Voice of Isengard: Heroes Review
The wait is over and the Voice of Isengard has finally arrived! One of the first articles I ever released here at Tales from the Cards was a review of the last deluxe expansion, Heirs of Numenor. Since then, my reviews have gotten a bit more long-winded and more detailed, but I’m pleased to have another deluxe box to analyze and another cycle to anticipate all the same. As with my most recent expansion reviews, I will be reviewing the Voice of Isengard player cards in separate articles based on card type, as this allows me to go into greater detail about each card (and maintains my sanity). In this first installment, we’ll be looking at the two heroes included in the Voice of Isengard: Eomer and Grima. How have these heroes affected the card pool (if at all)? What syngergies and combinations are possible? Most importantly, are you Team Grima or Team Eomer?
* Eomer (Tactics Hero, 10 threat, 1 willpower, 3 attack, 2 defense, 4 hit points):
If you were to make a list of the most beloved and important Rohan characters in The Lord of the Rings, undoubtedly the top three would be Theoden, Eowyn, and Eomer. While we’ve had Eowyn since the Core Set, Theoden only arrived at the end of the Against the Shadow cycle, with many players feeling a bit underwhelmed by his eventual incarnation in the game. Now Eomer has made his appearance, and I think it’s safe to say that his reception will be far more favorable.
Eomer’s ability is simple yet powerful:
Response: After a character leaves play, Éomer gets +2 until the end of the round. (Limit once per round.)
This means that you can potentially have a hero with 5 attack available without the aid of any weapons or attachments. Of course, you can add on attachments like Dunedain Mark, Dagger of Westernesse, or Spear of the Mark to bump this attack strength up even further. To take one theoretical example, Eomer using his ability and attacking with two copies of Dagger of Westernesse against an enemy with a higher engagement cost would have an amazing attack strength of nine! Alternatively, you could use Forth Eorlingas! to allow Eomer to attack an enemy in the staging area with two copies of Spear of the Mark for nine as well. An intriguing synergy and possibility for attack boosting also exists with the rarely used Grave Cairn. Since a character must leave play to activate the ability anyway, Grave Cairn could allow you to add that character’s attack strength to Eomer. Of course, this means that the discarded or destroyed character would have to have a high enough attack to justify this combination. Using Vassal of the Windlord against one enemy before using Eomer to attack another is a possibility, as this ally would leave play, triggering both Eomer’s ability and Grave Cairn for a total attack boost of 5.
The overall valuation of Eomer’s worth ultimately depends on how often and how reliably his ability can be triggered. In turn, this all depends on how willing you are to deck build specifically for this purpose. There are an abundance of cheap chump blockers that can be included for the express purpose of sacrificing them to activate Eomer’s ability: Snowbourn Scout, Envoy of Pelargir, and Squire of the Citadel are some prime examples. The drawback to this approach is that it is dependent on drawing these allies and it also might clog up your deck with weak characters. Beyond sacrificing allies in defense, characters that pop in and out of play (or just out), and events that allow this to happen, are a potentially less wasteful trigger. Here I’m thinking of cards like Sneak Attack, Spirit Bofur, Escort from Edoras, Vassal of the Windlord, Winged Guardian, and more. Of course, many Rohan characters have abilities that are triggered by discarding them, such as Westfold Horse-Breaker, The Riddermark’s finest, and the new Westfold Outrider, and these provide a useful and thematic way to power up Eomer on a fairly consistent basis. Even better, since you can choose exactly when to discard these characters, you can have almost total control of the timing of the trigger. Westfold Horse-breaker in particular gets a new lease on life with the release of Eomer, as you can attack once with Eomer at an attack strength of 3 (or defend or quest), then discard the Horse-Breaker to not only ready Eomer but also boost his attack up to 5. If you pair this combination with Rohan Warhorse and a weapon, then Eomer can smash through a line of enemies almost single-handedly. Finally, it is worth noting that Emery could be included for the sole purpose of having her be discarded as a trigger. With all these characters leaving play and given the basis of Eomer’s ability, he is also perhaps the perfect fit for Horn of Gondor.
As some last points of consideration, we need to examine Eomer’s stats and his overall place in the pool of Tactics heroes. Ten threat is actually pretty reasonable and pegs him as average for the sphere (the spectrum pretty much runs from nine to eleven, with only a few outliers). Even better, his ability is essentially giving you a discount, as if you had to pay for his 5 attack, he would have a starting threat of twelve. He’s likely not going to be doing much questing due to his low willpower and high combat utility (Steed of the Mark is a possibility, but not worth the space and resources for a single point of willpower, or even two willpower with Theoden, unless you’re running a solo build). His attack is obviously awesome, but he can also serve as a decent defender, with two defense and four hit points.
Eomer perhaps suffers most in his value compared to other Tactics heroes, as his base attack of three is so common for the sphere that it’s unremarkable. Legolas and Hama both have three attack for one less point of starting threat, and the use of weapons could bump either up to Eomer’s boosted level of five while also allowing you to benefit from other abilities (like Legolas’ progress tokens or Hama’s event recycling). Still, there is something to be said for Eomer in that his attack boost is built into his card itself and is thus available from the first turn and doesn’t require the inclusion of any other attachments (this also means you don’t have to draw or pay for extra cards as well). Since Eomer has a built-in attack boost, he can find room in his “restricted” slot space for the amazing Rohan Warhorse (which will be covered in more depth in the attachments review), whereas other heroes might have to use those for weapons.
Therefore, while Eomer is not superior to other Tactics heroes, he definitely holds his own and provides yet another viable option for strong attack potential. Even better, he is part of an existing Rohan synergy that has seen its Tactics incarnation strengthened in both Voice of Isengard and The Morgul Vale. Of course, he’s quite versatile and can work outside Rohan, as strategies built around characters leaving play are quite popular and well-developed in the game, from Eagles to Eomer’s new best buddy Prince Imrahil to the upcoming Silvan. It’s worth mentioning that he gets even more powerful as you add more players, as the chances of at least one character leaving play each turn increases. With all that said, Eomer is undoubtedly my favorite hero of the last five or six expansions (leaving aside the awesome Hobbits from The Black Riders).
Possible Attachment Choices: Rohan Warhorse, Dagger of Westernesse, Steed of the Mark, Spear of the Mark, Dunedain Mark, Horn of Gondor
* Grima (Lore Hero, 9 threat, 2 willpower, 1 attack, 2 defense, 3 hit points):
If Eomer is all flash and brute force, then Grima is his polar opposite, relying on a subtle “resource generation” through cost reduction ability rather than combat prowess. This is fitting, as they have quite divergent roles in Tolkien’s story (the noble warrior vs. the master manipulator), as well as divergent fates, with Eomer ending up as the King of Rohan while Grima died in ignominy as a traitor and villain. Now that I’ve given a pretty strong stamp of approval to Eomer, the verdict on Grima remains to be delivered.
Grima’s ability is certainly a useful one, helping to make up for the lack of resource generation in Lore by lowering the cost of cards:
Action: Lower the cost of the next card you play from your hand this round by 1. That card gains Doomed 1. (Limit once per round.)
On the plus side, this is an extremely flexible cost reduction effect that can be applied to any card type and any sphere (the latter being valuable in a multi-sphere deck). Of course, there is a sizable drawback to this ability as well: the necessity of raising your threat (and the threat of all other players by one). Unlike Eomer, Grima’s value decreases with the addition of more players, as you are asking more and more players to pay the threat penalty for your benefit. Thus, Grima perhaps shines best in a pure solo deck, although he is viable in multiplayer games if you bring along substantial threat reduction.
Even just taken by itself, Grima’s ability is certainly powerful and the possibilities are nearly endless. For one, strong, expensive cards can be played for a lower cost, making them easier to get out early and often. As an example, imagine playing Gandalf or Gildor for four or Northern Tracker for three. Similarly, essential two-cost cards like Unexpected Courage or Asfaloth could be played for a single resource. Finally, key events such as A Test of Will or Radagast’s Cunning could be played for absolutely free, allowing you to pay for other cards without having to worry about keeping one back. Of course, keep in mind that you would need to activate Grima’s ability in advance of using a response effect like A Test of Will, as it is an action itself and couldn’t be triggered during staging.
Perhaps the biggest downside of Grima is that you really need to deck build specifically to compensate for the Doomed cost, which limits his versatility. The two best options are a Lore/Spirit build for access to threat reduction effects and/or pairing Grima with Lore Aragorn, who can essentially solve the whole problem all on his own. For the former, including either Arwen or Spirit Glorfindel (or both) will give you access to Elrond’s Counsel, a single copy of which can neutralize three rounds of using Grima’s ability. Even better, using Spirit Glorfindel will start you off with a low starting threat, which gives you more room to work with as well. The Galadhrim’s Greeting, assuming you use the Doomed cost to make it cheaper, can neutralize 5 rounds worth of Grima’s ability for only two resources. Of course, this means that you won’t be doing threat reduction so much as treading the water of threat, but it still makes things quite workable. Including Spirit recycling through Dwarven Tomb and/or Map of Earnil can make these options even more potent and reliable. If you’re going to be messing around with Doomed cards beyond Grima’s own ability, however, you’ll need something a bit more heavy duty, and this is where Lore Aragorn comes in to save the day, and if you use Desperate Alliance you can even let other players lower their threat as well to compensate for raising their threat, which is much better than a “sorry I made you threat out” greeting card. Another option for multiplayer is Song of Earendil combined with threat reduction to allow you to soak up the threat increases from Doomed taken on by other players.
Beyond just compensating for Grima’s ability, though, the real fun comes with trying to maximize its effectiveness. Master of Lore certainly finds new life in combination with Grima, as he can be put into play for only two resources using Grima’s effect. Once this initial set-up is complete, you can play Lore cards at a two resource discount every turn! Adding a Hobbit with Good Meal to the party would be a nice synergy as well, pushing the potential savings on one card up to four, or potentially working with non-Lore cards (as Master of Lore can’t affect those). As for the Voice of Isengard player cards, including Keys of Orthanc is an absolute no-brainer in a Grima deck. Once that attachment is on him, you can benefit from not only a one resource discount each turn but also an extra resource from the Keys as well. This is fantastically powerful. Even better, you don’t have to put the Keys on Grima; you could place them on a hero of another sphere as well or even a hero controlled by another player and they would benefit each turn you used Grima’s ability.
Leaving aside Grima’s card text for the moment, his stats are decent, if not spectacular. For the most part, you’ll probably be using him to quest more than anything else, as his two willpower is passable, while his attack strength won’t be scaring any orcs anytime soon. In terms of defense, his two defense is serviceable, but his three hit points make him too fragile to use reliably. If you really want to use him in that role, you could use A Burning Brand and Protector of Lorien, in conjunction with Lore’s card draw effects, to turn him into a tank. All things considered, Grima’s low stats are a positive in that he starts with a moderate threat of nine, rather than something higher (however, he does have one point of extra starting threat to compensate for the power of his ability).
Perhaps the most substantial knock against Grima is that there are more straightforward means of generating resources. However, while it’s true that simply throwing Steward of Gondor on a hero is easier and doesn’t come with any penalties, not every deck will include Leadership, and Lore has been begging for resource help for some time now. I’m not of the opinion that a strong existing effect necessitates throwing out all future effects in that same realm, as deck building in this game is and should be about options. While Steward of Gondor may indeed be the power option, creative deck builders will love the interesting possibilities provided by Grima in general and Doomed in particular, and his ability provides a level of flexibility that surpasses the Steward. However, it must be reiterated that Grima is much more powerful in solo (I would give him an efficiency rating of four or five in that setting), as while there are certainly tricks for countering Doomed in multiplayer (some of which I’ve listed here), it is often more difficult to pull off managing the threat of two, three, or four players in actual practice. It requires a substantial portion of your deck space to include threat reduction cards and event recycling effects in order to keep all players at a manageable level. Still, Grima remains a strong option for solo play and a decent option for multiplayer if you (and the other players) are willing to do careful planning around his ability.
Possible Attachment Choices: Keys of Orthanc, Song of Earendil (on an accompanying Spirit hero), A Burning Brand, Protector of Lorien
Choosing between Grima and Eomer may be a de facto personality test for players. What appeals to you more? The elegant simplicity and heroic force of Eomer that will make your enemies cower in fear? Or the cunning, behind-the-scenes power of Grima that is reliant on clever combinations and deck building skill? Of course, there’s no reason why one has to choose and you can surely enjoy both (as I do), but it’s more fun to set up a grand debate between Team Grima and Team Eomer. Where do your loyalties lie?
The heroes of this new expansion may have been prodded and poked and thoroughly analyzed, but the allies, attachments, and events of Voice of Isengard still remain. Look out for those reviews over the next couple of weeks, as well as an examination of the scenarios themselves. And as always, share your thoughts below on the great Grima/Eomer debate!