken is dwarven swarm synergy. I think you suppose to know my Thorin company deck and saw mu video on youtube where i win all most difficult quests with 4-5 rounds. So there is some cards deserve errata like: Legacy of Durin, We are not idle, A very good tale. I still sure in game where is unlimited draw and unlimited hand size we will always have this kind of problem.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Yeah, I think if anything the issue lies with the Dwarven synergy and not with Dain. I’m hesitant to call for any errata, because I generally want to avoid that as much as possible, but I sometimes run a deck that is very similar to your Thorin company build (Dain, Thorin, Ori), and it is definitely extremely powerful.

      • Broken is used a lot of ways in game complaining. I came up with 8 uses during a brief stint playtesting Shadowfist a bunch of years ago. I cannot remember what they all were not but here are some.
        1) Egregiously powerful – Erebor Battlemaster
        2) Leads to infinite loop – none now
        3) Leads to negative play experience – Blocking Wargs
        4) Would improve any deck – Gandalf with the starter box (limited pool)
        5) Undermines the future design space – DAIN
        6) (Auto win – think I missed this one) – none. But that can be the consequence of the encounter deck being unplayable so what’s the threshold?

        Now some of these are not broken in the sense that they break the game & make it unplayable but they all have a detrimental effect on play. 1) is a matter of degree. You addressed 2). 3) Is all about encounter cards in LOTR (Blocking Wargs), though it’s a NPE for me to see the same cards over & over that’s not really what it means. 4) Is what Daeron’s runes would be if it were a neutral card, or Gandalf if he cost 0. The Runes are borderline now as they go in any Lore deck but then the same could be said for A Test of Will or Feint or Steward of Gondor. To some extent these are “signature” cards of the spheres & define them. However if there are too many cards of this power level the game loses the deck design aspect. For a 3 sphere deck now it’s pretty easy to grab the best few cards of those spheres & do well. No theme or creativity required. Anyway this will mostly apply to neutral cards & resource restrictions naturally limit this (& a card like the new ones that requires 3 heroes of the same printed sphere can be very strong without passing this criterion as it will be so hard to fit in)

        The 5th one is one where I see Dain as being a broken card. He makes it very difficult for FFG to design any dwarf hero that you would use instead. He also makes the design of every dwarf ally from now on either slightly too good as you will always get +1 spirit & usually +1 attack or too weak as they discount the stats by that much. FFG have definitely gone the former route which is the right one as it means there is still only one problem card. I do not talk to real people about this game much but on COTR they always assume Dain’s bonus when they are discussing Dwarf characters, which indicates an issue to me.
        I am all for self balancing this game for the reasons you say – it’s solo/coop after all & you can try fun combinations of characters against easier quests. It’s fun if you are challenged & the challenge can be using 3 gimpy heroes or Love of Tales as your resource engine. I do like designer driven errata though. It gives me another card to play with, & there are a lot of dross cards in this game. I love the new Zigil miner & felt dirty using the old one for example.

      • TalesfromtheCards permalink

        Jonathan, I like that additional criteria: cards that limit the future design space. I would add that as number 4 to my criteria of what makes a broken card. I think to a certain degree this actually played a part in the nerfing of Master of Lore (beyond just the fact that it was part of a broken infinite loop combo), and possibly Thror’s Map as well. While I’m still not a huge fan of those particular errata, I think in general the designers are right to worry about how certain effects may limit the design possibilities of the future. I agree with you that Dain does have a major impact on design, but I imagine that one mitigating factor is that we probably won’t be seeing many Dwarf characters for the near future.

        Thanks for your thoughts and sharing your own criteria. One of the reasons I wanted to write this article is because I see the word “broken” get thrown around as a means of complaining, as you said, rather than to mean something substantial, and I think this kind of conversation can hopefully help to move away from that.

  5. I don’t use Dain just because I like the challenge of not playing with him, but if they were to errata him I think the only way to do that would be to make his ability only effect the characters the player running Dain has. A good example of why this would make the most sense is the COTR playthroughs. One guy plays Dain while the other guy runs Dwarves, the person running Dain should be running the Dwarf deck, that’s the only way I can see Dain being neutered without making him unplayable.

  6. Put me in the “self-policing” camp. I get bored with Dain and so I like to try other combinations. You’re right, though, that this creates a problem for the designers and I think it’s become apparent with the Heirs of Númenor box. These quests are incredibly difficult without one of the combos Beorn mentioned (Dain/Dwarves, Elrond/Vilya, or Glorfindel/Light). I don’t like being constrained to a handful of decks if I want to have a reasonable chance of success against quests as it limits my ability to enjoy a variety of creative and thematic decks.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      I really believe the best way forward is for them to introduce variable difficulty mechanisms into quests, whether they be added text on quest cards depending on your desired “difficulty”, an additional encounter set, helpful objective cards that can be included or excluded depending on difficulty setting, or some other means.

      • Agreed, I really enjoyed We Must Away and The Lonely Mountain because the treasures provided a bit of a way to scale the difficulty within the quest. The idea of labeling the encounter set cards for beginner, difficult, and “nightmare” would be an awesome solution. It would also add to the replay value as “nightmare” would likely always be impossible when the set first comes out but as more players cards from the cycle are released, you have incentive to go back and keep trying again.

  7. Siege is a good way of bringing dwarves back down to size. suddenly all those weedy little characters are just that- this is particularly the case in soemthing like Battle of 5 Armies, where the quest type can change due to treacheries, AFTER commiting characters.

    Also, the fact that Dain has to be ready isn’t something that should just be brushed over. Obviously the ability is powerful, but it’s one that essentialyl costs you the action of one of your heroes. If you want to make him a monster defender, then you’re unlikely to gain the benefits of the attack bonus. There are also lots of effects which can exhaust a character – how much resource in additional readying effects are you prepared to throw at Dain, which you could be putting elsewhere.

    Incidentally, if we ever see a Dwarf hero with a global defence boost, dwarves will be broken. But again, at the end of the day, its a co-op game, and its up to us how we play it.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      That treachery in Battle of 5 Armies that changes quest type is one of the most annoying ones around. God I hate that thing, but it does make the quest more challenging. You’re definitely right about siege, and it’ll be interesting to see if the designers try to implement any other types of “Dwarf-hate” in the upcoming quests.

  8. Arthur de Andrade permalink

    After all, eventually, Dain will be a Hero that will be “reborn” in future decks as soon as a good dwarf or ally comes from a new adventure pack. For me he is a really powerfull one, but not the best Hero in the game.
    Thematically, and i really hope it, Against the Shadow won’t present as much dwarves, in fact I believe none will come up so soon. But gondorian and rohan cards will. As like the new Hobbit Only cards and monosphere strategies will be on focus, the dwarves that had a focused cycle will be left behind this time.
    Expecting for new dwarf cards Is just like hoping for new eagle cards… It’s not gonna happen. Or should i say it is more likely to have new eagles than new dwarves.
    There probably will be a new (and more powerfull) main strategy based on the adventures that will show up, so Dain (that wont be forgotten, as likely Elrond) will no longer be as “lookely” powerfull as it is now.

  9. Glaurung permalink

    Actually solo game or 2 players game is big different……i just play 2 player game against Ambush in Ithilen with my friend with 2 dwarves deck Dain/Thorin/Ori , Gimly/Oin/Nori. Win only 1 game from 6……
    Thorin company work very good solo but in 2 players game very different story………

  10. I see a potential solution, you have to choose in the beginning of the round, either attack or will power.
    Don’t know if this mechanic exist though.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      That’s a good solution, that could’ve worked well for Dain.

  11. I do realise this article is a little over 2 years old, but I still feel it’s relevant.
    I started playing again, being the power player I use the strongest combinations I can find (yes that includes Spirit Glorfindel).
    One “solution” is to go and get the nightmare packs.
    Yes they are quite expensive for what you get (at least here in Sweden) but they do add some needed challenge and is a great way of getting your head bashed in (at least solo) even if you run some of the better decks.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Nightmare is definitely a good solution for the problem. If I remember correctly, I think the first Nightmare packs were announced shortly after I wrote this article. I’m not saying there’s a connection, but it’s cool that some of the problems discussed here were at least partially addressed soon afterwards. I think the other development that has helped the Dain/Dwarf problem is just the card pool is much larger now and there are so many other decks to build.

  12. sweetnesswhachacha permalink

    Good analysis. I would agree on the approach of looking at the 3 criteria, (your criteria picks make sense). I would also agree that number one is the only possible offender.

    The thing is, Dain is only powerful if you build a proper dwarf deck and add in a whole lot of cards that support those synergies. Which is a basic definition of deck building.

    It does seem his inclusion in a dwarf deck is automatic, but in a spirit deck I ALWAYS put in unexpected courage, test of will, hasty stroke, and galadriams greeting. Are those broken?

    Also Dain’s ability is only good when he has lots of dwarves. There are a lot of global ally killing treacherous, or just global damage dealers. Any “tribal” deck can be neutered with a couple necromancers reach. Some quests like escape from gol dolgur also restock how many allies can be played.

    Lastly, if you play this game you’ll want to build and play a variety of different decks or things get boring. Dain will not find inclusion in any non dwarf deck. Frodo finds his way into more decks, almost every spirit deck.

    Also, in tougher quests I may have to rely on him as a blocker and not be able to use his second global boost.

    I think you need some really good cards in the mix to get you excited and working towards combos and synergies.

    Leadership Boromir has half that ability, with its own stipulation, and only applies to allies. I never use him. But that’s because I don’t find the gondor card pool that exciting.

    Lastly there are cards and heroes that are better than others. But there are so many choices that you wouldn’t want to stick to just one. Brand is not going to see as much play as Elrond. Just ghe way it is. As a side not I like that the most powerful middle earth characters are the most powerful in the game seems cool (Glorfindel, Gandalf, Elrond)


    • sweetnesswhachacha permalink

      Man autocorrect really went crazy on me that time sorry

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