Middle-earth Self Defense 101
Success in LOTR LCG rests on addressing a few key considerations. Mustering enough willpower to make progress towards victory is perhaps the most obvious and crucial one, but having a clear and successful defensive strategy is just as important. While players of all experience levels know that treacheries are brutal and locations can be annoying, it is enemies that represent a real physical threat to your characters. By coming down to engage with and attack players, enemies can inspire the kind of visceral fear that other encounter cards simply can’t. More practically, they are the ones that can actually place damage on your heroes and kill your characters, and they are what prevents you from simply sending everyone to the quest each turn. Thus, figuring out how to defend oneself becomes one of the key steps on the journey to becoming a successful LOTR LCG player. This bite-sized article aims to help new players get their bearings in the often harsh and terrifying world of Middle-earth. Consider this your first class in Middle-earth Self Defense 101.
So that ugly Orc or pesky Warg has you pinned down in some rugged hills or a dark forest, and now you have to figure out how to defend yourself. What do you do? While there are a myriad of specific options, there are actually only three main options to choose from: “chump block”, defend with a character you want to survive, and take an undefended attack. Each option has its own strengths and weaknesses, and there are further choices to make within each one.
Option #1: “Chump Block”
“Chump block” is a term that is used as often as hello in the LOTR LCG community. It’s a fairly self-explanatory term, referring to using a “chump” to do your blocking, with a chump being a cheap, weak character who doesn’t have much value. The idea is that since this character isn’t contributing much, they can be safely sacrificed in order to soak up an attack, saving your more valuable characters from being damaged or having to waste an action to defend. In the Core Set, the quintessential chump blocker is the Snowbourn Scout, as he only costs one resource, has incredibly poor stats, and has an ability that triggers only when he enters play and then ceases to be useful.
The benefits of this option are numerous. For one, you can force a tough enemy, say one with five, six, or even seven attack strength to essentially “waste” their attack on killing a character you don’t care about anyway. Two, by using a chump blocker, stronger characters don’t have to exhaust to defend, leaving them free to quest or attack. In card games, players often refer to the concept of “action advantage”, meaning that you have more actions available than your opponent. In a cooperative game like LOTR LCG, your opponent is the encounter deck, which means that action advantage really refers to having more characters (and more actions for each character, such as those provided by Unexpected Courage) than enemies (their “actions” are to attack). Questing exhausts some of your characters, which reduces your action advantage. However, it is important to understand that not all actions are created equal. Any action a Snowbourn Scout can take for example, whether to quest, attack, or defend, is not equal in weight to an action Aragorn can take, for example. The reason why all this is important is that chump blocking allows you to use an action from a less valuable character for defense, which is an action that doesn’t improve your “board position” (the balance of forces between your characters and enemies, how much progress you have on the quest, etc.), so that more powerful characters can use their actions for questing and attack (or using an ability), which does directly lead you towards victory or improve your board position. Finally, chump blocking is a way to ensure that a valuable character, such as a hero or strong ally is not damaged or destroyed. Shadow effects can often boost enemy attack strength, which might turn an attack that shouldn’t have damaged a character into one that does inflict damage, and this unpredictability is a key part of the combat process. Chump blocking takes away the danger of losing a character you didn’t plan on giving up.
Still, there are drawbacks to chump blocking, otherwise this would be the top option every single time. First, it must be mentioned that as the game progresses, more and more shadow effects punish the use of chump blocking, by including the conditional phrase, “If this attack destroys a character, [insert something nasty here]”. This was not really present in the early cycles, but has been a positive contribution to the game by introducing a potential penalty for chump blocking.
Second, chump blocking does take up both resources and deck space that could be used elsewhere. This introduces the concept of “opportunity cost”, which is huge for deck building games of this nature. Basically, the idea behind “opportunity cost” is that you can’t just think about the actual printed cost of a card when deciding to include it in your deck, but also the fact that you had to leave out another card to make space for this one. Therefore, the cost of playing that Snowbourn Scout, for example, is not just the one resource you pay, but also the missed opportunity (a.k.a “opportunity cost”) of another card that you could have played from hand with that resource. What all this means is that in order to chump block, you are not only “spending” space in your deck and resources, but also “spending” the opportunity to play other allies (and attachments and events). This is not to say that chump blocking is not worth this cost, as it does provide a clean solution to defending (and most chump blockers are cheap), but it is something you should be kept in mind. A solid defending hero or ally that can block turn after turn means that you don’t have to keep paying to put in chump blockers and can use those resources to build up your board position instead. This leads into the third and final point, which is that often the key to victory is building up a team of allies that can contribute enough willpower and combat ability to tip the scales against the encounter deck. Chump blocking works against this steady buildup by killing off characters, although if you have a good resource (and card draw) engine, you can get an army out AND use chump blockers to protect the more valuable allies.
Option #2: Defend With A Character You Want to Survive
Unlike chump blocking, in this option, you are using a character to defend that you want to survive. You are not throwing them away but rather hoping that they will live to fight another day. Of course, there are times when you have to defend with a character you want to survive, even though you know they won’t survive, because you have no other options. However, assuming you do have a valuable character that you are using to defend, and assuming they have a reasonable chance of survival, why choose this option instead of chump blocking?
Most importantly, it avoids the resource drain (and deck drain) that are built into the consistent use of option #1. If you include a solid defending hero and a few allies with strong defense, then you can replace cheap chumps in your deck with more valuable cards, and instead of needing to spend resources to put chumps into play, you should be able to use those to put cards into play that actually advance your position. The initial cost of a strong defender may be higher than a chump (although not always, see Defender of Rammas), keeping in mind the need to pay for crucial attachments for heroes as well (and the deck space those take up), but it may be more cost-effective in the long run. In some cases, a single hero plus a one-cost attachment is all you need (Denethor + Protector of Lorien or Beregond + Gondorian Shield), meaning that for the price of a Snowbourn Scout, you can have a defensive solution for the whole game rather than one turn. Another advantage of this option is that it avoids shadow effects that punish chump blocking completely.
There are some drawbacks to this option, though, as there are with chump blocking. Foremost is the risk of placing a valuable character, especially a hero, at the mercy of unpredictable shadow effects, which often boost enemy attack strength. It’s important to understand that almost every encounter deck has some shadow effects that have a +1 attack boost (at minimum). Some include even higher attack boosts depending on certain criteria: number of other shadows, which player is being attacked, presence of a certain trait on the enemy, etc, and you should know which kinds are included in a certain scenario. As a general rule, this means that when calculating the advisability of using option #2, based on the enemy attack strength minus the defense and hit points of your potential defender, you should always factor in an extra two hit point buffer (one at minimum). In other words, if that enemy has four attack strength against your hero’s three defense, and he only has two hit points remaining, you might want to think twice. That enemy would deal one damage, taking the hero down to just one hit point, meaning a solitary boost of one additional point of attack would lead to death, so you would really want at least three hit points on that hero, if not four. You can play things more loosely with allies, since they aren’t as valuable as heroes, but just be prepared to lose them. Of course, shadow cancellation through A Burning Brand or Hasty Stroke solves this situation.
Beyond the risk of death, another negative aspect of option #2 is that it uses up the action of a valuable character for defending. It is the opposite of chump blocking in this respect. Thus, the previously mentioned Denethor and Beregond may be perfect defensive solution in that they start the game on the board, don’t take up deck space or resources, and can repeatedly defend, but they are taking up an entire hero slot for the sole purpose of defending. This is a perfectly valid choice, as using a hero slot for defense frees up the actions of other characters and avoids the drain of chump blocking, but it should be taken into consideration (heroes that have balanced stats and can defend, as well as do other things, are quite valuable, but usually have high threat). Related to this fact is that using an ally with strong stats or a useful ability to defend means that they won’t be available for questing, combat, or using that ability, and thus it may make sense to chump block in certain cases so that they are free.
Finally, the raw reality is that most enemies have higher attack strength than the defense value of most characters, including heroes. This means that damage will tend to accrue with the use of option #2, which may require the inclusion of healing. The other alternative is to compensate for this gap by boosting the defense of characters using attachments and events (or Arwen), which means that you will be using deck space and resources for this purpose, just as chump blocking uses deck space and resources. Just remember that the resource cost for chumps is continuous, while it should be a one-time investment for heroes and strong allies. On the other hand, building up a strong defender requires a very specific set of cards to be drawn, while the advantage of chump blocking is that any one of a whole set of possible chumps that shows up in your hand can be used. These are all factors to be considered and the beauty is that there is no one right answer.
Option #3 – Take An Undefended Attack
There are really two types of undefended attacks: involuntary ones and tactical ones. Included in the former are situations where an encounter card effect forces you to take an undefended attack or when you simply have no defenders available. Tactical uses of undefended attacks are when you choose to let an attack go undefended for a specific gameplay reason. Either way, though, unlike the first two, option #3 is not something you can use or rely on throughout the course of a game (with the possible exception of Spirit Frodo), but only at certain moments.
There’s not much to say about involuntary undefended attacks other than to avoid them. As for tactical undefended attacks, they are most useful in order to save a character for attacking. Oftentimes, using a character to defend may leave you short of the attack strength needed to destroy that enemy (or another one), so choosing the undefended option allows you to make use of all of your ready character’s attack strength in order to destroy a foe. The idea here is that you are trading short-term damage and risk for a long-term advantage (getting rid of an enemy permanently so that you don’t have to defend against it on subsequent turns). This does make sense in that it is important to kill enemies quickly because new ones will certainly emerge, and enemy buildup is a quick road to defeat. Just know that undefended attacks are extremely risky, because of the aforementioned boosting of shadow effects, so they should only be used tactically when you have shadow cancellation available or a large enough buffer of hit points.
There are also some hero-specific situations where it makes sense to take undefended attacks. Both Gimli and Gloin, whose abilities key off of damage, can certainly benefit from this approach, while Frodo, who can take undefended attacks with no problem, can actually allow you to use this option over and over again so that you can devote all of your other characters to other purposes. In general, I find it wise to try to include at least one hero with five hit points, as this gives you a nice buffer for taking undefended attacks, if necessary, although this isn’t always possible for certain deck types (like Hobbits).
In the normal course of a game, you’ll usually have to mix and match these different options, rather than using one exclusively, especially since multiple enemies may attack at once. However, it is wise to choose either option #1 or option #2 as your preferred approach and deck build specifically for that purpose, while including necessary precautions for the use of option #3 (healing, shadow cancellation, damage soaking cards like Dori, etc.). I want to stress again that neither chump blocking nor defending with a strong character is necessarily the one, best option to rule them all. It really depends on what you want from a deck and how well you build your deck around a certain option. For example, many cards now provide benefits for chump blocking, which helps to make up for any disadvantages, while the possibilities for creating a super defender are better than ever. More than anything, it is simply important to understand the pros and cons of each approach and make planning for defense a central part of deck building. Doing so will move you one step closer to victory.