The Black Riders: Allies Review
The TftC review of The Black Riders continues with a look at the allies contained in this brand new Saga Expansion. Last time around, we put four Hobbit heroes under the microscope. This time, the spotlight gets turned on three iconic characters from the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring: Barliman Butterbur, Bill the Pony, and Farmer Maggot. Clearly, these are all fan favorites to some degree, and it is truly exciting to get a chance to include them in decks for the very first time. Of course, as always, we must consider whether these allies are truly worth the deck space, or whether we are simply letting sentimentality get the best of us.
Without further ado, let’s get Middle-earth’s most wild party started! Because honestly, with Maggot’s mushrooms, Butterbur’s ale, and one badass pony wandering around your living room, how could you not have a good time?
* Barliman Butterbur (Lore Ally, 2 cost, 1 willpower, 0 attack, 1 defense, 3 hit points):
Although a bit of an unorthodox choice, Barliman Butterbur is actually one of my favorite Lord of the Rings characters. Like his colleague in this review, Farmer Maggot, Butterbur is often dismissed as being a simpleton or worthless. However, although he does make a crucial mistake in forgetting Gandalf’s letter, he provides help and shelter for the Hobbits at a crucial juncture, and shows remarkable courage in the face of the terror of the Ringwraiths. As a card, this ally represents Butterbur’s role in the story quite well:
If each hero you control has the Hobbit trait, damage from undefended attacks against you may be assigned to Barliman Butterbur.
The first, and probably last ally, with the Bree trait, Butterbur allows you to take undefended attacks if you are running an all-Hobbit deck. This ability is quite similar to that of Dori and the White Tower Watchman, with a few important differences. The major advantage that Butterbur has over Dori is that he doesn’t have to exhaust to take damage from an undefended attack. This means you can use his modest willpower to quest or use him to defend against one attack conventionally while soaking up undefended damage from another. In this way, he operates almost identically to the White Tower Watchman, except for he is limited to Hobbit decks, while the Watchman is restricted to mono-sphere builds. The great advantage that Butterbur has over both of those other cards are that he costs only 2 resources, which is a great bargain for an ally whose main role is to serve as a safety valve for undefended damage or as a chump blocker. He does have 3 hit points, which allows Butterbur to soak up a decent amount of damage before being destroyed. If you include healing effects in your deck, you can even get multiple uses out of Butterbur’s ability. Overall, I would argue that this ally is absolutely essential to any Hobbit deck. Since Hobbit heroes are so flimsy, you need a variety of options for keeping them alive, and this is exactly what Butterbur offers.
* Bill the Pony (Leadership Ally, 2 cost, 1 willpower, 1 attack, 0 defense, 2 hit points):
Certainly, any representation of the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring would not be complete without Bill the Pony. While I was certainly hoping that he would finally make an appearance, it was somewhat uncertain how he could be translated into ally form. However, like Butterbur, he quite appropriately helps to make the vulnerable Hobbits a bit tougher:
Lower the cost to play Bill the Pony by 2 if you control Sam Gamgee. Cannot have attachments.
Each Hobbit character gets +1 hit point.
Obviously, Bill the Pony is a must-include when running a Hobbit deck, as the difference between a 2 hit point hero and a 3 hit point hero is a substantial one (as is the difference between 3 and 4). While Hobbits also have the option of using Boots from Erebor to gain an extra hit point, Bill the Pony is a better option because he buffs all Hobbit characters at once! Even better, if you have Sam in play, Bill is absolutely free to play. Anytime you can get a free ally, no matter what it does, you should take it, so even if Sam was my only Hobbit character, I would include Bill the Pony. One drawback of Bill the Pony compared to an attachment like Ring Mail or Boots from Erebor is that allies tend to be more vulnerable than attachments. So while the hit point boost from this ally is great, you can’t necessarily depend on it. Still, a free ally that can chump block when needed and covers for a weakness of Hobbit decks is a must-have, and don’t forget that Bill the Pony’s single point of willpower and attack can prove useful in many situations. Outside of Hobbit decks or decks including Sam Gamgee, there isn’t much use for Bill the Pony, however, as you’re better off including other options.
* Farmer Maggot (Tactics Ally, 3 cost, 1 willpower, 2 attack, 0 defense, 2 hit points):
Another Tactics Hobbit, other than Merry, is included in the Black Riders box, and it quite appropriately is Farmer Maggot that takes this spot. This humble farmer, who had the respect of none less than Tom Bombadil himself, was willing to stand up to the Black Rider who came to his door looking for Frodo. To represent this defiance and the teeth of his loyal guard dogs, Fang, Grip, and Wolf, Farmer Maggot is able to deal direct damage to an enemy:
Response: After Farmer Maggot enters play, deal 1 damage to an enemy engaged with you. (Deal 2 damage instead if that enemy’s engagement cost is higher than your threat.)
Farmer Maggot’s ability continues the theme of Hobbit characters gaining bonuses when facing an enemy with a higher engagement cost than the player’s threat. He is able to deal 2 damage to an engaged enemy if this is the case, which is certainly a significant amount. Being able to drop Farmer Maggot into play may allow you to finish off an enemy before it initiates an attack during the combat phase, or weaken one so that it is able to be destroyed later. Even without the engagement cost bonus, 1 damage can still be useful in many cases. Obviously, Sneak Attack works well with Farmer Maggot, potentially enabling you to place 4 damage on one particular enemy over the course of a couple of turns (this combo works since Maggot’s ability triggers whenever he “enters play”).
Let’s take a look at Farmer Maggot’s stats, and his overall value as an ally. His stats-to-cost ratio is just OK, perhaps making up for his strong ability, but I do like the distribution of what he does have. With 2 attack, he can provide valuable combat support to a Hobbit deck, while his 1 willpower is useful for all Tactics decks. His 2 hit points mean that he can at least handle some of the encounter card and shadow effects in the game that deal single points of damage. Farmer Maggot is not a serviceable defender, but you probably want to be using him for questing or attack anyway.
It is clear that Farmer Maggot is a solid addition to any Hobbit deck (keep in mind that he is a valid target for a card like Hobbit Pipe that attaches to any Hobbit character). The broader question is whether he can fit into other deck types, and the answer is that it really depends. For 3 Tactics resources, you can include allies who are probably better overall, such as Knight of Minas Tirith or Bofur. On the other hand, Farmer Maggot fits in perfectly with other Tactics forms of direct damage, such as Gondorian Spearman, Spear of the Citadel, Thalin, and Hail of Stones. In such a deck, he could work fantastically while providing a solid body. My hunch is that Farmer Maggot will find the most use, outside of Hobbit decks, in mono-Tactics builds, as decks that run with a single Tactics hero will probably opt for cheaper allies that fall into that “essential” category (Defender of Rammas, Vassal of the Windlord, etc.).
I think it’s safe to say that after the sheer excitement of grabbing a hold of four iconic and tremendous Hobbit heroes (perhaps Fatty a little less so, but I’ll lump him in anyway), looking at the allies will always be a tad bit of a letdown. Still, that being said, all three allies in this pack are useful, particularly for Hobbit decks, and none are a waste of cardboard. I wouldn’t say that any of them are world-beaters, but just as the Hobbit Saga Expansions provided solid and integral support for Dwarf decks, this one is doing the same (albeit at a different level of development) for Hobbit decks. To a certain degree, the allies, and the cards in general in this box, fit together naturally to build a Hobbit deck for you. Whether or not this is a positive can be debated. For newer players, it certainly is helpful to provide what essentially amounts to ready-made decks. For more experienced players, some might feel constrained by this approach. However, I feel there are enough options to provide a few different variations of a Hobbit deck.
Next time around, TftC’s multi-part review of The Black Riders continues with a look at the attachments contained in this expansion!