The Druadan Forest: Player Cards Review
Hot on the heels of The Steward’s Fear, the second Adventure Pack of the Against the Shadow Cycle, The Drúadan Forest, has been released, offering not only a new adventure, but also of course new options for deck building. This can mean only one thing: another TftC Player Cards Review!
The Steward’s Fear smacked players in the faces with the power of its player cards, boasting a powerful new Outlands synergy that was immediately the match of most other deck types. The pros and cons of this approach on the part of the designers can be debated (you can check out my thoughts on that topic here), but the key question here is whether or not The Drúadan Forest takes a similar approach to expanding the card pool. The short answer is yes…and no. The player cards of The Drúadan Forest do resemble those of The Steward’s Fear in that they mostly reinforce a certain theme and deck type, in this case that of mono sphere. On the other hand, they do not feel quite as powerful, which is not to say that they are not strong or useful, rather that they avoid being overpowered. With that being said, let’s examine the relative uses and strength of each individual card in The Drúadan Forest.
* Mirlonde (Lore Hero, 8 threat, 2 willpower, 2 attack, 1 defense, 3 hit points):
I will do my best to treat our newest hero with the utmost objectivity, as I try to prevent my Lore fanboy-ism, and mono-sphere Lore fanboy-sim in particular, from taking over. For a threat cost of 7, Mirlonde provides a decent amount of questing and attacking ability. Her defensive ability is more suspect, with only 1 defense and a flimsy 3 hit points. Leaving aside stats, the real question is how useful her unique ability is in practice. Mirlonde lowers the starting threat of each hero you control with the printed Lore icon, including herself, by 1. Notice the in-built limitation that this applies only to heroes you control. Thus, you are essentially looking at a threat reduction of 3 before the game even begins (of course, you could use Mirlonde in a non-mono Lore deck, but we’ll use the best case scenario here). Undoubtedly, this is useful in that it allows you to include high threat Lore heroes, such as Aragorn and Elrond, and still start the game with a reasonable threat of 30. This lower threat can give a deck more breathing room to develop and prevent enemies from engaging too early, not to mention that it gives more of a buffer against threat-boosting treacheries and encounter card effects. However, there are definite downsides to Mirlonde. Once a game has begun, she has no ability to contribute that can impact play as other heroes do, and this needs to be taken into account when choosing her over other Lore heroes that provide card draw or scrying, for example. Her stats are also decent, but not strong enough to carry the day in questing and combat by herself. Finally, her low hit points of 3 make Mirlonde relatively fragile, although she does have the advantage of being able to exploit the healing combination with Silvan Tracker without having to splash (as you would need to do with Legolas, for example), which can be accentuated by pairing her with Elrond. I have to say I am definitely a fan of Mirlonde, in that she provides support for certain deck types (mono-sphere, Silvan) in a subtle way that is almost refreshingly underpowered after the hulking ability of Hirluin. My seemingly lukewarm rating of 2 stars thus reflects an attempt to assess her fairly in terms of relative usability and power compared to other heroes.
*As a side note, I don’t particularly mind that FFG created their own hero, as they did with Beravor, Thalin, and Eleanor previously. There is plenty of time for FFG to create hero versions of existing characters, both beloved and obscure, and I’m happy to see another Silvan and female character.
* Forlong (Leadership Ally, 3 cost, 1 willpower, 1 attack, 1 defense, 3 hit points):
Forlong is a holdover from The Steward’s Fear’s Outlands synergy, and he provides yet another weapon to an already powerful arsenal. When you control Outlands allies from all 4 spheres (which any good Outlands deck will be doing as a matter of course), Forlong readies at the beginning of each phase. While he is the most expensive of the Outlands allies, as he costs 3 to play rather than the usual 1 or 2, his usefulness actually makes this a steal. For one, Forlong’s starting hit points of 3 mean that he is far more durable than other Outlands allies out of the gate without any additional boosting necessary, but when a few copies of Anfalas Herdsman are in play, he can quickly hit absurd levels of 5 or 6 hit points (heroes eat your hearts out!). Then, when you consider his ability, you will have an ally with boosted stats likely in the 3-4 range for willpower, attack, and defense that can participate in both questing and combat every turn. This is like essentially having an Over Hill and Under Hill Gandalf without a nasty threat increase at the end of each round to keep him in play. Even better, since Forlong readies at the beginning of each phase, he can also be exhausted to satisfy other encounter and player card requirements as well. To take one example, Forlong can easily exhaust to participate in A Very Good Tale while still participating in other actions, and his cost of 3 allows him to bring fairly powerful allies into play. The only downside to Forlong is that he is unique, but this does little to detract from his considerable value.
* Harbor Master (Lore Ally, 3 cost, 1 willpower, 2 attack, 0 defense, 2 hit points):
The Harbor Master is an interesting beast, as it is ostensibly a defensive ally that is also quite useful in attack (especially for Lore) and can contribute to questing as well. I say that it is a defensive ally, as its ability allows the Harbor Master to boost its defense by 1 every time a card effect adds resources to a hero the player controls. I like this type of effect as it immediately sets my mind turning, trying to figure out possible combinations to get the most out of it. In this case, there are a whole slew of possibilities, but obviously it makes the most sense to use the Harbor Master in a deck that also includes Leadership, with its wealth of resource generating effects. The Steward of Gondor alone can ensure that the Harbor Master has at least 1 defense every turn. However, effects like Gaining Strength, Wealth of Gondor, and Horn of Gondor, just to name a few possibilities, can up its defense to 2-3 (or more). Note that resource transfers also count for activating this effect (as long as you are giving resources to heroes you control), and therefore including and getting into play multiple copies of Errand-riders is a neat trick for turning the Harbor Master into a defensive wall. Bifur, a natural member of the Lore sphere, can also provide a similar boost through resource transfer. Since this ally is part of the Lore sphere, don’t forget that you can throw A Burning Brand on him and thus free up your heroes for other needs. The one major weakness of the Harbor Master is that Lore by itself doesn’t provide much in the realm of generating and transferring resources, aside from Bifur, and this necessitates using him with Leadership or possibly Tactics (for the Horn of Gondor). Also, while it’s nice that the Harbor Master is flexible and can add 2 attack to combat when not needed for defense, I almost wonder if it would have been better to ditch the attack for a lower cost. Still, the Harbor Master finally gives Lore an ally that can truly hold its own in defense, and that in itself is valuable.
* Note: After this article was posted, the official ruling came in that Harbor Master only works with effects that “add” to the net total of resources. So Errand-rider and other effects that “move” resources don’t count.
* Silvan Refugee (Spirit Ally, 1 cost, 2 willpower, 0 attack, 0 defense, 1 hit point):
The Silvan Refugee is a cheap quester, plain and simple, as for 1 resource, you gain 2 willpower, which is an absolute bargain. However, there is a built-in drawback, as the Silvan Refugee is discarded from play whenever another character, anywhere on the table, leaves play. Essentially, you must weigh the cheap cost and value provided by this ally against the difficulty of keeping it around for any length of time. Keep in mind that the Spirit sphere is known for featuring allies that pop in and out of play, especially in its Rohan manifestations (i.e. Escort from Edoras, The Riddermark’s Finest, Bofur, etc.) and this could prove a barrier to Silvan Refugee’s inclusion. In addition, any time Gandalf makes one of his much-needed appearances, it effectively spells the end for the Refugee as well. So given these limitations, does the Silvan Refugee warrant inclusion? The case can be made both ways. On the one hand, you can look at the Silvan Refugee as a quick willpower fix, and it is equivalent to Escort from Edoras in this respect, even if it only stays on the table for one questing phase, as the Escort does (the Escort costs 2 resources for 4 willpower, while the Refugee costs 1 resource for 2 willpower). Of course, if you can manage to keep the Refugee in play longer, then the cost-benefit picture looks even rosier, while perhaps lacking the dramatic impact of a well-timed Escort. The Silvan Refugee can also be used in a deck that is splashing Spirit or using it as the minority sphere in order to provide a cheap dose of willpower to a deck that would otherwise be lacking in it (here, I’m thinking of a Tactics deck that can use a single Spirit hero to bring the Refugee and its willpower into the frame without too much of a resource commitment). On the negative side of the equation, the Silvan Refugee will obviously not fit well into a deck that is based on characters constantly leaving play, like an Imrahil or Eagles build. Also, for just 1 additional resource, you can pay for a Spirit ally like West Road Traveller that also has 2 willpower but does not have the Refugee’s limitation. As a final note, while the Silvan Refugee is a much-needed addition to the Silvan trait, the fact that it only has 1 hit point makes it unable to benefit from the Silvan Tracker’s healing effect. Hopefully, we’ll see a global boost to Silvan hit points in the near future.
* White Tower Watchman (Neutral Ally, 3 cost, 1 willpower, 0 attack, 2 defense, 3 hit points):
First off, I must say I’m glad to see the more frequent appearance of neutral allies in recent expansions. The White Tower Watchman is designed to supplement mono-sphere decks, as when each hero you control belongs to the same sphere, you gain the ability to put damage from undefended enemy attacks on this ally. It is similar to Dori in that it provides an escape valve for hero damage, but it is more limited in that this has to be damage from undefended enemy attacks, which precludes it from protecting against damage from treacheries, for example. However, on the other hand, the White Tower Watchman does not need to exhaust to absorb this damage, as Dori does, which allows you to use it for questing or combat and still have it available for soaking up hero damage (by contrast, I usually end up keeping Dori ready at all times in case I need him). As far as his utility in normal play, the White Tower Watchman is an effective defender, as with 2 defense and 3 hit points, it takes a respectable 5 damage to kill him. The fact that this ally is neutral increases its flexibility and ensures that it will find a place in far more decks than if it were placed in the Tactics sphere, which otherwise seems like its natural home in thematic terms. The White Tower Watchman can fit into a mono-Lore or mono-Spirit deck and provide it with much-needed defensive solidity, as well as the opportunity to take on undefended attacks with a greater sense of security in the event an enemy’s attack is boosted by shadows. There is also the opportunity for a thematic and useful synergy with multiple copies of the Warden of Healing working to heal White Tower Watchmen and keeping them in play longer. As a final note, don’t forget that this ally provides a helpful means for any deck to siege quest, which can often be the most difficult of quest types.
* Mighty Prowess (Tactics Attachment, 1 cost):
The single attachment included in this pack, Mighty Prowess has flown under the radar a bit, but provides intriguing possibilities. It must be attached to a Tactics hero, and when that hero destroys an enemy, you can place 1 damage on another enemy that shares that trait (for example, destroying an orc would allow you to put 1 damage on another orc in play). One important aspect of this ability that may be overlooked at first is that this damage is not limited to enemies engaged with you, but also can be placed on those engaged with other players or sitting in the staging area (perhaps this will be FAQ’d in time, we’ll have to wait and see). When combined with the growing number of direct damage effects present in the Tactics sphere (Thalin, Spear of the Citadel, Descendant of Thorondor, Hands Upon the Bow, Hail of Stones, etc.), Mighty Prowess allows for the construction of an even more effective direct damage deck that can quickly clear the board of enemies. Obviously, this ability is arguably less useful against quests that feature enemies with high amounts of hit points, but even in those situations you are softening up such foes, making them easier to dispatch. Perhaps in scenarios with a wide variety of enemy types, Mighty Prowess might be a miss, but in general quests tend to contain enemies with the same traits (Orc, Harad, Wose, etc.). The best part of Mighty Prowess is that it only costs 1 resource, which makes it well worth a go.
* Advance Warning (Lore Event, 2 cost):
One of four events in this pack that are designed to support mono-sphere decks, Advance Warning is a Lore event that prevents enemies from making engagement checks for the duration of the phase, providing all of your heroes have the printed Lore icon. Generally, you want to be able to engage enemies so that you can clear threat out of the staging area. However, there are certain situations, particularly when the amount of enemies is becoming overwhelming, that it might make sense to hold some back for a turn. Advance Warning also can also facilitate the use of staging area attack shenanigans with the Great Yew Bow or Hands Upon the Bow, even when players’ threat has creeped too high (although it would have to be another deck that takes advantage of this possibility, since, as previously mentioned, Advance Warning can only be used in a mono-Lore deck). The main detriment of this card is a relatively high cost of 2 for the effect it provides. I definitely see the useful possibilities provided by Advance Warning, especially when coupled with Radagast’s Cunning, which can neutralize the threat left behind in the staging area. I’m also expecting that more traps will be released soon that can take advantage of keeping enemies from engaging. However, there is always at least 1 card that is a little bit lackluster, and for my money, Advance Warning is that card in this pack. Again, that’s not to say that it’s useless, far from it, just that it has substantial limitations.
Against the Shadow can only be used by a mono-Spirit deck, and it allows Spirit characters to use their willpower as defense for the duration of a phase. Unlike Advance Warning, I have very few reservations in recommending this card highly. It allows Spirit to use one of its strengths (willpower) to compensate for one of its biggest weaknesses (defense). The possibilities are endless. Imagine Eowyn becoming a defensive powerhouse with 4 willpower or traditionally questing-focused allies like Bofur or West Road Traveller being able to contribute to defense. Even better, Against the Shadow allows Spirit to meaningfully take part in siege questing, as the great willpower of the sphere can be converted into defense so that a classic questing deck doesn’t need to skip a beat (in fact, this may even be more useful than the combat application). Of course, this all depends on drawing Against the Shadow at the right times, but this could be said of any card. This card is probably better in solo play than multiplayer, as in the latter situation, it can be assumed that other players will be picking up the defensive responsibilities.
* Strength of Arms (Leadership Event, 2 cost):
Strength of Arms allows a mono-Leadership deck to ready all allies in play. For 1 more resource than Ever Vigilant, which only readies 1 ally, this event readies all of them. Obviously, this is most effective in an ally-heavy deck, but Leadership has the tools to make this happen quickly, with a wealth of resources to pay for an ally army and events like A Very Good Tale to get them into play for free. As another basis for comparison, Grim Resolve is a 5 cost event that readies all characters in play, which is definitely more powerful, particularly in multiplayer, as it applies to all players’ characters, including heroes. However, at a far cheaper cost of 2, Strength of Arms provides an alternative that will probably be used more often. The power of (relatively) universal readying cannot be underestimated.
* Trained for War (Tactics Event, 2 cost):
The mono-Tactics event of the pack, Trained for War gives the current stage the battle keyword. This is different than Against the Shadow, which allows Spirit characters to use willpower for defense in general, as this allows Tactics characters to use attack instead of willpower only when it comes to questing (then again, the situations when you need willpower outside of questing are limited). Tactics, especially mono-Tactics, has been practically begging for questing help since the days of the Core Set, and Trained for War is thus a breath of fresh air. When you consider the massive attack potential that Tactics is capable of with characters such as Gimli, Erebor Battle Master, Vassal of the Windlord, and Beorn, the 2 resource cost of this event can be easily justified by allowing Tactics to contribute a huge push to a traditional questing stage. This still may not allow mono-Tactics to succeed solo against certain quests, but it provides an important step in that direction. The one downside is that you are losing your best warriors for combat if you are using them for questing, but since this is an event under your control, you can time its use for a round when it will be most effective.
While The Drúadan Forest player cards do not have the in-your-face power of The Steward’s Fear cards, there are some great options, particularly for mono-sphere decks. Cards like Harbor Master, White Tower Watchman, and Mighty Prowess may not have the flash and pizazz of other cards, but they are the kind of solid effects that will likely find their way into decks for many cycles to come.
Overall Rating: ♦♦♦◊