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Against the Shadow: Cycle Wrap-up

by on January 7, 2014


It’s hard to believe that the Heirs of Numenor deluxe expansion was released over a year ago. I still have fond memories of cursing the cards on my table with every defeat at the hands of the Harad in the forests of Ithilien. Despite the challenges of that expansion, I greatly enjoyed it as a test of my abilities, and Heirs of Numenor ushered in a brand new set of Adventure Packs that collectively formed the Against the Shadow cycle. This cycle took players to the beleaguered realm of Gondor, and gave us the chance to stand with the defenders of Minas Tirith against the forces of the Enemy.

With the Against the Shadow cycle officially coming to a close with the release of The Morgul Vale, and with the next deluxe expansion around the corner, it is time to give AtS a proper farewell and take stock of how the game has been influenced by this latest collection of cards. What follows are my intensely subjective assessments of the good, the bad, and the ugly from the Against the Shadow cycle.

Note: I am including Heirs of Numenor as part of the cycle wrap-up.

* Most Game Changing CardRanger Spikes

By game-changing, I am not necessarily referring to the most powerful card or the one that had the biggest influence on deck building. Rather, Ranger Spikes was game-changing in that it was the first card that really let us turn the tables on the encounter deck by laying traps for enemies in the staging area. We did get an initial trap in the Core Set in the form of Forest Snare, but this was a limited effect that simply was another way of stopping an engaged enemy from attacking (like an extended Feint). Ranger Spikes allowed players to actually “reveal” attachments for foes to fall into and clearly ushered in a line of new traps, which ultimately became a new type of card, deck, and gameplay strategy. As such, Ranger Spikes did more than any other card to change the game.

* Most Underrated CardEmery

While there are certainly plenty of players that understand the value of Emery, I feel that overall she is a low-key ally that flew somewhat under the radar. In a mono-Spirit deck (which is a viable and strong build), she can be played for free. With 2 defense and 2 hit points, she can take an enemy attack of 3 and survive, and thus can serve as a fairly durable free defender. Even better, she can be given to another player, extending her utility in multiplayer situations. Beyond mono-Spirit decks, Emery can still be used consistently with the help of some player deck scrying, or can be discarded purposely to activate effects that trigger off of characters leaving play.

* Most Unexpected CardWell-Equipped

After all the Dwarf cards we received in the previous cycle and the two well-equippedHobbit Saga Expansions, I was fairly certain that we wouldn’t see any support for them in AtS. I was pretty shocked then, to see Well-Equipped show up in The Blood of Gondor. I completely dismissed it at the time as an extraneous card, but it has turned out to be quite useful in actual play, especially in a Dwarven miner deck. Being able to play attachments for free seems like an extravagance when most attachments are cheap and Dwarves are so rich in resource generation and card draw, but in a deck with player deck scrying, Well-Equipped can get those key attachments onto your characters all the more quickly. Alternatively, it can help discard cards to be retrieved in a “discard draw” deck or to trigger Hidden Cache.

* Most Thematic CardDenethor

This is a clear case of theme trumping gameplay. As an ally, Denethor is expensive and not quite consistent enough to merit a place in many decks (although I stop short of dismissing him completely). However, the thematic element of this card is fantastic. Just as Denethor was a strong-willed leader who was ultimately laid low by despair, ally Denethor starts out with a potent 3 willpower but loses strength as a player’s situation deteriorates. Ultimately, he is discarded if all heroes are damaged and his fears get the best of him. Presumably, he sets the entire contents of a player’s discard pile on fire once he gets there.

Most Powerful CardGondorian Shield

While there were obviously a few cards that could lay claim to this title, it was never a close one for me. Gondorian Shield captured my heart from the moment it was released, and it is just so strong. One of the most difficult aspects of the game to get to grips with initially is defense, and setting up strong defensive options is important for all players. Gondorian Shield provides a crucial defense boost of 2 for only 1 resource and can turn characters like Denethor, Beregond, and other Gondorian heroes into defensive walls that can singlehandedly turn the tide of battle. For comprehensively handling an entire area of play, Gondorian Shield earns the title of strongest card.

Most Flawed Card – Pippin

Ultimately, just as there are strong cards in a cycle, there will inevitably bepippin weak ones as well, and Spirit Pippin is the worst of them all, in my opinion. While his ability is theoretically useful, in that it allows Hobbit decks to avoid combat and serves as a repeatable A Light in the Dark, the cost of a substantial threat increase is too much. What truly makes Spirit Pippin terrible is that his ability, while seeming to enable a Hobbit dodge strategy, completely goes against that approach by raising your threat. Sure, you can use Spirit effects to lower your threat, but it just isn’t worth it in the long run, especially with the arrival of better Hobbit cards and a stronger Hobbit strategy in The Black Riders (along with a superior version of Pippin).

* Most Fun CardHidden Cache

Small Target was a contender here, but I just don’t find myself using it all that much. Instead, I’ll pick Hidden Cache as a newfound favorite in the fun factor category. There is something uniquely satisfying about digging through your deck and hitting upon a Hidden Cache to generate some resources. This is definitely a niche card and not for every deck, but in terms of pure fun, it’s hard to beat. 

* Best Hero of the CycleBeregond

It is an arguable point, but I feel that the heroes of this cycle were generally on the weaker side. This is not to say that we didn’t get useful heroes, far beregond-honfrom it. Heroes like Mirlonde, Caldara, Leadership Boromir, and Faramir all have a role to play in certain decks, and I actually appreciate modest cards that avoid being overpowered. However, there were very few heroes that came screaming out of the box, demanding attention. Beregond is the exception, and he clearly overshadows every other hero in this cycle. Like Gondorian Shield, he provides a quick, easy solution to defensive problems, and when you combine the two cards, you can take on most foes with little problem. I also absolutely love the art on this card.

* Biggest Surprise of the Cycle – Outlands

Love them or hate them, you’d be hard pressed to find any player that predicted before the cycle began that Outlands would be the dominant trait rather than Gondor. Outlands hit the card pool hard with The Steward’s Fear, immediately becoming one of the most powerful deck types around. While I’ve made my own feeling on the trait clear in other places, here I’ll say that they definitely took everyone by surprise, and immediately signaled that our expectations for some elements of the cycle might not pan out quite as we expected. I don’t think we’ll see anything quite this overpowered come out again (although I could certainly be wrong), and I would be greatly surprised if we see Outlands receive future support in the future. For new players, Outlands remains an option for quickly getting to grips with the game or taking on the toughest scenarios.

Best Scenario of the Cycle – The Steward’s Fear

This was a close race between The Steward’s Fear, The Druadan Forest, and The Morgul Vale. I know some players didn’t enjoy this scenario that much, but personally I think it’s the best of the bunch for several reasons. First, the use of variable villains and plots was a nice touch that lends replay value to the quest. Second, it just feels different than any other quest thematically, as the heroes put on their best Sherlock Holmes impression and try to solve a mystery. Third, the unique underworld mechanic totally changes how you approach questing, combat, and location management each turn. Fourth, this was the first taste of the new plot-heavy approach to scenarios that the Against the Shadow cycle would provide. There are certainly flaws to this scenario, the main one being that it can take a while to set up and it can be a bit fiddly and long at times. Overall, however, this is a quest that has grown on me over time enough to earn the top spot.

* Worst Scenario of the Cycle – The Blood of Gondor

I actually feel bad giving The Blood of Gondor this dubious title, because I don’t feel any scenario in this cycle was truly of a poor quality. Still, if I have to pick, this was the quest that I enjoyed the least. Perhaps it just had bad timing (I picked this one up at the same time as The Black Riders, so it was always going to play second fiddle). Perhaps it wasn’t helped by being released right after Assault on Osgiliath, which had some similar themes and a combat-oriented focus. Whatever the cause may be, The Blood of Gondor earns the bottom spot, but I still actually enjoy playing it, which is a sign of the overall quality of the cycle.

* Favorite Encounter CardDru-buri-Dru

A tough “boss” enemy who could be dealt with in a different way than dru burianything else we’ve experienced. It was nice to convince Dru-buri-Dru to support my cause rather than simply hacking him to death, and it was thematic gold to have him bolster your efforts to convince the other Woses once he was on your side. In gameplay terms, Dru-buri-Dru is tough without being cheesy. Generally, preventing allies from defending against a boss seems to be a better way of making things difficult than “immune to player card effects”, which is far too prohibitive in the vast majority of cases. I also needed to give a special shout out hereto The Druadan Forest quest, which I did enjoy for the tough decisions that it forced upon players through the “prowl” and “archery” keywords.

Favorite Player CardForth Eorlingas!

I really enjoy this card for both its thematic and gameplay applications. With a Rohan-heavy combat deck, which will soon become even more viable with the next cycle, you can unleash a charge on the staging area that is worthy of song. I’ve used this card to great effect, with the help of some Hama recycling (which feels much better than Hama Feint recycling, by the way), and been able to lay a world of hurt on enemies in the staging area. Few cards make you actually feel like you’re controlling Rohan as much as Forth Eorlingas!

* Card with the Most PotentialMighty Prowess

I will end with a glimpse into the future, looking at the card with the most potential that I just haven’t been able to put into practice as of yet. Against the right scenarios that feature enemies with the same trait (like the upcoming Dunland foes), Mighty Prowess can surely form a strong component of a direct damage deck. While there are plenty of other valuable Tactics attachments, this is a card that can complement all the direct damage effects that are available to quickly clear troublesome enemies off the board. As such, I plan to put Mighty Prowess through its paces against Voice of Isengard, although I haven’t gotten a chance to use it much so far.

That’s it, folks! The Agains the Shadow cycle has wrapped and the Voice of Isengard approaches. Feel free to share your own favorites below!


From → Reviews

  1. matthew permalink

    great article, ian, and i agree with much of your analysis here! the only place i disagree with you is “best/worst” quest! 😀

  2. Tonskillitis permalink

    Very much agree with these appraisals, sir. Overall this was my favourite cycle and I too love playing the theme-drenched ‘Steward’s Fear’ quest. My only change would be to put ‘Assault on Osgiliath’ as the weakest quest in the cycle because of its slightly broken and random nature. Even assuming you don’t go for the now infamous Boromir trick, this quest has tended to be either overly brief or infuriatingly harsh. While I appreciate the theme and the attempt at something new, I find it strange to start with victory so close at hand and feel it slip away as the quest goes on…

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      I can’t argue with your choice. It’s a shame that Assault on Osgiliath wasn’t better than it was. That quest had tons of potential for truly creating a big battle experience, and I like the idea of capturing locations. With only a couple small tweaks, it could be a better quest.

  3. bootagot permalink

    Sweet article. I think this cycle took the game to a whole new level. All quests were great, some definitely better than others but still all very replayable. I also think the next cycle is going to be insane I seriously cannot wait, this game has easily become my favourite card game by far. Super fun solo, crazy fun multiplayer.

    Things I would have liked to see: Gondor be fleshed out like Gondor. I want to have a smatter of allies in play all in the same armour/gear etc. I want my Gondor deck to be a sweet army of knights etc. I hope they get the art people to sync their art to be uniform in the future. However I cannot mention the art without praising it for its quality either… I just want my Gondor to look like Gondor and my Rohan to look like Rohan, whatever that may be. A good example is how they did the rangers, all rangers just look like they go together.

    I agree with your list, but here are my own additions:

    Most Game Changing Card: Defender of Rammas or Errand-rider
    Most Underrated Card: Mirlonde
    Most Unexpected Card: Outlands
    Most Thematic Card: Palantir
    Most Powerful Card: Beregond + Gondorian Shield or outlands
    Most Flawed Card: Pippin or Theodon (both seem to encourage things you don’t want to be doing)
    Most Fun Card: Rangers + Ranger bows
    Best Hero of the Cycle: Beregond (I wish Boromir or Faramir though)
    Biggest Surprise of the Cycle: There wasn’t a smorgasbord of Gondor knights/outlands… partly made up by the rangers
    Best Scenario of the Cycle: Into Ithilien (seriously enjoyed the whole cycle)
    Worst Scenario of the Cycle: Assault on Osgiliath or the Blood of Gondor (too many cards moving in and out of hidden zone, remembering all took a few attempts)
    Favorite Encounter Card: A knife in the Back (I still cannot believe Gandalf was a traitor)
    Card with the Most Potential: Caldara (crazy spirit allies needed), Well-Equipped (crazy attachments needed)

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Into Ithilien is a good choice for best scenario. I really like Siege of Cair Andros and came close to choosing that quest.

  4. Glaurung permalink

    Cannot agree about BOG. Quite cool quest. Worse quest is Amon-Din. For me Amon-din and Hills of Emyn-Muil 2 most bad quests in the game.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Amon-Din is certainly super easy, perhaps even easier than Passage Through Mirkwood. However, I gave it a pass because I like some of the mechanics and the theme is interesting, while Blood of Gondor seemed kind of bland.

  5. Neil permalink

    Sigh Spirit Pippin. Desperately trying to make him go. Return to newly placed traps is a consideration… Auto-including every threat reduction card in the game to make him effective is a serious deck design decision to make.

    After having played him a heck of a lot now, I will say that with a few buffs, he becomes a great quester, and can hitch for peace and thought easily. His ability is more for use out of desperation, when you absolutely cannot consider taking that engaging enemy. And for that he works great.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      I really wish they wouldn’t have made his ability dependent on controlling all Hobbit heroes. He could have found more uses that way.

  6. Great write-up. Poor ol’ Pippin, at least he’s got his Lore counterpart to gain some love by.

    I think my favorite encounter card would have to be False Lead. There’s nothing quite like ramping things up for a big quest push, only to have it hit a total dead end.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Ironically, a few times False Lead has actually saved me from questing unsuccessfully and taking on a big threat gain.

  7. Traekos77 permalink

    So far, I’m not liking what I see in the next cycle. The cards don’t look particularly innovative and the mechanic of raising threat (via Doom) to pay for effects isn’t fun from a gameplay perspective.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Interesting. Did you like the Against the Shadow cycle? It’ll definitely be very interesting to see how the “doomed” works out in actual practice. I do like the idea that it ‘tempts” players with power, but might come back to bite them later.

      • Traekos77 permalink

        I liked a subset of the Against the Shadow cycle. I enjoyed the inclusion of Outlands up until the second expansion pack (then it be became too *paint by numbers*), both because they were a new mechanic and more cheap ally options are always interesting. I enjoyed the mono-sphere cards as that deck area was under-represented (plus Mirlonde, who is really interesting given that Silvan cards are few and synergies are hard to find). Other highlights for me are Caldara (really neat idea), Hidden Cache (intentionally discarding from the deck is a smart mechanic) Palantir (a perfect mix of mechanic and theme) and Small Target (probably the coolest card in the game).

        I generally buy an expansion/saga box/pack if there are 5+ player cards of interest to me (i.e. a cool idea or something I would considering building around). For the Khazad-dum cycle, the last four expansion packs met this bar while for the Against the Shadow cycle the first two did. (The Mirkwood cycle I treated differently, I was buying everything I could at that point just to have deck options.)

        Paying for card effects through threat increases smells of *need to think of something* desperation (although I do concede that is suitably thematic from a Saruman perspective, just not for a wide range of cards, much less a significant subset of a cycle … of course I haven’t seen all the cards, it just feels like that is the direction they are taking). What will the cycle after bring? Paying for card effects through damage on allies/heroes? FFG is known of innovation, they can do better.

  8. Mndela permalink

    Beautifull article, sure. Congratulations.

  9. sweetnesswhachacha permalink

    Another great article! The only thing I would disagree with you on is Druadain forest which is my least favorite quest that has been released in the game thus far by a mile. Stewards fear I loved! And Beregond is definitely the best hero although I really like Faramir.

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