Card Spotlight: Grave Cairn
While it is undoubtedly entertaining to discuss new, shiny cards, it is also rewarding to take the time to look back through the card pool in search of hidden gems. This is particularly important as cards that may previously have appeared to be worthless are often given new life as new expansions are released. With that in mind, it’s time to bust out the spotlight and give a dusty old card its moment in the sun. Whether or not it weathers the analysis and emerges stronger, or dries up and fades will soon be decided! In this Card Spotlight, a long-forgotten event from The Watcher in the Water Adventure Pack returns to have its vengeance: Grave Cairn. Is this card a hidden gem? Or should I bring it along with me to Gen Con as a coaster for my adult beverages? Read on to find out!
Grave Cairn references one of the most memorable and tragic moments of The Lord of the Rings: the fall of Boromir. In the first chapter of The Two Towers, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas debate what should be done with their fallen comrade’s body, not wishing to leave him as carrion but needing to make haste to catch up with the Uruk-hai. At one point, Legolas suggests building a cairn, which is a mound of stones that serves as a memorial. Ultimately, however, they choose to place his body in a boat, not having the materials required to build a proper cairn. Relating the theme to gameplay, then, Grave Cairn represents the determination and fury imparted to a character by the death of a friend. We can imagine one of our heroes setting a hasty cairn over the body of a fallen ally, and then tracking down their killer and unleashing some stunning vengeance.
In gameplay terms, Grave Cairn is that rare card that provides an attack boost outside of Tactics. In this case, the love is shown to the Leadership sphere, which does have a few options in that department already: Dunedain Mark, Durin’s Song, and For Gondor!, but isn’t necessarily swimming in attack/hulking options. Grave Cairn provides something a little bit different and has a much higher potential ceiling than these other Leadership events:
Response: After a character leaves play, add its to another character’s until the end of the round.
While there are plenty of other attack boosting events and attachments in the game, specifically in the Tactics sphere, I’m going to follow my general rule of not comparing effects between spheres, but rather only within a given sphere. This is especially true in this case as the primary value of Grave Cairn is in providing extra attack for Leadership decks that don’t have access to Tactics. Comparing it to Tactics options thus makes little sense. Within Leadership, I would give Dunedain Mark the advantage over Grave Cairn, simply because for the same cost, you can get a permanent +1 attack boost rather than a temporary gain. Granted, Grave Cairn’s bonus may be higher than +1, but I generally prefer permanent to temporary effects of the same kind. Comparing For Gondor! to Grave Cairn is also a matter of apples and oranges. Despite both being one-time use events, For Gondor! is really meant to serve as a global attack boost for a swarm of characters, while Grave Cairn is designed to boost one character up to dizzying heights. Finally, Durin’s Song is generally superior to Grave Cairn as a +2 boost to not only attack but all other stats is hard to beat when you consider that both are 1-cost events. However, Durin’s Song is limited to Dwarves, which makes Grave Cairn an option for non-Dwarf Leadership decks.
So far, these simple comparisons don’t really do much to either invalidate our spotlighted event or to prove its quality. We may know that Grave Cairn isn’t the best option for consistent attack boosts or a global bonus, but how well does it serve its own role as a way to greatly escalate the attack of a single character to deal with truly tough foes? Let’s dig deeper into the actual usability of Grave Cairn. How consistent and effective is this event? What is its true potential? In order to differentiate Grave Cairn from its competitors, we need to really push it to its limits, which means finding ways to get high attack allies out of play at the right time. The latter point is key, as timing definitely plays a part here. The bonus from Grave Cairn does last until the end of the round, not just the current phase, but making sure that an ally leaves play at the right moment is crucial. For example, Gandalf may leave play at the end of a round, but this doesn’t do much good for Grave Cairn, as the 4 attack bonus he would provide wouldn’t carry over to the next round. Similarly, using Sneak Attack to put Beorn into play during the combat phase wouldn’t work either, as he would leave play at the end of the phase, and a character wouldn’t be able to use the attack from Grave Cairn to do anything (unless you played something like Quick Strike to attack during the refresh phase). Of course, you could Sneak Attack a high attack ally like Gandalf in during a phase before combat, like during questing, and then his 4 attack could be added to a character, which would apply during combat. This is a perfect combination since Sneak Attack is in the same sphere, and this is an extraordinarily common play anyway, so you wouldn’t necessarily be going out of your way to make Grave Cairn work. In this way, you could take advantage of Gandalf for both questing and combat, by adding his attack value to another character’s. It is a bit worrisome when a card is dependent on 2 other cards to be useful (Sneak Attack/Gandalf), but +4 attack for only 1 resource is powerful enough and the combo should be consistent enough to be worthwhile.
Beyond Sneak Attack and other tricks to get allies out of play before or at the beginning of the combat phase, the more common or traditional way of making use of Grave Cairn would be to take advantage of chump blocking. By using a chump blocker as a trigger, you can get double duty out of an ally, by having it both cover a defensive need and add to an attack. The problem is that most chump blockers are going to be relatively weak in terms of attack strength. For example, the 2 most popular chump blockers in the Leadership sphere, Snowbourn Scout and Squire of the Citadel, both have 0 attack and are thus useless for Grave Cairn. Of course, stronger allies could leave play during the course of the game through defending, but this isn’t something you could or should necessarily plan for in terms of setting up this card. Therefore, unlike something like Horn of Gondor, Prince Imrahil, or Eomer, Grave Cairn is not a card that you can simply include in the hopes of making use of allies that leave play because of defending.
Thus, moving back to the more tricky side of the equation, what are some possible combinations with Grave Cairn besides Sneak Attack/Gandalf? One of the best options revolves around Vassal of the Windlord. This flighty ally only costs 1 resource, has 3 attack ,and leaves play after attacking. This all adds up to a great partner for Grave Cairn, as the 3 attack from the Vassal could be added to a character attacking a different enemy. Of course, this does bring us back to the argument as to whether you need Grave Cairn if you have Tactics available in the first place (which you would need in order to play the Vassal), but keep in mind that Grave Cairn can trigger off of any player’s character leaving play, not just your own. This brings us to an important point: like so many Leadership cards, Grave Cairn works better in multiplayer. After a Tactics player uses and discards a Vassal of the Windlord, you, as the Leadership player, could then use Grave Cairn to gain some much-needed attacking help on your side of the board. Even in solo play, I could justify including Grave Cairn in a Leadership/Tactics deck. Although, as previously stated, Tactics does have a ton of attack boosting options, +3 attack for 1 resource is a good deal for any sphere (sure, Khazad! Khazad! is +3 attack for free, but we can’t all be Dwarves, and Unseen Strike is depends on low threat and high enemy engagement costs). Speaking of Eagles and Tactics, Born Aloft actually finds a good use here, allowing you to pull high attack allies back into your hand for use with Grave Cairn. Of course, this does raise the question of why you would go through all of this trouble instead of just leaving the ally in play and having it contribute its attack normally. One way this could be useful are against specific quests that restrict attacks to single characters, such as We Must Away, Ere Break of Day. Alternatively, if you want to pull an ally out of play anyway, such as a copy of Descendant of Thorondor for some direct damage, then Grave Cairn allows you to have both the effect you want and the attack power of that ally.
This brings us to some new cards that I think might really push Grave Cairn over the edge into full gemhood (I am now trademarking that term). Here, I’m partially talking about the growth of the Rohan trait, particularly in its more martial Tactics form, as exemplified by Eomer and Westfold Outrider. The latter ally could be discarded to engage with an enemy. This would boost Eomer’s attack by 2, and you could then play Grave Cairn to add a further 2 from the Outrider for a total strength boost of 4, which means he would be hitting for 7. If you add weapons into the mix, Eomer could take down even the strongest enemies quite quickly. However, I moreso am considering the growth of the Silvan trait in the Ring-maker cycle. This new archetype revolves around returning allies to hand to trigger various effects, with Feigned Voices, which stops an enemy from attacking if you return a Silvan ally to hand, being one example (and in the same sphere). The point is that these events provide an opportunity to trigger Grave Cairn before or during the attack portion of the combat phase. Sure, it is true that most of the time, you’ll probably be using cheaper Silvan allies with lower attack strength (such as Silvan Refugee) to trigger these effects, but as more Silvan characters and cards are released, the possibilities will become much stronger. Since you’re going to be pulling allies back into your hand anyway as part of the Silvan strategy, you might as well include a card that adds even more rewards for that particular approach, and even an extra 1 or 2 points of attack here can be effective. Any player who has ever felt the pain of being only 1 point shy of killing an enemy knows this to be true. Sure, Dunedain Mark can grant this on a permanent basis, but Grave Cairn is an additional option for combat-heavy quests that synergizes very well with the Silvan style. One rules question that does come up regarding Grave Cairn is whether or not the printed attack value of the character that leaves play is used, or the modified value. For example, a Naith Guide that has been boosted by Celeborn leaves play. Does Grave Cairn grant a +2 attack or +1 attack (the printed value)? Usually, the actual phrasing of “printed” is used when this is the case. However, my suspicion was that since Grave Cairn only takes effect after a character leaves play, then it only takes into consideration the printed attack value, since all other modifiers no longer apply. After submitting this issue to Caleb, he confirmed this ruling to be correct. Unfortunately, this does damper Grave Cairn’s value somewhat, but it really just prevents some insane combos that would otherwise have been possible.
Overall, we’ve found some good uses for Grave Cairn. There are definite limitations to this event, however. The most notable is that it is perhaps more dependent than other attack boosting effects on setting up a very specific chain revolving around getting an ally with high attack strength into and out of play, and having Grave Cairn in hand when this happens. In addition, attack boosting events aren’t always the most crucial effects to include in a deck. When you consider the limited deck space in a 50 card deck and the many different areas a deck, especially a solo deck, needs to cover,it ca n sometimes be difficult to justify including a card like Grave Cairn. In fact, many times it will come down to there only being room for one card of this type in a deck using Leadership, and Dunedain Mark would undoubtedly get the nod as a more permanent and consistent form of attack/hulking, albeit one with a more definite and limited ceiling. Still, I sometimes think that cards are valued too much based on their broad applicability to a variety of different quests, and those that seem to be more situational and specialized are too easily cast out. This would make sense if we were dealing with a broadly similar set of scenarios that all required the same type of approach, but that is not the game we know and love. Rather, LOTR LCG is all about being able to meet the needs of widely differing quests, and this is becoming even more true over time. We also have seen an increasing frequency of quests with a heavy combat focus and enemies with ever rising defense and hit point values. With this in mind, situational cards can actually be thought of as solution cards that help players to solve the specific challenges posed by a quest, which is a large part of the fun of the game. Grave Cairn is certainly a solution card. It won’t fit in every deck and won’t be useful in every quest. However, when using Leadership and facing off against quests with strong, boss-type enemies that require extra attack power (The Three Trials immediately springs to mind as a relevant recent example), it certainly has a place and can fill a role that no other card in the sphere can, including others that boost attack. Pair Grave Cairn with heroes that thrive off of characters leaving play, like Eomer and Prince Imrahil, or with deck types that exploit this approach (Eagles, Rohan, Silvan), or even with Dunhere to ravage the staging area, and you have a true, underrated gem on your hands.