The Morgul Vale: Hero Review
After a flood of content at Gen Con (The Black Riders, Stone of Erech, Blood of Gondor), it has personally felt like quite awhile since I had brand new cards to unveil and ponder. Thus, my anticipation for The Morgul Vale has been steadily reaching a rolling boil, a condition that is only intensified by the fact that this is the final pack of the Against the Shadow cycle. Generally, players expect the final AP to be an epic culmination, and thus there are greater expectations, and this is even more true because of the heavy focus on narrative in this cycle. Fortunately, The Morgul Vale has finally been released. As of the writing of this first part of the Morgul Vale player cards review, I have yet to play the actual scenario itself, but from first looks, I think it will be an exciting and fitting end to the Against the Shadow cycle. For now, our focus will be on the player cards, specifically the brand new hero provided in this pack. As always, these ratings are completely subjective, and you can brandish your virtual pitchforks, stones, and burning oil in the comment section below.
* Theoden (Tactics Hero, 12 threat, 2 willpower, 3 attack, 2 defense, 4 hit points):
Theoden King has arrived! I find it difficult to be completely objective when it comes to this card, as Theoden is one of those characters that diehard LOTR fans have been dying to see since the game came out. When he was first spoiled, I was a bit surprised to see that he was a Tactics character, as I felt sure that he would be part of the Leadership sphere, based on his role as an inspirational leader par excellence in the books. However, it is clear that the designers are moving to bring Rohan into the Tactics sphere in a big way, and Theoden certainly was no slouch in the battle prowess department, so I wouldn’t say that this is a sphere misalignment by any means. It also appears that this is a more youthful version of Theoden, as exemplified by the stunning artwork So let’s examine exactly what Theoden, one of the most iconic characters in The Lord of the Rings, brings to the table:
Each hero with a printed Tactics resource icon gets +1 Willpower.
The first thing that originally struck me when this card was revealed was that Theoden boosts the willpower of Tactics heroes rather than Rohan heroes (or characters). If we look at Theoden’s kingly counterpart for the Dwarves, Dain Ironfoot, that hero boosts the willpower (and attack) of all Dwarven characters, playing on the synergy of his trait rather than his sphere and supporting all characters, not just heroes. Clearly, Dain wins the battle of the kings and it’s not even close. Imagine if Dain Ironfoot read: “Each hero with a printed Leadership resource icon gets +1 willpower” and you’ll be able to understand why many players are understandably underwhelmed by Theoden. The decision to make Theoden buff Tactics rather than Rohan is bizarre from a lore perspective, in that he was an inspirational figure for all of his people, not just the warriors, while there is no indication that soldiers from other peoples found him particularly significant.
However, it is clear that Theoden’s ability was designed with a clear gameplay function in mind, which is to increase the conventional questing power of Tactics, thus making it more viable as a monosphere option. Considering that the Against the Shadow cycle has had such a heavy focus on expanding monosphere potential, it makes perfect sense that a hero with this type of effect would appear at its conclusion. Tactics has traditionally been ineffective in pure solo play against most scenarios because of a glaring lack of willpower, so much so that it was nearly unplayable for much of the lifespan of this game. The issue is that this ability, which compensates for a Tactics weakness, doesn’t necessarily fit with Theoden in a thematic sense (would Bard the Bowman or Boromir be particularly lifted by Theoden’s presence?), but that isn’t enough to condemn this card to the dark places of my collection.
Thus, the real questions revolve around how well Theoden performs his role as a Tactics booster generally, and a mono-Tactics booster specifically. We can’t compare him to Dain as it seems that the designers have taken a step away from making such insanely powerful global buffing heroes (leaving Hirluin and Outlands aside, Leadership Boromir is a more typical example). A +1 willpower boost that is restricted to heroes may seem paltry, but can make a significant difference in the early stages of a game when you are relying on your heroes for the lion’s share of questing power, especially for a sphere that is so willpower deficient. Imagine a scenario where you are using Theoden, Merry, and a third Tactics hero. Theoden and Merry could both quest for a combined 6 willpower instead of the 4 they would have without Theoden. This difference can absolutely be meaningful in the first few rounds of a game. In addition, Theoden makes it easier to take that Tactics deck that is strong in battle and siege questing and use it against those willpower stages as well, since quests often like to mix traditional questing into battle/siege scenarios. This boost may not enable a mono-Tactics deck to succeed against the most willpower-intensive quests, but it definitely opens up some options. A player could even mix in Trained For War, alternating battle questing with traditional questing via Theoden.
Still, there are some considerable limitations to Theoden’s effectiveness and overall value as hero. First, his ability would be obviously more powerful if it applied to all Tactics characters, rather than just heroes. It is clear that the design choice here was to avoid making an overpowered ability, and the case could certainly be made that granting such a strong willpower bonus to Tactics would upset the current balance of power between the spheres. I support this approach, but the question then becomes if the 1-3 per turn willpower bonus provided by Theoden (assuming no other Tactics heroes on the board) is enough to justify his inclusion over the many other useful Tactics heroes.
I can imagine two primary situations where Theoden is useful:
1) A pure solo game where you are using a mono-Tactics deck against a scenario that requires at least some willpower questing
2) A multiplayer game where several players are using Tactics heroes, as Theoden can buff other players’ heroes
Regarding the second case, one contradiction I see is that in multiplayer games, often the Tactics player is charged with taking care of most of the combat responsibilities, so that other players can take on questing (assuming conventional questing). In these situations, choosing a Tactics hero that can help you do what Tactics is good at (fighting) is probably more important than including a hero that makes up for a Tactics weakness (Theoden). However, if you are playing in a game where you are the Tactics player but are still expected to carry some of the load of questing, and/or if several other players are using Tactics heroes, then Theoden could certainly play a part.
In terms of stats, Theoden provides a strong 2 willpower, 3 attack, 2 defense distribution also seen on such heroes as Aragorn, Prince Imrahil, and Bard the Bowman. This is a well-balanced set that can allow Theoden to quest, attack, and defend from a position of strength. Usually, Theoden’s willpower on a Tactics hero might be seen as a bit of a waste and leading to an unnecessarily high starting threat, but in this case it makes perfect sense given his ability. Assuming that you will be putting a readying effect on Theoden, such as Steed of the Mark, having strong numbers in each category makes perfect sense. However, a starting threat of 12, while not out of character for the Tactics sphere, does limit your options for what other heroes you can viably pick. Merry actually makes a perfect companion for Theoden, as he has a low threat to counterbalance Theoden’s high value, and his starting willpower of 2 works perfectly with Theoden’s ability (this is a great thematic combination as well). It is important to note that Theoden does have the “sentinel” keyword, which is definitely always useful in multiplayer games.
One aspect I haven’t discussed yet is his interaction with existing Rohan synergy. Currently, there isn’t too much that affects Theoden, as many Rohan cards focus on fetching allies or discarding allies for some effect. Astonishing Speed could work to boost Theoden’s willpower to an impressive 5, while the new event, Forth Eorlingas!, which was released in this pack, could allow him to attack the staging area. With further Rohan cards likely to be released in the near future, Theoden will certainly benefit from increased trait synergy, but for now, the options are a bit limited.
With all that said, Theoden is a perfectly usable hero that has somewhat limited applications. If you’re looking to make a mono-Tactics deck for pure solo play, then Theoden is not only passable, he’s nearly essential (assuming you’re not going the Trained for War recycle route). If you’re playing in a multiplayer environment where you want to contribute some willpower and/or boost the willpower of other Tactics heroes on the board, then Theoden is a fine pick. Finally, if you are looking to build a Tactics/Spirit Rohan combination of some kind that can balance questing and combat, then Theoden is a thematically and practically sound choice. However, with the abundance of strong and useful Tactics heroes, there will be many situations that just can’t justify Theoden’s inclusion. The same could be said of many heroes of the sphere, but perhaps it could be said more so of Theoden than others. Steed of the Mark is designed for use with Theoden, allowing him to make the most of his stats, but strangely the horse belongs to a different sphere than he does, necessitating a dual sphere configuration (this is part of a larger problem, which is that most of the attachments that work well with Theoden are not Tactics and there aren’t really any Rohan-specific attachments yet). As the Rohan trait gets further love in the near future, and as mounts perhaps become a bigger feature, then Theoden’s value will likely increase dramatically.
Possible Attachment Choices: Celebrian’s Stone (5 willpower per turn–awesome for Tactics), Steed of the Mark, Steward of Gondor + Gondorian Shield, Dunedain Warning/Mark/Quest, Dagger of Westernesse
We’ve only scratched the surface of The Morgul Vale player cards, but there’s already been plenty to discuss. As the TftC Morgul Vale review continues, I anticipate that this trend will continue, as there are certainly some intriguing cards in the pack. I hope you’ve enjoyed this segment, and while not every hero gets his own article, not every hero led an epic charge before the gates of Minas Tirith either!