Voice of Isengard: Allies Review
The player cards review of the Voice of Isengard continues with a look at the five new allies included in this expansion. With one ally from each sphere and a neutral addition, there should theoretically be something for everyone here. Of course, in practice, not all allies are created equal, and so it’s time to separate the all-stars from the dust collectors. Will these new characters end up as key components of new deck types (or old ones)? Or will they be quickly forgotten and ignored? Read on to find out!
* Saruman (Neutral Ally, 3 cost, 3 willpower, 5 attack, 4 defense, 4 hit points, Doomed 3):
A third Istari ally has hit the card pool, and it is the head of the order of wizards himself, Saruman the White. While the original ally version of Gandalf is all awesome, only hampered by his high cost and temporary nature, Saruman is more of a mixed bag because of his Doomed cost and the fleeting impact of his effect:
Response: After Saruman enters play, choose a non-unique enemy or location in the staging area. While Saruman is in play, the chosen enemy or location is considered to be out of play.
This is actually quite satisfying thematically, as while Gandalf is unambiguously a force for good in The Lord of the Rings, flirting with Saruman, a future villain, should feel dangerous. In fact, during the time period of the game, Saruman was basically corrupted already, so a Doomed 3 is nothing if not appropriate! Inevitably, the heavy-hitting wizards, meaning Gandalf and Saruman, will be compared, but first let’s examine the original white wizard on his own merits.
Completely removing an enemy or location from play, even temporarily, is an effect that we haven’t seen too often in the game so far, probably because it is so potentially powerful. The designers very carefully specified that this must be a non-unique enemy or location in order to avoid Saruman completely breaking many scenarios (by putting that crucial boss enemy out of play, for example, allowing you to win a game without actually fighting). However, there still are certain situations where removing a non-unique enemy or location from play might be crucial to a particular scenario’s requirements. Perhaps the best example is Journey Along the Anduin, where you could use Saruman to put the Hill Troll out of play, allowing you to potentially move to stage two without actually killing it. Of course the problem here, and this is a drawback of Saruman’s ability, is that the Hill Troll would simply pop back into play at the end of the round, and you would have to deal with it later. Still, this use is the first of several major applications:
#1) Removing an enemy or location from play in order to easily satisfy a victory condition and win the game.
An example would be removing a last Nazgul enemy (although sadly not the unique Witch-king) to defeat A Knife in the Dark.
#2) Removing an enemy or location from play that has a nasty ongoing effect.
The Garden of Poisons from The Druadan Forest is one example, as Saruman could remove it from play so that you could gain resources from card effects, which might give you just the edge you need to be successful. Another example would be the Orc Vanguard from Heirs of Numenor, which prevents players from spending non-Tactics resources while it is in the staging area. Rather than having to engage this nasty, eight attack foe to avoid this effect, you could use Saruman to temporarily knock it out of play, allowing you to spend a bunch of resources before it comes back.
#3) Removing threat from the staging area to facilitate questing.
This is perhaps the most boring of the options, and perhaps the most wasteful, considering the existence of the one-cost Radagast’s Cunning and Secret Paths, but it could be useful in certain instances.
#4) Removing an enemy that you are not able to deal with in combat.
Sometimes you’re faced with too many enemies to handle all of them at once or a single enemy that is just too tough to deal with defensively. This is where Saruman could come in quite handy. Even better, not only are you removing an enemy from play, but also gaining the use of a character with 5 attack and 4 defense. Imagine if you needed to handle three enemies and were struggling to stop things from spiraling out of control. You could play Saruman to pop one enemy out of play and also have him available to defend against a second one (or he could be used to attack), which is almost like reducing three enemies to one! Alternatively, if that Mumak is headed your way and you have no defender in sight, Saruman could save your bacon (or another player’s, if you’re feeling generous).
So we know that Saruman’s ability has many uses, but just how good is it? First off, let’s not pull any punches: Gandalf is better. Whether you pick card draw, direct damage, or threat reduction, Gandalf’s ability has a permanent effect on the game state, and one of those effects will always be useful. To put it simply, you’ll never draw Gandalf and be disappointed. By contrast, there may be times when Saruman is just not worth putting into play, considering the threat cost, and, with the exception of use #1 above, he will usually only give you a temporary reprieve. Of course, such a reprieve may be just what you need to turn the tide of a game, but such things are difficult to measure. In terms of stats, Saruman is a powerhouse, losing one point of willpower compared to Gandalf for an extra point of attack, making him mainly a combat option (although three willpower is certainly significant in its own right). Gaining the services of such an ally is well worth three resources, even on a temporary basis, especially when you add in the potential uses of Saruman’s ability.
It is when you factor in the Doomed 3 that the picture becomes more cloudy. With the Keys of Orthanc in play, you could gain a resource from this trigger, cutting Saruman’s real cost to two, and a single copy of Elrond’s Counsel could completely cancel out the threat cost, but such things are often simpler in theory than in practice. I’m not saying that Saruman is not worth the cost in threat and resources, but I do think he is far more situational than Gandalf. That is not an indictment, just an observation. However, the subtle nature of Saruman’s effect means that his true value will only be uncovered through the experiences of many players over time. I suppose if you were willing to eat up threat like candy, you could chain Saruman into play over and over again using multiple copies and/or Sneak Attack to continually keep a certain enemy or location out of play, but it doesn’t seem very feasible. In addition, so far we’ve also been talking mostly about solo play, and Saruman’s threat increase becomes far less palatable as you add more players, although strategic considerations may justify playing him in certain instances.
To end on a more positive note, I do cherish the dream of putting both Gandalf and Saruman into play on the same turn, using Gandalf’s threat reduction to cancel out the Doomed cost, and taking advantage of two amazing Istari allies at once. We’re talking about 7 points of combined willpower and 9 points of combined attack! Also, before we move on, don’t forget that you can use Saruman to activate Word of Command just before he pops out of play, potentially grabbing a threat reduction effect to make up for what he just inflicted on players.
* Orthanc Guard (Leadership Ally, 2 cost, 1 willpower, 0 attack, 2 defense, 2 hit points):
One notable aspect of the Voice of Isengard is that it has introduced the brand new Isengard trait to the player card pool. I’m interested to see just how much development this trait will receive, but basically characters with this trait seem to have abilities based around the Doomed mechanic (Grima is Isengard, for example, as well as Rohan). The Orthanc Guard hails from the Leadership sphere and contains an in-built readying effect:
Response: After you raise your threat from the Doomed keyword, ready Orthanc Guard.
On the face of it, this ability is strong, as any form of action advantage is welcome. However, action advantage is only as good as the character it grants an action to, and in this case the impact is a bit lackluster because of the Orthanc Guard’s stats. You could have him quest for one, then ready through the playing of an event card with Doomed or the use of Grima’s ability, making him available for defending. Theoretically, you could also have him defend once, then play a Doomed card or use Grima’s ability, and have him defend again if he survives the first attack. Based on his stat line (and name), it does seem that this character is meant to be a defender.
The problem is that with two defense and two hit points, he’s a bit too flimsy to be used as a repeatable defender. He can survive a hit at three attack strength and survive, but that’s about it. Perhaps you could use him to block a couple of smaller enemies turn after turn, but those situations are few and far between as enemy attack strengths of three, four, and even five have become the average. That means that the Orthanc Guard will often end up as a chump blocker, which is a waste of two resources when the Leadership sphere has the one-cost Snowbourn Scout or Squire of the Citadel, and a waste of a readying ability.
The real potential of this ally could only be unlocked with some stat boosts, but the options are limited for allies, especially one with a new trait that has yet to be developed. Arwen is undoubtedly the best option, as this simple combination would bump the Orthanc Guard’s defense up to three, allowing him to block two fairly substantial attacks if you use his readying effect (and he would have sentinel as well). Aside from that, the only other viable alternative is Blade Mastery, which would not be anywhere near worth the effort as it would be a temporary and relatively expensive endeavor. Thus, if you’re using Orthanc Guard, I would say you pretty much need to run Arwen as well.
Overall, Orthanc Guard is a fairly lackluster ally (aside from the Arwen combination). However, he is cheap in a sphere that is flush with resources, and could at least quest for one while being available for emergency defending through his readying effect. In addition, while two defense seems negligible, the Orthanc Guard actually has the highest defense of any Leadership ally that costs three resources or less (only Faramir and Denethor are equal in defense strength). On the other hand, his readying ability and its trigger aren’t necessarily intuitive, as often you will want to play your Doomed effects during the planning phase, when your Orthanc Guard is already ready, rather than later in the turn. Sure, you can plan in advance and hold back on playing that copy of Deep Knowledge or Legacy of Numenor until the combat phase (to ready the Orthanc Guard for defending), but it can be awkward, as often you’ll want those cards and resources during planning when you need to put allies and attachments into play. Similarly, having to wait to use Grima’s ability means that you can only apply it to events. There is always the possibility that the encounter deck itself may ready the Orthanc Guard through Doomed effects, but it’s not something you can necessarily depend on. Thus, the Orthanc Guard is a usable ally, but one that is quite limited and awaits the addition of further ally defense buffs to be truly worth inclusion.
* Isengard Messenger (Lore Ally, 2 cost, 1 willpower, 0 attack, 1 defense, 2 hit points):
The Isengard Messenger, like Orthanc Guard, also has an ability that triggers off the Doomed keyword and also shares the Isengard trait. In his case, though, the triggered effect is not readying but a willpower boost:
Response: After you raise your threat from the Doomed keyword, Isengard Messenger gets +1 until the end of the round. (Limit twice per round.)
How useful this ability is really depends on the current state of the Lore ally pool, particularly in the willpower department. While the Isengard Messenger’s base willpower of one is completely unremarkable, a boosted willpower of two actually makes it one of the best questing allies in the sphere! This is not hyperbole, as Lore allies are pretty weak in the willpower department (most of the sphere’s questing power comes from heroes), with not a single ally of three-cost or less having greater than one willpower, aside from the solitary exception of the Rivendell Minstrel. Thus, the cheap two-cost, two willpower allies that Spirit takes for granted and that make that sphere such a questing powerhouse are completely absent from Lore, and Isengard Messenger has arrived to fill that role.
Assuming you’re using the Messenger in a Grima deck or Doomed-heavy deck where you can be sure of activating that keyword almost every turn, this ally will indeed act as a two-cost, two willpower character. Even better, he has two hit points, making him a bit sturdier than some of his counterparts in the Spirit sphere, such as West Road Traveller or an unbuffed Ethir Swordsman. This is valuable when those damage-dealing encounter card effects arise, helping you to get more value for your resources (there’s nothing worse than a single point of damage wiping out a questing character, robbing you of both willpower and the resources sunk into that ally!). Of course, since the Isengard Messenger’s ability can be triggered twice per round, he could conceivably have an amazing 3 willpower, although this should be thought of as a bonus rather than something dependable.
All in all, this ally has only one major weakness: a reliance on Doomed as a trigger that greatly limits its versatility. Outside of Doomed decks, relying on the encounter deck to act as the trigger is a suspect proposition, unless you know a certain scenario tends to feature that keyword. As only a 1 willpower character with no other abilities, the Isengard Messenger is easily outclassed by other Lore allies of the same cost. However, if you are playing with Doomed cards or Grima, this ally is an auto-include, and unlike the Orthanc Guard, there’s no weird timing to worry about. Once his boost is triggered, it lasts until the end of the round.
* Westfold Outrider (Tactics Ally, 2 cost, 0 willpower, 2 attack, 1 defense, 2 hit points):
This expansion isn’t all about Isengard, however, as Rohan also makes an appearance in ally form. As with the previous two allies, the Westfold Outrider costs only two resources but features an enemy engagement ability:
Action: Discard Westfold Outrider to choose an enemy not engaged with you. Engage the chosen enemy.
While the Isengard allies have abilities that trigger off of the Doomed keyword, this Rohan ally continues that particular trait’s theme of activating abilities through discarding a character. The Westfold Outrider’s effect seems simple and merely a repeat of Son of Arnor and Knight of Minas Tirith, but it is different in one crucial way: it can be activated during any action window, while those other two allies’ engagement effects are triggered when they enter play, which will usually be limited to the planning phase (unless you drop them into play using Sneak Attack or a similar effect). What this means in practice is that the Westfold Outrider’s effect is far more flexible. You could, for example, pull an enemy out of the staging area after staging and before quest resolution to remove some threat from the equation. This effect could also be used to grab an enemy that is engaged with another player after the encounter phase. In addition, the Westfold Outrider provides a cheaper option for pulling down those annoying enemies that stay in the staging area, such as Bill Ferny, coming in at only two resources compared to three for Son of Arnor or Knight of Minas Tirith.
Still, it must be said that those allies have an advantage in that they can use their ability and remain in play, and the Knight in Minas Tirith in particular has a formidable stat line and resides within the same sphere. On the other hand, and I’ll emphasize this point, the Westfold Outrider gives you absolute control over when the ability is triggered, and until you use it, you can take advantage of a cheap two-cost ally with a useful attack strength of two. If you’re running a Rohan deck, especially one that features Eomer, then including Westfold Outrider becomes a no-brainer, as you can discard this ally to engage an enemy and activate Eomer’s attack boost all at once. A similar synergy exists with Prince Imrahil and his readying ability.
In terms of pure stats, the Westfold Outrider is pretty much exclusively an attacker, and is good at it too, although Tactics already has a few two attack allies for the same cost. Perhaps if you’re not planning on needing to engage any enemies in a special manner, then it would be understandable to leave out this ally in favor of those with abilities you do need. However, even if you only think about the Outrider as an ally that can pitch in two attack with a built-in Radagast’s Cunning effect (which costs one resource), then you’re getting a good deal. Throw a Horn of Gondor on your Tactics hero, and this ally pays back half of its cost when it leaves play, for even better value. Include some copies of Valiant Sacrifice, and you can even have some card draw available at the moment of your choosing as well. Certainly there are other Rohan allies available that can selectively discard to trigger these effects as well (The Riddermark’s Finest, Westfold Horse-Breaker), but this is the only Tactics one and it has the best stats as well.
* Westfold Horse-breeder (Spirit Ally, 1 cost, 1 willpower, 0 attack, 0 defense, 1 hit point):
The other major Rohan sphere, Spirit, also adds another Rohan ally to its stable (yes, I am pretty proud of that one, thank you very much). With the recent addition of two new Mount attachments, Steed of the Mark and Rohan Warhorse, to the pool alongside Asfaloth, it makes sense that we would also get some kind of fetching effect for them:
Response: After Westfold Horse-breeder enters play, search the top 10 cards of your deck for a Mount attachment and add it to your hand. Shuffle your deck.
This ability compares pretty well with similar ones. Mustering the Rohirrim, for example, costs one resource as well and searches the top ten cards just as the Westfold Horse-breeder does (for Rohan allies instead of Mounts), but the latter has the advantage of sticking around as an ally. Of course, a fetch effect is only as good as the card type or trait it is retrieving, so we need to take a look at the currently available Mount attachments to determine just how good this Horse-breeder is and whether it’s worth including her in a deck. Steed of the Mark is a readying effect that is just okay, and I’ve slowly lowered my estimation of it over time as there just aren’t that many great targets for it that are worth expending a bunch of resources to quest with each turn and be available for combat. Asfaloth, by contrast, is supremely powerful, being one of the best, if not the best location management effects in the game. It has slightly diminished in value as recent quests have increased the quest points of locations to compensate, but not enough to completely devalue it. Being able to quickly grab a copy for Glorfindel to ride with the Horse-breeder could be crucial against certain scenarios that are location-heavy or require the careful management of locations. Finally, the Rohan Warhorse is an amazing attachment for Tactics heroes, and while I”ll save my full comments about it for the upcoming attachments review, it’s enough here to say that the Westfold Horse-breeder would be worth including just to grab that one particular Mount quickly and facilitate a deck strategy based around it.
Probably the best aspect of this ally is that she provides another card draw option for Spirit. Her stats are fairly poor, but what do you expect from a one-cost character? And when you really look at it closely, gaining one willpower for one cost on a character that you are mostly using for her fetch ability is not a bad deal, as you are essentially getting an extra body for chump blocking and questing as gravy. It’s also important to remember that as more Mount attachments are released, the Westfold Horse-breeder will surely increase in value. Right now, she’s not a must-have for every deck, but certainly is quite useful for Rohan builds and those relying on Mounts. Regarding the former, since this ally only costs one resource, she makes great discard fodder for an effect like Ride to Ruin. Similarly, if you were to get two or three copies of this character onto the table, not only are you getting a total of two to three willpower for just a few resources, but if you played Astonishing Speed, each would be questing for three willpower! All in all, this is a pretty good ally.
The allies of the Voice of Isengard have now received their due. Overall, this is a solid batch of allies, although none has as large an impact as something like Defender of Rammas or Errand-rider from the Heirs of Numenor set (with the possible exception of Saruman). I’d have to say that the Orthanc Guard is the weakest of the allies in Voice of Isengard, while the Westfold Outrider and Saruman are the strongest. Still, we won’t know the full value of these characters until the cycle is complete and we’ve seen more Isengard cards (and Mount attachments). Until then, the attachments of this latest deluxe expansion are next on the menu!